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Liguria, a region of northwest Italy, is a 220 mile long, crescent-shaped area on the Mediterranean. Part of the Italian Riviera, it is bordered by the French territory of Provence on the west, and the Italian districts of Piedmont in the north and Tuscany in the east. The Etruscans were an ancient people of the region. Their civilization flourished in the 6th through 4th centuries BC until being incorporated into the Roman Empire. Genoa, the capital city and birthplace of Christopher Columbus, was a major Mediterranean commercial power beginning in the 11th century.
Like every section of Italy, Liguria has a rich culinary history. The Ligurians are known for their independence and reliance on their own freshly grown products. The mild Mediterranean climate, mountainous terrain, and costal location, influence the culinary landscape as much as the geographical. Similar to Provence, their gastronomy is dominated by the use of seafood, olive oil, herbs, and vegetables, (particularly artichokes, olives, asparagus, leeks, and tomatoes).
Although not a major wine producing area, the Ligurians make white wine from Vermentino and Pigato grapes, and red wine from Dolcetto and Rossese grapes. Most Ligurian wine is sold locally or to tourists. Dolcetto is the best known in America although it will inevitably be from Piedmont and not Liguria. Piedmont produces Dolcetto on a larger scale and usually of better quality.
The two most famous Ligurian culinary creations are pesto and focaccia.
Pesto is a basil and olive oil sauce most often used on pasta. Basil leaves, pine nuts, and garlic are traditionally ground with a mortar and pestle, (although most cooks use a food processor), and then extra-virgin olive oil, a blend of grated Parmesan and/or Romano cheese and salt are gradually mixed in. Although true for many preparations, I found great variability in the amounts of each ingredient across numerous pesto recipes. I reviewed seven pesto recipes from the cookbooks on my shelf. Here are the ranges of the ingredient amounts across the recipes:
• Olive oil: two tablespoons to two cups. • Nuts: two tablespoons to a half-cup. • Cheese: Quarter cup to one full cup. • Garlic: One to four cloves.
Naturally these ingredients should vary with the amount of basil being employed, but interestingly, in ALL BUT ONE of the seven recipes, the amount of basil called for was exactly two cups. Clearly these recipes will produce seven very different tasting pestos. So what are you to do? I would aim for the mid-range of the above amounts, adjusting accordingly to personal taste. Place two cups of basil in the food processor along with the desired amount of nuts, cheese and garlic, and a little of the oil. Whiz that until smooth and then gradually add in the remaining oil with the processor running until the desired consistency is achieved. Then season with salt.
Focaccia bread is 2,000 years older than pizza, even though the two doughs are nearly identical. Originally focaccia bread was unleavened since the salty air of the Ligurian coast hampered the action of the yeast and thus, the rising of the bread. Below is a basic recipe but there are many variations which include the use of tomatoes, cheese, anchovies, onions, olives, and honey to name a few.
• One package active dry yeast • Two cups warm water (105-110 degrees) • 9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil • Five cups all-purpose flour • One tablespoon kosher salt • Three tablespoons plus one teaspoon chopped rosemary
Combine the yeast, water and four tablespoons of the oil in a bowl and rest for five minutes. Mix the flour, half of the rosemary and the salt in a bowl. Then mix in the water and knead the dough for ten minutes. Brush a large stainless steel bowl with olive oil. Place the dough in the bowl, turning it once to coat it evenly, cover with a cloth and rest for an hour and a half. Now you must decide how you wish to shape the bread. You can spread the dough into a 12 X 18 pan for a thinner loaf. I use a 10 X 13 pan that is two inches deep for a thicker loaf. Oil the pan, spread out the dough and rest for one more hour. With your hands spread, using your fingers, poke holes across the top of the dough. Drizzle the remaining olive oil, rosemary, and a little more salt on the top. Place it into a preheated 400 degree oven for approximately 25 minutes. Keep an eye on it, (especially to ensure the bottom is not burning), and adjust the heat if need be. Ovens can vary a great deal. When finished, dip pieces of the bread in extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper.