madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


6 Comments

classic white pasta bake with peas and ham

Baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

Pasta al forno (baked pasta) is to Italy what macaroni and cheese is to the rest of the world. In the good, homemade, festive way, not – heaven forbid – in the Kraft dinner way. I was amazed to discover that the recipe was originally  imported to the US by no less than President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He even had Parmesan and pasta imported from Italy as he was not satisfied with locally produced ingredients. Note: pasta and Parmesan, no Cheddar. Sadly the upper class appeal of pasta baked with cheese and butter disappeared already in the middle 1880s. My  guess is that it kept in a free fall until today’s microwavable abominations.

If you live in North America, you probably know all the above. As for myself, I can’t wrap my brain around the idea of a neon-orange dry cheese-flavored sauce in a prepackaged pasta mixture. The only idea gives me brain fog.

Hopefully you are here because you want to know how to make an authentic baked pasta, one that you will find in many Italian houses, particularly when in need to feed a crowd, from a summery garden-party to Christmas or other holidays.

  1. use good quality pasta, possibly bronze drawn and cook it in plenty salted boiling water for half of the time indicated on the package to avoid overcooking. For example, if the pasta package indicates 10 min, cook it for 5 min. If it’s gluten-free pasta you might need to cook it  one minute less than half time.
  2. instead of peas, use seasonal vegetables, saute with garlic, roasted or lightly steamed so they keep crunch and color.
  3. use only one or two types of vegetable in a recipe. This gives a more refined and decisive taste. If I combine two vegetables I tend to use them of approx. the same color, e.g. asparagus and zucchini, mushrooms and squash.
  4. Don’t overload it with condiments. You want to attain a balance of texture and flavor not a gloppy blob of fat. Less is more.

It’s a great recipe because you can change it with the seasons and you can prepare it in advance which is always a bonus when you have guests. It actually improves if you bake it until warmed through, cool off and refrigerate. Just finish it the next day before serving.

As you see from the recipe I use a modest amount of meat as a flavor enhancer. Pork can be substituted with stewed game or a slow cooked beef ragu with no tomato.  You can also easily make it vegetarian by using some smoked or blue cheese or a little black truffle.

Recipe

  • 500 gr (16 oz) short pasta like ziti, fusilli or penne
  • 2 and 1/2 cups Béchamel sauce made with 1/2 lt ( 2 cups) milk, 30 gr (2 tablespoon) corn starch and 30 gr (2 oz) butter.
  • 500 gr (16 oz) petite green peas
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 150 gr (5 oz) cooked ham, chopped finely
  • 200 gr (7 oz) mild cheese such as caciotta or mozzarella, sliced thinly
  • 100 gr (3 oz) grated Parmesan or Pecorino
  • white wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste

Over low heat and covered, saute onion in a large pan until slightly golden. Increase the heat, uncover and deglaze with a few tablespoon of white wine.

Add peas and 1/2 cup water and boil quickly until they are cooked through but still bright green. Remove from heat and add the chopped ham.

Make a fairly thin Béchamel using my quick microwave method, see here.

Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water until half of the cooking time. Drain and toss with half of the Béchamel, 2/3 of the grated cheese and all the peas and ham.

Line a ovenproof pan with oiled parchment paper. This pasta tends to stick even in non-stick pans. Make layers of the pasta mixture and the mild cheese ending with a layer of pasta, a layer of Béchamel and a generous sprinkle of grated cheese.

Bake at 200 °C ( 390 °F) until slightly golden on top.

Serves 6

A most festive dish, beloved by everyone

A most festive dish which will bring smiles all around the table


7 Comments

no-cook pasta sauce with tuna and cherry tomatoes

strozzapreti pasta with tuna, cherry tomatoes, olives

This pasta is good for:

  • when there is no time to make dinner but you still want real food
  • the pantry is empty (or almost)
  • it’s Monday
  • you are on low cal
  • before leaving for holidays
  • returning from holidays
  • unexpected informal dinner guests
  • whenever

This pasta has a sad version and a happy version. To make the happy version you must:

  • always have some bronze-drawn durum wheat pasta or frozen fresh pasta and really good extra-virgin olive oil
  • use high quality tuna packed in oil, even better if it’s in olive oil (I use Rio Mare)

Neglecting all the above will result in the sad version. Keeping a bunch of cherry tomatoes in your freezer is a life saver.

