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Panzanella Salad – too hot for cooking!

It’s been so hot out lately and with my husband away dinner needed to be simple and quick.  Originally I thought I would make a pasta primavera using the fresh veggies I bought from Lieb’s organic patch but I eyed the leftover focaccia bread on the counter and changed my mind.  I would make a bread (panzanella) salad out of it.  Ok, so it’s not the proper Tuscan bread with the crusty top which is soaked and then gently squeezed but I’m not fussed…frugality comes in all shapes and sizes/ingredients!  A visit to Lieb’s for fresh tomatoes and onions was in order.  I received their newsletter saying their heirloom tomatoes were in – this time I was taking my camera.

I used the green zebra tomato as well as the Japanese black trifele in the salad.  I wasn’t sure just what an heirloom tomato was until Mike (pictured below) explained that they’re not genetically modified and not used in large scale agriculture…a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.

Mike showed me around and I was pleasantly surprised to see okra.

Different types of eggplant (also known as aubergine, berenjen, brinjal, garden egg, egg apple, melongene, melanzane, Guinea squash) are grown at the organic farm.

After spending half an hour there, I was ready to come home and get the panzanella salad ready.

simple, farm-fresh ingredients = huge flavor

For the salad:
leftover or stale bread, torn or cut into bite-size pieces
fresh basil leaves, torn
extra virgin olive oil
tomatoes, sliced
cucumber, roughly chopped
garlic, minced
red wine vinegar or lemon juice
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Kalamata olives, chopped
Parmesan cheese, thinly shaved (use a potato peeler)

Place bread pieces in a bowl and add some olive oil – enough to coat the bread so that it becomes moist.  Add the rest of the ingredients except the cheese and toss.  Add a splash of red wine vinegar, toss, and season to taste.  Top with thinly shaved Parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper.

The Culinary Chase’s Note:  I wish we all could have a place like Lieb’s around the corner.   Their rocket (arugula) has an amazing sharp peppery flavor, more so than any other I’ve tried before – such a refreshing change and makes a salad zing!  Everything that went into the salad was local…even the garlic which I purchased at the 175th Street Greenmarket in Manhattan on Sunday.   Local food supports local families, builds community (the connection between eater and grower), local food preserves open space (farmers are less likely to sell their farmland for development), and local food keeps taxes down (farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services).

Stuffed Zucchini Flowers (Fiori di Zucca Ripieni)

Ciao, pronto, prego, il conto, mi scusi, buon giorno, arrivederci, grazie – some useful words we used when we visited Italy earlier this month – it seems a distant memory now!  Don’t ask me to string a sentence together but I can get by with simple words and hand gesticulations.  John, on the other hand, can speak the language the way a 4-year old would so between us we managed to navigate the ports and eat our way to Italian gastronomic heaven!  After visiting Venice, Ravenna, Catania, Amalfi and Pompei I am amazed at my vocabulary.   Sometimes I would throw in some Spanish or French words because I couldn’t think of it in Italian and most people understood the jest of what I was trying to say.  A simple gesture of ‘trying’ no matter how poorly the pronunciation was that seemed to please the locals which led to a smile and perhaps an extra glass of vino compliments of the proprietors.   The places we visited were ports and as such we wanted to consume as much fresh fish and seafood, pasta too (of course!), as we could.  Stuffed zucchini flowers were never on the menu (pout) so I decided that when I returned home I would make my own…for the very first time.

All summer squash varieties originated in the New World and the people of Central and South America have been eating squash for several thousand years, but the zucchini we know today is a variety of summer squash developed in Italy.  Christopher Columbus originally brought seeds to the Mediterranean region and Africa.  Near the end of the 19th century the summer squash appeared in an area near Milan where it was given the name zucchini (small squash) and in France it is known as a courgette.  The flower is used in salads and in side dishes.  In Greece and Italy it is commonly stuffed.

I purchased the zucchini flowers from Lieb’s Nursery.  It’s a local nursery about 12 or so minutes from where we live.  They recently decided to grow herbs and vegetables in soil that had been dormant for nearly 100 years.  I was there 3 weeks prior to our trip abroad and the garden was just starting to blossom with some varieties of lettuce available. However, in 3 weeks their garden patch is flourishing.  The zucchini blossoms were so fresh that bees were still inside!  I gently shook the bag to help them on their merry way back to nature and not in my car!

Serves 4 as an antipasto
inspired by Food & Style

1 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup warm water
1 large egg

1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

3 tablespoons finely chopped garden herbs (Italian parsley, basil, oregano, thyme and sage)

1 large egg
pinch nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

freshly ground pepper to taste

16 large or 20 small fresh zucchini flowers

1/2 cup olive oil for pan-frying (or enough oil to cover the pan generously)

For the batter – 
Mix flour, salt and water in a large bowl. Set aside and let stand for 1 hour.  Just before dipping the flowers into the batter whisk in the egg.

For the stuffing – 
Mix the egg, ricotta, herbs, salt and pepper until well blended and set aside.

To stuff the flowers – 
Make a slit lengthwise in each flower and remove the stamen (this is bitter to eat). Using a teaspoon, place a small amount of the stuffing at the base of each flower and twist the petals so that the stuffing is held safely inside the flower.  You might want to gently squeeze the filling slightly upward so that the flowers stayed twisted at the top.  Make sure the stuffing isn’t visible otherwise it will melt and ooze out into the oil and you’ll be left with an empty case.  Place on a board or plate until ready to use.

stuffed and ready to go!

Heat a large heavy-bottom skillet to high heat. Add the oil. When the oil is hot, dip each flower in the batter and add to the pan. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Turn the flowers and continue to sauté for 1 to 2 minutes until golden. Repeat until all flowers have been used, reducing the heat to medium-high when the pan is very hot so the oil doesn’t burn.  Drain on paper towels, season with a bit of sea salt.  Serve immediately.

The Culinary Chase’s Note:  You can use any soft cheese that tickles your fancy.  I used Greek feta cheese and mashed it with a fork and a bit of olive oil to soften it up (omitted the egg).  Freshly chopped mint and basil were the herbs I used and everyone loved the flavor so use whatever herb(s) you like.  You can prepare the flowers 15 minutes before cooking…any longer and they begin to weep.  Don’t worry if you tear the flower as you can use the stuffing as a way to bind the petals together.  If you are lucky as I was to get farm-fresh blossoms, keep a bit of the stem to help when dipping the flowers into the batter.  The stems taste delicious so don’t worry about whether or not you should eat them.  Enjoy!

Wine-Braised Artichokes with Feta and Orecchiette

I’m a sucker for fresh pasta!  I make my own from time to time but haven’t been in the mood of late.  The other day I was in Eataly (I so love this food market) and could not resist going past the fresh pasta counter.  I love watching the machines churn out the different pastas. It’s difficult to know which one not to buy but the sweet pea with fresh mint ravioli shouted out ‘pick me’.  Even though this recipe calls for orecchiette (little ears in Italian), how could I resist these cute little packets.

Serves 4 
adapted from Ripe 

sea salt
8 oz. (227g) orecchiette or medium pasta shells
juice of ½ lemon
1 ½ pounds (680g) baby artichokes (about 9)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
½ cup chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup dry white wine
2 ounces (57g) creamy Greek feta, crumbled
3 tablespoons drained capers
½ cup (28g) chopped fresh parsley
freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Meanwhile, squeeze the lemon juice into a large bowl of cold water. To trim the artichokes, pull off and discard the hard outermost leaves. Eventually you will come to a point where the leaves are tender and soft, half green and half yellow. Use a sharp, heavy knife to cut off the top (green) portion. Slice the stem level with the base. Quarter each artichoke lengthwise, then toss in the lemon bath. Repeat with the remaining artichokes.

Place the oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes, so the garlic can slowly warm. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the artichokes to a double thickness of paper towels and pat dry, then carefully add to the skillet. Raise the heat to medium high, and sauté for about 5 minutes.

Add the stock and wine to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and cook until the artichokes are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat again, and simmer for an additional 3 minutes so the liquid reduces slightly. Transfer the drained pasta to the skillet, along with the feta, capers, and parsley. Spoon in a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid to loosen the sauce, if desired. Heat through, season with pepper, and serve immediately.

The Culinary Chase’s Note:  The feta softens a bit to create a creamy, silky texture…so good with the artichokes.  Yum!

