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For weeks I have been incubating ideas about what in my repertoire I might suggest for your Thanksgiving table. With all that’s abuzz in the food press about dry brining turkey and gussying up pumpkin pie and such, I have decided not to go anywhere near the subject for fear of dishonoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving with ideas about Venetian roast turkey with pomegranate or savory speck-flecked pumpkin pie encased in a rosemary pastry crust.
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I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what that American spirit is because there is no precise record of the menu on the auspicious day in 1621, auspicious, that is, for the newcomers. While I am as fond of the proverbial bird and all the trimmings as anyone, I haven’t yet swallowed my grammar-school lessons about how it all went down at Plymouth Rock between the Wampanoags and the dour lot of newcomers.
Pilgrims getting creative with pasta
For the benefit of those who, like me, are skeptical of the official version of Thanksgiving history, let me quote how my favorite American writer on food topics, Calvin Trillin, crusader for changing the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti alla carbonara, recounted the story to his children, as told in a 1983 essay in “Third Helpings.”
“In England, a long time ago, there were people called pilgrims who were strict about making sure everyone observed the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. … In America, the pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness.
“The Indians took pity on the pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though they thought the pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in American they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal.
“The Indians, having had some experience with pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fellow.’
“The dish was spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was ‘heretically tasty’ and ‘the work of the devil’ and ‘the sort of thing foreigners eat.’ The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
The real deal with spaghetti alla carbonara
I feel compelled to make a few comments about Trillin’s account as to the nature of the first Thanksgiving Day dish. Everyone knows that recipes, when they migrate from their country of origin to a foreign kitchen, undergo transformation as much as people do. By Trillin’s account, only a few generations after the native dwellers had gotten their hands on it, they had already embellished it, gilding the lily, so to speak, with characteristic American excess so that it would have been hardly recognizable to Cristoforo Colombo who, like every other Italian, suffered the indignities of name change upon reaching the shores of America.
If we are to believe the account, the Wampanoags’ version included two kinds, not one kind, of cheese, and two kinds of salumi. No doubt the spaghetti wasn’t imported. It’s a good thing Italy’s famous native son wasn’t around to see it, or later incarnations that plied the dish further with cream, wine, broccoli and even caviar. Everything but the kitchen sink was lavished onto the once-humble progenitor that was named, or so some think, for the Roman carbonari, men who worked in the forests burning wood to make charcoal.
Probably there is no dish whose origins are as mysterious. Of course, some say the carbonari invented it. By other accounts, Italian women concocted it when presented with bacon and egg rations by American soldiers during World War II. I am assured by reliable sources that it is an ancient dish with roots in the kitchens of the norcini, famed pork butchers of Umbria. That theory would add a bit of credence to Trillin’s pre-Columbian explanation, which is as well founded as any I’ve seen.
What is undisputed is that the mother recipe was a simple affair born in the porky lands of Rome or Umbria, of strand pasta, guanciale or pancetta, egg and sheep cheese, initiated with extra virgin olive oil.
If we are to entertain Trillin’s tale, by the time the Wampanoag were making it in Plymouth, the dish had evolved into the first example of Italian-American cooking, which, as we all know, is as far from the real thing as Plymouth is from Rome.
In any case, the recipe ingredients and method presented here are considered by Italian historians to be the authentic version. Viva true spaghetti alla carbonara and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
The Authentic Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
As with any Italian recipe for pasta, it is necessary to use imported Italian pasta, which is unequaled for its ability to retain a wheaty flavor and elasticity throughout cooking, thus delivering a true al dente result. The recipe is marvelously simple and a revelation to anyone who has not experienced the true spaghetti alla carbonara, as long as it is followed precisely. That means no substitutions, no straying from the instructions, no ad-libbing and no succumbing to last-minute flights of inventiveness. Even if you were to wind up with something tasty, it wouldn’t be the original. If you’re after authenticity, this is it.
5 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ cup freshly grated aged pecorino romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound guanciale (unsmoked cheek bacon) or pancetta, thickly sliced and diced
1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1. In a bowl, combine the beaten eggs with the grated cheese and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
2. Select a serving bowl for the pasta and keep it warm.
3. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti after it’s drained, warm the olive oil. Add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté over medium heat until nicely colored and crispy around the edges but still chewy (those bits burn awfully fast, so stand over the pan until they’re properly browned, not burnt). Turn off the heat and set aside the pan in a warm spot on the stovetop.
4. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and the kosher salt together and stir. Check package instructions for cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is 2 minutes away from being al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the spaghetti to the skillet with the guanciale or pancetta and toss over low heat. Add ½ cup or so of the cooking water to moisten and loosen up the tangles. Simmer until the water is nearly evaporated.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, and immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while the pasta is steaming hot, tossing vigorously to distribute the egg mixture while making sure it does not coagulate into scrambled egg. The temperature should not exceed 160 F, though it’s not easy to take a reading of it. If the pasta seems to be dry, add more of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill at the table.
Top photo: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
For such a storied vegetable, the pumpkin has a dull reputation in the United States. Except for a bit of excitement around Halloween and its proverbial presence on the Thanksgiving table, it’s fairly dismissed. On the other hand, Italians, who grow more of them than Americans, love pumpkins far too much to smash them in the streets for a bit of fun.
