Merry Christmas 2013

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Family / Seasonal
pizza ornament

Hopefully you and your family are all safe and sound, spending time together on Christmas morning. Or, if you don’t celebrate, hopefully you have the day off and are planning to go see a movie! We all opened some gifts, unwrapped the chocolate drop panettone I have been eyeing for the last week, and have some beautiful Christmas music playing to punctuate this fine day. No matter what your celebratory preference, I wish you all a very merry Christmas. If you are lucky enough to have a blessed life, take a moment to think of those who are wanting, and maybe give of your abundance or time to someone in need. Cheers.

Finished Lardo

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Curing / Meats
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The lardo I put under a cure six months ago came out of it’s dark, salty chamber.

All I can say is that this might be one of the best food preparations I have ever done, and I did not really do anything. The pig fat was exceptional to begin with – all I did was throw some salt and spices on it and shove it in the fridge.

The fat is indescribably luscious. Deep, clean, salty, beautifully balanced. The hints of grey sea salt that stuck to the outside gives some nice crunch to the experience. And you can really taste the spices which permeated the entire slab.

What to do with a mountain of fat? Everything! Substitute it for olive oil while sautéing greens, slice it thin and drape over warm bread, make a whipped spuma – or sneak thin slices from the fridge and just let it melt in your mouth.

An Ancient Knife

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Curing / Family
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This knife belonged to my great grandmother on my father’s side, Angelina Minniti (1883-1954). I recently “borrowed” it from my mother on a semi-permananent basis. I always remember seeing it in the drawer as a kid, with it’s protective sheath made from cardboard and duct tape, but rarely ever saw it being used. Now that I have ownership, it has become quite the weapon in my culinary arsenal (literally). It is massive, sharp, and full of character. My guess is that it is from the early 1900’s, but someone who has experience with old knives will need to give me more information. The blade is raw steel (I am assuming) and the handle is hardwood. The rivets are copper and hand forged. I don’t know if this knife came from Italy with my great grandmother when she traveled here, but it is a possibility.

You should see this thing go through a melon, or slice fatty salumi cleanly (even at room temperature). Even though it is unwieldy it still gets used quite often. I really don’t care that there are large stains on the blade or worry about the raw steel coming in contact with food. Each time I use it I can see and feel the history of this utensil that has been used by my family for generations.

Save your old stuff – and pass it on.

Chicken Cutlets from My Childhood

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Family / Meats
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I am sure that most Italian-Americans have their own recipe for this dish, but the ones my grandmother and mother made were the best by far!

panko bread crumbs for the coating. The finished product is much more crispy than the seasoned breadcrumb from the can that my mother and grandmother used. It is addicting. It is a favorite in my family, something we know the kids are guaranteed to eat. We always serve it with roasted asparagus. I don’t know why, but that is how it is done in the Della Vecchia household.

One last item: try taking some extra left over panko and adding some of the egg mixture until a little patty can be formed. Fry the patties after the cutlets and enjoy.

Ingredients
(makes enough for 4 people – double the recipe for great leftovers)

4 large chicken breast, cut in half evenly and pounded thin
3 eggs
1 cup milk
2 lemons
1/2 cup fresh parsley
grated pecorino cheese
salt
cracked black pepper
Seasoned, dry panko bread crumbs (the best quality you can buy)
Oil for frying

  1. Beat the eggs and add the milk. Chop the parley and add to mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Grate the zest of one lemon and add. Add the cutlets to the egg mixture.
  2. Pour a generous amount of panko in a plate. Grate enough pecorino over the panko as you like (taste the panko for salt levels first, but I use a lot). Zest the other lemon and add to crumbs. Season with cracked black pepper to taste. Mix until thouroughly distributed. Spread out the panko so it is even. Cut the lemons into wedges to use for later on.
  3. In a large saute pan add enough olive oil to come up the sides a bit. Heat on medium high until a bit of panko dropped in the oil start to sizzle.
  4. Take out a cutlet and lay it in the spread out panko. Press it in, and then flip. Press again until the whole outside of the cutlet is covered. Add to the oil and add another two coated cutlets to the pan (or to fit). Fry on one side until golden brown. Flip and repeat. Drain on paper towels, and sprinkle some salt on them as soon as they come out of the oil.
  5. Serve with the lemon wedges.

Pizzarium Style Pizza

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Pizza
Pizzarium Style

Fresh mozzarella, raw zucchini, and guanciale.

Pizzarium, a pizza shop in Rome run by Gabriele Bonci, has become legendary for it’s pan pizza. The dough is made from Molino Marino flour and usually has some amount of ancient grains mixed in, such as spelt or einkorn. His topping combinations are adventurous to say the least. Gabriele teaches classes on how to make this kind of pizza, and I have a post dedicated to the process. It is very easy to make. Try it out.

The duo of pizzas above were made with sliced zucchini, San Marzano tomatoes and guanciale. After the pizza’s were baked, a generous amount of fresh mozzarella and basil were torn apart and distributed. The flour used was Caputo 00.

Polpette: Grandma Josie’s Recipe

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Family / Meats
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These meatballs, made by my paternal grandmother, Josephine, were so coveted that the family would gather by the dozens when they were being served.

Josephine (Romeo) Della Vecchia came from Calabria – the southern tip of Italy. Meatballs, or polpette were common there (and still are) and simple to make. Most likely they were half bread, half meat to extend the protein as a vestige of leaner times. The stunningly delicious recipe she made was passed down  from her mother, and she made batches of 48 when cooking them. Her secret to making the meatballs was lots and lots of pecorino cheese and saving the oil they were cooked in to ladle into the sauce. The only variation I do is replace the dried spices she used with fresh.

