Among all vegetables, peppers arguably have the most unique flavor! Romano peppers are sweeter and caramelize wonderfully when roasted, which makes them a great addition to a tomato-based soup, balancing its acidity and gaining depth in return.
If this isn’t enough, like most Italian soups this recipe makes use of the classic celery/carrot/onion soffritto both as a thickener and for its flavor. Again, roasting is key to cause browning and the development of the many aromatic compounds that go with it.
The predictable addition of chili powder adds yet another layer of complexity and, of course, the nerve endings stimulus that we perceive as heat (please check out my very first podcast titled Salty and Spicy to hear more about the chemistry involved.)
Oh, this recipe happens to be vegan 🙂 Enjoy!
Romano Pepper Soup
Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
1/4 onion, chopped
2 celery sticks, sliced
1 carrot, cubed
2 red 'Romano' peppers, sliced
200 g 'passata' strained tomatoes
20 g tomato paste
2 cups vegetable stock
black pepper, ground
Roast the peppers in olive oil, with some salt, in a frying pan at medium heat until tender - 15 minutes (add a splash of water from time to time if the peppers start to burn).
Meanwhile, roast the other veggies in olive oil for 10 minutes at high heat in a medium pot.
Add the roasted peppers, the strained tomatoes, the tomato paste, and the veggie stock to the pot with the vegetables. Bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and cook for 1/2 hr stirring from time to time.
Strain the soup using a strainer or a food mill with a fine mesh.
Re-add the strained soup to the pot and resume cooking for another 1/2 hr stirring occasionally.
Add chili powder to taste and adjust the salt.
Serve with a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning American writer of Italian descent. His latest novel titled Cucina Tipica tells the fascinating adventure of a young American who falls in love with Tuscany and with the culture of its people. Naturally, food and wine end up setting the pace and become deeply entrenched in the story.
I was humbled to be contacted by Mr. Cotto who sent me a copy of the book for consideration as he thought it would fit with the theme of the podcast. After reading it, I couldn’t agree more! Please join us in this episode where we discuss the novel in its many aspects–from the significance of food in the Italian culture to the chemistry of taste, from culture shock and relocation to speaking a foreign language and what it does to interactions and introspection.
As an “appetizer” for the book, Andrew sent me a recap in the form of a Food and Wine Plot Menu with 24 tastes each corresponding to a food scene in the novel. Enjoy!
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure A Novel by Andrew Cotto
Food & Wine Plot Menu
Novel Overview: Cucina Tipica is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a wine-soaked, food-filled travel adventure about one man’s quest for an antiquated existence in the modern world.
Characters: Jacoby Pines – a forlorn young American with a “golden palate” and hopes of redemption in Italy Claire – a travel writer and Jacoby’s fiancee Bill – a septuagenarian ex-pat from Texas and Jacoby’s wingman in the “adventure” Paolo – Jacoby and Claire’s neighbor and landlord in the hills south of Florence near the village of Antella Dolores – Claire’s “outrageous” English cousin and “Chiantishire” resident Helen – An Aussie/English ex-pat and Florence museum guide
1st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Excelsior Palace Hotel – Rapallo, Italy Food: Prosciutto, cheese, olives, dried lemons, fresh figs Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: They ate with their hands and drank from the bottle, leaving stains and crumbs on the bed sheets, which Claire attempted to clear before removing her bikini bottom…
2nd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: A “hole-in-the-wall” seafood osteria in Rapallo Food: a basket of lightly fried calamari, shrimp, bream and whole anchovy seasoned with salt and lemon; pureed and garlicky fish soup; steamed prawns dipped in aioli; grilled sardines; plates of pasta with pesto and plates of pasta with clams Wine: Carafes of Vermentino Additional Notes: They shared the meal of seafood by the seaside in the Rapallo back alley as completely as possible, holding hands under and above the table, kissing frequently, filling each other’s glasses, and laughing throughout the two hours of slow and utter indulgence.
3rd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Paolo Where: The terrace behind Paolo’s villa featuring a wood-burning oven Food: Handmade pizza with olives, anchovy fillets, and fresh basil; “Misto Arrosto” – a mixed roast of lamb, sausage, rabbit, liver in caul fat, guinea hen, halved-potatoes, heads of garlic, caramelized carrot and fennel. Wine: “Local Chianti” – DOCG Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Jacoby felt as peaceful and inspired as he had in months. Maybe ever. The best two meals of his life had been had over the first two days in Italy. The country itself was more beautiful than pictures could capture. The people spoke a lovely language and wore elegant clothes. It was all good. And he wanted in.
