I started blogging mostly for my sons who kept asking me,"Mom, how do you make...?" I had so much fun that I began to widen my circle to my mother (my greatest model of cooking genius), sisters, greater family in Italy and Mexico, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. An English teacher by profession, I'm always looking for creative outlets to express myself in the kitchen. Having grown up in Rome, Italy of an Italian family and married into an Italian family with ties to Mexico, I'm drawn to both cuisines. Here are my musings, inspirations, creations and food adventures from my kitchen to yours! Salute!
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.
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!
I’m returning to my blog in the midst of a pandemic, eager to put forth a little joy in life by cooking. Who would have ever believed that we would be experiencing such a change in our lives? Particularly in the first months, I feared for my friends and family in Italy and elsewhere, stunned by the adaptations the coronavirus flung upon us. I did my worst cooking ever in the first weeks of quarantine. A clam chowder morphed into a lumpy fish chowder because I decided to use some odd scraps from my freezer. A thin, limp pizza that never rose because I mistook a biga (starter ) packet in my freezer for dough and used it. The result was inedible. Everything seemed out of balance. Going to the store became an adventure in desolation. Before the quarantine set in, I remember being at a Safeway in Livermore,California on a dark rainy Saturday. The shelves were empty, the meat cases revealed their ugly rusted bottoms, and shoppers were desperately looking for potatoes. I looked around: had the world gone mad? It felt like an apocalyptic scene from a sci-fi movie.
What better way to console oneself and others than by making a fine plate of homemade tagliatelle? Or fettuccine? What’s the difference? Not much. “Fettuccia” in Italian is a ribbon, thus the pasta has that flat, cut look. “Taglia” means cut, so the type of pasta is essentially the same. We can talk about width sizes maybe making a difference…or the region from where the pasta comes from. Nevertheless, you will find that the term is used interchangeably in Italian cuisine. I thought it would be fun to make some tagliatelle in my ninety-year-old mother’s kitchen, following her method, using her machine and see if I still had the “touch” under the watchful eye of the master pasta maker herself.
In the case above I made five eggs with 500 grams or so of flour yielding approximately a pound and a half of pasta, good for six or seven good-sized servings. Tagliatelle are versatile because you can choose a “sugo” or sauce from a wide variety of recipes – from a basic butter and parmesan cheese or a white sauce as in an “Alfredo” to a heftier traditional ragu’ using meat and tomato pulp. Here is one I used with the batch I made at my mother’s.
Sugo di Pomodoro e Pancetta
1/2 large onion or 3/4 C finely chopped
5 oz. diced pancetta (you could use bacon if you can’t find pancetta)
1 8 oz can diced tomatoes (or pomodori pelati) – I usually like to puree these in a food processor for a finer texture.
1-2 Tbl butter
2 Tbl olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat the pan and add the olive oil. Coat the bottom, 2-3 tablespoons – or how you like it. Add the butter and melt quickly with a sizzle. Then add the pancetta and cook until slightly golden, but not crispy. At this point, you can drain some of the fat if you find it too greasy. I usually don’t because the pancetta I use is fairly lean.
2. Add the onions and sauté lightly until golden brown. Once the onions have become golden, add the tomatoes (diced or pureed), stir, add half a cup of water, salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium low and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water if the sauce becomes too dry and needs more time to reduce.
Cook the tagliatelle the usual way in boiling salted water. Homemade pasta cooks much faster, so it should be ready once the pasta rises to the surface. Drain it retaining some of the cooking water. Homemade pasta absorbs liquid very quickly, so to keep it moist, add a little water as you stir the sauce into it. I added a bit of cream at the end to finish the dish with softer tones, but this is not necessary. Optional too is a little green, some chopped basil or thyme.
I’m starting a new series dedicated to cheese! – a great favorite of mine and my friends and family. As I write this, I just found out today that my cholesterol level is a bit too high, so I’m a bit bummed. There is no life without cheese! But I think I can manage, cutting back a bit, but enjoying it all the same.
From time to time I’ll write about a certain type of cheese, its provenance in Italy, the particular qualities it has, and of course, some recipes to consider. Some of these cheeses are a little hard to find outside of Italy, so I’ll give you some sites where you can order online or provide you with some substitutes which work well in recipes.
