Lessons with Rosetta Costantino

Story and photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Rosetta Costantino tends a tomato plant on the deck portion of the garden at her family's home in Oakland's Montclair district, where the terrain is as steep as it was in her native Calabria.

We’re making orecchiette, a pasta shape that translates from the Italian as “little ears.” It requires a deft hand, we discover, as we roll the dough into long snakes and cut thumbnail-size rounds, attempting to drag each one with the knife across the cutting board to create the delicate domed shape. As we work, Maria Dito, our teacher’s mother, comes by with a critique in Italian (understood mostly by her hand signals), showing us how our little ears are a little too fat and not domed up in quite the right way. We continue our pursuit of perfection, working toward what eventually turns out to be a delicious orecchiette con cime di rape (little ear pasta with broccoli raab sauce), made entirely by hand.

 

Maria Dito, Rosetta Costantino’s mother, shows Marcia Gagliardi—of tablehopper.com fame—how to form orecchiette.

 

“Made by hand” takes on deeper meaning a bit later in the class as we prepare the sauce, which starts with minced garlic sautéed in olive oil along with a couple of anchovies that we mash into the pan. The anchovy in the sauté pan is the big secret of southern Italian cooking, but it's a new epiphany to me that one can preserve anchovies oneself, as our teacher, Rosetta Costantino, does. In the spring or summer when she can obtain the little fish freshly caught from local fishermen, she guts them and then layers them in a crock with lots of salt.

 

Rosetta demonstrates the technique for baking a whole fish in a salt crust.

 

“You can buy salt-processed anchovies from Sicily that are just as good,” Rosetta tells us, explaining that the processors put their best fish under salt. But clearly, for her, it’s not just about having the best quality. In Rosetta’s kitchen, things are made by hand because they can be made by hand, because that’s the way her family has always done them, and because she and her parents, natives of the southern Italian region of Calabria, prefer the food they make themselves to what they can buy.

Rosetta has lived here in Oakland since 1974, when she arrived from Calabria with her mother and father, Maria and Vincenzo Dito, who now live a block away from her on the same southeast-facing slope overlooking the trench of the Hayward Fault. The fault-sheared hillside, which was denuded by the huge Oakland fire of 1991, provides a sunny exposure that’s ideal for growing food. And growing food is what Rosetta and her parents (mostly her father) do. They grow more than they can eat in a season, preserving the excess to enjoy throughout the year.

 

Dried zucchini

 

Rosetta brings out some zucchini that she sliced and sun dried in her back yard last summer. She has now reconstituted it and sautés it in olive oil with garlic and pepe rosso (paprika). The family also makes this paprika each year from a long, sweet Italian pepper, which her father grows from seed. The flavors and texture of the zucchini are richly satisfying—better than fresh zucchini and reminiscent of wild mushrooms. Tomatoes from the summer garden are preserved using an array of methods, from drying to canning and pickling, as are eggplants, figs, oranges, and many other garden produce items. For wine grapes, Rosetta’s father goes to other growers, oftentimes old friends from Calabria now living in Lodi. From the wild landscape the family gathers mushrooms, herbs, and berries, and Rosetta says they have sometimes harvested olives from landscaping trees for home curing and pressing.

“We didn’t forage because we were poor,” Rosetta says as she talks about a way of life that the family brought with them from their home in Verbicaro, a small hill town in a remote part of Calabria. Rosetta’s father worked there as a winemaker. He also kept a herd of goats on a mountain property that was accessible only by foot. It took two hours to climb with a supply-laden donkey up the steep trail, so it was not feasible to make the trip daily. Vincenzo maintained a homestead on the mountain where he processed the goat milk into cheese that he would sell when he brought it back to town.

Maria Dito holds Favetta the Hen, who was named after the black and white fava flower.

On a recent visit to Rosetta’s garden, I finally meet Vincenzo Dito. As his wife comes up carrying one of the family egg-layers, Vincenzo laughingly explains (in Italian) that Maria named the black and white striped hen Faveta because the chicken reminded her of the black and white fava flowers. As I look at Maria cradling the chicken, I think about how quickly she might wring its neck if she wanted it for a meal of chicken with fava beans. As I admire the bird, I listen in on a discussion Rosetta is having with local best-selling author Novella Carpenter (Farm City, published in 2009), about slaughtering a baby goat for the rennet needed for cheese making. Novella has swiftly and almost singlehandedly made urban husbandry fashionable. I think about how much has changed since 2006, when I first heard Rosetta comment that in the U.S., people can’t get beyond dismay over the slaughtering of farm-raised bunnies, much less baby goats. For her, these were just things people had to learn to do in the remote mountain villages of Calabria, which were cut off from main trade routes until well into the 20th century.

Nibbling one of Rosetta’s beautiful home-baked cookies, I admire a small hand-woven basket, which Rosetta explains were traditionally used to mold ricotta. She says they have been replaced with plastic models. Just as the hand-woven reed mats once used in olive oil extraction have been replaced with new and better technology, the message here is that the old-fashioned ways are not always better. It’s not about nostalgia—again, it’s about good food.

 

These days, Rosetta relies on plastic molds for making ricotta, but when she first learned to make this fresh cheese in Calabria, they used wover natural fiber molds like the one at right.

