Menu: Fresh Tagliarini with Local Cabbage, Escarole Salad with Fresh Parmesan and Local Olive Oil Vinaigrette
Lilia stood at the edge of the garden, knitting her arms across her chest to guard against the early spring chill that settled in around us. We had just arrived at Il Laghello di Amina, an agriturismo, or farmstay, in the tiny hamlet of Framura, snuggled in a corner of Liguria, Italy. Perched on a verdant slope, the Mediterranean Sea twinkling blue below, I had come here to eat locally and seasonally.
Our cozy studio apartment, nestled under the eaves of a guesthouse that Lilia and her husband, Guido, built last year, offered modest cooking implements: a two-burner gas stove whose back burner whooshed frighteningly to life, its blue flame licking at the handles of the aluminum stockpot. A small refrigerator, a few pans, no measuring spoons. I knew that anything I cooked would need to be simple, without much effort or embellishment, and perhaps that was just the point. After all, Lilia had moved to this lush tract of land nine years ago, leaving behind the harried existence of a shopkeeper in nearby Portofino in an effort to reconnect to nature and life’s simple pleasures.
When I asked what was available from the garden, Lilia squinted toward a plot of rich earth that tumbled down the hill from her pink house, its chimney puffing violet smoke into the cool afternoon. “Right now we have cabbage, porro – porro?” “— Leeks,” I interjected, recognizing the word from Spanish. “Yes, leeks!” she said, suddenly pulling the word out of the mire of memory, “the long onions,” pantomiming for effect. “And greens. The bitter kind, for salad.” My mind sifted through possibilities. Without my usual arsenal of cookbooks at my disposal I quickly invented a recipe in my head and composed a grocery list to fill in the gaps.
On Easter Sunday, with most restaurants and stores closed, I decided to assemble a simple dinner. Lilia brought a shopping bag filled with lacy heads of Napa-like cabbage and the prettiest head of escarole I had ever laid eyes on. I fingered the vibrant green leaves that bloomed from the base like a lotus, frilly and soft as silk, and marveled at the contrast to their distant American cousins that I have seen in grocery stores, waxy and tough. I ran a dull knife through the cabbage, slicing it into thin ribbons, and placed it in a flimsy sauté pan with a thinly sliced onion, a generous spoonful of butter, and a sprinkling of salt. I slipped a package of fresh tagliarini, a spaghetti-like pasta, into a pot of boiling water.
While dinner cooked I quickly assembled a simple salad, nothing more than torn escarole leaves and a vinaigrette comprised of Lilia’s own olive oil, a briny, yellow-green elixir, whisked with balsamic vinegar. When the cabbage had reduced to soft strands I declared it done, added the cooked pasta, and dressed it with a shower of pungent Parmesan cheese from nearby Parma. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
We padded through the electric lawn in pajamas and sat beneath the pergola looking out over the sea, lone diners on this brilliant Easter Sunday. Maikael uncorked a bottle of Guido’s “black wine,” a deep burgundy-colored table wine with a slight fizz. The whole affair was a stark contrast to our typical fancy Easter dinners, the centerpiece an expensive country ham that I always order from a small company in Kentucky. I worried that these simple dishes weren’t enough. But when I took my first bite of cabbage, having rendered itself sweet and succulent, and then a taste of salad, so deliciously bitter that I nearly winced, I was reminded that a simple meal can be made special by a few show-stopping ingredients. I have a tendency to overcomplicate things – both inside and outside the kitchen. Fussy recipes, complex gadgets and gear, bloated schedules: all of these things mask the few things that really matter. There is nothing like travel, being perilously out of one’s element, requiring us to “make do” with less than we are accustomed to, to remind us that less is usually more.
I’m not bringing back many souvenirs from this trip, except for a few jars of Guido’s honey and the memories and lessons of traveling – and eating – locally.
Elizabeth Grant Thomas writes regularly at her site, elizabethgrantthomas.com, and can be found here every other Tuesday chronicling her family’s journey “back to the table.”