La Polentata delle Ceneri

Enrico Pazzagli, 'Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, early 1800s'

Detail of Enrico Pazzagli’s ‘Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, Early 1800s’ **

Polentata’ is probably best translated as polenta festival or fair, and many towns around Italy today are hosting some sort of polenta-centered event. Why today? Polenta has long been associated with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten period on account of its ‘lean’ quality—it’s a peasant dish, if you will, part of the cucina povera. If you make polenta the way I do—usually not without a dollop of cream or butter, maybe cheese, and typically alongside a nice roast meat of some kind and shameful amounts of gravy—you might find this hard to swallow. In any case, symbolically if not in practice in all of our kitchens, a serving of polenta on Ash Wednesday marks the close of the ‘fat days’ and the onset of Lenten customs such as fasting, penance, atonement.

Here in Borgo San Lorenzo, locals have been organizing a polentata on Ash Wednesday every year since 1800. It’s one of the longest-running folk events in the Mugello, with a celebrated backstory that’s hard not to get a little enthusiastic about.  In 1799, following the French invasion of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a battle to push out French troops took place in the streets of Borgo (much of the Mugello and Casentino areas were influenced at that time by the resistance movement Viva Maria, centered in Arezzo, where resistance fighters took back their city after Napoleon invaded). After the ‘furious battle in the streets around the Borgo San Lorenzo castle’ had ended, and the dead had been buried, local housewives and peasant women set about cooking huge potfuls of polenta to feed the stricken survivors.

The following year the polentata took place on Ash Wednesday, becoming known as ‘la polentata delle ceneri’ (cenere = ash), and has been held every year since in the town’s Piazza Garibaldi. According to Aldo Giovannini, a local writer and journalist who has published numerous books on the Mugello and possesses an archive of over 90,000 images of our territory, the polentata was kept a simple affair, free of the concerns of social class—a testament to la libertà.

** The watercolor is by Enrico Pazzagli, a local artist who creates  beautiful works of Mugello landscapes, scenes, towns, and more.

 

Alla Gricia: A Sauce With Many Stories

alla gricia

alla gricia with strozzapreti (don’t tell the purists!)

Alla gricia, considered by many the antecedent to all’amatriciana and alla carbonara, is a pasta sauce from Lazio made with three ingredients: guanciale, pecorino romano, and black pepper. Get your hands on quality versions of these items, and you can’t go wrong. The recipe follows below. In the meantime, some history.

Here are but a few theories about the origins of alla gricia: Is this the sauce that folks from Amatrice who immigrated to Rome modified with the addition of tomato, resulting in the now-famous all’amatriciana? For some, yes. Or could it be that the sauce comes from Grisciano, a small town in the Accumoli district not far from Amatrice? The locals would have us believe so.

The predominant theory, however, points to the word gricio, a Roman term for bread-makers used in the 15th century. I Grici came to Rome from the Swiss Canton of Grisons, or Cantone de’ Grigioni in Italian. (The canton, in turn, takes its name from the Lega Grigia, or Grey League, one of three 14th-century leagues that formed the canton whose members were known for wearing simple clothing, grey in color). In Rome, the word griscium also referred to the uniform worn by members of the arte bianca, the bakers’ guild—specifically to the coat, also grey, they wore over their clothes to shield against flour. In time, the term gricio acquired a negative meaning, something akin to oaf, hick, or rube—a shabby man, in short. Bakers apparently had a reputation in Rome for being poor dressers, with or without their trademark griscium. They wore pants that hit above the ankle, an unforgivable fashion faux pas that gave rise to the Roman ‘er carzone a la gricia’ (I’m guessing ‘gricia pants’?) and the Neapolitan ‘zompafuossi’ pants, which must be what we’d call ‘highwaters’ in English.

Though short on style, the Grici were unquestionably skilled bread-makers, and they maintained a stronghold on the Roman arte bianca for some time. By the 19th century, the term gricio acquired a broader meaning, used to refer to immigrants from German and Swiss regions generally, and even those from northern Lombardy. Having by this time expanded into other fields, such as the minor guild of the oliandoli—oil vendors who also dealt in all manner of kitchenware, food sundries, and provisions—the Grici saw their reputation in Rome degenerate further. Already considered crude mountain people, and resented for their independent, frugal ways, the Grici also gave credit in the form of small though very precise loans, and as meticulous creditors had the habit of nailing up credit slips in their shops. They kept later hours than members of other guilds, to collect the petty debts owed them; and a charcoal stove present in the bottega allowed them to cook and eat their meals without closing up shop. Perhaps this saying in Roman dialect best sums up the common view of the Grici: ‘Er Griciosi nun fosse rafacano sarebbe puro bbono.’ Roughly,This Gricio, he’d be all right if he weren’t such a miser.’

