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Sicilian busiate pasta alla Norma

There is an aroma that is forever etched in my memories of summer holidays in Sicily: the sweet smell of fried eggplants and tomato sauce.  Sicilians (like my mum) are masters of cooking eggplants which are used in some of the most iconic dishes that Italy has donated to the world: eggplant parmigiana (parmesan), baked eggplant pasta and, obviously, pasta alla Norma.

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best sauce for busiate pasta

The sauce is simple and can be prepared quickly if you are well organized. My mother would return to our holiday rental from the beach and make it while we children took one last swim. We would go back – still dripping – and lunch on bowls of spaghetti alla Norma adorned with fragrant basil and a generous sprinkle of ricotta infornata which is similar to the aged ricotta salata from Catania.

When we visited our relatives we were sometime offered the luxury version with homemade busiate, a sort of rustic fusilli made with fine semolina (durum wheat flour) and water.

For this recipe, it is essential to use eggplants which are field grown and in season. In Italy, summer is eggplant season. Eggplants available in winter are generally tasteless and spongy, often hard like wood and full of seeds.

In early summer I favor the classic oval eggplants which must be firm but with a little give and a fresh green stem.

classic Italian oval eggplants: photo jacqueline macou da Pixabay

For this recipe, please don’t be afraid to fry the eggplants. If you take the time to salt them before cooking and to drain the oil afterward, I promise that the dish will not be greasy. I have seen too many versions of this sauce with baked or grilled eggplants, it can be nice enough, but it is never as spectacular as the original.

Many years ago, Tea and I made a video on how to deep-fry eggplants. For pasta alla Norma I actually dice them, salt them and shallow fry them, but I think the video is still useful in case you have never done it.


Recipe

Ingredients

For the busiate pasta

  • 200 g (7 oz) fine semolina flour
  • 100 ml (approx 1/2 cup) water
  • For the sauce
  • 1 medium eggplant, about 350 g (3/4 lb)
  • 1 400 g (14 oz) can crushed or peeled tomatoes
  • 4-5 large basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 3 tablespoon white wine
  • 2-3 tablespoon grated ricotta salata or Parmigiano
  • vegetable oil for frying (I use organic sunflower oil)

Directions

To make the busiate:

Transfer the semolina in the food processor then start it on high speed. Add a pinch of salt then start adding the water. Please don’t add the water all at once. The dough must be firm but pliable so you might need to adjust the amount of water depending on the percentage protein of the flour you are using.

I use semolina with 11% protein, but for example, King Arthur semolina has 12% protein so you might need to add more water to obtain a proper dough. Once the dough forms a ball, transfer it onto your worktop, then press a finger in it. If it’s elastic and the mark of your finger disappears, it’s done.

Cover with an inverted bowl and let it rest for a minimum of 20 min. Using a rolling pin, flatten the ball into a 1.5 cm (3/4 inch) thick circle.

recipe busiate Sicilian pastaCut the dough into 1.5 cm (3/4 inch) strips.

how to make busiate Sicilian pasta

Roll each strip into a long, thin cylinder, about the thickness of a pencil.

how to roll busiate pasta

The busiate are shaped like a spiral. To form the spirals, take one cylinder of dough and lay it on your worktop.
Place a skewer at 45° angle with the cylinder.

how to shape busiate pasta

Gently press the dough around the skewer and roll it under the index and medium fingers to create the shape. The dough should wrap around the rod in a tight spiral.

Carefully slide the shaped pasta off the skewer and set it aside to dry on a dry surface, for example, a kitchen towel.

traditional busiate pasta recipe roll

To make the sauce alla Norma

For the eggplants

Zebra peel the eggplant and cut it lengthwise into 1.5 cm (1/2 inch) thick slices. The eggplant skin is often bitter and/or tough, so it’s always a good idea to remove at least part of it. Dice the slices into cubes of approximately 2.5 cm (1 inch) side.

Place the diced eggplants in a colander placed over a bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt, tossing to coat evenly. Let the eggplants sit for at least 20 minutes to draw out excess moisture.

After 20–30 minutes, dry the eggplants with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. Ensuring they are dry will help them crisp up better during frying.

Preheat a thick bottom frying pan or wok, then cover the bottom with vegetable oil to a depth of about 1 cm (1/2 inch). Transfer one eggplant cube into the oil, if it sizzle, add all other cubes into the pan and fry, stirring often, until the eggplants are lightly golden brown. Remove from the hot oil with a slotted spoon and place back into the colander to drain the oil.

For the tomato sauce

In a large shallow pan, sauté the onion in extra virgin olive oil on a low heat, covered. When the onion is translucent and slightly caramelized, deglaze with the wine, allow it to evaporate and then add the tomatoes and 2-3 whole basil leaves. Cover and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes until slightly thickened.

Assemble the pasta alla Norma

Bring to the boil a pan of well salted water, then cook the busiate for 1.5 to 2 minutes. The cooking time varies with the thickness of the pasta, so start tasting after one minute and every 30 second to avoid overcooking.

Transfer the fried eggplants into the tomato sauce and reheat if needed. Strain the busiate with a large slotted spoon and transfer into the sauce, stir, and serve with additional basil leaves and a generous sprinkle of grated aged ricotta, ricotta infornata or Parmigiano.
busiate pasta alla norma

Serves 2-3.

Sicilian Busiate Pasta alla norma

Balsamic, sage and brandy beef “straccetti di manzo”, a delicious Italian stir fry

Should someone ask you what is a famous Italian meat dish that is not a sauce, you would probably mention Florentine steak, ossobuco or Pollo alla cacciatora (hunter style / chicken cacciatore).

Please don’t be surprised, but I have never eaten ossobuco, which is a dish from Lombardy. Also, I have never eaten a Florentine steak, as we have our version of as delicious steak (tagliata) in Umbria. Italy is so rich in regional dishes that a lifetime is not enough to taste everything, I taste a lot, but I’m not even halfway!

There is however a category of meat that is quite ubiquitous across the country because it makes a quick, easy and flavorful weekday dinner. We call it fettine, “the thin slices”.

Scaloppine, straccetti, piccata, saltimbocca are all made with thinly cut slices of meat and poultry which are quickly pan fried and enriched with a light coating of sauce. The sauce is generally obtained by deglazing the cooking juices with an acidic liquid such as wine, balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.

how to make Italian saltimbocca
Umbrian style saltimbocca: another favorite recipe made with thin slices of pork, guanciale and sage

The term straccetti, meaning “rags”, refers to paper thin slices of meat cut into small irregular squares. Straccetti di manzo, topped with arugula, cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano is a popular trattoria dish, served all over central Italy.

Beef straccetti is made with paper thin slices of beef, typically silverside (sottofesa), sirloin or other slightly marbled cuts which are suitable for rapid cooking.

It is essential to cook the straccetti over high heat and to serve them immediately and very hot, like an Asian stir-fry.

NB: You might want to test the cooking time which will vary depending on the cut and thickness of the meat.  Heat 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil, add 1-2 “rags” of meat and count the seconds needed for them to just change color to light brown.

Recipe

Ingredients:

    • 300 g (10 oz) beef sirloin sliced as thin as carpaccio
    • 1 teaspoon corn starch
    • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon butter
    • 1 clove of garlic
    • 2-3 tablespoons brandy or white wine
    • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
    • 3 sage leaves (as an alternative use a sprig of rosemary cut into 4-5 pieces)
    • salt and pepper to taste
    • approx. 100 g (3 oz) fresh arugula or other salad with small leaves

Directions

Toss the salad with your best extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Arrange on your serving plates.

Bring the meat to room temperature, mix thoroughly with 1 teaspoon corn starch, then with one tablespoon of olive oil. Should you have time to do this in advance, add one crushed clove of garlic and refrigerate overnight.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the olive oil, butter, and sage and sauté until fragrant, no more than  1/2 minute.

Add the thinly sliced beef to the skillet, spreading it out in a single layer. Cook on maximum heat for 15–20 seconds, stirring occasionally, until the beef is just starting to brown.

Deglaze with the brandy or white wine while scraping the caramelized bits, allowing the alcohol to evaporate, this should take just a few seconds as the meat will otherwise overcook.

Deglaze when 25% of the meat straccetti are still pink

Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

Serve the beef straccetti on the bed of arugula, accompanied by crusty bread, roast potatoes or potato purée. In Italy, this dish would never be served on pasta or rice.

Serves 2

Fresh homemade tonnarelli pasta

In Rome, tonnarelli noodles are popular in restaurants and homes because of their ability to hold thick, rich sauces.

And in fact, tonnarelli — originally from Abruzzo — pair beautifully with the four iconic pasta sauces of Rome: cacio e pepe, gricia, carbonara and amatriciana.

Before moving to Rome, I never gave much thought to tonnarelli. In Italy, we have endless regional variations of spaghetti-like noodles. Each type of noodle is made using different flours and various proportions of eggs and/or water, thus creating a wide range of textures and flavors.

In Umbria, we make stringozzi with white flour and (almost) no eggs. The Tuscan pici are the thick cousins of stringozzi. Besides the tonnarelli, Abruzzo has gifted us with spaghetti alla chitarra. Both the tonnarelli and the spaghetti alla chitarra are made with eggs and a mixture of white flour and semolina (durum wheat flour).

The term  “chitarra,” refers to a wooden frame strung with fine metal wires. The pasta dough is pushed through the wires, creating square-shaped noodles.

Other similar noodles, the troccoli, are made in Puglia with semolina, white flour, eggs and water. They are cut with a special a grooved rolling pin, the troccolaturo. The bigoli from Veneto are made with white flour and water or eggs and pressed through a tool named bigolaro which is a hand operated pasta extruder ( Photo Wikimedia ).

As much as I’d love to own all these exotic pasta implements, I live now in a small apartment and I simply have no space.

Over the years, however, I have figured out that I can rely on my trusted pasta machine to make all sort of pasta shapes, including the delicious tonnarelli. Even my Roman friends have approved the adaptation, and all my cooking class guests have received them with much enthusiasm!

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 100 g (3.5 oz) 00 flour, protein content 10-12 %
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) semolina (very fine durum flour)
  • 2 large eggs

Serves 2-3.

To make the dough, use my food processor method or knead all ingredients on a floured wooden board until smooth and elastic. If you are not sure about the protein content of your flour, check the nutritional label. Rest the dough for at least 20 minutes covered with a tea towel.

Set the smooth rollers of the pasta machine on the widest setting. Cut the dough into pieces which must be about the size of a large egg.

Flatten one piece of dough into a rectangle, and feed through the rollers. Fold the rectangle in half and feed through the rollers three or four more times, dusting with flour as necessary to prevent sticking.

Turn the machine’s dial down to the next (narrower) setting. Feed the dough through the rollers without folding. Repeat for the next 2 settings to obtain a 2 mm (1/12 inch) thick pasta sheet (about the thickness of 1 Euro or Dollar coin).

