Saturday, February 7, 2009

Italian Food

When I first became seriously interested in food I was a devotee of Julia Child and French cuisine. She introduced fine cooking in the French style in her first book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That tome is as fresh and exciting to read and cook out of today as it was trendsetting when it was introduced in 1961. Every serious cook should have a copy of at least Volume 1 on their bookshelf.

However, over the years I tended to cook more in the Italian style than French, and I think purchasing my first pasta machine was the catalyst for my conversion. That was in the early 1970s when we were living on a small homestead indulging in a diversified agricultural experience raising everything from goats, chickens, ducks, sheep, pigs and a cow to fruits and vegetables of all kinds. We made our own cheese, churned butter, raised veal and pigs for slaughter, put down barrels of cider and cured bacons and hams. We wanted to make everything from scratch, so we scrapped up $35 and bought a pasta rolling machine. (Today I want to roll out the dough by hand, but that’s another article).

The Italian cookbook that inspired me was Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook published in 1973. She emphasized local, seasonal ingredients and simple recipe construction that matched the Italian approach to meals of a primo, or first course such as pasta or risotto, followed by a secondo, or second course, usually the protein course consisting of meat, poultry or fish, with a contorno, or side dish like a cooked vegetable or salad.

While I followed Marcella’s recipes and loved the food, it was only while visiting Italy that I realized what Italian cuisine is all about. In Italy the past is a part of the present. They have a long culture stretching back for centuries, and for much of those years Italy was a series of towns and valleys that developed regional traditions and recipes based on what was locally available. In their food, their art, their way of life, they honor past traditions while carrying forward recipes and food preparation techniques that are rooted to the land and the sea. Everywhere one travels in Italy, small gardens and backyard food raising operations are common. Game is still a source of local recipes and local fish proliferate, both fresh and salt water, depending on the region. Many people forage for wild vegetables and mushrooms, and all the good truffle grounds are long ago spoken for.

One goes to the market every day, not a supermarket, but to the bread store, the fruits and vegetable store, the butcher’s or fishmonger’s or pasta maker’s store. One purchases items that are “nostrano” which literally means “local,” but is derived from “nostro” or “ours.” I always shopped as early as possible, as Italians are looking for the best of whatever is offered, so the earlier one arrives, the better chance of finding something truly unique.

Pride in local products is central to the Italian experience, so if you get a chance to visit there, do so, and enjoy the different pace of life as well as the truly delicious food that literally is everywhere.

There are lots of recipes for Sauce Bol0gnese, but here's one I've been using lately, an adaptation of a recipe by Anne Burrell, with whom I cooked in New York city.

Sauce Bolognese

* 1 large onion or 2 small, cut into 1-inch dice
* 2 large carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
* 3 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch dice
* 4 cloves garlic
* Extra-virgin olive oil, for the pan
* Kosher salt
* 3 pounds ground chuck, brisket or round or combination
* 2 cups tomato paste
* 3 cups hearty red wine
* Water
* 2 cups milk
* 1 cup heavy cream
* 3 bay leaves
* 1 bunch thyme, tied in a bundle
* 1 pound spaghetti
* 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
* High quality extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing

In a food processor, puree onion, carrots, celery, and garlic into a coarse paste. In a large pan over medium heat, coat pan with oil. Add the pureed veggies and season generously with salt. Bring the pan to a medium-high heat and cook until all the water has evaporated and they become nice and brown, stirring frequently, about 15 to 20 minutes. Be patient, this is where the big flavors develop.

Add the ground beef and season again generously with salt. BROWN THE BEEF! Brown food tastes good. Don't rush this step. Cook another 15 to 20 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and cook until brown about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the red wine. Cook until the wine has reduced by half, another 4 to 5 minutes.

Add water to the pan until the water is about 1 inch above the meat. Toss in the bay leaves and the bundle of thyme and stir to combine everything. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally. As the water evaporates you will gradually need to add more, about 2 to 3 cups at a time. Don't be shy about adding water during the cooking process, you can always cook it out. This is a game of reduce and add more water. This is where big rich flavors develop. If you try to add all the water in the beginning you will have boiled meat sauce rather than a rich, thick meaty sauce. Stir and TASTE frequently. Season with salt, if needed (you probably will). Simmer for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. About 1 1/2 hours before the end, add the milk in place of the water. The last 30 minutes add the cream.

During the last 30 minutes of cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat to cook the spaghetti. Pasta water should ALWAYS be well salted. Salty as the ocean! TASTE IT! If your pasta water is under seasoned it doesn't matter how good your sauce is, your complete dish will always taste under seasoned. When the water is at a rolling boil add the spaghetti and cook for 1 minute less than it calls for on the package. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.

While the pasta is cooking remove 1/2 of the ragu from the pot and reserve.

Drain the pasta and add to the pot with the remaining ragu. Stir or toss the pasta to coat with the sauce. Add some of the reserved sauce, if needed, to make it about an even ratio between pasta and sauce. Add the reserved pasta cooking water and cook the pasta and sauce together over a medium heat until the water has reduced. Turn off the heat and give a big sprinkle of Parmigiano and a generous drizzle of the high quality finishing olive oil. Toss or stir vigorously. Divide the pasta and sauce into serving bowls or 1 big pasta bowl. Top with remaining grated Parmigiano. Serve immediately.

A summer classic is basil pesto. While I made some pesto with store bought basil, because it does give us a hint of spring when we eat it, I believe that the summer basil that we grow in our garden, coupled with our own garlic, makes a better sauce. The recipe is the same for winter or summer basil.


3 cups fresh basil (2 to 2.5 oz)
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or walnuts)
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
2-3 tablespoons Percorino Romano cheese, grated

Place the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Puree the basil and other ingredients and slowly drizzle in the olive oil until a slurry develops. Remove the slurry to a boil and stir in the cheeses to thicken the sauce. If not using right away, place in a small bowl and cover completely with olive oil so the pesto retains in bright green color. Otherwise it will turn black on the top. When ready to use, stir in the oil and spoon over pasta, use on a sandwich or whatever.

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