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.
Battered deep-fried cauliflower (‘cavolfiore in pastella,’ in Italian) is an appetizing side dish which originates in Sicily but can be found in many variations all around Italy.
Out of the various kinds of batter, this recipe describes one that is quite opaque—without being too thick—especially suitable for vegetables (including zucchini flowers, which are fantastic, by-the-way!)
Deep-fried batter has a bad reputation for being heavy. However, if the oil is at the proper temperature, it sears immediately and any excess hot oil (with its lower viscosity) drips right off with draining. Still, the resulting dish is relatively high in calories and generally served in small amounts as a side, or as a vegetarian entrée.
The use of olive oil for deep-frying is somewhat controversial due to its relatively low smoke point. However, if you can control the temperature, olive oil is suitable for frying vegetables (which don’t need to reach extremely high temperatures) and brings an amazing extra flavor to the dish. Out of the different kinds of olive oil, non-extra virgin (or even non-vergin) olive oils are preferred for frying since they have a relatively higher smoke point at a lower price point!
Battered Deep Fried Cauliflower
Yield: 4-6 servings
Total Time: 45 minutes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
1 medium cauliflower (about 800 g), divided in florets
75 g (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
30 g (2 Tbsp) butter, melted
100 ml (scant 1/2 cup) milk
1 egg white
1 l olive oil (use a non-extra virgin oil for a higher smoke point)
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and the melted butter obtaining a crumbly texture.
Incorporate just enough milk to create a thick cream, then gradually whisk in the rest of the milk.
Whip the egg white until firm (for best results, use an egg at room temperature).
Gently incorporate the whipped egg white, a tablespoon at a time, mixing from the bottom to the top. Season with a pinch of table salt.
Boil the cauliflower florets for 10 minutes until cooked but still firm.
Bring olive oil to frying temperature (if you have a thermometer, reach 150 °C; if you don't, wait 3-4 minutes at medium heat then test the oil with a drop of batter.) Dip a few florets at a time in the batter, shaking off any excess. Then deep-fry the battered florets until golden brown.
Allow the fried florets to dry for 5 minutes on a sheet of paper towel before serving them.
For the first time in this blog, I have the pleasure to feature a guest post. This article is by enologist, writer, and photographer Melinda King. To know more about Melinda, check out The Premise of Italian Cuisine podcast.
Italian culture is special in ways that are delicately combined, tangible and intangible. It would be impossible to disconnect Italian culture from the topic of Italian food, and the entire nation is formed by connections of things grown and eaten. Eating evokes emotional, memory, sensory, spiritual, and gustatory reactions, which are born from chemistry and imagination. This is a proud food system made from thousands of years of place-specific combinations; exceptional raw ingredients, combined and shared at tables, are traded in markets and perfected with love. Italian flavors are a stunning collection of colorful stories that grow from field to city, within regions—after all, the country was a collection of nation-states until unification in 1861. The subject of authenticity is constant to hungry Italians, who does it best, according to the way it is supposed to be done. Although they are talented innovators, tradition is the mark of excellence and respect. Thus, we are left to wonder: what is Italian food? What is Italian? Now, the country that has been a historical crossroads is asking serious questions about identity. Thoughts on the Table is the brilliant work of a worldly Italian (Paolo Rigiroli) who is brave enough to explore these themes. What Italians eat (and how), he reminds us, is every bit who they are.
And it is the Italians who have the hardest time answering these queries. The food is a source of incredible comfort and passion, and it is very difficult to reach conclusions. In an effort to distill one singular definition for the entirety of “Italian food,” one might say it is agriculture. This reminds us that the cuisine is an honorable and humble form of hard work. It is the superlative expression of microclimate, microbiology, and sunshine. It is the Italian people, respecting the gifts of their land, who proceed to turn wheat fields into toothsome vermicelli, lemons to acrid limoncello, winter cabbage into soothing ribollita, and 140-kg pigs into rose-leather prosciutto. Wine is further example of Italian agricultural genius.
How is it possible to organize such an enormous, magnificent topic? Taking into consideration so many places, dialects, seasons, and details, what is Italian food, and where does it come from? Are we being too precious about what we eat? Does place truly matter? And how can an entire nation be world-known such a thing as flavor?
Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Rome, and wanted to buy a bottle of “authentic” Italian olive oil, to take with him back to Sweden. He found a large store, and assumed it would be a simple purchase. He tells me that it took forty minutes for him to decide on a single bottle, after asking three employees for help and making various searches on his cell phone. “There were so many bottles!” he exclaimed. “So many oils, from so many places, and so many different prices! Why do they do this?” In the end, he bought the smallest one, and left. Italy is very proud of its products, and olive oil is an incredibly critical topic. I imagine my friend saw bottles from Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria, at the least, as each claims its olives to be the best. There are then the categories of oils (virgin, extra virgin, cold press, organic, biodynamic, gold label, etc.) and sizes (1 oz. flavored with pepperoncini or truffle) to 5 kg. The oils are sacred to the places they come from, and one would use local oil for local dishes. Moreover, every Italian olive has different compounds (peppery, golden, green, honey, smoky, juniper), that is tied to the environment it was grown and processed in. Hundreds of such compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive organoleptic characteristics that make Italian olive oil so exceptional.
Added to that, there are currently some issues in the worldwide olive oil industry, as origin is not easy to certify. Olives may be grown in Tunisia, and bottled in Spain. California olive oils companies used to quietly fly their products to southern Italy, where the plane would touch down and fill with gas, only to return to California for sale. This meant the oil bottles could be labeled with the words “From Italy.” Confusion is rampant in the marketplace, considering the brand of Italian foods.
