Thursday, April 10, 2014

Recipes from Basilicata, Italy

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I was moaning about how hard it is to find recipes from big nations with well-known culinary traditions? In case you don't, the crux of my position on the matter is that the bigger the nation, the more recipes there are to choose from and the less certain you can be about authenticity. And so we arrive at a very fine example of what I was talking about: Italy. How many times have you eaten a completely American-born pasta recipe and been told "it's Italian?" Loads of times I'll bet. You probably didn't even notice.

Sooo ... How to separate those American "Italian" recipes from everything else? It's back to my old stand-by: regions. If you divide these culinarily-rich nations up into regions, it's much easier to find authentic ones. After all, lots of people might call the Alfredo-garlic-broccoli-fettuccini thing they invented in their kitchen "Italian," but no one's gonna call it "Basilicata-Italian."

So that's why we appear to be going backwards this week--because as I arrived at Italy I had to question my decision not to split it up into regions. I mean, I split Canada of all places into regions, why wouldn't I do Italy? So we are temporarily all the way back at the B's with Basilicata, Italy.

Matera, Basilicata, Italy. Photo by Luca Moglia.

Basilicata is a southern region of Italy. It's the instep of the boot, which will make sense to you if you can picture a map of Italy. It has two coastlines, high, rocky mountains and lousy soil, which means that it's not good for agriculture and was mostly poor for a very large part of it history. Some inhabitants, in fact, wondered at the point of sticking around and left when things got particularly bad in the 1900s. Today Basilicata has a small population of around 600,000 people, which makes it one of the most sparsely-populated regions in Italy.

That history of poverty has helped shape Basilicata's local cuisine, much of which is based on peasant traditions. In keeping with that theme, I chose a main dish that seemed very rustic, and here it is:

Pecora alla Materana (Sheep Stew with Pecorino and Salami) 
(from The Italian Taste)
  • 1 lb sheep meat*
  • 1 2/3 cup white vinegar
  • 1 2/3 cup water
  • 7 oz onions, finely-sliced
  • 7 oz firm, ripe tomatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 3/4 oz soppressata, chopped fine
  • 1 celery stalk, sliced
  • 1 hot chili pepper
  • 1 oz pecorino cheese, grated
  • 7 oz potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste
*"Sheep meat" probably refers to mutton. I have never actually seen mutton at Safeway, so I used lamb.

For an appetizer, I chose a dish that's a little more elegant:

Cavatelli Rucola e Olive (Cavatelli with Arugula and Olives)
(also from The Italian Taste)
  • 1 3/4 lb fresh cavatelli pasta
  • 3 1/2 oz pitted black olives (I used kalamatas)
  • 10 1/2 oz arugula
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 1/2 oz pecorino cheese, grated
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Chili pepper
  • Salt
Which meant of course that I had to also make this:

Cavatelli Pasta
(from Domestic Fits)  
  • 2 cups double-zero flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
And some bread:

Bread of Matera
(from Pasticciando con Magica Nana)  
  • 3 1/2 cups durum wheat semolina
  • 1 2/3 cup water
  • 1 1 /4  tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 3 /4 tsp salt
First do the bread, because it’s supposed to rise for ages. Start by dissolving the yeast in a little bit of water. Let stand until frothy.
Now sift the semolina with the salt and mix with the remaining water. Add the yeast mixture and knead (or use your bread machine) until you have a nice, smooth dough. Transfer to a lightly floured bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place for two hours.

Punch down and do some more kneading. Return to the bowl and repeat—cover with plastic wrap and let rise for another couple of hours. Transfer to a bread pan and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 45. Let cool slightly and then slice and serve.

Now make the fresh pasta. Here’s how:

Sift the flour with the semolina to make a little mountain, and then turn it into a volcano (which is what we do in my house because I have kids). Now pour in 1/4 cup of the water and add the salt. Starting with the inside rim of your volcano, gently knock some of the flour into the water with a fork. When the dough starts to come together, add another tablespoon of water and keep going until you have a smooth dough.

Now turn out on a lightly-floured surface knead for 10 minutes. I’ve read you can do this in a bread machine but my bread machine already had bread of Matera in it, so I had to knead it by hand like a chump. After your shoulders start to ache (mine ached at about 10 minutes--maybe you’re in better shape than me, if so you still get to stop at 10 minutes). Now cut the dough in half and wrap in plastic wrap. Let rest for an hour.

Cut each dough ball in half one more time and roll until you get a long rope about 1/2 inch thick. Cut each one of these ropes into pieces about 1/4 inch thick.

Place the dull side of a butter knife on the far edge of one of the pieces, then sort of roll it towards you, letting the dough curl around the knife. What you’re trying to do is make a shape that looks like a little hotdog bun.

Place each individually hand-crafted cavatelli on a lightly floured surface. When ready to prepare, boil in lightly salted water for three minutes or until the cavatelli floats to the surface. 

Meanwhile, start on the stew. First cut all the fat off the meat. Don’t skip this step, or your husband will moan about how he doesn’t like lamb and he thinks his food is booby-trapped. Now cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and transfer to a bowl with the white vinegar and some water. Let marinate for 30 minutes.

Saute the onions in the olive oil over low heat for about 30 minutes, adding a little bit of hot water as needed. You don’t want them to brown.

Take the meat out of the bowl and pat dry, then transfer to the pot with the onions. Brown the meat and then add the tomatoes, celery, salami and chili pepper. Cover with hot water and add a little salt. Put the lid on ajar and simmer over low heat for two hours, or until the meat is tender (you probably don’t need to cook as long for lamb as you would for mutton).

About 30 minutes before you’re ready to serve, add the potatoes. Sprinkle with grated pecorino and serve.

The appetizer is super-simple and fast once you’ve made the pasta, so do it about 30 minutes before you’re going to be ready to serve the stew.

First saute the olives, garlic and chili pepper in a little bit of olive oil. Add the arugula and let it wilt just a little bit, then toss with the cooked/drained pasta. Grate the pecorino over and serve.

I was disappointed in the pasta in the sense that I spent all that time hand-making each one of them and no one would touch them except me and Martin. I thought they were good, though I think I might have expected them to be better. I blame their imperfection on the fact that I did not use double-zero flour. I know, I know, someone’s gonna lecture me. I just didn’t want to spend the money, and I paid the price. My pasta was just too stodgy. It tasted great with the pecorino and olives though.

The stew went over about as well as I thought it was going to, which was not very well at all. The lamb was quite tender but it wasn’t enough to make my poor, long-suffering husband enjoy it. I tried to make him eat it for leftovers but instead he found a leftover piece of chicken schnitizel (from last week!) and ate that instead, so that’s about as much as he loved the lamb. I thought it was good, but it wasn’t really anything special.

The bread was very tasty. It had a nice color and it was very crusty, which is a good quality in a bread. It didn’t keep very well though and by the next day the leftovers were pretty stale. I ate them anyway.

I do feel like I’ve conquered the whole Italian food problem, starting with this entry, but I’ve got a long way to go before I cover the whole of Italy. I won’t be doing it all in consecutive weeks, of course, but stay tuned.

Next week: Jamaica!


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