Posts tagged italian traditions

My Quest for La Quercia

Last week after our lovely lunch at Mimi’s Hummus, Rachel and I ducked into Market, the gourmet food shop next door. I walked slowly around the store, perusing the jars of local pickles and Middle Eastern spices, purposefully restraining myself from making any unnecessary (yet likely delicious) purchases. In fact, I probably would have left empty-handed had I not taken a closer look at the refrigerated case of cured meats, olives, and cheeses. That’s when I saw the yellow- and green-accented packaging of La Quercia Prosciutto Americano.

La Quercia is the only American producer of high-quality prosciutto, and its products have been lauded by Americans, Italians, and all nationalities in between. I had read about this unique Iowa-based company last year, and had recently tried its prosciutto at Danny Meyer’s new restaurant, Maialino. My dining partners and I were astonished by the meat’s authentic, natural flavor, and how it more than held its own against the Italian offerings on the cured meat platter we shared as an antipasto. But it was only after I found this pre-sliced, handy package of La Quercia’s cured pork at Market that I reviewed the company’s inspiring background again.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse lived in Parma, Italy, for three and a half years, and fell in love with the idea of making Italian dry-cured meats in their home state of Iowa. After years of experimentation with this centuries-old tradition, the Eckhouses founded La Quercia (“oak” in Italian) in 2000. Not content to simply create an Italian facsimile of prosciutto, La Quercia produces cured meats that celebrate Iowa’s natural bounty without using artificial ingredients or preservatives. All of the pigs for its various cured products—in addition to different variations of prosciutto, La Quercia makes speck, coppa, pancetta, and guanciale—come from within 200 miles of the prosciuttificio, and are raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets, without antibiotics. These are pig products we can all feel good about.

I took the simple route with my package of Prosciutto Americano, draping its thin slices over squares of cantaloupe and eating it for lunch. Each buttery, supple slice was a revelation. The chewy, slightly fatty meat, falling in elastic sheets over the fresh fruit, was less salty yet somehow creamier than other Italian prosciutto I have tried, and I found myself eating slice after slice without pause. Later in the week, Jim and I sandwiched the remaining pieces in between some turkey cutlets for this recipe, adding a more intense layer of flavor to a simple meal. No matter what dish it appeared in, La Quercia’s prosciutto was the star. And we have Iowa and the Eckhouses to thank for it.

La Quercia’s prosciutto and other artisanal cured meats can be found at specialty food and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and the Red Hook Fairway. Check out their website for more store and ordering information.

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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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Jamie Oliver’s Torta di Riso, with a Twist of Lemon

Ingredients for Jamie Oliver’s Torta di Riso

Jim and I celebrated Easter at my parents’ house over the weekend. As noted in last week’s New York Times article about Easter desserts, many Italians prefer to buy their sweets at the pasticceria rather than bake them at home; my Italian-American family is no different. So I figured that while my mother was busy making her traditional dish of lamb, peas, and eggs, I would add a homemade touch to our dessert options.

(By the way, that lamb dish is a family secret. I promised my mother I wouldn’t share it, so you’ll just have to be satisfied with this tart.)

I turned to Jamie’s Italy and settled on the torta di riso, a sort of rice custard tart flavored with vanilla and orange zest. With its ingredients of Arborio rice, milk, and citrus, it reminded me of the Easter desserts discussed in the Times. At Jim’s request I decided to flavor the filling with lemon instead of orange zest, which made the tart seem even more Easter-appropriate.

While preparing the filling, I was surprised at how similar the process was to making risotto. Instead of slowly adding meat or vegetable broth and stirring the Arborio rice until it absorbed the liquid, for this dessert I poured milk into the pot while the rice simmered. The recipe recommends taking the pot off the heat while the mixture is still quite liquidy, with the milk becoming slowly absorbed by the rice as it cools.

A slice of the torta di riso

My torta di riso emerged from the oven as a smooth, serene sea of lemon goodness. Topped with fresh whipped cream, the tart emitted subtle citrus flavors combined with the texture of silky rice. Should I admit that we ate the torta on Saturday night instead of on Easter? We just couldn’t wait. That’s another characteristic of my Italian family: We love to eat.

Recipe for Easter Torta di Riso (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy)

  • 1 shortcrust pastry, baked until just browned in an 11-inch tart tin with a removable bottom (I followed the recipe on page 279 of Jamie’s Italy. It produces a very sweet, flaky crust, and takes about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish. If you use this recipe, make sure to roll the crust out very thin; I always forget, causing it to come out a little too thick after baking.)