How can Italian food protect and promote itself, and guarantee quality? This is important, more than ever, with the increasing global economy—and with new technologies (it is easier to mass produce foods, or copy ones already existing). What about Italian traditions? The individual state governments of Europe have, for the past few decades, been dealing with these issues within their own cultures. How to protect the integrity of Bulgarian cheeses, Greek wine, or German blood sausage? Italy was the second country, after France, to take action on certifying its natural food products. It was both a post-war reaction to economic and land issues, as well as a way to acknowledge the most important pieces of lifestyle. European states have since cooperated under the umbrella of the European Union, recognizing one another’s specialized products. Italy has been a tremendous example in this movement, to certify traditions in and out of its borders.
This does not mean that Italy published a list of official foods. Protected status does not cover lasagna and tiramisu. The topic is Geographical Indications (GI), and means that certain food products are trademarked as Italian, and cannot be impersonated or misrepresented. To be certified, the item must have a specific place of origin, a historically documented meaning, and production methods that adhere to exact steps and standards. They are the ingredients (animal products, herbs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products) that make Italian food “Italian,” that they are raised in Italy, by Italians, where taste represents what cannot be verbalized. It is also a way to maintain identity, while earning a decent income. This applies to small-time producers, as well as the entire industries.
Geographical indications (GIs) is a legal status, represented with a visual package or label symbol, that identify a food as having originated from a specific place where a given attribute, reputation, or other characteristic of that good is attributable to its geographical home. GIs act like a trademark–once established, they confer certain exclusive rights to the owner. Unlike other intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, copyrights), GIs are owned collectively by all producers in a region, rather than by an individual or a single company.
Note: there are Geographical indications are over the world (China, India, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, etc.). The United States is currently trying to garner support for their own system of GI (Georgia peaches, Idaho potatoes, California avocados), but the reputations of such products, and a strong system of capitalism, prevents the need for place/product protection. This article seeks to concentrate on the Italian context.
France was the first to certify national butter, cheese, and wine products (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC). Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree in the year 1411; the modern system was reinstated in France in 1919. Italians followed with their own GI organization, post-war, as a way of naming and protecting cultural property within a delicate economic structure. Geographical indications were created by the European Union with Regulation 2081/921, seeking to solve communication problems between and within countries, for consumers and producers, while promoting rural development. Italian GI goods earned €15.2 million in production value in 2018, contributing 18% of the national agricultural economy.
There are 550 Sicilian growers certified for Sicilian arancia rossa (blood red oranges, IGP); each farm cultivates the same three arancia rossa varieties (there are three) according to the same rules, and is overseen and organized by a central ruling body called a consorzio. Each consorzio reports to the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole Alimentari, Forestali e del Turismo (MIPAAF), (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies). These fruits are monitored by the Italian government, and have protection within the European Union.
The GI system has broad and precise stated objectives:
To promote foods, beverages, and wines with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-known or rural areas;
To improve the income of farmers who make “genuine effort to improve quality”;
Sustaining populations in rural areas;
Providing clear and “not-misleading” information to consumers regarding product origin;
Preserving cultural and historical identity.
Place-defined products connect value between food and territory, thus guaranteeing the quality for which a consumer pays a premium. The idea is to further prevent unwanted third parties from using terms, tactics, and marketing that mislead and misrepresent. Italian pride and livelihoods remain in the balance.
There are currently three European Union schemes for geographic preservation:
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, red symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, blue symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region.
Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG): food must be of “specific character” and either the raw materials, production method, or processing must be done in exact area (consistent for a minimum of 30 years).
Protected Italian Foods
Many of the GI items are known to anyone interested in Italian eating. The names of these items are synonymous with the places they come from, and the name alone acts as an Italian ambassador. Some of the expected items on the list: PDO Chianti Classico olive oil, PDO Lago di Garda olive oil, PDO Mortadella, Asiago cheese, PDO Basilico Genovese (think pesto), PDO Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, IGP Nocciola Piemonte (hazelnuts famed for chocolates).
Still, most of the items may be called peculiar or even uninteresting to those outside the places they are made. Some unexpected items: IGP Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (anchovies), IGP Carota dell’Altopiano del Fucino (“A carrot? That’s not sexy!”), Pane di Matera (specialized bread loaves from the Sassi cave town), three kinds of saffron, IGP Bresaola della Valtellina (dried horse meat is highly esteemed), four kinds of asparagus (Bassano, especially), five kinds of lemons, eight kinds of chestnuts, Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria essential oil, Kiwi Latina (an Italian kiwi? Yes, and it is magnificent!). Of course, this country is always surprising.
It is quite common to see the PDO or IGP acronym in a restaurant or gelateria, where the pride of place ingredients is translated to the consumer, as a promise of something real and delicious to be had. And with the force of 0 KM eating, Slow Foods, Bio, Organic, and artisanal products, GI label status is not only economic, but “cool.”
Italian wines have an exceptional portion of Geographical Indications to endorsement. GI wines are a vital element, though controversial, in the business and character of Italian winemaking. Autochthonous (native) grapes represent distinctive zones and methods of viticulture, each with unique climactic features. Nerello Mascaelese is a grape that only grows on Mount Etna, in Sicily; this grape is authorized as one of the grapes to be used in the Etna DOC red wine. Nerello Mascalese has been growing in this place for centuries. Popular international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah need no protection–nor do they have such a significant history, cultivation, or sensory connection to Italian soil.
In 1964, Italy established a series of laws to safeguard the brilliance and authenticity of their wines. The directives define wines by characteristics such as: type of grape(s) used, alcohol content, bottling, labeling, how long the wine is aged, how and when to harvest, who can work the fields, machinery and tools, irrigation, naming, and sales promotions. In the last decades, several modifications and changes have been made to original legislation, as the numbers of wines and regions grow to the list. The last addition, made in 2010, established four basic categories that read consistent with concurrent European Union wine regulations (2008-2009) — Italian wines GIs are categorized as:
Vini (also known as ‘generic/table wines’): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, label includes no certain indication of place origin (of grape varieties used or vintage); only the wine color is required to be listed on the bottle label (“Tavernello” often ‘house wine’). In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications (‘Super Tuscans’).
Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that derive mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of certified ‘international (grown in many places)’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them; grape used or vintage may be shown on the label (e.g. “Merlot-Raboso” blend from Veneto).
IGP (‘Protected Geographical Indication’ also known as IGT: ‘Typical Geographical Indication’): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy that follow precise regulations on allowed varieties, growing and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical/physical characteristics, labeling instructions, among others (e.g. “Toscana IGT”).
DOP (‘Protected Designation of Origin’) which includes two classes:
DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) These wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years, and generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory; far stricter regulations and focus on territorial personalities; a DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years.
DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) In addition to fulfilling DOC requisites, DOCG wines meet tighter analyses before going to market; they must also demonstrate a superior commercial value, and are linked with historical development.
Currently, there exist 332 DOCs (e.g. “Aleatico di Gradoli DOC”) and 73 DOCGs (e.g. “Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG”) bringing total to 405 DOPs. The financial aspects of the wine GI are momentous; a single bottle of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino can sell for up to $550. A scandal shook the Brunello consorzio in 2008 (known as “Brunellopoli”), where select winemakers were suspect for mixing lower quality wine grapes from other regions with local Sangiovese. Vineyards were quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by authorities, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison. The issue was potential violation of GI purity rules, written by the Brunello Consorzio ruling body, and approved by the Italian Agricultural Ministry. Charges were ultimately dropped, and agreements to reinforce production principles were made between the Consorzio and winemakers.
I spent a number of years working in a wine business in California. When customers asked about Italian wines, they asked for wines by company or grape. Furthermore, their purchase decisions were generally based on price; customers were fascinated anytime I gave them a back story to the makers of the wine, the place it was made, or the types of grapes used. A wine was Chianti or Prosecco, but they did not know why. I would point to the labeling below the cork, when appropriate—if the bottle had the DOC or DOCG certification. “So the government says this wine is the best?” they would ask. No, I would shake my head and give a brief description of what GI represents. “Oh,” they would continue, “so the Italian government says this wine is the best?” they would repeat. Every time.
No, the government has no sensory opinion on the wines being made. This is a label that a company pays for, in a group with other companies in the same place, in order to show you, the consumer, that they mean business. The bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from vineyard lands that were budding vines hundreds of years before the pilgrims even built their boat. That is what the GI system would like us to remember. Currently, I am working in a vineyard/winery on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The DOC here is exceedingly proud of its work, and place (terra) is the language spoken in every glass. The soil changes from sandy to limestone, then lava rock, within a few meters, and vines stand fierce tests of weather and volcano. Add the salt of the sea and the shine of the sun, and it makes for an extraordinary natural beverage. The GI labels struggle to describe these things to an American wine shopper: philosophy of terra in an island borough founded by Greek settlers in 734 B.C.E.
Although GIs may promote a food or wine’s reputation, the level of quality is not guaranteed above similar food items. The perception of GIs is a matter of personal consumer taste and company/brand marketing, and this is an important concept to understand. For example, there may be six options of lemons at the local market. Two are certified GI status, from Siracusa (Sicilia) and Sorrento (Campania), and one from Spain. The other three, local fruits, do not list variety, but are stamped with the farm and city of origin. The GI status lemons cost twice as many Euros per kilo. Would you choose a locally made lemon, a higher priced GI, or the least expensive Spanish one?
How much sway does GI play, in the eyes of a shopper? Does it shift our priorities–taste preference, price, or place of being picked? Would you scrimp on lemons but splurge on cheese? How is this any different from brand name luxury Italian Gucci, Ferrari, or Armani? Normal people buy according to experience and reputation. If it works, they buy again. Italy, itself, has become a brand. The Italian GI is represented on the food or drink label with a small circular symbol (red and yellow or blue and yellow, depending on legal status), so we see as we buy. But these certifications are very expensive, and they require a long and thorough vetting process.
The symbol on the food (package, container, box, fruit seal, or wine label) will tell the buyer that it was made in according to the tradition of the area, by people who live there, with local or regional resources, in Italy by Italians. It will taste the way it is supposed to taste, according to history of the place, made flavorful by unique environmental conditions that only that place can provide. Terra, confirms that balsamic vinegar from Modena can only come from Modena. In this case, the Balsamic Vinegar Consorzio is a nearly secret society of older gentlemen who speak very little and carry out regular chemical “alchemical” analysis with small glass pipets and sensorial tastings. They meet in quiet rooms, and keep careful records. But they are extremely exclusive, and there is worry that the Modena vinegar community will soon disappear. It is not easy to pass on the legacy, or attract much excitement, as the work is difficult and unattractive to outsiders. This kind of work must be psychologically understood. But this is a common problem today, in Italy, with gentrification, separating family structures, and move towards tech jobs and city life.
The taste of Sicilian Pachinotomatoes cannot be reproduced. Heart-shaped Marostica cherries, from Veneto, are blessed by cool mountain breeze and warm sunshine. There is a cherry festival to honor the local fruits, as well as a famous chess game played with real-life human pawns in the Piazza degli Scacchi. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady. The history, the climate, and the science of place convene to create, in legal status, a true Italian flavor. Travelers can go to the game, enjoy the festival, and feel the life behind the GI, every September.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a prime example of a Geographical Indication, demonstrating food as an art form. Outside Italy, “Parmesan” (originally a term from France to refer to Italian hard cheeses) is used as a generic name to identify a product (cheese-like, but not always cheese), that has a flavor reminiscent of the famed nutty bite that we know from true Parmigiano Reggiano. However, this copy food lacks the origin, and artisan producers. Parmigiano Reggiano has a singular history, taste, and identity that is unmistakably Italian. The Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese was formed in 1934; in 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano earned complete legal status in the EU. The Consorzio states that “the secret of its goodness originates in the place of origin, in the natural feed, our types of milk cows, the wind, the incline of our hills and goodness of grass, and in the high-quality milk with no additives.” The term “Parmesan” comes from geographical origin and means “of or from Parma.”
