Archive for the ‘Italian’ Category

I love shrimp scampi, and had the need to satisfy my cravings the other day. But what started as a simple scampi recipe, turned into something a bit more. I may never make scampi the same way again!

 

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1 lb. wild-caught American shrimp, peeled and de-veined
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons parsley
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons Spirgučiai (see below)
1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella, sliced
oregano, for sprinkling

 

Thaw the shrimp under cold water. Place in a colander to drain.

Spirgučiai is a Lithuanian favorite: chopped bacon and onions, fried until crisp and usually sprinkled over anything and everything in Lithuanian cooking. I always have some in my fridge, already prepared and just waiting to be used.

In a saucepan on medium heat, combine the butter, olive oil, parsley, garlic salt, oregano, onion, pepper and Spirgučiai.  Heat only until everything melts and combines. Don’t let it burn. (If you don’t have Spirgučiai, all you need to do is take a couple of slices of bacon, chop them up, and fry them in a pan until crisp. Keep the bacon and the fat in the pan and then add the butter, olive oil, parsley, garlic salt, oregano, onion and pepper.)

In a small sheet pan lined with foil, lay the shrimp in a single layer and cook them halfway in a pre-heated 400-degree oven to remove the moisture from the shrimp.

Take the pan out of the oven, and drain off the moisture, if any. Pour the butter mix from the saucepan all over the shrimp and toss to coat. Return the shrimp to the oven for a few minutes, until they’ve heated through and are almost completely cooked. (Careful: never over-cook shrimp!)

Take the pan out of the oven, and place pieces of mozzarella on top, garnishing with a little oregano. Set the oven on broil and cook until the cheese has melted.

Slice with a spatula and serve on top of pasta, making sure you get some of that buttery scampi sauce.

 

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As a low-carb option, you can serve this on broccoli or roasted spaghetti squash.

Although my daughter goes crazy for my Ragu Bolognese, pasta with meat sauce is one of the easiest things to make, with ingredients you probably have in your home. This sauce is really rich with flavor, and once you put all the ingredients together, it requires nothing more from you than an occasional stir every now and then.

 

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1/4 cup olive oil
3 strips bacon, finely chopped, raw or pre-cooked
1 onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon garlic salt
2 lbs. ground beef (I use grass-fed beef)
2 cans (28 oz. each) whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 tablespoons dried parsley
2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
2 bay leaves
1 small can (6 oz.)  tomato paste

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In a large pot, heat the olive oil and add the bacon. Once the bacon is sizzling, add the onions and cook until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic salt and mix. Add the ground beef and cook until it has browned.

Pour the 2 cans of whole tomatoes into a food processor and blend until chunky…or go the old-fashioned route and simply squeeze the tomatoes with your hands, breaking them up. Pour the contents of both cans into the pot and stir well. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the orange tomato foam disappears.

Add the oregano, basil and parsley and stir. Add the salt and pepper and stir. Add the anise seed and fennel seed and stir. Throw in the 2 bay leaves and stir. (I think you get the idea, there’s a lot of stirring going on!)

When the sauce starts to boil, add the tomato paste and stir well. Let it come up to a boil again–the paste thickens best at high heat–then turn the heat down to a low simmer and cover the pot.

Let the sauce simmer on low heat for several hours. Whenever you walk by, give the sauce a good stir.

Serve the sauce over pasta, with some grated Parmiggiano Reggiano.

 

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Easter Sunday nightmare at the airport: my wife is stuck in Florida, and it looks like she won’t be home until after midnight. So, our Sunday brunch as a family will have to wait until another time.

My daughter just got back from a little vacation of her own yesterday, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to cook whatever she wanted. (I already knew it was going to be this dish!)

 

Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Fettuccine Alfredo are my daughter’s two favorite pasta dishes. When she couldn’t decide which one she wanted for dinner one night, I decided that she’d get both! (Yes, I spoil her rotten!)

The addition of chicken and peas made for a more balanced plate. This is now one of my go-to dishes when guests arrive, since many parts can be prepared ahead of time. And the gluten-free version tastes as good the original!

 

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Start with the chicken…

The breading for the chicken uses gluten-free bread that I’ve toasted, crumbled and put into a food processor to make breadcrumbs. (I use Udi’s frozen GF bread, found in any supermarket.) I get a lot more flavor this way than using store-bought breadcrumbs from a can. I add gluten-free flour to it to lighten it up. Cup4Cup is by far the best GF flour I’ve tried.

If you’re not on a gluten-free diet, simply use regular breadcrumbs and all-purpose flour in the same proportions.

1/2 lb. chicken breasts, cut into 1″ pieces
1 egg, scrambled
1/2 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs
1/2 cup gluten-free flour (I use Cup4Cup)
3 teaspoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
olive oil, for frying

Scramble the egg in a bowl. Cut the chicken into pieces, and add them to the egg, making sure they get evenly coated. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the bread crumbs, flour, parsley, oregano, basil, garlic, onion, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Fill a pan with about an inch of olive oil. Heat to medium-high, for frying.

In batches not to overcrowd the pan, take the chicken pieces out of the egg and toss them in the bread crumb mixture, shaking off the excess. Place them carefully in the hot oil and fry on both sides until golden. Since they’re small pieces, they should cook all the way through easily. Drain on a plate covered with paper towels. Do this with all the chicken and set it aside. Try not to eat it all before you make the rest of the dish! (This chicken can also be eaten as is–these are my daughter’s favorite nuggets–or used with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese to make a delicious chicken parmigiana.)

 

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The carbonara factor…

Many recipes for Spaghetti alla Carbonara use pancetta or bacon. But the original recipe calls for guanciale: cured (but not smoked) pig jowls, or cheeks. It’s easy enough to find in a good Italian food store, but I cure my own. I buy raw heritage Berkshire pork jowls from a farm that raises the pigs humanely, and cure the jowls for about 3 weeks in a combination of salt, pepper and fresh thyme leaves. Then I rinse them, pat them dry, and cut them into portion-sized pieces, wrapping them individually and freezing until I need them. It’s a lot of work, but to me, totally worth it.

3 oz. guanciale

If the guanciale is frozen, let it thaw just a little, then cut it into the smallest cubes you can manage. Place it in a pan and cook them until they’ve browned and crisped beautifully. Keep an eye on the pan, as guanciale can burn easily. Use the fried meat bits for this recipe and save the fat for flavoring a future dish! Set aside.

 

The Alfredo sauce…

Despite what you get in crappy restaurants like Olive Garden, Alfredo sauce should not be runny or soupy. It should cling to the pasta and be rich in flavor. When making this dish gluten-free, I use Garofalo gluten-free pasta exclusively, because it tastes just like real pasta. (Believe me, I’ve tried every GF pasta out there.) I buy mass quantities at Amazon.

If you’re not on a GF diet, simply use your favorite regular pasta.

1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter
Fleur de Sel or sea salt
1 lb. pasta, fresh or dried
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
freshly ground black pepper

 

Put 2/3 of the cream and all the butter in a large saucepan that will later accommodate all the pasta. Simmer over medium heat for less than a minute, until the butter and cream have thickened a bit. Turn off the heat.

Drop the pasta in a bowl of boiling salted water. If the pasta is fresh, it will take just seconds. If it’s dry, it will take a few minutes. (Gluten-free pasta takes a little longer.) Either way, you want to cook the pasta even firmer than al dente, because it will finish cooking in the pan with the butter and cream. Drain the pasta immediately when it reaches that firm stage, and transfer it to the pan with the butter and cream, tossing the pasta gently for a few seconds to coat.

Turn the heat under the saucepan with the pasta on low, and add the rest of the cream, all the Parmigiano Reggiano, and a bit of pepper (no salt because there’s plenty in the guanciale and cheese.) Toss briefly until the sauce has thickened and the pasta is well-coated.

 

At this point, you don’t want the pasta to get to dry, so you add…

1 cup of frozen peas

…tossing gently to warm them through. Also add the cooked guanciale at this time.

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Plate the pasta in a bowl or dish and serve the chicken alongside.

