Italian Wedding Soup

February 5, 2018

Growing up I never really understood why this was called Wedding Soup.  It was NEVER served at weddings.

It was mostly served at home, unceremoniously.

The fact that it was unceremonious is a shame.  It is a wonderful soup and, being honest, takes a bit of work to pull together.  Both the soup, and the soup-maker, in my estimation, deserve a bit of attention.

Although it takes some work, it doesn’t require much in the way of heard-earned skills like frosting a cake or making pie crust.  It’s just a bit of slogging through a series of steps.

This is a beloved soup among Americans of Italian descent.  Interestingly, my in-laws who are actually from Italy had never heard of it until I made it for this blog!


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But back to the “wedding” part.  I did a bit of internet research (thanks Google!).  Actually, I hesitate to call it “research.”  I’m old school.  I remember when doing research meant hours upon hours spent in libraries looking at actual hardcopy materials.  It almost doesn’t seem fair to sit on my sofa with my laptop and read materials served up by Google based on natural language questions and call it research.

The “natural language” part is interesting too.  In the “old” days, if you found an article that was relevant to the research topic, you would look at the articles referenced by the author and find, potentially, other relevant articles.  But they would all be older than the first article.  This is where the “Science Citation Index” came into play.

The Index was a series of periodically published volumes that listed all the articles that cited a particular article in their bibliography.  With the Science Citation Index, you could start with a relevant article and then work forwards finding all the newer articles that had cited that article.

Now I just tell Google what I’m interested in and I get a bunch of (almost always) relevant “hits!”  Google is even nice enough to tell me how many hits there are and what fraction of a second it took Google to identify them.

Even when I’m researching a biomedical topic I sit on my sofa with my laptop and search the National Library of Medicine.  The search language is a bit more arcane than the natural language used by Google but it still feels like cheating compared to slogging around a library.  I can even have the full article delivered to my laptop so I don’t have to figure out what library has the publication I need.


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So, what did I learn from my Google search?

It appears (at least it’s a plausible theory) that Wedding Soup is an inaccurate translation of Minestra Maritata or Married Soup; apparently so-named because of the way the different ingredients marry together so well.

I’m guessing that many Americans with no affiliation to Italy have never had escarole.

Interestingly, my husband’s Tuscan grandmother would use up small amounts of different types of dried pasta, perhaps putting them into a soup or serving them with a simple sauce.  She referred to this as Pasta Maritata because she was marrying the different types of pasta to create a dish.

If this theory is correct, I am perplexed by the inaccurate translation but, be that as it may, the soup is wonderful.  I urge you to give it a try.

I like breaking up the work over two days, especially since I like to make a long-simmered broth as the base of the soup.  My mother didn’t do this.  Once the chicken was cooked, it was removed and shredded and the broth was used without additional simmering to make the soup.  It shaves about 3 hours off of the prep time.  But, since making broth is mostly hands off, and the improvement in flavor is dramatic, I simmer everything a bit longer before straining and discarding the solids.


If you have a favorite family recipe and a bit of a story to tell, please email me at santafecook@villasentieri.com and we can discuss including it in the blog. I am expanding the scope of my blog to include traditional recipes from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t seen Bertha’s Flan or Melinda’s Drunken Prunes, take a look.  They will give you an idea of what I’m looking for.


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Italian Wedding Soup
If you don’t want to use the white center of the escarole, start with two heads and just use the dark green parts. The pale inner portion can be served in a salad or cooked in a number of ways. I like to divide up the work over two days, making the broth on the first day and the remainder on the second day. It’s perfectly feasible to do it all on the same day, however. I always keep a stash of rinds from Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino cheeses in the freezer. They add great flavor to broths, beans, and an array of other dishes.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 5 hours
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Broth and Chicken
Meatballs
Final assembly
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 5 hours
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Broth and Chicken
Meatballs
Final assembly
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Instructions
Broth and Chicken
  1. Cut the chicken into breast halves, legs, thighs, and wings. Cut the back into 2 or three pieces. Reserve the liver for another use but chop the remaining giblets.
  2. Slice the onions. There's really no need to peel them first.
  3. Same with the garlic, no need to peel. It all gets strained out in the end.
  4. Combine all ingredients in a large stock pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered for two hours.
  5. After two hours, remove the breasts, legs, and thighs. Continue to simmer the broth.
  6. Remove the meat from the bones. Return the chicken bones and skin to the broth.
  7. Continue to simmer the broth for another two hours, adjusting seasoning as needed.
  8. Meanwhile, shred the breast meat and refrigerate.
  9. Reserve the leg and thigh meat for another use.
  10. After the broth has finished cooking, cool it for several hours. Strain and discard the solids. Allow the broth to come to room temperature and refrigerate.
  11. Alternatively, immediately strain and discard the solids and proceed as below.
Meatballs
  1. Put all the ingredients except the bread into a mixing bowl.
  2. Cut the crusts from the bread.
  3. Cover the bread with warm water for 3-4 minutes.
  4. Squeeze some of the water from the bread.
  5. Add the bread to the mixing bowl.
  6. Mix with your hands, until thoroughly combined and no streaks of white from the bread remain visible.
  7. As you are mixing add a bit of the bread soaking water from time to time (about a quarter cup or so total) to keep the mixture moist but not wet.
  8. The mixture should become tacky from the effects of the water and the mixing on the proteins in the meat. The tackiness will help the meatballs hold together for the same reason that sausage doesn’t fall apart when the casing is removed.
  9. With damp hands, roll the mixture into approximately 50 meatballs. Keeping your hands moist will enable you to create a smooth surface on the meatballs. If there are visible cracks, the meatballs will split when cooking.
Final assembly
  1. Skim the fat from the broth. Add water to make 6 quarts of broth. Bring the broth to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the escarole.
  3. As the broth comes to a boil, adjust the salt and pepper.
  4. Add the chopped escarole. Return to a boil and cook at a moderate boil for approximately 5 minutes.
  5. Add the meatballs. Return to a boil and boil gently, so the meatballs don’t break, for 10-12 minutes.
  6. Add the shredded white meat chicken and return to a gentle boil.
  7. Adjust salt and pepper. At this point, slightly over-salt the soup as the dry pasta will reduce the saltiness of the soup. The soup can be made ahead to this point. Return to a boil and add the pasta just before serving.
  8. Add the pasta and boil gently until pasta is cooked, approximately 10 minutes.
  9. Adjust salt and pepper.
  10. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2018 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Torta di Riso (Italian Rice Tart)

January 31, 2018

Torta di Riso is an Italian specialty.  It is basically a rice pudding baked inside of a pastry crust; a Rice Tart, so to speak.

I first had Torta di Riso more than 20 years ago while visiting Italy with my husband and his parents.

We ate meals at the homes of many relatives.  I often arrived with a spiral-bound notebook to jot down the inevitable recipes that would be discussed around the table or the recipes I begged for after being served something wonderful.  That notebook is a mashup of American and Metric measures and English and Italian words for ingredients.  It became a bible of sorts for recreating many of the dishes I ate on that trip.


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My father-in-law’s Zia (Aunt) Meri made the first Torta di Riso that I ever tasted.  Her recipe is below (adapted for American measures).

After having it at Zio (Uncle) Beppe and Zia Meri’s house, I started noticing Torta di Riso in many places in Tuscany.

My father-in-law with his Uncle Beppe and Aunt Meri, from whom this recipe for Torta di Riso originated in their garden in Tuscany, 1994.

Alkermes liqueur originated in Tuscany so it is particularly appropriate to use it as the liqueur in Torta di Riso.  Alkermes is nearly impossible to find in the United States, however.  One can make a perfectly traditional Torta di Riso using rum in place of Alkermes but the resulting confection won’t be pink.

According to CooksInfo, “Alchermes was invented in the Frati Convent at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Its making was kept secret, but the recipe was reputedly stolen by spies from the nearby city of Siena, which Florence was often at war with.”


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Recipes for alkermes (also spelled alchermes) are closely guarded but the process basically involves infusing alcohol with spices and flavorings like cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, star anise, rosewater, and orange zest.  The red color comes from cochineal, an insect that is the foundation for natural red food coloring.  The resulting infused alcohol is sweetened and diluted with water.

The pastry crust is pasta frolla, a slightly sweetened pastry, leavened with baking powder, and often flavored with vanilla and lemon zest.  This is Meri’s recipe for pasta frolla but I also have one from Zia Fidalma that makes about half the quantity.

Torta di Riso was a big hit at my father-in-law’s birthday dinner last week. So were the cocktails, wine, and champagne!

