Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

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…

 

 

 

 

 

It’s National Cheese Pizza Day! If you want to know the measure of a truly great pizza, you gotta go bares bones and order a simple cheese pizza. It’s tough to hide behind a classic combination of dough, sauce and cheese. It either rocks or sucks.

There are few foods that people take as personally as pizza. Tell someone your pizza place is better than their pizza place, and chances are you’ll start a fight. Well, my pizza place is better than your pizza place, because I make it at home. Besides, I can run faster than you.

I’m not going to say that much of the pizza that I’ve tried here in Rhode Island is mediocre, but I will say that I was born in Brooklyn and grew up working in many New York pizza places in my youth. So yes, I do have a very strong opinion on what I think makes a good or bad pizza. And, alas, I’ve tried, but a good gluten-free pizza is not yet within reach. The frozen ones you get in stores are passable, but making one at home has been nothing short of a disaster.

My homemade pizza is all about the basics. The better quality my original ingredients are, the better my pizza will be:

 

The dough…

The key ingredient is 00 flour, and it can be found in specialty stores,  or online. Ratios for this recipe depend on the humidity in my kitchen on any given day, but my basic pizza dough recipe is as follows:

4–5 cups 00 flour
1 cup tepid water
1 tablespoon salt
1 packet Italian pizza yeast
a squirt of extra virgin olive oil

I mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer, then slowly add the water as it mixes. After the ingredients are well mixed, and the dough pulls from the side of the bowl, I remove it to a floured board, where I knead the dough by hand for another 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic, shaping it into a ball. I rub a little olive oil over the ball of dough, place it in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and let it rise for 2 hours, punching it down after that, and letting it rise another 2 hours again.

The sauce…

I’ve written an earlier blog about real and fake cans of San Marzano tomatoes. I feel that San Marzanos make the best sauce, but not all cans of San Marzanos are created equal. The only way you can be guaranteed you have a real can of these beauties, grown in volcanic Italian soil in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, is by the D.O.P. designation on the can. (D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione d’Origine Protetta,” and signifies that it’s the real deal.) Anything else that says San Marzano may not be.

San Marzanos are so amazing, that all I do is puree them in a food processor, pour the sauce into a pan, and let it reduce until it has thickened. No spices or additions of any kind.

The cheese…

I don’t need to go super-fancy with mozzarella di bufala (cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo) …but I don’t use the mass-produced supermarket stuff, either. Fresh mozzarella, found in most supermarkets, is the way to go.

The toppings…

Since we’re talking National Cheese Pizza Day, it’s a no topping day.

But my signature pizza that wows my dinner guests is my marinated beef tenderloin and fried chive blossom pizza. I marinate and grill a piece of beef tenderloin, slicing it thin. And in the springtime, when my chive plants are budding like crazy, I snip the blossoms before they open and place them in Ziploc freezer bags to use all year-long. When it’s time, I grab a handful of the blossoms and fry them in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and sprinkle them over the top of the beef tenderloin pizza. A touch of Fleur de Sel on top seals the deal.

My signature marinated beef tenderloin and chive blossom pizza.

The oven…

Many professional pizza ovens reach a temperature of 1000 degrees. My home oven only reaches 500, but it does the trick. I do use a pizza stone, and place it on the center rack of the oven, and let it heat up thoroughly (about an hour) before sliding a pizza onto it for cooking.

 

My favorite pizza?

I haven’t been to every pizzeria on this here planet, but I’ve been to a few, and for my money, the best pizza I’ve ever had is something called pizza montanara. They take the pizza dough, stretch it out, then fry it in olive oil for a minute so that it puffs up like a beautiful pillow, then they add the sauce and mozzarella di bufala on top and place it in a wood burning oven to cook. Garnished with a basil leaf, it is absolute pizza perfection, and my favorite place to get it is at Pizzarte on West 55th St. in Manhattan.

The original location of Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana in New Haven, CT, is a very different and very delicious pie. And locally, in my neighborhood of Southern New England, I’ve had excellent pizza at Al Forno in Providence, RI, the restaurant that started the grilled pizza craze…Fellini Pizzeria, on the east side of Providence, RI and in Cranston, RI, home of a wonderful New York-style thin crust pie…and Brick, with 3 locations: Fairhaven, MA, N. Dartmouth, MA and New Bedford, MA.

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 my girl 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. You get a lot more flavor this way than using store-bought GF 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 GF 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
4 oz. sliced gluten-free bread, toasted (I use Udi’s frozen bread)
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, which I wrap individually and freeze 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 on low, tossing the pasta, coating it with the sauce. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s something magical about a simple plate of spaghetti and meatballs. When my parents took me to an Italian restaurant as a child, a plate of spaghetti and meatballs made me feel like the luckiest kid on the planet. And even now, when I prepare a plate of spaghetti and meatballs for my daughter, she can’t wait to sit down at the dinner table. She’s so busy shoveling the food into her mouth, she can’t even speak. I just get a quick thumbs-up between bites…and breaths!

 

meatballs

 

Great meatballs start with great meat. I always use 80/20 grass-fed beef. I don’t use a ton of breadcrumbs as filler. And the tomato sauce is homemade as well, from canned tomatoes. I start with the sauce…

 

B.F.I.M. SAUCE

Inspired by a lovely but large Italian lady I once knew, my Big Fat Italian Mama sauce works well with this hearty dish.

 

 

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, through a press
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
10 cups ground and peeled tomatoes…or 3 cans (28 oz.) tomatoes pureed in food processor
2 teaspoons each: dried oregano, basil and parsley
3/4 teaspoon each anise seed and fennel seed
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 small can (6 oz.) tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

 

Heat the olive oil in a large pot and add the onions. Cook until the onions are translucent, then add the garlic. Stir for 10 seconds.

Add the tomatoes and cook on high until the orange foam disappears, stirring frequently. Don’t let it burn.

Add the oregano, basil, parsley, anise seed, fennel seed, salt and pepper, bay leaves and tomato paste. Allow the sauce to just come to a boil so that the tomato paste reaches optimum thickening power.

Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for at least an hour, until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Stir often.

 

While the sauce is cooking, I start the meatballs…

 

 

2 lbs. grass-fed ground beef
1 cup plain breadcrumbs (gluten-free breadcrumbs work well, too)
2 tablespoons dried parsley
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs, cracked and scrambled
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Mix all the ingredients, except the olive oil, thoroughly but gently in a large bowl. Don’t overwork it.

Pour some olive oil a medium-hot pan (don’t let it burn), make the meatballs, and sear them on all sides until brown.

When the meatballs are nice and brown, place them into the pot of sauce, making sure they are covered. Pour all the little bits and the olive oil from the pan into the sauce as well! Great flavor there.

Cover the pot and cook the meatballs in the sauce on low for a few hours.

Serve the meatballs and sauce over your favorite pasta, and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

 

Making this dish gluten-free is easy: use gluten-free pasta (we love the products from Garofalo) and use GF breadcrumbs in the meatballs. I prefer to buy gluten-free loaves of bread, toasting them, letting the slices cool, then tossing them in a food processor to make breadcrumbs. The flavor is as good as regular breadcrumbs!