Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pour On The Polenta!

One of the Christmas-time traditions we have came to look forward to is the polentone, or big polenta feast.  Each year on Santo Stefano, the day after Christmas, our friend Giorgio would simmer up some sauce, stir up a pot of polenta, and serve it up on a big board, crowned with plump sausages.  The board pulled double duty as serving tray and dinner plate, as everyone was provided with only a fork and told to go to town on the section in front of them.  He cleverly put the meat and mushrooms in the middle of the polenta, so you had to "fare una strada" (make a road) through the polenta to reach the rich stuff.

It's a fun tradition and a great meal concept that really encourages joviality and interaction.  Giorgio has two enormous wooden boards that he uses for his polentone.  We couldn't find anything suitable for our US version, so we went to a restaurant supply store and purchased two industrial-sized baking sheets for our festa, which worked very well.

This method of serving polenta originates from Abruzzo, where its toppings vary depending on province.  Some places serve it with sausages, other traditions use porcini mushrooms, while some prefer lamb pieces.  It is always generously dusted with roughly-grated aged pecorino cheese.

For the Sauce:

3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
2/3 cup dry red wine
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
Fresh sausage (spicy or mild) - enough for the number of guests
1/2 cup mushroom broth (soak dried mushrooms in 1/2 cup of hot water for 1/2 hour; or use a mushroom broth boullion cube), or rich vegetable stock

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until soft but not brown. Add the wine and allow to partially evaporate, then add the tomatoes and a little salt and pepper. Cut the sausages in half if they are long, poke each with a fork, and drop into the sauce*. Add the mushroom broth, cover and let simmer about 1 hour. Uncover and let simmer another 1/2 hour.

*I put the sausage in for about 10 minutes, then remove all but three or four pieces, so the sauce doesn't become too fatty, while leaving a few pieces in to flavor it nicely. Put the removed sausages into a big saucepan, add a bit of the tomato sauce along with some more red wine, cover and simmer about 1/2 hour. With a big crowd I put them into a baking pan, add some sauce and wine, cover them and put them in a 250` oven to cook, so they're off the stove until I'm ready to serve them.

For the Polenta:

You can prepare traditional, long-cooking polenta for an authentic taste, or the quicker-cooking variety.  Since the "real" polenta involves 45 minutes of constant stirring, I follow Giorgio's method of using the faster version; not the "minute polenta" which he says has no texture to it, but the variety that requires about five minutes of cooking.  An Italian polenta meal works best.  It comes in vacuum-packed bricks and is found in import stores.  For ten people I used 1 1/2 packages of polenta, albeit a few of the guests were light eaters.

Follow the cooking directions on the package, bringing salted water to a boil in a very large pot, then lower the heat and sprinkle the polenta grains in slowly, while stirring with a heavy wooden spoon. 

Pour It On!

When it is thickened but still soft and pourable, turn it out onto the sheets, smoothing it out with a wooden paddle or spoon.  You may have to add a little hot water first to get it to a pourable consistency.

Bring the pot of sauce to the table and ladle it out evenly over the polenta.  Sprinkle generously with grated pecorino cheese.  Top with sausages (or cooked mushrooms, if you prefer).  Dig in and enjoy!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pesce al Forno

As Christmas approaches I'm reminded that Italy celebrates la Vigilia (or Christmas Eve) with fish.  While the "feast of the seven fishes" has become almost fabled, the reality is that most households do eat fish, but not necessarily seven plates of it.  Our own experience of the past three Christmases spent with Roman friends brought four to five fish dishes to the table each year.  There is usually one or two seafood-based antipasti, followed by a pasta with salmon or shrimp, and then the obligatory pesce fritto, fried small white fish that everyone devours while complaining about the grease and fat, being careful to leave no speck of breading on the plate.  The highlight is always the pesce al forno, baked or roasted fish that is meaty with a delicate flavor.

You can use any whole fish - bass, redfish, snapper, bream, or perch.  Obviously the herbs can be varied to taste, substituting fresh dill or the rosemary or thyme.  Roasting whole fish on the bone gives it a wonderful flavor and moistness you don't get with fillets.

Whole fish - cleaned and gutted
1 lemon, sliced
1 garlic clove, sliced
fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, or dill
olive oil
white wine

Rinse and dry the fish, then rub it with olive oil.  Sprinkle it generously all over with salt.

In a roasting pan or baking pan lay some sprigs of rosemary or thyme, then lay thin slices of lemon on top.  Put the fish on the "bedding".  Put slices of lemon, sprigs of thyme and slices of garlic inside the cavity of the fish.  Lay more lemon slices on top.  Drizzle with a little bit of white wine (about 1/3 cup).

Bake at 400 F. for about 1/2 hour.  Fish is done when the eyes turn white and the flesh flakes with a fork.  A good rule of thumb for cooking fish is ten minutes per inch of thickness.

Related Link:

How to Eat Fish on the Bone

Italyville's Feast of the Seven Fishes Roundup

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Torta di Mele

I admit that I don't have a rabid sweet tooth.  I *do* like chocolate as much as the next girl and was happy to hear there are medicinal properties to it, but I try to avoid blatant binges.  I don't generally order dessert when dining out because they are just too big, fat-filled, and achingly sweet for me.  When I do go for a dolce, I prefer it to be fruit-based.  I also prefer to make my own so that I can control the type and amount of sugar.

