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The Food of Southern Italy

by Carlo Middione

From the pages of EpicureanThe food of the north of Italy has become a sacred cow, and some people unwittingly, include the central part as a matter of course, thereby denying the Tuscans the individuality they rightfully demand, especially when it comes to food. Some people who write about it in advertisements or on menus actually underscore the "Northern" part of it, and use capitals no less! The food of southern Italy is no less important, delicious and healthy, to say nothing of glamorous, than the food of the north of Italy. It is ancient food with little need for updating. That alone should make it interesting and valuable. The fact that it is very healthy and exceptionally delicious only helps the matter. My particular interest is the food of southern Italy, not only because my parents were Sicilian immigrants (both in the restaurant business before coming to America), but because the food has such obvious merit. Tired lasagna, big-belly deli meatballs and soaking wet salads definitely do not represent the real food of the south of Italy, but an abomination wreaked on the unsuspecting American public by perpetrators who initially knew better. It is only by knowing the broad spectrum of this food and its preparation that one realizes that these bad practices prevail because of an unaware and often uncaring audience.

How does northern Italian cooking differ from southern Italian cooking? This is a mighty difficult question to answer without writing a book. Butter is the predominant fat for cooking in the north, while the central Italians who are kindred souls to the Southerners, love and use extra virgin olive oil as the main fat. The Northerners use cream in many savory or main dishes instead of reserving it mainly for desserts or pastries for mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. There is more meat on the northern table than on the southern one. In the northeast part of Italy, essentially still Austrian, there are heavy Germanic influences, not the least of which is language.

Italian Stone Wall

In the northwest part of Italy we have, again, the use of more meat than the Southerners and certainly an abundance of white truffle in the dishes. Here French is heard as a language quite interchangeable with Italian. Some differences can be seen in the visual aspects of the dishes. There is a quietness and almost a monochromatic quality in northern dishes, not out of design or stodginess but because of the selection of ingredients. You have tortellini con la panna, tortellini in cream; grilled veal chop, cannelloni with white or beige béchamel and cheese on top; ricotta and spinach dumplings unrelieved in color, slathered only lusciously in melted butter; Tuscan beans, not pallid but not vibrant.

Southerners, on the other hand have what can easily be called riotous food, at least in color and combination. In fact, this is the land of combinations. While they certainly enjoy a piece of simple grilled fish with lemon juice drizzled on it, you find other dishes such as pizza from Naples, hardly monochromatic; or merluzzo al forno, baked codfish with bay leaves and fennel and a vibrant, fresh, uncooked tomato sauce. The mixing of certain vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes and potatoes to make the colorful and delicious ciamotta, mixed vegetable stew cooked in four separate steps, is unlikely, but highly rewarding. Cassata and cannoli add to the merriment of the southern Italian table. The use of extra virgin olive oil is a requirement in southern Italian cooking as is lard. The very sparse use of garlic (yes, this true), in the south of Italy shows restraint and good sense. The use of outrageous amounts of it in any given dish in America shows the perpetrators of this abuse to surely have criminal minds! They obviously do not know their subject well.

The cooking of the southern Italians is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The almost imperceptible changes that occur when a dish is done and then re-done countless times eventually hone down to make it perfect. Take for example the Teglia (or tiella) Barese, a Pugliese casserole classic from Bari (the recipe follows). This dish was not thought out or designed. It just happened through layers of time as well as ingredients. The Arabs introduced rice into southern Italy somewhere around the year 800. Additionally they occupied Spain and introduced it there also (perhaps giving us a first look at paella), and probably inspired the combination of rice and mussels. After cooking this dish many times, the cook added just a bit of vegetables because they were at hand or because the yield had to accommodate one more mouth. The cheese, always at arm's length, soon found its way into the dish. The addition of potatoes and tomatoes dates this version of the tiella (casserole), after the mid-1500's or so because potatoes were not known in Italy before then, They came from the new world along with tomatoes, chocolate, corn and turkey, etc. After the tiella made its way this far, it became a classic dish in every sense of the word in that it is basic, and abides by a set of rules which I have laid out for you in the recipe. Dishes like this were conceived ingredient by ingredient, probably by necessity or availability. Eventually they became standards which need not be tampered with.

