25 October 2013

Suffritto di Pollastri—Renaissance Saffron Chicken

We promised you a recipe from De Arte Coquinaria, the famous cookbook written in the 1460’s by Maestro Martino da Como, chief cook to the Pope and many other nabobs of Renaissance Italy. I found one I liked but it’s had to wait until I could find a bottle of agresto, known as verjus here in France. They still make it nearby in Périgord, where some folks deglaze their pan-fried foie gras with it, but usually you can only find it in the fancy shops.

Here’s what Maestro Martino was cooking for the nabobs:

Per fare un suffritto de carne, o de pippioni,
 o de pollastri, o capretto.
In prima nectali molto bene et tagliali in quarti, o vero in pezzi 
piccholi, et poneli in una pignatta a frigere con bono lardo voltando 

spesse volte col cocchiaro. Et quando la carne è quasi cotta getta
fore la maiore parte del grasso de la pignatta. Et dapoi togli de
bono agresto, doi rosci d'ova, un pocho pocho de bono brodo et 
de bone spetie, et meschola queste cose inseme con tanto zafrano 
che siano gialle et ponile in la dicta pignatta inseme co la carne et
 lasciali bollire anchora un pocho tanto che tutte queste cose ti parano 
cotte. Dapoi togli un pocho pocho de petrosillo battuto menuto et
 ponilo insieme col ditto soffritto in un piattello et mandalo ad tavola. 
Et questo tale soffritto vole essere dolce o agro secundo il gusto 
comuno o del patrone.

(To make a soffrito of meat, or of pigeon, or of poultry, or kid

First clean them very well and cut them in quarters, or else in small pieces, and put them in a pan with some good lardo, turning them often with the spoon. And when the meat is almost cooked throw out most of the fat from the pan. And then take some good verjus, two egg yolks, a little bit of broth and some good spices; mix these things together with enough saffron to make it yellow and put them in the pan with the meat;  let it boil until they seem well cooked to you. Then take a little bit of chopped parsley and add it to this soffritto on a platter and send it to table. And this soffritto may be sweet or tart depending on common agreement, or the boss’s taste.)

Dead simple, and intriguing; we’ll try it with a chicken.  A soffrito, which now means frying a mix of onion, garlic, parsley etc to start a dish,  for Maestro Martino was just a technique of slow-frying. For lardo he would have meant rendered lard, or maybe something like bacon grease.  I’m going for duck fat.  Like everyone else here, I have a tub of it in the back of the fridge for frying potatoes (This is always part lard anyhow; they have to top up the duck fat to cover the confits. And it’s still the best stuff in the world)

The ‘good spices’? Martino doesn’t say so we’ll have to guess from the medieval repertoire.

But before I can get the recipe down, the computer tells me someone has already done it for me—an absolutely wonderful site called Medieval Cuisine, run by Euriol of Lothian (Cassandra Baldassano) and her friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism. You can see her interpretation of the recipe here; mine differs only slightly.

a chicken, cut in fourteen pieces
duck fat, or lard, or olive oil
two egg yolks
chicken broth (cube is fine)
1 dose saffron
ground cloves (6) and ground cardamon (seeds from a dozen pods); black pepper and 1T or more ginger

Fry the chicken on medium heat until it’s almost done, with some colour on the skin. Reduce the fat if you must. Mix the other ingredients and throw them in, turn the heat down low and finish. Garnish with the chopped parsley.

Fine-tune this to please your taste (or your boss’s). If you dust the chicken with just a tiny bit of flour first, you’ll get a thicker sauce. After frying, start with just a little chicken stock, and add more if it’s getting dry. As Martino hints in the last sentence, the quantity of verjus is critical. A quarter cup will make it tart indeed, a little like lemon chicken. If you don’t want that, use less, and perhaps add a bit more of the ‘good spices’. Or you might temper the verjus with a teaspoon of sugar; we might try that next time.

And there will be a next time, ‘cause this was a treat. Maestro Martino, grazie mille!

Ducking Down at La Serpt

There is a tiny hamlet with the curious snaky name of La Serpt, miles from anywhere (the closest town is Villefranche du Périgord), with a stone farmhouse, built in 1730. Actually it could just as well have been built in 1630 or 1870; things around here change pretty slowly. You realize that just in the getting there, over the meadows and through the woods; it's a journey back in time, to a sweet and peaceful place.

Like many traditional farms here, this one here has always raised ducks, and for over two decades at least, it has also functioned as a farm restaurant, a ferme auberge. When we first moved here, there were four pretty good ones in easy driving distance; now there is only one, Aux Délices de la Serpt (although everyone just calls it La Serpt) but it’s exceptional, the Ritz of ferme auberges.

Like La Terrasse, it’s small (with only 30 covers or so) and you have to book. Only at La Serpt there is no guessing about what’s on the menu. But that’s just how their clients like it. Everyone who likes duck, that is. If you don’t, stop reading now!

We recently went with first-timers Betsy, Susanna, Nancy, and Harvey, and locals Marianne, Laurence and Tom. Only two decisions are required: basically, agonizing between the foie gras (on the €25 menu) or other ducky treats (on the €23 menu) for your starter, and then, the confit de canard (duck leg and thigh, preserved in its own fat) or magret de canard (the steak-like duck breast) for the main course. There is also duck sausage, which is also delicious, but the confits and magrets are so amazing that 99% of the customers choose one of those.

Wine and coffee are included, as is the apéro—a fénelon. In the 17th century, the erudite François Fénelon from Périgord was archbishop of Cambrai, poet, writer and tutor of the son of the king of France, but just how his name became attached to Quercy’s traditional aperitif (equal parts vin de Cahors, walnut liqueur and crème de cassis) is a mystery. Maybe he guzzled them when he was a student at the long-gone University of Cahors?  The Fénelons had one of the great châteaux of Périgord. It’s only about a half-hour away, east of Sarlat; you could visit before lunch.

For those who have been to the Serpt before and know what’s coming, the apéro is the gastric equivalent of the opening da da da dum of Beethoven’s Fifth. First comes the  tourin, La Serpt’s take on the local garlic and duck fat soup, filled with country bread and molten cheese. This is truly the stuff soup dreams are made of, and the first dish Michael learned to synthesize at home after we moved here (it’s also an excellent hangover cure!). When you get to the bottom, it’s time to faire chabrol (sloshing the dregs of soup around with a splash of red wine); if you don’t perform the ritual they’ll think you’re a Parisian or worse.

Next comes a generous serving of the rich foie gras made on the farm, or (on the €23 menu) pâté with foie gras, or a salad made with warm gésiers (gizzards, preserved in duck fat. like the confits), or my favourite, the salade fermière, with gésiers and thin slices of smoked magret along with  fritons de canard (fried skin and fat—a bit like duck porkies or pork rinds, I guess, but a gourmet treat).

Then in a waft of heavenly aroma the main event on big platters: golden crisp confits or succulent magrets grilled and topped with a light cream sauce. Gorgeous potatoes sautéed in duck fat and garlic, with nice brown crispy bits everyone digs into. Plates are wiped clean, belts are adjusted out a notch.

It is useful at this point to recall the so called French Paradox (first theorized in 1819 by Dr Samuel Black of Ireland, long before 1991 when  60 Minutes introduced it to the United States) and remember that duck fat, garlic and red wine, combined together, are good for you!

Next, cheese. More bread. More wine.  Somehow we manage to squeeze in nibbles of fresh, tangy Rocamadour cabecou (the local AOC goat cheese) or Cantal entre deux (the local hard yellow cheese).

Orders are taken for dessert: here too there is a choice and all are of the comfort homemade variety. Our daughter Lily always talks about her ‘dessert’ compartment, which has nothing to do with the rest of her stomach, and I think most of us must possess one because we somehow managed to polish off the chocolate and pear bavarois, the fig tart and crème caramel, without bursting.

Those who would not be returning for a while bought tins of foie gras and confits in the Serpt’s little shop to take home. If you like, you can have a peek in the barn and pick out a duck for next time (as if you could tell one from the other).

You’ll be lucky to get out in less than three hours; you’ll be lucky if you can still walk. There’s a good reason why you have to book a Sunday at the Serpt long in advance—because after all this delicious food and wine, the rest of the day tends to be a total write off, devoted mainly to naps.

