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Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

Back in the 1950s, turkey Tetrazzini was the height of fashionable cuisine, the stereotypical darling of “ladies who lunch.” Sort of a rich man’s chicken à la king, the dish came to mind the other day as I contemplated the generous pile of excellent roasted turkey meat our Thanksgiving hostess had sent us home with.

Browsing my cookbooks and the Internet, I quickly learned there are any number of recipes that call themselves turkey Tetrazzini, none apparently with any greater likelihood of being the one that Escoffier is said to have created and named for the renowned opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini – if indeed there’s any truth at all to that legend. I chose a recipe I found online, from a book called Almost Italian, by Skip Lombardi and Holly Chase.
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I was going to photograph the preparation process as usual, but I was pressed for time that evening and had a lot of steps to take in rapid succession. Also, I wanted a two-person version and had to cut back quantities given for 6 to 8 servings. Being a barely numerate person, I struggle to calculate things like the number of teaspoons there must be in one-third of a quarter of a cup. So the only image I have to show you is my finished dish.
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To make it, I started by cooking short rotini pasta until not quite done. Meanwhile, I cut the turkey into small chunks and thinly sliced several white mushrooms. I sauteed the mushrooms in butter. I made a sort of combination bechamel-velouté sauce with flour, butter, milk, chicken bouillon (from a cube), heavy cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I should mention that, given the great variability in the Tetrazzini recipes I’d seen, I felt free to change some of the ingredient quantities given in my source. I used less pasta, more mushrooms, and more peas.

In a large bowl I mixed turkey, pasta, mushrooms, sauce, defrosted green peas, and grated parmigiano. Spread it all in a buttered gratin dish, sprinkled on a mix of breadcrumbs and more parmigiano, dotted the top with butter, and baked it in a moderate oven for 40 minutes.

It came out looking nicely golden. How did it taste? Well, it was OK. All those pleasant, mild ingredients coexisted peacefully enough, but there was nothing to give the dish any strong character. I don’t fault the recipe: Most of the other versions I saw would have been essentially the same. I suspect that’s just what unadventurous American taste in the ‘50s liked about turkey Tetrazzini: no palatal challenges.

Just another piece of evidence that you can’t go home again!

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Pasta with Lentils

I’ve discovered an excellent new kind of Italian lentils. I’d thought that the small brown Umbrian lentils from Castelluccio were the best there are, but at DiPalo, a specialty food shop in NYC’s Little Italy, I found a brand called Casino di Caprafico. I couldn’t tell much about the lentils, which came in opaque cloth bags, but I trust that store, and I had a craving for pasta with lentils, so I bought a bag.

 

 

Back home, exploration of the company’s website revealed that it’s a biological farm in Abruzzo that grows heirloom varieties of grains and pulses, some made into flours and pastas. The lentils were tiny, plump, and a beautiful light golden brown. Very promising!

 

 

My recipe for pasta with lentils is in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It’s a very simple preparation. Its only major components other than lentils and pasta are finely chopped celery, onions, and carrots.

 

 

All lentils have to be picked over to discard any lurking pebbles. These were very clean. Rinsed and drained, they went into a pot with the chopped vegetables, salt, and water to cover.

 

 

It all simmered, covered, until the lentils were tender. They need a lot of water, and I don’t like to drown them right away, so I keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water in small doses as it gets absorbed. Ordinary dried lentils tend to take about an hour to be done. These little guys must have been extremely fresh, because they were ready in little more than half an hour.

At that point, the pasta went into the pot with the lentils. I use bucatini, broken into two-inch pieces. Obviously, other kinds of pasta would work too, but I like the contrast of those shapes with the lentils.

 

 

More hot water from the kettle went in as the pasta cooked, which takes about 20 minutes. It needs that long because the proportion of liquid is so much smaller than if the pasta had been boiled in the usual large quantity of water. The extra time lets the bucatini absorb some of the other flavors.

 

 

Two last essential ingredients should be passed for serving at the table: freshly ground black pepper and the best, fruitiest olive oil available – lots of both. This is one place where I always choose extra virgin olive oil. It gives the perfect finish to the dish. So here it is: humble, hearty, wholesome, and delicious. Especially when made with those lovely lentils.

 

 

(I know, I know — the pasta looks like worms. But delicious worms!)

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As I’ve had occasion to say here before, eels are not to everybody’s taste. The eeeww! factor is just too strong. That’s a pity, though, because eels can be delicious. They are among the meatiest of fish, with rich white flesh that comes easily off the bone. And, as long as the seller skins them for you, eels are easy to cook and good served in many different ways.

Here’s a trio of small eels from my Greenmarket. They’re only occasionally available – spring and fall, the fish man says, when they’re heading upstream to grow and downstream to mate at sea – so I often buy them to put in the freezer until we want them. Eels freeze well.


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In a previous post I wrote about making a very good recipe for eels Roman-style from the Roman volume of a regional Italian cookbook series. For this latest dish I went to the Venetian volume of the same series and followed its recipe for eels Venetian-style – essentially a braise in tomatoes. (Unusual for a recipe from this region: Tomato doesn’t feature prominently in Venetian cooking.)

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To start, I softened chopped garlic, onion, and parsley in olive oil, along with half a bay leaf. I added the eels, cut in pieces, and sautéed them for a few minutes just to imbue them with the seasonings. They don’t turn brown.
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Next was to raise the heat, add white wine, salt, and pepper, and cook until the wine evaporates. I have to admit that eels get really ugly as they begin to cook in liquid. I’ve learned not to let that distress me – they always come out fine in the end.
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When the wine was gone, I deglazed the pan, stirred in ¾ cup of chopped tomatoes, covered and cooked gently for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. All this simple cookery can be done in advance.
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That evening I made a batch of polenta to accompany the braised eels. Notice how the tomato sauce cleverly conceals any unsightliness of the eel pieces. Once we began tasting the combination, we didn’t mind what it looked like or where it came from – it was just very, very good. The slightly spicy, slightly acidic tomato sauce beautifully complemented the sweet flesh of the eels, and both combined happily with the velvety bed of polenta: fine simple dining.
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Tom adds a few words about the evening’s wine:
All these flavors went very well with a bottle of Etna bianco (100% Carricante) from Benanti, a Sicilian wine designed by nature to go with fish of all sorts. Even those who eeeww! at eel tend to aaahh! at Benanti.

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Roasted Quails

Quails are always a treat for me. The very first time I tasted them was in the very first dinner I had in Italy. It was in Rome, 1974, a neighborhood trattoria called La Capricciosa. The weekly menu was a mimeographed broadsheet listing 40 fish, fowl, and meat dishes. Bewildered by the abundance and amazingly low prices, I could hardly believe it when I saw “2 quaglie” – two quails – offered for 1300 lire, which then was about $2. I had to have them!

I can’t remember now how they were cooked – possibly just sauteed in butter with sage leaves – but they were beautifully brown, tender, and juicy. I took home the menu, and here it is. If you click on the image, you can read it clearly. The quail entry is down on the lower left.

 

 

For years after, every time we were in Rome, I had to go at least once to Capricciosa for quaglie. It was a sort of home away from home for us, and we loved everything about it, from its slightly run-down appearance and furnishings to the two musicians – an old violinist and a young guitarist – who made the rounds every evening. Then a fire closed the restaurant for a few years, and when it reopened it was a much fancier kind of place. And no more quails. Sigh.

These days, I occasionally treat myself to a pair of quails at home. Mostly when Tom is either away on a trip or out at a business dinner, because he finds the little birds difficult to cope with. A bushy moustache is a liability for hand-held nibbling of meat from tiny bones, which is pretty much the only practical way to eat anything on a quail other than the breast.

 

 

This latest pair are a little odd looking, having kept the stretched-out position into which they’d been frozen, rather than being plumped up like miniature chickens. I decided to roast them, using a recipe of my own from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. Since the lean little birds need a protective layer of fat to keep them from drying out in the oven, I draped each one with a round of pancetta, which adds flavor as well as moistening.

 

 

In the absence of pancetta, blanched bacon or salt pork works for the covering, too. (BTW, notice how thin the string around the pancetta is? I’d run out of kitchen twine, so I used dental floss.)

While the oven preheated to 400°, I browned the quails in butter, along with a few sage leaves. The preliminary sauté is necessary for color, because of the short time the birds would be in the oven.

 

 

I transferred them to a baking dish, deglazed their sauté pan with white wine, and poured the juices over the quails. In the oven, they roasted for 25 minutes and were ready to eat.

 

 

They were wonderfully tasty and, as always, took me back in memory to Capricciosa’s quaglie.

I still have my journal notes on that first Roman dinner. Tom and I had two antipasti, two pastas, two main courses, a liter and a half of wine, two espressos, a grappa, and an amaro – all for 8,500 lire, or about $16. Today, with inflation, my $2 quails would translate to about $10 and the whole meal $65 – but just try to think what this meal would cost today in any restaurant that could serve it!

 

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Spareribs, Friuli Style

This dish began with a mistake. Here are some unprepossessing pieces of pork.

 

 

How did I get them? I asked the butcher for country-style spareribs, but I didn’t look closely at what he brought out from the back of the store. What I recalled as country ribs were like regular spareribs but with a much thicker layer of meat. When I got home I saw that I had two big odd-shaped slabs of pork with odd-shaped bones attached to them in odd places. (There are three here because I cut one in half.)

Subsequent research has taught me that country ribs come from the ribs right up against the animal’s shoulder, so they have more shoulder bone on them than rib bone. OK, but shouldn’t they still have been shaped like narrow rectangles – in effect, long bones with meat on them? Not these. One of them even looked like a misshapen loin chop. Clearly, some miscommunication had occurred.

Well, they were what they were, and I’d have to make do with them. But what should I do with them? They didn’t look as if they’d reward broiling or grilling, as normal spareribs do. Long, moist cooking seemed to be what they’d need.

Happily, I found just the thing in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. Spuntature di Maiale alla Friulana, or Spareribs Friuli Style, is a brown braise – not the kind of preparation that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Italian cooking. Friuli is the region at the extreme northeast of Italy, bordering on Austria and Slovenia, as well as the Dolomites and the Adriatic. There are strong German and Slavic influences in its foodways.

Whatever its heritage, I felt sure I was going to like the recipe. Its first step is to flour and brown the ribs in olive oil.

 

 

When the ribs come out, the same oil is used to soften and brown chopped carrot and onion.

 

 

After that, the pan is deglazed with white wine and the ribs go back in, along with some good broth (Tom’s rich brew from mixed bones, meat scraps, and vegetable trimmings, which we always have in the freezer).

 

 

My ribs simmered along in the covered pot for the recipe’s 1½ hours and then needed another 15 minutes to be fully tender. The recipe didn’t say to strain or puree the gravy, and it had thickened nicely by itself so I didn’t mind the remaining soft little bits of carrot and onion.

 

 

Plain boiled Romano beans and mashed potatoes both liked that gravy just as much as the spareribs did. A very tasty, homey, comforting meal, and really quite simple to make.

 

 

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a summery dish, but never mind that. Though we ate it on one of our many ghastly hot, humid days, the level at which Tom keeps the air conditioning in our apartment is perfectly conducive to cold-weather fare. He claims it’s all for my own good: He needs it cool to boil up all that useful broth.

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A Coffee Story

Coffee first thing in the morning is absolutely essential at my house, and when I say coffee I mean espresso: two cups apiece to start the heart and brain functioning. Plus occasional after-dinner coffees. It was therefore a serious crisis for two fussy and demanding caffeine fanciers when our beloved Pasquini Livia espresso machine started dying on us.
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The best machine we’d ever had, Livia gave us excellent espresso for 14 years. About two months ago it started making horrible metallic grinding noises, the backflush stopped working, making excess water clog up in the coffee filter cup, and the espresso began coming out too bitter and without crema. We could tell the machine was in terminal decline. Attempts to locate a repair service failed, so we resolved to euthanize it before it could explode in our faces.

We found that to replace our Livia with the current model would cost at least $1,700, with an estimated two-month waiting period for delivery from Italy. We hadn’t paid anything near that much in 2004, even with inflation factored in. (We’d gotten the machine from Illy, at a deep promotional discount, in return for agreeing to buy a year’s worth of shipments of Illy’s ground espresso coffee.) The new price was a shock: Time to look at other brands!

We began looking for a high-quality, no-frills pump machine – no capsules, no built-in milk frothing container, not even an integrated bean grinder. Much as we love espresso, we aren’t part of the current barista fetishism. Online reviews of the major brands were discouraging: at all price points, up to 15% of purchasers reported delivery damage, rapid breakdowns, water leaks, pressure failures, flimsy plastic parts, excessive noise, and/or horrible warranty service. Small enough odds, perhaps, but way too many possible flaws for us.

Then we somehow found Lelit. This is a maker of espresso machines designed and produced in Italy. On the website, its straightforward, clean-lined Anna model looked like just what we wanted, at a price we could tolerate.
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Lelit is not well known in this country, so there aren’t many reviews of its machines, but the ones we saw (e.g., here) gave us confidence, not only in the product’s quality but in the service by its US distributor in nearby New Jersey. We took a chance and ordered one.

The first pleasant surprise was the machine’s arrival in just two days – in excellent protective packaging. The second was how light it is, for all its sturdiness: our Livia weighed 38 pounds; smaller Anna weighs only 16 – therefore much easier to move around, if need be. The detailed instruction book is in three languages, including clear, grammatical English. Setting the machine up, turning it on, and drawing two coffees worked exactly as described. Hooray!
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Our first cups weren’t ideal: good crema, but a sort of bitter metallic edge to the flavor. Since Livia had always preferred Illy’s dark roast ground coffee to any other, we’d stayed with it for all those years. Maybe Anna would be happier with a different kind? So we tried alternatives, including a lighter-roast Illy variety.
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None of them made much of a difference. But as we continued using the new machine, the espresso it produced kept improving. (It’s also amazingly quiet.) Apparently it just needed to be broken in. Finally, we decided that we still like the Illy dark roast best. It’s by far the most expensive, selling in some stores for as much as $16 for a 250-gram can. But we’ve found places to get it for $11. That works out to 22¢ a cup, which is certainly not extravagant.  If you compare it to the bilgewater that passes for espresso at some popular chains, it’s an absolute bargain, even if it takes another 14 years to amortize the cost of the new machine.
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As of this writing, we’ve had Anna for only a month, so it would be the height of presumption to declare a happy ending to this coffee story already . . .  but so far, so good!  Brains and hearts continue to start every morning, and the palate is getting happier by the day.

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Summer is officially here at last! One happy concomitant of that is the increasing abundance of local fruits and vegetables at my Greenmarket. We’d invited a pair of friends to a dinner to celebrate the season, and when I did the shopping for it, a few days ahead, I went way overboard on my purchases: inescapable rapture of the season.

Not everything shown here was for that one meal, but it all looked so good I couldn’t resist. And good it all was, too.

 

Our Italian-themed dinner party began simply, with a few Castelvetrano olives, cheddar cheese sticks (homemade), and cubes of country terrine (not homemade) to go with glasses of aperitif wine in the living room.

 

At the dinner table, we started with that quintessential summer antipasto, prosciutto and melon. It was pushing the season, but I had managed to find a single cantaloupe in the grocery store’s bin that actually smelled like a melon. Its texture was a little too stiff for full ripeness, but the flavor was right.

 

We went on to a primo of risi e bisi, another seasonal classic. This Venetian dish of rice and peas is a close relative of risotto. My version, from Tom’s and my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, includes pancetta in addition to the usual onion, parsley, broth, butter, and parmesan cheese. Quite a substantial dish, and just lovely with young, sweet English peas.

 

Our secondo, also from that cookbook, featured a dish we call Summertime Lamb Stew. It’s lamb lightly braised with tomatoes, pancetta, and chopped aromatic vegetables. Normally it uses fresh plum tomatoes, but in June all we get are greenhouse-grown, so we made it with canned San Marzanos. Sautéed early zucchini and spring onions, lightly scented with mint, made fresh, flavorful companions to the lamb.

 

After a cheese course (which I failed to photograph), we finished with a dessert of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in grappa – a recipe from Tom’s and my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana – and hazelnut biscotti baked and brought to us by our guest Joan.

This was as light and refreshing as you can imagine – a perfect palate cleanser of a dessert.

 

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the array of bottles that Tom chose from his wine closet to accompany the meal. Here they are at the end of the evening:

They were:

  • 2015 Paumanok (Long Island) Festival Chardonnay as aperitifs
  • 2016 Abbazia di Novacella Gruner Veltliner with the prosciutto and melon
  • 2016 Pra Soave Classico Otto with the risi e bisi
  • 2001 Tor Calvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with the lamb
  • 2004 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva with the cheese
  • 2011 Dogliatti Moscato d’Asti with dessert

I hasten to point out that the four of us did not finish all six wines that evening. In fact, we didn’t finish any of them – just enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the differences from one to the next with each course.  They were still fine the next day, as Tom and I feasted on the leftovers.

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