Category Archives: Pasta Dishes

Pasta with Zucchini and Zucchini Flowers (Pasta alle zucchine e fiori di zucca)

This Wednesday, when I was doing my weekly shopping trip to the Union Square Greenmarket, I was kind of surprised to see how much summertime produce was still available.  I snapped up blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries to have with my yogurt and granola for breakfast (I’m trying to be very good after all that pasta and gelato in Italy.).  While I was walking around the market, one item in particular caught my eye, Zucchini Flowers.  I thought that the season for these was long over, so I picked up a box of them to take home with me.

I’ve been wanting to make a pasta dish with Zucchini and Zucchini Flowers (or fiori di zucca in Italian).  I’d never eaten these delicate blossoms until I moved to Italy, and there I fell in love with them.  It wasn’t until several years ago that I started seeing them for sale in the farmers markets in New York.  Now, I find them on menus around town, people ask for my recipes, and I read about them being used in dishes featured in cooking magazines.

Zucchini “coins”

Zucchini has been one of those things with which I’ve had a love-hate relationship.  When it isn’t cooked to death, the way my mother made it when I was growing up, it is actually one of those vegetables that I enjoy eating.  I’m not a huge fan of it raw on crudite platters, either.  Somewhere in the middle, whether it is fried or sauteed, is really the best point at which to eat it, I feel, when there is some creaminess to it and a bit of a bite.  Here, I cooked it in olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese on top, added the zucchini flowers, and sprinkled it with another summertime favorite, fresh basil, to give it an herbal, anise-like snap at the finish.

I tossed this with some linguine that I found hanging out in my cupboard, but spaghetti would work well, too.  It seems like it will finally be getting a bit cooler after this weekend so summer really is winding down.  There’s just a short window left to make this dish this year.  Then, it will need to wait until next summer when the golden yellow zucchini flowers come back into season and bright green, tender zucchini flood the markets.

Getting everything ready

Pasta with Zucchini and Zucchini Flowers (Pasta alle zucchine e fiori di zucca)

Serving Size: 2 starter portions

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

2 tsp. Olive Oil (does not have to be extra virgin)

4 small, dark-skinned Zucchini, cut into round “coins”

2 cloves Garlic, minced

5 Zucchini Flowers, trimmed, rinsed and cut into strips cross-ways

1 Tbsp chopped fresh Basil

Black Pepper, freshly ground

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

2 portions of dried pasta, such as linguini, trenette or spaghetti (not too thin), cooked according to the directions on the package

Assembly:

Start water to boil for the pasta and follow the preparation instructions on the package.  In Italian cooking, the sauce is made in advance of the pasta being cooked, so that nothing distracts from making the pasta perfectly.  In this recipe, you can make them pretty much side-by-side, although the pasta will take a bit longer to cook than the sauce.

Cleaned and chopped zucchini flower (left) and one waiting to be prepared (right)

You will also need to clean the zucchini flowers before you cut them up to eat.  As you can see in the above photo, there is a stem end that needs to be removed.  Make a slit in the side of the flower, carefully open it up to separate the yellow floral part from the stem end and the yellow fuzzy part coming up from the stem.  Discard those parts leaving only the yellow flower.  That part is what you will chop up and eat.  Rinse it carefully under water or brush with a wet towel to get rid of any dirt and bugs on it.

In a sautee pan large enough so that all the zucchini will fit in one layer, heat the olive oil for about 30 seconds over low to medium heat (It should not be smoking hot.).  Put zucchini in the pan and cook it on one side until the coins start to blister a bit and become golden brown.  This will take 2-3 minutes.  Flip them over to cook on the other side for another 2-3 minutes.

Sauteed zucchini “coins”

Add the garlic and mix together with the zucchini.  Be careful not to let the garlic turn brown as it will then develop an acrid taste.  Turn off the heat at this point.  Add 4 of the chopped zucchini flowers and 2 Tbsp of the basil.  Toss together letting the residual heat wilt them.  Set aside until the pasta is ready.

Sauteed Zucchini with Zucchini Flowers

Here is the beauty of this dish – it also makes a wonderful vegetable side course (or contorno in Italian).  If you want to skip the pasta, at this point grate some Parmesan cheese on the top of the zucchini and zucchini flowers.  Add a few grinds of black pepper and toss it together.  Then, as a finishing touch sprinkle the remaining chopped zucchini flower and fresh basil on top of it.  Serve immediately.

If using as a pasta sauce, drain the cooked pasta, reserving a couple of spoonfuls of the cooking liquid.  Add the liquid to the pan with the vegetables and toss together.  Put the pasta into the saucepan and stir to coat the pasta strands.  Place half the pasta mixture on each of two plates.  Add a couple of grinds of black pepper to each along with a dusting of Parmesan cheese, and the remaining chopped zucchini flowers and basil leaves.  Serve immediately.

Buon appetito!

Hurricane Irene Sausage-Tomato Pasta Dish

With Hurricane Irene rapidly approaching New York City and getting ready to dump lots of rain on us, it was bound to be an indoor weekend anyway.  Then, the mayor announced that the public transportation would be shut down by noon today.  With friends being told that they had to leave their homes as they live in the lowest lying areas of the city, I ended up hosting one of them to ride out the storm in my neighborhood.

I don’t know about you, but I sort of just grabbed the basic supplies at the store yesterday: batteries, milk, toilet paper, paper towels, smoked salmon, cream cheese (hey, it is New York), and Advil.  I didn’t really think much about actually making any meals during the weekend.  Fortunately, I did pick up fruit and vegetables at the Greenmarket yesterday when things were all still calm and sunny, but I didn’t really have a concept as to what I was going to put on the table to eat.

So, when my guest and I were watching the sky get darker and the rain start to come in again, it was also about time to figure out dinner.  As I hadn’t really thought about a menu, I decided to wing it based upon what I could pull out of my freezer and in my cabinets.  I’ve made a version of this dish in the past when I was staying with a sibling and prepared dinner for his family and can attest to it being flexible and easy to throw together at the last minute.  It hit all the notes for a stormy evening, and many of the ingredients are things you might already have on hand.

Sausage-Tomato Pasta Dish

Prep time: 20-30 minutes

Serving size: 4

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp. Olive Oil

1 c. yellow Onion, finely chopped

3 cloves Garlic, minced

2 links mild Italian Sausage, casing removed

2 links hot Italian Sausage, casing removed

1 Tbsp. dried Parsely

1 tsp. dried Basil

1 tsp. dried Oregano

2 14.5 oz. cans Chopped Tomatoes

1/2 c. Water

Penne or Rigatoni, portions for 4 people (cooked according to the packet instructions)

Parmesan Cheese, grated, for serving

Assembly:

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-low heat.  Add the onions and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes, until they are soft and translucent.  Crumble the raw sausage and put it in the pan with the onions and garlic.  Cook until it is not pink any longer, about 4-5 minutes.

Add the parsley, basil, and oregano to the pan with the meat and stir until combined.  Add the cans of chopped tomatoes.  Put 1/2 c. water in one of the cans and swish it around to get the last of the tomato juice out of it.  Dump that water into the second can and do the same.  Pour the water from the tomato cans into the pan with the meat and tomatoes.  Turn the heat up to medium, let the sauce boil, and turn down the heat to let it simmer.

Let the sauce cook until most of the liquid is gone, about 10 minutes.  The sauce should not be slightly thick, not soupy, with chunks of tomatoes and sausage showing through.  Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss to coat.  Serve hot with parmesan cheese on the side.

Buon appetito!

“Liguria: Flavors between Sea and Sky” at The International Culinary Center

This photo is a bit faded, as it is more than a decade old, but the sentiment it represents, the beauty of Italy and the culinary riches of one of its provinces, Liguria, are registered in my memories forever.  A couple of weeks ago, I was able to attend a seminar called “Liguria: Flavors between the Sea and Sky” about this region sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission and the Regione Liguria.  For a few short hours, as the speakers walked us through the history of the area and gave us olive and olive oil tastings, I was transported back to this stunningly beautiful land where the sea rolls out its welcoming deep aqua carpet while the mountains snuggly embrace the towns along the coastline.

Fred Plotkin

One of the two main speakers for the event was Fred Plotkin who, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite culinary personalities due to his love of Italy and his great passion for and insights into its food and culture.  If you don’t have his informative and gorgeous book Recipes from Paradise: Life & Food on the Italian Riviera, I strongly recommend that you add it to your collection.  It is more than a cookbook, it is a recording of the food history of the area and explanation of how some of the most recognized dishes from Italy came into being.

Pesto from one of the Ligurian representatives

Pesto, as he discussed in his presentation, is correctly made with parmesan cheese, pine nuts, basil (the tiny leaves), and olive oil from Liguria, no other kind will do.  When put in a jar for storage, it is sealed with a layer of this same olive oil.  Like grapes grown from wines, olives pick up the characteristics of the soil in which they are grown, which is why the flavor can differ so much from region to region in Italy.  In this part of the country, the foods take on the characteristics of the saltiness of the sea, the perfume of the flowers, and the aromas of the herbs that are all found there.