Parmigiano Reggiano is not only a good cheese, but also healthy and nutritious (named the official food of the International Space Station). After creation, the cheese wheels are subjected to a maturation period of at least twelve months (twenty-four for the most common version, thirty-six months and more for finer stravecchio), allowing Parmigiano Reggiano to gain its characteristic granular structure. It is made from raw cow’s milk (not pasteurized; there are 245,000 cows in the production area registered to make Parmigiano Reggiano) only grass and hay, not silage. After primary creation, the cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged. At twelve months, each cheese is inspected by an expert grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with an inspector logo. To guarantee each cheese and catalogue quality, each cheese wheel (40 kg) is stenciled by hand with:
The Parmigiano Reggiano DOP acronym and consorzio seal;
Identification number of dairy (there are 363 certified Parmigiano Reggiano dairies);
Production month and year;
An alphanumeric code identifying every single wheel.
Every cheese is inspected by the consorzio, to verify if they are worthy of the Parmigiano Reggiano title, then fire branded when PDO standards are satisfied. There is a well-documented 800-year history of production, as it was first made by Benedictine monks in the same hilly areas. The processes are fiercely controlled by the consorzio, and every cheese is crafted with care, for excellence.
The cultural meaning for this cheese is also economic: in 2018, 149,000 tons (3.65 million wheels) of it was made by 50,000 Italians in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (to the right of the Po river), and Bologna to the left of the Reno river). In the same year, the cheese had a €2.2 billion estimated turnover at consumption (51,900 tons of it being exported). This is a meaningful cheese! It is easy to understand how such powerful food would have imitators. The name, alone, is sacred to the Italian people.
In 2003, the EU responded to a complaint filed by the Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio concerning the improper use by certain German companies of the name “Parmesan” as a generic name, on cheeses that neither exhibited the peculiarities of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, nor came from the area of origin—thus manipulating consumers and damaging reputation. German authorities refused to intervene, and thus the case was taken before the European Court of Justice. However, the case was ultimately dismissed, as the EU court did not have enough evidence to demonstrate German misuse of the generic name.
However, problems arise when deciding which phrases to protect as GIs. For example, although “Parmigiano Reggiano” is a protected GI under U.S. law (in an agreement made with Italian authorities and the cheese consorzio), the name “parmesan” is not protected—and this term is ubiquitous in American grocery markets on products that Italians would find abhorrent and embarrassing. Shoppers might even see Parmesan Reggianito, a hard Argentinean cheese invented by Italian immigrants who left Italy for South America after the Wars. They wanted to make something that would remind them of their native Parmigiano Reggiano.
Every few years, the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio tries to file legal action against a company in North America, regarding “Parmesan,” but an outright purge of all such cheese products would be impossible, and expensive. The issue comes down to labeling, but mostly, quality.
In 2012, American FDA agents investigated a cheese factory in Pennsylvania, called “Castle Cheese.” They were making goods sold as “100% real Parmesan” across the country; the cheese was found to contain cut-rate substitutes, chemicals, and fillers, such as wood pulp and cellulose. The Castle Cheese president pled guilty and was spent one year in prison, with a fine of one hundred thousand dollars, but the case was made on health standards—not Parmigiano Reggiano GI name protection. Kraft, America’s well-known mass pasteurized cheese mass brand, has argued that their parmesan cheeses actually promote and encourage the Parmigiano Reggiano product, rather than compete with or mock it.
This is why a podcast like “Thoughts on the Table” is so important: there is a tremendous need for a cross-cultural conversation about Italian food, by Italians and non-Italians, in the name of taste, access, affordability, and integrity. I can only imagine what it was like for Paolo, experiencing his first visit to a Canadian grocery store. It would be like showing him a roller skate and trying to convince him it was a car. Food is passionate and evocative; what happens when it is reduced to a transaction? We want to talk about grandmother’s soothing pasta dishes, not packaging standards.
Food is grown, traded, prepared, and shared according to geographical context. What you eat, for most of human history, depends on where you live. This is a field of study known as the GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD, which includes complex patterns and relationships between “space” and “place.” Taste transforms during stages of preparation. Quality means safe and wholesome ingredients, and consistency. This is where Italy excels. It has a vast range of topography, proximity to water, varieties of microclimates, and brilliant, creative farmers and chefs. As one of my friends reminds me, “our government is terrible, jobs are hard to get, and our soccer team fails in the World Cup, but we have the best eating in the entire world to console these pains.” The Mediterranean hits the Alpine ranges, and leave centuries of collaboration, giving this nation gastronomical and agricultural superiority. Science proves this, as well as our own opinions. And while so many things did not “originate” in this country, they are respected and perfected here: tomatoes, wines, pastas, coffee, and chocolate.
Place does matter—very much. In terms of food and wine, terra is the philosophical combination of physical and spiritual “place” that gives flavor. By flavor, I mean “memory,” the kind of meal we remember years after the dishes have been washed.
Geographic Indication is a legally recognized certification of quality for place-driven taste. It happens by tradition–meaning what is produced, how, and by whom. The Italian government is very serious about protection and recognition. History is, in my opinion, based in agriculture, and agriculture reveals identity. GI status strives to keep identity, while preserving the taste of memory.
In the name of authenticity, GI hopes to maintain marketplace clarity. Every protected food is traced, tracked, and guaranteed. There are major efforts by law enforcement agencies to uphold the legitimacy of food products. Olive oil, wine, balsamic vinegar, cheese, and prosciutto are some of the Italian products that are most copied and sold by fraud, or produced in sub-standard ways. Livestock are RFID tagged, and documented from conception to market shelf, and full records of genetic breeding are kept by the consorzio. A vegetable, a cheese, or a grape can be tracked by DNA testing, to assure the place it has come from. Italy has 822 registered GI products, more than any other nation, of the worldwide total 3,036 (2018 ISMEA). “Made in Italy” is very big business.
