Earthquakes, Donald Trump, olive blight and other disasters notwithstanding, people have to eat. The markets and fruttivendoli are open for business and during my first autumn in Le Marche, it was intriguing for me to see what was in the stores food-wise and what I could dream up in the kitchen. Just as in summer, all the fall produce is fresh and delicious. We bought the proper pan in the market for three euros and roasted chestnuts over an open fire in our camino, cracking them open, a glass of vino cotto on the side.
I made a pie from the tiny apples remaining on my friend Achille’s tree on the road our houses share. The persimmons on the trees near us still seemed too hard, so we got one più maturo from the fruit guy and tasted the sweet, juicy flesh of this strange fruit. I can’t say that anything I cooked was a traditional Marchigiano dish, but the recipes below used local ingredients, and with all due humility, tasted outstanding. Buon appetito!
I never set out knowing what I want to make for lunch– it’s whatever looks freshest at the fruit stand that inspires me. The Tuesday after the big end-of-October quake, we visited the small neighboring town of Gualdo on what is usually market day. The main square was roped off, and Nicoletta, the fruttivendola, was selling from the back of her truck in the parking lot. An overflowing basket of spinach and a crate of snow white mushrooms caught my eye. The resulting frittata and a big bunch of green grapes that truly tasted like wine made for un bel pranzo.
Spinach Mushroom frittata
3 T. olive oil
1 clove of garlic, diced
1 lb. fresh white mushrooms, gently washed and air dried, stem ends removed, thinly sliced
1 large bunch of fresh spinach, washed, dried, thick stems removed
4 large eggs
1/2 c. milk
1 c. pecorino dolce, grated on the large holes of a box grater
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly oil a ceramic baking dish.
Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add the 3 T. olive oil and after it heats a bit, add the garlic and mushrooms. Cook stirring occasionally for about 7 minutes or until mushrooms brown a bit and their liquid evaporates. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, just until the spinach wilts. Spread the vegetables in the baking dish.
Using a whisk, beat the eggs with the milk and lots of ground black pepper until frothy. Pour the egg mixture into the baking dish. Top with the grated pecorino.
Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes or until the eggs have set and the frittata is golden on top. Serve immediately. Four portions.
Chicken Rollatini with Prosciutto and Goat Cheese
I made two chicken dishes this time around. One was simple –fried cutlets with an arugula and tomato/balsamic salad on top. The chicken tastes different here– it’s fresher and more flavorful. And the clever products one finds in the Italian supermercati are really fun to cook with. Le Farine Magiche per fritture makes an almost tempura-like breading for chicken and vegetables. It’s amazing and light and delicious. The second chicken dish was a rollatini– not traditional I’m sure, but it was really good. I think the key ingredient was the salata cheese we bought at a wonderful cheese-making farm we visited in the hills above Amandola. The owners are committed to raising their cows in a natural way and limiting their products to those made traditionally. Called Angolo di Paradiso– it was indeed a bucolic farm high above the town in the Sibillini Mountains. The cheese and yogurt we bought were truly superb. In the recipe below, substituting a mild goat cheese, or a stracchino for the salata will work well.
3 slices of day old bread lightly toasted
1 clove garlic, halved
4 oz. of stracchino or mild goat cheese
2 T. fresh herbs, could be thyme, oregano, parsley, or rosemary
5 T. olive oil, separated, plus more to grease the panFreshly ground black pepper
Zest of one half lemon
6 flat, pounded chicken breast filets
6 thin slices prosciutto
1/2 c. flour
1 egg, beaten with 1 T. water
2/3 c. store-made breadcrumbs or panko
Juice of one lemon
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly oil a medium sized baking dish.
Prepare the filling: Tear toasted bread into small pieces and process into rough breadcrumbs in a food processor. Add the garlic and continue to process. If by chance you have any leftover roasted chestnuts, add them here! Add the cheese, herbs, 2 T. oil, black pepper and lemon zest. Process until the mixture begins to come together as a biscuit dough would.
On a washable work surface, lay out each chicken fillet. Lay on a piece of prosciutto. Using a large soupspoon, form the filling into a log or egg shape and place on the prosciutto. Roll the fillet around the prosciutto and filling, and secure with either a large toothpick, or if you have a big rosemary plant, cut sprigs with stems about 1/8″ thick. Cut the end on the bias to form a point, and use the sprig to secure the rollatini.
