Thursday, September 15, 2011

Minestrone, Italian Vegetable soup

 “Minestra” is the Italian word for soup. Minestrone means “the big soup” and refers to the dish being full of vegetables.

To define a recipe for minestrone is impossible. Every region, every season, and every family have their own recipe. Some use pork fat as a condiment and some simple olive oil, in a pure vegetarian fashion. Some recipes, in Rome for example, call for pasta in it, some don’t. Some are richer in legumes, cabbage, or herbs. In Liguria they add pesto to the minestrone that gives a very flavorful basil aroma to the soup.

My mother was used to make this soup with all the different vegetables that are left in the refrigerator at the end of the week: A good way to avoid wasting food. And if she had a piece of parmigiano or pecorino romano, she would add it to the pot to make it even tastier.

Any kind of seasonal vegetables can be used in a minestrone.  The vegetables are added in short intervals, the tender ones at the end, to avoid overcooking them. My recipe is simple and leafy. Add beans or green peas or cabbage for a more hearty texture.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 oz (60 gr) pancetta or un-smoked bacon, finely diced
4 oz (100 gr) onion, finely chopped
4 oz (100 gr) carrots, finely chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
1 lb (450 gr) potatoes, in small dice
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, finely chopped
4 oz (100 gr) fresh tomatoes, diced
4 cups (1 liter) homemade broth, or good quality store bought
salt and pepper
1/2 lb (220 gr) zucchini, diced
4 oz (100 gr) lettuce, chopped
4 oz (100 gr) beets, choped
4 oz (100 gr) short "ditali" pasta,  or spaghetti broken  in ½ inch (1 - 2 cm) pieces
4 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

Put in a pot the extra-virgin olive oil, and turn the heat to medium. Add the chopped bacon. When the bacon is browned add the onion. Sauté shortly until the onion becomes soft and translucent. 

Stir in the pot the carrot and celery. Cook shortly.

Add the diced potatoes. Cook for about 1 minute.

Stir in the parsley, and tomatoes. 

Add broth, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

After about 10 minutes add zucchini, lettuce, and beets. Cook for 10 more minutes.
 When the vegetables are half cooked but still firm, add the pasta and cook for the time indicated by the manufacturer or taste until is firm but not overcooked (al dente). Correct salts if necessary, add a pinch of pepper, and the the grated parmigiano. Serve warm in soup plates or bowls. Serve lukewarm in the hot season. Add fresh grated parmigiano to the individual dishes, if you like.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Veal Cutlet “Milanese”

Cotoletta alla Milanese is, as the name says, a dish typical of Milan. It is somewhat similar to the Wiener-Schnitzel and there have been much debate on the true origin of this dish. Lombardia has been for long time under the domination of the Austian empire and without any information it is difficult to speculate where the dish has been "invented". The main difference is that the “Milanese” is cooked with the bone and “Wiener” is without the bone. Let’s just say that the Cotoletta is from Milan and the Wiener-schnitzel from Vienna and everyone is happy.
 Cotoletta is in Italian a loin chop cooked with its bone attached. "Cotoletta alla Milanese" is a veal cutlet breaded and fried in butter. It is a very simple preparation but some basic rules need to be followed in order to do it right.
 In Milan, where the Milanese cutlet originates, only choice veal chops from suckling calves are used, the ones that have been fed only mother's milk, otherwise the meat will result stringy and tough. The cotoletta is cut with the bone, and approximately about 1/2-inch (1.5 cm) thick, same thickness as the bone. The meat is then pound slightly to make it thinner and have it cook easily.
 Butter is one of the most important component. The “cotoletta” need to be thoroughly cooked, golden without brown spots. Normal butter would burn and make it look ugly. For this reason you need to use clarified butter that can resist much higher temperatures without burning in the pan. Clarified butter is really easy to make or can be bought in any supermarket.
 Finally the breadcrumbs should be very finely grated from a soft white bread or the interior of the bread loaf. And of course the eggs need to be very fresh.

