No, not Saint Patrick’s Day, although that is what you are thinking. I have never been one to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, no green beer, no green food, no parades for me. Although when I was in fourth grade I wore my Girl Scout’s uniform to school, green head to toe, on March 17 simply because it was the only green clothing I owned, simply to avoid spending the day being pinched for not wearing that most Irish of colors.
Think green. Easter and Passover, the herald of spring. Trees sprout green finery, green bijoux, the garden overflows with green. A multitude, a brood of tiny yellow chicks stand knee deep in bright green grass, neon yellow fluff, prickly green plastic. Tiny baskets bursting with clouds of shiny green cellophane, a bundle of glossy green strips redolent of spring, art imitating life, in which multicolored aluminum-wrapped eggs snuggle, the colors of spring. Eggs nestled in green, painted like jewels, like candy, gaudy eggs hidden in the green grass, subterfuge, camouflage. Like picking strawberries ensconced in green. Passover greens, bitter and sweet, celery, parsley or lettuce to be dipped into salt water representing the tears of the slaves that we once were, yet the dipping process symbolizing hope and redemption. Rebirth. Green.
Winter green, hale and hardy, kale and chard and spinach, makes way for spring green, delicate and tender, lettuces speckled with drops of water, bouquets of feathery herbs, fennel and chervil, plump, meaty basil just begging to be turned into fragrant pesto, parsley, both flat leaf and curly like a frizzy afro. Long slender shafts of chive tasting of onion and garlic but not quite; gathered in delicate, flimsy bunches they droop elegantly and wave back and forth. Great sea green artichoke bulbs and smaller, more elliptical artichokes in forest green edged in deep violet, both so aggressive with their tough green skins and prickly, thorny tips yet are so tender when eaten, cooked a paler shade of green. We shift our tastes, our ideas, our recipes, from winter to spring, and now brighten the green with salty feta and sweet tomatoes, bits of pretty violet shallots so sharp, spring green.
Winter green, huge heads of green cabbage that we turn into pot au feu, long, slow simmering with meat and root vegetables until the bright green dulls to greenish-gray, sage green. There is nothing more comforting, more satisfying, than dipping my spoon into well-boiled green cabbage, scoop it up and slip it into my mouth where it melts on my tongue. A dull grayish-green that is warming. And spring green? Mouthfuls of lamb’s lettuce, long thin fingers of just-boiled green asparagus, buttered, under a shower of Parmesan, leeks served barely warm, white and green, in a puddle of chilled, tart vinaigrette. Now bright French green peas, so sweet, color tagine and risotto with green polka dots. Dusted with flecks of bright green coriander.
The Wearing of the Green
My father used to make us great big bowls of pistachio pudding to be eaten stuffed into great fat choux or topped with dollops of whipped cream. That pistachio pudding was the color of leprechaun coats and the Jolly Green Giant. The color of store-bought pistachios. Mint chocolate chip ice cream was such an unbelievable color of green but I never liked the flavor anyway. I would honestly have rather eaten spinach.
We were, in fact, happy eaters all four of us. Seated around the dinner table two by two we would gobble down whatever vegetable was put in front of us (my mother’s liver and onions and cabbage soup was another story). Canned spinach or broccoli would incite games and we’d be off, piling our plates high with green! Who could eat the most spinach would be Popeye for the day! Broccoli spears would become tiny little trees gobbled up by giants! Peas would be picked out of the pile of mushy canned peas and carrots, those carrots cut in perfect cubes pushed to the side of the plate. So not green. The peas pushed onto the tines of the fork for eating. Fried green tomatoes. Long stalks of celery, the hollow pale green trench filled with cream cheese or peanut butter and even if the celery had an odd, far-away bitter taste, flat and watery, the flavor of green, it was an excellent recipient for the stronger flavor of either cream cheese or peanut butter and how adult, bite into the celery (filament catching in between teeth) with a loud, satisfying crunch and I always felt so adult, pretending that I was at a cocktail party nibbling on hors d’oeuvres. A stalk of celery green against the deep orange red of a Bloody Mary, a single green olive glistening in a martini.
But I hated the color green. As much as I loved to eat green I loathed it as a color. My hatred of the Girl Scouts may have had as much to do with the color of the uniform (or being forced to wear any uniform at all) as the activities. But every Tuesday I would don that green uniform – after school. I would never wear it to school as my sister did, proud as she was to be a Scout, I was embarrassed to be seen wearing the green. And head off to the weekly Girl Scout meeting, despondently. And one day, I must have been in junior high school (as my sister was off to college and I no longer had to share the bedroom with her) and my brother and mother decided to redecorate my bedroom without me. And they dressed it all in green. And not a lovely green the color of oceans or jade, not the faded, mysterious color of sea glass (perfectly rubbed to a smooth smoky green), not evergreen or turquoise green or moss green or emerald green. No. A flat, ugly Kelly green. Green and white gingham curtains, lampshades and pillows. An ugly green bedspread. Ugly it was and I could never understand why they decided on green.
