Wedding Anniversary Dinner

Anniversary Dinner

What does it say about your marriage when you opt for celebrating at home over dining out? After four years together, I think it says we don’t need anymore than we already have to be happy and that most of all we treasure our time together alone.

Our menu was simple. After Champagne with smoked salmon on pumpernickel (OK, maybe a bit of a spurge), we sat down to one of our go-to meals: roast chicken, stuffed with lemon and herbs accompanied by roasted potatoes with rosemary, a mushroom gratin, and roasted cherry tomatoes.

The recipe for the chicken comes from Mark Bittman’s tome, How to Cook Everything. Here’s a link to the basic recipe and some variations:
http://www.howtocookeverything.com/recipes/simplest-whole-roast-chicken-six-ways

Roast Chicken

As you can see, I opted to add some herbs and lemon wedges.

The sides were family classics, all of which went into the oven along with the chicken at different intervals. The potatoes went in at the start and the tomatoes and mushrooms about 15 minutes later.

Roasted Potatoes

The potatoes are cubed, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and chopped rosemary. About midway through, turn the potatoes.

Mushroom Gratin

For the mushrooms, I combine dry bread crumbs with minced garlic, finely chopped Italian parsley, grated Romano cheese, sat and pepper and moisten the mixture with some olive oil. I the sprinkle the crumbs over sliced button mushrooms and roast for about 35 minutes.

Roasted Tomatoes

For the tomatoes, I take a pint of grape tomatoes, several cloves of peeled and smashed garlic and a generous pinch of crushed red-pepper flakes and drizzle with olive oil. Toss the tomatoes to make sure they’re coated with the oil and roast for about 30 minutes.

Our wine choice was a simple Chianti Classico.

In my youth, I would have probably gone for a far more elaborate meal to celebrate an anniversary, but now nearing seventy, I’ve begun to take a more relaxed approach to cooking and dining but nonetheless still insist on warmed plates, polished flatware, and most important candle light.

Pasta with Cauliflower

img_7163sm

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

img_7142sm

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.

img_7146sm

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

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

IMG_6996sm

Perhaps owing to the bounty of summer produce at the market at this time of year, I inevitably wind up making ratatouille. Usually, I prepare it on top of the stove, cooking most of the vegetables individually. This year, however, I was lazy. (I’ll blame the excessive heat.) For this reason, I chose to make Mark Bittman’s oven-baked version from his book How to Cook Everything. What I especially liked about his recipe was that it called for cooking all the vegetables at the same time in the oven.

I admit that I was not totally faithful to Bittman’s recipe when it came to the amount of vegetables, the sizes in which they were cut, and the amount of olive oil. I also erroneously covered my casserole, which may have produced a more watery, though no less delicious result. The next time, I’ll choose the uncovered route. It will probably give the dish a more roasted flavor. I will also not make the mistake of scattering the fresh-herb sprigs over the vegetables, as removing them at the end of cooking was a chore.

Oven Baked Ratatouille (Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything)

Ingredients
Ingredients

1 large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 onions, chopped
2 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces.
2 round tomatoes, cored cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup grape tomatoes
10 cloves of garlic, halved
Several sprigs fresh thyme and rosemary tied with a string for easy removal
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to tasteThe prepped vegetables

The prepped vegetables

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

Film a casserole or heavy oven proof skillet dish with a couple tablespoons of the olive oil, then make a layer onion, followed by one of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and half the the garlic (the order doesn’t matter at all). Repeat and make a second layer. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil.

The layered vegetables
The layered vegetables

Bake for about 1 to 1.5 hours, pressing down on the vegetables occasionally with a spatula, until they are all completely tender. When they are tender remove.

About mid-way through
About mid-way through

Garnish with more herbs and drizzle with a little more olive oil, and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

I chose to serve the ratatouille as a side dish with a roasted chicken.

