Obey the the most important rule and use the largest pot you own for cooking pasta. If you use a small pot and too little water, you will get a starchy mess and your pasta might stick to each other.
Always add a generous amount of sea or Kosher salt to your pasta water. It helps water boil faster and adds flavor to the pasta.
When cooking any pasta--fresh or dry--make certain the water is in a rapid boil before adding pasta.
For spaghetti, fan the pasta out and lean them against the side of the pot--spacing the pieces away from each other. Then, with a spoon or tongs, press the pasta down gently as the water starts to soften it. Give a good stir after all is submerged.
After your pasta is placed in boiling water, stir strongly for 20-30 seconds, getting a vortex going. This will prevent sticking.
If you like to break spaghetti in half, grab your batch of halved spaghetti around the middle, then let the spaghetti fall into the center of your pot as you turn your hand, allowing them to fall separately. This will fan out the pasta like spokes of a wheel, preventing it from sticking to each other in those first crucial seconds. As before, stir into a vortex.
NEVER add oil to the pasta water... no matter what your Nonna told you. Pasta should absorb its sauce to enhance the flavor of the dish. Oil will prevent that from happening.
Bring your water back up to a boil quickly by covering the pot with the lid slightly ajar. You can place a wooden spoon under one side of the lid to prevent boil-over.
Alternate: To keep the pasta from boiling over while cooking, place a wooden spoon across the top of your pot. When the bubbles touch the spoon's handle, the boiling settles down. Uncovered pots do take longer to reach a boil.
Do NOT rinse pasta after draining--ever. This would wash off the starchy surface which helps a sauce stick and become absorbed by the pasta.
When you're planning a baked pasta recipe in a casserole, try this trick: Place the pasta in a bowl of well-salted water, swirl it around the bowl a few times with your hands, then let it rest while you cook the sauce or prep other ingredients. The pasta will absorb the perfect amount of water by the time you are ready to put your casserole together. Drain any water left after about 30 minutes of soaking. This hack can also trim at least 10 minutes from your normal bake time.
For Valentine's Day, my wife treated us to a Beef Wellington dinner, prepared and delivered by a local chef. Even though she got rave reviews, we weren't really Wow'd. Having had Wellington in the past, I knew that there were a few things lacking... The cut of beef wasn't tender enough, the mushroom duxelle was a bit funky tasting, and it was missing a wrap of Parma ham inside the (greasy) pastry.
Thinking I could do better, I started thinking... and thinking... Why not transform the Wellington into an Italian version?
The idea was to design a recipe similar to Beef Wellington... but instead of using a tender loin steak inside, it would be a large, flattened Italian style polpette (meatball), wrapped in prosciutto and provolone cheese with an black olive/pesto Tapinade just inside the puff pastry. There are similar recipes in Italy called Polpettonein Crosta, but these are loaf-size meatloafs, often stuffed with hard boiled eggs or other ingredients. I wanted mine to remain a Polpette--a true meatball...
I set out to make my Polpette alla Wellington!
Each polpette weighed about 10 ounces
Ingredients for the Polpette 2 pounds ground chuck 1 medium Vidalia, small dice 1 egg 2 tablespoons red wine 1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano 1-1/4 cup breadcrumbs 1 teaspoon dried sage 1 tablespoon sea salt 1 teaspoon dry thyme 1 tablespoon dried basil 15 cracks black pepper (from a pepper-mill) 1 cup canola oil + 2 tablespoons olive oil for frying
for the Tapinade 1 - 16 ounce can of black olives, well drained 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 tablespoons pesto (from jar or Make it Fresh) 3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
for the Pastry Wrap 4-6 slices delicatessen sharp provolone 1/4 pound prosciutto, speck or Boar Head Brand Piccolo Prosciutto 2 packages frozen puff pastry (butter or shortening type, your choice) 1 beaten egg (for egg wash)
Removing the fried Polpette from the pan
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large mixing bowl, place the ground chuck and sprinkle with the red wine. Mix well, until the wine is distributed.
Make a well in the middle of the meat and into it place the egg, salt, thyme, save, basil and pepper.
Now add the Parmigiano Reggiano and with clean hands, mix the meat mixture well to incorporate all ingredients.
