Monday, April 30, 2012

The Glorious Pasta of Italy

Who could resist a dish like the one on the cover of Domenica Marchetti's latest cookbook, The Glorious Pasta of Italy? It's been out for about a year, but I am finally getting around to perusing it and making some of the recipes, including the two I chose for this blog post.
It's not easy to decide what to make from this book, since there are so many tempting choices. I'm just going to have to work my way through the entire book, from the chapter "Pasta in Soups" to "Pasta on the Run" to "Showstoppers." There's something in here for busy families looking for a quick dinner, to fancy dishes you'd serve to the boss. Domenica has included traditional pasta dishes, along with some contemporary dishes of her own invention.
One of the dishes that caught my eye was whole wheat orecchiette with a sauce made using broccoli rape (rapini) and regular broccoli. Instead of using regular broccoli, I made the dish using broccoli rape and some cauliflower, since that's what I had on hand.

Normally, I shy away from whole-wheat pasta. Anytime I've eaten it, cardboard comes to mind. But then again, I'd never eaten home-made whole wheat pasta. That is, until Domenica's dish gave me the impetus. Besides, my dad --who's 90 years old and loves to cook -- was visiting for the afternoon and I thought it would be fun to make pasta together.
After preparing the dough and kneading it, you roll it out into long "rope" like shapes, then cut off little pieces from the rope and press down, while pushing away from the center.
It's easy to do, but it takes a little practice and your technique will improve as you work your way through the batch of dough. Make sure your dough isn't too dry though, or will crumble apart when you try to shape the little ears. If you're working as a team, you'll have enough for a meal in no time.
 Of course, there's no law that says you can't serve this sauce with dried, store-bought pasta. In the photo below, I served it with store-bought creste de gallo (rooster's crest). You may notice that the sauce here is also much less homogenized (and sparser) than in the other pasta dish (less time in the food processor). It's just as good either way.

Another recipe from the book I tried were these fluffy dumplings that reminded me a lot of the canederli I eat when I'm in the Trentino-Alto Adige region. But instead of being made with bread as canederli are, these dumplings are made with semolina. It's nearly the same recipe you'd use for gnocchi alla romana. The difference is these are shaped into ovals or quenelles, unlike round canederli. And rather than bake in the oven, you drop these little quenelles into hot broth.

After making the soup, I reserved some of the "dough," spread it in a small casserole and refrigerated it. The next day, I  arranged it in a buttered casserole with a little grated parmesan on the top and baked it at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes and had my gnocchi alla romana. That's what I call versatility.
Start by cooking semolina flour with milk, eggs and butter. I used semolina from Italy that was sent to me by Olio 2Go. It was perfect for this recipe and I'm looking forward to trying it in other things.
After mixing everything together, use two spoons to push the dough back and forth and make a compact "football" shape.

Then just drop the quenelles into the broth and simmer over the stove for about five to ten minutes.


One last thing - Take a minute to drop by my friend Christo's blog - Chez What? for a guest post by yours truly on halibut with cannellini beans.

Orecchiette With Creamy Broccoli Sauce
printable recipe here


Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 1 batch Whole Wheat Pasta Dough or White Whole Wheat Pasta Dough (please see separate recipe), or 1 lb dried orecchiette
  • Semolina flour for dusting, if making orecchiette (optional)
  • Unbleached all-purpose/plain flour for dusting and for shaping the dough, if making the orecchiette (optional)
Whole Wheat Pasta Dough
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup 00 or unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 t. fine sea salt
  • 1 T. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
  • 2/3 cup tepid water
Put the two flours and the salt in a food processor. Pulse briefly to combine. Drizzle in the 1 T. olive oil and turn on the machine. Begin slowly pouring the water through the feed tube, adding only as much as you need for the dough to form crumbs that look like small curds. Pinch together a bit of the mixture and roll it around. It should form a soft ball. If the mixture seems dry, add a few more drops of oil and pulse briefly. If it seems too wet and sticky, add additional "00" flour, 1 T. at a time, and pulse briefly.
(note, mine was too dry and I needed to add more water.) 

Turn the mixture out onto a clean work surface sprinkled lightly with flour and press it together with your hands to form a rough ball. Knead the dough: Using the palm of your hand, push the dough gently but firmly away from you, and then fold it over toward you. Rotate the dough a quarter turn, and repeat the pushing and folding motion. Continue kneading for several minutes until the dough is smooth. Form it into a ball and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap/cling film. Let the dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before using.

For the sauce
  • 1 head broccoli, about 1 lb, stalks trimmed and reserved for another use or discarded and head separated into florets (I used cauliflower here)
  • 1 bunch rapini, about 1 lb, tough stalks discarded
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp kosher or fine sea salt, or to taste
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup homemade vegetable broth, homemade chicken broth, or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup heavy/double cream
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese for serving
Directions
Mix the pasta dough as directed and let it rest. Lightly dust a work surface with semolina. Place a small bowl of all-purpose/plain flour nearby. Dust a rimmed baking sheet/tray or clean tablecloth with semolina or all-purpose flour. Pinch off a golf ball–sized piece of dough and rerwrap the rest so it does not dry out. Using your palms, roll the piece of dough on the dusted surface into a rope the thickness of a pinkie finger. Cut the rope crosswise into small pieces, each about the size of a hazelnut (1/4 to 1/2 in thick). Working with 1 piece at a time, roll it between your palms to form a ball. With the thumb of one hand, press the ball into the middle of the palm of your other hand to form a deep depression in the dough. Rotate the dough and repeat the pressing once or twice, rotating the dough after each impression. You want to create a small, deep saucer. If the dough sticks, dip your thumb into the bowl of flour. Place the finished shape on the flour-dusted baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough until you have shaped it all.

(If you plan to cook the orecchiette within a day of shaping, you can leave them out until it is time to cook them.)

To make the sauce: Bring water to a depth of about 1/2 in to a boil in a steamer pan placed over medium-high heat. Arrange the broccoli florets on the steamer rack, place the rack in the pan, cover, and steam the broccoli for 4 to 5 minutes, or until bright green. Transfer the florets to a bowl and set aside.

Check the water in the steamer pan, and add more as needed until it is 1/2 in deep. Bring to a boil, put the rapini on the steamer rack, cover, and steam for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the leaves and florets are wilted. Transfer to the bowl holding the broccoli.

Warm 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the garlic in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the garlic is fragrant but not browned. Add the broccoli and rapini and cook, stirring occasionally, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables and garlic are very tender. Stir in the salt and cayenne pepper and raise the heat to medium-high. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, or until some of the wine has evaporated. Remove from the heat and let the vegetables cool for about 10 minutes.

Transfer the vegetables and their cooking liquid to a blender or food processor, add the remaining 1/4 cup oil, and puree until smooth. Gradually add the broth, about 1/4 cup at a time, and process until the puree is the consistency of a thick sauce. You should have about 3 cups sauce.

Return the sauce to the sauté pan and place over low heat. Stir in the cream and heat until warmed through.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the orecchiette and stir to separate. If using fresh pasta, cover the pot until the water comes back to a boil, then uncover and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until al dente. If using dried pasta, cook according to the manufacturer's instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.

Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl and spoon about two-thrids of the sauce over it. Toss gently to combine the pasta and sauce thoroughly, adding a splash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle with the cheese. Serve immediately.

Simplify: The orecchiette may be made in advance and frozen (uncooked). Arrange them in a single layer on rimmed baking sheets/trays dusted with semolina and freeze for 1 hour, or until firm. Transfer them to a zipper-lock freezer bag or a tightly lidded container and freeze for up to 1 month, then cook directly from the freezer.




