Around the Outside. Italian Vegetarian Contorni

Small plates of ‘sides’ have become very fashionable in Melbourne: many modern, inner suburban restaurants now offer meals involving a long sequence of little shared plates which are usually vegetarian. This is a great trend and one that I hope will spread. But surely there must be a better English word than ‘sides’ or ‘small plates’ for these sexy vegetarian offerings.  ‘Accompaniments’ sounds too wooden and old school. The Italian term contorni strikes me as a more befitting word, meaning the things that surround il secondo or main course. I contorni traditionally have their own section on the Italian menu. If visiting Italy, read the menu in a different way, perhaps in a more modern way, and you’re likely to find plenty of fresh tasty vegetarian food in Italian restaurants to savour and enjoy.

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Beautiful grilled vegetables in a trattoria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy.

When Mr T and I travel in Italy, we often order un primo piattto, usually a pasta, soup or risotto, which are generally vegetarian and often quite small, followed by a few different contorni and a salad for the main. As we don’t eat meat, and as good fish is not always readily available except in Sicily, this is our preferred main course. Years ago this ordering pattern raised a few eyebrows; now it is quite normal.

At home, a few plates of contorni make a perfect dinner, especially if you want to avoid the farinaceous approach to vegetarianism. Here are a few of our recent summer sides.

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Baked Nicola potatoes, lemon slices, olive oil, salt, whole garlic, smoked paprika

Contorno di Patate. Line a metal baking dish with baking paper, cut peeled potatoes into 1 cm slices. I use Nicola or Dutch cream potatoes (yellow fleshed potatoes) for flavour. Drizzle with good oil, dust with smoked pimenton, salt flakes and add a whole unpeeled garlic bulb. Bake at 180 for 45 minutes.

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Fresh borlotti beans, green beans, seasoning, olive oil, balsamic

Contorno di Fagioli Scritti e Verdi.  Beans in season. Cook fresh borlotti beans until soft but still with a little bite for around 20 minutes. Slice the green beans into small chunks, and cook to your liking. I don’t like them squeaky green as you can see. Mine are softish but not mushy: they match the texture of the borlotti. Mix in a serving bowl or platter, add salt and pepper, then your best olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Toss and serve warm or at room temperature.

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Grilled radicchio, olive oil, salt, garlic

Radicchio alla griglia. Loosen the leaves from a head of radicchio. Heat a ridged cast iron griddle on the gas top, and get it nice and hot before grilling the radicchio. Sprinkle with a little oil and salt as you go, and turn around with tongs. The leaves will wilt very quickly. Remove, add to your serving dish, grill some more leaves, adding a few drops of oil with each batch. Layer with crushed garlic as you go. This is my favourite way of eating radicchio. I’m looking forward to cooking cabbage and cavolo nero /Tuscan kale in this way in winter. My big black griddle lives permanently on the stove.

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Grilled zucchini, torn bocconcini, globe basil, oil, balsamic vinegar.

Good side dishes rely on delicate, well-balanced seasoning and dressings. Don’t skimp on good olive oil but go lightly with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. A good Vincotto makes an excellent dressing for summer vegetables. Adding toasted nuts and seeds is a lovely trend. For an Italian touch, think toasted fennel seeds or pine nuts. Toasted left over sourdough bread, baked in the oven with olive oil and fennel seeds adds another delicious element. Cunza di pane, a crunchy Sicilian condiment, uses leftover bread, a very handy thing.

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Grilled eggplant, dressed with olive oil, vincotto, topped with sourdough breadcrumbs baked with fennel seeds, salt and garlic.

These are my modern takes on Italian contorni and every day we invent new versions. They are economical, healthy and fast to make, especially if you cook with the seasons, keep a herb garden and a pantry of interesting condiments.

30 thoughts on “Around the Outside. Italian Vegetarian Contorni”

  1. When I bake a whole bulb of garlic, as distinct from a chopped up clove, I leave it unpeeled to protect it a bit in the hot oven from drying out. Then it oozes sweet baked garlic out of the skins when eating.

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  2. Even though I’m not vegetarian, you’ve hit a six on this one Francesca because we love vegetables! I love the word ‘contorni’ for ‘sides’–great idea. We sometimes eat at Tappas places because we can order an array of vegetable plates for a meal. I made a delicious and simple potato dish recently by roasting small square chunks of potato and then while still hot from the oven, stirring through some chopped up mild baby chilies that I can buy from the grocery (you probably grow them!) in a jar (Always Fresh) so it is very easy but the hint of heat and the capsicum flavour lifted the potatoes to a different level. We like our green beans the same as you, too.

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    1. When I was in France with my darling Mischa Belle, my granddaughter, I noticed that the beans were her favourite dish and they were softish. Ever since then I have moved away from the Australian trend of hard beans. Thanks Ardys – it is a nice way to eat.

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  3. Deeelish!! I confess to having moving away from similar dishes, moved my focus more to Asian style cooking but this is a timely reminder to revisit these old favorites. I’d have to add charred red capsicums too, always popular here. What is “globe” basil?

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    1. Globe basil is a tiny leafed basil- when picked often the bush forms a large globe shape. No good for pesto, but great for little basil leaf finish. Yes the charred capsicums are there too, as they always are in Italy.

      I am about to leave my big kitchen for the beach, where things will turn more Asian and the Wok comes out more often. Holiday time has begun!!

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  4. Contorni… yes! Is one of the ways I’ve managed to persuade a vege averse G.O. to say I’ll try it and more & more That’s good – roasting and flavours, combinations, additions of cheese, oils, dressing, herbs, nuts so the vege accompaniment is like a second meal to accompany the meat/seafood he is fond of but less quantity more quality. We are eating better everyday 🙂 When I read farinaceous, I thought of Farex – bland. I can remember being forced to eat veges as a kid, now I love them, but why would anyone think a child would willingly to eat plain boiled veges. I’m so pleased times have changed.

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    1. Farex- what awful stuff. I used to give this to my kids too, and they all sighed with relief when offered mashed pumpkin or carrot. New style veggie dishes are so handsome and come with so many added flavours- they are the stars of the meal.

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  5. This is a great post, Francesca, and filled with a nice variety of tasty dishes. My eyes lit up when I saw the borlotti bean recipe. I’ve still some borlotti and blanched pole beans in my freezer that I bought the day the farmers market closed for the season. I’ve wanted to try something different with each and you’ve just suppled the answer. Thank you!.

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