Miz Chef

Cooking Up a Healthy Life


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

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Melanzane dai Cento Sapori

Calabria

Welcome back to my journey through the Regions of Italy, using La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) as my guide. Today we are in Calabria, which makes up the “instep” and toe of the boot of Italy.

This first Calabrian recipe is called Melanzane dai Cento Sapori, or 1000-Flavor Eggplant. Eggplant plays a big role in the cuisine of Italy, so it didn’t surprise me that I found many recipes from all the 20 regions that are based on eggplant. Which is ironic because eggplants used to be believed to cause insanity. In fact, the Italian word for eggplant. melanzana, means “mad apple” (many “new” produce items introduced into Europe were referred to as “apples”).

Citron

What struck me as unusual was the addition of chocolate. Not that chocolate is a new concept in savory dishes, but it seemed strange to combine it with eggplant. And then I thought of caponata, an eggplant appetizer that is a specialty of Sicily and which traditionally includes cocoa powder. So…why not?

Another unusual element in this recipe is citron zest. Citron is a citrus fruit that is the color of lemons and has lemon-like flesh, but its rind is very thick and bumpy. It’s more aromatic than regular lemons, but it’s also extremely difficult to find in the U.S., unless you buy dried or candied citron. So just use lemon zest.

I didn’t know what to expect from this recipe. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. It was slightly bitter, slightly sweet, and much more flavorful than I had anticipated. And more complex. A thousand flavors indeed. The ingredients are pretty basic, but combined, they really made for an unusual, delicious dish. It was deeply colored, very rich looking and unctuous. I would serve this hot by itself, or at room temperature on crackers. Continue reading


Leave a comment

Favette e Cicoria

Basilicata

Welcome back to my continuing journey through the Regions of Italy, using the book La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy as my guide. This week, I’m still in Basilicata, the homeland of my family. Today’s recipe is Favette e Cicoria (pronounced chee-KOHR-ee-ah), or Fava Beans and Chicory. It’s a delicious combination of seasoned fava bean puree and cooked chicory on toasted bread.

There’s some confusion about the term “chicory.” When Americans hear the word “chicory,” their minds often go to the root with blue flowers that is sometimes added to coffee (as in the classic New Orleans-style chicory coffee) or used as a coffee substitute. But for Europeans, chicory is a completely different thing. For Italians, it generally means what Americans refer to as dandelion. Yes, those weeds that grow wildly all over everyone’s lawns and gardens are not only edible, but widely consumed. (If you choose to pick your own, don’t use the poofy pompom part at the top. Do with those what Mother Nature intended us to use them for—make a wish and blow it away. Just use the leaves.) And because chicory root (the one that’s used in coffee) is related to dandelion, it’s sometimes called blue dandelion because of its blue flowers.

Americans also label curly endive as chicory or frisée, both of which are incorrect. To confuse matters further, other vegetables are categorized as “chicory.” What Americans know as Belgian endive also goes by the name witloof chicory, Belgium chicory, blanching chicory, Dutch chicory, and chicon. 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

Pallotte Cace e Ova

Abruzzo

This is the second installment in my Regions of Italy project. It’s Pallotte Cace e Ova, or Cheese and Egg Fritters.

The original recipe called for extra virgin olive oil for deep frying. I find this a bit nutty. In the first place, extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, which means that the risk of burning is quite high. (You can argue with me about that if you want, but I’ve seen olive oil scorch way too quickly, so I stick with that belief.)

Second, extra virgin olive oil so expensive that the thought of filling a pot with 3 or so inches of it makes me dizzy. Also, the general belief is that so much of the flavor of extra virgin olive oil is lost when it’s heated, and so it’s not worth using to cook, which is why I use regular olive oil even for sauteing. So, for deep frying, I prefer to use peanut or some other cooking oil. But I’ll leave that choice up to you.

The fritters can be eaten by themselves, but are often served with tomato sauce. Having said that, I found that a spritz of lemon made them taste fabulous. 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.


Leave a comment

Farro Linguine with Asparagus and Lemon-Pepper Sauce

This recipe is a combination of two classic Italian pasta dishes: aglio e olio (garlic and oil) and asparagus with lemon-pepper sauce. (Both individual recipes, by the way, can be found in my pasta edition of the Vegetarian Italian: Traditions ebook series.)

One night after work, I was contemplating dinner. I wanted to do something a little different, but I wanted to keep it easy, and not stray too far from familiarity (I was tired and irritated from work, so simplicity and comforting were my top criteria).

Pasta is always easy, always comforting, and I had just happened to buy a bunch of pencil-thin asparagus. I also had lemons…and so I came up with this. Two savory Italian classics in one delicious dish, and the combo is not any more work than just one recipe alone.

Farro is an ancient Italian grain that is related to spelt and emmer, but is not actually spelt, as some believe. It’s commonly used in Italy, but is becoming more available in the U.S. Farro pasta is nutty, nutritious, low in calories, and is often well tolerated by people with gluten sensitivity (although those with Celiac disease should avoid it). Farro pasta can be found in Italian groceries, as well as gourmet shops. And, of course, online. Try it—I think you’ll find it an addicting alternative to whole wheat pasta.

Enjoy.

Farro Linguine with Asparagus and Lemon-Pepper Sauce

1 pound asparagus
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ lb. farro linguine (or other long pasta)
2 large garlic cloves, sliced

½ teaspoon paprika
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Zest from 1 small lemon

Grated parmesan cheese
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Snap or cut off the woody bottom stems of the asparagus and discard. Place the asparagus on a platter, drizzle with half the oil, sprinkle with half the salt, and gently toss. Try to keep the asparagus all facing the same direction (this will make it easier to handle).Place the asparagus on a baking sheet lined with foil and roast until tender and lightly browned (the time will vary depending on the thickness of the asparagus, but anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes). Remove them from oven and chop them into bite-size pieces.Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and remaining salt and bring it to a boil, stirring often, until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain. Transfer the pasta to a serving platter. Add the chopped asparagus.Pour the remaining olive oil in a small pan with the garlic. Heat until the garlic is fragrant and just starts to color, about 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the paprika, swirl it, then immediately pour it over the pasta. Season with more salt and grind on as much black pepper as you like.Sprinkle the lemon zest over it. Top with the grated parmesan and drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil. Serve.