Our first issues will take us on a tour through the different regions of Italy. I want to look at some of the history and culture that has influenced the cuisine of each one. I call it "Taste-Travel" (like time travel, only tastier).
We’ll start our tour along the northwest coast of Italy in the little crescent of Liguria.
While most of Italy boasts a long and rich history, Liguria may have the longest. Both Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon remains have been found there and the Ligures, an ancient Indo-European tribe, lived along its coast long before the Greeks conquered it. Over time, Liguria was also ruled by the Romans, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks and Normans, just to name a few. Who can blame them? I’d like to own a piece of the Italian Riviera too, if I could. But despite thousands of years of invasions and the rise and fall of many empires, the fiercely independent Ligurian people have managed to hold fast to many of their old traditions and to their own language. Even today, Zeneize (“Genovese”), an ancient Gallo Roman language, is still spoken in Genoa.
Genoa is Liguria’s capital city. It has been in use as a port since the time of the Etruscans. In the 11th century it became a wealthy and powerful city state in its own right. Ships sailed from its harbor to fight in the Crusades and to trade with the then known world. Nearly 500 years later, Columbus set out from Genoa looking for a sea route to Japan. It is also from a rock in Genoa that General Giuseppe Garibaldi launched his "Expedition of the Thousand" in 1860 that led to the unification of Italy a year later. Garibaldi is so important in modern Italian history that they named a cookie after him (recipe to follow).
As you can see from the map, Liguria is a narrow strip along the Ligurian Sea. Its spectacular rocky coastline is interrupted by small coves and beaches of golden sand that attract thousands of visitors every year. Naturally, seafood figures prominently in the local cuisine but the jewel in Liguria’s culinary crown is pesto. Pesto, that intoxicating, heady gift of the gods, was invented in Liguria. Many claim that it is more delicious there, than anywhere else in the world. Maybe so, but the stuff I make from the basil in my garden runs a pretty close second.
Pesto can be used with almost any kind of pasta (or potatoes or vegetables or fish or chicken….) but the classic pairing for which Liguria is famous, is with trofie (TROH-fy-eh). Trofie is a short, round pasta shape with tapered ends. It is sometimes made with egg pasta dough but most often it is fashioned out of semolina flour and water. Trofie is, hands down, my favorite shape to make. Every time I watch the little curly ridges appear under my knife, I have to giggle. It’s like magic! Then the fragrant pesto nestles in those ridges, my mouth opens wide to receive the first fork-full, and I’m in heaven.
Dried trofie pasta can be found in some Italian specialty shops, but if you really want the full pleasure of this dish, make fresh trofie yourself. In the Semolina Pasta Class August 24th, we will be learning to make trofie and many other semolina shapes from scratch. Come join us!
I am eager to hear your stories too. If you have a connection to Liguria, whether it's ancestral or you've traveled there, (taste travel counts!), feel free to share recipes, pictures, comments, questions, etc. I love hearing from you!!
Stay tuned for our next edition featuring yummies from Piedmont.
With great love of great food, from my kitchen to yours,
The word “pesto” comes from “pesta” a word in the Genoese dialect meaning to pound or crush and traditionally it is made by pounding the ingredients together using a stone mortar and pestle. That is my favorite way of making it because the crushing and pounding of the basil releases more of the fragrant oils. And because it’s just so much fun to let those incredible aromas fill my senses as I stand over the stone bowl. But even without a stone mortar, an excellent pesto can also be made using a blender or food processor--or even just a knife!
One of the problems with homemade pesto is the tendency of basil to darken as soon as it is cut or crushed. Freshly made pesto will turn black if not covered immediately with a layer of more olive oil and even with that, it should be used right away. A non-traditional approach to that problem is to blanch the basil in boiling water for just a second to set the color and then plunge it into an ice water bath to stop the cooking. This way it keeps its bright green color even when stored for a couple of days. It does, however, lose just a little of its pungency. I encourage you to try it with both raw and blanched leaves to see which you like best. The technique is the same either way.
And the finally, your pesto will only be as good as the ingredients you put into it. Use the freshest basil and garlic you can find and good, extra virgin olive oil. Spring for real, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and grate it just before adding. Trust me, it makes a difference!
Makes enough for about 6 servings
2 cups of fresh basil leaves, removed from stems
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts*, lightly toasted
2 cloves very fresh garlic (don’t use garlic that has begun to sprout, it’s too strong)
scant 1 teaspoon sea salt
⅔ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
⅓ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
4 tablespoons softened butter
*While pine nuts are traditional, delicious pesto can be made using walnuts, pistachios, almonds or hazelnuts.
To blanch the basil, put a bowl of ice water on the counter right next to a pot of boiling water on the stove.
Put the basil leaves into a wire mesh strainer and plunge them into the boiling water for 1 second, just until bright green, then remove them immediately to the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
Lay the leaves out on a towel to dry.
Into the bowl of a stone mortar, place the basil leaves, raw or blanched, coarse salt, garlic and toasted nuts. Pound to a paste. Alternately, these ingredients can be pulverized in a food processor or blender or simply chopped very finely with a good kitchen knife.
Gradually add the olive oil until a thick emulsion is formed.
Stir in the cheeses.
Finally, beat in the softened butter.
If using raw basil leaves, cover the top of the pesto with a layer of olive oil to keep the pesto from discoloring.
When ready to serve, save some of the pasta cooking water to and add a few tablespoons to the pesto to thin it out a little before dressing the pasta.
It’s hard to think of anything that isn’t better with a little pesto added to it. In summer, when basil is plentiful, I often make up a large batch and freeze it in ice cube trays and then store the pesto cubes in freezer bags. That little nugget of pesto is a delightful finishing touch to winter soups and vegetables when the garden is covered in snow!
FOR THE DOUGH
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
grated zest of 1 lemon
FOR THE FILLING
2 eggs beaten
4 cups raisins
FOR THE CARAMEL GLAZE
½ cup sugar
¼ cup water plus additional for thinning
1 tablespoon corn syrup
MAKING THE DOUGH
In a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of a food processor) cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse meal.
By hand stir in the egg, vanilla and lemon peel and knead it very briefly (and gently!) just until the dough comes together.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.
Cut a piece of parchment to fit an 11 X 17 cookie sheet
On a floured pastry cloth or a silicone mat, roll the dough out to an 11 X 17 inch rectangle. A floured rolling pin cover will make this a lot easier.
Brush the surface of the dough with the beaten egg.
Scatter the raisins over ½ of the dough and, lifting the cloth, fold the other half of the dough over top of the filling.
Gently roll/pat the dough out again to an 11 X 17 inch rectangle. I find this easier to do directly in the parchment lined pan. If the dough gets too soft to handle, put it back in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to cool.
Brush the surface of the dough with the beaten egg.
Stir the sugar, ¼ cup water and corn syrup in a small heavy saucepan until the sugar is dissolved.
Clean the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to remove any stray crystals of sugar.
Cook over medium heat without stirring until the bubbles thicken and the mixture begins to caramelize.
Lower the heat and cook to a rich caramel color, about 320 degrees on a candy thermometer. Still no stirring!
Remove from heat and swirl the caramel in the pan for a few seconds to mix and cool it slightly.
Using a clean wooden spoon, stir constantly while carefully adding additional water, a tablespoon at a time, until the caramel is thin enough to be spread.
Slowly drizzle the caramel over the top of the dough
CUTTING AND BAKING
Refrigerate for 30 minutes until the dough is firm enough to cut cleanly.
Cut into 1 X 1 ½ inch bars in the pan.
Bake in a 350 degree oven, still in the pan, for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool in the pan
Yes, this is a long recipe but honestly, it takes longer to write it out than it does to make them. Some cooks skip the caramel and just paint the top of the dough with egg and sprinkle it with sugar. Good both ways.