Marzo Pazzarello—Crazy March
“Marzo Pazzarello, guarda il sole e prendi l’ombrello” (Crazy March, look at the sun and bring your umbrella) is the local saying that captures the weather carousel on which we’ve found ourselves lately. No doubt about it, March is a fickle time in Puglia.
From one balmy, blue-skied Sunday to its evil twin a week later, we are reeling with a show of weather that keeps us guessing from one moment to the next. Just now, the wind is howling, the skies are gunmetal grey and an occasional torrent of rain courses down through terrace rooftop drains to the stone streets below.
Just a few days ago, we saw fat flakes of snow drift lazily from the sky, settling on the pale pink almond blossoms that dot the countryside here. These blossoms mean spring is around the corner, but not before winter releases its last ferocious gasp. In the meantime, we hope those blossoms hold on tight so we can count on a bumper crop of almonds this year.
The markets are poised for the explosion of le primizie, the very first fruits and vegetables that make their appearance in the spring here. We’ve spotted juvenile fava bean pods, wild asparagus and precocious strawberries. Zucchini and spinach are flourishing, too. Everyone’s thinking about their Easter table along with Pasquetta, the day after Easter, when Italian families head for the countryside in comitiva (in groups) to picnic.
So what to eat when it’s cold, cold, cold outside but it’s not really winter anymore? Soup comes to mind, so that’s what we made today. But not just any soup. We wanted to dream about spring but warm our souls in the meantime, so I put together a variation of Heidi Swanson’s Spinach and Zucchini Soup recipe. I made it slightly heartier and omitted the cilantro, which really doesn’t exist in its fresh, leafy form here. The result was exactly what we wanted: delicious, warming and bright, bright green, reminding us, despite all appearances, that spring really is just around the corner.
Crema di Spinaci e Zucchini—Creamy Spinach and Zucchini Soup
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Kosher or sea salt
1 cup potatoes (1 medium) cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 cups zucchini (3-4 medium), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 Tbsp. basmati rice
5 cups vegetable stock
6 cups fresh spinach leaves, loosely packed (fresh is really best; consider making something else if you don’t have fresh spinach)
Juice of half to one whole lemon
In a large, stockpot with a thick bottom, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat until the oil is hot (but not smoking). Add the onions, garlic and a pinch of salt to taste and saute for a few minutes until they are soft and beginning to become translucent.
Stir in the potatoes and zucchini, sauté for another 5 minutes or so. Add the rice and continue to sauté, stirring to coat the rice. Add the stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are soft throughout, roughly 15-20 minutes.
Stir in the spinach, and wait for it to wilt, just 15-20 seconds or so. When the spinach has reduced in volume but is still bright green, remove the soup from the heat. Puree in small batches in a blender, being extremely careful to keep the volume at less than half the capacity of the blender. You can use a with a hand blender instead if you like, but I don’t have one in Italy so I go with the blender. Blend until smooth.
Return the soup to the pot and stir in a big squeeze of lemon juice (about half a lemon). Taste, and add more salt if needed. Finish with a drizzle of best quality extra virgin olive oil and serve. This is one soup I don’t prepare in advance of need because one of its virtues is its absolute freshness and bright green color. It takes so little time to pull together, though, there’s no need to prepare ahead of time.
Serves about 6 people.