PASQUETTA 2014

Apr 23

A note to my loyal readers:
(the rest of you can skip this, if you like)

I apologize for abandoning you lo these many weeks, but I am writing a book. I’m actually writing two books, which is daunting, to say the least. When I sit down at the computer I feel I must work on one or the other or my intricately larded Jewish guilt will ooze out and consume me. I realize that Jews and lard don’t usually go together in the same sentence, but in my life they do.

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Easter Monday is known as Pasquetta in Italy and it’s a holiday all its own. It’s another day off from work and traditionally one that’s spent outside to celebrate the arrival of spring.
We were invited to a pizza picnic at Carlo and Sylvia’s new house to officially inaugurate their wood-burning oven. The renowned pizzaiolo, Bruce, traveled all the way from Eggi and I was his trusty assistant — with the help of Carlo, JoJo, Stefano and many others.
Just a note about the dough, which we made the day before — we use 1/3 “00” flour to 2/3 “0” flour, yeast, salt and water. No oil. The recent New York Times article about pizza dough made with olive oil is odd. A little fat in pie dough to make it flaky is a wonderful thing. I love flaky pie dough — the way it dissolves in your mouth along with the sweet filling. Flaky is great in a pie dough. But pizza needs to hold together; pizza wants to have a chew; pizza wants to have a crunch. I mean, if you want to make pizza dough with oil, go ahead — but it won’t be any good.
On Pasquetta, we made pizzas both with tomato and without; we made them with cheese and without; we made them with sausage, with prosciutto, with onion and garlic; we made them with odd little greens that were foraged on the hillsides. But best of all, in my humble opinion, was the pizza we made with quail eggs. Here’s Bruce’s description of how it went down:
“Nyla brought some quail eggs and then we made a white pizza with ricotta and zucchini blossoms and maybe some onion.  No tomato.  No mozzarella. I popped that in the oven and then after a few minutes when the crust had set, Carlo, Nyla and I pulled it out and cracked 6 or 7 eggs on top and then put it back in for a while longer.
I think, were we to do it again, we’d wait even longer before putting the eggs in – more soft than hard-boiled.
(Or we could do it from scratch — put bacon on first and then call it an English Breakfast Pizza.)  :-)”
Bruce, as I said, is a master pizzaiolo.

