For Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms, one of the most prized plants this season is spigariello, a leafy cool-season green that tastes like broccoli and keeps growing after you've harvested it. Spigariello resembles broccoli rabe (aka rapini) in appearance but has white flowers and a sweeter, slightly peppery taste.
Ruggless is a third-generation Italian American, and Winnetka Farms, the half-acre homestead he and partner Gary Jackemuk have developed in the San Fernando Valley to promote homegrown cooking and backyard gardening as means to self sufficiency, could be straight out of Naples.
“I grow the same varieties that my great-grandfather grew in southern Italy,” he says. “I have the same seed varieties in my collection that are specifically from the region he was from.”
The many varieties of spigariello present differing leaf structures — curly, smooth, thin, fat. All have a pleasant kale-like texture and crunch. Spigariello is grown for the edible immature leaves, not the small florets that develop, as in broccoli.
Spigariello has long been used by chefs, but is still difficult to find outside of farmers markets. It's often used with chili peppers and black olives and is at home on top of pizzas, raw in a salad or as a stand-alone saute. It turns dark green when cooked, Ruggless says, and is an essential ingredient in black soup, a Naples speciality.
Ruggless and Jackemuk are harvesting seeds from the plants that have gone to flower. The flowers, Ruggless notes, are white, not yellow as with most broccolis, indicating an Asian heritage.
“It came from Asia and over time evolved into a unique variety associated with Southern Italy, specifically Naples," Ruggless says. "It’s an old heirloom, and as long as you don’t cross it with another brassica, you can save the seed.”
Some of his collected seeds will be donated to the San Fernando Seed Library, and some will go into the ground soon for fall harvest. He may expand the patch to have even more plants in the ground.
“To me a garden that grows food is literally an extension of the kitchen, an extension of the refrigerator and pantry," he says. "Food is food whether it’s out in the garden in the soil or in the house.”
You can find seeds — labeled "Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglia Riccia" — at Grow Italian.
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