Miz Chef

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Ossi di Morti

Welcome back to my Regions of Italy project, based on the recipes of the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). This week I’m still in the home of my family, Basilicata, which is a gorgeous, mountainous region that sits on the “sole” of the boot of Italy.

This recipe is for cookies called Ossa di Morti, or Bones of the Dead. Traditionally made on the Day of Dead, November 2, they are usually meant to resemble bones; however, this recipe instructs that the cookies be shaped into figure 8s, so that’s what I did. But I get the feeling that I didn’t quite get what they were trying to convey.

As I made them, it seemed to me like they were a variation of taralli. One of the reasons I thought they were supposed to be like taralli is that the recipe calls for boiling the dough before baking them, which is what you do to make taralli, pretzels, and other similar snacks. But once I had the finished product, I realized that they weren’t meant to be anything like taralli. They’re too sweet to be taralli, yet the texture wasn’t quite that of a cookie. Furthermore, I did a little research (which I wish I’d done before I made these), they’re usually shaped more like bones (which, of course, makes sense).

Of course, I would decide to launch a cooking project like this just before the onslaught of summer. We have entered the dog days here in New York, so to turn on the oven to give these cookies another go was out of the question. In fact, anything that requires the oven is getting pushed to the fall. So, I’ll be going back and forth through the regions, rather than shooting straight through them from A to Z, as I had originally intended.

So, I’m calling this Round 1 for Ossi di Morti. Round 2 will be later this year, and I’ll hopefully get a better handle on this.

Oddly, I’d never heard of Ossi di Morti.  My mother never made them, nor did my grandmother (that I can recall) or any of my aunts. So, this project really is turning out to be a learning journey for me.

By the way, the original recipe calls for lard, but I’m not a fan of using lard, so I substituted butter. Otherwise, everything is according to the recipe. I plan on improving on it when the weather cools, so stay tuned.

Ossa di Morti

Bones of the Dead Cookies

Recipe adapted from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Published by Rizzoli Publications.

2 2/3 pounds all-purpose flour
10 large eggs
2/3 cup anise liqueur (like anisette or Pernod)
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. F.

In a large bowl or on a work surface, make a well with the flour. Place the eggs in the center, then the liqueur, sugar, olive oil, butter, and lemon zest.

Using either a fork or your hand, begin combining the ingredients by slowly drawing in the flour to the center and mixing it in. Keep bringing it in until all the flour and wet ingredients are combined (if you’re using a fork, at some point, you’ll need to switch to your hand). Make sure everything is incorporated, but don’t overmix.

Cut the dough into quarters. Work with one quarter at a time and keep the other covered with a bowl.

Break off bits of dough, about 1 inch each, and roll them into logs. (The recipe then says to fold them over like the number eight, but leave them as logs). Place them on a flat surface next to the stove.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place a few of the cookies in the water. As soon as they rise to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and place them on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake them for about 20 minutes, until set in the center. Transfer them to cooling racks and let them cool completely.

Makes approximately 3 dozen.

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Favette e Cicoria

Welcome back to my continuing journey through the Regions of Italy, using the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy as my guide. This week, I’m still in Basilicata, the homeland of my family. Today’s recipe is Favette e Cicoria (pronounced chee-KOHR-ee-ah), or Fava Beans and Chicory. It’s a delicious combination of seasoned fava bean puree and cooked chicory on toasted bread.

There’s some confusion about the term “chicory.” When Americans hear the word “chicory,” their minds often go to the root with blue flowers that is sometimes added to coffee (as in the classic New Orleans-style chicory coffee) or used as a coffee substitute. But for Europeans, chicory is a completely different thing. For Italians, it generally means what Americans refer to as dandelion. Yes, those weeds that grow wildly all over everyone’s lawns and gardens are not only edible, but widely consumed. (If you choose to pick your own, don’t use the poofy pompom part at the top. Do with those what Mother Nature intended us to use them for—make a wish and blow it away. Just use the leaves.) And because chicory root (the one that’s used in coffee) is related to dandelion, it’s sometimes called blue dandelion because of its blue flowers.

