Feb 28, 2010

Spaghetti alle vongole recipe

It felt like summer today. Warm and sunny, and the air smelled clean. Light-footed people wore overcoats on their arm, and a silly smile on their winter faces. When days like these happen, I like to prepare summery fares, usually involving seafood.

Vongole, which are known in the English speaking world as clams, can be used for a variety of dishes ranging from simple appetizers to chowders down to pasta and risotto. For me the best way to eat them is either simply sauteed over bruschetta or with spaghetti, but strictly tomato-less. This is the best way to enjoy their taste, a heady mix of mellow sweet flesh and iodine.

As usual with clams, there are a couple of things to do before cooking them. First of all discard any open clams that do not react when you touch them. Second, given vongole’s natural habitat, they need to be purged to eliminate any sand they might have ingested: to do this, simply cover the telline with 1 quart of cold salted water (about 1 tablespoon of salt will do) and let them rest for 3 hours somewhere dark. After that time, simply lift them from the water leaving any sand behind.

The recipe below is for spaghetti with clams, yet if you leave the pasta out and stop once the clams are open, you have sautée di vongole, a tasty antipasto on its own. Also, I have made the parsley optional in the recipe because some people aren’t particularly fond of this herb, yet traditionally parsley is a must on pasta with any sort of shellfish. Clearly, you can use this recipe with any sort of small clams that are typical of the area where you live. The freshest your clams the better, and what’s fresher than local?

1 kg (2.2 lb) clams, purged as described above
500 g (1.1 lb) spaghetti
3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons Colatura (anchovy juice)
1 dried peperoncino (or more to taste)
1/2 glass of dry, white wine (optional)
1 tablespoon Italian flat leaf parsley (I prefer fresh basil), chopped

Bring a large pot of very lightly salted water to a boil, in the meantime start heating the oil over a medium flame in a pan wide enough to hold all the clams in one layer.

Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add the garlic and peperoncino, and as soon as the garlic turns golden brown, crank up the heat up to the maximum and add the clams. Shake the pan to distribute the clams as much as possible. Add the wine here, if using, letting it evaporate. Cover the pan and allow the shells to open for 2-3 minutes.

Discard any clams that fail to open, the garlic and the peperoncino. By no means discard the precious clam juice collected at the bottom of the pan! You'll be using it to dress the pasta together with the clams themselves. If you properly purged the vongole, there should be no sand there, but if there still is some, simply strain trough a clean gauze.

The pasta water will probably be boiling by now, so add the spaghetti, pushing them down so they fit into the pot if you don’t have a special high spaghetti pot, stir and check from time to time. Never, under any circumstance, break the spaghetti to make them fit the pot!

You can add the clams to the pasta in their shells, something many of us do in Italy, yet, in regards to your guests, it is courteous to remove the clam meats from most of the shells, keeping only a few to decorate the dishes. The best way to do this is getting messy and using your fingers. (I would recommend you get someone else to help you, so that you speed up things while the pasta cooks.) Once shelled, return the clams to their juice.

As soon as the pasta is cooked slightly short of al dente, drain and add it to the vongole pan, together with the clam meats and juices, and the precious (and all-natural) flavor enhancer Colatura, tossing for a minute over a medium flame to blend the flavors. At this point, the aroma in the kitchen will force you to come to terms with the fact that there will be no leftovers.

Divide the seasoned pasta among four (warm) dishes and garnish with the remaining clams in their shells and, if you like, parsley. Uncork a bottle of chilled white wine and luxuriate.

Feb 24, 2010

Brasato al Barolo recipe

Classic, elegant and Piemontese. Quintessential "secondo" entrée, Brasato is ideally braised with the "king of wines" Barolo. Since this particular meat recipe yields 10 servings, I suggest you save it for a special occasion, and get a head start on the invitations.

