Roman Spring Vegetable Casserole with Artichokes, Peas, Fava Beans, and Romaine Lettuce

La Vignarola

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.

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Ingredients

  • ½ lemon
  • 4 to 5 medium globe artichokes
  • 2 pounds fresh, young peas in their pods, about 2 cups shelled
  • 2 pounds fresh, young fava beans in their pods, about 2 cups shelled
  • 1 large head of romaine lettuce
  • 2 to 3 fresh spring onions, about 2 to 2½ inches across (see headnote) or 2 cups very thinly sliced medium white onions
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt

Method

  1. Squeeze the juice of ½ lemon into a bowl of cold water.
  2. Prepare the artichokes, trimming away all the tough, inedible portions. Cut the trimmed artichokes lengthwise into wedges about ½ inch thick. Drop the wedges into the bowl containing the water and lemon juice.
  3. If any shelled fava bean is more than 1 inch in length, cut away the thick green skin that sheaths it.
  4. Detach the leaves from the lettuce head, discarding any bruised, wilted, or discolored ones. Soak the leaves in two or three changes of water, drain, and shred them fine. You should have approximately 4 cups, but a bit more or less won’t matter too much.
  5. If using fresh spring onions, cut off all the green tops and the root ends, then slice them very thin.
  6. Choose a saucepan that can subsequently accommodate all the ingredients. Put in the sliced onions, the olive oil, and a large pinch of salt, and turn on the heat to low. Cook the onions, turning them over from time to time, until they have become completely wilted.
  7. Drain the artichokes, rinse them in cold water, and put them in the pot, together with the shelled peas, fava beans, and shredded romaine lettuce. Sprinkle liberally with salt and turn over all ingredients several times to coat them well.
  8. Put a lid on the pot and cook, always at low heat, turning the contents of the pot over from time to time, until the artichokes, peas, and beans are tender. It may take up to 2 hours, depending on the freshness and youth of the vegetables. Add cup water whenever the cooking juices appear to be insufficient to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pot. You should need no more than 2 cups of water all together.
  9. Taste and correct for salt, and serve warm, but not piping hot, from a shallow bowl or deep platter.

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