Dining With the Saints in Honor of Saint Rosalia

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The Feast Day of Santa Rosalia

 

Santa Rosalia is the patron Saint of Palermo, Sicily and her feast day on July 15th, known for centuries as Il Festino, was once on of the most elaborate events in all of Europe, stretching out sometimes to eight days of grand Baroque celebration with gloriously decorated guilt chariots, fireworks, and a passeggiata of nobility that made the throngs of spectators crazy with excitement. There was no better place to witness this extravaganza than in Palermo itself.

Il Festino, although not as lavish as it once was, is still quite the occasion, lasting two full days, beginning on July13th. The centerpiece of the feast of Santa Rosalia has always been a huge, ornate chariot shaped like a ship and decorated with golden seashells.  A modern and scaled down model of the original chariot, first unveiled in 1701, is still  pulled down Palermo’s main streets by six horses and filled with a forty piece orchestra dressed in pink and purple velvet, all in honor of the Saint the Sicilians have nicknamed La Santuzza, the little saint, the women who in 1624 appeared to a hunter in a vision, after not being seen since 1159, to save Palermo from a devastating plague.

Sicily’s unusual assortment of street food is what occupies the spectators while they wait for the golden chariot of Santa Rosalia to pass by and then the grand finale fireworks show. Small painted carts, some drawn by donkeys, are loaded with roasted fava beans and chick peas, carob pods, salty lupini beans, roasted hazelnuts, fried rice balls known as arancine, anchovies, octopus, and babbaluci, tiny garlic and parsley flavored snails that everyone digs out of their shells with toothpicks.

Sicily’s famous ice cream and sorbetti is also very  much a presence at this feast, offered in traditional flavors such as lemon, jasmine, cinnamon, mandarin, orange flower water, watermelon and cantaloupe. You can also sample Palermo’s famous gelo di melone, a classic cold watermelon gelatin decorated with chocolate, pistachios, almond paste, and candied fruits, a perfect example of the Sicilian’s love of elaborate sweets. I was once served this in a restaurant and it came presented in a pastry shell and decorated with fresh jasmine flowers. Watermelon sorbetto, also flavored with cinnamon, chocolate, and pistachios, and sometimes jasmine water, is a lot easier to make than the gelatin version. Here’s my version. It’s exotic and amazingly refreshing, the perfect way to celebrate the feast of Santa Rosalia, and to help you get through a hot July day. Choose a dark pink, locally grown watermelon for best flavor and color.

Watermelon Sorbetto with Bittersweet Chocolate

(This recipe is from my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, published by John Wiley & Sons)

2/3 cup sugar

½ cup water

1 5 pound piece of ripe watermelon, peeled and cut into chunks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

The grated zest from 1 small lemon

1 egg white, whisked until foamy

A handful of unsalted, shelled pistachios

½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Fresh mint sprigs for garnish

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and the water. Bring it to a boil and let it bubble for about 2 minutes, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let this cool completely.

Add the watermelon chunks to a food processor a handful at a time, pulsing them to a fairly smooth puree (don’t worry about the seeds). Strain the juice through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl (help it along by whisking it). Continue until you’ve used up all the watermelon. You should have about 4 ½ cups of juice. Add the sugar syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, lemon zest, and egg white, mixing everything well. Chill the watermelon mixture for several hours, or until very cold.

Now pour it into an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions until halfway frozen. Add the pistachios and the chocolate and continue freezing until firm. Garnish each serving with a few mint sprigs (or fresh jasmine flowers if you happen to have any).

 

Dining with the Saints is a monthly feature written by the chef and food writer Erica De Mane. Check out her blog at http://www.ericademane.com

Dining With the Saints

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A Simple Ricotta Cake to Celebrate Easter

When I was a kid, Easter, culinarily speaking, meant Italian ricotta cake. We never made them at home, but purchased a Pastiera, the only-made-at-Easter time version of this cake from Rocco’s bakery on Long Island. The Pastiera contains whole wheat berries, candied fruit, and a beautiful lattice top. Rocco’s version was flavored with  orange flower water and vanilla, aromas that made the shop smell exotic.

