Christmas Vegetables - Italian Style

, written by Wendy Holloway it flag

Market vegetables

Italy has a well deserved reputation for culinary excellence combined with a deep appreciation of great-tasting fresh produce. So what better place to get inspiration for a Christmas feast than the country where beautiful food sourced from local markets is treasured and savored? Wendy Holloway has spent the last 14 years introducing people to the wonders of Italian cuisine through her cookery school and gastronomic tours in Rome. In this special guest article, she guides us through the essential components of a truly Italian Christmas and will be answering your questions about Italian cuisine in the comments below:

The traditional Italian Christmas meal varies substantially from north to south as each region has its own unique culinary tradition. Yet some things hold true across all regions. The Christmas meal usually starts off with tortellini in brodo, a homemade pasta stuffed with pork loin and prosciutto cooked in a delicious meat broth and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Lamb with roast potatoes is almost always the main course dish. There’s hardly a single Italian household that doesn’t serve the traditional panettone or pandoro for dessert. Panettone is a six inch high bread like cake, filled with raisins and other candied and dried fruit, most closely resembling raisin bread. Dessert is accompanied by spumante (a sparking wine) to toast the season and well-being of all.

Italians then embark on an afternoon or evening of game playing, usually tombola, a bingo-like game played only in the Christmas season. For snacks, Clementine oranges are often eaten and the bits of peel are used to mark their tombola board. They also snack on torrone, a delicious nougat filled with almonds or hazelnuts.

Chicory cooked with garlic and pancetta
Chicory cooked with garlic and pancetta, Italian style

Preparing Vegetables

But what about Christmas side dishes? Here there is more variety from region to region. Italians love hearty dark green vegetables that veer towards a bitter flavor, and cook the leaves of all their winter vegetables from broccoli to Brussels sprouts. If you wish to try this, then make sure that the vegetable leaves are steamed or boiled until tender. Next, prepare a soffrito by sizzling garlic and hot pepper in olive oil. The steamed vegetable leaves should then be sautéed in the soffitto, salted to taste and served. Alternatively the steamed vegetables can be served all’agro (with olive oil and lemon juice).

Christmas in central and northern Italy also regularly features thistle-like vegetables from the Aster family, such as artichokes and cardoons. One unique form of cardoon, and our personal family favorite, is gobbo. Gobbo, meaning hunchback, is a cardoon that during the growing phase, when the plant is tender and young, has been bent to its side (hence the name gobbo) and buried. The plant then continues to grow underground to maturity. Since the cardoon is not exposed to sunlight it remains tender and milk white, enhancing the texture and flavor in a similar way to forcing chicory or rhubarb.

Preparing cardoons
Preparing cardoons by removing the fillament-like threads

Cooking Cardoons

The cardoon most closely resembles a celery stalk, yet the taste is reminiscent of an artichoke. Cardoon preparation can be laborious because the thread like filaments on the outside of each individual piece of the cardoon stalk must be removed. To keep the vegetable from turning brown you need to keep them in a lemon water solution. The cardoon pieces are then towel dried, dusted in flour and pan fried in olive oil until tender. These can then be eaten as is or baked in a béchamel and cheese sauce. My favorite is gobbo alla parmigiana, similar to eggplant parmesan. The fried gobbo is placed in a baking pan with alternating layers of tomato sauce (peeled fresh tomatoes simmered until thickened with olive oil and garlic), freshly grated mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese. This dish can be prepared in advance and either baked and then frozen or frozen prior to baking. On Christmas day bake it in the oven and surprise your guests with some true Italian Christmas tradition in your own home!

The final dish of gobbo, cooked and ready to serve

Wendy will be answering any queries you have about preparing Italian vegetables and food, so please add a comment below if you have any questions or would like to give your own ideas...

[You can find out more about Wendy's company, Flavor of Italy, and their cooking classes, holidays, tours and accommodation on their website:]

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Show Comments


"You'd be right, Wendy, about Italy and food. I suspect we have the ancient Romans to thank; "an army marches on its belly" as the saying goes and so the Roman Army brought its culinary delights to the lands it occupied. My own tastes are more Mediterranean and I have consciously moved away from eating quite so much meat. I now enjoy my veg far more. I was honoured some years ago to attend an Italian wedding (near Rome) and I am curious to know the history of why Italians have so many courses (we had 15). Also I'd be interested to know if are there customs to follow in creating such a gastronomic event as I'd like to have an Italian-style 'banquet' at the end of this year to celebrate my harvest."
Kevin Hannan on Friday 1 January 2010
"Kevin, It sounds like your harvest banquet will be wonderful! Italians take great pride in their culinary traditions and treasure the meal as a time to get together and enjoy friends and family. Meals always have a minimum of five courses: appetizer, first course (pasta, rice, soup), main course (meat or fish), side dishes and dessert. For more special occasions many dishes will be served in each category and so it's easy to get up to 15 or more courses, as you experienced at your Roman wedding last year. So how do Italians manage to get through such a large meal? One key factor is that portions are smaller. Dishes are also consumed over many hours. My suggestion for your harvest banquet is to feature the harvest's produce in your meal and to select dishes that are special in your region. If this banquet will be part of a wedding celebration be sure to give each guest "confetti": candied almonds representing the sweet and bitter sides of life. The candies are usually wrapped in tulle, and are given to each guest as a wedding favor. Let me know where your banquet will be taking place and I'll be happy to give you more region-specific suggestions!"
Wendy Holloway on Sunday 3 January 2010
"Thanks, Wendy, for your kind reply. 2010 is a big year for me for many reasons; one of them is this year will be a proving ground for me towards self-sustenance. Critical to this has been the warmth and friendships that gardening and growing has brought, on-line and on-ground. For the price of a friendly tip, maybe a cutting or two shared, brings a combined wealth of experience that can only bring greater fruit to bear upon ones own efforts. There's no way I can remember all I am told and so the Grow Guides here help to reinforce all the important information. Without trying to sound totally barmy I am hoping to source my feast as locally as possible, for example, my wheat for the home-made pasta is just a few miles away and the free-range eggs from a local farm. I live in the North of England near York in Yorkshire. I have been promised local wild rabbits and North Sea fish by two other chaps who share my thoughts. (I'm afraid the fishing sounds rather more grand than it is - the fish will be caught at the end of a pier!) I also expect to recover some Grouse road-kill along the A64 route around York. Another friend grows berries (I have none as yet) from which I hope to make a fruit sorbet to cleanse ones palate between fish, meat and vegan courses. So along with the veg I expect to grow I'm hoping for a memorable feast! I'd love to read your thoughts, Wendy, as well as other people who are reading this, as the best events are those which are shared in all its stages."
Kevin Hannan on Sunday 3 January 2010
"Thanks Wendy for your interesting article. This year I have grown Cavolo Nero , an Italian kale following a course at or local organic farm shop but am unsure how to cook it. It seems bland just steamed."
Jacqui Howlett on Sunday 3 January 2010
"May I pip in here, Jacqui, Wendy? Cavolo Nero is like a black loose leaf cabbage from the Tuscany region and I have used it thinly sliced (no fibrous veins) in Minestrone style soups."
Kevin Hannan on Monday 4 January 2010
"Jacqui, Cavolo nero is great in soups. It can be used to make cabbage rolls, which you can then freeze. The most common way to cook cavolo nero in Italy, and all green vegetables for that matter, is "saltata in padella": saute' some fresh garlic and hot pepper in olive oil, add your steamed and chopped cavolo nero and cook several minutes. This is always a tasty option! If you wish, add a bit of pancetta as well. Please take a look at the new Flavor of Italy food blog for other delicious recipes!"
Wendy Holloway on Monday 4 January 2010
"The key to a healthy and long life is to eat everything in moderation that includes cutting down on meat, increasing vegetable intake. Eating seasonally, do not be afraid of using butter, cream, oil, eggs, cheese and all the items you are told not to eat but everything in moderation is fine. The addition of grains, pulses and other fibre into the diet can only help. In a word the Italian diet is good but then the Mediteranean in general is good for you, watch the High End French food it is a bit more substantial but classic French country cooking as in Elizabeth David is good. We often forget that Egypt, Morroco, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Palestine are in the Med as well, there food is interesting. Watch traditional European Jewish cooking generally good for you but can be a no no for the weight conscious. Eastern European food is interesting as well, steer clear of Austrian pastries, they are not good for you, step away from the counter. Partly based on Jewish pastisserie. New Europe countries have interesting food try Hungary, Bulgaria etc. Seasonality and Freshness of produce are the key that and home made bread, dump the sliced Chorley process loaf it is rubbish. I for one eat all of these types of food, the more substantial stew types in autumn and winter, Italian in summer, French all the time and traditional English which can be a revelation when cooked properly. Most of all food should be enjoyed and the over demonisation of you should eat this or not eat that is frankly not good for you. Neither should eating food be punishment sorry a lot of vegetarian food is just that unless of course it is Italian and they do it well. But having said that I make a barm brack which I fed to friend of mine who is very much anti-veggie because of the perceived punishement factor. That barm brack is delicious and has no added fat and only one egg. However if you smother it in butter than of course it is not so healthy I prefer to eat it plain or with home made preserve current favourite Rhubarb and elderflower. Eat and enjoy that is what the Italians do, so if you can not beat them join them, as a preference I prefer southern Italian cooking. Tuscany has been over egged pun intended and norther Italian heavy on dairy, not olive oil. But remember what ever fat it is or whatever it is that you are eating, there is no such thing as good or bad fat but in moderation everything is good for you. And yes Cardoons were on my must grow list, not grown much in the UK, consider passe as they were popular in Victorian times. My grandmother used to eat them however she was not born in that era but post Edwardian. But most important of all enjoy food!!! "
Steve C on Saturday 11 June 2011
"Hello! I have a vegetable plant from Italia. But i don't know its name! Held me! Thank you! I can't post its images here."
Phan Thành Khuong (Vietnam) on Thursday 12 December 2013

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