Category Archives: Pasta Dishes

Farro Risotto with Roasted Butternut Squash and Thyme-Roasted Mushrooms

I fell in love with farro (also known as emmer) when I lived in Italy.  One day when I was miserably sick with a head cold, thousands of miles away from my family and not yet realizing how to make my own chicken soup, I went to the small store that sold mostly frozen produce that was near my apartment.  In one of the display cases was a large plastic bag of what I could determine was a vegetable soup mix.  I decided to try it.

Being sick is no fun, but it is even less fun when you live in another country and have no idea what over-the-counter product will cure your ills.  I inhaled the steam from the broth to try to open up my clogged nose.  Then, I dipped my spoon in the bowl to taste it.  The vegetables were fine, but there was something else in there that I couldn’t quite identify.  It was had a hearty, nutty taste to it.  It wasn’t exactly rice or barley, which I’d had usually had in soups.  What was it?

Turns out that it was farro, a grain, a type of wheat actually, that has been around for quite some time and one that is popular in Italian cooking, even though I had never encountered it before that day.  It is eaten in soups, risotto-style (like this recipe), and even made into pasta.  What I really like about it is that it has the stronger flavor of a brown rice with the textural consistency of a risotto rice.  It makes me feel a bit healthier about shaving a pile of cheese on a plate of it.

This recipe is completely vegetarian and has a couple of steps taking place at the same time, to speed it up.  The farro will take longer to cook than a usual risotto rice, much like brown rice takes longer than white.  Roasting the vegetables gives them a heartier flavor to match that of the farro.  The Salad with Balsamic Vinegar-Fig Reduction from last week would make a great accompaniment to the risotto.  A meal with these dishes could almost make you feel like you were in one of the more sophisticated tratorrie.

Farro Risotto with Roasted Butternut Squash and Thyme-Roasted Mushrooms

Prep time: 45 minutes
Serving Size: 4 main dish portions (6 primi piatti)

3 cups butternut squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups cremini mushrooms (baby portabellas), cut into quarters
3 cloves garlic, smashed but left in their skins
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 springs thyme
1 small onion, finely minced
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 c. farro (also known as emmer)
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 c. vegetarian vegetable stock
3 springs thyme, leaves removed (about 1 tsp.)
Grana Padano cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (see Measurements & Conversions for other temperatures).  Prepare two roasting pans, each with one Tbsp. of olive oil.  Put the mushrooms into one pan and the squash into the other.  In the pan with the mushrooms, put two springs of thyme and one clove of garlic.  In the pan with the squash, put in the other two cloves of garlic.  Place them in the oven.  Set the timer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and the olive oil together.  When mixture is foamy, add onion to the pan.  Let it cook for five minutes, until the onions start to become translucent.  Add the farro and stir so that each grain becomes coated in the butter and oil.  Let cook for about a minute.

Pour in the wine and cook over low heat until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.  At this point, start to add the vegetable stock a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring to incorporate into the risotto and letting it cook down until it is almost evaporated before adding more stock.  Although this step seems fiddly, it is important to continue to do it to break down the starches in the grain to achieve the desired creamy consistency.

At some point during the add-stock-and-stir phase, the timer for the oven will go off.  Check the mushrooms and the squash.  The former are probably done.  Remove them from the oven at set aside.  The squash will probably need about 10 more minutes to cook, but check them to see if they are tender enough to push all the way through with a fork.  When they are that consistency, remove them from the oven.  Set aside.

After you have added the second-to-last portion of the stock and the mushrooms and squash are out of the oven, remove the thyme stalk from the mushrooms and remove the garlic from both pans.  Peel and mash the garlic and add to the farro.  Add the last portion of stock along with the mushrooms and squash and all the liquid from the baking pans.

Stir everything together to incorporate.  At this point, add the thyme leaves and taste the dish to test the seasoning.  Add salt and pepper as needed.  Serve immediately with a dusting of Gran Padano.

Buon appetito!

Paglia e Fieno or Straw and Hay

I discovered the recipe for Paglia e Fieno, or Straw and Hay, in Diane Seed’s The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces book.  For a while in the mid-1990s, this book was sold at Crate & Barrel, and I used to pair it with wooden kitchen spoons and a pasta fork as a wedding present for friends who got married in that era. It was just after I had returned from studying in Italy for a year, so I wanted to invite them to learn about all the amazing sauces that Italians use with their variety of pastas.  It was at the new peak of the Italian food craze in the U.S., so hopefully my timing was perfect. 