I’m particularly fond of robiola and somewhat fascinated by it. As I peruse various Italian magazines and cookbooks, what is intended and used by cooks varies enormously. For most it is a soft, fresh cheese, such as Robiola Osella, with a consistency very much like a cross between a cream cheese and a chevre. Other forms of robiola such as Robiola Bosina or Robiola di Roccaverano Dop resemble a camembert with a soft interior and velvety white rind.
The term “robiola” is derived from the Latin “rubeolus,” an adjective suggesting the “reddish” hue of the more seasoned form of the cheese. Some have also suggested the term comes from a town of Robbio in the province of Pavia in Lombardy. The term Dop means that the product is a Protected Designation of Origin, the real thing. You will will see the seal on many products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, from Italy.
Also known as “formaggetta,” the Robiola di Roccaverano comes from the town of the same name, Roccaverano, located in the eastern part of Piedmont, the Langhe, between Asti and Alessandria. This robiola made from cow and goat milk is produced year-round and has two forms, the fresh product which is soft and creamy and the dry seasoned one which has a hard, drier texture and rind. The dry form has a sharp flavor which grows more intense with age.
Many recipes in Italian magazines and online cooking sites call for the fresh robiola with the cream cheese texture. But this type is difficult to find, so I got into my head to try making it myself! I found a recipe through an Italian blogger https://www.laricettadimarco.com/2014/02/robiola-fatta-in-casa.html who offered a simple way to make the cheese at home. So this is what I came up with following his instructions and adapting it to US measurements.
2 lbs. Non fat yogurt (I used the Straus brand as it is organic and free of additives). It is European style, so it is a bit runny.
1/2 tsp salt (or a large pinch)
1/2 tsp sugar (or a large pinch)
4 Tbl butter softened.
Add the salt and sugar to the yogurt and mix it well. Form a pouch with double folded cheesecloth. Gently pour the yogurt inside it . Tie the notch at the top and hang the pouch over a bowl in the refrigerator. I devised this crazy contraption like this:
Allow the cheese to sit in this way and drain for 18-24 hours. When you take it out of the cheescloth, it will look like this:
Now this is delicious as is; it will resemble and taste like a very thick yogurt. Then whip up 4-5 Tbl. softened butter and add to the cheese. Stir well and adjust the salt. It is now ready for use…to enjoy on crackers, or to make the following dish which inspired me to go down this path in the first place! I found this recipe in the May 2019 edition of Sale e Pepe and was intrigued.
Tortino di Crespelle ai Piselli Farcito Con Robiola
To make the crepes:
2 cups peas (frozen ok), cooked, drained and cooled
3/4 cup milk + 1/4 cup water
1 cup flour
2 tbl butter
In a food processor, use the pulse mechanism to break up the peas until they have the consistency of a paste. Then add the flour, the milk and water, the eggs, and salt. Continue to pulse until somewhat smooth; the peas will give the batter a bit of lumpiness. Allow the batter to rest for about a half hour. It will be thick, so when you begin to make the crepes, you can add a bit more milk as necessary. This recipe makes exactly 8 crepes.
To make the crepes, heat a shallow 8 inch (measure the bottom) non-stick pan at moderate temperature and lightly grease it with butter. With a soup ladle (that measures a little over a 1/4 of a cup), pour the batter onto the pan, swirl it into a light pancake coating the entire bottom of the pan. When the sides seem to brown slightly, flip the crepe. Cook briefly, then turn the crepe onto a towel paper. Prepare the other crepes in the same manner. You should end up with 8 crepes in all. Allow them to cool while you prepare the filling.
3 cups robiola – You can use the recipe described above. Substitution: You can try cream cheese mixed with chevre. The Nicasio Valley brand cheese called Foggy Morning is very similar to robiola.
However, it is a bit pricey for only 6 oz. I have blended it with my homemade robiola to stretch it a bit.
Add a dash of pepper to the robiola, loosen it up a bit with milk if it seems too stiff. Place one crepe on an oven-proof plate, distribute the robiola over the crepe as if you were icing a cake, then repeat by placing another crepe on top of the other until you have used all eight. Leave the top layer free of cheese. Lightly trim the edges with a sharp knife so you can see the layers. Cover with foil and allow to rest in the fridge. Before serving, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees (I used my Breville oven) and place the tortino in the oven for 20 minutes. Decorate with some fresh basil; I also put a few slow-roasted cherry tomatoes to give it color. Cut into wedges and serve as a appetizer or light lunch.
