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candied tomato + ricotta crostini

crostini

There is a sort-of-good reason my posting has been sluggish the last two weeks; I’ve been in Italy with my sister. First we were in Rome for a week, and then out in Perugia, visiting a remote enough village called Montefalco. Italian food and wine—and the gorgeous, sunny, bright, 70-degree days—they make you a step slow. In a good way.

I made these crostini before I left; I was probably already thinking about Italy. In northern Italian cuisine, at least, there are as many ways to transform dry and stale bread as there are moments in time. During our journey, we had many dishes of bread soaked in bean broth, or smeared with some kind of meat, or heaped with brothy greens. All delicious. These are easy finger food for a party—nice and compact and simple to pick up and eat. Most of the crostini I’ve encountered in Italy are actually soaked in broth, which makes them decidedly not finger food.

candied

When I created these, I needed a huge batch, so I give large party-sized proportions below. But you can just as easily grab a 12-ounce container of sweet cherry or grape tomatoes and make these on a smaller scale. Fresh marjoram is hard to find—but it’s wonderful. If you can’t find it, I think a much smaller number of sprigs (maybe 2 or 3) of fresh thyme would do. And do take the time to locate a nice, strained, creamy, fine-grained ricotta, or make your own, or simply line a sieve with cheesecloth and drain the regular store-bought kind by weighting it down over the sink for an hour or overnight in the refrigerator.

Few sights will perk up your kitchen faster than a giant pan of these incredible tomatoes simmering away on the stove. You’ll find more uses for them than just crostini. I originally got this idea, in fact, from this stunning recipe I found on Food52 a year or two ago. More cooking discoveries from Italy over the next few weeks. I’ve already made versions of two new dishes that will soon enough make it to these pages. Until then, ciao!

cooking away

Candied tomato + ricotta crostini

Makes about 50 crostini; enough to feed a number of people as part of a cocktail party menu. You can cut the recipe by one-third for a much smaller number.

A lazy woman’s version of this fantastic recipe from Food52.

  • 36 ounces cherry and grape tomatoes, mixed colors
  •  3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 10 sprigs fresh marjoram
  • Maldon salt
  • 3 cups fresh, strained ricotta
  • 1 or 2 baguettes, sliced about 1/4-inch thick (depends how long the baguettes are)

1. In a very large nonstick skillet, warm tomatoes and olive oil together. Cook at medium-high heat until tomatoes are all burst. Pour in the vermouth after taking the pan off of the heat. Crumble in the brown sugar and return pan to burner, set to medium. Throw in marjoram sprigs. Simmer until dark, thick, and syrupy. This may take 20 to 30 minutes. It depends on the amount of moisture in the a tomatoes. Let mixture cool for about 30 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 350 F. Place baguette slices cheek by jowl on baking sheets and toast for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

3. Thickly spread a dollop of ricotta on about half of crostini. Then top each with a spoonful of candied tomatoes. Sprinkle with Maldon salt to taste. Discard marjoram stems as you go. Continue covering crostini with ricotta and candied tomatoes until mixture is used up; you may have bread left over, depending on how big your baguettes were. Serve at room temperature.

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kale + mozzarella salad

As tomatoes become grainy and corn becomes starchy, and many other summer vegetables flame out or fade away, kale—at least in Connecticut—is a vegetable that makes the transition with us from spring, to summer, to fall. A lot of the kale we are getting here now is hardier than usual, maybe with a touch of frost burn around the edges. But it’s no less delicious and no less welcome for those blemishes, at a time of year when our fairer summer friends take their leave from the kitchen.

Nothing can be simpler than making a raw kale salad for supper. You can make it a million different ways. In fact, I had every intention that this particular salad would in fact be one of those different ways: a raw kale, lemon and avocado salad. But the avocado I’d been ripening all week had other plans. (Don’t you hate it when you slice into an avocado, one that you’ve been babying along to ripeness, only to discover it is slimy and brown inside?) Luckily I had a nice ball of fresh mozzarella in the refrigerator, ready to take its place beside finely sliced kale, red onions, and lemon juice. The key with any raw kale salad is to rub it down properly with an acid, like lemon juice, and then olive oil—at least 15 or 30 minutes before you plan to eat. (Be warned: if you have an office job where you tend to get paper cuts, you better be a masochist to undertake this particular procedure.) The acid and oil kind of “cook” the kale a bit—it will still be verdant and crunchy, but a little easier to eat. I like to mellow it out with something a bit fatty (in this case mozzarella and not avocado) and make sure just before supper that the whole thing is properly salted after all. (Sometimes I find I need to add a bit more salt at the end.) Enjoy improvising on this theme over the next few weeks, a not insignificant consolation in the face of fall.

Kale + mozzarella salad

  • 2 bunches (about 20 large leaves) of lacinato kale, washed and cut into a fine chiffonade
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 4 oz fresh mozzarella
  • freshly cracked black pepper

1. Combine the finely sliced kale, lemon juice and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands, massage the lemon juice into the kale leaves for about 3 to 4 minutes. Assiduously work it into the leaves. Add olive oil and honey and continue to massage for 1 to 2 more minutes. Set aside while you prepare other dishes, at least 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Just before serving, add onion and mozzarella. Grind black pepper over, to taste. Serve.

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ricotta, baby leek + mint crostini

Last weekend there was a dinner party. From which, I think, we have only just recovered. And now I’ll pass along the recipes to you. The preparation of the meal was quite easy–I just moved from dish to dish throughout the afternoon. Except for a griddled asparagus salad, nothing I was making involved a last-minute preparation, so nearly everything was completed in advance. This crostini recipe, a version of which was on Food52 earlier in the week, was a no-brainer first course. It takes about 10 seconds to make, and it makes use of some of the season’s best ingredients. I passed over the ramps that were called for in the original recipe because next to their ramps, Waldingfield Farm had baby “King Richard” variety leeks, a crisp and peppery leek that adds crunch and punch to this hors d’oeuvre. We’re lucky in that we have some of the best ricotta around here in New Haven, from Liuzzi. And Ty’s mom had recently sent us some gorgeous, fresh mint from her garden.

The other crostini I made was this one, which you’ve seen before, made from chicken livers from Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm. If you are interested, here is the entire menu. I’ll be posting these dishes throughout the week.

First Course

Crostini
Chicken liver ♦ Ricotta and baby leek

Second Course

Griddled asparagus ♦ Mustard cream ♦ Prosciutto di San Daniele del Friuli

Main Course

Herb roasted shoulder of lambGratin de flageolets, fenouil

Dessert

Semifreddo alla vaniglia Composta di rabarbaro

Fromages

I mostly relied on recipes from David Tanis, “A Platter of Figs,” and “Sunday Suppers at Lucques,” Suzanne Goin’s incomparable cookbook. So if you have these books, look up  the recipes and throw your own dinner party. I hope the company you have was as good as ours was.

Ricotta, baby leek + mint crostini

Adapted from TasteFood’s recipe at Food52

  • 20 thin slices of baguette
  • 1 cup whole-milk ricotta*
  • 1/4 cup finely minced baby leeks (“King Richard” was my variety) or minced chives or garlic scapes
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh mint
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • juice from half a lemon
  • fleur de sel

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Place baguette slices on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. Leave until toasted and golden, about 10 minutes. Check them frequently so they don’t become overdone. Remove from oven and cool. This can be done an hour or so before guests arrive. Leave bread on the baking sheet so it doesn’t become soft.

2. Combine ricotta, leeks, mint, zest, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a bowl with a fork. When well mixed, refrigerate until ready to serve.

3. To serve, scoop a couple tablespoons of mixture onto each slice of baguette. Place crostini on a platter. Spritz with lemon juice, drizzle with a tiny amount of olive oil, and sprinkle with additional mint or chives (if using), and fleur de sel, as desired. Serve.

*I use the thick, strained kind sold at our Italian market and cheesemaker here in New Haven, Liuzzi. If yours is watery, you’ll want to strain it before using.

