Pollo alla Cacciatora Umbrian Style

Pollo alla Cacciatora

Say “chicken cacciatore” to most people and, more than likely, it will conjure up an image of sautéed chicken pieces simmered in tomato sauce along with vegetables like peppers, onions, mushrooms, etc. Until the other day I was among those people. In fact, I’ve posted several recipes for the dish on this blog.

Yesterday, however, I came across a recipe in Italian Country Cooking by Loukie Werle for an Umbrian-style version of the dish that has neither tomatoes nor peppers but in their place uses olives, capers, and pea-sized cubes of lemon. Its sauce starts with a savory and aromatic soffritto of minced pancetta, onion, rosemary, and garlic and then finishes with white wine, vinegar, capers, lemon and chili flakes.

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Musing: Comfort Food

At the Stove

Recently, I was going through some photos on my computer and came across one of myself. It’s a candid shot snapped in the kitchen by my husband, who, by the way, deserves credit for most of the photos on this blog.

In the picture, I’m just sautéing the aromatics for a braise of lamb shanks, but what struck me about it is the hint of contentment on my face. Was this expression due to the satisfaction I get from cooking or could it be attributed to anticipating the gratification I would get from sharing the finished dish with family and friends?

I’m really not sure, but perhaps that tranquil look explains why dishes like braised lamb shanks are called “comfort food” and may indicate that the comfort derives not only from eating but also from preparing them.

Porchetta-Style Pork Shoulder

Porchetta Style Pork Shoulder

Having moved from New York City to San Diego a little more than a year ago, I’m amazed by the frequent sales my local Ralph’s grocery has on meat: sales like 2 for 1 on chicken, 50% off on shell steak, and the one responsible for this post $1.99/pound on fresh pork shoulder.

When I saw a well cut four-and-a-half-pound shoulder roast for a $9 and change, I couldn’t resist. Although I’ve never made one before, I’ve often read how tasty they are especially when cooked low and slow.

Because my husband had been asking me for a porchetta-style roast and thinking that I could fulfill his request with this bargain pork shoulder, when I got home I started to look through Italian cookbooks for a recipe, but had little success. Perhaps this cut of meat isn’t popular in Italy. I then went online and found several recipes using pork shoulder that were based on this popular Italian street food.

A true porchetta, like those seen in Rome’s Piazza Navona during the holidays, is a gargantuan spectacle. Its made from the full carcass of a 100 pound pig and stuffed with its prepared entrails along with herbs like rosemary and sage, wild fennel, garlic, citrus, salt and pepper. Roasted whole, typically in huge bread ovens, it’s often served cold at street fairs in central Italy, especially in the regions of Umbria and Lazio

Scaled-down home versions of porchetta are typically made with a pork loin rolled into pork belly and seasoned with herbs and citrus. You can find a video of one being made here.

The roast I made yesterday, however, is a much simpler version that only approximates a true porchetta but nonetheless does deliver a lot of its intoxicatingly delicious flavors. I adapted my version from a New York Times recipe as well as one from Food and Wine.

There’s minimal preparation, but with the overnight marinating and more than four hours of cooking, it’s a two-day affair. Indeed, the only difficulty with this dish is waiting patiently for so long while the enticing aromas whet your appetite as the meat roasts.

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Ricotta Gnocchi: A Recipe Gone Wrong

Ricotta Gnocchi

A few days ago while online, I came across a relatively stress-free recipe from Mark Bittman for ricotta gnocchi. Although I was tempted to use it as a subject for a post, the recipe’s gnocchi looked more like huge rounded dumplings than the more typical small pillow-shaped pasta most people associate with gnocchi.

So I looked elsewhere on the web for other ricotta gnocchi recipes and eventually settled on one by Geoffrey Zakarian. The recipe, accompanied by a video of his preparing the dish on a Food Network show, yielded gnocchi that resembled the potato versions I’ve made before.

In the video, the process looked not only effortless but foolproof. Executing the recipe in real time, however, proved to be quite another story. I should have known better than to follow blindly any recipe from the Food Network since, more often than not, the printed recipe doesn’t match the videoed one. Moreover, it’s my belief that the proverbial “magic of television” often shows a finished dish that’s been tweaked behind the scenes and touched up by a food stylist. But this is a subject for a future “musing” here.

My experience last night is chronicled. In retrospect, could’ves, should’ves, and would’ves keep echoing in my brain. I could’ve gone to trusted cookbooks; I should’ve trusted myself and used drained ricotta; I would’ve used less flour. . .

