Cabbage and Noodles (Halushki)

November 27, 2017

One of the interesting consequences of working on this blog is that it is getting me to cook more Slovak food.

We ate way more Italian food than Slovak food when I was growing up but, nonetheless, Slovak food was a significant presence on our table.

Things that only lived in my memory, like the Chicken Paprikash that I posted a few weeks ago, and my Grandma Mihalik’s Butter Cookies that are coming up in a week or two, are now real. And it’s not only the Slovak food. The Chinese Five-Spice Roast Pork from last week hasn’t been on my table in more than 40 years!


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Part of the reason is that, as much as I enjoy cooking, I hadn’t devoted as much time to planning what I was going to cook as I did when I was younger.  That is, until I got deep into this blog (and the restaurant cookbook I’ve been asked to write).

In Junior and Senior years of college there was a plan for dinner for every day of every week. Sometimes there was a plan for lunch, too!

Good provisions weren’t conveniently located to the University of Pennsylvania campus except for some specialty items from the ethnic markets near campus or the occasional very basic item from one of two nearby (in-super) supermarkets. Grocery shopping was done weekly and involved a trip to Ninth Street (sometimes called the Italian Market), and to the Pathmark supermarket in Broomall, PA.

Every meal got planned and a shopping list was created.

The planning was usually done in the evenings when I needed a break from studying (which I know some of you think I never did!). I would sit down with a cookbook or two, or my box of recipes handwritten on 3” x 5” index cards, or the typewritten recipes from Mrs. Hugh, my roommate’s mother and, over the course of the week, generate a list of what my roommate and I were going to have for dinner each night. Some were favorites but many were new, like the whole poached fish I made from Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook or Mrs. Hugh’s Crispy Duck (see the photo embedded in this blog post).

One of my favorite books was a slim volume by Charmaine Solomon. Charmaine was from Sri Lanka and two of the resident advisors in my college house, Reggie and Nanacy Rajapakse, were also from Sri Lanka and knew Charmaine. Charmaine’s Far Eastern Cookbook was copyrighted in 1972 (the year I started college). The edition I have was printed in 1973 so it was quite new when I bought it in 1974 shortly after entering the International Residence Project. I read that book cover to cover, like a novel, many times. I could sit for hours and pore over Charmaine’s recipes.

My dog-eared and much beloved copy of Charmaine Solomon’s Far Eastern Cookbook

In 1976, when I graduated college, Reggie and Nanacy bought me another of Charmaine’s cookbooks as a present, The Complete Asian Cookbook.

Another favorite cookbook was the [Ceylon] Daily News Cookery Book which was in the collection of the Van Pelt library at the University of Pennsylvania. I would check it out, keep it as long as I could, return it, and then check it out again. It was a hardcover book with a red cloth cover. It was simply titled the Daily News Cookery Book.  Reference to Ceylon was nowhere to be found in the title.  Many years later, on a trip to Sri Lanka, I was able to get a reprint of the book (with the word Ceylon added to the title).

My point, though, is that my cooking repertoire expanded because I worked at it. Ray and I planned every meal, we went grocery shopping, we cooked, and we most certainly ate. I was still able to keep up a good cooking pace through medical school but after that, as I got busier and busier, it became harder and harder.

While I can put food on the table any given night without much thought, recreating past favorites or trying out new recipes requires more planning. I now have a calendar specifically devoted to cooking. Dishes get planned out weeks, if not months, in advance. It’s a lot of work, yes, but it’s tremendously rewarding to prepare my favorite foods, many of which I haven’t had in many years, and introduce them to others.

Cabbage and Noodles, sometimes called Halushki, was frequently on our table. I remember it particularly being served with Salmon Patties, one of my favorite Friday meals when we didn’t eat meat. We had it other times, too, but the association of Cabbage and Noodles with Salmon Patties is very strong.


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Cabbage and Noodles (Halushki)
Although three pounds of cabbage sounds like a lot, it cooks down a tremendous amount. If you wish, you can add a teaspoon or two of caraway seed to the cabbage during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Though my family did not do that, it is not unusual to do so.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Quarter and core the cabbage.
  2. Slice each quarter crosswise into ½ inch wide ribbons.
  3. In a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to hold the cabbage comfortably melt four tablespoons of the butter.
  4. Sauté the onion in the butter until golden.
  5. Add the cabbage. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  6. Sauté on medium heat, stirring often, until the cabbage wilts.
  7. Reduce the heat if the cabbage starts to stick to the pot.
  8. Continue to cook on medium low, partially covered and stirring often, until the cabbage is silky, golden, and sweet. This will take 1 ½ to 2 hours total from start to finish.
  9. The cabbage can be cooked several hours in advance to this point. Warm the cabbage before proceeding.
  10. Bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 1/3 cup of salt.
  11. Cook the egg noodles in the salted water until just done. They should be slightly toothy and definitely not mushy.
  12. Drain the noodles.
  13. Add the noodles to the cooked cabbage along with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Toss well.
  14. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
Recipe Notes

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

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Chicken Paprikash (Chicken with Paprika-Sour Cream Sauce)

November 13, 2017

I really don’t remember my Slovak grandmother doing much cooking. By the time I was old enough to pay attention to who was cooking, she was mostly just making the occasional pot of soup.

My Grandmother

My grandparents owned a semi-detached house and Uncle Frankie and Aunt Mary lived next door. Although they had separate front porches, they shared a back porch. Going back and forth was easy.


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Aunt Mary kept my grandparents well-supplied with food. My Aunt Ann pitched in from time to time as well.

My Grandfather

My grandparents were really keen on soup. I guess when you’re raising a family of seven sons through the Great Depression and its aftermath, on a steelworker’s income, preparing filling and budget-friendly food becomes a necessity.

