Ricotta forte is a traditional Apulian cheese, typically made at home under the kitchen sink or in a dark cantina (cellar), although can be found in supermarkets in Italy. Found in both Puglia and Basilicata, it might also be called Ricotta scanta, 'scante, scanta, ascuante, or "ashquant" in local dialects. Initially, it is made in the same way as ricotta, but using a strong flavored milk such as goat or sheep. The texture is similar to cream cheese, usually with an off-white color. It's definitely a cheese that spreads easily. The aroma coming from this cheese is not for the faint-at-heart, as we can attest to when confronted with ricotta forte one morning at a trullo bed & breakfast near Alberobello.
One sniff snapped our heads back, but we spread it on our toast anyway, our host drizzling some honey on top, then we tasted... To be honest, it reminded me of when I was a kid and out bread developed mold, but that was bland compared to this stuff. The flavor is sharp as a Neapolitan criminal's stiletto, pungent, sour, bitter, with an intensity that burns your nostrils. This cheese is a total assault on your palette. Our eyes snapped open and then teared up. I got some on a sweet pastry sitting on my plate and later on when I bit into it, the whole sweet taste was ruined. It took literally an hour or two for our taste buds to relax back to normal.
Many Pugliese still make this cheese today, a remnant from the days when shepherds came up with this devilish bastardization of the ricotta we all know and love. They placed the freshly made ricotta into small ceramic or glass jars, sprinkled with sea salt, then placed it under their sink or other dark place. A few times each week the lid is removed and stirred in a process that lasts for 3 months. As it matures it grows a fungus which gives this a flavor with more kick than any blue cheese you've ever tasted.
It's a regional specialty that locals enjoy spreading on warm crostini, either plain or drizzled with honey or balsamic. In my opinion, it contrasts too much with sweet things like figs or grapes, but tomatoes and other savory items like anchovies are a better match.
Watch the following video to learn how Ricotta Forte is made. It's in Italian with Italian text, but if you remember the words giorno (day) and mesi (months) you'll figure out how to make it and the time period intervals involved.
In case you'd like to try it yourself, here is one place you can buy a jar.
Continued from Part 2...
Finzi: The first time our family visited Molfetta (where my father was born) we didn’t have time to meet the relatives that still live there (although we've gotten to know each other since on Facebook). What advice would you give to someone with a desire to approach long-lost relatives in Italy, especially if there is a desire to collect the heritage of recipes from their famiglia?
Mary Ann: Call or email them; send photos; plan a meeting with them; bring old family photos if you have them.
Finzi: When you first met your Italian relatives, what impressed you most?
Mary Ann: Their genuine hospitality and love of connection with you. My cousins were especially welcoming.
Finzi: I lived in France for a while and tried my best to be a decent French cook, but after experiencing the simplicity of regional Italian cooking on our voyage throughout Italy, I immediately was drawn back my Italian roots. It’s amazing to think that in centuries past, the food eaten by the Italian upper classes was in the French style. Why do you think the Cucina Povera rose to the top of Italian cuisine, with its fairly simple ingredients and basic techniques?
Mary Ann: Because that is the true Italian cooking. It was only the upper class Italians who employed chefs called monzu. These were Italians trained in France and what they cooked was truly French and not Italian.
Finzi: When my parents got married, according to my mother, she “wanted an American household”, so she didn’t teach her five children Italian. I’ve read that you took lessons on how to speak Italian. Did your mother have this same attitude to “Americanize” your family in this or any other ways?
Mary Ann: No, my mother spoke Neapolitan dialect because my Nonna Galasso--her mother--lived with us. My mother would never serve an American style TV dinner and neither would I.
Finzi: I’ve never heard you talk about having a second home in Italy. If you do, can you tell us a little about it? And if not, of all the beautiful regions and towns in Italy, where would you love to live, and can you describe your Casa dei Sogni, or Dream Home for us?
Mary Ann: I go to Italy every year but do not have a home there; if I did, it would be in Siracusa because I love this baroque town; my second choice would be Torino.
Finzi: Your culinary life was influenced by two Nonne, but not everyone has an Italian grandmother to help educate them on how to prepare Italian dishes. In a way, you have become that Nonna for the millions of us who have watched you cook for nearly 30 years. Can you tell us something about your Mary Ann Esposito Foundation and your desire to pass along your passion and techniques to future Italian chefs?
