This is not a New Year’s Weight Loss Blog
January 2, 2016
Don’t know about you, but I do NOT want to read another invitation to join my local gym, or details about the latest fad diet. No, the New Year brings with it everything new, and I want to share with you some foods from Emilia Romagna — the “bread basket” of Italy — so you can partake in my excitement about heading to this region for the Heart of Italy tour in June 2016. Just a few months away and something to look forward to as freezing temperatures finally hit us here in Virginia!
The capital city of this region is “Bologna the Fat”, an impressive moniker. And Emilia Romagna will not let you down. Since the Romans placed it at the crossroads of their major trading cities over 2000 years ago, the influence of Emilia Romagna has been widespread. Nearly all of our favorites here at home — prosciutto, Parmesan and a wide variety of pasta — originated here. This region is filled with robust, captivating flavors, which vary widely as you travel from east to west and north to south. Let’s look at a few of those more closely.
PROSCIUTTO DI PARMA:
Considered the king of Parma specialties, prosciutto is found on nearly every menu in Italy. The name derives from the Latin ‘perexsuctum’ meaning ‘dried’. We find references to the extraordinary flavor of the air cured ham made around the town of Parma as early as 100 BC; the legs were left to dry, greased with a little oil and could age without spoiling. A tasty meat was obtained which could be eaten over a period of time while maintaining its superb flavor. The hallmark savory, nutty taste of prosciutto finds perfection here, the result of rigorously-controlled aging and curing over a period of one to three years. There are more pigs in Emilia Romagna than people, and only three breeds meet the exacting standards that merit the “Prosciutto di Parma DOC” fire branded onto the flanksof the final product.
Other wonderful cured meats to explore in this region include Coppa, Pancetta, Salame, Culatello, and Zamponi.
Popular dishes we enjoy today, such as Lasagne, Tortellini and Tortelloni, Ravioli, Cappelleti and Cannelloni were all first created in Emilia Romagna.
Tortellini and Tortelloni:
These delicious stuffed pastas have become very popular in the States and around the world. “Ini” at the end of Italian words means small, so Tortellini are small circles of dough folded around a filling. Legend has it that the first tortellino was modeled after the naval of Venus, the goddess of love, when she visited the region. After spying on her through her bedroom keyhole, the innkeeper was so inspired that he rushed to his kitchen to create the navel-shaped goodie. Whether or not that’s true, the shape is indeed accurate. Many of the stuffed pastas we see in the US are Tortelloni, the bigger version of Tortellini. Often, they are filled with different herbs, ricotta and meats (especially diced prosciutto). Locally the smaller tortellini are strictly eaten in a savory broth, while more creative versions see them tossed in the freshest butter with a smattering of minced herbs, or coated with creamy bechamel. I love to serve them with Sugo alla Bolognese, a traditional meat sauce (also called meat ragu) that originated in this region. See my favorite sugo recipe below! A close cousin to tortellini are “capelletti”, literally “little hats” in Italian- which is exactly what they resemble!
Lasagne (NOTE – “lasagna” is American; “lasagne” is Italian!):
Although we are all familiar with cheese-and-meat sauce lasagne, consider trying some of the many delicious variations: chicken mushroom; eggplant (similar to moussaka); and spinach, pesto and fontina lasagne. Typically, lasagne noodles in the US have ridges to hold sauce, but in Italy they are completely flat, which helps them hold up to lots of oven time. Here’s my favorite recipe for lasagne, with thanks to my dear friend Liz Mesick who took notes as she sat in the kitchen of Italian friends many years ago. To boot, you get a genuine Ragu recipe (note the MILK — that gives it a special richness). Set aside half a day with some nice Bocelli in the background and a glass of good red wine in hand when you make this.
Sauce: Ragu alla Bolognese
25 g/1 oz/t tbsp butter
60 ml/4 tbsp olive oil
1 med. onion, finely chopped
25 g/10 oz/2 tbsp pancetta or unsmoked bacon, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely sliced
1 stick celery, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
350 g/12 oz. lean minced beef (I use more, and I often mix in some ground pork or venison)
salt and freshly ground pepper
150 ml/1/4 pint/2/3 cup red wine
125 ml. 4 fl. oz/ 1/2 cup milk
1 x 400 g/14 oz can plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy saucepan or earthenware pot. Add the
onion, and cook over moderate heat for 3-4 minutes. Add the pancetta, and
cook until the onion is translucent. Stir in the carrot, celery and
garlic. Cook 3-4 minutes more.
