Thursday, January 24, 2013

Virgin’s Breasts and Other Delicacies


By Patricia Winton

Saltimbocca with chicken
Many Italian dishes have strange names. In Rome, Saltimbocca alla Romana reigns as a favorite main course. The Roman version is made from thin slices of veal cutlets topped with slices of prosciutto crudo and sage leaves. Sometimes, the concoction is rolled up like a jelly roll, fastened with a toothpick, and sautèed in olive oil. Other times, the sage is fastened to the meat with a tooth pick, and it is cooked flat. It’s a succulent dish that “jumps in the mouth,” which is what saltimbocca means. Sometimes, it’s made with chicken breasts or pork, but then it’s not alla Romana.

Another Roman dish, a pasta sauce this time, is called Pasta all’Arrabiata. To make this simple pasta sauce, sautè a bit of garlic in olive oil; add red hot pepper, canned tomatoes, and parsley. Meanwhile, cook short dried pasta like penne. This dish is fast to make and tasty to eat. It’s a mainstay in my fast food arsenal. It gets its name, angry pasta, from that hot pepper.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to guess how a dish gets its name. Genovese Napolitana, for example, is a sauce from Naples. A slow-cooked dish made with lots of onions and a little meat, the onion sauce usually tops pasta while the meat appears as the main course. The strange thing about this name is that while it’s a Naples dish, the name Genovese means “from Genoa,” town of Columbus’s birth. One theory is that the Genovese don’t use much tomato in their sauces, unlike the Neapolitans who were the first Europeans to cook with tomatoes. Another suggests that the restaurateur who created the dish came from Genova, as the town is called in Italian.

Sweet dishes can also harbor strange names. Popular cookies called brutti ma buoni, ugly but good, are simple meringues laced with ground nuts and cocoa powder. And they are good. My all-time favorites, however, are called Minne di Virgini, Virgin’s Breasts. These little white hemispheres, topped with a cherry nipple, were first made at the Monastery of the Virgins in Palermo. The confection quickly became the symbol for Saint Agatha whose torturers ultimately cut off her breasts before killing her. While available in any Sicilian pastry shop year round, the Minne di Virgini star in the feast of St. Agatha, patron saint of Catania, on February 6.

Bread, too, offers amusing names. Ciabattine (or ciabatte) are small flat rolls that I understand have become quite trendy in the US and the UK where they are used as sandwich bread. I usually cut them in strips and use them to accompany dinner. I always buy two, although I eat only one with my meal. They just need to come in pairs, I feel, since the word means “little slippers.”

But pasta, oh pasta, offers the strangest names. If you think about it, some names are downright unappetizing. Who really wants to eat vermicelli (little worms), linguine (little tongues), capellini (little hairs), or even orecchiette (little ears)? Some pasta names just make me laugh. Why, I ask, are two popular pastas called ditali (thimbles) and mezze maniche (short sleeves)? In America, farfalle are known as bow ties. That used to make me wince. “Oh no,” I’d say. “Farfalle are butterflies.” Only later did I learn that in Italian, bow ties and butterflies are both farfalle.

The name strozzapreti baffles me most. Just who wants to strangle the priests? Theories abound. One says that housewives from Emilia-Romagna, one region where this pasta is popular, made the dish for local priests, while their anti-cleric husbands hoped the priests would choke on the dish. Another says that when cooks prepare this pasta by hand, they must grab the dough with two hands and twist, or strangle, it. Yet a third holds that peasants prepared food as partial payment for land rents. The priests, who were notoriously gluttonous, ate this dish so rapidly that they choked on it.

As I look through my pantry now, I find strozzapreti, linguine, capellini, orecchiette, ditali, mezze maniche, farfalle. And there’s one ciabiattina, the mate to the one I had for dinner last night. There are tomatoes and hot pepper for making arrabiata sauce in the cupboard, and genovese in the freezer. Burtti ma buoni never stay here long enough to be considered staples, and I’m not at all fond of minne di virgini.

19 comments:

  1. Fascinating!!! Love hearing how foods get their names. But you've made me hungry again. So off to my pantry to see if there's any storzzapreti going on.

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  2. So interesting. And humbling since my pantry has so many cans and boxes of cookies. I only dream of being a cook. Your references reminded me of my years in the jewelry business selling the ever popular diamond baguettes, which are also long thin loaves of French bread. It's fun to be a wordsmith!

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    1. I didn't realize that diamonds come in a baguette shape. That's an interesting twist.

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  3. What a fun post. Made me hungry, too.

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  4. So glad dinner is almost ready. Your food posts always make me hungry. Strangely enough, we're having pizza.

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    1. Enjoy the pizza, Polly. I ate simple salmon.

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  5. Far from feeling hungry like those commenting above, I must say I'm feeling rather suspicious right now. In fact, stashing those items in your pantry make you sound, well, more like a serial killer than a crime writer, Patricia. You should be ashamed. Or...like an Italian chef. I'll be keeping an eye on you after this one... but kudos on a piece that honestly had me hooked right from the headline! Who knew?

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    1. Supriya, you have such a suspicious nature!

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  6. I didn't realise "farfalle" meant "bow ties". Like you, I assumed it meant "butterflies". I imagine quite a lot of Italians think so too!

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    1. Oh, I'm glad to know someone who's been around longer than I have didn't know that either. I was humbled by the Italian who corrected me when I was telling her how Americans mistake "bow ties" for "butterflies."

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  7. You didn't mention Tiramisu, which means "lift me up", or I suppose "gives me a lift" might be a better translation.

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    1. I didn't think of it. A nice addition to the post. And Tiramisu DOES give me a lift!

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  8. I always want to read your Italian food posts aloud, but I know I mangle the pronunciation. Storzzapreti looks like a fun word to say.

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    1. Try it. "Z" in Italian is pronounced like "tz" (think pizza). STROTZ za PRAH tea. (You have to pronounce the double letter.) That "tz" sound in uniform in Italian; "zero" is "TZA ro."

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  9. Oh, and Beth, I use a read-to-me program to check myself. Does it mangle the pronunciation!

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  10. The Italians have a great sense of humor when it comes to naming food. Love the stories behind some of these. And I agree about tiramisu - it picks up my mood for sure.

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    1. A sense of irreverence permeates Italian humor. It sometimes threatens we staid Anglo-Saxons. I'm sorry I didn't think about tiramisu, but I'm glad Anna reminded me in her comment. It is a great pick-me-up.

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