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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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Millecosedde

The blizzard that engulfed the East Coast a few days ago provided the perfect occasion for me to make millecosedde. This Calabrian “soup of a thousand things” is a classic down-home, depth-of-winter dish, just the kind of comforting food you want when all you can see out your windows is madly swirling snow.

I had on hand all the ingredients called for in my recipe from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen – fortunately, since I had no intention of venturing out that day. Following my own headnote suggestion, I started by checking the odds and ends of dried beans in the pantry, aiming for color contrasts. The best candidates were Great Northern (white), Rio Zape (red pinto), and Casteluccio lentils (golden brown).

beans soaking

I’d put them on to soak the night before. (The lentils didn’t need it, but it didn’t hurt them.) In the morning I drained them and put them in a big pot with shredded Savoy cabbage; sliced carrots, celery, onions, and mushrooms; and Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. After they had simmered together for an hour and a half, I stirred in salt, pepper, and a healthy dose of olive oil, and cooked for another half hour.

soup cooking

The pot then sat on the back of the stove until dinner time approached. The beans had absorbed most of the liquid by then, so I had to add some water to loosen up the soup. Separately, I boiled a batch of ditalini pasta, added that to the soup pot too, and cooked it for five more minutes. Off heat, I stirred in another dose of olive oil – extravirgin, this time – let it sit for a final five minutes, and served, adding freshly ground pepper and grated pecorino cheese to each bowlful.

millecosedde

Wonderfully warming, hearty winter food. Let it snow! (And it sure did: more than two feet in Manhattan.)

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Three Roman Soups

???????????????????????????????As a title, “Soups Roman Style” doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Marriage Italian Style” and “Divorce Italian Style,” those two mordantly comic films of the ‘60s, but in fact the Roman style of cooking produces some very interesting soups. I’ve recently made three traditional ones from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book of recipes and lore from Rome and Lazio.

All three soups draw an underlying flavor from similar base ingredients, starting with a battuto of pork fat, onion, celery, and parsley, chopped together.

battuto

In each case, after a scoop of battuto is rendered out in the bottom of the soup pot, a small amount of tomato ­– fresh, puree, or paste – is added and cooked briefly. The main liquid is vegetable broth or water. And each soup is finished with a generous dose of grated pecorino cheese, which Rome and points south use much more frequently than they do parmigiano. So much for the similarities: The other ingredients in each one made these soups quite different from one another.

 

Minestra di pasta e patate

Our household really likes a dish of pasta with potatoes. It’s a combination that Americans often think odd – starch and starch! – until they taste it. I’ve enjoyed versions from several regions in Italy and even published one of my own (in my dear departed mini e-cookbook Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce). This Roman version is another good one, and very easy to make.

I stirred quarter-inch cubes of russet potato into the battuto-tomato base, added broth and freshly ground pepper, and simmered until the potatoes were just tender. Then I stirred in a batch of mixed odd bits of soup pasta and continued cooking until they were done. Finally I stirred two tablespoons of grated pecorino right into the soup. Between the cheese and the rather salty broth (I had used vegetable bouillon cubes), no extra salt was needed.

pasta and potato soup

This was a hearty, sturdy soup. More so than any other pasta with potatoes recipe I’ve tried, it had something ineffably Italian about it. I guess that’s the effect of the battuto. Everything blended into a comforting single flavor, given palatal interest by the different textures of potatoes and pasta. We enjoyed it very much.

 

Minestra di quadrucci e piselli

In this recipe, fresh peas take the place of the preceding recipe’s potato; small squares of egg noodles are used instead of dry pasta; and the liquid is water, not broth. This being November, I had to use defrosted peas, but they worked quite well. Again, I’d stirred about two tablespoons of pecorino into the soup pot before serving.

peas and quadrucci soup

This was a much more delicate soup than the previous one, with the almost solo voice of the peas sustaining it. The pecorino wasn’t a strong presence in itself, but it nicely moderated the sweetness of the peas. It felt like a springtime soup – as of course it would have been, in Italy.