As handed to me personally by Sonia in her divine Trattoria dai Saletta, in Torino:

1 1/2 kg (3.3 lbs) beef suitable for braising, in one piece (I used brisket–but sirloin and round are OK too), not too lean or it will be dry
1 1/2 liters (a bottle and a half) of Barolo or similar full bodied, tannic red wine
3 garlic cloves, halved
4 onions, minced
4 carrots, minced
a stalk of celery, minced
2 bay leaves
a sprig of rosemary
5 cloves
100 g (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
A fistful of flour
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Tie the meat with butcher's twine so it will keep its shape, dredge it lightly with flour and sear it in a pot with the oil. Once it’s well browned on all sides, add the minced vegetables, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary and cloves. Season with salt and pepper, cover and simmer over a low flame until the vegetables are translucent.

Pour in the wine to cover the meat completely, place the lid back on the pot and cook gently until the meat is done, about 2 hours, turning the roast occasionally.

When the meat is done remove it to a platter and discard the string, bay leaf and rosemary. Strain the cooking fondo, pour it over the meat, and serve. The meat will be so tender you'll carve it with a spoon.

Serve with mashed potatoes or steaming polenta, and the other vegetables you like (as long as not too obtrusive). And, of course, a bottle of Barolo.

Feb 21, 2010

More polenta recipes

Some of you don't dig cornmeal, and I totally get that. I didn't eat tomatoes and artichokes until I was 12, and now they're among my favorite vegetables. I'm still however nervous around liver and tripe, and anything involving innards, I am still learning to eat. So the polenta non-lovers will forgive me for this.

This post is for all you polenta advocates. A few days ago I posted a tomato sauce with short ribs and sausage as a polenta dressing. Today I want to tell you about how they do it in Modena, Val d'Aosta and a small village in Abruzzo called Castel del Monte.

1. Polenta Pasticciata Modenese

Modena's own Formula One polenta topping, better than a Ferrari: it races straight from the mouth to the thighs without even a pit stop.

First of all, make your basic polenta by following the steps illustrated in the recipe I posted a while back.

While someone takes a shift at stirring, assemble:

100 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
150 g (3/4 cup) Parmigiano, grated
200 g (1 cup) Gorgonzola cheese

Once the polenta is done and ladled onto wooden plates, fold in fistfuls of grated Parmigiano, flakes of butter and slices of sharp Gorgonzola.

Mix well, devour and thank God, Mother Earth, Buddha, Visnu and the entire Greek Pantheon.

Image © Roccoeisuoifornelli

2. Polenta alla Valdostana

Polenta of the taragna whole grain variety, is coarse and speckled with darker grains.

Again, begin by making your basic polenta by following the steps illustrated in the recipe I posted here, but let the taragna become a little more firm than your regular cornmeal polenta.

Image © Buttalapasta

While a kind soul takes over the stirring spoon, assemble:

200 g (1 cup) or more Fontina cheese cut in strips
50 g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter 

Once the polenta is thick and spooned onto wooden plates, toss in the cheese and butter, but beware: the heat of the polenta will melt the fondant Fontina. The effect could bring tears of joy to your eyes.

3. Polenta ai Finferli

These fairly bright yellowish orange wild mushrooms that are known by a variety of names, including Gallinacci or Galletti in Italy–and Chanterelles in France and the English speaking world–are among my favorite spores along with the mighty Porcini and the delicate and almost extinct Ovoli. This is a tasty basic sauce from Abruzzo, made with wild mushrooms that can easily dress fettuccine or polenta alike.

Begin by making your basic polenta by following the steps illustrated in the recipe I posted here.

You can make the mushroom sauce in advance, or on the day, provided you serve it piping hot spooned over the just-made polenta.
1 kg (2.2 lbs) finferli/chanterelle mushrooms
3 garlic cloves
A small bunch of Italian flatleaf parsley
100 g (1/2 cup) butter
Extra virgin olive oil

Carefully rinse the mushrooms with water, cut the stems and trumpet caps in half and put them in a skillet with the butter, oil and garlic. Cook at moderate heat, stirring often. When the mushrooms are cooked soft and still moist, remove from heat, add salt, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and, if you like, a few shavings of Parmigiano.

Once the polenta is done and ladled onto wooden plates, spoon generous amounts of the mushroom salsa on top. Pour yourself a glass of robust red wine, sit comfortably and blissfully enjoy your meal.

