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Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

Once again, the year-ending holiday overeating season is upon us. Brisk, chilly weather tends to make us think of rib-sticking edibles, but even so, when one festive dinner party follows another within a day or two, it can be a kindness to guests – and to herself – if a hostess includes one fairly light dish in a multi-course menu.

I have a few of those in my repertoire, and I’ve just added an interesting new one, an appropriate appetizer course for fall or winter. It’s from Alfred Portale’s book Simple Pleasures, and the recipe’s full name is Shaved Fennel, Green Apple, and Pecorino Romano Salad. The dish is indeed simple in composition: for four portions, two Granny Smith apples, two medium fennel bulbs, a lemon, and pecorino Romano cheese. (Here, I used a young pecorino Sardo.)
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However, preparing the ingredients is another story. Portale almost literally means “shaved” to apply to them all, which can be a problem to do without a specialized cutter. Here’s the book’s picture of the dish:
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See how thin the slices are? Tom is a willing and very experienced knife man, but I’d never ask him to try cutting apples and fennel that thin by hand. He’d lose either a finger or his mind.

Happily, I have a neat little vertical mandoline slicer that’s a godsend for this kind of job. I’ve sung its praises here before. It works like a tiny guillotine, and your fingers never come anywhere near the wickedly sharp blade. I forgot to take a photo of it slicing the apples and fennel, but here’s a picture from the earlier use:
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I put all the slices into a big bowl and used a microplane to grate in the zest of a lemon. With a vegetable peeler, I added a flurry of pecorino flakes, and stirred it all together, along with a big dose of a good Sorrento extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground Tellicherry pepper.
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It all came to a huge amount of salad stuff! When I chose the recipe, it hadn’t seemed as if half an apple and half a fennel bulb per person would be too much for an appetizer course, but cut that thin, they seemed to make a bushelful. I put the bowl in the refrigerator until dinnertime, then served out moderate portions, topping each plateful with more of the olive oil and some chopped feathery fennel fronds.
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It made a pretty plate, and a very tasty dish too. This was an inspired combination: crisp, tart green apple, crunchy, anisey fennel, and smooth, sharp cheese, all “married” together by the light, fruity olive oil and tangy lemon zest. We managed to eat quite a lot of it.

 

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Here’s an ingenious pasta creation: fresh spinach cooked in an aglie e olio technique and tossed with freshly cooked linguine and grated Pecorino Romano cheese; all finished with a broiled breadcrumb topping. I came across the recipe in my copy of the old Union Square Café Cookbook, liked it immediately, and made it for dinner the very next day.

BTW, this cookbook is very readable. Danny Meyer’s warm personal voice, Michael Romano’s Italian family traditions, the precise instructions, the strong support for fresh produce from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket, and my own recollections of the great restaurant in its original Greenwich Village location (mere blocks from my home) make it still a star of my cookbook collection.

I easily assembled the ingredients for the dish. The only thing I had to buy was spinach – not local, at this time of year, alas.
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Without the resources of a restaurant to draw on, I found the recipe somewhat more complicated than the simple dish of pasta aglie e olio I usually make, but it could be prepared in stages until almost the very end. Stage One was to assemble the topping. In a little dish I stirred together plain dry breadcrumbs, grated pecorino, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
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Stage Two was to prepare the spinach, starting by rinsing, drying, and chopping it. I slivered three garlic cloves and simmered them over very low heat in three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
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When they had turned a very light golden color, I scooped them out of the pan, sprinkled in half a teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes, and began adding the spinach.
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I tossed and stirred the spinach in the flavored oil until it was limp, then turned off the heat and let it rest. As always, the spinach was vastly reduced in volume.
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Having prepared both spinach and crumb topping in advance, I had no more to do until dinnertime. Then, things had to start moving faster.

I boiled the linguine as usual. Just before draining it, I had to scoop out half a cup of its water, stir it into the spinach, and turn the heat back on under its pan. Then I dumped the drained pasta on top of the spinach and instantly sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated pecorino. (I’m not sure why the bare pasta needed to get the cheese so quickly, but that’s what the recipe wanted.)
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Then I had to mix the pasta thoroughly with the spinach, transfer the entire contents of the pan to a gratin dish, spread on the topping, put the dish under a preheated broiler just long enough to brown the breadcrumbs – about two minutes – and “serve immediately.”

I did all that as quickly as I could, but without the speed and discipline of professional kitchen work, my linguine was no longer piping hot by the time it made it to our plates.
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Even so, it was an excellent dish. The spinach was tender and flavorful, the garlic subdued but pervasive. The breadcrumbs provided a tiny crunch, the grated cheese a slight savory undertone, the red pepper flakes a hint of piquancy. The fruity olive oil combined all the other flavors into a luscious dressing for my good imported linguine.

With all due respect to Danny and Michael, however, I might try a few tiny changes the next time I make this dish:

  • Add a little salt to the final mixture (there was none at all but a speck in the crumb topping and a spoonful in the pasta water)
  • Heat the pan longer on the stove before the transfer to the broiler (maybe draining the pasta a bit sooner, so it finishes its cooking in the pan)
  • Just for good measure, go a bit heavier on the extra virgin olive oil.

Finally, I will say that, just as it was, the small amount of the pasta that we couldn’t finish made a very nice little frittata for a first course at dinner the next evening.

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The recipe for today’s dish is from one of a series of cheerful little spiral-bound Italian cookbooks I used to buy in Rome for about $3, back in the 1980s.

This volume’s title, L’Insolita Fettina, translates as “the unusual slice.” It’s devoted to small cuts of meat and poultry – scallops, medallions, chops, cutlets – with recipes attributed to the famed 20th century chef, gastronome, and cookbook author Luigi Carnacina.

Not all the book’s recipes are Italian, and many are nothing we’d consider unusual today. This one, however, Costolette di vitello alla casalinga, struck me as very unusual: thin veal cutlets cooked in butter with carrots, tomato sauce, and Madeira wine. Hmm: two strong sweetnesses from carrot and wine, two doses of acidity from wine and tomato. How would they get along with each other and with the mild, gentle veal? I had to find out.
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The first thing to do was acquire cutlets. As is the case with many recipes in Italian, the instructions gave no inkling of the desired size or weight. At a guess, then, for two portions (half the recipe), I asked the butcher for two ¼-inch thick slices of veal cutlet. At six ounces apiece, they were long and narrow, so I cut them in half for ease of handling.
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I’d also bought a bunch of freshly dug carrots from my Greenmarket. I washed, peeled, and thinly sliced four ounces worth.
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The carrot rounds went into a large pan with two tablespoons of butter and stewed very gently, covered, for half an hour, until they were tender. A tiny sample of the buttery little nuggets made me want to gobble them up then and there! But I refrained.
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I lifted the carrots out of the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving all the butter; added two more tablespoons of butter and a dribble of olive oil to the pan; raised the heat; and browned my floured, salted, and peppered cutlets in the carrot-flavored butter.
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The next step was to add the Madeira, a bottle of which we’ve long had in our wine closet. In a way, I hated having to open it, because it’s a very fine one: a ten-year-old H&H Verdelho – really too good for cooking. But the recipe needed only ¼ cup, and even opened, it’s said to keep “indefinitely” in a cool place. So I poured the Madeira over the cutlets and cooked until the wine had almost completely evaporated, enjoying the rich aroma as the wine reduced.
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Then in went ¼ cup of simple tomato sauce (with me worrying whether that was a sacrilege against the Madeira).
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In a minute or two I returned the carrots to the pan, cooked everything gently again for a few more minutes to heat it through and blend the flavors. Then, the crucial test: serve the dish and taste.
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So, was it a success? Sadly, it was not.

All those ingredients, each so good in itself, clashed in the cooked dish. The sweet carrot and Madeira flavors had permeated the butter but didn’t do anything for each other. They nearly smothered the delicate veal. The tomato bravely tried to pull everything together, but its acidity just got lost in the sweetness. Maybe someone with a strong sweet tooth would enjoy cutlets done this way, but we found it almost cloying.

I really don’t know how anyone could call this awkward combination “home-style.” Too bad: this was the first disappointment I’ve had from the entire series of little books. I haven’t cooked much else from this volume, and now I’m wondering if the eminent Carnacina gave it anything more than his name.

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“You have to have grown up in Jersey City to understand veal and peppers.” So says my husband, semiseriously (I think!) – who did and does. Heaps of ripe peppers on our favorite Greenmarket farmstand this week reminded Tom that it had been a while since he’d made his long-loved Italian-American dish for us. There was no objection from me!
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Normally, the meat he uses is veal shoulder. In the freezer we had two pounds of boneless veal breast: extras trimmed off a large piece that I’d recently stuffed and roasted for a small dinner party. Would those do? The answer was yes.

