Monday, July 14, 2014

Pasta and Zucchini and Booze-ahol

A bout of poor dinner planning paid off when I realized that I was in possession of the three ingredients necessary to make Rigatoni alla Pastora (Shepherd's Style Rigatoni with Ricotta and Sausage) from My Calabria. An added bonus was that all three ingredients (pasta, ricotta, sausage) are things that Charlie will eat.

This recipe was easy. Cook chunks of un-cased sausages. Add cooked pasta to the greasy sausage pan. Mix some of the pasta water into ricotta until it loosens up and becomes saucy. Add the pasta and sausage to the ricotta. Season to taste. Boom. Done.
Not a pretty plate of food.
This was heavier than I would prefer, and it made enough to feed an army. Matt and Charlie both loved it, though, and it was simple.

Conclusion: Liked it.

I served Parmigiana di Zucchine with last week's Dorie recipe. If you have a million pounds of zucchini in your garden, this will use it up. If you're going out of your way to procure zucchini, just go the eggplant route instead. The zucchini is lightly fried in olive oil before being layered with cheese and sauce, but it doesn't take on that same luxurious silkiness that eggplant does. I was aware that what I was eating was inferior to eggplant parm for the duration of the meal. It didn't help that Costantino suggests you serve this at room temp, which is a huge mistake, because the mozzarella is tough at room temp. No bene.
Conclusion: Just okay. A heap of it is still sitting in my fridge.

When the relevant fruits (mandarin oranges, which my landlord has a grove of, and strawberries) were in season this year, I used Costantino's recipe to make Liquore al Mandarino, as well as the Fragolino Variation. Italians, including Costantino, use grain alcohol for their liquore. Too many of my friends have produced undrinkable limoncello with grain alcohol, so I learned last year, using a different "mandarinetto" recipe that using a mid-grade vodka produces a muuuuuuch smoother and more delicious drink. I substituted vodka into Costantino's recipe, too, but used her proportions of fruit, alcohol, and sugar-water/syrup. Both flavors are deeeelicious. Love them.

Friday, July 11, 2014

FFwD: (Cheese) Filled Zucchini Blossoms

Fried zucchini blossoms are near and dear to my heart. Growing up, my Italian-American next-door neighbor fried batches of flowers from her garden all summer long to lure me and her daughter out of their pool. Now, whenever I visit my mom during the summer, Ann makes a point of frying zucchini blossoms for me, because she knows how much I love them. (During winter visits, she inevitably brings over cookies. She's a good neighbor to have.)

Years ago, I asked Ann for her recipe. She gave me a list of ingredients and told me to mix them together until the batter looked right. This will come as no surprise, but my first run at frying my own zucchini flowers was an epic failure. Matt will eat just about anything that's fried, and even he found them inedible. I haven't really tried again since then, so I was very excited to give Dorie's zucchini blossom recipe a try.

Technically, Dorie's recipe is for Shrimp-Filled Zucchini Blossoms. I'm sure that's delicious, but here in Naples, I've only seen zucchini blossoms come with one filling: cheese. In my ongoing effort to learn to duplicate things I love from my time here, I decided to follow Dorie's cheese-filled variation instead of the shrimp one.

Finding zucchini blossoms was easy. Italians are crazy for these things (with good reason). They actually sell fresh packs of them at the supermarket. Or so I thought. I didn't realize until I got home, that I'd actually bought fiore di zucca. Pumpkin. Not zucchini. Oh well, no big deal. I couldn't tell the difference.
I don't know what army I thought I would feed with this many flowers. We wasted quite a few.

Is club soda the same as sparkling water? I don't think so. I used sparkling water, because that is what the lady in my Italian cooking class uses. If it's good enough for Vera, it's good enough for me.

This batter fried up perfectly. These flowers were crispy and delicious. I'll always love Ann's zucchini flowers best, because they're made out of love, but this is now my go-to recipe when I need to fry flowers--or any other vegetable, for that matter--myself. The cheese filling was, frankly, better than a lot of what I've eaten at restaurants around here. Well done, Dorie.
After much prodding, Charlie tasted, then devoured an un-stuffed flower, while skeptically reciting Green Eggs and Ham ("You may like them, you will see..."). Score.