I forgot the camera again, but Harvey and Marianne were better prepared: thanks to them for sharing their photos.

                                                                      —Tennessee girl learns to faire chabrol

La Serpt, tel 05 65 36 66 15
How to get there: La Serpt is on the D28 between Puy-L'Évêque and Villefranche-du-Périgord. There are directions on its website (rather endearingly the menu here is still in francs—they haven't had one printed for years!) 

14 October 2013

La Terrasse in Grézels

Writing travel guides, one of the first things we learned is not to bang on about how wonderful/authentic/full-of-character places were when we first wrote about them and how crowded/homogenized/regimented they had become. It’s true, of course, but who wants to hear it? If people weren’t lucky enough to visit Venice’s San Marco when you could just wander in and spend hours there, it’s not their fault, is it?

Recently, one of our most reliable local restaurants, La Poule au Pot in Goujounac, was suddenly shut down. It was a duck ferme auberge, famous for heaving quantities of hedonistically delicious food and the best sautéed potatoes on the planet. Howls still reverberate down the Lot Valley: Où sont les patates d’antan?

But two superb wonderful/authentic/full of character local restaurants are still going strong and it’s time to toot their horns for them because we don’t want to ever say: ‘Oh you should have been here when they were open.”  Of course we hope they endure forever, but of course nothing does. Go now. Their Internet presence is minimal, and as we know all too well, people don’t buy guidebooks anymore. They mostly rely on word of mouth.

The first is La Terrasse in Grezels. We went last week but forgot to take our camera, so all these photos are by our dear friend Marianne, who went the next week.

Grezels on the river Lot is a Brigadoonish sort of place. Any good village in the Lot will have a medieval castle or château, vineyards, a brocante (antique shop), and a B&B or two, and Grezels ticks all the boxes. And it has La Terrasse, where time has stood still, at least since 1989 when we first went. The only concession to the 21st century is having the menu in euros instead of francs.

‘Terrasse’  is something of a misnomer. There is a terrace but it only has space for a couple of tables and it is only used for apéros before lunch. Lunch, in fact, is all they do, in the old rural tradition that you are famished after slogging away in the fields all morning, and need to camel up for more of the same in the afternoon.

The best we manage to do is not eat any breakfast and make the 4km walk there from Puy l’Evêque.

The couple who own it are two of our favourite people, but we know next to nothing about them, not even their names. Madame has a very sweet voice, takes the bookings (reservations are essential) and does the cooking. No one we know has ever seen her, behind her wooden kitchen door, but I imagine she must be a serene and happy soul. There are never any bells and whistles: foam? nitrogen? sous-vide? Quoi? Her style is what the French call ‘bonne femme’—literally ‘good wife’ but what it really means is comfort food, simple, honest, fresh French home cooking, which very few restaurants seem to do anymore. Certainly none as good as La Terrasse.

Monsieur, who has the physique of someone who played rugby in his youth (like every other red blooded male in this region) is in charge in the stone-walled dining room, adorned, Lot style, with a stuffed weasel, a mounted deer head, and a giant wooden fork. After years of practice he can single-handedly keep the dozen or so tables turning over like clockwork. It helps that there’s no need to take orders, because although the menu changes every day, there is no choice; one gets what Madame has been inspired to cook. This of course is ideal for those of us who like everything and hate making decisions.  But Monsieur has an eagle eye; if he spots someone not eating a course, a substitute may well appear. The last thing he wants is anyone to go away hungry.

When you sit down, there will be a carafe of local red wine (very quaffable version of our local puts-hairs-on-your chest Vin de Cahors, immediately refilled when you empty it) and a basket of crusty brown country bread. Soon a tureen of delicious homemade soup will appear; a rich tomato soup with noodles, or perhaps a traditional chickeny stock with bread and cheese. Portions are generous, and there’s usually enough for more.

If you’re not a regular, Monsieur will come around as you finish and splash some wine in your bowl to remind you to faire chabrol—drink the last spoonfuls of soup mixed with the wine directly from the bowl, as one does in these parts. It’s especially good if there are some stringy gooey bits of melted cheese on the bottom. Soup bowls around here have no rims, so you usually don’t slobber it all down your chin and shirt.