“I never knew what cut they used for veal and peppers at the stevedores’ bar where I always ate lunch, that summer when I worked the loading platforms in Port Newark, but it was always delicious. I see no reason our veal breast shouldn’t do just as well.”
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The thin slabs of meat had a large amount of fat, fell, and connective tissue. In long roasting, such excrescences soften or melt on their own. Here, they’d have to be painstakingly stripped away. But Tom has admirable patience for close, delicate work like this, and he managed to produce a bit more than a pound of relatively clean strips of veal.
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He set the pieces to brown in a pan with olive oil, softened some chopped onion with it for five minutes, then added fresh sage leaves, dried oregano, salt, and pepper.
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After stirring everything together for a few minutes he poured in a cup of his homemade mixed-meat-and-vegetable broth and a generous quarter cup of red wine. At that point he’d usually add a few tablespoons of tomato sauce too, but this day he decided to substitute a chopped San Marzano plum tomato, since we had some nice ripe ones on hand.
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Covered, the pan simmered for about two hours. I was deputized to stir it occasionally, to make sure it wasn’t cooking too fast or not at all. Meanwhile, Tom cleaned and cut up three big frying peppers. He likes red ones when they’re available, because they’re sweeter and less acidic than the greens. But greens can be OK too.

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Once the peppers were in the pan, it had a final half hour of simmering and sending out tantalizing aromas. By then, both the veal and the peppers were meltingly tender, and our dinner was ready.
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The only other thing we needed at the table was a big crusty loaf of bread, to sop up the delicious sauce. And wine, of course: Tom chose a 2020 Lacrima Christi from Mastroberardino, the red version rather than the white, for parallel-to-the-peppers reasons: The soft fruit of the red Piedirosso grapes would match the dish better than the acidity of white grapes would have – though he admits that on another day, or if he had used more green peppers, his choice might have gone the other way. “Both wines, red and white, are great with simple, savory dishes like veal and peppers,” he says.

The evening’s dish, by the way, was great, and we did full justice to it. The delicate flavors of the veal and the vegetal sweetness of the peppers came together beautifully from their long simmering in broth, tomato, and red wine. I – who didn’t grow up in New Jersey – was just as happy with it as Tom was.

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Just enough left for a hero sandwich for the next day’s lunch

 

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Even with the mercy of air conditioning, this summer’s heat wave has strongly curbed my enthusiasm for spending very much time at the stove and oven. Still, the appetite needs to be piqued and the animal needs to be fed. So: “light, simple, and tasty” is my current mantra.

I found an appealing recipe for a Tuscan dish of white beans and shrimp in Faith Willinger’s cookbook Red, White & Greens. All it calls for, in addition to the two named items, are tomatoes, basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Praising it highly when made with the freshest ingredients, Willinger says it can also work with canned beans and frozen shrimp, for convenience.

Tempting as that was, I couldn’t bring myself to take the entirely easiest route: I like to cook dried beans myself. However, the only white beans I had in the pantry – marrow beans, which I really love – were getting pretty old, and I feared they’d have lost too much flavor to shine in so simple a preparation.

So I chopped a little carrot, onion, and parsley, and softened the mixture in olive oil. As soon as the beans had finished boiling, I drained them, folded them into that vegetable soffrito, and left it all to insaporate for a few hours. (That’s not an English word, I know. The Italian word insaporire is such an apt description of how flavors blend, I’ve taken it as my own.)
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The rest of the preparation was of the simplest. I washed a handful of cherry tomatoes, from my Greenmarket, and a few basil leaves, from the herb planter I keep on my building’s roof. I briefly boiled a quarter pound of shrimp – from my freezer, as permitted.
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I chopped the tomatoes and basil, cut up the shrimp, and tossed them together with the beans, olive oil, salt, and pepper. It always surprises me how well white beans partner with seafood – not just shrimp, as here, but also in the Tuscan classic bean-and-tuna combination and even, as I’ve written about once – in a stew with clams.
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This hearty salad was excellent as a first course for our dinner and would have made a very nice lunch on its own. We ate it at room temperature, but we could see it would be equally good with both shrimp and beans still warm.

I was sorry that my marrow beans were past their best. The insaporation did help them, but I discarded the ones still left in my pantry. When I make this again I’ll be sure to use newer beans and the freshest shrimps I can lay my hands on. Exactly because the dish is so “light, simple, and tasty,” it really deserves the best components. It almost – almost – made me appreciate the heat wave.

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Seven-P Pasta

No, it’s not a dish made with seven green peas. It’s a dish whose seven main ingredients have names in Italian that start with P. In English, only five are Ps – though I snuck two additional Ps into my dish at the end. It makes a fairly quick, light pasta sauce, nice for warm weather, with what for me is an unusual combination of ingredients. Here they are, in quantities for two portions, downsized from a recipe for six.
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I found the recipe in The Italian Vegetable Book by Michele Scicolone, who tells us she was given it by the cook of the Selvapiana winery in Tuscany while on a visit there. My oenophiliac spouse, who has also visited Selvapiana, thinks very highly of its wines, so he encouraged me to try the dish and, from his wine closet shelves, produced one of its bottles for us to drink with it.
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In a skillet with a little olive oil, I began by gently cooking the first three Ps – pancetta (unsmoked bacon), porro (leek), and peperoncino (crushed red pepper) – until the leek was softened.
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Next, I stirred in the fourth P, the pomodoro: a ripe heirloom tomato that I’d halved and rubbed, cut side down, against a box grater to quickly chop the flesh.
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As soon as the sauce thickened, I poured on the fifth P, panna – heavy cream – and stirred it in. The combination of tomato and cream was something I wasn’t familiar with in Tuscan dishes.
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This made quite a thick sauce already, and there were still two Ps to go. I set the pan aside while I cooked the pasta – the recipe’s requested penne – and saved some of the cooking water.

The seventh P, grated parmesan cheese, then went into the sauce, which really thickened it. I could see why I’d had to save the cooking water, and stirred in a good dose of it, along with all the pasta. Here you see the result, including my first extra English-language P – a little chopped fresh parsley, for a touch of color contrast.

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My second extra P doesn’t show in this photo of the plated pasta, because I didn’t think of it until after tasting the dish. It just cried out for a lashing of freshly ground black pepper.
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These simple ingredients made a very flavorful dish, its rusticity polished a bit by the cream. All in all, a happy combination. The 2004 Selvapiana Fornace that Tom opened was quite unusual and went very well with the dish. He’s done a post about it on his own wine blog.

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I’m away on a non-cooking vacation just now and wanted to leave something to amuse my readers while I’m gone. Friends have told me that sometimes my posts about recipes that didn’t work are more interesting to read than ones that did. For your culinary schadenfreude, therefore, I proudly present some of Diane’s Greatest Misses.

Not Very Mexican Corn Soup

Here’s a recipe I really had to struggle through, arguing with it all the way. Though it produced something edible in the end, I couldn’t feel it was worth the effort. Hard to tell how it was supposed to turn out.

 

Swordfish Bocconcini

I have to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for this one. I didn’t pay enough attention to the instructions, so I did something foolish. The disappointing result probably served me right. Justice can be cruel.

 

Rillettes: A Sad Story

This failure was entirely due to my not being able to find the right cut of pork for the dish. Not wanting to postpone my culinary experiment, I bought what I hoped would serve just as well. Poor choice: It didn’t.

 

French Irish Stew

This time I blame the famous cookbook author. I followed his recipe faithfully, but this dish, which he highly praised, was totally uninteresting. A notorious egoist, he would have been outraged by my opinion.

 

How Not to Make Wine Jelly

I’m not sure why this one failed. As an experienced jam maker, I thought I certainly should be able to make jelly. The instructions were clear, the procedures straightforward. Unfortunately, there was no jelling.

 

One More Strawberry Dessert

This summer pudding took a pretty elaborate effort to make, and it gave only a very minimal reward. There was nothing wrong with the process or the ingredients. The combination just didn’t sing for me.
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Well, however poorly these culinary experiments turned out, they were interesting – and in most cases educational – for me. Win or lose, cooking is an endlessly fascinating activity. If you dip into these little tales, I hope you’ll find my experiences interesting – and maybe a bit instructive – to read.
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Even for the enthusiastic seeker out of new recipes, it’s comforting occasionally to return to long-time familiar dishes, especially when planning a dinner for long-time familiar friends. So it was that I recently turned to my own cookbook La Tavola Italiana and its recipe for Osso Buco all’Antica.

I used to have to buy whole veal shanks for the dish, having the butcher cut them into pieces of necessarily varying sizes, but now it’s easy to buy individual serving-size pieces. Here’s a main course for four.
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My “old-style” version of this northern Italian preparation is different in a few ways from the better-known Milanese version. One is that mine includes mushrooms. My recipe begins by having you soak dried porcini mushrooms in hot water, clean and chop them, and strain and save the soaking water. This time I skipped that step, because I had excellent, strong homemade broth available, and plenty of fresh mushrooms.

