The Word of the Day ~ Courage!
We have all just survived or, at least I hope we all survived, a big American holiday – Thanksgiving. For some of us it is a no-brainer, for others it is a day wrought with culinary fear. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Having to cook the family turkey used to be a no-brainer for me, but now that I am a published cookbook author, I definitely feel more akin to those who are scared in the kitchen on a major holiday.
Well, once published, the culinary bar seems to have been raised, if by no one other than myself.
However, I still have coraggio (pronounced “cor-AHJ-geo”) – isn’t that what one needs when faced with a daunting task? Isn’t it all about putting on a brave face and mustering up the fortitude to pick up your sling and a rock, David? “Coraggio?” You bet!
In Italy, there is a saying “In bocca al lupo,” which loosely translates into “Into the wolf’s mouth.” People say it to you when you have a large task or challenge ahead – a test at school, a performance (they say it in Italian opera), a big meeting where the pressure is on, etc. Little Red Riding Hood had her own type of “in bocca al lupo” at grandma’s – isn’t that where most us spend the holidays?
If someone wishes you well – “In bocca al lupo” – your response to them is “Crepi!” “I kill it!” Indicating that you have the coraggio to face the task ahead and successfully destroy it.
This Thanksgiving was an “In bocca al lupo” moment for me. My Goliath was waiting.
I was invited over to friends for Thanksgiving…about 18 of us who are out of town and working at the Denver Center Theatre Company. My friends Sylvia and Sam were gracious enough to host us at their house and Sylvia went a step further to let everyone know that “Chef” Mark Leslie was going to be cooking the meal – Italian-style. The gauntlet had been thrown.
I decided to make Involtini di tacchino – turkey cutlets rolled up and stuffed with a piece of prosciutto, fresh sage leaves, and a “stuffing” of sautéed carrot, celery, onion, zucchini, bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Surprisingly, Italians eat a lot of tacchino –turkey- so it wasn’t too far off the mark to make turkey rolls with a sage “stuffing” – plus the added Italian ingredients of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I made 40 involtini, roughly 2 per person, even though I knew there would be leftovers. And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is about? The leftovers?!
Since it was going to be a grande festa, I decided to make orecchiette pasta. Italians eat as much factory produced pasta as we do, but for special occasions, out come the pasta boards as the nonne (grandmothers) roll up their sleeves. This was one such occasion, minus a nonna. The joy of handmade pasta is that everyone gets involved and when it comes to making orecchiette (“little ear”) – the more the merrier!
Orecchiette is made with all-purpose flour, semolina flour (a hard, duram wheat flour), and hot water. There are no eggs in this pasta. A well is formed in the center of the mound of the combined flours and almost-boiling water is poured in and gently stirred until a pasta (dough) is formed. What is wonderful about this pasta is that it is very warm while you knead it, as opposed to fresh egg pasta, which is room temperature in your hands.
After kneading it and wrapping in plastic wrap to rest, the still warm pasta is divided into chunks and hand-rolled into ropes. A finger digit’s worth of dough is cut off of the rope and, with a steak knife, the orecchiette are formed by dragging the teeth of the knife down and across the surface of the piece of pasta. It is definitely something that takes some practice, but with practice comes experience, and between all of us there, Sylvia was soon the master – though Amy did a great job, too! Sam formed the ropes and I cut them.
Usually fresh pasta is placed on lightly floured kitchen towels or tablecloths, but Sam and Sylvia were short on both, so we used a twin bed sheet. I thought that was VERY Italian.
Besides the involtini di tacchino and orechiette a mano, I made the pasta sauce and a crostini con cipolla, timo e formaggio di capra (Onion, Thyme and Goat Cheese Crostini). Recipes for the sauce and the crostini can be found here on the “Beyond the Pasta” website in the “Italian Pantry” section in RECIPES. The recipe for the sauce is also in my book.
“So Mark, when were you nervous?”
“Goliath” (the 18 guests) arrived at 3:00 p.m. for cocktails while I prepared the involtini di tacchino and sauce for the pasta. Everyone had a great time and it was fun to cook with everyone around. At 4:30 I dropped the pasta into the boiling water and by 4:45 we were eating – that was my moment of “In bocca al lupo” – would “Goliath” like the involtini, were they too dry, are the flavors balanced? I hadn’t made the orecchiette since I was with Nonna in her kitchen 5 years ago – did I get the recipe right? Would they taste okay? Were there enough?
All of the usual Thanksgiving fears that most of us homecooks have at the holidays came crashing in. No one wants to provide an unthankful meal at the most thankful time of year.
So, how did it all turn out?
I killed it!
The involtini were perfect ~ a fun Italian spin on the usual American Thanksgiving flavors. There were plenty of orecchiette to go around. My arugula/Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese/lemon and olive oil salad had a peppery tang, the crostini were a big hit – lots of people were asking for the recipe, and the prosciutto with cantaloupe or fig (another antipasto that I prepared) were a classic Italian salty/sweet combination. Yes, I did prepare more than just the turkey and the pasta. And so did “Goliath!” Everyone brought wine and other side dishes, some family favorites and others ~ first time culinary attempts, too. I’m not the only one who went into the day needing coraggio, either!
**Photos are courtesy of Sylvia at Reinking-Gregory Casting.