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opThe Italian grandmothers of my dreams.

Recipe: Crespelle with Roasted Peppers, Prosciutto Cotto, and a Red Pepper Sauce

I don’t cook Italian food the way my grandmother did. When she made eggplant parmigiano, I knew exactly what I’d be getting, down to the perfectly lined up inner layer of sliced hard-boiled eggs. Her recipe (or her execution might be more accurate) was fixed and solid, performed with devotion and a need to feed. The thought of her varying it, even slightly, I’m sure never occurred. And I felt contented with her delicious but etched in stone cooking. Everyone did.

When I came into my own as a cook, I didn’t gravitate toward her style. I learned the traditions of Italian cooking from family, school, and books, but I now seldom make a dish exactly the same way twice. I’m a restless cook.

The one time I cooked for my grandmother happened when my urge to create was just starting to bud. I was around 23. I made manicotti, one of Nanny’s classics. I guess it was nervy of me, but I wanted to make something I thought everyone would like. So I gathered my aunt and uncle, my parents, my sister, and my resolute Nanny around the table. After the first bite, there was a pause in the eating, and then a silence. What was happening? I could feel my jaw start to clench with angst. And then she muttered, “This tastes different.” That’s all. Verdict reached and delivered. That hung a creepy fear over the table and pretty much ruined the evening. I had made the manicotti with crêpes instead of traditional pasta dough, messing with tradition and infringing on her authority.

But then a strange thing happened. After a few days and a good laugh with my sister, I felt unafraid of this close little group of steely critics. A happy liberation came over me. I never cooked for my grandmother again. I didn’t want to. I wanted to cook for myself. 

Crespelle with Roasted Peppers, Prosciutto Cotto, and a Red Pepper Sauce

(Serves 4 or 5, making about 12 7-inch crespelle)

For the crespelle:

1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
A generous pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for cooking
1 cup whole milk, possibly a little more
1 tablespoon grappa, cognac, or brandy

For the ricotta filling:

2 cups whole-milk ricotta
1 large egg
1 small garlic clove, minced
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about ⅛ teaspoon)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 8 thyme sprigs, leaves chopped, plus a handful of tender sprigs for garnish

Plus:

Extra-virgin olive oil
6 red bell peppers, charred, peeled, seeded, and cut into thick strips
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
½ pound prosciutto cotto, very thinly sliced
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese

For the crespelle batter, put all the crespelle ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until very smooth. The result should have the consistency of thick cream. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk. Pour the batter into a bowl, and let it sit about 45 minutes before using (this will relax the gluten a bit, so you get a nice tender crêpe).

To cook the crespelle, I used a 7-inch omelet pan, but if you’ve got a proper crêpe pan, a little bigger or smaller, use that. Any small sauté pan will do the trick. With these olive oil crespelle, I never find sticking a problem, so you don’t need a nonstick pan. Put the pan over a medium flame, and let it heat up. Pour in just enough olive oil to coat the pan. Pull the pan from the heat, and ladle in a bit less than a quarter cup of batter, tilting the pan quickly in a circular movement to spread the batter. (You’ll get the hang of it. The first few usually don’t come out too well. Once the heat is regulated and you get the feel of it, trust me, you’ll find it fairly easy.) Let the crespella cook just until you notice it coloring lightly at the edge. Then shake the pan, moving the crespella away from you, and slip a spatula underneath. Give it a fast, confident flip. If it folds up a bit, just straighten it out with your fingers (these things are a lot sturdier than you’d think). Cook on the other side for about 30 seconds, and then slide onto a big plate.

Make the rest of the crespelle the same way, adding a drizzle of olive oil to the pan each time. Stack the crespelle up on top of one another (they won’t stick, I swear). If you like, you can refrigerate them until you want to assemble the dish.

Mix the ingredients for the ricotta filling together in a big bowl.

In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the red pepper slices, the garlic, a pinch of sugar, salt, and black pepper, and sauté for about 2 minutes, just to finish cooking the peppers and coat them with flavor.