Of course, the Geographical Indications are quite general, and work with ideals. It is basically a package of economic safeguards—copyright schemes made in a non-capitalistic system. The European Union oversees each country’s regulations, and promotes communication across the board. Italy does not always enjoy being a part of the Union, though it gains considerably from the Geographical Indication projects. Aside from the spiritual and cultural lauds from economic protection, the PDO and PGI symbols are basically there to pay people to make good raw materials (beans, sardines, and kiwis). Italy must also realize that certification means Italians competing with Italians, long before the rest of the world. As Italians are hungry for creative and economic innovation, they are, more than ever, hungry to strengthen the core of their traditions.
Nostalgia is everything to an Italian palate. So are relationships. Although larger food chains and grocery stores are trending, there is still a strong and regular desire to shop locally. How do GI products interact with everyday eating? How can we trust that the story behind the label is true? Some Italians do not support the GI system; there are many barriers to entry (certification costs, registration, legal oversight, documentation, North versus South quarrels) that prevent many from participating. Others detest the European Union. In a conversation with my elderly neighbors, Don Donato and his wife, Luciana, I asked their view on Italian Geographical Indications. Don Donato was quick to answer: “We do it because France did it, and we always have to compete with France. We have Italian food in a French system. Even the supermarkets are from France (Carrefour, Auchan in Veneto)… the problem is that Italians are very bad organizers. We have the good food, and the government doesn’t trust us with it.”
His wife does the food shopping, and said she never really noticed the food labels until last year, when she read about it in the paper. She generally keeps to the butcher, bakery, and produce shop in our small village, but goes to the shopping centers once or twice every month with her children’s families. Two things regularly astonish her: the amounts of products in the aisles, and the prices. Having choices, she told me, is very expensive. “If I want lentils from Umbria, we will go there. I am not about to pay so much for a bag of lentils. These are things that are made very well in my own area.” She told me that food is only as good as the person making it, and she can make any lentil taste Italian.
Can you taste the difference between a GI product and a non-GI product When it is late in the evening, and someone has prepared a beautiful Italian meal, simple and warm—what is the role of Geographical Indications for regional foods?
If my Swedish friend had known, at the least, to look for red and blue symbols on olive oil labels, his search would have been much simplified. He was looking for the best representation of an Italian olive oil, and those certification marks would have spoken for the people, processes, and places that make the oil authentic—as so the label would ideally have us believe. Later, I curiously asked which bottle he had selected from the large Roman grocery store. He laughed when he told me, “I don’t remember the name, but I bought an expensive one.” He continued, “But when I got home, I went to use it and saw, written right there on the backside: 100% California Olives.”
These contradictions make Italian food fascinating. The conversation continues…
Top 15 highest value (by production numbers) Italian Geographical Indications, 2018 (source: ISMEA—Qualivita)
http://www.aicig.it/ – Aicig (Associazione Italiana Consorzi Indicazioni Geografiche, Italian Association Geographic Indication Consortia) is a non-profit association between the various Consorzi that are recognized by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. It represents 95% of Italian GI producers.
“Brunellopoli: A wine scandal under the Tuscan sun” – Tourism Review International 15(3):253-267 · July 2012 by Alessio Cavicchi (University of Macerata) and Cristina Santini (University San Raffaele, Roma).
NOTE: This article’s featured image is a view of Govone, Cuneo, from its castle. [Photo by Paolo Rigiroli].
Even though Italian food is prominent in North America as well as other English speaking countries, restaurant menus often use Italian words in ways that are not even remotely close to what would sound natural to a native Italian. And it isn’t just because of spelling mistakes, the grammatical and logical use of Italian words is also frequently incorrect.
This post started as a chat with two Twitter friends, Cecilia Razelli (@cocci_ge) and Carlo Settembrini (@csettembrini.) Cecilia found it amusing that I titled one of my articles “Formaggio Cheese,” given that she had noted a similar trend with constructs like “salsiccia sausage” and “prosciutto ham” (if you don’t see why Italians can find this amusing, keep reading!) Then Carlo joined the conversation, expanding to other types of mistakes that English speaking people make when using Italian words. We kept chatting on Twitter for a bit, then we moved the conversation to a shared Google Document, which eventually became the outline for this article. I would like to thank Cecilia and Carlo for engaging in this collaboration – literally, this post wouldn’t have happened without you!
To help illustrate the variety of errors that are commonly made when non-experienced Italian speakers use the Italian language, we grouped the mistakes according to their nature into six distinct families. So, let’s get started!
When native Italians look for authentic Italian restaurants abroad, they often assess their authenticity merely on the number of spelling mistakes they can spot on the menus. Since the Italian language is mostly phonetic (i.e. written as pronounced,) there are no spelling competitions in Italy – spelling is generally not an issue over there(1)! This is why spelling mistakes stand out even more to the Italians.
Some spelling mistakes seem to reflect the way Italian words tend to be pronounced by English natives. Take ‘focaccia’ as an example: its misspelled counterpart ‘foccacia’ is gaining popularity because it’s closer to how it sounds in English. At other times, alternate English spellings appear to reflect the dialect of the first Italian-Americans. Words like ‘Cappicolla’ and ‘Macaroni,’ for instance, bear clear signs of a southern Italian heritage as opposed to their national counterparts: ‘Capicollo’ and ‘Maccheroni.’ Other words, like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini,’ reflect a combination of causes: their dialectal origin and the way the correctly spelled ‘linguine’ and ‘zucchine’ sound when read with an English accent.
