Fat Tuesday is called Mardi Gras in French but in Italy it's known as Martedì Grasso. Ash Wednesday--the beginning of Lent and fasting until Pasqua--happens the day before Martedì Grasso, which gives Italians a reason to feast and party. During Lent, Catholics are expected to give up something they love as penance. When I was a boy, the rules were very loose--giving up something you didn't like anyway was a way around the rules. But Italy is a Catholic state and many still observe full sacrifice. While some might replace meat only on Fridays with fish, others give up meat entirely during Lent. (More modern twists are giving up texting, Facebook or TV).
Broken down from the Latin, Canem Levare (meat lift), the festive celebration of Carnevale can literally be thought of as a time when meat is lifted away from meals--as a sacrifice. Carnevale in Italy starts on Giovedí Grasso, the Thursday before Fat Tuesday. During this time Italy celebrates Carnevale in towns like Venice, Viareggio and the Emilia-Romagna town of Cento. But Carnevale is widespread in Italy, just as Lent is... so just before giving up meat, they feast on it...
In Southern Italy, especially around Naples, the end of Carnevale is celebrated by eating Lasagne di Carnevale, a rich lasagna layered with a choice of meats, typically polpette (meatballs), sausage or a meat ragu. If you know how to make a lasagna (here's our Eggplant Lasagna recipe), then you know the basics of making a Lasagna Carnevale. Just layer in small meatballs or cut up large ones in small pieces or slices. You can also include slices of sweet or spicy sausage or a thick meat sauce (like our Bolognese recipe).
Guess what we are eating tonight?
One of the cucina povera (poor kitchen) Christmas traditions in Italy is Polenta alla Spianatora (polenta on the board), a rustic meal of polenta served as a dinner during the cold nights between la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) and Capodanno (New Year's Day). What makes this meal so unusual is the manner in which it is served. In the old days, hot polenta was poured and spread out directly on the family's wooden table. A slow-cooked sugo (thick, meaty tomato sauce), peas and possibly sausages or pieces of braised pork were arranged in concentric circles. The bits of meat were a real treat for children in the poor, farming communities. Young and old alike were given forks and everyone would make their own trails in the hot mess of deliciousness, each staking out their own section. But as I've been told, in some homes there were rules: you weren't allowed to eat the meat until you ate a path to the center, with some slow eating children not having such luck!
This manner of eating is a celebration of nature from the 15th century when corn was introduced to Italy from the New World. This dish is a celebration of the recent harvest... the circular shape of the polenta represented the sun, and it's corn having come from Mother Earth herself. All the ingredients topping this sun would have also been nurtured by the sun during the growing season: lentils, chickpeas, pork, chicken.
This is an ancient meal that also celebrates life--and family. So everyone was at the table digging in. This is a big meal... with a large amount of polenta traditionally prepared in a copper pot resembling a modern wok.
Nowadays, people tend to use a Spianatora (or spianatoia)--a modern day wooden cutting or pastry board--to pour the polenta onto. There are even some restaurants in southern/central Italy that will service this during the holiday season.
To make this warming meal for your famiglia, first you need to make a Sugo. Here's a link to my own family's Sugo Recipe.
For the Polenta
Top this beautiful, hot mess with Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano and invite your amici and famiglia to start scraping.
Buon appetito, Buon Natale and Felice Anno Nuovo!
When I was a child, my mother would make meatloaf... plain, American style, ketchup covered, meatloaf. Filling, yes, but usually a bit dry and boring. After learning of the various types of polpettone (Italian meatloaves) they make in Italy, I wanted sometime more tasty with a little bit of a spicy kick. Here's my Polpettone con Salsa di Mele...
For the Polpettone
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg, beaten
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (honey wheat), cubed
1 cup cinnamon applesauce (of course, you can make your own)
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 pound ground beef, extra lean
1 pound ground pork
For the Glaze
1 cup cinnamon applesauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey Dijon mustard
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons barbecue sauce (apple maple)
20 “cracks” of freshly ground black pepper
Serve with some of the glaze on top of each slice, with a side of either potato croquettes or homemade spätzle (like they make in the Alto Aldige region of Northern Italy).