Robiola has many uses from gracing a cheese board to being an excellent addition to crepes, cannelloni, pasta, or polenta. Try it in scrambled eggs, top a pizza, add a few dabs in a salad….drizzle with chili oil or fig confit. You won’t be disappointed with it freshness, its mild, yet tangy lightness.
Years ago when my eldest son Alex asked for a cold pasta salad, I thought it was a sacrilege to even consider a dish of pasta served cold like a salad. I would never admit it to my mother or my Italian relatives that I should even consider making such a dish. Stealthy, secretly, I followed Alex’s instructions as to what he wanted in it and made him a dish made with raw carrots cut in matchsticks, black olives, some cubed cheddar cheese and chopped broccoli. Pretty good, I decided for a first try, and so did he.
Since then, however, things have changed and the Italian magazines I read today all offer various recipes of cold pasta salads, lauding the freshness and simplicity of the dishes. I’m astounded by the variety. They are tasty additions to summer buffets, barbecues, and picnics. Above all, during the summer I like to keep some handy in the fridge for a quick lunch or a side dish for dinner. As I experimented lately with different recipes and ideas, I have found some simple truths to avoid common pitfalls which may render the pasta too cloy or inedible the next day.
1. The Type of Pasta
The type of pasta you choose does make a difference. Size and shape matters. Avoid a large size such as rigatoni, for example. It requires more sauce with bold flavors. The half-size (if you can find it) is preferable. Regular-sized penne may work well if the sauce has a kick to it. Any small pasta such as orzo will absorb the flavors more readily. Smaller-sized penne with grilled vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, and red peppers allow the flavors to meld and complement each other. Dice the vegetables finely, add julienned basil, maybe some chopped Kalamata olives and a light drizzle of olive oil (see photo below).
Choose a good quality pasta. Cheap brands ultimately taste funny and fall apart. Find the best quality possible because you want to taste the grain and the pasta will not become gummy.
Use spaghetti cautiously. Thin spaghettini or linguine become mushy and and have a tendency to either float in the dressing or become too dry. It is often difficult to eat buffet style or as a side.
When thinking about the type of pasta, think of what ingredients you will use with it. Shell pasta, for example, works well with tuna or other seafood. Rotini with slivers of zucchini complement each other.
What you add to your pasta salad is important, making sure that all the elements work together. Included should be one element (for example, vegetables – even multiple ones) that gives the cold salad its identity and appeals to the palate in a distinct manner. The most flavorful are raw or grilled/roasted vegetables,
cubed ham, diced chicken, slivers of salmon, tuna, anchovies in olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, gentle dollops of ricotta, Kalamata olives, marinated artichokes….it’s up to your imagination! I always limit to three elements and I pay attention to how they interact with each other. The idea is to enhance the flavors so they dance well together. I also pay attention to freshness, especially when using raw ingredients.
3. Dressing the Salad
It is a salad after all, so what it is dressed with also matters greatly. Bottled dressings kill pasta salads. They don’t have the correct balance of acidity, salt, spice, and fat that only you can create with simple ingredients. Bottled dressings have too much sugar and other favors that disturb the interaction of flavors imparted by the other ingredients. Good olive oil, lemon, occasionally vinegar, are usually the best. Beware of mayonnaise, use sparingly, as it is usually too heavy and masks other flavors. Lastly, always taste to make sure the balance of flavors is correct. Sometimes you have to add a little bit of this or a little bit if that!
Yes, fruit works well….as long as it pairs with the other ingredients. Mango with shrimp, blueberries with goat cheese and chopped arugola, finely diced apple and a hard sharp cheese. Dried fruit like chopped apricots or white raisins may give a hint of sweetness where you want it. I’m not nuts about nuts in pasta salads. Too much competition with the pasta. Again, the idea is to enhance the flavors, being careful not to overwhelm the palate. Dressing the pasta salads that have fruit in them should be light and refreshing with lemon and one other herb such as mint or basil.
5. Yes, Herbs!
But only one at a time. In all the recipes I have read in Italian cooking magazines and books, only one herb is used. Of course basil reigns supreme. Its aroma lifts the palate and soars. Parsley is also commonly used. I like it chopped finely with garlic, a little lemon peel and basil (I know I said only one – but this acts as one!). This combination becomes rather potent if used too liberally. Thyme, mint, sometimes origano or even rosemary can enhance a salad and bring it to new heights. Generally speaking though….only one at a time and finely chopped.
