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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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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.

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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.

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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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The proper Italian way to eat pasta is as a primo – a first course – with a secondo of (usually) meat, fish, or fowl to follow. That pattern doesn’t always fit my everyday dinners. Sometimes the pasta dish is so good that I want a lot of it: so much that I’ll have no appetite for another substantial course afterward. And sometimes I don’t want to (or can’t) spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing the evening meal.

LTIBut Tom and I do like to have two interesting courses at dinner, and we do love pasta. So on those days I need to choose pasta recipes that are not too elaborate to make, and in amounts that are not too filling. In the past week I made two from our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana. Though the book’s recipes are scaled for one pound of pasta, these two are easy to cut back for only a quarter of a pound – a nice, modest amount to begin a homey dinner for two.

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Tubetti with Broccoli

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This is a dish from Puglia, a region in southern Italy where they do excellent things with small amounts of vegetables and large amounts of pecorino romano cheese. The pasta sauce base is a brief sauté of garlic, onion, hot red pepper, and chopped anchovy in generous olive oil. For this meal I used only the florets from half a pound of broccoli.

broccoli for roastingThe recipe says to boil them until done but still firm, which is what I usually do — saving the cooking water and using it again for the pasta. This time I tried a variation: I coated the florets with olive oil and lemon juice and roasted them in a 425° oven for 15 minutes, stirring them around once or twice.

Then it was just a matter of boiling my four ounces of pasta, tossing it with the broccoli and the anchovy-flavored oil, and serving it with freshly grated pecorino. Very tasty! I liked my roasted-broccoli variant very much. It gave a little more richness and some textural crunch to this very simple dish, which we followed with an equally simple second course of baked whiting and green salad.

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Rigatoni with Sausage and Ricotta

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This peasant dish is from Basilicata, the region just west of Puglia. For two primo portions I needed only ¼ pound of luganega, ¼ pound of pasta, ⅓ cup of ricotta, and – again – freshly grated pecorino. (The south of Italy loves pecorino as much as the north dotes on parmigiano.)

luganega 1Luganega, a sweet sausage made with parsley and cheese, is widely available here from Italian specialty butchers, but our book has a recipe for making it from scratch, in case of need.

I skinned my sausage, crumbled it into a small pot, added ¼ cup of water, covered that, and cooked it gently for 10 minutes. While the rigatoni was cooking I pushed the ricotta through a sieve into a serving bowl and gradually stirred in the sausage cooking liquid to make a light cream. Then I added the sausage bits and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. When the pasta was done I added it to the sauce, tossed with two tablespoons of grated pecorino, and served.

The smooth white sauce tastes creamy and remarkably sophisticated, given how little there is to it. The hot pasta absorbs some of it instantly and wears the rest as a coat. The sausage bits provide additional rich flavor. A truly good little dish! We followed it with broiled lamb chops and plain boiled spinach.

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For the past eight months I’ve been trying – and failing – to reproduce the fabulous pastry crust that I had on dessert tarts in Rome during my last trip there. This week I almost, almost had it!

As I bemoaned in a post here in April, no French, American, or Italian pastry recipe I could find produced that soft, sweet, crumbly Roman crust. In subsequent months I kept trying different variations, all of which made perfectly fine desserts, but none was anything like what I wanted.

But I’m nothing if not stubborn. And my persistence has paid off – mostly. Let me show you how close I’ve come. On the left, the wonderful crostata di ricotta e visciole that I ate at Trattoria Lilli in Rome; on the right the ricotta and wild cherry jam tart that I made this week.

2 crostate

What you aren’t seeing on my own tart is the outside rim of the crust – it was too thick and it browned too much; it also kept breaking and falling off, so I just trimmed off the excess before serving. (Even overdone, the edges tasted pretty good, but I couldn’t get a nice photo with it on.)

My crust this time was the product of a lot of research. I read as much as I could find about tender versus flaky pastry. I downloaded five recipes for the Roman crostata from the Internet, three in Italian and two in English. I laid out a big chart showing the quantities of each ingredient in each recipe. For 500 grams (about 3 cups) of flour, the quantities of sugar, butter, and egg varied a lot. (For instance, 10 versus 5 ounces of butter; and 5 egg yolks versus 1 yolk and 1 whole egg.)

The techniques of the recipes varied too. First, all the Italian recipes specified 00 flour. That Italian type is much more finely milled than even American cake flour, some of which I’d tried in one of my earlier attempts. This time I used all 00.

Second, while the Italian recipes were very offhand about how to mix the dough, one of the English-language ones gave very explicit instructions. Instead of the typical way – cutting cold butter into the dry ingredients and then adding the liquid – it had me beating sugar and egg yolks together, then beating in 2½ sticks’ worth of room-temperature butter.

That made a slurry that was almost like a cake batter. Then I added the flour gradually. Apparently, soft butter gloms into the flour molecules, rather than staying in little cold blobs, which are what keep the flour layers separate, forming flaky strata (the way cold butter in puff pastry behaves). At least, that’s what I think happens.

The result didn’t look much like normal pastry dough:

dough 3

One of the Italian recipes said the dough should be briccioloso – gravelly! I don’t know about that, but when I pressed it all together into a ball to refrigerate it, it was very firm and silky, giving me high hopes.

Unfortunately, a day later, when I went to roll it out for the tart, the dough was excessively crumbly. I could NOT get it to hold together in a round big enough to line a pie dish, even rolling the dough between sheets of waxed paper. It just shattered the moment I tried to pick it up. I had to fit broken-off pieces together and mold a bottom crust with my fingers, which meant more manipulation than pastry dough really should receive.

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In retrospect, I think I didn’t use enough egg yolks. I didn’t want to try moistening the dough with water, because I’d read that water activates the gluten in flour, and gluten is the enemy of tender pastry. So, soldiering on for good or ill, I filled my tart shell first with a layer of the traditional Roman wild cherry jam (hard to get in stores here, but I’d found some) and then with (again Roman-style) sheep-milk ricotta mixed with confectioners’ sugar.

I knew I was never going to get a full top crust of my pastry onto that tart in one piece, so I made a lattice with pastry strips, which mercifully didn’t fall apart – perhaps because the butter in the dough had warmed up enough to make it more malleable. Then I baked it, let it cool, and dusted it with confectioners’ sugar for serving.

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This was the real thing! Not yet a perfect Roman crostata, but within reach of it. My recipe just needed a few tweaks. The pastry was somewhat too hard on the bottom from all that manipulation, and also too thick and brown at the edges. But the center part of the top crust, which had been in touch with the moisture of the ricotta, was exactly like the real Roman version – at last! My filling would have liked a little less ricotta and a little more jam. Still, the flavors I remembered so fondly were there. Hooray!

I have quite a bit of pastry dough left over, which I’ve frozen. After the holidays, when I’m ready for another small experimental crostata, I’ll try to fine-tune the recipe. I might try softening the defrosted dough by working a little egg white into it. One of these days I’ll get it completely right.

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Just one new recipe tonight: Baked Ricotta and Spinach Tart, from the first Union Square Café Cookbook. We had it for a main course, following a successful little appetizer invention of Tom’s – a pita topped with chopped red pepper, tomato, olives, onion, and corallina (a Roman salami, carried back illicitly by him from an Italian trip), warmed under the broiler. Drank our last Chénas of the season, which was just fine.

The tart was good enough. But, first, its name was sort of PR overkill. How else would you cook a tart except baking it? (NB: It wasn’t that the recipe called for baked ricotta, only for the regular fresh kind.) And second, though I try not to be an Italian culinary chauvinist, really it was just a simplified pizza rustica.

The pastry was pure butter and flour, and the recipe made a rather big deal about the temperature of the butter and the requirement to first chill the dough in the refrigerator and then freeze the tart shell, set in a springform pan. (You were also supposed to mix the dough by hand but I wickedly used the Cuisinart, which took about 15 seconds.) The sequence of steps in the recipe was not how I’d have done them, for logic and efficiency.

The filling was ricotta, spinach, onion, prosciutto, some egg to bind, marjoram and nutmeg.  It would’ve made a nice ravioli filling. The pastry, decent as it was, didn’t do much for it. A truly Italian version would use a sweetened pasta frolla, which would’ve gone better with the filling. In fact, Marcella Hazan’s wonderful pizza rustica would’ve blown this dish out of the water. We used sheep’s milk ricotta and prosciutto di Parma from BuonItalia, and I’m not sure the dish repaid ingredients of that quality. Sorry, Michael Romano – I like many other things in this cookbook, but though this may have been a treasured recipe of your family’s, it’s not going to be one of mine.

However, I learned a useful new trick from this recipe: You can just sauté spinach in a pan with a bit of olive oil. No need to wilt it down in water, which you then have to squeeze out and smash the delicate spinach cells in doing so.  Something to remember!

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