Of course, best served with a bottle of Italian sparkling cider.
Recipe copyright GrandVoyageItaly.com
Just in time for the holidays... Autumn Beet Tart!
(Easier to say than Torta d'Autunno con Barbabietola, wouldn't you agree?)
For the Crust:
1 cup of all purpose flour
3/4 cup almond flour
3 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons of cane sugar
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground fennel seeds
1 pinch of salt
1 beaten egg
For the Filling:
2 large beet roots, steamed
1/2 brown sugar
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...
In the small Sardinian town of Nuoro, there are a very few women (you might count them on one hand) who still know how to make what many say is the rarest type of pasta in Sardinia Italy and perhaps the whole world...
Su filindeu (in Sardinian dialect), and in Italian, Fili di Dio, can be translated as either Wires, Yarns or Threads of God. You might think of this pasta as the elevated and rarer version of angel hair pasta.
Filindeu is tied to a religious ritual celebrated in the region of Nuoro in the town of Lula. La Festa di San Francesco is held on May 1st at the Chiesa della Solitudine di Nuoro.
Oddly, this celebration is tied to a murder in the year 800 AD. Accused of murder and being hunted down for his crime, a young man claimed innocence and took refuge in a cave about 15 miles from Nuoro. He was discovered, brought to trial and miraculously (to him) declared innocent. He had prayed to Saint Francis during his time of refuge in the cave and thus built a shrine in the cave in honor of his patron saint. In autumn on October 4th, there is a second procession to the cave and shrine followed by a celebratory feast of filindeu.
The dough to make this special pasta is durum semolina, water and a bit of salt, without leavening. It is then kneaded for a very long time to stretch the gluten, making it very soft with amazing elasticity--the key to making the long strands. The dough is rolled by hand into 8 long, thin snakes, which are folded, halved and pulled, only to be folded and stretched again--32 times in total--resulting in 256 thread-like thin bundles of parallel groups of pasta.
These threads are then stretched across a large, flat tray called a fundu, traditionally woven from leaves of the local asphodel plant (a member of the lily family), often used in basket-making. To aide in the stretching, the dough is occasionally dipped in salt water--the timing of this sensed only by the experience of the artisan making the pasta.
This process is repeated until a single layer of "threads" cover the entire fundu. the basket is then rotated by about 60° with another layers of pasta "threads" laid down. This is repeated a third time creating three crisscrossed layers of "threads". The tray is placed in the sun to dry causing the three layers to stick together while creating a stiff fabric of pasta looking very much like a course textured cheesecloth.
For the feast, the filindeu is broken into pieces and put in boiling mutton broth. Grated pecorino (sheep) cheese is added to complete the soup. I don't know about you, but I've always loved my soup loaded with noodles--perfect for when the cold weather hits.
If you're ever in Sardinia, look for packages of filindeu shards. Some have realized that this is a real Sardinian treasure and are trying to expand the availability of this pasta.
Sadly, this unique pasta technique is in danger of becoming extinct. For example, Only one of Paula Abraini’s two daughters knows basic technique but seem uninterested in continuing the tradition. Abraini also has no granddaughters to pass he skills along to. The two other women in Abraini’s family who still carry on the tradition are both in their 50s and also have no successors to this tradition.
Paula Abriani was so concerned about the techniques of making su filindeu disappearing, that she went to the local government to see if there was some money to open a school. There wasn't. Then she tried to teach young locals to make it in her home--they got discouraged with its complexity and gave up. Luckily, she was invited to Rome by the gourmet magazine Gambero Rosso so they could film her techniques for posterity. She has also started making filindeu for several restaurants who serve her amazing pasta to clients from around the world. The preservation of her tradition is looking a bit brighter!