So I started by flouring and browning the pieces of veal shank in olive oil.
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I took the browned veal pieces out of the pot and in it sauteed chopped celery, onion, and garlic; a double dose of sliced cremini mushrooms, fresh sage leaves, and rosemary sprigs.
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Next I added white wine and reduced it to half, stirring and scraping brown bits from the bottom of the pan. At this point, most recipes also add chopped canned plum tomatoes and/or tomato paste. Mine uses no tomato at all – only the mushroom soaking liquid or, as this time, my flavorful homemade broth. Last, I stirred in salt, pepper, chopped parsley, and strips of fresh lemon peel, and returned the shanks to the pot.
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Now they had to cook long and gently until they were tender. It’s important to discourage the marrow from oozing out of the bones, so I didn’t turn the pieces at all during their braise – only checked them every 20 minutes or so, made sure they weren’t sticking, and basted the tops with a little of their liquid.
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This batch took longer than usual to get tender – more than two hours of simmering. At the end, I picked out the bits of lemon peel and rosemary stems – because of the mushrooms, the gravy can’t be strained – and served the osso buco over fresh egg pasta.
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Other than its long cooking time, this is a straightforward dish to prepare. The succulent veal and its unctuous marrow blend beautifully with the rich mushroom sauce. It all makes a good, hearty, companionable dish to share with good-hearted companions.

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I’ve just discovered an attractive new recipe for fresh egg pasta, unlike anything I’ve made before. That was surprise enough, given how many years I’ve been cooking pasta, but the dish has a number of virtues. It’s quick and easy, lush and creamy, lively and cheerful. Quite pretty too, with a springlike light green sauce.

The recipe, called Fettuccine with Ricotta and Crushed Peas, is from The Italian Vegetable Book, by Michele Scicolone. Written to serve eight, the recipe was easy to scale down. I had no fettuccine on hand, so I substituted pappardelle, wider strips of egg pasta: four ounces for two first-course portions. The other ingredients were ¼ cup of fresh ricotta, ¼ cup of green peas, ¼ cup of grated Parmigiano, and 2 tablespoons of chopped scallion.
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The recipe actually specifies frozen peas – nice for when it’s not fresh pea season, though I imagine fresh ones would work just as well. I boiled these small, sweet imported Italian peas for just one minute.
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I scooped them out of the water (which I saved for cooking the pasta), patted them dry, and put them in my mini food processor, along with the scallions.
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The little machine doesn’t have enough power to fully puree the peas, but it crushed them thoroughly enough. Next I added the ricotta, salt, and pepper.
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The combination whipped into a thick, nubbly cream. That was the sauce.
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When we were ready to eat, I brought the pot of water back to a boil and cooked the pappardelle. Saving a little of the water in case it was needed to thin the sauce, I drained the pasta, quickly returned it to the empty pot, and stirred in all the sauce. It did need a bit of extra water to coat the pappardelle smoothly.
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I divided the pasta between two warmed bowls and topped each with the grated Parmigiano and freshly ground black pepper. Delicious!
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It was time to try another new chicken recipe. Though I already know many good ones, I love chicken, and I like to keep expanding my repertoire. What I found is in a cookbook from which I’d made a good chicken discovery ten years ago, and is on the very page facing that earlier recipe. A double header, indeed.

The book is The Tuscan Cookbook, by Wilma Pezzini. My first chicken recipe of hers, simple and delicious, was for Tuscan fried chicken. This one is even simpler, very pleasant, and – like many Italian recipes – depends strongly on the quality of the chicken itself. Called pollo in umido con cipolla, it’s translated as “chicken and onion stew” but since sliced onions are the only other solid ingredient, the dish is more what I’d call a braise.

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To begin, the onions are briefly softened in olive oil and butter.

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The onions come out to a plate and the chicken, salted and peppered, goes in for browning. From this point on, as you’ll see, the chicken pieces simply repose in their pan, being turned from time to time, as various flavorings are introduced to them. Very little work for the cook.
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My onions went back in, to nestle around the chicken, along with one tiny peperoncino (dried hot red pepper) and, for my half recipe, half a cup of white wine.

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The chicken cooked for 10 minutes uncovered, then 5 more covered. By then the wine had nearly evaporated and the onion and chicken juices were beginning to combine with it into a little sauce.
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Next, I bathed the chicken with ¼ cup of hot water in which I’d dissolved ½ tablespoon of tomato paste.
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Covered again, the pan cooked for a final 15 minutes, until the chicken was perfectly tender. The sauce had smoothed and thickened, as the onions virtually melted right into it.
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I served the chicken with gentle accompaniments: boiled German butterball potatoes and sauteed eggplant cubes. A very comfortable, homey dinner plate they made together. This was a nice, easy way to lightly “dress up” good chicken.
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