Worming Its Way Into Dinner

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 5, 2007

Vermicelli, a type of thin Italian spaghetti, has managed to retain its popularity both in Italy and beyond despite its name, which translates as "little worms." The recent success of the rope-shaped strozzapreti has, if anything, been enhanced by the curious name "priest-stranglers." And trofie, my latest pasta favorite, won my heart despite a close resemblance to a common garden pest.

About an inch long, it has a delicious chewiness like that of gnocchi and is made by twisting a chickpea-size lump of pasta dough into a tiny spiral and pinching the ends. The result looks much like the larvae of the cabbage butterfly, so often found as an unintended garnish on garden broccoli. The green worms hide so well in the broccoli heads that you rarely see them until they are cooked, at which point they turn a conspicuous, incriminating white.

Trofie may still be a rarity on market shelves, but the white cabbage butterfly is a familiar sight. From spring to late summer the females flutter above gardens, laying eggs not only on broccoli plants but on all the brassicas, including kale, collards, cabbage, mustard, bok choy and Brussels sprouts. The velvety little green worms hatch out and chew ragged holes in foliage, stain cauliflower heads with their droppings, and burrow into Brussels sprouts and cabbage. The damage is largely cosmetic, and a home cook can easily cut out the shabby parts.

As prevention, a gardener can cover plantings with floating row covers to prevent egg-laying. Giving plants extra-fertile soil makes them less susceptible. And since a host of beneficial insects prey on the creatures, maintaining a poison-free, diverse environment reduces their numbers. Removing plant debris in fall destroys over-wintering pupae that would otherwise hatch the following spring.

But there will always be a moment when you've just served an honored visitor a beautiful plate of homegrown broccoli and there's that little extra ingredient. Proper etiquette requires a guest to move it inconspicuously to the side of the plate and exclaim "Good protein!" if caught in the act. Your job is to apologize, but without groveling. The worms will not harm anyone if accidentally eaten. It's not a bad idea to check the broccoli heads first in hopes of spotting the intruders. Soaking produce in a sink full of salt water before cooking will send most worms flocking to the bottom.

Finally, there's always camouflage. Serve broccoli spears in a lemon cream sauce on top of trofie, if you can find some. Or vermicelli. No one will ever know.

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