Julia della Croce is a journalist and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Many of her titles have been translated into 13 other languages and distributed worldwide. Her work has appeared in many publications including Cook’s, Food & Wine, Art & Antiques and the Boston Globe. She has broadcast extensively on radio and television, including NPR and the Food Network. Her blog, Forktales, has been cited by The New York Times' Diner's Journal "What We’re Reading" section.

Besides working toward the preservation of traditional Italian cuisine through publishing and teaching, Julia has dedicated herself to advocacy work for better food and sustainable agriculture. She pioneered an award-winning healthy school food program at an independent school in New York and developed a nutrition program providing natural food and local farm-raised produce to an emergency food pantry in New York City serving some 900,000 people every year. She serves on the advisory committee of the New York State Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy. Read more about Julia on www.juliadellacroce.com.

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Whiffs Of Italian Spring: The Rapini Pie Of Your Dreams Image

I just made the pie of my dreams. The Ligurians might call it torta pasqualina, Easter tart, a savory spring pastry usually filled with spinach, chard or borage. Theirs is enveloped in 20 layers of a delicate, lean dough stretched with olive oil into paper-thin sheets — 10 on the bottom, 10 on top. Mine is encased in a flaky tent of buttery American pie crust. The filling? It too commemorates spring, but it contains none of the traditional vegetables. No timid spinach here, no sweet, fading chard. My pie is a renegade. Unlike the Italian original, it is filled with the big, bold flavors of rapini, or broccoli rabe as it is called in the United States.

RAPINI, BY ANY NAME


What it's called around the globe:

Bitter broccoli: America

Broccoletti (broccoli-like): Rome

Broccoletti di rapa (broccoli-like turnip greens): Rome/Lazio

Broccoli raab: America

Broccoli rabe: America

Cime di rapa (“turnip tops”): Italy

Cima di rapa (“turnip top”): Italy

Friggiarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarielli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Frigitelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Rome/Lazio

Rape (shortened from cime di rape): Italy

Rapi (colloquial): Umbria

Rapine: Italy

Rapini, rapini: southern Italy, America

Rappini: Sicily

“Robb”: America

Vruocculi: Calabria/Italy


More from Zester Daily:

» Tips for cooking great brassicas

» Vegan country collard greens

» Give turnip greens the Italian treatment

» Turning rapini into funky kimchi

Rapini was relatively unknown in the northern regions of Italy, or in America until recent years. Arguably the tastiest of all greens that descend from the wild plants that have carpeted southern Italy since primordial times, rapini mingled with onion, garlic, tangy pecorino, smoky bacon and just enough egg to hold it all together under a flaky crust is a new take on an ancient pie.

I developed the recipe as part of my promotional relationship with the California rapini growers D’Arrigo Brothers, which owns the Andy Boy broccoli rabe brand. Most of the market rapini, which has been grown in the United States since the early 1970s, comes from the D’Arrigo growers in California, a farming family that put down their Sicilian roots in rich Salinas soil in 1924.

They were the first to recover the heirloom seed on the mountain slopes of their native Sicily. (There, the vegetable is known as “rappini” with a double “p.”) They also were the first to adapt the plant (Brassica rapa ruvo, cime di rapa in Italian, literally, “turnip tops”) to the California climate.

If you are one of those eaters who has tried rapini but found it too bitter to enjoy, you will discover its sweet side if you cook it the Italian way. The trick is to first boil rapini in plenty of salted water. After draining, and while it is still somewhat wet, coddle the rapini in a sauté pan with warm, high-quality olive oil infused with fresh garlic.

We all know that boiling vegetables in salted water transforms their flavor. This is especially true in the case of rapini, or broccoli rabe, which goes from bitter to pleasantly pungent after brief boiling. I asked food science expert and best-selling author Harold McGee for the scientific explanation. McGee is the author of several books on the chemistry and history of food. He also writes a column for The New York Times.

“Boiling leaches out some flavor components, and some salt will get into the tissues and suppress the sensation of bitterness. This is well documented but not yet understood,” McGee said. “The impression of sweetness may also have to do with the boiling damaging the cell walls and making the cell fluids, sugars included, more accessible to the taste buds.”

Besides the cooking method, consider the season. Vegetables always taste best when they are grown and eaten according to nature’s rhythms, and rapini is no exception.

“At the end of April,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, a third-generation member of the clan, “those greens are at their peak season, and sweeter than any other time of year.”

