Spring into lunch

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I feel like L.B Jefferies, sitting as I do, looking out of my rear window onto the courtyard. Lately I’ve been distracted by one window in particular. It starts early: rugs are beaten, sheets shaken and then throughout the day washing pegged, unpegged and pegged again on a line strung in a droopy grin from one window to the next. Yesterday two sets of curtains were washed and dried, as were three pairs of red slippers, a leopard-skin something and a tartan travel rug. As I write, slippers (still damp I imagine) have been pegged back out, various items shaken and some precarious window cleaning undertaken.

Unaccustomed as I am to spring cleaning (or cleaning in general for that matter, I’m a domestic disgrace) the activity across the courtyard almost propelled me into something yesterday. Then I remembered we’re moving in just over a month which will mean much shifting and sweeping. So much in fact, that I think I’m entitled to almost total domestic inertia until we bring in the boxes. By the way, I have no idea where we’re moving to, which is making me feel most peculiar.

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A year and a half ago I could well have sat, computer glowing with the suggestion of work, caffe in hand, worrying while watching out of my rear window for hours. I tried to do this the other day. It was all going well; caffe sipped and gaze fixed. Then my neglected eighteen month old son jolted me back into a noisy and messy reality that involved two pan lids and a family sized bottle of shampoo. I could have taken the soapy opportunity to do some sort of cleaning but didn’t. We went to the market instead.

Testaccio market has moved of course. The century old mercato with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, with it’s coarse, chaotic charm and surly attitude has now been replaced by a bright, polite and shiny-white structure that adheres to all sorts of regulations. We walk past the site of the old market – now bulldozed to the ground – on our way to the new market where neat rows of stalls sit subdued bearing neat piles of whatever. Not that this bright neatness has dissuaded us! If anything, we’re even more fiercely loyal to the displaced stall holders now they are at the mercy of a shiny but unfinished market, bureaucracy and ridiculous rents.

White and bright it may be, but Gianluca’s Stall was looking distinctly old-fashioned on Tuesday. A little more like it used to, piled high in an unruly manner as it was with the most glorious greens. Late April in Rome means an embarrassment of vegetable riches: peas and fave in their pods, grass like agretti, posies of broccoletti, rebellious spinach, wild and tame asparagus, wet garlic, spring onions. And of course the last of the tender-hearted warriors: artichokes, of which we bought three. A kilo of peas and fave both and a bunch of fat spring onions are we were set. For lunch that is.

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Vignarola is a stew of spring vegetables. A tender, tumbling dish of fresh peas, broad beans (fave), spring onions, artichokes and (possibly) soft lettuce. It is one of my absolute favourite things to eat. Made authentically, vignarola is an elusive dish, possible only for few weeks between April and May when there is overlap, a vegetable eclipse if you like, between the first tiny peas, fave and sweet bulbs and the last of the artichokes. Now is the time!

There is plenty of preparation: trimming of artichokes, podding of peas and fave, slicing of onion. But once the vegetables are sitting tamed and obedient in their bowls it’s all pretty straightforward. You fry the onion gently in olive oil. You add the artichoke wedges, a pinch of salt and stir until each wedge glistens with oil. Next a glass of wine for the pan (and another for the cook) before you cover the pan for 15 minutes or so. To finish, you add the peas and fave, stir and cover the pan for a few more minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the stew has come together into a moist, tumbling whole. Vignarola is best after a rest and served just warm.

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The flavours are wonderful together: artichokes tasting somewhere between best asparagus, the stem of steamed Calabrese broccoli and porcini, peas sweet and grassy, fave like buttered peas with a bitter afterthought and onions sweet and savory. But it’s the textures that really astound: the dense, velvety artichokes, the sweet explosion of pea, the smooth and waxy fave and the sly and slippery onion. Did I mention vignarola is one of my favourite things to eat?

We ate our vignarola with ricotta di pecora and bruschetta (that is toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with extra virgin olive oil) It was a good combination: the creamy, unmistakably sheepish cheese pairing well with the tender stew and the oily, garlic stroked toast.

The beauty of this dish is the cooking: part braise/part steamy simmer. The vegetables cook and roll round idly in their own juices meaning the flavours are kept as closely as guarded secrets, something Marcella Hazan calls smothered. It is – as you can probably imagine – impossible to give precise timings for vignarola as so much depends on your ingredients. Small tender artichokes may only need ten minutes, larger globes twenty. The tiniest peas may only need a minute or two, larger more mealy ones ten. Then there is the matter of taste! But isn’t there always? Do you want a brothy dish or something tumbling and moist? Adjust liquid accordingly. Do you like a lick of alcohol (I do) or would you prefer the pure taste of water?  Now I fear I have made it sound complicated! It isn’t. Best ingredients, instinct, lots of tasting and you can’t go wrong.

