Savoring the seasons
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Savoring the seasons

Were you fortunate enough to have grown up with parents or grandparents who kept a vegetable garden? If so, you know the joy of gathering sun-warmed vegetables in their natural habitat. We who are less fortunate are obliged to pick refrigerator-cooled vegetables out of artfully contrived piles at

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Thu 11 Jan 2007 1:00 AM

Were you fortunate enough to have grown up with parents or grandparents who kept a vegetable garden? If so, you know the joy of gathering sun-warmed vegetables in their natural habitat. We who are less fortunate are obliged to pick refrigerator-cooled vegetables out of artfully contrived piles at the supermarket. The biggest problem with supermarket vegetables is that they do not reflect the seasons, except in price. And vegetables sold out of season will never, ever (unless there’s been some hanky panky) taste as good as those naturally matured.

In Florence, you used to be able to tell what was ripening in vegetable gardens and orchards out in the countryside by strolling through the food markets at Sant’Ambrogio and San Lorenzo. This kind of reconnoitering became more difficult a decade or so ago, when even some of the farmers started to get their wares from the big wholesalers rather than from their own land. But I sense that the situation is changing. People seem to be finding a new respect for, or at least an interest in, nature’s timetable.

If you want to know what is currently ripening, take a walk outside town and peer over stone walls into other people’s gardens. What you’ll see are various kinds of zucca (squash) and many different cabbages, among them the famous Tuscan black cabbage, cavolo nero. You can serve cavolo nero as a side-dish or piled onto a piece of bruschetta. It’s easy to prepare. Just discard the outermost tough and damaged leaves, wash and cut the rest into strips and stir-fry for about 10-15 minutes with garlic, salt and pepper to taste. If you have any left-over prosciutto that’s become a bit dry, cut it into strips and stir-fry it with the cavolo nero, adding it a few minutes before the cabbage is ready. In this case, however, use salt with caution.

Cavolo nero is also an essential ingredient of minestrone, at least of the local version. Although there are countless recipes for minestrone, the preparation process is more or less the same for all. And, since packages of so-called minestrone vegetables, already washed and chopped, are available in plastic bags at the supermarkets, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that you should never ever use such shortcuts if you want the result to taste like minestrone. It won’t. It might taste like vegetable soup, but not minestrone. The trick is to add the vegetables one after another, rather than all together. Start out with all of your ingredients washed but intact, and add them to the pot as you peel and chop them. The order and the quantities that I prefer are one large onion, red or white; one or two carrots, one or two celery stalks, one leek, one or two potatoes, a bunch of cavolo nero (it’s usually sold by the bunch in the market), half a savoy cabbage, two handfuls of cannelini beans soaked overnight (or one can), and one can of tomatoes, if possible San Marzano.

Take the biggest pot that you have (ideally with a 5 litre capacity). Cover the bottom with olive oil. Turn the heat on medium low. Peel the onion and chop it, but not too fine, throw it into the pot and stir to cover it with the oil. Stir every now and then while you chop the carrots. Keep on chopping, adding and stirring your way through the celery, leek (wash carefully to get out the soil that likes to lurk in those tight folds) and potatoes. If the mixture looks too dry, add some broth, either genuine or made with a bouillon cube. But don’t add too much yet. You don’t want to drown the vegetables. Cut the cavolo nero into strips and add to the pot. You will suddenly find that the pot is full but you still have ingredients to add. Don’t worry. Stir, be patient, add a little more broth if it’s needed, and the mass will slowly reduce. Now chop the savoy cabbage, and throw it into the pot. Add this stage I usually add more broth, to bring the liquid up to the level of the vegetables.

Let everything simmer for a few minutes. After about 10-15 minutes, add the beans and the tomatoes (because this is no longer the tomato season I use preserved tomatoes). Add a bit more oil. Let the mixture simmer for at least an hour, stirring every now and then to prevent the bottom from becoming a mush. If necessary, add more broth.

Minestrone tastes best a day or two after it’s been made because the flavours need time to develop. When you warm it up, you will probably have to add a bit of liquid, unless you like it dense enough to eat with a fork. If by chance there’s too much liquid, throw in some rolled oats to thicken it. Season with salt and pepper, add another drop of oil, and some freshly-grated parmigiano on top. Buon appetito!

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