Join me for unofficial Italian Day with a classic torta di verdura and a spaghetti fight. Italian cooking is very regional and a little story with drawings will show you how I found this torta and the real Italian nonna or grandmother who was involved! I’ve spent many years making this cake and periodically crave a Torta di verdura filled with grated courgettes (aka zucchini), spinach, peas, rice and parmesan cheese. It’s wrapped in a fine layer of flour and olive oil pastry which is so easy to make that a Catalan friend who’d never made pastry before found it a doddle! And my whole family love this cake, even the youngsters! So let’s kick off our Savoury Cakes series with this easy healthy, vegetarian and very moreish torta!
But wait, first I must tell you the Torta di verdura story! So snuggle up to your screen…
Once upon a time when 14 year olds were not very worldly, there was a very very shy young girl. Now her uncle had married a very nice Italian woman who inspired this young girl to learn Italian, which she spoke with a French accent of course but very quietly and not very often. What shall we do with her? She never speaks! Her parents finally decided to send her off on a tiny little plane to San Remo in the Land of Pasta, to stay with her Aunt’s rumbustious family and expand her world knowledge.
During her two weeks there the young girl still did not speak very much, causing some people to wonder if she spoke at all! Scusi, ma lei parla italiano? they asked each other. But she did spend a lot of time eating and helping prepare food in the kitchen with nonna, her aunt’s cheerful mother who loved to cook. She learnt to make the classic tomato sauce, gnocchi, stuffed courgette leaves, torta paradiso and best of all, torta di verdura.
The young girl scrupulously noted down the things she learnt in her little notebook.
And in return she made the lovely family an awful soggy fried rice, as she wasn’t used to gas rings on an oven and her cooking was far far behind her cake-making skills. The family was so nice they made not one negative remark about the tragic dish.
During her little holiday, the very skinny young girl was of course fed lots and lots of food. She obviously needed it. One aunt had an open-air buffet and a wonderful torta di verdura that the girl wolfed down appreciatively piece after piece. The next day another aunt threatened to feel offended if the young girl wolfed down a lesser amount. There were mountains of torta di verdura everywhere since zucchini grew fast and happily on the land. It was very hard work but the girl tried to make sure she ate as much as possible to keep everyone happy. She then discovered many bakeries also selling delightful slices of the torta so had more in the name of research.
Then came the day she had to leave and she sadly waved goodbye to the lovely family. Back home she noticed not only had her cheeks puffed up somewhat and she now looked like a chipmunk but she was also craving 3-course meals with a pasta starter. One plate of food for dinner now seemed slightly unsatisfying but she didn’t complain of course or pack her cases to return to the Land of Pasta.
Over the years that followed she would sometimes make torta di verdura and bask in that happy kitchen aura that surrounds you when baking something a nonna so kindly passed on to you. Her own family also grew to love this cake and her mother baked it for them often. So the young-girl-that-is-now-a-woman will happily reveal to you this now not-so-secret family recipe (sorry cousin Chris, just had to do it!).
INGREDIENTS AND FREEDOM
Italian nonna, like many grandmothers, does not measure anything when cooking. But she kindly made a good attempt to do so to help the young girl record the recipe in her little notebook.
Strangely enough, later as the young girl grew up she found herself doing exactly the same thing as nonna and just throwing in the ingredients without weighing them. For this recipe she made an effort to measure stuff for you but remember to be imprecise to suit your own tastes. You can add grated carrots, swiss chard instead of the spinach, and reduce or increase the quantities for practically everything in there! Ah, the freedom of it all! 🙂
- 500g/17.6oz courgettes, partially peeled (leave some green strips of peel)
- 1 big 300g/10.5oz packet of fresh spinach (or a packet of frozen spinach) or swiss chard
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 100g/2/3 cup frozen or fresh peas
- 90g/1/2 cup long grain rice, washed and rinsed a few times
- 1 egg
- 50g/1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 400g/3 cups and 1 tbsp ’00’ flour or white spelt/plain/strong flour (any will be fine and I’ve used them all!)
- quarter teaspoon of salt, to taste
- 4 tablespoons good quality virgin olive oil (plus a few tablespoons for baking the torta)
- half a glass of mineral water (sparkling if you want to be like Italian nonna)
Tin: Find one big tin (30x40cm) or two smaller ones. If you’d like a thicker torta di verdura choose a smaller but higher tin. If you like a thin torta then choose wider! Spread a thin layer of olive oil around the inside of the tin(s).
Courgettes: use a grater or a food processor.
- Sieve the flour into a big bowl and whisk in the salt.
- Make a well in the flour and add the oil and cold water.
- Stir till the pastry comes together (adding a little more liquid or flour depending on which is necessary).
- Knead very quickly to make a light elastic ball of dough. Don’t overwork.
- Cover in clingfilm and let it rest half an hour in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F (static, non-convection oven) or 160°C/320°F (fan-assisted, convection oven)
- Put the spinach leaves or swiss chard in a big pan with a few knobs of butter, to cook about 10 mins on low heat till the leaves are cooked and wilted. Let cool then chop roughly.
- Cook the frozen peas in boiling water for a few minutes then drain.
- In a fairly big heavy-based saucepan, fry the chopped onion in a little olive oil till it is softened and light brown.
- Add the drained courgette, chopped spinach, peas and drained rice.
- Cover with a saucepan lid and let the mixture cook on low-medium heat for about 10 minutes (note: if you want to freeze half the filling then separate it after this step so it has no egg in it. Keeps for a few months. When you take it out of the freezer, defrost then add the egg before covering in pastry).
- Add the egg and grated parmesan, stir and cook a few minutes.
- Test to see whether it is salty enough for you, or needs more salt or parmesan!
Rolling out the pastry and assembling the torta
This pastry is quite elastic and holds together well. Take a little more than half the pastry and roll out the bottom layer then put in the tin.
Put the filling in then roll out the second piece of pastry to cover your torta.
Cut around with a small sharp knife, fold over the edges to make a border that isn’t too thick.
Prick all over with a fork. Make a design in the middle with leftover pastry if you like. Then brush a layer of olive oil all over the top and put in the oven. Bake for around 30 to 40 minutes, till light golden brown.
Cool at least 15 to 20 minutes before eating. This torta is good warm or cold. It keeps for a couple of days loosely covered or in an airtight container.
And now for a complete change of mood and the moment you’ve all been waiting for? The Swedish Chef will now demonstrate how to deal with troublesome spaghetti. Warning: don’t watch if you are easily freaked out by creepy stuff!
Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to nonna in San Remo who continues to create culinary delights and pass on her recipes. I’ve enjoyed Italian Day and my little bout of nostalgia. Hope you have too savoury reader and will try out this marvellously magic torta di verdura. There’ll be some at the Fiesta Friday party at Angie’s, if you’d like some!
Arriverderci belli!!!! May you never be attacked by your spaghetti and always enjoy your food like an Italian! Happy eating, cooking and baking! 🙂