28 February 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Pasta with What? Potatoes???

CHIAVARI, Italy – Pasta with potatoes is a classic in Neapolitan cuisine that has as many variations as there are peas in a pod. You can make it with tomatoes, without tomatoes, with pancetta, without pancetta, with celery or without, with fat pasta like rigatoni or with skinny pasta like spagettini, the choice is yours.  You can even use all those left over bits of (uncooked) pastas we all seem to have in our cupboards, mixed together, which is what one recipe I saw called for.  

  Corner Store
The only constant ingredient seemed to be smoked provolo cheese, and then I found a Sardinian recipe that only used pecorino. Even cooking techniques differed. In the Neapolitan and Pugliese recipes the potatoes and pasta are cooked together with onions in either broth or water, while in the Sardinian version the pasta and potatoes are cooked together in water and then added to the onions, which have been cooked in another pan.

The variations only mean one thing: this is a true home-style recipe that evolved from the kitchens of Italian grandmothers trying to put a nourishing meal on the table for their families using the ingredients they found in their kitchens. It’s an example of the creativity that springs from the very roots of Italian culinary culture and it is how the Italian cuisine developed.  

 Pasta with Potatoes
Here is the ‘no holds barred’ version which uses everything you would find in an Italian cupboard on a good day, but don’t hesitate to adapt the recipe to what you find in your own cupboard – good day or not.

Pasta with Potatoes
Serves 6

500 grams/1 lb. Potatoes (best not to use new potatoes)
1 white onion, finely chopped
1 peperoncino (or flakes) finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil (as needed)
Grated parmigiano cheese (as needed)
Mixed pastas (a little more than half a pound) (300 grams)
1 can of peeled tomatoes, 250 grams
100 grams (5 tablespoons) of smoked provolo cheese cut into small cubes
70 grams (2 ½ ounces) Italian pancetta
Small piece of parmigiano rind

Peel and cube the potatoes, set aside.
Put a liter of water to boil on a back burner. When it starts to boil, turn it down and keep it simmering. You’ll need it when you start to cook the pasta.

In a deep pan, fry the onion, the peperoncino, the parmigiano rind and the pancetta together in olive oil. When the onion is golden, add the cubed potatoes and the tomatoes and let them cook together for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover the potatoes with enough boiling water to cover them, and let them cook for 20 minutes. When the potatoes are cooked, add the pasta and enough additional simmering water to cook the it.

When the pasta is cooked, add the cubed provola and mix it in using a wooden spoon. It’s important to always stir in the same direction so the provola melts evenly and doesn’t become one big ball of cheese. Add salt if needed, then add grated parmigiano and cover the pot and let the pasta and potatoes sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.

This is a fast and simple dish that you can serve soupy or kind of dry, the choice is yours. The only risk is not adding enough water (or broth) when you are cooking the pasta, or adding too much. The best way to avoid this is to add the boiling liquid a little at a time. That way you can regulate how soupy or dry you want it. Remember too, that the water you add has to be at the boiling point or the cooking process will stop.

Other variations: add a chopped celery stalk and/or a spring of fresh rosemary to the potatoes when you are cooking them. You can also use chopped fresh tomatoes instead of canned peeled tomatoes, or no tomatoes.  


24 February 2013

LIFE: Settling In

CHIAVARI, Italy – For the record, my phone problems have been resolved and I am just about problem free – at least as far as getting settled in a new town. I think what surprised me the most about this move to Liguria was the amount of paperwork I had to plow through to do it. I’m still puzzled by it.

Commune of Chiavari
Back in the day when I moved to Saronno from Milan, there were the same services to contact, electric, gas and telephone and they only required a simple phone call. I never had reams of forms come in the mail that I to fill out and send back and pages of contracts in print so small it looks like Morse Code.

A quick phone calls to Enel and I had power and gas service, another call to the phone company and I had a phone line, a quick trip to the commune, the town hall in Saronno, and I was a resident. The ladies in the Saronno Registry Office even sent me a post card a few weeks later saying that they noticed I was born in Syracuse and therefore I could apply for citizenship if I wanted to. I later explained that I was born in Syracuse, New York, not Siracusa, Sicily and we all had a good laugh over that one.

But to get to the point, it was all fairly simple to do – and why it was more complicated here is something I’m still trying to work out.  When I applied for residency in Saronno all I had to do was give them my new address. Here in Chiavari I had to show my passport and the document that proves I am in Italy legally.

