Friday, March 20, 2009

Santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie

Buona Giornata, ai miei amici!
Please see the video at the end of the post. Grazie!
It never fails. Once you pack up your scarves and hats for the season you get a blast of winter again. That's exactly what I did and what's happening today. It snowed overnight and although we can't see anything here I saw some cars coming down from the montain this morning with a fair amount of snow on them. And of course the mountains in the distance confirm this.
I've been on a popover kick since I tried a recipe I found in last week's New York Times Magazine written by Amanda Hesser. This seemed to be a cinnamon sugar popover morning with all the fierce winds and snow blowing down from the mountain. Sometimes you can't tell if it's real snow or the snow from the mountains. These popovers are great and, sorry to say, addicting. They're in the "betcha can't eat just one" category.
So if there's a little snow whooshing around down here you can be sure up at the Santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie you can leave footprints. Unfortunately, we don't have a Madonna's footprints as we did at Santa Maria del Sasso, but nevertheless the Madonna has shown up here too.
This pretty little country church sits high above the main road. You can tell just how far you've gone up by the temperature change. The road going up is unpaved and One Way so it does present some challenges coming and going. Someone is expected to be nice about it and I don't know how gli italiani interpret the protocol of who does the backing up so it's good to keep your eyes trained at a distance. But there is a rule and that is that the driver closest to the wall pulls over or backs up, in this case the latter because the road isn't much wider than a bathtub. Piero took me here on my first summer visit in 2003 and I was enchanted with the whole property. The second time P took Marybeth and I up there so she could see it. When we got there we were right in front of a funeral procession. No turning back now. When we saw that old hearse huffing and puffing up the hill and the 20 cars behind it we knew we were in for the long haul. We were parked in but good. P wasn't happy, Marybeth was along for the ride and I was in absolute, unadulterated HEAVEN. I come from four generations of undertakers, funeral directors, morticians..whatever's the most comfortable title, and I was ready for the show. And what a show it was. The banners, the procession, the country pallbearers dressed in their best camouflage,the ancient silver Mercedes chug- a- lug hearse stalling at the very top of the hill in front of the church, the mourners sniffing with tissue packets ready, the heave ho handling of the casket into the church. I flinched and winced...the poor deceased. It was great! We were there for every Pater Noster and Ave Maria and Requiem in Pace there was. Then it was over and the cars started down the hill. We were free.
Here's the story of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
In 1428 a young country girl named Giovanna took advantage of the nice spring weather and left her house to do some work in the field. There was a flash rainstorm and she couldn't get back to her house but found shelter in a cave covered in branches whose entrance was marked with a white rock. As soon as she got into the cave she started to pray. All of a sudden there was a light of exceptional splendor and there appeared before her the celestial figure of a woman of extraordinary beauty standing with her foot on the white rock. Giovanna knew in her heart that this was the Mother of God. The Lady spoke to her in a motherly way telling her that if the people wanted to be relieved of sufferings and punishments and misfortune, that a church should be built here, in this same spot. And here,the people will give homage and veneration and constant prayer. Giovanna continued to be surrounded with this splendid aura when a shepherd, Piero Campodonico, approached and witnessed the event and understood it's significance.
Giovanna told her story to the Rector Luca of Stia and he, knowing the goodness and simplicity of Giovanna, believed her without question.The local parishoners quickly made a procession to the spot and a religious reawakening spread through the whole Casentino Valley and as far as Arezzo, Florence, and Sienna.
And so the church was finished in 1432. In 1474 a sudden fire totally destroyed the building and everything inside. Reconstruction was started immediately with funds offered by the faithful and the church of Santa Maria di Nuova di Firenze.
The reconstruction was completed in 1490 and this is what we see today. A simple church of elegant Florentine architecture with a single nave. The sanctuary was called Santa Maria delle Grazie...Saint Mary of the Graces. Every May 20 the people in the nearby villages make a procession to celebrate the apparition.
