Thursday, January 15, 2009

Just Add Water

I have the privilege of indulging in customary, simple yet flavorful dishes prepared by the chef and sommelier of the agriturismo Castello Di Fulignano, Francesco Materozzi, because his daughter is my roommate.

At times our refrigerator becomes unexpectedly stocked with containers holding his edible creations. I never complain, only happily eat. I admit I do not always know the formal name of the concoctions, although I can pick out the ingredients. I do know that everything I have eaten that has been made by him is delicious.

After we picked olives together in November, he made steak that was grilled over a little fireplace inside his cozy home. Just that image, of him placing steaks on top of a real flame, not one sparked by the clicking of a stove, makes me want to return to his table.

Today I interviewed him for a newspaper that I am currently creating. Although I have not yet written the article for the paper, I wanted to share one of the two recipes he made me, both of which he cooked not in olive oil, not in butter nor animal fat, but water.

Sporting a merlot-colored apron, he laid out all the ingredients on the counter, and the historical background on the dish. I sat eagerly watching him cook and listening to his culinary advice.

Acqua Cotta is an antique dish that originated in southern Tuscany. Dating back to medieval times, it takes advantage of the optimum vegetables found in the orto, garden, or those that are in season.

He started with an abundant amount cavolo nero (this literally translates to black cabbage, it is a type of collard green) stripping out with his hands the hardest part, the stem. After cutting into large pieces, he placed it into a flat pan with more than enough cold water to sufficiently cover the bottom and then some. That was placed over medium heat.

Next he added about three chopped celery stalks stripping of the harder strings with a peeler.

“It does not matter how thick each vegetable is cut, it is important that one tastes il profumo (flavor) of each ingredient,” he said.

The vegetables need to keep their form and should not be mushy when eaten. “I like my vegetables crunchy,” he said when described the texture that should be sought for this recipe.

Each ingredient mentioned here was chopped right before going into the pan. Making the dish unique is essential, so the more vegetables one would like to add the better, and there is no rule on how thick each should be cut, but avoid slicing too thin.

To achieve the desired firmness the dish calls for, each ingredient should be added to the pan following the order as seen here or if using other vegetables those, which take longer to cook, are placed in the pan first.

Next he added two carrots, followed by parsley and then red onion. He prefers red onion and also it was used at the time this dish was first created since white onion did not exist in the area.

Basil went in next, but it is possible that the initial recipe may have only called for parsley only; however Materozzi stresses that others adjust the dish to their preferred taste, making it original as he did.

“There are many different versions of this dish, but mine is original, I have personalized it. If you taste one like mine than that person copied me,” he said with pride.

Chosen because they do not bloat the stomach, he added green beans; about eight or nine piccadilly tomatoes or those sold on the vine followed. Although tomatoes are not in season, the farmers that prepared this dish usually conserved tomatoes by hanging them on the wall.

As he cut the tomatoes directly into the pan, periodically checking to ensure there is enough water to cook all the newly added ingredients, he reminded me that the dish was originally made during a time when knives did not exist.

He then added four peeled, small potatoes, two pieces of garlic, and then about two sliced zucchini (after removing the soft middle part). Just before he added the salt, he had a taste test.

Tasting it before adding salt, one can recognize if the flavors are distinct and harmonizing into one. He added an amount of salt that is dependent on the taste test.

He then added two homemade spices, peperoncino sotto olio (hot peppers conserved in olive oil) and whole dried oregano.

“There are two more ingredients to be added, but they are a surprise,” he teased me.

He stirred all the ingredients, checked the water and let the dish cook covered for about another 15 to twenty minutes, and eyed the firmness of the vegetables every so often.

He told me that the dishes he was preparing for me are piatti poveri, dishes that were cooked and eaten by the poor, probably farmers. They cooked with what vegetables they had on hand at the time.

One thing I learned during this conversation, was that cooking was about having fun and making a dish your own while staying true to the base of the recipe: Cooking in water, using quality ingredients, keeping the vegetables crunchy and or firm, while maintaining their inherent flavor.

Without me noticing, he shut off the gas and let the mixture cool just a bit. He then added the two ingredients, which added to the heartiness of the plate, golden brown bread cubes and tiny pieces of aged pecorino cheese.

The bread cubes were made from bread that was sitting for about two days, he then toasted them with olive oil and rosemary. The pecorino cheese can be substituted, but this was the cheese that was available when the recipe was born.

Finally dinner was served. He dribbled olive oil, which was made from olives that I picked, over the melody of colors that steamed in my bowl.

A light sweet spumante brute bubbled in my glass while he excitedly waited for my reaction. It was tasty with a bite of hotness or sharpness at unexpected moments that accentuated the pureness of each vegetable.

A balance of diverse flavors that combined to defy sogginess, and exemplify nourishment. Satisfying and simple, it could be a companion to il primo piatto or serve as hearty meal on any winter day.

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