Welcome back to my Regions of Italy project, based on La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine).
As I write this, the world is in the thick fog of the pandemic COVID-19, or coronavirus. With so many of you in quarantine (or more diplomatically referred to as shelter in place), you’re trying out all those recipes you’ve been wanting to try. Well, now’s a great time to journey with me through Italy.
Today, we’re in Lombardia and I’m offering one of that region’s specialties, squash cake. Although it’s called cake, it’s actually more like a savory loaf with a sweet edge, kind of like corn bread.
What makes this recipe unusual is that it calls for mostarda di Cremona. Also known as mostarda di frutta, it’s candied fruit packed in mustard syrup. (Mostarda di Cremona, from the town of Cremona, is a particular blend of whole or large pieces of various fruit, and is the most well-known variety of mostarda.) If you taste it right out of the jar, you get hit with an unmistakable mustard flavor, reminiscent of yellow mustard, with only an undertone of sweetness. Once incorporated into a dish, the flavor blends in seamlessly and you end up with a complex recipe with an interesting flavor that you can’t quite pinpoint (but it’s the mostarda!).
Anyway, try it out. I hope you like it.
By the way, the note in the original recipe says it’s best to make the mixture a day ahead, but I missed my opportunity to do that. I made it the same day and it was fine.
Welcome back to my Regions of 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
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.
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.
Very often, my stews and chilis are built on whatever produce is in season and available at the farmers’ markets. I’ll be honest—I don’t get everything at farmers’ markets. I’d be constantly broke. But I’ll find one or two or three items that are in season, sometimes only briefly, and that look particularly good. In this case, I had some gorgeous greens from a couple of bunches of beets, beautiful red onions, and bright, fresh out-of-the-ground carrots. I gathered a few more vegetables and assembled this stew.
But the beautiful thing about vegetable stew is that it’s wide open to ingredients. You can use whatever vegetables you like, whatever beans you like, and whatever herbs and spices you like. Or omit any of those things.
I had the good fortune of having several cloves of garlic in the refrigerator that I had pan roasted. I chopped those up and added them. If you want to add an extra depth of flavor, you can pan roast a few cloves before you begin the stew.
Vegetable-Bean Stew with Spaghetti Squash
1 small spaghetti squash 2 teaspoons olive oil 1 cup chopped red onion 3 to 5 garlic cloves, chopped 2 tablespoons tomato paste ¼ cup red wine, broth, or water 2 cups chopped green pepper 2 cups chopped, seeded tomatoes 1 ½ cups chopped carrots 4 cups vegetable broth or water 3 cups beans of your choice (such as Great Northern, pinto, cannellini, etc.) 4 cups (cleaned) chopped greens (such as beet greens, kale, chard, etc.) 1 teaspoon kosher salt* Freshly ground black pepper to taste ¼ cup freshly chopped herbs of your choice (basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, etc.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Split the spaghetti squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and strings from the center. Place the halves face down on a baking sheet. Roast until the tip of a knife goes through the flesh easily, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven. When they’re cool enough to handle, use a fork to scrape out the flesh. Place it in a bowl and set it aside.Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 3 o 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.Add the tomato paste and stir it in until it’s well blended. Cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes. When the bottom of the pot starts to get dark streaks, pour in the wine and stir it in. Scrape up the dark bits from the bottom of the pot.Add the green pepper, tomatoes, and carrots. Stir and cook 5 minutes. Pour in the broth and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables are tender but still firm, about 10 to 13 minutes. Add the beans, greens, salt, and black pepper. Stir and cook another 5 minutes, or until the greens are tender. Stir in the herbs. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary.*Salting is best done in stages. Add a little bit of salt whenever you add a new ingredient. This gives each item a chance to absorb the salt, and it builds layers of flavor. This kind of instruction is difficult to impart in a recipe, but I have faith in you, my dearest readers.
There’s something about mac ‘n’ cheese that makes people crave it, and it’s become American comfort food. It’s a humble, simplistic dish, but it’s such a part of our culinary landscape that everyone from famous chefs to food bloggers have “elevated” it to something grand. But whether you shave truffles in it, top it with a sunny-side egg, mix in cheese that was made by celibate monks in a cloistered hut in the Himalayas, or garnish it with gold dust, it’s still mac ‘n’ cheese.
But you can definitely make it your own. Use different cheeses and vegetables. If you’re a meat eater, you can add meat as well. Change up the pasta—you can go with the traditional elbows, or choose something more fanciful like gemelli, pipette, or campanelli. The only rule here is that you don’t cook it past al dente (tender but still firm), because it will cook a little more in the oven, and nothing ruins a mac ‘n’ cheese more than wimpy, mushy pasta.
You can use any kind of orange winter squash you like. I happened to have a piece of a round, squat variety that came out of my mother’s garden.
Some days are harder than others, and it’s those days when you need mac ‘n’ cheese. Enjoy!
