Some Pasta to Crow About!

March 26, 2013
My family coat of arms from Fanano, Italy.

My family coat of arms from Fanano, Italy.

Roosters have always had a fond place in my heart and in my kitchen. My maternal grandfather’s family coat of arms has three white roosters against a blue chevron and a gold background. A blue chevron signifies protection and the roosters represent the same. Roosters are fierce protectors, similar to your sweet pet Rottweiler, they watch over a barnyard with aplomb, knowing their vigilant duty is to guard the hen folk. I have a rooster in my kitchen, he proudly sits atop my plant shelf reminding me of my ancestral ties and protecting my family from any bad mojo in our home.

What does all this have to do with pasta? Well, there is a pasta shaped like the rooster’s cockscomb or crest…you know the red, wavy doodad on top of Foghorn Leghorn’s head? The pasta is half-moon shaped with a ribbed surface and a curly edge resembling the rooster’s crest. Like elbow macaroni with a Rhianna mohawk! It’s called creste di gallo and it’s no surprise there is a pasta giving nod to such a fearless, courageous animal in Italian history.

Creste di Galli

Creste di Galli

The rooster’s significance in Italy dates back to 1478 and is tied to the most rich and powerful family in Florence, the Medicis . A rival wealthy family, the Pazzis, wanted to gain complete power over the Medicis so they, pardon the pun, hatched a plan to assassinate the Medici brothers, Giuliano and Lorenzo. The Pazzis knew the Medici brothers loved to throw great feasts where the vino flowed until everyone, including the guards, passed out from all the fun. The Pazzis waited until one such night and sent hired goons to the Medici property after the party goers had fallen into catatonic states. The assassins began their sneak attack through the barnyard en route to the estate but their plan was foiled when the Medici roosters began to screech hysterically and attack the intruders. It woke the guards and the brothers who then captured the assassins. Giuliano and Lorenzo were so thankful to the roosters, they held another party in honor of these fortuitous birds. The celebration boasted commissioned wine pitchers made in the shape of roosters, plates emblazoned with the birds, and of course pasta resembling the roosters crest to represent the courage displayed.

Of course this is only legend, the truth of the matter is the Pazzi clan eventually killed Giuliano as he was entering the duomo in Florence one Sunday. His brother, Lorenzo, managed to escape and the townspeople, loyal to the Medicis, made like the mob and took care of the Pazzis in let’s say, fine, mafioso fashion.

Death of Giuliano de' Medici in the Duomo, Florence in 1478.  The Pazzi Conspiracy

Death of Giuliano de’ Medici, The Pazzi Conspiracy

I decided to honor my creste di gallo pasta with a dish I call $40 mac and cheese. Don’t cackle, when you are using pasta symbolizing  the wealthiest and most powerful of Florence you must splurge! It actually costs less than $40 and it does feed a big “brood”. It is absolute creamy, cheesy nirvana and if there are any leftovers you will want to hide them for yourself. Make sure you hire a rooster to protect against intruders pillaging for those last luscious bites.

$40 Mac and Cheese ( a Vixen’s version of Martha Stewart’s Macaroni and Cheese)

Serves 12

Ingredients

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for dish

1/2 cup of bread crumbs or cornflake crumbs

5 1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

4 1/2 cups grated extra sharp cheddar cheese (about 18 ounces, I like Tillamook from Costco)

1 cup grated Gruyère cheese (about 4 ounces) and 3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 3 ounces)

1 pound creste di gallo or other macaroni type pasta

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The cast of characters in your mac and cheese conspiracy.

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish or an 9×11 Pyrex; set aside.

In a medium saucepan heat milk. Melt butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, whisking, 1 minute. While whisking, slowly pour in hot milk. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.

Remove pan from heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 3/4 cup Gruyère and 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano; set cheese sauce aside.

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Fill a large saucepan with water; bring to a boil. Add pasta; cook 2 to 3 minutes less than manufacturer’s directions. Transfer pasta to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce

Pour mixture into prepared dish. Mix together and sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese,1/4 Gruyère or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano, and breadcrumbs or cornflake crumbs over top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool 5 minutes; serve hot. You can divide the recipe in half, but do not hold me responsible when there is an uprising at your dinner table.

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Feasting on Flowers

January 24, 2013

Italians love any excuse for a party.  There are feast days in Italy for everything from food to religious figures to holidays. If you’ve traveled to any small Italian town, chances are you’ve found yourself becoming part of the singing, saint toting crowd parading to the feast where everyone celebrates with tables laden with pasta, sausages, and cannoli.

One such feast is the inspiration behind the pasta I chose for my lip smacking vodka sauce.  Gigli (Jee-lee), Italian for lily, is a pasta shaped like the venerable flower.  The feast, “La Festa Dei Gigli” or “The Festival of the Lilies” is in honor of St. Paulinus.  Every year in Nola, Italy, near Naples, seven days are set aside to party like its 409 A.D.

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 The celebration is held the end of June, when San Paolino returned from captivity, having been held by the Huns in North Africa. As the tale goes, after negotiating the release of all the Nola men, good ol’ Pauli was freed and sailed back to this Neapolitan town, greeted by the overjoyed and grateful townspeople, who were carrying armfuls of lilies picked from the fields.   Shortly after his death, people from the town of Nola, started to carry bouquets of lilies to the church’s altar in the center of town.  Gradually the faithful started to mount their lilies on poles in decorative arrangements and marched them to the center of Nola each year on San Paolino’s feast date. The festival has happened for over a thousand years and features 82 foot high, 5,000 lb. obelisks in the form of lilies, transported on the shoulders of hundreds of men to the sounds of Italian music—and the cheers of adoring spectators. Crazy, no?  Maybe, but a great pasta came out of all this frenetic tradition.

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Gigli pasta is one of my favorites.  It’s conical, sensual shape captures the sauce and charms your dinner guests. As promised, I am going to cover it in my vodka laced, creamy red sauce.  Yes, there really is vodka in the recipe but I won’t worry about serving it to the Jr.s, because the alcohol burns off when cooked. If you don’t have a bottle of Vodka hiding in your sewing cabinet like my great Aunt Giussepina, borrow a cup from your neighbor!

Pasta Alla Vodka

1 pound Gigli or any shape pasta

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

2 Tablespoons Butter

1 whole Medium Onion, Chopped Finely

2 cloves Garlic, Chopped

1 cup of Vodka

1 can (About 14 Oz.) crushed tomatoes

1 cup Heavy Cream

1/2 tsp Red Pepper Flakes

¼ teaspoons (to 1/2 Teaspoon) Salt

Freshly Ground Black Pepper, To Taste

1/2 cup Grated Parmesan Cheese

 

Cook pasta according to package directions, al dente please.

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My little flower bouquet.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and butter. When butter is melted, add in chopped onion and garlic. Stir and allow to cook until onion is translucent. Pour in vodka. Stir and cook for three minutes. Add in crushed tomatoes and red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and stir. 

Reduce heat to low and stir in cream. Allow to simmer, being careful not to overheat.

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Yum…Cream…ignore my green spatula, blame it on William Sonoma

Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta water in case sauce is too thick. Add cooked pasta to the sauce, tossing to combine. Use a little cooking water if it needs it. Stir in Parmesan cheese.

Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and more freshly grated parmesan cheese.

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Now this is worthy of a feast for any Saint.

Now, don’t forget, you are celebrating sacrifice and honor, so place a bouquet of these lovely, creamy covered lilies on your plate, put on some Frank Sinatra, make yourself a Vodka Negroni, and then go ahead, lick the plate, its ok, I wont judge you.

P.S.  Campanelle is another name for this shape of pasta.  It means “little bells” in Italian.  It is the exact same shape as gigli, just has a different “ring” to it.

A Navel Approach to Pasta

December 27, 2012

What charming, culinary delight has its origins entwined with a peeping Tom?   The tortellino.   This single mouthful of flavorful filled pasta has a legend of Tele-novela proportion.  Grab a cappuccino and sit down, because I have two stories to tell you about this ubiquitous little pasta shape.

The first is a 14th century legend that claims Lucrezia Borgia, the femme fatale, illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, spent the night at an inn in a small town, Castelfranco, (a stone’s throw from where my mother grew up in Modena, Italy). The innkeeper was captivated by her beauty and acting upon his attraction, peeked through the keyhole of her room. He could only see a glimpse of her body in the candlelight, specifically her navel. This innocent vision sent him into ecstasy and he was so inspired by what he saw, he headed straight to the kitchen and created a pasta that mimicked her lovely belly button.  Thus the creation of tortellini.

Another similar but more ancient legend, tells how during the Roman Empire, Venus and Jupiter arrived at an inn on the outskirts of Bologna one night, weary from their involvement in a battle. After much food and drink, they shared a room. The innkeeper, awestruck, followed them and peered through the keyhole. All he could see was Venus’s navel. Spellbound, he rushed to the kitchen and created tiny twisted packages of pasta in its image.

botticelli-birth-venus

My first thoughts about these legends were shall we say, unappetizing. Really?  My favorite comfort food in the whole world, tortellini in brodo (broth) was inspired by an innie belly button?  Better than a big toe I suppose, but still rather unappealing.

This small pillow of pasta stuffed with an amalgam of meats, parmesan cheese, nutmeg, and other goodies, has always been the symbol for the culinary tradition of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.  There is even an organization called The Confraternita del Tortellino, a cooking guild devoted to dictating what actually constitutes tortellini and who wear robes and pasta-shaped pendants.  They registered a recipe in 1974 with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce, stating only exact proportions of pork loin, prosciutto crudo, Bolognese mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, eggs and nutmeg was deemed to be the true filling.

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No matter what legend you subscribe or what fillings you choose, making these precious darlings is an exercise in old-world patience and a labor of love, but its end result is magnificent.  If you have ever tasted homemade tortellini you surely must know those plastic boxes of ringed pasta on the Safeway shelf are only masquerading as tortellini.  They don’t even come close to the real thing.

My mother and I and one of the Jr.s, recently made about 125 of these little gems.  The process is time intensive but so worth the raves from Dr. Love and everyone else at the dining table.  I lap the kudos up right along with the homemade broth the tortellini are bobbing in merrily.

Tortellini (makes more than you will have the patience for)

Basic Pasta Dough  (use your favorite recipe or grab one online)

Filling:

1 cup of a mixture of ground chicken, ground pork loin, ground veal, prosciutto and mortadella chopped fine  (you can use any combination or all of the above meats)

1 tablespoon of butter & 1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 clove of garlic, minced & 1 tablespoon of onion, minced

1/4 cup of  parmesan cheese, grated

1 large egg, beaten

salt and pepper to taste

scant 1/8 cup of bread crumbs

1/2 tsp of nutmeg

Melt butter and oil in a pan over moderate heat. Add onion, garlic and cook 2-3 minutes.  In another pan cook meat until juices are clear and drain the fat.  Add nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool slightly, then add garlic and onion, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs and egg, stir until smooth. Mixture should stick together easily, if not, I give it a little whirr in the food processor.

Next I take a piece of  rested pasta dough and roll it thin.  I could roll it out by hand, maybe calling in an assist from Dr. Love’s biceps.  You see, it has to be rolled pretty thin, thin enough to see your hand through the dough. I use a pasta machine instead and crank to the last setting. Perfect!

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    Now lay that beautiful scarf of pasta on a slightly floured surface and plant a row of 1/4 teaspoons of the filling right down the center about one inch or so apart.  Fold over the length of pasta to blanket the filling, seal the edge and around the fillings and cut into squares.  For a fancy border take your ruffled ravioli cutter or go simple and use a knife.

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You can leave them in little squares but then you can’t regale your guests with the belly button legend, so try the tricky part.  Take a square in your hands and fold up the sealed edge like a preppy collar.  Then using thumbs and index fingers, twist the ends towards you and press them together.  It takes a little practice and nimble fingers but I have great faith in your abilities to conquer this!  I am sure you can YouTube someone making tortellini if you need a visual.  Everyone has their own way of folding and twisting but it will come out fine no matter how you finagle it.

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Place your little beauties on a parchment lined cookie sheet, lightly dusted with flour.  You can place the whole pan in the freezer until a bit hardened and then store in a Ziploc bag if you want them for a future meal. When ready to eat, cook in boiling water for 3-5 minutes until al dente, drain and place them lovingly into simmering homemade beef or chicken broth and sprinkle with grated parmesan and fresh chopped italian parsley if you wish.

Now taste. See? You can thank me later.

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Church and State and Pasta?

November 17, 2012

The legends of pasta shapes are often mingled with historical happenings. Of course, as typical of legends, there are many different versions that arise. I happened upon a set of these stories when I picked up a package of strozzapreti pasta at an Italian deli in
San Francisco. The owner, who looked a little like Super Mario, asked if I knew what strozzapreti meant in Italian. I sheepishly admitted “no” in Italian. (Which is the same as in English, which tells you a little about my Italian language skills.)
Mario then said it meant “priest stranglers” and demonstrated by making the universal choking sign around his throat. I left little Italy, quickly, saying a few Hail Mary’s as I passed the Catholic church.
After a little research I found several stories about how the name strozzapreti came to exist. All the legends were based on the fact that in the middle ages the roman catholic church were the landowners in Italy. The peasants paid rents to the church and sometimes in lieu of rent the Italian peasant women would do what they did best and make the priests a good hot meal. Strozzapretti was frequently served. You can choose your favorite story associated with this infamous pasta shape to entertain your diners at home.
1. When the women were forced to make chow for their landlords they were angry enough to choke a priest!
2. The husbands were so livid their wives were making this beautiful pasta for the landowners they wished the priests would choke on the meal.
3. The gluttonous priests loved this pasta so much, they gobbled it too quickly and they choked.

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This pasta is cut from folded pasta dough, then strangled, uh I mean twisted, between the fingers. It is a thicker pasta so holds up well with hearty sauces and pesto. Since my basil is overflowing on my patio, I chose to try it with homemade pesto.
The word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare which means to crush or pound. The pesto I made for the strozzapreti is the one most of you are familiar with, Pesto Genovese. It originated in Genoa, Italy where a mortar and pestle was used to “crush” all the ingredients together to make this mouthwatering emulsion.  Crush, Pound, Strangle…sheesh, my ancestors were a violent bunch!

