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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Venetian cookies, just in time for the holidays!

I love a challenge! Some people climb mountains, or try to write the great American I am thrilled to conquer a difficult recipe, and be able to share it with others.  Just in time for the holidays, I am happy to share with you a very special cookie often seen in bakery shops, and made at home by only the very brave...the Venetian, or Rainbow cookie!  Most of you might know that this cookie is associated with Italians, hence the name, Venetian. It is called a rainbow cookie only because of its colorful, striped good looks, but it has nothing to do with a rainbow, nor is it seen in is purely Italian American in origin, made to honor Italy by duplicating the colors of the Italian flag.  It is sweet, but not that sweet:  the cake is delicate and slightly chewy, with a distinctive almond flavor; the apricot filling between the layers is somewhat tart; and the high quality bittersweet chocolate that is required completes the symphony of flavors.

Venetian Cookies
Photo by Julia Evanczuk
Years ago, my good friend and excellent baker, Barbara, gave me a recipe for these cookies. I let it sit in my recipe folder for several seasons until I developed the courage to try it, because, truth be told, upon first reading, it is daunting. As I have told you in the past, I consider myself more of a cook than a baker. Baking is more of a science to me than an art; with cooking, if you make a mistake, it usually can be corrected. With baking, one mistake, and you have a disaster on your hands: starting over is the only option.  So when I finally conquered this recipe, I was so excited!  I absolutely love to hear the refrain, "You MADE this? They look like they come from a bakery, and they are amazing!!" For someone who loves to cook and to feed the crowd, this is highest praise indeed.  My message to you is, if I can make this, certainly you can too!!

This is fairly time consuming. You can save time by having all ingredients and equipment set out in advance so you don't have to go scrambling at the last minute and waste time. A partner as sous chef might also be an option!  One important note: the cakes must be assembled and spend the night in the refrigerator, weighted down, so that the layers adhere, before they are frosted and cut. So make sure you start the day before you serve them!

I have adapted the original recipe somewhat, and after trial and error, produced several fairly to very successful attempts. I have added some details that the veteran baker might not need to include, but when I bake,  I certainly need every detail explained.  For me, it makes the difference between good and great.

All the ingredients


1 7 or 8 ounce tube or can of  pure almond paste...not almond filling! Solo is a popular brand.
   Place can or tube in hot water to soften.
3 sticks butter, softened
4  large eggs, cold, separated
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon of pure almond extract
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
25 drops liquid red food coloring
25 drops liquid green food coloring
1 18 ounce jar apricot preserves, heated and strained (yields about 1 to 1 1/2 cup)
1 10 ounce bag of Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate baking chips

A note about cream of tartar: it is added to egg whites to stabilize them. This white substance, found in the spice aisle, is tartaric acid, which lines the inside of wine caskets after fermentation. Another use for wine! It is invaluable when using beaten egg whites. Without it, the egg whites will begin to degrade much more quickly and will affect the volume and texture of your cakes.

Preparing the baking pan
You will need:

3 13X9X2 inch pans
Wax paper, 3 sheets, approximately 2 feet long each sheet
Nonstick cooking spray
Strainer or flour sifter
Electric stand mixer or sturdy electric hand mixer
2 small bowls for separated eggs
Large bowl for egg whites when done
3  2 cup (or larger) bowls for separating batter
Jelly roll pan or baking sheet
Strainer for apricot preserves
Small double boiler for chocolate
Plastic wrap
Heavy cutting board or heavy plate for weighing down the cakes

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Coat the pans with nonstick cooking spray, place the wax paper in each pan, allowing it to come up the short ends. Spray the paper.
Beating the Egg Whites
3. Separate the eggs, taking care not to allow any yolk to drip into the whites, as the whites will not rise in volume. If using a hand mixer, use a stainless steel bowl for best results.  Beat the egg whites with the electric mixer until foamy, gradually increasing the speed, then add the cream of tartar. Beat until stiff peaks form when the beaters are raised.  Set aside in a large bowl until ready to add to the cake batter.
4. Break up almond paste in electric mixer bowl. Add butter, sugar, egg yolks, and almond extract. Beat until light and fluffy, 5 minutes.  Beat in sifted flour and salt, only about 30 seconds more.
5. Carefully and by hand, in a circular motion, fold beaten egg whites into cake mixture until it is a well blended batter.
Dividing the Batter
6. Divide batter into three equal portions:  if you want to weigh, each portion should be 11-12 ounces each. Each portion is about one cup and a half.  Add green food coloring to one, red food coloring to another, and leave the last portion yellow. Spread each portion into the prepared pans.  It's kind of like spreading icing on a cake; eventually you will get the knack of it.
Spreading the batter
7. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes until the very edges are golden brown. My oven is typical. You probably will not be able to bake all the cakes side by side on one rack, so either place one on a lower rack below the other two. Otherwise, you will have to bake in two batches. I prefer the former method; I just watch the cake on the lower rack carefully and remove it a few minutes before the other two are done.  Be careful not to overbrown!  When done, remove the cakes from the pans immediately, using the wax paper overhangs. Make sure you have a surface, such as a cooling rack or a countertop, prepared when you remove the cakes from the pan. Let the layers cool on the prepared surface.
The layers are done