To a native Italian, it’s bad enough to hear a misspelled word, but things get even worse when the alternate spelling has a different meaning in Italian. For instance, ‘panini’ is sometimes misspelled as ‘pannini.’ Now, while ‘panini’ is a diminutive of “pane,” which means ‘bread,’ the word ‘pannini’ is a diminutive of ‘panni,’ which is equivalent to “items of clothing” or “rags.” So now you know why a native Italian may get a giggle when they read that the chef’s special is the “house pannini.”
2. Plural vs. singular
Even when spelled correctly, Italian words may be misused in the context of a sentence because of an incorrect “grammatical number.” A classic example of this mistake is using the word ‘panini’ (which is the plural of ‘panino’) to refer to a single sandwich. It’s not clear why the plural ‘panini’ entered the English language instead of the singular ‘panino,’ although one theory is that ‘panini’ is assonant with other Italian-sounding words like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini.’ Regardless, a sentence like “I’d like a panini” sounds to a native Italian as wrong as “I’d like a sandwiches.” And it goes without saying that the word “paninis” doesn’t make any sense to a native Italian since it’s a double-plural. The same mistake occurs when ‘biscotti’ is used to refer to a single cookie (in Italian it’s the plural of ‘biscotto.’) The word ‘gelati’ instead is often used interchangeably with the word ‘gelato,’ when in reality it’s its plural form and should be used when referring to two or more Italian ice creams.
When using the English language, however, nobody is expected to use Italian grammar. Therefore, words like ‘paninos,’ ‘gelatos,’ and ‘pizzas’ are perfectly acceptable. In fact, Italians do the same with English words: they adopt the singular form and use it interchangeably both as singular and as plural (“un computer, due computer” = ‘one computer, two computers.’)
3. Feminine vs. masculine
In the Italian language, nouns have gender. Moreover, articles and adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they are used with. Because of this, besides knowing if nouns are plural or singular, in order to write proper Italian one must know the gender of nouns. Luckily, most of the times it’s easy to tell if a word is masculine or feminine: if it ends in ‘a’ it’s feminine; if it ends in ‘o’ it’s masculine (this for singular words, for plural words it’s ‘e’ for feminine, ‘i’ for masculine.) So, for example, because ‘pizza’ is feminine, one should say ‘pizza classica,’ not ‘pizza classico.’ And it’s ‘pasta ai gamberi,’ not ‘pasta alle gamberi.’ Consistency is important!
4. Adjective vs. noun
Many Italian dishes bear colorful names also thanks to the use of descriptive adjectives. As an example, ‘Bolognese’ means “from the city of Bologna.” When native Italians use words like ‘bolognese’ to refer to the famous kind of ragù (a generic word for meat sauce), they say “alla bolognese,” meaning “in the style of the city of Bologna.” Although it’s acceptable to say “Bolognese sauce” (“salsa bolognese,”) it doesn’t make sense to say: “I’ve had pasta with Bolognese” (leaving out the noun.) The sentence: “I’ve had Bolognese pasta” is also likely incorrect since it means “I’ve had pasta from the city of Bologna” with no reference to its sauce. Worse yet, if you order “a Bolognese” in a restaurant, it will sound like you are ordering a person from Bologna – that would be a very dubious kind of meat sauce!
Similarly, ‘Parmigiano’ or ‘Parmigiana’ means “from the city of Parma” (referred to a masculine/feminine subject respectively.) As for the famous eggplant dish, however, it’s equally correct to say “melanzane alla parmigiana” (“parmesan eggplants”) or “parmigiana di melanzane” (“parmesan of eggplants,”) the latter using ‘parmigiana’ as a noun.
And to conclude this category of mistakes, let’s not forget that the word ‘balsamic’ is an adjective, and it means “curative,” or “having the same properties of a conditioner” (‘conditioner’ = ‘balsamo’ in Italian.) It makes no sense to an Italian to use ‘balsamico’ without a noun or a pronoun. So, you can’t have anything like “I’ll have balsamic on my salad.” Balsamic what?
5. Generic vs. specific
‘Formaggio cheese,’ ‘salsiccia sausage,’ ‘prosciutto ham’ don’t make sense to a native Italian because they are redundant. ‘Formaggio’ is Italian for cheese, ‘salsiccia’ is Italian for sausage, ‘prosciutto (cotto(2))’ is Italian for ham. So, in Italy, all you are saying when you say ‘salsiccia sausage’ is “sausage sausage,” or “‘ham ham,” “cheese cheese.” We know the prospect of Italian food is exciting, but just one term will do!
As for the origin of this construct, it may come from the North American practice to use generic product names combined with specific adjectives. For instance, people say “cheddar cheese,” or “tuna fish,” when really ‘cheddar’ or ‘tuna’ can’t be anything other than ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ respectively.
Interestingly, however, ‘gelato ice cream’ is technically correct since gelato is not exactly Italian for ice cream: it’s a particular kind of ice cream (denser, less sweet, and less fat.) Because of this, it may be justifiable to use ‘gelato ice cream’ as a marketing strategy to indicate a specialty product (likely to be sold at a higher price.)
Also technically correct is ‘espresso coffee’ since ‘espresso’ is indeed descriptive of a distinct kind of coffee extraction. In Italian coffee bars, however, people just call it ‘espresso,’ or even simply ‘coffee’ since the coffee sold in coffee bars is almost exclusively espresso. When ordering a coffee, Italians also often shorten the name when they order an espresso variation, which comes with its own descriptive adjective. Examples are ‘corto’ (short), ‘macchiato’ (stained or spotted with steamed milk,) ‘corretto’ (corrected with liquors or spirits,) etc. Sometimes they even leave out the noun altogether and order directly a ‘macchiato,’ which ironically also happens in North America.
The construct: ‘ricotta cheese,’ instead, is completely wrong since ricotta is technically not even cheese (being it made from whey, and therefore considered just a dairy product, or ‘latticino’ in Italian.)
In the Italian language, the following are generic names as well:
‘Panino’ is the generic name for ‘bread roll’ or ‘sandwich,’ whether grilled or not.
‘Biscotto’ is the generic name for ‘cookie,’ though Italian cookies tend to be crunchy, rather than chewy.
‘Antipasto’ is the generic translation of ‘appetizer.’ Not a particular kind of appetizer made of pickled vegetables, olives, and often tuna, or (worse) this “invention” from Kraft.
‘Latte’ is the generic name for milk, cold milk to be precise – which is what you would get if you ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy. The proper name for the espresso-based drink is ‘latte macchiato’ (steamed milk stained or spotted with coffee.)
6. Food vs. preparation
To end the list of mistake families, we can’t leave out one of the most mysterious ones exemplified by the Italian-American dish called Shrimp Scampi. Scampi, plural of scampo, is a crustacean similar to a small lobster. For some reason, it also became the name of a preparation (based on tomato, garlic, and white wine) that is generally used for shrimp and other crustaceans. But if “Shrimp Scampi” makes no sense to a native Italian because it’s essentially “Shrimp Shrimp,” Olive Garden’s Chicken Scampi makes even less sense, since it’s like saying “Chicken Shrimp.”
Sometimes Shrimp Scampi is instead used to refer to a crustacean, possibly just to make a dish sound more mysterious, or “elevated,” and definitely more “Italian.” Dishes like “Linguine with Shrimp Scampi” from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten are a clear indication of how mainstream this misconception has gone. It goes without saying that actual Scampi are nowhere in the ingredients.
To make matters worse, dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster define ‘scampi’ as “a usually large shrimp; also: a large shrimp prepared with a garlic-flavored sauce,” also reporting ‘scampi’ as a singular noun with an invariant plural form. Fortunately, heroic bloggers like my friend Frank Fariello set the record straight by correctly explaining the naming issue behind this dish.
To end the category and this article, ‘Calamari’ is another example where non-native Italians may confuse an ingredient with its preparation. Whereas in Italian it generically means ‘squid,’ outside of Italy, and especially in North America, it refers to its deep-fried ring-shaped slices.
(1) In some regions of Italy, Italians make certain kinds of spelling mistakes due to how words sound in their dialects. As an example, those who speak a Venetian dialect tend to drop double consonants. In southern Italy, instead, double consonants tend to be added where they don’t belong (e.g. Carabbinieri instead of Carabinieri.)
(2) In Italy, there are two kinds of prosciutto: ‘cotto’ (“cooked” similar to ham) and ‘crudo’ (“raw, cured.”)
Piadina is a traditional flatbread from the Italian historical region of Romagna.
The name piadina (plural: piadine) is a diminutive form of piada (used interchangeably to refer to the same preparation), which originates from the Greek pláthanon: “long dish, baking tray.” Since 2014, ‘piadina’ is registered as Protected Geographical Indication (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or IGP, in Italian.)
Traditionally, piadina is made of flour, water, salt, and a small amount of lard (strutto in Italian). For a vegetarian recipe, the lard can be substituted with olive oil or margarine. Through the centuries, from a simple bread alternative, piadina has become an iconic symbol of the Romagna region and a widely popular product. Nowadays, it can be enjoyed in special establishments called Piadinerie (plural of Piadineria), which can also be found in big northern Italian cities outside of the Romagna region.
The piadina can be served as a kind of bread to accompany meals, but it’s more commonly enjoyed folded in half and filled with various cheeses, cold cuts, or roasted vegetables. One of the most popular fillings is Squacquerone (a fresh cheese which has a protected designation of origin from Romagna), prosciutto crudo (dry-cured ham), and rocket (arugula).
Having grown up in the province of Milan, I only became familiar with piadina during one of my family’s summer trips to the Adriatic seaside resort of Emilia-Romagna, a popular destination for Italian and north European tourists who are looking for long sandy beaches, shallow Mediterranean waters, amazing food, and exciting nightlife. I remember trying my first piadina in a small theme park called Fiabilandia, in Rivazzurra di Rimini. It was filled with prosciutto crudo, and for me, it was a welcome revelation—one of the first of the many kinds of Italian regional food that I went on to discover!
1 teaspoon of salt (or 1 1/6 if using unsalted margarine*)
2 ounces (1/4 cup) (salted) margarine, at room temperature
1/2 cup of water
1 cup Squacquerone cheese (which can be substituted with Quark)
one handful of rocket
20 cherry tomatoes, halved
In an electric mixer using the dough blade, combine flour, baking soda, and salt.
Add the margarine and mix until evenly combined.
Slowly add the water, mix until the dough forms a mass around the hook. Knead until smooth, 5 minutes.
Divide the dough into four equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Wrap the balls in saran wrap and let them rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a thin disc, 7 inches in diameter. If you want perfectly round piadine, press a similar sized lid onto the rolled dough, then remove the excess around the edges.
Warm up a non-stick pan on the small burner, at a medium heat. Allow 5-10 minutes for the pan to reach a stable temperature.
Cook one piadina at a time, for about 2-3 minutes on each side. If big bubbles begin to form, flip the piadina sooner to keep the bubbles from growing. Continue cooking, flipping as necessary, until lightly browned small blisters appear on the side in contact with the heat.
Remove the piadina from the heat and let it cool until lukewarm, then fold it in half and fill it with the cheese, rocket, and cherry tomatoes.
* Salted margarine contains 7 mg of sodium per gram, therefore 2 oz of margarine contain 400 mg of sodium, which correspond to 1/6 teaspoon of salt.
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.
I chose this recipe because I wanted to recreate the gnudi I tasted in a restaurant in Florence during a recent Italian trip, which also happen to have been the first gnudi I ever tasted! Florence is a mere 300 kilometres from my hometown, but regional specialties often remain confined to their native areas.
