I think to be a completely happy food lover you sometimes need to let your whims take over.
Last week I mentioned being stopped in my tracks at the farmers market by exotic Italian greens, and I wasn’t kidding. I was recently strolling by Mudjoy Farm‘s booth on a somewhat drizzly day and spied dark-green fronds I had never seen before. Forgetting the rain on my bare head, I stopped to ask the farmer what he could tell me about this agretti. After a quick chat, he let me know that this was the tail-end of the season, and I thanked him and went on my way.
Just days later I was leisurely flipping through POLPO, a newly-acquired cookbook covering the Venetian fare of the London restaurant of the same name. A recipe caught my eye: Prawn Risotto with Monksbeard. Idly wondering what monksbeard was, I skimmed through the introductory notes and suddenly sat up straighter: “…also known as barba di frate or agretti.” I needed no clearer sign that I was meant to experience this new food immediately. I enlisted A to return to Mudjoy Farm’s booth the following week while I was otherwise occupied, and began to wonder how to cook agretti.
In English agretti is also known as saltwort (Salsola soda), a name indicating its preference for coastal environs and salt water irrigation. Like other haplophytes, or salt-tolerant plants, agretti accumulates sodium in its plant tissues, making it an interesting crop choice for high-saline soils or areas that need to be desalinated for other crops. Because of its high proportion of sodium carbonate, like other saltworts agretti was historically used as a source of soda ash, an alkali substance that aids in clarifying soap and glass. The famed beauty of Venetian and Murano glass is thanks to this unassuming succulent, so no wonder that the leaves also feature in traditional Venetian cooking.
When eaten raw, agretti has a pleasant juicy crunch, and a sharp mineral flavor that some have compared to spinach. As the POLPO recipe suggests, I imagine it would do nicely with any of the milder seafood flavors, from crustaceans to whitefish, but I think the oilier fish varieties would overpower agretti‘s subtlety. I wanted to find a way to bring out its mineral notes without compromising my food budget, so instead of splurging on fresh prawns I turned to the frozen stock we had leftover from our squid ink escapades this past spring. A bag of snap peas that I had picked up at the farmers market as an afterthought turned out to be the perfect mild, crunchy complement to the garlicky, briney stock and the agretti.
I only used about half of our fernlike frond of agretti for this recipe, and as I mused aloud about what to do with the remainder A told me that the farmer had suggested tossing it raw with thinly sliced radishes in a sesame oil dressing, which immediately became part of tomorrow’s lunch plans.
POLPO suggests that you can substitute marsh samphire for monksbeard. If you live in the other 90% of the world where farmers and foragers do not have monksbeard and samphire regularly on offer, I would suggest finishing this risotto with a good handful of fresh tarragon or chives. You can also use chicken or vegetable stock instead of fish stock, but you will end up with a different dish–equally delicious, I am sure, but different.
Snap Pea Risotto with Monksbeard
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
A good pinch of chili flakes
1 T tomato paste
5 oz. dry white wine
1 quart fish or shrimp stock
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
5 oz. dry vermouth
2 C Arborio rice
8 oz. snap peas, strings removed and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 C monksbeard leaves
In a medium saucepan, saute the roughly-chopped onion and garlic in olive oil about 5 minutes over medium. Add the chili flakes, tomato paste, and white wine. When the wine has evaporated, add the broth. Bring to a boil reduce heat, and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, then keep on low heat as you prepare the risotto.
Saute the finely-chopped onion in butter and olive oil until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the rice and stir a minute or two to coat the grains. Add the vermouth and let evaporate. Add warm stock to cover and let the rice absorb, simmering.
Stir occasionally to keep the risotto from sticking and taste the broth occasionally, adding salt if necessary. When the stock has been fully absorbed, add more stock to cover. At the end of the second reduction, test the rice. The center of the grain should be tender. Add more liquid as necessary.
When the rice is a couple minutes away from being done, stir in the snap peas and the monksbeard. Cook 2-3 minutes, until the peas are bright green. Turn the heat off and let the risotto rest, covered, for a few minutes.