If you love Italian food and love to eat local, fresh food all year, I can’t imagine a busier season than fall. All the plants produce their last burst of vegetables and fruit and you can pick them up by the bushel-full at some farmer’s markets. That’s exactly what you’ll find Italians doing at least. Once tomato passata is packed away, it’s time to see what else we can store and freeze to have for the winter. Lately, in addition to recipes, I’m trying to record our ways of preserving and uses of those preserves like green tomatoes and eggplants.
There is some preserving we don’t do anymore, like peas. I remember going to pick bushels of peas with my parents and grandparents and spending long hours on the front porch shucking them from their pods. (Though I ate more than I contributed to the bowl of peas destined for the freezer.) Now with local farms offering flash frozen bags for just a few dollars, it’s hard to justify all the work. I’d rather just spend the time eating peas fresh. But romano beans, also known as cranberry beans, aren’t so common that you would find them already done. But they are a staple of many Italian dishes, from pasta to mashes, soups and stews. I love the deep pink hues on the pods and beans when they are fresh. Cooked up, they are creamy and hearty. Here’s how to preserve a stash for the winter…
First you’ll need to pick out your romano beans. You want pods that are a vibrant pink, but not purple (those are almost ready to be used as seeds). The pods should be full – that is you can feel each bean fully – and with very few black splotches on the outside. Take your beans home and immediately spread them out for at least two days on blankets or towels , this softens the shells so they are easier to split open after they dry a bit.
If you’ve seen a few neighbours toiling away late at night over a pot of tomato sauce in their garage, you know it’s tomato season.
Every year, Italian families gather together to get the key pantry staple for their house ready for the winter. Canned, or jarred, tomatoes. If you don’t do this often, this massive undertaking seems a bit mysterious and I’ve been asked by friends and neighbours, “how” and “why??” for years. Here’s a bit of insight into how it’s done:
Italians take their food ingredients seriously: freshness and seasonality are two key tenets to this. When vegetables, or meats, are in season they need to be preserved for the winter so we always have that taste of fresh tomatoes whenever we put a pot of sauce on (or the multitude of other dishes that tomatoes can be used for).
There’s a few different ways that tomatoes can be preserved in jars. My preferred method is plum tomatoes: taking heirloom tomatoes, seeding and peeling them, jarring and boiling the jars. When used later these tomatoes need to be broken down through cooking or blending. Some people also put fresh small tomatoes in jars and bake the jars. (I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m told it works).
Below though, is the most common process, using San Marzano tomatoes. These small tomatoes are treasured for their flavour and “meatiness”, that is that they have a lot of flesh so you don’t loose a lot of vegetable when you remove the core and seeds. In this process, the base to tomato sauce (passata) is made by cooking the tomatoes, crushing them and jarring. These jars can rest in a cool place for up to 2 years and when broken open are used to make sauce for pasta, though you’ll add in meat or other vegetables and continue to slow cook until you get a thick and flavourful sauce.
While Italians do this by the bushel-ful, the same process can be used for any number of tomatoes, so even if you only want to make a few jars.
Here’s what you’ll need:
– San Marzano tomatoes
– Fresh basil leaves
– sterilized glass mason jars and lids
– a large pot (and heat source like a stove or outdoor burner)
– a few large bowls
– a tomato crushing machine
– knives, funnel, ladle, jar handler
– towels, lots of towels
Wash all of the tomatoes and lay them out on old towels or tablecloths to dry a bit. Using a paring knife, core tomatoes, remove any seeds (this can add a sour taste to your sauce) and cut the tomatoes in half or quarters. The more people you have, the faster this process is.
Cook the tomato pieces in a large pot (do not add any other ingredient or any water, they will make their own as they break down), for about 30-45 minutes.
This dish is one hot mess. But delicious! I mean, look at it. Not exactly the most appealing thing you can cook, but it’s my favourite vegetable dish. It’s super tasty with minimal seasoning, showcasing what a home garden or farmers market can grow with love. This was a specialty of my Nonno’s – his garden yielded all the vegetables needed to get this dish in motion. And it was his cornbread he made in the early mornings that he’d add in.