This torta di mele, or apple cake, fits the bill perfectly for me.  Wholesome apples and whole grains combine to make a delicious cake that is nice enough to serve as dessert for guests but also makes a healthy breakfast.  It is naturally conducive to a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, though I've enjoyed it with a bit of honey-sweetened ricotta, too.

Torta di Mele

1 cup whole grain pancake and waffle mix (I use Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain Pancake Mix)
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2/3 cup  sugar (I use Sucanat, a "whole" sugar, but maple syrup can be used, too)
2-3 apples, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Oven: 325 F.
Grease a 9" pie plate.

Beat the eggs until foamy, add the milk, then stir in the sugar.  Add the baking mix and stir until combined; the batter will be stiff.  Fold in the apples and nuts.  Spread the batter into the pie plate.

Bake for 50 minutes, until golden brown and set.  Best when served warm.  It naturally begs for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I've also enjoyed it with a dollop of honey-sweetened ricotta on top.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving - Remade

Or, what to do when you friends make enough Thanksgiving goodies to feed twenty but only invited six...and send copious quantities of leftovers home with you?  Improvise, of couse!

My turkey will be reborn as enchiladas smothered in green chile sauce tomorrow, so no problem there.  But the huge container of now-dry stuffing and a glob of mashed potatoes are another thing.  Instead of merely reheating them, making them even drier than before, I decided to put them together in a pancake, bound together with creamy ricotta cheese.  Really tasty!

I used approximately -
1 cup leftover mashed potatoes
1 cup leftover stuffing
1/3 cup ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/4 cup flour
salt and pepper

Since the stuffing was really dry I combined it with about 1/4 cup of leftover gravy to soak and soften up.  Then I mixed everything together, formed the batter into patties, lightly coated them with flour, and fried them in a skillet in extra virgin olive oil.

The creaminess of ricotta and potatoes combined with the sausage-spiked stuffing was a very good combo. Thanksgiving almost tasted better the second time around!

Friday, November 13, 2009


A very common method of preservation in Italy is sott'olio, which means "under oil".  Vegetables in particular are "canned" this way to keep them through the winter.  My friend Giorgio preserves many various veggies - from rapini to carrots to grilled pumpkin.  He rolls up grilled eggplant and stuffs them in jars, and submerges roasted garlic cloves, too.  His strict advice is that the olive oil must completely cover the vegetables, and you should run a knife through the jar to release all air bubbles.  It is a simple process to keep food fresh, he says "foolproof", and the oil blocks air from getting in and spoiling the goods.

Jars of homemade verdure sott'olio make nice gifts, too.  Following are two recipes for enjoying yourself or giving away.

Cipollini Sott'olio
This is an onion version of the delicious lampascioni that my famiglia makes in Basilicata.

Baby onions
white wine
2-3 cloves of garlic
zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange (peels not grated zest)
salt, pepper, red chile flakes, bay leaf - any combination of herbs you desire
extra virgin olive oil
canning jars (I prefer jars with rubber gaskets and metal closures)
Peel the baby onions and put them in a saucepan.  Add about 1 cup or so of white wine, along with the seasonings of your choice.  Bring to a boil and simmer about 7 minutes.  Drain and cool completely.  Remove the garlic and lemon peels. 

Once they're cool, put them in a jar with a tight-sealing lid.  Pack them in fairly tightly up to the top of the container, but not into the neck.  Pour the olive oil over top to cover them completely.  Run a knife through the jar to release the air bubbles.  Seal the jars and store in a cool, dry place. 

Zucchini sott'olio
3 medium zucchini
bay leaf, clove of garlic, salt, thyme sprig
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

Slice the zucchini at an angle to create oval rounds.  Lay them in an 8-inch baking dish, sprinkle with salt and add the bay leaf and sprig of thyme.  Bring the vinegar to a boil, then pour evenly over the zucchini.  Put a plate on top of them to keep them immersed.  Allow the zucchini to stay in the vinegar until completely cooled.

When cool, remove from the vinegar and pat dry with paper towels.  Discard the herbs.  Arrange the zucchini slices in the jar, adding thin slices of garlic if desired.  Pour in the olive oil to cover them completely, and run a knife through the jar to release any air bubbles.  Seal the jar and store in a cool, dry place out of sunlight.

If you read Italian you will find some other great sott'olio recipes here.

Photo credit: Vanz

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Roasted Sausage and Potatoes

La salsiccia con le patate al forno.

This is a great cool-weather meal where the simple flavors of each ingredient meld to make a delectable dish. 

In Basilicata (or southern Italy in general) it is made with lucanica, a regional sausage that could date back to the ancient Lucanians, or maybe the Greeks who inhabited that area of Magna Grecia.  In Greece there is still a similar product called Loukanika, but it is unclear which came first.  Either way, it is delicious, and it turns out just as good when using vegetarian sausages, too.