After the early 1960s when my Uncle Gusty moved back to the United States from Japan with his wife and their children, all seven of my grandparents’ sons lived in Johnstown with their wives and children. Most of us would visit on Sunday afternoons arriving sometime after lunch and leaving before dinner.

My Grandfather and Father in the late 1960s. I used to wear the tie my dad is wearing to high school. I still have it! My father insisted that I tie a Full Windsor. Now I know where he got his preference!

Very frequently a large pot of soup would appear for anyone who needed a little something to hold him or her over till dinner. Often it would be potato soup or sour mushroom soup (made with dried mushrooms and spiked with a little vinegar). My father talked longingly about a sour cabbage soup called kissel which nobody was making any longer.

Other than soup, baba (sometimes written bubba), and sweets at the holidays, I don’t remember eating much at my grandparents’ house though I do remember my grandfather and my uncles consuming a fair amount of beer, and, on special holidays, shots of whiskey.

Me with my Grandparents in 1976

Most of the Slovak food that I ate was at home or at one of my uncle and aunt’s houses.

Chicken Paprikash is considered a Hungarian dish but it was common on the Slovak side of my family.  My grandfather was born in 1890 in a small town, Nitrianske Sucany, not too far from Bratislava, in what is now Slovakia.  My grandmother was born a few years later.  In 1909 when my grandfather came to America, he left what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Slovakia did not exist as a country.  Food diffuses with cultural contact (think about the popularity of Spam in both Hawaii and Korea which can be traced to the presence of the US military).  I suspect that’s how Chicken Paprikash became something made by my Slovak grandparents.

My version of Chicken Paprikash is a combination of my mother’s and my Aunt Ann’s. When I went to look up the recipe to make in preparation for this blog I discovered that I had never written it down! Luckily I remembered just how to do it.


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Chicken Paprikash
Using bone-in chicken with skin improves the flavor of the final dish. Flabby skin from braised chicken is not appetizing, however, so remove it near the end of cooking before putting the chicken in the finished sauce. Since paprika is the major flavor in this dish be sure to use fresh, high-quality paprika, preferably Hungarian. Sweet paprika was the norm in my family, not hot, and certainly not smoked which would totally change the flavor. You can use whatever chicken parts you prefer but I think the texture of slowly braised thighs is superior. Serve the chicken with buttered noodles or mashed potatoes, both of which go really well with the sour-cream-enhanced sauce.
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Course Mains, Poultry
Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 1/2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Mains, Poultry
Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 1/2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Pat the chicken dry and season liberally with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan.
  3. Sauté the chicken on both sides, starting skin-side-down, until brown on both sides. Do not crowd the chicken. Do this in batches if necessary.
  4. Remove the browned chicken to a platter.
  5. Empty the oil from the pan and wipe clean.
  6. Add two tablespoons of butter. Sauté the diced onion until golden.
  7. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, approximately 1 minute.
  8. Add 3 tablespoons of paprika and sauté for approximately 15 seconds (paprika burns very easily).
  9. Add one cup of broth and mix well.
  10. Add the bay leaf, browned chicken pieces and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add additional salt and pepper to taste. Cover and braise on low until very tender, approximately 1 ½ hours being sure to taste for salt occasionally. Add additional broth if needed to keep the pan from drying out.
  11. About 15 minutes before the chicken is done, remove the skin and discard.
  12. When the chicken is fully cooked, remove it to a platter.
  13. Remove the bay leaf.
  14. Pour the cooking liquid, without straining, into a small pot and keep it warm on low heat. You can skim fat from the top of the cooking liquid if you would like.
  15. Wash and dry the pot used to cook the chicken. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter in that pot.
  16. Add the finely diced onion and sauté until golden.
  17. Add the flour and cook 2-3 minutes, until no longer raw.
  18. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of paprika and sauté 15 seconds.
  19. With the flour-onion-paprika mixture on medium heat, begin to ladle in the reserved cooking liquid a little at a time, stirring well after each addition to avoid lumps.
  20. When all the cooking liquid has been incorporated, add any remaining chicken broth, if all of the original 2 cups was not used to braise the chicken.
  21. Bring to a boil and cook for one minute. The sauce should be quite thick. It will thin with the addition of sour cream. If the sauce is too thin, boil it longer as you will not be able to boil it once the sour cream has been added.
  22. Stir in the sour cream. Adjust salt and pepper. Add the chicken and heat gently without boiling.
Recipe Notes

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

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Jim’s Hawaiian Guava Cake

October 25, 2017

“Aloha Mr. Van Sant.”

So began a 2003 email from Simon Rusconi, the Hotel Manager of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider Resort on Oahu.

Mr. Van Sant, Jim to the rest of us, had complimented the resort on its guava cake and Mr. Rusconi was writing to share the recipe.

Jim printed out the email and affixed it to an index card and put it in his recipe box. Late in 2016, the subject of the guava cake came up somehow at a dinner party at Jim and Bill’s house. Jim offered to share the recipe with me if I was interested.

I was, and I said that I’d make it for him. Shortly thereafter, the original recipe arrived in the mail still affixed to the index card. Not wanting to keep his original, I scanned it into my recipe database and returned the hardcopy.

Since Jim and Bill rent a home in Palm Springs just steps from our house, and since baking cakes at nearly 8000 feet where I live in New Mexico is an iffy proposition, at best, I said I’d bake the cake in Palm Springs. Every winter they rent the Oscar Mayer House. Yes, that Oscar Mayer!

We had a delightful luncheon at tables set up around their pool with guava cake for dessert.

The back of the Oscar Mayer house in Palm Springs, California
Inside the Oscar Mayer House
The front of the Oscar Mayer House

But that’s jumping ahead.

