Arugula is a well-known green that has a nutty flavor when picked while it's still young and the weather is cool. The flavor gets stronger with age and temperature.
I am an Italian-American and grew up in the shadow of my grandfather's farm. I have fond memories of following my grandfather around the vegetable garden as he picked tomatoes and hilled potatoes. I still remember my relatives walking home from the farm fields with bushel baskets filled with dandelion greens for cooking. So when I was asked to contribute to a book called Vegetables from an Italian Garden (Phaidon Press, 2011), I felt like I was going home.
The book is mostly recipes featuring more than 40 vegetables commonly used in Italian cooking. I contributed the how-to information on growing these vegetables. While many of the entries are familiar vegetables, such as tomatoes, sweet peppers, and eggplant, they also include some classic Italian greens that I thought to highlight here. Although not an all inclusive list, it's a place to get inspired to grow a little bit of Italy in your garden this summer.
Arugula is a familiar, spicy, nutty-flavored green that grows quickly in cool weather. It's often combined with lettuce, kale, and spinach in salad mixes. It also can be steamed, sauteed, or made into a delicious pesto. Once the weather warms, the flavor quickly becomes hot and peppery, and the plant bolts. While most arugula varieties grow best in cool weather, 'Astro' is a more heat tolerant variety and has a milder flavor.
Plant seeds of arugula as soon as you can work the soil in late winter or early spring and again in fall. Sow seeds 1-inch apart in rows 1-foot apart. Thin to 6-inches apart. Make additional plantings every few weeks in spring and fall for a continued harvest. Watch for slugs and flea beetles eating holes in young leaves.
Within one month after sowing seeds, begin harvesting. Break off young leaves by hand, snip with a scissors when they're 2-inches long, or wait a few weeks and harvest the whole plant by cutting it back to the ground or pulling it out. Plants that have been cut back will regrow and can be harvested again as long as the weather stays cool.
Dandelion greens and roots can be eaten in spring when they are the most tender and tasty. Eating them is a good way to keep this weed off your lawn.
Cardoon is related to globe artichokes, but you eat the fleshy stems instead of the flower buds.
Certainly lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and kale figure in Italian cooking, but there are some greens, such as dandelions, that really capture the Italian cooking experience. Dandelions are best eaten as young greens in spring, and the whole dandelion can be eaten. The greens have a slightly bitter flavor and can be mixed in salads, sauteed, or cooked like asparagus. Flowers can be made into wine and roots roasted. Forage for wild dandelion greens in fields and lawns untreated with herbicides. Harvest individual leaves or the whole dandelion plant when leaves are less than 10-inches long and still tender. There are cultivated varieties of dandelions available, such as 'Catalogna', that feature a more upright plant growth habit. Plant these perennials as you would lettuce.
This Mediterranean vegetable seems exotic, but can be widely grown. Cardoon is similar to a globe artichoke, but is a lot easier to grow. However, unlike the artichoke's edible flower buds, cardoon is prized for its fleshy, celery-like stems and leaves. Cardoon plants grow 3- to 4-feet tall and wide and are a perennial in mild winter areas. A few weeks before your last frost, transplant seedlings 2-feet apart in rows 4-feet apart in well-drained soil amended with compost. Cardoon plants grow best under cool, moist, summer conditions and can grow in part shade. Mulch with straw to conserve soil moisture and prevent weeds from growing.
Begin harvesting cardoon leaves when the plant is 2-feet tall. To blanch the leaves for a milder flavor, wrap newspaper around the plant to block the sunlight. Blanch for 3 weeks to create the most tender stalks, then harvest by cutting the leaf stalks at the plant base. New leaves may emerge in late summer and can be blanched and harvested again in fall and winter. The stems and leaves can be cooked and eaten green for a strong artichoke flavor, or blanched for a paler color and mild, bittersweet flavor. Cardoon is best steamed, baked, added to soups, and even used in cheese fondue.
Endive and escarole greens have a strong, almost bitter flavor, so they're commonly blanched to create a milder taste. This cool season green has either curly green leaves (endive) or flat, broad-leaves (escarole) depending on the variety. 'Neos' endive features frilly, dark green leaves, while 'Batavian Full Heart' escarole has broad, green leaves with a tightly packed head.
Grow endive and escarole as you would lettuce. Sow seeds in spring 2- to 3-weeks before your last frost date or in fall for a winter harvest. Time your planting so heads mature during cool weather. Hot weather gives endive and escarole leaves a more bitter flavor. Sow seeds 1-inch apart in rows 2-feet apart, then thin to 6- to 10-inches apart and use the baby greens in salads.
When the outer leaves are 5-inches tall, blanch heads by covering them with a flower pot or tie the outer leaves over the center of the plant. The center of the head will form pale yellow leaves. In 2 to 3 weeks, remove the pot or outer leaves and cut the head. Another head may form from the roots. Endive and escarole are commonly used in salads, soups, and stews.
Puntarella is a Catalogna chicory grown for its pointy, dandelion-like, dark green leaves with a slightly bitter, asparagus-like flavor. To grow puntarella, sow seeds 2 weeks before the last frost date in spring on raised beds filled with compost-amended, well drained soil. Thin seedlings to 6-inches apart when they're 1-inch tall. Harvest the young, white leaf stalks of puntarella when they're 12-inches long.
Florence fennel produces a bulb near the ground level that is harvested and eaten. They are great in salads, roasted or grilled and have a licorice flavor.
If you love the taste of licorice, then you'll love Florence fennel. Bulb fennel has ferny leaves and a white swollen bulb at the base. The 2-foot tall plant has a crunchy, refreshing texture. While the leaves are edible, it's the bulb that is commonly used chopped in salads, grilled, steamed, or roasted. 'Zefa Fino' is a widely grown, early-maturing variety, while 'Perfection' is a new, more uniform selection.
Fennel grows best in cool weather and takes more than two months to mature. If grown during periods of hot weather or, if water stressed, fennel will form a flower stalk and bolt and not form a large bulb.
Fennel doesn't like to be transplanted, so sow seeds in spring around the last frost date in well-drained, raised beds of sandy loam soil. Sow seeds 4-inches apart. Thin to 8-inches apart when plants are 4-inches tall. Mulch with straw once plants are established to keep the soil cool and moist. When the bulb is 2-inches wide, mound soil around the base of the plant to blanch it, creating a milder flavored bulb. Harvest when bulbs are 3-inches wide.
Radicchio is a classic Italian cool-weather green that can be eaten as a leaf crop like lettuce, but is more commonly grown and harvested when it forms a tight ball like a cabbage. Its red leaves and white leaf veins give it a striking appearance raw or cooked. If picked while the weather is cool, radicchio has a sweet, nutty flavor and crunchy texture. If allowed to grow during warm weather the flavor turns more bitter. 'Early Treviso' features a romaine lettuce-like shape that turns redder during cool weather. 'Palla Rossa' forms a compact, small, cabbage-sized head that withstands cold weather.
Radicchio is best planted in compost-amended soil 3 weeks before the last frost in spring, or in fall in mild winter areas for a winter harvest. Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart, adding the thinned baby greens to salads. Grow radicchio as you would lettuce, keeping the soil evenly moist, as dry soil promotes bitter flavor.
Harvest radicchio is when the heads feel firm when squeezed. Cut the head from the base of the plant, then remove the outer leaves. Radicchio tastes best shredded raw in salads with olive oil and vinegar, baked, or grilled.
For more on growing these add other vegetables, go to the: Vegetable Garden Guide.