Nothing excites a cook more than discovering a new tool, a new technique, or, in this particular case, a new ingredient. We came across agretti, an Italian specialty green, last season through Seeds from Italy, and vowed to give this annual succulent a try. Though purportedly easy to grow, the seeds have a notoriously short period of viability. It was with some trepidation that we direct seeded a short row, and were thrilled when they began to sprout. And then they dismally failed, not because of the seed so much as something ate them before they could get past the seedling stage.
So, when we caught a flurry of agretti recipes being pinned by Abby Wiggin at Wake Robin Farm in Stratham, we immediately contacted her. As luck would have it, Abby had planted some agretti this year as a trial. Declaring it her new favorite thing to cook with, she generously offered us a bunch to try for ourselves. This description by Paolo Arrigo, the owner of Seeds of Italy, from his book From Seed to Plate may give an indication of what all the fuss is about, especially with something we’ve never tried:
This is difficult to describe, like describing a truffle. It has some other names: barba di frate (monk’s beard), roscano and salsola soda. It’s a mild-flavoured green, which is a little bit bitter, but a lot wonderful. Really only known in Rome (Lazio generally) and Umbria, it’s impossible to find in the UK and very, very gastronomic. It’s a bit like sea samphire, but you grow it in the ground rather than on salt marshes, which, let’s face it, not many of us have in our back gardens.
It’s the flavor that makes agretti so alluring. It tastes like spinach, asparagus and sea water, and looks like chives with fat, rounded leaves. Agretti goes well with fish and seafood. You can use it raw in salads or you can cook it and use it in pasta. Try it braised with a little garlic and served as a side dish, boiled and served with olive oil, or take a large handful and slap a sea bass in the middle to steam.
Raw, it’s fleshy leaves are crunchy and slightly saline, perfect as a salad ingredient. For cooking, it’s often suggested to blanch the agretti beforehand; this would seem advisable further along in the season, however, at this stage, the bunch we had was still young and tender. We began by stripping the leaves from the central stem, much as we would with rosemary. An experimental handful was thrown onto a pizza, where it mingled companionably with shredded kale, spring onions and fresh mozzarella. The dry heat of the oven had the unfortunate result of making the pizza look as if it were strewn by grass clippings but, one bite and it’s appeal was immediately clear — the agretti holds onto its sprightly texture even when cooked.
There are numerous ways to use agretti — Mariquita Farm in California has a notable collection of suggestions they’ve crowdsourced from their CSA. For the most part, and understandably so, the recipes available online are in Italian.
We wanted to make sure that however we cooked it, that it didn’t overwhelm the agretti, and the preparation Spaghetti con gli agretti per la Veronica caught our eye. We gathered that this recipe’s adapted from someone named Felix, though, even with many years of studying Italian (past absolute, sul serio?), we could never figure out who Veronica was.
In this dish, the agretti is seasoned with anchovies, garlic, and spring onions, to which we added a pinch of peperoncino, or red pepper flakes, and the zest from a lemon. The anchovies meld into the olive oil-based sauce and ground the dish flavor-wise, though can be omitted for those of you who’re phobic. The half pound of agretti we had on hand was about the right proportion for a pound of pasta, though don’t hesitate to add more if you have it. This beguiling combination of flavors and juicy toothy texture left us hopelessly addicted, and we can’t wait to see it start appearing at our local farmers’ market. Thank-you, Abby!
Agretti Spaghetti with Spring Onions and Lemon (for Veronica)
1 pound spaghetti
½ to 1 pound agretti
⅓ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 6 spring onions, chopped
4 fillets anchovy
Pinch of peperoncino (red pepper flakes)
Zest of 1 lemon
– Place a large pot of water on heat, and bring it to a boil. Meanwhile, wash the agretti well, then remove the leaves from the woody stems, discarding the stems. If the leaves are mature, blanch the agretti briefly in the boiling water, drain and set aside.
– Salt the boiling water and add the spaghetti. While the pasta is cooking, sauté the garlic, spring onions, anchovies and peperoncino until fragrant. Add the agretti and continue to cook until tender but still crunchy. Remove pan from heat.
– When the pasta is al dente, add the spaghetti to the sautéed agretti; loosen with more pasta water if it seems too dry. To finish, toss with the lemon zest, some fresh olive oil, and season to taste.
Local ingredients: Agretti from Wake Robin Farm; garlic and spring onions from the garden.