In honor of Amatrice

Perhaps you have (as I have) been thinking of central Italy more often the last couple of weeks, following news of the devastating earthquake which destroyed several towns in the mountains between Perugia and L’Aquila on August 24.

Una_via_di_Amatrice

A street in Amatrice, 2012. Photo by Silvio Sorcini, Wikimedia Commons.

Amatrice, a town of about 2,600 residents, was about 75% destroyed. The death toll is nearing 300 in the region, including several other villages with major destruction. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods, nearly every historic church in Amatrice was destroyed. The city’s bell tower survived the quake, and now stands over piles of rubble.

For about sixty years, from Italian unification up to 1927, Amatrice was part of L’Aquila, before being annexed to Lazio. L’Aquila, about 75 km to the south in Abruzzo, suffered its own devastating earthquake seven years ago. Last month L’Aquila’s annual religious festival, the Perdonanza Celestiniana, cancelled all social and cultural activities, all but the religious rites, in solidarity with  Amatrice and surroundings for this year’s disaster .

Bucatini_amatriciana

Bucatini all’Amatriciana–and don’t forget the wine! May I recommend Montepulciano d’Abruzzo?  Photo by Rkolarsky/Wikimedia Commons

Italian foodies might honor and remember the town with a dinner of Pasta all’Amatriciana, and I’ve been scouring recipe books and the internet reading about this traditional dish of Amatrice.

The traditional pasta, bucatini, is a long hollow tubular shape, which, frankly, I find a challenge to eat because it isn’t as flexible as typical long spaghetti or linguine. It tends to sproing off the fork and fling bits of sauce, however Marcella Hazen, in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, says, “It’s impossible to say ‘all’amatriciana’ without thinking of ‘bucatini.’ The two are as indivisible as Romeo and Juliet.” If you’ve never used bucatini, give it a try, but another long pasta would be an acceptable substitute.

Now, the traditional meat is called guanciale, a bacon made from the jowls of pigs that feast on acorns, according to Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy cookbook. Good luck finding guanciale if you aren’t in Italy. Pancetta is a good substitute and more widely available in the USA, and bacon is an acceptable substitute.

The traditional cheese is pecorino Romano, a very sharp sheep milk cheese which Hazen considers indispensible to amatriciana sauce, though it is too sharp for her taste as a table cheese. It’s readily available, so no need to fall back on the parmesan.

With all that in mind, here’s my proposed recipe, adapted from several sources:

2 tablespoons olive oil, or half oil, half butter

1/2 lb. pancetta, cut in thin strips

1 dried red chili pepper or flakes (amount to taste)

1 medium onion, sliced thin or diced fine

1 lb. tomatoes, chopped (peel them for a smoother sauce)

Salt

1 lb.  bucatini or other long pasta

plenty of grated pecorino Romano cheese

Heat olive oil (and butter, if using) over medium heat, and saute the pancetta for about five minutes. Add chili or flakes to taste, and continue cooking until pancetta browns a little. Add onion and cook until golden. Stir in the tomatoes and cook about fifteen to twenty minutes, until the sauce thickens.

While the sauce cooks, heat a large pot of salted water to boiling, and cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta. Remove the chili pepper from the sauce if you have used a whole one. Then add the pasta to the sauce  in its pan, and toss well.

Serve with plenty of pecorino Romano

 

 

Advertisements

Figs in the pan

We had an early warm spell this year in March and April, giving a boost to fruit crops in our area. That includes my honey fig tree, which produced several dozen figs, and is on it’s way to a second crop–if fall weather lasts long enough to ripen them.

In Sulmona, Italy our landlady for a few weeks, Signora Giusseppina, brought us bags of fresh figs and hung them on our door. They were dark, purplish and dripping sweetness. I’m in a different climate, and my honey figs are pale green even when they ripen.

Late figs 3The figs I have already picked are delicious, and here’s my favorite way to prepare them: Wash them off, trim off the stem, and cut in half from stem to base. The skin is edible, and pretty difficult to remove from a ripe fig. figs raw

 

 

 

 

Melt two or three tablespoons of butter in a pan on medium-high heat, and place the figs cut side down in the butter. Let them fry until they begin to brown. It won’t take long.

figs fryingTurn the heat down a smidge, and add a little orange juice. Just a couple of tablespoons, from a fresh orange if you have on (though I am not a purist about it). Let that sizzle in the pan for another couple of minutes.

Now spoon those babies out onto a plate and eat them. I especially love them for breakfast, dessert, or as a side with lunch or dinner. In other words, anytime at all!

Now I would like to find a savory fig recipe–so, readers, what do you suggest?figs close

Abruzzo’s gift that keeps on giving

Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on the table.

Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the table.

We drank a lot of wine in Italy. Italian wine. Big mouthfilling reds and crisp Calabrian whites. But one of the most lasting wine pleasures we discovered was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a wine I had never heard of before spending a few weeks in Abruzzo.

So last week my brother, Glenn, forwarded me an email from a wine store, touting “a true gem of a wine” in Fantini’s 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The email claims a wine score of 90 for it, though my online research turns up 85 or 87. Am I concerned? Naaa. I’m gonna go look for some of this, which is available from several places at about $10 a bottle, and I’m gonna bring it home, and I’m gonna cook up some pasta with sauce that includes zucchini (because I am overloaded with it right now). Then I’ll pour a couple of big red glasses of that stuff.

I’ll be wishing my brother was here to enjoy it, like we did in Sulmona in 2004 at the Cantina di Biffi. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has become my go-to red since then.

Readers, please share your best Italian wine experience in the comments. What made it special?

Timpano–the big drum of baked pasta!

