SARONNO, Italy - Agretti, also called barba di frate, is a spring vegetable I didn't know existed until I moved to Saronno. They are slightly odd looking, a little like dark green sea grass with pink roots. Agretti never struck me as being particularly appetizing but after passing them up for the past couple of years, my curiosity got the best of me. After all they are green, I’m in Italy, and one of the things the Italians do best is cook green things.
Asparagus, peas, fava and agretti - It's Springtime in Italy
Then I drained them and put them in a sauté pan with a little rosemary oil, a couple of medium size cloves of garlic, and for good measure I threw in a small chili pepper. A little salt, a grind or two of pepper and then - the moment of truth. I don't know what I expected but they were sweet, tender, flavorful and delicious. It was such a relief after my disastrous experience with zuccotto last week.
Trolling the internet for more information and other recipes using agretti I learned that they grow throughout the Mediterranean and in North Africa. They used to be grown in northern Italy, up near Venice, but now the bulk of the crop is produced in Spain, where they are called barrilla, and Sicily. Like a lot of Italian food they are sold under different names in different parts of Italy. Even here in Saronno they are sold as barba di frate, barba di cappuccino and agretti, depending on who is selling them. In other part of the country they are called barba del negus, bacicci, soda, ruscano, riscolo, lischi, finocchi di mare and they are also sold by the name of the town or area where they grow.
It was surprising how many recipes I found for this vegetable. Apparently it is a popular dish in England too, but there they cook the greens in butter rather than olive oil and most of the recipes called for the addition of chopped onion. I wanted to try the English version too, so for dinner I made a frittata with the agretti I had left over from lunch. What I found was that the butter changed the delicate flavor of the greens and actually overpowered them, which in my experience is totally against every written and unwritten rule of Italian cooking.
Agretti with Ravioli
In all fairness to the Brits, even some of the Italian recipes seemed a bit heavy handed. One of the Italian recipes called for sautéing them like I did in olive oil and garlic, but with an anchovy and no chili pepper. Another recipe for agretti with trenette added cubes of boiled ham and a scallion to the sautéed greens, and another suggested chopped pancetta instead of boiled ham. There were also recipes for agretti with tofu, agretti with meatballs, agretti quiche, agretti with ricotta, with goat’s cheese, with octopus and with sea urchins. I’m sure all the recipes are good, but I think I'll just stick to simple agretti with olive oil and garlic, at least for now.
Agretti in the MarketI don't know if this vegetable is sold outside of Europe, but if you ever see it in your local market pick it up and give it a try. If you like greens, I'm sure you’ll like it. Buon Appetito!