Monday, April 26, 2010

Marcella and Mamma Agata

Fig.1. Mamma Agata's cookbook.

Wouldn’t it be cool to speak to someone who has cooked for icons such as Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, or Federico Fellini? Can you imagine the stories such a person could tell? Well, such a person exists, and her name is Mamma Agata. Mamma Agata runs a cooking school in Ravello (on the Amalfi Coast), she also has a cookbook filled with her recipes, and filled with stories from her long and fruitful life as a chef. Mamma Agata’s approach to her food is personal, not by choice or conscious awareness, but by habit. Agata’s approach to food parallels that of the millions of domestic mothers and grandmothers in Southern Italy who operate a family farm and eat off of the products from the land: animal, vegetable, fruit and anything in-between. The only difference is that Mamma Agata has taken her domestic knowledge and turned it into a business; this public-private dichotomy approach is a growing trend in Italy, especially within the agriturismos that incorporate cooking classes in their business plan. Mamma Agata personifies that typical, image of the Italian grandmother; her need to feed is written all over her face.
Mamma Agata was brought to my attention by Marcella De Vincenzo; a food writer in her own right and a fellow Italian food advocate, De Vincenzo has a web-site chronicling her culinary quest which entails cooking her way through Mamma Agata’s cookbook, she calls her site, Agata & Me. De Vincenzo is just about done and about to embark on a trip to Italy to meet the woman whose recipes she’s been cooking for the last 84 days. De Vincenzo's web-site is well written and informative, her passion and joy comes through in her writing. She also posts mouth watering pictures of everything she cooks.
Mamma Agata’s cookbook is only available through her web-site, but De Vincenzo was nice enough to send me a recipe. This very simple pasta dish is a perfect example of how incredibly tasty something fast can be, but only when your ingredients are extraordinary, as they are in Italy. So buy the best ingredients you can, and it’s alright if the olives have pits in them, Italians prefer whole olives in their dishes, it proves the olives haven’t been processed in any way. As for the capers, if you can’t find the one’s packed in salt, use the regular brine variety, just rinse them before using.

Spaghetti Del Contadino (Recipe from, Mamma Agata, Simple and Genuine, Italian, Family Recipes)
(Farmer’s Spaghetti)

Serves 4

Fig.2. This simple pasta dish, taken from Mamma Agata's book, is a perfect Spring meal. Just make sure your tomatoes are fresh and ripe.


400g or 14 oz pasta (spaghetti works best with this dish)
1 kg or 1 ¼ lb ripe cherry tomatoes—the riper the better!
1 Tablespoon of fresh parsley (finely chopped)
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 dozen green olives (with or without pits)
2 dozen black olives (with or without pits)
1 tablespoon of capers (packed in salt, if available, and rinsed)
1 cup fresh arugula leaves


Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and place them in a bowl with the parsley. Note, if the cherry tomatoes are very large you’ll have to cut them into quarters. Parsley is added to the tomatoes before heating them in oil to enhance the flavour of the tomatoes. As the parsley sautés in the hot oil, it will lose some of its flavour. Note, if the parsley burns, it becomes toxic.
Thinly slice the garlic and add it to the room temperature extra-virgin olive oil. Slowly heat the garlic and oil over a very low temperature so that the flavour of the garlic will pass into the oil as it cooks the garlic. When the oil and garlic are warmed and gently cooked, add the halved cherry tomatoes and parsley, oregano, green olives, black olives, and capers to the pan. Cook for five additional minutes. Boil the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the spaghetti and add to the pan with the sauce. Cook for an additional two minutes. Add the arugula leaves to the pasta and sauce just prior to serving so that it does not lose its flavour in the cooking process. Serve hot with a drizzle of olive oil to further enhance the flavours in the dish and enjoy.

Note: Sprinkling grated cheese over your pasta is not the rule in Italy: if there are enough flavours going on in the dish, it doesn’t need cheese. The salty cheese will only hide the other ingredients. Also, notice how Agata adds the garlic to the oil. In many Italian, pasta dishes, oil isn’t solely a cooking medium, it’s also an ingredient. Most pasta recipes written in North America will tell you to add your garlic or onion to a hot pan—and sometimes it’s necessary—but sometimes it’s good to slow down, and, in this case, let the garlic infuse the oil—in essence creating a garlic confit.

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