Archive for the ‘Cheese’ Category

Pasta alla Carbonara

It’s always interesting to look at a recipe for a very different version of a very familiar dish. Will it be as good as the way I make it? Will it be better? My newest cookbook acquisition, Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, offers several opportunities for those comparisons, since I love Roman cuisine. The first recipe I ventured on was pasta alla carbonara, a dish especially dear to Romans and a staple at my house.

Parla 2As the authors – young American food journalists who live in Rome – say, this is a dish whose exact ingredients and technique give rise to passionate argument among Roman cooks (among whom I like to think myself an honorary member). My own recipe, published in Tom’s and my 1988 cookbook La Tavola Italiana, is of course the version I like best, so I looked at theirs with a critical eye. They offer two versions, both with differences from mine, most notably one that makes the sauce in a double boiler. I’d never heard of that, so it’s the one I decided to try.

The book’s recipe begins by having you sauté small strips of guanciale in olive oil, drain it and let it cool.



My recipe starts there too, but it calls for pancetta, because it used to be hard to get guanciale here and pancetta is an accepted alternative in Rome. I dice it smaller and sauté it with onion and a peperoncino, in both olive oil and butter. (Nowadays, I often use bacon, which some say is the original meat ingredient of the dish, created post-WW II, when American GIs brought their bacon and powdered eggs to Rome.)

According to Tasting Rome’s recipe, while the pasta is cooking, you beat together eggs, grated pecorino Romano, black pepper, and water in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, whisking continually until the cheese melts and the mixture thickens.


My recipe calls for simply beating the eggs in a bowl with pecorino and parmigiano, salt, pepper, and parsley.


Back to Parla and Gill: Off heat, you stir the guanciale and the cooked pasta into the sauce in the double boiler; transfer it to individual bowls, and sprinkle each portion with more grated pecorino and black pepper.



That last step was also a very significant difference. In my version, I add slightly underdone pasta to the warm pancetta-onion mixture in its sauté pan, toss over low heat to coat the pasta with butter and oil and finish its cooking; then, off heat, stir in the egg-cheese mixture and serve. That procedure creates a sauce with a very different mouth feel, and one I like a lot better.

For me, the double-boiler sauce was too glutinous, and since I couldn’t coat the pasta first with the mixed fats, it absorbed too much of the sauce and came out tasting flat and floury. And despite how smooth the sauce had seemed in the pan, on the pasta it was somewhat grainy – not pleasant to the tongue. Oh, well – de gustibus.

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Tom and I are just back from ten days in Italy – half in Lazio (the part of that region south of Rome) and half in Rome itself. I indulged in lots of food photography, which I can’t resist displaying over my next few posts.

Starting in the countryside, our travels took us to some very different kinds of places for excellent midday meals.

Lo Scoglio

Our first lunch was at a modest beachfront restaurant in Sabaudia, a resort town on the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Rome. We sat outdoors under a pergola and ate the freshest imaginable fish.

Top left: Penne con grancio (crab). Top right: Spaghetti alle vongole veraci (clams)

Lo Scoglio

Bottom left: Calamari arrosti (stuffed roasted squid). Bottom right: Pesciolini fritti (fried small fish)


Il Funghetto

I’ve written previously about my collection of souvenir plates from Buon Ricordo restaurants. This trip I added a new one from a quite elegant restaurant in a tiny townlet called Borgo Grappa. The special piatto is Coccio del Circeo con primizie dell’Agro Pontino. Coccio is a Lazio name for the fish known as tub gurnard – in the USA, sea robin. Most American fishermen regard it as a pest, but we discovered long ago that it makes a fine substitute for bouillabaisse’s indispensable rascasse. In this dish, it’s cooked in its own broth, with local olive oil and young vegetables from the plains of the region’s former Pontine marshes.

