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Migliaccio

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Recipe below: Migliaccio

Ricotta is one of the defining tastes of my life. Yes it’s white and mushy, but its milky, sweet fragrance, with an almost undetectable acidity, has embedded itself in my soul. I think that underlying acid is what makes it unmistakable, plain out of the tub. Scent it with pecorino and parsley in a filling for manicotti, or with orange flower water and cinnamon for an Easter cake, and it moves from familiar to transcendent.

For years I’ve made two types of ricotta cake. One, usually a pastiera, has a crust and a lattice top, is firm with whole eggs, and sometimes has candied citron, orange flower water, and wheat berries, which are a necessity if you want to call it a pastiera. The other is a crustless cake made light with whipped egg whites and scented with lemon and orange zest. It collapses a bit when cooled, like an hour-old soufflé. Now I’ve added a third, migliaccio, a ricotta cake that falls somewhere in between.

Migliaccio is a Neapolitan specialty that’s cooked up for Carnevale. I’ve known about it for a long time, but somehow I figured it was close enough to the ones I already had in my repertoire not to bother with. However, the name stuck in my head, coming up every so often to say, cook me. Finally this Christmas Eve I did. What a wonderful thing it turned out to be, firm enough to stand on its own without the support of a crust, but delicate in the mouth. The addition of semolina flour somehow smoothed out the ricotta, which could have been grainy, creating a springy pillow of love.

Miglio is Italian for millet, and evidently this cake was originally made with that, not semolina. Even the ricotta is a later addition. When I researched modern-day recipes, I found them all pretty similar. You cook the semolina in a mix of milk and water, producing something similar to the first stages of cream puff pastry. This step seems essential, or at least traditional. I’m not sure why the water is in there, but I went with it because I was told to. Another tradition is simmering a whole lemon peel in the milk. That makes for an elegant visual, but I don’t find that it provides much flavor, so I grated the zest instead, to release more of its oil.

This cake is usually flavored with lemon, sometimes a shot of limoncello, and vanilla, a fragrant Southern Italian staple. I found I wanted the aroma of anisette, so I went with that, underlining it with a big pinch of star anise. The smell while it baked was just what I imagined, exactly what I wanted. Christmas at my grandparents’ house. All that was missing was the odor of Pop’s cigar smoke.

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Migliaccio

(Serves 8 to 10)

2 cups whole milk
1 3/4 cups water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little more for the pan
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A big pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground star anise
1 cup semolina
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
12 ounces whole milk ricotta
2 tablespoons anisette
2 teaspoons good quality vanilla extract
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Pour the milk and water into a saucepan. Add the butter, the lemon zest, the star anise, and a big pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Turn the heat down a touch, and add the semolina, stirring all the while. Let it all cook, stirring to prevent lumps, for about 5 minutes, after which you’ll have a sticky paste.

While letting the semolina cool a bit, combine the eggs and sugar, and blend them in a standing mixer until they’re lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Add the ricotta, the anisette, and the vanilla, and blend just until it all comes together. Add the semolina mixture to the ricotta, and blend quickly to combine.

Pour the batter into the pan, and bake it for 50 minutes to an hour. At the end the top should be lightly brown, the sides firm, and the middle a bit soft. It will firm up as it cools. When it’s cool, dust its top with powdered sugar.

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Recipes below: Oven-Dried Tomatoes; Christmas Eve Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Marjoram

The rise and fall of sun-dried tomatoes. Where did they all go? Remember the craze that started, in New York at least, in the mid 1970s? They were a new taste for me. Even growing up in a Southern Italian household, I hadn’t seen them much used by Italian Americans of my generation, until the chefs turned us all on. But once that happened they were easily worked into our family meals. The ones my mother got back then were precious imports, from Campania or Sicily. They were literally sun-dried and then packed in good olive oil, and their sweet and sour and acid intensity burst forth with no harshness. Jewels in a jar. In my opinion the olive oil bath is important to their flavor. The sun-drieds that became more available later on were packed dry and then meant to be reconstituted in water. They always tasted a little sour to me.

My mother threw sun-dried tomatoes into tuna salads and chicory salads, salami sandwiches, spaghetti aglio e olio, roasted peppers, chicken parmigiana, grilled pork chops. I loved watching her dig a few of the tomatoes out of the jar, dripping with oil, and scatter them over just about anything. Instant elegance.