6. Cooking the Pasta
Cook the pasta according to package instructions, not “al dente” which will make the pasta chewy, or, overcooked which will render it mushy. When you drain the pasta, dash with cold water to stop the cooking, then lay the pasta out on a clean towel to cool, allowing it to dry out a bit..
Place in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. It is now ready for the other ingredients!
Here is one recipe I developed last month as I was looking for something refreshing, yet satisfying.
Raw Vegetable Pasta Salad
2 cups ditalini (uncooked) (you can use an entire box, just augment the other ingredients)
1/2 yellow squash
1/2 sweet red pepper
1/2 red onion
1/2 cup of olive oil + more for dressing as needed
First dice the raw vegetables finely about the same size as the pasta (or smaller). Place in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup of olive oil and let the vegetables macerate for half an hour to an hour. This way they will give out a bit of their own liquid.
In the meantime, finely chop 5 basil leaves and a small handful of parsley and combine with the zest of one lemon.
Make the dressing by mixing 1/2 cup of olive oil, one pressed garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon of anchovy paste and the juice of one lemon.
Cook the pasta as described above, drain, and give it a quick splash of cold water. Lay the pasta on a clean towel to dry a bit, then add it to the vegetable mixture in the bowl. Add the dressing very slowly while you mix the pasta. You may not need it all and can reserve some of it for later if the pasta dries out too much or for another salad. Add the herb mixture, then salt and pepper to taste.
This salad is versatile as you can add different vegetables, such as finely cut string beans. If you are diabetic or have other dietary restrictions, add more vegetables and cut down on the pasta. Or you can add small shrimp or tuna….It holds up well on a buffet table. It gets better the next day! Pasta salads have indeed changed since my first foray in making them years ago and that’s a good addition to our kitchen.
Lately I have been yearning for seafood. Not just any – but the freshly dug up clams, tiny squid, razor clams, rosy shrimp, whole live fish caught and sold at market on the same day. The summers of my youth were idyllic, mostly by the sea either at our family’s beach house in Terracina or at my aunt’s villa in Elba Island. The “villetta” that my grandparents built was a modest three- story house located in Salto di Fondi, to be precise, a bay that stretched from Terracina to Sperlonga, approximately 120 kilometers or 75 miles south of Rome.
The house was built at a time in that location, wild and undeveloped, when there was no electricity, nor running water. All of that came later as those big improvements were made in the years that followed. It had a spectacular view overlooking the sea, one that changed with the seasons and the time of day.
The house of many rooms accommodated a growing family of grandchildren, nine girls at first, then followed many years later by twin boys. It had a long lane leading up to it from the main road. Bougainvilleas grew in wild abandon throwing their riot of color in splashes against the pink walls.
My parents toiled endlessly to create an Eden facing the sea.
In winter they painted, planted, pruned, until come summer and spring, the grounds burst with color. The little “piazzale” facing the ocean became a favorite place for leisurely lunches and dinners al fresco under the olive tree and pines. Almost immediately, the house became a gathering place for family vacations, meals, laughter, and conversations.
The routine of our daily lives was pretty much the same every day. It involved feeding lunch and dinner sometimes up to twenty-five people including guests, growing children and teenagers, aunts, and grandparents!
My parents would take off for the market in the early hours of the morning. My mother would hit the open fish market, the vegetable market, and the “alimentari” where she purchased large loaves of bread, cheese, prosciutto or salami and other groceries for the day.
My parents, and sometimes I in tow, would arrive home loaded down with baskets full of vegetables, fish, beef or poultry, and large rounds of bread and pizza “al taglio” (street pizza with only tomato, no cheese, cut into squares and folded over like a sandwich – perfect breakfast food!). Here is where I cut my teeth as a cook learning to prep the meals for the day before we headed for the beach, the sun, and the water.
I am particularly nostalgic for those times, especially for the dishes that varied widely depending on what my mother would find at the market. Imagine large, large bowls of spaghetti or short pasta done in every way imaginable, huge fish fries of the tiniest, most tender morsels of shrimp, fresh anchovies, and squid, enormous green salads with “misticanza” – a mixture of all kinds of miniature lettuces such rucola, fruit bowls of “macedonia” of cut peaches, melons, wild strawberries, and plums usually to conclude the meal. With this long preface, a memoir of sorts, let me try to recreate for one short while, the aromas and flavors of that time.
