Simple Art of Cooking: From Italy to the Farmer’s Market

When I traveled to Italy through the ’80s and into the ’90s to visit a colleague’s cooking school in Florence, I tried to reproduce the food I ate there. I quickly realized that it would be difficult because the recipes depended so much on the raw ingredients. Fresh produce was not locally available at the time, unless one lived in a farming community. Since then farmers markets have sprouted up on city streets and in town squares across the nation. The fruits and vegetables that are available have been planted, grown and harvested with only freshness and flavor in mind—not shelf life or shipping schedules.

Here on the East End we live in a farming community with a whole range of fresh ingredients. Picking up what’s locally available and cooking it simply brings out the entire food experience. It engages your senses and enriches your life. When I pick up my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) order at the Green Thumb, an organic market in Water Mill, or visit some of the other local farm stands I’m making a connection with the farmers and, in a way, making it a partnership. By choosing locally grown products we support our agriculture and our environment.

My most recent selection at the Green Thumb yielded kale raab (kale that sprouts and is similar to purple sprouted broccoli or broccolini), also asparagus and zucchini. Inspiration took me directly into the kitchen to prepare the kale raab. This early spring vegetable has a slight bitterness but delicious blanched and sautéed. I prepared a risotto asparagus, creamy with red onion and tomato, and simply sautéed the zucchini in olive oil with garlic and parsley. How well we ate with some goodies waiting in the wings.

Kale raab is simply kale that has sprouted and is similar in appearance to purple sprouting broccoli or broccolini. There is a thrill in discovering and cooking with new ingredients.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 bunches farm fresh kale raab
Kosher salt
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 cloves garlic sliced into thin slivers
Pinch hot pepper flakes

Freshly ground pepper (optional)

1. Cut the thick base stems of the kale and discard. Rinse vegetable thoroughly.

2. Place kale in boiling salted water to cover, cover pan then remove lid when steam starts to escape. Blanch for 1 1/2 minutes uncovered until barely tender. Drain in a colander under a spray of cool water to stop the cooking; then transfer to a clean kitchen towel and pat dry. Can be cooked ahead to this point and refrigerated in a suitable container.

3. When ready to serve, warm olive oil in non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and hot pepper flakes, sauté garlic for 30 to 40 seconds. Put in the kale and stir-sauté several times for 2 to 3 minutes to finish cooking and to heat through. Season the vegetable with salt and freshly ground pepper, toss to mix and serve warm or at room temperature.

Risotto with asparagus
Risotto is made with a special kind of rice which is only cultivated in the Po Valley in northern Italy. The grains are oval and pearly in color. The rice is cooked until it gradually absorbs nearly three times its volume in liquid and swells as it soaks up the liquid. The grains are cooked slowly and stirred continuously until creamy, with a slight resistance to the bite.
Serves 6 to 8 as first course or 4 as entrée

1/3 pound asparagus, trimmed and rinsed
1 small red onion, chopped fine Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable broth)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 cups Italian Arborio, vialone or carnaroli rice
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, cut into tiny dice
7 to 8 sprigs Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1/3 to 1/2 cup grated imported Parmigianino cheese

1. Break asparagus where they naturally bend and discard base. Trim away triangular scales of asparagus along the stalk; rinse and dry well. Cut asparagus into ½-inch pieces on the diagonal.

2. Bring stock to the edge of a boil in a saucepan next to the pan in which you will cook the risotto. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and keep warm.

3. Place oil and butter in a flameproof casserole over medium heat. When the butter melts and foam subsides, add the chopped onion and sauté for a minute or so, then add the asparagus and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon until lightly caramelized. Add rice and sauté for 1 or 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in ½ cup hot broth and stir until liquid is completely evaporated.

4. Add remaining broth, 1/2 cup at a time and stir allowing each addition to be absorbed by the rice before adding more liquid. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time until rice is tender and creamy and slightly resistant to the bite. Add tomatoes and parsley; stir to mix and cook for another minute or so. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasoning as necessary. Total cooking time is about 25 minutes. When risotto is al dente yet creamy remove from heat, stir in the cheese and serve immediately on warm plates. Serve additional cheese at table if desired.

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