Frittelle di Alghe: Discovering Seaweed Fritters on the Island of Ponza

seaweed for breakfast. why not?

seaweed for breakfast. why not?

I tasted seaweed fritters on the first morning I woke on the island of Ponza as a guest at the sweet and cozy Piccolo Hotel Luisa.  We were about midway through the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, an experience that—from the perspective of a food lover like myself—had thus far more than satisfied. Yet even among the seemingly never-ending array of gorgeous, impeccably-prepared dishes I’d had the fortune to enjoy, these fritters stood out as extraordinary.

I almost missed them entirely. Tucked away as they were on a corner shelf of the terrace where breakfast was served, the fritters caught my eye only as I angled for a photo of the colorful Ponza houses below. At first I thought they must be sweet fritters, but their aroma promised otherwise.  I could not identify the flavor, only that it was subtle, delicate, slightly salty, herby. When hotel founder Signora Luisa Mazzella, the 88-year-old spry and amiable woman known to all as ‘Nonna Luisa, The Rock of Ponza,’ entered the terrace, I enquired about the fritters. She was more than happy to oblige my curiosity.

Life on an island can be tough. What we tourists often fail to notice when we visit islands like Ponza, dazzled as we are by the beauty of the place, are the challenges and demands island life entails. Resources are limited, and scrupulously managed—fresh water in particular, but also items like poultry and game, corn and wheat, and certain fruits and vegetables can be difficult to obtain on an island. Nonna Luisa explained that seaweed came to be used in the island’s cuisine given its abundance, nutritional qualities, and flavor.  Seaweed can be used fresh or dried (like an herb), and to find it on Ponza one need only head down to the port when fishermen are returning with their catch; or, it can be purchased weighed and packaged at the fish counter. Thus, seaweed fritters represent an astute exploitation of a readily available resource, one that also happens to be flavorful and nutritious.  

Ingredients

This recipe is for a very large batch of fritters. You can reduce this recipe’s ingredients by a third, or enclose any unused dough securely in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for a couple days.

300 grams (about 10.5 ounces) cooked white rice, cooled
300 grams fresh seaweed
3 eggs
zest of 1 lemon
1 kilogram of flour (about 7 cups)
1 tsp salt
water

Instructions

Rinse the seaweed and cut into small pieces. Combine the rice, egg, seaweed, and lemon zest and mix well. In a separate bowl mix the flour and salt, then incorporate the dry ingredients into the rice and seaweed mixture until a uniform dough forms. Add water as needed. Shape the dough into balls about the size of a walnut and fry them in good oil until golden and crispy. Transfer to a paper-covered platter and dust with a little salt and pepper while still hot (test the saltiness first).

Nonna Luisa of Ponza

Nonna Luisa of Ponza

La Fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno: The Umbrian Resurrection of an Ancient Legume

la fagiolina

la bella fagiolina, whose multiple colors are a result of biodiversity

The fagiolina del lago Trasimeno is a tiny, multi-colored legume cultivated in the lands around Lake Trasimeno in Umbria since as far back as the third century B.C., an era in which it formed part of the Etruscan diet. In the mid-19th century, however,  the fagiolina faced near-extinction; at a time of increased production of profitable crops such as corn and sunflower, the fagiolina fields, which require manual labor from sowing to reaping, were all but abandoned. But today, thanks to the efforts of farmers such as Flavio Orsini of the Azienda Agraria Orsini, the fagiolina is making a comeback.

About 25 years ago, when many farmers were starting to incorporate new technologies and machinery in cultivation, the Orsini family farmers were looking to the past, to the ancient farming methods of their region. In doing so, they contributed to the resurrection, if you will, of not only the species but its traditional cultivation as well. The beans are planted by hand in the spring and harvested by hand in late summer. The harvest is complex, requiring a knowing eye and firm grasp of the plant’s natural progression: the pods are ready when crisp and pale yellow in color, yet only some pods will be ready at the time of the first picking, in July or August. Daily hand picking continues in this very selective manner until perhaps a week or even two after the first picking, when the final straggler pods are ready. Harvesting ends not according to a day on the calendar, but when the plant begins to weaken and transform. The picked plants are then rolled up like hay bales and used as feed for the farm animals, and the ground is left to rest until early spring. Meanwhile, the pods are sheathed—a manual procedure involving three persons and a machine once used to separate grape skins from pulp, today adapted to separate the legumes from their pods. Then the process of drying the legumes begins.

