Tag Archives: Italian cooking

The Recipe Tree

14 Aug

Where do recipes come from?

Do they fall, fully formed, from the recipe tree that stands on the middle of the earth, whose branches are so wide that they cover the entire world? Or do they swim about in the oceans, infinitely small, leaping out like a silvery fish to inspire when they feel they are needed? Or maybe they grow in the earth as grains of an idea, ready to help those that are hungry.

I’m not sure, but I know some of my favorite recipes have been an attempt to recreate a favorite meal that I ate while traveling. It’s just such a meal, about 15 years ago now, that first got me into cooking.

I was a junior in high school. Our German class had a sister gymnasium near Saarbrücken that we would attend every-other year for two months at a time. On the years we weren’t in Germany, our German friends would come and stay with us in the States.

My host-sister, Miriam, was a few years older than me, and in my eyes, so cool and accomplished. She had a wonderful older boyfriend (to whom she is now married), who was already in university and had a car. And so, we skipped out on a week of school and went traveling.

We went north, to Köln and Düsseldorf and Aachen and Belgium, and somewhere along the way, I cannot remember where, we ate in an Italian restaurant where I had a plate of pasta that still haunts me. It was simple, a ying yang of white and green linguini, with olive oil, crispy garlic and fried sage, but to me, it was the most exciting thing I had ever eaten.

Up until that point, pasta had always just been pasta. Something that should be covered in cheese or tomatoes. I’m also not sure I had ever thought of sage, at all, before that meal. And crispy, toasted, golden, transcendent garlic? It was too much. I was in love.

And so I arrived home, dressed in black, feeling cooler than cool, and immediately dove into trying to recreate the meal for my family. I think I remember my mom being amused, and I think I remember everyone actually enjoying the meal. From that point on, some of the most treasured souvenirs I’ve brought home from my travels have been recipes, or at least the germs of recipes.

On Saturday I tried to recreate one of the more recent souvenir recipes that I picked up, a pasta dish that I had on Good Friday in Florence. It was farfallle pasta with artichokes and fish. I have no idea what kind of fish it was, and I know our artichokes here aren’t the same, tender, breathtaking carcofi they have there, but when I saw crates full of teeny, tiny, impossibly adorable artichokes at the Greenmarket last Friday, I knew I had to try.

And so I did, with thunderously wonderful results. I used branzino, and braised the baby ‘chokes in vermouth and flavored the whole deal with a fragrant, pine nutty pesto. It was dreamy and delicious and immediately transported me back to that rainy, soggy, impossibly Italian night spent in a steamy, jewelbox trattoria, sitting next to the crotchety old man who ate an orange for dessert.

So, tell me, where do your recipes come from? Are they inspired by travel? By the ingredients you find at the farmer’s market or pull from your backyard? Do you prefer to riff on recipes from magazines or cookbooks? Or are you some kind of recipe evil genius?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and links if you’ve got them!

Head below the jump for the recipe for Ann’s Good Friday Pasta.

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Magic Beans

9 Apr

Between Florence and Rome, we stayed in the Maremma, Tuscan cowboy country.

Big Sky Country, Italy

It’s a wild and woolly part of Italy, verdant, fecund and stunning, squished between the mountains and the sea. We arrived at the inn just in time to interrupt our host, Alessandro’s, Easter dinner. Impeccable timing, as always, compounded by the inn’s location. We were smack dab, exactly in the middle of the heart of the heart of Nowhere.

Mortified, we gingerly asked Alessandro if the restaurant would be open for dinner. Our hearts sank when he said no. It was 5pm and our bellies were already rumbling with hunger, having eaten nothing but a pastry hours ago and worlds away in Florence.

Piombino, Italy

We glumly looked around. There wasn’t another building in sight, except for miles away, crowning a few hills hunkering darkly against the horizon. It took us nearly two hours to find the inn once, would we ever be able to find it again in the dark? We cursed our stupidity for not staying in Florence on Easter Sunday.

Alessandro must have sensed this in the way our faces fell, because he looked at us in a kindly way and said, “No, no, no, I’ll cook something for you… Something small. Around 8pm. Okay?”

We were expecting a loaf of bread, maybe a few olives, a plate of pasta with bottled sugo, a few cookies and a liter of vino rosso di casa at most. And we would have been perfectly contented with the bread and wine alone, but what we got was one of the biggest and best dinners we ate in Italy.