 

 

 

 

 

As a teenager growing up on Long Island, I worked long hours at a local Italian restaurant called Pizza City East in Plainview. (The original Pizza City was in Ozone Park, Queens.) Though the pay sucked, I made some important friendships that have lasted to this day. I also learned many Italian cooking basics: how to open clams for red and white clam sauce, the secrets of great pizza dough, the art of a perfect espresso, and how to make massive quantities of baked ziti.

When I got older and I shared an apartment with my buddy, Don, we would regularly invite a large crowd of people over for a party, and a huge tray of baked ziti was an inexpensive and hugely popular way to feed a crowd that was doing some serious drinking.

The basic ingredients of baked ziti are the same as lasagna, the main difference being the wetness factor. If you make lasagna too wet, the thing will fall apart when you try to slice it. But baked ziti is meant to be sloppy, and it actually shines in its incredible gooiness!

My baked ziti consists of 2 sauces (a meat sauce and a bechamel sauce) and 4 cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, and Parmigiano Reggiano) using pasta that is boiled much firmer than al dente. Technically, I like to use penne, not ziti. It’s firmer, and really works well with this recipe. And there are plenty of great pasta choices out there for gluten-free diets. Our favorite brand of GF pasta is Garofalo.

 

Gooey and delicious!

Meat Sauce…
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 lb. grass-fed ground beef or pastured pork, or a combination of both
1 tablespoon dried parsley
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

 

Heat a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil in a large pan and sauté the onions until translucent. I finely chop the carrots by peeling them all the way down until there’s nothing but a pile of peeled pieces, then chopping them up so small, they almost melt into the sauce. Add the carrots and cook for 2 minutes. Add the beef (or pork) and cook the meat until it browns. Add the parsley, oregano, basil, salt and pepper and mix well.

Empty the can of tomatoes into a blender and blend it until smooth. Add this to the pan and mix well.

Cook the meat sauce for about 10 minutes, then remove it from the heat and set it aside.

 

Bechamel sauce…
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoon all-purpose flour (I use Cup4Cup flour to make it gluten-free)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups 2% milk

 

Bechamel is a basic white sauce. It adds a wonderful creaminess to lasagna or baked ziti.

Melt the butter in a saucepan under medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until you’ve combined the butter and flour and have a light roux.

Add the milk, and keep whisking, making sure you don’t get any lumps in the sauce. Season with the salt and pepper.

Keep whisking until the sauce thickens. Once it does, remove it from the heat and set it aside.

Beautiful baked ziti!

 

12 oz. small pasta, like ziti or penne
4 slices provolone cheese (about 4 oz.)
ricotta cheese (about 8 oz.)
mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 8 oz.)
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

 

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

For baked ziti, use a deeper pan than you would for lasagna, about 4″ deep.

Take several large spoonfuls (about half) of the meat sauce and the béchamel sauce and mix them together in the pan.

Boil the pasta in a pot of salty boiling water until very firm…firmer than al dente. Drain the pasta and pour it into the pan with the sauces. Mix really well.

Tear the slices of provolone and add them to the pan, mixing them in. Mix in the ricotta cheese, and handful of the mozzarella, and all the Parmigiano Reggiano, stirring really well to get everything mixed together.

If there’s still room in the pan, keep adding equal parts meat sauce and béchamel sauce until you’ve used them up.

Smooth the top of the ziti mix flat with the back of a large spoon, then sprinkle the remaining mozzarella evenly over the top. Sprinkle a little oregano on top, and place the pan in the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the mozzarella on top is a beautiful golden brown.

 

Baked ziti, before baking.

 

 

The best mac and cheese ever: baked ziti!

 

Of course, when you’re cooking, there’s always someone hanging around to grab a taste of the baked ziti before it goes in the oven…

 

 

 

 

 

There’s still time to get all the ingredients that will make your Super Bowl party over the top!

Here are some links to my favorite recipes. All of them work really well when you want to feed a large group of hungry people, no matter what team they’re rooting for!

I’ve included classic chicken wing recipes, delicious ribs (without the need of a smoker or grill), classic Italian dishes, seafood and more.