Cucurbitaceae, the genus that includes pumpkins, squashes and edible gourds, has nourished people on nearly every continent for millennia. Although it is true that the Spaniards brought pumpkins and squashes to Spain along with other New World specimens, historical accounts from Apicius to Charlemagne place them on pre-Columbian tables throughout Europe. Of course, it was mostly the poor who ate them and other edibles from the plant world; only the higher classes ate meat with any regularity.
Pumpkins of Venice
Of all of Italy’s gastronomically diverse 20 regions, none raises the pumpkin to such culinary heights as the Veneto, of which watery Venice with its 100 islands and 150 canals is the glittering fairy-tale capital. On the remote lagoon islands where the first settlers migrated from the outlying provinces in the fifth century to escape marauding barbarians, the inhabitants hunted waterfowl and small game, fished, harvested salt, and grew fruits and vegetables. Pumpkin, what the Venetians call zucca (“suca” in dialect), which lasted through the cold weather, kept the wolf from the door until spring.
For Julia della Croce's tips on growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes, look below the recipe.
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The pumpkin — marina di Chioggia (pronounced kee-ohj’-jah), also known as sea pumpkin, after its native town in the lagoon — is by far the best I have tasted. Dense, flavorful and silky, it is hardly any wonder that so many delicious recipes have been derived from it.
Called “suca baruca” (warty pumpkin) in Venetian dialect, the slightly squashed sphere with gnarled, dark green skin and vibrant orange flesh is rich and sweet enough, once cooked, to eat as a confection. Once, vendors walked around the streets of Venice balancing wooden planks piled high with roasted pumpkin on their shoulders, hawking, “Suca baruca, suca baruca” to eager schoolchildren or anyone else wanting a sugary snack.
The “suca” criers are gone, replaced by souvenir peddlers, but Chioggia pumpkins have become universally loved in Italy and beyond, and vendors with their big golden wedges of pumpkin still ply the markets from the Rialto to Sicily. Mauro Stoppa, chef and skipper of the Eolo, a restored vintage flat-bottom sailing bragozzo, runs dining cruises on the lagoon and makes Chioggia’s ancient signature dish, suca in saor, sweet-and-sour pumpkin, in his galley.
He salts slices of zucca in a colander as for eggplant to remove excess moisture. Next he dredges them in flour and fries them in olive oil until crisp. Then he smothers them in three alternating layers of thinly sliced and gently sautéed onions, sultanas, toasted pine nuts and white wine vinegar. He chills this mélange for several days before serving it as an appetizer. Each of the ingredients contributes to a perfect sweet-and-sour harmony, but of prime importance is the zucca, which alone provides the sweetness to balance the vinegar.
North American offerings
We could grow marina di Chioggia pumpkin in the United States commercially if there was a demand for it, though I imagine its sheer size would discourage the prospect of shipping it to market, whereupon it would have to be cut into smaller sections for selling. Still, all is not lost. Widely available, silky-textured butternut squash and the West Indian calabaza stand in nicely for sweet and savory dishes, and for pie filling.
Overall, the Cucurbitaceae family’s bland and compact flesh makes these squash an ideal canvas for the savory and sweet creations the Italians cook. The blossoms are prepared in a variety of unusual ways, while the pulp is made into soups, Amarone-spiked pumpkin risottos, pumpkin tortelli, cappelletti and gnocchi, to name just a few dishes.
They can also be used in savory pumpkin tarts flecked with prosciutto, sweet versions with pumpkin-honey-candied orange filling and walnut-flour crust. One of my favorite recipes is one I grew up with, a colorful meeting of pumpkin (or squash), garlic slivers, black dry-cured Moroccan olives (if you’ve ever wondered what to do with these prune-like olives besides adding them to tagines, now you will know) and thyme.
Although my mother was born in Sardinia, when her mother died at a young age, she was sent to live in Rome with a family that retained a gifted Venetian cook. It’s hard to know where this dish, redolent of garlic and tomato, came from, as it is more southern Italian in character than anything else. Perhaps it was my mother’s own invention, but I can’t help but wonder whether she wasn’t struck with pumpkin love in that Venetian kitchen long ago.
In America, our Halloween jack-o’-lanterns were swiftly turned into suchlike as this stew (never did a good thing go to waste), thick minestrone with other vegetables from our outgoing autumn garden, or pumpkin budino (flan) on Sundays.
Italian Winter Squash Stew With Tomato, Dry-Cured Olives And Garlic
The combination of fresh pumpkin, cumin- and chili-spiked black dry-cured Moroccan olives, garlic and tomatoes may sound unusual to Americans, but it is superb, at once naturally sweet and intensely aromatic. Pumpkin or squash alone is bland, but the pungent dry-cured olives and garlic carry it to glory. Making this dish a day or two before you plan to serve it gives the flavors time to develop. Avoid serving it with other courses containing tomato sauce.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup canned tomato purée, or ½ cup tomato paste mixed with ½ cup water
1 medium-sized butternut or Hubbard squash or 1 small pumpkin (about 1½ pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice
20 black dry-cured Moroccan olives, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil and garlic together until the garlic is fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, stir and bring slowly to a simmer, about 4 minutes. Add the squash, olives, thyme and ¾ cup water. Cover partially and simmer over low heat until tender, about 40 minutes.
2. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or chill and reheat gently before serving.
Ahead-of-time note: This dish can be made up to 3 days in advance.
* * *
Growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes
Gardeners with hospitable climates might want to consider planting marina di Chioggia. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which grows and preserves rare heritage seeds, is one of the few sources for it. For other seeds and information on squash and pumpkin varieties, Leslie Land’s blog is one of the best resources. Sadly, she died in August, but her vast knowledge and gardening and kitchen advice will remain accessible online. See especially her advice for choosing the best variety of squash and picking a good pumpkin or squash at the market.
Top photo: Italian winter squash stew with tomato, dry-cured olives and garlic. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)
Cime di rapa (turnip tops), broccoli di rapa, broccoletti di rapa, and rape (räp’ – eh), are Italian names for what Americans dub broccoli rabe, or raab. Because the cruciferous vegetable (Brassica rapa ruvo) descends from the wild mustard plants that have carpeted the heel of Italy’s boot since ancient times, I think it deserves to keep its native name.
» For Julia della Croce's tips for cooks and a note to gardeners, look below the recipe.
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The problem is that the Italians have as many different local words for it as they have political parties. In Naples it’s friariélli, in Umbria, rapi; Puglia and Lazio calls the greens broccoletti (not to be mistaken with broccolini) or just, cime, and so on. I like the affectionate-sounding compromise, rapini.
While the buds on the tops resemble those of broccoli, a member of the cabbage family, the similarity ends there. Rapini belongs to the spicy turnip tribe. Today, the broccoli with a bite has become mainstream. It has even become trendy.
Just what makes it so engaging? Leaving aside the fact that it’s loaded with vitamins and cancer-fighting compounds, it seduces you with a pungent blast unlike any other vegetable, except Chinese broccoli (same botanical family), and, if you think about it, maybe a perfectly roasted, caramelized turnip. Its pleasant bitterness gives you a surprising jab in the mouth that gets your juices flowing, making your taste buds plead for pork sausages or potatoes, foods that are usually paired with it and made sweeter by the marriage.
Tips from the original rapini experts: Italians
Still, many a bold eater willing to venture into the realm of vegetables once considered strange say they can’t get past its bitter taste. It’s no wonder. Rapini is rarely cooked properly outside the borders of Italy.
I have succumbed to them in restaurants where I thought the chef surely knew how to cook them, and in precocious take-out shops where the greens, glistening like jade and studded with gilded garlic cloves, made my mouth water, only to be disappointed. They were either overcooked and stringy, or undercooked and bitter. This is not a vegetable to eat al dente, nor to benefit from a long boil, like sturdy collards.
“Broccoli rabe needs two things,” said Nina Balducci of the legendary Balducci’s in New York City, once a mecca of genuine Italian ingredients outside of Italy, “water and salt.” The trick is to first blanch it in plenty of salty water to tame its bitterness and coax out its sweet side. Then, fish it out, still dripping wet, and coddle it in plenty of good olive oil and garlic. The greens should be almost butter-tender, primed to soak up the garlicky broth. Now they’re ready to eat, or to cozy up to creamy polenta, pureed beans (try favas, chickpeas or cannellini in the style of Puglia), or succulent pork sausages.
The bitter greens get in your blood. When Andy Balducci opened the famous Greenwich Village store where his father worked the produce aisles and his mother, and his wife, Nina, cooked take-out food that the likes of Meryl Streep and Lauren Bacall took home for dinner, he flew in a few crates of cime di rapa from his native Puglia to test the waters.
“It was a tradition in Corato, my home town,” said Andy, who sold the grocery in 1999. “My friend grew it in his orto and his dream was to export it to Bari, the nearest city, 24 kilometers away. In those days, by horse and cart, it was like from here to heaven,” he laughed. “We didn’t sell it raw. Mom cooked it when it was available and we always sold out right away.” The D’Arrigo Brothers, California farmers and owners of Andy Boy who supplied Balducci’s with broccoli, perused the cooked foods whenever they visited. They’d ask the Balducci’s about the vegetable everyone was making such a fuss over.
Eventually, they decided to grow it themselves from heritage seeds. Outside of Puglia, even in many parts of Italy, the vegetable is unknown — except wherever Andy and Nina Balducci go. The couple have been known to travel with crates of it in tow. “We’ve introduced it to the Bahamas,” said Nina.
Pairing rapini with potatoes
We might be led to think that Puglia, which loves bitter greens overall (cime, chicory, escarole, dandelions), could claim them as their own. “Oh no,” says Viola Buitoni, San Francisco cooking teacher and scion of the Perugia-based Buitoni family, producers of pasta and chocolate since the early 19th century. “Rape/rapi/broccoletti whatever you call them are very common in Umbria and also, Lazio. Our housekeeper made them, so I know they were an Umbrian tradition,” she said. “In fact, there’s a type of rapini I love that’s native to the Trasimeno known as rapini del lago, “rapini of the lake.” Seems there is yet another delicious Italian vegetable to be “discovered” and transplanted in America.
Probably my favorite rapini dish is one that Viola makes. She tosses garlicky rapi, as she calls them, with crisp-cooked potatoes. “[It's] a dish that was a staple on our table because it’s a way to make good use of leftover potatoes. The leafy greens that were most common in our household in fall and winter were rapi.” It is a very fine dish to add to your cold weather repertoire.
Viola Buitoni’s Sautéed Broccoli Rapini With Potatoes
(Rapi e Patate alla Viola Buitoni)
Serves 6 for a side dish
America has at last discovered this wonderful vegetable, but I’m convinced that people would like it more if it were prepared correctly. The secret to cooking broccoli rapini is to boil the greens briefly before sautéing to rid them of their excessive bitterness and to tenderize the stalks. Some people discard the stalks, but the thicker ones, once peeled, are delicious. To avoid overcooking the delicate buds, cook the stems for a minute first before adding the florets to the pot. After draining, the rapini are finished in the saute pan with olive oil and garlic. This second step when cooking vegetables is called “ripassare,” meaning that the vegetable is passed again in the frying pan.
