Pasticcio of crêpes, zucchini and ricotta to fill the hearts…

and stomachs of your guests, friends and family! Spring and summer offer many occasions to cook dishes that can stand alone as a light lunch, as a side dish at a barbecue, or at a potluck. Zucchini is beginning to abound once again, so here is a dish I have been tinkering for a while – a “pasticcio” of crespelle or crêpes with zucchini and ricotta. The term “pasticcio” literally meaning mess is a term attributed to many baked dishes or casseroles. This recipe is like a lasagna which is made with flat strips of pasta layered with meat, vegetables, cheese, and besciamella (white sauce). But no pasta here! The recipe calls for crêpes instead!

You can make all the components ahead of time, then pull them together and bake quickly.

Pasticcio di Crespelle con Zucchine e  Ricotta

This recipe was adapted from a recipe in La Cucina Italiana (Febbraio 2002)

First, make the crêpes following your favorite recipe or this one I have on my blog. Crepes and follow #2. Set the crêpes aside as you work on the other ingredients.

Filling

4 large zucchini (600 gr) , sliced thinly

1 large onion, cut in half then sliced thinly

½ cup grated parmigiano

1 egg 

1-2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoons chopped parsley

1-2 tablespoons  butter

2 cups ricotta (I prefer whole milk for this recipe, but lowfat works as well)

1/2 – 1 cup milk (depending on the thickness of the ricotta)

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. In a pan, lightly sauté the garlic in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until slightly golden. Add the zucchini slices, salt and pepper, stir and cook until gently soft for about 10 minutes. Add the parsley, then set aside.

I cut the zucchini in rounds and very thinly.

2.  In another pan,  sauté the sliced onions in a tablespoon (or two depending on taste) of butter (I also added a tablespoon of olive oil).  Season with salt. Add a ¼  cup of water on the bottom of the pan and watch the onions carefully as they can burn easily. Cover if necessary and lower the heat until the onions have softened. Then cool and set aside.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, the egg, the milk and stir until smooth. Season with salt and a little pepper. Add 1/4 cup of the grated parmigiano.

The Assembly!

  1. You can use either a 10 inch round glass pie pan or a an 8×11 rectangular pyrex dish. I have use both and either works well. Lightly grease the pan with softened butter. Form the bottom layer of the lasagna by placing one crêpe in the center and working around the dish place the other crêpes so that their edges overflow the dish.
  2. Add 1/2 of the zucchini and onion mixture and smooth it equally over the crêpes. Add the ricotta mixture enough to moisten, but not overwhelm the zucchini. Dust with a bit of grated parmigiano.
  3. Add another layer of crêpes, this time not worrying about the edges. Repeat with the remaining zucchini mixture and ricotta mixture.
  4. Top with the crêpes and the remaining ricotta mixture. You can add more grated parmigiano and a sprinkle of chopped.thyme. I also experimented with a little grated monterey jack or mozzarella. Fold over the crêpes drapped over the edge to finish. Cook in a 350 (F) or 200 (C) degree oven for 30 minutes. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes before serving or serve lukewarm.

The resulting dish is light, yet satisfying. Enjoy at room temperature or even cold from the fridge!

A dish good enough for summer or any time of the year!

What can be better than chocolate cake?

Valentines’s Day is around the corner and Carnevale (in Italy) is in full swing, ending next week with Ash Wednesday. These are good times to celebrate one of my favorite cakes, La Torta Eritrea, and share it with you. It is a densely chocolate almond flour “torte” which in its simplicity, knocks your socks off! True to its name, it is a flourless cake that makes use of ground almonds and consequently it is heavier in texture and heft than a regular cake made with flour, intensifying the chocolate flavor. In Italian the word “torta” is a generic term for cake and does not refer to any particular type. But if you want to read more about the difference between cake and “torte”, the following article at Food 52 https://food52.com/blog/16595-cakes-versus-tortes-what-s-in-a-name will give you an entertaining look at this question.

The recipe for the Torta Eritrea comes from the classic Italian cookbook Il Talismano della Felicità that I have quoted many times on this blog. But as usual when faced with baking from an old cookbook written in Italian with different ingredients and terms, I had to make some modifications and adjustments to meet my readers’ understanding and usage. And so here it is after much testing and tasting, for my friends far and wide!

