November 12, 2013
I’m not sure when braised sweet-sour onions, based on a Marcella Hazan recipe, showed up on our otherwise relentlessly American Thanksgiving menu. But now it’s unthinkable to leave them out, any more than we would consider skipping the mushroom-onion bread dressing or Brussels sprouts with chestnuts.
When our daughter was in Abu Dhabi on business a few years back, she emailed for the recipe to contribute to an ex-pat Thanksgiving dinner. She couldn’t find flat cipolline onions but successfully substituted small red Indian onions from a local market.
Sides with Italian touches can inject flavor excitement (and maybe a little olive oil) into a meal that tends to be too starchy and bland. So, think about making those onions or picking up on one of these ideas.
- Cover mashed sweet potatoes or winter squash with a topping of grated hard cheese (such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Asiago or pecorino) mixed with chopped pecans or walnuts. Run under the broiler until lightly browned.
- Moisten fresh breadcrumbs with olive oil and toast until golden. Mix in chopped parsley and sauteed garlic bits while still warm. Sprinkle over steamed green beans or roasted cauliflower.
- Go Italian with a sliced celery salad, dressed with a citrus vinaigrette and garnished with toasted walnuts and Parmesan shards. Or, set out an antipasto platter that includes marinated artichokes, wrinkly oil-cured olives and lightly salted radishes or raw fennel.
- Make your pie crust with pasta frolla, Italy’s butter-and-egg pastry dough. It’s easy to work with and especially good for wet fillings such as pumpkin. This crust is also great for a free-form apple crostata, an easier alternative to traditional apple pie.
Braised Sweet-Sour Onions
(Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book)
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 pounds small white onions (preferably the flat variety called cipolline)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan or skillet broad enough for the onions to fit in a single layer, blanch the onions in boiling water for about 20 seconds; drain and cool slightly. Pull off the papery outer skin; trim dangling roots or tips but leave the root ends intact (otherwise, the onions will come apart when cooked).
2. Return onions to the saucepan; add water half way up the sides of the onions. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer the onions for about 20 minutes, stirring at least once, until tender and about half of the water has evaporated.
3. Add the butter, vinegar, sugar, salt and several grindings of black pepper; continue to simmer very slowly, partially covered, for 1 to 2 hours. Stir often and add a tablespoon or two of water as necessary.
4. When the onions are a burnished golden brown, consider them done. (Can be made ahead and reheated slowly.)
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October 18, 2013
I opened the refrigerator a while back to find an jar of glistening preserves, burnt orange in color. My husband said it was from Emmanuel Roux, known in Tampa Bay and beyond for his flourless chocolate cakes, but couldn’t recall exactly what it was.
“Mango-peach confiture,” said Jennifer, Emmanuel’s curator wife, in reply to my email. And so began the obsessive tasting that culminated in the free-form crostata I’ll soon be telling you about.
Confiture is a word that just doesn’t get used enough, at least in English–so elegant and exotic sounding. It just means preserves or jam, in French. We could also say marmellata, the Italian equivalent, but out of respect for Emmanuel let’s stick with confiture.
“I was raised in a household where for breakfast and afternoon tea there were never less than four or five confitures,” says Emmanuel, whose French family lived in Tunisia for many years. “They were always homemade: berries, apple, orange marmalade, wild plums, green tomatoes.” His own confitures are simply fruit simmered with sugar and flavorings, no added pectin.
The mangoes had come from a neighbor’s tree and the peaches were among summer’s last from a local market. The confiture’s flavor and color mingled the best of two divine fruits, and I loved the texture, too–firm fruit pieces, not mushy like most jam. Of course, I had to ask how it’s done and here’s the story, in his own words:
- Dropped the ripe peaches and mangoes in boiling water to remove the skin.
- Scooped mango flesh out with a soup spoon and cut the peaches in chunks.
- Added approximately the same quantity of organic sugar to fruit, plus juice from a couple of limes in our yard. Grabbed a not-quite-ripe grapefruit from the dying grapefruit tree in our yard, extracted the seeds and crushed them with the flat side of a knife.
- Let it all sit together for some time.
- Cooked the whole thing over high heat to bring to a boil. Then low heat.
- Skimmed the foam with a flat kitchen spoon. You could also use an ecumoire [otherwise known as a skimmer]. Cooled the foam for Maxx [the family Lab], who loves it.
- Cooked for an undetermined amount of time while I was working on something else.
- Caught it just before it started to burn because Jennifer reminded me I had something on the stove.
- Filled clean jars with a ladle. Tried to find matching lids for the jars. Put a lid on each jar and turned it upside down to sterilize the inside lid.
