Ever since Evan Kleiman interviewed me, while I was in LA, for Good Food, about typical Roman food, all I can think about are all the things I forgot to mention! One topic we did cover a bit was the idea that Romans still eat very seasonally. They are wary of strawberries except for a few short weeks a year, and gobble up as much puntarelle as they can during their brief season.
When it comes to seasonal vegetables nothing beats the holy trinity of artichokes, fave and peas. They each have their own specific time: first the huge, purple romanesco artchokes start showing up. Then the bright green, bursting-at-the-seams fave pods. And finally, just before the fave leave the stage, peas make their entrance. The result is one of Rome’s most loved – but maybe least known – dishes: Vignarola. Available for a few short weeks in April.
I have never seen this dish on a menu outside of Rome, must less outside of Italy. Maybe that is because its success has as much to do with the freshest ingredients as with any culinary skill. The artichokes that grow in Lazio are unique, and their perfume (yes, raw artichokes smell heavenly) fills the markets in the spring. And the dish is made with very fresh, very young fave that require no double shelling. Hard to find most places
But I also think that one of the reasons that Vignarola is not on any menus is due to the fact that it is so damn labour intensive. While easy to cook, the vegetables themselves take forever to prep. Shelling enough fave and peas for a meal for four can take you a half hour. Then there are the artichokes, which must be shorn of their tough outer leaves, trimmed around the root, de-choked and sliced. All the while keeping them (and your hands) in an acidulated bath so that they don’t turn brown.
But..if you are lucky enough to live in Rome, then you can pick up tidy little packs of fresh, cleaned peas, fave and artichokes in the markets around town. That’s what I did a few days ago, stopping at the outdoor market on Via Balbo, on my way to yoga.
After choosing one bag of peas, two of fave and eight artichokes, the fruttivendola asked me “Che, fai la vignarola?” I said, yes. And she stuck a small head of romaine lettuce in my bag as well. It’s a traditional ingredient, but one I usually just leave out since it doesn’t seem to add much. But she assured me, the lettuce was “importante.”
Later that night, here’s what I made. Served with a loaf of freshly made bread (have I told you lately how much I love my bread machine?) and some amazing blue goat cheese from Mia Market , it was the perfect Roman spring dinner.
3 scallions (only white part)
1 ½ cups shelled peas
2 cups shelled fave
2 cups finely chopped romaine lettuce
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt & pepper
Heat oil and gently soften onions, without letting them brown. Add artichokes, which have been cleaned and sliced (sorry, no ‘how to’ here.) Stir a bit, then add fave. Stir. Add salt and pepper, and about 3 cups of water. Cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, adding water if necessary (you want it to be somewhere between soup and stew). Add peas and lettuce and cook for another 8-10 minutes. Taste and correct for salt.
Depending on how I’m feeling I sometimes add chopped guanciale or pancetta at the beginning, with the onions. Another option is to add mint, parseley or mentuccia at the very end. If I’m feeling particularly daring, I add some grated lemon zest at the very end.