Pasta Ascuitta (Angel Hair Pasta with Crispy Breadcrumbs)

December 30, 2016

Pasta ascuitta is the name given to a whole category of pasta dishes in Italy.  It means “dry pasta,” quite literally.  In reality, most of them are not really dry in the full sense of that word.  The category includes all kinds of pasta with almost any imaginable sauce.  Spaghetti and meatballs would be pasta ascuitta to an Italian (though the meatballs would be served as a separate course a discussed previously).  What makes pasta ascuitta “dry” is how it compares to the other category of pasta, “pasta in brodo,” or pasta in broth.

In contrast to pasta in brodo, pasta with sauce is dry, or “ascuitta.” Remember that in Italy the first course after the antipasto (which literally means before the pasta) is either pasta or soup or rice.  So, pasta in brodo is both a soup and a pasta.  A classic version in our house is tortellini in chicken broth. With appropriate Italian (not Italian-American) restraint it makes a great first course.  There might only be five or six tortellini in each bowl of broth.  It takes the edge off one’s hunger without filling one up before whatever comes next.

Growing up in my family, however, pasta ascuitta meant one and only one thing, the way many general terms come to have a specific meaning in a particular context.  Pasta ascuitta, to my family, meant angel hair pasta or spaghettini (not spaghetti), served with an abundant amount of breadcrumbs cooked in olive oil until crispy and flavored with anchovies.  Of everything that appeared on the table at Christmas Eve, pasta ascuitta was, and still is, my favorite.

As children, we called it sawdust spaghetti. I still do, sometimes.  I was chatting with my cousin Donna Meinecke the morning of Christmas Eve this year.  Our families spent most holidays together when we were growing up.  When she asked me what I was cooking, the first thing I said was “sawdust spaghetti.”  Enough said!  It was Christmas Eve, after all, and while I decided it was best not to introduce a table-full of unsuspecting guests to a soup of baccala (salted and dried cod) and tomatoes; a second pasta with a tomato sauce and squid tentacles; and stuffed squid, I had to serve pasta ascuitta.

If you were counting, you would have figured out that the first course of our family Christmas Eve dinner had two pastas and one soup.  This, of course, was after a massive antipasto and a large platter of steamed mussels but before the second course of breaded and pan-fried fish fillets, the aforementioned stuffed squid, and, in later years when the “no meat” rule in our family was relaxed, bracciole and homemade sausage.

I truly don’t remember what vegetables were served.  I do remember, however, that there was a huge platter of cookies for dessert.

