Spaghetti alla puttanesca

It’s been two weeks now since the fire.  We’ll spend one more week in the hotel, but we’ve found a house to rent not far from home and are eager to move in next weekend.  It is a perfect house for us while our own is under repair.  The best part: our landlords, Lisa and Paul, have decided to have a gas line run into the kitchen in order to replace the old electrical coil stove with a gas one!

Demolition has begun on the interior of our fire-damaged house.  Even though the fire itself was contained to the upper floor, water and smoke infiltrated the ceilings, walls and floors of the rest of the house and those will need to be stripped down to the struts. It was overwhelming at first, but we’ve come to terms with it all and are even beginning to think ahead to a few improvements we can make when rebuilding (a kitchen with more natural light for better food photography is one priority).

We haven’t done much cooking lately, and eating out is becoming tiresome.  With the weekend upon us, we decided that it is time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can produce out of our hotel room kitchenette.  There was once an Iron Chef competition on the Food Network channel that required contestants to prepare enough food for a block party using a just small outdoor grill.  Then, when the producers arranged for a downpour of rain, the chefs had to finish cooking their food on the engine of a car.

We don’t have it that bad, but that’s a little like what it feels like to prepare a meal in our kitchenette.  We have two little burners, two (dull) knives, two pots, one spatula, and one small glass cutting board.  It’s not exactly a chef’s kitchen, but we can make do.

So, we decided to make something delicious, but simple.  La puttanesca is just that – a tangy, flavor packed sauce that is quick and easy to make but that packs a punch.  It’s a perfect “Famose due spaghetti” solution, and was a good reminder that no matter what the circumstances or where we are, we can still whip up a pretty good plate of pasta.

The world has embraced the Puttanesca sauce without knowing what its name actually means.  Puttana is not exactly a nice word in Italian; it’s a vulgar reference to a lady who engages in “the oldest profession.”  The -esca suffix turns a noun into an adjective, just like the -esque suffix does in English (adopted from French).  Think picture and picturesquePuttana and puttanesca. 

How did this traditional sugo from Naples acquire such a saucy name?  There are quite a few theories on this.  Some say that it was a quick and easy pasta to prepare for the patrons of a local brothel, but there are other theories, too.  What doesn’t change is the ingredient list: garlic, capers, anchovies, and black olives in a tomato sauce.  Is your mouth watering yet?

1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
2 cloves of garlic
One cup black olives, pitted*
6 anchovies
1 Tablespoon capers
1 dash of crushed red pepper
1 bunch of flat leave parsley
5 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt, coarse and fine
1 lb spaghetti

*Use an Italian black olive such as liguria, gaeta or lugano, but avoid those that come packed in rosemary or other herbs.  A Greek kalamata olive will work nicely, also.

Crush or finely dice the garlic.  Rinse the capers and anchovies quickly under running water and pat dry.  Cut the anchovies into small pieces.  Sauté the garlic, capers, anchovies and red pepper in olive oil over medium heat.  If your olives have pits remove them.  Cut the olives into pieces and add them to the saucepan.  Sauté the mixture until the anchovies have deconstructed and the garlic is golden brown, about 3-5 minutes.

Add your tomatoes, preferably passing them through a food mill in order to acquire a smooth sauce.  Let the sauce cook for 20-30 minutes, adding salt to taste.  In the meanwhile, rinse and pat dry the parsley.  Chop the parsley finely and add to the sauce about 5 minutes before it is ready.

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  When it boils, add a handful of coarse salt and the spaghetti.  Cover and cook to al dente according to the time specified.  When ready, drain the spaghetti and return to the pot.  Add the puttanesca sauce to the pot, and mix until the pasta is evenly coated.  Serve immediately.

Wine Pairing
We paired our spaghetti alla puttanesca with a 2009 Sangiovese Rubizzo by Rocca delle Macìe.  This wine has a strong acidity and a nice earthiness that balances the pungency and spiciness of the puttanesca sauce.