Spaghetti di Mare (of the sea)
With a pound, or a little more, of clams, rinse them and place them in a bowl of cold water with a little salt added. We used to keep them in buckets filled with sea water to “spurgare” or purge the sand from the clams. Let them sit for about five minutes.
In the meantime, heat some olive oil in a pan and drop the clams into into it.You can cover the pan and cook quickly 2-3 minutes until the clams have opened. Discard any clams that have not opened as they are not fresh. Remove from the heat and allow the clams to cool slightly and remove them from the shell. Keep a few intact for decoration. Filter the water into a small bowl and set aside.
Have a handful or two of fresh shrimp tail-on ready. In the same pan saute’ chopped garlic in some olive oil, some crushed red pepper if you like it spicy, then add the shrimp, and a sprinkle or two of white wine. Jiggle the pan a bit and add about 1/4 cup of “passata di pomodoro” or crushed tomatoes. Let it cook in a lively manner for about 5 minutes, then add the filtered water and the clams. Give it another stir to mix well. Turn off the heat and your sauce is ready! Drain your spaghetti and keep a bit of its water in case the dish gets too dry. Toss the spaghetti into the pan with the seafood a handful of chopped parsley, give it a quick last stir and serve.
Also this week I came across some whole black rockfish at the farmer’s market. Again my memories tugged at me as I remembered being at Terracina’s fish market where fish was sold still jumping on marble slabs. It couldn’t get any fresher! My mother would often barbecue entire fish (cleaned of course, but left whole), then carved it opened and slathered it with a sauce similar to gremolata made with chopped parsley and minced garlic, sometimes capers, lemon, olive oil. I couldn’t resist! I imagined a fine dinner Terracina-style with barbecued fish and spaghetti “alla mondezzara” with salsa cruda.
As the late Anthony Bourdain stated, “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” He had a point. And so it goes…. food has a special quality of bringing us back to places, flavors, aromas, and convivial times that reside in our memories. I may not be able to go back to those times, but I can recreate a small part of it and share it with you.
It’s that time of year again when zucchini abounds and we begin to pull out all our recipes that have lay dormant for a year. Yesterday my friend Eileen dug into her thick file of recipes cut out of magazines and printed off favorite food sites. It was fun to see the vast array of ways to cook zucchini, from breads, salads, soups to enchiladas, pastas…risotto. If you are a vegetable lover, this one never disappoints, it’s so versatile. I wonder how many recipes are out there in the internet?!? Well here’s one more and a few ideas to boot.
The Italian word for zucchini is actually “zucchine” or small squash, the plural form of little “zucca.” One popular way to serve them is breaded and fried lightly…as I did a few nights ago.
But one of my other favorite ways to cook zucchini is to stuff them. Sounds like a lot of work on a hot day? Not really…remember cooking in the kitchen can also be a zen experience in which you forget about the heat outside. It was 103 degrees, 42 degrees centigrade registered on my thermometer hanging in my patio. Hula! It’s hot…let’s make stuffed zucchini!
Zucchine Ripiene (Stuffed Zucchini)
3-4 moderately large zucchini, halved
2 potatoes (I use yukon gold potatoes so I don’t have to peel them) – sliced thinly.
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup grated parmigiano cheese
1/2 – 3/4 cup grated monterey jack (or mozzarella) cheese
1 slice of rustic (such as ciabatta or sourdough) bread
1/4 cup of milk
2-3 Tbl. olive oil
2-3 Tbl. tomato sauce
salt and pepper to taste
basil or other herb like thyme (optional)
Blanch the halved zucchini in boiling salted water for about 3-5 minutes (depending on size). Remove the the zucchini and place face down on a paper towel to cool.
While the zucchini halves are cooling, crumble the bread in a small bowl with the milk. Massage it gently to remove any big lumps, If it looks like you have too much milk, remove some so the mixture is not too soupy.
Scoop out the central portion of the zucchini forming a little boat. Continue to place the scooped out zucchini face down to drain. In the meantime, finely chop the scooped out zucchini, the chopped onion and add to the bread and milk mixture. In Liguria, finely chopped mortadella is also added – I want to try that version!
Add the egg, 2-3 tablespoons of parmigiano, and 1/2 cup of monterey jack.
Prepare a pyrex dish by coating it with a little of the olive oil. Optional (and this is a version “alla ligure” from the region of Liguria: Take the thinly sliced potatoes and place them around the dish, overlapping slightly, as if you were making scalloped potatoes.
Salt and pepper them slightly. Place the zucchini face up on the potatoes and fill each boat with the mixture.I like to dribble some tomato sauce down the middle and then top with monterey jack and a sprinkling of parmigiano. Optional: some slivered fresh basil or thyme on top.
Salt, pepper, and a little drizzle of olive oil, cover with aluminum foil. I baked mine in a Breville oven at 375 degrees – that’s why I didn’t fear a hot kitchen on a hot day! If using a conventional oven, 350 degrees is sufficient. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and lower the temperature to 350 for another 15 minutes. These stuffed zucchini boats are delicious served at room temperature. But… I also like them cold for lunch the next day! Sono molto gustose!
“What do I do with this?” is a common question I hear shoppers ask when I circulate among the stalls at the Davis Farmers Market.I hear it especially when it is directed towards produce that is exotic or unfamiliar. I often ask the question myself as I eye some of the vegetables used in Asian cooking. Vendors generously offer tips and advice about prepping and cooking. Sometimes, when a question comes up regarding vegetables commonly used in Italian cooking, I like to offer my own tips and recipes. Market-goers are open to new ideas; it is so much fun to see their expressions of surprise and gratitude. So I’m starting a series in which I will focus on my findings at the market, usually about produce whose preparations are not commonly known, but come from the heart of my background growing up in Italy with a mother who is a fabulous cook.
This week I finally found Romano beans, you know – those flat, green beans with a gnarly look!
I love these beans and I wait for them all year long! This year they have taken a while to come to market. When I asked one of favorite vendors why the wait, she said the rabbits kept nibbling away at them. So much for competition! So what do you do with them?
A number of different preparations are possible, mostly simple, from a salad with red onions, cranberry beans, and vinaigrette to a minestrone. Let me show you one of my favorite ways – one preparation my mother used to make when I was a girl. It reminds me of lazy summer luncheons under the olive tree at our beachfront summer villa in Terracina. Ingredients:
1 – 1 1/2 lbs. green beans ( you could really use any – even the asparagus beans)
1 Cup onion – or one small onion – diced
1 8 oz. can diced tomatoes or 3 fresh and peeled tomatoes
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
8 oz. pancetta or guanciale (optional)
1 7 oz. can tuna, preferably the Italian bran, drained (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the beans and cut them into 1 inch pieces. In a saucepan or skillet with a one inch border, add the oil and the butter. Once it sizzles, add the onion and saute’ until tender and slightly golden. If you are choosing to put pancetta or guanciale, add it at this time and stir until fragrant. Add the beans and stir again until blended. Cook for about a minute or two, then add the tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste.
Add approximately a cup of water so that the beans remain slightly submerged as in the photo below.
Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the beans are tender. You have to add more water if the mixture looks a bit dry and the beans aren’t quite cooked through. Cook a little longer if necessary. At this point, it’s done!
But here’s the twist! Add a can of tuna (make sure you drain it!) into the mixture while it is still warm. This is the part of the dish I like so much. The tuna makes it tangy and oh so yummy!
I usually make this dish without the pancetta; I either like it with tuna or simply vegetarian. Experiment with whatever option – all are excellent! We usually serve this as a side dish or as a salad, cold on a hot summer day (my favorite). The favors blend and get better the next day or the next if there is any left! It keeps well for about a week. Serves 5-6
Nothing can be more joyous than a kitchen buzzing with pizza preparations, guests sipping drinks, and golden, fragrant pizzas coming out of the oven. While pizza recipes abound and so too, advice about how to make a good pizza, some challenges can drive even the best cook out of the kitchen ready to order out. One of the challenges is time, of course. When my boys were growing up, the easiest way to get a pizza on the table was to make it in a large sheet pan and cut the pizza into squares just like the Italians like to eat their pizza street-wise on the run. I would make two large pizzas, one white with cheese and onions, the other with tomato, cheese, and whatever toppings (prosciutto, mushrooms, olives…) I had on hand.
But what if you are cooking only for two or three diners, one likes the pizza very thin, the other thick….one likes only sliced tomatoes and basil, the other fully loaded, what does a cook do? Cooking individual pizzas is not as easy as it seems because of timing. One person’s pizza is ready while the other waits impatiently (of course they could share). The other issue is the baking unit…will be the Breville (toaster) oven, the large oven, or the barbecue? If it is one oven…the process may take more time than expected as happened to me one night when I decided to use only the Breville. Even though it is only 20 minutes cooking time, there are four more pizzas waiting to be cooked. That can mean disaster!
One evening in recent times, I decided to kick all three cooking units into gear and see how quickly I could get all pizzas on the table at approximately the same time. This sounds a little crazy, but it also served as a testing ground for which cooking method was the best. And everyone could have their pizza as desired!
A word about the Breville oven. I have a Breville Smart Oven Pro with Light which I love because it functions like a regular oven and virtually can bake just about anything. If you have just yourself or another diner, this is the best option because it is practical, quick, and cool in the summer when it is raging hot outside. It comes with a 13″ nonstick pizza pan which work really well. I oil the pan with a thin layer of olive oil before putting the dough on it. If I have time, I let it rise a bit while I am assembling the rest of the ingredients.
-1/2 cup warm water
-1 package (1/4 oz.) active dry yeast (rapid rise works well too)
-1 1/4 cups water
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 cups bread flour + more needed for working the dough
1.Measure the warm water in the mixing bowl. I use a KitchenAid mixer with a paddle hook. Add the yeast, and a pinch of sugar and allow to bloom about 10 minutes. Add the remaining water, then one cup of flour. Add the salt and the olive oil.
2.Add the remaining flour one cup at a time, mixing this time with a dough hook until well blended and dough forms a ball. Turn out onto the work surface and work it a bit with your hands. Form a ball and put into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise until doubled. Turn out into a floured surface and divide the dough into 5-6 balls, ready to use. I flatten the balls into a circle with my fingers, then gently stretch from the edges to form a pizza round.
To make pizzas à la carte, prepping is key. Have everything ready to go – the toppings prepped in little bowls so your diners can make their choices, the olive oil on stand-by, the cheese (shredded or sliced) at hand and voilà…the pizzas will come together in a flash.Whatever your preferences are, one thing is certain: avoid pizza “sauces”. Italians don’t use a pre-cooked tomato sauce. Use finely chopped fresh tomatoes or even tomatoes from a can. Freshness is key.
Toppings can vary according to your taste and to what you have on hand.Here are some of my favorites: sliced fresh tomatoes, olives (of all types), anchovies, prosciutto, marinated artichokes, onions (green, yellow, red….), cooked mushrooms – or raw (the flavor is different). Another favorite, unusual – but common in Italy, sliced parboiled potatoes (see the pizza above). Layer thinly sliced potatoes over the dough, then cheese, some thinly sliced onions, salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil. Prepping the toppings and prepping the pizzas is where the joyous dance in the kitchen begins.
Mozzarella is the obvious choice for most pizzas, but not really my favorite. Mozzarella here in the United States doesn’t have much flavor when baked. It turns to nothing, a little runny, when baked and so it’s a bit disappointing. My cheese of choice is Monterey Jack for its tangy flavor, structure, and good melting point. I also like to mix it up a bit and add gorgonzola or taleggio when I have it. These are fabulous with mushrooms!
Salt and pepper of course. But try oregano (even fresh if you have it), red pepper, even thyme or rosemary. Add fresh basil at the last moment before you serve.
I preheated my oven at 450 degrees and my gas barbecue at 500+. I then preheated the Breville at the pizza function. When ready, I started with the Breville pizza first as it cooked pretty much on its own, then turned my attention to the oven. Note I don’t use a pizza stone because I like to lightly oil my baking pans – I find it provides more flavor. The tricky method is the barbecue.Turn off the middle burners so you have indirect heat. Make sure the grates are clean and well oiled. Lightly oil the pizza dough as well and then quickly flip it down on the grill. If it doesn’t turn out a perfect round….oh well! Standby because as the dough rises and puffs, it needs to be turned. Lightly oil the unbaked side, then turn it, and add the toppings.
Another solution is this nifty gadget
which puts out perfectly round pizzas with little fuss. Surprisingly, the barbecue pizza took the longest and needed the most attention. The Breville pizza took the least amount of time and came out perfectly.
But which pizza did my diners prefer? They couldn’t tell me….
The barbecue pizza….probably took first prize despite the shape!
Oven pizza with prosciutto, monterey jack, red onion, and marinated artichokes. My favorite.
In the foreground, oven pizza with sliced zuncchini, olives, onions and mozzarella. In the background, Breville pizza with fresh sliced tomatoes, olives, mozzarella, and basil.
Whatever the method of baking, take pride in your creation, have fun with your choice of toppings and fear not how it comes together – there is no such thing as a bad pizza day made at home!
One of my favorite grains is farro, thought to be the most ancient going back 5,000 years. The Roman legions consumed it in their journeys as it is nutritious and satisfying. It was considered virtually sacred among the Latins, the Umbrians, and other regional people of ancient times. Italians commonly use farro in soups, salads, even desserts. It is nutty, sturdy, wholesome, and utterly delicious! Try this summer salad either as a side dish or part of a buffet.
1.Cook the farro. You can either cook it the traditional way by adding 4-6 cups of water in a pot. Let it come to a boil, then add a teaspoon of salt. Add the farro and cook it for about 25 minutes or until soft and the consistency you prefer. You can also cook it in the Instant Pot (especially nice to do on a hot day!). The ratio of farro to water is about 1:2. I prefer a bit more water to avoid the farro becoming too sticky. Add a teaspoon of salt , close the lid and set it on Manual for 10 minutes. Allow a natural pressure release of 5-6 minutes, then a quick release. Drain the farro in a colander and allow to cool.
2.While the farro is cooling, prep the other ingredients. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half. If they are particularly small, leave them whole.
Slice the kalamata olives and set aside. Prepare the red onions and kale by chopping them finely. Once the the farro has cooled, add all the ingredients including the raisins. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dress it with olive oil and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Start with this amount and then increase to suit your taste. Cover and refrigerate.
-This salad is best made the day before. You may want to adjust the seasoning and the dressing after letting it sit for a bit and the flavors will meld.
-Instead of the “summer” option with tomatoes, try an autumnal option with cubed roasted butternut squash.
If you are a classicist about tiramisu’, stop here and don’t read any further! But if you like an interesting twist on an old favorite, I think I have something for you. I had been toying with an idea of making a strawberry tiramisu` in a cup for a while, but couldn’t find a recipe and an appropriate occasion to serve it. Then voila`! My friend Betty was hosting a bridal shower for her niece and had ordered some cute glasses to give to her guests as favors. A perfect solution! I practiced on my family to find the right combination of fruit, cream, and sweetness and this is what I devised with a little trial and error. This is a dessert you can make in very little time and fuss. Notice there are no egg yolks in this recipe, so it is lightened up a bit. The measurements for the ingredients can vary depending on how many servings – you can easily make this for two people. I made this for six.
2 lbs. (or three containers) strawberries hulled and cut/diced finely. Sweeten with a tablespoon of sugar or to your liking. Cover and refrigerate so the strawberries will have time to macerate. Reserve a few whole ones for the garnish.
1 small container mascarpone
1 pint whipping cream
1/2 cup (More or less) sugar
1 package savoiardi (or ladyfingers) – you will probably only use 6-12
1/2 cup (more or less) grenadine syrup
white chocolate (optional)
As the strawberries macerate in the refrigerator, prepare the other layers. Whip the cream with at least two tablespoons of sugar until peaks are firm.
In another bowl whip the mascarpone. You can do this by hand if you have a small quantity. Add a 1/4 cup of the strawberries to make the mascarpone cream turn slightly pink. You can add more to your liking. Sweeten with a few more tablespoons of sugar until it is sweet, but not cloying so.
Divide the whipped cream in two parts. Add one to the mascarpone mixture, the other will be used as the topping. I put the mascarpone cream in a pastry bag to make it easier to fold in the cups.
Then begin the assembly. Place a tablespoon of strawberries at the bottom of each of the glasses. Then break a savoiardo in half and dip in the grenadine.Place either one or two halves on top of the strawberries. Cover with a swirl of mascarpone cream. Add another layer of strawberries. Top with the whipped cream and garnish with a slice of strawberry and a whispy curl of white chocolate. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
The dessert was a perfect end to a lovely bridal shower luncheon.
As John Ruskin once said, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”