Posts tagged tomatoes

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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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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Gina DePalma’s Zuppa di Farro

Have you ever come across a recipe—whether online, or in a cookbook or magazine—and fallen in love with it immediately, before even tasting the results? Similar to finally finding the one, I think you just know when it happens. Lucky for me, I’ve been struck by this culinary bolt of lightning more than once, most recently with chef Gina DePalma’s recipe for zuppa di farro (farro soup). I found it at the beginning of last month on Serious Eats, bookmarked it immediately, and couldn’t wait to try it.

soup

I’m not sure what inspired my strong feelings about this recipe. Perhaps it was DePalma’s evocative prose about discovering this soup in Italy during lunch on a blustery day, or maybe it was her appetizing photo. In addition, a closer look at the recipe revealed two things: many of my favorite ingredients were included (tomatoes, farro, pancetta, parmesan cheese) and I had almost all of them in my pantry or refrigerator. Like any great love story, it was meant to be.

All I needed was time, as DePalma suggests soaking the farro for two hours before cooking. Most recipes I’ve seen soak the grains for 20 minutes, but on a chilly Sunday afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to be, I did as the recipe instructed. The rest of the steps were simple: I sautéed the onions, garlic, and pancetta, then added the tomatoes, farro, and some homemade chicken stock (instead of DePalma’s suggested beef stock). The soup simmered for a while on the stovetop, and then rested so the flavors could come together. A cup of the mixture was pureed and then added back into the pot before serving, creating a more liquid base of flavor.

Oh boy, were my instincts right about this soup. The chewy grains melded with the tomato-infused broth to create a rustic, hearty-but-not-heavy dish that delighted with each spoonful. Meaty chunks of pancetta swam here and there, peeking out between the sprinklings of tangy parmesan cheese and spicy fresh parsley. Jim and I ate it for two nights in a row, almost reluctant to finish it off; we just didn’t want this love story to end. But by the end of the bowl, I realized that although recipes may come and go, at least this one would have a permanent place in my heart.

Recipe for Zuppa di Farro (adapted from Gina DePalma’s recipe on Serious Eats)

  • 1 cup farro
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1-1 1/2 ounces of pancetta, diced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • a dash of dried sage
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup canned plum tomatoes, crushed and chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 to 6 cups good-quality chicken stock

Start by placing the farro in a medium bowl, and covering the grains with cold water. Soak for 2 hours. Drain and set the grains aside.

Heat the olive oil over low heat in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it starts to brown, then remove it and discard. Add the onions and the pancetta to the pot and stir. Season with a pinch of salt and keep stirring. Sauté the onions and pancetta until they soften and turn translucent at the edges, then add the herbs. Sauté for another minute, but don’t allow the mixture to brown.

Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir. Then add the farro, about 2 cups of the stock and 1 cup of water. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cover and lower the heat. Simmer the soup while covered for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so. As the soup thickens, add ladles of stock to the pot. The soup shouldn’t be too thick; the grains should be loose and floating in liquid.

When the farro is tender, the soup is ready. Allow it to cool for 30 minutes in the pot. Remove 1 cup of soup to a blender and puree. Stir the mixture back into the soup, and add more stock if necessary.

Heat the soup a little bit before serving. Garnish with parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, and grated cheese.

Serves 4. Enjoy! (Jim and I ate this soup over 2 days. On the 2nd day it had absorbed quite a bit of moisture, so I added some stock to thin it out.)

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Working Out with Tomatoes

I have a confession to make: I haven’t been to the gym in over a year. I used to work out, but I don’t anymore, and I need to start again. But thanks to the arrival of tomato season, I’ve just discovered the perfect upper body work out: making fresh tomato sauce.

Last week I couldn’t resist all the tomatoes I saw at the farmers’ market near my office. Knobby, misshapen heirlooms, peppy yellow and red cherry tomatoes—it was difficult to choose, but I finally bought three pounds of juicy plum tomatoes and came up with my saucy agenda.

I borrowed my mother’s food mill, a simple metal contraption with a hand-operated crank that used to belong to my grandmother. After cooking the tomatoes for a few minutes, I turned, pushed, and swirled that crank over them, running the press forward and back again as the tomatoes’ skins and seeds separated from the pulp. When my right arm had enough, I switched to the left. I could almost feel my muscles getting bigger and buffer.

