Apr 28, 2010

Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa recipe

Cime di rapa is a slightly bitter cooking green that has long been popular in Italy and is now catching on in America. Each Italian region calls these leafy greens in a different way. In Campania Napoli they're named friarielli, in Toscana rapini. In Rome, they're broccoletti and in Puglia, cime di rapa. The witty Apulian accent will make the name sound more like cim' di rep'. 

The names and their unique pronunciation may differ, but they all speak of the same spiky leaved delight. Cime di rapa is a vegetable related to both the broccoli and turnip family, has 6" to 9" stalks and sometimes scattered clusters of tiny broccoli-like buds. There may also be small yellow flowers blooming from the buds, which are edible. Overseas they can be associated with turnip greens, and a valid substitute is dandelion greens. It's best to just eat the florets and leaves of the cime di rapa since the stems are quite bitter.

We Italians are particularly fond of cime di rapa, and cook it in a variety of ways including stir-frying, steaming and braising.

Cime di rapa - turnip tops for orecchiette

Cime di rapa and broccoli Rabe are sometimes confused with one another, and although interchangeable, they are two different things. The former identifies with turnip tops (no florets or buds but maybe a more intense broccoli Rabe type taste) and the latter is the true broccoli cousin. In Bari if you order orechette with cime di rapa you will get whichever is in season. Cime di rapa are the main ingredient for this spectacular and authentic orecchiette recipe from Puglia. 


Orecchiette are a type of homemade pasta native to these lands, whose shape resembles a small ear. In Italian, "ear" is orecchio, so the pasta name translates to "little ears".

500 g (1.1 lb) orecchiette
1 kg (2.2 lbs) cime di rapa (turnip tops, broccolini, or broccoli raab)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small peperoncino, crushed
3 oil-preserved anchovy fillets (crushed and reduced to a paste)
Extra virgin olive oil
Pecorino Romano, grated

Wash the greens in plenty cold water and a fistful of baking soda to remove any field dust, soil, chemicals and unwanted pesticides. Rinse well several times and separate the flowers (if any) from the leaves and tender stalks.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

In a large skillet, heat some olive oil, adding the garlic, peperoncino and the anchovy, stirring a bit to further crush all with a wooden spoon. Add only the cime di rapa flowers and sauté for a few minutes until they begin to wilt.

Toss the green leaves and stalks in the water and boil for 7-8 minutes. Drain, set aside and continue boiling the cooking water. Boil the orecchiette in the same water and when the orecchiette are al dente, drain and toss everything – cooked orecchiette and greens – in the skillet with the sautéed flowers. Mix well to blend with indispensable swooping handle motion, dust with the grated cheese and dive in, head first.

Orecchiette alle cime di rapa recipe

Apr 19, 2010

Eggplant vegetarian "meatballs" recipe

Eggplant vegetarian "meatballs"

Have I mentioned my partiality towards meatballs? Well, here's one of my favorite vegetarian meatball recipes. Borrowed from the restaurant menu of Buca di Bacco in Positano, with kind permission of the entire kitchen staff, an élite group of gourmet chefs to which, years ago for a brief period, I had the honor of belonging. 

Ingredients for 4 servings
3 large eggplants
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoons breadcrumbs
2 tablespoon pecorino Romano, grated
1 sprig fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
More breadcrumbs for dredging
Olive oil for frying

Peel the eggplant and dice. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let sit for 1 hour. This procedure purges the eggplant's potential bitterness.

Rinse well and blanche the eggplant in a large pot of salted water.

Strain the eggplant quite al dente, then press between two plates to remove excess liquid. Chop finely and combine with the egg yolks, breadcrumbs, grated Pecorino, basil and pepper, mixing well with your hands.

Roll the mixture into 2-inch fat patties, dredge in breadcrumbs and drop in boiling hot oil and fry until golden. The amounts indicated should yield about 12 patties, more or less.

Deposit shortly on blotting paper or kitchen towel before wolfing down.

The white wine must be chilled!
Eggplant vegetarian "meatballs"

Apr 13, 2010

Spaghetti puttanesca recipe

Some may not be aware that this traditionally Roman dish originated in Napoli at the turn of the 18th century; and that puttanesca means "harlot-style."

