Foodbuzz 24×24: 25K Umbrian Challenge

Come over for dinner on Saturday night! And so the invite went out for a very local Umbrian feast, hosted by Foodbuzz. Corks popped, pasta was made, meat was grilled and a lot of wine was consumed. You should have been there!

“Come over for dinner on Saturday night.” It wasn’t hard to round up a bunch of food loving friends to come to dinner. It certainly isn’t hard to find food loving friends in Italy. It’s a bit of challenge, but not that hard, to source a dinner within a 25 kilometer radius from our house in the medieval village of Montone in Umbria. What turned out to be the unexpected challenge was the look on our guest’s faces when we told them we were cooking local and Umbrian. That’s all we ever eat is local and Umbrian! It’s as if we were living in the States and I called everyone over for a big dinner and served….hamburgers and hot dogs. Good stuff, but hardly worth making a big fuss over.

A bit of background: the fantastic website Foodbuzz, has a monthly 24×24 blogging event and this dinner,  sponsored by Electrolux, is part of the September 24×24 event. It’s also an event to raise ovarian cancer awareness. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by cancer. I’m a breast cancer survivor, I have family and friends who are fighting the battle right now. So, ladies, do your thing, be pro-active, and take good care of yourself.

Here’s the menu, along with the backstory on how this all came together. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as we did the foraging, the cooking and the eating.
Montone is a hilltop village, so everything is down the hill from us, to help orient you, click here.

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Il Menu`
Aperitivo sullo Tetto – Cocktails on our Rooftop Terrace
Selezione di formaggio di pecora, salumi e olive
Selection of sheep cheeses, salumi and olives
Wine: Decugnano  dei Barbi Spumante, Brut 2004

The original plan was to serve our neighbor Alberto’s home made spumante or sparkling wine, but as the guest list grew, and we only had one bottle of Alberto’s hooch, we needed to head out in search of Spumante. That meant a trip to the Blasi vineyard in nearby San Benedetto, but they didn’t have any. Emergenzia! A quick stop, in Umbertide at Enoteca di Mario Migliorati  (wine shop) and they turned us on to Decugnano’s spumante. It’s made in the classic methode champenoise way,  meaning the bottles are inverted and rotated a quarter turn every day.  This also means we went outside of the 25K range, but at least we stayed in Umbria.

Cheeses should have been easy. Our Sardinian sheep farming friends, the Monni’s, live just below Montone and they make excellent cheese.  So we went down to their house, and after much chatting and gossiping, we found out their cupboards were bare! This time of year, the sheep are pregnant so there is no fresh cheese production and Francesco was down in Umbertide at a festival, and he had all  the aged cheeses. 
So, it was off to Umbertide  where we found Francesco and we tasted and bought a soft, fresh pecorino, a sharp tangy pecorino that we would serve with honey from our neighbors and another pecorino that had been aged in walnut leaves. We also bought a super aged ricotta cheese that Francesco said was good for grating. Between us, I think this was either an experiment or he misplaced and forgot about this ricotta and then figured out he was onto something.

I already had a stash of salumi on hand, so that part was easy. Dry, cured salumi or salami is practically it’s own food group in Umbria. Maybe it’s closer to a religion, but everyone either makes their own, or knows someone who does. Recipes are closely guarded secrets, there are long discussions about the type of mold so-and-so grows, or humidity levels or whatever else could possibly affect the flavor. Salumi is such a part of life here, the Umbrian town of Norcia is literally synonymous with  salumi: a ‘norciaria’ in any part of Italy means a salumi store.

Home brined olives were the last item on the antipasto menu and I have a confession. The olives I made last season? Well, they tasted really bad…bitter, soft and mushy.  So I snuck in some home brined olives that we picked up in Puglia.

Everything was assembled, the guests were arriving and it was time for this dinner to begin.
The sun was setting as we all gathered on the roof, corks began popping and nibbles were nibbled.

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Primo – First Course
Maltagliata di basilico con pesto di basilico e noci
Basil flecked maltagliata pasta with basil and walnut pesto
Wine: Blasi, Rogaie, 2007

First a call to Bruce, “Come to dinner, but I need eggs.”  Bruce has these lovely red headed ‘ladies’ who happily produce some of the best eggs I’ve ever tasted. When the eggs showed up, it was time to make the pasta. I’m happy to report that even the flour is local. We live in a wheat growing area and the mulino or mill is outside of Umbertide, so that met the challenge.

Maltagliata means badly cut, or irregularly shaped pasta and it’s great to make when time is short. I added chopped basil to the pasta, just to give it a little color.  Just like you would with any fresh pasta, I used a 2:1 ratio. Two parts flour to one part liquid, or in this case, the liquid was eggs from Bruce’s ladies.
I make my pasta by hand, no machines involved.
Here is how I do it:
Make a well with the flour, incorporate the eggs, add a sprinkle of salt and knead until you have a smooth, elastic dough. Then tightly wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for about 20 minutes. This resting time, and the compression from the plastic wrap aids in the hydration of the flour and in developing the gluten network so you can roll out or extend the pasta.
When it came time to roll the dough, I added a small sprinkle of chopped basil to each batch of pasta. Then into the freezer. All ready for Saturday’s dinner.

Making the pesto sauce was the easy part.
Basil: Massive quantities from our garden
Walnuts: The last stash from last year’s walnut harvest
Olive Oil: Local, of course
Pecorino Cheese: from the Monni’s sheep
Garlic: from the farmer’s market. Next year we’re growing our own.
It all went into the blender and was ready to go.

Slowly people wandered down from the roof and we gathered at the kitchen table.

