When we were kids we spent the summer at our house on the beach at the Jersey Shore. As a teenager I worked at the fishing pier in front of our house. I was up before six. My first job was to portion out the big box of blood worms, used as bait for the bluefish, into dozen containers. While I was sorting the worms the ice man came by with his solid block and his buckets of crushed ice for the coolers. While the ice man was on the pier, my younger brothers would be down below the pier ramp in the street collecting the chunks of ice that had flown from his crusher. Those big ice chunks would go into our iced tea that evening at dinner. I don’t know why, but I never brought home any fish from the pier. For dinner fish we would go to Cold Spring Harbor. We would meet the fishing boats when they came in. Porgies and weakies were the standard catch. Sometimes they gave us blowfish. My aunt would take the blowfish, cut off their tails and fry them up. These days you hear about adventurous Japanese chefs who know how to serve the deadly poisonous blowfish. We never knew blowfish were poisonous. Blowfish tails were a common feature at the summer table. And the old folks knew how to cook them.
There was also whiting served as a salad, conch salad and all kinds of broiled and fried fish to say nothing of the clams, mussels and crabs. While we had all these dishes, especially on Fridays, I don’t remember ever having any kind of fish stew. My first fish stew was not even in America, it was when I was a student in France. My first fish stew was the queen of all fish stews, bouillabaisse, served in the docks of Marseille. I’ll never forget the shock to my lips and tongue. My mouth had never experienced anything so gelatinous and so intensely riddled with garlic. To this day I can still bring the feel and smell back to my mouth and nose. At that time and at my age, with no experience in such complex flavors I cannot say that the initial experience was a pleasure. Even so, I kept working on developing a taste for it.
Many years later, back home, I began working on bouillabaisse. I went through every version from Julia Child to Gourmet Magazine. The arrival of the internet offered countless examples. Not one of them even remotely resembled my experience on the docks of Marseille. For one thing, we do not have the gelatin loaded Mediterranean fish that are the distinctive elements of bouillabaisse. Somewhere in my explorations, I gave up on bouillabaisse as such and turned my attention to more open fish stews. One of the results is here on The Food Table under http://www.thefoodtable.com/zuppa-di-pesce.html
But I have not stopped looking for more ideas for fish stew, even after my recipe for Zuppa di Pesce. I continue looking and making and tasting. Clifford Wright’s exceptional “Mediterranean Feast” devotes enticing pages of recipes for fish stews. Ana Patuleia Ortins “Portuguese Homestyle Cooking” seduces the culinary imagination. The fascinating layering technique of her “Caldeirada com Mariscos” (Fish Stew with Shellfish) is the foundation of my version here. I rounded her recipe by extensive research on Google Portugal. Google.PT offers recipe after recipe: so many of them golden creations enhanced by Iberian saffron. While I stayed with Ortins’ technique which seemed too wonderful to ignore, the final voice in my stew is the fish guy at the local H-Mart Korean grocery store. I told him that I was making a stew and asked him to select the fish. I trust this man in his understanding of fish. (I’ve even had sea squirt at his suggestion.) For my stew he proposed monk fish, white bass and porgy. “They’re cheap,” he said. Other fish, he noted, “too expensive for stew.” When I balked a bit on the porgy, “too many small bones,” I whined. The bones he insisted were essential to the flavor of the stew. He gutted one of each. The fish he have me were less than $4 each. To the fish I added shrimp, clams and a few oysters. Now, I know the fish guy at H-Mart would have objected, but I did peel and dehead the shrimp. After many a dinner along Washington Avenue I have learned that Asians eat the whole thing. I am sure my version of a Portuguese caldeirada is a pale shade of the real thing. Even so, the technique of the arrangement in the kettle is surpassed only by the beauty of the fish when the lid is raised. The broth that derives from the single cup of white wine and the natural waters of the fish and shells is a liquid ambrosia. I must say, that while a fork and spoon may be on the table, I eat this stew with my fingers around a slice of Italian bread.
