Casa Mia

Casa Mia

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lent is here and so is Friday night pizza!

February is winding down, it's been snowing for 2 days and it's a Friday night during Lent. Though Lent is a time of fasting, repenting, mourning, and examining our conscience, I've always liked this time of year: maybe it's because I like the rituals of old Catholicism that involve mass in Latin, incense, bells ringing, novennas and holy water which resurface meaningfully during this period as we prepare for Christ's resurrection using ashes, reciting the Stations of the Cross and exchanging palm. While I giggled my way throughout church services back then, moaning all the while about having to give up candy, there were no complaints from me about no meat on Fridays.

Back in the day, fish wasn't all that it is today. Most of us didn't like it and those of us who did, like us Moli's, ate it sparingly - only on Fridays, Lent or not, and usually flounder or sea squab - no salmon, chilean sea bass or red snapper. But on Fridays in Lent we didn't necessarily dine on fish; sometimes there was spaghetti "aglia ool," (garlic and oil), pasta "vazool," (with beans), lentils or, hold on to your hats, canned sardines usually accompanied by some doughy, stretchy, basily, homemade pizza. Maybe because of the snow, it being a Friday in Lent and ipod tunes like "Build Me up Buttercup" and "Ferry Cross the Mersey" filling the kitchen, I was reminded of those days of yore and made homemade pizza... with sardines on the side.

My father loved sardines and my mother bought a tin of those boneless, skinless things in oil each week. Dad would gingerly peel back the top of the tin with a special key that was glued to side of it, being careful not to spill any oil on the tablecloth or counter, and not a one of us could do it but him. I don't recall my mother, sister or brother liking sardines but I sure did, so much so that my mother would put them into a sandwich on toast that I would take in my lunch bag when I was in grammar school. When I unwrapped the wax papered sandwich, the bread soaked with oil from the sardines, and took a bite from one of the cut quarters, my best friend, Kathy Porter, would publicly and loudly "ew" and "gross" and hold her nose until I wrapped up the remains and tossed it in the cafeteria garbage pail along with Kathy's sour milk container.

Tonight I ate sardines out of a flip top can, without the help of my father, the squishy toast and Porter whose zany ways and tastes in food have grown in leaps and bounds since she was an 11-year old tall, skinny girl frying up and eating her own peeled skin. (Gotcha back, Kath!) Ok so she would still hate the sardines but there's the homemade pizza....

Pizza Dough
(for 2 large pizzas)

2 packages of active dry yeast
1-1/2 C. lukewarm water
Pinch of sugar
4 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 c. olive oil

• Sprinkle the yeast into 1/4 cup of lukewarm water with pinch of sugar. Let it sit for a minute or so and then stir it to mix. Keep in a warm place for about 5 minutes until the mixture doubles in volume.

• Mix the flour and salt in a bowl or large pot and make a well in the middle. Add the yeast mixture, 1 cup of lukewarm water and the oil.

• Gradually blend the flour into the liquid with your hands until all the flour is mixed in. If more water is needed, add a little at a time. The dough should form a ball but not be too dry or too tacky.

• On a floured surface, knead the dough until pliable, about 10 minutes. Put back into the bowl, dust with flour and cover with a plate or pot cover and kitchen towel. Keep in a warm spot for 1-1/2 - 2 hours. Punch down and let rise again.

Sprinkle 2 large cookie sheets with cornmeal. Divide the dough in two parts. Stretch each piece with hands and roll out to an oval/rectangle to fit the cookie sheet on a floured surface. You'll notice that homemade pizza dough is much softer and pliable than store bought so this shouldn't take much time.

Top the pizza with desired toppings. I made them simply with just tomato sauce and mozzarella. Earlier today I made the sauce using one large can of tomatoes, a clove of garlic, drop of olive oil, pinch of salt and several leaves of fresh basil. Don't puree these tomatoes - while the sauce is cooking, use a fork to squeeze the tomatoes and cook the sauce on low heat until it's reduced, about an hour.

When you spread the sauce, use your fingers to press it into the dough. Top with grated mozzarella, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with ground black pepper. Cook on the bottom rack of a preheated 500 degree oven for 10 minutes, making sure the bottom crust is browned.

You can’t really prepare in advance for this meal but if scheduled properly, you should have plenty of time to make it to Friday’s Stations of the Cross. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For Dinner Parties: Tagliatelle Bolognese

Are you all just dying to know how to make that scrumptious looking bolognese sauce in the picture? I know, I've been holding out but one just can't give away all the best recipes off the bat, and this is one of them. However, since I mentioned my muse, Marcella Hazan in the last post, I will carry through on the Marcella theme in this one and supply the recipe for tagliatelle bolognese, a Marcella Hazan classic.

But first, a little story.....

Once upon a time, people used to have fancy dinner parties on Saturday evenings with friends and neighbors, business associates and their wives, (women weren't the business associate back then), and even relatives -always without their kids. I know, dinner parties at other peoples' homes without the children does not belong to the "2000's child-rearing code of conduct" since kids nowadays are always seen, always heard for fear that they may grow up to be serial killers, but I grew up in that other era - not seen, not heard and I think I turned out ok. Ironically, not being included made adult dinner parties fun even for us. 

My mother loved her dinner parties. She hosted them regularly but alas, since she was an excellent cook and hostess, she wasn't invited back that often - bad for her but wonderful for my sister, brother and me as we reaped the rewards at our own dinner party before the guests arrived by sampling every delicacy my mother concocted... and she had talent.  But we had the most fun with the pre, during and post party activities.

First there was the shopping: all three of us would accompany mom to the grocery store in her hair rollers and kerchief and distract her from her necessary preparations by conning her into buying us mallomars and TV dinners - anything to leave her alone while she shopped for god's sake! Then there was the cleaning: when my mother was having company, you couldn't live in the house - anywhere. All of us, including my father, weren't permitted to walk into the living room that she just vacuumed for the third time that day, let alone sit on a couch. It's a wonder that she had as many dinner parties as she had since the drill was always the same: she would literally kick my father out of every room and he would whine back that it was his house after all and where was he supposed to read his paper? Added to that mix was my brother who took every opportunity to rile my  mother up even more just for the hell of it by touching the table she just set or the flowers she arranged or worse still, anything on the stove because my brother had an uncanny ability to then make those things drop... and break... and just cause total chaos, much to the delight of my sister and me. He'd act up, we'd laugh and he'd get hit - it was a tradition, a ritual, a routine that never wavered and he'd never learn. And Mindy and I, well, we would just survey all of mom's dinner party touches, clucking about the tall colored tapers and the little round flat chocolate mints that were arranged in concentric circles on the candy dish at every party while making mental notes to do the exact same thing when we grew up!
Ah, when the doorbell rang and my mother screamed at us in hushed whispers to "get up those stairs right now," then the fun really began. Somewhere after the first course, all three of us would tiptoe out of our rooms to sit on the steps in our center hall colonial, while we snickered, whispered and giggled at the adults making total fools of themselves as they ate and ate and drank and drank. And lo and behold, during those few hours, my mom's pre-party mania would miraculously slip away and she would actually excuse Lillian for staining her perfectly pressed linen tablecloth with beef stroganoff and ignore the red wine stain on the beige rug that she would have to "afta" first thing Sunday or fluff off the cigarette burn on her upholstered chair because in those days everyone smoked. Even when my brother would be discovered sneaking into the kitchen to grab a piece of bread, the dinner party spirit would reign supreme and once his presence was acknowledged, we were all  invited downstairs for a little while to chat with Jackie and Vinny and pick on the leftovers, even take dessert upstairs. And with all the fussing and prepping and cooking and serving, the dinner party was a declared success, my mom the Martha Stewart of the 70's. Best of all, we kids didn't have to lift a finger to clean up a mess that we got to enjoy and didn't make!

In later years, I had lots of dinner parties too and alas, like my mother, didn't get a lot of invitations in return. Some of my guests had the nerve to scold me for entertaining them so generously, telling me not to expect anything like what I had done when I came to their house for dinner, maybe 6 to 12 months later. The few invitations I received in return even included my kids which certainly changed the rules of the game, and honestly, some of the fun was gone. The tide had definitely turned and it's obviously still not returned, even in a recession! Maybe the pre and post dinner party mania is just too much to bear in an already stressful world but for me, it's still the best game in town: planning the menu and experimenting with new recipes is fun, the spirit festive, there's a reason to clean the house and the appreciation from your guests is uplifting, so I continue to plan, prepare and host dinner parties.  It's really not so bad if you like the people you're entertaining and a little help from the husband/wife/kids goes a long way so try it and you may like it. I'll help too with these stories and advice, direction, recipes - just ask Val.

Marcella's tagliatelle bolognese has made its appearance as a first course at many of my dinner parties and I now happily provide the recipe. Here's a menu for one of my classic dinner parties in which it was served, with the corresponding recipes as well. A long story like this deserves a reward!

