Gnocchi in Pecorino Sauce with Guanciale

For those of you receiving these posts by email, I’m sorry about the funky formatting of the last entry. Due to computer problems, I had to create the post on my iPad, and obviously, I found out there are limitations to that platform. Hopefully this post, written on my new computer (yea!) has come through without any problems in viewing. To read my last post about pecorino di Pienza cheese, go to the actual site, http://ciaochowlinda.com.

Continuing on the pecorino theme, if you’re looking for heaven on a plate, have I got a recipe for you. These light as a cloud potato dumplings, served with guanciale and arugula in a creamy pecorino cheese sauce, were so divine, I was wishing I ordered a full portion for myself, instead of splitting it with my husband.

We ate these gnocchi as our primo piatto on a recent trip to Sardinia, at the restaurant in our hotel, La Villa Del Re.  After having tried a couple of other restaurants off site, we concluded that the hotel’s restaurant was unparalleled in its excellent cuisine. The chef here, Marco Granato, has a magic touch. Everything about this small hotel (adults only) along the Tyrrhenian Sea defines it as a special place, and one we can’t wait to go back to.

The food, the hospitality and the service are exceptional here and the views are stunning too. All the meals we enjoyed at this dreamy hotel along Sardinia’s Costa Del Rei were delicious and beautifully presented –

From breakfast with a view of the infinity swimming pool and the sea:

To the cakes and scones at the daily tea time:

To the toothsome homemade pastas:

To the main courses:

And desserts:

To the drinks and munchies by the sea.

The view from the private beach was pretty special too – with a sea that looked like it was painted by a watercolorist.

I’m still wondering if it was all just a dream. If so, don’t wake me up!

Just in case you can’t get to La Villa Del Re anytime soon, here’s that heavenly gnocchi recipe for you, courtesy of Marco Granato, La Villa Del Re’s talented chef.

More recipes and fun adventures from Sardinia to follow in future posts.

Gnocchi in Pecorino Sauce with Guanciale
 
Author:
Serves: serves 10
 
Ingredients
  • For the Gnocchi:
  • 1000 grams (2.2 pounds) boiled potatoes
  • 500 grams (about 3½ cups) flour
  • 50 grams fecola (about ⅓ cup potato starch)
  • 3 eggs
  • salt
  • For the Pecorino Sauce:
  • 350 grams (about 1¾ cup) milk
  • 200 grams (about 1 cup) mild pecorino cheese
  • 20 grams (1½ T.) flour
  • 20 grams ( 1½ T. )butter
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • For the Condiments:
  • 400 grams (small handful) arugula
  • ½ of a leek
  • 150 grams (about ⅓ pound) guanciale
  • 15 grams (1 T. ) extra virgin olive oil
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • salt, pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. To make the gnocchi:
  2. Boil the potatoes in water with the lemon peel for 20 minutes.
  3. They should be cooked on the outside, but will finish cooking in the oven, which will also dry out some of the water.
  4. After boiling, drain the potatoes and put them on a baking sheet and cook in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
  5. After cooking, pass the hot potatoes through a potato ricer or a sieve and spread them out on a cookie sheet.
  6. Mix the riced potatoes with the flour, the fecola, the eggs and a bit of salt. Form the mixture into ropes, then cut each rope into small pieces to make the gnocchi.
  7. To Make the Pecorino Cream Sauce:
  8. Cut the cheese into small pieces, then put the butter and half the cheese into a pan over low heat until melted. Add the flour, making a roux, then add the milk, stirring constantly. Add the rest of the cheese and stir, letting the cheese melt, while adding salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit more milk until reaching the desired consistency.
  9. To Finish:
  10. Cut the leek into small pieces.
  11. Cut the guanciale into small pieces
  12. Cook the leek in some olive oil at low heat for about 10 minutes. If it starts to turn dark, add some hot water or vegetable broth.
  13. Add the guanciale until it's slightly crunchy, then add the thyme, salt and pepper.
  14. Boil the gnocchi in salted water, then in a separate pan with the sauce, gently stir the gnocchi in the pecorino sauce. Add the cooked guanciale and the arugula and serve on warm plates.
 

Pecorino Di Pienza

When most people think of pecorino cheese, they think of pecorino romano, the sharp cheese from the region of Lazio that’s grated over pasta. But there are plenty of other places throughout Italy where pecorino cheese is made, and I visited two of them recently, one in Sicily and one in Tuscany. This post focuses on one artisanal maker of pecorino di Pienza – Giancarlo Più – in the beautiful region of Tuscany, near Mont’Amiata. (Photo below by Ben Morse)

The name pecorino derives from the word pecora in Italian, which means sheep. And Giancarlo, owner of caseificio Più, has plenty of them – 1,300 in fact, amid 300 acres of beautiful rolling pasture and farm lands.