Continue to roll out each piece of dough in the same manner.

Cut the dough into square ribbons while the pasta is still soft. I use the 2 mm (1/12 inch) flat spaghetti cutter of my pasta machine (see below).

hot to cut tonnarelli spaghetti alla chitarra with a pasta machine
Double pasta machine cutter, flat spaghetti above, medium fettuccine below
small group pasta class in Rome
Testing the tagliolini cutter for tonnarelli

You can also use a narrow fettuccine/tagliolini cutter (4 mm = 1/6 inch) but note that the noodles will be quite chewy and take quite some time to cook. The thin, square shape obtained with the flat spaghetti cutter is definitely superior.

Keep flouring the noodles to avoid sticking and spread them on a wooden board or tea towel to dry. Noodles tend to absorb humidity, and might stick to granite or other worktops.

homemade tonnarelli pasta recipe

Cook in salted boiling water for 1 and 1/2 minute if fresh, or 2 minutes if dry or frozen. Taste them after one minutes to asses the exact cooking time.

It is important to cook the pasta in plenty of water, about 1 l (1 quart) per person. If you are cooking for more than 4 people, cook several small batches rather than a large one, keeping the cooked batches warm in the sauce.

Once the pasta strands don’t stick to each other, you can arrange them in a mound and freeze, first individually on a tray and then in a box. Cook from frozen, or they will become sticky and impossible to separate!

Fresh spaghetti alla chitarra made with a pasta machine

Enjoy your authentic Roman pasta with a traditional sauce like the gricia in the image below, buon appetito!

fresh pasta machine tonnarelli with gricia sauce

 

 

 

 

 

Lasagna rosettes with Pecorino cheese, black pepper and honey

Hello and welcome to my kitchen in Rome, my friends.

Easter and other spring holidays are coming soon, and with this month’s recipe, I’d like to show you how to make an impressive and delicious dish with very little effort.

In Italy, the rosette di lasagna, also named nidi di rondine (swallow nests) or girelle, are delicate rolls of paper-thin pasta sheets filled with a variety of meats, cheese and or vegetables. The original dish, filled with mushrooms, ham and cheese, comes from Modena in Emilia Romagna.

Outside of Italy the rosettes are also named rollatini, lasagna roll-ups or lasagna pinwheels.

I have first tasted this delicate version of the “nidi di rondine” at the lovely Trattoria del Moro Aronne in Orvieto. The combination of cheese and honey is fantastic. When well executed, the nidi will make a heavenly centerpiece of a holiday meal or special Sunday lunch. You will note that the recipe is simple but requires precision and organization.

Ingredients

For the lasagna sheets

  • 250 g (8 oz) fresh lasagna sheets (the ones I use measure 22×18 cm – 7×5 inches)
  • 150 g ricotta (5 oz)
  • 180 g (6 oz) young Pecorino or other mild-flavored sheep’s milk cheese, thinly sliced
  • 8 tablespoon grated Parmigiano
  • 2–3 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon raw honey
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Essential ingredients and substitution

Cheese

The quality of the cheese is key to this recipe. Young Pecorino is flavorful, not overly salty, and melts without releasing moisture. If not available, use another sheep’s milk cheese with similar qualities and if you must use cow’s milk cheese, substitute the grated Parmigiano with Pecorino Romano.

Lasagna sheets

This recipe does not rely on a sauce to cook the lasagna sheets, so it works better with fresh lasagna sheets briefly soaked in hot salted water. I recommend buying the thinnest possible sheets with no curls, or to make the pasta sheets yourself. Boiling or soaking the sheets is essential.

If you use store bought dry pasta, even if it is “no-boil”, you will need to parboil the sheets until pliable but not completely cooked. Time will vary depending on quality and thickness of the pasta sheets, but note that the recipe will not work with thick or curly store bought sheets.

Undercooked sheets will result in rolls with an unpleasant chewy texture. On the other hand, too wet or overcooked sheets will fall apart, making it impossible to roll.

Recipe

Mise en place

  • Whip the ricotta until smooth with a pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon milk and 1 teaspoon of olive oil to obtain a soft, spreadable mixture.
  • Grate the Parmigiano cheese.
  • Oil or butter a 20 cm (8 inch) round roasting pan, preferably with removable sides. If you don’t have a small pan, use kitchen string as explained below.
  • Shave the young Pecorino very thinly.
  • Boil 6 cups of water, pour in a wide shallow bowl and add 1/2 teaspoon salt, stir.

Assemble the lasagna rosettes:

  1. Soak one pasta sheet in the salted hot water for 20 seconds, then strain with a slotted spoon and lay on your worktop.how to use fresh lasagna sheets

2. Using a silicone spatula, spread a thin layer of ricotta on each pasta sheet.

Layer the shaved cheese on top of the ricotta, sprinkle with Parmigiano, a pinch of salt and fresh black pepper.

how to make lasagna rollatini

3. Roll up the sheet by the short side and cut it into 3 pieces. I strongly suggest to experiment with one single roll before making the rest and adjust as needed.

Store-bought lasagna sheets might have completely different dimensions than the one obtained with a pasta machine. There is no need to trim the sheets, just make sure to obtain rolls which are approximately 3 cm (1 and 1/4 inch) in diameter and 4 cm (1 and 1/2 inch) high.

how to make lasagna rosettes

4. The rolls will flatten slightly after cutting. Press them lightly around the sides to bring them back to a round shape. Place rolls, cut side up, in the greased roasting pan.