Receiving the recipe from Jim was merely the beginning. I became fascinated by guava cake without having even made one. Almost any recipe with the degree of cultural significance that guava cake seemed to garner grabs my attention. I did internet searches and combed through my Hawaiian cookbooks (of which I have a goodly number).

It appears that there are basically three variations of guava cake in Hawaii: Guava Chiffon Cake, Guava Spice Cake, and (plain old) Guava Cake. Recipes for the last often start with a box of cake mix and use Cool Whip in the cream cheese frosting.

From what my research has revealed, the original was a Guava Chiffon Cake invented by Herbert Matsuba, owner of the Dee Lite Bakery, in the early 1960s.

The popularity of the cake no doubt led to multiple copycat recipes, including those using a box of cake mix and Cool Whip aimed at the home cook.

The recipe from the Moana Surfrider was a Guava Spice Cake. I followed the recipe closely the first time except that I needed to find a substitute for frozen concentrated guava nectar which I was unable to find after scouring 10 grocery stores in Palm Springs and nearby desert towns.

I ultimately was able to source pure guava puree at a market catering to Hispanic shoppers. It had no sweeteners so I thought I might need to add sugar to the batter in a subsequent trial but for the first round I used the guava puree as a direct substitute for concentrated guava nectar.

Frozen Guava Puree, a much easier to find substitute for frozen concentrated guava nectar

The cake was good but everyone who tasted it failed to taste any guava. It really just tasted like a spice cake. Certainly it was not worth hours of searching for guava concentrate only to have the flavor masked by spices.

Other than guava chiffon cake, which was definitely not the same genre as the cake that Jim had at the Moana Surfrider, I could not find a recipe for plain guava cake that did not start with a box of cake mix. I decided to make the original recipe without the spices.

That did it! The guava flavor came through but something told me that Herbert, a professional baker, might have used something to amp up the guava flavor.

That started me on a search for natural guava extract. I found a wonderful extract made by Amoretti.

You can do without the Amoretti Guava Extract but not the red food coloring.

The next time I made the cake, I added a tiny bit of guava extract to the batter. I believe it enhanced the flavor but if one is not going to make a lot of guava cakes I would consider omitting the guava extract as it is expensive and very concentrated so a little bottle will last a long, long time.

For an everyday cake, I suggest baking it in a 9” x 13” x 2” rectangular pan. For a more special presentation, make a layer cake by dividing the batter between two 9” round pans. If you are doing the latter, make a double batch of cream cheese frosting. You’ll have a little left over but a single batch will not be enough. You could always whip up half a batch of batter and make guava cupcakes to use the extra frosting!

In honor of Oscar Mayer, in whose house we all came together over Jim’s Hawaiian Guava Cake, I recommend the following tribute. Who knew there were so many variations on the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme?


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Jim's Hawaiian Guava Cake
Because frozen, concentrated guava nectar is not readily available except in Hawaii, I standardized this recipe using frozen guava pulp which should be easy to find in large supermarkets or in markets catering to customers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. It is important that the cream cheese frosting be level so that the guava gel forms an even layer. If you are making a rectangular cake this means there will be a bit more frosting at the edges than in the middle. If you are making a round two-layer cake, I suggest cutting off the tops of the cakes to achieve a perfectly level appearance. Put the cakes cut side down to avoid having lots of crumbs working their way into the cream cheese frosting. Guava nectar can be purchased in cans or refrigerated. Guava pulp is frozen.
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Prep Time 2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 3 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Guava Gel
Cream Cheese Frosting (make a double batch for the round cake)
Prep Time 2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 3 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Guava Gel
Cream Cheese Frosting (make a double batch for the round cake)
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Instructions
Cake
  1. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 x 2 inch metal cake pan or two 9 inch round cake pans.
  2. Combine flour and baking soda. Reserve.
  3. Combine guava puree, guava nectar, guava extract and red food coloring. Reserve.
  4. Cream butter until light. Add sugar and cream until light and fluffy.
  5. Beat in eggs, one at a time, creaming well after each addition.
  6. On low, add dry ingredients alternating with wet ingredients, starting and ending with dry ingredients.
  7. For the rectangular pan: pour the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top. Rap the pan on the counter to release any air bubbles.
  8. Bake 350°F 40-45 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.
  9. Cool the cake in the pan then refrigerate.
  10. Frost with cream cheese frosting being careful to make the top of the frosting level. Refrigerate several hours to firm up the frosting.
  11. Top with guava gel and smooth out to the edges. Refrigerate several hours to set the frosting and gel.
  12. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
  13. For the round pans: Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth the tops. Rap the pans on the counter to release any air bubbles.
  14. Bake 350°F 30-35 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.
  15. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes. Remove and cool completely on a wire rack.
  16. Wrap the cakes and refrigerate until cold, or up to one day.
  17. Slice the rounded tops of the cakes off to make them level.
  18. x
  19. Put one layer, cut-side-down on a platter.
  20. Put a layer of cream cheese frosting on the top of this layer.
  21. Pipe a rim of frosting around the edge to hold the guava gel. This does not need to be fancy as it will be smoothed out.
  22. Put just under ½ of the guava gel on top of the frosted bottom layer.
  23. Smooth the gel out to the piped edge.
  24. Top with the remaining cake, cut side down.
  25. Generously frost sides and top of the cake with cream cheese frosting.
  26. Pipe a decorative border around the edge of the top layer.
  27. Pour the remaining guava gel on top and smooth out to the edges.
  28. Refrigerate several hours to set the frosting and gel.
  29. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Guava Gel
  1. Put the cornstarch in a small heavy-bottomed sauce pan.
  2. Stir in the guava nectar, a little at a time, to dissolve the cornstarch without forming lumps.
  3. When dissolved, add the remaining guava nectar and sugar.
  4. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a full boil.
  5. Remove from heat and stir in red food coloring.
  6. Put a cloth on top of pan before putting cover back on to keep moisture from dripping back into the gel.
  7. After the gel reaches room temperature, refrigerate until cold.
Cream Cheese Frosting (make a double batch for the round cake)
  1. Chill the bowl and beaters for the whipped cream.
  2. Cream the cream cheese until light.
  3. Sprinkle in 1/3 cup of sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
  4. Mix in vanilla.
  5. In chilled bowl, beat the whipping cream until thick.
  6. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar and beat until the cream forms stiff peaks.
  7. Fold 1/3 of the whipped cream into the cream cheese to lighten it.
  8. Carefully, but thoroughly fold in the remainder of the whipped cream.
Recipe Notes

