Like just about everything else in Puglia, the holiday season arrives in exactly the same way it always has. From l’Immacolata (December 8th) to the vigilia (the night before Christmas) to Christmas Day itself, the growing excitement is palpable. Christmas markets in town squares are erected seemingly overnight, municipalities organize fanciful light displays and shops are open—gasp!—on Sundays to facilitate holiday gift buying. But unlike the U.S., the holiday spirit doesn’t flag on December 26th. In Italy, there is Santo Stefano (December 26th), San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve) and l’Epifania (the Epiphany, or more colloquially, la Befana) on January 6th still to celebrate. It’s an embarrassment of riches, particularly at the table. Read more
This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me, but some of the very best moments during our busy tour season this year were spent in the kitchen. Not unlike the way that dinner guests always end up converging right where the action is, our tour participants were drawn to the Italian kitchens we visited like moths to the flame. And in some cases, it really was a flame since we visited more than one glowing wood-burning oven heated to almost 700 degrees Fahrenheit. In the experience of diving into new ingredients with Italian home cooks, bakers, butchers and professional chefs, our guests deepened their understanding of this culture and its people. And they ate very, very well. Read more
I know, I know . . . it’s been a really long time since you’ve heard from me. I don’t have a great excuse, except to say that late summer and fall have brought an embarrassment of riches this year in the form of visitors to our little corner of the Italian peninsula. We’ve hosted old friends and new friends over these past several months, touring from the tip of the heel of Italy’s boot to the sassi (cave) homes of the rocky Basilicata plains to the blue Adriatic seaside. Touring takes time and energy, not to mention the endless details to confirm, transportation to coordinate and follow-up post-travel that seems to consume every spare moment. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Yet somewhere along the way, we’ve fallen in love with Puglia all over again. Read more
Summer seemed to fly by in Puglia this year, and not only because of the weather. Along with partner Nancy Harmon Jenkins, we’ve been busy planning AmorOlio in Puglia, our food-focused tours that start this fall. We were almost too focused to notice the late spring rains and capricious thunderstorms that blew into Italy in June, effectively putting summer on hold. When it finally arrived in mid-August, the southern heat settled in as if to make up for lost time. So we took a time out and did our best to maximize the long, sunny days and balmy nights here. Aperitivi on the roof terrace, lunch at the beach and as many bike rides as we could manage, but only when the thermometer stayed on the cooler side of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And we dove deeply into the sea of summer produce that swells the markets in late summer. We’re still making all our favorite fair weather dishes as often as possible before the gorgeous fruits and vegetables disappeared for another nine months. Read more
It’s a little trickier than it looks. You need nimble fingers, perseverance and a patient teacher. We had at least one of these attributes when we joined a workshop at La Casa degli Uccellini last week to learn how to make ramasole, Puglia’s iconic tomato bunches gathered together with thick cotton strings for long preservation. Thanks to cultural historian Teresa Acquaviva, the founder of an organization that develops events like this to acquaint Italians with their agrarian past, the evening we spent learning about this seasonal pastime was inclusive, engaging and lots of fun. It represents the very best kind of tourism in a place that deserves so much more focus in Italy and beyond for its culinary traditions among so much else. Read more
It’s August 15th, the day when ancient Romans rested, the Virgin Mary’s sinless soul and uncorrupted body ascended into heaven and modern Italians take to the nearest body of water to escape the inevitable August heat wave. Called Ferragosto today in a nod to its origins in antiquity during Emperor Augustus’s rule, this holiday marks the pinnacle of the summer season in Italy. And like every holiday here, it is celebrated en masse in exactly the same way all over the country. Read more
We always appreciate the scale of our town in Italy when summer rolls around. Just about everything we really need is a short walk away from our front door. But we are especially grateful for all this proximity when the relentless Pugliese summer sun beats down, sapping every ounce of energy from our limbs. Then we summon ourselves into action early in the morning, making the rounds of the bar for a quick caffè ghiacciato (iced coffee), the pescheria (fish market) or the maccelleria (butcher) and, best of all, the fruttivendolo (fruit and vegetable shop) that is so mercifully close to us that we call down our order from our balcony. Italians call this shopping a kilometro zero, literally sourcing products at zero kilometers of distance. We call it incredibly lucky and we take advantage of the ease every single day. Read more
Somewhere I read that it is impossible to know a culture completely unless you’ve been born into it. The more experiences you have in the new, adopted culture might add to your understanding—your psychic database—but you will never lose the capacity to be utterly thrown by some new, seemingly inexplicable aspect of your new world. Which pretty much describes where we are today. Read more
Everybody has one. Whether you are a world class chef or a home cook with a week’s worth of dinner menus on regular rotation, you are inevitably known for one special dish—the one you never get tired of making. Friends always want the recipe, you count on it to be great every time you serve it and you can make it in your sleep. It’s your signature dish—your piatto forte.
