Friday, November 30, 2007

Vin Brule`

What is otherwise known as a Hot Toddy in English, our neighborhood barista recently introduced me to the tastes of vin brule` when I complained about my cold. "This will fix you up," he promised. He must know my mom. She always recommends a hot toddy for such ailments. The Italian version tastes sort of like a cross between spiced cider and sweet wine.

1 cup port wine (some Ascolani substitute the local vino cotto)
a shaving of lemon peel
a couple of cloves
a cinnamon stick

Combine them all and heat. Let sit about five minutes for the spices to give off their flavors. Reheat if necessary, strain out the spices and sip. The fumes do as much good as the actual beverage in clearing up blocked noses and chest congestion!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Zuppa dei Fagiolini

Green Bean Soup

I have childhood memories of my nana making a soup of fresh green beans. Some tomato, basil and lots of sweet beans, that much I knew, but I couldn't find the recipe. My mom had never written it down and couldn't remember exactly how to make it. Never mind; I figured it out and I think it tastes pretty darn close to what I remember; at least, the aroma seemed very reminiscent. I found some beautiful long flat beans in the store so I used those, cut into smaller pieces, but any fresh green beans will work nicely.

1/2 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Saute in olive oil in a large pot. Add clean, snapped beans and saute a couple of minutes.
Toss in:
2 tomatoes, chopped - with juices
salt and pepper
pinch of oregano
pinch of thyme
Stir, then add broth to cover. I use a mixture of vegetable and beef broth to taste like veal broth but you can use chicken, beef or vegetable broth, as you desire or have on hand.
Mince five or six basil leaves and add to the pot. Simmer until the beans are cooked. I also sometimes add a couple of handfuls of arborio rice or ditalini (little pasta tubes).

Perfect now that the weather is turning colder and rainy!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Peperoni Cruschi

On recent forays into the Motherland of Lucania (the region of Basilicata, which locals still refer to by its ancient name) I became quite enamored by the local delicacy of peperoni cruschi. The dialect name is paparul crushk, a word that sounds more German than Italian to my ears, but spells delicious whatever way they prefer to pronounce it. The strings of peppers that one sees hanging in the sun to dry are not as fiery as you might think. While they do like the piccanti variety, those are distinctly smaller and not revered as highly as these babies. The longer red peppers are, in fact, a variety of sweet peppers that are strung up much like the chile ristras so common around New Mexico, left to harden in the southern sun.

Once dry they are carefully removed from their stems and fried in extra virgin olive oil, tended to carefully so as not to scorch them. They are then served as an antipasto, and delicious they are, too! Sweet and smoky at the same time, the crunchy treats compliment the local cheese and prosciutto nicely.

Once they are fried, the peperoni cruschi are also crumbled and added to sautéed breadcrumbs then sprinkled over pasta, such as the locally-loved orecchiette.

Back to the hot chile, the slender pods are also dried, but are then preserved in a unique way. They, too, are fried in extra virgin olive oil and then crumbled. They are put in a jar and then the oil used to fry them is poured over the top. Simple, but it infuses the oil with spice as well as the unusual smoky-hot flavor. It is drizzled on cavatelli, on roasted potatoes, and on the local semolina bread.

We just returned from a trip to Basilicata; my cousin there went knocking on doors to rustle up some strings of peperoni for me to bring home. They are drying, but when they're ready I'll fry some up and add some photos.
c 2007 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, August 16, 2007


To say "shrimp scampi" is a Italian, scampi means shrimp (though in this area, at least, gamberi is the word most commonly used). There are numerous ways to prepare the little critters; unfortunately, here in the bel paese most of those ways involve the entire creature...heads, peels and all. Not so hard if it's a plate of large shrimp simply prepared. When it's a sauce it's definitely more of a challenge, especially keeping your shirt clean while you're cleaning the shrimp. I really like the flavor of the pesce fritto here, but I don't see the point in keeping the shrimp whole and then frying have to peel off all that good coating to eat the things!

In the summer when we want to keep the house cool and cook in hurry I like to make this shrimp dish. It's done in minutes and can be eaten as is or served over pasta or rice, making it versatile as well.

Large shrimp
extra virgin olive oil
a clove of garlic, minced
about 1/2 cup white wine
a couple good shakes of peperoncino (crushed red chile flakes)
salt and pepper
about a tablespoon of chopped parsley
about 1 teaspoon of prepared pesto sauce
a squeeze of lemon

In a skillet, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic until slightly softened. Add the shrimp and stir-fry a minute. Splash in the wine, then add the seasonings. Boil a minute longer until the flavors mingle and shrimp are cooked through.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Spaghetti all'Ascolana

A local specialty pasta, this dish makes an appearance on just about every menu in town, especially this time of year when the weather heats up. I'm not sure what tuna has to do with Ascoli Piceno, but they are wild about the stuff around here. The aisles at the supermarket have more varieties of canned tuna than I knew could possibly exist!

Simple ingredients make for a tasty combination, and in the time it takes the spaghetti to cook, dinner is ready...doesn't get much better than that, especially in the summer when you don't want to be spending time in a hot kitchen.

1 pound spaghetti
olive oil
1/2 onion, minced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced (to your taste)
dash red chile flakes
1 C. white wine
1 1/2 C. chopped fresh tomatoes (about 3 tomatoes)
2 cans tuna, packed in olive oil*
a couple of handfuls of green olives (here they use the local Ascoli Tenera variety, which is a very large, mild and meat olive that is not heavily vinegary. But whatever type of green olive you prefer.
Chopped parsley
Pecorino cheese, grated

Put the pot of water to boil for cooking the spaghetti and proceed with the sauce.

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until tender. Add the red chile flakes, a light sprinkling of salt and pepper, the wine and tomatoes and stir well. Add the tuna and simmer about 10 minutes. Toss in the olives, sprinkle with chopped parsley and add to the cooked spaghetti. Top with a grating of pecorino cheese.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Raviolini with Gorgonzola-Tomato Sauce

Raviolini al Gorgonzola-Pomodoro

I love ravioli when they are freshly made. The pasta all’uova shop in town has two varieties…the plump, crescent-shaped ricotta-filled “normal” ravioli, and the little square ones filled with a ground meat and pecorino mixture, known as raviolini. If you can find such a thing, snatch them up! They are delicious. But if not, don’t fret. This recipe works well with any fresh pasta as well as your run-of-the-mill rigatoni (albeit with a different resulting flavor).

It’s simple, too, but impressive enough for guests. Now that fresh tomatoes are in season, it’s perfect.

1 shallot, minced
3 ripe fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped
splash of white wine
salt and pepper
5 or 6 basil leaves
about 3 tbsp. crumbled gorgonzola
about ¼ fresh cream

Saute the shallot in about 1 tbsp. of olive oil until soft. Add the fresh tomatoes and sauté a few minutes until they are soft. Add the wine, basil and salt and pepper, stirring well. Cover and cook about 5 minutes. Add the gorgonzola, stirring until melted. Swirl in the cream and stir well. Pour over the freshly cooked ravioli or pasta.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Stuzzichini Party!

Lately we have become enamored with the aperitivo hour, not just for the nice glass of wine to unwind with, but the little snacks they serve alongside. Called stuzzichini, meaning little teasers, they are presented when you order a drink (including non-alcoholic beverages) in the late afternoon. They are tasty little things, and serve to tide you over until the later dinner hour. We’ve been on a quest to find the best in town.

The US equivalent would be hors d’oeuvres. If you’re planning a get-together, the stuzzichini make nice nibbles.

They can be as simple as a piece of salami or prosciutto on a round of bread and a variety of cheeses, but I like the jazzed-up bites better. For instance:

*Spread pesto on a cracker or bread; top with a marinated artichoke heart or a sun-dried tomato that was packed in oil.
*Hollow out cherry tomatoes and stuff with little mozzarella balls (called cigliegine)
*Hollow the cherry tomatoes and stuff with an anchovy and a piece of asiago cheese
*Spread cooked ham with cream cheese and then pesto, roll up and cut into little rounds
*Spread olive paste (available in little jars in most grocery stores) onto baguette rounds and top with an olive half.
*Top cucumber rounds with slices of tomato, topped with pecorino or casciotta cheese – held together with toothpicks
*Wrap small pieces of thinly-sliced prosciutto around small chunks of honeydew or cantaloupe melon.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Spaghetti alla Vongole

...or, linguini with clam sauce.
Forget about that $12 plate of overcooked noodles dripping with tomato-based sauce and a couple of canned clams floating about that may form your impression of linguini with clams. This dish is much lighter on the palate and very tasty. It's also a snap to prepare.

Here it is usually made with spaghetti rather than linguini. Today, though, I procured a nice helping of hand-cut linguini from pasta all'uovo shop and a nice sack of fresh baby clams at the pescheria. Dinner for less than 5 euro for 2 people!
It's easy to adjust for more servings, or smaller portions.

1/2 pound to 1 pound of fresh baby clams
1 clove garlic, minced
a dash or two of red chile flakes
1 cup white wine
a handful of parsley, minced
1/3 to 1/2 pound spaghetti or linguini

If the clams haven't already been cleaned you'll need to soak them in heavily-salted water for a couple of hours to clean out the grit. Drain and rinse them well.

In a pan large enough to hold the clams heat the olive oil and lightly saute the garlic, red chile flakes and about half the parsley until garlic begins to color. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover, and cook until they open up, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the linguini or spaghetti until al dente. Drain and return to the pot. Add the clams and wine, drizzle on a bit of olive oil, and sprinkle in the parsley, tossing it all well. Serve.