Stuffed Chicken Pockets with Red Pesto and Ricotta

This dish screams flavor and it’s so easy to make.  Making the pocket in the chicken breast isn’t hard and I’ve attached a link here for those who would like to see a demonstration. When purchasing chicken breasts, look for ones that have a solid, plump and round shape.  The color of the chicken’s skin, white or yellow, does not have any bearing on its nutritional value. Regardless of color, the skin should be opaque and not spotted. I chose organically grown chicken breasts that have been raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics. Free-range chickens are allowed access to the outdoors as opposed to being confined to the hen house. Chicken is a very good source of protein (protein protects against bone loss especially in older people), an excellent source of Niacin and a good source of vitamin B6.

Serves 2
adapted from Fabulous Food

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (preferably organic)
2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons red pesto
2 slices prosciutto, pancetta or streaky bacon
2 sprigs fresh rosemary or thyme
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 180c (350f). Place chicken breasts on a chopping board and using a small sharp knife, cut a small pocket in the side of each breast and make sure not to cut right through. To make the stuffing, mix ricotta, basil and 1 tablespoon of the pesto together, adding a good grinding of black pepper. Carefully stuff each breast with a spoonful of the stuffing. Season the chicken with a little salt and pepper, add fresh rosemary or thyme and wrap in a slice of prosciutto to seal the pocket. Make sure ends of the prosciutto are tucked underneath the chicken breast and place on a baking tray.

Glaze each breast with the remaining pesto mixed with a bit of olive oil to get it down to brushing consistency then bake in the oven 20 to 30 minutes until chicken is cooked through. To plate up, mix 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and drizzle this over the chicken just before you serve it.

The Culinary Chase’s Note: Delicious flavors from this dish and presentation-wise, your family and friends will be impressed.  Choose chicken breasts that look similar in size as this will help with the cooking time.  Enjoy!

Spinach and Bacon Stuffed Mushrooms

The idea of stuffing a mushroom has been around in North America since the mid 1950’s when Italian-Americans began utilizing the ample supply of white button mushrooms.  Italians from the south of Italy already knew how to stuff tomatoes, zucchini flowers and peppers.  When they emigrated to America, zucchini flowers weren’t in abundance like they were back home and so it was only a matter of time before the mushroom was included. The Italian classic stuffing of breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, olive oil and Parmesan made its way into mushroom caps.  From there, cooks expanded the stuffing to include ingredients such as sausage, crab meat, artichoke and so on.

These little hors d’oeuvres not only taste great but are the perfect size for finger food. Mushrooms have been used for thousands of years both as food and for medicinal purposes. They are often classified as a vegetable or a herb, but they are actually fungi. They have very little sodium and fat, and 8 to 10 percent of the dry weight is fiber. Mushrooms are an ideal for people following a weight management program or a diet for high blood pressure.

Makes 12 medium-sized mushrooms
adapted from Skinny Taste

14 oz. (1 package) fresh mushrooms, stems separated
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
4 cups fresh baby spinach, rinsed and towel dry
4 slices center cut bacon
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 200c (400°F). Lightly spray a foil lined baking pan or baking dish with cooking spray. Remove stems from mushrooms and mince fine. Heat a medium-sized skillet, add spinach and cook until it wilts (about 2 minutes).  Remove from the pan, squeeze excess liquid and finely chop. Set aside. Dry the skillet, add bacon and cook on low heat until bacon is cooked through. Set aside on paper towel and then coarsely chop. Clean the skillet and add olive oil. Add garlic and sauté until golden, about 2 minutes. Add minced mushroom stems and sauté until soft. Remove from heat and combine mushroom stems with sautéed spinach, bacon, bread crumbs, and parmesan cheese.

Season mushroom caps with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Fill mushrooms with spinach mixture, rounding tops off. Place in an oven-safe dish and lightly spray the tops with oil. Bake 20 minutes or until golden. Eat warm.

The Culinary Chase’s Note: Skinny Taste says you can you make these vegetarian by replacing the bacon with a little Feta cheese and chopped fresh herbs. Make these ahead of time by preparing the stuffing ahead, then fill and bake them right before serving. Only 34 calories each or for those of you on Weight Watchers, only 1 point each.