Lu Stufatu (Sexy,Sexy Stewed Vegetables)

ingredients for Stuffatu



Like many of the more wily concepts in life- things like true love, sexual harassment, and even obscenity itself, lu stufatu is one of those things that is almost impossible to pin down, empirically: You can just bet your boots that you’ll know it when you see it.

Does the dish have to have potatoes? Probably. Does it have to have bay leaves? It often does, but thyme and mentuccia and even Penny Royal make appearances from time to time. Must it have bell peppers? Most likely. Aubergines? You bet. Sheep’s milk cheese? Well, that’s when things turn slippery. In short, lu stuffatu is a wine-less ratatouille, a more sprawling version of the Catalan Samfaina or in English, an array of vegetables stewed in their own juice, dusted or not, with some spicy sheep’s milk cheese. It’s also just about one of my favourite dishes ever, perhaps even my ‘one dish for the rest of your life on the desert island’ answer, if you were to ask.

I think the key, like all good food here in Italy, is to let the market guide the ‘recipe’, rather than to think of the dish as having hard and fast rules. You could probably even make a fairly stodgy version of one just by clearing out the drawer in your refrigerator. By ‘stodgy’, I mean that a stuffatu is only as good as its ingredients and I don’t think I’ve ever made one with ingredients older than a few hours back from the market, which is probably why the dish always pops in my mouth. And in my memory, if I happen to go long enough without tearing into one, which thankfully doesn’t happen often.French enamelware is my preferred vessel, but I have a neighbor that makes hers in the oven, something that strikes me as fundamentally wrong. An old friend of mine used to make hers adding tomato sauce, which turned the dish into a thick version of vegetable soup. She was a nice woman but things were doomed between us, and maybe not just even because of her stuffatu, if memory serves. Restaurants here will occasionally make a finely-diced version, calling it stuffatu, but I don’t think the dish should ever be fussy or look as if the cook was drilled in knife skills by German Stormtroopers.

It’s just not that kind of dish. It’s supposed to taste like ‘home’, another often wily concept.

stuffatu plated

Here is my ‘recipe’, which if we’ve ever met, you probably already know it isn’t really a recipe, anyway.

Hit your favourite market and grab a couple of anything that looks good: courgettes, aubergenes, waxy potatoes, cherry tomatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, bell peppers. Cut everything into logical pieces, smaller the longer each takes to cook (you do this already anyway, whenever you make soup, whether you realise it or not). Take a heavy,heavy bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid and get the puppy hot for a few minutes. Coat the bottom with a drizzle of your best olive oil. Toss everything in, minus anything really soft, such as the tomatoes, and keep it moving for a few minutes, browning everything. Salt it, add the tomatoes, cover and simmer until tender. Toss in the bay leaves or thyme, and a good glug of raw oil. Stir. Set the table. Plate nicely and dust it with a good spicy pecorino, or even a well-aged parmiggiano, if you are really in a pinch. I like a high acid red with it, although I’m naturally prone towards Italian wine anyway.

If you were to throw in Jennifer Hudson in something clingy, some monkeys specially trained to use a cork screw (in my mind the monkeys are always dressed like little Bell-Hops), then, yeah, I could be happy just with lu stuffatu for a very, very long time, with or without the dusting of spicy pecorino.Hit your favourite market and grab a couple of anything that looks good: courgettes, aubergenes, waxy potatoes, cherry tomatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, bell peppers. Cut everything into logical pieces, smaller the longer each takes to cook (you do this already anyway, whenever you make soup, whether you realise it or not). Take a heavy,heavy bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid and get the puppy hot for a few minutes. Coat the bottom with a drizzle of your best olive oil. Toss everything in, minus anything really soft, such as the tomatoes, and keep it moving for a few minutes, browning everything. Salt it, add the tomatoes, cover and simmer until tender. Toss in the bay leaves or thyme, and a good glug of raw oil. Stir. Set the table. Plate nicely and dust it with a good spicy pecorino, or even a well-aged parmiggiano, if you are really in a pinch. I like a high acid red with it, something with lots of mineral flavours to mimic those in the vegetables….although I’m naturally prone towards Southern Italian wine anyway.

