Bill McKay Grows Vegetables from Italian Seeds

Heroes, Local Heroes, Recipes
on August 1, 2010
JoeAnn Hart

Bill McKay wants you to think like an Italian. The grandson of Italian immigrants from Abruzzi, Italy, he was brought up “working like a dog” on a celery farm in Lexington, Mass.—not exactly what one thinks of as Italian. But, as an adult, he yearned for the Italian vegetables of his youth and started his company, Seeds from Italy. Offering an extensive selection of seeds for the Italian garden, McKay wants his customers to adopt the Italian approach to cooking: using only what’s in season and flavorful—along with a good quality olive oil, of course.

“Red Pear” is his tomato of choice, a deeply ridged beefsteak with a bold tomato taste. He often sautés it with “Corno di Capra,” a sweet pepper shaped like a goat’s horn. An Italian sauté is incomplete without a nice onion, and McKay’s are decidedly different from the hard, yellow balls found in the produce aisle. His mainstay is the flat cipolla type, “Boretanna,” which stays together in cooking. He roasts it whole with olive oil, garlic and sage, alone or with other vegetables. Another favorite is “Rossa Lunga di Firenze,” a long red onion from Florence, which he grills or uses in salads. “Nothing beats them,” he says warmly.

When asked what celery Italians used, he grimaces. They love his old nemesis from his grandparents’ farm, America’s favorite commercial variety, “Pascal.”

By JoeAnn Hart, a food writer in Gloucester, Mass.