Monthly Archives: August 2013

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.

Is there really an Italian liquor made from artichokes?

cynar2

Yes. It is an amaro called Cynar.

Cynar is a bitter liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants, the predominant one being artichoke. It’s name comes from cynara scolymus, the Latin name for artichoke. It has traditionally been enjoyed as either an aperitif or a digestif but has recently become a favorite ingredient on many craft cocktail menus.

Here is a recipe for the delicious Cynar Flip, courtesy of mixologist Thomas Mooneyham:

2 oz. Cynar
1 oz. Death’s Door Gin
.5 oz. honey syrup (equal parts honey and hot water)
1 whole egg

Combine all ingredients and shake in a cocktail shaker without ice. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a snifter and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Thanks Thomas. (@ThomasMooneyham)

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.

Why is Tuscan bread so…bland?

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

Because it is made without salt.

Tuscan bread is not for everyone. It is low on flavor and has an unusually dense texture. So, why not just add salt to the recipe and make it more appetizing? Tradition. Legend has it that a high tax on salt back in the Middle Ages led Tuscans to making bread without it. When the tax was finally lifted, the bread remained unchanged. There are some that deny this legend and believe that it’s the rich seasoning in Tuscan food that inspire bakers to leave the salt out.

Tuscan bread isn’t widely found in the U.S., but it is still the bread of choice in Tuscany and some surrounding areas, such as Umbria. It is not really meant to be eaten on its own. It is usually served alongside dishes with a rich tomato sauce or with a very flavorful oil. It is also used in some fantastic dishes specific to this area including panzanella salad and the peasant bread soup, pappa al pomodoro.

When dining in Italy, is it customary to tip like we do in the U.S.?

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

No.

As in many other countries, a food service career in Italy is a salaried one. Servers don’t depend on tips like they do in the U.S. Because of that, a gratuity, as we know it, is not really expected. However, it is not uncommon to leave a little extra if you are pleased with the service.

So, how much extra is appropriate? Ten percent of the tab is a generous amount. I have heard that when Americans overtip, it is actually considered to be tacky.

Always keep some smaller denomination Euro on you if you plan on leaving extra. Unlike restaurants in the U.S., Italian restaurants that accept credit cards don’t offer an option of adding a gratuity.

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.