An Autumn Harvest Menu: A Taste of Umbria on Cape Cod
“Umbria is a timeless land where people tell you Etruscans’ spirits are still sighted in their fields; where the rivers still run clear; where the food is unspoiled by modern trends; where wine flows in the fountains at harvest-time. It is at once serene and fierce in its beauty, it will make you love it and never forget it.”
— From Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy by Julia della Croce
Writers usually share their travel experiences after the fact. This time, I am writing about a trip I am going to take to Umbria, Italy in October. Although my journeys to Italy are usually to Bologna and surrounding areas where my grandparents were born, this time I’m taking a group to Umbria.
Umbria is situated in the center of Italy and is made up of just two provinces: Perugia (the capital), and Terni. It is the only region in Italy having neither a coastline nor a common border with another country. What it does have is the expansive Lake Trasimeno, with freshwater fish like trout that I am anxious to cook. We will be staying in a beautiful seventeenth-century villa, originally a working farmhouse, in the hillside town of Eggi, near Speleto.
One of the themes for this tour will be to introduce participants to a week of relishing the Italian lifestyle. It will be exciting to shop at the local open markets, return to the villa with an abundance of Umbria’s freshest ingredients and together cook up a feast. On another day, with the help of a guide, we will forge for the region’s famous black truffles and for mushrooms such as porcini.
We do not have truffles here on the Cape, but we do have mushrooms everywhere—one in particular is a version of the Boletus similar to the ones found in Italy. Usually after a full moon and a rainstorm, our woods are full of them. Just the other day, while biking on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, I spotted a group of mushrooms nestled together under an oak tree by the side of the trail. I stopped, grabbed my small pocketknife, and harvested about 15 of them. I took off my cap, filled it with the mushrooms, and strapped it to the back of the bike. That evening I savored my findings in a mushroom ragu with homemade pasta.
It will be a treat to visit Umbria during the fall harvest. While the Cape Cod fall harvest includes cranberries, eggplant, turnips, peppers, tomatoes and apples, the Umbrian harvest includes many of these as well as more exotic items. The clay-rich, fertile soil in the valleys, the hilly terrain and varying climates provide a perfect combination for growing Umbria’s bitter greens, olives, figs, grapes, chestnuts and grains like farro and the famous Castelluccio lentils. And let us not forget the prized black truffles.
Using these ingredients, I have developed a fall menu for the group to cook and share. But the same recipes can also be prepared here on Cape Cod, as Umbria’s cuisine tends to be basic, rustic and simple. Some of the recipes are adapted from my friend Julia della Croce’s book Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy.
To start the meal, serve roasted red peppers with anchovies and mint, and enjoy with Orvieto wine; when we speak of Umbrian wines, the light refreshing white Orvieto immediately comes to mind. The second course is a mushroom farro risotto, followed by a unique dish of sausage with black grapes served with sautéed broccoli rabe with potatoes. The third course is a mixed greens salad dressed with oil and lemon, salt and pepper. Keep it simple. End the meal with a recipe using figs on a pillow of Ricotta cheese drizzled with local honey.
Roasted Peppers with Anchovies, Mint and Lemon
Wild Mushroom Farro Risotto
Sausage with Black Grapes
Sautéed Broccoli Rabe with Potatoes
Green Garden Salad of your choice with a simple dressing of lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper
Ricotta Cheese and Fresh Figs, drizzled with local honey
This makes a good start to any meal. The mint adds a unique touch to this dish.
- 4 red bell peppers
- 10 to 12 anchovy fillets packed in olive oil, drained
- Handful fresh mint leaves
- Juice of ¼ small lemon
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
- Preheat oven to 400º F.
- To roast the peppers, arrange them on a baking sheet and place it inside the oven. (Alternatively, you can do what I do: roast them on an open flame over a gas burner.) Roast them until they are charred all over and tender inside, turning them frequently to ensure that they blacken evenly, about 30 minutes.
- Wrap each pepper in a wet paper towel and let them cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Rub the peppers with the paper towel to remove the charred skin.
- Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, and remove and discard the stem, ribs and seeds.
- Slice each pepper section into 2 to 3 strips.
- Arrange the pepper strips on a serving platter. Fit the anchovy fillets in between the pepper sections, making a pleasing presentation.
- Strew the mint leaves generously over the peppers, leaving them whole if they are small and tearing them into several pieces if they are large. Sprinkle the peppers lightly with lemon juice, and then drizzle with the olive oil. Serve at room temperature.
