Imagine living on an island, in a nation obsessed with food, and not having seafood be the focus of your cuisine? On Sardinia for a holiday with my Roman cousins a decade or so back, they had borrowed a wonderful seaside villa where we stayed for a week. I arrived assuming that the island would be teeming with fish, the sardine — its namesake — being just a starting point. And while there is plenty of seafood consumed there, the focus is on other items!
The Sardinians, much to my surprise, prefer game, meat and bread. While I may have been surprised, as is always the case in Italy, I wasn’t disappointed by the food they do love. There are two sheep for each person on the island, the second largest in Italy after Sicily, leading to wonderful cheeses and meats being served.
Game is available to anyone who has a few cartridges. The wild boar prosciutto with bread and the local cheese, Pecorino Sardo, and another cheese called Fiore Sardo, these were one of my best all time food experiences. The Sardinians cook their animals over an open fire above ground turning the spit by hand as the meat roasts over bundles of smoldering myrtle twigs that infuse flavor into the meat. The air around the spit is also perfumed by the process, as an aroma spreads around the neighborhood that drives anyone downwind a bit crazy with Pavlovian anticipation. Part of the reason the aromas are so readily shared is, of course, that the open fire is located outdoors, for obvious reasons. But you might be surprised to know that it isn’t just the spit that is outside — the entire kitchen in this very warm Italian island is almost always a complete, open air room equipped with all the usual appliances. This is how kitchens there have been for more than five thousand years and it is not about to change. We were lucky to be entertained by friends from the island and enjoyed their home cooking almost as much as our own, which is always the best, in my opinion.
Although Sardinians are not fish lovers, it is sometimes on the menu, served simply fried or grilled with no fancy sauces. My preference for fish soup is frutti di mare, so we made some using mostly the shellfish which we bought at the local market, and that satisfied my fish craving for awhile.
According to Waverley Root, a legendary food writer from midway through the last century, “Making bread is almost a religious rite in Sardinia. The link between bread and religion is deeply rooted in many countries. Deities responsible for grain were worshipped in many early societies, while more developed ones say grace for their daily bread.” Most Sardinians make what is called “music paper bread,” because it is unleavened. It comes out of the oven in crisp round leaves which are piled up on one another in a heap. I have not found any bakery that makes this bread in this country, however. But in Sardinia, bread is taken so seriously that it replaces pasta in some cases. For example, their Zuppa Sarda is a stale bread with mozzarella cheese, egg parsley and pepper in broth. I also experienced fregula, which is a tiny saffron flavored ball of pasta dough served with a tomato sauce that is so delicious.
I love starting a soup like minestrone with a pig’s foot. If only there was a butcher to supply it, like the one in Sardinia! In the meantime, I enjoy using pancetta, which I buy in a good size piece and grind in the food processor. I make little baggies of it and freeze them. Bacon and sausage add so much flavor as well to a good minestrone. The great maestros of the kitchen, to me, aren’t the big bellied chefs who make perfection in high end restaurants using the dearest of ingredients. I’m more impressed with the peasant chefs, like my Italian grandmother — and my Mississippi one too — who knew how to make sure every scrap of food was used as they prepared simple meals that tasted incredible. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to learn this at the side of my grandmothers.
In 1973, during my first year in business in my little storefront restaurant, I had some favorite customers, the Chamberlains, Sam and Clementine. They were an older couple who seemed well-traveled and sophisticated about food. It took a while before it was brought to my attention that he was a world famous writer, photographer and artist and that she was a highly respected cookbook editor and writer. They brought me a calendar that Sam had created with beautiful etchings of places that were meaningful to them, accompanied by their recipes. Their home was a few blocks from my little place and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy that proximity, and I got to see their shared love of food and their relationship firsthand. It was a real honor to have them frequent my place. Sadly, Sam died in January of 1975, so the experience was short-lived, but it was a joy to have had the chance to get to know them.
In going through some of my books last week, I came across one by Waverley Root, and I noticed that the illustrations were by Samuel Chamberlain. Root mentioned him in the introduction: “As a by-product of the author’s research, you are rewarded with more than a smattering of Italy’s past. A thread of history runs through every chapter. Another bonus is a revealing glimpse of the Italian language. Embedded in the text are rare morsels of humor, some subtle, some hilarious … I only hope that when my book is read, hopefully soon, that people will find it engaging and will be inspired to cook Italian and, to quote Sam Chamberlain, erase the misconception that “it’s all spaghetti.”
Pork Chop Milanese
Choose a center cut chop for each person. Pound each chop to flatten it slightly.
Prepare fresh bread crumbs: Pulse several slices of rustic day old bread in the food processor with half tsp. of fresh rosemary, de-stemmed, two cloves of garlic, two tbsp. of olive oil, six basil leaves and a little sprig of flat leaf parsley, salt and pepper and a quarter cup of Parmesan. It should resemble medium crumbs, not unlike store bought, but these will taste much better. Pour crumbs into a soup bowl — you will need about two cups.
In another bowl beat two eggs.
Rinse the meat and pat it dry with paper towel.
In a saute pan heat four tbsp. of olive oil until hot. Press the chop into the crumbs on both sides and then into the beaten eggs and back into the crumbs, pressing down to absorb the crumbs nicely.
Without crowding the pan saute till brown on both sides and remove to a platter that will go in a preheated oven to continue cooking and keep warm. If the chops are thick they will need a little more baking time.
Serve over some cooked orzo with a quarter of a lemon on each plate and garnish with fresh basil or parsley