Before I start, I know that some of you reading are turning up your nose at the idea of eating rabbit, even if you’ve never even tried it. You may be vegetarian, and if so, you get a pass.
But for those of you who think nothing of scarfing down a prosciutto sandwich or a porterhouse steak, eating rabbit is no different from eating other animals that are killed for your dining pleasure. In fact, it’s much more eco-friendly since it requires less energy to raise, and produces less waste.
Aside from the ecological benefits, rabbit contains the least amount of fat and calories than other meats, is almost cholesterol free and tastes great. Contrary to what a lot of people think, there’s quite a lot of meat on a rabbit in relationship to bone, and it does not have a “gamey” flavor. Much of it is like eating white meat chicken, only tastier.
So step outside your comfort zone and try cooking rabbit, using this recipe loosely adapted from the book “Blue Plate Special” by Kate Christensen. It was my book group’s selection for January, and we always accompany our discussions with a dinner using food that’s mentioned in the book.
Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find fresh rabbit. I live not far from an Amish market that stocks it regularly. But so does my supermarket. Last week I called ahead to order two of them since I was planning to make it for the book group dinner and didn’t want to risk their not having any in the meat case the day I needed it.
Here’s what it looks like before it’s cut into pieces. You can ask the butcher to do that for you — a task I recommend since it’s hard cutting through the bones. See that bit of liver hanging out? Don’t throw it away. I’ll come back to it at the end.
I ordered two rabbits and used two pans to cook them. One rabbit will feed about four people, assuming you have side dishes and a starch.
This is one of the pots I used and it holds one rabbit beautifully. The pot is probably at least 65 years old and belonged to my mother. It’s perfect for braises, stews and even for baking upside down cakes. Browning the rabbit at high heat means your pan will look pretty messy, but this, and my other pot below, clean up spic and span.
Simultaneously, I cooked another rabbit in this enamel coated cast iron pan – very heavy but it cooks very evenly.
With all the other food that was prepared by other book group members to accompany the rabbit, there were plenty of leftovers for me to take home, and reheat for dinner another night with freshly made polenta and herbs. This recipe would also be delicious served with buttered noodles of some sort, as suggested by the book.
Lentils and rabbit are also a match made in heaven and I made this dish of roasted rabbit, lentils and chestnuts a couple of months ago, trying to duplicate a delicious meal I ate last fall at a restaurant tucked away in the hills of Liguria, Italy. If you’re interested in this rabbit recipe, send me an email and I’ll be happy to send it to you. The lentils recipe is from Joe Cicala, chef at Le Virtù and Brigantessa in Philadelphia, and I posted it a few years ago (along with his rabbit recipe) here.
And remember that rabbit liver I told you to save at the top of this post?
Joe also gave me a great idea of what to do with it.
Chop it up with some shallots and sauté it in some butter, he said, then season with some fresh thyme, salt and pepper. Serve it on toasted bread and drizzle it with a balsamic glaze and you’ve got perfect crostini to drink with your pre-dinner glass of wine.
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1 rabbit (about 2.5 to 3 lbs.)
4 slices of thickly sliced pancetta (about 1/8″ thick), cut into bits
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup beef broth
1/2 cup wine
1/2 cup water
thyme, rosemary, bay leaf
fresh parsley, minced
Chop the rabbit into pieces. Fry the pancetta in 1 T. of the olive oil until crisp and remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Set aside and resist the temptation to munch on them (ok, have a few bits).
Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until translucent. Remove from the pan. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, sauté the rabbit in the oil on high heat, until the pieces turn golden brown. Sprinkle with the flour and sauté for a few more minutes, turning. The pan will look a mess, but don’t worry. All that brown stuff on the bottom with help flavor the sauce and loosens once you add the liquid. Remove the rabbit from the pan and set aside. Add the beef broth and the wine in the pan, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom. Put the onions and rabbit back into the pan, add the herbs and some of the water. Simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour, adding more water if the sauce gets too thick. Just before serving, sprinkle with the reserved pancetta bits and minced parsley.
It’s been open only a month and they’re packing them in every night. The widely anticipated opening last month of Brigantessa, on Philly’s East Passyunk Ave., – a hot-spot in the city’s restaurant scene – lives up to every bit of expectations. And why wouldn’t it, when you’ve got a talented, three-time James Beard nominated chef (Joe Cicala) and visionary owners of the hugely successful Le Virtù (Francis Cratil Cretarola and Cathy Lee) backing it. What Le Virtù does exceedingly well for Abruzzese cuisine, Brigantessa does for Southern Italian cuisine in general.