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

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Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake

August 25, 2017

Mike Abramson says his carrot cake is the best ever.

Janet Carlson doesn’t necessarily agree.

For now, the controversy will need to simmer as I only have Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake recipe, though I have suggested to Janet that she and Mike have a carrot cake bake-off.

Mike makes no apologies for having stolen the recipe from Tom Grier, originally of Grier, Georgia.

The story goes something like this…

In the 1970’s a group of four friends from San Francisco bought a weekend house, they named Aros, near Sebastopol, California. The four owners rotated use of the house, each getting it for a week at a time but also sometimes showing up there together to host parties as in the photo below.

Mike Abramson, second row far right

Over the years, ownership of the house shifted as some individuals sold their interest and others bought in.

At one point, Tom Grier was the youngest owner.

The group met on a quarterly basis in San Francisco to discuss maintenance issues related to the house. As with use of the house, these meetings were held in rotation at the owners’ homes in San Francisco.

Whenever Tom hosted the meeting, he served carrot cake, which Mike believes originated as a Grier family recipe. Tom shared the recipe with Mike and the rest is history. Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake was born.

But for Janet’s assertion that Mike’s might not be the best carrot cake in the world, well, we’ll just have to wait for the bake-off.

From left to right: Janet Carlson, Richard Valantasis, and Gino Barcone

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Mike's (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake
This is almost a cross between a spice cake and a carrot cake. The frosting is generous and could easily be reduced by one-third. This recipe is for sea level. If there is interest in adjustments for high altitude, let me know and I’ll post them.
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
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Instructions
Cake
  1. Butter and flour a 9” x 13” baking pan.
  2. Grate the carrots on the tear-drop holes of a box grater.
  3. Coarsely chop the nuts.
  4. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix with the paddle.
  5. Add the oil and eggs to the flour mixture. Blend until combined.
  6. Add the carrots and crushed pineapple with the juice. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Add the walnuts and raisins. Stir to combine.
  8. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes or until the center springs back when lightly touched.
  9. Cool completely in the pan before frosting.
Frosting
  1. Beat cream cheese and butter until light using the paddle of a stand mixer.
  2. Beat in all other ingredients.
  3. Frost cake when cool.
Recipe Notes

For recipes that call for solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, I use coconut oil is due to concerns about the negative health effects of hydrogenated fats.

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

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Fresh Corn Sautéed in Butter

August 16, 2017

I moved full-time from Chicago to Santa Fe in early 2012. I still get asked if I miss anything about Chicago. I think Chicago is a wonderful city but, honestly, the only things I miss are related to food. I miss really good Italian restaurants and I miss the abundance of specialty food shopping.

Go backwards to the late 80’s when I moved from Philadelphia to Chicago (with a one-year stint in Tucson in-between). It was pretty easy for me to find replacements for favorite restaurants and specialty food shopping. It was all but impossible to replace New Jersey farm stands and especially fresh corn, Silver Queen Corn, to be exact.

There I was in the heartland, awash in corn and soybeans, and there was no really good corn-on-the-cob to be had. It was a sad, sad day when I realized something as simple as good corn-on-the cob was basically gone from my table.

To be sure, I bought and cooked corn-on-the-cob but it was never the same.

Not only is Silver Queen an amazing variety of corn but farm stands in New Jersey (at least way back then) were set up on the road alongside the farm. The corn was on the stalk mere hours before it was sold. It was ultra-fresh.

I was actually so enamored of Silver Queen Corn when I lived in Philadelphia that I bought an amateur piece of art simply because of the subject matter. See below.

Then, one day, Jim Nutter prepared corn in a Southern style that compensated for the absence of Silver Queen Corn in my life: Corn Fried in Butter.  I always refer to this as Corn Sautéed in Butter but a Southern cook would most likely refer to it as “fried.”

The method came from his husband’s mother, Mildred Burgess Hamill. Mrs. Burgess, as she was known, ruled her kitchen. One of the very few times Phil Burgess was allowed to help his mother in the kitchen, it was shucking corn for this dish.

The dish is pure simplicity: corn and butter, seasoned with salt and pepper. Sure, you can gussie it up with cream or spice it up with jalapeno peppers but I like it best in its pure state. This two-ingredient recipe (salt and pepper don’t count, really, as ingredients) goes beyond the sum of its parts. I can’t explain why. It just does.

Traditionally, Italians did not eat much fresh corn. Polenta, yes (in the north) but fresh corn, rarely. I made this dish 20-some years ago when my husband’s Great Aunt Fidalma and Great Uncle Faliero were visiting Chicago from Tuscany. Not only did they like it, but Zia Fidalma was fascinated by the tool I used to remove the corn kernels. After seeing me do one ear of corn, she decided to take over and do all the remaining ones!