Mushrooms beschamel
Tagliatelle bolognese
Veal Marsala
Zucchini with mint

Tagliatelle Bolognese
(for 2 lbs. of tagliatelle)
1 yellow onion chopped fine
6 T. olive oil
6 T. butter
1 celery stalk chopped fine
1 carrot chopped fine
1-1/2 lbs. ground lean beef
1-1/2 c. dry white wine
1 c. milk
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 cans of canned tomatoes

  • Using an earthenware pot like Le Crueset or copper dutch oven (which I usually use), melt together the butter and olive oil. Add in the onion and sautee until translucent and slightly golden.

  • Add the celery and carrot and cook for a few minutes till softened.

  • Add the ground beef and salt, crumble with a wooden fork and cook until the meat has lost its rawness. Put in the wine and turn up the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine is evaporated.

  • Turn heat down to medium and add the milk and nutmeg, cooking till milk is evaporated.

  • Puree the tomatoes and add to the pot. Like my grandmother, I puree my tomatoes with a food mill.  Because the seeds and skin can cause the sauce to be bitter, she believed in using the food mill instead of the blender to puree the tomatoes, and she was right. 

  • When the sauce start to bubble, turn the heat down and simmer slowly. Cook uncovered for 3-1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.

  • Season if needed and toss with pasta to serve.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My favorite recipe of all time: Risotto with Pumpkin

Based on the recipes I've been giving you, you must think I'm your typical chubby Italian lady with an oregano stalk in my ear mixing my meataballs while stirring my gravy when nothing could be farther than the truth.Well, the chubby Italian part is close but my cooking repertoire is a bit more extensive. Although I love all the old time recipes, and there will be more to come, I started developing an interest in what my family might have considered "nouvelle" Italian cuisine around the time I got married 30 some years ago.  My husband-then-boyfriend and I went to the very best restaurants in New York while we were dating: the Four Seasons, il Gattopardo, La Caravelle, Lutece, but our favorite was in Little Italy, il Cortile.  Back in 1978, il Cortile would have been considered an upscale restaurant for that area: it was small, the food was excellent and it was always crowded. Since they didn't take reservations for only two, Tony and I would arrive around 8:30 on a Saturday night and wait in the small portico shoulder to shoulder among other starving diners for hours (no lie) until we were seated. There were many times when we ate dinner at 11pm with the likes of Lou Pinella (who had hit the ground ball that won the Yankees the series at the time) and it was always worth the wait, for it was at il Cortile where I first ate pasta with pesto, spaghetti puttanesca and "petto di venere" or Venus' breasts (tell you more about that one another time).

Next to the famous meatballs, these were the first dishes I learned to make: the pesto, from a neighbor, the puttanesca from my first recipe book, The New York Times 60 Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey (minus the clams), both of which became my early contributions to other members of my family. "The 60 minute gourmet" was my bible for the first few years of my marriage until I discovered The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan - the Italian Julia Child who taught me all about the world of Italian cooking that had otherwise revolved around gravy and meatballs, chicken cacciatore and sausage and peppers. Marcella prepared me for the years later when I would live in Italy and would learn more about Italian cooking that would differentiate my cooking from my mother and grandmother's but it all began with her risotto.

Yes, you need to make your own chicken stock and yes, you need to stand over the stove cooking it slowly for 20 minutes or more, and ok so there's lots of butter, wine and Parmiggiano cheese and sometimes even ingredients that I never even heard of growing up like pancetta and zafferano (saffron), but mastering a risotto has by far, become the most rewarding, versatile and personal favorite dish in my cooking portfolio. It is what I serve guests to make an impression and my family to warm them up. It can be served very simply alla milanese as a side dish for osso bucco or veal saltimbocca or as a main dish with porcini mushrooms,  seafood, or, my favorite, zucca, a small squatty pumpkin very common in Italy that you can now find in supermarkets or local specialty markets in the US.  If you make a visit to Italy, you will find risotto on every restaurant menu from north to south, getting heavier tasting and richer in ingredients along the way. I prefer to keep it simple..

I made risotto alla zucca for last night's dinner. I found a piece of squatty pumpkin in a small Mexican local vegetable market but if you can't find it, butternut squash is a good substitute. To serve 4 people, I used one small box (16 oz) of arborio rice and 1/4 of the whole zucca, equivalent to one butternut squash. When I make chicken stock for risotto, I make it very "plain" with only parsley, celery and onion which I strain and freeze in quart containers. For this risotto, I cheated a little and used one quart of my own stock plus 2 cups of College Inn low salt chicken broth.  

Keep in mind that imported arborio rice is usually sold by the kilogram which is slightly over 2 lbs. If you are making that much for more than 4 people or you want leftovers as we sometimes do, use 1/2-3/4 of a whole zucca(2 butternut squash)  and at least 2 quarts of stock.  Although I love the saffron in risotto, I do not include it in my risotto alla zucca - the pumpkin turns the rice a nice orange color on its own and honestly, how orange is too orange? When making risotto milanese or risotto with seafood, the saffron should be dissolved in warm water and introduced in place of the broth halfway through the cooking process.

