Mar 23, 2015

Pici all'Aglione

Do you get food crushes? You know, that strange alimentary infatuation that makes you want to eat and prepare the same dish over and over?

The pici all'aglione I had on a lovely vineyard excursion in Tuscany on the weekend were so delicious, that I had to replicate the dish and eat it again today. And I might make it again before the week is over...

Pici all'aglione is a traditional Tuscan pasta dish, particular to the area around Siena. Pici are thick and rustic, homemade water and flour noodles, and the Aglione sauce is made with slow cooked tomatoes and a big quantity of garlic. It's perfect for vegan and vegetarian dinner guests, since there is no egg in the pasta, and no meat/fish in the sauce.

The birthplace of pici is the rural area of the Val d'Orcia, in the Crete senesi and the Valdichiana valley. This was a rustic, poor man's meal that was filling and whose preparation was traditionally entrusted to the women and children of the family.

Siena homemakers still make pici in their sleep, it's part of their DNA, but local grocers also sell the packaged kind. If you're lazy (like I was today) you can skip the pici-making instructions that follow, and cut straight to the sauce, using regular packaged spaghetti instead.

200 g (1 cup) all-purpose flour
200 g (1 cup) durum wheat flour
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil + more for greasing
A pinch of salt
Lukewarm water

Mix both flours and salt and pour onto a work surface. Make a well in the middle of your mound and pour the olive oil in the "crater." Gradually add warm water a little at time, and mix everything until the dough is firm but flexible. The quantity of the water greatly depends on the way the two flours react. When rolled into a ball, the dough should not stick to the palm of your hand, rather fall out of your hand when you release your fist. If it sticks, you need to add more flour.

Cover the dough with cling film and allow it to rest for about an hour.

Roll out the dough on a slightly floured (preferably wood) surface to about 5 mm (1/4 inch) thick. Slightly grease the surface of the dough, this will prevent the pici from drying during the noodle rolling process, or – worse – stick together into tangled clumps (which will remain raw at the core during cooking!). The action that follows gives pici its name: the verb appiciare, which is dialect for 'stringing into noodles.'

Cut the flattened dough into 5 mm wide strips with a sharp knife or a pizza wheel cutter. Hand-roll the strips into thick, spaghetti-like strands. These should be about 3 mm (1/8 inch) thick and as long as possible, usually pick are as long as 30 cm (12 inches).

Gently smother the pici in a handful of cornflour (polenta) and string them on a tray lined with a kitchen towel.

Aglione (yields enough sauce for 400 g/14 oz of pasta, 4 servings)
8 garlic cloves (yes, you read correctly), peeled
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 Tbsp dry, white wine
800 g (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
1/2 Tsp sugar
400 g (14 oz) fresh pici-type pasta (or the fattest packaged spaghetti you can find)

Halve the garlic cloves and discard the inner (often pale green) sprout, and mince finely.

Film a large pan with olive oil and gently sauté the garlic – careful, it mustn't burn.

Add the white wine and cook the minced garlic on gentle heat, using the tines of a fork to further reduce the garlic to a paste.

Mix in the tomatoes, a large pinch of salt and the sugar.

Simmer the sauce on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.

Cook the pici in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water, for about 3-4 minutes. Shortly before being al dente (about 1 minute), save a teacup of pasta cooking water and crank up the heat under the pot with the aglione sauce.

Drain the pasta and transfer it directly to the sauce, tossing from the pan handle to coat the strands completely in the sauce. Use some saved cooking water if you see the sauce is too "sticky" and needs more moisture.

Serve immediately, and in this case, hold the Parmigiano in favor of a light dusting of Pecorino.


Photo 2 courtesy of 

Mar 10, 2015

Pasta al Forno

My dad loves Italian food. Living in Italy, and being married for 12 years to my Italian mother I think had something to do with it.

Nowadays, as much as he and his wife Terry enjoy the Bel Paese's fares, and fine cuisine in general, they are lazy cooks and find it easier to eat out in their area's restaurants, rather than staying in for a homemade meal. Lately, however, they were introduced to Blue Apron, and things have changed.

 What I am thankful for is that the popular company has re-fueled my dad's and his wife's passion for cooking new dishes with seasonal ingredients, at home.

I can just see them bickering over the stovetop. Priceless.

Today my little boy is home from school with the flu, and I wish I could rely upon a similar service to have dinner delivered to my door. Just as that thought crosses my mind, my mom phones me to say she's having her portiere (doorman) drop off some leftovers for us. Knowing how I'm juggling work, unfolded laundry and house cleaning, with a moaning, juice-demanding, DVD-hypnotized, temperature-spiking little person in the other room, my mamma comes through with her own crafted delivery service. God bless her.

What she sent was a favorite comfort food of mine: pasta al forno. Baked pasta dishes are creamy, savory, warm, velvety embraces, and a key childhood sensory reminder. As an excellent fridge-cleaner, pasta al forno also can employ vegetables and salumi on the verge of their expiry, assorted bits of cheese, eggs, mushrooms, and anything you may like thrown in for good measure.

There are a gazillion pasta al forno recipes out there (including the evergreen mac 'n' cheese) but nothing beats my family's classic, made with simple béchamel and Fontina cheese, which is an Alpine cow's milk cheese typical of the Valle d'Aosta region, and which melts beautifully.

Ingredients for 6 servings
50 g (1/4 cup or half stick) butter + more for coating and garnish
2 fistfuls toasted breadcrumbs
50 g (1/4 cup or 6 tbsp) all-purpose flour
500 ml (2 cups) chicken, beef or vegetable broth, boiling
150 g (5 oz) Fontina cheese, grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
500 grams ribbed, ruffled or spiral pasta (any shape able to "grab" the sauce)
2 slices of ham, finely chopped (optional)
2 fistfuls Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F). Grease a large baking dish and coat it in toasted breadcrumbs.

Start by making your béchamel: melt half a stick of butter on medium-high. Once melted but not bubbling, add the flour, and cook, whisking frequently, 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until toasted and fragrant. Slowly whisk in the broth and cook, stirring frequently, 2 to 4 minutes, or until thickened (the hotter the liquid – some prefer to use milk instead of broth in béchamel – the creamier the outcome). Add the grated Fontina cheese, stir until melted and fully combined.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, and remove from the stove.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil. Drop in the pasta and cook it for half the time it says on the box. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta, adding it to the pot of Fontina béchamel sauce. Stir in the chopped ham and mix until thoroughly combined, adding some saved pasta cooking water, if necessary. The blend should be creamy, not runny.

Transfer the mixture to the greased baking dish, evening out the surface.
Dust with plenty grated Parmigiano Reggiano and dot with a few flecks of butter.

Bake in the oven 5 to 7 minutes, or until a golden crust forms. Remove from the oven, and let stand for at least 2 minutes before diving in. Any leftover pasta al forno can be reheated in the oven for a few minutes and dusted with more Parmigiano, if need be.

I added a few almond slivers to the leftovers mamma had delivered, and saw a huge smile creep on my little boy's face.

Buon appetito!

Image 2 courtesy of

Mar 5, 2015

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino for the win!

First of all I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to all who nominated and voted Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino as Best Food Blog in the Italy Magazine Awards, and to the wonderful blogging community here in Italy and abroad, that has been inspiring me for many years.

Secondly, yay!? Very happy for the win, and doing a little celebration dance. I'll spare you the video, but know that my moves are on.

On that note, I need you to picture another thing, and when you do, bear in mind my showbiz background.

The Italy Magazine Awards are like the Golden Globes, a prize celebrating excellence in film and TV bestowed by a group of journalists and photographers that report on the entertainment industry activity and interests. And it's a great honor to be awarded by a community of your peers.

Then there's the Oscars. An annual competition for outstanding achievement in film, awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The SAVEUR Blog '15 Awards is the Oscars of food blogging.

"SAVEUR is a magazine for people who experience the world food first. Created to satisfy the hunger for genuine information about food in all its contexts, the magazine emphasizes heritage and tradition, home cooking and real food, evoking flavors from around the world (including forgotten pockets of culinary excellence in the United States). It celebrates the cultures and environments in which dishes are created and the people who create them. It serves up rich, satisfying stories that are complex, defining and memorable.

SAVEUR is the definitive culinary and culinary-travel magazine of its generation. It has been honored with four American Society of Magazine Editors awards (including one for general excellence) and 17 James Beard journalism awards."

Like every year, SAVEUR is now accepting nominations for food blogs in a number of categories.
Would you like to see little Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino win the "Oscar" of food blogging?

Nominate it!

It's easy. Go here:
and nominate Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino – you'll be asked to specify the URL, which is
Nominate my blog in as many categories as you see fit: I like 'Best Writing' but you can choose among Best Culinary Travel Coverage; Best Special Interest Blog; Most Delicious Food... you decide.

You can add a motivation, or leave that space blank. You'll be asked your name and email (which won't be shared), and you're done.

Nominations close on March 13, so I'd really appreciate if you could spread the news and tell your friends to nominate the little blog that could. Use the #savblogawards hashtag on Twitter too, if you like.

***April UPDATE***
I ultimately did not get nominated, hopefully next time. Thanks for taking the time to cast your nominations, I greatly appreciate it.
Do swing by the website anyway, register an account and vote for this year's worthy nominees!

Mar 2, 2015

Pollo alla Diavola – Hell's Chicken

Pollo all Diavola, "deviled" or spatchcocked chicken—that is, open along the middle, flattened and pan-roasted with spices—is cheap, quick and ridiculously tasty. It's also very popular.

Tuscans roast theirs on a spit, but the recipe that follows is more typical of the pan-frying Roman version.

As for the chicken's satanic roots, some point to the recipe: having to cook the bird over a high flame gives it a Lucifer's kitchen dimension. Others more sensibly suggest the moniker comes from the inclusion of peperoncino, or chili spice.

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