Saturday, March 27, 2021


You are standing next to your horse on the hillside in the province of Abruzzo, halfway between the mountains and the plains. You are following the "silent grassy river," trekking "on the footsteps of ancient fathers." This particular route was  restored in the 13th century by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.  It was his zeal to return to the glory of ages past that led to the restorations of trails like this one, which were first trodden by the Romans centuries earlier.  You are not an emperor. You are just a guide. Those who you guide are grazing peacefully on the verdant grass that leads down to the valley.  They are your flock of sheep.  It is your job to lead them to greener pastures,

It's getting late, the sun will soon set. You survey the green landscape in the distance: the mountains, the valleys, the small towns in the distance. Yet, your eyes always return to those sheep. They are the reason why you are standing in this spot at this particular moment. These sheep are the means by which you, and your family, are able to make a living, as meager as it may be. 

The Transumanza
As you watch the sheep, you begin to realize how tired you are. Shepherds do not get very many breaks. You are in the midst of the Transumanza, or "crossing the land."  It is the three-week trek from the mountains to the plains in search of better grazing lands. The sheep are eating, but you are hungry too. However, there is still work to do. You need to set up your stazzi, the temporary fencing that will keep the sheep corralled during the night.  As you set the remaining posts of that fence, you call upon your Maremmano-Abruzzese sheepdog to corral the straggling sheep into the enclosure. With the fencing in place and the sheep inside, you can finally take a rest ... and eat. 

You start a fire over which you will cook your meal. You don't have a furnacella, which is the brazier that you would traditionally use to make your meal. Instead, you just have to work with what you have. With the words of O Surdato Nnammurato singing through your head, you pulled out some mutton from an old sheep you recently butchered, stringing roughly similar sized pieces on wooden skewers known as ceppos. Once the coals take on their ashy appearance, with the heat radiating from the center, you place the skewers over the fire. Turning the skewers every once in a while, you watch the meat cook as the embers burn a deep red. That red begins to illuminate the space around you as the sun begins to set. Soon enough, the skewers are cooked and you are ready to begin eating your meal. 

This dish is known Arrosticini -- kebabs of mutton, rubbed with rosemary or other available herbs -- is  one of the iconic foods from the Abruzzo region. Yet, it is the simple food of the shepherds. It is what they would prepare when they were out with their flocks of sheep or herds of cattle. It is a dish that reflects the particular circumstances of a shepherd.  Very tired, with little at his or her disposal, he or she would prepare this simple meal to provide needed sustenance. They took what little they had -- and, perhaps, the most important thing they had, namely, their animals -- to produce a meal that, in my humble opinion, is far greater than the sum of its ingredients.  

Today, most arrosticini are prepared in kitchens and restaurants throughout Abruzzo and, as evident from this post, around the world. Home cooks can buy their own furnacella to grill the skewers in their backyards. They can even buy their own special knives by which they can cut the mutton for the kebabs. If one is too tired (or lazy), he or she can simply forgo the butchering of a piece of mutton or lamb and order pre-made arrosticini. 

Pre-made kebabs is not for me, especially when dealing with a dish with such humble and simple origins. That is one of the important purposes of this blog: namely, my effort to learn about the origins of a dish, as well as what that the dish means for those who originally made it. For the shepherds, arrosticini was sustenance. It fulfilled a basic need for someone who worked long hours, perhaps on an equally long journey. And, those skewers were damn good to eat. 


Recipe adapted from Great Italian Chefs

Serves 8


  • 1.5 pounds of lamb shoulder or leg, diced into 1 inch cubes
  • 1 spring of rosemary, chopped finely
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

1. Marinate the lamb.  Place the lamb in a bowl with the rosemary and olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside while you preheat a barbecue for direct cooking.

2. Skewer the lamb.  if using wooden skewers, leave to soak in cold water for at least 20 minutes to prevent them from burning during cooking.  Thread the lamb onto the skewers neatly, ensuring an even distribution of fat and meat. 

3. Cook the skewers.  Once the coals in the barbecue have turned an ashy white, or the gas grill is heated to medium high.  Cook the skewers for 2-3 minutes, turning them halfway through. 

4. Finish the dish. Serve hot with pepperoncini and crusty bread with good quality olive oil. 

For an excellent article about the Transumanza through the neighboring province of Molise, check out this New York Times article by Maria Russo.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Ojibwe Fish Cakes

If there was anyone who should be considered in a project about peoples who lack their own countries, as I am doing with my Beyond Borders project, it is Native Americans. It is estimated that, as of 1492, there were sixty million Native Americans living across the Americas. They lived in organized societies -- which comprised of nearly six hundred different tribes -- in every region of the hemisphere. These societies were as developed and as complex as anything that existed in Europe. 

For example, the Ojibwe nation stretched along southern Canada, from Quebec to Saskatchewan, and further south into the United States, including parts of what is known today as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.  They had the fifth largest population of Native American peoples in the United States, with only the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw and Sioux being more populous. In Canada, they were the second largest population, with only the Cree being more numerous.   

The Ojibwe don't have a nation today. They have been relegated to reservations, such as the Red Lake  Reservation and the Mille Lacs Reservation --  that dot the large expanse  that the Ojibwe once controlled on their own.

As with most native tribes, the Ojibwe developed their own cuisine based upon not only what they hunted or fished, but also the produce and grains they cultivated. The Ojibwe are well known for producing maple syrup or cultivating rice.  Yet, what led me to researching their cuisine and writing about it comes not from the land, or slightly submerged land, but from the water.  It is the fish, which play an important role in the cuisine and diet of the Ojibwe. 

Ojibwe Seine Fishing
(photo from
Traditionally, Ojibwe women did much of the fishing, except for the ice fishing in the winter and spear fishing in the spring. The fishermen and women used many different techniques to catch fish, depending upon the location, the season and, of course the fish.  For example, the Ojibwe lowered large nets -- seines --  into lakes to capture fish.  These nets with floats at the top and weights at the bottom were used to trap the fish by taking the ends of the nets and moving then to encircle the fish. This method enabled the Ojibwe to catch larger amounts of fish.  

Other common fishing methods included spear fishing and the traditional hook and line.  When it came to spear fishing, Ojibwe fishermen take their canoes out to the water at night. They used a torch as bait.  The fish would be attracted to the light and come to the surface, only to meet the sharp end of an Ojibwe spear. This method was best for catching the largest fish, such as sturgeon, although the Ojibwe did modify spears into three-pronged tridents to help catch smaller fish. As for the hook and line method, the Ojibwe would fashion hooks out of deer bone and coppper, as well as make bobbers with bark and weights with small stones.  They would then set out on canoes, tying the line around their hand and then the canoe.  They would then fish by trolling across the lakes or rivers. 

These fishing techniques resulted in catches of a wide variety of fish.  The species included the walleye, the iconic fish of the upper Midwest, as well as whitefish, perch, trout and, as noted above, even sturgeon. 

Ojibwe rack for drying and smoking fish
(from the Ojibwe People's Dictionary). 

Once caught, the Ojibwe prepared the fish in different ways.  They would boil, bake or pickle the fish if they were going to consume it in the near future.  If they intended to save the fish for when food might be more scarce, such as during the winter months, the Ojibwe would smoke the fish. They would erect racks that would enable them to smoke the whole fish. These method was the primary way to preserve fish since salt would not make its way into Ojibwe cooking until 1845. If the fish was caught during the winter, such as when the men would go out to ice fish, the cold environs provided their own way to preserve the fish.  Just layer the fish in now, where it would freeze until needed. 

While the Ojibwe would boil and bake the fish, there was one method of cooking that caught my attention.  It was the fish cake.  Ojibwe men and women would use fish they caught from Lake Superior or one of the rivers in Minnesota, which was typically trout or perch.  They would prepare the cakes for roasting over hot coals. 

However, the recipe that I found called for frying them on the stove. I decided to borrow from my experience of making crab cakes.  I have made crab cakes in nearly every way: frying, broiling, baking, etc.  I decided that, for these fish cakes, I would first bake them at about 375 degrees Fahreinheit for about 10 minutes.  Given the fish is already cooked, the only concern is the beaten egg, which must be cooked in order to firm up the cakes.  However, I find that baking cakes, whether crab or fish, is often not enough.  So, I finished the fish cakes under the broiler for about 5 minutes.  This allows for the cakes' outer surface to brown and crisp up a little. This is a healthy way to create the crispiness that comes from frying the cakes in butter or oil. 


Recipe from Hoohla Cooking

Serves 3-4


  • 1 pound of trout or lake perch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 cup cracker meal
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon onion, finely minced

1. Prepare the fish cakes. Flake fish, making sure all bones are removed.  In a large bowl, combine fish, eggs, cracker meal, onion, salt, and pepper. Mix lightly.  shape into 6 to 8 flat cakes. 

2. Fry the fish cakes.  Heat the oil in a heavy fryingg pan over moderate heat.  Fry the cakes until lightly browned on both sides.  Drain on both sides. Serve immediately.


Saturday, March 6, 2021

Spaghetti alle Vongole

If you want to know about Spaghetti alle Vongole, you need to start with Ippolito Cavalcanti.  He was the Duke of Buonvicino, a small town nestled in the hills of mountains of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily (now known as Calabria). The Cavalcanti were a noble family whose lineage goes back to Guido Cavalcanti, an accomplished poet in the 14th century. Guido was also the friend of another well known poet, philosopher and writer, Dante Alighieri.  

Unlike his forefather, Ippolito Cavalcanti was not a poet. Instead, he wrote a cookbook. That book is Cucina Teortico-practica. He published his cookbook in 1837; and, as it turns out, the book in some sense part-cookbook and part-history book. To be sure, there are recipes for dishes such as eggplant parmigiana and fried cod. However, the recipes provide a glimpse into the cuisine of Calabria during the early to mid 19th century. In more direct terms, those recipes document  what some people -- that is, the well to do -- were eating at that time. 

Ippolito Cavalcanti's Cookbook.
The Cucina Teortico-practica could have been relegated to the dusty bookshelves of time, but for one particular recipe: Spaghetti alle vongole. As it turns out, Ippolito Cavalcanti included the first known written recipe for that dish in his cookbook.  

Ippolito's recipe has just five ingredients: pasta, olive oil, garlic. parsley and clams. That's it. Yet, those five ingredients have become associated with an authentic spagehetti alle vongole. Those five ingredients constitute what every Calabrian envisions when served a pasta dish with clams. If you are using a recipe that calls for white wine or crushed red pepper flakes, then you are cooking a dish that is not authentic. If you add grated cheese, either during the preparation or while eating the dish, then you are destined for one of Dante Alighieri's nine circles of hell. My guess is that the circle in which you find yourself probably depends upon what kind of cheese you grate over the dish.  

There is a reason for such simplicity in the ingredients. The whole point of the dish -- its culinary raison d'etre -- is to highlight the taste of the clams.  Each briny little bite should transport the eater to the shallow waters of the Mediterranean, along the Calabrian coast, where he or she is standing knee deep in the crystal blue waters with a clam rake and a bucket.  That is quite the feat for an 18th century Duke and cookbook author whose tiny little town was more than a two-hour walk from the nearest coastline.  

Vongole Veraci.
Moreover, just any clam will do. The authentic spaghetti alle vongole is prepared with the vongole verace or "true clam." That clam is the venerupis dessiucata, which can be found in those Medditerranean waters around the ports of Calabria. Yet, unless you live in Calabria and dig out those clams yourself, you are most likely going to be using clams from some other part of the world. I try to purchase clams as locally as I can, and, the best supplier that I have found in the region where I live is Cherrystone Aqua Farms. They have both little-neck clams and middle-neck clams (as well as some excellent oysters. The general rule for choosing clams to be used in pasta recipes is the smaller the better.  Smaller clams are more tender than larger ones. They are also easier to overcook, which will defeat the purpose of using smaller clams. I used some middle-neck clams, which were probably the largest clams that I would use for this recipe. 

Now, I reach the point where I have to admit that, despite everything I have written to this point, the following recipe is not a traditional spaghetti alle vongole dish. The reason is -- gasp --  it uses white wine. While Ippolito Cavalcanti may be looking down disapprovingly at me, I figured that I could never prepare an authentic dish anyways because I was not using vongole veraci. So, I thought that a little white wine would not hurt. After all, I planned on opening a bottle to drink as I enjoyed the dish.  (One last tip: don't use Pinot Grigio, this dish requires a dry wine, like an Orvieto or Trebbiano.) 


Recipe from Taste Cooking

Serves 4


  • 2 pounds of vongole veraci or other small clams in their shells
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Salt


1. Prepare the clams.  Soak the clams overnight in water and salt to clean them. Put the clams (still in their shells) in an open saute pan with a little olive oil and a clove of garlic over low-medium heat.  Be careful not to burn the garlic.  Stir the clams until they are all open.  Once the clams are open, add 1/2 cup of white wine, the parsley and then a second clove of thinly diced garlic.  Stir and then remove from heat. 

2. Cook the pasta.  Cook the pasta in salted water. 

3. Finish the dish.  Drain the pasta 1 minute before done and add it to the saute pan with the clams.  Turn the heat on high and let the pasta cook the last minute together with the clams and their shells.  Serve with or without shells. 

For more about spaghetti alle vongole, check out the well written posts at Taste Cooking and Phase Changes Kitchen