Pasta ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushrooms)

January 27, 2017

Growing up, pasta was almost always served with a long-cooked Southern Italian ragu.  Yes, there was the occasional sauce of vegetables sautéed in olive oil till they softened enough to make a sauce but those sauces were the exception to the rule.

These days, a long-cooked ragu is still the epitome of pasta cooking for me but far more often I make quicker sauces.  Pasta with mushrooms is one of them.

In my last post, I introduced nepita, an herb used in Italy that is really not commonly available in the US.  Nepita pairs really well with mushrooms.  The nepita that I use is from plants that we grow from seeds we brought back from Italy in 1996.  I’m so concerned that one day our nepita won’t make it through the winter and reappear in the spring that we’ve taken to backing it up the way other folks back up their data.

Over the years we’ve gifted nepita plants to friends who like to garden.  Should a disaster ever befall our nepita, there should still be a clone of it somewhere with enough seeds that we can germinate another plant or two.  For an herb that I’ve only known for 20 years, it’s become an integral part of my kitchen.

While there’s no real substitute for nepita, there are lots of herbs that go well with mushrooms.  In this rendition, I’ve called for basil and oregano, the combination that I usually use when I don’t have nepita.  Marjoram also works well, with or without a pinch of thyme, but marjoram is a relatively uncommon herb in Italian cooking.

Herbs are not a major player in this dish.  Though nepita is distinctive, there are so many layers of flavor from the dried porcini, onion, garlic, and marsala that the lack of nepita isn’t really a big deal.  Basil and oregano work well and, in fact, are what I used before that 1996 trip to Tuscany where I discovered nepita.

Pasta ai Funghi was one of the courses I served at my father-in-law’s birthday dinner last week.  Here are a couple of pictures of that dinner from our home in Palm Springs.

 

My father-in-law (left) and mother-in-law. Good friend, Gino Barcone is in between.
From left to right, John Berl, Bill Hoadley, and Bob Bauernschmitt.

 

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Pasta ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushrooms)
While many mushroom-based sauces for pasta contain cream and butter, this one uses only olive oil. It creates a beautiful, glossy sauce. The mushrooms can be prepared several hours in advance making this an ideal dish if you are cooking for company.
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Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Rating: 0
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Instructions
  1. Soak porcini in enough warm water to just cover. When soft, about 15 minutes, squeeze excess water out of the mushrooms. Reserve the liquid. Finely chop the porcini.
  2. Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth.
  3. If you are using common white mushrooms, slice off the very bottom of the stem as it is usually a bit dry. There is no need to remove the rest of the stem, though.
  4. Turn each mushroom upside down and cut into 1/8 inch thick slices. If the mushrooms are really large, you might have to make a crosswise cut as well.
  5. Slice or cut other mushrooms into similar sized pieces. For example, cut large portobello mushrooms into long strips approximately 1/8 inch thick and then cut each strip into smaller pieces.
  6. If you are using oyster and/or enoki mushrooms cut them into slightly larger pieces and keep them separate as they require less cooking than most other mushrooms.
  7. Finely chop the onion and reserve.
  8. In a sauté pan large enough to hold the mushrooms and cooked pasta, heat the ¼ cup of olive oil, over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the finely chopped porcini. Sauté a minute or two until the porcini becomes aromatic, being careful not to burn them.
  9. Add the reserved porcini soaking liquid. Over high heat, quickly evaporate the liquid, stirring often.
  10. Once the liquid is evaporated, add all the cut-up mushrooms to the sauté pan, except for quick cooking types like enoki and oyster mushrooms. Sauté the mushrooms, still on high heat, stirring often until they have absorbed all the olive oil.
  11. Season liberally with salt and reduce the heat to medium low.
  12. Stir the mushrooms often until they begin to release their liquid. When they do, turn the heat to high and cook until all the liquid is evaporated, stirring often. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  13. Continue sautéing the mushrooms until they just begin to brown. Now is the time to add any quick-cooking varieties of mushrooms, such as oyster and enoki, you may be using.
  14. Continue to sauté until of the mushrooms are nicely browned.
  15. When the mushrooms are brown, add the onion and crushed red pepper.
  16. Over medium heat, cook until the onion is soft and golden.
  17. Stir in the garlic and sauté for about one minute until it becomes fragrant.
  18. Stir in the oregano and basil, or, if you are lucky enough to have a stash, about 1 teaspoon of fresh nepita or ½ teaspoon of dried. Add the marsala. It will evaporate almost immediately.
  19. Remove the sauté pan from the heat until the pasta is ready. The mushrooms can be made several hours ahead to this point.
  20. Cook the pasta in well-salted water until al dente. Meanwhile gently warm the mushrooms if they were made ahead.
  21. When the pasta is cooked, remove about 1 cup of pasta-cooking liquid and reserve. Quickly drain the pasta. Do not rinse. Add the pasta to the warm mushrooms along with about ¼ cup of the reserved pasta-cooking liquid. Cook over low heat, stirring often for about one minute.
  22. Remove the pasta and mushrooms from the heat. Add the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and stir to combine. Add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and the truffle oil, if using. Stir to combine. The cheese and the starch in the pasta cooking liquid should help to emulsify the olive oil and water, creating a glossy sauce.
  23. If the pasta is too dry, add more pasta-cooking liquid, just don’t make it watery. The cheese, olive oil and water should hold together.
  24. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed.
  25. Serve immediately, preferably in warmed pasta bowls. Pass additional freshly grated Parmesan cheese at the table.
Recipe Notes

