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Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

Today marks my completion of a decade of writing this blog. The culinary adventures (both successful and not so) about which I’ve told stories each week have given me great pleasure. To celebrate my tenth anniversary, this post will be a retrospective of some of the dishes I’ve most enjoyed making, eating, and writing about – one for each year.

You’ll notice a strong Western European emphasis in the choices here. That’s a reflection of Tom’s and my general eating preferences, but I’ve actually written about dishes from 24 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I could have featured many of those others among these favorites.

Clicking on an image below will open the full post about the dish.
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2010

Prosciutto-wrapped Broiled Shrimp

My first blogging year was devoted to one new recipe a week from one of the 200+ cookbooks in my collection. This one, from Ada Boni’s classic Il Talismano della Felicità, makes as good an appetizer as it did a main course.

 

2011

Plum Cake Cockaigne

From my second year, I began including posts about recipes I’d previously known and loved. This one, from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, has been a late-summer favorite in our household for more years than I can remember.

 

2012

Traditional Paella Valenciana

I found recipes for this relatively simple paella in two cookbooks: Penelope Casas’ Food and Wines of Spain, and Teresa Barrenechea’s Cuisines of Spain. Both looked good, so I drew steps from both recipes.

 

2013

Bluefish Gravlax

 

Here, I adapted a salmon gravlax recipe from the Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series for local bluefish. I also made the book’s cucumber relish and mustard-dill sauce.

 

2014

Tripe in Golden Fontina Sauce

This is my own version of trippa alla valdostana, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It makes a remarkably rich, mellow, elegant dish – if I do say so myself.

 

2015

Pheasant Pie with Noodles and Mushrooms

Under this pastry crust is faisan à la vosgienne, made from an Alsace recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pheasant, noodles, mushrooms, sauce, and pastry were all lavishly endowed with butter.

 

2016

Chickpea and Cuttlefish Stew

Penelope Casas’s book La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain provided the recipe for this Andalucian dish intriguingly spiced with hot red pepper, sweet smoked paprika, and garlic.

 

2017

Poulet Marengo

Anyone familiar with my food preferences will know I couldn’t let this retrospective go by without including at least one chicken dish. This is a classic from Robert Courtine’s The Hundred Glories of French Cooking.

 

2018

Veselka’s Borscht

The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, in NYC’s East Village neighborhood, serves the best borscht I’ve ever tasted or can imagine tasting. Making a batch of it from the place’s own cookbook was a major accomplishment for me.

 

2019

Apple-Stuffed Pork Roast

Apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar, and a touch of wine vinegar made a delightful stuffing for roasted pork. It’s a recipe I clipped from Saveur magazine and pasted in my big recipe binder.

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So:  10 years, 512 posts, recipes from 120 cookbooks, as well as a few from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking from all this. Now I plan to take the month of January off, to think about how I’d like to position my blog for the coming years.

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From my grocery shopping experience this Christmas season, I’d say there have been at least a million cartons of panettone on offer in local stores, in a dazzling array of varieties. With that abundance before me, naturally I chose to make one of my own.

I wanted a reasonably simple, traditional version of this festive bread, and I found a recipe for one in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. I bake breads often, but very rarely are they this kind of sweet, fruit-dotted loaf. Making this one would be a tiny adventure.
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The first thing to do was to scald milk and, off heat, let butter melt and sugar dissolve in it. Already interesting: I hadn’t ever treated bread ingredients this way before.

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While the mixture cooled a little, I assembled candied citron, candied orange peel, raisins, and the grated zest of a lemon. Let me tell you, chopping candied fruits is a gooey business!
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Then, in the bowl of my heavy-duty mixer, I dissolved yeast in warm water, added the milk-butter-sugar mixture, and beat in two eggs and two extra yolks. That many yolks would certainly make a rich bread.
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The fruits and zest went in next, and finally the flour. Oddly, so it seemed to me, the recipe didn’t say to knead the dough: only beat it for two minutes. From long bread-making habit, I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few minutes of kneading with the machine’s dough hook.

