English Soup? Save it for dessert!

As Vern and I walked from our lodging to the language school in Sorrento, we passed a small bakery, often succumbing to temptation and buying a treat. The owner bantered with us, switching between our limited Italian and his limited English as he described the various pastries on display. One day a large rounded cake caught our eye, a little like the one pictured here which we bought later for Vern’s birthday.

“Zuppa Inglese,” he said when we pointed. He offered us a taste, and we fell in love.

Zuppa Inglese is described this way in the glossary of www.lacucinaitalianamagazine.com:

“TZOO-pah een-GLAY-zay

As the name suggests, zuppa inglese (“English soup”) is of English origin, and is derived from the trifle, a popular British dessert. To make zuppa inglese, wedges of sponge cake or delicate cookies such as ladyfingers are dipped in sweet wine or light liqueur, then layered with whipped cream, diced candied fruit, and chopped bittersweet chocolate.”

There are several stories about the origin of this dessert. The first we heard was that Admiral Nelson’s fleet made an unexpected call at Naples, and the king’s cooks were rushed to prepare something suitable for him. Zuppa Inglese was the result—a kind of hybrid between English trifle and tiramisu.

The internet abounds with recipes for Zuppa Inglese, from complicated (sponge cake
and custard made from scratch, hand shaved bittersweet chocolate, and so forth) to very simple (store-bought ladyfingers, instant pudding, chocolate chips). Find one you like the looks of, and adjust it to your cooking style. The basics are: a light cake of some kind in the bottom of the serving dish (clear glass looks pretty) sprinkled with a liquor such as rum or marsala; a custard or pudding with fruit of your choice mixed in, some form of chocolate as a highlight (not so much it overwhelms), and whipped cream. It can also be formed in a bowl or pan, layered and chilled, then inverted onto a platter and decorated with meringue or  whipped cream, the way we first encountered it in Sorrento.

Here’s a video demonstration featuring chef Jeff Michaud from Osteria Restaurant in
Philadelphia with a professional’s version of Zuppa Inglese.

And here is another video, definitely the home style version, with two sisters describing mamma’s shortcut recipe.

Whichever recipe you choose, this is a delicious dessert, and fun for a special occasion. Like, tonight!

Food festivals: Enjoy the feast!

My mother can’t stop talking about it! She visited Calabria five years ago, and when friends took her out to dinner in one of the villages near Scigliano, she ordered a mushroom dish. I still haven’t heard the end of it.

Sadly for all of us, we do not have the recipe. But the season for mushrooms is approaching, and they will be celebrated in the Italian south.

In the Sila, the mountains of Calabria, the village of Camigliatello Silano celebrates a wild mushroom festival each year. In Diamante, the chili pepper takes center stage. Chestnut festivals are common throughout Italy, but the village of Zafferana Etnea in Sicily goes one better, celebrating a Chestnut and Wine Festival. Eggplant, pasta, sausage, chocolate–it seems like most any food in the cupboard has a festival in its honor.

But we were talking about mushrooms. In Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” I found this recipe that pays homage to the mushroom.

Fresh Mushrooms with Porcini, Rosemary, and Tomatoes

1 lb. fresh, firm white button OR cremini mushrooms

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary leaves

About 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Filtered water from soaking the mushrooms (see instructions)

Salt, Fresh ground black pepper

1/2 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, with their juice

To prepare the dried porcini mushrooms, soak in two cups of barely warm water for at least 30 minutes. Lift the mushrooms by hand, squeezing out as much water as possible, and let the water flow back into the container in which it has been soaking. Retain the water, and rinse the mushrooms in fresh water, scraping any spots where soil is embedded. Pat dry with paper towels , and chop.

Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter, and retain until called for.

Trim, wash, and towel dry the fresh mushrooms and cut in half  or quarters lengthwise, keeping the caps attached to stems.

Choose a saute pan that will contain all the ingredients loosely. Start with oil and garlic heated to medium high until the garlic becomes pale gold. Add rosemary and the reconstituted porcini. Stir once or twice to coat well, then add the filtered water from soaking the mushrooms. Turn up the heat and cook at a lively pace until all the water has simmered away.

