08 October 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Orechiette with Pomodorini

CHIAVARI, Italy – I saw a Facebook post a while back of an adorable little girl sitting at a kitchen table with pasta dough spread out in front of her. Her grandmother was teaching her how to make orecchiette.
 Beautiful Bari, Italy
The photo made me smile and brought back memories of a trip I made to Bari a few years ago where I saw other grandmothers and granddaughters sitting out at tables in the streets in front of their houses doing the same thing, making orecchiette.

Pugliese food is fairly simple to make and simply delicious. There are no complicated sauces or techniques needed, just some good Pugliese olive oil, a little garlic and the freshest ingredients you can get your hands on. Right now you can find beautiful, blood red pomodorini –  cherry tomatoes - in the markets across Italy, which makes it the perfect time to make orecchiette with pomodorini. 
Making Orechiette in Old Bari
But while this recipe calls for pomodorini, orecchiette are also good with sausage, zucchini, broccoli, alla carbonara, and even though I know I’m risking the wrath of the Pugliese,  I have to say they are good with pesto too.

Orecchiette are a very old pasta that originated in Bari sometime between the twelfth and thirteenth century. Over time, early pasta makers developed the ear like shape which allowed the pasta to dry faster. They were a big hit with the population, bigger than the iphone or the ipad if you can imagine that, because when they were dried they could be stored and used during a famine, an all too frequent problem in Europe in the 1300 and 1400’s.
Pasta Perfect
One of the things I’ve learned from my Italian friends is that   it’s best to keep fresh pasta in the refrigerator, Like wine, fresh pasta has to ‘breathe so it’s best not to cover it with Saran Wrap or other cling-films, or keep it in a closed plastic container. Paper food containers or wrapping it in cooking paper are both okay, but the best way to keep it is on a ceramic plate covered with a clean cotton cloth.

As for cooking fresh pasta, you need plenty of salted water, and it’s important to put the pasta in when the water is at a full rolling boil. When you drop the pasta in, the water stops boiling so you have to turn up the heat for a minute or so in order to bring it back to a boil. Once the water is boiling again, adjust the heat so it boils gently. It’s not a good idea to cover the pot when cooking pasta as the water will boil over.

Filled pasta is another story. It should be dropped in the water just before it comes to a boil, and then cooked with care. If it’s cooked too long, or if the heat is too high, the pasta shapes may break or split open.  But enough of my prattle, let’s get on with good stuff.

Orecchiette with Pomodorini

Serves 4

400 grams of fresh orecchiette
300 grams di arugula (rucola in Italian/ aka rocket) or another type of bitter green
10 mature cherry tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
10 black olives
1/2 of a hot chili pepper or red pepper flakes
50 grams of aged ricotta  (or pecorino)
Extravergine Italian olive oil
2 tablespoons of toasted breadcrumbs (optional)

Wash the arugula under running water and dry. Boil it in salted water for about 2 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and let cool. Then squeeze well to remove excess water. Save the cooking water for the pasta.

Wash and peel the cherry tomatoes, cut them into quarters and place in a colander. Sprinkle with coarse salt and set aside. Peel the garlic and dice it, along with the pitted olives.

Heat 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan, add the chopped garlic and olives, the drained cherry tomatoes, chili pepper, stir and cook over moderate heat for about 5 minutes.

Add the arugula, season with salt and turn off the flame. Cook the orecchiette in the same water that the arugula cooked in. When the pasta is cooked, (if you are using fresh orecchiette they cooked rather quickly), drain and put them back in the pot and add the sauce. Mix and cook together for 30 seconds. Turn off the flame. Serve with a grated ricotta or pecorino, a few drops of olive oil and a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs.

04 October 2015

LIFE: Bits and Bobs About Florence

CHIAVARI, Italy – One of these days, in the not so distant future, I’m going to be one of the 10 million who visits Florence, Italy this year. (See Statistical Fact No. 23).  Working as a fashion journalist in Milan, I used to be in Florence two or three times a year covering fashion event. It was nice work, and they paid me!
 Florence, Italy
But I haven’t been there in a few years, not since I changed my life and moved back to the Riviera, so it’s time. If there is a trip to Florence in your future too, here are some tidbits about the city that I plucked from the Internet that you might find interesting.

1. Amazing Fact: According to UNESCO, almost a third of the world’s art treasures are in Florence, not bad for a small city. The main viewing galleries include the Uffizi, the Bargello and the Academy. The main viewing attractions include the cute Italian guys.
2. Food Fact: Florence’s Mercato Centrale is one of Europe’s largest covered markets, where the food and the noise compete for attention. By the way, the market stall with the picture of the cute little horse on it, sells horsemeat. Just so you know.
Mercato Centrale, Florence, Italy 
3. Disaster Fact: After torrential rainfall in November 1966, the River Arno rose more than 5.2 meters (almost 18 feet). In two days 35 people were killed and hundreds left homeless as the city, and many of its treasures, was engulfed by silt, sewerage and water. ‘Mud Angels’ as they came to be known, flew in from around the world to help with the massive cleanup and restoration process.

4. Secret Fact: To provide a private passage between the Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio, a raised passageway was built in 1565 that runs through the Uffizi gallery and across the Ponte Vecchio. The Prince’s Passage, known as the Vasari Corridor, is one kilometer long, (a little more than half a mile) and contains a vast collection of artwork. You can go there, but tours need to be booked well in advance. For info try the APT, Azienda di Promozione Turistica Firenze, in Via Manzoni, 16.
The "Gallo Nero" 
5. Red Fact: Florence borders the vineyards of Tuscan Chianti country. It’s where the grapes for some of the softest reds in the world grow. A bottle with the Gallo Nero (black rooster) classification is a Chianti Classico, and guaranteed to be heaven in a bottle

6. Tourist Fact: The Galleria degli Uffizi is the single most visited building in Italy with some one and a half million people passing through each year. It’s housed in what used to be the administrative offices of the city’s most famous family, the Medicis.
7. Film Fact: Florence has been the star in many a film, capturing the heart of big screen audiences in films such as Tea with Mussolini, A Room with a View, The Stendhal Syndrome and Hannibal.
Galleria degli Uffizi
8. Odd Fact: One of the oddest museums to be found anywhere has to be the Salvatore Ferragamo Shoe Museum, where footwear made from dyed fish skins are among the 10,000 exhibits of privately commissioned shoes. Who ordered the fish skin shoes? Yuck!

9. Street Fact: In 1339 Florence became the first city in Europe with paved streets instead of wood or cobblestones.

10. Woodenhead Fact: Pinocchio, the wooden boy whose nose grows when he tells a lie, was published in Florence between 1881 and 1883 by the Florentine Carlo Lorenzini, who wrote under the pen name Carlo Collodi.

11. Wonderful Fact: On November 30th, 1786, under the reign of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, Tuscany was the first modern European state in the world to do away with torture and capital punishment.

12. Building Fact: The Duomo of Florence took approximately 140 years to build. Construction of the Cathedral started on September 8th, 1296, and was completed on March 25th 1436. Worth the wait though, don’t you think?
 Duomo of Florence
13. Take the Elevator Fact: The Duomo of Florence has 463 stone steps which, if you climb to the top you can reach the cupola for a close-up of The Last Judgment and a sweeping view of the city.

14.Medical Fact: Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse, was born in Florence on May 12th, 1820. She was named for the city of her birth.

15. Roman Fact: Tradition states that the history of Florence began in 59 BC when the legions of Giulio Ceasar founded a village and called it   Florentia. After they finished with the village, they played a little calcio Fiorentino and knocked each other around a bit, errrr, a lot.

16.Doesn’t Make Any Sense Fact: The symbol of Florence is a red lily, which is based on the Florentine iris, a white flower that was very common in the local area. What?