Mary Ann: Thanks for asking! The foundation provides scholarships for students in culinary degree programs in universities offering the study of Italian regional foods and is also establishing a legacy library online to record for posterity, regional recipes that otherwise would be lost to time for future generations. All donations in any amount are most appreciated. Your Grand Voyage Italy readers can go to www.ciaoitalia.com and click on “foundation” to learn more and to make a donation.
Finzi: I want to really thank you for taking the time for this wonderful chat, Mary Ann. We'll be looking forward to seeing your new episodes on PBS... my TIVO is fired up to record every episode!
One last thought... For us to envision il pranzo perfetto per Maestra Esposito, what are your all-time favorite dinner courses in La Cucina Esposito?
Guy Esposito on Gardening
Finzi: When I was a boy, my Dad taught me all about saving seeds and the benefits of Home Grown Tomatoes, and now my 15 year old son grows them with me. Our favorites are Eva Purple Ball, Jersey Devil and Giant Belgium. Which are your top three favorite heirloom tomato varieties, and why you like each.
Guy: Costoluto Genovese for fresh eating and preserving, intensely flavorful, deep red flesh); San Marzano are the only ones that match to those in Campania for sauce; Redorta for eating fresh, making sauces, canning or drying. It's better than San Marzano for growing in colder climates.
Finzi: For some reason, I’ve always had less than good results with Costoluto in our garden and Redorta is one we haven’t grown. I’ll try some next season.
I’m in Zone 6a in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (April 15, last frost) and still I wish the growing season was a bit longer than it is. What are the problems growing vegetables in your short, Zone 5b growing season in New Hampshire?
Guy: We get a late start after May 31 because of such a short growing season.
Finzi: What do you consider the essential vegetables for an Italian gardener to grow, and for beginners, which do you think are the easiest?
Guy: Lettuce, zucchini and radishes are easiest and the hardest are melons and artichokes.
Finzi: Were you always a gardener or did your garden develop as Ciao Italia became a more prominent part of your lives as a couple, and what compels you to grow your own vegetables?
Guy: I have been gardening since Medical School. We are believers in farm to table food without pesticides. For good health we maintain a Mediterranean diet.
Finzi: We are also pretty much organic in our garden, but can always do better with a heathier diet. At least we make pretty much everything from scratch. I just wish we had a good fish monger near us.
My wife Lisa would love to grow huge bushes of rosemary like we saw in Italy. For me, pomegranates and olives. But of course, we can’t in our Pennsylvania climate. What don’t (or can’t) you grow in the garden that you wish you could, or would like to grow, and why?
Guy: Radicchio di Treviso and Bulbing Fennel (finocchi). Both are delicious for salads or cooking.
Finzi: I’ve watched videos on how complicated it is to grow Radicchio di Treviso. Definitely not for the home gardener!
What single vegetable or other crop has May Ann wanted you to grow that you haven’t yet, and why haven’t you grown it?
Guy: Piennolo del Vesuvio tomatoes. It's just not hot enough here in New England and we have the wrong type of soil. .
Finzi: I love the idea of growing these but even if I could, I doubt if they would last through the winter, hanging in large bunches, the way they do in Campania.
If you could only grow one, solitary crop, which would you grow?
Guy: Lettuce! Virtually every day we eat large salads every day.
Finzi: That’s one crop I wish was possible to grow all season long. I’ve grown a variety of types, but some years, the rabbits and chipmunks get the best of them.
What are the most difficult things to grow in your garden?
Guy: Melons and sometimes tomatoes. Melons need a lot of heat and a long growing season. Some types of tomatoes we love can be prone to disease.
Finzi: I’ve also had some experience with melons, but they require a lot of attention and even watering--difficult to keep up with in drier seasons.
Is it difficult to be the husband of such a famous chef, or do you consider yourself a partner in Mary Ann’s efforts—and how involved are you in the production of the show?
Guy: Mary Ann is first and foremost my wife. I am involved with Ciao Italia as the head gardener and wine consultant. The Mary Ann you see on TV is the exact same person in real life. I am a lucky man!
Finzi: You certainly are.
Mary Ann and Guy, I want to thank you both for being so generous with your time. I’m certain our readers are going to gain a lot of wisdom from the depth and span of your knowledge, experience and passion about Italian cuisine.
Alla prossima e mille grazie!
Copyright, 2020 - Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be reproduced in any form without expressed, written permission.