4th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Comune di Norcia (Umbria) Food: Porchetta sandwich for Jacoby; salad of wilted wild mushrooms atop bitter local greens for Claire Drinks: Soft
5th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: An elegant agriturismo in Le Marche Food: Charcuterie plate of house-cured meats; silky thick noodles topped with black truffles; lamb roast; Pecorino cheese drizzled with honey Wine: Rosso Piceno Additional Notes: After dinner, they roamed the silent grounds and made love on a pool-side chaise lounge after skinny dipping in the cool water that rippled with shards of silver moonlight.
6th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: The tiny piazza in Panzano-in-Chianti Wine: Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: Claire tucked into Jacoby’s side and put a foot up on the bench against the back of her leg. They silently swirled the wine and took small sips, staring at the valley beyond the village that burned gold with smoldering sunshine of a fading afternoon. Jacoby savored the apple smell of Claire’s radiant hair and the feel of her lithe body pressed into his. He thought that they, in that still pose, would make a great statue, like a modern Apollo and Daphne, frozen in marble so that their love would always last.
7th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Restaurant in Panzano owned by a young butcher (inspired by the auspices of Dario Cecchini) Food: Bistecca Fiorentina, uccellini in brodo (white beans with tomatoes in broth) Wine: Vecchie Terre di Montefili – Chianti Classico Additional Notes: The flavor of the beef was as profound and complex as any Jacoby had ever tasted. Steak in the States was bland, in need of sauce, but this simply-prepared choice cut was perfectly grilled – seared on the outside, rare and warm internally – helped by hints of lemon and rosemary and coarse salt while letting the flavor of the meat itself dominate. Amazing. Transcendental. Good f****** lord.
8th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Terrace behind the barn where they lived on Paolo’s property Food: Eggs with prosciutto and sage, bread Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: Jacoby loved cooking for people, then sharing the meal and the mutual pleasure of being together. Eating the same food; drinking the same wine; everyone on the same stage. It was like sex when sex was good and mutual. What people called “making love.”
10th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini, Antella Food: Sausage and eggs with stewed tomatoes Drink: Espresso Additional Notes: “I’ve been an ex-pat for 35 years, and the only thing I miss about America is breakfast,” – Bill
11th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Spring Minestrone (generous with pieces of artichoke, asparagus and carrots in a broth of pureed onions and leeks with a snap of garlic); fresh fettuccine with fava beans and Pecorino; rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta over polenta dotted with green olives Drinks: Negroni, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Bill and Jacoby ate and drank and spoke of their looming adventure into Florence proper, in search of a matriarch holed up in a palace marked by a cat statue. They laughed at their dim prospects, which were soothed by the magnificent meal and flowing wine.
12th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Florence, food stand near the Sant’Ambrogio market Food: Lampredotto sandwiches Wine: Chianti in plastic cups Additional Notes: The aroma out of the stand was pungent; the sandwich warm in his hand, of tomato infused broth and hearty filling tucked between the bread. The taste was super savory to the bite, ample aromatics and a soft texture from the holy trinity of bread and filling and broth.
13th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, a gazebo in Piazza Signoria Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: “Why, yes. Yes, I would,” Helen said. “There’s few things I prefer more than a glass of Prosecco.”
14th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, Il Teatro del Sale Food: Gurguglione; artichoke sformato; polpettini; fried rabbit; zucchini stuffed with ground pork; roasted chicken & sausage with potatoes, flourless chocolate cake Wine: House red, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: There was nowhere else in the world Jacoby wished to be. This was his Grand Canyon. His Hawaii. Mount Everest or Disney World. His paradise was a theater-cafeteria-commissary, sharing a table with two people he hardly knew but liked immensely, full of possibilities, in a room full of shamelessly happy people.
15th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, club Sriracha Drinks: Negronis (many)
16th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: The barn Food: Steak & eggs Additional Notes: Tears fell down Jacoby’s face as he continued to chew enough to swallow safely. The salt from the tears entering his mouth brightened the flavor, making it more clear what was happening even before Claire descended the stairs in the same clothes she wore before, a suitcase thumping beside her.
