Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

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Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog and especially to those of you who take the time to leave a comment. It never ceases to amaze me how large and how far-reaching the food blog community has become and how generous so many of its members are.

A couple of days before Christmas I received a package in the mail from Joe of, just for submitting a recipe to his virtual Seven Fishes Christmas Eve feast.  Joe, a handsome young guy with Calabrian roots, (simmer down ladies, he just got married) tries to uphold the Italian traditions of his parents and ancestors in his terrific blog. The package he sent from his home in Massachusetts included some of his homemade roast peppers, a panettone, Italian hot chocolate mix and torrone.

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Then Claudia from Journey of Italian Cook, sent me this award that I will proudly sport on the side on my blog. Claudia, who is also of Italian descent, is a playwright who lives in Minnesota and also writes about food for the Minneapolis Italian Food Examiner. Thank you Claudia.

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Mother Nature was also generous to us a second time this month and left us with a fresh coating of snow for New Year’s Eve. I’ll leave you and 2009 with photos of a snowstorm that hit us the week before Christmas. Maybe we don’t have the warm ocean breezes of Miami or Honolulu, but then again, who can complain when you can chill your champagne in newly fallen snow, and the beautiful vistas to enjoy a bit of cross-country skiing are just a hop, skip and a jump from your home.

Buon Anno a tutti!

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Happy New Year!

Buon Anno!


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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Leftover Cheese Spread

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Got an odd remnant of roquefort, a small piece of parmesan and a little chip of cheddar sitting in your fridge? Or maybe a teensy bit of brie and a bite of boursin? You know, the odds and ends that are too small to serve to guests on a cheese tray, but not so large that you can ignore them either. This Christmas, we received a large amount of really fine cheeses from around the world, courtesy of my visiting brother-in-law and my son.

After a wine and cheese gathering with friends, a fair amount was consumed. One of the cheeses in particular has become my new favorite – a triple cream brie called brillat savarin. It was the smallest cheese on the board, and it was covered with bits of fruit that I originally thought were cranberries, but turned out to be papaya. It’s the only cheese that was totally gone by the end of the night – mostly due to the fact that it was positioned right next to me and my gluttony took over, I confess. Here’s a shot of the soft cheese tray, including the brillat savarin at the bottom left.

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And here are the hard cheeses that made it onto the tray. I kept an aged gruyere in the fridge for another use. I didn’t get a shot of the entire tray, so there are a couple you can’t see. But what you can see is how much cheese we received and how dangerous this was going to be to my hips.

December 2009 340 That’s where the cheese spread comes in. The leftover bits were not large enough to make an attractive display the second time around on a cheese tray. The humboldt fog blue cheese made its way into a cheese souffle (to be posted later), and the rest was reincarnated into a cheese spread. The recipe was inspired by one from Jacques Pepin called fromage fort (strong cheese), but I tweaked it a bit with the addition of herbs and brandy.

Just grate the cheeses in a food processor, add some white wine and brandy or sherry, some garlic and herbs and voila! You’ve got a great spread for crackers or bread rounds just in time for New Year’s Eve.

The recipe makes about 2 – 2 1/2 cups of cheese spread. You can cut the recipe in half if you don’t have as much leftover cheese as I did. From my cache (about 1 pound), I divided the spread into two separate crocks and plan to freeze one for later use.

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Leftover Cheese Spread

  • 1 pound leftover cheese, with rind sliced off and cut into pieces  (I used a variety of robiola, morbier, affine au chablis, Wisconsin grand queso, beemster aged gouda and even a little cream cheese left over from the smoked salmon Christmas morning breakfast)
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 T. brandy
  • 1 T. chopped fresh thyme
  • black pepper, salt to taste

Grate the hard cheeses using a grater or food processor disc. Add the soft cheeses, and the rest of the ingredients. Pulse until everything is blended to the desired smoothness. Spoon into a crock or small bowl and let it sit for at least an hour, or preferably overnight, to blend the flavors.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Panna Cotta

December 2009 221-1 Looking for a quick, easy but elegant dessert to ring in the new year? Look no further than this Italian dessert of panna cotta, which literally translates to “cooked cream.”  While heavy cream and sugar aren’t exactly diet friendly, it is the holidays after all and this recipe does include some yogurt. Well now, that settles it. It’s downright nutritious too! And did I say delicious? Surrounded by a moat of raspberry sauce and a central jumble of fresh berries, it’s a festive dessert and one you’ll want to keep in your back pocket for other special occasions too, like Valentine’s Day.