Matt said this was one of his favorite dinners in ages. All hail my beloved zucchini flowers!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Calabria: Ciambotta

Oh boy, do I have a work-horse recipe for you! I flipped through My Calabria last Wednesday and realized that the recipe for Ciambotta (Southern Italy's Summer Vegetable Stew) would use up the ridiculous amount of vegetables that I had in my kitchen. I say ridiculous because we were leaving town for three days, and my bushel of produce would surely be rotten by the time I returned.
Between all the chopping and the individual frying of each component, it took longer than I normally prefer on a weeknight to complete this recipe. However, since it is meant to be served as a room-temperature accompaniment to grilled meats, you could prepare it earlier in the day.

I'm not sure that mine came out exactly as it was meant to. The recipe calls for 1.5 pounds of tomatoes. I didn't have that many, so I supplemented with canned tomatoes. I suspect mine was a bit more "tomato saucey" than it should have been. Oh well. Basically, the peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and potatoes are independently fried, then returned to the pan with onion, garlic, tomato, and basil, and left to simmer in the tomato juices for a few minutes. Then, you let it rest. So, it's uncomplicated, but does take a while.

The first night, I served the glop over pasta.
We had a kitchen at the place we'd rented for the July 4th weekend in Umbria, so I brought the leftovers along as a side dish for steak. I ate the leftover leftovers for breakfast, as a bed for an over-easy egg. YUM.

Conclusion: Liked it, with bonus points because it's the perfect "too-many-vegetables-in-the-garden" dish.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My Calabria: Zucchine Ripiene con Ricotta

Well, looky here. Not 24 hours after preparing dinner, I'm posting about it. I don't know about you, but I'm impressed with me.

One of the vegetables I served with last night's dinner was Zucchine Ripiene con Ricotta (Baked Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini). Zucchini stuffed with a mixture of fresh ricotta, onions, garlic, the zucchini pulp, and parsley? Yes, please.

Rosetta Costantino is a master of precision when it comes to measurements. I love this about her. The recipe calls for "6 small, tender zucchini." Italians around here go for wee little zucchini. They don't let them get very big, because they say they're more tender and sweet when they're small. It goes against my American "let's see how big this squash can get!" mentality. Anyway, 1 cup of ricotta, mixed with breadcrumbs and all the other stuff looked to me like it would make an awful lot of filling for 12 teeny zucchini boats.
I was wrong. Costantino was right. It's remarkable to me how this was the perfect amount of filling for 12 nicely filled zucchini halves--no skimping; no overflow.

This didn't blow my mind, but it was a good, salty, cheesy way to eat zucchini. Matt asked a few questions while he was eating that led me to believe he didn't approve, such as, "So, you liked this??" and "What's in here? Fish?"

FISH? What???

However, when I asked him after dinner if he thought it was good, he said yes. I'm confused.

Unsurprisingly, Charlie wouldn't touch it. Nor would he touch anything else on his plate except for one slice of cheese. It was a go to bed hungry kind of night for him.

Conclusion: Liked it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Calabrese

Although I've been plugging along and enjoying recipes from My Calabria, I've (once again) been a delinquent blogger. Thanks for putting up with me.

Lo, these many days ago, on June 11, I cooked Tonno alla Menta (Fresh Tuna Pizzo Style with Wine Vinegar, Garlic, and Mint). Coat sliced tuna in flour, then fry briefly in some olive oil before removing it to a plate. Garlic, vinegar, salt, and mint leaves are whisked into the remaining oil, then poured over the tuna. Easy, fast, unusual, and it's meant to be served at room temp. The tuna should marinate in the sauce for at least 30 minutes, and supposedly improves the longer you leave it.
I don't think I've ever cooked a vinegar + mint combo. It was unusual, tangy, and very delicious. I'm a fan.

Conclusion: Loved it.

Unfortunately, that meal wasn't all grand. I'd also prepared Melanzane all'Insalata (Eggplant Salad with Garlic, Mint, and Hot Peppers). I was never much of an eggplant fan before moving to Italy, but I lo-o-ove them here. The eggplants are smaller, thinner, and much more flavorful than the hulking behemoths we get back home.  Not to mention that the Italian nonna's generous, extravagant use of olive oil works wonders when dealing with melanzane. I've often had an eggplant salad as part of an antipasti course in restaurants, and it's always good. I'd hoped that this recipe would turn out similar to those.

It didn't.

This was disgusting.
There's nothing appealing about that.
First of all, the eggplant are left whole, with slits down the sides, and boiled. Once cooked, they dry in a colander for an hour. Then, pour a mixture of vinegar, oil, garlic, hot pepper, mint and salt over the eggplant, and leave at room temp to marinate for 24 hours.

There was nothing good about this. The temperature, slimy texture, and hyper-vinegarized flavor were all totally gross. Neither one of us ate more than a bite. I wasted a lot of eggplant on this one. Not happy.

Conclusion: Hated it.

Another day, I made Pollo con Melanzane (Braised Chicken with Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Pancetta). I could do without the chicken in this recipe. The thighs didn't absorb any flavor. They just turned out as your standard chicken thigh. The sauce, on the other hand, was amaze-balls. It reminded me of an easy recipe that an Italian woman that I know here taught me, in which cubes of eggplant are fried in peanut oil, then mixed into tomato sauce, except (shh! Don't tell!) this was even more delicious.
This recipe has you fry the eggplant in olive oil, but I stuck with my Italian's peanut oil. I hate wasting so much delicious olive oil just to fry something.

Cooking pancetta and garlic in olive oil, browning the chicken thighs, pouring in some white wine and letting it evaporate, then adding tomato puree and cooking it down until the chicken is finished takes this sauce over the edge. I want to try this without the chicken. I'm sure the chicken fat adds some flavor to the sauce, but the chicken itself couldn't compete with the sauce. I served mine on cannelini beans, but this would be equally great on rice, pasta, or just on a plate.

Conclusion: Loved it (sans chicken).

Last, but definitely not least, I brought Polpette di Melanzane (Crispy Eggplant Meatballs) to a friend's bbq yesterday. (Can you tell that it's eggplant season?) This is an appetizer that I've had at restaurants, and it's one of my favorite new foods that I've eaten since moving to Napoli. I knew I was going to try this recipe before leaving this book, and this seemed like a prime opportunity.

I was surprised at how easy this was. Boil diced eggplant for 10 minutes. Drain, cool, and squeeze out the water. Then, you just chop it up (it's already pretty mushy), mix it up with breadcrumbs, grated cheese, parsley, garlic, and an egg, roll small balls in more breadcrumbs, and fry in olive oil.
Homina homina homina. FEED MY FACE.
They were so good fresh out of the oil that they almost didn't make it to the BBQ. They were still wonderful at room temp. Two people separately asked me for the recipe. Even Charlie ate one. If my kid will eat eggplant in this form, it'll be a new staple in my house. I had to call them meatballs, but he didn't notice foul play.

It's a pet peeve of mine when I follow the measurements and sizing instructions in a recipe and end up with a drastically different number of items. I am delighted to report that this recipe says it will make 32 1-inch meatballs, and that is exactly the number I got. Bonus points!

Conclusion: LOVED it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

FFwD: Guacamole with Tomatoes and Bell Peppers

It's strange for me to follow a recipe for guacamole. I'm used to winging it, with the same basic flavors: avocado (duh), cilantro, jalapeno pepper, a smidge of finely sliced red onion, and--the holy grail--diced tomatillos. With slim access to decent avocado, scattered access to cilantro, and no access to my beloved tomatillos, I can't say that I make much guacamole these days. However, the stars aligned and ingredients fell into place for this week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe: Guacamole with Tomatoes and Bell Peppers.

Let's take a moment to absorb the full weight of what I'm about to say. Ready?

The Commissary had ripe avocado. Not crispy! Not rock-hard! Not, on the other end of the spectrum, rotten and brown with weird stringy stuff inside it! Just soft, fatty, lovely avocado.

I sliced the first, met no resistance, and pulled the half off the pit to find green flesh. I'll tell you, I was this close to weeping for joy.

I prefer my standard, back-in-the-Texas-days guac. Tomatillos, man. Tomatillos. I didn't love the texture that the bell pepper brought to the table. I like my guacamole to be chunky, but don't want to have to chew it. However, since I can't get tomatillos, and was FINALLY able to secure a decent avocado, I'll say that this is the best guac I've had since I've lived in Italy.
The presence of the guac prompted me to make tacos for dinner. I haven't made tacos in a very long time. Charlie ate one. WOOT! Looks like we'll be having tacos--with or without guac--more often.

This week, I also caught up on (Tilapia) with Capers, (No Cornichons), and Brown Butter. Dorie is much more enamored with the cornichon than I am. I'm just not a pickle gal. Once in a while, with a burger or a deli sandwich, fine. I never eat them at home, though, and didn't feel like buying a jar I wouldn't use up before I have to move again (in a year).

I also didn't have sherry vinegar, and used white wine instead.
I'm pretty sure that I turned this into a piccata sauce. A piccata sauce that involves an entire stick of buter. And mustard. Maybe not a direct match for piccata, but the flavor was close. Whether or not it turned out as it was supposed to, it was delicious. I can't quite wrap my brain around that entire stick of butter for 3 pieces of fish, though. For that reason alone, I probably won't be making this again.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

FFwD: Crab-Avocado Ravioli

I did not have a phenomenal week, as far as dinners go. Things just went wrong at every turn, all week long. Is there a full moon or something?

This week, the French Fridays with Dorie gang made Crab-Avocado Ravioli. This is supposed to be two thin slices of avocado that encompasses a crab/lime/cilantro mixture in the shape of a ravioli. I knew right off the bat that I'd be turning this into a salad. Dorie says to use your mandolin to slice the avocado WITH THE PIT STILL IN. Maybe that would work if you have access to a fancy, restaurant-grade mandolin, but there was no chance my neon green cheapy would be up to the task, and I'm pretty sure I'd lose my fingertips (best case scenario) along the way. No thanks.

I don't think crab is local here in Naples, which means that it doesn't exist. I've never seen it in the store, in any form. The Commissary sells one-pound cans of claw meat, so I bought one of those. Mistake, though I don't know what my alternative was. Maybe I should have made this with shrimp. The crab tasted like the South Street Seaport in Manhattan smelled, circa 1989 (aka horrible). Additionally, I couldn't get my hands on cilantro, so the crab mixture was a disgusting bust.

My avocados were crispy. Felt soft enough on the outside, but inside they were inedible. Bust.
I wish this was the first time I had this problem with Commissary avocados.
Matt attempted to salvage this salad by sauteeing up some zucchini, since the avocado was totally useless. Even still, I couldn't stomach it. The crab was flat-out too fishy and wrong.
That's a lot of nasty crab.
So, this recipe was disgusting for me, but I am certain that I'd love it with fresh and ripe ingredients. Bummer. If I end up back in the DC or Norfolk area for our next tour, you can bet that this will be one of the first recipes I try once I have access to Chesapeake Blue Crab again. Until then, I'll be avoiding crab.

This week, I also made up the Garbure from the Supermarket. I never made this recipe because I never make ham, and therefore had no ham bone to use. Fortunately, my friend offered me one that was sitting in her freezer, so I snatched it up.
I'm thirsty.
I should have read the recipe closer. I didn't realize that it's meant to boil for three whole hours. I remembered that Doristas said that they put their vegetables in halfway through so they didn't dissolve, but when I read the instructions, I thought it only boiled for an hour. My bad. My vegetables disintegrated, and I oversalted it. By a lot. I hated it the first night. The second, I added more water, potatoes, carrots, and beans to absorb some of the salt. It helped, but the whole thing still tasted like hot ham water to me.
No thanks.