Cooks cook for occasions — the family dinner, a bake sale, a growling tummy, a friend’s convalescence — anytime, I suppose, when a plate lies waiting.
That’s primarily why we consult recipes, I’d think, to see how another cook already has addressed a cooking occasion that we face today. So how would an Italian cook — my own favorite kind of cook — cook on an insufferably hot summer’s day? So far this summer, the thought occurred to me more than once.
Above all, the Italians have taught us a good way or method to cook in summertime — ahead. On my many trips to Italy when younger, primarily at restaurants there, I’d routinely notice platter after platter of cooked food groaning on sideboards lining the walls. All of it was prepared ahead of time, perhaps when the day was cooler or on an earlier night of the week.
The recipe here is my mishmash suggestion for a cooling summer’s dish, put together after reading around Italian cookbooks. From Elizabeth David’s “Italian Food,” I got the raisins in the spinach and greens; from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” the bed of greens themselves, although my turn is to make of them long “ribbons,” as if they were a sort of vegetal “pasta” bed.
But I gleaned the most by reading in Pellegrino Artusi’s “La Scienza in Cucina, L’Arte di Mangiare Bene,” in English translation (“Science in the Kitchen, the Art of Eating Well”), by far Italy’s own most popular cooking book of its day, the late 1800s and early 1900s, the years after reunification.
The main idea of this recipe is to cook a slew of it ahead of time, when the kitchen isn’t torrid, and keep it around to serve throughout the following days. That’s why its measure is so abbondanza.
Assorted Cooked Vegetables on a Bed of Wilted Greens
Makes 24 servings.
For the greens:
- 1 small or 1/2 medium or large Savoy (Napa) cabbage, any wilting outer leaves removed
- 5 very large leaves green chard (or the equivalent in smaller leaves)
- 1 bunch (or bag) spinach
- Small handful of golden raisins
- Apple juice or white wine
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced or minced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the vegetables:
- 5 cups canned tomatoes, large diced (or the equivalent in whole peeled tomatoes, crushed well with the hands)
- 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced very thinly
- 10-12 small waxy potatoes, washed but peels left on and halved lengthwise
- 6-8 small, thin carrots, washed, scrubbed and trimmed but peels left on
- 24 standard green or pole beans, washed and ends trimmed
- 1 each red, yellow, orange and green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and veined and each cut into 3-4 large segments
- 8 small zucchini, washed and both ends trimmed off, cut crosswise and diagonally into fat rounds
- 4 baby eggplants, washed and stems intact but “caps” trimmed or pulled off, quartered
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 teaspoon dried Mediterranean oregano, crushed in the palm of the hand
Prepare the greens. (You may do this several hours ahead or the day before.) Slice the cabbage into 2-inch thick strips by cutting through it lengthwise; discard the bottom and core. Set aside. Strip off the thick veins from the chard (discarding them and the stems) and, as with the cabbage, slice the leaves into 2-inch thick strips. Set aside, separately from the cabbage. Prepare a large pot of well-salted, rapidly boiling water.
Blanch the greens, beginning with the cabbage, just until it is crisp-tender, not cooked through, about 2, maybe 3, minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or “spider” to drain in a large colander in the sink. Do the same with the chard leaves, about the same length of time. Drain those leaves too. Blanch the spinach for 45 seconds to 1 minute, again draining it in the colander along with the other greens.
Press down on the greens to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. When cool enough to handle, in a large bowl, toss the greens, separating them into their individual strips and mingling the strips together.
Meanwhile, heat the apple juice or white wine and soak the raisins in it for 15 minutes; drain the raisins and keep separate. In a large skillet (preferably non-stick), over medium heat, warm the olive oil, then cook the garlic for 1-2 minutes until it loses its color, being mindful not to brown or burn it.
Turn up the heat a bit. Add the drained greens and, with tongs, flip the greens in the oil and garlic every 2-3 minutes, until well mixed together. Salt and pepper generously. Do this for 10 minutes or so, until well heated through, adding the raisins halfway and continuing to toss with the tongs. Set the greens aside (or refrigerate if doing ahead).
Cook the vegetables. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In 2 large roasting pans, layer all the vegetables in the order listed (beginning with the tomatoes), dividing them between the pans in equal measure. Salt and pepper generously and scatter the oregano.
Press down on the vegetables so that they are an even layer. Cover each pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil and place in the oven, cooking the vegetables for 45 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. At that halfway point, remove the foil covers, mix and toss the vegetables well and replace the foil covers.
Raise the oven heat to 400 degrees and remove altogether the foil covers from the pans, cooking the vegetables an additional 15-20 minutes or until they are cooked through. The eggplant should be nicely softened, for example; the green beans and carrots, crisp-tender; the tomatoes and onions very soft. Allow the vegetables to cool to room temperature.
Assemble and present the dish. Lay the greens and raisins on a large platter. Place the vegetables atop the greens. Have at it. (The platter may stay at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, for a couple of days, if preferred. Or you may refrigerate everything, serving it forth as you see fit. Or you may reheat any of it, if desired.)
Reach Bill St John at firstname.lastname@example.org