Sunday, February 27, 2011

Pasta with Broccoli and Sausage

Last weekend, the three of us went to our favorite restaurant for a post-Valentines day lunch celebration. Roman sat happily through three courses- an amazing feat for a toddler. We enjoyed this dish made with paccheri which I decided would be easy enough to recreate at home.

Paccheri are a floppy, oversized pasta, whose name is apparently derived from Ancient Greek and refers to a larger than usual hand and a non-hostile "slap," maybe something like a "high five." I've also seen paccheri served stuffed, frequently with seafood, or baked in the oven with cheeses.

There are an estimated 350 pasta shapes here in Italy. I find the names of pasta interesting, descriptive- almost obviously so (maltagliati- "badly cut") and sometimes almost comical (if you think about eating something shaped after little ears, "orecchiette"). Italians seem to inherently know what type of pasta goes with which sauce. When I stopped in to buy the pasta for another dish last week, I told the salesman I needed spaghetti because I was making spaghetti all'amatriciana and his eyes just about popped out of his head in disbelief. The proper pasta for the amatriciana sauce is bucatini (a tubular long pasta), not spaghetti. Well, not according to the street sign welcoming visitors to Amatrice, the town for which the sauce is named. But as a foreigner, it's usually better not to argue about these things.

It's not the first faux-pas I've made. If I'm being totally honest, I don't always follow the golden rule and use abundant amounts of water to cook my pasta because I'm usually too impatient to wait for a huge pot to boil. I never add salt to the water, and I often reheat leftover pasta the next day, something an Italian home cook would never do. Other than that, I do cook my pasta just until al dente, about 2 minutes shorter than American cook times, and after my first few meals here, I quickly adjusted to this consistency.

Here in Rome I buy organic broccoli grown in Sicily. Raw it is truly bitter, but I see no good reason to eat raw broccoli. Steamed or sauteed it becomes sweet, mild enough for a toddler to enjoy. It seems to be his new favorite food!

Paccheri with broccoli and sausage
Inspired by our lunch at Santa Lucia

I recommend using luganega sausage if you can find it. It's a mild sausage that's sold by the meter rather than in links. If it's not available, a mild or spicy Italian sausage will do. For this dish, the top of the broccoli, just the florets, is shaved so finely that it cooks really quickly and adheres nicely to the pasta. Save the stalks to use for something else, like soup or stir fry.

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 lb sausage, removed from its casing and broken into small pieces
1/2 a small onion, finely diced
The tops of about 2 heads of broccoli, depending on size (should yield about 3 big handfuls of finely cut broccoli)
paccheri or other large pasta, enough for 4 servings
parmesan or pecorino cheese for sprinkling

In a large frying pan, heat one tablespoon of oil and saute the sausage until brown. Remove from the pan. Add another tablespoon of oil and saute the onion until transparent. Add the finely cut up broccoli (use just the florets, and shave them off the head of broccoli with a sharp knife, and a few tablespoons of water. Cook this for about 10 minutes, adding small amounts of more oil or water so that the broccoli stays moist, then add the sausage back to the pan. Cover and cook for a few more minutes to make sure the sausage is cooked through. Watch carefully so you don't overcook the broccoli- it's prettier when it's still bright green. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the package, then drain and toss in the pan with the sauce to coat. Sprinkle with some parmesan or pecorino and serve.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nonna Elena's Crostata di Marmellata

Recently I adopted an Italian nonna and we are cooking together. This week we made a crostata, a simple Italian tart which is often filled with marmalade. She called me on Wednesday to tell me what to buy: flour, butter, margarine, sugar, lemon, marmalade.

She came over Friday afternoon and we got right to work, taking advantage of Roman's longer than usual nap. "You seem nervous," she says. I explain how it's important to me to master the crostata because in my mind it's the closest thing Italians have to pie. Pie is so American and I have such a phobia of pie crust. I did not grow up in a family that loved pie and I do not love pie, so I have never been able to embrace learning to make pie crust successfully. Crostata could be my new thing.

"I'll lend you my notebook and you can tell me what else you want to make," she says. Elena started her notebook of recipes 40 years ago. "It's so clean," I say. Every book that comes in my kitchen gets covered in buttery fingerprints or oily splatter. "It's made of baci e lacrime," "kisses and tears." She talks of her demanding husband and her mother in law who she felt she couldn't live up to in the kitchen. "Non si fa così," "that's not how you do it," she would always say. Elena kept striving to get it right to please the tough critics.

Reading the notebook, I can tell she fed her family well. A lemony veal roast, linguine with radicchio, stuffed zucchini blossoms. The notebook is chock full of classic Italian desserts like tiramisu and seasonal treats like the castagnole and frappe eaten during Carnival. Her husband was "goloso," he enjoyed eating. She tells me she made desserts every week. Now she won't even try a slice of the crostata. "Too much fat, stella mia."

We get to work. I'm loving this. It's so easy. I'm not swearing at the dough or threatening to throw it in the garbage. The crostata comes together in a cinch. I breathe a sigh of relief and start thinking of the flavors I'll make and how I can use my mini tart shells to bake individual tarts. Elena shows me how to decorate the top. "It shouldn't look industrial," she says. This is my kind of tart, I think to myself. It's not a type A personality tart, or one that strives for absolute perfection. It's an easy, homey tart you can serve to close friends over tea and conversation. The crust is almost like a lemony shortbread. And there it is, my new thing. I'm sure I could sneak it into a Fourth of July picnic or even a Thanksgiving without offending the traditionalists.

Pastry dough for Crostata
Makes 2 tarts

I'm new at converting recipes from the metric to the American measurements. Hopefully I got it right. When in doubt, if you have a kitchen scale, use it to weigh out the flour and sugar, since that's always more accurate anyway.

500 grams Italian 00 flour (2 1/4 cups)
150 grams sugar (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
pinch of salt
zest of one lemon
250 grams butter (Elena uses half margarine) (17 tablespoons, 2 1/8 sticks)
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/2 jar of marmalade

Preheat the oven to 350. Place the flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter, which you have cut into chunks, the egg yolks and egg. Pulse until the butter has incorporated and you have a ball of dough. Sprinkle a small amount of flour on a board and knead the dough. It will be sticky but do not continue to add flour. Set aside about 1/3 cup of dough per tart for the top. Place the rest in the center of a buttered tart pan and spread it out to fit the pan using your hands. Once it has been evenly spread into the pan, use a fork to prick holes all over the dough. Spread about half a jar of marmalade evenly over the tart base. Roll out the reserved dough and cut strips or pieces to decorate the top of the tart. Bake for about 30 minutes or until slightly browned.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Local Flavor - Coda alla vaccinara

The first time I ate oxtail stew, I was 7 months pregnant and it was July in Rome, meaning it was an uncomfortable, sticky 100 degrees farenheit (40 c). I was squished on a bench in a small, no-frills enoteca, where I feasted on slow cooked oxtail with my hands, trying hard not to drip any on my large watermelon of a belly. It was so good I forgot fleetingly about how hot I was, and ignored momentarily the fact that there was not enough room in my stomach to finish this delicious dish. I persevered.

Some months ago, I changed butchers. I loved my old butcher Sergio, but I found another establishment much closer to home. These guys won my heart with their story of three generations of butchers, and they seemed eager to answer all my questions about cooking their traditional dishes. When I asked for help, they jumped at the chance and started writing down recipes. I tell them how sad I'll be to leave, how I'll never be able to replace them in America. I know my native country is known for customer service, but these guys dish it out with such heart, such authenticity. Meet the Loiodice men, Mario, Aldo and Daniele.

Of all the Loiodice family recipes, I began with the oxtail stew. They told me to roll up my sleeves because it must be eaten without fork or knife, just a piece of bread to mop up the sauce. The sauce itself is abundant, so they suggested I serve it, for a different meal, over ridged rigatoni- which was an excellent suggestion. Because the sauce simmers slowly for three hours, it's chock full of the meaty flavor, although the meat stays attached to the bone, so essentially you've got a rich tomato sauce that stands on its own. There are many different versions of this dish, and Aldo tells me this one is an authentic Roman version- you really get all of the flavor of the meat without a lot of interference. I am intrigued by some other versions I've read about, and I will be trying another version soon with chocolate and cinnamon, and I promise to let you know how that one goes.

Coda alla Vaccinara
For four people

The secret to this dish is to simmer it on very low heat for three hours and periodically check it and turn the pieces of meat over in the sauce. It's hardly any work for huge pay off, that is if you don't mind eating "tail." This dish is generally prepared in advance and reheated. Convenient, yes, but also richer in flavor the next day. If you're like me and love to eat with your hands, you'll enjoy this. Would I be crazy if I likened oxtail to candy?

One oxtail, around 4 lbs, cut into pieces
olive oil
2 carrots
1 celery stalk
1 onion
1 1/4 cups white wine
1 lb tomato puree

Rinse the pieces of oxtail, then pat dry with a clean dish towel and salt and pepper them. Throw the carrots, celery and onion into a food processor and process until you have tiny pieces. In a large, heavy bottomed pan, heat the olive oil and brown each piece of ox tail over medium to high heat. Do this in batches until each is nicely browned. Remove them to a plate and heat a bit more oil in the pan. Add the vegetables and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Put the meat back into the pan and turn the heat up slighlty. Add the white wine and cook on hight heat for 3 minutes. Add the tomato puree, lower heat and cover. Simmer over low heat for about 3 hours, stirring occasionally.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gnocchi on Thursdays

Roman and I have adopted an Italian grandma named Elena. A real nonna romana who calls us nice names and is teaching me to cook Italian dishes. I first wrote about her here (see "stop two"), but little did I know at the time that she would become part of our life. She stands about 5 feet tall, has kind, brown eyes and thinks Roman's name is Omar even though I tell her it's just "Romano without the O."

She arrived on time, potato ricer in hand, methodically tied her red apron on and stood, practically on her tip toes, to reach the bowl perched on our counter while she squeezed the potatoes through the ricer into the bowl. "I wake up full of enthusiasm, but as the day goes on I lose my energy," she said, struggling a bit with the ricer.

I asked her how she learned to make gnocchi. "Per forza maggiore," she says, looking at me sideways, "out of necessity"- explaining that she had a very demanding husband and a mother in law who was a great cook.

Half way through the kneading she sighs. "Can I take over?" I say, trying to pry Roman off of me so I can help. "You're wondering why I sighed?" Turns out she was thinking of a woman two floors above her who jumped to her death two days ago. Reminder that things can be ugly in this world outside of my cozy gnocchi making kitchen.

We talk about how she had three kids in four years back in the 60's and had to get up at 4:30 am to prepare lunch for her husband who wouldn't come home to eat. Then she'd dress the kids and get them out the door and go to work herself. "I had a brutta vita" she said, a hard life.

But now, buzzing with energy around my kitchen, tossing ideas left and right about what we'll make next, she says, "when can I come back, are you free Tuesday?"

Old school Italians still follow tradition and eat gnocchi on Thursdays. An elaborate dish in anticipation of the upcoming weekend.

As can be expected, Elena didn't give me quantities or have me write anything down. We used red potatoes, one egg, one yolk, Italian 00 flour and salt. Like pasta, gnocchi is something that gets practiced and perfected. The recipe can change depending on the crowd you're serving, the water content of the potatoes, the size of the eggs. I did learn a few key tips that I never would have known otherwise. The potatoes get boiled whole and un-peeled. Start by putting them into cold water and bring to a boil. When they are cooked, they must be peeled while still hot (I used a dish towel to hold them while rubbing the skins off). Another tip, perfect for the novice gnocchi maker, is to boil a small amount of water while you are kneading the dough. That way you can break off a piece or two, roll it into a ball and boil it for a few minutes so you actually get to test the consistency until you achieve the desired results. Now find yourself an Italian grandma and you'll be all set!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chocolate Bread and Bread Pudding

Winter is such a great time to cook. I grew up with cold winters, which is perhaps why I like soups, stews and good hearty bread so much. Even in a Rome winter (we've been averaging temperatures in the mid 50's) I am still pretending it's cold outside and cooking all my winter favorites, sort of how the Italians pretend it's cold outside so they can wear the latest fashionable winter coats, and scarves, and hats.

My mom used to bake this bread in roll shapes when my sister and I were kids and we'd wait anxiously by the oven and snatch up the hot little babies just as soon as they were placed on the rack to cool. I see this trait runs in the family.

Roman was clinging to my legs so shaping two loaves was the quickest option, although I do recommend making rolls. I ate about half a loaf and then got to thinking that this might be a great occasion to try a bread pudding.

I turned to one of my favorite cookbook authors, Nigella Lawson for inspiration. Nigella makes a chocolate chip bread pudding using white bread so it was easy to adapt. It's a lovely, homey dessert that seems like it would be heavy but baked with eggs, cream and milk, the bread takes on a lightness that is perfect eaten with a spoon.

If you are stuck inside this winter dreaming of Spring, all I can do to commiserate is recommend some nice warm soup and a bread pudding for dessert. Meanwhile, I'll keep going to the park and enjoying these blue skies and temperate days while they last!

Pane alla Cioccolata (Chocolate Bread)

I am not sure who to attribute this recipe to. It was given to my mother by her best friend Donna, and I'm not sure where Donna got it, or if it's really Italian. But it sounds so nice in Italian, so included that in the title. Regardless, it's worth a morning's worth of baking if you're a chocolate lover like I am. And if you have too much bread on your hands, try the bread pudding recipe below.

2 1/2 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon warm water
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cups warm water
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Stir the yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar into 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Mix the flour, 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, the cocoa, and salt. Stir 1 1/4 cups water, the egg yolk and butter into dissolved yeast, then stir in the flour mixture, 1 cup at a time. Stir in the chocolate chips last. Knead on a lightly floured surface until velvety, elastic and moist, 8 to 10 minutes.

First rise: Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Shaping and second rise: Punch the dough down and cut in half on a lightly floured surface. Shape each piece into two round or oval loaves or into individual smaller rolls and place on oiled baking sheets (or line the sheets with a silpat or parchment paper.) Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Baking: Heat the oven to 450. Bake 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 and bake 30 minutes longer. Check after 10 - 15 minutes if in roll shape. Cool completely on a rack.

Chocolate Bread Pudding
Adapted from Nigella Kitchen

The first time I made this I was tempted to use more than the recommended amount of bread. Resist the urge to do this because you don't want the bread pudding to turn out too dense.
Serves 4 to 6

9 ounces stale bread, cut into 1 inch cubes (approximately 5 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
3 eggs
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum (I used brandy)
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
4 teaspoons turbinado sugar

Preheat the oven to 325. Grease a round pie dish lightly with butter. Tip in the stale bread cubes (if your bread isn't stale, leave the slices to dry first on a while on a rack before cubing and using.)

Toss in the chocolate chips to spread evenly among the bread cubes.

Whisk together the eggs, light brown sugar, rum, heavy cream and milk. Pour this mixture over the bread and press the cubes down to coat them in the liquid.

Leave all this to soak for 20 minutes, then sprinkle with the turbinado sugar and put straight into the oven for 40 - 50 minutes.

Let the dish stand for about 10 minutes before serving, if you can.
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