Salame al cioccolato

What a week it has been!  Last Saturday evening our house caught fire.  The fire began in a second floor bathroom, spread up above the ceilings of the upstairs bedrooms, and through the roof.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.  Our house, however, sustained significant damage from the fire, smoke and water, and requires much repair.

We’ve had tremendous support and kindness from neighbors, friends and family, and our insurance company is taking care of all of our needs.  We are in a hotel for the short term, and have already found a house to rent in the neighborhood while ours is being rebuilt.

Among the other logistics we’ve had to sort out this week is how to keep Due Spaghetti current.  Our hotel suite has two little ceramic glass burners that we haven’t tried out yet, and our soot-infiltrated camera has been taken away for cleaning.

Simona from the wonderful blog Briciole reminded us that focusing on cooking can help regain balance and perspective.  She’s exactly right – it really does.

We didn’t want to miss a post this week, but we also haven’t really settled into our tiny hotel kitchen yet.  Over the past few weeks we’ve fun across a few holiday cookie contests in newspapers and on websites, we decided that we’d get an early start on one of our favorite Christmas treats, salame al cioccolato, or Chocolate Salame.

Made to resemble a real salame, this rum-infused chocolate log is an easy but delicious no-bake winter treat.  Our kids love it, and adults ask for the recipe every time we serve it.

Going shopping this morning for the ingredients, clearing counter space in our mini-kitchen to work, and most importantly experiencing the satisfaction of making something tasty from scratch was a good first step in putting the fire behind us and returning to the regular rhythm of out lives.

The key ingredient to salame al cioccolato are biscotti secchi, which are a light, dry biscuit or cookie with no filling of frosting and a low fat content.  In Italia, we use biscotti made by Oro Saiwa.  In the U.S. we have found a Mexican biscuit called Marias by Gamesa which is a good substitute.  Otherwise, use any simple, light biscuit or cookie.

Ingredients for 6 salami
600 grams (4 & 1/3 packs) biscuits, plus extra for dusting.
300 grams (1 & 1/3 cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
300 grams (1 & 1/2 cups) sugar
50 grams (slightly less than 1/2 cup) unsweetened baking cocoa
2 eggs
1 shot glass of rum

You will also need plastic wrap.

Place the biscuits into a shallow bowl and crush them into small pieces using the flat bottom of a glass or bottle.  Set aside.

Beat the eggs, and add the butter.  Add the sugar, cocoa and rum, and beat by hand until well mixed.  Stir in the biscuits.

Crush the rest of the biscuits in the partially used package in a food processor, and place into a shallow baking dish.  Use your hands to form the mixture into logs.  Roll each log in the biscuit crumbs to resemble salame, and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.  Place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.

Serve sliced, or place on a cutting board with a knife and let your guests do the cutting, just as you might a real salame.

Salame al Cioccolato

Butternut squash gnocchi with taleggio cheese sauce

Sometimes things turn out superbly, amazingly so, with really very little effort.  Other times we need to use a heavier hand, forcing the issue a bit like we might with a suitcase that won’t quite close.

Butternut squash is not one of those vegetables that lends itself to be eaten.  Its awkward shape makes it difficult to cut.  We wanted to peel the squash before dicing and roasting it, but its skin proved quite difficult to remove, so we roasted it with the skin on.  Its solid flesh stubbornly refused to soften, so we kept it in the oven even longer.  Once cooked, the skin was still difficult to remove, and a tough outer layer of squash prevented access to the tender roasted flesh inside.

Giving up on this butternut squash was not an option, so we persevered, willing it to turn out so that we could get on with things and make our butternut squash gnocchi.

We actually don’t even like squash that much.  Which is why we rarely cook with it, which is probably why we aren’t all that good at it. (Readers, we welcome all of your winter squash advice.)  Sweet vegetables just aren’t our thing.

Butternut squash gnocchi, another quintessential Italian winter pasta, are an exception.  The nutty squash flavor, made more intense by the roasting, is accentuated by the buttery, toasty Taleggio cheese cream sauce.  Add a glass of red wine, and your fall evening dinner is complete.

