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Strozzapreti—Priest-Chokers with “Salsify” Sauce

Emilia-Romagna

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.

Lischi/agretti

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 salsifythat 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.

Flat-leaf chives

Strozzapreti

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.

 


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Sformato di Ortaggi in Teglia

Calabria

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

Vegetable Timbale

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.


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Riso con la Zucca

Emilia-Romagna

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.


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Zuppa di Santa Lucia

Campania

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!)

Anyway, on to the actual recipe. Continue reading


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Purgatorio alla Calabrese

Calabria

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


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Melanzane dai Cento Sapori

Calabria

Welcome back to my journey through the Regions of Italy, using La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) as my guide. Today we are in Calabria, which makes up the “instep” and toe of the boot of Italy.

This first Calabrian recipe is called Melanzane dai Cento Sapori, or 1000-Flavor Eggplant. Eggplant plays a big role in the cuisine of Italy, so it didn’t surprise me that I found many recipes from all the 20 regions that are based on eggplant. Which is ironic because eggplants used to be believed to cause insanity. In fact, the Italian word for eggplant. melanzana, means “mad apple” (many “new” produce items introduced into Europe were referred to as “apples”).

Citron

What struck me as unusual was the addition of chocolate. Not that chocolate is a new concept in savory dishes, but it seemed strange to combine it with eggplant. And then I thought of caponata, an eggplant appetizer that is a specialty of Sicily and which traditionally includes cocoa powder. So…why not?

Another unusual element in this recipe is citron zest. Citron is a citrus fruit that is the color of lemons and has lemon-like flesh, but its rind is very thick and bumpy. It’s more aromatic than regular lemons, but it’s also extremely difficult to find in the U.S., unless you buy dried or candied citron. So just use lemon zest.

I didn’t know what to expect from this recipe. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. It was slightly bitter, slightly sweet, and much more flavorful than I had anticipated. And more complex. A thousand flavors indeed. The ingredients are pretty basic, but combined, they really made for an unusual, delicious dish. It was deeply colored, very rich looking and unctuous. I would serve this hot by itself, or at room temperature on crackers. Continue reading


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Favette e Cicoria

Basilicata

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. Continue reading