Add the breadcrumbs, little by little... adding a little, mixing, then checking to see that the mixture is starting to cling together when you form a small ball. Hold back breadcrumbs if needed. You don't want the mix too dry and bready. (This needs to done "by eye" and "by feel" because ground chuck can vary in moisture content.)
Take about 10-12 ounces of polpette mixture and form a square about 1" thick, using a fork to smooth the sides to make sure there are no cracks anywhere. You should be able to make three - four of these. If you have extra mixture, perhaps make some small meatballs for another meal (I actually had enough to do this).
Place the formed polpette on a plate lined with wax paper and then into a refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.
At this point, follow the directions on the puff pastry package to thaw the sheets. This should take about 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, line a half sheet pan with parchment or a Silpat. You may even bake your Wellingtons on a rack fitted into the sheet pan (a good way to prevent soggy bottoms).
Frying the Polpette
Place a large frying pan on a medium heat on the cooktop and add both oils.
When the oils are hot, fry the Polpette until brown on each side. Do not overheat the pan and don't crown them. If you are using a smaller fry pan, fry each one separately. The can be slightly underdone in the middle since they will bake in the oven once wrapped in pastry.
When done frying, place on brown paper or paper towels to drain, then onto a wax paper lined plate into the refrigerator to set up and cool for handling.
Coating the polpette with Tapinade
Making the Tapinade
Next, to make the Tapinade, drain the olives and place into a food processor along with the pesto, tomato paste, garlic, red pepper flakes and Reggiano. Pulse several times to get a spreadable texture... but not too smooth. You might have to scrape down the sides of the mixer between pulses.
Wrapped and egg-washed, ready for the oven
Assembling the Wellingtons
Remove the polpette from the refrigerator to start assembly.
First, with a small spatula or jam spreading knife, coat all sides of the polpette with the Tapinade/olive mixture and set aside on a sheet of waxed paper.
Next, unfold and lay out your puff pastry sheets and cut into 6' x 10" rectangles. Adjust this size depending on the size of your polpette. You need to be able to fold all sides, overlapping at least 1". Set aside any extra to use for decorations (stars, lattice, etc. You can use small cookie cutters to make shapes.)
Taking one slice of prosciutto at a time, wrap them around each polpette until the entire surface is covered.
Lay out 2-3 slices of provolone along the center of the pastry sheets, then place a polpette in the middle of each. Fold the sides first, pulling to stretch the dough a bit. Using a fingertip dipped in either water or milk, wet the edges of the pastry flaps still left laying flat. Then lift and wrap over the polpette, sticking the damp edge onto the layer underneath. Do this for each side, cutting off any extra with a shears if you think it will make the layers too thick in the middle.
Carefully turn over your wrapped Wellingtons and place on the lined sheet pan (or on top of its rack.) The bottoms became the top, which you can now decorate if you wish with thin strips or cutout shapes. Brush a little water on larger shapes to help them stick.
Dip a pastry brush into the beaten egg and coat the Wellingtons all over. This will give them a warm yellow shine after baking.
Bake the Wellingtons on the center rack of your preheated oven for 60 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and puffy.
Half of this size Wellington was perfect for each person
You can serve your Polpette alla Wellington over a bed of marinara, as we did for one meal, but to be honest, we thought the tomato sauce masked some of the flavors. Also, even though I made the size of our polpette match the size of most beef tenders used to make a traditional Wellington, we felt the serving was too large. If we make this again, we would serve as we did for our second "leftover" meal--each serving was one-half a Wellington.
In fact, the second meal we served with a side of Italian flat beans and no tomato sauce. We actually enjoyed this meal much better... the Tapinade's flavors came to the forefront and the spices in the polpette were obvious. The half-sized servings were a perfect portion. I actually thought that 2 days later, after setting up in the fridge, wrapped in foil, the flavors melded and intensified a bit. We re-heated the leftover halves in loosely wrapped foil for one hour.
If we make this recipe again, we will make smaller Polpette so each person can have a completely pastry-wrapped Wellington.
Enjoy this recipe and let us know how yours turned out!
While exploring the villages of the Amalfi Coast, Voyagers are certain to notice that the lemons there are larger than they are used to. They are sure to come across the Sfusato lemon (about two to three times the size of a supermarket lemon) and will be further shocked when they are confronted with the giant-sized, Cedro Citron variety of lemons. They are beastly looking things, with a pebbly surface, strange shapes with a large nipple at one end, and are often as big as your head!
