Dec 29, 2009

Cotechino e lenticchie recipe

As the world prepares its champagne flûtes, firecrackers and party frocks, here in Italy we welcome the arrival of the new year strictly adhering to tradition.

Just like the American custom of dropping a ball of some sort, be it an orange in Florida or a sparking orb in Times Square, in some southern regions of Italy, all things which are old are discarded in riddance of all accumulated ill, and as an act of welcoming in the New Year’s fortune.

Italian New Year's eve, you see, is all about superstition.

In tune with the average Italian theatrical and imaginative character, it is believed that the older the item thrown away and more exaggerated the gesture, the greater the amount of luck generated. So don’t be surprised if at midnight on December 31st you see an old dishwasher flying out a window. Napoli, being the drama queen of the boot-shaped Peninsula, besides an addiction to exploding firecrackers and home made fire-work bombs, is the city where at dawn on January 1st, the streets are a bizarre exhibit of jettison debris. Free vintage everything, from toilet bowls, old newspapers saved for the occasion, closet clutter, old rugs and tiles, stripped shreds of wallpaper, out-of-fashion clothes, old calendars, chipped furniture.

Legend has it that the fumes of alcohol and gunpowder fogged the minds of those who tossed 92 year-old Grandma Luigina from the kitchen balcony that time.

Another fortune bearing midnight exercise is that of eating three white grapes on the twelfth bell toll.

My favorite luck-endearing function is that of slipping on sexy bright red lace underwear right after midnight. Fire engine red underwear, or any foundation garment in close proximity to the serendipitous bottom, is said to bring money and lots of good sex in the coming year.The most powerful luck engendering measure on Italian New Year’s eve is however the menu. The typical Capodanno (“head of the year”) dinner is one monumental good luck charm. It is composed of stewed lentils and thick slices of cotechino (lentils are said to bring money, zampone or cotechino, a large spiced pork meat sausage, represents phallic abundance), and some even delay dinner to past midnight so as to eat this palatable dish on the date of the New Year and not one minute earlier to avoid jinxing its effect.

The Cotechino originated in the province of Modena, a land of unhinged poetic epicureans, famous race cars, liberal politicians and generous foodstuffs. This fresh pork sausage is quite large, usually about 2 inches in diameter and 8 to 9 inches long. It is made from pork rind and meat from the cheek, neck and shoulder, and is usually seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper. The best cotechino is delicately flavored and has a soft, almost creamy texture.

I was fed this rich winter dish on a torrid mid-August day at countryside inn while on a film shoot and my liver still resents it. I later found out that in the nearby unconventional town of Castelnuovo Rangone, the mayor erected a statue to the town's most popular citizen honoring its annual sacrifice. A life-size bronze pig dominates the main piazza facing the church.

So, bearing in mind that on the night of December 31st, a timed combination of lentils, cotechino, grapes and red briefs will guarantee 365 days of bliss, here is my mother's recipe for Italy's typical fortune-bearing New Year's Eve fare. You have 3 days to get it together.

Cotechino e Lenticchie recipe

1 kg (2 lb) pre-cooked Cotechino di Modena (a well stocked deli or Italian specialty store will inevitably sell it, especially around holiday season)
400 g (2 cups) brown lentils (best if you can get your hands on the Castelluccio di Norcia or Santo Stefano di Sessanio variety - very tiny and delicious)
1/2 white onion, chopped
1/2 carrot
1/2 celery rib
1 meat bouillon cube
4 tablespoons unseasoned tomato sauce
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Arrange the lentils on a sheet pan or wide platter and sort through them to pick out any small rocks, pieces of dirt, lentils with holes or cavities, badly misshapen or shriveled ones and those greatly undersized or discolored.

Next, wash the lentils twice in cold water – with this cooking procedure there’s no need to soak them.

Follow the manufacturer's cooking instructions for the cotechino. Some notable brands of precooked cotechino (Fini, Citterio, etc.) require a minimum 20-minute boiling time of the air packed aluminum wrapped cotechino, but each maker applies different instructions. Once the cotechino is cooked, set it aside and cover it with plastic wrap. Do not refrigerate.

Wash, rinse and dry the vegetables. Chop the onion and leave the carrot and celery whole. Put the chopped onion, carrot and celery in a large pot with a splash of olive oil. Simmer lightly for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the lentils, bouillon cube and tomato sauce, stirring for another 5 minutes.

In a separate pot bring 2 liters (2 quarts) of water to a boil. Pour enough boiling water to cover the lentils. As it dries up, keep adding water as you would for risotto (without having to constantly stir), as the lentils absorb the liquid. You may not use all the water, or you may have to heat some more as the lentils drink up during cooking.

Guessing the correct cooking time of lentils is a challenge. It's important to obtain a thick, homogeneous, solid soup. Lentils must be well cooked to a soft texture, but not puréed.

Wine? In order to degrease the rich character of cotechino, wines rich in carbon dioxide are best. These include Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, or Pinot Nero Spumante Metodo Classico dell’Oltrepò Pavese, whose vinification is white.

Slice the cotechino and serve over a bed of lentils. Possibly wearing indecent red lingerie.
Buon Anno!

Dec 23, 2009

Italian Christmas menus

Candied dates smeared with butter, dried figs stuffed with walnuts, trays of hazelnuts, almonds, pecans and dark Brazilian nuts. Bread crumbs, cracked nutshells, bits of leftovers, empty espresso cups and wine glasses, and curled up mandarin orange peel scattered on a bright red embroidered tablecloth.

That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of Christmas Eve dinner at my mother’s house. The annual battleground after the seafood-based feast known as cenone della vigilia.

Earlier in the day the kitchen vibrates with joyful activity. We cook, drink, laugh a lot and throw food at each other, authorized to make a mess. We do it all together. We prepare the Christmas Eve dinner together, we eat it together and together we express our love for each other exchanging little thoughtful presents after midnight Mass. When my son finally falls asleep, we tiptoe into the house's many hiding places and bring out Santa's booty. We eat the snack left out for him, leaving evident crumbs and soot footsteps coming out of the chimney. And we smile in his same adorable anticipation. And that's when it truly feels like Christmas.

I kept wondering why I was having such a hard time getting into the Christmas mood this year. I tried everything: decorating the tree, building the presepe, putting up ornaments and lights all over the house, playing carols, baking cookies, constructing a gingerbread house... I included my son in all these usually infectious holiday activities because, after all, that's who I was doing it all for. But it wasn't really working. Something was missing.

And then I figured it out. I understood that there wasn't anything missing, there was actually an excess instead. There is too much of everything. Excessive frantic driving through traffic for last minute shopping. Too much constant mad rushing to conquer ground (and parking space) in horrible hysteria-mode stores and malls. Had the holiday season been reduced to racing brawl-prone folks laden with gift-wrapped boxes to the best deal? That's not Christmas! Christmas suddenly had turned into a commercial operation, and I somehow had forgotten its real meaning. To me Natale was a moment of excitement, of preparation, of joy. A traditional festive family occasion.

This shouldn't sound like a sermon, but very few things are sacred for me and Christmas is one of them. Nowadays Christmas in Italy is all about getting the perfect gift, leaving for the ultimate exotic vacation (and then bragging about it), accumulating rather than un-cluttering. Il Santo Natale–the holiness of Christmas–has been transformed into a display of money, image and opulence rather than a domestic celebration. It's a little sad, isn't it?

Thankfully the one element of Italian Natale that will never change is getting the family around a table and eating like crazy. So tomorrow evening, the dining room will be alive with chatter and laughter. After the gargantuan meal, the venue will convert – like every year – into casino royale for the Italian ritual Christmas gambling and tombola (bingo) tradition. The crumbs and nutshells get swept off la tavola with one tipsy motion and the games will begin. Usually one cousin – appropriately nicknamed 'the taxman' – always wins every game, pocketing all our invested coins, so after a few rounds everyone gets up disgruntled, belching and unzipping constricting garments. Someone always volunteers to do the monumental pile of dishes, and politics are rarely ever overlooked in the conversation. We have been known to fight occasionally on Christmas Eve for that reason. But we also stick to tradition, and play, laugh and eat ourselves into a stupor.

Like every year, my mother will be Grand Supervisor of the Christmas Eve banquet, which will traditionally include fish in its multi-course menu and copious amounts of wine, bubbly and happiness. We all help out and contribute our share cooking with her.

Needless to say, pre-preparation has already started. I am in fact posting this in a break during busy kitchen work.

This year we will be serving our Christmas Eve Dinner guests (old friends, immediate family and additional boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-spouses and the like) the following menu:

Smoked salmon canapées
Fritto di paranza (small fried fish)
Lasagna with Taleggio, mushrooms and shaved white truffles
Steamed European Sea bass with homemade mayonnaise (12 eggs)
Broccoli rabe rustic pie
Escarole rustic pie
Insalata di rinforzo (Neapolitan boiled cabbage, Greek olives and anchovy salad)
Artichokes "alla Romana" (added at the last minute)
Panettone, Pandoro and mixed nuts, dried figs and dates
Champagne Veuve-Cliquot Rosé
Rosso di Montalcino
Greco di Tufo
Homemade myrtle liqueur

But Natale here in Italy is a two-day celebration, so...

The Christmas Day Lunch (for seating capacity reasons, always held at my mom's house) menu will feature:

Tortellini in brodo made with 3 kinds of meat/bones
Crown lamb roast and oven-baked russet potatoes
Guinea-fowl breasts stuffed with chestnuts and truffles
Radicchio, pears and gorgonzola salad
Panettone and Pandoro
Seasonal fruit platter
Chianti Classico
Passito di Pantelleria
Mandarin oranges

I have the oven blasting at 350°F and the smell in the house is delicious. My apron is spattered and Mr. E is wearing a Santa hat with flashing red lights. He's helping me mix ingredients. Rosemary Clooney is singing her carols for us through the sound system, and tree lights twinkle.

Something inside is tingling. I may have just found my Christmas spirit...

Dec 17, 2009

Stocco e Patane - Cod and potato casserole recipe

Christmas Eve in the southern regions of Italy is traditionally all about a massive fish-based dinner, family, tombola, and midnight Mass. From now until Natale, I shall be posting recipes of typical Christmas fare, desserts and traditional holiday foods.
Last week Italia Living published an article on the history of Pandoro, a typical Italian Christmas cake. Today I will tell you about a tasty fish entree of which I am very fond of.

Stocco is the Neapolitan distortion of the term used for stoccafisso, which is sun-dried cod. When someone is said to be as rigid as a stoccafisso, the implied similarity to the Atlantic fish plank is quite evident. The surfboard-stiff slabs need reviving with overnight soaking, so if you’re in a hurry to taste this delicious cucina povera dish, I suggest you have your fishmonger prepare and clean some fresh codfish for you, divided into 6 fillet portions.
Image © Claudio Cicali

This tasty peasant dish from Napoli is–contrary to the belief that fish is laborious to cook–very easy to make. Stocco e Patane is delicious when paired to a chilled bottle of Fiano di Avellino or a room temperature carafe of young Chianti Classico (I personally prefer red with tomato-stewed cod).

6 codfish fillets 
600 g (1.3 lbs/3 cups) potatoes, peeled and cut in wedges
2 small onions, thinly sliced 
1 can (14 oz) San Marzano tomatoes, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil 
A small pinch of dried oregano 

Drizzle some olive oil in a high-rimmed pot (Dutch oven). Place a layer of sliced potatoes and onions on the bottom of the pot. Cover with the chopped tomatoes, season with salt and sprinkle with oregano. On this bed, lay the fish fillets and repeat the layering.

Season with a bit more salt and oregano, and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

Avoid stirring and check for doneness. If the fish is cooked before the potatoes, remove it and continue cooking the vegetables.

When ready to serve, place the fish back in the pot and heat for a minute or two.

Serve the fillets warm, topped with the onion and potato slices.

Dec 13, 2009

Grissini - Breadsticks recipe

Breadsticks are one of the most celebrated and widespread products of Torino's gastronomy and one of the most renowned items of Italian cuisine abroad.

Tradition has the birth of grissini located around 1668, year in which court baker Antonio Brunero invented the long, thin crisp strands of bread as a novelty food for future king Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy, who’s health was very delicate and whose frail stomach did not even tolerate soft breadcrumb.

The success of breadsticks was particularly rapid, due to the food’s high digestibiltity compared to common bread, and for the nearly two week conservation without any deterioration.

Among the greatest fans of grissini was Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the beginning of the 19th century, founded a stagecoach service between Torino and Paris mostly dedicated to delivering him what he called les petits batons de Turin, his favorite little sticks from Turin.

Here's how to make your own grissini from scratch:

2.5 kg (5 lbs) unbleached all-purpose flour
1.5 lt (6 cups) of water at 50-53°F temperature (41-43°F during hotter months)
30 g (1 oz) yeast (halve quantity during hotter months)
150 g (5 oz) rendered lard (the one that looks like a white paste)
175 g (6 oz) baker’s barley malt (syrup or crystals)
3 tablespoon kosher salt

Knead the flour with 4 cups of water, adding salt, malt and lard to the dough. Dissolve the yeast in remaining water and incorporate gradually, in small amounts at a time.

Work the dough a little more and roll into 7" long ropes, about 1 1/2" thick. Grease the ropes with olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and grant them a 2-hour nap.

When ready to continue, cut strands breadthwise into 1" strips and pull them, stretching the strands into long and slender breadsticks, about 22-25 inches long.

