Friday, April 30, 2010

Eggplant Stacks and a mighty fine give-away

When you hear a story - it becomes your story. The way it affected you as it was told. What you gained. What you missed. What you translate when you tell it to others. A recipe is like a story - often told as it goes from ingredients to dish to table. As it is shared, every individual takes away something different from the experience. Raw ingredients through the magic of fire are transformed.

The eggplant stacks reveal a tale. Of tomatoes and herbs. Of firm eggplant. Of the earth. And the imagination. Baked, fried, broiled, grilled and stuffed - there are many eggplant tales to tell.
A vegetable once so bitter that it was thought to cause insanity and leprosy is now the mainstay of an Italian ktichen. Oh the stories that are there. The English-speaking world continued to shy away from it and used it as an ornamental plant - dangerous but enticing.

The new strains are not as bitter as in the days of yore, but I slice them and salt them anway. It dries them and removes the soft bitter flavor.

After 30 minutes of salt and enclosed by a paper towel, the eight slices of eggplant are baked for 30 minutes at 350 degree F.

10 cherry tomatoes are chopped and mixed with a handful of basil. A spoonful goes on top of four of the larger eggplant slices. A thin slice of fresh mozzarella goes on top of that. A smaller eggplant slice, another dollop of tomatoes and another mozzarella slice.

A few shavings of Parmesan and chopped Italian parsley and it is ready to revisit the oven. For about ten minutes at 350 degrees F until all is melted and warmed.

I bring it to the table and the story continues. There is silence as one bites into them. Quiet as they are devoured. Mentions of other toppings (olives, nuts, thyme). More silence. And the question, "Is there any more?"
I am remembering the eggplant growing in my front yard in Queens, New York. My daughter is coming to terms with liking eggplant for the first time. (Or is it the cheese?) Transformation. And no endings. For the stories and recipes continue and evolve. I snatch the happy endings when I can.
An e-mail came to me from Bertolli Foods. This is a story - an interesting relationship from a still-evolving Italian cook who cooks from scratch and an Italian foodmaker of prepared foods.
Would I like to go to a Celebrity Chef Event featuring Rocco DiSpirito? Would I enjoy a culinary tour of L.A.? Would I like to host a give-away and bring a reader with me?
How does that fall into my lap? Is it a magical occurrence? It is a new experience - a welcome one - and so I tread into new waters wondering about what new flavors and colors will hypnotize and lure. Dance on my plate and proclaim.
And so I shall begin this process. Beginning Sunday, I shall be airing Webisodes of Into the Heart of Italy and begin the giveaway. I hope you join me. I look forward to meeting one of you in L.A.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Al fresco days: rice salad, pea salad, carrot salad and blondies

It's an early spring. Mint and oregano flourish in the garden. Vegetables are whispers of what they will be in June. An April without snow has been a respite. The patio tables yearns to groan under meals enjoyed outside. And so we have dined "al fresco." Whenever it's possible. Because I live in Minnesota. Where dining outside is a vacation from life. Rice salads showed up at outdoor celebrations in my Italian family. They were different each time - making use of what was available. I've never made the same rice salad twice.
Ingredients beckon. Sometimes I just gobble them up rather than combine and create. In spring, ingredients are signposts. During days when I am falling through the rabbit hole, they appear and say, "Eat me." And I oblige.

Italian Brown Rice Salad - serves 6
Brown Rice - serving for four
6 sprigs of oregano - leaves coarsely chopped
1/2 head radicchio - thinly sliced
1/2 English cucumber - peeled if you wish and thinly sliced
4 radishes - thinly sliced
1/4 cup oil (or less)
white balsamic vinegar to taste (I did about 3 tablespoons)
salt and pepper to taste
Italian Brown Rice Salad Preparation
Cook rice acording to package directions. Cool. Combine with vegetables and herbs. Make ahead: Cover and refrigerate. Just before serving, dress rice salad with oil and vinegar. Season to taste. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Daikon has appeared locally. In another few weeks, the Farmer's Market will be laden with them. 3 ounces provides 34% of your vitamin C RDA requirements. At 18 calories for 3 ounces, it is a nutrional bargain. And it has special enzymes which aids digestion. I feel virtuous using it.

And when peeled, it is a spring-snowy-white.

