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Friday, August 27, 2010

Pasta e piselli; upcoming blogs

Pasta e piselli, pasta and peas! It was chilly and rainy for a few days this past week, a welcome change from the unending heat and humidity this summer. I was pining for a warm dish that was quick and easy to prepare. Yours truly had been trying for months to duplicate a childhood dish with little success until last week. I had been asking some Italian neighbors for their family recipes, and of course checking the internet for ideas. Every recipe I tried was blah, off-tasting, pasty, and definitely not what I was aiming for.

So I was delighted when my own family came through! A simple question to cousin Mary and sister-in-law Chris unearthed an old family recipe from Aunt Mary and Aunt Dora that turned out simply delectable. Why did I not think to look in my own backyard?

The result was a fresh, sweet, thick, tomato sauce, with tender spring peas that made tiny little explosions in my mouth. Lightly seasoned, no garlic or herbs, only onion, a truly light touch. That is the key, by the way, to cooking tomato sauce with vegetables. Garlic, basil or oregano or other strong tasting herbs tends to interfere with the sweet, fresh taste of the vegetables.

This is a very easy dish and very child friendly.


3 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped fine
1 28 ounce can crushed tomato sauce, Tuttorosso is best
1 box of frozen early peas, best quality (I am not up to shelling peas, yet!)
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pasta of your choice
Grated cheese, pecorino romano works well.

Saute, or "sweat" the onions in the olive oil until translucent. Do not brown. Pour in tomato sauce and peas, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 20 minutes or so on a medium low flame until the sauce thickens. Pour it over hot pasta, sprinkle with grated cheese.


I had the pleasure of attending a cooking demonstration at the New York Botanical Gardens on Thursday, August 26. The Executive Chef, Jeremy Bearman, at Rouge Tomate ( on 60th St. in Manhattan, demonstrated a completely authentic version of Sicilian Caponata, which is as ubiquitous in a Sicilian restaurant as salsa is in a Mexican restaurant. It consists of eggplant as well as a variety of sweet and savory ingredients in a kind of homemade catsup, which is really a savory tomato paste. I will attempt this recipe and report on it next week. There is an interesting technique to it, and I learned some tips that I will pass on to you.

In the upcoming weeks, I plan to write about other authentic Italian and Sicilian home recipes. You will not find these in any cookbook! I will also do an update on ice wine, which fascinates me for some reason. I have been sampling other varieties and found out some more interesting information.

A final word: Please don't mourn the end of summer. Let that big harvest moon hanging in the sky remind you that right now, Farmer's Markets are overflowing with fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits at their peak of perfection!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Italian Fast Food: Pesto!

This week's entry will be about one of my family's favorite meals: Basil pesto with pasta. Pesto sauce originated in Genoa in northern Italy. The word pesto is derived from the Italian word meaning to pound or crush, from the same Latin root as pestle in English. Actually, classic Italian pesto is supposed to be made with a mortar and pestle. Unfortunately I am unwilling to do the hard manual labor required to make the sauce in that way. I understand that the old fashioned way is the preferable way and is supposed to taste much better than the one made with most people's preferred method, which is with the food processor or blender. If I decide to use the mortar and pestle method, I will definitely make a taste comparison and report back to you!

I have been making pesto sauce since we learned we could grow basil in the back yard, and if you didn't do some major harvesting, it would completely take over. The one or two leaves you pluck for flavoring sauces and other dishes simply were not enough, and if you freeze it, it turns into a black tasteless mush once defrosted. Not very appetizing. So pesto is the way to go.

Pesto sauce is so popular with my family, I became emboldened to actually smuggle (customs was interested in hair gel and nailclippers, I was lucky) a giant pillow of basil seeds from a garden store in Venice a few years ago. A garden store in Venice is odd if you think of it, all the streets are water and the backyards are stone. Italians, however, will always find a way. Anyway, the seeds only lasted two years and took a long time to germinate and still weren't altogether right...I guess they needed to be in Venice or at least somewhere in Sunny Italy and not a backyard in the Bronx. I got a few batches of sauce out of them, though.

