Archive for the ‘Skinny Guinea’ Category

Recipe: Polenta Lasagna with Brussels Sprouts and Fontina

In my ever-reaching quest to Italianize Thanksgiving, this year I came up with a lasagna loaded with good Italian ingredients like pancetta and fontina Valle d’Aosta. It actually, despite all my efforts, tasted very Thanksgivingy, and it went very well with turkey and all the other traditional American things other people brought (we had kind of a potluck affair this year, staged at my in-laws’ apartment).

As you know, I’m usually a purist and quite the snot about only using top-notch Italian ingredients, so you might wonder why I stooped so low as to use instant polenta for this dish. First off, I was in a hurry to get it put together and carried out of here, but most important, I found a brand of instant that I liked. Moretti, I just discovered, makes a very good precooked polenta, called Polenta Lampo. It’s got very rich corn flavor. I’ve always used their regular polenta and loved it, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Very decent for a shortcut. You can find it at www.buonitalia.com. Also, when I’m layering polenta into a baked dish I find the quick-cooking kind easier to work with. It doesn’t seem to seize up as fast as the real stuff, so I can pour it out onto sheet pans without its solidifying into a lump before it’s half way out of the pot. I did make sure I stayed on the up and up in the cheese department. I purchased the best Fontina Valle d’Aosta and parmigiano Reggiano I could find.

Polenta Lasagna with Brussels Sprouts and Fontina

(Serves 6)

For the polenta:

2 cups cold water
1 cup cold chicken broth
1 cup cold milk
2 cups instant quick-cooking polenta
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup grated parmigiano Reggiano cheese

For the Brussels sprouts:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½-inch-thick round pancetta, cut into small dice
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 dozen Brussels sprouts, trimmed and thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
4 allspice, ground to a powder
A few large sprigs each of rosemary and thyme
½ cup white wine
½ cup chicken broth
½ teaspoon of white wine vinegar
½ pound of Fontina Valle d’Aosta cheese, roughly grated
¾ cup grated parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Pour the water, chicken broth, and milk into a large saucepan. Add the polenta, and give it a good stir. Using cold liquid ensures that your polenta won’t clump up. Turn the heat to medium high, and bring the polenta to a low boil, stirring frequently. Turn the heat to low, and add the bay leaf and some salt and black pepper. Stir frequently until the polenta is thick and smooth. With instant polenta, this should only take about 7 minutes or so. Add the butter, a generous drizzle of olive oil, and the parmigiano, stirring well. If the polenta becomes too thick, add a little warm water and work it in. You want a pourable consistency. Check for seasoning, adding more salt or black pepper if needed.

Coat two sheet pans well with olive oil, and pour the polenta out onto them, smoothing it down. It should be about ½ inch thick (it won’t cover the entire sheet pans, but one seems too small). Stick the polenta in the refrigerator for about ½ hour, or a little longer if you have time, to firm it up (it should be cold).

To make the Brussels sprouts, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and let it get good and crisp. Add the onion, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic and the Brussels sprouts, seasoning with salt, black pepper, allspice, and the herbs. Sauté about 2 minutes to coat the sprouts well with flavor. Now add the white wine, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth, and simmer, partially covered, until the Brussels sprouts are tender and most of the liquid has boiled off, about 6 or 7 minutes. Add the vinegar, and give it a stir. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or black pepper if needed.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Coat an approximately 8-by-12-inch baking dish that has 2- to 3-inch-high sides with olive oil. Cut the polenta into large pieces, and fit them into the dish, making one layer (which doesn’t have to look perfect). Heap on half of the Brussels sprouts mixture, and smooth it out. Scatter on half of the grated Fontina and a little of the parmigiano, and give that some salt and black pepper. Make another layer of polenta. Make another layer of Brussels sprouts, finishing them up. Add the rest of the Fontina and a sprinkling of parmigiano, reserving some for the top. Make a final layer of polenta, and sprinkle it with the remaining parmigiano. Drizzle it with some olive oil, and give it a few grindings of black pepper. Place the dish on a sheet pan, and bake, uncovered, until it’s bubbling hot and the top is golden, about 30 minutes. Let the polenta rest about 10 minutes before slicing.

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I have a great recipe to put up, something I made for Christmas Eve, but I’ve been a little frazzled and can’t yet get it into writing. It involves a combination of cauliflower and shrimp. I realize that doesn’t sound too promising, but I tell you it was excellent. I got the idea from an amazing dish I ate at a fancy restaurant in early December, for my birthday, that involved lobster and cauliflower. I didn’t think it would work, but I ordered it anyway. That was at Cafe Boulud, a place I’ve been to maybe twice in my middle-aged life. I loved the combination and decided to try it with more affordable shrimp. It was great. I’ll be posting it soon.

Buon capo d’anno to all my friends.


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Sophia dressed as an orange salad.

Merry Christmas to lovers of Southern Italian cooking.