Cultivating la fagiolina is an arduous business. Little profit or glory can be gleaned from an enterprise of this kind, which makes the Orsini family’s work all the more admirable. While visiting the Orsini Farm during the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, we learned that a full hour of picking yields about a kilogram of beans. After a few hours at the farm, I needed no further convincing of the fagiolina’s special status, and yet it was not until we sat down to a lovely lunch prepared by our hosts that I truly understood what all this hard labor and dedication to old methods was all about: the fagiolina is exquisitely tender, savory, and so pretty to behold (biodiversity accounts for the range of colors). It is rich in fiber, iron, and protein, and when served with quality extra virgin olive oil, makes for a wholesome and tasty dish.

beans3

So those Etruscans were on to something, it would seem. And the Orsini have taken that something to new (lofty and tasty) heights. Bravissimi!

This is the simple, traditional method of making a pot of la fagiolina. Serve with an excellent evoo and grilled crostini. You can liven up the recipe by adding a bit of hot chili pepper (dried or oil) or truffle shavings. I decided to add the cooked fagiolina to a pot of zuppa di vongole, pictured below.

Ingredients for 5 servings

250 grams of fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno
olive oil
salt
water

Instructions

Place the beans in a large pot of abundant cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for about 20 minutes. In the meantime bring another pot of salted water to a boil. After 20 minutes drain the beans and boil them in the next pot for another 30 minutes. Drain, saving some of the water if you want a zuppa-type plate of beans. Drizzle with a top quality oil.

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

Gelato For A Muse

a cup of la musa, the gelato inspired by Maria Musa's beloved cake

a cup of la musa, the gelato inspired by Maria Musa’s beloved cake

During a special visit to Gelateria La Musa in Orvieto as a participant in the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, I was reminded of one of the things I love most about Italians— call it flair, or an ability to craft-create-design with an impeccable eye towards quality and authenticity. Especially when it comes to culinary matters, Italians seem to possess a kind of innate radar for what constitutes the real deal.

At the heart of this family-run enterprise is Chiara, a young Italian woman who brings together tradition, skill, and scrupulous standards in selecting raw materials for her gelato. Chiara studied Art History at university, yet she was so inspired by her uncle’s dream of making gelato, she chose to learn the craft rather than pursue a career in her field of study. Along with her bright smile and contagious enthusiasm, Chiara exudes a rare confidence for one so young, no doubt a result of her hard-won expertise.

Many of the gelato creations at Gelateria La Musa are inspired by traditional Italian desserts. One in particular is remarkable for both its backstory and pure yumminess. A cake made by Chiara’s grandmother, Maria Musa, is remembered fondly by the family and has become the basis for the  ’house’ gelato, aptly named ‘la musa‘. It’s a flavor as whimsical as it is delightful, carefully crafted to recreate the harmonious flavor combination of nonna Maria’s beloved cake. Made with a blend of sheep and cow milk ricotta, Sambuca, cinnamon, and dark chocolate, gelato la musa is a taste experience indeed worthy of its name. If you find yourself in Orvieto, make time for a stop at this truly special gelateria, and be sure to ask for ‘the muse’.  

Chiara (right) with her mother, Elisa

Chiara (right) with her mother, Elisa

 

Porcini Mushroom Pizza

yum!

epiphany pizza

I’ve been experimenting with pizza dough for a few years now, but only recently did I hit on what I consider a sure-thing recipe. Or method, I should say. Turns out you really must make your dough the night before, or at least 6 to 8 hours prior to rolling it out. That, and let it rise in the fridge! In honor of this epiphanic moment, I decided to top my finally perfect pizza dough with something worthy. Porcini mushrooms are common enough around here come September, but this year in particular their abundance and size are breaking records and turning heads (other species as well) after an atypically rainy summer. So I picked up a few lovelies at the town market and made this, if I may say so, masterpiece of a pie.

