All in Recipes

Calamari e Piselli (Squid & Peas)

am pretty sure that Pescheria Azurra lets everyone pay with a credit card now, but what do I know.  

With the spring reticently rolling around, the iconic preparation of braised squid and peas is a Neapolitan tradition.  I make this recipe just as the fresh peas appear at Pignasecca and I use medium sized adult squid.  In Naples we enjoy squid on Fridays because we still eschew meat for borderline spiritual, mostly superstitious reasons that day. You do you!

Ribollita

Tuscan and Neapolitan cuisine are natural cousins.  Both hark back to days of poverty in their use humble, oft-discarded ingredients.  Both feature beans prominently. Both do weird things with offal, although that is true for nearly every Italian region.  Nowhere is the cucina povera link more apparent then with the peasant dish of ribollita.  Literally meaning, re-boiled, ribollita utilizes a mish-mash of ingredients that may have found their fates in rubbish bins were in not for the ingenuity of Tuscan home cooks in leaner times. The most compelling use of an otherwise discarded food would of course be stale bread.  Every region in Italy has its own take on stale bread usage.  This Tuscan version is among the most famous abroad.  Strangely a bastard cousin of ribollita is often called Tuscan White Bean Soup on generic restaurant menus in the United States  The resulting dish is a flaccid and less nutritious version of the original and oddly includes entirely too much pancetta.  Ribollita it is not. 

Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs in Sauce)

About two weeks ago, I moved to Siena to complete a project.  Living in Tuscany as an American transplant from Napoli confuses me and nearly every Tuscan I encounter.  The single strangest source of confusion, antipathy even, is my accent.  I had never realized how forcefully I spoke Italian- truncating words and peppering nearly every request, observation and enquiry with hyperbolic exclamations. Even more troubling, I had never fully grasped the extent to which I mixed Neapolitan with Italian, particularly when shopping at open air markets, of which there seem to be few in these Tuscan parts. 

On my first day wandering around the hilltop town I anxiously sought a decent espresso.  I had been to Siena before but it was early in my tenure as a resident of Italy- at a time when my neophyte palate still struggled to ferret out the great from the merely good.  Within roughly twenty minutes of my latest arrival in Siena, I swiftly deduced that coffee here is terrible.  Burnt, flaccid with no character, no texture, no depth, no verve. The same could be said for the Sienese people on further reflection. 

Scarole e Fagioli (Escarole and White Beans)

I could walk for days in Napoli.  Down the Pedementina stairs, past the Pignasecca market through the centro storico, under the streets and even out the city gates.  As I walk, I smell the town.  It is easy to detect who is making stuffed peppers or Genovese or friarielli.  Sometimes I wonder if I hang around below a barred apartment window for long enough whether an ancient nonna in house slippers and curlers might invite me for luncheon.  Mercifully, I still retain a few shreds of dignity and have thusly not allowed this to happen.  YET.

Baccalà Fritto (Fried Cod)

Christmas Eve in Naples is all about fish and lots of it.  While this whole concept of seven fish seems to be distinctly and Italian American thing, we do eat fish in its myriad forms on Christmas Eve.  The logic for this being that we should be abstaining from meat to recall the birth of Jesus.  Obviously gavaging ourselves with 15 kilos of seafood should really do the trick. 

The most common dishes on Christmas Eve often include antipasti of marinated and fried fish, kelp fritter and maybe just a touch of good mozzarella (Although not all on the same plate. Fish + Cheese = BAD in Italy).  For primi we often have Spaghetti all Vongole (Spaghetti with Clams) or Risotto al Pescatore (Seafood Risotto).  

For main dishes or secondi, we enjoy fish both baked and fried.  Generally we bake Orata, Brazino or Spigola (Sea Bass) aqua pazza style with tomatoes, parsley, garlic and olive oil.  And then comes the fried fish.  After soaking salt cod for days, we pat, flour and deep fry.

Struffoli

I have a new hat. It is prominent, synthetic and furry.  Last week when I ventured to Ravello for a concert I felt rather chilled so I bought this arguably monstrous capper.  It has the overall effect of making me look like a cross between Anna Karenina and the Baal Shem Tov.  There are a few reasons I like to where this cap. 

