26 November 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Happy Thanksgiving 2015

CHIAVARI, Italy - While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, the big celebration here in Italy this month is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception - aka the Immaculata on December 8th. Towns all over Italy, from north to south, will be celebrating with street fairs and processions. It's also the day that kick starts the holiday season.  The photo is of the Procession of the Immaculata in Torre del Greco (Naples).

I’m taking a few days off so I’ll see you all next week.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

22 November 2015

LIFE: The Coliseum of Rome

CHIAVARI, Italy – It was this photo of the police keeping an eye on Rome’s coliseum after the attacks on Paris that got me thinking about what ISIS has done to national and global treasures. 
Rome's Coliseum 
The footage of them destroying the 2,000 year-old Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, the Buddhas of Bamiyam in Afghanistan and so many others brought tears to my eyes. Treasures that have been preserved for centuries were heartlessly blown up, and turned into clouds of dust.   

The very thought of it happening to the coliseum is more than my heart can bear. Rome’s 2,000 year old coliseum is the greatest architectural and engineering strictures ever built. Like the Buddhas and the Arch of Triumph in Syria, it is one of the wonders of the world. 

In its prime between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators could be entertained by the performances that were held there. In that long ago world of the Roman Empire, it was used by the Caesars to celebrate their successes, their triumphs, and there were many for it was Rome that ruled the world. At that time the Roman Empire included most of Western Europe, including France and Spain, the Netherlands and England, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the whole of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco.

It took about seven or eight years to build the coliseum, and when it was completed the Romans celebrated with 100 days of games. There were gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles and dramas based on Classical mythology.

However, there was one spectacle that was never seen in Rome, and that was Christians being fed to the lions. While it may be a story the tour guides at Rome’s Coliseum like to tell, it is just a story recounted in Hollywood productions like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur. It never happened in real life. We know this because in the actual history of ancient Rome, there is not one word about it. Christians may have died in other arenas, but never in Rome.

There were three main types of games that entertained the ancient Romans, and they were presented like food menus are today, with a primo, secondo and desert. To get things moving, the primo was usually a spectacle of beast against beast.  Groups of wild animals that had not been fed for a while, would be set loose to hunt each other down.

The secondo, or second act, involved a hunter, or bestiaries as they were called, in a battle between man and beast. The men were usually armed with a shield and a spear, but sometimes they were just given a bow and arrows.

The hunters became famous for their daring deeds and had their own fan clubs. The Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, once wrote this about his favorite hunter, Meleager, “he killed a boar, then a bear and then a magnificent lion, and then, taking a long shot at a racing leopard, he killed him too.”  Meleager took first prize in the games that day.

But there was more to come – the gladiators -  the featured event of the program.  With trumpets blaring and drums rolling, the gladiators chosen for that day’s entertainment would take center stage. When they were all assembled they would parade around the stadium accompanied by the music of the trumpeters and drummers.

The British historian Michael Grant lists about a dozen major categories of gladiators. Mostly they were criminals, murders, robbers, arsonists, men convicted of treason, and prisoners of war that had not been sold as slaves.

Some of the gladiators were heavily armed with a large oblong shield to protect their bodies and a helmet with a visor to protect their heads. On one leg, they wore leather or metal protection and they carried a sword or lance for a weapon.

Other gladiators were lightly armed with a small shield, leather protection on both legs and a curved scimitar for a weapon. There was another, even less protected category that was equipped with a net for the left hand and a long three-pronged harpoon for the right. The idea was to catch the opponent in the net and then harpoon him. Sometimes a lasso was substituted for the net.

Then there were those who wore chainmail and fought on horseback like medieval knights, and those who fought from chariots, a trick they learned from the British In the reliefs, mosaics and paintings from Roman times we see gladiators fighting to the death. With shields raised, swords and daggers drawn, fishnets and harpoons ready to strike, most ended up dead or dying in the arena of the coliseum. 

That included female gladiators as well. At one gladiatorial show that was held during the 1st century to celebrate the Festival of Satturnalia, women, who had not been trained to use a sword did battle against groups of dwarfs, giving and receiving wounds and even dying.  Not every type of encounter was presented at every game, each program was designed for the occasion.

One account, written about the games for the inauguration of the Coliseum, says that 5,000 animals were slaughtered for that event alone. And an eyewitness to the games staged by the Emperor Trajan to celebrate the end of the Dacian wars in what is now modern Romania, wrote that about 11,000 wild and tame animals died during that spectacle. 

We look at the Coliseum today and wonder how such brutality was not just tolerated, but celebrated. And maybe that is the real purpose of preserving our past – to make us think about ourselves and what we tolerate and celebrate.  


19 November 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Stuffed Eggplants alla Abruzzese

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.
Castelbordino, Abruzzo
Much to my surprise 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 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.

So I tried the Google search  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.

These Egglplants are Too Big  
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 archeologists have found traces of a civilization there that dates back to the XI century BC.  It looks like a nice town, a pretty town, the kind of town where people really do hang out 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.

These Eggplants are Too Small
So we should thank whomever it was that had the good sense to pass this recipe down through the generations because it’s very good. There was something about this dish that intrigued me, although I confess when it was cooking, and the once little 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 had 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 Eggplants are Just Right

Stuffed Eggplants Casalesi (Abruzzo) Style

Cut the stems off of the eggplants. With a paring knife, carefully remove the interior flesh. You don’t want to break or puncture the skin of the small eggplants. I found that a knife with a serrated edge worked best, especially for the small eggplants that I used.

Put the scooped out eggplant pulp in a colander and rinse it under running water to remove the seeds. Chop or cut the pulp into small bits and set it aside to add to the filling. If you use  small eggplants like I did, there really isn’t a lot pulp, but it doesn’t matter. Just use what you have. After you have scooped all of the pulp out of the eggplant, rinse them under running water and put them cut side down on a kitchen towel to drain.

Make a filling using sausage meat, the pulp of the eggplant, day-old breadcrumbs, eggs, chopped fresh tomato, grated cheese, chopped basil and parsley. If you have another filling that you prefer, you can use that one instead.

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 okay. And before I stuffed the eggplants I grated some Pecorino Romano over the filling and mixed it in.

When all the eggplants are filled, 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 peeled tomatoes, fresh parsley and basil, salt and black pepper - simmer for 15 minutes. Again I used my own recipe that calls for a small can of polpa di pomodoro, which is chopped up peeled tomatoes, some tomato paste, which I diluted using a little broth (brodo), made from a bouillon cube and a little fresh rosemary.

When the sauce had cooked for about 10 or 15 minutes, 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 sauce and the eggplant. 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