I think the best way to discover a village, town, or country is to experience the people who live there. This culinary journey I am on with my sister and mom provided that opportunity for us. We are Italian and know what our American experience is as Italians. The food is always plentiful and good, the conversations always a decibel above what is necessary. But we have gotten lazy in some of our traditions, and it was nice to cook and break bread in Italian homes. It gave us perspective and renewed energy to cherish traditional recipes, to not waste anything, and to grow or find the freshest available ingredients.
I found a kindred spirit in Elena. Elena owns an agriturismo in the hills of Romagna. She lives among the olive trees in a 150 year old farmhouse with a very modern kitchen. She is adorable and an amazing cook. Shortly after we arrived, she had us working. While her kitchen was modern, her utensils were not. She doesn't own a whisk or a vegetable peeler. I thought third degree burns were forming on my sister's hand while trying to whisk hot bechamel over a high flame with a salad fork. She survived and so did the sauce. We used it to make quite possibly the best lasagna verde al forno I will ever eat.
Making and rolling dough by hand is not child's play.
We cooked for about 3 hours making a wonderful bolognese sauce, bechamel, pasta dough, chicken cacciatore and a tomato bruschetta appetizer.
I am a huge fan of Mario Batali and use his recipes quite often. But I will tell you...his lasagna al forno does not hold a candle, not even a birthday candle, to Elena's. She is a master. Her lasagna is a minimum of 5 layers. She likes 7, but we were a bit too heavy handed with the bolognese in the first 2 layers. We were unchapeoned and assumed the lasagna would only be 2 or 3 layers max. What a mistake. I loved this dish so much that I am almost afraid to make it again. Afraid I will taint the perfect memory.
We cooked, we laughed, and laughed a lot more. Elena is so charming. But what was enchanting about the evening was our meal.
Elena's farmhouse dining room looks like what is portrayed in old movies. A man rides his horse up to the local tavern, it's raining outside and the dark doorway opens up to a dimly-lit but inviting room with large tables topped with lanterns. Wine and bread sit on the table and all around it seem genuinely happy. Joining us for dinner was Elena's daughter. She helped her mom set the table and serve the amazing dinner we enjoyed.
After the food portion of dinner, we had dessert and digestives. Dessert was a meringue semi-freddo. My mom and sister passed on the dessert, big mistake. But I am not that rude, so I indulged freely.
Semi-freddo is a really simple dessert. Using meringue simplifies it a bit more.
Then came the digestives. Again, as in all households and restaurants we visited before it, out came the limoncello and nocino.
And, a new favorite, and something that I am definitely going to make...brandied cherries. The only sadness I have is that they take 3 years to soak. So, 3 years from now, I will be enjoying brandied cherries. Maybe I will make a vintage version and a non-vintage version. At any rate, I will have to wait until next year to obtain the fresh cherries. I will worry about the aging process then.
This lesson and meal were very meaningful to me. It showed me another way. I made new friends, and I was sad to leave. I intend on nurturing a relationship with Elena, as she is someone I want to know better.
Elena's Ragu alla Bolognese
1 celery stalk
1 medium onion
1/2 lb ground pork
1 lb ground beef
1 cup red wine
1 cup tomato sauce
1-2 cups vegetable or meat broth
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Mince onion, carrot and celery rather finely. Put them in a pot with enough olive oil to cover the base of the pot. Add a pinch of salt. Fry lightly for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You do not want the vegetables to brown. Add the minced meat and mix well until the meat browns a little. Stir occasionally. When the meat if cooked, add the red wine and let it cook into the meat and excess evaporate. Add the tomato sauce to color the sauce and then flavor with a bit of pepper. Cook the sauce very slowly for 2-3 hours, covered. Stir occasionally and add hot broth if the meat begins to look dry. Use this sauce for pasta or lasagna.