Fluffy Semolina Dumpling Soup
printable recipe here 
Makes 4 servings

2 cups whole milk or half-and-half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (didn't use it due to allergies)
2/3 cup semolina flour
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 cups homemade chicken broth (I used homemade vegetable broth)

Combine the milk, butter, salt, and nutmeg in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then very slowly add the semolina in a constant stream, whisking all the while as you pour. Cook, stirring constantly, until the semolina is thickened and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. This should take about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and pour the mixture into a bowl, using a spatula to scrape the sides of the pan. Stir in the 1/2 cup of Parmigiano and parsley. Working slowly and stirring as you go, carefully pour in the eggs, taking care to incorporate them immediately so they don’t begin to “cook” and curdle. Set aside while you prepare the broth.

Bring the broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Using two standard-size coffee spoons or dessert spoons, scoop up about 1 tablespoon of the semolina mixture and form it into an oval. This is easier than it sounds: you will see the oval naturally take shape as you transfer the mixture from one spoon to the other a few times. As you shape each dumpling, gently drop it into the boiling broth. You should have 20 to 24 dumplings in all. Reduce the heat to medium to allow the dumplings to simmer without the broth boiling over. Simmer gently for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the dumplings have floated to the surface and puffed up considerably.

Spoon the dumplings into warmed shallow, rimmed bowls, dividing them evenly, and ladle some broth over them. Sprinkle with additional Parmigiano and serve immediately.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Baby Shower Cupcakes

OK, let's have a collective "ahhhh." This cupcake runs the risk of being a little too adorable, no? But when you're planning a baby shower, you get a free pass to pull out all the stops on cuteness.
 Ditto for these little feet. I had a lot of fun making these, and munching on the extra pudgy little toes.
No, I'm not going to be a grandmother (someday, I hope), but along with my daughter Christina, I threw a baby shower for her best friend Lauren, who's expecting a baby boy shortly. But I'm sure you figured that out from the blue frosting.

Making the decorations for these cupcakes was a lot of fun and easier than you think. For the little bears, I melted some Hershey's chocolate bars and spread the chocolate on a sheet of waxed paper. I let it chill a bit (but not so long that it was hard to cut into the chocolate), then used a small cookie cutter to make the bears - something I found at a local craft shop that sells cake-making supplies.
The hands and feet cookie cutters were made using some pastry dough I had in the freezer, but I think they'd taste even better with cookie dough. These tiny cookie cutters were part of two different sets that included larger hands and feet, and I bought them at Fante's in Philadelphia. They do a great mail order business with every cooking and baking item you'd ever want and you can find their website here.
I used a pastry pag to pipe the frosting on top, with several different tips. Sprinkle with additional toppings if desired. Step back and wait for the "oohs" and "aahs."
OK, let's give a hand to the mom-to-be. (sorry, couldn't resist).

From Joy of Baking 
Printable Recipes Here

Chocolate Cupcakes:

1/2 cup (50 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup (240 ml) boiling hot water
1 1/3 cups (175 grams) all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated white sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Chocolate Fudge Frosting:
4 ounces (120 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup (150 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups (160 grams) confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Chocolate Cupcakes: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly butter, or line 16 muffin cups with paper liners.
In a small bowl stir until smooth the boiling hot water and thecocoa powder. Let cool to room temperature.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Then in the bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and beat only until incorporated. Then add the cooled cocoa mixture and stir until smooth.
Fill each muffin cup about two-thirds full with batter and bake for about 16-20 minutes or until risen, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean. (Do not over bake or cupcakes will be dry.) Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Once the cupcakes have completely cooled, frost with icing. You can either spread the frosting on the cupcakes with a small spatula or if piping, use a large Wilton 1M open star tip to make lovely swirls. These cupcakes are best the day they are made, but can be covered and stored for a few days.
Chocolate Frosting: Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
In the bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter until smooth and creamy (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat until it is light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the chocolate and beat on low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until frosting is smooth and glossy (about 2 -3 minutes).
Makes about 16 cupcakes



White Cupcakes:
large eggs
1 3/4 cups (175 grams) sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated white sugar, divided
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (120 ml) milk
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Butter Frosting:
2 cups (230 grams) confectioners sugar (icing or powdered sugar), sifted
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2-3 tablespoons milk or light cream
Assorted food colors (if desired)
Garnish: (optional)
Colored Sprinkles


White Cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C) and lightly butter or line 12 muffin cups with paper liners.
While eggs are still cold separate the eggs, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another bowl. Cover the two bowls with plastic wrap and allow the eggs to come to room temperature before using (about 30 minutes).
In a mixing bowl sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter until soft (about 1-2 minutes). Add 3/4 cup (150 grams) of the sugar and beat until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape downthe sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla extract. Then, with the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and milk, in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour.  
In a clean bowl of your electric mixer, with the whisk attachment, (or with a hand mixer) beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup (50 grams) of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. With a rubber spatula gently fold a little of the whites into the batter to lighten it, and then fold in the remaining whites until combined. Do not over mix the batter or it will deflate.
Evenly fill the 12 muffin cups with the batter and bake for about 18-20 minutes or until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely. With a knife or offset spatula, spread frosting on each cupcake. If you want to pipe the frosting, I like to use a large Wilton 1M (open or closed) star or a large plain decorating tip. Garnish with colored sprinkles. These cupcakes are best served the same day, but they can be stored at room temperature for a few days.
Butter Frosting: In an electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, cream the butter until smooth and well blended. Add the vanilla extract. With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add themilk and beat on high speed until frosting is light and fluffy (about 5 minutes). Tint the frosting with desired food color (I use the paste food coloring that is available at cake decorating stores and party stores).
Makes 12 cupcakes




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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Le Virtu, DisCanto and rabbit too!

Doesn't this look like a lovely pastoral scene -- a picturesque Italian village, people dressed in traditional costumes, dancers swaying as musicians play in the background, and a picnic spread on the grass? You'd think it's a painting, and it is -- sort of. But it's not hanging on the wall of any museum. It's a mural ON a wall along Passyunk Street in Philadelphia. It also happens to depict Santo Stefano di Sessanio - the village where I'll be co-teaching a writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian called "Italy, In Other Words."
I was flabbergasted when I saw it for the first time last week, right next to a restaurant called "Le Virtu" where I went to hear a group of musicians from Abruzzo called "DisCanto." They had performed in Princeton years ago at the Italian cultural institute I'm involved with, and I didn't want to miss the chance to hear these talented musicians a second time. Drinks and munchies would be served and I was eager to try some of the restaurant's food, focusing on the cuisine of Abruzzo.
I met up with Helen Free, who came up from Washington, D.C. for the evening. I'll be taking over her role this year in the Italy, In Other Words workshop, leaving her the time to organize a new blogging workshop in Santo Stefano for later in the year - Hands on L'Aquila.
Many of the walls at the restaurant are decorated in ceramics made in the town of Castelli, one of the excursions planned during the writing workshop in Italy.
The evening started out with wine and small bites of delectable offerings, including succulent lamb spiedini, and these outrageously delicious stuffed olives.
The star of the show however, (food-wise) was the roast suckling pig, prepared by Chef Joe Cicala, whose culinary talents have been honed in restaurants in Salerno, Italy; Washington, D.C. and New York City (including Del Posto, one of my favorites). 
Everyone was salivating at the first smack of the knife, when the crackling skin gave way to the tender, well-seasoned meat inside, infused with rosemary and sage.
The authentic regional food set the stage for the talented musicians, who alternated among a myriad of instruments, including guitar, cello, mandolin, clarinet, accordion, violin and bagpipes. Yes, that's right -- bagpipes -- or zampogne -- as they're called in Italian. Scotland has nothing on Italy when it comes to bagpipes.  Southern Italy has a long tradition of bagpipe music, hailing back to shepherds who were away from their families tending their flocks for long periods of time. They would descend from the mountains at Christmas time, surrounded by their sheep as they played the instruments they made using available materials. The well-known Italian Christmas carol "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle" (You came down from the stars) is traditionally accompanied by bagpipes.
 Members of DisCanto in the photo below are, Sara Ciancone on the cello, Michele Avolio on guitar, Antonello Di Matteo on clarinet and Domenico Mancini on violin.
Here's a video of the group that night, performing "La Luna Si Fermo'" (The moon stopped.)
It was a fun-filled night of great music, delicious food, renewing old friendships and making new ones. 
Among the new ones were Francis Cratil (below) and his wife, Catherine Lee, owners of Le Virtu who were instrumental in bringing DisCanto to the U.S.
We ate a limited sampling of Le Virtu's food, but it was enough for me to know that I want to go back again and again to try everything on the menu. The flavors were so evocative of real Abruzzese cooking, even though some of the dishes take a more modern twist, but always using authentic ingredients from the region, like saffron from Navelli, and lentils from Santo Stefano, for example.
On the way out, the mural looked even more magical, as decorative street lights provided drama. 
And if you zoom in on the mural, take a good look at who's playing the ciaramella,  that wooden instrument that looks like a recorder (but is really related to the oboe). It's a member of Discanto - Michele - whom the artist used as a model. 
The musicians have gone back to Italy, but you can still feel the Abruzzo vibe on Passyunk Ave at Le Virtu. If you can't get to Philly though, Francis was kind enough to send me a recipe - coniglio in porchetta -- or rabbit rolled and cooked in the style of a porchetta. So now you can have a little bit of Abruzzo and Le Virtu in your home too.

Coniglio in Porchetta
photo and recipe courtesy of Le Virtu
printable recipe here
1 whole boneless Lancaster County rabbit (available from Sonny D'Angelo on Philadelphia's 9th St.)
3 sprigs of rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
1T kosher salt
1/2 T black peppercorns
1/2tsp red pepper flake
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 juniper berries
2 cloves

  • In a spice/coffee grinder pulverize the black pepper, bay leaf, juniper berries, and cloves to a fine powder. set aside.
  • Lay the boneless rabbit flat over plastic wrap. cover with a second sheet of plastic and lightly beat with a meat mallet until a universal thickness of about 1/2 inch.
  • Season liberally with olive oil, salt, spice mixture, red pepper flake. Roll the rabbit into a roast, tucking in the sides as you go.
  • Tie the roast up with butcher string and season the outside with any remaining spice mix and salt in a hot saute pan add 2 oz of extra virgin olive oil. when the oil starts to smoke add the rabbit.
  • Let sear heavily on one side for 2 minutes or until golden brown.
  • Flip the roast and sear for an adittional two minutes.
  • Move the hot pan into a preheated oven at 350 degrees
  • Cook for an additional 20 minutes
  • Remove roast from oven and let rest for 10 minutes at room temperature
  • Remove butcher strings and slice into medallions.
  • Serve immediately 
Chestnut-lentil ragu:

1 small carrot
1 onion
1 stalk of celery
2 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of sage
500 grams brown lentils (from Santo Stefano di Sessanio...or castelluccio lentils if S.S. di S. lentil not available)
1 kilo (2.2 lbs.) shelled chestnuts (either roasted or boiled and peeled
salt and pepper to taste
1 gallon rabbit stock (chicken stock works just fine)

  •  Peel onion and carrot and place them with the celery and garlic in a food processor and pulse until you ahve a fine mince.
  • In a large pot sweat the vegetable mixture in the olive oil on low heat until they become translucent.
  • Add chestnuts and cook for an additional 5 minutes until the chestnuts become tender and start to break apart
  • Add lentils and stirr with wooden spoon to mix.
  • tie the herbs together with butcher string to for a bouquet garnis, add to the pot.
  • Add the stock and season with salt and pepper
  • Cook over low heat (a light simmer) until the lentils are tender (about 30 minutes)
  • if additional liquid is needed add water a little at a time until the lentils are cooked. (much like the style of a risotto)
  • serve immediately under roasted rabbit in porchetta, or add additional stock to make a great soup. Garnish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

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