If you don’t have access to Alkermes, you can use rum.  In fact, torta di riso is not always pink.  Many that I saw in Italy were white.

If you want to try to make your own Alkermes you can find a recipe here.  Amazon even sells the dried cochineal insects that provide the traditional scarlet color.


If you have a favorite family recipe and a bit of a story to tell, please email me at santafecook@villasentieri.com and we can discuss including it in the blog. I am expanding the scope of my blog to include traditional recipes from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t seen Bertha’s Flan or Melinda’s Drunken Prunes, take a look.  They will give you an idea of what I’m looking for.


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Torta di Riso (Italian Rice Tart)
This classic Italian dessert is basically a rice pudding baked inside of a pastry crust. Alkermes is a traditional Tuscan liqueur used in a number of sweets, including torta di riso, for its color and spice-like flavor. If you don’t have Alkermes, use rum. Not all versions of torta di riso are brightly colored. Vanilla powder is a natural vanilla product, not artificial. Use vanilla extract if vanilla powder is not available.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 75 minutes
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Pasta Frolla
Rice
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 75 minutes
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Pasta Frolla
Rice
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Instructions
Pasta Frolla
  1. Blend the flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla powder, salt and lemon zest in a food processor until combined.
  2. Add the butter, cut in pieces, and blend till well combined.
  3. Add the eggs and blend till the pastry almost forms a ball.
  4. Remove the pastry from the food processor and use your hands to press everything into a single ball.
  5. Wrap the pastry in waxed paper and refrigerate for an hour before using.
Rice
  1. Wash and drain the rice.
  2. Combine the rice, water and milk in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan.
  3. Bring the rice to a boil.
  4. Cover the rice and simmer, stirring frequently, until cooked and the liquid is almost completely absorbed. If the rice does not have the consistency of thick oatmeal, add a bit more milk at the end to make it creamy.
  5. Mix the sugar, lemon zest, and Alkermes and/or rum into the rice.
  6. Pour the rice into a bowl and cool, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
Assembly and Baking
  1. Cut off a small piece of the pastry to make a lattice top and refrigerate.
  2. Roll the remaining pastry between waxed paper, turning often, until it is large enough to cover the bottom and sides of a 10 inch springform pan.
  3. Line a 10" springform pan with the pasta frolla.
  4. Cut the pastry even with the top of the pan. Add the scraps to the pastry you have reserved for the lattice.
  5. Beat the egg and egg yolks to combine.
  6. Stir the beaten eggs into the cooled rice.
  7. Pour the rice into the pastry lined pan.
  8. Roll out the pastry reserved for the lattice.
  9. Cut seven or eight strips, approximately 1/2 inch wide.
  10. Arrange the strips into a lattice on top of the rice. Cut off the excess.
  11. Roll the pastry lining the sides of the pan down to the top of the rice and form a decorative edge.
  12. Bake at 350°F until the crust is lightly browned and the rice is barely jiggley in the center, approximately 30-45 minutes.
  13. Cool on a rack for approximately 20 minutes.
  14. Remove the side of the pan and cool completely.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2018 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Spaghettini con Acciughe (Spaghettini with Anchovies)

January 1, 2018

In our house pasta mostly was dressed with a red sauce, specifically my mother’s long-simmered Southern Italian-style sauce.  In Western Pennsylvania, we called it “sauce” or sometimes “spaghetti sauce” though it was used on much more than spaghetti.  Further east, in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey the term “gravy” was common, but not where I lived.

Now I mostly use the Italian word “sugo” which is a general term for sauce, though commonly used for a tomato-based sauce.  The word ragù definitely connotes a tomato-based sauce, specifically with meat.  It also happens to be a trademarked name, though with a different accent mark on the last letter:  Ragú.

I found it interesting that Ragú was started in 1937 in Rochester, New York by Assunta and Giovanni Cantisano, Italian immigrants who sold the sauce from their front porch.  In 1969, the company was sold to Chesebrough-Pond’s.  The brand became the best-selling pasta sauce in the country and ultimately achieved a reported 60% share of the pasta sauce market in the United States.


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Purchased pasta sauce was something that NEVER entered our house!

When pasta wasn’t served with a red sauce, it was typically served as Pasta è Fagioli (Pasta and Beans) and, once a year, on Christmas Eve, with crispy breadcrumbs and anchovies.  You can find my mother’s recipe for Pasta è Fagioli here and mine here.  In the coming months you’ll get my Aunt Margie’s recipe and Louis Evangelista’s recipe for Pasta è Fagioli.

