Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Leeks come back! Planting Strawberries, Asparagus, Spinach and Peas in the Springtime

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

Ciao a tutti! It’s been so nice to be out in the garden again this spring! It seems like ages have passed since my last gardening blog in December of 2020.

January was temperate in Chicagoland.  It finally started to snow in earnest in February, and then seemed like it would never stop.  By the end of the month, my yard was blanketed in 4 feet of snow!  But once the snow cleared, I was excited to see the tiny, bright yellow, sun-like faces of my winter buttercups, followed by daffodils, tulips and hyacinths in the early spring. Check out my Instagram posts at Conversationalitalian.french  to follow my flower beds  more closely if you like.

I have great expectations for the vegetable garden this year, since I hired a landscape crew to build 4 new raised beds! These beds are on the top of a hill, in the sunniest location in my yard, and I know this will be wonderful for the Italian summer vegetables my family loves. 

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 how to get started in the springtime with vegetables and greens that love the cool weather, and set out my garden plan for 2011. 

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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Watching Leeks Spring Back to Life

 

In my December post, I mentioned my first attempt at growing leeks last year. In short, I had found leek sets in the garden shop and  planted them in two rows in the center of my lettuce bed by the house. Although I did not realize it at the time, they were planted in a good location for over-wintering; that particular bed is sheltered by a large tree on one side and the house and patio wall on the other two sides. The leeks provided greenery in the center of that bed all winter, their long so I knew they were alive. By early spring, when the ground thawed I was able to pull two fragrant leeks to make with my salmon for Friday night during lent.  

A few tips about cooking with leeks:

Whether store bought or homegrown, remember to continuously clean the leeks of the bits of dirt that hide in between the layers.

The long, white “bulb” portion of the leek (called the “shank”) is used for cooking, along with the tender green portion of the bulb at the border with the white.  The long green leaves are normally discarded into the compost bin. Although, I did find an article from La Cucina Italiana that mentions boiling the tough green leaves and rolling each to make individual serving “rounds,” with a filling or to use them for soups or stews. Interesting ideas!

The “white part” of the leek is usually cut crosswise, is tender when cooked, and has a delicate, oniony flavor and  floral scent.  This portion of the leek alone can flavor an entire dish. So when I paired leeks with salmon for the Instagram post shared below, I did not use the usual Italian technique of a preliminary sauté in olive oil to soften them, and I did not include garlic in the dish. But the pasta in this dish is cooked and then added in the “typical” Italian way.

My salmon, leek, and cream with pasta dish is so simple to make. It takes only one large pan and I think the flavors meld beautifully. Check out how I did this on my Instagram video below and then try it yourself and see if you agree!

 

 

 

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Planting Seeds for Spinach

and Italian Greens

 

This year I wasted no time ordering seeds. As soon as the catalogues appeared in my mailbox in January, I sent out my order. The first item on my list was spinach, as it is one of my favorite leafy green vegetables. It is said that Catherine de Medici from Renaissance Florence loved spinach so much that when she was queen of France she asked it be served at every meal! Perhaps this is why dishes that feature spinach are called “Florentine.”

Spinach grows easily from seed in the cool spring of Chicago, and homegrown spinach has a fresh taste that the supermarket spinach lacks. I especially love young spinach leaves and it is wonderful to have them available right in my backyard for an afternoon lunch. This year I planted two varieties of spinach, both of which were advertised as being resistant to going to seed and dying out in the warm weather. Fingers crossed, because it typically turns from a cool spring into a hot summer very quickly in Chicagoland.

Other than spinach, I like to plant greens that are not commonly found in the grocery stores here in the US. My favorite company to order from is Seeds from Italy. They are an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers.  As a result, I was able to find two varieties of arugula, lamb’s lettuce, and several types of Italian leafy romaine that love cool weather but are also supposed to be resistant to going to seed when it turns warmer. 

Another of my favorite Italian greens that can be planted in the springtime is cavolo nero.  The name means “black cabbage,” but it is really a kale. This leafy green has become popular lately, but I’ve grown it in my garden for years. Cavolo nero grows easily from seed and will last all summer into the late fall. Cavolo nero is an attractive, tall leafy green and needs a lot of space, so I planted the seeds in their own row just outside the garden bed. 

