Friday, August 27, 2010

Guest Post #6: Mac & Alfredo

Editor’s note: Another result of my whiny August 12 “Jump the Shark” post was the suggestion from my book club friend, Cynthia, that I do a bit of comparative food writing. She emailed:

“You could do a piece on the difference between the American ‘cheese and noodles — mac and cheese’ and the Italian one — Fettuccini Alfredo … Or you could do ‘chicken pot pie’ vs. ‘chicken pie’ — showing the difference between the German one with dumpling-like noodles and the other an English dish in a pie shell.”

Her further explanation of these ideas was so well thought out that I wrote her a reply: “Me thinks you should guest-blog on one of these subjects!?!” This week’s post is the result of that exchange. Buona lettura!

Macaroni and Cheese: An Interesting History and Patriotic Past
by Cynthia Lollo, Guest Blogger

Thanks so much to Maria for inviting me to write a guest-post for her fabulous Mangia, Figlie blog. She is such a wonderfully creative writer, I am hoping that you will afford me the latitude of not having my own blog and that I may lack the articulate way in which she discusses the everyday things we take for granted. Cooking and eating may seem simple to harried people who pick up a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, but there is so much goodness lurking out there it seems a disappointment not to delve deeper into that wonderful mix of noodles, cream, butter, and cheese.

Just the other night I was watching the Food Network show, “Throw Down with Bobby Flay,” and it led me to a question about Italian fettuccine alfredo versus the American macaroni and cheese. Bobby’s competitor made a traditional baked macaroni and cheese, but Bobby put pancetta, cream, and herbs in his. He won the competition, but the judges had a hard time comparing the two because Bobby’s was a variation of the traditional recipe.

I would love to have a great recipe for macaroni and cheese. I can never get mine the way I like it. And I have to admit, other than a great burger, macaroni and cheese — coined “mac and cheese” — is one of the best comfort foods in America today. (Feel free to disagree with me at any point in this blog. Trust me, I won’t be offended, lol.)

There is a similarity between the modern Italian fettuccine alfredo and the American mac and cheese. They are both created with butter, cheese, milk or cream, and noodles. Pasta, it seems, has its origins in China. It is made from a type of flour that was first brought to Italy by Marco Polo. This is usually where the similarities stop.

  • Fettuccine alfredo was originally created in Italy and is credited to Alfredo di Lelio. This restaurateur created this delicious dish from fettuccine al burro, in which butter was added both before and after fettuccine was put into the serving bowl. He created the first alfredo sauce in 1914 in his restaurant “Alfredo alla Scrofa,” located in Rome. When his pregnant wife had difficulty keeping food down, he created this dish of butter and cheese, doubling the amount of butter used, and she began eating again. Alfredo added this new dish to his restaurant’s menu and it became an instant success, catching even the eye of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They ate dinner at his restaurant when they visited Rome and fell in love with the dish.
  • It should be noted, however, that the Italians use much less butter than the American equivalent.
  • In the south of Italy, the dish is called fettuccine al bianco. There it is more typical to dress the pasta with oil rather than butter.
  • In the fourteenth century, a casserole known by the name makerouns was recorded in an English book of recipes. It was made with fresh hand-cut noodles sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese. By the eighteenth century, this dish of pasta, butter, and cheese in its various forms became popular throughout Europe.
  • The English brought the recipe for “macaroni pie,” a precursor to the modern-day macaroni and cheese, to America by the 1800s. It was considered a dish of macaroni baked with cream and cheese. This dish then found its way into various cookbooks, and so the American legend was born.
  • Macaroni and cheese was first documented in U.S. history in 1802, when our third president, Thomas Jefferson, first served the dish in the White House.
  • Kraft Foods was the first to create a packaged version of this pasta. “Kraft Dinner” was introduced to the United States and Canada in 1937, and only needs butter or margarine and milk added to the pasta and powdered cheese in the box.

My stepmom always likes to make macaroni and cheese when she has too much cheese in her cheese drawer and it is going to go bad. She sees that as a sign to make her yummy version of mac and cheese, and I should remember to load her cheese drawer up more often! But my Dad was actually the first person who let me cook in the kitchen. He was into gourmet cooking at the time and I learned to make various dishes that are simply delicious and easy to make.

I have a great recipe from my dad for fettuccine alfredo that I just love — not sure where he got it, so I hope that I am not stealing anyone’s ideas here. It is easy to remember as it is a 1-to-1-to-1 combination of 1 stick of butter to 1 cup grated parmesan cheese to 1 cup of heavy whipping cream. The recipe I have also includes a few veggies to make it seem healthier; it reads as follows:


1 lb. fettuccine noodles 
1½ sticks butter, divided 
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced 
½ lb. zucchini, julienned
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cook fettuccine according to the al dente instructions on the box. Sauté the veggies in a
½ stick of butter until al dente and set aside. In another pan, melt whole stick of butter. Add cream and start stirring. Slowly add the grated cheese, a little at a time until melted. Put the veggies back into the pan with the sauce, stir until coated. Serve over noodles. Serves 4 people.

Voila! Fettuccini Alfredo!

You can also alter this recipe to make it even healthier. Use milk and Smart Balance spread instead of butter, and then bump the cheese up to 1½ cups if it won’t set up with just 1 cup of cheese.

This is also a great sauce recipe for other things like Lasagna with Alfredo Sauce, or as a dip for bread!

I am still on the lookout for a perfect baked mac and cheese recipe and will let you know when I find a great one!

(Click here to print Cynthia’s father’s Fettuccini Alfredo recipe. Then click here to view and print Maria’s mom’s baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe, as shared with Cynthia. Comparisons are welcomed below.)

Fettuccine Alfredo With Veggies on Foodista

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How to Grow “Perfect Basil”

Well, maybe this blog hasn’t officially jumped the shark, as I had feared, but I was at a loss for words the week of August 9, and my little whiny post did garner some nice interaction. For instance, my good friend Beth at Dirty Laundry suggested I write about how to grow “perfect basil.” I had to giggle a little bit, as I have no formal training on the subject and I really haven’t done much book-reading on it either. What I have done, though, is successfully grow basil in my garden every year for nearly two decades. It’s true … whether a mild summer here in the northeast, or a hot one as we’ve had this year, I never want for basil in June, July, or August. And you shouldn’t either.

First you start out with a “sweet basil" plant. Something like this will work nicely:


Plant it in your garden — usually I do this around Mother’s Day — no special tools required. (Even though I have a proper trowel, I use a tablespoon to dig in the dirt. Some traditions die hard.) Make a hole in the garden big enough for the plant’s roots, and place the plant in the hole. Use the dug-up soil to fill in around the plant, and water it in well. Then continue to water it every other day or so for the first few weeks.

After that … just sit back and watch it grow. By the end of the season, you’ll have a plant that looks like this:


Simple, right?

Two suggestions, if I may: 1) break off cuttings for use often; and 2) when the top of the plant starts to flower, simply trim off the flowers and discard them. (If there is some secret Italian recipe to deep-fry basil flowers, please enlighten me.)

I happen to know that Beth’s interest in this topic stems from her visit earlier this month, when she needed some fresh basil to make her Capellini with Fresh Tomato Sauce:


Though I gave her a hard time for using this:garlic

… I have to admit, her recipe looks simply delish! And with tomatoes that good-looking straight out of her garden, I have no doubt that next year, her first attempt with basil in her own garden will be a growing success.

You, too, can make Beth’s capellini. Click here to read her post and view her recipe. Me? I must be off. I have a friend to bash over the head with several heads of fresh garlic.

Basil- ريحان-حبق on Foodista

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Guest Post #5: Cooking in Tuscany

by Nick Montesano

I’m back!!!

It goes like this. I am blessed to visit Italy nearly every spring. I am not sure if this will make sense, but it sometimes is a physical pain yearning to return. If you have stood near the top of Mount Etna in Sicily and smelled the sulfur, if you have eaten a plate of 12 grilled and salted fishes you couldn’t identify over the water of the Marina Piccolo in Sorrento, if you have strolled between the multi-colored houses on the tiny island of Burano in Venice, if you have eaten cappuccino gelato sitting on the steps of the fountain facing the Pantheon in Rome, if you have looked over the spires of the cathedral in Milan from its rooftop, then you have some idea of that yearning.

Every return to Italy is a new discovery. Knowing this past spring would bring us to Florence again, I couldn’t help but think … who doesn’t want to eat all of that Tuscan goodness … no, wait, what I thought was … who doesn’t want to cook all of that Tuscan goodness?

