Spaghetti with Agretti & Pancetta

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agretti spaghetti

Agretti refers to the edible green parts of the native Mediterraean annual known in English as salsola soda or saltwort. Looking a bit like chives and tasting a whole lot like spinach when cooked, agretti are harvested in funny-looking bunches with some of their roots intact, giving rise to the quaintest of their many epithets, friar’s beard (barba di frate in Italian). Raw, they taste like fresh grass, so if you like a grassy-tasting salad, just rinse and roughly chop them up, and toss them with good oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. They also do well as a garnish, snipped and sprinkled in the way you would chives. Cooked agretti are as versatile as spinach or any other leafy-ish green. Some common ways to prepare them are briefly boiled then added to a pasta dish, or in a frittata or omelet. Here’s one way to make them with spaghetti:

Ingredients

1 bunch of agretti
350 grams (about 11 ounces) spaghetti
100 grams (1/2 cup circa) smoked pancetta, sliced or diced
75 grams (3/4 cup) grated aged parmesan cheese or ricotta salata
olive oil
salt & pepper

Instructions

Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt. Chop the roots off the agretti and boil the greens for 3-4 minutes. Strain and set aside. Keep the water going for the pasta. Meanwhile heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in large pan and cook the pancetta until just turning crisp. Add the cooked agretti, salt and pepper to taste, combine, and keep warm in the pan. Cook the spaghetti al dente and when ready scoop out (do not use a colander) and transfer to the pan. Sprinkle in all the cheese and blend well.

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a bunch of agretti, aka friar’s beard, with their roots

A Caponata Controversy, or How to Piss Off a Sicilian

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

You gotta love Italians. For a population at times so indifferent to its societal troubles (political corruption, tax evasion, pension reform, pollution, to name a few), they are oddly disposed to rather vocal, even organized indignation when it comes to their food.

A commercial for Star brand dadi, or what we’d call bouillon cubes, is being lambasted these days as an ‘insult to Sicilian cuisine.’ The spot features a Sicilian woman at her stove alongside Tiziana Stefanelli, winner of the second MasterChef Italia, and as the two cheerily proceed with making a Sicilian classic, caponata, one of them adds a (gasp!) Star dado—the source of all the recent uproar. With the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi visible through a background window, the setting is unmistakably Palermo, although many have been quick to point out the housewife speaks nothing like a palermitano (wanting to disassociate, no doubt). Like salt on a wound, she then recites the slogan, Se non c’è il dado non c’è caponata, e se non c’è caponata non c’è famiglia (roughly: ‘Without a bouillon cube there’s no caponata, and without caponata there’s no family’). People are totally freaking out.

The outcry on the web includes a Facebook page called La caponata Siciliana non va profanata (‘Sicilian caponata must not be desecrated’), an outlet for indignant Italians to voice their stance that using a dado in a caponata is both insulting and unnecessary. Some are calling for the commercial to be cancelled. As well, the Star brand’s Facebook page has been filled with critical comments regarding the commercial, while on Twitter the hashtag #savecaponata is getting a fair amount of play.

Protests have come as well in the form of letters to Star’s customer service department, and in several posts on sites and blogs dedicated to Sicilian cooking, with apt doses of wit and brio. I counted at least five bloggers using the adopted slogan alla faccia del dado Star (‘In your face, Star bouillon’). Too many media outlets to count are covering the controversy.

In a post titled Giù le mani dalla mia caponata (‘Hands off my caponata’), journalist and Palermo native Giusi Battaglia, in addition to criticizing Stefanelli for having ‘colluded’ with Star, had this to say (my translation): ‘If there is one thing we Sicilians can be proud of, it is our centuries-long gastronomic culture. A bouillon cube in caponata is like Lucifer in heaven. Period.’ Battaglia says she contacted Stefanelli, citing the latter’s duty to decline such a request from a multinational, calling the whole business ‘dirty’ and detrimental to her credibility. Stefanelli’s response? ‘My husband is Sicilian. I know how to make caponata. The bouillon cube helps to bring all the flavors together, especially for amateur cooks.’

