When work trips take me outside Rome, I often find myself mulling over recipes I want to make when I get home. Driving toward Viterbo recently, I got a bright idea.
Viterbo, often called the “City of Popes,” is a lovely medieval town built on volcanic rock known as “tufa,” or tuff, near the Cimini Mountains between Lake Bolsena and Lake Vico. In the 12th and 13th centuries, when Rome proved hard to control, several popes used Viterbo as their base.
The Rome-Viterbo road has clusters of intertwined trees that form a kind of natural tunnel. Parallel to the road are the lakes themselves, making the drive all the more beautiful. On this grey and rainy autumn day, the leaves dangling from the trees ranged in color from light green-yellow to deep red, lighting up the mist.
Viterbo’s open markets still sell fresh, local organic produce. Local vendors peddle wild herbs, including chicory, borage (Borago officinalis), and ramoracci (a kind of wild broccoli). Others sell homemade goat- and sheep-based milk cheeses. The market is rightly famous for its mushrooms and chestnuts.
Often I pause to have lunch in an inn known as Il Moderno, located in the town of San Martino al Cimino, about five kilometers from Viterbo (Ristorante Moderno, Piazza Buratti, 22; tel. 0761.379.952). It’s a family run place, and the owner’s son often tempts me with foodstuffs garnered from the surrounding woods. The porcini mushrooms and wild chicory drive me crazy. Whenever I know I’m headed for Viterbo, I call ahead to book a table. I know what to expect.
Sometimes I ask the owner’s son just where he finds his mushrooms and wild chicory, but I get nowhere — “I’m not telling you where to find anything,” he smiles, “even if you torture me.” Always polite, he invariably offers up an additional treat. The other day, for example, I got wild chicory, organic pumpkin, and a slice of aged goat cheese. Driving home, inspired by autumn’s colors and the chill of a gloomy day, my recipe light bulb went on.
I’ve been attending a cooking school lately as a chef-in-training. One lesson involved cooking pasta the same way you’d cook rice or risotto, which is known as pasta risottata. The method was once used to conserve water or when pasta needed to be simmered at length, in a fish sauce, say. But I got an idea for a recipe using my San Martino friend’s ingredients. Here’s what I came up with.
Spaghetti risottato with chicory and pumpkin aroma
Recipe (serves 2 people):
- 220 grams of classic Italian spaghetti (gran duro).
- 250 grams of either boiled chicory or broccoletti (rabe, a cross between broccoli and asparagus).
- 2 cloves of garlic.
- A pinch of fresh chili.
- A salted sardine or 1/2 a teaspoon anchovy paste (optional).
- Extra virgin olive oil.
- 1 sprig of fried parsley (optional).
- 100 grams of pumpkin (optional) cut into small cubes (green pea-sized)
- 40 grams of sweet seasoned cheese (Parmesan) cut into small cubes or shaved into flakes, nothing grated.
- Take the chicory and boil in salted water. Extract 250 grams of chicory from the water, squeeze well, and cut coarsely. Keep the water used to cook chicory.
- Take a frying pan (I recommend non-stick) big enough to be able to hold the spaghetti lying flat on the base the pan.
- Add 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and fry the 2 cloves of palm-crushed garlic and chili. As soon as the garlic begins giving off scent (but before it colors) add the salted sardine or the anchovy paste and let it melt. Toss the chicory in pan and turn it so it’s bathed in the sauce.
- Place the pasta in the frying pan, and using the boiled chicory water (ensure you’ve kept the chicory water on low-boil) begin pouring on the spaghetti so that the pasta is covered. While the pasta is cooking, absorbing the water, try to separate it. This is necessary to help the pasta cook more swiftly and ensure it releases its starch, which is important to tie in all the flavors and form the cream that distinguishes this kind of cooking method.
The cooking time should be a bit longer than what’s indicated on the pasta (based on Italian-made spaghetti). Keep adding water to the spaghetti to ensure it absorbs all the liquid. When ready, the sauce will be creamy but not watery. Halfway through the pasta cooking process, add the pumpkin cubes, and salt to taste. When ready, remove the garlic cloves and add the diced or grated Parmesan cheese and fried parsley, which you’ll place atop each portion of spaghetti. Serve warm with a soft red wine.
Making fried parsley: Place oil in a frying pan. When it’s hot, add the parsley. Pan-fry the parsley. When the sizzling of the frying process stops, the parsley is ready.