Make sure you use a real vanilla bean and good vanilla extract, not vanilla flavoring. The good folks at Marx Foods were kind enough to send me some Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla beans to try. Tahitian vanilla beans are usually shorter, plumper, and contain a higher oil and water content than Madagascar or Bourbon beans. When compared to Madagascar vanilla beans, they have a slightly more fruity and floral aroma, but an equally rich vanilla flavor. For this recipe, I used one of the Tahitian beans, but the Madagascar would work just as well.

If you’ve never used real vanilla beans, you won’t believe the fragrance they exude once you split open the bean and unveil those little seeds that resemble miniature black caviar eggs. Naturally all that vanilla goodness imbues itself into whatever recipe you’re using, but it’s particularly noticeable in dishes like panna cotta, crème brulee or homemade vanilla ice cream.

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This dessert  literally goes together in ten minutes, then you can pour it into individual ramekins, or use a tube ring for a large crowd. I used a 5-cup ring and oiled the pan just ever so slightly, to help release the panna cotta.

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When you’re ready to unmold, run a knife around the edge of the metal tube pan, place a dish over the top and flip. If it seems ornery and unwilling to plop out, wet a dish towel with hot water and place over the metal, or dip the metal mold into a bit of hot water. You may have to repeat it a few times, but it should release with no problem. Surround with the raspberry sauce and fill the center hole with the mixed berries. Look at all those specks of vanilla bean.

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Unless you’re lactose intolerant, bet you won’t be able to resist this:

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Recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa At Home

The yogurt in this recipe makes it not quite authentically Italian, but it adds a nice tang without being sour. I used a little less yogurt than the recipe called for. She also serves it with balsamic strawberries on the side, recipe below. My recipe for the mixed berries and the raspberry sauce follows.

Panna Cotta


  • 1 packet (2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin powder
  • 3 tablespoons cold water
  • 3 cups heavy cream, divided
  • 2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt (I used two 6-oz. containers of plain Greek yogurt)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1  vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
  • 3/4 cup sugar

Balsamic Strawberries

  • 4 pints (8 cups) sliced fresh strawberries
  • 5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated lemon zest, for serving


In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin on 3 tablespoons of cold water. Stir and set aside for 10 minutes to allow the gelatin to dissolve.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of the cream, the yogurt, vanilla extract, and vanilla bean seeds. Heat the remaining 1 1/2 cups of cream and the sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Off the heat, add the softened gelatin to the hot cream and stir to dissolve. Pour the hot cream-gelatin mixture into the cold cream-yogurt mixture and stir to combine. Pour into 8 (6 to 8-ounce) ramekins or custard cups (or one large mold) and refrigerate uncovered until cold. When the panna cottas are thoroughly chilled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Combine the strawberries, balsamic vinegar,  tablespoon sugar, and pepper 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving. Set aside at room temperature.

To serve, run a small knife around each dessert in the ramekin and dip the bottom of each ramekin quickly in a bowl of hot tap water. Invert each ramekin onto a dessert plate and surround the panna cotta with strawberries. Dust lightly with freshly grated lemon zest and serve.

Raspberry Sauce:
Boil together one 10- or 12-ounce package of frozen raspberries, 2 T. water and 1/4 cup sugar. Boil for about five minutes, then force through a strainer. Add 1 tsp. lemon juice and refrigerate.

