A Winter Palette
After seventeen years of summertime visits to Martina Franca, we always knew what to expect at the weekly market. In July, the rows and rows of fruit and vegetable stalls are overflowing. Tomatoes of every imaginable variety, slim, tender green beans, bunches of basil as big as a bouquet of flowers and luscious, vibrant stone fruit all shine in the sun. We want to buy it all, then rush home to cook it, overwhelmed by the sheer excess of it all. So when we decided to live here year round, we resigned ourselves to slimmer winter pickings. It gets cold here, after all, and fields must lay fallow waiting for the spring. Instead, we’ve discovered that it is a different, but equally bounteous landscape. We are overcome with the urge to dive deeply into the season.
Winter brings a new palette to the market canvas. The greens are the most arresting, ranging from the celadon of fennel and celery to the deep, emerald green of the chards and wild dandelion greens. Unruly wild kale exhibits a bottle green swirled with deep purple, while the white stalks give the plant an octopus-like aspect. And the artichokes . . . they overflow from their boxes in a profusion of gray-green limbs, so tangled that the vendors must pull them out and prune them for us.
Dried figs stuffed with almonds and stacked with bay leaves send up a warm, burnt sienna glow, but the chestnuts stop us in our tracks. They look like burnished chocolate, shiny and smooth. We imagine them as caldarroste, hot roasted chestnuts, warming our hands in brown paper cones. Local walnuts and almonds are everywhere, but it you look closely, you’ll also find lampascioni, the strange little bulbs of the wild hyacinth plant. Once considered a mainstay of la cucina povera (poverty food) these humble, dirt-covered bundles are prized in the Valle d’Itria. They make their way into just about everything as a component of winter stews, deep-fried, preserved in oil or vinegar or as the star ingredient in a quick frittata.
The brassicas are especially unusual here, so we always bring them home to marvel at their color and texture. Broccoli romanesco looks like a caricature of a common broccoli with its carefully sculpted cones and deep chartreuse glow. Mugnolo, the local dialect word for purple broccoli, is another favorite. Somehow it just tastes sweeter than regular broccoli even though it does tend to lose its deep violet blush when cooked. Lately we’ve seen a bright green cross between cauliflower and broccoli, which has caught our eye.
We prepare these brassicas simply to appreciate their subtlety. Just a quick steam, then a toss in olio nuovo, the heavenly newly-pressed extra virgin olive oil fresh from the olive mill, and sea salt and they’re ready. If you want to go all out, though, try a gratinato or gratin. There are very few winter vegetables that aren’t made sublime when you prepare them this way, making this recipe especially adaptable. Parents, take note: our children loved the gratin strategy, consuming ridiculous quantities of vegetables without any prompting.
Cavolfiore Pugliese Gratinato—Pugliese Cauliflower au Gratin
One head cauliflower (any kind will do, as will broccoli)
2/3 cup milk
3/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano or grana padano
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup pangrattato (finely grated, toasted bread crumbs; see note below)
Sea or kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the cauliflower in half at the core, and then cut out the hard, stalky core in each half. Separate the cauliflower into little flowers, each about one inch in diameter. Discard the core and any hard stem and leaves still attached to the cauliflower.
Put the cauliflower pieces into a steamer basket fitted in a pot with a tight fitting lid to which you have added an inch of water. Cover the pot, and then place over high heat and steam until you can just barely pierce the surface of the stem of a cauliflower piece. They should be underdone for this recipe, so don’t allow them to cook until you can penetrate the stem easily with the fork. Remove from the heat and remove the steamer basket with the cauliflower. Allow to cool. Dribble a little extra virgin olive oil in the bottom of an oven-safe baking dish (terra cotta is terrific for this). Distribute the cauliflower evenly in the baking dish.
Pour the milk into a small bowl, and then add half of the parmigiano and a little sea salt to taste to form a thickish slurry. Grate the nutmeg directly into the mixture. Pour the slurry evenly over the cauliflower in the baking pan. Sprinkle the remaining parmigiano over the top, and then sprinkle all of the pangrattato or breadcrumbs over the cheese. Dribble a little more extra virgin olive oil on top of everything, and then put the baking dish in the preheated oven.
Bake for 20 minutes or so until bubbly and brown. If more browning is needed, set your oven to broil and place the baking pan about six inches away from the broiler for just a few minutes. Watch carefully; things can go awry quickly at this stage if you’re not vigilant.
N.B. Pangrattato is sold in packages all over Italy and has myriad uses. It’s really just very finely ground breadcrumbs that are seasoned and browned in a skillet or in the oven. One relatively decent brand to use is Mulino Bianco, which is owned by the Barilla group of dried pasta fame. You can find it in well-stocked groceries or order it online. Better and cheaper is to make your own and store in a tightly sealed container for, well, myriad uses.
Here’s what to do: Put any stale bread you have lying around in a blender or food processor and pulverize until very finely ground. In a skillet, heat a small quantity (a few tablespoons, perhaps) of extra virgin olive oil and add the breadcrumbs and a little sea salt to taste. Saute’ over medium low heat, stirring regularly, until the bread crumbs take on a little color and become golden brown. That’s it!
You can add fresh herbs, lemon zest and event finely chopped garlic if you like, but I prefer to make my pangrattato as described above for maximum versatility.