Before I moved to Italy, the outlook of a New Year could seem somewhat uninspiring from the kitchen window. Well into the hungry gap – the period of the year where fresh produce is most scarce, my fingers would drum an impatient countdown to spring: the natural conjurer of new growth and fresh flavour. I longed for a soft herb or a tender green to give much-needed zing to my root vegetable medleys.
Joining a seasonal kitchen in Rome on a particularly dreich day in January, I readied myself for the cascade of potatoes, topinambour (Jerusalem artichokes by their much more alluring name) and cabbages I assumed would be heading my way. I was yet to learn that Italian cooking – with the boost of a milder climate – teaches a seasonal chef the value of patience.
Rather than wringing their hands in desperation at the sight of yet another bitter leaf, Italian cooks celebrate the creative possibilities that immediate seasonality brings. That is creating something different with the same ingredients, day in, day out, until something new comes along to brighten up the plate. Starting each day afresh, the flavours of cucina povera balance the first of the season produce on the backbone of what’s already on the table.
And so in Rome in January, I first encountered the concept of lifting bitter leaves with citrus. Colder temperatures and short days might not improve our moods, but these conditions concentrate flavour. The first blood oranges deepen in colour, mid-season radicchio tardivo sweetens and firms up as it defends itself against the icy weather. Together on a plate with flecks of sheep’s milk ricotta, it was a tantalising introduction to the flavour of living life in the moment.
Blood orange, radicchio and ricotta salad
Serves two as a starter or a light supper.
One head of radicchio tardivo
Two blood oranges
1tsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp extra virgin olive oil
100g sheep’s milk ricotta
- Gently peel away the radicchio stalks from the head, cutting each one in half. Slice the top and bottom from the blood oranges. Using a sharp knife, slice downwards to cut away the skin peel and pith, leaving a round ball of flesh. I use the line of white pith as a cutting guideline if I’m being fastidious. Turn on their side and slice into 5mm rounds.
- Over a large bowl, squeeze the juice from the orange skins, along with four of the smallest slices of orange.
- Add in the honey, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Season well and whisk to emulsify.
- Toss the leaves in the dressing. Arrange on the plate with slices of orange and crumbled ricotta popped in at random. Drizzle over any remaining dressing from the bowl and the last of the cheese.
N.B. Blood oranges could be clementines, ricotta could be blue cheese, tardivo could be any chicory at hand. Further embellishment would be roasted walnuts or pomegranate seeds, but I feel January calls for culinary restraint.
Illustrations by Liv Amato-Pace