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This recipe does not derive from memory or from tradition. It’s simply a response to my day travel
yesterday to New Jersey, a reply to the resultant of that venture: my kitchen counter now overloaded with Jersey eggplant, squash, onions, tomatoes, peppers, melons, peaches and corn. The corn took care of itself immediately. The peaches were destined to jam, cobblers, tartes and freezing for winter resurrection. The peppers belonged to peperonata. Ciambotta
would be the destiny of most of the tomatoes and eggplants and squash. But I had even more than the ciambotta needed. What, I wondered could I do differently with the extras? My first inclination was to use them for a pizza. But pizza would certainly not be different. Then, suddenly something struck me. Instead of a pizza why not try something more like an Easter ricotta pie? a pie with a true pie crust, a pie with a ricotta base with successive layers of onion, eggplant, tomato and squash.
With this idea in mind I first investigated online to see what I could find about such a recipe. It would seem to me that such a pie must have occurred to others. As I learned, it did. For the most part I found variations on eggplant and ricotta pizza. I also found a few recipes for actual pies made with eggplant and ricotta. These few pie recipes had the same ingredients but not carried out in the same way. Google Italy had one version, a crostata, in which the eggplant and squash were diced and mixed into the cheese. All in all, I didn’t find anything exactly like the pie I had in mind.
The foundation of a pie is its crust. My next question was the type of crust to use. For ultimate ease I suppose I could have gone with a store bought crust, but I wanted something more substantial. The crust best suited to ricotta pies is a “pasta frolla,” but this special crust would bring too many Easter memories to the taste of the pie I was looking for. We’re in summer. Summer needs its own taste. A quiche crust seemed that it might work but I worried that it might be too delicate for the ricotta. I spent hours going through cookbook after cookbook. I finally found what I was looking for, a “pâte brisé.” The recipe I like the best is in the Flammarion, French Cooking
. You can make this crust without all the usual fuss about cold butter and ice-water. Just keep the dough loose and let the butter buttons show throughout the flour. This dough is chilled and then shaped in the pie mold by pressing it out with your fingers. The crust bakes alone at 400 for about ten minutes. It cools and then you add the filling.
My plan was all in place. The assembly is time consuming but the end result is worth every minute. Along with the farm fresh summer vegetables the essential ingredient is a quality ricotta. Standard store brand varieties are mostly water. Where I live I have the benefit of Carlino’s Italian Foods
where they make the most dense ricotta impastata. If you cannot find a locally made ricotta, try to find a very high quality cheese. The rich savory ricotta enhanced with the taste of crushed garlic, the sweetness of the fried onions, the succulent creaminess of broiled eggplant and squash and the summer perfect delight of the lush tomato all aligned so as merge their tastes while maintaining individual flavor. I serve this pie at room temperature with a sprig of fresh basil on the side as a fragrant enhancement.
Today we have to head for the shore. It’s my nephew’s birthday. Everyone who is free will meet at grand mom’s house for his birthday dinner. The problem is that it’s a Saturday, not the best day to drive to South Jersey. To make the best of it, the boys and I will divert the monotony of the traffic by visiting some of my favorite farm stands along the way. Most important, corn and peaches are ripe and ready. The dogs know when we’re off for a visit. As soon as they see me pull out my suitcase they dance around it on the bed with yelps of excitement. They know where they are going. Down and out we go the car. Felix and Oscar, Finley and Franklin hop into their seats. We’ll use the Barry Bridge and then follow 322 to Mullica Hill. The road is home to a number of very good farm stands but I have a few favorites.
