Italian food is ubiquitous across the United States. Mall food courts have a requisite pizza place selling pepperoni-topped slices to hungry shoppers. Lasagna is a staple at the dinner table, and school cafeterias offer minestrone as the soup of the day. Bruschetta is on the appetizer menu at neighborhood bars, and coffee shops stock biscotti in the bakery case. At the grocery store, it’s easy to find prosciutto, gnocchi and dozens of flavors of gelato.
But the Italian foods that enjoy wide popularity in the United States represent only a small slice of Italy’s culinary diversity. Italian cooking is highly regional, with distinct food traditions shaped by politics (the country wasn’t unified until 1861), geography and the economy. While pasta is enjoyed throughout the country, there are hundreds of local variations. Meat- and tomato-based ragù alla Bolognese sauce, panzanella bread salad and cannoli pastries are each regional specialties, originating in Bologna, Tuscany and Sicily, respectively.
Another example of a regional specialty is mostarda, a condiment of syrup-poached fruit flavored with mustard oil. The fruit used to make mostarda can vary with the season: pears, apples, melon, figs and quince can be used alone or in combination. The sweetness of the candied fruit is tempered by the spicy, astringent quality of the mustard oil, giving mostarda a sweet and spicy flavor profile reminiscent of a hot pepper jelly. However, unlike a jam or jelly, the pieces of fruit in mostarda tend to be fairly large and firm, giving the mostarda a slightly chewy texture.
According to food writer Elizabeth David in her classic book Italian Food, mostarda originated in ancient Rome as a condiment of honey, mustard oil and vinegar. While today mostarda is primarily a method for preserving fruit, the ancient Romans used a similar method to preserve root vegetables like turnips — a combination that seems strange to modern palates. Mostarda is a specialty of the northern Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto. Variations include mostarda vicentina, a Venetian specialty made with quince that has a more jam-like consistency, and mostarda di Cremona, which is made from whole fruits, such as pears, cherries, figs, plums and apricots.
In Search Of Mostarda
After reading up on mostarda, I wanted to track down a jar to try this unique condiment for myself. However, although it is gaining in popularity in the United States, this condiment is still a fairly niche product. My search began at my favorite specialty grocery store, which has an impressive cheese department stocked with plenty of accoutrements — unfortunately, mostarda wasn’t one of them. Next, I tried my luck at an Italian market, but the selection skewed toward southern Italian cuisine. Northern Italian specialty items were nowhere in sight. Eventually, I found a jar of pear mostarda at a local cheese store, nestled on a high shelf between fig jam and Dijon mustard, its golden-hued, translucent contents the treasure at the end of my journey.
Now that I had my mostarda in hand, what was I supposed to do with it? Traditionally, this product is served with bollito misto, a northern Italian mixed boiled meat platter. Tougher cuts of beef and veal, a cotechino sausage and a whole chicken are simmered with aromatics for two to three hours; the dish’s unique, rich flavor comes from cooking the various meats together. The cooked meats are thinly sliced and served with an assortment of condiments, such as salsa verde (a tart uncooked green sauce), warm red sauce, horseradish sauce and mostarda.
If the idea of preparing a bollito misto is too daunting, pare it down and simply serve mostarda with the cotechino, a large Italian fresh sausage made from pork and boiled before serving. For a non-traditional take, the condiment can be used as chutney to accompany grilled meats or fish. Adventurous eaters may enjoy spreading mostarda on a charcoal-grilled patty for a unique burger. The sweet and spicy flavors also work well as a glaze for pork chops or pork loin. It can also serve as a spread to spice up a turkey sandwich — similar to cranberry sauce, the sweetness pairs nicely with poultry. Vegetarians can enjoy mostarda with grilled eggplant or zucchini.
A glistening jar of mostarda makes a thoughtful hostess gift, and this condiment also lends itself quite well to entertaining. It is a natural accoutrement for a salumi platter, and its sweetness provides an ideal contrast for prosciutto, in particular. Glaze a batch of chicken wings with mostarda for gourmet game day eats. The sweet and spicy flavor profile makes it a delicious dip for hard or soft pretzels; depending on the size of the pretzels, you may need to chop any larger pieces of fruit so that they can easily be scooped up.
Once you’ve eaten your way through a jar of mostarda, there will likely be some leftover syrup at the bottom. Don’t make the mistake of rinsing it down the drain. Instead, whisk the remaining syrup into vinaigrette dressing. This tastes particularly delightful drizzled over assertive greens like spinach or arugula, or it can be used as a dip for crudités.
The Cheese Factor
Mostarda especially shines as an accompaniment for cheese. In an informal tasting, a favorite pairing for a purchased pear variety was layered on a slice of baguette with fresh Chevré. The tanginess and creamy texture of the goat cheese was an ideal foil for the sweet and spicy mostarda. Similarly, mild young Gouda served as an excellent canvas to highlight the condiment’s spiciness. The pairing of Gorgonzola and mostarda earned high marks from tasters, with the sweetness contrasting pleasantly with the pungency of the cheese. Paired with Pecorino Romano (or another hard aged cheese) yielded an appealing sweet and salty contrast. One pairing that didn’t work? Sharp Cheddar clashed with the strong flavors of the mostarda, resulting in an unappetizing muddle.