Take about a quarter of the peppers out and place them in a food processor, including any juices that are left in the skillet. Work them into a purée. Add the chicken broth and the cream, and give it a few more pulses, just to blend everything. Season with a little salt. Transfer this sauce to a little bowl.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lay the crespelle out on a work surface. Cover each one with a layer of the ricotta filling, leaving the ends of the crespelle uncovered. Now place a piece of prosciutto cotto and a few slices of the roasted peppers on top. Roll them up, and arrange them in a well-oiled baking dish that will hold them rather snugly (you can use two dishes, if that’s more convenient for you).

Drizzle the pepper sauce over the crespelle, and sprinkle on the grana Padano. This sauce is not meant to cover the entire dish. It just provides a little flavor boost and moisture. Bake until bubbling and lightly browned at the edges, about 15 minutes. Garnish with the thyme sprigs.

Serve hot. No need to let them rest. They’re quite firm. I like them served with a simple winter salad of mixed chicory-type lettuces, such as frisée and endive.

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Recipe: Spaghetti with Winter Tomato Sauce and Ricotta

I never heard the word soffritto when I was growing up, but I knew the aroma. Whenever my mother started a tomato sauce or a ragù I was aware of a deep, sweet essence of vegetable wafting through the kitchen. And when I finally bothered to watch what she was doing, I saw onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and sometimes garlic simmering in olive oil. That is a basic soffritto, the underpinning of just about every well-made Italian soup, braise, or sauce. It’s usually a first step, one that lays a solid foundation.

There’s no English equivalent for the word soffritto. I think that says something about the complexly moral Anglo-Saxon relationship with food, which M.F.K. Fisher struggled to come to terms with for much of her life. The French, of course, have a word, mirepoix, after the lackluster eighteenth-century Duc de Mirepoix, whose only accomplishment seems to have been persuading his personal chef to name this culinary method after him.

In Italy there are actually two words, one for each stage of the procedure. Battuto, from battere, meaning to pound or beat, refers to the chopping (or battering, I guess) of the raw ingredients. Soffritto, from soffriggere, to fry, is what happens when the stuff hits the pan, when the aromas begin. I’ve heard these terms used interchangeably, but I believe these are their proper meanings.

In its most traditional form a soffritto consists of onion, carrot, and celery, all sautéed in some type of fat. Leeks or shallots can be a good swap for the onion. Sometimes a little sweet or hot fresh chili is appropriate. You can add garlic if you want that flavor. Sometimes I add sturdy herbs such as rosemary or thyme, whose flavors get released by the heat and become full and mellow. I’m not crazy about sage in a soffritto, it always goes a little musty on me. And speaking of musty, I avoid all dried herbs, including Southern Italy’s much loved dried oregano. That stuff when cooked down spreads the scent of pencil lead into everything it touches. I understand that not everyone feels this way, but what can I say? Flat-leaf parsley is a classic in soffritto, but I don’t like the way it goes dark and loses its fresh edge. I prefer to add it when the dish is finished. I do like the flavor of celery leaves in certain dishes, so I’ll often add a handful to my soffritto in addition to or sometimes instead of the stalk. I always add celery leaves to my base for pasta e fagiole. My mother taught me that.

I recall my grandmother occasionally beginning her soffritto in warm lard or chicken fat. That smelled wonderful. Then at some point she began using Crisco, an ingredient that as a young hippie I was repulsed by on principle. Strangely I don’t recall the smell of it. Did it have a smell? Often I use a mix of butter and olive oil, if I’ll be making a braised chicken dish or a sauce containing wild mushrooms. That combination is a classic starting point for many risottos. Pancetta is my stand-in for lard. I use it frequently in a soffritto, even with otherwise all-vegetarian dishes, such as a summer ciambotta. Pancetta needs to go in before any other soffritto ingredient so it can release its fat and brown; if you add it along with, say, onion, the onion may burn before the pancetta is crisp.  With stew meat I usually remove it from the pan after browning and then begin the soffritto. Anchovies are good too, if they’re where you’re directing your flavor. I’ll add them after I sauté my onion or celery or whatever, so they don’t get overly sautéed and concentrated.

There are different ways to cook a soffritto. Sometimes I want a quick, lightly sautéed flavor so my dish stays fresh-tasting. I’ll heat my oil and cook my soffritto fast, so the vegetables retain a bit of rawness. But for, say, a beef ragu, I might want it to cook long and slow to develop more caramelization, which will ultimately deepen the finished dish. I suppose these two approaches are analogous to the light and dark roux used in the cooking of New Orleans, both correct but serving different purposes.

