Turkey Noodle Soup

May 24, 2017

Soup!

If my mother said she was making “soup” without any qualifiers, it meant her beef noodle soup.

She would cook a good-sized piece of beef in her soup pot along with large pieces of carrot, celery and potato till the meat was falling apart.

She would cook thin egg noodles separately.

To serve the soup, everyone would get a bowl of broth with pieces of carrot, celery and potato.  The large piece of beef would be in its own serving bowl and the noodles in another.

At the table, everyone added beef (shredding it with a serving fork) and noodles to their bowl of broth for the ultimate customization.

I haven’t had soup this way since my mother died.  I actually don’t ever remember being served soup in the same manner by anyone else, anywhere, ever.  If you’ve ever heard of, or had, soup being served this way, I’d really like to hear about it.

The other soup my mother made frequently was what is sometimes called “Italian Wedding Soup.”  It is a rich chicken broth with pieces of chicken, small meatballs, carrots, celery, pasta (typically, acini de pepe), and escarole.

Occasionally my mother would make Slovak Mushroom Soup, with dried mushrooms and potatoes, or Potato Soup with potatoes, milk and onions.  More often, however, we’d get these when visiting my grandparents.  Early on, my grandmother would make soup, but when she got older, Aunt Ann or Aunt Mary would make it and bring it to my grandparents’ house.

On a Sunday, when my father, his six brothers, and all of their spouses and children would visit my grandparents, a lot of soup could be consumed.  Mind you, there was no guarantee that there would be soup, but if there was, it needed to be an industrial quantity.

In the winter, my grandmother would keep the soup in a big pot in the root cellar in the basement.  It was the same root cellar where she would make sour cabbage but that was before I was born.  I know because my father and all of my uncles never tired of talking about my grandmother’s sour cabbage soup, or kissel.  They bemoaned the fact that nobody made it any longer.  I don’t have her recipe and while I can find recipes for soups that sound similar, none of them sounds exactly like the soup my father described.

Today’s soup, however, is not one that I grew up eating.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mother thought the carcass of a roasted turkey wasn’t intended to be reused.  I first had turkey noodle soup, made with roasted turkey leftovers, when I was in college.  The soup was made by Mary Lou d’Aquili, the wife of my college advisor and, many years later, the person with whom I went into psychiatric practice, Eugene d’Aquili.

Ever since then, I’ve turned the bones of most roasts into broth.

We have an array of fresh herbs year round thanks to the greenhouse.  I have totally given up dried bay leaves in favor of fresh ones.  They’re really easy to grow and the taste is incredible.  California bay leaves are stronger than Mediterranean bay leaves so if the balance of flavors in a dish is critical, and you’re using the former, opt for about half the amount called for in the recipe.  For most dishes, it’s not a critical distinction, however, and you can just substitute California for Mediterranean bay leaves.

Here’s a picture of our Bay Laurel plant, pruned down and ready to start its seasonal growth spurt.  In the fall I’ll harvest the leaves to make an Italian Bay Laurel Liqueur, Liquore al Lauro or Liquore Alloro.

The following recipe for Turkey Noodle Soup starts with the Roasted Turkey Broth I posted a few weeks ago.

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Turkey Noodle Soup
Save the bones, skin and shreds of meat from a roast turkey to make broth for soup. You can freeze the bones and make the broth later. You can also make the broth and freeze for future use. What you don’t want to do is to freeze the turkey noodle soup. I prefer not to freeze the soup, as the vegetables become too soft. If you must, however, freeze it before adding the noodles and peas. I keep a container of Parmesan cheese rinds in the freezer so that I always have them available to add to soup or other dishes to amplify the savoriness.
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Bring the broth to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, slice the carrots.
  3. Slice the celery.
  4. Dice the onions.
  5. Mince the garlic.
  6. Dig a Parmesan cheese rind out of your freezer.
  7. To the broth, add sliced celery, carrots, onions, minced garlic, bay leaf, marjoram, cheese rind, and salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Return to a low boil and cook, partially covered for 30 minutes.
  9. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  10. Add cooked turkey and tomato paste. Cook at a low boil for another 15 minutes.
  11. Taste and adjust seasoning to your preference then add an additional ½ teaspoon of salt. (Remember, you’re about to add unseasoned peas and noodles.)
  12. Add the noodles. Bring to a boil.
  13. Add the peas. Boil gently till noodles are done.
  14. When noodles are cooked, taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in chopped parsley.
  15. Serve immediately.
  16. Pass grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese at the table.
Recipe Notes

