Sunday, November 27, 2011

Carrots in Marsala

Consider this: you have a table laden with turkey, gravy, truly-heart-stopping-clogging mashed potatoes, salads, pumpkin bread, wheat rolls, apple-sausage stuffing and the first thing to go are the carrots.

I began to think "Claudia, you're on to something." The recipe hails from Sicily and the secret star  is Sicily's Marsala wine. The recipe is from Williams-Sonoma's Savoring Italy by Michele Scicolone. With a little butter, a shallot and some Marsala wine,  the carrots are transformed from rabbit-crunchy food to an elegance that speaks of a strand of pearls. And if a living mollusk can create a pearl, it is perfectly reasonable to me that a vegetable garden plus an Italian recipe can produce similar elegance.

Carote in Marsala
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 shallot, chopped
1 pound (500 g) carrots, peeled and sliced thin
salt to taste
1/4 cup (2 fluid ounces, 60 ml dry Marsala)**
(to make this vegan use Earth Balance Butter)

*I used sweet Marsala and I will spare you the reason why; suffice to say - it worked
** Substitutions for Marsala: apple juice with a drop of sherry vinegar and a table spoon of honey (it won't be the same but it will imitate the sweet syrupy glaze)

In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the shallot and saute until just tender. Add the carrots and the salt, reduce heat to low, cover and cook - stirring occasionally - until the carrots are tender - about 20 minutes. If they begin to scorch, add a little bit of water. Add the Marsala and cook, uncovered, until it evaporates (3-4 minutes). Serve immediately.

In this season of rushing, perfection-yearning, overload and "must-do," there is sophistication in this simple prep. It showcases what Italians do so well - make it seasonal and make it the star. The carrots are enriched by the other ingredients but they remain front and center. Time to let the vegetable shine!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuna-Potato Pâté

So here it is two days before Thanksgiving and I am posting a recipe that really doesn't have a "wow" factor. In fact - it's downright humble. But it is - fun. Remember fun? For my daughter, "fun food" is preparing "puppy chow" and settling down with a blanket, a cat and Gilmore Girls. For her mother, it's curling up on the sofa with Italian cookbooks while mindlessly munching on comfort - comfort being this tuna-potato pâté.

The recipe hails from Mary Ann Esposito's Ciao Italia in Tuscany. She calls it Pate di Tonno alla Maria Pia - Maria Pia's Tuna Pate. Maria Pia fashions a fish out of the mashed potato-tuna mixture and then adds homemade mayonnaise as scales on top. She even fashions a fishy-face with capers and parsley! She will then serve it simply with a salad or spring peas.

But since it has been established that I am a great lazybones - especially days before Thanksgiving, I simply dumped the mixture - with a little (store-bought) mayonnaise added into a loaf pan and forgot about it. For three days. As more grocery shopping got done, the pate was relegated to the cavernous back of the fridge - in danger of disappearing forever.

I like it. In fact, everyone liked it. Loved it. "What's in it?" I wanted to make up stuff - an exotic oil, a magical spice. But I confessed, "Mashed potatoes, tuna, mayonnaise and some capers." And my family just nodded their heads as another cracker was spread and eaten.

It's the perfect Sunday appetizer - easy-going: a little tang, a little salt and a whole bunch of smooth. Comfort food with a wee bit of attitude. This can be made days in advance and then trotted out at your whimsy. This will be on the "I'm not hungry, I'll just pick" table this holiday season during marathon baking sessions.

4 medium-sized cooked potatoes, cooled and peeled (about 1-3/4 pounds)
12-ounce can tuna packed in olive oil (Use a nice Italian tuna)
2 tablespoons capers in salt, rinsed
pinch sea salt
1/4-1/3 cup good mayonnaise

Preparation (I love this prep)
Combine all in a large bowl, mixing well. Lightly spray a loaf pan and put mixture in it. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate about six hours or up to three (or more!) days. When ready to serve, simply unmold onto a plate. Serve with breads or crackers. I liked the arugula and thinly sliced radishes with it. The pate is mellow and a little peppery and crunchy bite was welcome. I might even add a dab of tuna on top of the pate.

*I would use three potatoes next time - as I like tuna and would like the pate to be more tuna-intense.

The original recipe from Mary Ann Esposito can be found here

For those celebrating Thanksgiving, I wish you a gracious and grateful Thanksgiving. And to those not in "Thanksgiving-mode," I hope you have a lovely weekend of breaking bread with laughter and love. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ricotta Sformato

I think my New Year's resolution will be to make every Sformato recipe I can find. This recipe came via Deborah Mele who was trying to recreate the ricotta sformato she had at Il Cibreo in Florence. It's a warm, pliable, gentle mass of cheese. I decided it's perfect as an appetizer, as a savory dessert, a light meal with a salad and I may have it for breakfast tomorrow. Cheese and an egg? Sounds like breakfast to me.

Il Cibreo (or rather it's lower-priced trattoria - which is not low-priced, mind you - just lower-priced!) was on my radar thanks to research, Bon Appetit, guidebooks and Ciao Chow Linda. I know that Paul and I blow in the wind when it comes to our meals - so if it worked out - we would go there. And if we were elsewhere and hungry - we would miss it. As it turns out, it was a mere three blocks from our pensione. And when we walked there expecting a wait, we were immediately shown to the last table - and then the line formed outside. Serendipity. We had climbed the Duomo, climbed the Piazalle Michelangelo and were ready to eat. A sampling:

Tomato gelee. That is in my past and my future. When the tomatoes return.

"You will not soon forget their polenta," wrote Ciao Chow Linda when she recommended the trattoria. And I haven't.  I am consumed by it. And if I could go back in time, this is the baby food I would feed my children. Enriched cream puddles - I have never had a softer or purer polenta.

"It's all pureed!" exclaimed my husband and indeed a lot of it is - or rather most of it is molecular gastronomy. Herbs, cheeses, unbearable softness whipped into a sweet purity with nuance that I will always try to create.There is a tale that a mother came in with her infant and while dining tried to feed her infant some baby food and the baby would have none of it. Chef Fabio Picchi (the chef behind Il Cibreo and its offsprings) added some just-grated Parmesan and a dab of olive oil and the infant lapped up the food with gusto!

Veal "meatloaf" studded with pistachios and served with a warming mayonnaise. It really wasn't a meatloaf - it was a sumptuous pate.

Much has been said about the fact that Chef Fabio Picchi doesn't serve pasta. As if it was a badge of honor - but the reality is - the kitchen was too small. When he first started out 30 years ago, his kitchen was not large enough to accommodate huge vats of boiling water - not with all the Tuscan cuisine he wanted to create. So he put pasta on the back-burner and found that he was gaining a reputation for not having pasta. He decided not to mess with fate and has kept pasta off the menu ever since. Pasta is not on the menu - but Tuscany is.

Chocolate covered coffee mousse. Simple. Pure. Decadence.

Now to return to the Ricotta Sformato. I do get to things in my circular fashion. I did mine in ramekins and halved the recipe because there are presently two of us at home (Paul is in Italy) and I would be in great danger of eating all the extra. The recipe posted serves 6. 

Ricotta Sformato Ingredients
1-1/2 cups ricotta cheese (do not use low-fat)
1/2 cup freshly-grated Parmesan Cheese
1 large egg
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons minced basil (I used arugula - it was fresher than the overgrown basil I saw)
salt and pepper to taste

To serve: Tomato sauce and basil or butter and parmigiano-reggiano

I am thinking that next time - and there will be a next time - possibly on Thanksgiving - I will add some mascarpone to make it even richer.

Ricotta Sformato Preparation
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Beat all ingredients in a large bowl until creamy. Put in oiled baking pan (a loaf pan is good) or in 4-6 ramekins and bake 25-30 minutes. (The ramekins will take about 22-25 minutes). Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes. It's important that they "set."

To serve:
Invert ramekins or baking pan onto baking sheet. If using a loaf pan, slice into six pieces. Put a dollop of melted butter and some freshly-grated Parmesan on top and broil for 2-3 minutes until the top is lightly browned. Or simply place on dishes and add a few teaspoons of tomato sauce and basil and serve.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ariosto Seasonings for Pot Roast, Meatballs and Salmon

I mourn the end of herb season. I still run outside every day and snip whatever new shoots have survived the latest frost. I hoard little leaves in baggies - and wonder - who decided which of these wild leaves were edible? Was it trial and error? And what were the repercussions of the error? 

When an inquiry came from Ariosto Seasonings to tried their dried-herb packets - I was intrigued. And the timing was perfect. All that's left of 60 herb plants are 3 slender strands of rosemary, an oregano bush, 6 sage leaves and two tiny parsley leaves. I received packets for meats, potatoes, tomato sauce, fish and pasta.

They contain only herbs, dried vegetables and salt. No MSG - no artificial colorings. Having just read in Cucina Povera _ Tuscan Peasant Cooking (highly recommended) that through the ages Italian women would mince herbs such as rosemary, sage or parsley with an equal amount of salt to flavor their dishes for the week, I decided if it was good enough for Italian women through the centuries, it was good enough for this American/Italian/Scottish/Latvian woman!

Below are recipes for pot roast, meatballs and salmon. They are tried and true - I have been using them for ... dare I say - decades - but now brightened by the seasonings.

I tried them on an American pot roast, in meatballs, tomato sauce and salmon. We were well-fed for the week! The pot roast seasonings contained salt, rosemary, garlic, sage, juniper berries, oregano, thyme and marjoram. I usually do salt, pepper, garlic and onions and call it a day. The seasonings worked.  All was tender. Nothing was left over.

Pot Roast - Italian Style
(From Joan Lunden's Healthy Pot Roast circa 1996)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 pounds rump roast - trimmed
1/2-1 packet Ariosto Seasonings (I previously used salt and pepper)
1 large onion - cut into eighths
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup red wine (or use 2 cups water)
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
2 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 carrots cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup Wondra flour

In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Season roast with Ariosto seasonings or salt and pepper and brown on all sides. Add onions and cook till browned (5 minutes). Add water, wine, broth Worcestershire sauce and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and simmer covered tightly for 2 hours. Periodically check to make sure broth has not reduced too much and add a little water if necessary. Add potatoes and carrots and simmer for 30 more minutes - until they are tender. Put meat and vegetables on platter and tent while you make gravy.

Gravy: Strain liquid, skim off fat and discard it. Measure the liquid - you will need 2-1/2 cups. Simmer down if there is too much or add a little water if there is not enough.  In a small bowel whisk 1/2 cup water with the flour and slowly whisk into liquid/gravy. Bring to a boil and simmer five minutes - whisking the entire time. Pour some over meat and potatoes and serve or if you have a gravy-hating person in your family as I do, serve - passing gravy separately!

Turkey or Chicken Meatballs - makes 20
My father had heart disease early on so my mother looked to lighten many of her traditional dishes. She often used veal - or a mixture of meats - with a little beef. While a turkey or chicken meatball might make some Italian bloggers shudder - I will say my mothers substitutions - borne of necessity always were light, satisfying and never sat like a lump in your stomach! (And she never succumbed to using cottage cheese instead of ricotta!)

(These meatballs also works with beef or a mixture of beef and chicken - I rotate. And don't go looking for exact measurements here! I never make meatballs the exact same way twice - use what you have in your pantry - what herbs are fresh, what tastes delight you - it's down home peasant food made to stretch the meat!)

Meatballs for Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce - makes 20
1 pound ground chicken (or beef or turkey or pork or veal) or a mixture
1/2 seasoning packet Ariosto Seasonings for meat - or for tomato sauce
(I usually use some salt, pepper, fresh or dried oregano or basil, parsley and sometimes thyme)
minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
minced onion (about 1 small)
red pepper flakes (to taste)
2 pieces of bread (I use wheat) crusts removed, soaked in 2-3 tablespoons of milk
1 egg
1/4 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a large bowl mix all well. Form into small meatballs. (1-inch diameter for 20 meatballs). You can now:
1. brown in a skillet in the least mount of oil possible and add to tomato sauce
- or -
2. place on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees F for about 20 minutes - you don't want them completely cooked - you still want the meat to flavor the tomato sauce. Scoop off of baking sheet and add to sauce - that does leave a lot of the fat behind.

The seasoning packets worked very well for the meatballs. For my taste - the seasoning packet was too salty for the tomato sauce. I like a very savory, herb-filled sauce and not a lot of salt. And I am someone who puts a salt lick on her Christmas wish list! But because the packets all do contain salt, I would definitely taste as I go.

And the easiest of all: the salmon!

Put the salmon in the center of a large piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper. Add 1/8-1/4 cup wine (can use fish broth). Add 1/2 packet Ariosto Seasoning for fish or 1 packet (depending on the size of your salmon) over all. Fold foil or parchment into a packet and bake at 350 degrees F for about 20 minutes. (Or grill for 1-15 minutes.) Done!

I will be doing this again and again for those days when I want something easy, quick, healthy and still a wee bit elegant.

The verdict from the family? All were delighted with their week's meals. My daughter and husband never met a food that didn't need more salt. I, on the other hand - salt carefully (which is maybe why other members of my family always add salt!). I will use these when I know that I usually generously salt a particular dish. Or use sparingly - in small amounts as I did for the salmon and meatballs. (The pot roast used an entire packet and was beautifully tenderized by it.) 

This is not fast food. This is enrichment. From May-October, you will find me outside in thunderstorms with my herb scissors snipping away for the day's dinner. From November-April, I look to my Italian seasoning blends and herbes de Provence. The Ariosto Seasonings are a welcome winter pantry item. Ariosto Seasonings are sold in the USA in Massachusetts, North Carolina and New York. For recipes and how to order Ariosto Seasonings, please visit their website.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Warm, Soft, Chestnut Pudding

I may be a water sign but when autumn comes, I am from the earth. I remember bags of roasted chestnuts bought for me on city streets in New York as a girl. My feet were decidedly marching on cement and asphalt but as I munched on the now soft, pliable chestnuts, the earth's crust was never far from me. I still look at piles of fallen leaves longingly. Do not think raking has any allure! I simply want to jump in and feel its warmth and crispness. And while I have become far too sensible to bury myself in the remnants of summer past, I will sit and kneel in blankets of leaves and hope that a rodent doesn't peek out at me!

Warm, soft chestnut pudding will do this to you. It's a romp in a pile of leaves. A hug from the earth. This recipe is from The Rose Pistola Cookbook- a restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. Settled by immigrants from Liguria hoping to strike it big in the California Gold Rush, the recipes in this book combine the bounty of the Italian Riviera with the goodness from the Pacific Ocean. The cookbook reads like fiction and nourishes you to the end. Combining tales of the people who populated the neighborhood as well as the history of the dishes, the book gives a warm embrace to North Beach. And there's none of the "American-red-sauce" mania that swept Italian-American cooking (not that there's anything wrong with that - I was raised on red sauce!).

 Chestnut Pudding Ingredients
(serves 6)
1 quart whole milk
3/4 cup chestnut flour, sifted*
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup honey (chestnut honey is ideal)
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 large eggs, beaten
Whipped cream or ice cream (optional)

  1. Preheat oven 350 degrees F. 
  2. Scald the milk (bring milk almost to a boil and then reduce to simmer) in a heavy, large saucepan.
  3.  Whisk in the chestnut flour - in a steady stream. Bring to a simmer whisking constantly until thickened. (Mine took about 5 minutes.) Remove from heat and let cool - just slightly. 
  4. Add 3 tablespoons of the butter. the honey, salt and eggs and whisk until smooth. (I will confess I had a few lump - it didn't hurt). 
  5. Butter a 12x8-1/2 gratin dish. Pour in the batter and bake for one hour until the top has caramelized and the pudding is set. Remove from oven and serve at once adding whipped cream or ice cream if desired.

It looks a wee bit like pate - all that dense, crumbling brown! Interesting that things that smell of the earth - look like the earth! Aromatic - it announces autumn. Soft and pliable but hints of caramelized honey for surprise. It's a dessert planted firmly in the earth.

But I will have it on my Thanksgiving table. Next time, I will use a pat less butter (it just didn't need it all) and a smaller gratin dish (which will up the cooking time) to have thicker slabs of it. And you can make it ahead of time. It's delicious cold the next day or simply rewarm before serving.

Rose Pistola Restaurant owner Reed Hearon noted in the book, "This pudding is something like an Indian pudding. Its flavor and texture actually comes from the flour." See? Perfect for Thanksgiving.
*I ordered the chestnut flour online from Sausage Debauchery.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Farro-Bean Soup from Lucca

I know I just posted about soup. But bear with me. This isn't just soup - it's a calling card, an invitation, it brings people together. While it may not be world peace, it certainly would entice people to linger together at the bargaining table and get things done. This soup should be served in Washington D.C. It's hard to bicker while savoring this soup.

As it is, it's served in Lucca.

Lucca is the ideal Tuscan town to visit if you have vertigo. It's one of the few towns in Tuscany not perched atop a giant hill (which I deemed mountains). The street layout has not changed much since Roman times. Walking the "walls" (above) afforded views of the town, the duomo and enclosed gardens. The umbrella of chestnut trees and pines spoke of a gracious time.

Inside the town - all was light and shadow. And as we walked the streets, this aroma wafted over me and bid me to follow.

Through narrow streets and alleys that spoke of knowing many years, many people and many histories.

And so we found ourselves at Osteria Via S. Giorgio. The source of the inviting aroma.

The temps were well into the 80's (F) but we both felt that we had no choice. We had to order the soup. It was what brought us here. 

 Made with borlotti beans and farro, the slow simmering coaxes out such rich flavor that conversation ceases for a moment and listening begins.

I love the look of the speckled beans - like tiny eggs waiting to transform. Once cooked, they turn brown but offer such creaminess you want to ask it, "Are you really a legume?"
The recipe was adapted from Mark Bittman's attachment to the soup. I still am working on getting the full-flavored broth right - I am sure it involved things like meaty bones and pancetta.

But meanwhile, this is an awfully good start.

Mark Bittman used water and I used enriched beef broth. Feel free to turn it vegetarian and use water or vegetable stock.

The recipe is ripe for substitutions. Consider white beans instead of borlotti beans - even lentils would work well. Barley can sit in for the farro. And I am thinking adding some reconstituted porcini mushrooms would add earthiness.

Farro-Bean Soup Ingredients (serves 4 generously) 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, sliced thin
salt to taste
pepper to taste
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup farro
1 cup dried borlotti beans (soaked over night or if you are forgetful like me - simmered for 2 hours)
1-14 oz can fire-roasted dice tomatoes (yes, fresh tomatoes would be nice - next July)
6 cups stock or water, add more if necessary
1/4 cup fresh parsley
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to serve

  1. Put oil in large stock pot over medium heat. When hot but not sizzling add onion, celery, carrots, salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables are softened - about 8 minutes. 
  2. Add garlic and stir. Add farro, beans, tomatoes and stock. Stir to combine. 
  3. Bring to a boil and then lower heat so the soup gently simmers. Cook until beans and farro are tender - about 75 minutes. Add stock if necessary. 
  4. Stir in parsley and simmer 3-4 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. 
  5. Serve passing generous portions of the cheese.

The soup will always connect me to the walk under the chestnut trees and the stroll through alleyways - and that search for the sweet aroma. But I promise if you make this on a day you are craving warmth and sustenance and share it with those you care about - you too will also have a connection to this wondrous soup.