- Stored, shared, enjoyed.
After a few days of spooning my mango-peach preserves into plain yogurt and onto whole-wheat toast smeared with peanut butter, I decided they deserved something more. Hence, the crostata. Crostatas are just tarts made with the Italian pastry dough called pasta frolla. Usually I make them with fresh fruit, but I knew that many Italian cooks fill them with their own homemade jam. So here’s my free-form recipe for a free-form crostata made with Emmanuel’s jam (feel free to substitute).
Mango-Peach Jam Crostata
- With a fork, stirred together 1 1/2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, grated peel of half a lemon and a pinch of salt.
- Using my fingertips, worked in 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (cut first in pieces) until mealy. Blended in one beaten egg with a fork to moisten the mixture. Gathered the dough into a ball and gently kneaded.
- Pulled off one third of the dough for the lattice top. Shaped the remaining two-thirds into a thick disk.
- Looked for a 9-inch tart pan. Couldn’t find any tart pans (no doubt they will show up when I go searching for cookie cutters at Christmas). Decided instead to make a freeform tart on a baking sheet.
- Remembered to set the oven at 350°F. Too impatient to chill the dough or let it rest, as recipes always advise. Succeeded–ha!–in rolling a ragged 10-inch disk on my granite counter. Transferred it to the baking sheet and trimmed with a pizza cutter.
- Spread 1 cup of the jam over the tart crust, leaving a 1-inch border. Thought of sprinkling slivered almonds on top, but didn’t have any. Folded the pastry edges over the jam. Rolled pieces of the remaining dough to make the lattice top.
- Baked the crostata 20 minutes and took a look. Decided belatedly to brush the lattice top with egg yolk beaten with a little water. Rewarded 15 minutes later with a golden-brown crust (that’s 35 minutes total baking).
- Tasted, shared, enjoyed.
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September 29, 2013
The New York Times article about an American kale enthusiast trying to win mystified Parisians over to her favorite greens brought scoffs from online foodie friends. “Kale is so passé,” said one. Not exactly–many a trendy menu still sports a kale salad or risotto. But it does seem like time to move on.
Not to some entirely new craze (although rutabagas have been waiting a long time for their moment), but to other deserving greens. In the spirit of the farmers market shopper in the photo, don’t think too hard about it. Just load them in your basket.
Before talking about what to do with those greens, let’s establish that I’m not a kale hater. I have a kale-strewn potful of minestrone in my fridge right now and, at least once a year, I make ribollita, the robust bread soup that calls for cavolo nero, a variety of kale known to gardeners as lacinato and to many Americans as Tuscan kale. I also make a killer Tuscan pesto by blending the grey-green leaves with browned onions and walnuts.
I’ve never met a kale chip I liked, though–at best, they just taste of salt and at worst, a bit acrid. Kale smoothies? Ewwww. My daughters make a tasty kale salad with raisins, walnuts and pecorino cheese, but I’ve never been moved to make it myself.
Maybe it’s a generational thing but mostly I don’t get the appeal of raw kale. I’d rather cook it. And that goes for other bitter greens: dandelion greens (wild and cultivated), chicory, mustard greens, collard greens.
Unless they are young and tender, bitter greens are often blanched to moderate their pungency. But some of the nutrients go down the drain. In Sicily I learned a different trick: Mix bitter greens with milder varieties such as spinach, chard, escarole or beet greens.
mixed bitter and mild greens
Southern Italians also eat tenerumi, the leaves and shoots of wildly twisted squash called cucuzza or zucchina serpente. Braise in just a little water.
Usually I serve these greens as a side dish, but they could also be used as a bruschetta topping, ravioli or quiche filling, or base for a poached egg.
Mixed Greens with Garlic and Hot Red Pepper
(from Seafood alla Siciliana)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 bunch or large bag bitter greens such as chicory, dandelion greens, mustard greens or kale, prepared for cooking*
1 bunch or large bag milder greens such as chard, spinach, escarole or beet greens, prepared for cooking*
Sea salt or kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 or 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Red hot pepper flakes, to taste
White wine vinegar or lemon wedges
1. Working in batches, cover the greens with water in a large bowl or salad spinner (work in batches as necessary); after several minutes, lift them out. Repeat with fresh water until the discarded water is free of grit. (If using trimmed, washed greens, skip this step!)
2. In a skillet or broad saucepan large enough to hold the greens, cook the garlic in the olive oil over medium-low heat until fragrant but not browned. Add 1/4 cup water and pile the greens on top. Cover and cook until wilted, stirring to coat greens with the oil; continue to cook until very tender, 15 to 30 minutes altogether.
3. Season to taste with salt and red pepper flakes. Pass vinegar or a bowl of lemon wedges at the table.
- Prepare dandelion greens and chicory for cooking by trimming the lower stems and cutting the upper parts crosswise in 1- inch lengths. Thick chard or kale stems should be stripped away and used for another purpose (such as vegetable broth); cut leaves crosswise in strips. Tender greens such as spinach are simply cut crosswise in strips.
- In step #2, saute 1/4 cup finely diced pancetta in the olive oil until most of the fat has been rendered; add the garlic and proceed with the remainder of the recipe.
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September 12, 2013
Not long ago I visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in a Ku Klux Clan bombing 50 years ago. A small exhibit in the fellowship hall tells the story in a matter-of-fact way. Across the street, exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute lay out the events of the long struggle for racial equality, including poignant documents like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Not to miss, either of these sites, but there’s more to Birmingham than its troubled civil rights history. As Janet Keeler says in a Tampa Bay Times story, “It’s a city in 3-D” that entertains and educates 35,000 University of Alabama students, goes crazy over football and roller derby, is busy revitalizing its downtown…and loves to eat well.
Birmingham is, like New Orleans and Charleston, a destination for food lovers. Chef Frank Stitt set the bar high more than 30 years ago when, after a Chez Panisse stint and European travels, he returned to his hometown to open Highlands Bar and Grill. Since then he’s opened Bottega and two other restaurants, written cookbooks, won awards and honed a reputation as an authority on Southern cuisine. I couldn’t wait to taste food from this chef I’d heard so much about.
At Bottega, an Italian restaurant with Southern touches, I chose three appetizers. Beef carpaccio looked like the classic preparation of paper-thin raw beef with Parmigiano Reggiano shavings and arugula, with the chef’s twist–smears of creamy horseradish sauce–cleverly hidden underneath.
Next came caponata, a Sicilian dish that American restaurants often fail to do right. Caponata is not a eggplant paste to smear on crostini but a hearty mixture of braised eggplant and bell pepper chunks with olives and a sweet-sour dressing. This rendition was deeply satisfying, with the slight chewiness of the eggplant skin yielding to the softly caramelized flesh underneath. Slightly oily, but in a good way, because I could taste the quality of the olive oil.
It’s fair to judge an Italian restaurant on its pastas, and the ravioli with fresh tomato coulis delivered the simple, pure flavors of ricotta, lemon zest, basil.
You can tell I was loving my dinner, but I was also happy just being there. From the refined dining room, I could see people mingling at a private party on the second level and glimpse the rich wood bar in another corner, where customers were sipping cocktails and slurping freshly shucked oysters. Through the door is Bottega Cafe, serving pizzas and other rustic fare from a wood-burning oven. Strategically placed mirrors amplify the experience of sitting in one wholly appealing place while observing others.
My feast continued the next night at Highlands, where I started with the famous baked grits surrounded by sauteed chanterelles and country ham on a beurre blanc sauce. The chanterelles, abundant and meaty, stole my heart. As my waiter Mark explained, they were gathered by a forager at an undisclosed location 20 minutes from Birmingham.
Highlands started out mostly French with a few Southern twists and now the ratio is flipped the other way. But I was also struck by how many dishes had an Italian sensibility. The plate with house-cured salumi (including pig’s head salami with porchetta seasoning) and spicy pickled vegetables would be right at home in Emilia Romagna. Except for the mystery item, which turned out to be pickled watermelon, rendered bright yellow by turmeric in the pickling solution.
I finished with a plate of creatively prepared vegetables, including stewed okra, rattlesnake beans (think green beans), more chanterelles (!), farro with bell pepper chunks and fried green tomatoes.
On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in the August heat of a Southern city, these restaurants were filled. Not with out-of-towners like me, for the most part, but with the city’s elite. To the right a table of dowagers was seated next to a young, hip-looking couple, while to my left table hoppers congratulated a chic middle-aged woman on some achievement. There were not as many black faces as I hoped to see, fresh from my visits to civil rights sites, but I was told that two African-American gentlemen sitting in the adjacent bistro were the mayor and his chief assistant.
Frank Stitt was also on hand, overseeing his kitchens in the dog days of summer, and that’s what sets him apart from the typical celebrity chef. I realized by the end of the first evening that the striking woman in white circulating through the dining room is his wife, Parvis. She and the front-of-house staff collaborate to create a service experience that’s warm but thoroughly professional, with a big dollop of Southern charm. By the second night, I was treated like a regular.
