‘So tell me, what is the biggest surprise about your job to those that don’t work in the field’, is the question I always ask when stumped for a good question at a dinner party, whenever there is painful lull. I like the question because it comes across as geniune, and because nearly everyone has to cock their head for a second and really think about it, not something that happens often when making small talk.
But I also like the question because once you get close enough to any particular subject, you begin to see it in ways that others don’t, those with only a passing interest or a layman’s understanding.
If you were to ask me that same question, I’d have to answer this way: Everyone thinks that it’s about the recipe here in Italy, when the true is that it almost never is.
Take boiled chicory, for example. It’s easily the most consumed dish in the history of Puglia, yet it’s not really a recipe. It is, in fact, at the heart of the problem that I have when writing recipes to be given to departing students. I feel silly even writing it down, so simple it is to conceive.
Forage or buy some good wild chicory, the kind that you could mistake for dandilions.
Trim away the red and white tips. Wash them really, really, really well. Wash them again. And once more with feeling. Each time they will give up a little more of their soil.
Boil them in salted water until tender, roughly 10 minutes if you picked them today. 15 if you picked them yesterday. Turn off the water at the proper time and just let them cool.
Lift out with tongs, notice all the soil that continues to dislodge into the bottom of the pot.
Toss with your best quality olive oil and serve at room temperature, or reheat in the oil.
It is, in fact, Puglia on a plate. The inherent bitterness. The satisfying earthiness. The green-green flavours. The healthiness of the Mediterranean diet, the silkiness of good extra virgin. They are excellent, and they satisfy completely, filling your mouth with a rich earthy earnestness. Yet however good they are, on the printed page, as a recipe, all of this really underwhelms.
Those that have been following our little cooking school in Lecce, likely know that I’ve been working on a cookbook for a few years now, and these sorts of recipes are at the heart of the book, a recipe book, but only so much that these words on this computer screen are really a recipe.
Follow along the next few months as I publish outtakes of the book, right here. Chime in. Sound off. Let me know what you think. Consider yourself a recipe tester. Send in pictures. We’ve always been inclusive as a school and so it seems natural to us that our cookbook would continue that spirit.
And for heaven’s sake, come to Puglia this year. We’ll put a big pot of greens on for you. We’ll hand over the big ol’ stirrin’ spoon.