I will be signing my Italian-American family sagas and mysteries during the Collinsville, Illinois, 2016 Italian Fest at Spirito’s Groceria on Main Street, Fri, Sept 16, 10 to 5; Sat, Sept 17, 10 to 2. And to celebrate this year’s fest, I’m happy to again share my recipe for Bagna Càuda.
Hubby D and I divide our time between a retreat at Lake of the Ozarks and our main residence in Southern Illinois, across the Mississippi from St. Louis in what was once a community dependent on the coal-mining industry, one that attracted most of its immigrant workers from Germany, Lithuania, and in particular the Piemonte region of Northern Italy near the Alps. The mines have been shuttered for years, most of the dedicated miners no longer with us. Their memories, however, live on in the stories they’ve passed on to children and grandchildren: the traditions of family gatherings; transforming harvested grapes into table wines, and preparing mouth-watering dishes for everyday enjoyment. Peasant food fit for kings then, more so now. Polenta, for example, that thrifty cornmeal staple piled high and covered with a sauce to compliment whatever meat has now evolved into delicate two-ounce diamond-shaped servings that grace many a high-end Italian ristorante (note: foreign spelling translates to higher prices).
Which brings me to the infamous, garlic-laden, you-either-hate-it-or-love-it bagna càuda (all together now: bah′-nyah cah′-dah) Not sure about the literal translation but close enough is hot gravy or sauce. This Piemonte classic reigns supreme in many spirited, throw-caution-to-the-wind homes on New Year’s Eve and any other time of the year when the urge cannot be ignored. Not just Italian/American households, others too.
Bagna càuda consists of three main ingredients: garlic, anchovies, and butter. If you don’t like garlic, read no further. If you don’t like anchovies, don’t worry. You won’t even know they’re in the bagna. But if they’re not, what’s the point? Butter—who doesn’t like butter? You could use olive oil, and some people do. Not me. Nor do I use cream because that’s not the way we do it in my family. Speaking of family, bagna is a dish meant to be eaten with family or with very close friends or with a combination of both. Those who don’t partake will not be able to tolerate those who do. Not that day or the next or possibly the next. There’s something about the garlic, the way it seeps into the pores while digesting, the way it lingers in the body, in the kitchen or wherever the cooking took place.
Some weeks ago while spending time at the lake, D and I ran into our old friend R, his equally charming wife M, and their daughter A. Every so often R plays host at his lake house to a lucky group of high school buddies including D. Knowing how much the guys like bagna càuda, I usually send along a container generous enough to allow leftovers for R and the family.
For months we’d been trying to get together with R and M but life kept interfering. And this winter evening that felt more like spring was no exception.
“Come over for supper,” R said.
“We would if we could but we can’t.” Silly me, I’d forgotten to turn off a pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove.
“Go home and take care of it,” M said. “We’ll see you later.”
“But I wanted to bring bagna càuda and making it will take too long.”
“Make it at our house,” R said.
“Better yet, I’ll teach you how to make it.”
“Can I be the sous chef?” their daughter A asked.
So D and I went back to Casalago (our lake house) turned off the stove, and fed what once was stock to the garbage disposal. We gathered our ingredients, stopped for a few more, and spent a delightful evening with our friends, who now know how to make their own bagna càuda.
Making bagna càuda can be a family affair or a friendly affair. Here’s the recipe I shared that evening—a little garlic between friends.
Bagna Càuda the Loretta Giacoletto Way
(Number of servings varies but this should accommodate an uninhibited twelve.)
Anchovies: One 28 oz can packed in olive oil.
Garlic: Five large heads (not elephant garlic)
Unsalted Butter: One to ½ pound (four to six sticks)
White wine: Two or three tablespoons
Drain anchovies (reserve olive oil for another use).
Lightly rinse anchovies with water, pat dry, set aside.
Smash garlic heads to separate cloves; smash individual cloves; peel cloves.
Chop peeled garlic cloves in food processor, pulsating until fine.
Or, knock yourself out hand-chopping with your favorite sharp knife.
To Cook (about 45 to 60 minutes)
Start with two sticks of butter.
Melt butter in large skillet on low to medium setting. An electric skillet would be perfect.
Begin adding chopped garlic, a little at the time, reduce heat setting.
Stir, using a wooden spoon (just because) or use your favorite tool.
Garlic should take on a translucent quality. Don’t allow to burn or get too dark.
Keep stirring, add more garlic,
Start adding drained anchovies.
Alternate additional garlic, butter, and anchovies, keep stirring.
Reduce heat if needed.
Add remaining butter, garlic, and anchovies. Keep stirring.
Anchovies and garlic will transform into a loose paste, the ‘meat’ of the dish.
Butter will stay separated from the other ingredients. Keep stirring.
Fragrance bagna creates will reach your ears, nose, and mouth. Enjoy.
Taste test, using a bit of bread or fresh veggie (celery, mushrooms, etc.)
You like? If you don’t now, you never will, which means there’ll be more for everyone else.
Add half the vinegar. Taste again. If needed, add remaining vinegar.
Okay, the bagna is ready. But only if you don’t let it burn.
Meanwhile: the crudités or verdure cruda or raw veggies (All mean the same.)
While you’re making the bagna, somebody else can assemble a large platter of celery, mushrooms, peppers, Chinese or Napa cabbage, whatever fresh veggies are available for dipping and scooping. Marinated veggies might work too, as long as they don’t overpower.
Gotta have bread, lots of bread.
Italian bread, cream bread, French bread—sliced into half-inch portions or any manageable size. Put on a platter or toss on the serving table—it’s the Italian way.
To Serve the Italian way
Place electric skillet on table that has easy access from several sides or all four.
Or transfer bagna from regular skillet to a container that can be kept warm, set on table.
Gather ‘round, everybody.
Dip veggie in bagna with one hand. Remove and with other hand hold bread slice under dipped veggie. Transport to mouth. Insert, careful not to burn roof because this will hurt worse than a first bite of hot cheesy pizza. When bagna soaks your bread slice, eat it and take another.
Every five minutes or so say, “Basta (enough)!” as in step away from the table, folks—you, not me.
Continue process until bug-eyed and reeking with garlic.
CAUTION: Do not double dip—you know who I mean. You with the veggie that’s been in your mouth and now it’s back in the bagna … NO, NO, NO.
And depending on the crowd, if you think sticking your bread in the bagna is okay, don’t be surprised to find the nearest fork stuck in your hand. It’s the Italian way.