Recreation from Memory: A Wedding Feast
This Sunday, June 24, my husband Tyler and I will celebrate our one year wedding anniversary. At this time last year we were in a castle in Umbria with 20 of our closest friends and relatives. When I think back on our wedding week (and day) I am impressed most by the fantastical and dreamlike quality of the time we spent at Palazzo Massarucci. It still feels unreal. I have both vivid and ephemeral memories of that week. I can recall one on one conversations held over morning coffee, late night dance parties, lounging by the pool with a book, sneaking outside the gates for a cigarette with the bad kids (bride’s side, naturally) day trips to ancient cites, bumpy roads flanked by miles of wheat and wildflowers and the gentle, lavender scented breeze that rustled the mosquito netting on our wedding bed at nightly. Yet all of these memories are cloaked in a veil of unreality. The idyllic setting, the company, so familiar yet so diverse, and the pervading feelings of goodwill, privilege and joy I was feeling all added up to one super weird week. What I remember most concretely however, was the food, the glorious food. During our wedding week, an astounding amount of our collective time was spent either thinking about food, procuring food, preparing food , eating food and subsequently discussing all the food we ate.
The town of Macerino is a tiny Umbrian hamlet high upon a hill smack dab in the middle of Italy. It has a permanent population of 7. There are a small number of vacation rentals there including the Palazzo Massarucci (where we stayed), which is a beautifully restored 16th century castle built from the remains of a medieval fortress. Behind the palazzo there is an ancient well and square with a small few winding cobbled streets leading elsewhere. In front, there is a small restaurant (renowned for its truly authentic Umbrian dishes) that also sells a few basic groceries and espresso. As a group we tended to gather around the large kitchen at the center of the palazzo. Some party or another must have shopped daily at either the tiny store across the way to down the bumpy road to Spoleto to one of its splendidly appointed grocery stores because there was a seemingly endless supply of sliced meats and cheeses, fresh eggs, bread and wine available at all times. We also partook in a couple of extravagant family meals. The restaurant across the street (we were never sure of its name) hosted out party for a meal that has yet to be surpassed. We simply told them how many would be dining and she told us when to show up. The two women in charge over there then cooked us a spectacular multi-course meal that lasted at least 3 hours. I should mention that our stay in Macerino coincided with the height of the black truffle season there, something none of us had expected or thought to consider.
I can’t remember all we are but there were a few standout dishes. I know we had fried zucchini blossoms which were both soft and crispy and perfect. We had a simple frittata rife with fresh black truffles. If I had ever had truffles in the past, I’ve forgotten them completely. The taste of them here was so wonderful and earthy that any other truffle memory I may have had has been completely obliterated. Everybody’s favorite dish of the evening (the one discussed in hushed, reverent tones for weeks to come) was a homemade ravioli with cheese and truffles. HOLY SHIT. I think there may have been a little cheese inside, maybe some pork, who cares. What I do know is that those bad boys were gleefully backstroking in a rich sauce of cream, egg, parmesano reggiano and enough finely chopped black truffle to choke a shoat. Lawd it was good.
As if that meal wasn’t extravagant enough, we also hired a chef to come to the palazzo and give a cooking lesson. His name was Carlo and he showed us how to make fresh pasta which we cooked with a simple sauté of zucchini and onion.
He also make what I think was the star of the week, a salad made from stale bread and as many fresh vegetables as you can find and is softened with very good oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s officially called panzanella but I don’t think he ever called it that. We just called it delicious. We all loved it so much that we made one for our wedding feast. Carlo also showed us how to use the wood burning oven at the palazzo which our intrepid guests, Andrew and Sarah, used the next day to make beautiful handmade pizzas.
We wanted to the food for our wedding to be simple fare served family style. In addition to the bread salad and a chicken dish I made (an improvised picatta), we enlisted the restaurant across the way to furnish the bulk of the dishes. We requested a huge amount of everybody’s favorite, the ravioli with truffles as well as a vegetable dish and a soup. We weren’t specific about the last two although I think we asked for “pasta faigioli” for the soup as it was fun to say in Italian (I’m sure we sounded like Chef Boyardee).
What we got was beyond our expectations. We were presented with several trays of our beloved ravioli as well as a rich and satisfying ragout of eggplant, summer squash and tomato. Especially wonderful was a rich and hearty soup/gravy full of plump beans and rustic squares of fresh cut pasta. It was our pasta faigiole! I remember the taste of that dish with particular clarity. It was so rich yet rustic; I could tell there were not many ingredients but there was a serious density of flavor. I also remember my Aunt Dee, knee deep into a second helping, raving about how it was her favorite thing that she had eaten all week. I also remember the stricken look on her face when we told her we were pretty sure it had pork in it (Dee’s been a vegetarian for 30 years). She mournfully finished her bowl, forced to acknowledge (no matter how tacitly) that pork was delicious and she too was susceptible to its powers.
Long story interminable, I was thinking about all this lovely food and that lovely week in the country with so many friends and family and how thankful I am. Our wedding week was like a dream. And like the best dreams, you wake up with the memory and feelings still on your lips. In an attempt to rekindle those sense memories I decided to attempt to recreate the pasta faigiole we had on our wedding day.
Breaking down my taste memory was pretty easy. I knew it was a long cooking bean dish. The broth (or sauce) was thick, somewhat starchy and glossy. I knew there was pork in there and I guessed it stated with a basic mire-poi of onion, celery and carrot. Also some tomato as it had just enough acidity and a rich reddish brown color. The pasta was unmistakably home made and probably added already cooked at the end. With those clues in mind, I began my quest. I started by making a basic chicken stock using 1/2 of a chicken, reserving the other half for our main course Big Ass Crouton Chicken (recipe to follow in another post). For the soup I chose fresh cranberry beans over dry because they looked awesome and were available.
Pasta Faigiole di Macerino
4 cups chicken stock, hot
¼ lb fresh pasta rolled and cut into rough ribbons/squares
3 carrots, chopped
2 stalks of celery
1 large yellow onion
3 gloves of garlic
2 tbs tomato paste
1 tomato, chopped seeded and diced
1 oz prosciutto, chopped
4-5 dried porcini mushrooms soaked in ½ boiling water, juice reserved
¼ dry white wine
2 cups shelled fresh cranberry beans (can substitute dry cannelloni beans, soaked
2 dried red chilies
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 smoked ham hock
Sauté onion, celery, carrots and garlic in olive oil. Add prosciutto. When they have sweated down a bit, add tomato paste and let it get a bit brown. Add tomato, thyme, chilies, bay leaf, mushrooms and ham hock followed by wine; stir. Add hot stock, mushroom juice and beans and bring to a boil and then bring down to a simmer. Cover and simmer for at least an hour or as many as three (stirring occasionally and checking for bean doneness). I honestly have no idea how long I cooked mine for. When your beans are tender remove pot from heat and let cool to not scalding. When manageable, strain cooking liquid into another large pot. He’s where I probably could have done things a bit smarter. When you have your strained soup contents, pick all the beans out of the retained vegetables . Maybe I could have cooked the beans in a cheesecloth bag or for easy removal or something. The beans need to cook with everything else but everything else needs to get pureed. You want to retain the beans whole. Anyhow, I picked my beans out and it took a long time and was probably dumb. Also remove ham hock, bay leaf and chilies. In a blender puree your remaining vegetables with some of the reserved cooking liquid. Add puree back to pot along with the remainder of your cooking liquid. Taste for seasoning. Add beans. Now add your pasta which has been boiled for about 1-2 minutes in salted boiling water. That my friends, is pasta faigiole!
To round out our meal, in a nod to the panznella salad, I decided to try roasting a marinated chicken on top of large, hand-torn croutons. I added sliced onion, capers and some super ripe cherry tomatoes to the mix. The results were phenomenal. The croutons absorbed all the golden delicious drippings from the bird yet maintained a wonderful buttery crispiness. I’ll give you a recipe for that one later if you want it (you do, trust).