It’s no secret that Italian cooking is one of my favorite styles, and I often mention my penchant for spicy flavors. So naturally, the food of Calabria, with abundant use of both sweet and hot peppers, is something I’d like to know better. On June first, Rosetta Costantino, author of My Calabria, taught a class at Central Market Cooking School, and I was invited to attend. She presented four dishes from the book while sharing stories about growing up in Calabria and her family’s farm. They grew everything they ate and made their own cheese and sausages. Fresh, seasonal cooking was a given. When she was fourteen years old, her family moved to California and brought their food traditions, along with vegetable seeds, to their new home. They continued to grow their own vegetables and make their own ricotta and pasta as they always had. It was a delight to hear the stories of southern Italian culture translated into Bay Area California living while observing how to make fresh pasta from only flour and water. I can’t wait to dive into the book and try several other dishes after watching a few them being prepared in the class.
First, polpette di melanzane or crispy eggplant ‘meat’balls were demonstrated. Rosetta told us that most cooking in Calabria has always been done by boiling or frying because ovens aren’t all that common. When she was growing up there, wood ovens for bread were shared but most home kitchens included only stove tops. Chunks of unpeeled eggplant were cooked in boiling water, and Rosetta said she never bothers salting and draining eggplant as some do. The cooked eggplant was drained and pressed to remove as much water as possible before being finely chopped by hand. A food processor would result in too finely chopped and mashed eggplant, so chopping by hand is important. That was then mixed with breadcrumbs, grated pecorino cheese, parsley, minced garlic, salt and pepper, and an egg. One inch sized balls were formed from the mixture and rolled in more breadcrumbs. At this point, the polpette can sit in the refrigerator for a day if you wanted to make this in advance. Just before serving, the polpette should be fried in olive oil. They make fabulous, little hors d’oeuvres but could also be served in tomato sauce with or without pasta.
Making fresh egg pasta is, for me, just about the most enjoyable thing ever to create in the kitchen. Turning the handle on my pasta machine that clamps down to the counter and holding the dough as it becomes thinner and longer with each pass through the rollers makes me happy every time I do it. So, I was very curious to learn about Calabrian pasta which is made with no eggs and is rolled and shaped by hand without being passed through rollers of any machine. Rosetta explained that it’s better to let the dough be on the dry side because you can always work in tiny amounts of additional water, but once the dough gets too wet it’s nearly impossible to correct. You just keep kneading the flour and water mixture by hand until the consistency feels right, and then you let the dough rest for twenty minutes or so. For the cavatieddi, she rolled pieces of dough into thin ropes and then cut the ropes into about two inch lengths. Then, by pushing and quick pulling with two or three fingertips, the cut rope of dough was shaped into curled tubes. Interestingly, even though this was fresh pasta, it takes about fifteen minutes to cook.
A simple but delicious sauce for the pasta was made by roasting some fresh, peeled and seeded tomatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper, breadcrumbs that had been mixed with garlic, herbs, and some grated pecorino, and ground dried hot chiles. Rosetta grows her own chiles, dries them, and grinds them. She spoke about the juicy, dark red, homegrown tomatoes she's accustomed to using. She said even with just picked tomatoes, she’ll leave them sitting for a few days to allow them to deepen in color and become extra ripe before using them for this recipe. Once roasted, stirring the tomatoes a few times causes them to break into pieces and form a chunky sauce. The cooked pasta was added directly to the roasting pan with the tomatoes and tossed to combine. The pasta had a slightly firmer bite than egg pasta does, and the thick, roasted tomato sauce coated it perfectly.
Next, a traditional Calabrian sausage was prepared from pork butt with surface fat, wild fennel seed which has a slightly different flavor than cultivated fennel seed, ground hot pepper, and Calabrian paprika. The meat was ground, and the spices were mixed in by hand. Rosetta explained that you know the mixture is well-combined when it becomes a bright red color and your hands are also red. The preferred shape for the sausage is one long, coiled piece that is tied together with kitchen twine. The big spiral is easy to grill and turn when it’s tied. The grilled sausage was served with peperonata piccante which was a slowly sauteed mixture of sweet and hot peppers, onion, garlic, tomatoes, and basil. The sweet, spicy mix of tender vegetables seemed to melt upon being tasted, and since I’d passed my piece of sausage along the person sitting next to me, I wished I had a piece of toasted, rustic bread on which to scoop the peperonata. Obviously, the sausage isn’t something I’ll be making at home, but it was a brilliant color that looked beautiful on top of the sauteed peppers.
The last dish of the evening was gelato al cioccolato con peperoncino. A rich chocolate base was made for the gelato, and once it cooled ground hot red pepper was added before it was churned in an ice cream machine. The flavor was deeply chocolaty with a slow burn that surprised you at the end of each bite.
Rosetta also leads culinary tours combined with cooking classes in Calabria, and the next one is this September. It’s a nine day tour including porcini foraging in the mountains, observing cheese making, as well as wine tastings and olive oil tastings. You can also learn more from Rosetta at her blog Calabria From Scratch.