I believe that the photos in this post will show where I went wrong, especially the one of the finished ball of dough. Perhaps “sinkers”  is an apt description of the gnocchi.

Fortunately, I used my own recipe for a pancetta-tomato sauce and had enough remaining to serve two helpings of perfectly al’ dente gemelli.

Ingredients

Ingredients

Kosher salt
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
Semolina flour, for dusting

Directions
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Combine the ricotta cheese, Parmesan, olive oil, eggs and 1 teaspoon salt with a whisk in a large mixing bowl.

Ricotta, Parmigiano, Oil, and Eggs
After whisking

3. Add the all-purpose flour in 3 parts, stirring with a rubber spatula.

Adding the flour

4. Bring the dough together in a ball and cut off one-quarter of it. Dust the work surface with all-purpose flour to prevent sticking

The Dough Ball

5. Roll the cut- off piece of dough into a dowel shape about 5/8 inch in diameter.

Dowel-shaped dough

6. Cut the dowel into 5/8-inch pieces. Dust some parchment paper with semolina flour and place the gnocchi on it to prevent sticking. Repeat with the rest of the dough, quarter by quarter.

Cut Gnocchi

7. Cook the gnocchi in the boiling water for 2 minutes.

The cooked gnocchi

8. Serve tossed with a bit of the Pancetta Tomato Sauce. Alternatively, you can freeze the  uncooked gnocchi for up to 2 weeks.

My save-the-day gemelli alternative:

Gemelli with Pancetta-Tomato Sauce

Wine Pairing: Dolcetto d’Alba

Cheesy Bean & Tomato Bake

Bean & Tomato Bake

The other day, my “Daily Briefing” email from The New York Times led me to a recipe for a Cheesy White Bean Tomato Bake. The photo accompanying the recipe looked so good that I simply had to make the dish that night.

When I started to cook, however, I began to find elements of the recipe that I needed or wanted to change. First off, because my pantry only had one can of cannellini beans, I had to substitute a can of chickpeas for the second can called for by the recipe. I believe this forced change was fortuitous since the chickpeas added another layer of flavor to the dish.

Next, I thought that cooking the garlic in heated oil for only one minute over medium-high heat wouldn’t yield the depth of flavor as would adding the garlic to unheated oil and slowly simmering it over low heat for five of six minutes. I similarly extended the time for “frying” the tomato paste from 30 seconds to a minute and a half, but made sure that the tomato paste didn’t burn by stirring it.

In addition, to add a little heat, I added a generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to simmer with the garlic and oil.

In the recipe’s second step, I opted for the longer cooking time in the oven, a full ten minutes, at which point the mozzarella had started to melt. And as the recipe had anticipated, the cheese still was not as toasted as depicted in the recipe’s photo, so as suggested, I ran the skillet under the broiler for at least 2 minutes.

Although the final dish was very good, a perfect comfort food, I believe the recipe still needs some tweaking. Perhaps rendering some pancetta at the beginning or using a smoked mozzarella would do the trick. I’ll let you know how it turns out the next time around.

Ingredients

Ingredients

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 generous tablespoons double concentrated Italian tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
½ cup boiling water
Kosher salt and black pepper
⅓ pound mozzarella, coarsely grated (about 1 1/3 cups)

Preparation
Heat the oven to 475 degrees.

1) In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, simmer the olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes over low heat, until the garlic turns slightly golden, about 5 or 6 minutes.\

Simmering oil, garlic, pepper flakes

2) Raise the heat to medium low and stir in the tomato paste (be careful of splattering) and fry for 1 ½ minutes, reducing the heat as needed to prevent the garlic from burning.

Stirring the tomato paste
Tomato paste after simmering

3) Add the beans, water and generous pinches of salt and pepper and stir to combine.

Adding the beans

4) Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top, then bake until the cheese has melted and browned in spots, approximately 10 minutes.

Adding the cheese
After 10 minutes baking

5) If the top is not as toasted as you’d like, run the skillet under the broiler for a 1 to 2 minutes. Watch closely to avoid burning.

After broiling

Serve at once with crusty bread.

Wine Pairing: Zinfandel, Primativo

Musing: No Time To Cook?

Photo by Jordan Benton from Pexels

How often have you heard or even said “I don’t have time to cook.” Despite the rise of home-delivery meal kits from companies like Blue Apron, Plated, etc, which require one to cook, it seems to me from observing packages left at our condo that ordering-in from local restaurants via a similarly wide array of online meal-delivery companies like Grub Hub, Door Dash, etc. are even more popular since all they require one to do is click on items and press ENTER.