Mixed Berries

Buy fresh mixed berries (I used 1 pt. raspberries, 1/2 pt. blackberries and 1/2 pt. blueberries) Mix with some sugar (about 1/2 cup), juice of one orange and the rind, zested. Stir and let sit for at least one hour.

Serve the mixed berries in the center of the panna cotta, or on the side if making individual ones, and surround with the raspberry sauce.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Italian Presepi

presepio=Madonna of the well church

It would be hard to find a church without a presepio at Christmas time in Italy. Those are the nativity scenes that depict the newborn baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph, the three wise men and sometimes scores of other people too.  Yes, you see them in churches in the U.S. at Christmastime too, but in Italy, you’ll find them not only in churches, but everywhere – in shop windows, in museums, as special displays in public spaces, and almost every home as well. And in Italy, they’re elevated to an art form – whether they’re made of terracotta, wood, paper mache or other materials. They can be rustic or ornately crafted such as the one above. You’ll often see the setting change from beautiful baroque backgrounds to perhaps a rustic farmhouse like the one below. Notice the bagpiper, an instrument that’s played not only in Scotland, but in many parts of Italy as well, like Molise and Abruzzo:

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This one below looks like it could have been set in a 17th century Neapolitan neighborhood, not surprising since the most famous presepio makers are from Naples, where there’s an entire street dedicated to presepio shops.

nativity scene1

This nativity scene looks like it’s set amid Roman ruins:

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This one is modeled after a street in Rome called Via Giulia, complete with a fountain that still exists there:

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Although you can’t tell from the photo, this presepio at Rome’s Spanish Steps has nearly life-size figures.

presepio scene - Spanish steps

On the other extreme, this one from the Alpine town of Bressanone has miniature figurines set inside an earthenware jug:

presepe in gourd

Almost all Italian presepi (plural of presepio) contain figurines at work – from washerwomen to millers to bakers, like this fellow about to put some loaves into the oven:

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Or this fellow sharpening some knives. Many times the figures are mechanized and become animated. Rome’s Piazza Navona is a wonderland of small stalls at Christmas time, with merchants selling all sorts of presepio figurines (in addition to great torrone and other holiday candies.)

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Look at the detailed cheeses, meats and peppers hanging from the rod in the scene below:

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Pastry shops get into the act as well, like this one that sells cakes with a built-in presepio made of sugar. You can find a presepio made of almost anything you can think of. We’ve even seen them made entirely of figurines based on Pinocchio, the story written by the Italian author Carlo Collodi.

Christmas cake

And since this is Italy, don’t be surprised to see one made of pasta like the one below:

Pasta Presepio

The one below made of a styrofoam meat tray has a special story and meaning for us. We were living in Rome several years ago and our adult children came to visit at Christmas. We had schlepped them around the city to see all the presepi that we loved so much. We celebrated in a quiet way, just the four of us attending a glorious Christmas Eve midnight mass at St. Peter’s basilica and cooking a simple meal at home.  We decided to make our own presepio using a styrofoam tray from the market, with a little different twist on the nativity scene.

If you’re wondering what Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Linus are doing amid Mary, Joseph and the wise men, you have to realize that watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a tradition that we maintain every year, whether we’re apart or together. Our son brought over a DVD of the show and we watched it together on my laptop computer in our Rome apartment. Seeing Charlie Brown holding his puny tree, Linus as a shepherd and Snoopy as part of the nativity scene just seemed right to us then and now. We wrapped up our styrofoam presepio when we moved back to the U.S. and each Christmas I look forward to displaying it and reliving the memories of one of the best Christmases ever.

styrofoam presepio

The last presepio is not located in Italy, but in the U.S. and it’s one of the most elegant, beautiful presepio scenes ever. It’s erected every year at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its Christmas tree display, and this is only a small section of it. You might have guessed though - it was made in Italy. Buon Natale.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Swordfish For Christmas Eve Fish Feast

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In many Italian-American households, the Christmas eve meal is a multi-course fish extravaganza. Our household was no different, as my mother prepared fried smelts, baccala, pasta with squid and scores of other seafood specialties. I’ll never forget the Christmas Eve when my grandfather decided to decapitate the eels in the kitchen sink, just below my mother’s white lace curtains. I’m not sure what became more flaming red – my mother’s temper or the formerly white curtains! 

