Going Back to My Roots
Connecting Cape Cod to Italy
After years of hard work and much frustration, I was granted an Italian citizenship. During the process people asked, “But why do you want it?” My answer? Who would not want dual citizenship in Italy if they could have it?
Last fall, with my new Italian passport in hand, I boarded a plane for Bologna, Italy, to spend a month immersing myself in the language, culture and everyday Italian lifestyle. I found an apartment and a school. I had classes every day and homework every night. After school, I would have lunch and look over my notes from class. I would then head to the grand marcarto (large market) not far from my school to shop for my evening meal. Everyone, including myself, carried a sacchetto (small bag) to shop, carefully selecting the best produce for the meal. I found specialty shops for my pasta, il marcellaio (butcher) for my meats, a place for the famous horn bread of Bologna, the one I grew up with. Each played a part in my daily routine. Mostly I looked for what was fresh, different and local in the market and stores; no different from what I do here at our farmers’ markets and specialty stops on Cape Cod.
Italians only cook with seasonal ingredients. This was confirmed by Elda and Lisa, mother and daughter, who owned and made fresh pasta in their shop. I bought potato and spinach gnocchi, the best I ever had, and squash tortelloni (large pasta tortellini filled with slightly sweetened squash and scented with nutmeg). When I asked for them in the middle of November, Lisa responded, “Ma no, fine! The squash (zucca) for the season has ended. Not until next year.”
During my stay in Italy I realized how rich and full my life was as a child, living in the small Italian village of Sagamore, Mass., and how much it influenced me today. My mother, father and I lived with my grandparents Inez and Luigi and Aunt Maria. Only Italian was spoken in our home. On occasion my grandfather would take me by the hand to the cellar, and we would roast castagne (chestnuts) together in our coal stove. Before leaving the cellar he would pick a bottle of his homemade wine from the rack. At the dinner table, a small glass of wine was poured for me, swirled with a little sugar as we all sat peeling the warm chestnuts and placing them in the wine. On those cold, damp days when I was in Bologna, a big treat was purchasing a small bag of warm chestnuts from my special vendor, Roberto, on Via Rizzoli. I would buy 15 chestnuts for three Euros. They were warm, comforting and soothing. As I ate them on my way home I was reminded of that fond memory from my childhood.
A perfect dish for the late summer and fall is bagna cauda. My grandfather used to bring fresh produce from his garden and my grandmother made this dish for the family. It is one of the most flavorful savory peasant dishes from the Piedmont region of Italy and it is quick and easy to prepare. You can serve it either as an appetizer or as a full meal, in the same dish or pot in which it is made.
I forage for my own mushrooms in the fall. Here in the U.S. we have a version of the Boletus similar to the ones found in Italy. Usually after a full moon and a rain storm the forest is full of them. I thinly slice them and dry them in the oven. When completely dry, they are placed in an airtight jar for further use. I learned about mushrooms as a child from my neighbor Rosina Boffetti. I noticed her coming home one day with an apron full of exotic mushrooms. Being an adventurous child I went out the next day and came back with a pan full of fresh mushrooms. I brought them over to Rosina. She quickly picked out the inedible ones and told me to go home and cook the rest with a silver dollar, a sprig of parsley and a slice of bread. “If the silver tarnishes and the parsley turns a strange color, the mushrooms are not good,” she told me in her broken English. “But what about the bread?” I asked. She threw up her hand expressively and said, “You feed the bread to the chicken. If the chicken dies, you throw out the mushrooms!”
Recently while eating supper with my partner on our back deck, I spotted a brown circle under a pine tree on the lawn. At first I thought it was a leaf. I realized it was the first fall Boletus. With a sharp knife I cut the stem—when forging for mushrooms, they should not be pulled from the ground but rather cut at the stem so they will create more spores. I sliced the mushroom, drizzled it with a little good olive oil and placed it on the still-hot grill for a few minutes. A real fall treat. I recently made the following meal for a few friends. The bagna cauda was our appetizer. Then we sat down to the porcini risotto that I served with a petti di pollo, breaded chicken breasts pounded slightly with fresh herbs, dusted with flour, dipped in an egg wash, breaded and sautéed in olive oil and a little butter. If it is a cool evening, I suggest you try my grandfather Luigi’s roasted chestnuts in wine or for a different finale to your Italian meal, a chestnut and ricotta semifreddo served with an almond cookie or a biscotti.
**Wine pairing from Cellar 55 in Sandwich. For the roasted chestnuts: Novecento Chianti Riserva 2005 ($14.95). Risotto con Fungi: Anna Maria Abbona Langhe Dolcetto ($15.95).
Bagna cauda means, literally, “hot bath.” It is quick and easy to prepare and can be served either as an appetizer or as a full meal.
The best vegetables to eat with your bagna cauda are celery, savoy cabbage, fennel, cucumbers, radishes, and red and green peppers, but you can substitute any raw vegetable you like. If using root vegetables, you might want to blanch them slightly. Cut the vegetables into a variety of shapes and soak them in a bowl of ice water for an hour to crisp them. Dry them well and arrange them on a large platter or tray.
