Category Archives: Cooking

Who is considered to be the most influential figure in Italian cuisine?

marcella

Though a subjective question, I think most would agree…Marcella Hazan.

Marcella Hazan is often referred to as the Julia Child of Italian cuisine. Just like Julia did for French cooking, Marcella introduced America and Great Britain to the traditional Italian ways of cooking. Their similarities don’t stop there. Both began cooking as adults after marriage had them living in countries that were not their own. Marcella was born in Italy, and it wasn’t until she moved to the U.S. in her thirties, that she began to cook, drawing from her memories the flavors she grew up with.

Without classic training, Hazan began her career teaching small groups of Americans the techniques of traditional Italian cooking in her New York apartment. Shortly thereafter, she opened her own school, The School of Classic Italian Cooking. While the school was a success, it is her cookbooks that made her famous. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is an absolute must have for anyone interested in Italian cooking. It is actually a compilation of Hazan’s first two books (The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking).

hazanbook.jpg

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is much more than a cookbook. It is a handbook to achieving classic Italian flavors from high quality, everyday ingredients. Hazan’s recipes and techniques are many times very basic, yet inventive. One of her most famous recipes from the book is a simple tomato sauce that contains just four ingredients: tomatoes, butter, two halves of a peeled onion, and salt. Simmer for about 45 minutes, toss out the onion, and you end up with a surprisingly rich and flavorful sauce. The book is considered by most to be one of the most important cookbooks of all time.

Sadly, Marcella Hazan passed away last September at the age of 89, but her legend surely lives on. Many of the great chefs of Italian cuisine have been largely inspired by Hazan; Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, to name just a couple.

Is it true that eggplant parmigiana did not originate in Parma?

image source - flickr.com/photos/anotherpintplease
image source – flickr.com/photos/anotherpintplease

Yes. In fact, the traditional recipe does not even include Parmigiano Reggiano.

Eggplant parmigiana, or eggplant parmesan as we know it here in America, is a bit different from its traditional preparation which hails from southern Italy. So why isn’t it called eggplant Siciliana or eggplant Calabrese? Well, the original name was eggplant parmiciana, not parmigiana. Parmiciana is a word of Sicilian dialect that means strips of wood used to make window shutters. In the original preparation, sliced eggplant is layered on top of each other in the same fashion.

So, how does the original preparation differ? In addition to not including Parmigiano Reggiano, there are no bread crumbs, as is often seen in modern interpretations. Only soft cheeses are used, like mozzarella or tuma, a tangy ewes-milk cheese from Sicily.

What kind of pot is best for making sauce (gravy)?

image source - flickr.com/photos/myhsu
image source – flickr.com/photos/myhsu

I love the enameled, cast iron Dutch oven from Le Creuset.

The proper pot is important when making a tomato-based sauce, especially one that cooks for a number of hours like a ragù Bolognese or a traditional Sunday gravy. High-acid foods require high quality cookware, and tomatoes are high on the acid scale. A low quality pot may not last with continuous high-acid cooking, and elements from an inferior pot may even contaminate the food that’s in it.

A pot with a thick bottom is a must when making a sauce with a long cooking time. The two best choices here are stainless and enameled cast iron. Both are great at retaining heat, even over uneven heating sources. Stainless is the choice for most restaurants because they are not only lighter than cast iron, but quite a bit cheaper. For home use, I recommend a high quality enamel-coated, cast iron dutch oven like Le Creuset.

I’ve got to hand it to the French on this one; the quality of Le Creuset is unsurpassed. There are a number of other companies that make enamel-coated, cast iron cookware, but quality varies between them. Staub is another high quality brand, but beware the cheap knockoffs. When it comes to cast iron cookware, you do get what you pay for. My first pot was one from the celebrity cookware line of a certain domestic goddess (you know, the one who did a little time some years back), and after my first few times making sauce, not only did the inside of the pot begin to discolor, but the enamel began chipping off. Luckily, none of those chips ended up in my sauce. Le Creuset has a lifetime guarantee on their cast iron products and is resistant to chips and discoloring. Not to mention, clean up is a breeze.

I know, I know. Le Creuset is pricy, and spending upwards of 300 dollars on a pot is a little hard to justify, but it is possible to find a great LC pot for much cheaper. If you are lucky enough to live near a Le Creuset outlet store, you can find great deals on most of their products, especially on discontinued colors and styles. Occasionally, there are sales running where you can save up to 40%. Home Goods is another great place to find discounted Le Creuset. It goes quickly, so you have to be a bit assertive and check the stores early and often. Because they are guaranteed for life, eBay and garage sales are worry-free options, as well. Once you’ve made the investment, you will never (ever) need another pot.

Is it okay to do all of my cooking with a high quality extra virgin olive oil?

image source - flickr.com/photos/chezdom
image source – flickr.com/photos/chezdom

No…it’s not.

