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Seeds from Italy

My seeds from Italy came in the mail! The packages are big and beautiful, with gorgeous photos and information printed in many languages. The new owners of the Seeds from Italy Company, Dan Nagengast and Lynn Byczynski, are experienced flower and market gardeners, so their e- newsletter is full of useful information and tips to make you want to start planting RIGHT AWAY! It also makes you want to try all 18 zucchini varieties and 31 chicories, not to mention the wonderful peppers, tomatoes, and beans…each essential to a particular regional cuisine. “In Italy, growing vegetables is not thought of as a separate activity from cooking”, they explain. Of course not!

Italian Seeds

I ordered fennel, so I can make fennel gratin…wild fennel, so I will have the seed for authentic Southern Italian flavor…two kinds of cima di rapa (broccoli rabe, or raab) for dragging through garlic oil (aglia olio)…three chicories for salad and braising…. my favorite sweet pepper, “Corno di Toro”…and borlotto beans for my favorite bean soup made with freshly shelled beans. I couldn’t resist the name, “Fagiolo rampicante borlotto lingua di fuoco”. They turned out to be the same bean I have been growing for years that is called “Tongue of Fire” in U.S. seed catalogs! Borlotto beans are also known as “cranberry beans” or “Roman beans”.

 Fresh Shell Bean Soup, or Soup au Pistou

BeansHow do you make this wonderful soup? Most places you will have to grow your own beans to have fresh shelled beans, unless you live around a lot of Italians. Any fresh shell beans can be used, but the Borlotto (or Cranberry) beans have a unique, almost chestnut-like flavor. The beans are ready in late summer or early fall; they are big and plump and beautifully colored with dark red streaks and speckles. The shelled beans freeze very successfully in tightly sealed freezer bags. If fresh or frozen beans aren’t available, dried beans can be used.

If you are using dried beans, soak 1 1/2 cups beans for 8 hours or so in water to cover by 3 inches. Drain and rinse before cooking. A quicker method: bring the beans to a boil in water to cover by 3 inches, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit 1 to 2 hours. Drain and rinse before cooking. Put the soaked beans in a large pot with fresh water to cover by 1 inch with one sprig fresh rosemary, 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 small hot chile, and 3 smashed garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and partially cover. Maintain a gentle simmer until the beans begin to soften, 30 to 40 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp salt and continue to cook until the beans are tender but still firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Test several beans to check for doneness. The cooked beans will be added into the soup.

To make the soup with fresh beans, you will need 3 cups shelled beans. Heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven with 1/4 cup diced pancetta or bacon (this is optional but recommended). Cook over low heat until the meat begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Add 1 large chopped onion, 2 diced carrots, 1 small diced fennel bulb, and 2 diced celery stalks. Stir to coat with oil and cook, stirring frequently until they soften, about 6 minutes. Add 3 or 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary, 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, a pinch of red chile flakes, and a pinch of kosher salt. Stir 1 minute. Add 1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned), 1 1/2 cups diced potato   (or sliced green cabbage, if you prefer), and the shelled beans. Stir until the vegetables are heated, about 2 minutes. Add 1 quart homemade chicken or vegetable broth and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook, partially covered, until the beans are tender, 20 to 40 minutes. If you have started with dry beans, add the cooked beans and as much of their cooking broth as you like into the soup and simmer 5 to 10 minutes to meld the flavors. To thicken the soup, mash or puree some of the beans and stir them back into the soup. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve with Pistou and crusty bread.

ParsleyPistou, or pesto: In the late summer or fall, the pistou can be made with fresh basil leaves, but in winter or spring, I use parsley or a combination of parsley and sorrel or fennel fronds. Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, make a paste with 2 garlic cloves and a pinch of kosher salt. Add 2 cups fresh basil, parsley, or a combination of parsley, fennel, and sorrel leaves and pound or process to a rough paste. Add 2 tsp fresh lemon juice and 1 tsp lemon zest, and 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Cooking in Italy with Gina and Jessica

Gina and Jessica are the excellent cooks at Serra Gambetta. Gina is a potter and ran her own ceramics studio in the past. Her hands are even larger than mine, and she can make anything. Jessica is originally from France, but she has adopted Italy as her home and cooks with love and generosity. I was so excited to be welcomed into their kitchen–the original kitchen of the centuries-old farmhouse where Domenico’s family has turned the produce of their farm into wonderful meals for generations. In one corner of the kitchen is an open hearth where a small fire warms the room. Traditionally, beans were cooked in vase-like ceramic pots that were set just close enough to the fire to maintain a very low simmer (making perfectly-cooked beans). Another corner is filled with a mammoth commercial gas stove, capable of turning out food for many guests.