 

Minestra di riso e cicoria

Here the main ingredients are rice and chicory – curly endive. If that second recipe was a spring soup, this one is definitely fall or winter fare. There was no chicory in any of my local markets this week, but I was able to make it with its nearest relative in the endive family, escarole. The greens had to be boiled, drained, squeezed, and chopped before going into the soup pot for a few minutes’ sauteeing with the battuto and tomato. Then I stirred in the rice and broth and simmered until the rice was tender. This time, the grated pecorino wasn’t to be stirred into the soup as it finished cooking but rather sprinkled on the individual bowls.

scarole and rice soup

This was a pleasant, mildly flavored soup (escarole being less bitter than chicory), but at the same time comforting and filling – good, hearty, chilly-weather food. The rice took up all the broth so quickly that I had to add quite a bit of water to keep the mixture from almost solidifying. I don’t know whether that might have been because I had on hand only American long-grain rice, not the short-grain riso comune, which Italy prefers for soup.

 

Final Thoughts

I also had to reduce the proportions of all the solid ingredients in all three recipes. An Italian minestra can be made to various degrees of thickness, from a truly soupy substance to what is almost a moistly sauced bowl of pasta or risotto. These recipes were heavily weighted toward the vegetables, pasta, rice, and pecorino. I was making half quantities of recipes indicated as serving four persons, and even with those reductions, my soups easily fed the two of us twice. It did make me wonder if the English translator, who claims to have made adjustments for an American readership, had ever actually made these dishes herself.

I may be becoming a crank on this subject, but too many recipes published today seem not to have had either proper editing or proper testing, making them recipes for failure. In the long run, that may make a lot of beginning cooks give up on the task of preparing their own food – and that’s a small but sad crime against humanity.

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Devotees of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective novels enjoy them almost as much for the hero’s eating habits as for his ingenuity in solving crimes. In every story, the police commissario in southwest Sicily takes time to relish the dishes of his region – most of all, those involving seafood – and the descriptions positively make the reader hungry.

montalbano cookbookThey also make this reader want to cook them. I have a number of Sicilian cookbooks and general Italian cookbooks with Sicilian recipes, but when the Montalbano urge is upon me I turn to Stefanio Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. Twice in the last two years I’ve written about making recipes from that book (here and here), so I was due – overdue, in fact – for another indulgence.

Neither of the earlier experiments with the recipes included any seafood, and I was sure Montalbano would want me to make some of those. So, for a dinner party for Labor Day weekend, I chose this menu:

Alici con cipolle e aceto

Sauté di vongole al pangrattato

Pasta con le sarde

Brusciuluni

Granita di limone

Acquiring the necessary fish was a challenge. Fresh anchovies (alici) and fresh sardines (sarde) are rarely and unpredictably available locally. We haunted our fish store for weeks and almost gave up, but at last came a day when both kinds had just come in.

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We bought them at once. Tom heroically undertook the job of heading, tailing, and boning the little critters – a lengthy and maddening procedure – and we put them in the freezer, crossing our fingers that they would still be okay when defrosted.

Truth to tell, we pretty much had fingers crossed about the entire menu, since we’d never made any of those recipes before and there was a lot of translating, modifying, and quantifying to do. It was a busy cooking day for both of us, but well worth it, as it turned out. The rewards were great, from first bite to last swallow.

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Alici con cipolle e aceto

Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina leaves him this dish of fresh anchovies in The Terracotta Dog. They’re first “cooked” like a séviche in white wine and vinegar, then drained and layered with thinly sliced cipolline – small, flattish Italian onions – covered with olive oil, and allowed to marinate for a few hours.

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They were gorgeous! Still fresh and sweet, with just the right balance of acidity and oil – perfect to pile on a slice of crusty ciabatta bread. Infinitely better than any prepared ones I’ve bought in this country. Even the cleaner/deboner says they were worth the trouble they took.

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Saute di vongole al pangrattato

Montalbano “gobbled up” this sauté of clams with breadcrumbs one day at a restaurant in Mazàra in The Snack Thief. Small clams – vongole veraci – are steamed open in sparkling wine with some garlic and olive oil. Then they’re dressed with parsley, salt, and pepper; laid in a gratin dish, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and olive oil, and baked for 15 minutes.

We can’t get those Mediterranean clams here, but New Zealand cockles are a reasonable substitute. (Small Manila clams will also do.) There is some Sicilian sparkling wine, but the Montalbano recipe calls for prosecco, so we used that and also served it for the aperitivo.

photo by Charles Scicolone

Two photos by Charles Scicolone

This too was an excellent dish. The cockles had a lively, briny sweetness that was heightened by the simple condiments, and despite the seemingly long cooking they remained tender and moist.