Although it seems like a tiny volume for a cookbook, as it closes out at 123 pages with no photos only illustrations, this is one of those resources from which I’ve pulled many recipes that are in my meal rotation.  She has lots of vegetarian vegetable ones in addition to the ones with meat and seafood.  The headnotes that go along with the recipes are informative and helpful in putting them together.  Most of the ones I usually make are suitable for a weeknight dinner.  I have to confess, I’ve been too scared off by some of the more complex and complicated ones to attempt them (like the Timballo) but maybe that is something that I should add to my resolution list to tackle next year.  If you don’t already have this on your bookshelves, I highly recommend it.  

This dish combines spinach pasta and regular pasta (usually tagliatelle) to make the “straw and hay.”  The sauce is a cream-based one that combines peas, ham or proscuitto cotto, and sauteed mushrooms dusted with parmesan cheese.  It is robust and hearty and very filling.  For me, this is comfort food at its most wonderful.  

It not only brings back memories of cooking in my kitchen in Bologna and learning about how to make good pasta dishes, it also enables me to use ingredients that I can source locally in New York.  To me this is the best of both worlds, being able to take recipes I have from my travels and living overseas and being able to translate them into my current life.  As the weather starts to go from sunny summer and cool fall into dreary winter, I keep this dish and its rich flavors in mind for those days when I need a treat.

Buon appetito!

Kitchen Witch Tips:

At a networking coffee this week, a contact mentioned to me that what she’d really like is for someone to hand her a a guide to the Greenmarket plus some tips on what to make and where to find the ingredients.  I can’t do all of that, but here’s the list of where I sourced everything for this recipe when I shopped there on Wednesday:

Pasta – Knoll Krest Farm (they also have quiches and challah available)
Shallots – Paffenroth Gardens

Mushrooms – Bulich Mushrooms
Peas – Migliorelli Farm (purchased earlier this summer, shelled, and frozen)

Cream and Butter – Ronnybrook Farm Dairy

Fettuccine with Peas, Asparagus, and Pancetta

Bon Appetit’s May issue cover recipe for Fettuccine with Peas, Asparagus, and Pancetta was one that I’d pulled aside to try in the continuing seasonal intersection between local peas and farmers’ market asparagus this year. In looking at the magazine photo on their website, it isn’t difficult to see how the dish draws you in with the bright green colors and allure of fresh tastes.
I’d made something similar earlier in the week when I took some leftovers I’d brought home from dinner out. The difference in the glossy coating of the reduced cream sauce I pulled together versus the one that had just a bit of cream along with the olive oil and pasta water from the magazine article is almost visible in the photos.
I had had some pancetta and fresh parmesan in the fridge, so this seemed like a great way to try to use up some of those items as well. Mixing the veggies with the meat, cream, and cheese were a delicious combination and produced a much lighter sauce than the heavier ones usually dumped on pasta primavera. The peas and asparagus tasted fresher, and the crisp of the pancetta along with the brightness of the parsley and basil make this a dish I’ll keep around to try every spring when I can get the ingredients seasonally and locally.

My photo – not from the magazine!
It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who decided to tackle this recipe. When I typed it into Google to locate the link to the original site, I found that many food bloggers had also decided that this just hit the spot. One of the photos that I really like (and envy a bit) is that on Annie’s Eats. There were several others as well who were draw in by the appeal of the simplicity of the dish and the power of the fresh produce that it brings together. It is easy enough to put on the table after a day at the office or, as it will be for me tonight, makes a tasty meal to end out the weekend.
Buon appetito!

