Monday, August 29, 2011

Lidia's Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

This is a delayed blog post due to Hurricane Irene, which has left me and most of Princeton without power. I'm likely to be without power for a while yet (basement waters are receding thankfully), but I've latched onto wifi here at Princeton University, which had power even during the hurricane. (I guess a $14 billion endowment helps buy extra generators - or maybe a private power plant.) I wanted to post this recipe and get on board with other bloggers who posted last week in tribute to Lidia Bastianich, one of the "50 Women Game Changers In Food." Read below for details.

I love my family, don't get me wrong -- but in my next life, I want to come back as the daughter of Lidia Bastianich - or maybe daughter-in-law. Or even the dog. I'll bet the family canine eats as well as the humans in that household. Aside from her recipes, which are all winners, there's something about Lidia that just makes you feel at home. I love watching her show, not only for the great food she creates,and the gorgeous Italian locales, but also for the warm family atmosphere that exudes in her home kitchen. She genuinely loves what she's doing, she loves her family (Oh those adorable grandchildren, and that charming mother of hers!) and she loves her viewers. Having met her, her son, daughter and her mom on several occasions, I can tell you she is just as wonderful in person as she is on television.

I've interviewed her in the past, and you can find those posts here and here. They'll give you a little more insight into the woman from Istria who turned her creative cooking talents into an empire - restaurants in New York, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, award-winning television shows and numerous cookbooks, with a new one  - Lidia's Italy in America - coming out this fall. 

Oh, and let's not forget her line of cooking products and kitchenware, and that she opened the Italian food emporium Eataly, along with Mario Batali and her son Joe.

 I've eaten at all her New York City restaurants, starting from when she and her son Joe ran Frico Bar, at Ninth Ave. and 43rd Street. When it closed in 1999, I mourned the loss of Frico Bar, where you could always find the eponymous Friulian dish made with montasio cheese. But when Esca opened in the same spot, (owned by Lidia, her son and Mario Batali), I fell in love again with the seafood menu there too. From the casual Becco with its trio of pastas, to the more formal Felidia, to the uber elegant and delectable Del Posto, Lidia's restaurants are among my favorite anywhere in the world.

A fellow blogger, Mary of "One Perfect Bite" started a series called "50 Women Game Changers in Food," highlighting women who have been influential in the food industry. I haven't been participating, but when I saw that my favorite chef was featured this week, there was no holding me back. The only problem was deciding which of her recipes to make.

I went to the garden for inspiration yesterday and picked a slew of plum tomatoes ahead of Hurricane Irene, which is expected to hit us in Central Jersey tonight. While Lidia's recipe calls for baking the tomatoes in the oven, I roasted mine on the grill, using a disposable aluminum pan. The longer and slower they cook, the more concentrated the flavor, and the bread crumb topping does indeed get crispy even on the grill. Keep it at a low temperature, or you're likely to burn the bottoms of the tomatoes. The tomatoes alone make a delicious side dish, but added to the pasta, you've got a great meal. Just add a green salad.

Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

Recipe from Lidia's Italy   
serves 6    printable recipe here

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs -- coarsely crushed

2 tablespoons capers -- drained and chopped 

2 tablespoons fresh basil -- chopped

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon peperoncino flakes

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 1/3 cups grated Pecorino Romano (or parmigiano)

10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed

1 1/2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes

2 plump garlic cloves -- sliced

1 pound long fusilli -- fusilli lunghi (or other pasta)

Set a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 375ยบ 

Put the bread crumbs in a medium-sized bowl and mix the chopped capers, 1 tablespoon of chopped basil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the red pepper flakes, oregano and 1/3 cup grated cheese. Drizzle 4 tablespoons of olive oil over the crumbs tossing to moisten and mix thoroughly

Rinse and dry the tomatoes and slice them in half lengthwise. Oil the baking sheet lightly with a bit of the olive oil, working over the bowl of bread crumbs, cover the cut side of each tomato half with a layer of crumb mixture. Compress the crumbs lightly so they stay on and set the tomato crumbs up on the baking sheet. Separate tomatoes as much as possible on the sheet, so all sides are exposed to the heat, drizzle with more olive oil and place in oven.

Pour 4 tablespoons olive oil in small bowl, drop in garlic slice and let steep--you'll use the infused oil for dressing the pasta.

Roast the tomatoes for 30 minutes until the crumbs are nicely browned and the halves are slightly shriveled. Remove sheet from the oven and let tomatoes cool for 15 minutes or so, then slice each one lengthwise, making two narrow wedges, or 3 or 4 if tomatoes are very large.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in 6 quarts of salted water until al dente. Heat a pasta serving bowl with a cup or so of boiling pasta water and drain. Lift pasta out with tongs, when cooked to your liking, and place in warm bowl. 

Immediately scatter with garlic-infused oil and garlic slices and toss well, top with tomato wedges and serve with additional chopped basil and grated cheese.

The following bloggers are also paying tribute to Lidia Bastianich, so stop by and pay them a visit too.

Val - More Than Burnt Toast

Joanne - Eats Well With Others

Taryn - Have Kitchen Will Feed

Susan - The Spice Garden

Claudia - A Seasonal Cook in Turkey

Heather - girlichef

Miranda - Mangoes and Chutney

Jeanette - Healthy Living

April - Abby Sweets 

Katie - Making Michael Pollan Proud

Mary - One Perfect Bite

Kathleen -Bake Away with Me

Viola - The Life is Good Kitchen

Sue - The View from Great Island

Barbara - Movable Feasts

Kathleen - Gonna Want Seconds

Amy - Beloved Green

Jeanette - Healthy Living 

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pisarei E Faso

Nearly every region of Italy has its own version of pasta and beans and pisarei e faso is the specialty of the area around Piacenza, where most of my relatives live. For people who don't know where Piacenza is, it's a city of about 100,000 people that's south of Milan, but north of Florence. I've been eating pisarei e faso for decades on my visits there, but this was the first time I actually made the dish. With the help of my cousin Lucia, I learned how to make it on my recent trip. With the help of my son Michael, who took this two-minute video, you can see how it's done too.

Click on the small triangle at the lower left of the video. A little pop-up box that enables you to share the video keeps sprouting up, but if you click on the small "x" at the top of the pop-up box, it goes away.

Here's how you make the pisarei - you need just bread crumbs, flour and water. 

It's time consuming to make a big bunch, so get a friend or family member involved -- it goes faster and it's more fun. 

Make the sauce before you start making the pisarei, so you can be ready to eat as soon as you've boiled the pisarei. Drain the pasta directly into the saucepan.

The final step was a sprinkling of grana padano cheese, from caseificio Santa Vittoria, which we had toured earlier in the day.

Pisarei e Faso

Serves four

printable recipe here

for the pisarei:

3/4 cup fine bread crumbs

1 1/2 cup flour

1 T. oil

about 1/4 cup boiling water

about 1/4 cup cold water

Add the boiling water to the bread crumbs and mix until it's the consistency of sand. Wait until the mixture has come to room temperature, then add the flour, oil and cold water. Knead it for several minutes until it forms a dough. Then break off a small chunk and roll it with the palms of your hand into a narrow roll. Break off small bits of dough and using your thumb, press each bit down onto a wooden board and roll away from the body, until you get a small gnoccho. It should look somewhat like a little bean.


a small piece of lard or pancetta, cut into bits (about 1/4 cup)

3 T. olive oil

about 2 cups of canned tomatoes

about two cups of cooked borlotti beans, or dried beans that have been soaked

1 stalk of celery, finely minced

1 t. sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 cup water

a bit of parsley

Saute the lard or pancetta in the olive oil, and add the tomatoes. Let it come to a simmer then add the beans, the celery, sugar salt, water and parsley. My cousin doesn't saute the celery with the olive oil because she says it becomes bitter that way. Add it when you add the tomatoes. Cook for about 20 minutes to a half hour.

When the sauce is ready, bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook the pisarei in the boiling water until tender then drain directly into the sauce. The sauce should be very loose. Add more water until reaching the right consistency.

Serve with grated grana padano cheese.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Grana Padano

How would you like to be in a temperature-controlled room, surrounded by $190 million worth of grana padano cheese? It was the final stop in a visit I made recently to Caseificio Santa Vittoria near the town of Carpaneto, in the region of Emilia Romagna, where most of my Italian relatives live. Before we get to that final stop however, I'll take you through the steps used in making this glorious cheese.

