Friday, April 29, 2011

Pizza Rustica

Lilies and poinsettias. Easter/Christmas. Winter/Spring. And those are my days. As I search for the Mediterranean in Minnesota, I find spring and winter trading barbs. This winter will not go gently into the good night. But spring is getting more demanding.

"You may snow," declares spring. "But you will be melted within the hour."

Our dinners remain a combination of thin-asparagus-pea-shoots-spring and hearty grains. And for a chilly eve, Pizza Rustica welcomes home the spring-chilled family. Packed with vegetables and yes - some fatty meats - this was our traditional night-before Easter meal and just plain - "make it and hope for leftovers for the week." (Fat chance.)

PIZZA RUSTICA - adapted from my mother and Giadi Di Laurentiis

I lightened it - but it's still rich. It's what you want after hiking the hills or weeding the maple tree forest that has taken over the garden. It's what you want when your spirit has a taste for creamy, tangy, spicy, chewy and supple. It's definitely what you want after you scrapped the last 30 pages of your play that you spent a month churning out. Because in the end - it wasn't very good.


  • 1-16 oz package frozen spinach (or save yourself the headache of endlessly draining and saute 1 bag of spinach in smallest amount of olive oil possible until wilted)

  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic

  • salt and pepper top taste

  • 15 oz container whole milk ricotta cheese

  • 1/3 cup freshly-shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano + 2 tablespoons for finishing

  • 3 large egg yolks (make an egg-white omelette the next day)

  • Favorite pastry dough (use frozen if you wish)

  • 2 cups shredded Fontina cheese (can use mozzarella)

  • 6 ounces prosciutto - coarsely chopped

  • 6 ounces thin salami - coarsely chopped

  • (can also add pepperoni if desired)

  • 3 roasted red peppers (or 1 small jar drained), chopped a wee bit

  • 1 large egg, beaten

*NOTE: I don't measure - the amounts are guidelines. Put in more meat, less cheese, more roasted peppers - find your balance and adjust to your tastes. And when the oregano bush springs back to like - I certainly will be incorporating those leaves into the ricotta - or use my basil... or thyme.

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

  2. Squeeze spinach of as much liquid as possible (if using frozen).

  3. Heat oil in medium skillet and add garlic and spinach. Saute briefly.

  4. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.

  5. Blend ricotta, the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the eggs yolks in a medium bowl until smooth. Roll out dough to 1 17-inch round. Transfer dough to a springform pan. (there will be extra dough spilling over.

  6. Sprinkle half the spinach on the bottom of the dough.

  7. Sprinkle 1/2 the Fontina over the spinach.

  8. Then half of the roasted red peppers over the Fontina and half of the meat mixture over the red peppers.

  9. Then half of the ricotta mixture over the meats and repeat. Roll out 2nd dough into a 14-inch round. Place dough over filling. Press to seal with bottom dough (that was overlapping) . Don't let dough press against the sides of the springform pan. Brush top with beaten egg and sprinkle the last 2 tablespoons of Parmigiano-Reggiano on the dough. Bake for about one hour (if dough becomes browned too quickly, cover with tin foil). Let rest 20-30 minutes. Serve hot, warm and it's grand even cold for a picnic.

It works for winter, spring, picnics by the fire, cabins in the mountains, in the hills, by the beach - it just works. And it soothes the soul in the computer room that just deleted half of her play and is now not sure how the story ends.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pasta with Peppers and Goat Cheese - a new tradition

"We don't worry so much about saving traditions. Traditions change all the time. We want to save the culture of food here." Giovanni Rebora in Laura Schenone's The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken.

That quote returns to me again and again during holiday cooking.

Am I keeping the "home fires burning" with traditions? Or saving the culture of memory for my family? Pizza du Grane or Neopolitan Wheat Pie or Easter Grain Pie - it's been made in most Italian families for generations. The wheat symbolizes spring - new birth and new life. Around the country, my cousins are making these. We stir the pastiera together.

Pastiera: soaked and cooked wheat berries later cooked in cream, milk and sugar. There is no shortcut - no microwave recipe. I stir the pastiera as my mother does and as my grandmother did.

I am told my great-grandmother was working in a field when my great-grandfather came by on horseback. Stunned by her beauty, he spoke with her, courted her and married her. She was a coarse peasant (my grandmother's assertion) and his family was not pleased. For great-grandfather was a landowner. It was the 1800's and a caste system was still firmly in place. And that is all I know of her.

