Pasta With Porcini Mushroom Sauce

Pasta with Porcini Mushroom Sauce

For all you meat lovers out there (and I’m one of them), this is a recipe that will have you forget that you ever made friends with a T-bone steak. For those of you who have ever eaten freshly harvested porcini mushrooms, grilled and dressed simply with olive oil and garlic, you know what I mean. The ones in the first photo were gathered by a local resident in Cassimoreno, a small hamlet in Emilia Romagna where my cousins Maria Luisa and Angelo have a country home and where nearly everyone hunts for mushrooms in the fall. But alas, we’re not as fortunate here in the northeast U.S. to have a mycologist as a next door neighbor — or a forest nearby with porcini nestling beneath the leaves waiting to be plucked. Fresh ones in the markets where I live are hard to come by, and when you can find them, they’re practically as expensive as a flight to Italy.
Fortunately, you can find dried porcini mushrooms in many specialty shops and even supermarkets nowadays. You might pay $6 or $7 for a one-ounce package wrapped in cellophane, and that’s enough for this recipe that will serve four people.
These meaty fungi, which you see rehydrated in the middle photo, have an intense smell that will fill your kitchen with an earthy aroma as soon as you open the package. You might be tempted to soak them in hot water, rather than at room temperature, to speed up the process, but that would be a mistake. Too much of the intensity of the mushroom flavor would be released into the water. Speaking of the water, there are two schools of thought on what to do with that water, after you’ve finished soaking the mushrooms. One Italian chef I listened to regularly in Italy claims you should throw away the soaking liquid because it’s full of impurities. I always respected his opinions on food, but this was one place where we parted ways. To me, it would be criminal not to add that aromatic liquid to this recipe. Just make sure you strain it first. I also use canned San Marzano tomatoes in this dish, and they really do make a difference. They are easily available in supermarkets. Grown in an area near Naples, where the volcanic soil influences the outcome of the product, they are much sweeter, much stronger, and less acidic than the typical Roma plum tomatoes that are used by many canners. You can use other types of canned tomatoes, of course, but this dish just wouldn’t be the same.

Porcini Mushroom Sauce

(Makes enough for about 1 pound of pasta. Don’t use a thin spaghetti here like angel hair pasta. This sauce requires a more robust type, like rigatoni or pappardelle.)

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups room temperature water

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced carrot
1/4 cup minced celery
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
red pepper flakes, to taste

Soak the porcini in the water for an hour or until mushrooms are soft.
Pour the olive oil into a saucepan, then add the minced onion, carrot, celery, garlic and saute until translucent.
Drain the porcini mushrooms, but reserve the liquid. Roughly chop the mushrooms and add to the pan, along with the tomatoes, breaking them through your fingers.
Add 1/2 cup of the strained soaking liquid, wine, and remaining ingredients.
Simmer for about 3/4 hour and serve over pasta.

Tender Chocolate Cake

Tender Chocolate Cake

I love layer cakes as much as anyone. Give me a slice of a three-tiered chocolate cake oozing with frosting and I’ll finish it off quicker than you can say “red velvet.”
But I’m also partial to the cakes that are more common in Italy — low, one-layer desserts that typically are served with just a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or no embellishment at all. This is one of those — dense, not too sweet, delicious, and easy to make in just ten minutes. Add a dollop of whipped cream on top, and you’ve got the perfect ending for a meal any night of the week or even for company.
The recipe comes from the handsome young newlyweds you see in the photo — my cousin Matteo Passeri and his wife Silvia de Domenicis, who live in Piacenza, about 40 miles south of Milan. The cake served at their wedding in June wasn’t chocolate, and it too, was very different from what you see at American weddings. Picture a giant sheet cake, with one very low layer of white cake, anchored on the bottom with puff pastry, then smothered entirely in whipped cream. Now picture rows of strawberries marching up and down the perimeter of the cake and you’ve got a dream of a confection that will make you forget you ever asked for a towering layer cake on your birthday. Maybe this recipe will become your annual celebratory request instead.
I’ve tweaked Matteo’s recipe just a tad by adding a teaspoon of vanilla, which adds another layer of flavor and enhances the chocolate.

Torta Tenerina

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
***For the recipe, I used all but three small pieces of a 4.25 oz. bar of dark chocolate. Those I ate. (Well, the cook needs anti-oxidants too, you know.)

1 stick of unsalted butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 T.
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
a pinch of salt

Place the butter and chocolate into the top portion of a double boiler. Let the ingredients melt over gentle heat. Meanwhile, crack the eggs into a mixer and beat for about a minute, then add the sugar and beat for about five minutes, or until the mixture is thick and pale yellow in color. Add the vanilla, salt and the flour and beat another minute until all ingredients are blended. Take the chocolate and butter mixture and stir with a whisk until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture to the ingredients in the other bowl. Pour into a greased and floured 8 inch cake pan and bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool in pan on a cake rack for 10 minutes, then loosen edges with a butter knife and invert onto serving dish. After cake is completely cooled, place a paper doily on top, sprinkle confectioner’s sugar over all, then carefully lift the doily to reveal a beautiful pattern.
Serve with freshly whipped cream.

Gatto’ Di Patate

Gatto’ di Patate

So many of my friends are good cooks, including Lilli, who originally hails from Salerno, about 30 miles south of Naples. She made the potato cake in the photo and gave it to me shortly before dinner tonight.
Boy, was I lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It’s the ultimate comfort food all’Italiana. Think of mashed potatoes all dressed up and ready to show off. It’s also a terrific party food too, to make ahead and bake later.
There are as many variations of this recipe as there are varieties of pizza. Some recipes call for adding bits of salami, some for ham, and some for both — but you can omit the meat entirely if you like. You can also add provolone cheese in addition to the mozzarella, or pecorino instead of parmigiana. Like so many Italian cooks I know, Lilli keeps a lot recipes in her head, including this one. She did, however, spell out the basic ingredients, and I have approximated proportions in the recipe that follows.
The gatto’ (accent on the second syllable) is a traditional Neapolitan recipe that takes its name from the French “gateau” or cake. If you make the mistake of accenting the first syllable, you’ve got yourself a potato cat, not a potato cake.

serves 6
2 lb. potatoes
1 egg
4 T. butter, plus more to grease the dish
1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
3/4 cup mozzarella cheese, diced
1 cup cooked ham or salami, diced
2 T. Italian parsley, chopped
pinch of nutmeg

1/2 cup milk, or more as needed to keep the mixture from getting too hard
salt and pepper

bread crumbs
2 T. butter

Boil potatoes until tender and drain. Place the 4 T. butter into a bowl. Peel the potatoes and pass through a “ricer” or mash by hand directly into the bowl over the butter, so that the hot potatoes melt the butter. Cool for five minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients except the bread crumbs and the 2 T. butter. Mix it all together until blended. Grease the bottom of a pie plate or other oven-proof dish with butter and smooth the mixture into the container. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top and gently press down with a fork. Dab with bits of butter. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes.

Zucchini “Carpaccio”

Zucchini “Carpaccio”

With this recipe, I didn’t start out on the right foot, or shall I say, finger. I bought a mandoline two months ago and the box was still unopened. I’ll bet you already know where this is going.
The zucchini plants in the garden were still producing glossy green spheres, so I thought I’d inaugurate the contraption with them. It was time to open the box and get started. Unfortunately, my thumb and a slice of flesh got in the way.
Six Band-Aids, two pints of blood (ok, so I exaggerate a little) and a half hour later, I tried again — this time using the protective thingamajig that comes with the mandoline.
Although it’s the beginning of September and the weather should be starting to cool off, we had a nearly 90 degree day here in New Jersey — hot enough so that a cold salad seemed like just the ticket to accompany the grilled steak I was planning for dinner.
I pulled out the mandoline –not essential for this salad, but it does slice the zucchini paper-thin. In the photo, you can see how nearly-transparent the slices are. It’s hard, but not impossible, to get them as thin if you are slicing by hand. Just make sure you’re slicing by hand, not slicing a hand, like I did.
I used one large round zucchini, but you can make this recipe with the long ones as well. One large zucchini generously serves two people.
This isn’t a true carpaccio like beef carpaccio, the thinly sliced raw delicacy, which by the way, was named after Vittore Carpaccio, a Renaissance artist who used lots of brilliant red in his paintings. But when your mandoline demands a pound of flesh from you, I think you can take liberties with the name. Besides, I used my share of brilliant red too. That is, if you’re counting hemoglobin.

Zucchini Carpaccio

1 large zucchini, thinly sliced
1/4 cup goat cheese, crumbled
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 T. white balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice)
2 T. toasted pine nuts (or walnuts)
salt, pepper
minced chives

Slice zucchini and assemble on plate. Grind salt and pepper on zucchini slices. Sprinkle with chives, crumbled goat cheese and pine nuts. Whisk olive oil and vinegar together and drizzle on top.

Peach Crisp

Peach Crisp

Our friends were here for dinner Saturday night, and I had planned this dessert for them, but the peaches weren’t quite ripe. Instead we had the ice-cream that was meant to accompany the peaches, with a dense dulce de leche sauce my daughter had brought back from a trip to Buenos Aires. By Monday however, the peaches were perfectly juicy and ripe and ready for prime time, so I made the crisp. Of course by then, the ice-cream, which would have made a luscious topping, was all gone. Still, the peach crisp was delicious in its own right. But if you want to gild the lily, you can’t go wrong with a creamy vanilla ice cream on top.

Peach Crisp
(serves 6 people)

6-7 large peaches
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1 T. flour

Topping:
1 cup flour
1 cup oatmeal (not instant)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
6 T. unsalted butter

Peel and slice peaches and mix with the lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and 1T. flour. Place into a buttered, 4-quart casserole.

For the topping, mix flour, oatmeal, brown sugar and cinnamon, then cut in the butter. Use your fingers to evenly distribute the butter. Place on top of the peaches. Bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour. Wait at least 15 minutes before eating or it will be very runny.

Fried Zucchini Flowers

Fried Zucchini Flowers

I know I just posted a zucchini recipe, but the season is almost gone for these fragile, delicate-tasting blossoms, so you’ve got to move fast if you want to try them this year. When we lived in Italy, we saw them at markets everywhere, but they’re not so easy to find in U.S. stores. Farmers’ markets are your best bets, unless you’ve got your own garden. And if you don’t have a vegetable plot, once you’ve tasted these, you’ll want to start digging – or make friends with someone who does have a garden.
My favorite way to eat these beauties is to stuff them with mozzarella cheese and a sliver of an anchovy, then dip into a batter and deep fry.
They are wickedly good prepared this way, but I limit myself to this indulgence only once a year, since they’re also wickedly caloric too. If you find yourself with an abundance of blossoms and don’t want to go the deep-frying route, you can slice them into thin strips and add them to omelets, frittatas, even a risotto.
Fried Zucchini Flowers, two ways

For each of these recipes, soak the zucchini blossoms in water to get rid of any garden pests that might be lurking in the crevices. On the other hand, if you miss one here or there, a little more protein won’t be so bad.

Lift the blossoms from the water carefully, then dry on a paper towel. Carefully spread open the petals and with a flick of a finger, remove the pistol inside.

First Recipe:
12 zucchini flowers
1 large ball mozzarella cheese
1 small tin anchovies

Slice the mozzarella into sticks and gently insert one piece of cheese and one small sliver of anchovy into the flower (you can omit the anchovy but it does add a nice zing). Dip into batter and deep fry in hot oil.

Second Recipe:
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Mix the cheeses, then very gently, using a demitasse or small teaspoon, insert a portion of the filling into the flower. If you are adept at using a piping bag, use that instead of a spoon, since the flowers tear easily. But even if they do rip a little, don’t worry since the batter will coat them sufficiently to hide any rips. Dip into batter and fry in hot oil.

