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Rice, Salami and Cheese Casserole

Hide your bathroom scales if you decide to make this one – it’s loaded with cheese, salami and eggs, but it’s oh so worth it. Just make sure to invite a lot of people over. Even after serving it to my Italian chit-chat group (and there were 16 of us at the table that day), I still had enough left over to share with two different neighbors, and for my own dinner. The recipe comes from my friend Milena, who hails from La Spezia, and who is part of that Italian chit-chat group. You can make it without the meat if you choose, but the salami gives it a nice, spicy accent. I used a mixture of a basic Genoa-type salami, and one that was coated with black pepper. You could skip the salami and use cubed ham instead if you prefer.

Here is the pile of cheeses that went into it – mozzarella, pecorino and parmesan. Milena’s original recipe also called for cheddar cheese, but I don’t think it needs it, so I left it out.

You mix the rice, cheeses and salami with some beaten eggs and milk and press it into a casserole.

Then poke holes all around the casserole and pour in more of the eggs and milk mixture.

Sprinkle some bread crumbs and paprika on top and bake for about 45 minutes.

It’s hard not to keep eating it, but with bathing suit season right around the corner, I had to control myself.

But not for long. Guess what was mid-morning snack the next day?

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Rice, Salami and Cheese Casserole
 
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Serves: 12-16 servings
Ingredients
  • 3 cups rice (I used arborio but long grain white rice is fine.)
  • 7 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter (8 tablespoons)
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ lb. diced Genoa salami
  • ½ lb. cubed or shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup grated cheese (I used a mixture of parmesan and pecorino)
  • 2 cups milk
Instructions
  1. Cook rice in water and salt.
  2. Add the butter and mix well.
  3. Add the cheeses and salami and mix well.
  4. Beat the eggs and milk, and add half to the cooked rice mixture.
  5. Put the rice mixture into a greased, ovenproof casserole. (mine was 9½ inches by 12 inches)
  6. With a fork, poke holes on the top and pour the rest of the milk-egg mixture over the rice.
  7. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and paprika.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees, covered for 45 minutes.
  9. Let it rest for five minutes before serving.

Fava Beans

Don’t you just love Spring when all those seasonal vegetables are back in the markets? Sure, you can get strawberries in December and asparagus in January, but who knows how far they had to travel. Where I live you can’t find fava beans except in the spring so when they appear you know they’ve got to be fresh. They’re sometimes called broad beans, and they have a creamy texture and distinct taste. The pods are somewhat thick and leathery with a fuzzy white interior. Shelling and cleaning the beans is somewhat of a process, but I have a trick to help make it easier. More on that later.
Fava beans are sometimes eaten raw, straight from the pod in Italy — with a chunk of pecorino and a glass of wine. That’s how I first learned to eat them, sitting around a table with my late husband’s cousins in Abruzzo. Here’s another riff on that duet – fava bean puree and pecorino bruschetta. I add mint to the puree giving it a bright springtime flavor that contrasts well with the sharp pecorino cheese.

 

I love the vibrant color that fava beans add to a dish. This salad’s got bibb lettuce, shaved fennel, red pepper, red onion, asparagus slices, fava beans and orange segments – topped with some fennel fronds and a sprig of mint – an herb that complements fava beans. Just a simple oil and vinegar dressing, but try using some of that colorful chive blossom vinegar I posted about here.
To prepare the favas, split the pod open with your fingernail (or knife) and remove the individual beans.
You’re still not home free because there’s an outer pod that you need to remove before getting to the inner bean. Most people boil the beans for a few minutes to soften the outer pod, then drop them into cold water. But if you lay the beans on a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer for 10 minutes, the outer shell will slip off easily.
The beans should pop free of their outer shells with minimal effort. If you’ve left them in the freezer too long and they’ve become too frozen, just wait a few minutes and they’ll thaw a bit.
The puree couldn’t be easier to make. You’ll be done in the time it takes to grill your bread.

 

Fava Bean Puree
printable recipe here

1/2 cup cleaned and cooked fava beans
2 T. extra virgin olive oil, as needed
about 10 mint leaves or more if desired
salt, pepper

Cook the fava beans in boiling water for about 10 minutes or until softened. Drain and cool them, then place them in a blender or food processor with the olive oil, the mint leaves, a good quality sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. If the mixture is too thick, add a few spoonfuls of water or more olive oil.
Serve with shaved pecorino cheese (or parmesan).