As pointed out by Domenica, “nudi” (or “gnudi” in Tuscan dialect) means naked. This is because essentially they are “naked” ravioli, i.e. ravioli filling without the pasta wrapper. The use of ricotta makes them light and fluffy, unlike potato gnocchi, which are much denser. It’s important to note that gnudi are used in first courses instead of pasta or gnocchi, they’re not meant to be served with pasta like some kind of vegetarian meatballs!
Gnudi can be prepared in several different ways. The version chosen by Domenica (and which I recreated) sees the addition of spinach and chard (“bietola” in Italian) for a “green” dough that is delicate and smooth, and which pairs well with plain tomato sauce (described here). The process of rolling the gnudi into shape is relatively easy, but it requires time and some patience. The result is spectacular – gnudi are a great first course which can set the tone for a very special meal.
Chard and Spinach Gnudi, the Naked Ravioli
Yield: 2-3 servings
Total Time: 1 hour
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
8 oz (225 g) green chard* leaves, ripped (*a.k.a. Swiss chard)
4 oz (115 g) fresh spinach leaves
6 oz (170 g) cow ricotta, well drained
1/2 cup (50 g) Parmigiano, grated
1/8 cup (15 g) white flour, plus 1/4 cup (30 g) to coat the gnudi
Wash the green chard, coarsely rip the leaves and place them, still damp, into a large pot. Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes at a medium heat until wilted, stirring occasionally. They will reduce their volume considerably.
Meanwhile, wash the spinach leaves and cook them in the same way as the chard, but only for 5 minutes.
Remove the greens from the heat and place them in a colander to cool. When cold enough to handle, squeeze them vigorously with your hands or by wrapping them into a clean tea towel. As Domenica predicted, these quantities yielded about ½ cup of squeezed, cooked greens. Place the greens on a cutting board and chop them finely.
In a mixing bowl, combine the chopped greens, the ricotta, the yolk, Parmigiano (keeping 1 tablespoon aside), flour, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
As you bring a large pot of salted water to a gentle boil, start forming the gnudi. Prepare one bowl filled with flour, next to a plate coated in parchment paper. Using your hands, make balls of dough of about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Roll them in the flour until uniformly coated, then place them on the parchment paper.
Boil the gnudi a batch at a time making sure not to overcrowd them (so that they don’t stick to one another, and to ensure the water remains boiling). Gently place them into the simmering water and allow them to cook undisturbed for 6-8 minutes. About half-way through the cooking, they will start floating.
Gently remove the gnudi from the water using a perforated ladle, and place them into a colander. Keep them warm as you cook the next batch.
Have the tomato sauce ready and kept warm in a skillet. Place 2-3 tablespoons of tomato sauce in preheated bowls. Roll the gnudi into the skillet with the sauce until coated, then gently place them into the bowls. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano, serve immediately.
Growing up, I was used to my mother’s soup made from chunky vegetables in clear broth. I can’t say I loved it – certainly not as much as I enjoy it now – but I clearly remember liking its strained variant: the “passato” (passed through, strained), the first time I tasted it.
This memory goes back to when I was a kid, during a summer vacation. My family and I were staying at our usual “pensione” on the Adriatic coast of Emilia Romagna, in the days before bed and breakfasts. The most common vacation accommodations were “full pensions”, with three meals a day included, and “half-pensions”, which only served breakfast and dinner, and so allowing time for day trips.
The Romagna region is famous for its delectable cuisine, and the pensione was no exception. Each day was special, but the Sunday menu was even fancier than usual, often featuring baked pastas, stews, roasts, a variety of sides, and dessert (which was only fruit on weekdays). Things however were less fancy on the chef’s weekly day off! On that day, reduced kitchen staff used to serve a simple dried pasta for lunch and a soup for dinner, both of which were followed by cold cuts and cheeses. One of those soups was my first passato, and it made a strong impression! Not only do I remember its complex flavor, its dark green color, and its velvety texture, I even remember the corner of the restaurant in which we were seated!
Over the years I learned to appreciate all kinds of soups, but passato still holds a special place in my memory. Like most Italian soups, passato di verdure is made by first roasting the aromatic vegetables (celery, carrot, onion) in olive oil, then adding water and the rest of the vegetables, then cooking everything for a long time to allow for the flavor to develop. To make a passato, however, the cooked vegetables are finally strained in a food mill (or by hand in a kitchen strainer), then allowed to cook some more. The straining process retains the fibrous content, and finely mashes the vegetables releasing all of their flavor into the broth. Mashing also emulsifies the olive oil used for roasting, bringing out even more flavor.
Passato di Verdure (Strained Vegetables Soup)
Yield: 2-3 servings
Total Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 onion, minced
1 big carrot, minced
2 celery sticks, minced
1 medium leek, sliced
2 yellow potatoes, diced
1/2 lb squash, diced
1/4 of a cabbage, coarsely cut
5-8 leaves black kale, coarsely cut
2 Roma tomatoes, halved
2 oz Parmigiano, grated
salt and black pepper
Roast onion, carrot, celery in olive oil at high heat until soft.
Add the leek, potato, squash and continue roasting for a few minutes.
Add enough water to fully cover the vegetables.
Add cabbage, kale and tomatoes (which don't need to be peeled, since the skin will remain in the strainer).
Simmer for 2 hours, covered with a lid, or pressure cook for 1/2 hour (using the vegetable setting if available), which is what I did.
Strain the cooked vegetables in a food mill or by hand.
Put the vegetables back in the same pot, add most of the grated Parmigiano.
Adjust with salt and simmer for 15 more minutes. If necessary, use an immersion blender to make the soup even smoother.
Serve sprinkled with the rest of the Parmigiano and freshly ground pepper.
Like for any other vegetable soup, for a more filling dish you can add pasta/rice to the finished product, and continue boiling until cooked. Because of its density, however, the passato will require pasta or rice to cook for longer, since it will take longer to absorb water (up to 50% more in my experience).
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.