Here is the recipe for Roasted Turkey Broth.  You should have 3 quarts of broth.

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

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Orecchiette with Broccoli and Anchovies

May 10, 2017

A few times in my life I’ve been lucky enough to cook with my husband’s Great Aunt Fidalma.  It’s always been in my kitchen, though I keep hoping to make a trip to Tuscany to cook with her in her kitchen.

Zia Fidalma speaks Italian and German.  I speak English.  Though I studied German in high school and college, and at one point was passably able to translate scientific German, my command of spoken German (and at this point, scientific German) is hopeless.  I studied Italian for a while too, but the best I can do is read a menu, order in a restaurant, and find out where the restroom is.

So, cooking with Zia Fidalma starts with a language barrier but it doesn’t seem to matter.  Somehow we communicate.

Mostly that means Zia Fidalma speaks slowly in Italian emphasizing the words I am likely to understand most.

Like the time we were in my kitchen in Santa Fe preparing dinner for twelve.  The first course was spaghetti al pesto.  A pile of basil stalks from my father-in-law’s (Zia Fidalma’s nephew) garden were on the kitchen counter.  Zia Fidalma was plucking off basil leaves one at a time, inspecting each one.  At one point, she looked up at me holding a leaf and said “è brutta” (it’s ugly), clearly wanting my agreement to discard the less-than-perfect leaf.

One day at our home in Chicago, she was making risotto for lunch.  It had a very similar flavor profile to this pasta in that it contained broccoli, garlic and anchovies.

Zia Fidalma cranked up the 15,000 BTU burner to high.  She sizzled some minced garlic for a moment.  There was a vague hint of smoke coming from the pan.  She added the anchovies and stirred them about.  Smoke started to billow up.  She smiled knowingly.  She added the broccoli, undeterred.  Smoke continued.  She stirred.  I stood there horrified.  Then she lightly charred the broccoli.  I was even more horrified.  At long last some liquid went in and the rest of the risotto-making followed a familiar pattern.

I try to avoid smoking oil at all cost when cooking.  I was more than a little concerned about how the risotto would taste.

However, I have never had anything but fabulous food from Zia Fidalma, so I had to trust that this would be OK, too.

This wasn’t her first rodeo.  She’d been making risotto since before I was born.

In the end, all I can say is that the risotto was wonderful.  It had layers of flavor.  It provided an important lesson about how techniques different from what one would typically use can create incredible flavors.

So, if you see wisps of smoke coming from the pan as you singe the broccoli for this recipe, don’t fret.  Just raise a toast to Zia Fidalma, and enjoy!