Perhaps, I’m too old for these millennial driven trends and therefore, when I know that my time is limited, I look for and collect recipes that take a minimum of prep, usually about 10 minutes, and require as few pots or pans as possible. This last requirement is typically met with either a sheet pan or a hefty cast-iron skillet.

This week, I prepared two recipes that took about 10 minutes to assemble and used only a sheet pan or a Dutch-oven as the cooking vessel. The 40 to 60 minutes of required cooking provided ample time for a leisurely cocktail with my husband. Okay, there’s the postprandial cleanup; but that too can be a time for family conversation and just winding down.

The first recipe, Baked Pork Chops, I adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.

Baked Pork Chops

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. With paper towels, pat-dry thick bone-in pork chops (1 to 1 1/4 inches) and place each chop on a 12-inch square of aluminum foil.

Season each chop with salt and freshly ground black pepper and coat with a mix of finely minced garlic and fresh sage or rosemary (about 1/2 teaspoon per chop). Drizzle each chop with 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil, close the foil packets tightly, and place on a sheet pan.

Cook in the oven for 1 hour. The chops can be served on plates and drizzled with their cooking juices or in the foil packets folded back and shaped into boats.

These were some of the juiciest pork chops I’ve ever had since pork is lately being raised more to be lean than flavorful. The herbs, garlic, and olive oil compensate for any lack of browning.

I found the second recipe on the New York Times Cooking website. Olive Oil Braised Chickpeas and Broccoli Rabe.

Broccoli Rabe & Chickpeas

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. In a large enameled-cast-iron Dutch oven, combine extra-virgin olive oil, smashed garlic cloves, a sprig of fresh rosemary, fennel seeds, and chili flakes. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes until the mixture is fragrant and the garlic lightly golden.

Turn the heat off, add a bunch of rabe, woody stems removed, and toss until coated with the oil mixture. Scatter a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas around the rabe and stir to coat with the oil. Season well with salt and pepper.

Cover and bake for about 40 minutes. The beans should be soft and crispy in parts and the rabe tender but the stems not mushy.

Cool slightly before serving and remove the rosemary.

I served the broccoli and chickpeas over some farfalle, but crusty bread would certainly provide a delicious and more expedient alternative for mopping up the seasoned oil.

Over Farfalle

Wine Pairing: Dry Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

One of my all time favorite restaurants in Rome is La Matricianella, and one of my favorite Roman pastas is one of its specialties, bucatini all’Amatriciana, a dish that hails from a mountain town southeast of Rome, Amatrice. You may have read about this town a few years ago, when it was devastated by an earthquake in August of 2016.

Among Roman chefs, however, there is some controversy over this dish related primarily to the use of onion and garlic. In fact, the city of Amatrice eventually issued guidelines for the dish that list the “official” ingredients: spaghetti, guanciale, extra-virgin olive oil, white wine, either fresh or canned tomatoes, hot chili pepper, freshly grated Pecorino Romano, and salt.

The last time I wrote about this pasta here, I used a Marcella Hazan recipe, which I’m sure would rile many a purist by its use of onion, pancetta as opposed to guanciale, butter and vegetable oil, Parmesan, and bucatini. Yet despite the substitutions, perhaps even because of then, Hazan’s recipe yields a delicious dish.

But last night I wanted to replicate, as closely as possible, the version I enjoy in Rome. La Matricianella does use bucatini; therefore, so did I. My only other variation from the official recipe as well as from Downie’s, was substituting pancetta for the guancialeI was unable to find a good piece of it here in San Diego.

I also prefer having the pork for this dish in larger chunks than Downie’s “roughly-chopped” style, approximately 1/4” thick, 1/2” wide, and 1” long.

Bucatini all’ Amatriciana (adapted from Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome, by David Downie
Serves 4

Ingredients

Ingredients

4 ounces pancetta (If you can find guanciale, use that.)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (If available, use 1 Italian peperoncino)
1/2 cup Italian dry white wine (Roman Frascati would be ideal.)
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
Kosher salt or coarse sea salt
1 pound bucatini
About 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Directions
1. Cut the pancetta into chunks approximately 1/4” thick, 1/2” wide, and 1” long.

2. Scatter the pancetta around a thick bottomed, high-sided sauté pan/ Add the oil and the red pepper flakes. Sauté over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes to melt the pork fat, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.

Scattered pancetta

3. Once the pancetta colors, but before it begins to crisp, pour in the wine and boil to evaporate it, about 2 minutes.

Sauteed pancetta with wine
Wine evaporated

4. Add the tomatoes and their juice to the pan, crushing them in your hands. Lower the heat and simmer until the tomatoes are reduced almost by half, stirring often, for 30 to 40 minutes. Taste for salt. (If using pancetta, add some freshly ground black pepper.)

Reduced sauce

5. Bring at least 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add a generous amount of salt Cook until the pasta is barely al dente, about 1 to 2 minutes less than the package’s suggested cooking time.

6. Using tongs or a pasta grabber, transfer the pasta directly from the pot to the sauté pan. Stir and toss it vigorously to finish cooking it, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat, stir in 4 heaping tablespoons of the Pecorino Romano and toss to coat the pasta. (Note: Do not drain the pasta for this dish in a colander; transferring the pasta directly from the pot to the sauce, adds just the right of pasta water to loosen the sauce. This is not a sauce you want to thin out with reserved pasta water; it should be thick.)

Tossing the pasta
Adding the cheese
The finished pasta

7. Serve immediately in heated pasta bowls, with the remaining Pecorino Romano on the side.

Plated pasta

This recipe serves at least four and when I’m cooking for two I’ll often make the full recipe to have enough sauce for another night. In fact, I may use the remaining sauce for an Amatriciana frittata as suggested by Downie.

Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

 

Musing: Leftovers

Pasta with a Leftover Braising Sauce

Leftovers. It’s a word that really doesn’t sound too appealing. All too often, it conjures up images of dry, dull tasting food, whose sole reason for being on the table is to avoid wasting it. I believe the reason for their bad rap can be attributed to the way leftovers are all too often re-heated in modern kitchens: the microwave. Another explanation might be a rushed home cook using too high a flame or temperature.

As a food blogger in a family of two, I often have a lot of food left over, especially after having prepared a stew or braised dish for a post. And having been brought up by family who lived through the Great Depression, it was imbued in me that wasting food is a sin. As a result, I’ve come to take pride in what I do with leftovers, or what my Neapolitan aunt called “i resti,” which, by the way, sounds far better than the English equivalent.

A case in point is last night’s supper, mezzi rigatoni sauced with the abundant remains of Sunday’s braised oxtails. There wasn’t much meat left in the tomato-based sauce, but there was plenty of minced onion and carrot as well as tender pieces of celery.

I took half of the remaining sauce (the other half is in the freezer) from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. I then placed it in a heavy bottomed casserole and reheated it covered on a low simmer for at least 30 minutes, adding a spoonful of water when it became too thick.

Meanwhile, I put up the pasta to cook and later transferred the sauce from the casserole to a large skillet over a low flame. To thin out the sauce, I added about a ladleful of the pasta water. When the pasta was just shy of al dente, I drained it, transferred it to the skillet, sprinkled it with a handful of cheese and tossed it until the pasta was well coated in the sauce.

About to be tossed

The result was delicious and had it been served to guests at a dinner as a primo, or first course, none would have guessed it was a leftover but rather thought it to be a rich ragu.

Braised Oxtails – Coda alla Vaccinara

Coda alla Vaccinara

For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to make oxtails like the ones I enjoyed years ago on my first trip to Rome. It was in that city’s Testaccio district that I had coda alla vaccinara, a dense stew of oxtails braised with vegetables, primarily celery, tomatoes, and white wine.

The Testaccio was the location for Rome’s slaughterhouse from 1888 to 1975. Here the need to use every part of an animal led to the district’s reputation for offal, or in Italian, the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. The best known dishes of the variety include pajata, veal intestines; trippa alla Romana, tripe, and the subject of today’s post coda alla vaccinara. All dishes that are associated with Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant cooking.

I looked through a number of cookbooks for a recipe and found some excellent ones in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds (the most authentic), David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, and Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. Ultimately, however, I chose a recipe by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times. It seemed the most straightforward; though I did modify it with elements from the other recipes, for example increasing the amount of celery and onion or adding raisins during the last hour of braising.

The dish required at least 30 minutes of prep and more than 3 hours of cooking. And there were some hiccups along the way. Lacking marjoram (either fresh or dried), I substituted fresh oregano. Increasing the amount of onion and carrot required using a bit more oil than called for; my pancetta being somewhat lean didn’t render enough fat to thoroughly brown the oxtails; my soffritto (diced onions, carrots, celery and pancetta) always looked like it was about to burn. Nevertheless, the end result was exceptional. A richly flavored thick sauce, with hints of cinnamon and cloves, coated succulent fall-of-the bone pieces of meat accompanied by silky slivers of celery.

As I was cooking for two, I used a little less than two pounds of meat; however, I kept close to the original amounts of the recipes other ingredients. Fortunately, doing so yielded plenty of left over sauce for pasta later this week.

Finally, don’t be tempted to substitute red wine for the white. The latter allows the flavors of the meat and the celery to take center stage.

Oxtail Braised with Tomato and Celery Coda alla Vaccinara (Adapted from Amanda Hesser in the New York Times)
Ingredients

Ingredients

¼ pound pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled, finely diced
1 medium onion, peeled, finely diced
7 inner stalks celery, 1 finely diced, 6 sliced into thirds (about 3-inches long) pieces
 ¼ cup raisins
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds oxtail (trimmed weight), severed at each joint into pieces about 3 inches long
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups white wine
3 sprigs fresh oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (28-ounce) can peeled Italian tomatoes, partially drained

Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a deep, heavy casserole or pot that can fit all the oxtails in one layer, combine pancetta, carrot, onion and diced celery and enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan (about 3 tablespoons). (Note that the size of your pan will play a part in determining the amount of olive oil; I had to use 4 tablespoons.)

Soffritto

2. Place pan over medium heat and cook until pancetta renders its fat, about 15 minutes.

Rendering pancetta fat

Season oxtails on all sides with salt and pepper, add to the casserole, and brown well on all sides, turning them only after they’ve browned. Using tongs, remove oxtails from pan and place in a bowl. Set aside.

Browned Oxtails

3. Add the tomato paste to the vegetables in the casserole and cook, stirring, until paste caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Stir in wine and mix, being sure to scrape up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Heat to boiling and cook 3 minutes. Add oregano, cloves and cinnamon and then tomatoes, squishing them between your fingers as they fall into the pan.

Soffritto with spices
Reducing the wine
Adding tomatoes

4. Return oxtails to pan. Liquid must be as high as one-third of the ingredients. If not, add a little water. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover pan and place in oven. Braise for 1 1/2 hours, turning the oxtails now and then.

Oxtails ready for the oven

5. Add the remaining celery and the raisins, then continue cooking until the meat is tender and falling off the bone, about 30 to 60 minutes longer. (I opted for 60 minutes.)

Adding the celery and raisins

6. Remove the pan from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a large platter or in shallow bowls, making sure everyone gets a bit of the pulpy sauce and celery.

The Finished Dish

Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Chicken Thighs with Shallots & Grapes

Chicken with Shallots & Grapes

I love it when friends and family pass along recipes that they’ve read about and think of me. Sometimes, however, they may over estimate my culinary capabilities and propose dishes that are far beyond my skills and sometimes even my budget.

But recently a close friend from back home sent me a link to a New York Times recipe for sheet-pan chicken thighs with shallots and grapes. When I first saw the recipe’s photo, I thought I had already made it, but soon realized that I had only made a similar sheet-pan supper but with sausages.

This is an easy recipe and perfect for a mid-week dinner. The flavors of the shallots and grapes blend beautifully and provide the perfect complement to the crispy chicken.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix, which I think would have added more complexity to the dish. I also found the recipe’s cooking time a tad too short to render the chicken as brown and crispy as I like it. I cooked mine for about 40 to 45 minutes, followed by two to three additional minutes under the broiler.

Finally, don’t forget the recommended flaked salt for serving. It adds a lot to the final dish.

Ingredients

Ingredients

2 ½ to 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, patted dry
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon za’atar (optional)
Kosher salt and black pepper
6 medium to large shallots, peeled and quartered root to stem
8 ounces seedless red or green grapes, or a combination of both, broken into small clusters on the vine
4 to 5 sprigs thyme, plus 2 teaspoons finely chopped thyme
Flaky salt, for serving

Preparation

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, toss together the chicken with 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic and za’atar, if using. Season well with salt and pepper.

Place the shallots and the grapes on the sheet pan and gently toss with the remaining olive oil and season well with salt.

Oiled grapes and shallots

Nestle the chicken skin side up in between the shallots and grapes and lay the thyme sprigs on top of the mixture.

Nestled chicken thighs

Roast for 25 to 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the shallots and grapes begin to soften and caramelize around the edges of the pan.

Turn the oven to broil and move the oven rack to sit right below it. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs and broil the chicken for 1 to 2 minutes until the skin of the chicken is crispy and golden. Scatter with chopped thyme and season with flaky salt.

After the broiler

Wine Pairing: Beaujolais