Every Italian kitchen should have at least two types of extra virgin olive oil on hand: a very flavorful, high quality oil and a lighter, good quality oil. Why not just go with the flavorful, high quality oil? Well, the higher quality, less refined extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point (the temperature at which it begins to smoke), so when used in higher heat cooking, the oil will burn and become rancid. For this reason, your high quality oil should really only be used on salads, for bread, or drizzled on cooked meats, pasta, and soup.

The smoke point of a lighter, more processed extra virgin olive oil can be more than twice that of the higher quality, unadulterated oils, so most of your cooking can be done with this oil. Sautéeing and roasting are great with this lighter oil.

The only time when a lighter olive oil is not the right choice for cooking is when deep-frying or using extreme high heats. A light sunflower oil is a great alternative. It has the highest smoke point, and will maintain your food’s flavor at high temperatures.

Are you ready for my ragù Bolognese recipe?

image source - flickr.com/photos/naotakem
image source – flickr.com/photos/naotakem

Yes. Yes, you are.

This is probably the recipe that I am most proud of. I spent a little time in Bologna this year where I learned some things that make this a truly authentic ragù Bolognese.

Making a Bolognese is different from making other sauces in that there is usually not a lot of liquid in the pot while cooking. Liquid is added in small amounts, then reduced, then repeated. If too much liquid is added at one time, then you are just boiling the meat and destroying its flavors.

Pork is the meat of choice in Bologna. While there, I spoke with some people that use only pork in their ragù. I like the flavor of beef, so I use a 50/50 ratio of pork to beef. Pancetta is common in many recipes I’ve seen and adds some nice flavor, but not necessary if cooking on a budget.

Really, a cup of milk, you ask? Yes. I was just as surprised as you are. The milk quickly reduces out, but it adds a richness and velvety texture to your ragù. Be sure that the milk is added just before the tomato paste.

I had only ever used a hearty red wine when making this recipe before my friend, Alessandro, turned me on to using a dry white wine. It really tastes great when using pancetta. I find myself alternating between the two…and yes, use the whole bottle (minus a hearty swig for yourself, of course).

Finally, do yourself a favor and serve the ragù with fresh pasta rather than dry. Giovanni Rana is a brand that makes a great tagliatelle, the traditional pasta for Bolognese. After boiling and draining the pasta, return the pasta and some of the ragù to the pot. Let them cook together on low heat for a couple of minutes.

and of course, top with plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano.

3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ½ lb. ground beef
1 ½ lb. ground pork
¼ lb. pancetta, ground or finely diced (optional)
1 cup whole milk
2 cups tomato paste
1 bottle of dry white or hearty red wine
3 bay leaves
Kosher or sea salt
Black pepper
Water

Puree the chopped onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in a food processor. In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add pureed vegetables and season generously with salt. Stirring frequently, cook vegetables until they are brown and almost all of the water has evaporated (about 20 minutes).

If using pancetta, add to vegetables and cook until brown (about 4 minutes). Add beef and pork, and season with salt. Cook until brown (about 15 to 20 minutes). Either drain mixture of fat or remove as much as you can with a spoon or ladle.

Add milk and stir until evaporated. Add tomato paste and let brown for about 3 minutes. Add wine and reduce to about half (about 5 minutes). Add water to pot until it levels just above the meat (about 2 cups). Add bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer.

Stir occasionally while seasoning with salt and pepper. As the sauce thickens, add more water (2 cups at a time). Repeat this a couple of times. Simmer for about 4 hours. Remove bay leaves before serving.

Makes about 8 servings.

When boiling pasta, is it better to add salt or oil to the water?

image source - flickr.com/photos/shutterbean
image source – flickr.com/photos/shutterbean

Salt. Period.

The reasons for adding salt or oil to a pot of boiling pasta are actually different. It is believed that adding oil to the water will prevent the pasta from sticking or cooking together. While this may be true, cooking pasta in water and oil will result in oily pasta that won’t cling to your sauce, making it rather tasteless. To prevent pasta from sticking, just stir continuously for the first couple minutes of cooking. This is the time when the pasta’s starches are released causing it to stick.

Adding salt, on the other hand, enhances the flavor of the pasta. Add the salt either before or after the water begins to boil. Many Italians believe that pasta water should be salty like the sea, so be generous with the salt. Don’t worry about over salting; the pasta will only absorb so much and the rest gets thrown out with the water. Your sauce thanks you.

Is it really necessary to salt and drain eggplant before cooking it?

image source - flickr.com/photos/nelliemc
image source – flickr.com/photos/nelliemc

No, but it is recommended if frying.