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Pasta con le sarde

In The Terracotta Dog, Adelina tells Montalbano she’s going to make him pasta with sardines, to be followed by purpi (octopus) alla carretiera. “Exquisite but deadly,” our hero thinks, and gives her a hug.

This classic, rich Sicilian pasta dish really should be made with very feathery wild fennel, but that doesn’t occur here, so we have to substitute bulb fennel, with some crushed fennel seed to boost the flavor. The freshest possible sardines, cut in pieces, are sauteed in olive oil with chopped onions with some mashed salted anchovy. Cooked, chopped fennel is added, and then raisins, pignoli, and saffron. Bucatini, cooked in the water that boiled the fennel, are tossed with the sauce and the dish topped with toasted breadcrumbs.

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I think this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever tasted (though Tom reminds me of a splendid one we had at a famous seafood restaurant in Rome – Carmelo alla Rosetta – some years back). All the flavors married beautifully in each mouthful, yet still retained their individual goodnesses. Fresh sardines are another animal entirely from the canned ones we all know, and they love the warm, gentle flavor of cooked fennel.

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Brusciuluni

Here we departed from our seafood theme. Brusciuluni is Sicilian dialect for braciolone, a large stuffed and rolled piece of beef. In Un mese con Montalbano (a book of short stories that hasn’t been issued in English yet), one of the inspector’s detectives invites him home to dinner. Fazio asks if his chief would prefer fish or meat. Montalbano knows Signora Fazio is an excellent cook, but also that she comes from an inland town where fish is never available, so he shrewdly chooses meat.

The result is this brusciuluni: a butterflied piece of meat (flank steak, in our case) rolled around a stuffing of caciocavallo, salame, hardboiled eggs, raisins, pignoli, and breadcrumbs. It’s braised in a thin tomato sauce, taken out to cool completely, then sliced, laid out on a platter, and topped with the hot sauce for serving.

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It was an attractive presentation, and a rich and filling course. One slice was all anyone could manage. Here the numerous flavors of the meats and cheese, eggs and herbs blended into an earthy, harmonious unity, an entity different from their individual flavors. Humble as the basic ingredients are, the dish derives from the cooking of the monzùs, the French chefs who served Sicily’s great houses in the 18th century.

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Granita di limone

In contrast to that composed meat course, dessert was a matter of utter simplicity. Adelina regularly makes lemon ice for Montalbano. In The Terracotta Dog, we learn that she uses a one-two-four formula: one glass of lemon juice, two of sugar, and four of water. The inspector considers it “a finger-licking delight.”

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We’d also had a cheese course after the brusciuluni, and the bracing granita was the ideal light finale to the meal. I’d made a test batch a few days in advance, and to my amazement, instead of turning into a mini-iceberg, the soft fluffy crystals retained their shape perfectly in the freezer. This is going to be a regular hot-weather dessert for us now, and a frequent reminder of our many debts to Andrea Camilleri.

P.S.  If you’d like to know about the wines Tom chose to accompany each course of the meal, you’ll find his post about them here.

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Brillat-Savarin thought the discovery of a new dish would give humanity more happiness than the discovery of a new star. I can’t speak for stars, but a recent discovery of two new kinds of meat brought great happiness to my house.

I owe that felicity to good friends who own Pasture Prime Family Farm in Florida, who recently sent us samples of their free-range Mangalitsa pork and grass-fed Wagyu beef. Mangalitsa was a brand-new name to me, a breed of pig whose meat I’d never tasted. I now know its pork is even more highly prized than pork from Berkshire pigs, a variety I’ve come to love. I’d never tasted Wagyu beef either, though at least I knew it by name.

Pasture Prime’s Wagyu herd

One of the beef samples was a Flat Iron steak, a totally new cut for me. It’s actually part of the chuck, from the blade muscle in the shoulder of the cow – the green patch on the diagram. Muscle separation butchery, long practiced in Europe, is finally catching on in the USA: hence this new cut. I was interested to notice that the blade lies right near the eye of chuck – the blue patch – which is my absolute favorite cut for beef stews and pot roasts. The steaks cut from the blade muscle are perfectly neat, flat squares – hence the name.

To give the Wagyu a proper taste test, I wanted a fairly simple preparation, but something worthy of this prestigious variety of beef. I chose Bavette aux Échalottes, a recipe for skirt steak that I’d clipped from an old issue of Saveur. It’s a simple sauté, with a pan reduction sauce of shallots and red wine vinegar, finished with a good dollop of butter. (You can find the recipe here, though the online version omits the original French title.)

