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On Tomatoes, Parlando di Pomodori

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Come summer, Tomatoes flood Italian markets: deeply ribbed salad tomatoes streaked with red and green, rounder brashly red ripe sauce tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and San Marzano tomatoes, the plum tomatoes that find their way into salads when they’re still tinged with green, and into sauces once they’re fully ripe. Not to mention a host of heirloom tomatoes, some known only locally, and others more widely.

We take tomatoes for granted now, and it would be quite difficult to imagine Italian cooking – especially South Italian – without them, but it took Italians a very long time to accept them: Though they were introduced as ornamental plants in the 1500s, in Il Panunto Toscano, which was published in 1705, Francesco Gaudentio says:

“These fruits, which in some ways resemble apples, are grown in gardens and can be cooked as follows: Take them, chop them up, and put them in a skillet with olive oil, pepper, salt, minced garlic, and sprigs of mint. Sauté them, stirring them about frequently, and should you want to add some sliced zucchini or eggplant they’ll be well recieved.”

When an author has to describe a vegetable, it’s a good indication that it’s not widely used. Moreover, this is the only mention he makes of tomatoes; they don’t appear in any of his stews or vegetable dishes. Further indication of the slowness with which tomatoes were accepted comes from the word pelati, which now generally refers to canned tomatoes: when 18th century cooks mention pelati they are referring to skinned preserved game (pelare means to skin). The great change came in the first half of the 19th century, and when Artusi, who mentions having met the first Italian to begin canning tomatoes commercially, calls for pelati he invariably means canned tomatoes. And they continue to be ubiquitous today.

A couple of observations on selecting fresh tomatoes: Italians divide them into two classes, insalatari and da salsa.

Pomodori Insalatari, as one might expect, are salad tomatoes, to be eaten raw, and when I was little Italians tended to prefer them not-too-ripe, in other words quite firm, with streaks of green running through them, and with a lively acidity of the sort that complements the flavor of the greens in the salad. Now some people prefer them riper but you will still find lots of salad tomatoes shot with green in the markets.

Pomodori da salsa, on the other hand, are for cooking and should be ripe – an explosive red, rich, and slightly sweet too.

If you can, either grow your own tomatoes (they are remarkably prolific plants) or get them from a friend who has a vegetable patch, because they will be much more flavorful than all but tomatoes from the best markets. If you cannot, buy locally grown sun-ripened tomatoes. Only use tomatoes that are hot-house grown or trucked in from elsewhere as a last resort, because they tend to look beautiful but be tasteless, a result of agro-engineering on the part of the food industry.

Having said all this, a quick look at some of the tomatoes you might find in an Italian market:

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori A Grappolo, Everyday Salad Tomatoes

These tomatoes are sold by the bunch, and mostly destined towards salads. They are standard year-round market fare, sun ripened in the summer months, and (I expect) hothouse-ripened in winter.

Pomodori Costoluti, Ribbed Tuscan Heirloom Tomatoes
The word Costoluti means “ribbed,” and is an apt descriptor for these tomatoes. Though they’re not as aesthetically pleasing as some other cultivars, they are richly flavored and quite nice in salads. People gnerally prefer them somewhat green, because the acidity of a green tomato contributes nicely to the overall flavor of a salad, contrasting with the oil and complementing the vinegar and the sweeter vegetables – carrots, peppers, bulb fennel – that may also be included. Pomodori Costoluti appear in the markets in spring and carry though until mid-summer.

Pomodori Merinda, Merinda Heirloom Tomatoes

Pomodori Merinda, Merinda Heirloom Tomatoes

Pomodori Merinda, Sicilian heirloom tomatoes

This Sicilian heirloom tomato is best when still shot with green. It’s also best when not too large, and people generally eat them raw, finely sliced because they’re thick-skinned, in salads or by themselves, simply seasoned with olive oil, salt, and vinegar.

Or, if you want something very traditionally Sicilian, finely slice Merinda tomatoes and a little onion, and season them with oilive oil, salt, a pinch of oregano, and a “finger of water” (i.e. a bit more that a quarter inch in the bottom of the bowl, which will draw the sharpness from the onion). Let the salad rest for at least 15 minutes, and enjoy it with crusty bread that will be great for mopping up the drippings. Peasant food at its finest.

Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

Pomodori Pachino are cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino region of Sicily (in the Province of Syracuse), and because of their distinctive flavor enjoy IGP, or protected status – in other words, to be called Pachino they must hail from Pachino. They are very nice in salads, though they can also be used elsewhere – for example, when halved or quartered they make a fine addition to a pizza, and are also quite nice in pasta salads or added to pasta with pesto sauce.

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from San Marzano, on Mt. Vesuvius

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from San Marzano, on Mt. Vesuvius

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from Mount Vesuvius

These are Pomodori San Marzano, plum tomatoes from the San Marzano production area on the flanks of Monte Vesuvio, and like Pomodori Pachino, they enjoy IGP status.

Of course plum tomatoes grow elsewhere too, at which point Italians call them pomodori perini.

Pomodori San Marzano/Perini are the classic canning and sauce tomato; people generally wait until mid-summer, when they’re wonderfully sun-ripened, and then buy them in bulk to make tomato sauce for the winter months. They’re also nice in other dishes as an ingredient, though they are not so good raw (for example in salad) because they’re a bit dry, and firm too.

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Pomodori Essiccati, Sun Dried Tomatoes

Sun dried tomatoes are a standard South Italian antipasto and ingredient. They’re less common in Northern Italy: I once bought some in a deli in Florence and asked what to do with them; the guy behind the counter shrugged and said he had no idea.

Having looked at some of the tomatoes one might find in a market, a few recipes:


La Focaccia di Recco, Illustrated

Focaccia Di Recco

Focaccia Di Recco

Focaccia di Recco is a delightfully – nay, libidinously – cheesy variation on the focacce you’ll find in many parts of Liguria: It’s made by extending a thin sheet of dough, dotting it with a creamy cheese, covering the cheese with a second sheet of dough, and baking everything. The result is wonderful, and in the days of carriages the people of Genova used to take day-trips to Recco to enjoy it.

A little history: Recco’s Ristorante Manuelina claims to have invented this cheesy focaccia about a century ago, though Alessandro Molinari Pradelli says it’s much older, dating to the times of the Saracen raiders: “…People would flee to safety in the mountains; since flour, oil and locally made cheeses were readily available in their hideouts, they’d make focaccia stuffed with cheese.”

Manuelina may not have invented Focaccia di Recco, but is responsible for its current renown, and Mr. Pradelli continues, saying the restaurant’s “menu still begins with the traditional focaccia al formaggio. And now, in Recco you’ll find it everywhere, from bakers to restaurants to diners, all who proclaim it their specialty.”

In short, Manuelina developed a masterpiece.

Focaccia di Recco: Spreading the Lower Sheet of Dough

Focaccia di Recco: Spreading the Lower Sheet of Dough

And to further promote Focaccia di Recco, the people of Recco have established the Consorzio Focaccia col Formaggio di Recco, which obtained IGP (a product of protected origin) status for their focaccia. This means that only establishments located  in Recco can call their focaccia Focaccia di Recco, and only if they follow the authentic recipe. This of course doesn’t prevent others from making Focaccia al Formaggio, and indeed I have had excellent focaccia al formaggio in other Ligurian towns. But it will prevent the food industry from making an ersatz frozen version and calling it “Focaccia di Recco.”

Focaccia di Recco: Putting Down Cheese

Focaccia di Recco: Putting Down Cheese

The Consorzio Focaccia Col Formaggio di Recco had a booth at the 2010 Salone del Gusto in Torino, and in addition to offering hot cheesy slices of focaccia — it was nippy and they were mobbed — the Consorzio was giving out the recipe:

  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) 00 grade flour (this has slightly more gluten than American flour, but an unbleached all purpose flour will work)
  • About a pint (500 ml) of water
  • About 2/5 cup (100 ml) olive oil
  • 3/4 to 1 1/2 tablespoons (10-20 g) fine grained non-iodized salt, marine if possible
  • About 4 1/2 pounds (2 k) fresh crescenza cheese
  • A little olive oil
  • A little more salt
  • To begin, a note on the cheese: Crescenza is a very fresh, mild, slightly acidulous creamy cow’s milk cheese. You will want something mild and creamy that will also melt.
Focaccia di Recco: The Top Sheet

Focaccia di Recco: The Top Sheet

And now, the dough:

Make a mound of the flour on your work surface. Scoop a well into it, and pour in the olive oil, salt, and enough water to obtain a soft, smooth dough. Knead it well, cover it, and let it rest for a half hour at room temperature.