“Impanata” traditionally means “breaded” or “to bread” something like meat cutlets or eggplant. In that process, the meat or vegetable is coated in flour, egg, then a breadcrumb mixture that includes seasoning and cheese. Check out my “fettini”/veal cutlets recipe for an example. However, in the case of this mixed vegetable dish, “impananta” means to mix in bread, in a way to fortify the dish and make it a bit more substantial. The bread used is “frizzini”, made when fresh hearty bread rounds (like cornbread) are sliced in two and dried out slowly in the oven. This was a method of preserving bread when ingredients were scarce. The bread can then be eaten hard or reconstituted with water, oil, soup or when added to a dish like this “impanata” I’m featuring today. You can make your own frizzini or purchase them at any good Italian food store.
For the vegetables: look for the first tender garden produce, or young vegetables to get this recipe right: shiny small eggplant, young zucchini, and flat beans where the bean itself isn’t fully grown and plump yet. Add these into a pan for a little slow cooking and it’s vegetable heaven on your plate. Nothing says “summer garden fresh” more than this dish. I eat it as a main, but it works as a side dish as well, you just might have to convince your family or guests to take a bite first. Yes, it’s not pretty but it has all the things Italians love: fresh vegetables, slow cooking, using what you’ve got (the bread!) and eating as a family. This recipe makes enough for 6-8 people, but if you have leftovers just crisp them up in a frying pan the next day.
Mixed Summer Vegetables with Cornbread (Impanata di Verdure)
3-4 frizzini (dried bread)
3/4 lb Italian flat beans
1 yellow onion (or one bunch green onions)
1 19oz can plum tomatoes (or 5-6 fresh, peeled and seeded tomatoes)
2 small eggplants
1 medium zucchini
5-6 large basil leaves, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
(optional: red peppers or hot peppers, seeded and thinly sliced)
We ended June with a celebration: our baby boy was baptised! And after the formal ceremony, feasting – of course – was in order. My sister made the cake, my mom brought trays of cookies. I had the time to contribute just one cookie, but a fancy one – walnut shaped filled cookies.
These cookies are a constant reminder of fancy events from my childhood. They would appear only at weddings or showers. They are a bit labour intensive, so anytime someone saw them on a cookie table, they “ooh’ed” and “ahh’ed” and grabbed a few for themselves. In my memory, they are the epitome of the Italian cookie form and tradition, lovingly made and unique.
The trick for these cookies is you need special baking trays. The forms can be found in Italian grocery shops and also easily found online. Try to avoid the forms that are individual nut halves, these are tough to get into the oven without tipping over. The one I have that is a full tray (see the photos) is the easiest to work with. The dough isn’t hard to make, but you do need to dedicate some time to this project, unless you buy a lot – A LOT – of forms. Either way, they are well worth it! I’m getting compliments on these cookies even a few weeks later.
Walnut Shaped Filled Cookies
1 pound butter
8 tablespoons powdered sugar
4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dutch-processed cocoa
4 teaspoons cold water
4 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
Nutella for filling (as needed)
In honour of Italian Heritage Month, we welcome guest writer Marianne Iannaci, a Ryerson University journalism student who comes from an Italian background and loves everything about her heritage. Having just moved to Toronto a few months ago, she’s rediscovered where her family settled and grew up when they first arrived in Canada and shares her experience with us.
I may not be the most Italian girl out there. I wasn’t born on Sicilian ground- heck, I’m not even Sicilian. My parents didn’t come to Canada as kids and my grandfather didn’t grow up under Mussolini’s rule. I swear in Italian and I call a drying a cloth a mopine, but I couldn’t say more than buongiorno to an Italian who wants to hold a conversation. As a kid, I would sit alongside the men in my family who would discuss the premise of The Godfather or The Sopranos over Sunday dinner and was always told that “when you are old enough, you can watch them.” My Italian heritage was prominent growing up, to the point that I understood the danger of a wooden spoon, but getting older I’ve gotten to know what it really means to be an Italian- Canadian in my family.
