Tag Archives: Green leafy vegetables

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.

 

TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie)

So what else can you do with all these wonderful winter leafy greens?

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In Italian a torta is a cake, but it can also be a savoury type, for example as in this case a TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie). Verdura means vegetable and in this case green, leafy vegetables.

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There are different types of pastry that can be used, but in this case I chose one made with extra virgin olive oil. It is easy to make and I have found that it also generally keeps better than the other pastry and makes a more solid casing for the verdure. Interestingly in the rural areas around Ragusa (Sicily) sugar is often added to pastry and on this occasion I have done so.

I like to use a variety of different green leafy vegetables for the filling. Selected from any combination of the following: chicory, escarole/endive, chopped tender green leaves of celery and fennel (in small quantities) spinach, broccoli, cime di rape and cavolo nero (in the North of Italy). Kale (not Italian) is also suitable and occasionally I have also used a little cabbage.

If I am including endives or chicory, I use the outside leaves and reserve the more tender, lighter coloured leaves in the centre for green salads. Bitter tasting chicory and endive are particularly appreciated – bitter vegetables are considered particularly beneficial for the liver.

C & M's stall - winter veg 2

The TORTA DI VERDURA is best served at room temperature and usually I bake it on the same day if I am presenting the torta at home. I usually stagger the preparations by cooking the verdura the previous day – often I will have it as a contorno (a vegetable side dish) the night before and save some for the pie. I either make the pastry the night before or at least two hours before the baking (this pastry likes to rest).

Breadcrumbs are sprinkled on top of the pastry before the filling is added. This will help to absorb juices from the vegetables and will assist to prevent the pastry from becoming soggy. My breadcrumbs are made from 1-3 day old, with the crusts removed. I use bread like a sourdough or made with pasta dura flour (hard wheat) and which has had time to rise naturally.

In the north of Italy, eggs are usually included to bind the mixture rather than the breadcrumbs; I add 2 beaten eggs well as the bread expecially if I am going to leave the cooked torta for more than 2 hours before I eat it.

INGREDIENTS
Vegetables: you should have masses of raw leaves – the equivalent to 3 large bunches of green leafy vegetables (se above for variety) which should give a mixture of about 6-8 cups of cooked, well drained and chopped, mixed greens.
½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil,
onions, 2 large chopped
salt to taste
chillies 2 dried or fresh (left whole and optional)
garlic, 6 cloves, squashed,
¾ to 1 cup coarse breadcrumbs
2 eggs, lightly whipped with a fork
Variations
When you are ready to put the filling into the torta you could also add the following:
Anchovies and black olives, ½ cup of olives ¼ cup of anchovies, chopped,
Currants and toasted pine nuts (about ½ cup of each, to taste). When I use this option I do not use chillies and add a little nutmeg.
Cheese – Sharp cheese like pecorino or provolone (with chillies) or a mild cheese like ricotta or pecorino fresco (I do not add chillies).
PROCESSES
To clean the greens: remove any bruised or brown leaves and cut off the tough stem ends. Separate the bunches into leaves, wash and tear some of the bigger leaves into smaller pieces (so that they cook quicker and fit into the pan better).
Cook the leaves by either steaming them in the pan and only using a little water or by adding them to about 3 cups of salted boiling water (as is the traditional Italian method for cooking verdure.) Stir regularly and ensure that the vegetables do not stick to the bottom of the pan.
Cover and cook over medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes – they will get more cooking later. Once again, Italians would cook these for a longer period. Drain well (I leave them in a colander until ready to use).
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large saucepan, add the whole chillies and the garlic and stir till the garlic has flavoured the oil. Remove and discard the garlic and chillies.
Add the onion and stir until softened.
Squeeze any remaining moisture from the greens before adding them to the pan, then taste for salt, adjust and toss them into the pan in the flavoured oil.
Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5-10 minutes.
Let cool and set aside.

PASTRY CRUST: Pasta Frolla Fatta Con Olio (Short pastry made with oil)

I like to make my own pastry, but you may prefer to use a commercial variety. I also enjoy using my fingers, however food processors work well.

In this recipe I have used standard cup measurements and approximate weight, but let your intuition be your judgement and vary the amounts as needed. Different flours will absorb differing amounts of liquid I have estimated the approximate amount of water which could be used. Pastry making is also influenced by the weather, use cold water, and rinse your hands to cool them under the cold-water tap, keep the pastry in a cool place when you allow it to rest.

The pastry should be compact and may not need any extra liquid, but if you feel that you will not be able to roll it out, add more oil or a little water. Some recipes use a combination of whole eggs and egg yolks, others add a little white wine or lemon juice for the extra moisture.

I like to bake the bottom of the pastry blind before I put in the filling: line the pastry with foil; add pastry weights (or dried beans or chick peas) on top. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and weights. (Optional – brush pastry with egg white to provide a better seal and bake for another 10 minutes).

The torta can also be covered entirely with pastry, rather than with strips as I have done on this occasion.

INGREDIENTS
plain flour, approx 3 cups
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup water cold
2-3 egg yolks
extra virgin olive oil, to brush the top of the pastry
PROCESSES
Combine in a large bowl or on a slab with the flour, sugar and salt.
Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and lightly rub quickly with your fingers until the mixture is crumbly.
Make a well in the centre, work in some of the water, adding more water as needed, until the mixture begins to hold together and form soft dough. Knead for 2-3 minutes until the pastry feels elastic
Shape into a ball, wrap it in plastic film and let it rest in a cool place for at least 60 minutes before rolling out.
To assemble the torta:
Preheat the oven to 190.C.
Butter a deep spring- form pan (mine is 22.5 cm round and 6.0 cm deep) with extra virgin olive oil.
Divide the pasty into 2 parts; roll out one slightly larger than the other to line the bottom and the sides of the dish. Make the edge about 1cm higher than the edge of the tin. (About 07.5 cm). Do not b concerned if you find this dough to have become a little more stiff and resistant to stretching.
Fit the dough into the prepared well buttered pan, pressing it against the sides and letting the excess dough hang over the edge (about 3cm).
Prick the pastry and place it in the fridge until the filling is ready.
Roll out the remaining dough and cut the pastry into strips.– these will form the lattice.
Prepare the filling:
Drain and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Add eggs and any of the variations (optional).
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over pastry in the pan.
Cover the filling with strips of pastry: start with the longest strips and lay in a cross shape across the centre of the pie (90 degree angles). Alternate horizontal and vertical strips until you have covered the cake with a lattice (or weave them in an over-and-under pattern).
Press the ends of the strips firmly to the lip of the pie and then fold in on itself.
Bake and cook until the top is golden and the pastry has detached itself from the sides of the tin. This may take about 45- 60 minutes
Allow to rest in the tin for 8 minutes on a wire rack before releasing it (or if you are clever and have used a conventional baking tin, inverting it).

Be Italian!

As an Italian  I am able to better appreciate the different flavours of the torta  if I eat it warm rather than hot.

Can you imagine this torta made with wild greens? The photo below was taken  just outside the gates to the Valley Of The Temples in Agrigento. There he is with his plastic bag…..

Wild greens picker

 

IN PRAISE OF SEASONAL VEGETABLES

I love eating vegetables and a meal without them is unimaginable. The photos in this post are of some of the produce I bought last Saturday at my regular vendors stall in The Queen Victoria Market. I did not bother to put in potatoes, celery, carrots, herbs and the other fruit that I bought – I wanted to show in the photos the seasonal produce I am buying now and very much enjoying.

Vegetables have always been an important part of the Italian diet. There may be several reasons for this and without going into too much detail, Here are a few of them.

Culturally Italians have cooked vegetables in interesting ways: braise, grill, fry, boil and dress, roast, etc. whereas Anglo-Australians tended to primarily boil, steam, roast.

Historically Italians have cultivated and eaten a large variety of vegetables. The following vegetables are relatively new in Australia: fennel, chicory, broccoli, zucchini, eggplants, peppers, leafy vegetables for salads e.g. radicchio, romaine lettuce.  When I arrived in Australia the only common vegetables were cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, peas and string beans.

Italians are very health-conscious. The Romans learned a great deal from the Ancient Greeks. Illnesses and other health problems were treated with herbal remedies and there was an interest with what one ate and when, the combination of foods and its effects on the body. This interest has continued and Italians are still very particular about their health especially the digestive system.

Economically vegetables are cheaper to grow than meat, which means they are also cheaper to buy and many Italians in years gone by could not afford to eat large quantities of meat; although fish was cheaper, some could still not afford to eat fish, either. Australia is said to ‘have ridden on the sheep’s back’ by the late 1830’s there were sheep in every colony and raising and eating meat is embedded in the Australian culinary culture.

Increasingly, ethical dilemmas and health concerns have caused many people to become vegetarians and I have many friends who are. I have had many conversations with people who are making an effort to eat less and less meat and I too, seem to be cooking meat less frequently – not that we have ever eaten very much meat in my house.

For a variety of reasons and perhaps coincidence being vegetarian is also getting some attention in the media and at events. As part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, I attended an event at the Melbourne Town Hall where six speakers debated the topic Animals Should Be Off the Menu. For the proposition:  Peter Singer, Philip Wollen, Veronica Ridge. Against the proposition: Adrian Richardson, Fiona Chambers, Bruce McGregor. Those who attended were able to vote to decide the outcome of the debate and perhaps not surprisingly, the side arguing that animals should be off the menu, clearly won.

IQ2 Debate: Animals Should be Off the Menu:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCmwlQWgI8w

A few weeks after the debate Richard Cornish, a well-respected Melbourne journalist held in high esteem for his integrity, announced in The Age Epicure (Tuesday publication of The Age Melbourne newspaper) that he had given up eating flesh and had lost an incredible amount of weight. A photo of his healthy-looking face and beaming smile accompanied the article and said it all.

Grabbing the vegie might:

http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/cuisine/grabbing-the-vegie-might-20120407-1whk3.html

The Old Foodie also published a post on her blog about a picnic held by The Vegetarian Society of New York in June 1899. I do not think that the journalist who reported the event in The New York Times was in favour of vegetarians – I found this amusing and I hope that some of these views about vegetarians have changed.

http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2012/05/vegetarian-picnic-1899.html

There are many posts on this blog about vegetables, how to clean and how to cook them, but far too many to list here.

Use the search buttons to find recipes for: artichokes, broadbeans, cardoons, cavolo nero, chicory, cime di rape, celeriac, fennel, indivia (escarole, endives) kohlrabi, salad greens – frisee, romaine, radicchio, radish etc.
Let’s not forget summer vegetables: eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini….

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