Just north of the cavolo nero is my bed of Swiss chard. One valiant plant came up again on its own this year. I’ve planted more seeds in the perimeter of the old bed since Swiss chard needs cool weather to germinate. The package recommended soaking the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting for best germination. And in the center of this garden bed, I trying to grow some new vegetables from seed: broccoli rabe and romanesco broccoli from Seeds of Italy.  

Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been for over 10 years!

Of course, before planting this year, I added more soil to my garden beds and amended the soil with cow manure and some garden compost. In my experience, lettuce will grow well without any other additions to the soil. 

See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year.  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. The leeks are in the center of the southern raised garden bed. Otherwise, not much to look at right now, but I know from experience that it will not be long before the seedlings pop their heads out of the ground!

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.

 

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Last Year’s Overwintered Strawberry Plants


and Planting New Bare Root Strawberries

 

Last year’s strawberry plants have greened up again. At this point, with many of the leaves now green and functioning again, I’ve read it’s important to cover the plants with a old sheet if the temperature dips below freezing at night. I’ve sometimes followed this advice and sometimes not. Either way, my strawberry plants seem to survive. They do need fertilizer for berries early in the spring and then in mid spring (about 30-45 days later)  when they get ready to flower.

 

Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with green leaves. Two small plants showing new red stalks and green leaves, peeking out in the center are overwintered rhubarb.

I’ve also planted more strawberries in the periphery of my asparagus beds at the top of my hill. Strawberries love the dappled shade that asparagus provides and are a nice border plant. I’ve always found the two to grow well together.

This year I was able to get down to Peoria (where I lived for about 18 years and learned to garden) and bought bare root strawberries from Kelly’s Seed in Peoria, Illinois.  A family run business since 1905, Kelly’s seed only sells plants that will grow well in central Illinois. All of their staff today are knowledgeable about when and how to plant the seeds and root stock they sell, which is a huge added benefit. Plus is is always fun for me to share stories with them about my garden and they always listen and are helpful!

Check out your area for a  local gardening store instead of the big box stores. If you are lucky enough to have a garden store in your area, and can buy bare root strawberries, just click on the link I’ve found to a post that will walk you through each step for planting strawberries:  How to Plant Bare Root Strawberries.

Below are my morning’s adventure. Only 1 1/2 hours and 18 strawberry plants planted in each box! For that little work, hopefully I will be enjoying strawberries for years to come.

 

Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, demonstrating their long roots and a second image of the roots trimmed and ready to plant.
  Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, and trimmed and ready to plant on the the right. Roots were soaked about 4 hours.

       

Newly planted strawberry crowns peeking out of the soil
Strawberry crowns, newly planted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last Year’s Asparagus Plants

 

I planted asparagus crowns in the spring of last year,  and after they came up posted about how to get them ready for winter. 

Since it is now spring again, here are some tips about planting asparagus. First: check your location and see if asparagus will grow. Asparagus likes cool weather. The best way to plant asparagus is by buying “crowns” or the roots of the asparagus plant. I found an excellent post about how to plant asparagus that will take you through each step, with lots of pictures. The details about how to plant the crown are in the middle of the post. I would skip there as the home gardener would find it difficult to plant asparagus from seeds (as mentioned in the article).  I have only grown asparagus from crowns. How to Plant Asparagus.

Asparagus that has overwintered needs a covering of cow manure compost in the spring and fall and with this little care the plants should continue to produce asparagus each spring for about 10 years and even up to 25 years. Since I live in hardiness zone 5 (temperature falls to -20 degrees for part of the winter) I cannot cut my asparagus for the first three years or the plant will die. Extra root power is needed to survive the cold Illinois winters! So no posts on fresh asparagus will appear until the year after next! 

I plan on planting potatoes in the beds next to the strawberry patch along the west side of the house, and moving the tomatoes that were in these beds last year to the new beds when it gets warmer this spring. But for now, I have other plans for the new beds…

 

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This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant

 

And in my four new raised garden beds? I’ve planted peas! My family and I love fresh peas and this year I hope to have enough peas to enjoy all spring. A second planting in two to three weeks will help to prolong the season as long as it does not become hot too quickly.

