This is Part 3 of my post on the Colle Puccioli visit (read the two previous posts if you want to know more).
It was now time to discuss dinner at the farm. We had only arrived the night before, but when people are lumped together as we were, dynamism can happen fast. And so it was with this group. Everyone was probably drawn to the place for the same reason (Tom, cool stuff & food!), so discussing dinner felt familiar.
At this point we had figured out what everyone’s forte was, and so we all decided to help each other to bring the meal together, but have different cooking stations. Shawn decided to use the open fireplace to grill all of the meat (which Ninfa and I would marinate). This was a big undertaking for a few reasons.
The open flame was certainly an ideal place to maximize the flavor of the meat, but setting it up was a little tricky. He had to get a nice steady fire going, keeping the flame relatively low, and, had to build a little platform to set the meat rack on. He did this with bricks he found lying about outside. With a bit of maneuvering (which was difficult since the fire was hot) he managed to build a decent makeshift shelf for the sandwich-like rack which would house the meat.
While this was going on Ninfa and I sorted through all of the meat that each of us had brought. I commented earlier (part 1) on how Shawn warned me not to bring too much food, and I did restrain myself somewhat. We had decided the easiest ingredients would be quick-cooking meat like chops, and chicken. Armed with that information I bought pork chops, chicken fillets, and about a dozen pork sausages.
When I told Shawn what I ended up with, he laughed and told me that Tom had called to tell him he had just purchased pork chops, chicken, and sausages for our visit! Also, Ninfa had brought chicken and some hefty pork ribs. It was going to be a gluttonous meat-fest!
We hummed and hawed over what to cook and what to put away for another day. We couldn’t make a decision, so we opted to cook it all, (I know; obscene!)
I went out to the garden and snagged big bunches of rosemary from one of Tom’s unruly plants. I love how rosemary grows into giant hedgerows in Italy. It puts the little pot of rosemary I have to nurture like a baby through the cold North American winters to pathetic shame. Cutting the thick-stalked rosemary reminded me of my mother’s beautiful rosemary plant at the back door, and, at how it’s perfume-y sweetness permeated the backyard when the days were warm.
The kitchen bustled with culinary activity, but the highlight was very much Shawn’s station. It was a fabulous process to watch the meat being placed in the big rack, which had to be done by three people; my daughter to hold the rack open, someone to put the meat on the rack, and Shawn to make sure the meat was evenly placed with one hand, while holding the rack open with the other. He then had to close the top rack over the meat (like a sandwich) and place it on his rickety brick structure.
He was brilliant. Switching out meat as it cooked, barking at whoever was close for help with holding something while he blew the embers, encouraging heat. There is no way in hell I could have manned his station. As it turned out, each batch of meat was cooked to perfection, and in a timely manner.
I tackled the pork ribs. They were way too thick to cook on the fire (and Shawn had enough to cook). I seared them, drown them in white wine, sautéed fennel and rosemary, and let a hot oven do the rest of the work.
There were still the sausages to deal with. Ninfa split them and told me to fry them on the pan just to get them cooked. I did this, but then lay them on top of a big pan of zucchini and onions I had just finished sauteing.
I also made a ragu the day before to serve as a sort of sauce to flavor some of the other dishes. When Monica and Ninfa asked to taste my ragu, I gulped. An Irish woman supposing to make a typical Italian sauce was a dangerous thing. This dish was all very well to make for people not-in-the-know, but now here were two very strong-minded Italian ladies with spoons in my sauce! Okay, so I wouldn’t be including this little anecdote if the reaction was not a positive one. They loved it, and I think were a little surprised. (Hmmm, maybe she could cook after all?). Ninfa started to list my ingredients…tomatoes (yes), onions (yes), carrots (yes), ground beef, to which I replied, “no, ground sausage”. Ah, that was it! It wasn’t that I could make a great ragu, it was that sausage makes “everything taste good” said Ninfa.
Then there was the Sicilian Orange Salad being prepared by Ninfa. She sliced the oranges like she had done this a million times before, shaved some fennel, scattering it on the plate, along with a few tomatoes and olives, finishing it all off with extra-virgin olive oil. It was one of the prettiest dishes on the table.
The kitchen hummed along like this for about 2 hours, with lots of tasting from other people’s pots, in-between sips of wine. It was the perfect day as far as I was concerned. All the answers to those “what is the meaning of life” questions lay right here in this kitchen. It was just up to us to recognize it. I tried to be aware, and to remind myself where I was, and how I came to be in this house with these people on this day, and then there was that human mixture of appreciation for the moment, but regret for its passing. We’re never happy (but hey, I recognize that fact!)
I have to talk about dessert. It was made by Monica and Ninfa, and is supposedly a common sweet Italian cake that can be whipped together quickly. They called it Salame di Cioccolato, (chocolate salami). I didn’t believe them at first, but they were quite serious, so I stifled my incredulous guffaw.
It is made with cocoa, eggs, dry cookie bits, sugar and a few other things I can’t remember off-hand. I was surprised at how good it tasted, and even asked Ninfa to recount the recipe (which I will post separately). I had mine with some orange slices, and it is definitely something I will make in the future.
Eating dinner together was such an amazing couple of hours. It was hard not to laugh at the ridiculous amounts of food prepared for nine people, but I was so happy to get a taste of so many wonderful things. The kitchen with its old world charm, full to the brim with interesting things to catch your eye at every turn, the beautiful vase of flowers Tom had so kindly picked for the table (he had to do something besides order us skivvies about!), the colorfully laden table, and the happy faces around it, will be imprinted on my memory for my lifetime.
This post is a thank you to all the people who gave me thirty-six hours of bliss. X