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Agretti (aka Friar’s Beard) with Olive Oil

You may be lucky enough to run across this vegetable at a farmers’ market in late spring or early summer, and if you do, grab it! Agretti tastes a lot like spinach, but with a slight saline tang to it, and a more chewy, resilient, slippery texture. It is absolutely delicious. I always loved agretti on my trips to Italy, but never found it here until we went to the the Ramsey, NJ Farmers’ Market this week. To my surprise, Blooming Hill Farm had some (along with a huge array of other greens) so I snapped up a bunch and cooked it for lunch.

In Italy, agretti also go by the name barbe di frate (friar’s beard), and they grow abundantly in central Italy. They’re usually just boiled or steamed, and served with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper, though some people also drizzle them with lemon juice. I find the lemon juice superfluous as it masks the natural brightness of agretti. When preparing agretti for cooking, take the thin, delicate leaves off the thicker central stems, then wash thoroughly in several changes of cool water.

On a historical note, agretti’s Latin name is Salsola soda, and in ancient times, the plant (which grows across the Mediterranean and can even be irrigated with saltwater) was an important source of soda ash. Soda ash is one of the alkali substances crucial to glassmaking and soapmaking, and apparently, it was the key ingredient that ensured the famous clarity of glass from Murano and Venice.

Serves 2

  • 1 bunch agretti (about 1/2 pound)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Wash the agretti in several changes of cool water. Strip off the thin, delicate leaves from the thick central stems. Discard the thick stems and wash the tender leaves again in several changes of cool water until the water runs clear.

Bring 1 quart of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of the salt. Boil the agretti for 3 minutes, or until just crisp-tender. Drain and cool under running water. Squeeze dry gently with your hands (a little moisture is ok, but if the agretti is water-logged, the flavor will be diluted).

Place in a bowl and add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, the olive oil, and the pepper. Toss well, taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed. Serve at room temperature.

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