8. Heat and strain the apricot preserves.
9. Remove the green cake layer,  very carefully using two spatulas, place on the jelly roll pan or baking sheet.  Spread half of the strained apricot preserves on that layer.  Slide the yellow layer on top, again being  very careful. Spread with remaining preserves. Slide the red layer on top.
Spreading the strained preserves
10. Cover with plastic wrap, tucking in the sides.  Weigh down the assembled cake with a large wooden cutting board, heavy plate or stoneware baking stone, leave in refrigerator overnight. Some use one of the baking pans, placing two 5 pound bags of sugar or flour in the pan, to weigh it down.
11. The next day, make the chocolate frosting by melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Be careful that no water droplets get into the chocolate or it will seize. You can also microwave it in a bowl, a few seconds at a time until completely melted.  Remove the plastic wrap from the cake, and spread the chocolate evenly. Allow the chocolate to dry,  only about 10 to 15 minutes. If you wait too long, the chocolate will crack and it will be difficult to cut the cookies. Trim the edges neatly (save the trimmings! they are as delicious as the cookies, but not as pretty!)  Cut into 1 to 1/12 inch squares or rectangles. I slice the cake into four slices lengthwise, and then cut into one inch slices. This recipe yields 45 to 55 cookies.

I promise you that everyone will be very impressed with these cookies. They make a wonderful gift, and something very special to bring to holiday parties!
Just where they should be!
Photo by Julia Evanczuk

Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo! Buone feste a tutti!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Happy Holidays to all!


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Great Olive Oil, and Its almost Blog Anniversary time!

Summer in Sicily, 2009
This has been a busy summer so far. I have been distracted with some minor health issues (solved) and spending much of my time preparing for an adventure which will be reported on very shortly.  Suffice to say, this adventure should prove blog-worthy!

 Of course I have been cooking, if not blogging, and have some lovely dishes ready to share:  I solved the mystery of soaking fresh beans ( I was always a canned bean person), and have several very nice recipes I developed. I also would like to share some great grill recipes: shish-ke-bob, grilled pizza, and easy side dishes.

A feature I would like to add to my blog is a cookbook review. Even though the internet is helpful in a pinch, nothing takes the place of a good cookbook to leaf through, adapt, mess up and stain. Besides, if you google a recipe, the same sites come up time after time. and are good resources but have their limitations.  Though the years, I have developed a substantial library of cookbooks, and I would like to share my favorite authors and cookbooks with you, so you can build your own library if you want.

Olive Oil in casks, in Sciacca, Sicily, 2009
Although I will not share specific recipes in this post, I would like to share with you the wonders of good extra virgin olive oil.  Many of us, including myself, pick up this wonderful ingredient in the supermarket or even big box store, in great quantities.   Unfortunately, this is not the greatest quality as you have probably guessed.  According to a review by Cook's Illustrated (one of my favorite sources):

 "Companies importing olive oil are free to label their products “extra-virgin”—even if the same oils wouldn’t qualify for that appellation in Europe, as many impassioned olive oil advocates believe is the case. Nancy Loseke, editor of Fresh Press, a newsletter devoted to olive oil, put it bluntly: “Americans mostly shop the world’s olive oil dregs, the low-rung stuff.”,

