The Burrasca year in review

Because you can’t possibly have gotten enough of them, we too are jumping on the year-end wrap-up hurdy-gurdy and offering up a summation of 2013 – or, as we like to think of it, the Year of Lunatic Change – to appease the demanding New Years’ Eve Gods. Here goes.

The event of greatest moment was of course the big move from Italy to the States. 2013 was the year in which we quit our jobs, sold our house and (many of our) belongings and hightailed it out of Florence, only to land happily in Portland, OR.

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All our crap arrives in PDX

It was also the Year of Fiendish Bureaucracy (if you’re uncomfortably familiar with life in Italy you’ll understand that this is not hyperbole): we survived, just barely, all the paperwork entailed in selling a house in the Bel Paese, paying taxes, and officially divesting ourselves of Italian residency, securing Paolo’s immigrant visa, and starting a business in the U.S., etc. etc.

2013 saw us logging some travel miles: Paolo’s wooing of U.S. Immigration officials required two trips to incredible Naples (read: food orgy), proving that every bureaucratic cloud has a savory lining. We also journeyed to our beloved Val Gardena in the Dolomites for some much-needed R & R and canederli before crossing an ocean to open a food cart.

It was also the year we got robbed. That sucked.

And it was the year we opened Burrasca, the little yellow cart that could.

Tutto sommato, 2013 was a pretty voracious year in terms of our energy and patience, but an exciting one nonetheless. Looking forward to what 2014 has in store – here’s to new horizons, new friendships and a tall-timbered city full of good cheer and wonderful things to eat and discover!

A soup by any other name

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Burrasca’s farinata

Those frugal, ingenious Tuscans. They’ve an uncanny knack for making silk purses out of sow’s ears, poetry out of the vernacular: we’re talking food fit for a pasha out of a poor man’s pickings.

Like our new dish, farinata. This is deep-winter comfort food all over Tuscany’s hill regions and comes in various guises: polenta incatenata (polenta in chains), farinata con le leghe (tied-up cornmeal porridge), farinata di cavolo nero (black cabbage cornmeal soup). According to Slow Food’s Ricette di Osterie di Firenze e Chianti, this is food for those with “courage to spare and a wolf’s hunger.” Indeed, it’s hearty stuff.

These rich, flavor-packed recipes all have something in common: the black cabbage (Italian kale) that is the fruit of Tuscan winters, cannellini or borlotti beans for cheap protein, and farina gialla (cornmeal), that low-rent rib-sticker dear to many a mountaineer’s heart. Country-folk would pretty much leave it at that but the well-heeled might add some pig in the form of ham bones, prosciutto or pancetta. It’s a dish meant to go the distance, too: the farinata would be cooked for the evening meal and the leftovers–after setting/solidifying–would be sliced thickly and pan-fried for breakfast the next day, to be eaten with bread. And if still some scraps persisted, they’d be sliced, fried and served in a spicy tomato sauce for dinner.

Our version is made of cornmeal studded with Italian kale, cannellini beans and leeks, punched up with garlic and rosemary. It’s served drizzled with extra virgin and cracked black pepper, and is guaranteed to warm your belly and keep that wolf’s hunger at bay. Promise.

Tortelli: queen of pasta in Tuscany’s Mugello region

I think of the various regions of Tuscany as having personalities and characteristics as do people, and, like people, some are more simpatico than others. The Maremma, for instance, is an ambling and amiable urbane cowboy with a touch of SoCal hedonism: John Travolta. The Chianti is an over-popular glam girl who’s gotten rather full of herself–she’s the homecoming queen, the Kim Kardashian of Tuscany. By contrast, the Mugello–that mountainous, undulating region north of Florence, whose rugged Appenine spine straddles Emilia-Romagna–is the pensive, strong and silent type: pure Wayne, Eastwood or Bogart.

It’s a beautiful region of thick forest, serene pastures, rolling farmland and lonely mountain passes. Its towns are peaceful, slumberous, wrapped in the solitary life as befits hill folk and those who live close to the land. It’s a place of hunters and foragers, of Nature’s willing bedfellows; a place that prizes hard work, reserve and fortitude and the kind of quiet perseverance of earthworms. Mugellani are typically hardy souls, with rustic appetites that heavily favor meat in the form of beef and all manner of pig. Wild boar, porcini and pecorino feature predominantly on their menus. And the pasta most familiar to all who call this wedge of Tuscany home is tortelli, which are essentially large ravioli with a flavorful potato filling. A very homey dish, whose absence at any family gathering or holiday meal would be unconscionable: it’s the Martin Luther to their Protestant Reformation, Mick Jagger to their Rolling Stones, Sam Gamgee to their Frodo Baggins. And since both sides of Paolo’s family hail from this region, I can say with complete lack of irony that I’ve probably eaten about 6,346 of these potato-stuffed pillows of bliss, and I shall never tire of them.

Paolo’s aunts in Luco di Mugello and Borgo San Lorenzo are justifiably famous for their tortelli–which are, in a word, awesome. Cooking for 40 or 50 family members poses no problem to these fabulous, formidable ladies, who hold forth in a kitchen the way Elizabeth I held court at Whitehall. Paolo’s own mamma also inherited the family’s flair for this regional pasta specialty, and it is from this group of women that the secrets to good tortelli were handed down, to be served up in our little yellow cart right here in Portland, Oregon.

As with many regional dishes, each family has its cherished recipe, but tortelli mainly fall into two camps: those with a potato filling that’s flavored with soffritto and tomato, or one that is flavored with prosciutto, sausage or pancetta. The topping is nearly always a ragù, though they are delicious with a simple sauce of butter and sage, too.

Eastertortelli

Just a *few* handmade tortelli for family Easter in Florence

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Burrasca’s tortelli with duck ragù

At Burrasca, our handmade tortelli are filled with potato amped up by soffritto, a touch of tomato and herbs, and we serve them in a rich duck ragù {we happily accommodate vegetarians by substituting a sauce of butter and sage–just ask!}.

Come try some and make Paolo’s aunties proud!

Peposo: the dish that built Brunelleschi’s Dome

While history would have us believe that behind every great man there stands a woman, I’d argue similarly that behind every great monument there is a food.

The laborers who built the pyramids were fueled by the flesh of some twenty-odd cattle and two dozen sheep and goats a day. The bellies of the motley international crew working on the Taj Mahal were stoked on rich meat curries and roti. And the cornerstones of the great cathedrals of Europe were heaved into place by the brute kilocalorie force of hefty animal rations and bread and rivers of ale and wine, more than any religious zeal or act of papal ego.

And that crowning glory of Florence’s own magnificent cathedral, Brunelleschi’s dome–the astonishing lid atop the great Renaissance treasure-chest–has a similar protein-centric backbone: the peposo alla fornacina dell’Impruneta. Our story begins….

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Once upon a time, in Impruneta–that rolled-up-sleeve sort of town that insinuates itself into the vineyard-strewn hills just south of the Tuscan capital and which, since at least 1098, is famous for its rich clay soil and the terracotta it produces–a group of rough-hewn, bestubbled laborers in the brick furnaces were hard at it, hunger licking at their insides like flames, and, as Italians throughout history are wont to do, discussing their options for lunch.

{Though our protagonists may be medieval men, you can bet that the Tuscan they were talking differed little from that of today. Get a group of contemporary toscanacci together and you’ll hear much the same speech: those aspirated, throaty c’s that sound like a bellows in the hands of an over-enthusiastic chambermaid; the muscular cadences and roughly chopped syntax, spiced up with good-natured ribaldry and liberally seasoned with blasphemous-yet-benign oaths and abundant raucous laughter}

Eventually, the foreman–a pragmatic, no-nonsense sort of fellow in charge of loading the hot kilns that spit forth their bounty of red tiles, bricks and orci (earthenware pots)–wipes the sweat from his brow with an oily rag and calls over an errand boy. Handing the lad a few coins, he says “Fetch some beef. The cheapest you can find.” Cattle–particularly the ancient, revered race known as Chianina–being plentiful in Tuscany, this was an easy enough task. And while the nobler cuts were earmarked for those with plenty of florins in their pouches, the poor-man’s cuts, such as muscolo, were within a laborer’s reach.

The boy presently returned with a good quantity of meat. It had been abundantly seasoned with pepper so it would keep, and the foreman added even more (thus the name peposo, deriving from pepe [pepper], meaning a peppery dish). He cut it into small chunks with a crude pocketknife and threw it into a large terracotta pot. Knowing the sinewy beef would need to cook at length in order to soften into something less resembling hide and more forgiving to medieval dental work, he grabbed a full flask of the ubiquitous red wine–Impruneta being in Chianti country, after all–and up-ended its entire contents into the pot. He then placed the pot just inside the maw of the roaring furnace, where the heat was mellower, and left it there to slow-cook for hours.

Later, when the scent of the simmering meat had become almost too much to bear with any pretense of fortitude, and fatigue made them stoop like willows, the men dragged the pot from the kiln’s mouth like an unwilling molar and hunkered down around it, reaching in with great chunks of bread and scooping the meat up into their mouths. That heretofore tough cut of cow now yielded to their hunger like an impatient virgin; it was butter-soft, and dripping with a velvety, wine-dark sauce which their rustic bread soaked up like perfect absolution. They washed it down with still more wine, clapped the foreman on the back, and were satisfied. And from this auspicious beginning the humble peposo of Impruneta was to go on to achieve something very grand, indeed….

Brunelleschi’s dilemma

In 1420, when scaffolding enshrouded the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the great cupola was under construction, the workers–perhaps understandably–tended to blow off the steam that comes from sweating over such a colossus of engineering by climbing down to take their meals and disappearing for what was, to Brunelleschi, a rather alarming amount of time into the rough-and-tumble osterie hidden in the sinuous alleys nearby. They would come back thoroughly soused, mount the scaffolding unsteadily, sing bawdily, and recommence their work with visibly diminished dexterity. The brilliant architect hit upon a solution. Since the four million-odd terracotta bricks used in the dome’s construction were being fired round-the-clock and brought in daily from the kilns at Impruneta, he ordered a continuous supply of generous potfus of peposo and had them delivered with the brick shipments and hoisted up onto the scaffolds, along with countless loaves of bread and a carefully rationed (and watered down) quantity of vino. The men thus lunched under their boss’s watchful eye, high above the teeming city, leaving Florence’s taverns to the riffraff.

And so it was that the rich red earth of Impruneta helped nourish Brunelleschi’s vision, just as the peposo–born of Impruneta’s kilns–nourished the men who would help him realize it.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

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Burrasca’s peposo

Our peposo is served as it often is these days in Tuscany: with polenta. It’s a wonderfully warming dish, perfect for winter. Come see us and taste for yourself the savory foundation upon which the Duomo was built–there’s no telling what fabulous things you will accomplish with a bellyful of the stuff!