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Posts Tagged ‘escarole’

Three Roman Soups

???????????????????????????????As a title, “Soups Roman Style” doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Marriage Italian Style” and “Divorce Italian Style,” those two mordantly comic films of the ‘60s, but in fact the Roman style of cooking produces some very interesting soups. I’ve recently made three traditional ones from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book of recipes and lore from Rome and Lazio.

All three soups draw an underlying flavor from similar base ingredients, starting with a battuto of pork fat, onion, celery, and parsley, chopped together.

battuto

In each case, after a scoop of battuto is rendered out in the bottom of the soup pot, a small amount of tomato ­– fresh, puree, or paste – is added and cooked briefly. The main liquid is vegetable broth or water. And each soup is finished with a generous dose of grated pecorino cheese, which Rome and points south use much more frequently than they do parmigiano. So much for the similarities: The other ingredients in each one made these soups quite different from one another.

 

Minestra di pasta e patate

Our household really likes a dish of pasta with potatoes. It’s a combination that Americans often think odd – starch and starch! – until they taste it. I’ve enjoyed versions from several regions in Italy and even published one of my own (in my dear departed mini e-cookbook Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce). This Roman version is another good one, and very easy to make.

I stirred quarter-inch cubes of russet potato into the battuto-tomato base, added broth and freshly ground pepper, and simmered until the potatoes were just tender. Then I stirred in a batch of mixed odd bits of soup pasta and continued cooking until they were done. Finally I stirred two tablespoons of grated pecorino right into the soup. Between the cheese and the rather salty broth (I had used vegetable bouillon cubes), no extra salt was needed.

pasta and potato soup

This was a hearty, sturdy soup. More so than any other pasta with potatoes recipe I’ve tried, it had something ineffably Italian about it. I guess that’s the effect of the battuto. Everything blended into a comforting single flavor, given palatal interest by the different textures of potatoes and pasta. We enjoyed it very much.

 

Minestra di quadrucci e piselli

In this recipe, fresh peas take the place of the preceding recipe’s potato; small squares of egg noodles are used instead of dry pasta; and the liquid is water, not broth. This being November, I had to use defrosted peas, but they worked quite well. Again, I’d stirred about two tablespoons of pecorino into the soup pot before serving.

peas and quadrucci soup

This was a much more delicate soup than the previous one, with the almost solo voice of the peas sustaining it. The pecorino wasn’t a strong presence in itself, but it nicely moderated the sweetness of the peas. It felt like a springtime soup – as of course it would have been, in Italy.

 

Minestra di riso e cicoria

Here the main ingredients are rice and chicory – curly endive. If that second recipe was a spring soup, this one is definitely fall or winter fare. There was no chicory in any of my local markets this week, but I was able to make it with its nearest relative in the endive family, escarole. The greens had to be boiled, drained, squeezed, and chopped before going into the soup pot for a few minutes’ sauteeing with the battuto and tomato. Then I stirred in the rice and broth and simmered until the rice was tender. This time, the grated pecorino wasn’t to be stirred into the soup as it finished cooking but rather sprinkled on the individual bowls.

scarole and rice soup

This was a pleasant, mildly flavored soup (escarole being less bitter than chicory), but at the same time comforting and filling – good, hearty, chilly-weather food. The rice took up all the broth so quickly that I had to add quite a bit of water to keep the mixture from almost solidifying. I don’t know whether that might have been because I had on hand only American long-grain rice, not the short-grain riso comune, which Italy prefers for soup.

 

Final Thoughts

I also had to reduce the proportions of all the solid ingredients in all three recipes. An Italian minestra can be made to various degrees of thickness, from a truly soupy substance to what is almost a moistly sauced bowl of pasta or risotto. These recipes were heavily weighted toward the vegetables, pasta, rice, and pecorino. I was making half quantities of recipes indicated as serving four persons, and even with those reductions, my soups easily fed the two of us twice. It did make me wonder if the English translator, who claims to have made adjustments for an American readership, had ever actually made these dishes herself.