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Pasta Ascuitta (Angel Hair Pasta with Crispy Breadcrumbs)
The genius of this dish, made from very humble ingredients, is the crunch of the salty breadcrumbs in contrast to the chew of the pasta. Even if you think you don’t like anchovies, give this dish a try. There is something irresistible about the salty, crunchy breadcrumbs packed with umami. If you’re still not convinced, try using half the amount of anchovies. I promise you, the next time you make this dish, you’ll follow the suggested amount. This may sound like a lot of oil but remember, it's the only "sauce" in the dish. It works out to about 2-3 tablespoons per serving. A food processor renders the job of making the breadcrumbs a breeze. Do not use packaged breadcrumbs. It is essential that they be large and soft, but made from bread that is a couple of days old for the proper texture. It is best to use bread that was baked in a pan rather than free-form as the ratio of soft, inner white crumb to crust will be greater. Many supermarkets carry a hearty artisan-style sliced sandwich bread if you don't have a good Italian bakery nearby and don't want to make your own. You want a dense crumb which this type of bread has. It will work just fine using the food processor method below.
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Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 48 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 48 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Put the bread in a paper bag for two days at room temperature. This will allow the bread to become stale, but not hard.
  2. On serving day, make the breadcrumbs from the stale bread in one of two ways. Cut the bread into 1-inch-thick slices.
  3. Cut off the crust from each slice. Cut the slices into one inch cubes.
  4. Process the bread cubes in a food processor to yield coarse (but not chunky) crumbs.
  5. Without a food processor, cut the loaf in quarters and scoop out the center of the loaf. Using your hands, crumble the center of the loaf into coarse crumbs. Then using the teardrop-shaped holes of a grater, grate the white bread that is clinging to the crust.
  6. Measure out and reserve 6 cups of crumbs. Save any additional for another purpose.
  7. Bruise the garlic with the side of a chef's knife.
  8. Heat the olive oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Sauté the garlic (if using) until dark golden, almost brown, then discard. Add bread crumbs to the oil and stir constantly till light golden.
  9. Push the breadcrumbs away from the center of the skillet and add anchovies and their oil. Working quickly so the breadcrumbs don't burn, heat and stir the anchovies, smashing and breaking them into bits. When the anchovies are in small bits, mix them into the crumbs. Season the crumbs with freshly ground black pepper. Continue cooking the breadcrumb-anchovy mixture, stirring constantly, breaking up any remaining bits of anchovy, until the breadcrumbs are crispy. Most of the crumbs will be golden brown but some will be darker. Be careful not to burn the crumbs. There will still be some visible bits of anchovy when the breadcrumbs have gotten crispy.
  10. Remove the skillet from the heat. If not using immediately, stir the anchovy-crumb mixture every few minutes for about 10 minutes so the crumbs on the bottom don't burn from the residual heat. Reserve the anchovy-breadcrumb mixture. Making the crumb mixture a few hours in advance makes the final put-together less stressful.
  11. Cook one pound of angel hair pasta or spaghettini in generously salted water until al dente. I usually use about 1/3 cup salt for six quarts of water. If the crumbs were browned earlier, warm them gently while the pasta cooks.
  12. When the pasta is finished, pour some of the pasta-cooking water into the serving bowl to warm it. Drain the pasta well but do not rinse.
  13. Toss the pasta with the crumbs. If the skillet is large enough, it is best to toss the breadcrumbs and pasta there. It will keep the pasta warmer. Season with a generous amount of black pepper. Taste and adjust salt. It is entirely likely that no additional salt will be needed.
  14. Empty the water from the serving bowl. Dry the bowl, pour in the pasta and serve. It is not traditional to serve cheese with this pasta.
Recipe Notes

If any pasta is leftover, the breadcrumbs will lose their crispiness but still taste great for a quick lunch (in our house, mostly eaten furtively in secret before someone else nabs it).  However, this pasta makes the foundation for a great frittata.  We won't be covering the making of a frittata for a while but stay tuned.

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Pear, Celery and Arugula Salad with Lemon Dressing

December 26, 2016

I grew up in a family that put salad on the table at the same time as the rest of the meal.  I married into a family that does the same.  However, in the years between leaving home to go to college and getting married I most definitely converted to serving salad after the main part of the meal was over.  Notice, I didn’t say main course because the other change I made was thinking of the meal as comprising an antipasto (even if it is just a nibble of cheese and a cracker for a family meal) followed by, what Italians would call, the first course (il primo piatto) followed by a second course (il secondo piatto).

In an Italian meal, the first course is usually pasta, or soup, or risotto.  The second course  usually consists of meat or fish with several side dishes (contorni).  After that comes the salad.  Granted, there are exceptions to this sequence, even in Italy.  One of the most classic exceptions is serving Risotto alla Milanese with a breaded and fried veal chop.  OK, so these days, I try not to eat baby animals, so veal is pretty much off the menu at our house, but the point is Risotto alla Milanese is typically served with the meat, not before the meat.

The general rule that the sequence is antipasto, then first course, then second course, then salad was made abundantly clear when my Italian tutor had dinner at our house a few years ago.  For some reason, even though my in-laws grew up in Italy, we served spaghetti and meatballs (very good spaghetti and meatballs, mind you!).  Where it got interesting, however, is that we all ate the spaghetti and meatballs at the same time (for full disclosure, I didn’t touch my salad until afterwards).  My tutor, hailing from Italy however, ate her pasta first.  Only then did she put a meatball or two on her plate for her second course.  Only after that did she touch her salad!