Pairing mostarda and cheese doesn’t have to be limited to the cheese plate. The topping adds a welcome zip to a classic grilled cheese sandwich — try combining it with mild and easy-to-melt cheeses like Fontina or young Gouda. For an intriguing ravioli filling, finely dice any large pieces of fruit and add a few tablespoons of mostarda to Ricotta. This product can even be used as a bold topping for a slice of plain cheesecake.
Inspired to sample some mostarda yourself? As noted above, mostarda can often be found at cheese shops and specialty grocers, or it can be purchased online from various retailers. Ambitious cooks can make a batch of mostarda at home. While the process is fairly straightforward, it is time-consuming — the fruit is poached in syrup over the course of several days until it is saturated and translucent, and then it is seasoned with mustard essence for its signature spicy flavor. Mustard essence, which is made from pressed mustard seeds and is very strong, can be quite difficult to track down in the United States. However, ground mustard can be substituted. The resulting mostarda will be slightly cloudy rather than translucent, but the taste will be similarly delicious.
Adapted from Preserving Italy by Domenica Marchetti
Marchetti’s original recipe calls for the traditional mustard essence, but since it’s difficult to source in the United States, ground mustard has been substituted. As written, this recipe will yield a moderately-spicy mostarda; add a bit more mustard for an extra kick of heat.
Yield: about 1 pint mostarda
2½ lbs ripe, firm pears (about 6 medium), peeled, cored and thinly sliced
2 cups sugar
2-3 Tbsp lemon juice ( ½ lemon)
1 Tbsp ground mustard, more to taste if desired
In a large bowl, gently mix the pears, sugar and lemon juice until pears are evenly coated. Set a plate on top of the pears, and place a weight (such as a large glass jar or small bowl) on top of the plate. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature overnight.
Place a colander over a medium saucepan with a heavy bottom. Drain pears into colander and set aside. Bring syrup to a boil in the saucepan over medium-high heat and boil for 5 minutes. Add pears, increase heat to high, and boil for 1 minute. Transfer pears and syrup to a large bowl, set a plate on top of the pears and place a weight on top of the plate. Cover with plastic wrap and let mixture sit at room temperature overnight.
Place a colander over a medium saucepan with a heavy bottom. Drain pears into colander and return to bowl. Bring syrup to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for 5 minutes. Pour syrup over the pears, set a plate on top of the pears, and place a weight on top of the plate. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature overnight.
Repeat the same process as Day 3 for draining the pears and boiling the syrup. The syrup should have the consistency of maple syrup; if needed, add a small amount of water to thin it out. Sample a pear slice to make sure it is candied — it should have a dense texture and not taste raw. If the pears still taste uncooked, pour the syrup over them, set a plate on top of the pears and place a weight on top of the plate. Cover with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature overnight.
Once pears are candied, combine with the syrup and cool to room temperature if needed. Stir in mustard and add more to taste if desired. Transfer the mostarda into a sterilized jar and store in the refrigerator.
Mostarda Apple Pie
Add a spicy twist to a traditional apple pie by including mostarda in the filling. This recipe was tested with a pear mostarda, but other varieties could easily be substituted. Be sure to finely chop any large pieces of fruit in the mostarda so that it will mix evenly into the filling. Use crisp, sweet-tart apples for the filling; the recipe was tested with a mixture of Granny Smith and Braeburn apples.
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp sugar, plus extra for sprinkling top
¾ tsp salt
2 sticks (1 cup) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch cubes
6-8 Tbsp ice water, plus extra for brushing top
2 lbs (about 6 medium) crisp, sweet-tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ½ inch pieces
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp mostarda, with any large pieces of fruit finely chopped
Make the crust: mix the flour, 1 tablespoon sugar and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the butter until a crumbly mixture forms; the largest pieces of butter should be pea-sized. Gradually add ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until dough forms moist clumps. Turn dough onto a clean surface and form into two balls. Flatten into disks, wrap in plastic and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling: combine the apples with 2 tablespoons sugar in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until apples are slightly softened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in the mostarda.
Make the pie: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out bottom crust and place in a 9-inch glass pie dish. Add prepared filling. Roll out top crust, and if desired, use a decorative 1-inch cookie cutter to cut a hole in the center. Place top crust over filling. Pinch the top and bottom crusts firmly together and roll or crimp the edges. Cut several slits in the top crust to vent. Brush top crust with ice water and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Place pie on baking sheet.
Cover edges of pie with strips of foil to prevent excessive browning; remove foil during last 15 minutes of baking. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until crust is light golden-brown and the filling is bubbling through the center cut out and slits in the crust. Allow pie to completely cool on wire rack before serving.