Back to the pasta sauce. Though I’ve not been able to substantiate this, I think alla gricia must be at least partly a result of the reputed Gricio parsimony.  Requiring as it does only small quantities of select ingredients to create a superb flavor, alla gricia certainly yields maximum returns.

Pasta alla Gricia

Use 80-100 grams of short rod pasta or 80 grams of long pasta per serving (purists will say either rigatoni or spaghetti, strictly).  For the sauce, I estimate a small handful, about 1/2 cup, of sliced guanciale per serving and about 1/4 cup grated pecorino romano. Start the pasta water, and salt it lightly as the sauce ingredients are very salty already.  Slice the rind away from the guanciale and then slice it into 1-centimeter thick slices lengthwise, then into smaller strips. Cook on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has melted and turned transparent. Grind in a good amount black pepper and add a ladle-full of the pasta cooking water. When the pasta is ready, scoop it out and combine well with the sauce and add in the grated cheese.

This video from Giallo Zafferano, in Italian but easy to follow, is a good visual aid, especially on how to slice the guanciale. Interestingly, here Sonia Peronaci recounts yet another theory about the origin of this sauce. According to Peronaci, alla gricia predates the arrival of tomatoes in Europe (which is most certainly true), but in her version it was invented by shepherds in the Lazio region.

Another Gastro Gaffe? Chef Carlo Cracco’s Scandalous Sugo all’Amatriciana

spaghetti all'amatriciana

all’amatriciana, sans garlic

Here we go again. Just weeks after a Star brand television commercial stirred a heated debate with its portrayal of a Sicilian housewife adding a bouillon cube to the classic dish caponata, Italians are once more up in arms over another publicized violation of a beloved dish—this time, the pasta sauce known as sugo all’amatriciana. At the heart of the heresy is Carlo Cracco, an accomplished Italian chef and restaurateur whose steely-eyed manner wreaks fear and trembling on MasterChef Italia contestants. This week, during a guest appearance on the popular (really horrible, actually) television show C’è Posta Per Te, Cracco stated that he adds aglio in camicia, or unpeeled garlic, to his amatriciana sauce.

The reaction? Well, for starters, a Google News search for ‘Carlo Cracco’ yielded over 120 articles in the Italian media today. And as one Italian journalist cheekily put it, Cracco is sure to be roasted for this ‘MasterChoc’ (choc being the Italianized form of the English loan word shock). Particularly piqued are the people of Amatrice, the town in northern Lazio from which the dish gets its name. The mayor of Amatrice—that’s right, the mayor—has, in addition to inviting Cracco to Amatrice to ‘learn’ how to make the true sugo all’amatriciana, responded by publishing the only ingredients sanctioned in his town’s namesake sauce on the main page of the city’s official website: guanciale, pecorino cheese, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, black pepper and chilli pepper. Sans garlic, fool.

What’s more, don’t go thinking you can toss just any old pasta in an amatriciana sauce (I mean, do you have a death wish or something?) Spaghetti. Only spaghetti. It says so right on the sign for Amatrice, for Pete’s sake!—

Spaghetti City

Spaghetti City

Stewed Artichokes With Garlic & Mint

carciofi in umido

carciofi in umido

Prep several small, slender-ish artichokes (think morelli or violet, not globes): Strip away all the tough outer leaves, cut off the tops, and scrape the outer fibrous layer from the stem. Quarter length-wise and remove the fuzzy choke (which should be minimal) and soak in fresh lemon juice diluted with water while you mince some garlic and deseed and dice a few small tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in a casserole/tegame, add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, then add the drained artichoke pieces. Salt and pepper well, combine, cover and cook until the stems are tender, adding water if the garlic starts to stick or brown and turning the artichokes occasionally. About half-way through the cooking, add the tomato, and when just ready garnish the artichokes with mint, fresh or dried.

Saint Blaise’s Panettone

breakfast panettone

panettone for breakfast? count me in.

On February 3, the Feast of San Biagio (Saint Blaise in English), the people of Milan practice a peculiar custom—eating leftover panettone cake for breakfast. It’s a tradition very likely born, at least in part, of timing—for many Catholics, the Christmas festivities come to an official end on Candlemas, February 2—but also of the saint’s legendary association with bread, which he used to save a boy choking on a fish bone. San Biagio is, in fact, the protector against throat ailments and choking (on February 3 the Blessing of the Throats is celebrated). According to this Milanese tradition, eating panettone first thing on the morning of February 3 will safeguard the throat against illness or problems.

Could this panettone di San Biagio business be an excuse to break open that final remaining panettone we’ve all hidden away in the pantry after the holidays? Fine by me.

culture bite

The image below is an Eataly Milan store advert for panettone, featuring a saying in Milanese about the blessings of the saint and a note that the panetun cakes have been especially prepared for the occasion.

'Saint Blaise blesses the throat and nose'

‘Saint Blaise blesses the throat and nose’

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