Friday, May 16, 2008


When I showed this torta della nonna (grandmother’s cake)--warm and beautiful and just out of the oven--to SJG one recent afternoon, she remarked dismissively, “It looks rustic.” Crushed, I retreated to the kitchen, where I grumbled privately about her lack of imagination. After all, I’d plucked the recipe for this custard-filled, polenta-based cake from a romantic account of Tuscany in Under the Tuscan Sun—a book by Frances Mayes about buying and restoring an old villa in Tuscany that was later made into one of my favorite chick flicks, starring Diane Lane.

When the cake had cooled, I cut myself a large piece, fully convinced that it would live up to Signore Martini’s assessment. “Perfetto!” he had exclaimed dreamily when Frances served him a piece of her freshly baked torta. But it was awful. I mean awful. Worse than rustic. I choked down a few bites and tossed out the rest. SJG was kind. She didn’t say “Told you so.”

This latest experience of cooking from literature reminds me of a Grapes of Wrath dinner many years ago. Convinced that the Joad family’s roadside meals of biscuits made with bacon grease, black coffee in tin cups, and crisply fried bacon sounded great, I recreated the Depression-era meal for my family when I was an impressionable teenager. After one bite, we ran to the nearest steakhouse for big, fat, juicy steaks, baked potatoes with sour cream, dressing-drenched salads, and generous pieces of pie for dessert.

SJG and I made dinner together the evening of the failed torta della nonna, and we stuck to the Italian theme: beef scallopini, roasted asparagus, and spaghetti a la puttanesca. To my eye, this particular meal doesn’t look very pleasing when served, but believe me, we licked our plates clean.

Spaghetti a la Puttanesca
Pasta a la puttanesca gets its name from the Italian word for prostitute. It’s a staple among my Sicilian relatives, who find the name delightful. Reputedly this dish was popular among ladies of the evening because it’s quick to make in between…clients, shall we say.

¾ pound spaghetti (we like whole wheat spaghetti these days)
several cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped (or try ramps, which are in season now)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil for sauteeing
3-4 tablespoons capers
1 small 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes (we like the fire-roasted variety)
small container of pitted Kalamata olives, chopped (about 1/2-¾ cups)
grated parmiggiana, romano, or pecorino (grate as much as you like)

1) Bring a kettle of water to boil and cook the spaghetti according to package directions.
2) While the spaghetti is cooking, sautee the garlic (or ramps) in olive oil. Add the capers at the end, just to warm them and pick up a little of the garlic flavor.
3) When the spaghetti is done, drain it, saving a little of the pasta water in the kettle (maybe ¼-1/2 cup).
4) Put the warm spaghetti back in the kettle. Toss in the sautéed garlic and capers. Add the can of chopped tomatoes and chopped olives.
5) Serve with a generous topping of grated cheese.

*Makes enough for 2-4 people, depending upon appetite and whether it’s served as a side dish or as a main course. Buon appetito!


fresca said...
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ddip said...

I'd forgotten about the hot coffee! I think the meal was so awful that we didn't even bother clearing the table til after we'd returned from our steakhouse feast....