Print Recipe
Orecchiette with Broccoli and Anchovies
My husband’s Great Aunt Fidalma, who lives in Tuscany, showed me how to cook the broccoli in this manner. Previously, I parboiled the florets and added them and the beans to the sautéed garlic and anchovies. This method adds layers of flavor that cannot be obtained by just boiling the broccoli. I prefer to use home-cooked kidney beans following my recipe for Cannellini alla Toscana. You can use either red or white (cannellini) beans but the red ones add more color contrast. As an alternative you can use one 15 ounce can of beans. Do not discard the liquid in the can as it will improve the body of the sauce.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Put 3 quarts of water and 1/3 cup salt in a 5 quart stockpot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the thick stems off the broccoli just below where the stems start to branch into individual florets.
  3. Cut the individual florets off the broccoli by cutting lengthwise through the stalk from top to bottom.
  4. Cut off any remaining stalk just below the floret. These tender stalks can be cut crosswise into one-half inch pieces and added to the florets.
  5. You can use some of the thicker stalks as well, if you wish. To do so, use a vegetable peeler to remove the tough outer skin. Dice the peeled stems into 1/3 inch cubes. Reserve these diced stalks separately from the florets and diced tender stalks.
  6. When the salted water comes to a boil, add the diced, peeled stalks, if using. Return to a boil and cook for 2-3 minutes until they just begin to get tender. Using a spider or large slotted spoon, remove the stalks from the water and plunge them into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. When cool, drain in a colander.
  7. Keep the water on low heat so you can return it to a boil quickly when needed to cook the pasta.
  8. In a heavy-bottomed pan large enough to hold the finished dish, sauté the garlic over medium high heat until it turns fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  9. Add the anchovies and their oil and continue to sauté, breaking up the anchovies till they turn to a paste.
  10. Continue to cook until the anchovies darken slightly, about 1-2 minutes.
  11. Add the broccoli florets and diced tender stems. If using, add the partially cooked peeled stems. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  12. Sauté on high heat, stirring very frequently, until some of the broccoli florets just begin to singe, about 5 minutes.
  13. Add the crushed red pepper. Stir to combine.
  14. Add the wine and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook over medium high heat till the florets are cooked through but not mushy, shaking the pan occasionally.
  15. If all the wine evaporates before the broccoli is cooked, ladle in a bit of the pasta cooking liquid and continue.
  16. When the broccoli is cooked, add the beans and their cooking liquid along with the oregano. Bring to a simmer over gentle heat.
  17. Meanwhile, return the pasta-cooking water to a rolling boil and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is slightly shy of al dente. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce.
  18. Put about ¾ cup of pasta cooking liquid into the beans. Reserve another cup of the liquid.
  19. Quickly drain the pasta and add to the beans. Stir well. Bring to a gentle boil, uncovered. Cook stirring occasionally until the pasta is al dente. Add as much of the reserved pasta-cooking liquid as needed to have enough sauce to coat the pasta and broccoli.
  20. The starch in the pasta-cooking liquid will add body to the sauce. One way to incorporate more of the pasta-cooking liquid is to cook the pasta over higher heat so that you can add, and boil off, more of the liquid, leaving the starch behind.
  21. When the pasta is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Taste and adjust salt after adding the cheese.
  22. Stir in the finishing extra-virgin olive oil. This will make the sauce glossy and add additional flavor.
  23. The starch from the pasta water and bean-cooking liquid along with the cheese should create an emulsion with the oil. You may need to add more of the reserved pasta-cooking liquid to loosen the sauce.
  24. Serve immediately. Pass extra Parmesan cheese at the table.
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

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

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Italian Slow-Roasted Chicken or Turkey

April 21, 2017

For two countries that are geographically so close, Italy and France couldn’t be further apart on views of how to roast poultry.

The French typically roast quickly and at high temperature.

Italians are masters of the low and slow approach.

Italian roast chicken (or turkey, for that matter) literally falls apart.  The French version does not.  It’s a matter of style and technique, not quality or skill.

The usual style in the United States leans more toward France than Italy.  It’s the basis of the style of roasting described in most modern cookbooks and cooking magazines; higher temperatures rather than lower temperatures and yanking the bird out of the oven as soon as it reaches the minimum acceptable temperature to be “cooked” and “safe.”  Even when these magazines try to champion the approach of low and slow, they almost always miss the boat.  They miss the boat because they are still focused on the thermometer approach.

You can’t do low and slow if you’re focused on getting the bird out of the oven as soon as it hits the “safe” temperature.  Italian roast chicken is more like “pulled” chicken than the minimally cooked French version.  The whole mouthfeel is different.  So is the taste.

