Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Happy Christmas

I think our persimmon tree makes the perfect Christmas tree.

Tanti auguri e Buon 2013
Celia e Enzo at  Un Prosecchino.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Enzo's Pasta con la Genovese

Sunday morning the weather was horrendous. It poured and poured cats and dogs. We kept receiving warning telephone calls from The Protezione Civile, telling the population that the Serchio river had broken the banks in several points those in a flood area were advised to climb to the upper floors.
Lucca itself looked safe and it seems that the city walls held the water. 

So we needed something to cheer ourselves up so I decided to unearth an old recipe that I have not done for yonks, La Genovese, one of the pillars of Neapolitan cuisine. It is basically meat stewed in onions.Our pantry is always reasonably well stocked. We also have a very good greengrocer within seconds and we are very lucky to have a friend, Maria Assunta, who gives us a lot of fresh produce that she grows in her allotment. So we had all the ingredients.

I have on my bookcase a few books of Neapolitan cuisine in which they discuss also the origin of this ancient recipe. I have used the recipe that my grandmother and then my mother used to cook at least one Sunday a month.

My books speculate about the origins of Genovese. They seem to suggest that it came to the Kingdom of Naples with some Genoese merchants in the 14th century during the Aragon dynasty. But looking at any cookbook dealing with Genovese food one fails to find it. So the answer lies elsewhere. Shrewder investigators suggest that it came to Naples via Swiss mercenaries from Geneva and there is a point in this speculation as onions are widely used in Swiss cuisine while they’re not a main ingredient in Genoa’s. To make things more complicated a 13th century recipe book from the Neapolitan court was found in the National Archive in Paris and a similar recipe was recorded. Well apart from the academic speculations the reality is that it is a terribly good dish and not too complicated although some extra attention is required in the last few minutes of the preparation.

The sky was so heavy and dark that we needed to have the lights on. In this climate I started.

So these are the ingredients: 

500 grams (1 pound) lean beef in chunks
100 grams (4 oz) Pancetta cut in stripes or cubes (strikers of good bacon are a good replacement if you cannot find pancetta)
1 Kg (2 pounds) Onions
3 carrots
1 stalk celery
2 tbs olive oil
1 glass of white wine
Sea salt
A pinch of ground pepper
Grated parmisan or grana to sprinkle on top

Pasta 350 grams (12 oz)

Serves 4
Preparation time 20 minutes
Cooking time:  2hours 30 minutes

1. Chop the onions, the celery and the carrots to be ready for the next stage

2. Pour the oil in a good casserole saucepan and heat it lightly. Add the bacon and cook it for a couple of minutes. Now add the meat (do not brown it) and ground pepper and cover it with the onions, the carrots and the celery.

3. Turn the heat up for 10/15 minutes and you’ll see that the vegetables will slowly release their liquid. Now add half a glass of water.

4. Turn the flame down, put the lid on top making sure to leave a gap (my system is to put a wooden spoon between the saucepan and the lid) to allow part of the liquid to evaporate slowly and let it simmer for a couple of hours or until the meat looks tender. While simmering if the sauce becomes thick and tends to stick to the bottom add another half a glass of water.

Now the difficult bit:

5. Remove the lid, add a pinch of salt and turn heat up to remove the excess liquid if necessary. When the sauce tend to stick to the bottom (now be very careful as you do not want to burn it!) pour very slowly the white wine. When you see that it has evaporated add half a glass of water to make it smoother and after a minute turn the heat off. The sauce is ready and should look brown and creamy.

6. In the meantime you have cooked and drained the pasta ready to be mixed with the Genovese. Short pasta is best: penne or rigatoni.
Sprinkle with grated parmesan or grana cheese.

The appropriate shapes of pasta would be mezzani o ziti but they are not easy to find outside Naples. I remember that for some time I was in charge with breaking this long pasta pipes into shorter sections. “Enzo vieni a spezzare la pasta” (Enzo, came here to break the pasta) my mother used to say. My little hands were always aching at the end of the task since at least ten people would be fed on Sunday. I kept the job for a long time: my younger siblings were reluctant to replace me. This time I haven’t got ziti o mezzani in stock so I settled for penne lisce, which were unusually big.

A glass of medium bodied red or strong white, if you prefer, will help you to wash it down.

We had our Sunday lunch quite late, 2.30sh, while it was still pouring outside. At five we noticed that it had stopped so following coffee we went for a walk. We saw large paddles of water but the sky was clearing up and the sunset was red giving us hope that the worst was over.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lucca Comics 2012

It is that time of year again, when Lucca is invaded by strange creatures. In the Piazzas Harry Potter mingles happily with some creatures from outer space while Alice in wonderland steals a kiss from Jack Sparrow. Lucca seems to have perfected a contemporary form of carnival. The narrow streets may be packed but the good humour of this young crowd out to enjoy themselves gives this old city a burst of youthful enthusiasm.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Strange Objects in a Tuscan basement

When we moved into our country house in Tuscany we found the cellars full of things including some old farming equipment and some ancient tools made no doubt by an antediluvian owner.
One object we found particularly intriguing and for many months we couldn’t work out what its purpose was. Having the shape of a wood tanker but with a long long handle we even thought it had something to do with beer,  despite  there being a couple of good brewers in our area, this is mostly a wine culture and beer might have been an exotic drink a century ago for our villagers.

 Months later we had to start making some improvements at the house so our builder was invited to give us estimate of the costs. Idamo is more than a builder, he is also a kind of philosopher and loves local history and tradition. The strange mug immediately attracted his attention. He had not seen one for ages and he was sure that we didn’t know its rightful use so he had a little suppressed smile on his face when he asked us if we knew what was it for.
One can now imagine our silence. Well, he said, in the old days nothing was thrown away, really nothing. You have you beautiful technological septic tank  but it was not always like that. 

