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The Dog Who Ate the Truffle
A Memoir of Stories and Recipes from Umbria
By Suzanne Carreiro
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Suzanne Carreiro
All rights reserved.
Two Sisters — Le due sorelle
Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio
(You were better off when you were worse off)
The two Ramaccioni sisters, Paola and Silvia, became my closest friends during my year and a half in Umbertide. I rented my country apartment from Silvia, and Paola's son Mario, my Italian tutor, lived next door.
Paola, the quintessential Italian mother, carries the family's recipe book in her head. And when she isn't in the kitchen preparing one of her mother's recipes or concocting a new dish, she is taking care of her family. Her three-year-old granddaughter, Giulia, is her apprentice. Covered in flour, Giulia delights in playing with and eating bits of dough stolen from nonna's cutting board. Near the end of my yearlong stay with the Ramaccionis, Paola's second grandchild, Bruno, was delivered.
Silvia, a middle-aged tomboy, avoids the kitchen. Over time, I discovered that although she professes to know nothing about cooking, she knows all about good food and traditional dishes — where to buy the freshest ricotta, how to make fresh pasta. But she prefers to play outdoors with her grandson Simone or work on her country property. On our almost daily hike or bike ride in and around Umbertide, Silvia liked to tell me about the people and the history of the area.
I left my own family at home, but I found a new one in Umbertide. Silvia and Paola welcomed me into their lives and treated me like a sister.
Silvia is an attractive woman with thick salt-and-pepper hair, muscular arms, and shapely legs that show when she wears short skirts. She has large hands, man's hands, that she uses to haul and stack firewood, prune the vineyards, bundle kindling, and fill potholes with gravel. While I lived at Silvia's country house, I watched her working on the property under the summer's sun and in winter's icy wind — and often with an aching back.
"She's a workhorse," Paola said. "She's always worked like a man."
The other side of Silvia is the doting nonna to Simone, a three-year-old. Maialino, tesoro (little piggy, treasure), she squeals when she sees him. She covers him with kisses and pinches his chubby cheeks until, giggling uncontrollably, he begs her to stop.
Silvia seems to remember every event dating back to the Etruscans, and she has read most of literature's great books. Her English, spoken with a charming British accent, is as good as mine. (But don't expect her to speak English to you. After teaching English for more than twenty years, she considers it work.) On our frequent Sunday outings to restaurants, museums, and festivals, she has her wallet out and pays the entire bill before anyone else has a chance. When we offer to reciprocate, she says she will stay home if we do.
She refuses to eat off paper plates or to use paper napkins. Lizards and snakes petrify her, but she doesn't flinch when she crushes a scorpion or centipede (which terrify me). She has a twinkle in her dark eyes and an upturned mouth that always seems to be laughing at a private joke. Her usually friendly face flashes in anger whenever anyone with a camera tries to get near.
Silvia, a widow, inhabits the second floor of the ancient three-story house she was born in. The town now surrounds the grand old house, which used to be in the country. Her sister, Paola, lives with her oldest son on the top floor, and a cousin owns the ground floor. Silvia's son, his wife, and Simone live in the house next door, in what used to be the family's cantina (winery). The several abandoned houses on the property are owned by cousins who live elsewhere. A tall stone building, once used to dry tobacco, is utilized for storage.
Silvia humbly denies it, but several townspeople have confirmed it — the Ramaccionis are descendants of an old aristocratic Umbrian family. At one time, they owned most of the land in and around Umbertide — block after block in the city and vast expanses of forest and fields outside town. As people died or someone needed money or when things got too complicated with too many owners, the family sold off bits and pieces of land.
Many afternoons, Silvia and I explored the maze of strade bianche (dirt roads) that crisscross the hills surrounding Umbertide. She can find the road to any tower, castle, or monastery hiding in the forests and hilltops. On our hikes, she rattled off the architectural styles of nearby castles and the year they were built. Each country house has a name and a history, all of which she remembers. She recalls the last family to move out, leaving a castle to crumble. One day, Silvia told me about the poor farm family who had lived in a house above me. "Poor?" I asked, looking at the large, beautifully restored stone house with magnificent views.
"The house was like a barn for animals, not what you see today," she said. "It probably had a kitchen and one big room for sleeping, and I am sure it was immaculate — farmhouses always were. The farm women worked like beasts. They got up around four on summer mornings and worked hard all day. They were poor but happy. We say, Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio [You were better off when you were worse off]. They were happier in their poverty than they are today with their money." Silvia always wanted to talk history, but I kept bringing up recipes.
"I never cook," Silvia told me when I asked her for recipes.
"What do you eat?" I asked.
"Bread, cheese, fruit, a little prosciutto."
"But I've heard you tell Paola how to make several recipes," I persisted.
