Friday, February 26, 2010

Well Said…

“There is a peachy golden haze over Italy that makes green fields more vivid, gives brown earth a depth and people a romantic glow,” writes Adriana Trigiani in her national bestseller, Big Stone Gap. “I think there is something different about the light.”

“When the sun goes down,” she continues, “the sky turns a vivid blue-black, the stars seem closer, and the edges don’t fade out toward the horizon. The same saturated blue hems the skyline that nestles the moon.”

I have a lasting memory of a view out the window of a relative’s house in Calabria. The year is 1977, and my brother and I have been relegated to the top-floor guest bedroom for the night. There is no glass or screen in the window – just a hole in the wall that allows the fresh mountain air to come in, and permits us the view of a lifetime. For 33 years I have kept that memory in my head and my heart, and one day soon, I hope to return.

In the meantime, I sit in my office in our 1958 American-style ranch home. The walls are cold, thanks to old insulation and the home’s brick construction. I can barely breathe, the windows not having been opened in nearly five months. It strikes me as the perfect night for a dish of pasta with a quick marinara sauce. It’s Friday, it’s Lent, it’s the best idea I’ve had all day. Buon week-end, gli amici. Tenere in caldo.


For other good recipes posted today from around the globe, check out Foodie Friday at Designs by Gollum!

Maria's Marinara Sauce on Foodista

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pasta and Beans (and Never Tomato)

Two weeks ago when I was writing my post about spaghetti sauce, I called my mom P2170032with a question about the purpose of the tomato paste. She said she’d always assumed the paste was a thickener, but would check in one of her Italian cookbooks and call me right back.  An hour and no return-call later, I dialed her number. I had found my answer online; meanwhile, she’d become engrossed in the stories in her cookbooks.

A few days later when I was at her house, she sent the books home with me on loan – she thought I’d enjoy the stories as well. After perusing a couple of the cookbooks, the organization of one of them — the Culinary ArtsP2200054 Institute Italian Cookbook, published by the Institute in 1977 as part of its “Adventures in Cooking Series" — grabbed my attention. After a brief history of Italian cooking, the cookbook is divided into two sections: “Cooking by Regions” and “Recipes by Category.”

I immediately turned to the section on Calabria, the region of my ancestors. The Culinary Arts Institute tells us that Calabria is mountainous, offering a challenge to most farmers. “While not friendly to most crops [except eggplant, apparently], the hillsides of Calabria are covered with ancient olive trees; thus cooking in olive oil is common.” That’s informative, I suppose. Is there a region that doesn’t use olive oil?

The article then notes that each region of Italy has its own pasta; fusilli is Calabria’s (or at least it was in 1977), most often served “in a sauce with rolls of beef round alongside.” Mom’s braciole — soon, I do promise.

Calabria’s “long shoreline” provides ample seafood to the region, but meat is in short supply, though “a pair of pork specialties is associated with Calabria”: capicola (a spicy ham) and soprassato (“a thick, spicy sausage flecked with pistachio nuts”). I can attest to the fact that both were at every family feast of my years-gone-by.

Only two recipes are noted from the region of the Calabrese: buttered carrots (I kid you not) and a country-style chicken that greatly resembles chicken cacciatore, but with zucchini added in. I had to go much further into the second half of the book to find the real treasure. In the “Pasta and Rice” section, on page 64 (I was born in 1964 … is that a sign?) are three recipe favorites from my childhood: broccoli and macaroni, peas and macaroni (commonly referred to by my friend Judy as “green ronis”), and pasta fagiole.

In the month since I started this series of ramblings, I’ve had more than a couple requests for a good pasta fagiole recipe. The problem is: everyone has their own version of this Italian classic in their head. The most obvious difference between most recipes is whether the dish is a soup or not. For me, what’s more important — what I ask before I order pasta fagiole in a restaurant — is: “Is it made with tomato?”

“Tomato?” you are saying. “Of course it’s made with tomato! All pasta fagiole is made with tomato!” Ahh … not my mother’s. My mom makes pasta and beans and never tomato. In fact, her recipe’s ingredients number only four: olive oil, garlic, ditalini, and cannellini beans. And that’s the way I prefer it.

That said, to my friend, Sue, who requested a recipe a while back, I’ll pass on the Culinary Arts Institute’s recipe. And when I make this requested dish for an Olympics luncheon at my husband’s place of employment this week, again I’ll make it with tomato, as that’s what most people expect and prefer. But for myself, for lunch one day soon, the preparation will be simple: boil the pasta, sauté some garlic in olive oil, add the beans, drain the pasta, add it in, and enjoy. Semplice… 

Mom's Pasta Fagiole on Foodista

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happiness Is…


It’s Valentine’s Day. My kids are playing, my husband is off at work (after giving me these lovely roses), so I’m spending my day doing what I love most — cooking! I started the day baking cinnamon rolls for the kids for breakfast, then quickly turned my attention to a recipe I found online a while back, for Crock-Pot Pho.P2140031

For those unfamiliar with pho (pronounced “fa”), it’s a Vietnamese rice noodle soup whose base is a slow-cooked broth. The noodles are placed in a large soup bowl with meat, then the broth is poured in. Bean sprouts, fresh herbs, jalapeno peppers, lime juice, and hot sauce can all be added to taste. There are many versions of pho (chicken, beef, tendon, beef ball, tripe); I prefer the one where rare thin-sliced beef is added to the noodles, then the hot broth cooks the beef right in the soup bowl. That’s the kind I’m making today.

My family-of-four has made pho its mission. Like most families, I assume, we rarely all agree on cuisine. My daughter and I don’t like potatoes that much, while my husband and son do. If my husband and I like the meat, one if not both of the children will hate it. And so goes dinner at my house every single night.

But when we roadtrip for pho — mostly to Lancaster or Harrisburg; on occasion to New York — it’s a different story. Everybody is happy:


So for Valentine’s Day this year, I decided to bring the happiness home as my gift to them. The broth is simmering as I write, the smell in the house … well for us, it’s heaven!


On a different note, my mom stopped in just before lunch. Valentine’s Day is especially hard for her. Not only has my father been gone a long time — 27 years in June — but he was a Valentine’s baby; today would have been his 80th birthday.

I know it weighs heavy on her, so when she called to visit, I knew I could engage her for a while by walking me through her “Escarole and Beans” recipe. I had purchased all the ingredients earlier this week; what a perfect way to spend some time together — making and then eating this relatively healthy recipe from my youth.

Of course, the surprise was on me. Look at this great cookbook she brought me as a Valentine’s gift!


Thanks, Mom! I love it!!

We did make the escarole and beans...


(Click here to view and print recipe)

Mom seemed to enjoy it…

And she just called to say she is taking us up on our offer for her to join us for dinner. Pho’s at 6; Mom’s bringing dessert.

Ăn, trẻ em…*

* That’s Vietnamese for “Mangia, Figlie…”!

Mom's and My Escarole and Beans on Foodista

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dissecting the Sauce … and Sharing a Secret

Just before I moved into my first apartment, I sat down with my mother and wrote out the recipes for the comfort foods of my childhood — Hamburg BBQ, Spare Ribs with BBQ Sauce, Sausage & Peppers, Lasagna, Chicken Cacciatore, and most importantly, Mom’s Tomato Sauce. The funny thing about the last recipe was, my mom didn’t have it written down. Instead, she recited it from memory, and this is exactly what I wrote:

What you’ll notice first is, aside from the canned items, there are no amounts for any of the listed ingredients. Generally I use a palmful of each herb — the dried variety — going a little light on the oregano, since that can quickly bitter the sauce. In the printable recipe (see link below), I offer suggested amounts, but this is an element of the recipe you need to play with to your liking.

Also, you can see that the recipe calls for whole tomatoes (preferably plum), which you then puree in your blender. I suppose you could buy and use crushed tomatoes instead, but honestly, I prefer following Mom’s directions on this one. Crushed tomatoes are not the same as pureed whole tomatoes – at least not in my book, which this cook-blog technically is.

The next ingredient worth noting is the tomato paste. The use of the paste has evolved over the years – perhaps just a matter of changing palates – but if we use it, one tablespoon is more than enough.

The recipe calls for paste only if you are putting your sauce over spaghetti or another pasta. The paste gives a deeper flavor to your sauce, as well as thickens it. If your sauce is an ingredient, however – say, in a pan of lasagna – you don’t want it to overpower the other flavors, so don’t add the paste.

To the right of the card is a “tip” – the most important tip of all: brown your meat first in the bottom of your pan!* If you take nothing else away from this post today, please take this:

Browned meat = flavor,
no matter what you are cooking.

What type of meat? Almost anything will work: chopped beef, meatballs, sausage, meatloaf mix, pork chops, boneless pork, even veal. I’ll have to give you Mom’s braciole recipe soon – talk about added flavor!

You can then build the sauce from there. The browned bits** on the bottom of the pot from the meat will slowly cook into the sauce to give it a complex, rich flavor. And then, of course, the final instruction: “Cook for hours!”

A good pot of sauce is not difficult to make, but as with Italian Wedding Soup, each step is important to the overall end result. Brown your meat, add all the ingredients, slow cook for hours, and you are assured a flavorful pot of sauce that would WOW! even Marlon Brando. And we all know how beneficial it is to keep the boss happy!

Along the way, you can try what I remember most about sauce-making days as a kid: taste-testing it right out of the pot on a wooden spoon ― or even better, on a piece of good old American white bread. Buono! 

Ask any Italian you know who makes the best spaghetti sauce they’ve ever had, and in most cases their answer will be their mother, their grandmother, or a greatly loved aunt. For me, it’s my mom. This cooked-all-day sauce from her kitchen has kept me out of Italian restaurants my whole life – nowhere is there a pot of sauce like hers (though Aunt Barbara’s comes darn close).