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Archiviato in 4) Altri Primi, 5) Secondi, 6) Contorni

The Sculpture Garden in Lecce, Italy: The Work of Eugenio Maccagnani

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On our free morning at our tiny cooking school in here in Lecce, Italy, just after the guided tour
of the city, but before we make fresh sausages from scratch in the afternoon, most folks spend
their free time here, in the park or sculpture garden, a somber green oasis in the centre of our
beautiful blond, stone city.

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I say ‘the park’ but no one in Southern Italy would ever call it that, as here it’s ‘La Villa’, or ‘La Villa Comunale’, just as many cities in the south don’t have ‘historic centres’ ( ‘La città vecchia’, anziche ‘il centro storico’). It’s yet another one of those little things that charms me deeply about the south of Italy, a tilted slanty look at the world, as if everyone else, everywhere else is just nuts.

But what ‘La Villa’ really should be called is ‘The Sculpture Garden’, as the space has been lovingly set aside for Lecce’s most famous artist, the sculpture Eugenio Maccagnani, born here in Lecce in 1852.

Emilia Ruggiero, Busto

We finished the beer and took one more picture, this time with her camera. ‘I have an idea for a really cute picture’, I said, turning around to see Emilia already scurrying up the pedestal.

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Archiviato in Senza categoria

Salice Salento

Long before we ever even decided to launch a wine programme here in the South of Italy, it was obvious our students had several surprising tendencies in regards to the wines of Italy. Those fixations never seemed to change, regardless of how much the students earned or had the tendency to travel, or even where they came from on the planet. Those tendencies were: 1) That our students most often drink Italian wine in their home countries, that they preferred it (notable, as, aside from the Northern European countries, our students all come from nations with strong domestic wine industries). 2) That Italian wine just seemed to them more friendly, more approachable, and even on occasion, happier to them than that of the New World or Spain or France. 3) But that it was a pity that there was no structure or hierarchy to help a consumer make any sense of it all. That is was, more or less, a train wreck, or as one student put it, ‘a food fight among circus clowns’. 4) That the South often produced haunting, ethereal wines but that selecting those wines was daunting, involving the kind of luck akin to winning the lottery or finding an old master at a flea market.

So, slowly, I started asking students what they saw as we passed the countless vineyards of Puglia, following my own beliefs that you can’t understand Italian wine until you understand the label and you can’t understand the label until you understand what actually happens in the fields. ‘Well, they look like vines’, they’d say, ‘Brown and gnarly’. ‘But how are they trained?’, I’d ask. ‘You know, like vines’. ‘So, is that going to be good wine or bad wine do you think’, I’d ask. ‘Good wine’, they say. ‘How do you know’, I’d ask. ‘Because it’s Italian’, they’d say, somehow forgetting Lambrusco, the wine in Tetra-paks or any of the wine on offer in English supermarkets. I’d scan their faces- folks with Ph.D.s, businesses of the own and more stamps on the passports than I’ll ever have- wondering how this subject ever become so cloudy to them, especially one that they so clearly loved.

What newsletters are based on those discussions, the four tiers of Italian wine, as recognised by the government here in Italy: Vino Da Tavola. IGT. DOC. And DOCG. In four parts (Parts 2,3 and 4 are on their way).

If you’d like to know more about Southern Italian wine beyond the scope of these newsletters, consider visiting our new wine programme that debuts in October.

And so for Part One of the series, let’s start right here in Nino’s fields, just outside Salice Salentino.

vigne1,saliceYou read grapevines just like you do Renaissance paintings or Greek pottery: Really look closely and you’ll begin to see something of a world view, hidden in the tiniest of details.

How are these vines trained? That is, how has man forced his will on them, remembering that vines are actually that- vines – and that they want to grow as the please, up trees and rocky hills. (Perhaps even more than the actual harvest it’s the pruning that is the most humbling part of my time making wine, when you come face to face with the unstoppable yet silent life-force of the plant world. Cut it. It grows back. Cut it. It grows back. If you spend more time in the city than the countryside, it’s the same quiet beauty, as the tiniest plants silently crack cement that would require jackhammers as loud as airplanes for the rest of us).

Here, Nino is using the double Guyot method preferred by a lot of the world, although, not that typical of here in Puglia, where the alberello method is used (more on that in part three). Double Guyot is the preferred method in Bordeaux, telling again, as finding them in Puglia implies travel and study, as do the rose bushes (read on).