Meanwhile, the Star group’s response has been simple: ‘In this spot we are showing one interpretation of the recipe, one which can be personalized, as with the addition of other ingredients.’ Actually, caponata does vary throughout southern Italy. Some versions include artichokes, others fish, or peeled whole tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, and so on. Yours truly recently made a version of caponota with prawns. So, in theory, Star’s defense is sensible. Recipes change. Variations abound.

But no one’s having it. The frenzy over this spirited dado debate—which at its core seems to me not about adding or varying an ingredient but rather the lowly bouillon cube itself, widely considered a culinary shortcut of poseurs and dilettantes—continues to gain steam and yield evermore imaginative responses. The folks at StrEat Palermo recently posted a video in which they explain how the bouillon cube can be used in another Palermo specialty, pani câ meusa, a sandwich made from veal organs. It’s pretty funny. Still others are advocating for reason and good sense, summed up by a comment I saw recurring across various media: Hasn’t Sicily got other things to worry about?

Rucola Pesto

rucola pesto

arugula – rucola – rocket pesto

To make this tangy and super green rucola pesto, process several large handfuls of fresh rucola with one clove of garlic, about 1/3 cup good olive oil,  and one small handful each of salted (rinsed) capers and finely-grated parmesan cheese. Toss with just-drained pasta. It keeps in a glass jar for 4-5 days in the fridge. Remember to let warm to room temp and incorporate some hot pasta water before using pesto that’s been cold.

culture bite

In his book The Unites States of Arugula, David Kemp outlines the (very recent) explosion of ‘exotic’ foods and ingredients on the burgeoning gourmet food scene in America. And here you can read about rucola’s various names and their respective etymologies.

Champignon & Porcini Mushroom Lasagne

viva le lasagne!

viva le lasagne!

The idea is simple. In place of meat ragù, use a chunky-ish sauce made of finely chopped mushrooms (champignons and dried/soaked porcini; cook for about ten minutes in olive oil; salt, pepper, chopped fresh parsley; a scoop or two of your béchamel). You can layer in extra slices of mushrooms here and there as you construct the lasagne. Bake at 160 °C / 320 °F for about 45 minutes or until very golden and bubbly. Let sit for at least 20 minutes before serving. Everything else is the same as with making a traditional pan of lasagne, nicely outlined here (in Italian).

Leek & Potato Gratin with Blue Cheese & Thyme

oh, gratin.

oh, gratin.

After a lengthy hiatus from blogging—a delightful trip to California last month that saw quite a few amazing meals but almost no cooking on my part!—I’m back home and back to my regular kitchen routine. This gratin, inspired equally by Deborah Madison and a tempting chunk of blue Stilton in my fridge, was yesterday’s lunch. Enjoy!

Ingredients

2 large leeks, mostly the white parts, rinsed and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
2 large potatoes (about 450 grams/just under a pound), peeled and sliced into rounds roughly the same thickness as the leek rounds
1 cup (about 150 grams) crumbled blue cheese of your choice
1 & ½ cups circa béchamel:
2 Tbls butter
3 Tbls flour
1 cup (250 mls) fresh heavy cream
1 Tbls chopped fresh thyme, plus a few sprigs for garnishing (optional)
ground nutmeg
salt & pepper

Instructions

Set the oven to 350° F / 175° C. Boil the sliced leeks for 2 minutes in salted water. Scoop out, strain, and set aside in a colander to let cool. Boil the potato slices in the same water for 4 minutes, strain and let cool a bit. Meanwhile, make the béchamel:

Combine the butter and flour in a non-stick saucepan over low heat until a paste forms. Add the cream and stir or whisk vigorously until thoroughly combined. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often as it thickens to prevent the sauce from sticking. Add the chopped thyme about halfway through. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper and grate in approximately ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg. Keep the sauce warm while you proceed.

Butter a 9-inch (or similar) shallow glass baking dish or casserole. Line the bottom with a layer of potato slices, then a layer of the leeks. Now gently spread a layer of the white sauce over the veggies, followed by some of the crumbled blue cheese. You should have enough vegetables and béchamel for another layer. Tip: lightly salt and pepper the second layer of potato. Top with the remaining blue cheese and any straggler pieces of leek. Bake for about 30 minutes and remove from the oven when the top is bubbling and starting to turn golden. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs.

just out of the oven

just out of the oven

A Quest For Perfect Pumpkin Soup

the happy ending

Maybe quest is a slightly romanticized word for what I’ve been doing over the past month—trying to create the perfect pumpkin soup. No matter. A happy outcome is all, achieved today with the discovery of this recipe courtesy of Life’s a Feast. I think what really sets this version of pumpkin soup apart is the addition of paprika and ground nutmeg, and the pinch of brown sugar. Note: I did not make the bread sticks but instead tossed in a handful of croutons. Bread sticks are a better accompaniment, to be sure, so you should make them.

The talent behind Life’s a Feast is Jamie Schler, a France-based American freelance food writer who explores the aspects of food that so intrigue me: traditions, heritage, stories, and so on. Her second blog, Plated Stories, is as gorgeous and gratifying a food blog as one could hope for and (be warned) is a bit addicting. Jamie also writes for Huffington Post. Definitely check out her well-worth-your-time articles. And make this pumpkin soup. Seriously.

An Island Wonder: Tradition & Innovation at Ventotene’s ‘Il Giardino’ Restaurant

a tour de force

a tour de force

There are so many reasons to visit the tiny Italian island Ventotene. To convince you, I could talk about the island’s fascinating history—of the tufa-carved port that served the structure known today as Villa Giulia, Emperor Augustus’s luxurious vacation villa that would become his daughter, Julia’s, place of exile. I could post pictures of the endlessly stunning seascapes, or recount my experiences with some of the island’s uber-friendly locals (fewer than 900 in off-season).  If you’re anything like me, however, the one aspect of a place sure to hook your interest will be its food. And on this count, Ventotene will not disappoint.

During the This is your time Travel Blog Tour I participated in last month, I had the fortune to meet the two skilled and charming cooks of the Il Giardino restaurant, Candida and Christian.

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Christian is from Ecuador and has lived in Italy for 13 years. He moved to Ventotene after living six years in Rome, during which time he was chef assistant to Giovanni Passerini at Uno e Bino, an acclaimed establishment in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter that closed about five years ago (Passerini went on to start Rino in Paris). Today Christian works alongside the restaurant founders, Candida and Giovanni, who opened Il Giardino over thirty years ago, and their children.

In the kitchen, Candida’s extensive cooking experience and knowledge of the island—its abundance, its limitations—pair perfectly with Christian’s flair, innovation, and hard-won expertise, resulting in dishes that are at once harmonious, delectable, and beautiful to behold. Per Giovanni’s vision, Il Giardino strives to use only products available on Ventotene. This means no or very little meat. As Candida explains, birds are protected on Ventotene, a migratory stopover; so birds are ‘off the menu’. There are no livestock farms here, and while the cooks could pick up some pre-packaged meats delivered from the mainland to the island grocer, doing so would not be in line with the restaurant’s philosophy. There is no game to hunt on Ventotene, save the occasional rabbit, which local hunters might sell to Candida from time to time. Yet outside sporadic windfalls of this kind, the menu at Il Giardino is based exclusively on fish and seafood—selected each morning at the port by Giovanni himself—and vegetables grown on the island, fairly bountiful: onion, tomato, zucchini, eggplant, peas, artichokes, lentils, potatoes, and more.

Working within the limitations of this island life must surely be a challenge, and no doubt lesser cooks would falter. These two have absolutely flourished. Have a look at the two astonishing dishes Christian kindly prepared for me, using local, fresh ingredients favored by the restaurant.

