Patti Jackson, I Trulli, New York City /
The two main theories as to the origin of grano arso (“burnt grain”), which originated in the region of Puglia, are both associated with cucina povera, or “cuisine of poverty.” One account claims that 18th and mid-19th century landowners, following the time-honored European tradition of helping poor women and children struggling to survive, permitted them to remove the bits of grain left in the fields following the harvest and subsequent burning of the fields, a scene of grinding rural poverty immortalized by Jean-François Millet’s 1857 oil painting The Gleaners. Another theory suggests that villagers would sweep their communal wood-burning ovens to collect the burnt flour that was left behind after baking bread, then mill it to obtain a flour that was intensely dark, with a bitter taste, to make pasta or more bread.
In either case, the burnt grain couldn’t be used by itself. It was necessary to mix it, at a proportion of one part grano arso to four parts all-purpose flour, for it to become palatable.
Nicola Marzovilla, owner of I Trulli in New York City, first tasted grano arso in his homeland of Puglia and mentioned it to one of his chefs, Patti Jackson, when she first started working for him. She was immediately intrigued. “As a cook, I’m always looking for new flavors, textures, and interesting ingredients,” she says. “Grano arso reminds me of the burned edges of bread or pizza, which is a flavor I love.”
She has been using it regularly over the past few years as a menu item with pasta dishes (tossed with peas, pea shoots, pecorino, and prosciutto in springtime, or with turnips, kale, and lardo in the winter, for example) and to make taralli, a type of cracker nearly always found on the Pugliese table, which are especially good as an accompaniment to pungent pecorinos.
Jackson prefers to make her own grano arso rather than to rely on inconsistent suppliers as she continues to combine its old-fashioned familiar flavor with more elegant ingredients in an interplay that brings “off the grill” rusticity to more traditional composed dishes.
Maccheroncini di Grano Arso with Duck Sausage, Cannellini Beans & Swiss Chard
For 4 servings
• 4 cups durum flour
Heat oven to 400˚F.
Spread flour on half sheet pan (A); bake until dark in color and charred around the edges (20 to 30 minutes); remove from oven (B); let cool to room temperature; sieve into clean bowl; reserve.
• 1 cup grano arso
• 3 cups durum flour
• 1 cup hot water
Place grano arso and flour in the bowl of electric mixer fitted with dough hook; add 3/4 cup water (C); mix until crumbly and moist, capable of sticking together; remove dough from mixer; place on lightly floured work surface; knead by hand, adding additional water a few drops at a time if necessary to form an elastic but not wet dough; divide dough into 4 pieces (keep each covered with plastic wrap at all times).
Roll first piece of dough out by hand or using a pasta machine to 1/8" thickness; cut into 1/4" by 1" pieces; shape maccheroncini by placing a piece of wire lengthwise across the center of each piece and pressing while rolling the dough around it (D); repeat process with remaining dough; allow pasta to dry completely (15 to 20 minutes) or freeze up to 1 month.
• 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 lb. duck or other game sausage
• 1 bunch Swiss chard, cleaned, leaves separated from stems,and both chopped into small pieces, stems blanched and refreshed
• 1 cup cannellini beans, cooked
• 2 to 3 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
• 6 Tbsps. mild aged pecorino (such as Pecorino Toscano), grated
• black pepper, freshly ground
Bring large pot of salted water to a boil; add maccheroncini; cook until al dente, stirring occasionally (2 to 3 minutes); strain pasta (E); reserve.
Heat oil in large skillet set over medium heat; remove casing from sausage; cook sausage, mashing it continuously to break it into little chunks; drain off fat; discard fat.
Add chard stems to the sausage; cook 2 minutes; add chard leaves and 3 Tbsps. pasta water to the pan; let mixture cook until chard wilts; add beans and olive oil with a little more pasta water; shake gently to emulsify; add 3 Tbsps. pecorino (F); season.
To serve, place in bowls or serving dish; finish with a little more olive oil and the remaining pecorino.
What to drink: Conti Zecca Salice Salentino Riserva Cantalupi 2006