Buon Pranzo—Why it Matters
Sunday lunch is all about affirming what Pugliese value most: nurturing their families and ensuring that life is full of plenty. The bounty that appears every on family tables throughout this region has its roots in a less than abundant past. A good many of the grandparents I have met here remember dark, cold and hungry days when meat appeared on the table just twice a year. The harvest—animals, milk, grain, olive oil, wine and vegetable—cultivated on behalf of the landholder wasn’t theirs to keep, so a cuisine of creativity developed that featured wild and foraged foods like mushrooms, asparagus and wild greens all of them bursting with good health. We call them delicacies now. They take time to locate and even more time to prepare. We crave these dishes today, but they are still called cucina povera (poor cooking) for a reason.
The younger generation of Italians doesn’t have time to forage, let alone the infinite knowledge of preparation techniques that make these foods so unforgettable. Notwithstanding la crisi (the economic crisis) in Italy, life has improved here since the cucina povera days sufficient to render all but the most extravagant ingredients accessible to most. Not only does it seem easier to serve meat from the macellaio (butcher) to save time, but in offering it abundantly week after week, you banish forever the days of scarcity. So ample Sunday lunches today are rich in content and in meaning. Buon pranzo indeed.
At its most fundamental, the Italian pranzo is the metaphorical glue that binds a culture to its core tenets: hold your family close and nurture them with genuine foods that stand the test of time. Raw ingredients in Italy—the vegetables, fruits, grains, meats, fish, cheeses and more—are almost universally outstanding and unbelievably affordable by U.S. standards. They’re outstanding because Italians demand nothing less.
We’re still reassured that these high standards haven’t eroded under the onslaught of fast food and even faster lives. Generations of palates have been cultivated at Italian family tables, so a thriving regional farm sector composed of local ingredients with enormous variety is still the norm, not the exception. Everyone here knows what a good head of cauliflower should taste like; everyone knows when clementines are in season. Fruit and vegetable merchants who don’t offer the very best, day after day, don’t last long in these Pugliese towns. Chemical free produce, free range cattle, mozzarella made from antibiotic-free milk and local grains aren’t precious, they continue to be an irreplaceable part of a normal day’s shopping in preparation for, well, Sunday pranzo.
When we’re not making ourselves ill at someone’s family table on Sunday, we make our own modest offerings at home. Now that we’re moving into high gear on Pascarosa olive oil export details before our shipment leaves Italy for the U.S., I am perfecting my range of easy Sunday lunch centerpieces that leave me a little more time to attend to business.
Here’s an Italian staple that absolutely never fails, especially if you can be sure that your ingredients are outstanding. There’s really nothing to it except to make sure your ingredients are first rate. The chicken you choose should be free range, hormone free and on the smaller side. The vegetables should be perfectly fresh and especially flavorful. Seasonality is everything. And your extra virgin olive oil? Insist on the best, making sure you use real, 100% extra virgin olive oil made entirely from olives that were cold-processed right after they were picked. The flavor is indescribably good and the health benefits are legendary.
Pollo Asciutto—Oven Roasted Chicken and Vegetables
2 fennel bulbs
2 large or three small red or yellow peppers
20 (approx.) very small potatoes
5 or 6 whole, unpeeled garlic cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. dried wild oregano (you can substitute with thyme if you prefer)
4 chicken legs and thighs (you can separate these at the join if you like)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Core the fennel bulbs and slice them lengthwise into half inch pieces. Remove the seeds and the white pithy part from inside the peppers and cut them into 2 inch pieces. Slice the potatoes in half if they’re small or into quarters if they’re a little larger. The pieces should be the same size when they’re chopped; about 1 inch by 2 inches.
Put all of the vegetables in a bowl and pour a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil over them. Sprinkle them with salt, pepper and oregano to taste and, using your hands, mix them well so that each vegetable is well coated with olive oil. Place the vegetables in a baking pan large enough to hold all of them on one layer (more or less).
Put the pan in the preheated oven while you prepare the chicken.
Wash the chicken in cold water and blot dry. Using the same bowl you used for the vegetables, place the chicken pieces in the bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, and pour a little extra virgin olive oil over them. With your hands, rub the salt, pepper and olive oil into the chicken pieces.
After the vegetables have cooked for about 10 minutes or so, remove the pan from the oven and pour about half a cup of white wine over them. Place the chicken pieces on top of the vegetables skin side up and return the pan to the oven.
After half an hour, turn the chicken pieces over and return the pan to the oven. The chicken is done when it’s crisp and brown and the vegetables are soft, with dark brown edges, about another 30 minutes or so. Test a potato with the tines of a fork. If the potatoes are still not soft with brown skin, remove the chicken and keep it warm while you return the potatoes to the oven at 500 degrees until they’re done.
Note: I use a variety of vegetables with this recipe depending upon what is fresh or what I need to use. Carrots and fennel pair well together; cauliflower and leeks are nice, too. It’s a forgiving recipe that is as satisfying as it is simple.
Serves 4 hungry people at Sunday lunch or any other meal (maybe you’ll have leftovers, too).