Once the dough has rested, divide it into an equal number of pieces (two per focaccia, and the size of the focacce will be dictated by the size of your baking pans and your oven).

Do not roll the dough out, but rather stretch it to make a sheet, working it from below with your hands as it thins, the way one works strudel dough, until it is quite thin — a millimeter, or less than a 16th of an inch. Be careful not to puncture the dough as you work it.

Lay the sheet on your baking sheet and dot it with cheese.

Focaccia di Recco: Laying Down the Top Sheet

Focaccia di Recco: Laying Down the Top Sheet

Lay the second sheet of dough over the first, and curl the edges, squeezing them tightly to make a seal.

Focaccia di Recco: Tamping Down the Top Sheet

Focaccia di Recco: Tamping Down the Top Sheet

Next, press the top sheet down around the cheese balls, and puncture the dough in a number of places to allow steam to escape as it cooks. Sprinkle the focaccia with a little olive oil, and lightly dust it with salt.

Focaccia di Recco: Ready for the Oven!

Focaccia di Recco: Ready for the Oven!

The focaccia is now ready for the oven. You will need a very hot oven; the Consorzio says between 270  and 320 C, which translates to 540 to 640 F – the sort of temperature a wood fired pizza oven will reach, and indeed if you have a pizza oven at home Focaccia di Recco could well become a staple.

The focaccia should bake between 4 and 8 minutes.

Focaccia di Recco: Baked...

Focaccia di Recco: Baked…

When the Focaccia emerges from the oven, it will be golden brown, with darker bubbles and striations. Carefully slide it onto a cutting board, ideally one with a raised lip to keep the cheese from running away.

Focaccia di Recco: Slicing It Up!

Focaccia di Recco: Slicing It Up!

Slice your focaccia immediately – it is best hot – and serve it forth. You’ll note from the photo that cheese will issue from the edges of the focaccia, and you may want to scoop it up with a spoon for those who want some additional melted cheese. Enjoy!

La Bombetta Pugliese: Street Food at its Finest

Bombette Pugliesi: Enjoy!

Bombette Pugliesi: Enjoy!

La Bombetta Pugliese is a specialty of the Valle D’Itria, south of Bari, and the folks at the Bombetta Pugliese stand in the street foods section of Torino’s Salone del Gusto didn’t mince words: “It’s not healthy!” they cried, and indeed there isn’t much healthy in a well-seasoned pork braciola swapped around a piece of cheese and grilled.

“But it’s good!” they howled.

And come people did, drawn also by the chest-thumping music they were playing and the wonderful aromas rising from their grill: they couldn’t keep up with demand.

In short, Bombette are an ultimate street food, though this hasn’t always been the case: Historically bombette were a meaty dish enjoyed (rarely) by the poorest of the poor, sharecroppers who took the trimmings nobody else was interested in – if it was fatty, so much the better because fat = calories = energy – wrapped it around a little cheese, and cooked them in the communal ovens butchers kept lit for their poorer clients. Even their size is rooted in poverty: they are small because small cooks faster, requiring less fuel.

Now bombette are a fixture at country fairs in Puglia, and people cook them over the coals when they have friends over.

Bombette Pugliesi: Ready to Grill!

Bombette Pugliesi: Ready to Grill!

To make Bombette Pugliesi you will need nicely marbled pork shoulder butt; the butchers of the Valle D’Itria say the animal should weigh between 160 and 180 k (350-400 pounds) and not be the result of intensive farming, because the meat will be better marbled.

