Longest title of all time.
I harbor deeply ambivalent feelings on the utility of “authenticity” as both a concept and a measure of something’s realness. Because there is so much to unpack, and because I don’t want to subject my readers to longass entries, I decided to start a series within the blog on this particular subject. Today, I will use my status as the wife of an Italian to talk about Italy and tradition. I offer no solutions or answers about authenticity in this entry, only the questions that bounce me back and forth between the benefits and detriments of the term. And, cuisine provides us with an interesting, safe, and delicious entry point into this conversation (isn’t it more comfortable to talk about an authentic recipe, as opposed to what it means to be authentically southern, black, Asian, etc?).
Here’s one of the things I hate most about authenticity re food: it necessitates an essentialized understanding of something that is, at its core, socially constructed…the nation-state. And, even if you break the nation-state down into smaller counterparts for the sake of precision, how do we identify the originary thing?
I was once gently admonished by a bona fide Italian that my Pasta e Fagioli was inauthentic, because it wasn’t cooked with lard and bits of pancetta. Boy, did I have feelings about that (top among them, an intense longing for lard and pancetta). Many of the Italians I know (and I do have a fair sample size, since my husband is an immigrant from what I call The Country of Cheese) identify with their province or region of birth, not with the country, which is pretty green in its current form as a republic. So, asking them whether something is authentically “Italian” is a bit senseless. You can, however, ask them about the foods of their region, and they will have very strong opinions about: (1) what ingredients should be included in a dish; (2) what ingredients should and should not be combined; (3) which region in Italy makes the best of [anything]; (4) blahblahblah. Tradition is everything.
(A word of advice: Never tell an Italian to put chicken in a pasta dish. They will make a disgusted and baffled face, and endlessly make flailing hand gestures)
Here’s a hilarious example of what happens when someone tries to de-Italianize a recipe:
But, even within each of these towns that are filled with their own histories and traditions, everyone’s mama makes food a bit differently, and isn’t that a beautiful thing? But, where does that leave poor little authenticity? I love Italy for its endless supply of cheese, wine, salumi, pasta, risotto, etc – whenever I’m there visiting Nico’s family, I end up eating my weight in amazing food. I think so much of the country’s great culinary accomplishments have to do with tradition. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When the food is so goddamn good, and comes from hundreds of years of practice and perfection, why change anything?
But Italy isn’t really a country of innovation, and it’s also not a country that is doing all that well in welcoming immigrants with different experiences and palates (sorry, Country of Cheese…I do love you). My point is this: not only is it kind of a silly pursuit to identify an originary taste or dish or meal, it’s also an inherently exclusionary position, especially if you are heralding all things authentic (when authenticity has to do with Italian ‘pedigree’) and poopoo-ing all things divergent. I think there is a way to honor tradition while simultaneously absorbing new people, contexts, histories, and tastes. Look at Spain! Look at France! Italy…if anything will jump start a process of culinary innovation and inclusion, it’s the knowledge that you are falling behind…France.
I have what may be a totally “inauthentic” recipe for Pasta e Fagioli (lovingly known as “pasta fazool” in this country), but it’s pretty yummy. It’s informed by Nico’s taste-based memory of his mom’s soup, and a little by my mild disdain for dishes that have zillions of ingredients.
As you know, I made a bunch of stock last week, which left me with enough for this delicious soup. I’m a little baffled by how many recipes on the internet are trying to recreate The Olive Garden’s version…yikes…?
Anywho, I sometimes include pancetta in this dish (which I’ve included in the recipe), but since I made three pounds of incredibly fatty pork belly, this week, I thought I would keep this soup a bit lighter. I also did something weird and topped the pasta fazool with sauteed swiss chard. The dish is naturally sweet from the vegetables, and I like to balance that with a bit of bitter, salty, and spicy flavors.
If you’re looking for a comforting, thick, creamy (but not heavy) soup, try this out! Here it is:
Yejin’s Pasta e Fagioli
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons of olive oil
4-6 ounces of pancetta, diced (optional)
1 white onion, chopped
3 large carrots, roughly chopped
2 ribs of celery, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 cups of chicken stock (homemade or purchased)
2 tsp of kosher salt
2 cans of cranberry/roman beans, drained
¼ cup of freshly grated grana
Sauteed Swiss Chard w/ Garlic, Anchovies, and Crushed Red Peppers (RECIPE BELOW)
Drizzle of quality olive oil to top
- In a large and heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. If you’re using pancetta, add to the pot and cook until the fat begins to render, about 5 minutes. I like to take the pancetta out of the pot and place onto a paper towel lined plate. After ladeling the soup into a bowl, I like to sprinkle the pancetta on top. You can also keep the pancetta in the soup…up to you! Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a medium low and simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender (can be easily pierced with a fork), about 20 minutes. Add cranberry/roman beans and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Pour the broth/vegetable mixture into a large mixing bowl. Do your thing with an immersion blender or a regular blender (I don’t use the immersion blender in my nice pot). I like to puree the whole thing so that the soup is creamy perfection, but some people like to puree half and keep the other half as is. Add more broth or water if you want to thin the soup out.
- Return your soup into pot and taste for salt. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally.
- In the meantime, bring water to a boil in a separate pot. Cook egg noodles according to package instructions. Drain and use a slotted spoon to place noodles in your serving bowls.
- Ladel soup over the noodles in your serving bowls.
(Cooking the noodles directly in the soup will mean that your leftovers will be filled with overcooked pasta…no good!)
- Sprinkle with desired amount of shredded grana (and pancetta), top with sauteed swiss chard, and drizzle quality olive oil.
Sauteed Swiss Chard with Garlic, Anchovies, and Crushed Red Pepper
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes
1 bunch of rainbow swiss chard, tough stalks discarded and leaves cut into ribbons
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 anchovies, finely chopped
¼ tsp of crushed red pepper
- Place swiss chard leaves in a bowl with cold water. Rinse out the leaves thoroughly to remove sediment.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and add swiss chard leaves. Cook the leaves for 5 minutes in boiling water, drain, and place under cold running water. When the chard is cool enough to the touch, squeeze the water out.
- Heat a saucepan on a medium heat setting. Add the olive oil, minced garlic, anchovy, and crushed red pepper and saute for about 2 minutes. Add the swiss chard leaves, bring heat to medium-low, and continue cooking for 5 minutes.
Coming up: On Being Healthy + A Recipe for Pork Belly