Pasta with Cauliflower

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Recently, my brother called me to ask for my mother’s recipe for cauliflower in tomato sauce. It’s one of the dishes we had as kids that came from the Sicilian side of our family. More often than not it was served on its own, without pasta, as a primo, or first course. However, once I a while my mother would mix it with pasta most likely to satisfy my father who wanted pasta almost on a daily basis.

The dish calls for just a few ingredients and requires minimal preparation, which makes it perfect for a weeknight meal.

Pasta with Cauliflower

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Ingredients
1 small onion, sliced thin
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
1 small head of cauliflower, rinsed and cut into small florets
1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes, crushed, with their juices
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound pasta like farfalle, shells, orecchiette
½ cup grated Romano or Parmigiano
6 leaves basil, torn

Prepped cauliflower and onions
Prepped cauliflower and onions

In a heavy-bottomed 3 to 4 quart (preferably enameled cast-iron) casserole, over medium heat sauté the onion with a pinch of salt in the oil until translucent and just lightly colored. As the onions are sautéing you may add the optional ground cloves.

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When the onions are done, add the tomatoes and their juices and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook over medium heat until the tomatoes come to a simmer.

Simmered tomatoes
Simmered tomatoes

At this point, add the cauliflower, gently pushing down on them so that they are lightly covered with the tomatoes. If there is not enough sauce to cover the cauliflower add a little water.

After adding cauliflower to the sauce
After adding cauliflower to the sauce

Reduce the flame to low, cover the pot, and continue to cook , stirring occasionally, for about 40 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender.

Cooked Cauliflower
Cooked Cauliflower

Meanwhile,cook the pasta until al dente. Then drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Add the cooked cauliflower, grated cheese, torn basil, and toss.

Cauliflower with Pasta
Cauliflower with Pasta

Wine Pairing: Nero d’Avola

Spaghetti Puttanesca

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It’s always a pleasure to find serious, well-researched, and eloquently written cookbooks that, like those of Elizabeth David and Alice Waters, promote and celebrate seasonal cooking. Recently, I came upon such a cookbook: The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, authored by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.

Looking through the book’s summer section, I found a recipe for one of my favorite pastas: spaghetti alla puttanesca (spaghetti in the style of the prostitute). Although I’ve made this dish many times before, I was intrigued by the recipe’s instruction to make a fine mince of two of its main ingredients: the capers and half of the olives. I discovered that this simple step shifted the focus of the dish from the tomatoes and emphasized its olive and caper flavors, which was in line with the authors’ belief that true puttanesca is “not so much a tomato sauce with olives as an olive sauce with tomatoes.”

I adapted the book’s recipe to our tastes and used considerably more anchovies and capers than called for and opted for the stronger flavor of oil-cured black olives. Unable to find good tomatoes, I also substituted the canned San Marzano variety.

I must admit that this version of puttanesca was the best I’ve had and it made the perfect dish for a hot summer night’s  dinner on the terrace.

Spaghetti Puttanesca (Adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca)

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Ingredients
3 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
½ cup oil-cured Moroccan-style black olives
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 small dried diavolino pepperoncini
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 28-ounce can of imported San Marzano tomatoes, drained and crushed
1 pound spaghetti
Salt

Directions
Mince the capers together with half of the olives.

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Minced capers and olives

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic, and peperoncino and sauté until the garlic just begins to turn a light gold. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Remove the garlic and the peperoncino.

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Sautéed garlic and peperoncino

Add the anchovies and sauté, stirring until they dissolve.

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Dissolved anchovies

Add the minced capers and olives, followed by the tomatoes and whole olives.

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Adding the minced capers and olives
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Adding the tomatoes and whole olives

Reduce the heat and simmer covered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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The finished sauce

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in well-salted boiling water following package directions for al dente.

About a minute before the pasta is finished cooking, using tongs transfer the pasta to the skillet and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.

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Finishing the pasta in the sauce

Serve on heated plates.

I do not recommend serving cheese with this dish.

Wine Pairing: Frascati, Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc

 

 

 

Pasta alla Gricia

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My brother recently sent me a link to a Mark Bittman recipe for pasta alla gricia on The New York Times website. In his email, he wrote that he had some success with it, but wasn’t sure he had executed the recipe 100%.