I never been known to order basil pesto in a restaurant or buy it by the jar in my local Italian market. It never looks right! It always looks oily and loose, and way too finely pureed. I did decide to try it as a research project while dining with a good friend at a fine Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, Bello Giardino, the other day. I figured that with their spot-on meatballs (they won a 5 Borough Award for Best Meatballs: who knew there was such an award? Which restaurants are runners-up? I need to know this.) and almost perfect meat sauce, it was worth a try. Well, although tasty, their pesto sauce did not pass muster. It was laced with cream, way too bland and buttery tasting. It was a pale green, not a robust dark green like mine, and the cheese was probably parmagiana, which is way to subtle. At least for my taste. And where was the garlic?

My basil pesto is strongly flavored with extra virgin olive oil, basil and garlic and salty, zesty Pecorino Romano cheese. If I have pine nuts in my pantry when the basil is ready to pick, I add that. I add no other condiments. I do love a recipe with only five ingredients, sometimes four!

For the pasta, I usually use linguine, although spaghetti, fusilli, and wider fettucine works well too. In a pinch, I have used ziti or even gemelli. I prefer Barilla pasta, which has a wonderful texture. I don't know how they do it, but for the most part, unless you forget about it and cook it into total mush, it comes out al dente. Any pasta will work, although I think egg noodles are way too delicate.

Here is the recipe:


I have varied the amounts in the recipe so you can tailor it to your personal preferences.

1/2 to 3/4 cup of the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup to 1 1/2 of grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3-4 cups of basil leaves, rinsed and stems removed
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
1 pound linguine or other pasta, preferably Barilla

Boil water for pasta and cook according to package directions.

For this recipe you will need a food processor. If you have a blender, that will work as well but you must stop periodically to push down the leaves with a wooden spoon so they will blend more uniformly.

Some recipes call for placing the basil in the processor bowl or blender first, but I prefer to place the oil with the garlic in first and process for for about 20-30 seconds, and then add the pine nuts, process for 5-10 seconds until they too are fully incorporated. This way the garlic and pine nuts will be broken down and you will not find any errant pieces of garlic or nut in your final product. Then I turn on the food processor once again and add the basil through the feed tube until it is pureed, for another 20-30 seconds or so. With a spatula, scrape the sauce out of the processor or blender container and into a glass or ceramic bowl. Add the 1 to 1 1/2 cup of grated cheese to the mixture. Add more if needed. Some recipes call for salt and pepper, but I find the Pecorino Romano cheese to be salty enough, and the pepper unnecessary. Just make sure you do not use Parmigiana, because it is too subtle! The sauce should be thick, not be runny or oily. Add more grated cheese to make it the right consistency.

Cook the pasta al dente, which means in Italian, "to the tooth". It should be firm at the center, not mushy, and not too hard. When the pasta is done, save some of the pasta water. Rinse the pasta in a colander to prevent sticking, and place in a large ceramic bowl. I use a spaghetti server to make sure the strands are separated. Add the pesto sauce and mix with two wooden spoons, as if you were mixing a salad, using the pasta water by teaspoonfuls if necessary to make it easier to incorporate into the pasta. The sauce should adhere to the pasta completely. Totally green pasta! After the pasta is plated, your guests might want to add more grated cheese, so make sure that is available. Serve immediately, with a green salad with garden tomatoes with vinaigrette, and crusty Italian bread.

Italian fast food, with a minimum of fuss!

Enjoy the rest of the summer, it is going fast!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just call me!

This week I would like to talk about some of the surprising experiences I had in Canada...notably sampling the most delicious peaches I have had in the Northeast, as well as the vineyards. Sorry for the week delay but we were unplugged for that long for this delightful trip.

This summer we decided to take a road trip instead of risking a plane trip with crazy passengers and flight attendants, and travel to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls. While most of the food choices in that part of Canada seem to be hamburgers and anything fried, and very British-influenced (which is to say unconcerned with any kind of interesting cuisine) I was delightfully surprised at the quality of the fruits and vegetables in some of the local markets. We got a hint of this in Ottawa when we visited the fun and always hopping Byward Market, a concentration of fruit and vegetable markets, crafts, and interesting restaurants as well as a great people watching area, right in the middle of this majestic and architecturally interesting city. As it was the beginning of our trip, and with no place to store them, I felt I had to forgo purchasing any of the fragrant and attractively displayed fruit. I was so tempted to buy mounds of local peaches, grapes, blueberries and even fresh, and loose, cranberries. I wish there had been a way!

When we arrived in Niagara Falls for the last leg of our trip, I had no idea what was in store when we took an unexpected trip to Niagara-on-the-lake, a half hour trip northward along the Niagara River. We had arrived from Toronto, filled with bar food for the most part, and had already spent a couple of days ogling the Falls in total awe. Even though Niagara Falls itself is very commercial and busy, and again seems to revel in chain restaurants and bar food, we were lucky to be tucked in a hotel in a quieter section of the Falls area, with a picture window overlooking it all. I had given up, however, on any other than routine food experiences until we took our little trip to that small town up north.

We found out that the Niagara River and the lake it empties into, Lake Ontario, is surrounded by very rich and fertile land. There are numerous fruit farms and orchards in the area, which grow the most delicious fruit. We were told that most of the small farmers could not hire enough workers to maintain their orchards so many of the farmers converted their land to vineyards with much success. That section of Ontario has ideal growing conditions for fruit, especially certain kinds of grapes and happens to be at the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France, surprisingly.

Niagara-on-the-lake, located on Lake Ontario, is a picturesque town with many cultural amenities. It has a walkable town center and with interesting shops and restaurants, surrounded by lovely homes. It has many bed-and-breakfasts, and numerous opportunities for wine tours, which is a major attraction. After spending a day in the town, we visited a few wineries on the way home and sampled some of their most delicious wines, including ice wines which are very expensive and made by extracting drops of the sweetest juices from grapes that have been frozen on the vines for three days. Ice wine is sweet, but not with the cloying sweetness of some German wines or port. It has the taste of the sweetness of fresh fruit...sweet with a satisfying hint of tartness. Their red table wine and red wine blends are also lovely, as is their un-oaked dry white wine. But their peach wine...Lord was that good. I got away with only buying six bottles, including some second-press ice wine which was yummy but not as expensive as the real stuff, which is upwards of $60 to $90 for a very small bottle.

Anyway, to the peaches: we also visited a couple of fruit markets on the way back and because we were returning home the next day, I bought several pounds of peaches, concord grapes, apricots, pears and the freshest corn you can imagine. The best of the lot were the peaches which tasted as delicious as the Sicilian peaches I sampled last year. They were freestone peaches, with flesh that was fragrant, sweet and tart, perfect for a peach.


I bought my peaches at the side of the road from a Finnish lady who assured me that these were the best peaches ever. Although they were hard, they were deliciously fragrant. Buy them hard but avoid them if they have no smell! They will be tasteless and mealy even when ripe. When ripe a good peach will give a little: eat them immediately or refrigerate them for no more than a couple of days.

What do you do with a peach besides eating it fresh and unadorned?

GRILLED PEACHES with Vanilla ice cream

This is a simple recipe: Just cut along the peach, along the line, and twist to pop it apart. Then pop the pit out. Brush the flesh side with melted butter and dust with cinnamon and sugar if desired. Place on a medium grill which as been oiled and grill for about 5 minutes until the flesh shows grill marks. Take care not to burn! Turn over and grill the skin side for about 2-3 minutes. The peach should be tender but not mushy.

Serve hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream...Haagen Das or another full fat totally rich brand!

PEACHES WITH WINE: a variation on the Italian version

Cut up a small peach into chunks. You can peel or leave on the skin, whichever you prefer. Place them in a wine glass. Fill the glass with dry white wine or half wine and half sparking water. By the time you finish the drink, the peaches will have soaked in the wine...enjoy the fruit! It is a refreshing treat on a hot summer day...

Enjoy the rest of the summer!