It’s a weeknight and most of us are working irrespective of St. Valentine’s day. Some of us would prefer to forgo the flowers, cards attesting to lifelong love, and all the “store-bought” artificially manufactured testaments to passion. However, there is nothing more sensual than a meal cooked for someone you love. With memories of my favorite “dried pasta” that is as Roman as the Pantheon, Bucatini all’Amatriciana, I’m going to grab a few items from my Italian Pantry and cook up a bowl of this pasta . Followed with a baci, chocolate or otherwise, who could wish for more!
Makes 4 servings
8 oz bucatini
1 tablespoon extra virgin Italian olive oil
4 oz guanciale **, diced
2 small red onions, peeled and diced
A pinch of peperoncini (hot chili pepper)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
28 oz can Italian peeled tomatoes, pureed in a food mill
Salt & pepper
1 cup grated Roman pecorino cheese
- Place the olive oil and glacial in a shallow skillet. Turn the heat to medium low and render the fat. This may take about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Add the diced onions and let the onions cook until wilted and sweet.
- Add the garlic and peperoncini. Stir over low heat for a few minutes.
- Add the pureed tomatoes and cook the sauce for 10 to 15 minutes or until it is slightly thickened and reduced.
- Season with salt & pepper.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt. When the water is at a rolling boil, drop the pasta into the pot and cook for 10 to 12 minutes or until al dente.
- Drain the pasta and add to the skillet with the sauce. Toss the pasta with grated cheese. Serve with additional cheese if desired.
** If guanciale, the fat from the cheek, is not available, pancetta can be substituted
For those of you who have been fortunate to travel to Umbria or Tuscany during the Olive racolte, you may have tasted a true bruschette: crusty warm grilled bread saturated with new oil from the olive mill. This is bruschette in its simplest and finest clothes.
With superbowl parties in the planning stages across America, bruschette can offer a delicious and easy solution to “what to prepare?” A few toppings from the major food categories, a loaf of good Italian bread, olive oil and either a grill or oven and you are ready to go.
Here’s one recipe to start the final with a great kick.
Bruschette with Sweet Italian Sausages, Peppers & Onions
Makes 12 – 15 pieces
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 Italian sweet sausages
1 red pepper, cored, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 green pepper, cored, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, halved, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh oregano
1/4 cup grated parmagiano
Drizzle of balsamic vinegar
12 to 15 slices of Italian bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1. Separate each link of sausage if they are connected. Prick each link with a fork to allow the steam to escape during cooking.
2. Heat a thin film of olive oil in a sauté pan. Add the sausage and brown the meat over medium heat. Turn occasionally to brown all sides. Remove to a plate when the sausages are thoroughly cooked, which may take about 7 to 8 minutes.
3. Using another clean sauté pan, coat the pan with olive oil. Add just enough sliced onions & peppers to make one thin layer. Avoid overcrowding the pan. Cook over low to medium heat until the onions are golden brown and all the vegetables are softened. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper. Remove to a plate and continue with the next batch until all the vegetables are cooked.
4. Slice the sausages lengthwise 1/4 inch thick. Lay each slice flat and cut into 1/4 inch thick sticks. Cut the sticks into 1/4 inch dice.
5. When the vegetables are cool, dice them roughly into 1/2 inch pieces.
6. Combine the diced sausages ,vegetables, minced thyme and oregano in a bowl.
7. A few minutes before serving, place the bread on a sheet pan and bake in a 350 degree oven or grill until crisp.
8. Spoon the vegetable mixture on the warm bread. Sprinkle with grated parmegian cheese and drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over each. Serve hot.
STOCKING OUR ITALIAN PANTRY
One of the techniques I use to keep cooking a fun, creative process makes use of a well-stocked pantry. I know that I incorporate Italian flavors into an array of recipes whether I am cooking in New York or in Italy. These flavors are preserved in the form of canned tomatoes, tins of salted anchovies, bottles of brined capers and olives, dried porcini mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, boxes of rices, polenta, dried macaroni products, lentils, chickpeas, beans, farro , pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, 00 flour, semolina, dried chili peppers, red vinegar , balsamic vinegar and of course, bottles of olive oil. With a little planning my freezer is kept supplied with homemade chicken stock, pancetta and bread for the moments when I don’t have the time to shop for a fresh loaf. My refrigerator keeps 1/2 lb chunks of Italy’s greatest hard grating cheeses, parmegiano and pecorino . Other than these, I try to “make my own” from fresh produce. Of course, wine accompanies Italian food, so a few not so expensive bottles stand ready .
Here’s my list. If you have any other Italian products that you like to keep on hand, please let us know. We’d love to add it.