Peas are also a good vegetable to start with in a new garden bed because they accumulate nitrogen gained from a symbiotic relationship between their roots and the bacteria in the soil. The bacteria are able to obtain nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the pea plant. After harvesting the peas, the remaining plants can then be turned into the soil to increase the nitrogen available to the next set of plants to be grown in the bed. Which in this case will be the Italian favorites — tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Here is an image of the raised beds. Nothing to look at for now. I just need to keep them watered and my fingers crossed they will germinate. A tip: Soak peas overnight in cold water and they will germinate more quickly.

 

Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas

 

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 My Grand Plan for 2021

Below is a map of my garden plan for this year. A map always helps me to plan what I need to do for each part of the spring and summer. You may notice the blackberries, raspberries and cherry trees… hopefully we will have fruit from these new plants in a few years also!

 

Italian garden plan for Spring 2021
IItalian gardening plan for Spring 2021
 

 

 

Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this spring.
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!

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes ) – Zucchini Flowers, New Potatoes, and Tomatoes

The author in her kitchen holding a bowl of fried zucchini flowers ad fried zucchini rounds

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

Ciao a tutti! Now that it is early August I am happy to report I am starting to harvest my favorite Italian vegetables: zucchini with their flowers and tomatoes. And I’ve harvested the last of my “new potatoes” and used them to make an easy Monday night dinner.

Some of you may have already seen the Instagram posts  of my garden and the dishes I’ve been making with my fresh lettuce and vegetables.  I will post the links and include the recipes after the update on how each section of my garden is growing.

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens, and all the wonderful Italian vegetables we can grow, 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.

Below are my insights on growing and harvesting lettuce, zucchini and their flowers and “new potatoes,” along with recipe ideas.  And an update on growing tomatoes is here also, with recipes soon to follow!  

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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Planting a Lettuce Patch…

and Harvesting – Part 3!

When I last wrote, on June 21, 2020, my blog “Four Salads for Summer Days” focused on the lettuce patch that I had started from seed this spring.  Just a quick update on the lettuce before we proceed with my report on the new vegetables…

Now that the hot days of summer are upon us, the lettuce has “bolted” or “gone to seed.” This means that a long stem grows up from the center of the lettuce — very quickly, I might add, usually in a couple of days — and if not cut down will continue to form flowers, after which point the plant dies.

This year,  I planted my lettuce in the raised bed that gets sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon, which I believe helped lengthen the life of the plants.  Also, I discovered that if I cut the center stem from the lettuce near its base, but leave the plant in the ground, the plant’s core will re-grow and provide new lettuce leaves to harvest!  So, I have been enjoying lettuce well into the writing of this blog, early August, despite 90+ degree temperatures.  Romaine lettuce is said to be more “heat tolerant” than other varieties, and this is what has survived, along with two varieties of red leaf lettuce.

Below are photos from the lettuce patch in late July.

Romaine lettuce going to seed
Romaine lettuce with central stalk going to seed.

Regrowing curly leaf lettuce
Curly leaf lettuce is regrowing alongside the Romaine lettuce going to seed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Center stalks cut off lettuce going to seed
Lettuce going to seed, some with center stalks cut off

I even had enough Romaine lettuce to make a special July 4th Salad with watermelon, feta cheese, and balsamic vinegar.

 

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Harvesting Zucchini Flowers

Last May, in my blog “Zucchini, Tomatoes, Strawberries and More!” I reported on how to plant zucchini seeds in mounds for successful fertilization to maximize a zucchini crop.  I planted three types of Italian zucchini seeds in three separate mounds.  I reserved the third mound in the back for the cucuzza plant, a very long gourd that matures in the summer and is eaten like a zucchini. I’ve already written about cucuzza in last year’s blog: Oregano and Zucchini.

Actually, I planted too many zucchini seeds in each mound this year, because I wanted to be sure to have enough zucchini flowers to harvest for my post on fried zucchini flowers!  Check out the images below to see how they have grown in the short time from mid June to early July.

Three mounds of soil with young zucchini plants growning
Zucchini mounds June 10, with cucuzza in the back on the right

Larger zucchini plants
Zucchini mounds end of June 22. Notice the cucuzza, back right, take a longer time to germinate and grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The three zucchini mounds are no longer visible, covered in zucchini plants that are flowering
Zucchini plants flowering on July 3

 

So, by July 3 I had zucchini flowers on the plant in the front mound, which was planted with seeds from Italy called “le bizzarre zucchino,”  said to be prized for the flower more than the zucchini.  I waited a few more weeks to allow some to be pollinated and start to make zucchinis.  By that time, my other zucchini plant had also started to flower. Then I clipped a good number of zucchini flowers to make fried, stuffed flowers.

 

large yellow zucchini flower open and two more closed
“Le bizzarre” Zucchino flowers end of July

Clip zucchini flowers when they are closed (usually early morning and late afternoon/evening). Take a bit of the stem along with the flower to make it easier to work with them. Ants and bees sometimes get trapped if they are caught sipping nectar when the flowers close in the latter part of the day, so be careful! My favorite are the flowers that have a small zucchini growing off the base of the flower. They are easy to hold and provide two treats! Check out my method below. These are delicious with any one of three different types of stuffing, or none at all.

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Fried Zucchini Flower Appetizers

The author in her kitchen holding a bowl of fried zucchini flowers ad fried zucchini rounds
Fried zucchini flowers and Fried Zucchini

Ingredients: 

For the stuffing:   

1/4 cup breadcrumbs,  1-2 anchovy fillets, fresh, finely chopped parsley
-or-
mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes, anchovy fillets
-or-
mozzarella cheese cut into small cubes

For the batter:
1 cup of  cold water
3/4 cup of flower + 1/4 cup more as needed

Method: 

  1. First, prepare a simple batter of water and flour.  This is called “la pastella” in Italian, and is used to obtain a thin, crisp crust for frying vegetables. The secret to the best crust is to let the batter sit for 1 hour so the gluten in the flour has time to “relax,” although this is not absolutely necessary.
  2. I like to get started with 1 cup of cold water and 3/4 cups of flower.  I sift the flower into the water gradually while whisking gently to combine. The final batter should not be too thin or too thick, something like pancake batter.  If the batter is too thin, I gradually add more flour, but no more than an additional 1/4 cup.  Let the batter rest 1 hour while preparing the zucchini, and during this time it will thicken a bit as well.

bowl with flour in a sifter above water, ready to be mixed into the water
Making a simple flour and water batter (la pastella)

 

 

  1. Next, prepare the zucchini flower stuffing if desired.  The flowers can also be fried without stuffing, and I usually don’t attempt to stuff the smaller flowers.  A favorite stuffing is 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs with an anchovy and some chopped parsley, fried briefly in olive oil until lightly brown.  Mozzarella cubes are also delicious when stuffed into a zucchini flower and melt during frying, with or without a small bit of anchovy fillet.

  2. Finally, prepare, stuff and fry the zucchini flowers.  Gently rinse each flower and trim off the greenery at the base.  Gently open each flower and reach inside to remove the stamen (the long, powdery protrusion with yellow pollen) to allow more room for the stuffing. Also, the stamen can be bitter with some varieties of zucchini.  Add a bit of stuffing and then twist gently to close the tip of the flower.

 

tray of zucchini flowers lined up waiting to be stuffed. One flower is being opened just before stuffing is put in.
Stuffing zucchini  flowers with mozzarella, anchovies, or breadcrumb mixture

 

 

  1. Fry the zucchini flowers in a large pan of oil over medium high heat.  Adjust the heat as you are frying so that the flowers sizzle as they cook but do not allow the oil to become too hot and burn the batter.  Turn once or twice so all sides fry evenly. Generally, when the batter takes on a light golden color it is cooked.  If the mozzarella melts it may start to seep out of the flower, and this is also a sign to remove the flower from the oil.

  2. Remove each fried zucchini flower with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with a paper towel.  After the oil has drained a bit, and while still hot, remove to another plate and sprinkle with salt.

  3. If you do have some zucchinis available to fry, you can cut them in mounds or strips and fry these in the same batter, in the same way, drain, and salt.

8.  Serve hot and enjoy as the perfect summer appetizer before an Italian meal!

 

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Angel Hair Pasta with Fried Zucchini

This is a favorite family zucchini dish my mother recently remembered from her childhood.  So simple to make, with just zucchini, olive oil and garlic, and so delicious! It is a great way to use some of the many zucchini that should follow the zucchini flowers.  Watch this method in real time by clicking the link from my Instagram account:

 

Ingredients: 

2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1-2 zucchini, sliced cross-wise
olive oil for frying
1 lb. thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method: 

  1. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil  for the thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta.
  2. Cover the bottom of a large frying pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat.
  3. Add the garlic to the olive oil and let cook a couple of minutes to flavor the olive oil, but don’t let brown.
  4. Add the zucchini to the olive oil a little at a time, so as not to crowd the pan, and fry over medium to medium-high heat, turning once or twice. At first it will seem like the zucchini are not cooking much, but they will then start to lose water, shrink, and finally turn a light brown. Remove with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl.
  5. Remove the garlic when it turns brown and continue to fry zucchini.
  6. When almost all the zucchini has been fried, cook the pasta.
  7. Add the cooked pasta to the bowl with the fried zucchini.  Add a bit of the oil from the frying pan and mix to coat.
  8. Add freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste, and mix again. Enjoy!

 

 

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Pulling New Potatoes

This  past spring, I found several potatoes in the back of my cupboard that had started to grow eyes, so I tried something new.  I cut up the potatoes so each piece had an eye and buried  the pieces in large pots outdoors, with the eyes facing upward.  I was hoping to grow some “new potatoes,”  which are simply potatoes that are pulled to eat before they flower and become mature in the fall.  They are, of course, smaller than the  mature potatoes but have an exceptionally good flavor. 

I have to say, the potatoes grew nicely in the pots through the spring and even into the early summer without any help at all from me.  Below is the Instagram video I created when I pulled the last of the “new potatoes” for a Monday night pork chop dinner.  If you look closely you can still see the chunk of “old potato” that I started with. 

They were so delicious that night for dinner that next year I plan to plant many more to have a continual harvest through the springtime.

 

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Monday Night Pork Chops with New Potatoes

and Radish Greens

Below is an Instagram link to a simple dinner I made in two frying pans.  Pork chops in olive oil with garlic and rosemary (my favorite way to make them) in one pan and radish greens in olive oil and garlic for the second pan. The bitter radish greens went beautifully with the pork chops. The new potatoes were so flavorful all they needed was a quick boil in water. 

 

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And, Finally,  Growing and Harvesting Tomatoes!

I think every Italian gardener cherishes the appearance of the first ripening tomato more than any other vegetable they are growing.  I was very careful this year to follow proper procedures while planting my tomatoes, especially the San Marzano tomatoes I had grown from seed.  Please see my previous blogs for more information about growing tomatoes from seed and the best conditions to plant tomatoes. 

Once planted, it is a good idea to steak tomato plants, making sure to tie the main stem loosely as it grows. For cherry tomato plants I use a tomato cage, as they tend to have more greenery, but this year I also put a steak in the middle of the cage as the plants became larger in an attempt to tie up the branches and lift them off the ground.

As the tomato plants grew, I followed protocol and pinched off the side shoots, or “suckers” that grow between the main stem and the main branches on many types of tomato plants. ( This included all I had planted this year except the cherry tomato plants.) Pinching off side shoots should allow my plants to direct their energy into producing more tomatoes.  In previous years, I was always concerned that I would mistakenly pinch back a flowering branch, so I created this video to show how to find those “useless” side shoots that create greenery instead of tomatoes.

Tomatoes need full sun and lots of water to thrive — but not too much water! I planted a variety of different tomatoes I had bought from the nursery in a raised garden, and my San Marzano tomatoes in a raised garden and in pots.  All did well, and I was careful to water on the many July days we’ve had this summer that were 90+ degrees.  But just as my nursery tomatoes started to ripen, down came heavy rain.  For several days on end. The very first tomatoes had a split in the skin, an unavoidable problem, but they were delicious just the same.  Below are some images of my early ripened tomatoes.