The use of red pepper flakes, hardly ever mentioned in the literature in the U. S., shows exuberance and good sense. Powdered red pepper would create heat indiscriminately. Flakes create jolts of hot spots on the tongue thereby stimulating the perception of taste. The non-hot intervals temper and give variety in a single dish. In the Abruzzo they like things hot, but they must also be flavorful. Many dishes of other cultures can be hot but not necessarily flavorful. Pasta di fuoco, firey pasta from the Abruzzo, has cooked garlic as the main taste, and the arbol peppers are not only firey but distinctly flavorful.

For you who like marinades, consider this: the normal, typical southern Italian marinade for meat, fish or fowl is invariably extra virgin olive oil. The reason is simple. In the dishes that call for marinades, the ingredients need pampering and perhaps a bit of tempering, not precooking as most acid marinades do. If such an acid marinade is used, why bother to cook the food one more time? After all, the main function of an acid marinade is to break down fiber to make the ingredient more palatable than in its natural state; certainly not true of Italian ingredients that want a marinade to enhance their inherent qualities, not change them. The recipe for Pollo al Mattone, chicken cooked under a brick, is an example of how this method works.

Italian Spaghetti

Italian food, in general, has practically defined the word earthy. Yet, from so-called humble roots came the foundation of what we now know as French cuisine and even haute cuisine. While the French made an obvious, concerted, mystifying and certainly commercial business of cooking food, the Italians were maintaining the dishes that were good and popular and very slowly improving the ones that were not. Today, the same holds true; but somehow, I cannot buy the notion that Italian food is merely earthy. To some people earthy means lacking sophistication or refinement. Depending on how you perceive the food, it should also mean unaffected; so rare nowadays. If it is satisfying to the soul as well as to the mouth and the stomach, you could call it earthy. When has this definition held true of an au courant dish consisting of two slices of lamb about the size of a fifty-cent-piece almost floating on a lake of at least two sauces, combined more for the sake of complexity and texture than for flavor, and the obligatory julienned melange of vegetables, palatable only because of their cut and size? Is this soul-satisfying? Is it comforting? Is it earthy?

I would hesitate to call southern Italian food "down home" because it has been around for so long and has become so refined (not in the panty-waist sense, but in the fact that it has been done and re-done so often as to make it almost a travesty to try to change anything about it), that it can easily qualify as elegant food. However, it still satisfies the soul.

While I admire dishes that show-off "technique" and occasionally "ingenuity," I expect them to be for expository reasons or to emphasize a cooking point, in other words dishes suitable more for discussion than gustatory satisfaction. Myself, I like to eat food for its primary reason for existing, to enjoy it while it keeps me alive and well. Italian food, categorically, does this. Many of the dishes that I teach or make in my restaurant or make for myself and my wife at home could be considered earthy. They give all the joy of eating nutritious food well prepared in the best way possible, simply cooked and simply presented in a warm, friendly atmosphere, where hospitality is as important as the meal itself.

Of course, there are Southern Italian dishes that show a certain amount of chic or complexity and refinement. Sometimes this is demonstrated by the combination of ingredients, such as choice prosciutto and dead-ripe melon or figs (of course, the prosciutto comes from Parma near Bologna, but with Sicilian figs or melon it transcends being just delicious), or ripe tomatoes, basil, and real buffalo mozzarella cheese doused with extra virgin olive oil. Yes, it is possible to get real buffalo-milk mozzarella and, yes, it does taste better, with a finer texture and "bite."

