For the greater part of my life, I thought Italian food was heavy, overcooked pasta laden with oily melted cheeses and super sweet tomato sauce. Che tragedia! My only links to “Italian food” in my Southern California hometown were restaurants like Olive Garden, so I avoided what I believed to be Italian food at all costs, assuming I would feel terrible after eating it. Too true about Olive Garden, not at all true about Italian food.
After meeting my partner, Michael, whose mother, Tina was born and raised in Naples, I began to understand what Italian food truly is: fresh, masterfully cooked and straight-forward dishes designed to feature the natural flavors of various local ingredients, from fresh fish pulled from the Mediterranean to olives and figs plucked from trees in Tuscany. They introduced me to true Italian cooking (an art in Tina’s kitchen) and I have never looked back.
I love, love, love the use of nutmeg in savory dishes in northern Italy. Most of us would consider nutmeg to be a sweet spice used in baking and Christmas dishes like eggnog, but now I use it and its cousin, mace in many savory dishes. Sprinkle just a pinch nutmeg on your meats, gratins, roasted vegetables and stews (not to mention curries) for a rich, complex flavor sure to please.
Another ubiquitous Italian ingredient I have come to rely on is pancetta, an Italian-style cured bacon cut into cubes. You can find pancetta in many grocery stores, usually close to the deli counter with the imported cheeses. If you can’t find pancetta, cut 5 bacon slices into 1/4 inch rectangles or consider using a cured, dried sausage like
salami, pepperoni or spicy chorizo.
6 medium zucchini, coarsely grated
1 package pancetta (about a 1/2 – 3/4 cup)
4 freshly minced garlic cloves
3 pieces dry toasted sourdough bread, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 (approximate) tablespoons bacon grease
2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon finely ground coriander seed
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3 oz finely grated pecorino romano or parmesan
Makes roughly 12 medium pancakes.
Fry the pancetta over a medium heat until golden brown, then remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. While it’s cooling, grate your zucchini with a course grater into a large bowl. Finely chop the basil, oregano and garlic and add to the zucchini. Add the cooled pancetta, olive oil, cayenne pepper, coriander, nutmeg, black pepper and salt, then crack the eggs directly into the bowl and mix everything well.
Zucchini contains an enormous amount of water, which can get in the way during cooking. I like to leave the mixture standing at room temperature for about 15 minutes, during which time the excess moisture will begin to pool in the bowl. Carefully drain what you can, noting the moisture will look yellow like egg — but it’s mainly water. Draining the mixture before you add the bread will allow the bread to soak up most of the remaining moisture without being immediately saturated.
Dry the sourdough bread in a low heat oven until crispy but not brown – about 15 minutes in a 200F oven. After the slices have cooled, chop into small pieces and add to the zucchini mixture. I love sourdough bread not only for its delicious taste but because the fermentation process allows your body to more fully absorb its nutrients. Look for sourdough breads made from whole grains instead of enriched white flour, and buy the bread with the fewest ingredients, i.e. water, flour and salt. Avoid breads that list sugar (or cane syrup, maltose, corn syrup, molasses or any other sneaky name for sugar) and any kind of vegetable oil (canola, soybean, safflower, cottonseed, corn, rapeseed, sunflower) because they are not necessary ingredients for traditional breads.
Grate your pecorino romano or parmesan, add to the mixture and stir well, ensuring the cheese is well dispersed throughout the ingredients.
Heat one tablespoon of bacon grease over a medium heat. If you have no bacon grease (poor you), go ahead and use the same amount of butter. When the pan and the grease are nicely hot, scoop up a small handful of the zucchini mixture and squeeze out any extra moisture. Form into a round, flat pancake and carefully slide into the grease to keep from splattering yourself. Add as many pancakes to the pan as will fit, press each down gently with the underside of your turner to flatten and cover with a lid.
After 5 or so minutes, check to see how your pancakes are browning. If they’re golden brown, they’re ready to turn. Cover again for another 5-7 minutes, then remove from the pan and set aside in a warm place (an oven at 120F works nicely).
At this stage I suggest tasting the pancakes to test for seasoning. If they’re not quite salty enough, add a little more salt to the rest of the mixture.
For each batch of pancakes, dissolve 1 tbsp of bacon grease (or butter) into the pan before adding the pancakes. Cook until all of your pancakes are done, then serve with a delicious tomato, cucumber and mozzarella salad and garnish with some fresh basil.