buon ricordo piatto

Another outstanding feature of this surprisingly sophisticated rural restaurant was its white truffle menu, to which Tom succumbed: three courses with truffles, plus desserts, for only €60. My antipasto was a zucchini sformato with buffalo mozzarella, but I also sampled all his dishes. Wonderful truffles! NB: The light was bad for these photos; the truffles were much paler than they look here.

truffle dishesLeft to right: Fonduta ai tartufi, Tagliolini ai tartufi, Dentice ai tartufi


Principe Pallavicini Winery

For one day Tom had arranged a professional visit to Pallavicini, one of the oldest and most esteemed wine estates in the Frascati hills. After a tour of the vineyard and cellars, and a formal tasting of nine wines, our hosts sat down with us to a delightful buffet lunch right in the tasting room.

Clockwise from top left in the photo are several kinds of local salume; little buffalo mozzarellas and pacchini tomatoes; roasted zucchini, eggplant, and peppers; roasted porchetta; vegetable couscous; and fresh buffalo ricottas.



Il Giardino

The Abbazia di Fossanova is a 12th-century ecclesiastical complex near the town of Priverno. It includes the monastery where Thomas Aquinas is believed to have died, as well as an austerely beautiful church. After a fascinating morning’s visit, we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant we saw on our local road back to the coast. This was a time-warp of a rustic place: no décor, no pretensions, no tourists other than us, everyone (including us) drinking the house’s carafe wine, and very good simple food.

One of its specialties was this excellent dish of Cecapreti alla Capra. The pasta was homemade and the sauce was made with lamb (so they said; though capra usually means goat) from mountain sheep in the nearby hills.


This and our other pasta dish, a classic bucatini all’amatriciana, were preceded by grilled scamorza, the local prosciutto di Bassiano, and fritters of rice, potato, and mozzarella. I wish I could show them to you, but my camera was acting up that afternoon and I don’t have photos.


And . . .

We had one more magnificent lunch in Lazio – in fact, the best meal of our entire trip. But I think this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for next week.


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Corn season seems to be running later than usual this year. Maybe this is one of the effects of global warming? Past the middle of October, my local greenmarket still had lots of corn.


I couldn’t resist one last fresh corn indulgence, so I bought some. These late ears weren’t as young and tender as high summer corn, so I browsed my cookbooks for recipes with interesting accompaniments to the main vegetable. Where corn originated seemed a likely place to look, and, sure enough, the Cooking of Latin America volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series offered several promising possibilities. I chose Humitas.

???????????????????????????????Humitas, I learned, is a standby of many South American countries, and the name is given to a large range of related dishes that derive from Andean Indian traditions. This recipe is an Argentinian one, translated as Pureed Corn with Scallions, Green Peppers, and Cheese. It particularly interested me for two reasons. First, unlike most versions of the dish that I’ve explored online for comparison’s sake, it isn’t steamed or boiled in corn husks, like a tamale, but is sautéed. Second, the scallions, green peppers, and cheese that it includes were just the kind of thing I was looking for to pep up my late-season corn.

blenderIn the afternoon I scraped the kernels off four ears of corn and pureed them in a blender, along with a little milk. (The recipe’s specification of a blender is a hint to the age of the cookbook. I’m sure I could have used a food processor instead, but I do have a blender, and I wouldn’t want it to think I don’t care about it any more.) Then I added an egg, a teaspoon of paprika, salt and pepper, and blended that in. It made a velvety puree, which sat peacefully on the kitchen counter until called for.

Toward dinnertime, I softened some chopped scallions and green pepper in butter in a skillet. I poured in the corn mixture and simmered it for just about five minutes, until it thickened a bit more. Finally I stirred in grated Parmesan cheese (which I guess has become a Pan-American ingredient now), which melted in nicely.


It came out looking very like soft scrambled eggs! The flavor was definitely corn, though, and very tasty, though milder than I had been hoping for.

When I make it again – and it can be done with frozen corn, the recipe says, so I don’t have to wait for next year – I’ll increase the quantity of the other ingredients, because they worked so well with it. Maybe add some cayenne too. I’m sure the corn could hold its own among the other flavors.

In fact, since the scallions and green peppers had smelled so good as they were sautéeing by themselves, I prepared more of them to serve alongside the humitas. They all made an excellent combination with the simple sirloin burgers that we had for dinner that evening.


This is a vegetable dish that will work well with any simple broiled or grilled meat – maybe even fish.

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Christmas season is a grand time to enjoy festivities early and often. This past weekend Tom and I kicked off the ritual indulgences with a heart- and stomach-warming Neapolitan dinner for friends.

We started with simple cocktail snacks in the living room: smoked trout mousse, cashews, marcona almonds, and niçoise olives, to accompany a brut spumante of Falanghina from Donna Chiara, a properly Neapolitan wine.

aperitivi 2.

We moved to the table for Naples’ beloved Mozzarella in carroza, using the recipe that I’ve written about here. This utterly simple combination packs an amazing burst of flavor. Start with just a slice of mozzarella, floured and dipped into egg beaten with parmigiano; clap it together with a slice of sandwich bread, similarly floured and dipped; fry the whole until golden in olive oil. This bare-bones combination is almost unimaginably good, with or without a little anchovy sauce alongside. It went beautifully with the 2010 Fiano di Avellino, also from Donna Chiara.



TSOTIKOn the other hand, our pasta dish was not simple. In fact, it almost went to the other extreme. The recipe for Fusilli alla napoletana is from our cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, and it’s a blockbuster. The sauce is a long-cooked ragù, built around a large piece of beef – we like eye of chuck – with chopped onion, celery, carrot, and garlic; pancetta, wine, tomato paste, and olive oil. After about five hours, you remove the meat; cook fusilli (tied with paccheri as Naples’ favorite pasta shape) and toss it with half the sauce and grated parmigiano. Stir ricotta and diced salami into the other half of the sauce, and spread that over the pasta. This is not a glamorous sauce, but it’s one of the tastiest you’ll ever encounter. With it we finished the Fiano and started a 2003 Villa dei Misteri from Mastroberardino – an Aglianico-Piedirosso mix grown in a new vineyard within ancient Pompei.



After a primo as rich as this, you don’t want too large a secondo, and we also wanted to get some more mileage out of all the effort that went into the pasta sauce. So we took the simple option of serving that hunk of beef lightly dressed with some of its own sauce (without the final addition of ricotta and salami that the pasta got). Although it looked very ragged after its long time in the pot, it was still tender, rich, and flavorful. Alongside it, just a bracing sauté of escarole with garlic and olive oil, and some hearty peasant bread: simple, satisfying food, a little diminuendo from the high point of the pasta. We finished the Misteri with it.



The cheese course comprised a sheep, a goat, and a cow: Cacio di Roma, Brunet, and Fromage d’affinois, respectively. (I forgot to take their picture.) None of these from Naples, alas: the only truly characteristic Neapolitan cheese available here is mozzarella, and we had started with that, so we also violated ethnicity with the second red wine, a 1988 Tignanello from Antinori.


LTIFor dessert, I made a Torta di ricotta. This recipe is from our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, and it must be almost the only simple, light Neapolitan dessert in captivity. You beat egg yolks and sugar together, add ricotta and grated lemon rind, then flour and baking powder. Whip egg whites and fold them in, along with some pine nuts. Transfer the mixture to a pie dish, smooth the top, and scatter more pine nuts over it. Bake half an hour. Serve warm or room temperature. It likes wine too.



Finally, there were espressos and grappas, of course. How else to conclude a Neapolitan-style feast?


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The title above is a rendering of Sformato di Parmigiano con Salsa al Pomodoro e Basilico. It may sound better in Italian, but let me assure you, it tastes terrific in any language. In Italy, sformato is a common term for any baked and unmolded dish, sweet or savory. This one is a lovely, light but rich, first course.

I can’t show you a picture of a cookbook for this recipe. It came from a little booklet produced by the Tuscan winery Villa Cafaggio. Several years ago, Tom and I were at a dinner for wine and food writers in New York, sponsored by that excellent wine estate. The press kit contained the recipe booklet. This was the only page from the booklet that I copied and kept, and it has done lovely things for us in the years since. The wine has always done lovely things for us too. For more than 35 years, Stefano Farkas has been producing top-quality Chianti and a few impressive supertuscans at this estate in one of the choicest areas in the Chianti Classico zone. He knows his way around wine as well as he does food. Here’s a picture of the estate:

Anyway, I’ve kept the recipe in my big recipe binder and annotated the page about the versions of the dish I’ve made for different numbers of diners over the course of the years. It’s quite elegant and unexpectedly easy to make. I did it for a dinner for just the two of us this week.

I mixed an egg into a lot of grated parmigiano and set that aside. Brought heavy cream to a boil. (Well, the recipe says boil; I just take it to a simmer.) Dissolved some cornstarch in minimal water in a large bowl. Stirred the hot cream into the cornstarch. Then stirred in the egg-cheese mixture.

At this point, the custard mix can happily sit for a couple of hours – which is especially handy if you’re doing it for a dinner party and want to get as many things done in advance as you can.

When ready, I stirred up the mixture again, poured it into buttered half-cup baking dishes, and put them in the oven in a bain marie for 30 minutes. Actually – I cringe to say – I initially forgot to set up the dishes in the water bath. But I remembered after a very few minutes to pull them out, move them to a pan with a cloth on the bottom to prevent scorching, surround them with boiling water, and slide them back into the oven. Whew!

Here they are, saved from disaster, ready to go back:

Oh, one other little trick to mention: I’d put rounds of parchment paper in the bottom of each mold. They help the finished custards slip neatly out.

During the baking, I heated some light tomato sauce (the last jar from last summer’s home preserving) with chopped fresh basil. When the custards were set I unmolded them onto plates and lapped them with the tomato sauce.

They were, as always, delicious. The texture is silky-velvet, if your mind’s tongue can imagine that combination. The parmigiano flavor is strong but subtle, and the custard is very rich from the cream and egg. The tomato sauce finishes the dish perfectly, the acidity of the tomatoes and the fragrance of the fresh basil counterpointing the creamy cheese custard. I must remember to make these sformati more often!

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Pizza rustica: It isn’t a pizza, as we normally think of one, and – to my mind, at least – it isn’t particularly rustic. But it’s certainly good. A torte is what I’d call this pastry shell baked around a mixture of cured meats and soft cheeses. It can be made with many combinations of ingredients, and all are tasty, hearty, and satisfying.

I’ve read many pizza rustica recipes and tried several versions; my favorite is from Marcella Hazan’s second book, More Classic Italian Cooking. (Both her first two books have been combined, expanded, and reissued as Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, but I’m faithful to the originals.) Hazan’s pizza rustica recipe plays a sweet pasta frolla crust against a creamy, salty filling. It may seem an odd juxtaposition, but it works.

Her pastry is very rich, with a whole stick of butter and two egg yolks to two cups of flour and two tablespoons of sugar. I made it in my new food processor (about which I’ve written recently) – forgetting to use the plastic dough blade, but the steel blade did just fine. The filling mixture was boiled ham, prosciutto, mortadella, ricotta, mozzarella, parmigiano, and – just in case all this wasn’t rich enough – two more egg yolks.

Pizza rustica is traditionally baked in a tall round dish, so it comes out shaped like a drum. I generally use a springform pan. This time I was going to be taking it on a car trip, so I thought I’d try forming it in a loaf pan, in which it could more securely travel. That seemed to work out well: After rolling the pasta frolla thin I cut it in rectangular pieces to line the pan, pressing and smoothing the joins like putty. With the extra pastry, I even managed to put some decorations on the top.


