Greek lanterns, pizzas, & fortified farmhouses

8 Dec

If you board a ferry boat docked in the port of Patras in the Northern Peloponnese and cross the Ionian Sea, you will find yourself the next morning in Italy’s southern boot heel.  A short bus ride later will take you to the province of Lecce and the settlements of “Magna Graecia,” so called since the first Greeks arrived on its shores nearly 3,000 years ago. 

A street in the Magna Graecia town of Calimera.

Today, nine Greek towns remain, the best known of which is possibly Calimera.  The inhabitants speak Italian and “Griko,” a dialect firmly rooted in ancient Greek, and they are so proud of their culture and heritage that they opened the House Museum Cultura Grika in 2003.  The small museum houses tools, farming implements, cooking utensils, furnishings, folk dress, and other artifacts of daily life – including magnificent giant lanterns made by local children for the annual Lantern Festival. 

House Museum Cultura Grika, Calimera

For weeks before the festival, the neighborhood children work hard building their papier-mache lanterns over bamboo frames.  They work under cover in their homes and back yards, keeping their designs a secret until the final unveiling on the festival’s eve.  Then they parade through town, their lanterns aglow, each confident that this year THEY will be the ones to win the coveted “best lantern of the year” award.

One of the children's magnificent lanterns.

This  region is known for its Greek communities and lantern festivals, but it is also known for its distinctive “masserias,” or fortified farmhouses that were built by noble families in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Today, many of these farmhouses have been restored and turned into hotels and restaurants.

My favorite is the Masseria Appide, named after the ancient Greek word for the wild pears that thrived nearby.  It offers lovely accommodations, a full-service restaurant with opulent dining room, and even cooking lessons in its rambling professional kitchen.

The dining room in the Masseria Appide.

Our instructor, Chef Anna Chirone, patiently showed us how to knead and roll out dough for traditional Salento savory pies, how to cook down the region’s small, sweet tomatoes into a simple but flavorful sauce, and how to make lightly fried individual pizzas topped with tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and a few sprigs of basil from the Masseria’s garden.

Chef Anna Chrione showing us how to make dough.

Everything was so easy to make, yet so incredibly good.  Now that I’m home, I don’t know if I can re-create the intensity of those  flavors by using my own tomatoes and basil grown in Wisconsin – but it’s certainly worth a try!  I hope you enjoy these recipes, and any variations you might dream up!  You can find more traditional recipes from this region on the “Think Puglia” web site. 

This recipe was inspired by the pizzas we made with Chef Anna Chirone. It is wonderful as a snack or appetizer.

Individual Pizzas, Lightly Fried

For the Dough

4.5 cups flour, chilled.  Best kind is Italian type “O” or “OO” found in Italian Delis.  Otherwise, you can use unbleached high-gluten flour, bread flour, or all-purpose flour.

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1-3/4 cups (or 14 ounces) ice-cold water

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

Sift the flour, salt and yeast into a bowl.  Add the water and olive oil and stir until blended. 

 Using your hands (or a mixer with a paddle attachment — I prefer my hands so that I can feel the dough), knead the dough for 7 to 10 minutes, until it is wonderfully smooth, springy and elastic.  If it is too sticky, add a bit more flour, a little at a time. 

Place the dough on a floured work surface.  Divide the dough into small rolls (you will roll these out into the small individual pizzas later).  Let the rolls rest in a warm, dry place until they have doubled in bulk.

Roll out each small dough roll 1/4 inch thick.  Let each roll rest for about 10 minutes.

 Heat an inch of olive oil in a pan on medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, place the dough balls into the oil and fry for about 30 seconds on each side, until golden brown.  Lift from the pan with tongs and place on a towel or paper towel to drain.

Make the Sauce

I watched Chef Chirone throw this and that into the pan, and she instructed us to use and to trust our senses and judgment when cooking.  I now pass that advice on to you, in the absence of exact measurements!

Bunches of sweet cherry tomatoes, tablespoon or two of olive oil, pinch of salt, sprigs of basil

Find the sweetest, freshest cherry or grape tomatoes you can find (as many as you wish).  Pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil into a pan and heat on medium-high heat.  After about 10 seconds, add a few cloves of peeled, sliced garlic and cook for 30 seconds or so, until fragrant.  Add the cherry tomatoes, basil springs and a pinch of salt, lower heat to medium, and cook, stirring regularly, until the tomatoes are soft, about 20 minutes.  Using the back of a fork, lightly break up or mash some of the tomatoes.  Add bit of salt if needed to adjust the seasoning.

Assemble the Pies

After you remove each round of fried dough from the pan and while it is still hot, place a spoonful of your lovely tomatoe sauce on each individual pizza, add a few strips of thinly slized fresh buffalo mozarella (if you can’t get this, use the best mozarella that you have available), and a sprig or two of fresh basil.

You can enjoy your pizza just like this — or drizzle it with a bit of olive oil and put it under a broiler for a few seconds until the cheese is bubbling! Kali Orexi!

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