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

10 August 2013

The App’s Finally Out

Well, we did it. Apple has just OK’d our baby for the App Store, and we’ll just sit back and wait and see if anyone notices. A long-treasured bottle of Barolo fell victim to our little celebration.

The Italian Menu Decoder was some three years in the making. Not that we worked on it all the time; it was something we took up to fill any time we had between jobs.  But it was addictive. One thing always led to another. Take milza, or spleen (of a calf). Couldn’t leave that out; in Umbria they grind it up and put it on little toasts as bruschetta—it’s actually delicate and quite tasty. That reminded us of the pan ca meusa, spleen and cheese sandwiches, we tried long ago in the famous Antica Focaccia San Francesco in Palermo. Now, that old standby is famous and has its own website, which reminded us we had to explain sfinciuni, panelle and cazzilli, and a few other things too.

And a Palermo market cheese sandwich (usually caciocavallo—I check to see if we have that word yet) can be schietta, plain, or maritata.  ‘Married’ means with spleen.  Maritata can mean a lot of things around the Mezzogiorno. We didn’t know that in Naples they call a soup minestra maritata if it has meat in it, ‘married’ to the vegetables.

            And schietta made us think of the Greek sketo, which is what you say there when you don’t want any sugar in your frappé. It was a surprise to find so many old Greek words hiding among the Italian. In Venetian dialect (and Bergamasco and Triestino and no doubt many others) a fork is a pirón instead of a forchetta. And rightly so; after all, the Byzantines invented them.

            See what I mean?

            It never stops. Never. Most likely we will be working on this app for the rest of our days. I’ve added two words to it since I started writing this post—cimino, I noticed, is Sicilian for sesame seeds, which will be on the soft roll locally called a mafalda; the Palermitani prefer these with their spleen.

            We’ve learned a lot, most of which we of course forget—after some thirty years of being confused by Italian words for seafood, we still often can’t tell which fish is which. Worst of all, the Italians are diabolically clever people, nowhere more than in the kitchen, and at times we suspect that they might be coming up with new words faster than we can pin down the old ones.

            Right now we have checked it against various lists and we think we have just about everything. There was a last minute panic before the release when we realized we had forgot—spinach.

            Not having a staff of culinary lexicographers at our command, we might slip up here and there. And with a subject where everyone and every village has its opinion of what’s right, we expect to get a lot of mail. That, in fact, is just what we’re hoping for. One of the reasons for starting this blog is to start a big discussion about all these subjects, to hear from those who know while exploring the secrets of regional and traditional cooking from every corner of Italy. If you have any corrections, amplifications, emendations, recipes or stories to tell, do drop us a line!