How did thoroughly Midwestern Dan Swinney, executive chef at Lidia’s in the Crossroads, start cooking with an Italian accent? “It started early,” he says. While other KU students relied on ramen noodles, Swinney bought a pasta machine and cranked out his own. “I had a little basil garden at my apartment and made pesto,” he says. When Lidia Bastianich came to town wanting to open a restaurant in 1998, Swinney was all in, starting as chef de cuisine.
On October 30, Lidia’s will be celebrating its 20th anniversary, a huge milestone for any restaurant. Part of the success has been recreating an authentic Italian experience, and it all starts with the ingredients. “We’re always testing everything,” says Swinney, including Italian heirloom vegetable and herb varieties that they have local farmers grow for them.
When peas, fava beans, asparagus, and string beans are in season, Swinney gets them from Simply Food in Milo, Mo., a business run by Dennis E. Smith that supplies restaurants with the best produce from many local and some Amish farms.
A surprise element in the salad is prosciutto, baked until crisp and dark pink. “I like the simplicity of Italian ingredients,” says Swinney. Especially when they’re put together in such a delicious way.
Spring Vegetable Salad with Crispy Prosciutto and Six-Minute Eggs
4 farm eggs
½ cup English peas, shelled
½ cup fava beans, shelled
½ cup string beans, trimmed
1 pound asparagus, peeled and trimmed
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped mint and/or Italian parsley
2 ounces Prosciutto di Parma, sliced thin
Salt and cracked pepper
Simmer the whole eggs in boiling water for exactly six minutes and set aside to cool.
Preheat an oven to 300 degrees. Brush a baking sheet lightly with oil and lay the prosciutto slices out flat. Bake until crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. Reserve.
Blanch each of the vegetables separately in boiling salted water until tender, but still bright green. As you remove each vegetable from the water, allow them to drain well and spread them out on a sheet pan to facilitate cooling. Peel the favas, split the string beans lengthwise, and cut the asparagus into one-inch pieces.
To serve, combine the vegetables in a bowl and dress with the extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and the chopped herbs. Peel the soft-cooked eggs and cut in half. Place the salad mixture in the center of a plate or platter surrounded by the eggs. Drizzle with more olive oil, and garnish with the prosciutto slices.
The Italian Kitchen Garden
Cody Hogan, general manager at Lidia’s in Kansas City, and his partner Peter Crump grow heirloom vegetable, fruit, and herb varieties in the garden of their 1922 Brookside bungalow. When they see the varieties that do well in the Midwestern climate, they know what local farmers can grow for Lidia’s.
Growing your own plants is the best way to source unusual ingredients like wild fennel or Fennel Sympatico, which is grown for its ferny fronds and seeds, and does not bulb; or artichokes and cardoons, several varieties of arugula, and fava beans.
In Hogan and Crump’s main garden beds, Italian heirloom greens and herbs such as wild fennel, a sweet red radicchio, blood sorrel, and Herba Stella find their way into salads and risottos. “Italians have so many salad greens and herbs that most Americans have never heard of,” Hogan says.
“Cody and I both use heirloom seeds in our gardens from Grow Italian,” says Dan Swinney, executive chef at Lidia’s, “although Cody’s garden is far more extensive than mine.” The 229-year-old Italian seed company now has a location in the Heartland. In 1783 (think George Washington), Giovanni Franchi started selling seeds from a cart in the market square of Parma, Italy. Today, the Franchi Sementi (“seeds” in Italian) is still family-owned by Giampero Franchi.Their American outpost is now located near Lawrence, Kansas, and headed by Dan Nagengast, former director of the Kansas Rural Center and a longtime market gardener. You can order seeds or a catalog at growitalian.com.
“Growing your own herbs and vegetables really captures that whole Italian thing: eating foods that are fresh and being outside,” says Hogan, who has traveled often to Italy with Lidia Bastianich. “In Italy, you see all these gardens in little plots. Everyone grows stuff. It’s inspiring.”