Sometimes chic, complexity and refinement are demonstrated by technique, such as making fettuccine correctly. The mere selection of fancy durum flour and fresh eggs requires knowledge and judgment. The texture of the dough is determined not so much by the recipe but by experience and "feel." The correctness is demonstrated in a result of absolutely even coloration of the dough which shows it was kneaded enough and fastidiously, the thinness, such that you should be able to read EPICUREAN magazine through it, and the strength of it so that it will take plenty of vigorous handling and remain intact and yet supple and tender, and in the end, when boiled in a cauldron of boiling water, be al dente in the true sense of the word - chewable with some effort. Is making perfect fettuccine any less inspired or any less awesome than making a perfect sauce? You can begin to see the hypocrisy in exalting the saucier, while simply tossing off the pasta-maker as a peasant who is used to doing it.

Do not confuse simplicity or earthiness with shabbiness or indifference. Remember that anything exposed by lack of adornment must have strength, reliability, appeal, and in our case, the test of time.

Dishes wrenched out of someone's contrived imagination have no place in the cooking of southern Italy. I hesitate to give you an exact concoction as an example of what I mean, lest my colleagues think that I am gunning for them, but let us say a dish such as grilled monkfish, marinated in kiwi juice and cumin, sauced with a pesto of strawberries and demi-glace would be very uncomfortable on a Southern Italian table. You might well end up wearing it. The influence of many cultures have shaped the food of the southern Italians. Greeks, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish have all left a mark on that cooking. But instead of seeing insular examples of these dishes, we see a distillation of all of them making a unique and disparate system of cooking, which we can call the cooking of southern Italy. After centuries of virtually undisturbed cooking technique and adherence to the proper ingredients, these dishes remain in the repertory, and are guarded jealously by those who make them. Thank God for this attitude because it gives us a living heritage of good honest cooking that can serve us well for more centuries; historic cooking still eaten today on its merits - what other craft can claim that?

In my book, "The Food of Southern Italy", I pay tribute to the food of the south of Italy and give, hopefully, a loving broadside of how these Italians eat, how they cook, what they cook and sometimes why they cook it, in a wide variety of recipes, a lot that have never seen the printed page before, even in Italy. More of these kinds of dishes grace the menus of restaurants of all hues and aspirations, than do dishes from the north of Italy. I say this in pride and knowledge, but hasten to add, that a great deal of my cooking repertory (and reputation) comes from cooking foods from all the regions of Italy.

Some of the dishes that I love the most are made without meat, fish or fowl. It is surprising how many people cannot tolerate such dishes, or, as is often my menu, a whole meal of meatless dishes. I am not a vegetarian, and I neither admire that diet nor recommend it, but there are some wonderful meals consisting only of vegetables and possibly fruit. These meals are very satisfying and memorable.

In my book, "The Food of Southern Italy," I paid tribute to the food of the south of Italy and gave, hopefully, a loving broadside of how these Italians eat, how they cook, what they cook and sometimes why they cook it, in a wide variety of recipes, a lot that had never seen the printed page before, even in Italy. I say this in pride and knowledge, but hasten to add that a great deal of my cooking repertory (and reputation) comes from cooking foods from all of the regions of Italy.

The dishes in my books, and the ones that I teach in the many private classes I give, are based on mostly everyday ingredients that most of you will have on hand or can easily buy in a normal market. Some specialty meats, cheeses and wines, of course, require shopping in other stores. Fortunately, in the Bay Area where I live, we are blessed with a number of such places. Also to our benefit is the fact that the climate in California is much like one would find in southern Italy, thereby giving us, locally, another reason to explore and celebrate this most rewarding food. For those of you in other parts of the world, you can cook these dishes by a little diligent shopping, and even sending away for certain key ingredients not readily at hand.

Three of the following recipes are from my book, "The Food of Southern Italy," the other has been in my cooking repertory for a long time. These dishes are particularly appealing to me, so I have shared them with you.

Buon Appetito!

Recipes From Southern Italy

Mixed Vegetable Stew
Makes 6 servings

Each ingredient of the Ciamotta is delicious on its own; after preparing each individual vegetable you would enjoy eating as it comes out of the pan. Combined, they become magically Epicurean - so simple that some people scoff at the combination as being pedestrian. Pray for them. This dish, good as it is on its own, becomes a "contorno," contour to other dishes such as the Pollo al Mattone, roast pork, big meaty grilled fish. Eaten at room temperature with a little lemon vinaigrette, it is quick, easy, and a winner.

1 large eggplant, about 1 lb., washed
1 lb. large, firm russet-type potatoe, well scrubbed
4 bell peppers, red and green mixed, washed
1 lb. ripe, firm tomatoes, or use canned San Marzano if available
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed, for frying
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed almost to paste
Salt to taste
Plenty of fresh ground black pepper

Trim off the stem and leaves from the eggplant, cut it crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices. If young and very fresh there is no need to salt the slices (otherwise see below). Peel the potatoes and cut them crosswise into 1/8 inch thick slices. Core the pepper and discard the seeds, cut them in 1/4 inch slices lengthwise. Peel and core the tomatoes, and crush well with your hands.

Put enough oil in a large frying pan to cup the sides about 1/8 inch. When the oil is hot, fry the eggplant slices until they are nicely browned on both sides turning once. Add more oil as needed. Remove them to a large casserole that will eventually hold everything. Add more oil as needed. Fry the potato slices until they are deep gold. Put them into the casserole with the eggplant. Fry the peppers until they are golden, and add the other cooked ingredients.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Scatter on the crushed tomatoes and the garlic, salt and pepper and mix well but carefully. Do not make a mush of things. Bake for about 30 minutes or until it is bubbling. Serve hot on its own merits, or use as a contorno, side dish, for roasted meat, fowl or big fish.

NOTE: To remove excess water from eggplant or remove bitterness in older ones, sprinkle both sides of the slices liberally with salt. Place in a non-reactive colander overlapping each other. Place a bowl or a dish inside the colander on top of the eggplant slices, and place a 1 or 2 pound weight on it. Let stand for about 1 hour. Rinse slices quickly under cold running water and pat dry.

Bari-Style Casserole
Makes 4 to 6 serving

The Casserole Barese is a favorite of mine because it is delicious and very unusual, and you can be sure you would not have eaten it at someone else's house just last week. It is an ancient dish preserved because of its intrinsic goodness for us to use today.

2 lbs. or more fresh mussels
4 medium tomatoes, peeled cored, and chopped medium fine
2 stalks tender celery, finely chopped
2/3 c. Italian parsley, chopped medium
2 large garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil, as needed
4 oz. grated pecorino cheese
1 lb. potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1/8 inch thick
12 oz. Arborio, Vialone or other plump rice, washed
Salt and black pepper to taste
About 3 c. water plus the mussel juices
1/2 c. bread crumbs (use your judgement)

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Wash the mussels well. Put 1/4 cup water into a large pan, with a lid, over high heat. Put in the mussels and cover the pan until the shells have just barely opened, about two minutes. Immediately remove the mussels to a cookie sheet with sides and spread them out to cool. Reserve the juices until later, but strain to rid any sand. Remove the top shell, and loosen the mussel but leave it in the bottom shell. Discard the top shells.
Mix together the tomatoes, celery, parsley, and garlic. Put 1/3 of the mixture in the bottom of a three-quart casserole dish, add some salt and pepper. Drizzle on about 1/3 of the olive oil. Sprinkle on 1/3 of the cheese, and layer on 1/3 of the potatoes evenly to cover. Layer all the mussels in their shells open side up. You may have to have more than one layer.
Sprinkle on all of the rice evenly. Scatter 1/3 more of the vegetable mixture, more salt and pepper, another 1/3 of the oil, 1/3 more of the cheese, and evenly layer on the remaining 2/3 of the potatoes.
Layer on the remaining 1/3 of the vegetable mixture and the last 1/3 of the oil. Pour the water and the reserved mussel juices slowly over the ingredients. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and the remaining 1/3 of the cheese.
Bake in the upper third of the oven for about 1 1/4 hours. If the casserole gets a little dry, add a little boiling water, to avoid stopping the baking, or shattering the casserole. When it is done, it should be moist but not wet. Let it rest for at least 45 minutes. It is best eaten warm, rather than hot.

Calabrian Celery Soup
Makes 6 servings

I chose the Calabrian Celery Soup because it is delicious, and unusual becasue of the comination of ingredients and the technique used to make it. It constitutes a whole meal accompanied by some good bread. This soup is also an example of a precise recipe for soup. Generally soups are made from ingredients at hand and although there is some latitude in the use of ingredients and the amounts, thre are a few unwritten rules about them. The strongest one I can think of is that almost all of them are made with a bse of water, not chicken stock, good as it is. Be sure to use high quality water, as carefully chosen as your other key ingredients.

1 lb celery, washed and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 1/2 quarts best quality water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 T extra virgin olive oil
6 slices homemade bread, toasted, cut into quarters (do not use sourdough!)
3 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into quarters
3 oz. thinly sliced soppressata, cut into julienne strips
4 oz. fresh pork sausage without fennel seeds, broken into tiny pieces
3 oz. caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced and cut into julienne strips
3/4 c. grated Pecorino cheese
Plenty of fresh ground black pepper

Cover the celery with water in a small stock pot, bring to a simmer, and add the salt (to taste). Add the olive oil, and simmer the soup over low heat for about 15 minutes, or until it is tender but not soft.

Meanwhile, put the pieces of bread all over the bottom of a well-heated soup tureen, and at random, scatter on all the rest of the ingredients except the grated cheese and the pepper. Bring the soup to a rolling boil. Ladle it into the tureen. It should be hot enough to cook the sausage and heat the rest of the ingredients very well. Add the pecorino and the black pepper. Serve the scalding soup in hot plates or bowls.

Chicken Cooked Under a Brick
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Chicken Cooked Under a Brick is fun to make and the flavors can be varied by adjusting the condiments in it. It is also very good eaten at room temperature, meaning leftovers can be used easily or it can be made way ahead ready for your dinner at a moment's notice.

1 3 lb. fryer
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 or more of the following herbs:
4 large sprigs fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dry; 2 large sprigs fresh rosemary or 2 tablespoons dry leaves; 8 large leaves fresh sage torn into small pieces or 2 teaspoons dry crushed leaves (NOT POWDERED!)
1 scant t. red pepper flakes or to taste
Salt to taste
Fresh ground black pepper to taste

Split chicken dawn back and splay it open so that it is flat. Tuck wings behind its back. Put it into a shallow dish and sprinkle the olive oil all over both sides, sprinkle on evenly one or more of the herbs, and the pepper flakes if you are going to use them. Cover the chicken with clear wrap and let it marinate in the refrigerator for several hours. You can prepare the dish to this point up to two days ahead.

Put a heavy frying pan on medium heat for about 2 minutes, then drizzle on some of the oil from the marinade. Place the chicken skin-side-down in the hot oil, add some salt and pepper, and immediately place two foil wrapped bricks (about 6 pounds) on top of it. You can use a heavy pot with some water in it if you do not have bricks handy, but be sure to balance it carefully for safety.

After 4 minutes or so remove the weights and lift the chicken gently to see if skin is coloring well but not burning. Reduce heat or raise it as needed, and replace weights. After about 15 minutes of cooking the skin should be deep gold and crusty. Turn the chicken over, add more salt and pepper if you wish, replace the weights, and cook another 20 minutes or until done.

Remove weights and take the chicken out of the pan. Let it rest on a cutting board for 6 or 7 minutes, then cut it as you like and serve it hot with crusty bread and some grilled or sautéed vegetables. For a picnic, yau can make pollo al mattone as directed up to a day ahead, keep it refrigerated, but do not cut it until you are ready to pack it.

NOTE: You can make this chicken on a barbecue. Use medium heat and watch carefully that it does not get dried out. Proceed as directed.

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