La Torta Eritrea

Ingredients

1 ¾ cups or 8.8 oz raw almonds

1 cup sugar

5 whole eggs + 2 egg whites room temperature

10.5 0z. dark chocolate (three 100 gr. tablets)

18 oz. (2 sticks +2 oz) butter

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbl. potato starch (optional)

¼  tsp salt

Flour to dust the pan

Powdered sugar to decorate

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Heat the oven to 350°F and prep the pan. If you do not have a non-stick pan, it is best to place a parchment disk at the bottom of the pan. Use 2 tbl. to grease the bottom of the pan and sides, flour lightly. 

2. Organize your ingredients according to how you will use them.

  • Eggs, almonds, chocolate, vanilla, salt, potato starch

3. Separate 4 eggs, the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a mixing bowl. You will need 2 more egg whites (reserve the extra egg yolks for another use). Whip them in the mixer at high speed until they are firm and light. Set aside.

4. Lightly toast the almonds in a pan or oven. Place them in a food processor, add the sugar and pulse until the mixture has the look of a fine flour. Add 1 whole egg and the 4 yolks and pulse again until the mixture resembles a paste. Remove and place in a large bowl.

5. Melt the chocolate gently in a double boiler. Once melted, remove the chocolate from the heat and add the butter. Whisk until smooth and silky. Cool approximately 5-10 minutes.

6. Add the chocolate mixture to the almond mixture incorporating it gently until the batter is smooth and uniform. Add the vanilla, the potato starch (if using – this is optional), and salt. 

7. Gently add ⅓ of the whipped egg whites to the batter being careful not to lose its lightness. With a spatula, fold in the next ⅓, then the next making sure the batter remains light. Spread the batter into the greased pan. Tap gently to remove any air pockets. 

8. Bake in a 350° oven for 45-60 minutes depending on the strength of your oven. Watch that it does not burn on the sides. Remove from the oven, cool, and dust with powdered sugar.

Here the Torta Eritrea has come out of the oven in consort with a load of tortellini!
As you can see, the texture of the cake is dense and rich, but not heavy like a brownie.

My father loved this cake so much it became his birthday cake even though my mother made it for other festive occasions as well. In fact it has become a legendary part of our family lore so much so that my sister just made it for her son’s wedding. The photo you see above is her lovely decoration with roses and all.

The cake is best served with whipped cream or your favorite ice cream. It is befitting then as we enter the season of joyful celebrations whether they be Valentines’s Day or Carnevale, to enjoy a little chocolate without too much guilt, some whipped cream with it, spreading the warmth that comes with it and a glass of wine, port or vin santo! Salute!

Cheesy Pasta: Move Over Mac!

Americans really do love macaroni and cheese – the dish is ubiquitous in magazines, websites, food blogs. What is there not to love when a pasta is cheesy and baked to perfection with a little crust on top!? With that in mind, I thought I might suggest an alternative to the usual mac and cheese, one that came to me from my brother-in-law Carlo who has made the dish on several occasions and I swooned every time. This is a perfect dish to make for family or other group gatherings as you can make it ahead of time and it presents itself elegantly as well as being oh-so-delicious! Try this baked rigatoni with leeks and Gruyère sauce the next time you are looking for a dish that will please the cheese and pasta lovers in your family.

Carlo’s Pasta al Forno con Salsa Gruviera e Porri

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 lb. package  rigatoni (or 453 gr.) or other short pasta

3-4 leeks (at least 4 cups sliced thinly)

4 oz.  (150 gr.) diced pancetta

4 oz. butter (one stick) or about 90 gr.

¼ cup olive oil

2 ½ cups milk (600 ml.)

2 cups grated Gruyère  (swiss cheese)

½  cup whipping cream (100 ml)

2 tablespoons flour

2 generous tablespoons grated parmigiano

A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

A pinch of freshly grated black pepper and salt

Equipment

1  9×13 inch pyrex  or other oven-proof dish (3 qt  or 2.8 l)

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the baking dish and set aside.

2. Cut the bottom and top ends of the leeks, then wash them making sure no dirt is left between the leaves. Cut them lengthwise and give them another good rinse. Slice thinly. In a sauteé pan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons butter and a little olive oil. Add the leeks and cook until softened. Season with salt.

3. In another small pan, cook the pancetta in a little olive oil until golden. Either drain or leave the pancetta to cool in the pan if it is not too fatty.

4. Make a white sauce by melting 2 tablespoons butter in a sauce pan, add 2 tablespoons flour and cook for two minutes.  Heat the milk (in a glass container in the microwave), then whisk  it into the flour and butter mixture, stirring constantly. Once the milk starts to boil gently, turn off the heat, add the whipping cream, the gruyere, and a dash of nutmeg. Stir and set aside.

5. In the meantime, heat the water for the rigatoni and once the water is boiling, salt it, and add the pasta. Cook it until barely al dente, then drain. In a large bowl put the pasta, add the leek mixture, the pancetta, and the cheesy white sauce. Stir until blended, then put it in the baking dish. Sprinkle the grated parmigiano (you may want to put more than 2 tablespoons!) and a light dusting of freshly grated black pepper.

6. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

Carlo mentioned to me that other ingredients can be added to this dish – or you can simply add more leeks or pancetta to suit your taste. I think it’s pretty perfect the way it is! You can make a vegetarian friendly version by omitting the pancetta and adding other vegetables. The leeks reign in this dish rendering it so rich tasting and satisfying, its full flavor on display. Thank you, Carlo, for your great dish I’m sure many will enjoy and make it part of their family tradition!

Ribollita – a Tuscan Comfort Food

The events in our country on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany no less, have distressed me greatly as so many around the world. The images of the assault on the U.S. Capitol, the swarms of thugs overcoming an otherwise peaceful sanctuary and symbol of our democracy, and nightmarish visions of raging adults acting like out-of-control teenagers sickened me. Stunned and paralyzed, I sat transfixed in front of the television. Many commentators have equated the insurrection to that of 9/11. But at that time I had a family to wake up and care for, a classroom to lead, and students to surround me in solidarity. Here I was alone with the end of the world collapsing before my eyes. To draw myself out of such sorrow, cooking something warm and satisfying, even healthy could do wonders to restore the spirits! I was working on a blog post about the Italian traditional feast on New Year’s Day when I was sidetracked by the sad events in D.C. Somehow the blogpost seemed trivial and I’ve flipped to a recipe that I think can give you hope and warmth.

Ribollita meaning “boiled again” is a traditional Tuscan soup known for this name because it is usually made in great quantities, then reheated or “reboiled”as needed. Also known as bread soup or “zuppa di pane” because it is served over slices of rustic bread, it is a typical rustic soup from the central part of Tuscany or Maremma, although it is common to find it throughout the region in different forms. The star ingredient is black or lacinato kale and then whatever vegetables you have available in your refrigerator (I included in some diced zucchini) or garden depending on the season. Throw together a pot tonight and see it simmer, simmer, simmer your woes away!

Ingredients

1 medium onion chopped

2-3 carrots chopped

1 celery stalk chopped

1/4 of a small cabbage head

2-3 leaves of kale roughly chopped (does not have to be black kale. I have used other types, even spinach in a pinch). Depending on the size of the kale you have, you may want to increase or decrease it. Yield 4 cups of chopped kale should suffice.

1 large potato diced

1 8 oz can of cannellini beans

1 8 oz can of diced tomatoes

3-4 tbl. olive oil, salt to taste

rustic bread sliced

Instructions

Prep all the vegetables so that when you need them, you can add them quickly to the mix. In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil, then add the onions and cook them until translucent and fragrant. Add the celery and the carrots and cook them briefly for a few minutes. Add the greens including the cabbage, then stir. Next, add the tomatoes and the potatoes. Season with salt. After one or two big stirs, add water to cover the vegetables and then some (about an inch or two above the line of vegetables). You can use chicken or vegetable broth, but I find it is not necessary. Some cooks like to add a fresh bouquet of fresh herbs (basil, sage, thyme) – but I prefer to keep it simple. Allow the pot to come to a slow boil, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half. I went swimming for an hour in the meantime and came back to find the soup just right for the next step. I add the cannellini beans at the very end because they are coming from a can. I barely drain them and toss them in the pot.

Correct the seasoning! If the soup seems too tasteless….add salt! Be aware that the soup on standing will acquire more flavor as it sits from day to day in the fridge and every time you reheat it, “ribollire,” the flavors will meld and strengthen. The texture of the vegetables will soften and blend.

Prepare the bowls by either toasting slices of good rustic bread (or baguettes) or frying them in a bit of vegetable oil, my favorite way. Put the slices on the bottom or sides of the bowls and pour the soup over the slices. The liquid will absorb a bit, but continue to pour more soup. Add a big dash of parmigiano over it all.

I know life delivers many sadnesses, but the joy of a steaming bowl of ribollita, maybe with a chunk of parmigiano thrown into it, saves the day. May this new year be good to you…Stay safe and be well!

Torta di Mele – An apple cake and sweet comfort!

I know the turbulence created by the political elections lately here in the United States has been hard and difficult to beat down no matter what the results you were hoping for, but if I asked you for one short afternoon to forget it all and bake away merrily…will you do so?