When we served the pasta, I topped it with a few scrapes of that super funky aged ricotta. Now, if the serving bowl is licked clean, the natural assumption is that it must have been good, but, before I get too swell headed, I have to remember who was at the table: Gianni. He can eat more pasta than any human being I’ve ever met, so a clean bowl probably just meant that Gianni was on cleanup.
We poured the Blasi Rogaie 2007 with this course and that turned out to be an excellent choice.  A chardonnay, Riesling and trebbiano blend, the minerality and acid were a good compliment to the lushness of the basil pasta.

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Secondo – Main Course
Grigliata Misto or Mixed Grill
Patate Arrosto – Roast Potatoes
Melanzanie Arrosto con Due Salse – Roast Eggplant with two sauces
Pomodrio Arrosto – Roasted Tomatoes

Mixed grill in Umbria doesn’t mean different types of meat grilled on an open fire, it just means you are grilling different cuts of pork. Pork is king!  Our favorite butcher hooked me up with capocollo (shoulder cut), costine (ribs), pancetta (belly), sausage (Hello! No grill is complete without sausage.) and I snuck in some chicken just because I was feeling rebellious.

One secret to a good grill is high heat, another is to grill over wood. It makes all the difference in the flavor, but you know I’ve been on that soapbox before.  A few hours before dinner, I gathered up a basket of herbs from the orto to prep the meat. Each cust was seasoned with a different herb: the capocollo slices were layered with rosemary, the pancetta with sage, the sausage with fennel fronds and the ribs and chicken got a bit of everything.

The vegetables were more problematic. We had an unusually cold, wet, long spring, followed by a few weeks of high heat, then back to cool weather. Our garden, or orto, has had a rough year. The yield is way off, even the prolific cherry tomatoes are sparse. The zucchini have literally stopped growing. I had my eye on one zucchini, waiting for it to grow, figuring it would be prime for dinner, but it just never grew. I picked it on Saturday, out of desperation and it was soggy and mushy and inedible. OK. Plan B: eggplant. One plant has 5 eggplants hanging from it, but they had stopped growing as well. The other eggplant plant is barren, it produced one lone fruit early in the season and that was it.  We’ve been hearing that everyone else is having a rough year in the orto, it’s not just us, which should make us feel better, but it  doesn’t.  As I harvested what I could, I had a long discussion with all the plants telling them to get it together because it’s already September and even colder weather is coming. I’m not sure it will make a difference.

Prepped and ready, the vegetables were in the oven and ready to be served just as we were pulling the last bits of meat off the grill. The roasted eggplant, was served with two sauces: parsley/mint and tomato/chili pepper. And there is no need to discuss the traitorous natural yeast mother that failed to perform up to par.

By this time, the noise level in the kitchen was high, conversations gliding from Italian to English and back to Italian. Dishes and glasses were piling up everywhere and it was a full blown festa in the kitchen!

Wine: Polidori, Rubino 2001 and Blasi, Regghia, 2008

Polidori is on the far side of Umbertide and he’s our” house wine” supplier. The affable Amerigo runs an organic vineyard and his ‘sfuso’ or bulk wine is delicious.  In Italy, or at least rural Italy, it’s common to go to the vineyard with large jugs that get filled directly from the tanks, then you go home and bottle and cork the wine. I wish this could happen in the US, it’s certainly cheaper and all the bottles are reused instead of recycled. Maybe someday.  Amerigo also has a stash of the ‘good stuff’, and that’s his Rubino. He only makes it when he has a particularly good crop of grapes and it’s primarily a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. It’s perfect with grilled meats.

The other wine we sampled was Blasi’s Regghia which is mostly Sangiovese, with some Merlot and a touch of Alicante. It’s a lighter bodied wine than the Rubino, but full enough to pair very well with the meat.

The wine was flowing, everyone was switching seats, Paul was dancing but no one was paying him any attention, the fire had died down and it was time for dolce or dessert.

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Panna Cotta di Miiele con Pesconoce Flambe – Honeyed Panna Cotta with Nectarines Flambe`
AND The First Fresh Figs of the Season!

Instead of sugar, I used honey to sweeten the panna cotta because, well because I have a ton of honey in the cupboard.  There is a lively honey industry around here and everyone brings me jars of honey. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying I have a lot of it on hand.
The nectarines? Well, they were a disappointment. We have a peach and nectarine orchard right below Montone, and everyone waits until he puts up the “Pesche” or “Peaches” sign because then we know it’s finally peach season. The farmer is old, and his dog is twice as old, but his peaches are fresh and young. His peaches are the essence of summer, the juice running down your arm kinda good. We went down, and as it’s the tail end of the season, all he had left were the pesconoce, which he assured us were divine. He lied! Rock hard and tasteless.  The only way I could serve these nectarines was to first poach them in spiced wine and then set them on fire. And they were just fine, served hot on top of the cool panna cotta.
The figs needed nothing. Just sliced open and served on a plate. I’m sooooo happy it’s fig season!

Wine:  Polidori Passito, 1998 and Blasi “Mamma Mia”
The Polidori tasted like a vintage sherry and some of us liked it, and some of us didn’t. The MammaMia is a classic, sweet dessert wine and worked really well with a mouthful of fresh fig.

By now, we were into the very wee hours of the morning and things were starting to quiet down, when Gianni brought out his guitar and sang the blues.  Now, that was a treat!  A round of coffees, a round of fair wells and there was nothing but the dishes to clean up.
Many, many thanks to Foodbuzz for their generosity and to Electrolux. We had a fine time, with good friends, good food and good wine. We are truly blessed with abundance in this little corner of the world, and eating local isn’t really a challenge, it’s a privilege.  I know I have it good, living La Vida Locale.

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