The Saint in question is Saint Rita of Cascia, in Umbria, the stew is a seafood-based one, and the ‘making do’ is the solution to my wondering what to do with some beans I had boiled the day before. Fish and beans are not regular gastronomic dancing partners but in this recipe they tango very well.
This is one of those rambling posts so if it’s the recipe you’re after, do by all means go straight to the photos of food and the recipe part further down.
This is a recent photo of my mother, in a café on our way to Cascia last month.
In a post I had written on my other blog in July 2013, I had mentioned the very unusual tale of my mother and one that I am inclined to repeat here, for the trip to Cascia and Santa Rita’s sanctuary there was largely due to her.
Quote: “My mother is the only Italian I know of who travelled to Sweden in order to learn English. That was back in 1950 and it was no mean feat for a 24 year-old unmarried woman to travel on her own all the way from Rome to Stockholm. The route went something like this: Rome-Florence-Milan-Paris-Berlin-Copenhagen by train, and, after taking the boat and once in Sweden, yet another train to Stockholm. She ended up marrying my father, having me, becoming my father’s widow and,when I was five years old, re-marrying, to a Scotsman this time — who was living in Chittagong, East Pakistan, while they were courting, and who moved to Karachi, West Pakistan, when they got married in 1961. My stepfather’s job also brought the family to Iran, Bangladesh, the Lebanon and Cyprus and back to Pakistan. A lot of relocating, some of which was due to local political turmoil. My mother, whose name is Agnese by the way, and who is now pushing 89, has had a very interesting life but, as with many an interesting life, it was not without complication and tragedy even.
All this to say that she is a tough old bird, with a fiery spark in her beautiful eyes and outlook, a person who can always hold her own. We all love her Italianissimo accent, the kind of Italian accent that often got its leg pulled in old Hollywood movies, and she has that Italian ‘flair’ and outspokenness that used to ruffle expat English memsahibs back in the days when the The British Women’s Institute (in Karachi, if you must know) really didn’t know what to make of her simply because she WAS Italian. Her opening line, very often, saw her embroiled in an intellectual throwing-the-gauntlet discussion ushered in by the phrase, “You can say what you want, but …” — and this when nobody else had even had a chance to form an opinion, one way or the other. “He is notta normal” was another staple summoning up of a person’s character. She has had a lot of patience with people who were notta normal in her life.
The one phrase that has stuck out as being THE most Agnese-defining, however, is the coy, “Do you vant me to be diplomatic or sinceeer?”. Many an unwary bystander has fallen prey to this apparently innocent question, and we who have witnessed her employ this stock phrase like a snake charmer’s flute are only too aware that it doesn’t really matter what a person would prefer (i.e. her being tactful or upfront) — she is going to tell it as it is, and that’s that.” End of Quote but not end of my mother’s outspokenness and quirky logic.
This is a photo of Mamma with her baby brother Antonio, nickname Toto. He and his wife Pina also came along to Cascia.
She regards discussions about philosophy and life very seriously and in recent years has taken recourse to an adage that helps her deliver a trump card in any mentoring discussion, and that is: “You can attempt to elude Destiny as much as you like but, in the end it will wake up before you in the morning “ . Ta daaa.
And you, dear reader, can imagine how disempowering such an attitude can be for any of us when attempting to present another point of view.
Though respectful of other people’s faiths and credences, she is of strong atheist conviction, quite scathing about catholic priests and popery, and is not above telling people off for believing in the nonsense of certain rituals of the Christian faith — and yet, and yet, she thought it quite logical that she and I could do worse than to make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Divino Amore just outside Rome on the Via Ardeatina.
“I can’t pray for myself, of course, but I can pray for you and your sisters,” was the syllogistic conclusion to her inductive thinking process when I put it to her that praying and atheism were somehow at odds. She told me all about how a visit to the sanctuary way back when in the 1960s had resulted in my stepfather finding a good job again. If it worked then, why shouldn’t it work now?
So off we went, it’s not very far from where we live, did our little pilgrimage and then enjoyed a nice lunch together. “We should do this more often, Mamma” I said to her with good cheer. “We should make it a point of visiting sanctuaries once a month and that’ll be an excuse to do something together.” Despite living three kilometers from one another, life has become so complicated and busy these past few years that sometimes many days go by before we manage to see each other, sigh. I know I am not the only one in this time-constrained pickle … so many people I know are hampered by the lack of leisure time.
There is my mother, with the orange bag. That’s my aunt Pina with my mother, as we made our way to the top of Cascia, to the sanctuary. Just look at her posture will you!
Brother and sister on the stairs.
Anyway, nothing loath, we arranged to go and visit Cascia, inviting her brother and his wife to come with us for the day. Cascia is home to Saint Rita and she used to be my mother’s favorite saint back in the days when she believed in the power of saints. Saint Rita is known for helping out on lost causes and is associated with bees and roses. I liked that. The drive there took as through beautiful countryside and past the waterfalls of Le Marmore, with farmers selling great potatoes and onions by the wayside.
The church where Santa Rita lies embalmed and enclosed like Snow White in a glass coffin is quite impressive and I must say I did feel moved, and found tranquillity within. (And just so you know, I prayed for blessings to be showered upon everyone who is in need right now – which might include you too, dear reader.)
After lunch in a very friendly trattoria, we wandered around the town and in and out of a few shops, especially food shops. I admired the local saffron but bought beans instead.
And that … is how we get to today’s recipe.
I had boiled some beans:
Here they are.
And, at a good fishmonger’s in Monteporzio Catone (not far from Frascati), I had bought some mussels and razor clams. I put them into a casserole, added a few cherry tomtoes, a few cloves of garlic, a splash of wine, and steamed them open. I also bought these prickly things called ‘canocchie’ (Squilla mantis is their Latin name) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squilla_mantis. I simply cooked them through with some olive oil.
I then removed the mussels and razor clams and tomatoes from the casserole.
And this liquor is what was left. Mmmmm. This is the most delicious part!
I strained the fish stock through a colander into another saucpean. And there were the beans, ready in waiting … I poured the fish stock into the beans, and used an immersion blender to process the beans with the fish stock. I got rid of most of the mussel shells … And I then put the mussels on the half-shell BACK into the puréed beans, together with the tomato fillets. I now added the canocchie, and some parsely stems. Used a wooden spoon to combine everything, added a twist of pepper … and … Bob’s your uncle. This fish and bean stew was rocking, let me tell you ! One final touch: toast some bread and then add it to the soup bowl. Pour the fish-stock bean soup into the bowl. Add the mussels and the canocchie. And enjoy the understated voluptiousness of beans, seafood stock, mussels, canocchie, tomatoes, parsely stems with a hint of chilli and a swirl of olive oil at the very end.
There is a bit of ‘destiny’ to this fish stew, I do indeed concede, there really is. And it is easy peasy to make too …