A little more than six months have passed since we changed everything about our lives. It’s easy to identify the radical differences—we aren’t working for other people or institutions, we don’t drive everywhere, we’re speaking another language—but the subtle, under-the-radar changes are the ones that sneak up behind us and let us know that this nuova storia isn’t business as usual. And it’s the small things, the unexpected surprises, which have truly changed us.
In our former lives, we would have been up at 6:00 a.m. and out the door at 7:00 a.m., rushing to make the first meeting of the day. For me, the rest of the morning would unfold predictably, a series of one-on-one meetings with staff coupled with visits with donors, faculty and other colleagues. Unpredictable occurrences were typically unpleasant surprises that required damage control, but only after endless, often fruitless consultation. During the winter, we left for work in the dark and returned home in the dark, usually accompanied by rain. After a few short hours together, we’d go to bed and do it all over again.
In contrast, consider yesterday’s agenda. The night before, we’d gotten a call from a friend who planned to accompany her father-in-law to a farm in a town down the road from us. She thought we might like to see the farm and meet the farmer, perhaps taste some of his organic extra virgin olive oil. So at 9:00 a.m., we found ourselves rocketing down the road in a Fiat Punto, ending up on a muddy track in the middle of a field of the most exquisite cauliflower, broccoli, chard and onions you’ve ever seen.
We met the farmer, Cosimo, who invited us to pick as much of the bounty as we wanted. Sinking up to our ankles in the deep red clay, we filled the car, balancing wooden crates on our laps, giddy from the intense aroma of the onions and the sweet, earthy tang of the broccoli. As quickly as we arrived, we headed back to Martina Franca, staggering from the weight of farmer Cosimo’s generosity. It was a morning filled with surprise, laughter and kindness. And we were back in Martina Franca in time for a mid-morning espresso.
We dropped off some of our bounty with our lovely neighbor, Anina, who regularly brings us local treats from her kitchen or fruits and vegetables from her garden in the country. We were thrilled to be able to offer her something for a change. Not to be outdone, though, Anina tucked a huge bag of orecchiette and trofiette pasta she’d just made into my arms. Lunch that day was a Pugliese classic: orecchiette con cavolfiore or handmade little ear-shaped semolina pasta in a braised cauliflower sauce with chickpeas, sponsali (Pugliese onions), hot peppers, salt-cured black olives, Swiss chard, garlic, parsley and a few sun-dried tomatoes. If you want to try your hand at making your own orecchiette, here are some great visuals to guide you through it.
The rest of the afternoon was spent finalizing details of our online merchant account for Pascarosa, our extra virgin olive oil export business. We’re shipping our first pallets of extra virgin olive oil to the U.S. in just a few weeks, so we’re swimming in a sea of endless customs regulations, bills of lading, powers of attorney, shopping cart programs and website tweaks. Tedious? Maybe, but we’re the ones making the decisions and we’ll benefit (or suffer) accordingly.
A welcome break arrived in form of Pina, the wife of one Brian’s bicycling friends, who stopped by for an early afternoon coffee with an invitation to join her for one of her rambles one day. Pina thinks nothing of a daily eight-kilometer afternoon walk in the country, but said she’d adjust for me by starting off with just four. Great. So now there’s no excuse to hold back. I can organize myself to accommodate the things that really matter because I get to choose how the day unfolds.
So we expected that we’d be doing different things in a very different place, and we were reasonably prepared for how it would feel. What we didn’t count on was the impact of a new spontaneity, a kind of lightness that has permeated our bodies and our minds. The things we used to think were important—money, status, career success, appearance—have just drifted away. In their place, we are focused on work that we value, friends that we care about and a life lived fully every day.
What hasn’t changed is how much we miss our children and our family. We’re in close touch, but there’s a physical ache that comes from geographic separation no matter how much we talk. Once we figure out how to integrate our longing for closeness while living a continent away, we’ll know that our nuova storia will have become the vera storia (real story) of the rest of our lives.
