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Girasole Rustico (Sunflower Tart)

I subscribe to an Italian TV channel and one of the programs I like to watch is a cooking show called “La Prova del Cuoco” (The Cook’s Test). The host, Antonella Clerici, invites well known Italian chefs, as well as members of the public to cook each day. On a recent program, this girasole rustico was prepared by chef Roberto Valluzzi, and it caught my eye right away. I thought it would be perfect to prepare for my Italian chit-chat group, since we usually offer both savory and sweet things in our weekly get-together.

This not only was delicious, but was a snap to prepare and makes a really beautiful presentation. You can make the pastry with your own recipe, but for this particular day, I took a shortcut and bought frozen pastry from Trader Joe’s.

All you really need to do is sauté some scallions with spinach and a couple of anchovies (don’t worry, it doesn’t give it a fishy taste. The anchovies “melt” and add great flavor). Let the mixture cool, then mix it with ricotta cheese and parmesan cheese.

Lay out the one layer of the pastry on a cookie sheet (I used a pizza stone) and spread the filling all around.

Crimp the edges with a fork, and place a small bowl in the center. You’ll need this as a guide.

Make cuts through the pastry in even measurements, then take each section and give it a twist.

It will look like this when you’re finished. Remove the bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds or poppy seeds.

Bake for 30-45 minutes until golden brown. Cut into sections and let people serve themselves.

Buon Appetito!

Thanks to all you readers who left a comment on my last post. Six of you will be receiving a tin of these delicious Cornish sardines and you were picked by a random number generator. I wish I had enough tins to send to everyone who left a comment. The winners are Marie, Jan Mannino, Joanne W., Claudia, Victoria Skelly, and Gloria. Please send me an email (linda@ciaochowlinda.com) with your home address so I can send you the tin. I hope you enjoy them.

 

Girasole Rustico (Sunflower Tart)
 
 
Ingredients
  • 2 round sheets of your favorite homemade pastry recipe or purchased (I used Trader Joe's brand)
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 2 scallions, sliced
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • dash of hot pepper flakes
Instructions
  1. Sauté the scallions in the olive oil with the anchovy fillets, until the scallions are soft and the anchovies are almost "melted." Add the spinach, salt, pepper and hot pepper flakes. Set aside to cool.
  2. When cool, add the spinach mixture to the ricotta and parmesan cheese and blend well in a bowl.
  3. Lay one layer of pastry on a round cooking sheet (I used a pizza stone). You may want to grease the cookie sheet just for extra insurance so it doesn't stick, or you can place the pastry on a piece of baking parchment paper.
  4. Spread the cooled spinach mixture over the pastry.
  5. Lay the second sheet of pastry over the spinach mixture and press gently all around, but more firmly at the edges. Seal by pressing fork tines around the perimeter.
  6. Place a small bowl in the center of the pastry, and cut all around the edges, stopping at the bowl.
  7. Pick up each cut piece and twist gently.
  8. Sprinkle some sesame seeds over the middle of the pastry and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes or until the pastry is cooked.
 

Cherry Tomato Crostata

Cherry Tomato Crostata

 Sometimes friends ask me if I really cook all the things I post on Ciao Chow Linda. Well, yes, I explain, and lots more too. Some of the things I cook turn out to be less than blog-worthy though, and that included a tomato ricotta tart I made a couple of weeks. It looked lovely, but the crust wasn’t cooked all the way through, as you might be able to tell from the photo below:

  I tried again with the same crust, this time rolling the dough really thin, using a freeform, crostata shape instead of the removable bottom tart pan.  I decided to skip the ricotta cheese in favor of caramelized onions, gruyere and parmesan cheese. And I went with cherry tomatoes, since I still had so many ripening in the garden. (OK, I admit it, aside from the crust, this is an entirely different recipe from the first tomato tart.) The cherry tomato variety I’ve been growing – “black cherry” – has a darker hue and a sweeter taste than the bright red ones more commonly seen in the markets. But any cherry tomato variety will do for this recipe – even yellow ones. You can cut the tomatoes in half if you like, but this time around, I left them whole.
Caramelized onions – one of my very favorite foods – are a key component of this dish – . I’ve always thought that the next time I put my house up for sale, I’d ignore that advice from realtors to infuse the house with the smell of freshly baked bread or chocolate chip cookies. Nope, for my money, you can lure prospective buyers better with the intoxicating aroma of onions sautéeing in olive oil or butter. Bake this crostata for the open house and you might be able to seal the deal.
The crust is really special too – it’s imbued with the goodness of parmesan cheese, fresh herbs and cracked black pepper. Roll it out thinly, then layer the cheeses and caramelized onions on top, leaving about two inches all the around the perimeter for crimping.
Scatter some fresh herbs (in this case, oregano and thyme) and place the tomatoes on top. 
Bake at high heat (425 degrees) but keep an eye on it near the end, covering the edges of the pastry with aluminum foil if it looks like it might burn.
I served it as a main course, along with romano beans and fresh sweet corn. But this would work great as an appetizer too, cut into smaller pieces.

Cherry Tomato Crostata
printable recipe here

Crust

1 cup flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 T. finely minced fresh herbs (thyme, oregano or sage)
1 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly cracked black pepper
1 stick cold butter
1 large egg yolk, beaten with 3 T. ice water

Place the flour, cornmeal, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and sage in a food processor and pulse until mixed well together. Add the butter in small pieces until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Add the egg yolk and water and mix it just enough until it starts to hold together. If it looks too dry, add more ice water as needed. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic, then place in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes. (It freezes really well too.)

Filling
1 large, sweet onion (about two cups sliced thinly)
1 T. olive oil
1 cup freshly grated gruyere cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 dozen cherry tomatoes (more or less, depending on how big they are)
fresh thyme
fresh oregano

Cook the sliced onions in the olive oil – slowly – until they turn golden brown. This will take at least 1/2 hour, maybe 45 minutes. Let them cool slightly.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a thin round – about 1/8th inch thick and about 14 inches in diameter. If the dough is too thick, it won’t cook all the way through.  Transfer to a large cookie sheet or baking dish.
Spread the cheeses onto the dough, excluding about two inches all around the circumference. Place the caramelized onions over the cheese, then scatter bits of the fresh thyme and fresh oregano over that. Top with the cherry tomatoes, then bring the edges toward the center and crimp together as you go. Bake in a preheated oven at 425 degrees for 1/2 hour. If crust gets brown too quickly, lower the heat to 400, and cover the edges with strips of aluminum foil.

Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano Reggiano

If you put me on a desert isle and told me I could eat only one cheese for the rest of my life, (The cheese fairies would deliver it, in case you’re wondering) the answer would be a no-brainer: parmigiano reggiano.

I never get tired of the intense flavor, the little crunchy grains of an aged parmigiano between your teeth and the versatility that it offers. You can enjoy a chunk of parmigiano alongside a glass of wine; you can grate it over pasta or vegetables; you can melt it into casseroles or other dishes; you can add the rind to soup to lend more flavor, etc., etc., etc.

In short, it’s not called “The King of Cheeses” for nothing. On our recent trip to Italy, we were tootling along in the car one day, hoping to see a few castles in the countryside between Piacenza and Parma. Unfortunately it was a Monday, a day when castles and museums are closed. But lucky for us, I spotted the following building along a road near the town of Soragna:

“Make a U-turn. Quick,” I said to my husband. So he did – and we made a beeline back to the Caseificio Sociale Pongennaro, one of the approximately 450 dairies where the king of cheeses is made. And I do mean made. The consortium of parmigiano makers has adopted a slogan of “Non si fabbrica, si fa,” meaning that “Parmigiano is not manufactured, it’s made,” and this implies the use of time-honored methods and no preservatives or additives.

It can only be called parmigiano reggiano if the cows are raised and the cheese is made in any of four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
If you’re eating Grana Padano, its sister-cheese, you’re also eating a delicious cheese but one made under entirely different standards and from cows that are permitted a broader range of food and that are raised in an area that’s twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made.

For a cheese to be called parmigiano reggiano, the cows are permitted to eat forage, mainly hay, grown only in the designated region and the forage must not have been treated with additives nor heated by fermentation. The cows are not allowed to eat any animal by-products or food of animal origin.

Cheese made according to the long list of rules is branded with a variety of marks including the acronym D.O.P. which stands for the Protected Designation of Origin. The dairy is also identified,as well as the production month and year.
In the photo above, the cheese was made in February 2007, hence it was 24 months old when I took the photo.

The cheese is made every day, year round. By 4 a.m. cheesemakers start boiling the milk in huge copper cauldrons.

Unfortunately, we arrived too late to watch the cheesemakers stirring the mixture and draining the curds from the cauldron into molds, but were able to see the huge rounds of cheese as they sat immersed in large vats of salted water. Cheesemakers at the Caseificio Pongennaro make 36 forms a day, each weighing about 40 kilos, or 88 pounds, according to Mara Marenzoni, the wife of Raffaelo Rainieri, one of the 15 partners of the caseificio.

The large rounds of cheese sit for 20 days in the salted water before the aging begins. “You can’t call it parmigiano if it has less than one year of aging,” Mara said.

The longer the aging, the more complex the taste, although if it has aged much longer than 36 months, the cheese generally takes on a less desirable flavor. The 24-month aged cheese at Caseficio Pongennaro’s shop sells for 10.60 euros a kilo (about $14.00 for 2.2 pounds) while the 36-month aged parmigiano sells for 12.40 euros a kilo (about $16.00 for 2.2 pounds).

Now if you want to bring back a whole round of a 36-month aged parmigiano, it’ll set you back around $645.00. In Italy, it’s not uncommon to find them at weddings or banquets, split in half and served in chunks. However, it might be a little heavy to fit that much into your carry-on luggage. But you can always find room for a kilo or two.

I can leave it to other visitors to Italy to buy the Prada purses, the Armani suits and the Gucci shoes, but I never come back without a supply of Parmigiano cheese. There’s no prohibition against bringing back hard cheeses through U.S. customs and the quality is incomparable, especially if you’ve bought your cheese right at the dairy. The hard part is not eating it all in the first few days of your return. Buon appetito.