For cooks, one of the true pleasures of life in Italy is the bounty of beautiful fruits and vegetables that are so readily available throughout the year. I am always fascinated by the artfully arranged displays set up by vendors, particularly those on street corners. My local ambulante di frutta e verdure is a place I visit nearly every day. The proprietors, Sylvana Salvianti and her husband, Gianfranco Naldi, are walking encyclopedias of information about seasonal produce, how to choose the best, how to store it and how to prepare it. Up at 5am every morning to scour the markets for the freshest possible produce, Sylvana and Gianfranco have been operating their business for nearly 20 years. This particular venue, one of the oldest in the area, has been licensed and in continual operation since 1919.
Since this is the moment for winter vegetables to shine, I asked Sylvana to share some recipes for readers of The Florentine. Being a very accomplished cook herself, she shared a few of her personal favorites for this time of year. Pumpkin soup with radicchio is her own invention. It’s a very quick meal to prepare, uncomplicated, nutritious and beautiful in its colorful presentation. The two salads that accompany it, both using tarocchi oranges and finocchi (fennel), are also economical, nutritious and very easy to make.
Zucca gialla, or pumpkin, is a hearty and ever-present vegetable in winter markets. It’s sold by the slice, so you don’t have to buy the whole pumpkin. The rind is orange with green tinges and the orange flesh has a flavor that resembles butternut squash. Rich in antioxidants, it’s also an excellent source of potassium. You can judge its maturity by its color (the stronger, the more mature) and its texture (the softer, the more mature).
Radicchio, a leafy member of the chicory family, has a bitter, spicy taste which mellows when it’s cooked. There are many varieties of this ancient vegetable, and they are named after the Italian regions where they originate. The variety used here is radicchio di Treviso, a small cluster of white-veined, deep red leaves. One of the first written references to radicchio was made by Pliny the Elder, who praised its medicinal properties as a blood purifier and tonic. Modern research backs him up.
Fennel, another hearty winter vegetable, has a thick, bulbous base and celery-like stems that can grow as tall as five feet. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow part of a fennel stalk, so it’s a vegetable that’s been around for a very long time. Throughout history, it’s been used to cure stomach ailments, freshen breath and provide high doses of vitamin C. How wonderful that it also happens to be delicious, either cooked or used raw as in these salad recipes.
No winter produce stand would be complete without piles of tarocchi, the most popular table orange in Italy. It’s part of the blood orange family, but its flesh is not red and it’s very sweet. It has the highest vitamin C content of any orange in the world, perhaps due to the fertile soil surrounding Mount Etna. It’s a good variety of orange to use in salads because its flavor and sweetness is consistency.
INSALATA DI CIPOLLE TROPEA, ARANCE E OLIVE NERE
(Tropea onion, orange and black olive salad)
2 tarocchi oranges, 1 large tropea onion, 1 handful black olives (any variety of black olive, but do not use green olives), extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Peel the oranges and separate into individual segments. Remove the white pith and cut the segments into small pieces and place in a small salad bowl. Chop the onion into small pieces and place in the bowl with the oranges. Add the olives and mix gently. Season with extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Allow to sit at room temperature so that the flavors can blend.
INSALATA DI ARANCE E FINOCCHI
(Orange and fennel salad)
2 tarocchi oranges, 1 small finocchio, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper
Peel the oranges and separate into individual segments. Remove the white pith and cut the segments into small pieces and place in a small salad bowl. Wash the finocchio and remove the outer tough skin. Chop it into small pieces and place in the bowl with the oranges. Sprinkle with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a liberal amount of extra virgin olive oil. Toss gently and thoroughly and allow to sit for a while so that the flavors will blend. This salad is most flavorful when served at room temperature.
CREMA DI ZUCCA GIALLA CON RADICCHIO TREVIGIANO
(Pumpkin soup with Treviso radicchio)
700 grams zucca gialla, 2 leeks2 medium potatoes, 2 heads of Treviso radicchio, 1 cube vegetable broth, 50 grams pancetta (if desired), grated parmesan cheese.
Peel the pumpkin and potatoes, cut into small chunks and place in a soup pot with about one cup of water. Peel the outer skins from the leeks, chop into small pieces and add to the soup pot along with the cube of vegetable broth. Cover and cook over high heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adding a little more water if needed. The vegetables are done when they are soft but not mushy.
Meanwhile, chop the radicchio into small pieces and sauté slowly over medium heat in about two tablespoons of olive oil. If you are using pancetta, add it to this mixture and sauté slowly while the vegetables are cooking.
When the pumpkin and potatoes are done, blend them well using an immersion blender. If you don’t have a blender, you can use a wire whisk or wooden spoon to blend the mixture into a smooth texture. Add the sautéed radicchio and blend gently with a spoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty fresh bread and a good bottle of Tuscan red wine.