When I am serving dinner for company, the salad always comes after the second course.  I’d rather not serve salad than serve it with the rest of the meal.  Salads, by design, have sharp dressings meant to cleanse the palate.  You can’t go back and forth between a subtly seasoned dish (whether it be pasta or fish or meat) and salad and do justice to the subtlety of the first.  The vinegar and/or lemon juice and/or mustard (and/or whatever else you put in your salad dressing) doesn’t allow that.  Forget what it does to the wine that you’ve paired with the dish!  If it’s just family, however, in the interest of domestic harmony, the salad goes on the table at the beginning.  I still don’t eat mine till the end but I can’t say the same for others.

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Pear, Celery and Arugula Salad with Lemon Dressing
Pears add a welcome freshness to this salad that is a perfect antidote to winter when so little really good fresh produce is available. This may be a lot of pear for some but the sweet juicy taste is a great contrast to the crunch of the celery and the peppery bite of the arugula.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Servings
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Squeeze about half a fresh lemon to make 2 ½ tablespoons of juice. Allow the juice to sit, uncovered, at room temperature for about an hour before using it to dress the salad. The flavor of the juice will improve.
  2. Remove the top of the celery stalks, the part where the center stalk gets much thinner and smaller stalks come off the sides. Reserve these pieces for another use. Cut the remaining celery stalks on a long diagonal to create thin long pieces.
  3. Using a sharp knife or cheese paring knife, cut about 18 curls of Pecorino Romano cheese.
  4. Peel the pears and cut into quarters lengthwise. Core the pears. Slice into thin wedges.
  5. Combine the lemon juice and olive oil. Shake well to combine.
  6. Toss the arugula and celery with about 2/3 of the lemon-olive oil dressing. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss again.
  7. Divide the arugula and celery onto six plates.
  8. Toss the pears in the remaining lemon-olive oil dressing. Arrange the pear slices and Pecorino Romano cheese on top of the arugula. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

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Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)

December 21, 2016

Homemade cookies and pastries were staples of my childhood.  Trays of cookies showed up for holidays, celebrations, weddings, funerals, and, sometimes, for no apparent reason.

My mother along with relatives and friends set up a cookie-making operation that went on every night for weeks leading up to my sister’s wedding.  The overseer was Annie Castagnola, a family friend.  She had a thin spiral-bound 3-inch-by-5-inch notebook of cookie recipes.  The notebook was the kind we used in grade school to write down our homework assignments.  Annie’s recipes were a curated collection gathered from a host of “old Italian women,” my grandmother included.

The little notebook was coveted by more than a few cooks.  Annie, however, did not share her recipes, even when those recipes came from relatives of the very people who were asking for them.  I know, my mother was one of those people who wanted some of her mother’s recipes.  Annie wouldn’t budge.  The situation got resolved, however, during the cookie-baking marathon for my sister’s wedding.  One night, Annie left her little notebook at our house overnight.  Nobody’s confessing, but there are a few cookie recipes in my mother’s recipe box (sitting on my bookcase) written in my twelve-year-old hand.

Annie died a while back.  Her little notebook is most likely gone forever and along with it the baking secrets of a whole group of “old Italian women.”

Of all the cookies that showed up throughout the year, my favorites were the various kinds of cakey cookies, my mom’s Genets, Aunt Margie’s aptly named “Colored Cookies,” and my cousin Angie Catanese’s Sesame Seed Cookies, to name a few.  These cakey cookies, which were not very sweet by American standards, were usually little balls but not always.  Genets are lemon flavored knots.  Colored Cookies are vanilla flavored balls, each made with four or five pinches of dough of different colors rolled together.  Sesame cookies are little logs, perfect for dunking into some Vin Santo.  For me, though, the best of these cakey cookies are Totos, little chocolate spice balls.

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Totos (Italian Chocolate Spice Cookies)
These little chocolate balls are intended to have a good kick from an array of spices. Lard is the traditional shortening to use. I render my own. If you need these to be vegetarian, or you just don't want to use lard, you can use solid vegetable shortening. Heck, you can even use clarified butter but that is way off the traditional scale!
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
dozen cookies
Ingredients
Cookies
Icing
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Instructions
Cookies
  1. In a small saucepan, melt the lard over low heat. When just melted, remove the lard from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg together. Reserve.
  3. Make the icing and reserve.
  4. Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add the cooled but still liquid lard and mix well until thoroughly combined. The mixture will be gritty. I recommend doing this by hand with a mixing spoon but you could use a portable electric mixer.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time to the sugar and lard mixture, mixing well after each addition. The sugar should dissolve as the eggs are added.
  6. Add the milk, honey, vanilla extract and lemon extract to the egg mixture. Mix until well combined.
  7. Add the reserved dry ingredients. At this point there really is no better option than to reach into the mixture with your hand and get everything well combined. The dough will be somewhat sticky. Be certain that all the dry bits are scraped off the bottom and sides of the bowl and combined into the dough.
  8. Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls. If you want to weigh the first few to get the size correct, they should be between 21 and 22 grams.
  9. Space the cookies several inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes until the cookies are very slightly browned on the bottom but still soft when touched. They have a tendency to crack as they bake. This is normal. You can bake two trays at a time, one in the lower third of the oven and one in the upper third. Be sure to switch the top and bottom cookie sheets after five minutes and also turn them front to back.
  10. As soon as you remove the cookies from the oven, carefully put them on cooling racks.
  11. Ice them immediately by holding a cookie with one hand and using the tip of your finger to spread a dollop of icing on the top half of each cookie. The icing should be a glaze, not a thick coating. Put the iced cookies on cooling racks to cool completely.
  12. Well wrapped, the cookies can be refrigerated for several weeks or frozen for several months.
Icing
  1. Melt the butter. Add the sugar, vanilla (or lemon) extract and 2 tablespoons of milk. Mix well. Add more milk, a teaspoon at a time, if needed, to make a thick icing that will hold its shape and spread well.
  2. It may be necessary to add a bit of milk from time to time if the icing stiffens up over the course of icing each batch of cookies as they come out of the oven.
Recipe Notes

Check out my method for rendering lard.

I prefer to grind my own spices using a small electric coffee grinder, except for the nutmeg, of course, for which I use a small grater. It is best to pass the ground spices through a small strainer to get out any small bits. If you don’t grind your own spices be sure to buy really fresh ground ones so the flavor is vibrant.

This recipe doesn’t involve any strenuous beating so the first few steps can easily be completed by hand with a sturdy mixing spoon rather than with a mixer. Similarly, after adding the dry ingredients, the dough only needs to be mixed enough to come together. This is easily (and traditionally) done with your hand though I suppose a dough hook would work, too.

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Cannellini alla Toscana (Tuscan-Style White Kidney Beans)

December 16, 2016

These Tuscan-style white kidney beans are deceptively simple.  A lot of flavor is coaxed out of a few ingredients.  They are great on their own as a side dish or a vegetarian main dish.  They make wonderful pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans).  They freeze well so you can always have them on hand.  The flavor is so good, you won’t resort to canned beans again!

Quite typically, these beans would have been made in the fading embers of a fire, often left to cook overnight.  Although the contemporary version uses a standard kitchen oven, I made them in our wood-burning oven a while back.  It was a challenge to keep the temperature at 250-275ºF but in the end it was worth it.  There was a very subtle smoky flavor to the beans.

Buy the best quality and freshest dried cannellini beans you can find.  If the beans are old they may never completely tenderize.  I particularly like the Marcella Beans from Rancho Gordo.

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Cannellini alla Toscana
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 3-5 hours
Passive Time 12 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 3-5 hours
Passive Time 12 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Pick over and wash the cannellini beans. Soak them in abundant water to cover, under refrigeration, for 6-8 hours or overnight.
  2. Drain the beans and put them in an earthenware bean pot or ovenproof casserole with a lid. Add water to just reach top of beans then add another 2 cups of water.
  3. Using the side of chef's knife, bruise the garlic.
  4. Add garlic, sage, bay leaf, peppercorns and olive oil to the beans. Cover and bake at 250ºF for 2 hours.
  5. Add the salt and stir well. Cover and cook the beans, stirring every 30-45 minutes, until they are creamy and not at all chalky. Do not overcook the beans or they will blow apart. This could take another one to three hours depending on the beans and your elevation.
Recipe Notes

The beans are best made a day or two in advance.  If not serving immediately, cool the beans to room temperature and refrigerate or freeze.  When ready to serve, warm the beans in a 250ºF oven.

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com.  All rights reserved.

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Panettone (Italian Sweet Bread with Citron and Raisins)

December 10, 2016

I have been planning the launch of this site for several years.  It’s going live shortly before Christmas, a time when Italians traditionally enjoy panettone.  Panettone for breakfast.  Panettone as a gift.  Panettone as a snack.  While there are wonderful commercially produced products, I prefer to make my own.

The fact that the site is going live now feels like a gift…to myself!  So, I’m making panettone!!!  One for me, and half-a-dozen for friends.

I’ve been making Panettone for almost 30 years.  This year I’m using candied citron from Italy.  I plan to try making my own candied citron from the wonderful Buddha’s Hand fruits available from the farmers’ market in Palm Springs, California where I spend time each winter using this recipe from David Lebovitz.  For now, though, I’ll be using the citron from Italy.

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Panettone
Panettone is a sweet bread from Italy, traditionally served around Christmas. It is enriched with eggs and butter and contains raisins and candied citron.
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Course Sweet Breads
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 14 hours
Servings
loaves
Ingredients
Course Sweet Breads
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 14 hours
Servings
loaves
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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Instructions
  1. This is candied citron from Italy. The flavor is superior to the diced candied citron sold in supermarkets.
  2. If using large pieces of citron, cut them into batons approximately 1/4 inch on a side.
  3. After cutting batons of citron, or if using citron that is already diced, slice the citron into thin slices.
  4. Beat salt, sugar, eggs and egg yolks together. Reserve.
  5. Use a mixer with a dough hook. Put 1200 g flour in the bowl of the mixer. Add yeast and begin to mix. Add warm water and mix. Add egg mixture and mix. Slowly with the mixer running, add 225 grams of melted butter and orange oil or zest. Knead for approximately 10 minutes, scraping the side of the bowl a few times. Add citron and raisins and continue mixing till incorporated. The dough will be sticky.
  6. Butter the inside of a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of the softened butter. Place dough in the buttered bowl and be sure to butter the top with some of the melted butter. Cover dough with waxed paper and place a kitchen towel on top. Refrigerate overnight. It should have at least doubled by morning. In place of a large bowl, you can use a food-service container of approximately 7 quarts with a tight-fitting lid.
  7. Punch the dough down by hand. Cover again with waxed paper and towels and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk.
  8. Butter 3 cylindrical baking pans, approximately 7 inches in diameter, using 3 tablespoons of softened butter. Set the pans aside.
  9. Knead the dough by hand until smooth and the air bubbles have been worked out. Form into 3 balls and place each into one of the baking pans. Butter the tops with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter.
  10. Cover with waxed paper and a towel. Allow to rise at room temperature until doubled (or a little more), approximately 45-60 minutes.
  11. Cut a deep cross in the top of each loaf. Bake at 350° F for 55-65 minutes. Use a cake tester to be sure that none of the dough clings to tester.
  12. Place on a cooling rack. Cool slightly and remove from the pans. Cool completely on the rack. Wrap tightly until ready to use.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2016 by VillaSentieri.com.  All rights reserved.

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