1 pound potatoes (I like to use the small red potatoes)
a handful of cipollini onions* (or - even better - half a jar of lampascioni if you can find them)
4 Italian sausages
salt and pepper
1/2 cup white wine
peperoncino flakes or chile oil, optional
olive oil

Clean the potatoes and halve or quarter them, depending on the size.  Put them in a baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cut the baby onions in half and mix them with the potatoes.  If you are able to use lampascioni, drizzle some of the oil from the jar over top, otherwise drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and mix well to coat.  Sprinkle or drizzle on peperoncino or chile oil if you want a spicy dish.  Lay the sausages on top, pour the wine over it all and cover.  Bake at 400 for about 35 minutes.

Obviously, this is a versatile dish and the flavors can be changed based on the type of sausage you use, or the spices you may want to mix in (such as garlic and rosemary).

*Peel the onions quickly and easily by immersing them in boiling water for about 20 seconds.  When cool enough to handle, the skins slide off.
Photo credit goes to cobalt. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Penne all'Arrostito

National Pasta Month continues!  This time around I have a zinger for you...roasted penne.  Okay, the penne isn't roasted, but the vegetables that you toss it with are.  I came up with this one by accident while using up some of the remnants in my sister's fridge, what my grandmother used to call an "icebox clean-up" recipe.

The sweet-smokey flavors that come out from roasting vegetables just screams "autumn" to me.  You can roast them all on the grill, or roast the tomatoes and onion in the oven, while doing the peppers over a flame or under the broiler.

2 ripe tomatoes, cored
1 bell pepper
1 or 2 green chiles
1 onion, halved
(You'll also need a clove of garlic later on)

Rub all the vegetables with a little olive oil and put them on the grill to roast.  When the pepper skins are blackened and puckered, remove them, put them in a paper bag or newspapers to steam for a few minutes.  When they are cool enough to handle, peel the skins off.  Roast the tomatoes until soft but not mushy.  The onion will take the longest; when it is browned and softened it is ready.

If you are using the oven, slice the tomatoes in half, salt them and put them cut-side down in a roasting pan to start; ditto for the onions.  Keep an eye on them; the tomatoes won't take very long.

Cool the vegetables, then chop them roughly and put them all together in a bowl.  Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and and some salt and freshly-ground pepper. 

Meanwhile boil a pot of water and start cooking the penne.

In a skillet, saute a clove of garlic (minced) in olive oil just until soft but not browned.  All the vegetables to the skillet and turn the heat to low.  Heat gently.

Drain the penne, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.  Put the penne in a bowl and add the vegetables, along with a little of water if needed to moisten it and bind it all together.

Top with freshly grated parmigiano and sprinkled with a little minced basil, if desired.

Photo credit: Miheco

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ragu Lucano

In honor of National Pasta Month, I'm posting one of my all-time favorite recipes.  It hails from Lucania, or what is now called Basilicata, in southern Italy, where my roots are planted on a rocky mountain top.  In those high altitude peaks, sheep are still an everyday sight, so lamb plays an understandably important role in the region's cuisine.

Ragu Lucano is just the basic "Sunday sauce" that you will find there, but makes use of lamb in a small quantity in keeping with the area's poor past; it is, simply, cucina povera that tastes like a rich man's dish!  In this area they call that type of cooking "la zuppa del Re", or the king's soup, meaning you take a humble dish and make it seem fit for royalty.

I've made this (and seen it served there) with chunks of boneless lamb, but also cooked with the bones just to give the flavor without any actual meat pieces (making it very economical).  I have made it with leftover pieces of roasted lamb, too.

1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
red wine - about 1/2 cup
1 carrot, cut into 2 or 3 large pieces
1 celery stalk,cut into 2 or 3 large pieces
a small quantity of lamb - chunks of leg meat, stew bones, or roasted lamb
passato di pomodoro (tomato puree) - about 2 cups
vegetable or beef broth - about 1/2 cup
2 or 3 fresh sage leaves, minced
a small branch of fresh rosemary, minced
salt and pepper

In a saucepan, saute the onion and garlic until soft.  Add the wine and cook a few minutes to reduce.  Add the rest, stir and bring just to the boiling point.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer it for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water or broth as needed.

When it has simmered and reduced, pull out the carrot and celery pieces.  Remove the bones, if any, and pick off any meat.  If using meat chunks, you may want to shred them.

Serve with freshly cooked cavatelli or orecchiette (traditional pastas for that area) or the pasta of your choice.  Top with freshly grated pecorino cheese.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

National Pasta Month!

Well, I don't know how the inauguration of this month-long event slipped by me, but I just discovered that October is National Pasta Month!  Not that I really need an excuse to eat more pasta; I don't know if it's possible to eat *more* of it than we already do ;)

But it certainly warrants a mention and a few recipes in its honor, don't you think?

To kick it off, we broke out the hand-crank cavatelli maker that I ordered from eBay.  The little macchinetta is a classic, conceived by an Italian immigrant to Cleveland, Ohio who started the Vitantonio Company and built a business of providing pasta-making products to the Little Italy community. 

It's a very simple contraption:  you make up the pasta dough, roll it into ropes, and feed it into the machine while turning the handle.  Out pop perfectly-formed cavatelli, ready to to be boiled and topped with sugo!

My cousin Celia turned me on to this little gem; she has become something of a cavatelli collector.  Her dad has a real beauty, one of the original cast iron oldies, still in perfect working condition.

Yesterday was the first trial run for our newly-acquired macchinetta.  It performed very well, I'm happy to say.  Cavatelli transport us right to the Motherland, as it is one of the most common pastas found in Basilicata.  They are made from farina di semola, hard durum wheat which is milled more finely than the semolina flour you usually find in the US, salt and water.  It's not an egg pasta.

What is your favorite pasta type or shape?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pan-Roasted Salmon

I'm a big fan of salmon, especially the wild Alaskan variety.  It has so much flavor, and the beautiful scarlet hue makes a lovely presentation. 

This is another one of those go-to dishes that I can make in a flash, but it's still impressive enough for guests.  The smokey-sweetness of the sundried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar compliment the hearty salmon well.

4 Salmon fillets, rinsed and patted dry
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine
a jar of sundried tomatoes, packed in olive oil, chopped
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. capers, rinsed

In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat some olive oil.  Place the salmon in the pan and sear on one side, then turn over.  Once you've turned the salmon, add the garlic and saute until it starts to color.  Add the wine, then the sundried tomatoes.  Shake the pan, and simmer until the salmon is nearly cooked through, about 10 minutes, adding a little more wine if necessary.  Just before the salmon is done, add the balsamic vinegar and the capers to the residual wine sauce, and simmer about five minutes more, until it turns into a glaze. 

Serve, spooning the remaining sauce and the sundried tomato pieces over each fillet.

Photo credit goes to Harmony Markets

Thursday, September 03, 2009

My Favorite Artusi Recipe

Everyone has one.  At least, everyone in Italy, where the name Pellegrino Artusi is synonomous with home cooking.  If you aren't familiar with this icon of Italian food, read about him in my post, Do The Artusi, on my 'other' blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree.

Yes, everyone has a favorite recipe from Artusi's volume, and mine is maccheroni.  There are lots of great dishes that I regularly prepare, but one of my go-to meals when I want something simple and scrumptuous is the Maccheroni alla Napoletana II.  He offers two Neapolitan sauce recipes, the first one closely resembles my nonna's braciole recipe.  The second is a meatless sauce that takes on a distinctive, almost decadent flavor from the addition of...butter! 

Artusi himself said it is "so good that I suggest you try it."   You won't want to go back to plain-jane red sauce again!

Maccheroni alla Napolitana II - according to Pellegrino Artusi

One of the things about Artusi is that he doesn't give recipes so much as instructions.

Ingredients you'll need:

Maccheroni (any dried pasta shape you prefer, though Artusi states that penne absorb this sauce better than long strands).  I use one pound for four people
olive oil
1 1/2 pounds of peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper
grated Parmigiano

In his words: 
Saute 2 thick slices of onion in 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  The onion will split into rings as it cooks; when it has browned, press it down with a spoon, then remove it and discard it.  Stir the tomatoes into the pan, add a bunch of basil, minced, and season the sauce with salt and pepper.  Simmer it until done, about 1/2 hour, or until it is no longer watery.

Use the sauce, 1/4 cup butter and grated Parmigiano to flavor the maccheroni, which will be especially liked by those who would swim in tomato sauce if they could.

My words:
I generally use canned tomatoes because when I lean on this dish it is usually when I'm pressed for time, and I don't feel like blanching, peeling, seeding and chopping the tomatoes.  When I drain the pasta, I stir in the butter before adding the sauce and cheese; it seems to let it absorb a little more of that buttery goodness.  And finally, I sprinkle on more Parmigiano before serving.

Viva Artusi!

Photo credit:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Olive all'Ascolana Part II

If you missed the introduction and background about this delicacy, be sure to ready Part I.

Olive all'Ascolana (pronounced oh-LEE-vay) - Ascoli-style Stuffed Olives

I have eaten an uncountable quantity of these critters while living in Ascoli Piceno, and watched them being prepared, had verbal recipes recited to me, along with a couple of sketchy hand-written instructions. I decided to take the two most reliable recipes, one provided to me by my friend Linda Ancona, and the other from my former landlady, Dorina, as the best ones, and adapted them.

A few notes before you begin.
*This is by far the most "complicated" recipe I've ever posted on La Cucina. While it's pretty straight-forward, it is time-consuming to make them so allow plenty of time. Make a decent quantity (as discussed in Part I) and freeze them. It is nice to have them on hand ready to fry for a future aperitivo party or antipasto.

*In Ascoli, the meat mixture is traditionally made with chunks of meat, then ground in a meat grinder after cooking. It does actually make a difference in taste and texture to prepare it this way, rather than starting with pre-ground meats (but I admit that I use the pre-ground because I don't have a meat grinder; I whirled the meat in a food processor before stuffing the olives.)  If you do have a meat-grinder, though, make it the traditional way, as it truly tastes better.

*The Ascolani have a set system for making their olive all'ascolana:  1) Hand-pit the olives; 2) Prepare the meat mixture and make it into marble-sized meatballs; 3) Stuff the olives; 4) Bread them and let them sit (or freeze them) before 5) Frying them. This routine works because they hand-cut the olive off the pit in a spiral fashion and reconstruct the olive around the meatball. I slices my pitted olives open and stuffed the ball inside, but Janie of Panini Girl recommends piping the meat into the olive with a pastry bag (a sensible idea!).

