Fact: produce is of better quality and taste when in season.
For Italians cooking and eating are essential but as the selection of produce rotates seasonally and lately mass distribution and globalization have confused these rhythmic, natural guidelines, the calendar distinction on our plate has become a little fuzzy.
Here is a list of fruits, vegetables and nuts that are in season in December in the northern hemisphere, and commonly gracing the stalls of markets in Italy.
These wonderful artichokes of Rome are here ’til February and the sensational Mammole bloom in April/May when they are at their peak, but early in December you’ll start seeing spiny violet artichokes at the market.
After being a popular salad ingredient in the ‘70s beetroot is now enjoying somewhat of a comeback. Thanks to its earthy, rich and sweet flavor and distinctive vibrant color, it lends itself to a variety of both sweet and savory preparations. Also beet greens when sauteed with olive olive and garlic are delicious!
Brussel sprouts are related to cabbage – they even look like a miniature, compact version – but they boast a sweeter, more delicate, nutty flavor. They make their appearance on market stalls between October and March, and grow in multiple rows along a thick, central stalk. A true autumn and winter staple, the sprouts can be mixed with fried guanciale (cured pig’s jowl) and maple syrup and black pepper as a nice seasonal kick that keeps the cold season at bay.
Different varieties of cabbage are available all year round. The cabbage, or brassica, family is huge, and includes everything from the familiar red, white or green varieties with heavy heads of tightly packed leaves, to cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts as well as bok choi, popular in Asian cookery. Cabbage itself comes in many forms, and shapes can be flat, conical or round, the heads compact or loose, and the leaves curly or plain. The round, crinkle-leafed Savoy cabbage is considered culinarily superior. Essential to good soups or a bollito misto (boiled meats and veggies), cabbage lends a nutty, rich flavor to all it comes in contact with.
At its best from mid December through to mid April, cauliflower comes in many other colors besides creamy white, various purple shades, dark brown and bright yellow. In Italy we have several varieties, the round white head, whose stalk and green thick outer leaves are discarded, and the unique pointy green Romanesco head, perfect example of fractal imagery in nature, with its branched floret making a logarithmic spiral, repeating itself in self-similarity at varying scales.
Super food par excellence, cavolo nero (lancinato kale, Tuscan kale, black kale or dinosaur) is the popular loose-leafed cabbage from Tuscany whose leaves are a very dark green, almost black, with pleasantly tangy, bitter flavor and a sweet aftertaste. It is a popular ingredient in many classic Italian soups like Ribollita or Zuppa di Magro and is essential for Minestrone.
The unsung hero of the vegetable world is available year round but is at its best from September to April. Knobby, odd-shaped celeriac is recognizeable on the market stall as the weird root with rhino-tough skin. The surprise is the subtle, celery-like flavor, with nutty overtones. Try it as mash, in big-flavored, slow-cooked stews, or in its classic form, and as they do en France, as a remoulade.
Sedano, in Italian, is available all year round, but the season here runs from late July to late February. The tougher outer stalks are the best to cook with, the inner, more tender stalks are better for eating raw. The leafy tops are a great addition to salads. It is essential in a soffritto, or mirepoix in French, the carrot, onion, celery mix that is the mainstay of many dishes.
Although more closely related to garlic, leeks taste (more) like a mild onion but with a hint of sweetness. Available all year round, but at their best from September to March, leeks are very versatile and work well cooked in various recipes or as a side dish.
Lettuce is available all year round in a vast number of varieties, either crisp or floppy. Mainly eaten raw in salads, though Italians add lettuce to soups or braise them as a side dish. Among the most commonly available lettuces in Italy during winter are curly endive (Frisée), Escarole endive, and Catalogna endive (in Rome called puntarelle).
Italian pumpkin season runs from October to late December. Local varieties include the sweet Mantovana, which goes in the filling of typical Modena tortelli; Turbante turco (turban); Marina di Chioggia, knobbly skin, and sweet orange pulp; Grigia di Bologna, grey skin and orange pulp, often used in jams; and the giant Quintale, Italy’s largest variety.
Radicchio’s distinctive red and white leaves are a true hallmark of winter in Italy. Either tapered or shaped like a small cabbage, radicchio in Italy is used both raw in salads, or grilled, braised or cooked in risotto. Radicchio comes in several varieties, the most famous being Rosso di Treviso, which can be either Precoce, fleshy red leaves with white ribs that form a compact bunch, and Tardivo, harvested in the later part of winter, which has much more pronounced ribs and splayed leaves, is more flavorful, with stronger bitter accents.
