Are ‘pasta’ and ‘gluten-free’ compatible? Yes!

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Today I’m welcoming my sister, Marlie Johnson, to the blog with a food post on eating gluten-free and Italian:

One of the best things about being part of a family with Italian roots has to be the food.  Pasta, pizza, pastries! These have been staples on the table my entire life… until about a year ago.  I was diagnosed with an allergy to wheat!  That explained a lot of problems I had been having, but it also caused havoc with my diet. After a lot of research, I decided it was easier to go gluten free than try to avoid just wheat.  Then I found that gluten free is not the tastiest.  I found a few gluten free pastas, but they didn’t taste very good.  I was very surprised when I found two companies in Italy who were making gluten free pasta, and it is good!   They are Delallo and Barilla.  Between the two, there is a great variety of pasta, including penne, spaghetti, orzo, shells, and fusilli – these are the ones I have found so far.Marlie-4

The most important lesson I have learned for cooking gluten free pasta is to not overcook it AT ALL.  It will turn to mush.   If you are going to add the pasta to a sauce and bake it, then stop cooking it about a minute before the directions for al dente – it will finish cooking while baking, and be perfect.

Here is a recipe that I have used gluten free penne in, and it turned out great.  I had it “taste tested” by people who only eat gluten free, and several who eat anything!  They all said it was really good, and asked when I was going to make it again.

Here is the original recipe (what I changed follows):

1 lb hot Italian sausage links                    1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1 (16 oz ) package of rigatoni                   2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (24 oz) jar of marinara sauce                 salt and pepper to taste

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, thinly sliced       1 cup shredded Monzzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmesean                           1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup grated Asiago                                  1/2 med. yellow onion, chopped.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, and cook pasta until almost tender, about 10 minutes.

Cook the sausage in a large skillet over medium heat, turning frequently, until cooked through.  Remove from skillet, cool, and cut into slices.  Add the garlic, fennel and onion to the skillet and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the roasted red peppers, basil and sausage and the marinara sauce.  Heat through over low heat until warmed.


Ready to bake…

Combine the pasta with the sauce and vegetables in a 9 x 13 baking pan.  Spread the cheeses on top.  Garnish with a few fennel leaves.  Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and broil for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned.

The changes I made are:

I used bulk sausage instead of links.

I used Barilla Gluten Free Penne Pasta, and cooked it one minute less than the package called for al dente.

I cooked the vegetable for about 10 -12 minutes, until the fennel was almost fully cooked.

I did use a jar of marinara… (sorry, Grandma)

…. and ready to eat!

Would I change anything else the next time I make it?  I would try it with sweet Italian sausage, or an equal mix of hot and mild.  It had great flavor, but it was spicy hot!  For me this one is a keeper, and I will make it gluten free for everyone who is coming to dinner!

Serve with salad, or a green vegetable, garlic bread and your favorite wine.  Watch salad dressings for gluten…it hides in all kinds of condiments!  You can make croutons and garlic bread from gluten free bread.   Rudi’s brand bread is the best I have found.  It is good for French toast ….if you want to send your taste buds a little farther north in Europe!


Food, glorious (Italian) food!

Tomato shopping in an Italian grocery store.

Tomato shopping in an Italian grocery store.

Food is a perennial favorite topic here–actually more than perennial. It’s a daily interest for most of us! I had hoped to visit a cooking school in Sicily last summer, but could not fit it into my trip. However I did spend several wonderful hours in the kitchen of my Italian cousin, Anna Maria, as she prepared a late supper for us. The tomatoes of August were at their prime, and she chopped a chunky bowl of them, added sliced white onions and freshly minced garlic. A sprinkling of salt started the tomato juices running, and then in went some fresh basil and oregano from plants on the terrace. A splash of vinegar? I think that went in, too. My mouth is watering as I sit at my desk six months later remembering it. Olive oil topped it off, mixing with the juices to make a wonderful “dressing” for the salad.

Later, at the table, we dipped rustic bread into the juices. The tomato salad was one of several dishes at that dinner, but sticks most firmly in my memory–the simplicity, the freshness, the mouth-watering beauty of it. I’ve made it that way several times since then, and imagined what I might have learned in a cooking class.

I don’t get to Italy often enough (Is such a thing even possible?) so I was delighted to run across some Italian cooking schools in the USA. Have any of you been to one of these?

Rustico Cooking in New York City:  They offer classes and team-building experiences for up to 150 people (or as few as 12). Their website alone presents a culinary tour of Italy, with lots of indexed recipes, and descriptions of Italy’s various regions along with the food specialties from each.

Al Boccalino in Seattle: Luigi DeNunzio offers classes nearly every day at Al Boccalino, his Pioneer Square restaurant in downtown Seattle. The link leads you to the website, with a video tour led by Luigi, and information on classes, menus, and a foodie tour of Italy.

Little Italy in San Diego: Cooking demonstrations and hands-on cooking classes fill up fast. Classes incorporate foods and wine from various regions of Italy, made with fresh ingredients. Students participate in every step, from the shopping to the eating.

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, Massachusetts: In the Boston area, Dave’s classes specialize in specific elements of Italian food. There’s a class on risotto and gnocchi, another on ravioli and stuffed pastas, and a class teaching you to make mozzarella cheese at home. The basic pasta and sauce classes fill up fast.

If you know of classes in your area, add a link in the comments! We’ll all be cooking Italian soon.

“First mother of Italian cooking in America”

That’s how one New York food expert described Marcella Hazan, whose six cookbooks are prized classics of Italian cooking and eating.

Thank you, Marcella, and rest in peace.

Readers, enjoy this New York Times story about Marcella.

Italian Food: I’m growing some now!

The Greengrocer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (16th century). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Greengrocer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (16th century). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Today I finished planting my garden, and I was just imagining what I’ll be doing in a couple of months with my crops. Some of them don’t have particularly Italian applications that I know of. For example, rhubarb. It’s ready for pie-making now.

Asparagus hasn’t started peeking up yet, but I’m hoping to eat some in the next few weeks.

I have a patio pot with arugula planted in it this week. It’s too bitter for some people but I love the spicy bite of it in a salad, or even mixed into a sausage & potato Zuppa Toscana.  And I’m growing the potatoes too.

Green beans in two varieties–one is the typical American string bean, the other the wide, creamy Romano. Looking forward to some of those sauteed with a bit of bacon!

I know I’ll be overrun with zucchini, because I planted FOUR of them. Aren’t they grand producers? And besides using them in minestrone, or sauteed with some tomato and basil, I’ll have plenty for zucchini bread. And for gifts.

In other garden beds I have some mixed salad greens, sweet onions, peas, beets, carrots, and red Swiss chard. I’ll plant a few tomatoes in another week or so. And scour my Italian cookbooks (and the web) for ways to use all of it.

Are you gardening? What’s your favorite thing to grow and eat Italian style?

Mamma Agata Cooking School on the Amalfi Coast

Plans are solidifying for a trip to Italy next summer, and I am considering how I will spend a couple of weeks there, when what I’d really like is a couple of years!

Somewhere in the south, I want to take a cooking class. My mother did this a few years ago in Sorrento, and had a great time. The food part was wonderful, but she was just as amazed that the teacher spent half the day cooking with several students, while wearing what Mom described as a black “cocktail dress” with no apron, with no spills or flour smudges at all.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a cooking class offered in Palermo, and here is another, in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. I love making simple pasta like this for lunch!

Mamma Agata Cooking School on the Amalfi Coast.

And here is a video of Mamma Agata at work:

Ravioli Tostati–St. Louis Italian Food

My daughter and her husband moved to St. Louis, Missouri in early January, and three weeks later, we visited them, eager to see “The Hill”, St. Louis’ Little Italy. They took us out to dinner at Gian-Tony’s Ristorante, where I had my first taste of Ravioli Tostati.

This deep-fried ravioli is a tradition of St. Louis–but perhaps somewhere in Italy too, the cook accidentally knocked a raviolo into hot oil instead of water, inventing a crispy appetizer. I was told that several chefs on The Hill have claimed that fortunate mistake, sometime in the 1930s or ’40s. The popular dish is available in many parts of the Mid-west now, and some East Coast restaurants too.

So we enjoyed a plate of Ravioli Tostati before our dinner at Gian-Tony’s, dipping the crunchy squares in marinara sauce as we visited. I have to say, the cooks of St. Louis are on to something! Since coming home, I’ve looked for recipes, and am sharing links to a couple of them with you. Here’s a fast-food version from All-Recipes website. Charlie Gitto’s, one of the restaurants that claims the invention, provided this recipe on the Food Network website.

Food: Caciocavallo and other cheesy delights

I paused in front of the cheese display at a little market in Scigliano. “Look!” I said to Vern. A herd of little horses, shaped from ivory strands of caciocavallo cheese, were lined up in the window to amuse me, and that they did!

Those Italians really know what to do with cheese! Going to the cheese-and-sausage stores was one of my favorite shopping delights in Italy. We always found interesting cheeses, and succumbed to many temptations there. The volume of cheese alone is enough to amaze someone used to the typical American cheese shopping experience. Giant wheels of cheese cut into thick wedges, balls and chunks, fresh and aged, cheese to try with figs, meats, pasta, bread, cold or melted. I salivate at the many tasty memories.

Caciocavallo was a special delight. It normally comes in double balls, something like a snowman, with a cord around the ‘neck’ where it has hung to dry. Someday I’d love to see the process of making some of the cheese into little horses (cavalli). I really wanted to buy little caciocavallo horses as souvenirs to take home, but they were a little too perishable for that.

If you visit Italy, even if the trip is short and your time tightly scheduled, take a few minutes to find a cheese shop, and explore the abundance. Choose something intriguing, and buy a few ounces. Savor the flavor. The experience might become your favorite memory of Italy.

English Soup? Save it for dessert!

As Vern and I walked from our lodging to the language school in Sorrento, we passed a small bakery, often succumbing to temptation and buying a treat. The owner bantered with us, switching between our limited Italian and his limited English as he described the various pastries on display. One day a large rounded cake caught our eye, a little like the one pictured here which we bought later for Vern’s birthday.

“Zuppa Inglese,” he said when we pointed. He offered us a taste, and we fell in love.

Zuppa Inglese is described this way in the glossary of

“TZOO-pah een-GLAY-zay

As the name suggests, zuppa inglese (“English soup”) is of English origin, and is derived from the trifle, a popular British dessert. To make zuppa inglese, wedges of sponge cake or delicate cookies such as ladyfingers are dipped in sweet wine or light liqueur, then layered with whipped cream, diced candied fruit, and chopped bittersweet chocolate.”

There are several stories about the origin of this dessert. The first we heard was that Admiral Nelson’s fleet made an unexpected call at Naples, and the king’s cooks were rushed to prepare something suitable for him. Zuppa Inglese was the result—a kind of hybrid between English trifle and tiramisu.

The internet abounds with recipes for Zuppa Inglese, from complicated (sponge cake
and custard made from scratch, hand shaved bittersweet chocolate, and so forth) to very simple (store-bought ladyfingers, instant pudding, chocolate chips). Find one you like the looks of, and adjust it to your cooking style. The basics are: a light cake of some kind in the bottom of the serving dish (clear glass looks pretty) sprinkled with a liquor such as rum or marsala; a custard or pudding with fruit of your choice mixed in, some form of chocolate as a highlight (not so much it overwhelms), and whipped cream. It can also be formed in a bowl or pan, layered and chilled, then inverted onto a platter and decorated with meringue or  whipped cream, the way we first encountered it in Sorrento.

Here’s a video demonstration featuring chef Jeff Michaud from Osteria Restaurant in
Philadelphia with a professional’s version of Zuppa Inglese.

And here is another video, definitely the home style version, with two sisters describing mamma’s shortcut recipe.

Whichever recipe you choose, this is a delicious dessert, and fun for a special occasion. Like, tonight!

Food festivals: Enjoy the feast!

My mother can’t stop talking about it! She visited Calabria five years ago, and when friends took her out to dinner in one of the villages near Scigliano, she ordered a mushroom dish. I still haven’t heard the end of it.