Once we rewarmed the pizza rustica and sliced it, I learned that it’s not entirely a good idea to use that shape. The filling swells a certain amount in the baking, lifting the top crust. When cooled, the filling compresses, leaving a space just under the crust.

A round crust, which doesn’t have such close supporting sides as a loaf shape, will subside gently along with the filling. This was a purely aesthetic flaw, though; the thing was delicious, as always.

As for keeping qualities, Marcella says her pizza rustica will keep for one day unrefrigerated. Mine stayed good for a whole week, both out of and in the refrigerator. Slices needed only to be warmed in the oven to refresh and re-enliven the flavors. Since pasta frolla isn’t flaky or crisp in the way that American piecrust is, it stood up perfectly well to chilling and reheating. Altogether a fine dish for dinner appetizers and casual lunches.

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Guess what! The best mozzarella in carrozza you can eat is not a fried sandwich of the cheese between slices of bread. I know “carrozza” means carriage, and the bread “carriage” is supposed to enclose the mozzarella filling. Almost any recipe you can find says so. But let me tell you – there’s a better way.

I discovered this some years ago, at a tiny neighborhood restaurant in the heart of Naples called La Taverna di Masaniello. Tom and I were served a scrumptious mozzarella in carrozza, and as we looked closely at it, we saw that each beautifully batter-fried serving involved only one slice of bread and one of mozzarella. Hmm, we thought: Why hadn’t the cheese either slid off the bread or started liquefying when it hit the frying oil? When I’d made this dish, I’d always had to seal the edges of the sandwich to keep the mozzarella from oozing out into the oil.

As our excellent meal progressed that evening, this culinary mystery receded from our consciousness. Many months later, back home, I acquired a small promotional cookbook called A Taste of Naples. Amazingly, its recipe for mozzarella in carrozza called for a single slice of bread to be mated with the cheese. Memory returned: I knew I’d have to try it.

On my maiden attempt, we were having a friend to dinner who was a very experienced Italian cook. We all read the recipe carefully. “It can’t work,” our friend said. Tom agreed.  I – ever stubborn – said “Well, maybe not but we’re going to do it this way and see what happens.”

We cut slices of day-old good sandwich bread and same-sized half-inch thick slices of not-too-moist mozzarella. We dredged a piece of each first in flour – just dry as it was – then in a mixture of beaten egg and grated parmigiano. We clapped the bread and cheese slices together, carefully set the pair onto a rack, and went on to prepare the remaining pieces in the same way.

Meanwhile, we had an inch of olive oil heating in a cast-iron skillet. The oil was ready, and we were braced for disaster. Gingerly, we slid in the first combo. It sat there happily and bubbled along.  Ditto the second piece; and so on. Nothing spattered, nothing fell apart, though it quickly became apparent that putting the cheese side down first was the best way to go: The hot oil sealed the batter around the cheese immediately. In about two minutes we gingerly turned them over in the oil – still nothing fell apart.

They behaved as if the bread and mozzarella had been waiting all their life to marry in a frying pan. And after draining them briefly on paper towels (if your oil is hot enough, the neat little packages don’t absorb much), they were the most delicious, golden mozzarella in carroza that we’d ever eaten outside of Naples. So that’s the way I’ve made them ever since.

They are really fantastic – especially if you make them with good homemade bread and buffalo mozzarella, but they’re fine with any decent ingredients.  What’s more, we discovered, you can make them up in quantity hours ahead of time, let them cool on racks, and reheat them in the oven to serve at a dinner party.  They’re not quite as perfect as they are straight out of the frying pan, but unless your guests are old Naples hands, they’ll still think them the best mozzarella in carroza they’ve ever had.

Oh, and I almost forgot! This little sauce gives a nice poke of piquancy to the lushness of the fry: Melt butter, add chopped anchovy filets and stir until they dissolve, and slowly stir in some heavy cream. If you do this ahead of time too, reheat the sauce and stir to recombine the ingredients.

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