Belonging to the dandelion family and available in Italian markets between late September and May, salsify is also known as the oyster plant because of its oystery taste when cooked. The root is similar in appearance to a long, thin tapered parsnip, with creamy white flesh and a thick skin.
Topinambur (Jerusalem Artichoke)
At their best from November to March, this vegetable is not truly an artichoke but a lumpy, brown-skinned tuber that often resembles a ginger root. Contrary to what the name implies, this vegetable has nothing to do with Jerusalem. The white flesh of Topinambur is nutty, sweet and crunchy and is a good source of iron. The Piedmontese peel it and, once it’s cut in chunks, dip it in bagna càuda.
You can buy winter turnips all year-round, although peak season is from October to February. Creamy-white with lovely purple, red or greenish upper part where the taproot has been exposed to sunlight. Before the arrival of the potato, turnips were one of the main sources of sustenance for Italian peasants. Turnip leaves or ‘greens’ (locally called cime di rapa) can also be eaten boiled, steamed, stir-fried. Orecchiette with Turnip greens are a typical Puglia specialty.
Available all year round, Italian apples are at their best from September through January. Cinnamony flavored and ugly-looking Annurche apples are a delight, and gourmands await winter months in order to indulge in these little mouthfuls of happiness. The most popular varieties besides the Annurche are Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious.
Better catch them while they last, which is a small window between November and February. This sweetest variety of tangerine is sweet and tangy, contains no seeds and is recognisable by its loose, baggy bright orange skin. Clementine segments can be eaten on their own or dipped in melted chocolate. The zest can be candied or used to make “mandarinetto” liqueur, a close relative of limoncello. As opposed to Mandarins, which originated in China, and Tangerines which arrived in Europe in the 1800’s by way of North Africa, exported through the port of Tangier (hence the name), the Clementine varietal was created by a French missionary in Algeria over 100 years ago, named Marie-Clement Rodier.
Loti or Kaki (Persimmon)
Though originally from the Orient, you’ll see plenty of persimmon trees in the Italian countryside. The actual fruits are quite firm until they ripen, at which point they become voluptuously soft, with a silky mouthfeel and the texture of a water balloon. The many varieties of persimmon ripen from October through March. Ripe persimmons are very delicate, and you’ll see them in Italian markets carefully packed in padded styrofoam trays or mesh.
Pomegranates have always been highly prized for their flavor, but their recent emergence as a highly nutritious superfood, packed with antioxidant vitamins, has made them even more popular. Available as the colder months set in, pomegranates appear in Italian markets in November in their shiny orbs, blushed with red or yellow. Inside, scores of edible tiny white seeds are held in jewel-like ruby sacs of sweet, juicy flesh. The sacs themselves are packed tightly in a bitter, pale yellow pith.
In season from September through to January, pears boast sweet, granular flesh which is delicate and that bruises easily when ripe, so always buy slightly underripe (they should be firm but not hard). Pears ripen from the inside out!
When ripe, quince are very fragrant, with smooth, golden yellow skin. Their hard, bitter flesh is used almost exclusively for cooking, rather than eaten raw. Once cooked, the flesh develops a deeper flavor and turns a golden pink. Quinces contain high level of pectin, which makes them great for making jellies, jams and other preserves, such as the Italian quince paste, cotognata, which is often served with cheese. Quince is in season from late September through January.
NUTS & DRIED FRUIT
Fresh chestnuts are around from the end of September to the end of January. Caldarroste (open fire-roasted chestnusts) are sold on the street in Italy, releasing their unique comforting and Christmassy aroma. The sweet, crumbly nut also provides Italians (and Tuscans, in particular) with chestnut flour which is employed in interesting desserts like castagnaccio (a gluten-free brownie of sorts, added with raisins, pine nuts and rosemary needles) and necci, which are delightful chestnut flour pancakes. In contrast to other nuts, chestnuts have a low oil and a high water content (hence their unique, soft texture) and should never be eaten raw. An old Italian wives tale says eating raw chestnust will give you head lice!
Dates are sweet, with a rich, deep flavor and a lush, slightly chewy texture. The mahogany brown Medjool variety is the sweetest, and tastes a little like toffee. Dates are one of the oldest cultivated fruits: it’s thought that they were a staple part of the Babylonian diet 8,000 years ago. At Christmas time Italians indulge in dried fruits and nuts, and dates – either stuffed with almonds, plain, or smeared with salted butter – are a big part of that sweet meal ending. Dried dates are available the whole year round, but the fresh type are at their best between October and January.