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Anticipating Easter

Spring is devoted to orchard maintenance and pruning is the order of the day.

Spring is devoted to orchard maintenance and pruning is the order of the day.

With capricious spring weather keeping us on our toes, we are skipping through the last week of Italian Lent (Quaresima) towards Easter Sunday in Martina Franca. The signs, both sacred and profane, are everywhere. Elderly residents strolled through town yesterday toting palm leaves and olive branches on Palm Sunday mass, enormous chocolate Easter eggs compete for attention in shop windows and the fruits and vegetables we’ve craved all winter long are arriving in weekly market stalls.

Colomba, the classic Easter cake of Italy, recalls the panettone we just finished at Christmas.

Colomba, the classic Easter cake of Italy, recalls the panettone we just finished at Christmas.

Like every significant, recurring event in Italy, there are rituals and customs aplenty associated with Easter and all its relatives. And like everything else in this regionally defined country, they vary significantly depending upon where you live. Since we’re in the Valle d’Itria, we’re experiencing the Pugliese expression of the Italian rites of spring. Based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re in for yet another extraordinary gastronomic ride.

Wild arugula grows by the side of the road in Pascarosa.

Wild arugula grows by the side of the road in Pascarosa.

On Palm Sunday, we joined friends for a morning walk in the Pascarosa countryside. Signs of spring were everywhere, but the blustery wind kept us moving briskly through the pathways and across the orchards. On the way, we spied volunteer arugula bursting forth through a crack in the mule track as we passed. Fava plants were flowering under cherry and olive trees. The first poppies were gathered by some of the children with us. As we walked, one of the neighbors came out to greet us, offering taralli nasprati (sweet taralli for Easter).

Wild arugula, raw fava beans and radishes make a perfect spring salad.

Wild arugula, raw fava beans and radishes make a perfect spring salad.

As we chatted with this especially hospitable member of the Pascarosa welcoming committee, I learned about a typical pasta served on Palm Sunday, so we went straight home and made it for lunch. I added a little salad with the arugula we foraged on the walk, adding fresh fava beans and sliced radishes with organic extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon in homage to spring

Anchovies—the indispensable ingredient in Pasta con la Mollica.

Anchovies—the indispensable ingredient in Pasta con la Mollica.

I turned to food photographer Daniela Ardiri, a new friend in Monopoli, for the finer recipe points. It turns out our Pascarosa contact had shared the recipe entirely in dialect, which is pretty much nothing like regular Italian. Daniela saved the day with her family recipe, along with a little background. It seems that this dish hits all the right Lenten notes: it’s fish, not meat-based and is frugal, simple and modest as befits these final days of Lent. Since we are in Italy, it is also incredibly tasty.

Handmade lagane pasta is easy to make if you have a little extra time.

Handmade lagane pasta is easy to make if you have a little extra time.

Pasta con la Mollica is as simple as it could possibly be, featuring olive-oil cured anchovies, toasted fresh bread crumbs, the very best extra virgin olive oil and any sort of long pasta (spaghetti is traditional, as are lagane, a handmade pasta similar to tagliatelle). Truly greater than the sum of its parts, Pasta con la Mollica takes just minutes to pull together if you use dry pasta. If you have a little more time, try making lagane, the traditional pasta accompaniment, by hand.

Pasta con la Mollica—Pasta with Anchovies and Toasted Bread Crumbs (Mollica)

Ingredients:

I cup fresh breadcrumbs (using a good quality, artisan bread, tear slices into pieces and blend or process in a food processor until you have small crumbs)

3/4-cup best quality extra virgin olive oil

6 anchovy filets packed in extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

One peperoncino, crumbled (small, dried red pepper)

A bunch of Italian parsley, chopped fine

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

I lb. (one package) spaghetti (good brands are Benedetto Cavalieri from Maglie, Puglia or Rustichella d’Abruzzo from the Abruzzi; you can also make lagane yourself if you have a little extra time

Method:

Toasted breadcrumbs (mollica) were the formaggio dei poveri (cheese of the poor), so they're ideal for a pious pasta like this one.

Toasted breadcrumbs (mollica) were the formaggio dei poveri (cheese of the poor), so they’re ideal for a pious pasta like this one.

Heat half of the extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan over medium low heat until hot but not smoking. Add the fresh breadcrumbs all at once, then stir quickly. Add Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, then stir with a wooden spoon until the breadcrumbs are golden, but not dry and crunchy. Drain on paper towels and reserve. Wipe out the sauté pan and return to the burner.

Heat the rest of the extra virgin olive over medium low heat. Chop the anchovy fillets into fine pieces, then add to the extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and the peperoncino and sauté, stirring, until the anchovy dissolves into the olive oil. Take care that the garlic doesn’t brown during this process; you may need to remove the pan from the heat from time to time or reduce the flame. Once the anchovy is dissolved, add the parsley.

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of water until boiling, then add a generous amount of Kosher or sea salt. The water should taste like seawater. Add the spaghetti or the lagane and cook either until al dente, reserving about a cup of the hot pasta-cooking water just before you drain the pasta into a colander.

Finished Pasta alla Mollica: savory, crunchy, salty and chewy.

Finished Pasta alla Mollica: savory, crunchy, salty and chewy.

Add the cooked pasta to the sauté pan with the anchovies and extra virgin olive oil. Toss the pasta quickly in the oil, add a little of the pasta cooking water just to make a creamy emulsion with the oil. Taste for salt and pepper; add as needed. Serve the pasta in warmed pasta bowls with a generous topping of the sautéed breadcrumbs.

Serves 6 people.

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