Cedri are primarily found in Italy, from the Italian Riviera down to the Amalfi Coast, though they are occasionally spotted in France, Isreal and even exported to Britain. There are three different citron types: acidic, non-acidic and pulpless. Of the different cultivars, the acidic Diamante is more common in Italy.
Cedro citrons are usually up to three to four times the length of common lemons and can measure between 10 and 15 inches in diameter. They can weight up to 3-4 pounds each.
The pebbly surface ripens from green to a bright yellow--both colors can be harvested, the peak season being fall and winter. Most--about 70%--of the lemon is white pith from 2-5 inches thick with a soft texture and almost sweet lemony fragrance. In its center is a small amount of segmented pulp with a few pale seeds. This lemon is fairly dry and not used for its juice and the taste is milder than a common lemon.
The pith can be eaten raw or cooked: in salads, atop bruschetta, in jams and preserves, in risotto or pickled. The rind of this citron is very aromatic and a bit sweet, and is used to produce "citron", or candied lemon (used in Italian celebration breads and cakes, like panettone). Some claim it can be a remedy for hangovers, coughs and indigestion. Since the Renaissance, the oils from the skin have also been used in perfumery and cosmetics due to their delicate and fragrant scent.
If cooking while in Italy (or if you can get some cedri at home), try these recipes:
Risotto alla Sorrento with Fennel and Sage
1 Cedro lemon 1-1/2 cups rice for risotto (Carnaroli, Vialone Nano or Arborio) 1-1/4 cups freshly grated parmesan 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus another tablespoon to finish 4 tablespoons Extra virgin olive oil 1 head of finoccio (bulbing fennel) - finely diced 3 stalks celery - finely diced 1 cup white white Vermouth 1 quart chicken stock 4 large julienned sage leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried-crushed) Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat the chicken stock in a small pot on a medium heat. You will be adding nearly simmering stock to your risotto during the cooking process.
Cut the cedro in half along its waist and then, using a sharp paring knife, cut the skin (the zest is thick on cedri) from top to bottom, cutting down around the sides until all is removed in flat sheets. Then julienne them into thin, long strips. Set aside.
Next, cut thin slices of the pith and cut into thin strips. Set aside.
Squeeze the remaining pulp to release the juice into a small bowl. Remove any seeds and set aside.
Place a heavy saute pan on a medium heat, adding the butter, sage and olive oil. When the butter is melted, add the diced fennel and celery, a pinch of salt and gently saute until the celery is softened.
Add the risotto rice, stirring until the the rice becomes translucent--about 4-5 minutes.
Next, add the Vermouth and cook until the rice absorbs it---2-3 minutes.
When the Vermouth has been absorbed, immediately pour a ladle of stock over the rice and continue stirring. As the stock is absorbed, keep adding one ladle of stock at a time. Stir as needed to prevent sticking, but not continuously.
About 10 minutes into cooking the rice, add the zest and pith of the cedro lemon to infuse their flavors.
Your risotto will be near completion when two things happen: When the rice is al dente (but not at all crispy); and when a "wave" is created behind your spoon when you stir in a circular motion. In my experience, risotto takes as long as an hour, although some claim to make it within 30 minutes. In essence, you want a bit of tooth still still in your rice, but you you also want to develop a creamy consistency from the starch melding into the broth.
When ready (al dente and creamy), remove the risotto from the heat and add the lemon juice, remaining butter and a little more stock (or water) so that the consistency is juicy and wet
.Stir in the rest of the butter and the Parmigiano Reggiano with a whipping motion. Serve immediately.
Candied Chocolate Cedro Strips Recipe
(A great holiday snack) 1 - 2 pound cedro 1 cup sugar 1 pint water 3-5 ounces bitter sweet chocolate
Cut the cedro in half, cut away and discard the fruit's center, leaving 1/2 thick of the outer skin and a bit of the pith.
Cut into 1/2 inch strips about 2-3" long and place intoa saucepan. Cover with cold water, then bring to a boil over a moderate heat and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
Drain the cedro strips and repeat this process twice – blanching the strips three times in total.
Cover the cedro in the saucepan with the sugar and the water, place over a low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Cook slowly for about 30 minutes until they become translucent.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool in the syrup. Next, drain and then discard the syrup and lay out the strips on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Allow your cooled cedro strips to dry overnight. Do not cover.