 

For decades, Rosetta has held a full-time job in Silicon Valley and says she likes the intellectual rigors of her job. She took a hiatus in order to complete work on her first cookbook, My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South. Students at her her cooking classes—held at Paulding & Company in Emeryville and other Bay Area locations— are gratified to have the book, and find ourselves jumping out of our armchairs to go looking for our passports. But it's worth staying put for the even more splendid journey that awaits the reader eager to spend time in the garden and kitchen, learning from Rosetta about the time-honored Calabrian traditions of food crafting and preservation. This is a collection of profound riches from a life in food made by hand. ♦

Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay. She first learned the pleasures of food made by hand through her mother and her grandfather, who came from Puglia. She can be reached at editor@edibleeastbay.com

 

Mostaccioli con mandorle are on the right. (The others are pezzetti di cannella, a recipe from the southern Italian region of Puglia.)

Mostaccioli con Mandorle

Honey Cookies Filled with Almonds, Cocoa, and Anisette

From My Calabria: Rustic Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South (Norton, 2010), by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher, © 2010 by Rosetta Costantino and Janet Fletcher. Used with permission.

In a discussion about her book, Rosetta mentioned that there were quite a few recipes, especially in the dolci (desserts) chapter, that her editor wanted omitted because they were deemed too esoteric. Indeed, most of the recipes that made the cut will be highly accessible to most people who enjoy spending quality time in the kitchen. But Rosetta seems to have found various ways to give readers a nibble here and there of the esoterica. In the headnote to this recipe, she explains that mostaccioli, “Calabria’s most beloved holiday cookies” might also be “among the region’s oldest sweets, judging from their primitive nature.”

She goes on to describe the most traditional version as being made with nothing but flour and honey that’s mixed into a stiff dough, rolled flat, and cut into whimsical shapes before being baked. “Calabrian children learn to suck slowly on these jaw-breaking cookies until they soften.”

As she describes the traditional decorating techniques, one starts to understand the degree to which Calabrians go in their hand crafting of food:
“Mostaccioli are never frosted but are charmingly decorated with hatch marks and tiny squares of shiny colored tinfoil that you remove before eating. The shapes are limited only by the baker’s imagination, but typically include horses and other farm animals, woven baskets, dolls, and little girls. The most common shapes are produced with molds, but the artisan mostaccioli maker, or mostazzolaro, creates many forms by hand, with only a knife, drawing his ideas from myth, legends, and daily life.”

Rosetta’s version below is one of the more modern interpretations, and could be accomplished by most any avid home baker who likes spending time in the kitchen.

Dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup honey
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons orange juice
2 teaspoons anisette
2 teaspoons almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling:
2 cups whole blanched (skinless) almonds
½ cup honey
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon anisette
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped small

Egg wash:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Few drops vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet until lightly colored and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Raise the oven temperature to 375°.

To make the dough: In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Make a well in the flour and put the remaining dough ingredients in the well. Stir with a fork until the dough comes together, then knead it in the bowl with one hand until the dough is smooth, well blended, and similar in texture to a sugar cookie dough, about 2 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes to allow the flour to absorb the moisture so it will be firm enough to roll.

Divide the dough in half. On a work surface, arrange 2 sheets of parchment paper, each large enough to accommodate a 14- by 6-inch rectangle. Dust the parchment sheets lightly with flour. Put half the dough on each sheet and, with a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a 14- by 6-inch rectangle about ⅜ inch thick. Use your hands, if necessary, to straighten the dough edges to make a neat rectangle. Don’t worry about overworking the dough; it is very forgiving. Let the elongated dough rest at room temperature while you proceed with the filling.

To make the filling: Place the honey in a 1½-quart pot and warm it over low heat until it becomes fluid. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts, and anisette. Add to the honey along with the almonds and chocolate. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the chocolate melts and the mixture is thick and well blended, about 1 minute. Let it cool until it begins to stiffen and is no longer syrupy, 1 to 2 minutes, but don’t let it cool too long or it will become too stiff to spread.

Arrange the dough rectangles horizontally on the work surface, so that the 14-inch side is nearest you. Working quickly with a spoon, spread half the filling lengthwise on the bottom half of each sheet of dough, staying about 1 inch away from the edges. Lifting up on the parchment, carefully fold the top half of the dough over the filling to make a log about 14 by 3 inches. Peel away the parchment and press the edges of the dough together to seal it all the way around. Be sure to make a firm seal or the filling may leak during baking. With the palm of your hand, flatten the top of each log to prevent an air pocket from forming between the filling and the dough.

Line a 12- by 17-inch baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the logs to the baking sheet. With a fork, prick them decoratively, making about 2 dozen pricks in each log.
Bake for 20 minutes. While the cookies bake, prepare the egg wash by whisking together the egg, water, and vanilla. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and brush the 2 logs generously with the egg wash. (You won’t need it all.) Return the baking sheet to the oven and continue baking until the logs are caramel brown and firm to the touch, 5 to 10 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 10 minutes, then transfer the logs to a rack and cool completely. With a serrated knife, slice on the diagonal about ⅓ inch thick.

Makes about 5 dozen.