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asparagus + shallot tart w pea shoots

I had a crazy idea the other night. It was Sunday evening, and I didn’t know what to make for dinner. I had a refrigerator full of a whole lot of odds and ends (from a dinner party the night before), and not much imagination or initiative (due to same). The crazy idea was, “it’s Sunday night; I’ll look in Suzanne Goin’s cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques for inspiration!”  (I told you I was lacking in the imagination department at the time—in the end my obvious thought turned out to be a stroke of genius.) Many times in reading through her gorgeous book, I have been drawn to the various savory tart recipes in it. She uses the same mixture of ricotta and creme fraiche as the base in each tart. It just so happened that for the dinner party the night before, I had used part of a container of ricotta, and part of a container of creme fraiche. I am just a little bit obsessed with using up leftover ingredients before buying more supplies, so I settled on the tart.

Thing was, the only vegetables I had on hand were: a bunch of leftover fresh asparagus I hadn’t cooked the evening before, a few handfuls of pea shoots, and two enormous shallots. (Seriously, they were world-record setting.) None of the tart recipes called for asparagus, but I was totally reassured by the narrative in the cookbook, which told me that you can put literally anything on top of a savory tart. Some of the tarts were served with a traditional salad of fresh herbs; I figured I would use the pea shoots. I didn’t have any puff pastry on hand, but I thought it would take only a few more minutes to make a quick tart crust. (Thank you, food processor; you make my life worth living.) I took Suzanne at her word and got going with the tart.

Not too much later we were eating. We were eating well. And we were enjoying all the flavors of spring on a gorgeous spring evening. If there is anything in this world that tastes like spring, it’s asparagus. And if there’s anything that tastes more like spring than asparagus, it’s a crazy tangle of pea shoots with the lightest possible dressing of lemon and olive oil. The tart is, obviously, extraordinarily rich, and the tangy lemon juice and cold, crunchy pea shoots cut through that richness in the best possible way. The whole dish just works. I think as we pass through spring and into summer, I will be finding more variations on this tart theme. I don’t see what could possibly go wrong. Unless my glass of rosé isn’t properly chilled.

Asparagus + shallot tart with pea shoots

Pastry adapted from Gourmet, February 1999
Filling adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin

For pastry:

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup rye flour
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons ice-cold water

Make pastry first:

1. Pulse flour, butter, thyme, and salt in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse meal. Drizzle ice water evenly over mixture and pulse until it just forms a ball. (Do not overwork dough, or pastry will be tough.)

2. Gently press dough into a 5-inch disk and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about 20 minutes in freezer, or at least 1 hour in refrigerator. (Don’t forget it if you put it in the freezer!)

For filling and salad:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 very large or 4 large shallots (1 and 1/2 cups sliced)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 1 bunch asparagus (about 14-16 spears), washed and trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch pieces or left whole* (see note)
  • coarse sea salt or kosher salt, to taste
  • coarsely ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup ricotta
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup creme fraiche
  • 3 to 4 ounces of cheese, cut into small pieces (in this version I used a combination of taleggio and garrotxa left over from a dinner party, but brie, goat cheese, gouda, or any number of other cheeses would be delicious)
  • Several handfuls of pea shoots
  • juice from half a lemon

To assemble tart and make filling:

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Take dough out of refrigerator and place it on floured counter. Roll it out just until it is just a bit larger than a standard 9- or 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Place crust in tin and create a firm edge, reallocating pastry from places where there is too much to fill up holes or gaps in the pastry. (This is not an exact science.) Prick the bottom of the pastry with a fork and place the tart pan on a baking sheet. Blind bake for 10 minutes and remove from oven. Reduce oven temperature to 400 F.

2. While tart crust is blind baking, pour a glug or two of olive oil in the bottom of a large skillet, preferably nonstick. Add shallots and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Add thyme. Cook at medium-high heat until shallots are golden and beginning to caramelize. Add asparagus and continue to cook until asparagus turns bright green and is becoming tender. Remove from heat.

3. In a medium bowl, mix ricotta, egg, and creme fraiche. Set aside.

4. When tart shell comes out of the oven, pour ricotta mixture into it. Then scatter cheese bits and pieces around the tart. Then place asparagus spears, bending to fit if they are left whole, or simply spreading evenly if cut into pieces. Scrape all the shallots out of the pan, distributing evenly over the tart. Return the tart to the oven, which is now set at 400 F.

5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Filling should be puffed and set; cheese will be bubbling through in places.

6. When the tart comes out of the oven, let it rest while you prepare the pea shoots. Combine them in a large bowl with the lemon juice, a sprinkle of coarse salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix them with your fingers. Serve a slice of tart in a dish with pea shoots scattered over.