There are some beautiful works from the Della Robbia school (Andrea della Robbia 1435-1528) in the church. The apparition of The Madonna to Blessed Giovanna at the Nativity, the lunette of the Annunciation, and the "tondi" of the Evangelists, the little rounds encircling the arches. Above the sacristy door there is a fresco that Bernard Berenson attributed to Ghirlandaio (1452-1525). And just to give you some historical perspective, Michelangelo was a student in Ghirlandaio's workshop.
It was a Sunday that I took these pictures in the church. There was a Mass scheduled for 4:00 and there were a few people in the church saying the Rosary before Mass.I was a little concerned about my presence with the camera but I hoped that they understood that I was a "turista". Today, I could go back there and do the whole thing over again. These small country churches are bursting with treasures. You take a seat in a pew, in the soft candlelight of the church, and just let yourself wonder.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Strozzapreti..betcha can't eat just one.

It must've been about twenty years ago when I was having dinner with my brother Bill, his wife Joanne, and the kids at an Italian-American joint in the Pocono Mountains that I first encountered what Joanne and the kids called "spinach balls". They were served on a gratin dish, bubbling with butter and cheese. Nobody could figure out how they were made or what went into them. I remember Joanne, saying years later to Cait, the middle child (all grown up now and a popular high school music teacher who plays a mean funky sax) "I've almost got it Cait. I think I've figured out the spinach balls!" That gives you an insight that we are definitely NOT Italian.
"Strozzapreti" or priest stranglers, where else but in Italy could you find such a fantastic name for a food item? Who needs opera when you can eat it? I tasted strozzapreti my first summer here in 2003. Piero told me they were called priest stranglers because when the priest was an invited dinner guest he ate so many of them he would choke. When I first started researching them the only thing I found about strozzapreti was the pasta shape which indeed looked like a rolled towel ready to do the job. I just googled today and found that strozzapreti now has a wikipedia entry and what I'm talking about is strozzapreti in the baked form and along with that a few fascinating reasons about how they got their name. I've almost forgotten that they are also called "gnudi" (that's in Tuscan dialetto) which means naked..take that a little further and it's ravioli without shirts.
So, after all this..what are they? Priest stranglers are a mix of chopped greens, ricotta, an egg, grated parmigiano, a hearty grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper and the least amount of flour possible. Too much flour will toughen them. You should need very little. Now to give you the recipe I have to get out of my gram head and into my ounce head. I could even let that go and do the "a'occhio", which means by the eye..and I'm getting pretty good at that these days.
P came home with a container of fresh ricotta the other day and a gorgeous bunch of bietole (beet greens). As everybody knows, once you cook those greens you haven't got much. You need to go out and get a few more bunches. Which is what he did.I had less than a pound of ricotta and I was looking for equal the amount of green stuff or more. P cooked the greens in salted water and then chop, chop with the mezzaluna (once again, Italian ingenuity, rocking back and forth, less effort and twice as much accomplished). I mixed about a pound of chopped greens(drain very well, squeeze out all the water) with about 320 grams of ricotta, one egg, etc. Taste it along the way. Enough salt, cheese..? Now get a big spoon and start to shape them. The mix will be damp. I like about a little smaller than a golf ball for size and I toss it back and forth in my hands and then roll in flour and toss again to get rid of any excess. That last step is important. The first time I made these with my best friend Marybeth we didn't do the flour stage and our stranglers disintegrated in the boiling water.
So I've got a few stranglers ready and my salted water is boiling. I like to do a test drive to make sure they will hold up in the water. For those of you who may not be sure you've got it right this is a good thing to do.
If everything "va bene" gently add four of five stranglers at a time. You might even turn down the temp on the burner so the boil isn't rapid. I lower them in with a flat strainer. They will sink... but if you put a lid on the top for a minute or so and say an "Ave Maria" (the great Tuscan chef Alvaro Maccioni taught me this) they will rise and bob like happy stranglers in a minute or so. Remove from the water, drain and when all of them are cooked you can move onto the next step. Piero and I like ours sauteed in butter and sage. For this you need a great dollop of butter and a few nice big sage leaves. I like to use a non stick pan to keep my stranglers from sticking. Melt and add the stranglers. I let them go long enough for the butter to give them a tiny brown bottom. Then serve and pass the cheese. They are delicious.I served my friend Susan's "Chocolate Obsession" for dessert with a big helping of vanilla gelato. Everything killer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Boar and Porcupine..but not in the same pot.