My mother’s apple cake, or torta di mele, is a classic and quite simple. Yet like all simple things, it is difficult to get right and easy to mess up. I became obsessed with recreating the flavors and textures of my mother’s cake as I remember those afternoons when I would return home from school to find a beautiful fluffy, yet buttery cake chock full of sweet apples! I know that memories distort things more than a bit, but I remember this cake to be wonderously wide (maybe 12 inches!?), three inch high, and light and airy – enormous! With my teenage hunger in full gear, I would easily pack away three slices. Since then it has been difficult to reproduce the same lightness as the cakes my mother used to bake in Rome. When she came to the States, she had to recalibrate the recipe and I never succeeded until now. After much discussion, we decided that several things were different, essential ingredients such as the butter, the flour, the leavening, even the apples! And so we went from the original recipe from the quintessential Italian cookbook Il Talismano della Felicità by Ada Boni to the rough notes in my mother’s hand to the version I have below.

What I have here to share with you is the result of some tinkering with the basic recipe to produce a very satisfactory result. Begin with some good apples, sweet and juicy. I tried several kinds, but ended up with the Golden Delicious as my favorite because they remained juicy, yet still somewhat tangy when cooked. Notice I suggest Crisco or vegetable shortening to lighten the butter and I used potato starch, a basic in Italian baking, to produce a fluffier cake.

Torta di Mele della Nonna

Yield: Makes one 9-inch round cake

INGREDIENTS

3-4 Golden Delicious apples – peeled and cored

7 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter (5 tbl. for the cake, 2 tbl. for greasing the pan)

2 tablespoons Crisco or vegetable shortening 

¾ cup sugar

3 eggs (room temperature)

¼ cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup all-purpose flour or Italian flour tipo 00

1/4 cup potato starch flour

¼ teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

Powdered sugar as needed to decorate

EQUIPMENT

1 (9 x 3) inch round springform pan (non-stick works well)

Parchment paper (optional)

Stand mixer with  2 bowls, two other small bowls to hold ingredients

Spatula

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Heat the oven to 350°F and prep the 9 inch round springform pan. If you do not have a non-stick pan, it is best to place a parchment disk at the bottom of the pan. Use 2 tbl. to grease the bottom of the pan and sides. 

2. Organize your ingredients according to how you will use them.

I know, I know…this looks like organized chaos!! This is not publicity for Morton Salt…oops.
  • Sift the dry ingredients (the flours, the baking powder, and the salt) in a small bowl.
  • Separate the eggs, the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a mixing bowl.
  • Peel and core the apples. If you want more fruit, more “appley” cake, use 4 apples, or if you like more cake, use 3. Cut 2 or 3 apples laterally and thinly. The other two apples, cut lengthwise. These will be used for the decoration on top.
  • Place the butter and Crisco in the mixing bowl and keep the measured sugar, vanilla, and milk near your mixer.
  • Spread the laterally cut apples evenly on the bottom of the greased pan.

3. Whip the egg whites with the mixer at high speed  until stiff and light. Set aside.

3. Cream the softened butter and the Crisco with the mixer. Add the sugar slowly until the butter mixture and sugar are light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time and the vanilla.  Then gently  add the four, slowly mixing. The mixture will be very thick. Add the milk to loosen it up a bit. Then by hand, gently fold the egg whites into the batter with a spatula until they are just incorporated paying attention to not overbeat the batter.

4. Pour the batter into the pan over the laterally cut apples,  using the spatula to smooth the top. Tap the pan gently to release any gaps. Then place the slices of apple in concentric circles tucking each slice inside another and pushing slightly downward in the batter.

5. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top of the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Baking will vary according to the apples and heat of your oven.

6. Cool on the counter or on a rack for 10-15 minutes. Gently run a butter knife around the edges, then remove the springform circle. Cool completely before sprinkling powdered sugar on the top.

I wish you the joy of making this cake to share with your friends and family. Buon appetito!

Pasta with Mushroom and Peas

The change of season is clearly upon us and I noticed it as I walked through the farmer’s market this morning. No corn! Squash and pumpkin making their appearance….I bought the last peaches and fresh cranberry beans as a defiant gesture toward the lingering remnants of summer. Lately I have been thinking about my fellow teachers, colleagues and friends, who are toiling to bring normalcy to their work, coping with distant learning, striving to engage their students and keep moving ahead despite the virus and the smokey conditions in our state. Even though I would prefer to cook a feast to celebrate their work, I thought I could propose a meal that they could cook to make their lives a bit more joyful and hopeful. You can make just the pasta and call it a celebration, an occasion to get your mind off correcting papers, calling parents, conferencing with colleagues…or you can keep on going and create a full menu with a “primo” – a pasta dish, a “secondo” – a meat dish with a side, and a “dolce,” a sweet finale! So crank up your favorite tunes and pour yourself a glass of wine and here we go!!!

Menù

Primo: Pasta con Funghi e Piselli

Secondo: Petti di Pollo al Latte

Dolce: Pere con gelato

Pasta con Funghi e Piselli

Go out and find yourself a pasta with an unusual shape or texture, maybe an artisanal one that you have never tried before – a little splurge, something fun! Fusilli or even your common penne work well too. I landed on this one, Straccetti, meaning little rags. These looked like fun and gave me a little burst of joy.

Ingredients

1 lb. short pasta

1 lb. sliced white mushrooms or fresh porcini (you can get away with half a pound)

6 oz. dried porcini (optional)

1-2 cups frozen petite peas (depending on how you like peas)

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

2-3 tbls. butter

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup of water

1/2 cup white wine

1 tbl. dried thyme (or fresh if you have it)

1/2 cup whipping cream (optional)

Directions

1. If you are using dried porcini, put them in a bowl to soak for at least 20 minutes.

As you can see here, these dried porcini are truly magnificent, large and plump. My husband brought these back from Piemonte where they are harvested and dried, then sold in small boutiques that sell to restaurants and avid cooks alike.

2. Heat a large sauce pan over a medium flame until warm, then add the butter and olive oil. Once it sizzles, add the chopped onions and sauté until slightly golden.

3. Add the fresh mushrooms and stir gently so that it is uniformly covered by the olive oil and butter. Do not salt yet because the salt will draw out too much of the water from the mushrooms and render them limp and lifeless.

4. Once the mushrooms begin the expel their own water naturally, add the dried porcini and 1/2 cup of water. You can use some of the water in which the porcini were soaking, just be careful to decant it slowly so the sand at the bottom does not end up in the mushrooms. Salt and cook at medium high heat for a few minutes until the mushrooms look cooked. Add the peas, the white wine, and thyme, and lower the heat to medium low. Check the amount of liquid in the pan from time to time as you don’t want he mushroom to get too dry or remain too watery. You want enough liquid to form the sauce for the pasta. At this point you are ready to put the water on the stove to cook the pasta.

5. Cook the pasta according to package instructions, drain it a few minutes before “al dente.”Take the drained pasta and add it to the mushroom mixture in the sauce pan to cook a few more minutes at high heat. You can add some whipping cream at the last minute as you give the pasta one last swirl and stir! Serve in a wide bowl and dust with some good parmigiano!

Now you can stop here and enjoy the pasta dish…it is quite ample and will serve 6-8. If you are ready to eat Italian style, you can proceed with this next chicken dish which I find not only delicious, but also I find it a fabulous dish to entertain guests because it can be made ahead and it holds up well.

Petti di Pollo con Latte

I like this method of cooking meat, this time chicken breasts, with milk. I filet the boneless breasts so they are not so thick, then I cut them into strips about an inch wide so they all look like chicken tenders.

Ingredients

1 lb. chicken breasts (prepared as above)

flour for dusting the chicken

2 tbls butter and 2 tbls oilve oil

milk (it doesn’t matter whether it is whole milk – I use 2% reduced)

Directions

  1. Heat a 10 inch sauce pan until warm. Add the butter and olive oil.
  2. Dust the chicken breasts with flour and add to the pan. Sauté on medium high heat until golden brown on each side. Salt and pepper to taste.

3.Then completely cover the chicken with milk. Lower the heat and allow the meat to simmer.

4. Be careful to watch the milk at first because it has a tendency to boil over. Reduce the heat and cover the pan and cook for about 20 minutes. Keep watching it throughout; you may have to shake the pan a few times and turn the slices over to prevent the chicken from sticking on the bottom. Once the milk has reduced to a creamy finish and the chicken is tender, the dish is done!
This dish is so good with a side of mashed potatoes and some sautéed broccolini.

Make a delicious green salad and you have a feast! Slice a few ripe pears, drizzle them with a bit of honey and chopped walnuts. Bring out your favorite gelato and you will feel your soul restored. My friends and colleagues, I wish I could cook for you at this time, but that not being possible, make one of these dishes soon and let me know how it goes! Best wishes to you all and buon appetito!