2  veal loin chops, with bone 
2 eggs, lightly beaten
 2 cups very fine ground breadcrumbs 
8 tablespoons clarified butter 
2 lemon wedges

 Place the pan on medium heat.
Clean the bone removing the skin if necessary. Trim away the skin around the cutlet. Pound lightly the meat to make it thinner.
Dip the cutlets in the egg first.
Dredge the cutlets in the breadcrumbs.

 Press hard over the cutlets with the palm of the hand to adhere the bread to the surface of the meat.
 Put the clarified butter in the pan.
** Please note the clarified butter shown in the picture was freshly made, and therefore still liquid. If the butter was kept refrigerated it would be solid.
 When the butter is hot place the cutlets in the pan and fry slowly for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until golden.
 Remove the cutlets, place briefly on a kitchen paper towel to eliminate some of fat from the surface. Sprinkle with salt. Serve hot with one lemon wedge on the side.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pan Sautéed Fresh Tomatoes

It is no secret that Italians like simple food. The true secret is in using the best tasting, fresh, ripe vegetables. Buy some very ripe ‘on the vine’ small tomatoes, they shouldn’t be too watery, simply drop them in the pan with some garlic and olive oil and enjoy the true taste of the tomato: the most generous vegetable you can have in your pantry. Serve over slices of toasted country bread or simply as a side (contorno) to a dish of meat or fish. And you can use it to dress pasta too...

2 lb (1 kg) fresh, very ripe “on the vine” cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)
4 slices toasted country bread
 Chop the tomatoes with their skin on.
 Place in a skillet the olive oil and garlic. Turn heat to medium.
 When the oil is hot add the tomatoes. Do not let the garlic color.
Cook the tomatoes for about 10 minutes. Let the juices thicken a little.

 Serve as a bruschetta over slices of country bread oir simply as a side (contorno) to a dish of meat or fish.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vitello Tonnato - Veal with Tuna Sauce

In summer when the temperature starts rising many turn away from eating meat, considered an heavy food to digest. Vitello Tonnato also known as Veal Tonne’ It is a perfect cold dish for summer lunches. It was created in Northern Italy, most probably in Lombardia. The recipe seems to have French influences but it is authentic Italian, as even Pellegrino Artusi has this recipe in his book La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene, published in 1891.  Very popular in the 1960s it is a very simple dish with many variations that can accommodate any taste.

for the meat:
1 whole onion, approx 4 oz (100 gr)
2 cloves
1 whole carrot, approx. 4 oz (100 gr)
1 whole celery stick
1 whole fresh tomato, approx. 4 oz (100 gr)
1 whole fresh tomato approx. 100 gr
salt and pepper
2 lb (approx. 1000 gr) veal
4-5 quarts (4-5 liters) water
for the sauce:
1/2 lb (200 gr) canned tuna fish in oil
4 anchovy fillets
3 tbl.spn. capers
1 lemon, juiced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1.5 caps mayonnaise
for the decoration:
3 lemon slices
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon capers

Stick the cloves in the onion. Fill a stock pot with water, add carrot, celery, onion, tomato, salt and pepper. Bring to boil and add the veal. Cook for approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat is tender. Remove the meat and cool at room temperature. Place the meat in the refrigerator  for 3 - 4 hours. Filter the broth and reserve for a different preparation.

 In a food processor put tuna fish.
Add anchovies, capers, lemon juice, oil, and run the blade to reduce to a very fine and smooth paste. If the sauce is too dense add 2-3 tablespoons broth to obtain the right consistency. Transfer the mix to a bowl, stir in the mayonnaise, and mix until obtaining an homogeneous paste.
Cut the meat in thin slices, place in a serving place, and cover with the sauce. The preparation can be kept in the refrigerator overnight if necessary. Garnish with lemon slices, capers, parsley just before serving.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to Make Clarified Butter

Grocery store butter often burns in the pan and gives to dishes a bad spotty look. To prevent butter from burning you need to use "clarified" butter. Clarified Butter can be bought in any grocery store but is cheaper to make it at home and very easy. Grocery store butter is made of three components: Casein, Butter Fat, and Water. Your goal in making the clarified butter is to separate the butter fat and to eliminate the casein and the water. The casein is the solid part of butter that burns at lower temperature. When frying burnt casein will give the dishes a bad spotty look.