* One note about the asparagus: I sauteed mine just until it was bendy enough to curve around in my round tart pan. If you have a square or rectangular one (or are doing this free-form with frozen puff pastry), no worries there. If you are using a round one, though, I do recommend cutting your asparagus into 1-inch segments. It’s not as dramatic looking, but it is a bit less stressful to assemble and easier to slice and serve. If you do leave it whole, just be sure to use a serrated knife and a sawing motion when you cut slices. The asparagus resists a straight blade!

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hats’ macaroni + cheese

Today is the one-year anniversary of this blog! Here we are, 126 posts later and none the wiser for it. I was thinking about why I started this blog—as a way to share recipes with friends and family, and also to document the recipes that we use in my family that have never been written down—and looking through the things I’ve cooked but not yet shared with you, this macaroni and cheese seemed like the perfect candidate for the v&h one-year birthday. My grandmother still makes this for Sunday dinner at least once a month. My mom makes it, too, as does my sister. None of us has written this recipe down, nor do we think a written recipe has ever existed, but it exemplifies the things we’ve learned to make from Granny. It is a staple at the following Major Feast Holidays: Easter (with ham), Memorial Day (with fried chicken), and occasionally on our birthdays. Rarely in my family does someone utter the word “ham” without following it with, “macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and deviled eggs.” This macaroni and cheese has been hauled to potlucks, family reunions, and church suppers across the Eastern Shore of Maryland and all of southern Delaware. My mom even has special thermal containers for ferrying it around.

Macaroni and cheese became en vogue again a few years ago, with the rise in comfort cooking in some of the nation’s top restaurants and the wider availability of farmstead and other special cheeses. I applaud this development. It is how I learned to make macaroni and cheese properly, starting with a bechamel sauce, adding cheese, and then browning the top to a perfect crust, preferably with shell pasta or a fancy rigate pasta to grab the sauce. But this dish in no way resembles Granny’s macaroni and cheese, which is a different creature, and more beloved by everyone who has eaten it. Some brilliant woman in the 1950s must have figured out her shortcut for avoiding the creation of the bechamel: stir butter into the hot elbow pasta, then stir in flour, then hot milk, then cheese, dump into a dish, and bake until the little tops of the elbows sticking out get toasty and brown. Granny actually doesn’t even heat the milk, but that is because she starts to make Sunday dinner at about 6 a.m., so she doesn’t mind if it takes longer to cook. (If you want to cook the macaroni in the time I list below, heat your milk.) She bakes it, generally, in a big round Pyrex casserole that has a straw basket that goes around it. As soon as my sister and I hit the door on Sunday, we have the lid off in a race to eat every single brown elbow protruding from the dish. (Much to my mother’s chagrin. We got our love of brown crispy bits from her. By the time she gets to the kitchen the entire dish is pockmarked and our fingertips are burned.)

This may sound ridiculous, but the kind of joy that you feel in your grandmother’s kitchen, jostling your sister to get to the very last crunchy brown piece of macaroni, is the kind of joy I believe cooking—even (or perhaps especially) very simple things—can bring to us each day. At 90 years, Granny can get a perfect meal with 10 different dishes on the table with no trouble at all. For some of us, three dishes—one being a simple salad or something we made the day before—is what we can manage. The key is to enjoy the little things, like the satisfaction on the faces of everyone around the table after a meal. The dishes can wait a few minutes, can’t they? Thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to the next year.

Hats’ macaroni + cheese

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni
  • 3 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk, warmed
  • 1 lb sharp cheddar, grated
  • freshly ground black pepper

1. Cook macaroni according to package instructions, subtracting 1 minute of cooking time. Meanwhile, gather the rest of the ingredients and warm the milk gently until it is hot, but not simmering. Spray a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. When macaroni has cooked , drain immediately and return to the pan you cooked it in. Stir in butter thoroughly. Then sprinkle flour over and stir very well until flour is well distributed and none is visible. Add the warmed milk and stir again. Sprinkle cheddar over, reserving a large handful to sprinkle on top.  Mix together thoroughly, distributing cheese as well as you can. Grind in pepper to taste.

3. Pour mixture into prepared cooking pan. Sprinkle reserved cheese on top. Place in the middle of hot oven. After 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 F. Bake for a total of 30 minutes if you like your macaroni creamy (what is wrong with you?) and 45 minutes if you like it with a browned cap of cheese. If you want browned bits on top, run it under the broiler for an extra 5 to 10 minutes, watching it carefully.

 

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spinach ricotta tart with rye crust

Probably one of the ideas that I toy with the most in the kitchen is the equation of “(greens + dairy + eggs) carbohydrate = dinner”. For example. Or for example. Or for example. However, I bore you, dear reader. Let’s get to the crux of the matter. This past weekend I took on a challenge that I’ve tangled with for years. I have always wanted to create a spinach and ricotta tart that dramatically reduced the quantities of eggs, cheese, and ricotta, in favor of a tart saturated completely with spinach, and perhaps even a healthier tart pastry for good measure. I believe in this recipe I have found what I sought. And it tastes as delicious as I dreamed.

Some of the recipes from the 80s and 90s that I found in cooking magazines and elsewhere called for literally pounds of cheese, which make quiches and casseroles heavy and dull. Over time it became clear, too, that in this case frozen chopped spinach is our friend. (On this score, my little sister has been right all these years.) You can get quite a bit of spinach into a tart if you start with the flash-frozen variety and roll it in a towel to squeeze every available drop of liquid out of it. (Really, knock yourself out on squeezing out the liquid—it is the single most important thing you can do to make this tart sing.) As for the cheese, I used our wonderful local ricotta here in New Haven. If you can’t get your hands on a dense, creamy ricotta, leave a cup in a cheesecloth-lined strainer suspended over a bowl in the sink overnight. Then I added the tiniest amount (2 ounces–the size of two regulation dice) of the very best taleggio.

The crowning glory (foundational glory?) of this tart is a crust adapted from 101 cookbooks. I changed out the spelt flour for rye and have never looked back. You could use whole-wheat pastry flour or another whole grain of your choosing. And the bonus? When I was growing up, one of my mom’s kitchen miracles was taking the trimmings from pie crusts and cutting them into odd bits. Baked in a hot oven for 20 minutes or so, these become lovely crackers. It’s a habit I’ve maintained to this day. When I saw the scraps from this pastry, I knew we were dealing with something very exciting. I sprinkled them with fleur de sel and popped them into the oven on a sheet next to the tart pan when I par-baked the crust. Amazing! I had a bit of the taleggio that I used in the tart leftover, and it was a divine snack while we were waiting for the tart to cool. Yes, Belinda, heaven really is a place on earth.

Spinach ricotta tart with rye crust

Tart shell adapted from this wonderful recipe at 101cookbooks. (Another recipe idea for the second half of the pastry will appear later this week.) Tart filling inspired by that recipe and also this one from Bon Appetit.

To make two rye tart shells (one for this tart and one for later, or for more crackers if you like, instructions below):

  • 2 1/4 cups (9 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (4.5 ounces) dark rye flour
  • scant 1 cup (4.5 ounces) fine corn meal
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine table salt
  • 1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks or 20 tablespoons) butter, cut into chunks
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cups cold water

1. Put the first four ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until butter is the size of peas. Add the egg yolk and 1/4 cup water. Pulse for 10 seconds and then scrape down the sides. Add the next 1/4 cup water, pulse for 10 seconds, and scrape down the sides. See if dough is sticking together without too many loose crumbs. If it still seems dry, add the last 1/4 cup of water, pulse for 10 seconds.

2. When it has formed a solid mass with just a bit of crumbliness, turn it out onto the counter and gather it into one mass. Divide this mass in half. Wrap each half very tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.

To make spinach and ricotta filling and tart:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 of a large onion (5 ounces) finely chopped
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or crushed red pepper
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • coarse sea salt to taste (remember your cheese may be quite salty)
  • 10 ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and water squeezed out completely
  • 2 ounces of cheese such as fontina, taleggio or gruyere, finely chopped

1. First, blind bake the tart shell. Preheat oven to 375 F. Remove dough from refrigerator and turn out onto a sheet of parchment. Roll with a floured pin until you have a round slightly larger than the tart pan. Pick up the parchment and flip the pastry over the tart pan, removing pastry from parchment and settling it into the pan. Trim excess pastry and create an edge around the rim of the pan, using extra pieces to fix any tears in the dough.