Cooking with Gina and Jessica in Italy

The evening I helped in the kitchen, the menu included crepes filled with zucchini and fresh ricotta, fennel gratin, pasta with broccoli, a cheese plate, bread, and a salad of diced tomatoes dressed with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and dried oregano. Gina braised the fennel while another guest hollowed out a loaf of whole wheat bread for breadcrumbs, Jessica made the zucchini filling, and I flipped crepes. This is a simple meal, totally dependent on the quality of the ingredients. The simplicity of the preparation allowed the vegetables to shine: essence of fennel, savory zucchini, tender broccoli, and bright flavorful tomatoes. A vegetable lover’s heaven.

Gina and Jessica cook like I do…a little pile of this, a big pile of that, a handful here, and a pinch there. There is no cookbook on the counter or measuring cups in sight. Measurements are approximate. Don’t hesitate to taste as you go, and make adjustments.

Zucchini Crepes with Ricotta and Parmesan

Crepe batter (enough for 12 eight-inch crepes): Lightly beat 2 large eggs. Add 1 cup milk and 1/2 tsp. salt. Gently whisk in 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour. Add one or two Tbs. water if needed to make a thin batter. Cover and let the batter rest for one hour.

Filling: Grate 4 or 5 medium-small zucchini (enough to make 4 to 5 cups). Toss with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and set aside in a colander to drain for 1/2 hour. Press gently and squeeze dry in a clean kitchen towel. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet. Add the zucchini, tossing well to coat it with oil. Cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently for 4 to 5 minutes. Finely chopped garlic may be added if you like. Cook the garlic 1 minute, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool. When cooled, mix with 1 cup fresh whole milk ricotta and 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese. Taste the mixture and add salt to taste.

Cook the crepes: Heat a crepe pan or other skillet with a small amount of oil or butter. Have a small bowl of oil handy to brush or wipe the pan as needed. When the pan is hot, pour in just enough batter to coat the bottom, rotating the pan as you pour to distribute the batter evenly. Cook the crepe 2 or 3 minutes, until the edge pulls away from the side of the pan and the bottom is golden brown. Flip the crepe and cook the other side about one minute. Brush or wipe the pan with oil and continue cooking the crepes, stacking them on a plate until you are finished. Add water or milk to the batter if it becomes too thick to pour easily.

Assemble the crepes: Place a crepe on a plate and place a few spoonfuls of filling in the middle. Fold two sides in, then roll the crepe into a square. Place on a buttered baking pan, seam side down. Repeat until all the crepes and filling have been used. Place the pan in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Note: I think you could make a delicious winter version substituting winter squash for the zucchini. I would add chopped fresh sage leaves to the mixture.

Fennel Gratin

Gina made her gratin with whole fennel bulbs cut in half. Put the fennel into a roasting pan coated with olive oil (use a sauté pan or skillet for fewer servings). Sprinkle the top of the bulbs with salt and chopped fresh parsley or dried oregano and drizzle with olive oil. Add 2/3-cup water (or enough to bring the water level to about 1/2 inch), cover the pan, and simmer about 30-35 minutes, until tender. If the liquid is not evaporated when the fennel is done, raise the heat and cook until the liquid is almost gone.

Make the breadcrumbs: For 6 servings (3 fennel bulbs), mix 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs with 3-4 Tbs Parmesan cheese, 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh parsley, 1 minced garlic clove, and 2 Tbs olive oil. Spread the breadcrumbs on top of the fennel and bake in the oven, heated to 400 degrees F for 8 to 10 minutes.

Variation: Slice 3 fennel bulbs about 1/2 inch thick. Arrange them in a single layer in a roasting pan or large skillet coated with olive oil. Sprinkle the slices with salt and chopped parsley or dried oregano, thinly sliced onion, and diced roasted red pepper or chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Make two or three more layers until the fennel is used up. Pour 1/2 cup water into the pan, cover, and simmer 30 to 35 minutes, until the fennel is tender. Boil off any remaining liquid. Top the fennel with the breadcrumb mixture and bake in a 400 degree F oven to toast the breadcrumbs.

Roasted Onion

Whole roasted onions are wonderful partners for grilled meat, chicken, or fish. We had them plated with grilled steak and served with a green salad at Serra Gambetta. I would make this just for the wonderful onion-balsamic pan juices. Believe me.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. You will need one medium-size red onion for each serving. Peel, and cut the ends off the onions. Parboil 3 minutes, drain. Transfer the onions to an oiled baking pan just large enough for them to fit closely. Sprinkle the onions with coarse kosher or sea salt, dried oregano or chopped fresh thyme leaves, and balsamic vinegar (2 tsp per onion). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Add water to the pan, 1/4 inch deep. Cover tightly with a lid or foil and bake until the onions are tender, 45 minutes. Put the onions on a serving dish and spoon the pan juices over them.

Italian Vegetable Garden