Southern Italy and La Cucina Povera

IItalian Agriturismo‘m starting with the food of Southern Italy because Drew and I traveled there with dear friends Joe and Suzy last October. We stayed in two agriturismo  accommodations (farms that have room and board for guests), one amid the wheat fields near Foggia and the other down the Adriatic coast in a region of ancient olive trees, vineyards, almonds, and rock. Both of our hosts (Domenico and Gerardo) grew up near the land they now farm and are passionate about the traditional cooking of Puglia. The meals they serve are prepared with locally produced cheeses, meats, fruits and vegetables, and wine and olive oil from their own farms. All of these taste of this ancient land, the sun, and the rich volcanic soil.

Large Olive Tree - Suzy DesLauriersThe cooking of Southern Italy is traditionally La Cucina Povera–the food of poor peasants, or La Cucina Rustica–simple country cooking. What could be better? This is the food that first got me interested in cooking.  Cooking with few ingredients, but much creativity and love. The few ingredients are full of flavor, and treated carefully with patience and attention. To cook this food, Domenico says, “you must feel the food, you must be present, and you must feel the spirit (of the place).”

Garden of Lush Vegetables - Suzy DesLauriersSo what did we eat in Puglia? Lots of little dishes adding up to an elegant and delicious meal. We were served Italian style, in courses, with plenty of time to appreciate each offering. The following menus don’t look very povera, but they all stem from traditional peasant cooking and illustrate the Southern Italian genius for turning humble ingredients into fine fare.

(Photograph Note: Large Olive Tree & Garden of Lush Vegetables were taken by, and are property of, Suzy DesLauriers)

Dinner

Menus from Serra Gambetta (recipes below and to come)

 Fava e Chicorie

(puree of fava beans with wild chicory greens)

Frittata di Zucchini

(zucchini frittata)

Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce

Grilled Steak with Roasted Onion

Green Salad

***

Italian bread

Chicory greens with Egg and Cheese

Orecchiette with tomato sauce

Braciole al Sugo

(meat rolls in tomato sauce)

Salad of garden lettuce and shaved fennel

Grapes and Pears

***

Bruschetta

Ricotta forte

Tapenade of sweet red pepper

Risotto with zucchini and flowers

Carrots with mint

Eggplant Parmigiana

Jam Tart

***

Crepes with zucchini stuffing

Gratin of Fennel

Pasta with Broccoli

Cheese plate

Tomato Salad

Tart of Pears and Ricotta

***

Market

I’m introducing some Italian words here because I think they are so beautiful, and because I think they help the cook understand how to build flavor. The battuto is the name for  chopped aromatic ingredients (onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsley…) that create a flavor base. When those ingredients are cooked in a skillet with fat (olive oil, butter, or flavorful fat rendered from a pork product), the battuto becomes the sofritto. More magic occurs  in the next step, insaporire–“bestowing taste”. I love this description  of how you add other main ingredients to the sofritto and cook them over brisk heat to completely wrap them in the flavor elements of the base.

Allowing sufficient time for these steps–battuto, sofritto, insaporire  (it’s like breathing)–is perhaps the most important thing you can do to create satisfying flavor. Ingredients for a sofritto vary, but whatever they are, don’t dump them all into the pan at once. Add each ingredient in its turn.

Gerardo Cooking

Recipes

Fava BeansFava e Chicorie: This is the signature peasant dish of Puglia. I loved that Gina picked the greens for our dinner from the untended land beside the garden. The wild chicory can be replaced by cultivated chicory (see garden notes), broccoli rabe, mustard greens, chard or spinach. Dried, peeled yellow fava beans are used for the puree.

Cooking the fava beans: 1/2 lb dried fava beans makes about four servings. Be sure to use favas without skins. Rinse the beans, then put them in a pot with water to cover by several inches. Let them soak for at least 8 hours. Drain, and put the beans back in the pot with water to cover by two inches. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, and maintain a low simmer for 1 hour (or until they become very soft – Domenico says they take 3 hours on a very low fire). When the beans soften and begin to fall apart, they can be beaten with a spoon or potato masher to make a puree. Add salt to taste and continue cooking  and stirring until they make a very smooth puree (or use a food mill or blender). The fava puree we ate was like a very thick soup.