It calls itself a “forneria meridionale,” meaning a place that features Southern Italian wood oven cooking. Living up to its name, the back of the house is dominated by a monster wood-fired oven imported from Naples used for cranking out delicious pizza. Joe spent time there to learn Neapolitan pizza making techniques and earn his “pizza verace” certificate. His attention to detail has paid off. But Brigantessa is more than just another pizza joint.
Brigantessa – whose name comes from the female brigands who fought against Northern Italian domination in the late 1800s – features a very reasonably priced menu with inventive selections not typically found at Italian restaurants in the U.S. When was the last time you ate smoky-infused broccoli romanesco served over a bed of polenta or wood-grilled beans and octopus? Exactly.
The second, wood-fired oven in the back of the house, (this time square-shaped) is used to impart a charred, smoky flavor to many of the restaurant’s offerings. And in a word, they’re all fabulous.
The space has been totally renovated and looks fresh and modern, yet welcoming and homey at the same time. The front of the house features a bar and high top tables, ideal when you just want to pop in for a drink and some spuntini. There’s a huge selection of Italian and local craft beers and a wide variety of Italian wines to accompany the food.
Upstairs is a large dining room, with beautifully gripping photographs of Southern Italian subjects lining the walls, taken by Le Virtù employee Kateri Likoudis.
Earlier this week, I was privileged to eat at Brigantessa with Domenica Marchetti and Helen Free, good friends who came up from the D.C. area, and were as eager as I to try the new restaurant’s offerings.
Here’s a sampling of some of the dishes we ate, but the menu is far more expansive and so were the plates on our table. Unfortunately, some of my photos were just too blurry to include here.
These tangy “long hots” stuffed with house-made sausage and sprinkled with cheese were a delicious and different take on the ubiquitous peppers and sausage.
Braised artichoke hearts served with bread crumbs and crispy fried capers never tasted so good.
Don’t miss the sarde “in saor” with fennel and onions – sardines in a sweet and sour treatment.
Of course we had to sample the pizza and the one we ordered was just what you’d expect of the best Neapolitan pizza – a soft, pliable crust charred a bit on the outside and chewy around the edges. Add house-made fior di latte mozzarella, fragrant prosciutto and bits of arugula and you’ve got a concoction that you can’t stop eating.
The pastas we sampled were equally tempting, including these cappellaci dei briganti, served with a rich meat ragu and pecorino cheese.
Sorry for the poor photo, but this pasta was not just delicious, it was sensational. It’s pappardelle made from black chick pea flour and served with a sauce from whey-braised lamb (After making the mozzarella, Joe puts the whey to good use) and sprinkled with fennel pollen. Forget any preconceptions linking Italian food to only red sauce. If ever you could taste Southern Italy in one perfect mouthful, it was this dish, redolent of rosemary and the flavors of Abruzzo.
The pièce di resistance (or should I say “pezzo di resistenza”) was this dreamy dish of ricotta gnudi, showered with a shaving of white truffles. The ethereal pillows just melted in your mouth and made you wish that truffle season was 12 months a year. But the beauty of eating here is what’s so great about eating at the best trattorie in Italy – you taste what’s in season, at the height of its freshness.
Full as we were, we couldn’t leave without sampling some desserts. I would say this was overload, but then again, how could you not be tempted by these sweets prepared by pastry chef Angela Ranalli (Joe’s wife). From right to left you’re looking at crunchy Moorish-style Cannoli with a fragrant filling made with ricotta, and flavored with rosewater, pistachio, and orange blossom water; tortino al rhum – an Italian rum cake in a terrine; an assortment of Italian cookies and candies, including a crunchy Sardinian almond candy, and candied rose petals; and last but not least, house made gelato covered in white truffles (you heard me right!).
We left there totally sated but looking forward to our next visit.
In the meantime, I can make one of Joe’s pasta dishes at home to remind me of the wonderful evening spent at Brigantessa. For those of you who live far from Philadelphia and can’t get to the restaurant, try this recipe at home. It might be a little tough getting the whey, but don’t let that stop you from using milk to marinate the lamb. Black chick pea flour is nearly impossible to find in the U.S., but Bob’s Red Mill makes regular chick pea flour that you could substitute.
