Archive for February, 2010

Cooking with Mom: Beef Pizzaiola

When I was a kid, I never thought about where my next meal was coming from. All I knew was that sooner or later my mother would call me into the kitchen from playing outside to sit down with the rest of my family and eat the dinner she had prepared for us. More often than not, her meals were inspired by her Southern Italian upbringing. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, roast chicken with potatoes and bread crumbs, stuffed eggplants and artichokes—these are the dishes I remember from my childhood and have always wanted to make my own.

Last week I invited my mother to my apartment so we could cook one of her classic Italian recipes together: Beef Pizzaiola. It’s a simple, one-pot meal of tomato sauce and chuck steak with a spicy yet comforting aroma I can recognize immediately. The word pizzaiola means pizza-style, and refers to a tomato sauce made with garlic and oregano. I tried to do some research about this recipe’s origins, but all I could find was a short note about how this humble dish doesn’t have a defined history; no one has ever laid claim to it because it’s just that simple.

Now, let me make something clear: my mother and I cooked her version of this herb-filled, meaty sauce. There are many variations of this dish online and in cookbooks, but we made the version that has existed in her Apuglian family for generations. I have no idea which recipe is more authentic than another, as every region and every tiny village in Italy has its own culinary traditions. This is ours.

My mother’s recipe is very straightforward: Take some chuck steak, a can of whole tomatoes (pureed in the food processor), a bit of garlic, a few handfuls of pecorino romano cheese, parsley, oregano, and a few glugs of olive oil, and throw it all in a big pot. I should note here that my mother does not measure her ingredients; she eyeballs them, which is why I needed to cook with her and try to write down all the steps. Anyway, the ingredients sit one on top of the other, in festive layers of green, red, and white, until they come to a boil. Then you just let the whole mixture of beef and tomatoes simmer away for an hour or so, stirring it here and there, until the meat is very tender and can be pulled apart with a fork.

Served over spaghetti with some meat on the side or as a secondo, this sauce is completely different from your everyday marinara. Dark red, abundantly spiked with gutsy oregano and salty romano cheese, pizzaiola is a hearty, in-your-face type of sauce. Infused with flavor from the slow-cooked meat, the sauce is deep and satisfying, and an appropriate remedy for these cold winter days. And while chuck steak can be rather tough, in this dish it’s transformed into a soft, satisfying bit of protein.

As you can probably tell, the pizzaiola tasted as wonderful as I remembered. I just hope it will again next time, when I attempt to make it without my mother.

Recipe for Mom’s Beef Pizzaiola

  • 1 1/2 pounds chuck steak
  • 1 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves
  • 1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound of spaghetti

Cut each steak roughly into thirds. You should try to achieve equally-sized chunks of meat, following the natural lines of the steaks.

Pulse the tomatoes a few times in the food processor. They should be left a little chunky; they do not need to be perfectly smooth.

Combine the meat and the tomatoes in a big pot. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, oregano, and olive oil. Do not stir.

Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and bring to a simmer. Cover. Stir every once in a while, making sure the meat doesn’t burn and the cheese doesn’t clump together. If the sauce seems to reduce too much and becomes too thick, add a little bit of water to the pot. Once the sauce is simmering, bring a big pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti.

Cook for about an hour, until the meat is soft and breaking apart with a fork. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, cook the spaghetti.

When the spaghetti is drained, stir with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of sauce. Plate the spaghetti, and generously sprinkle each dish with romano cheese. Top with sauce. Serve the meat on the side or after the spaghetti course is finished. Serves 4 with leftovers. Enjoy!

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Snow Day

Last Wednesday morning I shuffled to the window in my robe and slippers, took one look at the fat, drippy snowflakes swirling around outside, and immediately gave myself a snow day. It was the morning after my birthday, after all, and as a child of February I figured I deserved it. So while thick piles of snow quickly covered the brownstones, trees, and sidewalks outside my Brooklyn apartment, I huddled under a blanket inside. I passed the hours drinking tea, watching Lost, and checking my work email here and there. When I finally finished lazing around on the couch, I made my way over to the kitchen and started cooking.

Cold, snowy days call for slow-cooked comfort food, and as soon as I heard the weather reports earlier in the week I began planning the perfect snow day dinner. I wanted something warm and rustic, a dish to make us forget the chilling winds and falling flakes outside. Florence Fabricant’s Chicken Baked with Lentils, a recipe I had saved for just such an occasion, came to mind immediately, and I made sure I had all the ingredients on hand before the snow started falling.