Pecorino Canestrato Cheese

 Pecorino Cheese – It all starts with sheep. And there are plenty of them in Abruzzo.  Drive through the countryside on any given day, and chances are, you’re bound to run into a shepherd (replete with a crook), scampering dogs and a straying flock.
But the traditional “transumanza” –  the twice-yearly migration of herds of sheep across hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous terrain to warmer climes – is gone. These days the shepherd is most likely just moving his flock to a nearby pasture or taking it to a place where a tractor trailor will transport the sheep using a hydraulic lift.
In Abruzzo and other regions where lamb is eaten more commonly than beef, pecorino cheese (pecora means sheep in Italian) is still made using sheep’s milk and little else, albeit with modern equipment.  I was lucky enough to see the process on a trip with four other women during the “Italy, In Other Words” writing workshop I attended in Abruzzo last month.
 
Thanks to owner Giulio Petronio, we toured the Azienda Zootecnica Gran Sasso, a farm in the countryside near Castel Del Monte. He explained the steps involved in making canestrato, a pecorino cheese that derives its name from the reed baskets (canestri) that were once used to shape the cheeses and impart their design.
Once a day, the sheep’s milk is heated in a large stainless steel vat and mixed with a natural rennet taken from a sheep’s stomach. After the milk reaches about 102 degrees Fahrenheit  (39 degrees Celcius), the mixture starts to thicken and lightly solidify.  At this point, Zurap, a Macedonia native in charge of the process, offered us a spoonful. It was like slurping cream in a gel-like state – and not too different in taste from panna cotta.
Next Zurap broke apart the solid milky mass, and we watched as two wire “combs” swirled around the vat, creating clumps of curds.
Zurap grabbed a corregated plastic tube attached at one end to the vat and flipped a switch, guiding the curds into the forms. The liquid whey drained out the bottom, while the curds remained.

 

As more of the whey drained away, Zurap returned to fill the forms a second, and a third time.
 Then he squeezed down on the curds, allowing even more of the liquid whey to fall to the bin below. The whey would later be heated again and used to make ricotta cheese (ri-cotta means twice cooked.)

 

 

The cheese needs to cool and rest a bit before it becomes solid enough to be released from the plastic mold into a salt water bath, allowing the cheese to form a rind. But before that, each mold is coded with numbers that identify where it was made and the specific batch of cheese.
Finally comes the aging, as the cheeses sit in a refrigerated storeroom. Some cheeses can be eaten immediately, and they will have a milder flavor.

 

The age of each cheese is found on the tags attached to the racks. For instance, this batch of cheese was made on 11-06-13. The first number refers to the year (2011), the second to the month (June) and the third number to the day it was made. Hence, this batch of cheese was made on June 13, 2011, a few days before we had arrived for our tour.

 

These cheeses were made in April. The few extra months of aging gives them a sharper taste. Mold that forms on the outside adds a unique flavor, but it will be washed off prior to sale. The oldest cheeses are aged no longer than one and a half years.
 Unfortunately, we didn’t get to taste the pecorino cheese while we were there. Giulio had to rush outside to tend to a mamma cow who was reluctant to enter the barn, where her newborn calf awaited.

 

As Giulio wrangled with his cow, we headed to nearby Castel Del Monte for an espresso at a bar in the center of town.
Turns out we weren’t the first Americans to have sipped a cup of Joe here. George Clooney beat us to it, when he was filming “The American” here a couple of years ago.
 After settling in at the cafe, we were surprised to see Giulio drive up in his truck, eager to catch up with us and offer a sample of his canestrato cheese.
 Giulio also sells the naturally-colored sheep’s wool to home knitters and to high-fashion houses in Italy, who use the wool to make sweaters and other clothes.

 

But for me, the cheese was the prize – golden colored, sharp and nutty-flavored, aged Pecorino.
Thank you Giorgio, and thank you Zurap, for giving us a look (and a taste) at how Pecorino Canestrato is made in Castel del Monte.