Rome through the eyes of a two-year old is simple; the Colosseum is the house of the giants; the Roman forum is the dinosaur house; San Pietro is a big chiesa; fountains are taps, except the fountain in Piazza Navona which is a tap with a fish (the fish being the dolphin Neptune is wrestling). Each landmark, however familiar, is greeted with a comedy gasp, announced as if for the first time and then repeated until I have a headache; house of the giants, house of the giants, house of the giants possibly trailing off into a whisper, house of the giants. The market is similarly straightforward. Yesterday Luca marched three feet ahead pointing and announcing the stalls like a town crier; fish, meat, flowers, pane, dog (a pet stall) fruit and then at our stall – having eaten the first this year the day before – yelled peas, peas, peas. Gianluca immediately obliged and handed Luca a pod, which he grabbed and I made a futile attempt ‘What do you say when you are given something?‘ But Luca was too busy opening the pod, crack and then, at discovering six green balls suspended in the bright green case, said babies.
They were babies, tiny pouches of sweet and savory that pop in your mouth, the sort of peas that elude me most of the time. We bought a kilo and a half. Then rather than listening to myself and getting us out of the market as quickly as possible by offering/revoking the usual impatient bribes – If you get in your push chair you can have some chocolate. Get in your push chair this minute LucaMassimo or you won’t have any chocolate or anything ever - I listened to Luca who was shouting and pointing at a bench. So we sat on the sunny bench, or rather the concrete slabs that function as benches in the center of the new market and ate probably half a kilo of peas straight from their pods.
With the rest of the peas I made something I look forward to each year, a spring vegetables stew, a vignarola of sorts, a dish of spring onions, artichokes, broad beans and peas braised in olive oil and water (or white wine) until tender. The key is adding the ingredients according to their cooking requirements; onion first, then artichokes, broad beans and finally peas which just need a caress of heat and the warm company of the other ingredients to release their sweetness and tease out their colour. Important too, is adding just enough liquid to moisten the vegetables and encourage them to release their own juices, the effect being an intense but gentle, graduated braise where flavors remain distinct but also harmonious. Precise timings are impossible to give, so tasting is imperative.
Tender wedges of velvet artichoke, sweet peas, buttery but slightly bitter broad beans all bound by a weave of smothered onion; a dish that celebrates and captures the fleeting brilliance of spring vegetables and one of the best lunches I know. Especially good with a piece of quivering but tensile mozzarella di bufala that erupts beneath your knife and a toddler standing on a chair singing voglio peas and cheese before falling off and taking the glass bottle of water with him.
I have written about vignarola before, and will probably do so again. It is not so much a recipe but a way of thinking about spring vegetables. In Rome there are as many versions of vignarola as there are cooks and opinions are strongly held. Adding some pancetta or guanciale is traditional, but much as I love both, I think they totally overwhelm the pure vegetable taste that is so desirable. Again cooking times depend entirely on the vegetables; these tiny tender things needed just minutes whereas later in the season as peas and beans get starchier, artichokes tougher and onions more intrusive, they will all need longer.
Vignarola – spring vegetable stew
serves two vignarola lovers for lunch with mozzarella, or four as a starter or side dish
- a bunch of spring onions
- 3 artichokes, ideally the purple tipped, Italian chokeless variety
- a kilogram of peas in their pods
- a kilogram of fave, broad beans in their pods (shelled but still with their opaque coats at this time of year)
- water or white wine / olive oil and salt as needed
Trim and slice the spring onions in four lengthways and trim and cut the artichokes into wedges rubbing them with lemon as you go. Shell the peas and fave and set aside. Warm some olive oil in a deep sauté pan with a lid and add the onions, stir and sauté for a few minutes. Once the onions are floppy add the artichokes and sauté (turning the vegetables with a wooden spoon every now and then) for five minutes or so. Add a little white wine or water to the pan and everything bubble gently for a few more minutes. Add the broad beans, fave, stir, add a little more liquid if necessary and then cook over a low flame until the vegetables are tender (which depends entirely on the vegetables.) In the last couple of minutes add the peas. Add salt to taste.