Figliata, or Egg Panzanella

egg panzanella, for your expanding 'litter'

egg panzanella, for your expanding ‘litter’

Towards the end of Julia Moskin’s recent article in The New York Times on Ischian cooking traditions, Enoteca la Stadera owner Ivo Iacono’s mention of an old family recipe caught my notice:

One of his childhood favorites was a dish called figliata — a word meaning “litter,” as in puppies — made of eggs, basil, cheese and stale bread. “When you had another child,” he said, “you could just add another egg.”

Up until that moment, reading this article had me in a familiar emotional state, one best described as a mixture of interest, appreciation, and a Schadenfreude-esque delight at any minor suggestion of dilettantism. To be clear, the article is very good: aptly descriptive, engaging, informative. Why wouldn’t it be? Moskin is a pro food reporter and accomplished cookbook writer/editor. She highlights Iacono’s activities as a restaurateur and outlines Ischia’s intriguing history while staying astutely focused on the real star of the story—Ischia’s food, specifically the long-practiced tradition of cooking foods in the island’s natural heat sources (hot springs, sand). In truth, I felt only a wee bit superior when reading her explanations for the unversed—such as ‘Ischia (pronounced ISS-kee-ah)…’ or ‘a popular lunch dish called caponata,’ and the like. The truly gratifying moment, though, I’m not ashamed to admit (perhaps I should be) came when I realized Moskin had all but overlooked what for me is the most intriguing part of the story: the family recipe Iacono calls figliata (from figlio/figlia = son/daughter).

I could find no information on this dish. There’s no mention of figliata in any of my cookbooks (while searching the web I did discover something called pizza figliata, a sweet pastry reminiscent of strudel that’s popular in Campania). I asked around, resisting a temptation to contact Iacono directly for a quote. Niente. So, based on Iacono’s description, I reasoned that figliata must basically amount to a kind of panzanella with boiled eggs. This is what I came up with:

Ingredients for 4 servings circa

500 grams of stale Tuscan bread (a stale ciabatta would work)
4 eggs
1 handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
fresh chopped chives (optional)
3-4 Tbls olive oil
2 Tbls white vinegar
salt & pepper

Instructions

Soak the bread in cold water for about 20 minutes. Strain and squeeze out all the excess water, then crumble the now-soft bread into a large bowl. Boil or steam the eggs for about 7 minutes, cool in icy water, peel and roughly chop. Add the eggs and basil to the bread and combine. Now add the oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and blend well. Garnish with more fresh basil and some chopped chive (my addition, optional).

Add one egg for each additional child, per Signor Ivo Iacono.

Mixed Berry Ice Cream Cake

on the plate

ice cream cake (of course!)

What to do with a leftover tub of homemade red currant ice cream? Make ice cream cake, of course! When completely cooled, slice a round sponge cake / pan di spagna into two disks. Wedge the first disk into the bakery paper-lined cake pan and spread a layer of softened ice cream on top. Proceed with the next layer of cake and ice cream (for my top layer I used whipped cream with mixed berries), and place back in the freezer for at least an hour. Remove and let sit at room temp for minimum 15 minutes before serving.

Grilled Eggplant Rolls With Caper-Basil Cream

involtini di melanzane

involtini di melanzane

To make these grilled eggplant rolls, brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and grill until soft, not crisp. You could also fry them in olive oil if preferred. Transfer them to a paper-towel-covered plate and lightly dust with grated pecorino romano or ricotta salata. Soften a container of cream cheese and blend it well with a handful of roughly chopped salted capers (rinsed) and a small handful of chopped fresh basil. I used two varieties, purple and Greek. When the eggplant has cooled, spread a scoop of the cream on each round and roll them up. Serve with herbs and a bit more grated cheese if you like. These are very good at room temp or even chilled.

St John’s Eve: Remedies & Rituals You Should Have Performed Last Night

John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse, John William. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. 1909.

The days surrounding the summer solstice abound with rituals, legends, and divinations utilizing water and plants. Throughout mostly rural areas of Europe, the night between June 23 and June 24, the feast day of St John the Baptist (his nativity) is marked by festivals and bonfires, flaming wheels rolling down mountainsides, ritualistic smoke purification of livestock, the burning of aromatic herbs to ward off evil and promote physical health, and more. Perhaps no day on the calendar juxtaposes ancient pagan rites with Catholic tradition as beguilingly as June 24, as both a Church feast day and the day on which Midsummer is observed. Here in Italy, at the center of this heady concoction of symbolism and ritual, witches and goblins, nature spirits and Christian saints, herbal remedies, purifying ablutions, potions and even the malocchio, is the curious secular tradition of gathering still-green walnuts to make the liquor known as nocino.

On the eve of St John, herbs are believed to possess especially strong healing powers (many aromatics are, in fact, harvested this time of year, having just flowered, and their aromas being at their most intense—surely no coincidence). Herbs and aromatics to gather on St John’s eve include St John’s wort (obviously), wormwood, verbena/vervain, elderberry, lavender, mint, rosemary, garlic and onion. Even fruits such as redcurrant and hawthorn berries are believed to protect against evil, if gathered on this day.

Some of these plants, when used in the preparation of a special brew known as l’acqua di San Giovanni, or St John’s water, are thought to bring not only physical benefits but also spiritual salvation and protection bestowed from the saint himself—but only if you follow a peculiar and precise ritual: the water is made by placing lavender leaves and flowers, St John’s wort, calamint/nepeta, rue/ruta, and rosemary in a wash basin full of water, which is then left to brew overnight, outside the house. The following morning, women who wash with this water will improve their looks and ward off disease (who knew!?). Variations result in different apotropaic qualities; the addition of wormword, for instance, will protect against the evil eye.

One similar custom involves gathering dew directly from trees and plants on this night, with the resulting distillation purported to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and keep illness at bay; while another version, perhaps devised for the lazier among us, calls for leaving a cloth out overnight, the moisture from which is then wrung out in the morning. Even more practical (this is the method I’d use) is simply placing a glass in a hole in the ground and letting the precious St John’s dew drizzle in.

Some St John-related rituals center on mating, nuptials, and marital harmony. In one version, a young, yet-to-wed woman places three fava beans—one intact, one peeled, and one broken—under her pillow before going to sleep on June 23. During the night she selects one without looking and learns her fate: the intact bean signifies riches, a good match; the half bean portends a mediocre destiny; and the peeled bean, a bad omen altogether. In another, the eating of snails, specifically their tentacles, on St John’s day grants men protection from misfortune and in particular from being made a cuckold: the snail tentacle, which resembles a horn, corna or cornuto, represents a kind of edible amulet against what’s known in Italian as mettere la corna—being cheated on by one’s wife.

Of all today’s quirky traditions, the gathering of walnuts to make nocino, also considered therapeutic, is likely the most familiar (and observed) in Italy. But it’s not without its own offbeat backstory. A centuries-old legend maintains that witches would gather on this night around ancient walnut trees, walnuts having long been linked to both medicinal and magical practices going back to the Druids (the night of June 23-24 is also commonly referred to as La Notte delle Streghe, or Night of the Witches). The unripe fruits, thus imbued with healing powers, must be picked—you guessed it—on this and only this night. Interested? Check out Judy Witts Francini’s recipe for nocino.

Red Currant Ice Cream

perfect, gorgeous, homemade ice cream

Every year around this time our red currant plant starts yielding absurd quantities of fruit—or at least too much for two people to keep up with. In the past week I’ve given away a couple bags full and have frozen about a kilo. I’m not really into marmalade (both the process of making it and the texture annoy me), which leaves few options for how to make use of the copious amounts of berries currently all about the place. It turns out the hens don’t really like them, by the by.

