Any moderately adept, reasonably patient, and attentive cook can follow directions and achieve complexity by complex means. The very greatest cooking, however, attains complexity through the most transparently simple means. Vignarola, a Roman dish in which the flavors of several spring vegetables are mingled and magically transmuted, and a startlingly similar Sicilian preparation, frittedda, are, to my mind, products of the very greatest cooking.
The recipe for vignarola could be summed up in a single sentence: Sliced onion is cooked in olive oil until quite soft, then the trimmed and shelled vegetables are put in and cooked slowly in that oil until they are tender. By the standards pf our glossy food magazines, the result does not look very impressive; it is a rather murky dish in which all the vegetable shapes have become jumbled. But the taste, ah, the taste! There is nothing jumbled about that. It is the clear taste of sweet spring itself.
It’s hard not to get carried away, particularly if the dish is on the table before you. I don’t remember ever having had enough of it, ever having felt replete no matter how much of it I have managed to eat. Unhappily, it doesn’t work with just any vegetables; there is no room for accommodation. Every vegetable has to be young and uncompromisingly fresh. You really have to pare down those artichokes because the slightest tough fragment of a leaf will undo the magic. In Rome they use the young onions that come to the market in spring. These have green shoots and look like scallions except that their bulbs are much larger than those of scallions. If you cannot get them, use small white onions or other sweet onions.
If you can get yourself to Rome in the spring, forget the Michelangelos, pass up the fountain with the coins, don’t ask the way to the Colosseum. Ask the way to a simple Roman trattoria where they make vignarola.
© 1997 Marcella Hazan estate. All rights reserved.