Posts tagged Italy

Homemade Orecchiette

Three years ago, my inaugural post on this blog was about making fresh pasta. Jim and I had pulled our never-used pasta machine out from storage, mixed together an egg-based dough, and cranked out an overwhelming quantity of linguine for the first time. Despite this successful experience—and apart from two other tiring experiments with homemade ravioli and ricotta gnocchi—making fresh pasta never became a habit for us. But on Sunday I was feeling adventurous and energized, and decided to try my hand at it again, this time with orecchiette.

Orecchiette means “little ears” in Italian. Small and circular with an indented center (hence the name), they are typical of the Southern region of Puglia, the area where my mother is from. Puglia’s flat landscape and arid temperatures are ideal for wheat production, making pasta and bread the most substantial elements of the region’s cuisine.

One of the interesting things about orecchiette and other traditional pastas from Southern Italy (such as cavatelli and strozzapreti) is that the dough is often made without eggs—flour, water, and salt are the main ingredients. A mixture of semolina and white flour forms the base of what becomes a chewy, dense pasta that can stand up to the most aggressive sauces. I have to say, this is one of the easiest doughs I have ever worked with. The absence of eggs creates an elastic dough that is quickly kneaded into a smooth ball, ready for shaping.

The rest of the steps on Sunday were decidedly un-exhausting. I divided the dough into 8 equal pieces, rolling each one into a long rope. After cutting them into compact squares, I pushed my thumb in the middle of each piece and gently dragged them a short way across my pasta board, creating a series of concave disks. I’ll admit, my first few attempts looked more like Fritos corn chips than perfectly circular orecchiette, but these are supposed to be rustic, right? Eventually I got the hang of it, and before I knew it, two cookie sheets were full of orecchiette waiting to be cooked.

In order to keep with the Puglian theme, I used my homemade “ears” in one of the region’s iconic dishes: orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. Because of their cup-like shape, orecchiette are rarely paired with smooth tomato- or cream-based sauces; chunkier sauces with meat or vegetables work better with this particular pasta. While the orecchiette cooked, I combined some blanched broccoli rabe with olive oil, garlic, and our favorite fennel sausage from our local pork store. Once tossed with these ingredients, the orecchiette formed a neutral, sturdy base for the bitter greens and strongly spiced meat, a classic combination that works every time. Now that I know how easy it is to make orecchiette, I see many more Puglian Sundays in our future. Cavatelli, here we come!

Recipe for Homemade Orecchiette with Fennel Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

For the pasta dough (recipe adapted from Michele Scicolone’s A Fresh Taste of Italy):

  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water

Combine the all-purpose and semolina flours and the salt in a food processor. With the machine running, slowly add the water, until a stiff ball of dough forms. Remove the dough from the processor and place it on a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about a minute or two.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Take one piece and keep the remaining pieces covered with the inverted food processor bowl or another bowl. Taking the dough between your hands, roll it into a long rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. With your thumb parallel to the long side of each piece, push it into the center of the dough and slightly drag the piece backwards. It will curl around your thumb, creating a concave disk. Set aside and repeat with the next piece of dough. When finished with all the dough, place the orecchiette on cookie sheets lined with napkins and a light dusting of flour. Cook right away or freeze. You should wind up with about a pound of pasta.

To freeze the pasta, place the filled cookie sheets in the freezer. Freeze until they are solid (about an hour or two) and then transfer the orecchiette to freezer-safe bags. They can be frozen for up to one month. When you are ready to use them, don’t defrost them. Add them directly to boiling, salted water and cook as usual.

For the Sauce:

  • sea salt
  • 1 bunch of broccoli rabe, washed with ends trimmed
  • 4 links of high quality fennel sausage
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • salt
  • pepper
  • pecorino romano or parmesan cheese

Preheat the broiler. Bring a large pot of water (big enough to hold the pasta) to a boil. Season with sea salt. Add the broccoli rabe and blanch for about 3 to 5 minutes. Using tongs, remove the rabe from the water and set aside. Chop roughly into smaller pieces. Do not drain the boiling water.

While the broccoli rabe is cooking, cook the sausages under the broiler for about 6 minutes, turning them after 3 minutes. Remove from the broiler and slice into 1/2-inch pieces. The pieces will probably still be a little pink in the middle.

Add the pasta to the boiling broccoli rabe water, and cook until al dente, about 10 to 13 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and sauté until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add the sausage and the broccoli rabe to the pan, cooking until done, about 5 to 7 minutes. Drain the pasta when ready.

Toss the broccoli rabe and sausage with the cooked pasta. Add a glug of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with pecorino romano or parmesan cheese. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Artichokes for the Choke

When a fruit or vegetable is in season in Italy, you know it. It takes center stage in every type of dish, from the simplest antipasto to the richest, boldest entree. Depending on the time of year, I could be talking about zucchini, tomatoes, or mushrooms. I just happened to get lucky last week. I was visiting Florence during artichoke season.

chokes

Can you believe it? I couldn’t. The sun was shining, the air smelled of springtime, and my favorite vegetable—carciofo in Italian—was absolutely everywhere. From fried artichoke hearts to whole globes stuffed with breadcrumbs, I have never encountered one I didn’t adore.