Biceno Olive Oil Factory, Sciacca, Sicily
A selection of local favorites, Biceno Factory Store
Sad news indeed for us!  So how do you acquire good olive oil?  Well, you do have to pay a bit more, but it is not as hard as you think. On a trip to Sciacca, Sicily in 2009 for instance, I was pleased to discover that some of the world's finest olive oil is made right in that small city (along with some very fine ceramics, might I add). We found this out by accident, staying at a small bed and breakfast surrounded by olive and orange groves. It turns out that the proprietor manufactured his own olive oil, and it was sold in America.  We also accidently found this little olive oil manufacturing company, Biceno, while shopping for ceramics by the beach.  We found this little lean-to garage-y looking place along the side of the road, chickens running all about, and entered out of curiosity and to get out of the heat. It was like one of those old cartoons where you entered a small tent and came upon a palace; it had this huge interior, with casks, tables,  and olive oil products of every description. The proprietor, who spoke no English, invited us in for a substantial tasting of his many flavored olive oils and eggplant appetizer on crostini, and Marsala wine.  He excitedly pointed out pictures of some celebrities, including Steven Speilberg on the wall, who had been one of his customers, apparently. (I think it helped that our friend was mistaken for the filmmaker where ever we went!).  We were so charmed, that against all reason, we bought up bottles and bottles of his olive oil, anchovies, and other goodies. After we left,  we wondered if we had been so wise, as we had to now figure out how to pack it in our luggage for the trip home. We actually spent an afternoon in Palermo later that week, searching for bubble wrap. Very hard to one knew what we were talking about!  But we did manage to find some, and the oil made it home safely, packed precariously in the bubble wrap,  surrounded by our clothing.  We were so glad, because we had nervously joked that we would be able to identify our luggage easily by the huge oil stains.  Once we returned, I went on a shopping trip to my favorite Italian market in Little Italy in the Bronx, and picked up a bottle of Mike's Deli's private brand of olive oil and to my surprise, it was made in Sciacca!  If you go to Mike's, therefore, you will find some very fine olive oil, and if you visit Fairway, and sample the many olive oils they have available for tasting, you will find Sciacca featured there as well. Please be sure to taste some of the fine offerings from other countries, such as mainland Italy, Spain,  and even Australia. Remember, it is important to treat good olive oil with the utmost care, using it as a dressing or for a quick saute. Try drizzling it on any Italian dish, it truly enhances the flavor.   A quick saute over medium heat is about all it can take; the strong, fruity flavor of a fine olive oil is destroyed in high heat.

I think it is important for me to mark the first anniversary of my blog: I started on a lark, not even knowing how to download photos, and from the reaction of friends, family, and even some strangers, it has been a great success! People seemed entertained by it,  they say they enjoy my writing, and most importantly, have tried some of my recipes with success: so to speak, the proof is in the pudding! I intend to devote more time this year, going  from monthly to weekly posts. That is my goal!  Thank you, readers, for giving me the opportunity to share my passion!

Ancient Olive Tree, Agrigento, Sicily, 2009
Stay tuned, happy summer!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It's Spring: Pasta Primavera con Farfalle... Warning: Inauthentic but Delicious!

Butterfly, or farfalle
Photograph courtesy of Frank Rubino
Primavera, in Italian, means spring and this dish is just in time for my favorite season. It is a tasty and colorful dish, perfect for company or for a main dish for supper.  Most everyone has sampled a version of this dish,and almost every Italian restaurant serves one.  However, this is not an Italian dish, not even an Italian-American dish, although it uses Italian ingredients.   According to faux-Italian food history, Pasta Primavera is a completely American dish. It was actually invented in the 1970's at Le Cirque restaurant in Manhattan, supposedly  in response to the growing realization of the importance of a healthier diet, although the chef did add cream!  I found this interesting article about "faux" Italian dishes, pretty interesting, check it out:

There are dozens of versions of Pasta Primavera.  While it is not exactly a light dish, it is usually chock full of any kind of fresh vegetable, raw or lightly cooked, with the addition of fresh herbs, sometimes dressed in a light acidic sauce and topped with grated cheese. I usually do not order this dish in a restaurant, unless it's a really fine one- most versions are usually tasteless and boring, soaked in oil or butter or cream sauce or even, yuck, vinaigrette.

My solution to this was, as always, to create my own, and have made many versions of this dish thoughout the years.  Decades ago, when it was fashionable, I called it Pasta Salad. I made it for every gathering when it was not frigid or snowing, and it came out different every time. I threw in whatever vegetables-du-jour were living in my fridge at the time, and  it usually came out pretty good to great.  I had to be careful though:  most of the time, the vegetables would not be the star of the dish: they were often bland, though raw, crisp or well cooked: they lent color and texture but not much taste. I had to jazz up the sauce so my family and friends would not be underwhelmed by my offering.  I also had to be careful with the pasta: a few minutes of distraction, and they were too soft and broke apart when I attempted to stir in the vegetables and other ingredients. Using the incorrect sort of pasta is also a big problem.  Rigatoni will just break. Spaghetti in any form is a totally different kind of dish, although the original Pasta Primavera was made with spaghetti.    Forget fusilli, those nice little spirals: they look pretty and everyone uses them, but they just don't hold up unless you are willing to bite into too-hard pasta.  I love al dente pasta but when it sticks to my molars, ugh.
Farfalle pasta

After many experimentations, I have found the Farfalle pasta shape to hold up the best. Most people call them bowtie pasta, but Farfalle means butterfly and not bowties.   And they do look like little butterflies!  Bowties, well, boring.  A pasta named after neckwear? Come on!

Alternatively,  though this is best made with Farfalle, Gemelli pasta works pretty well. Gemelli means twin, and Barilla pasta features two thick strands twisted together. It holds up like a trouper, very sturdy with a satisfying bite.  I don't think any other pasta maker has this particular pasta, at least at the local supermarket. So stick with Barilla, for the Farfalle or for the Gemelli.

To solve the problem of boring vegetables and to make them more prominent in the dish, I did some research in my own cookbook library (one of the many items I collect and of which I have way too many) and found in Giada DiLaurentiis's first book, Everyday Italian, some excellent ideas. One novel idea was to roast the vegetables. I found that most recipes call for blanching or even boiling the vegetables.  What are we, in the 50's? Why not used canned for Pete's sake and be done with it! Ugh!

Anyway, I though it was a great idea, since I have been roasting vegetables like crazy lately: roasting caramelizes them and brings out their natural sweetness.  Another great idea she had was to cut the vegetables into similar sized 2 inch strips rather than a large dice that I usually do.    Other than that, my recipe and hers were very similar, after all, it is a pretty simple dish. I did use fresh herbs and dried Sicilian oregano instead of dried, and added crushed red pepper for spice and color.  You can vary the vegetables but stick with the sweet ones: not cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower, brussel sprouts or other strong tasting vegetables, they simply do not roast well. I found this out the hard way! They were quite stinky, actually, and one evening kind of ruined my side dish of roasted vegetables. Never again!  Eggplant will tend to fall apart and be gushy, not a good choice, but zucchini and yellow summer squash will meld with the peppers, carrots, onions and peas and have a fresh, clean taste if not overdone.  Notice, no garlic: I love garlic but I think it gives this dish kind of an off-taste.  It's too out there and masks the bright taste of the vegetables. Also, use COLD al dente pasta, ideally made the day before.  It works better in this dish for some reason. I have done it both ways and I think it keeps the flavors distinct.


So pretty! Yes, all these vegetables
are in this dish
  1 each of red, green and yellow pepper
  3 small zucchini
  1 yellow summer squash
  3 carrots
  1 red onion, halved and sliced
  20 or so cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  1 10 ounce box of peas
Herbed, and ready to roast

   1 teaspoon dried oregano, Sicilian, or best quality
    5 or 6 fresh basil leaves, chopped or julienned
    Black pepper to taste
   Ground cayenne pepper, to taste
   Crushed red pepper, optional or to taste
   Kosher or sea salt, 1 teaspoon or to taste
   2 or 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish

1 pound cold Farfalle or Gemelli pasta, or your choice of sturdy pasta, not over 2 inches long
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, and more for drizzling at the end, best quality
1/2 cup or so pecorino romano cheese
 Shredded parmigiana cheese, for garnish

Roasted, and at the height of flavor
Slice all vegetables except tomatoes and peas into 2 inch strips. Place in large bowl and add olive oil, stir to coat.  Mix in dried oregano, fresh basil and pepper and place in heavy baking pan.  In a 450 degree oven, bake for about 20 minutes until slightly browned but still somewhat crisp.  Let cool for about a half hour.

Place cold pasta in a large serving bowl.  Mix warm vegetables with the pasta, carefully mix in peas, which are defrosted by now, and add half of the tomatoes.  Add cayenne, and sprinkle sea salt, and then add half the cheese, and check for taste. Add more cheese if necessary. For garnish and taste, add the rest of the tomatoes, the parsley, and sprinkle with more pecorino cheese, and then for the finishing touch, spread the shredded parmigiana cheese over all, and for the extra finishing touch, drizzle a bit of the olive oil either over the entire dish or the individual bowls.   Your family and your guests will thank you, I promise you!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chicken Cacciatore: Last of the cold weather dishes...

This will keep you warm!
It is a cold, rainy spring day...perfect for sharing my last cold-weather dish of the season: Chicken Cacciatore. My mother used to make this dish.  I have been making this dish for years for my family and every time I do it, it comes out differently. In fact, most of my dishes do, since I tend to tinker according to mood or based on whatever is in my refrigerator at the moment.

