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Recipe: Sformata with Parsnips and Fontina

Sformata, hard to pronounce, even for a guinea girl like me. SSSSSSFFFFOOOOORRRR. Think of the makeup shop Sephora and you’ll get the idea, except you’ll want to elide the sound, not break it into two syllables. All it really means, in Italian culinary parlance, is something that’s molded, like a flan or a gratin type dish. But the primary issue here, I think, is the parsnip. Not many people eat them. Most people I know, even good cooks, aren’t sure what to do with them.

Parsnips are such a unique tasting vegetable. They look like pale carrots but have a starchier texture and an absolutely mesmerizing floral fragrance and taste. Don’t leave them out of your life. Unlike carrots, they tend to break up a bit if you just try to slice and sauté them.  They are good roasted, but if you want to try this, use smaller ones, as the big ones can get tough. To my taste, I think it’s better to mash them and then work them into something like a soufflé or a flan—a sformata, in fact.

Here I’ve added a little potato to give the dish body, but just a little. I didn’t want to dilute any of the beautiful parsnip flavor. Possibly this isn’t a true sformata, which really is more like a flan. Since I do add whipped egg whites, I suppose this is a morph between a flan and a soufflé, but it is molded, so I believe it qualifies as a sformata. I served it on New Year’s Day, along with a nice tender lump of roast beef.

And just in case you were curious, here is what Winter looks like in Sicily:

Sformata with Parsnips and Fontina

(Serves 5 as a side dish)

½ cup grated Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese (use the good stuff)
½ cup grated  grana Padano chese
¾ cup homemade dry breadcrumbs, not too finely ground and seasoned with a pinch of salt
3 tablespoons soft butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 8 medium parsnips (the really large ones can be tough), peeled and thickly sliced
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 shallot, sliced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 10 big scrapings of nutmeg
6 fresh thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
3 egg yolks
6 egg whites

You’ll want an approximately 8-by-12-inch gratin dish (this is not a soufflé; it’s firmer; it will rise a bit while cooking but will fall just as quickly, which is what you want). Coat the inside of the dish with about half of the softened butter.

Mix the Fontina and the grana Padano together in a bowl. Sprinkle the dish with a handful of the cheese mixture and some of the breadcrumbs, and tap it around until the dish is lightly coated.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large pot, heat the remaining butter with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the parsnips, potato, and shallot. Season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté for about 2 or 3 minutes, just to coat the vegetables with flavor. Add about ½ cup of warm water to the pot, turn the heat down a touch, and cover it. Simmer, stirring everything around a few times, until the vegetables are tender when poked with a knife. If at any time it seems they might start to stick, add a little more warm water. Add the thyme. Now mash everything (I used a whisk) until you have a fairly smooth mush. Avoid the temptation to use a food processor; that might make it gluey. Let the mix cool for a few minutes, and then add the egg yolks, stirring them in well. Add the cheese, leaving about ¼ cup out to sprinkle on the top, and mix it in.

Whisk the egg whites, and gently fold them into the parsnip mixture. Pour everything into the baking dish. Scatter the remaining cheese and enough of the breadcrumbs to lightly cover the top. Drizzle with olive oil and bake, uncovered, until golden and puffy, about 30 minutes. You can serve this right away or let it fall a bit and serve it warm.

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Tangerine Sorbetto

Recipe: Tangerine Sorbetto

Every year on Christmas Eve I serve some type of light citrus dessert. I can’t help it. It just seems the only way to go after a big fish dinner. Sometimes I’ll make a sweet blood orange salad with sugar and a touch of cinnamon, or one of those wobbly Sicilian gelatina molds (always a little tricky to turn out, unfortunately). This year I got out the ice cream maker, juiced up a bunch of tangerines, added vanilla, zest, and my most favorite Arab-Siculi flavor—orange flower water—and came up with something really nice, a keeper. The cream doesn’t really belong in a sorbetto, so it is optional, but it does add an alluring creamsicle taste.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas. Tell me what you cooked.

