“It has always been true for me that to know a place, I must first know how it eats and drinks. Everything unravels at the table.”
–Marlena de Blasi
Marlena de Blasi’s lifelong affair with cooking began at age nine on a beach along the coast of southern Italy, where she met an elderly woman roasting potatoes coated with olive oil, rosemary, and sea salt over an open fire.
Now, in A Taste of Southern Italy, de Blasi brings to life the spirit as well as the cuisine of this bountiful region. With de Blasi we travel down remote country goat paths in tiny island villages and along sun-washed avenues of great cities in search of some of the most treasured recipes in the world. This is as much a storybook as it is a cookbook: a gathering of small rhapsodies, impressions, and romantic notions from a land where such delights are plentiful. In our journey through the kitchens of southern Italy we find tantalizing recipes for a host of mouthwatering dishes, including
Gnocchi di Castagne con Porcini Trifolati
Insalata di Pesce Dove il Mare Non C’é
Pane di Altamura
Frittelle di Ricotta e Rhum alla Lucana
Peperoni Arrostiti Ripieni
La Vera Pizza
Pomodori alla Brace
Pesce Spada sulla Brace alla Pantesca
Pasta alla Pecoraio
La Torta Antica Ericina
Un Gelato Barocco
With these authentic recipes at your fingertips, you can master the luscious tastes and rustic ambiance of southern Italy. These dishes are sure to become a tradition in your home, and will fill it with tantalizing aromas and love.
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Marlena de Blasi is a chef, a food and wine consultant, a restaurant critic, and the author of A Thousand Days In Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, and Regional Foods of Northern Italy, which was nominated for the James Beard Award. She lives with her Venetian husband, Fernando, in the restored wing of a seventeenth-century palazzo in the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Between endless jaunts into every region of the country, they and their son, Erich, host culture and cuisine courses for travelers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
As we cross over the sweet, southern Tuscan flanks into the region of Lazio, we must trim our expectations. Light thins, impressions narrow, and the silvered rhapsody of Tuscany smudges into the blacks and greens and browns of the humble countryside of the Alto Lazio. Pastures and sheepfolds separate sandy-eyed villages sleeping through time. Some of them, rich with untrumpeted pasts unhunted by travelers, are hemmed by Etruscan necropoli, tombs excavated, preserved, beckoning small, whispered ingress into an elegant and precocious culture. The city of Tarquinia, the villages of Sorano, Sovana, Pitigliano, Sutri, Vetralla, Nepi, Civita Castellana, and Tuscania hold up smoked looking glasses into the essentially impenetrable story of Etruria.
And then there is Rome.
An ecstasy of secrets wrapped in lies and dreams is Rome. The ages ache in our throats as we float on her memories. Raised up from pagan huts huddled on wooded hills,
Rome is the sublime issue of grinding wills and destinies dyed in blood, and into her earth are planted the most splendid conceits of power and beauty. Know them, touch them all, and still you shall not know Rome. One can recount her story, trample over her breast—never touching her heart—feel the shifts of her mood shivering one’s skin. Still you shall not know her. Look up at her. See a splendid ruin of the Republic containing a medieval church that, in its turn, was re-dressed for the Renaissance, then persuaded into the Baroque—one springing, tumbling forth from another—in an unfading rhythm of resurrection from spoils. If you search her well, she will give up to you some shard of her mystery. But never mistake her smile for transparency.
It is enough, I suppose, that we are of her, of her crooked, confounding descendance of demons and heroes and saints. Perhaps, then, it is first our own shams and treacheries we must loosen, all the better to illuminate her. It helps to approach Rome as an innocent.
Even Romans will tell you they know only the places of her in which they live, where they walk, where they buy bread and take coffee and go to Mass. Pieces of her enchant them as they do us. Yet she is not a crumbled and ornamented old dame to be held gingerly, unclose, as if she were only her unembraceable stones. Rome is new and young and becoming, she is of kindness and possibility. Guileless midst the improbable drape of her ruins, she is gold-dusted and bewitching, engaging life, daring it, ravishing every bittersweet crumb of it.
A morning in March offers a walk to the Teatro di Marcello and a nearby temple dedicated in 431 b.c. to Apollo. Pediments, pilasters, remnants of the Empire are the precious litter strewn about the wooded patches of weeds and grasses. And there among them is one taking the sun. Her headrest is a fragment of marble column, supine, lustrous in the grass. Unself-consciously pivoting her amplitude under the cupolas of black pine and oleander, she bathes her face in unshaded heat. A string bag filled with nodding, long-stemmed artichokes, and lavender roses waits beside her on the smoothed stump of another stone. In a single one of her moments, she has gathered up to her the sunlight, artichokes, roses, and some quiet, undesigned reckoning with her past. She is, after all, a Roman and would have nothing less.
Go at nine of a morning to a bar in Piazza Sant’ Eustachio to drink Rome’s best coffee, and standing there with you, upholstered in cashmere and Scottish tweed, lips powdered in sugar from his custard-filled croissant, will be a prince. Too, you will find the neighborhood’s respected carpenter, a seller of rare books, a restorer of antiquated furniture, two chefs in crisp whites, a wine merchant, and, as dramatic tint for the proscenium, there will be a revolving brigade of red-and-blue-varnished carabinieri. The prince, the carpenter, the wine merchant, and the barista, the barman, all live in a nearby palazzo and have been neighbors for years. They and the others collect in the bar at more than several junctures of the day and evening, reviving or soothing themselves with the hour’s appropriate cups,
engaging in the life-giving ritual of empty discourse. And one can establish one’s presence among them after, say, three consecutive mornings.
Thus assured, then, that one is a pilgrim rather than a passerby, the prince might inquire where and how well one dined last evening, or if one has yet seen the Fontana di Giacomo. The carpenter, having recently had a hand in a small project at the Palazzo Spada, upstages the prince by wagering that surely one has never even heard of Borromini’s great trucco—trick—tucked inside the palazzo’s museum. One or another of them or some multiple faction of the bar’s cast will offer ceremonious escort into the field, teaching as artlessly as did the sunbather, informing, assuaging, if only for those moments, one’s longing to know Rome.
About the Cuisine
Roman food is bawdy, vivid, radiant; it invites communion. Resonating the Roman appetite, it is, at its voluptuous and medieval heart, la cucina povera. The Empire’s gusto for luxury and extravagance was long-ago faded in the pungent steams of a cauldronful of oxtails softening in a great bath of tomatoes and wine. To build the cuisine of Rome one must have, nearby, a thatch of mint—wild or peppery and an untimid hand with it—artichokes—those globe-shaped and adolescent ones too young to have suffered the growth of an evil choke and those tinier yet, tight-hearted and purple-lipped—the blunted fear of, if not an earnest yearning for, the viscera and the tail of an ox, the willingness and the grace to dance round a pot of bubbling oil, an absorbing passion and reverence for vegetables and fruits, and, finally, an indifference to sweets. A pitcher full of roses, overblown, their beauty bruised, their perfume fat and full, is also welcome.
Coda alla Vaccinara
OXTAILS BRAISED IN TOMATOES AND WHITE WINE IN THE MANNER OF THE ROMAN BUTCHERS
Roman ox butchers, known as i vaccinari, have been attributed authorship for this most characteristic dish of la cucina povera romana. Honored as savvy, inventive cooks, the butchers were and are wont to pot up the most particularly toothsome nuggets plundered from the great beasts. The tail of an ox, though it surrenders inconsiderable flesh, is of the tenderest texture and most delicate savor to be gleaned from the whole hulk of him.
1 oxtail (about 2H to 3 pounds), whacked into 2- to 3-inch pieces
3 ounces salt pork
1 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley
4 fat cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 large yellow onion, peeled and minced
2 small carrots, sliced
Hearts and leaves of 2 large bunches of celery, the hearts sliced, and the leaves chopped
1 small, dried red chile pepper, crushed, or N to H teaspoon dried chile flakes
2 cups dry white wine
H cup tomato puree
1 cup water
1H teaspoons fine sea salt
Freshly cracked pepper
Rinse the oxtail and place it in a large soup pot, covering it with cold water. Over a lively flame, bring to a full boil. Immediately drain the oxtail, setting it aside and discarding the water.
With a mezzaluna or very sharp knife, mince the salt pork with the leaves of the parsley and the garlic to a fine paste. In a large terra-cotta or enameled cast-iron casserole, over a medium flame, warm the aromatic paste. In it, brown the pieces of oxtail, turning them about in the fat, sealing them well.
Add the onion, carrots, celery leaves, and the crushed chile, sautéing them a bit in the hot fat before adding H cup of the white wine and permitting it to evaporate. Add another H cup and, again, let it evaporate. Add the remaining wine, the tomato puree, water, sea salt, and generous grindings of fresh pepper, bringing the mixture to a quiet simmer.
Cover the pot tightly and very gently braise the oxtail for 4 hours, stirring every H hour or so. Add the celery hearts and continue to braise, the pot covered, for H hour.
Permit the oxtail to luxuriate in its bath for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight in a cool place or in the refrigerator. Slowly reheat the oxtail and present it in shallow bowls with oven-toasted bread and cold white wine.
Mezzancolli al Cognac
PRAWNS BRAISED IN WHITE WINE AND COGNAC
Serves 4 to 6
A patently rustic treatment of the prawns that presses us to a dramatic sort of dance in front of the flame as we toss the fat, handsome things about in the hot oil, their briny perfumes dissolving up in great vapors around our heads. A bottle of fine Cognac perched on the kitchen shelf seems an occurrence as common in Rome as is the one filled with the simple white wine from the hills just outside its gates. Here, the bottle is used to a fine end, scenting the seething, sputtering flesh of the prawns inside their bronzed, vermilion shells.
1H pounds large prawns or medium langoustines, unshelled
H cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup Cognac
Juice of 1 large lemon
Freshly ground pepper
Rinse the prawns and dry them on absorbent paper towels.
Heat the oil in a very large terra-cotta or enameled cast-iron casserole and, over a lively flame, sauté the prawns, tossing them about in the oil until their shells turn angry red and are beautifully browned, 5 or 6 minutes. Salt them generously, adding the wine and the Cognac, letting the prawns drink in all the bubbling liquids for 2 to 3 minutes, depending on the size of the prawns.
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