I moved into the city just about when the sun-dried trend peaked. Those days I was sometimes so out of money but so needing Italian reinforcements that I’d head over to Balducci’s and steal sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies, shoving them down the front of my jeans. I’m not sure how I got the nerve to do that. Desperation for a taste of home, I guess. And it was oddly easy to steal stuff back then. I assume not looking like a junkie helped. I’d head back to my dark studio apartment with my delicacies and make sandwiches on stale hamburger buns. I remember living on those, or variations on them, for weeks at a time. Those were strange days.

A few years later the sun-dried thing had gone so mainstream and gotten so overdone that upscale restaurants would no longer touch them. Good cooks were embarrassed to serve them to guests. And worst of all, American producers started turning them out en masse, factory-dehydrated, no sun in sight, bitter and leathery (in Italy even the factory ones are actually sun-dried). A terrible product, debasing the Italian original. And then they dropped off the planet. Now you only see them at crappy salad bars, or possibly at the Olive Garden.

But when I think about the long, gentle process needed to produce good sun-dried tomatoes, I’m reminded again of what a beautiful and valid Southern Italian invention the things are. Families still dry tomatoes on rooftops in Campania, Puglia, and Calabria, preserving them for the cool months ahead.  My mother told me her grandfather used to set out big wooden boards in their backyard in Rye, New York, to dry tomatoes and also to make tomato paste. I wish I could have seen that and known what Westchester sun-drieds tasted like.

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Lately I’ve needed to experience that heightened tomato taste again. It seems so Christmasy. So I went about making some oven-dried tomatoes, which I hadn’t done in ages. The results were salty, dense, and sweet, maybe not as complex as true sun dried, but I was really happy with them.  If you’d like to try, here’s how I did it:

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

(Makes about 1½ cups)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees

Cut 2 pints of cherry tomatoes in half. Toss with a little olive oil and a good sprinkling of Sicilian sea salt. (Sicilian isn’t essential, but it adds a nice historical touch. And do try to use sea salt, as the sea imparts a briny flavor to the tomatoes. Sel gris from France is another good choice. I don’t like and never use Kosher salt. It tastes to me like chemicals.)

Lay the tomatoes out on a parchment-lined sheet pan, cut side up, and stick them in the oven. Let them slow roast until they’re slightly shriveled but still damp in the center. This will take  2½ hours or so.

Take the tomatoes from the oven, and scatter on a few sprigs of marjoram and thyme. Let them cool.

Put them in a jar fitted with a lid, and cover them completely with good olive oil.  They’ll keep refrigerated for about a month, and they’ll be great with many pasta preparations. Here’s one I’m thinking about serving on Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Marjoram

(Serves 6 as a first course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large cauliflower, cut into ½ inch florets (since you won’t parboil here, it’s important to cut the pieces small, to sauté or braise quickly in the pan)
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 or 5 oil-packed anchovies, minced
Salt
A drizzle of honey
½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin
A generous sprinkling of Aleppo pepper
A splash of dry vermouth
1 pound orecchiette
6 or 7 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (the good ones you buy are usually plums, not the cherries I dried, so you don’t need too many), cut into thin strips
6 or so big sprigs of fresh marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
A half-pound piece of ricotta salata

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

In the meantime, get out a large skillet, and get it hot over medium heat. Add a glug of olive oil, and let it heat through. Add the cauliflower, and pan roast it, stirring it around occasionally so it cooks evenly, for about 5 minutes. When it starts to get tender and golden, add the shallots, garlic, and anchovies. Season with a touch of salt, the honey, the cumin, and some Aleppo. Let it cook a minute or so longer, just until it’s tender all the way through.

Drop the orecchiette in the water.

Add a big splash of vermouth to the cauliflower, and let it bubble for a few seconds.  Scatter on the sun-dried tomatoes, and turn off the heat.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Tip the pasta into a large serving bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and toss gently.

Add the cauliflower sauce, another drizzle of olive oil, and the marjoram, and toss, adding enough of the cooking water to loosen the sauce. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or Aleppo if needed.

Serve hot, grating a good amount of ricotta salata on each serving.

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A chicken-and-red-pepper yoga map.

