Fave e Pecorino

We’ve been nostalgic for Rome lately.  Perhaps its recent birthday has gotten us thinking about it.  Or, maybe it’s been on our minds because we’re planning a visit this July and are eager to see friends and family, and to return to some of our favorite places, like this one, or these.

When we miss Rome, we find ourselves returning to some of its best food.  Last week it was the classic Roman pasta dish, cacio e pepe.  Today it was saltimbocca alla romana, which we will write about on Due Spaghetti as soon as we can find veal scallopini that make the grade.  (Who knew that good veal would be so hard to come by?)

With May 1st right around the corner, we couldn’t help venturing out in search of another Roman springtime classic, fresh fava beans, to eat alongside Pecorino Romano cheese on May 1st.

In Italy, like in much of the rest of the world, May 1st is a holiday – International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day as it is called Stateside and elsewhere.  In Rome, tradition calls for a May 1st scampagnata (a picnic in the countryside) with friends, and fave e pecorino romano, with a glass of good wine, are always part of the day.

In many towns just outside of Rome, they celebrate the Sagra delle Fave e Pecorino.  A sagra is a town festival, often dedicated to a food that is native to the region, so it is fitting that several towns near Rome hold a sagra for fava beans and Pecorino.

It is the simplest of meals – just fresh fava beans, authentic Pecorino Romano cheese, and a glass of your favorite wine.  Many traditionalists call for red wine, but in our family it’s always been white.  Pop open the pod by running your finger along the seam that runs lengthwise up the bean, or break the pod and scoop the bean out from inside.  There’s no need to peel the bean – just pop it in your mouth, follow with a bite of Pecorino, and conclude with a sip of wine.  Buon primo maggio!


Cacio e pepe (Happy Birthday, Roma!)

April 21st was the 2,765th birthday of Rome!  According to legend, Romolo founded the city on April 21st of 753 B.C.  But to understand that story, we should really back up a few more years yet, to the almost tragic birth of Romolo e Remo, or Romulus and Remus.

The Tiber River and St. Peter's Basilica, image from it.m.wikipedia.org

Conceived by their mother Rhea, a Vestal Virgin,  and the God Mars, the twins were abandoned at birth, placed in a basket and floated down the Tiber river.  The river was in flood stage though, and their basket eventually washed to shore where a  she-wolf, (lupa) found them and nursed them to health.   Eventually the boys were adopted and raised by a shepherd and his wife.  Upon reaching adulthood, the boys decided to found a town at the same location where the lupa found and nursed them.  They argued, however, over which hill the new city should be build upon.  Romolo wanted the town built on the Palatine Hill, and Remo on the Aventine Hill.  In the quarrel that ensued, Romolo killed Remo, becoming the sole namesake of the city of Roma.

The Capitoline Wolf, a bronze statue of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus located in Rome's Capitoline Museums. Image from http://www.parodos.it

To commemorate Rome’s compleanno (birthday), we compiled some of the web’s best photos of the Eternal City, and prepared one of the most classic Roman pastas, Cacio e pepe.

Cacio e pepe is a classic of the cucina povera Romana.  The shepherds who herded sheep in the hills outside of Rome who would carry aged cheese made from sheep’s milk with them, because it was easy to transport and preserve, and sheep’s cheese is a staple of Roman cuisine.  Cacio e pepe is made from just three ingredients: the hard, sharp and salty sheep’s cheese Pecorino Romano, cracked black pepper, and spaghetti. Disregard recipes that call for blends of cheeses, olive oil, or other ingredients – that’s not the real thing.

Cacio e pepe is a fixture on the menu of Rome’s traditional osterie and trattorie, and a fantastic pasta to make on a whim.  Despite its simplicity, it requires the right technique to prepare it well.  In a well-executed cacio e pepe, the Pecorino will turn creamy and smooth, coating the spaghetti perfectly.

This post is also our entry to the 261st edition of Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by Simona of the delightful English/Italian food blog Briciole.  Be sure to stop by and take a look at the pasta entries from around the world!

Ingredients, for 4-6 people
1 package (450 or 500 grams) spaghetti
250 grams (approx 8 ounces or just over 2 cups) grated Pecorino Romano
Cracked black pepper
Sea salt, preferably coarse

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and toss an abundant handful of salt into it. Add the pasta, and cook until al dente according to the time specified on the package.  While the pasta is boiling, prepare your cheese and have your black pepper ready to grind.

