Beloved Spouse and I will be in Rome next week. It’s just a short trip, to revisit the places we love in that city. Many of those places will be restaurants, because minchillidining is one of the things we most love about Rome. But in addition to our long-time favorites, we try to make some new discoveries each time we go there. Toward that end, I recently bought a copy of Elizabeth Minchilli’s book Eating Rome. Subtitled “Living the Good Life in the Eternal City,” it isn’t exactly a cookbook – more a culinary guide to Rome’s eating customs and eating places – but it does include many recipes.

I tried one of the very first ones in the book: Amor Polenta, which the author calls her favorite breakfast cake. The odd name seems to mean Cornmeal Love, and apparently it’s a very traditional bakery item throughout Italy. It’s a sort of cornmeal-flavored pound cake, though in this version, at least, there’s not a preponderance of cornmeal in it.

There are basically only two steps to the recipe. First you beat together softened butter, eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla. Second, you stir in a mixture of all-purpose flour, corn flour, ground almonds, and baking powder. The resulting batter is to be poured into a loaf pan and baked for 40 minutes. The finished cake gets a coating of powdered sugar.

I had some trouble with the recipe, though. It calls for one cup of ground almonds, which Minchilli says equals 170 grams. I weighed my almonds (170 g = 6 oz) before grinding them, and that quantity gave me two cups’ worth of fluffy particles. I decided to use them all, thinking maybe a finer grind would have compressed them into a single cup. That may have been a bad choice, because when I combined all the ingredients, I got something more like a dough than a batter.


It certainly wouldn’t pour into the pan. And when baked, it made a very dense bread. We first tasted my loaf as a dessert, and it really needed the simple fruit compote (plums, oranges, and bananas) I served alongside to lighten it.


However, over the next few days, the bread turned out to be nice enough when toasted for breakfast. It even seemed to improve as time went on. Nut breads always seem to keep well. Still, I’m a little suspicious of this author, because when I subsequently checked the weight-to-volume conversions she gives for the other dry ingredients (corn flour, all-purpose flour, and sugar), not one of them agreed with the authorities I consulted.

Now, when I get to Rome I’ll have to look for amor polenta in pastry shops, to see if it’s anything like this one that I made.

BTW, since I won’t be at home, there won’t be a new post on this blog for the next two weeks.

You can’t win them all.

bayless-2I was really looking forward to trying a recipe for pasilla mushroom tacos in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. I’d never done anything with pasilla chiles before – didn’t remember even having tasted them. In his headnote Bayless says pasillas have “an unctuous creamlike quality” when pureed and a “magnetism that captures you.” Also, the recipe calls for woodland mushrooms, and Beloved Spouse and I dote on wild mushrooms. It all sounded wonderful.

So I bought a bag of dried pasillas and started by making Bayless’s “Essential Bold Pasilla Seasoning Paste,” which is one the base preparations that are called for in many of his recipes. This one’s other ingredients are garlic cloves, Mexican oregano, cumin and black pepper. (The greenish leaves in the photo are epazote, which actually comes later in the recipe.)


I cheated a little on the mushrooms, using half chanterelles and half cremini. Cremini aren’t woodland creatures any more, but in nature they do grow up to become portobellos, which are one of the varieties Bayless suggests.


The rest of the directions I followed scrupulously. I carefully split open the chiles, flattened them out and removed the seeds, and roasted them on a griddle, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.


I soaked the roasted chiles in hot water for half an hour to soften them, then put them into a blender with the peeled garlic, freshly ground cumin seed, oregano, black pepper, and some of the chile soaking liquid. That made a dense puree, which I cooked in a little oil for 5 minutes. I stirred in some chicken broth to loosen it, added the mushrooms and the epazote, and simmered it all for 15 minutes.


At dinner time I transferred the pasilla-mushroom mixture to a serving dish and topped it with diced onion and crumbled feta cheese (a Bayless-approved substitute for queso añejo, which none of my stores had, that week). We scooped the mixture into corn tortillas that I’d steamed to softness.


Alas, there’s no happy ending to this story: The tacos weren’t very good. There was none of the recipe headnote’s promised “rich earthy spice” whose “woodsy flavor complemented the earthiness of the mushrooms.” Beloved Spouse said he found the predominant flavor more like smoked dirt – and I had to agree with him. You almost couldn’t taste the mushrooms at all. We tried brightening the tacos up with smears of salsa and guacamole, which we’d had as an appetizer, but that didn’t do much either. A very sad disappointment, the only one I’ve ever had from a Rick Bayless recipe. I really hated to waste those good chanterelles.

Last week I went a little crazy at Miloski’s, the Long Island poultry farm we love. We’d driven out east 75 miles just to buy chickens. The trip itself was not unusual; we make it a few times a year, because they’re the best chickens we’ve ever had, even compared to all the free-range kinds available in Manhattan. We often make a day of it, pushing further out on the North Fork and adding farmstand and/or winery visits, even a little birdwatching. But this time we went just for chickens – straight out and straight back.

What we came back with is 18 pounds of poultry: 2 whole chickens, 10 very large chicken legs, and 4 duck legs. Even for me that’s excessive, Casasbut somehow they all called out to me. So now our freezer is full of fowl, and I’ve started happily working my way through it. Most recently I took out two of the big chicken legs and made Pollo al Vino Tinto, from Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain. I’ve made the recipe before and like it very much. Even Beloved Spouse – the irredeemable non-chicken-fancier – likes it, which helps ensure domestic tranquility.

I floured and browned my chicken pieces, then stirred in a mince of carrot, onion, garlic, and chorizo. Imported Spanish chorizo, I feel, is crucial to this dish.


When the vegetables had softened, I added a good dash of brandy and flamed it. (I tried to get a nice dramatic shot of the flames shooting up, but by the time the camera was ready I was in time to catch only the last spluttering.)


Next into the pan went a chopped roasted red Bell pepper – which I’ve found a reasonable substitute for a pimiento – salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, chicken broth, and red wine. Then it was just to stir, cover, and simmer until the dish was done. Casas says it takes 1½ hours, but I’ve found an hour to be fine, with the cover off toward the end to reduce the sauce a little.


Initially I wondered if I ought to puree that rough-looking sauce, but we actually liked the effect of the tiny nuggets of chorizo and vegetables in the same bites as the soft, tender chicken. The smoky, pimentòn spiciness of a good dry-cured chorizo gives an unmistakably Spanish lilt to this hearty, rustic dish.


I’ve acquired a few new cookbooks. They bring my collection, after its last culling, up to 216 volumes. Between all the new dishes I’m eager to try and all the old favorites I long to go back and make again, I’ll never live long enough to cook everything I want to. But I can try!

fabrizia-lanzaOne very promising new book is Coming Home to Sicily, by Fabrizia Lanza. The author is the daughter of Anna Tasca Lanza, doyenne of the Tasca d’Almerita family’s Regaleali wine estate and creator of its famous cooking school, which Fabrizia now runs. (In 1992, on a food- and wine-writers’ trip, I spent two days at Regaleali, meeting the formidable Marchesa Anna, exploring the estate and the vineyards, observing a cooking demonstration, and eating extraordinary Sicilian country meals. Below are a few photographic mementoes of the occasion.)

It’s a handsome book, with beautiful photography, which makes great reading. Not all the recipes are practical for US cooks, because some call for ingredients that are available mainly from the Sicilian countryside; e.g., Tasca Lanza’s famous sun-dried tomato paste, fresh citrons, green almonds, tuna roe and sperm (!), and many kinds of wild greens and herbs. Not that those recipes are completely impossible: We could make them with the nearest approximations we can get here, but they wouldn’t be at all the same.

For my first venture into the book, I chose to make a simple recipe with easily accessible imgredients: Pesce spada impanato or grilled swordfish steak with breadcrumbs. For me, it was interesting because, first, the raw fish gets 30 minutes of marinating in seasoned olive oil, and second, because it is grilled, not broiled or baked.

I’ve always thought swordfish was so naturally fatty that added oil would be superfluous – which apparently was wrong, and probably why some of my past broiled swordfish steaks have been too dry! This time I found the garlic, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes that permeated the olive oil definitely enhanced the flavor of the fish.


Additionally, the moisture of the marinade helped the breadcrumbs coat the swordfish steak evenly. And cooking it on a stove burner in a grill pan (since I don’t have access to an outdoor grill) rather than in the broiler worked perfectly. You could easily see when the bottom half had changed color, meaning the steak was ready to be turned.


The simply cooked fish was moist and tender, still very fresh tasting, under its crisp coating. All it needed was a squeeze of lemon to make it a pleasure to eat.



Regaleali, September 1992




Anna Tasca Lanza

Anna Tasca Lanza


Cooking demonstration by chef Mario Lo Menso

Cooking demonstration by chef Mario Lo Menso

Incidentally, the person a portion of whose striped shirt you can see in two of the photos is the then-80-year-old Julia Child, whose enthusiastic presence on that trip made it all the more delightful.



Cooking may not be the first thing anyone would think of in connection with Sophia Loren. But in fact, that gorgeous and talented woman – who once said “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti” – loves food and cooking and knows a lot about it. She has written (alone; no “coauthor”) a pair of cookbooks, one of which I acquired many years ago in Rome.


It’s a chatty book, a bit of a challenge for my limited knowledge of Italian, but very interesting to read, with a distinctive personal voice. The recipes are written in the typical throw-away Italian manner: giving hardly any quantities, detailed instructions, or cooking times – just a casual narrative, as if the reader of course knows how these sorts of dishes are made. Hence, it’s also a good challenge for my culinary instincts.

This week I embarked on Loren’s Minestra di pasta e patate. Americans may cringe at the combination of starch and starch, but the whole concept of “a starch” is alien to Italy. Potatoes are a vegetable; pasta goes well with vegetables; what could hurt? Italian cuisine has many recipes for pasta with potatoes, and in recent years the dish has become fashionable in Italy.  Chefs and cookbook writers work this simple peasant recipe with all kinds of culinary bells and whistles – which is fine: they all taste good. But the main reason they do is because of the simple brilliance of the combination of basic ingredients. Loren’s version, which she may have learned from her childhood in the slums of Pozzuoli, is, as she says, truly a dish of the poor, but it is wonderfully good.

The recipe calls for a kilo of potatoes, which is the only ingredient given a measurement; I had to estimate everything else. Actually, I was making a smaller quantity, since what I had in the pantry was 12 ounces of small boiling potatoes. So Beloved Spouse and I conferred and chose the other quantities. To start, I gently softened 4 chopped plum tomatoes, a few basil leaves, and ⅓ cup of chopped carrot in just a film of olive oil, for 10 minutes.


Next I stirred in the potatoes, cut in small pieces, and raised the heat.


When the mixture came to a simmer I covered the pot, reduced the heat to low, and cooked until the potatoes were beginning to soften, which took about 12 minutes. Then I added two cups of hot water and four ounces of bucatini, broken into small pieces.


As you can see above, that made the dish quite soupy. (The pasta sank immediately; you can’t see it at all there.) But a minestra is not exactly a soup: it’s denser and less brothy, though wetter than a typically sauced dish of pasta. So I kept the pot simmering, uncovered, until the pasta and potatoes were both al dente and the liquid much reduced and slightly thickened. That’s it: it was ready to eat.


Plain as it looks, this was pure ambrosia; total comfort food. Though the recipe mentions no condiments at all, I suspected that a dinner table in Naples would be bound to have salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and grated pecorino on it, so diners could season their bowl to their taste. So we did that. I can report that pasta and potatoes loves all those things, in almost any combination. Beloved Spouse is of the opinion that adding a pinch or two of crushed red pepper to the pot while cooking would have raised the magic even a notch higher. As it was, we two had no trouble finishing most of this classic Neapolitan dish.

P.S. An amusing aspect of the book is its array of photos of Sophia, in both “glamour” and “culinary” settings. Here are a few:



I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.



Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients


First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.


Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2


It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

The very hot weather we’ve been having has sent me paging through my cookbook collection for light, summery, everyday dinner appetizers for two. In three Italian books I found attractive versions of roasted stuffed tomatoes, all similar in some respects but different in the details. I decided to try the three on successive evenings to see how they compared. Here are the books I used:


The experiment was definitely a success. Tomatoes are now at their peak of flavor, all three preparations were very good, and each was sufficiently unlike the others to keep them welcome for the second and third days.


Baked Stuffed Tomatoes from La Tavola Italiana

Unashamedly, I started with the recipe from my own first cookbook for the first evening’s dish. (I knew we’d like that one.) I cut a thin slice off the top of two medium-sized round tomatoes, gently squeezed out the seeds and some of the juices, hollowed out the shells with my tomato shark – a very useful little gadget, by the way – and chopped the flesh.

Diane tomatoes

For the stuffing I sauteed some minced onion in olive oil and mixed into it chopped basil leaves, tiny capers, a minced anchovy fillet, quite a lot of grated parmigiano and fine dry breadcrumbs, the chopped tomato flesh, salt, and a generous quantity of black pepper.

diane stuffed

Once filled with this stuffing, the tomatoes got a drizzle of olive oil on top and went into a 350° oven for 20 minutes. I let them come down almost to room temperature before we ate them. The soft filling was very tasty, contrasting nicely with the bright acidity of the tomato cases.

Diane served


Pomodori al Gratin from Naples at Table

The next day I made the recipe from Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table. I cut my two tomatoes in half across the diameter; scooped out the pulp and, without chopping it, put the little chunks in a sieve to drain; and salted the interior of the shells and set them upside down on a rack to drip off some of their moisture.

Arthur tomatoes

Compared to my own recipe’s stuffing, this one is much lighter on breadcrumbs and heavier on capers. It has finely minced garlic, dried oregano, and black pepper. No grated cheese or anchovy. I mixed in the tomato pulp, filled the half shells with it, and topped each with olive oil.

arthur stuffed

These went into a 400° oven for a full hour – “until the tomatoes have collapsed,” Schwartz says. Mine didn’t quite collapse, but they shrank noticeably. The long, hot roasting intensified their natural sweetness, and the modest amount of filling made a pleasant, crunchy contrast. Again, we ate them just slightly above room temperature.

Arthur served


Roman Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes from The Italian Vegetable Cookbook

Michele Scicolone’s recipe made the most substantial of the three tomato dishes. I hollowed out the tomatoes as usual, but took a deeper cut from the tops, saved the caps, chopped the pulp, and saved its juices. The base ingredient of the stuffing was short-grain Italian rice, which I simply boiled in salted water. Pulp and juice were stirred into the rice, along with a hefty dose of grated pecorino Romano cheese, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, and black pepper.

michele ingredients

That made a lot of filling. I had to tamp it down into the tomato shells and pile it up under the little caps. Fortunately, it all held together for its half hour of baking at 425°.

michele served

Served just warm, this was a milder dish than either of the first two: The well-flavored rice was the star, with the tomatoes serving mainly as an edible container.

michele plated


Tomatoes can be stuffed with many other ingredients, of course: small pasta, such as orzo or ditalini, are often used, along with diced ham or tuna.  But these three recipes share an authentic southern Italian simplicity and tang that makes them perfect for summer dining. It would be interesting, I think, to serve all three on a major mixed antipasto platter, so the contrasts would be immediate. Making them would be a bit laborious, but since all the roasting can be done well in advance and the tomatoes can be eaten hot, warm, or at room temperature, the timing could be easily accommodated. Maybe some day . . .