Our first stop is Ever-Fresh Produce in Swedesboro. They specialize in Italian produce. Ever-Fresh is on the right hand side of the road headed East. It’s a small something of a shack and it’s almost hidden by the trees around it. You have to be attentive and careful as you turn in. The stalls are surrounded by eager buyers. Tractors and carts are bringing corn in directly from the fields. The workers are coming in for their lunch. At the site of the variety my head begins to race with ideas. There are several varieties of peppers, tomatoes of all kinds are in boxes and bins and baskets. Huge cantaloupes and watermelons form summer sweet walls along the back stalls. Eggplants, onions and potatoes suggest July favorite recipes. I can smell the peperonata
and taste the ciambotta. Moussaka
will soon be on the table with lightly salted melon for dessert. Of course, I can’t forget the corn. Nothing is sweeter than corn as soon as it is picked and these are still in their field sacks. It takes two trips to the car to load my finds.
It takes a few minutes wait for a break in the never ending line of Saturday traffic. While I’m waiting a see a sign in an adjacent field: “Future site of Shopping Area.” The loss of this rich farm land with its produce so close to Philadelphia would be an irretrievable loss. I don’t understand why this area so abundant in fruits and vegetables does not fall under New Jersey’s “Protected Farm Land.”
The traffic line parts and we’re back on the road. The traffic is a bit slow but at least its moving and we’re not in a hurry. 322 makes a sharp right into Mullica Hill. Even though it almost immediately makes another left we stay on the main street of the town. Mullica Hill is on the small side but the main street has several nice Victorians, a fair share of touristy antique shops and at least one nice café with outdoor seating. The Friends Meeting with its colonial grave yard sits upon a small rise. We drive as far as n extensive public park. Usually such parks are good places for the boys to have a run and a sniff but this time there is a big sign with red letters: “No Pets.” Sorry guys.
At the park we turn around and rejoin 322 East. Peach orchards line the road. I keep wondering what will happen when all this is concrete and asphalt. Then, there it is, set back off the road, a somewhat rusty looking loading dock and depot with a faded cloth sign, “Peaches.” We pull up on the bumpy drive to the loading area. A teenager is shuffling crates of produce. “How much is a full box?” I ask. “$20.” “Hand me down one,” I say. The box is heavy. It is loaded and fragrant with peaches.
The peaches weighed 60 pounds - for $20 http://road-venture.com/2012/07/23/jersey-peaches/
The catch will into several uses. My mother will turn half of them in jars of peach preserve that will take bake to summer in the middle of winter. I will peel and slice a large batch and preserve them in the freezer to be the stuff of January pies. And a portion will do to tonight’s dinner as a peach cobbler. What is left over is just for eating as they are. We’ve accomplished our two major goals for the day. The traffic is still heavy. A short way down from the peach depot is a winery. This is a good place to stop for a little snack. There is a pleasant outdoor seating area. Wine tasting is available if that’s your pleasure on a summer afternoon. If this were a mid-week road-venture we would have the time. Mullica Hill, New Jersey, is only about an hour drive. But we have miles to go and traffic ahead so we move along. There’s a birthday party this evening. Visit http://www.road-venture.com/
for this and other day trips.
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Under the influence of such writers as Michael Pollan I have given a good but of thought on using the whole animal. With the benefits of true butchers that you can find on 9th Street in Philadelphia and the proximity of farms with naturally raised animals such things as sweetbreads and pig’s feet are accessible. My visit today to Bobolink Farm in Milford, NJ offered several pork products including pig’s feet and their own scrapple. Is there anything from the pig that us not useful? Even their hair becomes bristle brushes. The Italians say, “Del maiale non si butta via niente,” “of the pig nothing is cast away.” Of course the Pennsylvania Dutch note that scrapple is “everything in the pig but the squeal.”
I have been experimenting with pig’s feet in all kinds of variations. None of them ever seemed to render a dish that was worth the prep time or the actual process of eating the small amount of meat embedded in all those bones. Still, the memory of my Italian aunts at the table, their pudgy little fingers picking away at the pigs feet replays in my head. Unlike most other recipes in the kitchen, this is one I don’t recall seeing prepared. Perhaps because the prep-work itself is minimal. The time with pigs feet is the braising.
