Verde Ideas: Spring Picnic Panzanella and Strawberry Cake

I hated grocery shopping in Philadelphia. I’m not the kind of person who plans out meals for a whole week—I cook according to cravings. In Philly, that meant darting all over the city after work, with stops at Trader Joe’s for staples like yogurt and milk (and not-really-staples like Cinnamon Grahams), at the Italian specialty store DiBruno Brothers for imported cheese, at Whole Foods for a visit to the butcher and an assortment of overpriced and overly showered vegetables (why are they so wet?!), and at my neighborhood Rite Aid (where the employees are constantly high) for paper towels and kitty litter. It wasn’t so much this many-stop-shopping that got to me, though: I don’t mind going out of my way for Bucheron or local pork shoulder. After a while, I couldn’t stand the couple crowding in front of the banana display like they had never seen a fresh fruit before, the check-out guy who looked at my purchases and said, “Oh man, are you having cheese and bacon tacos tonight?,” the woman in front of me who tried to pay with a check after we had waited 30 minutes in line, the fact that somehow one bag of groceries cost me $60.

And while grocery shopping in Italy isn’t perfect—there are still long lines at the Maxisconto grocery store, and the cashiers sigh if you try to pay with bills larger than 10€—it has its bright spots. I found one of them in my first hours in Bra. I was jetlagged and hungry, and my new roommate Deb asked if I wanted to join her in a jaunt to the greengrocer down the street. Having consuming nothing but microwaved Lufthansa meals in 24 hours, I was ready for fresh produce. We stumbled into Verde Idea (“Green Idea”) a half-hour before closing time, but it looked like the shop had just opened: the displays were stocked with rows of neatly arranged Sicilian oranges, locally-grown spinach, curly-topped carrots. When we slid our selections over to the women at the checkout counter, they worked the scales and the cash register briskly, having memorized the per kilo price of every fruit and vegetable in the shop. I forked over 5€ for a heavy bag of flavorful, fresh produce, and the women saw us off with a cheerful “buona serata!” I had found my produce haven, and I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase yet.

a produce haven

Verde Idea: a produce haven

I’m lucky enough to live just a couple hundred meters away from Verde Idea, but it’s the kind of place that shoppers go out of their way for. Run by the husband-and-wife team of Gianni and Catterina Mina, the shop offers super fresh produce at low prices—they’re the cheapest fruit and vegetable vendors I’ve encountered in Bra. Whereas other produce sellers only restock twice a week, Gianni stops by the wholesale produce market in Torino every day, keeping Verde Idea freshly stocked with the best quality asparagus and strawberries and reaping deals that other vendors miss. I pop by Verde Idea at least twice a week to fuel my 3-fruit-a-day habit and stock up on salad greens and wrinkled Sicilian tomatoes that are sweet enough to eat like apples. Gianni is always willing to grab me a riper cantaloupe from the stockroom or offer a taste test between strawberries from Basilicata and those from Campania. Catterina and the other cashier, Marinella, will let you take an I.O.U. if you’re two euro short of your bill. This is a real community produce shop.

When the asparagus and strawberries cropped up in Verde Idea a few weeks ago, I knew it was finally spring. And today, my friend Tanya and I took advantage of both Verde Idea’s prime produce and the weather’s cooperation (it was 68 and sunny) for a very springy picnic. We picked up some skinny, tender asparagus (selected by Gianni), a bunch of spring onions with dirt clumps still clinging to the roots, and a few handfuls of fresh peas. Then we stopped by the Southern Italian bakery for a crusty loaf of rustic bread, and set about making a picnic panzanella (recipe below).

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Panzanella—a salad with large chunks of stale bread or, in this case, torn fresh bread crisped into croutons—is perfect for a picnic, packing both vegetables and bread into one plate. Typically, panzanella goes heavy on tomatoes—the stale bread softens from a soak in the tomato juice. For this version, though, I wanted to keep the croutons crunchy to contrast with the tender roasted asparagus and sweet peas. Quick-pickled spring onions added bite.

Tanya shares my terrible sweet tooth, so after lunch we headed back to her apartment to wrangle with her fickle oven and try out Smitten Kitchen’s strawberry summer cake— a simple yellow cake batter studded with fresh halved-and-hulled berries.

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We did have to make a few adjustments to the recipe in terms of oven temperature to prevent a charred bottom and top on this cake, and I forgot to sprinkle the top with extra sugar. Still, this cake delivered, with jammy pockets of strawberry cutting through fluffy, buttery cake crumb. Topped with fior di latte gelato, this is a simple and not-too-sweet afternoon snacking cake.

The weekend afternoons for panzanella and strawberry cake are running out here in Bra: I only have ten weeks left. What I’ll miss the most, I think, is Verde Idea: my hassle-free greengrocer.

Asparagus and Pea Panzanella
serves 2 for lunch or 4 as a side dish

1/2 lb asparagus (slimmer stalks are better)
1/2 lb fresh peas, shelled
2 small spring onions, halved and sliced very thin
1 small loaf rustic bread, torn into 1″ cubes
white wine vinegar
olive oil
salt
other seasonings as desired

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Trim the woody ends from the asparagus, then toss them on a baking sheet with enough olive oil to coat and salt as desired. Roast for 5-8 minutes, until the stalks are tender and just beginning to char.

While the asparagus is roasting, put the sliced spring onions in a small bowl and cover them with white wine vinegar. This will take some of the bite out of the onions and slightly pickle them.

When the asparagus has cooled enough to be handled, chop it into bite sized pieces.

Arrange the bread cubes on a baking sheet and drizzle them with olive oil. Season as desired (I recommend salt and garlic powder). Bake for 5 minutes or until browned and crunchy.

Toss all ingredients (don’t forget the peas!) in a salad bowl, adding additional olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper if needed (we didn’t need it).

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