A nifty tool for cutting kernels off the cob

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Fresh Corn Sautéed in Butter
This is an elegant way to serve fresh corn that preserves all of its peak-of-season goodness. You can make it extra-rich by adding a few tablespoons of heavy cream and stirring to incorporate just before removing the corn from the heat, if you would like. You can also change up the flavor profile by adding a finely diced jalapeno pepper at the beginning, as Jim Nutter often does. A pinch of sugar sometimes helps to improve the flavor if the corn is not farm-stand fresh. Some Southern cooks might cook this longer but since really fresh corn tastes good raw, long cooking is not necessary.
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Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Cut the corn kernels off the cobs.
  2. Scrape the cobs with a knife to release any juice.
  3. Put the corn and butter in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan.
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Heat gently to warm the corn and butter.
  6. Cook on medium for approximately 3-5 minutes after the butter melts and the corn “starts dancing” in the butter, stirring frequently. Do not brown the corn or butter.
  7. The finished dish: Corn Fried in Butter.
Recipe Notes

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

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Risotto with Asparagus

May 29, 2017

Risotto is not a Southern Italian dish.  Neither is polenta, for that matter.

I never had either until college when I started cooking from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook published in 1973.  I still use the dog-eared copy I bought in college the year it was published.

It was a magnificent introduction to Northern Italian cooking which I knew little about as a kid of 18 from a small town in Western Pennsylvania in my sophomore year of college.

My knowledge of Northern Italian cooking expanded rapidly though.  Marcella was only the beginning.  There was a true restaurant renaissance in Philadelphia in the 1970’s.  Not only magnificent French restaurants like Le Bec Fin and La Panetiere, but wonderful Northern Italian restaurants like the Monte Carlo Living Room and a bevy of others whose names I can’t recall.  I ate at all of them…often.  I still remember one dinner at the Monte Carlo Living Room where, after being served a very simple spaghetti with garlic and oil, the waiter (they weren’t called servers back then) came by with a black truffle and shaved large quantities of it onto my pasta.  Heaven!

I also learned about Northern Italian cooking from the aunts of my college advisor Eugene (Gene) d’Aquili.  Well, it was Roman cooking, actually, which is in central Italy but still pretty far north from where my mother’s family hailed.

Auntie Helen (Zia Elena) and Auntie Louise (Zia Luigia) (they Anglicized their names after coming to America) were born in Rome in the early years of the 20th century.  They came to America as children.  Of the two, Auntie Helen was the cook.  From her I learned to make many classic Roman dishes.  Some of Auntie Helen’s dishes are slated to make it into the blog, including a Roman Chicken Cacciatore flavored with anchovies.

So, by the time I got absorbed into my husband’s Northern Italian family (his father is from Tuscany and his mother from Friuli) I had a good grasp of Northern Italian cooking.

We have risotto often.  Probably at least once every two weeks.  It’s usually made with a vegetable, though occasionally I’ll make Risotto alla Milanese flavored with saffron and not a vegetable in sight.  In the spring risotto usually includes asparagus or peas.  In the summer it is likely to be zucchini.  The fall brings butternut squash risotto and mushroom risotto.  Mushroom risotto pretty much carries us through the winter, too, with the occasional risotto made with meat sauce.

Since it’s spring, I’m doing risotto agli asparagi, risotto with asparagus.

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Risotto with Asparagus
Risotto is a classic Northern Italian dish. The goal is to have rice grains that are still al dente (but not crunchy) in the middle surrounded by a creamy liquid. More often than not I find that risotto served in America is overly rich with butter, cheese, and sometimes cream. An Italian-style risotto should be creamy from the starch in the rice, augmented with a very modest amount of butter and cheese. Risotto rice is a short grain rice that cooks slowly, making it much easier to achieve an al dente texture because it takes a while to actually overcook it. The three types of rice for risotto are Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. Arborio is the easiest one to find though the other two are more forgiving than Arborio when it comes to overcooking. I recommend buying good quality rice imported from Italy. It really isn’t priced that differently from domestic. Do not wash the rice. I don’t buy shallots unless I have a specific recipe in mind. Since risotto is often something that I make with little advance planning based on the fresh vegetables that are in my refrigerator, I usually use onion and garlic in place of shallot. I honestly don’t think one could reliably tell the difference so feel free to use onion and garlic as noted in the recipe if shallots aren’t handy.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
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Instructions
  1. Trim off the tough bottom of the asparagus spears. The standard way to do this is to bend the spear and let it crack naturally where the spear is less tough and woody.
  2. Finely dice the shallot.
  3. Cut the tips off each spear, approximately the top 2 inches. Reserve the asparagus tips.
  4. Cut the remaining spears into 1 inch pieces. Reserve the cut spears separately from the tips.
  5. Bring the chicken broth to a boil.
  6. Cook the asparagus tips in chicken broth for 2-4 minutes. They should be “toothy” but not crunchy.
  7. Using a spider or large slotted spoon, remove the tips from the boiling broth and put them into a bowl of ice water to stop further cooking.
  8. Cook the cut asparagus spears in the chicken broth for 4-6 minutes. Like the tips, they should be toothy but not crunchy.
  9. Add the partially cooked cut spears to the ice water with the tips.
  10. Reduce the heat so the broth remains at a simmer.
  11. Heat a two or three quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium high heat. Add the olive oil.
  12. When the oil is hot, add the finely chopped shallot (or onion and garlic if you are using that instead).
  13. Sauté, stirring frequently until the shallot softens and turns translucent. Do not brown the shallot. You may need to reduce the heat.
  14. When the shallot is soft, return the heat to medium high and add the rice.
  15. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the rice starts to smell toasty. Do not brown the rice.
  16. The outer portion of the rice grains will get translucent while the inside will stay opaque white.
  17. Add the wine. Stir frequently, but not constantly, until the wine has totally evaporated. You will begin to see some starch leaching out of the rice. More and more of the starch will leach out as you cook the rice. This is what will make a creamy sauce.
  18. When the wine has evaporated, add a scant ½ cup of simmering broth. Stir thoroughly paying particular attention to loosening any spots where the starch seems to be sticking to the bottom of the pan. You don’t want to brown (or worse yet, burn) the starch.
  19. Stir frequently, but not constantly, until the broth has evaporated.
  20. If the broth is unsalted, as I recommend, you can add a teaspoon of salt to the rice as you begin to add broth. If the broth contains salt, I recommend not adding salt until the end.
  21. Keep repeating the process with a scant ½ cup of broth, cooking, stirring, and loosening any spots that are sticking until each addition of broth evaporates. The heat should stay as close as possible to medium high. The moderate boiling of the liquid will coax starch out of the rice to create the creaminess that is the hallmark of a good risotto.
  22. While the rice is cooking, drain the partially cooked asparagus.
  23. Begin tasting the rice after about 20 minutes of cooking. It will probably still be quite crunchy at the very core. Until you get the hang of it, I suggest testing a rice grain each time you add more broth so you develop a sense of how quickly the texture changes.
  24. When you think you’re only one or two additions of broth away from having perfectly al dente rice, add the partially cooked asparagus.
  25. Continue cooking, adding simmering broth or water as needed, until the rice is al dente.
  26. Remove the rice from the heat and stir in enough simmering broth or water to create a creamy “sauce.” The starch that you have coaxed out of the rice should absorb at least ½ cup of liquid, possibly more.
  27. Stir in the butter and Parmesan cheese. This will probably thicken the “sauce” so you will need to add a bit more simmering liquid to loosen it.
  28. Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  29. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

