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Rice and Eggplant Soup, Minestra di Melanzane e Riso

Eggplant is one of the most classic south Italian vegetables, and though it often finds its way into pasta sauces, it’s not common in soups. This recipe is Puglian, and also calls for rice, which, legend has it, was introduced to Italy by the Arabs who once dominated southern Italy.

To serve 4:

  • 3/4 cup (150 g) rice
  • 3 medium eggplants, stemmed and cubed
  • A medium onion
  • An egg
  • A small bunch parsley, minced
  • A dozen fresh basil leaves, shredded
  • A quart (1 liter) of vegetable broth
  • 1 cup (50 g) freshly grated Parmigiano or mild Romano cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the cubed eggplant in a colander, sprinkle it abundantly with salt, and let it set for a couple of hours. While it’s setting, chop the onion and the herbs, and heat the broth to a simmer.

Heat a quarter cup of olive oil in a soup pot and sauté the onions and the herb mixture. Rinse the eggplant well and drain it.

When the onions begin to soften, add the diced eggplant and continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir in the simmering broth and the rice, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the rice is done. While the rice is cooking, lightly beat the egg and mix the cheese into it.

When the rice is done, remove the pot from the fire, briskly stir a ladle of the soup into the egg mixture, and then stir the egg mixture back into the soup. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, check seasoning, and serve.

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.

On Making Orecchiette

Orecchiette, Puglia's Signature Pasta

Orecchiette, Puglia’s Signature Pasta

Orecchiette are Puglia’s signature pasta shape, and while they do vary in size from one part of the region to the next, you can be certain of finding them most everywhere. The name orecchiette means “little ears,” and if you look at them makes perfect sense.

Commercially or artisinally prepared dry orecchiette are about 3/4 of an inch across (freshly made are generally somewhat broader), slightly domed, and their centers are thinner than their rims, a characteristic that gives them an interestingly variable texture, soft in the middle and somewhat more chewy outside.

In discussing them in La Cucina Pugliese Luigi Sada says, “making them takes experience, ability and practice,” an observation that leads to the conclusion that you may want to buy them ready made. This is a much easier proposition than it was even ten years ago – Italians living in other parts of the Peninsula are discovering the Southern Italian cuisines and as a result there is a market for southern specialties; the major industrial pasta producers such as Barilla or Voiello have joined the small artisan shops in making them, and they are therefore readily available throughout Italy, while I have seen them in the United States as well. When you buy them, check the best used before date to be sure they’re still fresh, because I’ve heard that overly old orecchiette can be problematic to cook.

Truth be told, while making Orecchiette will take practice, the demonstration organized by the Masserie Didattiche di Puglia in the course of the 2013 edition of Vinitaly was fairly straight forward. Antonella, of the Masseria Palombara used stone-milled grain of the Senatore Cappelli cultivar they grow; she said it was developed on the one hand to be of uniform height with good grain production and easy to harvest, and on the other to be relatively low in gluten.

Orecchiette and the Ingredients for a Sauce

Orecchiette and the Ingredients for a Sauce

Here we have the orecchiette she made, with the fixings of a simple pesto sauce with which to season them: Sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, arugola, almonds, and (not pictured) olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Orecchiette: Cutting The Dough

Orecchiette: Cutting The Dough

Orecchietta dough is straight forward: A kilo (2 1/4 pounds) of flour, and slightly less than a half liter (1 pint) water. Mix well, and knead until it is firm and pliable.

Orecchiette: Cutting the Snake

Orecchiette: Cutting the Snake

Once the dough is ready take a piece and roll it into a thin snake; using a knife cut blebs a bit larger than the size of your thumbnail.

Spread a first bleb across your work surface with the knife, then lift the pasta with a flick of the thumb and turn it inside out, as it were; doing so will make the center of the bit of pasta form up into a dome, and the oreccietta is done. Lay the orecchietta on your work surface and repeat the process with the next bleb.

This is one of those cases in which pictures give a better understanding than words, and the photos below will explain the process better than I can.

Rolling an Orecchietta Under the Knife, Another View

Rolling an Orecchietta Under the Knife, Another View

orecchiettaunderknife

Rolling an Orecchietta Under the Knife

Rolling an Orecchietta Under the Knife

Turning an Orecchietta after Spreading It

Turning an Orecchietta after Spreading It

Rolling an Orecchietta Off the Thumb

Rolling an Orecchietta Off the Thumb

An Orecchietta Rolled Off the Thumb

An Orecchietta Rolled Off the Thumb

Orecchiette With Tomato (and More) Pesto

Orecchiette With Tomato (and More) Pesto

A demonstration wouldn’t be complete without a taste, and Antonella prepared a dried tomato pesto sauce for her orecchiette using dried tomatoes, garlic (just a little), arugola, and almonds. She didn’t give proportions, but said to grind the ingredients – go by eye – in a mortar, adding a splash of olive oil to keep the sauce from being dry, and seasoning everything to taste with salt and pepper. The picture will give you an idea of how much of the various ingredients she used; in particular there is enough arugola to add a bitter accent, but not so much as to turn the sauce green.

A couple of things:

Mr. Sada notes that there are large and small-sized orecchiette, and says that if you do not roll the ball of your thumb over the spread pasta, but rather leave it flat, you will have what is called a  strascinato, which is interchangeable with an orecchietta. If you instead just cut the piece of pasta from the snake without spreading it out you will have what is called a megneuìccje, which would (I think) be better suited to soup.

Regardless of the shape you make, let the pasta rest for a few hours before you boil it in abundant lightly salted water.

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa, Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

If you visit Puglia in the winter months you are certain to be served broccoli raab, probably with pasta, as the combination is extraordinarily tasty. There are many recipes for this signature dish; this one, drawn from the back of a pasta box, is quick and simple.

To serve 4 you’ll need:

  • 1 pound (500 g) orecchiette
  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) broccoli rabe
  • 1 hot pepper, shredded
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • Grated Pecorino Romano (not too sharp)

Pick over and clean the broccoli. Bring a pot of water to a boil, salt it, add the broccoli, and after a few minutes stir in the orecchiette and cook the two together until the orecchiette are done.

While the pasta’s cooking, simmer the garlic and the pepper in the oil, taking care lest the garlic brown and become bitter. Drain the pasta and broccoli well, turn them out into the skillet with the oil and garlic, cook, stirring, for a few seconds to distribute the seasoning evenly, and serve with grated cheese.