Category Archives: Musings & Anecdotes

Bucatini alla Trappettara

Trapettarafinal

Bucatini alla Trappettara – bucatini pasta with black olive paste, red onions and tomatoes

One of the loveliest days of my summer in Italy was a farm-to-table cooking class called Abruzzo Country Cooking that I co-hosted with some special friends.   It’s remarkable that I only met Giulia and Emiliana on Facebook less than a year ago.  Who would have ever thought that a few mutual “Likes” on a social media site could lead to intimate friendships across an ocean?

Born and bred in Abruzzo, Emiliana spent many years globetrotting.  Recently, though, she had an epiphany, realizing that she knew other parts of the world more intimately than her own land.  She vowed not to make another trip abroad until she fully discovered her native region.  Through her start-up Abruzzo4Foodies, which recently partnered with ToursbyLocals, Emiliana offers guided enogastronomic one-day tours of small towns in Abruzzo (I joined her wonderful tour of the picturesque medieval town of Guardiagrele) that combine sweeping vistas with local, artisanal products.

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Emiliana with a tour group from Canada

Giulia, on the other hand, is a dynamo who married into Abruzzo.  Originally from neighboring Lazio, she and her husband’s family operate a magnificent country house in Manoppello with 360-degree panoramas and a farm-to-table restaurant.   She tirelessly and enthusiastically works each and every day to deepen her understanding of her adopted region and attract visitors to its myriad charms.

Giulia preparing bruschetta for some guests

Giulia preparing bruschetta for some guests

I posted photos and a recipe from Abruzzo Country Cooking a few months ago and my friend Sam Dunham just wrote a fabulous post about our pasta-making adventures on her new blog Midlife Mum.   Only one very special recipe remains to be shared – Chitarra alla Trapettara, a bold, in-your-face dish consisting of homemade spaghetti alla chitarra dressed with piquant black olive paste, sautéed garlic, garden tomatoes and fresh basil.

I’ve come up with a version of the dish, which was originally conceived by Giulia’s local frantoio (olive oil mill), that utilizes sweet caramelized red onions to round out the strong flavor of the olives, as well as canned tomatoes (since it’s November).  The star is a smooth and velvety Crema di Olive Nere that I brought back from Tocco da Casauria in Abruzzo.     The success of this dish really depends on using good-quality, imported olive paste.  If you can’t find one in your local specialty store, it’s quite simple to make your own.  Buon appetito!

OliveNereFinal

Crema di Olive Nere from my friend Ettore’s farm – La Masseria di Villa Giulia in Tocco da Casauria (Abruzzo)

Bucatini alla Trappettara  (A Modo Mio)

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking (inspired by a recipe from Frantoio Oleario Ranieri, Rosciano)

Homemade spaghetti alla chitarra is an obvious choice for this rustic, earthy dish.  However, if you don’t have time to make fresh pasta, a sturdy cut of dried pasta works well.  I used Delverde’s Bucatini.

Serves 4

  • 1 pound bucatini or thick spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced
  • 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
  • 4-5 tablespoons of black olive paste (See Note below)
  • Hot red pepper flakes (for serving, if desired)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  When the water is boiling, add the pasta to the pot and cook according to package instructions minus one minute (the pasta will finish cooking in the skillet with the sauce).

Meanwhile, to a wide skillet, add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and set over medium heat until the oil is shimmering,  Add the sliced red onions and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, over medium low heat until soft and caramelized, about 6 minutes.  Be careful not burn the onions – you want them to release their sweetness in order to round out the olive’s strong flavor.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet, quickly bring to a boil and then, with a ladle, add 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.  Allow the tomatoes to bubble gently until the liquid has absorbed and the tomatoes no longer taste raw.

When the pasta is ready, drain well and reserve an additional 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water in a separate bowl.  Add the pasta, cooking water and the black olive paste to the skillet and raise the meat to medium. Using tongs, toss the ingredients together vigorously to combine and allow to simmer for about 1 minute.  Turn off the heat and serve with hot red pepper flakes if desired.

