Archive | December, 2012

Carciofi alla Giudia, Roman Jewish Artichokes

Carciofo alla Giudia, a Jewish-Style Artichoke

Carciofo alla Giudia, a Jewish-Style Artichoke

When I first presented this recipe I wishfully thought that it could date back to Imperial times, when the Roman Jewish community numbered about 50,000. This is alas not the case; Clifford Wright argues convincingly that artichokes were bred from cardoons — which the Romans were aware of — by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages, probably in Sicily.

This simply means that the recipe is a bit more recent — the Strozzi family introduced artichokes to Florence from Naples in 1466, and I would assume that the Romans would have quickly become aware of something grown north and south of them if they weren’t already — and there is in any case no denying that carciofi alla giudia are a wonderful treat: They look like golden sunflowers and their leaves have a delicious nutty crunchiness.

You’ll need:

  • Artichokes (they should be large, round, and firm, and have some stem — 2-3 inches, or 5-7 cm). Figure one per person, and perhaps one more
  • Oil for frying
  • Salt and pepper
  • A half a lemon, and the juice of a second lemon for acidulating the water

Giuliano Malizia notes, in La Cucina Romana e del Lazio, that carciofi alla giudia are easy to make, but do require care.

You’ll want to begin by preparing the artichokes:

Take one and start trimming the leaves away, beginning from the base and removing the outer darker part of the leaves that is tough, while leaving the more tender inner part.

As you work your way up the artichoke you will have to trim away progressively less from each ring of leaves. When you reach a little past the half way point of the artichoke, where the leaves begin to slope in, make a horizontal cut to remove the top quarter or so of the artichoke. Next, cut into the top of the artichoke, keeping your knife almost vertical, to remove any spines there may be in the smaller leaves towards the heart of the flower.

Next, trim away the tip of the stem, which will likely be black — you will see a ring in the middle of the cut surface. The outside of an artichoke stem, beyond the ring, is tough and fibrous. What is inside is however both tender and tasty. Remove the fibrous part, rub the artichoke with a cut, partially squeezed lemon to keep it from blackening, and put it in a bowl of water acidulated with the juice of a lemon.

Do the next artichoke, and continue until you have prepared all your artichokes.

Come time to cook your artichokes, heat 3 inches (8 cm) of olive oil, or another oil with a high smoke point if you prefer, in a fairly deep, fairly broad pot (one large enough to contain the artichokes flat, and the oil should almost cover them).

While it is heating, stand your artichokes on absorbent paper to drain, and prepare a bowl with fine sea salt (non-iodized) and pepper. Season the artichokes inside and out with salt and pepper and shake off the excess. Some people also slip finely chopped garlic and parsley between the leaves, but purists frown at this.

Slip your artichokes into the hot oil and cook them for about 10 minutes, turning them in the oil so they cook evenly. Remove them to a plate lined with absorbent paper — at this point they’re partially cooked, and you could, if you want, resume cooking them later.

Assuming you want to enjoy them now, however, reheat your oil — it should be hot now, because this is the frying stage — before they simply cooked in the hot oil — and slip the first artichoke in, initially horizontally.

Fry the artichoke for 3-4 minutes, until the stem is browned, and then use a pair of long-handled implements along the lines of bbq forks to upend the artichoke. Press down gently; the leaves will brown thanks to the heat of the bottom of the pan, and the artichoke will open like a flower.

While the artichoke is browning, line a second plate with absorbent paper. Put the first artichoke to drain blossom down, and continue with the next. Continue until you have finished frying your artichokes.

I like them as is. You can, if you prefer, serve them with lemon wedges.

An Excellent Video Showing How To Prepare Carciofi alla Giudia

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Struffoli, Neapolitan Christmas Treats

Struffoli

Struffoli

Struffoli are (they’re always referred to in the plural) now an absolute requirement at the end of a Neapolitan Christmas day dinner. However, in introducing them in La Cucina Napoletana Caròla Francesconi says their inclusion is relatively recent: Crisci mentions them several times in the book he wrote in 1634, but doesn’t include them on his Christmas menu.

The recipe is in any case quite old, as is indicated by the presence of very similar dishes throughout the Mediterranean Basin — Ms. Francesconi mentions the Lukumates of the Greeks, and there are also the Precipizi Italian Jews make for Hanukkah.

To make a batch you will need:

For the dough:

  • 3 1/3 cups (400 g) flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon grain alcohol
  • A chunk of butter the size of a small walnut
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • The zest of a half a lemon, grated
  • The zest of half an orange, grated
  • A pinch salt
  • A pot of olive oil (or the oil you prefer) for frying

For the Sauce With Which To Season Them:

  • 2/3 pound (300 g) honey
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 ounces diavolilli (tiny, variously colored candied almonds)
  • 4 candied cherries, halved
  • 2 ounces (60 g) candied orange peel, half finely diced and half cut into fine strips
  • 2 ounces (60 g) candied citron, half finely diced and half cut into fine strips
  • 2 ounces (60 g) candied melon rind, half finely diced and half cut into fine strips

Combine the ingredients for the dough to make a stiff but workable dough, knead it well, and let it sit for at least an hour, covered.

Pluck off pieces of dough and roll them out under your fingers to form snakes about as thin as your pinkie, and cut them into quarter-inch long pieces. Fry the pieces a few at a time in hot oil until brown and drain them on absorbent paper. Should the oil start to froth after a bit, and the froth overflow the pot, change the oil.

When you have finished frying the dough, take a second, preferably round-bottomed pot and put the honey, sugar and water in it. Boil the mixture until the foam dies down and it begins to turn yellow. At this point reduce the heat as much as possible and add the struffoli and the diced candied fruit. Stir to distribute everything evenly through the honey and turn the mixture out onto a plate. Shape the mixture into a wreath with a hole in the middle, dipping your hands frequently into cold water lest you burn yourself.

Sprinkle the candied fruit strips and the diavolilli over the ring and arrange the cherry halves evenly. Struffoli will keep a week or more if covered, and improves wih age.

Note: A reader wrote to say she had problems getting the dough to hold together, and wondered if the proportions were correct.

They are; Ms. Francesconi calls for 6 eggs and 5 cups of flour for her grandmother’s recipe, and Angie, SupEreva’s cooking Guide (a native Campanian) calls for 5 eggs and a little more than 4 cups flour in her recipe. The resulting dough will be stiff, and it will take a fair amount of kneading to distribute the moisture from the eggs (the eggs I’ve found in Italian markets are generally about the size of the large eggs sold in North America) evenly throughout the flour.

If the dough shows no signs of wanting to hold together, add just enough water for it to stay together and no more; it should be stiff. Why the stiffness? As Arthur Schwartz points out in his wonderful book, Naples at Table (Harper Collins), struffoli are essentially pasta dough that’s rolled out into snakes, broken into bits, and friend, at which point the pieces puff up, “forming light, crunchy dough nuts.” Pasta dough is stiff.

A final observation: Struffoli are traditionally shaped into wreathes at Christmas. The ones pictured here were instead prepared by the Azienda Molettieri (their Taurasi is worth seeking out) and served in individual portions at the close of a long and very nice dinner.  But the picture does show what struffoli look like.

On Cooking and Serving Pasta

Pasta Boiling on the Stove

Pasta Boiling on the Stove

This column has two sources of inspiration: From Italy, the Truth about Pasta, an article Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote for the New York Times, and a thread on rec.food.cooking in which people said that they preferred their pasta be served with a spoonful of sauce on the top and more on the side so they could add it if they wanted to.

When one lives in a country one tends to assume that the national dishes are served the same way beyond the national borders — this is not necessarily the case when it comes to pasta.

The major difference between pasta as it is served in Italy and pasta as it is served elsewhere is that for an Italian pasta is generally a first course, to be followed by a second course of some kind, be it meat, fish, vegetable, or even pizza (many elegant Italian pizzerie offer ample selections of pasta dishes for their guests to start off with). In other words, it is a part of a meal — important, yes, but certainly not dominant.