I think the standard method used to decide where to trim asparagus wastes too much.   For a quick tutorial on how I prep asparagus, check out my Preparing Asparagus post.

It will likely take more than 4 cups of broth to cook the rice. If you don’t have more broth, just use plain water. I do that very frequently. Except for the initial addition of wine, all liquid added to the risotto should be simmering.  As I’m getting near the end of the broth, I always put a couple of cups of water on to boil so that I have simmering water to add if needed.

Although the broth used for risotto should be flavorful, it should not be overly concentrated. The flavor of the asparagus should come through and not be muddled because the broth tastes assertively like chicken or herbs. Because you will be cooking down a fair amount of broth, it is best that it not be salted otherwise you run the risk of the risotto being too salty.

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

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Croquetas de Jamon (Cuban Ham Croquettes)

May 1, 2017

In early 2014, my husband and I were lucky enough to go to Cuba with two close friends.  This was prior to the loosening up of restrictions on travel by Americans to the island nation.

Because of the guidelines governing such travel, we had to spend a significant portion of our time interacting with Cubans, not being tourists.  We visited a schools for the arts and music, toured cultural sites, attended lectures, saw a cigar factory, and met with some Cubans in their homes, among other activities.

All of Cuba is divided up into small units that are under the watchful eye of a trusted local who reports any unusual activities to the authorities.  These units could be a section of a street, for example, or a multi-unit building.  What turned out to be one of the most memorable events was meeting with the residents of one such building one evening in Cienfuegos.

The children put on a small performance, we had refreshments, then spent several hours chatting with the building’s residents.  It seemed to us that everyone was quite open, talking about the challenges, as well as the benefits (such as free education and health care) of life in Cuba.  In fact, while it seems that most Cubans we met were in favor of a more open society they were understandably very protective of their access to education and health care.

One man, seemed particularly open about the difficulties of life in Cuba.  This was surprising to us as his wife was the designated party operative responsible for overseeing this particular building.  Our suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he disappeared into their apartment shortly before the evening ended after his wife gave him “the look.”  As our vehicle was pulling away from the building, he ran out and waved us good-bye.  Clearly he had been banished from the meeting but kept a watchful eye from his apartment, exiting at just the right moment.

In addition to spending the major portion of our trip interacting with Cubans we were prohibited from actually going to the beach!  This was supposed to be an educational and cultural interchange, not fun.

Even more interesting is that, at the time, Americans were prohibited from buying Cuban cigars and rum.  Mind you, I’m not talking about bringing these items back to the United States which was definitely forbidden, but buying and using them while in Cuba.

This would seem to be a singularly difficult rule to enforce and I can’t say that anybody paid particular attention to it.  One of our most pleasant experiences was sitting at a park on the waterfront in Cienfuegos sipping rum (from plastic cups) smoking cigars and watching the sun set.

We ate a lot of croquetas in Cuba and drank a lot of rum punch, mojitos, and cariocas.  After we got back we pulled together a Cuban dinner with a few other friends.  I made the traditional finger-sized croquetas—seven dozen of them, actually!  Here is a picture of me frying them as well as a platter full of cooked ones along with some plantain chips and mojitos.

For this post, since I was cooking them as an entrée rather than as a nibble with cocktails, I made them larger.

