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I will confess right from the start that I’ve never been a big fan of Thanksgiving. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I’ve never seen the point of eating oneself silly one day of the year.
And I hate to call attention to it, but the food isn’t even all that interesting. An unnaturally plumped out bird, its interior filled with sundry pastes made from stale bread, roasted for hours until the meat is dry and stringy; a traditional sauce that is too tart to eat on its own and requires massive quantities of mashed potatoes to make it go down; a selection of vegetables cooked to death then beaten to a uniform pap; and finally a selection of desserts about which the less said the better — pumpkin pie (another pap), mincemeat (like Christmas fruitcake, nobody actually likes it but we all pretend to) and pecan pie so sweet it makes my teeth ache just to write the words.
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That was Thanksgiving when I was growing up, before my mother saw the light and began serving lobster instead, which she did only after her children had left home and she no longer had to maintain the Rockwellesque illusion of the holiday. You can see why my memories are not exactly nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. The only things I really liked were the silver bowls of nuts and mints (each one hiding a spot of jelly inside) and the peculiar divided crystal tray that was brought out once or maybe twice a year in which to serve celery sticks stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese.
But truth be told, the real reason I didn’t like Thanksgiving — which has remained a secret until the present day — is that there are no presents! We had gifts at Christmas, gifts at Easter, gifts at birthdays and fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing at Thanksgiving — and no overstuffed, over-roasted bird could make up for that. Not even the exciting presence of my uncle from Boston, who always brought a collection of guns and taught me to shoot them at targets on the river below our house, could overcome my disappointment in the holiday.
The pleasures of Thanksgiving
So to ask me to think about the pleasures of Thanksgiving, as the Zester Daily editors have done, is to ask pretty much the impossible. I could tell you about the best turkey I ever made, one deep fried in extra virgin olive oil from a 4-year-old stash I found hiding in the back of our Tuscan pantry. OK, so it was only a quarter of a very large Tuscan turkey, but it was memorable nonetheless. Or I could tell you about the chestnut soup, potage de marrons, with which we began the meal one year. Made from a recipe in an old Elizabeth David cookbook, it required skinning and peeling the chestnuts (not a task for pikers, requiring as it does a hot oven and a very sharp knife), making a vegetable stock, cooking the peeled chestnuts in the stock until soft, pureeing them and finally thinning the puree with milk or cream. “Although all this may sound a lot of fuss to make a chestnut soup,” David comments, “it is well worth the trouble.” And so it is, especially when made with the marrone (chestnuts) gathered from the line of trees that extends below our house.
After all, isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be about giving thanks for an abundant harvest? A harvest of chestnuts, a harvest of olive oil, a harvest of squash and pumpkins? Moreover, to celebrate the harvest, to celebrate the goodness of what has been safely gathered in, even if you’ve gathered it from only your local supermarket, is a way of honoring and paying respect to all the people who made the harvest possible, especially the farmers. It’s a good time to remember that without farms, we have no good food, and without good food, in my reckoning, we have no real happiness.
So presents or not, I plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in my own quiet way. But not with turkey and not with squashed squash. Instead, I’m going to make a very special pasta dish developed by my daughter, who often serves it at her restaurant, Porsena, in New York. We’re featuring it in our almost completed book, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” which we hope will be out in time for Christmas 2015.
Here it is, and if you’re as tired as I am of squashed squash, pureed turnips, boiled onions and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce, just try this and see if it doesn’t bring some seasonal delights and maybe even a little applause for daring to step outside the envelope.
Pasta With Crumbled Garlic Sausage, Sage and Winter Squash
For this pasta, we use pennette, but any small, shaped pasta will do — try orecchiette, creste di galli (cock’s combs), Pasta Faella’s lumacchine (small snails), Benedetto Cavalieri’s ruote pazze (crazy wheels) or any similar quirky shape. This is a particularly good treatment for whole-wheat pasta, with the flavors of squash, sausage and wheat all marrying together nicely.
For the squash, use any hard winter squash, such as Hubbard, butternut or buttercup; sugar pumpkins will be too sweet, but one of the pumpkins grown for eating (and not for Halloween), such as Long Island cheese pumpkin with its pale skin and flattened shape, would do very well. The squash should be about 2 pounds when trimmed. Chop the squash coarsely, and don’t worry if the pieces are not equal. Part of the charm of the dish comes from some pieces disintegrating almost into a puree while others stay a little firm to the bite.
For the sausages, look for pure pork sausages with nothing but salt and aromatics (and garlic) added. We use sweet Italian sausages for this, and when we can find them, fennel-flavored ones. If you like spicy food, however, use the hot kind. If you use sweet sausages, consider adding a pinch of ground or flaked red chili peppers or a teaspoon of wild fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds to perk things up a bit. And if you cannot get garlic-flavored sausages, by all means add more garlic to the sauce.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
10 to 12 sage leaves
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped onion, red or yellow
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
2 Italian-style sausages, sweet, fennel or spicy (about ½ pound)
2 teaspoons wild fennel pollen or ground fennel seed (optional)
Pinch of ground or flaked red chili pepper (optional)
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta (see headnote for suggestions)
4 1/2 to 5 cups coarsely chopped firm, orange-fleshed squash (see headnote for suggestions)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to pass at the table
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1. Set aside 4 or 5 of the largest sage leaves to crisp in oil and use for a garnish. Chop the rest to make 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped sage.
2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat then add the chopped onion and garlic. Remove the sausage meat from its casings. As soon as the vegetables start to sizzle, crumble the ground sausage in. Let the sausage meat cook briefly, tossing, stirring and breaking it up until it has rendered out its fat, then, when it just stops being pink, add the chopped sage along with the fennel and chili pepper (if using) and stir it in.
3. Set a large pot of abundantly salted water on to boil.
4. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the reserved whole sage leaves. Saute, turning, until the leaves are crisp, then remove to a paper towel to drain.
5. When the pasta water is boiling vigorously, add the pasta and stir with a long-handled spoon. Pennette will take about 10 minutes to become al dente, but start testing at 8 minutes.
6. While the pasta water returns to a boil and the pasta cooks, add the grated squash to the sausage in the saucepan and turn up the heat to medium high. Cook briskly until the squash is soft, cooked through and some pieces are beginning to disintegrate. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the sauce and stir it in. Keep the sauce warm over low heat while the pasta cooks.
7. Have ready a warmed serving bowl.
8. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to the warm bowl.
9. Season the sausage-squash sauce with salt and pepper, along with the grated Parmigiano, and toss. Garnish with chopped parsley and finally with the crisp-fried sage leaves.
10. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.
Note to cooks: Use this as a master recipe for all sorts of sausage-and-vegetable pasta sauces. Once Thanksgiving is past, try it with broccoli rabe or turnip greens, or chop a bunch of leeks into smaller pieces, rinse them thoroughly and add in place of the squash.
Main photo: Sausage and squash are a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”
Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”
In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.
This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.
Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.
What makes olive oils great?
But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”
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Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.
Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.
There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!
Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.
But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.
The revolution starts here
Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.
So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:
- www.olio2go.com, retail store at 8400 Hilltop Road, Fairfax, Va.; (703) 876-4666.
- www.gustiamo.com, mail order only; (718) 860-2949.
- www.dipaloselects.com, retail store at DiPalo Fine Foods, 200 Grand St., New York, N.Y.; (212) 226-1033.
- www.markethallfoods.com, retail store at Rockridge Market Hall, 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, Calif.; (510) 250-6000.
- www.cortibrothers.com, retail store at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, Calif.; (916) 736-3814.
- www.zingermans.com, retail store at 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, Mich.; (734) 663-3354.
Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto
When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.
I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”
I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.
The tide turns on mussels
If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.
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New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.
Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.
Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.
Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.
There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.
The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.
Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.
I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.
Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course
5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)
3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup
1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup
½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish
1½ cups dry white wine
1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small
Big pinch of saffron
Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper
½ pound cavatelli pasta
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.
2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.
3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.
4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.
5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.
6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.
7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.
Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Once September turns the mid-month corner, nights start to get darned chilly in Maine. By the end of the month, we’ve already come close to a frost, and that means the tomato season is heading to collapse.
Tomatoes? Maine? I can hear your skepticism. But, yes, even in Maine we grow tomatoes, and we love them for the few very short weeks that they flourish. They’ll never be the intensely flavored ones I remember from the Mediterranean or the big fat juicy globes from New Jersey that proliferate in New York City’s Greenmarkets, but, yes, we have tomatoes and we cherish them.