When we ate this dish at Serra Gambetta it was so delicious I thought it had more flavorings than just chicory and fava beans, so when I made it at home I added garlic and chile. Domenico says there is no garlic or chile, just olive oil (very flavorful) and salt.

Cooking the greens: You’ll need one bunch (around 1 lb.)of greens from the list above. The bitterness of greens like chicory, broccoli rabe and mustard is mellowed by blanching. Drop the rinsed and trimmed greens into a pot of boiling salted water. After two minutes, drain and chop. Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1 Tbs minced garlic and 1/4 tsp red chile flakes in a 10-12-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook about 2 minutes to soften the garlic. Add the chopped greens and toss to coat with the oil. Turn the greens frequently until heated through and tender. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Stir the greens into the fava  puree or serve them separately for each person to add as they wish.

Serve the fava and greens in soup bowls, with a delicious extra virgin olive oil or olio santo to drizzle on top. Garnish with oven-dried tomatoes (recipe to come).

Olio Santo (hot chile oil) is oil infused with dried red chiles. Warm 1/2 cup olive or grapeseed oil with 2-3 Tbs dried red chile flakes gently over low heat just until small bubbles rise around the chile. Turn off the heat and transfer into a small glass jar or bowl. Let stand at least 1 hour, preferably a day, before using.

TomatoeQuick Tomato Sauce: The tomato sauce we ate in Puglia was chunky and fresh-tasting. It’s cooked briefly–less than 20 minutes–so it keeps its bright, sweet tomato flavor. You can make it with garden fresh, red-ripe tomatoes in season, or use home preserved or best-quality canned plum tomatoes (I won’t say they have to be Italian, but in my experience they are the best).

Ingredients: 3 to 3 1/2 lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or 1 qt home-preserved tomatoes or 1 28-oz can whole canned plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano), 2 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup finely chopped onion (optional), 2 garlic cloves (lightly smashed or thinly sliced or chopped), 1/4 tsp red chile flakes (optional), 1 to 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 2 Tbs chopped parsley leaves or 6-8 fresh basil leaves.

Heat the oil with the onion in a wide saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Stir for about 5-6 minutes to soften the onion. Add the garlic  and chile and  saute 1 minute. Add the tomatoes (crush the canned tomatoes with your hands, like the Italians, or use a wooden spoon) and the salt. Raise the heat a little to maintain a brisk simmer and stir occasionally for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how thick you like your sauce. Add the parsley or basil at the end of cooking.

Use this sauce on pasta or pizza, or use it to braise meatballs or braciole, to make ragu, add to beans or soups, or as a base for other sauces.

Braciole al Sugo (meat rolls in tomato sauce): This is a good example of taking ordinary ingredients and turning them into something elegant and special…and stretching a small amount of meat in the process. Both the cooks at Serra Gambetta and Gerardo prepared this dish for us. It can be made with various cuts of meat (braciole means cutlet): pork shoulder, fresh ham, thin pork chops, beef round, or veal shoulder. The slices of meat are pounded very thin, rolled up around a mixture of flavorings, and grilled, braised or baked. Gina and Jessica used fresh ham stuffed with a mixture of sauteed onion, carrot, celery and garlic, grated pecorino, and minced pork. They baked the rolls in the oven. Gerardo made veal rolls filled with garlic, parsley, and Parmesan, and braised them in tomato sauce. My version borrows from both–an experiment.

I used thin-cut boneless pork chops, because that’s what I had on hand. I pounded the chops (about 1 lb.) to make 8 rectangles measuring roughly 3×5 inches and about 1 cm. (a little more that 1/8 inch) thick. I sauteed onion, carrot and celery (about 1/2 cup each) in extra virgin olive oil about 5-6 minutes, and stirred in a Tbs. chopped garlic. I left a few Tbs. of the vegetables in the skillet, and mixed the rest with chopped parsley (a few Tbs.) and grated Parmesan (1/4 cup). The meat is sprinkled with salt on both sides, topped with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of the filling, and rolled up. Using toothpicks to hold them together is easier than twine.

While I was rolling up the meat, I stirred about 3 cups of quick tomato sauce (or use 3 cups crushed canned tomatoes) into the skillet with the sofritto and turned the heat to medium low. They got a pinch of red chile and some salt, as well.

In another skillet, I heated another couple of Tbs. olive oil over medium -high heat–enough to make the meat rolls sizzle when they hit the pan. The rolls get browned on all sides, about 5 minutes in all, which is enough to cook them. I rolled them around in the tomato sauce and let them sit there until the pasta was done. The rolls went on a plate, and the sauce went on the pasta.

Next time, I’ll grill the rolls and put a little pancetta in the filling.

To make the meat rolls with a longer-cooking cut of meat, you follow much the same procedure. After the rolls are browned, add 2 lightly smashed garlic cloves or 1/2 cup diced onion to the pan and saute a minute or two. Add 1/4 cup red wine and stir to release any crusty bits from the bottom. Add 1 qt. crushed canned tomatoes and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer. Cook on the stove top or bake in a 300 degree  F. oven for an hour, until the meat is very tender. Turn the rolls occasionally as they cook.

PastaPasta with Broccoli: Perfectly simple and very delicious! I am generous with the broccoli and it tastes so good fixed this way it’s easy to eat up any extra.

Ingredients: 8 oz. dried pasta (ziti, fusilli, penne, farfalle, cavatappi…), 1 lb broccoli crowns, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbs. finely chopped garlic, 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes, salt and pepper, freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Extra: 1 cup bread crumbs toasted in olive oil, or 1/2 cup toasted walnuts

Cut the broccoli into florets and drop them into a big pot of boiling water for about 3 minutes. Scoop them out and leave them in a colander to cool. Stir the pasta into the boiling water. Heat the olive oil, chile, and garlic in a large skillet or dutch oven over low heat, stirring for a minute or two until the garlic softens. Chop the broccoli and stir it around in the garlic oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. When the pasta is done, drain it and toss it with the broccoli. Put it in a serving bowl and sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs or walnuts. Serve with plenty of grated cheese.

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20 thoughts on “Southern Italy and La Cucina Povera

  1. What a lovely story and your pictures are spectacular. I tend to favor French food, but I’m on a journey to learn more about Italian food and Italy. On our next trip to France we hope to get over into Italy for a few days. Your post makes a very nice introduction into the foods of Italy for me.

    I’m visiting from Vicki Lane’s blog and it’s my pleasure to meet you. I look forward to more delicious food and learning a little Italian along the way.
    Sam from My Carolina Kitchen

  2. We often go to southern Italy, although to the other coast, as I have family roots there. I am obviously biased towards the region and it’s cooking, and your article has taken me back to sunny Italy on this cold winter’s day. I love the food of la cucina povera, and I find no matter where in the world one goes, the best food is always that made simply and locally.

    Thanks

  3. Wonderful blog Louise! I’m going to try both the meat rolls and the broccoli pasta soon! I love that your recipes are informal with lots of optional approaches and even suggestions about how you might do it differently in the future. And the photos are great! Thank you so much for taking this on for those of us who have always so admired your amazing cooking!

  4. Hello Louise and welcome to the blogging! I loved your description of buttuto ! and will try the broccoli pasta tonight! (using I think spices from Campo d’Fiore in Rome stash). Thank you! look forward to more.

