Wednesday, February 15, 2012

San Valentino: Patron Saint of Lovers

The story of San Valentino originates in Roman antiquity.
San Valentino a Christian martyr from what is today Terni, was born in 176.   A convert to Christianity, he was ordained a bishop in 197, during a time of Christian persecutions and the expansion and defense of the Roman Empire. His growing popularity and conversions of non Christians, threatened -or possibly just annoyed- the roman rulers and he was eventually executed at the order of Emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelianus in 273 during one of his stays in Rome 
S.Valentino as Martyr
The legend surrounding San Valentino says that during one of his incarcerations, he was given in custody to a noble family who had a young daughter who was blind. Later, at the time of his beheading, San Valentino was said to have performed the miracle of giving the young girl her sight. He is commemorated every February 14
If this sounds to you as it does to me, like a tender almost paternal love, radically different from the associations we have of Valentine’s Day today, you are correct.
In fact, the legend of San Valentino is thought to have been overlaid by the Catholic Church on an ancient pagan fertility ritual Lupercali. Associated with the Greek god Pan, Lupercus’ priests wore goat skins and made animal sacrifices to ensure  the health and prosperity of their followers. It is believed that until the 4th century, non Christians of Rome celebrated this annual feast, much to displeasure of the growing Catholic Church..
Protector of lovers
I have heard many stories associated with  the Lupercali, but cannot vouch for their veracity. The story I like best however, fictitious as it may be, says that the names of young men and women who were devotees of  Lupercus, were placed in an urn  and chosen randomly by a child to live together  for an entire year until the fertility ritual was concluded  ( I assume with the birth of child.)  Wanting to put an end to this practice the Church promoted its own patron saint of lovers, San Valentino who had been martyred some 200 years earlier.
In Sicily, the feast of San Valentino is celebrated much more in recent years than when I was growing up when it was much less commercial.
On this feast of San Valentino, in addition to the endearing expressions and beautiful red roses from my darling husband, a familiar pair of love birds returned to our lagoon the morning of February 14.  An omen no doubt from San Valentino and his alter-ego Lupercus, for  love, health and prosperity for the rest of the year!
Auguri per la festa di San Valentino!
Ciao a presto!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pasta Al Forno --Part 2: The Recipe

In his extraordinary book, Sicily Culinary Crossroads, legendary Sicilian  historian and food writer, Giuseppe Coria, states that a cohesive Sicilian gastronomy does not exist because of  variation among towns and regions, owing to a history of foreign domination, geography and climate. Pasta al forno is an example of this, with its many variations throughout the island. The recipe below is one taught to me by my beloved aunt, Zia Pia from Marsala, and it will delight your family and guests as it does mine. 

-1 medium red onion; 250 grams (or ½ lb) each of ground veal and pork; 4 T olive oil
-1 liter (about 5 cups) of pureed tomato;  200 gr (or ½ c) each of pine nuts and dried currants;
 450 gr (or 1 lb) shelled peas
-A small whole red chili pepper; salt; sugar and freshly grated nutmeg to taste; fresh basil
-500 gr (or 1 lb) fresh sheet pasta
-Caciocavallo cheese (about 10 thin slices); 250 gr (or 1/2 lb) grated pecorino cheese
-Butter for greasing the casserole dish and a few tablespoons of unseasoned breadcrumbs

The Ragu:
If you are making your own tomato puree, which I recommend you do,  begin by boiling about 5 lbs of ripe roma tomatoes and passing them though a food mill that captures the seeds and skins. Discard the seeds and skins and set the puree aside. Soak the currants in hot water to soften and set aside.
 Sauté a finely chopped onion in olive oil until translucent.  Add the ground beef and pork and continue browning over a medium flame. Add the tomato puree, pine nuts and currants. Season with salt, whole red chili pepper, a tablespoon of sugar to taste, a dusting of fresh nutmeg and a handful of fresh basil.  Cook the ragu for about an hour on a low flame, stirring it occasionally and allowing it to thicken. At the final cooking, remove the chili pepper and add the peas. Remove the sauce from the heat and set it aside.
Note: A tomato extract, called ‘strattu is used to thicken and flavor Sicilian red sauces. ‘Strattu is made by drying tomato pulp in the sun on wooden boards and is almost impossible to come by outside of Sicily, unless it is home made. Commercially bought tomato paste is not the same and will alter the flavor of your sauce, so I have omitted it here.  Using a simple tomato puree, your sauce will thicken as it reduces, and the flavor will capture the sweetness of fresh tomato.                                      
                                                   The Pasta
You will need about a pound of fresh sheet pasta, like the kind used for lasagne.  If making the pasta at home, make the sheets very thin. Most cities now have fresh pasta manufacturers. I divide my time between the two coasts, and when I'm in San Diego I go to Assenti Pasta ; in Washington DC, Vace Pasta   Cook the pasta al dente in batches, in boiling salted water and transfer it to a container of ice water to stop the cooking. Next remove it from the ice water and lay the pasta flat on a clean dish cloth, making sure the edges don’t touch. 