Wine Pairing: Dry Rose

Stuffed Artichokes

IMG_6198sm

Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve written about facing some of my culinary fears like calamari and risotto. Well, last night I faced yet another of them: stuffed artichokes. As I was growing up, they were a frequent side dish at my family’s table, one of my Neapolitan aunt’s favorites. Stuffed with a mixture of dried breadcrumbs, pecorino-Romano cheese, garlic and parsley all moistened with olive oil, they were slowly cooked, over low heat, covered in a pot just large enough to hold them upright, with a modicum of water and a drizzle of olive oil.

As a child, I would simply lick the savory stuffing off the leaves until my aunt admonished me for leaving the best part behind and then proceeded to demonstrate how to eat them properly. She plucked off one of leaves, carefully balancing the stuffing that was on it, placed it between her teeth, closed her mouth, and slowly pulled it out scraping off the edible part of the leaf. After a few tries, some of which left me with a mouthful of leaf threads, I mastered the art of eating these delicious green globes of goodness. They became one of my favorite vegetables growing up, and I often requested that my aunt prepare them when I would return to my childhood home as an adult.

Yet for some reason, I’ve always shied away from cooking them on my own. Yesterday, however, when I saw some beautiful artichokes on sale at the market, I decided to confront my fear. Upon returning home, I searched through some cookbooks for a recipe and was startled when I found one that was identical to my aunt’s in Michele Scicolone’s The Italian Vegetable Cookbook. While I closely followed her clear instructions for preparing the artichokes, I did take some liberties with the measurements of the ingredients, and was a little heavy handed with the cheese and the garlic. The results, however, were superb and made a perfect accompaniment to a chicken sauté with green olives, capers, onions, and diced lemon.

IMG_6194sm

As I didn’t plan on writing this dish up, I don’t have any photographs of its preparation. But the internet has plenty of instructional videos on preparing artichokes as well as a version of Scicolone’s recipe on the Williams-Sonoma website adapted from of her earlier books, which can be accessed by this link.

Author’s Note: This is my first posting after a long hiatus from blogging. I can only attribute my absence to teaching a Saturday writing course to college-bound high-school sophomores. The course, which comes to an end next week, although most rewarding, took far more of my time than I thought it would when I signed up for it. Now that’s it’s over, you can expect postings from me on a more regular basis.

Grilled Fennel Sausage and Peperonata

sausagepepperssmall

I cannot count the number of times I’ve prepared Italian fennel sausages. Last night, however, influenced by some cooking show, I opted to grill rather than fry them. Not as fortunate as the show’s chef, who used an open fire, I was limited to a stovetop grill pan. Yet despite this restraint, I’m happy to report that this grilling method yielded thoroughly cooked links that were delectably moist and juicy.

To grill the sausages, I made a shallow slit, about a 1/4-inch deep, lengthwise along one side of each sausage and spread it slightly open to expose the meat. I then placed the sausages slit-side down on a hot grill pan over medium-high heat and cooked them for 5 minutes. When they were nicely browned, I turned and cooked the sausages for about an additional 5 minutes.

I served the sausages accompanied by this classic peperonata inspired by my Neapolitan aunt.

Peperonata
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 bell peppers, sliced into 1/4-inch wide strips (I prefer red, yellow, and orange to green)
1 large sweet onion, sliced lengthwise
3 small cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
Kosher salt
1 tablespoon dry Marsala

In a large sauté pan heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the sliced peppers and cook them, tossing occasionally, over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, or until they start to become tender and slightly charred.

Add the sliced onion and garlic, sprinkle with some salt, and cook them with the peppers, still over medium-high heat, for about another 10 minutes, again tossing occasionally, until golden brown. Add the Marsala, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. and cook for an additional minute or so. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Pairing the peperonta with the grilled sausages makes a perfect weekday supper as we start to enter fall.

Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba, Syrah

Cauliflower Gratin

clowerplatedsmall

Friday night, end of the week, and being tired generally lead to a quick and easy supper to linger over with a glass of wine. Since we had our share of meat, fish, and pasta this week, I looked through my cookbooks for something vegetable centric. My search eventually led me to Giuliano Hazan’s recipe for a cauliflower gratin in Every Night Italian.

Despite being vegetarian, however, this dish is definitely not “light,” given the amount of cheese and butter it calls for. Nevertheless, as a main course for a meatless supper, I guess its fat content, which, after all, contributes so much flavor, can be rationalized in one way or another.

The ingredient that initially attracted me to this recipe was the fresh sheep’s milk cheese from southern Italy known as primo sale, “first salt.” It was one of my aunt’s favorite cheeses to serve at a Saturday lunch when our family would return from its weekly excursion to the local Italian markets and salumerie. If you can’t find it, Hazan recommends substituting any white sheep’s milk cheese firm enough to slice. A Google search may help you find the primo sale locally.

Cauliflower Gratin with Tomato and Fresh Sheep’s Milk
Adapted from Giuliano Hazan’s Every Night Italian

1 large cauliflower (about 2 pounds)
1 small onion, chopped fine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled Italian tomatoes, crushed. (You should have a total of 2 cups with some of the juice.)
3/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
6 ounces primo sale or other fresh sheep’s milk cheese firm enough to slice, sliced thin

Bring a pot of water large enough to accommodate the cauliflower to a boil over high heat.

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

Quarter the cauliflower, discarding the leaves, and add to the water when it has reached a boil. Do not add any salt. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. When done, drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Cut the cauliflower into bite-size pieces and set aside.

Meanwhile, sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 10 inch sauté pan over medium-low. When the onions turn a light gold, add the tomatoes and season with salt, pepper, and the optional ground cloves.

Cook the tomatoes for about 20 minutes or until they have thickened into a sauce.

Transfer the tomatoes to a large bowl and stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Gently fold in the cut cauliflower and taste again for seasoning. The cauliflower should be well coated with the sauce.

Cauliflower coated with sauce
Cauliflower coated with sauce

Place half of the sauced cauliflower in an 8 by 8 inch, flame-proof baking dish. Cover with half of the sliced primo sale. Cover with the rest of the cauliflower, and top with the remaining sliced cheese. Dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Top layer of the gratin
Top layer of the gratin

Place the dish in the preheated oven and bake until the cheese melts, about 15 minutes. If not sufficiently browned, place under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes.

Right from the oven
Right from the oven

Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Wine Pairing: Nero d’Avola, Syrah

Eggplant Parmigiana

epparmendsmall

Eggplant Parmigiana was definitely not a favorite dish of mine when I was growing up. Nevertheless, it was often on our table for dinner, and I was thankful that it was there only as a side dish, so I could get away with having only a “teeny weeny” slice alongside the main course.

Today, however, in our home it’s a main dish that I have come to enjoy a lot. I attribute my later-in-life appreciation of it largely to Marcella Hazan, whose recipe in Essentials of Classic Italian Cookingyields a version that is lighter than many other renderings. The reduced weight can be attributed to the fact that, in her recipe, the eggplant is simply dredged with flour rather than being coated with flour, egg and breadcrumbs before frying. She also recommends peeling the eggplant unless using the Italian baby variety.

Over time, I’ve experimented with Hazan’s recipe and have made it even lighter by using uncooked, canned crushed Italian tomatoes rather than a cooked sauce. I also skip the peeling and salting of the eggplant. I find that today’s eggplants are not as bitter as they once were, making the salt purging unnecessary. Finally, rather than slicing the eggplant lengthwise, I opt for rounds, which let’s me fry more slices at a time.

Eggplant Parmigiana  Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Ingredients:
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large eggplant, sliced into 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick rounds
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt
Unsalted butter
1 16-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes
Parmigiano Reggiano
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced thin
Fresh basil leaves

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Into a heavy bottomed skillet, pour the olive oil until it comes unto about 1 inch along the sides.

While the oil is heating dredge with flour as many slices of eggplant that will fit into the skillet without crowding. Do the dredging in batches, right before frying each batch, to keep the floured slices from getting soggy.

When the oil is hot, carefully place the first batch into the skillet and fry, turning each slice once, until lightly browned on both sides. Place the fried slices on a platter or a baking pan lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Lightly salt the slices.

Fried eggplant slices
Fried eggplant slices

Continue frying and lightly salting in batches until all the slices are done. Do not stack the eggplant slices when they come out of the oil.

Add a pinch of salt to the uncooked canned tomatoes.

Grease an 8 x 8 inch baking dish with butter.

Line the bottom of the dish with the fried eggplant in a single layer. Spread a little less than 1/3 of the tomatoes over the eggplant. Make a layer of mozzarella and grate a liberal amount of Parmigiano Reggiano over it. Place a few torn pieces of basil over this layer.

Layering the eggplant
Layering the eggplant

Continue making layers with the eggplant, tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmigiano, and basil until you have used up the eggplant. Skip the basil on the top layer. From one large eggplant, I get about 12 slices, which in an 8 x 8 inch baking dish makes for three layers. You will most likely have some left over tomatoes.

Dot the top layer with some unsalted butter and place the dish into the upper third of the preheated oven.

Cook for about 35 minutes. The eggplant should be bubbling and the mozzarella nicely browned.

Just from the oven
Just from the oven

Allow to rest and settle for about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

This recipe yields about 4 portions.

Wine Pairing: Bardolino

Grilled Lamb Chops Scottaditto

lchopsplatedsmall

At our home, grilled lamb chops are a favorite Sunday night supper. They’re simple to prepare, quick to cook, and, when on sale as they were yesterday, irresistible.

These grilled baby lamb chops are indeed so good that you can’t wait to pick them up and, when you do, may likely risk burning your fingers. In fact, that’s why in Italy they’re sometimes labeled “scottadito” or “burnt finger.”

This is also a great dish for informal entertaining as it takes only a few minutes a side to grill the chops. In keeping with the “finger-food” theme, I generally serve the lamb chops with roasted asparagus.

Here are my recipes, minus exact measurements. The amount of oil, seasoning, herbs and cheese will be determined by the quantity of chops and asparagus that you are preparing.

For the chops:

Bring the chops to room temperature an hour or so before grilling. During this hour, marinate the chops seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little ground cumin in extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest, and rosemary.

Chops marinating
Chops marinating

Heat a grill pan and grill the chops over medium hight heat for about 3 minutes a side. The exact time will be determined by the thickness of the chops.

lchopsgrillsmall
Chops on the grill

When done, place on heated plates and serve with a small dollop of pesto on each chop.

For the asparagus:

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Wash and dry the asparagus. Trim the spears by snapping off the tough lower parts. Place in a baking pan and season with salt and freshly ground nutmeg. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil turning the spears to distribute the oil and the seasoning.

Grate a generous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the asparagus and roast for about 15 minutes. The thickness of the asparagus will determine the exact cooking time.

Asparagus before roasting
Asparagus before roasting

Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir

Squash Flower Fritters

fritterssmall

A surprise gift of squash blossoms from the farmers market yesterday morning evoked memories of my aunt using them either for a sauté with cubed potatoes, for a pizza topping of blossoms, garlic, parsley, pecorino, and olive oil, or more often than not for squash-flower fritters. She always called these blooms “flowers” and cursed the day when they were discovered by gourmets and earned the more formal appellation “blossoms,” which elevated their price from pennies to dollars.

The thought of these fritters led me to my aunt’s recipe box, where I found an index card with a recipe written in her own hand labeled simply “Fritter Batter.” Not having had these fried delights for at least 40 years, I thought I would make an attempt.

My aunt's recipe card
My aunt’s recipe card

Her recipe simply listed ingredients without any other directions, so I had to rely on my memory for their shape, size, and color. A little research on the subject also led me to allow the batter to rest for a while and allow the baking powder to play its role in the production.

While the batter rested, I gently washed and dried the flowers after removing their stamens. I ripped each flower into two or three pieces and then added them to the batter coating them lightly.

I heated about a half liter of extra-virgin olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over moderately high heat to a point at which a cube of white bread started to fry and turn color.

Using two tablespoons, I formed the battered flowers into fritters, whose shapes resembled those of my aunt’s (or at least into the shapes as I remembered them).

When they were nicely golden on both sides, I lifted them from the pan with a spider and placed them on paper towels to absorb any excess oil. While they were still warm, I sprinkled them with sea salt and served them as appetizers.

