Panna cotta all’arancia e pistacchio di Bronte

Panna cotta all'arancia e pistacchi di BronteSome days, I tell Stefano that I might just drop everything and become a pastry chef.  Specifically, an Italian pastry chef.  A pasticciere.

There’s truly nothing more spectacular, in our humble opinion, than Italian pastries and desserts.  Delicate, nuanced flavors; simple, natural ingredients; satisfying, but not decadent or overdone.

In Rome, pasticcerie (pastry shops or bakeries) are filled with cream filled pastarelle , or their smaller counterpart, the mignon.  Around breakfast time, you’ll find the classic Roman maritozzi alla panna.  In addition to cream-filled pastries, there is also a lovely assortment of fragrant and delicate choices in the pasticceria secca, like these.  However, on recent trips back to Italy, in Rome and across the country we noted a resurgence of dolci al cucchiaio in the pasticcerie that we visited.  Dolci al cucchiaio are that category of desserts that includes custards, puddings, mousse and so forth, which are enjoyed with a spoon, or cucchiaio.

Panna cotta is an Italian classic that belongs to this category.  It’s as simple as its name suggests: panna means cream, and cotta means cooked.  Cooked cream, a little sugar, a vanilla bean for flavor, and a bit of gelatin to hold it together.  Panna cotta originates from the Piedmont region of Italy, where rich cream is a staple.  It is traditionally served with a caramel, chocolate or mixed berry sauce.  However, many creative variations exist.  We were enticed by this version with an orange sauce and Sicilian Bronte pistachios, as the flavors evoked our recent trip to Sicily.

Ingredients
Makes 6 individual servings

For the Panna Cotta
500 grams (half a liter, 1 pint, or 16 oz) of heavy cream
100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
1 vanilla bean
Zest of one orange
10 grams of gelatin sheets, like these.  For us, 10 grams was two sheets.  But, it’s best to weigh them to be sure.

For the Orange Sauce
Juice of one orange
100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
1 Tablespoon water

For Decoration
A sprinkling of ground pistachios, ideally Sicilian Bronte pistachios

Also
You will need panna cotta molds of some sort.  We improvised with a silicone brioche mold, which we cut into individual molds.  However, any small dish or cup will work.

Panna cotta all'arancia con pistacchi di Bronte

Directions
Submerge the gelatin sheets in a pan of cold water, and let sit.  Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and add it, along with the cream and sugar, to a small pan.  Zest your orange and add the zest to the cream mixture.  Gently bring it to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.  When it boils, remove from heat.  Remove the gelatin sheets from water one by one, wring the excess water off of them, and add each sheet to the cream.  Stir until the gelatin dissolves completely into the cream mixture.

Carefully pour the cooked cream into your molds, and then refrigerate for at least two hours, or longer.

While the cooked cream is cooling in the refrigerator, prepare the orange sauce.  Place the sugar into a small saucepan, and then add water.  Without stirring, place over low heat.  While the sugar heats and dissolves into the water, juice your two oranges, ensuring that pulp and seeds are filtered out.  Once the sugar has completely dissolved, add the orange juice.  The addition of the orange juice will cause the sugar to crystallize.  Turn the heat to its lowest setting and stir until the sugar again dissolves.  Remove from heat, and let cool to room temperature.

When the panna cotta is ready, carefully turn it out of its mold onto a small serving plate.  This is the hardest part, as sometimes it doesn’t cooperate.  Some advise to run the bottom of the mold quickly under hot water, or to apply a hot, damp cloth to help it come out.  Ours came out of the silicon molds with little trouble, but if you run into difficulty turning out the panna cotta, you may wish to just serve it in its container.

A properly cooked panna cotta will jiggle a bit on its plate.  Drizzle the orange sauce over the top of each panna cotta, and finish with a dusting of pistachio.  If you wish, garnish with a thin orange slice.

Panna cotta all'arancia e pistacchi di BrontePanna cotta all'arancia e pistacchi di Bronte

 

 

 

La pasta al forno di Nonna Pierina (Nonna Pierina’s Oven-Baked Pasta)

Nonna Pierina was, among many things, a very good cook.

Pasta al forno

Pierina was was born in 1922 into a poor, farming family in Piglio, a small village in the Apennine mountains about 50 kilometers east of Rome.

PiglioShe married Nonno Mario in 1943,  wearing a simple dress and home-made shoes constructed of cardboard, which unfortunately did not hold together in the rain that fell.  World War II arrived a few years later and Nonno Mario was often away, having joined other pro-Ally partigiani, partisan fighters in the Italian Resistance Movement opposed to the occupying German forces and the Italian Fascist regime.

During that period of hardship, when food was scarce and medicine was simply unavailable, Nonna Pierina lost her first two children during their infancy.  Later, she was blessed with the birth of two daughters, Stefano’s mother Maria, and his aunt Ivana.  In the early 1960s, when Maria was nearly a teenager, Pierina and Mario moved to the outskirts of Rome, and began life in the city.

Nonna Pierina

All along, Nonna Pierina cooked.  Her style was simple and rustic.  She made homemade fettuccine and gnocchi and dressed the with a simple ragù, or a with a sauce made with the wild fowl and game that Mario hunted.  She knew how to identify edible forest mushrooms and made sauce with those, too.  She knew all of the field greens native to her birthplace, like cicoria, cime di rape, ramoracce, and others that would require a field guide to identify and translate, and could cook them up like none other.  Later, when she and Mario bought a small plot of land in the pianura pontina, reclaimed marshlands about a kilometer away from the Mediterranean Sea south of Rome, she gathered snails and cooked them in a savory sauce.

pasta al forno

On special occasions, Nonna Pierina prepared pasta al forno.  There are tens of hundreds of baked pasta recipes across Italy, but hers was special.  She always used rigatoni, enriched her meat sauce with peas, and added pieces of hard boiled egg and prosciutto cotto (ham) along with the usual mozzarella and parmigiano.  It was always baked perfectly, with a crisp and chewy top.      

Ingredients
For the sauce
Two 28 0z. cans of whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 and 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 medium carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 of a medium yellow onion
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bag frozen peas, 1 lb or 500 g
Salt to taste

Also
Rigatoni, one box
Deli ham, approximately 1/2 lb, or 250 grams
4 hard-boiled eggs
2 ovoline of fresh mozzarella, in water (one tub)
1 cup grated Parmigiano*
A large baking dish

*Buy a wedge of real Parmigiano Reggiano, and grate it finely.  Alternatively, you can use pre-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, sometimes sold in tubs.  Bags of Parmesan sold in supermarkets are typically not authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, and please no green Kraft shaker parmesan!

Directions
Prepare the sauce
Chop the carrot, celery and onion and put them in a saucepan along with the olive oil.  Sauté over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until the onion becomes translucent.  Add the ground beef, along with salt to taste.  Allow the ground beef to brown slowly, stirring frequently so that the beef crumbles and cooks finely.  Add the tomatoes, preferably passing them through a food mill to produce a smooth sauce.  Bring to a simmer, and then add the white wine. Cook uncovered for 45 minutes or more at a low simmer, stirring occasionally. If the sauce should thicken too much, a small amount of water can be added. When done, remove from heat, allow to cool slightly.  While still warm, taste for salt and add if needed. Set aside.

Prepare the cheeses, egg and ham
While the sauce is cooking, drain the mozzarella and cut it into small pieces, place it into a bowl and set it aside.  If your parmigiano is not grated, do so now and set aside.  Cut the hard boiled egg into small pieces, place the egg into a bowl, and set aside.  Do the same for the ham.

Cook the rigatoni
Bring a large pot of water to boil, toss in a handful of salt, and cook the pasta for slightly more than half of the cooking time specified for al dente  on the box.  Drain the pasta well, then return it to the pot.  Stir in a few ladles of sauce, to keep it from sticking.

pasta al forno

Assemble and Bake
Arrange your workspace so that the sauce, pasta, cheeses, egg and ham are within easy reach of your baking pan.  Preheat the oven to 180° C, or 350° F.  Using a ladle, spoon a shallow layer of sauce at the bottom of the pan.  Add a layer of rigatoni, and cover again with sauce.  Add 1/3 of the egg, ham, mozzarella and parmigiano.  Add another layer of rigatoni, cover again with sauce, and then again add  another 1/3 of the egg, ham, mozzarella and parmigiano.  Repeat for one final layer.

pasta al fornopasta al forno

Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes, until the cheeses on top are brown and the rigatoni on top is crispy.  Allow the pasta al forno to sit for 15 minutes before serving.  If you prefer, the assembled pasta al forno can be frozen unbaked.  Allow it to thaw before baking.

Tip: use a kitchen scissors to cut through the top layer of cheese and pasta, and then use a spatula or a knife to cut through to the bottom or the pan.

Maritozzi con la panna

La brioche con la panna a cui nessun romano può rinunciare. 

The whipped cream-filled brioche that no Roman can renounce.

Maritozzo con la Panna

This bold declaration greeted us on a giant sign hung on the wall in the pasticceria, directly across from the enormous glass pastry case filled with delectable Italian pastries.  We were at Eataly Roma, the high-end, all-Italian food emporium located in the formerly abandoned, space-age looking Air Terminal building near the Ostiense train station.

eataly-front

Originally founded in Turin, Eataly now has 11 locations across Italy, including in Milan, Genova, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Bari.  The forthcoming opening of a second Rome location in Piazza della Repubblica was recently announced, appropriately taking over a McDonald’s space.  Internationally, Eataly is present in Dubai, Istanbul, and at three locations across Japan.  Here in the states, Eataly emporiums can be found in Chicago and New York.  The American branch of Eataly is owned by Italian-American food giants Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich.

Eataly combines the high quality and authenticity that small neighborhood Italian food shops and eateries are known for, with the convenience and scale of modern mega-stores.  Occupying tens of thousands of square meters over multiple floors, each Eataly boasts a wine store, a beer garden, a pastry shop, a gelateria and several restaurants along with fish, meat and vegetable markets and a grocery store with everything that one might need.

Since we were in Rome, Eataly’s pasticceria featured the traditional roman pastry maritozzo con la panna,  perfectly executed by guest pasticcere Luca Montersino, Italy’s most famous celebrity pastry chef.  Proving the proclamation true, Stefano did not hesitate to order a maritozzo con la panna and eat it right there.

Maritozzi con la pannaMaritozzi are fragrant, sweet-dough buns sliced in half and stuffed with smooth, fresh whipped cream.  They are a staple in Rome’s pasticcerie, and commonly found during the breakfast hours in coffee bars around the Eternal City.  When Stefano was a little boy, on special occasions his parents would bring maritozzi con la panna home from their favorite neighborhood pastry shop.  Sometimes, when Stefano joined his father Andrea for a morning caffè at the bar, Andrea would let him have a maritozzo.

