Mar 30, 2013

Italian Easter menu

Will you be traveling during the Easter/Passover holidays? I will not. I'll be spending the two-day Spring festivity stuffing my face with traditional Pasqua foods. I say two days, because the day after Easter – Pasquetta – is as much of a holiday as Pasqua is.

It's all about eating oneself into a stupor, as a celebratory ritual, which in some southern Italian homes may begin with the head of the family, or the eldest member of the group, blessing the table, foods and its invited guests. In our home this is done by solemnly dipping an olive twig (saved on Palm Sunday) in some holy water (collected earlier at morning Mass) and splashing everyone with a prayer, and a word of hope.

If you're looking to cook your own Italian-inspired food fest, here are a few ideas for a typical Easter menu.

The classic Easter meal always starts with Corallina salami, golden and savory cheese bread and hard boiled eggs, ritually painted together on Good Friday. Casatiello is another Easter specialty, a rustic bread made with lard, and studded with an assortment of pork cracklings, salami, pancetta and provolone cheese – and which differs from similar "tortano" thanks to the symbolic addition of eggs that cook whole in their shells nestled within the dough.

A typical primo (starter) could be the world's easiest baked pasta dish ever, my unfailing angel hair timballo, whose condiment of choice could be the appropriate Vignarola, a flavorful medley of Spring vegetables and legumes like fava beans, peas and artichokes, sautéed together with chunks of crisp guanciale. Another Easter pasta tradition is making Lasagna, and in the south of Italy this means a complex production involving hard-boiled eggs, rich tomato sauce, ricotta, pork meatballs or crumbled sausage.

The Italian Easter meal cannot be complete without some kind of roasted ovine meat. This year, we will be having both, lamb AND capretto, duly accompanied by roasted potatoes and other side dishes, which may include seasonal delights, or savory vegetable pies, like Pizza di Scarola, braised artichokes "alla Romana", and a delightful specialty of Puglia, Fave e Cicoria (sautéed chicory and fava bean purée).

The meal usually ends with a slice of freshly baked Pastiera – a pie made of wheat, ricotta and orange blossom water; and colomba, a cake whose dough is similar to Panettone, and whose dove-shaped crust is studded with almonds and pearl sugar sprinkles. Copious amounts of wine obviously complement the meal.

A steaming cup of freshly brewed espresso, and a glass of Amaro to be sipped slowly, prepare both body and mind for a restorative nap, and... plans for the following day's Pasquetta meal.

Buona Pasqua!

Mar 17, 2013

Popular Italian Desserts

Many Italian desserts sound delicious, but few know all of them by name. So, here's a handy guide to some of the more common Italian meal-ending treats, with a few tips on where to find them at their best in Rome.
Continue Reading ➔

Mar 11, 2013

Spaghetti Cozze e Gamberetti | Prawn and Mussel Magic

Eating pasta dressed with an opulent tomato sauce that's been simmering with good olive oil, garlic and fresh seafood is my prize.
Rome these days is damp with rain, and burdened with a confused, muggy climate that's trying as hell to believe it's spring, but is not quite there yet. On days like these, and especially on weekends, when I'm supposed to relax, sleep in late and spend time with family, I get unsettlingly snappy. Could it be the unfolded laundry, sitting there staring at me? Or the clutter that crowds our tiny apartment? Some of the blame could go to the unpaid bills, school tuition fees, and parking tickets I'm hoping will one day magically disappear.

I may be spoiled, but it's getting harder and harder for me to stay balanced working 50 hours a week, while being a good mother, commute on the bus, come home and keep the household clean and the family budget in order, find time to freelance write, blog and respond to unread emails. And not bark my disapproval of raised toilet seats and unmade beds with an incredibly disciplined and loving 7 year old.

So today I made it a point to take it easy, and broke the rules. I stayed in bed till late. While the rain was preparing to take center stage, I laughed and cuddled with my sweet child until we were both tickled silly. I let him play with videogames and watch TV in his pj's way more than decently acceptable. I drank cappuccino after 11. And for lunch, I cooked with my mother (who is recovering beautifully from foot surgery).

Cooking with mamma is a panacea. A universal remedy against foul mood and depression. She is very territorial in her kitchen, doesn't trust others with delicate tasks, and will always pretend like she's not checking on us or tweaking our work when we help her out with chores. But spending time with my mom in the kitchen is always an education, both culinary and emotional. Since she can't be on her feet much these days, I'm appointed to far more stove-side action, and this is a big change for both of us, in her realm. She is actually letting me in on some of her secrets too.

Today we made a sauce for spaghetti that was a further prize on this treat-yo-self-day. Rich, flavorsome, rewarding. The procedure of making it, and the pleasure in every unhurried mouthful distended my high-strung nerves, cushioned my worries, and softened my brittle psyche, predisposing a more mellow attitude towards life's daily curve balls.

If you're having a bad day, or a bad weekend, or even attempting to make it through a bad month, try making spaghetti with prawn and mussel sauce. It may just work miracles for you, too.

Ingredients for 4:
10-12 fresh mussels, rinsed several times, and byssus* removed
15 fresh baby prawns, shelled (do not discard the heads, keep them aside)
3 garlic cloves, smashed
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
400 gr (14 oz) canned tomatoes, roughly chopped
400 gr (14 oz) Spaghetti
Salt to taste

* the byssus is the mass of strong, silky filaments (byssal thread) by which certain bivalve mollusks, like mussels, attach themselves to rocks and other fixed surfaces. These hang stubbornly to the shell, but can be removed by yanking sharply toward the hinge of the mussel. If you tug towards the opening of the shell, you could kill the mussel. Remove the byssal threads of each mussel and discard.

In a large skillet, warm the olive oil and sautée the garlic until golden. Add the canned tomatoes and a small pinch of salt. Let the sauce simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes.

Warm the mussels in a separate pan covered with a lid for 3 minutes, or until they all open and release a little juice. Discard any that fail to open, drain the juice, shell the good ones, and put them aside.

In a small saucepan (thank God for dishwashers) obtain a flavor boost for your sauce by cooking the prawn heads with a tablespoon of the tomato sauce that's cooking on the other burner. When this "fumet" comes to a boil, remove from the stove and, using a wire whip, crush the heads to extract as much tasty juice as you can without overdoing it. Filter this heavenly creation and pour into your tomato sauce, which should be bubbling away joyfully.

Stir and simmer for another 5-7 minutes. Add the shelled prawns, continue cooking for 1 minute, then add the mussels, and remove from heat.

Boil the spaghetti in plenty of salted water, and remember to set aside a mug of starchy pasta-cooking water for later. Return the sauce to the flame, and drain the spaghetti 3 minutes before the box says. The pasta should be almost al dente.

Toss the drained pasta into the simmering sauce and complete the cooking, by shaking the pan, and adding some pasta cooking water to combine flavors, keep moist and blend into a creamy sauce, that will stick to the pasta beautifully.

Serve hot, sprinkled with optional chili pepper flakes. The chilled bottle(s) of Chardonnay should be in close proximity.