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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Tagliolini al Prosciutto (Tagliolini Pasta with Prosciutto), in honor of Aria di Festa, the prosciutto festival that takes place in San Daniele every June. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

On the day of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca, I made my way to the train station in Trieste with some degree of trepidation. The last time I had visited Venzone, I had been stranded during a transportation strike. At the end of an interminable afternoon of waiting at the station for trains that never showed up, I had managed to catch the last bus of the day back to Udine. Fortunately, on this particular day when thousands of people would be heading to Venzone, I learned that extra trains would be added to the schedule.

I changed trains in Udine and arrived in Venzone around 1:00pm. The streets within the medieval-walled village were packed beyond capacity. Townspeople dressed in medieval costumes roamed the streets. Walls of visitors blocked the narrow alleys, watching groups of jugglers and other performers. In addition to the usual vendors selling local craft items, a display of medieval weaponry attracted the attention of passersby. I was too short to see much over the crowds, so I wove my way to the piazza where many varieties of squash were on display. Prizes would be given out later in the day for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual.

I was especially drawn to the works of pumpkin art, including a crocodile carved from a long squash and a mosaic of Venzone’s cathedral using bits of multi-colored rind. My favorites were the intricate floral carvings. Mesmerized, I watched a couple of chefs demonstrate their skill on a gigantic pumpkin that must have weighed hundreds of pounds.

Anticipating plenty of street food, I hadn’t eaten any lunch beforehand. I ended up ignoring all the savory food stands, making a meal of nothing but dessert samples. I wanted to include in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy some type of torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), but I had yet to settle on a recipe. I hoped to finally come to a decision today at the festival.

Most desserts were being sold in bite-size samples for €1 apiece. I tried several pumpkin cakes, all variations on the same ordinary yellow cake, some with raisins, others plain. Most were slices of what was labeled plumcake di zucca, though one was baked in cupcake form. There were more tarts than cakes on offer—tiny, round crostate as well as rectangles with a lattice crust—and even more varieties of bread and focaccia. In addition, I saw pumpkin strudel, krapfen (cream-filled doughnuts), and biscotti.

As I was filling up on these desserts, I was tempted by a sign for frico con la zucca (cheese and squash pancake), but the line wrapped all the way around the building. I just didn’t have the patience to wait. I’ve never really been one for crowds. The noise, being jostled by strangers, feeling trapped amid the chaos—it always made me long to escape.

Venzone is a remarkably tiny town, and so, despite the throngs of visitors, I was able to navigate the entire festival in an hour and a half. On my way back to the train station on the other side of the highway, I passed a couple of kids selling homemade cakes, tarts, and cookies outside their home. For €0.50 they gave me two pieces of torta di zucca.

On the train ride back to Trieste, my pumpkin dilemma suddenly became crystal clear. Instead of a recipe for pumpkin cake, I would recreate a version of pane di zucca that I had seen in abundance at the festival: braided loaves of pumpkin bread with raisins and walnuts. Here is that recipe:

1 small butternut squash (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), halved lengthwise
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons or 1/4 ounce)
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
3-3/4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
• • •
1 egg, beaten to blend

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 40–45 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Scoop out enough flesh to measure 1 cup. (Reserve any extra for another use.) Place in a small bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the remaining sugar, mashed squash, eggs, melted butter, and salt. Gradually stir in the flour until the dough forms a solid mass; stir in the raisins and walnuts. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours.

3. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into six equal sections; roll each into a 12-inch-long rope. Form three ropes into a braid, tucking under the loose ends; repeat with the remaining three ropes. Place the braided loaves on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. Brush the two loaves with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 30–35 minutes.