Orange, Fennel, Black Olive, and Mint Salad

(Serves 4 or 5)

4 oranges, peeled and cut into thin rounds (include 2 blood oranges if you can find them)
2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced
½ red onion, cut into thin slices
A handful of black olives (I like the wrinkled Moroccan type for this salad)
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Your best extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of fresh mint leaves

Arrange the orange and fennel slices on a large, pretty serving platter. Scatter on the red onion and the black olives. You can cover and chill this until you’re ready to serve it.

Right before serving, season with sea salt and black pepper. Drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil, and garnish with the mint leaves. Serve right away.

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The couscous festival at San Vito Lo Capo, Sicily.

Recipe: Sicilian Couscous with Shrimp and Almonds

I’ve been to the seaside town of San Vito Lo Capo, in Sicily, but only off-season, when it was empty and raining. And not during the annual couscous festival, in September, which I’m dying to get to one of these years. That is a couscous cook-off where chefs from all over the couscous-eating world gather and compete using their culinary skills .

Western Sicily is one of the places outside of North Africa where couscous first took hold, thanks to various Arab conquests and also because of its proximity to Tunisia. But Sicilians prepare couscous differently from their neighbors. For starters, theirs is almost always a fish-based dish. It’s got spices, but not as many, or not as complicatedly infused. When I think about the flavors of Sicilian couscous, I smell fresh bay leaf, cinnamon, and saffron—which all go great with fish.

Sicilian fish couscous begins as a real cucina povera dish, just grains of durum wheat painstakingly rubbed together with water to form little balls (just like in Morocco). Then the pasta, and it is technically a pasta, is steamed until tender over of a fish broth made of bones and more or less inedible fish odds and ends such as eyeballs and fins. Then the grains are fluffed, and more fragrant broth is ladled on top. That’s it. There’s no discernable fish in sight. That is how I’ve had it served to me the several times I’ve ordered it in Trapani. It was good, but I considered it incomplete, maybe even a little peculiar. It was like something I’d make for myself out of desperation when returning home trashed and just happening to have a container of fish stock in the freezer (as has often happened).

Fancy Sicilian couscous recipes do exist. There are ones that involve simmering big pieces of fish and shellfish in the broth and presenting them as a separate course, as one would with a bouillabaisse. There’s a good one in Giuliano Bugialli’s  book Foods of Sicily & Sardinia and the Smaller Islands, published by Rizzoli. (That book is full of good recipes and, for all you Italian food maniacs out there, is well worth picking up.)

Christmas Eve, La Vigilia (the vigil), has always been my all-out favorite food holiday, where I get to indulge my love of anything fish to the extreme. This year I’ve decided to make this very simple version of Sicilian fish couscous as one of my offerings. It does seem a shame to use quick-cooking couscous in such a ceremonial meal, especially when Sicilian women (and they’re usually women) work hours to produce those uneven little balls of grain. But what the hell, it’s still a good dish. I’ve left all the traditional flavors in place, so the aroma is right on.

Have a great Christmas Eve.

Sicilian Couscous with Shrimp and Almonds

(Serves 4 to 5 as a main course)

For the shrimp broth:

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined, saving the shells
½ cup dry white wine
3 cups chicken broth or water
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
2 fresh bay leaves
A generous pinch of Aleppo or another medium-hot dried chili
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups quick-cooking couscous
½ cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
A big handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves

For the sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ cup dry white wine
1 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
1 fresh bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
About 8 threads of saffron, dried and ground to a powder
A big pinch of Aleppo pepper (or some other high quality hot chili)

To make the shrimp broth: In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells, and sauté until they turn pink. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the chicken broth, a cup of water, a little salt, sugar, the cinnamon, the bay leaf, the Aleppo, and the butter. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to medium low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain.

Pour the couscous into a large bowl, and pour on 3 cups of the shrimp broth, saving the rest to add to the sauce. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and a bit more salt, give it a stir, and cover the bowl with aluminum foil. Let it sit while you continue with the recipe.

In a large casserole, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and the celery, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté to release its flavor. Add the tomatoes, the remaining shrimp broth, and the bay leaf, cinnamon stick, ginger, saffron, and Aleppo. Season with a little salt, and let simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Now add the shrimp, and simmer on medium heat for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Check for seasoning.

Uncover the couscous, add the parsley, and fluff with a fork. Scatter the almonds over the top.

Serve the couscous in bowls, and ladle the shrimp sauce over the top.  Serve right away.

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Erica on the Radio

This afternoon I was on the show The Main Course, hosted by Katy Keiffer and Patrick Martins on Heritage Radio Network, talking about Italian Christmas food customs. So was Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo restaurant. Click here if you’d like to hear it.

Eels at the Testaccio market in Rome.

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Liti’s Christmas Biscotti

Recipe:  Cinnamon Almond Biscotti

For my last cooking class of the season, my sister Liti cooked up a big batch of fabulous, not particularly tooth-breaking almond and cinnamon biscotti, as an end-of-the-meal treat. They were a perfect dessert after a Christmas Eve–style meal of Sicilian fish couscous and an orange and fennel salad. Everyone loved them, and I’ve had many requests for the recipe. Liti has supplied me with it. They’re pretty easy to make, and you can double or triple the recipe to feed a mob.

Cinnamon Almond Biscotti

(Makes about 4 dozen biscotti)

1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup fine corn meal
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick cold unsalted butter, just a tad under ice cold
2 large eggs
1¼ cups lightly toasted whole almonds
Plus about 2 extra tablespoons sugar and 1 of ground cinnamon, mixed

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, corn meal, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt, and mix everything together well.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar and vanilla, and beat with an electric mixer until you have pea-size pieces (don’t cream it completely). Add the eggs, and beat them in quickly. Add the flour mixture, and beat until it all just comes together in a slightly messy ball. Add the almonds, and work them in with a spoon.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Divide the dough into four equal parts, and roll each part into a log, about 1 inch thick and about 5 inches long (if the dough sticks, flour your work surface lightly with a little flour). Place the logs on two lightly buttered sheet pans, leaving about 4 inches between the logs. Flatten the tops of the logs a bit, and sprinkle them with the cinnamon sugar mixture.

Bake until the logs are firm and lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Pull them from the oven, and let them cool for 10 minutes. Then cut the logs into approximately ½-inch slices on a slight angle with a non-serrated knife. Place the slices back on the baking sheets, cut side down, and bake again until the biscotti are nicely golden, about another 10 minutes. Let them cool, and then store them in a box or a kitchen-towel-lined basket. They’ll last about 5 days unrefrigerated.  They are great dipped in a glass of medium dry white wine (I find vin santo a little too sweet for them).

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Barilla no-boil pasta sheets will lighten your load without compromising your cooking.

Recipe: Lasagna with Orange Basil Tomato Sauce and Ricotta

As queen of the Italian food snoots, I know it will come as a shock to many of you that I have even considered using ready-made no-boil pasta sheets for my lasagna, but I’m telling you right now, this Barilla product is unbelievably good. I  hate to admit it, but it cooks up almost as delicate as homemade, but with none of the misery of  slopping around with boiling pasta, fishing it out, piece by piece, from the burning water, and then figuring out what to do with all the slippery pasta sheets while you put your lasagna together. I’ve always got the things draped all over the kitchen, half stuck together,  some glued to kitchen towels, some sliding off my minimal counter space for the cats to skate on.

These Barilla sheets are especially wonderful to have on hand around Christmas and New Year’s, if you’ve got a ton of people coming over and would  love to cook up a few lasagnas but have never had the stamina to see the project through. Trust me, the things are good. The only drawback is that they are rigid, so you can’t drape them into, say, an oval dish the way you might fresh pasta, but that’s a minor issue compared with the convenience they offer. And, as I said, they’re barely a compromise, except possibly of your pride. Get over it. The taste and texture of this Barilla product is very, very good.

Here’s a recipe that’s a variation on the classic meatless Southern Italian tomato and ricotta lasagna. I’ve glammed it up with  orange zest, orange flower water, and a lot of basil. It’s quite light, since I’ve omitted the usual addition of mozzarella.  So go ahead, make lasagna this holiday season. It’ll take you no time. You don’t have to tell anyone you relied on Barilla.

Lasagna with Orange Basil Tomato Sauce and Ricotta

(Serves 6 as a main course)

For the sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, minced
1 carrot, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A splash of orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
1 28-ounce can and 1 15-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
Freshly ground black pepper
The grated zest from 1 large orange

For the ricotta:

4 cups whole milk ricotta
The grated zest from 2 large oranges
½ teaspoon orange flower water
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
1 egg


1½ boxes Barilla no-boil lasagna sheets
A large handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
1 cup grated grana Padano cheese

To make the sauce: Set up a large sauté pot over medium flame. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter, and let it get hot. Add the shallots and carrot, and let the vegetables soften, about 4 minutes or so. Add the garlic and the thyme, and sauté a minute longer, just to release their fragrances. Add the orange liqueur, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes, season with salt, black pepper, and the orange zest, turn the heat up a bit, and cook at a lively bubble for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the sauce sit (it will thicken up a bit). Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if needed.

In a medium bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the ricotta.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In an approximately 8-by-12-inch baking dish, ladle on a layer of tomato sauce. Then put down a layer of the pasta sheets. Make a layer of the ricotta, smoothing it out the best you can. Scatter on some basil and a generous sprinkling of grana Padano. Add a little salt and black pepper. Next put down another layer of pasta sheets. Ladle on more tomato sauce. Make another layer of pasta and then another of ricotta, finishing it up. Scatter on the rest of the basil and a sprinkling of grana Padano. Add a bit more salt and black pepper. Add another layer of pasta sheets, and ladle on the remaining tomato sauce. Top with the remaining grana Padano, and give the top a drizzle of fresh olive oil and a grinding of fresh pepper.

Bake, uncovered, until the lasagna is bubbly and the top has browned, about ½ hour. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.

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