Friday, November 21, 2008

Baked Olives

It's olive season over here. The trees are being stripped and the new oil is out. We went to the frantoio last week to watch the process and buy a healthy-sized jug. The gorgeous green color and fruity yet peppery flavor is unmatched. Is it any wonder I love autumn?

While many of the local olives are being pressed, a good portion are also being cured. Most of those are destined to become the local delicacy, Olive all'Ascolana. The local olive variety, the tenera ascolana, is a behometh in the olive category, perfect for stuffing with meat and deep-frying.

Despite my addiction to the fried critters, I still love a simple dish of baked olives, too. Warm and fragrant, they're irresistable and make a nice presentation when serving guests.

Baked Olives

Mixture of black and green olives, unpitted is best
a bit of lemon or orange peel, grated
a sprinkle of chile flakes
a grating of fresh-ground pepper
a sprig of thyme and/or rosemary (fresh)
2 TBSP red wine
about 2 TBSP olive oil

Combine everything and put in an oven-proof baking dish. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes. Serve warm.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bitter Bulbs

While visiting la famiglia in Basilicata, my cousin's wife broke open a jar of home-canned treats packed in olive oil. They had a slightly bitter bite, similar to radicchio but with a hint of orange peel. When we asked, "ma cos'e? Cipollini?" she smiled slyly and proudly replied, "no, they're not onions, they're lampascioni."

Lampascioni look deceivingly like baby onions, but they're actually the bulbs of a type of hyacinth. Melina forages for them in the countryside and then brings them home, soaks them in white wine and with orange peel to remove some of the bitterness, then packs them in jars sott'olio, literally, "under olive oil". They're actually somewhat addictive.

Lampascioni are common around southern Italy, but I've never seen them in the stores here in Le Marche. They are often served as part of the antipasto plate, but Melina gave me a quick and simple recipe that turns them into a delicious side dish, too.
Here it is, according to her verbal instructions:

-Peel and chop some potatoes. (It's always understood that you'll know how many you'll need.)
-Drain the jar of lampascioni, and quarter them all.
-Put the potatoes and lampascioni in a baking dish and mix together. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, then drizzle on a good deal of olive oil.
-Bake it for about 30 to 40 minutes, stirring it up occasionally., until the potatoes are tender.

If you happen to find these tasty tubers, grab a jar and give them a try.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Penne al Zucchine

We just returned from another foray in the motherland of Basilicata. As always, the simplicity and freshness of the food is just fantastic. We stayed at an agriturismo where la signora prepared a fabulous meal for us, on the one evening we were able to escape la famiglia. She made this dish with freshly-made cavatelli, but as I don't make my own pasta, I am substituting packaged penne. Feel free to use any shape of fresh or dried pasta you want, though. Variety is one of the beautiful things about Italian cuisine! Signora also laid gorgeous, sweet zucchini blossoms on top but I know those are really hard to come by if you don't have your own orto (garden).

This dish is very light but delicious.

Penne (or other shape of pasta)
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large or 2 small zucchini, grated (use the larger grate)
white wine
1/2 cup cooking water from the pasta
3 to 4 leaves of basil, chopped
1-2 TBSP cream

Set the water to boil and cook the pasta. Once the pasta is nearly cooked, take out about 1/2 cup of the cooking water for the sauce. Meanwhile...

In a large skillet saute the onion and garlic in extra virgin olive oil until soft. Add the zucchini shreds and saute about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss in the wine (about 1/2 cup) and simmer a few minutes. Add the reserved cooking water a little at a time, you don't want the sauce to be too thin, but the starch in the water helps "bind" the sauce. Simmer a couple of minutes, add the basil and stir in the cream. Heat through, then toss with the pasta.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


It's been hotter than Hades around these parts lately. Which means I don't want to cook. Without air-conditioning, lighting up the stove even to boil pasta makes the whole apartment feel like inferno. We've been eating a lot of piatti freddi (cold dishes). The typical ones around Italy are prosciutto e melone, la caprese (mozzerella di bufala, tomatoes, and basil drizzled with olive oil), and insalata dei fagioli. But really, after a few weeks I'm tired of that stuff. I like variety. I like spice!

Then...miracle of miracles, I found tahini in the health food store. In Italy! :hallelujiah chorus:
So now we're having hummus on crackers; spread on piadina bread, topped with veggies and rolled up; on crostini topped with feta crumbles and artichoke hearts. Relief has come for the piatti freddi rut.

