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
1 stalk celery
2 tbs olive oil
1 glass of white wine
A pinch of ground pepper
Grated parmisan or grana to sprinkle on top
Pasta 350 grams (12 oz)
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.