17th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Al fresco table at the cafe in Antella Food: Ceci and bread Wine: Chianti Colli Fiorentini Additional Notes: “Ciao,” Jacoby called before tucking into his plate of oven-baked chickpeas that tasted as flavorful as anything he’d ever eaten, washing the legumes and bread down with the local red wine as he sat in the cool shadows of his own private dining terrace on a Friday night in a silent village as twilight settled upon him in what felt like the most important place in all of the world.
18th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Osteria in Pienza Food: Pici with porcini; pappardelle with wild rabbit ragu Wine: Argiano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: In a shaded osteria at the end of town, Jacoby couldn’t decide between two pastas… so he ordered both, taking the mushroom plate first, followed by the gamy second course, both washed down with separate, massive goblets of Vino Nobile, which he swirled and sipped with great delight.
19th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Enoteca la Fortezza, Montalcino Food: A plate of Pecorino in three varieties Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino (2007) Additional Notes: When it was over, Jacoby felt a thread of sadness which he hoped to dash through the purchase of a case of the very wine he just drank.
20th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: A cantinetta near Antella Food: mixed antipasti; tagliatelle with porcini; roasted pork ribs; cantuccini… Wine: Colli Fiorentini Riserva, …Vin Santo Additional Notes: “That was incredible” Jacoby said. Bill made a face of modest expression and flicked a wrist in the air. “Cucina tipica,” he said.
21st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Helen Where: Lo Sprone Vinaino, Santo Spirito, Florence Food: Cacio e Pepe; charred octopus & potatoes; roasted pigeon Wine: Martinis (in the piazza out front), white wine (unnamed)
22nd Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: The meat was as tender as it was flavorful, filling his mouth with silky decadence buttressed by layers of flavor only attainable through days of preparation that precedes slow, slow cooking.
23rd Taste: Who: Claire & Dolores Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: “My f****** God!” Dolores’ voice shot from the kitchen. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!” Jacoby and Claire cracked up and parted their hug. “Bring it in here,” Jacoby called. “No f****** way!” Dolores called back.
24th Taste (in absentia): Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores, Bill Where: The cantinetta near Antella Food: To be determined Wine: To be determined (lots guaranteed) Additional Notes: “How’s the food?” Dolores asked Jacoby. “Decent?” “Oh, it’s way better than decent,” Jacoby said. “More like typical.”
Side dishes have an important role in Italian cuisine. These, often vegetarian, preparations are meant as an accompaniment to a second course, whether it’s meat or fish, a piatto freddo (literally, cold dish) of cheese and/or cold cuts, or a vegetarian preparation. To have a side of braised fennel was common in my family while growing up, and I now make it regularly.
Fennel is known for its aromatic seeds and as a vegetable consisting of the lower part of its stalks, which form an enlarged bulb-shaped bundle(1). As the stalks separate, they become fibrous and are discarded in cooking. Fennel belongs to the umbellifers family along with celery (which it visually resembles), carrots, parsnip, parsley, cilantro, dill, anise, and other plants which tend to produce flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters.
Fennel has a strong anise aroma due to the presence of anethole, an organic compound also found in anise seeds. Some say that fennel tastes like licorice, but this is really because many licorice candies are flavored with anise.
Nutritionally, fennel is a good source of vitamins (e.g.: C, A), minerals (e.g.: potassium, manganese), as well as carbohydrates in the form of dietary fiber (non-digestible) and sugar (3.9% in weight).
Fennel is consumed raw (e.g.: thinly sliced and added to salads) or cooked (e.g.: roasted, braised, or au gratin). In this recipe:
I sliced the fennel perpendicularly to its fibers to tenderize it.
I pan roasted it in olive oil and butter to caramelize the sugars and develop flavor through browning.
Then, I added salt to enhance the flavor and to extract some water (via osmosis).
Allowed the fennel to braise in its own juice covered with a lid at a low temperature.
Interrupted the cooking after 15-20 minutes or when the fennel was cooked through but still had a slightly fibrous texture.
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 25 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
2 fennel bulbs
1/2 Tbsp butter
1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Slice the fennel perpendicularly to its fibers, discarding the stalks.
In a non-stick pan, warm up olive oil and butter, then add the fennel.
Roast the fennel at a high temperature, tossing and flipping it frequently.
Add a pinch of salt, lower the temperature, cover with a lid, and allow the fennel to braise.
Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring from time to time, just until the fennel is cooked through.
Another year has elapsed – this blog just turned six!! As usual, I’d like to stop for a moment and look back at the last twelve months of blogging and podcasting. Before I do that, I would like to thank all who have been supporting me by reading, by listening, and especially by sharing their thoughts via personal messages and comments. It means a lot to me, please keep sending your feedback!
