In the baroque town of Lecce, Walter and I meet two dynamic women who are fighting for their lives. Not literally for physical survival-although it may come to that-but for the endurance of their culinary tradition. They may be of different generations but their focus is the same: To preserve the traditions of Pugliese cooking.
If you think this sounds melodramtic, consider this: A McDonald’s sits in the historic Piazza San Oronzo in Lecce, a town that up until a few decades ago was a relatively remote outpost in southern Italy. The food of this area was the now much-lauded ‘Mediterranean diet.’ But, back to our heroines. . .
Thirty-something Cinzia Rascazzo, with her sister Marika Rascazzo, operates Stile Mediterraneo, a custom tour business that focuses on Pugliese culture, cooking, olive oil and wine.
Rosalba De Carlo is a generation older. She’s the proprietor of the esteemed Alle due Corti ristorante where we are lunching with Cinzia on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. We are honored to be eating here and meeting Rosalba. In 2008, she was recognized as an exemplar of the gastronomic culture of Salento, the southern tip of the Italian “heel” during an Economic Sustainability Conference in conjunction with UNESCO and ISNART (the national institute of tourism research).
Seated in the cozy backroom, we ask Cinzia to choose dishes for us. She explains that we will be eating mostly vegetables because Lecce sits inland, away from the coast. (I smile to myself because the distance to the Adriatic Sea is probably no more than 10 miles, practically beachfront property by U.S. standards.) “There is a Spanish influence, similar to Catalan, here in Lecce,” Cinzia says.
Dishes are served in locally crafted terra cotta plates. The peperoni agrodolce are slowly cooked in olive oil and a bit of sugar until they almost melt. Vinegar and bread crumbs complete the preparation. “The Pugliese put breadcrumbs on everthing,” Cinzia explains, laughing. And with good reason. Pugliese bread is renowned because it is made with the superior hard durum wheat that is cultivated in the northern part of the region.
Local pastas are also made from durum wheat mixed with water. We sample orecchiette (shaped like little ears) in a green vegetable puree and strascinate (ragged curled strands) in a tomato sauce.
Polpettone (balls) prepared from eggplant were a revelation. So light, so flavorful. The eggplant is peeled and cooked then passed through a food mill. It’s mixed with grated aged pecorino cheese, breadcrumbs, and egg, shaped into balls and deep fried in olive oil. (Full disclosure: After returning home, I asked Cinzia to share a recipe via e-mail. I tried but I couldn’t replicate the taste and texture. Some dishes must be eaten in their place of origin and I think this is one of them.)
Probably the most amazing tasting that day was ‘ncapriata. Made from only three ingredients-fava beans, chicory and extra-virgin olive oil-this is the poster child of Puglia’s cucina povera. Just beans, greens, and oil but when the base ingredients are so distinctive, and the cooks know how work magic, the results are spectacular.
Cinzia shares her recipe and gives this advice for enjoying ‘ncapriata. “The chicory and fava beans are meant to be eaten together! You can also serve them with small pieces of traditional durum wheat bread. You can add more extra virgin olive oil at the table.”
‘Ncapriata (fava bean puree and wild chicory)
Makes 5 servings
1 pound dried peeled fava beans
2 pounds wild chicory or cooking greens such as dandelion, mustard or curly endive
1 whole garlic clove
Red pepper flakes
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for garnish
Place the beans in a large bowl and cover generously with cold water. Soak for at least 8 hours.
Drain and rinse the beans. Place them in a large heavy pot and cover with fresh water. Place over low heat. When the water starts boiling, skim the foam from the surface with a spoon. Discard the foam. Continue skimming and discarding the foam as long as it appears. Cook, stirring occasionally, over low heat for about 2 hours. The beans will gradually dissolve into a puree. If the mixture is too thick, add water from time to time if needed.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Wash the greens. Chop them coarsely. Add to the boiling water. Stir and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes or until al dente. Drain the greens.
Return the same cooking pot to medium-low heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil, the garlic and pepper flakes to taste. Cook over low heat for about two minutes. Add the greens, stir and cover. Cook on low heat for 5-10 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with salt. Remove the garlic and discard.
When the fava beans are completely dissolved, remove from the heat and add 3 tablespoons of oil (or more if you like) while stirring with a wooden spoon. Season to taste with salt. Thin with some water if needed to create a very thick puree.
Ladle the fava puree into one side of a pasta bowl. Place some greens next to the puree. Drizzle with a bit more oil at the table if desired.
Coming next: More about Stile Mediterraneo plus a recipe for ciceri e tria (chickpeas with tagliatelle).