As my loyal readers may have noticed, I’ve been threatening some upcoming special features. Well, here is the first in a series I’m creatively calling “Countdown to Italy”, because it is all about Italian food in anticipation of my May trip to Rome.
As the old saying goes, “show me someone who doesn’t like Italian food, and I’ll show you someone with no taste buds.” I’m not sure if anyone actually says that, but I’m making it a thing now. So deal with it. Anyway, the only thing better than Italian food is Italian food that you helped make in a tiny cramped kitchen in the Puglian town of Lecce in the middle of summer while a kindly old lady from Otranto showed you what to do.
Okay, let’s rewind. I spent the summer of 2007 (aka GREATEST SUMMER EVER) in Europe, mostly in Italy. Half study abroad, half wandering around Rome, Verona, Cinque Terre, Florence, Il Hotel Milano, etc it was, as the aforementioned nickname implies, the greatest summer ever. The centerpiece of it all was a month-long language and culture program in Lecce – a charming Baroque town on the Salento peninsula (the heel of the boot, as it were) often referred to as the Florence of the South, a name which I think sells it short more than anything else (but we’ll get to my opinions on Firenze later). My four weeks there were filled with language classes, Italian beaches, gelato, long cinematic lunches, architecture tours, and, every Tuesday, several hours in an overheated kitchen with Enrica, our guide to Puglian cuisine.
Our first week she introduced us to Maccheroni di Salento, which is basically just an Italian, pasta-based version of End of Quarter Stew (post forthcoming). But, you know, better. Enrica started us off with a simple tomato sauce – sauteing some onions in oil to infuse the flavor, straining out the onions, and adding a large bottle or so of tomato puree. We salted and simmered to draw out the flavor, then let it sit there on low heat for a bit while we prepped the rest of the ingredients. Which could not be easier, or a more delicious combination. We cooked some ziti (al dente, of course), then busted out a large casserole dish to start putting it all together. And this is where things get interesting. Enrica had already tossed some homemade polpette in the tomato sauce, and the prospect of just pasta, tomato sauce, and meatballs was enough for me. Oh, how innocent I was. After coating the bottom of the casserole dish with some olive oil and breadcrumbs, we laid down a layer of pasta. Once the bottom was covered, we spooned some sauce and balls on top, then added a layer of cheeses (Parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, and a white cheese that looks like the Italian version of Kraft singles and outside of this recipe is most effective melted atop a meatball sub), some slices of mortadella, a couple of chopped hardboiled eggs, and then another layer of pasta, tomato sauce and polpette. It was everything but the kitchen sink, and after 30 minutes in a 200 degree Celsius oven (close to 400 Fahrenheit for those keeping score at home), we had this:
Not content to leave us with only carnivorous options, Enrica then proceeded to introduce the class to the best vegetable preparation ever. Topped with a mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped garlic, olive oil, chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, mint, parsley and chopped olives, then tossed in the still heated oven from the maccheroni for 20 minutes. This works for peppers, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, or really anything that you want to give an extra layer of awesome. I highly recommend it.