Torrone dei Morti

On November 2nd, we make Torrone dei Morti, a kind of dark chocolate fudge throughout the region of Campania.  According to old legend, this chocolate treat makes an unbearable day of remembering our departed slightly more tolerable.  It is shaped into one long rectangle that is reminiscent of a bone, a dead body or a coffin.  Today young lovers exchange Torrone on November 2nd as one might exchange chocolate hearts on Valentines Day. 

There are also hazelnuts in this chocolate fudge.  Some people say the crunch of the hazelnuts is reminiscent of bones.  I don’t know how I feel about this textural metaphor, but whatever works.  I suppose the point is mainly to treat death with practiced nonchalance so that we ritualistically unafraid.  Neapolitans are comically fatalistic.  They also love sweets.  It is only natural that Torrone would result.    I enjoy making Torrone because in a strange way it reminds me of all that chocolate I once ate with Antonietta. 

Zuppa di Castagne e Fagioli (Chestnut and Bean Soup)

Gym behavior in Naples is really not unlike gorilla behavior in the wild.  The old ladies in cat pajamas are the gorilla gals that pick nits out of some old man monkey’s scalp.  She probably eats the same nits when no one’s looking… don’t be judging these nit snackers or cat pajama wearers. They mean well, plus their doctor told them to do it. The middle-aged ball sack stranglers are barely bipedal and like to smack their own asses and grunt a lot.  Give them a smart phone at your own risk. The painted ladies roll around in grassy patches with come hither stares and jiggling breasts.  I guess that means Peppe is the monkey that throws poop?

Pollo alla Cacciatore

Anxious to impress her with my culinary prowess, I blabbered about browning the meat first and slowly braising it in tomatoes.  She silently nodded her head and declared, “why don’t you do the cacciatore your way and I do it my way and we’ll see what the family thinks.” In a swift move, she had thrown down the only gauntlet a bored, angry housewife in a place with no there, there knew how to throw.  We were having a chicken off. And the fifteen members of the family would be our judges. 

Zucca Grigliata (Grilled Pumpkin)

And it’s a good thing Thanksgiving is still several weeks off because I have all the more time to play with pumpkin--- savory style and in the Italian manner.  Pumpkin risotto, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin with borlotti beans and my favorite ----simple grilled pumpkin.  So get out your machetes basic bitches, because we’re about to get carving

Parmigiana Bianca di Zucchine (White Zucchini Parmesan)

This morning on a trip to the market, I bought 2 kilos of zucchini for 2 euro.  Batch by fucking batch, I grilled those zucchini and thought about that day at Georgetown years ago.  It is hard not to feel nostalgic for the days in which the most interesting thing about myself that I could think of was that I liked sushi.  And yet I sigh with the satisfaction. I am in Napoli, grilling zucchini and making lunch. 

Spezzatino con Piselli (Stewed Beef and Peas)

Then I remembered I had about 4 kilos of fresh peas to shuck.  I also remembered something somebody like Dr. Weil or Lao Tzu or Dr. Phil or Dr. Seuss once said about keeping your hands busy with something productive when anxiety strikes.  And while I was unsure of the provenance of this sage advice, I am pretty sure that the intended activity was not freebasing aspirin and furiously typing outlandish word combinations into 21st century search engines.  Fucking envelope. Fucking post office.   Fucking peas.  I shucked and contemplated.  It almost felt as if I were reciting a novena, peas in place of the rosary. 

Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)

I wanted a caipirinha and feijoada and Ipiranga and Sao Joao.  But then again, I was in Napoli.  I had Aglianico and ragù and all of these crazy people running around town fretting about laundry, public transport strikes and the upcoming soccer match against Real Madrid. I continued singing Águas de Março. If I couldn’t have feijoada than I would make pasta fasule. My Paulistano past and my Napolitano present didn’t seem so dissonant after all. 

Braciole Napoletane (Beef Rolls)

Braciole, a dish of braised meat rolls, is typically served on Sundays.  It is essentially two dishes in one with the residual red sauce tossed in rigatoni or penne to serve as a primo and the meat rolls served as a secondo.  It bears noting that in the North, braciole is a grilled pork chop.  In Napoli, braciole universally refers to a thin cutlet of beef stuffed with garlic, parsley, pine nuts, raisins, pancetta and Parmesan and then slowly braised in a tomato sauce.  I have seen this dish stuffed with breadcrumbs in the United States, which I consider both foolish and sacrilege but to each his own.