The hors d’oeuvres that follow is no dainty little piece of pineapple and cheese on toothpick affair. It might be an omelet laden with cheese or cèpes, or a quiche lorraine.

This is when the uninitiated begin to panic: this is where a normal lunch at home stops.

Mais non! Time for the main course–a heaving platter of sliced duck breasts and beignets de courgette, or perhaps tender beef and carrots and golden roast potatoes. It’s excellent home cooking although not many of us were lucky enough to have such talented parents. Afterwards, a green salad to ‘lighten’ the stomach.

Then the fromage— a choice of five or six, including the soft white cabecou de Rocamadour, our local goat cheese. More wine is required. And then dessert—a home baked tart, or rich chocolate mousse. Coffee is included.

For Sunday lunch, when you’ll need to book a table early, there’s even more: after the soup there’s a seafood course, with a glass of white wine; followed by an entrée (generally something rich and stewed) followed by the main course. It costs a bit more than the weekday €18, but no one has ever complained.

Afterwards, it’s traditional to peruse the antiques in the shop across the street, and if it’s nice, take a pretty postprandial waddle down to the river, past the house with the tower down to the spot where the Ruisseau de Saint-Matré  flows into the Lot by an old mill. Maybe we’ll walk home to settle it all down. 4km will just about do it. 

La Terrasse, Grezels 46700 (on the Lot, south of Puy-L'Évêque), tel 05 65 21 34 03

Franco-Italian (con)Fusion: Tagliatelle al Confit de Canard

When we had written about every square inch of Italy, we were ordered by our publisher to leave Umbria for southwest France, where there were several surprises, starting with the price of truffles. In Umbria’s Valnerina, where we lived, even impecunious travel writers could occasionally splurge on spaghetti al tartufo nero in a trattoria; in the Lot, even though we live a mere 45 minutes from the big truffle market in Lalbenque, they are a pricey indulgence reserved for times when someone else is paying.

What compensated for the paucity of truffles was the omnipresence of duck, and to a lesser extent goose. Fatted duck, to be precise, to make foie gras, and along with the foie gras come numerous duck by-products, most importantly the maigret, or breast (usually grilled like a steak), and the thighs (cuisses) and gizzards (gésiers), which are put up in jars or tins and slowly cooked in their own fat and preserved as confits de canard; the gizzards end up in a salade quercynoise with lettuce and walnut oil, and maybe some smoked duck breast or ham.

Even the duck carcasses, curiously known as demoiselles, are preserved, and barbecued in the summer by the locals at the ferme auberges, restaurants run by farm families—in the southwest, they’re nearly always on duck farms.

Jewish communities in Venice introduced a similar dish to the Veneto. Oca in onto (goose preserved in fat) is pretty much the same thing as confit d’oie; the onto of course, being a tasty substitute for forbidden lard in soups, sauces and other dishes. The Jews also make elaborate dishes such as frisinsal de tagiadele: tagliatelle cooked in a rich chicken stock, with goose salame or meatballs, or even shredded roast chicken, pine nuts and sultanas, all baked in the oven in the shape of a ring (more or less; recipes vary widely).

My own recipe that is much simpler, invented one day when there were four for dinner, but only two confits in the fridge. The solution: put them on pasta. Eccoci qua! Voilà!

Proportions are to your own taste but in general what you need for four servings are:

4 cloves of garlic, chopped
400 gr mushrooms, thickly sliced. Even better if you have shitakes or porcini
A few big spoonfuls of duck fat (remember this is the ‘other olive oil’ and good for you!)
Two duck confits
Big handful of parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
Truffle oil (if you want to be fancy)
A small carton of thick cream (roughly 20cl, or 6-7 fluid ounces)
Tagliatelle for four

If your confits are in a tin, open it and place on a low flame until you can extract the meat from the liquified fat. Take off the fatty skin and give it to the cat (if they are a French cat like our Brutus, they will insist on it!). Shred the meat from the bone, which is easiest done with your fingers, but really greasy.  Half way through this, the phone will inevitably ring…

Meanwhile, boil the water for the pasta, as the sauce takes about ten minutes.

Use some of the duck fat to sauté the garlic. Store the rest of the fat in the fridge in a sealed container to sauté potatoes.

When the garlic is soft, add the mushrooms and fry until soft. If they seem too dry, throw in a knob of butter.

Add the shredded confits to the mushrooms. Remember they they're already cooked so only need to be heated through; when warm, add the cream, then salt. Keep warm until the pasta is al dente. Toss in a few spoonfuls of the cream from the sauce, then top with the confits and mushrooms and a twist or two of the pepper mill, chopped parsley, and if you like, drizzle with truffle oil, to remind yourself of the good old days in Umbria. 

5 September 2013

Another Odd Thing That Italians Eat

                                        —Fabiana Geomangio

We were in Rosciano, our hamlet in Umbria, at a dinner party when we were first offered tidy rectangles of toast topped with a dark brown paste that had a delicately pungent, liver-like taste. Informed that they were called ‘Crostini di milza’, we happily munched on them on several other occasions in Umbria and Tuscany before actually remembering to look milza up (this was back in the pre-internet era). We discovered that it meant ‘spleen’.

Spleen! Isn’t that the organ of ill temper, the one that one must periodically vent?

Must I observe you? must I stand and crouch

Under your testy humour? By the gods

You shall digest the venom of your spleen.

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Even in awfully offal-ly France, where the thymus gland of the calf (ris de veau) is one of the stars in the gourmet constellation, you never see spleen (rate) in a butcher’s or on a menu, or at least we never have. Of course there is the great Charles Baudelaire’s Spleen de Paris, but you wouldn’t want to eat that, either:

“Nothing is as tedious as the limping days,
When snowdrifts yearly cover all the ways,
And ennui, sour fruit of incurious gloom,
Assumes control of fate’s immortal loom”

But spleen is not all bad. In traditional Chinese medicine, one of its functions is to house the yi (thinking). It governs pondering—something Baudelaire might have held a world record for. In Greek, the language that gave us the English word ‘spleen’, people who are good hearted are ‘good-spleened’. And the Greeks eat their share: lamb’s spleen is one of the organs in the Easter dish, kokoretsi, braided into intestines and grilled on a spit (kukurek in Macedonian, kokoreç in Turkish). In southern Italy, in fact, they makes something similar, be it marro (Puglia), cazzmarr (Marche and Basilicata) or cazzamarro (Calabria), among other names.

Other regions of Italy partake as well. In Trentino, they use spleen to make gnochetti with greens, garlic, bone marrow and egg. In Alto Adige they make milzschnittensuppe (beef broth poured over spleen-covered crostini). And Rome's Jewish community makes milza di bue in padella (sautéed ox spleen).

But it’s in Sicily where spleen triumphs in Italy as soul food, especially in Palermo, where the locals are said to have learned their love of spleen (or meusa as it’s known there) from the city’s Jewish butchers, who slaughtered the animals in the Vucciria market, and were paid in offal instead of money. To turn it into cash, they set up stands along the street, boiling and frying the sliced spleen, or stuffing it in rolls. Today it’s called 'pan cà meusa' and served with a squeeze of lemon, ricotta and grated caciocavallo cheese.

For first time spleen eaters, though, you may want to stick with Tuscany and Umbrian crostini di milza. If you can get the spleen, it’s easy to make with butter, red onions, nutmeg and anchovy paste and a food processor: Marco Tomaselli reveals all in this short video:

23 August 2013

De Arte Coquinaria

                                                                             making agresto (verjuice)

While researching the Menu Decoder, we found ourselves looking into a lot of early cookbooks. They’re good fun, and they can give insights into the past—the people’s past, the story of everyday life—that no formal history can. Over the last few years some good people have been putting many old texts online, in the original languages and sometimes even in English translation.

            Today we offer a tribute to our forebear Maestro Martino da Como, the author of one of the first printed cookbooks, the Libro de Arte Coquinaria. Martino was a boy from a small village in the Swiss-Italian Canton Ticino who worked his way up cooking for princes and prelates, counts and condottieri, and eventually ran the kitchens of the Pope.

Martino lived in interesting times. When he was busy at his cookbook, in the 1460’s, Cosimo de’ Medici and Francesco Sforza ruled in Florence and Milan, and Italy was getting its first printing press. Pope Nicholas V statyed up nights planning the rebuilding of Rome, and the terrible Turk was making himself at home in newly-captured Constantinople.

They were good times too, especially for anyone with a skill to offer  Renaissance Italy’s sophisticated elite. Consumption then could be very conspicuous indeed, and Martino had the talent for coming up with unique culinary spectaculars. One recipe in the De Arte informs us ‘How to Dress a Peacock With All Its Feathers, So that When Cooked, It Appears To Be Alive and Spews Fire From Its Beak’. 

Italian cooking has always had its divisions of class. One thing you won’t find in De Arte is onions. Not much garlic either; as the Maestro frankly explains: ’Garlic and onions are good for the peasants, who eat them willingly and depend on them because of their poverty and because of the work they do’.

Surprisingly though, many of the recipes he chose to include are simple, even humble: porchetta and sausages, cockscombs, peas and beans—even pastine in brodo. Not so long ago, every trattoria in Italy still had this modest dish on the menu—plain broth with nothing but tiny noodles in it, mostly for people whose digestion was telling them to leave the pasta alone that day.  Five hundred years ago, Martino was cooking it for the princes of the Church.  We like his idea of putting a pinch of saffron in the broth. We’re not so sure about his recommendation to boil the noodles for a full hour—it seems in Martino’s kitchen there was always a whole lot of boiling going on.

De Arte has its quirks; the casualness of his approach seems charming to a modern cook: ‘To cook an egg, let it boil for the time it takes to say an Our Father’—per spatio d’un paternostro. Precise quantities are hardly if ever given. We cooks are invited to use secundo che pare a la tua discrezione—‘as much as we think best’. He’ll tell us to put in ‘the good spices’ but never says which ones they are.

Maestro Martino certainly would have enjoyed a longer spice rack than most other cooks in his day, but any upper-crust kitchen would have had saffron, ginger, mace, cumin, nutmeg and the lemony peppery spice called ‘grains of paradise’ (or maniguette to the French, who once were very fond of it), as well as most of the common garden herbs we know today.

Martino had an interesting palette of flavours. The great chef is said to have spent some early days in Naples, and there is definitely a sweet hint of the south in many of his recipes: plenty of almonds and almond milk, as well as raisins and other dried fruits. Another star ingredient is agresto (verjuice), prominent in many soups and sauces. People in the Renaissance liked a touch of tartness in their dinner more than in later ages. Verjuice is the squeezings of unripe grapes, a kinder, gentler  sort of vinegar. Maybe it’s time for this old favourite to make a comeback; if you have a lot of grapes, there’s a recipe for making it here

Anyone with the time to go through De Arte will find plenty of fascinating sidelights and surprises. If you thought cheesecake was a modern innovation you’ll see a perfectly serviceable recipe for it here: torta bianca, made with lots of ricotta and flavoured with ginger and rosewater. There are cheesecake variants too, including one that calls for a pound of garlic (!)

Maestro Martino’s work lived on for centuries. Later editions, some good and some pennydreadfuls, added whatever they pleased to the original recipes. One even included (entirely fantastical) instructions on carving and cooking an elephant:

You can see the whole text of De Arte Coquinaria here (in Italian) . And a few of his recipes have been translated into English here. There is also an English translation in print, though a flawed and controversial one. 

Online resources are getting better all the time, and anyone with an interest in old recipes, or anything else Italian, will be delighted to see John Florio’s 1611 English-Italian dictionary reproduced in a beautiful facsimile copy (thanks, Greg Lindahl!). Florio, a born Londoner, was the son of an Italian refugee who became a great scholar and a friend of Shakespeare; he spied on the French ambassador for Walsingham, and did much to introduce the English to the arts and manners of Italy. For words where Florio is no help, try the massive Tesoro della Lingua Italia delle Origini, a dictionary of Italian words going back to the Middle Ages 

Eating the Enemy

I was out in the garden, doing what everyone with a garden in these parts does in July: pulling out purslane. I gave it my special attention last year, concentrating on eradicating the cursed stuff completely so I might not have to deal with it this year.

