Category Archives: Pasta Dishes

Arthur Avenue Italian Food Tour

Mother Nature has been giving us quite a whalloping lately. Fortunately, there was a break between storms which allowed me to take up an invitation to visit Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. This is where the Italian population moved to after they landed in Little Italy and were able to make enough money to get out of the tenements. I had been looking forward to making this trip very much, as I was hoping to get my hands on some fresh pasta and other specialties that I’d been missing since I lived in Italy, so I was glad that we could make it.

I was not disappointed at all. It was very much like being let loose in a candy-shop for an adult food lover. Brands and items that I hadn’t seen since I lived overseas were available. The aroma of the bakery we stopped at brought me back to Europe with piles of bread on the shelves and fresh-baked goods on display. Of course, I could not resist picking up some of the soft almond cookies and the pine nut cookies to take to my family for the holidays on our visit to Madonia Brothers Bakery (2348 Arthur Avenue).

We dropped by the Casa Della Mozzarella (604 East 187th Street) to pick up some freshly-made cheese. While on line waiting to place our orders, we were offered samples of some chocolate and hazelnut candy along with some Italian pop music. The real highlight of our trip, however, was to be Borgatti’s (632 East 187th Street) for some handmade pasta.

The line was long, but everyone was in great spirits. One counter was for the ravoli (cheese and meet) and the other was for the sheets of pasta cut to order in any size. This was a unique and very interesting experience. When I finally made it to the head of the line, having been prepped ahead of time, I asked for a pound each of the golden egg and the pine-green spinach pasta, cut to a tagliatelle. I’d picked up a box of the ravioli first. My family is going to be very spoiled this holiday.

The real treat, from my perspective was that I spotted some fresh cavatelli while we were on line. I haven’t seen this pasta very much in the United States and to find it freshly-made here was wonderful. The shape has a slit in the middle which is great for clinging whatever sauce is added to it. It is robust enough to take on a meaty ragu and delicate enough to handle the creamy zucchini sauce that I’d found tucked away in a cookbook and decided to try.

I’m definitely going to prepare a better list the next time I head up there so that I can make sure not to miss out on the other goodies that I can buy. This should keep me in good stead until I can get back to Italy again.

Buon appetito!

Cheese Ravioli

When I weeded out my cookbook collection last year, I was pretty vigilant. I took an especially critical look at my Italian collection, as I had quite a few volumes about this cuisine. In doing some research on the last of the series of Lent-friendly family recipes, I combed through several of them, but this one was where I found the recipe for which I was looking – classic Cheese Ravioli.

Again, this was not one of the favorites of the siblings with whom I did a straw poll. Bland, was one word that was used. Heavy, was another. Having eaten plenty of ravioli, tortelloni and other cheese-filled pastas in Italy proper, I can attest to the fact that they can be culinary wonders, luscious and comforting, if prepared properly. This is completely the opposite of any pasta that ever came out of a can when we were growing up, not that we ate that in my house, that was only available at other people’s houses. In re-reading this book, I was drawn into the poetry and passion of the author for his subject, and I completely share his conviction that handmade pasta can be simple and ethereal.

I don’t do reviews of cookbooks, but this one is fantastic, if you would like to know more about typical, traditional pasta recipes and some of the history of the regions that they represent. This book was a gift to me literally weeks before I found out I’d gotten into graduate school in Italy, where I’d never been in my life. It holds a special place in my heart because of that, but in re-reading it for the first time in many years, I realized how wonderful it was as well. I became so engrossed in the section about the pastas of Liguria – one of my absolute favorite places to vacation – that I missed my subway stop.

It takes a lot to distract me that much, but I guess memories of really great food is one of those things. It got me dreaming about past meals and lovely summer afternoons on the Italian coast. That was all the inspiration I needed to try to tackle this recipe. My first attempt at this wasn’t all that successful, frankly, which just means I need to try to make pasta from scratch more often.

The typical proportions for making pasta from scratch is one egg to 100 grams of double-zero flour, which is the kind used in Italy.
The beaten egg and a pinch of salt are poured into the well created by the flour – think sandcastles and moats at the beach.
Mix everything together to incorporate the egg and flour – working with your hands is best.
After a few minutes, it will start to come together more.
Knead the pasta for 10-15 minutes. Then, shape it into a ball.
Cover it and let it rest for 30 minutes.
Roll out the pasta very thinly. You can do this with a rolling pin or a machine, but a real pasta connoisseur will be able to tell the difference between the two.
I made a classic filling with ricotta, parmesan cheese, finely chopped parsley, black pepper, beaten egg, and a pinch of nutmeg.
After placing filling on the pasta sheet, I cut them using a fluted pastry wheel (actually bought in Bologna).
Cook in boiling salted water for about 3 minutes or until they puff up. Fish out of the water, don’t dump the pasta, to avoid it breaking and creating a large mess.
Serve immediately with marinara sauce and let melt in your mouth, or as the Italians say, “Si scioglie in bocca.

Another option, as I discovered when I had left over filling, is to make crespelle, which is an Italian dish that doesn’t usually spring to my mind, although I enjoy it and always think it looks elegant. These are basically, filled, baked crêpes. The April 2008 issue of Food & Wine (which I was reading during my subway rides into work this week and which didn’t make me miss my stop) features this recipe. It gave me another chance to use my crêpe pan, which I have to confess, I haven’t done since last year’s blog post in honor of Julia Child’s birthday.

I think that this was much better than my attempt at making cheese ravioli. If we’d had this meal growing up, I’m sure that it would not have been on my siblings’ list of Lenten dishes that they dislike. This recipe can be altered to include spinach combined with the cheese (another classic pasta filling combination). I was also dreaming (as I do on meat-less Fridays), about slivers of proscuitto cotto layered inside the crespelle, lying on top of the cheese. I am definitely keeping this recipe in my collezione di ricette italiani.
Buon appetito!

Tuna Tettrazini

I didn’t put this recipe up in time for this past Friday, the first Friday of Lent, because, like usual, it always takes me about a week to get myself in gear for this season. It’s always a challenge to remember that I’m not supposed to eat meat the first week or that I was supposed to have given something up for the next month and a half.

My brain still hasn’t activated the “You are banned from eating meat today” voice until at least the second week. In good years, this happens prior to my eating a chicken sandwich for lunch. In not-so-good years, I’ll have already had bacon for breakfast before it occurs to me that I shouldn’t have eaten it. This year, I felt pretty good about being on top of it, even having my first tuna melt on Ash Wednesday. Good thing that this is only once a year.

So, after the first Friday of pizza for dinner or fish sticks and tater tots (mmm, remember those from school lunches), it’s time to dust off the tuna recipes. Tuna Tetrazzini was among the first of the dishes that I was put in charge of making. It was usually served with “salad” (aka iceburg lettuce with bottled Italian dressing). To be a bit more grown up, I opted for having my recipe for Freshly-Shelled Peas with Sautéed Shallots as the side dish.

In discussing my cooking project with one of my sisters, she mentioned that she also hadn’t made it in a while. I have to say that, periodically, I’ve even had a craving for it. Its base is similar to that for macaroni and cheese, with a variation on white sauce (see my recipe for it here), and it has that gooey, creamy quality that is a hallmark of many a comfort food. We weren’t a tuna casserole family so there aren’t any veggies mixed into this dish, there’s no cream of anything soup as the base, or potato chips [plain crisps for my English friends] crumbled on top. (That actually doesn’t even sound appetizing as I write it, even though it was a culinary staple when I was growing up.)

Tuna Tetrazzini

Prep time: 45 minutes
Serving size: 4 large to 6 medium portions

1/4 c. butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 c. whole milk
1 tsp. ground mustard
1/2 c. sherry (cooking sherry is fine)
8 oz. cooked noodles or macaroni
1 large can tuna, liquid drained
1/4 c. plus 2 Tbsp. shredded American or Cheddar cheese*

In saucepan, over low heat, melt butter. Add flour and stir to make sure that it is completely absorbed by the butter. Cook for 1-2 minutes until golden brown, but do not let it become dark. Add milk one-quarter cup at a time, making sure to stir continuously to avoid lumps forming.

The milk needs to be whisked in thoroughly after each addition until it has been completely absorbed by the flour-butter mixture. Continue to stir over low heat until the sauce has become very thick, like mayonnaise. Add dry mustard to the cream sauce. Sprinkle in salt and pepper to taste. Then, stir in sherry and allow mixture to thicken once again.

Stir in 1/4 cup of shredded cheese to the cream sauce. Fold in tuna. Add cooked pasta to cream-tuna-cheese mixture. Pour into baking pan (I used a 9-inch by 9-inch one.) and sprinkle the remaining shredded cheese on top. Place in preheated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven (180 Centigrade / Gas Mark 4) for 20-30 minutes until cheese has melted and dish is bubbling hot.

Remove from the oven to cool for few minutes and make the peas side dish in the meantime. Serve peas immediately with the tuna tetrazzini.

*The original of this recipe called for using Velveeta, but I don’t allow that to cross the threshold of my abode. Instead, after doing a little bit of research on macaroni and cheese, I decided to go with an American and Cheddar cheese combo, which melts just as nicely.

Buon appetito!

Homemade Garlic Bread

In testing out the meatball recipe last week, I’d sort of forgotten that it makes quite a few, even when not almost-doubled to feed a family of eight plus any random cousins or friends who show up for dinner. So, I was left with quite a few extra, despite the fact that I’d packed up spaghetti and meatballs to take for lunch all last week. This left me with a few choices: I could freeze them for later or try to finish eating all of them.

It isn’t really such a chore to figure out what to do with these as they are so versatile. They can be broken into pieces, mixed with cooked pasta, folded with some ricotta, dusted with grated or thinly sliced, fresh mozzarella, and baked in the oven for about 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Centigrade / Gas Mark 4) to make a hearty main dish for a cold night. Or, just heat up some meatballs and sauce in the oven and melt a slice of Provolone on top. Toss together a pile of fresh greens with olive oil and vinegar and round out with some crusty bread and a glass of red wine.

What could be more heavenly? Even in my current sinus-medicine induced fogginess (the sinus infection is courtesy a co-worker who did not stay home when sick), this sounds absolutely wonderful, if only I had the appetite to try to tackle it. This also got me thinking about another menu classic that I haven’t had in ages.

What could be better to go along with this Italo-American-style classic meal than garlic bread? Several years ago, a co-worker had asked me to give her a recipe for Garlic Bread. I guess I thought it was a sort of strange request because it is one of those things that is so simple to make, and I’ve had it at tons of potlucks or even cooked over a campfire on Girl Scout camping trips. This was a great exercise for me, however, as it was a good chance to actually start writing down those recipes that are just sitting in my head.

At the same time, I had to take a step back culturally, from my surprise at being asked to jot down the instructions for preparing this simple favorite. Garlic Knots, twists of bread, studded with white flecks of garlic and green speckles of parsley, were one of the foods I hadn’t encountered until I moved to New York. Their garlicy-oily aroma enticed me to buy them – once. Then, I found out that their flavor didn’t do justice to their sultry smell.

With these available at almost every pizzeria, why make garlic bread? Still, I definitely prefer peeling open the hot aluminum foil and tearing into a steaming, crusty, oven-fresh, gooey, garlicy, buttery, dripping, hunk of bread. Maybe it’s just that that is part of my childhood Italian meal experience. I definitely tried to snag a piece at every meal where it made an appearance.

So, for Superbowl Sunday next week, maybe the meatball recipe, with spaghetti or in a baked pasta dish, along with some home-made garlic bread, will satisfy the hungry crowd that’s gathered around the TV set to watch the Giants bring home the trophy!

Garlic Bread

Serving size: 2-4 people
Prep Time:
20-30 minutes

Ingredients: (double if using full-sized loaf)
1 8-inch baguette
1/2 stick (1/4 c.) unsalted butter (about 100 grams), softened
2 large cloves garlic, crushed with garlic press
1/8 tsp olive oil (optional if using garlic press)
2 pinches salt
1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c. finely chopped fresh, curly-leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Centigrade / Gas Mark 6). Slice baguette into 1-inch thick slices, taking care not to cut all the way through, so that the bread is still connected at the bottom.

If using garlic press, skip this step. If, like me, you don’t own one of these utensils, as there would be limited opportunity to use it in comparison to the amount of space that it would take up in the kitchen, follow these steps: Mince garlic on cutting board. With it still on the board, drizzle garlic with olive oil and make sure it is all coated. Sprinkle one pinch of salt on it. Mash garlic and olive oil together to make a rough paste.

In bowl, with a fork, mash together butter, garlic, salt, pepper, and parsley until combined completely. Put bread on sheet of aluminum foil. Scoop up a generous amount of the butter mixture, about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp and stuff it between each slit that you made in the bread.

Wrap bread in the foil and place in broiler. After 5-10 minutes, check to see if butter has melted completely. Open up foil and broil for 3-4 minutes more to toast the top of the bread. Re-cover with foil and keep warm until ready to serve.

Buon appetito!

Meatballs & Spaghetti like Mom Made

When I checked in on Is My Blog Burning to see what upcoming blog roundups were happening, one caught my eye in particular. Serge the Concierge is hosting one asking for meatball recipes. This gave me the perfect excuse to dig out another recipe from my index card file.

Again, the handwriting on this card indicates that I probably copied it down to take it to college with me. It came from a copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook that is my mother’s. I loved to look at this cookbook when I was a child, leafing through its pages and looking at all the photos of the platters of food. The drawings are a little dated and sort of “Father Knows Best” or “Pleasantville,” but the sentiment of the warmth of home-cooked food eaten as a family still remains – with the lady of the house preparing it, of course.

The recipe on the card is slightly different from that in the cookbook. My mom had made adjustments to spread this out for a large family. She also eliminated the hamburger/pork combination and just used hamburger. The recipe amounts weren’t quite doubled. After testing the cookbook version this past weekend, I actually think that my mom’s proportions are better and tastier.

For the sauce, I also made some changes. I’m not sure about you, but I wasn’t going to spend the time sieving two large cans of tomatoes (per the original instructions) when I can get my hands on great Italian-style passata di pomodoro (make sure no sugar is added). I did use tomato paste and also added a can of finely chopped tomatoes as well. In the hour-long cooking time for the sauce, these will mostly break down and will add a great texture to the sauce. Up here, this is referred to as “gravy.”

This is still a great dish to have on hand and the leftovers are fantastic. Making meatballs is a great activity to get your children, uhem, more “involved” with their food. Have them help out making them. In my family there was also the One Giant Meatball that was made from the last of the meat. Put that on a pile of spaghetti with a little gravy, dust with some freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, and let the kids belt out “On Top of Spaghetti” at the top of their lungs (clean version of course)!

Kitchen Witch Tip

My mother always made meatballs for this dish by putting them into disposable broiler trays and cooking them in the oven. I’ve followed this tip many times with several meatball recipes that call for frying them first and then adding them to the sauce. This has a few advantages. The original recipe for this calls for frying the meatballs in oil. Why add all that extra fat?

Cooked in the trays, the fat in the meat itself helps the meatballs to cook and stay moist, all while keeping their shape. It also is easier to clean those pans instead of scraping lots of bits of meat off of a skillet. You may need to turn them each once for more even browning, but that isn’t a requirement as they’ll all just get put into the sauce anyway to finish cooking. Adding the accumulated juices from the cooking pans is optional, as that will also add extra fat to the sauce, but it does have great flavor.

Buon appetito!

A Springtime Treat – Wholewheat Pasta with Asparagus and Lemon

Not often, but sometimes, I’m a bit of an impulse-shopper when it comes to food. I’m very much attracted to bright, colorful displays and piles of fresh produce. This can be really helpful when trying to eat seasonally and to try to get more fruit and veg into my diet.

Springtime is when asparagus come into season. My inner clock just knows when the time is right to seek out these green gems. Truly fresh asparagus are an amazing treat. I know that it seems as though they are available year-round, but the spring is their real, natural season around here.

Compare the prices for what you might buy in December versus April-May. You’ll also feel the difference in your pocketbook when they are at their freshest. Their taste is another measure, as well. The season is short, there’s just a few weeks when they are at their peak, so you’ll have to act quickly to get them at their best. Farmers’ markets are the best place to get them.

The tips should have tightly closed buds and the ends should not look woody (kind of stringy and wrinkled). Trimming them, as the recipe below instructs, will get rid of the less-edible part and get them ready for cooking.

Each spring, I have to pace myself not to gorge on as many asparagus as I can find. My favorites are the pencil-thin variety. It took me until I was an adult to really appreciate their flavor. I find that lemon helps to bring out the best in them – this isn’t just a ploy to finish using up the ones that I bought for a post a few weeks ago – a mustard-lemon vinaigrette would also work well.

Pairing fresh asparagus with lemon, pine nuts and parmesan, is a nice, light lunch or supper. You’ll probably not make it for the kids, with their finicky tastebuds, so how about setting aside time to have an “adults only” meal, for a change.

Whole-Wheat Pasta with Asparagus and Lemon

Prep time: 30 minutes or so
Serves: 2 adults (did you really think the kids would eat asparagus?)

1 Tablespoon Pine nuts (pignoli), toasted
10-12 Asparagus spears (big or small), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Lemon zest and lemon juice
1 Tablespoon Parmesan cheese, grated
Whole wheat spaghetti or spaghettini
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Centigrade, Gas Mark 4). Put the pine nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and toast for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. (It is best to check them after 10 minutes to make sure that they haven’t burned.)

Put two saucepans of water on the stove to boil (one large, one small). One is for the pasta and one is to cook the asparagus. While waiting, prepare the asparagus. Take each spear and snap off the end at the point where it starts to bend. This will trim off the woody part. Chop into 1-inch-sized pieces.

Zest the lemon and extract 1 Tablespoon of the juice. Set aside in a small bowl. Grate parmesan cheese and set aside in separate bowl.

When the first pan of water (small) has started to boil, toss in the asparagus to blanche* them. After 5 minutes, pierce a fat piece of asparagus with a fork. The fork should still go through it easily but with some resistance.

Remove pan from the heat immediately, drain, and run cold water over the asparagus. This will stop them from cooking any further and getting too mushy. The asparagus should be a bright green color. Set aside.

Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. Drain water, leaving about 1 teaspoon of the liquid, and return pasta to the cooking pan. Drizzle with the reserved lemon juice and with 1 teaspoon of the best extra virgin olive oil that you have.

Toss to coat all the strands of pasta. Add parmesan cheese and reserved water and blend well with the pasta.

Quickly divide the pasta into two portions. Add the asparagus and lemon zest. Dust with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top. Serve immediately.

*Kitchen Witch Tip:
Blanch = to cook quickly for a few minutes in boiling water, so as to keep natural color or to allow for easier peeling of the skins (as with tomatoes).

Buon appetito!