Well, it’s been over a month since Lisa and I returned from our Italian adventure. I often find myself looking at pictures I took in disbelief that I actually got on a plane to get there. The last time I traveled to Italy was by boat….a BIG boat and I was 13. I haven’t flown anywhere in over 20 years but I managed to white-knuckle it for 8 hours. A little wine at JFK before our flight didn’t hurt either. I almost didn’t even mind sitting like a sardine in an anchovy can called Alitalia. We vowed that if we ever got rich, we would fly first class, you know, like the big fish.
So my much younger multi-tasking sister Lisa, having done this trip before, had a mental itinerary in mind, so needless to say, we hit the ground running the minute we stepped off the plane. As long as I was awake, I said I was game. The main purpose of our trip was to visit our octogenarian aunt Maria who lives alone in the ancient city of Chieti, which is nestled in the mountainous Abruzzo region of Italy. Although I talk weekly by phone with Zia Maria, I had not seen her in 53 years. This was going to be EPIC.
To reach Chieti, we would have to take a bus from Rome for 2 1/2 hours to go straight across to Chieti, so we decided to rest up in Rome and leave early the next day. Did I say rest up? Ha…we were both wired having survived the plane ride, so we checked into our hotel and then hit the cobbled roads. So here goes a snapshot of our journey.
Oops, I think I cropped it (the apron) too much )
Along the way, we stopped for a great lunch of spaghetti and baby clams, bruschetta with tomatoes, mozzarella and anchovies, shrimp risotto and then walked some more. I was surprised to see so many bars, but not like you may think. There appears to be a coffee or gelato bar on every corner. Of course we had to sample along the way. My head turned left and right as we walked, much like watching a tennis match, trying to absorb all the sights.
Later, we stopped for a Roman style pizza with onion, cheese and guanciale (pork cheek) and roasted potatoes. Satisfied, we returned to our hotel. The Italians are so practical. I had forgotten they have a bidet in every bathroom. Mind you, they are not used for your feet, but even with comfortable Sketchers, my feet were hot and throbbing from what seemed like an Amazing Race finale over cobblestone. So I filled the bidet with ice cold water and plunged my feet in for several minutes. Instant relief and a good night’s sleep. Lisa on the other hand wore open wedgie sandals no worse for the wear. What a difference a couple of decades make!
The following morning, we got our tickets for Chieti at the bus terminal. We had to be the luckiest two people on the planet since we snagged the top two front row seats on a fabulously comfortable double decker bus. What a view!
During our visit, I was introduced to family friends and neighbors of our aunt, who are the most gracious people. Teresa and Antonello, Isabella and Nicola, Cousin Giovanni and Maria Cristina. I will cherish the feasts we enjoyed in their company and the lovingly made food created from scratch by our aunt. Thankfully she “allowed” me and Lisa to shell some beans and roll and dimple some potato gnocchi.
Gnocchi di Patate
We also had a fabulous fish feast in a family-style restaurant called Fillipo’s in Pescara, a neighboring town, hosted by Teresa and Antonello. Unforgettable and visually stunning. See for yourself…..
Before leaving Chieti, we also had a great dinner with Giovanni and Maria Cristina at a local restaurant that specializes in regional dishes. Two of them are here below, fresh pasta with mushrooms and black truffle and Arrosticini (mini lamb kabobs.) Lisa posted her re-creation of Arrosticini recently. Go check it out. It looks fabulous.
We did not leave Chieti without going to their Megalo Mall and stocked up on all the pasta we could squeeze into our luggage. I was happy to see brands we could find here in the U.S., namely DeCecco and DelVerde, both products of the Abruzzo region. We grabbed some Cuoretti (heart shaped pastina) and pasta alla chitarra (square shaped spaghetti pressed through a guitar string gadget), shapes that are not readily found here.
Saying good-bye was the hardest, we did a three-way embrace as we had when we arrived and cried like babies. Zia Maria is petite and delicate, but her energy blew us away. We walked every day and could hardly keep up with her. Lisa and I agreed that the fountain of youth blossoms under the Chieti sky, eating locally grown produce, making your own fresh pasta and walking, walking and walking some more, same as our grandmother did. I tagged along on her morning market trips as a kid, mostly to get my daily Bomba treat. Now we did it for a week with our aunt. Not much changed, I was glad to see.
Many stores in Italy still close after lunchtime for a couple of hours and then reopen later in the afternoon. How civilized. You could take a nap or take a stroll. Italians love their dogs too. We passed a friendly signora who was walking her French Bulldog and referred to him lovingly - come amore (Italian for love). Strangers passing by on the narrow cobbled roads, greeted us with a simple “buon giorno” and a smile. Our grandmother lived to be a 100. Now we know why.
We took our bus back to Rome that evening and checked into the same hotel, not before some more sights. We took a quick taxi to Campo De Fiori and had our last dinner there, fried stuffed zucchini blossoms, fried artichoke Jewish style, potato gnocchi and pasta all’amatriciana. We walked it off and passed the Fontana Di Trevi.
Living dangerously before our noon flight the next morning, Lisa says, “hey, are you up to squeezing in the Vatican”. She promised we would not miss our flight. I grew excited as images of me taking a selfie with Pope Francis danced in my over-active imagination, So we hopped in another cab and were dropped off at Ponte Sant’Angelo overlooking the Fiume Tevere. All in all, it was a visit I will cherish, with wonderful memories of Lisa, Zia Maria and all the warm people I met along the way. Now I’m going to make some of that pasta.
ARRIVEDERCI ROMA……E CHIETI
Barbecuing. For some reason, it’s long been a mystery to me.
As any witness to my “Great Chicken Leg Disaster” of 2011 can attest, this cooking style is not exactly my forte. Having accepted this fate, I’ve basically left the grilling arts to the experts ever since. Well, at least until a few days ago, when I enlisted a good friend/barbecue consultant to help me tackle the above project.
During recent travels, I’ve become re-acquainted with Abruzzo’s proud tradition of Arrosticini – succulent, miniature lamb kabobs, grilled over coal. Simple, delicious. Just good cuts of meat carved into dainty little cubes, threaded onto skewers, and dressed with olive oil and salt. That’s all, folks. This is old-school Italian mountain shepherd food, and if you try to fancy it up, it will become something else.
2 lbs. Lamb (if you dislike Lamb, try using London Broil)
Salt (Pink Himalayan worked well here)
Cut the meat into ½ inch cubes. This is actually quite a bit of cutting. Try to enlist help for this part, because even though it’s worth it, your patience – and your knife technique – will be tested. Thread the pieces onto wooden skewers (for about 1/3 of the length of the stick) and brush with olive oil. Try to alternate leaner pieces of meat with fattier ones, or with actual pieces of fat. Calm down, most of it will melt away
Grill the meat over a moderate coal flame, turning and checking them almost continually by twirling the skewers, sort of like a fiery game of fusball. In fact, recruiting a second player at this stage also makes a lot of sense, in case the meat cooks quicker than you anticipate and you need to emergency evacuate the skewers. These festivities will go on five minutes *tops.* So, be ready to move fast, and for God’s sake, do not overcook them.
Remove the little lovelies from the flame, season with salt and stand them up next to each other in a deep bowl lined with aluminum foil that you can wrap around the skewers. This way they’ll stay all cozy and warm until you’re ready to have at them.
Serve with grilled bread brushed with olive oil and/or roasted potatoes. Best enjoyed with Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and Gassosa, but Captain Lawrence Freshchester also proved mighty tasty. Serves 4.
If you’re looking for an Italian umami, look no further. Panzanella began as a humble meal reviving day-old crusty bread with fresh vine-ripened tomatoes. Sometimes the simplest ingredients are the most satisfying, especially during summer’s bounty of fresh produce. Now is the time to make this dish while tomatoes are in full swing.
Since there is no such thing as day-old bread in our house, I use thick slices of fresh Italian bread kissed with olive oil and garlic and then toast it in the oven. If you love Bruschetta, you will love this easy one-bowl dish.
I added grilled shrimp to elevate it to a main meal and the pickled onions…..well that’s where the oooooh mommy comes in.
4-5 thick slices of Italian bread
extra virgin olive oil
1 pint of cherry tomatoes
1 lb. large shrimp
3 cloves minced garlic
5-6 fresh basil leaves
1 red onion
Pickled Onion: First thinly slice one large red onion into a bowl, blanch it in a small pot of boiling water for a minute, rinse and drain. Place the sliced onion in a mason-type jar to which you add 1 Tbs. salt, 2 Tbs.. extra virgin olive oil and 3/4 cup white balsamic vinegar. Mix well and refrigerate at least 3 hours, but it’s best overnight. This condiment will last several weeks refrigerated and can be used to top burgers, steak, salmon, grilled sausage or stuffed in Panini or cold sandwiches.
When you are ready to assemble the Panzanella, mince the garlic and add 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt in a small bowl and brush the sliced Italian bread on both sides. Toast in a 400 degree oven until golden on the edges. After cooling, cut the bread in bite-size pieces and place in a large bowl. In another bowl, cut the cherry tomatoes in half, add the minced basil, a heaping forkful of the pickled onions and salt and pepper to taste. Let is rest for about 10 minutes.
Clean the jumbo shrimp and pat dry. Dust with rice flour seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic powder (I shake it all in a ziplock bag) and pan saute in a drizzle of olive oil (or on the grill). Fold the tomatoes and shrimp into the bread bowl until all the juices soak into the bread. Let stand a few minutes mixing occasionally, or if you can’t wait, just dig right in.
Optional add-ins: pitted Kalamata olives and grated Ricotta Salata.
How easy is that?
Newsflash: record-breaking heat waves are not the best time to tend to bubbling cauldrons of tomato sauce. There’s no huge backstory to this recipe, except that it’s summery, easy, super quick and surprisingly delicious. Besides boiling a pound of pasta for 7-8 minutes (you can do it!), there is no cooking required
So… let’s get to it – you’ll need:
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup grated parmesan (preferably parmiggiano reggiano)
the fresh juice and zest of 3 lemons, or more to taste
¾ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 pound of the pasta of your choice (Bionature gluten free rotini were used in the above)
3/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Optional Mix Ins:
diced fresh tomatoes, grilled chicken, shrimp or whatever your imagination dictates.
If you want a richer sauce you can even substitute creme fraiche for all or part of the olive oil. Do you what you gotta do .
So, while the pasta is cooking, wash and zest the lemons and squeeze out the juice. Chop the basil. Combine the oil, basil, parmesan, lemon juice and zest and salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta until it is very al dente, since it will continue cooking during the final prep. Drain and reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot and add the lemon mixture and toss with the parmesan and basil. Toss in some cooking liquid, a few spoonfuls at a time, to help create the sauce. Season with salt, pepper and additional lemon and olive oil, to taste. Serves 4.
Once upon a time, at least a couple of centuries ago, the Italian Association of Pasta Namers congregated at their annual conference at St. Peter’s Foursquare to cast their vote on the ever-growing cute names for pasta shapes. These elders gave us whimsical names like orecchiette (little ears) and strozzapreti (priest chokers). I guess they lost their humor when they baptized the rice-shaped pasta in the box with the name orzo, which is more suitable for soup or those skeevy salads you may find fermenting under the deli case dome.
Orzo in Italian is actually the name for barley, no resemblance to the boxed stuff, but I guess they couldn’t name it riso (rice), lest some stunad tried to make risotto with it. In any event, this grain is easy on the stomach and won’t spoil in this hot weather, just in case you decide to bring it to a BBQ or picnic. Should feed 6-8 as a side. There are only a handful of ingredients so it is simple and quick to put together. Below are general measurements, which you can tweak to your taste, but don’t leave anything out. Capeesh?
1 1/2 cups barley, cooked per package directions
2 Tbs. capers with 3 Tbs. caper juice out of the jar
1 minced shallot
2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped
half a jar of pitted Kalamata olives, cut in half to rule out pits
1 clove minced garlic
4 lg. leaves of fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
garlic salt to taste
After cooking the barley, about 20 minutes or so, it will maintain a firm texture. This is normal. Taste it, you don’t want it to turn to mush. Drain in a sieve and rinse with cold water. Place cooled barley in large mixing bowl. Throw in all the other ingredients you have prepped while the barley was cooking and blend. That’s it.
How often do you get an obsessive craving for something delectable but don’t have the stuff to make it? Ashamed to say, while sipping my morning cafe latte the other day, I found myself in front of my pantry staring at a box of synthetic meh and cheese. Fragments of a foodie dream must have brought me there. The long-gone expiration date begged for the trash and I complied. But now I wanted mac and cheese all the more. How did that get there anyway?
As the daughter of a WWII veteran who helped her dad build an underground fallout shelter, part of my gene pool exalts the merits of being prepared for an apocalypse. No, I’m not a “prepper”, but I do like to cover my bases. Call me neurotic, but when I am down to the last bit of anything, it goes on “The List” so I never run out.
This is where a well stocked refrigerator and pantry come in handy. Most perishable items can be frozen, ready for your calling. Pleased with the benefits of my neuroses, I gathered the ingredients for my Italianized and adult-friendly version of macaroni and cheese. I rolled up my sleeves all the while salivating and here are the results. Hope you like this variation. Mac and cheese is a universal dish with many countries adding their own native ingredients so have fun and play around with your favorite tastes. This is the joy of cooking.
3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. flour
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
3 cups of half and half (or mixture of milk and light cream)
one cup of each: shredded Asiago, Fontina and Monterey Jack
Melt the butter in a saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for two minutes on low/medium heat. Slowly add the milk/cream and stir until smooth and hot. Add the garlic powder and slowly add the cheeses while stirring all the time and when melted, take off the heat. Cover and set aside.
3/4 cup diced pancetta
1 pkg. prosciutto, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups frozen petite peas
1/2 cup Italian panko breadcrumbs
1 lb. box fusilli pasta cooked al dente
Saute the diced pancetta in 2 tbs. olive oil until golden and then add the minced garlic. Saute another two minutes and then scoop it all out with a slotted spoon into a large mixing bowl and set aside. In the same saucepan, saute the chopped prosciutto until golden and crispy, all the while separating the bits as much as possible. Take off the heat and set aside. Cook the pasta al dente, and place drained pasta in the large bowl with the pancetta and toss. Add the frozen peas and stir in the melted cheese sauce until all is incorporated.
Place the mac and cheese into an oblong glass or earthenware baking dish that has been pre-smeared with butter. Top with the panko crumbs and prosciutto bits. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20-30 minutes until the top starts to bubble on the edges and crumbs start to turn golden in color. Serves 4-6 happily.
Goddesses come in many flavors these days: Earth Goddesses, Wiccans, Inner Goddesses Doing Cartwheels, and of course Domestic Goddesses. While this renaissance is playing out in ways both serious and silly, the Sacred Feminine is finally getting the respect she deserves. But long before today’s pop culture Goddess parade, there was the real – and mythical – figure called the Azdora.
The Azdora (or Zdora or Rezdora, depending on your regional dialect) is the historic, archetypal woman of Italy’s agricultural past. She was the woman of the house, the incident commander, accountant and administrator of all things home. Naturally, the kitchen was the nerve center of her operation, and she would prepare an array of foods, mind boggling both in quality and quantity, for her gigantic, extended family. Beyond the formidable task of running the home, she often helped earn income through the sale of household and agricultural goods. Even Sheryl Sandberg would have to admit, these women totally “Leaned In.”
My friend Italian friend Maria Cristina introduced me to this idea and it keeps coming back to me for some reason. I guess it’s because most women I know are modern-day Azdoras, tackling immense, complex and never ending responsibilities at work, at home and as parents. Times and technology may have changed, but the workload has not.
Yes, aspiring to be a “Goddess” is fun, but I think I’ll settle for the fun of being a flesh-and-blood woman who gets it right occasionally. So the Azdora is my muse.
Her specialty and (literal) labor of love was silky, homemade pasta, so in honor of Mother’s Day, here is a my mom Anna’s recipe for Pasta all’ Uovo (Homemade Egg Pasta):
3 cups all-purpose flour, and more as needed
4 large eggs
2 pinches of Saffron
½ teaspoon salt
Pile three cups of flour in a mound on a marble or wooden work surface. With immaculately clean hands, make a well in the center. Crack the eggs into the well and add the salt and Saffron. Beat the eggs until foamy, and slowly incorporate the flour from the sides of the crater into the egg mixture. As you go, the egg mixture will thicken, and the sides of the will become thinner. Be careful not to collapse the sides, because the egg will rapidly run out, volcano-style. Continue beating until the dough becomes too stiff to mix with a fork. Flour your hands well and knead the remaining flour into the dough until it is rough and slightly sticky. Scrape any dough from the kneading surface and sprinkle with flour again.
Knead the dough it by gathering it into a compact ball, then pushing the ball down and away from you with the heels of your hands. Repeat over and over and over until it’s smooth, silky and elastic – about 5 to 10 minutes of continual kneading. Flour the work surface and your hands lightly any time the dough begins to stick.
Roll the dough into a smooth ball and place in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least one hour at room temperature before rolling and shaping the pasta. At this point, you will roll the pasta into a sheet about 1/8 “ wide, using a long wooden rolling pin, and a lot of focus and patience. Cut the dough in wide strips that will fit either your manual or electric pasta maker and follow the machine’s directions to create the cut of your choice. Make sure that you cover the strips that aren’t yet being used, so they don’t dry out. Once the pasta is cut, place on a tray and sprinkle with flour, so they don’t stick together. Boil the pasta in salted, rapidly boiling water for five minutes or until al dente and serve with your favorite sauce.
La Cipolla just announced the marriage between Finocchio and Cipollini. Yes, both are females (but could also be males in the marriage equality world of vegetables) and they are inveterate multi-taskers. Avid gardeners know all about male and female life in the plant world. Don’t get excited, nothing kinky here. Some self-propagate and others need help via artificial pollination. The garden really doesn’t care.
Ms. Finocchio aka Fennel is from Florence, Italy and known for her contribution to the digestive system. Her tea can calm colic in babies, as well as hyper-tooting in dogs. Her pleasant anise-like aura is used as a flavoring in some natural toothpastes and her seeds are often found in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine as a breath freshener. On the wild side, she was instrumental in producing the much-maligned Absinthe, originally used as a medicinal elixer.
The diminutive Ms. Cipollini, also a native of Italy, and viewed as the less well-endowed sister of La Cipolla (onion), is an activist in the anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol and antioxidant departments of her family and is sweet and very mellow. Both were dressed in a veil of extra virgin olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar and a dusting of salt and pepper. After the ceremony and a roast, they were dusted with grated parmesan.
Now before you think I’ve gone totally bonkers. I’m just having some fun with words. Think of how often you hear XX or YY “marry well” with each other on the cooking shows ever pushing the envelope to new ideas. Popular ham and eggs are fine, but so is a Prosciutto Frittata. Thinking outside the box is liberating.
In this recipe, fennel marries well with small onions. Simple. Real. Just saying, marriages work well in many combinations. And if marriage equality passes in the real world, I hope to introduce the marriage of Mr. Tom Turkey stuffed with Rocky Mountain Oyster Dressing just in time for next Thanksgiving. Stay tuned.
2 fennel bulbs, tops taken off, cut in quarters and bottom core removed
one mesh bag (about a dozen) cipollini, peeled (if you can’t find cipollini, you can use small Vidalia onions cut in half)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 Tbs. of balsamic vinegar (or Worcestershire sauce)
salt & pepper to taste
Arrange fennel and onions in one layer in baking dish and drizzle the oil and vinegar all over making sure all parts are covered. Roast in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. They should be slightly golden and soft inside.You can also wrap these girls in a slightly open foil pouch and place on the BBQ grill. Sprinkle with grated parmesan before serving.
Also marries well with creamy Risotto
Another pitfall is the wild variation in terms of recipes. It could present as either a dry brick smothered in ketchup, or seasoned with Lipton’s onion soup mix or bloated with enough fillers to serve as a cost-effective go-to menu item at the most discerning mess halls, boarding school dining rooms or incarceration facilities.
In Italian, the Polpettone (which translates loosely to “Big Meatball”) carries no such reputation challenge. Usually, it’s the very savory union of two or three types of meat, combined with two or three types of cheese, and often, (FTW) two types of booze.
Then, there’s that little element of surprise. It’s often stuffed with a secret ingredient – hard boiled eggs, mushrooms, cheese, ham, or even chestnuts at Christmastime. I’m going out on a limb to say that this recipe, courtesy of my Aunt Maria, is the awesomest. Before you all start gunning for me, let me remind you that Polpettones, like other art forms, are enjoyed subjectively – like Pollacks or Picassos. Take this one for a spin and then let’s compare notes
1 lb total of ground beef and/or pork and/or veal
1 cup grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese
1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
2 cups fresh or panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup milk
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup of cognac
6 ounces mortadella, minced (or ground up in a food processor)
Chicken broth, optional
Salt and black pepper to taste
Hard boiled Eggs
Sliced Prosciutto and Provolone
Soak the Panko in milk for five minutes and squeeze out any remaining moisture. Combine the ground meat with the eggs, moistened breadcrumbs, cognac, cheeses and mortadella until well incorporated. Divide the meat in half and create a rectangle base of the loaf on the bottom of a glass baking dish. Add the filling of your choice straight down the center of the meat. If you use hard boiled eggs, cut the pointy ends off so that they can cozy up to one another. Cover the bottom layers with the top layer of meat and pinch together to form a seal. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate a couple of hours or overnight.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and pour the wine over the meat. If you have an extra dash of cognac or brandy on hand, feel free to add that as well. Bake for about an hour, basting every 15 minutes or so. When done, let the meat cool a half hour, slice and arrange on a serving platter. Cover and keep it warm. Deglaze the bottom of the baking dish, adding extra wine or broth if needed, simmer until the wine is cooked out, strain the sauce and spoon over the meat just before serving.
If you are organized enough to make this the day before, it will taste even better Serves 6-8.
If I could have meatballs fall from the sky, I would be standing outside with my mouth wide open. Anyone who has read the delightful Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to his or her children or grandchildren will know what I am talking about. But in my book, the meatballs would be falling from heaven where my mom is head of the C.I.A. (Culinary Italian Association) and filling some very happy bellies.
One Sunday mom was making these marble-sized meatballs for a lasagna recipe. I nagged her until she let me help so we started rolling assembly-line style in our tiny kitchen. Of course they had to be the right size, but as I tired, the balls got bigger and bigger, as did my mom’s side-eyed look that needed no translation. A look much like Aunt Raffi shoots Giada on her Everyday Italian cooking show. Now I have no one to give me the “look”. Funny the things you miss. What I don’t miss however is making the balls marble-sized, as the photo above confesses.
Now I reserve this recipe for a lazy Sunday while my bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is breathing and Andrea Bocelli is singing. Being a control freak, I prefer to grind my own meat, but you can have your butcher do it for you if you wish. The sauce that goes with this is a breeze and should feed an army of friends and family. P.S. I always throw in a few tiny meatballs for mom just not to piss her off and then bring some to my favorite elderly neighbor. Almost the same as meatballs falling from heaven.
1 -1/2 lb. chuck London Broil
3/4 lb. boneless short ribs
1 -1/2 lb. chicken tenders
4 sweet (or hot) Italian sausages, casings removed
1 -1/4 lb. boneless country pork ribs
3 oz. package prosciutto
3 large eggs
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
2 cups cubed white bread
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped flat parsley
4 shakes Worcestershire sauce
1 cup buttermilk
Cut up all the meat in two-inch cubes and grind the meat in batches (or select the meats and give it to your butcher to grind) placing all in a large bowl. Remove crust from the bread and soak in the buttermilk for half an hour. Squeeze the bread cubes of most of the liquid and place into the meat bowl. Add the eggs, grated cheese, garlic, parsley and Worcestershire sauce. Mix the contents of the bowl with your hands until blended. Pinch chunks of meat mixture to create the balls any size you like, usually a bit bigger than golf balls. It helps to wet your hands a bit for better handling and with a light touch so they don’t get too hard. I place them on a cookie sheet until all are done. Then I fry them in a large non-stick frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil. They will not cook all the way through in this step, you just want to brown them nicely. You can start making the sauce now where they will finish cooking.
1 large minced onion
4 cloves minced garlic
1 large 28 oz. can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
4 – 15 oz. cans Del Monte Tomato Sauce
4 tbs. chopped fresh basil
In a large pot or slow cooker, lightly brown the onion, and then add the minced garlic and saute one minute, then add all the sauce. Slow simmer the sauce and as the meatballs brown, lower them slowly into the sauce. Simmer on low for at least two hours, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped fresh basil during the last half hour of cooking. Serve over your favorite pasta topped with some grated Pecorino. Now you can pour the wine and enjoy.
Here’s (one of) mine: I’m begging you, please don’t refer to pasta sauce as gravy. Gravy goes on Thanksgiving turkey or Sunday roast beef. Man, it feels great to get that one off my chest. Food snobbery, you say? Not even – I eat pretty much everything, sometimes in bizarre combinations and often in embarrassing quantities.
Nope, my issue probably stems from the fact that a) I write and edit for a living and b) I’m a first generation American who has always been sensitive to certain, umm, stereotypes. So for me, words like “capish” (a bastardization of “capisci,” which means to understand) are not unlike fingernails scraping against a chalkboard. There are many other examples, but you get the idea. Anyway, thanks for letting me vent!
Today’s bizarre word association brings to mind Pasta Fazool. It’s an Americanized take on the Neopolitan name for the “proper” Italian Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and bean soup). Call it what you will, but be sure to give this unusual and delicious version a try this winter.
1 pound of ditalini pasta
2 cans of borlotti beans, rinsed
1 lb can of pureed San Marzano tomatoes
2 green peppers, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup of minced Italian flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup of chopped basil
crushed red pepper, optional
In a large pot, combine the tomatoes, garlic, peppers, basil and parsley. Simmer 20 minutes or until reduced by one third.
Add the borlotti beans and cook 5 more minutes.
Remove from heat and salt to taste. Add the olive oil. (It’s important to add the oil at the end so it keeps its fruity flavor.
As the sauce cooks, boil the pasta until extremely al dente, as the pasta will absorb more liquid later on.
Drain and reserve 2 cups of pasta water.
Combine pasta with beans and sauce. if you prefer a soupier dish, add the reserved pasta water until the consistency is to your liking and adjust the salt accordingly.
If you like it hot, add some red pepper.
In Abruzzo, we usually don’t usually add grated cheese to this dish. But of course add it if you want. But do me one favor: taste it first. You may find that the aromatic garlic and herbs, sweet tomatoes and starchy beans, combined with al dente pasta, are perfect as is.
Following all the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasting, my mind automatically vows to lose the 5 lbs. I gained. Note, I said my mind, because my mind and my mouth don’t always speak to each other. Since there are no major holidays ahead, except for New Year’s, I may achieve my goal if I’m good. Wait…..how many calories are there in Prosecco?? Well it could be worse. After chatting with my Zia Maria in Italy over the holidays, I was reminded they are far from done yet. Their Christmas season doesn’t end until La Befana (Epiphany) on January 6th when kids get more presents and sweets
As for me, I am happy to go on to the New Year, fiscal cliff nosedive or not. I was hoping to tighten my belt, but as a result of losing those 5 lbs., not carving my food budget. This recipe fits the bill. It is easy, elegant, inexpensive and will welcome the New Year in style. Perhaps a little less CNN in the background would help. The topping and ragu can be made ahead of time and refrigerated until you are in a polenta mood.
In addition to the following ingredients, you will also need a package of fresh mozzarella sliced thin and some shredded Fontina to layer between the polenta squares.
Roasted Tomato Topping:
Roast the following in a glass roasting dish at 300 degrees for about 2-3 hours:
2 pints red and yellow cherry tomatoes cut in halves
4 cloves minced garlic
drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Short Rib Ragu:
1 larged minced shallot
4-6 short ribs
1 finely minced carrot
1 stalk finely minced celery
2 cups homemade leftover marinara sauce or 15 oz. jar San Marzano or Muir Glen fire roasted crushed tomatoes
two shakes of Worcestershire sauce
salt & pepper to taste
pinch of thyme
1/2 cup red wine
While the cherry tomatoes are roasting, you start the ragu by braising the short ribs in a high saute pan until all sides are browned. Add the minced ingredients and stir around for a few minutes. Then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer on low for three hours on stovetop (or ovenproof vessel next to the roasting cherry tomatoes.) When the three hours are up, shred the tender short ribs with two forks and put back in the ragu pot.
Prepare the Bellino Instant Polenta per package directions, or use the longer cooking type if you can find it. I make it with chicken broth instead of water, add 2 tbs. of butter and a handful of grated Parmesan. Spread the polenta on a large baking sheet and smooth the top with the back of a wet spoon and let cool until firm. Polenta should be spread about 1/4 inch high. The rest is a matter of assembly onto a large baking dish as follows:
one layer of polenta squares
spoon over some short rib ragu
top with slices of mozzarella
add another layer of polenta squares topped with the ragu
spread shredded Fontina all over
top with third layer of polenta squares
top with the roasted cherry tomatoes and more cheese if you desire
Bake in 350 oven for about 15 minutes until heated thoroughly and enjoy!
Options: What’s great about polenta is that is it very versatile. You can swap some ingredients to your own liking. I’ve made this with sauteed crumbled Italian sausage as well as vegetarian versions of sauteed portabella mushrooms and onions or sauteed vegetables like zucchini, onions, asparagus and spinach. If you don’t have time to slice and layer, you can just ladle the freshly made polenta into bowls and spoon over your ragu. Even chili is great over polenta! Serves 4-6.
Out of nowhere last week, I was clobbered by a free floating jones for Pierogis, Poland’s answer to the Ravioli. The eastern European strains of my DNA would no longer be denied and Mrs. T’s wasn’t gonna cut it. Nope – they’d have to be just like my Italian mamma used to make. This was problematic, because while I had seen her make them countless times, I never got the precise recipe. Yes, I could slap myself silly for this. Instead, I decided to focus on making these carbohydrate grenades. I earnestly posted my intentions on Facebook and was met with the approving likes of various friends, family and random Pierogi enthusiasts.
The problem is, when you open your big mouth, you kind of have to follow through, even when you subsequently realize you are way too tired/busy/overwhelmed/intimidated at the moment to attempt this, the matka of all peasant food. Anyway, I got it together, compiled the recipe below, made a pot of coffee and set aside Sunday morning to make these bad boys.
OK, these are a lot of work. Especially when you’re flying solo and have two five- year-olds with opposing agendas. I lost steam midway through. But, just like the fava shelling “incident” of last summer, I had one of those transcendent moments. It struck me as cool that I was doing something my mother and my Polish aunts and grandmother and countless female relatives reaching back generations before me had done. It made me feel close to them, even though they were gone. (In fact, I never got to meet Jousefa, my Polish grandmother.) I imagined they could see me standing there, covered in flour, giggling at my amateurish technique, and probably wishing they could convey some pointers.
I did determine my mom used wrap traditional filling in Italian pasta dough. Next time, that’s how Ima gonna do it. But for now, here’s the recipe that I used.
2 cups flour, plus extra for kneading
½ tsp. salt
1 large egg
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup softened butter
To prepare the dough, mix together the flour and salt. Add the egg, sour cream and softened butter to the flour and the dough until it loses most of its stickiness (about 5 minutes). Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes or overnight. Each batch of dough makes about 15-18 pierogi.
Peel and boil 5 large potatoes until soft. Let them cook and out them through a ricer. As the potatoes boil, finely chop 1 large onion and saute in butter until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the onions and oz of grated farmer’s cheese or sharp cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Rinse two 10-oz packages of white mushrooms. Chop them in a blender until fine and sauté along with a finely chopped onion until the liquid dries, about 15 minutes. Add 2 tbs sour cream, salt, a ½ tsp of dry thyme and salt and pepper to taste.
Roll the Pierogi dough on a floured board or countertop until 1/8″ thick. Cut circles of dough about 3″ wide with a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Place a about a tablespoon of either filling on each dough round and fold the dough over, forming a semi-circle. Press the edges together with the tines of a fork. (A dumpling/empanada maker will make this task much easier, and the end result will be prettier.)
Boil the Pierogis in salted water for 3-4 minutes. Drain and serve with caramelized onions and sour cream. You can also fry them in butter once they are drained. They are also tasty with parmesan cheese J
Admittedly, I am a grazer favoring vegetables and dessert, but not necessarily in that order. If I could make this dessert into a turkey shape, I would be happy to swap it for the main course next year. With Thanksgiving under our belts, literally, the only turkey I want to see is on a napkin. I am officially pardoning all turkeys until then. You may think I am a turkey for saying that, but with Christmas around the corner, I am joyously anticipating some serious dessert-making.
Could be I’m whining because I overindulged and have less than a month to fit back into my elastic-waisted eating pants. I even spared you all those tips and ideas of what to do with leftover turkey. Whether you made carb-laden Turkey Panini (still a sandwich) or Turkey Tetrazzini, it’s still turkey. Then you go take a nap.
So by now my thoughts wander off to desserts….no surprise. Not exactly diet food, but a little bit will make you happy. That counts for something, right? We enjoyed all sorts of different Italian and Polish desserts growing up and I swore each was my favorite until mom made a different one. But as Christmas approaches, this Polish delight comes to mind. Dad and I always fought over the last few crumbs. His sweet tooth was bigger than mine, so he always won.
This tart recipe has a buttery melt-in-your mouth short crust with an apple center. It will look beautiful on your holiday table – or any time for that matter. And unlike turkey, no one will ever tire of it, so make two….or three (so you can hide one for yourself.)
For the Crust:
2 sticks unsalted European butter at room temperature
1 cup fine sugar
2 Tbs. vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 beaten egg for top brushing
vanilla sanding sugar for top of crust
Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy with paddle attachment in an electric mixer. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla extract and blend in. Slowly add the flower and salt and mix until incorporated. Transfer half of the mixture (which will be pliable) by hand into a round buttered tart pan (or 8 inch buttered square pan is OK). Press evenly with fingers making sure dough reaches the edges of the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove and let cool. After it has cooled, add the apple filling you pre-made below and spread evenly. With remaining half of the dough, (you may need to refrigerate for a few minutes to handle it better), roll it out into a round shape and place on top of the apple mixture. Don’t worry if pieces break or split, you can shape handfuls of the dough and gently push edges together once dough softens again. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour to firm up and then criss-cross the top with fork tines. Brush the top with beaten egg wash for gloss and browning. Sprinkle with vanilla sanding sugar for crunch. Bake in pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes or until golden on top.
For the Apple Filling:
4 peeled , cored and sliced semi-tart apples (I use combination of Honey Crisp and Granny Smith)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbs. butter
juice of 1/2 lemon
Prepare apple filling by melting the butter and sugar in a saute pan until it begins to caramelize. Add the sliced apples and simmer on low until softened slightly. Add the cinnamon and squeezed half lemon, stir and set aside to cool.
Some people hit the bottle during stressful times. I, on the other hand, hit the stock pot.
Soup, for me, is the culinary equivalent of being talked off the ledge. I think it’s the truest form of comfort food and – even if (God forbid!) it’s out of a can – it has always had the mysterious ability to calm me.
Usually when Italians eat tomato soup, it’s a simple “minestrina” made by adding tomato, basil, olive oil and salt to a pot of partially drained pastina. This version couldn’t be more different. I wish I had asked Mom where she got this recipe, but it never occurred to me, it was just always there. This recipe was one of my earliest recollections of her cooking and fittingly, I suppose, it was the last thing she and I ever made together.
Anyway… try this, it rocks. And given that tomatoes are native to America, it would make for a terrific first course for Thanksgiving.
4 ribs celery, washed and diced
2 large onions, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons flour
2-28 oz cans San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
8 cups beef broth
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup light cream
salt and white pepper, to taste
As Thanksgiving approaches, I often think 0f how I came to embrace this holiday. I can’t recall exactly when our family first celebrated Thanksgiving in America. My parents stepped off the Queen Mary in 1951 with all their Italian and Polish customs and traditions, but a Thanksgiving turkey was not one of them. Back then, turkey in Italy was as rare as, um….hens’ teeth. As a small tyke in tow, I had no clue about this holiday either until I started school and then peer pressure and the need to assimilate presented themselves.
Mom eventually relented to my whining about becoming more “American” and made a Thanksgiving turkey, however it was always accompanied by lasagna or ravioli and a dozen other fabulous Italian savory and sweet things. She also changed things up and often made hearty Polish side dishes to go with our roast. We often had Bigos (a sauerkraut stew) and crispy potato pancakes. We now appropriately call this fusion cuisine – unmistakably comfort food in any language.
My favorite side dish with roast turkey is this savory Kielbasa Bread Pudding which substitutes for stuffing. It can be made in advance and reheated and it also freezes well. We would also enjoy leftovers the next day with breakfast or brunch. Another thing to give thanks for!
So now that I am “mature” and have celebrated Thanksgiving many times with traditional American fare, I now like to pay tribute to my ethnic roots for their contribution to this holiday, as a reminder of where I came from and what I am thankful for. This dish serves at least 8 – but the memories it can create are unlimited.
1 loaf Challah bread, preferably a day old, cut in one -inch cubes
2 medium onions, chopped
3 Tbs. butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. parsley, minced
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
5 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
one pkg. Kielbasa, chopped into small cubes
1 pkg. shredded mild cheddar cheese
1 pkg. shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 tsp. ground sage
1/2 tsp. thyme
Place the cubed Challah bread into a large mixing bowl. Saute the chopped onions in the butter until soft and slightly golden. Add the chopped celery and continue to saute on medium-low heat until softened. Add the minced garlic and saute one more minute and set aside to cool in a bowl.
Using the same pan, saute the cubed kielbasa until it turns golden, turning often and once browned, remove from heat to cool. When cooled, add the reserved onion, celery and garlic. In a separate mixing bowl, place the eggs, heavy cream, milk, thyme, sage and parsley and mix with hand blender until smooth. Assemble the ingredients by adding the custard mixture into the bread cubes and then incorporating the sauteed kielbasa and onion until well mixed. Add the cheeses and mix well into the bread and custard mix. Spread into a large buttered rectangular baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes until golden brown on top. If you really want to see a Polish-Italian marriage at work, add some crumbled sauteed sweet Italian sausage to the mix. That would be called con-fusion cuisine! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
As autumn breezes, falling leaves and frosty nights tease, I’m getting in gear for some serious soup fixings. I always feel nostalgic after picking my last tomato off the vine and saying my long goodbye to summer and all its fabulous produce. See you in a few months. But for now, soup’s on. It soothes the soul and warms the tummy. I never met a potato I didn’t love, whether mashed, fried, baked or roasted. Poland takes advantage of this hearty cool weather vegetable, incorporating it in many dishes such as potato pancakes or pierogi. The Poles, who created vodka, even make a fabulous vodka out of potatoes (Luksusowa).
Mom often made this comforting potato and leek soup and it is quick and easy. This is a brothy soup but if you like you can give it a quick whirl with your emersion blender for a creamier texture. Try this for a light lunch or dinner and serve it with a crusty rye bread grilled cheese sandwich. And if it’s really cold outside, chase it with a shot of Luksusowa.
4 medium Russet potatoes
2 qts. chicken broth
2 bay leaves
3 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. butter
Cut the hairy roots off the leeks and on the other end, cut off about two inches of the tough green end and slice down the middle diagonally. Rinse out any grit between the leaves. Slice thin and set aside. Peel the potatoes and cut in half lengthwise and cut each half in slices about 1/4 inch thick and set aside in a bowl of cold water. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot and saute the sliced leeks until almost golden on the edges (about three minutes.) Add the chicken stock, bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Drain the potato slices and add to the simmering broth. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Remove bay leaves before serving.
Garnish with butter croutons or crispy Polish ham (6 Polish ham slices stacked and cut into small squares sauteed in butter until crispy.
For me, the Italian Facebook meme to the left comically captures the very fine line between food porn and … well, the other kinds. Changing just two letters, “50 Sfumature di Gricia” spoofed the global “mommy-porn” phenom, 50 Sfumature di Grigio – or, you guessed it – 50 Shades of Grey. I have a nerdy affection for puns, so this little word play cracked me up. It also got this intrepid blogger to make a dish that I hadn’t eaten in years.
Wowee, was it good.
Gricia is a close cousin of two more well-known dishes – Pasta alla Carbonara and Pasta all’ Amatriciana. All three are fabulous, authentic peasant dishes from the Abruzzo and Lazio regions. IMHO, however, I think Gricia is the guiltiest, most un-Kosher and gratifying pleasure of the three because (pardon the expression) it’s all about the pork. It doesn’t bother adding eggs (like Carbonara), or tomato and onion (like Amatriciana). As you’ll see, not only is it hog heaven, but it’s super simple to make.
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound minced pancetta (or guanciale or bacon)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound linguine or other long, thin pasta (preferably DeCecco)
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano, or more to taste
reserved pasta cooking water/additional olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large saute pan, combine the olive oil and pancetta, and cook over a medium flame. Stir it occasionally, until nicely browned and semi-crispy, about 10 minutes or so. Turn off the heat.
Salt the water and cook the pasta until very “al dente.” Reserve about a cup of the cooking water before draining the pasta.
Add the drained pasta to the pancetta pan, stir in the cheese and black pepper and salt to taste. Add a little of the pasta cooking water and/or a little olive oil and stir quickly until a luscious sauce is formed.
Serves 4 as a first course and 3 as a main.
When my dogs start acting squirrelly, I look up at the night sky and sure enough, it’s a full moon. It reminds me of the squirrelly old man in the movie Moonstruck howling at the Cosmos bella luna (beautiful moon) with his menagerie of dogs.
I know it’s corny, but Moonstruck is one of my favorite movies with two of my favorite actors. I must have watched it at least a half a dozen times. I grew up on The Sonny and Cher Show not only to hear Cher sing but to check out all her wacky outfits. And in Moonstruck, Olympia Dukakis was the perfect Italian mother commanding her perfect Italian kitchen as the family headquarters. So when I am feeling nostalgic, I can’t help but fondly think of the scene where she is at her stove making the classic Moonstruck breakfast aka Toad in a Hole or Egg in a Nest. Although Italians typically don’t eat eggs for breakfast in the U.S., this treat is usually reserved for a lazy weekend brunch.
These eggs are great with a side of Italian or kielbasa sausage or sauteed peppers and onions.
2 large eggs
2 slices of Tuscan round crusty bread
Cut a hole in each slice of bread. If you have a heart shaped cookie cutter, cut a hole in the center of each slice of bread. In the old days, you used the rim of a glass, which works too. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Smear soft butter on both sides of each slice of bread and place one side down on skillet to toast for about a minute. Also pan toast the cut out pieces to use for dunking. Drop an egg in each hole and let cook for a minute or two and then gently flip over to cook and toast the other side. Peek underneath to see if it is toasting to your liking and then plate. Salt & pepper to taste. It’s as easy as that!