NOTE:  If you’re able to find good quality, imported black olive paste online or in a specialty food store, then by all means, use it! However, don’t sacrifice the quality of the dish with a supermarket tube of black olive paste as it’s really quite simple to make on your own.  Simply add 1 cup of good-quality imported pitted black olives (not marinated), such as Kalamata or Gaeta, to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse to a smooth paste.  With the processor on, slowly pour ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil (or more if needed) until it has an even, creamy texture. Leftovers are great spread on toasted bruschetta.

Buon appetito!

Fave dei Morti

Le Fave dei Morti

Le Fave dei Morti

When my parents were growing up in Italy, there was no such thing as Halloween.  The goblins, ghouls and jack o’lanterns arrived in Italy relatively recently via mass media and the spread of American pop culture.  For my parents, there was instead La Festa di Ognissanti (All Saints Day) on November 1st and La Festa dei Morti (All Souls Day) on November 2nd.

Yesterday, when I asked my mom what she remembered about these feast days, she gasped with delight.   Her eyes sparkled and for a moment, she was a little girl in Sicily again.  She told me that on the morning of i Morti, children would wake up to trays of intricate and colorful candy bambolette (dolls) and cavallucci (horses) called Pupi di Zucchero as well as lifelike marzipan frutta di martorana.

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Pupi di Zucchero

Legend has it that on the night of Ognissanti, the dead come down from heaven to deliver gifts and treats to the loved ones they left behind.  In the same spirit of La Befana, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, children are promised that if they dutifully respect their elders and pray for their departed relatives all year long, i morti will reward them.   When my Zia Nina, my mom’s older cousin and godmother, became engaged, her future in-laws presented her with gifts on All Souls Day,and as the youngest of the family, my mom received a Pupo with a little gold chain around its neck….a way of saying “welcome to the family” from the other-world.

frutta-martorana

Frutta di martorana

While I would love to share my very own recipe for these extraordinary Sicilian confections, I simply don’t possess the requisite artistry.  Instead, here’s a recipe for fave dei morti – fava beans of the dead – a chewy, little almond cookie prepared for All Souls Day throughout much of Italy.

Wishing you all a happy week of feasting!

Fave dei Morti

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©

Makes approx. 72 bite-sized cookies

Cookie sheet

  • 2 cups whole almonds, blanched and toasted
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 large egg plus 2 egg yolks
  • Zest of a small lemon
  • 1 tablespoon of grappa

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and position racks in the upper two thirds.  Prepare two cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

To the bowl of a food processor, add the almonds and pulse until they’re the consistency of almond meal (or slightly coarser if you prefer a bit of crunch in your cookie as I do.  It’s best to err on the side of a coarser consistency – if you grind them for too long and the machine becomes too hot, the nuts will release their natural oils and become almond butter.)  Transfer the almonds to a bowl, repeat with the pine nuts and set them aside.

In a separate bowl or fluted measuring cup, lightly beat the egg, yolks, lemon zest and grappa together and set aside.

In a separate large bowl, combine the flour, almonds and cinnamon and sift the confectioner’s sugar into the mixture.   Add the chopped pine nuts and combine the dry ingredients, forming a well in the center.  Pour the egg mixture into the center of the well and work the mixture with your hands until a compact and malleable dough forms.

Working in batches, cut a piece of the dough, and with your hands, roll it into a thick rope.  Working quickly so that the dough doesn’t dry out, cut the rope of dough into ¾-inch pieces and roll each piece of dough into a ball.  Gently flatten the ball of dough so that it takes on a slightly oval shape (like a fava bean).  Place the ovals, one inch apart, onto the cookie sheets.  Repeat until you’ve shaped all of your cookie dough.

Bake cookies for 10 minutes, until slightly golden and cracked on top.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes.  Buon appetito!

 

Sugo di Cinghiale (Wild Boar)

FinishedWhen I wrote my humble tribute to the late Marcella Hazan a few weeks ago, I started to think about the women who have inspired my love of cooking.  Naturally, my mother and two grandmothers are at the top of the list despite my early rebukes of their efforts.    Another special woman who kept coming to mind is my good friend Lida, the chef and co-owner of Agriturismo La Pagliarella in Sant’Elia, a frazione – hamlet – of the town of Caramanico Terme in Abruzzo.

My family discovered La Pagliarella about five years ago during a dinner with a large group of relatives and friends.   Although I spent most of the evening chasing after my toddler, I recall the entire table sighing with satisfaction as they proclaimed Lida’s ravioli the best they had ever eaten (high praise considering the culinary prowess of some of the mothers of those diners, my grandmother included).

Lida at work

Although not classically trained, Lida is an immensely talented cook who tackled her family’s arsenal of traditional Abruzzese recipes and refined them to her tastes.  She is a master with pasta – the texture is delicate but has a slight rusticity that is characteristic of fresh pasta in Abruzzo.  She also makes the best zuppa di farro I’ve ever tasted and prepares an eggplant involtino that has invoked a collective sigh from a table of 30 unreasonably discerning diners.  And let’s not even get started on her pallotte cac’e ove (my recipe is adapted from hers) and homemade cheeses.

Lida Collage

Over the years, Lida, her husband, Andrea, who runs the front of the house, and their three lovely children have become cherished friends.  When I started catering, Lida graciously invited me into her kitchen for some mini cooking lessons.  This past August, we stopped in for an impromptu farewell lunch a few days before heading home to New York and I found her putting the finishing touches on sugo di cinghiale – slow-cooked sauce of wild boar.  The day before, a hunter had surreptitiously knocked on her backdoor with some local game. She waved me into the kitchen and explained her method of braising the meat which she served with her perfect homemade pappardelle.  The sauce was full of flavor and heart.  I have eaten cinghiale at other restaurants in Abruzzo and the meat, which is very lean, is often disappointingly tough. However, Lida’s low and slow method of braising rendered the meat perfectly tender.

Last week, with Lida already on my mind, I randomly received an email from specialty food purveyor, D’Artagnan, featuring wild game and ordered a shoulder of wild boar from Texas.  This is the first time I’ve ever cooked cinghiale as well as the first time I’ve ever eaten it outside of Italy.  Although I consulted with other recipes, I ultimately decided to stay true to Lida’s simple, straightforward approach and am so glad I did – give it a try, you’ll be glad too.

Buon appetito!

With pasta

Sugo di Cinghiale

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © (adapted from Agriturismo La Pagliarella)

Wild boar has a reddish color and a more intense flavor than pork.  Commonly found in the rocky mountains of Abruzzo as well as other parts of central Italy,  here in the US, you can order humanely trapped, Texas wild boar from D’Artagnan.

Yields 6 cups

  • 2 ½ lbs of wild boar shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes
  • ½  cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery ribs, diced
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 cups chicken stock (or water, which is what Lida uses)
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 5 cups whole peeled tomatoes, pureed
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • Sea salt

To a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, add the meat, ¼ cup of olive oil, onion, carrots, celery, rosemary, several grindings of fresh ground pepper, white wine and chicken stock.  The meat should be completely immersed in the braising liquid; if it isn’t, add additional stock or water.  Bring to a boil and then lower the heat so that the liquid is only gently bubbling (Lida calls it “fuoco dolce” – over a sweet flame). Simmer for 30 minutes with the lid slightly askew.  Next, add the tomatoes, tomato paste and a tablespoon of salt, return to a boil, and then lower the heat as you did before so that the liquid is bubbling very gently.  Cover, checking occasionally to make sure the sauce is not cooking too rapidly, and simmer for 90 minutes.   After 90 minutes, uncover, adjust the seasonings to taste, add the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil and continue to simmer uncovered in the same low and slow manner for 90 minutes or longer.  Turn off the heat when the meat is quite tender and the sauce has reached a depth of color and flavor with which you’re satisfied.

Sugo

To serve:  Gently break apart the larger chunks of meat and serve over pappardelle or another thick, hearty cut of pasta.  Serve with grated Pecorino and the slightest drizzle of good olive oil. Buon appetito!