What I didn’t understand growing up is that my mother’s roast chicken and turkey drew from a broader Italian approach.

A few years ago we were in Tuscany having lunch with my husband’s Great Uncle Beppe and his family.

When the roast chicken was served, it was just like my mother’s!  Seasoned with garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper and roasted slowly, till it basically fell apart.

My mother’s mother came to the United States from Calabria around the turn of the 20th century at four years of age.  Here I was, nearly a century later in a province at the other end of the Italian peninsula eating chicken that could have been my mother’s, the way she learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother.

I think that was a turning point for me in wanting to better understand Italian food traditions throughout the country and even throughout the Italian diaspora around the world.

Another amazing thing, when I think about it, is that my mother brined her chicken for an hour before cooking.  We’re talking the 1960’s here (probably the 1950’s too but I’m too young to remember that) way before brining was ever mentioned in cooking circles.  I can’t tell you why she did it or how it started but when I was learning to cook under her guidance, brining was always the first step for any recipe that included chicken.

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Italian Slow-Roasted Chicken or Turkey
This is a no-recipe recipe. I never measure the seasonings. It’s really pretty hard to use an inappropriate amount. The cooking time is pretty forgiving, too. Until you get the hang of it, I suggest planning on the longer cooking time and the higher temperature. If the chicken or turkey is falling-apart tender before you’re ready for it, just reduce the oven to 150°F to keep the bird warm. My mother would usually brine the bird for about an hour before cooking. Time permitting, I do the same. This basic recipe works for everything from a three pound chicken to an 18 pound turkey. Just for a point of reference, the pictures feature a 12 pound turkey.
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Course Mains, Poultry
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes per pound
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Mains, Poultry
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes per pound
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Brine the bird, if you like, for about an hour.
  2. Thoroughly rinse and dry the bird.
  3. Prop the bird with the cavity facing up. Generously season the inside of the bird with garlic powder, rosemary black pepper and salt. As a matter of habit, if I'm using dried rosemary, I always crust it with my fingers before sprinkling it on the bird.
  4. Put the bird in a roasting pan, breast up, preferably one able to hold the bird rather snugly. The roasting pan should have a tight-fitting cover.
  5. Generously season the outside of the bird with garlic powder, rosemary, black pepper and salt.
  6. Add water (or wine) to the bottom of the roasting pan not over the top of the bird. You don't want to displace the seasonings.
  7. Cover and roast at 350°F for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 275°F to 300°F.
  8. After the first hour, baste the bird with the juices in the roasting pan about every 30-45 minutes. Be sure to tip the bird, or use a basting bulb, to remove the juices from the cavity and add them to the juices in the bottom of the roasting pan.
  9. Roast for a total of 30-40 minutes per pound (including the first half hour). The bird should just about be falling off the bone.
  10. If there is too much liquid in the bottom of the pan or if the bird is not brown enough, uncover the pan for the last 30 minutes or so.
Recipe Notes

Poultry cooked this way will not submit to carving in a photogenic Norman Rockwell manner. It’s just a different style. It would be like trying to cut delicate slices from pulled pork. It’s not going to happen. That said, the joints will usually separate easily and you can cut along the grain rather than against the grain to portion appropriate-sized pieces for serving.

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

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Green Beans with Tomato Sauce and Bacon

February 27, 2017

Earlier this month I wrote about my “crunchy vegetable” phase of cooking back in the 1970’s.  One of the dishes I was reacting to was my mother’s green beans with tomato sauce and bacon.  Honestly, though, I can’t tell you why.  It was, bar none, my favorite vegetable dish growing up.  Why, when I started cooking in my late teens, I thought I could make it better by cooking the beans until they were just crunchy is beyond me.

Chalk it up to youthful indiscretion.

Americans served a lot of mushy vegetables back then, no doubt, but the reaction shouldn’t be to turn every vegetable crunchy.  But I was just learning to cook and had a lot to learn, not only about technique, but about understanding the essence of a dish.

