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.

Pomodorini ripieni di tonno

Friday could not have come soon enough!

With one child at camp and the other staying with grandparents this week, one would think we’d have had ample time to prepare homemade dinners.  But instead, it was a taxing and thankfully uncommon week of 12-hour work days and too little sleep.   Except for our morning espresso and an occasional piece of toast, the kitchen went unused.

Each evening we intended add a post to Due Spaghetti, but each night we ran out of time and put it off until tomorrow.  It got so bad that today when we opened up our blog, we were asked to re-enter our user-id and password.  The “remember me” box had come unchecked; our own blog had unfriended us.

Ironically, we had a post ready to go.  We’d made these adorable stuffed cherry tomatoes, pomodorini ripieni, a few weeks back when we were trying out recipes for the Washington Post’s Top Tomato Recipe Contest.  They didn’t make the shortlist of recipes we chose to submit to the contest, but they are delicious and pretty, and deserved to be featured on Due Spaghetti.

The problem was, we didn’t measure our ingredients while we were preparing the stuffed cherry tomatoes.  This isn’t surprising, as we rarely measure when we cook.  We just add what looks right, feels right, and tastes right.  This, we believe, is part of what we love about cooking; it is not so much an intellectual endeavor, but instead an activity that engages the senses and the emotions.

When Stefano’s mom explains to us how to prepare a dish, she sometimes omits key steps or ingredients and jumps directly to the finer points of execution.  In the early days, we’d make the mistake of backing up and seeking clarification on a basic part of the recipe, only to have her smile in surprise and tell us, “Of course!” revealing that what we had asked was so obvious that it does not need to be stated.

When writing on Due Spaghetti, though, we take the time to list specific amounts for ingredients so our readers are not left guessing and recipes are authentically prepared.  In order to post the cherry tomato recipe, we needed to make it again to confirm the precise quantities of tuna, mayo and capers.

We’ve debated this topic before, with Cara taking the position that our readers deserve an accurate and specific recipe, and Stefano maintaining that through Due Spaghetti we can teach our readers to cook the way his mother and grandmother did – a superior form of cooking which develops from trusting intuition and experience to determine when more salt is needed in a sauce, or when the texture and consistency of a dough is perfect.

In the end, the week passed and we never managed to recreate the pomodori ripieni.  On the positive side, we had a few excellent meals out, including a spectacular dinner at La Chaya Bistro and an engaging conversation with chef/proprietor Juan Juarez Garcia, which we will write about soon. But we need to get back to blogging and as a result we are going to post our recipe without specifying quantities for the ingredients, trusting our readers to make wise and inspired decisions about what looks right, feels right and tastes right to them.

These tuna-stuffed cherry tomatoes are a pretty appetizer or party food.  They can be arranged on an interesting plate or platter, or skewered for easy serving.

Cherry tomatoes
Tuna in olive oil
Flat leaf Italian parsley

Wash cherry tomatoes and slice the tops off of them.  Carefully core the cherry tomatoes with a paring knife and scoop out the seeds and pulp with a small spoon.  Set the hollowed tomatoes upside down unto a baking tray and allow the juices to drain.

Dice the tomato pulp, and add it along with the juices and seeds into a bowl.  Drain the tuna and stir into the tomato mixture.  We used between 1 and 2 cans of tuna for each pint of cherry tomatoes.  Add mayonnaise to the creaminess level of your preference.  Rinse a handful of capers quickly under water, dice them add them to the mixture.  You can use more or fewer capers according to preference.  Chop a bunch of flat leaf parsley finely, and stir it into the mixture.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Carefully stuff the tuna mixture into the cherry tomatoes, taking care not to tear the tomato walls.  If you wish, garnish with a small dollop of mayonnaise.

Pizzette rustiche, the perfect party food

It’s the season of parties – graduation parties, children’s parties, block parties, and, as Stefano reminds me, his upcoming birthday party.  It’s not until September, but we are already planning for it since he is turning 40 and, he says, he wants it to be memorable.

When we threw parties in Italy, we would place an order at our favorite neighborhood pasticceria.  We’d choose an array of cream filled pasticcini mignon, delicate triangle-shaped sandwiches made from white bread with the crusts removed called tramezzini, and an assortment savory rustici salati.  Included in the rustici salati were pizzette, or bite-sized little pizzas with a variety of simple toppings.  Upon arriving home, we could never resist sneaking a few of the pizzette before the party began.

While nothing compares to the pizzette from an Italian pasticceria, very good pizzette can be made, really quite simply, right at home.

Before we jump into the how-to, however, there is a confession to be had.  Not everything in this recipe is made from scratch.  These pizzette are made from puff pastry, which one could try to make, if one really wanted to.  But who really wants to?  One recipe we saw warns that it is a three-day process.  While that sounds like a fun adventure some time, it’s not particularly practical, and we opted instead for the puff pastry that Pepperidge Farm sells in convenient frozen sheets and that work just perfectly for pizzette.

As much as we love to cook and bake, and as much as we appreciate home cooking with fresh natural ingredients, we are also adults with day jobs and other responsibilities.  If you are like us, once in a while it’s okay to accept some help, this time in the form of ready-made puff pastry.

The Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten, puts it best in her book entitled Parties!:

“I can’t say enough about assembling food rather than cooking.  I keep telling myself that my friends won’t have any more fun if I spend two days making a daquoise for dessert than if I find a delicious pound cake at a bakery and serve it with store-bought lemon curd and fresh raspberries.   In fact, they’ll have more fun, because I’m relaxed and having fun, too.”

We brought pizzette to our block party tonight, and they were devoured within minutes.  We’ll make them again for Stefano’s 40th birthday party, and undoubtedly the same thing will happen.  We will use store-bought puff pastry each time, knowing that they will turn out great, and that we’ll enjoy each party to its fullest, just as Ina says.

1 box (2 sheets) of frozen puff pastry
1 small can or tube of tomato paste
Olive oil
Optional: fresh mozzarella, anchovies

Allow puff pastry to thaw.  Unfold the pastry sheets onto work surface, and with a small, round cookie cutter with a 2″-3″ diameter, cut out little pizza shapes and set them onto a baking tray.  If you do not have a round cookie cutter, a small glass or a mason jar lid will work fine.

Place a small dab of tomato paste in the center of each pizzette, and with your finger or the back of a small spoon, spread the paste around the center without reaching the edges.  You only require about 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp. of paste for each pizzetta, depending on their size.  Too much paste will weigh down the pizzette and not allow the puff pastry to rise while cooking.

Using a cooking brush, spread a light layer of olive oil over each pizzetta, again using caution to not overdo with too much oil.  Next, toss a light layer of salt over the pizzette, and consider how you wish to complete the toppings.

For classic pizzette, sprinkle dried oregano on top.  Alternatively, you may add a small piece of anchovy to the top of the pizzette and then the oregano.  Or, some people prefer to omit the oregano and add a few small pieces of fresh mozzarella on top.  If you opt for the mozzarella, it’s best to use a denser, less liquid cheese, and very small pieces on top of the pizzette, again so that the puff pastry can still rise in the oven.

Bake at 400° F for approximately 8 minutes, or until the pizzette have risen and are golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes; the pizzette will fall slightly.  Use a spatula to carefully remove them from the baking tray.

Makes approximately 20-24 pizzette