22 April 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Nonna's Little Lamb

CHIAVARI, Italy – This Italian life that I live began long before I moved to Italy. It started back in upstate New York when I was really young. We lived in an apartment next to my Italian grandparents, in a big building that had a large basement. My Grandfather used to make wine in one section of that basement and I remember going down there with him. Every now and again would check on the fermenting grape juice to make sure it was doing what  it was   supposed to be doing – turning into wine.
 Lamb grazing under a Roman Aquaduct
Every now and again there would be something else in the basement, a baby lamb. It would be tied up in the same area as the wine barrels and when I would go down to check on the wine with my Grandfather, I would play with the lamb while he did whatever you do when you are checking on fermenting grapes.

And then the lamb would be gone. I didn’t think too much about it, in fact it never occurred to me that the only thing that had happened between the last time I played with the lamb to the next time when the lamb was gone, was Easter.
 Butcher Shop at Eataly in Torino, Italy
So ever since I’ve been in Italy I’ve been looking for a leg of lamb that looks and tastes like the one my Grandmother used to put on the table on Easter Sundays. That leg of lamb was crispy brown and juicy and studded with slivers of garlic and rosemary that even thinking about it makes my mouth water. But I’ve never found it. The lamb they sell here in Italy is baby lamb, but so baby that there isn’t any meat on it. To me, the lamb they sell looks like a pile of bones. It is a pile of bones.

But once, a few years back, I saw what looked like a real leg of lamb (my idea of a real leg of lamb). It was at Carrefour, a French grocery chain that is very popular here in Italy. I snatched that leg of lamb up and practically ran home with it, put it in a roasting pan and cooked it. There was no waiting around for a special occasion to eat that baby,  it was enough of a special occasion to have found it.

It may have looked like the leg of lamb of my dreams, but it didn’t taste anything like it.  I knew I had cooked it alla Nonna because I’d cooked legs of lamb before, but there was something about this lamb that just didn’t taste right. The store only offered legs of lamb that size that one time. I’ve never seen them again.  So I’ve given up . However, on the outside chance that you can find some meaty lamb where you live, here’s an Italian recipe from Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, for lamb alla Romana.

After the recipe was published one viewer wrote, “Anchovy filets and vinegar in lamb alla Romana? Who invents these recipes?”
 Roast Lamb alla Nonna
It leads me to doubt the authenticity of the recipe but if you take out the anchovy filets, vinegar and the flour, it’s basically the same recipe my Grandmother and I use. The difference is I cut slits in the meat with a sharp knife, sliver the garlic and with a little rosemary push them into the slits. I rub the leg of lamb with some olive oil and it is ready to go into the oven.  If it isn’t browning enough, you can simply turn up the oven temperature for about ten minutes  toward the end of the cooking time. a Or you can be brave and give the Corriere della Sera recipe a try. I just hope my Grandmother isn’t reading this.

Abbacchio alla Romano
Serves 4
2 lbs of leg and shoulder of lamb (or a decent size leg of lamb)
3 cloves of garlic
3 anchovy filets (preserved in salt)
1 sprig of rosemary
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
½ cup vinegar
Salt and pepper

Crush the peeled garlic along with the anchovy filets (that have been well rinsed). When the garlic and rosemary become a smooth paste, dilute it with the vinegar.

On the stove, add the oil to a frying pan and add the sprig of rosemary. When the oil begins to smoke, remove the rosemary and add the pieces of lamb that have been lightly floured.

Brown the meat well on both sides, then remove it from the frying pan and set aside. Season with salt and pepper.

Reduce the cooking juices by two thirds. Put the lamb back into the frying pan with the cooking juices and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes

20 April 2014

LIFE: A Vatican Easter

CHIAVARI, Italy - For the past few days the Italian television airwaves have been taken over by the religious Easter festivities in Rome. Here in Italy the celebrations officially start on Holy Thursday with the Mass of Chrism, (holy anointing oil).  This mass includes the reading of the Passion, which  chronicles Jesus’ capture, suffering and death. 
 Vatican, Rome
Later in the day, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 men, following the tradition of Jesus and his Apostles. Both masses mark Christ's founding of the priesthood at the Last Supper on the night before he died.

On Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion in 33AD, the Pope says mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano). St. John’s was built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and St. John’s is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. It is known as Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclessarium Mater et Caput – the Cathedral of Rome and of the World.   
 Via Crucis, Rome
 On Friday evening the Pope leads a torch-lit procession from the Colosseum to Palatine Hill (Via Crucis Procession), and at pre-designated stops, they recite the prayers appropriate for each of the Stations of the Cross.

The Easter Vigil mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica will start at 9PM on Saturday night. No lights will be lit. The Basilica will be shrouded in darkness until Pope Benedict XVI enters. He will be carrying a long, white Paschal, a special Easter candle decorated with gold leaf. 
 Pope Francis, Holy Friday Mass
From the single flame of the Paschal, twelve candles are lit and from those twelve, hundreds of other smaller candles will be lit, one by one,  until the entire church is bathe in candlelight. As the candles are being lit, the Pope will proceed to the altar and begin Mass by saying: 

 Brothers, on this most holy of nights, in which Jesus Christ our Lord passed from the depths of death to life, the Church, in every part of the world, calls on its children to keep watch and pray.” 
 Pope Francis
He will be dressed in a gold robe, called a chasuble, with a white and gold stole around his neck. On his head will be a precious gold and white mitre encrusted with jewels. Versions of the chasuble and the mitre were part of the normal clothing worn by the Romans in the early days of Christianity, and were adopted by Christian clerics.  The Romans wore hats that were very similar in style to the mitre, and the chasuble is simply a variation of the robes worn throughout the Roman Empire. 

The colors of the Pope’s chasuble and mitre are important as colors represent qualities such as virtue and holiness.  The gold color of the Pope’s chasuble symbolizes what is precious and valuable. It also symbolizes majesty, joy and celebration, and because of its brightness, metallic gold, like that found on the Pope’s miter, symbolizes the presence of God. 

Under the chasuble he is wearing a white robe.  Visible is a part of the collar around his neck and the edges of the cuffs under his sleeves. The color white has long symbolized purity, holiness and virtue, as well as respect and reverence. It is used for all high Holy Days and festivals.
 Easter Mass, Vatican

Easter Sunday is joyful. The Vatican altar is filled with flowers in anticipation of the mass that will be said there to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension into Heaven. The Pope shares this special day with the thousands of faithful followers who gather in St. Peter’s Square to see him. He stands before the crowd and delivers his message of peace for the Urbi et Orbi (the city and the world).  After the Urbi et Orbi message, which is broadcast throughout the world, the Pope blesses the crowd.  

You can participate in all of the Easter events  and and information on how to do that is available on the Vatican web site (www.vatican.va). And it is all free. You do need to make reservations for everything however, including the Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday) mass at the Vatican. 

You can also make a reservation for a Papal audience on the same web site. Some tour operators have been known to charge large amounts of money for a Papal audience, but there is absolutely no charge . Actually you are better off if you organize your own visit.  You just have to do it well in advance as tickets are limited. 

 Invitation for a Papal Audience at the Vatican
To reserve a place at a Papal audience go to this page of the Vatican website http://www.vatican.va/various/prefettura/index en.html and click on the “continue” button at the bottom of the page. It will take you to an application form that you can download, fill out and return to the Vatican office. The form must be sent by fax or mail (no email) - the instructions are on the site - and when your application has been processed you will receive instructions regarding your audience and where to pick up your tickets. 

It's a good idea to stay until the end of the audience as that is when the Pope will bless everyone in the audience and those who can’t be there. And if you take your medals and rosary beads and other items to the audience, you can then give them as gifts knowing that they have received the Pope’s personal blessing.

Happy Easter.

17 April 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Easter Pie alla Genovese

CHIAVARI, Italy –  In Italy, torta Pasqualina is to Easter what turkey stuffing is to Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.  This savory torta, which is very similar to the far more popular French dish – quiche, originated in Genova during the 1600’s.

 Torta Pasqualina
It is a dish that in the past was served exclusively in the spring – at Easter to be more precise - which is how it got it’s name – Pasqua, which means Easter in Italian. And it is also why the traditional Pasqualina recipe called for 33 layers of puff pastry, one for each year of Christ’s life.

One of the differences between quiche and torta Pasqualina is that the ingredients of our torta are not mixed together and cooked in an egg and milk custard as they are in a quiche, but layered, starting with Swiss chard. Next comes a layer of prescineua, a fresh, light cheese that is similar to cream cheese. Prescineau, which I’m still trying to figure out how to pronounce, is a Ligurian specialty cheese and not found outside of the region so ricotta is often used as a substitute.