And here’s a Sicilian Christmas song to go with this Sicilian inspired dessert:

Tangerine Sorbetto

(Makes about 1½ pints)

¾ cup sugar
½ cup water
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon orange flower water
2 dozen or so tangerines
½ lemon
1 egg white
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Place the sugar in a saucepan. Add the water, vanilla, and orange flower water, and bring to a boil. Boil until the sugar has dissolved, about 4 minutes or so. Chill.

Zest two of the tangerines, and set the zest aside. Juice all of them and the lemon, making sure to remove all the pits. Let the juice chill for a few hours.

Place the tangerine and lemon juice and about ¾ of the sugar syrup in a food processor. Add the tangerine zest, egg white, and cream, and pulse a few times, just until well blended. Taste for sweetness, adding the rest of the sugar syrup if you need to (you can instead just mix everything in a big bowl, using a whisk).

Pour the mix into an ice cream maker, and churn until frozen and creamy.

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Salt cod at the Boqueria market in Barcelona. Wow, pretty expensive this year.

Recipe: Baccalà Mantecato

In the last week or so several people have asked me about this salt cod dish, knowing I always make it for Christmas Eve. Baccalà mantecato (mantecare means to whip) is a Venetian dish, but it’s essentially the same as Provençale brandade. I’ve had versions of it in Naples too, but whipped-up, creamy salt cod is not as popular there as dishes where the salt cod is left in chunks and simply simmered with potatoes, tons of onion, white wine, and possibly tomatoes. It can include raisins, pine nuts, or capers, too, or all three.

I’ve always loved this creamy preparation, which by the way is made without cream; it gets its lovely texture from whipping poached salt cod with olive oil and sometimes a little cooked potato. You can do this with a whisk, a potato masher, your fist, or in a food processor, if you pulse quickly and gently (too much processing will make it overly smooth and possibly gummy, especially if you add a lot of potato). I’ve got the food processor thing down.

Salt cod is a unique taste, one that I crave, but to keep it special I save it for Christmas Eve, plus I don’t love soaking salt cod all that much, since it stinks up the kitchen. The cats do however love clawing and chewing at it while it soaks (I once found a huge piece pulled from the pot and dragged under the bathroom rug). They also like the finished dish. A beautiful white dish for two beautiful white cats. If you’ve got any old people or cats with no teeth to feed on Christmas Eve, this is the perfect thing.

And for your listening pleasure, here’s Louis Prima, doing what he did best, singing about baccalà:

Baccalà Mantecato

(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)

1½ pounds salt cod (try to get the thicker middle section, which has fewer bones to deal with)
1 fresh bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
1 baking potato, cooked soft, peeled, and roughly mashed
1 large garlic clove, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
5 or 6 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A few tablespoons of milk
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
A handful of black olives
Toasted crostini made from slices of baguette, brushed with a little olive oil

You’ll need to soak the salt cod in a big pot of cold water for about a day and a half, changing the water a bunch of times and putting the pot in the refrigerator overnight. Toward the end, taste a bit to see if a sufficient amount of salt has leeched out of it. If not, soak it a little longer. Then drain it.

Place the salt cod, cut into pieces if necessary, in a large skillet. Add the bay leaf, and pour on the white wine. Add enough cool water to just cover the cod. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to very low. Cover the skillet, and gently simmer the cod until it just begins to flake. This should take only about 15 minutes, maybe even less, if you’ve got thin cuts. If it cooks any longer, it might become dry. Take the cod from the skillet, and when it’s cool enough to handle, pull off the bones and the skin.

Put the cod in a food processor, and give it a couple of pulses. Add the potato, the garlic, about ¼ cup of your best olive oil, and the lemon zest, thyme, nutmeg, and some black pepper. Give it a few more pulses. You want a texture that’s creamy but not completely smooth. Add about 2 tablespoons of milk, and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.

Scrape the baccalà from the food processor, and spoon it into a shallow baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, and drizzle the top with olive oil.