Spaghetti puttanesca recipe
"Puttanesca" oil on canvas by Jared Gutekunst

The reason why the dish gained its name is debated. One possibility is that the epithet is a reference to the sauce's hot, spicy flavor, vibrant sexy colors and piquant aroma. Another is that the dish was offered by a Neapolitan madam to prospective customers at a low price to entice them inside her Spanish Quarter brothel.
Spaghetti puttanesca recipe
Image © duespaghetti.com

The ingredients for puttanesca are very easy to find, and are typically Mediterranean. This recipe––like many others in these pages––yields 4 servings.

400 g (14 oz) canned San Marzano tomatoes
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A fistful of Gaeta olives (can be substitued with Kalamata or any Mediterranean-style purple olives)
A pinch of salted capers, rinsed 
2 oil-preserved anchovy fillets, cleaned, boned and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 peperoncino red pepper (or 2 for braver palates)
A small bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
500 g (1.1 lb) spaghetti

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, sauté the garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil. When the garlic begins to tan, add the anchovy fillets mashed with a fork, these don't usually need to sautéed for a long time, since prolonged cooking rears a rather incisive marine taste. They are nonetheless fish, and a very good one for that matter, and they help achieve the sauce's necessary oomph. Remember the name of this dish? Bear that in mind. This pasta is not suited for delicate palates, but if you are freaked out by the fishy taste, omit anchovies altogether.

Stir in the canned tomatoes, and when the sauce comes to a plip! plop! boiling point, add the chopped capers (best preserved in salt, not in vinegar) and the olives whole.

Begin boiling a gallon of water for your spaghetti with a fistful of rock salt.

Thicken the sauce by cooking it over fierce heat for 6-8 minutes.

When the spaghetti are just shy of reaching al dente stage, drain and toss them in the saucepan with the prostitute sauce. Shake and stir to coat well and combine flavors. 

As a final touch, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.

Traditionally, the sauce is served with spaghetti although it may also be used with other noodle-like dry pasta types like bucatini, linguine and vermicelli. 

No cheese please.

Apr 12, 2010

20 things that nurture me, an exercise

20 things that nurture me
(thank you Robyn for showing me this exercise some time ago)

1. My son: You are my universe.
2. Friends: I love you. You pull me out of dark spots, and throw sunlight at me. Every day.
3. Love: All-inclusive nourishment.
4. Instinct: A part of me I have never disliked. My sixth sense has never failed me.
5. Trees: Important creatures in my life.
6. Writing: Therapy in expression.
7. Art: I am moved by it, nurtured by it, humbled by it.
8. Nature: My deepest respect.
9. Laughter: Above all, my son's belly laugh.
10. Compassion: The only way to live.
11. Spirituality: A safe place.
12. Imagination: Powerful self-preservation tool.
13. Touch: My child's gentle touch, hugging people, trees and animals, and a nice deep-tissue massage.
14. Oceans, Seas: Where I naturally rejuvenate.
15. Chiming tubular bells: Instant inner peace.
16. Music: I can't imagine life without it.
17. Smell: Freshly baked bread, mowed grass, my son'r hair.
18. Poetry, Literature: I can never get enough of them.
19. Water: Drinking a perfect glass of water when I'm thirsty is the best. I am among the lucky few who can open any faucet and drink from it freely.
20. Sleep: When I sleep well I dream. I had my first dream in a long time early this morning.

    Like Robyn says, all the above are connected and wouldn't really mean much without each other. Please forgive this non-cuisine digression in the more personal sphere. I am in that place right now, not in the kitchen. This is a good thing.

    Apr 7, 2010

    Cipolline borrettane - balsamico glazed onion recipe

    If you've never tried the small and flat, pearl-white disk shaped onions called cipolline borettane, this is a tasty way to familiarize with them.

    These delectable bulbs can be traced back to the 15th century where they were first grown in Boretto in the province of Emilia-Romagna. Now they are sold virtually everywhere in Italy, already peeled and ready for use.

    Pair them with aged cheese platters, crusty Italian bread or a rare beef steak. This is our nanny's signature recipe, thank you Yolanda!

    400 g (2 cups) cipolline borettane, peeled
    1/2 glass balsamic vinegar
    2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
    3 tbsp brown sugar

    Blanch the onions whole in lightly salted water for 5 minutes, or until they begin to darken slightly. Drain, pat dry with a kitchen towel and set aside.

    In a wide skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onions briefly; then splash in some extra old balsamic vinegar and brown sugar to deglaze the pan and caramelize the juices to create a lovely sticky sauce. 