Tomato Crazy

Jars

If you’ve been following me on Facebook over the past few weeks, you probably know that I’ve been in the throes of making and jarring homemade tomato sauce since I returned from Italy.  The other night, I actually dreamt I was stirring a giant cauldron of bubbling tomato sauce and when I paused to rest my arm, the sauce continued to stir itself, as if possessed by some rogue force.  I suspect that plowing through 3,500 pounds of tomatoes (yes, that number is correct) over 8 days has made me a bit batty.

Tomatoes

Farm-fresh New Jersey plum tomatoes

Throughout my life, things always felt askew during tomato week.  As a child, I resented my parents’ utter preoccupation, the transformation of our basement – my playroom – into a sauce-making factory, and my grandmothers’ constant bickering in Italian over whose method was better (“Signora, put the olive oil in now,” said Nonna Irma.  “No, Signora, the sauce will turn black if you add the oil too soon,” responded Nani – it’s significant to note that although good friends and in-laws, my grandmothers addressed each other as “Signora” their entire lives).

Ferrari

The Ferrari of “passa pomodoro” machines

Southern Italians take their tomato sauce very seriously. My mother strictly forbade me to ever share my family’s recipe (as if anyone needs a recipe based on 50 pounds of tomatoes – I’ve included a more practical, small batch recipe at the end of this post).  For Italian immigrants, the sauce was not only a pantry staple, but a way of preserving their identity in this strange new world.  My dad, who immigrated to the United States with his mother, father and younger brother in September 1966, told me that prior to his family’s arrival, his aunt, Zia Assunta, made extra sauce for them since tomatoes would be out of season by the time their ship came in.  Two beds, a couch, a small table and chairs, a few pots and pans and 100 jars of tomato sauce – those were the contents of their first American home.

Cases of Jars

Every August, in Queens, New York, you can spot throngs of Italians crowded in front of their neighborhood garden centers as they anxiously await the arrival of the tomato delivery truck from local New Jersey farms.  Many swear it will be their last year of fare i pomodori – it’s too much work, our kids don’t help, our “American” friends expect us to give jars away – BASTA.  These are the usual complaints, but lo and behold, these lamenters’ garages fill up with wooden crates of tomatoes the following August.  It is said that the world would be populated with only children if mothers remembered every detail of the birth of their firstborn.  Well, it’s the same with making tomato sauce – you willingly forget the back-breaking work while you enjoy the fruits of your labor all year long.

Tomato Crate

When I was a kid, I had a T-shirt that said, “Siamo tutti pazzi…are you pazzo too?” (“We’re all crazy…are you crazy too?”).  I have a memory of passing an elderly man standing over blankets covered with tomatoes on a sweltering August day in my mom’s hometown of Caltabellotta, Sicily.  He read my shirt, laughed, and pointing to the tomatoes, said, “Si, siamo tutti pazzi…guarda stu’ casino!” – “Yes, we’re all crazy.  Look at this madness!”

Passing

The machine is like a gargantuan, motorized food mill that separates the tomatoes’ pulp and juices from their skins and seeds.

Last year, a friend who cans tomatoes with her grandmother told me I was crazy when she learned I had ramped up my usual production in order to offer jars to my catering clients.  I guess I am a little crazy, as is she – anyone who throws their lives into this back-breaking upheaval is indeed a little crazy during those few days or weeks.  However, it’s a matter of legacy and if we don’t preserve it, something immeasurably more precious than jars of tomato sauce will be lost.  So to all of you unsung artisans who have continued this crazy/beautiful tradition of fare i pomodoriEVVIVA!!

So far, I’ve made 800 jars of this ready-to-use Salsa di Pomodoro Fresco this year which I’m currently labeling and getting ready to deliver/ship (and of course, stocking my pantry).

Here are a few ways in which Italians can tomatoes: 

Salsa Pronta – This is what I do.  It’s a finished tomato sauce that has been slow-cooked with onions, garlic, sea salt, olive oil and basil.  Simply open, heat and dress your pasta.  I also use it as a base for quick tomato-based broths, soups and stews and on pizza. Most Italians prepare passata or pelati (see below), but “salsa pronta” has always been a tradition in my mom’s family and as a result, I’ve never (voluntarily) eaten store-bought tomato sauce.