Carpaccio of Marinated Ricciola Fish

The ricciola, marinated in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, is served with an orange emulsion, fresh fennel, bean sprouts, and capers. You will be forever dubious of cooked fish after tasting this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

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Fried Zucchini Flowers with Tomato Confit & Capers

The flower is stuffed with ricotta and pecorino and fried to perfection. But what renders this dish a tour de force is Christian’s trademark confit, made by oven-cooking Pachino tomatoes low and slow (100 °C for 3 hours) with clove, lemon zest, and powdered sugar.

Ventotene is reachable by ferry from the town Formia, located on the Gulf of Gaeta and roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. In summer the island bursts with visitors, and the season peaks with ten days of festivities leading up to September 20, feast day of the island’s patron saint, Candida. When I arrived on Ventotene, the celebrations had concluded by just a few days, and the atmosphere was thrilling and blustery yet calm, with few tourists in sight. Just the odd sea view or two to whet your appetite (I couldn’t resist!):

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

Fava Beans & Favism

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

If you’ve never heard of it, favism, or favismo in Italian, sounds suspiciously like a food legend or superstition. In fact, favism is a real hereditary disease resulting from a defect of the gene that regulates glucose-6-phosphate, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a condition especially of males of Mediterranean descent that is marked by the development of hemolytic anemia upon consumption of broad beans or inhalation of broad bean pollen and is caused by a usually inherited deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate.’

Most people live with favism symptom-free, yet when it does manifest, the disease can lead to, among other things, serious kidney problems. The term favism is a bit of a misnomer, since not all people affected with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency—the technical name, commonly abbreviated as G6PD deficiency—will manifest symptoms after consuming fava beans or being exposed to pollens. Women can carry this genetic defect and pass it to male offspring.

About 400 million people worldwide have G6PD deficiency, predominantly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean. Rates of favism are high in Sardinia, also known for its high rate of centenarians. Interestingly, a recent study by the University of Sassari suggests a connection between G6PD deficiency and longevity: scientists observed that the lack of the G6PD enzyme was twice as common in Sardinian centenarians, leading them to theorize a relationship between a so-called ‘longevity gene’ and the genetic defect that causes this particular deficiency. (Sardinia is one of the world’s five blue zones—areas with the highest documented rates of longevity—along with Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; the Greek island Ikaría; and Loma Linda, California.) So perhaps there’s a silver lining to favism.

For the rest of us, fava beans are a tasty and versatile legume, rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals*. Some of the many ways to eat fava beans are raw with pecorino cheese, cooked lightly and tossed with pasta and pecorino (pictured above), or processed into a pesto-like paste to spread on crostini with other vegetables, cheese, or grilled prawns, as pictured here:

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*Fava beans contain isoflavones, which are considered both good (as antioxidants) and potentially bad (as phytoestrogens). Whether isoflavones should be moderated in the diet is debatable, as some clinical studies have shown these substances to have beneficial therapeutic and disease prevention qualities, while others suggest they should be avoided for the same reasons one would avoid consuming any synthetic hormone. Fava beans are included, for instance, in The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook as a ‘healthy’ food, while the Mayo Clinic website also notes: ‘Studies on phytoestrogens—whether from food or supplements—haven’t shown a convincing and consistent effect on hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms. Some experts speculate that phytoestrogens could increase the risk of breast cancer or interfere with the effectiveness of tamoxifen in women with breast cancer.’ Most current discussions of the potential risks associated with phytoestrogens center on soybeans and derivative products, such as milk and oils.

 

Broccoli & Blue Cheese Ravioli

on the plate

on the plate

Use any kind of blue cheese you like for this recipe. For a twist add some rapini buds and greens and romanesco to the broccoli blend. I don’t use a pasta machine for these, just a rolling pin, which results in a very thick raviolo and thus fewer pieces per serving, about 5 or 6 per plate. This recipe makes 18 to 20 ravioli, so 3 to 4 servings.

