Welcome back to my Regions of Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine).
As I write this, the world is in the thick fog of the pandemic COVID-19, or coronavirus. With so many of you in quarantine (or more diplomatically referred to as shelter in place), you’re trying out all those recipes you’ve been wanting to try. Well, now’s a great time to journey with me through Italy.
Today, we’re in Lombardia and I’m offering one of that region’s specialties, squash cake. Although it’s called cake, it’s actually more like a savory loaf with a sweet edge, kind of like corn bread.
What makes this recipe unusual is that it calls for mostarda di Cremona. Also known as mostarda di frutta, it’s candied fruit packed in mustard syrup. (Mostarda di Cremona, from the town of Cremona, is a particular blend of whole or large pieces of various fruit, and is the most well-known variety of mostarda.) If you taste it right out of the jar, you get hit with an unmistakable mustard flavor, reminiscent of yellow mustard, with only an undertone of sweetness. Once incorporated into a dish, the flavor blends in seamlessly and you end up with a complex recipe with an interesting flavor that you can’t quite pinpoint (but it’s the mostarda!).
Anyway, try it out. I hope you like it.
By the way, the note in the original recipe says it’s best to make the mixture a day ahead, but I missed my opportunity to do that. I made it the same day and it was fine.
Welcome back to my Regions of Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine).
This week, I stepped away from the middle of the list back toward the beginning, to Calabria, for this sweet treat, Pignoccata al Miele, or Honey Cookies.
As usual, I made some adjustments to the ingredients (for example, I substituted butter for the called-for lard) and the instructions. Most particularly, the original recipe instructed to roll out the dough ½ inch thick. I found this to be too thick when cooked. Not only did the outside cook far too quickly while the inside remained raw, it also resulted in a denser, heavier cookie. So I would go with ¼ inch thick on the dough. At ½ inch thick, it yielded 64 cookies; it will, of course, yield more if you roll it out at ¼ inch.
In the end, these treats reminded me a lot of struffoli, except that they’re square instead of round. The cooking process is the same, the flavor profile is the same, and the texture is the same. (If you don’t know what struffoli are, they’re a traditional holiday treat made up of dough cut up into little balls or nuggets and dropped in oil. Then they’re drizzled with honey and decorated with sprinkles and/or candied fruit.)
Two things I want to note: I thought these cookies were a little too sweet. If that’s your thing, fine. But if, like me, you prefer things not cloying, eliminate the sugar in the honey mixture.
Pignoccata al Miele
2 oranges 3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar 3 teaspoons active dry yeast ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon Pinch salt ½ cup orange liqueur (such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Triple Sec) 3 large eggs 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened Cooking oil 3 tablespoons honey
Grate the zest of one orange. Peel the second orange and cut the peel into strips about ½ inch thick. (Use the flesh of the oranges for something else, or eat it!)
Whisk together the flour, 2/3 cup sugar, yeast, cinnamon, and salt. Add the liqueur and grated zest. Whisk these together to blend. With an electric mixer, combine this mixture with the eggs, melted butter, and softened butter until a dough forms.
Cover the bowl with a cloth and let the dough rise for 1 hour.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface. Roll it out into a sheet (I recommend ¼ inch thick), then cut it into 1-inch squares.Heat about 3 inches of cooking oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Line a platter with paper towels and set it by the stove.When the oil is very hot, place a few of the squares into the oil and fry until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain them on the paper towels. Repeat this until all the cookies are cooked.Heat the honey with 1 tablespoon sugar (if using) and orange peel in a large skillet. Add the fried squares and stir them around to soak up the honey (do this in multiple batches if necessary).Arrange on a serving platter and serve warm or at room temperature.
Hi there. This week on my journey through the Regions of Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). I’m once again in Lazio, this time making a soup. This soup is called Ertuti. I wasn’t able to find any information on this dish, or why it’s called ertuti, but it’s rustic fare at its best. A quintessential peasant dish, it’s bulked up with beans and grains with some cured meats thrown in. (You can omit the meats if you like; I used only a small amount of prosciutto.)
Now, as far as the beans and grains themselves are concerned, the original recipe calls for a pound of mixed legumes, and they included farro in this ingredient. Why, I don’t know. Farro is not a legume; it’s the grain in this beans-and-grains combo. So, in order to make the ingredients list less confounding, I’ve split each legume called for in the original and the farro into separate and equal items. However, if you prefer one more than others, go ahead and change the quantities. Or change out the types. You can also change the grain, if you like. Farro is a hearty whole grain and can be substituted with barley, wheat berries, spelt berries, kamut, triticale, or any hard berry.
Finally, while this is a fairly simple recipe, the instructions were somewhat vague and assumed a certain level of understanding of cooking. I’ve expanded on the instructions to make everything a bit clearer.
Beans and Grains
¼ pound dried chickpeas ¼ pound dried lentils ¼ pound dried fava beans ¼ pound farro 1 tablespoon finely chopped prosciutto ¼ cup finely chopped pancetta 1 small piece salame, chopped (optional) 2 tablespoons tomato paste Kosher salt to taste Freshly ground pepper to taste Slices of whole wheat bread
Soak the chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and farro separately in water, covered, overnight. Pour out the water and place each in a separate pot. Fill with enough water to cover by 3 inches.Bring to a boil; lower the heat and simmer until tender (each one will vary in time). When tender, drain each legume and farro and reserve some of their cooking liquid (you can use liquid from one pot or combine them).In a large pot, heat the prosciutto, pancetta, and salame until they start to brown.Stir in the tomato paste. Work it in until it’s well blended.Add the beans and farro and stir. Add about ½ cup of the cooking liquid and stir. Cook 20 minutes to combine the flavors. You can add more bean cooking liquid as needed if the pot dries out, or if you want a looser consistency.Season with salt and pepper to your liking. Serve with the whole wheat bread.
I’m just barely one-third through the regions of my Regions of Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). I skipped a few recipes because of seasonal availability of ingredients, but I’ll get back around to those later. Right now, I’m in Fruili-Venezia Giulia, at the very high point of Italy.
This is another simple but unique recipe. Cornmeal is a common ingredient in this region of Italy, and it figures heavily in a traditional soup called Paparot. It’s a thick, hearty soup, but made properly, it’s silky and luxurious. Although it is traditional to serve it with crusty toasted bread, you can also add some rice or noodles.
Makes 6 servings.
2 pounds spinach, washed, large stems removed
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 or 2 large garlic cloves, peeled but whole
¾ cup all-purpose flour
8 cups broth
2/3 cup fine cornmeal
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Boil the spinach in a large pot of water with ¼ teaspoon salt just until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Drain well and squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop the spinach and set aside.
In the same pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the garlic and saute until golden on all sides. Remove the garlic and add the spinach. Whisk in the flour. Pour in half the broth, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. If any lumps form, work them out with the back of a wooden spoon.Pour in the remainder of the broth, then whisk in the cornmeal. Work out any lumps that form with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook over medium-low heat 30- to 40 minutes, stirring frequently and pressing out lumps, until the soup is thick. Season with salt and pepper.
Welcome back to my Regions of Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). This week’s recipe moves us into Fruili-Venezia Giulia, which is in the most northeastern corner of Italy. It borders Austria and Slovenia and it’s cuisine is influenced by those cultures. It uses a lot of root vegetables and hearty grains. The first recipe from the region I offer is a very simple one: butternut squash soup.
You’ve had butternut squash soup before, right? So have I. It’s a pretty common dish. There’s something a little different about this one, though. After the squash is cooked, a cup of ricotta is stirred in, creating a unique soup. The recipe is straight-forward and I don’t have too much to say about it, except for one thing. The original recipe instructs to “squeeze dry” the squash. I don’t know what they mean by this, but I put the squash in a sieve and pressed on it with a wooden spoon to release excess water. I further tweaked the instructions for clarity, and I thought the soup needed salt (not given in the original recipe). Other than that, it’s all pretty easy. Give it a try. Enjoy.
Minestra di Zucca
Makes 6 servings.
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup ricotta
1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Pinch ground cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place the squash in a pot large enough to hold it all and cover with water. Add ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer until the squash is tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the squash into a sieve set over a bowl to catch the water. Press the squash to release as much liquid as possible. Reserve the cooking water.Return the pot to the heat. Combine the oil and butter, and heat until the butter has melted. Add the garlic, then whisk in the flour.Add the squash and mash it with a potato masher or a stick blender. Stir in the ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cinnamon, pepper, and salt. Stir in some of the reserved cooking water until it reaches a consistency to your liking. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
This is the next entry in my Regions of Italy project, based on the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Today we’re in Campania.
When I was going through the recipes from Campania, trying to decide which ones to do, as soon as I spotted one called “St. Lucy’s Soup,” I knew it would be on my list. St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia as she is known in Italian, has always been a part of my life.
Although her year of birth is recorded as 283 A.D. in Syracuse, Italy, not much is known about St. Lucy or the actual details of her death. Legend has it that she devoted herself to God and vowed chastity. Her mother had betrothed her to a young man, who, after being rejected, turned her in to the governor, Paschasius (Christianity was outlawed at this time, and paganism was the accepted religion).
As punishment, Paschasius sentenced her to work in a brothel, but guards couldn’t physically move her, even after tying her to a team of oxen. The guards then tried to create a pyre around her, but the wood wouldn’t burn. They finally succeeded in killing her with their swords.
One cloudy aspect of her story—and this is important part—was what happened with her eyes. There are conflicting stories about that. Some said that just before she died, she warned Paschasius that he would be punished for his actions, and for that, he had her eyes gouged out. Others said that Lucy plucked her own eyes out to discourage a suitor who admired them greatly. (That sounds a bit drastic to me.) Word of her faith and piety spread and she was venerated as a saint. When her body was being prepared for burial, they discovered her eyes had been miraculously restored.
What’s interesting is that “Lucia” is related to the Latin word lux, which means light. So, who knows where reality ended and legend exploded. She is the patron saint of vision and is often depicted holding a plate with eyes on them.