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Pesto Genovese

Makes 1 Cup

3 tablespoons Pine Nuts, lightly toasted
2 cups fresh Basil Leaves
2 cloves Garlic, peeled
Pinch of Salt
½ cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

Using your mortar and pestle begin by crushing the garlic cloves until creamy…tick tock, tick tock…or if you’re like me and time and patience are limited, throw everything in your blender and let it do it’s thing until the pesto is creamy and lucious. That’s all there is to it! A little of this sauce goes a long way, so you may want to add it to your cooked pasta a few tablespoons at a time until each ” priest choker” is enrobed with just enough basil, garlicky goodness.

Looks like Dr. Love and the Juniors are hungry as Monks after a three day fast. Time to feed the landlords! Since I prefer legend number 3, I better tell them not to devour it too quickly. I haven’t brushed up on my heimlich maneuver in a while.

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You’re Not Chinese!

September 13, 2012

There is a Seinfeld episode where Jerry had the notion he was about to date a Chinese woman because her surname was Chang. He was surprised at their first date that indeed she was not Chinese, she had shortened her name from Changstein! She was blonde and blue eyed and tall. So guess we can’t judge a person or a pasta by name alone. Enter the pasta known as vermicelli or thin spaghetti. Although Italian in name, (it means little worms), it is versatile in many cultures and has been around since 400 BC. Geez, I love when I find things way older than me! So you see, although Italian by surname, I decided I wanted to try Vermicelli in my kitchen in an Asian dish.

My mouth was watering when I happened upon this Spicy Thai Noodle recipe, so knew it was one to try one day soon. That day has come. I had some chicken I had grilled thinking Dr. Love would not be home for dinner (he is “not a chicken fan”) so when plans changed and he was coming home after all, I needed a quick, clever disguise for his least favorite protein. He does love peanut butter, so I thought this recipe would be worth the gamble of poultry at the table.

Vermicelli

The Vermicelli only takes 6 minutes to cook, so I went to work on the rest, while it cooled down a bit slathered in the chili olive oil. I enlisted my youngest jr. to pick out all the peanuts out of the can of nut mix I had on hand. Not only did I get my peanuts for my recipe, but he turned the lowly nut mix into a gourmet nut mix and it kept him busy! In the meantime I worked on the peanut butter mixture.

oooh peanut butter…

The mixture was a little thick so I added a little more oil and soy sauce til it looked smooth. It smells so heady and exotic. I used Chili olive oil from Queen Creek Olive Mill, http://queencreekolivemill.com, my favorite. I halved the sesame oil cuz I think its such a strong flavor and I just like a bit of it. I did use all the red pepper flakes and then some, my family likes it hot.

A quick chop of the peanuts, cilantro and green onions and as soon as they were scattered on the top, the pasta came to life. All I needed was a fortune cookie to tell me if Dr. Love would like it or not. All he could say was “mmmm” so I think this recipe, and the chicken had good fortune.

Spicy Thai Yum

Spicy Thai Noodles with grilled Chicken
1/2 c. smooth peanut butter
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 c. soy sauce
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
3 tbsp. sesame oil
1/8 cup of chili oil, or more to taste
1 lb. thin spaghetti or vermicelli
1/4 c. olive oil2 grilled chicken breasts, seasoned with salt and pepper and cut into chunks
8 green onions, washed trimmed, cut diagonally into 1/2 inch pieces
1/3 c. chopped cilantro
4 tbsp. peanuts, chopped or whole (I used a little of both)Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain thoroughly; toss with chili olive oil. Let it come to room temperature, tossing frequently. Whisk peanut butter, lemon juice and soy sauce until smooth. Blend in red pepper flakes, and oils. Pour peanut mixture over the noodles; toss gently to coat. Add green onions, chicken and cilantro leaves; toss. Garnish with sprigs of cilantro and peanuts and a few green onion slices. Makes 6-8 servings.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

July 25, 2010

San Diego is our favorite escape from the broasting heat of Arizona summers. Lazy days by the beach and easy dinners are in order, so when we are not grilling we whip up a simple pasta dish. One such night was when the Jrs. and I were wandering around Little Italy in downtown after dropping Dr. Love at the airport, and we happened upon our favorite italian deli. Ok, I admit, we go in there for the amazing italian pignoli cookies which bring dreamy smiles to our faces when we bite into them. So while we made our way to the counter where these gems loom behind in plastic lined boxes, doled out by the italian man behind the register, I spotted a pasta shape I had not seen before now. Occhi Lupo Rigatoni. I scooped them up, along with some chewy fresh italian bread in a paper bag and knew it was pasta night.