Every day at this caseificio, about 116 thousand pounds of milk are collected and placed in large stainless steel tanks, where most of the cream is separated out and made into butter. The partially skimmed milk is placed in large copper pots, where natural whey, derived from the previous day's cheese-making process, is added. This natural culture of lactic bacteria augments the acidity, helping to solidify the milk into cheese. The milk is then heated to about 87 degrees fahrenheit, and rennet, derived from cows' stomachs, is added for coagulation. The milk starts to become more gelatinous and curds are broken up in the cauldron. It's then cooked at a higher temperature of between 127 degrees and 132 degrees fahrenheit. 

The curdled milk from each of the copper vats is then placed into plastic pots that are lined with linen cloth. The liquid part, or the whey, stays behind and some of it is used for fermatation of the following day's milk. The whey is also what's used to later make ricotta, a word that means "recooked." Each copper vat holds enough curdled milk to fill two of the plastic forms. 

A day later, the cheese has firmed enough to be put into round stainless steel forms. This will give the cheese its distinctive shape, during the three days when it's kept at a low temperature to solidify. 

Giuseppe Rizzi, who manages the caseificio and who was kind enough to give us a tour, explained that each wheel is stamped with a teflon form that indicates its identity - the date and where it was made. 

The wheels travel along an assembly line where a worker removes the stainless steel lining and stamps the cheese, both with the teflon imprint, and with another imprint on top.

They keep moving on the belt until they are pushed into a vat of salted water.

They remain in the saline solution for about twenty-three days, a process that helps form what will become the hard, outer rind.

The wheels of cheese are cleaned with plain water to get rid of any excess salt and left to age on shelves for at least nine months, and as long as 30 months. 
Every 10 days, a machine rotates the wheels of cheese and cleans them with a brush to keep mold from forming on the outside. As they age, they're cleaned less often.

The wheel below was made in March 2010. The PC on the side refers to the province of Piacenza and the number 507 to the Caseificio Santa Vittoria. These cheeses are considered D.O.P., or "Dominazione Origine Protetta." That's a guarantee by the European Union that the cheese has been made using rigid standards and is worthy enough to receive the fire branding mark of "grana padano." 

Each of these shelves holds 1,180 forms of cheese, and the entire caseificio contains 45,000 wheels of cheese. My son Michael, as well as me and my cousin Lucia, were trying to figure out a way to take one home, but maybe I should have planned better and brought a larger purse.

Grana Padano tastes a lot like parmigiano reggiano, but there is a difference in both how it tastes and how it's made. You can find out more about parmigiano reggiano by clicking on a post I wrote about it a couple of years ago here. For Grana Padano, cows are permitted a broader range of food and are raised in an area that's twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made. Padano refers to the Po Valley, and as seen in the map below, the cheese is made in Lombardia and some parts of Emilia-Romagna, but also in Piedmont and the Veneto. Parmigiano, however, is strictly confined to the four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.

Grana Padano is less salty and less complex than parmigiano reggiano, but it's also less expensive. Both are delicious, but parmigiano has that nutty crunch of crystals between my teeth that I love. Some people buy the less expensive grana padano to grate, but it's also wonderful as a table cheese. At the caseificio, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of grana padano that's aged 20 months costs about $16.00, or a little more than $8 a pound, considerably less than here in the states.

Stay tuned for my next post when you get to see how my cousin put this wonderful cheese to work in a typical Piacentine dish called "Pisarei e faso."

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tomato Soup

I'm 10 years old and sitting for a portrait in Mrs. DeWitt's home, my 5th grade teacher who also happens to paint as a hobby. She lives up the street from us in a brick duplex and asks me if I would mind sitting still for a couple of hours while she paints my portrait - lunch included afterwards and I get to keep the portrait. I agree, figuring I haven't got much to lose.

