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Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

Regifting can be an iffy proposition, but Beloved Spouse and I benefited from a multiple regifting not long ago. Some dear friends had themselves been not-too-thoughtfully regifted with two things they couldn’t use: a cookbook and four bricks of fancy “chocolate for wine.” Knowing our proclivities very well, they gingerly asked if they might re-regift them to us.
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Although Spouse snorted at the pretentious prose on the chocolate box about pairing different wines with different strengths of chocolate, I can find plenty of cooking uses for good chocolate. And I’m always interested in new cookbooks. So we accepted with pleasure, and as an acknowledgment, the next time we had those friends to dinner I made a dessert from their book, using some of their chocolate.

The Italian budino, like its cousin the French pot de crème, is a rich chocolate custard. The photo in the book looked luscious, and I set to the recipe with enthusiasm, the day before the scheduled dinner.

The first step was to finely chop 5½ ounces of the darkest bittersweet chocolate in the box – 70% cacao – and put it in a large bowl. That took a bit of work: Chocolate is none too cooperative about allowing itself to be finely chopped. When I make a chocolate spoon dessert it’s usually a mousse, for which the chocolate is merely melted on the stove; much easier to do.

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That task finally finished, I next brought a mixture of heavy cream, milk, sugar, and salt to a boil, poured it into the bowl, and whisked to melt the chocolate. The recipe is very particular about this, saying “Whisk to combine and then whisk some more. Walk away for five minutes and then whisk again.” I got the message and whisked madly.

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Then I whisked four egg yolks together in another bowl, slowly poured the chocolate mixture on them, whisking constantly again, and added vanilla, still whisking. Finally, I put the whole custard mixture through a fine sieve and poured it into six half-cup ramekins.
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These went into 275° oven, in a large baking pan half filled with water and covered with foil. They were to be baked until the custard was “just set but still has a slight jiggle in the center, 40 to 50 minutes.” The recipe cautioned to check them frequently to avoid overbaking.

Well, after 50 minutes, my custards were still totally fluid. I kept testing them with a knife blade, but once through the slightly firm surface, it kept coming out covered with wet custard. After 90 minutes I decided they must be done, so I took them out of the oven.
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I put them in the refrigerator overnight, hoping they’d firm up more as they chilled. Fortunately, they weren’t meant to be unmolded, so at the dinner party I could serve them right in their ramekins, covering the knife blade scars with dollops of whipped cream.

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They had indeed set, very delicately, and they made a perfect ending to the meal – light and tender on the tongue but intensely rich in flavor – the essence of darkest chocolate. (And yes, we drank red wine with them, but not the wine pairing recommended for that chocolate.)

I look forward to further exploration of the gastronomical possibilities in these re-regifted gifts.

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Although we’re well into spring, I’ve not seen many good seasonal vegetables yet. Stores here all have asparagus, peas, radishes, spinach – but they’re either from far-away agribusiness outfits, hence not really fresh, or outrageously overpriced. After a dispirited walk through the produce area at a local grocery recently, I came home with an acorn squash.

I settled for that because of a recipe called Zucca in Agrodolce in Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily that I’d been meaning to try all winter but hadn’t gotten around to. Italy’s zucca is a very big pumpkin-like squash, which we rarely see here, but most winter squashes lend themselves to the same kinds of treatment, and I just needed a dinner vegetable for two. Acorn is not one of my preferred varieties, but it was the only small squash on offer.

I halved my raw squash and scraped out the seeds, and cut one half of it into neat ⅓-inch slices. That looked like enough vegetable for the two of us, so I put away the other half for another time. The recipe actually said to peel the squash first and then slice it, but the shape of an acorn squash makes that nearly impossible.
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Once I peeled the slices I was to lay them on an ungreased grill, cook them until grill marks appeared on each side, transfer them to a baking dish, and keep them warm. That was all the cooking they were to get. However, by the time my squash slices were over-blackening they still were hard – nowhere near cooked. They’d shrunken up and looked quite ugly, too. Not a promising beginning, but I soldiered on.

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I did put them in the baking dish, but then covered it and set it in a 350° oven to cook some more while I went on with the recipe, hoping the squash slices would soften.

Next was to thinly slice about a third of a big red onion, soften it in generous olive oil, and add salt and pepper. Finally came the agrodolce: I stirred half a teaspoon of sugar and four teaspoons of red wine vinegar into the onions and cooked for about five minutes, until the vinegar had slightly reduced and the sugar slightly caramelized. My own wine vinegar is so strong I had cautiously thinned it a bit with water.

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I took the finally-fully-cooked squash out of the oven, spooned the onion sauce over it, covered the dish again, and let it sit for 10 minutes before serving so the agrodolce flavors would permeate the squash.
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Somewhat to our surprise, it was delicious! The squash itself was only moderately interesting in flavor, but the onions and the agrodolce did wonders for it. I think using a red onion, rather than my usual big Spanish onion, was an important contributor to the final intriguing flavor of the mélange. I’ve tried making things in agrodolce occasionally in the past, but never with such excellent results. We regretted not having cooked the whole acorn squash.

In fact, I did a reprise of the dish with the other half of the squash a few days later, with one major alteration. Instead of grilling the slices, I just baked them on a nonstick pan at 400° until they were fully cooked. That worked just fine.
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If I’d had a wood fire to grill the squash on, I think it would have been more flavorful, but a dry gas grill seems not to do much more than any other dry cooking does. Still, when summer vegetables come in, I’m going to try the onion-and-agrodolce condiment on grilled eggplants, peppers, and zucchini. I can hardly wait!

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Some cookbooks that I’ve had for decades have been loved and used so much – back when my cookbook collection was much smaller than it is now – that I feel I know them intimately. Yet, when I look into them these days, they can surprise me with recipes I can’t remember even reading, much less making. One such book is Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking, which I’ve had since it came out in 1978, a welcome follow-up to her first volume, from 1973.

With a nice half rack of spareribs to cook for dinner recently, I pulled out the Hazan book to look at a recipe for pork spareribs that I’d rediscovered about a year and a half ago, which I’d written up here. I’d had some thoughts about changes I might try. However, on the facing page I found another sparerib recipe, Costicine di Maiale ai Ferri, that I’d also completely forgotten about. Hazan proposes an unusual way to broil ribs, which she says will make them come out nearly as well as grilling or spit roasting them. I was intrigued.

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The recipe starts out conventionally enough, marinating a sheet of spareribs in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper; and leaving it at room temperature for at least an hour.

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Then the meat is to be set up on a V-shaped roasting rack – the kind with side wings that adjust to any desired angle. Hazan hails her discovery that positioning ribs within the V lets more air circulate around them, which “quickly drains the fat and crisps the meat, giving it a leaner, fresher taste than other methods of cooking ribs.”

I’ve had one of these racks forever, which I’ve used only for roasting chickens or ducks. This seemed a good opportunity to expand its repertoire. I gave it a try.
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The broiling turned out to be a little tricky. The meat had to be turned over every 6 minutes during a 45-minute cooking time. While my rack of ribs had curved well enough into the V-shaped space at first, it quickly stiffened and wouldn’t bend backwards when turned. After a few turns, it essentially lay flat at the top of the metal rack’s side supports.
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It’s true there was more air circulating around the pork than a conventional broiler pan with a perforated top rack could provide. But I don’t know how much difference that made in the long run. It didn’t render out any more fat than I’d expect to get from normal broiling. And in any event, the ribs weren’t actually grilled: Grilling means cooking over a flame, not under it.
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So, there are my faux-grilled spareribs. They were very nicely flavored from the marinade, and they were well cooked. But they were pretty tough. From this and previous attempts I have to conclude that broiling ribs is not the best way to deal with them – at least, not with American ribs. They prefer long, gentle cooking, ideally in liquid.

This broiled batch tasted fine, but it just didn’t get tender at all. It clenched. We had to struggle to saw the meat off the bones with steak knives, while the meat in properly done ribs just falls off the bone. In fact, this meat tore off the bones pretty easily with the teeth – but I don’t always want to eat my spareribs in my hands. I need at least one hand clean at all times for lifting my wine glass. And Beloved Spouse hates the mess gnawing rib bones makes of his moustache.

 

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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Chicken is a wonderfully versatile food. Good chicken, I mean: birds that were fed decently, given room to move around, and allowed outside in fields to snack on seeds and bugs. Battery-raised chickens – well, most of us would rather not taste a battery of any kind. Fortunately, it’s getting easier to find good chickens in grocery stores. To me they’re well worth their premium price, and I love to cook with them.

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One of my (many) favorite ways with chicken is a braised dish I developed for our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It’s a common enough basic approach, but it carries an intriguing hint of the far eastern spice trade that brought wealth to Renaissance Venice.

In a casserole I soften chopped celery, onion, and carrot in butter and olive oil. I cut up the chicken, flour the pieces, and brown them among the aromatic vegetables. I pour in white wine, add 2 whole cloves and ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and deglaze the pan until the wine is almost evaporated. It’s just a small amount of spice, but its fragrance gently permeates the entire dish.

Next I mill a cup of drained, canned plum tomatoes into the casserole (or use my own simple San Marzano tomato sauce) stir, cover, and cook until the chicken is tender, turning the pieces occasionally and adding salt and pepper. Of course, nobody in Renaissance Venice cooked with tomatoes, but modern-day Venetians sometimes do.

While the chicken is cooking, I separately saute sliced mushrooms and add them to the casserole for a final five minutes.

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The entire dish can be made in advance and reheated later for serving. It’s really delicious, if I do say so myself!

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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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There were Maine shrimp in my fish market last week! They’d been gone for three years, since commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine was closed down after a disastrous 2013 season. The moratorium is still in effect, but thanks to an increase in the amounts shrimpers may take for scientific sampling purposes – and then sell – this year, small quantities of these delicious little critters are getting to our area. Hooray!
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These bright red shrimps are really tiny. That’s half a pound of them, raw in their shells. Most often I just drop them in boiling water for one minute, then cool, shell, chill, and serve them with a homemade cocktail sauce. They make a lovely shrimp cocktail. This time I was going to use them in a pasta dish, so I shelled them raw. Stripped of their long heads, shells, tails, legs, feelers, and roe, they came to a mere 3½ ounces. Wish I’d bought more!
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maine-shrimp-shelled

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Even though the shrimps were going to combine with pasta, I wanted to keep everything simple: Maine shrimps should shine through their accompaniments. So I chose for the sauce of my pasta dish a basic agli’e olio (It’s not spelled that way, I know; but in this Neapolitan-American household, it’s pronounced that way), the making of which is Beloved Spouse’s specialty. So while our spaghetti was cooking, he minced some cloves of garlic, seethed them in olive oil without allowing them to color, and tossed in chopped parsley, salt, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
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aglie-olio

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Moments before the spaghetti was done we added the shrimp to the saucepan and stirred them around until they just lost their translucence, about two minutes. All that remained to be done was drain the pasta, put it in bowls, and dress it with the shrimp and sauce.
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pasta-and-shrimp

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So simple, and so scrumptious! Delicate as Maine shrimp are, their sweetness and succulence contribute immensely to any dish they’re invited into. I hope there’ll be enough of them for me to invite into several more meals this winter, before their very short season is over.

For my next batch I’m thinking I might want to see how Maine shrimp would handle the spicy sauce of Galatoire’s Shrimp Remoulade. And if that works, maybe try giving Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison a Yankee twist by substituting Maine shrimp for crab. If there’s time enough, we shall see.

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