Yes, I know, it’s too late for Easter but today is Pasquetta in Italy, an official holiday (banks and post offices closed, no newspapers) when by ancient tradition people consume the leftovers of the Easter feast—preferably all’aria aperta, out in the open.
A picnic, in other words, and what better excuse for a picnic than festive leftovers? The idea of going out into the countryside to feast in the early spring has such obvious connotations with fertility rites to promote the green growth that there’s no point in my stressing it.
Crostini, however, are not just for Easter or Pasquetta. We’ll be making them at Villa Campestri during our cooking class, “Speaking Tuscan in the Kitchen” (May 20-26) because they’re a constant on the Tuscan festive table, always at the beginning of the feast, whether Christmas, Easter, or a harvest home. A proper Tuscan, in other words, would never have crostini as a snack in between meals or even with a glass of wine in the late afternoon. Like many foods and dishes, they have a very precise place, at the beginning of the menu and they come in great variety—crostini rossi, for instance, are topped with tomato sauce and crostini verde with a heap of steamed, chopped bitter greens, dolloped with good olive oil. Even bruschetta counts as a crostino although in Tuscany bruschetta is considered just an excuse to consume fresh new olive oil, preferably right at the mill where it has just been pressed. Another version is the bruschetta con vongole served at some of the beach-side restaurants of Fregene outside Rome, with tiny clams laid out in a pattern like little beige tiles on a miniature roof.
So what’s the difference between crostini and bruschetta? Well, bruschetta is always made from toasted bread, while crostini, traditionally, are made from slices of stale bread dipped in broth or salted water to soften. But I much prefer my crostini neri served on toasted bread which, I suppose, to a proper Tuscan means I’m just consuming bruschetta nera. (I made that up.)
Unlike the other versions, crostini neri are specifically Tuscan. In days of old they were made with milza (spleen) but modern home cooks and restaurant chefs alike are more apt to use chicken livers (fegatini)—certainly easier for American cooks to find. The recipe below is from my old book, Flavors of Tuscany, now long out of print but still (she said modestly) worth seeking out. Most vin santo tends to be overly sweet, so I use dry oloroso sherry instead. This makes about 1 ½ cups, 8 to 10 servings.
- ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- ¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 2 – 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 anchovy fillets, chopped
- ¾ pound of livers, either all chicken or mixed chicken, duck and rabbit
- ¼ cup dry oloroso sherry
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Finely grated zest
- of a fresh lemon
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 2 – 3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and chopped coarsely
- 6 to 8 thin slices country-style bread, toasted and cut in smaller pieces
In a pan over medium low heat, gently sauté the parsley, onion, and garlic in the olive oil until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the anchovy bits and continue cooking, crushing the anchovies into the oil. When the anchovies are fully dissolved, add the livers and raise the heat to medium. Brown the livers, turning them frequently until they are fully brown on the outside but still rosy in the middle.
Add the sherry to the pan and cook until the liquid is reduced to a syrupy consistency and the livers are cooked through. Taste and add salt and pepper, along with the grated lemon zest.
Add the white wine and continue cooking, mashing the livers with a fork as they cook, until the liquid has been absorbed. You should have a thick but rather liquid paste, which will get thicker as it cools. If the livers are not thoroughly mashed, put them through the coarse disk of a food mill or process very briefly in a food processor. They should have considerable texture, however, and not be reduced to a puree. Stir the capers into the chicken livers.
Serve at room temperature, spreading the toast with liver paste.