Toast them in a hot oven (around 270°C/520°F) until crisp and light brown.

You can reduce the amount of lard and increase the quantity of olive oil. But grissini are what they are mainly because of lard. Just so you know...

Trivia: In the Cathedral of Chieri, a dozen kilometers southeast of Torino, in a 15th century fresco of the baptistry, there is a character depicted eating what appears to be a breadstick.

Images © Food Network, The Nibble, Just Baking.

Dec 8, 2009

Presepe and croccante, Christmas in Rome

The painted turn of the century merry-go-round or Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain? Dodge the man on stilts or drop a coin in the hat by the flame eater juggling torches across the street from the Brazilian Embassy? Get a chocolate tartufo at Tre Scalini first, or stroll past the shooting gallery?

Every year, come Christmas, I never know where to start in Piazza Navona. Fifty-odd stalls of every kind line the piazza’s perimeter. The aroma of caramel burning from the croccante vendor is intoxicating. The typical holiday season hard, caramelized slab with mixed almonds and hazelnuts, made by spreading the candy out onto a cold greased work surface and cutting it before it hardens with a huge knife, leaves the unchanging flavor of Natale stuck to my teeth.

Santa Claus–whose name here is Babbo Natale–and the Befana (an old woman who brings gifts on January 6th–the Epiphany–aboard her flying broom) sit side by side on a stuffed reindeer-drawn carriage and children drop letters in their lap.

I rush over to the kind old man that sells nativity scene statuettes. He recognizes me every year when I pass his stall, or perhaps he is just very polite. My son picks out his shepherd, and we get sucked back into the vortex of lights, laughter, cotton candy and Christmas spirit.

Il presepe is a miniature Bethlehem. December 8th is crèche construction day here in Italy.

The Christmas tree is a late addition to Italian seasonal celebrations. The home built nativity scene with flour dusted brown paper bags as mountains, a pocket mirror as a duck pond and pin holes punched in blue cardboard for a starry sky above the cork covered manger was my thing as a child. It got built early on and taken down the day after Befana. Only recently, fueled by my son’s natural and bubbling Christmas spirit, have I begun constructing a Nativity again. Many parts of it are edible.

The first thing to do is collect the moss, which will carpet the model Bethlehem village flooring. We usually take a nice hike up by the Bracciano Lake or the Manziana forest in the outskirts of Rome on the weekend, and return home with a little patches of green velvet, and high on clean, crisp winter oxygen.

The next step is elevation. The construction needs to be visible and not get tripped into during festive dancing or galloping around the house. We raise our presepe on an old, chipped dessert trolley, which we keep in the cellar and wheel out annually for the occasion.

We then proceed to lighting, this is the trickiest part, since it needs to be well planned. Each little house and strategic site needs a light, so untangling Christmas lights and arranging them accordingly is very important.

We then build mountains, hills, a riverbed and whatever our fantasy landscape requires. The mountains are brown paper bags, the hills get covered with our precious moss, the stream is a strip of neatly cut aluminum foil. We scatter the little houses in increasing size, the little ones in the back, and the larger ones in the foreground, for optimum perspective, ending with a prominent manger. Cork lines the rooftops, while flour, styrofoam and cotton wool act as snow.

Then the village starts to populate with a variety of characters, each picked carefully and placed in a strategic position. There have been books written on how to build the presepe, and each character statuette has a meaning and a purpose. The Holy family of course, is the starring cast. You must leave the straw filled manger empty of course until Christmas Eve, until the Babe’s birth; include the fishmonger in her turn of the century costume, holding up her basket of symbolic fish; the chestnut seller, with a light shining through his little stove reproducing the embers; the shepherds and their flocks of sheep represent the believers gathered for the miraculous birth; the steer and the donkey and a few scattered chickens, geese, palm trees, the comet over the cave and a duck pond turn our Nativity into a festive mixture of Israel, early 1900 Napoli and a snowy Alpine location.

Dec 3, 2009

Orange and date salad recipe

I first tasted this bizarre savory orange salad in the splendid town of San Vito Lo Capo, just west of Trapani in Northern Sicilia. Then, years later, on a complicated film shoot in the Maghreb I was fed this delight in a seafront tavern of Tunis. Identical in every way, like two drops of Mediterranean Sea water.

4 Tarocco blood oranges (medium-sized, sweet and juicy)
12 sugared dates, pitted
1 garlic clove (optional), peeled and sliced
4 tbsp organic brown sugar
Dash of cinnamon
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel the oranges, trimming away all white pith parts and remove seeds, if any (the Tarocco variety is seedless). Slice horizontally and arrange on a wide platter. Dust with cinnamon and sugar, season with slivered garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, and garnish with chopped dates.

Serve chilled as tantalizing exotic prelude to fish cous cous and belly dancing dinner.

Nov 30, 2009

Involtini al Pomodoro recipe

Cooking trends chase each other like waves, and those who follow the fashions accuse people who prefer traditional regional cuisines of granite immobility. Rather than that, you’ll agree that Italian regional cooking displays continuity, and when the current finger food fad or fusion sushi fashion is long forgotten, people will still be enjoying the traditional family dishes. Like for example, involtini.

Involtini are made all over Italy. But this very easy meat recipe from le Marche is one of my favorite regional unfailing meat roll-ups.
Image courtesy of Forchettina

12 veal or tender beef cutlets, flattened (total weight 500 gr = 1.1 lb)
150 g (3/4 cup) prosciutto, sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly cut into slivers
400 g (2 cups/14 oz) unseasoned canned tomatoes, crushed
1 glass dry, white wine
A small bunch of Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped (optional)
A bunch of fresh basil
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

If your veal cutlets are more than 1 cm (1/3-inch) thick, gently flatten them out with a meat tenderizer or the blade of your kitchen knife laid flat.

Take the prosciutto, chopped parsley (if you're using it) and a slivers of garlic and combine them, seasoning with salt and pepper. Spread the “filling” over the slices of veal and roll them up, using a couple of toothpicks to hold each involtino shut.

In a skillet large enough to hold all the involtini in a single layer, sauté them in olive oil over a gentle flame, turning them carefully.

When the involtini are evenly browned, pour in the wine and let it evaporate. Add the tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes. If necessary, reduce the tomato sauce by raising the temperature, but in that case remove the involtini from the pan to avoid overcooking. Right before serving them hot, sprinkle the involtini with freshly hand-torn basil leaves. Remember to remove toothpicks before devouring all with crusty bread to sop up the dribbly sauce.

Wine? A nice Conero red or–for those of you who are white wine lovers–a nice Verdicchio di Matelica.

Nov 26, 2009

A special letter for Thanksgiving

I got a letter yesterday.
Not an ordinary missive. And certainly not an exclusive one, but still it made me smile. I got a letter from President Barack Obama yesterday. And it made me happy.
I'll attach a copy of it here for you to read, in case you didn't get one from him too.


Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, Americans across the country will sit down together, count our blessings, and give thanks for our families and our loved ones.

American families reflect the diversity of this great nation. No two are exactly alike, but there is a common thread they each share.

Our families are bound together through times of joy and times of grief. They shape us, support us, instill the values that guide us as individuals, and make possible all that we achieve.

So tomorrow, I'll be giving thanks for my family–for all the wisdom, support, and love they have brought into my life.

But tomorrow is also a day to remember those who cannot sit down to break bread with those they love.

The soldier overseas holding down a lonely post and missing his kids. The sailor who left her home to serve a higher calling. The folks who must spend tomorrow apart from their families to work a second job, so they can keep food on the table or send a child to school.

We are grateful beyond words for the service and hard work of so many Americans who make our country great through their sacrifice. And this year, we know that far too many face a daily struggle that puts the comfort and security we all deserve painfully out of reach.

So when we gather tomorrow, let us also use the occasion to renew our commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous future that every American family can enjoy.

It seems like a lifetime ago that a crowd met on a frigid February morning in Springfield, Illinois to set out on an improbable course to change our nation.

In the years since, Michelle and I have been blessed with the support and friendship of the millions of Americans who have come together to form this ongoing movement for change.

You have been there through victories and setbacks. You have given of yourselves beyond measure. You have enabled all that we have accomplished–and you have had the courage to dream yet bigger dreams for what we can still achieve.

So in this season of thanks giving, I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to you, and my anticipation of the brighter future we are creating together.

With warmest wishes for a happy holiday season from my family to yours,

President Barack Obama

Image courtesy of
Nicole de Lagrave

Happy Thanksgiving!
Wishing you'll spend it like me around a table, embraced by friends, family, love and laughter.


Nov 14, 2009

What not to cook for picky guests

I haven't blogged in a while and I've missed it. But the thing I have done the least is cook, let alone have friends over for dinner. I am finally back in a less remote part of Abruzzi and I have moved into a sweet little attic in the centro storico, where I will soon be entertaining guests and colleagues for delicious meals. Can't wait to get my stove fired up and my pots and pans rocking over the flames.