I don’t remember keeping count of whether we had 7 or 13 different dishes, but there was always a variety, and there were always neighbors popping in until the wee hours to savor some of the bounty. It’s a tradition I’ve been maintaining since I got married and continues today, although the variety of dishes has changed.

We’re likely to start off with a cold seafood salad, shrimp cocktail and maybe an octopus and potato salad. I made it for the first time last year and it was gone in a flash.


For the main event, there has to be stuffed squid in tomato sauce for sure, a dish my Abruzzese mother-in-law makes and that now my son prepares. It’s an all-time favorite.


The smelts and other fried seafood have been replaced with dishes that don’t use heaps of oil, such as seafood risotto:


and fillet of sole stuffed with shrimp.


I try to include baccala, the salt cod that has a distinctive flavor, but rather than deep fry it, I’ll use it to make either codfish cakes or baccala mantecato, a creamy seafood spread that I’ll serve with grilled polenta squares.

I still haven’t figured out the whole menu, but another dish that may make the cut for the Christmas eve table is this Mediterranean-style swordfish. It’s got all the flavors of Southern Italy with its capers, olives and tomatoes, and is delicious with not only swordfish, but other kinds of seafood, like tuna or cod.

This swordfish dish takes me back to Calabria and a town called Scilla, where several years ago, my husband and I, along with my brother-in-law Joe, ate nearly the identical meal at a restaurant overlooking the Ruffo castle, a fortress that was built by the Dukes of Calabria. Scylla is also the name of the sea monster in Greek mythology who is said to have swallowed six of Odysseus’ men in Homer’s Odyssey, right here near the straits of Messina.  I have to admit that while my dish is delicious, nothing compares to eating it with the view of the Mediterranean Sea. But maybe if Scylla had tried my version, he’d have preferred it to Odysseus’ men.

This swordfish dish is also my entry for the virtual Feast of The Seven Fishes that Joe of is running.


Joe’s accepting entries until December 18, and is offering a gift to a lucky someone chosen at random, so hurry and get your offering in. Buon Natale!

Mediterranean-Style Swordfish

printable recipe here

3 T. olive oil

1/4 cup minced onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 green pepper, minced

3 T. capers

olives (I used about 8 Kalamata olives that I pitted and smashed, but you could leave them whole. To pit, take an olive, put it on a chopping board and smash it, using a can from your pantry)

1 small can of diced tomatoes (about 15 oz.)

1/4 cup white wine

salt, pepper

2 T. dried basil (or fresh if available)

swordfish (I used a one-pound piece, but this sauce is enough for two pounds)

chopped parsley

Saute the onion, garlic and green pepper in the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, white wine, capers and olives, salt, pepper and basil. Simmer for about 20 minutes, then add the swordfish. Cover and cook another 10 minutes at a low simmer. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Baba Au Rhum

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Baba au rhum is a dessert commonly found in Italy, particularly Naples and Southern Italy, but not so well known to Americans. It’s really a yeast dough, similar to a brioche, that is baked in a Bundt pan or some other form, and soaked with a rum and sugar syrup. It’s typically served with a vanilla custard or pudding, which only adds to its already decadently boozy appeal.

I was won over to the dessert in 1992 when my town of Princeton initiated a sister-city exchange with a small village in the region of Molise, and I was in charge of public relations. My family joined the delegation from Princeton and headed to the small village – Pettoranello - to celebrate.  As part of the festivities, each member of the delegation was invited to lunch at the home of a local family. My family hit the jackpot when we got invited to the home of Mario and Anna Maria Canzano.

What a feast they prepared – starting with octopus salad using the olive oil made from the family’s olive groves. Two homemade pastas followed, then a braised veal dish,  several vegetable dishes and a platter featuring the soft fresh cheeses of the region. Throughout the meal, wines made by the family from their own vineyards were served, and for dessert Anna Maria  outdid herself with a tiramisu and a baba au rhum.  At some point, I’ll post the recipe for Anna Maria’s tiramisu dessert, which is the best I’ve ever eaten. For now, try her baba au rhum, which is not so difficult as you might think.

The pan used for the baba above is not your typical Bundt pan, but one owned by my friend Lilli, who also makes a memorable baba.  She bought the pan in Italy and it does make for a spectacular presentation, more so than the normal Bundt pan. I am always on the lookout for such a pan when I travel to Italy, but haven’t been able to find one like it yet. In the meantime, I’ll keep calling Lilli to borrow hers.

This baba will easily serve 20 people.

Baba Au Rhum

Printable Recipe Here

6 eggs

1 stick butter

2 3/4 cup sifted flour

2 1/2 tsp. yeast

1/4 cup water

dash of salt

1/4 cup sugar


4 cups water

4 cups sugar

1 cup rum

grated rind of a lemon

Put the water, half of the sugar and the yeast in a mixing bowl and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes or until yeast starts to bubble and rise. When it has started to rise, add the flour, the rest of the sugar, the salt and the eggs, beating in one at a time. Add the softened butter. Mixture will be sticky. If it’s too sticky to mix with your hands, add a bit more flour until you’re able to knead for a few minutes until the dough is smooth.

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Place it into a buttered and floured Bundt pan or angel food cake pan.

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Cover with waxed paper that’s been buttered on one side so it doesn’t stick to the dough as it rises and place in a warm place. Let it rise anywhere from two to four hours, or until it reaches about triple the original amount or the top of your pan. The length of time will depend on the temperature in your room where you placed the pan.

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Bake in a 375 degree oven about 25 to 30 minutes.

While it is baking, prepare the syrup by cooking the water and sugar over high heat about five minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn off heat and add lemon rind and rum. Let cool a little and poke holes all over the cake with a wooden skewer. I like to pour half of the syrup over the cake while it’s in the pan, invert the cake, then pour the other half of the syrup over the cake when it’s in the serving plate. It may seem like a lot of liquid, but the cake will absorb it all, have no fear. Serve with pastry cream, if desired.

If you don’t feel like going to the extra trouble of making the pastry cream from scratch, here’s a good alternative:

Buy a small box of vanilla pudding. Make that according to package directions, then whip 1/2 cup of heavy cream with a mixer and fold into the pudding.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

From The Heart of Lidia – part two

grand marshall Lidia

Was she waving at me? Well, I’d like to think so when I snapped this picture in 2007. Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, seen here as Grand Marshal in New York City’s Columbus Day Parade, has just written “Lidia Cooks From The Heart of Italy” with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali.  In this second part of a two-part interview, the beloved chef, entrepreneur, and restaurateur talks to Ciao Chow Linda about her Christmas menu, cooking for the Pope and thoughts about the future. Did you miss part one of the interview? Click here to read it.

 Q. Viewers salivate over the dishes you prepare on your TV show, but what do you really prepare at home for your family and what are some of their favorites?

A. A lot circles around the kids – They like chicken and potatoes, lobster and risotto, soups. I get a lot of requests from the mothers for something they can take home with them. I package it up for them to take home for the kids during the week. Even Sunday we’ll do some cooking for them for when they come but also two extra pots for them to take away, whether it’s sauce or vegetable soup. Mothers with young kids today are running all over the place.

For the chicken, I cut it in pieces, just cook it on top of the stove in the skillet, with rosemary, garlic, onions, and throw in the potatoes as well, one of these one-pot meals. I have sausage and grapes, chicken in pieces and olives in the new cookbook - one of those one pot meals. 

sausages with grapes 2 

sausages and grapes (photo courtesy of Lidia)

Q. Do you prepare the feast of seven fishes for Christmas eve?

A. Yes, we have seafood, but the seven or 13 fishes is more Southern Italian. We may have sardines, or baccala mantecato or octopus salad.