Paired with shredded carrots, it's an ode to spring. It's a root vegetable - a radish (Dai - large; Kon - root) used a lot in Japanese cooking. Much mellower than it's red-radish cousin, it can be braised, sauteed, eaten raw and fried. Is carrot salad Italian? Grandma would have used red radishes - but otherwise - it is something she would have considered in late summer. When fresh carrots and red peppers were at the market. Grandma was seasonal in a time when everyone was - the markets did not truck from Mexico and beyond.
Daikon-Carrot Salad
1 daikon - peeled and shaved
4 carrots - peeled and shaved
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
4 scallions, chopped coarsely
4 tablespoons of canola oil
2 tablespoons of rice vinegar
Daikon-Carrot Salad Preparation
Combine ingredients. Dress just before serving. Can be served cold or at room temperature.

Growing up, I always said "Never did the apple fall further from the tree" when I thought about my chemist-father. When I was a serious little tyke, he would take me to his lab on Saturday mornings. The other young chemists would "play" for my benefit - pouring two clear liquids together that combined would turn a deep purple. They were magicians. I was enthralled. It would be many years before I figured out that I was indeed my father's daughter - only my chemistry was played out in the kitchen and on paper.

I shelled peas as a kid. Spring peas were spooned into risotto. Last night, my aunt and uncle added it into some pasta I prepared. I prepare a very simple pea salad. Proud Italian Cook has one that elevates it to new heights. Do check it out - her site is a golden ring of Italian sunshine.
Pea Salad
1 package organic frozen peas
3 ounces crumbled goat cheese
3 radishes, thinly sliced
3 scallions, coarsely chopped
6 sprigs of mint, leaves chopped, 1 saced for garnish
6 taplesoons olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Pea Salad Preparation
Defrost peas. Add feta, radishes, scallions and mint. Toss. Just before serving, dress with oil and vinegar. Can be served cold or at room temperature.

A smile of spring on a plate.
National Public Radio has often mentioned driveway moments. When you return home a bit too early in an interview or piece of music that you are compelled to listen to through the end. I have had my husband come out to fetch me as I sat in the car for fifteen minutes. Intrigued, my family wonders, "What is she doing out there?" And so it was last week, when an interview with Colum McCann (author of prize-winning novel Let the Great World Spin.) was aired. I was spellbound. Writing down titles, listening to the nuances of his words, his insight into creating. And I thought, "I must get this for my father." And of course remembered as quickly as I had forgotten. The days of book exchanges were now memories.
And needed something sweet.

And found it on Girlichef's blog (click her link for recipe). Lemon-Mascarpone blondies. A wee bit sour, a little tang, a dash of sweet and a entire fortune of creamy goodness. I added more lemon and reduced the sugar. When I thought about it, it was the taste of my days in April. When the blondies were gone, people did battle over the crumbs.

And I must say, it was an agreeably delicate crumb. A concert of flavors - very much like my days.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Once when wishing was having ...

"There once was a time when wishing was having...."

And so begins a Brothers Grimm tale. And so begins my play In the Village of the Brothers Grimm. A recipe is like that line. An ingredient can invoke a wish "when wishing was having" and you vow to have it. And with cooking - as with enchantment - it is all so possible.
"There once was a time –
Of enchantment and charms –
Of heroes, fair maidens, and sillies who dwelled –
In a land faraway –
In the seasons we call – Once upon a time."

Some strawberries with a dollop of ricotta....

Drizzled with orange blossom honey - and I am back - in once upon a time. In Italy maybe. In Grandma's kitchen in the 1940's - before my time. But not. For all times become "once upon a time."

Dreamy mascarpone cheese. Whipped with two tablespoons of powdered sugar and one teaspoon of vanilla and I have soft pillows for fairies.

The peasant in me emerges as I press the sweetened mascarpone into chocolate dessert shells - prepared by my grocer. My magic wand was out of commission.

Perhaps these are the sweet cakes Simpleton's mother prepared for her children in the Golden Goose.

Or perhaps the Beast left some of these at Beauty's table. Sweet nothings. Try it - everyone needs a sweet nothing in their life.
8 oz mascarpone
2 tbl powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Mix. Press into chocolate dessert shells. Top with berries - your favorite or mix and match. Berry season is here. For one evening you will live happily ever after.
Grimms ends their tales with the story of The Golden Key. And so I ended my play.
In a snowy wood, a young boy is gathering wood. He is shivering from cold and decides to make a fire. He clears the snow for the woods and finds - a golden key. He thinks - if there is a key, there is a chest. And what wonders could be in the chest! And ... he finds the chest. And ... lo and behold the key fits. He turns the key. He opens the chest....