It started raining again the night before last and as P says (and he's usually right),"Once it starts it doesn't stop." So while the rest of my US Eastern seaboard friends are having fun shoveling their walks and sledding on their Fleixible Flyers, I'm looking at the fog and wondering when I can do laundry again and listening to the drop, drop, drop of the rain off the roof.
Peter, of course, has a new get that porcupine in the garden. To be honest, I don't think there's anything left for the poor animal to eat since it's eaten all of the winter vegetables. P was talking to a guy who walks up our road every day and the guy said that the people higher up the mountain are having a terrible time with the porcospini. They get into the potato field and eat everything. The Casentino potatoes are a specialty and when P plants our potatoes I'm right with him on capturing the beast. I don't want to lose our little plot of potatoes. But how many porcupines are there? P is now devising a trap along the lines of two chambers of netting. A larger chamber for the animal to enter into and a smaller chamber where there is bait. He's figuring once the animal is in the smaller chamber of netting it won't be able to back out because it's spines will get caught. This is what keeps him up at night. He actually mentioned eating it in a stew if he manages to bag it. No thanks.
Now, onto other beasts. Yesterday was an easy lunch of Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Who can ask for more? Pasta, bacon and eggs, and cheese. Today will be leftover cinghiale ragu'. I just want to eat a salad. I feel the need for green. Lunch is the centerpiece of the day but sometimes I just want to glide past that centerpiece. On Friday night P brought up two bags of wild boar (from that wonderful humming freezer in the cellar) that our neighbor Purgatorio got for us in November. I marinated two large pieces in a substantial amount or red wine (to cut down on that gamey taste), chopped onion, carrot, celery and a few bay leaves. In the morning I was all set up to cut it into small pieces but there was a pretty thick bone in the larger piece which called for bringing out the meat cleaver and P's muscle. Little shards of boar bone flew around for a few seconds and then I washed it all and selected pieces for the cinghiale in agrodolce that I was cooking that morning and the boneless pieces for the ragu the next day. Boar meat isn't pink or pretty like the antiseptic packages of beef or pork we get in the market. It's dramatically dark red and purple and to be honest, it has a bit of a strong smell It also leaves an oily residue on your fingers, even the lean pieces.
"Agrodolce" means sour and sweet. Sometimes you might see it written as dolceforte, or sweet and strong. Of course, I started wondering where this preparation came from and I did a little research. It dates back to the time of The Crusades when the knights returned from the Holy Land influenced by the aristocratic Middle Eastern traditions which included using sugar as a kind of sweet salt. The vinegar was used as a way to preserve the meat. In my preparation, after the meat cooks a good three hours in red wine, I heated some sugar, bitter cocoa powder and vinegar and added it to the pot along with pine nuts and raisins. There is just enough of the chocolate flavor to give it a mystery and just enough of the vinegar to keep you guessing. Very nice. This is a very old recipe in Tuscan cuisine and you don't see it around much any more.
Unlike the ragu' I made the next day with the remaining meat. This is something you'll see on almost every menu in every trattoria in Tuscany. Because this is a very hearty sauce it's traditionally served with a noodle that can handle all that brute strength, pappardelle. To lighten up the whole experience I made something called a lemon pudding cake for dessert. I'd found the recipe on the internet and it looked fast and easy. I'm still wondering how it was supposed to come out. What I got at the end wasn't really pudding and not really cake either. But it was lemony and that's what I was shooting for.
So, that's it for the wild boar in the freezer this year. We'll have to put our order in for more when the boar hunting season starts again on November 1. God knows there are enough of them to go around for everybody. I just hope I don't run into one in the garden. I'll take the porcospino any day.