Any questions on this process or risotto in general, just ask. Remember, it takes time to master and time to cook, but hey, we're worth it.

Risotto all Zucca

1 small box (16 oz) arborio rice
1/4 of whole zucca or 1 butternut squash
1 large onion chopped fine
4 T. butter plus 2 T olive oil
1/2 c. dry white wine
1-1&1/2 quart homemade chicken stock or College Inn low salt chicken broth
4 T. butter
1 C. grated Parmiggiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
  • Remove the outer skin of the zucca and cut into cubes. If using butternut squash, be extra careful as the skin is extremely hard. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Then cut in half crosswise and remove the skin. This will make  it somewhat easier to cut the squash into cubes.
  • In a heavy dutch oven or casserole pot (I usually use a copper pot but Le Crueset is heavier and just as good), melt the butter and olive oil together. Add the chopped onion and saute for a few minutes but don't brown. Add the zucca/squash with a touch of salt and stir constantly.
  • Cook the zucca until soft but not mushy.  Keep in mind that because butternut squash is harder than zucca, it will take longer to cook.
  • Meanwhile heat the broth in a nearby pot almost to a boil.
  • Add the arborio rice to the zucca mixture and stir to coat. 
  • Deglaze with white wine, stirring in gradually until the wine is completely absorbed.
  • Here comes the tough part. By the ladleful, add the broth, stirring the rice slowly and gently until it is absorbed, being careful not to let the rice become too dry and burn the pot. After each ladle of broth, stir the rice until absorbed and repeat the process until the broth is completed. This should take about 20 minutes and the rice should be a little hard to the taste but not raw. If you prefer the rice to be softer, add more broth. (You can use College Inn or bouillon.)
  • When the rice is cooked. Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining 4 T. of butter, parmiggiano, ground black pepper and salt to taste. Serve with extra parmiggiano as needed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Meatball Variation alla Enza

I think I've mentioned this before: my husband is Sicilian and no, he is NOT in the Mafia. I do admit that he does have tendencies to "never forget" an injustice upon him and I have used all the standard Sicilian "mafioso" digs on him in our fights over the years but beyond that veneer, he is honest, generous and perhaps unfortunately, not involved in any dirty business that might help our declining financial situation. He's also into food as much as I am - it's been the common bond between us from the start and sometimes, the only bond. For the most part, the Calabrese/Sicilian connection is not always an easy one, but I digress....

The Sicilians cook so differently from what I consider "Italian" cooking. My late mother-in-law used onion, hard boiled eggs, pignoli nuts and raisins in her roasts, meatloaf, meatballs and those other home-style, old- fashioned dishes made with organ meats, like soffritto, that are no longer considered healthy. I ate risotto for the first time at her house (again with chicken livers), caponata, asparagus soup and baby lamb and I thought pasta alla norma was really pasta alla Enza until a few years ago. Although very different from my mother's cooking, I learned to appreciate Enza's Sicilian style. And in case I forgot, she  would frequently remind me in her heavy Italian accent: "After all, Valeria, I am Sicilian..." as though that alone was justification for everything she said or did. I say this affectionately - she was a kind, happy, strong woman who thought I was a great Italian cook "for an American girl" and she is missed by us all.

This blog will talk a lot about my family and the recipes that I grew up with or cultivated myself during my own life experiences but it will also provide some of my mother-in-law's Sicilian ones as well. One of the things I loved was "agre dolce", sour and sweet, broccoli and meatballs. Although she made her meatballs differently from mine and the recipe I had provided, I have used my meatball mixture in this recipe and served it as a main course with rice or some simple pasta on the side.

Try it out and let me know what you think.

Enza's Agre Dolce Meatballs
Meatball mixture (see Jan. 20 post)
2 onions sliced thin
1-1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 c. vinegar
Olive oil for frying (not EVOO)

After mixing the meatballs, shape them into large squares, rather than rounds. Enza made big meatballs and these need to hold their shape.
  • In a large pot, not a frying pan, add oil up to about 2" high and heat.
  • Fry the meatballs with the sliced onions, turning on each side.
  • When meatballs are browned and mostly cooked, add the sugar and vinegar to the pot. Stir, loosening up the onions but being careful not to break the meatballs.
  • Cover and let boil 6-7 minutes. If liquid is evaporating quickly, lower the heat slightly.
  • Simmer 5 minutes more and serve.