To make sure they cook in a standing position, tie them with kitchen string if – like myself – you are making a smaller portion and don’t have a suitably small pan.

5. Pour about 1/4 teaspoon of cream inside each roll. The cream will keep them moist inside while they crisp up outside.

6. Bake in preheated oven at 200°C (390°F) until the top starts to become golden. Decrease temperature of 20° if using fan. Don’t overcook!

7. Plate, drizzle lightly raw honey and serve immediately as a first course.

Italian nidi di lasagna recipe

With the pasta sheets I use, this recipe makes 36 roll-ups, which serve 4-6 in a multi-course meal. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Sicilian orange, black olives and fennel salad

Hello my friends, how have you been?

This month I was going to publish a risotto recipe, but winter is so mellow in Rome, and I was inspired to remind you of this classic and so well-balanced Sicilian salad.

The ingredients are in season right now and at their peak. Fennel is juicy and crunchy. Oranges are sweet and aromatic, especially the blonde Washington navels and the red Tarocco. Preserved black olives are always available, but make sure to find good ones, plump, not excessively salty and devoid of that medicinal undertone of cheap canned olives.

The fennel’s herbal aroma, reminiscent of aniseed and licorice, combines beautifully with tangy citrus and the umami power of olives.

cooking classes in Rome fennel orange salad

Over the years, I met several people at my cooking classes who don’t like fennel bulbs. However, I have often discovered they had never eaten them fresh and were delighted to enjoy this delightful concoction.

Italian fennel orange olive saladI suggest acquiring bulbs with the fronds, if possible, to sprinkle on top for decoration and to use the fennel as soon as possible as it tends to dry out in the refrigerator and loose texture and flavor. By the way, did you know that fennel is not a bulb? The edible part is actually made of enlarged leaf stems.

This is an exquisite and incredibly simple dish which does not need “improvement” by including salad leaves, herbs or fancy vinegars. Sorry NYT, but if we start adding oregano here, we’ll end up making pizza with pineapple. It’s a slippery slope!

In fact, as in almost everything in Italian cooking, the secret is to use fresh ingredients, your best extra virgin olive oil and to consume it as soon as it’s ready to serve to prevent wilting and release of juices

Recipe

Ingredients

• 2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed and sliced, fronds reserved
• 3 tablespoon black olives, best quality
• 1 large orange, peeled, halved and sliced
• juice of 1/2 lemon
• 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• salt, black pepper

Directions

Cut the orange into thin slices, saving any juice that is released during the process to incorporate into the dressing.

In a salad bowl, whisk the oil, lemon juice, the leftover juice of the orange, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and a twist of black pepper. Add the sliced fennel bulbs and olives and toss. Taste for seasoning.

Transfer the fennel to a serving plate and top with orange slices and fennel fronds. Drizzle the rest of the dressing from the bowl and a little more olive oil, if needed.

Serve at once.
Serves 4 as a side dish or light appetizer.

 

 

Vegetarian spinach cannelloni with porcini mushroom cream

vegetarian cannelloni with spinach and mushrooms

Hello my friends,

how have you been? I cooked too much during the holidays and, of course, I made myself quite tired. It was all worth it though. I so enjoyed the company of family and of the lovely friends who have visited from near and far. After at least a week of eating leftovers, I felt energized again and inspired to continue to create more delicious ways to include vegetables in my recipes.

Please meet the vegetarian cannelloni. This is a surprisingly light and delightful dish. It will also be appealing to meat-lovers thanks to the added umami from the porcini mushrooms. You can make a gluten-free version using crêpes instead of pasta sheets.

The recipe expands on my method of filing fresh lasagna sheets with a layer of creamy cheese and vegetables. Using very thin lasagna sheets soaked in salted water assures the best results in terms of flavor and texture.

how to make vegetarian cannelloniIn this case the soaked lasagna sheets are cut in a half, rolled up and topped with a striped drizzle of two sauces, a porcini mushroom flavored béchamel and a simple tomato sauce.

This is a dish that requires a little more time than the lasagna, as it involves soaking and cooking the mushrooms and making the béchamel. Should you be short on time, you could just use one of the two sauces and a sprinkle of Parmigiano. It will still taste fantastic and look very special.

Recipe

250 g (9 oz) fresh lasagna sheets (9 oz; mine are 22×18 cm -7×5 inches).

For the cannelloni filling:

  • 600 gr (1 1/2 lb, uncooked weight) blanched or steamed spinach or Swiss chard, excess moisture removed by squeezing, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) whole milk ricotta
  • 250 g (1/2 lb) fresh mozzarella
  • 4-6 tablespoon grated Parmigiano or Pecorino

For the béchamel:

  • 250 ml (1 cup) full fat milk
  • 30 g (1 oz) butter
  • 30 g (1 oz) corn starch

For the tomato sauce

  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 400 g (14 oz) canned crushed tomatoes
  • a handful of basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano

For the porcini mushrooms

  • a handful of dried porcini mushrooms (about 10 g, 1/3 oz)
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • white wine

To make the filling:

  1. Heat the garlic briefly in a shallow pan with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and the fennel seeds. Add the cooked spinach, salt lightly and warm through to infuse with the garlicky oil. Transfer to a food processor together with the ricotta. Process briefly until smooth.
  2. Slice the mozzarella and cut it into potato chip-like pieces.
  3. To soak the pasta sheets, boil 4–6 cups of water with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Pour in a shallow bowl, which must be larger than your lasagna sheets. Using a slotted spoon, deep one or two lasagna sheets at a time in the hot water until just soft, approx. 20 sec, strain, then place in one single layer on your work top. Cut each sheet in two as shown in the photos.

make fresh manicotti vegetarian

Assemble the cannelloni:

Using a silicon spatula, spread the ricotta spinach mixture over the pasta sheets. Place the mozzarella pieces on the diagonal of the pasta sheets and sprinkle with Parmigiano. Roll tightly along the diagonal.

