CHIAVARI, Italy –When I lived in Milan, (Saronno actually) I lived in an apartment that had a balcony off of the kitchen. I grew herbs on that balcony because that side of the apartment faced east and got the early morning sun. The herb garden was made up of two rather large rosemary plants, two pots of marjoram, one each of sage, oregano, thyme and one large pot of Roman mentuccia, which is a mint like herb that grows wild in Lazio.
That plant, the Roman mentuccia, is one of the things that keeps me connected to my Italian roots. My Grandmother used to get bundles of it from her sister Mary in Italy. Of course that was back in the day when you could send stuff like that through the mail. Even now, just the smell of it takes me back to when I was five years old leaning with both elbows on the kitchen table watching my Grandmother cook.
What I loved most about my herb garden was being able to cut herbs when I needed them. The thyme plant had to be replaced several times, but the others all managed to survive year after year insuring my supply through the foggy grey winters Lombardy is known for.
The herb I use most, especially during the winter, is rosemary. I use it with all types of roasted or slow cooked meat as well as oven roasted potatoes. But one of the problems I had with rosemary is that when I used it in a dish that had to be cooked for a long time over slow heat, it would fall apart and the dish would be full of rosemary leaves. Then I learned about bruciolo. What bruciolo is, besides an ingenious idea, is a sprig of rosemary stuck into a clove of garlic.
I don’t know what the English translation is for bruciolo, there may not be one, I heard about it from Roberto Donna, a chef from Torino. He lives in Washington DC now where he owns a number of exclusive restaurants including Galileo on 21st. St. He has done well in America, winning a ton of culinary awards, including the coveted Restaurateur of the Year, the Chefs of American Award, and has been named One of the Best Ten Chefs in America and inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame. When he talks, I listen.
Here’s what he says about bruciolo in his cookbook “Cooking in Piedmont”. “I like to use bruciolo . . . because it gives a good fresh aroma of garlic and rosemary to the food without overpowering the dish.”
He recommends using a fresh sprig of rosemary, no more than 5 inches long, and blanching it in boiling water for 30 seconds. Blanching the rosemary keeps the leaves from falling off during cooking – the problem I always had before I learned this trick. You do have to take care to insert the rosemary into the garlic until it reaches the heart of the clove, otherwise it comes apart. Here’s how to use the bruciolo.
Place the bruciolo in the olive oil or butter before it gets hot. That way the garlic and rosemary will release their full aroma without searing or burning. When the garlic is golden brown in color, you can remove it from the pan, or leave it in if you want. By cooking the garlic and rosemary together you will be surprised by the flavor it leaves in the dish, good, sweet and not too strong.
It really works. I tell you, these Italians are just so clever!