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.
A week ago, we were bobbing along in the turquoise waters of Paxos, wondering just how we got so lucky. The sky was a brilliant, Greek blue and the sun was strong, but not punishing. Paxos’s olives, pines and cypress trees shone in the distance above the sweetest little port town we’d ever seen. Even the fish seemed to have a little extra joie de vivre as they darted underneath our wiggling toes. It was about as close to paradise as we can imagine. Read more
When we’ve been away from Martina Franca for any period of time, we try to get ourselves to the weekly open-air market as soon as we can. Not only do we need to stock up on whatever looks especially gorgeous in the fruit and vegetable department, but meandering through the stalls and listening to the vendors confirms that we’re really home. Read more
If you stop by this page from time to time, you will notice that there has been precious little writing happening lately. My last few posts focused on our U.S. sojourn to visit family and friends and sell olive oil. Oh, and I hinted at our (then) upcoming adventure in which we proposed to walk 500 miles across northern Spain, joining thousands of modern-day pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. No one was more surprised than me when we actually did complete the Camino on June 4th after 32 exhilarating, wearying and often emotional days on foot. Read more
After a month and a half of unbridled hedonism —and absolutely no blog posts—we have slipped back into the now familiar cadence of our lives in Martina Franca. We went back to the U.S. to see our children, parents and friends these past few months, experiencing a pausa from Italian life while escaping the tail end of winter. We also peddled our extra virgin olive oil up and down the west coast, reconnecting with olive oil aficionados and meeting some truly lovely new friends, too. It was a rollicking good time between the world class I.P.A. craft beers in Portland, John Locke’s bewitching Birichino Malvasia and my father-in-law’s deadly margaritas, which ought to be illegal. We need a vacation from the vacation. Read more
When we moved to Martina Franca for good, we knew what we would find. We’d been coming here for years and years, sometimes for a few months at a time. We knew our neighbors, where to buy mozzarella and which nearby beaches have the best sand and the shadiest parking. We chose this new life with our eyes wide open. Read more
We’re not out of the woods yet. After a brilliant, blue sky morning that brought our town’s residents to the piazza to revel in the bright sun, dark clouds rolled in yesterday afternoon with wind and rain aplenty. While winter has been pretty mild in Puglia this year, it isn’t ready to give up its hold, so we’re still dodging rainstorms and scirocco-fueled gusts from the south. Read more
Our understanding of this little corner of Italy comes slowly and often in unexpected ways. Sometimes we’re baffled by behaviors we thought were based solely on cultural difference. Now we’ve come to realize that history is deep and memories are long here. This shared history continues to shape contemporary behavior, especially in a place where change is experienced slowly and often with great trepidation. Read more