Recipe below: Chicken alla Cacciatora My Way

What exactly is pollo alla cacciatora, anyway? Or chicken cacciatore, as we always called it? The hunter’s wife’s dish. My family made it a lot, always in a Southern Italian style, but it can be many things, depending on the region. My mother, a hunter of fine nail colors, made hers with tomato, red wine, and red bell peppers, adding a little garlic, and often including dried oregano. This, I assumed, was a Campanian or Puglian version, from where we come from. I never liked it. There was something harsh there. In our family, it was mostly a winter dish, so the bell peppers were supermarket-bought, not from my father’s garden. They lacked sweetness and were maybe a bit acidic. It’s funny. I love red sweet peppers—peperonata amazes me—but I’m not crazy about them mixed with tomatoes, I think that brings out their underlying sharpness. And dried oregano slow cooked in a braise, as it is here, gives off a musty note. Southerners and their dried oregano. I still don’t understand it. Sorry, Mom. I loved almost everything you made, but chicken cacciatore not so much. I occasionally prepare it her way, just for a taste of childhood, but I ditch the oregano and add fresh basil at the end. An improvement.

Tomato-and-sweet-pepper cacciatore is the version that usually came to this country. Every Italian family I knew made it that way. But in Naples and vicinity, where many Italian Americans are from, it’s unusual. Generally speaking, the Southern cacciatora almost always means chicken braised with rosemary, white or red wine, and tomatoes. And in all the Naples and Campania cookbooks I have (and I have a lot), I don’t see a sweet pepper version, except, and this is an interesting exception, in Sophia Loren’s surprisingly good cookbook, In the Kitchen with Love. Her pollo alla cacciatora contains red bell peppers and tomatoes and is pretty much like my mother’s. Sophia grew up minutes away from Naples, but no Rrosemary here. My mother didn’t use rosemary either. Sophia uses basil. So I guess both ways have a history. I also wonder if the sweet pepper version may not have originated in neighboring Calabria, where they use lots of peppers, both sweet and hot, and then maybe travelled around the south (there’s so much culinary overlap in those regions) before crossing the sea to land in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, its final resting place.

Chicken alla cacciatora is not just a Southern dish. I’m guessing its name originated in Tuscany or Umbria, where they’re big hunters. Neapolitans were more into foraging. The central Italian versions almost always contain rosemary, too, and may or may not use tomatoes. I’ve never seen a Central Italian cacciatore with sweet peppers. Mushrooms, yes.

And, getting to the chicken component, I doubt many of my ancestors had the luxury of eating a chicken dinner ever, or possibly once or twice on special occasions. Maybe a chicken could be killed if someone was gravely sick, for broth, for protein. But mostly it would be saved for its eggs. I would guess the preparation was more often done with rabbit, or goat in some regions, and then evolved when chickens became easier to part with. I think cacciatore really took off for Mezzogiorno people when they got here, to the land of abundance and waste.

I make cacciatore in various ways, sometimes with wild mushrooms and no tomatoes. I also love it simply with white wine, a little garlic, and a lot of fresh herbs—sage, thyme, fennel fronds, parsley. But maybe my favorite version is the more or less classic one with just wine (I like using dry vermouth), tomatoes, and rosemary.

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Chicken alla Cacciatora My Way

(Serves 4)

4 chicken legs, separated into thighs and drumsticks (or use all thighs)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
A ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, chopped
2 shallots, cut into small dice
1 or 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 or 4 juniper berries, lightly crushed
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
4 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
4 ounces dry vermouth
¾ cup good chicken broth
6 canned San Marzano tomatoes, drained and then well chopped
A handful of Gaeta olives, pitted if you like

Salt and pepper the chicken pieces. Get out a large skillet with a lid, and set it over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil, and let it get hot. Add the chicken, and brown it well on both sides. Remove it from the pan.

If you’ve got a lot of fat in the pan, drain some off. Next, still over medium heat, add the pancetta, and let it get crispy. Add the shallots, and let them soften. Add the garlic, juniper berries, allspice, bay leaf, and rosemary, and cook them briefly to release their fragrances. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and turn the chicken pieces around a few times to distribute all the flavors. Let it all come to a boil.

Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer until the chicken is just tender, about 20 minutes. You’ll want to turn the pieces over once or twice during the cooking. Add the olives in the last few minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the chicken sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. That will help mellow all the flavors and let the chicken continue to cook through gently to tender.

Taste the sauce, and add more salt, pepper, or other seasonings until it tastes rich but also bright. If the sauce is kind of loose, you can remove the chicken pieces, boil down the liquid to reduce it, and then pour it back over the chicken.