Ingredients

for the pizza dough (makes enough for four 10-inch pizzas)
3 & 1/2 to 4 cups flour
1 teaspoon active dry yeast (not fast rising)
1 & 1/2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons salt

for the topping (2 pizzas)
4 or 5 large porcini mushrooms
1 handful fresh parsley
olive oil
salt
1 cup circa grated fresh mozzarella
3 or 4 Tablespoons grated parmigiano (optional)
2 teaspoons minced fresh red chili pepper (optional)

Instructions

Make the pizza dough the night before. You will have enough dough to make two 10-inch pizzas per this recipe (or four pizzas if you increase the toppings amounts above accordingly).

Sprinkle the yeast over 1/2 cup of the warm water in a bowl. Wait a minute then stir briskly with a fork and stir in 1/2 cup of the flour until combined. Set aside at room temp for 30 minutes to let the mixture double in size.

Combine the yeast mixture, 3 cups of flour, and 1 cup of warm water in the mixer and mix on low with the dough hook until a dough forms and the mixer starts to struggle. Add the salt and mix a minute more. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until very smooth and elastic. Form a ball and place in a flour-dusted large bowl. Leave in the fridge overnight.

Remove the dough from the fridge and let rest at room temp an hour before you plan to cook the pizza. ‘Punch’ it down and cut the dough into four equal pieces. Put two back in the fridge if you don’t intend to make four pizzas at this time. Roll the pieces into balls and set them aside to rest again. In the meantime, prepare the porcini for topping.

Clean the porcini if needed by gently brushing or wiping with a paper towel. Dampen the towel if needed but only slightly. Slice the caps and stems into thickish pieces (no more than 4 slices per cap) and cook them in about 2 tablepoons olive oil for about 3 or 4 minutes on each side. Turn the pieces carefully rather than stirring them all together. After turning them, add 3/4 of the chopped parsely and lightly salt and gently combine. As they brown a small amount of juice will form. Turn off the heat and leave the mixture in the pan.

Preheat the oven to 260° C / 500° F (probably as high as your oven will go). Prep the cheeses and set aside.

Flour a work surface and make your pizza rounds. You can use the hand method or a rolling pin. The hand method which involves flattening out the ball into a thick disk and, while rotating the disk continuing to flatten the dough using your fingertips, working from the center outwards. Pick up the disk and let gravity help by hanging it from the edge and turning (or try tossing it in the air if you’re brave!). Then place on your pizza stone or baking sheet and shape as needed. This method results in a more rustic-looking pizza. Or use a rolling pin if you prefer, arguably simpler, which results in a uniform look and consistency.

Cover your two pizzas with the grated mozzarella, then divide and arrange the porcini on each. A lot of flavor will be in the oil/juice in the pan, so drizzle that on top, too. Dust with finely grated parmesan cheese, and for a kick and some color, a teaspoon or so of minced fresh red chili (optional).

Bake for about 6 to 8 minutes, keeping an eye on them. The pizzas are ready when the edges are brownish or even slighly blackened in places, the bottom is golden and the cheese is bubbly. Garnish with the remaining parsley (optional).

Historical Menus of the Italian Royal Navy

a Royal Navy menu from 1894

a Royal Navy menu from 1894

The Ligurian town of Imperia will host an exhibit next week called I Menu Storici della Regia Marina, or Historical Menus of the Italian Royal Navy, as part of the Vele d’Epoca di Imperia, a biannual vintage sailboat and classic yacht regatta event held since 1986.

The exhibit materials are comprised of about 30 menus used by Italy’s Royal Navy, known until 1946 as the Regia Marina, and cover a period starting in the late 1800s through the Second World War. The menus, reconstructed on high-definition panels for the show, are artistically noteworthy in themselves, yet moreover speak to an astonishingly haute cuisine—even more remarkable considering the diverse range of situations that formed the backdrop of these sumptuous meals, from military conflict to elite social occasions (not to mention the labor and organization required to adequately outfit ship kitchens and dining halls for meals of this type).

The menu pictured here is for a ‘lunch with concert’ served on June 3, 1894 on board the battleship Francesco Morosini. The multi-course meal includes seafood crostini and soup, quail with truffles, steak alla Fiorentina, roasted chicken with watercress, artichokes and peas, and lobster salad, followed by a four-course dessert and the de rigueur finish to any Italian dining experience, fruit and coffee. Note the wines on the left of the course lists and the accompanying musical program details on the right. Beneath the menu, the exhibit panel lists the ship’s technical characteristics as well as (my favorite part) the recipe for one of the menu’s dishes, gelato alla Napolitana.

