Comfort Foods Unite
This week's menu was inspired by comforting foods - those that only Nonna cooks to make us feel better. When dealing with uncertainties, food connects us with our past and reminds us that we are not alone.
Thin sheets of fresh egg pasta, layered with bechamel sauce, Nonna Irma's 12-hour slow cooked beef ragu and parmesan cheese
A Tuscan specialty! Grilled pork ribs rubbed with fennel seeds, mixed spices and a balsamic glaze.
Fagioli all' Uccelletto (side dish)
Baked cannellini beans, tomato, garlic and fresh sage
Misticanza di Stagione
Baby kale, radicchio and frisee lettuces, roasted grapes, crispy farro, and parmesan shavings
"Pick-me-up" espresso-soaked ladyfingers, whipped mascarpone and chocolate with a drop of Zia Ada's "secret" elixir.
Chef's Travel Notes
Non é possible! Can it really be 105 weeks of COVID restrictions and Food Club menus?! Maybe it is a good thing we didn’t know how long things would be shut down… and of course, we still don’t know for how much longer we will be affected by its repercussions. So, we will carry on, discovering new foods and revisiting old favorites, telling stories, watching movies, and traveling through the regions of Italy together. Some of the offerings will be new and others will be repeats of past favorites. One thing is certain though… we WILL make it through one week at a time, one day, one satisfying dish at a time.
In times of uncertainty, food can trigger comforting memories that remind us of better times and help us to cope. Undoubtedly, my fondest memories stem from my time spent in Italy where family and food were the epicenter of life. As a young coed, studying in Florence, I was far from home and feeling vulnerable, off balance and uncertain. When I discovered what was to become Trattoria i Ricchi and the Ricchi family in a tiny remote enclave in the Tuscan hills, I was welcomed and immediately enveloped in a culture of care and camaraderie, stoked by generations of culinary traditions that brought family and friends together around the table. This is my happy place. My love language is food – cooking and sharing with the people I love. I will be taking inspiration from my own culinary memories with the hope we can all find community and comfort wherever we are forced to be.
This week’s menu highlights some of my first food discoveries in Tuscany. As an Italian American from New York, I was sure I knew everything there was to know about Italian food but was I delightfully surprised to experience some totally different flavors. Lasagna alla Bolognese, made with homemade fresh egg pasta, rolled paper thin and then layered with a seemingly simple combination of slowly simmered beef sauce (sugo), besciamella and parmesan cheese. The ingredients are not complicated, but the combination of flavors is layered and complex. First step was starting the sauce the day before. This sugo as they call it, was an arduous procedure of sautéing large quantities of minced carrots, celery, and onion, adding chopped beef and slowly simmering it for hours with lemon peel and spices before adding red wine and tomato concentrate. At this point, they would push the pot to the back of the wood burning stove (cucina economica) and leave it there to slowly bubble away for hours. This was the old country’s slow cooker. The aroma filled the house and the restaurant (we lived above the store 😊). You could always tell when it was time “da fare il sugo” – to make the sauce.
The next revelation was making and rolling out the pasta. A volcano of flour with farm fresh bright, orange-yoked eggs from our chickens and a pinch of salt was all it took under the experienced hands of the local women who worked in the kitchen. Magic ensued as Maria took this mound of goodness and an exceptionally long rolling pin and started pushing and smoothing until she had an impressive round of thin pasta “sfoglia” that easily measured 3 feet across. She then cut the pasta into large sheets to fit the pans, cooked them and began the process of creating delicate layers and layers of pasta deliciousness, bechamel sauce, the long-awaited sugo and fresh parmesan cheese. This is quite different from the Italian American lasagna you may have eaten before.
Another Tuscan specialty that I soon discovered was both delightfully recognizable and a little exotic was Rosticciana – Tuscan barbeque ribs. Large slabs of meaty pork ribs were rubbed with spices and grilled over live embers taken from the cucina economica. Note: They called this an “economical stove” because it fulfilled multiple tasks in the kitchen – you could bake in its ovens, cook on its flat top, grill with its embers (it was wood-burning to boot) and even heat water in its overhead boiler to wash the dishes. My take on this Tuscan classic is to brush on a balsamic glaze at the end to add a zesty crunch. There is nothing more comforting and primal than eating meat on the bone with your hands, so dig in, get messy and enjoy. Fagioli all’Ucceletto is a long-standing Tuscan favorite. The word “uccello” means bird. All’uccelletto refers to the classic method of cooking fowl in a tomatoey garlic sage-like stew. It lends a hearty, deep nuance of flavors to the Tuscan’s ever popular cannellini beans. Given that barbeque ribs and baked beans are comfort food staples on many American tables, I thought it most gastronomically appropriate to share the Tuscan equivalent and remind us of all that unites us.
Another curiosity of Italian feasting is that they prefer to eat their salad at the end of the meal – almost as a palate cleanser. It is as if it were setting the stage for the final course. Tiramisu did not originate in Tuscany, but rather Traviso, dating back to the 1800s. Believe it or not, it is said to have originated in a house of ill-repute (!) where the Madam who ran the premises created this calorie-rich aphrodisiac dessert. A type of natural Viagra from the 19th century, served to customers in a brothel! (No promises here 😊…but now you know why I included it in our comfort foods menu!) In the 1980s Tiramisu became very popular throughout all of Italy and very quickly became the bestselling dessert at Trattoria i Ricchi in Cercina. Every Saturday, I would meet Zia Ada to make the week’s desserts. What an education! She welcomed me, l'Americana, the young blond college student, ever so willing to share her recipes, passed down by generations of Ricchi women.
Memories of those Saturday's together are some of my most precious. I had been accepted and then nurtured by this group of local women who were eager to teach me the art of cooking and the act of expressing love through food. I wish you “Buon appetito”. Whether you are enjoying this food by yourself, with another or your whole family, please know that you are breaking bread with all the i Ricchi extended family - all eating these same dishes and traveling through these flavors and words. We are united, strong, and connected – now and always.