Since this classic Roman pasta is one of my go-to dishes when I’m in Rome, I thought I’d try it out. But as I read through the recipe, I was surprised not to find two ingredients, which, although used sparingly, are essential to the dish: olive oil and peperoncino (Italian hot chili pepper). Their absence led me to consult David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, which 14 years ago provided me with my first recipe for this dish. The olive oil adds an additional layer of unctuousness to the sauce and the peperoncino, that playful heat so typical of many Roman dishes.

Ultimately, I decided to use Downie’s recipe. Bittman’s recipe, however, contained a link to a story he had written for The Times last year on Roman pasta: “For Perfect Pasta Add Water and a Vigorous Stir.” In it, he describes how a renowned Roman chef, Flavio de Maio, demonstrated for him the “magic of water,”  which creates a cremina, or a sauce, which Bittman describes as “thick and round and rich” for dishes like pasta alla gricia or carbonara.  Intrigued, I applied this “magical” technique of adding some pasta water to the sauce and vigorously whisking it with a fork into the cooked pasta. 

This relatively simple step yielded the best version of this dish I have ever prepared, and I believe it could stand up to many that I have enjoyed abroad. One word of caution. Should you choose to follow my version, which combines Downie’s and Bittman’s, or the original Bittman recipe on the Times website, please be sure to read the above mentioned Times story, which clearly explains how to use the pasta water. Bittman rightly warns that it can be tricky and, if not done correctly, can result in a “pile of pasta with a watery sauce on top.”

Pasta Alla Gricia (Adapted from David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way and Mark Bittman’s NY Times recipe.)

The ingredients
The ingredients

Ingredients
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pepperoncino (hot chile pepper), shredded or -1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8 ounces (about 8 1/4-inch-thick slices) guanciale, pancetta or bacon, roughly chopped
1 pound bucatini, rigatoni, or spaghetti
About 1-1/2 cups freshly grated imported Pecorino Romano

  1. Bring at least 5 quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot.

2. Heat the oil in a very large, high-sided frying pan over medium heat. Add the peperoncino and the guanciale and sauté, stirring until the guanciale is deeply golden, about 5 minutes.

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Sautéing the guanciale

3. Adjust the heat as necessary to render the fat without burning the meat. The meaty parts should be browned and the fatty parts should be cooked but still slightly transparent. Remove the frying pan from the heat. (For this step, I’ve included elements from both recipes. Downie says to crisp the guanciale and calls for 1 minute of cooking; but I did not find this to be enough time to render the fat from the guanciale. I also did not want the meat too crisp. Bittman calls for 15 to 20 minutes to bring the meat to a deep golden color; but this seemed a bit too much time. Finally, if your meat is very fatty, you may want to remove some of the rendered fat from the pan.)

The browned guanciale
The browned guanciale

4. Drop the pasta into boiling water and stir. Cover the pot. When the water returns to boil, cook uncovered until the pasta is barely al dente, about 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time on the package.

5. About 5 minutes before the pasta is cooked, return the frying pan to medium heat and add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the pan, turn the heat to high, and reduce by about half. (This and the following step are adapted from the Bittman recipe.)

The reduced sauce
The reduced sauce

6. When the pasta is ready, use tongs to transfer it to the pan with the sauce. Stir the pasta in the sauce to let it finish cooking, adding more pasta cooking water if necessary until the pasta is done and the sauce thick and creamy. Add half the cheese and a pinch of black pepper, and stir vigorously to incorporate.

The vigorous stirring
The vigorous stirring

7. Serve the pasta on heated plates or in bowls, passing the remaining Pecorino Romano. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

The finished dish
The finished dish

Wine Pairing: Sangiovese di Romagna, Frascati

Cacio Pepe

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Whenever I get to Rome, one of my first stops is at a small trattoria, Orso 80, steps away from the Piazza Navona, where I always order the same dish: cacio pepe, spaghetti with pecorino cheese and black pepper. One of the city’s classic pastas, it perfectly reflects the essence of Roman cooking: a few ingredients, carefully prepared, and served unadorned.

I’ve often prepared this dish at home with a modicum of success, but I’ve never really been able to achieve the texture of the sauce that I’ve enjoyed while abroad, where the cheese smoothly melts as it’s tossed with the pasta and forms something like a creamy emulsion with the pasta water and the pepper that seems to coat the spaghetti. Recently, however, I saw a New York City chef prepare his version of the dish on morning television and was amazed to see how closely he came to achieving this texture.

Later that day, I went to the show’s website, which had a video of the chef as well as his recipe. Interestingly, the recipe was for one serving. So, when I prepared it for two, I simply doubled the ingredients. As the pasta came together with the cheese, I was ecstatic; there it was: the cheese and pepper smoothly clinging to the spaghetti. But when we sat down and tasted it, the pepper was so strong and pungent that the dish was more like caciOWWWWWW! pepe.

I’m providing a link here to the recipe and video online, but should you decide to follow it, I advise using your own taste to determine the amount of pepper of you use. 

Ingredients
Ingredients

Ingredients
10 quarts water
Salt
3 ounces linguine pasta, dried (85g)
2 teaspoons freshly ground coarse black pepper (10g or 30 turns from a pepper mill)
Olive oil
4 tablespoons Pecorino cheese, finely grated (60g)

Preparation
1. Bring 10 quarts of water to a boil and season liberally with salt. Cook the pasta for 7 minutes.

2. While the pasta is cooking, toast the black pepper in oil in a large sauté pan until fragrant.

Toasting the pepper
Toasting the pepper

3. Ladle 4 ounces (two small ladles full) of pasta water to stop the cooking.

With the pasta water
With the pasta water

4. Keep the heat off until the pasta is done.

5. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the sauté pan.

6. Turn the heat on medium high and slowly sprinkle in the Pecorino.

Spaghetti tossed with cheese and pepper
Spaghetti tossed with cheese and pepper

7. Toss the pasta while you add the cheese to emulsify. Once all the cheese is added, adjust your sauce with some more pasta water so it’s not too thick. Serve immediately, top with some freshly grated cheese and a few cracks of pepper.

Wine Pairing: Frascati, Sauvignon Blanc

Lasagna with Meat Ragu

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My aunt, being Neapolitan, always made a southern-Italian style lasagna. Her’s was more restrained, with fewer fillings, than others I’ve had or read about, but it followed the classic formula of a long-simmered meat sauce, mozzarella, ricotta beaten with egg, parsley, and pecorino, and dried pasta noodles. In a 9” x 13” baking pan, she’d spread a thin layer of sauce, then laid down a layer of boiled noodles, coated that with a layer of ricotta and a few slices of mozzarella, followed by a coating of sauce, a sprinkling of cheese, and then on to the next layer, until she reached a total of four or five layers. The hardest part was waiting the 20 minutes after it was baked so that the lasagna could be cut more easily and served in slices. Just the thought of it is making my mouth water. Never served on a weekday, my aunt’s lasagna was reserved for holidays (even Thanksgiving), some birthdays, and once in a while for a Sunday dinner.

It wasn’t until the 70s, when northern Italian cooking swept the US, supplanting familiar Italian-American dishes with their northern counterparts, that I encountered Marcella Hazan’s classic Bolognese version of lasagna. It replaced the tomato dominated sauce with a more complex, meat-centric one and the beaten ricotta with a creamy béchamel sauce. Gone too were the pasta noodles superseded by thin sheets of fresh pasta; nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano took the place of the saltier pecorino; and mozzarella didn’t even make its way into the mix. Given the time it took to make this version, however, I found myself preparing lasagna far less often than my aunt had.

But recently, I came across a recipe for a weeknight lasagna by television’s Rachael Ray. Her version uses a 30-minute meat ragu, a classic béchamel, and no-boil pasta sheets as an alternative to home-made egg pasta. So on a Wednesday night, I though why not give it a try.

To give her relatively quick-cooked ragu more intense flavor, she uses tomato paste and chicken stock as the base of her sauce, which begins with the traditional soffritto (sautéed onion, celery, and carrot). Veal and beef, mixed with rosemary, sage, and bay leaf, are then lightly browned in the same pot, followed by a splash of dry white wine. A good amount of tomato paste is then incorporated into the meat, followed by three cups of chicken stock. The sauce is then simmered for about 30 minutes, or until thick.

While the sauce is cooking, you can prepare the béchamel, which starts with a light roux and ends with the addition of warm milk, whisked and cooked gently until it thickens.

The baking pan gets a thin coating the cream sauce, which is then topped with the no-boil pasta sheets. These get thin coatings of béchamel and ragu and a sprinkling of Parmigiano. These steps are repeated until you have four layers.

The lasagna is baked in a 375°F oven for an hour, or until browned and bubbling. (If using fresh pasta, the cooking time is 30-35 minutes.)

The finished lasagna
The finished lasagna

Although I was skeptical at first, (the reason for so few photos) I was more than pleased with the results. Nevertheless, I did make some changes. I added some canned San Marzano tomatoes, about a cup, to the sauce to give it a slightly brighter tomato flavor. To achieve what I thought was the appropriate thickness for a ragu, I cooked my sauce for almost an hour. In place of some ground cloves to be added with the herbs to the meat, I substituted the more traditional freshly ground nutmeg.

Purists among my readers may cringe, as did I, at some of the elements of this recipe. And while it may be a far cry from my aunt’s as well as from Hazan’s classic Bolognese version, it makes a wonderful baked-pasta dish for a weeknight supper.

Here’s a link to her recipe, which is accompanied by a video of her making the dish.

Wine Pairing: Nebbiolo, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Calamari in Cassuola

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For some reason, I really don’t know why, I’ve always been afraid to cook calamari. As I was growing up, it was always one of my favorite meals on a Friday, when meatless meals were still mandatory for Catholics. More often than not, my aunt would prepare them stewed in a simple marinara sauce. They were either whole, stuffed with softened white bread that she combined with the chopped tentacles, eggs, and parsley, or cut up into rings. The stuffed version were usually served with pasta; the rings, with friselle, which might best be described as thick, rectangular, twice-baked bread biscuits, which were used to sop up the sauce. Once in a while, my aunt would also serve them cut into rings, lightly battered, and deep-fried, accompanied only by lemon wedges—but never with tomato sauce.

Wanting to recreate these dishes at home, I eventually confronted my fear of cooking these delectable creatures and started to deep fry calamari with, I might add, considerable success. Cooking them in sauce, however, continued to remain a challenge—until last Friday. That morning, I had intended to buy some Manila clams, which I intended to cook with Sardinian fregola. But when I got to the fish market, I spotted some beautiful calamari, glistening a lustrous white interlaced with light purple from the tentacles. I decided that it was time to take the plunge and stew them in tomato sauce.

Although I was confident about the sauce, I wasn’t quite sure how long I needed to cook the calamari. Almost every source I consulted warned against overcooking them, which would make them rubbery. Indeed, I knew this from my experience with frying. In fact, the majority of recipes I read suggested preparing the sauce separately and then adding the squid and cooking them for two minutes. Somehow, I wasn’t comfortable with this method, as I really wanted my sauce to be deeply flavored with the calamari and vice versa. I was certain that my aunt simmered her calamari slowly, but I wasn’t sure for how long.

Finally, I turned to one of my go-to books on Neapolitan cooking, Naples at Tableby Arthur Schwartz. It was here that I found a recipe that resembled closely my aunt’s preparation. It called for preparing a classic marinara and adding the calamari to the sauce after the first five minutes of cooking. The fish and the sauce are then gently simmered uncovered for about 30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and the calamari are tender.

This was the recipe I used, and with some only minor variations (adding some salt and increasing the amount of tomatoes), I came very close to replicating my aunt’s stewed calamari. I served them over pasta. Next time, however, I’ll stuff them.

Calamari In Cassuola (Squid Stewed with Tomatoes) adapted from Naples at Table by Arthur Schwartz

The ingredients
The ingredients

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, lightly smashed
¼ teaspoon or more hot red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can imported whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with their juices
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
Salt to taste
1½ fresh, cleaned calamari cut into ¼-inch rings, tentacles cut in half
¼ cup finely cut flat-leaf parsley

The cut calamari
The cut calamari

1. In a 2½ – to 3-quart saucepan or stovetop casserole, over low heat, combine the olive oil, the garlic, and the hot pepper. Cook until the garlic is soft and beginning to color on all sides, pressing the garlic into the oil a few times to release its flavor. Remove the garlic.

The cooked garlic
The cooked garlic

2. Add the tomatoes, the oregano, and the salt to taste and, with a wooden spoon, break up and coarsely crush the tomatoes. Increase the heat to medium high and simmer briskly, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

The sauce after 5 minutes
The sauce after 5 minutes

3. Reduce the heat to low, stir the calamari into the sauce and continue to simmer steadily, uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the calamari are tender. Some calamari may take longer to cook, in which case you may need to add a tablespoon or as many as a few tablespoons of water so the sauce doesn’t become too reduced.

The cooked calamari
The cooked calamari

4. Add the parsley and cook for another 15 seconds.

Cooked calamari with the parsley
Cooked calamari with the parsley

Note: I added the parsley after transferring the calamari to a skillet for tossing with the pasta.

5. Serve very hot, as is, with bread, or over freselle, or, as I did, tossed with pasta.

Wine Pairing: Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso

Pasta with Swordfish and Cherry-Tomato Sauce

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When I saw this recipe in last month’s Bon Appetit magazine, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I’d make it. What most attracted me to it were the golden raisins and pine nuts, ingredients that, when paired with swordfish, whispered my mother’s native Sicily.

Finding a great piece of swordfish and some beautiful hot-house cherry tomatoes at the market yesterday reminded me of the recipe and so here it is. I followed all of the instructions but toasted the pine nuts ahead of time. I also decided to add some of the raisins and pine nuts to the sauce rather than sprinkling all of them on at the end. My only cautionary note would be to hold off on adding the 1/2 cup of pasta water at the end. Wait until you’ve almost finished tossing the pasta with the sauce. A tablespoon or two might be enough.

Pasta with Swordfish and Cherry Tomato Sauce from Bon Appetit August 2015

The ingredients
The ingredients

Ingredients (Serves 4)

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (2 for the sauce; 1 for the swordfish)
4 oil-packed anchovy fillets
4 garlic cloves, sliced
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound 1-inch-thick swordfish steaks
2 tablespoons pine nuts
12 ounces casarecce or other short pasta (I used strozzapreti)
½ cup chopped fresh parsley, divided
2 tablespoons golden raisins

Preparation

Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium. Cook anchovies, garlic, and red
pepper flakes, stirring occasionally, until anchovies disintegrate, about 3 minutes.

The garlic and anchovies
The garlic and anchovies

Add half of tomatoes; season with salt and pepper.

Cooking the tomatoes
Cooking the tomatoes

Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, 12–15 minutes. Add remaining tomatoes; remove from heat.

Thickening the sauce
Thickening the sauce

Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Season fish
with salt and pepper and cook until golden brown and just cooked through, about 4
minutes per side. Let cool slightly. Coarsely flake flesh; discard skin. (You may also want to remove the dark blood lines.)

Browning the swordfish
Browning the swordfish

Toast nuts in a dry small skillet over medium-low heat, tossing often, until golden
brown, about 4 minutes. Let cool.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Add pasta and ½ cup pasta cooking liquid to tomato sauce and cook over low heat,
tossing often and adding more cooking liquid as needed, until sauce is thickened
and coats pasta. Add fish to pasta along with half of parsley and toss once to
combine.

Tossing the pasta
Tossing the pasta

Serve pasta topped with raisins, pine nuts, and remaining parsley.

Here’s a link to the recipe on Bon Appetit.

Wine Pairing: Grillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes

Timballo di Orzo or Cacciatore Redux

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Because I cook at home almost every night, our refrigerator is often at its max capacity. As I triage the remainders of meals gone by, tossing out wilted parsley, a shriveled zucchini, and sundry unidentifiable objects, I often find some salvageable items. Such was the case yesterday, when I discovered a couple of chicken thighs from Thursday’s cacciatore, a half a bottle of tomato passata from a pasta dish, a half of a smoked mozzarella along with some basil from Friday’s pizza night, and a small chunk of ricotta salata.

After I put these discoveries aside, I rummaged through my pantry to see if there was anything there I could use with them. When I saw a box of orzo and a canister of bread crumbs , I thought why not make a small timballo, in other words, bake the orzo along with the other ingredients.

I removed the skin and bones from the two leftover chicken thighs, pulled the meat apart, and placed it together with the sauce from the cacciatore into a 2.5 quart saucepan. To supplement the scant sauce, I added the half bottle of passata and some chopped basil to the pan, which I covered and placed on a low flame for about 20 minutes.

While the chicken and sauce were reheating, I cooked 8 ounces of the orzo until just a few minutes before it would reach al dente and then drained it well. Meanwhile, I cut the smoked mozzarella into chunks, grated the ricotta and some Parmigiano-Reggiano, and finally buttered an 8” x 8” baking dish, which I dusted with a couple of tablespoons of dried breadcrumbs.

After the chicken and sauce were fully reheated, I stirred in the orzo and let it cook for a few minutes so that it would be infused with the sauce. I then tasted it and adjusted for seasoning, with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

I transferred half the chicken and orzo mixture to the baking dish and spread it into an even layer, which I then covered with half of the mozzarella, ricotta salata, and Parmigiano. I subsequently made a second layer with the remaining chicken and orzo, which I then topped with the remainder of the three cheeses.

I placed the baking dish into a preheated 375° F oven and baked it for about twenty minutes. When it was finished cooking, I removed the dish, tented it with some foil, and let it rest for about 10 minutes so that it would firm up a bit.

Finished timballo
Finished timballo

I must admit this dish was delicious and turned out far better than I had thought it would. (In fact, that’s one of the reasons I have no photos, as I usually do, of its preparation.) The pasta was richly flavored, the chicken succulent, and the melted cheese, creamy and piquant, tied everything together. Yet what was even more satisfying was being able to create this dish from what could have easily found its way into the trash. My frugal mother would have been proud.

Wine Pairing: Chianti, Merlot

Pesto

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Pesto.  I vividly remember my introduction to this unctuous blend of basil, garlic, pine-nuts and cheese. It was in the fall of 1959 and my aunt had returned home from a two-month vacation in Italy. Among the many things she brought back with her were two small green-and-gold cans of something called “pesto.” They looked so plain compared to the cases of wine, boxes of candy, and a plethora of colorful souvenirs.

When I asked her about the cans, she told me that they contained “pesto,” a sauce for pasta. Now mind you, in our home, any sauce for pasta was made from scratch. And my aunt, a talented cook, had quite a repertoire of them. “Sauce from a can?” I said. “Yes,” she replied, “you’ll be surprised how good it is.”

Back in the late ’50s and even through the ‘60s, pesto did not enjoy the popularity it has today. As a result, I had no idea what to expect when a few days later she decided to prepare the dish for our family. When she opened the can and I saw the dark green gunk, all I could say was “Yuck!” She emptied it into a bowl, tasted it, and said it needed some help. She pureed some fresh garlic, grated some pecorino cheese, and stirred them into the sauce with a little olive oil. She re-tasted the sauce and judged it acceptable. “Aren’t you going to cook it?” “No, she said, pesto is never cooked.”

I went back to my homework and when called to the dinner table, I saw this platter of spaghetti laced with a vibrant green sauce.The other members of my family shared my skepticism about this pasta. My aunt, refusing to acknowledge any of us, proceeded to portion out the pasta and distribute the plates.

I watched my family slowly twirling the green strands of pasta onto their forks. No one wanted to be the first to taste it. “Mmmm, delizioso,” said my aunt. I had to admit the aroma of basil, garlic, and cheese made it easier for me to take my first mouthful. “Delizioso!” I said and my aunt just smiled. Most of my family agreed, except for my father, who insisted it would be better with some tomato. Thereafter, whenever we had pesto, my father’s was dressed with a few thin slices of a peeled San Marzano tomato.

After her two cans of pesto were gone, my aunt decided to turn to her copy of Ada Boni’s Talismano della Felicita for the traditional recipe. Back then, before the pesto craze in the ‘70s, it was the only way we could enjoy it.

Over the weekend, I had purchased some basil and forgot about until the other night. It was too hot to cook, so I thought it would be perfect night for pesto. For years, I’ve been following my own recipe based on my aunt’s, but wanting to try something new, I turned to Mario Batali’s Italian Grill. His recipe uses a food processor as opposed to the traditional mortar and pestle, and I have to admit that I prefer the texture I was able to achieve with it. But when using a food processor, you must be careful not to over process. Stirring in the cheeses after processing the basil also makes for an optimal texture.

Pesto Adapted from Mario Batali’s Italian Grill (makes about 1 cup)

3 garlic cloves
2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
3 tablespoons pine nuts
Generous pinch of Kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 tablespoons freshly grated Percorino Romano

With the motor running, drop garlic into a food processor to chop it.  Pulse until the garlic is finely chopped. Add the basil, pine nuts, and salt and pulse until the the basil and nuts are coarsely chopped and then process until finely chopped. Be careful not to over process.

With motor running, drizzle in the oil. If the mixture is too thick, you may need to add a little more olive oil.

Transfer to a small bowl and stir in both Parmigiano and pecorino.

The finished pesto
The finished pesto

(The pesto can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, topped with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil, for several weeks in the refrigerator.)

This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.

Wine Pairing: Vermentino

Ricotta Gnocchi

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Whenever I approach my pasta board to make gnocchi, the Apollo 13 quote “Failure is not an option” comes to mind. But all too often, when faced with a dough that just won’t come together or with gnocchi as heavy as rocks, I tell myself “If at first you don’t succeed…” In my quest for perfect gnocchi, I’ve read endless recipes, watched numerous videos, and most recently attended a cooking class (a recent Valentine’s gift—was my better half hinting?)

I must admit that I have had some successful attempts, a few with potato gnocchi and some with those made with flour and water. And perhaps these successes were what motivated me to attempt ricotta gnocchi once again last night.

From my failures, I’ve learned that the key to pillow light gnocchi of any variety is using the minimum amount of flour. Too much flour will weigh down the gnocchi. For this reason, any recipe you use must yield to how the dough feels to your hand as you add the flour to the wet or moist ingredients. In the case of ricotta gnocchi, these are ricotta and egg.

The recipe I used called for 1 1/4 cups of flour for two cups of whole-milk ricotta and 2 large eggs.  The instructions suggested using a rubber spatula to blend in the flour in three parts. After adding the first third of the flour, however, I started to use my hands and bench scraper to work in the flour.

After the second third of the flour, the dough started to come together, so I went slowly with the last third, being careful to use a light touch and not overwork the dough. When i added the final third the dough was still a little moist. But rather than adding any more flour directly to the dough, I dusted my board with some bench flour and lightly rolled my ball of dough over it until the dough no longer felt sticky but was still soft and light.

Next comes cutting the ball of dough into quarters and rolling each quarter into a dowel or log that’s 5/8 inch in diameter. Here it’s important that your board  is scraped clean and dusted only  lightly with bench flour. Your hands also need to be clean—free of any dough. Also use the palms of your hands as opposed to your fingertips to roll out even logs of dough.

Cut raw gnocchi
Cut raw gnocchi

I like my gnocchi on the smaller side so I cut each log into 1/2 to 5/8-inch pieces.

I line a sheet pan with parchment paper and dust it with semolina flour to hold the cut gnocchi. The semolina keeps the cut pieces from sticking to each other.

Cooking is fast and simple. I use a squat 8-quart pot with heavily salted boiling water. Gently slide the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook for about 2 minutes, by which time they should have risen to the top. Using a spider or slotted spoon, I transfer the cooked gnocchi to a skillet with the heated sauce and gently toss.

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Cooked gnocchi waiting to be tossed

For the sauce, I used a variation on that included with the recipe, substituting a passata for the whole plum tomatoes and omitting the garlic.

To sum up, when it comes to making gnocchi, you need to rely on your hands to feel the dough to judge the optimum ratio of dry to wet, when you’ve used no more flour than is necessary to form the perfect dough. I guess ending on one more adage won’t hurt: practice makes perfect.