Recipe

  • one 200 gr (6 1/2 ounce) can imported Italian tuna in olive oil, drained and separated into chunks
  • 2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 300 gr/ 10 ounces spaghetti
  • a pinch sugar, salt

Optional:

  • 100 gr (3.5 oz) pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1 tablespoon capers preserved in salt, washed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 fresh chili pepper

Using a shallow pan – a frying pan with high sides is ideal – saute the garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil over very low heat. Do not brown the garlic, you only want to flavor the oil. Add the tuna chunks and stir until just warm. Add olives and/or capers if using. Increase heat, add tomatoes and saute quickly until they are only warmed through. They should not cook and lose their shape. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar, add chili pepper if using and turn off the heat. The whole preparation should not take more than 5 min.

Meanwhile cook the pasta according to package instructions, or 1-2 min if using fresh pasta. The sauce is light and relatively dry, so it is suitable for spaghetti or short pasta shapes like the strozzapreti I used for the photo. It does not work well with fettuccine and the like.

When the pasta is cooked, turn the heat under the sauce pan to high. Drain and transfer to the sauce pan.  Stir the pasta quickly into the sauce as explained here. Add some pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with parsley and drizzle with fruity extra virgin olive oil. Serve on warm plates at once.

Serves 2-3


21 Comments

pasta for beginners

a good plate of pasta is true art

Pasta is such a convenient food and it’s made in a million ways all over the planet. Accordingly, it will taste everything from boring, to vibrant, from disgusting to heavenly. Don’t believe anybody who tells you they don’t like pasta. Most likely they have not tasted the real thing.

Sorry to be smug, but the real thing is made and cooked like Italians do. We do so few things really well in this crazy country. Pasta is one.

However, even if you don’t have it in the genes, you can make magic with our national starch.

Let’s see, did you buy good quality, durum-wheat, bronze-drawn spaghetti? Even better, did you just make some fantastic noodles or ravioli? Did you make some sauce?

Fine. Now you need a really large pan, better a tall stockpot, water and salt. You also need a shallow pan to assemble sauce and pasta. For this purpose, I prefer to use a wok-like pan which in Italy is called saltapasta.

The key to a perfect pasta is to keep it at a high temperature throughout cooking, saucing and serving.

Here are the rules:

  1. Use lots of water, typically 1 lt per 100 gr (1 quart per 3 oz) of dry pasta. Only start cooking the pasta when the water is on a rolling boil. You need to keep it at a high temperature so it cooks as fast as possible. As a result the pasta will keep its shape and texture (al dente).
  2. Use lots of salt, about 1 teaspoon of salt per lt (quart). Pasta cooked in unsalted water will be bland no matter how much salt you add to the sauce. I know it looks like a lot of salt, please just try and taste the difference.
  3. Keep the starch. During cooking pasta releases starch in the water which will provide a creamy texture and help the sauce  clinging to the pasta. To retain the precious starchy film, don’t rinse the pasta after draining. On the contrary, you need to reserve some of the pasta water for the finishing (see below).

Here is the method:

While your pasta is cooking keep the sauce warm in the saltapasta or similar pan. Fresh pasta will cook in 1 to 3 minutes, dry pasta will cook in 6 to 12 minutes depending on package instructions. If you don’t overcook the pasta, there is no need to add oil to the water.

As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain and transfer to the sauce pan. You actually need to drain it a good half a minute before is cooked as you will finish it while saucing. Increase the heat and stir the pasta into the sauce. Add the pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and grated cheese, if using. Stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Serve on warm plates at once.

And please remember, no swimming!


19 Comments

pasta alla puttanesca

tortiglioni alla puttanesca

PUTTANESCA aka THE WHORE’S SAUCE. With a name like this you can only expect something spectacular. There are several metropolitan legends that try to explain the peculiar name. The one that makes more sense to me refers to prostitutes not having time or opportunity to shop and therefore making a quick sauce with ingredients available in the larder.

And ingredients are the key to the excitement. Good bronze drawn pasta, sun ripen tomatoes, tiny capers preserved in salt, anchovies packed in olive oil, sweet, firm, flavorful olives, fruity extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic and parsley.