Q. What are some of the traditional things you prepare for Christmas or Christmas eve dinner?

A. First it’s a soup or pasta or risotto, then a roast. Goose was traditionally what I remember. If you go back to December when I was growing up, it was usually the courtyard animals - goose, duck, capon, roasted rabbit. Rarely was it veal because they wouldn’t just slaughter veal that time of year. It’s the courtyard animal roast and root vegetables – potatoes and game, or polenta or gnocchi with sauces made with game, lepre, hare, venison. Now what I do is the roasts. I use pork. I love a roasted rack of pork or even a shoulder.

Q. Do you like other kinds of cuisine besides Italian?

A. I like to discover all kinds of cuisine. There are so many. I like Asian - Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, I’m getting into the Middle Eastern cuisine now - Moroccan, Egyptian, Lebanese food. I find them intriguing. They’re not too far from Italy. Go to Sicily and you’ll see where the Sicilians got their influence for their cuisine.

Q. When you eat out at a restaurant other than your own, what are some of your favorites?

A. I have a lot of friends in the business. I certainly go to the newly-opened ones to wish them well.  I really like to go to the little ethnic neighborhoods and get into those cuisines as true as best to form. Sometimes it backfires but sometimes you get a man or woman behind the stove who really knows how to cook well.

Q. What’s the hardest part about the work?

A. It’s the hours, the long hours of standing. I think at the end of the day you look forward to plopping down.

Q. Who came up with your signature slogan “Tutti a tavola a mangiare?”

A. When we first started the shows, in thinking about the closing of a show, we thought about how do you want to leave? When you cook something, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare,” it’s just a natural saying.

Q. If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?

A. Simple things, like a slice of great prosciutto, perfectly ripe figs, perfect al dente linguine with clam sauce, a perfectly roasted stinco, Fruiliana wine and grappa at the end. I like sweets, but they’re not that important to Italians.

chocolate bread parfait                                                                         chocolate bread parfait (photo courtesy of Lidia)

Q. Can you name some chefs that you admire, living or dead?

A.  A lot are Italian and not well known here, for example, Lidia Alcianti of Guido’s restaurants in Piemonte;  Luigi Caputo from Torino; and my Zia Nina, who was a spectacular cook and very influential to me. For more contemporary and better known chefs in the United States, I would say Julia child. Not so much for the cuisine, which is French traditional, but more for her approach and easiness. My TV presence owes a lot to her and the uncomplex, straightforward mannerism that she had.

Q. Would you say that being chosen as the cook for Pope Benedict’s visit to New York last year was the highlight of your career so far?

Lidia_with_Pope_08 photo from

A. I think that’s about as celestial as you get. Initially I was nervous, but then we became good friends. Food has a wonderful way of connecting and opening doors and becoming a common venue for things. In the beginning, there was the planning and all of that. I feel very close to him now.

Q. You’ve already achieved so much in your career.  Is there anything left that you want to accomplish?

A. No, just do more of what we’re already doing. It’s not something where I’m checking off a list. The opportunities come as you evolve in what you do. Each thing takes you somewhere else. You’re doing something and a natural follow up presents itself. What happens with me in the future means I want to do the best I can. There’s always figuring out the economics.  I want the product to be beautiful first. And then I make the money. I want to do it the best I can.

  Lidia book 


Salsiccia all’Uva

Recipe from “Lidia Cooks From The Heart of Italy”

printable recipe here

Serves 6

The Umbrian town of Norcia is, among other distinctions, so famous for the skill of its pork butchers and the quality of their products that the term norcineria throughout Italy designates a shop that purveys pork and pork specialties of the highest quality—and nothing else.