"We must wait as he lifts the lid up – We must wait as he discovers what untold treasures lay in the chest. We must wait."
For there will always be more. And so it is with tales. And so it is with sweet nothings, food and recipes. If we are lucky - there will always be more. Just - be careful what you wish for.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Awful-No-Good-Horrible-Terrible-Trainwreck Ravioli

I started my day by crushing fennel seeds with a little salt. That went exceedingly well. Sometimes accomplishing the most minuscule of tasks gives me an out-of-proportion view of my abilities. These fennel seeds were part of a gift package from Sausage Debauchery. As I breathed in their heady aroma, I could do no wrong. I was-Italiana-cook from the mountains of Italy. I was one with the fennel.
This would be a finishing touch for my non-existent ravioli. I started backwards. My first mistake.

The ravioli filling was delicious - who needed the noodles? I swiped a small ramekin and had a few tablespoons on the side.
Herbed Goat-Cheese Mascarpone Ravioli Filling with a nod to Mario Batali
8 oz creamy, plain goat cheese
8 oz mascarpone
3 tbl chopped rosemary
4 tbl chopped thyme
3 tbl chopped sage
4 tbl chopped Italian parsley
1 tbl freshly ground nutmeg

Whip your goat cheese and mascarpone together till light and fluffy. Add your herbs and nutmeg and combine all until there are herbs in every spoonful. Salt and pepper to taste (I didn't. I was happy with herbs.) I remained on top of the mountain. Grandma would be proud. Her genes glowed.

I finally was able to break open the special "00" flour from Sausage Debauchery. I couldn't wait to sink my hands into some dough. I was in a pounding mood. But I had two laptops sitting on the kitchen table, 8 books, five days of mail, a newspaper, and English muffin and at least 45 pens, so I turned to the mixer.

Who truly did a good job.
Pasta Dough - for 80 raviolis (yes, 80. I need to rethink my life.)
4 cups 00 flour
additional flour for dusting (I used all-purpose)
4 eggs
4 tbl olive oil
a few grinds of salt
(If this sounds suspiciously like Laura Schenone's recipe that is because it is. It is also my mother's, although she says basically, you add flour and eggs until it feel like "this." My mother never really knew what "this" was and so has had a hard time handing me Grandma's wisdom as to ravioli. She didn't get the ravioli gene. Alas and alack, it appears mine is also dormant)

But I did get it all elasticky. I let it rest for an hour, actually cleared the kitchen table and set up my hand-crank pasta machine. (I am not Ms. Schenone - yet. I like the hand-crank machine.) My real challenge was keeping the dough free of animal fur. The fur flies off my dog when she breathes and the cat thinks he is the centerpiece of any table where the action is.

I cut 80 one-inch squares. And put a whopping tablespoon of filling in each. Methinks a wee bit too much.

I folded them into an envelope. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn't. The dough was triple-thick on one side.... and super thin on the other. You may seem where I was going with this.
I dusted wax paper with flour. Put the wax paper on a baking sheet. Laid the raviolis on it. And put on another dusted sheet and laid new raviolis on top of it and another and I was doing that, I actually thought, "This is probably not a good idea. I bet they will be too heavy and stick to each other."
Truer words were never spoken.
On Easter Sunday, I peeled the raviolis from the top (undusted - I know, I know) leaving lots of little tears - in the noodles - on my eyelids. I then put them into gently simmering water so as not to disturb these little guys any more than was necessary.

And the filling leaked into the pasta water. I must say the pasta water was scrumptious - truly a savory, herb mixture. Which was good as I was finishing the raviolis with a Mario Batali method of dusting with the crushed fennel seeds (remember the fennel?), fennel fronds, dried orange peel (dried in the oven for 20 minutes) and - pasta water! Delicious, scrumptious, savory, herby-cheesey pasta water! I would cover my empty ravioli noodles (that now looked like wontons) with herbed-goat cheese pasta water.
I really covered up those noodles. I was not in theatre for nothing. I know how to repaint, re-costume and cover, cover, cover when there are mistakes.

And so I did. And that was Easter dinner.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Italian Easter Wheat Pie

I'm eating this now. Before Easter. Because I can. I don't mind that I got mad at the dough (oh yes, we had words) and the lattice work is sad. It tastes good. This "Pizza du grane" or Italian Easter Wheat Pie has been made every Easter in my memory. The fact that the original recipe feeds Naples works for me. I freeze the pies, give them away. And savor. We all have our fill because my mother and I only make this once a year.

This Easter is divided into the traditional foods my family has always loved and the non-traditional. This is not a traditional Easter with my family - we are too too raw. So we are making some new foods. We don't want to recreate all. We do need to forge ahead. Tomorrow's herbed-goat cheese ravioli will be new. But nobody could give up this pie.

Once upon a time, we could find pastiera in cans. We would lug them home from New York City. In recent years, the cans have dwindled and we have made our own pastiera. This year I made it from wheat berries. Next year, I will make it from farro (a wee bit softer and no need to soak the wheat over night). The wheat is the essence of the pie - it's spring, it's nourishment, new life, new promise.
When you are done cooking the wheat, it will be your pastiera and look like this.

Pastiera: 1 cup wheat berries; 2 cups milk, 1/4 cup cream (can omit) 1/2 cup sugar

Soak wheat berries over night to soften. Change water and boil them for 60-90 minutes - till a bit chewy but not at all crunchy. Drain.
Combine milk, cream and sugar. Stir till sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and gently boil wheat berries for one hour. Drain, cool and put in an airtight container in the refrigerator till ready to use. (Can prepare 3 days ahead). The pastiera also freezes well for six months.
The list of ingredients is long - but it is so simple. Just mix well after each addition. This creamy, rich pie is Easter and spring on a plate. The goodness of cow's milk, the earthiness of sheep's ricotta (I used cow's ricotta), the sweetness of sugar, the spring promise of citron and citrus zest and my mother's addition of chocolate and sprinkles. Ciao Chow Linda has the legend of the pie on her blog. Find it here. You will understand the deep connection Italian families to this pie. Each region (and probably family) has their own recipe. Mine is below.
Italian Easter Wheat Pie Ingredients - makes two deep dish 9-inch pies - with enough left over to make your own personal one - I highly recommend making your own personal one!
4 servings of pasta frolla (pie dough) - your favorite or store-bought
1 cup pastiera
2-1/2 cups ricotta cheese (whole-milk)
1/2-3/4 cup granulated sugar (go with 1/2 cup if you do not want a sweet custard; more if you do)
3 eggs
1 cup milk
1-1/4 Tbl cornstarch
1/8 lb. citron (my family omits this; my mother hates citron - what can I say? We're all opinionated!)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl orange blossom water
zest of one orange
zest of one lemon
1/2 cup chocolate chips (my family's addition)
colored sprinkles (my family's addition)
Italian Easter Wheat Pie Preparation
The trick to making this cheese-custard is to combine well after each addition. The preparation is very easy.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line two 9-inch deep dish pie plates with pie dough. Scatter 1/4 cup of chocolate chips in each.
Beat your ricotta till smooth.
Add your pastiera and sugar and beat.
Add your eggs one at a time and beat after each addition.
Combine 1/2 your milk with the cornstarch. Stir to dissolve. Add the milk with cornstarch, the rest of the milk and cream. Beat well.
Add citron (if using, I do not). Add your orange blossom water and zests and combine.
Pour into prepared pie pans. Cut remaining pipe dough into 1-3 inch wide by 10 inch strips and lattice the top if you wish. (Can leave plain). Cover the top with colored sprinkles.
Bake for one hour. Turn oven off and leave in oven for 10-15 minutes. Cool. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until ready to serve. Can serve at room temperature or cold. Will keep up to five days refrigerated or freeze for up to six months.
While pastiera is hard to find, the grains are not. Both wheat berries and farro (from Bob's Red Mill) can be found in the baking aisles of most grocers these days.

Fill the sweet-cheese-custard mixture to the top.

Lattice it as best you can.

After turning off the oven, let it cool for 10-15 minutes inside the oven before removing it.

When cooled, wrap in plastic and refrigerate. Serve cold or at room temperature. (I prefer room temperature).
I want to thank you all for so many kind words. It was so comforting to read daily. Appreciated. And warmed me. We still all laugh. And we cry. And practice gratitude. As my life returns to a routine, I shall be visiting all of you soon. I miss your inspiration, your nourishment and your gifts. Buona Pasqua and Happy Spring. It's here. In blooms. New life. A new day.