If you don’t have all the above please don’t be tempted to add cheese, tuna fish, mushrooms, roasted peppers, pancetta or other oddities. A good recipe is like a play, if one actor doesn’t know his part you can’t rescue it by having one someone who has learned a different role.

Recipe

  • 1 pound (500 grams) dried pasta
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, soaked in water and drained
  • 5 oz (150 gr) Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 small dried red chile
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 (14 ounce/400gram) cans diced/crushed tomatoes
  • 1 good handful fresh parsley finely chopped

The recipe is traditionally made with spaghetti and olives from Gaeta. Short pasta like penne or the beautiful tortiglioni in the picture is easy if you need to feed a crowd. Gaeta olives are probably not common outside Italy but Kalamata are a good substitute.

The inexpensive, pizza style, ubiquitously bland black olives are generally unripe green olives that have been dyed with iron salts (ferrous gluconate) after artificial ripening. Avoid.

Saute the garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, chili in 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for a couple of minutes. Mash the anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon and when they disappear add the tomatoes, cover and simmer for 10 min until slightly thickened.

If you are not fond of chili pepper you can omit it and serve some of my spicy oil to those who do.

Cook the pasta in plenty salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and transfer the pasta in the hot sauce. Stir quickly, add the fresh parsley and serve.

Serve 6

Spaghetti alla puttanesca


8 Comments

spaghetti con asparagi

wild asparagus, a life changing experience

SPAGHETTI WITH (WILD) ASPARAGUS

Foraging is all the rage nowadays, but Italians have never stopped these sort of primitive habits.

My father has never made a walk for the sake of it in his entire life. He actually drives to my aunt’s house  300 mt away.  For a bunch of wild asparagus however, at 77 he still challenges the Umbrian slopes and the occasional viper. Viper? If you thought we had a quiet life up in the Assisi hills, read my friend Rebecca’s story about picking wild asparagus.

Tasting wild asparagus is a life changing experience and per se enough of a motivation to come to Italy in the spring. These fragrant strips of green are in the league of foods for the gods, like truffle or aged balsamic.

As all things intensely aromatic they need minimal manipulation and condiments. If you don’t have wild asparagus, take thin green cultivated asparagus. Just remember that your asparagus should still be green when you eat them. Please don’t overcook them to brown sadness. In order to succeed with this very simple recipe you need really fresh asparagus, fruity extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan.

Recipe

  • 100 gr /3 oz wild asparagus or 300 gr /10 oz cultivated ones, cleaned and washed
  • 1 large garlic clove, very finely chopped
  • 1 small chili pepper, thinly sliced
  • 3-4 tablespoons EVO oil
  • 2-3 tablespoon grated parmesan
  • 350 gr /12 oz spaghetti

a) If using cultivated asparagus grill them in a little olive oil, infuse with garlic and chop as explained for risotto . Transfer them in a pan large enough to hold all the pasta you are cooking.

b) If using wild asparagus cut them in 2 cm/ 1 inch long pieces. In the above large pan, saute the garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil until fragrant, about 30 sec. Add the asparagus and cover with water. Increase heat to high and cook stirring occasionally, about 6 or 7 min. By the time the water has boiled away the asparagus will be soft but still bright green.

At this point you have garlic infused asparagus, add the sliced chili pepper, cover and reserve.

To cook and sauce the spaghetti to perfection, please follow this method carefully:

While the asparagus are cooking, bring a 5 liter/ 5 quart pan of water to the boil. Add two heaping tablespoons of salt and bring to the boil again. The water has to be plenty and as salty as the sea otherwise the pasta will be bland.

Cook good quality spaghetti according to package instructions until just al dente. Drain and reserve at least 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Transfer the pasta in the pan which holds the asparagus and turn the heat on high. Stir quickly and when the sauce is blended into the pasta add the cheese and half of the reserved cooking water. Stir again. The hot water will melt the cheese and will bind the condiment  so that all the flavor will be absorbed into the pasta.Use more water if the pasta looks too dry. You can also add a couple of tablespoon of cream. Drizzle with one or two additional tablespoons of  olive oil.

Now run to the table and eat it immediately, wonderfully moist, fragrant and let me say it, beautiful.

Serves 3-4


13 Comments

porcini mushrooms sauce with lots of red wine

 

the ultimate store cupboard recipe, egg pasta curls with porcini and red wine sauce

 

SUGO AI PORCINI E VINO ROSSO   There are days one simply has no time. Somewhat it gets late even to shop for food. And after so much hell, the saddest thing is to get a scrambled egg or an instant soup for dinner.

Here is my revenge to a hurried day.

Dig that package of porcini mushroom out of your larder. I am sure you have some pasta and some cheese. Open a bottle of decent red wine. Now throw the mushrooms in warm water to soak and relax on the sofa. Drink a glass of wine. Only after you have finished the glass, get back to the kitchen, the mushrooms will be soft by then.

Start preparing the sauce,  making sure that every time you pour some wine in the sauce you go back to the sofa and relax.  Put the pasta pan on the heat. More sofa. Start cooking the pasta. More wine.

You only really need to stand by the stove when you need to drain the pasta and toss it with the sauce.  A worthy, last effort of the day.

Recipe

  • 40 gr / 2 tablespoon dried porcini mushrooms
  • 15 gr. / 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoon EVO oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2  cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoon  unsweetened whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
  • 200 gr / 7  ounces dried pasta, preferably egg noodles

Soak the porcini in warm water about 20 min. Once they are soft chop them in smaller pieces using the tips of cooking scissors. No need to drain them, you can do this in the bowl where they are soaking.

For the sauce, use a shallow pan with high sides (e.g. a wok). Over low heat, sautee the pressed garlic with the butter and olive oil until just fragrant.

Add the mushrooms together with their soaking liquid and let them simmer. After the first 5 min. start adding the wine, 2 tablespoons at the time and continue simmering. Cook until all liquid is reduced to about 1/3 of the total volume and the mushrooms are tender. Add the cream and set aside. If you have no cream whisk-in a teaspoon or two of additional butter.

Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain and transfer the pasta in the pan that holds the sauce.Turn the heat to high and quickly stir so that the sauce is partly absorbed by the pasta. Add the Parmesan cheese and 1-2 tablespoon of the pasta water. Stir some more until the additional liquid is absorbed and serve immediately.

Sprinkle with fresh parsley if desired.

Serves 2


11 Comments

broccolo romanesco

broccoli romanesco, a beautiful cousin of cauliflower

ROMANESCO BROCCOLI or CORAL BROCCOLI, it is actually a variant form of cauliflower. Awesomely beautiful, it is also a mathematical plant. Its shape is fractal, meaning that each bud is arranged along a logarithmic spiral and each small spiral participates to a larger spiral to obtain the final form. Mind boggling.

This recipe – originally from Puglia – exemplifies the just discussed use of umami-rich ingredients in Italian food. A tiny bit of anchovy combined with a healthy sprinkle of cheese brings out the vibrant flavor of the vegetables and makes a perfect pasta sauce. It is ready in 20 min. Happiness for dinner.

Recipe

  • 350 gr (12 ounces) short pasta like orecchiette or penne
  • 1 head Romanesco broccoli, though base stalk trimmed, cut into florets
  • 2 tablespoon EVO oil
  • 1 anchovy  fillet
  • 1 large clove of garlic, very finely chopped
  • 1 chili pepper (optional)
  • 3-4 tablespoon Parmesan, grated

For the sauce, use a large sauté pan or, even better, a wok.  Add garlic, chile pepper if using, olive oil, anchovy and saute over low fire until the anchovy is melted. Do not brown the garlic. Set aside.

Please keep in mind that broccoli cook in about 5 min. so you need to boil them for less time than the pasta.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until 5 min. before the end of the cooking time indicated on the package. Add the broccoli florets, cover and bring quickly to the boil again.

After 5 min. strain the vegetables and pasta, and transfer in the wok containing the garlic mixture. Add 2-3 tablespoon of pasta water, half of the cheese and stir vigorously over high fire until all moisture is absorbed . Serve immediately with more cheese on the side.

For a vegetarian version omit the anchovy and use aged pecorino cheese instead of Parmesan. This recipe can be made with regular broccoli and sprouting broccoli as well.

Serves 3-4

penne with Romanesco broccoli

Broccoli on Foodista

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,285 other followers