In the market in Syracuse we came across a traditional food that is common in Puglia, though less so here in Sicily – lampascioni. Similar in appearance to little onions, lampascioni are actually the bulb of a tassel hyacinth, the muscari comosum. These are a common wildflower especially in southern Italy, though few people realize that you can eat the bulb. Lampascioni are a classic example of Italian peasant cuisine, using free ingredients combined with a fair amount of labor and know-how to turn an odd edible food into a delectable dish. Or so we hoped.
Emanuele remembers lampascioni from his childhood in Puglia, though he remembers little of how his Pugliese mother prepared them, other than “cutting a cross in the bottom.” I remember eating lampascioni that had been preserved in vinegar and oil as an antipasto in Puglia, but neither of us had ever cooked them.
Though it felt like we were cheating to buy the lampascioni rather than dig them up, we decided it was worth it to try them out (and since this wild hyacinth is already blooming in our fields, we have the excuse that it is too late to dig them up anyway.)
Emanuele began to clean them and was soon grossed out by the clear sticky liquid that came oozing out of each lampascione. Sound unappetizing? It gets worse.
We decided the sticky substance must have a scientific name, and settled on “goo”. Peeling the lampascioni with this goo oozing out makes everything stick to your hands – dirt, peel, roots, and, soon, fingers against fingers. This is what I imagine it’s like working in a glue factory, only dirtier.
“Che schifo”- how revolting, said Emanuele in disgust as he got fed up trying to clean them, and decided to toss the rest of the lampascioni into the garbage – I rescued the bulbs and planted them in a corner of the garden. If all else fails, we should have some pretty tassel hyacinths next spring.
Emanuele decided to boil the cleaned bulbs for a short while, after which he put them – still oozing goo – into a bowl and stared at them, trying to will the goo to go away. This proved ineffective.
Since Emanuele’s older sisters had spent much of their childhood in Puglia and learned to cook from their pugliese mother, I decided it was time for a lampascioni conference call. After much discussion, in which both sisters corroborated the story of the cross cut, I decided to follow this procedure:
2. Put the lampascioni in a large bowl of water. Change the water 3 times a day for 2 days. The water had a slimy texture (that goo again), so I rinsed the lampascioni in a colander each time I changed the water.
3. In a stainless steel pot, make a mixture of ½ vinegar and ½ water that will amply cover the lampscioni bulbs. (I used my very strong homemade red wine vinegar, so used less vinegar. Red wine vinegar will lend a pinkish color to the lampascioni.) Bring to a boil with the lampascioni and let simmer 20 minutes, skimming off any foam.
4. Drain the lampascioni in a colander and rinse well in running water. Make another batch of water/vinegar (or just plain water if you like them less vinegary- this is what I did.)
5. Simmer the lampascioni for another 20-30 minutes until they are tender when pierced with a fork, but still hold their shape. They are resilient little buggers, so it’s hard to overcook them. This is also a dish which is impossible to make if there is water shortage.
6. Drain the cooked lampascioni and rinse well. Pat dry of excess water. There should now be no more goo seeping out of the lampascioni-hurray!
7. Put the goo-free lampascioni in a serving bowl. Like most edible things, they will immediately be improved by a good dousing of extra virgin olive oil. Add salt. Timidly taste. If they need more vinegar, add a teaspoon or two. The bulbs themselves will have a mildly bitter taste which is pleasantly countered by the vinegar and oil. If they are very bitter, you did not do a good job of getting rid of that bitter goo, and should reconsider using lampascioni in their blooming stage as decorative flowers only.
I brought my bowl of lampascioni to a family lunch in Sicily, where Emanuele’s sister Elisa was the guinea pig. I was thrilled that she proclaimed the lampascioni to be “buonissimi! “ After eating several, she then said she would add a bit more vinegar.
So, all in all the gooey lampascioni mess was a success! “Si”, Emanuele agreed, who reluctantly ate one, then looked relieved that they tasted okay and ate a few more -“sono buoni”. But next time, he swore, you can find someone else to clean them.