Researching pig’s feet on American Google and on Google Italy offered few ideas. Most of the recipes that I found, including a few Chinese ideas, called for boiling the trotters in water for several hours. Even a few Italian sites called for boiling in water. In some cases the pig’s feet went into two boils with the water from the first boil being discarded. Boiling the feet in water just didn’t seem right to me. I know of no Philadelphia Italian who would ever boil anything in plain water. The long cooking is essential, but not in water. I would do the feet in a very slow braise of red wine, carrots, onions and tomatoes. I also find on Google.it a few versions of pigs feet served with beans. Beans seemed a good addition. If I had used dry beans I would have put them in the braise from the start and let them go the whole time. I was using canned beans and so I put them in only at the last hour. I also thought it would be a good idea to brown the pig’s feet in a bit of olive oil before adding the wine. A very heavy Dutch oven or iron kettle is essential for this recipe. The prep is very quick and easy. The braising takes four hours in a very slow over of 250 degrees. The feet are velvety and soft. The sauce is creamy and sweet. The pig’s feet need a nice loaf of Italian bread. The dish also makes a wonderful ragu to accompany a hearty pasta.
In the old days, Friday was without question, a day where there was no meat in any meal, breakfast, lunch or dinner. On the calendar on the pantry wall, each Friday was noted by the image of a fish.
In my childhood to eat meat on a Friday was nothing less than a mortal sin and a matter of confession on Saturday. A bit of online research suggests that the gravity of meat eating varies from time to time and theologian to theologian. It seems that hair splitters even measured the gravity if sin according to the quantity of meat digested. According to some sources, the origin of prohibition of eating flesh meats goes back to the earliest Christian traditions. It would seem that to consume flesh and blood on the day that Jesus was crucified was something of an affront of his death. Other sources suggest any number of other origins. Whatever the historical foundations, for American Catholics, Friday meant no meat. This restriction prompted any number of compensating recipes from Friday pancake dinners to Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks to very traditional Italian American fare such as pasta fazool (pasta e fagioli)usually made with ditalini and cannellini beans, or pasta cheech (pasta e cecci) ,made with shells and cick pease. We never liked the dried chick peas so my mother substituted green peas. But there were also other Friday bean dishes, sometimes served as sides to the fish sticks.
For ease of presentation I have put three of these bean dishes together here. Two require string beans and the third takes lima beans. In winter you can use frozen beans. For my recipe today, I was lucky to find fresh string beans at this morning’s Farmers’ Market.
The lima beans I use are frozen. On this page the crushed tomatoes are cooked to the dish. Traditionally, the sauce would have been a left over and ready to go from a previous marinara.
Of course, no one observes meatless Friday anymore. But these recipes for bean dishes go well beyond Friday. My girls loved them as sides with veal or chicken cutlets where they make a perfect match. Beans with tomatoes or potatoes and onions are a rich a satisfying side dish. These recipes highlight the beauty of Italian American cooking where the simplest vegetable is enhanced and enriched by the addition of the simplest ingredients. For ease of description I set out three variations. Normally, there would only be one of these three. What I find curious is that I have never seen these been preparations in any restaurant, either in Italy or in the States. These are recipes that descend from tradition
Pasta Fazool: every time I hear that term, especially from a non-Italian it makes me cringe a bit. The words are often used as something of a joke, even, I must say, by Italian Americans. I will admit that the words themselves have a funny sound. “Zool” is indeed a funny syllable. It’s just that that one someone says “pasta fazool” I conjure that somewhat stereotypic image of an oversized Italian Giuseppe with a napkin tucked in his shirt collar shoveling spoonfuls of red sauce into his mustachioed mouth while Rosa his rotund, polka-dot aproned wife ladles even more into his bowl. There may even be an organ monkey hopping about on the adjacent sideboard. Italians.
There’s even a musical equivalent. Anyone of a certain age will quickly recall the Dean Martin song: “That’s Amore.” In the song the verse in question is “When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool.” In the lyrics, the word “drool” reads as the image of Giuseppe with napkin and spoon. The popularity of the song in its day only served to reinforce the stereotype. If you are of the generation that does not know this song either from tradition or from its most, recent presentation on the film “Moonstruck’” check out the Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aS6-b7CONDI
What few people know is that the popular name of this dish, “pasta fazool” is something of an Italian American corruption of the correct Italian“ pasta e faggioli” ( pasta eh fah-jo
-lee) which means “pasta and beans.” Here’s the conundrum. When I say “pasta e fagioli” as it should be said, I feel that I am being somewhat artificial and untrue to tradition. On the other hand, to say “pasta fazool” makes feel a little too, how shall I say it?, too “South Philly.” As a born and raised suburban boy, I’m not South Philly as such. But, by virtue of my aunts and uncles who stayed on in the city when the rest of the family made the great migration at the close of “The War,” South Philly is the home of many of most cherished kitchen memories. Like many of my generation, from all ethnicities, I live between two worlds. The trick is to take full benefit of the opportunities of the new world, without forgetting the traditions of the old.
The history of pasta e fagioli is close to timeless. Dishes that feature beans mixed with other starches go back to ancient times. Clifford A. Wright’s “A Mediterranean Feast,” offers a wonderful Venetian version called in Venetian dialect, “Pasta e Fasioi.” The Venetian recipe as Wright has it is made with a pork bone base. The addition of the pork bone unites the recipe in the family of many peasant dishes from the Italian feudal baronies to the plantations of the American south where the field workers got the remnants of the pig while the landowners ate “high on the hog,” in other words, on the better cuts. Today’s “pork and beans” shares in this lineage.
Yet, many recipes for pasta e fagioli do not start with a pork base. Traditionally, at least in America, pasta e fagioli was a meatless dinner. As such it was a Friday night standard that in years gone by obeyed the rule that forbad meat on Fridays. Vey often the pasta e fagioi meatless dinner was often accompanied by or even supplanted by Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks. http://www.mrspauls.com/crunchy-fish-sticks
. There is even a site that preserves a Mrs. Paul’s 1950style jingle, http://www.tvadsongs.com/Mrs_Pauls_-_Fish_Sticks.html
a jingle dedicated to “the busy woman.”
As with all traditional domestic recipes there are numerous variations. While most include tomatoes as the foundation there are those that do not. Some start with the base of carrots, onions and garlic while others exclude carrots. Celery is also often included. In short, I think, the traditional recipe used whatever was on hand to accompany the pasta and beans. One of the most interesting variations, and I find a good one, reserve half of the beans which are then smashed and returned to the pot to thicken the broth. In Italy, from what I have found on Google.it the beans are almost almost “barlotti,” a kind of fat cranberry bean. http://www.alice.tv/Blog/cucina-vegetariana/post/2010/10/11/Fagioli-borlotti-in-umido.aspx
In America, at least in the traditions I know, the beans are usually “cannellini.”
The type of pasta is also another consideration. In most recipes the pasta of choice is ditalini but on Italian sites I have seen a fair variety of pasta types to include even short flat noodles. Ditialini, I think are the best because they match in texture and size with the beans.
In the version I set out here I make the very untraditional addition of some Swiss chard. Why, because I had some on hand fresh from the farm. The addition of a chopped green such as Swiss chard or escarole does not significantly alter the texture of the pasta and beans but it certainly adds to its nutritional value. The important thing to remember is that if you are not going to use all the pasta e fagioli at one sitting, cook the pasta by itself and add it to the soup only as you need it.
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The idea for resurrecting a stuffed breast of veal came to me from my friend Chris. She, like me, is a second and third generation product of South Philadelphia’s Italian Americans. We’re always trading storied and recipes and almost always we lament the loss of cherished traditions among our children. Every conversation seems to end, “in our time everyone was together for Sunday dinner. You never imagined otherwise. These days our kids don’t even live in the same city.” During one of our laments over the old days Chris asked me abruptly, “Do you remember ponzet (pon –zette)?” While the word seemed familiar, I couldn’t quite place it. “Stuffed breast of veal!” she said. Then it all suddenly made sense to me. Stuffed veal breast: I hadn’t made that since my kids were little. That was over twenty years ago. Even the veal breast as I made it for them was only a vague recollection of what I had as a child.