I married into a family that spent afternoons discussing trees and plants, their language littered with the correct plant names, both common and scientific. Greenery, verdure, their passion. Those discussion would last hours. What they had planted and what they will plant. What’s growing in the neighbor’s garden, what is sprouting in their own, what they spied along the pathway through the village during a morning walk. They read books on plants, encyclopedias and dictionaries; they have collections of old botany tomes and almanacs, piles of copies of Rustica magazine. I, on the other hand, don’t know from green. A walk through the garden or down a country path and I’m looking for something to eat, berries or mushrooms or cherries on the tree; a stroll through the woods and I’m simply on a search for the perfect picnic spot. As far as greenery goes, if it isn’t greens – chard and kale, spinach and cabbage, romaine and lamb’s lettuce – I am rather a greenhorn. Although husband teases me for being green where greenery is concerned, I can indeed name some beyond the rose bush. I love gardenias and my parents had two beautiful bushes bordering our tiny strip of Florida front porch. Fat, succulent leaves a deep forest green surrounding lush white petals, heady with perfume. Gorgeous hibiscus flowers framed every doorway on the block, their luscious petals in all of their magnificent, ostentatious glory strutting and tumbling down paths in bright yellows, pinks and oranges against a background of green. Bougainvillea and rhododendron, all of those hardy, brilliant, colorful plants, green dotted with magenta, violet, red, or green palm fronds fanning lazily in the ocean breeze, or fat jumbo watermelons sitting placidly, green among the green, beauties basking in the hot Florida sun.
But ask me to think green, hand me a trowel and turn me in the direction of the dirt and all is lost. I walk into a room and just look at a potted plant and it withers and wilts. Green to brown. Vases of flowers curl up in the fetal position to protect themselves, petals strewn across the tabletop, green leaves drooping pitifully. No green thumb, I am quite the contraire, a Plant Serial Killer. If it is green it will run screaming from me, grab onto my husband’s pant leg and beg for help, drag themselves towards the door trailing green leaves and bits of dirt, every man – or plant – for himself. My thumb, for all intents and purposes, is black.
Yet my charming, talented better half is all green thumbs. He is a magician when it comes to growing things green, like an elf out of a fairy tale leaping from mushroom to fern to daffodil to mound of moss through the lush, green forest or dancing through some hidden garden at night, watering can in hand, leaving behind him a trail of silvery leaves and dew-kissed buds. All is green at his touch. Darling husband, keeper of all things green, created a magnificent veil of ivy green, a forest of green plants, on our terrace in Italy, recreated gardens around houses we have rented that had been disregarded and abandoned, has more than once swept me off to a nursery after settling into a new home and bought what to create a lovely little kitchen garden. Basil and rosemary, chives and mint and throw in a pot of thyme. Once home, spade in hand, digging down into the rich, dark, earthy soil, lovingly patting it down around each tiny green plant, he hangs them outside my kitchen window where I simply need to turn the handle and pull, touch the delicate, tender green leaves and choose. For, after all, green to me is for snipping, chopping, stirring, simmering, cooking.
And when the basil leaves are plump and flavorful, when the rosemary is fragrant, the tiny moss green thyme leaves are tender, my fingers dance through their soft summer field of green, feeling like a little garden gnome, and pinch off leaf after luxurious leaf, heaping them up on my kitchen table, knowing just what they were destined for.
Ah, yes, I have mentioned my finicky, persnickety son Simon before, haven’t I? When speaking of food it is difficult to avoid speaking about Simon. Simple Simon he was and still is where it comes to food. My son’s mortal enemy, his nemesis where food is concerned is green. Flecks of green in a tender, moist, sweet, cake-like zucchini bread. He pushes it away, face crumpled into the worst kind of grimace, and he accuses me of treachery, trickery, dishonesty, cheating him like a conman luring him to play the shell game on some street corner, slipping him something green. He leans over the counter and peers into whatever is simmering on the stovetop as I am stirring and asks what weird things I have put into it. Read green. Zucchini, green beans, green pepper, peas, no matter how minuscule the mince or dice, all constitute weird things that I have slipped purposely into the food, secreted them in to force him to eat green unwittingly. He makes me livid green.
Yet he loves green olives. He eats green olives like other kids eat candy. Any kind of green olives, salty or spicy, stuffed with dots of red pepper, sliced into pasta sauce, scattered across pizza. The only form in which Simon eats green.
When he was small, I would place a scoop of bright-green steamed broccoli on his plate and before he could complain, before he could protest and say that he doesn’t eat green, I would shower down freshly grated Parmesan cheese, his favorite thing, and beg him to try. And he would suffer through the green in order to eat the cheese. Older, I discovered that spanikopita, layers of filo dough, crisp and tender and buttery, stuffed with loads of spinach, a dark field of green, would be eaten for the feta, salty, tangy, white as white feta, his other favorite thing, and I smiled to myself that I had indeed gotten him to eat green.
It has always annoyed me to throw away all the discarded trimmings when cleaning vegetables; it is such a waste of goodness! so now and then I keep it and use it for soups or purées. Pea pods for example, it is a perfect base for a soup although you need to make a little extra effort to get rid of all the fibrous strings but apart from that, pods are easy peasy to cook and above all eat!
ILVA'S MINTED PEA POD AND POTATO SOUP
The leftover pea pods of 1 kg/ 2,2 lb fresh green peas
1 small leek
4 medium potatoes
1 l/ 4,2 cups water or light stock
as much fresh mint as you want
a few tbs of fresh cream, optional
extra-virgin olive oil
Slice the leek and cook slowly in a little olive oil in a pot. Rinse the pea pods well and take away the hardest parts, cut into large pieces and add to the leek. Peel the potatoes, slice and add them and the liquid to the pot. If you use water, season with salt.
Leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes. When it is ready, blitz the soup and the fresh mint leaves in a mixer until smooth and then pour the soup through a sieve (not too finely meshed) into a pot or bowl and with the back of a spoon press the remaining fibers to extract as much of the soup as possible. Heat up, add fresh cream and season the soup to your taste.