This is one of the memorable pork dishes that I discovered in Umbria recently. And though there are no sausages better than those made by an Umbrian Norcino in his hometown, this will be wonderful with any good quality sweet sausage available in yours. The name—Sausages in the Skillet with Grapes—describes the ingredients and cooking method perfectly. Just keep in mind that the cooking here is slow and gentle, not high- temperature grilling as one usually does with sausages.

One quarter cup extra-virgin olive oil

8 plump garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

2 and a half pounds sweet Italian sausages, preferably without fennel seeds (8 or more sausages, depending on size)

1/2 teaspoon peperoncino flakes, or to taste

1 1/4 pounds seedless green grapes, picked from the stem and washed (about 3 cups)

Recommended equipment: A heavy-bottomed skillet or saute pan, 12- inch diameter or larger, with a cover

Pour the olive oil into the skillet, toss in the garlic cloves, and set it over low heat. When the garlic is sizzling, lay in all the sausages in one layer, and cover the pan. Cook the sausages slowly, turning and moving them around the skillet occasionally; after 10 minutes or so, sprinkle the peperoncino in between the sausages. Continue low and slow cooking for 25 to 30 minutes in all, until the sausages are cooked through and nicely browned all over. Remove the pan from the burner, tilt it, and carefully spoon out excess fat.

Set the skillet back over low heat, and scatter in the grapes. Stir and tumble them in the pan bottom, moistening them with meat juices. Cover, and cook for 10 minutes or so, until the grapes begin to soften, wrinkle, and release their own juices. Remove the cover, turn the heat to high, and boil the pan juices to concentrate them to a syrupy consistency, stirring and turning the sausages and grapes frequently to glaze them.

To serve family-style: arrange the sausages on a warm platter, topped with the grapes and pan juices. Or serve them right from the pan (cut in half, if large), spooning grapes and thickened juices over each portion.

Lidia’s Chocolate Bread Parfait

Pane di Cioccolato al Cucchiaio

printable recipe here

From “Lidia Cooks From The Heart of Italy”

Serves 6

This recalls for me the chocolate and bread sandwiches that sometimes were my lunch, and always a special treat. And it is another inventive way surplus is used in Umbrian cuisine, with leftover country bread serving as the foundation of an elegant layered dessert. Though it is soaked with chocolate and espresso sauce and buried in whipped cream, the bread doesn’t disintegrate, and provides a pleasing textural contrast in every heavenly spoonful.

8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

8 ounces country style white bread, crusts removed

One half cup freshly brewed espresso

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream

1 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Recommended equipment: A large rimmed tray or baking sheet, such as a half- sheet pan

(12 by 18 inches); a spouted measuring cup, 1 pint or larger; 6 parfait glasses or wineglasses, preferably balloon-shaped

Put the chopped chocolate in a bowl set in a pan of hot (not boiling) water. When the chocolate begins to melt, stir until completely smooth. Keep it warm, over the water, off the heat.

Slice the bread into half-inch-thick slices, and lay them flat in one layer, close together, on the tray or baking sheet.

Pour the warm espresso into a spouted measuring cup, stir in the rum and sugar until sugar dissolves, then stir in half the melted chocolate. Pour the sauce all over the bread slices, then flip them over and turn them on the tray, to make sure all the surfaces are coated. Let the bread absorb the sauce for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, whip the cream until soft peaks form, by hand or with an electric mixer.

To assemble the parfaits: Break the bread into 1- inch pieces. Use half the pieces to make the bottom parfait layer in the six serving glasses, dropping an equal amount of chocolatey bread into each. Scrape up some of the unabsorbed chocolate sauce that remains on the baking sheet, and drizzle a bit over the bread layers. Next, drop a layer of whipped cream in the glasses, using up half the cream. Top the cream layer with toasted almonds, using half the nuts.