Guanciale, if available
Breads & focaccia
Homemade Chicken stock
Tomatoes (either from the garden, leftovers from the can, the whole peeled type)
Olives: black & green
Parmegiano, the good stuff
Basil, if in season
A selection of seasonal vegetables & fruits
3 types of balsamic vinegar
white wine vinegar
red wine vinegar
00 flour (for pasta)
0 flour if available (for pasta, breads)
Semolina (for dusting sheet pans or making pasta)
Pastas:tubular, linguini, perciatelli, orecchiette
Rices for risotto
Nuts: almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts or walnuts or all
Hot chili pepper
Vanilla bean in vodka
There is a saying in Italy, once you see Naples, you can die. I’ll rephrase this. Once you’ve eaten pasta made from goose eggs, you can die. Who would think an egg would be such a big deal?
As you can see, the goose egg is over double the size of a typical “large” commercial egg. It’s even larger if you are comparing it to the egg from a farmyard chicken. When a friend who owns an agritouristico in San Feliciano brought over some goose eggs, it didn’t take much for me to plan the next festa. Pasta for 20, senza (without) the 20 quart mixer.
Why the interest? To begin, the size. I’d have to recalculate my formula but that’s just basic arithmetic. Secondly, the tradition. You see, goose eggs were used by the “contadini” to make the pasta that fed the family and workers during the vendemmia (grape harvest). Thirdly, once you crack a goose egg open, you’ll see the difference. The white of the egg has a transparency that is completely unique and the yolk is huge, with a redish, deep orange color that makes it look like a sun in a big white cloud. I wanted to see and taste the difference
Of course, making pasta wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the assistance of some trusted friends. At 10 in the morning, Marilena & Roxanna reported to work. Both wondered which shape of pasta we would make and which sauce: tagliatelle with a simple rosemary butter sauce. In Umbria, you can stick a small rosemary plant into the earth, give it a good dose of complete neglect, and return a year later to find a huge rosemary bush. Rosemary butter sauce made sense.
Here we are, a few hours later. You’re probably wondering if the golden egg made a difference. Certainly, the consistency when we were rolling the dough was different. The color of the pasta was deeper yellow. The flavor? I want to track down that goose now.
Weighing in at 140 gram (over 4 ounces) , the egg of the goose is large indeed. The average large egg weighs in at about 60 grams or 2 ounces. What will we do with it in our kitchen at Cucina della Terra? Stay tuned…..
CARP (IN UMBRIA)
Alice B. Toklas may have clubbed her carpe to submission, but here in Umbria, you need only a few dead mice, a fishing pole and patience to tire out your catch until they give up the fight.
Mattia, the tall, blond, handsome son of my neighbor did just this last month. His catch, each weighing about 700 g (roughly 1 1/2 lb each), unscaled, ungutted lay frozen, awaiting some fishmonger to appear with the remaining skill set. None of the locals really knew anything about cooking these carp and almost everyone decided it would be impossible to coax these not terribly attractive specimens into something that would be edible. Did I say almost everyone? You can always count on a mother, your very own good witch, to encourage you to believe!
Knowing I was an owner of a cooking school in Umbria and a cooking teacher, it was nothing for Marilena, Mattia’s mother and good friend of mine, to suggest that I teach her how to scale, gut and prepare these lake creatures for a Saturday night get together. What a gift? The opportunity for a Carp Festa. In a matter of minutes, I had committed to the task not quite knowing much of anything other than how to clean a round fish.
I had two memories. The first, was the unpleasant, strong flavor of carp when I had adventurously ordered it during my first stay in Umbria and the second, was the impressive presentation of a quiet large roasted carp as the owner of a local osteria carried it on a platter past me. It wasn’t for my table so I can’t comment on the outcome, but it looked glorious.
For fish lovers in Umbria, the carp takes on the flavors of another local specialty, Porchette that huge boned out pig seasoned with wild fennel (finocchio selvatico) and rosemary. Under the shade of my olive trees, I found wild fennel after stalking it for years in fruit & vegetable stores to no avail. Now that I’m a settler, the fennel returns year after year with no effort on my part. The rosemary bush too, thrives on neglect, growing larger and larger each spring as if it will someday overrun the garden in retribution. Prosciutto of the wild boar, a staple in this part of the world is so delicious that it is a staple in my kitchen. The trilogy of flavors for our carp, porchetta style was effortlessly complete.