 

CHICKEN WINGS AND DRUMSTICKS…

https://livethelive.com/2017/02/03/honey-glazed-chicken-wings-2/

https://livethelive.com/2019/01/10/spicy-brined-and-grilled-chicken-wings-2/

https://livethelive.com/2017/06/07/asian-style-chicken-wings-2/

https://livethelive.com/2017/05/07/mexican-chicken-wings/

 

PORK RIBS…

https://livethelive.com/2017/01/31/chinese-style-honey-ribs-for-the-big-game-2/

 

BEEF RIBS…

https://livethelive.com/2017/03/19/kona-beef-ribs/

 

 

SHRIMP COCKTAIL WITH SAUCE…

https://livethelive.com/2018/08/31/perfect-shrimp-cocktail-from-boil-to-sauce-2/

 

FRIED SHRIMP…

https://livethelive.com/2017/10/09/fantastic-fried-shrimp-2/

 

LASAGNA AND BAKED ZITI…

https://livethelive.com/2018/09/23/lasagna-and-its-cousin-baked-ziti/

 

ASIAN NOODLES…GREAT HOT OR COLD

https://livethelive.com/2018/09/13/asian-noodles-with-peanut-sauce-3/

 

OYSTERS…

https://livethelive.com/2018/11/01/oysters-rock-a-fellow-improved/

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the large Italian community we have here in southern New England, there’s no exceptional pizza to speak of. I suppose you could say “them’s fightin’ words!” but if it’s here, I haven’t found it yet. (Fellini Pizza is about the best in Providence.)

So where is the excellent pizza? New York City, of course. OK…maybe I’m prejudiced because I’m a Brooklyn boy, and worked in a variety of pizzerias in my younger days, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if you want the best pizza–or bagel, for that matter–you’ve got to go to the Big Apple. (Even the most excellent “Frank Pepe’s” in New Haven, CT is a mere stop on the way to the real deal.)

Pizza in NYC can be confusing as there are many different varieties to choose from. Brick oven pizzas abound, but there are pizza lovers who won’t settle for anything less than a pizza baked in a coal-fired oven. The extremely high heat of a coal-fired oven cooks the pizza in just a minute, and imparts a crusty, charred flavor you can’t get any other way. There are only about a dozen coal-fired pizzerias in New York City, and many of them have been around for 100 years or more, so it’s definitely a matter of making a special trip to enjoy this style of pizza. (Providence now has its own coal-fired pizza, but it can’t compare.)

Plenty of good, basic pizza, too: the traditional thin, round Neopolitan pie, and the thicker, square Sicilian pie, baked in that Blodgett pizza oven we all knew in our early pizza-making days.

Several years ago, when I heard through the pizza lovers’ grapevine that a “new” pizza was out there, one that was gaining a cult following, I needed to know about it. And more importantly, I needed to taste it!

It’s called Pizza Montanara, and there’s only a few pizzerias in New York City that serve it. The one I go to without fail is PizzArte, on West 55th, and I have to say it’s the ultimate pizza.

 

Pizza Montanara, sitting next to me in the car, just waiting to be devoured.

 

What makes Pizza Montanara so spectacular, quite simply, is that the dough is fried in oil for 30 seconds, flipped and fried another 30 seconds, before they put the sauce and cheese on it, and then they cook it in a wood burning oven. It is not greasy. The frying process puffs the dough up and creates a beautiful pillow-like softness that I’ve never experienced in a pizza before. Imagine a pizza cloud and you’ve got Pizza Montanara.

Where to get Pizza Montanara.

 

I’ve made Pizza Montanara at home, with some success. I poured a few inches of olive oil in a large skillet, stretched my dough into a small pie, and gently floated it into the pan. Using a spatula and tongs, I was able to flip the fried dough over after about 30 seconds, then removed it from the pan after another 30 seconds. It was golden and puffy. I quickly sauced and cheesed it and in the oven it went. But it’s a messy process I’d rather leave to the pros.