Occhi di Lupo literally means Eyes of the Wolf, which has its roots in the italian culture. The wolf seems to be the center of some interesting folklore. In Italy it is believed that there is a noxious influence in the eye of a wolf; it is supposed that it will instantly take away the voice of a man, if it is the first to see him. In Italian they also say “in bocca al lupo” (in the mouth of the wolf) instead of “break a leg” in the theater and it is a tradition for opera singers to give a toast to the wolf before a performance. In Italian history, the Devil is often compared to the Wolf. In the Opera world, the devil…ie the wolf, is the forgetting of the words or otherwise flubbing the aria. So to not spit in the Wolf’s eye, is akin to being aware of problems that may arise and steering clear of them. More wolf associations occur in the catholic story of St Francis of Assisi who tamed a violent wolf who wreaked havoc on the city of Gubbio in Italy.

And if that’s not enough, there’s even a song named Occhi di Luppo sung by Italian rock recording artist Sergio Borsato. All I could gather from listening to it was something about the moon and needing the eye of the wolf, so much for my translation skills.

Enough history, let’s eat. As I mentioned, I’m on vacation so as the title of this entry suggests, I’m going to “pull the wool over your eyes” , well over the wolf’s eyes and use (oh the shame) jarred pasta sauce. I browned a pound of ground sirloin sprinkled with oregano, basil and some s and p, drained it and poured on the little red riding hood’s grandmother fake out sauce. Actually it was Barilla’s spicy marinara.

My oh my, what a big label you have...

I mean if you’re going to cut corners, may as well make ‘em yummy and use some decent stuff.

see what simple can do?

Then like the three little pigs when they tricked the wolf into the pot of boiling water, I threw in the Ochhi di Lupo pasta and followed the roughly translated instructions on the imported pasta bag. It said, word for word, I kid you not, “at the right cooking point it must be removed from the heat, taking care to pour a glass of cold water on it and it must not be drained completely.” Turned out the right cooking point was about 10 minutes, I skipped the cold water and did leave a little pasta water. Never know when the wolf eyes are watching me and heaven knows I need my voice.

The Jr’s piled their bowls full of pasta and ladled on the sauce for our lazy supper. It was perfection. No need for anything else but a glass of wine for Mommy and a hunk of that Italian bread. Oh heavens, those little wolf eyes soaked up the ragu so beautifully in their ridges and the texture of this thick pasta was perfect for the hearty meat sauce. It was love at first bite…wait that’s vampires not wolves, isn’t it? I’m sure the Stephanie Meyers fans out there will get the connection.

On that happy note, we’re off to the beach!

Stone Soup…the Tuscan Way

February 25, 2010

When my family visited Florence a few years ago, we were quickly enamored with this beautiful city. The amazing vegetable and fruit stands, the architecture, the people and of course, the food.

aaah florence

One evening when we were there, my father in law asked the hotel concierge where he could go to get good grilled fish. She stared at him blankly and composed herself and her words to tell him “Florence is not known for its feesh, it is known for its meat!” Grilled meats, brothy soups , pastas and, famously, beans are what Tuscans cook.

One such example is the deliciously simple ribollita. While this is now a popular dish in Tuscany and beyond, its roots are in the servants homes or in the farmhouse. It reminds me of the children’s book “Stone Soup.”

Once upon a time, somewhere in post-war Eastern Europe, there was a great famine in which people jealously hoarded whatever food they could find, hiding it even from their friends and neighbors. (kinda like what you do with Dove chocolate when you have children in the house). So this folktale tells of a young wayfarer who tricks an old woman into making him a hearty soup, despite her hoarding personality. When she refuses him food, he asks her for a pot of water. Then he puts a stone into it and waits for it to become stone soup. “It’s cooking fast now,” says the hungry young man, “but it would cook faster with some onions.” Soon the old woman has added vegetables, meat bones, barley and butter, musing at the miracle of stone soup.

Like the book, Ribollita soup gets better with each addition of food over time. The history of ribollita, which literally means “reboiled” in Italian, is that servants in the middle ages would make a broth and over a period of two or three days add any bits of leftovers and scraps they could obtain from the big, fat nobles at the castle banquets. Vegetables, beans, kale or spinach, wild herbs, bits of beef, anything that was edible really would be tossed into the broth. Bread was added to thicken the conglomeration and the whole thing was “reboiled” as a hearty meal. Of course as with most soups, the flavors would meld and get better over time, transforming into a yummy dish.

I have my own version of this dish. One cold, wintery day, ( well as wintery as you can get in Phoenix, Arizona,) I ran across a recipe in Sunset magazine for Tuscan Bean Soup. Since I had all the ingredients the Jr’s and I decided to whip it up! It was an updated version of Ribollita from their January 2009 issue. Of course, being the pasta vixen I added PASTA and for Dr. Love, his beloved protein, beef. After all, this is a Tuscan dish and they don’t serve feesh!

