Winter Vegetables Smoky, Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingListening: Antonin Dvorak, Romance for Piano and Violin Op. 11

After 26 winters, I am finally starting to see how charming the light is in January and February.
Here in the countryside, sunny winters are blessed with a warm light that is pink and beautiful, and the ice glistening on the grass against that light gleams and glitters like the wings of a faery. Every sunset looks like descending divinity amongst the bare branches of the trees, on which, if you look close, you can see the new buds, and I see spring in them as if I were dreaming a dream the moment before waking.
How could I fail to see winter’s beauty up until now?
Now, my personal hour of freedom away from the craziness of work and news are walks in the countryside, bathed in the beautiful pink light of winter. No music, no phone: it is just me, here and now. It is the closest I could ever get to meditation.
And I think ok those who walked these lands before me.
My great grandfather, who was an illiterate man but lived in sync with all natural phenomena, lived in sync with the light – be it of the sun or the moon: They knew that garlic, carrots and roots should be planted during the new moon, while lettuces and greens shall grow better on a crescent moon. I am more and more drawn towards this sync with the Earth, and recognize how blessed I am. 

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking
I realized that, as I walk, I remember this knowledge that was passed down to me – along with pasta making and many other things – and take mental note of where all the edible herbs and greens are, so I’ll be able to come back and forage them when the time is ripe. Each kind leaves hints around them: burnt stems, or browned leaves, or even flowers. Without even thinking, I learned to recognize each root, leaf, petal and seed.
Many of the various edible herbs and greens – I could name at least 20 I could harvest during my walks – are, incredibly, all flowering right now. According to the rhythms of nature, no green should be eaten while flowering – always before. The pretty white flowers you see in the photos belong to a plant called sheperd’s purse, or Capsella Bursa Pastoris. many of their names I just managed to figure out by research, as I learned to know them following my mom’s wise eyes. But I can now identify those tasty greens: Barbarea Vulgaris, Malva Sylvestris, Chichorium Inthybus, Papaver Rhoea, Picris Echoides, Portulaca Oleracea, Sonchus Asper, Taraxacum Officinale, Urtica Dioica, Calamintha Nepeta, Mentha Suaveolens, and many more. I find myself calling out their beautiful names as I see them, remembering their name in dialect, never sure what their name in Italian is, save for some. Their names express their properties: when a plant is called officinalis, it means it was used in medicine. Suaveolens means it is sweet-smelling. On the contrary, graveolens means strong-smelling. I love to let my imagination revel in those names and think of all the possible recipes that could come out of them.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

This pretty flower here is a wild green that is called Sheperd’s bag, or Capsella Bursa Pastoris. It is a delicious wild greens I usually forage to cook with other greens to use as a filling for piadina or ravioli. But, as it is flowering, I will need to wait until the spring to forage it.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking
Those greens are in sync with the light, too. And I am learning to be, as well, almost without thinking. The light, here in Romagna, is the color of our produce: the fruits like peaches, strawberries, plums, and the abundance of greens are all the result of our light, which hits us first from the East. How different is the light in other parts of Italy!
All farmers and winemakers say it: the secret is in the light

Still, it is no time for those wild greens now. For those, I will come back after the rains, and I will remember where they flowered and collect their new spawn. The light now – or lack thereof – tells me it is time for all those vegetables that grow under the earth, and it is time for the darkest of leaves – kale in all of its forms: purple, curly, lacinato. Grandmas in Tuscany, where kale is one of the most common vegetables, say that it is at its best after the frost. I love the meaty, licorice-y, intense, soft cooked winter vegetables, probably more than I love summer vegetables. I embrace all the foul smell of cruciferous vegetables as they cook, and I delight in the pale, almost timid hues of greens, whites and purples of beets, romanescos and apples. I love the warmth of spices like nutmeg and cinnamon and pungent flavors smoke and cheese molds: all additions that smell like a fireplace, and are equally warm and cozy.
This recipe was born from the love of those flavors, and from the inspiration that light bestowed upon me and after my daily walk of meditation.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

This breakfast bake is quick, easy to make, and a really good way to wake up in the morning. I started making it when I realized how much better my body works if I stick to savory breakfasts, and it has become a staple for me – even without cheese. Sometimes I sub pumpkin for celeriac, following exactly the same process. In this case, I do not use cardoons and add more pumpkin (just substitute the 3.5 oz cardoons with the same weight in pumpkin). Because it is something I like to have for breakfast, I want there to be fat and protein, but I do not want to overdo it with the fat – hence the egg whites and the relatively small amount of cheese. Adjust the cheese to taste – 1/4 cup is really very little cheese, so go ahead and use at least 1/2 cup if you want more of a full bodied dish.

VARIATIONS
My favorite version of this casserole always has something smoky, and I always make it differently: Last time I made this, I did not use the cardoons and cheese, but added some smoky diced speck to the initial stir-fry (so it ended up being speck, celeriac and kale). Another time I made it with Pumpkin, chestnut flour and smoked scamorza. You could use blue cheese instead of the scamorza, or any cheese you can easily find. You could use sweet potatoes or boiled romanesco or boiled broccoli instead of the celeriac. Or whatever you fancy. I know it will be delicious anyways!

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole
 
Serves 4
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter (or coconut oil, or more olive oil)
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 200 g kale (7 oz - a small bunch) (lacinato or curly), chopped
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) cardoons, trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces
  • 300 g (10.5 oz - about half a small one) Celeriac, peeled and cubed
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons chickpea or buckwheat or regular flour
  • ¼ cup to ½ cup smoked scamorza (or other smoked cheese), grated
  • Parmigiano to top
Instructions
  1. Add the fats to a large pan, and add the onion. Stir-fry until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the cardoons and sauté for a couple minutes, then add the kale and cook until wilted, about 2 more minutes. Finally, add the cubed celeriac along with a scant ½ cup water. Add salt (about a scant teaspoon), a pinch of pepper, and the nutmeg. Cover, and let cook until the celeriac easily gives in to the pressure about 25 minutes, adding water if the vegetables stick. When done, uncover and let all the water evaporate. Turn off the heat and keep covered.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ / 200 C˚
  4. Separate the egg white from the yolk, and add the egg white to a large bowl along with the other whites. Add the yolk into a large bowl that will eventually contain all the ingredients, and mix it with the flour. Add the cooked vegetables and the cheese, and stir to coat (there will be a large amount of vegetables compared to the yolk and flour). Whip the whites until nice and stiff, adding a pinch of salt, and fold them into the vegetables.
  5. Line a baking dish with baking paper and pour the mix into it. Cover with a nice grating of parmigiano and, if you fancy, add slivered almonds or breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil. Bake until the top is golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
  6. It is best served hot, but it is also delicious cold. It reheats wonderfully in the oven. You can also portion it and freeze it, then reheat it straight in the oven in the morning.

NOTE: If you’re interested in adhering to #immigrantfoodstories, an initiative to share recipes from countries tortured by war, or from any kind of American immigrant, the date to publish seems to be February 7th. Wether you post sooner or later (or at all), It will be a nice collection of recipes!

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

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