Some traditional Roman maritozzi recipes call for sultans, pine nuts and candied orange peel.  We prefer a simple sweet dough recipe with only orange zest providing a mild citrus flavor, just like those that Stefano recalls from his childhood.

Maritozzi con la panna

Ingredients
For the brioche
Flour, 250 grams (1 and 3/4 cup) plus extra for kneading.
Sugar, 50 grams (1/4 cup)
Salt, 1 pinch
Water, 125 ml (1/2 cup) warm
Active Dry Yeast, 6 grams (2 tsp.)
Malted Milk, 1 heaping teaspoon (or substitute honey)
Butter, 40 grams (3 Tbsp), softened and cubed
Egg, 1, yolk separated from the white
Zest of one orange

For the sugar glaze
Water, 50 ml (1/2 cup)
Sugar, 75 grams (3/8 cup)

For the filling
Heavy Whipping Cream, 500 ml (2 cups)
Sugar, 5o grams (1/4 cup)

 

Directions
Stir the yeast in the warm (not hot) water until dissolved.  Add the malted milk and stir until dissolved.  Set aside.  Measure the flour, sugar and salt  into a medium bowl.  Stir together.  Form a well in the center and add the butter, egg yolk and orange zest.  Slowly add the liquid, mixing with a fork to gradually incorporate the flour mixture from the inside out.

Maritozzi con la pannaWhen all of the liquid has been added and the dry mixture incorporated, remove the dough from the bowl and turn it out onto a smooth, lightly floured surface.  Knead gently for 5 minutes until it forms a smooth, round ball.

Maritozzi con la pannaSprinkle a bit of flour inside a smaller bowl, place the dough inside and cover it loosely with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise in a warm location for at least 2 hours.

Maritozzi con la pannaMaritozzi con la panna

After two hours, add a sprinkle of flour to your work surface and turn your dough back out onto it.  Divide your dough into 6 equal small, oval (or football shaped) buns.  We used our food scale to ensure that they were equal sized.  Place the buns onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes.

Maritozzi con la panna

Beat the egg white lightly with a fork.  Uncover the buns and reshape into ovals if needed.  Use a pastry brush to Carefully brush the buns with egg white.  Cover once again with plastic wrap and let rise for one hour more.

Maritozzi con la panna

Bake at 180º C, 350º F for approximately 20 minutes, until the maritozzi are a deep golden brown on top.

While the maritozzi are baking, prepare the sugar glaze.  Heat water until almost a boil, and then turn off the heat.  Add the sugar and let dissolve, stirring just once or twice.  Let cool.

When the maritozzi are done, remove them from the oven and while still hot, brush them with the sugar glaze.  Let cool.

Maritozzi con la panna

While the maritozzi are cooling, whip the cream together with the sugar to firm peaks.

When the maritozzi are completely cool, slice into them diagonally without cutting all the way through.  If helpful, moisten your fingers and hold each maritozzo carefully at its base, to avoid the sugar glaze sticking to your fingers and pulling pieces of the brioche away.

Using a pastry spatula, open up the “mouth” of each maritozzo and fill it with whipped cream, using the spatula to create a smooth edge, and a moistened paper towel to wipe away any extra whipped cream.

Enjoy as a decadent, Roman-style breakfast or with your afternoon espresso as a special treat.

Maritozzi con la pannaMaritozzi con la panna

Filetto in crosta with 2011 Cuvée Arlette from Lauren Ashton Cellars

What a delight one recent afternoon when, there amidst the clutter in my inbox, was a note from Kimberly of Lauren Ashton Cellars, a small, boutique winery in Washington state.  Kimberly explained, “We have just started distribution in Minnesota and are hoping to spread the word. I see that you’re based out of Minneapolis and am wondering if you would be open to a collaboration of sorts?”

Image from laurenashtoncellars.com

Image from laurenashtoncellars.com

Several emails and a phone call later, after weather delays due to the cold in Minneapolis and extra insulation around the package to ensure that the foil and cork seals would not be compromised by the low temperatures, a bottle of 2011 Cuvée Arlette from Lauren Ashton Cellars in Woodinville, Washington was delivered via UPS on a Saturday morning.

Lauren Ashton arrival notice

The bottle was placed to rest in Stefano’s cellar, after confirming its safe arrival with Kimberly and Bill, Lauren Ashton’s Tasting Studio Manager, who so diligently orchestrated the wine’s cross-country voyage from Washington to Minnesota.

Lauren Ashton Cellars

While we carefully considered pairings and waited for the right weekend to cook and blog about it, we learned more about Lauren Ashton, this Washington state winery whose curators contacted us out of the blue and offered us a bottle of their divine 2011 Cuvée Arlette, which boats a 94-point rating from Wine Enthusiast magazine and is worth every penny of its $50 price tag.

Image from laurenashtoncellars.com

Image from laurenashtoncellars.com

Lauren Ashton Cellars is a newer winery, founded in 2009 by Kit Singh, a dentist by profession with a passion for wine.  The winery is named after his two children, Ashley Lauren and Ashton Troy.  Drawing from his wife Riinu’s Estonian heritage while honoring local pacific northwestern style, Singh quickly produced top-rated wines that blended Old World tradition with Washington state character.