  5. Hi Louise,
    Enjoyed the Southern Italian recipes- thanks! I used to live on a block in DC where I was the only person who hadn’t recently arrived from Italy. The kids would go out to collect chicory for their moms behind the local Esso (I’m dating myself) station. Here in WNC (we live right down the road in Upper Flat Creek), do you use wild chicory or do you grow it? We don’t have enough wild chicory in our cove, so I’m going to plant some this spring. Any suggestions for yummy varieties?
    Thanks in advance if you reply,
    Sheila

    • Hello, Sheila. I’m glad to meet another chicory forager. I don’t have much wild chicory, either, so I have been growing it. I have grown a dandelion-type variety called ” Italiko Rosso” and another called” Red Rib”. Catalogna is the type we mostly saw in the markets in Italy, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers one called Clio. I planted a mix called “Wild Garden Chicory”, a mix from the breeder Frank Morton offered by Fedco Seeds a couple of seasons back. I intended to save the seed but didn’t get it all, so now I forage for chicory in my own garden. It’s coming up everywhere…dark green, light green, speckled, upright, rosettes, all kinds of shapes and colors. Some are good in salads, but most are better braised or blanched and cooked in olive oil. This year I am checking out two seed companies listed in the new cookbook, My Calabria by Rosetta Constantino. She recommends Seeds from Italy (www.growitalia.com) and Garden Edibles (www.gardenedibles.com).

      • Louise,
        Thanks for such a thoughtful and detailed response. I’ll check out the seed catalogs for the Catalogna chicory and some of the others you suggested. BTW, to all readers, for some reason today the link is broken to http://www.gardenedibles.com.

        On another note, I’m an avid mushroom forager, and am curious whether or not in Southern Italy, wild mushrooms are featured in many dishes, particularly morels (since morel season is rapidly approaching here, they’re on my mind). I spent some time in the Umbria region a few years ago around Easter time and couldn’t find any wild mushrooms, although there were truffles and porcini on every menu…If you came across any Southern Italian morel recipes, I’d love to hear about them, especially since I’ll be hitting my favorite patches in late March.

  6. I come over from Vicki’s blog. Your description of the cucina is mouth watering. I do not have a garden (two many pine trees) so my ingredients will have to come from the grocery store. I did not know you could eat chicory – at home we drank it in coffee. I’ll try your tomato sauce, using the canned tomatoes unfortunately and your broccoli pasta – they sound very tasty. Welcome to blog world.

  7. My good friend, Suzy DesLauriers, sent me a connection to your blog – and I am thankful she did. Suzy and I share a love for many things, food being one, and especially Italian recipes. Thank you for the lovely blog and the sweet descriptions. I appreciate the recipes and the photos – it is a reminder of our trips to Italy.
    Mary Gonos

  8. I came from Vicki’s blog, too, Louisa, though you and I have met through our mutual friend Nancy Darrell.
    Last night my husband Chuck made the pasta with broccoli—most wonderful and good enough for company. We had the pan-toasted breadcrumbs rather than the walnuts and the crumbs were perfect.
    Do you have a recipe for the fennel gratin?
    i’m so looking forward to reading more of your entries!

  9. Louise, last night we made your braciole al Sugo. We loved it! I was thinking that the braciole might take ‘way long to make, but it wasn’t that involved. Of course, my husband made that, while I made the basic tomato sauce, so that might be why I thought it didn’t take that long: I was still up in the studio finishing up some work while he started the meat, We really liked the flavor of the meat rolls, but another good point about the recipe was that it made a small amount of meat go a long way because we had just about .60# of pork chop and will get two meals out of the dinner. I’m thinking it might taste even better than it did last night.
    We were going to do the fennel but ran out of time. Tonight it will be a good addition to the meal!

  10. I forgot to say that Chuck used red cabbage instead of celery, because that’s what we had in the fridge. It was a good editorial choice on his part! Also, he thought the next time he makes it, he’ll increase the amount of the sofritto, since it didn’t seem to add up to what the recipe called for.

    We’ve made the broccoli with pasta probably three times by now, even for company. It’s become one of our favorite dishes and great when the company’s vegetarian.

  11. what a lovely account of the food from my mothers region of Italy she would cook with love to please here family thank you Omero Gallucci

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