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
1 bunch broccoli rapini, about 1½ pounds
1 tablespoon sea salt
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
6 large cloves garlic, bruised but left whole
1. In a saucepan, combine the potatoes with enough cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. They should be fully tender but not falling apart when cooked. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin from the potatoes, cut them lengthwise into quarters, and then cut crosswise into medium-thin slices. Set aside and let them cool.
2. Detach the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Using a small, sharp knife, peel the skin from the thicker lower stalks of the rapini (most of the bottom portion of the stalk) and cut them crosswise into approximate 2-inch lengths.
3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the peeled stems along with the salt, cover partially, and cook over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Now add the florets and cook them together with the stems until the vegetable is tender but not mushy, 3 to 4 minutes more. Note that if the stalks are at all crisp, they will remain bitter. Drain the greens, reserving a little of the cooking liquid and set it aside separately.
4. In a nonstick skillet large enough to accommodate the potatoes and the greens, warm the olive oil over low heat and add the garlic. Sauté over medium heat until the garlic is nicely softened but not colored, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a side dish. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the cooked potatoes. Sauté until they are golden and crispy all over, about 12 minutes, then transfer to another side dish. Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-low heat, return the rapini and the garlic cloves to the pan. Sauté until the greens are nicely coated with the olive oil and the garlic and heated through, about 3 minutes; if they appear a little dry, add a little of the reserved cooking water as needed. Return the potatoes to the skillet and toss all together. Adjust for seasoning and serve immediately.
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TIPS FOR COOKS
Buy only very fresh rapini. The base of the stalks ought to be cream colored and crisp, not brown and curled. The leaves should be perky and ruffled, not dried out and floppy, and the buds bright green, never yellow.
The thicker stalks are meant to be eaten but need to be peeled before cooking, like mature asparagus.
To avoid overcooking the florets, boil the peeled stems for a minute before adding the florets to the salted water. Continue to the cook stems and tops together for 3-4 minutes until tender but not mushy. Drain and saute as described in the recipe.
* * *
A NOTE TO GARDENERS
Rapini hate heat. In Italy, they’re planted in September for harvesting in November and December. Farmers markets where I live in the Northeast try their hand at them but they’re not successful. The plants have too many tough stalks are all leaves, and have few, if any, buds. Brassica rapa ruvo (rapini) need Mediterranean or California-type weather to thrive.
Top photo: Viola Buitoni’s Sauteed Broccoli Rapini With Potatoes. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul”
Long before Brooklyn became a mecca for hipsters, it buzzed with Italian immigrants. Hearing the dialects on the streets of Williamsburg, Red Hook or Bensonhurst, you would have thought you were in Naples or Palermo or Cosenza. Exploring the borough one day to see what was left of the old neighborhoods, I wandered into D. Coluccio & Sons and met Cathy Coluccio-Fazzolari, whose Calabrian parents founded the iconic Bensonhurst grocery.
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TIPS FOR LINGUINE
AND TOMATO LUNCH
To reproduce this simple and astonishingly good dish, you'll need to follow Cathy Coluccio-Fazzolari's instructions precisely.
About the tomatoes:
Use fresh, vine-ripened, fleshy tomatoes, such as Roma types, or some of the heirlooms that you can find in farmers markets. While the flavor of the so-called San Marzano tomatoes in many U.S. climates may disappoint even when very ripe, they sweeten when boiled or roasted. Out of season, you can get good results with canned tomatoes if you stick to the genuine San Marzano (D.O.P) labels.
About the pasta:
The recipe is suitable primarily for dried pasta, either linguine or possibly spaghetti. Fresh pasta won’t do here. The Italians are masters of making dried pasta for its nutty flavor, long-holding pot-to-plate elasticity and al dente properties, which is what we want.
About the olive oil:
The quality of the olive oil will make or break this simple dish. Use only high quality, fresh, preferably extra-virgin olive oil with lively and pungent flavor. Note that olive oil made by reputable producers will come in dark glass bottles, or metal tins to prevent spoilage; anything bottled in plastic will not be worthy of your recipes.
About the pecorino:
Like all handmade products, pecorino (sheep cheese) varies according to terroir and cheese-making tradition. For this recipe, I prefer a semi-aged pecorino such as fior di Sardegna (flower of Sardinia), or a Tuscan caciotta to the hard and salty, ubiquitous pecorino Romano.
Hoping to find a recipe that had never seen the light of day, at least on this side of the ocean, I asked about her family’s cooking. Still, a recipe she described for a one-pot linguine and tomato dish left me dumbfounded. Having spent the better part of five decades crisscrossing Italy, sniffing around every pasta pot I could find, and tasting a thousand versions, I’d never seen anything like it. I knew this heirloom recipe was the mother of them all.
“People didn’t have a lot of pots in the 1880s when my grandmother was growing up in Reggio-Calabria,” Cathy explained. “For this recipe, you don’t need a separate pan for the sauce and it only takes 7 to 10 minutes. Drain it all together, mash up the tomatoes on the plate with your fork, sprinkle with grated cheese and swirl olive oil on top. That’s all there is to it,” she said casually.
Yet out of her mouth had fallen not just a lost recipe for “tomato sauce,” if we could call it that, but the holy grail. This was the DNA of the very first marriage of pasta and tomatoes. What she didn’t say, and what I was to find out, was that it was splendid.
Pasta for the masses in Naples
The blessed union of pasta and pomodoro took place in Naples sometime between Chef Vincenzo Corrado’s experiments with that exotic fruit for the Bourbon court in 1773, and the first written recipe that recorded putting pasta and tomatoes together in the 1839 cookbook, “Cucina Casareccia in Dialetto Napoletano” (“Home Cooking in Neapolitan Dialect”) by Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino.
Sometime between those two events, the notion went viral. Pasta al pomodoro took to the streets. For more than a century prior, Naples, the hub of commercial pasta manufacturing, served up a unique form of fast food to the city’s half-million homeless poor, who lived, and ate, out-of-doors. Legions of maccaronari, macaroni peddlers, sold cooked vermicelli, thin spaghetti, with grated cheese, for only two centesimi. The street-people who bought the hallowed pasta that saved them from starvation, ate it with their fingers — a colorful sight captured by the prolific drawings that chronicled the times.
Then, everywhere in the city — under the maccaronari’s tents, while the vermicelli dangled from posts, kept warm and moist from the steam of the cooking pots below, and with a tower of grated pecorino nearby — ripe tomatoes simmered lazily in a separate pot with nothing save their own juices. For an additional centesimo, these cooked tomatoes were offered to the more affluent customers to mix in to their meal. If not yet a sauce, the tomato became an essential accompaniment.
Meanwhile, the homemaker began putting the tomato to cook in the same pot with the vermicelli, creating the first blueprint for the Coluccio family “quick linguine and tomato lunch.” The dish was dubbed vermicelli “al tre,” “tre” possibly derived from trii, short for itriyah, which is the root word for “threads,” the original term for the long, hollow, dried pasta that the Arabs introduced by way of Sicily in approximately the year 800. Perhaps tre was for the simple trinity of ingredients.
Just as we rename national monuments after our national heroes, so the Italians eventually consecrated the dish vermicelli tre Garibaldi, “Garibaldi vermicelli thrice over” after the dashing red-shirted Italian liberator that unified Italy. As for the Coluccio family recipe, the story of its journey from Naples to Calabria is lost in the mists of time. Somewhere along the way, the trinity was scented with fresh basil and lavished with olive oil.
Taking heirloom recipe home
The fortuitous chat at Coluccio’s took place on a summer day, when the tomato plants in my garden were heavy from the weight of their luscious fruit. In my kitchen, I assembled the ingredients: linguine, good olive oil, several succulent tomatoes I’d just plucked off a vine, a scrap of basil, and a fine hunk of young Sardinian pecorino I’d bought at Coluccio’s. Fifteen minutes later, starting with the five it took to boil the water, and ending with swirling the olive oil over the dish, I was eating one of the most delicious pasta meals I think I have ever tasted.
I made the dish all that summer, and I still do, always planting the tomatoes in May, and harvesting the first fat, ripe fruit by midsummer. In years of blight — there have been a few — I’ve managed to find fine substitutes in farmers markets, so that no summer has gone by without partaking of Coluccio’s linguine and tomato lunch. Besides the joy of its simplicity, the dish presents the opportunity to savor olive oil in its virgin state, untouched by the heat of the pan. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coluccio Family Quick Linguine and Tomato Lunch
This is one of those quick dishes that is prepared in Italian families almost instantly for hungry children and becomes a fond memory of childhood — and a standby in adult life. It works best in small quantities for a pound or less of pasta. Because some of the pasta water serves as a vehicle for the sauce, the dish needs to be eaten immediately while it is still very moist.
8 whole fresh tomatoes, quartered and seeded, or canned peeled plum tomatoes, drained and halved
6 fresh basil leaves, if available
½ pound imported Italian linguine or spaghetti, broken in half
3 tablespoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano or grana padano
1. Fill an ample pot with 4 quarts cold water and slip in the tomatoes and the basil leaves. Bring it to a rolling boil and cook the tomatoes over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the pasta and the kosher salt to the pot and cook over the highest heat until the pasta is al dente. It is best to go by the timing directions on the pasta box, as cooking times vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Just before draining the pasta, ladle out about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside.
2. Drain the pasta and the tomatoes together and while the pasta is still dripping wet, transfer it along with the tomatoes and basil to a warm serving platter. Push the tomatoes to one side and mash them with a fork; toss the mixture with the pasta to combine well. Add about 1 tablespoon, or as necessary, of the reserved pasta water to moisten. Top with the olive oil and cheese and serve at once.
Top photo: Coluccio Family Quick Linguine and Tomato Lunch, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton
In midsummer, food writers feel compelled to advise their readers on how to survive an imminent zucchini invasion. The topic generates a slew of photographs of amateur gardeners heaving their 20-pound wonders along with countless new or recycled recipes for zucchini bread, muffins and the like to cope with a bumper crop of these monster vegetables.
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Tips for best flavor, whether growing, or buying zucchini:
PLANTING: For a family of four to six zucchini lovers, resist planting more than three. One plant alone can produce up to nine pounds of fruit in a season. The plants will continue to produce small fruits, providing you keep harvesting them.
PICKING: If you must grow them larger than the Italians do, stop at 6 inches. The larger they grow, the more water they retain and the blander they taste. Larger specimens won’t brown easily when you sauté them because all that moisture discourages searing.
WHEN BUYING: Cylindrical zucchini should be no larger than 6 inches, brightly colored, and rigid, never spotty or wrinkled. The new (though in my opinion, not improved) spherical Eight-Ball variety is an ideal shape for stuffing, but if it’s harvested when larger than a softball, the skin is leathery, the flesh flavorless, and the center is filled with large seeds.
ABOUT THOSE MONSTERS: No matter how much you’d like to believe the plethora of late summer articles that give advice for how to salvage overgrown zucchini, it is close to useless. If you can’t pawn them off on your neighbors, maybe they’re good for one thing, zucchini bread!
STORING: Chill fresh zucchini in the vegetable drawer of a refrigerator for a few days, if you must. Limp or wrinkled zucchini are ready for the compost pile, not your recipe.
COOKING: Young zucchini should not be peeled. Boil, steam, braise, stew, bake, roast, grill, broil, sauté, crumb-fry, batter-fry, hash, stuff, marinate (sweet and sour), or pickle them. Substitute them for nearly any of your favorite eggplant recipes, including eggplant alla parmigiana. Bake them into frittatas or zucchini pâtes; alternate them lasagna style between layers of flat noodles, tomato sauce and melting cheese.
In contrast, the Italians eagerly anticipate the young squash’s first appearance in spring and seem to have no shortage of recipes at their fingertips for nurturing its true flavor throughout the summer. The problem with our bounty of zucchini is that these large specimens have lost their sweetness and distinctive taste, and we resign ourselves to eating them even when they have outgrown their welcome. No wonder we are drowning them in cake batter and compensating for their blandness with cinnamon and sugar. If we pick our zucchini sooner, in the prime of their youth, we’ll love them more and welcome their abundance. Then we could start out with these words instead: “Only once a year do we have a chance to eat the delicate little squashes of summer.” For if they are to live up to their name (zucca, “squash”; zucchini, “little squash”), they should be small, very small.
The Italians will tell you that the zucchina or zucchino, called zucchini in America, the anglicized plural form, should be no longer than 3½ inches, and is best eaten within one hour of picking. It is at this stage of development that the squash tastes like something and gives meaning to what one Italian cook called “a lavish gift from Italy to the United States, partly atoning for Al Capone and pizza [the man undoubtedly meant bad pizza].”
Zucchini come to Italy
Zucchini, botanically named Cucurbita pepo, were unknown in Europe before Columbus discovered their prototype in Mesomerica and sailed their seeds to Spain. They made their way to Italy, which bred the tender-skinned specimen of today, from its early thick-skinned ancestor that preferred tropical climates. In the 17th century when the Italians, tickled with their discovery, sent the improved fruit to Olivier de Serres, preeminent soil scientist and author of the French bible on agriculture of the day, he spat it out, calling it “Naples’s and Spain’s revenge.”
He wrote, “It does very well in the south, which is more receptive to rustic foods. … In the Old World as a whole the squash has been most generally adopted in Africa, which has no prejudice against rusticity either.”
The French are not inordinately fond of them even today, except in the form of their celebrated ratatouille. I may have a prejudice myself on the matter of French versus Italian food styles, no doubt inflamed by my Parisian brother-in-law’s refusal to eat any Italian cooking put before him, either mine or my mother’s (I speak in the past tense — he hasn’t been a guest at my table for 30 years). Whenever he smelled the aromas of simmering ragù or zucchine ripiene wafting through our house, he ducked out to the supermarket to buy mussels and cream and whipped up a quick moules marinières to survive the meal.
As rusticity is viewed differently these days than it once was, evidenced by America’s love affair with Italian country cooking, I’ll stick my neck out and say that the Italian way with vegetables is most likely to deliver their clear taste intact. Their particular love of zucchini is revealed by the sheer variety of recipes they have for it.
The best variety
Technically, zucchini are not a vegetable at all, but an immature fruit, the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower. The earliest record of their reintroduction to America dates to the early 1920s, with the arrival of immigrants from the Italian south. They called the fruit Cocozella di Napoli. It was renamed Romanesco zucchini by a California seed company in 1921. Although many other varieties have been developed, this very same slightly ribbed, striated type is the only one that I bother to grow or buy because of its rich-tasting and compact flesh, which is why the seed curator Will Bonsall considers it “the only summer squash worth bothering with, unless you’re just thirsty.”
Admittedly, it’s both a curse and a blessing that zucchini grow at such a meteoric rate and must be wrenched from the mother stalk when they have barely entered the world, but if gently nurtured in the kitchen, the squash will emerge with its natural charms intact.
Dealing with the bounty
In keeping with the spirit of zucchini’s abundance at this time of year, I list some tips, and quick recipes with which you can’t go wrong, even without precise measurements. Additionally, I offer one of my favorite fritter (frittelle) recipes in full, not only because I dream of zucchini season when I can make these crunchy, ethereal wonders, but because you get to use up a lot of zucchini for the recipe: after salting and draining them for the batter mixture, you are left with half their original weight and concentrated zucchini flavor.
Zucchini Fritters (Frittelle di zucchine)
From “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books, 2010)
Because at least half their weight is water, zucchini fritters can be sodden and oily if not prepared properly. These frittelle are very light and delicate as a result of using young specimens, and salting and draining the shredded raw zucchini before forming the batter. I can hardly get the tasty morsels from stove to table before kitchen “helpers” snatch them as quickly as they are fried. This one’s a crowd pleaser.