Just before draining the pasta, remove several cups of the pasta water and set aside.  When the pasta is al dente, drain it and return it immediately to the hot pot it cooked it.  Add one ladle of the preserved cooking water and about 3/4 of the grated cheese, and toss together vigorously with two forks so that the cheese melts into a smooth sauce.  If it seems too dry, add a little more of the cooking water.  If it is too runny, add more cheese.   Grind black pepper abundantly over the pasta, toss again, and serve immediately with one more dusting of ground black pepper and a sprinkle of grated Pecorino.

Wine Pairing
A dish this Roman needs a wine from Castelli Romani, the hills just outside of Rome where shepherds still tend sheep and produce great sheep’s milk cheese.  One option is Fontana Candida Frascati, which we featured in another Roman pasta dish, la carbonara.  Or, if you prefer a red, we recommend Velletri Rosso Riserva Terre dei Volsci.  This wine reflects the simplicity and earthiness of the Castelli Romani, and it’s freshness and acidity stand up well to the strong flavor of Pecorino Romano in cacio e pepe.

Le foto di Roma

The Colosseum. Image from www.guideurope.eu

Castel Sant'Angelo and the Tiber River. Image from www.

Piazza Campo de' Fiori. Image from www.flickriver.com

St. Peter's Basilica rises above the rooftops of Rome. Image from www.news.immobiliare.it

Piazza Campidoglio, where we were married. Image from www.members.xoom.it

A Fiat 500 parked in Trastevere, one of the oldest parts of Rome. Image from www.it.m.wikipedia.org

Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square). Image from www.news.immobiliare.it

The splendid Pantheon. Image from it.wikipedia.org

La pastiera napoletana, an Italian Easter Tart

In his classic cookbook Made In Italy: Food and Stories, renowned Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli writes of the pastiera napoletana:

The combination of ingredients may seem strange, but they are associated with ancient Roman celebrations of the rite of spring: flowers, eggs for new life, ricotta from the sheep, wheat and flour from the land…One of the many legends associated with the dish involves a mermaid called Partenope. She lived in the Gulf of Napoli and to celebrate the arrival of spring each year she would come and sing to the inhabitants.  One year, to say thank you for her songs, they offered her local gifts: ricotta, flour, eggs, wheat, perfumed orange flowers and spices. She was so delighted she took them to her kingdom under the sea, where the gods mixed them together into a cake.  

More recent legend, according to Locatelli and others, attributes the origins of the pastiera to a Neapolitan nun who wanted to make a pie that symbolized the resurrection.  She added cooked wheat to fresh sheep’s milk, added eggs as a symbol of new life, and water aromatized with the fragrant orange blossoms from the trees growing in the convent’s gardens.

It’s said of the pastiera, “Non puo mancare sulla tavola di Pasqua” (It cannot be absent from Easter table), and all true Napoletani know to make it a few days in ahead of time so that the flavors develop and harmonize.  We prepared ours on Good Friday and let it rest until Easter Sunday.

Naples, (Napoli in Italian or Napule in local dialect) is a city known, among other things, for its rich and decadent pastries.  Eggs, ricotta and candied citrus peel are frequently found in the pasticceria napoletana, but cream-filled and liquor-laced pastries are equally common.  One of our favorite bloggers, Kathy from A Food Lover’s Odyssey, captured all of the delicious details in a post called Journey through the Pastries of Naples.

Napoli is also known, of course, for its pizza.  An authentic pizza is made with  San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, both from the Campania region of Italy where Naples is located.  The crust is a  made from a high protein flour and baked for 60 to 90 seconds at extremely high heat (485 °C, 905 °F) in a wood-burning stone fire.  The classic Pizza Margherita, with its red sauce, white mozzarella and green basil was made in Naples in 1890 as a tribute to the visiting Queen Margarita – the pizza’s colors inspired by the green, white and red of the Italian flag.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

Naples, without doubt, has an underbelly.  The city’s challenges with organized crime have been well-publicized in recent years: from the garbage crisis, to olive oil and mozzarella fraudulently labeled ‘Made in Italy, to its thriving black market.  Traffic is chaotic, some northern European and western visitors find the city dirty, and unsuspecting tourists are easy targets for pick-pockets and swindlers.

