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.
Hello. This week for 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’m in Liguria. Liguria sits in a crescent along the Mediterranean coastline on the west side of Italy.
My first recipe for this region is Zimino di Ceci, or Chickpea Stew. This is a pretty easy recipe, and quick, if you don’t count the overnight soaking time. The ingredients list calls for a few items that require prep (although minimal) before using them in the recipe. So I’ve moved the prep instructions for these items to the recipe itself. The other thing I did was to add the mushroom soaking liquid to the stew, which gave it a nice depth of flavor.
Zimino di Ceci
Makes 4-6 servings.
1½ cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight* ½ teaspoon sea salt, plus extra 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms 3 or 4 ripe plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1 celery rib, chopped 1 garlic clove, minced ¾ pound Swiss chard, chopped Toasted bread (optional)
Drain the chickpeas and rinse them. Place them in a large pot and cover them with fresh water by about 3 inches. Add ¼ teaspoon salt and bring to a boil; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until they’re tender, about 2 to 2 ½ hours.
Meanwhile, soak the mushrooms in water for about 15 minutes. Drain them and pat them dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel. Chop and set them aside.Bring a pot large enough to fit the tomatoes and fill with water. Cut an “x” into the top of the tomatoes and place them in the water for about 10 to 15 seconds (until you see the skin splitting apart). Scoop them out and let them cool. When they’re cool enough to handle, peel off the skin, remove the seeds, and chop them. Set them aside.Drain the chickpeas in a colander set over a bowl and reserve the liquid.Wipe out the pot. Add the oil and heat. Add the onion, celery, garlic, and mushrooms (reserve the liquid), and ¼ teaspoon salt. Sauté until onions and celery are soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes (and any liquid they gave off). Then add the chard. Cook 2 minutes.Add the chickpeas and cook 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of the reserved chickpea liquid. Carefully pour in the reserved mushroom liquid, making sure to leave any sediment in the bowl. Cook another 5 minutes. If you want it more brothy, add more of the chickpea liquid until it reaches the consistency you like. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if needed.Serve with toasted bread, if desired.
*Place the chickpeas in a bowl and cover them with water by about 3 inches. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Hi there. Welcome once again 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). I’m now entering the region of Lazio, whose principal city is Rome. Rome, of course, is the capital of Italy and the heart of the ancient Roman Empire.
Rome is home to one of the oldest Jewish populations in Europe, and artichokes feature prominently in Roman Jewish cuisine. Carciofi alla Giudia is an iconic dish of the region. The artichokes are smashed open and cooked in oil so that the leaves are crispy and the interiors are tender. As you can see in the photo above, I didn’t do a very good job of keeping the leaves open, but they were delicious anyway.
Here’s a tip: Make sure you use a saucepan that is just big enough to hold the artichokes upright. If there’s too much space in the pan, the artichokes may flop over. (Then again, if you do a better job of keeping them open than I did, maybe it won’t be a problem.)
Carciofi alla Giudia
Makes 4 servings.
1 lemon, cut in half 4 large globe artichokes
Salt and pepper 4 cups extra virgin olive oil
Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze the lemon into it (this is called acidulating the water). Save the lemon shells.
Remove the tough outer leaves from the artichokes. Cut the stems, leaving only 1 inch, then use a paring knife to trim the tough outer layer of the stem and the bottoms of the artichokes. “At the end, each artichoke should be similar to a flower.” (That’s in the original recipe. I decided to leave it in because, while not very helpful to a novice cook, it’s a lovely description.) Rub all the cut edges of the artichokes with the cut sides of the lemon shells as you trim each one, then place them in the acidulated water.Remove the artichokes from the water and dry them with a towel. Turn each one top down on a hard surface and press firmly. Then spread open each one with your hands. You want to expand the leaves to create an open-flower effect. Sprinkle the insides with salt and pepper.
Fill a saucepan with about 3 inches of oil and heat it over medium heat. When it’s hot, immerse the artichokes, stem up, and cook about 10 minutes. With a pair of tongs (two, if you have them), carefully turn them over and arrange them stem down for another 10 minutes.Remove them from the pan and drain them on paper towels. Sprinkle them with a little water to draw out the oil and make them even crisper. Serve hot.
