Castelfranco in Miscano, home of my grandparents, a classic cucina povera town (note the taralli strung around the base of the Virgin).
Recipe: Round Zucchini Stuffed with Farro, Garlic Sausage, and Savory, Served with a Cherry Tomato Sauce
My taste in food tends toward la cucina povera, the traditional cooking of Italy’s less well-heeled. This is not because I’m dirt poor, nor is it a strict philosophy. I love this cooking for its taste (I guess I’m a peasant through and through). I’ve always been attracted to grains (any starch really), all vegetables, oily fish like sardines and anchovies, and little bits of fatty meat mixed with lots of filler. I really admire breadcrumbs.
Big slabs of relatively cheap meat were what my and everybody else’s grandmother found in urban grocery stores in the 1910s and ’20s, when they arrived in this country. What a pleasant shock it must have been, but, in a way, what a shame, since it corrupted many of their classic cucina povera dishes. In my opinion the meatball was ruined by Italian-Americans’ newfound ability to procure endless supplies of chopped meat. In their excitement over their good fortune, they cut back on, or abandoned altogether, the soft, wine- or milk-moistened bread that had provided the light texture for the homeland meatball, only to create heavy, dull, big, ugly meatballs that were nothing to be proud of. Exactly how my grandmother’s cooking changed when her family moved from miserable old Castelfranco, on the Puglia boarder, to Port Chester, on Long Island Sound, I can only surmise, but she served steaks and big roasts much more often than tough cuts like braciole that were traditionally stuffed with stale bread and hard cheese to make a little go a long way. The few times I’ve eaten with relatives in Castelfranco, we’ve had macaroni with tomato sauce, often baked and flavored with a little pork fat, or once with slivers of sweet peppers. The side attractions have included vinegared vegetables, really terrible homemade wine, a solid chunk of pecorino, and rock-hard taralli. Nothing too fancy, but it’s had its glamor.
I suppose it was inevitable that la cucina povera cooking would become hot in Manhattan restaurants. Why serve expensive meat when you can charge $34 for bucatini cacio e pepe (pasta with pecorino and black pepper)? However, if chefs were working within the true confines of la cucina povera, they’d be tossing their bucatini with breadcrumbs and dried red chili—as I’m sure some of them are. I’m guilty of corrupting the spirit of cucina povera myself, but I do feel that at times it just can’t be helped. I mean, imports are expensive. If I want to make pasta cacio e pepe at home and want it to taste the best it can, I’ll use my $40-a-bottle Sicilian olive oil, $24-a-pound pecorino, $8 box of Latini spaghetti, and the fancy Tellicherry peppercorns I pick up at Kalustyan’s. What a shame. Thank god I don’t have kids to feed. I suppose what I really feel about cucina povera is, don’t worry about the hypocrisy, just go for the taste.
One of my favorite kinds of cucina povera dishes is stuffed vegetables. I always find myself making them at times during the summer, at my first sight of local mini-eggplants, for instance. I love them for their improvisational design, for their compact beauty, and, above all, for their taste. Any vegetable that’s small and scoopable is great for stuffing.
To my mind, a stuffed vegetable should highlight the vegetable that’s stuffed. I always use some of its scooped-out insides in my stuffing. Then I move on to a starch filler of my choice. Lately I’ve been trying to get away from rice and dried bread. They’re both good and classic, but they’ve been done to death. So I’ve turned toward whole grains. I love farro and wheat berries. You can use either in this recipe. Once I pick my filler, everything else, especially any meat I might add, I use in minuscule amounts. In true cucina povera fashion, I find I can stretch the expensive ingredient almost to nonexistence. In this structure lies the beauty—a delicate flavor that doesn’t overpower but in fact highlights the vegetable itself.
I’ve been finding round zucchini at the Union Square Greenmarket. Yuno Farms calls it avocado squash, and its inside does resemble a firm avocado. This cute, light green zucchini seems to have no seeds (not possible really, though—they must be in there somewhere), and it has much less water than the usual long zucchini. It’s lovely and smooth, and it just beckons to be stuffed.
Round Zucchini Stuffed with Farro, Garlic Sausage, and Savory, Served with a Cherry Tomato Sauce
(Serves 6 as a lunch, a light supper, or a first course)
6 small, round zucchini
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups farro
1 2-inch piece of garlic sausage, cut into tiny cubes
1 small fresh onion, cut into small dice, using some of the tender, green part of the stem
1 small inner celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
A few sprigs of summer savory, the leaves chopped
A splash of dry vermouth, plus a little extra for baking
A good-size chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese
For the tomato sauce:
2 pints cherry tomatoes, quartered
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fresh summer garlic clove, minced
2 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
Freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the tops off the zucchini about a quarter of the way down. Scoop out the insides of the round part with a melon baller, saving the insides. Cut a thin slice from the bottom of each zucchini, so it will sit upright. Place the zucchini, cut side up, in a baking dish that will hold it fairly snuggly. Drizzle the zucchini lightly with olive oil inside and out, and season with salt and black pepper. Bake for about 30 minutes, or just until it starts to soften but is still firm and holding its shape. Take it from the oven, and let it cool off a bit.
While the zucchini is baking, set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and add the farro. Cook at a lively bubble until the farro is just tender, about 18 minutes. Drain well.
Chop finely about half of the zucchini insides (avoid the food processor, as it can make them watery). You’ll want about a cup or so of chopped zucchini. In a medium skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the garlic sausage, the onion, the chopped celery, and the savory, and sauté about two minutes, just to soften the onion and release the flavors of the sausage and savory. Add the chopped zucchini, and sauté a few minutes longer. Add the dry vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds, leaving some liquid in the skillet. Add the farro, and mix well, seasoning with salt and black pepper. Add the celery leaves and a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil. Let cool for a few minutes, and then grate in about three tablespoons of pecorino Toscano.
Fill the zucchini rounds with the farro mixture, trying not to pack it down too firmly (save any leftover filling for a side dish, or for your lunch). Drizzle the tops with a little dry vermouth and then with a little more olive oil. Sprinkle a bit of grated pecorino over the zucchini. Now place the zucchini tops, flat part down, on a small, lightly oiled sheet pan. Drizzle the tops with a little more olive oil, and season them slightly with salt and black pepper. Bake both the stuffed zucchini and the tops until tender and lightly browned, about 45 minutes or so for the stuffed part, about half an hour for the tops.
While the zucchini is baking, mix all the ingredients for the tomato sauce together in a small bowl. If your cherry tomatoes are very juicy, you might need to salt and drain them for a bit before assembling your sauce.
Take the zucchini from the oven and place the tops on them. Serve warm or hot, accompanied by the cool tomato sauce.