Tag Archives: italian

a bowl of beans

fava

There may be more written about Italian food than any other cuisine on earth. For this reason it is intimidating to write about one’s food experiences in Italy. Nonetheless, I just returned from Rome and also a village in Perugia called Montefalco, and about this I must write.

fennel scraps

One of our first meals in Rome wasn’t even in Rome. It was at the cafeteria at Ostia Antica, on a Sunday at noon, when we were suddenly ravening and miles away from anything else to eat. Ostia Antica is an abandoned Roman port city right outside of Rome. Unearthed in the late 19th century, it is hauntingly beautiful, elegant, and organized. So different from the hot chaos of the Roman streets, here weeds grew quietly up between the ancient paving stones, and ancient tablets marked graves and directions. The city had been immense, Rome’s first colony, when it found it needed a port. Imagine the chaos of boats, bringing hundreds of African animals each day, bound for death in the Colosseum. Other boats carried wheat from Egypt, and slaves. People lived on top of people. You can see the remains of enormous apartment buildings. At several points I thought, just the trash from the amount of food consumed in the city itself—it must have been daunting.

The place was more or less devoid of tourists, except for a gaggle of German high-schoolers who were clearly Latin students traveling with their teachers. It was a brilliantly sunny, cloudless April day, and hunger struck us quickly. As miserable as cafeterias at a tourist site can be, we dutifully trouped in to find something to eat. The format was tavola calda, meaning there were dishes piled with warm items to one side, and dishes piled with cold items to another. The food looked good.

carciofi

I selected a number of salads, including one of borlotti beans: celery, celery leaves, carrots, all doused in olive oil, perfectly salted. We sat outside in the chilly sunshine with our dishes, scooping up bites of frittata, or cheese, or beans. Clearly, I thought, there is a conjurer in the kitchen, cooking up an insurrection in this a cafeteria.

Every meal was wonderful, even sandwiches from a cart in the park. Eventually we did find a real conjurer, at an enoteca in Montefalco called l’Alchimista. It is almost tragic that this restaurant is so hard to find, perched in this little town made entirely of rock. It is absurd how good it is to consume the layers of crepes, besciamella, and mushrooms they call “lasagne,” and it is almost silly how you begin to covet each remaining bite of grilled quail, or beef.

giant meringues indeed

Since I returned, I’ve begun to replicate my favorites modestly, beginning with that bean salad. I cook a pound of Rancho Gordo borlottis, or Ojo de Cabra, or cranberry beans at the beginning of the week. Then each night I scoop some out and make a new salad. Cafeteria food.

A bowl of beans

  • 3 cups drained and rinsed cooked or canned beans (Borlottis, cranberry beans, or Ojo de Cabra work well)
  • 1 carrot, peeled and then sliced thinly with a mandoline or vegetable peeler
  • 1 stalk celery, strings removed, finely chopped, leaves included
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley (if you have it)
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt (much less if using table salt)
  • freshly cracked pepper

1. Select a bowl that will hold all of the ingredients. Mix together all ingredients except for salt and pepper. Mix well. Taste and add fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt, and cracked pepper, as you feel necessary. Finish with another drizzle of olive oil. Serve at room temperature.

 

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pork roasted in wine + pastis

gorgeous slices

It’s Sunday and I just spent a good bit of time reading the “real estate” (read: totally absurdly expensive homes that no one could afford—not very “real”) section of the New York Times. Why do I torment myself like this? I am still scratching my head about how the Times is able to locate so many people who can afford multi-million-dollar homes. One of today’s features was an arty couple who have bought an old chapel and manor house in Italy. Mama.

As the kids say, whatever. I like my tiny kitchen. I especially like it on a sunny Sunday after a quick shop and a yoga class. I like that it has a sodastream: unlimited seltzer water! And the shelves are stocked with cookbooks with hundreds of slips of paper tucked in them. Lots of recipes to try out. So much potential.

nutmeg and pastis

I guess pork roast is kind of a thing here. It’s lean, it’s adaptable, it cooks faster than a roast of beef—all things I look for in my regularly scheduled programming in the kitchen. I have eyed a similar recipe in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, for pork simmered in red wine, for some time. As the wine reduces, a thick sauce forms. I think it wouldn’t work in the slow cooker properly, so this may just be a Sunday thing. You can rock out to some music, clean the kitchen, do some laundry. All the while, the pork is roasting on top of the stove. It is pretty magical. Bonus: you can do this in a house that did not cost $2.7 million.