 Layers of Deliciousness
As for the 33 layers of pastry, no one really does that any more. One more modern recipes I found  called for 10 layers of pastry, five on the bottom and five on the top, but most of the recipes seemed to make do with four, even when using frozen grocery store puff pastry. The recipe below calls for two layers of puff pastry, one for the bottom and one for the top, but if you choose to go the traditional route and use more than one, be sure to brush a little olive oil between each layer so they stay flakey and don’t stick together.

But the most distinctive difference between torta pasqualina and quiche is the addition of whole raw egg yolks to top the final layer. In the traditional torta recipe, the one with 33 layers of pastry, it calls for 13 yolks to be placed on the top of the torta, twelve yolks around the edges and one yolk in the center, representing Christ and His 12 apostles. 

 The Final Touch
But whether you use 13 or 4 as called for in the recipe below, the raw yolks are placed in a hollow made in the cheese layer with the back of a tablespoon. The whites are then lightly beaten and a few spoonfuls of the frothy whites are spooned over the top before adding the final layer of pastry.

Torta Pasqualina
Serves 6-8 (as an appetizer)

500 grams of frozen puff pastry
1 kg of Swiss chard
½ medium onion finely chopped
500 gr. of whole milk ricotta
250 gr. light cream
8 eggs
50 gr. butter
125 gr. grated Parmesan cheese   
1 tablespoon of chopped, fresh marjoram
Salt and pepper

Thaw the puff pastry at room temperature (about 2 hours)

Sauté the chopped onion in a little butter and olive oil until it is translucent. Blanche the Swiss chard in boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes, drain, squeeze dry, rough chop and add to the sautéed onions and cook together to blend the flavors. Then add a pinch of salt, pepper and the marjoram to the Swiss chard and onions, mix and set aside to cool.

In the meantime, as the Swiss chard is cooling, combine the ricotta with the Parmesan cheese, light cream and 2 lightly beaten eggs. Set aside.

Roll out one portion of puff pastry and place it in the lightly greased baking pan, with a couple of inches of overlap, which will be used to seal the top.  When the Swiss chard is room temperature, mix in 2 lightly beaten whole eggs and sprinkle with a few spoons of grated parmesan cheese and spread the mixture on the bottom of the baking pan.

Top the Swiss chard with an even layer of ricotta. With the back of a tablespoon, make 4 evenly spaced indentation on the top of the cheese layer. Separate the first raw egg and place the yolk in the indentation. Fill the remaining indentations the same way, using the last 3 eggs.

Lightly beat the egg whites and carefully spoon some of the frothy egg white mixture over the cheese and egg yolk layer.  Cover with the remaining sheet (or sheets) of puff pastry and carefully seal the edges. Brush the top with a bit of milk, and prick with a fork or a small sharp knife, to allow the steam to escape.

Bake in a pre-heated oven – 186 degrees C (360 degrees F) for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. If the instructions on the package of frozen puff pastry call for a higher temperature, I would suggest following those directions, just check the torta often to make sure it cooking and browning and not burning.

Serve warm or room temperature. 

 Perfect for a Picnic

If you are not familiar with Swiss chard, it’s a dark green leafy vegetable that looks a lot like spinach, but tastes a little sweeter. In other parts of the world Swiss chard stems come in different colors, but here in Italy they are always white. Like spinach, Swiss chard needs to be carefully washed and the stems trimmed.   

There is nothing that says you can’t mix the Swiss chard and ricotta together and eliminate the layers, and in fact many recipes call for you to do just that. You might be tempted to eliminate the egg yolks on the top layer as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They really do add an extra dimension to the dish.

About puff pastry. Here in Italy puff pastry is sold two to a package, so I usually buy two packages for this recipe because I prefer four thin layers of dough.  It’s not a bad idea to lightly grease your baking pan with olive oil, or line it with parchment paper, and if you use a spring form baking pan it will be easier to remove the torta for serving.

Torta pasqualina can be served warm or cold and it’s a ‘must’ for the Easter table as it is perfect to take along for the traditional Pasquetta  ‘picnic fuori casa’,  picnic in the country – or at least out in the open - on Easter Monday, which is also a national holiday here in Italy. Happy Easter.