Tomatoes for every season
We appreciate them so much so that we decorate our window sills from mid-September on into October with specimens we hope will “ripen” enough to be sliced into a salad. And those that are already ripe we turn into preserves for the winter — frozen whole tomatoes, tomato sauce put up in Mason jars and tomato relish for winter hamburgers and baked beans. (We’re also favorably inclined to baked beans, but more on that another time.) You can find my directions for preserving tomatoes here.
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But what to do with all that tomato sauce once you’ve got the harvest under control? The easiest thing is to make the simplest pasta sauce in the world — just open a jar of tomato sauce, chop a garlic clove coarsely, simmer it gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomato sauce and, if you have it, some chopped fresh herbs — parsley, basil, rosemary, all are fine — or a half teaspoon of crumbled dried oregano and perhaps a small dried red chili. Let the whole thing simmer together for no more than 5 or 10 minutes, stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter at the end, add some freshly ground black pepper and serve it over pasta with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese.
This is guaranteed to warm all hearts on the coldest night of autumn when the rain sheets down and threatens to turn to snow.
And for a more elaborate presentation, when there’s a bit more time to cook, make a classic Tuscan pasta al forno. This is simple to prepare, but it cooks in a slow oven for a long time — perfect to start off on a chilly Saturday, then go for a long walk and have the ragu ready for you when you come home.
Pasta al forno
Prep time: About 20 minutes, mostly done during cooking
Cook time: About 3 hours
Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: Makes 8 servings
½ cup diced pancetta or guanciale
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound pork in one piece (boneless loin is fine)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 pints preserved tomatoes or tomato sauce
2 cups coarsely grated mixed cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, smoked provola or similar)
½ cup ricotta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
About 1 pound (500 grams) short, stubby pasta such as rigatoni, lumache, calamari or calamaretti, etc.
About ½ cup unflavored bread crumbs
About ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Combine the pancetta and olive oil in a heavy-duty saucepan, one that can go in the oven. Set over medium heat. Dry the pork thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper, then add to the pan. Brown the pancetta and pork on all sides; the pancetta should become crisp, and the piece of pork should be golden all around. When done, remove the browned pancetta and pork and set aside on separate plates.
2. While the meat is browning, chop together the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley to make a finely chopped mixture. You should have about 1½ to 2 cups of vegetables.
3. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
4. Add the chopped vegetables to the pan, lower the heat to medium-low and cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Then add bay leaves and the tomatoes or tomato sauce. If you’re using whole tomatoes, break them up with the side of a spoon.
5. Nestle the pork into the vegetable mixture and add water to come almost to the top of the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the saucepan and transfer to the oven. Cook very gently for about 2 hours, or until the pork is very tender and the vegetables have almost dissolved into the sauce.
6. When the ragu is ready, remove from the oven and let cool down to warm room temperature. Remove the pork and set aside.
7. Using a hand blender, blend the vegetables to a chunky sauce. (You could also use a food processor, pulsing briefly, to keep the sauce somewhat chunky.)
8. Shred or chop the pork and add to the ragu along with the reserved pancetta.
9. Set the oven to 400 F.
10. Bring 4 quarts to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil, adding a big spoonful of salt.
11. While the water is heating, mix together the grated cheeses with the ricotta.
12. Using a tablespoon of butter, grease the bottom and sides of a rectangular oven dish approximately 10 inches by 12 inches and at least 2 inches deep.
13. Spread a thin layer of ragu on the bottom of the dish. Combine the remaining ragu with the cheese mixture.
14. Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir with a long-handled spoon. Cook the pasta for just 4 to 5 minutes from the moment the water returns to a boil. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and immediately combine the pasta with the cheesy ragu. Turn into the prepared oven dish. Top with the bread crumbs and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, then dot with the remaining butter and dribble a tablespoon or two of oil over the top.
15. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is brown and bubbling. Remove and serve immediately.
Main photo: Jars of tomato sauce ready for the winter pantry. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.
So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.
I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.
Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.
Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).
A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.
Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.
Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”
But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.
You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.
I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
- Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
- ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
- While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
- Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
- Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
- Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
- Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.
If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.
This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.
Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.
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Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.
In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.
What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.
But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.
And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion — the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.
Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.
Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes
A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.
It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.
But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:
- Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
- Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
- Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
- Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
- Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.
Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.
This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.
- Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
- ¾ cup walnut meats
- ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 4 medium eggs, separated
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
- Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
- When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
- Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
- Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
- With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
- Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.
Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto