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Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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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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