Thursday, March 17, 2011


Recently I commented on a New York Times food blog on an article on wild herbs. It reminded me of the many wild plants we still use (or I should say we should use?) in Italy. Herbs have always been an important factor in Italian cooking. Just think of the role that basil, sage, and rosemary  play in the Italian kitchen, just to mention a few, and you realize how important herbs are in enhancing the taste of dishes. 

These herbs are the domesticated plants that we find in the pots sold at the grocery stores. In reality there are hundreds of edible wild plants and flowers.  You think arugula has strong taste? Wait until you taste wild 'rugola'. Not the tame cultivated one you buy at the store, but the one growing wild like a dreadful  weed. Wow! It is like comparing a domestic dog to a wild coyote. How many people cook with wild fennel, an essential flavor in certain Sicilian dishes? And what about 'mentuccia' the tiny wild mint indispensible to cooking artichokes in the Roman style? I have a stomach ache every time I have to say 'substitute it with parsley'.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829) 
Goethe in the Roman Countryside

“Andare per cicoria", to go look for chicory has a bad connotation in Italian. It means to go an spend your time in some very low level doings. Wild herbs are not comparable to truffles or even to wild mushrooms. Chicory is for peasants not for the refined palate, right?  But who commands our taste buds? I love the taste of truffle as much as a dish of wild chicory 'ripassata' simply sautéed in olive oil and garlic: its bitter taste fills your mouth like an explosion.

I remember when I was a kid it was not unusual to see women in the fields on the countryside of Rome, slowly walking bent to the ground,  looking for something, scavenging with a small knife in their hands. In reality they were looking for edible plants. Still today some women do this as a business and they sell their precious cache at the farmers markets. But finding these treasures of the wild seems to be more and more difficult. Wild plants feel like species in extinction. In reality the ability to find wild herbs is becoming a lost talent. In the continuous push to make everything faster and cheaper, in surrendering to the tendencies of mass marketing, we restrict our choices and we flatten our taste. Maybe it is a sign of age but I think every time we lose a skill, every time we have less choices, we lose a small piece of our identity.  

Wild herbs have so many different tastes... they can be bitter or sweet , pungent or bland... they can be slick or sting you. Put them all together in a salad bowl, in the spring when they are fresh, savory, and tender and you have a “misticanza”. The word in the Roman dialect recalls a mixture... in our case a mix of wild edible herbs of every kind. It is like a symphony of tastes that will play in your mouth.

Buying wild asparagus in Campo de' Fiori farmers market

When I am in Rome there is nothing for me more fun than go to shopping in the 'Campo de Fiori' farmers market. It is the real hearth of the city; it is where you can discover the real soul of Roman people: witty and funny, wise and poetic, rude and gentle at same time.  

The "vignarola" cleans wild chicory

The market is divided in two long aisles. And here, in a corner an old lady, "la vignarola", sells ‘odori’ herbs for your cooking: parsley, carrot and celery for your “battuto” the Roman ‘mirepois’... rosemary, sage, and mentuccia, the wild mint for your artichokes. Here in a large basket is the wild chicory that she is cleaning. When it is tender it can be prepared as a salad, otherwise it can be dropped in a skillet with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic to accompany any meat dish.

 And side by side, here is a large basket of misticanza. Somebody asked for the recipe… What goes into a misticanza salad? oh well… here it is:

caccia-lepre (hare-hunter),
cresta di gallo (rooster crest),
dente di leone (lion tooth),
pimpinella (that's a sweet name,  must be related to Cinderella),
raponzoli (ugly turnips),
crespigno lattuca pungente (stinging lettuce),
erbanoce (nut herb),
cipiccia (other funny name I am not even trying to translate this),
papala, small poppy plants (way before they start blooming), and....
cordone del frate (fraiar's rope),
orecchio d’asino (donkey hears),
porcacchia (wow!), and finally …
indivia (endive),
rughetta (wild rucola)
young wild chicory,
dandelion, and a few more.

For the topping …. Make a pesto pounding in a mortar two anchovies, one clove of garlic and some salt; add fresh extra-virgin olive oil pressed last fall, white wine vinegar (possibly from a reliable source that makes it natural and not industrially). Toss it all together and enjoy!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

El Matador State Beach

I couldn't have wished for a more beautiful Birthday.