You will need a casserole dish or cake pan with tall sides, approximately 8x3 inches, which can be found at  Grease the pan with butter or olive oil and coat the sides and bottom with breadcrumbs.  Begin by placing the cooked pasta sheets in the pan making sure they completely cover the bottom. This first layer only must hang over the sides of the pan.

Add  a generous  ladleful of ragu on the first layer, followed by  a few slices of caciocavallo cheese, and a dusting of pecorino. Caciocavallo is now available in may import stores, but if it is not available, it is fine to just use pecorino.  (At this point the classic ingredients of pasta al forno-- sautéed eggplant, sliced hard boiled egg and salami or mortadella would be layered in--however this particular recipe does not call for them.) Continue layering the pasta, sauce and cheese until you reach the final strata. Finish the layering by taking the overhanging sheets of pasta and bring them gently upward toward the middle so that your casserole resembles a cake.  Place it in a hot oven.

Bake the pasta uncovered in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes. Allow it to brown on top and remove it when it is bubbling hot.  Cool the pasta for about 20  or 30 minutes.
Place a large flat dish on top of the pasta and carefully invert pan so that it is sitting face down on the dish. Gently tap the top to loosen the pasta and remove the pan, being careful to keep the pasta intact. 

Slice the pasta in wedges and serve it as a first course accompanied by hearty red wine.

Buon apetito and ciao a presto!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pasta Al Forno: The Exquisite Baked Pasta of Sicily--Part 1

Pasta al Forno

Pasta al forno is by far one of the most impressive dishes of Sicily. There are as many nuanced versions of this baked pasta as there are regions in Sicily. This is an elegant dish, most often served on Sundays or at holiday meals.
One of my favorite and funniest movie scenes of all time is the unmolding of the timpano of baked pasta in The Big Nightttp://

Anyone who has ever made pasta al forno, or any molded Sicilian baked pasta, knows what that’s all about.  The anticipation is palpable as the sum of all your effort hangs on a string—one wrong move and your oeuvre implodes in a messy heap on the serving plate! Even my husband recently confided to me that watching pasta al forno being unmolded makes him a nervous wreck!  
The ragu

Pasta al forno is essentially a richly seasoned pasta that is baked in a molded pan. Pasta of any shape may be used but it is most commonly made with short pasta such as anelletti or penne.  
The pasta is cooked and then tossed with ragu.  Then it is transferred to a deep, round, molded baking pan called a timpano or drum, which has been oiled and dusted with bread crumbs. It is arranged in in the timpano in alternating layers  of pasta, sautéed eggplant, caciocavallo or pecorino cheese, sliced hard boiled egg, and sautéed sausage or mortadella followed by more ragu and pasta. It is baked in the oven, cooled, and served unmolded.

The flavors of pasta al forno
The ragu itself is very richly spiced with ground beef, raisins, called sultanina, peas, pine nuts, and nutmeg. The element of surprise of the varied textures and flavors is especially pleasing.    The result is  an elegant structured pasta that looks much like a torte, and in fact it is sliced and served in wedges like one. Your guests, I will promise you, will be impressed.

Pasta al forno is sometimes referred to in Sicilian dialect  as  pasta ‘ncasciata.  I’m told that this is a reference to the  cacio cheese that is used, although I find it curious that the Sicilian word “incasciare” also means to press something down, as for example into a mold or box. This pasta is a great dish for entertaining because it can be prepared in advance, even frozen, and it reheats beautifully. I always try to keep one or two in the freezer in the event of unexpected company.

Zio Tannino and Zia Pia
In part 2 of this blog I will share with you the recipe for a pasta al forno from my region of western Sicily. I learned to make this particular version from my aunt Pia, whose pasta al forno is without question the best I’ve ever had.  Zia Pia is my late father’s youngest sister and growing up I spent as much time in her house as I did in mine …and still do whenever I am in Sicily!  
Zia Pia’s recipe varies slightly from traditional baked pastas, because it's made with sheets of  uncut pasta, and  does not include eggplant or hard boiled egg or sausage. She often refers to it as millefoglie or  "thousand layers" because the layering of pasta sheets is so delicate and numerous that it resembles pastry. The result is truly extraordinary!

With my Zia Pia on her balcony.

My aunt and uncle have a summer home on the beach at San Teodoro in  Marsala.  It is the very beach we went to as children and it has many important memories for me. Summers at my aunt's home are a constant coming and going of family and friends. Over the decades, her modest patio dining table has provided heavenly gastronomic experiences to an untold number people from far and wide. Her culinary abilities, and most importantly her loving nature are recognized in our entire family as a true gift, which we all get to partake in.
Join me for Part 2 of this blog to see how Zia Pia's pasta al forno is made.  Until then,
Ciao a presto!