Apr 082013
 

Last year nearly to the day, I wrote a post about A Day Cooking with the Duchess at the ancestral Lampedusa palace in Palermo, where I spent a weekend that was spectacular indeed.

Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, Palermo.  Photo courtesy of the Duchess of Palma

A sitting room in Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, Palermo, facing the sea. Photo courtesy of the Duchess of Palma

With so many photos to post there was no room for a recipe. Here, you’ll find a version of the Duchess’s pistachio pesto that I adapted for American kitchens.

Recipes for lunch at A Day Cooking with the Duchess, Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, Palermo  Photo: Julia della Croce

Recipes for lunch at A Day Cooking with the Duchess, Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, Palermo Photo: Julia della Croce

(And by the way, if you live anywhere near Westchester County, New York, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville will be showing Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of Il Gattopardo, The Leopard, in this year’s Italian Film Festival on May 19, 20, and 22. Check their website soon for ticket information—and book early—tickets go quickly at this popular independent film theater—designed, incidentally, by my husband, architect Nathan Hoyt.)

The Leopard, psoter

From the Luchino Visconti film adaptation of The Leopard, with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale

My host, the Venetian-born Duchess, Nicoletta Polo, lived in New York for awhile with her husband, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the cousin and adopted heir of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard. (To clarify, the leopard is the emblem of Lampedusa’s own ancient family, and the author drew from his great-grandfather’s life in creating the protagonist, Prince Salina, the Leopard of the title). The couple and their young son made their way back to Palermo, arguably the jewel in the crown of all Mediterranean cities. There they rebuilt the magnificent 18th century palazzo by the sea that was Lampedusa’s last home. The character of Tancredi in Lampedusa’s novel was based on his beloved cousin and adopted son, Gioacchino Lanza.

Tancredi with Angelica

The character of Tancredi, played by Alain Delon in the film, was inspired by the novelist’s affection for his adopted son, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi.

It’s hard not to imagine yourself in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s world when you’re in the grand rooms of the palace, an era which Visconti, working with the heir himself during the production of the film, carefully recreated.

The famous scene at Prince Salina's table, from the film, The Leopard.

The famous scene at Prince Salina’s table, from the film, The Leopard.

While the palazzo is filled with reminders of the book—the Prince’s telescope, paintings of ancestor popes and family saints—all the windows face the terrace garden and the open sea beyond it, a metaphor, perhaps, for this family’s outlook on a vanishing civilization, Sicilian indiscretions, and the travails of modern Italy.

A view from the Lanza Tomasi palace garden.  Photo: Julia della Croce

A view out to the sea from the Lanza Tomasi palace garden. Photo: Julia della Croce

A taxi driver who’d brought me to the palazzo had a more local outlook, gossiping that he’d heard that the Duchess made “foreign” dishes in her cooking school—from Naples, and Venice, for example—proof enough that even after Garibaldi disembarked with his Redshirts at Marsala in 1860, the battle  for a unified Italy was never fully won.

The Duchess at market with a student, explaining unfamiliar sea creatures.  Photo: Julia della Croce

The Duchess at market with a student, explaining unfamiliar sea creatures. Photo: Julia della Croce

The recipes on the Duchess’s menu, with their emphasis on pistachios, are typical of the local cooking. When we shopped for the pistachios, we sought out the D.O.P. variety from the medieval town of Bronte at the foot of Mount Etna. The particular type of pistachio tree the area is famous for, springs from the lava rock of storied Mount Etna and nowhere else. Considered to have no equal in flavor anywhere in the world, the pistachios were for sale at a shop near the palazzo.

The pistachio vendor around the corner from Palazzo Lanza Tomasi

The pistachio vendor around the corner from Palazzo Lanza Tomasi

For the pesto and the crostini toppings, the olive oil the Duchess used was, needless to say, the sun-struck local variety, fragrant and floral, seemingly concocted by the gods of Etna just for this marriage with the Bronte pistachios. Without them, I couldn’t quite reproduce Nicoletta Polo’s Sicilian pesto in my New York kitchen.

The Sicilians are masters of pesto. At the Capo market in Palermo, a rainbow of pestos.  Photo: Julia della Croce

The Sicilians are masters of pesto. At the Capo market in Palermo, a plethora of pestos. Photo: Julia della Croce

Instead, I used whole pistachios bought in my local market. I shelled, peeled, and toasted them lightly; added a few almonds like they do in Bronte, upped the amount of basil and parsley the Duchess used, and eccola! (“so here it is!”)—a very fine pistachio pesto was made.

Fusilli with Sicilian Pistachio Pesto, by Julia della Croce  Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Fusilli with Sicilian Pistachio Pesto, ©Julia della Croce Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Pistachio Pesto – Pesto di pistacchi 

Makes about 1-1/4 cups
©Julia della Croce, 2013

Use this delicate pesto with fresh ribbon-type egg pasta, home-made potato gnocchi, or with short macaroni cuts such as fusilli, as the Duchess does. The coils of the fusilli trap the pesto nicely for an excellent ratio of sauce and pasta-surface. Mind that when saucing the pasta, you must blend a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water with the pesto to loosen it up for an even coating. You can also use pistachio pesto as a condiment for grilled fish, stir a teaspoonful into a bowl of vegetable soup, or add a dollop to a batch of pureed potatoes for a big flavor boost.

Note: If the membrane of the pistachios don’t peel off easily after rubbing them with your fingers, blanch them in boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain, shock in cold water, and dry the nuts in a paper towel. Toast them lightly and when they cool, peel off any skins that haven’t come off.

1/2  cup shelled, peeled, unsalted pistachios
3 tablespoons lightly toasted, blanched almonds, or pine nuts, or  a combination
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves
1/2  cup  Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground white or black pepper
3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

In a food processor, combine the pistachios, almonds (and/or pine nuts), basil, parsley, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Process, pulsing every few seconds, to grind the ingredients to a grainy consistency. Take care not to over-grind to avoid a paste-like result. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the pesto to a small mixing bowl. Fold in the grated cheese. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pesto until you are ready to use it. For best results, use it within several hours of preparing.

Ahead-of-time note: I am not a big fan of freezing pesto of any kind, but if you need to make it in advance, leave out the grated cheese until you are ready to use the pesto. Immediately after making the pesto, keep the surface well-protected with plastic wrap, as described in the recipe. The pesto can be kept in the refrigerator  for up to two days. Freshly grate and blend in the grated cheese just before using.

Thanks to Nicoletta Polo and Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, and with gratitude to Gemmellaro Pistachio Products, the Bronte Insieme and Naturalmente Italiano websites, Pistachio between History and  Kitchen, by Irene Faro, and  “I Mille Menu” (F.lli Fabbri Editori, 1972).

Mar 312013
 
Rome, Campo dei Fiori, tables outside winebar, Piazza and Palazzo Farnese in the background, from Roma, by Julia della Croce Photo: Paolo Destefanis

Rome, Campo dei Fiori, tables outside a winebar. Piazza and Palazzo Farnese in the background, from Roma: Authentic Recipes from In and Around the Eternal City, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books) Photo: Paolo Destefanis

At long last, a streak of warm sunlight beams through my kitchen window. The day brings to mind Easters in Rome and the city’s abbacchio, butter-tender baby lamb, and the first artichokes of spring. No one, but no one, makes lamb and artichokes taste better than the Romans, though my mother would disagree. Being from Sardinia (Sardegna) where some of the best artichokes in the world grow under that island’s blazing sun, the thistles are a religion in her house.

Vendor trimming artichokes grown in Sardegna at the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome. From Roma: Authentic Recipes from n and Around the Eternal City, by Julia della Croce (chronicle Books)  Photo: Paolo Destefanis

Vendor trimming artichokes grown in Sardegna at the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome. From Roma: Authentic Recipes from in and Around the Eternal City, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books) Photo: Paolo Destefanis

In a region where there are nearly twice as many sheep as people (some 3,000,000 of them to about 1,675,000 Sards), you know that lamb cookery is a serious affair. But I’ll not attempt to quibble over where it is made best. Indeed it is a dish difficult to reproduce anywhere else. The abbacchio of Rome and Sardinia is not easy to come by, nor are the sun-drenched artichokes of those southerly fields where the choke flourishes. So instead I offer some advice on the best way to approach this authentic recipe, unchanged since its Roman author gave it to me a few years ago, and you will produce a splendid dish that celebrates Spring, symbolically and deliciously.

