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Domenica Marchetti At Le Virtù

Domenica Marchetti at Le Virtù

 Sometimes there is a confluence of all things good and right in the universe and one of those things happened last week, when Le Virtù, my favorite Philadelphia restaurant organized a special evening featuring foods from Domenica Marchetti’s latest cookbook, “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy.” 

Each course was accompanied by wines that complemented the food perfectly – mostly from Abruzzo, but also from the regions of Le Marche and Puglia. The bread service included a cherry tomato and red onion focaccia; pizza bianca with roasted fennel and assorted grilled flatbreads (sorry, I forgot to take a photo.) The breads were terrific alongside this chicory salad, made more savory with the addition of anchovies in the dressing – similar to the flavor in a Caesar salad.
On a cold winter’s night, Domenica’s ribollita satisfies both body and soul.
The winter risotto was a perfect blend of sweet butternut squash and bitter Tuscan kale, held together with a swirl of Parmesan cheese.
Chef Joe Cicala deviated from Domenica’s recipes for the main course – whole roasted suckling pig. The crackling outer skin was irresistible, along with the tender meat flavored with garlic and rosemary.
Vegetables followed, including my favorite, broccoli romano –  hard to find in my neck of the woods. It  too, was prepared with anchovy sauce, but as with many recipes that include anchovies, you’d never know it. The anchovies just heighten the flavors without overpowering the vegetable.
 Served at room temperature, a winter salad of cauliflower had a fiery kick to it.
 Fennel with sultana raisins and chili pepper offered a balance of sweet and spicy.
And speaking of sweet, the evening ended on a high note with a pumpkin semifreddo and sweet potato fritelle resting atop a mocha sauce, with toasted pumpkin seeds, prepared by pastry chef Angela Ranalli Cicala.
If you missed the evening with Domenica, there are still plenty of reasons to come down to this gem of a Philly restaurant.  The restaurant, owned by Francis Cratil and Cathy Lee, offers one of the most authentic and delicious menus featuring the food of Abruzzo. Their new fall menu is now available here.

Winter Risotto with butternut squash and Tuscan kale
from “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy” by Domenica Marchetti
printable recipe here

Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup diced yellow onion
  • 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 8 ounces Tuscan kale, coarsely shredded
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 5 to 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth, heated
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Instructions

 

Warm the olive oil and the onion in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the onion is softened and translucent. Add the squash and kale and toss to coat them with the oil. Sprinkle in the salt. Cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the kale is completely wilted and the cubes of squash are just tender.
Pour in the rice and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the grains are shiny and glassy-looking. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or so, until it is almost absorbed. Reduce the heat to medium-low and begin to add the broth, a ladleful at a time, stirring frequently, until the liquid is almost absorbed. You do not need to stir the risotto constantly, but be sure that you do stir it often, and take care that the rice grains do not stick to the bottom of the pot.
Continue to cook the risotto and add broth, 1 or 2 ladlefuls at a time, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the rice is almost but not completely cooked. It should be al dente–still rather firm and chalky at the center. Check by tasting a few grains. Stir in the butter and cheese. Then stir in a final ladleful of broth to achieve a creamy texture. The risotto should not be stiff or runny; it should mound softly on a spoon. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if you like.
Spoon the risotto into shallow rimmed bowls and serve immediately, with additional Parmigiano cheese on the side.

 

Domenica Marchetti And The Glorious Vegetables Of Italy

Domenica Marchetti and The Glorious Vegetables of Italy

 She’s done it again. My friend Domenica Marchetti that is. Her newest cookbook has just been published and it’s every bit as enticing as the last four: “The Glorious Pasta of Italy,” “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy,” “Rustic Italian,” and “Big Night In.” The new book, “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy,” contains so many delicious recipes that combine the flavors and techniques of Italian cooking with the array of vegetables that are available there and here in the states too. Interspersed throughout are mouth-watering photographs that could be on a gallery wall. 

We spoke recently about the new book, our common background as news reporters, and many other things. At the end of the post is a recipe from the book that’s so simple to make yet so satisfying and delicious.
Q. How did you transition from being a reporter to writing cookbooks?
A. I had written about health, fitness and nutrition and occasional pieces for the food section of the Detroit News. I always loved food writing and always coveted the food writer’s job. After moving to D.C. (where her husband is deputy managing editor of the Washington Post) and writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I decided to work freelance from home when I had kids.  I decided to write about food. I used my newspaper contacts to pitch stories and that’s how I got into food writing. I went to the Food Writer’s Symposium at the Greenbrier and that’s where I met the cookbooks editor for my publisher, Chronicle books. I sent in a proposal for my first cookbook, The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.
Q. What’s your personal connection with Italy, and Abruzzo in particular?
A. Abruzzo is where my mother comes from. She was born and raised in Chieti. Since the time we were little, we
would go back to Italy for the summer. We had a beach house on the Adriatic coast. That’s where my affection for Abruzzo comes from – from spending many years there. I have wonderful memories, and friendships that I still have with people I used to hang out with at
the beach as a teenager.
Q. The book is not only about Abruzzese cooking, or vegetables that can be found only in Italy, is it?
A. No, you can’t assign a nationality to vegetables. I really mean vegetables in Italian
cooking. The book is also not just Abruzzese recipes. My cooking has always been more eclectic Italian,
rather than focused on one region. That’s probably because my mother
didn’t just cook Abruzzese food. I grew up eating a variety of regional Italian cooking and so
that’s what I learned to do. My books are a mishmash of family
recipes, regional recipes. They’re classic, they’re contemporary takes on
classic, they’re stuff I made up in my own kitchen – so they’re “Italianish.” I can’t say they cling to any one part of Italy or
they’re just traditional, or just family recipes. They’re a little
bit of everything.
Q. What made you choose vegetables as the topic for this cookbook?
A. In
2008, we took a trip to the Veneto during Easter week, and I just remember the market under the Rialto
bridge. I saw an incredible array of vegetables,
from fat winter squashes from the north of Italy to tomatoes that were already ripe from the South of Italy. There were all kinds of artichokes, and all the
different types of radicchio in the Veneto. It got me thinking.
Q. Do people have a misconception of Italian cooking?
A. I think we’ve come a long way in our
perception and understanding of Italian cooking, but I do feel that
people still have this “Olive Garden” view of Italian cooking – that it’s spaghetti and meatballs, it’s pasta, it’s pizza, it’s roasts,
breads, starchy, and heavy. I honestly think that nothing could be
further from the truth. When we were in Abruzzo in July, we stayed at
an agriturismo. We got there right after lunch, and the owner put out a snack
for us – cheese and charcuterie. Then she brought out a plate of
tender green beans that had been boiled, past al dente. They were
actually tender – because Italians aren’t afraid to overcook their
vegetables. That’s one of the things I love about Italian vegetables
is that they’re not all crunchy. They were tossed with olive oil and the tiniest hint of vinegar and they were so good. I’ll remember that
plate of beans forever. I think Italian diets are much more vegetable-centric than people perceive in this country.
Q. What vegetables did you exclude from the book that
you wished you could have included?
A. Cucumbers. The reason is I really
never associated them much with Italian cooking and Italian food. I
didn’t eat them growing up. My dad had a slight allergy to them. They
were never on our table. I don’t ever remember having them in Italy.
I do know a lot of Italian Americans grow them in their gardens.
After being in Puglia last summer, I realized this might be a
regional thing. Because in Puglia, they were everywhere. They had
these amazing cucumbers that looked like very small personal melons -pale, pale green, and you cut them open and they were the same color
as a honeydew melon. But they were cucumbers. They were slightly sweet but definitely in the cucumber
family. At that point, I was in the final stages of the manuscript
and I thought about trying to add cucumbers, just so I could talk
about this Pugliese cucumber, but then I thought that would have
unnecessarily complicated things. I have enough recipes to write
another vegetable book, because there are an infinite number of ways that
Italians use them – so many variations and riffs. I love just tossing
pasta with fresh vegetables. People always think that pasta has to be
sauced. The sauce is a condiment. There’s nothing better than tossing
fresh pasta with seasonal vegetables, a little olive oil and cheese.
Q. What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?
A. One of my favorite recipes – and it’s
so easy – is the baked delicata squash with cream and
parmigiano. This is one of the “Italianish” recipes. Delicata squash has a lovely golden flesh and it’s sweet, with a dense
texture. it’s just brushed with cream and parmigiano and baked in the oven. It’s so
simple and easy but makes a great side dish for any roast. I really love the vegetable lasagna and the eggplant meatballs. You just can’t imagine that they would be as good as real meatballs, but they are and a lot of people have been writing about them.
Q. I made your smashed potatoes and green beans with pancetta for dinner the other night. Tell me a little about your inspiration for the dish.
A. I ate it at La Loggia Antica – a little restaurant in Bisenti in the Teramo province. All of these little vegetable dishes were coming out of the kitchen. One of them was these green beans and potatoes. I never had it before. It’s very simple – you boil green beans and potatoes together, smash them and add some pancetta, olive oil and seasonings. I would never have thought to do that. That’s one of my favorite recipes in the book.

 

Q. Do you have a book tour set up?
A. I’ve sort of cobbled together a little
tour, mostly in September. They’re usually piecemeal because I still have kids in the house
and I can’t go away for long periods. I don’t like to anyway. I’m really a homebody. But I’m going to the West Coast – Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. I have a couple of cooking demos and classes and talks. I’ll
be going to St. Paul, Minnesota to do a cooking class and then some local
events in the D.C. area, near where I live. I’m also hitting Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  There’s a wonderful huge kitchenware store with a wonderful cooking
school, called “A Southern Season.” I love teaching there. I’m coming up to Dorothea’s House in Princeton in November, but I would love to do more Northeast stuff, so I’m working on that leg of it.
Q. What’s on the agenda for your next cookbook?
A. A book on biscotti, scheduled to be published in 2015.You can also follow Domenica on her blog, Domenica Cooks.

Smashed Green Beans and Potatoes With Pancetta
From “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy” by Domenica Marchetti
1 lb./455 g. medium size yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut in half crosswise
1 lb./455 g. fresh young green beans, ends trimmed
4 oz./115 g. pancetta, diced
1/3 cup/75 ml. good quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Put the potatoes and green beans in a large pot and fill with cold water to cover. Set the pot over high heat and salt generously. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to medium high to maintain a lively (but not violent) simmer. Boil the vegetables until they are very tender, about 25 minutes.
While the potatoes and green beans are cooking, place the pancetta in a medium skillet (I use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet) and set over medium heat. Sauté the pancetta, turning it frequently, for about 10 minutes, until it has rendered some of its fat and has just begun to crisp and turn brown. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
When the vegetables are tender, drain them in a colander. Return them to the pot and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes and green beans together as you drizzle. What you’re aiming for is a somewhat lumpy, textured mash — not need to purée completely.
With a spatula or wooden spoon, scrape the pancetta and drippings into the pot and stir to combine with the potato-bean mash. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the mixture into a serving bowl and drizzle with a little more olive oil if you like. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Sise Delle Monache

Sise Delle Monache

 To regular readers of this blog, sorry for the long gap between posts, but a nasty bout with bronchitis kept me down and out for a while after my return from Italy. I’m back now, hopefully on a more regular basis, starting with this dessert that I’ll bet very few of you have eaten, or even heard of unless you’re from Abruzzo, or more specifically, a small town in that region of Italy. They’re called “sise delle monache” and you’ll find them only in Guardiagrele.

They kind of resemble three perky breasts sitting upright on a plate. In fact, the name translates to “the nun’s breasts” because the word sise is slang for zizze, which is one way of saying “boobs” (although no one I know refers to them with that word).
 “Wait a minute,” you’re thinking. “What nun has three boobs?” Good question. I’ll get to that.
But first other stories about the pastry’s name, according to Mario Palmerio, of the eponymous pastry shop where they are made (as well as Lullo’s on the same street – Via Roma). The pastry was originally named “three mountains” for obvious reasons, if you’ve ever seen this mountainous region. But the name apparently got changed to “sise delle monache” after the Guardiagrele poet Modesto della Porta (who died in 1938) remarked upon seeing them, “Madonna, they’re so white, straight and pointy they seem like nun’s boobs.”
Another legend is that a nun, upon trying to hide her ample bosom to appear more spiritual, stuffed some fabric between her breasts so that they would appear less prominent when she wrapped herself with bandage, and in doing so, she created a “third” breast.
More likely is the third explanation, that the pastry was simply a creation of nuns and someone with a mischievous sense of humor added the sise part.
They’re really nothing more than sponge cake layered between pastry cream (occasionally a chocolate pastry cream) and dusted heavily with confectioner’s sugar. They’re made and consumed on the same day, since they get stale quite quickly. But I can tell you firsthand, that even waiting one day to eat them didn’t diminish the delightful taste of my breakfast in Guardiagrele one morning.
Since we’re already in Guardiagrele, let me show you around town. It’s also known for its craftsmanship of hand-wrought iron and copper. Shops selling it are all around town:
And if you’re looking for a pizzelle iron (called ferratelle here), this is the place to come.
The town has an inviting entry arch through which you can see some of the surrounding Maiella mountains:
Along one street is this salmon-colored building I couldn’t resist photographing, decorated with flowers:

 

The short tour ends with the emblem of medieval Guardiagrele, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose primitive foundation dates to the beginning of 1200, although its interior was completely rebuilt following an earthquake in the 18th century.

Sise Delle Monache
From a recipe on the website of the Abruzzo region. Click here to view the page

Printable Recipe here:

Ingredients for the dough:
12 eggs
300 grams (1 1/2 cups) of sugar,
100 gr (1/2 cup) of (sifted) potato starch
200 gr of (sifted) flour (2 cups minus 1 T)

After preparing your own recipe for pastry custard (or use the one below), start to make the dough of the dessert.

Beat the egg whites until stiff with 200 gr (1 cup) of sugar and then beat the
yolks with 100 gr (1/2 cup) of sugar. Mix the two mixtures very slowly and add the
sifted flour and the potato starch, until this mixture is soft. On a
baking tray form three little pyramids with the mixture. Put in the oven
for 10 – 15 minutes at 210° Celsius (410 degrees Fahrenheit). When everything is ready, wait until it
cools down, cut in the middle to fill with the custard and then cover
everything with custard… don’t forget to sprinkle with icing sugar!

Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
zest of one lemon (if you prefer not to use lemon, scrape the seeds from one vanilla bean into the milk or add 1/4 t. almond extract)
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour

Put the lemon zest and the milk into a large, heavy saucepan and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl or mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale yellow. Add the flour and whisk until well combined.
Remove the lemon zest from the saucepan and slowly add the hot milk into the egg mixture, a tiny bit at a time. If you add them too quickly, you’ll scramble the eggs. Then return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over low to medium heat, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens and starts to boil. If it gets lumpy, use a whisk, or even a hand-held stick blender to smooth it out.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, against the surface of the pastry cream, so it doesn’t develop a “skin.”Cool in refrigerator.

Arrosticini

Arrosticini

Aside from maccheroni alla chitarra, if there’s one dish that’s synonymous
with Abruzzo, it’s arrosticini, succulent skewers of lamb cooked over an open fire. Called rustelle or arrustelle in the local dialect, arrosticini are part of the foods that shepherds ate while they were leading their flocks along the transumanza – the seasonal migration of sheep from the high pastures to the lowlands closer to the sea. Perhaps that’s why the lamb is typically cut into small pieces. Shepherds didn’t have many resources available to them and smaller pieces of meat would be more tender and cook more quickly.
You can find arrosticini in many of the mountainous villages and towns throughout the region, especially near the Gran Sasso mountain.
I’ve eaten arrosticini in many places in Abruzzo and I’ve always wondered how the pieces are cut so uniformly.
 I found out a few days ago when I asked the owner of “Lu Gattone” in Manoppello, who showed me the implement used in creating the skewers. The lamb meat is first layered into a square metal contraption, alternating occasionally with layers of fat. All parts of the lamb are used, he said, from the shoulder to the leg. Leave the skinny sheep out to pasture, since they don’t contain enough marbling to ensure juiciness. Traditionally, castrated sheep were used, but that’s not always the case today.
After the meat is stuffed up to the brim of the container, wooden skewers are inserted. A knife is run down through the slots, slicing the meat into uniform skewers. The plastic lid is raised and slid away from the meat and what remains are 225 perfect skewers of lamb.
I haven’t taken a survey across Abruzzo, but each time I’ve asked the restaurant owner if he marinated the arrosticini first, the answer was always “no.” Just a little salt is added and that’s it. They’ve always been tender and succulent, but if you want to marinate them first to ensure success, the arrosticini police won’t come after you.
They’re cooked outdoors over hot coals, but at home you won’t have one of the square gizmos for cutting the meat, so improvise as needed. Use a knife to cut the lamb into small pieces by hand, and thread the pieces through wooden skewers that have first been soaked in water. A gas grill will work just as well as charcoal, but make sure the temperature is really good and hot, since they should take only a couple of minutes on each side. This narrow grill – called a “canale” because it resembles a gutter, allows the skewers to stay off the heat while the meat cooks, and is typical of what you see at large gatherings and restaurants. This photo was taken as our lunch was prepared one day at the “Let’s Blog Abruzzo” conference in Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
The traditional way to eat arrosticini is to just pick up a skewer and bite, as these two women are demonstrating. No forks or knives needed.
Just add a good glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo wine.
 Buon Appetito!

Arrosticini


Cut small pieces of lamb, from a piece of meat that has some marbling. Otherwise, thread the lamb alternately with pieces of fat, on skewers that have been soaked in water. Grill over a hot fire for a couple of minutes on each side. Season to taste with salt. Serve with bread drizzled with olive oil and a good glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo wine.

Some Enchanted Evening

Some Enchanted Evening

Wake me if you must, but it’s been nearly three days and I’m still dreaming about Saturday night’s dinner with “The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo,” prepared in my kitchen by Joe Cicala, chef at Philadelphia’s Le Virtù restaurant — the same restaurant named yesterday by Zagat one of the “hottest Italian restaurants in the U.S.” 

“How did this happen?” people have been asking. “Can I be one of the “Glorious Friends?”
Well, it all started when Francis Cratil Cretarola and Catherine Lee, owers of Le Virtù, and ardent promoters and supporters of this too-little known, mountainous region of Italy, held a fund-raiser for a project there — maintenance of the tratturi, the centuries-old trails used by shepherds to transport herds during the seasonal migration.
My friend Helen Free, co-founder of “Italy, In Other Words,” the workshop in Abruzzo that I now co-teach with Kathryn Abajian, suggested we get a group of friends together and place a bid. So we did. And we won!
l. to r. Chef Joe Cicala, Ciao Chow Linda, Francis Cratil, Cathy Lee, Doug and Helen Free
 Fifteen of us were seated around my dining room table, including our special guest — Domenica Marchetti, author of many cookbooks, including “The Glorious Pasta of Italy.” Domenica’s mother hails from Abruzzo and travels there frequently for research and to visit family and friends.
The meal exceeded our expectations, beginning with the stuzzichini, or appetizers that were served before we were seated. Stay with me because this was a meal with many courses, and there’s a recipe at the end for you too. Let’s start with crostini topped with sheep’s milk ricotta that was blended with saffron (Navelli is the town in Abruzzo noted for its production of the much prized pungent spice). Sprinkle with toasted almonds, drizzle with honey and you’ve got something you can’t stop eating.
Have some potato croquettes too, oozing with cheese and tantalizingly hot.
What about arancini, crackly and crispy on the outside, giving way to soft and luscious nuggets of rice, small peas and cheese on the inside?  I got carried away with munching and forgot to take a photo, so the one below is courtesy of Stacey Snacks, a fellow blogger, friend and guest at Saturday’s dinner.
Do you know about arrosticcini, one of Abruzzo’s iconic dishes? They’re kebobs of uniformly cubed lamb grilled over an open fire. Traditionally, the meat is not marinated in Abruzzo, where the quality of the lamb is far different from what’s available here. To compensate, chef Joe marinates his arrosticcini in olive oil, minced rosemary, peperoncino, garlic and lemon zest.
I could have eaten a dozen, but I knew these were just the opening act so I restrained myself – barely.
We took our seats at the table, as Joe brought forth wooden boards laden with affettati, house-cured salumi made at Le Virtù – pancetta, guanciale, salame nostrano (a simple pork salame), capocollo,
cacciatorini (small pork salame), lamb salame, sweet and sour carrots
and onions and roasted peppers. I felt like I had been transported back to Italy, where many meals start with plates of similar cured meats.
Next came a soup so delicious it could warm the body and soul of any shepherd tending his flock in mid-winter. I’m not the only one at the table who was wishing for the recipe, and Joe graciously gave it to me. Its monochromatic color may not win any beauty contests, but let me assure you it could take first prize for flavor with its arresting combination of chickpeas, chestnuts and farro.
Before I go any further, let me mention that Joe stepped aside from the stove long enough to describe each course as it was served. Meanwhile Francis, seen in the photo below toasting Domenica (seated next to him), talked about the different wines — all from Abruzzo — as they were being poured.
Are you ready for the primi piatti? That’s primi not primo, and piatti not piatto, because there were two of them. The first was a dish of gnocchi made not with the predictable potato, but with flour and water only, dressed in a creamy sauce of sheep’s milk ricotta from Abruzzo and sautéed bits of lamb sausage. A dusting of pecorino topped the dish.
Nothing says Abruzzo like maccheroni alla chitarra, a pasta made with a wooden, multi-stringed traditional implement called a chitarra. The pasta was tossed with a lamb ragù. If you weren’t an aficionado of lamb, an animal that’s been crucial to Abruzzo’s economy since the Middle Ages, you might have struggled with Saturday night’s lamb-centric menu. But as each plate was cleared from the table, I detected no lingering bits of food from unhappy diners. Had I been eating in private, I would have licked the plate clean — or at least sopped up any remaining sauce with bread, “scarpetta” style.
How could you not when the food was so delicious? The main course followed the night’s theme — juniper smoked lamb loin, served with roasted potatoes and broccoli rape. It was succulent and tender enough to cut with a butter knife or even a sturdy fork — and cooked to the perfect temperature.
Like any respectable Italian meal, there has to be a cheese course, and this was no exception. This was, in fact, a tour de force with cheeses imported from Abruzzo by Bob Marcelli, who was also a dinner guest and who explained each cheese and its characteristics. He should know what he’s talking about since he owns Marcelli Formaggi, importers of products from Abruzzo including cheeses made on his family’s farm. They were served with a selection of artisanal honeys from the region.

At this point you might be wondering if dessert was served and whether any one had room for it. The answer is yes, and yes. As with many special occasion meals in Italy, there is no rush to the process and the portions are not super sized as they are in the U.S. We started the evening around 7:30 and were still seated at close to midnight. So there was no need to move my belt by even one notch when dessert was served — a creamy semifreddo made with fragrant star anise and pine nuts, served with pears poached in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and drizzled with mosto cotto.

But wait, there was still more to come — a platter filled with Italian cookies – biscotti, ferratelle (Abruzzo’s version of pizzelle), jam-filled cookies and struffoli — all made in-house at Le Virtù. P.S. Joe’s wife Angela is the pastry chef there.
As much as I didn’t want the night to end, all good things, as they say must …… what? they must? No they mustn’t, dang it. Not if you live anywhere near Philadelphia they don’t. You can get yourself to Le Virtù and experience these delights for yourself at the restaurant at 1927 E. Passyunk Ave. Want an even more authentic experience? Francis and Cathy are taking a small group to Abruzzo in April on a culinary tour. I can’t imagine a better way to visit the region, unless you have relatives there. And if you’ve been thinking about writing a personal memoir, a food or travel memoir, join me and Kathryn in June for a week in the magical Abruzzo village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio for the Italy In Other Words workshop.
OK, I hear you. You don’t live near Philly and you can’t get to Italy this year. So here’s something for you too — Joe’s recipe for that unforgettable soup is below so you can cook up a bit of Abruzzo right in your own kitchen.
It may not be as complete as Saturday’s dinner with “The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo” but it sure beats frozen pizza or Chef Boyardee.
Thank you Joe, Francis and Cathy for a night I’ll be remembering for years to come and thank you “Amici Gloriosi d’Abruzzo” for your participation.
****************************************

La zuppa di farro, ceci e castagne
Farro, chickpea and chestnut soup
From Chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù
printable recipe here

1/2 cup mirepoix (minced celery, carrots and onions)
1 tablespoon diced pancetta (or any other salame scrap)
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz peeled chestnuts
6 oz chickpeas (that have been soaked over night)
4 oz farro
1 gallon chicken stock (we also use rabbit stock)(I used about 6 cups when I made this – one gallon seemed like too much).
1 tablespoon minced rosemary

Sweat the mirepoix, pancetta, olive oil and chestnuts until the nuts are soft/tender, add chickpeas and chicken stock.
cook until the chickpeas are almost tender.
add farro and rosemary
cook until tender.
serve with pecorino cheese and drizzled olive oil

Stuffed Mussels And Gratineed Scallops

Stuffed Mussels and Gratineed Scallops

So far you’ve heard about the rugged, mountainous part of Abruzzo where I spent part of my vacation. But I also headed further East toward the Adriatic Sea to spend time with my husband’s relatives, including some who live in Vasto Marina, a seaside resort town. One of the unique features of this part of the coastline are the wooden trabocchi you see along the shore. In some cases, these fishing contraptions are 200 years old, but they are constantly being tweaked to repair and replace the timbers  used to construct them – wood that is often taken from the robinia pseudoacacia trees that grow nearby, commonly known as black locust or false acacia.  Fishing nets are secured to long wooden arms and dropped into the sea to hopefully land a good catch.
 At one time, fishing from the trabocchi was the main source of income for many families. Now however, due to overfishing in deeper waters, the huts are used mainly on weekends by families who maintain them as a hobby.
There was no problem finding fish for dinner though, starting with this arrangement I ate as a first course. I can’t even remember everything that was on the plate, but it included an octopus salad, a seafood terrine, anchovies and raw salmon.
Next on tap were some gratineed scallops.
And stuffed mussels.
Couldn’t forget the fried shrimp and squid.
Followed by the piece de resistance – a San Pietro fish. I’m still not sure whether a San Pietro fish is a John Dory or a tilapia, so if someone with more knowledge knows, leave a comment at the end of this post. Whatever it is, it was delicious.
I’d like to thank Antonella, the wife of my husband’s cousin Ottavio, who treated us to this wonderful seafood dinner. Sadly, Ottavio was out of town, but we were also joined by their three young sons, Francesco, Riccardo and Luca – as well as my son Michael, who met up with me for the middle part of my trip.
Back home in Princeton, I tried to recreate two of the dishes – the mussels and the scallops. They may not have tasted exactly the same, but they’re pretty darn close and delicious in their own right – even if there aren’t any trabocchi in Princeton and the only water in sight is the bird bath in the back yard.

