I have been away from home recently, and what I really enjoy is coming up with a dish using ingredients that I have…and need using up. This must be one of the reasons I enjoy camping and we always eat so well.
I had ‘nduja (a soft chilli-laden, soft salame from Calabria), a bunch of cime di rapa and some small and fabulous, pure pork sausages that I had cooked in some tomato salsa the day before. We had eaten most of these with polenta and these were left over.
What I did was simple. I braised the cime di rape in some garlic and extra virgin olive oil as I do when I cook cime di rapa with pasta. Once cooked, I added the ‘nduja….probably too much, I love chilli but do others like it as much as I do? I could have used a half of the quantity and it still would have tasted great. The ‘nduja melts with the heat and coats the vegetables.
Next, I added the sausages and only a little of the tomato salsa. I was making a pasta sauce and not a soup a , so I needed just a little liquid.
I had rigatoni on hand, and some Sicilian pecorino pepato.
You will need to accept that it tasted vey good. So much so, Squid, that I did not have time to take a photo – it was gobbled up far too quickly by my two guests.
Minesta in Italian means soup. But it does not stop there – minestrone is a thick soup and minestrina is a more delicate or thin soup. All minestre (plural) may or may not have pasta (or pastina) or rice or grains added to thicken them.
Then there is zuppa and this Italian word shares the common root with soupe (French), suppe (German) and sopa (Spanish and Portuguese). These days the differences between a minestra and a zuppa are probably interchangeable and there are always regional and cultural variations (as the Calabrese minestra below), but a zuppa relies on an accompaniment of a slice of bread; usually this is placed in the bowl and the zuppa is ladled on top. The bread soaks up the juice and therefore no pasta, or rice, or grains (barley, wheat) are needed. Traditionally, a zuppa has a broth base, whereas the liquid in a minesta is more likely to be water and relies on the vegetables, pulses, fish, meat (or smoked meat) for flavour. In modern times, recipes for minestra may include the addition of water, stock or broth as the liquid base .
So why am I taking such an interest in the specific Calabrese minestra?
I was recently in Adelaide and ate at Minestra, a small home style eatery in Prospect and ordered minestra with my pork and veal and eggplant polpette – the minestra in this case was presented less soupy and more like a side for the polpette, but it could also be ordered unaccompanied as a one course dish – with a little more liquid and more a like soup. It is not only the food that I like at this eatery where the daily menu is chalked on a black board, and when they run out of a dish, they erase it. The other exciting change to the menu is that it can feature produce the locals bring in … YES, like the sign below says: locals are invited to bring in their produce.
Minestra’s owner and head chef is Sandy Cenin (as you can see by the surname there is a bit of northern Italian in him) and his grandmother is Calabrese.
Inspired by Sandy’s minestra, once home in Melbourne, I was determined to conduct some research and to make it.
Minestra in Calabria takes on a different significance and is a traditional, peasant dish suited to the people who were used to working very hard on the land. And it does not use pasta in this dish … the Calabrese have a reputation for being different (I say this as a pun). This Calabrese minestra has a certain degree of austerity about it, it is not sophisticated or complicated and it is made from simple frugal ingredients – wild greens if possible, and if one was lucky, perhaps a little pork. It also contains beans – dried broad beans or borlotti or cannellini. Hence the description of this minestra being maritata (married in Calabrese dialect) – several green vegetables and the beans (and bits of pork) are ‘married’ or combined to produce a very thick, stew like soup. Some variations include potatoes and as for the pork, it can be fresh meat ribs or rind. I have also seen a recipe that includes the rind of grating cheese (pecorino) for flavourings.
In Calabria, as in Sicily, wild foraged greens are much appreciated and not just due to necessity (as they once were). In Australia we may not be familiar with the range of edible plants available or have access to as many, but we do have some very good, green, leafy vegetables that provide contrasting and strong flavours.
A mixture of three or four of seasonal, green, leafy vegetables, is sufficient – I am using endives (or escarole) and chicory, that are both bitter, cime di rapa (a brassica) for the mustard taste and sow thistle that was sold to me as milk thistle and tastes mild and grassy.
I bought this mixture of greens from my regular fruttivendolo at the Queen Victoria Market (see photo below). If I had foraged for dandelions (bitter taste) or wild broccoletii (wild brassica) I would have used these instead of the more conventional chicory, escarole (bitter) or cime di rapa (mustard).
There are many brassicas that could be suitable – kohlrabi (root and leaves), cabbage, kale (not Italian, but who cares!), cavolo nero, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts (not a Calabrese vegetable)and cabbage.
Wild fennel, amaranth, nettles are also wild greens that could be accessible to you or you may be growing borage in your garden (photo below).
I am going to be Italian when I write this recipe. There are no measurements for the ingredients but my photos can give you an indication and it is ‘cucina povera‘- peasant cooking – that is, use what you can get, make it to your taste, add as much liquid as you wish, but keep it thick.
Use a variety of green leafy seasonal vegetables – whatever you can get – go for combinations of taste – bitter, sweet, peppery, grassy, aniseed taste (as in fennel).
RECIPE for minestra
Soak, cook pulses (borlotti, cannellini, dried broad beans) … or buy tinned beans if that is what you do. In my photo you will see that i have used black-eyed beans – this is not an Italian bean, but it is what I had on hand at the time and I do not think that my breaking of tradition mattered. Drain the pulses you intend to use. Keep the liquid (broth) in case you want to add it as the liquid for the minestra.
Clean the greens, separate them from any tough stems but keep the softer ones.
Soften the greens – boil them in as much or as little salted water as you cook all your green leafy vegetables. Drain them but reserve some liquid for the minestra. I did not have to discard any because I did not use much water to cook my greens.
Chop garlic ( I used quite a bit), sauté the drained greens, add beans. My ratio was about 2/3 greens and 1/3 beans.
Add chopped chilli at the same time as the garlic if you wish or serve chopped chilli or chilli paste separately (Calabresi a fond of pepper paste).
Add as much liquid as you wish, dish it up, drizzle some extra virgin oil on it and eat it with some good bread.
See recipe for the Sicilian Maccu– another of those peasant soups and this one has even more traditions than the Calabrese minestra.
‘Nduja is a spicy, spreadable, pork salame originating from Calabria. ‘Nduja is appearing on many menus and recipes – it seems to be replacing chorizo as an ingredient. As tasty as chorizo is, there has been a glut of it in far too many dishes.
I have been buying ‘Nduja for a couple of years now – ask for it in places that sell Italian smallgoods. I always like friends to try new ingredients and I have mainly presented ‘Nduja at the beginning of the meal as an accompaniment to the first drink with some fresh bread (like Pâté ) or I have used ‘Nduja as an ingredient in sauces for pasta – I made an excellent ragù (a meat-based tomato sauce), I added it to sautéed cime di rape with Italian pork sausages and sautéed itwith squid (use small to medium sized squid).
I always enjoy eating squid and because squid cooks quickly I enjoy making pasta sauces with it. The photo of squid was taken in the Catania Fish Market a few years ago.
In a restaurant in London recently I ordered a plate of Spaghetti alla Chitarra – square cut spaghetti that was cooked with some very spicy pork sausage. Square cut spaghetti are popular in Abruzzo, but also in Molise, Lazio and Puglia and obviously can now be found elsewhere in the world.
I had also found them on a menu in Marin County a year before London. There I ordered Rustichella d’Abruzzo Chitarrawith Manila clams, Pacific squid and ‘Nduja with anchovy and breadcrumbs (this is how it was written on the menu).
There is a little bit of Italian regional fusion in this dish:
The pasta is from Rustichella d’Abruzzo – a pasta manufacturer in the central region of Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast, famous because it uses traditional methods for quality pasta production and quality ingredients. For example the durum wheat is from growers in Italy as well as Canada and Australia. The Italian square-cut spaghetti was originally shaped by the dough being rolled over a box strung with guitar strings (chitarra= guitar) to create the straight edges. Now of course, it is all machine made.
‘Nduja is a spicy, soft spreadable salame from Calabria.
The use of toasted breadcrumbs as a topping for pasta is both Calabrese and Sicilian.
I do not have a recipe from the restaurant for Rustichella d’Abruzzo Chitarra with Manila clams, Pacific squid, ‘Nduja and anchovy and breadcrumbs, however, I have a pretty good palate and a sharp sense of smell. This is my interpretation of this recipe.
The estimation of amounts and is based on my tastes and preferences.
Recipe for 6 people
Breadcrumbs, anchovies and garlic mixture (often called pangrattato in Italian) is used to sprinkle on top of the dish instead of cheese.
1 cup bread crumbs made from 1-2 day old good quality bread
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil, more if needed
6 anchovies, chopped finely
1 garlic clove, chopped finely
In a fry pan (I use a non stick one) heat the oil, add the anchovies and toss them around for about 30 seconds before adding the garlic. Stir over medium heat until fragrant – the anchovies will break up and ‘dissolve’ into the oil.
Add breadcrumbs and continue to stir them until the crumbs are golden and toasted. Remove from the pan when they are ready otherwise they will continue to cook; set aside until you wish to use them.
700g of squid sliced into rings (optional – add 200g of vongole or clams without their shell per person )– adjust to your tastes.
150g of’ ‘Nduja (add more if you like more spice)
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1-2 red onions, sliced thinly
2-3 tablespoons of passata
In a frypan sauté the onion in the olive oil. When it is soft and golden add the ‘Nduja and stir gently on low heat until it is dissolved. Add the squid and toss it around till it is transparent and cooked (I do not cook squid for long). Add the passata half way through cooking, stir over medium-low heat until you have the consistency of a thick tomato sauce. You may need to add a little more liquid if necessary.
400 g spaghetti. Use good quality durum wheat spaghetti. The recommended amount on packets is 100 g per person. I always think that this is far too much especially for a first course, but adapt amounts accordingly. If you increase the amount of pasta you could also increase the amount of squid.
Cook the pasta, drain it and dress it with the sauce.
Dish it out into separate plates or into a large serving plate, top with the breadcrumb mixture and serve.
I always associate Calabrese cooking with chilli and perhaps unfairly, but my impressions were probably shaped many, many years ago when I was teaching in a country town on the Murray River in South Australia.
As a teenager I had been a guest to Vincenzo’s wedding in Adelaide (an acquaintance of my father). Many years later I caught up with him, his wife and children who had moved to a farm in Pyap, a small community near Loxton, and close to where I was living and teaching at that time.
Like all Italians they were very hospitable and generous and I had many opportunities to sample their cuisine, but it seemed that everything I ate at their place seemed to contain chilli – fresh or preserved in a paste, or dried and then used as flakes or ground into a powder.
Similar to many Calabrese families (and other Italians mainly from southern Italy) they slaughtered a pig and made their smallgoods.
Chilli was part of all of the fresh sausages and the smallgoods made with the minced meat mixture (sopressata , cotechini, salame), but they also smeared a thick coating of powdered chili on the surface all of their smallgoods (those made with minced pork and the non minced ones, for example capocollo and prosciutto). I was told that food without chilli seemed flavourless, but more important was that a coating of chilli acts as a seal, a barrier, it repels lies and is therefore a powerful and natural preservative.
A few years ago I was not surprised when I first read about the amount of chilli in the Calabrian Nduja. I remember that I first encountered this spicy, spreadable sausage in the mountains in Calabria about 16 years before. I did not know then, that it was to become a taste-sensation in Australia many years later.