*Finally, the olives. It can be difficult to find large pitted olives that are not already stuffed with something. The Cerignola is a mild, large olive, but I have only found them whole. (A cherry pitter would work if you want to pit them yourself.) The tenera ascolana is cured in a very mild brine of sea salt and water, so you don't get a "pucker factor" from them.  I found that most jarred olives tend to be much more strongly brined, so they will need to be soaked for a couple of hours to slake off some of the brine flavor before you stuff them.

                          About 100 olives - stuffed and breaded and ready to freeze

Authentic Olive all'Ascolana

1 onion, minced
1/3 pound ground chicken (or chicken breast)
1/3 pound ground pork (or chunks of pork)
4 to 5 slices prosciutto crudo, minced
1 carrot, cut into 3-4 large pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 3-4 large pieces
salt and pepper
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino cheese
1 egg
zest from 1/2 lemon
dash or two of nutmeg

Heat about 1 TBSP of olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the onion until soft. Add the meats and saute until cooked, using a fork to mash it and keep the meat as fine-textured as possible. (If you're using chunks, just brown them and saute until cooked through.) Add the carrot and celery, season with salt and pepper, and then add the wine. Cook until the wine has evaporated. Remove from heat, take out the celery and carrot pieces, and cool.

If you are using chunks of meat, grind them in the meat grinder. If you used ground meat, put it in a food processor and pulse to get a finer texture.

To the ground meat, add the parmigiano or pecorino, the lemon zest, nutmeg and egg. (Dorina cautions to use a light hand with the lemon zest and nutmeg, as too much will overpower evertyhing.) Mix well, like you would a meatloaf mixture.

Fill the olives with the meat.  To do this you can roll the meat into marble-sized balls, as is traditional, or use a pastry bag to pipe it into the olives.

To Prepare the Olives:

3 eggs
Fine Breadcrumbs

In a shallow bowl, beat the eggs. Place flour in one bowl, the breadcrumbs in another. Dip the olives in the flour, then the eggs, then the breadcrumbs to coat evenly. Put them on a plate. Refrigerate at least 1/2 hour before frying. Note:  You can prepare the olives up to this point and freeze them for future use.

To Fry:

Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Fry olives a few at a time, turning to fry them evenly, until golden. Drain on paper towels.

Italians use olio da friggere, a liquid frying oil that is made of a blend of seed oils (peanut, sunflower, grapeseed and olive oil, I think). They do not use hydrogenated fat for frying! I use olive oil (sometimes pouring in a bit of grapeseed oil which has a higher smoke point).

Makes about 200 olives.

Enjoy with a Piceno wine like Pecorino, Falerio, or Rosso Piceno.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Olive all'Ascolana Part I

Part I of a two-part series.

The local specialty food of Ascoli Piceno is an addictive one: gigantic olives that are stuffed with meat and deep-fried. It may sound odd, but they are very good. In fact, Bryan loves them, and he normally does not eat olives! Around the Piceno, no party or antipasto plate is complete without them.

The Ascolani say that this tradition actually dates back to Roman times, but, like most things in this part of the country, it came into its own during the Medieval period. It is a rather ingenious dish, utilizing the most common (some may say 'humble') products at hand and turning them into a delicacy.

It was originally a way to use up scraps of meat and cheese. The local olive variety, found only in this part of the country, is called the tenera ascolana. It is a behemoth as far as olives are concerned, very large ovals that are very 'meaty'. The olive is a D.O.P. item, as is the final dish of olive all'ascolana (a special certification for the authenticity of specialty regional products).

Local tradition dictates the olives be pitted by hand a spirale, in a spiral around the pit. The olive is then "reconstructed" around the little balls of meat before being breaded and fried. Special curved olive-pitting knives are sold in the local cutlery shops, some embossed with the Ascoli Piceno emblem, making them nice souvenirs. I once watched my former landlord pit about 300 olives this way and quickly decided that buying pre-pitted olives in tubs would be just fine for an americana like me!

The tenera ascolana olives are also unique in that they are cured in a light brine of water and sea salt instead of vinegar. This makes a huge difference in the taste; they are very mild, so there is no 'pucker factor' with these olives.

The meats selected always include pork and chicken; from that base other "scelte" are added according to taste. Indeed, each person I know in Ascoli Piceno makes their stuffed olives slightly differently. Some add a bit of beef or veal to the mix; others insist it must have some prosciutto. I've run across a few that include mortadella, and one man who used pancetta. As for the cheese, most use grana padano, but local, aged pecorino is popular, too. Odori (spices) vary, as well; some cooks add celery and carrot to the pot of cooking meat (pulling it out before proceeding); some like nutmeg, others say it overpowers the flavor. Little arguments break out over the "correct" way to make them, with everyone always referring back to the authoritative, "Well, that is the way my grandmother made them!" Since this was cucina povera, whatever was at hand was what they used, which is why everyone's nonna makes it her own way!