1 can garbanzo beans, drained
2 TBSP tahini
1 clove garlic, peeled
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. paprika
dash cayenne
salt and pepper to taste
2 TBSP water
1/4 C. olive oil

Combine all in a blender or food processer and whirl until smooth.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Vino Pescato

The heat has set in...the infamous summer sizzle is scorching the city and making everyone scurry for shade or hibernate inside until the sun sets. The shutters and windows get closed up tight from midmorning until evening in an attempt to keep the heat at bay.

It's too hot to cook, making cold plates de riguer. We're also clamouring for cold drinks. My local barista served us this refreshing Neapolitan speciality, learned from his father-in-law who is a true-blue Napolitano. Called vino peschato, it literally means "peached wine". Nothing could be simpler, or more refreshing, on a hot day like this.

Slice three or four fresh, ripe peaches into a pitcher. Pour a bottle of dry white wine over top. Cover and refrigerate several hours. The wine becomes infused with the fragrance and flavor of the fruit. Pour the wine into glasses, and then serve the peaches in a bowl with toothpicks to skewer them.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spaghetti con gli Asparagi

It's asparagus season! Woohoo. I adore them, especially the thin and twiggy wild version that I found in the mercato this week. I frequently just parboil them, drizzle on a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt...basta. But I also like this go-to dish when I can find the truly thin babies. Too thick and this recipe just doesn't turn out right. (But if you can't find the thin ones, you can slice the thicker asparagus in half.) The best part (aside from the wonderful taste, of course) is that it is done in the time it takes to boil the spaghetti.

You'll Need
a bouquet of very thin asparagus
2 or 3 tomatoes
salt and pepper

While the water is heating for the pasta, mince up 2 cloves of garlic. Rinse the asparagus in a colander. Chop the tomatoes.

In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and saute the garlic over low heat until fragrant and soft. Up the heat a bit and throw in the asparagus, with the water still clinging to them. Stir, cover and saute 2 to 3 minutes. Toss in the tomatoes, stir well, cover and let cook another 3 minutes. Just before serving, stir in some minced up basil.

Quickly drain the spaghetti to leave some of the water clinging to them, toss them into the skillet, toss, drizzle on a little olive oil, and serve.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cavatelli con Polpettine

Or, pasta with a meatball sauce. While the American version of spaghetti and meatballs doesn't really exist here in Italy, I did happen to see this down-home dish in a country restaurant in remote Basilicata, which is where my family came from. Cavatelli is one of the preferred regional pastas, along with orecchiette, widely used in that area. They are short little things, sort of like curled- up flower petals, and pick up delicate sauces pretty well. The meatballs are not the giant variety we're so familiar with, but instead little nubs...more like marbles than balls and it really is more like a meat sauce than pasta with meatballs. This is a nice, feel-good dish for the winter doldrums.

about 1/3 pound of ground beef or veal
1 Italian sausage link (spicy is preferred in Basilicata, but whichever variety you like)
about 1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
a handful of breadcrumbs
1 small egg

You'll also need...
Extra virgin olive oil
about 1/4 cup chopped onion
a clove of garlic, minced
red wine
meat or vegetable broth
pecorino cheese

Mix everything together, combining well. Use a small amount to form into little marble-sized balls, setting aside until all the meatballs are formed.

In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the meatballs and brown them. This may have to be done in two batches. When all the meatballs are lightly browned, add a little more oil to the skillet if necessary and saute the onion and garlic, stirring well until softened but not too browned. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, then add the broth, returning all the meatballs to the pan. Partially cover and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, boil the cavatelli until cooked al dente (about 8 minutes). Drain and put in a serving bowl. Pour the meatballs and sauce over top, then gently combine.

Top with freshly grated pecorino cheese.

Here is another version (in Italian), this one from Puglia.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Peas with Prosciutto

This is the simplest of side dishes but with amazing flavor! I've served this several times when we've had company for dinner and they've raved about it, even those who normally aren't wild about peas. It's amazing what a little cured meat can do for the taste of the humble pea.

1 shallot
extra virgin olive oil
2 slices of prosciutto, cut into little pieces
Fresh or frozen peas

In a skillet, saute the shallot and prosciutto in the olive oil, until the shallot is tender. Toss in the peas and just a little bit of water, stir, cover and cook about 5 minutes, adding more water if needed to keep it from drying out.

I sometimes fry slices of prosciutto in olive oil first, then put them on paper towels to drain and cool. Then I crumble them on top for a little more pizzaz.