Americans also label curly endive as chicory or frisée, both of which are incorrect. To confuse matters further, other vegetables are categorized as “chicory.” What Americans know as Belgian endive also goes by the name witloof chicory, Belgium chicory, blanching chicory, Dutch chicory, and chicon.

In the end, I wasn’t really sure if the authors and translators of the book meant dandelion or curly endive, I finally settled on dandelion. However, I’m positive that this dish would work just as well (maybe better) with curly endive.

What’s unusual about this recipe is that most of the Italian dishes I’ve encountered that contain favas call for fresh fava beans. This is actually the first one I’ve seen that calls for dried fava beans.

However, the recipe doesn’t say whether or not to soak the beans first, as is usually required when using dried legumes. So, I decided to do a quick soak with them by boiling them for 2 minutes, then letting them sit for 1 hour.  Cook covered or uncovered? After draining them, should they be peeled, as favas often are? Their outer skin can be tough, and since they were going to be pureed, would the skin hinder the consistency? Speaking of pureeing, was I supposed to puree the favas with the water in the next step, or drain then puree?

And what about the chicory? How long do I cook it? Am I looking for it to get wilted? Soft? Or just blanched? Do I chop it before cooking? I cooked it until fully tender, and I realized late that it would have been easier to eat had I chopped it.

The original recipe calls for mixing the fava bean puree with the cooked greens. I found that this recipe makes quite a bit of puree, perhaps too much for the chicory. So, instead, I kept them separate. Leftover fava bean spread can be used as a dip or spread, slathered in a sandwich, or as a sauce for pasta.

I hope you give this Basilicata specialty a try as well. Enjoy!

Favette e Cicoria

Fava Beans and Chicory

Recipe adapted from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Published by Rizzoli Publications.

Makes 8 servings.

1 pound dried fava beans
1 celery rib, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra
2 pounds chicory (dandelion or curly endive), cleaned and chopped
8 slices of bread (rustic, Tuscan, Italian, baguette, etc.)

Soak the fava beans overnight in a large bowl with water to cover by 3 inches. OR place the beans in a pot with water to cover by 3 inches, bring to a boil; boil for 2 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit, covered, for 1 hour. Drain and pop the beans out of their skins.Place the beans, celery, onion, and a pinch of salt in a medium pot. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil; lower the heat and cook until beans are fully tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer everything to a blender or food processor; add the red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Add a little olive oil and puree until smooth, adding more oil as needed to make it smooth. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper, if desired.Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the chicory and a teaspoon salt. Cook until it’s tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well and place in a bowl. Mix in about 2 tablespoons olive oil.Toast the bread. Spread some of the fava puree on the toast and top with some of the chicory. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve.


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Ciambotta

Basilicata

I’m now entering the second region of Italy in my Regions of Italy project. I’m going to come back to Abruzzo for my fourth recipe from that region when one of the ingredients I need is in season.

The second area is called Basilicata, and it’s familiar territory because it’s where my family is from.

As I looked through the myriad recipes from Basilicata, I realized that I knew many of them, and since the goal of my project is to explore the cuisines of Italy, I skipped over the family favorites to dishes that sounded new to me.

So, one of the recipes I chose was Ciambotta, or Vegetable Stew. I sounded really good. It’s a stew of peppers, potatoes, and eggplant. Similar to ratatouille, it differs from the French version in that the eggplant is sliced and sautéed until browned first before going into the stew, and tomato puree is added. And really not much else.

After it was cooked, I sat down to eat it…and immediately my memory banks flew open. This tasted so familiar, I figured I had to have had it before. But I couldn’t remember my mother making a dish that had those three specific ingredients together. I called my mother and asked her if she’d ever made such a stew, and she said, “Yes, of course. We called it ciambotta in our dialect.” And then she proceeded to tell me how to make it, even though I’d told her that I’d already made it, and what else I can add to it.