Last year I made a refreshing (if a bit sour) and gorgeous-to-behold red currant sorbet. I’d started making my own sorbet a couple years back, after having purchased and been disappointed by one too many sickeningly sweet store-brought varieties, invariably full of glucose syrup—fine, technically it’s just sugar, I realize—plus the ubiquitous corn syrup, thickeners, stabilizers, colorings, and so on. With homemade sorbet you can pretty much achieve a ‘natural’ dessert and you control the sweetness level, something I find appealing. It’s much more economical. It’s easy. And there’s really no limit to the kinds you can make. So while contemplating a large bowl of currants, I thought about going with that recipe again. Then I remembered I had a carton of cream in the fridge! And minutes later I was busy making this ice cream. I hate to brag (really I do), but at times it’s just unavoidable—this ice cream is knock-your-socks-off good.

Ingredients

1 & 1/2 cups (about 250-270 grams) of fresh red currants
1 cup (225 grams) sugar
1/3 cup (about 80 mls) water
2 cups heavy cream (I used a 500-ml carton)

Instructions

Rinse the berries and remove all the little stems. Process the fruit until you have a thick, fairly uniform liquid, then strain once in a small-hole colander and then again in a mesh one. You won’t keep every tiny seed out; it’s okay, nothing to go all OCD about. The seeds are sort of cute (and besides, this is homemade ice cream). Set the juice aside. In a small saucepan over low heat, dissolve the sugar in the water, stirring constantly until you have a thick syrup. You don’t have to bring it to a boil. Let cool and then add the syrup to the fruit blend and combine well in a bowl. At this point, definitely test the sweetness. Currants are sour. I liked the sweetness achieved with this amount of sugar, but you could sweeten further if you wish. Place the bowl in the freezer for a few minutes while you whip the cream until very thick and pillowy. Gently fold the cream into the fruit mixture, then transfer to a sealable container and freeze. After about two hours the consistency is like a soft-serve ice cream. Freeze for another two hours if you want a more traditional ice cream consistency. Since this ice cream contains no fake-texture-preserving junk, it will freeze completely solid, so on successive days be sure to take it out of the freezer about 15-20 minutes before serving and stir it up a bit.

Ribes rubrum

Ribes rubrum

Grilled Eggplant & Swordfish Towers

on the plate

on the plate

Slice the eggplant into rounds and place them in a shallow baking dish or on a large platter. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried rosemary and thyme (or herbes de Provence) and let rest for about 15 minutes while you prep the fish. I cut the swordfish steaks into rounds to roughly match the eggplant rounds in size. Coat the fish with olive oil and dust with black pepper. Grilled the veg and the fish, salt to taste when cooked, then assemble the towers, layering with chopped tomato and fresh basil. I served these with a creamy, tangy caper sauce made from capers, mayo and lemon juice.

Melon Sorbet

so cool

so cool

To make this sorbet, I used the better part of two ripe cantaloupes. Place a large ceramic or tin bowl or pot in the freezer while you prep the sorbet. Roughly cube the flesh and place it in a food processor or blender. You can also use a hand-held wand mixer, in which case place the fruit in a large bowl. Process until you have a thickish liquid. Add about 1/2 cup of syrup (bring 1 cup of water and 1/2 cup sugar to a boil, stirring periodically; remove from heat and let cool before using) and 3 large spoonfuls of mascarpone (optional). The mascarpone doesn’t alter the flavor but does make for a nice pastel color and creamy consistency. Blend well, transfer to the chilled container, and cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Freeze for 4 or 5 hours, forking it every now and then. Remember to remove frozen solid sorbet from the freezer and let rest at room temp for about 30 minutes before serving. Fork it up and then use an ice cream scoop to serve. If you like, garnish with red fruits like the currants pictured above or fresh mint leaves.

It’s Prugnolo Day!

viva il prugnolo!

viva il prugnolo!

