The last year has been all about change. With the arrival of our little one, everything in life changed. And then jobs changed and even how we spend our free time. I’ve been thinking about change a lot lately and find myself making small changes everywhere these days, even in cooking. And when it comes to food I’m the type of person who wanders grocery aisles to find new products and ideas. When I go on vacation, a must stop is always the grocery store. From trying something completely new to taking a twist on an old favourite, that’s the best part of cooking.
Take risotto for example: I’m used to the way we’ve always made it, like this Asparagus Risotto. Then there’s this knock-out super-traditional and ultra-technical Milanese Risotto. But small changes to either of these recipes can bring you something completely new. So when a pile of mushrooms went on sale at the store, I tried a few new ones that I wouldn’t normally use in Italian cooking, like shiitake, and went to the rice aisle for another small change: carnaroli rice.
You’ve seen me use Arborio rice for risotto, but there’s actually a few other types of Italian starchy rices like carnaroli and Vialone nano. Carnaroli rice is preferred for risotto is some regions in Italy. It is shorter and wider than Arborio, but can be used much the same. Trying it out for this recipe, I found that the grains held their shape more in the end dish, but it wasn’t necessarily creamier than the usual Arborio.
It’s a small change but often that’s how you find your perfect recipe. Like when Nonno started using Yukon Gold potatoes to make colluri, he claimed they made the doughnuts fluffier. A little tweak never hurts (though I wouldn’t change the colluri recipe, ever!). What small change have you made to a recipe only to find it made it even better? Let me know in the comments!
6 cups chicken stock (or 3 mushroom bouillon cubes dissolved in 6 cups of water)
2 cups cannaroli rice
4 cups mixed chopped mushrooms
1 minced onion
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
While the trees on my street are turning colours of orange and yellow, there’s just one maple tree down the road that is a vibrant, almost neon, red. I love it. The colours are a wonder during fall and even my son, cozy in his stroller, is staring at the trees to take it all in. With the last few vegetables of the season, those colours are in the kitchen too – deep purple, vibrant reds and pinks and bright yellows. Today, I’m using all those colours to make one of my staple dishes this time of year – pasta al forno with eggplant and beans.
Of course, when World Kitchen sent me this crazy-coloured 4-Pc Bakeware set from CW by CorningWare, I thought, what a great opportunity to add even more colour into the kitchen and give my readers a chance to win one of their own! I am so happy with the colour of these dishes, practically all the bakeware I have is white (go ahead and look back at my other recipes!) and I don’t see why everything needs to be white. Certainly our vegetables and trees aren’t that boring. If you want to make your kitchen colourful – scroll to the bottom of this recipe for all the details on how to win a 2.5 Quart Vermillion Baker from CW by CorningWare (Retail value $21.99).
You might be thinking: “but autumn vegetables are butternut squash and pumpkin.” That’s certainly what you’ll see on many food blogs this time of year, but for Italians autumn is also the bounty of the season, bushels of all our favourite vegetables abound. We’re still enjoying and preserving eggplants, tomatoes and romano beans, in fact these vegetables in the photos came out of my garden just this week. This dish is kind of a take on the Sicilian traditional dish of “pasta alla norma” which involves fried strips of eggplant and ricotta. In this version the eggplant and beans add a creamy texture to the pasta, making it rich and filling. Baking pasta also means a crispy and cheesy top layer – that’s the bits we fight over at this house, everyone wants the crispy pasta.
If you haven’t tried pasta “al forno” (baked), now’s the time. And scroll to the bottom to find out how to be entered for your own colourful CorningWare!
Autumn Vegetable Pasta al Forno
7 medium tomatoes, peeled and seeded OR 1 796 ml can of peeled tomatoes
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Sicilian eggplant, peeled and cut into cubes
250g romano beans, shelled
100g mozzarella, shredded
30g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
If you love Italian food and love to eat local, fresh food all year, I can’t imagine a busier season than fall. All the plants produce their last burst of vegetables and fruit and you can pick them up by the bushel-full at some farmer’s markets. That’s exactly what you’ll find Italians doing at least. Once tomato passata is packed away, it’s time to see what else we can store and freeze to have for the winter. Lately, in addition to recipes, I’m trying to record our ways of preserving and uses of those preserves like green tomatoes and eggplants.
There is some preserving we don’t do anymore, like peas. I remember going to pick bushels of peas with my parents and grandparents and spending long hours on the front porch shucking them from their pods. (Though I ate more than I contributed to the bowl of peas destined for the freezer.) Now with local farms offering flash frozen bags for just a few dollars, it’s hard to justify all the work. I’d rather just spend the time eating peas fresh. But romano beans, also known as cranberry beans, aren’t so common that you would find them already done. But they are a staple of many Italian dishes, from pasta to mashes, soups and stews. I love the deep pink hues on the pods and beans when they are fresh. Cooked up, they are creamy and hearty. Here’s how to preserve a stash for the winter…
First you’ll need to pick out your romano beans. You want pods that are a vibrant pink, but not purple (those are almost ready to be used as seeds). The pods should be full – that is you can feel each bean fully – and with very few black splotches on the outside. Take your beans home and immediately spread them out for at least two days on blankets or towels , this softens the shells so they are easier to split open after they dry a bit.
If you’ve seen a few neighbours toiling away late at night over a pot of tomato sauce in their garage, you know it’s tomato season.
Every year, Italian families gather together to get the key pantry staple for their house ready for the winter. Canned, or jarred, tomatoes. If you don’t do this often, this massive undertaking seems a bit mysterious and I’ve been asked by friends and neighbours, “how” and “why??” for years. Here’s a bit of insight into how it’s done:
Italians take their food ingredients seriously: freshness and seasonality are two key tenets to this. When vegetables, or meats, are in season they need to be preserved for the winter so we always have that taste of fresh tomatoes whenever we put a pot of sauce on (or the multitude of other dishes that tomatoes can be used for).
There’s a few different ways that tomatoes can be preserved in jars. My preferred method is plum tomatoes: taking heirloom tomatoes, seeding and peeling them, jarring and boiling the jars. When used later these tomatoes need to be broken down through cooking or blending. Some people also put fresh small tomatoes in jars and bake the jars. (I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m told it works).
Below though, is the most common process, using San Marzano tomatoes. These small tomatoes are treasured for their flavour and “meatiness”, that is that they have a lot of flesh so you don’t loose a lot of vegetable when you remove the core and seeds. In this process, the base to tomato sauce (passata) is made by cooking the tomatoes, crushing them and jarring. These jars can rest in a cool place for up to 2 years and when broken open are used to make sauce for pasta, though you’ll add in meat or other vegetables and continue to slow cook until you get a thick and flavourful sauce.
While Italians do this by the bushel-ful, the same process can be used for any number of tomatoes, so even if you only want to make a few jars.
Here’s what you’ll need:
– San Marzano tomatoes
– Fresh basil leaves
– sterilized glass mason jars and lids
– a large pot (and heat source like a stove or outdoor burner)
– a few large bowls
– a tomato crushing machine
– knives, funnel, ladle, jar handler
– towels, lots of towels
Wash all of the tomatoes and lay them out on old towels or tablecloths to dry a bit. Using a paring knife, core tomatoes, remove any seeds (this can add a sour taste to your sauce) and cut the tomatoes in half or quarters. The more people you have, the faster this process is.
Cook the tomato pieces in a large pot (do not add any other ingredient or any water, they will make their own as they break down), for about 30-45 minutes.
This dish is one hot mess. But delicious! I mean, look at it. Not exactly the most appealing thing you can cook, but it’s my favourite vegetable dish. It’s super tasty with minimal seasoning, showcasing what a home garden or farmers market can grow with love. This was a specialty of my Nonno’s – his garden yielded all the vegetables needed to get this dish in motion. And it was his cornbread he made in the early mornings that he’d add in.
“Impanata” traditionally means “breaded” or “to bread” something like meat cutlets or eggplant. In that process, the meat or vegetable is coated in flour, egg, then a breadcrumb mixture that includes seasoning and cheese. Check out my “fettini”/veal cutlets recipe for an example. However, in the case of this mixed vegetable dish, “impananta” means to mix in bread, in a way to fortify the dish and make it a bit more substantial. The bread used is “frizzini”, made when fresh hearty bread rounds (like cornbread) are sliced in two and dried out slowly in the oven. This was a method of preserving bread when ingredients were scarce. The bread can then be eaten hard or reconstituted with water, oil, soup or when added to a dish like this “impanata” I’m featuring today. You can make your own frizzini or purchase them at any good Italian food store.
For the vegetables: look for the first tender garden produce, or young vegetables to get this recipe right: shiny small eggplant, young zucchini, and flat beans where the bean itself isn’t fully grown and plump yet. Add these into a pan for a little slow cooking and it’s vegetable heaven on your plate. Nothing says “summer garden fresh” more than this dish. I eat it as a main, but it works as a side dish as well, you just might have to convince your family or guests to take a bite first. Yes, it’s not pretty but it has all the things Italians love: fresh vegetables, slow cooking, using what you’ve got (the bread!) and eating as a family. This recipe makes enough for 6-8 people, but if you have leftovers just crisp them up in a frying pan the next day.
Mixed Summer Vegetables with Cornbread (Impanata di Verdure)
3-4 frizzini (dried bread)
3/4 lb Italian flat beans
1 yellow onion (or one bunch green onions)
1 19oz can plum tomatoes (or 5-6 fresh, peeled and seeded tomatoes)
2 small eggplants
1 medium zucchini
5-6 large basil leaves, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
(optional: red peppers or hot peppers, seeded and thinly sliced)
We ended June with a celebration: our baby boy was baptised! And after the formal ceremony, feasting – of course – was in order. My sister made the cake, my mom brought trays of cookies. I had the time to contribute just one cookie, but a fancy one – walnut shaped filled cookies.
These cookies are a constant reminder of fancy events from my childhood. They would appear only at weddings or showers. They are a bit labour intensive, so anytime someone saw them on a cookie table, they “ooh’ed” and “ahh’ed” and grabbed a few for themselves. In my memory, they are the epitome of the Italian cookie form and tradition, lovingly made and unique.
The trick for these cookies is you need special baking trays. The forms can be found in Italian grocery shops and also easily found online. Try to avoid the forms that are individual nut halves, these are tough to get into the oven without tipping over. The one I have that is a full tray (see the photos) is the easiest to work with. The dough isn’t hard to make, but you do need to dedicate some time to this project, unless you buy a lot – A LOT – of forms. Either way, they are well worth it! I’m getting compliments on these cookies even a few weeks later.
Walnut Shaped Filled Cookies
1 pound butter
8 tablespoons powdered sugar
4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dutch-processed cocoa
4 teaspoons cold water
4 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
Nutella for filling (as needed)