Except lunch was canned tomato soup. I've never eaten tomato soup before, and it tastes pretty awful. I try my best to swallow more than a spoonful, but it's obvious to Mrs. DeWitt that I'm less than enthralled. It's not that I don't like tomatoes. In my house, we ate plenty of tomatoes - raw in salads, cooked in sauce, but never as a soup by itself. If we had extra tomatoes from our garden (which took up the whole back yard) they were vacuum-sealed in mason jars and used during the winter for everything from stews to gravy - but never tomato soup.

More decades later than I care to admit, I have to say that the tomato soup drought has ended. Although I've got a surfeit of tomatoes in my garden, I don't feel like standing over boiling pots of hot water to preserve jars for wintertime. Instead, I took the plunge last week and made tomato soup for the first time - and you know what? It was nothing like that canned drivel that I remember eating so many years ago as a young girl. Sorry, Mrs. DeWitt, but your painting skills were far superior to your culinary talents. I just wish I knew where that portrait got to.

Homemade Tomato Soup

Printable Recipe Here

about 4 to 5 pounds tomatoes, cut into chunks (no need to take off skins or remove seeds)

1/2 cup olive oil

2 sticks celery, sliced

2 carrots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 large onion, diced

2 t. salt

1/2 t. black pepper

3 cups chicken broth

one bunch basil (about 40 leaves)

half and half, or heavy cream - to taste (optional)

decoration: yogurt thinned out with milk (optional)

In a large pot, saute the onion, garlic, carrots and celery in the olive oil until softened. Add the tomatoes, chicken broth, salt, pepper and basil. Cook for about 1/2 hour. Puree everything in a blender, then pour back into the pot. Add as much half and half or heavy cream as you like, but leave it out if you're counting calories. Freezes well too, but add the cream just before serving.

Decorate with a bit of plain yogurt thinned out with a little milk until it's the pourable. Make concentric circles with the mixture, then take a toothpick and move it back and forth to create the web design. Sprinkle a little minced basil on top.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Tuscan Treat

If you envision rolling fields of verdant vineyards, ancient olive groves and regal cypress trees when you think of Tuscany, you're not the only one. It's a picturesque region of Italy that's long been discovered by tourists, and for good reason. Scenes like the one above mesmerized me on my recent trip, requiring a stop at nearly every bend in the road to snap photos. Grab a Vespa and come along for a short hop through one of Italy's most beautiful regions.

It's a region that continues to inspire painters, like this one working in Castellina in Chianti.

 Its beautiful towns and stone buildings make an impressive backdrop for wedding photos.

But the countryside is what's most captivating. You'll pass plenty of scenic vineyards on your drive and will want to drop in on at least a few.

My son and I stopped at I Selvatici winery and tasted a sampling of wines courtesy of owner Giuseppe Sala. You don't even have to travel to Tuscany to taste his fabulous wines. He and his partner Barbara Singer travel to the U.S. each year with a personal chef and arrange wine tastings and gourmet dinners in your own home for you and a group of guests. They'll even ship your order to the U.S., but I also managed to find room in my luggage for a bottle of his flavorful vin santo.

Barbara recommended we stay nearby at Borgo di Fontebussi, a hotel made up of an enchanting collection of buildings and gardens in the countryside with magnificent vistas.

She also suggested we eat dinner at Malborghetto, a restaurant near Gaiole in Chianti, where the gnocchi was served in a parmesan cheese bowl, smothered in shaved truffles. It was almost too beautiful too eat - but I perservered.

 Naturally, back at home, I had to try making the parmesan cheese bowl in my kitchen, even if I didn't have any fresh truffles. It's easier than you think, although it might take a couple of tries until you get the hang of it. Just start out with about 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese (depends on the size of your pan) and sprinkle it in a small non-stick pan that's been slightly heated.

Keep cooking the cheese over moderate heat. Don't touch anything. In a few minutes you'll see the cheese start to melt. Be patient.
When the edges look like they're starting to brown, take a heat-proof spatula and lift the edges all around.

Carefully pick it up and lay it over a small bowl. No need to grease the bowl because the cheese contains enough fat. Do this quickly because it starts to harden as soon as it comes off the heat.

Wait a few minutes while it hardens, then you'll be able to invert it. 

And if truffles are not in your future, you can always use the parmesan cheese bowl to serve a much-easier-on-the-pocketbook herb risotto.

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