The Della Vecchia family

Josephine, John, their daughters Angela (oldest) and Sylvia, and son (my father) Nick.

Traditionally, meatballs in Italy are served as the second course – after pasta – not on top of it like our spaghetti and meatballs. But my family loves them with spaghetti so that is the way I do it. My cousin Grant looked over our grandmother’s shoulder one Sunday in 1989 and meticulously took notes on the recipe, and that is what we have here today.

One word on meatballs and sauce: never sauce them until the last minute. Don’t drop them into a pot of boiling sauce and let them stew. You will lose that beautiful crust they acquired when being fried. Flavor your sauce with the oil the meatballs were cooked in.

If you have a variation to let us know about, feel free to comment!

Ingredients (makes 48 meatballs)

4 pounds ground round (you can also mix in pork if you like).
12 eggs (3/lb)
4 cups of white bread, crust removed, and soaked in milk for a few minutes, then squeezed to get rid of excess moisture (1 cup wet bread/lb)
4 tsp. salt
4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 cups grated pecorino romano cheese (1/2 cup/lb)
olive oil for frying

  1. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add all the spices, garlic, cheese and parsley, and beat thoroughly.
  2. Add in the meat and mix with your hands thoroughly. Add in the soaked bread and mix in thoroughly.
  3. Roll into balls a little bigger than golfballs – 12 per pound.
  4. In a large fry pan cover the bottom of the pan with olive oil.
  5. Fry the meatballs on medium high until they develop a nice crust. Flip over to fry the other side. Cook until the meatballs “stay on a fork”.
  6. When they are finished, move to a plate and drizzle some of the cooking oil over the top of them. Serve alongside pasta with sauce ladled on top of them just before serving.

Frying meatballs

Frying meatballs almost finished

Spaghetti and meatballs

Spring: Spaghetti with Asparagus

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Pasta / Seasonal
spagh_asp

This dish is simple to make and is perfect for spring. A tip when serving a pasta dish with very little condimento (sauce): make sure you boil the pasta in heavily salted water. It should taste like sea water. And be sure to save some of the cooking liquid to splash into the cooked pasta, as the starch will help the sauce come together. I usually do this dish with leftover asparagus.

Ingredients

1 pound of DeCecco spaghetti
1 bunch of asparagus, roasted with salt and oil in the oven at 400 for 10 minutes, until slightly charred.
4 slices guanciale or pancetta, rough chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
pecorino cheese for grating
olive oil
fresh black pepper

  1. Bring a pot of heavily salted water to the boil, and add spaghetti, stirring to prevent sticking. Do not add anything else to the water or break the spaghetti in half.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet swirl some olive oil in the bottom of the pan and add the guanciale (or pancetta). Turn the heat to medium-high and let the pork render down until slightly crispy. Add in garlic and asparagus, stir to let the garlic get golden, then remove from heat. Add in a splash of cooking liquid from the pasta.
  3. When the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving some cooking liquid. Turn the heat to high on the sauce pan, and add the pasta to it, stirring to soak up the liquid. Add more splashes of liquid if needed.
  4. When the pasta looks shiny and glistening, after a few minutes of stirring, plate immediately. Grate pecorino and grind black pepper to taste.

Spring: Strawberry Preserves

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Preserving / Seasonal
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Spring means fresh strawberries, and one of the best ways to enjoy them long after they are picked is to preserve them.

I am huge fan of preserving in-season fruits. The process is really easy to do and the rewards are very satisfying. All you need is some freshly picked fruit, sugar, and some canning jars. If you don’t want to deal with processing jars in boiling water, do what I do: put the packed jars in a 200 degree F. oven for 10 minutes and you are done.

If you are going to preserve strawberries take a trip to your local berry picking farm and pick them yourself. It will cost a little more but you are guaranteed super fresh fruit, which will translate into a better final product. Most farms spray berries heavily with pesticides, so really look for an organic one. You don’t want to to feed that poison to your family, do you? Of course not.

This will yield about 6 half pint jars. The result is a spread that is bursting with strawberry flavor, nicely sweet, and very slightly tart. You will need:

4 pounds fresh, medium strawberries, whole, cored
4 cups sugar
2 lemons, zest removed with a micro plane and fully juiced
reserved pits from lemon

  1. Set the oven to 200 degrees F., and place the jar in the oven. Boil the lids in a small pot filled with water, then remove from heat.
  2. Place the lemon pits in a cheesecloth and tie to create a pouch.
  3. Mix together the sugar, zest, and juice in a large, wide pot, and then add the strawberries. Mix to combine and put the heat to high. Add the lemon pit pouch.
  4. Crush the berries gently with a wooden spoon as it comes to a boil, stirring often. When it gets to a rolling boil, back the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes. Continue simmering and get the temp to 218 degrees, or when the bubbles start to look very small. Be very careful not to let the bottom burn.
  5. Put a dollop of the preserves on a frozen plate, then put back in the freezer for a minute or two. It should not flow back on itself when you run your finger through it. This is the gel stage. Don’t over reduce the mixture or it will solidify too much in the jars. Once you are at the gel stage, remove from the heat and work quickly on the next step.
  6. Ladle into the hot, sterilized jars, hand-tighten the lids, place on a sheet pan, and put back in the 200 degree F. oven for 10 minutes. If you don’t want to process, let the jars cool and just put it in the fridge. It will keep for a few weeks or more. The finished product will be jelled but flow nicely for spreading.