Thursday, October 20, 2011

Turnip tops and veggies!

My sister’s in town. When she visits it’s always a trying time for me…because she’s a veggie. She turned green about 15 years ago, after a bet.

It’s a trying time because I live in a land where vegetarians are a rare breed and often misunderstood! A few years back when I was organizing my son’s christening party I specifically told the restaurant that there would be one vegetarian in the party. ‘No problem’, they said. ‘We’ll do a torta salata (a quiche) with the antipasto, mixed grilled vegetables and fish for her main and, of course, there’s the classic anolini (ravioli) with a cheese stuffing for the pasta’. All sorted, or so I thought.

On the day, however, the menu wasn’t quite as green as she would have liked. The torta salata was studded with pieces of ham. ‘But it’s only a little ham’, the waitress pointed out ‘to give the quiche some flavour’. She actually suggested my sister pick it out! And as for the pasta, the fact that it was swimming in chicken broth didn’t appear to phase our host either – ‘that’s how we serve them’, she pointed out. Even the grissini sticks were fried in lard! 

This is why, no doubt, my little sister likes to spend most of her time down south, in Puglia in particular. “The garden of Italy”, as it is known, owes its green reputation to fertile soils, hot summers and mild winters. A region that is segregated from the rest of the country by natural land boundaries, the Pugliese have developed their own distinct culinary culture, one that shares as much in common with Greece as it does with its regional neighbours.

For vegetarians, Puglia is a ‘garden of Eden’. Broad beans, pulses, artichokes, olives, tomatoes, aubergines, turnip tops, various kinds of chicory, wild and cultivated herbs are just a few of the local highlights. And they all work perfectly with the local varieties of pasta of which the most famous is orecchiette – literally, little ears. If you prefer ‘big ears’ you could always ask for pociacche or for little, little ears ask for chiancarelle. In fact, whatever variant of the local dialect you use to ask for your plate of orecchiette (and there are many), the one dish that best symbolizes the region’s cuisine is, of course, orecchiette con le cime di rapa – orecchiette with turnip tops. It’s one of those ritual dishes that I make every year to celebrate the arrival of turnip tops. Traditionally a couple of anchovies are added to the sauce along with the garlic but personally I prefer to leave them out.  

Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops
Orecchiette con le cime di rapa

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

1kg turnip tops
300g orecchiette pasta
1 or 2 fresh red chili peppers
4-5 sun dried tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper

Wash the turnip tops.  Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the turnip tops.  Boil for 5-6 minutes until tender.  Drain the turnip tops, but retain the cooking water.  Bring the cooking water back to the boil and add the orecchiette pasta.  Boil the orecchiette for 10-12 minutes until al dente (check packet for exact cooking times).  In the meantime, place 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan and add the garlic cloves which have been finely sliced.  Cook the garlic for a few minutes.  Roughly chop the turnip tops and add these to the pan along with the chopped sun dried tomatoes and chili.  Fry over a gentle heat until the pasta is cooked.  When the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the pan with the turnip tops.  Stir everything together well and taste for seasoning.  Serve immediately with a good sprinkling of aged pecorino cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

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