As a young child I saw fields from Italy - re-imagined in my own mind as the fields on outer Long Island and New Jersey that I visited. I see her hunched over and then suddenly looking up - the sun momentarily blinding her and finally seeing my great-grandfather. Hard-work and innocence in her eyes. Did she see "love at first sight?" Or escape? And I continue to picture her beauty. It's part fairy tale with a "happily ever after" that would take generations to be true. In the meantime, much bread was broken and years of meals were shared.

With so little knowledge of her, the pastiera binds us. Surely Philomena stirred the pastiera as I did tonight. For Tess - Mary Theresa - my grandmother must have learned the recipe from her. Which was passed down to my mother and aunts without ever writing a word. The baking of the Pizza du Grane has become more than tradition - it's been the cornerstone of my Easters and one of the things that gave my Midwestern children a slice and a surety of their Italian heritage. I think "Pizza du Grane" might have been their first Italian words (spoken in dialect of course). If you want to explore spring, find the recipe here. It's sweet, creamy, a bit chewy and filled with promise.

Good Friday always meant shellfish pasta. Part culture of course - fasting and no meat on Good Friday. Part tradition.

My mother bought no less than 8 pounds of shellfish for dinner for six. And one of those six does not touch fish! Culture or tradition? She feeds a village when she cooks. This is hardly fasting.

Under the shellfish you will find 3 pounds of pasta. For 6 people! There are no protestations when you see the table groaning from excess - for it is not the amount of food that my mother was thinking of - it was the amount of nurturing she wanted to give.

With the shellfish pasta dinner held earlier this month, Good Friday's tradition changed. The busyness of our lives begged for simplicity.

Penne with Peppers and Goat Cheese (adapted from Tastes of Italia) - serves 6

1 pound penne pasta (I used whole wheat)

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 red pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 green pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
(I used a medley of peppers and more than the 3)

2 garlic cloves, sliced thin

4 ounces goat cheese - crumbled

salt and pepper to taste

fresh Italian Parsley - for scattering

Cook penne pasta according to package directions. In a medium-large skillet, heat the oil. When hot but not sizzling add the sliced peppers and garlic. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 15 minutes. Add drained pasta and stir well - coating all well with peppers and the oil. Add the goat cheese and mix well. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving bowl. Scatter parsley and serve.

I will do this again and again. Until it jumps from tradition into the land of "culture." In the heat of the summer when the peppers beg for a new use, I will greedily pick them and steam them in oil. I will endeavor to mix them with pasta and share my bounty. Or maybe I will just slather them on crusty bread and keep them as a guilty secret with just a few scattered crumbs telling of my crime. Maybe they'll be mixed with Fontina or fresh mozzarella or - oh dear my cheese obsession is showing. I'll stop.

A tradition that my daughter keeps alive is the dyeing of the Easter eggs. The egg decorations reveal what has been important to her during the past year. (e.g. we had years of lots and lots of cat-decorated eggs. The Easter cat trumped the Easter bunny every year.)

As you can see, she's moved on from cats. Really. That's a tiger.

And her sweetie is as enamored with decorating eggs as she is. (Although I will say his Humpty Dumpty egg resembled a zombie.)

Tomorrow the colored eggs get baked into Easter breads. And the Biscotti Regina will be baked. (Recipe is here for these sesame delectables: easy recipe, you do not have to stir with my ancestors to get it right.)

Buona Pasqua, Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Spring. I wish you new traditions and old. May spring whisper new promises that bring joy.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Spinach Duet

As spring settles into the grocery store, I greedily scarf up the asparagus and smile at Florida's newly-ripened sweet corn. I skip down produce aisles noting that the distance traveled for a vegetable to reach my table is lessening every day.

I bypass the fresh spinach. In truth, I am a bit of a lazybones. Someone who has perfected the art of vacuuming pet fur off of the couch while sitting on said couch. And as long as I am confessing - I will admit to preferring bagged spinach. Not just prefer - rejoice in it. Remembering the years I served it still containing a grain of sand or two or 30. I love the stuff - when someone else washes it for me. I tell myself about e-coli and eating fresh and local and add another bag of spinach to my cart. In celebration of the greening of spring, lots of spinach came to my table last week. In bags. You have my permission to use the fresh stuff.

This is from Sprigs of Rosemary - a lovely blog that has tickled my fancy and fed my green-genes.

Pasta with Shrimp, Spinach and a little Lemon Cream Sauce - serves 4 in my family where portion control is not a strong point or 6
(Adapted from Sprigs of Rosemary)
1 pound spaghetti
Juice of 1-2 lemons (you need about 1/2 cup)
Zest of the 1-2 lemons (you decide how lemony you want it)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup light cream
½ cup of freshly-shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
1 bag baby spinach
1 pound shrimp, cleaned
salt and pepper to taste

Zest and juice the lemon. Cook pasta adding the shrimp in during the lat two minutes of cooking time. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta water. In same pot (love the "same pot" directions) boil the olive oil, half and half, zest and 1/2 cup of the pasta water together for two minutes over high heat. Return pasta and shrimp to pot and stir until coated. Add the cheese and 1/4 cup lemon juice and toss. If needed, add more pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time until the sauce is at your desired consistency. Add remaining lemon juice, then toss in spinach leaves wilted. Salt and pepper to taste (I like it peppery without much salt). Serve, passing Parmigiano-Reggiano separately.

Or play with this easy (I am all about ease) Chicken-Spinach-Avocado Salad from The Splendid Table. - serves 4

1 bag baby spinach
2 chicken breasts cooked
1-2 avocados
sliced favorite black olives
grape tomatoes
feta cheese crumbles
dressing: equal parts lemon juice and olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Favorite fresh herbs: cilantro, Italian parsley or lemon thyme are all good in this

Toss spinach, chicken, avocados, olives, feta, grape tomatoes and favorite herb together. Whisk equal parts of lemon juice and olive oil together (I did a little less than 1/4 cup of each). Pour desired amount over salad - just moistening it and announce "dinner is served."

Minnesotans woke up this morning relieved to discover that there would be a white Passover after all (and some were worried).

And with temps staying fifteen degrees below normal, one must color those Easter eggs. For finding them in a sea of white could be tricky. Ask the tulips. Or don't. They don't seem to be planning on blooming anytime soon.
And my thanks to The Wine Lady Cooks for this lovely award. Please visit her charming blog and check out her goodies. She is having fun with bacon! And if you are a follower, feel free to add this to your blog. I am deeply appreciative that you spend your precious time with me. "Choosing" is too problematical for me! I am off to audition actors for a play and it's the worst part of the process. There is always a wealth of talent and a scarcity of roles. Just as there remains a wealth of talent in the blogging world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Mussels with Saffron

When Paul was last in Italy there was a hotly contested debate - are the mussels better in Bari or Genoa or in Naples? Paul deftly remained unopinionated. It reminded me of Aunt Fay's infamous question, "Whose lasagna do you like better? Mine or Aunt Roses's" No cousin dared to answer that. We learned diplomacy early in my family. But if you can stand one more easy mussel recipe - this is from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's How to Eat Supper. I got hooked on Lynne Rossetto Kasper during the many years I worked in Hudson, WI and had quite a commute. I looked forward to my Saturday drive home from rehearsal - because it was during Kasper's MPR radio show The Splendid Table. Where she leads I will follow. There was no better way to unwind after four-six hours with 20+ junior high school performers than by listening to food talk.
Kasper says this is French bistro. And it is. It is also Italian. It evokes memories of my family's home in Port Washington, Long Island - where I would leave Manhattan to sit by the docks during sunsets. And sometime after sunrise (I worked in theatre remember and did not get up for sunrises), we would walk down to the docks get a bucket of mussels. Always done with wine and herbs - sometimes with butter - sometimes with cream - every variation sang spring. And still does.

Saffron - can you take a humble dish and elevate it any better? It adds richness, color and depth. Just taking the strand and crumbling them into the broth makes me feel as if I am partaking with gods through the ages.

Spring.... even with snow expected and the fact that there is a mouse invasion (aren't they supposed to come in the autumn) it is blessed spring. And eating light is not a hardship but a desire.


Spring Mussels with Saffron - serves 3-4 (adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 large shallots (I used 3) finely chopped

2 branches fresh thyme

Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

1 small garlic clove, minced

2/3 cup dry white wine

1 pinch of saffron (I lived it up and used two pinches)

1 plum tomato, chopped

1 cup water

4 pounds mussels, rinsed and debearded

1/4 cup fresh Chopped Italian parsley


  1. Heat the oil in a large stockpot.

  2. Set it over medium-high heat and stir in the shallots, thyme, a light sprinkling of salt, and pepper.

  3. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover the pot, and steam the shallots 4 to 5 minutes, or until they're soft and clear. Don't let them brown.

  4. Return the heat to medium high. Stir in the garlic, saffron, chopped tomato and wine. Boil the wine until two-thirds of it evaporates.

  5. Pour in the water, bring it to a simmer, and add the mussels. Cover the pot, turn the heat down to medium, and cook them for 5 minutes.

  6. Once the shells open an inch, the mussels are ready. Immediately lift them out with tongs into soup bowls.

  7. Cook any not fully opened mussels for another 2 minutes. Discard unopened ones. Pile the remaining mussels in the soup bowls and pour in their liquid and sprinkle with parsley.

It's spring without the allergies and mice.* It speaks of open water and not ice. It begs you to slurp and savor.


*A someone who catches mice with Tupperware (let's not talk about Pip the cat who asks the mice if they will play with him), I no longer practice "catch and release" with them. My vet assures me I have to drive the Mouse-face 4 miles away or he will get back to my home. Homing pigeons... homing mice? I draw the line at chauffeuring mice.

But the best part of enjoying mussels after a day of chasing mice and chastising the cat? Slurping. Slurping may be a synonym for spring.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring cooking with a faery hand in hand

    I generally put Italian on my table but when searching for the muse - and words, I go to Ireland. There we've hid our fairy vats Full of berries And of reddest stolen cherries. And of reddest stolen cherries. My beloved Yeats. Imagine my surprise when my "coming-of-age" moon play paralleled Yeats' The Stolen Child. Didn't see that coming. Or did I? `

    • Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. `
    Children - hanging on to innocence. Madrigal, my "faery" from the streets of Belfast.
    I could not get the image of "faery vats of berries" and "reddest stolen cherries" out of my mind. And even though there are indeed signs of spring (my tulips are 1-1/2 inch up from the ground - yes, I measured), vats of berries and reddest stolen cherries are not readily available yet. In honor of the endless winter ending and spring slowly springing, I poached some pears - cherry red. Hailing from Valle d'Aosta - the Italians Alps that borders France and Switzerland, this is a sweetly- spiced dish that lulls you when there's just a wee bit of chill in the air. Valle d'Aosta is said to have a forbidding climate - perfect for warming, spicy concoctions. I suppose if you come from Sicily, you might find it chilly. As an almost-Minnesotan, I may find it warm.
    Pears Poached in Spiced Red Wine* - serves 2
    1. 2 pears, peeled, bottom sliced so the pear can stand on its own (I used bosc pears)
    2. 3/4 cup dry red wine
    3. 1/2 cup sugar 1 cinnamon stick
    4. 3-4 cloves
    5. additional water to cover
    6. *Pomegranate juice and grape juice are good options if you don't cook with wine. Just sugar to-taste - you won't need 1/2 cup.
    7. To finish: I served it with some lemon yogurt and strawberries. Also consider whipped cream or creme fraiche. ` Note: The pears should be ripe - they should not be hard as nails when you buy them. They also shouldn't be over-ripe as they may not hold their shape during cooking. (What a fuss-budget I've become)
    Combine wine, water, cinnamon and cloves in a sauce pan. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add pears and cover with additional water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20-30 minutes until pears are softened, reddened but retain their shape. (You can also use all red wine to cover and skip the water - you decided how alcoholic you wish to be!)

    In honor of the still-to-come green landscape, I turned to wonderful, peppery arugula. (Thank-you Cooking Light.) Combined with cooked barley, chickpeas, salt, pepper and equal parts of olive oil and lemon (just a little), this hearty salad also bids good-bye to the North Wind and welcomes the robin. Vary the amount according to your taste - but do dress lightly and it will stand the test of time (i.e. be ready for your lunch box the next day).

    And the asparagus has returned and I buy a pound every day. From Proud Italian Cook - it's simple: roasted asparagus (asparagus trimmed and roasted in 375 degree oven for 20-25 minutes with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and grape tomatoes). Dressed (again lightly) with equal parts lemon and olive oil, tossed with tangy feta cheese - half of it was missing before I brought it to the table.
    Lest you think my life is a party of pretty words and endless eating, do know that I spent an agonizing day wondering if one of my young characters should have a Dick Tracy spy decoder ring or a Man from U.N.C.L.E. decoder ring or a James Bond one. What will the kids relate to? And so I return to the age of acquarius and faeries... and "spy" toys that come in cereal boxes. While "In the Year 2525" plays in the background. Does Randy say, "Groovy" or "far out?" And if you need some enchantment in your days - look no further... there's magic in these words.