2 pounds small zucchini, each weighing between 6 and 8 ounces
2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
2 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons authentic, freshly grated aged Asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Grana Padano cheese
1 tablespoon all-purpose unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon fine bread crumbs
Freshly milled black pepper to taste
Safflower or grape seed oil for frying
1. Wash the zucchini well and slice off the stem and navel. Grate them on the large holes of a box grater or with a shredding attachment in a food processor. Put the zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, and toss. Place a plate on top. Over the plate, place a heavy weight such as a tea kettle filled with water or a very large can. Put the colander in the sink positioned over the drain. Allow the zucchini to release their water for at least an hour or up to two hours. Transfer the shredded zucchini to a clean kitchen towel to blot the remaining moisture, then place it in a mixing bowl, first using your hands to wring as much liquid out of the zucchini as possible.
2. Combine the shredded zucchini, eggs, cheese, flour, bread crumbs and pepper. Proceeding as directed, the mixture will be soft but not watery. Chill the mixture for an hour or up to two hours.
3. Pour enough oil in a frying pan to come 1½ inches up the sides. Turn on the heat and when the oil is sizzling hot, slip the zucchini mixture in one rounded teaspoon at a time. Take care not to crowd the pan; the fritters need plenty of room to cook. When they are golden-brown and crisp on one side, turn them over and cook until crisp and browned all over, about 5 minutes in total. Use a spider skimmer or tongs to transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with sea salt as soon as they are taken out of the oil and still plenty hot to ensure that it sticks. Repeat this procedure with the remaining batter. Serve the fritters at once.
Top photo: Romanesco zucchini at 3½ inches and ready for picking, Italian style. Credit: Susan Freiman
The basil in my garden is young and tender now, its leaves beckoning to be made into a pesto. Pesto, from the Italian pestare, to pound something, is a sauce made of ingredients that are crushed, traditionally with a hardwood pestle in an unpolished mortar of white Carrara marble.
Pesto genovese, the splendid Ligurian basil sauce, when made well, is probably one of the most-loved sauces of summer. But Italians pound out many more pestos than that. There are so many variations, some traditional, some not, like pistachio pesto, that for me has become a new rite of summer for anointing pasta or potato gnocchi, or stirring into minestrone.
More from Zester Daily:
Listen to Julia della Croce discuss pistachio pesto and the global shortage of pine nuts on NPR.
While the method for making pesto is simple, it's a far cry from the careless way basil pesto is typically thrown together outside its Ligurian motherland. These pointers will improve any basil-based pesto, be it the Genoa original, or the lovely pistachio pesto recipe I offer in its place.
BASIL: Genovese basil is the only suitable variety for its fleshy leaves. Pick young leaves well before the plant bolts. Inspect bought basil carefully and reject wilted or discolored leaves. Remove any stems, using your hands, never a knife, which causes discoloration. Wash and pat dry without rubbing.
PISTACHIOS: Nut experts say that we are so inured to the flavor of rancid nuts, we may not know what fresh tastes like. Buy from a reliable source and use only raw, natural nuts, unsalted nuts.
GARLIC: Raw, aged garlic, what we typically can buy, is too aggressive for pesto. Unless you have fresh garlic, omit it, as the Genovese sometimes do.
OLIVE OIL: Because the oil is the foundation of the sauce, use high quality extra-virgin olive oil that is neither too fruity, nor too bitter.
CHEESE: You can combine Parmigiano-Reggiano and grana padano or use one alone, letting its characteristics shine through clearly. Buy it by the piece, never pre-grated. Grate just before using. Don't use a microplane as it shatters the characteristic crystals, destroying the cheeses' distinctive texture. Use a box grater, or better, grind it in a food processor.
THE "BROWN PESTO" PROBLEM: The best remedy, if unorthodox, is to blanch the whole leaves first in boiling, salted water for 30 seconds; drain immediately, then shock them in ice water. Pat dry and proceed. Surprisingly, blanching doesn't interfere with the basil's flavor or texture.
PASTA FOR PESTO: Unctuousness sauces like pesto need sturdy pasta to support their weight. Use fresh fettuccine or homemade potato gnocchi (avoid the leaden commercially produced specimens). Ideal dried shapes include fusilli, penne, bucatini, linguine, or spaghetti. Pasta cooking water is your best friend when tossing pasta with pesto. Set some aside before draining and stir a couple of tablespoons or more, as needed, into the pesto before tossing it with the pasta to loosen it up.
There is no true pesto genovese without the plump, aromatic pine nut that the Italians love. Alas, because of our warming planet, Pinus pinea, aka pinoli, pignoli or in Italian, the seed kernels of the Mediterranean stone pine have become as scarce and costly as caviar, with prices soaring over 1,000% in less than a decade.
“Italian pine nuts have become so expensive that the Italian grocers are keeping them under lock and key along with the truffles,” said Alessandro Bellini, an importer of high-quality Italian products at Viola Imports.
Beatrice Ughi at Gustiamo, which sells select artisanal foods online from small Italian producers and eagerly anticipates Tuscan pinoli every year (considered by the Genovese to be the most aromatic and creamy), confirmed the dire harvest. “I just talked to our maker of fresh pesto in Genova,” she said. “He says the situation is desperate.”
Pine trees need cold weather to incubate their seeds, which are cocooned in the trees’ cones. When the winters are too warm, the snowpack on the forest floor melts too soon, essentially robbing the trees of the natural drip system that keeps them continually moist. Not only are the conifers now dehydrated and distressed, the warmer climate invites a parasite that infests the cones, causing the trees to abort their offspring before the pine nuts can form.