A word of advice: do not skimp on the time you spend browning (and browning) the roast before you cook it. This adds a huge amount of flavor to the finished product, and makes the roast look incredibly appetizing to boot. I adapted Marcella’s recipe to incorporate pastis. Pastis or pernod is an anise-flavored liqueur, and I love fennel with my pork. In fact, you probably do, too. You know the little seeds you find in your Italian sausage (both hot and sweet)? They’re fennel seeds. If you despise fennel, just leave the pastis out. Still delicious, and very close to the original recipe. Skip the real estate, and head to the dining section. Happy Sunday.

Pork roasted in wine + pastis

Adapted from Essentials of Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 center-cut pork roast, about 3 lbs. (preferably with a cap of fat on one side)
  • 1/4 all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup pernod or pastis (anise-flavored liqueur)
  • 2 to 3 cups red wine such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or chianti
  • 2 bay leaves
  • fresh nutmeg for grating
  • kosher salt
  • freshly cracked pepper

1. Choose an enameled cast-iron or other very heavy pan with a lid, one which is just a smidgen larger than your roast. Warm butter and olive oil in this pan over medium heat until butter foams and the foaming subsides. Meanwhile, spread the flour on a plate and coat the entire roast in flour. Brown the roast, patiently, fatty side first, until dark brown on all sides. This will take 15 minutes or so. If the butter in the pan begins to burn, reduce the heat, and continue browning the roast.

2. When roast is browned, pour in the pastis, carefully. It will foam up right away. After a few seconds, add the wine, just until only less than an inch of the roast is above the level of the wine. Add bay leaves, a few gratings of fresh nutmeg, salt (about 1 teaspoon at first), and freshly cracked pepper. Use a fork to turn the roast a few times, and then return it to a position with the fatty side on top.

3. When wine mixture returns to a simmer, adjust the flame so that, with the lid securely on, the pot is barely simmering. Cook at a low simmer for about 3 hours, turning roast occasionally, perhaps every 30 minutes or so. If the level of the wine is lower each time, that is okay. By the end of cooking, you should have a small amount of thick sauce in the pot.

4. The roast will be extremely dark in color, tender and nearly falling apart after 3 hours. Remove it to a carving board and slice it thinly to serve. Pass sauce along side.

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brutti ma buoni

gorgeous

“Brutti ma buoni!” I declare to everyone when I present them with one of these cookies, “Ugly but good!”

Don’t let the name ruin it for you. I had three egg whites left over from making these hamantaschen last weekend, and proceeded to convert them into another sweet treat. Many recipes for brutti ma buoni cookies call for grinding almonds with the sugar, but I happened to have hazelnuts on hand, and found that this was not an unprecedented substitution. When you grind the nuts and sugar together, it has the wonderful side-effect of making the sugar ever so much finer, allowing it to fold into the egg whites easily and uniformly.

separation is hard

We are nearing the time in the calendar when eggs will be abundant in the farmers’ markets. (It is not a coincidence that all of our major early spring festivals feature eggs—it’s because normal chickens kept in human conditions will produce massive amounts of eggs during this time period.) These cookies would be a great choice for celebrating spring. The way I formed the cookies, with an elongated serving spoon, meant that they even took on an egg shape. I think these would be a marvelous choice for Easter or Passover.

but good

The cookies do keep for a few weeks if they are left to cool completely (for several hours) the day they are made, and then stored in a dry, tightly sealed tin or container. They’re light as air, and crisp, fragrant with hazelnuts and ever so slightly chewy in the center. Good, indeed. Let’s be honest, sometimes “ugly but good” is how we would describe the essence of our lives. And we focus on the good, no? Can I get an amen?

Brutti ma buoni

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

  • 2 cups or 8.5 ounces hazelnuts
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • pinch of cream of tartar (if you have it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 300 F. Place hazelnuts on a single layer on baking sheet and put into oven. Toast for 10 (room temperature nuts) to 12 minutes (refrigerated nuts), until skins begin to loosen on nuts and they’re just toasting. Remove from oven and turn nuts onto a clean linen dish towel. Pull up the towel’s edges to fully enclose the nuts, and knead, rub,  and roll them on the countertop. Open towel and check; most of the nuts should now be free of their skins. Pick the nuts out of the chaff and add to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. It is okay if some of them still have some skins on them. Allow nuts to cool a bit while you prepare to mix the cookies.

2. Line two baking sheets with parchment. (Alternatively you may butter the baking sheets.) Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the metal whisk. (Be sure the bowl and whisk are free of even the faintest trace of oil or grease. Add salt and cream of tartar (if using) to the egg whites. Set these aside and return to the food processor. Make sure nuts are just warm, and not hot. Add sugar and pulse with hazelnuts until they are finely chopped. Pour this into a separate bowl and add the vanilla. Set aside.

3. Whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy, and then increase the speed to medium-high to high. Beat until stiff peaks just form, but not a moment longer. (They’ll go quickly from holding a soft speak to holding a stiff peak.) Remember, because you are not adding sugar at this point, the meringue will not become glossy. It will simply stiffen. Remove mixer bowl from stand, add nut-sugar mixture to egg whites and gently fold together until sugar and nuts are completely incorporated.

4. Drop batter onto prepared cookie sheets by the spoonful. You can make small teaspoon-size cookies, or larger tablespoon-size cookies. Bake in prepared oven for 25 minutes from smaller cookies, and 30-35 minutes for larger cookies. The cookies will be dry to the touch and slightly gold in color when done. Carefully remove cookies from parchment and allow them to cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Packed tightly, cookies will keep several weeks.

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zuppa lombarda

Beans are an ideal January food.

Frankly, beans are an ideal anytime food, but in January they meet my criteria for health and frugality after a holiday season of extravagant eating.

I found this recipe in of my most treasured cookbooks, Il Libro della Vera Cucina Fiorentina by Paolo Petroni. The book is a Florentine classic, and was given to me by an Italian friend who is also a phenomenal cook. It is in Italian, but my food Italian is okay, and this recipe is so simple that you don’t even need to know Italian to decode it. It contains: beans, olive oil, sage, garlic, and bread. I don’t count the water you need to cook the beans.

salvia

The cookbook claims the recipe was misnamed, as the dish does not appear in the Lombardy region at all, but rather may have been popular with immigrants from Lombardy who lived in Florence in the 1800s. I don’t quibble about these things when something is this simple and good. As with most simple dishes, it depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients used, and in this case that means the beans. I used Borlotti beans from Rancho Gordo, and can only recommend that you do the same. The soup in the cookbook is made with fresh shell beans, and I’m sure you could use cranberry, cannelini, or a similar bean. It is essential in any case not to use the canned beans—the broth that develops while cooking dried or fresh beans is essential to the glory of this dish.

I used dried Borlottis that had not been soaked, and just covered the beans with about four inches of water, because I wanted the beans to soak up most of the water, and for the rest to evaporate during cooking. If the water level in your bean pot becomes reduced below the surface of the beans, add splashes of boiling water as necessary until the beans have finished cooking. When finished, you will want beans that are just covered in the nice, rich broth.

zuppa

The original recipe includes bread that is toasted plain, and the sage is added to the pot with the beans, garlic and olive oil at the beginning of the cooking. I wanted something with a bit more of the sage flavor, and simply fried the chopped sage leaves and added them to the top of each dish of soup. Meanwhile, the bread was cubed and fried until a deep golden color in olive oil and sprinkled with salt before dishing the beans over with their broth and then topping with the sizzled sage. Perhaps a bit rich for the blood of the thrifty Florentines, but nonetheless extraordinary.

Zuppa lombarda

Adapted from Il Libro della Vera Cucina Fiorentina by Paolo Petroni

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 lb dried Borlotti beans or other dried cranberry or white bean
  • water to cover by 4 inches
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 20 or so fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
  • 3 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 to 8 slices of stale ciabatta or other crusty Italian-style bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • sea salt or Maldon salt for finishing

1. Rinse and pick the beans over and add to a large soup pot. Cover with water by about four inches. Pour in the 1/3 cup of olive oil, add the garlic cloves, and set over medium-high heat. Bring the pot to the boil and then reduce to a bare simmer. Cook until the beans are tender (taste at least a dozen or so beans to make sure they are all tender), about 2 and 1/2 hours in my case. After about an hour of simmering, you can add he 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt.

2. When beans are cooked through, prepare the rest of the components. Warm the 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until quite hot. Add cubed bread to the hot oil, without crowding the bread cubes. When first side is golden brown, turn the bread and toast another side of the cube. This can be done in batches, adding more olive oil between batches as needed. When a batch of cubes are browned, place them in the warmed soup bowls, distributing evenly among the bowls. Each bowl needs the cubes from just 1 slice of bread. Sprinkle the browned bread cubes with a pinch or two of Maldon or sea salt.

3. When bread cubes are browned and in the soup bowls, warm a tablespoon or two more olive oil in your skillet. Add the sliced sage leaves and cook until fragrant and beginning to crisp. Turn off heat and sprinkle with a few pinches of Maldon or sea salt.

4. Assemble the soup. Ladle beans and some broth over the cubed bread. Sprinkle with some of the fried sage and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.

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rosemary + olive oil bread

Ty came back from a recent trip to Maryland with this lovely, gorgeous rosemary, and a recipe for rosemary bread from his mother. This bread is so easy to knead, in part because it is a soft and more liquid bread due to the use of olive oil. This makes it a bit sticky on the kneading board. You can divide it into two loaves (grease and line the loaf pans), but below I give directions for one large round. The dough is far too loose to rise in a round on its own. The solution I came up with was to use the ring from my springform pan, unlatched in its largest circumference, as a pen to hold the rising dough. And boy, does this dough rise–and fast!

The speed with which the dough rises makes it another weekend winner in my opinion. In total, it has about an hour less rising time than most other breads I frequently make. If you aren’t a regular bread-maker, this may be a good loaf to start with. Just remember, most recipes you try in the future won’t be this easy to mix up, or so fast to rise.

I think fresh rosemary is really key in this recipe. You could use even more than the 4 tablespoons of minced rosemary needles I call for in the recipe. Its sticky, piney flavors add a lot to the bread. Bonus: if you toast this in the morning, your house will smell just as lovely as it did when the bread was baking, all over again. I wonder this winter if I might try this in other variations, perhaps with thyme or even chives.

Rosemary + olive oil bread

1 enormous round

  • 2.5 cups warm (wrist temperature) water
  • 2 and 1/2 teaspoon dried yeast
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 6 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup olive oil plus more to grease pan
  • 2 tablespoons salt, divided
  • 4 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced

1. Place warm water in a large bread bowl and whisk in honey. Sprinkle yeast on surface of water and allow to sit for about 10 minutes. Using a wooden spoon add 4 cups of flour, then oil, 1 tablespoon of salt, and rosemary. Stir until smooth and add remaining flour. Mix it as thoroughly as you can in the bowl with the spoon, then turn onto floured counter and knead for 10 to 12 minutes, vigorously, until smooth. Add small amounts of additional flour if dough is sticking to the counter. Place dough in an oiled bowl and cover it with a clean towel. Let it rise for 45 to 60 minutes, or until doubled in bulk.

2. Punch risen dough down and form it into a smooth round. Line a metal baking sheet with baking parchment. While holding the ring only of a springform pan in the open position, spray it with cooking spray, or brush it well with olive oil.  Place the ring on the lined baking sheet, and then place the round of bread inside the ring. Cover it again and let it rise about 45 minutes, until doubled in bulk.

3. Preheat oven to 450 F and place a 13 x 9-inch pan filled with boiling water on the bottom rack of the oven. Place the other rack in the middle of the oven. Sprinkle the top of the loaf with remaining salt, and then place it in the oven (leave the springform ring in place) to bake for 45 to 60 minutes. Bread is cooked when it is a deep golden brown, and when the loaf is lifted off the baking sheet and the bottom of the loaf is tapped, it makes a hollow sound. Let bread cool for at least an hour before slicing.

 

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fettuccine w butternut squash + cauliflower

If you stop by your farmers’ market this morning, pick up a cauliflower and a butternut squash, as well as some parsley, and make this dish for supper. When we think of Italian food, we might not think of dishes like this, but it is a traditional Italian dish from Naples. It makes use of the best of the market this time of year, pairing creamy butternut squash (which melts into the sauce just at the end of preparation) with the marvelous texture of well-cooked cauliflower. At first I thought long ribbons of fettuccine were a counterintuitive pasta for this dish, but they are the perfect noodle to absorb this lush and hearty sauce.

Besides the cauliflower and squash, everything else in the dish is a pantry staple. The list of ingredients below is long, but when you parse it, you see that at least the process is not that fussy. All the vegetables and most of the seasonings go right in at the beginning, with only the pasta to cook at that point, and parsley and cheese to add at the end. If you cut up your squash and cauliflower beforehand, it makes an eminently doable weeknight dinner. For a dinner with meat, I would just fry some nice Italian sausages to serve after. But the dish is so hearty—I radically increased the amount of vegetables from the original recipe—that it’s not really necessary. Seriously, look at that giant measure of vegetables, below! It’s so virtuous that you can probably excuse all manner of sins for the rest of the week.

Fettuccine w butternut squash + cauliflower

Serves 6

Adapted from Lidia Bastianich, Lidia’s Italy, which is a great cookbook

  • 4 cups cauliflower, cut into florets and quartered
  • 4 cups cubed butternut squash
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed with peel removed
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 5 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 cups of tomatoes from a can of whole, peeled Italian tomatoes, cut up
  • 1 cup vegetable broth or water
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1 cup grated pecorino cheese
  • 1 lb. fettuccine

1. In a large sauteuse or skillet with a lid, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute until you can smell it, then add onion slices, and saute for 4 to 5 minutes, until wilted. Ad squash and cauliflower, capers, salt, and crushed pepper. Toss and saute for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of water, add the lid, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan to prevent the vegetables (particularly the squash) from sticking.

2. Add the cut-up tomatoes, plus the vegetable stock, if using, or water. Stir and cover the pan again. When the mixture comes to a simmer, reduce the heat to maintain the simmer, about medium-low. Cook for about 10 minutes. Test a large piece of squash to be sure it is softened, then uncover and continue cooking until the juice in the pan is very thick and will coat the pasta well, about 5 to 8 minutes. Taste the sauce and add salt as necessary, and keep it at a low simmer.

3. Place a large pot of salted water on the stove and bring it to a rolling boil. Add the fettuccine and cook barely to al dente doneness. Remove a cup of pasta cooking water from the pan, then drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the pan with the sauce (if that pan is not large enough, pour the sauce into the empty but hot pasta cooking pan and add the pasta back to it). Over medium heat, warm the entire mixture, tossing it well. The squash will break up a bit to help coat the pasta. If it seems dry, add a bit of the pasta cooking water. If the mixture seems to wet, cook it a bit more to reduce the juices. Then turn off the heat, toss with parsley and grated cheese, and serve in large, warmed bowls.

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pasta w cauliflower + sausages

Cauliflower may be one of my desert-island vegetables. To me, it is the darling of the cruciferous kingdom. Unlike its cousins—cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi—cauliflower has a certain irresistible charm. I never understood why babies were said to come from the cabbage patch. The cauliflower patch is the real home of adorable beauties, florets folding in on themselves, worlds within worlds.

It’s versatile, too, and can be worked into tarts, eggy casseroles, gratins, or just roasted, steamed, or pickled, or eaten raw. I had spotted a vegetarian version of this recipe in my trusty Marcella Hazan and wanted to make it into a one-dish meal by increasing the proportion of cauliflower to pasta (I made the version for two noted below, with just one-half pound of pasta to about 2 pounds of cauliflower) and adding a bit of sausage. I also added crunchy bread crumbs, and salty olives. (I find that it is never wrong to pair olives or capers with cauliflower.)

The key to the recipe is timing. If you play your cards just right, you can cook the sausage first while your water is coming to a boil and the cauliflower cooks in the boiling water. Then, as the sausage vacate the pan to make way for the garlic and anchovies (and what have you), the cauliflower will be just finishing up and available to be drained and scooped right into the skillet for a second tour of cooking. Keep your water boiling and dump the pasta in right away—it should finish cooking just in time to be drained and scooped right into the same skillet (with a bit of cooking water to get the sauce sorted out) to finish the dish. While all of this is going on, you can brown the bread crumbs in a smaller skillet on the side. I know it probably seems strange to imagine cauliflower florets combined with pasta. But trust me, it works. The cauliflower is fairly velvety, and clings beautifully to the penne.

Pasta w cauliflower + sausages

Adapted from Marcella Hazan Essentials of Italian Cooking

  • 1 lb. hot Italian sausage links
  • 1 head cauliflower, about 1.5 to 2 lbs., broken into florets
  • about 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
  • 3 anchovies, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup pitted green olives (I used Lucques olives)
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1 lb. small penne pasta (or 1/2 lb. if preparing for two people)

1. In a large skillet, cook sausage until cooked all the way through, and center registers 170 F on a meat thermometer. Set aside. Meanwhile, set a large pot of salted water to boil. When boiling, add cauliflower florets and cook at least 15 minutes, until very soft, but not disintegrating. If you time this properly, you’ll be able to take cauliflower straight out of the boiling water and into the saute pan. If not, then remove cauliflower from boiling water and set it aside. And in any case, keep the boiling water simmering and add the pasta to cook while sauce finishes.

2. Add some olive oil to the sausage pan and keep at medium heat. To the warm olive oil, add garlic and cook until light gold in color. Add anchovies and crushed red pepper, and cook until anchovies dissolve. Now, if it is cooked and tender, scoop cauliflower out of boiling water and add to pan. (Or if cauliflower finished too early, simply add the cauliflower.) Break up the cauliflower florets with the back of a spoon, leaving none larger than a walnut. Some of the florets should mash into bits that are quite small. Add the olives as well. Cook and stir over medium heat for about 5 to 7 minutes, until flavors combine and cauliflower is sauteed and browning.

3. At the same time, heat a glug of olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs to the hot oil. Stir frequently for about 3 to 4 minutes, until bread crumbs are well toasted. When they are a deep golden brown, set them aside in a bowl.

4. Assemble the dish: when pasta is through cooking, scoop the pasta from the boiling water, reserving at least 1/2 cup water to make the sauce. Put the pasta in the skillet with the cauliflower, tossing very well to combine. Add the reserved pasta water a bit at a time to get the sauce to coat all of the penne. Garnish each plate with bread crumbs, chopped parsley, and serve with sausage along side.

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pasta alla norma

What do you get when a druid priestess, a Roman proconsul, and a vestal virgin walk into a bar? Bellini’s opera Norma. The ridiculously soapy opera was a huge hit when it debuted; this pasta dish was named for the title character. Even an opera lover like myself has to laugh when I eat this dish; it is almost unseemly to name food for a woman who has an affair outside of her religion  and her political ken (he was a Roman occupier, she a Celt), who upon being scorned by her illicit lover attempts infanticide (Come on! I had to do it! How many times do you get to use that word in a food blog?), and then ultimately decides it would be better to determinedly perish upon her lover’s execution pyre? Her own people, the Celtic tribesmen, lit the match. One wonders what we see in these faint-hearted music-based “reality” TV shows when gutsy entertainment such as this is to be had. Most of us would quail at the thought of it, even without the exhausting, wild, and reckless soprano part Bellini wrote for his heroine.

And yet, here she is, limned in eggplant, a bit of tomato, a few glugs of olive oil, and a dab of ricotta. The tomato sauce is just to coat the pasta, no more. It would be a crime if there were more tomatoes, masking the roasted eggplant, overwhelming the creamy ricotta. I wonder sometimes whether the dish was christened by someone who saw in these simple and untutored ingredients the makings of a rich and unctuous drama. For Pete’s sake, the dish is vegetarian and yet it is rich and fascinating enough, so much so as to be unseemly. But is this not the very meaning of civilization—the human capacity to mask all that is savage and passionate in the trappings of respectability? A truth as finely evident in opera as it is in cuisine. Go ahead and make it. I won’t tell the neighbors.

Pasta alla norma

Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal, or 2 as the sole course

  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 eggplant, about 1 to 1 and 1/2 pounds, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced (1 cup)
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 very large or 2 medium beefsteak-type tomato, peeled with a vegetable peeler and chopped
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1/3 cup whole-milk ricotta
  • 1/2 pound pasta (such as rigatoni, mezzo rigatoni, or cart wheels)
  • kosher salt

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. In a large bowl, toss eggplant with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle eggplant with about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. (Only 1/4 teaspoon if using table salt.) Bake in the oven 20 to 25 minutes, removing from oven twice to stir and toss the eggplant. Eggplant should be baked until it is cooked all the way through.

2. While eggplant is baking, warm the 2 remaining tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the chopped onion and garlic. Cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add crushed red pepper and stir a bit. Add chopped tomato and bring back to a simmer. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt over tomatoes. Then turn heat to very low and cook, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Add water a tablespoon at a time if sauce becomes dry.

3. Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Strain pasta, reserving about 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid.

4. Add cooked eggplant to tomato sauce, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Off heat, mix in ricotta and basil. Stir in cooked pasta and add reserved cooking water 1/4 cup at a time to loosen sauce and distribute it nicely. Taste to make sure the dish is properly salted, adding more kosher salt if necessary. Serve immediately, piping hot.

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kale pesto

Perhaps it’s the influence of the Emerald Isle, or perhaps it’s just the omnipresence of lacinato kale (elsewise known as dinosaur kale, black kale, Tuscan kale, or cavolo nero) at the markets here in New Haven, but it seems like bright, bright green kale is on a run here in our kitchen. Part of what’s at stake here is that we love and adore the lacinato kale and would happily eat it at every meal. So I admittedly find ways to use it. Especially because it is probably the most cost-effective of vegetables. At $1 or $2 per bunch, it is a financially painless way to incorporate fresh local vegetables into our diet. But it’s also incredibly versatile. I use it as a salad, a stuffing, a side dish, a topping—for a time-strapped cook who is trying to work and get meals on the table in the evening, lacinato kale is the ultimate ally.

Some of the trusty sidekicks of kale are evident here: lemon zest, garlic, peperoncini (crushed red pepper), are the constant companions of lacinato kale in this kitchen. This time of year we’re seeing abundant farm-fresh garlic in our local markets. I beg, plead, and cajole you to try it. The flavor is unlike anything you’ll find in the dusty bin of garlic at your supermarket. In fact, if you skipped everything else in this recipe, super-fresh garlic and kale on pasta are hardly a bad idea. When you make this pesto, though, you realize the intensity of the kale balanced with the piquancy of the lemon zest. You’ll want to taste the pesto to make sure there is enough salt involved to bring the whole thing into balance—it will be hard to tell until after the cheese is added. And use a nice fruity olive oil as well—it makes all the difference.

And if you’re thinking, “what does she mean by fruity olive oil?” just don’t worry about it. Make this anyway, with what you have, the freshest bunch of kale and a head of garlic from the market. You really, seriously, can hardly go wrong.

Kale pesto

Makes enough to dress 1 pound of dried pasta.

  • 1 bunch lacinato kale or curly kale (approximately 10 ounces), washed, ribs removed, torn into pieces
  • 5 cloves fresh garlic
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon (or more) crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 and 1/2 ounce grated parmesan, grana padano, or another hard Italian cheese (this was about 3/4 cup grated on the fine holes of my box grater)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the kale a few times to break it up. Add garlic, zest and juice of lemon, crushed red pepper, and salt. Pulse until finely chopped. Add cheese and then leave the motor running while drizzling in the olive oil through the opening in the top of the processor. Scrape down sides of food processor bowl as necessary.

2. Refrigerate or freeze immediately, or toss with hot pasta and serve.

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beets and greens risotto

For at least a couple of years, my friend Erin has gone on and on about beet risotto. Which always mystified me, until recently when my love affair with risotto began. And now that beets are back in season, I could no longer resist the siren song of one of my favorite formats (risotto) combined with one of my favorite things to eat (beets). I found a recipe from Gourmet that looked spot-on, but I adapted it to my usual risotto prep style as well as my method of dealing with beets. To wit, beets are not tolerated long in my house until they are cooked into submission so that they take up less room in the refrigerator. Basically, as soon as I get home from the market, I chop of the greens and wash and blanch them in boiling water, and I put the beets in a pie plate with a bit of water, wrap tightly with foil, and roast them in the oven. Otherwise I find that every time I open my refrigerator, there is a beet explosion. Which is kind of fun the first time it happens, but after that, not so amusing.

Like other recent additions to this blog, beet risotto is not so attractive to photograph. But it looks amazing on the plate. I actually think it would be a wonderful option for Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as in the spring—it is pink and green and festive. Many version of beet risotto call for us to puree the beets, but I like leaving these in demurely sized chunks. The greens should be cut up thoroughly. I often forget how delicate beet greens are—much closer to spinach than to kale. Easy to blanch, squeeze dry, and then store in an airtight container until needed for this dish. What a glorious combination! And I am a big fan of using beets and greens in the same dish. It seems balanced and, well, frugal for such a rich and luxurious combination. This is easily a main dish, even for the most dedicated of meat-eaters. The greens and roots of the beets, as well as the beef stock I used—though you could use vegetable quite easily—give it loads of structure and interest. Make sure you taste this quite well towards the end (after all the ingredients are added) to adjust the salt properly. It really all depends on how salty your cheese is.

If you ever wanted to plan a pink meal (who would want to do such a thing—certainly not me, no never) this would pair well with a lovely rosé, perhaps followed by a nice pink bistecca Fiorentina, and then a few raspberries with a semifreddo. Beautiful stuff!

Beets and greens risotto

Based on this recipe from Gourmet

  • 4 medium beets separated from their greens, beets scrubbed and greens well washed in several changes of water
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 2 cups of beef, vegetable or chicken broth
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 oz finely grated hard Italian cheese, such as parmigiano-reggiano or grana padano

1. Roast the beets and blanch the greens. This can be done up to four days in advance. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Place the beets in a pie dish with a half cup of water. Cover the dish with foil and seal it tightly, and place it in the oven. Roast for one hour and remove from oven. Let beets cool to handle. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add beet greens and stir until they are bright green and wilted, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove greens from water to a colander. Drain greens and allow to cool. Use your hands to slip the skins off of the beets, chop them into 1/2-inch dice, and refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use. Squeeze all liquid from greens, finely chop them, and refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.

2. In a saucepan, combine the water and broth and bring to a bare simmer. Maintain at a simmer throughout preparation of risotto. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I use a Le Creuset round oven), warm oil and onion over medium heat for about four minutes. Onion should be pale and translucent. Add rice and stir for about 2 minutes, until it is well coated in the oil. Add the wine and stir frequently until it is absorbed and evaporated.

3. Set a timer for 18 minutes. 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 broth is absorbed. When it has all evaporated, add another 1/2 cup of broth. Stir, stir, stir, cleaning the bottom of the pot, until all broth is absorbed. Repeat this cycle for 18 minutes, when the timer goes off. If you run out of broth in this process, and the rice is not yet done, use water.

4. When 18 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, add the beet greens and pepper and combine well. Then add the cheese and roasted beet roots. Stir well. Taste. Add salt as needed, depending on how salty the cheese is. Continue to stir gently but thoroughly until well combined and heated through. Serve immediately.

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