Chicken with Peppers and Tomatoes

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The first peppers of the season shining brightly in hues of red, orange and pale yellow beckoned to me as I strode through the farmer’s market last Saturday. I think of all the possible delicious dishes that can come of these golden jewels – open flame roasted and marinated, oven roasted with potatoes, sautéed or stir fried quickly, stuffed, grilled on the barbecue, made into a “peperonata” ….the list goes on. But one of my favorite ways reminds me of our glorious days at our beach house in Terracina during the summer and that is braised in a similar way a “chicken cacciatore”is cooked. My mother used to like to make it because it could be paired with spaghetti, polenta, potatoes, rice, or sopped up with lots of crunchy bread. Even though chicken was quite expensive, the dish stretched well and was oh so tasty!

The basic ingredients are simple: chicken, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic.

  • One whole chicken fryer
  • 6 peppers of various colors. Make sure the peppers have some “heft,” not too thin or they will melt away in the cooking process.
  • 2-3 fresh tomatoes or 1 can diced tomatoes (or a combination of both)
  • 3 tbl olive oil + 1/4 cup safflower oil
  • 3-4 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1 cup white wine
  • salt and pepper

I prefer cooking this dish with a complete fryer chicken because I don’t really like the way butchers break down the chicken in precut packages. I like the variety of the whole chicken, but this dish can be made with thighs or legs only, whatever you prefer. I separate the thighs from the leg and remove the wings. I take the skin off the thighs and breast pieces to reduce the amount of fat. I use the back and split it in two pieces. Even though they are bony, they provide extra flavor to the dish. I debone the breast (this helps create more portions and reduce bulk). I remove each tenderloin and cut each breast in two pieces. Finally I rub salt on all the pieces and let them rest as I prep the vegetables.

I slice the peppers into strips and set them aside. Chop the garlic and have it ready. If using fresh tomatoes, I sometimes peel them if the skin seems tough. Then cut them in half, take out the seeds, and chop coarsely.

Doesn’t that look like a glorious riot of color?

Once the peppers, tomatoes, and garlic are prepped, we are ready for action!

Procedure:

  • In a pan at medium heat, add a tablespoon or two of safflower oil. Brown the chicken on all sides, first the larger pieces, then the smaller.
  • Remove the chicken from the pan and place in a bowl. Drain the pan of some of the fat without losing the bits of browned meat. Return to the heat and add the olive oil. When it is hot, add the chicken and the garlic. After 5 minutes when you see the chicken and garlic are beginning to turn golden, add the wine.
As you can see, the pieces are all snuggled nicely in the pan. The thicker pieces are browned and I have added the breast pieces later so they won’t dry out.
  • Add the tomatoes once the wine begins to evaporate. Cook these for about five minutes until you see the tomatoes begin to break down. Then add the peppers and season with some salt.
  • Add a cup of water and let the ingredients come to a boil for 5-10 minutes, then cover the pan. Turn down the flame and let the chicken and peppers braise for 45 minutes. Keep an eye on the peppers because you don’t want them to fall apart. If necessary remove the lid and let the liquid evaporate. You want a nice sauce, but not too watery or too dry.

This dish is so good in so many ways as I said earlier…with spaghetti, over polenta or rice. You can even add potatoes in the cooking to make this a one pot dinner. If you make it the day before serving, you will find its flavors mellow and become even more delicious the next day. Enjoy these last days of summer in the warmth of this dish!

Figs! Figs!

“There was an Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs,
and ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia.”
Edward Lear (1812-1888)

An English writer known for his ‘literary nonsense’, Lear’s silly limerick captures the moment of where we are today. I have had a bumper crop of figs this year and they keep coming! We keep eating them and finding ways to put them away. All I can say is ….

This Italian expression, not easily translatable in English in a literal way, sums up what enthusiasm we have for anything cool. It is with a certain sense of urgency that I post what I have been cooking with figs as it is September, fig time about to run out. My tree has been most bountiful and the figs keep coming and coming! I’m not too crazy about figs right off the tree, but I do like them when they have matured a bit on the kitchen counter. They seem to pick up in intensity of flavor and versatility. I started the season by experimenting with using figs as an hors d’oeuvre.

This photo was one of the first batches I made this summer. These look a bit of a mess, but other batches came out more bundle-like and neater because I used a full slice of prosciutto.