To cook the porcini mushrooms:

Soak the porcini mushrooms in 1/2 cup water until soft, about 15 minutes. Heat 1 finely minced clove of garlic in 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and add the porcini with their liquid. Add two tablespoons of white wine, cover, and poach the mushrooms over low heat until soft and cooked through, about 10 minutes.

cook dried porcini mushrooms

Make the porcini mushrooms cream:

The porcini cream is a béchamel blended with the cooked porcini:

I make the white sauce in the microwave using glass measuring jugs.

1. Heat the milk until near boiling point, about 2 min. In a different jug, melt the butter, whisk in the corn starch to create a roux. While whisking, add the hot milk, first one tablespoon at the time until smooth and then all the rest.

2. Transfer the mixture to the microwave and heat for one minute. Quickly stir, then microwave for one more minute, or until the mixture is almost at boiling point. Whisk again. At this point, the sauce should be thick and smooth. Let it cool for a few minutes.

3. Add the porcini mushrooms without their liquid to the béchamel and blend in the food processor. If the mixture is quite firm, use part of the cooking liquid to make the béchamel spreadable. Don’t discard the delicious cooking liquid. If you don’t need it for the béchamel, reduce it to a syrup and drizzle on the cannelloni.

Make a tomato sauce:

Heat the onion, very finely chopped, in a shallow pan with one tablespoon of olive oil. Add the crushed tomato and basil leaves. Cover and cook 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Season with a pinch of salt a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.

Finish:

Preheat oven to 200 °C (392 °F).

Spread the bottom of an oven pan with a thin layer of tomato sauce. Place the cannelloni over the sauce layer and drizzle with additional tomato sauce.

vegetarian fresh manicotti with spinach recipeI like to drizzle the sauces in a striped pattern, but you can omit this step and just layer the béchamel on top of the tomato sauce.

cannelloni with porcini cream

Drizzle with the porcini cream and sprinkle with Parmigiano.

Bake until slightly golden on top, plate, drizzle lightly with your best olive oil, serve immediately.

Makes 18 cannelloni. Serves 4-6.

NB: Don’t spread the cannelloni out in a large pan, or they will dry out while cooking. I often cook for two, that’s why there is space around the cannelloni but not between the cannelloni. If you make the full recipe, your cannelloni will fit snugly in a 32×22 cm (approximately 12.5×8.5 inches).

 

 

 

 

 

Green broccoli sformato flan with parmesan cream sauce

Hello my friends,

what a fabulous time to cook this is, don’t you think? Ingredients are fabulous, days are short, and there is no better comfort than cooking up a storm in the kitchen. I spend every free moment cooking and fantasizing about menus for the holidays. Also, I’m very much looking forward to the lovely friend and family who will come to visit in the next few weeks.

Beautiful broccoli at my neighborhood market in Rome

 


As you know, all my recipes have been available for free on this website for many years, and they always will be. It takes many hours to create, test and publish a recipe. If you wish to support my work and take part in the Test Kitchen project, please consider pledging a paid subscription to my newsletters or gift one to someone else. Grazie mille!


 

In preparation for the holidays, I want to welcome you into the world of the “sformato” and the “sformatini”, a much beloved vegetable dish that appears in restaurant as well as family meal menus throughout the year but especially for a party.

A sformato is an Italian savory flan, somewhat firmer than a souffle and softer than a frittata. Sformato is often made with puréed vegetables mixed with béchamel and eggs, but I prefer to use ricotta instead of béchamel. It’s lighter and even simpler and faster to prepare.

A sformato made in an individual mold or ramekin is named “sformatino” or” tortino” (pl. sformatini or tortini) and it’s often served with a cheese sauce, for example “crema di Parmigiano” or “crema di Pecorino”. This is a heavenly combination and, if well executed, results in a really elegant appetizer or a light vegetarian main to combine with a substantial salad or just a slice of crusty bread.


N.B. This recipe contains anchovy, but you can easily make it vegetarian using smoked cheese or a teaspoon of very finely chopped sun-dried tomato in olive oil. If you are not vegetarian but don’t eat fish, you could use a teaspoon of very finely chopped prosciutto. If you have no restrictions, I highly recommend using the anchovy even if you are not familiar with it. It’s a tiny amount but that little extra umami really makes the dish.

Recipe

For the flan:

  • 400 g broccoli (about 1 lb)
  • 1 finely minced clove of garlic
  • 120 g (4 oz) fresh ricotta
  • 4 tablespoon grated Parmigiano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • a sprinkle black pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 6 tablespoon milk

 

For the Parmesan cream sauce:

  • 90 grated Parmigiano Reggiano o Grana Padano
  • 250 ml (1 cup) full fat milk
  • 30 g (1 oz) butter
  • 30 g (1 oz) corn starch

To finish:

  • 3 anchovy fillets (if vegetarian, see note above)
  • 6 cubes of semi-soft mild cheese like mozzarella, young Asiago or Taleggio, with 2 cm (2/3 inch) sides
  • 1 zucchini

Equipment:

  • food processor
  • microwave
  • parchment paper

To make the sformatini:

1. Prepare the broccoli

Clean the broccoli, cut into florets and peel the thickest part of the stem, then dice. Blanch in boiling hot water for 5–6 minutes, until fork tender but not overcooked. Drain and cool immediately in cold water. The broccoli must be tender enough to blend to a smooth mixture while still retaining a lovely green color.

