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picking sweet olives picture
Pietro picking Olive Dolci

We were settling into our gargantuan apartment in the Masseria called Posta Santa Croce after a long drive from Tuscany when our host Pietro asked, “do you want some olives to cook for dinner?”

Hmmmm. Olives you cook? He went to get a basket while we pondered what might happen next.

Pietro led us through an olive grove in front of the masseria until we came to a particular tree. He hopped up on a stone wall. “We’ve already picked all the sweet olives accessible from the ground” he informed us.

While filling the basket he told us how to cook them.

The Recipe (and Variations) for Olive Dolci

Chop some onion, rinse the olives, and heat some olive oil in a pan. Add the onion and olives and sautee for five minutes, add abundant salt. Serve.

How’s that for simple? The olives, although they look the same as the olives cured for eating and pressed for oil, soften up during the 5 minutes of cooking, becoming like a warm cherry in consistency.

You can substitute small tomatoes for the onion and either saute them together until the tomatoes split open—or oven bake the dish.

olive dolci picture
Olive Dolci and Burata, Puglia in Fall

Why hadn’t we heard of this fantastic dish? We’ve generally, it turns out, visited Puglia in the spring, before the olives are ripe.

Olive Dolci originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Oct 07, 2015, © James Martin.

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A very long time ago Martha and I came to Sicily on a ferry that landed at some gawdawful hour in the early morning. It meant we were famished by 11am. Southern Italians pranzare late, so all we could do is read menus and drool. Between the two of us, I was best at the drooling.

Just before noon we came upon a huge restaurant. we could see wait staff was scurrying around and the outside tables had tablecloths and everything. We asked if we could eat. We could. We would be the only people for quite a while, but an empty stomach trumps social interaction.

I ordered Spaghetti alla Carrettiere, the cart driver’s spaghetti. It was my introduction to the brilliant flavors of Sicily.

Now, if you happen to search for “Spaghetti alla Carrettiere” or “Sicilian cart driver’s pasta” or some such, you will come upon many pages, each with a very different recipe.

Sicilian carts are famous and numerous. So the tastes of the drivers must have been also.

In any case, we were sitting in front of the restaurant, on a little outdoor terrace backing into the street. Soon after we ordered, the intense smell of garlic hitting hot oil filled our nostrils. The kitchen was in the back. These were some serious “perfumes” as the Italians would say, and after they’d traveled a long way they hadn’t lost a bit of pungency.

More drooling.

In any case, after I have finished my pasta, I formulated a recipe for what I thought happened in the kitchen to produce my plate of Spaghetti alla Carrettiere. I reproduce it here. It’s really something built on the back of spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino, a Roman after theater treat and another pasta sauced in less time than it takes to boil spaghetti.

For 2-3 large servings you’ll need:

  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 4 or 5 anchovies, chopped coarsely
  • olive oil, good quality
  • a tablespoon of tomato paste (I use the little squeeze tubes for this sort of thing)
  • as much crushed hot pepper flakes as you can stand
  • a splash of white wine (I always have a bottle of dry vermouth on hand for cooking)
  • parsley, chopped (or the dish will look unattractively uniform in color, like the picture)

So you get your pasta water boiling in a big pot. When it comes to the boil add enough pasta for two or three people. When the water comes back to the boil ad a palm-full of salt.

In the meantime, heat the pan, then add the olive oil, garlic, and crushed pepper. When the garlic gives off that characteristic smokey. browned but not burnt piece of heaven, give the pan a shake, add the anchovies and a tablespoon of wine or water, just enough to dilute the tomato paste. The sauce is mainly spiced olive oil with just a hint of sweet tomato, it’s not a tomato sauce!

Remove from the heat, returning it when the spaghetti is almost al dente, at which time you’ll drain it and add it to the pan, reserving some of the water in case the spaghetti starts frying and you need some pasta water to make sure it doesn’t scorch. The loose starch in pasta water helps bind the sauce to the pasta.

When you plate this up, you can add some grated cheese. Now this goes against one of those Italian rules we have, in which the cheeser of fish pastas is summarily executed or worse. It’s all based on the fact that most fish are quite delicate and their daintiness will be trampled by the earthy milkiness of the cheese.

But somehow, I think anchovies are exempt—or should be. They can stand up to anything.

So cheese it up. Don’t look back. Eat like a cart driver.

cart drivers pasta picture

The Cart Driver's Spaghetti originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Mar 20, 2015, © James Martin.

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Here’s a perfect one-pot dish. It’s cheap, tasty, and perfect for folks in a vacation rental with minimal equipment or a two-burner “corner kitchen”.

For two non-Italian people who are willing to commit the sin of considering pasta a main course, you’ll need to have on hand and waiting for you:

  • A big pot full of fresh water
  • A big knife (it doesn’t even have to be sharp) — or a garlic press
  • A half pound or quarter kilo of penne pasta
  • good olive oil
  • a handful of mint, roughly chopped
  • a toe of garlic, peeled
  • salt (preferably the large-grain variety for the pasta water)
  • freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese

If you’re lucky enough to be in Italy, you’ll have access to much less expensive grating cheeses despite their pedigree. If you’re in America and are thinking of using the crap cheese in the green cylinder, use the big knife to whack yourself on the knuckles and discontinue reading this page. It’s awful stuff. If you like it, just substitute more salt. You won’t be able to tell the diff and you’ll save some money.

Get the pasta water going until it’s at a frothing boil. Add the pasta. When it comes back to the boil, add a palm full of salt. Yes, those recipes that tell you to add a teaspoon of salt to 5 gallons of water should be burned in a public square along with the recipe tester. The water should be salted until it’s like the sea, preferably around Naples. Preferably drawn in the 18th century.

Chop the asparagus into lengths that are similar to the penne and throw them into the pot. If you want to get all gourmetish about it, save the tender ends and throw them in at the last minute, when the pasta is just short of becoming al dente.

Press the garlic or whack it a substantial number of times with the knife until it becomes a paste that ruins your wooden cutting board.

When the pasta is done the asparagus should be plenty done. Drain the whole pot and return the ingredients to it.

Off the heat, drizzle a substantial amount of olive oil into the pot, add the garlic, the chopped mint, then add some salt if you want and stir like the devil. I want the salt because without it the mint tends to taste like spinach.

Plate it up, or, um, bowl it up and dust it with the sweet shavings of your pecorino. You’re done.

pasta with asparagus picture

(Do Europeans enjoy asparagus? Why, they go nuts over it every spring: Celebrating Asparagus)

Penne with Mint and Asparagus originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Mar 19, 2015, © James Martin.

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