Prugnolo mushrooms are everywhere right now, dominating the local sagra scene but not only: Tomorrow night the folks at Pizzeria Valeri in Luco di Mugello are hosting a dinner event based on this cute little fungo. Check out (and like!) Valeri’s Facebook page for more info, and in the meantime have a peek at the menu:

Crostini al Prugnolo
Ravioli and Tortelli with Prugnoli
Pizze miste with Prugnoli
Prugnolo Gelato
cost: €28 per person, drinks included

Bar Pizzeria Valeri
Via Giovanni Traversi, 95
Luco di Mugello
Borgo San Lorenzo (FI)
tel: 055 840 1776

Viva Nonna Leo! Genovese Woman Opens Home Restaurant on her 96th Birthday

Leonilda Tomasinelli, who turns 96 on April 18, here pictured making pesto

Leonilda Tomasinelli, who turns 96 on April 18, here pictured making pesto

Home restaurants, similar to supper/dining clubs and underground/pop-up restaurants, have been taking off in Italy in recent years. While regulated by the Italian government, home restaurants are remarkably uncomplicated to set up here, at least for now. Home restaurateurs currently operate like freelancers; their profits may not exceed the yearly allowance for this earnings category (about 5,000 euros), yet no special permit or license is required. All you need is a kitchen, a means to promote your business and take reservations, and, of course, cooking skills impressive enough to draw paying customers to your home. The movement so far appears fuelled in large part by consumer demand for reasonably-priced, quality dining out options. Not unlike the sagra then, in a way home restaurants reflect that so Italian belief in food—good, tasty, inexpensive food—as a birthright. Although, one Italian media source did refer to them as typical ‘hipster’ nonsense. That made me laugh.

With at least a decade’s head start on Italy, the alternative restaurant movements in the U.S. and U.K., on the other hand, are today driven more by the desire of aspiring (or sometimes veteran) chefs to create and experiment in a restriction-free venue, while garnering a following of diners seeking novel, cutting-edge eating experiences. At times these rave-reminiscent food events beget an aura of exclusivity, as attested to by their secret or unconventional locations (think sleek renovated warehouses and chic flats over homely dining rooms) as well as the figure on the final check—and in this respect differ quite a lot from their Italian counterparts, generally. The press has described customers willing to overcome the obstacles required to dine at pop-ups and undergrounds as adventurous, novelty-seeking, avant-garde, and so on. Personally, I smell a touch of pretentiousness in the whole business, yet to be fair should withhold judgement until I’ve had a chance to attend one. No doubt they are a great opportunity for gifted chefs.

Back to the boot. Making headlines this week is a wonderful story about Leonilda Tomasinelli, who is launching her own home restaurant in Genoa’s Albaro neighborhood tomorrow, which also happens to be her 96th birthday. Born in 1919, ‘Nonna Leo’ was called upon to cook for the family from a very young age (she is the oldest of five sisters). It’s safe to say this gal’s got skills, in short. Her menu will feature Ligurian specialties such as le seppie con i piselli (a savory stew-like soup of squid and peas), lo stoccafisso accomodato (a kind of fish stew), la panissa (hard to describe—like cubes of cooked chickpea flour dough), il tocco alla genovese (a meat ragù), focaccia di Recco (cheese-stuffed focaccia), la farinata (chickpea flour flatbread), and la torta Sacripantina (a cream-filled soft cake). Nonna Leo makes her own pasta, naturally, and uses an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to make her pesto and walnut sauce.

Reservations can be made on Nonna Leo’s website. And here she is talking about why she opened her home restaurant: namely, because we no longer eat or cook like we used to in days past, she says. Everything is premade. Pasta, sauces, bread, soups, et cetera are no longer prepared as they should be—except at home. While holding a 19th-century cookbook of Ligurian cuisine that belonged her grandmother, Nonna Leo says she wants to leave these recipes and traditions to her grandchildren so they will live on. Viva Nonna Leo!

 

Italians at the Table 1860-1960

when Frascati ruled!

when Frascati ruled!

Italians at the Table 1860-1960 is a photographic exhibition on until the end of October at the Villa Pisani of Stra National Museum (about forty minutes outside Venice proper). The show documents over a century of Italians doing what they do—eating and drinking, yes, but also celebrating, growing, preparing, and vending—through a collection of original photographs capturing ‘food-related’ moments ranging from public banquets to intimate family meals. Themes of nutrition, wartime scarcity and hunger, customs, and innovations in food production are also addressed. The villa’s icehouse and orangery will be open to visitors throughout the exhibit.