After nearly six weeks (and just as many pounds gained) in Abruzzo, I’m back home in New York. Each time I leave Italy (something I detest), I feel as if I’ve left behind a little bit more of my soul (the dramatic nature of this statement is not lost on me). I gaze out my kitchen window into my yard and squint hard, as if this action will materialize the Majella’s peaks right here in Queens, NY (more hyperbole).
Although my husband rightfully urges me not to go around blabbing that our trip was too short, I suspect that deep down I’ll never be fully satisfied until I can call Italy my home. However, before I left Abruzzo this year, I vowed not to focus on what I was leaving behind, but instead, on what I could take back with me so here goes:
Know where my food comes from – One of the very best meals I prepared in Italy was a simple summer minestra. There was nothing particularly revalatory about this dish. Its beauty lay in the fact that I could trace the origins of each and every single ingredient: red garlic from Sulmona, onions, potatoes and chicory from the pastora (shepherdess) in Salle Vecchio, chick peas from Abbateggio, olive oil from Tocco da Casauria, crusty bread from Sant’Eufemia a Maiella. Although “local” is not yet the norm in the States as it is in Italy, more and more farmers’ markets and specialty food stores are demonstrating an increased commitment to offering local products. Now that all three of my kids will be in school full-time (can you hear the angels singing?), I’m planning a weekly date with the farmers!
Embrace simple pleasures – When we stay in Abruzzo, we feel as if we live there. We clean the house, tend to mundane chores, try to keep our boys from hanging from the chandeliers, and struggle to work from home just as we do in New York. However, the laidback pace and serene landscape lend themselves to the enjoyment of simple everyday pleasures. A midmorning espresso. A glass of wine with lunch. A friendly exchange with unknown neighbors. Merenda with friends. An evening passeggiata. Real life is not vacation, but making time for even one of these simple rituals each day may help me stay in an Abruzzo state of mind.
Step outside my element from time to time – Our best friends in Abruzzo are a family of four who always push us outside our comfort zone. A highly educated couple from the port city of Pescara, they moved to Salle, a small mountain village of 350 inhabitants, after their first child was born. They wanted to live closer to nature and raise their children in a peaceful, country community. Roberta and Francesco constantly challenge this city gal and her brood with treks in the unspoiled mountains, forests, rivers and seas of Abruzzo. My heart pounds as I hike up and down unfamiliar, rugged terrain to reach our destination, but it’s exhilarating and the raw natural beauty that awaits is worth every ounce of fear. (And after nearly losing my Havaiana flip-flop in quicksand during one of our excursions last summer – Francesco dug his entire arm into the dense mud in order to retrieve it – I finally bought the right kind of shoes for trekking!)
Take advantage of the myriad food events in New York City – Although we don’t have a sagra every weekend feting the glories of ‘ndrocchie pasta or ventricina salami, there is no shortage of gastronomic events here in food-obsessed NYC. I also have a few ideas of my own to introduce New Yorkers to the specialties of my beloved Abruzzo. Stay tuned for details 😉
Bring home precious little bits of Abruzzo – On my dining room table you can presently find the contents of two large suitcases filled with artisanal pasta, oil, grains, legumes, honey, jam and spices from Abruzzo. Here’s recipe in which I use dried chick peas cultivated at Agriturismo Pietrantica in the peaceful mountain village of Decontra. Although these aren’t available in the US, my friends at Gustiamo sell wonderful imported chick peas from Umbria. Buon appetito!
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©
This is not a brothy minestra so go ahead and showcase your fresh vegetables without feeling as if you’re eating a steaming bowl of soup in the dead of summer!
- 1 lb of dried chick peas
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 3 large potatoes, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 lb chicory or other leafy greens such as Swiss Chard or escarole
- 2 teaspoons of sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
To cook the chick peas:
Rinse the chick peas with cold water and place them in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel, cast-iron or clay pot. Add water to cover by an inch and allow them to soak overnight, but preferably for at least 24 hours.
Without changing the water (this makes the beans creamier), add the bay leaves and 2 tablespoons of olive oil, cover and allow to reach a slow rolling boil. (If the beans appear to have soaked up a lot of the water, add another cup or so of cold water before you start cooking). Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook slowly, with the lid sitting slightly askew. Stir frequently and be careful not to scorch the bottom. Cooking time will vary anywhere from 1 to 2.5 hours and will depend on the freshness of the beans. (Tasting is the only way to know that they are done.) Add one teaspoon of salt in the last 10 minutes of cooking (adding salt before then will make the beans tough.) Drain the chick peas and reserve (they can stay in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, covered.)
To prepare the minestra:
To a heavy-bottomed stainless steel, cast-iron or clay pot, add two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic, onion, celery, carrot, one teaspoon of salt and several grindings of black pepper, lower the heat to medium low and saute, stirring often until the vegetables begin to soften and caramelize, about 6-8 minutes. Add 6 cups of water, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and chick peas, reduce the heat to medium low and for 10 minutes. Add the chicory or other greens and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and the chicory is cooked through. Remove from the heat and drizzle the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese. Buon appetito!
Extra Two Cents:
To make this dish heartier, add some fresh Italian sauaage. Prior to sauteing the vegetables, remove the meat from the casing, add a tablespoon of oil to the pot over medium heat and saute until browned, stirring often and breaking it up with the back of a wooden spoon — thus “crumbling.” Remove it from the heat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add an additional tablespoon of oil to the pot and proceed as directed above.