A taste of the first fritter, one of the smallest, carried me back in time. The texture and flavor were perfect. However, the thrill of this victory was soon overcome by a sense of defeat as we tasted the larger fritters. Although nicely crisp on the exterior, in their center the batter was a little runny and uncooked.

I learned a lot about fritters from this experience One thing for sure is that before attempting them again, I’ll buy a frying thermometer. I think it will help me to fry them at the perfect temperature and cook them through without over browning.

Despite any disappointment, however, I’m still happy I made these fritters. The nostalgic high made it all worthwhile.

Wine Pairing: Prosecco

Ratatouille

ratatplatedsmall

When I was at our greengrocer yesterday, I spotted some beautiful Holland eggplants, deep purple in color, firm to the touch, heavy for their size. And right next to them, were some local zucchini looking equally as good. With these in my basket, I decided it was time for ratatouille. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to find some equally good tomatoes. Nevertheless, I stayed with my original decision and bought the other ingredients onions, bell peppers, fresh thyme.

When I got back home, I searched for some recipes and found one from Martha Stewart that appealed to me because it called for large, chunky pieces of vegetables. However, its directions included some steps, like roasting individual canned tomatoes for 30 minutes and sweating eggplant with salt, that I didn’t feel necessary.

My go-to brand of canned tomatoes always have plenty of flavor and I thought rather than turning on the oven, I could get the roasted flavor from toasting some concentrated tomato paste in my pot along with the vegetables. I also find more and more that today’s eggplants aren’t as bitter as they once were and therefore the typical salting process isn’t as necessary as it once was.

I also digressed from Martha’s recipe in the timing. I thought her suggested times for cooking the vegetables were too short. I’m old school Italian and like my vegetables a little more cooked than more trendy recipes suggest. I remember how, when nouvelle cuisine was in vogue, I once served string beans to my aunt and she took them back to the kitchen and sautéed them in olive oil and garlic. She returned them to the table and announced, “Now these are beans cooked for people not for rabbits.”

Ratatouille Adapted from Martha Stewart

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, (about 1 pound total) diced large
6 large cloves of garlic smashed and peeled
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced large
1 tablespoon concentrated Italian tomato paste (the one in a tube)
1 can (28 ounces) crushed Italian tomatoes
2 medium sized eggplants, (about 1 pound total) cut into 1 to 1.5 inch pieces
2 large zucchini (about 1 pound total) peeled with alternating strips of peeled and unpeeled skin.
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (Martha called for 1 tablespoon fresh marjoram or oregano)
3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

Instructions

In a large non-reactive Dutch oven, preferably enameled cast iron, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, occasionally, until translucent. (Martha suggested 5 minutes; because of the size of the onions, I cooked mine for closer to 10 minutes.)

The onions and garlic
The onions and garlic

Add garlic cloves and cook until onions and garlic are soft. (Again, I cooked mine for about 10 minutes as opposed to Martha’s 5.)

Add peppers stirring and cook until tender. (Martha called for crisp-tender and 4 minutes; I went closer to 10.)

 

With the peppers
With the peppers

Add 1 tablespoon concentrated Italian tomato paste and toast briefly for about 2 minutes.

 

Add tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, bay leaf, fresh thyme to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture come to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium low, partially cover, and cook at a gentle simmer until vegetables are cooked through, around 30 minutes. If sauce becomes too thick or starts to stick while cooking add a couple of tablespoons of water from time to time.
(Martha says to cook the vegetables are “tender but mushy, 15 minutes.” I almost doubled this time and my vegetables, perhaps because of their heft did not become mushy.)

Notice size of eggplant and zucchini
With the zucchini, eggplant

Season to taste with vinegar, salt, and pepper. Remove bay leaf. (The vinegar is an essential part of the seasoning, adding a lot of brightness to this dish.)

I served the ratatouille accompanied by some crusty cheese focaccia.

Here’s a link to the original recipe on Martha Stewart Living.

Wine Pairing: Dry Rose