My brother and I had been to Sicily to visit an old aunt and then we went to Calabria to visit Vince – a worker friend of my father’s and an old soccer mate of my brother’s. Vince is short for Vincenzo and is a very common Calabrese name. Vince was the perfect host and drove us to visit many scenic beaches and mountainous areas in Calabria. We went to the Sila and drove through thickly wooded areas of oak, pine, beech, fir and chestnut trees where wild boars and porcini mushrooms thrive. In the mountains we visited monasteries and ancient chapels and ate in famous restaurants that featured the local produce (including a liqueur made by the monks from the wild mountain herbs). In these mountains we also visited a salumeria (produce store specializing in local produce and smallgoods) and that is where I first experienced ‘Nduja. I am sorry to say that I did not pay much attention to the ‘Nduja. because I was more excited by the local wild boar prosciutto and the dark and typical bread made with chestnut flour.
There is another interesting experience related to ‘Nduja. About six months ago I received an email from a person living in Malaysia who had found me through my blog. His daughter had toured through parts of Italy and loved ‘Nduja; she was getting married in Adelaide and he wanted to surprise her at her wedding by providing ‘Ndjua for the guests. He wondered if I knew where he could buy ‘Nduja in Adelaide and of course I knew – from Mercato, an Italian produce store in the suburb of Campbelltown. I hope that I made several people very happy.
Too many memories and not enough about ‘Nduja.
‘Nduja seems to be the most recent, Italian culinary discovery in Australia… and I hope that it will not be anything like the craze (in the 70’s and 80’s?) of restaurants including bocconcini or dried tomatoes in anything Italian.
‘Nduja is cured in the same way as salame, but because of the high fat content (it is made from the fatty parts of the pig), it maintains a soft texture, is like a coarsely ground pâté and it is spreadable at room temperature. The dark, red colour is due to the large quantities of chillies .
We had it spread on fresh bread; a generous smear is enough.
Having it simply spread on bread is a start and we enjoyed it immensely. As you can see we also accompanied it with a dry Martini – this is not a drink that I would imagine Calabresi would have with ‘Nduja, but now and again I enjoy breaking convention.
Next time you make sugo (pasta sauce/ ragout),add some ‘Nduja to it as the Calabresi often do.
Dressing for pasta – Sugo with ‘Nduja
INGREDIENTS AND PROCESSES
My sugo (sauce) is made with peeled tomatoes/ 1 bottle of passata, extra virgin olive oil, 1 onion, 3 pork sausages, 500g cubed pork and beef, 2 or more tablespoons of Njuda and oregano.
Sauté chopped onion in some extra virgin olive oil.
Add sausages (cut into large pieces), meat, Nduja and sauté these ingredients until light brown.
Add tomatoes and oregano, season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer the sauce until cooked.
Cook and dress a short-type pasta (for example: penne or rigatoni, shells, fusilli) with the sauce.
Serve the dressed pasta with grated pecorino cheese.
P.S. I should add that in Melbourne, I was able to buy ‘Nduja at Bill’s Farm in the Queen Victoria Market. I also tried to buy it at The Mediterranean, Italian Supermarket, but they were out of stock.
I realize that I must like chillis very much.
The photo of the plant of chillies above, is growing on my balcony.
In my fridge and pantry I found: Smoked sweet and hot paprika in tins, a jar of hot pepper paste and an empty jar of the sweet pepper paste (similar to Adjvar which I usually have in my fridge ), a jar of my homemade harissa that is a staple in my fridge , there are chilli flakes in a small yellow bowl that I place on the table (for certain dishes) together with salt and pepper grinders and a jar of Malaysian chilli jam.
I forgot to add (for the photo) the sweet and hot paprika that I use in my goulash and the whole dry chillies that I add to my jars of pickles and olives and I use for Indian cooking …and there may be even more chillies hiding in my cupboards!
I live in an apartment in Melbourne and have a balcony where I can only grow herbs. Fortunately I am very close to the Queen Victoria Market – it is my stamping ground. I am able to buy bulb fennel and bunches of leafy fennel (fronds attached) at one of my favourite stalls: B Shed, Stall 61- 63) in the Queen Victoria Market.