The gifted 2011 Cuvée Arlette intrigued and challenged us.  Its tasting notes state: Cuvée Arlette is a dark and luxurious blend of Merlot (49%), Cabernet Franc (29%), Cabernet Sauvignon (19.5%), and Petit Verdot (2.5%) sourced from the Columbia Valley AVA. It exhibits aromatics of raspberry, black currants, cocoa, and caramel with hints of spiciness and minerality. The tannin structure is focused and elegant. 

The wine’s classic Bordeaux blend recalls an Italian Super Tuscan.  It is a complex, strong wine that desires a robust pairing.  We knew we needed a meat dish, but realized that this wine deserves something nuanced.  Anyone can grill a steak and pair it with a powerful red.  We wanted to create a dish with sophisticated flavors that would capture the elegance of the Cuvée Arlette.  We decided on a filetto in crosta – beef tenderloin wrapped in mushrooms, truffle oil and proscuitto crudo, enveloped in a pastry crust, baked until golden brown.

Filetto in Crosta with 2011 Cuvée Arlette

It worked.  The wine and the filetto balanced each other perfectly.  The flavors of mushroom and truffle were subtle enough to compliment the tenderloin, yet the sum of the parts of this dish were mature enough to stand up to, and exalt, this structured, sophisticated wine.

Filetto in crosta

Ingredients

Beef tenderloin; 1 and 1/2 lb or approximately 650-700 grams
Prosciutto crudo; 7 ounces or approximately 200 grams
Mushrooms; mixed varieties of your choice,  32 ounces or approximately 1 Kilo
Butter; 2 Tbls. or approximately 30 grams
Olive oil; 6 Tablespoons
Garlic; 2 cloves
Dry white wine; 1/2 cup
Truffle oil; two or three dashes, to taste
Puff pastry; one box (two sheets), or enough to cover the tenderloin
Eggs yolks; from 4 large eggs
Salt; to taste

Directions

  • If your puff pastry is frozen, set it out to thaw.  Preheat the oven to 350° F, or 180° C.
  • Chop the mushrooms into small pieces.  Add the butter, 3 Tablespoons of olive oil, and mushrooms to a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Once the butter is melted, add the mushrooms.  Let the mushrooms cook until their liquid has almost cooked off.  Add the wine, and again allow the liquid to cook off, adding salt to taste.  Set the mushrooms aside to cool.

Filetto di Crosta

  • Add the remaining 3 Tablespoons of olive oil to a skillet.  Heat until sizzling over medium heat.  Sear the tenderloin on all sides for about 20 minutes, adding salt as you turn.  Remove from heat and let cool.

Filetto di CrostaFiletto di Crosta

  • Lay out your prosciutto onto a cutting board so that it is ready to wrap around the tenderloin.
  • Blitz the mushrooms in a food processor along with the truffle oil until it becomes a paste.
  • Spread a layer of mushroom paste over the prosciutto crudo, and set the tenderloin on top of it.  Spread the remaining mushroom paste over the sides and top of the tenderloin.  Cove the tenderloin with the remaining prosciutto.

Filetto di CrostaFiletto di CrostaFiletto di crosta

  • Beat together the egg yolks and set aside.
  • Sprinkle flour onto a large cutting board or working surface, and place one sheet of puff pasty on top of it.  Sprinkle more flour onto the puff pastry, and roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch, or 3 mm, thick.  Repeat the procedure for a second sheet of puff pastry.
  • Set the mushroom and prosciutto covered tenderloin on top of one of the pastry sheets.  With the second pastry sheet cover the tenderloin, wrapping the top sheet over the meat.

Filetto di crosta

  • Using a pastry brush, spread beaten egg yolk along the base of the bottom sheet of the puff pastry, where the top sheet touches.  Trim any remaining puff pastry, leaving 1/2 inch, or 1.25 cm, extra on top and bottom.  Pinch the top and bottom pastry sheets together to seal well.
  • Brush the entire pastry-wrapped tenderloin with egg yolk.  If you wish, cut 8 thin strips of puff pastry and arrange them lattice style over the tenderloin for decoration.  Brush again with egg yolk.

Filetto di crostaFiletto di crosta

  • Place the filetto in crosta onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake at 350° F, or 180° C for 30 minutes.  Remove from over and let sit for 20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to be reabsorbed.

Filetto di crostaFiletto di crosta

Serve with a bottle of 2011 Cuvée Arlette. 

Local Due Spaghetti readers, ask for Lauren Ashton’s Cuvée Arlette in your local liquor store and wine shops.  It’s distributed by Small Lot, MN.

Disclosure: Lauren Ashton Cellars provided a bottle of 2011 Cuvée Arlette free of charge for our sampling.  Cara and Stefano of Due Spaghetti received no other compensation or incentives for writing this blog post.  We share our impressions with our readers willingly and with pleasure, but not for profit or personal gain.

Bucatini all’amatriciana

Se magna pè campà, no’ pe’ crepà. One cannot always renounce good food, especially Stefano’s bucatini all’amatriciana.

l'amatricianaAs Romans, we were appalled to discover recently that Due Spaghetti was missing a recipe for l’amatriciana, one of Rome’s three quintessential pasta dishes, along with cacio e pepe and la carbonara.   Che vergogna.  How embarrassing.

Ironically, there is a debate around whether l’amatriciana even originates in Rome.  Some maintain that it comes from the city of Amatrice, located near the border between Lazio and Abruzzo.  There are also variations on its name – some dropping the “a” and simply calling it matriciana, as was the case in Stefano’s childhood home in Rome. Regardless of it’s history, it’s a Roman classic now, on the menu of every traditional osteria and trattoria in the Eternal city.