Pungitopo (also known as Butcher's Broom) might be a popular plant for use in natural healing remedies, but it is often found while hiking in the mountains of Italy for use in local, traditional Italian recipes. Pungitopo tends to grow wild as an evergreen bush (looking like a short, bushy holly) with asparagus-like sprouts in fall. It is gathered in bunches about 12" tall and used in la cucina in the same was as asparagus. Tied with string and steamed until tender, it's often eaten as a side dish or wrapped in prosciutto, The sprouts, called ruscli (rusculins in English) are the tenderest part.
Pungitopo is actually a member of the lily family closely related to asparagus botanically speaking. It and was once used in Europe make small brooms to clean butchers' chopping blocks. It's scent had the ability deter rodents from taking an interest in meats hanging to cure. The plant is well known throughout Italy, Europe and to the British Isles. Other common names are jew’s myrtle, sweet broom, kneeholy, pettigree, knee holly, kneeholm. In Italy, they will also be known as asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus) or portafortuna natalizio (Christmas Luck), referring to the time of year it is usually enjoyed in the Italian kitchen.
It is mostly harvested nowadays for its thick, brown rhizome, which is harvested in the fall when the plant stores most of its energy for winter. It's herbal use is to make healing teas.
There use can be as simple as boiling or steaming and served with butter or olive oil, the was asparagus are served. The softer buds are used in fritatta, frittella (fritters), risotto or in pasta dishes. Their taste is bitter but the buds alone are a bit sweeter. Here are a few ideas...
Acquasala (or Acquasale, Acqua Sala) is one of the cucina povera--poor dishes--of southern Italy, especially in the Lucane Dolomites of Basilicata and olive oil rich Puglia. this simple fare was enjoyed by farmers and shepherds. Its close cousin is panzanella, a sort of salad that uses torn up pieces of stale bread reconstituted with water as its base. Acquasala is a dish made from the simplest ingredients that any peasant contadina had around: eggs, onion, water, peppers or tomatoes and especially, the stale bread. Think of it as a mashup between eggs Benedict and an Italian broth, where the broth replaces the Hollandaise sauce. Perfect for breakfast, brunch or even a light dinner.
In it's simplest form, an acquasala is stale, crusty bread topped with a poached egg and a flavored broth poured over. The bread soaks up the resulting broth and its flavors. I'm certain that others in southern Italy might replace the stale bread with Friselli, a bagel-shaped, bone-dry toasted bread sold in bags in southern Italy. One easy to find bread nowadays is the ciabatta, left to go a bt stale or with the thick slices toasted before use.
Don't think of this recipe as being ironclad in terms of the ingredients. Be creative. This is cucina povera, after all, which means that cooks used what they had on hand depending on the season: eggs from their chickens, stale bread, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, white or red onions, a bit of garlic, mushrooms and greens. Southerners loved their greens, whether a bit of dandilion, arugla or chives. To be absolutely authentic, warm water (not boiled) is traditionally used to make the "broth", with the peppers and onions added to it for a light fusion of flavors. In Puglia it's often made without eggs and many more more ingredients, a cross between a soup and a salad.
Ingredients (serves 2, with one egg each)
Copyright 2019, Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageitaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be published without expressed authorization
When friends come to visit during the holidays, it doesn't always mean making a formal meal. How about making a Christmas Tree Pizza?
It's easy to make your own fantastic pizza crust and pizza sauce... the toppings are easy: cherry tomatoes or olives for the ornaments and strips of mozzarella, provolone cheese or even sweet peppers. Rough out the pyramidal shape with your dough, then trim the sides with a pizza cutter or chef's scissors.
The star is made from trimmings cut when making the tree shape and topped with provolone. Buon Natale!
Ancient Sardinians had a saying: Chie hat pane, mai no morit (who has bread, will never die). This is true for most of the world. Pane Carasau is one of the ancient breads they were talking about. You can imagine the ancients making this bread because of its long storage capabilities and portability.
It is a a very thin flat bread--some might call a cracker--that was traditionally made for shepherds by the housewives to carry with them for long months on high pastures with their flocks. They can be eaten with sausage and cheese, or dipped in milk to re-hydrate for colazione and drizzled with honey or jam. Pane Frattau is a soup made with shards of Pane Carasau, meat, eggs, cheese and tomato. Modern Sardinian chefs are also using pane carasau in their recipes, for instance, carasau lasagna.
The tedious method by which is is made creates a thin, crispy bread that will last literally for months, even if it happens to crack into shards along their travels. There are some who refer to this flatbread as carte della musica (music sheets) because of its thinness.