Using a shallow large pan, heat the garlic until lightly sizzling, then stir-in the cooked broccoli and simmer for 5 min, stirring occasionally to absorb the garlicky flavor. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

broccoli saute with garlic

Cool to room temperature or refrigerate in a covered container if using later. The broccoli can be prepared up to one day ahead.

2. Blend the sformato ingredients

Transfer the broccoli into a food processor, add the ricotta cheese, egg, cornstarch, grated Parmigiano, salt and blend until smooth. Add the milk, 2 tablespoons at the time, to soften the mixture. Blend again to achieve a pudding-like consistency.

3. Assemble the sformatini

Mise en place

Using a cheese or potato peeler, slice the zucchini into 6 long, paper-thin strips.

Cut 6 pieces of parchment paper into squares which must big large enough to cover the top and side ramekins, with about 15 cm (5 inches) sides. Press the parchment paper squares on one of the ramekins to shape them like a capsule, which will be used to cover the sformato while cooking.

Oil six 3/4 cup (140-150 ml) ramekins. Brush the zucchini slices with olive oil on both sides and use them to line the ramekins.

Spoon half mixture into the molds, press the soft cheese in the middle and top with 1/3 anchovy fillet.

Spoon the rest of the broccoli mixture into the ramekins, level it and drizzle lightly with olive oil.

4. Cook the sformatini

Cover with the parchment paper “capsules” and microwave 3 ramekins at the time at 450W for 6 minutes.

You can serve the sformatini with no sauce, just drizzled with olive oil or unmold them directly atop the sauce, see below.

If you don’t have a microwave, place the sformatini in an ovenproof pan, fill with boiling water until half the sides of the ramekins and bake in a preheated oven at 180 °C (350 °F) for 15 min or until set but still soft. If using the oven, cover the sformatini tightly with aluminum foil.

To make the Parmesan cream:

The easiest way to make a Parmesan cream, or crema di Parmigiano, is to prepare a slightly liquid béchamel and add a generous amount of Parmigiano in it.

I make the white sauce very quickly and efficiently in the microwave using glass measuring jugs.

1. Heat the milk until near boiling point, about 2 min. In a different jug, melt the butter then whisk in the corn starch to create a roux. While whisking add the hot milk, first one tablespoon at the time until smooth and then all the rest.

2. Transfer the mixture to the microwave and heat for one minute. Quickly stir, then microwave for one more minute, or until the mixture is almost at boiling point. Whisk again. At this point, the sauce should be thick and smooth.

3. Add the grated cheese. Note that Parmigiano melts beautifully at 80°C (175 °F) and becomes stringy at higher temperatures. For this reason, allow the sauce to cool until quite warm but not boiling hot, then add the Parmigiano and whisk again to incorporate.

To assemble the dish:

Allow the sformato to cool just enough to handle. Meanwhile, distribute the Parmesan cream in the center of 6 dishes, invert the ramekins in the center of each plate to unmold. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

 

 

 

Vegetarian roasted squash lasagna with pecorino cheese

homemade lasagna with squash and ricotta cheese

Hello my friends, how have you been?

All is generally fine here in Rome, temperatures are nice and mild and the markets have exploded with squashes and edible pumpkins of all colors and shapes.

As I mentioned in the past, Halloween is now fully imported in Italy. In our very traditional neighborhood, the feast has slipped away quite unnoticed. The local butchers however have done a great job with pumpkin meatballs (sorry not vegetarian!) and
these adorable ghost meatballs wrapped in pastry. I bet the butcher does not know he is supposed to make something spooky. These are more on the cute side than on the scary side 🙂

For me, the real feast is the arrival of squashes. I look forward to making some of my favorite recipes with this great vegetable. In my experience, butternut squash works well in Italian recipes but be adventurous and try new varieties when available.

I like to roast the squashes cut in half or in large wedges, sprinkled with salt and pepper and with a few sage leaves, 1/4 onion, and 2 teaspoons olive oil in the cavity. The flesh scoops out easily and freezes very well for soups, pasta, and risotto.

This month’s recipe might be unorthodox for some of you. It’s a very light, delicate, and thin lasagna. There is no tomato, just a thin layer of pureed squash enriched with ricotta.

For this reason, the recipe only works out with fresh pasta sheets. This lasagna is built with a balance of vegetables, sliced cheese, soft cheese as well as grated cheese. Feel free to double the layers if you like a thicker lasagna, but please exercise restraint with the sauce and cheeses as the whole point is to keep it light.

Ingredients

  • 1 kg (2 lb) orange pumpkin or squash, cleaned and cut in half or large wedges.
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 3-4 sage leaves
  • 300 gr (10 1/2 oz) thinly sliced, sharp – but not hard – cheese. A young pecorino is perfect but you could use fontina, smoked cheese, or a mixture made with 1/2 gorgonzola and 1/2 mozzarella.
  • 120 gr (4 oz) grated Parmigiano or Pecorino
  • 250 gr (8 oz) fresh ricotta
  • 500 gr ( 1 lb)  fresh lasagna sheets ( mine are 22×18 cm -7×5 inches)

For the sauce:

Preheat oven to 200 °C (390°F). Prepare squash as in the photo above and roast until fork tender.