"The trouble with eating Italian food is that 
five or six days later you’re hungry again."
~ George Miller

Feb 18, 2010

Pasta e patate recipe

Don't let the name fool you, pasta with potatoes is a soup. Thick and hearty, but still, a soup.

It is usually prepared with pasta mista (pasta ammescata in Neapolitan dialect), which has recently been produced industrially as a distinct variety of pasta, but which was once sold cheaply by weight, made up of odd broken pieces of various different shapes of pasta.

The traditional cooking method for this kind of soup consists in cooking the condiments first, making the base of the soup, then throwing in the pasta. While cooking with all the other ingredients, the pasta retains precious starches, which would have been lost if normally cooked separately in salty water and then drained. Cooking pasta together with vegetables makes the sauce creamier; as a bonus, adding the secret ingredient* makes this a 100% authentic cucina povera specialty.

500 g (1.1 lb) small tubetti or mis-matched pasta (you can make your own with odd leftover pasta shapes, provided they all share the same cooking time)
500 g (1.1 lb) russet potatoes (best if old!), peeled and cubed
1 glass of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, minced
1 celery rib, minced
1 quart of beef broth
*200 g (1 cup) smoked provola, diced (can be substituted with any smoked semi-soft cheese)
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large stewpot equipped with a tight fitting lid. Sauté the onion and garlic and when they begin to tan, add the celery, simmer lightly, and season with salt and pepper.

Pour in 2 ladles of stock and add the cubed potatoes. Gently simmer over medium-low heat, and bear in mind the potatoes mustn’t purée.

Add the raw pasta and cook as you would risotto, ladling in broth a little at a time as it absorbs. The degree of thickness is determined by this key step. Too much stock will make your soup too liquid, too little will result in a soggy "neither fish nor flesh" dish. Keep hearty Italian minestre like Ribollita in mind as a texture model.

When the pasta is cooked through, rank up the heat and toss in the diced smoked cheese, stirring constantly. Cover and let the cheese melt and form lovely long springy ribbons.

One last turn of the peppermill and devour while still burning hot.

Feb 16, 2010

Pane di Altamura bread

I like the smell of bread bakeries. They're simply called "forni" here, ovens. You walk in and the aroma is intoxicating! I usually rip off a warm chunk of bread from a just-baked loaf and eat it as I walk home from the forno. The "fornaio" is the bread baker, a person usually covered in white flour, whose day is articulated by odd sleeping patterns. He bakes all night, delivers at dawn and sleeps all day.

Apart from slabs of warm pizza bianca, in my daily stop at the forno, I always buy a loaf of delicious Pane di Altamura, a regional specialty.

Image © Il Mangione

With over 300 varieties of wheat still cultivated to this day, Puglia is the Italian region with the highest biodiversity record of whole wheat production. A large choice of breads is therefore available. All the high quality breads from Puglia are however guided by the famous champion Pane di Altamura.

Altamura is a small town in the olive-clad hills of inland, central Puglia. The bread made here is unusual. It is obtained according to the ancient process employing either a basic leavening agent, like lievito madre (soudough starter yeast compound) or biga naturale, a pre-fermented starter–that add a deeper complexity to the final product–sea salt and water.

I once went on a weight loss program whose sole carb intake was constituted by thick slices of Pane di Altamura eaten on a daily basis. The diet eventually didn’t work because I doubled the dosage constantly, wolverine-style.

The crust is brown and rough, while the crumb is yellow, fluffy and deliciously sweet and savory at the same time. This particular bread lasts five days if stored properly in its paper bag the fornaio wraps it in, which makes it perfect for lazy bread consumers. Towards the last day it becomes a little chewy, but popping it in the oven will restore and exalt its original fragrance and texture.

Pane di Altamura bread is produced uniquely in its territory of origin, with wheat harvested exclusively in the vicinity of the town of Altamura. Every delicious loaf is therefore guaranteed by a DOP protected designation of origin indication. When buying your imported Altamura bread you’ll be certain of its delicious authenticity. There is infact only one genuine Pane di Altamura.

Shall I cut you a few slices for some bruschetta?