Wonderful California coast just North of Malibu
Simple picnic in the park
Lonely bird looking for food

Friday, March 04, 2011

Fish Stew - Brodetto di Fano (Brodetto di Pesce alla Fanese)

Fano is a very beautiful touristic town on the Adriatic coast of Italy in The Marche region. Last september I was visiting with my sister Patrizia. It was an unforgettable vacation, the beaches are awesome, the people is friendly, the country around is astonishing and the food... Am I using too many superlatives here? I guess I have to, in order to explain the amazing experience.

During my stay an event took place: The "Sagra del Brodetto".  A 'sagra' is a street festival dedicated to a single theme, generally local food, and this 'sagra' in Fano was just extraordinary for the quality and the subject matter.

In fact a "Brodetto"  (literally translated in 'little broth') is a local fish stew, prepared in a unique way and utilizing the local super-fresh 'catch of the day' from the Fano harbour.  Many restaurant participated in the event that day with 'brodetto' on their menu, in addition to all the stands selling all sorts of gourmet specialties from all over the region.

We all went to several restaurant in town and we ate some of the best "brodetto" fish stew you can have on earth. After this experience of course we HAD to prepare our own. 
We decided to prepare our own "Brodetto" at home using the traditional recipe given to us by a neighbor and I am going to share the recipe here.

All starts with the fish. We went to my sister's favourite fish shop, one of the best in town. The counter was amazing for the variety and the freshness of the fish, molluscs and crustaceans.  Rita and Chicco, the owners of the shop, were very enthusiastic about the idea of us going to cook their local specialty. We asked for help and suggestions and they gave us plenty especially on the types of fish to be used.
Many of you will have all sorts of objections, I can already hear them: "I live across the ocean, where do I buy those fishes here?" My answer: you don't. Unless you are on the Adriatic coast, or at least in Italy, it will be almost impossible to find the same fish. But the principle of the recipe is very simple. It was a dish traditionally prepared in those times when no food was wasted, (if you are young and you don't understand what I am talking about, you better ask your mother or grandmother) with whatever fish was catch that would be FRESH but not the highest quality and wouldn't break your wallet. It was also prepared by the fisherman using all the small fish that couldn't be sold on the market.

You can prepare a very similar dish with whatever seafood is available in your area, the only important conditions are freshness and quality. Will it taste the same? Of course not. As a consolation, based on my experience, I can say that no two "brodetto's" taste the same, not even in Fano, as every cook will prepare it differently, with whatever fish they like or whatever they found at the market that day.

Back to the fish shop. We bought squid (seppie), monkfish (coda di  rospo or rana pescatrice), mullet (triglie), skate wings skinned (razza), shrimps (gamberi), mantis shrimp (canocchie or pannocchie), mussels (cozze), clams (vongole). The fish was thoroughly cleaned, scaled and be-boned for us in a few minutes.

Next stop the hardware store. The reason being you cannot cook a brodetto properly if you don't have the right pan.

The brodetto pan is a large iron skillet with a long handle, similar to a paella pan.  

If you don't have a brodetto pan (and very few have one) this recipe can be prepared in a large stainless steel skillet or sauté pan.

Now back at home. We cleaned and washed thoroughly all the fish and we started cooking.

Brodetto di fano (Fano's Fish Stew)
see also

About 5 lb of fish (about 2.5 kilograms):
squid (seppie), monkfish (coda di rospo or rana pescatrice), mullet (triglie), skate wings skinned (razza), shrimps (gamberi), mantis shrimp (canocchie or pannocchie), mussels (cozze), clams (vongole)
4 - 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1-1/2 cups tomato puree
1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

In a large skillet on medium heat, place the olive oil. Add the onion. Sauté until the onion is soft and translucent.

Add tomato puree and tomato concentrate. Add vinegar. Stir to combine and cook for about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper.

Add the fish at intervals, starting from those who take longer to cook. Squid first, then larger fishes ....

.....followed by small fishes, skate, mullet, shrimps and mantis shrimps.

Finally add the mussels and clams. Add a little bit of water if the sauce is too think.

The stew is ready when the fish is thoroughly cooked and the mussels and clams are open.

We served it hot accompanied by a bottle of Verdicchio wine.