Barbecued Fig Bundles with Feta and Prosciutto

6-8 ripe figs (I peeled some – others I left intact)

feta (or other cheese of your liking)

8 slices of prosciutto

Make a small slit down the side of the fig and stuff with feta. Wrap the fig in a slice of prosciutto. Do the same for the remaining figs, then massage each with a little olive oil. Place on a heated grill basket and barbecue for a few minutes until the prosciutto begins to soften. Remove right away or they will stick to the grill and fall apart. Serve warm with a little drizzle of honey (optional). These bundles are delicious as a side dish to grilled meats and, I have found, delicious the next day as leftovers. I really like the different flavors – the salty from the prosciutto and feta, the sweetness of the figs. And they are so quick to make!

Another fig recipe that I have been toying with are small individual foccacce with figs such as these I made a few weeks ago.

I had seen the idea on my favorite magazine La Cucina Italiana and thought I could adapt it using ingredients readily available in my kitchen. I used the frozen Bridgford Ready-Dough as a base, thawed and worked it a bit, then cut it into mini pizza sized discs. I put it on a lightly oiled parchment paper, cut the figs as shown below. I added a little honey for sweetness, a very light drizzle of olive oil, let the focacce rise, and put them in a 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

They came out fragrant and delicious, perfect for an appetizer with cheese.

You can experiment with the concept as I did by tucking some blue cheese under the fig to give it a bit more kick. One of my favorite testers, Luca, my youngest son suggested that using a made-from-scratch focaccia dough might be even more flavorful and a bit crunchier. All points well taken as I will make this again and again as I have figs on the tree.

In my adventures working with figs, I tried a Fig Meringue Semifreddo as a birthday cake for my oldest son, Alex. Again I was inspired by a recipe offered by La Cucina Italiana, but I adapted all of the ingredients because I can’t find the same here.

Fig Meringue Semifreddo Cake

Individual meringues purchased (about 22 depending on size)

Frozen Pound Cake (I used the Sara Lee brand) – half of the package, cut in 1/2 inch slices

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 egg whites

1/4 cup sugar

1/4-1/2 cup grenadine

12-14 figs

  1. Take 4-5 of your more mature figs (I peeled them lightly) and mash them with a fork. Add some sugar if you like. Set aside.
  2. Whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of sugar until firm and stiff. In a separate bowl whip the heavy cream until it too has stiff peaks. I added another bit of sugar, but not too much. Then add the mashed figs by gently folding into the whipped cream with a spatula. Add the egg whites and gently fold into the mixture.
  3. Cut a round of parchment paper and place at the bottom of a springform pan. Arrange about 10-11 meringues on the bottom. Take the remaining figs, peeled and cut in half, and place them against the side of the pan.
  4. Add half of the cream/fig mixture and smooth to form the first layer of the cake. Place the pound cake slices on top of the cream layer to form another layer and drizzle the grenadine all over it.
  5. Add the rest of the cream mixture and smooth the surface. Place the remaining meringues on top. Cover with foil and place in the freezer for at least 4 hours.
  6. When you are ready to serve it, take the cake out of the freezer and let it warm a bit until it is easy to handle. Add a few more fresh figs for garnish if you like!

The cake held up well even the next day. Interesting flavors and very good! Speaking of interesting flavors, I was intrigued by Domenica Marchetti’s Brandied Fig and Chocolate Crostata from the June/July issue of Fine Cooking magazine. Oh my! I highly recommend you check it out here

A very delicious conclusion to my adventures in cooking with figs! The chocolate crust is rich and very satisfying. It combines unusually well with the brandied fig jam which has chocolate notes in it as well. I made the jam a few days before making the crostata and thought that letting it sit a bit allowed the flavors to mellow. On this note I leave you with some final thoughts about my musings and journeys with figs this September. Even though after all these trials I don’t quite feel that frisky like the Old Person from Ischia, I do want to be reminded that Romans considered figs to be the food of the gods, a hopeful and sweet sign of the bounty of nature and good times ahead.

Salads al Fresco

It is that time of the summer when we have gone through our usual repertoire of salads, maybe even a few times over, and now it feels right to try something new – even if it is just a twist on an old theme. It seems so luxurious to dine “al fresco” with a varied parade of different salads to highlight the evening. There are myriads of salad recipes one can draw from, but the most fun thing about salads is you can experiment, swap out, substitute, elaborate to your heart’s content…or rather the possibilities your refrigerator or garden may yield.

Whenever I come across beautiful green beans at the market, I can’t resist buying them because I can just taste the classic Roman salad with green beans and potatoes. Boil two or three potatoes in their jackets until tender. Allow to cool, then peel. In the meantime, clean the green beans (I like to snip both ends and make sure there are no tough threads running through the beans). I cook them in boiling salted water until tender, drain, and then allow to cool. Slice the potatoes, slice some red onion and add to the green beans. Make a light vinaigrette with vinegar, olive oil, (dijon mustard if you like), salt and pepper. This salad is good cold the next day…and the next day (if there is any left!).