For my next post in August, I will be focusing on “one pan pasta” dishes with the tomato as the star of the dish.

For now, use your fresh tomatoes to make a wonderful cold caprese salad or a hot tomato and zucchini side dish from recipes I posted last year.  But above all, enjoy your summer and your garden!

Large bowl of sliced tomatoes layered with slices of mozzarella and basil leaves
Tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella or “Caprese” salad

 

For more (many more!) ideas about how to use those fresh vegetables this summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

 

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes ) – Four Salads for Summer Days

Mixed green lettuce salad with chive flowers and radishes set out on a plant with brie cheese in the center.

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

Ciao a tutti! It’s been almost one month since my last gardening blog, and over these last weeks I’ve been thinning out my lettuce patch and enjoying delicious, fresh salads almost every day of the week.

Some of you may have already seen the Instagram posts of my “Insalata del giorno” / “Salade du jour,” or “Salad of the day.” Today I’m going to collect all of the salad ideas I’ve been sharing on Instagram, and a couple more, to share with you in this blog.

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blog, from May 26, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens.  In this blog we’ll check in on the lettuce patch I planted in early spring and see how it has been doing after the few episodic heat waves we’ve had here in Chicagoland.

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.

Below are my insights on growing lettuce, along with some salad recipe ideas.  Please leave a comment if you want and let me know what your favorite salad combination is!

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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Planting a Lettuce Patch…

and Harvesting – Part 2!

When I last wrote, on May 26, 2020, I already had small radishes to harvest and also a variety of baby lettuces growing closely together in rows. I started the lettuce this past spring by seeding rows directly outdoors, and chose my raised garden that is in shade for part of the day so the lettuce would have some relief from the afternoon soon as the days got hotter. Lettuce loves the cool weather and did well this year with the temperature and amount of rain (lots) here in my part of Illinois.

I’ve continued to thin out the lettuce rows by harvesting a few early lettuce greens each day,  and the space left has quickly filled in as the remaining lettuces have grown. The bonus I get from this method of direct seeding and gradual thinning is fresh baby lettuce for my salads at lunchtime!

All varieties of lettuce have continued to do well.  Romaine lettuce is one of the most heat tolerant types, and  a few of my larger heads of romaine lettuce have been maturing nicely and are now forming the “core” or “heart” in the center.

Below are photos of the lettuce patch in late May and in mid-June.

Different types of young lettuce greens growing in a row with their identifying packet in the background
Mixed lettuce greens May 2020

Two rows of mixed lettuce greens that have grown since May 2020,
Mixed lettuce greens June                                                                            2020

Mixed lettuce greens and Romaine lettuce
Rows background to foreground: radishes, Romaine lettuce, mixed lettuce greens

My radishes have already started to go to seed, though.  In the background of the last photo you can see that long stalks have formed on my radish greens and there are far fewer leaves growing off the plant than usual. When I started to notice this happen, I quickly harvested my other two rows of radishes (not shown here), and was able to save the leafy greens. They are bitter but very good sauteed in garlic and olive oil, as I mentioned in my last blog. I’ve stored the radishes with their greens intact in my refrigerator for now, where they should keep for several weeks.. I plan to keep this last row in the photograph in the ground for now.

In the place of my radish rows, I’ve planted shallots and a few red onions, which are handy to have for cooking and can be kept in the ground through the heat of summer into the late fall.

Unfortunately, my rows of arugula also quickly went to seed when we had a short heat wave. Arugula (also called roquette) is technically an herb of the mustard family, with leaves that resemble lettuce. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to toss these pungent, peppery leaves into my salad. But this year, it was not meant to be for very long! Check out the long stalks with white flowers in the photo below. I will let it seed the garden this year, as I’ve had a second growth of arugula in the past with this method when the cooler weather takes over again.

Arugula plants growing in a row with long stalks tipped with white flowers after it has gone to seed
Arugula gone to seed, with long stalks and white flowers

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Four Salads for Summer Days

It’s salad time with chive flowers!