The word cacciatore  in Italian means "hunter", therefore this is really Hunter's Chicken.  I envision a hunter coming home with a pheasant or game hen, and his wife preparing a savory dish with whatever fresh vegetables she might have had on hand, and stewing it for a long time until the gaminess of the hunted fowl is cooked out and the meat falls off the bone. According to Linda Stradley, in her online resource What's Cooking America ( ) this dish originated in the Renaissance period in central Italy.  Only the well to do could afford fowl, and hunting was a pastime of only the very rich. So this seemingly humble dish, made at home by many Italian and American cooks, and on the menu of many Italian American restaurants, has elegant, upper-crustic origins. Who knew!
Fresh Peppers at Eataly

This dish is basically chicken pieces braised in wine and tomatoes, with onions, garlic, and vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms, carrots, even potatoes, and seasonings. For this recipe, I used only peppers and mushrooms, which is classic.

Braising is one of the essential cooking techniques, along with sauteing, frying, grilling, boiling, and steaming. According to Mark Bittman in his essential cookbook, How To Cook Everything (2008), braising is a combined cooking method, using both wet and dry methods.  It involves searing the meat in order to caramelize it, adding liquid (usually acidic), covering the pot, and cooking it on a low simmer until the meat falls off the bone. Interestingly, as there always is, actually, there is science involved!  According to The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cooks Illustrated (2004), cooking the meat in this way releases the collagen between the muscle fibers into the liquid. The liquid is absorbed by the meat at a certain point, and the collagen turns into gelatin which gives the liquid body and flavor.   Most of us who are home cooks use this method all the time without realizing that we are using this very important cooking technique.  I was very impressed with myself!

My recipe differs from most in that I use only skinless chicken thighs. I find the thigh is more flavorful and moist due to its higher fat content. Chicken breast tends to dry out no matter what the method.  I sometimes use boneless thighs, however leaving the bone in is preferable as it lends more flavor to the dish.  I  really don't like using the skin, since the skin is fatty, and I do not like those puckery, twirly, fatty, half-peeling-off and basically inedible things floating around in my cacciatore. Crispy chicken skin on a well-baked roast chicken is one thing, but braised chicken skin...ugh. You might feel differently, so it's your preference.

Here is the recipe:
Dredging the thighs



3 pounds bone-in or boneless chicken thighs, skinless
Salt and pepper
1 cup flour for dredging
1/4 cup and 3 tablespoons light olive oil or other oil, such as canola
1 red and 1 green bell pepper, sliced
8 ounces (one container) fresh mushrooms, sliced
Caramelized and waiting to be added!
1 medium onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 can (28 ounces) peeled plum tomatoes in water or juice, broken up with hands or chopped coarsely
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, Sicilian, and on the stem if you can find it, usually in specialty stores.
  • Sprinkle thighs with salt and pepper, dredge in flour
  • Heat oil (extra virgin oil will lose its flavor) in dutch oven until hot but not smoking
  • Place thighs in oil, do not crowd, and brown on all sides, remove from pan and set aside. When browning, try not to shift them them while cooking. This should take 3 or 4 minutes per side.
  • Brown, but do not burn, onions and garlic.
  • Add wine, stir with wooden spoon to loosen the "frond", or caramelized bits. This makes the sauce very flavorful. Reduce to half.
  • Add tomatoes, fresh parsley and oregano, and stir to combine flavors
  • Add chicken, carefully.  Cover and cook for about 20 minutes on a low simmer.
  • Correct for seasoning, and serve.
  • While the chicken is cooking, saute peppers and mushrooms separately in a saucepan until slightly wilted, about 5 minutes. Add to chicken and tomatoes, cook for another 30 minutes until chicken is tender. 
  • Chicken added to tomato and vegetables
    Adding the tomatoes to the onions
  • Place chicken and vegetables in serving dish, sprinkle with fresh parsley, reserve extra sauce to serve over pasta such as penne or ziti.
This is a hearty dish bursting with flavor, but it is low in fat, so you can enjoy this dish without guilt!