Trofie con pesto (with potatoes and green beans)*

Plotkin also asked us to remember that Liguria is one of the oldest regions and has some of the most ancient mills for grinding wheat.  Focaccia, dressed with the olive oil from the area, is a bread with historic origins that date back to the Roman times.  The Ligurian women created an onion version of this bread in order to make sure that their sailor men were not snapped up at their next port of call, Plotkin added.  It is this history and tradition that comes through in the dishes of the region, many of which are still made in the same way today.

Focaccia and Farinata

The sea-faring ways of the people of this region also aided in the distribution of its food culture to other parts of Italy and the world.  As inhabitants of an area with plenty of sunshine but not that many acres of arable land due to the mountains around them, the Ligurians became adept at the art of preservation.  Pesto is not the only example of this, with the local people preserving fish in oil, sun-drying tomatoes, and finding other ways to make their crops sustain them throughout the year.  Ravioli made in the Genovese fashion could be folded up and taken out to sea.

Samples of olive oils and olives

We were also treated to a lesson in the production of olive oil and how that from Liguria differs from ones produced in other regions by Antonio Fasolo, Olive Oil Expert.  While it is generally rare to have a bottle of olive oil that contains the liquid from a single varietal, one made with pure Taggiasca olives from this region is one of the most important in the world, with its delicate, clean flavor.  It is best used as a finishing oil, a condiment, rather than in cooking.  In tasting an olive oil, the first thing to do is to smell it: It should smell fresh.  Then, cover the cup, holding it with your hand to warm it a bit and taste it.

Antonio Fasolo

A flavor of bitter almonds mean that the oil is bad or has gone rancid.  Oil that tastes vinegary has been exposed to high sugar content or been heated and has started to ferment.  Does it have a musty aroma?  Then, the oil has likely been kept in too damp a place or been stored for too long.  None of these sound very appealing and feel even less so on the palate, as we discovered when trying the samples put before us.  I could definitely pick up the lighter, more floral feel to the Ligurian oil in this setting.  When tasting the olives themselves, their delicate aroma came through event more, especially as compared to the more cured and brinier versions that we were given as an alternative to try.

Olive Oils from a Ligurian producer

Like making wine, olives are pressed and the resulting liquid is decanted; each step in the process can have an impact on the final results.  Olive oil should be used within one year of its production.  As the saying in Italian goes, “New oil, old wine.” (Another saying is “Wine when it is born begins to live; oil when it is born begins to die.”)  The lightness and beauty of the Ligurian olive oil that I tasted and the amazing freshness of the foods of the region that I remember from my own trips there made me appreciate this sentiment even more.  It really is a land that captures the essence of living between the sea and the sky.

Buon appetito!

*for a recipe similar to this one, please see Pasta alla Liguria

Thank you to The Diva that Ate New York for the email alerting me to this event and to the folks at CRT/tanaka for putting it together and allowing me to participate. 

Courgette & Orzo Bake or Baked Zucchini & Orzo

Zucchini & Orzo bake

With the holiday weekend approaching, it’s time to start making those grocery shopping lists to prepare for the barbecue or whatever plans are on tap.  Although I love the stand-bys like potato salad and s’mores, sometimes I feel like we fall into the usual rut of side dishes.  With so much fresh produce coming into season, it seemed appropriate to try to find something new to make.

summer squashSummer Squash

BBC Good Food Magazine, which is one of my reliable recipe resources, had a whole section of courgette (zucchini) dishes in the June issue.  One of them that caught my eye was this Courgette & Orzo Bake.  Fortunately, the Greenmarket has already begun to showcase this summer’s crop of squash, so the basic ingredient wasn’t too difficult to find in every shape and size.  From there, it was really just a matter of prepping everything and throwing it all together in a baking pan (I used a Pyrex one) to cook together.

Grated ZucchiniGrating the Zucchini by hand is tedious but worth it

OnionsSee my tutorial on “How to Chop an Onion

white wineI think that’s just enough wine left for this dish

Vegetable StockYes, it is store-bought stock.  I don’t usually make my own.

Barilla OrzoYep – just go on and dump the whole box of Orzo into the pan

Pre-baked Zucchini & OrzoI ended up using a ladle to transfer the mixture from stovetop pan to baking dish

oven readyOven-ready.  Not to worry, all of that liquid will be absorbed into the dish during the baking process.

Ready for the ovenThe last 10 minutes when adding breadcrumbs and extra Parmesan

Finished dishHere’s the result – Courgette & Orzo Bake or Baked Zucchini & Orzo

This dish has lots of great flavor with the freshness of the in-season zucchini (or courgettes), the nuttiness of the Parmesan, the crisp of the breadcrumbs, and the al dente pasta.  I think that next time, I would follow what one of the on-line commenters said and add pine nuts at that last 10-minute mark to add some extra heartiness to the dish.  I would also sprinkle some chopped basil on top after it comes out of the oven for an additional herbal punch.

These summertime flavors would be wonderful with grilled chicken or burgers or, what really came to mind for me, lamb.  It is fine served hot but even room temperature it would make a splendid side dish for any summer cookout.  I think this one will go it to the recipe “keeper” file.

Buon appetito!

My Mom’s Sausage and Cheese Lasagna

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog or who knows me that I did the majority of the dinner cooking when I was at my parent’s house over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.  In some ways I didn’t mind.  It gave me a chance to flex my culinary muscles, which doesn’t usually happen cooking for just one person, as I normally do.  I also got to make those big batch kind of meals that feed the small army of folks who grew up in my household but which would mean I’d be stuck eating leftovers for weeks.

So, in addition to the Christmas dinner of Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and Horseradish Sauce, a batch of Spaghetti and Meatballs, and roasted chicken, all of which provided great leftovers for several days, I also whipped up a batch of my mother’s Sausage and Cheese Lasagna.  Last year, I wrote about how I wanted to see if this dish would stand up to some of the newer ones I’d come across as part of my Recipe Box Project.  Mom’s won.  It has that right flavor balance of robust tanginess from the tomato sauce, ooey-gooey comfort from the cheeses, heft from the pasta, and hearty meatiness from the sausages, with just a little bit of kick from the red pepper in the spicy sausage to keep the dish from being bland or boring.  It’s even better to eat on the second day.

This is a well-used card

This year, when my brother mentioned that he should get the recipe so that they can make it when they are back home, I said, “Well, it’s in the recipe card file.”  He replied, “Yeah, but that would mean I’d have to write it down.”  I countered, “It’s on my blog.”  He responded, “It’s just easier if you write it out for me.”  Actually, what he really meant to say is, “It’s easier if you not only write it out for me step, by step [as you can see from the card there’s just the ingredients listed, no instructions as to what to do with them], but also to make it, freeze it, and find a way to ship it to them ready-made.”  This is the same reaction I get to many of the recipes that my family wants from me (not to rat out my sisters and any particular cookie recipe or anything).


It was satisfying to see that he, my sister-in-law, my tiny nephew, and my dad all enjoyed eating the lasagna that I made.  Devouring it might be a bit more accurate.  Two-thirds of the pan was gone by the time dinner was over, with everyone, even the little guy, going back for seconds.  This recipe is easily adaptable, too, which makes it work well as a family meal.  Just throw together a green salad and some garlic bread to make it a classic Italo-American dinner.  So, here you are little bro, I’ve written out the instructions for you as I made this last week, but I’m not flying out there to make this for you whenever you want to eat it.

Hey!  How did that spinach note get in there?

Sausage and Cheese Lasagna*

Prep Time: 1.5 hours before the oven time, plus 30 minutes to bake
Serving Size: Depends upon how hungry everyone is, 6-8 people

For the sauce:
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 medium Yellow Onion, chopped finely
2 large cloves of Garlic, minced
1 lb. Hot Italian Sausage, casings removed and crumbled
1 lb. Sweet Italian Sausage, casings removed and crumbled
2 Tbsp dried Parsley
1 Tbsp dried Basil Leaves
1 28-oz. can chopped Tomatoes
1 8-oz. can Tomato Sauce
1 6-oz. can Tomato Paste

Warm up olive oil over medium-low heat in a large pan or Dutch oven.  Add onion and cook for three minutes, until the onions are soft.  Add in the garlic and cook for two minutes more, taking care that the onions and garlic don’t burn or turn dark.  Put the sausages in the pot and let them cook until you cannot see any pink parts.  This will take about 10 minutes.  While the sausages are cooking, you can mash them into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon.

Add the dried parsley and basil to the sausage mixture and stir to incorporate thoroughly. Pour in the chopped tomatoes with their juice and the tomato sauce.  Fill the tomato sauce can with water and swirl around to get the last of the sauce out of the pan.  Pour that liquid into the can with the chopped tomatoes and pour that into the pot.  Add the tomato paste. Fill the tomato paste can with water to scrape out the last bits and pour into the pot with the rest of the ingredients.

Bring pot to a medium simmer and turn the heat to low.  Let ingredients simmer for at least one hour.  Turn off heat and let sit while preparing the cheese layer and assembling the lasagna.

Meat Sauce for Lasagna

For the cheese layer:
1 15-oz. container Ricotta Cheese (can use part-skim if you like)
2 large Egg Yolks (save whites for another use)
2 Tbsp dried Parsley
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/4 tsp. ground Black Pepper
1 10-oz. box frozen Spinach, thawed and drained (if using) – optional

Combine first five ingredients in a small bowl and set aside until ready to assemble lasagna prior to baking it.  If you are using the spinach, add it at the end.

Cheese Mixture for Lasagna

To assemble:
10 oz. dried Lasagna Noodles, cooked according to package instructions (you might not use the whole box, so you should cook them in batches)
3/4 cup mixed Italian Cheeses (Fontina, Asiago, Parmesan) – optional
10 oz. box Frozen Spinach, thawed and drained (if using) – optional
1 lb. Mozzarella Cheese, grated (can be part-skim)

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Put two tablespoons of sauce in a 9x13x2-inch pan and spread it around to coat the bottom.  Place a row of pasta on the bottom of the pan. Spoon over several ladles of sauce and a third of the cheese mixture.  Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the mixed cheeses on top of that.  If using the spinach, put globs of it (or spread it out, your choice) on top of the cheese layer.  Repeat two more times.  Finish by sprinkling the mozzarella on top of everything.

Ready for the Oven

Place in oven and cook for 20 minutes until heated through and the cheese on top is all melted and gooey.  Increase heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for 10 minutes more to make the cheese golden.  Remove from the oven and let it sit for 5-10 minutes before cutting into squares.  Serve immediately.

Ready to serve and eat

Buon appetito!

*Kitchen Witch Tip:
You could use a whole wheat pasta, but here I stuck to a regular one.  I liked the mix of the Italian cheese in addition to the ricotta, but that isn’t in the original recipe.  I omitted the spinach (which I think was an extra item my mom snuck in there anyway).   I also, for this batch, took out the sugar, salt, and pepper from the sauce, as listed on the card, as I thought it had enough flavor as it was.  Leave these things up to yours and your family’s tastes, however, to start your own lasagna tradition.

Happy New Year / Buon Capodanno

As 2010 winds down, folks will be celebrating the arrival of2011 in a variety of ways.  Earlier inDecember, I was at a lecture about Italian Holiday Traditions at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side featuring Francine Segan.  Listening to her speak brought me back tosome wonderful times that I’d spent ringing in the new year with friendsoverseas.
As she explained, many of these traditions feature specificfood items, and, as with most things in Italy, also have regionalvariations.  In Bologna, a typical dishis a pile of lentils (to symbolize money) topped with slices of zampone (astuffed pig’s trotter) or cotechino (a sausage variety), and garnished with potato purée.  Eating this meal on New Year’s Eve(capodanno), in addition to wearing red undergarments that evening and/or the first day of January, issupposed to bring good luck and fortune in the coming year.

While I don’t know how accurate that legend actually is, I can tellyou that the savory, melting fat and spices from the zampone / cotechino flavors the lentils justwonderfully.  The hearty taste andtexture of the flavored legumes is a perfect balance to the smooth and creamy potatomixture.  If I could get my hands on thepork component of this dish here in Virginia (our usual sausages aren’t quitethe same thing), I would make this for my family to eat tonight.

My mom used to make something of a similar nature for NewYear’s Day.  For us, we would gatheraround for a special meal to start off the year, usually featuring a ham ofsome sort, if I remember correctly.  Shewould also try to feed us Hoppin’ John, a Southern classic made with black-eyed peas and a ham hock, with the similargood luck aura of the Bolognesi lentils. This, I distinctly remember as not a hit at the dinner table.  I don’t recall it making an appearance morethan a couple of times.
However, for us, tonight it will be dinner with a toddler,his parents, and my dad.  We’ll be havingthe Spaghetti and Meatballs that I wrote about ages ago as being a familyclassic.  Having made this same dish overthe summer with my two oldest nieces, it seems like the next generation is alsobecoming a fan of it (and one of my nieces is a pro at making evenly-sized and -shaped meatballs).  Even ifthere aren’t any beans to represent money, the sauce for this dish is very red,so maybe that will be enough to bring us all good fortune for 2011.
Buon appetito and Buon Anno Nuovo!