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Ritual

Our Italian Thanksgiving table doesn't look so different from the American version.

Our Italian Thanksgiving table doesn’t look so different from the American version.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but the turkey excess lingers on in the form of soup, sandwiches and an especially inelegant hash. It seems that smallish turkeys are almost impossible to come by outside of the Christmas holidays here, so we’re awash in the detritus of an 18 lb. bird. Since we were a mere seven for dinner, our leftover creativity is sorely tested already.

Italian pumpkin looks like the model for Cinderella's coach and tastes rich and earthy.

Italian pumpkin looks like the model for Cinderella’s coach and tastes sweet, rich and earthy.

Celebrating a foreign holiday like Thanksgiving in a country that doesn’t have a point of reference for it is a strange, strange experience—one that we’re still trying to figure out. On the plus side, there is nothing like the joy of grocery shopping for a holiday that no one else celebrates. There are no long lines at the checkout counters, no mad dash to secure yams and pumpkin pie filling and no parking lot rage. The negatives? Cranberries simply do not exist in Italy, or in Europe, as far as I can tell. Yams are elusive, although sweet potatoes, called patate americane (American potatoes) here, are available with a little searching. You can look a long, long time for canned pumpkin pie filling, but you’re unlikely to find it, which means you need to start earlier to prepare zucca (pumpkin) for your pies, which is actually a positive, really.

Pumpkin pie from fresh Italian zucca on a Pugliese pottery plate.

Pumpkin pie from fresh Italian zucca on a Pugliese pottery plate.

We’ve celebrated these past two years with an American-Italian couple who long for the warmth and americanità (American-ness) that Thanksgiving represents. This year, we expanded the group to include expatriates and Italians alike. And because we’re all so far from home, we overcompensated with a ridiculous turkey and about a hundred side dishes, anxious to include something from everyone’s familiar Thanksgiving tradition. Thanks to some visiting Americans in late October, I produced cranberry sauce from dried cranberries carried across the Atlantic. And the Australian of Dutch descent made a stellar pumpkin pie, proving that Thanksgiving recipe mastery is not, after all, genetic.We had it all, from mashed potatoes to coleslaw. Coleslaw? Yes, it seems that one of the virtues of Thanksgiving lies in its side dish flexibility.

Traditional woven baskets—and the odd pot or two—make for perfect mushroom hunting receptacles.

Traditional woven baskets—and the odd pot or two—make for perfect mushroom hunting receptacles.

Regardless of where you produce and consume it, the Thanksgiving common denominator is excess, which may be a metaphor for an unsavory aspect of American cultural values. Happily, though, since Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in Italy, neither does Black Friday. We don’t have to choose to boycott the annual post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy because the Friday after Thanksgiving in Italy is just another day. So what did we do instead? We picked up our baskets and shifted seamlessly into a rural ritual as firmly ingrained in the Italian cultural landscape as Thanksgiving is to ours. We went on a mushroom hunt.

Wild mushrooms in Puglia come in all shapes and sizes, including the inedible ones. These are all safe and incredibly flavorful.

Wild mushrooms in Puglia come in all shapes and sizes, including the inedible ones. These are all safe and incredibly flavorful.

Mushroom hunting is a much-loved tradition in just about every region of Italy. Especially in the autumn after a rain, Italy’s fields and forests are full of edible mushrooms and the Valle d’Itria is no exception. In order to gather them legally, it’s obligatory to take a course in mushroom identification offered by each municipality that culminates in the issuing of a license, but this practice seems widely disregarded. For better or worse, everyone tends to rely on relatives and neighbors with long experience to cull out the poisonous species, but every year, illness and even death is reported as a result of an unfortunate identification error. Maybe the element of risk heightens thrill of the experience.

Deep in the forest, Brian learns the art of wild mushroom-spotting.

Deep in the forest, Brian learns the art of wild mushroom-spotting.

We set out with neighbors Tonino and Anna, an intrepid duo who adore wild mushrooms and are especially skilled at the hunt. Armed with baskets and buckets, we climbed over a stone wall into a thick, scrubby forest of macchia mediterranea (Mediterranean brush), oak and pine trees and wild species of orchids, herbs and greens.

Galletti, also known as chanterelles, are similar to the variety we hunt in Santa Cruz, CA., but they're a little less orange in color and generally a little smaller.

Galletti, also known as chanterelles, are similar to the variety we hunt in Santa Cruz, CA., but they’re a little less orange in color and generally a little smaller.

It was immediately apparent that Brian and I are not gifted mushroom spotters. Tonino and Anna out-gathered us at a ratio of about a hundred to one. When we did spot a specimen, it was invariably deemed brutto or inedible, so we were resigned to throwing the offenders back to be subsumed by the forest undergrowth. We gathered for hours, desperate to add to our woefully empty baskets. Little by little, we seemed to get the hang of it, walking bent over, our eyes searching for almost imperceptible irregularities in the surface of the thick mulch where mushroom hide themselves.

Funghi asquanti (bitter mushrooms) require a three-day series of boiling and soaking in order to eat them. Seems tedious, but it's worth the trouble.

Funghi asquanti (bitter mushrooms) require a three-day series of boiling and soaking in order to eat them. Seems tedious, but it’s worth the trouble.

At the end of it all, we were awash in mushrooms, though our contribution represented about ten percent of the day’s take. No matter. After lunch at Tonino and Anna’s, we were showered with a huge quantity of cardoncelli, galletti and even a few porcini that Anna had already inspected and cleaned. She sent us on our way with instructions about soaking and boiling the funghi ascuant, a dialect term for an especially bitter wild mushroom that must first be boiled, then soaked in fresh, cold water over a period of a few days until the water is clear. We suspected that these funghi ascuant just might be a little bit, well, poisonous, but we gamely prepped them and ate them anyway. No ill effects thus far.

Simple and delicious, wild mushrooms like cardoncelli can be covered with bread crumbs, garlic and extra virgin olive oil and baked until the topping is bubbling and crispy.

Simple and delicious, wild mushrooms like cardoncelli can be covered with bread crumbs, garlic and extra virgin olive oil and baked until the topping is bubbling and crispy.

In Puglia, wild mushrooms are enjoyed as close to their natural state as possible. Porcini and cardoncelli are especially prized when grilled and anointed with new extra virgin olive oil. Wild mushrooms are also served gratinati, baked with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and sometimes parmigiano. They’re often preserved for use later in the winter, but we love them in ways that are a little foreign to the Pugliese table.

Woodsy lasagne with wild greens and mushrooms is a perfect wintertime entree.

Woodsy lasagne with wild greens and mushrooms is a perfect wintertime entree.

From vegetable lasagne to mushroom risotto, we think there is very little that isn’t improved by the presence of a porcino or two, so I’ve included a recipe for a winter lasagne that features wild and bitter greens and mushrooms. Serve it to vegetarians and carnivores alike: there is enough heft to satisfy meat eaters and vegetarians will swoon over the interplay of bitter earthiness and toothsome pasta swathed in a bubbling, creamy cheesy sauce. You could add some leftover Thanksgiving turkey, but this lasagna rightfully focuses on the mushrooms, which aren’t typically a part of anyone’s Thanksgiving table. And that’s a welcome relief during our post-holiday stupor.

Lasagne alla Boscaiola—Woodsman’s Lasagna

Ingredients:

12 oz. fresh lasagne sheets OR 1 pkg. oven-ready (no boil) lasagna noodles

2 cups freshly grated parmigiano

For the mushroom filling:

4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

3 medium shallots, minced

Roughly sliced wild mushrooms are sauteed for one of the lasagne layers.

Roughly sliced wild mushrooms are sauteed for one of the lasagne layers.

2 pounds wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles, porcini or a mixture of wild and cultivated mushrooms, thick stems removed and caps and thin stems coarsely chopped

Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

For the greens filling:

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

Wild chard is terrific in this lasagne, but cultivated chard, kale and spinach are great, too.

Wild chard is terrific in this lasagne, but cultivated chard, kale and spinach are great, too.

2 lbs. washed, chopped greens—a mixture of kale, chard and spinach is great

Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 lb. fresh ricotta

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

For the béchamel:

4 Tbsp. butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

5 cups whole milk (approx.)

1 bay leaf

If you can find ricotta as fresh as this, wonderful. If not, look for a variety that doesn't include gums or stabilizers.

If you can find ricotta as fresh as this, wonderful. If not, look for a variety that doesn’t include gums or stabilizers.

1 thyme sprig

Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Nutmeg, for grating

Method:

If you like, you can make fresh lasagne sheets following the method here, but this is one time when a truly acceptable substitute can be found in oven-ready, no-boil pasta sheets. They are infinitely superior to the dried lasagne sheets with curly edges that you have to boil first; Barilla is a probably the best brand readily available. When you use them, make sure every single piece of pasta is covered with sauce. You’ll also need to cover the lasagna with foil for about ¾ of the total baking time to keep the lasagna moist.

Preheat the oven to 375° and rub a thin film of olive oil all over a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil, add the shallots and cook over medium heat, stirring, for a few minutes until the shallots are soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, about 18 minutes. Add the wine and boil until reduced by about half its volume. Add the cream and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until slightly reduced. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper.

Shallots and greens simmer over medium-low heat until the greens are wilted.

Garlic and greens simmer over medium-low heat until the greens are wilted.

For the greens, heat the olive oil in a large deep saucepan over a medium-high flame. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a minute, then add the greens. Stir well and let the greens wilt. If you’re using kale, add it to the skillet first since it takes a little longer to wilt. Season with salt and pepper and stir again. Put the wilted greens in a colander to drain. When the greens are cool enough to handle, squeeze them in your hands to remove any excess liquid. Set them aside. Put the ricotta in a bowl. Add the lemon zest, season with a little salt and pepper, and mix well. Add the cooled, drained greens to the ricotta mixture and mix well.

For the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium flame. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for a few minutes without letting the mixture brown. Whisk in the milk 1/2 cup at a time, letting the sauce thicken after each addition. When all the milk has been added, add the bay leaf and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat to low and let the sauce cook gently for 10 minutes. If necessary, thin the mixture with a little more milk. Grate in some nutmeg, check the seasoning and adjust. Keep the sauce warm until you assemble the lasagna.

To assemble the lasagna, spoon a very thin layer of béchamel sauce over the bottom of the prepared lasagna pan. Place three lasagna sheets in the bottom of the pan (or, depending upon the size of your pan, add more or less) just to cover the pan without overlapping the sheets. The sheets will expand a little when the lasagna is baking, so don’t worry if you have some gaps.

Top the layer of pasta with a third of the greens and ricotta mixture, dropping it by a spoon to randomly distributed over the pasta. Top with a third of the sautéed mushroom mixture then a quarter of the béchamel, followed by a quarter of the grated parmigiano. Place another layer of pasta sheets on top, then repeat the layers two more times. Finish with a top layer of pasta covered with a final layer of béchamel and parmigiano.

The top of the lasagne should look like this when it's ready to come out of the oven.

The top of the lasagne should look like this when it’s ready to come out of the oven.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes until the lasagna is bubbling and golden brown on the top. Remove and let rest for about ten minutes before serving.

Serves 6 as a main course or 10-12 as a first course.

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