Yep, I knew those flavors very well. Even though I hadn’t remembered them initially, the taste and aroma brought it all right back. How can you forget the things you ate while growing up in a house with an Italian mother who put her entire self-worth in the foods she prepared for her family?

You can’t. It comforted me. It warmed me in a way that the heat of summer outside couldn’t. I gobbled it up.

So, here’s the recipe for Ciambotta from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy, with my adjustments, because, as usual, the instructions (and some of the ingredients) are vague.

Have this thick, hearty, delicious stew with crusty Italian or French bread. Enjoy!

Ciambotta

Vegetable Stew

Recipe adapted from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Published by Rizzoli Publications.

Makes 4 servings.

½ pound Italian eggplant, sliced into ¼-inch-thick half-moons*
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ pound red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
½ pound potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
1¼ cups tomato puree
1 large garlic clove, minced

Place the eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon salt. Toss to coat all the eggplant. Let this sit for ½ hour. Quickly rinse them under running water and dry them thoroughly.

Heat half the oil in a wide pan. Add the eggplant and a pinch of salt. Sauté over medium heat until browned.Meanwhile, in another large pan or Dutch oven, heat the remaining oil. Add the peppers, potatoes, and a pinch of salt and sauté until the potatoes start to take on color. (This could take anywhere from 8 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of your pan and how spread out the potatoes are. In my case, it took longer because I chose to make the stew in my 2-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven, which is my new favorite pot and I look for any reason to use it. One of these days, when my ship comes in, I will splurge on that 5-quart Le Creuset.) Stir frequently, as potatoes want to stick to pots and pans. Add the puree and stir to combine.Mix in the eggplant. Add the garlic and continue sautéing another minute. If the bottom of the pot looks like it’s burning, add a little liquid (water, broth, wine) and scrape the browned bits up. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and cook until a thick stew forms, about 40 to 50 minutes. Stir often and scrape up brown bits from the bottom of the pot as it forms. Taste for salt and add more, if needed.Serve this stew with fresh, crusty Italian or French bread.

*Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half, then each half in half. Then slice each piece in half-moons.


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Chieti Cookies

Abruzzo

This is the third recipe in my Regions of Italy project. It’s a cookie that comes from the town of Chieti in Abruzzo. It is unique in that it calls for dry red wine.

I really want to say that these cookies are awesome. Unfortunately, this recipe was a complete disaster right from the start. Here’s why.

The original recipe said to make a well with flour, and in the well, to put sugar, oil, and salt. Then, you start adding wine to form an elastic dough. This couldn’t possibly make an elastic dough because it’s basically a sugar cookie. There’s no yeast, no rising, no kneading involved. Bread dough is elastic. Pizza dough is elastic. Cookie dough is not elastic. But I thought, maybe they just used the wrong word in the translation. What they really wanted to say, I surmised, was a dough that comes together, that stays together as a whole. Continue reading


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Pallotte Cace e Ova

Abruzzo

This is the second installment in my Regions of Italy project. It’s Pallotte Cace e Ova, or Cheese and Egg Fritters.

The original recipe called for extra virgin olive oil for deep frying. I find this a bit nutty. In the first place, extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, which means that the risk of burning is quite high. (You can argue with me about that if you want, but I’ve seen olive oil scorch way too quickly, so I stick with that belief.)

Second, extra virgin olive oil so expensive that the thought of filling a pot with 3 or so inches of it makes me dizzy. Also, the general belief is that so much of the flavor of extra virgin olive oil is lost when it’s heated, and so it’s not worth using to cook, which is why I use regular olive oil even for sauteing. So, for deep frying, I prefer to use peanut or some other cooking oil. But I’ll leave that choice up to you.

