Miz Chef

Cooking Up a Healthy Life


Leave a comment

Minestra di Zucca

Fruili-Venezia Giulia

Welcome back to my Regions Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). This week’s recipe moves us into Fruili-Venezia Giulia, which is in the most northeastern corner of Italy. It borders Austria and Slovenia and it’s cuisine is influenced by those cultures. It uses a lot of root vegetables and hearty grains. The first recipe from the region I offer is a very simple one: butternut squash soup.

You’ve had butternut squash soup before, right? So have I. It’s a pretty common dish. There’s something a little different about this one, though. After the squash is cooked, a cup of ricotta is stirred in, creating a unique soup. The recipe is straight-forward and I don’t have too much to say about it, except for one thing. The original recipe instructs to “squeeze dry” the squash. I don’t know what they mean by this, but I put the squash in a sieve and pressed on it with a wooden spoon to release excess water. I further tweaked the instructions for clarity, and I thought the soup needed salt (not given in the original recipe). Other than that, it’s all pretty easy. Give it a try. Enjoy.

Minestra di Zucca

Squash Soup

Makes 6 servings.

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup ricotta
1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Pinch ground cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the squash in a pot large enough to hold it all and cover with water. Add ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer until the squash is tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the squash into a sieve set over a bowl to catch the water. Press the squash to release as much liquid as possible. Reserve the cooking water.Return the pot to the heat. Combine the oil and butter, and heat until the butter has melted. Add the garlic, then whisk in the flour.Add the squash and mash it with a potato masher or a stick blender. Stir in the ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cinnamon, pepper, and salt. Stir in some of the reserved cooking water until it reaches a consistency to your liking. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

 


Leave a comment

Riso con la Zucca

Emilia-Romagna

Welcome back to my Regions Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). This is another stop in Emilia-Romagna, which, as I said last time, is in northern Italy. In the northern part of the country, they use rice a lot in their cuisines (pasta is more popular in the south). In fact, risotto was born in Milan, which a major city in the north (but not Emilia-Romagna). So, this time around, I offer you Riso con la Zucca, or Rice with Squash.

On the face of it, this recipe is squash risotto, which is not an usual recipe. I’ve made butternut squash risotto. You’ve probably made butternut squash risotto. But what makes this recipe different from typical risottos is that rather than using broth, it calls for milk. And instead of adding the liquid a little at a time, it’s added all at once.

The result is a thick, hearty dish. Personally I prefer traditional risotto (made with broth), but this was nice for a change of pace. And I get the feeling that this particular risotto will go over well with kids. The recipe is straightforward and pretty simple, so there’s nothing really to explain…except maybe one thing.

The instructions say to cook the rice until it’s all’onda. Since this term is not as ubiquitous as al dente, you may not be familiar with it. Onda means “wave,” so something cooked all’onda is “wavy.” When you tilt the pan, the rice should ripple like waves in the ocean. What that essentially means is that it’s creamy—moist but not liquidy.

You can use any type of hard winter squash, including butternut, kabocha, sweet dumpling, pumpkin, etc. Regarding the rice, it specifically calls for Carnaroli, which is a short-grained rice. I’m not sure why they call for that specific strain of rice, but if you can’t find it, you can substitute Arborio, Vialone Nano, or even sushi rice. The recipe calls for a tablespoon of sugar. I don’t really think it’s necessary because winter squash is sweet on its own, but it’s up to you if you want to include it or not.

Riso con la Zucca

Rice with Squash

Makes 6 servings

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
2¼ pounds winter squash (butternut, kabocha, etc.), peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped
3 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra
1 tablespoon sugar
6 cups milk
1½ cups Carnaroli rice
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until it’s soft and translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes.Add the squash, 3 teaspoons salt, and sugar. Mix and cook, stirring occasionally over medium-low heat until the squash “cooks to a puree.” (Note: the squash will not break down into a puree on its own. Basically, you want it soft enough so that when you stir it, it falls apart.) Stir the squash around and break it up, but don’t mash it; you want it somewhat chunky. This should take about 20 to 25 minutes.

Pour in the milk and bring it to a boil. The moment it comes to a boil, add the rice and stir. Cook over low heat, partially covered, until the liquid has been mostly absorbed and the rice is creamy and smooth. If the liquid is absorbed and the rice is still not fully cooked, add water, a little at a time, until it is cooked.Turn off the heat. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano, black pepper, and the remaining butter (optional). Taste for salt and add more if necessary. Serve immediately.

The rice will thicken as it cools and will become stiff. To heat up leftovers, stir in some water to loosen it up.


Leave a comment

Purgatorio alla Calabrese

Calabria

This is the latest entry in my Regions of Italy project, based on the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) as my guide. Today we are still in Calabria, which, as I said in my last entry, makes up the “instep” and toe of the boot of Italy.

The last Calabrian recipe featured eggplant as its main ingredient, so I had wanted to avoid additional eggplant recipes. But the name of this one intrigued me: Purgatory Sandwich. The book doesn’t explain why this is called Purgatory Sandwich, and I couldn’t find any information on it (I will say that my research was minimal). My theory is that whoever named this decided that if they had to stop in Purgatory on their way to Heaven and needed a snack, this would be it.

