Tag Archives: Cucina povera

MINESTRA MARITATA, peasant soup from Calabria

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.

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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.

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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.

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Inspired by Sandy’s minestra, once home in Melbourne, I was determined to conduct some research and to make it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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Chop garlic ( I used quite a bit), sauté the drained greens, add  beans. My ratio was about 2/3 greens and 1/3 beans.

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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.

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See recipe for the Sicilian Maccu – another of those peasant soups and this one has even more traditions than the Calabrese minestra.

 

SFINCI and CRISPEDDI DI RISU, for the Festa of San Giuseppe (Fritters for St Joseph’s Feast Day)

Saint Joseph’s Day (Festa di San Giuseppe) is celebrated in Italy on March 19.

Italy double dips and combines this ancient and religious tradition with Father’s Day – La Festa del Papà – the feast (celebration) for father, the event imported from America in the early 20th century. In the USA it is held on the third Sunday of June.

Saints’ name days are more significant in the south of Italy. My father, who was born in Ragusa but lived in Trieste, used to receive phone calls from his family who lived in Sicily wishing him well, “auguri” on March 19.

San Giuseppe was reputed to be a humble carpenter who looked after his family (Mary and Jesus) so it is easy to see why the Catholic church has made him the patron saint of carpenters, workers, protector of the church and of fathers, but he is also patron saint of the poor and, more mysteriously, of pastry cooks.

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I have partly explained (to myself) how pastry cooks fits under Saint Joseph’s umbrella by thinking about what happens in Sicily. The feast of Saint Joseph although in Lent (a time of fasting in the Catholic liturgy) also marks the end of the long unproductive season of winter. His feast day is close to the equinox and since pagan times spring has been celebrated big time in various ways.

Wheat (grains, seeds and legumes) were unequivocally the metaphorical seeds of life and through germination and regeneration they invoke the powers of fertility. In many parts of Sicily there are banquets to celebrate the bounty of the harvest (known as La Tavola di San Giuseppe – Saint Joseph’s Table). The main food is a collection of breads of odd shapes and sizes, many sprinkled with seeds. The food and breads on display were once shared and offered to the poor, now they are shared within the community.

Fried sweets are traditionally made in Sicily on Saint Joseph’s day. Sfinci (made with flour) and Crispeddi di Risu (made with rice) seem to be the most common and as in all Sicilian recipes there are many local variations. Sfinci are the most common and are found in the north, south and west of Sicily; some are filled with custard cream or ricotta.

In my copy of Maria Consoli Sardo’s book Cucina Nostra (1978) there is a recipe for sfinci made with semolina. She also provides a recipe for sfinci made with rice without yeast. I like her recipes because they seem genuinely authentic – uncomplicated and, as I imagine, an example of cucina povera (poor kitchen) as cooked by many Sicilians especially those living away from the larger cities on the land (see her recipe below).

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Crispeddi di risu are more common in the east of Sicily, from Messina in the north; Catania on the central coast and Syracuse in the south east. I have found many recipes for crispeddi and all involve cooking rice in milk or milk and water and adding eggs or flour. Some contain yeast and others are very complicated and involve forming balls of the cooked rice and dipping them into batter before deep-frying them.

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Maria Consoli Sardo calls her recipe Sfinci Di Risu (Fritelle Di Riso, in Italian).

I have used Arborio rice.

200g rice, ½ litre of milk, 200g of flour, lard for frying (how else can you make them crisp?), sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling.
Boil rice in water (does not say how much water, I used 500 ml= ½ litre. There is no mention of salt but this is common sense, as a Sicilian you would know to add a pinch.)
Halfway through cooking, add milk and finish cooking (it will have the consistency of risotto…having said this, my risotto is all’onda, ie, in waves … it should have some moisture).
Place the cooked rice in a bowl and leave it for 24 hours, add flour, mix well and let it rest. Spread the mixture out (such as on a marble slab) and after 2 hours cut it into batons and fry them in plenty of lard. After they have been fried, sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon.
My variation to the above: I used extra virgin olive oil to fry them and dressed them with Chestnut Honey and cinnamon. (I usually have Orange Flower Honey (Sicilian) in my pantry but I have run out! The Chestnut Honey however was great!)
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This second recipe for crispeddi di risu  is adapted from Giuseppe Coria’s Profumi di Sicilia, Il libro della cucina Siciliana. It is also a simple recipe and this one has yeast. Judging from his quantities Signor Coria must have always cooked for large numbers!

Adjust accordingly.

1 kg of rice
1 litre of milk
1 litre of boiling water
½ tsp of salt
2 tbs of sugar
500 g of plain flour
150 g of fresh yeast (or equivalent) dissolved in ½ cup warm water
grated zest of 2 oranges and 2 lemons,
honey, cinnamon powder to coat.
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Mix the milk with water, add salt and sugar and add the rice. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer on low heat stirring occasionally until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and looks like a risotto.
Cool, mix in the flour and yeast. Add the grated peel. Mix it well, cover, and let rise for 2-4 hours.
Shape the rice with a spoon and slide them into the hot oil.
When golden, place them on paper to drain for about 30 seconds and then dress them with honey and cinnamon powder.

Recipe for Sfinci, see in an earlier post: FEAST OF SAN GIUSEPPE (SAINT JOSEPH) and Sfinci di San Giuseppe