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.

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Winter pasta: Pasta e fagioli

The pasta e fagioli I made while writing this blog post.

The pasta e fagioli I made while writing this blog post.

As I’m writing this, the weather is damp and chilly, and the mid-winter is a great time for pasta e fagioli, an Italian peasant dish that has as many versions as there are Italian kitchens, I think. It might be Italy’s best known meatless meal, although many recipes add meats like pancetta, diced ham, salt pork, or bacon.

Today I’m making a meatless version, but not truly vegetarian, since I’m using chicken broth. One thing I like about pasta e fagioli is the use of basics. I am rarely without onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, a can of chopped tomatoes (if I don’t have fresh ones to use), a can of beans, and some pasta.

Regarding the seasonings: Since it’s a wintertime dish, dried herbs are entirely appropriate–basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley. Where I live, I have parsley growing outdoors much of the winter too, so I’ll chop some fresh to add with the pasta. Some add some zip with red pepper flakes. I like ground black pepper, and am fairly generous with it.

Regarding the beans: Ideally I would use cannellini beans, however today a can of great northern beans was handy. Kidney or pinto beans will work. I haven’t tried it with garbanzos, but  wouldn’t rule them out if that’s what I had available.

Regarding the pasta: Most recipes suggest ditalini, the tiny rings I have always thought of as macaroni salad pasta. But any smallish pasta will work. Because I’m usually cooking for two, I rarely use a full box of pasta.  What I like to use in soup is the last little bit left over from a box–so today I’m throwing in a cup or so of whole grain rotini. 

A pot of pasta e fagioli will make a great light supper with nothing more than garlic bread or cheesy focaccia. Top each bowl with parmesan. If you have big eaters to feed, you can pair the soup with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and add a simple dessert.

Wherever you are, you can enjoy a little taste of Italy with an easy to make, yummy to eat, pot of pasta e fagioli!

Another generation of Christmas torcetti

This year marks a very special milestone for my family–the birth of our first grandchild. And though she is too young to eat any, I look forward to making some torcetti while I am visiting my daughter and son-in-law, and introducing the baby to the family tradition.

So here’s a link to Grandma Mary’s torcetti recipe, and a photo of her great-great granddaughter, Cosette.

Grandbaby Cosette holding a photo of her mom wearing the same dress, both at age two weeks!

Grandbaby Cosette holding a photo of her mom wearing the same dress, both at age two weeks!

Food confession!

Brace yourselves, because here it comes: I don’t really like gelato.

I know it’s a heretical view–my Italian blood must be too thinned out by mixing with English, German, and miscellaneous other roots.

Caserta gelatoBut we were encouraged by my friend Nicola in Gaeta, to stop in at his cousin’s gelateria when we visited Caserta.  So we located Bianco Bio at Via Ferrante 38, just a few blocks from our hotel and right on the way to the royal palace. They sell organic gelato, a little pricier than the typical gelato, but my oh my! I ordered a coconut cone, and it was delicious!! Too bad we weren’t in Caserta longer–I’d have gone back for more. If you ever find yourself in Caserta–visiting the royal palace, maybe?–stop by Bianco Bio for a gelato treat.

Gaeta and tiella!

Tiella!

Tiella!

Thanks to my Facebook friend Nicola Tarallo, Vern and I enjoyed a fun afternoon in Gaeta, Nico’s home town and home of the savory pie called tiella. Through his website and books, Nico is doing all he can to put Gaeta on the map and tiella in your kitchen.

After corresponding via Facebook off and on for a year or so, I was happy to stop in Gaeta and finally meet Nico in person. Vern and I visited Gaeta several years ago, but this time we had a one-man public relations firm showing us around. We strolled along the oldest street in the original townsite listening to his steady patter of details about the history and life of Gaeta. Nicola studied English in Washington state (where I now live).

Gaeta 3 (768x1024)Our first stop was a tiella bakery, Antico Forno Giordano–in business more than 120 years according to their sign. There was a line out the door when we arrived–always a good sign for any food place, right? Inside, Nico introduced us to the baker, explained the different kinds of tiella, and we had a photo op with the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

We bought four different types of tiella, 1/4 of a pie each, for Vern and I to have a late lunch. Octopus tiella? We thought we should try it, even though neither of us is big fans of octopus. Next, escarole tiella. That’s right, not just a fluffy addition to your salad, escarole is often cooked in Italian dishes, which reduces the slight bitterness. Next, zucchini and onion tiella. Yummy! The fourth, I think, was eggplant–more delicious flavors!

But before we tasted any of them, Nico asked what we’d like to drink with our lunch. Wine! (What else?) He led us down a side street (more like a little alley) to what looked like the back door of a shop, where a couple of men were busy working. In a blur of Italian he conveyed our request, and they invited us to step inside. On a waist-high shelf, four giant vats of wine awaited bottling as the need arose. We were offered tastes, and made our selection. Grabbing an empty (previously used) liter bottle, the younger man began filling it for us, but the older stopped him when he saw Vern taking a photo. He called me over, put the bottle in my hand and invited me to open the tap myself for the picture you see here. Oh, the price? About two bucks.

The wine shop.

The wine shop.

We’d parked near a park, and decided to head back there to eat, hoping to find a dry spot after a rain squall passed through. But along the way, Nico took us into his favorite pizzeria: Pizzeria Rustica. Another line out the door, even longer this time, but moving quickly. Inside, three or four men with cleavers hacking large square pizzas into pieces to sell. If I had a video, it would be a blur with the activity going on back there! Unfortunately, we had more than we could finish with the tiella, because I would love to have tried some of the great looking pizza too.

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

We did find a park bench, and continued to visit with Nico. He’s excited about a new Russian translation of his cookbook, Mangia Tiella! which is already available in English and Spanish. He has written a travel guide to Gaeta, and hopes to publish more books in that vein. You can also find him on Facebook.

Vern and I continued down the road to Caserta, still feeling the buzz of energy from Nico’s enthusiasm for his home town.

“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.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/30/dining/Marcella-Hazan-dies-changed-the-way-americans-cook-italian-food.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=DI_MHC_20130930&_r=0