 The Florentine Lily
17. World War II Fact: Florence was severely damaged during World War II by the Germans, who blew up all its bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. It seems Hitler thought it was too beautiful to destroy. Or so they say.

18.Explorer Fact: Amerigo Vespucci, the famous explorer and navigator, was born in Florence on March 9th, 1454. He’s also the guy America was name after.

19.Language Fact: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio were the first to use a language other than Latin, namely Tuscan, which went on to become the recognized language of Italy and called Italian. This was the beginning of the end of Latin being used as the common language throughout Europe. Such is life, or as they say in Latin: Pro Bozo Publico – Support your local clown (or language).

20. Musical Fact: The piano was invented in Florence around 1720 by Bartolomeo Cristofor. It was based on the harpsichord and was originally called a pianoforte.

 Michelangelo's David
21. Artistic Fact: The right hand of the statue of David is disproportionately large compared to the body because in the Middle Ages David was commonly said to be of “manu fortis” – strong of hand.

22. Food Fact: Tuscan bread is usually made without salt, and has been   since the 12th century. It seems that people of Pisa thought blocking shipments of salt to Florence would force the Florentines to surrender in whatever battle they were involved with at the time, and there were many. Instead, the people of Florence just made their bread without salt and for some weird reason they still do.

23. Statistical Fact: The City of Florence attracts over 10 million visitors per year.

24. You’re Making Me Hungry Fact: A famous Florentine specialty is the bistecca alla Fiorentina, a mammoth chargrilled t-bone steak.

25. Artistic Fact: The Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) has the world's largest collection of Renaissance art, most of which was collected by members of the Medici family during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Medici’s were very rich.

26. Sad Fact: Florence has had two floods both on November 4th, the first in 1333 and then November 4th, 1966.
 Marzocco and the Florentine Lily
27.Weird Fact 1: One of the symbols of Florence is the Marzocco, a seated lion with the emblem of Florence resting on its paw. The name comes from the Roman God Mars, which was the very first symbol of Roman Florentia. They eventually replaced the Marzocco with the lily, which was a good idea as lily is a lot easier to say than Marzocco. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that during the Middle Ages live lions were kept behind the Palazzo Comunale, and watched very closely during times of crisis because it was believed their behavior foretold the fortune of the State. This must be a true story because you can see the lion symbol engraved on every cornerstone and doorstep of the Ponte Vecchio. I think there is more to this story, I’m going to have to do some digging.

28.Weird Fact 2: Florence streets can be one name at one end of the street and another name at the other end.  For example, Via Martelli is the street leading away from Piazza del Duomo then at the first intersection it turns into Via Cavour. Actually, this is not unique to Florence, you see the same pattern in many Italian cities. There must be a reason for it, I just don’t know what it is. Also, Italians don’t count blocks, they count intersections. So when you ask for directions they  tell you, “go down three intersections, and then turn left.”

 Via Chiantigiana
29. Interesting Fact: Via Chiantigiana is one of the most beautiful roads in all of Italy.  It winds through the vineyards and woodlands that connect Florence to Siena. 

30. Game Fact: Calcio Fiorentino (also known as calcio storico or historic football) is an early form of football that originated in 16th century. It’s a combination of rugby, football, bare knuckle fighting and hair pulling. In other words, knocking the beejeebers out of each other. What fun!

01 October 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Chickpea Delights - Panelle and Farinata

CHIAVARI, Italy – I recently posted a photo on Facebook of Domenico Cuscino, a young guy from Palermo who has started selling traditional Sicilian chickpea fritters called panelle to hungry Milanese, from his bright yellow Piaggio Ape. Many liked the idea but didn’t know what panelle were.

Street Market in Palermo 
I really wasn’t surprised for in all my trips south, I had never seen or heard of them either until last year when I wrote this blog post, and it’s not because I don’t look at food everywhere I go.

I had found an article that said that panelle are a specialty of Palermo and one of the most popular street foods in Sicily. They are made from chickpea flour, chopped parsley, a bit of fennel seed, salt and pepper, enough water to form a thick paste and then deep fried.
Panelle Ready to Serve 
What? Wait a minute, I said to myself. Except for the size and the fact that it’s fried and not baked, what they are talking about is farinata, that manna from heaven you find in Liguria. How can that be? What happened to the farinata story about the sailing ship getting caught in a terrible storm and the bags of chickpea flour getting wet and the frugal Genovese scooping up the mess and frying it for the crew’s dinner? Isn’t that how this chickpea delight got started?

Apparently not. The article went on to say that although chickpeas were widely cultivated in the tenth century, they have been a reliable food source for centuries. It also said that cicer arietinum, which I’m assuming is the Latin name for chickpeas, was originally cultivated by Neolithic man in the Middle East, India and western Asia. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated chickpeas, although probably not to the extent the Arabs did. 
And This is How Panelle are Served 
That is all well and good but what I want to know is how did chickpea flour get from the Arabs in Sicily up to the Genovese sailors in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Were there Arab sailors on that Genovese ship? Somehow I don’t think so.

If that was the case the Genovese wouldn’t have had to wait until the sacks of chickpea flour got soaking wet from waves splashing up on board during a storm to figure out what to do with it, right? Wouldn’t the Arabs have said, look pal, if you mix this stuff with a little water and fry it up, you’ll have yourself a tasty little treat? 
Cooking up Panelle 
While fried foods are a big no no these days, the article also went on to say that panelle are so delicious you should eat them anyway. And that advice came from the Sicilians, not the Ligurians who love their fried foods so much they often say “even a shoe is good fried.” Does it help to know that chickpeas are a good source of zinc, iron and other minerals and folate, even if no one seems to know exactly what folate is?   

Then, another one of my food myth bubbles got busted when the article went on to talk   about arancini, those delicious rice balls you find in almost every delicatessen in Italy. They were my primary source of sustenance back when I was going to school in Rome. My problem was money, but rather the difficulty of accessing it. Of course that was back in the dark ages before ATM machines when you actually had to go to the bank and show your passport and permissions to be in Italy, and then wait half an hour while they photocopied your documents, for only then would they would turn over any money. 
I'll Take Your Word For It
I swear those old photocopy machines sounded like they were giving birth to triplets every time they pushed out a piece of paper. Since my bank, which was in the center of Rome, closed at 1:30, and I was in school out on the Via Nomentana every morning until 1, it was difficult to get back to the city before the banks closed which meant most of the time I was broke.

Luckily arrancini tasted good because they were all I could afford, apart from my once a day all-inclusive three-course meal at the Delfino Self-Service Cafeteria at the end of Via del Corso. For me arancini were a Roman treat, and for years I marveled at how clever the Romans were to have invented such a simple, but delicious snack of meat, peas and cheese all stuffed into a tasty little rice ball with a crispy cover. 
There are Round Arancini  
It turns out – at least according to the article – that arancini were also brought here in the tenth century when the Kalbid ruled Sicily. It seems rice balls are very similar to a Middle Eastern recipe that was popular during the Middle Ages. The name arrancini comes from the Italian word for orange (arancia) which, if you are very imaginative you can sort of see their resemblance to oranges, although truthfully those dots never really ever connected for me.

At any rate, it turns out there are two types of arancini. Those made in western Sicily are round, like the ones in Rome, while those made in eastern Sicily (particularly around Catania) are often conical. Why? No idea.
And Pointy Arancini
I didn’t even know they grew rice in Sicily. I thought Italy’s rice belt was in Piedmont and Lombardy, but I was wrong once again. In fact the article states that there is no connection between the rice grown up north and the rice introduced in Sicily during the Arab period – the famous 10th century they keep talking about.

And then, they struck the final blow with the last line which stated: rice balls are the golden jewel in the crown of Sicilian cuisine. I think the only solution to this problem is to go back to Sicily and see what else is going on in that food world that I don’t know about.  Probably a lot.