Tributes to St. Lucy in my childhood room.
When I was about 6 years old, I almost lost my sight. I was in the hospital for 9 days, during which time, doctors hovered around me, put me through countless tests, and poked and prodded me. The only information I have about that event is that I had a rare virus in my cornea. My parents didn’t speak much English, so the actual medical language was lost on them.
Knowing the kind of person my mother is, and my father was, the prospect of their child going blind must have been an unbearable torment for them. Especially for my mother. She prayed to Santa Lucia to restore my vision.
Whether it was St. Lucy’s intervention, medical knowledge, or natural self-healing, my vision was indeed restored, if a little shaky. But my mother, an Old World Italian woman who believes in the saints and in prayer, believed that she had Santa Lucia to thank, and from that time on, my room always had statues of St. Lucy, placed there by my mother. Kind of creepy as a child to look a statue of a woman holding a plate of eyeballs. But whatever.
And here’s something else. You probably don’t even know it, but one of the most popular Italian tunes that can be heard throughout the decades in the movies or TV shows is “Santa Lucia.” See if you recognize it. (Here’s Elvis performing it!)
This is the latest entry in my Regions of Italy project, based on the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) as my guide. Today we are still in Calabria, which, as I said in my last entry, makes up the “instep” and toe of the boot of Italy.
The last Calabrian recipe featured eggplant as its main ingredient, so I had wanted to avoid additional eggplant recipes. But the name of this one intrigued me: Purgatory Sandwich. The book doesn’t explain why this is called Purgatory Sandwich, and I couldn’t find any information on it (I will say that my research was minimal). My theory is that whoever named this decided that if they had to stop in Purgatory on their way to Heaven and needed a snack, this would be it.
Anyway, let’s get to the recipe. This one had a couple of ingredients that were vague. Here are the items (as they are called for in the book) that I had issues with (the text in red are my comments):
2 eggplants(What size? Small? Medium? Or what weight? One pound? Two pounds?), cut into sections (What does that mean?) and soaked in salted water about 30 minutes (this should have been put at the top of the list and the first step in the instructions).I started with two small Italian eggplants and cubed them, but found that to be too much. So, in the end, I recommend 1 medium eggplant.
4 peppers, coarsely chopped (What kind of peppers? Bell? Italian? What color? I went with 1 large red and 2 smallish green bell peppers)
As for the tomatoes, I felt that it could have used one more. Also, the recipes calls for 4 young potatoes, quartered–I think they are referring to new potatoes here.
This is a very rustic, quintessential Italian recipe. The fact that it contains eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes just makes it scream Mediterranean.Continue reading →
This is both an excitement and a relief because this book has been on a long and arduous trip. I first got the idea for it, and began researching recipes and cuisines for it, in 2002. I spent many years testing and developing recipes to duplicate the dishes I’d read about and sampled, but in such a way that they would stay true to the originals as much as possible while making them meatless.
I started with a list, and that list grew and grew. Over the years, I added recipes, deleted recipes, changed recipes, and in a few cases I was so determined to make a particular recipe work that I just kept testing and testing until I came up with the right result. Sometimes a recipe simply didn’t work and I tossed it. Occasionally I would discover that I’d confused one dish for another, and sometimes I had a recipe that I couldn’t find the proper name for in its originating culture. In those cases, I researched high and low on the internet and in books and magazines, asked friends and coworkers if they knew, asked friends to ask their friends and coworkers if they knew, posted questions in special interest groups on Facebook, etc. I found out the answers to some, and found out that I had others all wrong.
An Indian Feast
As I met and talked to more and more people from different cultures, my list expanded but, oddly, also shrank. So many cultures have more common threads than we imagine, and as I started to examine my recipes, I began to realize that there were more similarities than differences. It was a fascinating and educational journey I went on.
The one thing I’ve learned from this project, if nothing else, is that no matter what clothing people wear, what religion they practice, what rituals they perform, what kinds of jobs they hold, or how much money they have, we are more similar than we are different. You can see this in the very similar dishes that are shared between nations, with maybe just a spice or two, or a cooking method, differentiating them.
Arepitas with Black Bean-Corn Salsa
Eating is the one thing that every single human being on earth must do to survive, so it’s no wonder that food is the common bond across the planet. No matter where you go in the world, a signal that you are welcome is the offer of food. When you are a guest at someone’s home, it always gives your hosts tremendous pleasure to feed to. It is the global sign of hospitality, and many customs and rituals were created around food. In some places, to refuse food is an insult, or to not finish it all is a sign of poor manners. Some cultures expect you to belch loudly when you’re done to show that you are satisfied.
Food always brings brings people of the world together.
Australian “Roo” Burgers
It’s my hope that through food, we can find common ground and sit at the table together to share a meal.
So take a trip around the world. If you can’t do it physically, do it in your kitchen and at your table. Try new recipes and explore new flavors, and invite your friends and loved ones to share in the journey. Most of all, enjoy it. Peace.