Together with Collodi’s Pinocchio and Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene is one of Italy’s most read books. With over 700 printings it is one the most referenced books on the science and art of cooking and eating well. Known as the “great-grandfather of all Italian cookbooks” it has been in print continuously since 1894 and translated in hundreds of languages.
The common matter that these three books share is one of instruction and advice. As Pinocchio learns how to prove himself through the pages of Collodi’s book, Pope Francis recommends Manzoni’s book to engaged couples for guidance before marriage. Artusi, though not a trained professional cook realized a need for a book of instruction and began classifying Italy’s great culinary and cultural tradition of regional, domestic cuisine and what it takes to become a good cook. And what we learn from his writings is that cooking is both an art and a science.
Artusi believed there is a science or technique to the “art of making something as economical, savory and healthy as possible”. That technique is as important as the ingredients used in preparing a dish and affect the dish as much as the ingredients themselves. Artusi knew that to please the taste of Italians you need to combine la scienza e l’arte . Time, temperature and proper combinations are the science and the cooks’s intuition the art. He advises his readers with an air of scientific authority to make a dough more tender and digestible, add a little lard when mixing the flour with cool water and salt and “the schiacciata will puff up better if you drop it in a skillet when the fat is sizzling but which you have removed it from the fire”.
These tips on technique should not fall on the deaf ears of a cook. According to our Italian cousin Andrea who recently graduated from a culinary course of study in Milan, one should always chill your blade attachment and blender bowl in the freezer when making pesto to avoid damaging the tender basil leaves from the heat generated by the motor of the food processor. The science behind the art of making a great pesto!
Pesto. One of Italy’s most beloved and versatile ingredients. It can be used as a sauce or as a flavoring and like most Italian food there are regional variations based on local flavors that inspire and incite rivalries as deep as those of the Medici – Pazzi .
Each region of Italy favors a home-grown preparation, the most famous being the green pesto of the Ligurian Riviera. Considered to be the birthplace of pesto, the temperate Mediterranean climate along the Ligurian Sea produces a classic Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’
) prized for its fragrant aroma and spiciness. The leaves are crushed with pine nuts, mountain grown garlic and salt in a mortar with extra virgin olive oil added until you have a creamy consistency. Grated cheese (half Parmigiano and half
pecorino) is added and mixed well. In some areas pine nuts are substituted with almonds, pistachios or walnuts and parm and pecorino with ricotta or other cheeses. And here the divergence begins.
Farther south the pesto gets spicier and redder. A popular pesto in Sicily is made with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes. Sicilian pestos contain ingredients like capers, chilies, raisins, anchovies, fennel and mint creating a southern style pesto that is richer, thicker and spicier than their Ligurian counterparts.
Our Nonna was from the Northern Italy and our grandfather from the South
. When the two sides of the family got together you better believe there was some pesto envy going on. Pesto alla calabrese
looks nothing like the Northern pesto of our grandmother. Pesto alla calabrese
, often described as pesto with a passion, is made with peppers and chili for a very robust sauce .
Nonno’s Pesto alla Calabrese
2 fresh whole red peppers
1 cup of Ricotta cheese.
½ cup of Grated Pecorino
½ cup of grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano
½ tsp of crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2-3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt and pepper to taste
Outside of Italy there are pestos made with parsley, peas, spinach and arugula, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds and macadamia nuts. I’ve even seen a pesto made with beets, broccoli and kale. I guess they all qualify as “pesto” as long as the ingredients are crushed; traditionally with a mortar and pestle “alla pesto” referring to the original method of pounding (pestare) or crushing the ingredients dating to the time of the Romans. Whether or not a cardinal sin is committed in making pesto in a food processor remains in debate; some say no true Genovese would use any device other than a mortar and pestle others find it completely acceptable. What most do say is that a good pesto has a creamy consistency with defintion between the ingredients and that size does matter. Young, freshly picked small leaf Genovese basil makes the best pesto.
It’s difficult to call a plant with such a whimsical shape serious eats but fiddlehead ferns or fiddlehead greens have antioxidant properties that rival the nutritional benefits of spinach and blueberries. High in iron, fiber, potassium, phosphorous and magnesium, fiddleheads have been part of traditional diets in much of Northern France since the beginning of the middle ages, as well as among Native Americans for centuries. Locally harvested in Canada and New England in late April and early May fiddlehead ferns are a popular edible plant among foragers who look for the tightly coiled bright green unfurled frond of the Ostrich fern on the forest floor. Their plump curved top resembles a shepherds crook (crozier) or the scrolled ornamentation at the end of a violin, hence the name fiddlehead. Harvesting the fronds requires a demonstrated knowledge of wild plants as incidences of food poisoning and serious illness due to improper picking, preserving or cooking of fiddlehead ferns have been reported.
Wanting to pay homage to this rite of spring but not wanting to tamper with nature, I decided to create a reasonable facsimile of the fiddlehead using Pillsbury prepackaged breadstick dough and basil pesto. This is an easy kid-friendly kitchen activity, a lesson in botany and a perfect way to introduce young eaters to the flavor of pesto. It’s also a great way to add a touch of whimsy to your springtime menu.
Recipe for Fiddlehead Fern Bread Sticks
Open package and unroll the bread dough sticks. Spread the top third of the each stick of dough with a small amount of basil pesto. Roll top third of the dough into a fiddlehead scroll , arrange on baking sheet and bake according to package directions.