Portion size reflects this: One generally figures A bit less than a quarter pound of uncooked dry pasta per person (about 80 grams), which translates into a pleasantly full deep-dish plateful. A mound is too much, because it will leave no space for the rest of the meal.

Penne al Sugo, with Meat Sauce

Penne al Sugo, with Meat Sauce

Saucing is also quite important; moderation is again the key. One to two tablespoons of a liquid sauce such as aglio olio, and a quarter cup (or more, to taste) of a thicker sauce such as sugo alla bolognese per person, stirred into the pasta in the serving bowl so as to thoroughly coat the pasta. The pasta should not be swimming in the sauce, nor should it be bone dry: The one complements the other.

Grated cheese? Depends upon the sauce; tomato sauce and meat-based sauces generally call for it and cream sauces sometimes profit from it, whereas it can be distracting in vegetable or fish-based sauces. In any case, it is served at the table, and most people opt for one or two teaspoons, not a heavy dusting that overwhelms everything else.

We now come to a thorny issue: what kind of pasta?

Though Italian cookbooks, like their English language counterparts, give detailed instructions for home-made pasta, few Italians in Italy have the time to make it at home except on special occasions.

Day-in-and-day-out it’s commercially prepared dry pasta out of a box. Nor is this a fallback; properly cooked good quality commercially prepared pasta is just as good as if not better than what most people can make at home. The difference lies in the flour: Commercial producers use durum wheat semolina, which produces a pasta that will bear up well to cooking, maintaining its pleasant al dente texture on the way to the table.

Unfortunately, as a friend of mine who owned a pasta factory observes, preparing dough from durum wheat semolina requires industrial mixers or long kneading times — more than enough, he says, to burn out the motor of a home pasta machine. Because of this home cooks resort to soft wheat flour (grade 00, which has slightly less gluten than American cake flour); the results can be superb but require extreme care in the cooking because the pasta overcooks easily.

There are two basic kinds of commercial pasta:

  • Pasta all’uovo, egg pasta such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, and whatnot (these are the same tagliatelle one makes at home, but made with durum wheat semolina)
  • Pasta di semola di grano duro, made with durum wheat semolina, water and a little salt.
Tagliatelle Paglia e Fieno

Tagliatelle Paglia e Fieno

The former are flat and of varying width, whereas the latter comes in all sorts of shapes, from spaghetti to penne to cart wheels.
Which kind should you use?

Pasta all’uovo goes well with hearty fare, for example meat-based sauces or rich pomarola. Pasta all’uovo can also be flavored with other ingredients, for example spinach, which turns it green, tomato, which turns it red, or squid ink, which turns it black. Lasagne made with egg pasta are also superb.

Because of the variety of shapes it comes in pasta di semola di grano duro is more versatile; which shape to use depends upon the sauce and personal taste. Spaghetti, spaghettini, bucatini and other strands go well with fairly liquid sauces. Shorter hollow pastas, for example penne or tortiglioni, go well with thick sauces, in part because they trap the sauce. They also work well in baked dishes, because they have considerable body and can withstand being heated through a second time. Other shorter flat pastas, for example farfalle (butterflies or bow ties), work nicely with cream sauces because the sauce tends to stick to their surfaces.

In terms of purchasing commercial pastas, there are many brands to choose from; in Italy the most widely distributed brands are Buitoni, De Cecco, Barilla, Agnesi, and Voiello (not necessarily in this order).

There is also pasta artigianale, pasta made in smaller factories by artisans whose chief concern is quality. Though the basic ingredients are the same, that’s where the resemblance ends: The artisans extrude their pasta through bronze dies that leave microstriations to capture and hold the sauce, and also dry it at lower temperatures, thus preserving the flavors of the wheat. According to Nancy Harmon Jenkins, four of these producers export to the United States: Rustichella D’Abruzzo, Latini, Benedetto Cavalieri and Martelli. If you cannot find Italian pasta in your market all is not lost: read the labels of what’s available, and pick pasta made with durum wheat flour or semolina. Avoid dried pasta made with simple bread flour (much of the Northern European pasta, for example) because it won’t hold up to cooking.