I may be becoming a crank on this subject, but too many recipes published today seem not to have had either proper editing or proper testing, making them recipes for failure. In the long run, that may make a lot of beginning cooks give up on the task of preparing their own food – and that’s a small but sad crime against humanity.

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???????????????????????????????I’ve been having fun making recipes from a new book this week: Michele Scicolone’s latest, The Italian Vegetable Cookbook. (Full disclosure: Michele’s a friend, and she gave me the copy.) It’s a handsome book, with lots of mouth-watering photographs of both familiar and novel dishes.

I had quite a time deciding what to try. Here are my first choices.

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Sausage-Stuffed Zucchini Boats

I’d just bought some early zucchini at my Greenmarket, so I was drawn to this recipe. A small problem was that the recipe calls for carving out halved “medium” zucchini, leaving hulls ½-inch thick. My slender ridged ones – a Costata Romanesco type called Gadzooks – were barely more than an inch thick to begin with. I had to make the walls much thinner and worried that they might collapse in the oven.

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I parboiled the hulls and let them drain while I made the stuffing. There’s almost no limit to the number of good things zucchini boats can be filled with. This recipe’s mixture seemed like a very tasty combination – and so it proved to be.

In olive oil I sautéed chopped onion, a crumbled Italian sweet sausage, the zucchini pulp, and a chopped tomato; added a little broth and cooked until the liquid evaporated. Once the mixture had cooled, I stirred in breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, parsley and beaten egg. Though I was making a careful half recipe’s worth (just two portions), it seemed like a lot of filling for my slender boats to accommodate. Happily, they accepted it all – heaped high.

A sprinkling of more parmigiano and into the oven they went for about 20 minutes. The boats didn’t collapse, the stuffing stayed where it had been put, the flavors blended very well, and we were happy with the balance between the savory stuffing and the tender little zucchini. They made an excellent first course for dinner.

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Pasta with Spicy Escarole, Tomatoes, and Olives

Another day, another Greenmarket serendipity. I’d bought a big handsome head of escarole, and here was this handy pasta recipe.

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It turned out to be an archetypical peasant dish from the south of Italy: totally simple, totally meatless, totally satisfying. You just warm sliced garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper in olive oil; add halved cherry tomatoes, chopped black olives, and chopped blanched escarole; sauté everything briefly; then stir in the cooked pasta, some grated pecorino Romano, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. It sounds like nothing much, but – take my word for this – it’s delicious.

escarole pasta

The escarole absorbed some of every single flavor from the other ingredients and made the whole dish surprisingly rich and tantalizing on the palate, given how humble a concoction it was.

I have to say I took a few small liberties with the recipe. It called for whole wheat fusilli, but I had a lot of ordinary penne rigati in my pantry, so I used that instead. After my garlic had been in the pan for a while, it started to darken too much, so I fished it out instead of leaving it in until the end. (No problem: it had left its mark on the dish, as had the crushed red pepper.) Also, we felt it needed a little salt (the recipe has none at all), and we would have liked a few more cherry tomatoes in the sauce mix, just because they were such tasty little morsels.

As we ate, we felt that countless generations of Italian contadini must have eaten countless bushels of pasta prepared very like this, and we were pleased to be continuing such a fine tradition.

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Polenta Berry Cake

OK, blueberries and raspberries aren’t exactly vegetables, so why, you may ask, is this recipe in the book?  Well, since berries aren’t animal or mineral, I guess they count as vegetable.

The sweet cake batter, made with only 1 cup of flour and ⅓ cup of cornmeal (there: some actual vegetable) is rich with butter and eggs. The eggs go in whole, which is easier than adding just the yolks and then having to beat the whites and fold them in separately. The finished batter was very thick – also very finger-licking good.

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The batter gets spread in a buttered and floured break-away pan, the berries are strewn on top and sprinkled with a little more sugar, and the cake bakes for 45 minutes.

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I served the cake to dinner guests, and it was a big hit. The cornmeal had given the crumb a slightly coarse consistency – pleasantly toothsome and not overly sweet. The berries provided just enough moisture and fruit sweetness in each mouthful, and the crunchy edges made a nice contrast for the palate. I foresee that this is going to become a favorite in our household, to be tried with a variety of different fruits as the season progresses.

