A SPICY TASTE OF ITALY
As one of the most authentic regions of the entire Italian “boot,” Chef Mario Batali finds Calabria a fascinating place to both visit and sample cuisine. With virtually no real industrial development along the coast but for the less-than-appealing city of Reggio Calabria, which exists mostly as a jump-off point for auto traffic and trains on the way to Sicilia, the whole coastline is relatively empty, with beautiful and immaculate sparkling-water beaches. In the middle of the province, there are gorgeous mountainous forestlands with very few towns and even fewer restaurants. This bodes well for the topographically and gastronomically inclined traveler.
The food of Calabria is clean and spicy, incorporating loads of local vegetables and including simple pastas based on seafood along the coastline, and on lamb and pork on the interior. The local citrus is ubiquitous, particularly the exotic bergamot from the hills around Reggio, and can be found in everything from the morning gelato con brioche to the afternoon tea and the mixed seafood grill at dinner. The spicy hot peperoncino plays into nearly all meals and olio santo (the spicy chili oil) is on almost every table in the region.
Diavolicchio Chile Peppers
Adding just the right level of spice, diavolicchio or "little devil" chilies are just one of four varieties of hot peppers that bring the heat to the spicy cuisine. Along with its lesspiquant brothers, the frangisello, cerasella and pupon peppers, the finger-length, horn-shaped diavolicchio pepper is a staple ingredient. Historically, diavolicchio peppers drying in bundles hung from kitchen ceilings, or simmered into the daily meal were thought to ward off malaria, cholera and worms. Peasants were especially apt to include peppers in almost all of their dishes. In fact, diavolicchio are still referred to as the "pranzo del contadino" or "peasant's lunch," meaning that the region’s poor shepherds often depended upon a few peppers and a chunk of local cacio cheese for their daily nourishment.
Used sparingly in a dish, diavolicchio peppers behave much like salt or freshly ground black pepper, intensifying the flavors of the other ingredients and providing a subtle base flavor against which the other flavors are heightened. It is difficult to identify the chili itself when used in this way, most often in stews, but the other flavors in the dish come across as noticeably bold.
This dish offers an unexpected blend of tastes: spicy, rich, fruity and tangy, all combined into one cool mixture, and reminds me of how delicious mussels can be served cold if the bread is toasted and the sauce is spicy-hot.
Makes 4 Servings | Regional Origin: Calabria
• 2 lbs fresh mussels
• 3 tablespoons plus 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 large red onion, cut into 1/2 inch dice
• 1/2 cup dry white wine
• 2 each large red and yellow bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch dice
• 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
• 1 teaspoon hot chili flakes
• 4 garlic cloves, sliced into thin slices, plus 2 whole cloves
• 4 tablespoons good tomato paste
• 1 orange, cut into segments, with juices
• 4 thick slices good crusty bread
• 10 leaves fresh basil
Clean and beard the mussels. Place a large spaghetti pot over medium heat, add the oil and onions, and cook for 2 minutes until sizzling. Add the mussels and the wine to the pot, cover and cook until the mussels have all steamed open, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the mussels with a spoon or spider and leave the liquid and onions in the pot. Allow the mussels to cool and remove them from their shells and set the mussels aside. Discard the shells.
Meanwhile, cook the mussel liquid until only a little moisture remains, about 3-4 tablespoons. Add the peppers, thyme leaves, chili flakes and garlic, and cook over medium heat until softened, about 8-10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and mix well. Cook for 5 more minutes, stirring often. Remove the mixture from the heat and allow to cool.
Combine the pepper mixture with the shucked mussels, the remaining oil, and the orange segments and juice. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Toast the 4 slices of bread and rub each with the remaining garlic. Spoon the mussel mixture over the bread, lay a couple of basil leaves over each and serve with a small, bitter salad.
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