With Google as my guide, I had a remarkably easy time finding the Good Tastes of Tuscany Cooking School, located in the Villa Pandolfini in a small town called Signa, just outside of Florence. Let’s see … pay the fee … they send a bus to a central meeting place in the city and whisk you away … to five hours of cooking, followed by lunch made by your class with your chef-instructor and a tour of the villa.

I’m in.

Arriving at the villa kitchen, we were greeted by Chef Simone Biancalani, ready with espresso and almond cookies to begin the day. On tap for us to learn to cook: homemade tagliatelle with pesto, tiramisu, chicken with olives, focaccia with walnuts, and roasted herbed potatoes. Hmmmm … I didn’t immediately think that was an exciting menu. I mean, I cook. Often and well. So what was to learn?

To learn was …
how to cook the simplest of recipes in the simplest of ways.

The cooking started with the picking of the basil leaves to bathe them for the pesto.

The tiramisu was next on the task list. It needed time to set. Simone demonstrated all aspects of the creation of the mascarpone-and-egg filling, then sent us each off to layer the cookies dipped in espresso-with-Vin-Santo with the filling. His two secrets … use only a little bit of Vin Santo and don’t use lady fingers; instead, find the dried cookies known as ‘pavesini’ or ‘cats’ tongues’. Find one and you will understand why they are called so.

Next up, we made the foccacia dough … that, for me, was somewhat a new experience. Yeast and flour and kneading are not normally in my cooking vocabulary, but it was great to try. Having the oiled dough in your hands, kneading it throughout the morning, setting it aside for the appropriate risings, and finally baking it was remarkably easy and very simply tasty.

Not done with the kneading yet, we set out to make the homemade pasta. Flour was mounded with a well filled with eggs to create the pasta dough, and Simone guided us through finding the correct dryness and color for the dough. It is truly an art to be able to feel when it is ready to set a bit before using the cutting machine. We even added some tomato paste to some of the dough to flavor it.

Next, we took a break from the pasta making to have the pesto demonstrated. Not much different here from your basic pesto, but I learned two important points: 1) when processing the ingredients for the pesto, the basil should be added last to insure less bruising of the herb; and 2) never toast the pignoli nuts because they will make the pesto bitter. Also, the addition of lemon keeps the herb green.

We then peeled and chopped potatoes, and onions and fresh herbs to be roasted with the potatoes — the best potatoes I have eaten this or that side of Ireland. (No potatoes compare to those I ate in Ireland … another culinary story.) The secrets here? The potatoes are roasted in a very hot oven with garlic still in its paper. Once the potatoes are done roasting, squeeze the garlic out of the paper and toss it with the potatoes for a sweetness you don’t expect.

Pasta rolling and cutting … guess what, my dough was still too wet and got caught in the cutting blades and needed to be kneaded again with more flour before I could successfully cut it.

Chicken with olives (Etruscan Chicken) seemed simple enough with sautéed onions and wine, olives, and fresh herbs. But, the secret: Use chicken thighs with the skin taken off of half of them. This maintains the amount of chicken taste that comes with the caramelized skin while cutting down on the fat content a bit. I actually make this dish quite often.

We boiled the pasta (Simone says the pasta water needs to have enough salt to make it “like the sea”) and added the cold pesto to the warm pasta. We sat together as a class to celebrate and break bread (well, focaccia) together, eating the pasta, the chicken with olives, and the roasted potatoes, and finally the tiramisu … all accompanied by wine made on the grounds of the villa.

Might I mention for a moment that before arriving at the class, I was a little skeptical about sharing the class with people I didn’t know. What I discovered was a group of like-minded, experience-seeking people who made the day as interesting as the cooking. If I had trusted the universe, why would I expect other than to love people who would take cooking classes in Tuscany?

It looks like our spring trip next year will once again take us to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. So, help me … I have found a “learn to make fresh mozzarella” class and a class “to make traditional Neapolitan Pizza.” Any suggestions?

I hope to return to this blog soon.

Etruscan Chicken
(Pollo all’Etrusca)
Serves 4

1 tablespoon vinegar
8 chicken thighs
4 ounces black olives
1 red onion
fresh rosemary and sage
1 cup of white wine
¼ cup pignoli nuts
¼ cup raisins
salt and pepper

Place the chicken thighs in a bowl of water with the vinegar. Put 6 tablespoons of olive oil and finely chopped onion in a large, unheated frying pan. Place over medium heat and allow the onions to sauté for about 10 minutes.

