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Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Category

When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

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Despite the excessively hot weather we’re having, summer must be starting to wind down: The first local cauliflower is appearing in my Greenmarket. Unseasonable as that seems, I was glad to see it. There’s a dish I’ve been interested in trying for which I’d need a small cauliflower. This little bronzy-green head just filled the bill.
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The recipe I had in mind, from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, is called Cauliflower with Peas. Cauliflower has a strong affinity for Indian spices, as I know from enjoyable meals in Indian restaurants, and this recipe uses a good range of them – mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and asafetida. (Shameful confession here: In every Indian dish I’ve ever made that calls for a pinch of asafetida, I’ve skipped it. And so I did again this time. I haven’t missed it.)

My one-pound cauliflower produced a generous half pound of florets, which I matched with a third of a cup of green peas. The remaining ingredients, all classically Indian, are a fresh hot green chile, a small tomato, grated fresh ginger, and a little chopped cilantro. Indian cooking moves fast, so I had to slice the chile and chop the tomato before going any farther.
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Once all was ready I heated olive oil in a nonstick skillet and threw in the mustard seeds. As soon as they began to pop I added the chile slices and gave them a few stirs.
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Next in went the tomatoes, salt, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and ginger, to be stir-fried for a few minutes.

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Finally, the cauliflower and peas, plus a little water.
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This was to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or until the cauliflower was tender. Well, my cauliflower was not about to be rushed. I had to add three more doses of water and keep things simmering for almost 15 further minutes until the vegetable softened.  Early-season cauliflower are apparently pretty dense.

In an Indian meal the dish would have been ready to serve now, sprinkled with the chopped cilantro. But Jaffrey had offered a very different alternative in her recipe headnote, which I couldn’t resist trying. “I often mix it with cooked penne pasta and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese,” she said.

So I slid my covered skillet to the back of the stove, got some water boiling, and cooked up a batch of penne. Ecco! and namaste.
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It was a very pretty, very fragrant dish. It was also somewhat dry, though, with not enough moist sauce to be absorbed by and flavor the pasta. A big splash of olive oil along with the grated cheese on each dish helped, but essentially the two main components didn’t do anything for each other. The cauliflower itself was fine, with a strong kick from the serrano chile. The peas, tomato, and cilantro mostly blended into a spicy pulp that clung nicely to the florets. But the pasta just sat among the vegetables and appreciated the olive oil and Parmigiano.

Well, no harm done, but no kitchen magic in that combination, either. I’d be happy to make the cauliflower preparation again in the context of an Indian meal, where I think it will be excellent, but I won’t try to bridge the two-cultures gap this way again.

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The occasional days of unseasonably hot weather we’ve experienced lately have activated my craving for full-summer vegetables. Of course there are no local ones yet, nor will there be for weeks and weeks. Nevertheless, I just had to eat something with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. I settled on a suitably summery dish of Spaghetti alla Siracusana, a Sicilian recipe from my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana.
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I bought the firmest eggplant and crispest Bell pepper I could find and opened a can of imported San Marzano tomatoes. The seasonings were capers, anchovy, garlic, and parsley (a substitute for fresh basil), along with generous quantities of olive oil and grated pecorino romano cheese.
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Once the ingredients were prepared, making the sauce was a breeze. I sautéed the diced eggplant, whole garlic clove and chopped anchovy in olive oil for about 7 minutes. I stirred in the pepper strips, chopped tomato, capers, and parsley; covered the pan; and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the peppers were tender. It seemed a bit dry toward the end, so I added a little water.
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I took out the garlic, added salt and generous grindings of black pepper, and set the sauce aside until we were ready to eat. When the spaghetti was cooked, I dressed it with the reheated sauce and half the pecorino. The grated cheese disappeared right into the sauce.
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As you can see, the pasta wasn’t heavily coated with sauce. It’s not supposed to be. The tomato doesn’t turn into a puree but remains in soft little pieces, as do the eggplant and peppers, adding their textures to each forkful. The olive oil provides all the moisture the dish requires. The rest of the grated cheese went to the dinner table, for each person to add as desired.
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This was an enjoyable pasta, with sweet vegetable flavors and mild nuttiness from the cheese – but sadly, only a ghost of what Spaghetti alla Siracusana can be with fully ripe, newly picked eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Good enough to satisfy my pre-season craving, it was an object lesson in why dishes one gets in Italy are often so much more luscious and vibrant than their counterparts in the US. So it wasn’t all I’d hoped for — but it had to do, as the song says, until the real thing comes along.

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Last week Tom and I made our annual spring birding pilgrimage to Cape May, New Jersey, a hotspot for migratory birds. We stay in an oceanfront motel apartment with a kitchen, so we can alternate dining out and dining in. Not to waste birding time with extensive food preparation, we bring along pre-cooked main dishes in a cooler chest. This year our friend Jennifer was with us, so we were cooking for three.
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The appetizers for our first dinner in the apartment were a specialty of Tom’s, elegantly known as “cheese thingies.” For these he lightly pan-cooks 7” frozen parathas, tops them with cheeses and other items as inspiration suggests, and runs them under the broiler until the cheese melts. We brought all the ingredients for these in the cooler chest.

On the left, a thingy with Isle of Mull, a Scottish cheddar, and Greek-style pickled peppers. In the center, one with Puigpedrós, a Catalonian cow cheese, and Italian corallina salame. On the right, Puigpedrós again with chopped onion and pickled jalapeño peppers. Very eclectic and international, eh?

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Our main course was a stew of chunks of skinless, boneless chicken thighs with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green beans, onions, garlic, a few dashes of Cholula hot sauce, white wine, and chicken stock, thickened with flour. I’d made and frozen it several days in advance. It was plain, homey, and tasty.

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The next night we went out for dinner to the Lobster House, a popular dockside restaurant. There we always start with Cape May Salts, an especially succulent local oyster. The three of us happily went through two dozen oysters and then went on to excellent fried soft-shell crabs and fried sea scallops. The menu always offers elaborate creamed seafood concoctions, but we prefer to keep things simple and enjoy the freshness of the prime fish and shellfish.

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At home again the following day, we sat to a mixed antipasto, the components of which also came along with us in the cooler chest: fresh ricotta, mortadella, sweet sopressata, grape tomatoes, a smoked shrimp and crab spread, Venetian-style calf’s liver pâté, and toast triangles.

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The main event was a pan of lasagna that I’d made in advance, baked, and frozen for transport. It was partly a Marcella Hazan-style northern Italian version, with Bolognese meat sauce and béchamel, but with Neapolitan additions of mozzarella and coins of sweet sausage – all between many layers of our thinnest homemade lasagna noodles. Reheating the lasagna in a very hot oven provided nice crunchy end pieces to contrast with the meltingly lush central section.

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.The final dinner of our trip was again at the Lobster House, and again we started with two dozen of our favorite Cape May Salts. We went on to the restaurant’s signature snapper soup (not pictured below), fried flounder and fried calamari. Everything was sparklingly fresh and perfectly cooked.


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Lest you think all we did in Cape May was eat, be assured the birding was fine, even though the weather was a bit dodgy. We got up very early each day and did quite a bit of walking, which was how we worked up appetites for all that food. We logged a total of 93 species of birds over 3½ days.

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Earlier this month Tom came home from a sojourn in Naples with a palate primed for ricotta. He’d been there for “Campania Stories,” an annual five-day event showcasing the wines of the region. Several of the meals provided for the attending journalists had included luscious fresh buffalo- or sheep-milk ricotta, and he longed for more of it.

I was happy to indulge him. Fortunately, we can get good fresh ricotta here now, and though it’s usually from cows’ milk, it’s vastly better than commercial brands filled with stabilizers and preservatives. I promptly acquired some.
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While the ricotta was at its freshest, we had it first in an antipasto: on each plate a big scoop of ricotta, paper-thin slices of felino salame, halved grape tomatoes dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil, and a few fennel-flavored taralli. This reproduced what had been the ubiquitous Neapolitan antipasto during Tom’s trip, and we both reveled in its flavors – an appetizer in the truest sense.
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Our second use of the ricotta was in a pasta recipe from our own cookbook La Tavola Italiana: Maccheroni with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. It’s a breeze to make – the simplicity highlights the ricotta itself, so the freshest, most flavorful ricotta is essential.

I opened a jar of my homemade tomato sauce and heated it up. I cooked the pasta, dressed it lightly with the sauce, then tossed in ricotta (brought to room temperature) and mixed all together well. Contrary to what one might expect, the ricotta lightened the dish and made it surprisingly fresh – not the effect that cheese usually has on pasta.
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There was still enough ricotta left to use in a dessert on another day. Also in La Tavola Italiana is a recipe for a Ricotta and Strawberry Parfait. The ricotta is whipped or beaten until smooth and flavored with sugar, egg yolk, and amaretto liqueur. The cream is heaped on berries that have been hulled, rinsed, and tossed with lemon juice. Slivered almonds go on top.

This day the stores’ strawberries didn’t look very good, so I bought big juicy blackberries instead. And for the liqueur, since I didn’t have any amaretto, I used kirsch. The dish was fine with those substitutions. Once again, the ricotta created a sense of lightness, beautifully complementing the berries and making the dessert a pleasing grace note to the meal that preceded it.
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Neapolitans, says Tom, know a thing or two about dining.

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Orecchiette alla Zia Nina

Have you ever heard of pasta made with flour from burnt wheat? I hadn’t, until the day my friend Livio gave me a bag of dark brown orecchiette, looking for all the world like empty half nutshells. He explained that this was grano arso, an old-time pasta type from Puglia.

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As I’ve learned, grano arso flour was originally made from grains of the scorched wheatstalks left after farmers had burned their fields at the end of the harvest, which the poor were allowed to glean for their own use. It gave a stronger, slightly bitter flavor to the flour and the pasta made from it. Nowadays, grano arso is made from toasted wheat, and the pasta it makes has apparently become fashionable in Italy.

Livio said his elderly aunt, Zia Nina, a formidable lady who lives in Bari and whom Tom and I visited on a trip there many years ago, still makes a delicious dish of grano arso orecchiette – Puglia’s favorite pasta. She serves it in a piquant tomato sauce topped with a lot of grated cacioricotta cheese, and he makes the dish her way too. He also gave me a round of the essential cheese, a firm, dry type made from a mixture of sheep and cow milk, with a recommendation to keep it frozen for easier grating.

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The ordinary cream-colored orecchiette, made from unscorched wheat flour, aren’t among my favorite pastas. They’d always struck me as rather thick and doughy, but I was game to try this unusual variety, as was Tom, who is always open to a new pasta dish. Following Livio’s instructions, I pepped up my own simple tomato sauce with garlic and peperoncino, poured in a good dollop of red wine, and simmered it until it thickened nicely.
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The orecchiette took quite a long time to boil and lost some of their dark color in the water. I finished them for a few minutes in the tomato sauce.
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The only remaining step was to grate the cacioricotta abundantly over each serving. Actually, the amount of cheese shown here wasn’t quite enough. After tasting the pasta, we both grated more into our bowls.
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This was an excellent dish, easily the best orecchiette either of us had eaten. The orecchiette themselves were firmer, more flavorful, and less doughy than the usual ones, and their little hollows served handsomely to collect the zesty sauce and slightly sour cheese: altogether, a happy medley of flavors and textures. I hope Zia Nina would’ve approved.

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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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