Although not something I grew up with, a simple sauce of anchovies, garlic and olive oil is now a favorite in my household.

My recipe is adapted from one by G. J. Gillotti (whose family also hails from Calabria) in Our Most Treasured Recipes, published in 1993 by the Morning Star Lodge of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America.  The sauce comes together from pantry staples in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil.


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Morning Star Lodge is in Pittsburgh, about 70 miles from my hometown of Johnstown, PA.  If you’ve been following my blog, you know I have both Italian and Slovak roots.  There are lots of people of Italian and Eastern European extraction in Western Pennsylvania.  I found it interesting to peruse the pages of this ostensibly Italian cookbook.  Among many Italian and Italian-American favorites are Eastern European dishes like holubki (stuffed cabbage), sweet sour kielbasa, and pierogi casserole.  This speaks to the melting pot that is Western Pennsylvania!

 

If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you’re interested in trying this recipe but I fear there are many of you who hear the word anchovy and stop cold in your tracks.  If any of you are still reading, however, I would encourage you to try this recipe.  The anchovies provide a background savory note but really are not front and center!


If you have a favorite family recipe and a bit of a story to tell, please email me at santafecook@villasentieri.com and we can discuss including it in the blog. I am expanding the scope of my blog to include traditional recipes from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t seen Bertha’s Flan or Melinda’s Drunken Prunes, take a look.  They will give you an idea of what I’m looking for.


 

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Spaghettini con Acciughe (Spaghettini with Anchovies)
Buy good quality anchovies packed in olive oil. The difference in price between low-end and high-end anchovies is not that much but the difference in taste is astounding. Good anchovies will have only the slightest smell “of the sea” when you open the can. After cooking, they will fade into the background leaving a savory (umami) note without any fishiness. Italians rarely use cheese in dishes that contain fish. I prefer spaghettini in this dish. Spaghettini is thinner than spaghetti but thicker than angel hair (vermicelli).
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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. In a small frying pan gently sauté garlic in olive oil until golden brown.
  2. Add the fennel seed, red pepper, oregano, and basil and cook for approximately 30 seconds.
  3. Add the anchovies and their oil.
  4. Cook gently, stirring frequently, until anchovies disintegrate. This will only take a few minutes.
  5. Add white wine and simmer gently till most of the wine has evaporated and the anchovies have thoroughly disintegrated. Remove the pan from the heat.
  6. Meanwhile cook pasta in 3 quarts of boiling water seasoned with 1/3 cup of salt until just al dente.
  7. As the pasta nears completion, use some of the pasta water to warm the serving bowl. This is important as the egg will cook in the hot pasta and if the bowl is cold, the pasta will lose too much heat to do this effectively.
  8. Just before draining the pasta, reheat the olive oil-anchovy mixture on medium-low.
  9. Drain pasta, reserving at least one cup of the pasta-cooking water.
  10. Drain and quickly dry the warmed serving bowl.
  11. Put half of the olive oil-anchovy mixture in the warmed serving bowl.
  12. Add the drained pasta.
  13. Top with the remaining olive-oil anchovy mixture.
  14. Toss pasta.
  15. Add black pepper and beaten egg. Toss until well mixed.
  16. In a leap of faith, add about ½ cup of the reserved (still hot) pasta-cooking water. Toss well.
  17. Drizzle in approximately ¼ cup of finishing olive oil. Toss well.
  18. Add more pasta-cooking water, if needed, to make a glossy sauce. You probably can’t go wrong with adding at least another ¼ cup of pasta-cooking water.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2018 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Mom’s Ravioli

September 27, 2017

My strongest olfactory memory of childhood is gradually waking up on Sunday morning to the smell (perfume is a better characterization as far as I’m concerned) of garlic being sautéed in olive oil.

That was how most Sundays started.

My mother would get up early and start making her long-simmered Southern Italian Tomato Sauce (referred to as Ragu or Sugo if one’s Italian roots were close, “Gravy” if one grew up in New York or nearby, and often just “Sauce”). We unceremoniously called it “Spaghetti Sauce” though it was used on much more than spaghetti!

I think the better part of my culinary-cultural history is represented by that sauce. Every Italian family’s sauce is different, even if stylistic similarities can be identified. The sauces made by my mother and her two sisters that I knew, Aunt Margie and Aunt Mamie, were clearly related but also different. Each was good but it’s not as if they didn’t deviate from my Grandmother’s recipe. They were similar in that garlic and meat were browned in oil; tomato products, water, and seasonings were added; and the whole thing simmered for hours. The meats varied, the tomato products (tomato paste, tomato puree, whole canned tomatoes, etc.) and the proportions of them definitely varied as did the seasonings and other aromatics.

My mother’s “Spaghetti Sauce” to call it by its “historic” name, a name that I no longer use, is, without doubt, my most precious culinary treasure. I have only ever given the recipe out twice. In the 1970’s I gave it to John Bowker and his wife Margaret Roper Bowker. John was the dean of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Recently I gave it to Robert Reddington and John O’Malley in Palm Springs after Bob lamented the loss of the recipe for the long-simmered tomato sauce he learned to make while living in Chicago.

With my mother’s sauce as the near-constant backdrop to our Sunday dinners, the rest of the meal varied. The sauce could be served with spaghetti or some other cut of dry pasta, or with my mother’s home-made fettuccine, or with ravioli. Although my favorite pasta is gnocchi, we never had those on Sundays as my father didn’t like them. Gnocchi (always home-made) were reserved for a weeknight meal during the times that my father worked out of town.

The sauce has an abundant amount of meat in it, pork, always cut in big pieces, never ground or chopped. Nonetheless, the pasta was often accompanied by my mother’s slow-cooked roast pork or maybe a roast chicken.

It seems incongruous now, but in the 1960s, before the widespread use of antibiotics, chickens were expensive! (I’m not in favor of the prophylactic use of antibiotics but I’m just saying that’s why chickens are relatively inexpensive now.) I still have a handful of my mother’s “City Chicken” sticks from the 1960s. They are round, pointed sticks slimmer than a pencil but thicker than bamboo skewers. Pieces of pork and veal would be skewered in alternating fashion on the sticks, breaded, and fried like chicken drumsticks. This was less expensive than chicken!!

City Chicken sticks

But back to Sundays…

Sometimes, after the sauce was bubbling away, my mother would make ravioli. Next to gnocchi, they are my favorite pasta, but manicotti and lasagna aren’t far behind.

We would eat our big meal around 1 PM on Sunday and my mother would get all of this done in time for that meal, including taking time to go to church, during which my Aunt Mamie, who lived upstairs, would be tasked with stirring the “Spaghetti Sauce.”

My mother’s (now my) ravioli mold.

Making ravioli in a group is a lot more fun. I also find that making the ravioli on a different day from the day they are cooked and eaten means that I am not as tired and I enjoy them more. The pictures in this post are from a Sunday when I got together with Rich DePippo, Susan Vinci-Lucero, and my in-laws, Marisa and Frank Pieri, to make ravioli. I think we made about 30 dozen ravioli!


