We planted some agretti (salsola soda) this spring. It sounds like a drink, but it’s actually something you eat. I’d been aware of this strange green vegetable for some time – the Italians love it and it is often served in restaurants during early spring. Occasionally I had spotted it at my local greengrocer, who specialises in Italian produce, but what was the story of this curious, green, succulent plant with bunches of spikey tendrils?
Agretti has a pleasing lemony, green flavour, a sort of tangy grassiness. I like to blanch it briefly, keeping the texture lightly crunchy. It’s not dissimilar to spinach, but with a more interesting texture and mineral flavour and can be used as a substitute. Agretti goes well with simply cooked fish, pasta with crab, tossed with steamed clams or mixed with other cooked leaves to add structure and bite.
I searched some seed catalogues and discovered a source (Seeds of Italy). As soon as it arrived in the post, I got on with it and planted some. The joy of planting and growing your own salads and vegetables, apart from the obvious wonder of seeing new life pierce through the earth, is having a supply of delicious ingredients, fresh, on hand and ready to cook with. And with agretti going for £5 a bunch in the greengrocer, it had to be worth a try.
We planted it in small window box shaped containers, covered it during the colder months then left it to get on with growing. As soon as the sun came out, we took off the polythene tent that had keep it warm and watched as a forest of green spikes shot out of the soil.
Since then, we just carry on harvesting it and it keeps growing back.
A bunch of strands, lightly blanched and added to crab linguine is one of my favourite ways to eat it. The green stalks weave through the pasta to give it streaks of colour and freshness amongst the rich shellfish. It’s also interesting as a substitute for spaghetti strands, served with a slow cooked tomato sauce, sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs and doused with olive oil. Or tossed with peppery rocket in a roasted beetroot salad, the crunchy, lemony bite contrasting with soft sweet flesh of the vegetable.
For last night’s dinner, I dressed it with a sauce of bottarga (cured mullet roe), lemon and oil and ate it as a side dish with baked sole and clams. The best combination so far.
This strange little green plant not only tastes wonderful, but the rarity of it makes it so satisfying to grow. Who knew the pleasure a packet of seeds could bring.
Agretti – some facts:
Salsola soda (or saltwort) is a salt tolerant plant, which grows wild in coastal regions, mainly in the Mediterranean
Although it doesn’t grow wild during the summer, you can cultivate it during the summer months, plant the seeds in early spring to harvest in June and July
Salsola soda was historically used as a source of soda ash – an alkali substance crucial for glassmaking
Bottarga sauce recipe
½ lemon, juiced
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Grate the bottarga into a bowl and mix with the lemon juice. It will dissolve into a thick sauce.
Add the oil, a little at a time, stirring to make an emulsion. Season with black pepper.
Use this to dress the cooked agretti and loosen with some cooking water to coat well.