There are a few rules about l’amatriciana that simply cannot be broken.

  • No onions and no garlic.  Don’t you dare.  Actually, some do use one or the other, but the original recipe calls for neither.
  • Use guanciale, not pancettaGuanciale is an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks. Its name is derived from guancia, Italian for cheek.  This is why you don’t need onion or garlic – you get all the flavor you need from the guanciale.  Check your local Italian deli for guanciale, or order it online.
  • The only acceptable pasta to accompany l’amatriciana are bucatini, spaghetti or rigatoni.  We’re not sure why this is important, but it is.  Bucatini are our favorite – a thick spaghetti with a hollow center, known as the buco or hole.
  • Top with pecorino, not parmigiano.

For a truly authentic experience, enjoy your amatriciana with a glass of red table wine from Lazio such as Roma, from Castello di Torre in Pietra, a blend of Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Cesanese grapes.  You may even want to play some traditional Roman music, like this.

l'amatriciana

Ingredients
(Serves 4)

Guanciale
Whole canned tomatoes (approx. 1 kg or 28 oz), preferably San Marzano
Olive oil
Half a glass of dry white wine
Red chile pepper flakes
Salt
One package (approx. 500g or 16 oz.) bucatini.  (Or, substitute spaghetti or rigatoni)
Pecorino

l'amatriciana

Directions
Dice the guanciale into pieces of approximately .5 cm (1/4 inch) thick, 2.5 cm (1 inch) long.  Set aside.

Fill a medium size pot with water, and put on heat to bring to a boil.
Pass the canned tomatoes through a food mill to eliminate seeds and pulp.  If you don’t have a food mill, blend the tomatoes in a blender to render it smooth and free of chunks.

Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a large skillet over medium heat.  Once the oil is hot, add the guanciale.  After a few minutes, add red pepper flakes to taste.  When the guanciale takes on a golden brown color, add half a glass of white wine, and let it cook off.

l'amatriciana

Add the tomatoes, and salt to taste.  Let cook for 10-15 minutes until the sauce thickens and takes on a deep red color.

l'amatriciana

In the meanwhile, when the water boils, toss a handful of salt into the water and add the bucatini.  Cook to al dente according to the directions on the package.

When cooked, drain the pasta well, and then add it to the skillet with the sauce.  Stir together over low heat.  Serve hot with pecorino grated on top.

l'amatricianaQuando se magna e se beve semo tutti uguali.  When we eat and we drink, we are all equals.

l'amatriciana

Pollo alla romana (Roman-style chicken)

Pollo alla romanaToday’s post is for my friend and colleague Julius, who cooks for his lovely wife Alexis on Thursdays. I promised him more chicken recipes on Due Spaghetti, as he’s already cooked his way through pollo alla cacciatora, pollo alle olive and pollo alla griglia.  (What is it with guys and chicken, anyway?)

It’s also a tribute to men everywhere who cook, care for children, fold the laundry, and vacuum the rugs.  Many an Italian man lifts not even a finger at home, but I’m fortunate that Stefano is among the enlightened ones. I’m also lucky that he is masterful at preparing chicken, evoking the methods and flavors he recalls as a child, when his mother would butcher a pollo ruspante, or free-range chicken, and cook it on the stove top.  It was one of Stefano’s favorite dishes, and one he still he requests when he returns home to Rome.

The tomatoes, peppers, capers and oregano make this a classic, roman-style chicken dish.  As is so often the case with regional recipes, everyone has their variation.  This version has its origins in the cookbook Cucina Romana by Sara Manuelli.  We’ve adapted it over the years by adding more peppers and tomatoes, and cooking it slower and longer, until the meat comes off of the bone.

It’s not a glamorous dish, but more like soul food, comfort food – rich and hearty, but complex in its flavor also fairly healthy.  It’s a guy’s kind of recipe, but sophisticated enough to serve to his significant other.

Ingredients
1 free range chicken, with the breasts  3-4 cut into pieces.
Olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced.
A small handful of capers, quickly rinsed under running cold water.
Oregano
2 cups dry white wine
1 large can (28 oz. or 1 kg) whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
3 red, orange and/or yellow bell peppers, cored, de-seeded and sliced.
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions
Cover the bottom of a large saucepan (big enough to hold the chicken tomatoes and peppers) with olive oil.  Add the garlic, capers, a few sprigs of oregano (or dashes if using dried oregano), and salt and pepper to taste.  Heat the oil, and gently fry the chicken pieces, turning them occasionally, until seared on all sides.  Pour in the wine and let it cook off, approximately 15 minutes.

Pollo alla romana

Toss in the peppers.  Add the canned tomatoes, passing them through a food mill first to produce a smooth purée.  If you don’t have a food mill, you can blend the tomatoes before adding them.  If you prefer, you can also leave the tomatoes whole.

Pollo alla romanaPollo alla romana

Cover partially to allow some vapor out, and cook over low heat for approximately an hour. Taste for salt after 30 minutes, and add more if you wish.  Stir from time to time to prevent sticking, and add white wine if more liquid is needed.  The chicken is done when or the meat comes off of the bone and the sauce has thickened.

Serve hot with a generous spoonful of sauce on top.

Pollo alla romana

Spaghetti con pesce spada e pistacchi – Swordfish Spaghetti with Pistachio

For seafood lovers like ourselves, our recent trip to Sicily was culinary nirvana.  At Bed & Breakfast Mammaliturchi we feasted on one amazing meal after another, each authentically with passione and orgoglio by hosts Cico and Lola.

