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!

Some New Thoughts about Cold Pasta Salads

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.

2.Condiments Matter

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,

Here I grilled thin slices of one zucchini, a yellow squash, a red pepper, and  eggplant on the barbecue. I brushed them with a mixture of olive oil, crushed garlic, parsley and basil. I chopped all the vegetables together after they had cooled (a good way to use leftover grilled vegetables). I tossed them in the pasta with some cubed mozzarella, a little more basil and a little drizzle of more olive oil.

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!

4. Fruit?

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 zucchini

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ocean on My Plate

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 view from our house of Terracina,  Monte Circeo, and the beach

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.

Here I was posing in our favorite spot before the ocean.

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.

My twin cousins Toto and Pippo and my father having a joyful lunch under the trees.

From left to right: My uncle Zio Giancarlo, my aunt Zia Vittoria, my grandmother Nonna Gina, My grandfather Nonno Vittorio, my cousin Benedetta, my other cousin Claudia, and my other aunt Zia Francesca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

At the market…cool, calm , and collected! And always elegant!

A typical scene in the kitchen. How could Mamma keep smiling with all those mouths to feed?

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.

 

 

 

             Clams or “vongole”

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.

Che bel pescione! (beautiful big fish)

A typical Terracina favorite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Big Flap Over “La Carbonara”

I don’t know if you have been following the latest controversy in the foodie world, but I thought I’d share this one! Italians are very protective of the authenticity of original recipes, particularly of dishes that characterize a city, a town, or a region. They are known to criticize the intrusion of one “false” ingredient or a gross variation of a dish and discuss it vehemently. So you can imagine the reaction to  the British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara which called for cream and, lord…., wine (ehm…even vermouth) in a recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara. https://www.nigella.com/recipes/spaghetti-alla-carbonara.

download-1I first caught this news item on the online magazine La Cucina Italiana where the reaction was swift and the outrage palpable. The title of the article, “Nigella Lawson toccaci tutto, ma non la carbonara!”  – meaning “Nigella Lawson, you can touch anything, but not the carbonara” says it all!  It continues on to describe “lo scandalo”, “questa volta l’ha combinata grossa” – “this time she has really blew it.” My antennas were alerted. Then I caught the story on the Kitchn http://www.thekitchn.com/the-problem-with-nigella-lawsons-carbonara-recipe-247742, I knew a Twitter storm had brewed.

Just as The Kitchn’s Susmita Baral suggests correctly, what constitutes authenticity and how far can one go to  say a dish can be called something when it has been adulterated? Using pancetta instead of guanciale can be pardoned, as La Cucina Italiana, states….but adding cream? Vermouth? The pasta, a traditional Roman dish, can no longer be called  spaghetti alla carbonara cried one reader. It is true that spaghetti alla carbonara, like so many dishes, has been tortuously corrupted by the addition of other elements (peas!, sausage…I even saw it served in a bread bowl – horror of horrors!) that makes it no longer recognizable. One of my pet peeves is that one should not longer call a dish by its original name when a new ingredient has been added…..even if one adds a disclaimer as Nigella did that the recipe was not entirely authentic. Give it a new name and keep the purity of the recipe.

So let me set the record straight for my readers about this profoundly Roman dish, a dish with a few simple ingredients -and beware of those simple ingredients!!! Here is the recipe with a few rules attached:

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 lb. spaghetti (invest in good quality – De Cecco or Delverde) – only spaghetti, not spaghettini, linguine, tagliatelle, or short pasta. Ravioli would be heresy!

6-7 oz. diced guanciale ( pancetta will do if you can’t find jowl bacon. Make sure the pancetta is cut thick before you dice it. Do not use American bacon unless you are absolutely desperate.)

3-4 eggs  preferably at room temperature. Here is where a great deal of controversy arises. Yolks or full eggs?!? I have used the entire egg…but the pasta actually seizes up due to the egg whites.Purists say the yolks render the pasta silkier – and this is true.You can alternate one yolk for one entire egg. Calculate one yolk per person.

Parmigiano or pecorino – a good quantity not only to add to the dish before serving, but on your pasta as you eat it. Again a little controversy here. Some say pecorino is more authentic. I say…take your pick and what you have on hand!

Salt and lots of black pepper as seasoning.