If you saw the movie The Big Night which I reviewed last week, then you’ve seen timpano, an Italian dish I had never heard of before watching the film. I tried to buy the cookbook written by actor Stanley Tucci’s mother but it is out of print, so I’ll be scouring for a used copy. In the meantime, I find that the internet is full of recipes for timpano, and I’m going to share some links with you to find them.

I have never made this dish. I now live in a household of two, and making a six-quart baked pasta is a little intimidating, not to mention the complexity of the dish. Have you made it? Is a smaller version possible? I have to admit, we do have a pretty big gathering for Christmas and I think this may be our next Christmas or Christmas eve dinner!

Here are some links to recipes:

There is one in Los Angeles Magazine online.

And another with a video tutorial! from Coco’s Italian Market.

This one from Epicurian is made in a 10″ or 12″ springform pan, but from the list of filling ingredients, I don’t know how it could fit in that size pan.

And here’s another adaptation, just for the fun of it–with lots of good photos of the construction process. And it’s a little smaller, so maybe I’ll try it for a dinner with some friends.

Rules of the table: Dining etiquette in Italy

Cappuccino_Loves_ItalyEverywhere you go, there are certain dining practices, expectations, and rules. In Argentina, mate (a tea) is served in a gourd with a silver straw, and is passed from person to person around the table. In Morocco, if you take a bone from the stew, you are expected to suck out the marrow. In Russia, table settings typically include a vodka shot glass. Japanese chopsticks are different from Chinese chopsticks.

I have always found Italy pretty laid back about rules in general, but there are some “food rules” that continue to come up. Cappuccino (and coffee with milk in general) is for morning. Don’t twirl spaghetti using a spoon. (That’s for children.) And please for the love of all that is edible, do not put cheese on seafood dishes.

Some people have compiled and explained these rules, and one of the places to find them is a website called Etiquette Scholar, which can help you with dining and related etiquette just about anywhere in the world.

Life in Italy also has a post about Italian food rules, and the comments on it are fun and instructive as well.

And Conde Nast Traveler‘s website has advice for Italian dining from a couple of Italians.

I’m sure during my travels in Italy, I have broken lots of the “rules” and nobody made a big deal of it. I know I’ve had cappuccino in the afternoon. Hubby loves grated cheese on his seafood pasta. But if I see an opportunity to learn more about Italian life and culture by adjusting some dining habits, I’ll do it! Most often, Italians will be gracious enough not to point out your gaffe, but if they do, I hope you’ll be able to thank them for teaching you something new. Buon appetito!

Supper Party by Gerard van Honthorst, ca. 1619. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Supper Party by Gerard van Honthorst, ca. 1619. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Are ‘pasta’ and ‘gluten-free’ compatible? Yes!

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Today I’m welcoming my sister, Marlie Johnson, to the blog with a food post on eating gluten-free and Italian:

One of the best things about being part of a family with Italian roots has to be the food.  Pasta, pizza, pastries! These have been staples on the table my entire life… until about a year ago.  I was diagnosed with an allergy to wheat!  That explained a lot of problems I had been having, but it also caused havoc with my diet. After a lot of research, I decided it was easier to go gluten free than try to avoid just wheat.  Then I found that gluten free is not the tastiest.  I found a few gluten free pastas, but they didn’t taste very good.  I was very surprised when I found two companies in Italy who were making gluten free pasta, and it is good!   They are Delallo and Barilla.  Between the two, there is a great variety of pasta, including penne, spaghetti, orzo, shells, and fusilli – these are the ones I have found so far.Marlie-4

The most important lesson I have learned for cooking gluten free pasta is to not overcook it AT ALL.  It will turn to mush.   If you are going to add the pasta to a sauce and bake it, then stop cooking it about a minute before the directions for al dente – it will finish cooking while baking, and be perfect.

Here is a recipe that I have used gluten free penne in, and it turned out great.  I had it “taste tested” by people who only eat gluten free, and several who eat anything!  They all said it was really good, and asked when I was going to make it again.

Here is the original recipe (what I changed follows):

1 lb hot Italian sausage links                    1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1 (16 oz ) package of rigatoni                   2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (24 oz) jar of marinara sauce                 salt and pepper to taste

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, thinly sliced       1 cup shredded Monzzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmesean                           1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup grated Asiago                                  1/2 med. yellow onion, chopped.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, and cook pasta until almost tender, about 10 minutes.

Cook the sausage in a large skillet over medium heat, turning frequently, until cooked through.  Remove from skillet, cool, and cut into slices.  Add the garlic, fennel and onion to the skillet and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the roasted red peppers, basil and sausage and the marinara sauce.  Heat through over low heat until warmed.

Marlie-2

Ready to bake…

Combine the pasta with the sauce and vegetables in a 9 x 13 baking pan.  Spread the cheeses on top.  Garnish with a few fennel leaves.  Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and broil for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned.

The changes I made are:

I used bulk sausage instead of links.

I used Barilla Gluten Free Penne Pasta, and cooked it one minute less than the package called for al dente.

I cooked the vegetable for about 10 -12 minutes, until the fennel was almost fully cooked.

I did use a jar of marinara… (sorry, Grandma)

…. and ready to eat!

Would I change anything else the next time I make it?  I would try it with sweet Italian sausage, or an equal mix of hot and mild.  It had great flavor, but it was spicy hot!  For me this one is a keeper, and I will make it gluten free for everyone who is coming to dinner!

Serve with salad, or a green vegetable, garlic bread and your favorite wine.  Watch salad dressings for gluten…it hides in all kinds of condiments!  You can make croutons and garlic bread from gluten free bread.   Rudi’s brand bread is the best I have found.  It is good for French toast ….if you want to send your taste buds a little farther north in Europe!