Two weeks ago when I was writing my post about spaghetti sauce, I called my mom with a question about the purpose of the tomato paste. She said she’d always assumed the paste was a thickener, but would check in one of her Italian cookbooks and call me right back. An hour and no return-call later, I dialed her number. I had found my answer online; meanwhile, she’d become engrossed in the stories in her cookbooks.
A few days later when I was at her house, she sent the books home with me on loan – she thought I’d enjoy the stories as well. After perusing a couple of the cookbooks, the organization of one of them — the Culinary Arts Institute Italian Cookbook, published by the Institute in 1977 as part of its “Adventures in Cooking Series" — grabbed my attention. After a brief history of Italian cooking, the cookbook is divided into two sections: “Cooking by Regions” and “Recipes by Category.”
I immediately turned to the section on Calabria, the region of my ancestors. The Culinary Arts Institute tells us that Calabria is mountainous, offering a challenge to most farmers. “While not friendly to most crops [except eggplant, apparently], the hillsides of Calabria are covered with ancient olive trees; thus cooking in olive oil is common.” That’s informative, I suppose. Is there a region that doesn’t use olive oil?
The article then notes that each region of Italy has its own pasta; fusilli is Calabria’s (or at least it was in 1977), most often served “in a sauce with rolls of beef round alongside.” Mom’s braciole — soon, I do promise.
Calabria’s “long shoreline” provides ample seafood to the region, but meat is in short supply, though “a pair of pork specialties is associated with Calabria”: capicola (a spicy ham) and soprassato (“a thick, spicy sausage flecked with pistachio nuts”). I can attest to the fact that both were at every family feast of my years-gone-by.
Only two recipes are noted from the region of the Calabrese: buttered carrots (I kid you not) and a country-style chicken that greatly resembles chicken cacciatore, but with zucchini added in. I had to go much further into the second half of the book to find the real treasure. In the “Pasta and Rice” section, on page 64 (I was born in 1964 … is that a sign?) are three recipe favorites from my childhood: broccoli and macaroni, peas and macaroni (commonly referred to by my friend Judy as “green ronis”), and pasta fagiole.
In the month since I started this series of ramblings, I’ve had more than a couple requests for a good pasta fagiole recipe. The problem is: everyone has their own version of this Italian classic in their head. The most obvious difference between most recipes is whether the dish is a soup or not. For me, what’s more important — what I ask before I order pasta fagiole in a restaurant — is: “Is it made with tomato?”
“Tomato?” you are saying. “Of course it’s made with tomato! All pasta fagiole is made with tomato!” Ahh … not my mother’s. My mom makes pasta and beans and never tomato. In fact, her recipe’s ingredients number only four: olive oil, garlic, ditalini, and cannellini beans. And that’s the way I prefer it.
That said, to my friend, Sue, who requested a recipe a while back, I’ll pass on the Culinary Arts Institute’s recipe. And when I make this requested dish for an Olympics luncheon at my husband’s place of employment this week, again I’ll make it with tomato, as that’s what most people expect and prefer. But for myself, for lunch one day soon, the preparation will be simple: boil the pasta, sauté some garlic in olive oil, add the beans, drain the pasta, add it in, and enjoy. Semplice…