Editor’s note: Our guest columnist this week, Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi, teaches Italian at Middlebury College and sits on the board of directors of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Hailing from Italy, where the Slow Food Movement originated, Ilaria cooks with her family and friends.
I have been living in Vermont since September 1996, when I moved straight from downtown Rome to downtown Middlebury. It took a while to fully appreciate my new environment, but now I feel lucky and grateful to live in a place where seasons exist. I love seasons though I must admit I have a hard time with this one: As I write this on March 29 it is snowing! My eyes don’t seem to be able to discern the much anticipated and announced signs of spring. I know that soon they will, but when mid-March comes around I crave warmth and colors in the landscape.
So my mind wanders to Italy, particularly to the hills just north of Lucca, an area one hour northwest of Florence. My family is from there and my father and his brother still have a house there where I spent a lot of time while growing up. My husband and I got married there; we spend a couple of weeks there every summer with our sons. At this time of year spring is not in full bloom yet there either: Mornings are cold, humid and foggy, and the overarching smell is still that of wood fires, but the landscape is clearly turning green and people are working in their gardens.
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This particular part of Tuscany is different from the rolling hills and tamed landscape that we see in movies and photographs. It is at the feet of the Apennines and the landscape is rugged, strong and beautiful; the hills are covered with trees (mostly chestnuts, oaks and olive) and this area is famous for the amounts of rain it receives, often in the form of formidable storms.
Until relatively recently it was a poor area, and people have had to learn how to work with the land. The hills were terraced to make space for olive trees and vegetable gardens. I remember arriving at the house as a young child, and being greeted by my great-grandfather; he would take me to the coppaio, the small, dark and cool room that functioned as refrigerator and that was so called because of the coppi, the big terracotta jars where they used to keep olive oil. In the coppaio, among fresh cheeses, vegetables and meat, there was an old chipped jar filled with raw honey from the beehives of the neighbor, and I was allowed to eat one spoonful. All the food we ate was local: vegetables, cheese, eggs, chicken and rabbit.
My great-grandfather died in 1974 and was buried in the local cemetery. Since that time refrigerators have entered every house, the area is not poor anymore, and there are big supermarkets in the valley. But the attitude toward the land and the food that comes from it has not changed all that much.
Mariano and Michela are good friends of ours who live within walking distance from my family’s house, and they cook for us every time we go there. Every Saturday Mariano bakes bread for the whole week. When Michela wants to make a soup or a meat-stew, Mariano grabs a basket and takes a walk through the hills to gather erbette, literally small herbs that all have beautiful names: finocchiella(wild fennel), mentuccia(“little mint”), borragine(a herb that grows on walls), and many other edible plants that give a fresh and ever-changing taste, depending on where Mariano goes, the time of year, and the proportions used. What is going on right outside their doorstep is always related to what is on the table; the different seasons bring distinctive flavors to what they eat, and their aromas linger in the kitchen and onto the table through canning, brining and pickling.
This is one of the reasons I love Vermont, because here, too, the seasons come straight to the table. We cook as much as we can with food that is in season and local. The food co-op reminds me of an Italian outdoor market (without the outdoor part), and then there’s the farmers’ market and the wonders of farm shares, or CSAs. I feel that in my pots and pans I can mix the flavors of my two homes, Italy and Vermont.
So, in spite of the snow and with a little encouragement towards my forgetful eyes, I can already see the bright red of the strawberries I will pick with my sons in a not-too-distant future, and taste their wonderful late-spring taste.
When one asks Mariano and Michela for a recipe, their instructions are filled with “fai a occhio,” that is, “do according to your eye,” meaning as you, the cook, see fit, and “quanto basta,” “as much as is sufficient.” So it is not easy to translate their directions into cups and tablespoons. The best thing to do is to keep in mind that these dishes never taste like they did before. Try them more than once, so that over time they meet your taste. As such, the “recipe” is not an objective process, but rather a dialogue, a dynamic cooperation between you, your taste buds, and the ingredients.
Literally this means “boiled again” because the success of a good ribollita lies in good ingredients, of course, but also in the length of its cooking: the longer and the more gently it cooks, the better it is. The basis of this soup are beans and cavolo nero, black cabbage. Here in Vermont I use lacinato kale. In Tuscany every household has its ribollita recipe, so do not hesitate to experiment.
Ingredients: for four, more or less…
In a large pot slowly fry onion, carrot, celery, garlic and the herbs in extra-virgin olive oil. The longer you fry these ingredients together, the tastier the soup will be. Add the tomatoes and the drained beans of one can. Food-process the beans of the other can before adding; this will give the soup a creamy consistency.
Let the mixture cook for 2 or 3 minutes and add the kale (if you don’t want your soup to have too much of a “cabbagy” flavor, you can substitute half of the cabbage with chard). Add salt and pepper, quanto basta. Add water to cover and cook as long as you can. If you have a piece of Parmesan rind or some leftover bacon, do not hesitate to throw it in.
I always let it cook at least two hours, stirring every now and then, and adding water, if necessary. When it is ready, taste to see if it needs some more salt.
Put the toasted slice of bread (grilled would be even better!) in a deep plate and pour the soup over it. One last essential step: Add a little swirl of extra-virgin olive oil to each serving, and sprinkle with some freshly ground pepper.
Pasta alle erbette
This, on the other hand, is a super-quick sauce; you can put it together as the pasta (spaghetti, usually, but anything goes) is cooking.
Ingredients: for four, more or less…
In a pan large enough to accommodate the pasta later, gently fry onion and garlic in extra-virgin olive oil for 3 or 4 minutes; add the herbs, fry for a couple of minutes more, add the tomatoes, and cook for 3 or 4 minutes.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water (don’t be too shy when adding salt to the water — most of the salt will stay in the water). When the pasta is ready, drain it, add it to the pan with the sauce and, with the heat low, add the cream and stir well. Serve immediately, with or without Parmesan cheese.
One last thing: when you drain pasta, always save some of the acqua di cottura (cooking water): when you mix pasta and sauce, if it looks or it becomes dry, you can add a few tablespoons of that water.