Ingredients

for the pasta
250 grams flour (1 & 1/2 cups)
2 eggs
1 Tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt
water

for the filling
180 grams broccoli florets (about 2 cups)
100 grams blue cheese (about 3/4 cup crumbled)
80 grams fresh ricotta (4 Tbls circa)
2 Tbls finely grated parmigiano cheese
1/4 tsp each salt & pepper

for the sauce
2 Tbls crumbled blue cheese
4 Tbls olive oil
chopped fresh chives & grated parmigiano for garnishing

Instructions

Start with the pasta. Pour the flour in a mound on a large wooden work surface. Make a hole in the middle by swirling the fingers of one hand around the center a couple times. Crack in the eggs, add the salt and olive oil. Using a fork, first work the center to blend the eggs a bit, then start moving flour from the edges into the center. When the pasta starts to form a uniform dough, switch to hand kneading. Add a little water if the pasta becomes too crumbly to work, and keep scraping the work surface to incorporate the bits of dough as you proceed. Knead for 5-8 minutes, switching to one hand for the ‘stretch and fold’ knead once you a combined dough: with the lower half of your palm, firmly press the pasta ball forward on the board (the stretch) then fold the pasta back over on itself and keep going. When the pasta is smooth, elastic, and compact, form a ball and let it rest covered in plastic wrap for a half hour. While it rests you can prepare the filling.

Crumble the blue cheese and let rest at room temp in a mixing bowl. Steam the broccoli until it’s al dente (not overcooked) and let cool. Add the broccoli to the blue cheese along with the ricotta, parmesan, and salt and pepper and combine well with a fork. Next you can use a wand blender to pulse the mixture a few seconds to obtain a more uniform filling. It should be smooth; some texture is fine, you just don’t want pieces of broccoli that could puncture the ravioli. Use your judgment. Taste the filling, correct for salt, and set aside.

Make the ravioli. On a clean, floured surface (I use semola for this step), roll out the pasta to about 1/8 inch thickness. You will end up with a round about the size of an extra-large pizza. Using a pizza cutter, first trim the edges so you have a square shape (it doesn’t have to be a perfect square). Make 2-inch wide strips, then cut the strips transversely into approximately  5-inch long strips. Place a teaspoon of filling on one side of each strip. Keep a cup of tepid water nearby. Dip your finger tips in the water and dampen the edges of the pasta strip around the filling. Now carefully fold the strip closed and press the edges firmly with your finger tips to seal. Place each formed raviolo on a semola-dusted surface, and proceed. When all the ravioli are ready, trim any uneven edges with the cutter, and then use the tongs of a fork to seal the edges again, dipping the fork in the flour as needed.

The ravioli don’t have to be perfect. In fact, they will likely vary a bit and that’s fine. The important thing is that they are sealed well and roughly the same size. This is what mine looked like:

ravioli2

(By the by, there are many ways to make ravioli shapes. My recipe here will result in a thick and chewy raviolo, but to obtain more subtle, delicate, and arguably more traditional ravioli, use a pasta machine or your mixer attachment. Watch Mario Batali make luna-shaped ravioli here to get an idea of the method. Note what he says about saving the extra trimmed off pieces of pasta to make maltagliati, but feel free to disregard, as I do, his opinion on salting the pasta dough).

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare the chive and grated cheese and set aside, and make the sauce by heating the olive oil and blue cheese in a small sauce pan on very low heat, stirring often until the cheese is melted (it will foam a little while heating). Keep the sauce warm. I suggest cooking the ravioli in batches, say 2 servings at a time. Drop them in the boiling water (watch the splash) and set a timer for 7 minutes. The ravioli will sink first and then rise to the surface as they cook. Stir them gently and when ready gently lift them from the water with a hand-held strainer (do not dump them into a colander!). Serve with a drizzle of the sauce and a dusting of the herbs and cheese.

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