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.
Ah, caught your eye with that title, didn’t I? Strozzapreti, which literally means “priest-chokers” (strozza=to choke or strangle; preti=priest) is a type of pasta, and it stars in this week’s recipe in my 20 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).
Here’s the thing: Some pasta names refer to different shapes, depending on what region of Italy you go to, and so it is with strozzapreti. In some regions, strozzapreti look like twisted ropes, whereas in other regions, it refers to various shapes that are large and grow larger as they cook, and can easily be used to choke the local cleric. There are different theories for the origin of the name, from accidental choking to intentional suffocation, but it’s one of the best pasta shape names. (It seems to me that since this name is widespread throughout the country, choking priests must have been a common practice.) In Emilia-Romagna, they resemble what my people from Basilicata referred to as “macaroni.” I looked for something in the supermarket to replicate this and the closest I came was casarecci, or “house-style noodles.” You can also use gemelli, or anything similar. In the case of this specific recipe (i.e., according to the book), this pasta got its name from its white color, due to the lack of eggs, and reminiscent of priests’ collars.
The recipe is from the nineteenth century, but the title of this recipe is misleading. When I first saw it, I assumed I’d be using salsify—that long, black-skinned root vegetable, called scorzanera in Italian (scorza=peel, nera=black). But I was wrong. What this dish actually requires is a marsh grass known in Italian as lischi, agretti or Barba di Frate. The authors of this book (or perhaps the translators) seem to think that lischi are the young leaves of the salsify plant, but I’ve researched it and I’ve come up with no evidence to support this. Maybe somewhere in the translation, they ran across lischi’s latin name, Salsola soda, and confused it with salsify.
Having said all that, lischi is almost impossible to get locally in the U.S., unless you’re lucky enough to encounter
it at a farmers’ market somewhere, grow it yourself, or order it online. The book suggests using Swiss chard leaves as a substitute, but that comes nowhere near replicating lischi. I scoured the many offerings of Asian markets, looking for something similar. Lischi have a grassy, slightly bitter taste, and are long. They look almost like Chinese long beans, only with an oceanic sheen to it, similar to algae, or seaweed. Neither of those things, however, seemed appropriate. In the end, I settled for chives. Not the smallish French, or onion, chives (the kind that you snip on top of your hors d’oeuvres), and not flowering chives, but long, flat-leaf chives, known as garlic chives. The garlicky flavor is very mild when it’s cooked, and it has a similar strand-like appearance to the lischi.
The result was pretty good, and definitely a change of pace from the typical pasta dish.
Priest-Chokers with Salsify Sauce
Makes 4 servings.
½ pound strozzapretti (or other short pasta) 2 teaspoons salt 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 7 ounces pancetta, diced 4 ounces lischi (or flat-leaf chives) 1 cup dry red wine, preferably Sangiovese di Romagna) 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and 2 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring often, until the pasta is al dente, about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the type you use. Drain well.
Meanwhile, place the lischi (or chives) in another pot and cover with water. Bring it to a boil; lower the heat and simmer until the the vegetables are tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain well.Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium pan; add the pancetta and saute over low heat until the pancetta has lightly browned. Add the lischi and wine. Simmer over medium heat. When the wine has evaporated, add the cooked strozzapreti and the rest of the butter. Toss to heat. Sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Welcome back to my 20 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).
This week on my journey, I’m taking a step back in the alphabet (last time, I was in Emilia-Romagna) and going to Calabria for Sformato di Ortaggi in Teglia, or Vegetable Timbale. The English translation they give (timbale) may not be helpful to you if you’re not deeply familiar with Italian cuisine because that word isn’t English at all. A timbale is a dish that’s baked in a baking pan or casserole dish.
This timbale turned out pretty good and I really enjoyed it. The only issue I had with the recipe was the listing for bread. The original called for “1 cup roughly cubed homemade bread crumbs.” Well, which is it? Cubes or crumbs? These are 2 different things. They are not interchangeable and never shall the twain meet. I decided to use cubes just for the hell of it, but it would probably work just as well with crumbs.