The cheese is up to personal taste; some prefer Parmigiano or Grana, others pecorino (Sardo, not Romano, which is sharper and saltier), and others still Fontina, which melts. The important thing is to use a cheese of good quality.

Bombette Pugliesi: Over the Coals

Bombette Pugliesi: Over the Coals

The preparation of bombette is straight forward. Assuming you have a pound of meat, you will want about 3/4 pound of cheese, as well as salt, pepper, finely chopped rosemary needles, minced parsley, and – it you want – a hint of red pepper.

Crumble or finely dice the cheese and put it in a bowl with salt, pepper, parsley and  rosemary (go easy on the rosemary because it is powerful; I would figure a scant teaspoon of freshly chopped needles for this volume) to taste. Mix well.

Finely slice the shoulder butt to make pork braciole. Put them between slices of oven parchment and pound them with a meat pounder or the flat of a knife to thin them, and season them to taste with salt and pepper.

Bombette Pugliesi: Almost Done...

Bombette Pugliesi: Almost Done…

Put an equal amount of filling on each slice and roll the bombette up, folding in the sides as well to obtain packets of meat that will contain the cheese when it has been  melted by the heat of the fire. As you seal up each packet, slip it onto a skewer or kebab.

Continue until all is used up.

While you are preparing the meat, heat coals in your grill. The custom in Puglia is to use hardwood, and if you can it will give best results. Set the meat over the coals, which shouldn’t be too searing, and cook, turning the spits, until all sides of the bombette are nicely browned — 10 minutes in all, or perhaps a little more.

If you are at a street fair you will be given a paper cone filled with bombette and a slice or two of bread, and also a skewer with which to spear and eat the bombette. And be very happy. If you are with friends in the back yard or the den, divvy them up onto plates.

A wine? I’d go with a zesty Negroamaro.

Giovanni Santarpia On Pizza!

Giovanni Santarpia, Master Pizzaiolo

Giovanni Santarpia, Master Pizzaiolo

There’s no getting around it; Pizza is a Neapolitan creation, and one who wants proof need only visit a Neapolitan pizzaiolo and see just how varied and inventive his or her creations are; much more than the pizzas you’ll find in other parts of Italy, and a great many with little or no tomato.

Of course it’s even nicer if the pizzaiolo will come to you, and this year Giovanni Santarpia, a Napoletano DOC who has moved to Florence, was the star at Ruffino’s annual journalist’s dinner, held on the winery’s Tenuta Poggio Casciano property, mid-way between the towns of Grassina and San Polo.

Giovanni Santarpia's Fried Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Fried Pizza

Ruffino being a winery, one of the goals of the dinner was to pair pizza with wine, and we began with Vermentino and pizza fritta, which had some tomato within the fried pizzas and more on top, garnished with basil too. This was the only tomato sauce we saw in the course of the evening.

Giovanni Santarpia's Prosciutto and Melon Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Prosciutto and Melon Pizza

We then sat down, and were treated with Pizza al Prosciutto e Melone, pizza – just a white disk – topped with freshly sliced melon and prosciutto; the combination, which is generally just served on a plate, worked quite well, with the salt on the pizza crust contributing nicely to the other ingredients.

The wine? A simple, eminently quaffable rosato.

Giovanni Santarpia's Stuffed Zucchini Blossom Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Stuffed Zucchini Blossom Pizza

Next came a high point, Pizza ai Fiori di Zucca Ripieni di Ricotta e Prosciutto Cotto, pizza topped with squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and ham, and with tomatoes and cheese.  Very delicate, and eye-openingly delicious.

Giovanni Santarpia's Tripe Salad Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Tripe Salad Pizza

Giovanni then nodded to Tuscan tradition, serving up another simple pizza disk topped with a tripe salad simply seasoned with olive oil, parsley, and pepper. Delicate and also quite light.

The wine? Ruffino has recently introduced a Chianti Superiore that’s bottled in what one might call a variation on the traditional Tuscan fiasco, or wine flask. Light, fresh, and fruity, and it drank quite well with both the tripe and the lampredotto we next came to.

Giovanni Santarpia's Calzone With Lampredotto

Giovanni Santarpia’s Calzone With Lampredotto

Lampredotto indeed; since Tuscany also has other organ meat traditions, Giovanni then served us a Calzone (for want of a better term) stuffed with Lampredotto made by Luca Cai: Lampredotto is the second stomach of the cow, boiled for hours with a variety of vegetables, and though the vegetables are generally filtered out when the lampredotto is served up in a sandwich, Giovanni included them in the filling of the calzone, together with a little cheese on top, and those who liked lampredotto at our table – not all people do – enjoyed it very much.

The wine? Ruffino makes much more than Chianti, and at this point they broke out their 2007 Greppone Mazzi Brunello di Montalcino. Which one might have expected to be overkill with pizza, but instead paired nicely.

Giovanni Santarpia's Cream of Squash and Pancetta Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Cream of Squash and Pancetta Pizza

After the calzone Giovanni returned to pizza, again in bianco (tomatoless), treating us with a cream of squash and pancetta topping that was very very nice; the squash was delicate, with hints of sweetness that were beautifully balanced by the saltiness of the pancetta, and had there been an extra slice I’d have happily taken it.

Giovanni Santarpia's Certaldo Onion and Pecorino di Fossa Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Certaldo Onion and Pecorino di Fossa Pizza

The last of the savory pizzas was topped with stewed onions from Certaldo and pecorino di fossa, pecorino that is wrapped in burlap and buried in a fossa or ditch to age (in the past the burial also served to hide the cheese from thieves who would raid farms for provisions); during the time spent underground the cheese undergoes a number of chemical reactions, and gains a piquancy that many find addictive, and that nicely balanced the sweetness of the onions.

Giovanni Santarpia's Pistocchi Chocolate Cream Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Pistocchi Chocolate Cream Pizza

One might think this enough, but there was dessert also, and Giovanni first wowed us with a pizza topped with the chocolate cream from Mr. Pistocchi, one of Tuscany’s finest chocolatiers; the savory accents of the crust paired beautifully with the sweetness of the chocolate and people again wished there were extra slices available. And it went well with the Brunello!

Giovanni Santarpia's Blueberry and Vinsanto Sauce Pizza

Giovanni Santarpia’s Blueberry and Vinsanto Sauce Pizza

And as if that wasn’t enough, Giovanni then produced a masterful pizza topped with blueberries in a Vin Santo sauce. Stunning, and the perfect closure to a memorable meal.

Pizza Anyone? History, Recipes and More
How to bake Pizza in a Wood Fired Oven

Svizzere: Yes, That’s Italian for Hamburgers

Burgers (in a variety of flavors) in an Italian Market

Burgers (in a variety of flavors) in an Italian Market

Grilled meat — generally ground beef — patties are rarely called grilled meat patties, perhaps because it’s a long mouthful for a quick dish. There are several explanations for the English language term, hamburger, my favorite being that it derives from the grilled meat patties served to immigrants crossing the Atlantic on the Hamburg line in the 1800s.

Many of the immigrants had never seen anything like them before, continues this explanation, and therefore called them Hamburgers, a name they continued to use in the Americas. And since hamburgers are tasty if made with good quality meat, and easy to cook, soon everyone was making them.

In Italy hamburgers are instead called Svizzere, which is the feminine plural of Swiss (sing. Svizzera); according to Antonio Piccinardi it’s a “Milanese term indicating a pan-fried ground meat patty, similar to a Hamburger.” Why the Milanese should have called a ground beef patty a Svizzera is beyond me, but they did, and Svizzere were already quite common in Italy before companies like McD’s began to introduce American-style fast food.

And now in every Italian supermarket and butcher’s shop you will find a considerable variety of ready-to-cook Svizzere, including moderately fatty beef, lean beef, beef with pork, beef with turkey, beef with chicken, and many Svizzere with different kinds of herbs and flavorings mixed through the meat.

And, of course, you will find ground beef, both leaner and less lean, in addition to ground veal and ground pork.

