Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Favorite Ingredients: How to make a meal out of next to nothing

Porcini mushrooms

We had a visit from our young man of the mountains the other day. Gianluca, who takes care of harvesting our chestnuts, came by to discuss this year's crop. He brought along some wild porcini mushrooms that he had gathered himself. I have seen porcinis for sale at small stands along the side of the road, but hadn't stopped to buy any, so I was thrilled with this little gift.
After Gianluca left, I set to work fixing this treat and getting the rest of our meal ready. My two brothers in law had popped in for a visit so I was scrambling to put together a decent pranzo. First I made up a pot of pasta e piselli, a hearty soup made by cooking up some peas in a broth seasoned with tomatoes, celery leaves, hot pepper flakes and then pasta cooked in the same broth. It's a real peasant style starter course.
After that I grilled up a couple of steaks that I had defrosted in the microwave. These were served with the porcinis, that were sauteed up with a couple of thinly sliced onions. The combination is delicious and even my tough to please brothers in law were happy with their lunch. Dessert consisted of some ice cold slices of watermelon, the first we have had this season. It was sweet and cold, the perfect melon, except for the incredible number of seeds. I have become spoiled after all these years of seedless fruits in the US. In Europe, they are very suspicious of seedless fruit. After all, if there are no seeds, where does the next crop of fruit come from? Good question!
So, many thanks to Gianluca for his wonderful contribution to my last minute meal. I look forward to many more visits with this nice young man!

Fresh tomato sauce

Everyone is convinced that all Italians love the hearty red sauce that comes after hours of simmering tomatoes with sausage, braciole, meatballs etc. But in reality, what we really appreciate more than anything is a quick sauce made up with the simplest of ingredients; fresh pomodorini, olive oil, a little salt and some fresh basil.
Whenever I am at a loss as to what to fix for a quick meal, this is a go-to option. First, I put a pot of water on to boil. Then I take some pomodorini (cherry or grape style tomatoes), slice them in half, toss them into a little saucepan with some olive oil and let them cook. If they aren't real juicy I will add a little bit of water to them as they cook down. Salt to taste. By the time the pasta is cooked, the tomatoes are ready to go. Toss them all together and top with some torn up basil leaves, some pecorino cheese and maybe another little drizzle of olive oil. It is done in 10 minutes and there is nothing more satisfying! Buon appetito.
Sometimes when I make this sauce in the States, I am disappointed by the outcome. It all comes down to the tomatoes! When they are fresh, local and perfect, the sauce will be too. Remember, sometimes the simplest dishes are the best!
I just reread this little piece and realized that I included myself as an Italian. I guess the move here has made me rethink my heritage. This is a far cry from the swamp Yankee upbringing I had! Who would have thought that this is where this descendant of a Mayflower pilgrim would have ended up?

Fusilli with green beans, potato and pesto

A few years ago I read a recipe that intrigued me in the New York Times. It called for pasta, potatoes, green beans and odd combination of ingredients. I have made it a couple of times over the years and it is always a nice change of pace.
Carlo, our fruttivendolo, had some lovely green beans on his truck today. I had just purchased a jar of pesto yesterday at the market so I knew immediately what I would be making for lunch. I put a pot of water on to boil and into it I put the green beans that I had snapped and broken into bite size pieces, and a couple of small potatoes that I had peeled and diced. When the salted water came to a boil I added 1/2 pound of fusilli pasta. The whole thing cooked for about 13 minutes. When it was drained (I did hold back 1/4 cup of pasta water to thin things down a bit), I added 1/2 small jar of the pesto, some fresh chopped basil leaves and a little dash of olive oil. I topped it with some pecorino cheese.
This is a very different dish, but it is so tasty and satisfying. If Carlo keeps stocking those beans, we may be seeing this for lunch again!

As a child, I never liked olives. They were so salty and bitter; the green ones had those slimy little pimentos in them, the black ones tasted like the can they came in. Who would want to eat those nasty little things.
Now, olives are a part of almost every meal. We are lucky to have markets near by where the olives are sweet, meaty and wonderful. I only buy the "white" olives, which is how the green olives are called in Italian.
We go to the counter and ask for a kilo of olives. The clerk takes a big scoop and dips it into the vat of olives, pours them into a plastic bag and pops them on the scale. I always ask for "un assaggio", a taste, just to make sure that they are still good. After they are weighed, the clerk adds some more liquid, ties up the bag and pops it into another plastic bag. Now they are ready to dress up our salads and cheese platters.
We have searched for olives that can match these beauties at home in the states, to no avail. So, we'll pack some up for our return trip and ration them out a few at a time. These are too good to miss!

Mozzarella di buffala
Do you remember the mozzarella that we used to buy in the supermarket? Those bricks of rubbery cheese that were dry and tasteless? Who would have thought that mozzarella could be moist, flavorful and a meal in and of itself?
We are now able to get pseudo- mozzarella in the states, and it is certainly better than the pre-packaged stuff, but in no way can it compare to the fresh mozzarella di buffala that is only available in the Campania region. It is moist, rich and with a unique and wonderful flavor. Once you've tried it, it's tough to go back to to the old stuff.
In our region, family wars can break out over where to buy the mozzarella. You bought at Caputo's instead of Schiavone's? Are you crazy? At Nanni's they throw in a free fresh ricotta if you buy a kilo of mozzarella, but the mozzarella isn't as fresh as the ones at Diana's.
Freshness is key when buying and eating mozzarella di buffala. If it's still warm from the cooking, that is when it's the best. Once it's a few hours old, it's OK, but is past its prime. If it's a day old, it's really only good for cooking. Of course for those of us who don't have the luxury of fresh mozzarella every day, the best we can hope for is that which is packed in Styrofoam boxes and stuffed into suitcases brought home by relatives who have been in Italy. It's not the best, but it's wonderful to have even a shadow of the taste of the original product.
So, now that we are here for the long term, we are taking advantage of the mozzarella that is readily available. At least twice a week we head to our caseificio to pick up a couple of balls of the creamy white cheese. I make up a tomato salad with some sweet green olives, cut a couple of chunks of good fresh bread and dinner is served! It's a perfect go-to meal and is always sure to please.

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