Some big No-no’s: no butter or olive oil, no milk or cream, no wine, no garlic or onion ever ever….

Before you throw the pasta into the boiling salted water, cook the guanciale until it is nicely browned (cook it slowly so not to burn it). You will see it will render some fat which you can use in the dish. I prefer to drain some of it. Cook the pasta until it is al dente, then after you drain it (keep some water aside) and place it in a bowl, add the guanciale and the eggs (slightly scrambled), some of the cooking water and mix quickly until the egg cooks with heat and becomes creamy. Add the grated cheese (and more water if the pasta seems too dry) and keep stirring. Serve with more parmigiano and freshly grated black pepper. Heaven!

Nothing can be more soothing than a great plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. This is a classic and for good reason. And please, please…hold the peas….

 

 

Pasta of the Season

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Sam Sifton, food columnist of the New York Times, speaks about the “shoulder of the season, that time between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. ” Here’s something of my take on the season, pasta in mind, before I head back to work correcting stacks of papers.

For Thanksgiving, I created a  new lasagne dish to add to my repertoire. I layered the homemade lasagne: on the bottom, thin slices of squash ( I don’t know what kind it was as it was a dark reddish-orange) roasted in olive oil and thyme. More pasta. Next layer, white sauce and shredded Monterey Jack. Next, a layer of sliced mushrooms sautéed in garlic and white wine. More pasta…then a layer of chopped swiss  chard and purple kale cooked in onion, olive oil, and a touch of butter. The top layer was a simple bechamel sauce with more cheese. After it baked for about an hour in the oven, I let it sit for 20 minutes so it would not lose its shape when cut. And voila! You can really see the layers!

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On the topic of pastas of the season, my friend Cristina asked for a recipe to make use of leftover turkey. Of all the recipes I researched everywhere from Allrecipes to Fine Cooking, from tetrazzini to turkey pho, I didn’t find any with pasta and one that could make use of what you have already in your pantry. Last night I made a simple pasta that you can adapt with whatever ingredients you have on  hand.

Begin by putting a pot of water on the stove to boil. Your sauce will take as much time to make as cooking the pasta. I used 3/4 of a box of penne. Choose a short pasta with this recipe as the sauce sticks better to it.

1 shallot finely chopped

1/2 onion finely chopped

1 carrot diced

2-3 tbl olive oil

2 tbl butter

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Saute’ these lightly, first the onions, then the carrots in a wide pan. Season with salt and pepper.Then add:

2 cups of chopped cooked turkey

1 tsp thyme

Once this has cooked about five minutes, it may a bit dry. I added 3/4 cup of turkey stock. This really added lots of flavor! Then add:

 

 

1 cup frozen peas (now you can use mushrooms too)

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Add a bit more water if the mixture looks dry. I added 1/4 cup cream (but this is optional). Correct the seasoning as needed. Drain the pasta al dente reserving some of the water in case you need it.

 

 

 

 

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Add the pasta to the pan and stir, completing some of the cooking. To finish I added 1 cup Monterey Jack, which melts quickly and gives the pasta a rich texture. Over medium heat, give it another quick stir and serve with a freshly grated parmigiano.

A tasty alternative to your usual turkey leftover dilemma and highly adaptable to other substitutions. Buon appetito!

 

 

 

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

 

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Today would have been the day in which the town of Amatrice (in the province of Rieti near Rome) would have celebrated its famous dish Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Instead,  it is in mourning, as is the rest of Italy, for the devastating earthquake, or terremoto, last week that razed this picturesque town to the ground. I have traveled similar medieval towns whose paved streets, stone buildings with time-encrusted tiles, and breath-taking vistas, dot the Italian landscape by the hundreds, each one a particular jewel nestled in mountains and countryside.Each one a work of art. Each one Italy’s national treasure. So it is heartbreaking that yet again, as Italy is prone to earthquakes, another area is hit by tragedy.  Once again I am struck by the irony of fate as I view the brutal images of nature’s cruel hand. Scenes of utter destruction of building reduced to rubble like matchsticks sit side by side the tranquil scene of a balcony with geraniums growing in pots, a not-so-subtle reminder of an orderly life snuffed out.

Cooks around Italy and the world have rallied with the most powerful weapon they have to help the victims of the earthquake. Some restaurants are offering bucatini all’amatriciana and donating the proceeds to the agencies helping the victims.

