What you see above is irvuzu, a Sardinian dish of blanched and sauteed wild green things, typically cooked with pancetta. But it is not a rendition of irvuzu recognizable by any real Sardinian.
I’ve been messing around with wild greens lately — and when I say “wild greens” I mean wild green things that are better cooked than raw in a salad. I’m talking about dandelions, wild chicories, wild fennel (if you’re lucky enough to find it), mallow, filaree, and, later in spring, orach and lamb’s quarters.
In NorCal, February and March are the best months to cook these greens: They have grown through our mild winters, and have not had to callous themselves against our blistering summers yet; doing this makes them bitter and sullen. You can collect again in late autumn, but the greens will not be quite so innocent and tender.
Growing up in New Jersey, some of the zias and nonnas in the Italian families I knew gathered wild greens in spring for stews and savory pies. I dimly remember eating them once or twice, but no strong memory remains — save that they cooked the hell out of the greens.
Flash forward to a few years ago, when Holly and I went to Mario Batali’s fish restaurant Esca. I ordered broccoli raab as a side dish. When it came, it too had all the beauty cooked out of it; emerald was now olive. I asked them what the hell happened, and the waiter said, “This is how they cook it in Italy. You must be from California.” Uh, yeah, I was, but are we the only people who like our greens greenand not olive drab? He was right of course, the Italians really do tend to like their greens annihilated, but sheesh.
So it was with great trepidation that I decided the other day to actually follow a recipe for a wild greens stew from one of the few cookbooks on Puglia in English, Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia: A Culinary Memoir.
Called callaredda, the stew is constructed in what is for me an odd way: You roughly chop wild chicory (dandelions and their cousins), wild fennel (or domestic), and then top it with a layer of roughly chunked mutton (I used venison), drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and repeat until you get to the top of the pot. You then fill the pot with water and simmer gently until the meat is tender. You serve it with bread and pecorino.
I expected a workman-like stew, nothing nearly so special as the fancy French hunter’s stew I made the same weekend. After all, the recipe called for no spices, no herbs, no stock, you cooked the snot out of the greens — and you did not brown the meat beforehand. I inhaled. Smelled pretty good, actually. Then I ate a big spoonful.
First thing I noticed was that the meat was pink. How? Because it came up to temperature slowly from first being immersed in cool water, then was never allowed to go past a simmer. Meat cooked this slowly will develop a special pinkness; you see it a lot in real barbecue.
I then noticed that the greens still had a ton of flavor, despite being olive drab. They were not vibrant, but they were comforting. And what the greens lost in pizazz, I found again in the broth – rather than it being thin from using water and not stock, the broth tasted somehow cleaner. More greens, less of that vague richness I expect with stock.
What was going on here? I felt like my vaunted stew-making abilities (something I consider a strong point of my cooking skills) had been thrown into question. All my instincts said “add stock, brown the meat, throw some herbs in, and for God’s sake don’t put those greens in until the very end.”
After I finished the bowl and thought about it, I reckon that those instincts are still sound: But following them would have produced a very different stew — and it would have blinded me to the simple beauty of this Puglian dish, which has basically a half-dozen ingredients. Had I not decided to follow Ferrante’s recipe, I would have made a good stew, yes, but it would neither have been authentic nor very much different from the many stews I normally make.
Here is my recipe for callaredda.
But what about this irvuzu thing I showed you above? Well, the latest issue of Art Culinaire arrived in the mail, and if you don’t know this magazine, it is widely read among the white linen set. Many chefs read Art Culinaire and adapt their cooking to what they see — it’s a way for innovation to spread. I am no different. So inspired, when I decided to make what is really a very simple plate of wild greens, I knew I had to get fancy.
My recipe for irvuzu is the simple version, one with no sauce and no difficult knifework or cooking preparation. But I make dishes like that on an almost daily basis during greens season. I was bored. So I decided to take the dish apart and reassemble it in my way.
Instead of cooking everything together, I separated out a mixture of green onions and garlic, then the greens — in this case dandelion, wild lettuce, filaree, broccoli raab and some spinach from the garden — and finally the wild fennel. I cooked each separately in home-rendered lard instead of pancetta. Lard? You bet. Better for you than butter, actually, and it adds a neutral richness that marries well with green things.
To the fennel I added a pinch of sugar and a splash of ouzo — I know, I know, ouzo is Greek and this is a Sardinian dish! Sue me. I assembled it all in a 3-inch ring mold and it was beautiful, if a little shaggy.
Honestly, the dish is fine without a sauce. But I could not help myself. I made a saffron gastrique, or agrodolce as the Italians would call it. Saffron is a major spice in Sardinian cuisine, and I wanted the bright-green, bright-yellow contrast. So I soaked saffron in cider vinegar, added white wine and sugar, then boiled it down to a syrup with a little salt. Pretty, eh?
The acid sweetness did in fact add something to the overall dish. Think of it as an elaborate version of squirting lemon juice on greens.
Why bother with all this? Beside the fact that I felt like it, I think it was a reaction to the shock of that Puglian venison stew, which reminded me that within seemingly simple recipes lie unknown techniques that, once learned, we can add to our own personal cooking arsenal. Ferrante’s Puglian book is a trove of these techniques. I owe a lot to cookbook writers like her, who dig deep to extract nuggets of culinary gold. These authors put to paper recipes that are rarely written down, and we are all the better for it.
But while it is worthwhile to make these recipes as written the first time — to see what in fact the original cook was thinking — to my mind you run the risk of constructing museum pieces if, when you return to the dish later, you fail to adapt the recipe to your own tastes, your own place, and your own state of mind. A good cook never sacrifices flavor on the altar of authenticity.