In the spring of 2005 I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. I chose a program where I could live with a host family, because I felt the experience would be more valuable than living with other students in an apartment somewhere in the city. It was with some trepidation that I began my homestay with Clementina, an adorable middle-aged widow. Trepidation because she spoke no English, and had little interest in learning English phrases. Thus, my immersion began and I became fluent in far less time than I expected. And it was more valuable than living with other students. Much, much more.
I went to Italy with a well-engrained appreciation of and interest in food, so I hoped to learn some recipes from Clementina herself. Maybe take some notes while she made dinner, maybe peek at some of her cookbooks myself. She was a fantastic cook and even her busy weekday meals, for which she continually deprecated and excused herself, were phenomenal.
To put it kindly, Clementina was reluctant at first to let me into her kitchen. I prodded and pleaded and was eventually allowed to sit motionless on the stool by the fridge and “chiacchierare” or “gossip.” I spent many evenings on that stool, practicing my Italian and making lots of mistakes. I once misused a verb and explained that I was sexually excited to try the rabbit that she was frying in cast iron skillet.
“No, no, no,” she chuckled. “You don’t say that about this rabbit. You say that for your girlfriend.”
In the end I got to learn a handful of her secrets. Because of our many hours gossiping in the kitchen, Clementina bought me the English translation of her favorite Florentine cookbook, The Complete Book of Florentine Cooking, by Paolo Petroni. It has become the best way for me to transport myself back to the flavors of that kitchen. In the back of the book, I also hand-wrote some of the recipes that I watched Clementina prepare, including peperonata (below), and a spicy bacon and sausage based pasta sauce called “Gypsy Sauce.”
The recipes I prepared for my friends this week are quintessentially Italian, but are rarely seen in restaurants in the U.S. with Italian-American fare. Braciola (pron. bra-cho-la) is a dish made with thinly sliced or pounded meat, cooked in a bit of olive oil and, often, garlic. In Italian-American restaurants and communities, braciole (pron. bra-zhul) is often a roulade or small pouch of meat filled with cheese, egg, bread crumbs, or other ingredients. In Italy, to make things more complex, these are called involtini.
The way Clementina prepared braciola most frequently was as follows:
- Ingredients: 1 large turkey breast (chicken works well too), 1/3 – 1/2 cup of olive oil, 6 – 10 cloves of garlic (sliced in half or quarters), 3 – 4 long sprigs of fresh rosemary (separated from stem).
- Pound the turkey breast with a meat mallet until it is about half an inch thick. Cut into serving-sized portions (the size of your palm)
- Heat olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium/high heat and begin frying garlic for 3 minutes. Add the rosemary for the final minute.
- Add as much meat as will fit in the pan without overlapping and maneuver the garlic between pieces of meat. Cook until golden and turn over. Rosemary will sear to the surface of the meat. This is delicious.
- By the time the meat is cooked the rosemary should be crispy and the garlic should be soft and golden. Remove the skillet from heat and bring to the table on a trivet.
- Finish with a generous grind of sea salt and serve with ciabatta or other Italian bread. This will be key for either mashing cloves of garlic onto bread, or using it to sop up herb/garlic/drippings infused olive oil from the skillet. Don’t skip this part. It will be all you ever want to eat again.
But sometimes, most times, one dish where you can sop up delicious juices with good bread just isn’t enough. When I make braciola I usually make it with peperonata, a dish of stewed sweet peppers. Yellow peppers are not cheap around here at the moment (or ever, really) so this is a special-occasion dish for us. Peperonata has maybe one of the simplest ingredients lists of any recipe I have, but it is also one of the tastiest:
- Ingredients: 8-9 yellow peppers, 5 tablespoons olive oil, 5 cloves of garlic, 1.5 teaspoons of sugar, 3 large pinches of salt, fresh parsley (chopped).
- Wash and cut peppers into bite-sized pieces. Heat oil in a deep pot and add peppers and garlic, then salt and sugar.
- On medium heat, cook, stir, and reduce until peppers are very soft, about 20-30 minutes. Covering while cooking will yield more liquid for bread-soaking, but it will also be more watery. Cooking uncovered will yield a more concentrated stew.
- Top with a small amount of parsley and serve hot. (Rebecca isn’t a fan of parsley, so I left this out)