If you're traveling to Nuoro, search out the women who still make this pasta for a lesson on how it's done. They have learned the skill from their mothers who learned it from their mothers and so on, going back three hundred years. Ask, plead or beg for a lesson from either Paola Abraini, Salvatora Pisano or Grazia Selis. If you're lucky enough to get a little lesson from them, don't forget to say "thank you" in Sarda, the Sardinian dialect... grazie meda! And give them a solemn promise that you will pass along their skills.
You might also be interested in...
How to Cook Pasta: 101
Map of Regional Pasta
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Pasta
Sexy Pasta Shapes!
The LIGHT Way to Make Potato Gnocchi
Canederli: The Italian Matzo Ball
Does Adding Water to a Pasta Sauce Make a Difference?
Making Fresh Pasta: A Family Tradition
Test Driving the Kitchenaid Pasta Extruder
Spaghetti the Grows on Trees?
Celebrate International Women's Day like they do in Italy, or as they call it,
Festa delle Donne... with a cake, namely Torta di Mimosa.
Easter is called Pasqua in Italy, and is a time for celebration and breaking the Lenten fast. In Italy, spring comes early, the weather is wonderful and the scent of flowers blossoming are everywhere. Pasqua is a time for feasting with la famiglia. The Monday after Easter Sunday is a national holiday called Pasquetta (Little Easter), when most businesses close and workers spend the day at home with their family.
There are many types of celebration sweet pane (breads) and savory torte (cakes or tarts) in Italy, many of which made from family recipes handed down from generation to generation--often hundreds of years old. Some are known all over Italy while others are regional or local traditional recipes. One has to keep in mind, however, that even within each region there are variations in these recipes--often changing from town to town or family to family. Just keep in mind, it's all about the feast.
Here are some of the more popular treats with links to their traditional Italian recipes. If you need translations you can always cut and paste the text of each recipe into Google Translate (or better yet, install a translation plug-in into your browser to do it automatically).
Enjoy... and Buona Pasqua!
During the Christmas Holidays--even in the States--panettone and pandoro are both in plentiful supply, even in large supermarket chains. In fact, I bought several imported pandoro and panettone (they store and freeze well) two days after Christmas for under $5 each!
Pandoro literally means golden bread, and lends itself to making a tree shape because of its fluted sides. To make a tree shape, simply cut 3/4 - 1" thick slices, ensuring that each slice is cut as flat as possible to prevent your "tree" from leaning when re-assembling later. A very sharp chef's knife is better than a serrated bread knife which would create too many crumbs.
You will be filling each layer and re-assembling by alternating the position of each layer to position its points in between the points of the layers below them. Keep track of the orientation of the layers and re-assemble to keep your "tree" from leaning--flipping them upside and to the side after cutting each helps keep them in order.
To make ours, I brushed each layer with a coating of heated and softened seedless red raspberry jam, then willed each layer with some vanilla custard, the same recipe I use when I make pasticiotti. You can also fill them with zabaglione, butter cream, or a store-bought vanilla, or other flavored pudding mix.
I held back a bit of the custard and placed it into a piping bag with a fluted tip, then piped rosettes around the tiers of the assembled panettone tree, placing a blackberry on each. You can use fresh blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or pitted cherries. Top the cake with more piped custard and berries, or place a star-shaped Christmas cookie standing up. Powdered sugar adds a dusting of "snow" to make it look really festive.
Traditionally, you make tall sliced wedges for each serving and lay them on their side in a dessert plate.
Vanilla Custard Recipe
While French style egg custards can be difficult to master, this is a very easy custard due to the fact that the cornstarch is the thickening agent. This recipe can be used for many pastry treats that utilize a custard as a bed for berries.
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1 - 1/2 cup whole milk or Half & Half
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon butter
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar.
Whisk in the milk and egg yolks.
Place the saucepan on medium heat, stirring with either whisk or spatula until the custard starts to thicken.
Add the vanilla extract and butter and stir until creamy, thick and smooth.
Transfer to a bowl to cool, covering the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming.
Spread melted seedless on each layer of your pandoro and then spread on a layer of custard. Do this for each payer as you re-assemble your "tree". Pipe rosettes as described above and place your berries. Dust with powdered sugar.
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!