In this recipe, chicken thighs are nestled in an earthy cloud of cumin-spiced lentils, pancetta, radicchio, and chicken stock. Piled into a baking dish or casserole, the mixture cooks away for a tranquil hour in the oven, the liquid slowly reducing into a saucelike consistency. Soon enough, the comforting aroma of baked chicken infused my apartment, and the snow seemed very far away indeed.

When finally pulled from the oven, the spicy lentils become a complex mix of smoky (provided by the pancetta), tangy (from the radicchio), and sweet (the onions), while the chicken remains moist and tender, absorbing the essence of the lentils in a more subtle way. Dominating this dish in terms of both flavor and quantity, the legumes retain a hint of firmness, and provide a supportive bed for the meaty chicken thighs. Together they’re a hearty, one-pot wonder of a meal, and if we’re lucky enough to have another snow day, I may even have to make this again.

Chicken Baked with Lentils (adapted from Florence Fabricant’s recipe in the New York Times)

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 thin slice of pancetta (less than 1/4 lb)
  • 4 chicken thighs, patted dry
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 cup finely chopped radicchio
  • 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
  • 1 cup of French green lentils
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup water*

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or another ovenproof casserole dish. Add the pancetta and cook on medium heat until golden. Remove the pancetta and set aside. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and add them to the pot, skin side down. Sear until golden on medium-high heat. Remove from the pan and set aside. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove one tablespoon of fat from the pan and set aside. Pour out the rest of the fat and discard. Return the tablespoon of fat to the pan.

Add onions, celery, and garlic. Cook on medium until soft and translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in the cumin. Add the radicchio, vinegar, and sage. Sauté briefly. Add lentils, stock, water, and cooked pancetta.

*I used 1 cup chicken stock plus 1/2 cup water because I cheated and used prepared chicken stock from a box. When I use commercial stock I like to dilute it a little bit with water. If you are using homemade chicken stock, feel free to use 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and disregard the water.

Return the chicken to the pan, bring to a simmer, cover, and place in the oven. Cook for about an hour, checking on the lentils occasionally. Cook until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Lentils should be saucelike, but not soupy. Add more stock if necessary. Add more salt and pepper if necessary, then serve. Recipe serves 3 to 4 people, or 2 to 3 people with leftovers. Enjoy!

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Eggs in Purgatory

Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? I don’t have an easy explanation for where I’ve been the past few months. All I can say is that I dropped off the grid for a while, and now I’m doing my best to resurface. I’ve missed my little blog. It’s a bigger part of me than I realized, and I’ve deeply felt its absence. For the past three years, Artichoke Heart has been my primary creative outlet, and this too-long pause made me wonder what I enjoyed most about blogging: thinking about food, writing about food, or being excited about food. Because honestly, I wasn’t feeling any of it, and wasn’t sure when or if I would again.

But I have been cooking. I experimented with this recipe for Drunken Noodles, and another one for stuffed cabbage. I made spaghetti and meatballs and an ice cream icebox cake that caused my dear friend’s children to squeal with delight. And after each successful (or not successful) meal, I wondered if it would lead me back to the blog. I came close a few times, sitting at the computer, fingers on the keys and staring at the blank screen, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, on Friday night, I made a dish that reflected my self-inflicted, in-between state: Eggs in Purgatory.

It’s a dramatic name for a simple Southern Italian dish, a classic example of cucina povera where a robust, healthy meal is made from a few basic ingredients. Eggs in Purgatory are just poached eggs in tomato sauce. Yup, that’s it. You crack a few eggs over a simmering onion- or garlic-based tomato sauce, and let them slowly cook, the golden centers and creamy whites quivering in a bubbling, crimson sea of tomatoes. Gently pour the gleaming eggs and sauce over a piece of toast, and dinner is served.

Something about the flavors of this dish hit Jim and me right away. Our forks returned time and time again, the soft egg yolks bleeding gently into the sweet tomatoes. I overcooked the eggs a little bit (they were closer to soft-boiled than poached) but no matter. The crunchy bread beneath was the perfect base for the liquid mass of protein and tomatoes above.

Perhaps the allusion to Purgatory is derived from the image of eggs momentarily suspended in the tomato sauce, a symbolic transitory state between Heaven and Hell. Whatever the connotation of this dish may be, I hope my extended blogging lapse is over, and that I’ve found my way back to the Choke.

Recipe for Eggs In Purgatory (with garlic-based tomato sauce), adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 1 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 slices of toasted peasant bread
  • Fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic has browned, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and season with sugar, a pinch of salt, and black pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Gently crack the eggs into the tomato sauce, allowing the interiors to spread throughout the sauce. Cover the pan and let the eggs cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, uncover, and let the pan stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer 2 eggs to each piece of toast and cover with sauce. Garnish with cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serves 2 as a main dish. Enjoy!

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