Here is another of the great debates among Italian Americans: to salt or not to salt eggplant before cooking. I am referring to a process of sprinkling coarse salt on sliced eggplant and letting it sit in a colander for up to an hour. There are a couple of reasons for doing this. First, it draws out the bitter flavor that is inherent in eggplant. This is really more applicable to bigger eggplant; the baby variety is much less bitter. Second, is to draw out a lot of the liquid so the eggplant isn’t soggy after cooking. Many will argue that this process is unnecessary, and that there is very little difference afterwards.

Here is a great Los Angeles Times article that attempts to settle the debate with an experiment with eggplants that have been both salted and unsalted in a number of popular preparations. The findings? Other than a smoother texture when frying, there really isn’t a large difference in flavor by salting. Now we know.

Of all the Italian cookbooks available, which is the one that everyone should own?

book

Right now, I love The Italian Cooking Course by Katie Caldesi.

The number of Italian cookbooks currently available on Amazon is overwhelming. While many of these books have a specific focus, such as pasta or Sicily, there are a large number of comprehensive titles that attempt to cover all aspects of Italian cuisine. Two classic, fantastic examples are The Silver Spoon and Essentials of Classic Italian Cuisine by Marcella Hazan. Both are huge volumes filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes, and are revered by some of today’s top Italian chefs.

So, how did I choose The Italian Cooking Course? Well, it’s more than just a cookbook. It is a culinary handbook on all things Italian. There are over 400 recipes in the book covering just about everything, but what sets this book apart is the cultural history and detail to technique that is also included. For example, there is a chapter on cheese that includes an in-depth flavor description of every Italian cheese. There is a section on choosing the right olive oil, a light chapter on wine, and a detailed step-by-step guide on making pasta with easy-to-follow photographs. It’s not just a cookbook, it’s a fantastic read.

The author, Katie Caldesi, is actually British. She owns restaurants with her husband, Giancarlo Cardesi, who is obviously Italian, in both London and Campagna. She is also the principal of La Cucina Caldesi, the only Italian cooking school in London. She wrote this book after spending years researching the food in every region of Italy. Many recipes are even accompanied by the interesting story of how she discovered that dish.

Click here to purchase from Amazon.

What’s a googootz?

image source - flickr.com/photos/tavallai
image source – flickr.com/photos/tavallai

It’s slang for cucuzza…a large zucchini-like squash.

Many first heard the word “googootz” on the last episode of The Sopranos. It was Tony’s pet name for son, AJ. Come on, without even knowing what it is, it’s a fun word to say. It was certainly a word I heard around the house growing up, not only as a term of endearment but as a favorite on the dinner table.

Cucuzza, as it’s properly known, is actually a gourd with flavor properties similar to those of zucchini. They can grow to lengths of three feet, literally, and are difficult to find in major American grocery stores. A dedicated Italian grocery store or a farmer’s market are probably the only places you can find them.

My favorite preparation for cucuzza has always been just breaded and fried. It is also great sautéed, used in a vegetable-based pasta, or substituted in any recipe calling for zucchini.

Obviously a favorite of Italian singer Louis Prima, he sang the veggie’s praises in the song My Cucuzza.

Are you ready for my meatball recipe?

image source - flickr.com/photos/francescarter
image source – flickr.com/photos/francescarter

Yes. Yes, you are.

Well, here’s my first recipe post, and it is one of my favorites…meatballs.

While it is hard to make a really bad meatball, making a fantastic meatball can be a challenge. The first way to make sure your meatballs are full of flavor is to use a mix of both beef and pork. I prefer a 2/3 beef to 1/3 pork ratio, and don’t use a really lean beef. If it’s a healthy meatball you’re looking for, look away. With fat, comes flavor.

Also, use quality ingredients. Though it is more expensive, use real Parmigiano Reggiano over an American parmesan. There is a huge difference.

Don’t over mix or over shape your meatballs. You want them to be tender…overworking them will make them denser. When mixing them, stop when all of the ingredients have just come together. When shaping, don’t pack them tightly. Keep them kind of loose; they won’t fall apart.

Finally, if you are adding the meatballs to your sauce (or gravy!), precook them in the oven. The flavors of the sauce will infuse into them more easily. If you are making them on their own and adding an already prepared sauce, then cook them in a skillet. A nice sear can be delicious, especially in a sandwich.

1 lb. ground beef and pork
½ medium onion, finely chopped
2 eggs
½ cup plain bread crumbs
½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. olive oil (if preparing in skillet)

Put all of the ingredients into a mixing bowl. Mix together with hands until just mixed. Season with salt and pepper.

If preparing in oven, preheat oven to 350. Shape meatballs into about 3-inch balls and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes turning each meatball over about halfway through baking. After removing meatballs from oven, let sit for about 20 minutes, then add to sauce.

If preparing in a skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Shape meatballs into about 3-inch balls and place in skillet. Cook covered for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally to brown all sides. Let cool on a plate lined with paper towel to absorb excess grease.

Makes about 8 meatballs.

Buon appetito.