Passata di pomodoro – The most common canned tomato preparation is passata,  a quickly cooked tomato puree that is strained of seeds and skins and then jarred for later use.  Unlike salsa pronta, passata is typically unseasoned or minimally seasoned with a bit of salt and basil.  The onions, garlic or other seasonings are added later, when you prepare a finished sauce using the passata as a base.

Pomodori Pelati – Similar to passata in that the tomatoes are quickly blanched, pomodori pelati are whole, peeled tomatoes that are canned or jarred. This is what you typically find in supermarkets here in the US, the best of which are imported San Marzano tomatoes from the region of Campania.  In addition to salsa pronta, my family also jars “pelati” for use in various pasta sauces, soups and stews.

Salsa di Pomodoro Fresco (Small Batch)

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©

Spaghetti

  • 3 pounds ripe plum tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 8 whole fresh basil leaves
  • Sea salt, to taste

Using the point of a paring knife, cut out and discard the stem bases of the tomatoes and then lightly cut X-shapes on the tomatoes’ opposite ends.

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the skins appear to be breaking. With a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to a colander and briefly run cold water over them.

Position a food mill over a large bowl and pass the tomatoes through the food mill to “weed out” the skins and seeds.  Reserve the pulp and juices of the tomatoes and discard the skins and seeds. (If you don’t have a food mill, remove the skins and seeds by hand.  Crush the tomatoes by hand for a slightly chunkier consistency, or in a food processor for a smoother sauce).

In a nonreactive saucepan, lightly sauté the onion in two tablespoons of the olive oil over medium low heat, stirring often (be careful not to burn them). When the onions are soft and golden, add the minced garlic and sauté for one minute, until almost golden.  Add the reserved tomato pulp and juices along with the basil and raise the heat until the tomatoes reach a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and salt to taste and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.  Adjust the seasonings and serve with your favorite pasta shape.  Any unused sauce may be stored in a vacuum-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 7 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Buon appetito!

Glorious Vegetable Fritto Misto

In the spring, cookbook author Domenica Marchetti paid tribute to one of her culinary idols on her blog.  Today, it’s Domenica’s turn to take the spotlight.  A brilliant home cook, eloquent writer and proud (fellow) daughter of Abruzzo, my friend Domenica’s latest cookbook, The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, is stunning.Cover photo

I was fortunate to witness Domenica in action this summer when our families spent a food-filled day together on Abruzzo’s fabled Costa dei Trabocchi.  Domenica is as thoughtful in her cooking as she is in her writing.  Now, I’m admittedly a bit of a chiacchierona (chatterbox) and become particularly gregarious in Italy, where a double dose of adrenaline kicks in the moment my plane touches down.  During our seafood cookery class on a trabocco, a spider-like fishing platform that juts into the Adriatic Sea, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Domenica secretly wished she could ask me to please pipe down as I babbled and gesticulated excitedly throughout our lesson (see proof below).  However, Domenica good-naturedly endured my prattle while she instinctively cleaned briny mussels and diced sun-ripened tomatoes. (Domenica’s solicitousness has been passed down to her two teenagers who willingly entertained my three little boys all day).

Recovered Autosave-001

Work and play in the trabocco kitchen – Can you tell who’s who? (And Domenica, are you smiling in the bottom left photo because you finally have a moment of peace?)

Later that evening, we were treated to a pre-dinner baking lesson with our friend Fabrizio Lucci’s mom and godmother. Admittedly, neither of us was able to keep pace with Rosa, who nimbly and effortlessly shaped the delicate cookies called celli ripieni into perfect crescents.  Towards the end, however, I began chit-chatting with Mamma Anna Maria while Domenica – who, by this point, was feeling the effects of jetlag – diligently persevered until she mastered the technique.

So it comes as no surprise that the recipes in The Glorious Vegetables of Italy are both meticulously detailed and infinitely inspiring.  The book’s gorgeous photography and Domenica’s engaging prose are truly, in her words, a “love letter to the Italian way with vegetables.”  Although the volume is worthy of display on a coffee table, I know that before long, my copy will take its place, dog-eared and oil-stained, among my favorite cookbooks – although in my house, it will likely always be called “the vegetable book that Nick and Adriana’s mom wrote.”

