This month’s new Challenge brings us back to (Southern) Italy, specifically in an area of Puglia called Salento. I have never been to Salento, but read extensively about it after the new Challenge was announced. I am especially fascinated by the baroque beauty of the city of Lecce, and and even more so by the Griko, as I love learning foreign languages. As far as I can tell, based on the pictures I could find, some of Salento’s main colors are deep blues and blazing whites, and the views are simply breathtaking. The recipe is from Cristian—his own family’s version of Taieddhra which is a traditional dish made with rice, potatoes and mussels. In the local dialect the word Taieddhra refers to the specific dish as well as the clay vessel in which it is baked. Here, we would call it a casserole.
As Cristian introduced this recipe he shared some of his own childhood memories tied to this dish. He painted a rather vivid picture of himself as a young boy enjoying a portion of taieddhra while sitting on a stonewall facing a vast corn field. As I am sure many others did while reading his post, I was struck by this glimpse into the past. It is, it seems to me, an image that evokes both peacefulness and wonder, as they are only possible in childhood. Somehow, it moved me.
It is an interesting dish, which in its traditional form is made up of layers of rice, onions, potatoes and mussels, with the addition of zucchini, tomatoes, and a good sprinkle of grated pecorino cheese. The raw ingredients are placed in the clay dish and baked.
I could not reproduce this dish in its original form, as mussels are treyf. It is however the method to make it that I can adapt to my own kitchen and dietary restrictions. The idea of how I could recreate it within the boundaries of kashrut and with ingredients available here came to me while en route to pick my son up from school.
It is over an hour drive—but I do not mind, it is actually one of my favorite parts of the day. Once I leave behind my small town’s Main Street, with its beautiful houses and manicured lawns, I get to drive on back roads surrounded by thick woods on each side, interspersed by ponds and the occasional cranberry bog. These days the landscape is especially gorgeous as the tender green of Spring is everywhere—and in taking in that great peace and beauty my mind always goes with gratitude to the Divine Hand that created it all.
Usually on these drives something interesting happens, to my kids’ delight— a few days ago we saw a hawk perched on a low branch and stopped the car to observe it for a while. Yesterday, I had to stop the car and wait for a terrapin to safely cross the road. Wild turkeys often show up at some point, and my youngest daughter is always waiting with great anticipation to see the corralled horses as we drive by a local farm .
As it happens, I also get to drive by some corn fields, although this early in the season the plants are still rather small and thin. And here is the connection to Cristian’s presentation of the recipe. I started to think how I could recreate it with different ingredients and yet somehow stay true to the nature of the dish. Potatoes and onions had to be in it, but in place of the zucchini and tomatoes I thought about artichokes. In place of the mussels, salmon, and instead of the usual rice, Wild rice and American Long-Grain. To round it all up, a sprinkle of cheese and a good amount of fresh dill, straight from my garden.
The pictures do not do justice to the dish—but that’s no news that I can’t take a decent picture to save my life. One thing I do not have to worry about is winning the 50 Millimetri Awards. Anyway, we all loved the combination of flavors and textures—I do not know whether using freshwater fish is too much of a detour from the original dish, but it did taste very good indeed.
I used mostly American ingredients—Sweet Vidalia Onions from Georgia, Artichokes Hearts and Wild Rice from California, Red Potatoes from Maine, Wild Salmon from Alaska, American Long Grain Rice from Texas, Cheddar Cheese from Vermont, and dill from my own backyard in Massachusetts. The only exception: Extra-Virgin olive oil imported from Puglia.
Incidentally, I learned a new Italian slang word: Mappazza, which in this case refers to the danger of overcooking the rice so that it turns into one sorry lump, while it should stay nice and fluffy. This danger was not so much an issue here, as much as the opposite. Given the sturdy nature of Wild rice, under cooking was more likely. Anyway, it did not happen: presoaking and enough liquid in the casserole produced a successful result.
300 g Wild Salmon Fillets
4 large artichoke hearts, thinly sliced
1 sweet Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup American long-grain rice
1/2 cup Wild rice
1 lb red potatoes (thinly sliced)
extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch of fresh dill
Aged cheddar cheese, grated
fish stock as needed, cold (made with salmon bones with this recipe)
Preheat the oven to 350F
Rinse the wild rice and let it soak in cold water to cover for about 1 hour. Then rinse the long-grain rice, drain the softened wild rice and mix them together.
Pour 3-4 tbsp of olive on the bottom of a baking dish, then arrange the sliced onions, followed by a layer of potatoes, then the fish and the artichokes, sprinkle with a generous amount of dill, and finally cover everything with a thin layer of rice mix, another layer of onions and top with potato slices. Sprinkle generously with cheese, drizzle some more olive oil, and pour enough fish stock to reach 1-inch above the top layer.
Bake for about 90 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Thank you Cristian for this great recipe and as always Ale, Dani & Giorgia for the MT Challenge!
1. I used a mandoline to slice the vegetables.
2. Usually in the US rice mixes are made with Wild Rice treated so that it cooks at the same time as other types of rice. As I doubt those are available in Italy, I used regular Wild rice that I soaked for a while in order for it to soften and cook in the same amount of time needed for American-Long Grain rice.
3. Generally speaking, Ashkenazic tradition allows mixing fish and cheese. However, Sephardic Jews and some Ashkenazic communities might adhere to a stricter opinion. Check with your Rabbi.