One night I invited Silvia to dinner. "Why didn't you tell me you were making lasagne?" she asked when I pulled the hot dish out of the oven.
"What difference would it have made?" I asked.
"I would have made the pasta for you."
Another night, when I was cooking the gnocchi for dinner, I heard Silvia say to Mario, "You roll the potato dough into snakes and cut them into short pieces." Next she told him how to push a finger into each gnocco to make an indentation. "To hold the sauce," she explained.
One day, after eating polenta con sugo at her house, I realized that she didn't just have an opinion about cooking — she really could cook. Here is her excellent recipe for Polenta with Ragù — plus a few more of her favorite recipes.
Polenta with Ragù
Polenta con sugo
* * *
My friend Sabrina, who spent a lot of time at her grandparents' farm, talks about eating soft polenta from a communal board in the center of her nonna's dining table — everyone dug in with their own silverware. She swears that polenta doesn't taste the same on ceramic dishes, so today she serves it on individual wooden plates.
In Umbria, sugo di salsiccia (sausage ragù) and sugo di carne mista (mixed meat ragù) are two traditional sauces for polenta. For this recipe, a thick polenta is cooled until it can be cut and layered in a casserole with sauce and cheese — diced mozzarella can be added between the layers for a heartier dish. To make a vegetarian polenta, substitute Classic Tomato Sauce (see recipe) for the meat sauce. To serve soft polenta, rather than baking it, add extra water, milk, cream, or broth near the end of cooking to make it creamy — but not so much that the polenta loses its flavor. Spoon the polenta into individual bowls and top it with sugo and grated cheese. For a more flavorful polenta, substitute whole milk or cream for part of the water or use broth instead of water (but add the salt to taste at the end).
Yield: 4 servings
5 cups cold water
1 tablespoon kosher salt (important: see "About Salt")
1 ½ cups uncooked coarse, fine, or instant polenta
1 ounce plus 3 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (see "Grated Cheese")
2 tablespoons butter plus more for pans
3 cups Umbrian Ragù (see recipe)
Getting started: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a large jelly roll or sheet pan and a 7 × 11 × 2-inch baking dish. Fill a large glass with cold water to dip a wooden spoon in.
1. In a large, heavy pot, bring the 5 cups of water to a boil; add the kosher salt. Be ready with a wire whisk — let the polenta slowly "fall like rain" (that's how the Italians describe it) into the boiling water while beating with the whisk (be sure to whisk as soon as the polenta hits the water and continue until all of the polenta has been added). Return to a boil over high heat while whisking, but stand back — polenta spits and can burn. Reduce the heat to low; cook 25 minutes (if using instant polenta, cook 10 minutes), stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Add the 1 ounce of cheese and 2 tablespoons butter; stir until the butter melts.
2. Immediately pour the polenta into the buttered jelly roll pan. Dip a clean wooden spoon into the glass of cold water; use the back of the wet spoon to spread the polenta into an 11 × 14-inch rectangle (double the size of the baking dish). When the polenta is cool enough to touch, use wet hands to smooth and shape the rectangle. Let the polenta cool until it is firm, about half an hour; cut the polenta in half crosswise to get two 7 × 11-inch pieces. Cut each half into four pieces.
3. Use four of the polenta pieces to cover the bottom of the buttered 7 × 11-inch baking dish (overlap the polenta as needed to fit it into the dish). Cover with half of the sauce and half of the remaining 3 ounces of cheese. Make a second layer, using the rest of the polenta, sauce, and cheese. Bake uncovered until the polenta is hot and the top is well browned, 45 to 60 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Note: To reheat leftovers, preheat the oven to 400°F. Put the polenta on a buttered baking pan; bake until hot and bubbly. Or reheat in a microwave oven. Plain or baked polenta with sauce freezes well. To freeze, cut the polenta into individual portions and space them half an inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; freeze until firm. Transfer to freezer bags and seal tightly; store in the freezer up to three months. Reheat frozen polenta in the microwave or a 350°F oven, covering with foil as needed to prevent overbrowning. Thawed plain polenta can be grilled or sautéed — it's delicious as a side with stew or topped with ragù and cheese.
The recipes in this book give weight rather than a cup measure for grated aged cheese because by-the-cup volume changes dramatically depending on the grater, and whether the cheese was grated by hand or machine. But generally one ounce of store-bought finely grated (not shredded) Parmigiano-Reggiano pretty consistently measures about cup. At home, one ounce of Parmigiano cubes yields about ¼ cup when processed until very fine in a food processor. But an ounce of cheese grated by hand might measure significantly more. To use hand-grated cheese, the most accurate method is to weigh the cheese, but measuring cubes of cheese with a ruler works too. For example, a 1 ½ × 1-inch piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano weighs about one ounce.
How To Make Pomodori Passati
Pomodori passati (tomatoes put through a food mill), either store-bought or home-canned, are a main ingredient in many Umbrian dishes. To get an equivalent product in the United States, use an immersion blender to mince canned whole tomatoes with their juice. (Alternatively, pulse in a food processor.) For convenience, make big batches; store in the freezer up to three months in small, tightly sealed freezer containers (canning jars are ideal).
Sugo di carne mista
* * *
This is the quintessential Umbrian meat sauce for pasta, gnocchi, polenta, lasagne, and cannelloni. In the past, when families were large and lived on farms, prosperous cooks made the sauce with goose and served it with homemade tagliatelle. Poorer families made a soupy tomato sauce with less meat or used rigaglie (chicken giblets) instead of meat. To make the sauce more complex, most cooks use a combination of meats — thus the name carne mista (mixed meat). Duck, rabbit, goose, lamb, veal, chicken, pork, beef, sausage, marrow bones, and chicken giblets are all popular. Although every family has its own recipe, the "chopped seasonings" almost always include un battuto of celery, onion, and carrot. During cooking, the battuto is often mashed into bits so it practically disappears.
Although this is basically Silvia's recipe, it is embellished slightly — I had too many recipes for sugo to settle on just one. I have added milk and butter as optional ingredients — Silvia's mother always stirred them in near the end. Several cooks I know add chicken and pancetta — they are both flavorful and traditional. This is a fluid recipe with lots of room for variation. For example, you can replace the white wine with red, or add one or more of the following: chopped garlic, a sprig of rosemary, ½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, or a handful of dried porcini mushrooms (rinse the mushrooms to remove any dust, soak them in hot water until soft, chop them, and sauté with the battuto).
Yield: 7 to 8 cups
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium celery stalks, very finely chopped
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
1 medium carrot, very finely chopped
½ cup water
1 pound ground beef
½ pound Umbrian Bulk Sausage (see recipe) or ground pork
1 bone-in chicken thigh or 6 ounces chicken necks and/or wings
3 ounces sliced pancetta, diced (see "Pancetta versus Bacon")
2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt (important: see "About Salt")
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 ½ cups dry white wine, such as pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc
2 cans (28 ounces each) whole tomatoes with juice
¼ cup whole milk (optional)
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the celery, onion, carrot, and ½ cup water. Simmer/sauté, stirring occasionally, until the water evaporates and the onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, sausage, chicken, and pancetta. Sprinkle with the kosher salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Sauté over medium heat (stirring and chopping with a wooden spoon to break the ground meat into tiny pieces) until no longer pink but not browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Stir in the wine; simmer over medium-low heat about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. During this time, smash the ground meat and vegetables with a wooden spoon — there should be no chunks of meat or vegetables in the sauce (except the chicken, which will be finely chopped later).
3. Mince/pulse the tomatoes with juice using an immersion blender or food processor; pour into the pot. Cover and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to low and position the lid so that it is open about half an inch. Simmer, stirring occasionally, over low heat until the sauce has thickened and become flavorful, 2 to 2 ½ hours. Remove the chicken. If there is meat on the bones, discard the skin and bones; chop the chicken meat and return it to the pot. Adjust the salt to taste. (If using milk and butter, stir them in now.)
Note: The best styles of pasta for this sauce are fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle or dry spaghetti, penne, and rigatoni. Allow ½ to ¾ cup of sauce (or more to taste) per serving. See "Eight Steps to Perfect Pasta".
Pancetta Versus Bacon
Bacon can be substituted for pancetta, but the two cook and taste different. Pancetta is not smoked (except pancetta affumicata), but it is seasoned with spices. American bacon is smoked, but it is usually not seasoned with spices. And although pancetta might seem as fatty as bacon, it doesn't release enormous amounts of liquid fat like bacon does while cooking. When substituting bacon for pancetta, test several brands to find the one with the least amount of smoke.
Cooking Tips: Pancetta and bacon are easier to dice when the slices are partially frozen. A 1/8-inch thick slice of pancetta weighs about one ounce. When cooking with bacon, start off with a little less salt and drain off some of the excess fat — if there is too much.
Fava Bean and Chard Soup
* * *
In Umbrian dialect, baggiano is the name used for a foolish, simple person. "He is a real baggiano!" This minestra (soup) is just as simple, thus the name baggiana. In various towns in Umbria, baggiana is also known as scafata. Some cooks add carrots, celery, and tomatoes, or they omit the broth and serve it as a side dish.
Excerpted from The Dog Who Ate the Truffle by Suzanne Carreiro. Copyright © 2010 Suzanne Carreiro. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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