The essence of this dish is the silky texture (most definitely not mushy) of the beans cooked for a couple of hours in tomato sauce.  The textural change is accompanied by a flavor change that is unobtainable by quickly cooking the ingredients.

It’s actually pretty difficult to turn these beans mushy unless you boil them too long before adding them to the tomato sauce.  The tomato sauce reacts with the beans to somehow inhibit the development of mushiness.  I’m not sure, but it think it might be the acid in the tomatoes.

That first four minute boil is critical, however.  One time, thinking I could eliminate a step, I tried putting the cut up beans in the sauce without parboiling them first.  Mistake!  Four hours later the beans were still not cooked properly!

Green beans cooked in tomato sauce is a classic Italian combination.  The use of bacon clearly signals that this is Italian-American, however.  Italian recipes might use pancetta but not bacon.  Smoked foods are uncommon in traditional Italian cuisine.  The few that appear really stand out.

Pancetta and bacon are made from the same cut, pork belly.  Both are cured but only bacon is smoked.  Although I’ve made other versions of green beans in tomato sauce that are traditional Italian, rather than Italian-American, I keep coming back to this one as my favorite.

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Green Beans with Tomato Sauce and Bacon
These long-simmered green beans in tomato sauce with bacon are an Italian-American favorite. The long, slow cooking is really essential to achieving the right texture and flavor. Although I've specified the amount of water in cups, when cooking with tomato paste my mother always measured water by the can. This dish would have had five tomato paste cans of water. She didn't quite fill them to the top so each can held about 5 1/2 ounces of water, or a little over three cups total. You may need to add more water, or to boil some away, to get a thick sauce.
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Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Cut the bacon into matchstick-sized pieces.
  2. Mince the garlic.
  3. In a heavy-bottomed pot, large enough to ultimately hold the beans, gently sauté the bacon until golden brown.
  4. Add the minced garlic to the bacon and bacon drippings and sauté until fragrant and just beginning to turn golden, about one minute.
  5. Add the tomato paste and sauté until it turns a shade darker and smells sweet.
  6. Add the water, stirring to combine. Cover and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce to a simmer. Add salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste, oregano and sugar. Simmer, partially covered, for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. Meanwhile, cut the tips off the beans at a diagonal. Cut the beans into pieces about 2 to 2 ½ inches long, also on the diagonal.
  9. Wash the beans in several changes of cold water. Cover with water and allow the beans to soak for 15 to 20 minutes, to fully plump up with water before cooking.
  10. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water (at least 4 quarts of water and ¼ cup of salt) to a boil.
  11. Drain the beans, add to the boiling water, and return to a boil as quickly as possible.
  12. Boil until the beans are just beginning to get tender, approximately 4 minutes. They will cook much longer in the sauce so be careful not to overcook them at this point.
  13. Drain the beans and add to the tomato sauce, which should have been cooking for 45-60 minutes by this point.
  14. Simmer until the beans are silky, but not mushy. This can take 2 hours, plus or minus. Go by texture, not time. The beans should be silky but still have some body.
  15. Taste once or twice while cooking and adjust salt, pepper and, if you wish, oregano.
Recipe Notes

You can make the sauce and partially cook the beans in advance. After the beans have been boiled, quickly chill them in a bowl of ice water. Cool the cooked sauce to room temperature.  Drain and add the partially cooked beans to the sauce.  Refrigerate until ready to complete cooking.

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

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Mom’s Pasta e Fagioli (Mom’s Pasta and Beans)

February 22, 2017

We didn’t eat a lot of prepared foods growing up.  In fact we almost never did.  OK, there were a few times in the early 60’s where I got to try out those recently-invented “TV Dinners.”

I was well into adulthood before I had a real appreciation for the quality of the homemade food that was put on our table every day.