Prepare your breading station by placing the flour, egg mixture and breadcrumbs in 3 separate bowls. Carefully dredge each rollatini in flour, then dip in egg, then in breadcrumbs, using your fingers to adhere the coating to the chicken. Place on a plate.
Heat a large skillet to medium high. Add 3 T. olive oil and when hot, carefully place the rollatini in the pan. After about 3 minutes, when golden, gently use tongs to turn the rollatini. Heat another 3 minutes, or until golden. Use the tongs to remove the rollatini to the prepared baking dish. Pour the lemon juice over each piece, cover with foil and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil for the last few minutes of cooking. Six servings.
My friend Angela, in addition to raising a slew of hens and rabbits, has a voluptuous orto, or vegetable garden. We saw some gigantic butternut squash ornamenting the front of her house, along with the winter pansies. We asked her for a squash, which she willingly gave, and I made this soup from it. I was pleasantly surprised to find fresh ginger in the markets here– had never seen it before in Italy. Don’t get mixed up though– the word for ginger is zenzero and the word for mosquito is zanzara — another trap for hapless stranieri. Here’s another great thing. When you buy nutmeg, or noce moscata in Italy, rather than the pulverized spice, you can get the whole nutmeg seeds in a jar with a tiny grater inside to grind it fresh. Ingenious!
Butternut Squash Soup
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 onion, diced
1/3 c., plus 1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. dried red pepper flakes
4-5 cups water
1 t. freshly ground nutmeg
1 1/2 T. freshly ground ginger
2 t. lemon zest
2 T. panna da cucina, or heavy cream, or creme fraiche
2 oz. pancetta, diced
2 slices day old bread, lightly toasted and cut into 1/2″ cubes
Heat a soup pot. Add the 1/3 c. oil, diced onion, cubed squash and red pepper flakes. Saute over medium high heat for about 7-8 minutes, or until onions and squash begin to brown slightly. Add 4-5 cups water, depending on how large the squash was. Don’t worry– you can always boil it down later if you feel the soup is too watery, or add more water if the soup is too thick. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the squash is fork tender.
Working in batches, ladel the soup into a blender. Blend until smooth and then pour into a bowl. When all the soup is blended, return all of it to the soup pot. Season with the nutmeg, ginger and lemon zest. Simmer for as long as you like, or turn off heat with the soup pot covered.
When ready to serve, re-heat and adjust thickness. If the soup seems too thin, let it cook longer. If too thick, add water. Add the cream and stir in completely. In a small frying pan, saute 1 T. olive oil with the diced pancetta. When the pancetta begins to crisp, add the croutons. Cook until they are crisp and golden. Garnish the soup with the pancetta croutons. Six servings.
Sauteed Calabrian Zucchini
Okay– now what do you think of this crazy looking thing? Fruit? Vegetable? Houseplant? Cactus? When I saw it at the fruttivendolo in Sarnano, the owner told me it was a Calabrian zucchini. He said it’s used to make soup sometimes. I decided to saute it and it soon became the most popular vegetable a casa mia.
1 Calabrian zucchini
1/4 c. olive oil
2 shallots, diced
fresh ground black pepper
Wearing gloves, stick a large serving fork into the small end of the zucchini to hold it steady, straight up. Use a sharp knife to slice off the prickly outer skin, all around the zucchini and on its ends. Remove the fork. Slice the zucchini into quarters lengthwise. Remove the seed from each section and then cut lengthwise into 1/4″ slices.
Heat a large saute pan over high heat. Add the oil and the zucchini slices. Cook stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Add the shallots and black pepper and saute for about another 5 minutes, until the slices are fork tender and beginning to brown. Add salt to taste. Serves four.
And lastly, I will mention bruschetta — the perfect end to bits of leftovers too small for another meal. Vegetables, meat, tomatoes, herbs, slices of old bread — drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with diced or grated leftover cheese, baked in the oven for 10 minutes on a foil lined baking sheet. There’s nothing easier and it makes the perfect appetizer or, with a salad, an excellent lunch side dish. When eating so well it’s easy to forget almost any disaster — at least for a little while.