This is a fabulous cake and a great Southern Italian tradition. It’s also, as I discovered when I finally decided to bake one myself, quite time consuming. This Easter I’ve decided to play around with the classic recipe, streamlining it, but without losing any of its alluring flavor. It wasn’t as hard as I thought. I did away with the crust and lightened the filling with beaten egg whites. I keep the vanilla and orange flower water flavoring which, for me, really makes this cake special. The resulting recipe, to my amazement, baked up elegant, incredibly fragrant, and almost as light as a soufflé, and this version, I kid you not, takes only 5 to 8 minutes to assemble. You think you don’t have the time or patience to bake a beautiful ricotta cake this Easter? Think again.

Ricotta Cake With Orange Flower Water and Honey

About a tablespoon or so of softened butter to grease the pan

6 extra large eggs

½ cup sugar

½ cup orange blossom honey

A big pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon orange flower water

The grated zest from 1 large lemon

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 large container of whole milk ricotta (about 30 ounces)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees

Grease a nine inch spring form pan with the butter.

Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a food processor and the whites in the bowl of the mixer (either a standing or handheld one).

Add the sugar, honey, salt, vanilla, orange flower water, and lemon zest to the food processor and give it a few good pulses. Now add the ricotta and the nutmeg and process until the mixture is smooth. Pour this into a large bowl.

Whip the egg whites until they achieve the classic stiff peak stage.

Add half the egg whites to the bowl and gently fold them in. Now add the rest of the egg whites and fold until just blended.

Pour this into the greased pan and bake until the cake is browned and puffy and feels fairly firm in the center, about 50 minutes to an hour.

Place the cake on a rack. It’ll immediately deflate a bit, but that’s normal. Let it cool and then remove the rim of the pan.

Dining With the Saints is written by writer and chef Erica De Mane. Visit her at ericademane.com.

Image: “Morning of the Resurrection” by Edward Burne-Jones  1882

Dining With the Saints

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Saint Joseph’s Day

March 19th is Saint Joseph’s feast day. This is a huge holiday for Italians and for Italian-Americans. At one time it was actually an Italian national holiday. As a kid our next door neighbor always made the traditional Neapolitan St. Joseph day fritters called Zeppole di San Guiseppe. They were the most delicious sweet I could imagine and I waited for them every year. She’d hoist a big pot of oil up onto her outdoor barbeque and drop in balls of sweetened dough, cooking them until they were golden and puffy. Then she injected them inside, using a small turkey baster type thing, with a lemon custard. And just to make them richer, each one was topped with a dollop of sweetened ricotta and a cherry. There are many variations on this pastry through the South. In Sicily they’re called sfinci and are usually filled with a cannoli-like filling.

Considering that Saint Joseph’s day falls during Lent, a period of liturgical fasting that coincides with the fasting imposed by nature, this extremely decadent pastry always seemed to me a bit inappropriate for the occasion. That’s Southern Italy for you.

But before anyone gets to bite into one of these treats, everyone sits down to a bowl of bean soup. In Sicily Maccu di San Guiseppe, a soup made from dried favas, chick peas, and chestnuts is one of the bean dishes served, and many families cook up large pots of pasta e fagioli, serving it to anyone who happens to drop by. Here’s my version of an old pasta e fagioli recipe from around Naples. It’s made with a home-made, eggless pasta called lagane and chick peas flavored with hot chilis, parsley and garlic. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph.

Lagane e Ceci

(Serves 4)

For the lagane:

1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup warm water
2 cups fine durum wheat flour

For the sauce:

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in cool water to cover
1 bay leaf, fresh if possible
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
1 small onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 small, fresh red peperoncino pepper, minced
A sprig of rosemary, the leaves chopped
A splash of dry white wine
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
A chunk of firm Caciocavallo cheese (optional)

To cook the chickpeas:

Drain the chickpeas and place them in a large pot. Cover them with cool water by at least 2 inches. Add the bay leaf and turn the heat to high. When the water comes to a boil, lower the heat and let them simmer gently, partially covered, until tender, about 1 1/2 hours, but it really depends on how hard your chic peas are. Some can take longer, so start testing them after about 1 1/2 hours. Add more warm water if needed to keep the chickpeas covered. When they’re tender, season them with salt and a generous drizzle of olive oil, and turn off the heat.