To be quite honest, unless you are pressed for time, you will likely be better off buying ground meat and making the patties at home. Why? Because you can tailor the meat to your taste, combining leaner and fattier grinds to get it just the way you like it, or using a mixture of meats, say beef and pork sausage. And you can also add other ingredients to the ground meat, from cooked onions through soy sauce, and also herbs and spices such as parsley or garlic, or paprika.

In terms of grind you will want meat that’s not too finely ground, and unless you are on a rigidly lowfat diet, you should select meat that’s not too lean: fat helps to keep the meat moist as it cooks, and as a result a Svizzera made from overly lean meat will be dry and rather chewy.

Mix the ingredients you choose to include well, and shape the mixture into patties, figuring that 500 g of ground meat (1 1/8 pounds) will yield 4 burgers about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across and a little more than a half-inch (1.2 cm) thick. Don’t make them too thick, because they will contract as they cook, becoming thicker in the process.

Come time to cook Svizzere, if you are pan-frying them with a Teflon-coated pan and have used meat that’s not too lean, you can simply heat the pan and cook them with no additional fat. If you are instead using leaner meat that might dry out, you should drizzle a drop or two of olive oil over the patties before you cook them.

If you are using cast iron, which (I find) nicely sears the surfaces of the patties, forming a zesty crust, you will need to grease it lest the patties stick. The other indoor option, if you have a hearth, is to cook them over the coals.

Outdoors? The grill, and here the flame source is up to you; I prefer hardwood or lump charcoal, but gas will also give good results. I wouldn’t use charcoal briquettes, because they can contain all sorts of things, including sawdust.

Last thing: Cooking Burgers.

Commercially prepared ground meats can be contaminated with e. coli bacteria: if they are present on the surface of a piece of meat the grinding process will spread them throughout the ground meat, at which point the ground meat, if eaten raw, could cause food poisoning whose effects range from the uncomfortable to the fatal (especially in children). Since e. coli bacteria are neutralized by cooking, always cook burgers made from purchased ground meat thoroughly. They should be well done, no pink in the middle, and certainly no blood.

If you want to enjoy the luxury of a rare burger, buy a piece of beef, sear the outsides to eliminate bacteria, and grind it yourself (go in pulses if you are using a food processor), adding fat to taste (figure 10 – 15% by weight) and washing the grinder well when you have finished.

Do not serve rare burgers made with commercially ground meat. It’s simply not worth the risk.

Having said all this, some Italian Svizzera Recipes:

Italian Burgers With Creamy Sauce, Svizzere Gustose
These burgers are served with a creamy sauce that gains zing from some mustard, and will be quite nice in the spring.

Italian Burgers with Spinach,  Svizzere e Spinaci
Blended spinach and ham are a nice addition to ground beef in these burgers, and provide a welcome variation to the more standard theme.

Breaded Hamburgers, Svizzere in Cotoletta
The cotoletta alla Milanese, a breaded fried cutlet, is one of the quickest and easiest (and most popular) meat dishes in Italy. It’s just a step further to fry up a burger, but here we have an added twist: it’s stuffed with ham and cheese, and the latter melts delightfully.

Pizzaiola Style Hamburgers, Hamburger alla Pizzaiola
Carne alla pizzaiola, cutlets cooked in a tomato sauce of the sort that goes over pizza, is one of Naples’s signature dishes. It is only natural to do the same to a hamburger.

Chained Italian Hamburgers, or Double Bacon Burgers: Hamburger Incatenati
American-style fast food has become quite popular in Italy, and it’s only natural that Italians should begin making hamburgers at home too. This clearly derives from some of the things one gets from the takeout window, but builds nicely upon the concept.

Creamy Anchovy Italian Burgers, Hamburger All’Acciuga
Anchovies have the delightful freshness of the sea, and are very tasty in these burgers.

Summer Burgers, Svizzere Estive
Here we have burgers with tomatoes and eggplant, and while the recipe will work well if you use a griddle over the stove, it will be even nicer if you do it outside, over the coals.

Kyle’s Burgers
These aren’t exactly Italian, but all my Italian in-laws, even those who normally recoil from Svizzere, ask for more.