Sausage & Cheese Lasagna

It would be an understatement to say that it has been cold in the Northeast for the past few weeks. Frigid, bone-chilling, bloody freezing cold. The temperature has been so low on some days that I don’t think that it could have snowed if it wanted to, although the major snowstorm missed us completely yesterday.
In that spirit, I decided to make lasagna. I never really think about doing this just for myself, but I really should. Left over lasagna is wonderful to have on hand. It is perfect for reheating for a quick weekday supper. It is also possible to make it in advance and to freeze it to cook mid-week. Add a side salad and some garlic bread (or deli-purchased garlic knots for the lazier set) accompanied by a glass of red wine, and you could almost be at dinner at your favorite red-checked tablecloth restaurant, Chianti bottle candleholder optional.
I must have also been inspired by what happened a month or so back. When I was in Virginia over the holidays, I asked my dad what he wanted me to make for dinner. I even offered to make him some dishes he could freeze to reheat whenever he got tired of eating his usual fare. What did he want? My mom’s lasagna. So, I pulled out the recipe card from the file and started to get to work.

I did feel a bit pressured to get this right on the first try. My mom’s lasagna was much in demand when we were growing up, and she took a particular pride in this recipe. She had even purchased extra sausage and had frozen it to have on hand, which my father and I found when we were poking around in the freezer. Some pretty high stakes were riding on my producing something that would remind everyone of family dinners gone by, but in a good way.

From the card above, you can see that it doesn’t seem to be that complicated to make. It’s just a series of several steps that all get thrown together at the end in one baked dish. I hadn’t realized until I looked closely at the card, but it seems like my mother may have snuck in the spinach which she always used in this recipe. I opted not to mix that into the ricotta as she seems to indicate, but, rather, I alternated between globs of cheese and dots of green when I built the layers.

The end result was rich, gooey, hearty, and soul-satisfying. It was a hit with my father and my siblings who were around that night. All the same, I sort of wondered if this was the be-all, end-all of family-style lasagna dishes. Food and Wine magazine had published a Free-Form Sausage and Three-Cheese Lasagna recipe in the January 2010 edition. I was drawn into it by the photo of the finished dish. Would this be the rival recipe to take on my mother’s favorite?
I tried to see what I could pick up at the Greenmarket yesterday to put this together. The folks at Violet Hill Farm had some Italian sweet sausage. Tonjes Farm Dairy had fresh mozzarella. Everything else I would need to pick up elsewhere. Then, I could see if this would match up to the kind of lasagna that haunts one’s dreams.
My finished product looked different from that in the magazine, as I’d added some tomato sauce to the top layer to keep it moist. I also had enough extra cheese that I put some of the Fontina and the mozzarella on top. I think mine looks a bit more rustic and what one thinks of as a homemade dish.
When served up with the fresh basil on top of the finished product, the lasagna is respectably gooey with a snap from the herbs. I didn’t find it as hearty as the one that I’d made at my folks’ place. The flavor overall seemed a bit drab. It didn’t taste bad at all, just not as strong of a dish as the one with which I’d grown up. This is not something that would make the members of a large family run to the table so as not to be stuck with the last, smallest piece.
I could definitely see adding some extra hot Italian sausage to give it some more personality. Another touch I might add, which is a step that is in the first recipe, is to cook the sausage in the sauce for a while and then add the two together to build the layers, as I thought the meat got kind of dry in the baking process. The cheeses were fine but having two soft melty cheeses didn’t create enough of a flavor contrast for me.
As for not having any spinach, well, I didn’t miss that a bit. There’s always salad to add the green stuff to the meal. Overall, I think that Mom’s recipe still wins; however, it was nice to try another option just to see if something else could stack up to it.
Buon appetito!

Risotto alla Gorgonzola

Having visitors provides a great excuse to get to the parts of the city that one normally doesn’t get to in the course of one’s usual errands. This past week, my sister came to town for a few days. We didn’t really have a plan, per se, for things to do on this trip. I had some long-overdue things to get done and dragged her around town. In return, I also took her to someplace that I knew would be a little bit of heaven for her.

Murray’s Cheese Shopis one of those institutions in New York that is spoken of as the authority on all things for fermented dairy, much like the cheese counter at Fairway. I made sure that my sister was fully prepared to enter this notable establishment. She’s often told me that cheese is one of hers and her boyfriend’s food loves. I wanted to make sure that she enjoyed her visit.

She wasted no time in making her selections after a brief perusal. On the first time in the shop, it can be a bit overwhelming to see all the different varieties, but the staff is always helpful to offer recommendations and to provide samples. The cheeses are well labeled as to where they are from and how they might taste.

