Archive for February, 2010

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!

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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.