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In praise of fare with heart, soul; Cuisine: Italian family food is rooted in peasant fare. It's simple and satisfying

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For us Italians, food is a serious affair. For us, gastronomy is more a way of life than a way of cooking; food, the eating and the talking of it, is part of the texture of everyday life.

Since the remotest of times, Italy has suffered invasions, pillaging and the resulting famines, the harshest of times for the rich and the poor: Under those conditions, food, the idea of food, escalates to become the most important event of the day. By now, food -- the whole pleasurable concept of it -- is in our blood.

We talk of where good food is to be found, we argue about the cooks who make it better, we philosophize on how to appreciate the best. We romanticize it. The eating is just the crowning glory. We all do it.

We have been described as a nation of spaghetti eaters, which is only partially true. Regionality divides us: pasta and vegetables still dominate the southern tables; riso, polenta, zuppa and meat still command our northern ones.

Every ethnic cuisine is the result of historical, geographical, economic, even religious factors. Italy is gifted, exceedingly, in all these fields; gifts that must be multiplied by 20, the number of regions that make up the nation, and again by the number of cities and towns and villages that make up the regions, each with its own character and culture.

To speak of one Italian cuisine is an impossible task.

Within this great variety, however, the roots of all our family food are planted firmly in peasant fare. Simple, satisfying food: the juxtaposition of clear, definite tastes, colors and textures, complementing each other, blending into an unmistakable, pleasing, comforting whole. Its ingredients are few, its cooking is simple, its techniques are seldom elaborate.

And yet, while its origins are generally humble, when aristocracy and wealth appear on its pedigree, then our food is theatrical and grandiose as in a super-rich, super-layered lasagna.

Our markets offer a daily cornucopia of colors and tastes, but the menu will be decided by our mood more than by the ingredients' appeal. On a misty, chilly Venetian day, nothing will lift our souls like a bowl of risi e bisi, rice and peas; the woodsy smells of a Tuscan autumn will order for us a cacciatora stew, so that its aroma will give warmth to a pale sun, help us celebrate a crisp, terse blue sky.

Our food is pleasure and conviviality: a few black olives, a soup made of old bread, water and a few drops of olive oil will be appreciated as a full meal. Add a glass of wine, an orange and a few friends and it is a banquet. Throw in a song and it's a feast.

All this is at the heart of Italian food, and if we ignore it, we ignore the soul of any given dish. It could seem a simple trick to achieve, but it has actually taken generations to knead together humble ingredients, regional ethnicity, mood, colors, tastes -- not to mention a good pinch of tradition -- and produce the gustatory gift that an Italian dish is today.

But then, our food is not stuck in the past: A cuisine has to be alive and conform to the needs of the times, a continually developing art that produces dishes attuned to today; not a revolution, but an evolution intelligently based on our culture and tastes. A cuisine that can be called Italian: with a heart and soul, where bread is still bread and wine is still wine. Of this I sing.

Roman-Style Chicken (Pollo alla Romana)

Makes 4 servings

2 large red bell peppers

2 large green bell peppers

2 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken pieces, skin and fat removed

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

3/4 cup dry red wine

2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

Char bell peppers over a low gas flame or under a broiler, turning often, until skins are evenly blistered, 5 to 10 minutes. Place the peppers in a bowl, cover and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes.

With a paring knife, remove skins and seeds. Cut the peppers into wide strips, saving any juices accumulated in the bowl. Set aside.

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.

In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and crushed red pepper and cook, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute. Add chicken and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate.

Add wine to skillet and increase heat to high, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in tomatoes and one-third of the reserved bell peppers and their juices.

Add the chicken. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, turning once, until chicken is no longer pink in the center, 25 to 30 minutes. Add remaining bell peppers and cook until heated through, 3 to 5 minutes more. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Tilt pan and spoon off any surface fat from sauce. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. With a slotted spoon, transfer chicken and vegetables to a warm serving bowl. Reserve 3 cups of sauce for Fettuccine with Chicken Sauce (see following recipe). Spoon remaining sauce over chicken and vegetables. Serve hot. (The chicken and the reserved sauce will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)

Tip: This recipe is an example of a favorite Italian trick -- getting two dishes out of one. The chicken is served as an entree, and its sauce is tossed with pasta. While it is traditional to serve the pasta as the first course of the same meal, either chicken or sauce could be saved for another night.

Per serving: 250 calories; 33 grams protein; 9 grams fat (2.2 grams saturated fat); 9 grams carbohydrate; 245 milligrams sodium; 93 milligrams cholesterol; 2 grams fiber

Fettuccine With Chicken Sauce (Fettuccine al Sugo di Pollo)

Serves 6 for first course

3 cups sauce from Roman-Style Chicken

(see preceding recipe)

1 1/2 pounds spinach or egg fettuccine

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put a large pot of water on to boil. In a saucepan, bring the Roman-Style Chicken sauce to a simmer.

Salt the water, add fettuccine and cook until al dente, 9 to 11 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large shallow bowl. Add sauce and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 330 calories; 12 grams protein; 5 grams fat (0.9 gram saturated fat); 60 grams carbohydrate; 740 milligrams sodium; 71 milligrams cholesterol; 4 grams fiber

Italian Seafood Stew (Brodetto di Ancona)

Serves 6

1 cup bottled clam juice

4 cloves garlic (2 smashed, 2 minced)

1 pound mussels, debearded, or small cherrystone clams

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

1/2 pound squid, cleaned and cut into 1/2-inch-thick rings

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/3 cup red-wine vinegar, plus more to taste

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

2 pounds firm white-fleshed fish fillet, such as monkfish or halibut, skinned and cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large pot, bring clam juice and smashed garlic to a simmer. Add mussels (or clams) and cook, covered, until open, 3 to 5 minutes. Discard garlic; remove shellfish from pot, discarding any that did not open. Reserve shellfish. Using a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth, strain broth into a bowl; set aside. Wipe out pot.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to the pot and heat over medium-low heat. Add onion and minced garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Increase heat to high; add squid and cook, stirring, until squid turns opaque, about 1 minute. Add wine and 1/3 cup vinegar; cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has reduced by half, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add tomatoes and reserved mussel broth. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until squid is tender, 18 to 20 minutes. (The stew will keep in the refrigerator for 1 day; keep shellfish separate.)

Just before serving, add fish and shrimp to the simmering stew and cook, covered, just until fish is opaque in the center, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in reserved shellfish and heat through, about 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, remove solids to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Stir 3 tablespoons parsley, bread crumbs and remaining 1 tablespoon oil into sauce. Simmer until sauce thickens to the consistency of heavy cream, 1 to 2 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and vinegar. Return seafood mixture to sauce. Serve immediately, garnished with remaining 1 tablespoon parsley.

Per serving: 355 calories; 49 grams protein; 10 grams fat (1.4 grams saturated fat); 13 grams carbohydrate; 515 milligrams sodium; 202 milligrams cholesterol; 2 grams fiber

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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