The first time we saw our land in Puglia, we were immediately seduced by its olive trees and the stone walls that contained them. It wasn’t until much later that we came to appreciate its more subtle charms. They were, quite literally, underfoot. Thanks to especially kind local senior citizens and a much younger herbalist friend from nearby Locorotondo, we now know that we are possessed of a spontaneous greengrocer and virtual herbal medicine chest on our five acres. And it’s all for the gathering, almost year round.
There is a wealth of local knowledge about wild herbs and greens that grow freely in the countryside here. Virtually all of it is contained in the collective memories of the aging population of contadini or country people, who learned to recognize the myriad specimens from their parents and grandparents. Happily, a younger generation of Italians has started to value this ancient practice, seeking out venerable experts and carefully cataloging what they have learned to preserve this knowledge for generations to come.
Last week we joined our friends Davide Argentieri and Katia Grilleti for a Sunday afternoon ramble on their property in Pascarosa, the little village down the road from us. They brought along a friend, Stefania Sicilia, who is an accomplished herbalist and passionate advocate for time-honored, natural remedies. Along with her sister Valeria, Stefania owns an erboristeria, a particularly Italian institution that dispenses advice and natural remedies for virtually every aspect of our lives.
Stefania, who apprenticed at the 400-year-old herbal pharmacy Officina Farmaceutica S. Maria Novella in Florence after earning a technical herbalist university degree in Bari, led us through the countryside in search of herbs and wild greens. We spent as much time on our knees as we did on our feet, exclaiming over our finds while trying to document them for future use. We arrived home with bags of specimens, all of which are making their way into our meals.
One of my favorite finds was a perennial herb called variously mentuccia, nepitella and calaminta; its botanical name is Satureja calamintha. When distilled, mentuccia is a powerful natural disinfectant. It’s also used as an ingredient in a pore-tightening facial treatment. My favorite use is culinary, though. Mentuccia adds a subtle minty undertone when cooked, with notes of wild thyme that are accentuated in food preparations. I’ve never found mentuccia growing wild in the U.S., but have been guilty of bringing back cuttings to plant in my garden, where it thrived with plenty of water and abundant sun.
Try this recipe for la scarpaccia, the easiest, most gratifying frittata you’ll ever make. I learned the recipe years and years ago when I lived in Florence and its been a go-to staple ever since. Now it’s on permanent rotation at our house, particularly as part of a varied antipasto selection. If there are every any leftovers (doubtful), use them as a savory panini filling with a little arugula and perhaps a few slices of tomato in season. The nutty zucchini flavors mingle with extra virgin olive oil and parmigiano while the minty-earthy thyme qualities of the mentuccia provide the perfect foil.
La Scarpaccia—Oven-Baked Zucchini Frittata
1 medium or two very small zucchini
1 large shallot or 1 very small white onion
1 garlic clove
1/2-cup milk and water, mixed
4 Tbsp. flour, sifted
1 or 2 stalks of fresh mentuccia, leaves removed and minced, or ½ tsp. dried (substitute with Italian parsley, peppermint or thyme or a combination of these)
1/3-cup best quality parmigiano or grana padano cheese, grated (aged manchego or another full-flavored grating cheese would work well here, too)
Sea or Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Wash the zucchini, then slice as thinly as humanly possible. A mandoline is helpful for this, but I often use the slicing side of a box grater or a very sharp knife to great effect. Put the slices in a colander, rub them with a little sea or Kosher salt, place a plate over them and weight the plate down with something heavy (can of tomatoes, a heavy pot, etc.). Leave the zucchini to drain in the sink for half an hour or so. If they are especially watery, you’ll be glad you didn’t skip this step.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Pour a thin stream of extra virgin olive oil into a 9 or 10-inch round non-stick cake or tart pan and cover the bottom and sides with the oil.
Finely chop the shallot or onion and the garlic and best them with the milk and water and the eggs until the eggs are incorporated into the mixture. With a whisk, beat the flour and grated parmigiano into the egg mixture just until incorporated. Don’t overmix. Add the herbs and grated parmigiano; mix lightly.
Blot the zucchini, squeezing any excess water from them, and then add them to the egg and flour mixture. Taste for salt; add accordingly. Grind a few twists of black pepper, swirl a thin thread of extra virgin olive oil over the top and then pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan. Slide it into the preheated oven and bake for about half an hour, watching towards the end. It’s done when the top is a gorgeous golden brown in places and a heavenly aroma fills your kitchen.
Serve in wedges with salad for a light lunch, as part of an antipasto selection or as a vegetarian filling for panini (sandwiches).
Makes six generous wedges.
N.B. It’s easy to double or triple this recipe if you have enough pans to cook it all at once.