 

Every time I post a photo of Pizza Montanara on Facebook or Instagram, my friends don’t believe that this could possibly be a life-changing pizza experience. It is. I just came back from Manhattan, and we devoured 3 pizzas on the ride home. Nothing makes New York traffic easier to bear than a Pizza Montanara in the seat next to you!

Pizza Arte also makes one helluva gluten-free pizza.

 

 

Now that I’ve shared details of my love affair with pork jowls, aka guanciale, in my earlier blog,  it’s time to use them in a classic recipe.

Fettucini alla Bolognese is my daughter’s go-to dish when we visit one of her favorite Italian restaurants,  Il Corso, on W 55th St. in New York. But we only go there once a year, so it was about time I tried my hand at Bolognese at home. The dish isn’t difficult, but like many great dishes, it depends on the best quality ingredients you can get your hands on.

Much like meat loaf, I like to use a combination of ground beef, ground veal and ground pork. But I don’t sweat it too much if I don’t have all three, substituting a little more of one or the other, depending on what’s in my freezer at the time.

I use grass-fed ground veal that I get down the road from a local dairy farm: Sweet & Salty Farm in Little Compton, RI. I use ground Berkshire pork, full of “good fat.” And I use grass-fed beef from local farms. Guanciale, a cured pork product that comes from the cheek (jowl) of the pig, is something that I prepare myself. I buy the Berkshire pork jowls raw and cure them at home. (That’s another blog!) If you can’t get your hands on guanciale, a nice slab of bacon will do the trick.

The rest of the ingredients are organic, when available.

This recipe probably feeds a dozen people. I make a lot at once because it takes time to put it together and let it cook on the stove, and it freezes really well. I place leftovers in tightly sealed single-portion containers in the freezer and then re-heat them when my daughter gets the craving.

How much pasta you make with this fish depends on how many people you’re going to serve.

 

 

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely chopped guanciale or bacon
1 lb. ground veal
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. beef
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, squeezed through a garlic press or thinly sliced
1 small can (6 oz.) tomato paste
6 cups ground tomatoes
2 cups whole milk
2 cups white wine (I use an un-oaked chardonnay like Yellow Tail)
salt and pepper
pasta, cooked (regular or gluten-free )
Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

 

Place the olive oil and butter in a large sauce pan with a heavy bottom over high heat. Once the butter has melted, add the guanciale or bacon, letting the fat render out. When it’s almost brown, add the veal, pork, and beef, stirring constantly. Make sure the meat is broken down into small pieces and completely browned.

Add the finely chopped onion, carrots, celery and garlic, stirring well. Sweat the veggies for a few minutes, letting them get nice and soft.

Add the tomato paste, the ground tomatoes, milk and wine, stirring well. Allowing it to come to a boil will activate the tomato paste’s thickening power. Let it boil for a minute, then reduce the heat to medium-low, and let it simmer for at least 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.

 

Add the ingredients one step at a time until the sauce comes together: 1) guanciale, 2) meat, 3) veggies), 4) tomatoes.

 

You don’t want the sauce to be runny, and you definitely want to give it enough time on the stove top for the flavors to blend and for the alcohol in the wine to evaporate.

Carefully give the sauce a taste, and season it with salt and pepper.

Traditionally, ragu Bolognese is served by placing a part of the cooked pasta in a pan, and adding just enough sauce to have it cling to, not drip from, the pasta. It’s not soup!

Top it with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

 

 

 

Pork is magical. And though I’ve loved pork chops and store-bought bacon all my life, it’s only been in the last decade that I’ve learned to appreciate other cuts of pork and how they’re prepared.

Over the years, I’ve learned to cure and smoke my own bacon, from heritage breeds like Berkshire. I’ll make my own pork sausage on occasion. But the need to make a classic Italian dish, genuine spaghetti carbonara, required that I learn how to cure an unusual cut of pork I’ve never used before.

 

In the beginning, I could only find huge jowls that required them to be cut and weighed to mix with the right amount of cure.

