Growing up as a first-generation Italian, I regarded food not only as nourishment but also as a link to the flavors and traditions of my forebears. In fact, that strong ethnic bond has motivated much of my cooking over the last 50 years. And while the cuisines of other countries have always intrigued me, none has inspired me more than Italian. Whenever I’m in the kitchen, memories of my Sicilian mother or Neapolitan aunt at the stove or of my family around the dinner table come to mind.
Recently, I had one such recollection while I was preparing the pasta dish that is the subject of this post, Christmas Eve Sicilian Anchovy Pasta. As a child, I hated anchovies. The way they looked—dark, shriveled, when packed in salt or rusty and slimy when tinned in oil— totally turned me off even before tasting them. “Yuck,” I would say out of earshot. But I was forced to eat or, at least, try them every time they appeared in one of the dishes on the table. When I would resist, my father would say: “They’re an acquired taste; you’ll eventually grow to like them.” It may have taken some time before the acquisition, but, as usual, my father was correct.
“Meanwhile.” The word makes me cringe whenever I read it in a recipe. As you probably know, it typically implies multi-tasking—not one of my strengths. So when I read today’s recipe, one suggested by my better half, and “meanwhile” appeared twice, you can imagine how I felt.
Sometimes what’s in our refrigerator dictates what’s for dinner—especially when it’s produce a little past its prime. This was the case last week when I found two red bell peppers on the decline as well as a large onion in a similar state. Not surprisingly, the first thing that came to mind was pasta.
When the publication of an intriguing New York Times Cookingrecipe for crisp gnocchi coincided serendipitously with my finding a forgotten shelf-stable package of those dumplings in the back of my cupboard, I had to make the dish.
Sometimes I find that it’s the end of the week, and I’ve served nothing but meatcentric meals. More often than not this is due to buying what’s on sale at the market, re-purposing leftovers, or just my hankering for a steak.
It’s at times like these that I start to look for a non-meat dish, which usually winds up being pasta or, as my better half bemoans, “all too seldom,” fish. In my search, I came across this recipe from Mario Batali’s cookbook Molto Gusto. Just the word “ragu” made my mouth water.
Except for the frequent stirring of the cauliflower, it’s a relatively simple dish to prepare and, as the recipe points out, it can be made days in advance. I did find, however, that I needed to extend the three cooking times for the cauliflower, especially at the third stage. I’ve given the recipe’s original times, but strongly suggest that you taste the cauliflower for tenderness at each stage.
Ingredients Serves 6 people
1 medium cauliflower (about 2 pounds)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium white onion cut into 1⁄4-inch dice
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
Maldon or other flaky sea salt
1 ½ to 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
1 pound pennette
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving
½ cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs fried in olive oil until golden brown
1 ½ teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1. Halve the cauliflower. Cut off the leaves and reserve them. Cut out the core and reserve it. 2. Cut the cauliflower into small bite-sized florets, reserving the stalks.
3. Chop the core, stalks, and leaves. (I used a food processor for this step.)
4. Combine the oil, onion, garlic, and cauliflower leaves, stalks, and core in a large pot, season with Maldon salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the leaves are just beginning to wilt, about 3 minutes. (This step took me at least six minutes.)
5. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the cauliflower leaves are just tender, 18 to 20 minutes. (This step took me at least 26 minutes.)
6. Add the cauliflower florets, red pepper flakes, and 1 cup water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is very soft and almost falling apart, 22 to 25 minutes. (I added about 10 minutes to this step.)
7. Add the butter, stirring gently until it melts, then season well with Maldon salt and remove from the heat.
The cauliflower ragú can be prepared up to 3 days ahead. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate; reheat in a large pot over medium-low heat before adding the pasta.
8. Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot and add 3 tablespoons Kosher salt. Drop in the pasta and cook until just al dente.
9. Drain the pasta, reserving about 2/3 cup of the pasta water.
10. Add the pasta and 1/3 cup of the reserved pasta water to the cauliflower ragú and stir and toss over medium heat until the pasta is well coated (add a splash or two more of the reserved pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce). Stir in the cheese.
11. Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the bread crumbs and rosemary, and serve, with additional grated cheese on the side.
Because of Labor Day, racks of pork ribs were plentiful in the supermarket this weekend and thus found their way into our kitchen. Of course, bottles of BBQ sauce were also on display, which I guess suggested the way most of these ribs would be cooked.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to travel throughout the United States and to have had the chance to sample some of the best BBQ ribs. And during these travels, I have heard the merits of dry vs. wet, sweet vs. hot, oak vs. cherry, and so on debated by my hosts and their friends in the south and midwest.
With one or two exceptions, all the ribs I tasted were extraordinarily good, with those in Greenville, South Carolina taking the prize. None of them, however, came close to the ribs I had growing up, which my aunt would occasionally make for Sunday dinner. Coming from Italy, she knew nothing about BBQ, but her ribs were without a doubt the most succulent I’ve ever had. Simmered slowly for hours in a simple tomato sauce, they were almost always served with a large cut of dry pasta, tubular in shape, known as occhio di lupo, wolf’s eye.
So last night, I decided to recreate this dish, but not being able to find occhio di lupo, I substituted the more widely available rigatoni. I also opted to serve the pasta with the same cheeses my aunt would use, namely, pecorino Romano and ricotta salata.
3 pounds pork spare ribs cut into 2-inch pieces. (I had the butcher saw the ribs lengthwise through the racks and then I cut them into double-rib pieces. See the picture above.)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, minced fine
2 28-ounce cans Italian crushed tomatoes
1 large clump of basil (about 6 leaves)
2 to 3 cups hot water
1 pound rigatoni
1/2 cup pecorino Romano
1/4 cup ricotta salata
Season the ribs with salt and pepper.
Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the ribs well on both sides, not over-crowding the pot. Work in batches if necessary. This will take about 10 minutes per batch.
After they are browned, transfer the ribs to a platter lined with paper towels.
Drain the fat from the pot, reserving 4 to 5 tablespoons. Add the onions to the reserved fat, sprinkle with a little salt, and brown them until they are soft and nicely browned. About 10 minutes. As the onions are browning, scrape up most of the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pot.
A minute or two before the onions are done, add the garlic. Cook for about a minute, watchong the pot closely to ensure that the garlic does not burn.
Add the crushed tomatoes and basil, again scraping any remaining brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Adjust for seasoning.
When the tomatoes start to boil, add the ribs. Press the ribs down so they are covered with the sauce.
When the sauce returns to a boil, reduce the flame to low and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until the ribs are tender, stirring occasionally. If the sauce reduces too much, add some of the hot water so that the ribs remain covered.
When the ribs are done, cook the pasta in abundant, well salted water. Cook the pasta until a minute before the al dente stage.
Meanwhile, remove the basil from the sauce and transfer about 2 to 3 cups of the sauce to a large skillet. When the pasta is done, using a spider, transfer the pasta to the skillet and toss with the sauce over a low flame. Sprinkle with some of the two cheeses and cook for about a minute or until the pasta is done.
Serve the pasta along with ribs accompanied by the two cheeses for individual sprinkling.
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
2. Heat the oil and garlic and cooke the tomatoes seasoned with oregano:
3. Add the savory components: olives, capers, anchovies and season with salt and pepper.
4. Add the cooked small pasta to the sauce before filling and baking 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.