Let it cool enough to handle, then spoon the flesh and the onion into the bowl of a food processor together with the ricotta. Discard the sage leaves as they might be bitter. Process until thick and creamy. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Assemble lasagna:

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 °C (400 °F). Butter a 40 x 30 cm (16 x 12 inch) roasting pan.
  2. To soak the pasta sheets, boil 4-6 cups of water with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Pour in a shallow bowl which must be larger than your lasagna sheets. Using a slotted spoon, deep one or two lasagna sheets at a time in the hot water until just soft, approx. 30 sec, strain and place in one single layer in the buttered tin.
  3.  Once the bottom of the pan 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 and 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano.

    how to make vegetarian lasagna
    In this photo I was making lasagna for two, that’s why the pasta sheets don’t get all the way to the side of the pan. They cook beautifully anyway.
  4. Repeat two more times using each time 1/3 of the sliced cheese, 2 tablespoons of Parmigiano, and 1/4 of the pumpkin mixture reserving 1/4 for the top layer.
  5. Top with one last layer of pasta sheets, cover thinly with the rest of the pumpkin mixture, sprinkle with 2-3 additional tablespoons of Parmesan, and bake for 25 min or until golden-brown around the sides and lightly crunchy on top. Enjoy!

Serves 8

light vegetarian lasagna with squash recipe

NB. This recipe marks the beginning of my new project, a virtual Test Kitchen which I run through my newsletter platform. You are invited to participate in the project, there is an entire month to make the recipe and join the community to show your results and discuss problems and ideas. Please subscribe to read all about it, thanks!

Cacio e pepe pasta sauce

secrets to a creamy cacio e pepe

I know it’s hardly news, but I must be one of the few who had not realised that “cacio e pepe”, a simple pasta sauce made with Pecorino Romano and black pepper, has taken over the world. From Singapore to Los Angeles, to Lima and Cape Town there is cacio e pepe to be had in all corners of the world.

Such a level popularity is actually baffling to Italians of my generation. I have grown up in the 1960s, when a bowl of spaghetti tossed with cheese and pepper appeared on the table when you were out of luck with dinner.simple recipe for cacio e pepe pasta in Rome It was a rare event, because my mum *always* cooked a proper meal, but if in a hurry, we would have spaghetti with butter and Parmigiano or with oil, garlic and chili pepper or with Pecorino Romano and black pepper.

Quick and easy doesn’t mean insipid. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that any traditional Italian pasta recipe can be heavenly when made with good quality ingredients. However, until 7-8 years ago, I would never have expected that one of our last minute meals would acquire world-level notoriety.

make the best cacio e pepe recipe with Pecorino Romano

In Rome, cacio e pepe is everywhere. I have seen it served with potato chips, on pizza, as a filling of arancini, as a sauce for risotto, poured over all sort of meats and vegetables among which – a mortal sin – deep fried artichokes.

However, there is always a price tag attached to popularity.

While some chefs shine with perfect technique and ingredients, others dish out a concotion that is often a pale imitation of the real thing. Pecorino Romano, which is added liberally on the original recipe, is expensive. You can easily tell the sauce is poor when the cheese is barely discernible, the pepper is old and all you get is a white sauce with a flat, unidimensional flavour. A greasy puddle at the bottom of the plate is also not a good sign.

If you plan to visit Rome for the first time, I suggest to try to make cacio e pepe pasta at home first.

cacio e pepe recipe spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Black Pepper
photos recipe: Tea de Jong & Francesco Scala

Not only you will enjoy the process, but you will know what to expect. I also suggest to research where to taste all of the famous Roman pasta dishes: carbonara, amatriciana, gricia and, obviously, cacio e pepe. The Romans are your best source of information and you can find, and easily translate, plenty of reviews and articles written by locals. I often interview someone I meet in a shop or in a park and they are always happy to advice their favorite trattoria.

Recipe

Making a perfect cacio e pepe sauce requires a little practice, but once you have command of the method and don’t make mistakes with temperature and texture (see below), it works very well every time. Important steps are marked in bold. Please be accurate!

Equipment

• Pasta pan
• colander
• container to reserve the pasta water
• large shallow bowl or pan at room temperature
• a set of salad servers or spaghetti server

Ingredients

• 250 g (1/2 lb) spaghetti or tonnarelli, stringozzi or other thick fresh noodles
• 80 g (about 3 oz) Pecorino Romano, at room temperature, very finely grated
• 3-6 tablespoons of whole milk, at room temperature

Finish

• freshly ground or cracked black pepper
• 1 cup reserved warm pasta water for thinning the sauce, if needed

Prepare ingredients

Grate the Pecorino romano very finely and allow both the milk and cheese to get to room temperature.
As for the pepper, it’s best to use coarse freshly ground or crushed black pepper and, for a more intense flavour, toast whole peppercorns in a dry skillet before grinding. The toasting brings out the underlying sweetness and fruitiness of the pepper and intensifies its fragrance.

I use about one pinch of peppercorns per person and heat them over a low heat in a small skillet until they just start to look shiny (1-3 minutes), then crush them with a mortar and pestle. It’s important to keep the ground pepper covered to preserve its aroma until ready to use.

crushed toasted black pepper for cacio e pepe pasta

Cook the pasta

Bring a pan of lightly salted water to a boil, add the pasta and stir. Fresh stringozzi will cook in one minute. If using spaghetti, cook according to the package instructions, usually 9 to 12 minutes depending on the amount and quality. Do make sure to cook the pasta until al dente.

Prepare sauce

Meanwhile, transfer the cheese to a large bowl and beat-in the room temperature milk very gradually to make a thick paste.

Assemble dish

When the pasta is cooked, strain, but reserve a cup of pasta water just in case you need it for thinning the sauce. As an alternative, scoop the pasta from the water with tongs so that it stays moist. Quickly add the noodles to the cheese mixture in the bowl, keeping the warm pasta water to hand.

tossing fresh noodles with cacio e pepeToss vigorously with the salad servers, adjusting with a tablespoon or two of pasta water at a time, as necessary.
Add more grated cheese if the sauce is too thin.

how to sauce cacio e pepe easy recipe

What to expect

Generally, the sauce becomes creamy quite quickly, within a minute or so. If it doesn’t, please keep stirring for another minute. As long as the cheese does not coagulate, a creamy sauce will form as the cheese reaches the correct temperature, approximately 55°C (130°F).

Should your pasta cool off while saucing, put it back in the empty pasta pan which should still be hot and re-heat it for the briefest amount of time. Be cautious with heat as Pecorino is creamy at low temperatures, but it becomes lumpy at high temperatures. Add some pasta water to keep the sauce fluid, if necessary.

how to make authentic cacio e pepe with pecorino and black pepper

Sprinkle with the black pepper, divide between warm bowls, serve and eat immediately with additional black pepper on the side if desired.
Serves 2-3.

cacio e pepe Roman pasta ready to serve

 

 

Grilled bell peppers with mint and my new life in Rome

I have been dreaming of this day for a long time.

Today life hands me the gift of writing a recipe again. A recipe for all of you who have been by my side throughout all that has happened in the last two years. For all of you who have called, sent messages, visited. For those of you who brought delicious food and offered a helping hand or a gesture of comfort. Today’s simple recipe is for all the love we have received.

photo: M. Kraemer

After my beloved Ruurd became ill, just a little over two years ago, so much has happened. For the longest time I felt like the lonely captain of a ship, trying to navigate through an endless storm. I worked relentlessly to run the farm, the agriturismo, and to deal with our family crisis. Often that ship felt like the Titanic.

But miracles do happen. Someone – angels – turned up at our door, and gave us the opportunity to change. Finally, last November, our farm was sold to an adorable couple who have fallen in love with the wild beauty of our magical mountain. Our corner of paradise could not have been in better hands.

In a few months I packed everything: the memories, the old furniture, my favorite kitchen equipment, and moved to Rome. We live now in a small apartment on the top floor of a 1939 building just South of Rome’s historic center. We enjoy great views all the way to the hills of the Castelli Romani.

vie from cooking school Rome Appio Latino is an old neighbourhood, with a great outdoor market, not a tacky souvenir in sight, and all sort of small shops and businesses at literally steps from where we live. People is kind and friendly and most have lived here for generations.

I feel home, I have always loved big cities. At the market I have already made friends with the butcher, the cheesemonger and with the guy who has special beans and spices. I can’t get enough of the cornucopia of foods on offer. I always come back from shopping with too much food, the vegetables are magnificent!

You might have wondered if I had retired, and the answer is no, of course! As you might have realised from this new version of the website, I am finally ready to offer cooking classes and other services.

I will tell you more about my projects in the next posts, but now is time for this month’s recipe.

Grilled sweet peppers are a staple on the Italian summer table, generally served as part of an antipasto or a side dish. The secret to obtain fantastic grilled bell peppers is to obtain thick, plump peppers which must be in season and access to fresh herbs and high quality extra virgin olive oil.

Grilling the peppers on the BBQ contributes an additional layer of smoky aroma. However, summers have become so hot and it’s hard to endure to stand by hot coals or to use the oven. Instead, I use a cast iron griddle which is easy in a city apartment and does not heat up the kitchen as much.

Regardless of the cooking method, I find that the quality and freshness of the peppers is the most important factor to obtain a flavour which – you will appreciate -is vastly superior to jarred products.

Recipe

  • 3-4 large whole red or yellow pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves and/or basil
  • 1 clove of garlic

I use a 26 cm/ 10 inch heavy cast iron griddle which gets hot very quickly on gas, so I don’t preheat it. I just place the peppers in the pan and place it on the heat.

There is generally no need to oil vegetables if you use a very hot grill. This way the vegetables don’t smoke and you will avoid the unpleasant flavour of burnt oil.  It is also important to cover the peppers with a large lid which will make the process faster and disperse less heat in the kitchen.

how to grill Italian style bell peppers on the stovetop

Grill the bell peppers until skins start to blister, flipping them around so they blacken evenly on all sides. This should take about 20 minutes but time might change depending on your heat source and the thickness of the pan.
recipe to grill bell peppers Italian style

Do make sure to check them every 5 min so that only the skin will burn! The flesh should hardly cook otherwise the peppers will fall apart and you might not be able to peel them at all.

Once the peppers are ready, transfer them in a closed non reactive container (e.g. a stainless steel pan with a lid) or into a paper bag or wrap them with several layers of kitchen paper. Let them stand until cool enough to handle.

Peel the peppers, then open lengthwise, discarding stems and seeds. Cut into 5 cm/2 inch strips.

Place a shallow pan on low heat, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a clove of finely minced garlic. Simmer until fragrant then stir the peppers briefly in the aromatic oil. Switch the heat off, and stir in the mint or basil, torn into small pieces or cut – just before using – in to tiny strips. Note that some varieties of mint might become bitter if cooked, so be gentle with the last step.

If you have time, set aside the peppers in a closed container to marinade for a few hours or refrigerate overnight . Add a small pinch of salt just before serving, cold or at room temperature.

Serves 2-3