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- 1-1/2 tablespoon garlic, finely minced
- 1 (2-ounce) can rolled anchovy fillets with capers
- 3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons capers
- Combine the olive oil, butter and garlic in a chafing dish, cast-iron pot or flameproof earthenware casserole. Simmer for a few minutes over low heat. Do not let the garlic brown. Add the anchovies, parsley and capers.
- Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the flavors are well integrated.
- The anchovies will dissolve.
- Remove the pot from the stove and place it over a candle warmer or spirit lamp. Serve it with assorted vegetables and warm Italian bread. To eat bagna cauda, hold a piece of bread in one hand and a piece of vegetable in the other. Dip the vegetable into the sauce, hold it over the bread and eat it. You need a big, young red wine, such as Barbera to stand up to the flavors of this dish.
When researching chestnuts I found out that in 1905, during the Great Depression, a foreign fungus wiped out the American chestnut trees. Breeders have been trying to bring the species back ever since. My friend Warren “Bo” Bober has four trees in his back yard that he planted 30 years ago. Rufin Van Bossuyt, of Harwich, has also has an interest in cultivating them. Since I created this dish ahead of chestnut season, I used dried chestnuts from Allen Creek Farm Washington State. They also ship fresh chestnuts in the fall. Phone: 306-887-3669 or email: info@ChestnutsOnline.com.
I like to roast the chestnuts in my fireplace. It is perfect to serve when friends come to visit on a cold winter day.
- 1 pound fresh chestnuts
- 1 dry red wine such as Zinfandel, Burgundy or Chianti
- With a sharp knife cut an X in the flat side of each chestnut. Place nuts in a shallow baking pan and roast, uncovered, in a 450° oven for 10 minutes. (To roast in a fireplace, place in a large heavy skillet or chestnut pan. Roast for 10-15 minutes shaking pan occasionally until shells curl back and chestnuts are hot through.)
- Cool slightly and peel. To serve, half fill 6 goblets with wine. Drop peeled chestnuts in the wine glass. Let sit for a minute and eat.
- Serve this old-world dessert as soon as the roasted chestnuts are cool enough to peel. You might find it convenient to roast and peel the chestnuts ahead, then wrap the nuts in foil and reheat in a 300° oven for 10 minutes.
(Wild Mushroom Risotto)
- 2 ounces imported dried porcini mushroom or fresh*
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cups Italian Arborio rice
- 1 cup dry white wine
- ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt, if needed
- Freshly grated pepper, to taste
- Place the dried mushrooms in a small saucepan with 1 cup of water. Cover and bring to a boil for about 4 minutes. Set aside. In a saucepan bring the stock to a slow steady simmer.
- Heat 2 tablespoons butter and the oil in a heavy bottom casserole or saucepan and stir in the onion.
- Cook for 1 minute. Add the rice, stirring until it turns white and a little chalky, about 2 to 3 minutes on medium high heat.
- Pour in the wine, stirring constantly until it is fully absorbed into the rice. Add ½ cup of broth to the rice, stir until broth has been absorbed. Repeat this several times**. Check rice for doneness as you may not need all the broth. When the rice has cooked, about 12 minutes, add the liquid from the mushrooms, and cook until the liquid has been absorbed. When the rice is still al dente, stir in the mushrooms.
- When the rice is done, turn off the heat and mix in the grated Parmesan and the rest of the butter. Taste, as you may not need the salt, and mix in the pepper.
- Spoon the rice into warm bowls; serve immediately with freshlygrated cheese on the side.
- *Fresh mushrooms, like portabella and shiitake, can also be used. To prepare for the recipe, heat two tablespoons butter and one tablespoon olive oil in a sauté pan. Add a tablespoon of onion, some fresh herbs, a splash of white wine and sauté until well cooked and brown.
- ** Note: It is important to let the rice absorb any and all liquid before adding more. The rice should be slightly dry before adding more liquid.
My fascination with chestnuts lead me to develop this recipe that combines some of my favorite Italian ingredients. The candied fruit soaked in Vin Santo adds color and a festive quality to this unique dessert. Perfect for any occasion.
Makes a little over 1 quart
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups sugar
- Peel from ½ lemon
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup Vin Santo
- 1 (15-ounce) container whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1 cup chestnut purée (recipe below)
- ½ cup chopped candied fruit, soaked with ¼ cup Vin Santo
- In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and ¼ cup sugar and lemon peel. Heat and stir until sugar has dissolved, strain and set aside.
- In a large stainless steel saucepan over low heat, combine the butter, the remaining sugar, ¼ cup Vin Santo and 1 cup water from the boiled chestnuts. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, let cool slightly and stir in the ricotta, chestnut purée and candied fruit. Mix in the reserved milk-sugar mixture. Process in an ice cream maker and serve with a biscotti or Italian almond cookie.
To make the chestnut purée:
- Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and put 1 cup dried chestnuts in pan. Bring to a boil for 15 minutes, cover and let stand one hour. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, add the chestnuts and enough liquid from the chestnuts to create a smooth purée.
John F. Carafoli is an internationally-known food stylist based in New York and Cape Cod. He wrote Food Photography and Styling. Carafoli has presented papers at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, published in Gastronomica, is a contributor to The New York Times and was profiled on the Food Network.