Agretti is a deep-green, spindly vegetable that goes by many names, including barba di frate ("friar's beard" in Italian), roscana, marsh samphire, barilla, "chicken claws," salicorne, and glasswort. To further confuse things, the iconic Silver Spoon cookbook connects the name "barba di frate" with buck's horn plantain (Plantago coronopus) and other plants also go by the name of marsh samphire and glasswort.
I first heard of agretti during a fascinating talk about salad greens at a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Northern California (CHONC). The speaker was farmer and writer Andy Griffin* — who currently runs Mariquita Farm in San Benito County, California — and he recounted the early days of the salad-mix business, which coincided with the early days of the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.
The main focus of Griffin's talk was how the salad of baby greens went from a food of necessity for peasants in France — people would plant seeds relatively close together, then when it came time to thin the crops, would eat the thinnings along with various greens gathered from the wild — to gourmet restaurant fare at Chez Panisse and other upscale places, to something you see in every grocery store, at every banquet, and on every restaurant menu. Griffin also mentioned that he was very excited about an Italian plant called agretti and was one of the few growers in the state.
Agretti and its relatives have interesting histories and potentially promising futures. Its alternate name glasswort refers to it being a source of a key ingredient in glass-making. Agretti can grow in soil with relatively high concentrations of sodium (it is "halophytic") and it sequesters the sodium in its structures as it grows. When dried and burned, the resulting ash contains high levels of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), which is a key ingredient in the production of glass. The plant and its halophytic relatives have been used in this way since antiquity.
The plant's love of salt means that it can be grown on lands that have soil that are too salty for other plants, or as a companion plant to non-salt-tolerant plants in slightly salty soils. For example, a group of Italian researchers wrote a paper for the New Zealand Journal of Crop and Horticultural Science that described experiments where S. soda was planted in greenhouses in the same containers as peppers (Capsicum annuum). In soil with moderate salt concentration, the paired planting led to significant yield increases of peppers, as the agretti took up some of the salinity from the soil, thus protecting the more fragile pepper plants. At higher salt concentrations, however, there were no positive effects from the co-planting.
Another interesting fact about agretti is that it is a relative of Salsola tragus, the classic tumbleweed seen in Westerns (and anywhere a director wants to infuse a landscape with a sense of loneliness, e.g., numerous cartoons like The Simpsons, or transience, like the opening of The Big Lebowski).
Like a dessicated head of tumbleweed, I seem to have rolled off my narrative path, so let's get back to the point: agretti is edible and quite delicious.
It has a slightly sour, grassy flavor. Raw, it has some elasticity. It is a versatile vegetable, suitable for sauteing, braising, boiling along with a variety of accompaniments. A page at Mariquita Farm has a collection of recipes and links to even more recipes at other sites. The vegetable appears in Bay Area restaurants on occasion, like San Francisco's four-star Coi (according to a review in the Chronicle), Citizen Cake, Aziza, A16 and SPQR (via the Tablehopper) and Napa's Ubuntu.
I had some fregola (also spelled fregula) in my pantry from a previous cooking adventure with The Flexitarian Table, so I adapted the fregola recipe from the book to give a simple platform to the agretti, while also using in-season tomatoes and basil.
Fregola is a somewhat uncommon dry pasta that originated in Sardinia. The pasta pieces are spherical, about the size of peppercorns and usually toasted. Among its 310 entries, The Encyclopedia of Pasta has an entry for fregola, noting that the word derives from the Latin ferculum — meaning "crumb," a reference to its size — or from the word fricare — meaning "to rub," a reference to the process of making the pasta, where coarse semolina flour is rubbed by hand in a flat shallow dish with salted water. The encyclopedia notes the importance of this pasta to Sardinia via an old proverb: "give me a husband, because I know how to make fregula." Although it states that the pasta is "always in broth-based soups with varied additions," my dish is somewhat closer to a risotto or thick pasta soup.
Below I have sketched out a recipe for fregola with agretti and tomatoes (what I'm calling "twigs and pebbles"). If you can't find fregola or want to try something else, you'll need to adapt the method significantly. For example, if you substitute another pasta for the fregola (like ditalini), you'll probably want to cook it separately then add to the cooked vegetables at the end of the cooking. In a risotto approach, add chopped agretti to the dish for the last few minutes of cooking.
Twigs and Pebbles: Fregola with agretti, tomatoes and basil
1 small onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 cup dried fregola
3 medium tomatoes
1 1/2 cups agretti, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup basil, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese for garnish
Core the tomatoes, then squeeze the juice and pulp into a sieve placed above a bowl to capture the juice. Lightly press on the pulp to extract as much liquid as possible while leaving the seeds behind. Pour the tomato liquid into a measuring cup. Add enough water to bring the liquid level to 2 cups.
Coarsely chop the tomatoes and place them in a bowl.
In a medium saucepan, heat oil at medium heat, then add the onion. Saute until tender, then add the fregola and stir for a minute or two to lightly toast the pasta and coat it with oil.
Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Pour in the wine, water and tomato liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low and cover. Cook for 10-15 minutes until the fregola is almost as soft as you like it, then add the tomatoes, agretti, half the basil.
Stir, and leave on the heat for about 5 minutes to cook the agretti and heat the tomatoes.
Serve garnished with the remaining basil and grated parmesan cheese.
References and notes
To discover agretti's and fregola's secrets, I consulted the Samphire entry in The Oxford Companion to Food; the agretti entries in Wikipedia and The Oxford Companion to Italian Food; and the Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini De Vita.
*Along with being an accomplished farmer, Andy Griffin is a skilled writer. His work regularly appears in Edible San Francisco (see these pieces about pigs and stinging nettles). He's also known for his withdrawal from the Ferry Building Farmers Market in San Francisco, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Griffin was interviewed for the University of California at Santa Cruz's "Cultivating a Movement" oral history project. A transcript of the conversation is available for download and offers one man's view into the early days of the organic farming movement in California.
Credits: The photo of agretti is from Bradley Allen's flickr collection and is used with the photographer's permission. The photo of fregola is from Claudia Zedda's flickr collection, used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.