Next time I'll post the recipe, which was a little labor of love to translate and adapt, let me tell you! My friends' recipes required measurement conversions (something I'm still not adept at, even after three years), and frankly the quantities were huge! Dorina, my former landlord, told me, "If you're going to make them, you may as well make 300 of them, because why go to all that work for just a few? She had a point. My recipe will make about 200. Once they are prepared and breaded, they can be frozen until you're ready to fry them. ricetta!

PART II - Recipe and Preparation of Authentic Olive all'Ascolana

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Simplicity - With a Cherry on Top

You may have noticed that I don't post many dessert recipes. I used to bake quite a lot, but got out of the habit while living in Italy, for various reasons. For one, my oven was miniscule so the cookie sheets didn't fit in it. Second, the flour was finer, the butter denser, and the oven temperature fluctuated like a yo-yo, so most of my baking attempts were sadly hindered. Then there is the whole gelato availability issue, meaning that it was just tastier and easier to walk to the gelateria (or pasticceria) for dessert, so why heat up the house and go through the baking frustration in the first place?

But when I had friends over I would prepare a little something to round out the meal. This traditional ricotta dessert comes from a 75-year Ascoli native who said it is a long-standing treat in Le Marche. It makes sense, since fresh ricotta is readily available (almost always made from sheep's milk), as is local honey. Fruit toppings can vary, and Serafino told us that the best winter topping is just a dusting of cocoa.

Folks, it doesn't get any simpler than this, but the flavor combo of these humble ingredients is fantastic.

Ricotta and Honey with Fruit or Cocoa

(Actually, that is about all there is to it, so it seems redundant to give a "recipe"!)

On dessert plates, portion out a heaping spoonful (about 1/3 cup on each plate) of the freshest ricotta cheese you can find. Drizzle with local wildflower honey (about 2 tsp. per portion). Top with chopped fresh fruit, grate on bittersweet chocolate, or dust with cocoa.
My favorite garnish is with fresh sugared cherries: wash a bunch of fresh cherries with the stems still attached. Do not dry. Dip each damp cherry in granulated sugar and set aside to dry. When the dessert is ready, arrange a few cherries on the plate and plop one on top of the ricotta.
Now that I think about it, this would be really nice with cherries that have been soaked in liquor, too!

photo credit: brettneilson

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Feelin' Blue Barbecue

It's summer. I know this not because of the heat or beach-side fun. There haven't been much of either this year, and I'm feeling a little blue about it. No, I know it's summer because sweet corn is appearing and blueberries are everywhere. I love the little blue orbs. I eat them plain, with fresh cream (or gelato), and toss a handful in my meusli. I like how they burst in my mouth, and their presence just shouts 'summer' to me.

That, and barbecue season. So why not combine the two? I whipped up this blueberry barbecue sauce to brush on a tender pork loin, but it is just as yummy on chicken or ribs. The sweet-and-tangy combo of berries, sundried tomatoes and maple syrup are sure-fire palate pleasers!

(Speaking of blueberries...did you know that botanists estimate this native American staple has been around for 13,000 years? I didn't! I discovered this fact, and more, at the Blueberry Council's website.)

Feelin' Blue Barbecue

1 small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 TBSP olive oil
1 cup fresh (or frozen) blueberries
2/3 cup broth or water
1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, preserved in oil, chopped
1 TBSP tomato paste
1 TBSP dijon mustard
1 TBSP worcestershire sauce
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
1/2 tsp. thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. red chile flakes (or dash of cayenne, to taste)

In a saucepan, saute the onion and garlic in olive oil until tender but not browned. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer about 15 minutes, until the berries are soft and the sauce is thickened. Cool about 10 minutes, then put the sauce into a blender jar. Puree until smooth.
Fire up the grill and use to baste the meat of your choice.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pepper Poppers

One of the things I enjoy about la cucina del sud (southern cooking) in Italy, is that they are willing to take things up a notch on the spicy scale. We love Italian cuisine but around Ascoli Piceno, the faintest hint of heat and they are crying "pizzica!" (It stings!)

Not so down in the mother land. They will sprinkle peperoncino on pasta and drizzle chile oil on veggies. They also make these nice little appetizers called peperoncini ripieni di tonno, which I just call pepper poppers. They are so popular you can find them readily available in jars, preserved in olive oil.

They are a tantalizing taste blend of spicy cherry peppers stuffed with tuna. Don't let the strange combo put you off; believe me, they'll get you addicted so you'll be...well, popping them one after the other!

Pepper Poppers

1 jar hot cherry peppers, drained

1 can tuna, packed in olive oil
1 tsp. capers
1 tsp. anchovy paste or 1 or 2 anchovies from a jar (trust me on this, okay?!)
1 clove garlic
about 2 TBSP fresh parsley

In a food processor or blender, combine everything except the peppers, processing until blended and almost creamy. Spoon the filling into the peppers.

That's it! It's almost *too* easy, but it's so delicious. The saltiness from the capers and anchovies blends well with the tuna, while the zing from the peppers makes it all come alive.

One variation I sometimes make is to make it a little more decadent by adding about a tablespoon of cream cheese. It gives it a velvety texture and tones down the heat a little, if you're serving to wimps!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tiramisu da Francesca

My friend Francesca is golosa (a sweet-tooth). She loves and craves sweets and will gobble up a handful of cioccolatini or polish off a tray of pastries before she realizes how many she has eaten. But while she loves to eat dolci, she doesn't much like to bake them. That's why she makes tiramisu` whenever the need for a homemade dessert arises. No baking required and it is a simple and straight-forward dish to prepare, yet it seems like she spent half the day laboring on it. Give it a try!