I started noticing the ubiquitous choke at my hotel’s restaurant. As I perused the menu on the first night, I realized that almost every other dish contained some sort of artichoke option. Among the appetizers were listed both an artichoke tart and grilled octopus with artichokes and citrus fruit. The secondi included a beef tagliata with an artichoke salad, and sea bass with artichokes, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Although they all sounded amazing, I felt like having pasta. I turned to the primi and chose the spaghetti al “macco” di carciofi, which translates to spaghetti with a sort of pureed artichoke sauce.

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A perfectly cooked mound of al dente pasta coated with a creamy, smooth sauce of concentrated artichoke delight was placed in front of me. Rich yet light at the same time, this was possibly the best dish I encountered during my trip. I ate it two nights in a row before I forced myself to consider other items on the menu.

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At lunch one day I was confronted with another choke-based meal, this time in a risotto. For a few moments I wondered if I was going too crazy for carciofi, but I couldn’t resist them. Whole, tender artichoke hearts cooked with firm Arborio rice created a simple and satisfying mid-day treat. It wasn’t perfect—in fact, it was slightly too salty—but the creamy chokes still did themselves proud.

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For my last meal in Florence I seriously considered getting that amazing spaghetti for the third time. In the end I decided to branch out to the secondi and try the beef tagliata with the artichoke salad. This time, the chokes were served raw and dressed simply with vinegar, acting as a crisp, refreshing accent to the rather rare fillet of beef that I received. 

I’m still thinking back to the intense artichoke-related joy I experienced last week. As has been said before and seen here, Italians know the true meaning of eating locally and seasonally. It’s kind of ironic that I had to fly to Italy to experience it, but I was more than up to the task. For my carciofi I’d do almost anything.

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A Stroll through the Mercato Centrale

Ciao, tutti! I’m finally back from my quick trip to Italy—Florence, to be exact. Although I was working most of the time, I did have a few free hours here and there. During one of these periods I decided to visit Florence’s Mercato Centrale. Located in a two-floor, nineteenth-century cast iron building near San Lorenzo, this amazing array of Italian food stalls is known as the best food market in the city. Over the course of a few hours I strolled around and around, up and down, trying to take it all in.

stand

As I walked through the halls of the ground floor, I immediately noticed the piles of fresh produce at several different stands. From cabbage to radicchio, artichokes to squash, seasonality was on full display. The cold temperature inside kept everything fresh, and I was also impressed by the clean, pristine hallways of the market.

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Although my eyes first turned to the vibrant fruits and vegetables, a more thorough investigation of the ground floor revealed an assortment of vendors selling fresh and prepared foods. Baskets of dried porcini mushrooms peeked from between rows of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and wine. Fresh bread rested behind glass display cases, away from eager hands. Every time I turned a corner I encountered something I wanted to eat.

pasta2

Panzerotti, ravioli, cappellacci—all of these fresh pastas stuffed with ingredients such as nuts, cheese, spinach, and mushrooms called to me, as did the gnocchi and gnudi, while I lingered by their display cases. Without my own kitchen in Florence all I could do was look and imagine how they would taste. I settled on three bags of dried, spaghetti-like pici instead, mentally planning a special pasta dinner back in Brooklyn.

driedfruit

I’m usually not a fan of dried fruit, but I couldn’t shy away from the colorful array I encountered during my tour. Kiwi, mango, papaya, melon, and apricot varieties kept me satisfied during the rest of the week at work, whenever my stomach grumbled and I was hours away from a meal.

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Also on the ground floor were the butchers. Some butcher stands simply focused on conventional cuts of poultry, lamb, and beef. Others offered tripe and additional types of offal, and even more adventurous products such as pigs’ feet. Dressed in white coats and wielding huge knives, the butchers chopped and sliced at their wares for the bustling crowd. Every part of the animal was for sale; nothing went to waste. Chickens were left with their necks and feet intact, so there was no mistaking that the meat had come from an actual animal.

cheese

Rounding out my tour of the first floor were the cheese and cured meat vendors. Huge chunks of parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, and different types of salumi beckoned me from all corners, and I finally bought some salamina cinghiale (wild boar salami) for Jim. I quickly walked past the few fish mongers located together at one end of the building, trying to avoid the smell of fresh fish in the morning.

spices

A short climb up the iron staircase to the sprawling second floor revealed more produce and herbs. Towers of citrus, greens, and other vegetables mingled with sun-dried tomatoes, salted capers, and dried herbs such as basil, rosemary, and parsley. Since I couldn’t buy any of the fresh produce I just admired the first zucchini of the season and marveled at the varieties of squash, apples, and lettuce.

porchetta1

After a few laps around the building I had worked up quite an appetite. I returned downstairs to the ground floor and joined the long line at a crowded stand called Nerbone, where I picked up a porchetta sandwich (4€).  It didn’t look like much—just a few slices of pork slapped into a roll—but oh my, was it wonderful. The soft, juicy meat nestled into a crispy roll quickly disappeared as I eagerly finished my sandwich. It was the perfect way to end my stroll of Florence’s Mercato Centrale. 

Mercato Centrale, open Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 2 pm, near San Lorenzo on Via dell’Ariento in Florence, Italy.

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