Calabrian Chili Pasta

I know this recipe may offend some traditionalists; nevertheless, I’m posting it for two reasons. First of all, it’s my first encounter with Calabrian chili paste, an unctuous spicy condiment that I see becoming a staple in my pantry. Secondly, the recipe takes an innovative approach to cooking pasta that eliminates using a dedicated pot for its boiling. I admit that I was skeptical about this method, but for someone who cooks at home almost every night, having one less pot to clean seemed most appealing.

This relatively quick and easy recipe is from an episode of Giada DeLaurentiis’s “Giada at Home” that I saw while having breakfast early on a Sunday morning. The finished dish looked so good that immediately after church I made a trip to my local Italian specialty store to look for the chili paste. I was surprised to find there a couple of varieties, both imported and domestic, but chose the imported one from Tutto Calabria.

My only variation on the recipe was using heaping tablespoons of the chili paste, which although quite spicy, is not very hot.

Rather than pairing this dish with a southern Italian red, I opted for a Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo–perfect for a warm spring evening.

Here’s a link to the original recipe and video.

Ingredients

1 pound penne pasta
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup grated pecorino
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoons Calabrian hot pepper paste
1/3 cup chopped chives
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon lemon juice, from 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a 10-inch high-sided saute pan, bring 1 inch of water (about 4 cups) to a boil over high heat. Add the penne and the salt.

Pasta with about an inch of water

Cook, stirring often, until the pasta is al dente, about 9 minutes; there should be a little water left in the pan.

The cooked pasta

Sprinkle the pecorino over the pasta; toss to coat. (Work quickly, making sure that the cheese doesn’t clump together and is evenly distributed.)

Add the tomatoes, chili paste, chives, lemon zest, lemon juice and olive oil, and toss.

Wine Pairing: Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or Sauvignon Blanc

Pasta con Ceci

A few years ago, I posted my family’s recipe for pasta with chickpeas, Pasta Ceci. It’s always been one of my favorite dishes passed down to me during my grad-school days from my Sicilian mother.

Recently, however, I came across another version of this dish on the Food52 website, adapted from Victoria Granof’s cookbook, Chickpeas. This recipe seems to have Neapolitan roots, with much of its flavor derived from frying tomato paste in garlic infused olive oil.

What made this dish immediately appealing for a weeknight meal is that it requires only one pot, as the pasta is cooked along with the chickpeas with a minimal amount of water. My only variations on the recipe were sautéing some crushed red pepper flakes along with the olive oil and garlic, adding some chopped rosemary during the last five minutes of cooking, and doubling the amount of pasta.

I also recommend using the imported double-concentrate Italian tomato paste in a tube. I find it has deeper flavor than most canned varieties.

While this may not be the most authentic version of this dish, it is nonetheless most delicious and quite satisfying.

VICTORIA GRANOF’S PASTA CON CECI Adapted from FOOD52

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
3 tablespoons good tomato paste (I used heaping tablespoons.)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (or one 15-ounce can, drained and rinsed)
1/2 cup uncooked ditalini pasta (or another small shape, like macaroni) (I used a full cup)
2 cups boiling water (You may need to adjust the amount of water if you add more pasta.)
Crushed red pepper flakes, for serving (I added the crushed pepper to the pasta during the last 5 minutes of cooking.)

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the garlic and cook, stirring until it becomes lightly browned and fragrant.

Browning the Garlic

Stir in the tomato paste and salt and fry for 30 seconds or so.

Frying the tomato paste

Add the chickpeas, pasta, and boiling water.

Adding chickpeas and pasta
Adding the water

Stir to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot, lower the heat, and simmer until the pasta is cooked and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Adding the rosemary
The finished dish

Taste and adjust seasoning. To serve, ladle the pasta into shallow bowls, sprinkle with crushed red pepper flakes, and drizzle a bit of extra-virgin olive oil on top.

Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Asparagus Frittata

Asparagus Frittata

I’ve always like omelets. Growing up in an Italian household, my introduction to them was through frittatas. Large and made with plenty of eggs and grated Romano, they typically featured fried peppers or potatoes and sometimes even left over spaghetti, which was sautéed until a light crust formed on the pasta.

I remember how my aunt stood over the frying pan, wooden spoon in hand, pushing the eggs towards the center allowing the more liquid portion to fall to the sides. “You can’t rush these,” she’d say. Then came the moment of the flip, where she placed a large plate over the pan and, in a flash, inverted the frittata and then slid it from the plate into the pan to finish cooking. Another few minutes of slow cooking followed during which she’d gently shake the pan. When I asked, how did she know it was done, she replied “il naso,” the nose. “You can smell when it’s done.”

The finished frittata was puffy and light, never dry, and the eggs seemed like pillows to whatever the filling.

Eventually, I discovered the French omelet; totally different from the Italian, but that’s a story for another post.

One morning, not too long ago, over breakfast I saw Lidia Bastianich prepare an asparagus frittata on television. The 10 minute spot evoked memories of my aunt and so I decided to make one for dinner that evening. Below is her recipe along with a link to the video i saw that morning.

I modified the recipe by adding a generous handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano to the eggs before beating. I also flipped the frittata as my aunt did to finish cooking the other side.

