Your Italian American Gardening Tips: Spring Greens – Healthy and Delicious Recipes for the Season

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! A lot has happened in my garden since my last “Your Italian-American Gardening Tips” blog in early April. I’ve been posting photos periodically on my Instagram ConversationalItalian.French to demonstrate the progression of fresh vegetables available during the springtime in Chicagoland. I also post videos on Instagram of seasonal Italian and French dishes using with what’s available in the kitchen garden.  For our blog today, it’s time for a recap of cool weather vegetables and for a report on which warm weather-loving Italian vegetables I’ve planted this year for summertime harvest.

Recap: the seeds I planted in early spring have really taken off and the harvest of cool spring greens has been going on for about 2 weeks now! The cool weather in Chicago lasted throughout April and into the very last week of May, which is wonderful for the Italian lettuces, spinach, cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) and broccoli rabe (Italian: rapini)  that I am growing. Hearty greens don’t mind a bit of frost, and even though we had several nights of frost May they were not stunted by the bit of extra cold. And by May 15, the arugula and broccoli rabe had matured and were ready for harvest. See below for how to prepare broccoli rabe the Italian way as a side dish for dinner.

My overwintered leeks have picked up growing where they left off last fall and now are grocery-store size. I harvested several to make “pot-au-feu” (see below) and planted new sets I bought from the garden store in their place. I should have an almost continuous harvest of these fragrant oniony vegetables available throughout the year. All other members of the onion family are growing nicely with the cool weather, including my overwintered chives (now flowering), and newly planted green onions and shallots.

The potatoes I planted in the first days of spring struggled a bit with frost-bite, but their leaves seemed to have recovered. Those planted later were saved this difficulty as they are just now starting to show their first leaves.  I’m hoping “new” potatoes will be available for harvest by mid June and for weeks after.

The strawberries in the raised garden between the potato beds are going strong, covering almost every inch of their box and flowering nicely, also getting ready for a June harvest.

As I have mentioned in my  Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, for the last two years, my focus has been on how to grow Italian vegetables in the suburbs, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

In this blog I’ll describe when to harvest springtime greens that love the cool weather, and provide some ideas for how to use them in simple dishes you can make at home.

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Another Recipe with Leeks!

Pot-au-feu: Classic French Dinner

 

In my April post, I provided some tips about growing and cooking leeks, and provided an Instagram post of a salmon, leek and cream dish that I think is the perfect combination of flavors.  With my leeks now grocery-store size and available to harvest by mid May, I made a classic French dish called “Pot-au-feu,” which means “Pot on the fire,” that pairs veal shank with fragrant leeks, fennel bulbs, carrots and parsnips.

The veal broth created by cooking the veal shank with spring vegetables makes a traditional and  flavorful starter for this spring-time meal. Vermicelli noodles are often cut into shorter pieces, cooked, and then added to the soup for a bit of texture. 

The leeks, fennel, carrots, and parsnips are cooked in the broth after the veal is done to until just tender and make a wonderful accompaniment for the veal as the main course. Most Italians love a fragrant broth, as well as fennel, and I was glad I gave this simple dish a try. Watch me make Pot-au-feu on Instagram below by clicking on the image and then try your own. Your family will love the flavorful broth created while cooking the veal and this perfect springtime meal. (Ingredients listed on Instagram.)

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Italian Lettuces and Greens Growing Strong

 

What a difference a few weeks makes! Check out the image of my raised garden bed below on May 15, where I planted spinach and lettuces from Seeds from Italy early last April. (“Seeds from Italy” is the name of an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers. Check out their website!) 

Arugula: Both common and “wild” varieties of arugula were ready to harvest by May 15, and other lettuces and spinach followed shortly after. I enjoyed the “wild arugula” leaves that I planted for the first time this year. The wild arugula variety has leaves that are smaller and more tender then the common variety, so they are easier to mix into a salad. Both Italian varieties of arugula have the same peppery flavor.

Cavolo Nero: The cavolo nero (a Tuscan kale, called “black cabbage” in Italian) seeds I planted in their own row just outside the garden bed are growing nicely and I’ve already thinned them out a bit, which created the opportunity for a kale and citrus salad. See the link to my Instagram post below.

Broccoli rabe: As mentioned earlier, the broccoli rabe seeds I planted from Seeds of Italy took off and grew nicely all spring, and were ready to harvest by May 15. Broccoli rabe is actually a type of turnip that is grown for the greens rather than the root. Turnips and broccoli are in the same family, called the Brassicaceae family, so it is not surprising they can look similar.

Broccoli rabe (cime di rapa or rapini in Italian) looks like a leafy green with several small ” broccoli-like clusters at the tip of their stalks.  Broccoli rabe should be harvested when the center stalk with the cluster of broccoli-like clusters becomes taller than the leafy portion of the plant. After this stalk elongates, it can take only a day or two for the plant to “go to seed” by forming small yellow flowers from the green clusters. I sewed a second set of seeds, in late May when I had harvested about half of my broccoli rabe, although these may not germinate or reach full maturity before the heat of summer sets in.

Below is an Instagram post of how to cook broccoli rabe. It is usually sautéed in a large pan with olive oil, garlic, and 1 or 2 hot peppers, and with or without a bit of sausage. A large bunch will cook down significantly, just like spinach. I like to trim the stems off, although they are edible. Orecchiette pasta can be added for a classic pasta dish.

Romanesco broccoli: The romanesco broccoli I planted started to perk up by the end of May, as did my Swiss Chard. 

Onions: Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. As I’ve mentioned, it is easy to grow  all relatives of the onion family in Chicagoland. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been doing for over 10 years!

 

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See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year just after planting and in mid May.  Between the garden beds are lavender that I planted last year as part of my herb garden. A row of sedum was planted by the previous owners of my house, and comes up reliably every year, so I have kept it in place as a border. 

Leeks growing in the center of a raised garden bed; in the distance another raised garden bed and additional land for leafy greens. Seeds have just been planted.
Italian garden beds for lettuce, onions, and leafy greens, after seeds were planted. The leeks overwintered from last summer.

 

 

 

 

Raised garden bed with rows of spinach, arugula, leeks in the foreground and lettuces and onion sets in the back. Broccoli rabe growing in the ground behind the beds.
Raised bed in the foreground, left to right: 2 rows of spinach, 1 row of common arugula, 1 row of wild arugula, leeks. Raised bed in the back: mixed lettuces and onion sets. Semicircle plot: broccoli rabe to the right.

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe growing in the semicircular plot behind the raised garden beds, ready to start harvesting. Large, saw-tooth type leaves are growing in a cluster.
Broccoli rabe growing in the semicircular plot behind the raised garden beds, ready to start harvesting.

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe close up, ready to harvest before the yellow flowers develop and the plant goes to seed.
Broccoli rabe close up, ready to harvest before the yellow flowers develop and the plant goes to seed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe gone to seed; the stalk has elongated and the leaves are shriveled and small. Small bright yellow flowers sit atop the stalk.
Broccoli rabe gone to seed.

Just one week later, the temperatures reached 90° and this lasted for 3 days in a row. All broccoli rabe went to seed. The delicious leaves seem to shrink and most of the plant is just a long stem with yellow flowers on top.  The season was fairly long, but ended suddenly. 

 

 

 

 

 

Salads, Salads, and More Salads

 

Last year, I provided a method for how to create salads with the lettuces I grew in my garden and described how to make a classic vinaigrette in my blog  Four Salads for Summer Days.  I also showed methods for making herbed and garlic croutons. Check out this blog for the following salads: 

  1. Mixed baby greens, chive flowers and radishes (with Bree cheese and crackers) — a great salad for spring, using what’s available in the kitchen garden!

     2. Insalata mista (Typical Italian salad of mixed lettuces, carrots, tomatoes and radishes) with garlic croutons 

     3. Mixed greens, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, and raspberries

     4. Spinach salad with goat cheese and strawberries — spinach and strawberries are usually available at about the               time in early summer.

 

Even with all the varieties of greens I had planted in my garden this year, I decided in early spring to follow the advice of my grandmother on how to make a nutritious salad and harvest dandelions freely growing around my property.  Dandelions are called “dente di leone” in Italian, and their saw-toothed leaves and bright yellow flowers are unmistakable. They come up on their own reliably in early spring every year (to the chagrin of those in the American suburbs who like a tidy lawn) and are a good source of Vitamins A, C, K and even minerals like iron and calcium. The stems always grow out from one central root, so be careful to watch for this root if harvesting ( especially before they flower), in order to make sure you are picking the correct weed! The smaller dandelion leaves are the most tender; when using the larger leaves, remove the thick rib along the back. Inspect both sides of the leaves for dirt and rinse very well and leave in the refrigerator; rinse again before using. 

 

Dandelion ready to flower. Dente di leone in Italian. The image shows all stalks growing toward a central root.
Dandelion ready to flower. “Dente di leone” in Italian. All stalks grow from a central root.

Italians love dandelion greens with a simple dressing of red wine vinegar, pinches of salt and pepper and finely chopped garlic. The garlic is an important ingredient, as it counters the bitterness of the dandelion. The finely chopped garlic sold in the grocery store in jars and kept in the refrigerator is best for this type of salad dressing, as it is softer and less sharp than freshly chopped garlic. Chives and parsley are also available at the same time as dandelions in spring and can be freshly chopped and added to the salad dressing at the end. The ratio: 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar to 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  See below.

 

Dandelion salad with a simple red wine and chive vinaigrette arranged on a plate in a starburst pattern like a composed salad, served with a breadstick.
Dandelion salad with a simple red wine and chive vinaigrette served with a breadstick.

A warm bacon dressing can also be used on dandelion greens, just as with spinach or frisèe. A thick slice of pancetta cut into rectangles and cooked slowly over medium heat makes delicious lardoons, as pictured below.  For a traditional vinaigrette that goes on this type of salad, sauté a chopped shallot in the rendered fat from the pancetta until it softens. Remove the shallot and 1 Tbsp. of rendered fat into a bowl and add 2 Tbsps of red wine vinegar and a pinch of mustard, salt and pepper.

Dandelion salad Lyonnaise style with pancetta lardons; poached egg in center of greens with bacon bits and croutons in the periphery
Dandelion salad Lyonnaise style with pancetta lardons

For a salad made with fresh baby cavolo nero greens, check out my Instagram post below. The dressing I used was taken from the cook book “Six Seasons,” by Joshua McFadden, the chef who trained in Italy and started the kale craze from his Brooklyn restaurant.  He writes in his cook book “This is the kale salad that started it all.” Make your own large breadcrumbs with a good loaf of bread dried out in the oven at 200 or 250 degrees for about 20 – 30 min to sop up the delicious dressing. It is worth it! 

For the Joshua McFadden dressing: 1/2 garlic clove, smashed, 1/4 cup finely grated Peccorino-Romano cheese, 1/8 tsp hot dried chile peppers, pinches of salt and coarsely grated pepper, “large glug” (2-3 Tbsp) olive oil and juice from one lemon. Whisk all together all ingredients.

Chiffonade (roll up and cut into thin strips) cavolo nero, toss in dressing, and top with more grated cheese and breadcrumbs. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad; cavolo nero greens topped with large bread crumbs and Peccorino-Romano cheese in the middle of a ceramic plate rimmed by flowers.
Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad

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Cooking Broccoli Rabe the Italian Way

Broccoli rabe traditionally needs only a quick sauté in olive oil, garlic and small red chile peppers. The olive oil and garlic work counter the bitterness of the broccoli rabe and the chile peppers add an extra bit of zest, but can be omitted for those who cannot tolerate spicy-hot food. Red bell peppers cut into small pieces are a good substitute, although not traditional.

I created a video while I was cooking up some broccoli rabe as a side dish to show how much of the vegetable you need for just 2 people. Quite a bit, really! The broccoli rabe really cooks down.  I added a bit of Italian sausage and could have also added Orecchiette pasta at the end for a traditional pasta dish and a satisfying meal. In fact, my children ask me to make broccoli rabe in the spring time and all summer long! 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Strawberries and Asparagus have come to life!

 

Check out the difference in last year’s strawberry bed after the first fertilization in early spring and the second fertilization in mid May below. The strawberry crowns I planted earlier this year have struggled a bit, as there was not much rain this spring to help their roots grow, but are coming into their own slowly in the same raised beds as the asparagus.  Too bad I will have to wait at least another year to harvest my asparagus! 

 

Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with both green and brown leaves. The small plant with new red stalks and green leaves peeking out in the center is overwintered rhubarb.
Strawberry bed from 2020 with rhubarb growing in the center. The strawberry plants have taken over the bed.
Strawberry bed from 2020 with rhubarb growing in the center. 

 

Second year asparagus with first year strawberries in the perimeter
Second year asparagus with first year strawberries in the perimeter.

 

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This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant

 

Peas did not come up as quickly as I would have liked this year. I think this was due to the lack of rain. We had the driest April and May months on record in Chicagoland. But luckily, I have plenty of space in my raised garden beds this year, so they are free to grow as long as they like. I reserved the far bed (#4) for my late  tomatoes with large fruits and tall stalks and my cherry tomatoes, both of which take up a lot of space.  Plumb tomatoes and early tomatoes are in the next two beds over (#2 and #3), along with eggplant, arranged in spots where peas did not come up. Not ideal, but they are adequately spaced.  Hot and sweet peppers are in bed #1.   

 

Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four raised garden beds with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from background to foreground. Peas growing in the beds in the foreground.
Four raised garden beds with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from background to foreground. Peas growing in the beds in the foreground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this year.
I’d love to hear how your garden grows!
Until the next blog, follow my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for recipe ideas from my garden to yours!

2 thoughts on “Your Italian American Gardening Tips: Spring Greens – Healthy and Delicious Recipes for the Season

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