Calabria is at the toe of the boot, the extreme south of Italy – lapped by the crystal blue Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas and separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina. The warm climate, the beautiful colors of the sea, rocky coasts that alternate with sandy beaches, the classic flavors of local foods and the vestiges of its ancient origins make Calabria a unique place in both winter and summer. The provinces of Calabria are: Catanzaro (regional capital), Reggio Calabria, Cosenza, Crotone and Vibo Valentia.
With farmland sparse in Calabria, every viable plot is cultivated to its greatest advantage. Tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, artichokes, beans, onions, peppers, asparagus, melons, citrus fruits, grapes, olives, almonds, figs and mountain-loving herbs grow well in the area. Calabrians tend to focus on the high quality of their ingredients, so that virtually everything picked from a garden is useable and worthy of praise.
Calabrians use the mountainous area covering most of the region to raise pigs, goats and sheep and comb the woods for chestnuts, acorns and wild mushrooms to add rustic flavors to their cooking.
Fishermen have little trouble finding swordfish, cod and sardines and shrimp and lobster are common on their tables. The inland freshwater lakes and streams offer trout in abundance.
Due to the humid climate and the high risk of rapid molding and spoilage, food preservation has become a fine art in Calabria. Oiling, salting, curing, smoking – almost all of the area’s food products can be found preserved in some form or another. Calabria’s many varieties of cured meats and sausages are served alongside fresh produce and the local pancetta pairs perfectly with plump melons in summer.
Calabrians do their best to utilize the entire animal, so the fact that the organ meats are so prized by locals comes as no great surprise. The spicy-hot tang of nduja (also known as ‘ndugghi) is both a complex and singularly unusual flavor. Made from pig’s fat and organ meats mixed with liberal local pepperoncinis, this salami-style delicacy is a testament to the Calabrian patience in waiting until foods have reached their perfection. In this case, waiting for the salami to cure for an entire year. Other salamis such as capicola calabrese and soppressata di calabria also come from the region and are served alongside local breads, cheeses and Calabrian wines.
Breads, cheeses and pastas are all important to Calabrian cooking. Cheeses lean toward the goat and/or sheep milk varieties, though cow’s milk cheeses are becoming more common. Pane del pescatore (“fisherman’s bread”) is a local specialty rich with eggs and dried fruits. Focaccia and pita breads are popular in the region, due to Greek and Arabic influences. Greek influence still pervades in eggplant, swordfish and sweets by incorporating figs, almonds and honey into the preparations. Similarly, special pastries and desserts take on a Greek flavor with many being fried and dipped in honey.
Calabrian pastas are hearty and varied, with the names of some of the more creative cuts, like ricci di donna (or “curls of the lady”) and capieddi ‘e prieviti (or “hairs of the priest”), belying a whimsical spirit of the region’s people. Fusilli is a common pasta component in Calabrian dishes, as are scilateddri, lagane, cavateddri and maccheroni.
Wine is not produced in huge quantities in the region, though the small batches are excellent in flavor and heavily influenced by Greek varieties. Ciró wines are produced using the same ancient varieties of grapes, as wines produced in antiquity for local heroes of the Olympic games. The grapes are still grown primarily in the Cosenza province of Calabria and Ciró wines often take up to four years to reach maturity. Calabria also turns out sweet whites, such as Greco di Bianco.
Calabrian hot pepper is found in many Calabrian dishes – toasted bread with n’duja sausage or sardines, pork sausages, pasta sauces and fish dishes will have hot pepper added. A fondness for spicy food shows in the popularity of all types of peppers and, unusual for Italy, the use of ginger (zenzero), which is added to spice up sauces (along with hot pepper). Some Calabrian chicken and fish recipes also include ginger.
Ricotta Stuffed Mushrooms
- One dozen mushroom caps
- 1 cup well-drained skim milk ricotta
- 1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese
- 2 teaspoons fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Ground black pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- Olive oil for drizzling
- Fresh parsley or basil, chopped, for garnishing
Preheat the oven at 400 degrees F.