Black Chick Pea Pappardelle, Whey-Braised Lamb, fennel pollen Recipe from Joe Cicala at Brigantessa printable recipe here Pasta Ingredients:
3/4 cup black of chickpea/garbanzo flour
1 cup of “00” flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
3 extra large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil Directions:
the “well” method, place the flours on a work surface, and create a
volcano in the center. Add the eggs and oil, and mix with a fork, slowly
incorporating the flour.
Once the mixture is somewhat
homogenous, kneed for five minutes by hand until the dough becomes firm
and smooth. Let rest for one hour covered in the refrigerator. Using a
pasta machine, roll out the dough from the largest setting to the second
to smallest. Cut the dough into 1-inch strips approximately 6-inches
long. Cook in salted boiling water for three minutes or until tender.
Add the cooked pasta to a pan with the ragu and toss. Serve with
pecorino cheese, and dust with fennel pollen. Ragu Ingredients:
1⁄4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
1⁄2 Medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1⁄2 Medium carrot, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 pounds of lamb shoulder cubed
1 cup of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of rosemary
1/2 gallon of whey or 1 percent milk Directions:
a large pot, sweat the vegetables in the olive oil and butter over
medium heat until translucent. Add the lamb cubes, and turn the heat up
to medium-high in order to slightly brown the meat. Deglaze the pan with
white wine and add the herbs. Reduce the wine until nearly dry, and add
the whey. Simmer for one hour or until the lamb is tender enough to
shred with a wooden spoon. ■
Yes, it tasted as good as it looks. Both the burrata and the tomatoes. Forget the plastic plate. It’s the cheese here that matters. I had been yearning to find some burrata from the moment we arrived in Puglia last month. I had eaten it in that Southern Italian region for the first time years ago, and Puglia’s reputation for producing the best burrata is definitely warranted. Burrata, made with mozzarella on the outside, and cream on the inside, has a buttery, rich flavor. Not surprisingly, the word burrata means buttered in Italian. It’s become easier to find here in the states, but to savor it where it’s made, still warm and oozing with creamy goodness, surrounded by the sounds, sights and smells of Italy, is an unforgettable taste sensation. So when we found ourselves in the white-washed town of Ostuni last month, I had burrata on my mind.
Up and down the streets we roamed, in search of burrata, before finding some at a little hole-in-the -wall that even boasted a trip-advisor sign. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but I was too busy scarfing down the lovely silken cheese to note its name.
The region of Puglia is largely unknown to most American tourists, who stick to the major cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. They’re all wonderful places too, but there’s a whole lot of beauty awaiting farther afield. For instance, Puglia boasts a unique UNESCO World Heritage site in a town called Alberobello, known for its conical shaped houses called “trulli.” We stayed in this one (below) at the end of the row and it was completely enchanting. The town is definitely not undiscovered. There are tourists everywhere, but the majority aren’t Americans.
Puglia also has miles of coastline with both sandy and rocky beaches to choose from. This beautiful beach was outside our hotel near Gallipoli and provided the perfect place to decompress for a few days.
But back to the cheese. On this latest trip, I ate more burrata and mozzarella than my waistline was happy about. But my feeling is when in Italy, throw caution to the wind and repent at home. So I forged ahead and ordered the mozzarella whenever I could. If I get grilled veggies with it, doesn’t that balance the calories from the cheese? Don’t answer that. I don’t wanna know.
The best mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo, folks, not the “home on the range” type) is produced in areas from Rome, in the region of Lazio — to Paestum (near Salerno), in the region of Campania. Paestum is also known for its three Greek temples, in a remarkably good state of preservation, considering they date back to 200 B.C. All along the roadway into the town, you’ll see signs saying “latticini,” the name for a place that makes dairy products, including mozzarella. You won’t get it much fresher, so go inside and buy some. It’s best eaten within hours after it’s made. But if you’re in Paestum, visit the temples first. They are astonishing.
You can can get good mozzarella in Rome too. We found some great mozzarella at Obicà, a “mozzarella bar” in the Campo dei Fiori. They’ve got two locations in Rome, plus a handful of other locations around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dubai and London. This was what I ate for lunch at Campo dei Fiori location and the mozzarella and everything else were perfect. (See, I got the grilled veggies again. Shouldn’t I be losing weight by now?)
Their salumi, burrata and flatbread are really worth seeking out too.
There’s been an Obicà mozzarella bar in New York City for a while now, in a building atrium on Madison Ave., but it has a very limited menu. Last week, a new Obicà opened in the Flatiron district (They recently changed the spelling from Obikà because some people thought it was a Japanese firm.) It’s got a sexy, sleek look to it and the menu is much larger than the uptown eatery. On our way to dinner at another place downtown, we stopped in to see how the mozzarella stacked up against the version we had at Obicà’s Rome location. They import it twice a week from Italy, but it’s not the same as eating it within hours of being made.
The verdict is that it wasn’t exactly as transcendent as what we ate in the Campo dei Fiori, but it was delicious nonetheless. And the bellinis and aperol spritz were great too. I’d go back in a heartbeat to sample the fuller menu next time.
At home with our unbeatable Jersey tomatoes, I’d say mozzarella eaten with these heirloom beauties picked from my backyard garden also has to be one of my favorite lunches.
Mozzarella is commonly used in so many cooked foods too, but for some reason, I am reluctant to cook burrata, since it’s so ludicrously delectable in its raw state. But once I tried this burrata in guazzetto at Le Virtù in Philadelphia, I changed my mind. Spread this luscious melted burrata on toasted bread, and you’re on another planet.
So I tried to duplicate it at home – easy as can be. It’s hardly worth printing out a recipe, but I’m giving you one just in case. Cut some burrata and place it in an ovenproof bowl, along with some roasted cherry tomatoes, olives and some seasonings. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes and ecco — a drool-worthy appetizer to serve with that prosecco.
1 ball of burrata cheese
olives (green or black)
roasted cherry tomatoes (or regular tomatoes)
Take one ball of burrata and cut into pieces in an ovenproof dish (right in the dish so you don’t lose any of that milk). Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over it, then add the tomatoes, a handful of olives and some dried basil (or fresh if it’s summer.) Place in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until everything is melted.
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
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
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.
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
First let me banish any misconception that pesto refers only to the concoction using fresh basil as the major ingredient. The word pesto simply means anything that’s pounded, so you could have pesto made using artichokes as the base, or olives, or even celery for example. For this post, it’s all about the basil though, and the classic pesto alla genovese, from the region of Liguria. It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the traditional pesto alla genovese is frequently served using trenette or linguini, and includes potatoes and green beans, cooked in the same water as the pasta. Alternatively, another authentic shape of pasta used in Liguria, is the little twisted squiggles called “trofie” – more on those below.
My friends from Liguria tell me that the smaller leaf basil provides a much more flavorful pesto, but I never actually put it to the test – until now that is. My friend Dorothy, whom I’ve written about before here and here, is responsible for creating a vegetable garden at a local elementary school in Princeton. This year, she received a generous gift of 45 basil plants from Cross Country Nurseries in Rosemont, N.J.
Among the plants are several varieties of small leafed basil, including the ones below that I harvested to make the pesto in the first photo.
Here’s a photo of part of the garden, including some of the various basil plants. I never knew there were so many varieties of basil. Cross Country Nurseries carries 94 different varieties — from lemon basil, lime basil, cinnamon basil, anise basil and many others — all with different aromas and tastes.
This is just one of the purple leafed varieties.
This one’s serrata basil.
I think this was an anise flavored basil.
This is a lettuce-leaf basil, and Dorothy says it’s great for using as a wrap instead of bread. I can’t wait to experiment more with some of these varieties – in salads, in main dishes, even in desserts. But for now, it’s back to the small-leafed variety for the pesto.
The classic pesto alla genovese uses pine nuts, but I couldn’t find any European pine nuts locally (next time I’m in Philly I know I can get them in the Italian neighborhood on Ninth Street). I’m not eating Chinese pine nuts, since so many people have reported pine nut syndrome as a result. As a substitute, I used pistachios, something I’ve been wanting to do since I ate a fabulous pistachio pesto at Le Virtu in Philly. Make sure you use good quality extra virgin olive oil too. This one was from Casale Sonnino, a villa and farm owned by friends of mine in Italy. It’s simply the best, and you can be guaranteed that it’s unadulterated oil from olives on their property outside Rome that they take to the mill themselves. They take orders, and also rent out their villa to vacationers, so check out their website here.
I figured since I had the tiny leaf basil, why not try to make pesto the way it’s been made for centuries in Italy — using a mortar and pestle. Decades ago, my brother-in-law gave me an antique mortar and pestle that was actually used at one time as a pharmacist’s tool, and maybe I should have just kept it on the shelf. After years of use, it cracked last year while I was pounding something in it – I don’t remember what. I do use a mortar and pestle occasionally for crushing rosemary into paste and sometimes to break up hard seeds like coriander or black pepper corns. So this year, I replaced the old antique apothecary’s mortar with another marble one – from Williams Sonoma.
It really takes a lot of elbow grease to pound those little leaves, garlic, salt and oil into a paste. Enlist the help of someone if you can and take turns (or surrender to the food processor).
When it’s sufficiently pounded (or sooner if you can’t go any further), boil the potatoes and add the green beans and the pasta in the same water after the potatoes are about 10 minutes from being done.
Drain everything and mix with the pesto and a healthy handful of parmesan or pecorino cheese. I can say that the small basil leaf was very flavorful and pungent, and along with the pistachios, I didn’t miss the pine nuts at all. But one thing that always bothers me is how quickly the pesto goes from bright green to a drab olive green.
So I set off to do an experiment of blanching the basil leaves before making the pesto. This time I made the pesto using my first harvest of the season from my garden – of the regular large-leafed variety.
My neighbor’s daughter Janie was my sous chef, helping me pluck the leaves from the stems.
We blanched the leaves in boiling water (count to 10 and then remove the leaves).
Immerse them immediately in an ice water bath.
Squeeze the water out of the leaves.
And this time I used the food processor, not the mortar and pestle. The color was a vibrant green.
Check out the difference in the colors of the basil – on the left is one made with non-blanched leaves and on the right one made with blanched leaves.
Insung and her daughter Janie were impatient to taste the finished product, but bloggers have to get those pictures first! This version was made using toasted almonds instead of pine nuts, and trofie pasta.
Normally, when the pesto hits the hot pasta, the color darkens to a drab green, but blanching helped it keep its bright color for quite a while.
Now that basil is flourishing in gardens everywhere, make sure you make enough pesto to put away for the winter. It freezes beautifully, provided you omit the cheese until you’re ready to serve.
The amounts aren’t exact. A lot depends on how firmly you pack the basil into the measuring cup, how large the garlic cloves are, and of course, your taste buds.
4 cups basil, loosely packed
2 large cloves garlic
1/4 cup Italian pine nuts, toasted, or pistachios (salted or unsalted), or toasted almonds or walnuts
extra virgin olive oil – as much as two cups, as needed to obtain a loose pesto.
1/4 cup – 1/2 cup parmesan cheese (or pecorino if desired)
If using a food processor: Tear leaves from stem, wash, dry and place in a food processor, along with the garlic, nuts and a small amount of the olive oil. Start with 1/2 cup and keep adding more until it flows smoothly when you dip a spoon into it, but not so thin that it falls off in a stream. Use your judgment.
Add parmesan cheese if serving immediately. If you’re planning to freeze it, don’t add the parmesan cheese until after you defrost it and are ready to serve.
If using a mortar and pestle, start with the washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and nuts and add a small amount of coarse salt to help break down the leaves. Pound with the pestle and slowly add a little bit of olive oil. Keep working the mixture with the pestle and add the rest of the oil as needed. The process takes a lot of patience and time.
Doesn’t this look like a lovely pastoral scene — a picturesque Italian village, people dressed in traditional costumes, dancers swaying as musicians play in the background, and a picnic spread on the grass? You’d think it’s a painting, and it is — sort of. But it’s not hanging on the wall of any museum. It’s a mural ON a wall along Passyunk Street in Philadelphia. It also happens to depict Santo Stefano di Sessanio – the village where I’ll be co-teaching a writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian called “Italy, In Other Words.”
I was flabbergasted when I saw it for the first time last week, right next to a restaurant called “Le Virtu” where I went to hear a group of musicians from Abruzzo called “DisCanto.” They had performed in Princeton years ago at the Italian cultural institute I’m involved with, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to hear these talented musicians a second time. Drinks and munchies would be served and I was eager to try some of the restaurant’s food, focusing on the cuisine of Abruzzo.
I met up with Helen Free, who came up from Washington, D.C. for the evening. I’ll be taking over her role this year in the Italy, In Other Words workshop, leaving her the time to organize a new blogging workshop in Santo Stefano for later in the year – Hands on L’Aquila.
Many of the walls at the restaurant are decorated in ceramics made in the town of Castelli, one of the excursions planned during the writing workshop in Italy.
The evening started out with wine and small bites of delectable offerings, including succulent lamb spiedini, and these outrageously delicious stuffed olives.
The star of the show however, (food-wise) was the roast suckling pig, prepared by Chef Joe Cicala, whose culinary talents have been honed in restaurants in Salerno, Italy; Washington, D.C. and New York City (including Del Posto, one of my favorites).