For the filling:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 vanilla beans, sliced in half
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • zest of 3 1/2 lemons
  • 1 wineglass of white wine (about 3/4 of a cup of wine)
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 eggs, whisked
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. To prepare the filling, melt the butter in a high-sided pan at low heat. Remove the seeds from the vanilla beans, add them to the butter, and stir. Cook for 1 minute, then add the rice, granulated sugar, and lemon zest. Turn the heat to medium and add the white wine. Stir until the wine has almost cooked away.

Slowly add the milk while continuing to stir the rice. Simmer the rice and milk mixture over low heat, stirring often, for about 15 minutes. Do not cook the rice all the way through, as it will continue to cook in the oven. It should still have some bite when you remove it from the heat, and the mixture will still be quite liquidy.

Allow the rice mixture to cool slightly. I noticed that at this point the rice absorbs much of the liquid. Mix in the whisked eggs. Pour the rice into the tart case, sprinkle it with powdered sugar, and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Cool. Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Enjoy!

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Holiday Baking: Pizzelles

Pizzelle

Whenever we visit Jim’s family in Pittsburgh, his Italian grandmother always sends us off with some of her amazing homemade foodstuffs, such as her hand-rolled gnocchi and her sweet pickled peppers. But at Christmas time Grandma’s attention turns to baking. Brown paper bags and clear plastic containers fill the kitchen and dining room, all containing her homemade holiday cookies for family and friends.

Thin, waffle-like Italian cookies called pizzelles are the stars of her festive baked goods. And Pizzelle ironnow that Jim and I are forming our own holiday traditions in Brooklyn, pizzelles are our buttery link to his family in Pennsylvania. So this week, in between setting up our Christmas tree and decorating our apartment, we pulled out our pizzelle iron and started waffling away. 

I had never heard of pizzelles before I met Jim, but I’ve since learned that they are specialties of Abruzzo on the central east coast of Italy, where Jim’s grandmother was born. My family is from Puglia in southern Italy, a region with its own culinary traditions, pizzelles not included. Those Pugliesi don’t know what they’re missing.

Although pizzelles are traditionally flavored with anise or vanilla, there are many variations, including chocolate, hazelnut, and almond. Supposedly pizzelles are one of the earliest known cookies. The older waffle irons were even made with specific family crests, but today’s electric irons commonly emboss the dough with a flower and basket weave pattern. Feast days are not complete without these celebratory waffle cookies, although I’ve only seen them during the Christmas holidays.

Jim’s grandmother is a wonderful cook and doesn’t use written recipes. She simply knows what feels right, whether she’s rolling out dough for potato gnocchi or Easter bread. So for a definitive pizzelle recipe we turned to the trusty Villaware recipe pamphlet that came with our iron.

Sifting the ingredients for pizzellesMixing the ingredients for pizzelles

We started with a basic mix of eggs, flour, sugar, butter, and baking powder, adding both vanilla and anise oil for a double dose of holiday flavor. The dough was thicker than Jim and I remembered, so we tried to thin it out with a few tablespoons of water. When the iron was hot and ready, we dropped two spoonfuls of dough into the pizzelle molds, held the iron closed for about 30 seconds, and then removed the fragrant disks to a paper towel. We started the process again, opening and closing the iron over the thick dough to efficiently produce twenty-four pizzelles.

Unfortunately, this round of pizzelles was just okay. The anise oil and vanilla subtly flavored the dough, but the final texture of the cooked pizzelles was too dense. During an emergency telephone call to Jim’s grandmother on Sunday she informed us that we had used too much flour. She had just finished making nine-dozen pizzelles, so she knew what she was talking about. Stay tuned for another batch…and a recipe, I hope!

Update: Recipe for Pizzelles
Adapted from the Villaware Prima Pizzelle Baker pamphlet

In our pizzelle-making experiments this year, we’ve determined than Grandma was right (of course): Using less flour than recommended by Villaware makes a lighter, more airy cookie. The recipe below reflects this adjustment; if you prefer a denser pizzelle, add a little more flour to your batter.

  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise oil
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add the melted butter, vanilla extract, and anise oil. Sift flour and baking powder together, then combine with egg mixture. The batter should be slightly thick, yet you should be able to drop it off a spoon onto your pizzelle maker. Recipe makes 20-24 pizzelles. Enjoy!

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