Cooking pasta is as easy as boiling water, but does require care.

You should figure a a quart of water per quarter pound of pasta (1 liter of water per 100 grams of pasta), and expand this to 6 quarts for a pound. If you don’t use enough water the pasta will be gummy, so don’t stint.

Tossing Pasta in a Skillet to Coat it with The Sauce

Tossing Pasta in a Skillet to Coat it with The Sauce

Bring the water to a rolling boil, salt it with 2 teaspoons of salt per quart of water, and add the pasta, stirring gently to separate the pieces and keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The pasta package will probably say how long it should cook for, but don’t trust it. A couple of minutes before it is supposed to be done fish out a piece and break it open; in the center you will see a whitish area of uncooked pasta that is poetically known as the anima, or soul of the pasta. Ladle a couple of ladles of hot water into the serving bowl to warm it and continue cooking the pasta until the anima barely fades; drain it, giving it one or two good shakes to remove most of the water (it will continue to absorb water for a minute or two), transfer it to the bowl, stir the sauce into it and serve.

As a variation, if the sauce is fairly liquid, say for penne rosé, warm it in a skillet as the pasta cooks, and when the pasta is just shy of being done drain it and transfer while it’s still dripping it to the skillet. Turn the heat to high and toss the pasta as you would an omelet; as it finishes cooking it will absorb the sauce and taste much better. On restaurant menus pasta cooked this way is called strascicata or saltata in padella.

Squash Risotto, Risotto alla Zucca

Squash Risotto

Squash Risotto

Risotto made with zucca gialla, winter squash, is one of the most popular north Italian first courses during the winter months. Little wonder, because good winter squash has a delightful tangy sweetness to it, while the risotto has a libidinously creamy texture. Perfect on a cold, damp, gray winter day!

You’ll need:

  • Half a Butternut Squash, peeled and diced
  • 1 1/2 cups (300 g) Carnaroli, Arborio, or other short-grained rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine, warmed
  • 1 quart (1 liter) stock, either meat or vegetable (bouillon will be fine)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano, or more, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Squash doesn’t sauté well, so you will need to cook it separately and then add it to the rice. Begin by putting the diced squash in a pot, adding broth or bouillon to cover, seasoning with a little pepper, and heat the pot over a medium flame. Heat the remaining bouillon or stock in another pot.

In the meantime, chop the onion and sauté over a medium flame it in the olive oil in a broad fairly deep pot. When the onion is translucent and light gold, add the rice and continue to sauté for another 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly lest the rice stick and burn. The grains of rice will become translucent.

While the rice is toasting, heat the wine in your microwave for about 30 seconds. Add it to the rice, and cook, stirring, until it has evaporated. Now add the simmering squash, the pieces of which will by this time be falling apart.

Vegetable Stock, Simmering

Vegetable Stock, Simmering

Stir gently, lest the rice stick to the bottom of the pot and burn, and add more liquid as the rice absorbs what’s in the pot. Let the rice absorb most of the liquid (you’re not making soup), but don’t wait until it looks dry, because the grains will begin to flake if you do.

Continue adding liquid until the rice reaches the al dente stage of doneness — chewy but firm. If you prefer a drier risotto, make the last ladle of liquid a little smaller. If you instead prefer a more liquid risotto (what’s called all’onda, like a wave, in Italian) be a little more abundant with the final ladle.

Stir a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter into the risotto if you want a creamier texture, and then add the grated cheese, followed by minced parsley. Turn off the burner, cover the risotto, and let it sit for two minutes, during which time everything will come together and meld.

A wine? White, and I’d be tempted by a Lugana here.

Yield: 4 servings squash risotto.

How to make risotto, illustrated.

Le Dolomiti

The Dolomites Seen From Sas Pordoil

The Dolomites Seen From Sas Pordoil

Up until a century ago the Dolomites were among the most isolated places on earth, reachable only on foot over Alpine passes that remained snowbound throughout the winter. Conditions were tremendously difficult, and as a result few outsiders were particularly interested in the area, despite it’s being quite close to the Val D’Adige, the main migration and invasion route between Italy and Germany.

Living where nobody else wants to does have its advantages, and the Ladins, who were already living in the valleys before the arrival of the Romans in 15 BC, were relatively undisturbed by the revolutions and upheavals that periodically swept Europe.

Indeed, they lived in almost total isolation until the construction of the first roads, in about 1910. Just how beneficial the end of their isolation was in the short run is open to debate, because the area was then the boundary between Italy and Austria and they soon found themselves embroiled in the First World War, with the armies tunneling into the mountains to build trenches and gun emplacements.

The fighting was extremely harsh and many families had people on both sides. Following the war Italy annexed the ethnically German northern half of the Val D’Adige (the city of Bozen and South Tyrol) to obtain a defensible border, the Passo del Brennero, and the Dolomites slid back into the doldrums. People did begin to visit, however, and word of the stark beauty of the area got around.

Il Catinaccio, in the Dolomites

Il Catinaccio, in the Dolomites

The skiers arrived in a rush in the 60s, followed by heavy government funding for development, and by now there are thousands of kilometers of interconnected trails on the slopes, together with hundreds of hotels on the valley floors. It’s all extremely well planned, and the Ladins have done an amazing job of preserving their mountains (the hotels are harder to mask, but are built following local architectural traditions). The endemic poverty of the region is a thing of the past and the future looks good.

An unexpected casualty of this prosperity is the local cuisine, which was largely based on belt-tightening frugality. Just how frugal becomes immediately apparent in La Ola e la Segosta (the cauldron and the chain with which to suspend it over the fire), a collection of traditional Ladin recipes published by Maria Teresa Capaldi and Sergio Rossi.

“January 16, Saint Anthony’s Feast day, marked the beginning of Carnival, the only time the population of the upper reaches of the Val di Fassa would allow themselves some fun,” they write. “Thus began a period of dances, parties and somewhat heartier meals; people made a special effort to serve Orc da Cèrn a couple of times a week.”

  • 1 heaping cup pearled barley, soaked
  • A handful of dried beans, soaked several hours
  • 1/2 an onion
  • 1 leek
  • 2 leaves Savoy cabbage
  • 1 carrot
  • 2-3 celery ribs
  • 2 mountain potatoes (use small potatoes here)
  • 1/2 pound (500 g) smoked pork (use cured ham if need be)
  • 2 quarts (2 liters) cold water
  • Butter
  • Salt
  • Minced parsley

 

La Marmolada, in the Dolomites

La Marmolada, in the Dolomites

Begin by slicing the vegetables as finely as possible and placing them in a pot with the water and a pinch of salt. Add the smoked meat, or in its absence some pork rind (cotenna; substitute with ham if need be), and the soaked beans.

Bring the mixture to a boil and when the beans are half cooked add the barley.

Let simmer for a couple of hours, stirring frequently lest it stick. When the meat has almost fallen apart and the soup is quite dense, stir in a walnut-sized chunk of butter, garnish with parsley, and serve.

This is to serve six and was reserved for a special occasion. Day-in-and-day-out, people made do. One thing they did enjoy is canederli, bread balls to be served either dry or in broth. The dish is common throughout the region and is known as knödel in the German-speaking valleys; there are a tremendous number of variations on the theme.

Canederli di Magro: A meatless version of Canederli; these are tasty in soup, and also go very well with stews or roasts.
Canederli agli Spinaci: Spinach canederli, similar to Ravioli, but with a Dolomitic twist. Nice in soup and perfect with a stew.

Recipes and Dolomitic Information, Off site:

  • On the Cuisine of Trentino: An interesting overview from the local Tourist Board.
  • The Ladins: A fascinating site dedicated to the people who have lived in the Dolomites for thousands of years.
  • Dolomiti Superski: The organization handles skiing throughout the area, and has seen to it that almost all the valleys are interconnected and you can ski for hundreds of miles. A tremendous amount of information and quite useful if you’re going to the area.