The guy at the Registry Office was very nice. It was only when he began to slowly leafed through all of the pages of my passport that I started to get butterflies in my stomach. What he was looking for?  It’s a new passport with hardly any stamps in it, so there really isn’t anything to see. But there he was, taking his time, looking at each page. Then he closed my passport and looked over at me and said, ‘how beautiful these drawings of America are’, and smiled. When he finished entering my data into his computer, he handed back my documents and then gave me another official looking piece of paper with the instructions to take it to the Health Office and chose my primary care physician.

Left to Right: Manuela, Gui and Dottoressa Loredana 
The next day, with the document from the Registry in hand, I went up to the Health Office.  Unlike the Health Office in Saronno where there is usually a half hour wait, within five minutes I was in front of a clerk explaining why I was there. Then another clerk came over and the two of them started discussing something or other and they decided it was best to call the ‘Doctoressa’. Within minutes the Doctoressa appeared and she got right down to business.

The first question she asked me was if I worked. It caught me off-guard and didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to say that I was working because then she would ask me to bring in some kind of pay stub, and I didn't want to say I wasn't working because in reality I am. So I mumbled something about working but only for a company in the United States which is true, but would be more true if I took out the word ‘only’.  It turned out she didn't care about that part, what she wanted to know was if I had ever worked in Italy and if I had paid into the health care system.

Paperwork Central
Well that was easy, the answer was yes. But could I prove it? That was a little more difficult. I said yes again, knowing it would mean going back to my apartment and trying to find the box with those documents in it. Now let me think. Was that box in the pile of boxes near the door, or in the boxes under my bed, or maybe in the boxes in the kitchen area?  This was going to take a bit of sleuthing.

But find them I did. After thinking about it, I realized that part of the new, stricter controls on residency and health care benefits has to do with the problems Italy has had in the past with illegal immigrants, problems that didn't exist when I first moved to Saronno.

I can’t fault the Italians for wanting the people who are applying for health care benefits to have at least paid into the system at one time or another. With the second best health system in the world, it is a benefit that should not be abused, so if it takes me four days to dig up and bring in the documents they need, it takes me four days. In the end four days is a small price to pay for what I get in return. But the best part is my dining room table is no longer covered with papers and documents and the apartment is kind of starting to feel like home – well almost.

For more about the Italian health care system see This Italian Life blog post  “Life: Italian Health Care System” of February 7, 2010.  

21 February 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Pasta alla Genovese

CHIAVARI, Italy – It seems a little odd  to talk about a pasta recipe from Naples that is called alla Genovese, but pasta alla Genovese is one of the most popular dishes in Naples and Campania, and in spite of its name it doesn’t have anything to do with pesto or even Genova for that matter.

Pasta alla Genovese 
The Genovese in this case refers to a onion and meat based sauce that is slow cooked until the onions become creamy soft and the meat falls apart at a touch. As for the name, it seems there are several versions starting with one that talks about the many Genovese trattori that were found in and around the port of Naples in the late 1600’s. The chefs at these restaurants would often prepare a slow cooked dish of onions and meat to which the Neapolitans would add pasta. It sounds logical, but in reality there are no beef dishes in traditional Ligurian cuisine, nor is there any trace of any dish that even resembles this one to be found anywhere in Liguria.

But Genovese is a name as well as a place, a so another story tells of a monzu (chef) named Geneva (Geneve – consequently Genovese), who introduced this variation of ‘onion soup’ to the Court of Naples or in some other aristocratic setting. We’ll never know. These food oddities happen. You’ll also find a, a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich in Naples called a Parisian and Venetian pastry. The why and wherefore of the names long lost in the culinary history of the city.

The Real Deal
The recipe below is the basic recipe. You’ll find others that call for white wine or a little tomato, and still others that add diced guanciale or pancetta which is should be sautéed before adding the onions. The point is that you can add whatever you like to the base recipe and it’s still good.  And don’t be afraid of the amount of onions called for, they cook down and become the essence of the sauce. What is important is to use good quality onions, sweet red onions would be best.

This dish can be made with beef, veal, pork or a combination of them. Spalla, which is similar to chuck roast is often used but chuck steak, pork shoulder or pork or veal shank – stinco di maiale or stinco di vitello can be used as well.