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Broccoletti capati, "ready-to-go rapini" for sale at the Campo dei Fiori market, Rome. The Roman name for the vegetable is "broccoletti di rapa." Credit: Paolo Destefanis / www.paolodestefanis.com

Rapini Pie

Serves 6 to 8

This is my emigrant version of Italy’s torta pasqualina, also called scarpazzone. “Scarpa,” shoe, refers to the frugal peasant practice of including the stalk along with the leaves in the filling mixture. I do the same here, using the entirety of two rapini bunches, stems and tops alike (they really shrink after boiling). In the traditional spinach or chard version, pancetta pairs irresistibly with those mild, garlicky greens, but I prefer smoky bacon as a counterpoint to the pungent rapini in my newfound filling.

For the crust:

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled or frozen

6 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled or frozen

1 large egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice or unflavored vinegar

5 to 7 tablespoons ice water, just as needed

For the filling:

2 bunches rapini (“broccoli rabe”)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

3 large eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon fine dried bread crumbs

½ cup freshly grated medium-aged pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna or cacio Toscano

½ teaspoon salt

freshly milled black pepper to taste

For the egg glaze:

1 egg yolk, beaten well with pinch of salt

Directions for the pie pastry

1. Combine the flour and salt and pulse a few times in a food processor to blend.

2. Add the cold butter and vegetable shortening and pulse only until the fat is cut into bits the size of peas.

3. Through the processor’s feed tube, add the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, pulse once or twice, then add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, only until dough begins to show some clumps. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the inside walls of the vessel. Do not form a dough ball on the blade.

4. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax paper (if it looks sandy and dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more water) and use your hands to bring it together into a ball. It should hold the form of your fingers when squeezed. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 5 days until you are ready to make the filling.

Note: If butter and vegetable shortening were frozen, dough can be rolled without prior chilling.

Directions for the filling

1. Wash the rapini in cold water, drain.

2. Detach and separate the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Set the tops and the leaves aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel any especially tough skin from the thicker lower stalks, much like you would peel the tough skin from the bottom of asparagus stalks.

3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover all the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the kosher salt and the peeled stems, cover partially, and boil over high heat for 7 minutes. Now add the florets and leaves and cook them together with the stems for 3 minutes more. Drain the greens and allow them to cool. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can. Chop them finely and set aside.

4. Warm a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until it begins to color, about 7 minutes. Drain off excess fat, stir in the butter and add the onion to the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onion is transparent, another 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté gently for about another 3 minutes until it softens and the onions are lightly colored, but do not brown the mixture. Stir in the rapini mixture, turning it over with the bacon and onion mixture to combine. Set aside to cool.

5. In an ample bowl, beat the eggs lightly and mix in the bread crumbs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cooled rapini mixture, blending well.

6. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Select a 10-inch tart pan or pie tin. Butter it lightly. Divide the chilled dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. To use, roll out the larger ball of dough on a lightly floured, wide sheet of parchment or waxed paper using a floured rolling pin. Form an 11-inch round. Drape it around the pin and transfer it to the pie pan. Press it gently onto the bottom and sides.

7. Spoon in the filling.

8. Roll out the second ball of dough in the same manner into a slightly smaller circle. Lay it over the filling. Crimp the edges together to seal and trim off any excess to form an even edge. Cut a slash in the top to allow steam to escape. If there are any dough scraps, gather them up, re-roll them, and cut out leaves or rosettes. Decorate the top of the pie with the cutouts, pressing them gently onto the crust.

9. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, cut into wedges.

Note: This pie keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it in an oven preheated to 350 F until warm throughout, 20 to 30 minutes.

Top photo: A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Corn Masa Cookies Sweeten Nicaraguan Life Image

Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.

El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.

A century of struggle

For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.

After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war.  The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.

“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”

The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other …  cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.

The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.

Corn masa cookies

At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.

Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”

Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.

It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.

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San Cristobal, the highest of Nicaragua's many volcanoes, some active, some not. Credit: Gabriella della Croce

They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.

The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.

I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.

Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)

Makes about 20 cookies

In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.

Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.

The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.

The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.

The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.

As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it. 

For the cookies:

1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup water at room temperature

For the topping:

1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.

2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.

3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.

4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.

5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.

For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.

Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.

6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.

For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.

7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.

8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.

Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Avoid American Pasta Mistakes With ‘Sauces & Shapes’ Image

Every now and then a new cookbook comes along that stands above the rest. Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen Fant’s “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” is such a book. There’s nothing really new about it, and this is its strength. In an age of obsession for novelty, here comes a cookbook without gimmicks, a handbook for amateurs and adepts alike, a holy writ of Italian pasta cookery that I wish could, once and for all, put to rest the deplorable mistreatment of Italian pasta recipes at the hands of American cooks.

Brought to you by the authors of the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” and “Popes, Peasants, and Lore from Rome and Lazio,” this valuable work contains a vast body of culinary knowledge that can only be gained from an intimate attachment to the Italian way of life.

No meddling editor’s hand has constrained the writers to Americanize ingredients, simplify techniques or modernize recipes to suit the foreigner. The legendary editor of this title, Maria Guarnaschelli, has shaped other important cookbooks, famously, Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible” and Diane Kennedy’s “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” and this one is the jewel in her crown.

The best cookbook writers can paint you pictures with their words and draw you into their world of food in a way television celebrities cannot. Cuisine is, after all, not only about recipes, but also about culture, people and where they live, what they eat, and why.

One author is a native Italian with roots in Bologna (coined “the belly of Italy”) who learned pasta-making as a child at the elbows of the sisters in a convent school. The other is an American scholar of classical archaeology who was transplanted to Rome more three decades ago. They take you, forks in hand, through the marvels of a corner of Italy’s cookery that is at once timeless and timely.

A guide to pasta technique

Besides its erudition and charm, this book is a manual for proper cooking technique and the whys and wherefores of matching of pasta shapes to sauces. If the recipes are true to Italian tradition, they are not stale. Most, such as spaghetti with clam sauce, are classics. Some are strictly orthodox, like Bolognese meat sauce, which stipulates no tomatoes and no garlic. The authors tell us that the Bolognese, who are fixated on preserving their glorious cuisine’s authenticity, have gone so far as to register the genuine recipe with a notary.

Others, including chestnut and wild fennel soup, have rarely been tasted outside the Italian kitchen. A few will show you tricks you probably never knew before, like a way of cooking eggplant that reduces oil absorption, learned from the revered, still living, Italian chef, Gualtiero Marchesi.

What makes this holy text fresh is writer-translator Fant’s lively voice and careful research. About the emblematic Sicilian pasta alla norma, she tells us that it was not named for the opera, as every other source will tell you, but after the word for “marvel” in Catanese dialect.

Bucatini all'amatriciana from "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way." Credit: Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Bucatini all’amatriciana from “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way.” Credit: Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Further,  Fant writes, when the original dish was invented by Marietta Martoglio, it was topped with “a snowfall of grated ricotta salata.” With a mere phrase, we are there, gingerly walking across a bridge of nimble words into that early 1900s kitchen, inhaling the aromas of the steaming spaghetti lapped in glittering fried dark-purple eggplant slices and veiled in flakes of cheese.

There are countless other bites of history. We learn that the Pythagoreans, who subscribed to reincarnation, eschewed the primordial staple of Mediterranean peoples, fava beans, because they were thought to nestle human souls.

I have read this captivating book from cover to cover, digesting every phrase, savoring every recipe, relishing all the fine points, ancient wisdom and new visions that make it utterly seductive.

I’ve written five titles about Italian pasta cooking of my own, and for me reading it has been like puttering in the kitchen with two old friends who can all but finish each other’s sentences, yet have so much that is new to tell one another. With its sensitive and rich photography, it makes for a book that is both useful and beautiful, and bound to be treasured, even by the reader with a groaning shelf of other Italian classics.

Amatriciana Guanciale, Tomato and Pecorino Romano

From “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant

The reader ought to go to the recipe in the book for the savory and local history of this popular topping for pasta from Lazio’s northeastern province; it is “one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom,” the authors write. Rarely do recipes for its preparation tell you, as the locals would and which the authors do, that one of the secrets to its success is to toss the piping hot pasta after draining, first with the grated pecorino, then with the sauce; this method gives the sauce a voluptuous consistency.

This sauce is used on flour-and-water shapes. This includes spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but also rigatoni, casarecce or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapretti/pici.

For the condimento (sauce):

2½ ounces (70 grams) guanciale [salt-cured pork cheek], cut into thin strips

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion (any kind), chopped (optional but recommended)

1 pound (450 grams) red, ripe sauce tomatoes, broken into pieces, or canned Italian peeled tomatoes, drained

1 small piece dried chile

salt

For the pasta:

1 pound (450 grams) pasta (see suggestions above)

7 rounded tablespoons (70 grams) grated pecorino

Directions

1. Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Take a piece to assess how salty it is.

2. When the meat just begins to become crisp, add the chopped onion (if using) and sauté gently until transparent.

3. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the guanciale).

4. Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.

This much can be done earlier in the day, but the sauce is not customarily made in advance or kept, except casually as leftovers for the next day.

5. Bring 5 quarts (5 liters) of water to a boil in an 8-quart (8 liter) pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.

6. Warm a serving bowl in a low oven. If the oven is not practical, warm the bowl just before use with hot water, even a ladleful of the pasta cooking water.

7. Drain the pasta and put it in the warmed serving bowl. Toss it first with the grated cheese, then with the sauce. Serve immediately.

Top composite photo:

Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book’s editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book’s launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce.

“Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

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Sweet Potato Gnocchi Gives Italian Tradition A Twist Image

Anyone who grew up like I did, making gnocchi at her mother’s knee, knows that the sight of dehydrated potatoes sets off a reflex to take out the pasta board. Old potatoes that have lost some of their moisture are best for making gnocchi (pronounced nee-AWK-key) because the dough formed with them absorbs less flour than dewy fresh potatoes do. Whether using Yukon Golds, Russets or sweet potatoes, the same principle applies for any variety of potato gnocchi: the less flour, the lighter the dumpling.

So one fine December day in my New York kitchen, faced with a basket filled with sweet potatoes that had never made it to the Thanksgiving table the month before, I set to work making gnocchi using the “sweets.” The recipe — a trail blazer, as far as I can tell — appeared in my first cookbook, “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking.”

Despite my intention to faithfully represent the pasta cuisine of Italy in that early volume, it was, in effect, an original. Sweet potatoes are not a traditional ingredient in the Italian culinary repertoire. Pumpkin dumplings, a staple of the Veneto and other regions of the Italian north, are reminiscent in flavor, but the sweet potato gnocchi recipe is a perfect example of Old and New World fusion.

I liked the newly invented dish so much that I decided to include it in my cookbook. Every Italian recipe, after all, started with someone just like me, inspired by what was at hand and guided by that particular Italian sensibility lodged in my genes that craves harmonies.

The sweet potato gnocchi, anointed with almond and butter pesto, became a Christmas and New Year ritual in my family. Following the Italian tradition, the dumplings were served after the appetizer but preceding the roast – usually duck, pork or ham. It is one of those recipes that always elicits raves and that everyone asks for once they have tasted it.

Over the years, I have tweaked my original recipe, inventing different butters and experimenting with various varieties of sweet potatoes. It is gratifying to see more and more vegetables not only in the farmers markets but also, on grocers’ shelves today. The sweetest of all the tubers by far is the deeply hued Stokes Purple, developed by North Carolina grower, Mike Sizemore, and introduced to me by Frieda’s, an innovative California specialty produce grocer. It has the driest flesh of them all, perfectly suited for gnocchi.

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Pass the potatoes through a ricer. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

The proportions for the dough are classic — about a cup of flour to a pound of potatoes, depending on the potatoes’ moisture content. I spiked the puréed “sweets” with orange zest and nutmeg before working in the flour, and formed the dough into ridged curls on a butter paddle.

Into the boiling water they went, floating effortlessly to the surface after a mere minute or two, little indigo puffs ready for a warm butter bath. The brilliant purple flesh delivers not only the lightest and most sugary, but also the most spectacularly colored gnocchi. Although slightly exotic, the indigo dumplings are a most beguiling first course, with the charm of the unfamiliar. A touch of melted butter, a scattering of true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and if you like, a shower of almonds or hazelnuts, makes a festive dish for a New Year celebration.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Hazelnut Butter

Adapted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking” Makes about 40 purple or orange gnocchi, first course portion for 2 to 3 people

I’ve written separate formulas for purple and orange sweet potato gnocchi to account for slightly different proportions of flour-to-potatoes, depending on the varieties. The orange types will absorb more flour, but they, too, will be delicate and fluffy as long as the potatoes are not freshly harvested and have had a few weeks to age. When making sweet potato gnocchi for the first time, prepare a small batch as described here, and practice forming the dough and rolling out the dumplings once before making a larger batch. No doubt it will occur to you to make both types for a dramatic two-colored effect, certainly a lovely  presentation.

