September is national Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I'm getting both my blogs involved to participate in the recipe contest hosted by Michelle of Bleeding Espresso and Sara of Ms. Adventures in Italy, initiated to draw attention to the disease and its symptoms. The gist of the contest is to highlight a food that begins or ends in O, while talking about what is commonly perceived as an uncomfortable topic. For contest rules and information on how you can get involved, hop over to one of their lovely websites. See the end of this post for important information on this disease.
My contribution to the cause?
The Original Olive all'Ascolana (pronounced oh-LEE-vay) - The Original Stuffed Olives from Ascoli Piceno
Unless you're a newcomer to this blog, you know that I lived in the beautiful city of Ascoli Piceno for three years, and only left by force, wailing and weeping. It is a place that is very, very special to me, a place I call home, a place which I now know intimately.
That also goes for the regional food! The local specialty of Ascoli Piceno is a tasty little critter: gigantic olives that are stuffed with meat and deep-fried. Even Bryan loves them, and he normally does not eat olives! (Give a guy deep-fried meat and he'll eat anything!) Around the Piceno, no party or antipasto plate is complete without them.
It is said that stuffed and fried olives have been around this area for two millenia, but they became commonly popular in the last few centuries because it was a practical (and delicious!) way to use up scraps of meat and cheese.
The local olive variety, found only in this part of the country, is called the tenera ascolana. It is a behemoth as far as olives are concerned, that are very 'meaty'. Local tradition dictates that the olives be pitted by hand a spirale, in a spiral around the pit, which is hand-cramping business, let me tell you. Special curved olive-pitting knives are sold in the local cutlery shops for this time-consuming task. (I willingly admit that I buy pre-pitted olives, as do many other Ascolani apparently, because they are widely available in town.)
The meats selected always include pork and chicken; from that base other "scelte" are added according to taste. Indeed, each person I know in Ascoli Piceno makes their stuffed olives slightly differently. Some add a bit of beef or veal to the mix; others insist it must have some prosciutto. I've run across a few that include mortadella, and one man who used pancetta (which was a little too fatty for me, perhaps a contridiction considering these things are fried!). As for the cheese, most use grana padano, but local, aged pecorino is popular, too. Odori (spices) vary, as well; some cooks add celery and carrot to the pot; some like nutmeg, while others say it overpowers the flavor.
I've seen little arguments break out over the "correct" way to make olive all'ascolana, with everyone always referring back to the authoritative, "Well, that is the way my grandmother made them!" to settle the matter. Since this was typical cucina povera, whatever was at hand was what they used, which is why everyone's nonna makes it her own way!
I recently posted the detailed instructions for making Original Olive all'Ascolana on my cooking blog, La Cucina, so I'm not going to repeat it here. (It was feeling lonely and wanted to get in on the fun, too.) I adapted recipes from two trusted born-and-bred Ascolane: my friend, Linda, and my former landlady, Dorina. Both learned by watching and helping their grandmothers and mothers, so it doesn't get more authentic than that, folks! Both were thrilled that I wanted to learn how to make them and willingly gave them their time-honored recipes. I fiddled with them to get the quantity down to a more manageable level, and convert the measurements to American standards, but otherwise these are the Official, Original Olive recipes they gave me.
But wait, there's more!
I'm not just going to link you over to a wonderful, regional recipe that will become a family favorite. Oh, no!
I'm going to let you in on a secret...
The best places in Ascoli Piceno to enjoy the famous olive all'ascolana.
Not all are worthy! As tempting and appealing as it may be to buy a paper cone full of olives from the stall vendor in Piazza Arringo...don't! They are industrially-produced and quite inferior to the home-made, real-deal olive. They are also usually not fresh-from-the-fryer, and believe me, a luke-warm, soggy olive is not what you're after.
So where should you go to get a real taste of this local delicacy? (When ordering, remember that they are pronounced oh-LEE-vay.)
-Caffe Meletti. The historic caffe in Piazza del Popolo serves hand-made olive along with your lunch or aperitivo. Don't worry that they are not on the menu; order them anyway and a plate of fresh, hot olives will appear as if by magic. Order a glass of Rosso Piceno or Offida Pecorino and prepare to swoon.
-Ristorante Il Grottino. This family-run restaurant in Piazza Ventidio Basso is a hole-in-the-wall (almost literally) with great local fare...and some of the best olive in town. Get just the olives and a plate of pasta, washed down with some house wine, and you'll probably be pretty full.
-Cantina dell'Arte is an airy, good-natured place across the little alley from the hotel of the same name (different owners). We love their food and their service...and of course, their olive all'ascolana. They also have a small, cloistered patio for outdoor dining.
-Pasta all'Uova on via del Trivio. If you *must* stroll while munching your olives, go see Paola and Antonella at the fresh pasta shop. They make their olives by hand and sell them from their small prepared foods case daily. Closed Monday. (Tell them Valeria says 'ciao'!)
From the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund:
Want to get involved? Join the cause and the contest! You can also donate to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund through FirstGiving!
- Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancers in the United States and is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women; a woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is 1 in 67.
- The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and subtle, making it difficult to diagnose, but include bloating, pelvic and/or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; and urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency).
- There is no effective screening test for ovarian cancer but there are tests which can detect ovarian cancer when patients are at high risk or have early symptoms.
- In spite of this, patients are usually diagnosed in advanced stages and only 45% survive longer than five years. Only 19% of cases are caught before the cancer has spread beyond the ovary to the pelvic region.
- When ovarian cancer is detected and treated early on, the five-year survival rate is greater than 92%.
Thanks to Michelle and Sara for their hard work in putting this contest - and more importantly - helping bring this issue to the forefront!