Fave, aka fava beans, aka broad beans, are what’s most prominent on Tuscan tables at the moment, whether eaten raw–piled on a plate, shucked at the moment, and served with soft, young, fresh pecorino cheese (cacio e bacelli); or braised with prosciutto and olive oil; or steamed till tender and tossed with oil and pepper; or even the whole pods sauteed, a terrific way to handle these historic beans.
Our beans are small and tender, no peeling required. In fact, my neighbors look upon the very idea with horror. With vegetables this good, simplest is best.
Artichokes: We get four, sometimes even five, varieties, most without the pesky central thorny bits that make American artichokes such a chore to prepare. In the market recently: romaneschi (globe artichokes), violetti (the name says it all), and dark purple moretti. At Villa Campestri, Chef Luigi broke away the tough outer brackets of the violetti, cut off the tip ends, then rapidly slivered the whole compact thing lengthwise and used the shards as the basis for an opulent risotto. Young artichokes are also good fried—especially with rabbit. Just dipped in flour and dropped in boiling oil—extra-virgin of course—for crispy outsides and tender within.
Asparagus: My father loved the first asparagus that came up in his garden and often cut a few fresh spears for breakfast. Served on crisp toast with a dribble of olive oil, it makes a great start to the day. In Tuscany right now, lucky people are finding wild asparagus in the woods and fields. It’s cooked just like the garden vegetable but has a deeper, darker flavor with pleasantly bitter overtones. It too makes a great risotto but also adds mystery to a simple frittata.
Agretti: The most mysterious vegetable, also known as barba del frate, the friar’s beard, it’s a definition of spring when this appears in markets in Tuscany and all over Central Italy, looking from a distance like a fat bunch of chives. You can eat agretti raw, in salads, but most people hereabouts steam it till tender (not more than 6 or 8 minutes), then dress very simply with oil, salt, pepper, and a spritz of aceto balsamico or lemon juice. The muddy roots are a bitch to clean but no more so than cleaning muddy spinach. Ad for the taste? A little salty (it grows best in somewhat salty soil and is botanically known as Salsola soda), a little astringent (like spinach, it seems to be loaded with iron), fresh and green and delicious.
It’s almost unknown in America but Bill Tidball grows it in Virginia and Megan Chase has had it in her Maine garden—both with great success. What’s available in New York City Greenmarkets, Chef Sara tells me, is often overgrown and tough and not worth bothering with, probably because farmers are reluctant to cut it when it’s appropriately small and tender. But it’s worth encouraging good farmers to pay more attention to this delicious addition to our vegetable array.