To make the pasta:

Pour the water and the salt into the bowl of a food processor and give it a few pulses. Start adding the flour a little at a time, giving it a few pulses each time to work it in. When the flour is incorporated and everything has formed a slightly sticky ball, dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (if the dough seems too dry, drizzle in a tiny bit more warm water and pulse a few more times). Knead until the dough is smooth and shiny, about 8 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and set it aside to rest for about 1/2 hour.

Cut the dough into 4 parts. Flour the first piece of dough lightly and run it through a hand-cranked pasta machine several times at each setting until you get to the third-to-last setting. The lagane should be a little thicker than standard fettuccine. Do this with each piece of dough. Lay all the pasta sheets out on a floured surface and let them sit to firm up for about 5 minutes. Now cut the sheets into approximately 1/4-inch-wide strips. Cut the strips into 2-inch lengths. Sprinkle the lagane with a little flour and lay them out so that the pieces don’t touch.

To make the sauce:

Drain the chickpeas, saving all their cooking liquid.

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the peperoncino, rosemary, and the garlic, and sauté a minute longer, just to release their fragrances. Add about half of the chickpeas, and sauté them in the oil for about 3 or 4 minutes, letting them turn a little golden. Season with salt. Add the splash of white wine, and let it boil way. Add 1/2 cup of the chickpea cooking water, and let the sauce simmer. You’ll have some chickpeas left over to use for a salad or a side dish (it seems to me if I’m going to take the time to cook dried chickpeas, I might as well make a good amount and use them for different dishes).

Drop the lagane into the water and cook until al dente, about 3 minutes. Drain well and add them to the skillet. Toss everything together briefly in the skillet, adding a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil and the parsley. Add more salt if needed. You can also add a little extra ceci cooking liquid if it seems dry (the consistency shouldn’t be too soupy, but a little moisture is the traditional texture). Transfer to a warmed serving bowl, and serve with grated Caciocavallo if desired. Often in Southern Italy dishes that contain hot chilies are serves without cheese, but this is not a hard rule, so just follow your taste. I like my lagane e ceci with a little cheese.

(Dining With the Saints is written by chef and writer Erica De Mane. Check out her blog: EricaDeMane.com)

Dining With the Saints in Honor of Carnevale

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Carnevale literally means ‘good-bye to the flesh’ and this celebratory time of the year, coming right before the restraints of Lent, is when the people of Venice, Italy (and people throughout the Christian world) go to great excesses. Here is their last chance to over eat and carry on with other hedonistic activities until ash Wednesday, when fasting begins. Carnevale also symbolizes the agricultural year put to rest until the spring earth begins again to pour forth its abundance.

Carnevale in Venice is a blaze of color and activity with people drinking prosecco in the streets, stylish balls held on the piazza, fireworks, elaborate floats, and masked processions on the Grand Canal. Masks supposedly give the partying wearer the amnominity to engage in excesses of all types without being recognized.

If you’d like to celebrate Carnevale, Venetian style, an elegant pork dish is really in order. Here’s my version of  a recipe from the Veneto for maile al latte, pork cooked in milk. It’s made with a boneless pork loin so it’s very tender and easy to carve. Serve it with sautéed greens such as spinach or Swiss chard, and a glass or two of Valpolicella.

Maiale al Latte

(Serves six)

An approximately 2 pound boneless pork loin, tied

3 garlic cloves, slivered

10 fresh sage leaves, cut into strips, plus about 5 extra leaves, lightly chopped, for garnish

The zest from 1 small lemon, cut into thin strips

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg

Extra virgin olive oil

½ quart whole milk, heated to just boiling

Make a bunch of slits all over the pork with a thin knife. Insert the garlic, sage, and lemon strips into the slits. Season the pork well with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg.