At a designated time in early afternoon, Marilena set out a table under the pines, and together, Jack, Marilena and I covered the table with old newspapers. We brought our chef’s knives, and 2 sets of come-apart scissors for scaling. The carp were defrosted overnight in the refrigerator and were now slimy, bloody and ready for the preparations. Dracula, the cat appropriately named for his ghost like coloring and piercing green eyes was already pacing in wait for the trimmings. The sun was high overhead but the sound of thunder could be heard in the west. Should we take this as an ominous sign? I could hear my friend Jack wondering out loud whether he should start eating his grapes in anticipation of a dinner with nothing to eat.
We removed the dorsal , pectoral, pelvic & adipose fins. We opened up the belly and pulled out the bloody guts. By this time the flies were biting my ankles. The idea of eating these ugly looking prizes was beginning to make my stomach wheezy. I pulled out the gills. We rinsed the fish with a nearby hose. They were now ready for a soak in a bath of water & wine; we’re talking local jug wine, about 1 euro a liter. Carp are known to have a bloodline that contributes a brackish flavor and the soak helps to remove it. So they say…
Since my refrigerator was large enough to accommodate the stainless steel hotel pans that were remnants of my catering business in my youth and which had been stored in my mother’s attic for 20 years, then shipped to Umbria to equip my school, the carp would become my guests for the next few hours.
We returned to our individual projects with the decision to continue the preparation of the porchette condiment at 7 o’clock, an hour before roasting time. At exactly 7pm, Marilena’s sweet Hellllllohhhh announced her arrival. I had harvested half dozen branches of rosemary and wild fennel. Jack thinly sliced the prosciutto of the boar. The olive oil from my racolte last October sat on the counter in waiting. Out came the olive wood mortar and pestle. I mixed the fennel, rosemary, garlic and olive oil into the mortar and pounded away until it was reduced to a paste.
In the meantime, Marilena continued with her back up plan, delicious salads: bean salad, rice salad with hard cooked eggs from her hens, pasta salad, along with her husband Pierro’s outstanding bruschette and grilled sausages. Just in case…
We drained the carp from their acidic bath, patted them dry with paper towels, made 3 short slits on each side of the filets and stuffed them with the condimento. The carp were now ready for the pans with nothing more needed than a sprinkling of salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
I fired up my ovens to 190 Celsius (375 F). By 8 o’clock, the carp entered their sweltering resting place. I set the alarm for 20 minutes. As the heat intensified the aromas, our noses began to send signals that all may not be well. By this time the intense flavor of the condimento was beginning to turn from it’s original pleasant perfume to the smell of a dead fish, no pun intended.
10 minutes later, the carp were ready. At least they looked good. There’s nothing like the beautiful look of liquid gold and roasted herbs to disguise what may lie beneath.
Once again, I heard the sweet voice of Marilena…hellllloohhhhhh….are we ready? Jack & I grabbed our mitts, boning knives, and spatulas. We whisked the roasted carp out of the ovens, across the front yard and into my neighbor’s kitchen. There were 10 people ready, willing and highly skeptical. It was suddenly clear to Marilena, Jack & I that our reputations were at stake. No matter that the carp could have some major defects. We had the responsibility to turn some dead fish into a gastronomic piece de resistance.
The pans were laid in front of me. With boning knife in hand, I cut off the head, offered the eyes to anyone bold enough, and made an incision along the side. I cut along the backbone and gently lifted the first filet off. So far, not bad. The fish came easily off telling me it was cooked through. It looked moist, again not bad. I continued turning the fish over to remove the other filet. I scraped away the pin bones. Marilena began to serve. Silence. Dead Silence. I continued with the next carp. Wine was poured, the salads were placed on the table and Pierro entered with his back up sausages.
One by one, the word DELIZIOZO rang out. I asked Mattia to tell us how he came to fish and why toppo (the mouse) was used for bait…We raised our glasses to the carp, one of our friends made some weird comment “le carpe, carpe diem”, “the carp, takes the day”, and we applauded Mattia for his fine catch.
The lakes of Umbria: Trasimeno, Chiusi, among other lesser known, offer an abundance of fresh water fish, some of which are naturalized while others have been deliberately introduced. Perugia breeds fish for restocking in 2 areas around Trasimeno: Sant’ Archangelo and Borgo Cereto. One can fish for pike, carp, trout, tenches, perches and eel during regulated seasons.
If you don’t have access to a lake and a fishing poll, ask your local fish butcher for a snapper or branzino.
1 whole fish, scaled, gutted and gills removed
3 tablespoons fennel fronds, finely minced
2 tablespoons rosemary, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 ounce prosciutto, minced
1.Place the cleaned fish in a pan. Make 3 diagonal cuts spaced about 2 inches apart on each side of the fish. Fill with the “condimento”. Stuff the remaining condimento into the cavity of the fish.
2. Drizzle olive oil, sprinkle salt & pepper on both sides of the fish.
3.Place in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes. The fish is done if firm to the touch or a thermometer registers 145 degrees F when inserted into the thickest portion of the filet. Make sure you don’t hit the bone.
4.Allow the fish to rest a few minutes. Cut along the line along the top of the fish. Cut the head off. Cut down the backbone. Scrape the filet away from the backbone. Scrape away any pin bones. Starting at the tail end, lift the backbone up and away. You’ll be left with the other side of fish filet. Once again, trim the edges and remove any pin bones. Serve immediately.
A Sagra in Italy celebrates a certain food, whether it be a fruit, vegetable, animal, fish,or a particular pasta. It’s a festival that takes place in cities and towns, marked by tents, communal tables, inexpensive food , carafes of local wines, laughter and dancing. This past weekend we experienced the Sagra di Lumache, or the Festival of the snail.
Anyone who has seen a land snail may question it’s appeal as an edible substance. I see them crawling around the plants in my garden and climbing the outside walls of my home. They move slowly, clinging to the surface like a suction cup. Pretty they are not. Nevertheless, in certain parts of Europe, the snail is a delicacy.
By the time our food was served (remember, this is about the food not the place settings!), we were diving into our bowls of snails swimming in a deliciously dark tomato sauce. I couldn’t eat enough. These guys were fingerlicking good. “More bread please”. We needed to sop up every bit of sauce. A few of us ordered a selection of crostini and spaghetti with lumache. All of us were given fresh cherries to finish . It’s the fruit that’s on the local trees at the moment.
The night ended with lots of dancing, modern Italian style. We were all laughing, talking and enjoying the fresh spring air and the sky above. Can’t wait for the next posting for another Sagra.
Finalmente, a night arrived without social commitments.
RISOTTO PRIMAVERA, Risotto in the Spring
Makes 2 servings
If there is any recipe that symbolizes spring in Italy it is this one. The fresh bright greens and delicate flavors of asparagus, peas, fava beans, artichokes bring out the essence what spring is all about, the birth of the garden. This recipe can be adapted to any or all of these garden delicacies. It’s a meal needing nothing more than a crisp glass of white wine.
3/4 cup diced red onion
1 cup canaroli rice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Italian white wine
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup blanched fresh shelled peas
1 cup blanched asparagus, cut into 1/2 inch lengths
1 tablespoon of minced fresh chives
1 cup grated parmegiano cheese
1. Heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a heavy bottomed casserole pot. Add the red onion. Keep the heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft. Do not let the onions brown, since we want to keep the final dish white.
2. Add the rice and stir for a minute.
3. Add the wine. Let the wine simmer for a few minutes until almost evaporated.
4. Begin to add the chicken broth 1/2 c up at a time. Season with the salt.
5. After cooking and stirring for 20 minutes, sample a spoonful. If the rice grains have softened but there still remains a little bit of a bite, it is ready for the vegetables. If not, continue to stir adding more broth is necessary.
6. Add the cooked vegetables, cheese and chives. Stir a minute more to reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, either adding more salt or cheese if desired. The risotto should be creamy. Serve immediately.
Did I say yesterday that I was planning to make a risotto with freshly picked asparagus from the garden? We stuck to our plan, made a rich broth with chicken parts and iced it down. We decided to pick up some fresh peas and fava beans to add to the risotto. By the end of the night, all the ingredients were prepped and waiting. This morning they are still waiting. What happened?
I just read a blog as I’m following my niece’s escapades in Jordan with Northeastern University, one of her professors quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower : “plans are nothing, it’s the planning that counts”. Well the plan was dinner at home, the planning was perfect had I not allowed for the serendipitous moments in Italian living. Living in Umbria is about living as a socially interactive person. It’s unavoidable. You are taken into the lives of your friends and they refuse to take no for an answer. So what happened? I walked down the road to say hi to Michelle, an employee at Mario’s inn . His companion Danielle appeared with her perennially cheerful demeanor. Behind her was Michelle, followed by Mario. We chatted a few minutes and Mario decided he MUST continue our conversation. We returned to Cucina della Terra and caught up on half a year. Meanwhile, my friend and electrician Luca called to tell me it was a perfect time for us to drop by to see his first baby. By the time the night came to an end, I had eaten Luca’s wife’s “crazy pizza” (a pizza topped with whatever she found in her refrigerator), shared a bottle of Cartizze Prosecco,and toasted the birth of Valentina as I bounced her on my knee and tickled her plumb little cheeks! The risotto ? “a domani”.