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Mom's Ravioli
The filling can be made a day in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered. Ravioli freeze well. To do so, lightly flour a sheet pan that will fit in your freezer and put the ravioli in a single layer. Freeze about 30-45 minutes, until firm. Quickly put the ravioli in a zipper-lock bag and return to the freezer. Repeat with the remaining ravioli. My mother always made her dough by hand but I use a kitchen mixer and the beater, not the dough hook. Years ago, ground meat was not labeled with the percent fat. My mother would select a cut of sirloin, have the butcher trim off all visible fat and then grind it. I find that 93% lean ground beef replicates the experience.
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Prep Time 2 hours
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Filling
Dough
Prep Time 2 hours
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Filling
Dough
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Rating: 0
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Instructions
Filling
  1. Put the frozen spinach in a small saucepan. Add a few tablespoons of water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is completely thawed.
  2. Pour the spinach into a large sieve.
  3. After the spinach has cooled enough to handle, squeeze handfuls of the spinach to remove as much liquid as possible.
  4. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch sauté pan until shimmering. Add the beef.
  5. Cook over high heat until the liquid has evaporated, breaking up the meat while cooking.
  6. Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt, and black pepper to taste. Continue to sauté for 2-3 minutes more.
  7. Add the spinach to the beef.
  8. Continue to cook over medium to medium-low heat while breaking up the spinach and completely combining it with the beef.
  9. When the beef and spinach are well combined and no obvious liquid remains in the pan, add the beaten egg. Stir well and cook two minutes more. The egg should completely incorporate into the filling and no longer be visible.
  10. Adjust salt and pepper.
  11. On low heat, add 1/4-1/3 cup of breadcrumbs and combine well to absorb any remaining liquid or oil. If necessary to absorb any remaining liquid, add another tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs. If you cooked off all the liquid when browning the beef, and used lean beef, 1/3 cup of breadcrumbs should be enough.
  12. Cool the filling to room temperature before filling the ravioli.
Dough
  1. Put the flour, egg, and egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with a paddle.
  2. Mix on low until combined.
  3. Add the water, a little at a time, until the dough just comes together. The dough should not be the slightest bit tacky. You may not need all the water.
  4. Remove the dough from the mixer and roll into a log. Cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rest for 15 to 30 minutes before rolling out.
Assembly
  1. Set up your pasta machine, either a hand crank version or an attachment for your mixer.
  2. Cut off a small handful of dough.
  3. Flatten the dough, dust with flour, and run it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting.
  4. If the dough is catching on the rollers it may be too wet. Sprinkle liberally with flour.
  5. Run the dough through the same setting one more time.
  6. Run the dough through the pasta machine narrowing the setting by one notch each time. If the dough is getting too long to cover much more than two lengths of the ravioli mold, cut off the excess and continue.
  7. When rolling out the dough, use slow, even motion. If the dough is not rolling out to the full width of the machine, or at least wide enough to cover the width of the ravioli mold, fold it in half crosswise and run it through the machine again on whatever the last setting was.
  8. If the dough is not rolling out smoothly, and the issue is not that it is too damp, run the dough through the machine again on the same setting.
  9. On most pasta machines with five settings for thickness, you will want to stop rolling out the dough on the next-to-thinnest setting.
  10. Put the rolled out dough on a lightly floured surface and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with 2 or 3 more portions of dough.
  11. Allow the remaining dough to rest, covered, while filling and cutting the first batch of ravioli.
  12. To fill the ravioli, take the rolled out dough and lay it across the ravioli mold.
  13. Add a slightly rounded teaspoonful of filling to each ravioli. Do not overfill or the ravioli may break when being cooked.
  14. Fold the dough over the top.
  15. Lightly pat the top sheet of dough.
  16. Using a rolling pin, cut the dough along the zig-zag edges. Be careful to fully cut through the dough around the edges as well as between each raviolo.
  17. Remove the ravioli and place on a lightly floured surface. Cover lightly with a kitchen towel.
  18. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
  19. Cook, refrigerate, or freeze the ravioli.
Recipe Notes

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

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Slovak Potato Cake (Baba or Bubba)

June 7, 2017

Baba was a favorite food in our house.  We often joked that my mother should open a shop selling pizza and baba.  We were convinced it would be a success, as were a number of family friends.

Although Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was originally founded by Germans (everyone, regardless of ethnic background, had sauerkraut, sausages, and pork on New Year’s Day), Italians and Eastern Europeans were among the largest ethnic groups when I lived there.  So, a “fusion” shop selling pizza and baba wasn’t so far-fetched!

Baba means old woman in Slovak.  I can’t tell you how it came to be applied to this very specific type of potato cake and whether it was just in our family or more widespread, though I suspect the latter.

Other than the crispy skin of our Thanksgiving turkey, this is the only food my sister and I fought over.  This, however, was three-way guerilla warfare also involving my father.  Crispy turkey skin has an immediacy about it.  It needs to be eaten right away, hot and crispy, or it loses its appeal.  The fight is right out there in the open, a virtual “land grab.”

Baba is different.  As good as it is freshly made, we all preferred it after a day or two.  Any leftover baba would be wrapped in aluminum foil and put in the oven, which had a pilot light way back then.  That kept it ever so slightly warmer than room temperature.  The baba would become chewy.

The natural tension that developed was between letting the baba mature till it had the optimum chewiness versus losing out entirely if someone else ate it first.

We all kept our eyes on the oven which was conveniently located at eye-level.  If it looked like the package had been disturbed, we could swing into action, grabbing what was left and eating it even if it didn’t have the optimum chew.  “Any baba is better than no baba” was definitely the operative mentality.

There was always the chance, however, that the first person to go for the baba would eat all of it, especially if there were only a few pieces left.