The fritters can be eaten by themselves, but are often served with tomato sauce. Having said that, I found that a spritz of lemon made them taste fabulous. Enjoy! Continue reading


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Pasta con le Fave

Abruzzo

The first recipe in my Regions of Italy project is Pasta con le Fave, or Pasta with Fava Beans. This dish is typical of the Vomano valley of Abruzzo. Although the original recipe calls for marjoram, fresh marjoram can be difficult to find. Oregano is related to marjoram and is more readily available. Note that it’s also stronger in flavor, so you may want to cut back a little on it, if strong herb flavor isn’t your thing.

The pasta called for here is maltagliati, which literally means “badly cut.” They are flat, very wide, short noodles that look like someone got drunk, took a pair of scissors, and went crazy on some dough. You may have a difficult time finding this pasta (although it may be available where specialty Italian products are sold), so you can improvise: cook some pappardelle, place them in a bowl, and use kitchen shears to snip them into squares.

The original recipe did not indicate how well the onion should be sautéed, so I decided on soft and translucent. It also said nothing about whether or not to skin the fava beans. Now, here’s the thing about fava beans. When you remove fresh favas from their pods, they have a skin, or jacket. Although this skin is edible, it can sometimes be tough and cause gas. It’s a much more pleasant experience to eat favas without their skin. The creators of this recipe may have assumed that the readers know to remove the skins, but that’s not always the case. So, I’ve included that step in my instructions.

This is very much a peasant dish, but it’s regal in its simplicity and respect of ingredients. Enjoy! Continue reading


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The Regions of Italy Project

Hi, all. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus the past several weeks because…well, life. But I’m jumping back in with a new project.

Several years ago, I purchased a massive book called La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine), published by Rizzoli Publications. It’s a compendium of thousands of recipes from the 20 regions of Italy.

I had this idea to work my way through this bookfiguratively through Italybut it’s an impractical goal. In the first place, many of the recipes call for regional or Italy-specific products that would be impossible to get here, even with the internet.

Second, many recipes hinge on the inclusion of products that I simply wouldn’t use, whether I can get them or not. I will not cook, for example, organ meats. And since I keep my meat intake in general to a minimum, many of these dishes would be just too much.

Third, it would take me years to make all of them.

So, I took a practical, reasonable, and (for me) enjoyable approach to this little venture. I decided to choose four recipes from each region. I based my decisions not just on dishes that I thought I would enjoy eating, but those that seemed different in some way from my everyday fare, those that sounded intriguing in some way, or those that take a different approach to a familiar dish.

Although I can’t share the recipes with you word for word (because that would be copyright infringement), since these are traditional regional recipes, I can share the ingredients with you and some basic preparation instructions, according to what I believe they should be. And I say that because…

As I started working with the recipes, I began to see a problem, which is that the instructions are, here and there, somewhat vague. I wasn’t always sure how long I should cook something, or what result I was supposed to be looking for. For example, one recipe says to heat olive oil in a pan and to sauté pancetta and onion, but it doesn’t say to what point. Is the onion just supposed to soften and get translucent? Is it supposed to get lightly brown? Deeply brown?

So I realized that I had to just use my instincts on some of these recipes, and I will share will you what I feel are the most suitable preparations.

The 20 regions represented in the book are Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Fruili-Venezia Guilia, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, Marche, Molise, Puglia, Sardegna, Sicilia, Toscana, Trentino-Alto Adige, Umbria, Valle d’Aosta, Veneto.

I’m going to go through the regions alphabetically, starting with Abruzzo. However, another thing I realized is that I was going to have to make some of these recipes out of order based on the seasonality of the ingredients required. So, later on, while I’m in the middle of alphabet, perhaps in Lombardia or Molise, a recipe from Basilicata might come up. Or perhaps while I’m in the midst of doing Toscana or Umbria, recipes from Lazio or Puglia might surface.

This is a project I’m doing for fun and to indulge my love and passion for Italian food, so I’m not holding myself to any hard-and-fast rules. My only goal here is to capture the essence of each recipe, sample these regional foods, and maybe introduce you, dear readers, to the cuisines of Italy.

I hope you try these recipes, too, and keep the traditional foods of the Old World alive.