You probably can’t remember how you came to be associated with your piatto forte. Maybe you found a recipe that intrigued you so much that you just had to try it. Your initial effort was met with enthusiastic approval, so you found yourself recreating the dish for guests, growing more confident with its execution with every repetition. Or maybe you learned it from your grandmother, adjusting the recipe over time to make it your own. By now, you never even look at the recipe, though, so ingrained is the process of crafting your signature dish. You can reproduce it when you’re away from home in someone else’s kitchen, even without access to familiar, go-to ingredients. Whether your piatto forte is as basic as guacamole or as complicated as paella, you’ve made it your own and the world is a happier place because of it.
My piatti forti always seem to come from the antipasto (appetizer) category. I love the way appetizers tease the palate, making way for the main
meal to come. Antipasti are a great vehicle for in-season vegetables, too. The best ones offer contrasting textures and flavors along with visual appeal. And antipasti can be designed to comprise an entire meal, offering intriguing tastes without overwhelming guests.
I have already shared my family’s all-time favorite—Braised Leeks— in another post, but Peperoni Ripieni (Stuffed Peppers) run a very close second. I learned how to make them when we visited Puglia for the first time almost 20 years ago and still make them for Italian friends here—a very tough crowd. Now that shiny, fleshy red and yellow peppers are dominating our local vegetable market, I am rediscovering why this recipe lives at the top of the list, ticking off all of the elements that transform a recipe into a piatto forte. Peperoni Ripieni can be made well in advance. Their baking time is flexible and they can be eaten hot from the oven or, even better, at room temperature. Their filling is equally flexible, rendering them highly customizable, which is how they could easily become your own personal piatto forte, too. Don’t be tempted to skip the pepper roasting and peeling process, though. In addition to creating one of the most addictive kitchen aromas ever, the flavor of freshly roasted peppers just cannot be replicated with jarred or canned peppers.
Peperoni Ripieni—Stuffed Peppers
4 large red and/or yellow peppers
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. roughly chopped capers
2 Tbsp. toasted, roughly chopped pine nuts
1 salt-packed anchovy, boned, rinsed and roughly chopped (If necessary, substitute 1 scant teaspoon of anchovy paste or leave it out altogether for vegetarians.)
½ cup toasted breadcrumbs
½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 Tbsp. fresh oregano or marjoram (optional; if you don’t have any fresh herbs, just omit them)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
First, roast the peppers. Set the oven to broil and cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the peppers on the baking sheet, then put the baking sheet in the oven about 4 inches from the broiler unit above them. Roast the peppers until the side facing toward the broiler is blackened, then carefully rotate each pepper and broiling until each pepper is thoroughly blackened. Place the blackened peppers in a resealable plastic bag and let rest for 15-20 minutes or until cool enough to handle.
Carefully remove the peppers from the bag, one at a time, as you peel the blackened skin from the flesh underneath. Remove all seeds and white, pithy membranes. Lay each pepper flat on paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Don’t be tempted to remove the skin by running cool water over the surfaces of the peppers; water dilutes the exceptional pepper flavor.
Sometimes the peppers will separate into sections. This is fine as long as the pieces are at least 2 inches wide. For each pepper, you should end up with four pieces, each of which will be stuffed with the filling mixture and rolled up.
While the skinned peppers are draining, mix the capers, pine nuts, anchovy, breadcrumbs, and parsley. Add the extra virgin olive oil and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
If the peppers aren’t already separated in 2-3 inch-long pieces, slice them accordingly. In an ovenproof dish, swirl a little extra virgin olive oil into the bottom to coat thoroughly.