Tray

Vegetable Fritto Misto from Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Vegetables of Italy available on Amazon

So here’s to you, Domenica, one of my culinary idols … auguri infiniti.

Vegetable Fritto Misto

Recipe adapted from The Glorious Vegetables of Italy by Domenica Marchetti

I looked to my garden for guidance in choosing my first recipe to try from The Glorious Vegetables of Italy.  This may be my last week for zucchini blossoms (“fiori di zucca”) and in my opinion, there’s no better way to enjoy them than battered and fried.  In her recipe, Domenica also recommends adding baby artichokes to the fritto misto (which I didn’t have on hand).  I did, however, have the fresh sage leaves she suggests and trust me, this ingenious addition to your fritto misto is a must.

Raw Veg

Makes 4-6 or more servings

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sparkling spring water, such as San Pellegrino
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 6 zucchini blossoms, with stems, rinsed and patted dry
  • 6 large fresh sage leaves, with stems, rinsed and patted dry
  • 2 small zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into 8 wedges
  • Vegetable oil (or your oil of choice) for frying
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges for serving
  • Coarse sea salt for serving

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, water, egg, and fine sea salt to make a smooth batter about the consistency of heavy cream.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest for 20-30 minutes.

Pour enough oil into a medium skillet to reach a depth of ½ to ¾ inches.  Place over medium-high heat and heat the oil to 375 degrees F (190 C) on a deep-frying thermometer (if you’re using another type of oil, adjust the temperature if needed).  To test the oil temperature, drop a small amount of batter into the hot oil.  It should sizzle and float to the surface immediately, and quickly turn golden.

Have ready a paper towel-lined baking sheet for draining the oil.

Drop the zucchini blossoms in the batter (stems up) and then transfer them immediately to the hot oil.  Fry the blossoms in batches, taking care not to crowd the skillet, for 2 minutes, use a fork to turn and fry for another 2 minutes, until golden brown and crispy.  With a slotted spoon, transfer the blossoms to the prepared baking sheet.  Fry the zucchini wedges and sage leaves in the same way, turning them once as they cook.

Platter

When all of the vegetables have been fried, transfer them to a serving platter and sprinkle a little coarse sea salt over them.  Arrange the lemon wedges on the platter and serve immediately.

Buon appetito!

Focaccia e Fichi

Focaccia

Focaccia e Fichi – Photo by Italia Sweet Italia Experience Breaks

 

Blogging from the mountains of Abruzzo has proven a bit trickier than I had anticipated.  Between spotty internet connections and busy days of exploring this magnificent region of “mare e monte,” I haven’t written as many posts as I had intended.  However, rest assured, I’ve collected countless recipes and tasted an infinite number of local artisanal products (you should see what I’ve accumulated – I’m pretty much leaving all of my clothing behind to make room in my suitcase for an obscene amount of olive oil,  olive paste, jam, honey, farro, flour and about 4 different types of legumes) on which I plan to write in the coming months.

I wanted to share at least one more recipe before I head home (kicking and screaming) to New York on Friday.  In my last blog post, I shared a recipe for Celli Ripieni, a traditional grape jam-filled cookie that I learned from Mamma Anna Maria, the affable mother of my friend, Fabrizio Lucci of Italia Sweet Italia Experience Breaks.  About a month before I left for Italy, Fabrizio posted a photo of a basket of luscious, freshly-picked figs.  My 7-year old son, Mikey, who was standing over my shoulder, practically dove through the computer screen.

Like his mom, figs are Mikey’s favorite fruit and their preciously short season makes them all the more tempting.  Like many Italian immigrants, my parents always had a fig tree in our backyard in Queens, NY.  One of my favorite summer rituals was going outside in the evening and standing under the fig tree with a large bowl while my dad, perched on a ladder, picked the precious fruit and handed them to me.  It inevitably took us less time to empty that bowl than it did to fill it!  Last summer, the New York Times printed an article on the abundance of fig trees growing in Brooklyn, most of which were planted my newly-arrived Italian immigrants.  A similar tradition exists in Queens and my dad continues our evening fig-picking ritual with my children.