You’ll find pasta alla Genovese on the menu in just about every restaurant and trattoria in Naples. This recipe calls for paccheri but other types of pasta like ziti, rigatoni or penne and pennoni work just as well. Actually, any type of big, fat pasta works well with this dish because it can carry the sauce better.

Pasta alla Genovese
500 grams (1 lb.) of beef, veal and/or pork cut into cubes
1 kilo (2 lbs. or more) of good quality red or white onions thinly slices
2 carrots
1 stalk of celery
Extra virgin olive oil
White wine ½ glass (optional)
Freshly grated parmigiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy stock pot, brown the cubed meat in olive oil, then add the carrot, celery, spices and cook for a few minutes. Add the finely sliced onions, a little water and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook ever so slowly over low heat stirring occasionally.  

After three hours you’ll have a thick, slightly sweet and succulent sauce.  Remove the meat and transfer the sauce to a large frying pan. Cook the paccheri ­­(or other pasta) according to the directions on the package, when it is al dente, drain it well and add it to the sauce in the frying pan.

At this point you can add whatever spices you like, a little fresh rosemary or marjoram would be nice, and a little salt and pepper if it needs it. Stir the pasta and the sauce together, so that the pasta is well covered by the sauce and absorbs its flavor. Serve with parmesan cheese. The meat can be served along with the pasta or as a second course.  

17 February 2013

LIFE: The Golden Years

CHIAVARI, Italy – One of the big news stories this week was Pope Benedict XVI announcing his retirement and moving his residency to Castel Gandolfo, in the Castelli Romani about 15 miles south of Rome. Who knew popes could retire?
 Pope Benedict XVI Resigns (AP L'Ossavatore Romana)
There have been other popes who have resigned their duties over the long history of the Catholic Church, although you can’t really say they retired as Pope Benedict XVI is doing, at least not in the sense of the word as we use it today. But then the Catholic Church of the past is not the Catholic Church we know today either.

The first pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian. He had been elected as the Successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230. His resignation came about after he was arrested and jailed in a dispute over church policy with the Roman Emperor Maximinus I Thrax. He was exiled to Sardinia and condemned to work in the salt mines there until his death.  In order to not deprive the church of a leader, he resigned and a new pope, St. Anteros, was elected. 

The Vatican
Then there was Pope St. Silverius, who was consecrated pope on June 1, 536. He didn’t exactly retire either. His departure was also a forcible removal ordered by Theodora, the Empress of the Byzantine Empire. Pope St. Silverius and the Empress had severe disagreements over her nomination of heretics for bishops, and for that he was exiled to the island of Palmaria where he remained a prisoner until his death on November 11, 537.

Pope St. Martin I, who was consecrated pope in July 649, found himself in a similar situation. He also opposed the Byzantine Emperor's attempt to appoint heretical bishops and was kidnapped, taken to Constantinople, deposed, condemned and exiled. He died in the Crimea on September 16, 656, of ill-treatment and neglect.  In all fairness, the ill-treatment and neglect was probably a common, pervasive condition at the prison more than specifically aimed at Pope St. Martin I.

Inside the Vatican
The most salacious story is that of Benedict IX. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Benedict IX was about 18 or 19 years old in the year 1032 when his father bought the Papal chair for him. Other than his connection with a powerful Roman family, Benedict IX had little to offer as a religious leader. He was described by St. Peter Damian as one who ‘feasted on immorality’, and he was called ‘a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest’ by the historian Ferdinand Gregorvius. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia calls the first openly gay pope ‘a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.’  

It was Benedict’s godfather, the priest John Gratian, who paid Benedict to resign the papacy in 1045. Gratian then stepped into the vacancy becoming Pope Gregory VI.  Benedict claimed he had resigned in order to marry, but a year later, when the marriage never happened, he returned to Rome and reclaimed his right to the papal throne.

 A Papal Encounter of the Spiritual Kind
For the next few months, there were two popes in Rome, each claiming the right to rule the Catholic Church.  The frustrated clergy urged the German Emperor Henry III, of the Holy Roman Empire, to invade Rome and remove both of them.

When Henry III arrived, Gregory VI was convinced to stand before a council of fellow church leaders. The bishops urged him to resign for bribing his way into office. Even though he claimed he had done nothing wrong in buying the papacy, the bishops managed to convince Gregory VI to step down. 

