I am traditional.
A few days ago I found myself kneading, as if I had received an order from another time. An internal clock, tuned in to the coming and going of seasons, reminded me that the day of the pan co’ santi had come. It is a dense bread, thick with raisins and walnuts, which appears on Tuscan kitchen tables and in local bakeries at the beginning of November.
I had not thought about it for a year, then on the last day of October, while the rest of the world was busy carving pumpkins and celebrating Halloween, I blew the dust off the recipe for pan co ‘santi. Walnuts, raisins, extra virgin olive oil, red wine, sugar, but just a bit, ground black pepper, yes, a lot of this, and bread dough.
The next day I would bring the pan co’ santi to my parents’ for lunch, wrapped in a towel. And that’s when finally the first of November, All Saints’ Day, would have the taste I remembered, the taste it deserved.
I could not imagine I was so keen on traditions, yet my hands demanded to knead that bread, I needed its smell wafting through my kitchen, its dense crumb dotted with nuts and raisins. This and only this would finally place me from head to toe into that time of the year that for me has always represented the beginning of winter, not the meteorological one, not the astronomical one, but the spiritual one.
The same happens to me with cavallucci, with the Easter schiacciata, with panforte, with rice fritters or the Florentine schiacciata for Carnival. Growing up I learned to make them, and year after year I added new recipes to my rites of passage.
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I am irreverent.
The other day, in the early morning hours, I was sitting at the kitchen table, a piece of stale pan co’ santi left on the cutting board, next to the bread I had prepared for breakfast.
I sliced the pan co’ santi: the slices fell heavy on the cutting board, releasing fragments of walnut. I heated a pan and toasted it, until I could smell the walnut oil, until the raisins were almost caramelized. Then I placed those golden slices on a plate and slathered them with butter. It melted into delicious puddles, going to fill every space in between raisins and walnuts. Eventually I smeared a teaspoon of plum jam. The pan co’ santi wasn’t born too sweet, and so it had to stay.
I bit that irreverent slice of pan co ‘santi and I understood what I would have been waiting impatiently for until the next year, not only the freshly baked loaf, not only the taste of tradition on All Saints’ Day, but what is left a few days later, toasted, turned into breakfast.
I am nostalgic
This is happening often. I feel nostalgic for traditional food, dishes that until a few years ago I would not care about. Those who open a food blog, in the first years cook only new recipes: there is an infinity of flavours and combinations that claim your time, the space on the stove and on the blog. Once you have cooked a Jerusalem artichoke soup, for example, why would you repeat it? there is still celeriac to turn into a soup, while you’d rather transform your chokes into chips.
In recent years I have changed, though. Or am I getting older? Do not tell me.
On the one hand, I need to create my signature dishes, the recipes that belong to my cooking repertoire. I cook and re-cook the recipes I liked, more often those that have been enthusiastically approved by Tommaso, until I feel comfortable with them, until I have found the correct cooking time, or the balance of salt and acid. This also helps me to deal with the weekly menu, as I am slowly building a ritual of seasonal ingredients, flavours and preparations which I can rely on. An example? the chickpeas and butternut squash soup, which ushers in the autumn season, which becomes an idea to save my dinner if I can open a jar of cooked chickpeas at the very last minute, or welcomes my friends on a particularly cold night.
On the other hand, I learnt to appreciate the idea of comfort that a recipe represents. Trippa alla fiorentina, pappa al pomodoro, roast pork loin, fagioli all’uccelletto. If they are so iconic of Tuscan cuisine, wouldn’t it be for a good reason? I do not feel out of fashion if I cook them for dinner, if I propose them during a cooking class, or better, if I dream to mop clean the pan where I cooked the trippa with a piece of bread.
Every now and then I have to cook them, as if it were a statement of my roots, a pride in knowing how to prepare a proper pappa al pomodoro, a challenge to consistently cook a perfect arista.
Sometimes I miss the idea of a simmering pot of broth, of a pan of fagioli all’uccelletto, so I cook them.
Le polpette all’uccelletto – Sausage meatballs cooked in stewed beans
Let’s not forget, though, that I can be irreverent. That’s how the idea of these sausage meatballs cooked in stewed beans was born.
Fagioli all’uccelletto are perhaps one of the most iconic dishes of Tuscan cuisine: it has beans and sausages, cooked together over a gentle heat until the beans become creamy and the sausages do not release fat and flavour. This dish can be found in every Tuscan trattoria, sometimes as a filling side dish, others as a main course.
The name of this recipe is due to Pellegrino Artusi. He explains that the beans are cooked with the same herbs used for the little birds (uccelletti), sage and garlic, hence their cute name.
I turned sausages into meatballs, I added crushed fennel seeds, I cooked everything together, then I invited some friends over. With this recipe I unleashed my desire for tradition, my nostalgia, and my irreverence.
Polpette all’uccelletto - Sausage meatballs cooked in stewed beans
- 200 g (7 oz) of ground beef
- 100 g (3,5 oz) of fresh pork sausages, without the case
- 1 medium potato, boiled
- 2 tablespoons of grated pecorino romano
- 1 clove of garlic
- Some sage leaves
- ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds
- Black pepper
- All purpose flour
For the stewed beans
- Some sage leaves
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 600 g (1 lb 5 oz or 3 ½ cups) of cannellini beans, already cooked
- 300 ml (1 ⅓ of a cup) of bean cooking water
- 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
- Heat the oven to 180°C (350°F)
- Start by preparing the meatballs. Put the ground beef in a bowl and add the riced boiled potato, the crumbled sausages, the grated pecorino cheese and the finely chopped garlic clove with sage leaves. Pound the fennel seeds in a mortar, reducing them into powder, then sprinkle them into the bowl.
- Now roll up your sleeves and mix all the ingredients with your hands. When you think they are ready, continue for another minute. Season with salt and pepper, but do not exaggerate as you have already used savoury ingredients, such as the pecorino and the fresh sausage.
- Shape the meatballs with your hands, as big as a walnut, and roll them into the flour.
- Place the meatballs in a baking pan lined with parchment paper, then drizzle with olive oil. Gently shake the pan so that the meatballs, rolling in the pan, will be evenly coated with olive oil.
- Arrange the meatballs again into the pan, keeping them slightly spaced, and bake for about 20 minutes, until golden. Remove the meatballs from the oven and set aside.
- Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large, deep pan with two cloves of garlic - leave the skin on and crush them with the palm of your hand - and some sage leaves. When the garlic has infused the olive oil and the sage leaves begin to get crisp, pour the beans with a few ladlefuls of their cooking water, add the tomato paste, stir and cook over low flame. Season with salt and pepper.
- Let the beans simmer over a gentle heat for about twenty minutes, then add the meatballs and cook for further ten minutes.
- Serve the meatballs hot, accompanied by the stewed beans, with some toasted Tuscan bread.
Serve these sausage meatballs with…
On any mid-autumn night, this dish of sausage meatballs and stewed beans could be a meal in itself. But I would add some vegetables, because they are never enough, and I would say that fennel could be the right choice, given its love story with pork and the presence of the fennel seeds inside the meatballs. A seasonal pear cookie to munch on after dinner on the sofa could close the meal.
- Fennel gratin. Since the first time I made them, I abandoned the béchamel as I love them as they are, baked in the oven with garlic, Parmigiano and lemon peel.
- Pear shortbread cookies. This biscuit are similar to the classic shortbread, buttery and full-flavoured; the filling is fruity and delicate. The dusting of icing sugar evokes images of the first snow during the winter mornings.
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