Born and raised in the town of Verbicaro in Calabria, Italy, Rosetta Costantino moved to California with her parents at age 14. She earned a chemical engineering degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and spent 20 years working in Silicon Valley. Now, often assisted by her mother, Maria, she shares the techniques and tastes of the traditional Calabrian kitchen in her popular cooking classes. From her new book My Calabria, Rosetta Costantino shares memories and recipes from her family’s kitchen at Christmas time:
Whenever Calabrians have a square meter of bare ground, they plant a garden. The typical Calabrian orto, or home garden, is a bountiful jungle of eggplant, peppers, potatoes, red onions, green beans, tomatoes, and zucchini in summer. Hard-shelled squash and borlotti beans overtake the orto in fall. In winter, location permitting, Calabrians grow Savoy cabbage, escarole, and broccoli rabe. Spring is peak season for homegrown fava beans, peas, and artichokes.
Of all the regions of Italy, Calabria may well claim the diet richest in vegetables. Far more than meat or fish, vegetables dominate our meals. Our soups celebrate vegetables, from the silky red onion soup of Tropea to the rustic green bean and tomato minestra, or thick soup, that my mother makes when my father hauls in armloads of beans. Most Calabrian pasta dishes—at least those served on weekdays, not Sundays—showcase a single seasonal vegetable, whether it’s eggplant in summer or artichokes in spring.
It might surprise people to learn that Calabrians eat sweet potatoes, a vegetable rarely associated with the Italian table. We call them patate Americane and use them primarily in the dough for grispelle—warm Christmas doughnuts—or we roast them whole in the hot ashes of a wood fire.
Calabrians make these deep-fried yeasted doughnuts primarily at Christmas time. My mother remembers her own mother getting up early on Christmas Eve day to make the dough so it would have plenty of time to rise. In the afternoon, while her six children were out playing and not underfoot, she would fry the grispelle in a pot in the wood-burning fireplace. You can substitute russet potatoes for the sweet potatoes in this recipe, although you will probably need a little less flour, as the russet potatoes are drier. If you use sweet potatoes, look for the type with light brown skins and butter-colored flesh. Sweet potatoes with orange flesh—Garnet and Jewel types, for example—are too moist.
Grispelle, as my mother and I make them, are elongated fritters about the size and shape of slender éclairs. The name, also written as grispedde or crespelle, comes from the Latin crispus, a reference to the crisp texture these doughnuts should have. In some homes, they are called vecchiarelle—little old ladies—because their wrinkled surface resembles the skin of an old woman. Other cooks shape the dough into rings before frying, in which case the fritters are called cuddurieddi. You can eat them as an appetizer straight from the fryer. For dessert, they are typically dusted with sugar or cinnamon sugar or served with honey for dipping.
Grispelle Makes about 15 grispelle
Ingredients: 1 pound (450 grams) yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes (1 large or 2 small), unpeeled ¼ cup (60 milliliters) lukewarm water 1 teaspoon active dry yeast 1½ cups (210 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Vegetable oil for frying Honey for serving, optional
Directions: Put the sweet potatoes whole in a large pot that will hold them comfortably. Cover with 1 inch (2½ centimeters) of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil until the sweet potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork, about 30 to 40 minutes. Drain them and set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel.
Using a ricer or a food mill fitted with the medium blade, pass the sweet potatoes into a large bowl.
Put the lukewarm water in a small bowl and add the yeast. Whisk with a fork until the yeast dissolves.
Add the flour and salt to the potatoes, then add the water with the dissolved yeast. Combine the ingredients with your hand until they come together into a sticky dough, then knead in the bowl, using one hand to steady the bowl and one hand to knead, until the dough is smooth and well blended, about 5 minutes. It will still be moist and a little sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough doubles in size, about 1½ hours.
Put ½ inch (12 millimeters) of vegetable oil in a 10-inch (25-centimeter) skillet and heat over medium-high heat until the oil registers 375ºF (190ºC) on a candy thermometer.
Oil your hands lightly, then take a golf ball-size piece of dough from the bowl and stretch it between your hands into a thick “sausage” about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long and ½ to ¾ inch (12 to 18 millimeters) wide. The dough will be pliable and elongate easily. Carefully place it in the hot oil, then continue shaping and frying grispelle until you have four or five in the skillet. Cook until the underside is a deep golden brown, then flip the grispelle with tongs and brown the other side. Total cooking time is about 3 minutes.
Transfer the grispelle to a tray lined with paper towels. Repeat the shaping and frying until you have used all the dough. Add more vegetable oil if necessary to keep the level at ½ inch (12 millimeters). Serve the grispelle warm, with honey for dipping.
Suggested wine: Feudi di San Gregorio “Privilegio,” Irpinia Bianco, Campania
A botrytised passito from Fiano grapes, the wine has a honeyed concentration and an almond scent.
Adapted from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher. © 2010 Rosetta Costantino and Janet Fletcher. Wine suggestions © 2010 Shelly Lindgren. Reprinted here with permission from W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Rosetta Costantino is the author of My Calabria. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and two children.