The ingredients

I chose to use ditalini (diht-ah-LEE-nee) . These little cuties are short cut pasta and their name literally means ‘little thimbles.’ They are small ring like tubes that I guess could fit like a thimble if you were Tom Thumb. Most people love ditalini because though it is small it is mighty and holds up well in soups and other dishes. And lets face it, it’s really fun to say, makes you feel so Italian. So here is the recipe for my stone soup with Tom Thumb thimbles.

little thimbles

Stone Soup ala Pasta Vixen

Total Time: 50 minutes
Serves: 6 normal people or 4 if there are two teenage boys in the house

Ingredients

  • About 3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 white onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 pound organic cooked ground beef (optional)
  • 1/4 pound of ditalini pasta
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped into 1/2-in. pieces
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped into 1-in. pieces
  • 1 1/2 qts. chicken broth (vege broth is good too or just use a stone, tee hee)
  • 1 can (15 oz.) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can 15 oz of diced canned tomatoes plus some juice
  • 2 cups rough chopped Swiss chard
  • 4 cups rough-textured day-old bread (such as ciabatta), ripped into 1 1/2-in. pieces (I used a whole grain artisan crusty Italian bread)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • one bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • Wedge of parmesan cheese for grating (optional)

Preparation

1. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and celery and cook, stirring often, 5 minutes.

in you go my little goodies

Stir in broth, wine, beans, beef, salt and pepper and herbs then bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 15 minutes. Add tomatoes, ditalini and chard and simmer another 20 minutes, covered.

mmmm...smells divine

2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°. Lay bread pieces on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toast in oven until slightly golden, about 10 minutes. Set croutons aside.

3. Divide soup among serving bowls and top each with a few warm croutons. Grate parmesan directly over soup if you like. add a drizzle of good olive oil too, yum.

Oh me, Oh my, heart warming, soulful goodness in a bowl!

He Loves Me…He Loves My Harlequin Pasta

February 10, 2010
Ah, Valentine’s Day, my favorite holiday of the year. It probably started with all those little cards in my homemade shoebox covered with red and white doilies and pink construction paper in grade school. Perhaps the little conversation heart candies with “Be Mine” and “Too Sweet” stamped on them. Now they say things like “Email me” and “How ‘bout a threesome?” but I still like’em. And today? Oh, the pink and red theme, the roses, diamonds shaped like hearts, and of course the big heart chocolate boxes! I love, love, love everything about this romantic day, so when I found a cellophane package of Love Pasta I placed it in my cart immediately. It was made in Italy and a recipe on the back label in Italian was named “Cuori dell amore arlecchina.” (Heart Shaped Harlequin Pasta) The heart shaped pasta was red and white and green, typical of a Harlequin’s colorful clothes and from what I could decipher from the little Italian I know, the recipe had all sorts of colorful vegetables. So, when Dr. Love said he was coming home for lunch (a rare occasion), I thought a little Harlequin Heart Pasta Salad would be the perfect thing to remind him Valentine’s day was right around the corner.

Ok, before I get to the recipe, it’s time to bore you with a little love history about Valentine’s Day and while I’m at it, Harlequins. I just love how the harlequin theme combined with Valentine’s day is so full of romance! Who knew? Remember reading Harlequin Romances with a flashlight under your covers when you were a teenager? Well, I think I know why they named those books Harlequin. The Harlequin, or Arlecchino in Italian, was the Zanni (where the English word Zany originates), or the comic servant in Italian Commedia dell’arte. It was kind of an outdoor improvisational theater in the 16th century. The harlequin was dressed in tights and multicolored diamond patterned clothing, made from patches and rags, and he was depicted as the gluttonous buffoon. Of course, being a clever acrobatic athletic type, he always had a love interest and would try to win any lady for himself if he chanced upon someone else trying to woo her. He did this by interrupting or ridiculing the competition. Men still do this today, don’t they? Maybe that’s why we buy them those popular colorful argyle sweaters for Christmas! Linking the Harlequin idea with Valentine’s Day is becoming clear as the diamonds in that necklace you are hoping for, isn’t it?

Harlequins, the symbol of romance, ludicrous men and the argyle sweater

Well, as for the story of Valentine’s Day itself, leave it to those Romans once again. Saint Valentine (Valentio) was a Roman who was killed for his faith on February 14, 269 A.D. He had refused to worship pagan gods, and was arrested and incarcerated for marrying young Christian lovers in secret. In 496, his ‘saint day’ was established. Folklore tells us he is also associated with love because he fell in love with the daughter of his jailer, and would pass notes to her. His final note, before they lopped off his head at his execution, read ‘from your Valentini’. How ’bout that? Now you have a romantic tale to tell your sweetheart over this yummy Harlequin Pasta Salad. Maybe leave out that little detail about Valentini’s head being removed, not appetizing. I can tell you this, Dr. Love was so smitten with my pasta salad and my Scheherazade-like tales of romance he was tempted to take the rest of the day off after lunch. I told him to get back to work because he’ll need the money to buy me those roses, jewelry and chocolates for the big day.

St Valentine marries young lovers

And now the recipe for the love lunch:

Insalata de Cuori dell Amore Arlecchina

aka

Heart Shaped Harlequin Pasta Salad

  • 1 lb of heart shaped pasta or any tri colored short shaped pasta (farfalle, rotini, etc.), cooked al dente, rinsed, drained and slightly cooled.
Bless their sweet little hearts…
  • ¼ cup of feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup each of whatever chopped colorful vege you have, the more the merrier.
Carrots, celery, red or green bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes halved, artichoke hearts, brocolli, zuchinni, hearts of palm, etc.
  • 1/4 cup sliced kalamata or black olives
  • 1/2 cup of diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup julienned sun dried tomatoes

(Let’s face it, this is your chance to use all those raw veges in the fridge you swore would be your only snack all week. That was until they were forgotten when you needed those potato chips to get you through the drama of watching the latest bachelorettes duke it out on The Bachelor. Aaah, romance.)

  • 1 can of cannellini or kidney beans (Dr. Love would ask “Where’s the protein?” if I didn’t add this ingredient.)

Combine all ingredients and gently fold in dressing. (recipe below) Cover and refrigerate for an hour or two. You might need a little more dressing as it absorbs while chilling.

Harlequin ingredients waiting to swoon with the heart shaped pasta

The Dressing

  • 1/4 Cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • A couple sprinkles of herbs de Provence (doesn’t that sound romantic? Or dried oregano and basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a cruet and shake your money maker, whoops I mean the bottle.

Oh, Be Still My Heart…Harlequin Pasta in a Valentine Bowl

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Ziti…I Do, I Do.

February 3, 2010

I wanted the first recipe I share with you to be of gargantuanely yummy proportion so thought I would share this baked ziti recipe. It’s from one of my favorite Italian celebrity chefs, Mario Batali. You know, the guy with the orange crocs. I adore him because he opened our favorite pizzeria in all the world, Mozza in Los Angeles. If I just look at the menu online I am drooling. Sigh.

Ok, back to the ziti. This short shape pasta has been the desired guest at tons of Sicilian weddings. The definition of the word ziti is controversial. Some say it means “bridegrooms”, others claim the word means “spinsters or bachelors”. The Barilla Pasta company say: Ziti gets its name from the word zita which means a young woman who is about to become a bride, or “little girl.” In parts of Italy, baked ziti has been served at weddings, as part of their tradition. The online dictionary says it is derived from the Italian plural of zito, meaning boy. Well, I guess I get the picture, boys, girls, bachelors, bridesgrooms, spinsters all coming together in one place, the Big Fat Italian wedding. Baked pasta with little ridges to catch all that lovely sauce and cheese, was a cheap way for the bride’s parents to feed those giant Italian families and all the wedding crashers, so they named this 2 inch wonder, ziti. Of course there are as many recipes for baked ziti as there are snappy Italian mother in-laws, but the one I am about to share with you is worth dancing the Tarantella with Uncle Franco, twice.

Why did I decide to make ziti for something other than the merging of a zito and zita? Well, a daughter of a dear friend just gave birth to her first child, a beautiful little ( if you call 8.5 pounds little) bundle of joy. Gasp, it seems that we were just attending her wedding yesterday, well, ok, it was two years ago, but it got me thinking about weddings and of course, ziti. I wanted to bring a nice dinner to the new parents, because having 4 of my own little jrs., I knew they would appreciate a home cooked meal amidst the crying and diaper dashes. So… I whipped them up a pan of Mario’s “Baked Zita al Telefono.” In traditional Italian cooking, any dish made with mozzarella cheese can carry the name “al telefono,” a playful reference to the way the melted cheese strings out and looks like telephone wires. I doubled the recipe so I could feed Dr. Love and the Jrs. later tonight.

…before it gets wrapped up in cheesy wiry goodness

Baked Ziti al Telefono

recipe courtesy of mario batali Serves: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ziti pasta, preferably Italian
  • 2 cups basic tomato sauce (use mario’s recipe http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/basic-tomato-sauce or your own secret sauce or your favorite jarred marinara)
  • 2 cups besciamella sauce (béchamel sauce)
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

Directions for Besciamella Sauce :

Make this first. Warning: if you taste it, you will want to slurp it up, so please try to save some for the ziti!

Ingredients

  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Directions

In a medium saucepan, heat butter until melted. Add flour and stir until smooth. Over medium heat, cook until light golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat milk in separate pan until just about to boil. Add milk to butter mixture 1 cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth and bring to a boil. Cook 30 seconds and remove from heat. Season with salt and nutmeg and set aside. oh yeah.

Next, get your bread crumbs and your cheeses ready to roll. I used a crispy french roll and my handy dandy grater.

Cook ziti according to package instructions until al dente. Remove, drain and refresh in cold water. Drain again and place in large mixing bowl. Add tomato sauce, besciamella, mozzarella and grated cheese and stir to mix well. This is where it starts to get good.

Divide among 4 gratin dishes, sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake in oven until bubbling and crusty on top, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

There it is, in all its cheesy glory, waiting for our forks like a bride at the altar.

Oh Good Lord in Heaven, even Heidi Klum would break her diet for this one. Creamy layers of flavor that melt in your mouth with just the right amount of honeymoon deliciousness. It’s the beautiful nutmeg scented white sauce that brings this dish to Batali heights. Dr. Love is going to want to marry me all over again when he tastes this one, even if it means having my Italian family at the wedding.

Uh-Oh , How did all of this begin??

January 27, 2010

It is mind boggling to decide which shape of pasta to introduce you to first because so many intriguing forms of this ancient food. First, I probably should dispel any myths and get your basic history lesson out of the way.

The word pasta is from the Latin word meaning “dough or pastry cake.”
Schoolchildren are taught that Venetian merchant Marco Polo brought back pasta from his journeys in China. Truth be told dry pasta was unknown to the Chinese. What Polo brought was actually rice flour pasta, the soft kind from which Chinese dumplings had been made, think Dim Sum. Actually, it was the Arabs who brought pasta as we know it to Italy via the Silk Road when they conquered Sicily, I think around the 8th century. The Arabs brought durum wheat, which Italian law still requires the use of in its pasta.

The word “maccharone” (thus, the term macaroni) derives from the Sicilian term for making dough forcefully; early pasta-making was a labor-intensive process. The word originates from the latin meaning to “torture or macerate.” So I guess because they tortured that lovely dough, kneading and shaping and cutting and extruding it, the term maccheroni was used. It eventually was known as “pasta secca” or dried pasta.

I was fascinated when I learned it was eaten using the hands and sold as street food by vendors called maccharonaros who cooked it over a coal-stoked fire; it was eaten on the spot, plain or sprinkled with grated sheep or goat cheese, no sauce.   They would take the strips of pasta in their hands, tilt their heads back like baby birds and let the cooked dough slide into their mouths. (I think this might catch on these days as state fair food, something like Cone o’ Pasta, served with a wet wipe. What do ya think?) The people who ate it this way were known as the lazzaroni of Naples, a gang of ne’er do wells and idlers.  Growing up with an Italian speaking mother I remember that term being used often towards the teenage boys in the neighborhood.

 The wealthy, who probably refused to eat anything with their hands, fa fa fa, ate only fresh pasta stuffed with cheeses and meats—lasagna-like preparations and/or the newer dumpling styles from China. Then in 1700 one of King Ferdinand’s worker bees thought to use a fork with four short prongs to eat the long strings of cooked dried pasta. After that, eating pasta became a common practice. Pasta could be served at feasts all over Italy, and from there to all of Europe and the world. Pasta spread through southern Italy and other shapes appeared, including spaghetti, vermicelli and others. Pasta was still an artisan product, handmade locally by small family businesses. (I think these are still the best pasta’s, artisan and handmade.)

Thomas Jefferson actually is credited for bringing the lovely stuff to the States. He was the ambassador to France and decided to bring home one of those fancy contraptions known as a maccheroni machine. Then the wave of Italian immigration that began toward the end of the 19th century was ultimately responsible for pasta triumphing as an American staple. From 1880 to 1921, more than five million Italians immigrated to America, three quarters of them from south of Rome. Pasta factories sprouted up faster than you could say rigatoni and everything from World War II to the Great Depression increased its sales. It was cheap, nutritious, easy to prepare and supported the American wheat farmer all at the same time. It is no wonder, that even today with lo carb fads and diet queens, pasta is still on the hit parade list for Americans, especially in these grave economic times.

I grew up as a first generation Italian-American. My mother made (and still does at 92 years of age) homemade ravioli and tortellini. I remember begging her for a can of Franco American spaghetti-o’s when I was about 8 years old. As I recall the commercial on our black and white TV showed a little boy running through the streets of Italy, going home for lunch, a steaming bowl of the canned o’s waiting on his table. He looked so happy and I was and still am a sucker for dark, handsome males. So naturally I wanted what he had. My mother finally gave in and served me a bowl for lunch. I can probably count it as one of the all time worst culinary experiences of my life. “Uh-oh spaghetti o’s” pretty much described my feelings as well as the jingle.

And even though the article in my airplane magazine begs to differ, there are really only around 350 different types of pasta, but probably four times as many names for them. They are categorized into a few groups: long shape, flat pasta, short shaped and tubular pasta, small pasta for soup, stuffed and Asian type. Certain shapes of pasta and sizes are used for specific purposes, while others can be used in several different manners and new shapes are designed and named every day. Italians express their regional differences through the different shapes of their pasta. So I am going to explore as many of them as possible. Boldly embracing all forms.