WHAT’S THE ROLE OF VEGETABLES IN ITALIAN FOOD?
There’s nothing more delicious or traditional for me than cooking with the finest, freshest seasonal veggies I can get my hands on. Lucky for me, there are plenty to choose from, with each season featuring its own wide variety of tastes, colors, and flavors.
One thing (I know, I know, there are SO MANY things) I love about Italian cooking is that seasonal changes bring new and exciting culinary challenges to my kitchen table. While I love making the same recipes my parents made for me and my siblings, I also like experimenting to find the flavors that reflect and appeal to my different daily moods. Sometimes, these recipes are born from deep ties to farming communities here, but other times, they’re just on-the-spot inspirations. Tossing together something new also feeds my joy of good wine and food pairings.
Each season has a different color, both on tree leaves outside my window and also reflected in my green-grocer’s wares. Check out my favorites per season below (along with a little bonus Italian vocab refresher) - do you love these too?
- Estate - Peas, Asparagus, Oregano, Garlic, Tomatoes, Eggplant, Basil, Carrots, Sweet Peppers, Zucchini, Salads, Celery, Onions
- Autunno - Tomatoes, Zucchini, Onions, Leeks, Squash and Pumpkin, Kale, Broccoli, Potatoes, Chard, Salads
- Inverno - Spinach, Fennel, Beets, Radishes, Artichokes, Roman Chicory, Cabbages, Onions
- Primavera - Cauliflower, Lima Beans, Zucchini, Cucumbers, Rocket, Basil, Salads, Pearl Onions, Eggplant, Tomatoes, Cabbages, Broccolini, Green Beans, Parsley
These are just my favorites - there’s tantissimi more, and an endless variety of ways to prepare them. You might not know the easiest thing in the world is dressing some steamed veggies with a light drizzle of spicy EVOO, salt and lemon juice...heaven.
Oh, you just wrangled one of my secret super-quick recipes from me...well, now you’ve got to test it out and tell me it’s not the greatest ode to fresh veggies.
HOW ARE ITALIAN VEGETABLES GROWN?
You might be tempted to think Italian farmers have some tricks up their sleeves to grow such amazing produce, so let’s take a closer look and see if things are really so bewitching.
Each Italian region has its own geographic and geo-climatic aspects that establish what can be grown successfully, how produce is to be treated, and when it can be harvested. Southern regions have forgiving climates, whereas Northern regions are generally more at the mercy of colder temperatures. The South grows oodles of what I absolutely adore: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and much more. Because it’s warmer, it also means a thankfully longer growing season.
That’s great, you must be saying with some jealousy. But what actually makes their produce taste so much better? Why are Italian tomatoes always sweet, succulent, crisp? This answer depends on who you’re talking to. Some farmers swear the soil is different (through much of the Neapolitan Riviera where many different tomato types are grown, the soil is in fact volcanic from nearby Mt. Vesuvius), some will say the salty sea air lends innate seasoning to the pulp and skin of select tomatoes. Others will even claim humidity and sun exposure all work in favor of better-quality veggies. I tend to agree with all of these options, how about you?
It bears remembering that eating is a primary activity here, and important things always happen around our tavole. As such, there’s strong demand for close regulations of Italian agro-business. People here really want better products, and insist on getting them. Supermarket chains have impacted year-round produce availability, in line with offering low-cost options. To bring you fresh peas in December, more and more produce is imported from external countries. Consumer needs are slowly moving away from seasonal and towards an Anglo-style demand for constant availability, at the expense at times of taste and flavor.
I recall in my North American travels, coming across gorgeous ruby-ripe tomatoes in summertime farmer’s markets, and terrific homegrown green beans in vegetable stands in the countryside. Good enough to eat raw and right out of their paper bags - which I did. What separates these veggies from their supermarket Frankensteinian cousins is their provenance: homegrown, with no chemical additives and imperfect in appearance. None of these stands ever sold me a strawberry in January, so it’s safe to say that home gardeners also grow seasonally. US-based produce has the potential for greatness, but attention has moved from what’s good to what I want now, a critical step moving away from seasonality.
What makes Italian fresh produce taste so magnificent is a delicate balance of climate (mineral-rich volcanic soil, strong salted sea air, etc.) and seasonality. The results are palates and flavors with more territorial expression, that reflect their birthplace and the tremendous efforts that go into ensuring these products are top-shelf ingredients.
If other countries decided to challenge our reign by picking up the Italian beat, I think we’d have seriously stiff competition, managgia!
Stay curious folks, I've got more for you in Part 2, all you ever wanted to know about Italian Veggies! Keep reading in Part 2 to wrap up your lesson on this fundamental part of genuine Italian cooking.
Now we know what veggies to prepare, and when, but now the question remains what to cook? Mamablip's Recipe Index can totally help you out here - be sure to investigate all the amazing Side Dishes our chef team has customized for you, as well as Pasta dishes and Sauces featuring your favorite veggies as the star ingredients.