Tiramisu` in Italian literally means "pick-me-up" (tirare='to pull or to pick up'; mi=obviously 'me'; and su`='up'), mainly because of the espresso used to soak the ladyfingers, though the booze doesn't hurt any, either! ;) You'll need to find a package of dry ladyfinger cookies, mascarpone cheese, and some fresh ricotta. It's best with espresso or Moka coffee, but you could also use very strong brewed coffee (but don't tell Francesca I said that!) You'll also need a glass serving dish or compote.

Francesca's Tiramisu`

4 eggs, separated
4 TBSP sugar
1 container mascarpone cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
¼ cup rum or brandy (plus another dash for good measure!)
½ cup espresso or strongly brewed coffee
1 package ladyfingers (Savoiardi)
cocoa, dark chocolate

Combine the espresso and rum. Set aside.
Whip the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat 2 of the egg yolks with the sugar. Stir in a dash of rum or brandy. Add the mascarpone and ricotta and blend well. Fold in the egg whites, stirring until it is just combined.

Using a pastry brush, brush both sides of the ladyfingers with the espresso/rum and line the serving dish with them. When the bottom and part of the sides are lined, add half the cheese mixture. Sift a little cocoa on top. Repeat with another layer of coffee-soaked ladyfingers, then the remaining cheese mixture. Sift a little cocoa on top. Use a vegetable peeler to grate the dark chocolate on top if desired.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Polpettine di Ricotta

In Basilicata sheep speckle almost hillside, tended by a shepherd who is accompanied by several wooly dogs. They provide a timeless, pastoral image - as well as lots of delicious pecorino cheese. "Pecorino" literally means little pecora, or sheep, and is used to denote cheese made from sheep's milk. There are many varieties depending on the producer and region.

At the agriturismo we recently occupied for a two weeks' stay, the owners make several types, including "normal" slightly aged cheese, long-aged hard cheese for grating, and a unique variety all their own, pecorino with walnuts (delicious!). They also produce excellent sheep's milk ricotta, which we enjoyed plain, stuffed into ravioli, and tucked inside a sweet breakfast cake.

One evening she made polpettine di ricotta (meatballs, but without meat) as part of their antipasto plate. They were fried in oil then topped with a rich, long-simmered tomato sauce. She said they are also traditionally served in a soup, demonstrating the local flair for maintaining the region's cucina povera (peasant's cooking) dishes. The ricotta balls, once fried, are placed on top of a thick slab of bruschetta, which is made from local, hearty semolina bread. Two or three ladlesful of broth (either chicken or vegetable stock) are poured over top. A sprinkling of freshly grated hard pecorino cheese and the soup is ready to serve.

Polpettine di Ricotta

1 1/2 cups fresh ricotta
1 egg
1/3 cup finely grated parmigiano cheese
1 TBSP flour
1 TBSP fresh, minced parsley
salt and pepper to taste
extra flour
olive oil/oil for frying

Put the ricotta in a bowl and break it up with a fork, fluffing it. All all the other ingredients and, using your hands, dig in and blend it all together well. Roll the dough into balls about the size of golf balls.

Lightly coat the balls in flour then fry in hot oil, placing them on paper towels to drain. Serve hot.

You can serve them as stated above - drizzled with sauce or in the soup. They are also good as is, with just a sprinkling of coarsely-ground pepper on top. They can also be drizzled with pesto, with truffle sauce, or creamy mushroom sauce.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

La Matriciana

This is one of my most stand-by recipes of all time! Spaghetti all'Amatriciana hails from the town of Amatrice (oddly enough), which is located in the mountains of Lazio, skirting the Abruzzo border. Romans often try to claim it as their own, though they use bucatini instead of spaghetti, and frequently make it using onion and garlic, the addition of which the good Amatriciani say is akin to blasphemy. They should know; they've been making this plate for generations. The town isn't labeled "la citta` degli spaghetti" (spaghetti city) or nothing!

The original "matriciana" was made in bianco, without tomatoes. Shepherds used cured guanciale (a type of bacon made from the cheek) and the abundant pecorino cheese to flavor their pasta. Eventually, tomatoes got thrown into the pot, and a famous dish was born.

While you can use smoked pancetta if you can't find the guanciale, do not substitute parmigiano for the pecorino!

Spaghetti all'Amatriciana
serves 4

about 1/4 pound guanciale (or pancetta), chopped
1/2 cup white wine
2 1/2 cups tomato puree
salt, pepper, red chile flakes
1/2 cup coarsely grated aged pecorino cheese
1 pound spaghetti

In a large skillet fry the guanciale (or pancetta if you can't find guanciale) in a little olive oil until cooked and crispy. Remove half the meat to a paper towel to drain, set aside. Add the wine into the skillet and let it mostly evaporate, then add the tomatoes along with some salt and pepper and a dash of red chile flakes.
Cover and let simmer about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the spaghetti until they are al dente. Drain and add to the sauce in the skillet, tossing well. Toss in half of the pecorino cheese and combine.  Sprinkle on the remaining crispy pieces of guanciale.