*You can grate on some parmigiano if you want, but here in Italy that is strictly taboo. You may even be reprimanded for it as my step-dad was in a seafood restaurant in Nettuno!

Valerie Schneider 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

From the "Small World" Files

Last week I received a nice email from a lady named Barbara Marx telling me how she’d found La Cucina and enjoyed the recipes. That brought a smile to my face. She mentioned that she made Nana’s Tomato Salad to accompany a recipe she had been given for a Sformato di Cappellini. Incredibly, she is from New Mexico and the dinner she was preparing was for our former neighbors in Corrales, of all people! Bill and Irene lived across the road from us and are sweet people. Receiving the email made us reminisce about our village and neighbors.

How funny that Barbara searched the internet, found my recipe, noted I’m from the same state, and that we have common friends. Kinda cool, huh?

She shared her recipe so I’ml passing it along to you. She said she obtained it from Italian-in-America friend, Daniela Ford.

Sformato di capellini 6-8 people

1 # capellini
2 eggs, beaten
1 # Edam, mozzarella or similar well-melting cheese, finely cubed
1/4 # butter, plus butter for the round casserole baking dish
3/4 C gratred parmesan
1/4 # finely cubed boiled ham
S & P to taste...freshly ground

Generously butter the oven-proof casserole & cover the butter fully with bread crumbs...shake out the excess crumbs. Boil pasta in 6 qts of water, for about 3 minutes, keeping it/molto al dente/ since it will also bake in the oven. Melt the butter in large pan. Mix beaten eggs & grated parmesan with S & P, to taste. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Drain the pasta. Toss the pasta well in the melted butter, so that it is all coated with the butter. Add egg/parmesan mixutre & toss again to cover. Place half the capellini in the casserole, spreading it well to the edges. Scatter cheese & ham cubes evenly over the first layer, then cover them with the second half of the pasta. Spread pasta evenly, dot with flakes of butter & more breadcrumbs. Bake 40-45 min. til top bubbles & turns crispy on the top. Place serving platter up-side down on the casserole & upturn the two together to remove the pasta from the cassserole. ( I simply cut & served it from the baking pan.) Serve with a butter-based tomato sauce or Valerie's fresh tomato "salsa" recipe.

Thanks, Barbara!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lamb-Stuffed Artichoke Hearts

This dish is Greek-inspired, though it tastes very Middle Eastern with the spices and lamb. Though it dramatically raised my butcher's eyebrows when I requested the ground lamb, it is very delicious.

About 1/2 pound of ground lamb
2 TBSP minced parsley
salt and pepper
1/4 tsp. each coriander, cumin and cardamon
1 egg, beaten
Combine all together, mixing well. Set aside.

1 small onion, chopped
2 TBSP pine nuts
about 2 TBSP olive oil
Saute the onion until golden, then add the pine nuts. Stir until the nuts begin to color. Cool.
Add this to the meat mixture.

Clean 5 or 6 artichokes, pulling off all the tough outer leaves and cutting about 1/3 off the tops. Slice in half and scoop out the hairy choke. Fill each with the meat mixure, mounding it up. (Alternatively, if you are able to find frozen artichoke bottoms you can use those for a faster and easier dish!) Place in an oven-proof baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and about one cup of water. Pour into the bottom of the baking dish, cover and bake at 350 for about 30 minutes, until the artichokes are tender and the meat is cooked through.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Risotto Con i Funghi

Risotto with Mushrooms

Following on the heels of successfully getting my previously-mushroom shy hubby to eat the little critters, I quickly prepared another dish he enjoyed. This is amazing! He's never consumed mushrooms before; now he's actually enjoying them! They are in season and we are finding them on every menu and in every little vegetable market...big, plump and freshly harvested. Porcini are around but more difficult to find. Mostly we're seeing the champignon variety.

1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
mushrooms to taste , chopped (I used 2 but they were quite large and meaty)
1 C. arborio rice
white wine (about 1/3 cup)
beef or vegetable broth (about 2 1/2 cups)
salt and pepper to taste
pecorino or parmigiano cheese

Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil. When they're softened, add the mushrooms and salt and pepper, sauteing until they're softening. Add the risotto and stir well, toasting them a few minutes. Splash in the wine, stirring. When it is absorbed, start adding the broth a ladelful at a time, stirring. Continue adding broth until the rice is cooked al dente and the broth is absorbed. Grate in some cheese, stir until melted and creamy. Top with additional cheese.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Hearty Casserole

Being rainy and dreary, and generally winter-feeling, we wanted something a bit hearty and warming for dinner, something that heat the oven and the house, as well as fill us up. A casserole always fit the bill for that description! This one is made with potatoes, a bit of ground beef, and mushrooms. This serves 2 people, but is very easy to double.

You'll need: potatoes, ground beef, mushrooms, a couple carrots, an onion, a clove of garlic, some beef broth, a little cream, sour cream or yogurt.

Peel and thinly slice 2-3 potatoes, as well as 1 or 2 carrots.

In a casserole pan, layer 1/3 of the potatoes, and half the carrots. Reserve the rest.
In a skillet, brown about 1/4 to 1/3 pound of ground beef, (or more if you desire it meatier and heartier). Add half the meat to the casserole pan. Add another layer of potatoes and carrots, the remaining beef, and then finish with the rest of the potatoes.

To the skillet, add a bit of olive oil and saute a small onion, chopped and a clove or two of garlic, minced. When they are softened, add the mushrooms (sliced or chopped) and cook until they are soft and reduced. Sprinkle on about a teaspoon of flour and a dash of ground pepper, continuing to saute to get rid of the raw flour taste. Using about 1/2 cup of beef broth...Add a little of the broth slowly, stirring, until it begins to thicken, then continue adding broth until you have a sauce. Swirl in a tablespoon or two of the cream, sour cream or yogurt, stir well to incorporate and remove from heat. Pour all of it over the casserole, cover and bake for about 25 minutes.

Bryan loved this and he usually avoids eating mushrooms!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Italian Food Myths (Debunked)

Everyone loves Italian cuisine, right? It’s the age-old classic, the restaurant stand-by for untold Americans, the cuisine everyone can agree on when dining out with a group. Trouble is, most Italian food as it is known in America isn’t really la vera cucina Italiana. Let’s debunk a few myths.

Spaghetti and Meatballs, the real classic dish
Actually, no. Sure, you find spaghetti all over the peninsula. It can be topped with the well-known tomato sauce (called a ragu) or with a plentitude of other tasty options. But with a helping of meatballs nestled on top? Never. You might find meatballs on a menu if you are in a rural, down-home kind of place, or dining a casa with a friend. But never the twain shall meet when it come to serving up the duo insieme.

Fettucine Alfredo
Never seen it in these parts. The fat-laden, creamy sauce globbed on so many plates across America is not to be found here. When I tried to explain this sauce to chef friend, Giorgio, he was very confused. “But, who is Alfredo?” he kept asking. Nobody, Gio. There is no one named Alfredo. It’s a made-up dish. “But why?” If you figure out the answer, let me know.

Caesar Salad
This one really confuses us, because it is ubiquitous in so-called Italian restaurants, even those claiming true Italian roots. But the origins of this salad come from a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Go figure. Again, unless you are in a tourist trap in Florence, you won’t find this among the offerings in Italy. In fact, you won’t find any other dressing option except olive oil and vinegar.

Espresso wires you for days
While it’s thick and concentrated-tasting, espresso actually contains less caffeine that a cup of drip-brewed coffee, according to an article in National Geographic (January, 2005). It tastes better, too. The only downside is you down it in about three seconds, so there is no lingering over a cup of joe around here.

Pass the butter
Bread is put on the table as a tool…to soak up sauces and to help you push things onto your fork. Butter or dipping bowls of oil are not provided. And the bread is almost always at room temperature. No warmed bread as a prelude to the meal; no garlic toast either. Sorry to disappoint you.

Grate on the cheese
In the fancy (and mid-range) American Italian restaurants, the waiters come out with the wheely cheese graters to offer you a heaping helping of “parmesan”. Here you don’t get such service but they do bring a dish of pre-grated Parmigiano (or Pecorino, depending on what region you’re in). Unless of course you order a primo dish with seafood in it. You’re not allowed to have cheese on top of spaghetti with clam sauce or shrimp risotto. I think they say it masks the flavors of the delicate fish though I’m not positive on this one; I only know that it is against the rules.

Forget everything you *think* you know about pizza. It should never come with an inch (or more) thick crust. And while we’re at it, the crust should never be stuffed with anything. And it absolutely ought to be cooked in a wood-fired oven. Peperoni is not a meat; they’re sweet bell peppers. Roman pizza is very thin and crispy-crusted with minimal toppings…only enough to taste every flavor. It’s true that Napolitana pizza boasts a bit thicker and chewier crust, but not at all like most American pizza. They are usually served on a plate uncut, leaving you with the likes of a butter knife to tear through the pie and get it to your mouth. But once it’s reached the lips, its oh-so-good. (Yep, a butter knife but no butter provided for the bread. It's a mystery.)

So there you have it. The truth about some of America’s popular notions regarding Italian food. I hope you’re not disappointed. Believe me, the real deal is far better than you could expect based on your experiences at home. We’ve never seen a disappointed face when they’ve tasted their first bite of true cooking here.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider