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Going Raw for the Fun of It

March 26, 1992|VIANA LA PLACE | La Place is a cookbook author

Many of us think of eating raw vegetables as a punishment meted out to those who must diet. Or, we have visions of the obligatory sticks of dried-out carrots and stringy celery languishing in school lunch bags. Too often, raw vegetables are served without giving them the care and attention they deserve.

Nothing looks quite so inviting or smells so sweetly fragrant as the season's freshest vegetables arranged in a small basket that has been lined with a coarse white cloth napkin. It's one of my favorite ways to begin a meal.

One of the simplest and best combinations is little red radishes topped with tender spring-green leaves; slender strips of carrots; stalks of celery from the heart with their pale green, leafy plumes; and a bunch of skinny green onions (thick ones are too pungent). In their season you can add other vegetables--thin wedges of fennel with a bit of feathery greenery still attached, or baby artichokes, trimmed, just the heart of which is eaten raw.

I love to serve the vegetables just as they are, without any further embellishment, but I might accompany them with a small dish of extra-virgin olive oil, mixed with red wine vinegar or lemon juice and seasoned with fine sea salt, to be used as a dipping sauce for the vegetables. This is called pinzimonio , and it is how Italians celebrate the young and tender new vegetables of the season.

Any of these vegetables can also be served singly with great effect. I sometimes follow the French custom of serving crisp radishes with good bread and a little unsalted butter--the butter serves to tame the peppery bite of the radishes. Or I serve them with bocconcini , miniature snowy-white balls of fresh mozzarella.

Large radishes tend to have spongy flesh and a hollow center. For crisp, juicy radishes, select small ones that feel firm to the touch, crowned with very fresh green leaves. Serve them soon after buying so you can present them with the leaves on, which gives the radishes a fresh-from-the-garden look.

Spring brings delightful peas and fava beans to eat raw. When the first peas appear in the market, place a bowl of the unshelled peas on the table, and each person can shell the peas and eat them along with good bread.

Raw fava beans are one of the great delicacies favored by Mediterranean people. When favas are in season, restaurants in Italy feature the whole pods piled high in baskets. To begin the meal, you are served a dish of unshelled pods, which you then shell yourself. Raw favas are delicious accompanied by sheep's milk cheese or real Italian prosciutto, and coarse country bread. Shelling the beans at the table is not only a wonderful ritual--a relaxed and sociable beginning to a meal--but it also preserves the delicate juices of the young beans, which might dry out if shelled in advance. Select pods containing small peas and favas--they will have superior texture and flavor.

Fennel is extraordinary eaten raw. It has a surprising light licorice flavor and is full of sweet juices. In Italy, it is served raw before the meal, or afterward as a digestivo , an aid to digestion. This was the custom in Sicily, where my mother grew up. In her grandmother's elegant dining room in Palermo, with its high, airy ceilings, shuttered French doors opening out to large balconies, and carved, dark mahogany furniture, her grandmother and my mother would be served a small platter of sliced raw fennel without dressing, eaten to cleanse the palate as well as to promote digestion. The juiciest fennel has an almost pearly sheen to it and fine, white coloring; look for these qualities when shopping for it.

Raw artichokes, perfectly trimmed so that only the tender heart remains, are a wonderful treat and will be a revelation to those who love the special flavor of cooked artichokes. The heart, eaten raw, has the same slightly bitter, nutty flavor of cooked artichokes, only more pronounced, and it leaves the same clean and refreshed taste in the mouth. One way I enjoy serving raw artichokes is thinly sliced with Parmesan cheese. Artichokes served this way must be impeccably fresh. To test for freshness, bend back a leaf--if it is flabby and does not snap off crisply, the artichoke is old and the heart will not be crisp and juicy.

In fall, there are peppers--the red and yellow ones are especially sweet--to dip in a little bath of warm anchovies and olive oil.

And, of course, there is the full complement of vegetables traditionally served raw in salads. These deserve to be appreciated outside the salad bowl too.

Serve beautiful strips of ice-green cucumber--the English variety, which has tender green skin, fine-textured crisp flesh and barely developed seeds--along with a bowl of fruity, sweet red and yellow cherry tomatoes, to snack on a hot afternoon.

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