In last month’s gardening blog, I shared a photo of my salad of mixed baby greens, chive flowers and radishes.  Below is the Instagram link that I later published, which lists all the ingredients and basic method for making a salad.

For this salad of early greens, I used what I had at the time in my garden: mixed greens, chives flowers for an onion flavor, and radishes.  By the way, all parts of the chive plant are edible, including the flower, which makes a colorful addition to salads. I always discard the stalk the flower is growing on, though, as it is too hard to eat.

Adding a bit of cheese to salad is something I learned long ago on a trip to France, and I couldn’t resist adding some fresh brie I had on hand on top of the salad greens. Off camera, both were delicious with a bit of crusty bread!

Since my first salad of the year, I’ve enjoyed creating many more salads. It has been fun for me to make a sort of  salade composée  (a salad in which the ingredients are arranged on an individual plate rather than being tossed in one big bowl) for Instagram photos, like the one above. But, of course. the flavor of the salad is what really counts.

So, how does one go about creating a flavorful salad?  I like to follow a few rules.  

Some of these rules may seem obvious, but I always like to start from the beginning when approaching any topic.

  • For me, the first rule, which should be evident from my past two blogs, is to always start with fresh greens.

Having my own small lettuce patch has made such a big difference in the quality of my salads. The freshest greens are just beyond my kitchen door, growing steadily until the instant I pluck them for my salad, instead of slowly wilting in my refrigerator “crisper” drawer. Also, I make salads more often as it is now much easier since  the major ingredient is readily available.

To prepare salad greens: rinse salad greens thoroughly in cold water, as dirt tends to stick in between the leaves.  Then spin all the water particles off with a salad spinner. This will allow the salad oil to cling to the leaves, rather than run off into a pool of water at the bottom of the plate or bowl. If not using the salad right away, refrigerate to keep the leaves crisp and cool and compose the salad just before serving.

  • The second rule I follow is to always choose a good quality oil, and this is most often extra-virgin olive oil.  (As a corollary to this, I never eat twice at a restaurant that will serve me a salad made with flavorless cooking oil.) I also keep walnut oil on hand for when I make a salad with walnuts, but this is a very delicate oil that is expensive and will loose flavor quickly once open, so it is not nearly as useful as extra-virgin olive oil.  

Extra-virgin olive oils come from many different regions of Italy, and have many different flavors and intensities. That said, of course, always choose your favorite olive oil when making a salad, since the flavor of the oil will definitely come through in a salad with fresh greens.

A word of caution when choosing extra-virgin olive oil: always read the ingredients on the label, as not all extra-virgin olive oils are first press or cold press (which bring out the most flavor) and many companies will combine Italian olive oil with olive oils from one or even several other countries.  True extra-virgin olive oil is not a blended oil.

Also, try to avoid buying older olive oils that are “on sale” because  this usually means that they have been on the shelf for longer then they should be —  maybe 6 months… or even 1 year or more! Unlike wine, olive oil looses flavor with exposure to air and so the freshest olive oil is the best tasting olive oil. It is likely that much of the original flavor of the olive oil put on “special sale” will have been lost at the time of  this special promotion, especially if the oil is in a bottle that does not have a covering or dark glass to protect it from the light.

  • The third key ingredient is the vinegar, and I choose my vinegar based on the style of salad I am making.

For Italian salads, a simple drizzle of red wine vinegar along with the extra virgin olive oil  and a quick mix to coat the leaves will usually suffice. Balsamic vinegar has become very popular in America, but is less common in green salads than red wine vinegar in Italy, and is usually reserved for the appetizer “prosciutto e melone” or a special dessert.

American “Italian dressing” in the bottle with a strong garlic flavor and an assortment of pungent herbs is not found in Italy. And only fresh salad greens are served in Italy (at least at the restaurants I’ve eaten at), so the lettuce leaves are not drowned in a lot of dressing, would hide their delicate flavor and make the lettuce leaf limp.

I love a good French vinaigrette, which is simply a more formal ratio of vinegar to olive oil with the addition of salt, pepper, and if desired fresh herbs and a touch of mustard.  My favorite ratio of vinegar to oil is 1 Tb. vinegar for each 6 Tb/ olive oil.  If you like less vinegar, use 1/2 Tb. (1 1/2 tsps).  If you like more, use 2 Tb. vinegar.

What about that orange “French Dressing” sold in supermarkets? I have yet to find a French cook who promotes this type of dressing as French!

  • Finally, I like to add interest to my  fresh green salad with ingredients that add flavor, texture and a bit of crunchiness.

Over the years, I learned the value of adding a bit of cheese to a salad to add flavor, and I especially like the Gorgonzola or goat cheese-baby spinach combination. Any cheese eaten with or along side a fresh green salad with a bit of bread, is wonderful in my opinion!

Nuts are commonly added to salads now-a-days, such as walnuts or almonds, for crunch and flavor. I love homemade croutons as well (see below for a 2 step “how to make garlic croutons” below).

It is fun to add spring fruit such as strawberries, and later raspberries, to salad as well; after a long winter without either fruit or fresh salad greens, it just seems right to put them together in one dish! Also, I love a cool watermelon and feta salad in the late summer, but that is for another blog…

Many brightly colored raw vegetables add both flavor and interest as well as a bit of crunch to a salad.  I love carrots, peppers, radishes and celery. Red onions, or a more mild onion flavor such as that found in chives and chive flowers or scallions (green onions) add an expected salad flavor,  and onions also add color and texture.

And, of course, tomatoes are an important component in salads when they are in season and vine-ripened. Cherry tomatoes in particular are the perfect size for a mixed salad. The salads mentioned below do not include tomatoes, as they were not in season at the time of this writing.

See my blogs from last year for salad recipes that feature tomatoes, such as Caprese salad and Panzanella Salad.

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Insalata Mista

Almost every restaurant in Italy that serves dinner will have an “insalata mista” listed on the menu. The name literally means “mixed salad,” and it signifies that the chef will include the fresh ingredients of the day, “mixed” gently and served simply.

For my “insalata mista” pictured below, I choose baby romaine lettuce from my garden, with a few of my mixed lettuce greens for color, along with carrots, red peppers and radishes.  Red onions would also have been a good addition.

I couldn’t resist making some large garlic croutons  for the side by cutting up crusty Italian bread into large rectangles and drizzling on a mixture of  extra-virgin olive oil and crushed garlic. I cooked them at 350° until lightly brown, but not too long, or the tiny garlic pieces will burn. Remember to turn them once while they are in the oven so each side can brown. In Italy, slices of bread are often brushed with olive oil and rubbed with a fresh clove of  garlic to be served as is or as the base of a bruschetta (pronounced broo-sket-ta).

plate of salad with mixed greens and small pieces of carrots, radishes and red peppers in the center, and large garlic croutons in the periphery
Insalata mista with garlic croutons

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Mixed Green Salad

with Gorgonzola Cheese

and Raspberries

Pictured below are mixed greens with gorgonzola cheese sprinkled throughout, crushed bits of walnut, and raspberries. Salad greens are tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar.  Balsamic vinegar is drizzled on raspberries. A salad with Italian ingredients and a bit of a French flair since the walnuts and raspberries are included.  Here is a chance to use your walnut oil before it becomes stale!

Mixed salad greens with gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and raspberries
Mixed salad greens with gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and raspberries

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Spinach Salad with

Goat Cheese

and Strawberries

There are many versions of spinach salad, some of which use strawberries, probably because both ingredients are available at about the same time late spring, as I mentioned above. And they taste delicious together. I love this combination.

The pungent flavor of goat cheese is (in my mind) also connected with springtime, and I enjoy the combination of spinach and goat cheese.

I added red onion for contrasting flavor and for a bit of crunch I added almonds to the spinach salad below.

Instead of a sugary, strawberry-flavored dressing often found with this type of salad, I used extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of aged balsamic vinegar, which goes well with fruit and holds up nicely with the fairly strong flavor of spinach.  The Instagram post is below:

For more (many more!) salad ideas this spring and summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

Buon appetito!