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Panzanella

Hurricane season calls for comfort food, something to soothe us during days of relentless what-if TV coverage and weather app updates on the wind and rain of the latest named storm.

Ice cream may well be comfort food, but it requires refrigeration, and a puddle of spumoni will comfort no one. So we suggest something that doesn’t rely on contrived cooling: panzanella, the Italian salad of bread and raw vegetables. A no-cook dish that can be made ahead, its textures and flavors transcend its humble genesis– domestic frugality, making use of bread that, if not yet stale, has aged beyond its best self.

 Late Harvest Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Late Harvest Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Photo by Vince Lee on Unsplash

Chunks of bread absorb the juices of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onion that have been dressed with oil & vinegar. The salad is seasoned with salt, black pepper, and fresh herbs, usually basil and parsley. Like many Old World Italian classics, panzanella exemplifies how much can be made of very little. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, and a rescue dish for home gardeners.

Occurring at what is the peak of the home garden output, the most active weeks of the North American hurricane season can be cruel to gardeners and late summer’s ripening produce. We urge you to harvest ahead of the next credible storm threat, before torrential rains do in the fruits of your hard work.

Should you be overwhelmed with produce, remember that panzanella is like your nonna at Sunday lunch– ever ready to welcome more guests.

In other words, your Panzanella di Tempesta, Hurricane Panzanella, has room for some ad hoc additions and garnishes. Optional produce that can be added raw to the salad’s seasoned oil & vinegar are: young zucchini, radishes, scallions, celery, tomatillos, lettuces, arugula, very young string beans, sugar-snap peas, pea tendrils, chives, mint, oregano, thyme… Of course, if you are growing these things, you already know many other ways to show them the respect they deserve and would never let a storm claim them!

With a little forethought to stocking your Almost Italian pantry, the Blessed Panzanella Trinity of good bread, olive oil, and wine vinegar, can be the basis of varied meals over a few days, even if those days are without electricity. For the record: panzanella saw the AlmostItalian.com writers through an entire week during and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

It goes without saying that if you are among our readers, you already have a nice red or white wine vinegar and flavorful olive oil on hand.

Before the power goes out: gather bread, something better than the hot-dog rolls left over from your Labor Day cookout. Panzanella demands bread with heft; day-old or older is fine– “artisan” or sourdough, white or dark– anything but sweet. If there’s time to plan ahead, tear or cut the bread into 1-inch pieces and lightly toast them in the oven. When they are cool, store them in tightly closed plastic bags. This way, they won’t go moldy in the damp weather ahead.

Like cut flowers, your fresh herbs, flat-leaf Italian parsley, basil, mint… will stay fresh with their stems in a glass of water.

Hard-boiled eggs in their shells and cheeses like feta, ricotta salata, and mozzarella can last a few days in a cooler. But if you want additional protein, be sure to have a manual can opener handy for your tins of chickpeas, tuna, and anchovies.

Even after opening, many brined and oil-packed condiments– capers, giardiniera, roasted or pickled peppers, olives– will safely last a few days without refrigeration.

Secure your salt in a screw-top glass jar to keep it dry. Fill your pepper grinder. Have some peperoncino flakes for those who want a bit of heat. Panzanella benefits from freshly minced garlic, but we suggest you add it only to what you plan to consume for a particular meal and no more than an hour before serving. Leftover panzanella is delicious, but garlic left in a salad too long will overpower everything else.

The ingredients you actually have on hand will guide what you make. Proportions of bread to vegetables are the cook’s choice. We use roughly one part toasted bread chunks to three parts vegetables and fresh herbs. We don’t seed or peel any of the vegetables except the onion and garlic; and we leave the crusts on our bread.

The Basics

Good quality bread with some body– fresh or older
Ripe tomatoes
Cucumbers
Bermuda onion
Fresh herbs (at least one): basil, Italian flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint
Fresh garlic
Your favorite olive oil
Your favorite vinegar: red or white wine, or even cider vinegar
Salt
Black pepper in a grinder– you’ll use it freshly ground

Optional Embellishments
Jarred & canned items to enrich (and vary) your panzanella through multiple meals… Don’t forget to have a manual can-opener.

Cannellini, white navy beans, chickpeas
Pitted olives
Capers
Canned tuna
Oil-packed anchovies
Tinned sardines
Roasted peppers
Giardiniera
Pickled cherry peppers

Keep these cool:

Hard boiled eggs
Cheeses such as feta, mozzarella, ricotta salata

Panzanella recipes and photographs abound— in many older Italian-american cookbooks and on scores of online sites. Contrast the classic version offered by Patricia Wells and the gilded treatment presented by David Leibovitz. The mere assemblage of rustic loaves beside a bowl of magenta crescents of Bermuda onion, grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, and basil leaves glistening with oil is indeed Instagrammable. So, why wait for a hurricane? Rain or shine, gather good ingredients and your own panzanella will also be beautiful, whether you make yours ahead or after a power loss, assembling it by candlelight. Click away, but keep an eye on your smartphone’s battery just in case you do need that flashlight feature.

Almost Italian Easter Eggs

Italian Easter Bunny
What the Sarasota Easter Bunny brought to the Almost Italian locavores

Whether you call the oval fruits of Solanum lycopersicum San Marzano, Roma, or simply “sauce tomatoes,” these are part of the spring offerings in Florida.

One of the New World gifts that became staples in Old World cuisines, especially those of the Middle East and Mediterranean, the tomato stands out in the popular association with Italian food in both Italy and the Americas. Solanum melongena, the aubergine or eggplant, so called because some of its cultivars are not only ovoid but also white, was an Old Country botanical relative who’d been waiting centuries for a skillful Figaro to arrange a meeting with his rosy American cousin.

That Italian introduction took place sometime in the middle of the 16th century, and it was hardly speed-dating. Over two centuries passed before the American import had achieved widespread acceptance throughout the Italian peninsula. If this hints of a multi-generational historical drama that cuts across class, ethnicity, and religion, it is.

Eggplant Parm, meet your ancestors!

What Would Pope Francis Cook?

Was it only two years ago that we first presented our recipe for Pasta e Ceci to celebrate Pope Francis’s ascension to the Papacy? The peripatetic Holy Father has covered a lot of ground since then and now he’s here, back in the New World.

Pasta e Ceci
Pasta e Ceci
Copyright © 2013, Skip Lombardi

To welcome him, we once again offer this modest, everyday Roman dish, a heavenly combination of ditalini and chick-peas. We can well imagine that after a week of airline food and banquets, the Holy Father may be yearning for a little home-cooking.

For Pasta e Ceci, Romans favor ditalini, which cook quickly within the broth of already-cooked pulses. Also called paternoster and avemarie, Our Father and Hail Mary, these short semolina tubes are reminiscent of rosary beads. Since devout cooks often said their evening prayers while preparing supper, some families maintained a tradition of gauging the cooking of their pasta according to the time it took to recite one or more prayers!

Ditalini and Rosary Beads
Ditalini with traditional kitchen timer
Copyright © 2013, Skip Lombardi

The dish is quickly assembled. Just be sure your chickpeas are thoroughly cooked before you begin.

Ingredients:

For the battuto:

Olive oil
1 large stalk of celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice (reserve any leaves for garnish)
1 medium onion (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley including stems, finely chopped
2 Cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 bay leaf

For the soup:

1/2 teaspoon dry marjoram
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces dry chickpeas, soaked and cooked according to package directions, OR
2 15-ounce cans of cooked chickpeas, drained & rinsed
8 ounces ditalini
4 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped.

To garnish:

Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle
Additional chopped parsley & any celery leaves
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Make your battuto

Heat a 4 to 6-quart pot over medium-high heat, then add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot.

Lower the heat to medium-low and add all the ingredients for the batutto. Sauté, stirring occasionally for approximately 10 minutes, or until the ingredients soften and barely begin to caramelize.

Make the soup:

Add the marjoram and a few grinds of black pepper and stir. Cook for a minute or two, allowing the herbs and pepper to begin to permeate the batutto.

Add the drained canned chickpeas (OR the home-cooked chickpeas and their cooking liquid) to the battuto. Add additional water so that you have a total of 6 cups of liquid in the pot. Adjust the heat and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.

Have your garnishes ready as the pasta will cook very quickly.

Add the ditalini to the broth and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 minutes before you test one of the ditalini.If the pasta has reached the al dente state, the soup is ready. If not, continue cooking and tasting for another 1-2 minutes.

To Serve:

Ladle the soup into shallow bowls. Drizzle a teaspoon of fruity olive oil over each portion and garnish with parsley and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.


Benvenuto, Francesco e buon appetito a tutti!

Serves 4-6.

Felice Capo d’Anno

New Year’s Day—even beyond the implementation of all manner of resolutions—is a time to do something, or more specifically, to eat something that will bring luck for the coming year. For Italians, that means lentils with sausages.

Salsicie e Lenticchie

The lentils are said to symbolize coins which the diner can hope to amass in the coming year. And for poor Italian peasants and laborers, the sausage once represented opulence.

Most southern Italians eat cotechino sausage on New Year’s Day. Lavishly spiced with coriander seed, black pepper, nutmeg, mace, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon, this is a fresh pork sausage that includes those proverbial everything-but-the-squeal portions of a pig. Cotechino may very well have been the inspiration for Winston Churchill’s remark that anyone interested in laws and sausages should never watch them being made.

Italians north of Rome eat a sausage similar to cotechino, but butchers stuff the meat into a pig’s foot and call it Zampone.

Unable to buy a cotechino locally, in time for our New Year’s dinner, we hardly felt deprived. The sausages we did serve may have come from a Tampa Bay area supermarket chain, Sweet Bay, but we consider them the equal of the very best sausages we’ve ever had—in Italy and from artisan butchers in New England. In fact, we’ve written before about our fantasy of a kindly old Italian fellow dressed in a threadbare grey cardigan sweater going to Sweet Bay’s corporate kitchens once or twice a week to supervise the making of the sausage.

Our lentils, cooked separately with bay leaves, garlic, and orange peel, finished in the pan with the sausages, were delicious. But with or without sausages, lentils carry the main message. So we hope all our readers have a happy, healthy year. May you and your loved ones share the abbondanza we wish for you in 2008.