Remove stems from mushrooms and set the caps side. Use the stems for soup or other recipes.
Thoroughly combine the next five ingredients -ricotta through pepper- in a mixing bowl.
Coat a baking dish just large enough to hold the 12 mushrooms with olive oil cooking spray.
Stuff each cap with ricotta filling. Sprinkle the tops lightly with breadcrumbs.
Place the stuffed mushroom caps in the baking dish and drizzle with olive oil.
Bake at 400 degrees F 20 minutes for large caps, 15 minutes for small caps. Garnish with chopped parsley before serving.
Calabrian Sugo – Tomato Sauce
Makes 2 ½ cups
This is a basic Calabrian sauce that is the foundation of many dishes. It can be served on its own with any pasta shape. It can also be the starting point for the addition of many other ingredients. You can use fresh tomatoes or canned.
- 28-ounce can of peeled tomatoes in their juice or 3 ½ cups of peeled, chopped fresh tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 large basil leaves
- 1 fresh or dried hot red pepper or a large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pound rigatoni
If you are using canned tomatoes, break them up by hand. If you prefer a smoother sauce, puree them in a food processor or blender.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until golden, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, basil, salt and hot pepper.
Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Combine pasta with sauce and serve.
Trance di Tonno alla Calabrese (Tuna Steaks Calabrese Style)
- 4 tuna steaks (about 2 pounds and 1 inch thick)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- Salt and fresh ground pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Place the tuna in a large large dish in a single layer, sprinkle with three tablespoons of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper.
Add bay leaves and garlic cloves and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the tuna to marinate in the refrigerator for at least six hours, occasionally turning the tuna.
Remove the tuna from the marinade.
Heat a large skillet until very hot and cook the tuna together with the lemon wedges, for approximately six minutes depending on thickness of the fillets or until the fish done to your likeness.
Sprinkle with black pepper and extra virgin olive oil before serving.
- One head of fresh escarole, washed thoroughly
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- 2 tablespoons raisins
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the escarole and cook until the stem pieces start to soften, about 2 minutes (the water needn’t return to a boil). Drain.
In a 12-inch skillet, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic browns slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the garlic with tongs and discard.
Add the pine nuts, raisins, capers and crushed red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until the pine nuts are golden and the raisins puff, about 1 minute.
Add the escarole, increase the heat to medium high, and cook, tossing often, until heated through and tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and season to taste with salt or more hot pepper.
Devil’s Tart (Crostata del Diavolo)
Sweet and hot are popular combinations in southern Italy, as evidenced by this tart. Chile jam is readily available from mail order sources. You can also roll the top crust out and fit it over the filling instead of making a lattice top.
- 5 ounces soft butter
- 5 ounces sugar
- 1 large egg plus 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
- 11 ounces flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 5 ounces orange marmalade or apricot jam
- 4 ounces red chile jam (Marmellata di Peperoncino)
- 4 ounces almonds, blanched and chopped
- Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar and mix well. Add the egg yolks, egg and lemon peel.
In another bowl, combine the flour and baking powder and slowly add to the butter-sugar-egg-mixture.
Divide the dough in half. Roll one half of the dough on a floured surface to fit a tart or pie pan and fit the dough into the pan.
Spread the fruit jam evenly over the dough in the pie dish and, then, spread the chile jam evenly on top of the orange jam. Sprinkle with the almonds.
Roll the other half of the dough to the size of the top of the tart pan on a floured surface. Cut the dough into one inch strips and lay the strips on top of the filling in a lattice pattern.
Bake the tart for about 30 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool on a rack and dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.
Eggs poached with n’duja, peppers and tomatoes (frombootlewithlove.wordpress.com)
Mangia! Mangia! (mylifelivedfull.wordpress.com)
Calabria: An Ideal Holiday Spot (gateawayblog.wordpress.com)
A Sicilian Style Christmas Eve Dinner (jovinacooksitalian.com)