Anyway, let’s get to the recipe. This one had a couple of ingredients that were vague. Here are the items (as they are called for in the book) that I had issues with (the text in red are my comments):

2 eggplants (What size? Small? Medium? Or what weight? One pound? Two pounds?), cut into sections (What does that mean?) and soaked in salted water about 30 minutes (this should have been put at the top of the list and the first step in the instructions). I started with two small Italian eggplants and cubed them, but found that to be too much. So, in the end, I recommend 1 medium eggplant.

4 peppers, coarsely chopped (What kind of peppers? Bell? Italian? What color? I went with 1 large red and 2 smallish green bell peppers)

As for the tomatoes, I felt that it could have used one more. Also, the recipes calls for 4 young potatoes, quartered–I think they are referring to new potatoes here.

This is a very rustic, quintessential Italian recipe. The fact that it contains eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes just makes it scream Mediterranean. Continue reading


Leave a comment

Ciambotta

Basilicata

I’m now entering the second region of Italy in my Regions of Italy project. I’m going to come back to Abruzzo for my fourth recipe from that region when one of the ingredients I need is in season.

The second area is called Basilicata, and it’s familiar territory because it’s where my family is from.

As I looked through the myriad recipes from Basilicata, I realized that I knew many of them, and since the goal of my project is to explore the cuisines of Italy, I skipped over the family favorites to dishes that sounded new to me.

So, one of the recipes I chose was Ciambotta, or Vegetable Stew. I sounded really good. It’s a stew of peppers, potatoes, and eggplant. Similar to ratatouille, it differs from the French version in that the eggplant is sliced and sautéed until browned first before going into the stew, and tomato puree is added. And really not much else.

After it was cooked, I sat down to eat it…and immediately my memory banks flew open. This tasted so familiar, I figured I had to have had it before. But I couldn’t remember my mother making a dish that had those three specific ingredients together. I called my mother and asked her if she’d ever made such a stew, and she said, “Yes, of course. We called it ciambotta in our dialect.” And then she proceeded to tell me how to make it, even though I’d told her that I’d already made it, and what else I can add to it.

Yep, I knew those flavors very well. Even though I hadn’t remembered them initially, the taste and aroma brought it all right back. How can you forget the things you ate while growing up in a house with an Italian mother who put her entire self-worth in the foods she prepared for her family?

You can’t. It comforted me. It warmed me in a way that the heat of summer outside couldn’t. I gobbled it up.

So, here’s the recipe for Ciambotta from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy, with my adjustments, because, as usual, the instructions (and some of the ingredients) are vague.

Have this thick, hearty, delicious stew with crusty Italian or French bread. Enjoy!

Ciambotta

Vegetable Stew

Recipe adapted from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Published by Rizzoli Publications.

Makes 4 servings.

½ pound Italian eggplant, sliced into ¼-inch-thick half-moons*
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ pound red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
½ pound potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
1¼ cups tomato puree
1 large garlic clove, minced

Place the eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon salt. Toss to coat all the eggplant. Let this sit for ½ hour. Quickly rinse them under running water and dry them thoroughly.

Heat half the oil in a wide pan. Add the eggplant and a pinch of salt. Sauté over medium heat until browned.Meanwhile, in another large pan or Dutch oven, heat the remaining oil. Add the peppers, potatoes, and a pinch of salt and sauté until the potatoes start to take on color. (This could take anywhere from 8 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of your pan and how spread out the potatoes are. In my case, it took longer because I chose to make the stew in my 2-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven, which is my new favorite pot and I look for any reason to use it. One of these days, when my ship comes in, I will splurge on that 5-quart Le Creuset.) Stir frequently, as potatoes want to stick to pots and pans. Add the puree and stir to combine.Mix in the eggplant. Add the garlic and continue sautéing another minute. If the bottom of the pot looks like it’s burning, add a little liquid (water, broth, wine) and scrape the browned bits up. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and cook until a thick stew forms, about 40 to 50 minutes. Stir often and scrape up brown bits from the bottom of the pot as it forms. Taste for salt and add more, if needed.Serve this stew with fresh, crusty Italian or French bread.

*Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half, then each half in half. Then slice each piece in half-moons.


Leave a comment

Zucchini-Mozzarella Frittata

I love making frittatas. They are soversatile, and you can make them with just about anything.

Frittatas can be made with 2 methods. The first is the flip–you cook the frittata on one side, invert it onto a plate, and slide it back into the pan to cook on the other side. That’s the method that I’m going to venture to say is most common with most home cooks.

I think the other method is more common in restaurants, and that is where the frittata is cooked on the stove top, then placed in the broiler to cook the top. The frittata I offer today must be done using this method because the top layer is mozzarella, and if you flip that over…well, you’re just going to end up with a pan full of mozzarella.

This dish is loaded with Italian flavors. Enjoy!

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Red Bean-Vegetable Chili

There are so many ways to make a vegetarian chili. Some people, of course, will argue and say that unless there’s meat in it, it can’t be chili, that it’s just a vegetable stew. Whatever. If it tastes like chili, then it’s chili. Or call it vegetable stew. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it tastes good. And this dish does.

It’s also another example of what can be done when you have a little of this and a little of that left over in your fridge and pantry. But trust me, this is worth going out and buying the ingredients for.

Enjoy! Continue reading


Leave a comment

Hoppin’ John

Hello, everyone! As we approach the end of another year, many cultures around the world begin their preparations for carrying out traditions that will ensure good luck, good health, and prosperity in the new year (at the very least, they can’t hurt). Food always—pretty much without exception—plays a part in these rituals.

Soba Noodles

In Japan, for example, it is customary to eat soba noodles during the New Year’s celebration to ensure a long life, symbolized by the long noodles. In Spain, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve—one for each month of the year—and it is hoped that the grapes are sweet, which is considered a harbinger of a sweet year ahead. In Austria and Germany, they eat little marzipan pigs, which are considered good luck. In the Philippines, they make a lot of noise on New Year’s Eve, banging pots and pans, to ward off evil spirits. In Greece, they smash a pomegranate at the front door to spill the seeds, symbolically spreading wealth.

In many countries, legumes are popular for New Year’s because they swell when cooked, symbolizing increased financial prosperity. Lentils are used in Italy and Brazil because they are round like coins. In the United States, black-eyed peas are popular (the musical group and the legume) and Hoppin’ John, which features that particular legume, is a staple New Year’s dish in the South.

Recipes for Hoppin’ John first began appearing in cookbooks in the 1840s, but the origins are a little murky, and possibly a little unfortunate. Black-eyed peas are native to West Africa, and it’s believed that they were brought over by slave traders as part of their cargo. Naturally, the crops were planted in the South, and became an important commodity. Some believe that eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s is actually a carryover of a 1500-year-old tradition of consuming them by Sephardic Jews on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The beans themselves represent coins, and there’s one version of this tradition that calls for hiding an actual coin in the Hoppin’ John—bringing the finder good luck—as well as filling a bowl with beans and coins and leaving it on the table for some benevolent spirit in exchange for granting good fortune.

But why is it called Hoppin’ John? There are several stories. One says that there was an old man who hobbled around and sold peas on the streets of Charleston, and the dish was named after him. Another says that children would hop around the dinner table, eagerly anticipating the serving of this dish. A more likely story is that it comes from a French term, pois pigeons, meaning pigeon peas, which are a big part of Caribbean culture.

Hoppin’ John is traditionally made with pork and served with rice. In many countries, pork, for some reason, is considered lucky to eat on New Year’s (marzipan is not the only kind of pig that Austrians and Germans eat for New Year’s). Rice flourished in the hot, steamy South (it was dubbed at one point Carolina Gold). Bring all three of these elements together, you’ve got one lucky dish. Also, Hoppin’ John is often served together with collard greens, because it represents money. Cornbread, too, is considered lucky because of its “golden” color (you get the idea).

I’ve made different versions of Hoppin’ John, with and without greens, with and without meat, with rice and with other grains… This is probably the simplest version I’ve cooked. The nice thing about it is that you can make it ahead of time and freeze it, then defrost it in time for New Year’s Day. By the way, unlike other dried beans, black-eyed peas do not need to be pre-soaked. You can, if you want to cut down cooking time, do a quick-soak method by bringing the peas to a boil in a pot of water, letting them boil for 2 minutes, then letting them sit in the water for an hour off heat. But, frankly, if you’re going to do all of that, you’re not really saving any time, unless you want to do this the day before. In my opinion, not worth it. Just let the Hoppin’ John cook for an hour, and it’s a done deal.  

Whatever traditions you have for New Year’s—or whether you have any at all—I’m wishing you all a healthy, happy, prosperous New Year. I wish for peace and tranquility, honor and compassion, and above all, respect for all living beings.

Hoppin’ John

Makes 6 servings.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste

6 cups vegetable broth
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped carrot
2 large celery ribs, chopped
1 cup chopped tomatoes, liquid reserved
3 cups dried black-eyed peas
1 or 2 dried bay leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme or rosemary (or both), optional

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and sauté over medium-high heat until soft and translucent.Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Drop in the tomato paste and stir it in until it’s well blended, then let it cook for a minute or two, until the bottom of the pot starts to brown.Pour in a little bit of the broth to deglaze the pot and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Let this cook until the liquid has evaporated.Add the bell pepper, carrot, celery, and ½ teaspoon of the salt and sauté until all the vegetables have softened but are still firm.Pour the liquid from the tomatoes into a measuring cup and add enough water to make 1 cup. Add this to the pot. Pour in the broth, and add the beans, bay leaves, remaining salt, and black pepper. Mix well.Bring this to a boil; lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour, or until the beans are tender but not mushy. If the pot dries out before the beans are cooked, add more water or broth and stir it in. Stir in the parsley and other herbs and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and/or pepper, if you like.

Remove the bay leaves and serve with rice or cornbread, or on its own.