We devoured:

  • Spaghetti al nero de seppia (Spaghetti with Black Squid Ink)
  • Spaghetti alle vongole (Spaghetti with Clams)
  • Pasta ai gamberi rossi (Pasta with Shrimp)
  • Cozze al pomodoro (Mussels in tomato broth)
  • Ostriche gratinate al forno (Baked oysters with breadcrumbs)
  • Spigola arrosto (Grilled Sea Bass)
  • Grigliata di pesce (Seafood on the Grill)
  • Gamberi rossi al pomodoro (Shrimp in tomato sauce)

One of our favorite dishes, Spaghetti al pesce spada con pistacchi (Swordfish Spaghetti with Pistachio), captured the essence of Sicily, with the uniting of freshly caught swordfish with ground Sicilian Bronte pistachios.

Cico served the pasta with a Sicialian white wine, Inzolia della vineria Principe di Corleone.  He generously shared his recipe with us to pass along to our Due Spaghetti readers.

Spaghetti pesce spada e pistacchi

Ingredients
one package of spaghetti
2 fillets of swordfish, preferably fresh caught
Olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
One large cherry tomato, or several smaller ones
One bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
Ground black pepper
Sea salt
Crushed red pepper
Dry white wine
Toasted bread crumbs*
Ground Bronte pistachios**

*Quickly toasted plain, unseasoned breadcrumbs on the stove top in a small amount of olive oil, minced garlic, and grated tuna roe.  Remove from heat, let cool, and store in an air-tight container.  (Tuna roe, also called bottarga di tonno, is expensive and difficult to locate in the U.S..  Bottarga di muggine can be substituted, or it can be omitted entirely.)

**Bronte pistachios are a high quality Sicilian pistachio grown in the region of Bronte. If needed, regular pistachios can be used and ground at home in a food processor.

Directions
Dice the swordfish into small cubes.  Set aside.

Mince the garlic and the parsley.  Add each to a large skillet (big enough to accommodate the cooked spaghetti), along with a few tablespoons olive oil, a half-cup of water, a few dashes of ground black pepper, a few dashes of salt, and crushed red pepper to taste.  Sauté over medium-low heat for several minutes. Add the cubed swordfish and the white wine and simmer for about 5 minutes, adding more white wine only if needed.

Remove the swordfish and set aside.  Slice the cherry tomato(es) and add them to the skillet.  If you have dry grated tuna roe, add a pinch or two.  Let cook for 5-10 more minutes, pressing on the tomato until it deconstructs.  Add more white wine and simmer to make a sort of reduction sauce.  Add a tablespoon or two of crushed pistachios and another tablespoon or two of toasted bread crumbs, and a tablespoon or two of olive oil.  Return the swordfish to the skillet, mix everything well, and turn off heat.

Cook the spaghetti in salted, boiling water according to the directions on the package.  When al dente, remove immediately and drain well, saving one cup of the cooking water.  Add the spaghetti to the skillet, turn the heat to high, and toss the pasta with the swordfish mixture, adding the cooking water gradually if needed to provide moisture.

Serve immediately with a dusting of bread crumbs and ground pistachio.

Spaghetti pesce spada con pistacchiSpaghetti pesce spada con pistacchi

Buon appetito da mammaliturchi!

~Cico e Lola

La Sicilia! A Photo-Essay

The fall colors are at their peak, and local newspaper headlines warn, Some Minnesotans Could Wake Up Saturday to a Blanket of Snow. Our Sicilian vacation is a distant memory.  With the fire place radiating warmth and and a glass of Nero d’Avola unearthing memories, we capture the sights and the flavors of our July 2014 tour of the western coast of Sicily.

Our tour of Western SicilyThe Sicilian countryside

Bed & Breakfast Mammaliturchi
Cico and Lola’s B&B Mammaliturchi on the southern Sicilian coast was so spectacular, so perfect, that it merited its own blog post.  A short walk up the beach to the dazzling white  Scala dei Turchi and a 15 minute drive to Agrigento and the magnificent Valley of the Temples, B&B Mammaliturchi is nothing short of paradise.

Scala dei Turchi

Sciacca
Sciacca is a small, medieval fisherman’s village built steeply into the rock that descends down to the sea.  At sea level, fishing boats dot the waterfront and fisheries line the streets.  Climb a steep set of stone steps, some which take you right past the doorways of local residents, and you will reach the heart of the town of Sciacca.  Souvenir shops line the main street which leads to a piazza that looks dramatically out over the Mediterranean.  Stop by the local pastry shop and try out some of the local bitter almond and ricotta-based treats.

Stefano and Luca sample local pastries in the back end of a Fiat 500-turned street art.

Stefano and Luca sample local pastries in the back end of a Fiat 500-turned street art.

 

Sean, Nonna Maria, Luca and Stefano pose for a photo in Sciacca's main piazza.

Sean, Nonna Maria, Luca and Stefano pose for a photo in Sciacca’s main piazza.

Luca and Sean descend Sciacca's city steps.

Luca and Sean descend Sciacca’s city steps.

Mazara del Vallo
Founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, Mazara del Vallo was ruled by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines among others, before finally coming under Arab control in 827 AD.   During the Arab period Mazara del Vallo was an important commercial harbour and the main gateway between Sicily and Northern Africa.  The historical center of Mazara del Vallo is  known as the Kasbah, and it boasts distinct Arab architectural influences.  It is also the best place in Italy to eat cous cous, a Northern African dish that Sicilians have adopted as their own.

Mazara del Vallo

Arab-influenced architecture in the Kasbah neighborhood of Mazara del Vallo.

Mazara del Vallo

The Kasbah, Mazara del Vallo.

Mazara del Vallo

We had delicious cous cous at Trattoria alla Kasbah in Mazara del Vallo.  (Luca is in his “cross-eyed photo-bomber” stage.)

Trapani and Erice
Trapani is known for its salt marshes, and picturesque windmills used to drain the water during the long process of drawing salt out.  It’s also where you can catch a ferry to the heralded Egadi islands, which we didn’t have time for on this trip but fully intend to return to do.  We made a quick stop to see the salt flats, gave in to curiosity and tasted it (yes, it really was salty), and then continued up, and up, and up and winding mountain to the town of Erice.

Image from http://customitalytours.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/segesta-erice-marsala/

Image from http://customitalytours.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/segesta-erice-marsala/

Erice is a medieval village that sits at the peak of a mountain, 750 metres (2,460 ft) above sea level.  On a clear day, you can see Tunisia and Africa’s Northern coast.  The day we visited it was anything but clear.  It felt like we’d  stepped right into a scene from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  In foggy, damp, cold weather we diligently trekked up the main street to Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, which we’d read on the internet had the most amazing pastries.  It is a humble pasticceria, as far as Italian pasticceria’s go, but their cannoli, genovesi and cassate were truly amazing.

San Vito lo Capo
When you live in place as cold as ours, some beach time is a must.  San Vito lo Capo is among the most beautiful beaches in all of Italy.  Located on the northwestern tip of Sicily, the winding drive through the mountains offers spectacular views of the sea below.

San Vito lo Capo

A spectacular view from above on the road to San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo’s beach is a long stretch of soft sand that leads to a mountain in the distance.  The bright aquamarine sea is calm, warm and amazingly clear.  You could lose your wedding ring in waist deep water, look down and see it sparkling on the sea floor below.  The bright beach umbrella made for a splendid scene.

San Vito lo Capo

The beach at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

The clear, calm water at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Bright umbrella dot the beach at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Sun, sand and sea at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Drammatic views at San Vito lo Capo.

Enjoying a frittata di pesce on the beach.

Enjoying a frittata di pesce on the beach at San Vito lo Capo.

Palermo
While the charm and slower pace of Sicily’s small towns offer the greatest appeal, a stop in the chaotic, complicated Palermo is worth it.  The tour of the historical city is quick, and worth the cost of one of the open-air tour buses.  A walk through the markets and the old Arab quarters is overwhelms by sight, sound and smell.  We were most drawn by Palermo’s unique foods: panelle (fritters made of chickpeas and flour), sandwiches with milza (gall bladder), and breakfast with granita al caffè and large gelato-filled brioche.

Milza

Milza – a Palermitano delicacy.

brioche con gelato

Breakfast in style in Palermo – brioche con gelato.

Cefalù
Cefalù is a charming, small town on the northern coast of Sicily.  Full of tourists in the summer months, it is delightful nonetheless with a convenient beach and lots of modern shops, Italian bars and eateries, many with lovely sea views.  We dined at Il Covo del Pirata, and loved it.  It’s location was amazing, with tables that looked right out over the water, yet it had a casual, family feel.  We ate seafood to our heart’s content.  Stop by early in the day and reserve a table with a view for dinner.

Cefalù

The town of Cefalù, seen from the beach.

DSC_0080

Cefalù

Il Covo del Pirata

The view from the restaurant Il Covo del Pirata, in Cefalù.

Bed and Breakfast Mammaliturchi

the-terrace-at-b-b-mammaliturc

Minneapolis to Frankfurt. Frankfurt to Rome. A loud and crazy birthday party in Rome for three splendid 5-year-olds, and then off the next morning to Catania.

With Etna in the distance rising above the hilly landscape, we drove through the Sicilian inland to the Southern coast. Finally, after two or three laps around impossibly narrow roads in the tiny town of Realmonte, we arrived at our destination: Bed and Breakfast Mammaliturchi. Within 5 minutes of our arrival we knew that it was worth every minute and every mile of that long journey.

Francesco met us as the gate, showed us our parking spot, and led us around to the vast terrace on the beach-side of the home, where the view of the sparkling blue sea is breathtaking.  The sound of the waves crashing against the shore washed our tiredness and tension away.  It only got better when Francesco and his wife Loredana (affectionately known as Cico and Lola) showed us our rooms – large and breezy with a wall of windows that overlook the Mediterranean.

In a matter of minutes we shed our travel attire, donned our beachwear, and descended the stairs back to that marvelous terrace and the broad and quiet beach below to begin our vacation.

The Trip Advisor reviews of B&B Mammaliturchi were good and the photos alluring.  One never knows for sure, though, if a place rented over the internet will truly be what it claims to be.  B&B Mammalituchi did not disappoint.  In fact, it exceeded our every expectation.

B&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

The Home

Cico and Lola’s dazzling white stucco seaside home is trimmed in brilliant blue, a color scheme that mirrors the sand, sea and sky and that is reflected in the tasteful, modern and playful decor throughout.  Every convenience is available – parking, laundry, wi-fi, and even air conditioning, although despite visiting in July, we never needed it due to the comfortable sea breeze that gently blew through the windows at night.  The home offers direct, private access to the beach, a shower to rinse off in, and breakfast, lunch and dinner are served on the beautiful patio.

B&B MammaliturchiThe Trip Advisor reviews of B&B Mammaliturchi were good and the photos alluring.  One never knows for sure, though, if a place rented over the internet will truly be what it claims to be.  B&B Mammalituchi did not disappoint.  In fact, it exceeded our every expectation.

The Location

B&B Mammaliturchi is located on a quiet stretch of the Southern Sicilian coast.  It is a 5 minute walk along the beach to Scala dei Turchi, a fascinating geological formation of chalky white limestone cliffs, shaped in like a staircase.  Scala dei Turchi translates in English to Staircase of the Turks, and it is from here that B&B Mammaliturchi gets it’s name.  Legend has it that during the 16th century when the Ottomans expanded westward into Europe, the Turks arrived in their ships, and found it convenient to anchor up against these cliff, which served as a “staircase” for them as they debarked their ships.  When the locals saw the Turks arrive, they exclaimed in fear, Mamma li Turchi (Oh Mother, the Turks are here!)

B&B MammaliturchiB&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

B&B Mammaliturchi

 

The bed and breakfast is also located a mere 15 minutes by car from the city of Agrigento and the archeological site Valle dei Templi, one of the most outstanding examples of Greek architecture anywhere in the world, and one of Sicily’s main attractions.

B&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

Finally, it you can bear to pull yourself away from the slice of paradise that B&B Mammaliturchi offers, the charming towns of Sciacca, Mazara del Vallo, Marsala, Trapani, and Erice are a short drive away.

The Hospitality

Without question, the amazing amenities and location of B&B Mammaliturchi are matched and even surpassed by Cico and Lola’s warm and generous hospitality.  Exacting yet friendly, they offer an exceptional level of service while making guests feel like old friends.  They gave us tips and recommendations on local attractions and sites (like La Sosta, home of the most amazing pistacchio gelato ever), and they attended to our every need.

Each morning we awoke to an Italian breakfast of cappuccino, espresso, juice, toast, jam, Nutella and fresh-fron-the oven croissants are served on the terrace, where we watched the morning joggers and early beach-goers in the cool, sea-side breeze. Guests are free to explore off-site restaurants and bars for lunch and dinner, but quite frankly there is no reason to.  Cico and Lola’s generous, authentic Sicilian meals served open air on the terrace were a high point of our stay.  Featuring seafood that Lola bought fresh off of the fisherman’s boats each day, these were genuinely among the most memorable meals we’ve ever enjoyed.

B&B Mammaliturchi

A better Sicilian vacation we could not have found.  Cico and Lola are the perfect hosts in an absolutely spectacular destination.  As one Trip Advisor commentor wrote, everyone should treat themselves at least once to a B&B Mammaliturchi vacation.  We’re already contemplating when we can return.

B&B MammaliturchiB&B Mammaliturchi

 

 

 

Insalata di polpo (Octopus salad)

Insalata di polpo

When Stefano was a child, he used to fish for polpi (octopuses) in the summer months when his family left the heat of Rome for their little house near the town of Latina along the Tyrrhenian Sea, a subdivision of the Mediterranean.

300px-Tyrrhenian_Sea_mapIf the boys went with their fathers – Stefano’s padre Andrea and uncle Zio Carlo, they took the car.  If not, they rode the 3 kilometers to the sea on their bicycles.

Because octopuses creep and crawl better than they swim, they like to congregate near rocks.  Thus, Stefano and his cousins used to stand on the pier that stretched out over low cliffs and fish for the eight-tentacled creatures.  To catch an octopus, they used a special lure called a polpara, which had a little weighted body surrounded by fish hooks.  The polpara was attached to a line, which they bobbed up and down to catch the octopus’ attention.

polpara_scatola

When a curious octopus wrapped its tentacles around the lure, they boys pulled the line up to claim their catch.  Back home, Stefano’s mamma, Maria, or his aunt, Zia Elena, cooked the octopus and made a delicious antipasto of insalata di polpo.

Insalata di polpoInsalata di polpo

Here in the land-locked upper Midwest of the United States, we fish for our octopus at the local seafood market, and enjoy the squeals of awe from our friends and family who’ve never handled or eaten this delicious sea creature.

Ingredients
serves 4

Two octopuses, approximately 500 grams or around 1 pound each.
2 carrots, or a handful of baby carrots
2 stalks celery
A bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
Olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
1 clove garlic
Salt

Insalata di polpoDirections
Place the octopuses and a cork from a recently opened bottle of wine into a large pot of cold water.  If you don’t have a bottle open, this is a great excuse to uncork one!  No-one knows why, but southern Italians swear that a cork in the water renders the octopus more tender.  Bring the water to a boil, and then let boil gently for 20 minutes.  Turn off heat, and allow the octopus to cool to room temperature in the water it was cooked in.

Il polpo si cuoce nell’acqua sua. 

Insalata di polpoIn the meanwhile, dice the carrots and celery finely, and the garlic super-finely.  Chop about 2 tablespoons of flat leaf Italian parsley.  Place it all together into a medium bowl.

Insalata di polpoRemove the octopus from the water and pat it dry with paper towels.  Cut into small pieces, and add it to the bowl.  Cover with extra-virgin olive oil, stir in the juice of one lemon, and salt to taste.  Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes for the flavors to express themselves, then serve.

Insalata di polpoInsalata di polpo