Minestra Maritata

Minestra Maritata gave rise to what Americans call “Italian Wedding Soup.”  This soup is not in fact served at weddings.  Maritata means married in Italian and refers to the married flavors of rich meat broth and bitter wintergreens.  This is dish is typical of Napoli’s characteristic coquina povera (poor man’s cuisine) and is often served on the Christmas Day.  I served it a week late because as mentioned, I had no electricity for the Christmas holiday.  You will notice that I add little meatballs or polpettine.  In Naples this is uncommon, however in Agerola it is preferred.  Serve as you wish.

Insalata di Rinforzo

Consisting of cornichon, red peppers, capers, olives and cauliflower, insalata di rinforzo is made for Christmas Eve dinner and then served again for the New Years feast, as Neapolitan believe the flavors become “reinforced” the longer they marinate.  Baccalà (cod) is a classic Christmas dish because as we know, Neapolitans have a bit of a thing for fish around the Christmas season.

Spaghetti alle Vongole (Spaghetti and Clams)

Spaghetti alle vongole is a Neapolitan staple and Christmas classic.  It is for that reason I set out to make this dish after my recent visit to Porta Nolana. There are two critical decisions once must make when preparing the dish: whether or not to shell half of the clams and whether or not to serve “macchiato” or “stained” with tomatoes.  I really happen to like the aesthetic vibrancy of the added tomatoes.  It is a matter of personal preference.  As with every time I prepare spaghetti alle vongole, I enjoyed this dish with a glass of greco di tufo wine and lots of bread.  Perhaps the most delicious ritual in these parts is the performance of the time-honored ritual of scarpetta, mopping up residual sauce with a little shoe of bread.  There is no better dish for scarpetta than spaghetti alle vongole.  And there is no better way to conclude a bella jurnata a Napule.  

Plum Tart Tatin

There are a lot of great recipe genesis stories.  Everybody seems to know the old tale of the Earl of Sandwich, so obsessed with his cribbage game that he ordered his servants to bring him a conveniently portable meal.  And thus was born the now ubiquitous sandwich. There is also the fondly recounted story of the chocolate chip cookie.  Apparently some intrepid cook in Massachusetts lazily threw chocolate bits into traditional cookie batter hoping the chocolate would evenly melt to create a chocolate cookie.  The bits remained in tact and now we have the beloved chocolate chip cookie.  Yet another story of accidental invention in the kitchen is my personal favorite, the Tarte Tatin!

Fagiolini Pugliesi (Green Beans Apulia Style)

This week I have decided to become a paragon of efficiency.  Usually these bouts of manic organization last roughly 24 hours and then I burn out in the bathtub where I can be found reading gossip magazines and drinking crappy chardonnay. It has thusly come as a shock to me that I am now on day three.  If there were a Container Store nearby, I would have visited no less than 67 times by now.  Alas, all I have is some crackpot everything store off our main piazza that sells things like clothes pins and canning jars when what I really want is an overpriced, aspirational closet organization system that makes me feel as if I have FINALLY MADE IT IN LIFE!  Then I remember—I don’t even have a walk-in closet. #whitegirlproblems

Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan)

When I first arrived in Agerola, Giuseppe liked to go around telling people that I was a “great cook,” which in retrospect was just about the most ridiculous thing he could say about me. I remember a man I worked with in Washington who once told me, referring to his wife, “Oh Hillary is a great cook.” This same man later invited me over for dinner, probably so that he could later gloat that Hillary was indeed a great cook!!!! 

For some reason beyond my current comprehension, I actually accepted this man’s invitation to sample Hillary’s great cooking.  Upon arriving at their home (yes, you guessed it, they lived in suburban Virginia), I quickly learned that this Hillary lady was a ‘HUGE’ fan of Food Network chef Melissa d’Arabian. Unsurprisingly our night’s feast featured a full menu exactingly prepared according to Ms. d’Arabian’s much touted testament to parsimony: Ten Dollar Dinners.  I don’t even recall what we ate that night.  It was uninspired, but not exactly bad.  I am sure that Hillary prepared everything according to Ms. d’Arabian’s precise instructions. What I do know is that the pièce de résistance of the evening was pot de crème and that Hillary spent the entire evening proudly trilling the words ‘pot de crème’ as if she were a modern day Charles de Gaulle (or a current day Stéphane Bern).  It’s just fucking custard I thought to myself.  I was never invited back for another ten dollar dinner, and I’m not complaining.  They served Cupcake Chardonnay, which was probably out of budget.