madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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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


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spinach and ricotta crespelle: savoury crêpes Italian style

crespelle are thin pancakes similar to French crepes

crespelle are thin pancakes similar to French crepes

I have had friends who wouldn’t invite me for dinner because they thought I was a better cook then they are. Actually, I really adore it when someone cooks for me. I don’t care if it’s perfect. Cooking for someone is an act of love and I love to be pampered. Don’t we all do? Make me a fried egg, please, I’ll love you for anything you cook for me.

There’s another fact.  I hate to be a pain in the neck when someone invites me for a meal. However, I have all sorts of food intolerances. They even change with the time which is quite confusing for hosts who think they know my problems. I’ve been dairy free for 10 years. Now I can have dairy in moderate amounts but I can’t have wheat.

Conversely, and because I do cooking classes, I have found myself in the position having no idea what to give to someone as because of their health or their choices they just can’t be “normal” (like me :) )

This recipe is a life saver for modern stomachs and desperate cooks. Not only it can be prepared in advance. It can also be made vegetarian by skipping the ham and gluten-free by substituting the flour. For the gluten-free version I use my GF cake-flour mix which works fantastic. In fact you don’t even know there’s no wheat.

Recipe

for the crêpes:

  • 250 ml (1 cup) milk
  • 125 gr (3/4 cup) regular flour or gluten free equivalent ( I use my basic cake mix flour)
  • 30 gr melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • a pinch of salt, a pinch of nutmeg
  • two tablespoon grated Parmesan

for the filling:

  • 300 gr (2/3 lb) blanched spinach, excess moisture removed by squeezing.
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) whole milk ricotta
  • 120 gr (4 oz) cooked ham, diced
  • 4 tablespoon Parmesan
  • for the topping
  • 1 and 1/2 cup quick Béchamel
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

For the crêpes, mix the liquid butter, eggs and milk  in a bowl. Add flour, salt, nutmeg and whisk.  Brush a 15 cm/6 inch , non-stick frying pan with melted butter and set over medium heat. Pour a small ladleful of the  batter (about 3 tablespoon) in the pan and swirl to make  the thinnest possible pancake. Cook for 1-2 minutes each side then remove and set aside. Repeat, to make 14-15 pancakes. I only butter the pan once at the beginning.

In a separate pan, heat the garlic briefly in 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, add the cooked spinach, salt lightly and warm through to infuse with the garlicky oil. Transfer in a food processor together with  ricotta, the ham and two tablespoons Parmesan. Process briefly until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350 °F and lightly  grease a 22 x 30 cm baking dish with butter or olive oil

Distribute the spinach mixture in the centre of each pancake. Spread filling all over the pancake then roll like cannelloni. Place in the baking dish. Spread crepes with Bechamel and  sprinkle with two more tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden and bubbly. Serve hot.

Serves 5-6 as a main dish

spinach pancakes

rolled and ready to be smothered with white sauce and then baked to soft gloriousness


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Italian whole-grain salad

this wholesome salad is easy, nutritious and adaptable to all sort of whole-grains

Dear Tomato I want to thank you for existing.

For being a fresh, juicy, sweet, fleshy fruit.

Ask any Italian “what do you eat during this exhaustingly hot summer”? Tomatoes – they will say – it’s a national obsession.

This salad is a way to make a wholesome meal or substantial side dish out of a classic tomato salad. Healthy food does taste good if you know how to treat it. The salad also looks beautiful as it’s presented in layers rather than mushing up everything together.

You can tweak the composition to your taste but there’s a few rules to keep the Italian character of the recipe:

  1. Keep it rustic, use whole grains. I generally use farro which is abundant in Umbria and has a lovely nutty taste but you could use barley, wheat berries, bulgur or wild rice. What you see in the picture is my gluten-free version made with the splendid black rice from Northern Italy.
  2. Keep it light. Use only one type of cheese in modest amounts. I use shavings of Pecorino or Parmesan or fresh mozzarella. Feta? No, it’s not Italian. Blue cheese? No, it’s heavy.
  3. Keep it seasonal. I use cherry tomatoes in the early summer and then switch to whatever marvelous variety is at its best when I need it. I use crispy thin salad leaves like rucola (arugula, rocket), lamb’s lettuce or a combination of mixed salad greens. I don’t make this salad with glasshouse tomato. There is no point if they have no flavor.
  4. Last but most importantly, please no pre-made dressings, only top quality extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. A little goes a long way.

Recipe

  • 200 gr ( 7 oz) farro
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) ripe tomatoes, sliced or quartered if small
  • 2 cups light salad leaves
  • 3 tablespoon cheese shavings
  • extra virgin olive il, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper
  • optional: a handful basil leaves and 1-2 spring onions diced very small

Cook farro or other grain in plenty boiling water according to package instructions. Drain, rinse under tap water and transfer into a bowl. Add one crushed garlic clove and stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cover, set aside and let it cool and infuse with the garlicky oil for several hours. You can also refrigerate it until the next day.

When ready to serve, slice tomatoes, add basil leaves and onions if using. Dress with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and black pepper.

Slice or shave the cheese.

Wash and spin dry the salad leaves, dress with 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt, then make a bed of leaves on a serving plate with some space in the centre where you will make a mound with the cooked grains. This way you will have a pretty border of salad leaves around the grains.

Top the farro with the tomatoes and dressing juices. Sprinkle with the cheese shavings and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-5


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baked cardoons

fresh cardoons, a typical winter vegetable in Central Italy

PARMIGIANA DI CARDI.

This is a recipe which smells intensely of Christmas to me. It reminds me of my mum, perennially standing in her tiny kitchen, creating complicated wonders. Oddly, she hardly made a sound while cooking for a large party, I could hear her breathing.

It reminds me of how my father and I would sneak into the kitchen to steal the fried stems, subtly aromatic, tender as butter. Those and the mellow leftovers we enjoyed the most, as the rest got confused in the abundance of the holiday banquet.

to clean cardoons, remove the outer fibers and inner membrane of the stem

Artichoke and leafy cardoon are two varieties of the same plant . The first is cultivated for its immature inflorescence – also called globe – and the second for its fleshy stems. The taste of cardoon is reminiscent of celery and artichoke with a hint of bitter which is eliminated by blanching. When buying, make sure to pick those with white stems and without signs of rusty spots

Recipe

  • 2 kg ( 4 lb) fresh cardoons, outer damaged leaves removed
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 gr (3 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 250 gr ( 1/2 lb) mild cows cheese like caciotta (use fresh Asiago if not available)
  • 1 recipe ragù
  • 1 recipe bechamel (white sauce)
  • 60 gr (2 oz) grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

This is a work intensive recipe, I suggest to prepare the cardoons, blanch them and fry them on the first day and make the tomato, bechamel sauce and assemble the parmigiana on the second day.

Day 1

To clean cardoons,  strip the fibres from the stems with a pairing knife, cut them into 5 cm (2 in.) pieces and  plunge them  in cool water that has been acidulated with the juice of half a lemon.

Add the other half of the lemon to a pan of water you will use to cook the stems. Bring the water to the boil, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt.  Blanch until tender but still firm, 20 to 30 min. Meanwhile whisk the eggs in a large bowl.

Drain and rinse in cold water, pat dry and dredge in flour. Transfer the floured cardoons in the eggs and deep fry them in vegetable oil until lightly golden.

Make sure to work in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.

If you don’t like to fry, line the largest roasting tin you own with parchment paper. Place the cardoons well spaced on a single layer and bake until colored in a preheated oven at 250 °C (480 °F) , turning once.

Day 2

Make the tomato and bechamel sauce. Slice the caciotta. Prepare all ingredients on your work-top. Butter a 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12 in) gratin dish. You should have enough cardoons to make three layers.

Arrange the cardoons in a single layer at the bottom of the pan. Cover with one third of the sliced cheese and sprinkle one tablespoon of the grated cheese. Drizzle approx. 3 tablespoon of the tomato sauce and 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of the white sauce on the layer. Make sure to use modest amounts of sauce or you will end up with a gloppy soup!

Continue building up the layers ending with Bechamel which will form a lovely crust. Bake in preheated oven at 200° C (390° F) until golden and set, approx. 30 min.

The version  in the picture below is vegetarian and gluten-free. I substituted ragù with a simple tomato sauce and regular flour with rice flour. It’s every bit as delicious as the original one, just lighter.

Serves 6 as a main, 8 as a side

my mother's Christmas treat, I miss you mum.


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spinach and pasta soup

emerald goodness

This is a healthy, refreshing and quite good-looking soup. It’s one of my desperation recipes, meaning that I make it when desperately needing a nutritious and light meal in hardly any time. I often keep a bag of pre-washed spinach in the fridge, but I would not snob some good quality frozen ones, possibly organic.

I often use fresh pasta leftovers which I dry on a towel for a day or two and then roughly crush them with my hands to give it a rustic look. Bought fresh egg-noodles of any shape you like will do just fine, no crushing needed.

What makes the dish is that drizzle of olive oil at the end. The fruity creaminess of the oil brings out the herby intensity of the spinach.

This is a perfect occasion to open that bottle of olive oil you bought during your last holidays in Umbria.

Please don’t be tempted to cook the pasta in the soup, it will be chewy, you want it silky. Fresh noodles cook in no time so it’s not an effort.

If you are gluten free, this is a good recipe to use boiled rice leftovers too. As a further alternative,  you could substitute the pasta with two tablespoon cooked cannellini beans per person. Just warmed them first in a pan with a little garlic and olive oil before gently float them on the soup.

Recipe

  • 1/2 kg (1 lb) spinach
  • 1 onion
  • 1 lt ( 1 quart) boiling water or stock
  • 1 teaspoon flour or corn starch
  • 60 gr (2 ounces) fresh pasta noodles per person
  • 2 teaspoon freshly grated Parmesan per person
  • a good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Dice the onion and soften it in two tablespoon olive oil in a  saucepan which must be large enough to hold the soup. Add the cleaned spinach leaves, cover and simmer slowly until the greens are wilted. Add flour or starch and stir. Add the boiling water or stock, simmer 3-4 more minutes, season and puree until smooth. Cover to keep warm.

In a separate pan cook the noodles in plenty salted boiling  water until al dente. Fresh tagliolini will take no more than one minute.  Drain and toss with one tablespoon of olive oil. Now quickly ladle the spinach puree into bowls, add the pasta, a sprinkle of grated Parmesan, drizzle with good EVO oil and serve immediately.

Serves 4

here, with your sprinkle of cheese

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