Ha. Purslane always wins. Purslanologists note that one plant can make 32,000 seeds. But I can hold it at bay, taking special care to get the root out—because leave one sliver of taproot and it will be up again in no time. Trying to hoe it only makes more purslane. On hot afternoons I can hear them laughing at me.

To be fair, it’s a rather charming plant, a cousin of the portulaca, with its starburst of creeping stems and glistening, semi-succulent leaves. It’s only coincidence that the Italian word, porcellana, should be the same as for ‘porcelain’, but the delicate colour and the sheen do make the leaves seem as if they were made of celadon ware.

While yanking them out I might nibble on a couple. Purslane when freshly picked does have a pleasantly tart taste. I remembered that the Greeks like it in salads. Back before we even knew what the stuff was, Dana’s relatives back on her father’s Greek island, Ikaria, had given her some to plant at home. Healthiest thing for you, they said. Dana kept it in water until the ride to the airport, and carefully packed it for the trip home. It was not one of the great moments in her life when of all people our daughter, the Queen of Mockery, was the one to notice that the weeds she was ripping out to make room were exactly the same as the stuff she was putting in.

But did we have porcellana in the menu decoder yet? What do Italians do with it? I had to check as soon as I got back inside and washed my hands. Dana had already written a short entry, where she noted that they throw them in salads like the Greeks, and also sauté them with garlic, just as you would do for other greens.

We found a score of local dialect words for them: barzellana, perchiacca, perchiazza, porcacchia, precacchia, pucacchia, purciaca, purchiddana, and on and on. Back in harder times, everyone used to eat them, just as they did in England and France. A little research turned up some recipes: purslane in soups, in malfatti, in omelettes, or fried in batter like courgette blossoms.

The thought was becoming irresistible: if you can’t beat the enemy, eat it. We’ll give it a try, and report back soon. 

Eating the Enemy, Part II

           The more we got to know about purslane, the greater our wonder and respect for it. It has an astoundingly high level of omega-3 fatty acids, more than any other vegetable. And omega 3’s are very fashionable these days. Purslane is loaded with vitamins, especially vitamin C and E, along with lots of healthy minerals and antioxidants. Doctors have been singing its praises since antiquity, for countering inflammation, sore throats, ulcers and earaches. It’s good for the heart and the joints. Put some in a poultice on your bee stings and boils. 

Even in the  garden, purslane’s fans claim it is the most virtuous of weeds. It makes good ground cover to hold moisture in the soil, and breaks up soil to help plants with less robust roots. (Maybe so, but if you let it, it will take over everything. Everything.)

There’s been no rain for two weeks now, but the purslane just keeps coming. It’s time to yank some up and cook it. Everyone who has ever used the stuff recommends picking it in the morning. The plant employs an unusual sort of photosynthesis; it does its work at night, storing up nutrition in the form of a slightly acidic chemical, which it converts to sugars over the course of the day. Get it in the morning while it’s still tart.

This we do. We have to cut off the roots and soak it; growing next to the ground it picks up a lot of dirt. Italians have been eating porcellana (also called portulaca) forever. The Milanese Bonvesin de la Riva mentions it in his list of foods in his 1288 Marvels of the City of Milan.  But we haven’t found a lot of compelling recipes for it.  So we try it the most common way: like any other green, sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil (and a chopped chilli, because that’s the way we are). It looks about like any other green when it’s done, but I have to admit we were a little disappointed by the taste. The tartness disappeared, and a  blandness replaced it. Fortunately we didn’t cook it too long. That’s the worst mistake you can make; after about five minutes on the stove a sort of gluey texture starts to emerge—not nice. Five minutes is just about right.

            One cookbook suggests making a sauce for meat or fish: mash up a bunch of it, with an egg white, an anchovy and some oil. Others remind us that  the country folk used to make it  sott’aceto, preserved in vinegar. Everyone else seems to limit it to salads: with cucumber, with tomato, beetroot, beans, lentils or whatever.  There’s a nice one (in Italian) involving cold chicken, basil, pistachios, shaved grana padano and red currants.

