madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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creamy pumpkin lasagna

delicously creamy pumpkin and pork lasagna

deliciously creamy pumpkin and pork lasagna

I clearly remember the first time I have seen someone cooking pumpkin, it was in 1979. I was with my family visiting friends during a summer holiday on the magnificent Lipari island, off the coast of Sicily. A teenager girl, only a little older than myself, was frying those brilliant orange slices in olive oil. We ate no pumpkin in Umbria then, but Sicilians use the sweet “delica” pumpkin in all sort of fabulous dishes, including candy and preserves. I did not get to try those beauties, but I guess she was making  “zucca in agrodolce” (sweet and sour pumpkin) whereby the slices would have been finished in a sauce of vinegar, sugar, mint and garlic to serve – later in the day – as a side dish.

In contrast, I don’t remember when “zucca” arrived in Umbria. In our small rural region people used to be opposed to novelty, but it must have happened around the mid ’80s. Now we have pumpkin by the truckloads during the whole winter. We also have a clumsy version of Halloween when the kids don’t know what to do except dressing up and terrorize the bewildered village elders who have no idea what’s this new Carnival about. Only a few of them know you are supposed to give them candy when they turn up screaming at your door.

Of course we all think that pumpkin is for eating, not for those quaint porch lanterns. We are Italian after all, we have a fixation with food.

Recipe

  • 1 kg (2 lb) orange pumpkin or squash, cleaned and cut into cubes
  • 1 large onion sliced
  • 1/2 kg (1 lb) fresh pork sausage
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 120 gr (4 oz) grated Parmesan
  • 250 gr (8 oz) fresh ricotta
  • 300 gr (11 oz)  young cow’s milk cheese like caciotta or provola, thinly sliced
  • 500 gr ( 1 lb)  fresh lasagna sheets

First of all organize your worktop so to have ample space to work. Please read my notes about making proper lasagna.

Prepare  condiments:

  1.  Stew pumpkin and onion in 2 tablespoon olive oil until soft and falling apart. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, stir and transfer into the bowl of a food processor together with the ricotta. Process until thick and creamy.
  2. Remove casing from sausages and saute in a heavy pan over medium-high heat until cooked through, breaking up large pieces with a fork, about 10 minutes. Add fennel seeds, stir for one minute, then deglaze with 1/2 cup white wine.  Switch off and set aside.

Umbrian fresh sausages are liberally seasoned with black pepper and garlic. If you can’t find a similar sausage, add 2 cloves of finely minced garlic and a good sprinkle of black pepper just before deglazing with wine.

Assemble lasagna:

  1. Preheat the oven at 200 °C (400 °F). Butter generously a 40 x 30 cm (16 x 12 inch) roasting pan.
  2. To blanch the pasta sheets, place a shallow pan, half full with water on the heat and bring to the boil. Using a slotted spoon, deep one or two lasagna sheets at the time in the boiling water until just soft, approx 30 sec, strain and place in one single layer in the buttered tin.
  3. Once the bottom of the tin is covered by lasagna sheets, pour 1/4 of the pumpkin/ricotta mixture over the pasta sheets and spread it in a thin layer. Top with 1/3 of the sliced cheese, 1/3 of the cooked sausage and 2 tablespoon of grated Parmesan. Repeat two more times using all the sausage and sliced cheese and 2/4 of  the pumpkin mixture reserving 1/4 for the top layer.
  4. Top with one last layer of pasta sheets, cover thinly with the rest of the pumpkin mixture, sprinkle with 2-3 additional tablespoon of Parmesan and bake for 25 min or until bubbly and golden around the sides.

    how to build up the lasagna layers

    building up the layers, a moderate amount of toppings is recommended!

Serve 6-8 as a main

For a vegetarian version substitute sausage with smoked cheese, gorgonzola or saute porcini mushrooms.

 

Lipari's main square during a festival

Lipari’s youth in their beautiful festival clothes

PS. If you want to visit and carve one of those beautiful lanterns for me I will make you lunch.


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roasted rosemary mushroom parcels

 

I made these parcels with a sheet of transparent oven paper

oyster mushrooms wrapped in parcels made with a sheet of transparent oven paper

After having been involved with teaching and thinking about food for over than 10 years,  I am completely convinced  that the art of Italian cooking is to extract flavor from food rather than adding flavor through elaboration. This is the ultimate discovery of modern Italian cuisine. Not the foams, not the rare ingredients, not the fancy presentations. That’s culinary school stuff and to me it rarely has something to do with real food.

With time I have realized that to take something very simple like a vegetable, or a piece of meat or fish or a package of flour and bring out its original flavor is difficult. It can only be done with excellent ingredients and to obtain that you need to constantly research and evaluate the quality of what you are using. Obtaining good ingredients for everything you cook is a form of inner discipline and not always obvious or easy.

But why is it so worth it? We humans love food not only as a form of sustenance but also because of its chemical complexity which stimulates the brain and induces pleasure. The more you have something fresh, grown in a natural way and not treated with chemicals or long refrigeration the more fragrant and complex the original taste of the food will be. As a consequence you hardly need to do anything to it except a minimal manipulation to bring out and enjoy its native flavor.

This recipe is an example of what I mentioned above. It will be heavenly if you have wild mushrooms. And even with the cultivated ones, it will only work with fresh mushrooms and herbs and really good olive oil.  There is not much else in it after all.

Recipe

  • 350 gr (12 oz) fresh whole mushrooms, cleaned.
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • 4 small garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoon dry white wine
  • 4 slices pancetta or guanciale (optional)

Preheat oven at 180°C (360°F).

For this recipe you need to have fairly large pieces to retain the meaty texture of the mushroom. Thin slices will basically boil in their own moisture and as a result will be gummy or stringy.  Whole oyster mushrooms and small chanterelle will need no slicing. If you use large portobello or porcini it’s better to slice them in half or quarter by the length.

Cut four 20×20 cm (8×8 inch)  pieces of parchment paper or prepare 4 small oven bags. Arrange 1/4 of the mushrooms on the paper together with a sprig of rosemary and one garlic clove. Add a slice of pancetta if using. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper, drizzle  with one teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tablespoon white wine, then  seal the paper parcel or oven bag and transfer in an oven tin.

Bake for 20 min and serve warm directly in the parcels. You can also serve them at room temperature in which case remove the parcels and transfer into a dish. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil just before serving.

Serves 4.

PS. I am not at all opposed to cooking the parcels on the BBQ. In this case I’d use foil, not plastic or paper.

baked oyster mushrooms

beautifully baked and fragrant, if you can ever call a mushroom “beautiful”

 

From Wikipedia:

“En papillote (French for “in parchment”), or al cartoccio in Italian, is a method of cooking  in which the food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked. The parcel is typically made from folded parchement paper but other material, such as a paper bag or aluminum foil may be used. The parcel holds in moisture to steam the food. The pocket is created by overlapping circles of aluminum foil and parchment paper and then folding them tightly around the food to create a seal. A papillote should be opened at the table to allow people to smell the aroma when it opens.”

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