When you’re ready to serve it, heat the oven to 425 degrees, and heat the baccalà through, about 10 minutes. If the breadcrumbs don’t turn golden, run the thing under a broiler for a minute. Scatter on the olives, and serve with the crostini.

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Recipe: Polpettone with Ricotta, Pistachios, and Prosciutto

A friend recently told me that he had just made a meatloaf, an American-style one, and it had come out very well. I like a good American meatloaf, but I also love polpettone, Italy’s version of  a big old load of baked chopped meat. The one I came up with here contains no bread. Instead I’ve held it together with a few eggs and a good amount of ricotta, making it very moist, maybe a little harder to pat into shape, since the mixture is soft, but that’s not a terribly big deal. I wrap the entire thing in prosciutto, which not only holds it together but imparts a lovely flavor, making it taste something like a country pâté.

You can have fun playing around with my seasoning choices, replacing the pistachios with pine nuts, using a Parmigiano instead of a mild pecorino, incorporating a different herb. I chose marjoram, but I’ve also made versions of this using fresh sage (not too much) or thyme. Oh, also, in my opinion, the best polpettone are made from a mix of ground pork and beef chuck, since that gives you enough fat to keep it juicy.

And for all my friends of Puglian decent, here’s a little tune for you.

Polpettone with Ricotta, Pistachios and Prosciutto

(Serves 5)

1 pound ground pork
½ pound ground beef chuck
1 cup whole milk ricotta, drained if watery
2 large eggs, plus 1 egg white, lightly beaten
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup grated young pecorino cheese (a pecorino Toscana is a good choice, or a young Manchego)
1 garlic clove, minced
A large handful of unsalted pistachios
A generous handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
3 or 4 large sprigs marjoram, the leaves chopped
5 or 6 scrapings of fresh nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 6 very thin slices prosciutto di Parma
1 wine glass dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Put all the ingredients for the polpettone, except for the prosciutto and the white wine, into a large bowl, and season with black pepper and salt (you will want to use a touch less salt than usual, since much of the salt from the prosciutto gets baked into the thing as it cooks). Mix everything around quickly with your fingers, trying not to pack it down too much. The mixture will be loose.

Choose a baking dish that will fit the polpettone fairly snugly with a little room to breath. Coat the bottom of the dish with olive oil. Shape the meat into a log, and set it in the dish. Drape the top with the prosciutto slices, tucking the ends underneath. The prosciutto should pretty much cover the entire meatloaf.

Pour the wine over the meatloaf, and drizzle it with olive oil. Bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. I like my polpettone with the slightest touch of pink at the center. That ensures that it will be nice and moist. Let the polpettone rest for about 10 minutes before slicing. You can serve it warm or at room temperature. I like mine served over a chicory salad, but you can, if you wish, make a simple tomato sauce and serve it with that and a vegetable (broccoli rabe?) and a starch (mashed potatoes, or polenta?), in a more Italian-American fashion.

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Very fresh tuna at the Trapani fish market. Dig the sword spire.

Recipe: Cavatelli with Fresh Tuna, Marsala, and Rosemary

I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely hard to keep up with the lists of endangered, semi-endangered, or just plain bad-for-your-health fish. I do consult the seafood selector set up by the Environmental Defense Fund, which tells you to stay away from bluefin tuna and imported shrimp. I find yellowfin tuna at my Greenmarket and grab it, but I also break down and buy small chunks of bluefin now and then. The best way to make a little go a long way is by including it in a pasta sauce.

I made this tuna pasta twice. The first go-round I quick-seared the tuna chunks, trying to keep them very pink in the middle, and added them to the sauce at the last minute. I liked the way it cooked up, but by the time I brought the dish to the table, the tuna had cooked through and was not as tender as I would have wanted, thanks to its initial high-heat treatment. Next time, I just dropped the tuna pieces into a very low-simmering sauce and let them gently cook through. That produced a more tender tuna and a nicer result, more like a fish ragu. I kind of missed the seared taste from the first try, but I concluded that all in all the gentle simmer is the way to go.

And for your listening pleasure:

Cavatelli with Fresh Tuna, Marsala, and Rosemary

(Serves 2)

Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 small jalapeño pepper, minced, with the seeds
2 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 shotglass dry Marsala
½ pound cavatelli
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
½ pound, or a little less, yellowfin or bluefin tuna steak, cut into approximately ½-inch cubes
A handful of toasted pine nuts
A smaller handful of Sicilian capers
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, very lightly chopped

Put up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and the jalapeño, and sauté for a minute to release their flavors. Add the rosemary, and sauté for a few seconds to allow some of its oil to escape. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble until almost dry.

Drop the cavatelli into the water.

Add the tomatoes, seasoning with a little salt, and simmer at a lively boil for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to very low, and add the tuna, stirring the pieces around in the sauce for a few seconds. Turn off the heat, and take the skillet off the stove. The heat from the sauce will finish cooking the tuna. Add the pine nuts and capers. Taste for seasoning.

When the cavatelli is al dente, pour it into a warmed serving bowl. Drizzle it with fresh olive oil, and add the parsley. Give it a toss. Add the tuna sauce, and toss again. Serve right away.

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Picasso drawing a fish.

Recipe: Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Rosemary Oil

The approach of Thanksgiving always gets me thinking about food that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. It’s not my favorite food holiday. In fact, I’d have to say it’s my least favorite food holiday, except possibly for Halloween. I like the wines that go with turkey, but I don’t really love the turkey. I like the turkey skin. I’d honestly be happy with a few glasses of Nero d’Avola, crisp turkey skin on a salad, and then a big piece of pecan pie.

Since we’re just a few days from Thanksgiving and you’ve likely already got your menu down, I thought I’d give you a favorite Christmas Eve dish of mine, one for La Vigilia, the big Italian Christmas Eve dinner. I love rosemary with fish, and this dish is fragrant with it. I warm whole sprigs in olive oil, letting their essence release with the gentle heat, and I throw in a few more ingredients, such as garlic and orange zest, just to round out the flavor. Then I use this as a condimento for the fish.

Roasting is an easy way to cook a whole fish. I always use high heat, about 425 degrees, since it crisps up the skin, holding the juices in, and cooks the fish quickly, so it doesn’t dry out.

Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Rosemary Oil

(Serves 2)

1 approximately 2½ pound sea bass, gutted and scaled but with the head left on
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, sliced into rounds
A big branch of rosemary
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
½ cup dry white wine

For the rosemary oil:

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
A large sprig of rosemary, the leaves finely chopped
1 garlic clove, very thinly sliced
1 fresh red medium hot peperoncino pepper, seeded and minced
The grated zest from 1 large orange
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cut three shallow diagonal slashes into each side of the fish. Rub it all over with olive oil, and then season it inside and out with sea salt and black pepper.

Lay the fish in a baking dish big enough to hold it with a little room all around. Stuff the inside of the fish with the lemon slices, rosemary, and garlic. Pour the white wine into the dish, and then give everything an extra drizzle of olive oil.

Bake until the fish is just tender, about 25 minutes. You can check by sticking a small sharp knife into it under the skin along the backbone. The flesh should release from the bone but still offer a little resistance, and it should be white and not gelatinous. What you don’t want is dry and very flaky, so check maybe once after about 20 minutes to see where it’s at.

While the fish is cooking, make the rosemary oil: Pour the olive oil into a small saucepan. Add all the other ingredients, and heat over a medium flame until the oil is quite warm to the touch but not boiling. Now turn off the flame, and let the mix sit there so it can continue to release its flavors.

When the fish is ready, scrape back its skin and fillet the top portion. I find this easiest to do using a chef’s knife and a spatula. Pull out the skeleton, and fillet the bottom half by lifting it out with a spatula. The skin will probably just stick to the dish. Plate both fillets. Gently reheat the rosemary oil if necessary, and spoon it over the fish. Serve right away.

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