I most often make this with ordinary white button mushrooms, especially if I am going to add the truffle oil. Using an array of different mushrooms, such as cremini, baby bella, oyster, and enoki makes a visually and texturally interesting dish, however.

When I make pasta, I always pour some of the pasta-cooking liquid into the serving bowl to warm it.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Pollo all’Uccelleto (Chicken Little Bird Style)

January 23, 2017

I first tasted this dish in Tuscany in the little hill town of Benabbio, in September 1996.  My husband’s great Great Aunt Fidalma, Zia Fidalma, made it with little birds, sparrows actually, that her husband, Faliero, had shot.

That was one of my most memorable meals in Italy.  My husband and I had traveled to Italy with his parents.  We stayed in a little hotel in the town of Fornoli where my father-in-law grew up.  We alternated meals at the homes of numerous relatives throughout the area.

It was wonderful sitting in Zia Fidalma’s kitchen watching her put together components of the meal in that seemingly effortless way that happens in homes throughout Italy.  We had sautéed mushroom caps.  Zia Fidalma foraged the mushrooms.  I remember them sitting in a shallow box on the kitchen counter.  She plucked a few out of the box, cleaned them.  They were quickly sautéed and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nepita.

I can’t get a consensus on the spelling of nepita.  I’ve seen it as gnebita, gnepita, and nepeta, among others.  It is a variety of catmint.  Zia Fidalma uses it to season mushrooms.  It is a magical combination.

We smuggled nepita seeds back from Tuscany on that visit, along with heirloom tomato seeds, both from Zio Faliero’s garden.  We’ve grown both ever since.  For 20-plus years we’ve had nepita; first in our garden in Chicago (at the Rohkam House, where we lived starting in January 1996) and then subsequently at Villa Sentieri, in Santa Fe.

The Rohkam House when we lived there.
The Rohkam House shortly after it was built in 1887.

There are only three components of that meal that I remember clearly, the mushrooms, the little birds, and the wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano brought out at the end of the meal for us to eat with fruit.  I know there was a pasta but I can’t remember what it was.  The same is true for the side dishes (contorni, in Italian).

My mother-in-law was in heaven with the little birds.  She was sitting across the table from me. The meal had become languorous by then and it wasn’t, somehow, inappropriate for me to pull out my video camera.  Remember those?  I’m talking about dedicated video cameras with cassettes for recording, not phones or cameras with video capability.

As she was reveling in her little birds (uccelleti, in Italian) I used my video camera to focus in on her.  First on her face, but then ultimately on just her lips.  Her lips filled the screen like the lips in the opening moments of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  There were those lips, sucking in little bird parts then extruding cleaned bones.  Every now and then there was the occasional bit of bird shot that needed to be eliminated.

To this day, that video footage is a kind of kompromat in our family.  Thanks to President Trump for making that term common knowledge.  My mother-in-law hates that video footage.  I occasionally mention its existence and (vaguely) threaten to allow it to surface…as I did for this post but, in the end, in the interest of domestic harmony, did not.

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Pollo all'Uccelleto (Chicken Little Bird Style)
I first had this dish in Tuscany. It was made, literally, with little birds (blackbirds) bagged by my husband’s Great Uncle Faliero. Since little birds are not easily available in the US, I rendered the dish using chicken after returning from the 1996 trip to Italy. I called it “Chicken Little Bird Style” or “Pollo all’Uccelleto.” Much to my surprise, years later, I discovered that Italians do, in fact, refer to this preparation as “all’Uccelleto,” and use it on things other than little birds (chicken, for example). What simply started out as Uccelleti, “Little Birds,” became for me "Pollo all’Uccelleto," or “Chicken Little Bird Style.” From Great Aunt Fidalma’s kitchen to you is Chicken Little Bird Style. If you actually have little birds, by all means, give them a try. If not, chicken thighs are a great, if less gamey, substitute. Use good quality olives for this dish. If you don’t have access to an Italian market, I suggest using olives from the olive and antipasto bar that is common in many supermarkets these days. I usually use half oil-cured black olives and half green olives, such as castelvetrano. I prefer using olives with pits.
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Course Poultry
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 1/2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Poultry
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 1/2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Remove the leaves from the rosemary and oregano.
  2. Mince the sage, rosemary, and oregano leaves. Reserve.
  3. Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and any large pieces of fat.
  4. Using the broad side of a chef’s knife, bruise (smash, really) the garlic cloves.
  5. In a heavy skillet large enough to hold the chicken thighs in a single layer, heat the olive oil.
  6. When the oil is hot, add the chicken thighs and garlic. Season the chicken with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  7. Brown the chicken, turning several times. As the garlic cloves get dark brown, remove and discard them before they burn.
  8. When the chicken is brown, and all garlic has been removed, add the tomato sauce, bay leaves, minced herbs (rosemary, sage, and oregano) and crushed red pepper.
  9. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and turning chicken over every 30 minutes or so, for approximately 1 hour.
  10. If the sauce gets too dry add a little white wine (or water) from time to time.
  11. After an hour, add the olives, cover, and continue cooking over low heat, stirring occasionally and turning chicken over every 30 minutes or so, for approximately 1 more hour.
  12. Taste and adjust salt and black pepper during the last half hour of cooking. The olives will be salty, so it's best to wait till they've cooked a while before adding more salt.
  13. When finished, the chicken should truly be “fall-apart” tender and the sauce should be mostly a red colored olive oil with just a tiny bit of tomato sauce.
Recipe Notes

I don’t usually use canned tomato sauce. I prefer to use tomato paste and water. For this dish I use tomato sauce because so little is needed and it’s consistent with what Great Aunt Fidalma did. If you want to use tomato paste, mix 1½ tablespoons of tomato paste with 6 tablespoons of water and use in place of the tomato sauce.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)

January 18, 2017

Talk about comfort food!  Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans) hits the spot (for me, at least!).

There are endless variations.  White kidney beans, red kidney beans, chick peas, butter beans, fava beans, for example.  Ditalini, mezzi rigatoni, lumaconi, orecchiette, linguine, and more.  Not to mention the possibilities of tomato sauce, anchovies, broccoli, rapini, and escarole.  I could go on but you get the point.  You could mix and match just those ingredients and come up with hundreds of different combinations.

Growing up, my mother made only one version that I recall.  It featured butter beans, tomato sauce and ditalini.  The amount of liquid was equivalent to pasta with a red sauce.  My Aunt Margie, my mom’s sister, made hers with chick peas and ditalini, no tomato sauce, and it was definitely more of a soup.  My guess is that my grandmother made both versions, and probably others, but my mom and my aunt each settled on one for their cooking repertory.

Then there’s a version that I learned from a work colleague, Louis Evangelista, more than thirty years ago.  He learned it from his Sicilian grandfather.  It features linguine, red kidney beans, escarole, red pepper, and an abundant amount of garlic.

Then there’s orecchiette with kidney beans, broccoli and anchovy.

But we’re not making any of these today.  We’re doing a simple version with kidney beans and lumaconi.  The others will make their appearance in the coming months.

Lumaconi is a wonderful pasta shape for pasta e fagioli.  Lumaconi means snails.  Look at the picture below and you’ll see the resemblance.  What’s so cool about using lumaconi is that the beans naturally slip inside the cooked pasta for the perfect mouthful of beans and pasta!

If you use red kidney beans rather than white, the contrast between the bean and pasta will look startlingly like real snails.  This might not be a good thing depending on your audience!

I strongly encourage you to start with dry beans rather than canned.  Follow the recipe for Cannellini alla Toscana using either white or red kidney beans.  For something as hands-off as putting a pot of beans in the oven you’ll be rewarded with enough beans for two, if not three, meals plus a taste profile that is infinitely superior to canned beans.

This last point was hammered home to me a few months ago.  We were in Alamogordo with Pat and Becky, friends from Santa Fe.  We spent the day at White Sands National Monument sledding down the dunes followed by lunch in Ruidoso before returning to our little house in Alamogordo (the house is another story for another day).

We didn’t feel like going out, not that there are many places to go out to in Alamogordo unless you count Chili’s, which, inexplicably, is my husband’s favorite restaurant in town.  Besides, we made the requisite pilgrimage to Chili’s the night before.

So, a couple of cans of kidney beans later, I was making pasta e fagioli.  It was good, no doubt.  But it had been a very long time since I had used canned beans (even though there is an entire phalanx of canned beans in my pantry).  I was actually startled by the difference in taste and texture, having grown so accustomed to using home-cooked beans.

However, by all means, if using canned beans is the difference between trying this dish, and not.  Go for it!  You might want to throw an extra bit of herbs in the pot at the beginning, like a bay leaf and some sage, but it’s not really essential.

Let me know what you think of the recipe.  And for those of you who have your own favorite version of pasta e fagioli, let me know what it is.

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Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)
The difference in taste and texture between home-cooked beans and canned beans is dramatic. I recommend cooking either red or white kidney beans using the Cannellini alla Toscana recipe. While I always keep canned beans on hand for emergencies, my freezer is also always stocked with a variety of cooked beans. Whenever I make Cannellini alla Toscana, I freeze leftover beans in portions of 1 ½ cups of beans covered in whatever cooking liquid is left. I never discard any of the cooking liquid. Ideally, you should have enough cooking liquid to cover the beans for the first part of the cooking, before adding the pasta and some pasta-cooking liquid. If you are using canned beans, two 15 oz. cans of beans is the right amount. Do not discard the liquid in the can. It will help to thicken the sauce.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Combine the beans and their liquid, onion, basil, and red pepper, and freshly ground black pepper to taste in a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to contain the cooked pasta and beans. If the bean cooking liquid and wine does not cover the beans, add water to just cover.
  2. Simmer, partially covered approximately twenty minutes. Taste for salt after about 10 minutes. Remember that the pasta will be well salted and you will be adding Parmigiano so best not to over-salt at this point.
  3. Meanwhile, bruise the garlic with the side of a knife.
  4. Sauté the garlic in the olive oil very slowly until browned. Garlic should be quite brown but not burnt which would make it bitter. Remove and discard garlic. Reserve the garlic-flavored oil.
  5. Cook pasta in 4 quarts of abundantly salted water. The pasta will finish cooking with the beans, so there should still be a small core of hard pasta in the center.
  6. Just before draining the pasta, scoop out and reserve about two cups of the pasta cooking liquid.
  7. If you will not be serving the pasta e fagioli in the cooking pot, pour some of the cooking water into the serving bowl to warm it while you finish cooking the pasta and beans.
  8. Drain the pasta but leave some water clinging. That is, there is no need to shake the colander. Add the pasta to the bean mixture. Stir to combine. Add the garlic oil. Mix well.
  9. Cover tightly and cook over very low heat for approximately 10-15 minutes stirring occasionally until the pasta is cooked through but still ad dente. Add a little of the reserved pasta water from time to time if needed. When the pasta is finished there should be just enough water remaining to create a sauce.
  10. Off the heat, stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano.
  11. The combination of the cheese and the starch from both the bean cooking liquid and the pasta cooking liquid should create a glossy sauce.
  12. You might want to stir in an extra tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil both for the flavor and to help emulsify the sauce. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed.
  13. If not serving the pasta in the cooking pot, drain and dry the warmed serving bowl and pour in the pasta.
  14. Serve the pasta e fagioli with additional freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and crushed red pepper.
Recipe Notes

More than other seasonings, quantities of dried red pepper are mere suggestions. Different types of red peppers vary in their heat and flavor profile. Different people have different tolerances for the heat of peppers. If I were making this dish for only myself, I would add at least a teaspoon of crushed red pepper and I’d probably still add more at the table. The suggested ¼ teaspoon is a modest amount that should not cause difficulty, even for individuals with a low tolerance for spiciness. However, make sure that you use one of the more traditional types of crushed red peppers, or even the whole dried Italian peppers that I used in this recipe. Do not make the mistake of using a dried version of one of the super-hot peppers (like bhut jalokia or naga jalokia or even Habanero or Scotch Bonnet) without understanding the heat level they pack!

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Sformato di Spinaci (Spinach Casserole)

January 13, 2017

The word sformato in Italian means deformed or shapeless.  When applied to food, standard Italian-English dictionaries often translate it as pie or soufflé. It is none of the above.

A sformato is most definitely not deformed or shapeless.  In fact, a food historian described a sformato as “something that was cooked in the mould [sic] and then extracted from it” (Alexandra Grigorieva, Naming Authenticity and Regional Italian Cuisine in Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, edited by Richard Hosking).  Nor is a sformato really a pie or a soufflé as those terms are usually used.  It has no crust of any sort, as would a pie.  It is not puffy like a souffle.  Sometimes it doesn’t even contain eggs.

A sformato is most often made of vegetables, usually bound with some combination of eggs, cream, cheese, and/or béchamel (balsamella in Italian), and cooked in a baking dish.  I think the best English translation of the word is casserole.

Sformato di Spinaci, spinach sformato (or, reluctantly, spinach casserole), is one of those dishes that has iconic status in my husband’s family.  Like Merluzzo in Umido, the recipe came from Italy with his grandmother whom we called Nonni.  Nonni is one of those made up words that sometimes take hold in a family based on mispronunciations of little kids.  The Italian word for grandmother is Nonna.  However, Nonni is to Nonna as Gramma is to Grandmother.

Just as Pasta Ascuitta has only one meaning in my family, Sformato has only one meaning in my husband’s.  If you simply say “sformato,” everyone knows you mean spinach sformato, and not, for example, cauliflower sformato.

I first had sformato at Christmas Dinner at my in-law’s house in 1989.  Although I had been cooking northern Italian food since 1973 based largely on Marcella Hazan’s wonderful cookbooks, that Christmas was really the beginning of my learning to make some of my husband’s family’s northern Italian favorites.  It’s really a whole different taste profile from the southern Italian dishes I grew up with.

I’ve actually taken a heretical twist with my interpretation of Nonni’s sformato. I’ve added a little balsamella for moisture. This was most definitely not in the original, though it is not an uncommon addition to sformato. If you want to make the original version, just leave out the balsamella.  It will be a little drier.  You might want to not squeeze the spinach quite as tightly if you don’t include the balsamella.

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Sformato di Spinaci (Spinach Sformato or Spinach Casserole)
Nonni always made this with ground beef but Italian sausage, casing removed and crumbled, works really well (a bit of southern Italian heresy creeping in!). It can also be made without meat, but the amount of spinach should be increased by an additional 10 oz. to a total of 30 oz. I have occasionally used fresh spinach but, honestly, frozen chopped spinach works just fine. I doubt you could reliably tell the difference in a side-by-side comparison of fresh vs. frozen spinach in this dish.
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Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
For the spinach mixture
For the balsamella
Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
For the spinach mixture
For the balsamella
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Instructions
For the spinach mixture
  1. Cook the frozen spinach in a heavy bottomed sauce pan tightly covered until thawed, breaking up the spinach from time to time.
  2. As soon as the spinach is thawed, pour the contents of the pan into a fine mesh sieve and allow the spinach to drain and cool.
  3. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze small handfuls of the spinach to remove excess water.
  4. Cut through the mass of squeezed spinach about eight or ten times with a knife then rub it through your fingers to loosen it. It will be pretty tightly wadded up from squeezing out the liquid.
  5. Brown the ground beef or sausage in olive oil over medium heat. You want to get some really browned bits of meat for the flavor. Don't make the mistake of just cooking the meat until it is no longer pink.
  6. When the meat is nicely browned, add the onion and cook until golden and soft. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
  7. Combine the meat mixture and spinach in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and allow to cool briefly.
  8. Meanwhile, make the breadcrumbs by removing the crusts from a slice of two-day old home-style white bread. Tear the bread into pieces and whiz in a food processor until processed into evenly sized crumbs. Reserve.
  9. Melt the butter and toss with the breadcrumbs. Reserve.
  10. Make the balsamella (see directions below).
  11. Add the balsamella to the cooled meat and spinach mixture. Stir well, loosening up the spinach. When well combined, stir in the eggs. Be certain that the mixture is not so hot that it cooks the eggs.
  12. Reserve two tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and mix the remainder into the spinach-meat-balsamella mixture.
  13. Pour the spinach mixture into a buttered 9-inch round or 8-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle top with the buttered crumbs and reserved Parmesan cheese.
  14. Bake at 350°F for approximately 60 minutes or until golden brown.
  15. Cool about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
For the balsamella
  1. Heat the milk in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan until bubbles begin to form around the edges. Do not bring the milk to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour when the foam subsides. Cook for several minutes without browning.
  3. Add the milk, approximately two tablespoonsful at a time, mixing well after each addition. Adding the milk in small amounts should allow you to stir out any lumps before adding the next bit of milk.
  4. After all the milk has been added, bring to a boil and cook for one minute, until thickened.
  5. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg.
Recipe Notes

This recipe doubles well.  If you want to cook a double recipe in a single pan, use a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish.  Bake at 325°F rather than 350°F as it will brown too much around the outside before the inside is cooked.  If necessary, raise the heat to 375°F at the very end, and put the sformato on the top shelf of the oven, to brown the top.

If you want to use fresh spinach, use 2 pounds instead of the 20 ounces of frozen spinach.  Remove the stems.  Wash the spinach, shaking off most of the water.  Put the spinach in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with just the liquid clinging to the leaves.  Cook covered, over medium heat till fully wilted.  Drain and proceed as above with the exception that you will need to do much more chopping of the cooked and squeezed spinach than the eight to ten cuts suggested above.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Focaccia con Salvia (Focaccia with Sage)

January 9, 2017

I really enjoy baking.  There was a time when my Sunday morning routine included mixing up a batch of bread dough, then reading the New York Times and sipping coffee with our two Italian Greyhounds cuddled up next to me while the dough rose.  The bread would be ready for our main meal, which frequently was around 1 PM on Sunday but often got moved to the evening depending on what was happening that day.

I lost that routine somewhere along the way when work got too busy.  I still make bread frequently but I’ve lost the rhythm of baking every Sunday morning.

When I was growing up, my Aunt Margie baked bread rolls every week.  I’m not sure why, but I think it was on Thursdays. I remember little balls of rising dough, in neat rows, resting on top of the same cabinet, covered by the same cloth, every week.  As a child, I marveled at how they all were exactly the same size. It seemed impossible.

Those rolls were a staple of my childhood.  Lunch often consisted of hot Calabrese salami sandwiched inside one of those rolls.  Sometimes it was peanut butter and jelly.  Other times it was peanut butter and banana, a combination my Italian-born mother-in-law still doesn’t understand!

I still eat sandwiches of Calabrese salami for lunch on a regular basis. Some habits don’t die.  The sandwiches are often on my home-made bread baked in a loaf pan or on a split open chunk of focaccia, but unfortunately, not on Aunt Margie’s bread rolls.

Aunt Margie died a few years back.  Even though she had stopped baking rolls every week long before that, periodically she would ship me a box filled with her home-made bread rolls.  Some I put in the fridge, others went into the freezer.  A quick zap in the microwave, a few slices of salami, and I was re-living a favorite childhood memory.

Memories are funny, though. We never know what experiences will become favorite memories. We just have to take them as they come. Maybe the best we can do is to create experiences that will become favorite memories for others. We just never know what they’ll be.

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Focaccia con Salvia (Focaccia with Sage)
This is a sticky dough. Because of that, it is much easier to mix it using a mixer with a bread hook rather than doing it by hand. On a busy day, when I still want homemade focaccia with dinner, I allow my bread machine to make the dough. When the machine indicates the dough is ready, I just shape it and proceed as described below. I do a lot of baking so I buy dry yeast in one-pound packages rather than in those little envelopes. It doesn’t take many of those envelopes to equal the cost of a full pound of yeast so, even if you throw away a portion of the large package on the expiration date, you will probably have saved money. And who knows, all that yeast sitting in the fridge might just prompt you to bake more, which isn’t a bad thing after all.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
loaf
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
loaf
Ingredients
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Rating: 0
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Instructions
  1. Fill the bowl of an electric mixer with hot water. Put the dough hook in the water. Allow the bowl and hook to warm up for a few minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. When ready to proceed, drain and dry the bowl and hook.
  2. Add the 220 ml of warm water, yeast and one tablespoon of the flour to the warmed bowl. Using the dough hook, blend the ingredients briefly. Turn off the machine and allow the mixture to sit until it is bubbling and creamy.
  3. When creamy, approximately 10 minutes, add half the remaining flour and the chopped sage. Using the dough hook, mix to combine.
  4. With the mixer running, add the salt then drizzle in the olive oil. After the oil is incorporated add the remaining flour. Mix approximately 8-10 minutes. The dough should be soft and sticky.
  5. Oil a large bowl with olive oil.
  6. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and shape into a ball. It is easier to do this if you rub some oil on your hands. Place the dough in the oiled bowl and roll it around a bit to coat it with oil.
  7. Put a piece of oiled waxed paper over the bowl and then cover the bowl with a towel. Allow the dough to rise until doubled.
  8. Punch the dough down and form into a ball once again.
  9. Oil a 12-14 inch round pizza pan with a little olive oil.
  10. Put the ball of dough on the pizza pan and begin to press down, using both hands, gently stretching the dough, rotating the pan as you go. The dough will spring back. After six or eight stretches, flip the dough over and repeat. Then, allow the dough to sit for five minutes. Repeat the stretching, flipping, and stretching again. The dough will not spring back quite as much and you’ll be able to get it stretched out a little more. You might have to repeat the stretching-flipping-stretching-waiting routine two or three more times until the dough is shaped into a 12-inch circle. It’s easier use a 14-inch pan because you can overstretch the dough a bit then allow it to spring back to the size you want.
  11. Using your fingertips, press the dough to create a bumpy surface.
  12. Cover the dough and allow it to rise until doubled. This will only take about 20-25 minutes. You can cover it with oiled waxed paper but if you have a deep dish pizza pan, you can just flip the pan upside down over the dough and skip the waxed paper altogether.
  13. While the dough is rising, heat the oven to 425°F.
  14. Make an egg wash by beating the egg with two teaspoons of water.
  15. When the dough has doubled, brush the top with egg wash. Arrange the sage leaves on top of the dough and brush each one with more egg wash.
  16. Bake the focaccia at 425°F until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.
  17. Slide the focaccia off of the pizza pan and onto a rack to cool.
Recipe Notes

If you want to try to mix this in a bread machine, consult the directions for your machine.  You can use what I do as a guide, however.  Combine the flour, salt and chopped sage.  Stir to combine. Put the water in the bottom of the bread pan (do not use warm water).  Put the flour mixture on top of the water.  Make a small well in the top of the flour with the back of a spoon.  Add the yeast to the well, being certain the yeast is above the level of the water. Drizzle the olive oil on top of the flour, not touching yeast.  Use the dough cycle.  When the dough cycle is complete, remove the dough, form into a ball, and proceed with step 9 above.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Merluzzo in Umido (Cod in Light Tomato Sauce)

January 4, 2017

The first time I had Merluzzo in Umido was November 1992.  My husband and I took my mother, his mother, and his fraternal grandmother to Santa Fe for a week over Thanksgiving.  At the time, we were living in Chicago.  We rented an ancient adobe house off Garcia Street.  The house didn’t have any central heat though it did have a frightening array of heating devices that included a kiva fireplace, a direct-vent gas heater in the living room, a portable electric heater in one of the bedrooms, wall-mounted electric radiant heaters in the bathrooms, and nothing in the kitchen.  If the oven wasn’t on, the kitchen was the coldest room in the house as it had three outside walls and a door that didn’t seal very well.

Of course, it was reported to be the coldest winter that Santa Fe had experienced in 100 years! In addition to cold, there was lots of snow. And there we were, in a drafty old adobe house with no central heat enjoying a week with the likes of The Golden Girls!

We had a blast.

We had been house hunting in Santa Fe since April of that year.  On that November trip we saw several houses we liked.  We spent a few evenings rating each of the houses on an array of factors using a spreadsheet.  (In my professional life, we would have called this a prioritization matrix or selection grid. It’s a technique I’ve taught to hundreds of health care professionals over several decades.)  One afternoon we all piled into the car to look at the two finalists in the property hunt.  We were uncertain which one to buy.  Not so the women.  A little house on Griffin Street was the undisputed, hands-down favorite.  Deal done!

We put in an offer and closed in January.  For most of December my mother kept saying that she wanted to go back to Santa Fe and stay in the house in the spring.  We did a bit of remodeling and moved into the house in March.  Unfortunately, my mother died in January, shortly before we closed on the house.  She never got to experience her dream of returning to Santa Fe.  We had that house for more than nine years before we moved into a much larger Santa Fe property in Ricardo-Legorreta-designed Zocalo.  After Zocalo, we built and moved into Villa Sentieri overlooking the city.

I frequently think of that trip.  It was memorable in so many ways.  We found our first house in Santa Fe.  I got to spend quality time with my mother in the last weeks of her life.  My husband and I had interviews to get our medical licenses in New Mexico.  (It’s the only time either of us has been personally interviewed for a medical license!).   And, I learned how to make Merluzzo in Umido, one of many recipes that my husband’s grandmother brought with her from Italy.

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Merluzzo in Umido (Cod in Light Tomato Sauce)
If possible, by large filets of cod and portion them at home. Three pounds is enough for eight people. The advantage of portioning the fish at home is that you can make some smaller pieces for individuals with smaller appetites. Cod is a perfect fish for this dish because it is forgiving in terms of being overcooked. However, any firm, white, non-oily fish will taste great. I used a 15-inch rondeau to cook the cod. It held the fish in a single layer. If you don’t have a pan large enough to hold the fish in one layer, make the sauce in a single sauté pan then divide it among two different pans to cook the fish.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
  1. Cut the cod into 8 to 10 serving pieces. Though you can cook whole filets, it will be easier to get the fish out of the pan if cut into portions.
  2. In rondeau large enough to hold the fish in one layer, sauté the onion and a sprinkling of salt in the olive oil until transparent and slightly golden but not brown.
  3. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  4. Add parsley and some freshly ground black pepper. Sauté for a minute or two. The smell of parsley should become noticeably more potent. Do not brown the ingredients of the pan.
  5. Add the wine and cook briskly until the wine evaporates.
  6. Add the tomato paste. Sauté, stirring frequently, until it gets ever so slightly darker and begins to smell sweet. This will take 2-3 minutes.
  7. Add the water, oregano, basil and additional salt and pepper to taste. Boil gently, with the cover slightly askew for 20-30 minutes. The sauce will thicken. If it becomes too thick, add a little additional water. However, the juices from the fish will thin the sauce so it is better for the sauce to start out too thick rather than two thin. The sauce can be made ahead to this point.
  8. With the sauce at a medium boil, add the fish, skin side down. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the pot tightly and cook for approximately 20 minutes until the fish cooks through an flakes easily. The length of time will depend on the type of fish, thickness of the portions, and elevation. Do not turn the fish but occasionally spoon some of the sauce over the top of the cooking fish.
  9. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning. If the sauce it too thick thin with a little water. If it is too thin, boil it briskly after removing the fish.
  10. Put the fish on a deep serving platter. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve.
Recipe Notes

Parsley stems can be bitter.  When adding parsley to a recipe, I only use the leaves and very tender stems.  To do this, I hold the end of the parsley stem in one hand and slide the stem between the thumb and finger of the other hand.  When my fingers reach the leaves, I pinch off the stem and discard it.  This makes quick work of the parsley and removes any chance of bitterness from the stems.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com.  All rights reserved.

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