Miz Chef

Cooking Up a Healthy Life


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Zuppa di Santa Lucia

Campania

This is the next 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). Today we’re in Campania.

When I was going through the recipes from Campania, trying to decide which ones to do, as soon as I spotted one called “St. Lucy’s Soup,” I knew it would be on my list. St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia as she is known in Italian, has always been a part of my life.

Although her year of birth is recorded as 283 A.D. in Syracuse, Italy, not much is known about St. Lucy or the actual details of her death. Legend has it that she devoted herself to God and vowed chastity. Her mother had betrothed her to a young man, who, after being rejected, turned her in to the governor, Paschasius (Christianity was outlawed at this time, and paganism was the accepted religion).

As punishment, Paschasius sentenced her to work in a brothel, but guards couldn’t physically move her, even after tying her to a team of oxen. The guards then tried to create a pyre around her, but the wood wouldn’t burn. They finally succeeded in killing her with their swords.

One cloudy aspect of her story—and this is important part—was what happened with her eyes. There are conflicting stories about that. Some said that just before she died, she warned Paschasius that he would be punished for his actions, and for that, he had her eyes gouged out. Others said that Lucy plucked her own eyes out to discourage a suitor who admired them greatly. (That sounds a bit drastic to me.) Word of her faith and piety spread and she was venerated as a saint. When her body was being prepared for burial, they discovered her eyes had been miraculously restored.

What’s interesting is that “Lucia” is related to the Latin word lux, which means light. So, who knows where reality ended and legend exploded. She is the patron saint of vision and is often depicted holding a plate with eyes on them.

Tributes to St. Lucy in my childhood room.

When I was about 6 years old, I almost lost my sight. I was in the hospital for 9 days, during which time, doctors hovered around me, put me through countless tests, and poked and prodded me. The only information I have about that event is that I had a rare virus in my cornea. My parents didn’t speak much English, so the actual medical language was lost on them.

Knowing the kind of person my mother is, and my father was, the prospect of their child going blind must have been an unbearable torment for them. Especially for my mother. She prayed to Santa Lucia to restore my vision.

Whether it was St. Lucy’s intervention, medical knowledge, or natural self-healing, my vision was indeed restored, if a little shaky. But my mother, an Old World Italian woman who believes in the saints and in prayer, believed that she had Santa Lucia to thank, and from that time on, my room always had statues of St. Lucy, placed there by my mother. Kind of creepy as a child to look a statue of a woman holding a plate of eyeballs. But whatever.

And here’s something else. You probably don’t even know it, but one of the most popular Italian tunes that can be heard throughout the decades in the movies or TV shows is “Santa Lucia.” See if you recognize it. (Here’s Elvis performing it!)

Anyway, on to the actual recipe. Continue reading

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Cavatelli Con le Noci

Campania

Welcome back to 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).

I’m skipping the second two recipes from Calabria for now because they require the oven and I just can’t do it in the middle of this New York heatwave. So, we move on to Campania.

The name of Campania means “countryside.” The region was originally referred to by the Romans as campania felix, Latin for “fertile countryside”. The capital of Campania is Naples, one of the most well-known Italian cities. In this region, you will find the iconic Mt. Vesuvius, the ruins of ancient Pompeii, and the coastline towns of Positano and Amalfi.

Orecchiette (“little ears”)

One of Campania’s regional recipes is Cavatelli Con le Noci, Cavatelli with Walnuts. “Cavatelli” in Italian means “little caves,” so called because of the little grooves in the center. Those grooves make this pasta perfect to use with thick or hearty sauces because it collects in the “caves.”

This is one of my favorite recipes in this project so far. It’s so delicious with minimal amount of work. Having said that, I did need to make adjustments to the recipe.

First, I cheated. The recipe gives ingredients and instructions for making fresh cavatelli. Making fresh pasta is not difficult, but it does require time, which is something I’m in short supply of. So, I took the easy way out and used dry pasta. That was alteration number one.

The second alteration was not my fault. I went to the store to buy cavatelli, and thanks to Murphy’s Law, they had every type of pasta you could possibly want except the one I needed, cavatelli. I had a bag of orecchiette at home, so I decided to just use that. Orecchiette means “little ears,” and also do a good job of catching sauces in their “cups.” Continue reading


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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


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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.


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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


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Lentil, Barley, and Vegetable Soup

Creating beautiful dishes with leftovers is something I love to do. There’s something very satisfying about taking bits and pieces from previous meals and turning them into something new and delicious. Maybe I get it from my mother, who, always trying to substantially feed her family of four, never let anything go to waste.

Sometimes a mish-mash of leftovers can be delicious, but not necessarily nutritious and filling in the long term. What’s often missing is protein. And protein is what you need to keep you satisfied for the long stretch, so you don’t go diving into a bag of nachos like you haven’t eaten in a week.

This recipe is an example of what you can do with a bunch of leftovers that can also be protein-rich, healthy, and filling. If you’re cooking lentils for another dish, make some extra and put it in the freezer so that you have it on hand when needed. Then, when you find yourself with a bunch of leftover odds and ends, bring it all together with some broth, and add those lentils for sustaining protein.

You can substitute whatever vegetables you have on hand, and can add whatever herbs or spices you want to create the kind of flavor profile that you like.

Enjoy!

Lentil, Barley, and Vegetable Soup

Makes 6 servings.

2 teaspoons olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon paprika
½ cup chopped carrot
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups vegetable broth
½ pound green beans, cut into ¼-inch pieces

2 teaspoons kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 packed cups chopped spinach or other greens

2 cups cooked lentils
1 cup cooked barley
¼ chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a 2-quart Dutch oven or saucepan. Add the garlic and sauté over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Sprinkle in the paprika. Add the carrot and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.Stir in the tomato paste. Work it in until it’s blended with the carrot and garlic. Stir frequently. When the bottom of the pot starts to brown, pour in about ¼ cup of the broth. Stir it in and scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the remaining broth, green beans, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until green beans are tender but still firm, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the spinach and stir it in thoroughly. (If you’re using other greens, let them cook a few minutes until tender. Spinach doesn’t need much time at all.) Add the lentils and barley. Continue simmering about 6 to 8 minutes longer to ensure everything is hot and to give the ingredients a chance to blend. Stir in the parsley. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed.

 

Makes 4 main course servings.


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Pear-Pignoli Salad with Cranberry Sauce Vinaigrette

Do you still have cranberry sauce left over after the holidays? I know some of you do. Admit it.  You’ll see lots of sites and professional chefs telling you that everything should be thrown out three days after the holiday. I have news for you—if you’ve stored it properly, that cranberry sauce is probably still good. The thing is, because of the sugar content, cranberry sauce has a long shelf life. It’s just like a jar of jam or preserves in your refrigerator. (Of course, if it smells or tastes funny, or if it has mold on it, throw it out.) For those of you who prefer the stuff that comes in cans (you can admit that, too, don’t be ashamed), you can use those up as well, so that they don’t sit in your pantry for another year.

There are many things you can do with leftover cranberry sauce. One way to use it up is to make a dressing with it, and I’ve done just that. I paired homemade cranberry sauce here with baby greens and Anjou pears. So that the cranberry doesn’t overwhelm the delicate ingredients, I strained the dressing.

So, why not start out with plain cranberry sauce (such as what comes in a can) instead of whole berry sauce, you ask. Because I think that whole berry sauce has so much more depth of flavor than flat cranberry sauce. Plus, chances are that if you have a significant amount left over, it’s probably the homemade kind, which is most likely going to be chunky.

You can adjust the recipe to any flavor profile you like. Enjoy!

Cranberry Sauce Vinaigrette

Makes ¾ cup dressing.

1 cup whole berry cranberry sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon stone-ground mustard
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

In a medium bowl, combine the cranberry sauce, balsamic vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, and ¼ cup water. Drizzle in the oil and whisk together well. Using a rubber spatula, strain the dressing through a mesh strainer into another bowl. Taste for seasoning and adjust if you like.

Pear-Pignoli Salad with Cranberry Sauce Vinaigrette

Makes 4 servings.

2 Anjou pears (ripe but still firm)
6 oz. mixed baby greens
¼ cup pignoli (pine nuts), toasted
¼ cup Cranberry Sauce Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

Slice the pears about ¼ inch thick. You want them somewhat thin, but not so thin that they fall apart in the salad. Place them in a large bowl. Add the greens and pignoli and toss gently. Add the dressing and again toss gently. Transfer the salad to a serving platter and arrange neatly. Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top.

Serve immediately.