The markets of Rome are always ablaze with color, but as the weather gets warmer and the variety of produce grows, the vivid hues have intensified. This past Saturday at the Campo de’Fiori was a riot of spring colors, but it was the reds that leapt out and grabbed my attention.
Locals elbowed wide-eyed tourists for space and the usual Italian cluster mobs had formed, but the hand-to-hand mortal combat wasn’t enough to distract me from seeing red at every turn, bright and deep, from pink to purple. The last of the apples were being nudged by baskets of tiny fragole di bosco, or wild forest strawberries, delicate, variegated Radicchio di Castelfranco nodded to me in the breeze, and tomatoes of every shape and size from Sicily screamed of juicy ripeness.
I finally decided on an overflowing basket of plump strawberries from the volcanic lakes outside of Rome, and a gorgeous bunch of beets with their succulent, pink-green tops still attached. Some potatoes came home with me too, and I knew exactly what I would make for dinner. Plans and lists get the job done, but the spontaneous nature of a market menu is really at the heart of Italian cooking: using what is best and most abundant at the market that day to create the most satisfying of meals.
Saffron Gnocchi with Beet Greens and Pancetta
I transformed the potatoes into gnocchi, tinting them a sunny yellow with the L’Aquila saffron I brought back with me from my recent trip to Abruzzo. To do this yourself, simply steep a small pinch of saffron threads in 1 to 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Allow the mixture to cool, and then add the liquid with the egg to your recipe; I halved Mario’s recipe, which I find to be pretty foolproof; I usually freeze what I am not using in a single layer and store them plastic bags.
The rest of the prep for two servings of Saffron Gnocchi with Beet Greens and Pancetta is simple: Wash the greens and stems from 5 or 6 young beets and pat them dry, then chop them coarsely. In a large sauté pan, render a small handful of diced pancetta in two tablespoons of olive oil until it begins to turn crisp; remove it from the pan, and sauté the greens and stems in the pancetta fat with a pinch of salt. Cook the gnocchi in salted water at a full, rolling boil. Return the pancetta to the pan with the greens, and when the gnocchi are cooked, add them to the hot pan with a tiny splash of the cooking water and a dribble of olive oil. Toss over the heat for a few moments, then grate over some Pecorino Romano and serve immediately.
The flavor of the saffron was a perfect foil for crispy richness of the pancetta and the subtle bitterness of the beet greens. For an antipasti that fit perfectly into my “red” menu, I roasted the beets to intensify their sweetness and sliced them, dressing them simply with paper thin slices of red onion, minced parsley, red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.
The strawberries were perfection, just sprinkled with some sugar and steeped in a few splashes from an open bottle of red wine. This menu was a great way to celebrate a rainbow of red colors and flavors on a golden spring day.