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In solidarity with those affected by this terrible tragedy, I thought I’d give a bit of history and the recipe of this pasta dish which is probably one of my favorites. Amatrice claims the dish to be its own, but it also has another origin. It is said that the word “matriciana” comes from the word “matrix,” or”marchio” the branding of the pigs’ “cheeks” to identify them and the guanciale , or cured jowl (from “guancia” meaning cheek) from which it is derived. Guanciale is an essential ingredient in the making of Amatriciana, but if you can’t find it, pancetta (although much milder) or bacon (perhaps too smoky and salty) would work as substitutes.

There are some variations, and even disputes, about the dish. One of these is whether to use onion or garlic! Purists claim neither should be used, that the tomato sauce cooked in the grease of the guanciale is sufficient. However, some historians claim that the time of year in which the sauce is made, varies in taste and quality. In wintertime, most cooks would use a tomato sauce preserved in bottles (conserva) which had a tendency to be sweeter and thus garlic would bring out more tartness and bitterness to the sauce. In summer, using fresh tomatoes, onions would prevail because they would counterbalance the acidity. I use onions – always – because I’m a purist when it comes to cooking sauces with a buttery or fatty base…onion prevails.

Another dispute is whether to splash the saute’ of the guanciale with a little white wine. Some cooks do…and I like to do so too. The use of peperoncino (or red chili) flakes is another object of discussion! I never do. And lastly, there’s question of what cheese to sprinkle over it, pecorino or parmigiano? Traditionally, it is pecorino, as the dish is nothing more than the evolution of the “gricia” or pecorino typical of the cheese produced in towns like Amatrice and Grisciano (also hit by the earthquake). Princes of the 1800s and 1900s  who ruled these towns in and around Rieti  were called “matriciani,” possibly producers of this cheese (?) thus lending their name to the dish. I don’t usually use pecorino because I don’t always have it handy; I’m not a purist here!

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 medium sized onion or ¾ cup finely diced onion

7-8 oz guanciale (or pancetta) – sliced thinly or diced.

1 8 oz can diced or finely diced tomatoes or 2 cups fresh – puree these in food processor. Do not use canned pureed tomatoes or tomato sauce as these are too thick.

salt and pepper to taste

1 lb of bucatini

pecorino or parmigiano

*Guanciale is not easy to find. I purchase it at the Davis Farmer’s Market from John Bledsoe or you can order from bledsomeats  (look on Facebook).

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1.Heat the pan and add the olive oil. Coat the bottom and when the pan is hot,  add the guanciale. Cook until golden and crispy. Remove half of the guanciale and drain on towel paper. Drain most of the fat in the pan. Leave about 2 tablespoons. Splash with some white wine to loosen the bits of meat from the bottom.

2. Add the onions and sauté lightly until golden brown. Once the onions have become golden, add the pureed tomatoes, stir, add half a cup of water, salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium low and simmer for about 20-35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water if the sauce becomes too dry and needs more time to “caramelize” or reduce nicely. Make sure the sauce is no longer watery before turning off the heat.

3. Cook the bucatini according to package instructions. Drain and add to the sauce in a large bowl or provide individual portions. Sprinkle the crispy guanciale on top of the pasta with a good dose of cheese.

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This has to be the defining idea of comfort food. I know my family has always come together with this dish, especially in dreary winter months. As we mourn with Italians for their great loss, render homage to their great heritage by making bucatini all’amatriciana sometime this week. Buon appetito!

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What to do with a can of tuna?

Yellowfin!
Yellowfin!

The humble can of tuna does not always inspire great culinary adventures, but I am here to tell you that many a delicious dish can result from this common pantry item. How many uses can you come up with at the drop of a hat? Tuna salad sandwich, tuna noodle casserole, next..? Well, I spent some time thinking, researching, and cooking about this very same question. I set some ground rules: the recipes had to have an unusual, creative, or original element (not the usual tomato-stuffed-with-tuna-salad). They had to have wide appeal (children should like it too), relatively easy and quick to make, and didn’t necessarily have to be a main meal. I ruled out tuna as dessert, that was going too far.