2. Add the beef, and crumble it into the vegetables with a fork. Stir
until the meat loses its red color. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Pour in the wine, raise the heat slightly, and cook until the liquid
evaporates, 3-4 minutes. Add the milk, and cook until it evaporates.
4. Stir in the tomatoes with their juice, and the herbs. Bring the sauce
to the boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered for 1 1/2 – 2
hours, stirring occasionally. Correct the seasoning before serving.
1 recipe Bolognese Meat Sauce
egg pasta sheets made with 3 eggs, or 14 oz. dried lasagne
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tbsp butter
for the bechamel sauce
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf
3 blades of mace
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Prepare the meat sauce and set aside. Butter a large shallow baking
dish, preferably rectangular or square.
2. Make the bechamel sauce by gently heating the mild with the bay leaf and
mace in a small saucepan. Melt the butter in a medium heavy saucepan. Add
the flour, and mix it in well with a wire whisk. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
Strain the hot mild into the lfour and butter, and mix smoothly with the
whisk. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Strain the hot milk into the flour and butter,
and mix smoothly with the whisk. Bring the sauce to the boil, stirring
constantly, and cook for 4-5 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper, and
set aside. (I MAKE 2 PANS OF BECHAMEL)
3. Make the pasta. I USE BARILLA NO BOIL LASAGNE NOODLES.
4. To assemble the lasagne, have all the elements at hand: the baking dish,
bechamel and meat sauces, pasta strips, grated Parmesan and butter. Spread
one large spoonful of the meat sauce over the bottom of the dish. Arrange a
layer of pasta in the dish, cutting it with a sharp knife so that it fits
well inside the dish.
5. Cover with a thin layer of meat sauce, then one of bechamel. Sprinkle
with a little cheese. Repeat the layers in the same order, ending with a
layer of pasta coated with bechamel. Do not make more than about 6 layers
of pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan, and dot with butter.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until brown on top. Remove
from the oven and allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serve
directly from the baking dish, cutting out rectangular or square sections
for each helping.
Give me some feedback on this one folks! Making this lasagne is the perfect winter therapy!
Now, one more amazing food product from Emilia Romagna:
Emilia Romagna is the birthplace of the legendary cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano, known as “parmesan” in many parts of the world. This versatile cheese with its sharp, distinct flavor is extremely versatile and digestible, and is quite high in protein. It’s said that French playwright Molière decided to live on a diet consisting of 12 ounces of Parmesan and three glasses of port a day — not a bad fad diet from a nutritional standpoint!
The concept of naming foods after their place of origin dates back to the Roman Empire. Even after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., people on the Italian peninsula continued to follow that practice. It was a convenient way to describe the food, but also showed pride in its making, and we see it used extensively today. It was monks in the area around Parma who first started making a distinctive hard cheese during the Middle Ages. By the time of the Renaissance, Italian nobles were producing this fine cheese for their own tables. It was known as caseum paramensis in Latin, and locals shortened this to Pramsàn, in dialect.
By the early 14th century, Parmesan cheese had traveled over the mountains to Tuscany, where ships departing from Pisa and Livorno carried it to other Mediterranean ports. The first recorded reference to Parmesan, in 1254, documents that a noble woman from Genoa traded her house for the guarantee of an annual supply of 53 pounds of cheese produced in Parma! Given the close ties between the Italian and French nobility, the cheese’s popularity increased in France and, eventually, in many other countries.
While parmesan enhances many dishes, one of my favorite ways to eat the best quality, aged parmesan is all by itself, enhanced with a drop or two of aged balsamic vinegar (that’s a product for another blog!) and toasted walnuts or pecans. Buon appetito!. And consider coming to the Heart of Italy with us in June to try these delights at the source.