Artichokes. Fava beans. Asparagus. Peas. Ramps. Spring’s glorious bounty is finally here after a long winter of turnips, potatoes, rutabagas and butternut squash. Don’t get me wrong – I love my root vegetables in the dead of winter but one can only consume so many rutabagas, right? Thankfully, my root vegetable fatigue is now a distant memory.
Just the sight of the beautiful delicate spring green produce brings tears to my eyes. A basket of fresh ramps made me squeal with delight last week at the local market. (And to the elderly gentlemen who shot me a look of disdain at my squeal – you are not invited for dinner!) Fresh favas are only just beginning to appear here in the east. My brother keeps posting glorious photos of his fava crop from his little garden in Los Angeles leaving my mouth watering. Visions of fresh favas and young pecorino cheese haunt my dreams. Surprisingly, last week at a business function in San Francisco, I smiled with delight at the sight of an entire basket of fresh favas sitting untouched after the happy hour. I tipped the waiter graciously after he allowed me to quietly pocket half the basket – score! It was time for a pot of one of my favorite spring dishes – vignarola – a true celebration of spring in one dish if ever there was one.
Vignarola originated in Rome but I have had similar versions elsewhere in Italy. It is a delightful medley of spring’s tender bounty. Here I have used spring peas, chard, artichokes and (my stolen) favas. Feel free to mix it up – asparagus works beautifully in this dish as does lettuce instead of the chard. Vegetarian? No problem. Simply omit the pancetta.
I love to serve this stew over a toasted slice of thick Italian bread buried underneath its flavorful broth. This also works beautifully over fresh pasta. Save a bit of the pasta water to add to the vignarola sauce should the sauce be too thick.
Vignarola – Spring Vegetable Stew
4-5 small artichokes
About 2 cups of frozen or fresh, shelled fava (broad) beans
¼ cup olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 large leek, washed, tough outer leaves removed
3 ounces pancetta, diced
½ dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
About ½ pound spinach or swiss chard, cleaned, trimmed and sliced into thin ribbons
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
About 2 cups of fresh, shelled peas
Fresh parsley, chopped
Fresh mint, chopped
Juice from ½ lemon
Italian bread, sliced into thick slices and toasted (optional)
Prepare the artichokes: Using a serrated knife cut off the top spiny third of the artichoke. Place the artichokes in a pot of cold, salted water. Bring the water to a boil. Boil until the artichokes are tender – about 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the artichokes. (An easy way to check if the artichokes are tender is to insert a small knife in the heart.) Drain. Once cool enough to handle, tear off the tougher outer leaves until you reach the soft tender ones. Remove the fuzzy choke from the center with a spoon and cut the artichokes into quarters. Set aside.
Blanch to favas (if using fresh): Refill the pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water nearby. Toss the fava beans into the boiling water and cook for about a minute. Drain and add to the ice water.
Make the stew: Use a saucepan large enough to accommodate all the vegetables. Slice the leek in half and cut crosswise into little ¼ inch half moon pieces. Add the olive oil to the pan and heat over medium heat. Add the leek and pancetta. Cook until the leeks are soft and the fat has rendered from the pancetta, about 10 minutes. Add the artichoke hearts and the white wine and simmer for 5 minutes. Add a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the spinach or chard. Stir to incorporate into the leek mixture.
Add in the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook until the vegetables are nicely incorporated, about 5 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook just until tender to allow them to keep their color – about 3-5 minutes. Stir in a handful of chopped fresh parsley and mint. Add in the juice from lemon. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
Place a slice of toasted bread in the bottom of a bowl. Ladle the vegetable stew on top. Serve with a good drizzle of olive oil on top. Serve!