Place the butter in a saucepan on medium heat. 
Slowly let the butter melt.
After the butter is melt and still warm, remove the whitish casein that floats on the surface carefully with a spoon, and discard it.

 After you have removed all the casein...

 ... pour the clarified butter in a bowl. Do not pour completely all the liquid. The  water has separated from the butter and still sits in the bottom.

Pour the rest of the clarified butter in a clear glass. You will see the water in the bottom of the glass, and you will be able to easily recover all the clarified butter and discard the water.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Strawberry Risotto !

The first time I discovered Strawberry Risotto on a menu was about 20 years ago in a restaurant in Verona. Strawberry Risotto? It sounded really odd but I am adventurous with food. I like to taste (almost) everything at least once. When the waiter proposed it, he didn’t have to work a lot at convincing me.

I remember it took a while to get my risotto to the table. If you order risotto in Northern Italy do not expect it to be served in 5 minutes. They take risotto seriously there and it takes whatever time it takes: Just be patient or order something else. While you wait for the risotto to be served, you can enjoy some light appetizer and drink some sparkling Prosecco wine. And by the way, there is no such a thing as dipping oil in the restaurants in Italy. After several minutes we were served a large dish of red risotto. It was just wonderful! If you never tasted Strawberry Risotto you will be amazed. At the end of the dinner I asked for the recipe to a very courteous chef, and of course he (courteously) refused.

I had to come up with my own recipe, and that was not a difficult problem to solve. Risotto making is pretty standard. The only change I made from traditional risotto, in this time of lean cuisine, I used extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter. Please feel free to substitute olive oil for butter and add more parmigiano cheese to my recipe if you like. But please don’t use cream! The creaminess of the risotto comes from the starch of the Italian rice. I used Arborio rice, the simplest rice to cook and maintain ‘al dente’. You can use Carnaroli rice for more body, or Vialone rice for a more ‘all’onda’ creamy consistency.

In my recipe I like to add the strawberries in two batches, the fist at the beginning, finely chopped, will dissolve while cooking the risotto. The second batch in larger chunks, added almost at the end, will give consistency and sweetness. Remember that, contrary to common belief, risotto doesn’t have to be stirred continuously for 20 minutes. If the risotto is stirred too much the rice skin will be broken and the risotto will result very starchy. I like to add half of the broth at the beginning and stir occasionally. Then, when the liquid is absorbed, add the rest a ladle at the time to control the consistency of the risotto.

I have been making strawberry risotto for many years and every time I am asked the same question: “You are making a sweet risotto?”. Strawberry risotto is not sweet! Depending on the ripeness of the fruit, it will have a wonderful fruity-sour-sweet tang. Prepare Strawberry risotto in spring and summer when the strawberries are at their best, dig in, and enjoy.

Strawberry Risotto
see also

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion finely chopped
1-1/2 cups (300 gr) Arborio rice
1/4 cup (60 cc) cognac
1-1/2 lb (600 gr) strawberries (half finely chopped, half halved, reserve a few strawberries for decoration)
5 cups (approx 1 liter) chicken broth, warm to a simmer in a small saucepan
salt and pepper
4 oz (120 gr) freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Place the olive oil in a sauté pan on medium heat. When the oil is hot add the onion and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add rice.

Stir until the rice is fully coated for about 2 minutes. Add the cognac. Let the cognac evaporate.

Stir in the chopped strawberries.

Add about half of the broth. Keep the rice to a simmer and stir occasionally to prevent the rice from sticking to the pan.

When the broth is absorbed ...

 ... stir in the halved strawberries.

 Add a ladle of broth and stir slowly keeping the rice at a “pasty” consistency.  Add the broth a little at the time to control the consistency of the risotto.

 Taste the risotto. When the risotto is al dente, in about 22 to 25 minutes, cooked but still firm to the bite, add the parmigiano cheese and stir vigorously for a minute.


Let the risotto rest for about 2 minutes before transferring to a serving dish. Decorate with the reserved strawberries and serve hot.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Recently I commented on a New York Times food blog on an article on wild herbs. It reminded me of the many wild plants we still use (or I should say we should use?) in Italy. Herbs have always been an important factor in Italian cooking. Just think of the role that basil, sage, and rosemary  play in the Italian kitchen, just to mention a few, and you realize how important herbs are in enhancing the taste of dishes. 