The Doppio Guyot or double Guyot trains the vine into a fork that runs left and right on a metal wire. The effect is bondage and discipline, but for plants. It’s time-consuming for the pruner, the extra labour performed among the winter elements. But it also dictates how the leaves will grow, directly over top of the fruit, shielding it from the Half-Day sun. Come harvest, the grapes will contain less over-all sugar, which is what will eventually turn into alcohol.

And Nino’s vines stand out from the others. Lately I’ve noticed that whenever I notice a grower doing something atypical from the others in the community, the effect is almost always fascinating.

strada, salice, lowSo if you were riding down a country lane, as I was, what would you be able to tell from Nino’s vines?

That he is a thoughtful man, willing to work harder for a better product.

That this field will produce wine high in alcohol but that Nino is trying to get that down by training his vines so that the leaves cover the grapes themselves as much as possible. By changing this one technique, he may be able to make the leap from 15 to 14 or 13.5 percent alcohol, making a more refined wine that tastes of the local soil rather than just hot alcohol. (Many of the wines we buy for the school have been initially decreasing’ a half percent every couple of years, the ‘hot’ alcoholic vapors giving way to rich red fruit and tobacco aromas).

But although high quality, Nino is still only producing vino da tavola, which in the simplest sense, reads as ‘table wine’. In the legal sense however, it’s a bucket classification for any wine that doesn’t fall into the government-controlled IGT, DOC or DOCG ratings. Technically speaking, the so-called ‘Super Tuscans’ are table wines, as they opted out of the governmental ratings in order to import Cabernet and Merlot to Tuscany, a really, really bad idea in my opinion.

‘I’m retired’, Nino said, when I asked him why he takes such a labour-intensive stance to make non-classified wines. ‘I’m not interested in working with consortiums or any big bottlers. I just want to make some wine that I’m proud of. I sell some to a local restaurant who sells it in carafes as ‘local red’. The rest I drink myself’. A shy smile spread across his face, indicating that his were not modest portions come meal time.

We shook hands and I climbed back on my bicycle and rode through the town of Salice Salentino and out the other side. It was nearing lunch time and the streets were empty. As I peddled my mind drifted off and I started to imagine some foreign couple sitting down in that nearby restaurant, a carafe of ‘local red’ hitting the table. In my mind I see them beginning to sip from heavy juice glasses, the once-clear glass rubbed white from years of use. ‘You know, everywhere in Italy, the house wine is so excellent’, I hear her say, ‘Sure is’, I hear him say, neither curious of the life of the red liquid before its time in their carafe. As my hunger grew I saw their plates, heaped high with the vegetables of the Salento. I saw the yellow bread, the crust as brown and crackly as old leather. And I saw Nino crawling back into his battered old Ape, pulling away from the same restaurant, the empty demigians bouncing against each other as he heads back home to his own carafe, his dinner still unpicked in his garden.

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Archiviato in 3) Primi

Gelato di Albicocche.

emi, gelato, stable

I’m told that I have something of an obsessive personality, although I really prefer the adjective, ‘enthusiastic’.

Take summer dishes: This year I’m only really eating three dishes, and all three of them nearly everyday. The only one that is not part of my normal summer repertoire is this new, lightened form of apricot gelato that I recently came up with based on not wanting to keep 10 egg yolks around all the time.

And, to be honest, the fear of a yellowing heart just out in front of such a round- numbered birthday.

emiliagelato2If a death battalion of black-slippered ninjas were to attack my place at 4 am, there is a good chance they’d find me barefoot and maybe even naked, eating ice cream straight from the ice cream maker, the fridge door propped open for no other reason other that it feels good. I even keep the gelato paddle right next to it in the freezer. It’s not pretty to watch, I’m sure, but that might explain why it happens so late at night.

albicocche There are only two fixed rules when making gelato. 1) Everything will need to be colder than you think: Freeze everything: your machine for at least 24 hours; your firming receptacle; your serving bowls, even the spoons. The only real problem you’ll likely ever have with a frozen desert is just that, that it wasn’t frozen enough. Should that happen, keep it to yourself and just call it something else. Even mistakes are great, just not ‘gelato’. When mistakes do happen, regroup and re-examine the rule in making gelato: make sure everything is colder than you think necessary.

Also, the same science behind enamelware’s strength in holding out to heat is also true for its ability to hold onto cold. French enamelware makes great chilling vessels. Providing, of course, you followed the first rule in making gelato.