The following day, place the chocolate into a double boiler with 1/2 water in the lower pan. Heat slowly over a medium heat, allowing the chocolate to melt very slowly. This is called tempering the chocolate, to guarantee its glossiness.
When melted, remove from the heat and dip half the candied cedro into the chocolate,laying the strips on parchment paper or a Silpat sheet to dry.
You can store these in an airtight container and serve at the end of a meal with fruit, nuts, biscotti and espresso.
Culatello is one of the most prized salumi in Italy, dating back to the 15th century. Culatello is produced in the flatlands located north of Parma, near the Po River. The city of Zibello is epicenter of production (Culatello di Zibello), due to its particular climate that is ideal for aging the meat. The thick fog that rolls off the Po and the biting cold of the winter give culatello its characteristic sweetness and fragrance.
Culatello is made with the muscular part of the hind leg of pigs that were born, raised and slaughtered exclusively in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy. The meat is then processed in the communes of Polesine, Busseto, Zibello, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa and Colorno, in the province of Parma. The thigh is skinned and de-boned, and the best part, or heart, is removed and salted immediately.
Twine is then wrapped around the meat in a spiral fashion, giving the culatello its signature pear shape. The meat is left to rest and after a couple of days it is massaged, causing the salt to further penetrate the meat. The culatello is left to rest again, in a cold environment, and is then encased in a clean, dry pork bladder and tied up well.
At this point, the culatello is placed in humid, room-temperature cellar for at least 12 months. Once it has been aged, the culatello should weigh between 6 ½ and 11 lbs and have kept its characteristic pear shape.
Parma versus Colatello Parma ham is sweet and tender. Culatellois is a bit saltier than Parma ham, with lots of flavor that comes out when chewing it--rich and sometimes peppery and aromatic.
Beef Ragu over Cheesy Polenta A rustic, belly-filling recipe from simple ingredients. The cook time from pan to table is under an hour, so it's great for a quick family meal during the workweek...
1 cup quick-cooking polenta
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup mascarpone
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground chuck/beef
1 medium diced sweet onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Tuttarosso crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves or two teaspoons dry
Cook polenta in a medium saucepan according to package directions. At the end, stir in 1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano and mascarpone. Cover to keep warm.
Next, heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
Saute onion until translucent, then add beef and garlic, stirring often to break up meat. Cook until meat is no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Transfer beef mixture to a plate using a slotted spoon and discard excess fat. Return meat to the pan, then add the crushed tomatoes and all the spices. Simmer for 20-30 minutes with the pan covered on low heat.
Divide polenta evenly among 4 shallow bowls. Top each serving with the ragu, top with a few fresh basil leaves and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Of course, I was first introduced to pot roast by my Mom, but being a working mother, she always looked for shortcuts--a big thing for Moms back in the 50s and sixties. Although it was delicious, her shortcut was to use cans of Campbell's Onion Soup and to cook it in her very scary, rattling pressure cooker (Mom managed to blow up a few of those beasts). Even as I moved on to my own life, he loved making this for me as a special treat, believing it was my "favorite" meal. (I really liked her lasagna much better).
Well into my thirties, as I developed my own culinary skills, I wanted something more authentic, so I opted for using sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla to add a sweet, deep flavor to my version. In recent years, I've developed my Italian Style Pot Roast, reminiscent of Sugo (Sunday Gravy), but with a much lighter stew type sauce. In Italy, this type of recipe is called Stracotto (literally, overcooked), because of its slow cook time. Another name for this recipe, or rather, style of preparation is simply Brasato di Manzo (braised beef).
Simple ingredients, make a robust meal
To ensure that the meat is tender, you should plan this as a weekend meal, allowing most of the afternoon to slow cook the roast on a gas range (OK, electric would be fine also). Yes, as my mother did, this pot roast isn't done in the oven but rather in a heavy pot on a cooktop. This method takes a minimum of 4 hours of slow-cooking. Technically, it's a braise and not a true roast. (One day soon I should show you how I do my Dad's Oven Roasted Beef).
I cook mine in our tri-bond, stainless steel, flat-bottomed All-Clad Stockpot, rather than our Dutch oven. I find the wider base spreads the heat out rather than concentrating it in the center, as the narrow-bottomed Dutch oven does. (Which would tighten the proteins in the beef rather than relax them). I also use a heavy cast iron Heat Diffuser over our medium diameter gas burner to diffuse the heat even further. I suppose I could also use one of our other options, like our Staub Coq au Vin Cocotte or ourEmile Henry Brasier (for a smaller roast) but I like working with steel.
What Cut of Beef? You will see cuts of beef labeled "chuck roast" in the supermarket, but you can use pretty much any type of beef--as long as it's a tough cut--not tender. A slow cooking time and very low temperature really define the process--not the cut of beef. Pot roast is a braise (slow cooked in liquid) that cooks at a low temperature for a long period of time.
The tougher cuts work best because the slow cooking gently breaks down the proteins and collagen, giving you a luscious, nearly-fall apart, fork-cutting texture. These cuts are from the parts of the animal that are very muscular with lots of connective tissue and very little fat. If you quickly grilled these cuts, the result would be very tough.
The following three cuts will all make a fine pot roast:
Chuck: From the front portion of the animal. Look for chuck roast, shoulder steak, boneless chuck roast, chuck shoulder pot roast. In the case of shoulder cuts with lobed sections, you might have to use butcher's twine to tie the roast into a cylindrical shape for better handling while browning.
Brisket: From the breast or lower chest with long strands of meat. Brisket is best sliced across the grain of the meat for maximum tenderness.
Round: From the rear leg of the animal. Look for rump roast or bottom round.
1 - beef chuck roast, 2-1/2 to 3 pounds
2 tablespoons olive oil (for browning)
1-1/2 cups red wine (Chianti, Primitivo, Sangiovese, etc.)
2 cups beef broth
1 large Vidalia or Walla Walla (sweet onion), diced or sliced--your choice (a texture difference)
4-5 plum tomatoes, diced (alternate: 14.5 ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes)
3 carrots, diced or larger cuts, your choice
3 celery stalks, diced or larger cuts
12-15 garlic cloves, paper removed.
2 sprigs fresh rosemary (or 1 tablespoon dry)
6 fresh sage leaves (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
5 bay leaves (remove before serving!)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (pepperoncino)
20 cracks of fresh black pepper (from pepper mill, or 1/2 teaspoon ground)
2 teaspoons sea salt
Dry the beef chuck roast with paper towels. If there is any tough silver skin or a very thick fat along one side, remove it with a filet knife, but leaving some fat.
With a sharp paring knife, cut 6-8 slits into the beef on all sides, about 2" deep. Shove a clove of garlic deep into each hole. These will impart amazing flavor into the roast as it cooks.
Salt well, then crack some pepper on all sides of the roast.
Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil into your stock pot and turn the heat on medium-high.
Wait until the pan is hot, then place your roast into it, with the fat side facing downward. You should hear a sizzle. If your pot isn't hot enough, the roast will stick.
After browning the first side, use tongs to turn and brown all sides equally. Don't forget the ends--standing the roast up on its ends and leaning on one side of the pot usually works well, otherwise hold in place with tongs. Remove the pan from the heat at this point, and place the roast on a dish while you prepare the vegetables. Do NOT wipe out or clean the pan.
Prep your vegetables: Shave the carrots and cut into a small dice if you want them to cook down into the sauce, or in larger pieces if you prefer to have the stewed carrots in the final results. Do the same with the celery.
If using fresh tomatoes, dice them and set them aside.
Dice, slice or chop the onion. The texture is a personal choice. I like dicing the onions so they melt into the sauce. You might like to have more rustic cut onions.
Place your pot over a medium heat again and when hot, deglaze the pan by drizzling in some of the wine. Using a flat bottom wooden spoon, scrape away at the fond (the brown bits) that developed when browning the beef until the bottom of the pan looks clean again.
Place the onions into the same pot, heat still on medium and simmer until they are translucent and have taken on the color of the wine.
Add the rest of your vegetables into the pot, along with the rest of the wine and beef stock. If using canned diced tomatoes, add them now.
Add all the spices into the pot, then mix well into the vegetable mixture. If using springs of rosemary, place them on the sides, then place your roast on top of the vegetables, fat side up. Briefly, spoon some of the liquids over the roast.