Serves 4-6

For the gnocchi
1 medium butternut squash
1/2 cup water
300 g (2 1/4 cup) flour
1 egg
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

For the Taleggio sauce
200 g (7 ounces) fresh Taleggio cheese, available locally from Surdyk’s and other fine cheese stores
3/4 cup whole milk

Peel and cut your butternut squash, like this.  Place your cubed squash onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and roast at 350° F for about 45 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the squash.  Remove from oven and cool.

Puree the squash and up to 1/2 c water in a food processor.  In a large bowl, stir one egg into the squash.  Add the Parmigiano and mix well.  Gradually mix in the flour, and salt and pepper to taste.  Cover with plastic wrap, and chill for 30 minutes.

Sprinkle flour abundantly onto a smooth work surface.  Take small amounts of dough, and roll into strips slightly larger than a finger’s width.  Slice each length of dough into 1/4 inch gnocchi.  Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  In the meanwhile, pour the milk into a small saucepan and place over low heat.  Add the Taleggio and allow it to gradually melt, stirring occasionally.   When the large pot of water boils, toss a heaping handful of salt into the water, and carefully add the gnocchi.  Cover, and bring the water back to a boil.  When the water boils again, uncover and carefully stir the gnocchi.

Like all gnocchi, your butternut squash gnocchi are ready when they rise to the surface of the water.  Carefully drain, return them to the pot, and stir in the Taleggio sauce.  Serve immediately.

Download a pdf of the recipe Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Taleggio Cheese Sauce

Pane Casareccio

On Saturdays in late fall at the end of a long day in the family’s olive groves, we brought our sacks of olives to the frantoio, where the oil was cold-pressed from the fruit’s  pit.  With dirt under our fingernails, we toasted slices of rustic bread on the frantoio’s open fire and drizzled the freshly pressed virgin oil on top.  The warm toasted bread with fragrant new oil on top was a worthy end to the hard work of harvesting olives.

Good, rustic bread can be found locally in several places.  One of the best is Cossetta’s, where Italian baker and pastry chef Luigi Vitali has been consulting and developing recipes for the much proclaimed bakery expansion.  The other Italian delis also have quality bread, as do a number of renowned local bakeries like Patisserie 46, Rustica,  and Salty Tart.  Even Trader Joe’s and Kowalski’s sell pretty good French and Italian-style bread.

While we love being able to find a nice, crusty pagnotta or a freshly baked ciabatta at our local bakery or supermarket, the cost of one burns a hole in our pockets.  Over $4 for a loaf of bread?  It’s made with only flour, yeast and water, after all.  And is it just us, or have the loaves been getting smaller?

Spending that much on bread really wasn’t an option for us, but going without or substituting soft American bread wasn’t either.  So, we decided to make our own.  It took several months of experimenting with ingredients and methods to get it right.  The most difficult part was figuring out how to produce bread with a crunchy, rustic crust.  A standard bread machine didn’t work, and neither did baking loaves right on a baking sheet.  In both cases, the flavor was good, but the bread was too dense and its crust too soft.

Finally, after a great deal of research and experimentation, we came upon this article that shed light on the problem.    The key, we learned, is using a sticky, wet dough and baking it inside a cast iron dutch oven at very high heat.  High humidity coupled with high heat produces bread with crusty golden-brown exterior, and a spongy, chewy interior.  It is so good that even our Italian friends and relatives are impressed.

We’ve been making this bread for several years, and have adjusted the ingredient quantities and procedures over time.  The recipe below is what we have settled on, and we’ve literally made hundreds of loaves.  The consistency of the dough changes slightly according to the brand of flour you use, the seasons, and the level of humidity in the air.  However, it always turns out.

There are a few things to know before you begin:

  • You will need a cast-iron dutch oven.  Do not purchase an enameled one; they are not heat resistant at the high temperature required to bake this bread.  We use a 5-qt. dutch oven made by Lodge.
  • Baking bread is a two day process.  You do not need to knead this dough, but you do need to let it sit overnight.  We mix the dough on Saturday afternoon, and bake it on Sunday.
  • Use standard, unbleached bread flour.
  • Use bread machine yeast that comes in a glass jar, and store your yeast in the refrigerator.
  • Weigh your flour, don’t measure it.
  • Acquire plastic chopping mats, pastry mats or even plastic place mats to let your loaves rise on.
  • Consider making a few loaves at a time.  Whatever you do not eat that same day you can slice and freeze, and pull out as needed throughout the week.  Freezing is a better solution to storing in paper bags.  Never store this bread in plastic bags.

1 and 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon yeast
450 grams flour
1 and 1/2 cups warm water

Place the salt and the yeast into a medium-sized glass or ceramic bowl.  Add the warm water, and stir until the yeast and the salt are dissolved and the water is cloudy.  Measure the flour and add it to the water.  With a wooden spoon, stir the flour into the water until just mixed.  The dough will come together and form a ball.  Don’t over-stir – the consistency will be unequal with some parts more dense and other parts stickier.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, creating a tight, airproof seal.  Let sit overnight for 12-18 hours.  When you return to your dough the next day, you will see that it has risen and become a light, wet, sticky dough with air bubbles covering its surface.

The next phase of the process involves shaping your dough into loaves, and letting them rise  Lay a plastic chopping mat or pastry mat down on a work surface in a part of the kitchen where the temperature is even – not too close to the oven, and away from drafts.  Sprinkle flour over the surface of the mat.  Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl of dough, and set aside to be used again later.  Using your fingers, pull the dough out of the bowl and onto the mat.  Let it rest there for 15 minutes.

Using the extra flour on the mat to keep the dough from sticking to your hands, lift the dough and carefully work it into a round loaf shape by pulling the ends around and working them together on the underneath side.  Move quickly and efficiently so as not to overwork the dough.  With the dough in one hand, remove the excess flour from the mat using the other hand, and then gently set the loaf back down onto the mat.  Retrieve the plastic wrap that previously covered the bowl, and place loosely over the dough, dry-side down.  Let the dough rise for 2-3 more hours.

30 minutes before baking the bread, place the dutch oven into your oven, and preheat it to 475° F.  You want your dutch oven to be scorching hot when you place your dough into it.

When your dough is ready and your oven has reached 475° F, remove the dutch oven, and take its lid off.  Working quickly so that your dutch oven and your oven do not cool down too much, lift the entire plastic mat with the dough on it, and carefully turn the dough over into the dutch oven.  Replace the lid and using pot holders, give the dutch oven a shake or two while on your countertop in so that the dough inside settles into the center of the dutch oven.

Return the dutch oven to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, remove the lid of the dutch oven and check the color of the bread.  If it is still pale yellow, return the dutch oven to the oven uncovered for up to 5 more minutes, until the crust achieves a deep golden-brown color.

Remove the dutch oven from the oven, and turn the bread out onto the counter top immediately.  Let cool on a baking rack so that the heat can escape from underneath.  When no longer piping hot, slice and enjoy.

View a pdf of the recipe Pane Casareccio

Crostini assortiti

The idea to serve crostini at a party we threw recently came from this LA Times article.

It’s is a nice read.  Journalist Russ Parsons takes us away to Lago Trasimeno in Umbria, one of our favorite regions. As we read, we imagine ourselves right there with him at the frantoio, where extra virgin oil is pressed out of the nuts of freshly harvested olives.

Just like Russ, in our minds we also drizzle the new oil onto crusty bread that has been toasted over an open fire.  (Actually, in the article the bread is toasted in a “beat up electric toaster oven.  What??  Any self-respecting frantoio must have an open word-burning fireplace to toast bread in, so we chose to alter this detail in our mental vacation.) A little sea salt sprinkled on top, and this, dear readers, is the holy grail of bruschette.

Before we write any further, let’s take a moment to clarify a few things about bruschetteComplimenti, Mr. Parsons, for doing the same in your article.

First, Italian nouns have genders, and those that end with an “a” are feminine.  To make a feminine noun plural, change the final “a” to an “e”.  Therefore, bruschetta is singular, and bruschette is plural.  You can make “a bruschetta” or “a few bruschette.”  “Two bruschettas,” though, strikes a bad chord.

Second, the “ch” sound in Italian is the same as the “k” sound in English.  It’s actually a little more complicated than that, but for today, that rule will suffice.  So, all of you who have been pronouncing bruschetta as “broo-shetta,” and you are in good company, have some re-learning to do.  The correct pronunciation is “broo-sketta.”

Just replacing the “sh” sound with a “k” sound is a significant improvement.  However, the over-achievers among you may wish to also try lightly rolling your “r,” making the “e” sound more like “ay”, and hanging a little longer on the double “t.”  “Broo-SKAY-tta.”  Click here to listen to an authentic pronunciation of bruschetta.

Okay.  We now have all of that sorted out.  However, we are not actually going to talk about bruschette today.  We’re going to talk about crostini, instead.

You see, there are really only two authentic versions of a bruschetta – toasted bread rubbed with garlic with olive oil and sea salt on top, and toasted bread rubbed with garlic with olive oil, sea salt, chopped tomatoes and basil on top.  Any other version of toasted bread with something on top is better identified as a crostino.

Crostino: singular masculine noun.  To make a masculine noun plural, change the “o” to an “i.”  Singular, crostino.  Plural, crostini.  Pitfall to avoid: don’t ask for “a crostini.”  Ask instead for “a crostino” or “some crostini.”  You’re picking up on this now, aren’t you?

So, back to the party.  Sometimes we have fun serving our guests elaborate, multi-course meals, each course paired with the perfect wine.  At this party, though, we wanted our guests to mingle and visit with each other, stopping by the dining room to fill up their plates with antipasti and stuzzichini and coming back for more whenever they ran out.

At the center of the spread were crostini assortiti – a towering mountain of crusty bread surrounded by savory spreads, all based on vegetables and legumes, differing in color, texture and flavor. It’s a colorful, tasty and easy to serve option for parties.

Cannellini and garlic spread
Puree one can of cannellini beans, well-drained and rinsed, in a food processor with 1/2 clove of garlic, 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil, and a few dashes of freshly ground black pepper.

Olive tapenade
Puree 2 cups of pitted kalamata olives in a food processor with 1/2 clove garlic, 1 tablespoon capers and 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Halve and clean 2 red and 2 yellow peppers.  Place flat down on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, and roast in the oven at 425° for 30 minutes, or until the skin blackens and lifts up from the peppers.  Let cool, and then remove the skin from the peppers.  Cut the peppers into 1″ pieces, and set aside.  Sauté 1/4 cup diced onions and half a pint of halved cherry tomatoes in 3 tablespoons olive oil.  As the cherry tomatoes soften, press them flat with the back of a fork, and remove the skin.  When the tomatoes are soft and the onion translucent, add the peppers and 1/4 cup dry white wine.  Salt to taste, and let simmer until the wine cooks off. 

Eggplant Caponata
Peel one medium eggplant.  Slice it in half lengthwise, and then slice each half lengthwise again to make quarters.  Remove any heavily seeded parts.  Cut into 1/2″ slices.  Coat a baking tray with olive oil, and place the eggplant on top of the tray.  Drizzle more olive oil over the eggplant, and salt liberally.  Roast in the oven at 425° for 5 minutes.  Remove, and using a spatula turn the eggplant.  Return to the oven for 5 more minutes, and then take out and let cool.  Puree half a pint of cherry tomatoes, 1 cup pitted kalamata olives, 1 tablespoon capers, and the eggplant into a food processor.

Greens sauteed with garlic, red pepper and olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Wash one bunch of mustard or turnip greens and remove the thick parts of the stems.  When the water boils, toss a handful of coarse salt into the pot, and add the greens.  Boil until tender, approximately 8-10 minutes, and drain.  Sauté 2 tablespoons olive oil, two cloves of garlic diced into small pieces, and a bit of crushed red pepper in a skillet for 2-3 minutes until the garlic is golden brown.  Add the greens and 2-3 spoonfuls of tomato sauce.  Simmer for 5 more minutes.