My feet like to prove they've been places, too.

Alessandro started us off, naturally, with antipasti: perfect brushcetta, the most wonderful pickled peppers, preserved artichokes, cheese with honey and freshly baked focaccia with prosciutto, capocollo and pancetta. The hot bread gently warmed the uncooked pancetta, coaxing out all of its porcine fatty goodness. It was a revelation. I never would think to eat uncooked bacon, but there I was, oinking my way through my two slices.

The Sea, Maremma

Our primi was petite squares of homemade lasagna. Alessandro swore he made everything himself, from the noodles to the ragu and that he’d eaten it for breakfast that very morning. I believe him. The noodles only hinted at being noodles, they were so thin. And there were a least eight perfectly constructed strata in each square, but there was no slippage and no knife necessary. Each layer blithely gave way to a fork’s pressure. It was lasagna nirvana.

Blossoms

But it didn’t stop there. We were happily stuffed and couldn’t imagine eating another thing, when the kitchen door swung open on the most glorious steak I have ever seen. Cooked to a perfect medium/medium-rare, it was at least 4 inches thick and the size of a dinner plate. Seasoned simply with salt, pepper and olive oil, Alessandro had cut “fingers” into its depths to allow it to cook through. It was the most delicious, tender and perfectly prepared steak I’ve ever had, especially in light of the previous night’s meal.

Does anyone know what this is? I thought it was lavendar, or rosemary, but it smelled like curry when I rubbed it.

We had gone out for “Florentine” steaks at a “trattoria” in Florence.  We had wanted to dine at the Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco, a delicious looking neighborhood joint in the Oltrarno, but alas, our plans were thwarted by zillions of other people who wanted to eat there, too. So we ended up “somewhere else.” “Somewhere else” was a smelly, expensive, yet serviceable tourist trap of a restaurant. But we were there, and we were hungry, so we gamely ordered on. Honestly, the food wasn’t bad, but when cast in the light of our meal in the Maremma, it was a sad ghost of truly great Italian cooking, which is a shame.

Populaonia

So… I’ve told you about the antipasti, the primi, and the secondi… But, you know what? I haven’t even told you about my favorite part of dinner yet! It wasn’t the perfect steak. Nope. Nor the beautiful bacon, peppers or lasagna just like Nonna makes. Nope, nope , nope. And it wasn’t dessert either. (We didn’t have any. There wasn’t anywhere to put it!) Nope, to me, the most perfect, delicious and wonderful part of our meal was the beans.

Populonia

When we ate at Trattoria del Carmine in Florence, I ordered a plate of garbanzo beans from the daily specials menu. I figured, if a chef puts a dish called simply Ceci as one of his daily specials, it’s probably pretty special. And it was. Startling in its simplicity, just olive oil, garlic and salt, it was the best thing I ate that night.

Populonia

The same was true at Alessandro’s. His beans, presented as the third dish in our troika of antipasti, were the local, generic Tuscan white beans, probably from a can, heated through and dressed simply in olive oil and a dusting of dried herbs. Simple enough. But it was the final seasoning that made them revelatory: finely minced raw onion. The onion’s bite, its delicious tang, brought out every nuance of those beans; their creaminess, their vegetal savoriness, the very essence of their beaniness.

Cyclamen grow wild all over Italy.  I think that's really cool.

The Tuscans, it seems, have magic beans (or at least a magic touch with them).

We had them again the next night, at a pizza place perched atop one of those hills lurking at the rim of the vast Maremman plain. We had gone off exploring along the coast and returned to the inn sunburnt and windblown. When we arrived “home,” Alessandro and the noble Nero were waiting for us. We were the only people staying at the inn, he said, and rather than cooking us dinner again, Alessandro wanted to know if we’d like to go with him and his wife to his friend’s pizzeria for dinner.

Populonia

At first we said no, it felt awkward. But he insisted and, well, let’s be honest, it sounded really great, so we went. And it was. I know you’re never going to believe me when I tell you this, but I can’t remember the name of the place. In fact, I’m not sure I ever even knew it. But it’s in Sassofortino, outside the walls, overlooking the plain. It can’t be that hard to find, now, can it? The pizzas were delicious, as was the dessert of frutti di bosco over mascarpone cream, but once again, it was the beans on the antipasti plate that stole the show.

