29 May 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Sweet Reds of Tropea

CHIAVARI, Italy - Calabria  is a rugged region in the most southern part of Italy, set between two seas, the  Tyrrhenian and Ionian, and the Appenine mountains. There are many delicious dishes that come out of Calabria, and one of the stars of the Calabrian cuisine is the red onion of Tropea, a town in the province of Vibo Valentia.
The Port of Tropea  

The red onions of Tropea are so sweet and crisp you can eat them raw in a simple tomato salad dressed with local olive oil. They are also incredibly delicious when cooked to a soft sweetness and put together with Calabria’s favorite pasta, which is called fileja.  Fileja is still made by hand in many Calabrian kitchens. It’s a time consuming process as each piece of dough must be wrapped around a wire, a ferretto in Calabrese dialect, to give the fileja its unusual shape. Most of the ferretti in use today have been handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, as it is the women who keep this tradition alive.
Hand Made Fileja  
My love affair with pasta and onions began a long time ago, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned that this fast and simple dish was a classic Calabrian recipe Calabrese grandmothers have been making for hundreds of years. Tropea onions are not always in the market, but this week they are.   

Locals in Tropea claim that these onions are so delicious that one of the town’s gelateria makes “cipolla di Tropea” gelato. I not entirely convinced onion gelato is a good idea, but I may be wrong. They also make squid ink gelato and gelato flavored with a spicy salami called nduja. Those flavors might be good but I think I’ll  pass up the gelato and stick with pasta and onions, thank you.
Red Onions of Tropea on Sale at the Market in Chiavari
Pasta with Red Onions of Tropea

180 g short pasta (such as rigatoni, penne , paccheri , fusilli and Calabrian fileja , etc.) (about 1 ½ cups of pasta, but you might want to increase that amount for heartier appetites)
400 g of onions (a little less than a pound)
1 clove of garlic 200 ml white wine (about a cup)
1 tablespoon of grated pecorino  
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper to taste

Peel the onions , cut them in half and then in half again in the other direction this time . Slice each piece into thin slices.
Stick a toothpick in whole clove of garlic. In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the onions and after a couple of seconds add the garlic and onions. Mix together gently.

The onions don’t take long to cook so this is a good time to put a pot of water on for the pasta. Salt the water, cover the pot and increase the heat.

Back to the onions. Cook them for a few minutes and then add a pinch of salt , a big pinch of black pepper and white wine. Stir well, cover and cook for about ten minutes. Check the onions now and again to make sure they do not dry out.  If all the liquid has evaporated, you can add a ladle of the cooking water from the pasta.  

After cooking the onions become soft . Taste them to see if they need more salt and then take out the   garlic clove . Combine the grated cheese and stir it into the onions. For a vegan pasta with red onions do not add the cheese, you can add chopped parsley if you like.
Add the pasta to the sauce.

Serve with a glass of white Calabrian wine and you have a feast fit for a king – or queen.

Suggestion: Try using whole wheat pasta for this recipe, it’s a good combination.

This recipe and photos (except for the photo taken at Chiavari market which is mine) were taken from: http://www.chiccacook.it/crudo-cotto/primi/pasta-con-cipolle-di-tropea/

25 May 2014

LIFE: American Military Cemeteries in Italy

CHIAVARI, Italy – This is Memorial Day weekend and just like the United States, America’s fallen heroes will be honored in Italy too. The only difference is that they will be honored by the very people they were liberating when they sacrificed their lives for the sake of their freedom. The ceremonies will take place at the two American military cemeteries in Italy, one in Anzio and the other in Florence.
 Sicily Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, Nettuno (Anzio), Italy
The idea of American military cemeteries started after World War I. Given the number of soldiers killed on all sides, the U.S. did not know what do to. How could they bring so  many bodies back to the United States? They also had to figure out a way to commemorate the reason these men died, as well as their sacrifice. So an idea was developed to establish cemeteries overseas, and let the soldiers become the monuments to their service.

Families of deceased World War I soldiers were given choices regarding the remains of their loved ones. They could choose to have them buried overseas in cemeteries with perpetual care, or returned to a national cemetery or family grave site, or have their loved ones remains shipped somewhere else in the world and be responsible for the funeral costs. About 20% of families chose the first option, overseas cemeteries.
Memorial Day Services, Camp Darby, Livorno, Italy
According to the American Battle Monuments Commission there are 24 cemeteries in foreign lands where nearly 125,000 service men and women are buried. The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial is one of them. It is in the outskirts of Florence, Italy,  next to an ancient Roman highway, the Via Cassia.

This cemetery holds 4,402 of our military dead. Some are the men and women who died in Italy during the last days of World War II, a fight that ended on May 2, 1945 when the last of the enemy troops were surrounded and captured in northern Italy. But most of them died in the fighting that took place after the liberation of Rome in June 1944. These dead Americans represent 39 percent of the total U.S. Fifth Army’s burials.
 Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, Florence, Italy
Ex-servicemen and women are drawn to this cemetery to honor those who have served and died in a cause they believed in. The band of brothers is more than just a line from a movie, it is the bond soldiers feel toward each other that only they truly understand. And even though their “brothers” are in a cemetery, those bonds are still strong.