Finally, I’d like to add a note on a technical detail. Last October, this blog was migrated to WordPress! I can’t say it was a trivial task, but the process was much smoother than I initially thought – a testament to the platform and its amazing community. I hope you are enjoying the new layout and functionality.
All in all, year six has been a great year, with lots of new connections and ideas. I am very much looking forward to year seven with the same enthusiasm as when I started in 2010!
Roasted vegetables are nothing new, but this particular arrangement makes for a truly spectacular dish which can be served as a main course, accompanied with fresh and aged cheese, as well as a side dish.
When I lived with my parents, this preparation was a common Sunday meal feature. However, it didn’t start in my childhood. For some reason, one day my mother started roasting vegetables this way and ever since it has been pretty much her only way. Since the cooked casserole is incredibly beautiful, she would bring it to the table straight from the oven and ask people if they wanted a bit of all the vegetables or if they had their favorites. Since everyone likes potatoes, her casserole would always be generous with the popular tubers.
The striped arrangement, however, is not merely beautiful to see. By keeping the vegetables separate as they cook, each flavor remains distinct and intense. In fact, this dish works best when using vegetables of different flavor profiles and textures, as well as of differing colors. For instance, I decided to pair sweet bell peppers with bitter radicchio, and starchy potatoes with aromatic fennel. But yam, zucchini, eggplants, cabbage, mushrooms, endive, onion, green beans, and shallots can all be used as well.
Why radicchio and fennel?
I chose radicchio and fennel because they also happen to be quite obscure to many of my Canadian friends. They are often even obscure to the superstore cashiers who sometimes ask me what they’re weighing! If you have yet to try them, they’re both a bit of an acquired taste – but I guarantee they’ll quickly grow on you. Radicchio is quite bitter and astringent, but its flavor becomes milder with cooking, especially in the presence of salt. Fennel has a sweet anise-like flavor, though the roasting (and the resulting caramelization) brings out more of a well-rounded umami flavor.
As you will see, each vegetable is pre-roasted in the pan before going into the oven. This is to equalize cooking times. In the case of starchy vegetables like potatoes, pre-roasting also provides the necessary searing which will keep them separate and crunchy on the outside. The subtle layer of garlic flavoring and the oregano finish, along with the olive oil, all combine to bring the dish together.
Mediterranean Roasted Vegetables Stripes
Yield: 4 servings, or 8 sides
Total Time: 1 hour
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
3 medium yellow potatoes, diced uniformly (1/2 inch edge)
1 large fennel (or two small ones), sliced
2 bell peppers (yellow and red), sliced
1 head of radicchio di Chioggia (or 3 of radicchio Trevisano), sliced
1 garlic clove, whole - just for rubbing the pan
1/4 cup of vegetable broth, kept warm
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 teaspoon oregano (dried or fresh)
Gather the ingredients.
Rub a garlic clove, which you have previously cut to expose the pulp, vigorously on a dry, oven-proof casserole. This will give a very subtle garlic flavor to the whole dish.
Pat dry the diced potato with paper towel. Preheat a tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick pan, roast the potatoes for 5-10 minutes at a high temperature, turning them from time to time to sear them on all sides. Note: don't add any salt at this time to avoid osmosis which would extract water from the potatoes, preventing proper searing. When the potatoes begin to brown, add a bit of salt, then put them in the casserole on one of the long sides (as in the finished dish above).
In the same non-stick pan, roast the fennel for 5 minutes at medium heat. If necessary, add a little more olive oil. While it cooks, add a bit of salt. When the fennel begins to brown, remove it from the pan and lay it in the casserole on the side opposite to the potatoes.
In the same pan, now roast the bell peppers (separating the colors, or together) at medium heat for 5 minutes. If necessary, add a bit more olive oil. Start preheating the oven at 180 °C (350 °F). As the bell peppers cook, add a bit of salt. When the bell peppers begin to soften, add them to the casserole, as a stripe next to the potatoes.
In the same pan, finally, roast the radicchio for a minute or two at medium heat until it starts to soften. Add a bit of salt.
Lay the radicchio as the final stripe, next to the fennel. Place the casserole in the oven at 180 °C (350 °F) for 45 minutes.
After 30 minutes of cooking, pour in the vegetable broth and sprinkle generously with oregano.
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