My Calabria

Well, the joke is on me. After confessing that I just couldn’t seem to let go of summer this year, the universe responded with something along the lines of “What the heck, we don’t need fall anyway!” and fast-forwarded us all straight into winter. Gone are the frosty mornings, muddy fields and last stubborn yellow leaves; in their place have appeared knee-high snowdrifts, frozen ponds and temperatures nobody expected to see until January. Apparently it was the coldest start to December in Germany for centuries. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or go back to bed until April.

Then again, escape sounds pretty good right now too. Not physical escape, although I certainly wouldn’t say no if someone handed me a plane ticket to a sunny locale, but the next best thing: armchair escape. Much quicker to plan and easier on the wallet, there’s only one thing you need (besides the armchair, of course)—a book that takes you somewhere you’d rather be. In my case that’s somewhere with plenty of sun and good food, somewhere a turquoise sea laps against fragrant orchard-covered hills, somewhere like Calabria, the enchanting region at the toe of the Italian boot. Feel like coming with me?

You might recall that a couple of years ago I visited Calabria for work and came back totally enchanted with the landscape, people and food of this little-known and even less-visited region. Shortly after writing about it here I received an email from a woman named Rosetta Costantino, herself a Calabrian immigrant and cooking teacher in Oakland, California. She thanked me for saying such nice things about the region* and informed me she was currently neck-deep in research on a Calabrian cookbook to be published in late 2010. I couldn’t wait! But of course I had to. Drawing upon my deepest reserves of patience, I set my mental timer and started counting down the months.

Two and a half long years later, I finally have a copy of My Calabria in my hands, and I must say it surpasses even my high expectations. This book is, first of all, beautiful; full of gorgeous food and location photography by Sara Remington, the latter featuring Calabria as well as Oakland where Rosetta and her parents cultivate a garden of biblical proportions. The stories she tells are evocative and heart-warming, recounting the hardships faced by her family as they struggled to survive in one of Italy’s poorest regions, and their bittersweet decision to immigrate to California when she was fourteen. The book has great info on Calabria as well, including a description of its provinces and products, a guide to its wines and a fantastically-detailed list of where to eat, drink and sleep in the region.

The heart of this book, though, is its recipes. It’s by no means a comprehensive work nor does it try to be; instead Rosetta has distilled the collection to reflect what makes Calabrian food different and unique, and to explain the what, why and how so that we can really understand the food. Above all her recipes introduce us to the simplicity of Calabrian food and the tremendous respect placed on both quality and thrift. Vegetables are celebrated in dozens of different forms, including fried, stuffed, marinated and folded inside pitta, the local cheeseless double-crusted pizza; animal parts you or I might throw away here feature in succulent dishes like braciole di cotenne, braised pork-skin rolls; and nothing but flour, water and a deft technique are used to make dromësat, a couscous-like specialty of the ancient Arbëresh community. The building blocks of Calabrian cuisine are well-covered too, things like the local hot fennel sausage, home-canned tomato sauce and rustic, chewy pane calabrese. The thing you won’t find—I feel duty-bound to warn you—is a recipe for ‘nduja, the insanely addictive Calabrian spicy pâté-cum-sausage that is cured, cold-smoked and aged for up to a year. Although like all salumi it’s probably better left to the professionals, that’s cold comfort to those of us who can’t come by it locally.

all above photos © Sara Remington

Since quite a few of my most vivid Calabrian food memories revolve around the region’s exquisitely sweet and silky sheep’s milk ricotta, it seemed only natural to feature one of Rosetta’s ricotta recipes here. There are quite a few to choose from, including a recipe for the ricotta itself, but so far I haven’t been able to move past this delicate, sensuously creamy fritatta. Like all her recipes, it gets its character from a few top-notch ingredients, in this case sweet ricotta, farm-fresh eggs, salty pecorino and melting strands of sauteed onion, gently cooked into a kind of omelette-cum-savory cheesecake. In Calabria it would probably be found cut into little wedges and served as part of their legendary antipasti spreads; served alone it’s a perfect meal for two or three hungry people, needing nothing more than a salad and a hunk of good bread to satisfy completely.

I’m really grateful to Rosetta for writing this book; not only was Calabria desperately in need of the kind of in-depth treatment so many other regions of Italy have been receiving for years, it just might convince a few more people (maybe you?) to include this wonderful and still largely undiscovered region on their itineraries. But take it from me: it won’t stay undiscovered much longer now that the secret of its food is out.

*Incidentally, she wasn’t the only one; imagine locals thanking you for saying nice things about Tuscany or Rome! That tells you something about Calabrians.

Frittata di Ricotta

Rosetta says that a lot of Calabrians make this more substantial by adding some crumbled Italian sausage; if you want to do this remove one or two links from their casings and brown before combining with the cooked onion. If you’re not too concerned with authenticity you could just as easily add some sauteed pancetta or even bacon, and you certainly play around with the herbs, using things like sage, rosemary and thyme in addition to or instead of the parsley. One tip: do seek out a good quality ricotta for this, something sweet and creamy enough that you’re tempted to eat it straight out of the container (or make your own!).
source: slightly adapted from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino
serves: anywhere from 2-6, depending on what else you’re serving

1 cup (8 oz/225g) whole-milk ricotta, store-bought or homemade
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (25g) freshly-grated pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste {you may find you need a little more depending on the saltiness of your ricotta and pecorino}
freshly-ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C and position a rack in the middle. If using store-bought ricotta, put it in a sieve set over a bowl for about 30 minutes to drain.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, pecorino, parsley, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and several grinds of pepper. Whisk with a fork until blended.

Heat the oil in a 9- or 10-inch (23 or 25cm) nonstick ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Spread the onion around the pan and pour on the egg mixture, distributing it evenly. Cook without stirring until the frittata begins to firm and the bottom is golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes. Lift the edges with a rubber spatula to check the bottom, and lower the heat if necessary to keep the bottom from overbrowning.

Transfer the skillet to the middle rack of the oven and bake until the top of the frittata is golden and puffy, about 10-15 minutes.

Slide the frittata onto a plate or cutting board to serve. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Note: I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Norton.