Try this flavorful, comforting pasta on a cool day when you want to reaffirm your connection to earthy, organic vegetables and a healthy way of life. Note that I roasted the cauliflower with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, but you could also braise it with the other ingredients for a more integrated flavor. If you do, add the cauliflower pieces towards the end of the onion braising, before adding the Swiss chard and additional water.
Orecchiette con Cavolfiore—Orecchiette with Cauliflower
1 head cauliflower (you can also use bright green broccoli romanesco if you can find it)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
4 or 5 sponsali (long, bulbous onions that look a little like leeks but have a stronger aroma and flavor; you can substitute spring onions, leeks or regular yellow onions)
1 or 2 peperoncini (small, dried red pepper—adjust quantity based on your own tolerance for heat)
1 or 2 cloves garlic
½ cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 cup white wine
2 cups cooked chickpeas and their cooking broth or one can cooked chickpeas, rinsed, with 1/3 cup water
7 or 8 sundried tomatoes soaked in extra virgin olive oil
20 small, salt-cured black olives, with or without pits (if you keep the pits in, you’ll be rewarded with extra flavor in the sauce; just make sure everyone knows the pits are still in the olives when you serve the pasta!)
1 small bunch Swiss chard, rinsed, with heavy center ribs removed
1 lb. orecchiette (little ear-shaped semolina pasta that you can make or buy; good brands available in the U.S. are Benedetto Cavalieri, Rustichello d’Abruzzo and the A.G. Ferrari house label)
Preheat over to 400 degrees.
Cut the cauliflower into small flowerettes and place them in a bowl. Pour a judicious amount of extra virgin olive oil over the cauliflower, season with Kosher or sea salt and freshly grated black pepper and mix well with your hands, making sure each flowerette has come in contact with the extra virgin olive oil. Spread the cauliflower on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or so, checking every so often to make sure the flowerettes are browning evenly. You may need to shake the pan a little. Remove when the cauliflower is golden brown, with crispy little sections at the edges.
In the meantime, fill a large pasta pot three-quarters full of water and bring to the boil.
Clean the onions and slice into rounds if you’re using sponsali, spring onions or small leeks, or into quarters no larger than half an inch for regular onions. Heat ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan, then add the onions. Saute for a few minutes over medium heat, then reduce the heat and cover to allow the onions to become lightly golden brown and translucent. You may need to add a little white wine from time to time during this process; keep an eye on things and don’t let the onions darken. This process will take about 20 minutes; if you haven’t added all of the white wine during the braising, add it now.
Chop the garlic, peperoncino and Italian parsley, then add to the onions. Cut the sun-dried tomatoes into thin julienne strips and add them to the onion mixture along with the cooked chickpeas and the olives. Stir well and increase the heat. You should have about ¾ cup of liquid in the mixture at this point.
Slice the reserved Swiss chard into julienne strips and add them to the onion mixture. Sauté the mixture, allowing the liquid to simmer. If necessary, add a little of the boiling pasta water. Slice the Swiss chard leaves crosswise into ribbons, then add it to the skillet mixture. Add Kosher or sea salt along with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Sauté the mixture for about ten minutes, just long enough to cook the Swiss chard.
Add abundant salt to the boiling pasta water (it should taste like the sea), then add the orecchiette. Quickly cover the pot to encourage the water to return to the boil. Remove the lid when the water is boiling again. Dried orecchiette should take somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes; fresh orecchiette take only minutes.
When the orecchiette are cooked al dente (literally, to the teeth; you should be able to bite into one and encounter a slight resistance at the core of the pasta), quickly drain the pasta, being sure to save about a cup of the pasta cooking water.
Add the drained orecchiette to the ingredients in the sauté pan, stirring to incorporate. Add a little of the reserved pasta water to make a creamy sauce that coats each piece of pasta perfectly. Add the roasted cauliflower at the very last minute; stir briefly to incorporate.
Serve with grated parmigiano, cacioricotta or caciocavallo cheese. More authentically (and vegan, too), replace the cheese with fresh bread crumbs sautéed in extra virgin olive oil until golden brown and crunchy.
Serves six as a first course or four as a main course.