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Croquetas de Jamon (Cuban Ham Croquettes)
Instead of ham, croquetas can be made with cooked fish, salted cod, or potatoes among other ingredients. Cracker crumbs are the standard coating used in Cuba but fine dry breadcrumbs will work fine. I really like using plain panko crumbs whizzed in the food processor to finely pulverize them. They give an amazing crunch! If you are making these to serve as nibbles, you should get seven dozen. If you are making larger croquetas to serve as a main course, this recipe will make 16. Two or three of the larger croquetas will serve one person depending on what else is being served.
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Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 20 minutes
Passive Time 9 hours
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Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 20 minutes
Passive Time 9 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. If the ham was cooked with a sweet glaze, rinse the glaze off using warm water.
  2. Cut the ham into one-inch cubes.
  3. Finely grind the ham in a food processor or meat grinder. Reserve the ground ham.
  4. Over medium heat, warm the milk in a small saucepan.
  5. Meanwhile, in a two-quart heavy bottomed pan, sauté the onion in butter on medium heat until soft, approximately 4-5 minutes.
  6. Add the flour to the onion-butter mixture and cook for about two minutes, stirring constantly. Do not brown the flour.
  7. Note, the flour will appear golden from the combination of the butter and the onions.
  8. Add about three tablespoons of the warm milk to the flour mixture. Stir well to fully incorporate. Continue adding about three tablespoons of warm milk at a time, stirring well after each addition, until all the milk has been incorporated. The mixture will form a rather heavy dough.
  9. Continue to cook the dough for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, without browning.
  10. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the ham. Keeping the mixture warm makes it much easier to blend the ham into the dough which would otherwise seize up with the addition of cold ham.
  11. Off the heat, stir in the nutmeg and parsley. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
  12. Spread the mixture into a small oblong pan. Cool to room temperature uncovered.
  13. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, about six hours or overnight.
  14. Form the croquetas. If making small ones, roll portions of the dough into ½ inch diameter cylinders. Cut the cylinders into pieces about 2 inches long. If making larger croquetas, divide the mixture into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball then flatten into a patty about ½ inch thick. Put the croquetas in a single layer on a cookie sheets. Refrigerate the croquetas until very cold.
  15. To bread the croquetas, beat 3 eggs seasoned with ½ teaspoon of salt. Dip the croquettes in the beaten egg then roll in crumbs.
  16. Put the croquetas onto cookie sheets once again. Refrigerate until cold.
  17. Repeat the egg and crumb coating a second time. The second coating is necessary to get the traditional crunch. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
  18. Cook the croquetas in a deep fryer at 350°F until deep brown. Alternatively, put ½ inch of oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan. Bring the oil to 350°F. Fry the croquetas, turning once, until deeply browned. Drain briefly on absorbent paper. Keep the croquetas warm in a low oven until they are all fried.
  19. The croquetas ready to serve.
Recipe Notes

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

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Slovak Caraway Soup

April 26, 2017

Growing up with an ethnically Italian mother and an ethnically Slovak father, we mostly ate Italian food with Slovak food appearing on the table every week or two.  On Sundays we usually went to visit my father’s parents and got a bit more Slovak food.

There were some classic American dishes that appeared on our table, too.  But, honestly, not that often.  The only thing my mother made that I didn’t like was hamburgers.  Well, that and liver.

But even my mother didn’t like liver.  She made it because my father liked it.  There was never the expectation that anyone else would eat it.

When she made liver…and that process involved running from the living room, through the dining room, to the kitchen to turn the liver as it sautéed and then running back to the living room to avoid the smell…she always made something else for the rest of us.  Well, that wasn’t so unusual either.  Remember…Southern Italian mother…food is important…everyone needs to eat.  There were nights when she would make one meal for my father, one for my sister, and one for me.  She would eat one of the three.

We always ate dinner together as a family and, despite the comment above, we usually at the same meal.  Sometimes, though, we each got individually catered food.

But back to hamburgers for a moment.  My mother was a great cook.  I know she used really good beef for her hamburgers.  She usually picked out a whole cut and had the butcher grind it.  She never bought ground beef that I recall.  I still follow the basic blueprint of her hamburger recipe today and enjoy it.  So, I can’t really tell you why I thought her hamburgers were awful.  But I did.

Soup was a big deal in our house.  My father really liked soup.  Interestingly, I don’t remember having Caraway Soup more than a few times while growing up.  I do know, however, that while I was in college I got the recipe from my mother after it appeared on our table one day.  It seemed like a revelation.

It has been a regular on my table ever since.

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Slovak Caraway Soup
This is a light, refreshing soup based on a vegetable broth for which the ingredients are almost always on hand. I like serving it as a first course though it works equally well for lunch or as a light supper. Grating the vegetables on the large holes of a box grater was one of my mother’s tricks. It makes fast work of prep and the small pieces quickly flavor the broth.
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Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 45 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 45 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Shred the carrots on the teardrop holes of a box grater.
  2. Shred the celery on the teardrop holes of a box grater.
  3. Thinly slice half an onion.
  4. Combine carrots, celery, sliced onion, 2 teaspoons of salt, ½ teaspoon of black pepper and 2 quarts of water in a stock pot. Cover. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Add the caraway seeds. Cover and simmer another 25 minutes.
  6. Strain the broth. Discard the solids.
  7. Return the broth to the stock pot. The soup can be made several hours ahead to this point.
  8. When your ready to finish the soup, return the broth to a bare simmer.
  9. In a heavy-bottomed stock pot large enough to hold the soup, sauté the minced onion in butter until soft but not brown, about 3-4 minutes.
  10. Add the flour to the sautéed onions and cook until lightly colored, about 2 minutes, stirring almost constantly.
  11. Stir the hot broth into the onion-flour mixture a ladleful at a time, stirring well while adding the broth to avoid lumps.
  12. After about one-third of the broth has been added, the remainder can be added all at once.
  13. Bring to a boil and boil gently for 1-2 minutes to thicken. Adjust salt and pepper.
  14. While the soup is boiling, beat the eggs with 1/3 cup of water. Season the eggs with salt.
  15. While constantly whisking the stock, drizzle in the eggs to create shreds of egg.
  16. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

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Farfalle con Salsa di Piselli (Bowtie Pasta with Peas)

April 13, 2017

I’ve been silent for a while.  It wasn’t planned or anticipated.  Life just got in the way.  Mostly it was good stuff, though.  For example…

My husband’s birthday…a momentous one that ends in a zero…held at Trio Restaurant in Palm Springs.

A wedding (complete with a photo shoot using vintage hats!)  Congratulations Suzanne and Bob!!

A visit to the Trinity Site on one of the two days per year that it is open to the public.

Cooking at Palm Desert Food and Wine Festival.  Yep!  I got to cook at the Palm Desert Food and Wine Festival!!

That was a hoot!

The main events of the food and wine festival are held in a series of large tents on the top of a parking garage in Palm Desert.  The festival starts off on Friday with a multi-course, wine-paired James Beard Luncheon prepared by celebrity chefs.  The festival continues on Saturday and Sunday with The Grand Tasting and Chef Demonstrations.  There are other related events, such as special dinners, in the area, too.

There are three tents devoted to chef demonstrations.  Each demonstration runs for about an hour.  One demonstration per hour in each of three tents for two days is a lot of demonstrations.

Local chefs bring their own ingredients for their demonstrations and also prepare samples of the finished dish for about 100 audience participants.  Mostly what the local chefs really bring is their restaurant kitchen staff to do the work.

Celebrity Chefs have a whole different deal.  They submit their recipes.  The ingredients get purchased.  The commercial kitchen, set up in a tent on top of the parking garage, preps all the ingredients for their demonstrations and also prepares between 75 and 175 portions of the dish to be distributed to the audience.

I got to prepare food for The Beekman Boys, Stuart O’Keeffe, Zac Young, and Aarti Sequeira, among others.  The Beekman Boys, Josh and Brent, were gracious enough to come into the kitchen and chat with me during their Facebook Live post!  The post is below.

Hey everyone…we're live at the Palm Desert Food & Wine Show. Come take a peek behind the scenes…

Posted by Beekman 1802 Boys on Saturday, March 25, 2017

 

So, while I wasn’t posting recipes, for which I apologize, I was further pursuing my cooking goals.

After being in Palm Desert, where it was definitely spring, and returning to Santa Fe where it was definitely winter, I felt the need for something spring-like.  This pasta, with a sauce of spring-like peas, was exactly the thing!  Unless you have absolutely glorious peas from a local farmers’ market, I suggest using frozen peas.  This is exactly what I did to create a taste of spring in the Santa Fe winter!

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Farfalle con Salsa di Piselli (Bowtie Pasta with Peas)
If you have access to fresh peas from a farmers’ market please give them a try. If not, frozen peas work well. I’ve never had good luck with the “fresh” shelled peas in the supermarket. They always seem too starchy, and sometimes even musty tasting. Each pound of peas in the pod yields about 1 cup of shelled peas. For the 2 ¼ cups of peas needed for this recipe, I’d start with at least 2 ¼ pounds of peas in the pod. The vermouth adds an herbal quality and its slight bitterness balances the sweetness of the peas.
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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Servings
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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Servings
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Instructions
  1. Combine the peas, thyme and water. Season with salt. Bring to a boil. If you are using frozen peas remove from the heat as soon as the water comes to a boil and continue with the next step. If you are using fresh peas, cook until the skins pop when bitten into and the peas are just cooked. This will take just a few minutes. The time is dependent on the peas so you’ll have to taste a pea about every 30 seconds so that you don’t overcook them.
  2. Remove ½ cup of the cooked peas from the cooking liquid. Rinse the peas under cool water to stop the cooking. Reserve the peas.
  3. Puree the remaining peas with the cooking liquid in a blender. Reserve the pea puree.
  4. Cut the pancetta into ¼ inch dice.
  5. In a wide, heavy-bottomed pan large enough to hold the cooked pasta comfortably, cook the pancetta over medium-low heat until crisp and brown. If the oil from the pancetta starts to smoke reduce the heat and add a tablespoon of water to quickly lower the temperature. It is important to brown the pancetta well, and to create browned bits in the bottom of the pan (without burning) to build flavor for the sauce.
  6. Remove the pancetta and reserve.
  7. Thinly slice the onion.
  8. Add the butter to the pan you just used to cook the pancetta. leaving in the rendered fat and browned bits. As soon as the butter melts, add the thinly-sliced onion and sauté until the onion is soft and golden brown.
  9. Add the vermouth to the sautéed onions. (Note, the recipe can be prepared several hours in advance up to this point. If doing so, as soon as you add the vermouth, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly.)
  10. Bring the onion-vermouth mixture to a boil and boil rapidly until the vermouth has evaporated.
  11. Add the pureed peas, reduce heat to low, and gently warm the onion-pea puree mixture.
  12. Meanwhile cook the pasta in three quarts of heavily-salted, rapidly-boiling water. When the pasta is al dente, remove one cup of the cooking liquid and reserve.
  13. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the warm onion-pea puree mixture.
  14. Increase heat to medium. Add the whole cooked peas, the pancetta, freshly ground black pepper to taste, and enough of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to make a sauce that just clings to the pasta. Cook for a minute or two to allow the sauce to bubble and thicken, stirring occasionally. Add more pasta cooking liquid as needed.
  15. Off the heat, add the Parmesan cheese. Stir well. Add a bit more pasta cooking water if the sauce becomes too thick after adding the Parmesan cheese.
  16. Add the fruity extra virgin olive oil, if using. Stir. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.
Recipe Notes

Browning the pancetta and onions is critical to building flavor for the sauce.  It is better to use low heat than heat that is too high.  The starch in the pasta-cooking liquid helps to add body to the sauce.

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
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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.

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