The topic of authenticity in relation to cuisines seems to pop up frequently lately. What is truly authentic to a place and time? When are outside influences permitted within what’s thought to be authentic? It’s not always black and white. I like the approach taken in Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. I recently received a review copy of the book. The authors, both American, became acquainted in Rome as they were both documenting the city’s dishes. They “enjoyed celebrating new flavors and breaking down the stereotype that Roman food must be hypertraditional in order to be authentic.” In fact over the centuries, there have been varied influences, from spice trade to immigration, on what has become Roman cuisine. This book, with both traditional and contemporary dishes, “focuses on the foods that best communicate the spirit of the Roman flavors,” and there are new twists that even include finding those flavors in cocktails. For instance, the Carbonara Sour di Co. So. is made with guanciale-washed vodka and a pinch of black pepper. There are also true classics like Torta Rustica, which is a savory pie filled with greens, and Cacio e Pepe. I liked that the Pollo alla Romana recipe spans generations by staying true to the original concept of a braised dish with wine and peppers with a contemporary spin of using leftover deboned meat and sauce on sandwiches. There are historical facts strewn about the pages and a section devoted to Cucina Ebraica, the distinctive cuisine of Roman Jews who were once confined to a walled Ghetto in the city. There are pizzas and breads, vegetable dishes, meat dishes, poultry dishes, and fish dishes. And, there are sweets and drinks as well. I’m looking forward to using summer vegetables for the Verdure Gratinate al Forno with the seasoned breadcrumb topping. I also want to try the Concia which is fried and marinated zucchini, and this too sounds great suggested as a sandwich filling. I was quickly drawn to the bread chapter by the cute, little Pizette made from rounds of puff pastry and topped with thick tomato paste and oregano. But, my first stop in the book was at the page for Trecce con Olive or Olive Twisty Bread.
There are three variations for this bread shown in the book: olive, walnut, and zucchini. When I made this a couple of weeks ago, zucchini hadn’t quite come into season here yet, and I was so excited about the olive version I made the entire batch with an olive filling rather than making two loaves of each flavor. Making the dough begins a day in advance since it’s made with a biga. Flour, water, and yeast were combined, and the mixture spent the night in the refrigerator. The biga needs to come to room temperature before being mixed into the dough the next day. To make the bread dough, the biga was combined with water, olive oil, and malt syrup. Because the biga is a dry mixture, it takes a little work to break it up, and using your hands to mix it into the water is the best approach. Flour and yeast were added to the biga mixture and stirred with a wooden spoon. Salt was added, and the dough was kneaded until smooth but still somewhat tacky. This was a slightly wet dough but not unmanageable. While the dough was left to rise for an hour, the filling was prepared. In my case, I chopped olives and sauteed some garlic and red chile flakes in olive oil. The risen dough was divided into six pieces, and each piece was stretched to about 24 inches long. I brushed the pieces of dough with the garlic-chile oil and topped the bottom half of each piece with chopped olives. Each long piece of dough was folded over to enclose the filling leaving the sides open. Then, each piece was twisted to expose the filling in places. The tops of the loaves were brushed with more olive oil, and I sprinkled them with sea salt. They baked for about 20 minutes until golden.
As the twisted dough baked, the edges became crisp and golden while the centers remained tender and full of olive flavor. These are great with a traditional accompaniment of wine keeping in mind “the ancient city was responsible for introducing vines and viticulture to every corner of its empire.” But, I can confirm that pieces of the olive breads are also delicious with more up-to-date gin cocktails. For tastes from both the past and present, you’ll find a lot to like in Tasting Rome.
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