Fig tree in our backyard here in Salle - can you spy the Majella in the background? ;)

Fig tree in our backyard here in Salle – can you spy the Majella in the background? 😉

When I told Fabrizio about Mikey’s reaction, he replied that focaccia stuffed with figs and drizzled with olive oil was his favorite childhood snack, and when we joined Fabrizio and his family for dinner, a platter of “focaccia e fichi” generously awaited us.  Figs work quite well in savory dishes.  Their almost honey-like sweetness pairs beautifully with the salt-crusted focaccia and peppery olive oil.  This dish is divine as is, but adding a few slices of prosciutto would make this a terrific summertime lunch.  Buon appetito!

Focaccia e Fichi

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © (inspired by Mamma Anna Maria Lucci – Italia Sweet Italia Experience Breaks)

For the dough:Fichi

  • 1 3/4 cups warm water
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

For the filling:

  • 12 ripe figs, peeled and cut in half
  • A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 thin slices of prosciutto (optional)

Combine the warm water, yeast and sugar in a small bowl. Put the bowl in a warm place until the yeast is bubbling and aromatic, at least 15 minutes.  In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the flour, 1 tablespoon of salt, 1/2 cup olive oil and the yeast mixture on low speed. Once the dough has come together, continue to knead for 5 to 6 minutes on a medium speed until it becomes smooth and soft. Give it a sprinkle of flour if the dough is really sticky (although it is a very sticky dough)

Transfer the dough to a clean, lightly floured surface, then knead it by hand a few times. Give it another sprinkle of flour if the dough is too sticky to handle.  Coat the inside of a bowl lightly with olive oil and add the dough to the bowl. Cover it with a slightly damp towel and put it in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, at least 1 hour.

Coat a baking sheet with the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil.  Put the dough onto the baking sheet and begin pressing it out to fit the size of the pan. Flip the dough over to coat the other side with the olive oil. Continue to stretch the dough to fit the pan. As you are doing so, spread your fingers out and make finger holes all the way through the dough. Put the dough in the warm place until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour. While the dough is rising a second time, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Liberally sprinkle the top of the focaccia with some sea salt and lightly drizzle a bit of olive oil on top. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the focaccia from the oven and let it cool slightly before cutting and serving.

Slice the whole focaccia in half (like a layer cake) and drizzle with a little more olive oil.  Scatter the halved figs on the bottom layer evenly and return the top layer.  Slice into squares and serve.  Buon appetito!

Making Celli Ripieni in Vasto

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The “simpaticissima” Mamma Anna Maria – photo by Italia Sweet Italia – Experience Breaks

Before I left for Italy, I shared the above photo on my Facebook page, with the caption,”Doesn’t Mamma Anna Maria look like someone with whom you’d love to spend time in the kitchen? I hope I get to meet her in Vasto!” A few weeks later, my family and I spent a wonderful day on Abruzzo’s unspoiled southern Adriatic coast with Fabrizio Lucci, owner of the Abruzzo-based tour company, Italia Sweet Italia Experience Breaks, which included a seafood cookery class and lunch on a fabled trabocco fishing platform (more on that experience in a later post including a recipe for the BEST stuffed mussels I’ve ever had). Our day was scheduled to conclude with dinner at a seaside resort, but Fabrizio announced there had been a change to our itinerary and we were instead dining at an undisclosed “surprise” location. We followed Fabrizio into the lush Vasto countryside, which is blessed with a view of the crystalline sea, and pulled into the wide driveway of a charming “casa di campagna.” When I got out of the car, I spotted a smiling woman seated on a woven chair, her eyes welcoming us as we walked up the path to the house. With a twinkle in his eyes, Fabrizio turned to me and said, “You said you wanted to meet her.”

Mamma Anna Maria and me

Mamma Anna Maria and me

That evening, our group, which consisted of my family of five, as well as my friend, food writer and cookbook author, Domenica Marchetti, and her husband and two teenagers, was joined not only by Mamma Anna Maria, but also by Fabrizio’s father, Angelo, his aunt and uncle, Zia Maria and Zio Gino, and his godmother, Rosa. We toured Zio Gino’s property, home to an enormous orto, rows of vigneti, a sizable wine cantina as well as donkeys, goats and chickens. Fabrizio spent every summer of his childhood in this country oasis and he and his family now welcome his clients here with open arms.

Before dinner, Anna Maria and Rosa taught Domenica and I how to make Celli Ripieni (also known as Tarallucci Olio e Vino), a traditional cookie from Abruzzo with a somewhat savory dough (it contains no sugar) and naturally sweet filling. The dough consists of flour, extra virgin olive oil and white wine, and the filling – known as “mostarda” – contains a thick homemade grape jam (called scurchjiata in the Abruzzese dialect), toasted almonds, cocoa powder and instant espresso. They are sweet enough for dessert, but also pair perfectly with morning coffee.

Celli ripieni

Celli ripieni

Rosa teaching us how to prepare the celli ripieni

Rosa teaching us how to prepare the celli ripieni

After our cooking lesson, we were treated to a dinner of nearly a dozen different types of pizza (I’ll publish my son Mikey’s favorite, the focaccia filled with fresh figs, in a later post), including pizza dotted with artichokes and ventricina, Vasto’s typical spicy cured sausage, and another stuffed with sweet onions and salty anchovies. As we all lingered around the large al fresco table – eating, drinking, chatting and gesticulating (!) – I could see why Fabrizio’s guests tell him that cooking and dining with this warm and lovely famiglia is their favorite part of their Abruzzo holiday.

Dinner in vasto

Dinner under an olive tree with our new Vasto family

For more information about Italia Sweet Italia – Experience Breaks, go to http://www.italiasweetitalia.com

Celli Ripieni (also known as Tarallucci Olio e Vino)

Recipe adapted from Italia Sweet Italia – Experience Breaks

Celli finished

Makes 12 cookies, about 2½ inches in diameter

For the dough:

  • 1½ cups Tipo “00” flour, plus more for kneading and surface
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup dry white wine

For the “mostarda” filling:

  • ½ cup good-quality grape jam
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 2 tablespoons toasted almonds, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped bittersweet chocolate

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, with a rack positioned in the center. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

Prepare the dough:

To a large bowl, add the oil and wine and stir to combine. Gradually, add the flour a little bit at a time, mixing constantly with a fork in a circular motion until the mixture becomes a soft and sticky dough that is just firm enough to handle. Turn the mixture onto a lightly floured work surface and begin to knead. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour, a pinch at a time until you’re able to handle it. Knead for 3-5 minutes, until the dough is smooth, shiny and contains no lumps. Set aside while you prepare the filling.

Prepare the filling:

To a small bowl, add the ingredients for the filling and stir to combine.

The dense "ripieno" or filling

The dense “ripieno” or filling

Shape and bake the cookies:

Break off a piece of dough that is slightly larger than a walnut. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a thin oval approximately 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. It is important that the rolled-out dough contains no holes. To the center of the dough, leaving approximately an inch on each of the short sides, add a scant teaspoon of filling in a thin layer along the width of the dough. Fold the top edge of the dough over the filling and press firmly into the bottom edge. . Make sure the dough is sealed well so that no filling oozes out. Using a fluted pastry wheel, cut the excess dough along the sealed edge and then bring the two ends together and pinch together into a basket shape. (Add the excess that you cut with the pastry wheel back to the ball of dough.) Transfer each cookie onto the prepared baking sheet as you form the remainder. Repeat until there is no more dough or filling remaining.

My hands

Rosa’s expert hands guiding mine

Me with Celli

Proudly showing off my first cookie

Celli ripieni ready for the oven!

Celli ripieni ready for the oven!

Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cookies are slightly colored. Remove and allow to cool slightly. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature. Buon appetito!

Generously dust celli ripieni with powdered sugar

Generously dust celli ripieni with powdered sugar

Extra Two Cents: Although the recipe above is traditional, Mamma Anna Maria told us that some people add (or substitute) Nutella and toasted hazelnuts to the filling. Some variations also include orange zest.

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