Friday, November 22, 2013

Paccheri con ragù bianco di coniglio, or pasta with rabbit ragù

In my American genes it is not even Thanksgiving yet, but I seem to already be doing all things Christmas.
I spent last week end helping my kids make decorations to bring to school.
Which would be ok if:
a) the elementary school project didn't involve making three different decorations using the five senses as inspiration. Which makes it a bit more complicated than dumping a bunch of glitter glue, loose ends from last year's Christmas ribbons and some cardboard toilet paper rolls onto a table* and letting your kid "freely express her artistic inclinations" (although I will admit that the huge Christmas tree they decorate in the entrance with the kids' work gets me teary every year and I am proud of the school's amazing Parent Association that funds great projects with the money they make selling one of the three decorations each child makes); 
b) I didn't spend the whole time I am picking glue out of my pre-schooler's hair and wiping glitter off the floor (and chairs, and table and the rest of the house) thinking why the heck they don't make them do their artwork at school since they don't exactly spend their days reciting Homer and solving equations.
This week end I will be helping my mother in law make her famous tortellini for Christmas Eve. I cherish family traditions and have noticed that with the passing of time it is getting harder and harder for her to make the enormous quantities of food she has spoiled her family with for so many years. I want to be able to help her, take some of the weight off of her shoulders; and I want to hand this art down to my own children and their families. I know I will be getting a bag to stash away in my freezer for our Christmas celebration with my family this year. But what I and my children will really be getting out of it are precious memories of these Christmases together, memories they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I know I cherish the moments I spent with my grandmothers, even more so now that they are no longer here with me. 
I have been translating Christmas recipes for a website, sorting through hundreds of pictures of the kids for our Christmas cards and scouring the Internet for gifts because I swore to myself last year that I am never getting stuck in that last-minute shopping frenzy again.
But the truth is all I want to do is slow down and enjoy some turkey and cranberry sauce and think about all the things I have to be thankful for, because there are many. The first being my friend who is organizing a belated Thanksgiving get-together next week end for all us nostalgic expats.
Another one being all those things that make life easier. Like a recipe that can go two ways, depending what you are in the mood for. 
(If you were hoping for something a little more soppy, go here (I am also thankful my photography has improved a tad!) and here, to Thanksgivings past).
This is the "sliding doors" of recipes: a small twist of fate and you can get two entirely different meals out of it. A primo or a secondo as they would say here, a first course or a main course. I posted about the latter a couple of years ago. This time I took it a step further. 
If you follow the recipe until the meat is perfectly braised (in the link, I finish braising it in the oven, but the stove top will do fine. Just use less liquid for cooking) you will end up with a comforting dish of fall-of-the-bone tender rabbit meat to serve with polenta, mashed potatoes, rice or whatever other vehicle you have in mind to mop up every last drop of the sauce. If you read all the way to the end of the recipe, because like us, you cannot get through the week (or day) without a big plate of pasta, you will enjoy a delicate and delicious ragù. 
*Now I know that my grandmother's weren't just thrifty because of the Great Depression and the WW2... before being grandmas they were mothers of pre-schoolers and schoolers, which literally means hoarding every piece of crap a functioning person would normally throw away, because at some point you are going to need it for a school project.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Zuppa di pasta, ceci e cavolo nero or hearty chickpea stew with Tuscan kale and pasta

The recipe I am posting about today is my personal mishmash of two very traditional Italian recipes: pasta e ceci, a less-known version of the more internationally renowned pasta e fagioli, and minestra di ceci con cavolo nero, a soup that is often served with large, crusty slices of bread rubbed with garlic.
The chickpea, or garbanzo bean, is undeniably the star of the show here. This humble legume has been used by most cultures for millenia, the first discovered remains dating back to the Neolithic period. Thanks to the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans chickpeas became an integral part of Italian cooking. I admit I find it comforting to think of all the generations that prepared variations of this stew over the centuries. How many mothers and grandmothers served warm, filling bowls of chickpeas and black kale to their hardworking families, perhaps ladled over stale pieces of bread?
But back to our recipe.
The first, essential step in making both the abovementioned Italian classics is the same: you must remember to soak the chickpeas for at least 12 hours. If it weren't for that one little step, I would probably make this dish much more often that I actually do.  
After this, preparations vary. For pasta e ceci (or fagioli) you would normally prepare a soffritto (a mirepoix of carrots, celery and onion) and add some tomato in one form or another (paste, sauce, crushed). When making the soup, some opt for a soffritto, but in most versions the intent is to keep things very basic, letting the flavor of the legumes shine through. You just sautee the garlic (either whole or minced) in olive oil, add some finely chopped shallot or onion and a sprig of rosemary (if you are so inclined), tomatoes never making an appearance.
The pureed chickpeas and starch from the pasta guarantee an end result that is as comforting and creamy as any pasta and ceci should be. The wilted, dark and slightly bitter kale leaves however add some much-needed texture and contrast to a dish that is as delicious, soothing and - let's face it -boring as some of the best nursery suppers can be. A good glug of intensely green, fruity, peppery olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper and a hefty sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese will further convince you (if you are still in the least bit doubtful) that this is food fit for grown ups.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cottage (or shepherd's) pie with an Italian twist

This past Halloween turned out to be special in a very unexpected way. It also brought back yellow tinted* memories of a Halloween long ago, when I was a little girl.
But let me start from the beginning. You know how sometimes the strangest things happen, like when you bump into a person in a totally unexpected place, or when you find out that you and another person know somebody in common, the famous six degrees of separation?

I have had my fair share of these kinds of coincidences (the ones I know about, because I often wonder how many times I have crossed paths with people without even realizing it... but I digress).
Once, for example, when I travelled from Italy to Florida to visit my grandmother with a girlfriend. My boyfriend at the time was in London with his best friend staying at my sister's. On the spur of the moment, my friend and I decided to drive from Palm Beach to see some Italian friends staying in Fort Lauderdale. In the afternoon we were looking for a restaurant and got totally lost somewhere in the suburbs. We stopped at a strip mall to ask for directions and as I was getting out of our car I saw my boyfriend's father drive right by me... I was so surprised I literally jumped on the trunk of his car to stop him. He was in the States on business and had just visited a client. Needless to say, we were both speechless.