Recipe: Broccoli with Toasted Walnuts
Italians are the best vegetable cooks I know, striking the perfect balance between the food’s innate goodness and enhancement. Sometimes all it takes is olive oil, a touch of garlic, and salt. They see vegetables as equals to meat and fish and often serve them as a separate course. I love that kind of respect. I’ve never met an Italian home cook who could possibly offer up a platter of undercooked steamed broccoli.
Even now, with America more and more obsessed with food, it’s weird how vegetables can be treated as an afterthought here. I find this most perplexing when I encounter it in Italian restaurants. Even in fancy Manhattan, vegetables can be completely unadorned and sent out as a inert lump on your plate. What is up with that?
Recently I ate at an Italian seafood restaurant near my home in the West Village. The place smelled of freshly shucked oysters, and the Falanghina I ordered was excellent. My entrée was a perfectly grilled, whole, quite expensive pompano, stuffed to overflowing with fresh rosemary and thyme. It was wonderful, but it shared the plate with very lightly steamed broccoli and string beans, both completely flavorless and tough. How about a little salt? Is that so difficult? Another recent time, at another place, I ordered a crisp and juicy pan-fried pork cutlet seasoned deftly with lemon and capers but served with a side of that dreaded boiled broccoli. Excuse me, waiter, can I get a little olive oil over here?
Anyone who is a regular reader of mine knows that I almost never diss restaurants. Having toiled in restaurant kitchens for years, I know how damned hard it is to keep quality high night after night. Line cooking was the hardest job I ever did. But I do have an issue with vegetable preparations at more than a few Italian places in Manhattan. I’m not going to name those two trattorias I just referred to, but I’ll tell you it took all my patience not to go running into the kitchen screaming, “Why? Why?” I recall the NYU cafeteria doing a better job with broccoli.
Have you experienced this? Don’t those chefs want their friends and families to eat more vegetables? Have they ever cooked with an Italian grandmother? Garlic, olive oil, hot pepper, white wine, lemon zest, pine nuts, olives, basil, oregano, anchovies, a thread of good vinegar, a pinch of salt. I mean really.
And here’s a Mediterranean diet update for you: A new analyses published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says a diet rich in olive oil and nuts helps cut the risk of atherosclerosis, a build up of plaque in the arteries. So eat your broccoli with toasted walnuts. Good and good for you.
Broccoli with Toasted Walnuts
(Serves 4 as a first course or a side)
1 large bunch broccoli
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about 1/8 teaspoon)
A splash of dry Marsala
A big handful of very fresh walnuts, lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
The grated zest from a small lemon
Peel the stalks of the broccoli, and cut them into slices. Cut the heads into small florettes (you want to use everything except the tough end).
Set up a medium-size pot of water. Bring it to a boil, and add some salt. Add the broccoli, and blanch for about 2 minutes. Drain, and plunge the broccoli into an ice bath to stop the cooking and bring up its green color. Drain well.
Pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large skillet. Turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta, and sauté until it’s just starting to crisp and has given up much of its fat. Add the garlic, and sauté for a minute to release its flavor. Add the broccoli, and season with nutmeg and a big pinch of salt. Sauté until the broccoli is just tender and fragrant, about 3 minutes or so (this step will coax flavor from the broccoli and lightly caramelize it). Add a splash of Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the walnuts, and season with black pepper. Give it another brief sauté to blend all the flavors. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil and the lemon zest. Serve hot or at room temp. This is great with roast chicken or pork chops. I also like it solo, with a few slices of olive oil and garlic-brushed bruschetta.