It’s a Green, Green World
with thanks to Judy Berk for the inspiration
fresh lettuce from the kitchen garden
From my kitchen porch, the garden is a vibrating sea of green, the rich, rippling emerald of the grass that just got cut for the first time after no mowing in May, the golden-green sun-dappled leaves on the big old sugar maples that edge my terrain, the lilac leaves a deeper green, and the hydrangeas not yet flowering but leafing out beautifully. Greenest of all is the line of grapevines that I watch carefully, waiting for the right moment for stuffed grape leaves, a treasure I learned to make years ago when I lived in Beirut and explored the mountain villages of Lebanon where warak enab are a festive treat.
From the Mediterranean
But leafy greens are what’s up right now, and they are so healthy and such a feature of the Mediterranean diet. Not a week goes by, it seems, without another study touting the virtues of this diet. Over and over again we’re told that it’s one of the most healthful ways to eat, to cook, to feed our families. The bonus? It’s delicious, it’s effortless for most North Americans to adopt and follow, and it’s super easy in the kitchen because it treats ingredients with the respect that comes from simplicity—or the simplicity that comes with respect.
The latest study I saw was pushing greens—at least one dark-green leafy vegetable daily, the nutritionist says, but I’m happy at this time of year to make that three or four or more. Just this morning, after dropping the grandson off at school, I stopped at Dooryard Farms and picked up a bag of fresh spinach, brought it home and tossed it in a skillet with olive oil, some slivered almonds, and a bit of garlic, then when it was softened by the heat, poured it over a slice of toasted whole-grain bread. Breakfast of champions? You bet!
breakfast of champions: spinach, almonds, garlic & whole grain toast
But if you don’t want spinach for breakfast, there’s a whole range of possibilities for spring greens, whether fresh garden lettuce, early radicchio, baby bok choy, sprightly young kales and cabbages, or all the other greens that abound. (At another market I spotted both fava greens, meaning the leaves of young fava bean plants before the beans themselves have formed, and something called Ethiopian kale, Brassica carinata, actually more of a mustard which explains its delightfully spicy flavor.) In their young, tender stage, many of these are as enticing raw in a salad as they are lightly steamed and dressed with a dollop of olive oil and maybe a sprinkle of vinegar or lemon juice.
So why not decide to eat at least one leafy green every day? This does not mean adding iceberg lettuce to your beefy burger at lunch; it means choosing a green--something as ordinary and delicious as fresh spinach, something as exotic as Asian greens from the farmers market, something as unusual as those fava greens. Trim the greens if need be of hard bits and yellowing leaves (some, like lacinato kale, have tough stems that should be stripped away; others, like chard, are tender all the way through), then cook them gently in a little oil or chop them for a salad. Serve as a side or boost the greens to make a main course, adding perhaps some cooked beans (chickpeas are a good choice) or grains (quinoa, whole wheat berries, bulgur), or even mixing in a little leftover chicken, or tofu for vegetarians.
broccolini with grape tomatoes, chili peppers, garlic, ev oil & a scattering of feta
And why all the fuss about greens? According to the Harvard School of Public Health’s very informative website, dark leafy greens are fine sources of vitamin A, several B vitamins, including folate, vitamin C, calcium (especially kale), potassium, and phytochemicals that contribute super-valuable antioxidants to your diet. And they boost your fiber intake as well. Not every green has the same nutritional structure so you’ll want to vary your choice but keep in mind that it’s all good and it’s all good for you too.
A Tale of Many Firesides
Sometimes, when I look around my Maine kitchen, with its six-burner gas stove, electric oven, two refrigerators (the smaller one for wine and cheese), its dishwasher, toaster oven, rice cooker, electric kettle, et cetera, I remember Mita’s kitchens. And, yes, that’s plural. Mita, my Tuscan next-door neighbor over many decades, had five separate, distinct cooking areas at her disposal. This was not unusual for a Tuscan farmwife with a variety of cooking tasks. Some of these areas were specific to certain chores and some to certain times of the year.