Despite all of this, Napoli exudes an undeniable charm and is well-worth a visit.  Its location, with Mount Vesuvius to its back, looking out over the Gulf of Naples, it is one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent cities.  With a population of over 4 million inhabitants in the broad Naples metropolitan area, it is the third largest city in Italy and one of its most historical.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

It’s narrow streets are vibrant with activity and energy.  Storefronts line ground floors of Renaissance and Baroque buildings, the vendors’ goods spilling out onto crates and stands lining the palazzo walls.  Drying laundry drape across clotheslines strung from  balcony to balcony, creating a colorful, pagent-like display.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

The cities residents seem to all be out on the streets at any given time, talking, laughing, and playfully arguing in the distinctive and sometimes undecipherable Neapolitan dialect.  Those who aren’t outdoors are just as likely to join in the cacophony on the street from their windows above.

Image from http://doveviaggi.corriere.it/dove-rcs/home/weekend/arte-e-cultura/2011/agosto/napoli-teatro.html

La pastiera napoletana
Our recipe was inspired by Giorgio Locatelli’s pastiera recipe in his cookbook Made in Italy: Food and Stories, as well as by a few other versions.  The pasteria begins with a crust of pasta frolla, which is found in several other Italian cakes and tarts, such as crostata and crostatine di frutta, and torta della nonna.

It calls for cooked wheat, an Italian specialty product. We happily found that it can be ordered online from Marchese Italian Market; purchase the product called Valgri’ Grano Cotto Pastiera Napoletana.  It also calls for candied citron, orange and/or lemon peel, which we found online through Barry Farms.  You will also need a tart pan with a 10-13 inch diameter and sides at least 2 inches high.  We found a lovely but inexpensive white porcelain one at Sur la Table.  A round cake pan or spring form pan will work, too.

for a 10-13 inch tart

For the pasta frolla
200 g (1 and 1/2 cup) flour
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
80 g (5 and 1/2 Tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 pouch of Pane Angeli lievito per i dolci, or 2 tsp. baking powder*
1 egg
Zest of 1 lemon

For the filling
300 grams (1 and 1/2 cup) grano cotto, or cooked wheat**
250 grams (1 cup) whole milk
250 grams fresh ricotta***
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated.  Preserve 2 of the 3 whites.
115 grams (1/2 cup) super-fine sugar
60 grams (1/3 cup) candied citron, lemon and orange peel****
Zest of one lemon
4 tsp. orange extract
Pinch of salt

*You can substitute pane degli angeli with 2 tsp. baking powder.  So many Italian baked goods call for pane degli angeli, however, that we do encourage you to pick up a package of it.

**You can prepare your own grano cotto by cooking wheat berries and then letting them cool in their own water.  You can also substitute pearl barley, cooked according to instructions.

*** Sheep’s milk ricotta is preferred.  Sadly, we are no longer able to find it locally, and we substituted with cow’s milk ricotta, which works just fine.  Make the effort to find fresh ricotta, not the supermarket tubs of ricotta.

****Candied citron, lemon and/or orange peel will work fine.  It can be left out if needed, but it is worth the effort to find it.  If you want to make your own, see fellow blogger Paola’s recipe here.

Prepare the pasta frolla by placing the flour onto a firm, smooth work surface.  Add the sugar and pane angeli or baking powder, and mix.  Gather the dry ingredients into a mound and form a well in the middle.  Add the egg, cubes of butter and lemon zest, and working quickly with your fingers, work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture.  Mix by hand until the dough forms a homogenous, smooth ball.  Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Place the grano cotto, milk and 15 grams (1 Tbsp) of the sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-low heat.  Set aside to cool.  In a separate bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks (set aside 2 of the 3 whites), the rest of the sugar, candied peel, lemon zest, orange extract and a pinch of salt.  When the grano cotto mixture is cool, stir it into the ricotta mixture.  Beat 2 of the 3 egg whites until stiff.  Fold the egg white mixture into the rest of the filling, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180° C, 355° F.  Brush your tart pan with melted butter.