Instead of using rice for risotto I chose farro. It is a specialty of Umbria and is grown there along with the famous lentils of Castelluccio. Farro is the grain of a wheat species and has a dense chewy structure and nutty flavor. It also is wonderful in soups and salads.
- 1 cup dried wild mushroom blend (about 1 ounce)
- 1 cup water and 1 cup dry white wine for steeping the mushrooms
- 4 cups homemade chicken or vegetable broth (approximately)
- 1 or 2 large shallots, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups farro
- 1 cup dry white wine
- ¼ to ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 to 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Put the mushrooms, water and wine in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Cover and set aside.
- In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the chicken or vegetable broth to a steady simmer on the back burner and continue simmering while the risotto cooks. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, sauté the shallots in the butter and oil over medium-high heat until translucent but not brown.
- Add the farro and stir until it is well coated. Sauté lightly for several minutes then add the white wine.
- After the farro has absorbed the wine, about 1 to 2 minutes, add about ½ cup of the simmering broth and stir another 1 to 2 minutes until the farro absorbs the broth.
- When the farro dries out, add another ½ cup of broth. You must keep stirring so the farro does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Continue this process of regulating the heat until all the liquid has been absorbed into the farro and you have a tender but firm grain in about 30 minutes. Just before removing from the stove, stir in the cheese and butter. It should be creamy and bound together, neither dry nor runny.
“Locals conjecture that the dish originated during the vendemmia, the ‘grape harvest’ when the fruit was plentiful and quick and hearty dishes had to be prepared to fuel those laboring in the vineyards.”
-Julia della Croce
Different regions of Italy use different grapes. I like to use the two varieties from the arbor in my backyard.
- 8 sweet Italian pork sausages
- ½ cup water
- ¾ pound black or red grapes, stripped from their stems
- Use a sharp knife or fork to poke a few holes in the sausages. Select a seasoned cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan. Put the sausage and water in the skillet and place on the stovetop over medium heat. When the water has evaporated and the sausages have begun to color lightly, after about 12 minutes, add the grapes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook the sausages, pricking them occasionally to release excess fat, until they are evenly browned and cooked through, and the grapes begin to release some of their juices and soften, about 20 minutes longer. Do not prick the sausages too much or they will dry out.
- Transfer the sausages and grapes to a large warmed platter, leaving behind any fat, and serve immediately.
This is a great accompaniment to the Sausage with Black Grapes. It is another lovely recipe from Julia della Croce’s Umbrian cookbook.
- 2 Yukon Gold Potatoes, unpeeled
- 1 bunch broccoli rabe, about 1½ pounds
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 large cloves of garlic, chopped
- A good dash of red pepper flakes
- In a saucepan, cover the potatoes with cold water and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are fully tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, you can either peel the skin from the potatoes or keep it on. (I like to leave the skin on.) Cut potatoes lengthwise into quarters, and cut crosswise into medium-size chunks. Set aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel the skin from the tough lower stalks of the broccoli rabe—most of the bottom portion of the stalk. Cut crosswise into 3-inch lengths.
- Fill a large pot with water and bring to a rolling boil. Add the greens to the boiling water along with the salt, cover partially, and cook until the stalks are tender but not overly soft, about 5 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Drain the greens, reserving a little of the cooking liquid. Set aside.
- In a heavy-bottomed skillet large enough to accommodate the potatoes and the greens, warm the olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes over low heat until the garlic is nicely softened but not colored, about 5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium and add the greens and potatoes. Stir, then raise the heat to medium high and cook, stirring until the vegetables are nicely coated with the olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes—about 5 minutes. If the vegetables appear a little dry when they are mixed in the pan—this will depend on the absorbency of the potatoes—add a little of the reserved cooking water as needed. Serve immediately.
This is a simple, easy-to-prepare recipe. A good quality local honey is required. It can be purchased at several of our area’s farmers’ markets. You can find superior quality honey in the upper Cape at Crow Farm (Cranberry Bog Honey), along the mid-Cape at E&T Farms in West Barnstable, and in the lower Cape at Not Enough Acres Farm in Dennis.
- 1 15-ounce container of good quality whole milk ricotta cheese, room temperature
- 9 fresh figs (or 1½ figs per person)
- Jar of local honey
- Place a heaping spoonful of ricotta cheese onto six plates.
- Place 1½ figs on top of the ricotta.
- Drizzle with honey and serve.