Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

I have another wonderful new cookbook! This time, Drew found the title, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, in the Seeds from Italy catalog. Author Jessica Theroux begins her travel journal/cookbook this way: “This is a book about women and food and listening. The art of good cooking lies in paying close care and attention. I learned this in Italy, from the mothers and grandmothers whose homes and kitchens I lived in for more than a year. I learned this from Carluccia and her beans, from Usha and her buttery cakes, from Armida and her chickens…”

Fennel

I fell in love with this book and the twelve women who helped Jessica on her journey. She writes about the power of food to connect us, and how “the result of listening openly and acting simply” results in the kind of food that “feeds the soul and nourishes the body.” It’s not often that a cookbook can convey these kinds of thoughts in a way that becomes truly integral to a recipe. Each selection of recipes reflects the stories, wisdom, cooking style, and favorite ingredients of the grandmothers who shared their homes. The women say things like, “Pay attention to each little thing…”and “The act of giving warmth and care to the ingredients really does make a difference”, and “We are farmers, but we have something really beautiful”. How can you read that and not want to be an Italian Grandmother, too?

I followed Jessica on her travels through Italy, and when she came to Carluccia’s farm in Calabria, I knew I was part of the clan of Grandmothers. It was the part about Carluccia’s hands. She told Jessica, “My hands are always in contact with the earth. But they’re not ugly. Look at them…they’re beautiful.” And Jessica described those hands. “Their skin was thick and old and caked with dirt. Her hands looked like moving earth.” My hands, too, are shaped by many years of work in the dirt. Now I can look at them in a new way.

I wanted to cook with the Italian Grandmothers right away. I have an abundance of beautiful chard in my garden (I think I have mentioned that), so I made Polpette di Bietola , or chard-sesame balls. If you make a filling for Spanakopita and roll it in a ball and bake it, you have these Polpette.

Carluccia’s Polpette di Bietola

Spinach Balls

This recipe called for 2 bunches of chard  (leaves only), 1/3 cup ricotta, 1/4 cup bread crumbs, 2 finely minced garlic cloves, 1/3 cup grated Parmesan, 1 large egg, 1 tsp lemon zest, salt, olive oil, and sesame seeds (to roll the balls in).

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Steam the chard leaves 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and cool.  “Vigorously squeeze the chard dry” and puree in a food processor. Mix 1 cup chard puree with all the other ingredients except the oil and sesame seeds. Roll the chard mixture into balls, using 2 Tbs per ball. Roll each ball in olive oil and then in sesame seeds. Bake on a lightly oiled baking sheet for 20 minutes, until lightly browned.

Carluccia served these to Jessica with red onion jam: She simmered 1 cup diced red onions with 1/4 cup sugar, a pinch of salt, and a bit of cayenne pepper in a small saucepan until thick and jam-like, 5 to 10 minutes, then stirred in 1 Tbs red wine vinegar.

My Red Onion Jam: I simmered 2 cups finely diced red onion with 1/2 cup finely chopped medium-hot red peppers, 1/2 tsp salt, 3 Tbs. sugar, and 1/4 tsp cayenne. After about 10 minutes, I stirred in 1 Tbs red wine vinegar and 3 Tbs balsamic vinegar and cooked the mixture a minute or so longer. I’m glad I made a double batch, because I ate half of it right out of the pot.

Red Onion Jam

My polpette were delicious, even though I missed the part about using only one cup chard puree. My chard leaves must have been a whole lot bigger than the ones in Carluccia’s bunches, because I had about 4 cups. Who knows, maybe I’ll make them the right way next time.

Spinach Dip with Curry Spices

Actually, this is what happened the next time I set out to make the polpette. Halfway into the process, I decided it would make a wonderful dip. I steamed a couple bunches of spinach and tender chard leaves, drained and pressed them dry to make about 2 cups. I put them in the food processor to make a puree with 6 oz cream cheese, 1/4 cup Parmesan, 2 garlic cloves (mashed to a paste with 1/4 tsp salt), the zest from a lime, and a few  teaspoons fresh lemon-thyme leaves. That was pretty good. I added 1/2 tsp curry powder and a little more salt, and that was even better.

Braise of Rabbit, Goat, or maybe Wild Turkey

Herbs

The Grandmothers have several delicious-sounding recipes for cooking rabbit and goat that I am very eager to try, but I don’t have any rabbits or goats. So, I was very excited when my daughter’s friend, Teo, brought us a young wild turkey from a recent hunting expedition. Close enough to goat for me! This turkey was young, but it had been flying around the woods, so I decided to take Carluccia’s advice and use a slow, moist cooking method to help tenderize the meat. I read about Brunia’s “White Wine-Braised Rabbit” and Carluccia’s “Braised Goat with Red onions, Wild Fennel, and Juniper Berries” and set about to make a “Braise of Wild Turkey.”

Brunia used a whole rabbit, cut into 10 bone-in pieces, served in shallow bowls with the braising liquid. Carluccia used 2 to 3 lbs goat shoulder blade chops. I had about 2 1/2 lbs boneless wild turkey breast and leg meat, and I even had juniper berries!

Cut the meat into serving pieces, or  1 inch cubes, depending on how you want to serve it. Season the meat with salt and black pepper. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the meat to the pan in a single layer (sear the meat in batches if you need to). Reduce the heat to medium and brown the meat on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Remove the meat to a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add more olive oil to the pan if needed, and stir in 1 1/2 cups diced onion, 2/3 cup diced carrot, 2/3 cup diced celery, and 2 bay leaves. Sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring often, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add 6 to 8 whole garlic cloves (lightly smashed), 2 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary, 6 to 8 large sprigs fresh thyme, 1 minced small hot chile (or 1/2 tsp red chile flakes), 8 to 10 juniper berries (crushed in a mortar and pestle), and 1/2 tsp lightly crushed fennel seed ( I used my home-grown wild fennel).  Cook another 5 minutes.

Return the meat to the pan and add 1 1/2 cups dry red or white wine. Stir with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits that have stuck to the pan and simmer over medium heat until the wine is reduced by half. Add 1Tbs tomato paste, and 3/4 cup chicken broth. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar, and simmer very gently 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add more water or broth if needed to keep the meat barely covered. If you have left the meat in large pieces, turn them over once or twice during the cooking time. When the turkey is tender, stir in about 12 Kalamata, or other flavorful brined olives, and 1/2 tsp lemon zest. Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Taste for seasoning; add salt, black pepper, and a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to taste.

Sprinkle with coarsely chopped flat -leaf parsley and fennel greens. Serve with pasta  or polenta and grated Parmesan…or with roasted potatoes…or in bowls, with bread for dipping in the broth.

The wild turkey was perfectly tender and full of the flavor of the forest, the herbs, and the fennel seed and juniper berries. I’m hoping for a goat next time!

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