Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tasting Calabria with Rosetta Costantino

A couple of years ago while surfing the net I came across an article – “Calabria from Scratch” – by Janet Fletcher that had appeared a few years earlier in the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2004. We had taken some classes from Janet at the Cheese School of San Francisco and I have always been a fan of her style in her regular articles in the Chron’s “The Cheese Course”. I always enjoy knowing where things come from and Janet has a wonderful knack of explaining about food products in their geographical and historic context.

Janet’s article told the story of a woman living in the East Bay named Rosetta Costantino who had come to the Bay Area with her parents, Vincenzo and Maria Dito, from the southern Italian region of Calabria when she was a teenager. The article went on to describe the massive quantity of typical Calabrian vegetables the Ditos managed to grow in their modest back yard and some of the Calabrian dishes made by Rosetta and her mother.

The article concluded with some wonderful Calabrian recipes and a mention of a couple of cooking classes Rosetta was going to be giving in Emeryville.

After I read the article I Googled Rosetta’s name and found that she had a website - Cooking with Rosetta. There I learned that those initial cooking classes mentioned in Janet's article had been very successful and had, over the intervening years, given rise to regular classes focusing on dishes from Calabria and elsewhere in Southern Italy (Rosetta’s husband, Lino, is from Palermo on Sicilia so she has some direct experience with Sicilian cuisine as well). Unfortunately the classes seemed to sell out almost as soon as they came on line.

At the end of last year I decided that the only way to have a chance to take one of Rosetta’s classes was to plan well in advance, so when I saw a few months ago that she has posted a new class entitled “A Taste of Calabria” that was going to be held last Friday night, I immediately signed up together with Alex and Cassie.

Calabria is the Italian region that is furthest south on the Italian peninsula – it is the toe of the Italian boot, just across the Straits of Messina from Sicilia (I have marked on the following map the approximate location of the town of Verbicaro from which the Dito family came).

One of the primary characteristics of Calabrian cuisine that sets it apart from that of other Italian regions – even those which border it – is that it is SPICY – a result of liberal use of the Italian chili pepper – pepperoncino – which is celebrated throughout the region.

My friend Antonio, who comes from Salerno not far north of Calabria in Campania, tells the story of a Calabrian girlfriend he had who used to invite him home for meals which he often found too spicy to eat.

I had not known much about Calabria until recently when I became interested in the Calabrian salumi called ‘nduja, a specialty of the town of Spilinga in the province of Vibo Valentia, which hosts an annual festival to celebrate the salume. Rosetta has a very good post on her blog that describes ‘nduja. The version now offered at Barbacco in San Francisco has become a favorite of ours, although we brought some along to the class and Rosetta advised that while it was quite good, it was not the same as the Calabrian original.

So on Friday evening, Alex, Cass and I met in the city and drove over to Emeryville where Rosetta gives her classes at the Paulding & Company facilities. When we arrived we found that not only was Rosetta there, but also her mother, Maria Dito, her husband, Lino, and their son, Adrian. So it was very much a family affair.

Here was our line up for our class:

Bruschetta con Fagioli and Rapini (Bruschetta with Beans and Broccoli Rabe)

This was a fairly easy dish to make. Both this dish and the separate Broccoli Rape Strascinati served with the sausage as a main course used the same Broccoli Rape preparation.

Gnocchi di Patate con Sugo di Pomodoro (Potato Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce)

For this dish we rolled gnocchi using ridged, wooden gnocchi paddles. I am afraid our gnocchi were not very uniform and neither Rosetta nor Maria was very impressed. Still, they certainly tasted good! Of course, the really critical work is the preparation of the dough, and we were not entrusted with that task.

Salsiccia Calabrese Arrostita (Grilled Homemade Calabrian sausage)

Rosetta had ground the pork for this dish in advance and all that we needed to do was add the spices, clean the hog casings and stuff them with the ground pork, before tying them up and putting them in the oven to cook (the kitchen did not have a grill). Rosetta has a very good description of this on her blog.

Broccoli Rape Strascinati (Broccoli Rabe sautéed in olive oil with garlic)

As noted, this was the same preparation that was used for the bruschette. Very easy to make and very tasty. For the preparation at class we blanched the Broccoli Rabe in boiling water to remove some of the bitterness, although I personally prefer to have it slightly bitter.

Torta di Noci con Crema di Nocino (Flourless Walnut Cake with Nocino liqueur sauce)

This was a very good light dessert. I had never heard of Nocino liqueur before (it is made from green walnuts, and hence can only be made in the Spring) but found a couple of recipes for it on line – see here and here. It seems to be a particular specialty of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, although there is now even a version - Nocino della Cristina - being produced in Napa.

Rosetta is also coming out at the end of this year with a cookbook entitled “My Calabria” which, just to show how things come full circle, she wrote with Janet Fletcher, who had encouraged her to start her cooking classes in the first place. The cover is below (peppers – what else!).

The photography in the book was done by a Bay Area photographer named Sara Remington who does beautiful work. Sara also has a blog with a post with photos from a trip she made to Calabria last year with Rosetta (check out the color of the 'nduja at the bottom of the below photo!).

It was a wonderful class and Alex, Cass and I had a great time.

If you note that Maria appears in many of the above photos it is because I have never seen anyone work so hard. She was all over the room during the class helping everyone and doing most of the hard work - both preparation and cleaning up. It was a pleasure (as well as being a life saver!) to have her there.

Rosetta may be taking some time off from her classes towards the end of the year for promotion of her cookbook, but we certainly look forward to taking another class from her in the future. Incidentally, we also learned at the class that one of Vincenzo Dito's secrets to creating the virtual forest of San Marzano tomatoes you can see in the photo at the start of this article is -- goat manure. We will have to keep this in mind on our next visit to Harley Farms!


Janet Fletcher said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful coverage of Rosetta, her delicious food, her incredible mother and, of course, our upcoming book. I'm so glad you and your family had a good time.
Janet Fletcher

gastronomichael said...

Thanks Janet, and nice to hear from you. It was a wonderful class and we are certainly looking forward to seeing the cookbook that you and Rosetta have put together! Also, Alex, Cass and I were back at the Cheese School last night and had a chance to meet Daphne Zepos - you were mentioned again in the new post I just completed since your pairing of Daphne's Comte with the Rivesaltes Ambré from Domaine Fontanel remains our all time favorite. Take care and hope to see you soon. Mike

Simona said...

Glad to read you had a great time at the class. My aunt used to make nocino. It was supposed to have curative powers. Unfortunately, I never asked her for the recipe. Let me know if you try to make it.

Seth Resler said...

That looks like it was an awesome time! I recently had the opportunity to interview Rosetta Costantino, and we talked about where to eat in Southern Italy. You can hear the interview here: