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.

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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.”

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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!

All That You Can’t Leave Behind in Abruzzo

Salle Arriverderci

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:

Cestino di ortaggi

Vegetables from my parents’ plentiful garden

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!

Merenda with friends

A beautiful crostata of homemade plum preserves made by my friend Giulia of Country House Casale Centurione Manopello for a late afternoon merenda at an event we co-hosted with Abruzzo4Foodies called Abruzzo Country Cooking

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!)

Orta

My heart was racing as we hiked down the steep, overgrown trail to the Fiume Orta from our home in Salle, but look what awaited me.

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 😉

Abruzzo products

Trying to extend my trip with these beautiful products from Abruzzo

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!

My Minestra

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©

Serves 4-6

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!

Minestra

  • 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.

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.

Farm to Table Spaghetti

Farm-to-table fare at Country House Casale Centurione-Manoppello

Whether you’re a professional chef or an amateur home cook, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as cooking with garden or farm-fresh ingredients.  Last Saturday, in the bucolic countryside of Manoppello, Country House Casale Centurione, Abruzzo4foodies and I co-hosted an event called Abruzzo Country Cooking, at which our guests picked vegetables from the plentiful, organic garden of the lovely Casale, which is owned by my friend Giulia Scappaticcio and her family, and together, prepared a delicious farm-to-table meal.

Of the dishes we prepared, for me, the velvety spaghetti alla chitarra with zucchini and pine nuts was the highlight.  Giulia’s mother-in-law, the energetic Francesca, a talented cook who also happens to be a marathon runner (she ran the New York City Marathon in the late-90s), taught the group how to make this fresh summer dish using just-picked zucchini and a few other basic ingredients.  Similar to a pesto, but much creamier, the zucchini are pureed with oil, toasted pine nuts and fresh basil.  If you’re able to prepare the dish with fresh homemade spaghetti, as we did, you’re in for an extra-special treat, but good-quality imported spaghetti is a fine substitute.

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Spaghetti con zucchine e pinoli

Spaghetti con zucchine e pinoli

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © as adapted from Country House Casale Centurione-Manopello

Serves 4

  • 1 lb fresh or dried spaghetti
  • 1 lb zucchini, ends trimmed, sliced into ½-inch thick rounds or semi-circles (depending on the thickness of the zucchini)
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more, if needed
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted*
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 6-8 basil leaves, stems removed

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a wide sauté pan, add the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering.  Add the garlic to the pan and sauté for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic begins to color. Add the zucchini, season with a large pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper and raise the heat to medium-high. Stir frequently and cook until the liquid released by the zucchini has evaporated and the zucchini are quite soft.  Transfer the zucchini, oil, garlic , half of the toasted pine nuts and the basil leaves to a blender or food processor and purée until smooth and velvety. If the mixture appears too thick or lumpy, add additional olive oil, one teaspoon at a time. Adjust seasonings to your liking with more salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, add the pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain well and toss the pasta with the zucchini purée and the remaining toasted pine nuts.  Serve with grated Parmigiano or Grana Padano.  Buon appetito!

*To toast pine nuts, place them in a dry skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until they are golden in spots, about 3 minutes. Immediately transfer the pine nuts to a bowl to cool.

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