Sadly for all of us, we do not have the recipe. But the season for mushrooms is approaching, and they will be celebrated in the Italian south.

In the Sila, the mountains of Calabria, the village of Camigliatello Silano celebrates a wild mushroom festival each year. In Diamante, the chili pepper takes center stage. Chestnut festivals are common throughout Italy, but the village of Zafferana Etnea in Sicily goes one better, celebrating a Chestnut and Wine Festival. Eggplant, pasta, sausage, chocolate–it seems like most any food in the cupboard has a festival in its honor.

But we were talking about mushrooms. In Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” I found this recipe that pays homage to the mushroom.

Fresh Mushrooms with Porcini, Rosemary, and Tomatoes

1 lb. fresh, firm white button OR cremini mushrooms

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary leaves

About 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Filtered water from soaking the mushrooms (see instructions)

Salt, Fresh ground black pepper

1/2 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, with their juice

To prepare the dried porcini mushrooms, soak in two cups of barely warm water for at least 30 minutes. Lift the mushrooms by hand, squeezing out as much water as possible, and let the water flow back into the container in which it has been soaking. Retain the water, and rinse the mushrooms in fresh water, scraping any spots where soil is embedded. Pat dry with paper towels , and chop.

Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter, and retain until called for.

Trim, wash, and towel dry the fresh mushrooms and cut in half  or quarters lengthwise, keeping the caps attached to stems.

Choose a saute pan that will contain all the ingredients loosely. Start with oil and garlic heated to medium high until the garlic becomes pale gold. Add rosemary and the reconstituted porcini. Stir once or twice to coat well, then add the filtered water from soaking the mushrooms. Turn up the heat and cook at a lively pace until all the water has simmered away.

Add the cut up fresh mushrooms to the pan, together with salt and pepper, turn the heat to high, and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid shed by the fresh mushrooms has simmered away.

Add the tomatoes with their juice, toss thoroughly to coat well, cover the pan, and turn the heat to low. Cook about ten minutes. If needed to prevent sticking, add one or two tablespoons of water to the pan. When done, serve immediately.


Gift of the Goths: Mozzarella di Bufala

The water buffaloes surprised me. Like something in a photo from Cambodia or China, but not in the countryside of Campania.

But there they are, and have been for centuries. One theory says they came to Italy with Goth invaders about 1,500 years ago. Others suggest Arabs brought them to Sicily, and the Normans spread them to the southern mainland. And some think they are native to the area. However they got there, I’m glad they did.

Initially used as draft animals, there are some references to cheese products from the buffalo’s rich milk as early as the twelfth century. The mozzarella di bufala we know today came to prominence in southern Italy 200 to 300 years ago. When I spent a few weeks in Sorrento, I was told that only cheese made from buffalo milk can be labeled ‘mozzarella’ in that part of Italy.

Fresh mozzarella, those soft bright white balls, must be kept in a ‘broth’ and is very perishable, so should be used quickly. While mozzarella can be made from cows’ milk (and unless it is labeled ‘di bufala’, it probably is), the buffalo version is much richer and more flavorful.

The most familiar use of mozzarella di bufala, for tourists in Italy, is the ubiquitous Caprese salad: Alternating slices of fresh tomatoes and creamy cheese, interlaced with fresh leaves of basil, and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Perfetto!

Though both are called mozzarella, the fresh version seems to have no relationship to the shredded dry cheese melted on pizza all over America. For a real treat, use some thinly sliced fresh mozzarella next time you make a pizza, or top your next baked pasta dish with it during the last few minutes of cooking.

If you make the mistake I did in Italy, and call it mozzarella di “bufalo” the Italians will laugh. Everyone knows it is “di bufala” and if you try to get milk from a “bufalo” you’ll be in trouble.

Ready to try cooking with fresh mozzarella? In 2009, Alanna Kellogg ( posted ten recipes here:  Put one together today, and as you eat it, imagine you are in the Italian south, eating lunch on your terrace with a warm breeze carrying the fragrance of basil and oregano. Salute!