ewe and lamb

Ewe and lamb. Photo: Celina della Croce

Let’s begin with the artichoke, as misunderstood as it is off-putting in its prickly armor (one does wonder who the first adventurous eater was who figured out what pleasure lay beneath its hoary choke).

artichoke crate

Spring artichokes at the market. Photo: Julia della Croce

I don’t want to say how many times I’ve ordered artichokes in even the most well intentioned restaurants outside of Italy, only to find a pickled specimen on my plate, not a fresh one. A pickle is a pickle, whether cucumber or artichoke. For this recipe, or any other calling for fresh artichokes, look for them in the fresh produce section when they are in season–not put-up in a vinegar bath, pre-grilled and sott’olio (under oil), or otherwise pre-cooked or preserved. If you don’t find them fresh, simply wait until you can.

Spring artichokes,  small and tender.  Photo: Julia della Croce

Spring artichokes, small and tender. Photo: Julia della Croce

As for the lamb cut you’ll need for this dish, go to a butcher and ask for the shoulder, the most melting stew cut for lamb. It has terrific flavor and when cooked in a braise or a stew, the juicy meat will nearly burst in your mouth with succulence at the first chew.

Section one shows the top round of the lamb.

Section one shows the top round of the lamb.

This is a dish for the season, maybe my favorite of all made from lamb, adapted from a recipe given to me by my Swedish-born friend, who has lived in Italy for most of her life. She learned how to cook the lusty dishes of the Roman countryside from her mother-in-law, and passed many of them on to me. The preparation is quite simple.

Artichoke going to flower in Joan Gussow's Piermont, NY garden.  Photo: Susan Freiman

Artichoke going to flower in Joan Gussow’s Piermont, NY garden. Photo: Susan Freiman, www.NatureWaltzPhotos.com

Know your artichokes:

  • Artichokes are technically in the thistle family and native t0 the Mediterranean Basin. They thrive in dry, torrid climates, so shipping them to far-flung places so that people like me with an artichoke habit is, admittedly, not a sustainable practice (though my friend and neighbor, master gardener Joan Gussow, grows them in her riverfront garden in the Hudson Valley, NY).
  • There are many different varieties of artichokes, from walnut size to the size of a small grapefruit and ranging in color from deep purple to pale green.
  • As with most vegetables, bigger is not better. The older the artichoke, the tougher it will be.
  • The edible part, the “heart,” the fleshy base of the flower bud is tender enough to eat before the artichoke begins to flower.
  • As with many vegetables, artichokes are best eaten on the same day they are picked, though such freshness isn’t feasible for most of us.
  • Look for artichokes with leaves that cling tightly to the body of the thistle and are not slack and pointing out. The color should be clear and bright, not streaked with brown or black. Stems should be rigid and brightly colored, not flabby and black.
Roman Braised Lamb with White WIne and Artichokes, from Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce  Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Roman Braised Lamb with White WIne and Artichokes, from Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Roman Braised Lamb with White Wine and Artichokes – Abbacchio brodettato coi carciofi

Serves 4
From Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort the Soul, by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books, 2010)

The thick, aromatic gravy calls for serving the stew with plenty of sturdy bread, and alongside polenta, or potato puree. Serve a full-bodied red wine at the table.

zest one 1 lemon
juice of 2 lemons
6 fresh medium artichokes, or 10 fresh baby artichokes
2 pounds (trimmed weight) lamb top round
½ cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 carrot, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
¾ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
½ cup dry white wine
1½ cups tasty chicken broth plus more if necessary
three 6-inch sprigs fresh dill, or 3 tablespoons minced fresh fennel fronds
freshly ground black pepper

1. To trim the artichokes: Add about 6 inches of water to a large glass or ceramic bowl (do not use metal), then squeeze the juice of one of the lemons into it. Trim a thin slice from the bottom of the stem of each artichoke. Pare off all the dark green skin on the stem. (The flesh of the stem is tasty.) With one hand, pull off the tough outer leaves until you reach leaves that have tender white areas at their base. Using a serrated knife, cut off the upper dark green part of the inner leaves; leave the light greenish-yellow base. The inner rows of leaves are the tender part you want, so be careful not to cut away too much. (If you are using baby artichokes, keep in mind that they are more tender, thus there will be fewer tough outer leaves to remove.) Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise and, with a small knife, cut out the hairy choke and any other tough inner purple leaves. As each artichoke is finished, immediately put it in the lemon water to prevent it from turning brown. (Once cleaned, the artichokes can remain in the lemon water in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.) When all of the artichokes have been trimmed, drain them, cut each half in half again, and pat dry. Place each artichoke half, cut side down, on a cutting board, and cut into quarters lengthwise. Cook the sliced artichoke hearts in boiling water to cover for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