Castiglione Della Pescaia

The owner of the restaurant, who bore an odd resemblance to Frank Fontana from Murphy Brown, used borlotti beans for his fagioli, but the treatment was the same. Simple, simple, simple. Oil, salt, a few slivers of fresh tomato and the beans.

Rainbow, Maremma

A quick internet search for “Tuscan beans” turns up all kinds of recipes using carrots and cheese and special pots and sausages, but I think they’re missing the point. While there is obviously room for variation in making these beans; they can be chickpeas or borlotti beans or canellini beans; they can be dried or fresh, bottled or canned; you can add herbs or leave them out, there is one constant. Simplicity.

Ceci alla Toscana

And so, I don’t feel right telling you the name of the inn we stayed at, because it may no longer be there. Alessandro and his wife had already bought a new place on the coast and were cashing out of the inn on the plain while we were there. But, I can offer you my recipe for Tuscan beans.

And that’s obviously the next best thing, right?

Head below the jump for the recipe for Ceci o Fagioli alla Toscana.

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Ciao Italia!

13 Feb

We’re going to Italy.

Stormy Sunday

In just over a month, Isaac and I, and my entire family, will be winging our separate ways over the Atlantic to the land of wine, cheese, cured meats and truffles. We’ll be shacking up in a little house in a hill town in Umbria for a week, and then the two of us will spend a few more days, over Easter, exploring Florence, Tuscany and Rome.

To say I am excited is one of the greatest understatements of all time.

Stormy Sunday

I haven’t been to Italy in nearly two decades, and that trip was less than ideal. The tour operator was a proud graduate of some Soviet-era apparatchik machine. Rather than floating through Italy on a cloud of culture and food, we plodded from ruin to museum on a bus, like weary soldiers on a forced march.

Upon reaching our destination,the tour guide would bark at us to enjoy the culture and then herd us back onto the bus. We would then be driven back to our cold, grey hostel were we were fed cold, grey meat and told to go to bed.

My memories of that trip involve hunger, sore feet, cold, snow and a rain.

Snowflakes, on my coat

That is, until we befriended the bus driver. He was an older gentleman with wild, movie star hair, golden skin and sparkling blue eyes. One day, as we were being herded back to the bus in Florence, I spotted him lolling on a fountain surrounded by a bevy of the most beautiful women, all at least half his age, flipping their hair and tinkling with laughter.

My friend Brian, whose family was Italian and thus spoke the language, noticed him too (but I suspect he mostly noticed the ladies) and began chatting with him. The bus driver felt sorry for us. He hated the tour guide as much as we did, and so he started instructing us, through Brian, in ways to ditch her. Our bus driver fomented rebellion.

And suddenly, there it was! Beautiful, romantic, cultured, delicious, wonderful, perfect Italia. No cold, grey, sanitized, Disney-fied, fig-leaf covered, flag-bearing-tour-guide-approved Italy.

Nope.

Suddenly there was gelato and grappa, cute waiters and spicy tomato sauces, bare feet in the Adriatic and hidden galleries in Venice. We were free, and it felt delicious. But alas, this new found freedom came at the very end of our ten-day stay.

The World's Best Braised Escarole

I can’t wait to get back to this Italy. I want to try and find that delicious pizzeria in Assisi again, the one that clings to the side of the twisty road down the side of a sheer cliff, to climb once more to the top of that hill in Florence for the perfect view of the Duomo, to again dash madly across a Roman avenue without being squished by a roaring lorry, to sit in a palazzo and sip espresso as the sun sets.

Oh Italy!

But of course, what I really can’t wait for is the food. I’ve read that it will still be truffle season in Umbria. And we’ll be eating dinner each night at the house, so shopping at the local markets will actually be a fruitful activity. We’ll be able to buy vegetables and fish and meats and condiments and not just buy bread and cheese to eat while perched on a wall or on a ferry between islands (which, let’s be honest, isn’t the end of the world and I would gladly do every day of my life for eternity).

Acqua Cotta di Maremma (Olive Oil Soup)

In anticipation, I have become even more obsessed with Italian food than usual.

On Saturday night I whipped up Paula Wolfert‘s Acqua Cotta di Maremma (aka Olive Oil Soup from Maremma) and the World’s Best Braised Escarole. On Sunday night we made Short Rib Ragu with pappardelle (which came out perfect, unlike last time, thanks to you guys).

It’s all I can think about. Sugo and cinghiale and lenticchie and tartuffo and porchetta and strangozzi. Is it March yet?

Short Rib Ragu with pappardelle

But what I really want to know is if you guys have any suggestions for things to do and places to see in Umbria? We’ll have a car and just under a week, so all suggestions are welcome.

As they say in Italy, grazie!

Head below the jump for the recipes for World’s Best Braised Escarole, Acqua Cotta di Maremma and Short Rib Ragu.

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The Chowder Bowl

5 Feb

So, the Giants won the Super Bowl.

Fourth Avenue Station, Brooklyn

If you’re anything like me, you’re still trying to figure out how they even got into what the NFL wants you to think of as “The Big Game” in the first place.

Perhaps, as a New Yorker, I’ve come to expect our teams to be mostly mediocre. The Yankees, as much as I love them, seem to have lost the come-from-behind fire that made them so exciting to watch for so many years. The Mets are always claiming to have finally procured that last player they need to become the best team ever, and then nothing happens. And then there’s the Knicks. Oh sweet mercy, the Knicks! Have you ever seen such a spectacle? They’re like a goat rodeo masquerading as a professional sports team.

Fourth Avenue Station, Brooklyn

I suppose I should admit right off the bat that I’m not a football fan.

That said, I was still aware that the New England Patriots were having a “magic season.” I knew that their quarterback was dating Giselle, I knew that they had the hubris to pre-print a book about their perfect year, I knew that they were virtually guaranteed to win. Yet I had no inkling that the team from our own backyard (also known as New Jersey) was even fair to middling this year.

And so, even though it is once again “TV free February,” Isaac and I granted ourselves a special dispensation to watch the game. And Puppy Bowl, of course. And since you can’t have a Super Bowl without food, I discovered something important, something I could get behind. This game wasn’t about a perfect season, or blue-collar heroes, about pretty-boy quarterbacks or coaching dynasties.

Fourth Avenue Station, Brooklyn

Oh no my friends.

This game was about chowder supremacy.

New England clam chowder vs. Manhattan clam chowder. Creamy and white vs. tomatoey and piquant. The chowder known around the world vs. the chowder maligned as the “other” chowder. The chowder kids cheer for vs. the chowder that makes kids groan.

Fourth Avenue Station, Brooklyn

But, not really. In my heart, there is only one chowder. New England clam chowder forever! I’ve tried to like Manhattan clam chowder, I really have. I love tomatoes and I love clams, but Manhattan clam chowder I do not love. It’s not a chowder. Chowders have cream and butter. But Isaac? Exactly the opposite. He loves Manhattan clam chowder best.

So instead of making New England clam chowder, which would have implied clandestine culinary support of the Patriots, or Manhattan clam chowder, which would have made the cook grumpy, a sure way to ruin the soup, we made Brooklyn clam chowder.

Fred loves football AND clams

What’s Brooklyn clam chowder you ask? It’s an homage to two of the greatest dishes we’ve discovered since moving to Bay Ridge.

The first is Polonica‘s cucumber soup; a simple broth, made creamy with a touch of sour cream and flavored with Polish dill pickles and tons of fresh dill. The second is a special we had once at local Italian stalwart Canedo’s; clams and mussels steamed in white wine with tons of garlic and hot, pickled cherry peppers.

Homesick Texan's Mythical Biscuits

Brooklyn clam chowder has its foundations in New England clam chowder, but the pickled peppers do give it a Manhattan chowder-esque reddish hue. I know it sounds weird to put pickles in soup, but you’ll just have to trust me on this. They add a beguiling flavor that’s very hard to put your finger on, an unexpected lightness and delicacy to a soup that can be a bit heavy.

Brooklyn Clam Chowder

If I may mix my metaphors, this chowder is a real home run. Especially when served with an endless supply of Lisa’s extraordinary biscuits, a pat of Ronnybrook garlic butter and a growler of locally-brewed SixPoint beer.

Brooklyn Clam Chowder

Top it all off with a Giants victory, and you’ve got the recipe for a very pleasant Sunday evening.

Head below the jump for the recipe for Brooklyn Clam Chowder.

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Love/Hate

23 Jan

Little fish, big controversy.

Pugs On Patrol

Some recent night after work I was watching the Iron Chef battle between Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver, Isaac was reading. “Oooooh!” I said. “Look, Pasta con le Sarda!” “Huh?” “Mario’s making pasta with sardines. I’ve always wanted to make that. I think it’s totally weird that it’s got fish, raisins and fennel in it.” “Pasta? With sardines? I’m sold.”

It seemed like the perfect dish. I love pasta but I’m not so keen on fish. Isaac’s the exact opposite. It seemed like a match made in heaven. And then we started discussing the dish.

This is where the pugs live.  Lucky pugs.

I wanted to change some things around. I didn’t want to use sardines. Where on earth would I get sardines? In Bay Ridge? On a Sunday? Tell me that… So, what do you want to use? Tuna. Tuna? Ewh. Why would you use tuna? Because I like tuna and I don’t really like sardines. Well why on earth would you suggest making something with sardines then? Etc. Etc. Etc.

The discussion never got heated, just testy, but just testy enough to make it seem like a good idea to shelve the dish for a while. So we made spinach pie. Spinach pie. The peacemaker. Who knew?

Cold, Winter Tree

Then, on Saturday, piscine providence provided.

I had already settled on roasting a chicken and making some Asian-esque soup with dumplings from the leftovers as the weekend’s culinary activities, but Isaac came back from the gym with amazing news. Cosentino’s, the local fish market, had fresh sardines.

They were beautiful, shiny, plump, glistening and as fresh as fresh fish can be. They smelled of the ocean and were soft and silky to the touch. Their eyes were so bright and shiny, like they were still chasing tiny krill through the icy waters of the Atlantic. But I couldn’t. Nope.

Tree Lined

I don’t know when it happened or how, but I don’t like fish. Okay, that’s only about 87% honest. I don’t like most fish. I love cod, but feel guilty eating it. And don’t even put a bowl of clams in front of me, because they’ll be gone by the time you turn back around. Tuna’s alright, especially when smeared in mayonnaise and hot sauce and wrapped inside seaweed and gulped down with pickled ginger. I also don’t mind fish on vacation, like in Croatia, where it was all even fresher than the sardines I was staring down. But at home? Not so much.

So I stood there, waffling. I knew how much Isaac wanted them. I knew that they were local, and seasonal. But I failed. I settled on a hunk of tuna and some clams. I could feel the disappointment emanating in waves off both Isaac and the fish guy. The fish guy said he only brought in the sardines when they were exceptional, and that he knew no one would buy them. It felt awful proving him right.

End

I was wracked with guilt on the walk home, hugging my tuna airlifted in from warmer climes. I had just failed miserably as a foodie. I had left the delicious delicacy from the sea back in that store on a bed of ice. And so, I relented. I asked Isaac to go back and get the little fishes, but to make sure the guy gutted them. I hate gutting fish.

The sauce is, as the Naked Chef would say, easy peasy. You cut some vege, cook the vege, add tomatoes and stew. The cleaning of the fish though? Far more than I expected. I figured the fish guy would not only gut them but remove their spines too. Oh no. Nope. He left that for me.

Canon

The first one was difficult, but by the end I had the hang of it. You just insert the tip of a knife under the spine near the tail and drag backwards, pulling out the tail. Then you lift the spine and pull towards the head. Where the spine breaks, you cut off that part of the fish. The ribs will be too big and thick to melt in the cooking process. But this is not a neat procedure. Little bits of fish fly everywhere. You have been warned.

The sauce turned out well, very well in fact, but for me the star of the meal was the pasta. I took a cue from Mario and rather than adding saffron to the sauce, I added it to the noodles. I made pappardelle because I love them, and these noodles might be the ones I *heart* the most in all the world. They are spectacular.

Pasat con le Sarda

The first bite of the meal was, to me, a little too fishy, but by the end I was very happy. It’s kind of a cross between puttanesca and Huachinango Veracruzano, but with more depth and mystery. I’m not sure I’ll ever make it again, even though the leftovers were excellent on some Trader Joe’s artichoke ravioli. It was just too contentious. Too stressful.

Dinner should be delicious, not fraught.

Head below the jump for Ann’s recipes for Pasta con le Sarda and Golden Papparedelle.

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