No one makes stuffed veal breast anymore. Stuffed veal breast was the dinner of a large family with limited resources. The veal breast little more than the thin remains of meat along the ribs of the calf after all the good pieces were removed. Back in the day, that remaining breast was one of the most inexpensive cuts in the butcher shop. To make it something substantial, you would have the butcher slice a pocket between the bones and the thin layer of flesh. You would then make a stuffing from stale left over bread and anything else you might have. Stuffings might include cheeses or chopped salami; some versions had dried fruits or greens, others ground pork, still others nothing more than the bread and some onions and garlic. For the veal breast to be edible it needed to roast or braise for hours. Once done the stuffed breast of veal provided a most tender, savory and satisfying dinner. In more recent times the economic status of most Italian Americans has distanced them from such humble and time consuming fare.
Chris’ question set me on a quest to find a traditional panzetta. The first area of investigation was the index of every cookbook I own. Not one mentioned panzetta. Switching languages I tried looking up “stuffed veal breast.” Now here I found a few recipes but of a more contemporary feel where the veal was a lean strip that had been removed from the bone. Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry” cookbook offers an excellent example of this version.
The next step was to look online. As I researched the history of stuffed breast of veal on the American and the Italian Google, I found myself at numerous dead ends. First of all, what is the correct name of this dish? I started with Google Italy where I found nothing in text search and numerous images of people with fat stomachs: in Italian, “panza” means “belly.” On American Google I found pages of people with the last name “Panzetta” but little more.
The next plan was to Google “stuffed breast of veal.” This quest rendered a good number of finds, although nowhere near what you might find for other recipes. Out of these finds, I had to eliminate the more contemporary “off the bone” recipes that I had also found in cookbooks. You Tube also provided a Julia Child and Mary Anne Esposito recipe for stuffed veal breast. Yet, none of the sites I found mentioned the term “panzetta.”
Once again I turned to Google Italy. This time I tried the Italian equivalent, “petto di vitello imbotito.” The results of this search added to the confusion. What I found was that there were three names for the dish in Italy: “Petto di vitello imbotito,” “petto di vitello farcito,” and “petto di vitello ripieno.” All three mean roughly the same thing but none of them are quite what we know in America. And none of them even suggested the term “panzetta.” One site I found in Italian seemed to hold the key to my question. The site was a list for the Italian tourist. The list was a kind of advisory that noted and translated typical things the Italian traveler in America might find on a restaurant menu. Here’s what it said “Breast of veal with lemon rise stuffing - Petto di vitello ripieno di riso e limone.” http://www.viaggiare.it/IT/america/america_settentrionale/stati_uniti/cucina_stati_uniti.php
I would also note that the list was quite illuminating and included numerous other dishes that we consider Italian but that for an Italian traveler would require explanation. The answer now seemed obvious to me. “Panzetta” is a word and a recipe of Italian American origin. From those I know in the Philadelphia area the word is part of the vocabulary. I would wonder if it is also the word in other Italian American communities around the country.
With my initial question answered, I set off to find the veal. Out of curiosity, I checked the meat departments of several grocery stores in suburban Philadelphia. Needless to say they did not have veal breast. At one store the meat department never even heard of it. Actually, I knew even before checking with the local stores that there would be only one place I would find the veal breast: Di Angelo Brother’s on 9th Street. When I stopped in to the shop, Sonny, the butcher was a little surprised at my request. He noted that I was the fourth person to ask for veal breast that day. “Was there something on a cooking show?” he asked. He had no veal breast in the shop at the moment but I could order it for the next week. The wait was no problem. When I came back, Sonny had the veal waiting. I decided on the size and he made the all-important pocket. How the butcher makes this pocket is important. You don’t want the breast to be butterflied where the entire side is lifted up. The butcher should cut only a small opening and then by shimmying his knife along the surface of the breast create pocket the covers the entire interior surface. With the portion cut and the pocket made it was time to pay the bill. I can only say that breast of veal is no longer the poor man’s dinner.
