The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty1, the current selection of the Cook the Books club, is a captivating read and a book difficult to describe in a few words: world history, food history, personal memories, travels all play a part in the story, which has an epic reach, encompassing centuries and large spaces, using the author's family tree as guide.
Even before reading the book, I knew Twitty is a great story teller, whether he talks about a specific dish or is inhabiting the lives of his enslaved ancestors. I understand his need to know, his stubborn following all the threads that tie his life to those of his forebears. It as a special kind of religious pilgrimage. Whatever your specific interests, you will find the book fascinating, as it weaves foodways into the quilt of people's migration, mostly (though not all) forced.
While the book includes a number of recipes, I decided to mirror the woven stories and make something that would represent my own journey from Perugia (Italy), where I was born and grew up, to Milan, where I lived for almost 10 years, to Northern California, where I have been living for over 20 years. A special connection to the book is provided by fagiolina del (Lago) Trasimeno, a legume typical of my home region of Umbria, which is a cultivar of cowpea2, Vigna unguiculata, closely related to black-eyed peas, one of the crops brought from Africa to America on slave ships. Besides being pretty, fagiolina is a pleasure to eat: tender, buttery and flavorful. I buy it at the Antica Spezieria e Drogheria Eredi Bavicchi3 in Perugia, one of my favorite stores in the world.
Growing up, I never ate leeks: my mother didn't cook them nor did any of my relatives. I "discovered" leeks when I moved to Milan, thanks to one of my roommates who made a killer leek gratin. When available, I purchase leeks at the farmers' market and can eat industrial quantities of the delicately flavored member of the allium family.
Zucca is another ingredient that was absent in my early life's diet for the same reason as leeks. It appeared in some meals I had while living in Milan, since it is an ingredient of traditional northern Italian dishes, like risotto and tortelli. I would see wedges sold in grocery stores, but I wasn't a cook back then and the unfamiliarity always won. After I moved to California, I learned to appreciate the many varieties of winter squash and pumpkins grown by local farmers and I am always ready to taste new ones. Most recently, Candystick Dessert Delicata squash4, grown locally by Shakefork Community Farm5. Its thick flesh has a delicious date-like flavor.
So here is my quilt dish: fagiolina and leeks as stuffing for delicata squash, with some fresh chèvre to brighten the combination (omit the cheese to make a vegan version).
- 1/2 cup / 3.25 ounces / 92 g fagiolina del Trasimeno (either white or rainbow variety)
- 1 1/2 cups / 350 ml water
- 1/2 small onion, halved
- 1/2 garlic clove
- A small bay leaf
- A handful of parsley stems
- A 1-inch / 2.5 cm piece of kombu (optional)
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 8 ounces / 225 g leek, white and light green portion, clean weight (set aside the dark green portion to make broth or stock)
- 2 tablespoon / 30 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- Leaves of a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
- Fine sea salt, to taste
- A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 medium delicata squash: I used the Candystick Dessert variety
- 2 ounces / 56 g fresh chèvre
Note: there are four parts to the recipe. The first three can all be made ahead of time. The fagiolina and leek mix is enough to stuff 4 squash halves and serve 4 people.
Cook the fagiolina
Rinse the fagiolina. Add fagiolina and all the aromatics (ingredients #3 through 8) to the water. Stir, cover and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and let the fagiolina cook, covered, until it is tender. Let the fagiolina cool in the broth, then remove the aromatics and discard them.
Cook the leeks
Cut the leek(s) in half lengthwise and slice into 1/8 inch / 3 mm half-moons. Rinse well in a colander, then place in a bowl and fill it with cold water. With your hands, swirl the leeks to clean them well, then scoop them out of the water with a sieve or slotted spoon and drain them in a colander.
Warm up a cast-iron skillet, then add the oil. Add the leeks, stir well and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the thyme leaves and stir well and cook for a couple of minutes. Cover the skillet and cook on gentle heat until the leeks are soft, stirring every now and then. (The time it takes depends on how fresh the leeks are.) Sprinkle a pinch of salt and the black pepper and stir.
Add the fagiolina to the leeks and stir well. There should be 2 tablespoons / 30 ml of its cooking broth in it (drain the excess if needed). Cook for a couple of minutes, then take off the heat. Adjust the salt as needed.
Roast the squash
Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C. Cut a thin slice of squash to remove the stem, then cut the squash in half lengthwise. Remove seeds and strings (a grapefruit spoon is my favorite tool to do this).
Place the squash, cut side down, on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. Bake the squash 35-40 minutes, or until soft (easily pierced with a pointed blade).
Finish the dish
Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.
Crumble the cheese, divide it into 4 equal parts and distribute into the cavity of each squash half.
Divide the stuffing into 4 equal parts and pile it into the cavity of each squash half, pressing down with a spoon to make it stable. Bake the squash 12-14 minutes, until hot throughout. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and serve the squash immediately.
One of the nice characteristics of delicata squash is that, if not stored for long, the skin is edible. To eat the squash half, I slice it crosswise, then cut each slice in half.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the zucca ripiena di fagiolina del Trasimeno e porri audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
I contribute my dish also to My Legume Love Affair #122, the current edition of the popular, legume-centered event created by Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook, now organized by Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen, and hosted this month by Renu of Cook with Renu.
FTC disclosure: I have received the linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting the product on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.