Another salad I have been toying around with is a “clean -up-your pantry” type in which almost anything goes. Have some canned garbanzo beans you bought during the quarantine hanging around in the back of your pantry? Any bean would matter, but the garbanzo bean beckoned to me mostly. This has been particularly delicious and again, quite versatile.

As you can see, I slice some fabulous cherry tomatoes from the garden, some tender cucumbers, and red onions. I dressed it with a quick vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar or a splash of lemon, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. I have made this without cucumbers and tomatoes and added roasted and peeled red pepper strips instead. You will welcome leftovers the next day which you can add to a green salad. It is a refreshing and cool alternative on these hot days.

Lastly, I have a favorite salad I have been making most of the summer, a spinach-peach-almond green salad that goes well with barbecued meats.

Here I have a mix of spinach and Bibb lettuce, but any kind will do. I peeled and sliced fresh ripe peaches and threw on top a handful of toasted sliced almonds. I added the usual dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, freshly ground pepper…and a tablespoon or two of Amaretto liquor. The Amaretto is barely there to give the peaches a lift. I think if the spirit moved you, you could add some feta cheese or grilled shrimp to make this a one stop dinner on a hot day.

Today is Ferragosto, or Assumption Day, a major holiday in Italy that marks, not only the religious holiday of Mary ascending into heaven, but also the highlight of summer. The feast hails back from Feriae Augusti, the festival of emperor Augustus. Dare not get on the road before this holiday or get sick…..everything stops and beach resorts are packed! I wistfully think of past celebrations, of my family on holiday in Elba or other beach places. I sign off with my own greeting to you of a “Buon Ferragosto” and happy eating!

Pork Saltimbocca

Are you looking for a meat dish that is quick, easy, and satisfying – even elegant? Pork Saltimbocca literally is a “leap in the mouth” of tender buttery goodness. The advantages of this dish is the cooking does not interfere with other preparations you are making, especially when you are entertaining. You can prep it ahead of time and cook it quickly at the last minute just before serving. Some say the original dish came from Brescia because of the use of veal, but today you can be sure it has taken firm footing in Roman cuisine where it is ubiquitous in the city’s restaurants. I use pork because I have a hard time finding good veal in my area. I start with a whole piece of good quality boneless pork loin and then cut it in 1/8 inch thick slices.

This is a pound and a half. You will probably only use half, reserve the remaining piece for another use or freeze it.

Ingredients

1 lb boneless pork roast

4 oz block of monterey jack cut into logs (about an inch) – the purpose of this is so the cheese won’t melt into nothing when you are cooking it

8 oz prosciutto

several fresh leaves of sage

salt and pepper; onion salt (optional)

flour enough for dusting the meat

butter and olive oil

water, broth, lemon juice or wine – about 1/4 c

You’ll also need toothpicks to secure the meat pouches.

Lay the slices on a cutting board and pound them lightly between two sheets of plastic wrap. Lightly salt (not too much) the meat. Place a slice of prosciutto on the pork, one piece of cheese and a small leaf of sage.

Once you have prepared the meat, you are ready to fold each and fasten with a toothpick.

At this point you can cover the meat with plastic wrap and let it rest in the fridge while you go about fixing the rest of the meal, greet your guests, cook pasta…I would not do this hours before you cook it, but a few won’t hurt the dish.

When you are ready to cook the saltimbooca, heat your pan until it is hot. Add 2-3 tbl of olive oil and 2 tbl of butter (you can reduce the quantity if this is too fat for you. Dust the meat with a flour and place in the pan at moderate heat as you see in the photo above. Salt lightly (I sometimes use onion salt to give the dish and extra boost), flip the pieces and lightly brown on the other side.

At this point, you can cover the pan, turn off the heat, and let the meat rest if you have a large group your are cooking for – or if you are entertaining a dinner party. This is a tip coming from my mother who used to cater and would prep the dish until this point. Then she would resume as explained below.

You will see the cheese begin to melt, add 1/2- 3/4 cup of water, broth, or wine. Shake the pan until a sauce forms, slide it all on a platter (I added a little basil at the end only because it was handy) and voilà the dish is ready to serve.

Pork saltimbocca can be served as a main dish in all seasons of the year. Pair it with lightly sautéed string beans or spinach, mashed potatoes or rice, as a second course following a pasta or risotto. It’s a good all around dish to have in your repertoire!