Drain the chicken and add it to the pan. When the chicken is browned on both sides, add salt and pepper to taste and the white wine. Cook slowly for about 20 minutes, covered.

Add the pignoli nuts and the raisins and stir.
Cover again and allow to simmer together for 10 minutes more.

Before removing from the heat, add the olives, sage, and rosemary, all finely chopped.

Let the dish sit for 20 minutes and serve!

(Click here to print recipe)

Etruscan Chicken on Foodista

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Happy Days

I’m starting to think this blog has “jumped the shark.” Most of my really good stories have already been told and I’m running out of recipes. Oh, sure, I have a bunch I’m saving for the holidays, but that’s still a ways away. And I’m not ready to tackle those subjects yet.

Hmm, what to offer for the next 12 weeks….

Do you have any good family recipes you’d like to share? What questions linger about your Mangia, Figlie hostess? Email your thoughts and recipes to and let’s see where they take us.

Oh, now this could be fun!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Citrus Coolers

P7160014 The Dog Days of summer – the “hottest, most sultry” days of the year – are well upon us here in Central Pennsylvania. And every mom out there knows what that means: “Mom? Can we do a lemonade stand?” “Sure,” I say – well, mostly I say “no,” but on this particular day, what the heck! School’s been out for almost two months, and we’re all getting a little antsy.

By now you know I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to certain things — work, food, life in general — so while I agreed to this lemonade stand, there are certain standards I uphold, most importantly: there will be none of this lemonade mix stuff. We make our lemonade from natural ingredients: lemons, sugar, and water.

The recipe is simple:

  1. Wash 2 lemons, cut off and discard the ends, then slice.
  2. Place 1 cup of sugar in the bottom of a 2-quart pitcher.
  3. Place the lemons in with the sugar, and mash the lemons until the juice is released. (I use the flat end of a wooden rolling pin to do this.)
  4. Add ice, then water to the top of the pitcher.
  5. Stir and serve immediately over more ice.

If you are figure conscious, you can substitute 1 cup of Splenda® or another sweetener of your choice for the sugar. I’ve used Splenda® several times, and it works just fine. Also, my sister-in-law tells me she uses 3 lemons and 2 oranges for nice flavor. I haven’t tried this, but I’m guessing that makes 1 gallon of lemonade … you’d need to adjust the sugar to taste.

Looking for other citrusy treats for summer? Here are links to two more of my favorites:

Lemon Ice

Grapefruit Sorbet

Stay cool out there, my friends … conservare in luogo fresco.



Homemade Lemonade
(Click here to print recipe)




Fresh Homemade Lemonade on Foodista

Sunday, August 1, 2010

And the Winners Are…

Molly O!     and     Lucy!

Molly is a friend and foodie from Minnesota. (I am very excited Molly will be eating
this marmalade in her new kitchen. She and her beau are buying their first house; it looks just charming!) And Lucy is a friend and health-foodie from Central Pennsylvania, native to the next town over, but who has taken north to Joe-Pa country.

Coincidentally, both Molly and Lucy have more in common than they know. Both are daughters of former bosses, who remain exceptional friends. In fact, some of you may have heard me refer to Second Family #1 and Second Family #2 in other social media? These are offspring. Each was also just 3 years old when we met, and most importantly, both have grown into fine, intelligent, interesting young women, who I feel blessed to have known as children and to now know as adults.

You are doubting this was a random drawing, aren’t you? Well, I assure you, it was. Congrats to both! I’ll be in touch.

Also, thanks to all who followed, commented, and posted in an effort to win some homemade marmalade. If you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by for a sample. I’m happy to share from my stash!

Here’s a little story from my Saturday:
My 11-year-old son, Joe, is fighting his first case of Swimmers’ Ear. With it has come a considerable amount of jaw pain, so he’s basically been eating “soft” foods for the past few days. As a treat last night, I made him a big pot of peas and macaroni, one of his favorite dishes. He sees the pot and says: “Mom, there are two things I’d like to learn to cook before I grow up.” The first, of course, is peas and macaroni (no problem there), and the second is, “Broccoli and macaroni … the way DiDi makes it.” (For those who don’t know, DiDi is what my children call my mother.) So I say, “Well then, Joe, you’d better ask DiDi to teach you, cause mine is never as good as hers.” His reply? “I would have to agree with you on that.” I love my son.

I’ll see you back here later this week with a new post and some fun summer recipes! Buon Agosto!