We went to a small cellar where he indicated to us the remains of an old hole.  In those years night pots were emptied there and the hole was covered with a wooden lid. One can imagine that over the weeks some kind of chemical transformation occurred. The result of this transformation would have been used as a fertiliser in the fields. The strange object was a kind of scoop to extract the human manure from the tank when it was ready. The patriarch of the family because of his experience, was in charge of the decision. Taken by the story I asked  ‘How did he know that the right moment had arrived?’. Idamo phlegmatically replied: “Very simple, he would dunk his little finger in the barrel, taste it and say: Oh it’s now ready”. 

We still don’t know the name of this useful tool so if anyone knows please let us know.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Percoche in Red Wine

with Enzo

This is a very hot summer and we haven’t seen rain for over three months.  Today in Lucca the temperature is 38 C (102 F) and the met people are forecasting that the temperature will increase further in the next few days. I need tons of water (possibly not at room temperature) but also something that quenches my thirst but with a little bit of substance.

In recent years I have seen around Tuscany a kind of peach, Percoca (plural percoche), which was very familiar to me when I was a boy in Naples. It is in fact only produced in that area. Unlike the common peach the percoca’s flesh is very firm and tends to adhere to the stone. But its main characteristic is that its intense flavour sublimates into a whiff that pervades the air especially at the peak of their season when the fruit arrives in the shops ripe from the tree.
In Naples people have found a way to trap this fragrance into a drink perfect for our hot days. This wonderful drink could be described as a sort of Neapolitan version of sangria.

What one needs is four or five percoche, a bottle of medium bodied red wine, and a fridge of course.
The percoche are cut in chunks, placed in a jug and covered with wine. Simple and one also have the most delicious pudding included.

4/5 percoche or good quality (I mean strong flavour and firm flesh) peaches
1 bottle of good medium bodied red wine 12 to 12.5% alcohol – I have used a good middle of the range Chianti

Cut the percoche in chunks, not too small but obviously not too big, let’s say, about 1 inch?

Place the percoche in a capable jug and pour red wine on them and make sure that they are all immersed.

Put the jug in the fridge to rest and chill for at least 3 hours.

While resting the wine will acquire the most wonderful flavour and the percoche will be even better as they’ve been marinating. It seems a beautiful fair exchange. Pour the red liquid and  the percoche will splash into your glass.
In my time in Naples my mother made large jugs of them to accompany our long family Sunday meals. Even now I hear that in my city when somebody come up with the idea everybody gets instantly very excited and good mood springs out.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Enzo's Insalata di Farro Estiva - Summer Farro Salad

Farro, or emmer, was an almost mythical grain for me until a few years ago. In my native region Campania in the South of Italy we don’t grow this cereal any more. I only knew of its existence through my primary school textbooks. The old story is that the Roman legions marched on farro and conquered the world on it. A couple of thousands years ago Farro (triticum dicoccum) was the most widely spread crop in the Mediterranean basin. It was replaced by wheat, which produces a much higher yield, for centuries only surviving in certain secluded areas for local consumption. Production is slowly expanding as farro becomes trendy because of its healthy  properties. It is high in fibre and protein and low in calories and fat.

Farro is often confused with its closest relative Spelt (triticum spelta). It can easily be cultivated organically because it does not need fertilisers as it can grow in very poor soil and is resistant to pests and even fungi.
I have used for this recipe farro grown in Garfagnana, an historical area in the province of Lucca. 

This summer salad recipe is a cold nourishing dish and not too heavy. Farro is obviously used in winter dishes as well, soups in particular, but it so torrid at the moment that I can’t even think of something like a steaming potage.

For the recipe, I have used Tuscan ‘Olive Nostrali’, “our local olives”. They are quite difficult to stone so I have shaved the soft part with a small knife. It takes a few minutes but it was worth the effort as they are full of flavour with a lovely bitter tang. Equally good are Gaeta’s olives, which are similar. If you cannot find them, get strong flavoured olives.

Mint. I have picked wild mint from the countryside. I cannot define it. It seems to be hybrid of spearmint and peppermint.

Our red onions are rather mild. I put just a couple of thin slices but if you have stronger onions you should reduce the amount unless you like a strong oniony taste but be careful not to overpower the other delicate flavours.

Farro comes as Farro sbramato (milled faro) or farro perlato (pearled Farro), which having had more external fibres removed can be cooked more quickly. For this recipe I have used Farro Perlato as it is more readily available.

Insalata di Farro Estiva - Summer Farro Salad
(Vegan Recipe)


(4 people)

250 gr. Farro
10 cherry tomatoes
30 olives – stoned
1 stalk celery
1 carrot
Red onion
Two tablespoons of Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh mint

1. Rinse the farro in a colander under fresh running water

2. Put the farro in a saucepan and fill  with water 4 times its volume at least

3. Put the saucepan on a stove and bring it to the boil then turn the flame down to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes (unless stated otherwise). Add a teaspoon of salt a few minutes before cooking is completed

4. Drain the Farro and let it cool

5. Finely chop the carrot and the celery. Cut the tomatoes in medium/small pieces

6. Stone the olives and chop them in smaller pieces

7. Thinly slice and  chop the onion.

8. Chop the fresh mint.

9. Put the Farro in a bowl or a pot. Break any lumps with a wooden spoon.

10. Now add all the chopped ingredients: carrot, celery, tomatoes, onion, olives and fresh mint

11. Add the olive oil and toss until all the ingredients are perfectly amalgamated.

You may prefer it with more olive oil and more salt. It’s up to you.
This salad needs to repose for a couple of hours so all the flavours can develop.