Taking place alongside the exhibit is another show called Il Rancio di Bordo (On-Board Rations), during which Rear Admiral Alessandro Pini will illustrate how sailors have faced the question of eating at sea over the centuries; while throughout the adjacent town Oneglia, various restaurants will recreate some of the dishes listed on the historical menus for the occasion.

I Menu Storici della Regia Marina e il Rancio di Bordo
September 10 to 14, 2014
Exhibit Location: Biblioteca L. Lagorio, Imperia (Oneglia)
Organized by A.N.M.I. (National Association of Italian Sailors)
www.marinaiditalia.com

Fresh Fig & Blue Cheese Crostini

sweet figs & savory blue

sweet figs & savory blue

Today I was reading about pairing herbs and fruits, which turned into the inspiration for today’s lunch.

Let the cheese warm to room temp. If it’s a very hard and crumbly blue, cream it together with some mascarpone or crème fraîche until it’s spreadable but still a bit chunky. Slice the figs delicately. Grill the bread, spread the blue cheese mixture over each and top with the fruit and fresh thyme.

Pasta alla Norma

'It's a Norma!'

‘It’s a Norma!’

Pasta alla Norma, or pasta in the style of Norma (more or less), is a classic Italian pasta dish with a quirky backstory. According to a widely-known anecdote, around 1920 the Catanese playwright and poet Nino Martoglio was lunching in the company of some theater friends. Upon being served a plate of pasta in a sauce of fried eggplant, tomato, basil, and ricotta salata, Martoglio is said to have exclaimed È una Norma! (‘It’s a Norma!’), a reference to Vincenzo Bellini’s celebrated opera and intended (curiously) as a compliment to the cook. Thanks to the roomful of writers and actors present, the expression immediately entered into the local word-stock of Catania’s historic town center.

Two things matter in making alla Norma: ingredients and method. Start with super fresh eggplant, tomato, basil. Regarding method, the eggplant is fried, separately from the tomato sauce, but you can work with one pan only. Spaghetti is the pasta traditionally associated with alla Norma, but use any shape you like.

Ingredients for 2

(can be easily doubled)

160-170 grams (6 ounces circa) spaghetti
1 long eggplant
300 grams (a little over 1/2 pound) tomatoes
1 handful (1/3 cup circa) grated ricotta salata
1-2 garlic cloves
3-4 fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnishing
olive oil
salt

Instructions

Score and boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes (use a large pot and you can cook the spaghetti in the same water; remember to salt the water). Remove the tomatoes from the water, let cool, peel and deseed. Set the pulp aside (you should have about a cup). Peel the garlic and roughly chop the basil. Slice half of the eggplant into thin rounds and cube the rest. Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a large pan and fry the rounds on both sides until brown and slight crunchy on the edges. Transfer to paper towels and lightly salt. Re-oil the pan and cook the cubed eggplant until brown and soft. Transfer to a bowl temporarily. In the same pan, add another bit of oil, heat, and add the peeled garlic cloves. Swirl to flavor the oil. Add the tomato pulp and cook for a few minutes until the pulp liquifies a bit. Now add the cooked cubed eggplant, stir, and cook for another few minutes. Turn off the heat and add the chopped basil and half the grated cheese and combine well. Test the saltiness. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti al dente and when ready add to the pan of sauce and combine.

Serve the pasta on plates lined with the fried eggplant rounds. Dust with the remaining cheese and garnish with a basil leaf or two.

culture bite

Composer Vincenzo Bellini’s image appears on the 5,000 lire banknote. The mushroom Suillus bellinii is named after him.

Cherry Tomato & Zucchini Flower Tart

Hello. I'm your new favorite tart

Hello. I’m your new favorite tart.

Ingredients

for the pastry:
1 & 1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup very cold butter
ice water

for the topping:
1 large or 2 small zucchini
2-3 zucchini flowers
1 handful cherry tomatoes (about 7-8)
1 egg
3 heaping Tbls fresh ricotta
1 Tbls fresh thyme leaves
2-3 Tbls grated parmigiano or pecorino romano
salt & pepper

Instructions

Make the pastry crust first. Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Chunk in the butter with a knife or try my own favorite method: put the butter in the freezer for about 5 minutes then grate it into the flour using the large holes of a cheese grater. Crumble the butter into the flour with your fingers until you have a uniform crumbly mixture. Add a few spoonfuls of the ice water and continue combining with your fingers. Keep adding water and blending until a dough forms. Transfer to a flour-covered work surface and knead lightly and quickly. Form a ball and close it in plastic wrap and put in the fridge.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Slice the zucchini into very thin strips (I used the slicer of the cheese grater). Gently clean the flowers and cut them in half length-wise. Whisk the ricotta and egg together with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 180° C / 350° F.  Roll out the pastry to about 1/8 inch thickness and cover the bottom of a 10″ or 12″ pie dish or cake pan with a spring form release. I used the latter, after having lined the bottom and trimmed the excess pastry from the edge. Spread the ricotta and egg mixture evenly across the crust, then arrange the tomato and zucchini slices and flowers as you prefer, gently pressing the ingredients into the soft mixure. Dust with another bit of salt and pepper and sprinkle with the fresh thyme and grated cheese. Bake for 20 minutes. The flowers and thyme will crisp and turn brown, so you could add those ingredients to the tart half-way through the cooking time to maintain their color (they will be softer, too). Let cool slightly before releasing the spring form and serving.

Zucchini Butter Crostini with Flowers

better than butter. almost.

crunchy, savory, buttery, cheesy crostini

I came across this recipe for zucchini butter today courtesy of Jennie Cook’s column ‘Weeknights with Jenny’ at Food52, a class act food and recipe resource you should definitely know if you don’t already. I modified Cook’s recipe only slightly (and halved it), then served it on grilled bread with a sprinkle of grated parmigiano and zucchini flowers. Viva l’estate!

Ingredients for 4 crostini

4 slices of Tuscan or other firm bread
3 or 4 medium-large zucchini (about 1 pound)
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 zucchini flowers
salt & pepper

Instructions

Grate the zucchini using the large holes of the grater and place in a colander. Dust with salt and toss to cover all the zucchini and let rest over a bowl for 15 minutes, squeezing periodically with your hands to express the liquid. After 15 minutes wring out the final bit of liquid with a clean towel or paper towels.

Mince the garlic. Heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the zucchini and combine well. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the veg becomes very soft and like ‘a nice vegetable jam’ (you are basically carmelizing the zucchini). Turn off the heat, correct for salt, grind in some black pepper, stir and let rest.

Grill the bread on a regular grill or in grill pan. Spread a scoop of the zucchini butter on each slice, and top with a fresh zucchini flower and a sprinkle of the cheese. Then transfer the crostini to a very hot oven on the grill setting for a few minutes to melt the cheese and crisp the flowers.

Pasta alla Caprese with Mozzarella di Bufala

caprese

…just a caprese salad with added pasta…

Ingredients for 4 servings

350 grams of pasta (such as penne, fusilli, or bowties)
4 or 5 medium-large round tomatoes
1 or 2 garlic cloves
1 small fresh red chili pepper
1 large buffalo mozzarella (about 300 grams/10-11 ounces)
fresh basil
dried oregano
salt
olive oil

Instructions

Make the salad while the pasta water boils. Chop the tomato into cubes and place the pieces in a colander (one with fairly large holes, not the fine mesh type). Dust the tomato pieces generously with salt, gently toss to get all the pieces covered, and let rest for 15 minutes (on a plate or over the sink, since liquid will be draining out from the tomato). Meanwhile, mince the garlic and chili pepper and cut the mozzarella into chunks roughly the size of the tomato cubes. Roughly chop 4 or 5 basil leaves.

Shake the tomatoes over the sink (while still in the colander) so that all the liquid expressed from the salting and most of the seeds drain through. Place the tomato, mozzarella, garlic, pepper, and basil in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and stir well. Cook the pasta al dente and when drained and slightly cooled add to the bowl of salad. Toss well and serve with a sprinkling of dried oregano and (optional) grated Parmesan cheese. Can also be served chilled, like a pasta salad.