When I mentioned Domenica Marchetti’s new book Preserving Italy to my mother, she told me things I’d never heard before. About how her father had preserved eggplant in olive oil and bottled his own tomato sauce. And how they’d eaten dandelion greens and other things that grew around the neighborhood. My grandfather came to the U.S. from a farm near Naples, and growing, harvesting, and preserving foods was a way of life. For many Italian immigrants, it was also a way of keeping a foot in the old world – especially during a time when U.S. cooking steadfastly resisted the charms of immigrant foods.**
So I was predisposed to like the book from the start. But it’s a keeper for other reasons. The subtitle is Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions, and it fits. It’s a nice, concise introduction to the different kinds of food preservation you’ll find in Italy, but also used the world over. You’ll find tasty recipes for foods preserved in oil or vinegar on through to pressure canning, liqueurs, and simple cured meats. While that seems like it might be limiting to stick only to Italian food, it’s actually a great way to learn about the various techniques. Fitting them within a framework of a single cuisine –seeing why preserving in olive oil works for some foods like eggplant, but not others — makes it all much more understandable. There’s enough instruction in the book to make anything in there, even for novices. You’re not required to become an expert in water-bath canning, for example, to try it out.
Domenica Marchetti started her working life as a newspaper reporter, so she was already a storyteller when she decided to start writing about food. Coming from an Italian family and spending summers in Italy, where great pains were taken to find the best food around, gave her plenty of material to start. Over the past decade or so she has written seven books on Italian cooking. Writing about the food she loves is another way of sharing what she already shares with her family and friends. You really feel like you’re there with her in the kitchen reading and using her books.
For Domenica, learning the techniques she describes in Preserving Italy was an outgrowth of wanting to duplicate her grandmother’s liquor-soaked cherries. We talked about the book, her family, and Italian food in general. And about wine too – she has recipes that use wine in the book, so I figured she must drink it. As an Italian food lover myself, I enjoyed every minute of our talk, and I think you will, too.
I have to thank you for writing this book – I learned things about my mother’s family I didn’t know before because of it. For my grandfather, preserving food was partly a necessity. What do you think makes people want to take it up today? I’m happy to hear you say that! I think it’s another way that people can connect more with their food. I have friends who barely have to go to supermarkets because they preserve things they grow or buy in the summer. Not everyone can do that, but because so many of our memorable food experiences these days come from beautiful, seasonal fresh foods, it’s only natural to want to have them outside of summertime. The preserved foods aren’t the same as fresh, but they’re prepared and preserved in a way to capitalize on the best attributes of the ingredients. And in the dead of winter, when you open a jar of tomato sauce you canned yourself using tomatoes from your farmers’ market, everything you loved about that late summer day you bought the tomatoes will be right there on your plate.
In my first job out of college as a chemical engineer, I made and canned spaghetti sauce at a food products company, but I’ve never tried doing it at home. Or any other home preserving other than some quick pickling, for that matter. What’s the most important thing people need to know about it? I wanted to make sure that everything in the book was done with food safety as the paramount concern. So I recommend that people keep the foods preserved in oil or vinegar in the fridge, for example, which your grandfather probably didn’t do. For tomato sauce, it’s important that it be acidic enough to kill the various bacteria, even if you’re canning it in a hot water bath. But it’s not a given that tomatoes will be acidic enough to not need something added to lower the pH. I use fresh lemon juice, putting it in the jars before adding the sauce and processing them. Some home canning experts recommend using bottled lemon juice because it’s absolutely consistent in terms of acidity, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it!
I’m with you on that. At my spaghetti sauce job, we controlled pH with citric acid, but also with salt – it was an easy way to take the pH down a little if we needed to. I asked my mother about it, and she said her father didn’t add any acid to the sauce he bottled, at least as far as she remembers. In the old days, cooks added some sugar to their sauce to balance the acid in the tomatoes, so your grandfather may not have had to add any acid. And since nobody died, it probably worked, but I had to go by the USDA guidelines for the book. I also think over the years tomatoes got selectively bred for sweetness and less acidity – apart from the flavorless ones bred strictly for transport. I hadn’t heard about adding salt to control pH before.
It was an industrial trick. Plus, this was the early 1980s before we had low-salt canned foods, so I wouldn’t rely on it today! I freeze my meat sauce, so I was interested to read about pressure canning it. Do you find there’s a difference in the sauce when you use the two techniques? Pressure-canned meat sauce definitely tastes a little more “cooked” than sauce that’s been frozen. Bringing it up to 240°F instead of just 212° makes a difference, although it’s good both ways. But what I really use pressure canning for is beans and chickpeas. I love them and use them a lot in cooking, and there’s nothing like the flavor of dried beans you’ve cooked yourself. Canning makes them available quickly, and you can also flavor them any way you like.