In a high sided casserole, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high flame. Add the pork and brown it all over. Now pour on the hot milk, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, turning the meat occasionally, until it is just cooked through, about an hour. When the pork is done, the milk will have cooked down to a mass of curdles. This is what you want.

Remove the pork to a cutting board and let it sit for a few minutes. Take off the string and slice in thinly. Lay the pork out on a platter. Spoon the milk curds on top, leaving any that have become too browned in the casserole. Garnish with the remaining sage. Serve hot or warm.

Erica De Mane is a writer and chef. Check out her blog: EricaDeMane.com

Dining With the Saint in Honor of Saint Martin of Tours

The Feast of St. Martin of Tours, or Martin le Misercordieux, is a time for celebration in many parts of the Catholic world. The feast, celebrated on November 11th, not only coincides with the end of All Soul’s but with the Fall harvest, a time when autumn wheat seeding is completed, when the new wine is just ready to drink, and with the beginning of winter preparations, which include putting up the last of the warm weather vegetables and butchering and preserving of animals. This is a celebration of the earth’s bounty, much like Thanksgiving is in the United States. Goose is part of the traditional St. Martin’s Day festival in many countries since the goose is a symbol of St. Martin himself. Legend has it that as he was hiding from the people who wanted to make him bishop, a honking goose gave away his hiding spot.

Goose used to be a standard Thanksgiving or Christmas offering in many American homes, but cooking a whole goose can be tricky and the amount of fat thrown off I think has put off some of today’s more health conscious cooks. I’ve learned that cooking a goose breast instead of dealing with the whole goose is a fast and leaner way to prepare this delicious meat, and a boneless breast is very easy to slice and serve. My butcher sells boned goose breasts around the holidays. If your local butcher doesn’t generally carry this cut, he might be able to special order one for you.

Stuffed Goose Breast with Calvados and Apples

(serves four as a main course)

1 whole goose breast, boned, with skin

6 large fresh rosemary sprigs, leaves chopped

12 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup dry white wine

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 large shallots, diced

4 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into small cubes

2 big splashes of Calvados (apple brandy)

½ cup dry bread crumbs, not too finely ground

6 big gratings of nutmeg

A handful of flat leaf Italian parsley, leaves chopped

1 large egg

Place the goose breast in a ceramic or glass baking dish. In a small bowl mix together the rosemary, thyme, about ¼ cup olive oil, and the white wine. Season with salt and black pepper and pour this over the goose, turning the breast over in the marinade to coat it well. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Pre-heat the oven the 425 degrees.

In a large sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the shallots and the apples and sauté until the apples are just tender when poked with a fork, but not falling apart. Add a splash of Calvados and let it bubble for about 30 seconds. Let this cool. Add the bread crumbs, parsley, nutmeg, and the egg. Season with salt and black pepper and mix everything well. Drizzle on a little extra olive oil if it seems dry.

Remove the goose from the marinade and lay it out, skin side down, on a work surface. Press the stuffing out evenly over the goose and roll it up lengthwise, tying it with butcher’s twine in 4 or 5 places. Place the goose back in the roasting pan, skin side up. Add a splash of calvados to the bottom of the pan, stirring it into the remaining marinade. Spoon some of the marinade over the goose. Roast for about 40-45 minutes, or until the temperature in the middle of the breast reaches 145-150 degrees. Let it rest about 10 minutes before carving.

 

Erica DeMane is a writer and chef.  Read her blog at EricaDemane.com.

Image: “Saint Martin of Tours by El Greco

Dining With the Saints in Honor of Padre Pio

The Feast Day of Padre Pio

Feast Day: September 23

Padre Pio was born in 1887 in Pietrelcina, a town right in the center of Southern Italy, in the region of Campania. He is by far the most popular Saint of this area. I remember in the late 1970’s when the Italian streets were being terrorized by the Red Brigades, hardly any Italian South of Rome would leave their home without carrying a card or photo of Padre Pio on their body.

 Padre Pio is a worthy follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. Charity was his calling. He gave himself to the poor, the suffering, and the sick. In later years he committed himself to relieving the pain and suffering of many families in Southern Italy, chiefly through the foundation of the Casa Sollievo della Soferenze, opened in 1956. Padre Pio was canonized by John Paul 11 in 2002, 34 years after his death. September 23 is his feast day.

 My family’s hometown is right over the boarder into Puglia, not far from Peitrelcina and very close to San Giovanni Rotonda, the Capuchin Monastery where Father Pio lived and worked for 52 years and died. Since his canonization this still active Monastery has also served as his shrine and holy site. His body is on display here and many walking paths, statues, a beautiful staircase, and contemplative gardens have been designed for all the pilgrims who visit every year. The last time I went to my ancestral town, I decided to visit this shrine myself. The monastery is situated on the Gargano, a gorgeous mountainous region in Northern Puglia that’s known for their rustic food such as wild boar, wild mushrooms, meat ragus, and sausages. After visiting Padre Pio’s beautiful monastery and grounds, I stopped at one of the food trucks set up at the holy site and ordered pork sausages grilled with rosemary branches and served on grilled bread. It was delicious. Here’s my slightly more elaborate take on that simple lunch. It’s a great Southern Italian dish to celebrate Padre Pio’s feast day.

 

Italian Sausages with Grilled Grapes and Rosemary

Buy two or three Italian pork sausages per person. Place them on a medium grill about 3 or 4 inches from the flame, and grill them, turning them several times, until they’re browned all over and cooked through, about 10 minutes. While the sausages are grilling, place a large handful of seedless red grapes, a few small sprigs of chopped rosemary, a generous drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a few grindings of black pepper on a large piece of aluminum foil. Close up the foil, and place the package on a low-heat area of the grill. Heat just until the grapes are fragrant and starting to soften and give off juice, about 4 minutes. Place the sausages on a serving platter, and pour the grapes on top, along with any juices they’ve thrown off. Give everything a drizzle of fresh olive oil and serve hot with slices of grilled Italian bread that have been rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil.

By Erica DeMane, Writer and Chef

Read Erica’s blog: EricaDeMane.com

Dining With the Saints

 

 The Feast of Saint Anne

Saint Anne, mother of Mary, grandmother to Jesus, is the Patron Saint of Brittany.  According to local tradition, after the resurrection of Christ, Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus and other apostles were driven from Jerusalem because of their faith. They journeyed by boat carrying the remains of Saint Anne with them. They landed on the French coast and the people of Brittany were particularly strong believers in Saint Anne’s cult. The great shrine of Saint Anne d’Auray was built for her there in 1623. It became such a popular retreat, French missionaries coming to Canada built a shrine in its likeness, Saint Anne de Beaupre, near Quebec several years later. Both are still important pilgrimage sites to this day. 

Her feast day of July 26th is celebrated in Brittany by preparing shellfish, one of the culinary glories of the Brittany coast. Lobsters, oysters,  mussels, clams are all fashioned into beautiful dishes with Northern French flavors. I’ve chosen this fragrant mussel preparation because the mix of the briny shellfish juices, shallots, tarragon, white wine, and the thick crème fraiche is a time-honored combination and absolutely delicious. If you can’t find crème fraiche, just add a little heavy cream and a grating of lemon zest instead.

Brittany Style Mussels with Shallots, Tarragon, and Crème Fraiche

(Serves six a first course)

4 tablespoons of unsalted butter

2 large shallots, thinly sliced

1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced

2 pounds well washed black mussels

½ cup fruity white wine

Freshly ground black pepper

A pinch of salt

½ cup crème fraiche

About 10 large tarragon sprigs, leaves very lightly chopped

In a large pot, heat half of the butter over medium flame. Add the shallots and let them soften for a minute. Add the mussels and the garlic and stir everything around for a moment. Add the white wine and give it another stir. Cook, uncovered, stirring a few times, until the mussels open, about 5 to 8 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the crème fraiche, the remaining butter, the tarragon, and a bit more freshly ground black pepper, and stir well. Serve right away, in big bowls, with lots of good French bread to soak up the sauce.