It was lovely. The only way I can characterize Wagyu is that it’s super-intensely beefy – almost gamy; rich, juicy, and meat-sweet – umami-like, if I understand what that newfound mysterious fifth basic taste is. Despite warnings that, being chuck, flat iron steak benefits from marination, ours was perfectly tender without it. A few evenings later we made hamburgers from a sample of ground Wagyu, and it was equally juicy and flavorful – very different from ordinary American beef. How much of the difference is due to the breed and how much to grass-feeding, I can’t be sure – but the flavor difference is very real.

Now, on to the Mangalitsa – which I find an endearing-looking animal:

One of the pork samples was a picante Italian-style sausage – a new product that the Pasture Prime family is developing. I had a recipe that would be a perfect test for it. I wrote about it here in January: Pappardelle alla Contadina. This recipe from my book La Tavola Italiana depends entirely on the quality of its spicy hot sausage meat, which is cooked with onions, mushrooms, and cream to make a lush dressing for fresh pasta. Having made the dish many times with different kinds of hot sausage, I felt it would give the Mangalitsa a great opportunity to show its breeding.

It certainly did. This was the best version of my dish I can remember ever eating. The meat was richly flavored, piquant and subtle, just hot enough, ground to the right texture and with the right balance of fat and lean. It would be delicious in any recipe calling for spicy Italian sausages.

Tom and I get very superior beef and excellent Berkshire pork from our local butchers, Ottomanelli & Sons of Bleecker Street, but the Wagyu and Mangalitsa from Pasture Prime were real eye-openers. For people like us, who care passionately about meat, these are the kind of stars we’re happiest to discover. Thank you, Nels and Marilyn!

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I had hoped to bring home a white truffle from my trip, earlier this month, to Italy’s Piedmont. Truffles were everywhere, especially in Alba during the annual truffle fair, but prices for the whites were stratospheric. Much better bargains were the local black truffles – which I hadn’t even known occurred in that region.

(Click on the photo to see a larger image)

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Tom and I enjoyed both types with our meals during the trip. Many restaurants were offering to add white truffles to any dish on the menu: €35 for a grattata (8 grams; about ¼ ounce). We succumbed a few times. Here’s my appetizer of carne cruda at the Locanda del Pilone, near Alba. The little mounds of veal tartare are surrounded by a shower of white truffle.

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But, as everyone told us, the whites aren’t great this year. They need moisture to develop well, and it was a very dry summer and fall. We were more impressed with the quality of the blacks, which cost much less. Here’s Tom’s appetizer at Neuv Caval d’Brons in Torino: a delicious tortino ai funghi porcini con tartufi neri, topped with shavings of black truffle:

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So we came home with two plump black truffles, weighing a total of four ounces. They cost €75 (about $100) – still a considerable expenditure, but only about one-quarter of what they’d have cost if they were white.

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During the trip, we kept them in our hotel rooms’ mini-refrigerators, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, a styrofoam box, and four layers of plastic bags. Even so, every time the door was opened, the intoxicating aroma of truffles wafted out. At home, a week later, it was still the same thing. Those truffles definitely made their presence known!

Before we left for Italy, we’d invited six friends for a Piedmontese dinner party a few days after our return. The truffles were dedicated to that dinner, and we spent quite a bit of time deciding how to serve them. White truffles would have been easier – the classic preparation is simply to shave them raw over egg noodles that have been tossed with lots of melted butter. But black truffles show their best flavor when cooked. We decided to use them in the pasta course but with a more complex sauce, which Tom invented for the occasion.

We braised a piece of beef shin with some carrots, celery, and onion until it was tender, then pressed the veg to squeeze out all their juice, and shredded the meat and marrow back into the sauce. Separately we sautéed large slices of portobello mushrooms in butter and olive oil, poured the sauce base over them, and simmered it all for about 20 minutes. Just before serving, Tom peeled the truffles, minced the peel, added it to the sauce, shaved the truffles into it, and cooked for a few more minutes.

We tossed carried-home-from-Italy taglioline all’uovo with this sauce and then topped the bowls with more shavings of truffle. Here’s the result:

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You can see from this photo, as well as the tortino photo, that these truffles aren’t black all the way through. They’re more of a speckled tan. This was true of all the Piedmontese black truffles we saw, and I wonder if they’re not the same variety as the famous all-black truffles of Perigord in France. I never thought to ask anyone.

So, what did our taglioline al sugo di carne, con funghi e tartufi neri taste like? Pretty luscious, overall. But in retrospect Tom and I think the other strong, savory flavors in the sauce muted the effect of the truffles. They might have proclaimed their (extremely expensive!) presence better in a simpler preparation – perhaps just the broth and marrow, minus the meat, which was very flavorful but a distraction from the truffles. Sometimes less really is more: It all depends on what you’re aiming for. Our guests didn’t have any complaints, however.

If you’re interested in the rest of the dinner menu, here it is. In my next post I’ll write about the other dishes that we served that evening.

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No, don’t gag, and don’t click away. Today’s main dish isn’t really made with mice.

I wouldn’t call it a stew, either: It’s a delicious oven-braise of rabbit with six kinds of herbs. The recipe is called Sarmuggi a vitturisa. Sarmuggi (derived from a Persian word for mouse) is a Sicilian dialect name for a very small rabbit, almost mouse-sized, and vitturisa indicates it’s from the town of Vittoria in Ragusa province.

All this and more I learned from Sicily: Culinary Crossroads, by Giuseppe Coria, a fascinating little book of deeply traditional recipes, foodways, etymology, and folk traditions from the four easternmost provinces of Sicily. Coria says wild rabbits once so abounded there that local cooks invented many ways to vary the flavors of the rabbit dishes they prepared. This one was certainly lovely.

I, of course, didn’t have an Elmer Fudd to go out and hunt a wabbit for me, so I used a domestic one – a fresh, healthy three-pounder from d’Artagnan. I had to adjust the recipe’s cooking time because of its size, but not too much: Farm-raised animals are more tender than wild ones.

To begin, I cut up the rabbit, laid the pieces in a baking dish, drizzled olive oil over them, poured in enough hot water to almost cover the meat, and put the dish in a 400° oven for 30 minutes, turning the pieces half-way through. Meanwhile I chopped a carrot, an onion, a clove of garlic, some celery, some tomatoes, and the six herbs – mint, basil, sage, rosemary, oregano, and parsley. I’d never used so many different herbs in a single dish before. When the rabbit’s half-hour water bath was over, I topped the pieces with all that vegetation, stirred it about a bit, added more olive oil, salt and pepper.

Back into the oven it went, lowered to 350°, for 45 minutes, until the rabbit was tender.

At that point my dish diverged from the book’s. The instruction was to sprinkle the rabbit pieces with red wine and cook 10 more minutes “while the wine is evaporating.” Well, my dish was pretty much still awash with liquids, and there was no way wine would evaporate in that moderate oven. So I removed the rabbit pieces to a platter in the turned-off oven and boiled down the juices from the baking dish, along with a splash of wine. Poured it back over the rabbit and served.

It was lovely. The combination of fragrant herbs gave a hint of woodsy spice both to the rabbit itself and to its sauce, unmistakably Sicilian. A very successful recipe – and I bet it would do wonders for a chicken as well – though maybe less water in the oven dish next time.

As a first course for this dinner I made another recipe from the same book: small portions of Pasta a picurara, a simple shepherds’ pasta with potatoes. Some years ago Tom and I had a transcendent dish of pasta con patate at the distinctly non-pastoral restaurant Sora Lella on the Isola Tiburina in Rome, and we’ve been trying to recreate it ever since. We’ve tried numerous recipes of that name, none anything like what we remember. But we’re still trying, so we had to try this one too.

It’s very easy: soften a little onion in olive oil, add diced potatoes, parsley, and milk to cover. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and have absorbed most of the milk. Cook the pasta (ditalini), dress it with the potato sauce and lots of freshly grated pecorino.

It wasn’t anything like the dish of our Roman dreams, but very nice in its own way. Quite delicate, soft and comforting, with enough tang from the pecorino to keep it interesting. I wonder about that attribution to shepherds, though: I’ve never heard of sheep’s milk being used for anything but cheese; and even Coria remarks on the contrast between this recipe and the “rough-and-ready lifestyle of shepherds.” Maybe they’d sneak up to a farmer’s cow and surreptitiously milk her.

Postscript: Wine maven husband suggests that since the rabbit dish originates in Vittoria, the wine to serve with it should have been a Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which unfortunately we didn’t have on hand. A middle-weight, middle-aged Barolo was nice with the dish, but not thrilling. We’ll try for a Cerasuolo next time.

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