Wine Pairing: Falanghina

Lidia Bastianich’s Asparagus Frittata

Ingredients

1 pound pencil-thin asparagus
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 large eggs

Preparation

1. Remove and discard the tough lower ends of the asparagus. Cut the spears into 2-inch lengths.

2. In a large nonstick skillet, sauté the asparagus spears in olive oil, sprinkling them lightly with salt. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until asparagus is tender but still firm, about 5 minutes.

3. Beat the eggs lightly in a bowl with salt and pepper. Add the eggs to the asparagus, scrambling the mixture lightly with a fork. Cook 2 minutes, or less depending on the texture desired, until eggs are set, and serve immediately.

Video Link

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

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

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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

Meatless Pecorino Meatballs

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Sometimes a recipe is enough to make me purchase a cookbook. So when I saw a recipe for polpettine di pecorino, pecorino meatballs, in Bastianich’s Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, I had to have this book.

I’m not sure why I was so intrigued by this dish. On one hand, I was skeptical that cheese, bread crumbs, eggs, garlic, and basil would come together and then be fried to make a satisfying alternative to the classic meatball. But on the other hand, I have a weakness for pecorino; having a Neapolitan heritage, I was brought up on it. It was the cheese of choice for sprinkling on pasta, flavoring stuffings, adding to a frittata, or topping carne pizzaiola.

A few nights ago, I tried the recipe for the first time and we thoroughly enjoyed a most satisfying meatless dish. Richly flavored, they had a pleasant saltiness and meaty texture. A simple marinara provided the perfect complement to their savoriness.

My aforementioned skepticism is to blame for not having photos of preparing this dish. But I think the two I’ve provided of the finished meatballs should entice you to make them. I’ll try to add more photos the next time I make these.

As we were only two at the table, I halved the original recipe, which makes 60 small meatballs.

Meatless Pecorino Meatballs Adapted from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
8 large eggs
3 cups fine dry bread crumbs
3 cups freshly grated pecorino
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup vegetable oil, or more as needed (I used extra virgin olive oil.)
6 to 7 cups tomato sauce (I used Marcella Hazan’s classic tomato, onion, and butter sauce.)

Beat the eggs well in a large mixing bowl. Heap the bread crumbs, cheese, salt, basil, and garlic on top of the eggs and mix everything together well, first with a big spoon or spatula and then with your hands. (Be careful not to overwork the mixture.) The “dough” should come together in a soft mass, leaving the sides of bowl. If it is very sticky, work in more bread crumbs a bit at a time.

Break off tablespoonful pieces of dough, and one by one roll them in your palms into smooth balls. Place them on a board or tray covered with wax paper or parchment–you should get about 60 balls total.

Pour 1/8 inch oil into the skillet, and set over medium flame. When the oil is hot enough that a test ball starts sizzling on contact, lay in as many balls as will fit into the pan without crowding–about 20 or 30. Adjust the heat as you fry so the heat stays hot and the balls are sizzling and browning nicely, but not burning. Turn them frequently, so they fry on all sides.

When the balls are evenly browned and crispy, lift them from the pan with a slotted spoon or spider, letting excess oil drip back into the pan for a moment, and then lay them on paper towels to drain

Fry the balls in batches this way, adding more oil if needed. You can serve these as is as an hors d’oeuvre while hot and crispy.

To serve with sauce, heat the sauce to a simmer in a large saucepan. Drop in all the balls and return the sauce to a simmer, gently turning the balls so all are submerged and coated. Cook for about 5 minutes, or just until the balls are heated all the way through.

Finished meatballs in the sauce
Finished meatballs in the sauce

Serve with sauce on the top, sprinkled with grated cheese, and garnished with basil.

Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

 

 

Pasta Stuffed Peppers

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When it comes to cooking, I react to the word “vegetarian” as a vampire would to “garlic.” Fortunately, I just purchased Michele Scicolone’s The Italian Vegetable Cookbook

This richly illustrated volume has 200 recipes for a wide variety of dishes including antipasti, soups, pasta, main dishes, and even desserts. My only regret is that I didn’t have it for the summer months, when so many vegetables are widely available and at their best.

Scicolone is a prolific writer who has produced at least a dozen books on Italian cooking and has earned a well deserved reputation for recipes that work. This weekend I decided to make one of her main course dishes for some friends: Pasta-Stuffed Peppers.

Red and yellow bell peppers are hollowed out and filled with small pasta like ditalaini that is mixed in a savory sauce of tomatoes, garlic, capers, anchovies, and olives. The peppers are then covered with their tops and baked in a moderate oven until the peppers are tender, about 45 minutes.

Here is a link to her recipe online on Food Republic. Although the recipe claims to serve 6, your guests, as did mine, may find that just one of these delicious peppers is not enough. Below is my illustrated version of the recipe.

1. Prepare and assemble the ingredients: peppers, tomatoes, garlic, black olives, anchovies, capers, and dried oregano

The prepped ingredients
The prepped ingredients

2. Heat the oil and garlic and cooke the tomatoes seasoned with oregano:

Cook the tomatoes
Cook the tomatoes

3. Add the savory components: olives, capers, anchovies and season with salt and pepper.

The savory components
The savory components

4. Add the cooked small pasta to the sauce before filling and baking the peppers.

Sauce the cooked pasta before filling the peppers
Sauce the cooked pasta before filling the peppers

5. Bake in a 375ºF oven. Be sure that your peppers are tender; it may take a tad more than the suggested 45 minutes.

Wine Pairing: Chianti Montalbano, Falanghina

Cauliflower Gratin

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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

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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

Squash Flower Fritters

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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