Everyone was salivating at the first smack of the knife, when the crackling skin gave way to the tender, well-seasoned meat inside, infused with rosemary and sage.
The authentic regional food set the stage for the talented musicians, who alternated among a myriad of instruments, including guitar, cello, mandolin, clarinet, accordion, violin and bagpipes. Yes, that’s right — bagpipes — or zampogne — as they’re called in Italian. Scotland has nothing on Italy when it comes to bagpipes. Southern Italy has a long tradition of bagpipe music, hailing back to shepherds who were away from their families tending their flocks for long periods of time. They would descend from the mountains at Christmas time, surrounded by their sheep as they played the instruments they made using available materials. The well-known Italian Christmas carol “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” (You came down from the stars) is traditionally accompanied by bagpipes.
Members of DisCanto in the photo below are, Sara Ciancone on the cello, Michele Avolio on guitar, Antonello Di Matteo on clarinet and Domenico Mancini on violin.
Here’s a video of the group that night, performing “La Luna Si Fermo'” (The moon stopped.)
It was a fun-filled night of great music, delicious food, renewing old friendships and making new ones.
Among the new ones were Francis Cratil (below) and his wife, Catherine Lee, owners of Le Virtu who were instrumental in bringing DisCanto to the U.S.
We ate a limited sampling of Le Virtu’s food, but it was enough for me to know that I want to go back again and again to try everything on the menu. The flavors were so evocative of real Abruzzese cooking, even though some of the dishes take a more modern twist, but always using authentic ingredients from the region, like saffron from Navelli, and lentils from Santo Stefano, for example.
On the way out, the mural looked even more magical, as decorative street lights provided drama.
And if you zoom in on the mural, take a good look at who’s playing the ciaramella, that wooden instrument that looks like a recorder (but is really related to the oboe). It’s a member of Discanto – Michele – whom the artist used as a model.
The musicians have gone back to Italy, but you can still feel the Abruzzo vibe on Passyunk Ave at Le Virtu. If you can’t get to Philly though, Francis was kind enough to send me a recipe – coniglio in porchetta — or rabbit rolled and cooked in the style of a porchetta. So now you can have a little bit of Abruzzo and Le Virtu in your home too.
Coniglio in Porchetta
photo and recipe courtesy of Le Virtu printable recipe here
1 whole boneless Lancaster County rabbit (available from Sonny D’Angelo on Philadelphia’s 9th St.)
3 sprigs of rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
1T kosher salt
1/2 T black peppercorns
1/2tsp red pepper flake
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 juniper berries
In a spice/coffee grinder pulverize the black pepper, bay leaf, juniper berries, and cloves to a fine powder. set aside.
Lay the boneless rabbit flat over plastic wrap. cover with a second sheet of plastic and lightly beat with a meat mallet until a universal thickness of about 1/2 inch.
Season liberally with olive oil, salt, spice mixture, red pepper flake. Roll the rabbit into a roast, tucking in the sides as you go.
Tie the roast up with butcher string and season the outside with any remaining spice mix and salt in a hot saute pan add 2 oz of extra virgin olive oil. when the oil starts to smoke add the rabbit.
Let sear heavily on one side for 2 minutes or until golden brown.
Flip the roast and sear for an adittional two minutes.
Move the hot pan into a preheated oven at 350 degrees
Cook for an additional 20 minutes
Remove roast from oven and let rest for 10 minutes at room temperature
Remove butcher strings and slice into medallions.
1 small carrot
1 stalk of celery
2 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of sage
500 grams brown lentils (from Santo Stefano di Sessanio…or castelluccio lentils if S.S. di S. lentil not available)
1 kilo (2.2 lbs.) shelled chestnuts (either roasted or boiled and peeled
salt and pepper to taste
1 gallon rabbit stock (chicken stock works just fine)
Peel onion and carrot and place them with the celery and garlic in a food processor and pulse until you ahve a fine mince.
In a large pot sweat the vegetable mixture in the olive oil on low heat until they become translucent.
Add chestnuts and cook for an additional 5 minutes until the chestnuts become tender and start to break apart
Add lentils and stirr with wooden spoon to mix.
tie the herbs together with butcher string to for a bouquet garnis, add to the pot.
Add the stock and season with salt and pepper
Cook over low heat (a light simmer) until the lentils are tender (about 30 minutes)
if additional liquid is needed add water a little at a time until the lentils are cooked. (much like the style of a risotto)
serve immediately under roasted rabbit in porchetta, or add additional stock to make a great soup. Garnish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.