Pope Benedict XVI
Perhaps the story closest to that of the current Pope Benedict XVI, is the story of Pope Celestine V. Celestine V was a serious, Sicilian who decided, after only being in office for five months, that he wanted to exercise his right to resign. The year was 1294. Writing of himself in the third person, he said he was resigning out of: “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”

Pope Benedict XVI was elected Pope at the age of 78 and is the oldest person to have been elected Pope since Pope Clement XII (1730–40).  Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger's papacy began in 2005 and will end on February 28, 2013.

07 February 2013

AUNTIE PASTA; Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree

CHIAVARI, Italy – Battistino Gavazzi is not a pretentious man, he’s a tall shy guy who just does his job and gets on with things without talking about it very much. Gavazzi makes pasta and sells it at his store – Pastificio S. Antonio - on Corso Dante, a few doors up from Olga’s. There are a lot of fresh pasta shops here in Chiavari, I pass them every day, but what I don’t see every day, in fact I had never seen before, were tiny brown bells made from chestnut flour that Gavazzi had in the window of his shop the other day. Once inside I saw that he also had chestnut flour tagliatelle and trofie, those little squiggles of pasta that are usually served with pesto, along with a dozen or so other types of pasta.

Chestnut Flour Bells
Now I’m sure you’ve all seen green pasta made with spinach and red pasta made with beets, and other types of colored pasta, in fact I just read somewhere that there are close to 500 shapes/types of pasta here in Italy. That seems a bit of an exaggeration even if there are a lot of them, but I had never seen pasta made from chestnut flour. You can find chestnut flour in most of the grocery stores, along with kumut flour, whole wheat and buckwheat flour, so I really never paid much attention to it. But if you think about it, it really is quite different from all the other flours as chestnuts are not a grain, but grow on trees.

It makes sense that chestnut flour would be popular here as Liguria is wedged between the mountains and the sea, with little or no flat land. There is no place to grow fields of wheat or any other type of grain, but chestnut trees grow anywhere. And chestnuts are good for you. They do not have the fat content regular nuts have, and are instead largely composed of carbohydrates. Chestnut flour has a mellow, sweet flavor, is gluten free, low in fat and calories and is a good alternative to regular flour.  At one time chestnut flour was an important source of nutrition in both France and Italy, and according to Signor Gavazzi pasta made with chestnut flour is now making a comeback – at least here in Liguria.

Ligurian Trofie Made with Chestnut Flour
Because chestnuts are kind of sweet, the question then becomes what kind of sauce to use with pasta made with chestnut flour. Two sure bets are butter and sage and a keeping with a woodsy theme, a porcini mushroom based sauce. Another sauce I thought was interesting was a sausage and butter sauce flavored with fresh rosemary and would be delicious on the trofie.  The little pasta bells Signor Gavazzi had in his window would be best served in broth, a light chicken broth would do the trick. As for the mushroom or sausage sauces, wide, flat noodles, like pappadelle are a good choice because the carry the flavor well, but any noodle type of pasta would do well also.

Tomato bases sauces are a little iffy unless it’s a fresh tomato sauce lightened up with butter or a little heavy cream, as a heavy tomato sauce would drown the delicate flavor of the chestnuts. Here are a couple of recipes you might want to consider. The first one is what my friend Gary would call a ‘seat of your pants’ recipe – no measurements, while the second is a bit more structured.

Sausage Sauce for Chestnut Flour Pasta

3 (or more if needed) fresh Tuscan sausages, casing removed

Fresh rosemary

Water and/or white wine


Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil in a heated frying pan

Add the sausages and break apart while they are cooking

When the sausage are almost cooked, add a little water or white wine to the pan and stir

Add a knob of butter, stir again and when the butter has melted, reduce the heat to low and put your pasta into the frying pan and mix thoroughly.


Chestnut Flour Tagliatelle with Mushrooms
 Fast and Easy Porcini and Fresh Mushroom Sauce
10 ounces Fresh Mushrooms, cleaned and sliced  

1 ounce dried Porcini (if you are not using fresh or frozen porcini)

1/2 cup peeled, chopped chestnuts (frozen or canned) optional
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup fresh, chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste


Tip No. 1 – Follow the directions on the dried porcini package to reconstitute the dried mushrooms.    

Tip No. 2 – Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and cook together for a half a minute or so to amalgamate the flavors.