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I should note that a traditional Roman vignarola contains pancetta or guanciale and lettuce. I don’t generally add either but you might like to. Unless the fave are properly tender and tiny I remove their tough opaque jackets – I have noted this below – a faff I know, but a worthwhile faff. Have a glass of wine while you pop. Spring cooking in lieu of spring cleaning, Hurrah.

Vignarola   Spring vegetable stew

serves 4

  • 3 large artichokes
  • a lemon to acidulate a bowl of cold water
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 1 kg fave in their pods
  • 2 large or 6 small spring onions
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine (or water)

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.

Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, moist, tumbling whole.

Let the vignarola settle for a few minutes then serve just warm. It is also good at room temperature.

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67 Comments

Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, Roman food, spring recipes, vegetables

67 responses to “Spring into lunch

  1. Kasia

    Oh this is marvellous!

  2. Why have I never thought to make this myself? Well, if I do now, thanks to your lovely prose, I prefer the guanciale/pancetta-less version too!

  3. Fantastic recipe, beautiful, green, delicious. Drool (oops).

  4. Vignarola is one of my very favourite dishes … it tells us that Winter is definitely over!

  5. Making vignarola is a much better choice than beating rugs or cleaning windows. Happy Spring.

  6. I love things that herald a change in the season, like the first day in fall when I get up and smell the steam heat warming the apartment and the first night in summer when the concrete feels warm against my soles as I pad across the patio in bare feet.

    But to have a vegetable stew as the harbinger of spring, now that is positively delicious in every sense of the word.

    Spring vegetables have not hit the markets here yet, but I am keeping a list of these ingredients with me so when they do, I will know exactly what to scoop up.

    • rachel

      I do too. It was almost bare feet on warm patio yesterday and then the weather changed it’s mind and it was middling season again. It is indeed a celebration of season stew, a green tonic.

  7. amazing produce, wow! great recipe. i will have to try it some day.

  8. Love vignarola. Made a big batch today too (senza wine and pig). We also added a good amount of finely chopped parsley and mint later on, when we added lettuce, and let it stew in.

  9. Fiona Key

    Will definitely be at Testaccio market next week loading up for this! And with ricotta – perfect.

  10. I hope you find your new home soon, (at least in the next month) and that the move goes as smoothly as these things can. I am jealous of the broad beans. Put the seeds in for them today so we have a bit to wait yet. Here’s hoping the weather gets more garden friendly. x

  11. sara

    And now with a REAR WINDOW reference? Love this blog even more than I already did, which I thought was impossible. It’s not Rome, but when I am in Paris this summer I plan to eat simply, like this. You make simple vegetables luxurious.

    • rachel

      You got it, maybe the only person. Simple is the way. Gosh, enjoy Paris! Which of course you will because it is the loveliest city x

  12. Wow! What beautiful vegetables!

  13. I do have only one question, when can I come over for lunch? p.s. Beware, it wil be sagra della riccota’s time pretty soon!

  14. Eha

    I am enchanted by the story and enchanted by the recipe and rather displeased at the big lamb shoulder steak I just grilled [tho' it tasted peerless!] with stirfried vegetables. Thank you for the nudge and do hope you will find somewhere simpatico to reside in the next few weeks! Love from the Antipodes!!!!!

    • rachel

      I am now craving lamb steak. Come to think of it lamb steak followed by vignarola could well be the perfect spring meal! Oh and thank you, yes, I do too, ideally next week.

  15. ashley

    Sometimes I think puttering in the kitchen shelling peas, paring artichokes and laboring over favas is my favorite thing in the world. Found your blog recently and find it delicious and inspiring!

    • rachel

      I think we would make good kitchen companions. That said, fave do drive me to distraction sometimes, but that is my impatience not the innocent fave. So glad to have you reading along

  16. Hilary van Uden

    Oh, it’s torture reading about these wonderful elusive seasonal dishes when I am in the wrong season. By the time spring rolls around (and with it my crop of fave), I will be in autumnal Europe – life is just so unfair in the first world!!! :-)
    hope you find a nice window out of which to gaze!

    • rachel

      Thanks Hilary – I do too and very soon. Your crop, by which I assume you mean your home-grown crop, which of course is another thing all together and something I can only dream of (I do on a regular basis).

