For a few weeks in early spring, I have the pleasure of eating one of those vegetables I didn’t know existed before coming to Italy. Barba di frate or agretti in Italian. “Monk’s beard” in English. This lovely, dense, grass-like vegetable of a deep green color combines the flavors of spinach and seaweed. It’s slightly resistant to the tooth, if not overcooked, but lacks the grittiness that can be a part of the spinach experience. And given its shape, it marries beautifully with long pastas like spaghetti or linguine, although it is delicious simply sautéed with peperoncino and garlic.
When preparing it with the aforementioned pastas, start a sauté (or soffritto in Italian) in olive oil of onion and pancetta affumicata, or speck, cut into a relatively small dice. Add a half cup or so of white wine and keep at a simmer, so that when the pasta is cooked, the sauce is ready, free of alcohol and hot. At some point during this process—I’m whimsical about when exactly—I add a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. Meanwhile, boil a pot of abundant, salted water. When the water is rolling, add the pasta together with the washed monk’s beard, and let them cook together, simultaneously. If you find that your onion/pancetta mixture is becoming too dry, ladle liquid off the pasta water to keep the moisture balance correct. When the pasta is nearly cooked, strain it and the monk’s beard, then sauté quickly together with the waiting sauce to finish. Serve immediately with fresh grated parmigiano.
This is just one recipe of many for pasta in which the principal vegetable in the accompanying sauce can be cooked together with the pasta. These preparations are easy and delicious. I will follow up with others shortly.