On the inside side, place a heaping teaspoon (approx.) of filling at end of each pepper piece closest to you. Carefully roll up the pepper piece to enclose the filling and place the roll, end underneath, in the baking dish. Repeat this process until all of the pepper slices are filled. Drizzle a little more extra virgin olive oil over the tops of the pepper rolls.
Bake the rolls in a hot over (400 to 425 degrees) until they are hot, with a golden toasty appearance on the top. Serve them hot, or let them cool to room temperature and serve as part of an antipasti selection. You can also prepare them early in the day, waiting until just before serving to bake them.
Serves 4-6 as part of an antipasto (appetizer) selection.
Note: In Naples and Sicily, it’s not unusual to find currants or raisins added to the filling mixture. To do this, soak 2 Tbsp. of currants or raisins in hot water for 15 minutes, then drain, chop and add them to the filling mixture.
While we were walking in Spain last month, our house in Martina Franca experienced a much-anticipated facelift. Ever since we acquired this centuries-old place years ago, we had intended to address its aging stucco façade before chunks of ancient plaster wreaked havoc on passers-by below. But there always seemed to be something else more urgent to fix, so we postponed the inevitable until we couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Home improvement is never pleasant, but now I am a firm believer in absenting yourself completely during the process. While there is some inherent risk in trusting the fates to make sure it all works out the way you imagined, avoiding the dust and noise made it all worthwhile. Hedging our bets, we deputized friends to drop by, unannounced, to assess the progress, surreptitiously shooting the occasional photo to send us in an effort to calm my nerves. It turns out we needn’t have worried. Angelo, our intonachista (plasterer), was an absolute champion. He came highly recommended by the neighbors who had not-so-subtly referred him to us over the years. His work was superb and he finished the job both on budget and weeks earlier than promised, firmly dismissing stereotypes of Italian remodeling horror stories. He even sent his own photos to us on the Camino, pressing his son into service to navigate the electronic mail infrastructure on his behalf.
After we returned to a shiny new, blindingly white house, we were visited by representatives of Martina Franca’s Comitato Centro Storico, a citizens’ group dedicated to preserving and improving Martina’s historic town center. It seems they wanted to include our house in a competition called “Barocco in Fiore,” an effort to adorn as many centro storico balconies with flowers and hanging vines as possible, focusing attention on Martina Franca’s baroque architecture among the annual wave of summer tourists. But that appeal was just the thin end of the wedge. Next we were invited to join the committee to further its good works, including translation services and an appeal to share the punto di vista degli stranieri (foreigners’ view) on such pressing issues as parking in the historic center, litter abatement and more.
We went along to our first meeting eager to join in with fellow preservationists. While the group bore some resemblance to volunteer civic groups everywhere, there were some classically Italian elements that served to remind us that we were out of our cultural depth. The meeting started pleasantly enough: introductions were made and polite chat about where we lived, who we knew and what we thought of Martina Franca occupied the first half hour. But it became clear that no decision-making would take place at the actual meeting since factions had already met and discussed their positions in advance. And because the positions were fairly well entrenched—and diametrically opposed—nothing much happened beyond a drawn-out discussion of where the Barocco in Fiore ballots should be printed and how much should be spent to finish the job. Oh, and there was quite a lot of back and forth about whether or not to identify street names on the map that accompanied the Barocco in Fiore
competition, along with how the map should be folded to best effect. All of the comitato members thought it best to share their thoughts simultaneously, with voices that got louder and more definitive as opposing views were aired. Every so often, someone would need to leave the room for a cigarette, stopping to light up, breathe in and exhale for emphasis before actually leaving the room.
While we adore the way all these newly-flowering balconies cascade prettily throughout the main thoroughfares and meandering alleyways of our town, we have decided that the committee is doing a wonderful job without us and we needn’t return to the weekly meetings unless a translation is urgently required or a foreign opinion sought. Perhaps civic volunteer work is the same the world over and we lack the stuff of committed foot soldiers. Still, we’ll lend our support from afar by patching our stucco, watering our new plants and vigilantly collecting any litter that strays into our path. And we’ll keep you posted on whether or not we prevail in the competition, but there are serious contenders in our own little quartiere alone. After pulling and alarming number of dead blossoms from our geraniums this morning, we’ll probably vote for them, too.