There was also the chance (sometimes turned into reality) that someone could deftly open the package, remove a piece of baba, close the package, and put it back in the oven it in a way that made it look undisturbed.  Well implemented, this was a strategy for getting more baba since others could be lulled into complacency thinking the cache of baba was still available to them for the taking.

The ingredients of baba are pretty standard potato cake fare, potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, flour and, depending on the cook, egg.  Two things make it unusual in my experience: caraway seed and the cooking method.  To be sure, Slovaks put caraway seed in lots of foods but I have yet to find a recipe for Slovak potato cakes that contains caraway seed.

As for cooking method, baba is cooked in the oven in a rimmed baking sheet.  Remembering that my grandparents raised seven sons, who in later years were augmented by daughters-in-law and grandchildren, baba was made in large quantities.  When there wasn’t enough batter to fill another baking sheet “to the thickness of your finger,” as my Aunt Mary would say, the remaining batter would be turned into individual potato “pancakes” in a frying pan in shallow oil.

The proportions given here will nicely fill an 11” by 17” baking sheet.  If you prefer to fry the potato cakes rather than bake them, by all means do!

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Slovak Potato Cake (Baba)
I remember watching my mother make this, and learning from her. Though it always tasted the same in the end, it seemed like the lack of precise measurements was an issue. My mother had no difficulty cooking her regular canon of Italian food without measurements. My suspicion is that the issue with Baba is that she didn’t make it all that often. I make it even less often (though I think that’s changing) which prompted me to carefully measure ingredients until I got a perfect batch and then stick with those measurements going forward. My mother put an egg in her Baba. My Aunt Mary did not. Aunt Mary, who lived next door to my Slovak grandparents for years, insists that Grandma never used egg. I have not tried it without the egg, being happy to stick with a recipe that works. Before food processors, the potatoes and onion were grated on the fine side of a box grater. The food processor eliminates the most tedious part of making Baba.
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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
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Ingredients
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Peel the potatoes. Rinse and dry them and cut into 1 inch cubes.
  2. Weigh out 1600 grams (3 ½ pounds) of potato cubes.
  3. Cut onion into 1 inch chunks.
  4. In two or three batches, depending on the size of your food processor, thoroughly grind the potato and onion, putting some potato and some onion in each batch.
  5. Put the ground potatoes and onions into a large mixing bowl. Add the lightly beaten egg, salt, black pepper, and caraway seed.
  6. Mix well.
  7. Stir in about ¾ of the flour. Add enough of the remaining flour to thickly coat a spoon. Chances are you will need all the flour. If in doubt, just add it.
  8. Very, very generously grease an 11” x 17” x 1” baking sheet with lard. After you think you’ve used enough, add more! Remember, most potato cakes are fried. These are baked. They definitely need some fat for texture.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Dot very generously with lard.
  10. Bake 425°F until browned on the bottom, about 30-40 minutes, turning the pan front to back after 20 minutes.
  11. When the bottom is brown, you’ll need to flip the Baba upside down. To do this, set another baking sheet of the same size on top of the Baba. The bottom of the baking sheet should be sitting on top of the Bubba.
  12. Flip the pans over. If you had enough lard in the pan, the Baba should release from the pan and be sitting, upside down, on the bottom of the other baking pan.
  13. Slide the Baba back into the original baking pan with the browned bottom now facing up.
  14. Bake another 20 minutes or so until browned on the bottom and thoroughly cooked.
  15. Turn out of the pan onto a large cutting board.
  16. Cut into 16 pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe Notes

Although you can use solid vegetable shortening in this recipe, I suggest you use lard for better taste and better health. You can find information about lard vs. vegetable shortening in this post.

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

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Homemade Dumplings

May 19, 2017

It is unfathomable to me that someone could voluntarily go on a low carbohydrate diet.

Avoiding gluten, short of having full-blown celiac disease, is equally unthinkable.

All of my most favorite foods start with flour.

Some contain flour and potatoes.

Roughly in order these are Potato Gnocchi, my Slovak Grandmother’s Potato Cakes and a three-way tie between Pasta (of almost any sort), Dumplings, and my Aunt Mary’s Bread Rolls Stuffed with Mashed Potatoes and rubbed with garlic and oil.

Of those five foods, the only one I get on a regular basis is pasta.  I have pasta 3 or 4 (or 5 or 6) times per week.  I could probably have it every day and never tire of it.  A few days without pasta and I begin to have serious cravings.

Until just recently, I had a frenetic travel schedule for work.  One of the first things I would do upon landing in a city that I was likely to return to over and over for work was to find a really good restaurant, preferably an Italian restaurant or one with a goodly number of Italian dishes on the menu.  Failing that, I would look for a restaurant with an ingredient-driven menu that was not into precious or pretentious presentation!

Sometimes finding that restaurant was elusive and my pasta cravings would be in full swing by the time I got home.

Over the years, my mother-in-law has learned that the best thing she could make for dinner on a day when I’m returning from a trip is pasta.  Even if I’m not having pasta withdrawal symptoms, there are few foods that I would rather have.  Actually, there’s only one:  gnocchi, which truth be told, is just the Italian word for dumpling, which as you’ve noticed is on my list in its English form, too!

Sometimes the restaurants I’d find were so spot-on perfect that I would just work my way down the menu over successive trips.  In this category are the recently closed Dish Osteria in Pittsburgh, Bari Ristorante in Memphis, Antico in Chicago, and, until the recent change in the menu, Tre Soldi in Chicago.

Sometimes I’d find a chef whose cooking I really enjoyed, as happened with Bruce Bogartz in Knoxville a number of years ago.  My business partner and I followed Bruce through at least three different restaurants.  Sometimes we’d just walk in and sit down and Bruce would come over and say: “Can I just cook for you this evening?”  That would be the sum-total of ordering.

Sometimes my business partner and I would find a restaurant that would accommodate our cravings as happened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  We’d usually get to the restaurant late on the day we came into town.  After a few trips, we got bold and asked for something that wasn’t on the menu.  Something simple.  Something Italian.  As I recall it was spaghetti with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and red pepper.  The chef accommodated us.  From then on, at least once during every trip to Harrisburg we asked for the same thing, sometimes we’d mix it up by asking for a bit of fennel seed to be added.  A salad of arugula with olive oil and lemon juice always rounded out the meal.

While it’s easy to find pasta on restaurant menus, it’s pretty difficult to find dumplings unless you’re in a dumpling culture like Eastern Europe.

After two trips to Prague, I discovered that it was basically impossible to just order dumplings.  I frequently found myself ordering some sort of “Hunter’s Plate” which had an array of cooked meats and, you guessed it, dumplings.

I ate the dumplings first.

Dumplings are a breeze to make.  And don’t even think about packaged baking mix.  (For the reasons why, see my post about hydrogenated fats.)

Unless you are seriously trying to avoid carbohydrates or gluten, give these a try.  They honestly take less than 10 minutes to whip up.  You could get a serious paper cut opening up a box of Bisq…er, biscuit mix, in less time!

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Homemade Dumplings
In order for the dumplings to cook properly, they need to be placed on top of food that is just submerged in the cooking liquid. A little bit of the dumpling will sink below the liquid but, basically, the dumplings should sit on top of the food and steam, rather than boil in the liquid itself. Growing up, the “food” below the dumplings was often kielbasa and sauerkraut. For this post it was turkey with mushrooms and peas in a light cream sauce due to the presence of leftover roast turkey in the fridge. Stir the contents of the pot before adding the dumplings as you won’t be able to do it afterwards. Prior to adding the dumplings, be certain that the heat keeps the liquid at a steady low boil with the lid tightly on the pot.
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Course Sides
Cuisine American, Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides
Cuisine American, Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Lightly beat the egg and ¼ cup of milk. Reserve.
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until there are “lumps” no bigger than flakes of oatmeal.
  4. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the beaten egg-milk mixture.
  5. Using a fork, gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid by starting in the center of the bowl and stirring in a circular manner, gradually widening the circle to incorporate more and more of the flour.
  6. When the batter will not incorporate more flour, add a few tablespoons of the remaining milk.
  7. Continue stirring and adding milk a few tablespoons at a time, until all the flour is incorporated and you have a fairly stiff but still somewhat sticky batter.
  8. Drop by rounded tablespoonsful on top of whatever you’re cooking in the liquid, such as sauerkraut, pot pie, etc.
  9. Cover tightly and cook 20 minutes without opening the lid. The contents of the pot should stay at a steady, low boil.
  10. Carefully scoop the dumplings onto a serving platter.
Recipe Notes

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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