31 October 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Day of the Dead

CHIAVARI, Italy – I was surprised to see Halloween treats in the windows in the bakeries here in Chiavari this week. There were pumpkin shaped candies and cookies and my favorite cookies, pan dei morti, the bread of the dead. Halloween is not a big deal here, it’s a kind of new cute thing for the little kids, but for the grownups it’s another story. This weekend is a serious holiday. November 1st is Ognisanti, All Saints Day and November 2nd is La Commemorazione dei Defunti, All Souls Day.
 Cemetary in Italy
This is the weekend families travel kilometers and kilometers to lay flowers and votive candles on the graves of their parents and grandparents and other dead relatives. I doubt people still believe that the souls of their relatives return to Earth every year, but just in case it’s true, and anything can be true in Italy, special masses are said for the dead. It is also a time for families to be together and pay tribute to those who have passed.

Celebrating the dead is a very old tradition that dates back to the time of the Roman pagans. The holiday was called the Parentalia, and it was the time of celebration when  Romans would would leave garlands of flowers and wine-soaked bread on the tombs of their dead relatives. By offering the evil spirits gifts of food and flowers, the Romans hoped the evil spirits would be appeased and not dance around in the cemeteries raising havoc and disturbing the dead who were trying to rest in peace. 
 Cemetery in Italy
It sounds kind of silly now but for the Romans the Parentalia was a serious nine day celebration during which neither marriages, or any type of legal business, was allowed. After Christianity took hold, the Parentalia morphed into All Saints Day and became a Christian holiday to pray and honor the dead. Our All Saints Day celebrations today are not very different than those of the Roman Parentalia, except now the celebration only lasts two days instead of nine. 

The celebrations for All Souls day, which follows All Saints Day also revolved around food but in a different way. For example, instead of leaving food on graves, people in the province of Massa Carrara, (Tuscany) distributed it to the needy.  In Monte Argenario, also in Tuscany, there was a tradition of sewing large pockets on the front of the clothes of orphaned children so everyone could give them a little something, food or money, and in Abruzzo they would carve out pumpkins, put a candle inside of them and use them as lanterns. Any of this sound familiar?
 Roman Cemetery in Pompeii
Like every important holiday, Ognisanto has its special treats – the most important being the oddly shaped pan dei morti. And even though pan dei morti translates to bread of the dead, it’s really a cookie made with figs and nuts and other good things.  

The cookies sort of look like hands in prayer, but originally they were supposed to resemble a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes – and plates of the faux babies in swaddling clothes were left on the graves as a sacrifice to the evil spirits who lived in the cemeteries. Everyone knew those evil spirits were beastly ghouls who liked nothing better than feasting on tender and chewy little babies.
 Pan dei Morti
The cookies are symbolic in other ways as well. To begin with they are made with other cookies, amaretti or savoiardi, the ladyfingers used for tiramisu, and that symbolizes the transformation of old into new, as one person dies another is born and life continues.

The recipe also calls for dried fruit and figs, the same ingredients used in pre-Christian offerings to the dead. In the past they would darken honey by heating it on a stove to make the cookies as dark as the earth in a burial ground, but today a little ground cocoa is used instead. The cookies are dense and chewy with a bit of crunch from the ground amaretti and pine nuts, which give the idea of crunching dead people’s bones. Yum, yum crunchy bones.

(Makes 45-50 cookies)

150 g (5-6 oz) dry amaretti cookies
350 g (12 oz) ladyfingers (large Italian savoiardi are best, the kind for tiramisu)
130 g (1 cup) blanched whole almonds, toasted
130 g (1 cup) pine nuts, toasted
120 g (4 ¼ oz) dried figs
120 g (4 ¼ oz) raisins, soaked in Vin Santo (or Marsala) wine
300 g (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
300 g (about 1 ½ cups) sugar
10 g (2 teaspoon) baking powder
60 g (½ cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 large eggs (4 egg whites and 2 whole eggs)
100 ml (½ cup) Vin Santo wine
Powdered sugar

Note: You can use all amaretti if you prefer, but mixing amaretti and savoiardi is really tastier.

Preheat oven to 170°C (350°F)
  1. Toast the pine nuts and the almonds separately for about 5 to 6 minutes on a baking sheet in a preheated oven at 170°C (350°F) or by stirring constantly in a non-stick skillet on the stove.  Keep separate and set aside
  2. Soak the raisins in Vin Santo
  3. Using a food processor, finely grind the ladyfingers and amaretti cookies, and place them in a very large mixing bowl
  4. Finely grind the almonds, and then separately grind the figs as well.  Add both to the cookie mix (the damp figs may clump together; just add the clumps into the dry ingredient mix). Add raisins.
  5. Sift together the flour and the baking powder, then add to the cookie-almond-fig mixture.  Stir in sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and pine nuts.  Toss until completely blended
  6. Pour the eggs and the Vin Santo over the dry ingredients and mix well until smooth and doughy
  7. Line the baking sheets with non-stick parchment paper
  8. To form the cookies, first flour your fingers.  Scoop out a ball of dough of a size somewhere between a golf ball and a tennis ball.  Using as little flour as possible flatten the ball into an oblong shape with pointed edges, about 4 ½ -5 ½ inches (12-14 cm) long and about 2 ½ inches (6 cm) wide.  Use just enough flour to work the dough and keep the cookies from sticking to the baking paper.
  9. Place the cookies on the baking sheet, leaving some space between each.  Bake for 15-20 minutes until slightly puffed, with a brown color and crisp look
  10. Dust with powdered sugar  
  11. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack.

27 October 2013

LIFE: The Italian Move

CHIAVARI, Italy – In the years leading up to my move to Italy, I spent most of my spare time studying Italian or pouring over maps of the country. I knew I was going to move there, I just didn’t know when and I didn’t know where. What I was thinking about back then was what I liked, being by the sea for one, and what was important to me, being able to support myself, and how much those two elements would influence my choice of place.  
 Genoa, Italy - Not Exactly What I Expected
I had done my fair share of traveling in Italy, both for business and pleasure.  I knew it was full of beautiful places; there was no doubt of about that. I even lived in Rome for a while so I was not a stranger to the country, but traveling with a return ticket in your pocket is one thing, moving house and home across an ocean is another.

I generated endless lists. Pros and cons of living in . . .  you name it, I thought about it. I also thought about something else. I thought about my grandmother and what she must have been thinking as she prepared to leave Italy forever back in 1915. It was a different world then and she never had the opportunity to travel and know her chosen destination as I did.  But even though she had never been there, she was the one who initiated the move to America.  My grandfather didn’t want to go. For him, moving from Farnese, where he was born, to my grandmother’s home town of Piansano, a distance of 11 miles/17 kilometers, was just about all the moving he had ever planned to do in his lifetime.  
 Genoa, Full of Surprises
And yet he was the one who boarded that ship in Naples, he was the one who found a job, found the town they would live in, started a business and made a life for his family. Granted, my grandmother was a force to be reckoned with, much more ferocious than any problem he might face as a stranger in a strange land, but nonetheless it took a great deal of corraggio to do what he did. Did I have that courage? I wasn’t sure.

It was a side trip to Lerici, a small town on the Ligurian coast, that finally decided where I was going to live in Italy. There is really nothing special about Lerici, it’s like so many other pretty little towns in Liguria, the houses are painted in pastel colors, it has picturesque little streets, the sea is beautiful, the food is good. But something happened to me there that I can’t explain.
 Genoa's Seedier Side
My compagno and I stayed in an old renovated villa/hotel near the sea, and one afternoon as we were looking around we found the ballroom and snuck in. It was a beautiful room with exquisite floors typical of Genovese villas, a ceiling decorated with putti and clouds and garlands of flowers, the colors a bit faded but it didn’t matter. It was magical. As we waltzed around the empty room to the music in our heads, the magic of the moment took us back to days long ago when the villa was a lively place filled with music and song.  

 Later that night we went to the movies, sitting outdoors on rickety fold-up chairs in a small piazza with the rest of the townsfolk. We sat holding hands as we watched the film, batting away mosquitoes the best we could. At that point the decision had been made. I knew where I wanted to live when I moved to Italy. Liguria. 
 Genoa's Historic Center
I set my departure date: 12 May, 1990. I bought my ticket. I wasn’t going to Lerici, I was going to Genoa. It was the perfect choice, I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. It had everything I wanted, it was a fairly big city on the sea with a built-in international industry – shipping. I wasn’t going to let a small detail like never having been there hold me back. It hadn’t stopped my grandmother and grandfather; it wasn’t going to stop me either.

In my mind May was the perfect time to go. I was convinced I could pick up work teaching English over the summer which would give me enough time to find an apartment, study the situation, and see what I could do about earning a living. I decided that I wanted to live in the historic center of Genoa. I liked the idea that it is the largest historic center in Europe, a place Genovese have called home for over 2,000 years. At that point I had never seen an historic center in Italy that I didn’t like, and this one had the added fillip of Christopher Columbus having lived there too.   

Genoa, My New Hometown 
So I made a plan: after I was settled in my new apartment, I would concentrate on finding a job, maybe something in the shipping industry or maybe even start a small business. I had experience with start-ups, I had good marketing skills and I spoke Italian.  It was all good.  

I arrived in Milan the morning of the 13th of May, 1990.  It was one of those perfect days in May the kind you wish you could bottle and take home with you. I had two options to get to Genoa. I could go into Milan and then take the train, or I could take the Genoa shuttle bus that was parked right outside the airport terminal door and the driver would drop me at my hotel.
Genoa's Cathedral 
I don’t remember much about the bus ride, I probably slept most of the way.  I know when I arrived in Genoa it was close to mid-day.  I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to see my new ‘hometown’.  In an article I wrote for The Washington Post a few years later, I explained it this way:

In "The Innocents Abroad," Mark Twain describes the narrow streets of Genoa as  crooked as a corkscrew. "You go along these gloomy cracks and look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your head." Twain may have been looking up, but the first time I set foot in Genoa's old city, my eyes were riveted on the North African drug dealers, the "we've seen it all, honey" prostitutes leaning against dirty walls, and the grimy steel gates that protect the closed shops during the midday break.

The streets were deserted. In the distance a church bell rang. It was 1 o'clock. The cramped alleys were shrouded in shadows, the midday sun blocked by the tall stone buildings. With their morning grocery shopping done, neighborhood housewives were already home preparing lunch for their families. Retail shops and offices were closed, local merchants and clerks off somewhere eating. The only people left on the streets were the drug dealers, the prostitutes and me. I remember thinking I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.

24 October 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Eggplant Abruzzo Style

CHIAVARI, Italy - This eggplant recipe was classified on an Italian web site as a casalese specialty, but since I didn’t know who the Casalese were, I googled them. Much to my surprise it turns out the only casalesi I found was a clan of Casalesi in the province of Caserta, and they appear to be a cast of pretty rough characters. It was eminently clear that the Caserta Casalesi walk around saying things like ‘how you doin’’ and taking care of business and that they were not the casalesi I was looking for. I was looking the casalesi who hang around their kitchens cooking eggplants. Sorry guys, my mistake.
 Castelbordino, Abruzzo
So I tried the goodle search it again. Nothing. I found casolani in Casoli and calascini in Calascio, castellatesi in Castellalto, castellani in Castelli and just as I was about to give up, there it was, casalesi in Castelbordino, province of Chieti, in Abruzzo. If it’s the right place, and I’m sure that it is, Castelbordino is a small town of about 6,000 people that has been around for a long time. Actually make that a really long time as archealogists have found traces of civilization there that date back to the XI century BC.  It looks like a nice town, a pretty town, the kind of town where people really do hang around in their kitchens stuffing and cooking eggplants. The kind of town you’d want to live in.

It’s almost a miracle that anything, especially culinary traditions, survived in Abruzzo given the area’s turbulent history. Even if you start in the middle of their history when the Romans and the Goths battled it out during the Gothic War, pretty much whatever there was of value in Abruzzo, was destroyed. Then, when the German Lombards, the Normans and God only knows who else came along, all hell broke loose and actually, from that point on and centuries after, it was one war after another each one doing as much or more damage than the one before it.
Baby Eggplants Ready to Cook   
So I have to thank whoever it was that had the good sense to pass this recipe down through the generations because it’s very good. There was something about it that intrigued me, although I confess when it was cooking, and the once shiny and round eggplants were all wrinkled and kind of shriveled up, I was feeling a little less enthusiastic about it. But I kept going.

Like many home style Italian recipes there are no specific amounts given. How much of one thing or another you use depends on how much you are making. This is a recipe for experienced cooks, cooks who cook by ‘eye’, or as my friend Gary likes to say, ‘by the seat of their pants’, although I never did understand how the seat of your pants has anything to do with cooking. Doesn’t matter, I still love him and he is an amazing cook, so I guess it works. Here’s the recipe, with some of my observations added in. 

 These Look a Lot Better Than Mine

Stuffed Eggplants Casalesi (Abruzzo) Style
Cut off the stems. Scoop out the raw eggplants with a paring knife and carefully remove the interior flesh so as not to break or puncture the small eggplants. I found that a knife with a serrated edge worked best, especially on the little eggplants that I used.

Put the scooped out eggplant pulp in a colander and rinse it under running water to remove the seeds. This is actually a very good addition to the filling; you just need to chop it up into small bits. But if you use the very small eggplants like I did, there really isn’t a lot pulp, but I did use what I had. I rinsed out the eggplants after I cleaned them out though.

Make a filling using sausage meat, the insides of the eggplant, day-old breadcrumbs, eggs, chopped fresh tomato, grated cheese, chopped basil and parsely. Instead of that filling, I used sausage, the little bit of eggplant pulp I had, a chopped onion, a very little bit of very finely diced celery, anise seeds and an Italian roll that I chopped up into very small pieces. A food processer would have done a better job on the roll, but it was OK. And before I stuffed the eggplants I grated some Pecorino Romano over the filling and mixed it in.

 Fill the scooped out eggplants with the bread and sausage filling and sauté them in some olive oil until they are wrinkled.

 At this point you can make a simple tomato sauce using: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 garlic clove, 4 or 5 fresh tomatoes or 1 large can of tomatoes, fresh parsley and basil, salt and black pepper - simmer for 15 minutes. I used a small can of polpa di pomodoro, which is chopped up tomatoes, some tomato paste which I diluted using a little boullion (brodo), made from a boullion cube and a little fresh rosemary.

When the sauce had cooked long enough, I added the stuffed eggplants and cooked everything together for another half an hour on a low flame. It smelled delicious.

 Because I grew up in the States and like one dish meals, I boiled some pasta – pacheri to be precise – and put it with the the sauce and the eggplants. There are no photos of this because by then I was starving and so I took a vote as to whether I should just sit down and eat or take some photos, and taking photos lost. Buon appetito. 

p.s. it's probably best if you don't use big eggplants for this recipe, they would be difficult to handle, smallish eggplants would be best. The baby ones I used were ok, but I wouldn't use them again simply because they took forever to scoop out. 

Thanks go to casa-giardino.blogspot.it for the original recipe and the photo of the finished dish