The stall is owned by Gus and Carmel and they grow some of their produce. Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I cook Sicilian food and I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian Pasta con le sarde that includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. It is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes.
We are not able to buy bunches of wild fennel (finucchiu sarvaggiu in Sicilian) in Australia and not everybody can go out and forage for it – you will recognise the plants by the strong aniseed smell and taste, strong green colour and fine fern like fronds. I collect the soft, young shoots of this plant, recognised by their lighter colour. This fennel is unlike the Florentine fennel and has no bulb. Because of its strong smell and taste, animals and insects tend not to eat it, so it can be prolific. I always ensure that the plant looks healthy before I collect it, after all it is a weed and it could have been sprayed. If I were to grow wild fennel in my garden I would collect the seeds (yellow flower heads) which when dry develop into seeds and plant them.
But for those of you who cannot get wild fennel there is some salvation. At the end of the fennel season the fennel plant produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
Gus has given me his recipe for one of his favourite pasta recipes. It is cooked with anchovies, fennel fronds and topped with fried breadcrumbs. He tells me it is Calabrese (from Calabria). I say that it is Sicilian and in fact in Sicilian it is called ‘Pasta cca muddica’.
But Gus forgets that he has already given me this recipe, he gives it to me every year when I buy the immature bunches of fennel from him.
What I do not tell Gus is that in some parts of Sicily they add grated lemon peel and in the Aeolian islands they add capers and in Siracusa green olives. There are also versions where it is made without the fennel. Simple, but all good.
I found this bunch of fennel at one of my favourite stalls in the Queen Victoria market this week. Apart from many other vegetables, I always buy my cime di rape, radicchio, chicory, kale, broadbeans, coloured cauli, violet eggplants – name any of the out of the norm vegetables and this is where I go: to Gus and Carmel’s. I even bought some milkweed this morning. This is where I also buy my vlita – another weed.
At the end of the fennel season (and it is well and truly this in Victoria, Australia) the fennel plant (called Florentine fennel) produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
My friend Libby who grows fennel in her wonderful garden in the Adelaide Hills first alerted me to these flat bulbs last year – at the time we thought that this would be very suitable to use with pasta con le sarde which includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. After speaking to her I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. And here they were again for sale today. I spoke to the vendor (Gus) who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he could try to sell bunches of them. This fennel may become very marketable – good on you Gus.
Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian pasta con le sarde, but he told me how he uses the fennel to make a pasta sauce and he uses anchovies.
He slices the whole plant finely (the green fronds and non-developed bulbs) and cooks it all in some boiling water with a little salt. Then he drains it well.
Anchovies are the secret ingredient.
In a large frypan dissolve a few chopped anchovies in some hot extra virgin olive oil (the anchovies are crushed using a wooden or metal spoon until they melt in the oil).
Add the garlic (chilli is optional). Add the cooked fennel and toss it in extra virgin olive oil and flavours. This is your pasta sauce.
Sicilians would select bucatini. Calabresi would like to be Sicilians so they would as well.
Present the pasta dressed with the fennel, topped with toasted breadcrumbs (the alternative to grated cheese not only in Sicily, but obviously also in Calabria).
For breadcrubs: use 1-3 day old white bread (crusty bread, sourdough or pasta dura).
Remove crust, break into pieces, place into a food processor and make into coarse crumbs. They can be crumbled with fingertips or grated. The term for breadcrumbs, in Italianispane grattugiato/ grattato – it means grated bread.
Heat about ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add 1 cup of coarse breadcrumbs (see above). Stir continuously on low temperature until an even, golden brown.
Obviously if you do not have access to someone who has fennel growing in their garden, or to wild fennel, or to Gus and Carmel’s stall you may need to use bulb fennel with as much green frond as you can get. Nearly as good, but not quite!!
I also bought this garlic at the same time- not bad.