      • Hilary

        oh well, good, the envy isn’t one way then!! My broad beans are about 4 inches high, and looking good. Hopefully they will be ready in very early spring. I hardly ever peel them, and if I do, I eat the peels!!

        btw, your description of the new market reminded me of some tourist feedback on Testaccio I read online – the writer wasn’t happy about the area because the market had shut down and nobody had told him!! Bad mark for Testaccio :-)

  17. favas over rugs any day, i say. (particularly if ricotta gets in on the action).

    xo,
    molly

    • rachel

      hear hear. I really should shake something out of the window though, you know just to join in. I am considering a small pillowcase.

  18. wonderful post! And I am so glad you didn’t ruin these delicious veggies with guanciale or pancetta. YUM YUM YUM

  19. What a glorious celebration of SPRING! I can’t wait until some of these vegetables appear in our market!

  20. love your writing- (and your receipes) of course……. C.

  21. Gorgeous, how I want to eat this very moment! But will have to await the season, which arrives so much later than yours…

    • rachel

      Our spring was here, but this grey morning is conspicuously absent. But yes the spring produce is here and kicking. May your pea, beans and chokes be lovely when they do arrive!

  22. This looks fabulous. Love those artichokes!

  23. Gutted about Testaccio market. The invitation to our wedding featured a certain butchers stall promoting a special on horse meat. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

    Lovely looking dish. We just put our peas in so this is a dish for late May methinks. If shelling favas is a bit of a faff moving house is a real faff. Best of British with that. Hope you find somewhere that feels like home.

    • rachel

      life is feeling a bit of a faff full stop at present. The Fave were worth it, lets hope the move is too (not really looking forward to packing with an 18 month old). The market is unrecognisable – I keep the faith though. When are you going to visit?

      • I know what you mean about life being a faff. We packed up with an 18 month old kid too. It wasn’t great, but the move was worth it and still is, we just don’t want to have to do it again until he’s 9…
        We keep saying “we’ll visit next year” and then it comes and we’re no closer. It’ll be 6 years this summer, but next summer we have to visit the UK, and I would dearly love to turn that into a trip to Italy with visitors from the UK. When it does finally happen, it will be great to meet you!

  24. Oh, my. A move. We’ll be catching you at the worst possible time I fear. Rome…18 days and counting.

  25. It looks amazing, I’ll have to try it. I have the fave and the artichokes. Now to find the peas …

    • rachel

      Testaccio market – Gianluca’s stall. Great to meet you the other day, just sorry it was so fleeting – next Time Rx

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  28. Okay, you win, most obscure reference in the opening sentence. Now I’m going to have to write, “I paused with my steel-cut oats in the door of the rooftop greenhouse, banana plants crowding at my back, contemplating the London sky like Tyrone Slothrop.”

    Moving? You can’t just drop that into the narrative with no explanation. Eviction? Rent raise? New love? Job offer? Identity as Russian mole coming to light? Good suspense.

    I’m getting to this late because of all the Boston stuff going on, but vignarola sounds delicious. Odd, I’ve never heard the term before. Love the way you just baldly state the prep… and people say, okay. In the US prepping an artichoke is considered the equivalent of a setting a leg on the Oregon Trail – you have to do it once in awhile, but nobody likes it. Ken

    • rachel

      Ha – Did you know Slothrop’s family actually made its money killing trees, amputating them from their roots, chopping them up, grinding them to pulp, bleaching that to paper and getting paid for this with more paper.” Obviously I goggled that, but I had (bizarrely) heard of the lieutenant.

      Maybe I should have said L.B ‘jeff’ Jefferies – Rear window by Hitchcock. No murders in the courtyard (so far.)

      The move, yes that was a bit dramatic, it should be down the road, Hopefully. Many reasons, none particularly interesting. I will tell you about it one day, while you cook and I drink Lambrusco.

      I wonder how you are all dealing with the aftermath – the world watched in awe as the city was closed down. x

  29. very fun and engaging writing. always good to come here and read about your world. Rear Window was my daughter’s favorite movie–(one of mine, too) we’ve watched many, many times. and, this spring stew, we just dined on, while in New York City, last weekend. sublime, and ephemeral
    will you be in the midst of a move end of May?

    • rachel

      Yes probably, which means your visit is timed perfectly – i will need breaks, meals and drinks and good company (it is only a local move though so not terrible)
      xxx

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  31. Sam

    Your photography is extraordinary ! Artichokes and peas are a lovely combination

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