That sounds great – I love beans too so I’ll have to try it. Are there any brands of dried beans you particularly like? I found Zursun beans, a brand from Idaho, at a local kitchenware/gourmet food shop, La Cuisine in Alexandria, VA. Zursun has all kinds of beans, grains, etc. They’re consistently good and I never have to worry about them being too old. Also, I like to bring beans back from Abruzzo when I go over.
It’s great that you can bring the dried beans back with you, much easier than toting olive oil or wine. I like to get cassoulet beans when I’m in France. Did you find that there were some things you couldn’t duplicate here, or that just tasted different using ingredients in Italy? I wanted to put more artichoke recipes in the book since Italians love them, but really good artichokes in different sizes are hard to find, at least in Virginia where I live. Maybe if I were in California that would be easier. Also olives – you need the right climate to grow them, and I order mine from California when I cure olives. But the number of different kinds of raw olives you can easily get in Italy is amazing.
Do you plan to try more complex food preservation now that you’ve finished the book? So far I’ve only cured pancetta and guanciale at home, and I’d definitely love to cure salami. I have sausage recipes in the book, but they get done relatively quickly in the fridge – not the ones that I’d have to hang to cure. Also, I’d love to make prosciutto, although I couldn’t do that at home.
I noticed in the book that you said you appropriated your husband’s wine fridge for curing pancetta and guanciale, so I figured it was safe to assume that you enjoy wine. Of course! My husband is more of a wine expert than I am, he likes to do the pairing with food. As you might expect, we like Italian wines and drink the wines you find in Abruzzo – Montepulciano, Cerasuolo, and Pecorino. Plus there are Barolos and Amarones around for bigger occasions. We don’t really collect wine to keep at home, so that’s why there was room in the wine fridge for curing meat! We also like some Virginia wines, and it’s great having the wineries close by. It’s always wonderful to taste the wines at the wineries, somehow they always taste even better there.
I agree – something about the setting that definitely enhances the wine. What Virginia wineries do you like? I imagine you’ve tried the Italian varietal wines made around Barboursville. We have tried and enjoyed them. But one of my non-Italian favorites is Horton Vineyards, they make a great Viognier. I found them when I was developing my recipe for Mosto Cotto – fresh wine grape juice, or must, that gets cooked down to a syrup. I couldn’t get Montepulciano must here like I’d use in Abruzzo, and didn’t know if I could get any grape must at all. So I put it out on Twitter that I was looking for some. Michael Heny, the winemaker at Horton, responded and gave me must from Petite Syrah, Tannat, and Norton. I’ve found that winemakers are usually generous and friendly that way.
Have you had any other memorable wine experiences, either in Italy or here at home? If you mean when the clouds opened and angels sang, well, no. But my husband and I love drinking the local wines that we find at restaurants in Italy – some of them might seem a little rough without the food, but the circumstances make all the difference. Also, we have been doing Italian culinary tours in Abruzzo and visit a couple of local winemakers that represent two different styles of winemaking. One of them is completely traditional, and is currently run by two sisters, something unusual in Italy. They use the big casks that you also don’t see too much these days. The other is a little more experimental and also has a particular microclimate that makes for interesting wines. But our visits year after year have let us get to know the families better and that makes for a richer experience each time. They’re so proud of what they do, so meticulous about the grapes and the wine, and you can share the love, passion, and pride when you visit.
I like to joke that since I started my wine business I’ve discovered that every person of European heritage I meet tells me that he or she has a relative back over there in the wine business. Do you? Unfortunately, no! My mother grew up in a city in Abruzzo, and my father’s family didn’t make wine, either.
One final question about food. I remember looking through Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook in the late 1970s and her talking about how Italians stick to their native regions for food, that it would be unusual for them to eat foods from other parts of Italy. I’d never heard of that before. Do you find that regionality still persists when you visit? Yes, it definitely does. In America we’re used to having pretty much anything we want nearby, and you don’t find that over there. Of course there is some fast food that’s all over Italy, and you can find desserts like Tiramisu and Panna Cotta everywhere. But I still find that the food in Abruzzo is different from the food in Liguria, which we visited last summer, and that’s different from the food in Piedmont next door. Food doesn’t necessarily correspond exactly to governmental boundaries, so Abruzzo has some influences from the surrounding regions – Marche, Umbria, Campania, Puglia. There are some more contemporary restaurants in Abruzzo, but by and large the food is still cooked by families in restaurants and is pretty traditional, even with variations. It’s a great comfort for us when we visit.
Thanks so much for talking with me, and introducing me to things that were a part of my family’s past! My pleasure – food is a great way to meet interesting people. And it was fun to hear about your grandfather. Food is one of the things that makes places special to us, and it’s great he was able to carry some of that with him to America.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump into water-bath canning right away when I first got Preserving Italy. But I thought it would be fun to try preserving in olive oil. Coincidentally, my husband Cy’s first crop of Italian cherry peppers that he grows in pots was coming in. So I decided to try the recipe for Rosetta’s Tuna-Stuffed Cherry Peppers. Domenica got it from a friend and fellow cookbook author, Rosetta Costantino. The hollowed-out peppers get pickled briefly in vinegar and water and stuffed with a mixture of tuna, capers, and anchovies; then they’re packed in sterilized canning jars, the jars are filled with olive oil, and the peppers sit in the fridge for a week and up to three months. They’re seriously good. Cy’s plants are still producing, so you’ll be able to find the peppers at farmers’ markets. I got my canning jars at the local hardware store.
How hot the stuffed peppers will be depends on the peppers themselves. You might want to try one raw first and see if they’re hot enough for you. You can always add some dried red pepper flakes to the stuffing, or infuse the oil with red pepper flakes before you do the peppers. I found that a small cocktail fork was ideal for removing the ribs and seeds from the peppers. Tuna in olive oil is a must for this – there’s some great quality tuna in jars from Spain and Portugal if you can find it, but most of us can also find Cento brand tuna in oil in the grocery store. Another thing to consider is how old your olive oil is: if you’ve had it around a while, you might want to consider getting a new bottle for preserving the peppers even if it doesn’t smell or taste rancid. Since olive oil is a main ingredient, you want it to be at its best.
As Domenica mentioned in the interview, you want to store these in the fridge after an initial 24 hours at room temperature. Only take out what you’re going to eat and let them sit at room temperature to liquefy the oil (it gets solid in the fridge). Add more oil to the jar to completely submerge the remaining peppers before putting the jar back in the fridge. And be sure to follow the instructions for sterilizing the jars.
You’ll probably serve the peppers as part of an antipasto platter with cheeses, cured meats, olives, bread, etc. Or, if you’re like me, that will be dinner as well, with a little salad to go along. The peppers aren’t vinegary, so you don’t have to worry about choosing a red wine, just choose a medium-bodied one. I served the peppers with Château des Donats La Coquille Rouge ($14). It’s a Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, but not aged in oak. The wine is from Bergerac, a town and wine appellation east of Bordeaux that got famous by literary means. An ancient food preserving tradition along with an inspiration for great art is too good to resist!
** As I was preparing to write this post, I listened to a “Fresh Air” podcast on depression-era food in the U.S. Home economists were trying to instruct Americans on making cheap, nutritious food. But they completely ignored immigrant cuisines, even though many of those immigrants came from impoverished countries yet still managed to make nutritious food.
Makes 3 pints
From Domenica Marchetti’s Preserving Italy, reprinted with the author’s permission
2 pounds (907 g) hot cherry peppers
2 cups (473 g) white wine vinegar
2 cups (473 g) water
2 (7-ounce) cans best-quality solid tuna in olive oil, drained
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
6-8 best-quality anchovy fillets in oil, patted dry
Extra-virgin olive oil
Equipment: Disposable kitchen gloves (such as Playtex); 3 sterilized 1-pint jars and their lids
Wearing glove, cut out the stems from the peppers with a paring knife and carefully remove all the seeds and pith inside. Put the peppers in a high-sided saucepan and pour in the vinegar and water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for 5 minutes.
Drain the peppers in a colander and let them sit until cool enough to handle. Set them, cut-side-down, on a clean kitchen towel to dry for 2 hours. Turn them over and let dry for at least another 2 hours, and up to overnight (if drying overnight, turn them back over so they are cut side down).
Prepare the filling by finely chopping the tuna with the capers and anchovies. Stuff the peppers with the tuna mixture and pack them snugly into the jars, leaving about 1 inch head space. Slowly pour in enough olive oil to completely cover the peppers. Screw the lids on tightly and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Check to make sure the peppers remain completely covered; if not, add more oil.
Let the peppers cure in the refrigerator for 1 week before using, then store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. To serve, remove from the jar only what you plan to use and let it come to room temperature. Top off the jar with more oil as necessary to keep the remaining peppers submerged.
Note on sterilizing jars and lids: First, wash jars in hot soapy water. Sterilize by immersing them in a covered pot of boiling water for 10 minutes, or place them in a 285°F oven for 30 minutes. Place the rings in a small covered pot of boiling water and boil for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave them in the water. Do not boil the lids, as it could compromise the seal; just add them to the pot of hot water right before filling the jars.