We like to grow weird vegetables. One of our favorites is spigariello, a member of the large and diverse brassica family. It looks like this:
We get our spigariello seeds from “Seeds from Italy,” a great little company that imports Franchi brand and other Italian seeds for sale in the US. They’re also the source for many of our favorite chicories and beans.
We first grew spigariello at the suggestion of our friend Justin, who had cooked with it in Italy. We didn’t know quite what to expect when we read the description: “many small broccoli tops that will resprout when cut.” It turned out to be a big, bushy plant that eventually formed a very small central flower head that looked a little like broccoli. When you pick the central flower, the plant begins to produce small side branches, which each have a tiny floret of their own. This growth habit allows us to harvest continuously from the same plants for many weeks, since the plants continue to make new shoots to replace the ones we pick.
Botanical side note – this growth habit is typical of brassicas, and is also found in basil and other herbs. Plants produce flowers in order to reproduce, and when you pick their un-opened flowers, some plants are moved to continue to produce these flowering parts ad infinitum. From the plant’s perspective, these flowers are its only chance to reproduce and keep its genes in the gene pool. When we pick them, the plant somehow knows what has happened, and makes more. Pole beans and climbing peas have a similar trait – if you leave a few pods on the plant long enough for the seed inside to mature, the plant will slow its production of new pods. In the “mind” of the plant, it has successfully produced the seeds it needs to pass on its genes, and so has less of a motivation to make more new seed pods.
OK, back to the weird Italian greens. When we harvested our first crop, we cooked it a few different ways. In texture, the leaves of spigariello are similar to a hearty kale, like cavolo nero (aka Lacinato kale or the hated moniker “Dino” kale), but it also has tender, meaty stems (see picture above) that are probably the best part. The stems are a little like broccoli rabe, but less juicy, and a little like chinese broccoli, but less crisp. When we pick them off the plant, we break each flowering shoot at the point where it snaps off easily, which ensures that the whole sprig is tender enough for eating. The flavor is also most similar to kale, but more complex. It’s a little bitter and a little mineral-y, neither of which sounds particularly appealing, but for those of us who love strong flavored vegetables, spigariello has a taste that you can’t find in other greens.
Spigariello’s unusual appearance and funny name make it an attraction at our farmers market stand. Someone will pick up a bunch and say “I’ll take this. What is it?” We usually recommend the following simple preparation:
Cut the stemmy parts into small bits, reserving the leaves. Put the stems in a pan with some olive oil, crushed garlic, and maybe a little water. Cook until softened, turning up the heat a little if you want a little browning. When the stems have slightly softened, roughly chop the leaves and add them to the pan. Cook until done to your liking. In Italy, they might then toss the spigariello with sausage and some red chili flakes and perhaps then add it all to pasta. Come vuoi.
The real reason I wanted to write about spigariello today is because I’m hoping to solve a botanical mystery. The internets tell me that spigariello is just a variety of broccoli, Brassica oleracea, Italica group. All the varieties of Brassica oleracea that I’m familiar with have yellow flowers, with the exception of Chinese cabbage (gai lan) which is in the Alboglabra group. The internets also tell me that the Alboglabra group originated in the Mediterranean. So, what I’m hoping someone will be able to tell me is whether spigariello is actually more closely related to gai lan than to other broccolis. Anyone, anyone? Also, given that these different varieties are all considered to be the same species, can Alboglabra cross breed with Italica?
In my perusals of the internet in search of spigariello information, I have come across other interesting broccoli-like plants. For photos of some other Italian broccoli-like plants, check out “Amici dell’Orto.” The site is in Italian, but if you click around you can see photos of other Italian oddities, like red-veined arugula and lots of crazy melons and squash. However, every site I visited insisted that spigariello, despite its white flowers, is just a variety of broccoli. I don’t believe it’s true!
In any case, I hope you’ll come to the market and try some spigariello for yourself. We’re in the midst of the great freeze of 2010 at the moment, but if we’re lucky, the hardy spigariello plants will survive to see another day. If not, you’ll have to wait until next spring.