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)
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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
There is nothing like the flavors of fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil and tomatoes. The myriad of ways these simple ingredients can be put together boggles the mind, ranging from pizza to lasagna to panini. The culmination of this combination is an excellent example of the simplicity of Italian cuisines: Caprese... nothing more than a simple insalata (salad) of these basic components.
While you can simply lay some slices of tomato on a plate, top them with mozzarella and basil, and then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, at times you want some to do something to impress or simply for fun, and the kids will love making...
Ladybug Caprese Insalata.
It couldn't be easier. Place slices of mozzarella on your plate (placing mozzarella in the freezer for 15 minutes will help make slicing easier) then top each one with a fresh basil leaf. Next, take cherry tomatoes and with a very sharp paring knife, cut the separation between the two "wings" a little more than halfway up and tease them open--just a little so they look like beetle wings. Next, slice a bit of the "neck" of the tomato off so you can tuck a pitted, black olive into it as the "head". The two antennas are easy to make using the soft stems on the end of the leaves. Make holes with a toothpick, then insert the stems.
Now, how to make the spots has become a subject of debate all over social media. There are several ways to make them. The first (and easiest) is to use aged balsamic vinegar... dotting the spots on using a toothpick. (The thin stuff they pass off as balsamic in supermarkets will not work). Aged balsamic is viscus enough to stick and shouldn't drip or more. Just be careful not to drizzle olive oil on the backs of your ladybugs if you use this method. If you don't want to spend the extra cash on aged balsamic, just reduce the supermarket variety in a saucepan under high heat to create a reduction--a thick glaze--and use that.
The second way, is to cut very tiny dots from the skin of a black olive. Use a sharp paring knife to skin the olive, then do very small julienne strips. Then, slice into little dot shapes. It's a bit finicky, but not really hard to do. The dampness of the inside of each olive skin dot will help stick them to the cherry tomatoes. Pick each "dot" up with the tip of your paring knife to put into place.
A third way is to use individual grains of course, black sea salt. You can pierce the skins of the tomatoes at each location of a dot, then gently sit a grain of salt in each one.
A fourth method is to take some cream cheese and color it with black paste food coloring (the type used in cake decorating). Then use a very small circular piping tip and pipe little dots onto the ladybug backs.
Some think that an edible marker can create the dots, but my experience in using these markers is that they are a water based dye and will bead up on the smooth skin of a tomato. You won't be able to draw a spot that will hold its shape and they might even run, especially if you drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the creation.
To finish off the plate, carefully sprinkle some fresh black pepper around the mozzarella but be careful not to get any on your ladybugs. Alternately, you can leave out the black pepper. Then drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the creation, but remember, if using balsamic as the dots, steer clear of them. Finish with a sprinkle of sea salt.
You can make your Ladybugs on a serving platter or on individual plates, perhaps two per person.
Some photos just for inspiration...