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The Simple Pleasures of Growing and CookingYour Garden's Most Versatile Veggies
By Doug Oster
St. Lynn's PressCopyright © 2010 Doug Oster
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTears in Italy
(where i discover the connection between home-grown food and happiness)
There is no love sincerer than the love of food.
- George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
It was the trip of a lifetime for my wife Cindy and me. We headed to Italy to celebrate our 25th anniversary - two weeks of heaven. This was only our second trip abroad and I was so nervous that day outside Newark International Airport, I couldn't even finish my beer at a little restaurant in Jersey. That's never happened before ... ever.
A couple of hours later, I was sitting in a half-full plane with Cindy and our new Italian friend Gino, having another beer and starting to relax into the feeling of escape from a demanding work schedule and all that goes with raising three children and keeping a roof over our heads.
After we helped Gino smuggle some American cigarettes into Italy he got us a cab outside Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and that was the last we ever saw of him.
Our first Italian meal was there in Rome, at Trattoria La Toscanella, within walking distance of the Vatican. The antipasto was something to celebrate - simple, fresh and not like anything we were used to back home; the tomatoes, garlic and basil sang to us. Other meals found us sitting on the sidewalks of Rome with a carafe of house wine and plates of simple Italian fare, and really thinking about food. What made this kind of food so satisfying? Did it really all come down to something as basic as fresh ingredients? Those two weeks in Italy changed the way we looked at our cooking.
* * *
Part of the reason for the trip was to explore the area that Cindy's grandmother grew up in, the Falerna region in the toe of Italy's boot. Her extended family from the small village of Castiglione Marittimo greeted us with open arms. We spent three days being wined and dined and touring the sites that Cindy's late Grandmother Righi had enjoyed as a child before she immigrated to the States.
We learned more about how to use tomatoes, garlic and basil from cousin Giovanni Barletta and his wife Mariella, as they served us home-cooked dishes that astounded us - like their transcendent eggplant Parmesan, with its strong taste of basil and a surprising crunchy layer.
Our time spent with the Barlettas was just the beginning of our culinary reorientation. Next stop: Umbria.
* * *
They say you can never have a bad meal in Italy and we proved it to ourselves a week later while staying at the farmhouse "Pian della Valle" in the shadow of the hill town Orvieto. Each day we rode our bikes a kilometer and a half to the market to get the day's food for our table. Sometimes the owner wouldn't sell us the produce because of an impending delivery of something even fresher. The fruit and vegetables looked good to us, but they didn't meet his high standards.
In Italy Cindy and I got to meet her relatives (l. to r., Giovanni Barletta, his son Roberto, and Cindy). In the background is Castiglione Marittimo, the town where Cindy's grandmother grew up.
When we arrived at the market on a Sunday it was closed. In fact, nearly everything was closed on Sundays, we discovered - just one more thing we took for granted back home, the seven-day buying cycle.
We rode back to our farmhouse wondering what we would do for dinner. We scavenged everything left in the pantry: half a loaf of bread, some dried meats, olive oil, cheeses and some garlic, which our hosts had provided.
We toasted the bread, cooked the garlic and nibbled on everything else. In some ways, sitting there in our rustic kitchen, drinking the local wine and listening to the local radio station playing the latest Italian dance hits, we had to agree: This might be the best meal we've had in Italy. We'd been saying that a lot, lately.
But it was on our last day in Orvieto that the power of food and family finally overwhelmed us. We were at Tipica Trattoria Etrusca, a quaint restaurant tucked into the narrow stone streets of the city. Cindy's first course was a simple red pasta dish. She took one bite and her face took on a look of disbelief. "It's my grandmother's sauce ... the exact recipe!" She quickly fed me a bite and I had to agree. We hadn't tasted that perfect mix of spices and pork for more than 20 years, since her grandmother passed away. We thought the recipe had gone with her.
As Cindy savored the next bite, she began to weep and continued crying as she finished every bit of the dish, soaking up the sauce with hard-crusted Italian bread. Everything had caught up to her: experiencing the views her grandmother once enjoyed, walking in her footsteps along the stone streets of Falerna and seeing the ancient cemetery where Giovanni's mother and grandmother were buried.
I tried to explain to the waiter in my bad Italian and using ridiculous hand gestures that there wasn't a problem, that actually this was one of our most wonderful moments in Italy. This woman is crying, I said, because of the emotions your red sauce is evoking.
All it did was confuse him. He never returned to the table, sending another waiter to finish the job. I wanted so badly to explain to the owner how special the moment had been, and to get the recipe for Cindy's grandmother's sauce, but it wasn't meant to be.
TEARS IN ITALY
As we stepped back onto the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, the irony was not lost on either of us. We had to come 4,000 miles to get a taste of home.
I wrote a column about it for the Post-Gazette. A year later, I got a call from a woman who told me she had taken the story back to the restaurant in Orvieto.
Soon after that, I got an e-mail from another woman, Erica Garcia, who was at that moment visiting in Orvieto and had seen my article posted on the window at Tipica Trattoria Etrusca. Erica asked if they had sent me the recipe yet. When I said no, she got it for me and sent it along.
It's funny how food - something as simple as tomato, garlic and basil turned into sauce - can move so many people.
That's why I wrote this book: to share with you the adventure of growing fresh food and filling your kitchen with irresistible aromas - not to mention, fond memories. I'm betting that after a while, you're going to have your own stories to tell.
And that recipe from Orvieto? It's something we've enjoyed now for years, and every time we eat it, we're reminded of our two weeks in heaven - and of Cindy's beloved grandmother.
Savory Tomato Sauce with Bacon from Tipica Trattoria Estrusca
The recipe arrived in Pittsburgh in full, authentic Italian form - in other words, it had very little information about specific amounts and cooking times. As the restaurant owner told Erica Garcia (who retrieved the recipe from Orvieto), it is all a matter of taste! You gotta love the Italians. There's a certain magic to doing it this way and I invite you to give it a try yourself.
What You Need:
Olive oil 1 16 oz. can of tomatoes, without skin or seeds
2 laurel leaves 1 onion, very finely minced
Basil 1 small red pepper ("peperoncino")
Carrots, chopped coarsely Bacon, finely chopped
Celery, chopped coarsely Salt and pepper, to taste
Sauté the following lightly in olive oil until slightly done: 1 laurel leaf, basil, carrots and celery.
Add tomatoes and cook over low fire for one hour, stirring occasionally.
Remove carrot and celery chunks and purée the rest of the sauce until it's as smooth or chunky as you prefer. If you like a very smooth sauce, pass it through a sieve.
In a medium saucepan, sauté the following in hot olive oil: 1 laurel leaf, onion, and red pepper. When onion is golden brown, add the bacon and cook over low fire until bacon is well done, stirring constantly.
Add the tomato sauce that you've just prepared and simmer over a very, very low fire for about one hour, stirring periodically to make sure it doesn't stick or burn.
Pour over linguini or any other pasta you like, cooked al dente.
Parmesan of eggs (Eggplant Parmesan)
When Cindy and I returned from Italy, Cousin Mariella's eggplant Parmesan was still on our minds. How could we have left Italy and not asked for the recipe? By using a computer translation program, we sent an email to the family in Castiglione Marittimo. Here's exactly what we got back. It goes to show you that technology isn't all it's cracked up to be (note that the program simply gives up on a few Italian words completely). But if you study it carefully, maybe you'll get the idea. Here is Mariella's eggplant
3 grosses eggs, 250 gr of mozzarella, 700 gr tomato of flesh in box or fresh, 2 segments of garlic, 4 leaves of basil, 50 gr of Parmesan grated, 4 olive of oil of spoons, climbs.
You break the eggs and you it it. You it it to slices of about thickness of centimeter means. They cut themselves generally in the length but, if is not very capable with the knife, you it it calmly to washers, it is a little easier one. You systemize the slices of eggs in a large bowl, salting every layer. It is necessary in all a full spoon of salt until: better not to exceed. You put down on the eggs a saucer with a weight, to accelerate the procedure. After a hour about, wrung the slices of eggs between the hands to eliminate more possible water and you it it further between two canvases. It grease just a large pan antiaderente with little oil and you make cook the eggs until will be gilded on two side. You pour a spoon of oil in a pan and make brown the segments of garlic peeled and fragmented, without to make to take color. You unite the flesh of tomato and, after 10 minutes about, when the sauce is not more watery, put out the flame. You unite the basil, salted and passed across a passaverdure. It grease a heat-resistant one and disponetevi a first layer of eggs, sistemandole an of flank to the other one, without them. Does not serve to salt since the eggs detain always a little one of the salt of the salting. You poured 2 spoons of sauce on the eggs and you it it uniform with the back of the spoon. It sprinkle with a little of Parmesan, without to exceed. You cut the mozzarella to thin slice and some distribuitene above the sauce. You it surpassed it between of them. They go well all of the types of mozzarella, but is very comfortable that for pizza, that gives back except for water during the cooking and besides it is cut more easily. It proceed in the same manner until exhaustion of the ingredients. The last layer have to be of sauce, a little more abounding in this case, without cheese. You pour the oil remained on the surface and cook the Parmesan one in the already warm oven to 200? for about 45 minutes.
We did our best with the recipe from what we could decipher. It was good, but it wasn't Mariella's. Feel free to send me any successful variations you come up with.
Excerpted from The Simple Pleasures of Growing and Cooking by Doug Oster Copyright © 2010 by Doug Oster. Excerpted by permission.
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