The version that I set out here is what best I could recall combined with the recollections of others. As with all home foods, variations, particularly with the stuffing, are countless. Preparing the stuffing, the only thing you have to do, is easy and can be done in about twenty minutes. The cooking time, however, can be up to four hours. So, this is not a weekday dinner. If you want a special Sunday dinner, this is it.
I came upon this recipe when I was doing some family history research. My interest was the food that my paternal ancestors would have known. So, I went online to explore. My great-grandfather came from the area of Italy just below Naples called the “Cilento.” (Chee-LEN-toh). He arrived in America aboard the S.S. India on May 1st, 1885.
In recent years, I have gone back to the Cilento on several occasions. I wanted to see the home land of my paternal ancestry. I have to say, that each visit was a moment of realization. First was the wonder of its physical presence. The Cilento sits between mountain and sea. The views are stunning. Turn behind you and you see the hills, gaze off beyond the terraced houses and in the distance before you is the silver blue Mediterranean. When you drive he twisting roads through the valleys that link the many hill top towns it is not unusual to see mule or horse drawn plows. Most of the towns and villages of the Cilento are nestled on hilltops along the coast. From these elevated locations, the townsfolk could protect themselves from the pirate and Saracen raids that terrified the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire. The houses of the towns are nestled one against another. Many of them are no longer inhabited by the locals but have become vacation homes to city folk from Salerno, Naples and places north. But if you manage to see the interior of a non-modernized traditional home you will note that almost no house has an indoor fireplace and almost none have anything like an oven. Foods that required an oven were taken to the local baker for cooking. So, it must have been that daily recipes were ones that could be done in the simplest way.
Driving a car through these villages is not to be considered. The best you can do is to leave your car where you arrive. If you drive in with a rental that you picked up in Naples, it’s an easy guarantee that you will attract a great number of village folk who are astonished by your car. Town squares are little bigger than a basketball court. In the town square is usually a bar inhabited by old men. There is a church whose bell tower points the skyline upward. But there is little else.
Since it has been some time since my last visit, I thought I would Google the Cilento. You know, there are still those that dismiss the internet and also those that use it for mindless entertainment. But, when used productively, it is a wonder that the world has never before seen. When the men of the enlightenment created the first encyclopedia in the 1700’s, they envisioned making information available to all people. What would they have thought if they could have foreseen a worldwide connection that gives instant access to all kinds of information in many, many languages from all over the world with the touch of a button? So, when I Googled this regions of Italy, I found not only its history but a series of recipes: recipes that exist in our family to this day, but that I have never seen elsewhere. The two most striking were the green beans with tomato and the green beans with potatoes and onions. But there was also this recipe for a simple roast chicken. This is “Pollo Cilentano” (Chee-len-TAN-oh), a very simple one pot meal that is most satisfying and best enjoyed from Fall to Winter and early Spring.
Early Spring. Is it time to eat local? I don’t think so. Yes, there are dandelions in the lawn and my friend Emma still has Swiss chard in her garden. But, in all practical considerations, the only thing growing wildly in this part of the country is the grass. The spring rains and cool evenings push that grass up a foot at a time. The spring grass is green and dense and vibrant, but, unless you are a cow or a sheep, you can’t eat the grass.