My mother made putting great food on the table seem effortless.  I remember many Sunday mornings when I’d wake up to find her making ravioli from scratch for our big midday meal: cooking the beef and spinach filling, preparing the dough, rolling and filling the ravioli, all the while a big pot of tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove.  It was just a family Sunday dinner!

Weekday meals were usually less elaborate but no less delicious; maybe homemade sausage, pan-fried potatoes, and a vegetable or two or maybe pasta with sauce leftover from Sunday.  It was always fun to walk into the kitchen to find her making something I’d never had before; something that her mother used to make.  Sometimes that wasn’t even at a defined meal time.

Now I think I understand.  My mother died in 1993 and I bet I didn’t make her version of pasta e fagioli for 20 years after her death.  Then one day, the desire for it just struck me and there I was, in the kitchen, cooking.

It’s become part of my regular routine again after that long hiatus.  Sitting down to a bowl of my mother’s pasta e fagioli is comforting; almost as comforting as if she had made it for me.  There’s just something about the combination of pasta, beans and red sauce that I can’t explain.  It triggers an emotional bridge to what feels like an earlier time in my life.  I’m guessing something similar prompted my mother to occasionally whip up dishes from her youth that she hadn’t made in decades, if ever.

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Mom's Pasta e Fagioli (Mom's Pasta and Beans)
Follow the directions for Cannelini alla Toscana but use dried lima beans instead of cannellini and substitute ½ teaspoon of dried oregano and a sprig of fresh rosemary for the sage. There will be leftover beans that you can freeze or refrigerate for another use. You can also use two 15 ounce cans of Butter Beans in place of the home-cooked lima beans. Mom always used ditalini for this dish. These days, when you can find them (and it can be challenging) they have usually been upgraded from ditalini to ditali, though they are exactly what she used. More frequently, I use a slightly larger, but still rather small, pasta such as the mezzi rigatoni shown here.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Servings
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Finely dice the onion. Sauté the onion in ¼ cup of olive oil until soft and golden.
  2. Add the crushed red pepper and sauté another minute.
  3. Add the tomato paste and sauté, stirring frequently until the tomato paste turns a shade darker and smells sweet, 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the water, oregano, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well to fully incorporate the tomato paste.
  5. Bring to a very low boil, partially covered, and cook 30-45 minutes stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning as needed, tasting several times as the sauce cooks.
  6. Meanwhile, sauté the garlic in the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil very slowly until browned. Remove from the heat and reserve.
  7. The dish can be cooked several hours ahead to this point.
  8. Bring three quarts of water and three tablespoons of salt to a boil.
  9. While the water is heating, add the beans and their liquid to the tomato sauce, return to a simmer, and cook, partially covered till the pasta is ready.
  10. Cook pasta until it still has a small bit of chewy center. It will cook more in the sauce. Scoop out and reserve two cups of the pasta cooking liquid.
  11. Drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the tomato-bean mixture. Add the browned garlic and olive oil. Stir well, cover and cook on very low heat until the pasta is cooked but al dente and the sauce has thickened. Add some of the pasta cooking liquid as needed from time to time to create a smooth sauce.
  12. Off the heat stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  13. It is not unheard of for me to add an extra glug or two of olive oil at this point to get a luscious sauce. Stir and decide if another dash of pasta-cooking water is needed, as well.
Recipe Notes

Mezzi Rigatoni

 

 

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

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Cavolfiore alla Friulana (Cauliflower Friuli-Style)

February 1, 2017

I started cooking in the early 1970’s when most cooking authorities were trying to convince us that vegetables needed to be crunchy to be good.  No doubt, many vegetables served on American tables were gray, mushy and lifeless but not all vegetables, and certainly not all vegetable dishes, are meant to be toothy, let along crunchy.

I was having a conversation with friends over dinner in Palm Springs just last week about cooking .  They asked me when I started cooking and when I told them, the muscles on their faces froze ever so briefly which made me do a quick calculation.  I started cooking before they were born!  Which means, basically, I’ve seen a lot of food fads and crazes.  I try to avoid them.

I embrace new ingredients or, as is more often the case with “new” ingredients, old ingredients that are finally finding their way to our markets and are, therefore, new to us.  When I think about the ingredients that are available to me now compared to when I started cooking, the difference is staggering.

Honestly, though, the core of my cooking hasn’t changed.  I still focus on traditional foods.  I try to find dishes that have stood the test of time; dishes that have been made for a generation or two, if not a century or two.

Sometimes, though, food crazes get us to think about how we cook and cause us to make changes for the better.  Take crunchy vegetables.  I think American vegetable cookery started getting better when “everyone” was hyping crunchy vegetables.  It got us to think about what was on our plates and whether the essence of a particular vegetable dish was best presented with soft vegetables, crunchy vegetables, or something in between.

Not every vegetable dish is better with crunchy vegetables.  That took me a while to learn as a novice cook in the 1970s when I tried to convert every vegetable recipe to one with toothy vegetables.  They were not all successful.  Not only does texture change with more cooking, flavor does too.  Sometimes those flavor changes “make” the dish as much as the textural change.

This recipe is a good example, though it is not one that I was making in the 70’s.  The essence of the dish is slow-cooked cauliflower and onions that become sweet as the natural sugars caramelize and the cauliflower softens.

I learned to make this from my mother-in-law, who is from Friuli.  Friuli is northeast of Venice, adjacent to Slovenia.  The food definitely shows the influence of Eastern and Central Europe but more on that in upcoming posts.

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Cavolfiore alla Friulana (Cauliflower Friuli-Style)
This dish goes really well with roasted meat. It is a little on the sweet side because the sugars in the onion and cauliflower caramelize during the long, slow cooking. I especially like it with roast chicken or roast pork. Experiment with the cooking time to achieve different textures, but never crunchy. The cauliflower should be soft but not mushy. You can keep the florets more intact during the cooking by being gentle. You can also press down on them every now and then causing them to break up. Both styles are equally traditional. As you will see in the pictures, I opted for longer cooking to create more caramelization and the pressing motion to break the florets into small pieces.
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Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, cut off the base of stem of the cauliflower and remove the green leaves.
  3. Add the cauliflower to the boiling water and cook, uncovered, until it shows just a little resistance when pierced with the point of a knife. This will take between 6 and 10 minutes depending on the cauliflower and how far above sea level you are. When in doubt, opt for less cooking rather than more as you can compensate during the slow-cooking phase.
  4. Using a large slotted spoon, remove the cauliflower. Place it in a colander to drain.
  5. Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, sauté the diced onion in olive oil (or butter) over medium-high heat. Season with salt. The salt will draw out moisture from the onion. As the moisture evaporates you will need to reduce the heat to medium-low to prevent the onion from browning.
  6. When the liquid has evaporated and the onion is beginning to soften, add the minced garlic, if you are using it. Continue to cook over low heat until the onion turns golden but not brown. This can easily take another 20-30 minutes.
  7. As the onion is cooking, cut the cooked cauliflower into florets.
  8. When the onion is golden, add the cauliflower. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add a little wine or water from time to time, as needed, to keep the cauliflower from sticking. There really shouldn’t be any appreciable liquid in the bottom of the pan. Should that happen, uncover the pan slightly till the liquid evaporates.
  10. The florets will break apart as the cauliflower cooks. If you want small pieces, press down on the cauliflower from time to time while cooking. As the cauliflower cooks, taste a few times to adjust salt and pepper.
  11. The cauliflower will slowly darken through caramelization. How far you want to go is up to you. I went fairly far when cooking the cauliflower in these pictures. The cauliflower gets softer the longer it cooks but it also caramelizes more. Figure out the balance of texture and taste you like best.
Recipe Notes

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

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Pasta ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushrooms)

January 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Pollo all’Uccelleto (Chicken Little Bird Style)

January 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sformato di Spinaci (Spinach Casserole)

January 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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