On an appreciative note, I want to thank all of my family, friends, readers and followers for their feedback and comments. I really appreciate them. Recently, my son posted my blog on and through his efforts, I gained more followers, and received many compliments. It made this humble home cook feel really good about sharing these recipes with you.   Molto Grazie!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Buon Compleanno, Italia! 150th anniversary of the Unification: Celebrating with the Parmigiana dishes

A scene at Ravello, Amalfi Coast: Bella Italia
Photo By Frank Rubino
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which is today, March 17, I would like to present some of my favorite Italian dishes.  Eggplant, veal or chicken Parmigiana: who hasn't gone to an Italian restaurant and ordered  one of these?  Many people have asked me if I make these at home and if I would share the recipes, and I am more than happy to.   I think, and others seem to agree, if I do say so myself,  that my Parmigiana dishes rival those made at some of the best traditional Italian-American restaurants, and they are surprisingly easy to make.  One caveat: regarding the meat-based parmigiana recipes, I do not use veal, as I am squeamish about using cutlets made from infant calves, instead I use chicken cutlets. However, you are welcome to use veal if you like, as veal and chicken are virtually interchangeable due to their tenderness and mild taste.
Shutters, or Parmiciana, in Italy
Photo by Frank Rubino


I did a bit of research on  Parmigiana dishes as very little Parmigiana cheese, if any, is used as an ingredient.  According to the always useful Wikipedia, Parmigiana recipes are Southern Italian in origin, and refer to any dish made with a thin-sliced and fried filling, layered with cheese, usually mozzarella, and tomato sauce.  In Italy, Parmigiana is chiefly made with eggplant.  The meat-based dishes are an Italian-American creation.  

Although the word Parmigiana usually means "from Parma," which is in northern Italy, the word is thought to be taken from the Sicilian dialect word for shutters, parmiciana, which refers to the slats of wood, which overlap in the same way as the sliced filling in the dish. That is typical of Italians (or Sicilians, in this case), comparing food to common objects. Just think of how pasta is imaginatively named: radiatore, little radiators; orrichiette, little ears; or conchiglie, shells.  According to the Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta De Vita,  some small pastas are even named after prayers, such as the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), referring to the common practice of reciting a prayer before meals. Families knew these pastas were ready to eat after only one little prayer!


As I have said, these dishes are simple to make, however, there are certain steps that must be taken to ensure a rich, savory result that is not greasy nor too heavy.  Eggplant in particular can be an oil sponge; if you are not careful, it will soak up the oil like a wick when frying.  How do you prevent this? First, by making sure that the eggplant is sliced as thin as possible or the chicken is bought or pounded to no more than 1/4 inch thick, and second, that the oil is hot enough to cook quickly without burning, and third, creating a coating that will stick. 

Oil Hotter than Hot

Hot, Hot, Hot!
How do you make sure that the oil is hot enough? Oil must be from 365 to 375 degrees. You can buy a frying thermometer, or you can use one of these four methods: After heating the oil until shimmery over a medium high flame,  flick droplets of water in the oil; when it sizzles and bubbles immediately, it's ready.  Place the tip of the handle of a WOODEN spoon in the oil; when it bubbles, it is ready. Place a kernel of popcorn in the oil; when it pops: ready.  Place a cube of bread in the oil; if it browns in 60 seconds, again, it's ready.  I wait until the oil in the pan is shimmery, and then use the water method. The more hissy and bubbly, the better.   Also make sure you do not crowd the pan, as the temperature will drop to unacceptable levels and you will be left with a soggy mess.  I find that the first few eggplant rounds are slightly overbrowned, but that's ok...they are still delicious.
The French way to bread!


It is best to use the authentic French way to bread  the cutlets or eggplant rounds. This I learned from the book,  60 Minute Gourmet by the late Pierre Franey.  It involves dredging the cutlets or eggplant first in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then egg, then fine bread crumbs. I find that if you wait a few minutes before frying, the combination of flour and egg forms a kind of glue that causes the breadcrumbs to adhere very well.  I think it also provides a barrier that prevent the oil from soaking in too quickly. 

Here are the recipes.  Both the eggplant and chicken recipe are nearly the same, except the eggplant is layered, and the chicken cutlets are not.  

Slice it thin! Not so easy...

Preheat oven to 350 degrees


1 large eggplant
    2 cups (approximately) flour, seasoned
      with salt and pepper
    3 large eggs
    2 cups (approximately) seasoned bread crumbs
1 quart or more of your favorite marinara sauce (recipe below)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese or 1/2 pound sliced thin
2-3 cups canola oil (this has a high smoking point; olive oil of any kind will smoke and burn)

Prepare marinara sauce:
     1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
     1 28 oz can of peeled plum tomatoes in puree or juice, pureed
      (or two cans of crushed tomatoes)
      1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
      1 cup onions, chopped fine
      2 cloves garlic
      1/2 cup dry white wine
      2 parsley sprigs
      2-3 basil leaves (optional)
      Salt and pepper
      1/4 cup Pecorino Romano Cheese (optional, do not use salt if you add the cheese)
         (this gives the sauce a very rich flavor)
    Saute onions, then garlic in olive oil under a medium flame until translucent. Add  wine, cook until reduced by 1/3, then add tomatoes.  Add herbs and spices, and cook on a low flame for about an hour, stir frequently. Correct for seasoning, set aside. I usually start the sauce and prepare the rest of the ingredients. By the time I finish preparation, it's done.
Salt, and blot with paper towel
Peel eggplant, slice into thin slices, 1/4 to 1/8 inch or so thick.  On a baking sheet lined with parchment or wax paper, lay eggplant in one layer, and sprinkle lightly with salt.  When the moisture starts to bead, after about a half an hour, blot with paper towels. This is supposed to reduce the bitterness, however, if you skip this step it will probably not make much of a difference.

So yummy!
Place the coating mixtures in three different dishes. Beat the eggs until frothy.  Dredge the slices first in the flour, then the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Use a fork, or you will have club fingers, very gross! Make sure you use the fork to pat the crumbs to help them adhere.  Set aside, let the glue do its work!

In a high sided 12 inch frying pan, heat oil until approximately 375 degrees, using thermometer, water droplets, wooden spoon or other method. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Place eggplant rounds in oil but do not crowd, and fry until golden brown, less than one minute per side.  Place eggplant rounds to drain on baking sheet.  

Ladle the sauce
Layering the eggplant
In a 9 by 13 inch lasagna pan, ladle about 1/2 cup of sauce on the bottom, layer eggplant, slightly overlapping.  Spoon about 2 cups of sauce over all. Sprinkle a tablespoon or less Pecorino Romano or Parmigiana cheese if you have not added cheese to the marinara sauce.
Evenly distribute 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese or 1/4 pound of thin slices over the sauce.  Place two more layers of eggplant, sauce and cheese.  Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly.  Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more.  

Let cool for about 20 minutes, and cut into squares, and serve.


2 pounds chicken cutlets, sliced or pounded thin

Use the same method as above, except you will probably need 2 lasagna pans. Prepare the same coating, and coat each chicken cutlet in flour, egg and then bread crumbs. Set aside.  Spoon 1/2 cup of sauce over the bottom of the pan, layer the chicken closely in the pan. Spread sauce over the chicken, and 2-3 cups of shredded or sliced mozzarella over all.  Cover with foil for the first 30 minutes, and uncover for 10 more minutes.   

Eggplant and Chicken Parmigiana, done!
I promise you will enjoy these dishes...they are my go-to dishes for friends or family, something easy to prepare in advance, even the night before.  If you save or make some extra sauce, you can serve pasta with it- my favorite cut for this dish is rigatoni, which captures the hearty sauce well in its rigati, or ridges.

Happy Birthday, Italy!

Friday, February 25, 2011

BANISHED: The Mystery of Homemade Pasta

Tender, Delicious Pasta
Pasta making has always intimidated me. Creating this essential food staple from only two simple ingredients, flour and eggs, seemed almost counterintuitive and mysterious to me. However, I have always wanted to make my own pasta. So last year, I bought a shiny new pasta maker, despite the fact that all those cranks and rollers and cutters looked slightly dangerous.  I signed up for a pasta making class at Chef Central in Hartsdale, New York, and brought the pasta maker with me. The teacher at Chef Central  was quite patient, showed me how to use it and I learned to use it quite well.  It is actually quite easy.

Pasta made WITHOUT a machine is not so easy.   My Nonna used to make pasta herself, and there was no machine.  The traditional Italian Abruzzese housewife made the pasta with nothing more than a long, thin rolling pin and plenty of kneading action, resulting, I expect,  in very strong forearms.  I remember long strands of pasta hanging from improvised racks, flour everywhere, a big mess.

 Pasta Machine
For this posting I will try to demystify pasta making so if you ever decide to do it, you will know what ingredients to buy, how to prepare it,  what to expect, and what to avoid.

Preparing to Make Pasta
When setting out to make my own pasta, I researched the ingredients. The most helpful source was in a cookbook by Marsella Hazan, entitled Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  Even though the pasta class was helpful, they had made the pasta dough ahead of time.  So all I knew what how to operate the machine.  I really needed to find out how to actually make a good dough on my own.

First I researched the kind of flour needed. I found in the Fairway Market the soft wheat "00" (doppio-zero) flour used by most Italian cooks to make pasta. Soft wheat 00 flour is silky smooth and similar to talcum powder in texture, slightly different than commonly used all-purpose flour found in every supermarket.  Although I used this flour according to Hazan all purpose flour makes a fine product and is in some ways superior as the pasta has more body but is still very tender.

I also found out that semolina flour, or hard durum wheat flour, is not used in homemade pasta as it is very difficult for the home cook to work with. It is only suitable for factory made pasta.  In fact, you will never find manufactured pasta made with soft wheat flour as it is much too delicate. Even those pastas that purport to be fresh, but are in a cellophane package, are not made with soft wheat. They are delicious but still made with durum wheat.


Pasta & Egg "Volcano"

1 cup "00" or all purpose flour (approximate)
2 eggs

Makes approximately 3/4 of a pound of pasta, or three good-sized  servings.

Beating the Eggs
Prepare a clean work surface. I use a large wooden cutting board not used for meat.  Marble or granite is a poor surface because it is too cool and will cause the dough to contract.

Place the flour on the cutting board and make a mound, as tall as you can make it.  Hollow out a space in the center, like a volcano, and break the eggs into the center.  Beat the eggs with a fork, taking care not to spill  the eggs over the edges of the center of the mound, for about one minute. With your fingers, draw the flour into the egg mixture a bit at a time, and then shape it into a tight dough.  It is done and ready to knead when you can poke your finger in the dough and it is not sticky. If too sticky, just add more flour.
Cutting into Sections
When it feels right, nice and smooth, flatten the dough and knead.  How to knead: flatten the dough into a disk and fold it towards you, pushing against the mound with the heels of your hands with your fingers bent. Keep doing this, folding and kneading, in a clockwise direction, until the dough is smooth, about a few minutes. The Italian housewives kneaded for a much longer time but the pasta machine takes care of most of the kneading for you. After kneading, form the dough into a shape the size of a sausage link, and cut it into six pieces. Flatten a piece with your hand, covering the rest with plastic wrap to avoid drying.

Through the Roller, Over and Over
Flattened Dough in Machine
Now you are ready to use the pasta maker.  Carefully read the manufacturer's instructions as each manufacturer creates a machine with a slightly different design. Attach the pasta maker to a table or counter using the c-clamp or vise provided with the machine, and lay a clean dishtowel on the end where the pasta will come out. Take the flattened disk and feed it into the roller end of the pasta maker at the widest setting, 3 or 4 times, then the next wide setting, several times.  You will see the dough come out thinner and thinner. My pasta maker has 8 settings, 8 being the widest and 1 being the thinnest. When I set the gage at 2, the pasta was too thin and delicate.  I found 4 or 5 to be the best thickness.
Wide Noodles

Ready for Machine!
You can feed the flattened dough through the pasta cutters on the machine, or you can cut them yourselves with a pizza or ravioli cutter, or you can roll the pasta lengthwise and slice it with a knife for some nice long noodles.  This takes some skill, so I prefer the machine at this point. 

Thin Noodles
Pasta makers usually have two cutters, allowing you to choose between wide pasta, or fettucini, and narrow pasta, which comes out looking like spaghetti but with more of a squarish shape.  While carefully feeding the flattened and thin pasta dough though the cutters, pull the strands out gently with your hand and place them on a clean towel.  You can make them fresh or dry them. If you prefer to dry them, you let the pasta rest on the towels until they dry a bit but are still pliable, and then take a few strands and wind them around your fingers to make a small nest.  I placed these nests in a plastic container, uncovered, until totally dry. You can only store them when they are totally dry otherwise they will form mold. I used mine, the fettucine, the first night, and the pasta nests of spaghetti, the next night. They did not dry completely; they were brittle almost like boxed pasta, but way more delicate.

Ooops!  Done
When you are ready to make the pasta, have the table set and the sauce of your choice made, keeping it  hot and ready to serve.  Fill your pasta pot with cold water and add one teaspoon of salt. Bring it to a brisk boil, and all at once,carefully place the pasta in the pot, and stir gently to make sure the strands do not stick together.  It cooks very quickly, taking only a minute or two. Remove immediately when it is at its desired firmness, only determined by tasting, and drain in a colander. Loosen the pasta by shaking the colander a bit.   Do not add olive oil.  Serve in warm dishes...nobody likes cold pasta!

My pasta was very delicate, and held the sauce very well. I couldn't believe I made this pasta from scratch,, just like my Nonna did, so many years ago.