For purple sweet potato gnocchi dough:

¾ pound purple-fleshed sweet potato

¼ cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface

Zest of one navel orange

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

For orange sweet potato dough:

½ pound orange-fleshed sweet potato, such as Covingtons

½ cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus additional for the work surface

Zest of one navel orange

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

For cooking:

kosher salt

For serving:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

¼ cup lightly toasted hazelnuts, skins rubbed off, chopped finely

2 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Place the sweet potatoes on a rack positioned over a baking pan to allow circulation of heat, and roast until they are collapsed in appearance and soft inside when pierced with a knife.

2. While the sweet potatoes cook, set up your work surface with the necessary ingredients and have extra flour on hand should you need it. Line a baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel.

3. Allow the sweet potatoes to cool only enough to be able to handle them comfortably. They must be warm to form a successful dough. The flesh of the purple variety doesn’t peel off easily, so best to scoop out the pulp with a spoon; discard the skin. If cooking the orange variety, peel off and discard the skin using a paring knife.

4. Pass the sweet potato pulp through a ricer onto a floured work surface, forming a mound, or mash it finely using a potato masher or fork. Never put cooked potatoes in a food processor or blender.

5. Scatter the orange zest, nutmeg, and sea salt over the potatoes. Sprinkle the mound with some flour and gradually work it in. Working quickly, keep adding the flour until you form a fairly smooth dough that no longer sticks to your hands. If necessary, add more flour to prevent stickiness. Scrape the work surface frequently as you work to keep it smooth and free of dried bits of dough as you work. You can sift any dried out bits of dough and flour back onto the board to keep the surface powdery and ease kneading. Once you have formed the dough, stop working it and cut it in half. Cover the remainder with an inverted bowl to keep it from drying out.

6. Form the dough into ropes about ¾ inch thick and as long as you like for ease of rolling. Use the dough scraper or a knife to cut it into cylinders as wide as they are thick. Use a butter paddle, the side of a box grater, or a fork, take each little piece, dip it in flour on the cut ends to prevent sticking, and roll it against the paddle, grater, or tines of a fork, pushing your thumb into it as you do so to form a hollow, concave dumpling with a pretty ridged surface. Place the gnocchi onto the prepared towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat this process with the remaining dough to form the remaining gnocchi, lining them up on the towel without touching.

7. Have ready a spider strainer or a slotted spoon with which to scoop the cooked gnocchi out of the cooking water. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water. Select a shallow serving platter and spread the butter in it. Bring the water to a rapid boil and add 2 tablespoons kosher salt.

8. Lift the towel with two corners in the grasp of each hand, and position it over the boiling pot. Release your hold of the bottom two corners of the towel and drop the gnocchi at once into the water. Cook over high heat until the dumplings float to the top, allowing them to bob on the surface no longer than 1 minute before you retrieve them with the spider strainer or slotted spoon.

9. Transfer the gnocchi to the warm, buttered serving platter, shaking the dish to toss and coat them all over. Scatter with the hazelnuts and grated cheese and serve at once.

Note: Once formed, the gnocchi can be left out at room temperature, uncovered, for up to two hours, or frozen in place in an ample deep-freeze. Once frozen solid, slide the gnocchi into freezer bags and freeze for up to three months. To cook, drop them, frozen into boiling salted water and proceed as described in the recipe.

Top photo: Purple sweet potato gnocchi with hazelnut butter, adapted from “Pasta Classica” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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How Pilgrims Almost Ruined Spaghetti Alla Carbonara Image

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.

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 first Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Laura Cornell

The first Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Laura Cornell

“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

Serves 4

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Love And Zucca: Why Venice Adores Its Pumpkins Image

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.

Inside cues:

For Julia della Croce's tips on growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes, look below the recipe.


More from Zester Daily:

» Pumpkin risotto gives Thanksgiving a boost

» Spaghetti squash specialties

» Turn squash into dumplings

» Greeks turn pumpkin into moussaka

» Italian zucchini secrets

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.

Picture 1 of 4

Pumpkins of the West Indies, c. 1590. Credit: “Histoire Naturelle Des Indes,” courtesy of The Drake Manuscript in the Piermont Morgan Library

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.

Serves 6

Ingredients

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

Directions

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)

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