Remove the pasta frolla from the refrigerator, and separate it into two pieces – one piece made up of about 2/3 of the dough, and the second piece made up of the remaining 1/3.  Sprinkle flour onto a smooth surface and roll out the larger piece of dough until it is big enough to fill the base and sides of your tart pan.  Line the tart pan with the rolled out dough, pressing it in so that it is equal thickness on the bottom and on the sides.  Trim any excess dough around the rim of the pan.  Roll out the second piece of dough and cut 6-8 strips for the tart’s lattice, using a pastry cutter to make a pretty fluted edge if you have one.

Pour the filling into the shell, and arrange the strips of dough in a lattice pattern across the top of the tart, taking care to seal the edges of the lattice with the crust.

Bake for 1 hour, and then turn the oven down to 120° C, 250° F and let it bake for 20 more minutes.  Turn the oven off, open the oven door a crack, and let the pastiera rest in the oven until cool.

Happy Easter!

Download a pdf of La pastiera napoletana

Risotto agli asparagi

We have our tickets back to Italy this summer!  After watching airline prices for months on end, we finally saw them drop to a reasonable price, and we quickly booked.

image from http://www.italyluxurytours.com/tours/piedmont.htm

After spending a few days in Rome to visit family and friends and to celebrate the 3rd birthday of our two adorable nephews, Flavio and Davide, we plan on heading north to the visit the Piedmont region of Italy.  Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, in the far northwestern part of Italy, Piedmont is home to the Nebbiolo grape, from which some of Italy’s most prestigious wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, are produced.

image from http://www.italyluxurytours.com/tours/piedmont.htm

Inspired by upcoming trip to northern Italy and to the arrival of spring and the seasonal vegetables that accompany it, today we prepared risotto agli asparagi, or asparagus risotto.  More heavily influenced by central and southern Italian cuisine, risotto is not a dish that we often make, and we don’t at all profess to be experts.  However, risotto is one of those dishes that has transcended its regional  origins and has become known across the world as a classic Italian dish.  Plus, it’s simply delicious, so we’ve tried our hand at it and love the results.

There are a few important keys to a good, authentic risotto.  First, use a short grain, plump rice such as arborio.  This rice has a high starch content, which is essential to a creamy risotto.  Second, toast your rice in olive oil, butter or both before adding liquid to it.  Third, be sure to heat your vegetable broth until boiling, and add it very gradually to your risotto while stirring continually.  The hot broth and stirring motion causes the rice to release its starch, which is what gives risotto its unique creaminess.

for 4 people

400 grams (approx. 2 cups) rice, preferably arborio
1 lb. (450 g) asparagus
1/2 of a medium onion, minced
1 qt (approx. 1 liter) vegetable broth
2 cups (250 ml) water
2 Tbsp. butter (approx. 30 g)
2 Tbsp. olive oil (approx. 30 ml)
1 cup (approx. 100 g) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Cut the bottom 1/3 off of the asparagus spears and cook them in salted boiling water for 10-12 minutes, until tender.  Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a wide saucepan over low heat.  Add the olive oil and the minced onions and sauté for 5 minutes, paying attention that they don’t brown.  Add the rice to the onions, and stir until all grains are coated in the oil and butter. Let the rice toast in the sauté for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cut the tips off of the cooked asparagus, and chop the spears into 1/4 inch (just over .5 cm) pieces.  Discard any tough parts of the spear, and add the tips and chopped asparagus to the rice and onion mixture.  Stir together.

In a separate saucepan, bring the vegetable broth and water to a boil.  Adjust the heat of the rice mixture to medium-low, and add the broth to the rice one ladle at a time, stirring well in between until the rice absorbs the liquid and the risotto assumes a creamy consistency.  Be patient; this process will take 30-40 minutes.  When the last of the liquid is absorbed, stir in the grated Parmigiano.  Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and serve immediately with a dusting of Parmigiano on top.

Download a pdf copy of Risotto agli asparagi

Wine Pairing
We recommend pairing risotto agli asparagi with a Vecchie Scuole Sauvignon Blanc from Fattori.  This wine from the Veneto region has a nice floral nose and delicate grassy flavor that recalls green vegetables and is especially suited to asparagus risotto.