Roasted Squash Mac ‘n’ Cheese
Makes 4 to 6 servings
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided ½ medium squash (butternut, kabocha, or similar) 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 teaspoons kosher salt freshly ground black pepper 8 oz. short pasta (elbows, gemelli, shells, campanelli, pipette, etc.) 1 teaspoon table salt 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1¾ cups whole milk 2 teaspoons dry mustard Pinch of nutmeg 3 cups shredded cheddar 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese 2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs 2 tablespoons plain dry breadcrumbs (regular or whole wheat)
Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to grease a 1½-quart baking dish. Set it aside. Line a large baking sheet with foil or parchment paper.Peel the squash and cut it into small pieces. Place the squash in a bowl; add the oil, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and black pepper to taste. Mix well. Spread the squash out on the baking sheet. Bake until it’s tender and starting to brown, about 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer the squash to the baking dish. Lower the heat to 350 ˚F.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and table salt; cook until the pasta it’s al dente (varies depending on what pasta you use, but generally 8 to 10 minutes). Drain thoroughly and add it to the squash.Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium pan. Stir in the flour and whisk for about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking often, until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the mustard, nutmeg, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and black pepper to taste.Stir in the cheddar and let it melt in. Pour into the baking dish with the squash and pasta. Mix well.Melt the remaining butter in a small pan. Add the parmesan and bread crumbs and stir to coat. Spread this over the mac ‘n’ cheese. Bake until it’s bubbly and a bit browned on top, about 30 to 35 minutes. Enjoy!
The squash family has many variations. There are the well-known types, such as butternuts, sweet dumplings, kabocha, spaghetti, zucchini, pattypan, and numerous others. But there are so many lesser know varieties, some you would never see except when they appear in neighbors’ gardens.
Giant pear squash
If you visit farmers’ markets, you can find some other squash varieties, but you won’t generally find them in most stores. However, every once in a while, an unusual type will show up in my local produce market. And that’s exactly what happened with the giant pear squash.
Giant pear squash is so called because…well, take a look at it. It’s aptly named. (Yes, it really is as big as it looks in the photo. The photo is not distorted in any way.) It has a very mild flesh, somewhat similar to yellow summer squash. It can easily be used in any dish that requires a mild squash, or as a substitute for zucchini.
You want to cut out the spongy core of the giant pear squash. Not because it’s inedible, but because it contains seeds that are too hard to eat. They kind of look like chulpe, a Peruvian dried corn (see photos below).
So, after I made Butternut-Black Bean Tacoslast week, I had some butternut squash left over. There were many things I could have done with it, but after finding a beautiful head of kale, I decided to make butternut and kale soup.
This soup is packed with nutrients and it’s just plain delicious. Enjoy.Continue reading →
Leave the zucchini and other fair-weather vegetables to summer. Winter calls for thick-skinned squashes.
My favorite is butternut squash. In my opinion, it not only has the best flavor, but the best texture as well. When cooked down, it’s creamy and smooth, and incredibly diverse.
Roasting brings out the sweetness and beauty in most vegetables, but this is especially true of squash. My mother wanted me to roast squash for Thanksgiving and I wanted to come up with something that was familiar, that I knew would be liked, but something every-so-slightly different. I came up with an easy, delicious honey-soy-mirin glaze and honey-pomegranate sauce…because, you know, pomegranates.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard how healthful pomegranates are. Here’s a quick rundown of their health benefits:
Based on US RDA, one cup of pomegranate seeds contains 7 grams fiber, 3 grams protein, 30% vitamin C, 36% vitamin K, 16% folate, and 12% potassium. They have antiinflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.They help fight cancer, especially prostate and breast, and heart disease, and have been known to improve memory function.
Delicious AND healthy. Do you need anything more? Give this a try on a cold winter day…or even a warm one. Enjoy!
Roasted Butternut Squash with Honey-Soy-Mirin Glaze and Honey-Pomegranate Sauce
1 pomegranate 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon white wine or ginger ale
Grease a baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Peel and seed the squash. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices and place them in a large bowl.In a small bowl, mix together the honey, olive oil, soy sauce, mirin. pour over the squash.
Sprinkle in salt and pepper. Use your hands to spread the mixture over both sides of the squash. Lay the slices neatly on the baking sheet in a single layer.
Roast until almost tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Turn the slices over and continue roasting until fully tender and golden brown at the edges.Meanwhile, make the Honey-Pomegranate Sauce. Cut open the pomegranate and place the pieces in a large bowl of cool water. Separate the seeds from the membrane and discard the skin. Let the membranes rise to the top and scoop them out.Drain in a mesh strainer and rinse.Measure out ½ cup seeds and place in a small pot. Reserve the remaining seeds for the top or another purpose. Mix together the honey and wine and add to pomegranate seeds. Cook over medium-low heat until thickened, about 10 minutes.Transfer cooked squash to a serving platter. Drizzle sauce over top, sprinkle on some fresh pomegranate seeds, and serve.