So, first…what tuna to use? The good ol’ Chicken of the Sea packed in water works well in all these recipes, but I decided to return to my Italian roots because after all, canned tuna is a popular food choice in Italy and part of a very important industry as well. Moreover, the flavor of the Italian brand tuna is more intense and saporito (“tasty”), better for dishes in which you want an ingredient to stand out. In my quest for the most practical can of tuna to use I came across two brands at my local market:

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And another brand, Tonnino, which comes in a can ($4.99) or in a jar at a whopping $7.99. These are all packed in oil…and yes, I understand this may be a drawback (I too use water-packed for most common everyday use), but the olive oil packed tuna is more flavorful.  The olive oil should be drained, but not all of it so that the tuna remains moist. Which do I prefer? Luckily, they are all very good. The Genova brand is my choice for all purpose use. The Coalma is quite delicious, but  more costly at $3.99 for a small can of 5 oz.

And how about this: what is the relationship between tuna and the organization Greenpeace? In my quest to know more about tuna, especially the fishing of yellowtail tuna in Italy which is in crisis, I came across this page on the Greenpeace site which rates various canned tuna products according to the company’s fishing and production practices. Take a look – this is fun: http://www.greenpeace.it/tonnointrappola/rompiscatole/  The term “rompiscatole” means literally to break a box (or can in this case), but colloquially means annoying troublemaker. So Greenpeace is scrutinizing the tuna industry’s sustainable fishing practices and transparency to the public. While none of the brands I listed above appear on the Greenpeace page, they all claim to line fishing and good practices. Phew! Also on the Greenpeace page are recipes for tuna dishes which I thought not only sounded delicious, but also practice “green” methods of cooking. Here is the link to tuna eggplant polpette  (or “meatballs”) resting on a bed of pesto sauce: http://www.greenpeace.it/tonnointrappola/ricette_polpette.html

With that lengthy introduction to canned tuna, here are some ideas you may not have considered, but would like to try.

Here is one of my favorite summer salad or side dish, romano beans cooked in tomato sauce and tuna added at the end.

Romano Beans and Tuna in a Tomato Sauce

Fagiolini al tonno e pomodoro
Fagiolini al tonno e pomodoro

I wrote a post years ago in my other blog. Here is the link:

http://buonatavolaefantasie.blogspot.com/2012_08_01_archive.html

Speaking of green beans, the following is another favorite. This is a wonderful addition to a buffet as a different kind of salad. refreshing and oh so good!

Green Bean Salad with Tuna and Red Onion

Insalata di fagiolini can cipolla rossa.
Insalata di fagiolini can cipolla rossa.

Lightly steam a pound of green beans, cool, and add a can of drained tuna, half  a thinly sliced red onion. Add olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Here is another favorite, a salad with white cannellini beans. Same idea as the green beans. I was having a little fun with this by putting it in a cocktail glass.

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Insalata di cannellini e tonno

Or maybe a pasta is more to your liking! This was a favorite of my family’s – a good “go-to” meal when the pantry looked spare and many mouths to feed! This dish especially reminds me of my years in Pisa at my aunt’s house, helping her cook noon day dinners. She was a busy professional with a big household, so this dish came in handy, especially on Fridays during Lent.

Spaghetti with Tuna

Spaghetti con Tonno
Spaghetti con Tonno

Put a pot of water to boil. While the water is coming up to a boil, prepare the sauce. In a small saucepan,   place 1-2 cloves (or more if you like) of whole garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil and 1/2 cup of butter. Drain a can of tuna and place it in the pan with 3-4 anchovy filets (drained from their oil). I like to throw in some red pepper flakes as well. Cook gently for about twenty minutes until the sauce is smooth, almost creamy. Add a little of the pasta water if the sauce appears to be dry. Cook a pound of spaghetti (not the thin kind), drain and add the sauce. Sprinkle with a little parsley and serve.

This recipe can be made with tomato as well. Just add a can of peeled tomatoes (crush them in a food processor so they aren’t too chunky) to the garlic and anchovies, cook for a few minutes, then add the tuna. Add a little water, then cook the sauce down until thick.

I can think of a few more ideas using canned tuna…one is perhaps the most special of all,  vitello tonnato (or veal in tuna sauce). In fact I have the meat cooking on the stove as I write this. But because it is the “king” of all tuna inspired dishes, I will dedicate a separate post just to it…so stay tuned! What ideas using tuna do you have to share? Please don’t hesitate to drop me a note in the comment box!