According to Dayer LeBaron of wholesalepinenuts.com, whose family has harvested and sold nuts from the American piñon, a cousin of the Pinus pinea, since 1958, “Heat waves are coming to these mountains from Dakota to Iowa, and trees can’t handle it.”
Besides that, the U.S. Forest Service which controls the land has burned down huge swaths of pine forests to prevent fires from spreading. “Butchering big masses of the mountains isn’t the answer,” he said. (The hard-shelled piñons, which are eaten like nuts or ground into a coffee, are not interchangeable with pinoli for making pesto.)
Sandy Braverman, a second-generation nut seller at nuts.com, agrees that the scarcity coincides with warmer weather and droughts, tracing the problem to the 1960s.
“Pine nuts started to come in from China 20 years ago,” he said. With its boundless carpets of Siberian forests, it supplies 99% of the pine nuts on the world market. But even China is having terrible crops. “The Chinese are paying U.S. farmers in cash for piñon nuts and buying up their entire supply for their own consumption,” he said.
Expecting more from their pine nuts than the Asian species can deliver, Italians won’t buy them. Asked why, Ughi replied, “Because they’re tasteless.”
Pesto genovese and pesto alla genovese
For the record, the cooks of Genoa make a distinction between pesto genovese, the “pesto of Genova,” which is the real thing, and pesto alla genovese, “pesto in the style of Genoa,” the pretender. Founded in 2011, the Genovese Pesto Consortium (Consorzio del Pesto Genovese) based in Liguria codified the heritage recipe and “the rules for making it” (nevermind that in the Italian kitchen, there’s never only one way of making anything).
This is powerful stuff, but neither here nor there if you’re not in Genoa (Liguria), or you can’t get the ingredients, or they’re just too pricey. These days, even the Genovese must find substitutes for pinoli. Numerous Ligurian pesto producers I spoke with are using cashews instead. I’ve experimented as well.
An alternative to scarce pine nuts
In good time for the basil harvest, I have come up with another pesto using pistachios and almonds. It was inspired by the beguiling Sicilian pesto dei pistacchi tradizionale, but it wasn’t until pinoli became scarce that I began making a version of my own. Like the genuine pesto genovese, the true pistachio pesto of Sicily is not easily replicated outside its terroir.
Substituting California nuts produces a fine alternative, which my tribe loves as much as any pesto genovese that I’ve put in front of them. If you are inclined to replicate either of the original pestos, the revered Bronte pistachios from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, as well as rare Tuscan pine nuts are available from Gustiamo. Watching chefs from Genoa meticulously make true pesto genovese for a rapt audience at a worldwide summit of Italian chefs in 2011, was to understand that success in making any basil-based pesto lies in attention to a few fine points.
Makes about 1¼ cups, enough to generously coat 1 pound of pasta
Use this sumptuous pesto to coat pasta or stir it into a summer minestrone. For the soup, a small dollop blended into each bowlful goes a long way.
Mortar and pestle, or food processor: Pounding the basil with a pestle releases the juices in the leaves to be worked into the oil. In comparison, the blade action of a machine chops the leaves, sealing off their liquid and its aroma. The mortar and pestle method renders a pesto that is at once highly aromatic, creamy and pleasantly textured, delivering the characteristic mouth feel of each ingredient clearly without instantly altering the vivid color of the basil leaves. The method may be impractical for most modern cooks, but if you’re willing, give it a whirl. A food processor or blender can produce a perfectly delicious result as long as you don’t over-process the ingredients.
½ cup shelled, peeled, unsalted pistachios, plus a small handful for scattering
3 tablespoons lightly toasted, blanched almonds
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup packed fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Freshly ground white or black pepper
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or grana padano cheese, plus extra for the table
Note: If the membrane of the pistachios don’t peel off easily after rubbing them with your fingers, blanch them in boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain, shock in cold water and dry the nuts in a paper towel. Toast them lightly and when they cool, peel off any skins that haven’t come off.
1. Food processor/blender method: Combine the pistachios, almonds, basil, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper all at once. Process, pulsing every few seconds, to grind the ingredients to a grainy consistency. Take care not to over-grind to avoid a pasty consistency. The texture should be smooth and fluid, but not without a grainy texture. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl a few times during the processing. With the spatula, transfer the pesto to an ample serving bowl.* Beat in a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and add the pasta, tossing well. Add the grated cheese and toss some more. Serve at once. Pass more of the grated cheese at the table.
2. Mortar and pestle method: Use a good, sturdy mortar and pestle made of marble, large enough to hold all the ingredients. First crush the basil leaves, pistachios and almonds, salt and pepper, using a circular and steady motion to grind them. You will get a thick paste. Now add the olive oil gradually, first in a trickle, mixing the paste with a wooden spoon. Beat the mixture continually as you drizzle in the rest of the oil. With the spatula, transfer the pesto to an ample serving bowl.* Beat in a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and add the pasta, tossing well. Add the grated cheese and toss some more. Serve at once. Pass extra grated cheese at the table.
*Ahead of time: If you need to make the sauce in advance, at this point in the recipe, transfer the pesto to a small container, and press plastic wrap directly on the surface until you are ready to serve it. For best results, use within several hours of preparing, but it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days. (I am not a big fan of freezing pesto, but it will freeze acceptably for up to three months in a freezer-proof container.) Continue with the recipe as above.