Looking at carbonara recipes online, everyone said the same thing: “Though the genuine dish uses a cured cut of pork called guanciale, it’s hard to find so use pancetta or bacon.” Although both pancetta and bacon meats are quite tasty (both come from the belly of the pig…bacon is smoked, pancetta is not) the flavor and texture is not the same as a pork cheek, or jowl. That’s what guanciale is made from. So I needed to find a source.
I started with a local restaurant, the Back Eddy in Westport, Massachusetts. Being a buddy of the owner and chef (and bribing them with alcohol), I asked if they’d order me some jowls. They did, and that worked well for a while. But I didn’t want to keep bothering them every time I wanted more, so I eventually found my own source on line that supplied me with massive jowls weighing many pounds each, as in the photo above. They were good, but a pain to work with. Eventually, that company went out of business.
I finally found my go-to pork website: http://www.heritagepork.com. They sell a variety of pork products made from a heritage breed of pig known as Berkshire, also called kurobuta. It’s a delicious breed with wonderful fat that’s healthy and full of flavor. And conveniently, they sell pork jowls in 2-pound packs.
My curing process is simple: sugar, salt, peppercorns, and fresh thyme. I cure the jowls for about 3 weeks. I rinse them once they’ve cured, and pat them dry. Then they’re ready to use for carbonara, ragu bolognese, topping a pizza, or any other delicious recipe that comes my way…and any extra guanciale freezes really well.
Once I made my first batch, there was no turning back!

Pork jowls with a good sprinkling of the cure, ready to be wrapped.

2 lbs. raw pork jowls
1/2 cup basic dry rub (recipe below)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
Combine the dry rub, brown sugar, and peppercorns in a bowl.
On a large work surface, lay down several sheets of plastic wrap, overlapping each other to keep the cure from leaking through to the counter underneath. Sprinkle half of the salt mixture onto the plastic wrap in an area where the jowls will lay. Scatter a half-dozen thyme sprigs on top of the salt mixture. Lay the pieces of pork jowl on top of the salt mix and thyme, then top the jowls with the rest of the salt mix, covering them evenly, and top with more thyme sprigs.
Fold the plastic wrap over the jowls as tightly as you can, pressing the salt mix into the meat. If the wrap is loose, use more wrap to really tighten the salt cure around the meat. Then place the entire pork-wrapped package in a container that will hold the liquid that will ooze out during the curing process. If the plastic wrap still isn’t too tight around the jowls, weigh it down with something heavy to press down on the pork. You really want the salt to make contact with the meat. Place the container in the fridge to cure for 3 weeks.
Every couple of days, remove the weight off the jowls and flip the plastic wrap package over, so that the top is now the bottom. Add the weight and return it to the fridge. You want the cure to get at every part of the pork. Don’t pour off any liquid that forms…it will help the curing process.
In about 3 weeks, the pork jowls will feel firmer. This is a sign they’ve been properly cured. Remove them from the plastic wrap, rinse them thoroughly under cold clean water, then pat them dry with paper towels.

Cured, rinsed and dried guanciale. Cut the jowls into smaller pieces before freezing. A little goes a long way!

At this point, you can cut the jowls (now officially guanciale!) into smaller pieces, wrapping each well and placing them in freezer bags. They will keep in the freezer for a long time.
Many guanciale recipes tell you to hang the meat in the fridge for at least a week after curing, but I haven’t really found the need to do that if I’m keeping them frozen. The drying process keeps the meat from getting moldy, but that’s only if you keep it in warmer temperatures.
The Basic Dry Rub
Every good cure starts with a good dry rub. This one’s extremely simple but requires a special ingredient: pink salt. This is not pink Himalayan salt. This is a very special curing salt that must be used in small amounts. It contains nitrites which will help preserve the meat and give it a good color. Many people get bent out of shape over nitrites these days, so you need to decide whether you want to use pink salt or not. I do, because I don’t eat pounds of guanciale like a lab rat.
1 1/2 cups Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt
1/2 cup organic turbinado  sugar
5 teaspoons pink curing salt
Combine these ingredients and mix well. Store it in a tightly sealed plastic bag in your pantry.
Note: the reason I give the brand name for the salt is because all Kosher salt does not weigh the same! A cup-and-a-half of Morton Kosher Salt, for example, will weigh more and will throw off the recipe.

Though I’m a fan of renowned Italian chef Marcella Hazan, I had never heard of what many claim to be her most famous recipe: her 3-ingredient tomato sauce. (OK, salt makes 4.) Recently, I read an article about it and thought I had to try it for myself. The results were amazing: a subtle hint of onion, and a creamy smooth sauce thanks to the butter. You can use a regular can of tomatoes, but real San Marzano tomatoes will give the best results. How do you know if you’ve got real San Marzano’s? Just so happens I have a pet peeve about that. Read below the recipe.

The sauce before onion removal.

 

1 28 oz. can San Marzano tomatoes
5 tablespoons butter (I use unsalted)
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
salt

In a saucepan, combine the entire can of tomatoes (tomatoes and juice) and the butter, and add the onion with a couple of pinches of salt. Place the heat on medium, bring it to a simmer, and then cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, breaking the tomatoes with a spoon. Add more salt, if needed.

When the sauce is done, remove the onion.

Silky smooth and ready to use.

 

The original recipe says to discard the onion. What?! I’m an onion fanatic and I can tell you throwing the onion out is a sin. Here’s what I do: I place the onion on a baking sheet and put it under the broiler of my toaster oven: 5 minutes on one side, flip it, then 5 minutes on the other. If you’ve got a screamin’ broiler, those onions will have beautiful charred edges and the bits of tomato sauce left on the onion will caramelize to a fabulous intense, sweet paste. You then sprinkle Fleur de Sel on it, and devour it.

Never throw the onion away!

 

If you do your share of Italian recipes, you’ve used San Marzano tomatoes. Most good cooks agree that San Marzano’s are the best canned tomatoes you can buy.

Unfortunately,  the label can say “San Marzano tomatoes” even if they are not real San Marzano tomatoes.

San Marzano is a region in Italy near Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, and the special combination of climate and volcanic soil make these plum tomatoes world-famous. They have less water, fewer seeds and are picked off the vine when perfectly ripe and processed the same day.

But San Marzano is a variety of tomato, too…so you can have a can of San Marzano tomatoes that are not from San Marzano. And to add to the confusion, there’s actually a brand of tomatoes called San Marzano, with tomatoes grown in the United States. Bet your ass the sellers of these tomatoes are counting on you not to know the difference!

Sold everywhere, but these are NOT real San Marzano tomatoes. They’re grown in the USA.

 

Real San Marzano Tomatoes are a very old variety, extremely limited in quantity, grown and produced exclusively in the San Marzano region of Italy. Because production is so very limited, the Italian Government and the European Union have formed a way of protecting consumers from fraud by having San Marzano tomatoes tightly controlled. DOP, or denomination of protected origin, is the mechanism that the government is using to control the production and marketing of genuine San Marzano tomatoes. Labels for DOP products must be individually numbered and manually applied to each can in specific lots and government officials must oversee this application. So here’s the deal: unless you see “DOP” on the label with a hand-stamped number on the can, it’s not a real San Marzano tomato.

 

Yes! Real San Marzano tomatoes. Cento also sells non-certified San Marzano’s, so always look for the DOP on the can.

 

Another way to tell when you’re in the market is simple. Check the price. Your average can of tomatoes will be in the $2 range. Real DOP San Marzano tomatoes: about $4–$5 a can. It’s all about quality. Buy them on sale, and you’ll not only save a few bucks, but you’ll have them when you need them at arm’s reach!

As a teenager growing up on Long Island, I worked long hours at a local Italian restaurant called Pizza City East in Plainview. (The original Pizza City was in Ozone Park, Queens.) Though the pay sucked, I made some important friendships that have lasted to this day. I also learned many Italian cooking basics: how to open clams for red and white clam sauce, the secrets of great pizza dough, the art of a perfect espresso, and how to make massive quantities of baked ziti.

The basic ingredients of baked ziti are the same as lasagna, and I make one or the other depending on my mood or what I’ve got in the cupboard. I also like to make my lasagna a little dryer, where baked ziti shines in its incredible gooiness.