Exploring more of Birmingham’s culinary scene–such as Hot and Hot Fish Club, whose chef/owner Chris Hastings (a Stitt protege) won the Beard Foundation’s Best Chef of the South last year–will have to wait for another visit. In the meantime I’ll console myself by making some of Chef Stitt’s memorable food at home.
Frank Stitt’s Beef Carpaccio
(from Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef’s Love Affair with Italian Food)
Makes 4 servings
1 pound beef eye of round, trimmed of all fat
1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup finely grated peeled horseradish, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Dash of Tabasco
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Generous cup arugula
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1. Freeze the beef for 45 minutes to an hour. Chill 4 large serving plates.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, horseradish, 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice, Tabasco, and salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, adjust the amount of horseradish to your liking. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
3. Slice the beef into 1/8-inch slices, cutting across the grain. Place each between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with the smooth side of a meat mallet into uniformly thin slices.
4. Using the back of a spoon, spread a tablespoon of the horseradish sauce over each plate. Arrange the carpaccio over the sauce, overlapping the slices to cover the plate.
5. In a medium bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice, the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Mound greens in the center of plates. Shave the cheese over the top.
Note: Use leftover horseradish sauce as a dip or sandwich spread.
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August 5, 2013
I remember the “Aha!” moment back in the ’80s when I discovered the brilliant Italian idea of featuring summer’s superb tomatoes in an uncooked pasta sauce. For years I made this dish the way I’d learned: marinating the peeled, seeded and diced tomato cubes for several hours with olive oil and fresh garlic slivers, basil, salt and black pepper.
The stove doesn’t go on until it’s time to boil the spaghetti or linguine. Bathed in this sweetly aromatic sauce, the noodles convey the essence of a sun-ripened tomato. It’s great as a simple supper, starter for a multi-course dinner or, cooled to room temperature, a picnic or potluck dish.
You can’t improve on perfection, right? And yet. I started to play with this classic crudo sauce, using it as a taking-off point for a more substantial pasta dish that can BE the meal.
I quit bothering with those tiresome peeling and seeding steps. If the tomatoes are thin-skinned beauties, I’m happy to eat them in their entirety. If they’re not, why would I make this dish? Over the years, I’ve changed up the seasonings and experimented with adding up to three more things–in the dish’s spirit of fresh and convenient, always ingredients that need no cooking.
Good-quality anchovies are my favorite add-in. They ground the sauce, adding a protein note, and get a slightly raucous party going with the raw garlic and the red pepper flakes I like to substitute for black pepper. If you are anchovy averse, canned tuna is good, too, and a little lemon juice brightens the flavor.
Sometimes I leave out the basil and, after mixing the sauce with the hot pasta, fold in baby arugula straight from the “washed three times” box. It wilts slightly and gives me an excuse for not making a salad.
The crudo tomato sauce can be marinated for up to eight hours–always at room temperature! Refrigerating raw tomatoes damages their flavor. If you’re strapped for time, make the sauce while the pasta water heats up. Believe me, it’ll taste just fine.
Pasta with Uncooked Tomato Sauce, Anchovies and Arugula
Makes 2 generous servings
2 medium tomatoes or 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (the best you have)
2 cloves garlic, cut in thin slivers
Sea salt or kosher salt
Hot red pepper flakes
8 ounces spaghetti or linguine
2 handsful baby arugula
10 anchovy fillets or 1 can (7 ounces) drained tuna*
Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
1. Core and dice the tomatoes; quarter or halve cherry or grape tomatoes, if using. Combine tomatoes with olive oil and garlic in a bowl large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Season to taste with salt and hot red pepper. Marinate up to 8 hours at room temperature.
2. Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water and bring to a boil. Add a small handful of salt and the spaghetti, pressing with a wooden spoon until fully immersed; stir well. Cook until al dente, 8 to 12 minutes.
3. Drain the pasta and turn into the bowl with the sauce. Mix thoroughly and while the pasta is still hot, stir in the arugula, anchovies and lemon juice (if using). Serve warm or at room temperature.
*Buy the best quality you can find; Recca is one good brand for anchovies and tuna.
- Other good add-ins: diced roasted yellow or red pepper, toasted pine nuts, slivered black or green olives.
- For the arugula, substitute 1/2 cup basil leaves cut in rubbons.
- In southern Italian fashion, mix a pinch or two of sugar into the tomato sauce and top the pasta with toasted fresh bread crumbs.
- For the anchovies or tuna, substitute smoked Alaska salmon in canned or frozen (thawed) form; Taku is an excellent brand that does a mail-order business. Add 1 tablespoon capers and substitute 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions for the garlic and freshly ground black pepper for the hot pepper flakes.
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