There’s a family of wild parrots who come from Telegraph Hill, one of San Francisco’s iconic neighborhoods. They sometimes venture further afield into other parts of the city. The sight is nearly psychedelic– a gang of those large, brightly rainbow-colored, raucous birds flying through the grey of urban grit, looking desperately for trees in which to roost. I’ve seen them sporadically, and am always startled by the sight. You’d expect to see these birds in a tropical jungle, not an urban one. The first time my older daughter spotted the feral parrots, I was even more confused, because she pointed them out in Italian. “Look, mama, pappagallo!”
While my Italian vocabulary is limited to a few food names, both of my daughters can now add speaking Italian to their ever-growing list of Things We Know That Mama Does Not.
My daughter’s use of the word pappagallo wasn’t so much a testament to her level of fluency in Italian– it’s still very basic– but rather that parrots, in any language, don’t come up often in our daily conversation. In their public school, my kids are learning Italian in a holistic and experiential way, meaning through play, songs, and cultural activities. And if you’re going to learn about Italian culture, you’re going to learn how to cook. Those lucky kids! Through her Italian class at school, my daughter learned to make a simple bruschetta di pomodoro. As a six year old, she proudly taught me how to make it, with the essential first step of rubbing a garlic clove on the freshly toasted cut edge of bread before adding olive oil, salt, pepper, basil and diced tomato. She also taught me to pronounce its name correctly: “brus ‘ketta.” She discovered a hearty love of Italian food. She especially loves the simple, rustic cooking at a restaurant close to Telegraph Hill, in San Francisco’s North Beach. I haven’t been to Italy yet, but my eater’s instinct tells me that the food at our favorite spot, l’Osteria del Forno, is authentic. L’Osteria used to serve an antipasto featuring white beans, arugula, parmesan and Speck, the smoked prosciutto. We loved it so much, I replicated it at home. It’s no longer on the menu there, but it is on regular rotation in our cucina. It’s a crowd-pleaser, tasty to the eyes and mouth. You could call us mangiafagioli (bean eaters), as the cannellini bean-loving people are known in Tuscany.
The name for bruschetta, which originated in central Italy in the 15th century, is derived from the verb in the Roman dialect “bruscare,” meaning “to roast over coals.” The story goes that bruschetta was invented by Italian olive growers, who would toast some bread over the fireplace in the oil pressing room so that when the freshly pressed olive oil emerged, they could taste the new batch. The original snack involved rubbing the fire-toasted bread with garlic, then sprinkling on the olive oil, and adding a pinch of salt.
Combining our favorite antipasto with the kid-appeal of assembling bruschetta, I decided to purée the white beans I usually make for this white beans and prosciutto antipasto to use as a base for a hearty bruschetta. The other elements of this dish– arugula, shaved parmesan, and prosciutto– are layered on top of the garlicky bean purée layer, and a squeeze of lemon adds brightness, like the Tuscan sun. This makes a fantastic appetizer or light meal.
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Bruschetta with Tuscan White Bean Purée, Arugula and Prosciutto
1 crusty, rustic baguette or ciabatta
2-3 whole cloves of garlic, skin removed
1 cup Tuscan White Bean Purée (recipe follows)
1 3 oz package of Speck or prosciutto (about 5-6 slices); I prefer Volpi.
a handful of arugula– about 1 cup
1/2-1 cup freshly shaved Parmesan cheese
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
salt and pepper to taste
1. Cut loaf of bread lengthwise, and then into about 6 segments (making 12 halves total).
2. Toast with cut sides up in an oven until lightly golden brown.
3. Take a clove of garlic and rub the cut side of each piece of bread while still warm. This will impart an irresistible garlic fragrance and a golden sheen.
4. Drizzle each piece with a little olive oil.
5. Spread about 1 tsp of the white bean purée onto each piece of bread.
6. Tear prosciutto slices into halves, and layer a half slice of prosciutto onto each piece of bean pureé-topped bread.
7. Add 3 leaves of arugula to each piece.
8. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice onto each assembled bruschetta. (Make sure to do this before topping with cheese, or else the cheese get a bubbly texture.)
9. Add a few shavings of parmesan and freshly ground black pepper.
Recommended accompaniments: olives, a tomato and basil salad, San Pellegrino and chianti or prosecco.
Tuscan White Bean Purée
1 can white beans (I use cannellini, but you can use any white bean you like); drained and rinsed with the cooking liquid reserved
1 Tbsp basil, minced
1 Tbsp italian parsley or cilantro, minced
3 cloves of garlic
2 tsp plus 2 Tbsp high quality extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1. Place all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor or blender, or use a stick blender as I did. Add 2 Tbsp of the reserved cooking liquid. Process for a few seconds at a time to desired texture. I like mine to be on the coarse/rustic side.
2. Stir in 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil and additional cooking liquid, to taste and desired consistency.
3. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. If you are using this for bruschetta, keep in mind that the prosciutto is very salty. If using as a dip for crudités, salt to taste.
Mangiafagioli, by Annibale Carracci
© 2010 Linda Shiue
Published October 5, 2010 on Salon.com