2. Trim the excess fat from the lamb. Cut the meat into approximate 1½-inch pieces. Pat thoroughly dry with clean kitchen towels.

3. Lay a piece of waxed paper on your work surface, about the size of a standard cutting board. Scatter the zest on the wax paper and roll the meat in it . Spread the meat out on your work surface in a single layer. Sprinkle it lightly with the flour; shake of any excess.

4. In a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium heat and add the lamb pieces. If your pot is not large enough to accommodate the meat with plenty of room for it to sear properly, brown it in batches or in two separate pots. Brown nicely all over, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic, carrot, and salt. Stir in the wine. Cook to evaporate it, about 2 minutes. Cover half-way with stock, reduce heat to low, partially cover and cook, adding more broth a little at a time as needed, until the lamb is tender, about 1¼ hours. Check the pot frequently to prevent the meat from drying out. When the meat is almost done, add the artichoke hearts and cover. Cook over low heat until the artichoke hearts are tender and the flavors of all the ingredients marry, about another 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the dill or fennel and the pepper after cooking.

Ahead-of-time note: You can make the stew a day or two in advance up to the point where you add the artichokes and the dill or fennel fronds. Let the meat cool, cover, and chill. When ready to finish the stew, reheat it gently and slip in the artichokes and stir in the fresh herb just before serving.

Apr 062012
 
Feasting with Leopards: An Unordinary Cooking Lesson

On a recent morning in Palermo, I found myself a guest at the historic Lanza Tomasi palazzo, where Nicoletta Polo, the Duchess of Palma, was planning a cooking lesson for American students who would arrive after breakfast. I first met Nicoletta some twenty years ago when she was living in New York City. Originally from Venice and an excellent cook, she versed me on the food of the Veneto for research on a book I was writing then, which includes some of her recipes. Today the Duchess lives in the ancestral palace that her husband, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, has restored. [...more...]

Feb 062012
 
About that Stracotto: Italian for Very, Very Slow-Cooked, Sublime Stew

And for which I promised a recipe in a recent post (December 15). Just the remedy for February’s chill.  Go to RECIPE> After I finished off producer Piero Catalano’s bottle of Suavis, the aged vinegar from Sicily’s desert island (“The Other Face of Balsamic” [December 15 post]), a small flask of Modena aged balsamic vinegar took its place in my cupboard. Unlike the Suavis, a souvenir from my September in Trapani (I drank it as a cordial, an “amen” to the day, blissful thimbleful by thimbleful and it was gone by January), aged Modena balsamico can be more easily replaced. [...more...]

Jun 102011
 
On the Road with Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Photo by Nathan Hoyt At a recent cooking class at the Silo, the cooking school on Ruth and Skitch Henderson’s old estate in New Milford, CT, I decided to demonstrate one of the quickest and easiest pasta dishes of the Italian kitchen: spaghetti alla carbonara. Call it Italy’s version of bacon and eggs if you will–with pasta added. No question that it’s sturdy fare for cool weather, but it’s also a fast summer fix for lunch or dinner–I first ate it as a young girl on a sizzling August day in a trattoria along the Amalfi coast. Outside of Italy, this [...more...]

May 102011
 
At Eataly with Julia: Stalking Italy's Winter Flower

Eataly has a gem of a little cooking school. I taught there  in April, timed for the season’s first crop of the precious winter flower of Treviso. Because Eataly carries the uncommon long-ribbed “tardivo” variety of radicchio, I showed my class how to make a stupendous and simple dish with it: Sauteed Spaghetti with Radicchio. The recipe appears in my most recent cookbook, Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort the Soul (Kyle Books, NY and London, 2010) To buy this book click here Radicchio belongs to the chicory family (cichorium intybus) and there are four different types: – elongated red Verona [...more...]