2. Prick the entire bottom of tart shell with a fork and place in the oven. Reduce heat immediately to 350 F, and bake for 25 minutes. If you have extra pastry, cut it into rustic crackers, place on a baking sheet, sprinkle with coarse salt and bake with the tart shell for 25 minutes.

3. While tart shell is baking, in a saute pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until transparent. Reduce heat if it begins to brown. Set mixture aside to cool.

4. In a large mixing bowl combine eggs, ricotta, nutmeg, Aleppo pepper or crushed red pepper, freshly ground black pepper, a sprinkle of sea salt. Stir until thoroughly mixed and smooth. Add spinach and cheese and mix thoroughly.

5. When tart shell has baked for 25 minutes, remove from oven and pour filling into crust. Return to oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 10 minutes. Then remove sides of tart pan, slide tart onto a cutting board, cut and serve in wedges.

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gnocchi alla romana

Well, it’s winter, so let’s stick with our starchy theme, shall we? Seriously, I realize I should mix it up a bit more, but this may be the greatest dish you have never heard of. Which is sad, because it is better than macaroni and cheese and a lot more fun to make. (Seriously.) I keep semolina flour around to coat fish to be pan-fried, and to make delicious breakfast cakes with hazelnuts, or fruits. It’s a wonderful pantry staple that can be used in yeast breads, coffee cakes, and all sorts of ways. It is a lot like cornmeal (and we know how I feel about cornmeal) but a bit more neutral and flexible.

I first read about this un-gnocchi-like gnocchi on Emiko Davies’ amazing blog. If you don’t follow her, you should. Most especially because of her marvelous series of recipes directly from Pellegrino Artusi’s revered Italian cookbook, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well. At least as I have heard it, the cookbook, written in the decades following Italian unification in the late 19th century, was one of the first cookbooks to cover cuisines from all regions of Italy. It captures the richness of the many approaches to cooking throughout Italy. I wonder if perhaps the cookbook had been written before unification it might have aided in the process. I, for one, would have happily unified with Rome upon finding out how to make this simple and delicious dish.

After reading Emiko’s account, straight from Artusi, I wanted a bit more information. Somehow I had overlooked this recipe in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking for years. But, true to form, she gives a very detailed description of how to prepare the dish. The recipes had some serious differences. (Marcella advises using mostly yolks, and stirring them in after the paste is formed; Artusi’s method of whole eggs mixed into the semolina and then cooked is much faster and easier.) I took the simplest parts of Artusi’s recipe and applied them to Marcella’s more detailed instructions.

The dish is wonderful if you make it in advance. In any case you have to mix up the paste and let it cool at least an hour or two in advance of when you’d like to bake it. You can refrigerate the assembled gnocchi in the baking dish up to two days before baking with no ill effects. The main trick is to cook the paste for as long as you can possibly keep stirring it, so that it makes a very thick mixture to spread on the parchment and cool. If the paste has not had sufficient evaporation of water the carefully cut-out circles will morph into a solid mass in the pan. And do—seriously—wet your hands while you’re spreading the paste on the sheet! This makes the process a lot easier. Most importantly, do try this if you have never had it before. It is the ultimate comfort food and pairs well with almost anything you can imagine having for supper.

Gnocchi alla romana

A combination of Marcella Hazan’s recipe from Essentials of Italian Cooking and Artusi’s original via Emiko Davies

  • 150 g semolina flour (1 scant cup)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 liter whole milk milk (2 cups)
  • 40 g parmesan grated on the large holes of a box grater (1.5 oz or 1/2 cup loosely piled), divided
  • 35 g butter (about 3 tablespoons)

1. In a medium bowl, mix half of semolina flour and both eggs with a whisk until smooth. Add the rest of the semolina and whisk until you have to switch to a rubber or silicone spatula. When mixture is smooth, pour it into a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in the milk, a bit at a time, until fully incorporated.

2. Place the pan on a burner and turn it to medium. Using a rubber or silicone spatula, stir mixture vigorously while it is on the heat. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan while stirring, to bring up and dissolve the paste that forms on the bottom of the pan. After about 8 minutes, mixture will become uniform again, and stiff, and come away from the sides of the pan. Add all but a handful of the parmesan. Cook for 2 more minutes after this happens, until mixture is very thick and stiff. Remove pan from burner.

3. Lay two kitchen towels on the counter and top with baking parchment. Scrape semolina mixture onto parchment. Wet your hands or a spatula and push the mixture out to a 1 cm (under 1/2 inch) thickness. Continually wetting your hands or the spatula makes this easier. Leave mixture to cool completely, about an hour.

4. Use one-third of the butter to generously butter a baking dish large enough to hold gnocchi. (Roughly 13 x 9 inches, or a large oval.) Use a 1-and-1/4-inch round cutter to cut circles from the cooled dough. (Dip cutter in water if this is too difficult.) Place circles in the pan, edges slightly overlapping, until the dish is filled. As you do this, scatter dots of butter throughout the circles. When the pan is full, dot top with remaining butter and sprinkle cheese over. (Doing this ahead? You can cover tightly and refrigerate for up to two days at this point. Allow dish to come to room temperature before baking.)

5. Preheat oven to 400 F. Bake about 30 minutes, until gnocchi are puffed and deeply golden-brown around the edges.

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risotto

I have a terrible confession to make. I purport to be a food expert and post here three or four times a week under the pretense of being a (somewhat) seasoned cook. But. I have never made risotto until now. When my parents were visiting a couple of weekends ago, I took them to the marvelous Liuzzi Italian market near New Haven. I saw a package of arborio rice lurking on the shelf. And it haunted me. There were three different types of the Italian short-grained rice, positioned near the semolina and gnocchi, a vivid reminder that everyone who is serious about cooking makes risotto at least at some point and, most likely, repeatedly as part of their repertoire. So I apologize to all of you who are now thinking, “What? Risotto? As if someone needs to post a recipe for that! Duh! I make it in my sleep, like, every week.”

And the worst part? Now that I’ve made risotto I have found out that (1) it is easy to make, and (2) it only takes about 45 minutes. Also, (3) it tastes AMAZING. Somehow I was laboring under the misapprehension that risotto was massively time consuming and incredibly finicky. The bad/good news for you is that we will probably see several variations on the risotto theme here now that I realize that it is convenient and—how shall I put this?—sublimely delicious. To start with I tried the simplest version and more or less followed Marcella Hazan’s recipe in Essentials of Italian Cooking, which by now you must realize is my bible when it comes to any food Italian.

I suppose I should also confess that as a risotto novice, I discovered a few interesting things in this process. The first is that in most recipes, and certainly most Italian dishes, a flavor base for the dish is built by creating a brown fond with onion, garlic, other aromatics, sauteed in some type of fat in the pan, usually dissolved with a liquid—stock or wine, generally—at which point we proceed with the dish. Risotto is distinctly not handled this way. You heat the rice in the fat (a combination of butter and oil) at a low-ish heat so that nothing turns brown. When you add some finely grated or minced onion, you soften it only—no browning. One of the amazing and beautiful things about this dish is that somehow it is perfectly white yet intensely flavorful. The second is the simple idea that for this dish more than others, everything should be measured and laid out in advance—there are only five ingredients, so this is easy to do! The process is very simple, but because you have to keep stirring at all times, you need to have everything ready beforehand. Including a glass of wine to drink whilst you’re stirring, stirring, stirring.

Marcella’s recipe is double the one I show below, and serves six. Which means that half a recipe should serve three. (Or, maybe, two people who have been waiting all their lives to eat risotto they made themselves and somehow, gluttonously, consume the entire pot.) In any case, I am really hoping against hope that this post is not in vain, and that there are some others of you out there who have wanted to purchase your first vacuum-packed box of arborio rice and try to make risotto. You will be rewarded and, perhaps, a tiny bit obsessed afterwards.

Risotto

Adapted from Essentials of Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan

  • 3 cups chicken stock or a combination of chicken, beef and/or vegetable stock
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon onion, finely grated or minced very finely
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup young, or 1/4 cup aged, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated fluffily on a microplane

1. In a separate pan bring the broth to a simmer and leave it simmering.

2. In a very heavy, wide pot (I used enameled cast iron), place 1/2 tablespoon of the butter, all of the oil, and the onion. Turn heat to medium to medium-high. Cook this until onion is translucent but is not browning. Add the rice. Stir and toss the rice over the heat until it begins to turn opaque. If it looks like it may brown, remove from heat for a moment. Set a timer for 20 minutes and start it.

3. Use a measuring cup to dip the broth bit by bit into the pot with the rice. Start with 1/4 cup of the simmering broth. Stir, stir, stir, cleaning the bottom of the pot thoroughly with the wooden spoon, until all the stock is absorbed. When it has all evaporated, add another 1/2 cup of stock. Stir, stir, stir, cleaning the bottom of the pot, until all stock is absorbed. Repeat this cycle for 20 minutes, when the timer goes off. If you run out of stock in this process, and the rice is not yet done, use water.

4. When 20 minutes have elapsed, begin to taste the rice. It should be tender but firm when you bite it. As it becomes more and more tender, reduce the quantity of stock you incorporate in each addition. You should do this so that when the rice is cooked you do not have to continue cooking it to burn off the additional excess liquid.

5. As the rice is approaching doneness it will be extremely creamy, tender, and yet give some resistance when you bite the grain. At this point, stir in the cheese and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir, stir, stir, and remove from heat. Taste the rice and add salt if needed. (Don’t do this any earlier because the salt levels depend on how salty your particular cheese is.)

6. Scoop the rice into warmed serving dishes and serve right away.

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ricotta + olive oil

I have very few party tricks up my sleeve, as a cook or otherwise. I am not the girl who has the greatest cheese ball or bean dip recipe ever. Unfortunately I am kind of a boring, earnest person who sits at parties and wants to discuss the ideal growing conditions for cucumbers, or a particularly intractable clue in the Sunday crossword. However, since I’ve moved to New Haven, where we have the great fortune of having several excellent Italian cheesemakers in town, I have found my party trick. It is kind of a cheese ball, in that the centerpiece is a ball, or at least a large dollop, of fresh ricotta cheese.

It is hard to describe the whole-milk ricotta from Liuzzi’s, the place I think has the best interpretation of ricotta. It has no visible curds in it at all. It is honestly more like mascarpone (oh mama) than anything else I can think of. If you don’t have a cheesemaker who is making this kind of cheese near you, you could approximate it by dumping your ricotta into a strainer lined with cheesecloth, covering it with plastic wrap, and letting it drain overnight.

The mixture I make varies from time to time. Sometimes instead of the chiles I use coarsely ground black pepper, and you should feel free to do so. You can substitute rosemary for the oregano if you like. Judge how much salt you need based on your type of salt and your taste. Besides the quality of the cheese, the real issue here is the quality of your olive oil. Use your best here, a bottle that has been kept away from the variable temperatures near your stove. (In general you should keep all of your cooking oils as far away as you possibly can from the heat source in your kitchen. The heat breaks them down over time, and they smoke earlier in the cooking process and become rancid much more quickly.) All you do is scatter your salt and herbs over the cheese and the bottom of the serving dish, and douse it with a lot of olive oil. The amounts given below are really approximate. You should do this by eye, gauging how much you need based on the number of guests. Just be prepared, because they will behave like piranhas once they get one bite of this dish. Distribute a lot of napkins, step back, and take the time to consider the crossword.

Ricotta + olive oil

  • 3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta (preferably the dense, creamy, fresh kind; if using the grocery store kind, strain it overnight in a colander lined with cheesecloth)
  • 3 dried chiles or 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, very fresh
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup (or more) fruity extra-virgin olive oil, the best you have
  • fresh slices of baguette or ciabatta suitable for serving

1. Place the ricotta in one dollop in the center of a shallow, wide bowl for serving. Break up the dried chiles into the dish by rubbing between your palms, or sprinkle in crushed red pepper if using. Rub the oregano between your palms into the bowl as well. Sprinkle in the fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt.

2. Pour the olive oil over the top of the cheese and around the dish. Spoon some of the herb mixture back onto the top of the cheese. Allow this to sit for at least 15 minutes. (Now may be the time to slice the bread.)

3. Serve with small spoons for spreading some cheese and olive oil onto bread.

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