Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

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


  • 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)


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


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!

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.

The Vixen Travels The Road to Pasta Bliss

January 21, 2010


What leads me down this road to Pasta Bliss?  Three men and an airplane ride.  Making my way to a weekend by the sea, I was sipping my complimentary beverage and browsing through the sky magazine when suddenly, there it was.  A one page article awash with illustrations of pasta, all sorts of pasta. The title blared, “There are more than 600 shapes of pasta.”   Be still, and I have only tried a trifle of handfuls in my half century here on earth??  I read the article, it said it would take 20 months to eat through all the types. I  poked my seat row neighbor, Jr. #3 (one of my children), and showed him the article.  His eyebrows raised and being a boy in his teens who thinks about food all day long, he said, “Let’s try them all!”  DING!  This was better than no luggage fees.  What if we did just that?  What if we plowed our forks through every shape of pasta we could find? It could be a great adventure.  A family bonding.  A chance for me to explore my Italian heritage and an excuse to try all those recipes I always file away.  Hmmm…

 I thrust the magazine across the aisle to my husband, let’s call him Dr. Love (a family physician, a pasta lover and my personal Romeo all rolled into one), and as I watched him drool while reading, I mentioned row 5, seat a and b’s plan.  Without missing a breath he said, “I’m in.”   You have to understand, Dr. Love LOVES pasta. More than Oprah craves potato chips, more than Brad lusts for Angelina, more than Julie adores Julia, he LOVES pasta.  I can’t be sure but I think this played a major role in his decision to marry me, the Italian girl who made him ravioli on our third date.  Alas, Jr. #4 (my youngest son) overheard this goofy plan and wasn’t quite as sold on the project as the rest of us.   We were certain it wouldn’t take long before we had him on the noodle train, or should I say plane?  Who knew there were so many pasta shapes in this world and my family would be brave enough to encounter as many of them as they could?

When we returned home from the fated trip, I started collecting pasta shapes. Annelini, cavatappi, orrechieti, gigli, pipe rigate, oh my goodness.  Coming home with my bags of pasta wonders, I researched each shape and  I was pleasantly surprised to find fascinating history and folklore surrounding these silhouettes of dough.  That’s when I decided to blog about our quest to try them.  You people need to know this information; it will make your pasta experience richer than your Alfredo sauce.  You will never look at tortellini the same way again, I guarantee it.  Of course you need a recipe and photos to accompany each one so I will share those with you too.  They will inspire you to delve into my newfound world of endless macaroni figures.

The shape of pasta to come into your life from this blog is gonna rock your pasta lovin’ heart.