For many of us, our image of an Italian mother is one of a sweet, petite, slightly rounded woman, apron tied around her waist and flour always under her fingernails. We see her spending most of her day in the kitchen making pasta by hand and cooking up something wonderful for her family and/or guests whom she dotes on endlessly. It is possible that these women exist, but get in mamma's way at the supermarket and you'll see mamma and nonna in a whole new light. The elbow jab to the ribs or rolly-cart to the shins will quickly shake away any misconception you have of a sweet & frail mamma. I met up with Italian mamma, Mariantonietta, for a day of food shopping and a Pugliese cooking lesson.
Now Mariantonietta can cook, and it's clear she knows her way around a kitchen. She owns a seaside restaurant in Salento, is part-owner of a masseria in Puglia and is responsible for organizing many food and wine events in the area and throughout Italy. Obviously, this bustling business woman is too busy to be in the kitchen all day, yet she still insists on eating tasty, nutritious Italian meals. Her motto is that an easy and elegant meal should take no longer than an hour to prepare. After a day "out in the fields" meeting local farmers, olive oil producers and visiting a wine cooperative, we cooked up a delicious four-course dinner full of the flavors of Puglia. And we did it in less than an hour.
That morning we spent exploring Leverano, an area in Salento rich in agriculture. We visited a tomato grower who grows 150 varieties of tomatoes, tasted olive oil from a olive oil cooperative and saw wine being made at a cooperative where around 1200 small producers combine their resources to make wine and olive oil. Talk about fresh, the produce we purchased had just been harvested that morning. We even met with a flower grower in the area and picked up flowers for the table.
We brought our purchases back to Mariantonietta's kitchen. Not only is her kitchen spacious and colorful, decorated with all sorts of photos, tiles and ceramics, but it's also modern and well-equipped. At first look it might seem that the pots and kitchen utensils were only for decoration, but they were hung strategically, which allowed for quick and easy retrieval when cooking. It wasn't all work in the kitchen either. In between chatter, photo breaks, and plenty of wine (the wine was a Negroamaro from the Leverano Wine Coopertive), we put together a fabulous meal, where local vegetables and ingredients were the stars.
Although she never seemed rushed, Mariantonietta was swift in the kitchen. She moved from sink to prep area to stove like a ballerina, each motion seemingly choreographed and practiced many times before. Local and seasonal vegetables were key to making this meal. Mariantonietta pointed out that the fresher the vegetables are, the quicker they cook and the tastier they are. And if you use dried pasta, which we did, most Italian pasta dishes are quite quick and easy to make. With five ingredients or less, you can make a wonderful dish. Our meal was the essence of Italian cooking, simple yet so full of flavor because Mariantonietta let the unadulterated quality and freshness of the ingredients shine.
We started with antipasti of local salumi and cheese. We also had bruschetta made with local tomatoes, the famous bread from Altamura and olive oil from the Leverano Oil Cooperative.
The primo piatto was a gorgeous plate of orecchiette with cauliflower, sausage and cheese. The mild flavor of the cauliflower blended well with the bold taste of the sausage, and the cheese, not too much, brought a perfect creaminess to the entire dish.
Using extras from the pasta dish, we made a secondo of grilled sausage links and a contorno (side dish) of cauliflower gratin. That wasn't all. Two more contorni rounded out the meal: the classic dish peperonata, bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic slowly cooked in olive oil. We also had the famous Pugliese vegetable cime di rapa (broccoli rabe), again boiled and dressed with olive oil.
Dried figs with an almond inside (a Salento specialty), walnuts and limoncello were dessert.
The day was much more than a cooking lesson. I was able to see exactly from where the produce we purchased came, meet those producers - the many that get their hands dirty so we can eat well, and learn a little about agricultural life in Salento. Not only that, I made a new friend in Mariantonietta. Whenever I make this dish (which I have many times because it's so easy to make), I think of her, cooking and eating together, and the people of Leverano. (More on Leverano and its producers coming in another post.) Below is the recipe for orecchiette with cauliflower,sausage and cheese based on Mariantonietta's recipe. She used cacioricotta cheese, which is hard for me to find in California, but any semi-soft, not too strong cheese will do.
Join me in 2014 in Puglia! An amazing 9-day/8 night Food & Wine Lover's Culinary Tour - It's a food frenzy, cooking party, history & cultural lesson through food. You'll have "backstage-pass" entrance to kitchens and Italian homes and immerse yourself in the food and culture of Puglia!
Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Sausage and Cheese
(Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a primo piatto)
1 large head of cauliflower, cut into florets
About 1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup olive oil
12 ounces of Italian sausage (3-4 links)*
1 pound orecchiette or other small dried pasta (i.e. mezzi rigatoni or conchiglie/small shells)
About 8 ounces cheese, grated or diced (cacioricotta, pecorino)
Freshly grated black pepper, to taste
Place the cauliflower florets in a large pot and add water about half way up the pot and the salt. Bring the water to boil and cook just until the cauliflower are al dente. Remove the cauliflower and drain. Use this water to cook the pasta, adding more water and salt if necessary.
In a large saute pan, add the olive oil and sausage, and cook the sausauge.
When the sausage is almost done, cook the pasta for only four minutes, then drain. Save the pasta water. Add the drained pasta to the sausage and stir through to coat the pasta with the olive oil and "toast" it, for 2-3 minutes. Add the cauliflower and 2 or 3 ladles of pasta water. Cook a few minutes more until pasta is al dente. Remove from the heat, add the cheese and stir in until the cheese has melted creating a creamy finish. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper and serve. Buon Appetito!
*Note: When I recreate this dish, I use 12 ounces of sausage out of the casing, using 6 ounces of sweet/mild sausage and 6 ounces of spicy sausage.
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be cooking with our beautiful Italian mamme and professional chefs. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region. There are four tour dates available from which to choose! For tour details, check out this page: Food Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia