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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.

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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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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


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Cannellini Ragout

Italian cuisine is known as rustic, hearty fare, but even its finer dishes tend to be comforting and satisfying. This recipe is a perfect example. It’s got the filling protein of creamy cannellini beans and the fresh tartness of tomatoes, but just a bit of wine gives it complexity and elevates it to an elegant dinner option. But it’s also perfect for everyday meals. A piece of toast made with rustic bread makes it a filling, flavor-filled lunch or dinner.

Enjoy!

Cannellini Ragout

Makes 4 servings.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 medium red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, finely chopped
2 teaspoons tomato paste
¼ cup white wine or vegetable broth
4 cups cooked cannellini (fresh cooked or canned, rinsed and drained)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 cups vegetable broth
1 cup chopped plum tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
¼ cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
4 slices rustic bread, toasted
¼ grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Heat the oil in a medium Dutch oven or saucepot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-high heat until they’ve softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté another minute. Add the bell peppers and continue sautéing until the peppers are soft, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Stir in the tomato paste. Stir until it’s well blended. Pour in the wine or broth and stir it in, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the beans, salt, pepper, and the broth. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and let it simmer until the mixture has thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook another 3 to 4 minutes to soften them. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Place a piece of toast in the bottom of each serving bowl. Place equal amounts of the beans on top of the toast. Sprinkle the Parmigiano, then drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over each.

Serve hot.


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Red Lentil Pasta with Sauteed Mushrooms

Having grown up in a traditional Italian family, pasta was part of my natural landscape. But today, pasta comes in many varieties. I don’t mean just shapes—those have always been. I mean ingredients. And because so many people are carb conscious, and/or avoid wheat, pasta manufacturers have come out with pasta made from wheat flour alternatives. It is now made of quinoa, farro, corn, kamut, black bean flour, and other ingredients.

For this recipe, I found a beautiful red lentil pasta. It’s made with 100% red lentil flour in place of regular flour, so it’s completely gluten free. Its flavor is earthy and nutty, and it pairs very well with sautéed mushrooms. Unfortunately, like any brightly colored foods, they lose their pretty pinkish hue once cooked. I found this particular bag at Eataly in Manhattan, but you can find “alternative” flour pastas in large supermarkets, Italian markets, gourmet shops, and, of course, online.

Enjoy!

Red Lentil Pasta with Sauteed Mushrooms

1 tablespoon olive oil
8 oz. baby bella or cremini mushrooms
2 teaspoons kosher salt
8 oz. red lentil pasta
½ tablespoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup grated or shredded parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a wide skillet, preferably cast iron. Add the mushrooms and 2 teaspoons kosher salt and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have browned. This will take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.Fill a medium saucepan three-quarters with water and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta and ½ tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until it’s al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a bowl.If the mushrooms have cooled off, reheat them briefly. Add them to the pasta and season with pepper. Mix in the parmesan. Serve hot.