Here’s a recipe for a winter tomato sauce that I make variations of all the time. It’ll show you how to go about making a pretty standard soffritto that starts with pancetta. I find that a well turned out soffritto does amazing things for canned tomatoes. There’s a lot going on in this dish that you might not necessarily see in your pasta bowl but you’ll taste on your tongue. All because of the soffritto.

soffritto

Spaghetti with Winter Tomato Sauce and Ricotta

 (Serves 5 as a first course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 approximately ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 large carrot, cut into small dice
1 small inner celery stalk, diced, with the leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
4 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
A splash of sweet vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, well chopped
1 pound spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
¾ cup whole milk ricotta
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

Choose a wide, shallow sauce pan, and place it over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the pancetta, and sauté until it just starts to crisp but still retains a little tenderness. Now add the shallot, carrot, and the celery and its leaves. Sauté, stirring around occasionally until the mix is fragrant, soft, and just starting to turn lightly golden, about 5 minutes. If the vegetables start getting too browned before getting tender, turn the heat down of bit. Add the garlic, rosemary, and thyme. Season with a little salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté to release these flavors, about another minute. You don’t want the garlic to get dark.

Add a splash of sweet vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble for about 10 minutes.

In the meantime set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt, and drop in the spaghetti.

Turn the heat off under the sauce, and add the butter, mixing it in. Taste for seasoning.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain the it (save about ½ cup of the cooking water), and tip it into a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the sauce, the parsley, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Toss well. Add a little of the cooking water if the texture is too thick, and toss again, briefly. Spoon a dollop of ricotta onto each serving, and finish with some grated grana Padano.

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Women with Fish

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These sisters know how to knock off fish.

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You know that great Tuscan chicken liver paté, the one you spread onto warm crostini and sometimes garnish with a scattering of chopped sage? Yes, I love it too. I make it for parties. It’s one of those preparations that look fancy but are truly easy. For my version, I sauté the chicken livers in olive oil and butter, then add anchovy, shallot, capers, sometimes garlic and juniper berries, sage, and then a splash of cognac or grappa, and maybe Marsala or vermouth, too. Then into the food processor it goes. The resulting smooth paste I spoon into a pretty bowl and let rest for a few hours, so all the elements can blend and the texture become velvety. I love this mix of flavors so much I was recently compelled to use it in another way, and a pasta dish was born.

I deconstructed the paté, upping its onion family component to use as a soffrito for my sauce. I sautéed the livers separately, to keep them pinker than you would for a paté, but added more booze and broth to my soffrito, making sure the pasta would be well coated. I went easy on the sage, which, we all know, can give off a musty taste if overdone. In fact, I added a touch of rosemary to balance things out.

I’m really happy with this pasta. I hope you are too. It feels like winter to me.

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Cavatelli with Chicken Livers, Soft Onion, Marsala, and Capers

 (Serves 4 as a main course pasta)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 really large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 anchovy fillets, minced (high-quality oil-packed is best for this)
2 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
2 juniper berries, crushed
Salt
Black pepper
¼ cup dry Marsala
¾ cup homemade or high-quality purchased chicken broth
1 pound cavatelli pasta
1 pound organic chicken livers, trimmed and cut into approximately ½ inch lobes
A splash of cognac
About 8 sage leaves, cut into chiffonade
A big palmful of capers (preferably salt-packed Sicilian ones)
The zest from 1 lemon
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil.

In the meantime, put a large skillet over a medium flame and heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the onion, and let it soften for about 6 minutes. Turn the heat down a bit if the onion starts to brown too much. Now add the garlic, anchovy, rosemary, and juniper berries. Add a pinch of salt (very little, because of the anchovies) and black pepper. Let the mix sauté for about 3 minutes or so, to release all the flavors.

Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Now add the chicken broth, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce reduces a bit. It should still be a little brothy.

Add salt to the pasta water, and drop in the cavatelli.

Set up a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast iron is good) over high heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Dry off the livers. When the oil and butter are really hot, add the livers to the skillet. Brown them on one side, give them a turn, and brown the other side. This should take only a few minutes. You want them to stay pink inside. Be careful when turning them, as they can spit and pop. Now add a splash of cognac, and let it burn off. It may flame up (I love that), so stand back a bit.

Add the livers to the onion sauce. Add the sage, capers, and lemon zest.

When the cavatelli is al dente, pour it into a serving bowl, leaving a little water clinging to it. Add the chicken liver sauce and about a tablespoon of grated grana Padano. Toss and taste for seasoning. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table.

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00001431A 13th-century Italian herb book.

Perfect meals exist. I know. I’ve eaten them, thought about them, and even cooked a few. They can be simple, a few slices of mild pecorino drizzled with wildflower honey, or more elaborate, such as a porterhouse steak grilled rare and topped with anchovy butter. It’s 9:30 a.m. as I write this, but just mentioning that steak makes me want to cook one up now. I’ve even got a tub of anchovy butter in the fridge. What Italian girl would be without one?

Fried cutlets are another perfect meal for me. When I was a kid, we had fried boneless cutlets all the time. Every Italian-American family had them, veal on special occasions but more often chicken. They were egged, coated with breadcrumbs and grated cheese, and then fried in olive oil. Their aroma was out of this world. Oily, hot, moist, and salty, and with a squeeze of lemon they hit all the points of delicious. We served them with sautéed escarole or broccoli or a chicory salad. They were one of my childhood dream meals.

At some point, I’m not sure exactly when, maybe in the late ’70s, early ’80s, cutlets with salad piled on top began showing up on Italian menus in and around New York City, usually going by the name veal Milanese (or chicken Milanese, depending). Cotoletta alla Milanese is a real dish from Milan, but traditionally this opulent veal cutlet is cooked on the bone and served with lemon wedges and a side of potatoes or another vegetable. The bone-free cutlet is a humbler slice,  and the more recent (in the last 40 years, that is) top hat of greens seems to be a restaurant addition, one I’ve eaten in Naples, Glen Cove, and Manhattan (maybe you can get it in Milan, too). What a great idea. All the lemony dressing trickles down onto the meat, and the contrast between hot and oily and cold and puckery is thrilling when it’s all well put together but depressing when the dish is tough, cold, soggy, unseasoned, or the cook just doesn’t seem to give a crap. There’s a place around the corner from me on 14th Street where that last problem is in evidence. My perfect meal less than perfect. Che vergogna.

That’s why you’ll often do best making the dish yourself. I made it last night. I felt like going with pork this time. Pork cutlets are very good when cooked fast and left juicy. And I thought I’d winter up the green salad topping by adding roasted tomatoes seasoned with rosemary and thyme, strong herbs you usually don’t find tossed with lettuce. It worked because the heat from the tomatoes softened their sharp edges. I also added fresh sage, a classic with pork, to the breadcrumb mix.

Pork Cutlets with Roasted Tomatoes and Wintry Herbs

 (Serves 4)

1½ pints grape tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
3 or 4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
About 8 thyme sprigs, stemmed
1 medium-size head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
2 pounds pork cutlets, lightly pounded (they should be very thin)
2 eggs
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
About 6 sage leaves, chopped
The zest from 1 large lemon, plus a little of its juice and 4 lemon wedges
1 small garlic clove, minced
Black pepper
A big pinch of cayenne pepper
A palmful of lightly toasted pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet. Drizzle on a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Bake until lightly browned and starting to collapse, about 15 minutes. You’ll probably want to shake the tomatoes around a few times so they cook evenly. Take them from the oven, and scatter on the rosemary and thyme. Let cool for about 10 minutes or so.

Put the frisée in a salad bowl. Add the tomatoes.

Dry off the cutlets with paper towels.

Crack the eggs onto a large plate, and whisk lightly.

On another large plate, mix together the breadcrumbs, grana Padano, lemon zest, sage, garlic, black pepper, a little cayenne, and some salt.

Get out two large skillets, and place them over high flame. Pour about ¼ inch of olive oil into each one.

Dip the cutlets in the egg, and then in the breadcrumbs.

When the oil is hot, fry the cutlets, turning them once, until browned on both sides. Lift them out with a slotted spatula. Put them directly onto four plates.

Drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil over the salad. Now add about a teaspoon of the lemon juice. Season with salt and black pepper. Toss, adding more olive oil or lemon juice if needed.

Mound the salad up on the cutlets, and garnish with the pine nuts and the lemon wedges. Serve right away.

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Women with Fish

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I just had a head scan and look what they found? Terrible, but I’m not really surprised.

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conch_shell

When was the last time I made stuffed shells? When did I last eat them? I don’t know. Twelve, fourteen years ago? I don’t see them around much anymore, unless, possibly, they have them at Sbarro’s. Does Sbarro’s still exist?

My mother made them often. They were her default manicotti, having a similar taste but being less work, because she didn’t have to shove the stuffing into floppy, slippery tubes. Her filling was usually just ricotta mixed with cheese, parsley, and a touch of nutmeg, and she topped the shells with tomato sauce and grated pecorino. I can’t remember if she used mozzarella. She must have, occasionally. Sometimes she covered them with a meat sauce, if she had some left over. And then the whole thing was baked. I loved it. All the kids in the neighborhood loved it. Many, miraculously, showed up at our table on stuffed shells night.

For years now, sadly, I’ve thought of the dish as an Italian-American embarrassment, inelegant and even dopey, probably because I associate it with crappy restaurants. But stuffed dried pasta is a real thing, invented in Italy’s south, where dried pasta rules. I haven’t eaten stuffed shells often down there; in Naples I’ve more frequently seen paccheri, sort of a giant rigatoni stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella, often baked, really just a mini version of manicotti.

Why have I been thinking so much about stuffed shells lately? Maybe because my mother is in the hospital. They certainly remind me of her. But also I’ve been thinking about their shape. Italians often model foods on nature, especially pastas. Orecchietti, farfalle, vermicelli, and conchiglioni, the large shells I’m talking about here (the word means big sea shells), are good examples. This tradition speaks to my pantheistic heart.

The stuffed shells I grew up with and ate all around town were almost always prepared pretty much the same way. That’s probably another reason I dropped them when I started running my own kitchen. Culinarily speaking, and possibly in other ways as well, I like nothing better than to take a tradition and mess it up a bit. I think it’s time to bring this homey dish back and maybe infuse it with an air of grace. Not too much; just enough to make it exciting again.

Conchiglioni with Ricotta, Saucisson Sec, and Arugula, with a Tomato and Rosemary Sauce

(Serves 4)

1 pound giant pasta shells
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups whole milk ricotta
1 teaspoon ground allspice
Black pepper
A large chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese, cut into tiny cubes (you’ll want about 3/4 cup cubed), plus about ¾ cup grated
6 thick slices saucisson sec*, the casing removed, the sausage cut into tiny cubes (again, about 3/4 cup cubed)
Baby arugula*, lightly chopped (about 1 packed cup)

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 thin carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 35-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, well chopped, plus the juice
½ cup homemade or high-quality purchased chicken broth
Salt
Black pepper
A few drops of sherry wine vinegar

*I chose saucisson sec because it tends to have a softer texture than many Italian dried salamis. The brand I most often use is Les Trois Petits Cochons. But if you find a not-too-hard soppressata, for instance, by all means go ahead and use that instead.

*I use arugula in this stuffing, but in the past I’ve made lasagna filling by mixing radicchio, another bitter vegetable, with the ricotta. I love the way the flavor of radicchio marries with rosemary’s taste.I sauté it first to take the edge off. You can substitute it for the arugula, if you like.

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt. Drop in the shells, and cook until al dente. Drain them, and briefly run them under cold water to cool them. Let them drain again, and then toss them with a little olive oil so they don’t stick together.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, the allspice, some black pepper, and little salt. Give it all a brief mix, and then add the cubed pecorino, the saucisson sec, and the arugula. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and mix well.

Make the sauce: In a large skillet, heat the butter and a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and carrot, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic and the rosemary, and sauté for a minute to release their flavors. Add the tomatoes and the broth, and cook at a medium bubble, uncovered, for about 8 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper, and add a few drops of the vinegar.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Choose a baking dish that will hold all the shells without crowding. Drizzle a film of olive oil onto its surface.

Fill the shells with the ricotta mixture, and place them filling side up in the dish. (I had a bunch of broken shells that I couldn’t use, so I wound up with leftover filling. If you have any left over, try tossing it with hot penne. Really good.) Pour the tomato sauce over the top, drizzle with a little fresh olive oil, and sprinkle on the grated pecorino.

Bake until hot and bubbling, about 20 minutes.

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