Monday, August 24, 2009

Olive all'Ascolana Part II

If you missed the introduction and background about this delicacy, be sure to ready Part I.

Olive all'Ascolana (pronounced oh-LEE-vay) - Ascoli-style Stuffed Olives

I have eaten an uncountable quantity of these critters while living in Ascoli Piceno, and watched them being prepared, had verbal recipes recited to me, along with a couple of sketchy hand-written instructions. I decided to take the two most reliable recipes, one provided to me by my friend Linda Ancona, and the other from my former landlady, Dorina, as the best ones, and adapted them.

A few notes before you begin.
*This is by far the most "complicated" recipe I've ever posted on La Cucina. While it's pretty straight-forward, it is time-consuming to make them so allow plenty of time. Make a decent quantity (as discussed in Part I) and freeze them. It is nice to have them on hand ready to fry for a future aperitivo party or antipasto.

*In Ascoli, the meat mixture is traditionally made with chunks of meat, then ground in a meat grinder after cooking. It does actually make a difference in taste and texture to prepare it this way, rather than starting with pre-ground meats (but I admit that I use the pre-ground because I don't have a meat grinder; I whirled the meat in a food processor before stuffing the olives.)  If you do have a meat-grinder, though, make it the traditional way, as it truly tastes better.

*The Ascolani have a set system for making their olive all'ascolana:  1) Hand-pit the olives; 2) Prepare the meat mixture and make it into marble-sized meatballs; 3) Stuff the olives; 4) Bread them and let them sit (or freeze them) before 5) Frying them. This routine works because they hand-cut the olive off the pit in a spiral fashion and reconstruct the olive around the meatball. I slices my pitted olives open and stuffed the ball inside, but Janie of Panini Girl recommends piping the meat into the olive with a pastry bag (a sensible idea!).

*Finally, the olives. It can be difficult to find large pitted olives that are not already stuffed with something. The Cerignola is a mild, large olive, but I have only found them whole. (A cherry pitter would work if you want to pit them yourself.) The tenera ascolana is cured in a very mild brine of sea salt and water, so you don't get a "pucker factor" from them.  I found that most jarred olives tend to be much more strongly brined, so they will need to be soaked for a couple of hours to slake off some of the brine flavor before you stuff them.

                          About 100 olives - stuffed and breaded and ready to freeze

Authentic Olive all'Ascolana

1 onion, minced
1/3 pound ground chicken (or chicken breast)
1/3 pound ground pork (or chunks of pork)
4 to 5 slices prosciutto crudo, minced
1 carrot, cut into 3-4 large pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 3-4 large pieces
salt and pepper
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino cheese
1 egg
zest from 1/2 lemon
dash or two of nutmeg

Heat about 1 TBSP of olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the onion until soft. Add the meats and saute until cooked, using a fork to mash it and keep the meat as fine-textured as possible. (If you're using chunks, just brown them and saute until cooked through.) Add the carrot and celery, season with salt and pepper, and then add the wine. Cook until the wine has evaporated. Remove from heat, take out the celery and carrot pieces, and cool.

If you are using chunks of meat, grind them in the meat grinder. If you used ground meat, put it in a food processor and pulse to get a finer texture.

To the ground meat, add the parmigiano or pecorino, the lemon zest, nutmeg and egg. (Dorina cautions to use a light hand with the lemon zest and nutmeg, as too much will overpower evertyhing.) Mix well, like you would a meatloaf mixture.

Fill the olives with the meat.  To do this you can roll the meat into marble-sized balls, as is traditional, or use a pastry bag to pipe it into the olives.

To Prepare the Olives:

3 eggs
Fine Breadcrumbs

In a shallow bowl, beat the eggs. Place flour in one bowl, the breadcrumbs in another. Dip the olives in the flour, then the eggs, then the breadcrumbs to coat evenly. Put them on a plate. Refrigerate at least 1/2 hour before frying. Note:  You can prepare the olives up to this point and freeze them for future use.

To Fry:

Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Fry olives a few at a time, turning to fry them evenly, until golden. Drain on paper towels.

Italians use olio da friggere, a liquid frying oil that is made of a blend of seed oils (peanut, sunflower, grapeseed and olive oil, I think). They do not use hydrogenated fat for frying! I use olive oil (sometimes pouring in a bit of grapeseed oil which has a higher smoke point).

Makes about 200 olives.

Enjoy with a Piceno wine like Pecorino, Falerio, or Rosso Piceno.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Olive all'Ascolana Part I

Part I of a two-part series.

The local specialty food of Ascoli Piceno is an addictive one: gigantic olives that are stuffed with meat and deep-fried. It may sound odd, but they are very good. In fact, Bryan loves them, and he normally does not eat olives! Around the Piceno, no party or antipasto plate is complete without them.

The Ascolani say that this tradition actually dates back to Roman times, but, like most things in this part of the country, it came into its own during the Medieval period. It is a rather ingenious dish, utilizing the most common (some may say 'humble') products at hand and turning them into a delicacy.

It was originally a way to use up scraps of meat and cheese. The local olive variety, found only in this part of the country, is called the tenera ascolana. It is a behemoth as far as olives are concerned, very large ovals that are very 'meaty'. The olive is a D.O.P. item, as is the final dish of olive all'ascolana (a special certification for the authenticity of specialty regional products).

Local tradition dictates the olives be pitted by hand a spirale, in a spiral around the pit. The olive is then "reconstructed" around the little balls of meat before being breaded and fried. Special curved olive-pitting knives are sold in the local cutlery shops, some embossed with the Ascoli Piceno emblem, making them nice souvenirs. I once watched my former landlord pit about 300 olives this way and quickly decided that buying pre-pitted olives in tubs would be just fine for an americana like me!

The tenera ascolana olives are also unique in that they are cured in a light brine of water and sea salt instead of vinegar. This makes a huge difference in the taste; they are very mild, so there is no 'pucker factor' with these olives.

The meats selected always include pork and chicken; from that base other "scelte" are added according to taste. Indeed, each person I know in Ascoli Piceno makes their stuffed olives slightly differently. Some add a bit of beef or veal to the mix; others insist it must have some prosciutto. I've run across a few that include mortadella, and one man who used pancetta. As for the cheese, most use grana padano, but local, aged pecorino is popular, too. Odori (spices) vary, as well; some cooks add celery and carrot to the pot of cooking meat (pulling it out before proceeding); some like nutmeg, others say it overpowers the flavor. Little arguments break out over the "correct" way to make them, with everyone always referring back to the authoritative, "Well, that is the way my grandmother made them!" Since this was cucina povera, whatever was at hand was what they used, which is why everyone's nonna makes it her own way!

Next time I'll post the recipe, which was a little labor of love to translate and adapt, let me tell you! My friends' recipes required measurement conversions (something I'm still not adept at, even after three years), and frankly the quantities were huge! Dorina, my former landlord, told me, "If you're going to make them, you may as well make 300 of them, because why go to all that work for just a few? She had a point. My recipe will make about 200. Once they are prepared and breaded, they can be frozen until you're ready to fry them. ricetta!

PART II - Recipe and Preparation of Authentic Olive all'Ascolana

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Simplicity - With a Cherry on Top

You may have noticed that I don't post many dessert recipes. I used to bake quite a lot, but got out of the habit while living in Italy, for various reasons. For one, my oven was miniscule so the cookie sheets didn't fit in it. Second, the flour was finer, the butter denser, and the oven temperature fluctuated like a yo-yo, so most of my baking attempts were sadly hindered. Then there is the whole gelato availability issue, meaning that it was just tastier and easier to walk to the gelateria (or pasticceria) for dessert, so why heat up the house and go through the baking frustration in the first place?

But when I had friends over I would prepare a little something to round out the meal. This traditional ricotta dessert comes from a 75-year Ascoli native who said it is a long-standing treat in Le Marche. It makes sense, since fresh ricotta is readily available (almost always made from sheep's milk), as is local honey. Fruit toppings can vary, and Serafino told us that the best winter topping is just a dusting of cocoa.

Folks, it doesn't get any simpler than this, but the flavor combo of these humble ingredients is fantastic.

Ricotta and Honey with Fruit or Cocoa

(Actually, that is about all there is to it, so it seems redundant to give a "recipe"!)

On dessert plates, portion out a heaping spoonful (about 1/3 cup on each plate) of the freshest ricotta cheese you can find. Drizzle with local wildflower honey (about 2 tsp. per portion). Top with chopped fresh fruit, grate on bittersweet chocolate, or dust with cocoa.
My favorite garnish is with fresh sugared cherries: wash a bunch of fresh cherries with the stems still attached. Do not dry. Dip each damp cherry in granulated sugar and set aside to dry. When the dessert is ready, arrange a few cherries on the plate and plop one on top of the ricotta.
Now that I think about it, this would be really nice with cherries that have been soaked in liquor, too!

photo credit: brettneilson