Repeat the layering sequence: drop more soaked bread into each glass, drizzle over it the chocolate sauce from the tray and the remaining melted chocolate. Dollop another layer of whipped cream in the glasses, using it all up, and sprinkle the remaining almonds on top of each parfait. This dessert is best when served immediately while the melted chocolate is still warm and runny.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Polenta Festa

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I’m lucky enough to be involved with a wonderful Italian cultural institution that over the years, has held monthly programs on subjects such as Renaissance art and architecture, operatic as well as Italian folk music, and literary readings by Italian authors.  But by far the most popular event is our annual polenta festa, held last Sunday. That’s the day when the rooms spill over with people from the community who eagerly gather to share their favorite polenta dish at the table, laden with offerings. You never know what you might find – or who might be there – including Nobel laureate John Nash, a regular to the event.

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Here are some snapshots of what was offered: Alessandra’s polenta with mushrooms in a brown sauce – and Milena’s polenta with porcini mushrooms in a tomato sauce:


  Joe’s polenta with lentils and homemade cotechino:

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Eleanor’s polenta with melted cheese and sausage, or in the style of the Trentino region, polenta with sausage, Asiago cheese, grana padano and sage:

Ciao Chow Linda’s taragna polenta with pumpkin bits, topped with caponata, sun-dried tomatoes or parmesan cheese:

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There’s usually music too:

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And polenta desserts too, like this wonderfully moist and flavorful polenta almond cake that Gilda brought:

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Or Carla’s polenta upside-down caramel orange cake:

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Also check out my post about an automated polenta maker – click here for Il Paiolo.

Now for a couple of recipes:

Gilda’s almond polenta cake

(from a Martha Stewart recipe)

printable recipe here:

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1/2 cup whole blanched almonds

1/2 cup finely ground polenta (cornmeal)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 T. cornstarch

1 t. baking powder

1 t. salt

12 T. unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks) room temperature, plus 2 T. melted, for pan

1 cup sugar, plus more for pan

3 large eggs

3 T. freshly squeezed orange juice

1/2 t. pure vanilla extract

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread sliced almonds in a single layer on a small baking sheet. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a shallow bowl; set aside to cool. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, finely grind whole almonds; set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground almonds, polenta, flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt; set aside. Pour melted butter into an 8 by 2-inch round cake pan, swirling to coat bottom and brushing up sides of the pan. Sprinkle with sugar and toasted sliced almonds; set aside.
  3. Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating to combine after each addition. Beat in orange juice and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients, slowly beating just until combined.
  4. Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tested inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer baking pan to wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Remove cake from pan, and cool completely.

Carla’s Caramel Orange Polenta Cake

printable recipe here

Caramel Orange Layer     350 oven 9” round pan

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into bits

2 navel oranges


1 ¾ sticks unsalted butter softened

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

2 tsp orange-flower water (or juice of orange)

½ cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

2 cups ground almonds (sliced toasted in oven first)

2/3 cup quick-cooking polenta flour


¼ cup orange marmalade

1 tablespoon water

Prepare Caramel Orange Layer

-Lightly butter 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom and side with parchment.

-Grate zest from oranges and reserve for cake.  Cut remaining peel and white pith off oranges and cut crosswise into ¼ inch slices.

-Place sugar in small saucepan over medium heat, swirling pan regularly (do not use utensils to stir) until sugar has dissolved…watch carefully during process and continue to swirl pan until sugar has turned to liquid amber color.

-Remove from heat and add butter, swirling pan until incorporated, then carefully but quickly pour caramel into cake pan, tilting to coat evenly…caramel will begin to harden so work fast.

- Remove any seeds from slices of orange and arrange slices in 1 layer over caramel.


-Beat butter with sugar using electric mixer until just combined.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each one.  Mix in zest and orange water.

-Wisk together flour, baking powder and salt.  With mixer on low, add almonds, polenta and flour mixture into egg mixture until just combined.

-Spread batter evenly over oranges.  Bake in center of 350 degree oven until wooden pick inserted in middle comes out clean 45-60 minutes.  Cool 5 minutes.  Invert on plate.


-Heat marmalade with water until melted.  Can strain but I like pieces of orange.  Brush on cake.

-Serve warm or room temperature.