COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

ITALIAN GREENS

When a friend came to visit us in Rome recently, she told me she was looking forward to eating a plate of spinach at every meal. That's not what most people say. Pasta or pizza, perhaps. But spinach? Actually, she didn't need to tell me what I already knew: Spinach is so much better in Italy that the greens alone are worth the trip.

Kale, chard, broccoli rabe (called broccoletti here), spinach, escarole, Savoy cabbage, and chicory -- all green leafy vegetables -- are an essential component of Italian cooking. They figure prominently in the main meal of the day as contorni, side dishes, but also as an indispensable ingredient in dozens, if not hundreds, of other preparations. So it's not surprising that the markets here are piled high with baskets filled with all varieties of leafy greens, even in the winter months. And because Rome's climate is relatively mild, most of what's available is grown nearby, making the greens we get intensely fresh and flavorful.

Some of what's green here is unusual to the foreign forager. Agretti (pronounced ah-GRAY-tee) has a sharp bitter flavor, and in the market looks curiously like bunches of freshly cut grass. Erba mista della campagna, a mix of wild greens, appears to the uneducated eye like all the weeds one tries to remove from a well-tended garden.

Curiosities included, green vegetables are a treat to enjoy in Rome, and part of that is the way Italian cooks prepare them. Restaurant chefs and mamas at home all know that when it comes to cooking leafy greens, a simple two-step approach is all that's necessary.

First boil the greens to eliminate the metallic, unsavory flavor that comes from the high mineral content. Then give the greens a gentle squeeze to remove excess water before serving them, or cooking them further. This approach unfailingly produces deliciously tender vegetables, while preserving the fresh garden taste. The greens can be served this way, at room temperature, garnished only with olive oil, salt, and a wedge of lemon.


Greens, the Italian Way

Serves 4

2 bunches kale, chard, broccoli rabe, chicory, or spinach

Salt, to taste

1/3 cup olive oil, or more to taste

1 lemon, quartered lengthwise

1. Stem or trim the greens. Place them in a large bowl with plenty of cold water (or do this in your sink). This soaking will sufficiently clean the leaves.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drain the greens from the soaking water and transfer them to the boiling water. Boil for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse under cold water, and let cool.

3. When the greens are cool enough to handle, take small fistfuls and with both hands, firmly squeeze them to remove excess water.

4. Transfer the greens to a serving bowl, sprinkle with salt to taste, add the olive oil a few spoonfuls at a time, mixing well, until the greens are lightly moistened with oil. Serve with wedges of lemon.