Add the cut up fresh mushrooms to the pan, together with salt and pepper, turn the heat to high, and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid shed by the fresh mushrooms has simmered away.

Add the tomatoes with their juice, toss thoroughly to coat well, cover the pan, and turn the heat to low. Cook about ten minutes. If needed to prevent sticking, add one or two tablespoons of water to the pan. When done, serve immediately.


Gift of the Goths: Mozzarella di Bufala

The water buffaloes surprised me. Like something in a photo from Cambodia or China, but not in the countryside of Campania.

But there they are, and have been for centuries. One theory says they came to Italy with Goth invaders about 1,500 years ago. Others suggest Arabs brought them to Sicily, and the Normans spread them to the southern mainland. And some think they are native to the area. However they got there, I’m glad they did.

Initially used as draft animals, there are some references to cheese products from the buffalo’s rich milk as early as the twelfth century. The mozzarella di bufala we know today came to prominence in southern Italy 200 to 300 years ago. When I spent a few weeks in Sorrento, I was told that only cheese made from buffalo milk can be labeled ‘mozzarella’ in that part of Italy.

Fresh mozzarella, those soft bright white balls, must be kept in a ‘broth’ and is very perishable, so should be used quickly. While mozzarella can be made from cows’ milk (and unless it is labeled ‘di bufala’, it probably is), the buffalo version is much richer and more flavorful.

The most familiar use of mozzarella di bufala, for tourists in Italy, is the ubiquitous Caprese salad: Alternating slices of fresh tomatoes and creamy cheese, interlaced with fresh leaves of basil, and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Perfetto!

Though both are called mozzarella, the fresh version seems to have no relationship to the shredded dry cheese melted on pizza all over America. For a real treat, use some thinly sliced fresh mozzarella next time you make a pizza, or top your next baked pasta dish with it during the last few minutes of cooking.

If you make the mistake I did in Italy, and call it mozzarella di “bufalo” the Italians will laugh. Everyone knows it is “di bufala” and if you try to get milk from a “bufalo” you’ll be in trouble.

Ready to try cooking with fresh mozzarella? In 2009, Alanna Kellogg (www.blogher.com) posted ten recipes here: http://www.blogher.com/ten-summer-recipes-fresh-mozzeralla.  Put one together today, and as you eat it, imagine you are in the Italian south, eating lunch on your terrace with a warm breeze carrying the fragrance of basil and oregano. Salute!

Who hunts the wild boar?

One food I enjoyed in Italy, but seldom see in America, is wild boar. When we were staying in Sulmona, our friend Cesare took us through several mountain villages to see various monasteries and hermitages connected to Pope Celestine V (the subject of my research in central Italy).

We stopped for lunch in a village in the mountains of Majella National Park, and went to a restaurant called Belvedere, which hung on the edge of a precipice overlooking the wild hinterlands of Abruzzo. Vern was intrigued to find wild boar on the menu—cinghiale in Italian—and decided to try it. His curiosity was rewarded: the waiter soon delivered a huge bowl of savory chunky stew. The meat was similar to pork, and very tasty.

As we ate, I asked Cesare who hunts the wild boar they serve in the restaurant. At first he seemed not to understand the question, but I persisted. “Nobody hunts them,” he finally said.  “Where do they come from then?” I asked. “Una fattoria.”

Yes, it seems the ‘wild’ boar was raised on a farm! Quite a disappointment, as a boar hunt was fully formed in my imagination already.

Truly wild boars have proliferated in some areas of rural Italy, because their natural enemy, the wolf, has declined in population. According to some sources they now produce more offspring due to mating with domesticated pigs. They damage farms and gardens, and can be a traffic hazard.

My son and I found wild boar on the menu of La Dolce Vita restaurant in Seattle a couple of years ago, and like his dad, he had to try it. I don’t see it on their online menu now. I haven’t found any to try cooking myself, but I found a recipe online at http://italianfood.about.com/od/furredgameetc/r/blr1082.htm that looks pretty good. If you want to try it using pork, and just pretend it’s wild boar, go ahead—I won’t tell!

Rapini and all her cousins!

I stopped by Nash’s Organic Produce stand a few days ago, and thought I saw some rapini, a vegetable I discovered in Italy, and have sprouting in my own garden as I write this. It is also called broccoli rabe or raab, and a few other names too.

The recipe for this Rapini and Penne Pasta is online at the Live It Up Vegan blog.

But no. It was not broccoli rabe, but cabbage rabe that I saw, and another display of kale rabe. I took home a couple of bunches of cabbage rabe, and with one bunch made a yummy mess of greens for a side dish. Very simply, it was sautéed in olive oil, with some minced garlic. Salt and pepper as you like.

The second bunch worked well sauteed with some chopped bacon and onion, a little olive oil, as a topping for some pasta. I would have tossed on some pine nuts if I had some on hand. A sprinkling of parmesan worked well with the flavors.

But back to rapini. Like broccoli, it is part of the Brassica genus, and though it is often called “broccoli rabe”, it is more closely related to turnips and mustard, and does not form heads.

Some people find the bitterness of rapini too strong. It tends to be milder when younger, just as its cousin arugula, which can be very bitter if picked late in the season. Rapini can be boiled or steamed to reduce the bitterness, but some of the nutrients will be lost.

A variety of recipes for rapini can be found online, so check out your farmers’ market or supermarket, and give your palate a little trip to Italy!


One of the big surprises for an American visiting Italy for the first time: pasta and its many forms and finishes.

I hesitate to use the word “sauces” for fear of conjuring the image of jars of store-bought spaghetti sauce, or the thick tomato sauce my uncle used to serve when he owned a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska in the 1960s. Dishes the size of serving platters, piled with spaghetti, a few baseball-sized meatballs, all buried in a thick sludge of his home-cooked tomato sauce. Enough for a family of four, if you planned to have a little dessert.

Tasty, yes. But Italian? Not so much. I saw no pasta in Italy remotely like it.

Instead, the traditional second course of Italian meals, pasta is served in more modest portions, keeping in mind that the antipasto has already taken the edge off your hunger, and the main meat course is yet to follow. And pasta is served with a variety of vegetables, bits of meat, nuts, oils—often there is not a tomato in sight!

Soon after I came home from Italy in 2004, I bought a cookbook called Four Seasons Pasta: A Year of Inspired Recipes in the Italian Tradition, written by Janet Fletcher.

Thank you, Janet! I cooked from her recipes two or three times a weeks, allowing me to savor my Italian experience for months longer than I might have without it. I enjoyed things I would never have put with pasta before. Artichokes, peas, beans, radicchio, arugula, kale.

Janet Fletcher acknowledges the help of the Peduzzi family of Abruzzo, and many of the recipes originate in the Italian south. Check out more about her recipes and books at www.janetfletcher.com.

One of my favorites, perfect at this time of year, is Spaghetti con Asparagi ed Uova, or Spaghetti with Asparagus, Fried Eggs, Black Pepper, and Pecorino. This one-dish meal serves two.


1 pound asparagus

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ pound spaghetti

2 eggs

3 tablespoons freshly grated aged pecorino cheese, or toasted bread crumbs, plus more for topping.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

Holding an asparagus spear in both hands, bend the spear gently. It will break naturally at the point at which the spear becomes tough. Repeat with the remaining asparagus. Discard the tough ends. Cut the trimmed spears on the diagonal into ½-inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Put the asparagus in a baking dish or on a baking sheet big enough to hold them in a single layer. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake until sizzling and tender, about 15 minutes.

While the asparagus is baking, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. About 2 minutes before the pasta is done, heat a skillet over moderately high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is hot, break in the eggs, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook, without turning, just until the whites are barely firm. The yolks should remain runny.

Drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot. Add the asparagus and any oil in the baking dish, then add the eggs and any oil in the skillet. Toss well, breaking up the eggs as you toss. The runny yolks will coat the spaghetti with a creamy sauce. Add the cheese or bread crumbs, then add a few grindings of black pepper. Toss again and serve immediately in warm bowls, topping with additional cheese or bread crumbs.

I’d love to see comments from anybody who gives this a try!