A couple weeks ago I was talking to my friend, and fellow food and wine enthusiast, Maria, about her trip to a cooking school in southern Italy. I asked her about her favorite dishes that she cooked while at the school, and one her responses brought on a burst of beautiful memory from my childhood — something I hadn't thought of in years! She simply said, "Tiella!" Tiella is a layerd potato and zucchini dish my grandmother (whom I very lovingly will refer to as Nunni) used to make. Although I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandparents and I cook a lot of our family's traditional food, I had never made the Tiella. After talking to Maria about the version she made, I was instantly yearning to make Nunni's Tiella!!
My Italian roots are in southern Italy — Calabria to be exact. My great-grandparents came here around the turn of the century. Both of my Italian grandparents were born in the US and through the years kept many of the southern Italian traditions. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the translation of our food heritage from Italy to the US. One thing that I have observed is that seafood was abundant and available to my ancestors in Calabria, but was a luxury to my family once they settled in northern West Virginia. As I trace recipes and traditions back to the old country, I find that my family often replaced shellfish and other seafood with beef and pork because of availability and affordability. The seafood traditions that did hold strong were things like white fish, smelts and baccalà (salt cod). It is very interesting to see how "eating local" was something my ancestors did without thought — it was a way of life. They grew their own vegetables and the meat and dairy they ate was all locally raised. It's something we have to work harder to accomplish these days, but so vital to ourselves and our planet.
But enough about that for now, back to the Tiella! The day after I talked to Maria, I called my mother for help remembering how Nunni used to make the dish. I was thinking about the substitution of beef and pork for seafood because while the Tiella that Maria described contains mussels, Nunni's version contained either ground beef, pork roast or pork chops (depending on what she had on hand). I made my own version on Sunday and it was fantastic. I haven't gone back to formally recipe test and record proportions yet, but I can share my procedure. This is how I learned to cook from my Nunni — "by feel" and "by taste", the old country way.
I started by thinly slicing some Yukon gold potatoes and zucchini. I used about 6–8 small zucchini and the same amount of small to medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes. I arranged a layer of overlapping potato slices, then a layer of overlapping zucchini slices in the bottom of a 3 1/2 quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven. I sprinkled a few tablespoons of grated Romano cheese over the zucchini.
I chose to use pork as my meat. I had part of a shredded Boston Butt Roast that I had braised in tomato sauce a few weeks ago in the freezer, so I thawed that and spread a layer of the meat and sauce (about 2 inches deep) across the top of the zucchini, reserving about a cup of the sauce (no meat) for finishing the dish. Next, I alternated layers as follows:
zucchini topped with a pinch of salt and pepper,
potatoes topped with a pinch of salt and pepper,
a tablespoon of grated Romano,
about a quarter cup of shredded asiago cheese;
Repeat until all the potato and zucchini slices are used making sure the last layer is potatoes.
I sprinkled about a tablespoon of Romano over the top layer of potatoes and then poured the reserved cup of tomato sauce over the dish. Finally I baked it uncovered at 375º for about 1 1/2 hours and served it with spaghetti and Romano cheese.
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