Category Archives: Recipes

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!

National Pasta Month – Orecchiette

Handmade Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and anchovies

Handmade Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and anchovies

October is National Pasta Month and many would agree that pasta is Italy’s preeminent contribution to the culinary world.  Italian food scholar Oretta Zanini De Vita writes, “To me, this heritage is an Italian gift to gastronomic culture on a par with what the Florentine Renaissance gave to art.” (Professor De Vita also dispels the widely held belief that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy. In fact, evidence of pasta exists in Sicily around 800 AD, nearly 500 years prior to Marco Polo’s return from China.)

Italy’s regional pasta tradition mirrors the peninsula’s socioeconomic history. The prosperous North is home to the delicate egg-rich “tajarin” of Piemonte and the rich meat-filled “tortellini” of Bologna while the struggling South nourished its peasants with “orecchiette” in Puglia and “sagne” in Abruzzo, made with only flour and water. While prosperous Northern Italians had the means to enjoy pasta as a “primo” between the appetizer and the meat or fish course, as a teenager, my father used to devour half a kilo of pasta for lunch every day because that’s all his family could afford. (I often wonder how many pounds of pasta I’ll need to cook for my own family when my three boys are teenagers.)

Dough

A humble dough made of only semolina (Durum wheat) and water

Years ago, my husband and I dined at the acclaimed and utterly fabulous Cibreo in Florence. Lauded for its creative spin on Tuscan cooking, the restaurant is also known for the chef’s intentional omission of pasta from the menu. Although we thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated our dining experience, we couldn’t help feeling as if something was missing among the elegant courses. After all, what is a truly great Italian meal without even a small dish of pasta?

Frozen

Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©

Fresh orecchiette – Puglia’s famous little ear-shaped pasta – have a toothsome texture and unique hybrid flavor between dried and fresh pasta (they’re made from semolina, water and salt – eggs, once considered a luxury, are not used in traditional pasta-making in Puglia).  The most classic condimento – and my personal favorite – is broccoli rabe (also known as rapini or cima di rapa in Italian), garlic and anchovies and topped with toasted breadcrumbs (cheese was another luxury for Southern Italian peasants).

Serves 6

For the orecchiette:

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1½ teaspoons of sea salt
  • 2½ cups semolina flour (Durum wheat flour)
  • All-purpose flour for the work surface

For the condimento:

  • 2 lbs broccoli rabe, stems trimmed, and cut into 2-inch pieces (leaves and florets)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing at the end
  • 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 3-6 salt-packed anchovies (depending on how strong an anchovy flavor you’d like)
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Toasted breadcrumbs or grated cheese for serving

MAKE ORECCHIETTE:  Stir together water and salt in a large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer) until the salt has dissolved.  Add semolina in a stream, beating with an electric mixer at medium speed until a stiff dough forms, about two minutes.  Transfer dough to a lightly-floured (with all-purpose flour) work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.  Cover with a large overturned bowl for at least 30 minutes.   Line 4 trays with dry kitchen towels (not terry cloth) dusted with semolina.  With a knife, divide dough into 10 pieces and leaving the remainder of the dough covered, roll one piece of dough into a long rope about ¾ inch thick.  Cut the rope into ¼ inch pieces.  Dust your thumb with some flour and press down on each piece of dough, pushing away from you and twisting (flicking) your thumb slightly to form an indented curled shape like a little ear.  Transfer formed orecchiette to the lined trays and repeat with remaining dough.  Allow the orecchiette to dry for at least 30 minutes before cooking or freezing.  (They freeze extremely well.  Place the trays directly in the freezer and transfer the orecchiette to ziploc bags.)

Thumb

PREPARE ANCHOVIES:  Hold the anchovies under cold running water and gently rub off the salt with your fingers.  Pat them thoroughly dry with paper towels and transfer them to a cutting board (preferably not a wooden board so that the smell won’t permeate the wood).  Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, make a small incision along the bottom side and run your knife along the length of the anchovy.  Gently peel back the top portion of the anchovy to reveal the backbone on the bottom portion. With the tip of your knife, gently remove the backbone and cut off the tail.  Finely chop the anchovy fillets or mash them to a paste in a mortar and pestle.Condimento

If the flavor of salt-packed anchovies is too strong for you, you can soak them in milk for a few hours in the refrigerator after rinsing them to remove the salt.  Rinse the anchovies again to remove the milk before filleting them.

Mortar

MAKE CONDIMENTO:  Set olive oil over medium-low heat in a wide skillet until shimmering.  Add the cloves of garlic, stirring occasionally until the garlic is browned on all sides.  Remove the garlic from the oil and discard or reserve for another use.  Add the chopped anchovies to the oil, lower the heat and, stirring frequently, allow them to cook until they seem as if they’ve dissolved or become part of the oil.  Turn off the heat and add the crushed red pepper, if you’re using it.  Reserve until you’re ready to dress the pasta.

COOK AND DRESS THE ORECCHIETTE:  Place a large pot of salted water to boil.  When the water has reached an active boil, shake the excess flour from the orecchiette in a colander, add the pasta to the pot and return to a boil.  (Meanwhile, set the skillet containing the anchovies over medium-low heat.) With a ladle, reserve a cup of the pasta cooking water (even if you don’t use it all).   After the pasta has cooked for 4 minutes, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta pot and allow them to cook for one minute.  Drain the pasta and greens and add them to the skillet that contains the anchovies, along with about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water (or more if it appears too dry).  Toss well and allow it to simmer for about minute.  Turn off the heat and transfer to a large serving bowl.   Drizzle with some more olive oil and serve with grated cheese or toasted breadcrumbs.   Buon appetito!