My sister grabbed several kinds of soft and hard cheeses as well as some salami to take back with her. Murray’s also has various hard sausages, cured meats, honeys, and dried fruits for sale that pair well with their other wares. In addition, the shop sells ice packs to keep everything cool for the journey back home.

We’d had kind of a large lunch that day at one of my favorite Turkish restaurants. My sister and I both wanted something a bit simpler for dinner. She had suggested a dish that she’d had when visiting me in Italy: Risotto alla Gorgonzola. I’d never made this, but the sampling of blue cheeses at Murray’s inspired me to attempt it.

Based upon my sister’s description of the dish and my own experience in making risotto, I could guess at the kind of cheese that was used. Gorgonzola is not as simple as it might seem. There are various versions from softer and creamy (younger) to more pungent and crumblier (older or more aged). It is made in the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy, which are in the North. For the dish that I made, I used two different types: a Gorgonzola-Mascarpone layered type and a creamy Gorgonzola. These melted well into the risotto and gave it a richness with a subtle and not too overwhelming blue cheese finish.

Gorgonzola and Mascarpone in layers 

Creamy Gorgonzola

Risotto alla Gorgonzola

Serving Size: 4 appetizer portions or 2 main dish portions

Prep Time: about an hour

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 c. finely minced yellow onion
1 Tbsp. finely minced garlic
1 c. carnaroli rice
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 c. low-sodium chicken stock (warmed)
1/8 lb. Gorgonzola-Mascarpone layered torta
1/8 lb. soft Gorgonzola (called Dolce or Cremificato), cut into small cubes
1 pinch salt
1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter until foamy over low heat. Add onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and watching carefully so that it doesn’t get browned or burnt. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes more so that it is softened and the onion is translucent. The onion and garlic are meant to melt into the finished dish so that they don’t stand out against the rice.

Add the rice and stir to make sure that each grain is coated with the buttery liquid. Cook for 30 seconds before adding the wine. Stir to incorporate the wine and cook until it is just about completely absorbed into the rice. Pour in about 2 tablespoons of the warm chicken stock and incorporate it into the rice mixture.

Continue to add the stock several tablespoons at a time, stirring completely and waiting for the liquid to be completely absorbed before pouring in the next bit of stock. As the cooking continues, you will see the starch being released from the rice and the grains becoming tender and creamy. When there is about a quarter of a cup of liquid left, you might want to taste the rice to test the texture. It should be almost al dente. Finish adding in the rest of the stock and cook until it has been completely absorbed.

Once all the liquid has been incorporated, you can turn off the heat. Break up the Gorgonzola-Mascarpone and stir to blend thoroughly, leaving no lumps of cheese. Next, add the creamy Gorgonzola and stir to blend completely into the rice. The heat from the rice will melt the cheeses. After they’ve all been mixed in together, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the parsley.

Buon appetito!

Ragu alla Bolognese

Yesterday, it was freezing outside. Today it has been warmer but is wet and miserable. I guess we can’t win on the weekend front in the Northeast. The only plus side is that this means the weather has been perfect for baking and for making hearty meals.
I’d had a craving for a Ragu alla Bolognese. This rich, slow-cooked meat sauce is the basis for many a wonderful dish in Bologna, Italy. One recipe that I’ve found to be pretty reliable in taste and texture is from Claudia Roden’s The Good Food of Italy. I have used several recipes out of this cookbook over the years. Her rendition of this classic meat sauce is the one that I have used to make my own Lasagna Bolognese (omitting the mushrooms).
Although two hours or so of cooking time might seem like unnecessary labor for a pasta sauce, this is no ordinary thing to pull together. On a day when it was too cold to venture far from the apartment, having to watch this cook away on the stovetop was a great excuse for going nowhere. The vegetables get to meld together before adding the meat, then the wine, then slowly simmering everything in stock. The flavors take time to build and meld into meaty richness combined with a backnote of tang from the tomato paste. The cream at the end emphasizes the velvety nature of this sauce on your tongue, like wrapping yourself in a blanket on a cold night while sitting on the sofa.


The finished sauce in the pan might not look like much to the unaccustomed eye, but when it is poured over garganelli, the truth comes out. Dusted with parmesan, this was my lunch today, as I watched it continue to pour outside of my window. My stomach was full and my soul was satisfied, even if I couldn’t actually be in Italy.
Buon appetito!