THE SAUCE THAT WOULDN’T DIE

Jan 11

cheese vs cheeseTortellini has been a part of our family’s Christmas day repast since our kids were … well, since they were kids. We used to make tortellini in brodo, a Northern Italian Christmas tradition. I would make a chicken, beef-bone and vegetable broth on Christmas Eve and then on the day we’d all pitch in to make sheets of fresh pasta and a meaty, cheesy, herby filling out of which we’d fashion hundreds of little belly-button-shaped beauties to float in the rich steaming broth. At the table we’d grate Parmigiano over the top and count our holiday blessings.
One year instead of broth I served the tortellini in a bolognese sauce and it was such a hit we haven’t been back to broth since. I use Marcella Hazan’s classic recipe for the meat sauce and I follow it to the letter because it’s quite perfect. Well, in truth, I add a bit more onion than she calls for. I’m a whore for onions. I tripled the recipe this year because I knew once I tasted it I would want to have more in the fridge for later. This is where the trouble started.
There’s something supremely satisfying about Marcella’s bolognese. Bubbling a cup or two of milk through the meat before adding the tomatoes creams up the sauce and sweetens it. And the five-hour simmer patiently breaks down the components and gives them time to take advantage of each other. It’s a meat sauce to dream about and this year’s version was no exception. The kids and I scarfed down our beefily-sauced tortellini while Jill tucked into her lentils with vegan gusto. Ah, chacon à son goût.
The next day, after our kids departed for New York, I reheated the leftover tortellini bolognese and was disappointed to remember that you can’t reheat tortellini. They’re a one-time deal. What is sublime in its initial incarnation becomes doughy and stupid when you try to bring it back. So, what’s a hungry fellow to do?
I brought out the rest of the bolognese, which had only been depleted by a third. I put a nice-sized single helping of it into a pan and slowly reheated it, adding a bit of oil, while I brought some rigatoni to the boil. Just before the pasta reached al-dente-land, I ladled some its water into the slowly warming meat sauce. Bingo! Dinner #2.
The next evening, while Jill was sautéing some tofu and spinach, I thought I’d play around a little bit. I slow-cooked a sliced onion in oil while the pasta water was heating. Then I added a can of San Marzano tomatoes, some hot pepper flakes and salt and let it simmer. Then I dolloped the rest of the bolognese from the fridge into the tomato sauce and had a portion of that with the rest of the rigatoni — cheese on top, of course. Dinner #3.
I now had the rest of this bastardized sauce in the fridge — certainly no longer a bolognese yet more than a tomato sauce. It was kind of a tomato/onion/meat sauce with some hot pepper thrown in. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it sugo tuckerini.
The next evening was lovely. It was snowing lightly; we had the fireplace blazing in the kitchen and Jill was doing kale with toasted walnuts on the stove. I hauled my little bastard out of the fridge. I had picked up a couple of Italian sausages from A&S Italian Fine Foods of Fairfield and par-boiled them to half done in a pan while I warmed the sugo tuckerini and boiled the pasta water. Then I sliced up the sausages, flashed them in hot oil and added them to the sauce. I decided to eschew rigatoni that night and instead boiled up a half-pound of Alfetra spaghetti that I had bought at Eataly the last time I was in the city. I’m a big believer in splurging for high-quality pasta. It makes a huge difference in taste and texture and costs just a few bucks more.
I now had to find a bowl large enough to accommodate a half-pound of spaghetti swaddled in this latest permutation of sugo tuckerini. I tossed it all into a tin kitchen bowl and brought it to the table. For this dish I grated some pecorino romano, which is saltier and more forceful than parmigiano and it helps to temper the unctuousness of the sausages.
What could I call this new sauce? Good. I called it Good Sauce. Sugo buono. I’m proud to say that I could breeze through this double portion of pasta due to my digestive system having been in training since Christmas Day.
The following morning I couldn’t button my pants.
Have a Happy New Year, everyone.

CHAPTER TWO

Dec 5

On a sunny, gusty morning in early November I drive down to the village to visit with Martin. He and his partner, Massimo, have their architecture office on the piazza. Martin was our architect when we enlarged the Rustico and he’s become a good friend. He also has a fax machine, which is the real reason for my visit.
“Do you know what we celebrate today?” asks Martin after I had taken care of my faxing chores. Martin is German and he’s fluent in Italian and English.
“Another holiday?” I guess. Italians take a holiday every second breath. They have hundreds of saints and whenever one has a birthday they close all the banks.
É il giorno del vino novella. The 6th of November is traditionally the day when the new wine comes to market — although I got a taste last night.”
“And?”

NOVEMBER

Nov 26

migrant-workerOlio nuovo is identical in its chemistry to any Umbrian extra-virgin you’ll buy at Williams-Sonoma at Christmas time. The difference is that it’s nuovo. It was pressed yesterday from olives that were picked the day before. Its newness is the whole deal. In November it turns up on every table in Umbria, whether in a trattoria or a friend’s kitchen, served by the host sparingly — to drizzle over a bowl of hot lentils or to add a little unctuousness to a wood-grilled pork chop. The color is deep olive green and opaque; it pours like honey and it has an alluring aroma — like that of a pretty girl who’s just stirred from her afternoon nap. It’s peppery, too. That’s because the fruit was picked on the early side of the harvest when many of the olives were still green.

BARTHELONA

Nov 18

PapituWe took a break from olive picking  to hop across the pond to Barcelona to attend the Catalan International Environmental Film Festival.
We were invited through our friend, Will Parinnello, who was being honored for his films about this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize honorees . All of which means that we spent three days — and nights — with some of the greenest people on the planet.