I‘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.
The 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).”
So 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)
Menus from Serra Gambetta (recipes below and to come)
Fava e Chicorie
(puree of fava beans with wild chicory greens)
Frittata di Zucchini
Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce
Grilled Steak with Roasted Onion
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
Tapenade of sweet red pepper
Risotto with zucchini and flowers
Carrots with mint
Crepes with zucchini stuffing
Gratin of Fennel
Pasta with Broccoli
Tart of Pears and Ricotta
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.
Fava 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.
Quick 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.
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.