Agretti - A Taste of Spring in Italy

The springtime markets in Italy are full of wonderful vegetables - asparagus, little purple artichokes, and fava beans, to name a few. I have a strong memory of my first taste of fresh spring fava beans, eaten raw with a little bit of pecorino as I sat on a bench outside a neighborhood market in Rome. Heaven! Big piles of spring artichokes look like art to me, and taste amazing when used as the filling for a light-as-air lasagna. And asparagus in a delicate pasta primavera? Is there a better way to celebrate spring vegetables?

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Along with these more common vegetables, the spring markets in Italy also have bunches of what look like thick grass or chives. They are dark green with long, thin tapered leaves and are often wrapped in wet paper to keep the intact roots moist. The appearance of these in the markets is a cause for excitement in Italy. They are only around for a short time in spring and are considered a delicacy. So what are these mysterious grassy bundles?

They go by several names. In Italy they are most commonly known as agretti or barba di frate (frair’s beard). In English, saltwort. The proper Latin name is Salsola soda, a member of the Chenopodiaceae (Amaranth or Goosefoot) family, which includes spinach, beets, and chard.

Agretti grows well in salty water, which means that the Mediterranean coast is the perfect place for it to thrive. It also means that it has become a rather unwelcome and invasive species following its import to coastal California - perhaps because we Americans don’t eat it often enough! And although agretti leaves look like chives or spring onions, they are not related to onions at all and the flavor is completely different.

As an interesting historical note, agretti were originally grown to be burned to ash. The result was soda ash, used in making soap and glass. Imagine how useful this was to the Venetians - why eat a product that could be used to make beautiful Venetian glass? Today, however, there are better ways to make glass and agretti is raised as a food crop.

Agretti can be eaten raw (it’s crunchy and tangy, with a slightly bitter mineral taste). Raw, it’s a good addition to salads. It’s also healthy - high in fiber, low in calories, and a good source of vitamins (A, B, and C) and minerals (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron).

More commonly, agretti is served cooked, either as a contorni (side vegetable) or incorporated into a frittata or a pasta dish . Can you say spaghetti con agretti five times fast? 

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There are two basic cooking methods. The most simple is to drop the cleaned agretti briefly into boiling water until crisp tender, and then drain and sprinkle with olive oil and lemon. It can also be sautéed with olive oil and garlic (and perhaps pancetta or anchiovies) and topped with a squeeze of lemon juice. The lemon juice is key to bringing balance to the slightly sharp, spinach taste and bringing out the bright, fresh-as-spring taste of the agretti.

I had seen agretti in the markets on previous trips to Italy, but never knew exactly what they were or how to cook them. After a discussion with friends who recently moved to Lucca and were experimenting with cooking local produce, I bought my first bunch of agretti in one of Italy’s spring markets. After trimming the roots and washing it well (it can be pretty sandy), I sautéed the agretti for about 10 minutes in olive oil along with 2 cloves of garlic. A little salt (it doesn’t need much), several grinds of black pepper, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice later and it was just right as a side dish to a lemony chicken fillet and some rice.

I can’t wait to try it in a frittata next!

-post by JMB

 Sautéed agretti alongside pan-sautéed lemon chicken and rice.

Sautéed agretti alongside pan-sautéed lemon chicken and rice.

Learning to Live Aloha

One reason I love to travel is to learn about other cultures. This was never more true than when I (Judy) visited Hawaii for the first time earlier this year.

 The sun sets in Kauai (photo by Ann Hettinger).

The sun sets in Kauai (photo by Ann Hettinger).

I traveled to Kauai, which is called the Garden Island. I knew it would be beautiful and green and lush. I didn’t know the people there would remind me of the importance of love, kindness, respect, compassion, friendliness and so much more. All that is wrapped up in the word “Aloha.” In my naivete, I had thought Aloha meant hello and goodbye. Everywhere I went in Kauai, I learned it really means a way of life.

 Ann Hettinger, paddling her one-man outrigger canoe, is the co-author of a book about the meaning of Aloha.

Ann Hettinger, paddling her one-man outrigger canoe, is the co-author of a book about the meaning of Aloha.

Two of my teachers in this were Ann Hettinger and Lahela Chandler Correa, who have co-authored a book for children about the many meanings of Aloha.

 Hawaii is beautiful; the Aloha way of life even more so.

Hawaii is beautiful; the Aloha way of life even more so.

When I was on Kauai, I was fortunate to swim, surf, and stand-up paddleboard. Almost everyday was a new adventure in the ocean or on a river. My fellow travelers and I managed to do all that and more thanks to Ann, who leads adventure retreats for women, even though Kauai was receiving unusual amounts of rain for unusual lengths of time. We also got to hear Lahela, who was born and raised on the island, explain what her parents taught her about Aloha (taking care of family, being honest and kind, respecting their heritage and their elders, etc. etc.). It was a heartfelt lesson delivered in love and with the hope that we would carry it with us when we left the island.

It always rains a lot on Kauai – Mount Waialeale is one of the wettest places on Earth, receiving nearly 400 inches of rain a year. Kauai wouldn’t be as fertile and as stunningly beautiful as it is if it didn’t receive a lot of rain. But a couple of weeks after I left Kauai, the unusual amounts of rain the island had been experiencing turned into disastrous amounts. In a 24-hour period, the famed North Shore received more than 30 inches of rain. The torrential rainfall flooded homes, caused mudslides that buried vehicles and closed roads, and led to the evacuation of hundreds of people. Children at a school who had been learning about Aloha from Ann and Lahela’s book decided to show their Aloha by sending cards and other items to kids affected by the flooding – helping others and demonstrating how to “live Aloha.”

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I share this story in the spirit of Aloha. To learn more about Ann and Lahela’s book, go to alohapublishinghawaii.com or click here. To learn more about how to help Kauai residents affected by the flooding, the website hawaiinewsnow.com lists several organizations accepting donations.                      -post by JG

 

From My Italian Kitchen: A Simple Spring Meal

The change of seasons from winter to spring also brings about a change in eating habits. I've spent the first six weeks of my time in Italy making hearty soups like minestrone and chicken with farro to help warm me against the cold weather. But now it is spring, and time for something different. Today my kitchen inspiration came from beautiful bright green bundles of asparagi (asparagus) in the local market. An Italian spring and asparagus go hand in hand and these are the first of the season.

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This meal could not be simpler. After washing and trimming the asparagus, I drizzled them with olive oil and sprinkled on some coarse salt. Then they roasted at 200 degrees Celsius (400 Fahrenheit) for 12 to 15 minutes (these were fairly thick stalks, adjust cooking time for thinner stalks). The asparagus will become the base of this simple Italian dish.

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While the asparagus were roasting I prepared a side dish of sliced tomatoes (from Sicily, where it's even warmer at this time of year) with fresh mozzarella. I added a drizzle of a local olive oil and a good balsamic vinegar from Modena. A little salt and pepper was all that was needed to finish this side dish.

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Next, I brought a pan of water to a simmer to poach an egg. Four minutes was just perfect to set the white of the egg and leave a runny yolk. Removing the egg from the water, a quick blot on a paper towel absorbed any excess water. After gently placing the poached egg on top of five or six asparagus spears, I dusted them with salt and pepper, and some shavings of Parmesan. That's it! The dish works equally well for brunch, lunch, or dinner. It never hurts to add some focaccia or bread (though it is blissfully carb-free without any).

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Roasted asparagus with egg and Parmesan - tastes like spring to me!     -post by JMB

Signs of Spring in Lucca

 Tiny yellow buttercups grow along the wall in Lucca, beautiful against a view of distant hills.

Tiny yellow buttercups grow along the wall in Lucca, beautiful against a view of distant hills.

I’ve been waiting, not very patiently, for spring to arrive in Lucca.

Winter and early spring were unusually cold and rainy this year and the little hints of spring that showed up in early April were fleeting - the tease of just one warm day followed by several days of clouds, rain, and cool temperatures. The trees along the wall remained stubbornly bare, lemon trees remained in the limonaia, and vines were stark without even a hint of new growth.

I began to doubt that the sun would ever come to stay, that trees would sprout leaves, or that flowers would bloom. Flora (the Italian goddess of flowers and spring) seemed to have deserted me.

Today, I can happily say that the wait is over. Temperatures have soared during the past few days, changing from hat and glove weather to short sleeve and sandals weather in a flash. As I write this in late April, temperatures have hit the low 80s, not one day of rain is in the forecast all week, and i fiori (the flowers) have arrived. Sono contenta! (I'm happy!)

The trees along le mura (the city walls) are now green with leaves, tiny yellow buttercups bloom along the walls, and the sycamores in Piazza Grande (also called Piazza Napoleone) provide a beautiful green canopy around the square and the now-busy carousel. 

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This week I visited my favorite garden (on the grounds of Palazzo Pfanner) and found that the lemon and orange trees had been moved out from their winter home in the limonaia and were full of fruit. Showy peonies were blooming as was a magnolia tree and several bushes. Can roses and hydrangeas be far behind? How I hope they bloom before I head home to the U.S. in a few weeks.

The most dramatic and lovely proof that spring has truly arrived comes in the form of the glicine (wisteria) that have bloomed throughout Lucca. They spill over walls and terraces and across arbors with their soft colors and long flower heads. For me, it isn’t spring until the wisteria bloom.

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I noticed the first wisteria blossoms along the wall that encircles the historic city. I then spent an afternoon wandering through town to the spots where I remembered the most stunning displays of wisteria from past years. While a few had not yet bloomed, several of my favorites, in Piazza Parigi and Piazza Antelminelli (pictured below), were just as beautiful as I recalled.

 Italy in spring, Italy in flower  - Bellissima!                  -post by JMB