My lasagna usually consists of 2 sauces (a meat sauce and a bechamel sauce) and 4 cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, and Parmigiano Reggiano) using pasta that is boiled much firmer than al dente. I like real pasta, not the no-boil sheets, because I think the flavor is better. I’ve tried the no-boils, and I’ve found that they don’t cook evenly. Sometimes you get a nice soft bite and other times it’s completely raw and pasty. There are plenty of great brand choices for lasagna sheets these days, and that includes gluten-free varieties.

lasagna

 

Meat Sauce…
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 lb. grass-fed ground beef or pastured pork, or a combination of both
1 tablespoon dried parsley
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

 

Heat a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil in a large pan and sauté the onions until translucent. I finely chop the carrots by peeling them all the way down until there’s nothing but a pile of peeled pieces, then chopping them up so small, they almost melt into the sauce. Add the carrots and cook for 2 minutes. Add the beef (or pork) and cook the meat until it browns. Add the parsley, oregano, basil, salt and pepper and mix well.

Empty the can of tomatoes into a blender and blend it until smooth. Add this to the pan and mix well.

Cook the meat sauce for about 10 minutes, then remove it from the heat and set it aside.

Hint: I’ve found that no-boil pasta sheets suck up a lot more moisture than already-cooked pasta, so I make my sauce a bit runnier than usual when using the sheets.

 

Bechamel sauce…
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoon all-purpose flour (I use Cup4Cup flour to make it gluten-free)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups 2% milk

 

Bechamel is a basic white sauce. It adds a wonderful creaminess to my lasagna or baked ziti.

Melt the butter in a saucepan under medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until you’ve combined the butter and flour and have a light roux.

Add the milk, and keep whisking, making sure you don’t get any lumps in the sauce. Season with the salt and pepper.

Keep whisking until the sauce thickens. Once it does, remove it from the heat and set it aside.

 

A special 4-cheese all-bechamel sauce lasagna, before cooking.

 

I made 2 different versions this last time. Having tomato allergies and on a gluten-free diet, my wife got a 4-cheese all-bechamel gluten-free lasagna all to herself. It baked up nicely.

4-cheese gluten-free lasagna, after baking.

 

12 oz. lasagna pasta sheets (boiled or no-boil)…or 12 oz. small pasta, like ziti, elbows or penne
4 slices provolone cheese (about 4 oz.)
ricotta cheese (about 4 oz.)
mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced (about 4 oz.)
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

 

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

If you’re using regular pasta, boil the lasagna sheets in a pot of salty boiling water until very firm…firmer than al dente. Drain the pasta and run cold water over it to stop the cooking process. The pasta will want to stick to itself, so work quickly. Adding a drop of olive oil can help.

Lay a thin layer of the meat sauce at the bottom of the lasagna pan, which will keep the lasagna from sticking. Then start your layers: a layer of pasta, a thin layer of the Béchamel sauce, the 4 slices of Provolone, a layer of pasta, a layer of the meat sauce, small teaspoon-sized dollops of the ricotta, another layer of pasta (press down occasionally to remove air bubbles), another thin layer of Béchamel, the Parmigiano Reggiano, more pasta, more meat sauce, etc….

Make it as thick as you like. I like to cover the final layer of pasta with the meat sauce and then finish the dish with the mozzarella, sprinkling a touch of oregano on top.

Place the lasagna pan in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly. Shut the oven off, but leave the pan in for another 10 minutes, then serve.

The baked ziti version, using elbow pasta this time, before baking.

 

If you’re making a baked ziti version, your job is a lot easier. Take the cooked, drained pasta and pour it into the pan. Add the meat sauce and some bechamel sauce. Stir in the ricotta, torn up pieces of the provolone, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and even a few small chunks of mozzarella. Mix it well. Then place more mozzarella on the top, and bake it in the oven for about 30 minutes.

The best mac and cheese ever: the baked ziti version, substituting elbow pasta for lasagna sheets.

 

Of course, when you’re cooking, there’s always someone hanging around to grab a taste of the baked ziti before it goes in the oven…