But when inviting relatively new friends over for a meal, the good host has to keep in mind that not all guests share the same tastes, obviously. Not all the folks I'll be having over in my place are hearty soup fans, or carnivores like me. Not all may love raw fish or offal. Some will cringe at the sight of squid ink risotto, and some will be suspicious before liver crostini and octopus.

So I've decided to make out a list. An index of the most off-limits foods to serve at a meal. When designing the menu for a diverse group of guests, one must take into consideration many elements. Seasons of course, and locality of the foods served. But also ethical choices, idiosyncrasies, whims and food trends. The best part of a meal with friends is seeing the smiles on their faces as they mop the remnants of sauce from their plate. That's a sure sign of a culinary success.

Here are a few things you should avoid cooking for your pickiest friends.
Lamb. Subject to culinary and ethical foibles. If you're in Italy around Easter, it's another story.

Eel. Are you up to cutting them up alive? That's how it's done apparently. And decapitating them won't work because the nervous system keeps the chopped parts jolting for a further 15 minutes.

Lobster. Your guest will be aware that you have tossed them alive and screaming into boiling water. Consider that.

Carbonara. Very easy dish but so hard to prepare well. The danger between "raw scrambled eggs" and "quick setting cement" effect is a very fine line. Especially if you're planning to make it for more than 4 people.

Horse meat. Seriously, would anyone ever serve horse meat at a dinner? Don't think so.

Brains. Delicious deep fried veal brains are best eaten at the reaturant. Serving them for dinner at home flirts with cannibalism.

Cucumber. Strangely very unpopular.

Rabbit. The British have a huge problem with rabbit. For them it's a pet, for us Italians it would be like serving cat stew.

Liver. Vegetarians keel over at the table, hygene integralists object to it being the filter of all the chemicals fed to cattle, others still haven't gotten over the childhood shock of the first bite. It is also very difficult to cook: if served rare it is bloody and horrific, if well-done, too leathery.

Shellfish. Many are allergic.

Snails. I love the way the French prepare them, but that's me...

Raw fish. Harder to prepare than cooked fish. When deciding for a plate of "crudo" one must consider its absolute freshness, one's own carving ability, the correct serving temperature, which kind of fish to purchase, etc.

Frogs. Many of your guests have played with them when they were children. Some other romantic and optimistic may have even kissed one.

Kidneys. Cooking them requires the utmost expertise. And in case of failure, the outcome is a horrible taste of... well, urine. Eww!

Octopus. Tentacles freak people out, especially non-Mediterraneans.

Veal. The cruelty to the calves has made it very hard for folks to eat veal. But not here. The Italian farming industry is different, no chaining, no force feeding, no horror.

I'm making a nice plate of spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino tonight. Shall I count you in?

Nov 1, 2009

Diary from set - Abruzzo

When I was told we were moving to a remote location to film the latter part of the movie, I didn't really think it was going to be that remote. But actually, I have come to learn that some parts of this land are still incorrupt. Virgin. And far removed. Extrasolar far removed in some cases.

I initially imagined myself walking the snaking cobble-stoned alleys of a quaint medieval Abruzzo village perched on a high windy mountaintop, with little old ladies dressed in black nodding as we city slickers passed by, and elegant gents wearing their hats before a shot of grappa and a smoky hand of briscola. And Castel del Monte is all that. And much more, thankfully. But it is remote as remote gets.

We are surrounded by beauty and nature as far as the eye can see. Fast racing clouds chase the sunlight over the rolling hills and valleys below. High, barren mountains of neolithic matter loom above us, shining brightly in the thin air and brightest of sunlights. Where forests cloak elevated surfaces, the autumn leaves show off their auburn colors with flamboyant pride. The earth shakes every once in a while, reminding us of the April tragedy that has changed the people around here forever.

The air smells clean. I wake to chirping birds in the early morning. And yesterday we spotted a pack of wolves behind the restaurant during lunch break. The skies have been benevolent and have not rained (or snowed) upon us too bitterly. The town folk is friendly and politely astonished at our barbaric invasion. The everyday food and wine is Out of This World, and hanging out with a fun crew makes the hard work a little easier.

But there is no Internet.
Very little cell phone coverage.
No cable TV.

The only Wi-fi available is in the main Production office, which is a public place I can have access to after a 12-hour day and for a limited time frame. Oftentimes the choice between blogging or catching up on my electornic mail and a hot shower falls for the latter. And so I have failed to keep up. I fearfully open my flooding inbox once a week when I return home for the weekend. I have a hard time responding to all those who seek a word with me. Even spam is beginning to give up on me. Haven't chatted on Skype in eons. Blog etiquette out the window. Readers perplexed. Those spoiled by my thrice-weekly posts have not heard of me in months. The weekly appointments with my guest chefs at Be my guest are at a standstill.

I am home for a long weekend, and the playtime, bathtime and cuddletime with my son is momentarily on hold (he's snoring). So I take advantage of this little moment before slipping into bed next to him and inhaling his sweet smell before falling asleep under the covers of my bed–and not the hotel bed I am calling home for most of the week–to apologize for the long silence. And to ask you to bear with me.

I am eating astounding local and unusual things, learning of new interesting Abruzzo wines, traditions and food lore for my journal. And I am keeping notes. I will return to blogging routinely in 3 weeks when the film's principal photography will come to halt before taking off again for another chapter after the holiday season.

In three weeks I promise I will make up for the lost time on these pages and pledge to tickle your appetite again soon.

For now you'll have to make do with my Archive.

Oct 14, 2009

Salumi Primer - Italian cured meats

This evening I dined in a restaurant whose first menu entry for antipasto was a dish called Elogio del Porco, which roughly translates to ‘Plaudit to the pork.’ Although generally eaten as antipasto, salumi–or cold cuts–are a selection of cured meats often known also as "affettati misti" that can be enjoyed freely at any point of the meal. Salumi span a wide assortment of (generally) pork-based cured meats, and for a clear definition of salumi all you really have to do is eat some handsomely folded in a warm bread roll. Like this.

My favorite specialty store to visit (much more than a jeweler or a haute couture boutique) is a salumeria, a local Italian deli. This especially when I'm in Rome's centro storico, the central old part of the city, where the Roman deli is commonly called a pizzicheria, presided over by a pizzicagnolo, an artisan managing a sharp slicer, fragrant specialties and palatable delights. Another name for this exquisite little shop of wonders is Norcineria (from the town of Norcia, renowned for its cured meats), where the person behind the counter is a Norcino. Gastronomia or Alimentari–other ways of calling a salumeria–are places where one can also purchase a wide range of prepared gastronomy items, from salads to pre-cooked dishes, dry goods and canned delicacies.

Whatever the name, the smell in the store is divine and the arrangement of cheeses and cold cuts is a work of art, balance, and efficiently creative use of space. When the salumeria is strategically located next door to a fornaio, there is no way out: purchase some warm bread, slice it open and fold in some freshly cut cheese or cured meat, or a mix of both, and enjoy your life then and there. When you are done, crumbs littering your chest and smile widening on your face, you can walk another few steps to the nearest bar and get yourself un caffé.

Some of the distinctive cold cuts that fall under the generic domain of Salumi are porco-based, but not all. There are hundreds of types of salumi found in Italy, some of the most popular are:


Bresaola is salt-cured beef typical product of the Alpine valley Valtellina. Bresaola is usually served finely sliced, and seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and lemon juice. Some like to add flecks of Parmigiano. I personally serve mine dribbled with pink grapefruit slices, olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and a little arugula.


This lean and rosy, refined variety of raw prosciutto ham, is made with a part of the normal ham cut closest to the pig's rump. The name refers in fact to the animal's culo, a vernacular term for 'rear end.' Universally considered superior, aged culatello has a clean, delicate flavor. It is highly prized and priced, but worth every penny it's worth.


This is a Tuscan fennel seed flavored salami that is aged less than regular salami, it is more of a soft sausage. Legend has it a thief stole a salami and hid it in a bushel of fennel seeds while chased down by guards. When he returned to pick up the booty, he found the aroma of the herb had seeped int the cured meat.


Galantina is a delectable meatloaf made from boned poultry, stuffed with ground meat, hard boiled eggs, giardiniera, ham, truffles and other diced ingredients, pressed into a cylindrical shape, and poached in an aspic-like stock.


The word translates as lard, and that's what this is, thick fat with some thin streaks of pink meat, cured with herbs, pepper, and salt. The best-known Italian lard is from the town of Colonnata, which is a small village perched on a ridge between two marble quarries in the Apuane Mountains above Carrara (the place where Michelangelo went to shop raw material for his sculptures).

Lardo can be used as a flavoring ingredient in other dishes (thinly sliced and wrapped around a filet mignon, for example), although it is best served as is, thinly sliced with plain toasted bread. If your cholesterol count can take it, this is one of the finest affettati around.

Rendered lard that's used for cooking as a shortening, is called strutto, and looks like a white paste.


This is a salume made from pork shoulder, which has been trimmed of its fat, slipped into a casing, and then salted and air-cured with herbs and spices, treating it much like prosciutto. It is one of the leanest cold cuts available, and rather delicately flavored. Capocollo, as it sometimes also called, is sometimes marinated in wine.


This si a precooked and highly seasoned sausage the size of my den. Mortadella is also known as Mortadella di Bologna, the signature cold cut of the city.

Mortadella is a cooked salume, made from ground pork meat that's been stuffed in a casing with peppercorns, pistachios and cubes of pink fat. The popular bologna is usually sliced and served as a sandwich filler. I usually have my pizzicagnolo carve a thick 1-inch slice and then cube it. I place the cubes in small bowls scattered around the house and nibble them during mid morning housework. And mortadella rules stuffed in warm pizza bianca.


This is a soft, spreadable Calabrian sausage that's been ground with tons of spicy red pepper, which lend it bold red color and a fiery flavor. The best way to enjoy 'nduja is scooping it out of the casing with a spoon, softening it further over mild heat, and dipping bread or veggies into it.


Dry cured pork's stomach meat. Pancia means abdomen, pancetta is also the affectionate name for the sexy pot-belly. Pancetta is made from the same cut used to make bacon. However, pancetta is not smoked, and there's no added sugar in the curing process.

Porchetta di Ariccia

Porchetta in the town of Ariccia is an institution, and no fair or festive gathering would be complete without it. Porchetta is commonly served in the town's many typical fraschette, local informal eateries where paper tablecloths and abundant portions are synonyms of quality. The Ariccia trademark porchetta looks very much like a cliché banquet prop from a Roman epic blockbuster. Fact is the Romans were great fans of porchetta, which has traveled through time and landed on our tables virtually unchanged from the one Nero ate during his orgies.

The ingredients are the same, a large boned and bound pig with an apple in its mouth, salt, pepper, garlic and herbs among which wild fennel or rosemary, depending on the Norcino who assembled it. The pork is spit roasted and served sliced, enjoyed with warm Genzano bread and abundant vino dei Castelli which is a table wine made in and around Frascati.


The Italian word for ham is Prosciutto. In this case dry-cured ham, which has not been cooked. Italians call it simply prosciutto, short for prosciutto crudo, which means "raw." Prosciutto is a specialty of northern Italy, the signature Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele, are the sweetest, loveliest, melt-in-your-mouth hams in the universe.

Prosciutto Cotto

Cotto means 'cooked,' and this what this ham is, the kind you purchase in a deli as a cold cut. Once boned and trimmed, the pork legs are cured in salt, water and fine spiced brines that impart the cooked hams their typical aroma. The pork legs are then put in special molds to be cooked in steam ovens. The ones to choose from the myriad available on the market are the hams containing no gluten, milk proteins, phosphates, or MSG. Sometimes prosciutto cotto is also roasted, a process that provides a delicately sophisticated flavor.


The large sausages made with ground pork and cubes of fat, seasoned with salt and spices, which are then stuffed into a pig's intestine casing are the common definition for salame. Like prosciutto crudo, Italian salame is raw*, with the meat being cured by the salt in the spice mix. Salame piccante, has red peppers in it mixture. In the United States this known as pepperoni, and for some unknown reason it commonly garnishes pizza! The town of Felino, just outside of Parma in the Emilia Romagna region, is famed for its namesake salame Felino. Then there's Salame Milano, a popular standard whose pork fat is finely ground; and there's Cacciatorino, which means 'little hunter,' and indeed tiny he is. Corallina has 3 squared chunks of white fat in the middle of the otherwise fairly lean slice. Ungherese is lightly smoked and ambrosial in sandwiches. So you see, calling it simply salami is an oversimplification.

Soppressata, or Coppa

This is a sausage made from leftover pork cuttings, like cartilage and pieces of meat, which are stuffed into a casing and then cooked. The taste and texture are rather particular; people generally make sure their guests like it before offering it.


Speck is a salt-cured and cold-smoked ham of the Südtirol, or Alto Adige. The production of Speck remains quite artisanal and has recently obtained IGP status, which means it can only be made in the Südtirol and only following local traditional production methods. Speck is commonly served as antipasto.

Plaudit to the pork, then. I agree.

*Trichinosis, you wonder? The disease caused by trichinae, typically from infected meat, especially pork, characterized by digestive disturbance, fever, and muscular rigidity? It's virtually unknown in Italy. The salt and the aging process guarantees salumi and other pork-based cold cuts to be a safe food because the salt ties up all the water, making it impossible for any form of bacteria to grow.

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