Tag Archives: pasta

Pumpkin & Camembert Pici

on the plate

resistance is futile

This season is all about the pumpkin. You might not agree with the phenomenon, but you certainly cannot fight it. So here’s a recipe for pici pasta with pumpkin and Camembert to celebrate your submission to the pumpkin forces of fall. Enjoy!

Ingredients for 4-5 servings

400 grams pici pasta
300 grams circa fresh pumpkin
1/2 (or more) of a traditional round of Camembert cheese
1 small fresh red chili pepper
fresh thyme
olive oil
salt & pepper

Instructions

You have a couple options on how to prep the pumpkin. Option 1: Roast the pumpkin for about 25 minutes at 180° C /355° F. Let cool, peel, roughly chop, and set aside. Option 2: Peel the pumpkin, chop into large cubes and boil for about 10 minutes or until soft. Scoop from the water and drain but do not turn off the heat. Add salt to the water and use to cook the pici al dente.

Process the cooked pumpkin until fairly smooth (slightly chunky is fine), keeping in mind that the roasted pumpkin will be dry so you might add a bit of olive oil. The boiled pumpkin should not need any additional liquid. Mince the chili pepper and cook for a minute in a pan with olive oil. Transfer the processed pumpkin to the pan. Break the cheese into pieces and add to the pumpkin, stirring occasionally over low heat so it melts. Salt and pepper to taste. Then transfer the cooked pici to the pan and combine well. Serve with fresh thyme and ground black pepper (optional).

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 hint, however minor, 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 long-practiced cooking methods that make use of 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, not even the unfailingly comprehensive La Cucina Italiana encyclopedia. (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

400 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 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp 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, then cool, peel and roughly chop them. 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.

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 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

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).

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 have 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.

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

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.