Sformato di Ortaggi in Teglia
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 cup bread cubes (made from anything but sliced white bread) ½ cup grated pecorino 1 tablespoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes 2 pounds fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, finely chopped* 4 large potatoes, peeled, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices 1 medium yellow onion, sliced ½ cup basil leaves Salt
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease a 1½- to 2-quart casserole dish or baking pan with a little olive oil and set it aside.
In a large bowl, combine the bread cubes, pecorino, oregano, and red pepper flakes.Cover the bottom of the casserole with half the tomatoes. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt. Then form of layer of potatoes, close together but not overlapping. Spread half the onion over the potatoes, then half the bread.
Lay a few basil leaves over this, then drizzle with a little olive oil.Make another layer of tomatoes, ½ teaspoon salt, potatoes, onion, bread crumbs, and olive oil (skip the basil). If the tomatoes released juices, pour it in slowly from the side. If there are no juices (or not much), add ¼ cup water.
Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until a golden crust forms on the surface. If the top starts to brown too quickly, cover it with foil.Serve hot or cold.
*To prep the tomatoes, wash them and cut an “X” into the bottom of each. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the tomatoes for about 30 seconds, or until you see the skin start to separate from the flesh. Scoop them out and set them aside to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, peel away the skin (they should slip right off, or use a paring knife to help you). Cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Chop them finely and place them in a bowl.
Welcome back to my Regions Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). This is another stop in Emilia-Romagna, which, as I said last time, is in northern Italy. In the northern part of the country, they use rice a lot in their cuisines (pasta is more popular in the south). In fact, risotto was born in Milan, which a major city in the north (but not Emilia-Romagna). So, this time around, I offer you Riso con la Zucca, or Rice with Squash.
On the face of it, this recipe is squash risotto, which is not an usual recipe. I’ve made butternut squash risotto. You’ve probably made butternut squash risotto. But what makes this recipe different from typical risottos is that rather than using broth, it calls for milk. And instead of adding the liquid a little at a time, it’s added all at once.
The result is a thick, hearty dish. Personally I prefer traditional risotto (made with broth), but this was nice for a change of pace. And I get the feeling that this particular risotto will go over well with kids. The recipe is straightforward and pretty simple, so there’s nothing really to explain…except maybe one thing.
The instructions say to cook the rice until it’s all’onda. Since this term is not as ubiquitous as al dente, you may not be familiar with it. Onda means “wave,” so something cooked all’onda is “wavy.” When you tilt the pan, the rice should ripple like waves in the ocean. What that essentially means is that it’s creamy—moist but not liquidy.
You can use any type of hard winter squash, including butternut, kabocha, sweet dumpling, pumpkin, etc. Regarding the rice, it specifically calls for Carnaroli, which is a short-grained rice. I’m not sure why they call for that specific strain of rice, but if you can’t find it, you can substitute Arborio, Vialone Nano, or even sushi rice. The recipe calls for a tablespoon of sugar. I don’t really think it’s necessary because winter squash is sweet on its own, but it’s up to you if you want to include it or not.
Riso con la Zucca
Rice with Squash
Makes 6 servings
6 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 small onion, minced 2¼ pounds winter squash (butternut, kabocha, etc.), peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped 3 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra 1 tablespoon sugar 6 cups milk 1½ cups Carnaroli rice ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until it’s soft and translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes.Add the squash, 3 teaspoons salt, and sugar. Mix and cook, stirring occasionally over medium-low heat until the squash “cooks to a puree.” (Note: the squash will not break down into a puree on its own. Basically, you want it soft enough so that when you stir it, it falls apart.) Stir the squash around and break it up, but don’t mash it; you want it somewhat chunky. This should take about 20 to 25 minutes.
Pour in the milk and bring it to a boil. The moment it comes to a boil, add the rice and stir. Cook over low heat, partially covered, until the liquid has been mostly absorbed and the rice is creamy and smooth. If the liquid is absorbed and the rice is still not fully cooked, add water, a little at a time, until it is cooked.Turn off the heat. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano, black pepper, and the remaining butter (optional). Taste for salt and add more if necessary. Serve immediately.
The rice will thicken as it cools and will become stiff. To heat up leftovers, stir in some water to loosen it up.
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 →