 

 

 

Loosen the mussel from the shell and place a small dab of tomato sauce on one side, then top it with the mussel.

 

Place a small bit of the filling on top.

 

 

 

 



Stuffed Mussels

Printable Recipe Here

For two dozen mussels:
3/4 cup bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 egg
minced oregano
minced parsley
salt, pepper

white wine
tomato sauce

Place all the ingredients, except the tomato sauce, in a bowl and mix with a fork until blended. It should not be dry but it shouldn’t be soppy wet either.

Bring wine to a boil in a shallow saucepan and place mussels in and cover. Cook only one or two minutes, or until the mussels are open. Remove mussels from the pan and let cool.

Once cool enough to handle, loosen the mussel from the shell. Place a spoonful of tomato sauce on one side of the shell, place the mussel on the sauce, then top with a spoonful of the filling and another dab of tomato sauce. Cover with the other side of the shell, place in an oiled casserole and bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Scallops Gratinee

Use the same filling ingredients as for the mussels, (it should give you enough topping for two small casseroles or scallop shells) but add 2 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese. Omit the egg if desired. Lightly butter scallop shells or an oven-proof dish and place a couple of scallops inside. Top with the crumbs, then sprinkle on a bit of paprika and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Bake at 425 for about 10 to 15 minutes or until browned.

Italy, In Other Words

Italy, In Other Words

I don’t normally start my day eating tarts filled with freshly made ricotta cheese and topped with amaretti cookies. My weekday breakfast also doesn’t typically include a crostata made with fruit jams, marble cake, apple cake or any other number of sweet treats either.
Ditto for prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese and practically still warm-from-the-cow giuncata cheese.
I’m usually not lucky enough to have Emanuele asking me every morning if I’d like to have a freshly made frittata either.
But for one week in June I was. These were all part of the daily breakfasts served in a cavernous room called the “cantinone” (big cellar) that could have doubled as a backdrop for a movie set in the Middle Ages.
It’s also where I popped in occasionally before dinner for a glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and some munchies.
I wasn’t alone during the week. I was one of a group of five writers from California, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico taking part in a workshop in Santo Stefano di Sessanio called “Italy In Other Words.”  The group was led by Kathryn Abajian and Helen Free, two gifted teachers who helped us find our writing voice and discover the treasures and traditions of Abruzzo.
Kathryn conducted the writing classes each day, focusing on first person writing. Although I had worked as a journalist for decades, and write a food blog now, memoir writing is an entirely different genre and I had a lot to learn. Kathryn gave me the tools and the kick start I needed to get me moving in the right direction, in a teaching style that was both firm and generous at the same time. Sadly, she lives on the opposite coast from me. Otherwise, I’d be signing up for any classes she teaches. Listening to the other women’s own stories and receiving their feedback was an invaluable part of the week as well.
Top row, Julie and Lori and Cynthia. Seated, Linda, Kathryn and Diane

Helen instructed the group on Abruzzese traditions that link us with our past, regardless of nationality.
We read the words of Italian writers such as Ignazio Silone, who wrote about the long-ago struggles of peasants in Abruzzo, struggles that are still relevant around the world today. We walked in the footsteps of shepherds who led their flocks in a twice-yearly migration over hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous paths in search of warmer climes, a custom known as “transumanza.”

Near the Gran Sasso mountains we ran for shelter as the rain fell, while the cow nearby didn’t budge:

We returned on a sunnier day to climb higher on the path through the town of Calascio.
Lori, Diane, Juli, Linda, Helen and Cynthia
Until we reached the ruins of a fortress built in the 10th century, once owned by the Medici family.
Nearby in isolation overlooking the mountains stands an octagonal church erected between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a site where legend has it, locals fought and won a skirmish with brigands.
Santa Maria della Pieta

 

We also had time to think, in a place with few tourists, and no television or telephones in our rooms. We had time to roam the village and reflect on its quiet beauty and on our purpose for being there.
Time to explore the mysterious narrow streets and pathways.

Time to wonder who lived in houses like these:

 

And wonder how long ago someone rode this old motorcycle.
Even time to let Federica, who lives in the village, have a go at painting with my travel watercolor set.

We had time to walk below the town where poppies bloomed beside a church boarded up since the 2009 earthquake:

Where fields of yellow mustard greens swayed in the wind beside stalks of wheat and more poppies.
Where road signs indicated the distance it took to ride between towns on horseback:

We had time to transfix our gaze on the broad, open views to other hill towns in the distance.

Naturally, we had time to eat too – from restaurants where the atmosphere was funky-
and the food traditional like these gnocchi:
To restaurants that were more formal –
And that served modern interpretations of food, like these veal cheeks and potatoes with citrus flavors:
“Italy, In Other Words,” gave us time to slow down, to appreciate all the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes around us, and to write about what was important to us. Thank you to Helen and Kathryn, and to all the friendly townspeople of Santo Stefano and to the employees of Sextantio, the hotel where we lodged, including Gabriella, who offered me the recipe for the luscious torta shown at the top of this post.
Gabriella
Arrivederci Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Alla prossima!

Gabriella’s Torta Di Crema e Ricotta 


Printable Recipe Here

This recipe was enough for a very large pan – probably 10 to 12 inches in diameter.

for the dough:
2 1/4 cups flour
2 sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. baking powder

For the filling:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
grated peel from one lemon
1/2  cup to 1 cup ricotta, depending on taste
amaretti cookies crumbled on top – about 1 cup or so

Blend the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the softened butter by hand or put everything in a food processor until it forms a ball. Roll out and place into a buttered 10 to 12-inch baking dish or tart pan.

For the filling:
Bring the milk to a boil with the lemon peel. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs, sugar and flour. Slowly add the mixture to the hot milk, stirring together for two or three minutes until it is thick and amalgamated. Let it cool slightly, then add the ricotta, using as little or as much as you like. Crumble the amaretti cookies on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes

In Italiano:
per la pasta base ingredienti:

325 grammi farina
175 grammi burro
100 grammi zucchero
una bustina lievito

Procedimento: Impastare il tutto e intanto preparare il ripieno:

per il ripieno:
4 tuorli
150 grammi zucchero
75 grammi farina
buccia di limone
500 ml latte
100-150 grammi ricotta

Procedimento: Far bollire il latte con il limone e intanto sbattere le uova, lo zucchero e la farina.
Stendere la pasta e metterci la crema e la ricotta. Sbriciolarci gli amaretti sopra. Cuocere a 180 gradi per 25 minuti.

 

Earthquake In Abruzzo

Earthquake in Abruzzo

By now, you’ve all read or heard the news about the devastating earthquake in Abruzzo, the mountainous region in Central Italy. At last count, more than 200 people are reported as dead, and thousands more are homeless. Though the epicenter is the city of L’Aquila, many smaller villages are also affected. The small village of Onna, with only about 400 inhabitants, was flattened. Strong aftershocks are still being felt throughout the region, and as far away as Rome.

The Fontana Luminosa at the entrance to L’Aquila

Heartbreaking stories abound – entire families being lost under the rubble; people being evacuated from hospitals, including the very sick and mothers with their newly born babies; tent cities being erected; precious art works destroyed.

The massive fortress built in the 1500s, and overlooking the Maiella mountains, and which now houses a museum with many precious treasures. It was badly damaged in the earthquake.

My husband’s family lives in Abruzzo, but fortunately far enough from L’Aquila that they were not injured. Some of his cousins responded immediately and rushed to L’Aquila to help in the rescue effort. Another friend of ours (and perhaps very distant relative) was scheduled to be in his L’Aquila apartment on the night of the earthquake, but had to postpone his trip at the last minute due to a business conflict. Talk about fate!

In case you’ve never been there, or heard about the city until now, I’m posting a few photos of the once beautiful city of L’Aquila from my trip there last fall.

The main piazza in L’Aquila – piazza duomo – with the church of Anime Sante on the left. The cupola on top is barely visible in this picture from last year, but now it has collapsed. The main cathedral, on the right, was not damaged.

The bell tower (not visible in this photo) toppled on the basilica of San Bernardino, built during the Renaissance and housing the tomb of Saint Bernard and many art treasures.interior of San Bernardo

If you want to help out with a donation, there are reputable places to send money. One of them is NIAF, the National Italian American Foundation, who set up a relief fund for this; and the other of course, is the Red Cross. The Italian Red Cross has a site for accepting donations here. If you want to contribute through the American Red Cross, click here. A lot of needy people will be grateful.