Everything evolves. Language, art, humans, animals, things around us are constantly changing and adjusting to the new. Italian cuisine is no different. Spaghetti with Marinara, Eggplant Parmesan, Caprese salad, pesto pasta, lasagna are some of the traditions that come to mind. But what does Italian food look like when it has undergone evolution? (scroll down for recipe or read on…)
If you are ever visit Naples, promise me that you will find a way to get to Paternopoli and Taurasi (about 40 km from Naples). I fell in love with these sleepy wine towns especially after the chaotic big-city noise and bustle. One of the highlights, Megaron Restaurant and Vinarium is located in Taurasi, a famous wine region in Italy. It is the epitome of Italian hill towns. Green rolling hills of vines, smoking chestnut fields, long winding narrow roads leading to magical wineries. The local grape, Aglianico, shows up everywhere.
Talk about evolution of a cuisine. Megaron is a perfect example of a master chef taking the basics of Italian food and concocting new and exciting dishes. Master chef, Valentina Martone, is creative and driven, and in her little haven in the south of Italy, she has given our mouths a reason to shout with joy.
I am always trying to channel Ruth Reichl and M.F.K. Fisher, the famous food writers. I know it is a huge stretch, but just humor me. These women write about glorious, epic meals where the chef goes above and beyond to please them; they are treated like queens and each bite is absolute bliss. I had the pleasure of enjoying such a meal at Megaron. I was the l’americana, coming all this way to eat local specialties and drink the local wine. My waiter, Valentina’s devoted husband, was so happy to show off his wife’s accomplishments. He beamed with pride as he placed each spectacular dish in front of me.
After the meal, I leaned back in the chair in a blissful haze of culinary ecstasy. Ruth and M.F.K. were right there with me. The whole affair, including a bottle of wine (half of which I took home) 6 courses and dessert, came to 55 euro. Here are some of Valentina’s creations:
In tavola arriva la storia di questa terra patria del Taurasi e di orti generosi. At the table, you find the homeland of Taurasi and the generous vegetable garden.
You might notice that Valentina created her own interpretations of zucca (squash or pumpkin). Each one was a work of art, but my favorite was the zucca topped with mushrooms sautéed in her very own DOP extra virgin olive oil made with Ravece olives. Southern Italy is very proud of its olive groves and vineyards. The lucky folks who live in this region are very aware of the treasures around them and take full advantage. Most families and restaurant owners produce their own wine and olive oil and serve it proudly. (I committed a major faux pas at a dinner party when I brought a store-bought bottle of wine. Yikes! I learned quickly).
Now is the season of pumpkins. Winter squashes flash their colors in the produce section. I love what Valentina did with her zucca. But you might be thinking, why take the time to cook with a winter squash? They are so much work and are almost impenetrable. I mean you almost need a chainsaw to get the darn thing open. But they are so worth it! According to Harvard School of Public Health (an offshoot of Harvard Medical School), winter squashes are a good source of beta carotene, protein, vitamin C and B6, magnesium, potassium (heart health) and fiber. What’s not to love!
After experimenting with Kabocha and Red Kuri, I managed to recreate a close facsimile of Valentina’s zucca and mushroom dish.
I used a mushroom medley of shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Valentina used porcini which are indigenous to Taurasi. Really, any mushroom sautéed in olive oil will be delicious.
Pumpkin puree with mushrooms sautéed in olive oil
Sweet and savory autumn dish
- 1 winter squash – Kabocha, Red Kuri or Butternut work well
- 1/2 medium white or yellow onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic
- 6 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 – 1 1/2 cup vegetable broth
- salt to taste
- 1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced.
- 2 Tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
- Place the whole squash on the center rack in the oven and cook for 15 minutes. This will soften the squash just a bit making it easier to cut in half.
- Take the whole squash out of the oven and put on a cutting board. Slice off the stem and cut squash in half, from stem side down to bottom. Scoop out the seeds and their pulp and discard. (Or you can bake the seeds for a yummy snack)
- Turn up the oven to 400 degrees. Pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil on a baking sheet and place the two squash pieces face down. Bake for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees. The time varies because every winter squash is a different size. The best way to test for doneness is to insert a fork into the side of the squash. If the fork goes in easily all the way to the center with just a bit of resistance, the squash is cooked through. You don’t want it too mushy.
- Meanwhile, while the squash is cooking, saute the mushrooms in olive oil and a pinch of salt until nice and soft and savory. Set aside.
- Once the squash halves are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. Set aside.
- In a large skillet, heat 3 Tablespoons of olive oil and add the onion and whole, peeled garlic cloves. Saute for 2-3 minutes on low heat until the onion and garlic get fragrant. Remove the garlic and add the squash flesh. Smoosh and mix the squash into the pan. The squash will be pretty thick at this point, so mix as best as you can.
- Add the broth, turn up the heat a bit and stir. Start with 1 cup of broth, and add more little by little as needed. You want the consistency to be think, not thin or soupy. Cook the squash in broth until uniform and thick and bubbly. Salt to taste. If you are using a can or carton of broth, you might not need to add any salt.
- Now blend the pumpkin puree. You can either transfer squash to a blender or use a hand-held blender. The Braun hand mixer is a god-send. Blend for a few seconds until smooth and creamy. For a creamier option: Add a tablespoon or two of heavy cream and blend for a few more seconds.
- Ready for plating: Spoon hot pumpkin puree into individual serving bowls and top with a healthy spoonful of sautéed mushrooms.
- Serve with red wine and a loaf of Italian bread for dunking (in the pumpkin, not the wine).