As a kid who’s only ever lived in the suburbs, I viewed the city of Toronto as an actual “Little (version of) Italy.” My grandparents, aunts and uncles all grew up in the city within two blocks of each other. My grandmother lived on Bellwoods Ave. and my papa, her boyfriend at the time, lived around the corner on Henderson. They would tell stories of how they used to buy roasted red peppers at San Francesco Foods just down the street, and by the age of eight I experienced for myself, the best tasting pizza from Bitondo’s, right across the road. I would hear about mornings at Café Diplomatico on College St. in the 1970’s and by the time the Azzurri won the World Cup in 2006, it was a known fact that it was the only place to watch the game. My papa’s small house on Henderson lived to see me bust through those doors every Easter Sunday more than 15 years ago. It used to hold my entire family and a dining room table full of antipasto. And it wasn’t until my great grandmother passed away that I got to experience the beauty of St. Francis Church; the same church that held my grandparents wedding more than 45 years prior.
Through my journey to become “old enough” I understood why you should “leave the gun and take the cannoli.” I grew up learning how to make grandma’s cannelloni and memorized the Italian national anthem so I could shout it before the Azzurri took the field. I began to love Louis Prima every time my dad would play his CD throughout the house on a Sunday, and just like all of my aunts and cousins, I ALWAYS WORE BLACK. There was never a time when the front closet wasn’t full of black coats when the family came over.
Just eight months ago, I moved to the city of Toronto. I am now 19 years old and living blocks away from where my family first grew up. The most unforgettable memory of my own in this area, came from the first day in my new place. I went to lunch with my father and his sister at Café Diplomatico now, for me, just down the street. Halfway through our meal an older man rose from his table with his companions and came to ours. Before he could say a word, my aunt’s face brightened. The man was a neighbour of my grandmothers’ and happened to know my dad and my aunt as kids. For more than an hour we all talked about the things that happened on that street. And from then on, I knew the bond and compassion that Italian families hold is unlike any other. I left that lunch after giving the man two kisses on the cheek- and I can safely say, I’ve never felt so close to home.
It’s Italian Heritage Month! Buona Festa!
June always has a buzz about it at our house: the weather is great, the garden is beginning to grow, there’s family celebrations everywhere plus weddings and baptisms. And it’s Italian Heritage Month which means a slew of events to celebrate, remember and share being Italian.
If you’ve never been out to an Italian event, I can assure you the food is good, it’s a bit loud and there will be some Nonni dancing somewhere, which is always fun to watch (and they’ll pull you in too!). Here’s where to start and a selection of upcoming events:
- Check out the official Italian Heritage Month event calendar. Events launched on May 31 at Castello Italia (that’s Casa Loma in Toronto) and continue on everyday through out the city, province and country.
- The Italian Contemporary Film Festival is on June 11-19. Roberto Benigni & Nicoletta Braschi (Life is Beautiful and other films) are in town!
- Ready to eat? How about hitting up La Rose Italia Fest in Milton on June 7. Or the Taste of Little Italy June 19-21 in Toronto.
- Out West? Get ready for June 14: Italian Day on the Drive in Vancouver.
- If you’re an admirer of the arts: Books and Biscotti events, and Italian Family Story time, are on tap. Plus music and art shows (too many to list) all found on the events calendar listed above.
- History buffs will want to get out to the Royal Ontario Museum as well where Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano is opening.
These are just a few ideas to get you going. From home you can get in on the action too. Scroll through my tours of a few Canadian Little Italy communities in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Or a visit to Pier 21 in Halifax, where many Italians entered Canada for the first time. In 2013 I was also invited to share my thoughts on being Italian Canadian on CHIN RADIO – have a listen.
On the blog, recipes will be on hold this month while we take a look at different views of Italy and being Italian: fun and easy reads to remind you, we’re not just about food!