Serve with a healthy dusting of the pecorino on top.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Spaghetti alla Elia

We met Elia through my dear friend, Maria. She and her husband came for a visit and reconnected with her cousin, whom she had not seen in 40 years. It was touching and heart-warming to see them talking, laughing and gesticulating as if it had just been a few years instead of forty.

Elia (Italian form of Elijiah) is a fashion designer who is opening a boutique hotel in the hills of central Le Marche, with a focus on organic, eco-friendly construction. Each room is decorated differently and his eye for detail and beauty will surely make the place gorgeous.

Following our initial introduction and cameraderie with his cousin, he invited us up for lunch. We chatted as he whipped up this easy vegetarian plate of spaghetti. We watched as he set a metal bowl over the pasta cooking water to make the sauce while the pasta was cooking. Ingenious!

You will need:
  • a package of spaghetti
  • a bunch of chard or rapini
  • about 1/4 cup of basil pesto (homemade or store-bought)
  • 1/2 cup grated pecorino (If possible, resist the temptation to substitute Parmigiano. Trust me, it's better with the slight sharpness and distinctiveness this cheese gives the dish)
  • a dash of ground red chile (cayenne) or chile flakes
  • freshly grated black pepper, to taste
  • a drizzle of olive oil
-While the water comes to a boil for the pasta, slice a large bunch of chard or rapini (broccoli rape) and throw them in a sinkful of water to wash them.
-When the spaghetti has started to cook, toss the greens right in with the spaghetti to boil together.
-Cradle a large metal bowl or saucepan over top of the pasta pot.
-Add the pesto, half the pecorino, the cayenne, and a drizzle of olive oil. Stir while the heat from the water below melts the pesto and heats the sauce.
-Use a cup to extract some cooking water (about 1/3 cup) and add it to the sauce.
-When it is all hot and combined, remove the bowl.
-Drain the spaghetti and greens, put into the bowl, and toss it all together, topping with the remaining pecorino.

Serve and enjoy!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Cavatelli ai Pistacchi

One of the cool things about coming "down south" for the winter is the chance to see the regional differences in cooking. You see, Italy is still very region-centric and proud (rightfully) of their own unique history, culture, and traditions...especially as relates to food and wine.

Here in southern Campania there is a heavier emphasis on citrus (closer to the groves) and the bread, we have discovered, gets better the farther south you go. As much as I like central Italian cuisine, their bread is really bland. Wine varietals differ, fresh fish is much more prevalent, and mozzarella di bufala is abundant (and cheaper!). Pasta shapes are different, too. Here you see more cavatelli and orecchiette, like in Puglia and Basilicata, and nuts coming from Sicily and Calabria are in big bins at the mercato.

Seeing some freshly roasted pistachios, I remembered this simple dish to use up some of them (yes, I over-bought, because they just tasted so darn good!)

Cavatelli ai Pistacchi

  • 1 pound cavatelli (or other small pasta shape, but fresh pasta is best)
  • 1 cup tomato-cream sauce (you can make this sauce, eliminating the gorgonzola and adding a little more cream, or use your normal, everyday marinara and add about 1/3 cup cream to it)
  • dash paprika
  • 1/2 cup coarsely grated Pecorino cheese (don't substitute Parmigiano, trust me, the cheese really helps make the dish!)
  • 1/4 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
Cook the pasta in abundant boiling, salted water. Meanwhile, prepare or reheat the tomato cream sauce, adding the paprika and half of the Pecorino cheese. Stir until the cheese is dissolved.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and put in a large serving bowl, topping it with the sauce and stirring to thoroughly coat the pasta. Dust the top with the remainder of the Pecorino cheese, then sprinkle on the pistachios. Serves 4.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Zuppa di Farro e Fagioli

Farro and Cannellini Bean Soup

I first enjoyed a version of this dish in Umbria, where it was made with garbanzos instead of cannellini beans. The thick, rosemary scented soup warmed us on a cold night. The waiter brought a bottle of fresh-pressed olive oil to drizzle un filo (literally, a thread) on top. Wonderful! I've since seen various versions in other regions, including our area of Le Marche, and found that I prefer it with the delicate cannellini beans.

1 small onion, chopped
a clove or two of garlic, minced
one stalk celery, chopped
a carrot, minced
olive oil
a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary
a bay leaf
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup farro grain (or spelt)
3 cups water
2 cans cannellini beans
salt and pepper
peperoncino (chile powder or crushed chile) to taste

Saute the onion, garlic, celery and carrot in olive oil until soft. Toss in the herbs and add the broth. Bring to a boil and add the farro and water, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook until the grain is tender, about 40 minutes. Add more water if necessary to maintain a good consistency but you don't want it too thin.

Drain and rinse the beans. Put one can of beans in the blender, adding a few ladlefuls of the soup stock to blender it to a smooth paste. Add the paste along with the other can of whole beans to the pot. Add the seasonings, partially cover and simmer about 10 minutes longer. Turn off the heat and let the soup rest about five minutes before serving. Remove the rosemary and bay leaf. At the table drizzle a thin stream of olive oil over the soup and enjoy.