Cooking Italian Food — Rooted in the Past

Pasta, The Taste of Hospitality
Pasta, The Taste of Hospitality (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Note: For further reading on cooking, spirituality, and religion, check out my work-in-progress Food, Spirituality, and Religion Bibliography,” which right now tends to lean a bit more toward Christianity, but will eventually reflect more in-depth aspects of other religious traditions.

Sparkling Amalfi Coast (Used with permission.)

I find the first-hand experience of cooking delicious Italian food to be one of my callings in life, one of life’s endless riches. Finding the right recipe for the ingredients I have on hand, fussing with my tiny pantry space, and dreaming of open-air Italian markets sparkling along the rocky Mediterranean coastlines of Italy, all this should be enough to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.

But the underlying, and unspoken, framework, scaffolding, cushion, what-have-you, is that Italian cooking epitomizes hospitality. It’s not for nothing that St. Benedict and the Benedictines got their start in Italy, even it was the Italy of the failing Roman Empire. All the more pertinent for us today, no?

St. Benedict Delivering his Rule (Fresco by Sodoma, 1505-1508)

What does this sixth-century Catholic saint have to say to us modern, somewhat secular, thinkers about cooking, hospitality, and kitchen work?

In Chapter 35 of his seemingly austere Rule of St. Benedict, he admonishes us to serve one another. Esther de Waal, in her highly sophisticated commentary on Benedict’s Rule, A Life-Giving Way, asks: “Can everything that I have been shown in the previous chapters about stewardship, about service and mutual concern, about the sacramental approach to life, become a reality in my daily routine in the preparation and serving of food? ”

Cooking and Community (Used with permission.)

No matter how much I spiral about, I always come back to the stove. De Waal gets it right when she says, “Care and concern for the disadvantaged, ministry with the underprivileged, a commitment to good causes in distant parts of the world, does not excuse me from the demands of service to those close to me, in my immediate circle.”

Chapter 37 finds De Waal saying that we ignore at our peril the family meal. Today everyone today runs off, to frantic activity, eating whatever garbage appears quickly, with the least hassle, tasteless, odorless, colorless, lifeless.

St. Benedict and his Monks Eating

St. Benedict required communal meals. He also hospitably provided his monks with a choice of either of two cooked vegetable dishes, unusual for the times, and in doing so we can truthfully think of him as giving his monks a chance to connect with the earth.

For the earth produces our food, nourishing it from tiny seeds or tiny animals, and the least we can do is be grateful.

And treat all of the food we eat, the utensils we prepare it with, and the people who work to grow our food with the utmost reverence. This attitude of St. Benedict’s also appears in other religious traditions, from Buddhism to Islam to Judaism.

Homesteader Eating with his Family, 1940 (Library of Congress)

Which, to my way of thinking, makes us all really one.

Serves 6

2 1/2 lb. butternut or acorn squash, or sugar pumpkin
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ cup chopped bacon
2 medium onions, diced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 t. fresh thyme
2 small bay leaves
4 cups low-salt chicken stock
1 t. sugar
½ cup heavy whipping cream
½  t. freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out seeds and fiber with a large spoon. Sprinkle cut side of squash with 1 t. fine sea salt; place each half cut side down in lightly greased baking pan lined with aluminum foil.

Add ½ cup water to baking pan. Bake squash for  about 1 ½  hours, until skin is shiny  and brown. The squash will be tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Remove cooked squash halves from the oven and let rest until cool and you can scoop out the flesh with a spoon, discarding skin.

In large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat butter until bubbles form. Toss in bacon and cook until slightly crisp. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Add onions and season with ½ t. salt. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the onions. Add bay leaf. Cook over medium heat, stir often, until onions are tender and translucent, do not let them brown, about 10 minutes.

Add squash. Season with additional salt and pepper. Cook 5 minutes, stirring often.

Add stock and simmer uncovered 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste. Remove bay leaf. Stir in sugar. Cool slightly. Purée soup, in batches, using a blender or food processor.

Return soup to pot and let simmer. Stir in ½ cup heavy cream and 1 t. grated nutmeg.  Bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning; add salt, pepper, sugar, and nutmeg as needed. If necessary, add more chicken stock to make soup of thickness you like.

To reheat soup, cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until heated through. Do not boil!

You may cook the soup two days ahead; be sure to reheat it gently.

Butternut Squash & Garlic (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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