In my bread-making, correcting for dryness or stickiness is often needed as a dough comes together. But this dough behaved beautifully – it quickly became smooth and springy, requiring neither a speck more flour nor a drop more moisture than the recipe’s given amounts.
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The dough was to have its first rise in a buttered bowl, covered by a towel, until doubled in bulk. That took considerably longer than the recipe’s approximation of 1½ hours: actually almost 3 hours. I’d expected something like that, with so rich and dense a dough – and also because it’s always fairly cool in my apartment. I waited with uncharacteristic patience until it was fully risen.
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Then came the choice of baking pan. The recipe called for one nine-inch round springform pan, deep enough to create the classic tall panettone shape. I didn’t want a single loaf that big. Unlike commercial panettones, which have additives to maintain freshness, a homemade one that size would surely go stale before we could finish it. I took a small half of the dough for a six-inch round pan and divided the rest over four tiny rectangular pans, whose loaves I could freeze handily for future pleasures.
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For the second rise, in the pans, the dough was again to double in bulk: about an hour, the recipe said. Again, I was called on for uncharacteristic patience; mine took another three hours, and even then I wasn’t sure it had fully doubled. But I proceeded anyway, lest I leave it too long and the dough collapse on itself. Good thing I’d started early in the day!
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I slashed the top of each loaf, hoping the cuts would encourage higher rising in the oven. The recipe said the big loaf would need an hour’s baking at 350°. My small ones tested done in half an hour, and the large one only ten minutes later. Regrettably, they hadn’t risen very much more at all. Nor had the slashes done much to open the tops. But they looked cheerful enough and smelled fine.
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I’d like to blame their sluggish rising on the age of my yeast, which was from the last of a one-pound bag that had been stored in my freezer for many months. But that’s an easy excuse. Somehow, I think it had to have been me. Sigh.

I wrapped and froze the little loaves and left the large one in a cake carrier on the kitchen counter overnight. The next morning, I cut it open to slice and toast for breakfast. It was extremely dense and weighty: not at all like the puffy softness of a store-bought panettone.
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Mirabile dictu! It had exactly the classic panettone flavor and aroma: lightly sweet, fresh, fragrant, and appetizing. Its feel in the mouth was perfectly acceptable; just more countrified in style – definitely homemade tasting. So this little Christmas cooking story has a very happy ending. Merry merry, everyone!

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Pasta e fagioli is Italian soul food. This quintessential peasant dish has an endless number of regional, local, and individual variations, each fiercely defended by its partisans as the absolute best. Those of us not invested in a particular version have the pleasure of enjoying them all.

When Tom and I did our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, we took advantage of that abundance and developed three pasta e fagioli recipes of our own, one each in the styles we’d had in northern, central, and southern Italy:

  • Venetian: fresh egg pasta, pinto beans, and a big pork bone
  • Roman: short tubular pasta, white beans, tomato sauce, and pork skin
  • Neapolitan: mixed short pasta shapes, red beans, fresh tomatoes, no meat

This week I made a modest quantity of the southern version’s recipe for us two. Overnight, I soaked four ounces of Rio Zape beans, a very tasty heirloom variety that I buy online from Rancho Gordo.
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Next day I drained them, added 1½ cups of fresh water, and set them on to simmer while I peeled, seeded, and chopped 2 big plum tomatoes, peeled and halved a garlic clove, chose a tiny dried hot red pepper, and measured out ¼ teaspoon of dried oregano.
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I sautéed those ingredients in olive oil, with salt and black pepper, for ten minutes
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then stirred the seasonings into the bean pot and let it go on simmering until the beans were tender. They took only about an hour, indicating that they were a very fresh batch. They also produced a rich, meaty aroma, for all that there wasn’t a speck of meat in with them. Off heat, the pot sat at the back of the stove all afternoon. (No point showing you a picture of that: the beans were all sunken under the liquid.)

As dinner time approached, I brought the pot to a boil and stirred in four ounces of miscela pasta – short pieces of many different shapes of dried pasta. In the old days, Neapolitan families kept all their broken and leftover bits of pasta – the miscela – for just these purposes. Nowadays we can buy such a mix.
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Slowly, the pasta pieces absorbed the liquid, swelled up, and began rising to visibility.
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This part of the cooking always needs frequent stirring, because beans and pasta both tend to stick to the bottom of the pot as the liquid is absorbed. In this case they also needed a little additional hot water to keep the sauce from over-thickening. You can make the dish as moist or dry as you choose: Tom likes it soupier than I do, so we negotiate the difference each time.
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Once the pasta is done, the pot needs to sit off heat, covered, for five minutes before serving. Then, at table, diners complete the dish to their taste with olive oil, salt, crushed red pepper, and grated pecorino Romano cheese.
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If you’ve never tasted it, you’ll hardly believe how rich and luscious a concoction these humble ingredients make. In Tom’s Neapolitan family, his father’s generation – 16 siblings – grew up on past’e fagiol’ and revered it all their lives.

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Tom and I are beginning to feel one of our periodic urges to revisit Rome. We’ve loved that city for many years, one major reason being its food. We haven’t yet planned our next trip there, but the impulse – along with a rack of pork spareribs fresh from the butcher – led me to make a characteristically delicious Roman dish for dinner one recent evening.
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Spuntature al pomodoro
, spareribs in tomato sauce, is from Michele Scicolone’s cookbook 1,000 Italian Recipes. It’s her version of a dish she’d had at Enoteca Corsi, a long-established wine bar and osteria in Rome’s historic center. Even at first reading, I recognized the recipe’s unmistakable Roman style and simplicity. It would be just the thing for us.

Four meaty individual ribs cut from the sparerib rack made a generous portion for two, and enough for a half quantity of the recipe.
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My mini-food processor did a quick job of mincing carrot, onion, celery, and garlic for the sauce. A battuto like this is the foundation of many good down-home Italian preparations.

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In a Dutch oven I browned the ribs in olive oil. Just a little oil, since the heat quickly began to melt down their own flavorful fats.
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I removed the ribs to a plate and sprinkled on salt and pepper. After spooning off some of the rendered fat, I added the battuto to the pot and sautéed it for a few minutes. (The dark green bits in the photo are basil – a last-minute substitute for sage, which I’d forgotten that I had no more of. It was OK in the sauce, but sage would have been better.)
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After deglazing the pan with white wine, I put the spareribs back in, along with a cup of pureed, canned, plum tomatoes and additional salt and pepper. I covered the pan and let it simmer, turning the ribs occasionally, for an hour and a half, until the pork was almost falling off the bones.
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For most of that cooking time, we were tantalized by the rich aromas emanating from the kitchen. And at the dinner table, every taste of the succulent spareribs activated our fondest palatal memories of Rome. We’d better start consulting calendars and airline schedules!

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Last week Tom and I were away on a birding trip to Grand Manan Island. The birds were great, the food disappointing: The inn where our group took all its meals offered no local seafood and no seasonal produce. Once back home, I immediately stocked up on eggplant, peppers, onions, new potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini at my greenmarket.
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At last, vegetables! Though I’d intended to start by making a big, luscious, layered ratatouille, I didn’t feel up to so labor-intensive a job that day.

Instead I turned to a much simpler mixed vegetable recipe in Ed Giobbi’s modest little 1971 book Italian Family Cooking. My copy – a first edition, first printing – cost me $8.95 when it first came out, and I’ve now seen it listed online for $60. Makes me feel very canny, that does.

The vegetables for Giobbi’s Verdura Mista #2 do require a fair amount of preparation, for which Tom (my bespoke knife man) and I worked together, me washing and peeling, he slicing and chopping. Giobbi is very relaxed about instructions, not saying how thick to slice things or how small to chop them. He encourages readers to cook with a free hand.

Here are our finished ingredients: one small cubed eggplant, two sliced zucchini, two sliced green peppers, three cups of seeded and chopped tomatoes, and the equivalents of two medium potatoes and two medium onions.
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This was a quantity intended to serve 6 to 8, but, as I said, we were starved for vegetables.

The cooking, from that point, was almost effortless. First, in a very large pot, I warmed four tablespoons of olive oil and let the eggplant and zucchini briefly make its acquaintance. They quickly absorbed it all.
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The next instruction was “Add rest of ingredients.” Which, in addition to the remaining vegetables, were salt, pepper, and several leaves of basil (defrosted, in my case).
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All I had to do then was partially cover the pot and stir everything around occasionally until the potatoes were tender. At first, the vegetables exuded a great deal of liquid, which I thought would have to be boiled down at the end, but after 30 minutes and a few small adjustments to the heat and the pot covering, everything was ready, with just a modicum of liquid remaining.
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Our dinner that evening was a thick, rare lamb chop apiece and great scoops of the vegetables, with chunks of crusty baguette to soak up the juices. The mixture had all the good flavors of ratatouille but with more bright acidity and less of the weight that initial, separate sautéeing of each vegetable would have provided. It was pure ambrosia! Just to complete the summer feel, we drank a simple Beaujolais, which loved the company we put it in.
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We managed to get through more than half the big bowlful of vegetables that evening. The rest were saved to fill individual vegetable tartlets, which I’ve frozen for future first courses. A few months from now, those summery flavors will help appease our mid-winter doldrums.

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Veal Francese

The Italian dish vitello alla francese came to America with the great wave of immigration from southern Italy that started in the late 1880s. As “Veal Francese,” it became a staple of the rapidly growing New York City Italian restaurant culture, and it’s still found – in varying degrees of quality – on almost every southern-Italian-style restaurant menu in the US.

Tom, who grew up just across the river in Jersey City, remembers it well from those days:

Veal francese was a standard dish – although one of the more expensive ones – of every Italian-American restaurant I ever frequented. Veal in all sorts of preparations was a lot more common than beef, and a restaurant of any ambitions had to offer several. I remember veal francese fondly as one of simplest and most elegant of them: no tomatoes, no peppers, no onions, just a modest sauce and a thin, tender, delicious, golden slice of meat.

Yielding to Tom’s nostalgia, we made veal francese together for a dinner this week, using a pair of large, well-pounded veal scallops from our butcher shop (owned by an Italian-American family).
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I’d done some recipe checking and found that, to start, the veal is typically dipped in egg and coated with flour, but Tom recalls the New Jersey version always using breadcrumbs instead of flour for a lighter casing. We did it that way.
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While the breaded scallops were firming up in the refrigerator, we took advantage of an unexpected trove of morel mushrooms we’d seen that morning at Eataly.
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Where in this country the store had found morels in August is a mystery – they’re spring mushrooms, and I don’t think they’ve ever been successfully cultivated. But even at their outlandish price, we grabbed some. And sautéed them in butter to accompany the veal.
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We then sautéed the veal in butter with a little olive oil – quickly, to retain all its juiciness. Butter may not be authentic to the Jersey City style: Tom’s memory is hazy on that point.
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The cooked veal waited in a warming oven while we deglazed the pan with white wine, stirred in a few big spoonsful of broth, added salt and pepper, and reduced the liquid until it was almost syrupy. There was just enough sauce to moisten the pieces of veal on their serving platter. Veal francese should never be awash in sauce: On that point Tom’s memory is solid.
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The dish was brilliant. And the morels alongside were a match made in heaven. The interplay of flavors from the veal, the sauce, the mushrooms, and even a plain baked potato was intricate and harmonious, the wild earthy notes of the mushrooms counterpointing the meat-sweetness of the veal and its delicate sauce.
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Glorious as it was, this veal francese is obviously a dish of great simplicity. For that very reason, it’s imperative to have ingredients of absolute top quality. Thus, our veal was thinly cut slices, fresh from the butcher; the breadcrumbs were homemade, as was the broth; and the cooking medium was Kerrygold, a fine Irish butter.

It’s regrettable that in some restaurants veal francese has become a tired, boring, last-choice menu item. That’s almost certainly due to cost-cutting practices like mediocre meat and old, stale cooking oil, as well as careless handling – meat cut badly, coating too heavy, cooking time too long, too much too-gloppy sauce. Treatment like that is what has given Italian-American cooking a bad name, which it definitely doesn’t deserve.
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Good to the last bite!

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BTW, should anyone be interested in more information about Italian-American cooking, here’s a link to an article Tom and I wrote some years ago for The Journal of Gastronomy, called “Italian-Americans in New York: a Bicultural Cuisine.”

 

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Planning for a casual dinner party last week, I turned to the summer section of TSOTIK (rhymes with exotic), our family name for Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. There I found recipes for several perfect-for-hot-weather dishes that I hadn’t made in a long time, so I built the evening’s menu around them.

 

Insalata Caprese – Zucchini a Scapece

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Insalata caprese
hardly needs a recipe at all: just pair the best available mozzarella with the best available tomatoes, and offer salt, pepper, and olive oil for diners to dress their own portions. The great white puffball you see above is a very fresh 1½-pound buffalo milk mozzarella, and the red cartwheels around it are local heirloom tomatoes. The combination is always wonderful.

Zucchini a scapece is a classic Neapolitan antipasto that I’ve written about before. For it I lightly floured rounds of zucchini, fried them in olive oil, and marinated them overnight in a simmered mixture of vinegar, water, garlic, and chopped mint leaves. The dish is best when made, as here, with the costata romanesco variety of zucchini, the prince of the summer squash family.

 

Fettuccine all’Abruzzese

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If you think this bowl of pasta looks as if there’s barely any sauce on it, you’re right. There isn’t much. But this simple peasant dish always surprises people by how unexpectedly delicious it is. The sauce is just a sauté of finely chopped pancetta and onion; chopped basil and parsley, salt, and pepper; with a little broth stirred in and nearly evaporated. The fettuccine – homemade, and rolled very thin: that’s essential – are tossed first with grated pecorino cheese and then with the sauce. The pasta readily absorbs the sauce, and the diners just as readily absorb the pasta.

 

Abbacchio in Umido – Ciambotta

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For the book I translated this meat recipe as “Summertime Lamb Stew” because, in Italian, in umido means stew, but there are no substantial vegetables in it, as there are in most cold-weather stews. It’s simply chunks of boneless lamb shoulder braised in tomato sauce, with seasonings of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get really young lamb these days, so the dish can take much longer to cook than the recipe suggests. Not a problem, though: just start early – even a day in advance – simmer however long it takes until the lamb is tender, and reheat it when needed. This is a reliable dish: It’ll be fine.

To accompany the vegetable-less lamb stew, I made a big sauté of summer vegetables from the greenmarket: eggplant, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. We also had plenty of crusty bread available to soak up the delicious juices they generated, along with the equally good sauce from the lamb.

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The dinner wasn’t confined to these three courses. We also had a few hors d’oeuvres before coming to table, a cheese platter after the lamb, and a simple dessert of homemade lemon ice with cookies. Altogether, a very relaxed and comfortable summer repast. And Tom had picked out five wines from his collection to match with the food. He has written about those wines on his own blog.

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