Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
Andrews McMeel Publishing (September 2011)
By Pamela Sheldon Johns
I was so excited to get my first looked at Pamela Sheldon Johns’ Cucina Povera just days before leaving for Italy. We were renting a house in Todi, Umbria and, as is my MO, I was planning to cook at least a few meals with the locally available products. Granted, Cucina Povera is poor Tuscan cooking but we were just a hop, skip and a jump as Umbria borders Tuscany on its northwest border and Lazio at the southwest border.
I had no intention of schlepping the book in my carryon, so I decided to scan ten recipes to bring. I had to make sure each recipe was seasonally correct e.g. my husband loves cinghiale (wild boar) but hunting season doesn’t begin until November 1; although boar is probably available, that gave me pause. Braised Pork Shanks had to be included as a nod to my Nonna who made us giggle as children when she announced she was making “Stinco di Maiale” (stinco actually translates to “shin”). And, since fig season begins in September, Fichi allo Virio (stuffed figs) was a must.
I poured over each recipe for odd ingredients that I might bring like the 5 dried juniper berries called for in Coniglio con i Funghi (rabbit with mushrooms). Then as I was deeply involved with this book, the reality that the trattorias and osterias would be calling to me, made me reduce the number of recipes to five.
Cucina Povera, literally poor kitchen, opens with stories about good food in hard times. Sheldon Johns’ “introduction” runs to page 41 and I was sorry when it ended. These are warm, interesting, heartfelt memories related by older friends of Sheldon Johns who perhaps lived through WWII when food was scarce. One gentleman relates grabbing a handful of chestnut flour from a bag at a neighborhood grocery on his way to school: “the owner would look the other way… that bit of flour was my breakfast, so sweet and satisfying.” Chestnuts and corn were staples for bread, polenta and cakes. Salt was heavily taxed, so it was used sparingly to cure meat, make cheese and the like – still today Tuscan bread is unsalted.
In my opinion, this book is summarized in a quote from Chef Carlo Cioni from Artimino, Tuscany: “Today’s choice of simple foods is not out of necessity as it was in the past. Now, in addition to considering economy, we are seeking quality and purity of flavor.” Sheldon Johns achieves this with her recipes, from Appetizers to Breads & Sweets, they are uncomplicated with most having about seven ingredients, many only five.
In the end I wasn’t able to try the coniglio, not because rabbits weren’t available, but because we were sharing the house with our friends, the Hares, and they refused to eat rabbit. The long slow cooking time for the braised pork shanks (with only six ingredients including salt and pepper) was worth every minute as the meat practically fell from the bone; the ripe figs simply stuffed with walnuts and gorgonzola were divine, my gnudi (spinach and ricotta dumplings) fell apart but that was my bad – I’ve never gotten those to work for me.
I was introduced to farro, the nutty flavored Etruscan grain, in Lucca many years ago in zuppa di farro (soup). It’s also known as spelt or emmer. Farro is debuting on more American menus and, thanks to better stocked local markets, home cooks are embracing it (as spelt). I will admit taking a liberty with this recipe and substituting the prosciutto of Norcia (Umbria) for salame but this is a salad that allows you to do that. Try it and twist it as you wish!
Insalata di Farro
Farro is an ancient strain of wheat with a high protein content and a nutty flavor. It can be found in natural foods and gourmet foods stores whole, cracked, or ground into flour. This dish can be served warm as a winter side dish, or chilled for a summer salad.
2 cups whole-grain farro
3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 green onions, including 1 inch of green parts, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and diced
2 cups chicken stock, heated
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 ounces spicy salame, diced
Grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Romaine lettuce leaved for serving
1. Soak the farro in water to cover for at least 1 hour or overnight.
2. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the green onions, garlic, zucchini, and bell pepper and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Drain the farro and add to the pan, cover and decrease the heat to a simmer. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the farro is tender and the stock has been absorbed. Stir in the chickpeas and salame. Cover and set aside to keep warm.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, and the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Fluff the farro with a fork. Stir in the dressing. Serve warm or chilled, on lettuce leaves.
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