Posts tagged Southern 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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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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