For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Cjalsòns di Pontebba (Pasta Filled with Dried Fruit and Ricotta), in honor of the cjalsòns festival that takes place in Pontebba at the end of May. These cjalsòns are of the sweet variety, filled with dried figs, prunes, raisins, and cinnamon. This recipe was adapted from the one given to me by cooking instructor and Pontebba native Gianna Modotti. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

My only plan for the day was to take the train to Cormòns for lunch, which left me the entire morning to spend in Trieste. The air was surprisingly thick and muggy, the dark, overcast sky threatening rain. I worked up a sweat as I took a long stroll around the city center, stopping at several food shops along the way. Most memorable was Trieste’s oldest bakery, Pasticceria Bomboniera, founded in 1836. The bakery’s elegant hardwood displays, black-and-white marble floor, and crystal chandelier offered a glimpse into the grandeur of a bygone era. I bought two pastine (bite-size pastries)—sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot glaze and chocolate ganache) and dobostorte (layer cake with chocolate buttercream and caramel glaze)—as well as a putizza, a Triestine spiral cake similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli. I wanted to compare Bomboniera’s putizza to that from Pasticceria Penso. (As I came to learn, the primary difference is that Penso adds melted chocolate to the dried fruit and nut filling, while Bomboniera uses chocolate chunks.)

After dropping off the pastries at my apartment in Residence Liberty, I suddenly realized I was running a bit late. I speed-walked all the way to the train station, making it there in 15 minutes instead of the usual 20, and caught the train to Cormòns moments before it departed.

Upon arrival in Cormòns, I set out on the 45-minute trek from the station to La Subida on the outskirts of town. The foreboding clouds had begun to pass during my train ride, and by the time I was nearing La Subida, the sun was shining brightly in the blue sky. Vineyards blanketed the rolling hills, which were beginning to show the first signs of autumn color.

I had eaten at Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida once before, and it had been my most memorable Friulian meal ever. It was a peaceful July afternoon, and I had sat outdoors, along with just one other table of diners. Owners Joško and Loredana Sirk had been free to spend a great deal of time chatting leisurely with me about Friulian cuisine and my cookbook project. This time, however, the restaurant was packed. Both owners were super busy, so their daughter Tanja was waiting tables instead. A young, petite woman, Tanja wore a beaming smile that projected the tranquil joys of life at a country inn.

As a complimentary appetizer, she brought me a taste of ricotta di malga on a bed of polenta and arugula, some crispy frico chips, and a glass of Prosecco. Instead of handing me a written menu, Tanja rattled off the choices of the day. While I was fairly proficient at reading and writing Italian, my conversational skills were far from fluent. I typically understood enough to get by while traveling and even conduct the occasional one-on-one interview, but the rapid-fire speed of normal speech often left me feeling rather stupid. So on this occasion, when I vaguely recognized an antipasto that I had not tried on my previous visit, I immediately went with that. The dish was a mound of minced venison over a bed of arugula, with potato purée and topped with three slices of meaty porcini mushrooms.

Next, I ordered the gnocchi di susine, a dish I was already quite familiar with, having eaten my share of the heavy plum-filled dumplings in other restaurants. These, in contrast, were light and not overly doughy at all. On the plate sat a pair of gnocchi, each one just slightly larger than a golf ball. Instead of being stuffed with a whole prune plum, as I had seen elsewhere, these were filled with a spoonful of juicy diced plums. When I cut into the dumplings, red juices burst forth with an audible squirt. More diced plums and a semi-circle of toasted bread crumbs garnished the plate, giving it the appearance of a smiley face. Sugar and cinnamon were served on the side to sprinkle as desired.

For dessert, I opted for something less decadent than the sweets I had been eating as of late: sorbetto al sambuco, a light and refreshing elderflower sorbet. Tanja also brought a plate with three different types of cookies and a bowl of candied pistachios. As I was enjoying my dessert, Loredana stopped by my table to say hello—she remembered me from my visit in July. Before I left, Joško spotted me and came over as well.

On my way out the door, I realized for the second time that day that I was running late. I had less than 45 minutes to catch my train back to Trieste. Once again, I speed-walked the entire way to the station, managing to get there with 5 minutes to spare. At least I could say I had burned enough calories to justify indulging in those slices of sachertorte and dobostorte later that evening!

Here is my recipe for gnocchi di susine:

For the Dough:
2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons salt
1 egg

Place the potatoes in a large pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20–25 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a large bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature. Add the flour, salt, and egg; mix thoroughly to form a soft dough.

To Prepare:
1/2 cup sugar, divided
6 medium plums (about 1 to 1-1/4 pounds), pitted and cut into 8 wedges each

Roll the dough into four dozen balls. Flatten each into a 3-inch circle; sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and top with a plum wedge. Wrap the dough around the plum and seal tightly. (At this point, the sugar will begin to draw the juice out of the plums; placing the filled gnocchi on a wooden board will help prevent them from getting soggy.)

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the gnocchi in the water, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Once the gnocchi have risen to the surface, cook until the dough is tender, about 10 minutes longer; remove them promptly with a slotted spoon.

To Serve:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
Ground cinnamon
Sugar

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs; cook and stir until golden brown, about 3–4 minutes. Add the gnocchi and toss to coat with bread crumbs. Divide the gnocchi among serving dishes. Drizzle with the excess butter and bread crumbs; sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.

For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Gubana delle Valli del Natisone (Dried Fruit and Nut Spiral Cake), a dessert from the Natisone Valley that was originally prepared for special holidays such as Easter. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

This was the day I had been looking forward to ever since my arrival in Trieste. My baker friends at Pasticceria Penso had invited me to watch them prepare one of Trieste’s specialties, putizza. Similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli, putizza is a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate.

When I arrived bright and early at the bakery, however, brothers Antonello and Lorenzo informed me that the big event had been postponed. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed. As consolation, Antonello offered me a few treats: a curabiè (half-moon shortbread cookie dusted with powdered sugar; of Greek origin), a torta granatina (triangle of chocolate mousse), and a tiny marzipan peach.

I hung around the bakery for a bit, nibbling on the cookie, regrouping and trying to formulate another plan for the day. Finally, I decided to head to Gorizia. When I last visited this city on the Slovenian border, I was discouraged to find that many restaurants were closed, though I did eventually happen upon a tiny working man’s trattoria, where I enjoyed a hearty lunch of pasticcio and goulasch. Perhaps today I would discover a new place to eat.

When I got to the train station, I found the line at the ticket counter to be exceedingly long—apparently all of the automatic ticket machines were broken. By the time I finally arrived in Gorizia, it was nearly noon. I headed straight to the restaurant Ai Tre Soldi Goriziani. To my tremendous relief, it was open.

To start, I ordered the cestino di frico, a “bowl” of crispy, fried cheese filled with polenta and porcini mushrooms. Then, for my main course, I had the goulasch alla Goriziana. There were plenty of other local dishes on the menu and I had already eaten my fair share of goulasch on this trip, but I was too intrigued by the description “alla Goriziana” to turn it down. I was curious to learn whether the goulasch in Gorizia differed from that found in Trieste and the rest of Friuli. Upon tasting it, I determined that this Hungarian-style beef stew was fairly similar to one I had recently eaten in Trieste, in that it was prepared with tomatoes, an addition that, while not entirely traditional, is common throughout Friuli. To further assert the dish’s Friulian spirit, slices of grilled polenta were served alongside the paprika-laced stew.

Although I was quite full, I couldn’t resist ordering the palacinke alla marmellata for dessert. Palacinke may enfold any number of sweet fillings, from fruit preserves to ricotta cheese to pastry cream. I was pleased to find that these crêpes were filled with apricot jam—my favorite!

Here is my recipe for frico croccante, fried Montasio cheese in the shape of a basket. You may fill them with anything you like: polenta, mushrooms, fresh herbs and greens, prosciutto…the possibilities are endless! If Montasio stagionato is not available, you may substitute any aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

4 cups grated Montasio stagionato, divided

Preheat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle 1 cup Montasio cheese into the skillet, making a 6-inch circle. Cook until the edges begin to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. (Watch carefully as the cooking time will vary depending on the precise temperature of the skillet.) Gently remove the frico from the pan and drape over an upside-down glass or bowl. (Allowing the frico to cool in the skillet for a couple seconds off the heat will help the spatula release the cheese from the pan.) The frico will harden in less than a minute, at which point it can be removed from its mold. Repeat with the remaining cheese.

Salame all'acetoFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Salame all’Aceto (Salami Cooked in Vinegar), a dish served in nearly every corner of Friuli. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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