Cultivating Diversity in Abruzzo

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Pasticcio di Farro (recipe below) – farro grains baked with late summer vegetables & scamorza cheese

I felt like a culinary explorer in Abruzzo this past summer.  I was privileged to visit many local artisanal producers who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding the region’s agricultural and gastronomic traditions.  I became particularly fascinated by a project spearheaded by the Parco Nazionale della Majella called “Coltiviamo la diversità” (Let’s Cultivate Diversity) whose goal is the recovery, conservation, and enhancement of native agricultural species in the 74,000+ hectares of national park territory.  The project specifically targets the cultivation of local grains, legumes and fruit and vegetables that are indigenous to the wild, mountainous terrain surrounding the Majella.  To facilitate these conservation efforts, the Parco created a network of “custodian farmers” dedicated to protecting the territory’s agricultural biodiversity.  Some examples of products that are cultivated in the area include:

Photo courtesy of Parco Nazionale della Majella

 

Socere e Nore: An oval bean known for its characteristic black and white hue, the bean’s color contrast is said to represent the complicated relationship between mothers-in-law (socere) and daughters-in law (nore).

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Here, farro is ground into polenta and served with a light tomato sauce

Farro:  This ancient grain suffered a period in which it was threatened with extinction. Many farmers in Abruzzo began to cultivate varieties from other Italian regions such as Umbria and Tuscany.   In recent decades, however, interest in farro has resurfaced and some varieties indigenous to Abruzzo have been singled out and reproduced.  Farro is now sold in grains and as flour, pasta and polenta.

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Fresh “corde” made from Solina flour

Farina di Solina:  Solina is the characteristic wheat found in the mountains of Abruzzo.  It imparts a particular taste and fragrance to homemade bread and pasta and resists well in the cold mountainous climates. An 18th century text describes solina as a wheat from which “…one of the best kinds of bread of the Kingdom (of Naples)” was baked.

A bookend to “Coltiviamo la diversità” is an initiative called “Cuciniamo la diversità” (“Let’s Cook Diversity”) which consists of a network of restaurants and agriturismi within the Parco Nazionale della Majella.  Conceived as meeting points between producers and consumers, these establishments offer traditional dishes from Abruzzo that utilize local products cultivated by the Parco’s custodian farmers.

One of the most memorable and inspiring meals I enjoyed during my stay in Abruzzo was at Agriturismo Tholos in Roccamorice.  Tholos is both a custodian farmer as well as a participating restaurant in the Parco’s network.  Its organic farm stretches over 10 hectares and consists mainly of farro, Solina, chick peas and lentils (actually, the same tiny lentils that come from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a village near the Gran Sasso mountain range; Tholos, in partnership with the Parco, is trying to cultivate the delicate legume in the Majella’s territory) as well as an orchard of local indigenous apples and pears.

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These typical “tholos” stone structures were constructed by farmers of the Majella to protect their animals during the hostile winters. This replica can by found at Agriturismo Tholos in Roccamorice, Abruzzo.

I enjoyed creative dishes made entirely from Tholos’ products including zuppa di lenticchie made with lentils that were picked earlier that day, polenta di farro (a first for me as well as for our Abruzzese friends who joined us for dinner),  fresh pasta called “corde” made from farina di Solina and a homey, comforting pasticcio di farro, which I share below.  The food was positively stellar, but even more satisfying was the knowledge that in some small way, I was sharing in the preservation and celebration of the gastronomic heritage of this territory which I love so very much.

My favorite view of the Majella

My favorite view of the Majella

Pasticcio di Farro

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © (inspired by Agriturismo Tholos)

Serves 8 as a side dish or 4 as a main course

This baked farro “pasticcio” (literally, a “mess”) is filled with late summer vegetables and gooey scamorza cheese.  Feel free to substitute other seasonal vegetables and cheeses.

Farro

  • 2 cups of farro
  • 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 medium eggplant, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 small zucchini, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 pint of sweet grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 1/3 cup basil or Italian parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 cups of scamorza cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the farro with cold water.  Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add the farro.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.  Add a tablespoon of salt and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the farro is tender but still has a bite. (Adding the salt before this point will make the farro tough.) Drain well, transfer to a large bowl, add a tablespoon of olive oil and fluff with a fork.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a wide sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer.  Add the eggplant and ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, about 3-5 minutes or until the eggplant starts to color and soften. Next, add the zucchini to the pan along with another ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook for an additional 3-5 minutes, until the zucchini starts to color and soften.  Add the red onion and another small pinch of salt and continue to cook until all of the vegetables have caramelized and softened and the flavors have melded together.  Remove from the heat and fold in the grape tomatoes, allowing the residual heat from the other vegetables to soften them.

Veg collage

Adjust the seasonings and add the vegetables to the cooked farro and stir to incorporate.  Next, fold in the shredded scamorza cheese.  Pour the mixture into an oiled baking or casserole dish and sprinkle the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano across the top.  Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the Parmigiano has formed a golden crust on top. Buon appetito!

Extra Two Cents: 

The farro may be cooked ahead of time and refrigerated overnight, tightly covered.  Remove from the refrigerator at least one hour prior to baking and add proceed with the recipe.

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!

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