The dough itself is fairly simple: durum wheat, yeast, water and salt. It's rolled into extremely thin rounds and baked in a wood oven until the bread puffs up like a balloon, then quickly (with dexterity, not to get steam-burned) cut into two halves, making it even thinner. They are then toasted again in the oven and dried completely. Nowadays, in Italy you might even come across packaged Pane Carasau in supermarkets.
As an option to marinara as a dipping sauce, try some
Whisk together the following:
1/3 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
Well... Almost. Canederli are bread dumplings found in the north-east of Italy (Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli, and part of the Veneto), typically served in beef broth, dry or with a sauce. They are made using stale bread, milk, onions, parsley, eggs and a little flour. Often they are stuffed with speck (a smoked prosciutto), cheese, mushrooms or pancetta. You can also serve them as a side with sausages.
Canederli with Speck
1/2 pound of stale bread
2 eggs, beaten
6 ounces diced Speck
1 medium onion, diced
6 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoon flour
photo by Fabio Cremonesi
Have a party to plan for? How about making a bunch of Pizzette--tiny pizzas? They are simple to prepare. Just use any pizza dough recipe, use a round cookie cutter (or a glass) to cut out the small rounds, top with sauce and other favorite toppings (make a lot plain and pepperoni for the kids) and pop them in the oven on large, dark colored sheet pans oiled with light olive oil. Keep a little space between each one. Bake in a preheated 475F oven for 5-7 minutes, or until both the top and bottoms are done.
These little pizzas holdover well. You can make quite a large batch (for a school or church event, for example) and they can even be served Italian style, at room temperature.
In the very first market we visited in Italy, we came upon a strange looking, rugged celery-looking vegetable: Cardi (Cardoon in English, in Italian it's Cardo, Cardone or Carduna). But Cardi is not celery and it is used in a very different ways. In talking to other Foodies in the States, I have found that many confuse Cardoon with Swiss Chard, or worse, with Rhubarb (which, because of its sweetness is used more like a fruit, as in pies). I thought I would explain the differences between this confusing batch of stalk veggies...
Cardoon is a member of the thistle family and a close cousin of artichoke, but unlike the artichoke, the stalks and not the flowers are eaten. In fact, it tastes like artichoke. If you like artichokes, you should enjoy Cardi. Cardoon grows in the field as a fairly dangerous, spiny plant, just like thistle. Unlike celery, its ribs are fibrous (and much more stringy) and need to be removed using a vegetable peeler. Along the sides of each stalk are fairly sharp barbs which also need to be peeled. Eaten raw, the stalks are nearly inedible--amazingly bitter, fibrous and tough. In general, there is no such thing as overcooking Cardi if you want to get them tender enough to eat--while getting rid of their dental-floss stringiness.
In Italy, the average supermarket variety of Cardi on sale looks like a rough textured, perhaps dirty celery, with the tops trimmed off and bound by a twist tie, but in open air produce markets, you might find more choices. Often you will see a very tall (3-4'), straight variety with its thistle looking leaves intact. There is also another called Gobbi, a curved, hunchbacked type.
Blanched Cardi are grown in darkness to produced a very pale color, in the same way white asparagus or white endives are grown by covering the maturing stalks. These are the more expensive and prized for culinary use because their taste is less bitter and they tend to cook faster. Their taste when well-cooked, as I mentioned earlier, is like artichoke, but with a smokey edge and hint of licorice, as with finocchio (bulbing fennel). If you ever decide to grow Cardoon in your garden, always remove the beautiful blue flower heads (they look like thistle flowers) to prevent the plant from dropping seeds or your garden will have hundreds of weedlings coming up next season.
Swiss Chard (Bietola)
You can sauté Swiss Chard leaves and stems in a small amount of extra-virgin olive oil and season with freshly ground black pepper, minced garlic, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Eat as a side dish or as a baked potato topping. You can also cook the stems by first cutting in a small dice to soften them and adding to salsa, relish or chutney.
The main difference between Rhubarb and the other "stalk" veggies discussed here is that it does not grow in a head. The stalks grows from a woody rhizome individually and are harvested by cutting each close to the ground. Of course, the obvious difference is that, although a vegetable, Rhubarb is used in the same way we use sour cherries in pies. They are highly acidic and blend well with other sweet ingredients.
Sauteed Cardone Recipe