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Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

We’re having a great summer for peaches. While a few months ago, newspapers were predicting a peachless year because of devastating winter crop losses in Georgia and South Carolina, that’s not the case here in the northeast. Peaches from southern New Jersey are plump, plentiful, fragrant, and sweet. Here’s a recent batch at my favorite greenmarket peach purveyor, Kernan Farms.
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I can’t pass by the stand without picking up a few. And since some of these beauties weigh three quarters of a pound, I find myself with a lot of rapidly ripening fruit that needs to be done something with.
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This is far from a problem from Beloved Spouse’s point of view: He happily consumes the peach pie, peach cake, peach cobbler, peach bread pudding, baked peaches, and peach jam that I make for him.

Browsing my cookbooks for another “peach something” to add to my tool kit, I came upon a recipe called Rustic Fruit Focaccia in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Now, focaccia is usually a savory bread (such as I wrote about here) but, as Michele explains, in Tuscany in autumn they make this flat bread with a topping of ripe wine grapes. She also says it’s good with other fruits too, such as peaches. Well, just the thing!

The dough for this focaccia isn’t kneaded at all: You simply stir together flour, sugar, salt, yeast, olive oil, and water until it becomes a rough ball. I suppose that’s what makes it “rustic.”

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The dough rises once in the bowl, then is spread out thinly over a shallow rectangular baking pan and rises again. While it was doing that, I was peeling and slicing peaches.
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The illustration in the book shows a focaccia topped with nectarines and blueberries. That looked good, but I had some raspberries in the refrigerator, so I dotted them on the dough along with the peaches, sprinkled a little sugar over it all, and baked it in a moderate oven for about half an hour.
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The edges of my focaccia crisped and browned just as they ought, but my fruit was so juicy that the central bread part of the crust didn’t. Still, it was fully baked and had risen about as much as expected. So I took it out of the oven, let it partially cool on a rack, and cut pieces for a week-night dinner dessert.
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This is definitely not a very sweet confection. Michele says she likes it mostly for breakfast or afternoon tea. We were happy enough with it in the evening, especially with a veil of powdered sugar. It made a nice, light, crunchy fruit dessert. But I agree that its true destiny is as a breakfast or midday treat, which is how we promptly devoured the whole rest of the focaccia. By midwinter, we’ll be longing for fresh fruit flavors like this.

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Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of Andrea Camilleri’s series of mysteries featuring Sicilian detective inspector Salvo Montalbano – as much for his devotion to food as for his skill in solving crimes. In every volume our hero lustily consumes traditional Sicilian dishes made for him by his faithful housekeeper Adelina, his favorite restaurateur Enzo, and anyone else he can find to feed him. Except his girlfriend Livia, who is a terrible cook.

The writeups of those dishes are so mouth-watering that I can’t resist making them myself. I’ve already written about them here six times, mostly based on recipes in a cookbook called I segreti della tavola di Montalbano. But that book doesn’t have everything mentioned in the novels, so I’ve had to do a little detective work of my own and go farther afield to find recipes.

The newest Montalbano adventure is called According to Protocol, and it exists not in a printed book but only in the Italian television series available here on DVD. (Naturally I have the whole series, just as I have copies of all the novels.) In this episode, Montalbano is told about Da Filippo, a country restaurant said to make a particularly good version of the octopus dish Polpo alla Luciana. He drives off to find it one afternoon.
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After verifying that the eponymous Filippo makes his octopus dish with Gaeta olives and Pantelleria capers, Montalbano sits down at a table. Just then, two black-hooded gunmen burst in, one of them clearly about to kill our hero. The other one inexplicably knocks out the shooter, fires his gun twice into the walls, and drags his partner out. Filippo responds by going into hysterics, but Montalbano’s principal concern is for his lunch.
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Alas, the video doesn’t show the dish actually being served. I determined to make it anyway, and began looking at recipes. There were none for polpo alla Luciana in my Sicilian cookbooks but several in my Neapolitan ones. I asked a New York-based Sicilian restaurateur about the dish, and he reminded me that in much of the 19th century, Naples was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with much comestible, as well as cultural, interchange. He said they of course made that dish in Sicily.

So I proceeded. In six cookbooks I found essentially two versions of the dish: one with the octopus simply boiled, cooled, and dressed like a seafood salad, the other braised in oil, tomato, and other seasonings and served hot. None of the variations included the quintessentially Sicilian olive and caper combination so important to Montalbano, but it would be easy enough to add them. I decided to mostly follow the recipe in Anna Gosetti della Salda’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and take a few hints from Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della Felicità, both highly respected Italian culinary classics.


Both recipes were for the braised version of the dish. In my detective persona I deduced that it was more likely to be the one Montalbano had, because if Filippo’s was the seafood-salad type the octopus wasn’t likely to be burning.

That decided, off I went to the fish market for octopus.
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These two, each weighing three quarters of a pound, had already been tenderized by the store. That was a huge convenience, saving me from having to smack them hard for several minutes with a meat pounder, or fling them repeatedly into the (clean) kitchen sink, to soften the rubbery flesh.

Preparing the other components of the dish was quite easy.
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I put the octopi into a heavy pot into which they’d fit snugly. I salted, peppered, and topped them with ½ cup of olive oil, 3 chopped plum tomatoes, a handful of chopped fresh parsley, a whole garlic clove, a small dried hot red pepper, and – for Montalbano’s sake –16 Gaeta olives and 2 tablespoons of drained tiny capers.
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To prevent any of the cooking juices from escaping, I had to lay a piece of parchment over the pot and tie it down with string, before putting on the pot’s own lid.
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The pot then went onto my stove’s lowest burner at its lowest setting and stayed there undisturbed – cooking “insensibilmente” – for two hours.

Ada Boni sternly forbids taking the lid off the pot until the very moment of serving. When you finally do, she says, you’ll see “a kind of big, reddish chrysanthemum, utterly tender, floating in an exquisite broth that the munificent beast has generously provided.” (My translation.)
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When I lifted off the parchment, a lush, savory aroma wafted up. My submarine “chrysanthemums” had shrunk considerably in the course of creating their broth. They were indeed beautifully tender, with a soft, yielding texture a little like that of scallops. They had the characteristic octopus sweetness – rich but delicate, sort of halfway between crabmeat and sole or flounder.
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The broth wasn’t at all a tomato sauce: the chopped tomato remained as toothsome little nuggets, along with the olives and capers. The olive oil had blended with all the other flavors to create an unmistakably Mediterranean essence. This was a very, very good dish, a worthy companion to a fine white wine. No wonder Montalbano loved it!

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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 a 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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