the bread oven
For instance, what I called the summer kitchen was adjacent to the main farmhouse, a small fieldstone building that, I was told, had once been the family chapel; it still sported a miniature belfry, minus the bell which had disappeared long ago. With a deep double sink and a set of propane-fueled burners, it was a place for big, time-consuming, summer tasks, like making wild blackberry jam, or preparing meals in July for the workers during the trebbiatura (threshing), an all-day activity involving much of the community, all of whom had to be fed abundantly and often. In late summer, it was the locus for a very messy activity, putting up 350-odd bottles of pelati(peeled whole tomatoes) and pomarola (tomato sauce) that Mita proudly stored for winter soups and minestre, sauces for Sunday pasta or potato gnocchi, or just a savory topping on a crust of toasted bread spread with soft lard or softer olive oil.
Pomarola and pelati: putting up tomatoes for the winter pantry
Opposite that summer kitchen, broad stone steps led up to the first floor of the farmhouse (second floor, American style), with a heavy door and an old-fashioned key always in the lock. Beyond the door, you entered a long, low-ceilinged room that stretched the length of the house. This was the main room, what an American interior designer might call the “great room,” and back in the day it served all three generations of the family for prepping, cooking, dining, cleaning up, small chores (sewing, mending, sorting eggs, the odd bit of homework, etc.), and socializing which on Sundays might be non-stop. An extended table that served as both work and dining space ran the length of the room and there were various sideboards and cupboards for storage.
In this big room were three separate cooking areas: at one end of the room next to the sink, there was a double gas burner for quick tasks like boiling eggs, and at the other, a small wood-burning stove called a cucina economica that was seldom used except to add warmth in very cold weather when it would also keep a pot of water on the boil for the pasta. In between, at the center point of the north wall, was the fireplace, the camino or focolare. Once upon a time this would have been the only cooking area available, and still, even with everything else going on, Mita kept a fire going, night and day, summer and winter, though in summer it would be little more than glowing embers. The hearth took up a good third of the long wall and was deep enough to fit benches on either side where the three old folks, Agostino, Diamante, and Clorinda, sat in winter, toasting themselves inside the fireplace. Tall andirons supporting the logs were each topped with an open wrought-iron circle, the perfect size to hold and keep warm a plate of soft pasta or a deep dish of bread soup. The old people, long since lacking many teeth, slowly sipped their sops, gummed their overcooked pasta, and stayed snug and cozy.
That fireplace was the heart, the focus (a word that, like focolare, comes directly from the Latin for “hearth”) of the home. Here’s what cultural anthropologist Piero Camporesi had to say in The Magic Harvest (Polity Books, 1993):
For many centuries the fire and the cauldron were the tools and key elements of peasant cooking, and salted water the simple and magical ‘stock’ from which, with bacon fat or lard, a minestra (soup) was magically brought forth.
In the old days, census documents counted the number of fuochi, meaning firesides or households, in a given parish. It didn’t matter how many people gathered around a particular fire—it could be anywhere from one or two to 15 or more—what counted in the record books was the fireside, the dwelling place, the center of the home. Until recently, there had been five or six fuochi in our little neighborhood, each one fully occupied. All five hearths were kept lit day and night, men, women and children came and went, tended animals, weeded gardens, made charcoal in the spring, cut wood at the dark of the moon in January, harvested beans and grains, grapes and olives, slaughtered pigs and other, lesser beasts, baked their bread and drew their water. But by the time I arrived in the early 1970’s, only two hearths were left, only two fuochi were lit, the one at Tenente’s where the old man, an amiable drunk, lived by himself, and the one at the Lunghinis.
If the hearth represented one focus of the house, the other, no less important, was the madia, a handsome old wooden chest that had been handed down over many generations. In every Tuscan farmhouse, the madia was where the tools and equipment for bread were stored: flour and old dough, the lievito madre, from a previous baking were kept in the upper bin, with a lid that could be raised and propped open or lowered to make a flat surface for working the dough; in the lower part, behind cupboard doors, were scrapers, bowls, and baskets.
Making bread; in the background, the cucina economica
Every week or ten days, the madia was opened up and the process of making the family bread supply began again, as it had for decades, maybe even a century.
The oven itself was a cavernous affair and like most home ovens in Tuscany, it was accessed from outside so it could be used in warm weather without heating the entire house. It had been built long ago, right into the house wall beneath the front steps leading up to the family quarters; there were shelves on each side and an overhang to protect the baker and her goods in inclement weather. On the lintel a simple cross was etched with the date the oven was last rebuilt, but the original oven was much older, probably as old as the farmhouse itself.
The oven was where food passed from the raw to the cooked state, and like all transitional places (chimneys, doors and so on) it held a powerful magic: the rising of dough was associated with the rise and ‘growth’ of the solar orb in the sky.
Mita fired her bread oven with scopa, heather collected from nearby hillsides, bundled together and dried in tightly wrapped faggots that burned fiercely, heating the oven till the inside lining was white hot. Then she scooped out the ashes and slid in trays of rosemary-spiked focaccia, a test baking, followed by a couple dozen big Tuscan bread loaves, cast directly onto the floor of the oven, enough to see the family through until the next baking. Back in the day, the flour came from wheat harvested in late June from fields around the farmhouse, threshed in July and then taken in sacks as needed to the mill to be ground. Apart from flour, the only other ingredients were spring water from the pipe in the dooryard and leavening from a piece of dough left from the previous week’s baking. No salt—Tuscan bread is famously made without salt.
Once the bread was done, the loaves resting on the adjacent shelves and crackling with escaping steam, the oven heat went to work again, baking pasta al forno (lasagna) for supper, or roasting a chicken from the farmyard flock or a rabbit from the cages by the woodpile, or when times were good, a pork belly from Mita’s daughter who was married to the butcher in town. Rolled and tied around a savory garlic-and-fennel stuffing, pork belly, braised very slowly, made a kind of home-style porchetta that was esteemed for very special occasions. Finally, in the last residual heat of the oven, more bundles of kindling were put to dry and be ready when the next baking rolled around.
Ragù for the pasta: a recipe
Until very recently in the Tuscan countryside pasta was not part of the regular daily diet. Bread was the foundation carbohydrate and made up a big part of almost every meal. Only on Sundays did Mita make either potato gnocchi or pasta al forno, fine, delicate sheets of pasta layered with a rich meaty ragù, besciamella, and cheeses. This was considered very modern food because so much of it had to be bought in town, especially the meat and the cheeses, mozzarella, parmigiano and so on. The pasta, however, was home-made and it was a miracle of texture, soft and silken and so thin you could have read a newspaper through it—the true test of home-made egg pasta.
This is not Mita’s ragù, I hasten to add, but rather one that I learned from Anna Nanni, a fine cook in Savigno, a small town outside Bologna. It makes 5 cups of sauce, enough for 8 to 10 servings of pasta or polenta. The final addition of milk is a typical Bolognese touch:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup finely minced yellow onion
1/2 cup finely minced carrot
1/2 cup finely minced celery (use the darkest green stalks)
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 slices pancetta, finely minced
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons double-concentrate of tomato
One 28-ounce can imported San Marzano tomatoes
1 cup whole milk
Set a large, heavy-duty saucepan over medium low heat. Combine the olive oil in the pan with the butter. As soon as the butter has melted, add the minced vegetables, stirring to coat them well with the fat. Lower the heat to the minimum and cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables have almost melted and are just beginning to brown. This can take from 20 to 40 minutes.
Stir in the pork and beef and continue cooking very slowly as you break up the meat to a crumble.
When the meat has changed color, add salt and pepper (remembering that pancetta is also salty), then stir in the minced pancetta and continue cooking until the pancetta bits have dissolved.
Add the wine and raise the heat a little, so the wine starts to simmer quickly. Cook, stirring continually, until the wine has all but evaporated, then stir in the concentrate, mixing it well into the contents of the pan.
Puree the canned tomatoes (Anna did this right in the can, using a stick blender) and add to the sauce. Lower the heat once more to the barest possible simmer. Cook very gently for 3 hours, uncovered; if the sauce appears to be drying out, add a little boiling water (or stock) from time to time as needed.
After 3 hours of cooking, add the milk to the sauce, let it return to a simmer, and cook another 15 or 20 minutes. The sauce will have lost its bright red tomato essence and will smell (and taste) richly of meat.