Cantos and Chaos, Favas and Fusilli
"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate"- DANTE
Renovating a house is trying in the best of circumstances. Renovating a house in the South of Italy is chaos, not even controlled chaos, just chaos. Tiles go missing. Parts of wall fall from the ceiling. Artisans come and go according to their own indecipherable schedules. Occasionally doors get left open and stray dogs wander into the house, albeit it with more regularity than the local craftsmen. All of this means that I have unwittingly become part project manager, part zookeeper. Or as my by old boss used to trill when I worked in the federal government, "It's like herding cats around here." More depressingly, when I tell friends I am renovating an old house on the Amalfi Coast, they often imagine Under the Tuscan Sun. My situation is more akin to another book that loosely takes place in Italy: Dante’s Inferno. I occasionally imagine dipping local craftsman into vats of cement, meting out my punishment Dante style.
Hyperbole aside, I spend a lot of time at home these days. We have begun the herculean chore of laying tiles on the patio, which would seem a fairly straightforward task. But nothing is ever straightforward in the Provincia di Napoli. With jackhammers pounding, Giuseppe’s brother cannot resist the urge to come sniffing around to inspect the project site. It is not his property. It is not his project. But with characteristic bravado he marches onto the scene, yelling at the Moroccan masons about his being able to pass through with his wheelbarrow and their somehow blocking his path. He comments on the quality of their masonry (or lack thereof according to his own rigorously non-existent aesthetic sensibilities). I mutter something about the Dunning-Kruger effect and scowl at him.
Domestic disputes such as these occur regularly. Giuseppe and I own one part of the property. His brother, the other half. Property limits zig and zag according to byzantine local laws I fail to comprehend. Which all means we have certain “creative differences" with our neighbors upstairs or as I like to call them in local dialect “a famiglia ‘Ncoppa,” also known as my in-laws.
Naturally I think I am always right. When we moved here the place was Neapolitan Grey Gardens. Bombed out sofas transported back after a migratory bout in Switzerland circa 1983, broken foosball tables, plastic dolls with missing heads, old vats of pickles collecting botulism just chilling out in front of the house. I rid the house of junk with such force you would have thought I was exorcising the local drunkard. I was Jackie O reporting for duty at Grey f#cking Gardens.
All of this makes me wonder if perhaps I never should have undertaken this half-baked, hair brained construction project. It’s a novice mistake to arrive in these chaos driven parts and expect to instill any modicum of order. Maybe I really am a charlatan and maybe this place is just fated to be Grey Gardens after all. On my more optimistic days, I envision the house as it should be. A secret garden, a Babylon, Pasárgada- with rustic farm house tables, Ball jars filled with local pickles and maybe even one (just one!) decorative sickle. And then I notice the bombed out Jacuzzi bathtub Giuseppe’s brother has prominently displayed on his side of the terrace. It has been there for years. It will stay there for years. I glare at it, as I would the River Styx thinking, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”
My therapist in America used to tell me I had a tendency to “lose perspective.” She was also fond of telling me that I allowed “perfection to be the enemy of the good.” Talk about dime store analytics. But this morning I am practicing yogic equanimity. I am shifting my perspective and here are some of my conclusions. At least the Zika virus has not arrived here. At least I have a functioning toilet again. At least the new vacuum cleaner arrived in the mail. At least I have Netflix. I also have Pecorino Romano, Gragnano pasta, mint and more favas. I also have a kitchen. Inhale positivity. Exhale negativity. Inhale pasta. Exhale, oh f*ck it, I'll be in the kitchen, making pasta. AGAIN.
“A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa; ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle, sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa, ’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” -DANTE
Serves six as a primi or four as a regular meal.
*Note: If you hate favas (like my mother) or can’t find them, you can use fresh or frozen green peas, skipping the shelling and blanching steps. Just add directly to your sauce in step 14.)
- 2lbs fresh fava beans, in pods (or two cups frozen favas)
- 1lb fusilli pasta (Gragnano Pasta is ideal, but if unable to find, use De Cecco brand)
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- Cracked black pepper to taste
- ½ cup grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano Reggiano) cheese
- 1/3 cup loosely packed mint, sliced chiffonade style (plus mint leaves for garnish
- Bring medium pot of generously salted water to boil
- Fill large bowl with ice water and place in fridge
- Remove fava beans from their pods and rinse to clean
- Blanch favas in boiling water for 30 seconds
- Strain fava beans over a large stockpot, and reserve cooking liquid for subsequent use
- Place favas in reserved ice water and allow to cool (this allows them to retain their bright green color and rich flavor)
- Add 3 cups additional water to reserved cooking liquid and bring to a vigorous boil
- While waiting for water to boil, pop favas out of their second shells and set aside
- Once water reaches boil, add pasta and cook until just under al dente (about 9 minutes, but read pasta package instructions for more precise cooking times)
- While pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium heat and add one tablespoon butter and cracked pepper
- Once butter is sizzling, but not browning, ladle roughly ½ cup of pasta water directly into the skillet.
- Stir butter and cooking liquid with wooden spoon allowing to slightly reduce and thicken
- Add additional tablespoon butter and swirl to incorporate
- Add favas and mint to skillet and stir to incorporate
- Once pasta is just under al dente, strain over colander, rinse with cold water and shake to loosen any pasta that is sticking together.
- Add pasta and cheese to skillet and cook for additional minute, stirring or flipping the pan to coat pasta and sauce.
- Taste and add salt according to your palate.
- Off heat and plate pasta in shallow bowls, garnishing with mint leaves, cracked pepper and additional cheese to your taste. (Don’t go crazy with the pepper/ cheese; they can drown out the flavor of the favas)
- Serve immediately-- pasta should always be served ala minute and hot!