Serve with good bread.

 

Lefebvre, Ernest Eugene, 1850-1889; Still Life with a Pitcher, Glasses and a Bowl of Salad

Still Life with a Pitcher, Glasses, and a Bowl of Salad, by Ernest Lefebvre, 1850–1889.

Recipe below: Salad of Chicories with an Anchovy Vinaigrette and Butter Croutons

Often when I’m not eating a good green salad I’m thinking about one. I’m drawn to leafy green plants. I always was, even as a little kid. I like tearing the leaves with my hands. I like eating them raw. And I get pleasure from washing a salad, watching the dirt fall through water to the bottom of the sink and then lifting the leaves from the top without disturbing the grit. That’s a job well done.

I serve a green salad at the end of a meal, when I feel it’s most needed, both as a digestivo and as a way of drawing out the evening for more talk and a little more wine. That’s a good time to ruminate with old friends, to get nostalgic about something that wasn’t much even when it happened. And when after a long, nice meal at a friend’s house I see a simple green salad brought to the table, a calm comes over me. In our uncivilized world, the gesture of giving a little more is so welcome. As long as the cook doesn’t add too much vinegar, I’m happy.

I eat a green salad after just about every evening meal. I like gentle salads, I like biting ones. Slowing down and settling in, especially after a few hours of cooking, soothes my psyche. I’m no longer hungry, but now I can savor the fruitiness of a really good olive oil, or the bitterness of chicory.  I dress the salad at the table—a ritual that says: Don’t go yet. There’s a fresh savory plate here. Let’s see where it takes us.

I never miss the opportunity to serve a green salad after pasta with lamb ragù, or beef stew, or whole grilled sea bass, or roast chicken. It’s pretty much mandatory. To my thinking, the best part of any roast chicken dinner is the salad, drizzled with a bit of the chicken cooking juice.  Add a finish of fine olive oil and a few drops of vinegar, and we’ve gone full circle with the meal. Sometimes I like to sauté up the chicken’s innards and toss them into the salad, too. Here’s a short video to show you how I like to make a salad with roasting juice.

 

Chicory, arugula, escarole, and dandelion were the salad greens of choice for my mother. Bitter was where it was at for Italian-Americans back then. I still often return to the chicory family for my leaves, especially in winter, when they’re in the best shape. I mix escarole with hits of red Belgian endive or Treviso radicchio, whose streaks of dark red make for a beautiful combination. I also love to make a gentler salad with Boston lettuce or butter lettuce alone. It depends. I mostly don’t like to add tomatoes to my green salads. I find that they muddy the beauty.

The elements of a righteous vinaigrette are good oil, salt, an acid (not too much), sometimes black pepper, and maybe a touch of garlic or mustard. I mix the vinaigrette at the table, eyeballing it, since I know where I’m going. So many salads, so many vinaigrettes in my life. If you’re using a wooden salad bowl, it’s nice to make the vinaigrette right in the bowl and then lay the leaves on top, tossing gently but thoroughly, so everything gets evenly coated. There’s nothing like a well-seasoned wooden salad bowl. I have a crazy big one, a long boat, really, that belonged to my grandfather Erico, who I sadly never met, though I was named for him. I’ve heard that he cared greatly about his food.

Here’s a salad with a little anchovy in it.

Salad of Chicories with an Anchovy Vinaigrette and Butter Croutons

(Serves 4)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 thick, dry slices of country bread, cut into 1-inch cubes, using most of the crust
Salt
1 large head of escarole, the tough outer leaves saved for sautéing, the rest torn into pieces
2 red Belgian endives or 1 Treviso radicchio, separated into leaves
Freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:

1 small fresh garlic clove, lightly crushed with the side of a knife
About ½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
About ½ teaspoon rice wine vinegar
About 5 drops colatura, or 2 oil-packed anchovies, well chopped
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the bread cubes, and sprinkle them with a little salt. Sauté them, stirring frequently, until they’re golden and crisp all over, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Put the escarole and the endive or radicchio into a large salad bowl. Grind on a few big turns of black pepper.

Mix all the ingredients for the vinaigrette together in a small bowl. Taste to balance out the oil and acid.

Toss the salad with the vinaigrette. Add the croutons, and toss again gently. Serve right away.

Women with Fish

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Sirens and fishes. My good luck muse. Charm me today.