            Bottom line—it’s absolutely fine in salads, though it will never be a star. You can leave the smaller stems in, and there doesn’t seem to be any difference in taste between the young shoots and the full-grown monsters.

            The Italians haven’t provided much inspiration, so we looked to see what the French do with their pourpier. Back in Roman times, Pliny oddly referred to it as ‘Gallic asparagus’, which suggests it was somewhat prized. And Gallic pourpier, after all, is what’s menacing my garden. But the French were no help; all they do is purée it for a soup, a velouté, like they do with everything else.

Next year the purslane will certainly be back, and we’ll be trying  a Mexican favourite, pork and purslane, or the Lebanese salad called fattoush, with lots of mint and lemon juice,  or this very intriguing Indonesian salad.

Finally, all you gardeners be advised that purslane has an evil twin. The false purslane is called ‘creeping spurge’. it is nearly as common and mildly toxic. Almost as soon as I learned this I noticed, yes indeed, we’ve got that in the garden too. But the leaves are smaller and flatter, and grow in pairs. It’s not hard at all to tell the difference

12 August 2013

The Naked and the Ill-formed

It won’t be love at first sight. Even a glowing description wouldn’t set your taste buds on fire. But you won’t be sorry you tried them. Malfatti means ‘badly made’, and the charm of these dumplings seems to be in squeezing them into shape by hand any which way—they’re never supposed to be completely tidy and uniform like their cousins, the gnocchi (in some corners of the northwest they sometimes call them gnocchi verdi, ‘green gnocchi’).

            Essentially, a malfatto is the common stuffing used for ravioli or tortelli: spinach and ricotta, bound with eggs, and some nutmeg and parmesan thrown in—only without the pasta cover.  In much of Tuscany, the same thing is logically called gnudi, or ‘nudies’ (malfatti in Siena, gnudi in Florence ; it’s a local thing). Some restauranteurs in Napa, California claim that their mother invented them in 1925, but the Italians say they come from Lombardy, where they’ve been making them for centuries.

            They’re pretty trendy now, both in Italy and the U.S. Malfatti are easy to make, and offer a great alternative to pasta for a primo, or a good lunch all by themselves along with a salad.  The most popular recipe has them with slightly browned butter and sage on top. They’re perfect like that, but up in Lombardy they will also put mushrooms cooked in butter on top, or even a tomato and meat ragú.

Here’s Dana’s basic recipe for malfatti:

This recipe is very forgiving,  and can be easily adjusted to what you have in the garden or fridge.

1 firmly packed cup of greens (whatever you have in the garden will work; this one is a mix of chicory, chard, amaranth and spinach); boiled,  drained, squeezed and finely chopped

garlic cloves, minced (if you like garlic, put in five; if you don't put in less)

1/2 cup green onions or chives, or both, minced

a handful of fresh basil leaves (if you have them)

250 gr ricotta

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

1 cup breadcrumbs or flour. Breadcrumbs make a lighter version

a big pinch of nutmeg

2 eggs, beaten

salt and pepper to taste

flour for dredging

5 tbs butter

a dozen or more sage leaves

grated Parmesan

—Sauté the garlic in a bit of olive oil and mix in the greens.

—Mix in the onions/chives, ricotta, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, garlic, nutmeg, eggs, salt and pepper to make a stiff dough. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

—Preparation: heat salted water to a boil as you roll the dough into logs about 4cm in diameter on a floured surface. Slice, making sure each dumpling is lightly coated with flour, and drop into boiling water (it usually takes four or five batches). Take them out as they float to the surface and put under a low grill to keep warm and lightly brown while cooking the other batches.  This light grilling, it must be said, is not canonical, but it gets rid of the slightly slimy surface and makes the malfatti much nicer,  at least at our house.

—Meanwhile gently heat the butter and sage until the butter is light brown and sage turns dark. Drizzle over the malfatti, top with Parmesan and serve warm.


Here’s a recipe that may more nearly approximate the original rustic malfatti, with old bread soaked in milk instead of flour or breadcrumbs (recipe in Italian here