    The ingredient quantities should just be indicative, try to adjust to your own taste and desired degree of caramelization.

    The onions are done when they are tawny and begin to fall apart.

    Wine pairing tip: These sweet glazed onions will sing with a bright and juicy red made with a large percentage of Sangiovese grapes, one that does not have any Cabernet, Merlot, or Syrah in its blend.

    Buon appetito!

    Apr 6, 2010

    3:32 a.m.

    It was the middle of the night. It felt like someone was shaking me awake.

    My 3 year-old son had crawled in my bed earlier and for a moment I thought it was him. But no, he was asleep. All this did not happen in a split second. My reactions were slow. My senses and mind were blurry from deep sleep and it took me a moment to realize we were in the middle of a very strong earthquake. This went on for several long seconds. I held my child's hand as he snored blissfully, maybe just to reassure him that it was all OK. Although something made me understand that it was not.

    Mainly the noise.

    The noise of the earthquake is horrible. Just writing about it sends a chill down my spine. It's like a giant and grotesque earth-belch. An insult coming from a deep and dark place beneath.

    I looked over at the clock and tried a mnemonic trick to remind myself of the hour. "I'll have to check the news tomorrow, 3:32 a.m.

    The tremor ended, and I just lay there, frozen in silence, in the dark, watching the outline of the paper lantern hanging above my bed swaying back and forth. The noise subsided, and in its place a concert of car alarms and dogs barking. I didn't hear people in our apartment building run down the stairs, voices or other doors opening, so I quietly waited, listening to my heartbeat slow down, hypnotized by the decreasing sway of the overhead light fixture.

    My son and I live in a small flat on the second floor of a 7-storey apartment building, and the shock was very strong, even for Rome. Even for me. The strongest I have ever felt, compared to the million California daily mini-tremors and the devastating 1980 Irpinia one I experienced in the past. I have a terrible fear of earthquakes. Despite that, I slowly regained courage and forced myself to sleep. The following morning I learned that the epicenter was only 60 miles away.

    On April 6th, 2009, the history of Abruzzo changed forever. At 3:32 a.m. a terrible earthquake devastated the region and the dignity of an entire population. The once gorgeous city of L'Aquila was razed to the ground and many surrounding districts suffered atrocious losses and irreparable damage, both material and moral.

    The 6.3 Richter scale tremor lasted an endless 35 seconds and killed 308 people, wounding thousands. Seventy thousand people lost their homes and many had to be permanently relocated in tented camps. Some live in newly built homes, but for the most part many of L'Aquila residents have not been able to return to live in their city.

    I worked in Abruzzo for 4 months in 2010, and by interacting with the population I learned of the destruction and horrible consequences brought by the earthquake long after the shakes ended.

    In Abruzzo, the rubble and distorted metal frames that once were homes, restaurants, schools, offices––the debris of a past life––still crowds the big cities and the small towns to this day. As I walked among the ruins every day, helpless, I breathed in the solidarity and felt the population's proudness, but also was overwhelmed by the Abruzzesi's desperation and suffering. I learned that more than 50 survivors commited suicide, because their families and homes didn't exist anymore. I learned that until very recently, folks were still living out of containers and port-a-potties. Mostly, I learned that when you deprive a human being of his home, of his roots – you bare that person, defacing him.

    At 3:32 a.m. tonight, a candle light vigil crowd will very silently march in the closed off "red zone" of L'Aquila. The bells will strike 308 tolls and the name of each one of the victims of the April 2009 earthquake will be called out in the night. A mournful celebration of a night that has tainted the history and territory of Abruzzo forever.

    My prayers and heartfelt compassion goes out to them, both the victims and the survivors. The brave, frustrated, strong and noble Abruzzesi are not forgotten. Not forgotten.

    Apr 3, 2010

    Pastiera recipe

    Pastiera is the quintessential Neapolitan Easter cake.

    Legend has it that pastiera was invented in a Neapolitan convent. An unidentified novice wanted her Easter cake to be a symbol of the Resurrection, and to be redolent of the spring flowers growing in the convent’s orange grove.

    So she mixed a handful of wheat grains (abundance) to some mild ricotta cheese (sustenance), added some eggs (symbol of new life), some orange-fragranced water, citron and a mix of aromatic Asian spices.

    The ingredients used in making Pastiera closely, suggest a more pagan spring-welcoming Dionysian type ceremony rather than an enlightened nun’s experiment: wheat kernels, goat milk’s cheese, floral water, eggs, spices and candied fruit? I say definitely mundane.

    Pastiera recipe

    Be that as it may, Pastiera is commonly consumed during Italian Easter festivities, an intensely religious moment of the calendar.

    The name "pastiera" appears to come from the consolidated habit of using cooked pasta instead of buckwheat; there are still some who make pastiera using spaghetti and angel hair.

    There are two different ways of preparing Pastiera: in an older method, the ricotta was mixed with the eggs; in the newer version, a thick pastry cream mixture is added, resulting in a softer amalgam. This recipe innovation was introduced by Signor Giovanni Scaturchio, a Neapolitan genius confectioner whose little shop of miracles still occupies a corner in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.
    Pastiera recipe

    A deli in Rome sells these mini 3.5 oz pastierine from Napoli's Scaturchio, and when I got one as a present the other day I squealed with delight. They are the best.
    Pastiera recipe

    Here's the orignal recipe, handed down by a 100% true Neapolitan. Complex and time consuming, but oh, so worth it.

    Ingredients for the shortbread/shortcrust pastry shell:

    3 yolks
    500 g (2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
    200 g (1 cup) sugar
    200 g (1 cup) lard (cough) or butter

    Ingredients for the filling:

    700 g (3 1/2 cups) sheep's milk ricotta
    400 g (2 cups) cooked buckwheat (can be substituted with pearl barley soaked overnight and boiled for 30 minutes; or round rice boiled for 20 minutes)
    400 g (2 cups) sugar
    1 lemon
    1 heaped tbsp. candied citron fruit, cubed
    1 heaped tbsp. candied orange, cubed
    1 heaped tbsp. candied pumpkin (locally called "cucuzzata") last 3 items can be substituted by assorted candied fruits
    100 ml (1/2 cup) milk
    30 g (1 oz) butter
    5 eggs + 2 yolks
    1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
    1 tbsp. orange blossom water (if you can't find it, use the zest of 1 orange)
    A pinch of powdered cinnamon

    If you were unable to find cooked and canned buckwheat, you'll have to cook the raw kind, or substitute it with the other grains and cooking procedures mentioned above.

    Soak the raw buckwheat in water. Drain and rinse well under running water before cooking in plenty cold unsalted water. When the water boils, reduce the heat and cook at a gentle simmer for 90 minutes undisturbed (no stirring).

    In the meantime, if you decide not to use prepackaged and frozen pastry dough, combine flour sugar and softened butter in a mixing bowl. Drop in the yolks one at a time, and work into an even dough. Otherwise thaw the frozen pastry.

    When the ingredients are well mixed, work the dough by quickly folding it over a few times. Beware: the more you work shortbread the less it will be soft and supple!

    Let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered by a damp kitchen towel.

    Mix the cooked buckwheat, milk, butter and the zest of 1 lemon in a saucepan, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir often, and cook until the mixture is quite creamy.

    Whip the ricotta in the blender with the eggs and yolks, the sugar, vanillin, floral water and cinnamon. Once this is well blended and fluffy, fold in the candied fruits and cooked buckwheat mix, and stir until fully blended.

    If you are using the frozen shortcrust pastry dough, once it is thawed soft, unroll it. Now whether packaged or homemade, the dough needs to be flattened. Use a rolling pin and work the dough to 1/4 of an inch in thickness. Line a 9-inch buttered pie shell with the pastry. With the excess dough cuttings, you can make some lattice strips for decoration.

    Pour the filling mixture in the prepared pie shell, fold the brim inwards and decorate the top part with the strips of extra dough. Brush the criss cross lattice with egg yolk or melted butter mixed with sugar if you like. This will make it shine.

    Bake in the oven at 180° C (350° F) for 90 minutes, or until amber in color.

    Let the cake cool completely and dust it with icing sugar before serving.

    It's hard work, I know.
    Pastiera is best cooked a few days in advance, in order to allow the fragrances to mix properly and result in that unique flavor, but I never manage to resist more than a few hours.

    A mouthful of pastiera, followed by a sip of dry red wine is known to bring springtime in your mouth, la Primavera in bocca.

    Pastiera recipe

    Buona Pasqua!