Batter:
I have tried several different batter recipes, including a beer batter, but this one works best:
1 cup flour
sparkling water
1/2 tsp. salt

Just mix enough flour (one cup is plenty for a dozen blossoms) and enough sparkling water until you get a mixture that’s the consistency of pancake batter. It’s best to let it sit at least 15 minutes to help make it smoother. Dip the flowers into the batter, and deep fry in hot oil. I use a cast-iron skillet and fill it about 1/2 full with canola oil. I also use the burner on my outdoor gas grill, which helps to keep the kitchen spatter-free. Drain on paper towels and eat immediately.

Stuffed Zucchini

Stuffed Zucchini

Zowee Zucchini

Anyone with a vegetable garden knows what can
happen to zucchini when you turn your back on them for even one day.

One day the vegetables are little baby orbs at the end of a stem. But in the dark of the night when you’re not watching, they mainstream steroids, and morph into something nearing the size of a baseball bat.
So for all of you with an abundance of zucchini, here’s another way to use those babies. Just check your garden regularly though, and pick your zucchini before they’re large enough to hit second base.
In this recipe, I use the round variety, but you can use the long ones equally as well.

Stuffed Baked Zucchini

4 small round, or long zucchini
1/4 cup onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T. olive oil
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 eggs
salt, pepper
fresh basil or parsley, chopped

Trim the stem off the zucchini, and place in boiling water for about 5 minutes.
Cool, then cut in half and scoop out interior of zucchini.
Salt and pepper the hollowed out zucchini.
Chop the part you scoop out and saute at high heat, along with the onion, in olive oil, until most of the water has evaporated from the zucchini.
In a bowl, place ricotta, eggs, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and herbs.
Add the sauteed, chopped zucchini and onion to the ricotta mix and stir.
Place some of the filling inside each of the hollowed-out zucchini, sprinkle more parmesan cheese on top, and bake at 425 degrees for about 30-40 minutes.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Heirloom Tomato Salad


It wouldn’t be August in New Jersey without tomatoes. With so much shade in our yard, it was hard to find a spot to plant a real vegetable garden – something my husband and I grew up with and missed. We both came from Italian families where the entire back yard was given over to a vegetable plot. We finally succumbed last year to our yearning and dug up the decades-old yew bushes along the side of our house — the only spot with sun at least five hours a day. We now have a bonafide vegetable garden in place of the shrubs.
Last year I saved some seeds from heirloom tomatoes we had eaten from a local organic farm, and we also planted some plum tomato seeds I had brought back from a trip to Italy. We nurtured the seedlings until they were strong enough to be planted indoors, covering them at night with plastic milk jugs whose bottoms were cut out, in essence creating little “greenhouses.” to protect the tender seedlings from the night-time frost.
Several months after planting, those little seedlings are like the plants that won’t stop growing, laden with tomatoes of all shapes and colors. It never ceases to amaze me how a teensy-weensy seed no bigger than a flea can produce a lush, sprawling plant bearing pounds and pounds of fruit (a tomato is a fruit after all). At this point, they threaten to consume us like the plants in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” But oh, do they taste divine.

Nothing could be simpler or easier than making a tomato salad, but with so few ingredients and no cooking involved, everything must of of top quality, starting with the tomatoes. If you’re not growing your own or don’t have a friend who has offered some of his bounty, go to a farmer’s market or the organic section of a good supermarket. For the first recipe of this blog, which is really more “assembling” rather than cooking, here is my version of a tomato salad. I have not indicated any amounts for the ingredients, since it really depends on how many people will be eating and what size tomatoes you have. In general, one large tomato and a quarter of an onion per person is plenty. For the vinaigrette, I use three parts oil to one part vinegar, but you can adjust as you want. Salt and pepper the tomatoes copiously. Preferably, basil should be ripped by hand, not minced with a knife, to avoid bruises and get the best flavor. If you really want to knock ’em over, add slices of hand-made mozzarella — not the rubbery stuff in the supermarket that pretends to be cheese, but the artisan kind you buy at good cheese stores and specialty shops.

Needless to say, don’t try this recipe in January.

Heirloom Tomato Salad
tomatoes, preferably heirloom varieties
fresh basil, torn by hand
kosher or sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar
mozzarella, sliced