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!

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!

 

 

 

Mazzamurru

Every cook has, at one point or another, a colossal disaster in the kitchen to talk about. Knowing how to deal with it shows quick thinking, creativity, and experience…and an ability to deal with the disaster with a certain sang-froid. Emblazoned in my memory was the time my mother, hosting and cooking an elegant, multi-course dinner for twelve guests in our apartment in Rome. The table was beautifully laid out with the best china and silver, flowers, crystal glasses, and waiters circulated with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. For that occasion, my mother had brought back from Pisa some beautifully cut and tender filet mignon steaks (Tuscan beef being renowned for its high quality) and had placed them in the broiler to be supervised by the wait staff. In the course of the dinner, she was frantically summoned to the kitchen by a horrified server. The scene is seared into my memory of my mother approaching the stove and beholding the blackened lumpy remains of charred meat. Without missing a beat, she turned to the refrigerator and pulled out some veal steakettes, directed one of the waiters to cut the meat in thin slices, flour them and saute quickly in butter with a little added wine. She returned to the dinner table as if nothing had happened and later received high compliments from her dinner guests for the lovely veal dish, how original and tasty it was!. It was a powerful cooking lesson for me about how to manage a disaster…that there is always a solution in the kitchen. And so it happened a week ago when I forgot the bread baking in the oven. I had timed it so that it would be baked and ready to serve with dinner, but  I got distracted by the cheerful banter around me and getting food on the table. We had dinner outside al fresco as usual and as I came inside to clear the dishes, I smelled the familiar aroma of burnt bread. Oh no! IMG_0116

It may not look like a disaster…but it was pretty toasted! I packed the pagnotta in foil  and threw it in the cupboard in disgust. But one thing I hate the most is to throw away food…so I had to find a solution. And I did in ….mazzamurru! It is a Sardinian dish that hails from the Cagliari area, a poor food to be sure, that makes use of scraps of old bread and turns it into a lovely dish that resembles a cross between a bread pudding, a panzanella, and a lasagna. It is a layered bread dish with tomato sauce and pecorino cheese. Use a bread that has some heft, such as a focaccia loaf or sourdough. Cut into slices (I took off the crust which was too burnt for use – that will go to feed the chickens) about 1/4 inch thick and soak in milk.

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Tomato Sauce

4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped coarsely

3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup small diced onion

salt and pepper

Make a light tomato sauce, preferably from fresh tomatoes (I used 4 large). Scald the tomatoes and remove the skin. Chop coarsely. In a heated pan with olive oil and butter, add the onion and saute lightly. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and about a half a cup of water. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the sauce is no longer watery. Place one layer of bread soaked in milk in a well oiled baking dish, top with sauce and sprinkle with cheese.

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The original recipes call for pecorino, but I used whatever stumps of cheese lay about in my refrigerator. Grate it coarsely (about 2 cups). Layer with more bread, sauce, cheese. I made three layers, but two will work. Bake in a 350 oven for 30-40 minutes or until golden in top. Let it cool a bit before serving.IMG_0131

Some additional thoughts: I think adding some basil leaves or even black olives would work well in this dish.I noticed that some recipes added it to the layers. I wanted to stay as close to tradition as possible. Substituting broth for the milk would work too.

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As you can see, the layers are pretty pronounced. The dish makes an excellent side to meat, chicken, grilled vegetables…easy on a buffet or an idea to use when you are cleaning out your refrigerator!

 

 

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!

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina

Here is a different, summery and lighter spin on gnocchi, the pillowy potato dumplings that my father adored. I committed the dreadful sin of buying already made packaged ones for the sake of speed. While it isn’t quite the same, you can get the idea from this recipe and adapt it to made-from-scratch gnocchi. This dish hails from Sorrento where ocean, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil all come together in perfect harmony.image_18970789423_o

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina

Ingredients

1 package gnocchi

2 cups cherry tomatoes (I used heirloom ones)

1 8 oz. fresh mozzarella cubed

2-3 tablespoons butter

a handful of fresh basil coarsely chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Cook the gnocchi according to package instructions.
  2. While the gnocchi are cooking (and they cook very quickly), melt the butter in a saute’ pan until it is golden, almost brown. As the gnocchi come to the surface of the water, collect them with a slotted spoon and put them directly in the pan. Shake the pan, coating the gnocchi with the butter and keep adding gnocchi until there are no more coming to the surface. Add the cherry tomatoes and give the pan another shake. Add the mozzarella, but don’t let it melt. Place in a serving dish, add the fresh basil, salt and freshly ground pepper and bring to the table. Fast and delicious!