But what excited me more than my possibly chiseled biceps was simply making my own sauce from scratch and having a strong connection with the meal I was creating. It was so much more satisfying than opening a can of crushed tomatoes and cooking them down into a sauce. I actually smiled and laughed out loud as I spun that crank around and around. I never had this much fun on the StairMaster, I’ll tell you that much.

As the sauce slowly cooked on the stovetop, it thickened and became as crimson as an ocean sunset. I tossed it with some penne pasta and garnished the dish with fresh basil for a simple, sweet meal that I enjoyed from start to finish. With a glass of red wine and a green salad, I was set for the night. I’ll get back to the gym some other time, maybe after tomato season is over.

Recipe for Fresh Tomato Sauce 

  • 3 pounds plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 1 medium onion, halved and then cut into thin strips
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • sugar 
  • basil
  • 1 pound of penne or any other ridged pasta
  • parmesan cheese
  • black pepper

Heat a large sauté or sauce pan over medium heat. Add your tomatoes. Cook for about 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to soften and their juices start to run out. Take the pan off the heat.

Spoon a small quantity of the tomatoes into a food mill. The food mill should be placed over a bowl, so that the pulp can drip into it. Turn the crank and run the food mill’s blade over the tomatoes, crushing them so that skins and seeds are separated from the pulp. You should turn the crank forwards and backwards, pushing down on it to add pressure. Repeat until you have strained all the tomatoes. Discard the seeds and skins from the mill.

Wipe out your original sauce pan with a paper towel. Over medium heat add a few glugs of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add your onions. Sauté the onions until they are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions and discard.

Add your strained tomatoes to the pan. Add a few dashes of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a handful of fresh basil leaves. Cover and bring to a boil. Stir the sauce and reduce heat to low so that that sauce is simmering. Cover and cook for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce is ready when it reaches your preferred level of thickness.

When ready, cook your pasta. Toss sauce with cooked pasta. Top with freshly grated parmesan cheese and fresh black pepper. Garnish with fresh basil and serve immediately. Serves 4. Enjoy! 

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The Raw and the Cooked

Sometimes I am struck by how easy cooking can be. Or rather, how easy it should be. 

A few weeks ago after work, I spent about 2 hours shucking, cooking, puréeing, and straining my CSA-delivered corn for what I hoped would be a creamy and flavorful dinner of curried corn soup. I was excited to prepare this sweet vegetable in a new way; usually I just boil it on the cob, or sauté it for my favorite salad. But for this soup I used a recipe I picked up at the farmers’ market last year and had been wanting to try.

Well, after all that effort—and several dirty pots and pans—I expected to be thrilled and satisfied with my dinner. But instead I was disappointed. Maybe it was just a bland recipe, or the fact that I’m not a huge fan of soup in general. Whatever the reason, as I lifted spoonful after spoonful of the broth to my mouth, I didn’t taste the sweet freshness I look forward to when eating summer corn. I missed biting into its firm and juicy kernels, their skins exploding with flavor between my teeth. All the reasons why I love this summer vegetable were absent once it was cooked and puréed into a porridge-like gruel. 

The very next night I got home late from work, and I didn’t have much time or energy to prepare dinner. I wound up tossing hefty chunks of raw, juicy tomatoes with slices of cool cucumber, red onion, basil, and some day-old bread left over from our meal the night before. Quickly drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and sprinkled with salt and pepper, this improvised panzanella salad exploited each ingredient’s flavor potential. With minimal effort and no actual cooking, I created one of best dishes I’ve made all summer.

What I am trying to say is that with summer fruits and vegetables, sometimes less is more. Summertime seasonal produce doesn’t need much handling in order to make a tasty, successful meal. And getting back to that corn, on the same night I made the panzanella, I also boiled some corn on the cob and got my flavor fix. As I said, cooking should always be this easy.

Recipe for Quick Panzanella Salad

  • 4 or 5 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced into chunks
  • 1/2 red onion, cut into thick slices
  • 1 medium cucumber, sliced into rounds and then halved
  • 1/2 loaf of day-old bread, sliced into thick chunks (if you like, you can toast the bread)
  • 1 garlic clove, very finely minced
  • a handful of fresh basil, leaves torn
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper

Combine the tomatoes, onion, cucumber, bread, and garlic in a large bowl. Gently toss the ingredients with your hands. Add two or three generous glugs of olive oil, and a splash of the balsamic vinegar. Add the basil leaves, and a few dashes of salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Gently combine the ingredients together with your hands. Season to taste. Serves 4 as a side dish. This recipe is very flexible, so feel free to alter it as you wish. Enjoy!

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