Happy Fat Tuesday, Italian Mardi Gras!!

Feb 14, 2010

Torta al cioccolato recipe

Straightforward chocolate cake is the Marvin Gaye of desserts: classy, smooth, sensual. This particular treat conceived after many delicious variations and tastings, features rich crusty chocolate with a moist heart, and a touch of bittersweet. Just like romance.

Image © Buttalapasta

100 g (1/2 cup) cake flour
100 g (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
50 g (1/4 cup) pure cocoa powder (don't use Dutch processed cocoa in this case)
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
50 g (1/4 cup) 70% dark chocolate, broken into pieces
200 g (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
4 regular eggs (or 3 large), separated
300 ml (1 1/4 cups) drinking water
300 g (1 1/2 cup) packed dark brown sugar
100 g (1/2 cup) sour cream
5 ml (1 teaspoon) pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
A pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 180°C (356°F).
Butter and flour a 12-inch springform pan (best if with 2-inch high sides).

In a bowl, sift together the 2 flours, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Break up the chocolate into 1/2-inch pieces and combine with the cacao powder and espresso powder.

Bring the water to a boil and measure out 1 1/4 cup. Pour over the chocolate and whisk gently until the chocolate has completely dissolved. Using water heightens the chocolate flavor of the mixture as opposed to milk. (Try tasting chocolate melted in warm milk and compare it to the taste of chocolate melted in water. The milk-based hot chocolate will feel thicker and richer, but the water-based hot chocolate will have a surprisingly strong chocolate flavor. Hence the Laura Esquivel novel/film title "Like Water for Chocolate.").

Once the flour has been sifted and the chocolate melted into boiling water, you must cream the unsalted butter with a flat beater. Add the sugar and mix until butter and sugar are evenly mixed.

One at a time, add the egg yolks and beat on medium-high until fully incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Mix in sour cream and vanilla extract.

On low speed, mix in one third of the flour mixture followed by half of the chocolate liquid. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the chocolate. Finally, mix in the last third of the flour. Stop the mixer once the batter has just combined, resisting the temptation to lick the batter.

In another large bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Initially pour only 1/4 of the whites into the batter, then fold in the remaining whites until just incorporated. After that, the trick is to gently stir the egg whites, folding them over with a spatula in the same direction, and with a sweet smile on your face.

Pour the combined batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the top is risen and crusty, 25-30 minutes according to oven, or until a toothpick or a dry spaghetti strand thrust into the center of the cake and withdrawn comes out clean, or covered in dry crumbs. The center should be decadently soft and moist.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let it cool for 10-15 minutes. The top will fall a bit, but go ahead and remove the pan sides. To do this, loosen the cake’s edges by running a knife along the circumference of the round to release the cake from the pan, unbuckle the spring and sensually slide the torta onto a serving plate. Dust the warm cake with confectioners’ sugar, cut into messy slices, top with optional whipped cream and prepare to find religion.

Image © Celiachiamo

I won't wish you happy "lucrative-greeting-card-business" day because I don't believe in it. You may remember how last year I put forward my arguable reasons for this aversion. Every day is Valentine's Day in my home, not just today.

Feb 10, 2010

Risotto mantecato recipe

Il riso nasce nell’acqua e muore nel vino.
(Rice is born in water and must die in wine.)
~Italian Proverb

Italians have been growing rice for a very long time, and have developed many ways of preparing it. The best known is certainly risotto, which is a delicious and delicate alternative to pasta. It’s also much easier to prepare than people think, and is extraordinarily versatile. Making a good risotto is much like riding a bicycle: it takes a little bit of practice to begin with, and a certain amount of concentration after that. Risotto is mainly very sensitive to timing, and this is why what is served in a restaurant (no matter how good it may be) will rarely display that rich creamy texture and just-right doneness that a good homemade risotto will.

I love this delicate, sophisticated and yet simple risotto recipe. I like to dust this creamy delight with white truffle shavings, whenever season (and wallet) allows.

"Mantecato" means buttery, and this risotto certainly will be; it’s a celebration-day dish and will be just the thing for a very special occasion. Yields 4 plentiful servings.

500 g (2 1/2 cups or 6 large fistfuls*) Carnaroli or Arborio rice
100 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
2 small scallions, very finely minced
1 glass dry white wine
100 g (1/2 cup) fontina cheese, finely sliced or diced
200 g (2 cups) freshly grated Parmigiano
1 liter (1 quart) simmering beef broth
50 g (1/4 cup) fresh white truffles (optional, brushed clean)

Sauté the scallion in half the butter until it begins to turn golden, then add the wine and cook over a low heat, until translucent and the wine has fully evaporated.

Add the rice, mix well, and then begin adding broth, a ladle at a time as it absorbs while cooking the grains, stirring gently all the while.

When the rice has almost completely reached the al dente stage, reduce the heat and stir in the remaining butter and the cheeses, cooking a minute or two more.

Shave half the truffles into the risotto using a truffle slicer and dot the surface with a few flecks of butter. Let the risotto rest covered for a minute, then stir briefly, transfer it to a fine bone china serving bowl, and shave the remaining truffles over it with a dramatic gesture to impress guests.

Image © Micol

* Empirical Formula | When cooking risotto, my grandmother would never weigh or measure the amount of rice needed with a scale or a cup. Her measurement was her fist capacity. One large, overflowing fistful per person plus one extra, was her rule. This purely experiential method worked for her then as it does for me today, and you may want to apply it yourself. In my risotto recipes I will however always include the standard cup equivalent as well. The usual average amount to cook per person is between 50 gr and 100 gr (1/4 to 1/2 cup), depending on how rich the other ingredients are, and guest appetite. But I sincerely trust Nonna's fail-safe system more.

Feb 7, 2010

Polenta recipe

Polenta is one of those ageless culinary lords, like bread. It has sprung from the hunger of mankind, and without apparent effort has always carried with it a feeling of strength and dignity and well-being.

~ M.F.K. Fisher, "How to Cook a Wolf"

Polenta is an ancient Mediterranean dish. The Greeks, Romans and others who lived in Italy in ancient times made puls by cooking farro, millet and other grains or chestnut flour in water or milk, then added legumes, vegetables, eggs and cheese for a complete and nutritious meal. The dish changed after Columbus returned to Europe with corn from the Americas in the 16th century. Corn cultivation expanded to Italy in the 17th century and was rapidly adopted, especially in the Northern regions. Polenta made with corn became a staple of the lower classes, in part because the "new" grain was cheaper than wheat used for bread, but also because of the sense of satiety it provided.

A peasant tradition established the custom of eating polenta on the spianatoia, a large wooden board placed on the common table with all the family gathered around. The polenta was spread in a large circle on the spianatoia, with a single sausage placed in the center–usually the only protein and rich meat available that day. Starting from the outer part, each seated guest proceeded inward consuming the section of polenta in front and tunneling their way to the middle of the table towards the sausage. The race was who could get to the sausage first, wiping the table clean.

That sense of family aggregation has endured. In the 21st century, my mother considers polenta the best food to keep her warm on a cold and rainy winter day. We live in Rome and the climate is mostly mild. She has, however often taken advantage of a providential summer thunderstorm to suggest making polenta. Peering at the light drizzle from the window I have often heard her announce: “Evviva! Perfect day for polenta.” She stirs hers in the mandatory copper cauldron called paiolo, serves it in wooden tray-like dishes that are supposed to keep it warm longer, and seasons each portion with a ladleful of sugo con le salsicce e spuntature (tomato and meat sauce with sausages, see recipe below), and finally sprinkles grated Parmigiano over all.

As we sit there, scoffing in silence, we all secretly pronounce our mental thank you at the sky for the unexpected downpour.

1 liter (4 cups) water
200 g (1 cup) cornmeal

Bring the salted water to a boil. While constantly stirring with a whisk, slowly add the polenta (cornmeal) trying to avoid forming lumps. Switch to a wooden spoon and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and brace yourself: you will be stirring constantly for the next 45 minutes to an hour. Or more. A tall drink might help. And/or nibbling on a chunk of Parmigiano. You must engage in all this stirring in order for the polenta to cook evenly and not burn and stick to the bottom of the pot.

Observe the rhythmic build-up of steam that results in small volcanic explosions. Pl-l-lop! Pl-ll-op! Lovely sound. The polenta is ready when smooth, and no longer granular. When it has finally reached the consistency of oatmeal and slides off the sides of the pot, you can rest your arm for a few minutes. But please don’t let the polenta cool down, you must ladle it steaming hot onto plates (wooden would be best, mamma says) directly from the cooking pot.

As a child I relished the polenta leftovers. Polenta solidifies fast and can be sliced. So now, to bring back gluttonous childhood memories, I usually put thick slices of polenta on the grill and dress each with thin slices of Sardinian Pecorino, smoked mozzarella or caciotta (a mild Italian cow's milk cheese). After removing the collection of lids that are permanently housed in my oven, which always come crushing down noisily when I open the oven door, I bake the polenta until heated through and the cheese sloppily melted.

Another great polenta leftover is crunchy fried polenta sticks, pure solace.

Tip: If you store leftover polenta in a cubic container, it is then easier to cut regularly shaped slices.

Salsicce e Spuntature recipe

Mamma's tomato, short ribs and sausage rustic sauce is the preeminent polenta partner. A meal intended for hearty appetites and brave digestive systems, a true winter staple.

Assemble the following ingredients while someone takes a shift at stirring the polenta:

2 celery ribs, minced
3 carrots, minced
1 1/2 medium onions, minced
4 fresh bay leaves
250 g (1 1/4 cups) ground veal
250 g (1 1/4 cups) pork short ribs
2 cups canned tomatoes, with their juice
1 cup dry, white wine
250 g (1 1/4 cups) beef stewing meat, cut into 1" chunks
250 g (1 1/4 cups) pork, cut into 1" chunks
250 g (1 1/4 cups) sweet Italian sausage
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Parmigiano, grated

Heat approximately 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large stewpot. Add the celery, carrot, onion battuto and the bay leaves, and sauté over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low, add the ground veal and short ribs, and simmer with the vegetables for 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and their juice, and cook uncovered for 15 minutes.

Add the wine, the chunked beef and pork and the sausage, and cook uncovered for 30 more minutes, stirring frequently. Adjust seasoning with salt and ground black pepper. Serve immediately over soft polenta, with lots of grated Parmigiano on top. Place one symbolic sausage in the middle of your serving plank and eat your way to happiness.

Feb 2, 2010

Castagnaccio recipe

Castagnaccio is a typical Apennine region non-sweet dessert made with chestnut flour and love. During a particularly difficult shoot in Garfagnana where long working days were spent immersed up to the waist in a tumultuous river, the thought of returning to the hotel and munching on foot-long slabs of castagnaccio in front of the fireplace, made conquering the Serchio river bank effortless.

Image © Fraenzi

500 g (2 1/2 cups) sweet chestnut flour (the cheaper kind is lumpy and bland)
750 ml (3 3/4 cups) water
A pinch of salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of fresh Rosemary needles
100 g (1/2 cup) Pine nuts
50 g (1/4 cup) Raisins

Preheat oven at 180° C (350° F).

Soak the raisins in a glass of lukewarm water and set aside. Pour the olive oil in the water and set aside. Sift the chestnut flour in a large mixing bowl and add the salt. Slowly drizzle the water and oil “emulsion” over the flour and keep mixing with a wire whisk to avoid lumps. The blend will turn out quite liquid, but do not worry.

Pour the mixture in a well-oiled cake pan. Don’t mind the uneven composition swimming in the pan, the recipe requires it to be that way, trust me.

Sprinkle with pine nuts, raisins and rosemary needles. Drizzle with one more thread of oil and bake in the oven for about 30-40 minutes. I like my castagnaccio soft with a lightly crisp crust. Mind you, the pie doesn’t rise, so the thickness shouldn’t be more than a 1/2-inch.

Tip: Don’t sink your teeth in your castagnaccio before it has cooled down completely. The oil will comfortably be absorbed during cooling and you won’t scorch your mouth.

Oh, one more thing: castagnaccio loves Chianti.