At the Florence American Cemetery there also are over 1,400 names on marble slabs called “The Tablets of the Missing”.  Those stone markers have no names on them and are marked only with the sorrowful phrase “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God.” These are the unknown soldiers who have been buried with their comrades. Their families only know that they died, but not where they are buried.
 Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, Florence, Italy
The second American cemetery in Italy which honors the heroes of World War II is the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial. It is located in Nettuno, Italy, near Anzio in the province of Lazio.

The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial covers 77 acres. There are 7,861 American military war dead here, their graves form gentle arcs on the wide green lawns shaded by Roman pine trees. Most of these men died in the liberation of Sicily, which took place from July 10 to August 17, 1943, and in the landings at Salerno of September 9, 1943, and the heavy fighting during the landing at Anzio Beach, which started in January 22, 1944 and didn’t end until May of that same year.   

 Sicily Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, Nettuno (Anzio), Italy 
At the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, there is a wide central mall that leads to the Memorial. The names of the 3,085 whose bodies were never found, are engraved on the white marble walls of the chapel. The names of those whose bodies have since been recovered and identified are marked with rosettes. In the map room there is a bronze relief map and four fresco maps that show the military operations in Sicily and Italy. At each end of each section of the memorial there are carefully tended ornamental Italian gardens.

The American cemeteries in Italy are cared for by the very people that the men who are buried here liberated. These cemeteries hold the stories, great and small, of Americans who volunteered to march long miles with little sleep and in desperate conditions and in the end lost their lives. The sacrifices they, and their families, made are not forgotten by the Italians, and never will be.

22 May 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Back of the Box Codfish

CHIAVARI, Italy - Even before the idea for this blog was fully developed, I knew I wanted the Auntie Pasta page to be about food, but not necessarily about recipes. Since then I have included some recipes on this blog, and in going through my collection the other day, I found there were other recipes that I would like to share with you as well.

Where it all Began - Piansano, Italy
What got me thinking about recipes was a review of new cookbooks in the New York Times, including one cookbook that claims to teach you what your grandmother didn’t. Grandmothers seem to play an important part in the cooking lives of a lot of people, including me.

My Grandmother was a goddess in the kitchen. I can still taste her tripe in tomato sauce with that perfect  hint of nutmeg, her crisp roasted chicken with lemon and the roasted potatoes she served with it, the plump Roman artichokes stuffed garlic slivers and mintuccia from the old country and the list goes on. Yet I never saw her open a cookbook. In fact I don’t think there were any cookbooks in her house. She just seemed to know what to do. Like most women of her generation, she learned to cook when she was a kid by watching and doing what she was told.

As you can imagine, preparing food was serious business in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t a lot of it and there was no messing around in the kitchen. She carried that philosophy with her to the New World as a young bride and mother, and when she told me to watch the pot of simmering snails on the stove and make sure none of them escaped, you’d better believe my five year old eyes were glued to that pot lid.
 Culinary Training 101
By the time I was given the responsibility of guarding the snails, I had eaten, and helped prepare all types of greens, tripe and octopus, rabbit and venison, I had rolled meatballs, cut fresh pasta into strips of fettucine, chopped parsley and knew the difference between regular mint and the mintuccia that Aunt Mary sent from Italy. I was a cook in training, I just didn't know it.

Sometimes it was difficult not to start playing with the gooey mess that water and flour make before it becomes pasta dough, or pressing ground meat around my ten little fingers and playing an imaginary hamburger piano. Bit it didn't take much to keep me in line though; a look would usually do the trick. I guess that was the culinary discipline part of my training.

When I was a young bride I would often call my mother and ask her for recipes. She was not a patient person and her instructions were short and to the point. Sometimes I would get recipes from my aunts, scribbled on scraps of paper with vague proportions and approximate instructions. They were my mentors, and even though I was young and had a lot to learn, they treated me as an equal, cooks talking to another cook.
You Get a Little Bigger - You Do a Little More
Long before Gourmet Magazine and Food and Wine, before Julia Child made culinary history with her French Chef television series, and long, long before the advent of celebrity chefs, that is how we all learned to cook.

A certain amount of knowledge was always assumed and the key points of a dish were often all you needed, i.e. clean and boil the artichokes before you season them and then put them in the oven to bake. It was usually the small, but crucial, details that resulted in being able to eat what you have cooked rather than throw it away. My first solo flight into the wonderful world of artichokes was proof of that. Leaving out the "boil them first" part resulted in total disaster. But I learned.

 Easy Peasy Merluzzo ai Capperi
Now that I live in Italy I like to try the recipes I find on the back of boxes of pasta and packages of things I buy, but I’ve hesitated to include them in this blog because the instructions are often vague and the measurements not just approximate, but sometimes in code. But now I think I’m wrong about that. You are cooks and if we speak cook to cook, I think it will all work out. With that in mind, here is a Sicilian fish recipe that uses frozen codfish, but you can use any firm, white fish, fresh or frozen.

Defrost the fish. Chop a bunch of parsley and two garlic cloves. In a frying pan heat 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil and when it is barely hot, add half of the chopped parsley, garlic and the fish. Season with salt and pepper. When the fish filets have cooked on one side, turn them over. Add ½ glass of dry white wine and when it has evaporated add a can of chopped tomatoes.

 Codfish with Capers
Let the fish and tomatoes cook for about 15 minutes and then add the remaining parsley and garlic, a pinch of dried oregano and two teaspoons of capers. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. The recipe suggests serving the fish with mashed or boiled potatoes but I prefer serving it with white rice.
Three short suggestions: (1) use capers Don't leave them out; (2) use capers that have been preserved in brine, not in salt, and rinse them well; and (3) I found that if you fry a sliced onion in the olive oil before you add the parsley, garlic and fish, it gives the dish another (tasty) layer of flavor.

18 May 2014

LIFE: Ravenna's Treasures

CHIAVARI, Italy – You have to admit Ravenna isn’t exactly a household name, and chances are no one is going to swoon if you tell them you are going to Ravenna on your next trip to Italy. What you’ll probably hear is, “where’s that”. And if you tell them it’s on the Adriatic side of Italy, a couple of hours from Bologna, you’ll most likely get a grunt. If that.
 Life is Easy in Ravenna
But in that little city of about 135,000 you are going to find treasures, the likes of which you have never seen before. The treasures are in the form of mosaics, which may not sound like such a big deal but they are enough of a big deal to be on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 

There are lots of mosaics in Italy, most of them are beautiful, complicated and detailed and date from the 2nd century BC. The mosaics in Ravenna date from the fifth and sixth centuries and were created in that brief window of time when the city was the capital of the Roman Empire.
 Most of the Mosaics are Religious
Some of the mosaic art in Ravenna was already almost a thousand years old when Dante, that’s Dante Alegheri of The Divine Comedy fame, arrived here in 1318 after being expelled from Florence. He never left. His tomb is here if you care to visit it.

It’s a miracle the Ravenna mosaics have survived this long when you think about the disasters that have occurred since they were created. The most recent disasters were the World War II bombings by both American and British planes that flattened other buildings in Ravenna, but somehow the mosaics were spared.
Eglise di St. Vitale
The Ravenna mosaics are in churches and chapels and one mausoleum, so it’s no surprise that the subject matter is mostly religious. But it’s not the subject matter that interests visitors, it the color and form that those long ago artists were able to achieve. Some say the artisans were Greek, but truly no one knows who they were.  

The most important stop in Ravenna is the Basilica of St Vitale. The Basilica of St Vitale is not your standard 6th century rectangular church building, and the mosaics inside are beyond extraordinary. They tell the story of Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor along with saints and prophets and stories from both the old and new testaments. Even the non-mosaic trim on the columns and arches looks like the geometric patterns that showed up later in great mosques around the world.
The Baptism of Christ
The Arian Baptistry looks like a little outbuilding next to the larger Church of the Holy Spirit. The church lost its mosaics a long time ago, but in the baptistery you see a mosaic depiction of Christ being baptized by John the Baptist. Reaching out from the central scene are the 12 apostles, separated one from the other by date palms. Don’t be surprised if you see people laying flat on their backs, taking in the mosaic art one apostle at a time. It’s common here.

St. Apollinare is the patron saint of Ravenna, even though his church is in the town of Classes, about three miles away.  The story is he went to Classe to convert the locals, mostly merchants and sailors, and they built a church here to honor him. The most spectacular of all the mosaics in this church are the glittering mosaics of the presbytery, apse and triumphal arch which date from the 6th to the 12th century.  

 St. Apollinare in Classe
There are more mosaics to see, but you don’t have to see them all. Not that they are not worth seeing, they most certainly are, but so is the town. It’s compact, and just about everything worth visiting is a just a short walk from any part of town. You’ll notice most of the historic center is  pedestrian only so there will be a lot of people walking around town or riding bicycles. It’s a pretty laid back place, no one ever seems to be in a hurry, which is nice.  

And don’t forget you are in the province of Emilia Romagna, which according to Italians has the best food in Italy. Honest, they do say that. And it’s easy to understand why when you think of the towns in Emilia Romagna, towns like Parma, Modena and Bologna and their extraordinary local products and dishes. They make everything from Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, culatello, mortadella, tortellini, lasagna and so much more.

Ravenna is a treat for your eyes as well as your tummy, and it’s a great place to kick back and relax and do something a little out of the ordinary that will make your visit to Italy  just a little bit more special.