Place fruit in the bottom of large saucier and toss with the sugar, leave for half an hour to macerate. Add the rest of the ingredients (the apricot marmalade, a pinch of salt, the milk and cream).

Bring to a boil and turn off the flame. When cool, pass through a sieve. Move to chilled refrigerator receptacle. Chill 4 hours or more. Run through machine for half an hour or until it stops on its own. Move to frozen receptacle and allow to firm for two hours. Serve in chilled serving bowls.

If you’re feeling like a fancy-pants, you can also roast some apricots until they become concentrated and sticky and chill those too. A little drizzled vincotto is also excellent.

But try out this recipe and shoot me an email with the results. I bet you like it. I bet you eat it often. I bet it’s the thing you’ll be eating when your eyes begin to dart about the ceiling at the slightest thump in the night, awaiting the soft-footed ninjas, your lips glossy with sweety-creamy- goodness.

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Archiviato in 3) Primi, 7) Dolci

Tormaresca

torrmaresca, segno

‘But what do you REALLY eat? What do you REALLY drink when you’re not teaching’, is a question I’m asked nearly every week. Most of the time the answer is boring: The same stuff I eat and drink during our classes, that is, la cucina tipica salentina.

And it’s mostly true too.

But every so often I’ll give myself a little slack and drink wines that are not from the Salento. When that happens, one wine shows up on my dinner table more often than any other. That it’s made by a massive, modern, heavily-invested Tuscan-owned winery might surprise you. It did me too. At least at first.

torrmaresca, vito I was lucky enough to have been able schedule a visit with Vito Farella, who manages Tormaresca, Tenuta Bocca di Lupo, an impeccably-maintained estate in Central Puglia. He couldn’t be nicer. Nor more generous with his time.

As we walk he shows me the care given at even the smallest of detail. There is none of that ‘my grandfather used to’ that many of us here are guilty of, the replacement of quality with cute, little Old World tales.

‘It’s either in the bottle or not’, says Vita as our soles softly sink into the sandy soil.

We walk in silence for a few more minutes. ‘Or you know, it simply isn’t’, he says, revealing that he’s actually struck by the conversation himself. ‘And I’ve very proud of our wine’.

He has ever reason to be as I couldn’t be more in love with it myself.

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Archiviato in 10) Vino Salentino

La Passata Del Mezzogiorno (Tomato Sauce, Salento-Style)

passatapomodoro1

Come late summer in these parts, you still see older folks gathering in small groups out in the countryside.

Someone will have an old radio on, set to some station where all the music was recorded back when full, lush symphonies were all the rage.

An old stew pot will be bubbling away on a nearly-forgotten flame. Water for the pasta will be coming to the boil. Someone will be tipping green beans, while someone else will be grating some strong sheep’s milk cheese. Still off school for the summer, young tan kids will be everywhere, chasing lizards or riding old rusty bikes down dusty roads.

It’ll be time to make the annual tomato sauce. I love it so much that I volunteer my services to anyone and everyone that will have me. I could be yours for a plate a pasta, a few sauteed snails and the contents of a reused water bottle of local malvasia.

It’s just that lately among literally hundreds of times of making passata in my life (I’ve made it 18 times, with different families, this summer alone), I’ve had a very uneasy feeling about making tomato sauce. And that uneasiness doesn’t seem to be going to go away today.

passata13We finish filling the last of the bottles at around 5 pm. We’ll load them into reused oil drums and cover them with water that has been heated for days in the sun. Old fiscoli– the jute mattes used for pressing olive oil- are used to buffer the layers of bottles. I build a new olive-wood fire under the oil drums.

After the water comes back to the boil for half an hour, the fire is left to burn out.

In two days, when the bottles are cool to the touch, they’ll be unloaded and consumed over the course of the next year. The last three bottles from last year dressed our pasta for lunch today. I’m sure there was some home economics employed to make it stretch just perfectly, a fact revealed in shy smiles.

But what was been my returning thought, all week in fact, is how old I feel making tomato sauce with this family. I’m the youngest person here working and I’m in my late 30’s. After me, everyone is 50 or above. Carmine is in his 80’s.

passatakidThis is not that ‘kids these days’ rant. It’s the parents that have me concerned (and while I know and love this generous family and have for years, I’ve not shown their faces on purpose. I’ve also changed their names). This is not to shame them (the adults are wonderful people, fiercely proud of their traditions, which is why I’m here to help out as much as I am). I mean to speak of something bigger. Part of the problem is the self-loathing farmer, those who want better for their children. Part of it is the availability of grocery stores and supermarkets, something that didn’t exist here only a generation ago. Part of it is ease. It IS hot. It IS hard work. It IS holiday season, when most young people want to take to the beaches.