He’s got sheepdogs too, but they’re not really there to guard the sheep, so much as to provide an early warning signal if other animals, like wild boar or foxes threaten the flock. (Photo by Ron DeCicco)

The sheep are divided into groups, and are shifted to various pastures on the property in order to graze. In the colder months, when fresh forage is not available, Giancarlo feeds them various grains such as corn and barley that were harvested earlier in the year.

The sheep are milked twice a day, using modern milking machines, and about 650 liters are collected each day.

In order to produce one kilo of cheese, it takes anywhere from 4 to 9 liters of milk, Giancarlo said. Nursing mothers and newborn babies are kept together for about a month, and their milk is not used for cheese, since it contains a high percentage of colostrum, the milk that is nutritious for newborn lambs. (Photo below by Ben Morse)

Giancarlo demonstrated how the cheese is made. First, a type of rennet is added (typically made from a young calf’s stomach), to help coagulate the milk.

The milk is heated at a temperature of about 36 degrees centigrade, and after about 20 minutes, it starts to gel. At this point, it has a mild, milky flavor, like unsweetened panna cotta. It normally gets heated longer than 20 minutes, but Giancarlo wanted to demonstrate the process for us, so he started breaking up the gelled milk into curds. To make a softer, fresh type of cheese, he makes large cuts.

For an aged cheese, the cuts are much smaller, almost the size of grains of rice. The larger cuts retain more of the liquid (or whey) which is good for soft cheeses. But an aged cheese needs to release a lot of water so it doesn’t spoil before it’s ready to be eaten.

The curdled milk is poured into plastic forms (reed baskets were traditionally used), and the liquid that remains behind – the whey – is used to make ricotta cheese.The first cheese that is formed is simply called the “cagliata semplice” and is without salt. It tastes very mild and can be eaten out of hand or used in recipes, including the one at the end of this blog post.The cheeses are then salted, and left to age, some for only a week, and others for as long as a year. The cheese tastes different each time he makes it because of all the variables, whether it’s the type of grass the sheep eat, or how soon the ewes have given birth. A ewe’s milk becomes richer and more filled with fat, the farther away from giving birth she is, leading to a more flavorful cheese.

“That’s the beauty of a small cheese producer,” said Giancarlo, in rapid-fire Italian. “You should have a surprise in your mouth every time you bite into a piece of cheese.”And what surprises were in store for us, as Giancarlo and his wife Sabrina provided us with an unforgettable afternoon of cheese tasting, accompanied by homemade salumi and pane carasau, or carta di musica (the flatbread of Sardinia), along with Sardinian wines and beer. Giancarlo instructed us to start with the youngest cheese, to take it in our hands, and sniff it, then to break it in half and smell it again.

It should give you an emotion every time you eat a piece of cheese, he said. “È una materiale viva. Ti può anche disturbare!” He said, explaining that it’s a living material that can even give you a “disturbing” sensation.Almost all the cheesemakers in this part of Tuscany are originally from Sardinia, he said, an island which also has a rich history of cheesemaking. Many Sardinians arrived in Tuscany during the 1950s and 1960s. “Sardinians found exceptional pasture lands and knew how to make the most of them,” he said. His parents emigrated from Sardinia about 20 years ago, he said.

Giancarlo was clearly smitten with farming in general, and showed us around the rest of the property, where he kept lots of other animals, including these cinta senese, the special breed of black pig with a stripe, used for making top quality prosciutto and other kinds of salumi, including those we sampled with Giancarlo.Just a few days earlier, a litter of baby pigs had been born, and Giancarlo let us hold the little sweeties, much to the delight of my daughter-in-law, Beth.

My niece’s daughter Emilia, in the arms of my son Michael, was a little skeptical of the baby goats at first, but quickly warmed to their presence.

Two of the animals with less than friendly appeal were these wild boar, although their appearance on Tuscan menus sure kept our interest.

We had such a fun-filled day and learned so much about not only cheese-making, but cheese tasting. The memories of this unforgettable experience will stay with us forever. Grazie mille, Giancarlo e Sabrina.And now for a recipe using some of that cheese. This recipe is made with the unsalted frsh sheep’s milk cheese, or cagliata semplice – not easy to find where I live, and maybe not where you live either. It is similar in taste and texture to Greek halloumi cheese, which you should have no trouble finding. The recipe is from my week long stay at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily earlier this year, where chef Michael Sampson prepared these for us with the cheese from a local caseificio. Don’t dismiss this idea if you don’t think you like anchovies. It will convert you, I promise. They’re easy to make and will disappear in a flash. Just take some good bread and slice it, then place a slice of cheese (halloumi works fine if you don’t have fresh sheep’s milk cheese). Add a sliver of anchovy, a sprinkle of oregano and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake in a very hot oven (425 degrees) for a few minutes until cheese is melted and edges of bread are toasted.

Arancine

A trip to Sicily is eye-opening in so many senses, including its scenic seaside, mountainous interior, and numerous archeological sites. But Sicilian food is also sensational, including the plethora of street foods that you find in Palermo.

Arancine – stuffed and fried rice balls – are among my favorites . They’re so named because the round shape is reminiscent of an small orange, or an arancina (the singular). However, in some parts of Sicily, particularly the eastern part of the island, they’re called by the masculine noun – arancini. That could be because in the Sicilian dialect, the word for orange is aràncìu, which is masculine, like arancino (singular of arancini). You’re also more likely to find them in a conical, not spherical shape, in the eastern part of the island.

However you call them, these delicious delicacies date back to the 10th century, when Sicily was under Arab dominion, and saffron was introduced to the island. Saffron is used to flavor the rice in this recipe.

The most common type of arancina is stuffed with a meat ragù and peas, but variations abound, including my favorite, with cheese and ham as the center. The addition of béchamel, added after the béchamel has been chilled overnight and you’re able to spoon it, makes the filling even more gooey and melted after it comes out of the fryer.

We set to work making them under the guidance of Chef Michael Sampson, at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, and started by wetting our hands in water to make shaping a little easier. Like the béchamel, the rice had been cooked and cooled ahead of time too.

After you’ve spread and flattened some rice on your hands, place some béchamel, a bit of cheese and bits of ham in the center, then use your fingers and hands to shape the rice into a sphere. Keep working it, and adding a bit more rice, if necessary, to close any gaps.

Then roll it gently into a combination of bread crumbs and flour.

Fry in hot oil until browned.

Wait a few minutes to bite into it so you don’t burn your mouth.

Bet you can’t eat just one!

 

Arancine
 
Author:
Cuisine: Sicilian
 
Ingredients
  • cold, cooked arborio rice to which you have added some saffron, a little parmesan cheese and butter and salt to taste.
  • For the Béchamel Sauce:
  • 2½ tablespoons of butter (40 grams)
  • ⅓ cup flour (40 grams)
  • 1 cup milk (1/2 liter)
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese (50 grams)
  • To stuff the center of the arancine:
  • provola or mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
  • small bits of ham (prosciutto cotto or cooked ham)
  • bread crumbs
  • hot oil to fry the arancine
  • 00 flour (or regular flour)
Instructions
  1. Prepare the cooked rice ahead of time and leave it to cool.
  2. To make the béchamel:
  3. Melt the butter and add the flour. Cook the two together a couple of minutes until sizzly, then add the milk until you get the consistency you want. Then add salt, pepper and parmesan cheese. It should be on the thick side, and it's best if you let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.
  4. Spread a large spoonful of the cooked rice in the palm of your hand. It helps if you wet your hands first.
  5. Take a spoonful of the béchamel and some of the diced ham and provoke or mozzarella cheese and place in the center of the rice that you have spread out in your other hand.
  6. Using your fingers and palm, shape the rice around the filling, into a sphere, covering all the filling.
  7. Roll the shaped arancina in a mixture of half breadcrumbs and half semolina flour.
  8. Fry in oil about 190 degrees until browned on the outside.
 

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Cannoli with ricotta

Among other things, Sicily is famous for cannoli, those crunchy, ricotta filled delicacies that are ubiquitous in Palermo and throughout the island. So it was only natural that we would be making them in one of our classes at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school.

I have a real weakness for cannoli and there are plenty of good ones to be had near where I live in the Northeast U.S., but I never buy a cannolo (singular of cannoli) that’s already filled, unless it’s done right in front of me. There’s nothing worse than a soggy cannolo shell. (Well, actually there are plenty of worse things, but you get the point.) Eating a soggy cannolo is just not worth the calories.

But eating them in Sicily with sweet, creamy fresh sheep’s milk ricotta that was just made, and shells that were crunchy yet tender,  well, that’s a whole different ball game.

Don’t be afraid to make them at home. I made them for the first time decades ago, when I was a neophyte in the kitchen, and they’re not hard at all. If you can make pasta, you can make cannoli. It’s a similar procedure. You do need metal tubes to shape them, however, or if you’re handy with a saw, you can make your own forms from wooden dowels.

By the way, for the word nerds out there, the word cannolo is a diminutive of the Italian word “canna,” which means “reed” or “tube.” There’s a famous Italian book called “Canne Al Vento,” (“Reeds in the Wind”) written by the only Italian woman to win a Nobel prize in literature —  Grazia Deledda.

But back to the cannoli directions. The first thing to do is mix the dough, then knead it, and run it through a pasta machine at increasingly thin settings. If you’re a real purist and you’ve got strong arms, you can roll it by hand with a rolling pin.

Then cut it into circle shapes, using either a large circle cutter, or use a small plate as a template and cut around the perimeter with a knife. Then roll around the metal or wooden form, sealing with some water, overlapping slightly.

Fry them in hot oil until golden brown, using an oil with little flavor, like peanut or canola oil.

Drain and cool them, then fill with the ricotta and chocolate chip mixture. You can use a small spoon to do this, but if you have a large quantity, a pastry bag speeds things along.

Serve with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, and bits of candied orange peel and/or chopped pistachios, and watch them disappear.

Cannoli con Ricotta
 
Author:
 
Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp. lard
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • pinch of fine sea salt
  • ¼ cup vinegar or wine, or as needed
  • 1 egg, lighten beaten, for egg wash
  • vegetable oil, for flying
  • Ricotta Cream
  • 1½ cups whole-milk ricotta, preferably sheep's milk
  • ½ cup sugar, or to taste
  • chocolate chips, optional
  • candied orange peel, chopped pistachios, to garnish
Instructions
  1. Make the cannoli shells:
  2. Combine the flour, lard, sugar, sauce and slat in a bowl and mix together with your hands.
  3. Add the vinegar, bit by bit, and knead until the dough comes together. The dough should be quite stiff.
  4. Set a pasta machine to the widest setting.
  5. Take a piece of dough and run it through the machine 7 to 10 times at that setting, folding the dough in half each time before rolling it again.
  6. When the dough is very even, continue to roll it through the machine, once at each setting without folding, until you reach the next to last setting. (The dough should be very even and silky).
  7. Lay the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and with a lightly floured 4 inch cookie cutter, cut out rounds (use a small plate as a template if you don't have a cookie cutter)
  8. Wrap the dough rounds around metal or wooden cannoli molds, dab the edge with egg, and press to seal.
  9. Repeat with the remaining dough, retooling the scraps.
  10. Heat 2 inches of oil in a wide, heavy pot over medium high heat.
  11. Add the cannoli shells in batches and fry until the shells have become bubbly, crisp, and browned, 4 to 5 minutes.
  12. With tongs, transfer to paper towels to drain.
  13. Cool and remove the molds carefully.
  14. To Make the ricotta cream:
  15. Beat together the ricotta and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add the chocolate chips, if desired. With a small spoon, fill the cannoli shells, then decorate with the candied orange peel and pistachios, and dust with powdered sugar.
 

Ricotta cheesecake with rhubarb raspberry topping

I’ve got plenty more recipes and posts coming to you from my time in Sicily at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, but since rhubarb season here in the Northeast U.S. is so brief, I’m posting another rhubarb recipe first.

Besides, it was my husband’s birthday recently and one of his favorite desserts is a ricotta cheesecake. Pairing the cheesecake with a rhubarb raspberry topping seemed a natural.

In order to minimize our indulgence, I made it in a small pan – a 6″ cake pan with a removable bottom. This will easily serve four people, but if you want to make it in a larger, springform pan that’s traditionally used for cheesecakes, just double the recipe below.

I made an almond flavored crust, and followed through with the almond flavoring in the cheesecake too.

Having recently returned from Sicily, where we cooked with sheep’s milk ricotta still warm from our visit to a cheesemaker in Vallelunga, I went on the hunt to find some here.

 I did track some down at Valley Shepherd Farms Creamery in Long Valley, New Jersey, more than an hour’s distance from where I live. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make the drive, since they come to the farmer’s market in my town, as well as many other places in New Jersey and New York. It is a bit pricey, another reason to make a small cheesecake. But you could also use cow’s milk ricotta, as long as you drain it thoroughly to eliminate a lot of the moisture.

I first pressed it through a sieve to eliminate any clumps.

After baking the crust, and mixing the cheesecake, I wrapped the pan in aluminum foil and baked it in a bain marie (water bath). I find that baking a cheesecake with a bain marie makes for a more even bake and eliminates the hard, brown edges that sometimes rise higher than the center of the cheesecake.

However, whether due to the water bath or something else, you need to bake the crust until it’s really well cooked, or you could end up with a softer crust than you might like.

After baking let it cool completely before adding the topping. In fact, wait to add the topping until just before serving. I used a combination of rhubarb and raspberries cooked in orange juice and sugar, but you could add strawberries instead of the raspberries, or use only rhubarb. The sauce is also delicious mixed in with yogurt for breakfast (or over ice cream).

Slice and spoon more of the sauce on top if you like. (And of course, I like. Wouldn’t you?)

Ricotta cheesecake with rhubarb raspberry topping
 
 
Ingredients
  • Uses a 6" removable bottom cake pan. Serves four
  • Double quantities if using a larger springform pan
  • For the Crust:
  • ½ cup slivered almonds
  • 2 T. flour
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 1 T. melted butter, cooled
  • ½ large egg yolk
  • ¼ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • For the Cheesecake:
  • 3 eggs (actually a half of one of the egg yolks I used for the crust, above)
  • ¾ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • 1 lb. ricotta (sheep's or cow's milk)
  • 1 T. orange zest
  • For the Topping (this is enough for the cheesecake plus extra for using on ice cream or yogurt):
  • 4 large stalks rhubarb
  • 1 cup raspberries
  • juice of one orange
  • ½ cup sugar
Instructions
  1. Make the crust by placing the almonds, flour and sugar in a food processor and processing until it looks like grainy sand.
  2. Add the melted butter, ½ egg yolk, vanilla and almond extracts.
  3. Press into the bottom and sides of the cake pan, which has been buttered ahead of time.
  4. Bake at 325 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until browned.
  5. Let it cool.
  6. For the cheesecake:
  7. Put the ricotta through a sieve and drain overnight if it's very moist.
  8. In a food processor, add the ricotta, eggs, sugar, vanilla, almond extract and orange zest.
  9. Blend for a few minutes until everything is well mixed.
  10. Pour the filling into the crust, then wrap the pan in aluminum foil.
  11. Place the pan into another pan and pour water around the cheesecake pan, making sure not to spill any into the cheesecake.
  12. Bake at 325 degrees for one hour and 15 minutes, longer if using a larger pan.
  13. It does not need to be "brown" on top. It should retain its pale color.
  14. For the topping:
  15. Slice the rhubarb into small pieces.
  16. Place the orange juice and sugar into a pan with the rhubarb pieces and raspberries.
  17. Cook at high heat until it reaches a boil, then lower and cook for about five minutes, or until the rhubarb pieces just start to break down.
  18. Let cool, then pour over the cheesecake just before serving.
 

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Eggplant Involtini

 Eggplant wrapped around mozzarella or ricotta cheese is what I used to think of whenever I made eggplant involtini. But after my week of cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily, where I learned to make this unusual and delicious dish of pasta snuggled inside eggplant slices, you can bet that this version will be in regular rotation in our house.

It’s one of those dishes that wows with its unusual looks, tastes fabulous and can be made in advance. Who could ask for more?

Start by frying some sliced eggplant in oil, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Cook some angel hair pasta and toss with tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese. Make sure it’s very al dente, since it will cook further in the oven.

Now place some of that pasta on top of an eggplant slice.

Then roll the slice of eggplant around the pasta. Don’t worry if the pasta peeks through holes in the eggplant. It’s all going to get covered in sauce.

Place the rolls seamside down into an ovenproof pan.

Cover with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.

Bake in the oven and top with more parmesan cheese (or ricotta salata) before serving.

Serve one involtino as a first course, or two as a main course.

The eggplant involtini were just one of four courses we ate each night, after prepping and cooking everything under chef Michael’s guidance. Some things were already prepared, like the cured olives and artichokes sott’olio we enjoyed with some bubbly from the nearby winery one night.

The ingredients for nearly everything we consumed were grown on the property, or nearby, including the olives, artichokes, lemons, bergamot, almonds and pistachios.

lettuces and fennel

artichokes in the garden.

lentil plants

Wild fennel was in season, so it was abundant at this time of year and we ate it raw in salads and cooked in frittatas.

Bergamot was sliced thinly into salad and tasted nothing like a lemon, which it resembles, but was much sweeter, even the fleshy white part.

Pamela (a charming young woman from England, and the only other participant the week I was there) and I sat down to dinner each night at the large kitchen table to share the fruits of our labors with owner Fabrizia, her husband, chef Michael, gardener Hans, office manager Henna and others who were passing through.

Together with the delicious food, conversation flowed along with the perfectly paired wines from Tenuta Regaliali, the winery on the property. Stay tuned for more about that in further posts.

Eggplant Involtini
 
Author:
Serves: Serves 10 (2 per person)
 
Ingredients
  • 5 large eggplants
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 2-3 cups (500-750 ml) good quality well-seasoned tomato sauce (not tomato puree)
  • 12 oz. (300 grams) angel hair pasta
  • parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • ricotta salata (optional)
  • fresh basil, mint, or oregano
  • olive oil
Instructions
  1. Slice eggplants about ½ inch think.
  2. Deep fry in a large pan of oil, flipping halfway through, until deep golden.
  3. Drain on paper towels.
  4. Cook angel hair pasta in well salted boiling water for 1 minute (must be very al dente because if will cook further in the oven).
  5. Toss with plenty of tomato sauce and grated Parmesan.
  6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  7. Cover the bottom of a large, ceramic baking pan with more tomato sauce and some olive oil.
  8. Take one eggplant slice and place a small bunch of pasta in the middle and roll up.
  9. Place in pan seaside down and repeat with remaining eggplants and pasta, packing rolls snugly into pan.
  10. Cover with more tomato sauce and Parmesan.
  11. Tuck leaves of fresh herbs between the rolls
  12. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until cheese is melted and everything is warm.
  13. Optional: Top with more grated Parmesan or ricotta salata cheese.
 

Rhubarb Tart

We interrupt our Sicily posting for a detour to “rhubarbia.” Since rhubarb is at its peak right now in the Northeast U.S. and disappears for the rest of the year,  you’ve got to take advantage of this short season.

This tart is made with a shortbread crust and a frangipane filling (almond flour, eggs, etc.) from a recipe I found here.  But what sets it apart is the lattice top. Caveat – it’s a bit tricky to get the strips right. I tried making this last year but made the mistake of buying rhubarb that wasn’t wide enough and the strips were just too flimsy and hard to handle after poaching. Numerous strips also meant more weaving, and each time you move the strips, you run the risk of ripping them, so the fewer strips you have, the easier this is to make.

You can also make this in a round tart pan, but I recommend this long, thin one that measures about 13″ x 4.” You only need three strips lengthwise, if they’re hefty strips. The short ones aren’t a problem, it’s the long ones that will need to be raised over and over again to make the lattice, risking a tear each time you lift one.

You also risk cutting yourself if you use a mandolin and you’re not careful (guilty as charged). The strips were sliced to about 1/16 of an inch, which is thick enough to hold together while it softens in the poaching liquid, but not so thick that it’s hard to bite through a piece.

Measure your strips against your tart pan to be sure you have the right length and enough strips for the width too. My long pieces were just a little too short, but that gap can be covered up with a short strip at each end.

You’ll poach the strips in a sugar/water liquid for about five minutes or until soft enough to poke a fork through. If you let it poach too long, the strips will disintegrate.

Carefully remove them with a long spatula (I used a fish spatula that has slots to let the water drain). Don’t throw away the water. You’re going to reduce it to form a glaze. Lay the strips on paper towels to drain. 

This is the tart pastry (that was “blind-baked” using beans on aluminum foil to weigh down the shell) and the frangipane filling after it’s baked.

Now comes the fun part (also the part where you can easily break a strip – remember, I did warn you it was tricky).  The recipe tells you to weave it on parchment paper and transfer to the tart, but with only three long strips, I decided to do it right on the frangipane filling. Lay the lengthwise pieces in first.

Then lift each lengthwise strip and weave the short pieces over and under the long strips.

After you’ve reduced the liquid  to form a glaze, spread it over the top with a spoon or a pastry brush.

This photo was taken the morning after we had already eaten the rest of the tart, so the glaze has sunk in and it doesn’t appear as glossy. But it didn’t affect the taste one bit.

There was enough pastry left to make a mini tart, but not enough frangipane. So I took the odd bits of rhubarb and boiled it with some sugar and water until it became mushy, then added a bit of bergamot juice (I know you won’t have this so just use lemon juice. I wanted to make use of the one bergamot I brought back from Sicily) First though, I set aside some nice pieces for the top that I poached gently in a separate sugar-water solution. After the mushy part cooled, I filled the pastry shell with it, then decorated with the smaller poached pieces, finishing it with a glaze from the reduced sugar-water solution.

If you don’t want to make a smaller tart, the leftover cooked rhubarb is absolutely delicious over ice cream or yogurt.

Rhubarb Tart
 
Author:
 
Ingredients
  • For the Tart Crust:
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ⅔ cup powdered sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste (extract can be substituted)
  • For The Filling:
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • ¾ cups almond meal
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste (extract can be substituted)
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • For the Rhubarb Lattice Topping:
  • 8-10 stalks fresh rhubarb
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
Instructions
  1. To make the Shortbread Crust:
  2. Place the flour, powdered sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine.
  3. Add the butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
  4. Combine the egg, cream, and vanilla in a small bowl and add to the flour/butter mixture, while running the machine.
  5. Continue to process until the dough comes together into a ball.
  6. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  7. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  8. Roll the dough to a thickness of about 3/16-inch.
  9. Place it in the tart pan, trimming away any excess.
  10. Line with foil and ceramic pie weights or dried beans.
  11. Bake for 15 minutes or until just beginning to turn golden.
  12. To make the Frangipane Filling:
  13. Place the butter in a small pan and cook over medium heat until nutty-brown. Set aside to cool slightly.
  14. Place the almond meal, sugar, egg, rum, vanilla, zest, almond extract, and salt in a bowl and stir to combine.
  15. Mix in the browned butter, and transfer the mixture to the partially baked tart shell. Bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until golden brown and set.
  16. Cool completely and top with rhubarb lattice.
  17. To make the Rhubarb Lattice Topping:
  18. Using a mandolin slicer or vegetable peeler, slice the rhubarb long-ways to a thickness of about 1/16-inch.
  19. Place the water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil.
  20. Reduce to a bare simmer, and add 4 or 5 slices of rhubarb.
  21. Cook until slightly softened, then drain on paper towels.
  22. Repeat, until all the rhubarb is cooked. Reserve the remaining syrup.
  23. Line up slices of cooked rhubarb side-by-side on a sheet of parchment.
  24. Fold alternating slices up, and place perpendicular slices over, in a lattice pattern.
  25. Repeat until the sheet of lattice is big enough to cover the entire top of the tart.
  26. Flip the sheet onto the top of the cooled tart, and peel the parchment away.
  27. Trim off any overhang with kitchen shears.
  28. Using a silicone pastry brush, dab the remaining poaching liquid over the lattice to glaze.
 

 

Panelle at Case Vecchie

Move over potato chips. There’s a new kid on the block — panelle. Actually panelle aren’t new. They’re a Sicilian street food that you’ll find all around Palermo. But eating them freshly made at home – crispy and crunchy on the outside, and creamy in the center – well, that’s a whole new experience. Stay with me for a recipe at the end of this post.

Making and eating panelle is just one of the wonderful opportunities I had during my week at Case Vecchie, at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, run by Fabrizia Lanza, shown here with her beloved dog, Macchia. Fabrizia, who lived and worked in Bologna in the field of art history, moved back to Sicily to take over the cooking school founded by her late mother, Anna Tasca Lanza. The school offers lots of different programs from food writing to sketching, and even a ten week intensive course called “Cook The Farm.” Click here for more information.

The drive through the countryside approaching the farm – located near the center of the island of Sicily – was a visual delight (albeit a challenge to navigate and drive simultaneously, but fear not, there’s a train that runs nearby). Lush green fields and acre upon acre of vineyards were spread out before me, welcoming me as Springtime in Sicily laid out its thick green carpet.

Arriving at the farm, one is struck not only by the landscape, but also by the beauty of all the doors and woodwork painted in a vivid royal blue.

 

I was led to my room and threw open the shutters to enjoy this glorious view. Oh, what a joy to wake up to this each morning.

I learned so much and have so much to share with you from my week at Case Vecchie, including some of my favorite things:

Sheep (if you’ve read this, you know how much I love sheep) and cheese we ate from the milk of these animals.

Eating freshly made yogurt and preserved amarene cherries for breakfast:

pizza making using a wood-fired brick oven:

Cooking with the freshest vegetables, including wild fennel (finochietto) used in salads and in this frittata:

A visit to Regaliali Winery, adjacent to Case Vecchie and part of the original family holdings, to discover and taste a whole world of Sicilian wines beyond nero d’avola:

I even had time to paint and take a pisolino (nap) now and then — a truly relaxing week.

There’s so much more to tell, that I’ll reveal in subsequent posts, but for now, let’s return to those panelle and let me show you how they’re made. First, you stir the chickpea flour with water. It’s not that different from making polenta. Michael, the chef at the cooking school, and our very personable and knowledgable instructor for the week, led us through the steps. He likes to add fennel seeds, not usually included in panelle recipes, but they were a delicious addition. Incidentally, if you’re a cook and/or teacher looking for a job, Michael’s leaving this summer and the hunt is on for a replacement.

Spread the mixture out thinly and evenly on some plates, then let it sit and cool.

At that point, it will be easy to peel the solidified mixture off the plate. Stack them one on top of the other and slice into triangles.

Then fry them until they pop up and are golden brown.

Drain on paper towels, sprinkle a little salt over the top, and watch them disappear.

Do follow me down the road for future posts about this magical place and the some of the dishes I cooked and ate there, including cavatelli, cannoli, cassata and a most unusual eggplant rolatini. All the ingredients we ate and cooked with (including the almonds, pistachios and citrus fruits) were either grown on the farm or nearby.

And I promise to post more frequently. I’ve had computer glitches since returning. But all those frustrating hours spent with tech support on the phone are forgotten when I look at this serene path leading from Case Vecchie, a never ending source of inspiration.

Panelle from Case Vecchie
 
Author:
Cuisine: Sicilian
 
Ingredients
  • 4 cups (250 grams) chick pea flour
  • 3 cups (750 ml) cold water
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon fennel seeds (optional)
Instructions
  1. Combine the flour, water, salt, pepper and fennel seeds in a medium sized pan and whisk until smooth.
  2. Cook over medium high heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is like a very stiff polenta.
  3. Lower the heat if necessary to keep from burning.
  4. Cook for a few more minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan.
  5. Working quickly, spread the mixture with a wooden spatula onto plates so that it is about ¼ inch (0,5 mm) thick.
  6. Let sit until cool, 15 to 20 minutes.
  7. when dough is cool, loosen the edges with a knife and peel the "crepes" off the plates and place on a work surface, stacking one on top of the other.
  8. Cut stack into 16 wedges.
  9. In a large frying pan, heat 2 inches (5 cm) of oil until hot.
  10. Place wedges of chick pea mixture into hot oil and fry, flipping occasionally, until golden and crisp, about three minutes.
  11. Dry on paper towels and sprinkle with salt.
  12. Continue frying remaining wedges and serve hot.
 

 

 

 

 

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Lake Como Writing Retreat

I don’t know about you, but when April comes each year, I start thinking about spring blossoms, new beginnings and travel. In particular, travel to Italy and the beautiful town of Varenna along Lake Como.

April is also a time for spring cleaning, not just of your closets, but a time to reassess all those projects you’ve been meaning to tackle. Maybe one of them is writing down some of those family stories you talk about across the dinner table; a childhood memory that’s starting to fade; or a funny incident that happened in high school. Our writing retreat, “Italy, In Other Words,” is the perfect place to put pen to paper and memorialize those thoughts for future generations. If you don’t write it down, it may be lost forever. And can you imagine a more inspiring place to write than by the shores of dreamy Lake Como?

You don’t have to be an experienced writer to participate. Of course, we’ve had plenty of guests who’ve been teachers or writers or worked in publishing, but we’ve also had participants who were nurses, stay-at-home moms and even a postal worker. You just have to have a desire to learn and a willingness to collaborate. Kathryn Abajian, a college professor of creative writing, will help you craft your thoughts into expressive prose that you can feel proud of by the end of the week.

But we won’t harness you to a desk all week. Oh no, mornings are for workshopping, but afternoons you’re free to wander on your own, read, write or take part in the short excursions I’ve planned for you. Come with us to the internationally renowned gardens and exquisite rooms of the 13th century Villa Monastero, where Nobel prize-winner Enrico Fermi once lectured in physics.

Join me on a jaunt to the ruins of an 11th century castle, high above the town.

Another afternoon, we’ll take a boat across the lake to Bellagio, where you can shop for silks, leather goods or myriad other items with the “made in Italy” label. Stay for dinner and enjoy a delicious meal with us on a patio  shaded by flowering vines, before heading back to Varenna by boat.

Other afternoons, you may just want to sit at one of the many cafes by the lake, waiting for the muse to strike, while enjoying a gelato or a spritz.

Or just meander up and down the cobbled streets soaking in the views:

There is no shortage of beautiful places that can inspire you, like here:

or here:

or here:

And if you’d like to try your hand at watercolor painting (no experience necessary), I know a friendly, talented artist in town who will give you a lesson:

Over the years, I’ve hand picked some favorite restaurants for you to try, where the food is always top notch.

You’ll stay at the beautiful Royal Hotel Victoria, with your own private room and bath. The hotel is conveniently located in the center of town, within easy walking distance of everything and features some lovely outdoor patios for relaxing or grabbing a bite to eat.

If weather permits, take a swim in the pool or the lake.

Bring a friend if you like. Not everyone who comes wants to write, and we have a discount for non-writing participants, although space is limited.

More than anything, you’ll leave with the satisfaction of having made new connections with like-minded people, and you’ll have experienced the food, the culture and the environment of one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Life is short, so what are you waiting for? Registration is underway now for “Italy, In Other Words.” Contact me or Kathryn to register, or visit www.italyinotherwords.com

Italy, In Other Words – September 30 – October 6, 2018

Chicken with fennel and clementines

Before clementines and fennel bulbs disappear for the season, you’ve got to make this dish – if you haven’t already done so. It’s been around for a few years, and is one of my favorites from Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef whose recipes I go to when I have a yen for Middle Eastern food.

The combination of fennel and clementines, roasted at high temperature, along with the mustard and other ingredients, deliver an intense flavor to the chicken. I’ve taken a few liberties with the original recipe, replacing the Arak in favor of Sambuca, another anise flavored liqueur, and one that most Italian-Americans have in their pantry.

I also changed the quantities of some of the ingredients, adding more orange and lemon juice, for instance, to allow for more sauce to spoon over the chicken at the end, and to drizzle over rice or noodles you might like to serve on the side.

You’ll also notice I used chicken breasts in this recipe. Feel free to use legs or thighs, but always with the bone intact and the skin on. You could even use an entire small chicken, as Ottolenghi does, but if you do, make sure you increase the quantities of the other ingredients.

Chicken with fennel and clementines
 
Author:
 
Ingredients
  • For Two People:
  • 1 large chicken breast, with bones and skin, cut into four pieces
  • ¼ cup Sambuca, or any anise flavored liqueur
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • ⅛ cup lemon juice
  • 2 T. grainy mustard
  • 2 T. light brown sugar
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, cut into about eight pieces
  • 2 clementines, sliced, with the skin on
  • 1 T. fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • salt, pepper, to taste
  • fennel fronds to garnish
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
  2. Mix the Sambuca, olive oil, orange and lemon juice, mustard and brown sugar and fennel seeds.
  3. Season the chicken pieces and fennel with salt and pepper and place in a lightly greased casserole. Scatter the clementine slices around, making sure that everything is in one layer. Pour half of the marinade over the chicken and fennel. If you have time, do this step ahead of time and let it sit at room temperature for an hour.
  4. Cook for about 35 to 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked and the skin is slightly charred. About ten minutes before the chicken is fully cooked, pour the rest of the marinade over everything and finish cooking. If it doesn't look "browned" enough, crank up the temperature to 500 degrees.
 

 

 

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