Cover the pot and place on the smallest burner of your cooktop or on a medium burner using a cast iron flame retarder (heat diffuser) under the pot. Cook for 3 hours, occasionally spooning sauce on top of the roast.
After the roast is tender, but before reaching a "fall apart" stage, remove the roast and place onto a cutting board, letting it cool to the touch for a few minutes. Slice into half-inch slices. Carefully, return each slice back into the pot, making sure each one is under the surface of the sauce. Continue cooking on a low temperature for an additional 30 minutes. This should make your slices fork-tender--you won't need a knife when eating.
When finished, decide if your sauce is as thick as you would like. If you would like it a bit thicker, you can stir in a handful of dried breadcrumbs (and old Nonna trick). Personally, I like the sauce a little on the runny side so I can use a scarpetta while eating to sop it up.
You can serve this as Italians do, as a Secundo (second course) after the Primo (pasta course). Or as we do, a casa Finzi... served over a bed of ziti rigati or risotto. Another option is to service it as northern Italians might, with fresh made spaetzel, the Austrian-German style of dumpling (look for my recipe soon). Definitely serve with a rich Italian wine, a Barolo, Primativo or even a bright Chianti. And try the "Ratatouille" test that my son Lucas and I picked up from the animated film: take a forkful of beef, then a sip of wine. Close your eyes and see how they merge into a wonderful mix of flavors in your mouth...
Allora... Buon appitito!
Don't forget to write and tell me how yours turned out... --Jerry Finzi
GVI CUCINA HACK In this recipe, I shared the trick of thickening with breadcrumbs, which gives a rustic charm to the dish. Of course, if you'd like a richer, even more tomato-y version, you can thicken the sauce during cooking by adding a little tomato paste--perhaps a couple of tablespoons. You can also thicken by using cornstarch... dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in a 1/4 cup of cold water and then stir it into the hot, bubbling sauce while stirring to distribute it. (High heat is needed for it to thicken).
There is evidence that wood-fired ovens similar to the ones used in Naples today were employed by the Ancient Greeks, and some assume that Greek mariners brought this technology with them to the city. Thanks to Vesuvius’ explosive eruption in 79 AD, we can turn to Pompeii for gustatory evidence. Archeologists have unearthed 33 domed clay ovens, complete with chimneys, on the grounds of Pompeii. We know that bread was an important part of the Pompeian diet. The very volcano that would eventually lead to Pompeii’s demise actually contributed to her rise as an early producer of baked goods.
The Greek geographer, philosopher and historian Strabo observed that the area around Pompeii and Naples as a result of the soil’s volcanic fecundity, was “the most blessed of all plains, and round about it lie fruitful hills.” It turns out the slopes of Vesuvius were ideal for the growth of cereal grains, and that bread was to become a symbol of Pompeii. An engraving on the entrance to the walled town reads matter-of-factly, “Traveler, you enjoy bread at Pompeii.”
The process of grinding the grain to make the bread was arduous. However, the volcanic black lava rock of the region was ideal for shaping tools to grind the local cereals. The practice of crushing, grinding and pounding wheat through a mill was known as pistor and by 160 BC, as Cato documents, the tradesmen responsible for this grinding were known as pistore. When coupled with the ingenious design of the beehive clay oven with chimney, this gave rise to the baking of deceivingly simple, pliable, leavened breads called pinse, so named for the grinding and pounding required to produce them. The pinse would travel through the Roman Empire; years later, we would know its cousins as pissaladiere in Provence, pita in the Middle East and pizza in Naples.
In the early days of bread baking in Pompeii, pistore worshiped the god Fornax, the ancient personification of the oven. It is from Fornax that we also derive the word forno (oven), as in forno a legna (wood oven). Every year on February 17, Pompeii’s guild of oven tenders celebrated Fornacalia, lighting and feeding fires in much the same way modern Neapolitans light fires in commemoration of Saint Anthony the Abbot’s day. Years later, Pompeii’s bakers would switch their pious devotions to the goddess Vesta, protector of the hearth – perhaps a testament to the reverence they harbored for the fire that fueled their precious ovens.
For all the early success Vesuvius afforded Pompeii’s vibrant grain economy, the volcano would eventually become the town’s undoing. But the traditions of the pistore live on today in the ancient vicolos and back alleys that thread through Naples’ historic center.
Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.