Fusilli Vegetariani

   Fusilli with Carrots and Zucchini

Fusilli con carote e zucchine
Fusilli con carote e zucchine

What to make quickly when guests arrive on short notice, it is blistering hot outside, and the garden is overflowing with zucchini!? This was my conundrum last night. Try a pasta that can satisfy hungry appetites and go along well side-by-side with grilled meats and vegetables. The lovely part of this recipe is that you can use “the sauce” as a condiment for pasta or use it as a base for risotto, which I prepare often. The other lovely part of the recipe is that the carrots and zucchini are shredded (just like you would for a carrot salad). This not only cooks quickly, but the fine cut of the vegetables flavors the pasta intensely. I shred them in a food processor on a medium shredding blade, but you can also grate them by hand. And zip…. the prepping is done.

Ingredients

3-4 shredded and peeled carrots (about 2 cups)

1 -3 shredded zucchini (depending on size) (again about 2 cups – a little more ok)

½ onion sliced thin (I quarter the onion first then slice)

¼ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

½ teaspoon pepper (or to taste)

a handful of fresh basil, chopped  or julienned

1 pound box of fusilli or penne (a short pasta works best)

grated parmigiano

Directions:

1. Put on a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Pour the olive oil in a wide 12 inch skillet over medium heat.Once the pan is hot, add the onions and cook until soft about five minutes. Add the carrots, stir, and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add the zucchini and stir again. Salt and pepper the vegetables and cook them until they turn soft about 10 minutes. You may have to add a little water if the vegetables need more moisture. Do not dry out too much because you will then add the pasta and you will need that liquid.

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At this point, if you are making risotto (and if you are, it is advisable that you cook it in a pot instead), add the Arborio rice (about 1 ½ cups) and proceed as you normally would by adding broth and stirring and so on.

For the pasta, instead, cook it according to package instructions. As you drain it, reserve some of the water to add to the pasta if it should look dry. Add the pasta to the vegetables and stir all over high heat for a minute. Adjust the seasoning and give it a last stir. Place in a large bowl, sprinkle the top with fresh basil and a generous handful of parmigiano. Serves 5 as a first course or 8 as a side with grilled meats and a salad.

Gnocchetti Sardi con Verdure

 

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gnocchetti sardi

Gnocchetti sardi are a lovely pasta that looks like a small shell. Cooked, it holds its shape and tight texture so it melds well with strong flavors in meat sauces as well as vegetable ones. Hello! It has been almost two years since my last post, but I’m back! Last Memorial Day I made gnocchetti sardi as a side for our barbecue dinner. It works well for a crowd because it can be scooped up easily and a little bit goes a long way.

An artisanal pasta from Abruzzo, gnocchetti are traditionally made with a meat sauce. But I had a hankering for a pasta made with asparagus, which are in season, and the first tender zucchini, flowers and all, coming from my garden.  I also felt like having a tomato base, but nothing too heavy. I made a basic sauce using a jar of passata di pomodoro by Cento. I began the usual way with olive oil, a few cloves of garlic…heated it up and poured the passata into the sauce pan.

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While it cooked down, I prepared the vegetables. It is important to cut them to the same size as the pasta.

 

2-3 small zucchini with flowers if you have them

image1/2 lb of asparagus

half an onion chopped

1-2 fresh tomatoes chopped

1/2 cup of white wine, broth or water

fresh oregano (or basil will do too)

1/2 a lemon

ricotta salata

In a saucepan heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, added the onion and sauteed it for about five minutes until fragrant. Add the asparagus, give the pan a shake and saute’ briskly “a fuoco vivo” (high heat) for 2-3 minutes. Add the zucchini…and do the same. Lastly add the tomatoes. Again, a shake and a stir. Add the wine or other liquid, salt and pepper and cook for another few minutes until the vegetables are tender, but not soft and the tomatoes hold their shape. Turn the heat off if the pasta is not yet ready to be drained.

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When the pasta has cooked al dente, drain, keeping some of the cooking water. Add to the pan with the sauce, then add the vegetables, a fistful of the fresh organo. Stir quickly over high heat so all the flavors will blend, drizzle the juice of half a lemon and then turn out on a platter. Shave plenty of ricotta salata over it and serve! Excellently paired with a crisp pinot grigio.image