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So: Three dishes, three winners. That’s a good introduction to a new cookbook.

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December is a killer month for eating. Between dinner parties at home, dinners in friends’ homes, restaurant dinners, and festive business meals, we consume more rich foods and wines in this month than at any time the rest of the year. (Case in point, our Christmas Day dinner, which Tom has written up here for his blog.) When we were young, that was fine – we adored the glorious excess. Now that we’re – let’s say “somewhat” – older, we can’t deal with that level of consumption day after day. We admire and envy our friends who still can, but for us, some intervening days of very simple meals, just by ourselves, are absolutely necessary.

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Here’s a recent one: melted cheese on a paratha, followed by pasta in a prosciutto-tomato sauce and a plain green salad.

dinner 1

This starter might be called an Anglo-Indian dish, except that it’s really nothing at all. For a small first course on a weekday evening, we often take a flaky paratha (purchased frozen from Kalustyan), top it with a good melting cheese (young Asiago is a favorite) – plus, perhaps dollops of something contrasting, sharp or acid or spicy – and grill it in the toaster oven. This evening Tom simply crumbled onto the paratha the remains of a chunk of excellent Colston-Basset Stilton, left over from Christmas dinner. It made a small but very satisfying appetizer.

LTIThe pasta dish is from our cookbook La Tavola Italiana, where it’s called Ziti alla San Giovanni. There are many different southern Italian pasta sauces of that name, and this is one of our favorites. It’s an easy, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts concoction, getting a lot of flavor mileage from a few ounces of prosciutto (some odd bits of which we almost always have in the freezer).

Chopped prosciutto is sauteed briefly in olive oil, then simmered with chopped tomatoes (in winter I use a jar of light tomato sauce, homemade from summer’s San Marzanos). When the pasta is still underdone I stir it into the sauce, along with shredded basil and a generous amount of grated parmigiano. In a final two minutes of cooking, all the flavors are absorbed into the pasta, producing a succulent effect quite different from just dressing fully cooked pasta with sauce and cheese. It’s a really neat bit of culinary alchemy, easy and unstressful and light on the palate.

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Another evening we had an escarole and rice soup, followed by a plain pork roast and a potato spezzatino.

dinner 2

HazanThis modest, reliable soup is from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cook Book. We’ve enjoyed it for many years. You simply sauté escarole in butter and onion, add some broth and cook until the escarole is tender, then stir in Italian short-grain rice (e.g., Arborio, but we like Carnaroli) and additional broth. When the rice is done, turn off the heat, mix in grated parmigiano, and serve. It’s not a dish to change your life, but it’s one to make you happy with the life you have.

I roast loins of Berkshire pork, covered, for three hours at 325°. Long, slow cooking brings out the best of that heritage breed, continually moistening the meat with its own delicious melting fat. This time, I forgot to turn off the oven when I’d intended to, so the roast actually cooked longer than that. Happily, it was still perfectly good. And the cracklings were to die for.

pugliaThe potato spezzatino (the word means stew, but it’s not what we think of as a stew) was the only new recipe I tried for these deliberately homely dinners. It’s basically potatoes braised with tomato, which is a combination we like: even the dullest potatoes become tastier when introduced to a tomato. The recipe I used this time is from Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia: A Culinary Memoir. You partially cook cut-up potatoes in olive oil, bathe them in white wine and boil it off completely, then add a little tomato, bay leaf, and water to cover; cook uncovered until the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes are very soft. The result was good enough, but Tom makes a potatoes-with-tomato dish that’s better than this. Bless him!

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So those were a couple of our recent relief-from-elaborate-eating evenings as the year winds down. Very much needed, they were, after all the seasonal extravagances. Tonight is New Year’s Eve, so we’ll be back to extravagance once again. Champagne, foie gras, our own egg tagliatelle tossed with melted butter and topped with ample shavings of fresh black truffles . . . . But just before 2013 ends, I wanted to create this post to celebrate some of the simple foods that keep us contented in the interstices of elaborate meals. Happy New Interstices, everyone!

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