Thrifty, Italian Style
Comes now January with its austere profile, severe and simple after the extravagances of the holidays, a time not of promise, but for promises — I promise to lose 10 pounds, to clean out the front hall closet, to give up that second latte every morning, to practice true thrift, open a savings account, rise an hour early and work on my novel, stay away from Facebook. Et cetera.
(Oh, maybe just 30 minutes a day on Facebook.)
In times like these, we usually don’t think of Italy for kitchen advice of a self-denying nature. Italians may not have invented cucina povera, but they certainly gave it a melodious name. Italy’s traditional cuisines are full of helpful ideas for getting by with less, perfect for this ascetic month at the start of a new year, a new decade.
Take bread for instance. I read somewhere that thrifty Italians have 42 ways to use up old bread. What surprised me was not how high — but how low — the number was. Surely I can enumerate more than 42 ways, thinking of all those Tuscan cooks I’ve known who turn out their bread salads (panzanella), bread soups (ribollita), bruschetta and crostini, piled high with delicious things but fundamentally just slices of stale bread put to good use to support all the rest. And then the Pugliese with their bread soups (pancotto), bread salads (cialda) and even meatless meatballs, made largely from bread crumbs. Which reminds me of Sicilians and their habit of toasting handfuls of bread crumbs in lush Sicilian olive oil until they’re brown and crisp, then using them to top pasta in place of grated cheese. (Don’t knock it, don’t even question it, till you’ve tried it.)
Bolognese build from bread crumbs
As for the Bolognese — no cuisine in all of Italy is richer or more sumptuous than Bologna la grassa (the fat). Bologna is also home to a thrifty pasta called passatelli, nothing more or less than equal quantities of bread crumbs and grated parmigiano, mixed with eggs and sometimes a little marrow or butter, generously flavored with nutmeg. Then, the dough is pushed through an ingenious gadget that shapes it into little worms that are cooked in a savory beef or chicken broth. Delicious!
The bread in all these recipes can be of many types, but almost invariably it is made from wheat — either grano tenero, which makes a flour closely approximating our all-purpose flour, or grano duro, a gritty flour made from hard durum-wheat semolina. The former is more characteristic of northern and central Italy, the latter typical of the deep south where the bread is so yellow from carotenes in the wheat that people sometimes mistakenly think it has eggs in it.
Whichever bread is used, it is made to last, a week or more, from one baking to the next. (I’m often asked why Tuscan bread has no salt. The simple answer is that unsalted bread does not absorb moisture, thus lasts a good deal longer, without going moldy, than regular bread with salt.) As the bread ages, it loses moisture and becomes pane raffermo — the term means “firmed up” bread and not stale bread, an important distinction. Bread at this stage should not be brick-hard but still have some give to it.
I want to give you a recipe for Tuscan unsalted bread, called pane sciocco (PAH-nay SHO-ko), as well as for passatelli in brodo, the worm-like, bread-crumb pasta from the Po Valley. And maybe next week I’ll get to Sicily’s iconic pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines, sweet golden raisins and bread crumbs, and to polpette di pane, the meatless meatballs from Puglia, also called polpette di lupo, wolf meatballs, presumably because they help keep the wolf from the door.
But first the bread, which takes three days to make — most of that time, the dough is simply working, developing flavor, and you are not.
Unsalted bread starts the Tuscan process
This makes two 2½ pound loaves, enough to have something fresh from the oven, and more for making the passatelli and other good things:
You’ll need a teaspoon of active dry yeast, plus 8 or 9 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour, preferably organic, and a cup of whole-wheat flour, also organic if possible, plus a little olive oil for the bowl. (No salt, but if you really want to add it, you may do so at the same time that you add the whole-wheat flour.)
Dissolve a teaspoon of yeast in a ½ cup of very warm water in a small bowl. Set aside until the yeast has turned creamy.
Put 2 cups of all-purpose flour in a bowl, make a well in the middle, and pour in the yeast mixture. Pull in a little flour from the sides to be absorbed in the liquid, then gradually mix in another cup of very warm water. Using a wooden spoon, mix the flour and water together to a thick slurry. Sprinkle another cup of flour over the top, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a cool place to rise for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.
Next day, add another cup of all-purpose flour, a cup of very warm water and a cup of whole-wheat flour. Mix, kneading slightly in the bowl with your hands — the dough will be quite sticky — just enough to combine the liquid and flours thoroughly. Set aside again, covered, in a cool place to rise for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.
Next day, spread about a cup of remaining flour on a bread board or kneading surface. Stir 1½ cups water into the dough and work in the remaining flour, then turn the dough out on the board and knead for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the dough is silky, springy and has lost its stickiness. Rub a little olive oil around the inside of a bowl and turn the dough into the bowl, covering the bowl and setting the dough aside to rise and more than double — about 2 to 3 hours in a warmish kitchen.
If you are using a baking stone (which I recommend — but if you don’t have a baking stone, see below), set it in the oven and turn the oven to 450 F. Turn the fully risen dough out onto a lightly floured board, punch it down, knead briefly and form the dough into two loaves. Set them on a board dusted with semolina or cornmeal to rise for about 45 minutes while the oven heats thoroughly. Cover the loaves lightly with plastic wrap while they rise.
When ready to bake, transfer a loaf to a wooden peel sprinkled with semolina or cornmeal. Tuscans don’t slash their bread, but if you wish to do so, slash each loaf with a very sharp knife. Open the oven door and quickly shift the loaf to the baking stone, leaving room for both loaves. Repeat with the second loaf.
If you don’t use a baking stone, set the loaves for their final rise on a baking sheet lightly strewn with semolina or cornmeal. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise, then slash if you wish and slide the baking sheet into the preheated oven.
Bake 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 F and continue baking another 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned and feels a little hollow when you knock it with your fist. Remove the bread to cool on a rack before slicing.
Passatelli in Brodo
Makes 6 to 8 first-course servings
To make the passatelli noodles, you will need a potato ricer or possibly a food mill with large holes through which you can pass the dough. Most traditional cooks turn the noodles right into a pot filled with simmering stock, but because it has to be done in three or more turns if you’re using a ricer, some of the passatelli inevitably get overcooked. Better then to turn the noodles right onto a board, tossing them gently with flour or semolina, than to turn all of them at once into the stock pot.
- In the bowl of a food processor, combine the bread crumbs and grated cheese. Process those ingredients briefly to mix them well and further reduce the size of the bread crumbs.
- Then, with the motor running, add the eggs, one after the other, and about ¼ cup of the flour.
- Add salt and pepper to taste, plenty of nutmeg (there should be a discernable nutmeg flavor in the final result), and ground red chili pepper or paprika.
- Turn the dough out on a lightly floured board. It will be much softer than regular pasta dough but should still hold together well. If necessary, knead a little more all-purpose flour into the mix but don’t go beyond a half cup of flour in all. If the dough still seems a little too wet, add more grated cheese or bread crumbs.
- Shape the dough into a ball and set aside, covered, for an hour or two.
- When you’re ready to cook the passatelli, bring the stock to a simmer. Using a potato ricer, take about a fourth to a third of the passatelli dough and press it through the ricer. You may press the little worms of pasta directly into the simmering stock, or spread a little semolina on a board and press the passatelli onto the board.
- When all the passatelli are done, turn them into the simmering stock and let them cook for just 2 minutes. Then serve the hot soup immediately, passing more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano if you wish.
Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean.”
Photos by Nancy Harmon Jenkins