I made this recipe this week, just to make sure I didn’t leave out any important steps when relaying it to you. And truth be told, I’d feel like I was giving away the family jewels, except there’s one more dirty little secret I must share: no matter how often I attempt this recipe, while it’s good, it’s always better when my mother makes it. Still, that doesn’t stop me from trying over and over again. And one day, I know I’ll get it right. Un giorno…

Culinary Key
* My chef-friend tells me the technical term for this browning is the “Maillard reaction.” Google it for an interesting story!
** Again, thanks to my chef-friend, I now know the technical term for the browned bits is the “fond.”

Mom's Tomato Sauce on Foodista

Friday, February 5, 2010

Viva Nutella!

It's February 5, 2010, and worldwide, Nutella lovers are celebrating their love for this "chocolaty hazelnut spread" by celebrating the fourth annual "World Nutella Day." The brainchild of three bloggers ― Sara from Ms. Adventures in Italy, Michelle from Bleeding Espresso, and Shelley from At Home in Rome ― World Nutella Day is "a day to celebrate, get creative with, and most importantly, to EAT NUTELLA," posts Michelle.

It was only recently that I acquired a taste for Nutella, though my second grader has been a fan for a while. My friend, Janet, sends her second grader to school with a wheat bagel topped with Nutella every day for lunch (cause that's what he likes). My very picky second grader thinks that's "the bomb" as well! (Hey, if she's gonna eat it, I'll send it!)

In the past I've made Giada's Chocolate-Hazelnut Gelato, and when I hosted Italian Bunko Night recently, one of my dessert offerings was her Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti. The interesting thing about this creamy, nutty creation is, even if you don't like it on a spoon right out of the jar (as I do), as an ingredient in gelato or biscotti, the flavor lightens and you may just be surprised.

To celebrate World Nutella Day, I've chosen to try an easy recipe I think the kids will like: Easy Nutella Toffee Pie from Steph at Plain Chicken. If that doesn't sound appealing, many more recipes can be found at the World Nutella Day website. But I tell you, I licked the bowl and can't wait for dessert!

Happy World Nutella Day, friends! Mangia...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Perfect Marriage

So I got a little “flack” from a longtime friend about choosing a microwave popcorn recipe as my first “Mangia, Figlia” recipe. Besides being a super-easy and great-tasting recipe that I wanted to share with my readers, I also meant it to be lighthearted. And several of you who tried it said you appreciated that I shared it. So my mission was accomplished, right? Well, not quite.

To prove I do mean business in the kitchen, I’m going to share something a little more involved ― a recipe I make frequently and am asked to share often: Italian Wedding Soup.

I can’t quite remember the first time I ate Italian Wedding Soup. I don’t ever remember eating it at either grandmother’s house or at any of my aunts’ houses. I don’t remember it fondly from my childhood dinner table, and I know I didn’t eat any when we traveled to Italy in 1977. (There I ate tortellini in chicken broth for 16 days straight. I was 12 ― that’s the only explanation I can offer for that.) So even though I can’t remember the precise moment this culinary gem entered my life, it did indeed enter at some point, and boy is my son glad it did!

Sure, there are dozens of recipes for Italian Wedding Soup ― just do a Google search and see for yourself. What little I’ve been able to uncover pertaining to the origin of my recipe, however, is that it appears to have originated in the south of Italy. Which of course makes sense ― we are from Calabria, so at some point, the recipe must have been passed down.

In Italian, the dish is called Minestra Maritata“minestra” meaning “soup” and “maritata” meaning “married.” It gets its name not because it is served at Italian weddings (like many Americans think), but because the soup is the marriage of its ingredients. Let me explain.

To achieve the proper layers of flavor and the right soup consistency, you must follow each step of the cooking process with purpose. For instance, the recipe calls for Acine de Pepe pasta, which is boiled separately from the soup, then added later on. This step is important, because if you boil the pasta in the soup, the starch from the pasta will thicken it ... and that will alter your end product (in my opinion, in a very bad way).

In fact, the process here is to prepare each and every ingredient separately, then “marry” them all at the end ― Minestra Maritata. (“Ah-ha! Now it is making sense,” you say!)

And while we’re talking technique, let’s talk about another important ingredient ― the meatballs. They are to be made small ... exceptionally small ... I mean, Barbie small. Here’s a little hint: when you are forming them, just when you think they are small enough, split them in half again ... and then one more time. The recipe says ¼ teaspoon per meatball ― that’s about right.

I would credit my mom for this recipe, but I must tell you: after a recent batch I shared with her, she asked for my recipe. Since she taught me the technique and I somehow, unknowingly, mastered it, I henceforth credit this to both of us, proving that sometimes it takes generations to achieve perfection. Perfetto.

Mom's and My
Italian Wedding Soup