Any idea what this is?
Oh, did you get distracted by the beauty outside my kitchen window? I do too, constantly.
Every spring, when the wisteria blooms, I open the windows, breathe in the fragrance and take a million pictures. I have the same identical pictures from the last seven years (which those of you who follow me on Instagram - unfortunately for you - already know).
Never mind that that plant is a major pain in the butt the rest of the year: it is invasive, it is destroying the façade of the building, it gets gnarled in the mechanism of our rolling shades (breaking them more than once). It manages to somehow grow through our window frame. To top it all off, a bird colony has nested right over our window. At first I was excited, but that changed quickly when they started crapping all over my window panes, window sill and all the leaves beneath their nests. They squabble and fight all the time and chirp in an eerie hitchockesque manner in the middle of the night.
Not to mention the branches are bare and gnarly and full of bird droppings in the winter too; or that it is so overgrown in the summer, barely any daylight gets into the kitchen. Or that every year an army of guys with saws invade my apartment to prune it, leaving a mess of leaves and broken branches and yes, bird s**t, all over my kitchen to clean up.
But it is beautiful for two weeks a year, I'll give you that.
Back to my initial query. Do you know this vegetable?
In Italy this plant is best known as barba dei frati (which translates into friars' beard) or agretti, but also called lischi or ruscano. Still, I only discovered it in recent years, maybe because I didn't pay attention to these kind of things, or perhaps because it is experiencing a revival? I am not sure, but what I do know is that barba dei frati now means spring has arrived to me.
I'll be honest: I had to do a little research on the web (thank you Wikipedia!) to tell you more about this plant, but I made some interesting discoveries along the way.
It is an annual plant that grows in small shrubs along the Mediterranean coasts, mainly Italy, North Africa and Spain, and can be irrigated by both sweet water and salt water. Its stems are reddish and must be discarded before cooking. The plant is eaten when it is young and tender and the flavor resembles the mineral-rich flavor of spinach, but with a fresher, grassier note, and more body.
Historically, however, it was much more than just a leafy green vegetable. The name Salsola soda derives from its use: this plant used to be burned to obtain soda ash, whose main active ingredient is sodium carbonate, used to make soap and soda lime glass, the most common kind of glass used.
In Venice, or more specifically Murano, soda ash was a key (and secret) ingredient for making their famous glass, known for its clarity and purity.
So while the Scots were producing soda ash from kelp, in Mediterranean countries it was being produced from Salsola soda (the Spanish had a flourishing industry producing this ingredient, called barilla after the plant named barrilla in Spanish).
Barba dei frati is known to have purifying properties (the minerals and chlorophyll help the body and blood get rid of impurities, cholesterol and triglycerides) and is rich in minerals, vitamin C, B3, calcium and potassium.
We usually just boil it in salt water (or steam it) and then dress it with olive oil and plenty of lemon juice, but I would love to hear about the different ways you make it!