These herbs are the domesticated plants that we find in the pots sold at the grocery stores. In reality there are hundreds of edible wild plants and flowers.  You think arugula has strong taste? Wait until you taste wild 'rugola'. Not the tame cultivated one you buy at the store, but the one growing wild like a dreadful  weed. Wow! It is like comparing a domestic dog to a wild coyote. How many people cook with wild fennel, an essential flavor in certain Sicilian dishes? And what about 'mentuccia' the tiny wild mint indispensible to cooking artichokes in the Roman style? I have a stomach ache every time I have to say 'substitute it with parsley'.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829) 
Goethe in the Roman Countryside

“Andare per cicoria", to go look for chicory has a bad connotation in Italian. It means to go an spend your time in some very low level doings. Wild herbs are not comparable to truffles or even to wild mushrooms. Chicory is for peasants not for the refined palate, right?  But who commands our taste buds? I love the taste of truffle as much as a dish of wild chicory 'ripassata' simply sautéed in olive oil and garlic: its bitter taste fills your mouth like an explosion.

I remember when I was a kid it was not unusual to see women in the fields on the countryside of Rome, slowly walking bent to the ground,  looking for something, scavenging with a small knife in their hands. In reality they were looking for edible plants. Still today some women do this as a business and they sell their precious cache at the farmers markets. But finding these treasures of the wild seems to be more and more difficult. Wild plants feel like species in extinction. In reality the ability to find wild herbs is becoming a lost talent. In the continuous push to make everything faster and cheaper, in surrendering to the tendencies of mass marketing, we restrict our choices and we flatten our taste. Maybe it is a sign of age but I think every time we lose a skill, every time we have less choices, we lose a small piece of our identity.  

Wild herbs have so many different tastes... they can be bitter or sweet , pungent or bland... they can be slick or sting you. Put them all together in a salad bowl, in the spring when they are fresh, savory, and tender and you have a “misticanza”. The word in the Roman dialect recalls a mixture... in our case a mix of wild edible herbs of every kind. It is like a symphony of tastes that will play in your mouth.

Buying wild asparagus in Campo de' Fiori farmers market

When I am in Rome there is nothing for me more fun than go to shopping in the 'Campo de Fiori' farmers market. It is the real hearth of the city; it is where you can discover the real soul of Roman people: witty and funny, wise and poetic, rude and gentle at same time.  

The "vignarola" cleans wild chicory

The market is divided in two long aisles. And here, in a corner an old lady, "la vignarola", sells ‘odori’ herbs for your cooking: parsley, carrot and celery for your “battuto” the Roman ‘mirepois’... rosemary, sage, and mentuccia, the wild mint for your artichokes. Here in a large basket is the wild chicory that she is cleaning. When it is tender it can be prepared as a salad, otherwise it can be dropped in a skillet with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic to accompany any meat dish.

 And side by side, here is a large basket of misticanza. Somebody asked for the recipe… What goes into a misticanza salad? oh well… here it is:

caccia-lepre (hare-hunter),
cresta di gallo (rooster crest),
dente di leone (lion tooth),
pimpinella (that's a sweet name,  must be related to Cinderella),
raponzoli (ugly turnips),
crespigno lattuca pungente (stinging lettuce),
erbanoce (nut herb),
cipiccia (other funny name I am not even trying to translate this),
papala, small poppy plants (way before they start blooming), and....
cordone del frate (fraiar's rope),
orecchio d’asino (donkey hears),
porcacchia (wow!), and finally …
indivia (endive),
rughetta (wild rucola)
young wild chicory,
dandelion, and a few more.

For the topping …. Make a pesto pounding in a mortar two anchovies, one clove of garlic and some salt; add fresh extra-virgin olive oil pressed last fall, white wine vinegar (possibly from a reliable source that makes it natural and not industrially). Toss it all together and enjoy!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

El Matador State Beach

I couldn't have wished for a more beautiful Birthday.

Wonderful California coast just North of Malibu
Simple picnic in the park
Lonely bird looking for food