And while I fixate on my own backyard– Italy’s ‘Halfday’– it’s a problem that is happening the whole world over, the rapid lose of culture and cuisine, happening right under the noses of those claiming to be the proudest of them.

‘We make our own’, you’ll hear local 30 year olds bragging about the sauce in their cupboards, the reused bottles exactly like the ones we bottled today.

‘But do YOU make it’, you’ll ask, hoping to find someone who still does. ‘Well, me, no… but…. my grandmother….’

And just like it’s not the ‘kids these days’ rant, so too is not the ‘letter writing versus email’, or any of the old dinosaur’s argument made in the face of a changing world. If you could see the look of pride on the faces of those 30-year old’s when holding the jar, who’ll see a real value in their eyes in that homemade sauce. And sadly, you’ll also see the disconnect between that jar, and what the word ‘ours’ really means.

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With the drums loaded, I kiss and hug everyone and make arrangements to see them all in a few weeks. Reaching for my car keys, Laura fills my fingertips with bags of fresh figs, artichokes and a little fruit that doesn’t translate into English.

As I pick up speed heading down the open road in my little turquoise FIAT, my skin dry and salty from the day under the sun, I rehearse the same speech as I have on many occasions, each time while driving home from making tomato sauce out in the country side.

In my mind’s eye I look down to see my dark-eyed children, tanned and wild-looking from their time away from school.

I say, ‘Come around my angels, come watch Papà. This is how we cut the tomatoes. You see? This is how we build a fire. This is how much salt to add. One of you go pick some basil from the garden. You see? This is how we jar them. This is very important. All of you look at me. Look at me. You need to learn to do this. This is what WE eat.’

‘This is what WE do, together’.

‘As a family, this is who WE are’.

‘Excellent, my little brown peanut. Now, take the basil that your sister gathered and ……’

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Archiviato in 8) Conservi

La Cotognata (Quince Paste, Salento-Style)

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Come autumn time here in the Salento, a number of fruits and vegetables start to turn up in the markets, just like old cherished friends that have moved away but then came back again.

Faces light up. There is lots of smiling, happy greetings.

‘We’ll have to have you around for dinner, now that you’re back and all’, folks seem to say, loading up their shopping baskets.

co2I planned to make la cotognata the first day I saw them at Pina’s little shop, the fruit in the cases still dusted with the faintest of fuzz, not unlike peaches.

Pina beamed like an 8-year old as we talked about the fruit and the famous preserve made from them, her enthusiasm completely contagious.

Such a sweetheart, Pina is.

co11It’s widely reported on, but here in Italy the concept of QB in cookbooks is still very much alive. ‘Quanto basta’, or ‘as much as it takes’ finds its way into nearly every recipe. In English, ‘to taste’ isn’t used with the same fervor, especially regarding key ingredients, such as flour, acids, even leavening agents.

QB though, is not the road map to an unknown land that your average recipe in English means to be. QB can’t teach you,say, that new Afghani recipe, unless… you happen to be Afghani. QB is a baby-step, a memory-jarer for those already very familiar with the dish. As I stirred, I thought about how silly a recipe would be for this sort of food. And that my real question was not that I wanted a recipe, but that I wanted to see how many of the ladies still see themselves experts.

Uncle Sidney’s hammer landed squarely on the nail.

co13

I finished at around ten p.m., and just sat over-looking the trays, dazed from fatigue.

I’ve now lived long enough to see patterns in my life. I see ‘success’ differently than most people I know, I think. For me, part of that is that I can take the time to prepare my own food, to be an expert at it. And that I can take the time to do that with the people I care about, to feed them, to connect to them through food, the cultural drops of super-glue that bind us together.

And so, come to Lecce early next November and you will find me, stirring a giant cauldron, listening to Mina, some local red in a jelly jar beside the stove. That will be me there before you, dirty, stinky, tired, feeling like the biggest success the world has ever known.

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Archiviato in 3) Primi, 7) Dolci, 8) Conservi