Yes, it’s Spring. The dogwood and azalea are in flower. The rhododendrons are waiting their turn: slight purple lips show from the pointed buds. Even though the chill of winter has passed and the days are getting warmer, I still long for a good hearty soup: minestrone, minestrone with greens and beans and pork. At the same time I didn’t want winter hearty. I wanted spring time rich. In my head I wandered between Italian and Portuguese recipes. But there was no single recipe that came to mind. Then, slowly, recipes began to merge. Concepts replaced specifics. Where to begin? For the Spring, a beef stock was too heavy. The base would have to be chicken. With the chicken I could eat local. The Saturday farmer’s market has a stand that offers local pastured chickens. But chicken stock alone was not enough. It needed a slight extra push. What to add? Something Portuguese called out. My Spring chicken soup needed pork, a chorizo. The chorizo would round out the depth without crossing into the heavier realm of a winter beef stock. While any Portuguese linguisa, Spanish chorizo or Cajun boudin would do, in this recipe I’m using a Niman’s Ranch Kentucky Bourbon sausage. Niman’s ranch seems a good source of humanely raised meets. So, that was it. Chicken stock with cured sausage would be my soup base.
Now I needed the greens. The farmer’s market was of little help. It’s simply too early in this part of the country. For the greens I had to rely on the produce market. Their greens are surely not local, but at this time of year, there is little other choice. I have to say that I also derive some satisfaction from the produce market as opposed to a grocery store. The vegetables in the produce market, sold direct from their packing crates, seem a bit more real than what you find under automatic water sprayers at a chain store.They are also far less expensive. Here in Philadelphia we have least two sources.There is the colorful 9th Street market in the city: what some folks call the “Italian Market,” http://www.phillyitalianmarket.com/
,and in the suburbs there is the incomparably abundant “Gentile’s Produce.” http://www.gentileproduce.com/
Walking along the benches of vegetables and greens I hemmed and hawed over which to choose. The vision for my Spring chicken soup was still not clear. One thing was clear. The first question was which onion to use. Good soups always need some kind of onion. In Spring, Vidalia are appearing in the market. But a straight onion, even a sweet Vidalia, just didn’t speak to me. I looked long and hard at the scallions, which are also called Spring onions. The name certainly fit what I was looking for, but scallions belong more to the Asian kitchen. They were not what I was looking for. Then, my eyes fell on the leeks. Leeks are very much part of the Mediterranean kitchen. They are fragrant and rich. They add a sweet and savory flavor to any soup.
The next question was which of the leafy greens to use. The market offered row after row of greens. But which of them were truly Spring soup greens. Cabbage and broccoli just didn’t seem right. And other root vegetables such as turnips and rutabaga seemed to belong to a heavier winter soup. Still, there were carrots. Carrots add sweetness and they add color. Carrots would work in my Spring chicken soup. A bunch of carrots went into my basket. But, which would be my green greens? Swiss chard is always a good green to start with. Swiss chard is an excellent base. Swiss chard is substantive and tasty without the leathery bitterness of kale or collards. It can function alone as well as it does when used in combinations. One good sized bunch went into my basket. But Swiss chard is not necessarily a Spring green. What else might I use? Then my eye caught the spinach. No, the spinach was not local; but spinach is an early season green, a Spring green. Into my basket they went. Over in a corner a little cluster of Italian grandmother types were reaching and clutching and sorting in a bin of greens. I approached. These little round ladies in their blue print house coats were rummaging through leaves of dandelion leaves. Here was my other Spring green: dandelion greens. The dandelions joined my other selections in my basket. So, now, what did I have from the market? My basket held leeks, carrots, and Swiss chard, spinach and dandelion greens. Here were the fresh Spring greens I was looking for. These ingredients would certainly be sufficient for a simple soup, but I wanted something more, something with a deeper feel, something that would brace up the boiled greens. The soup needed two things. It needed beans as a kind of spine and it needed eggs as a kind of muscle. Back home, from my pantry came two cans of white cannellini beans; from the fridge came two eggs. Then too, I went back to the chicken that made the stock. I scraped off the meat from the thighs, shredded it and into the pot it went. What was missing? The Spring chicken soup needed nesting. I would serve it with toasted Italian bread and finish it with a poached egg and shaved cheese.