Monday, December 16, 2013

Tortino di polenta e ragù (baked polenta and ragù) or how to present leftovers in fancy disguise

Cooking can sometimes be deceptive.
You may spend hours in your kitchen making something (homemade cappelletti is one recipe that comes to mind) that gets eaten up in mere moments without much thought and then sometimes you make something of utmost simplicity that is received with grand applause.
In the kitchen, like in real life, sometimes looks count more than substance.

Like the slutty girl with the too-tight mini dress, the plastic boobs and lacking brilliant conversational skills that manages to turn every head in a one-mile radius, some dishes get all the attention without really deserving it.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these girls recipes aren't good, because they are, but they don't involve all the attention and expertise others do.
If you have leftover polenta and ragù (or some stew, or come to think of it any other type of leftover, because this girl gets around polenta goes with pretty much anything), it will literally take five minutes to prepare and a half hour tops to bake.
So I present to you the tart (no pun intended) of leftovers: the tortino di polenta e ragù, 'tortino' literally translating into 'little tart' in English.

When making polenta you can go two ways*: the real way, which involves lengthy stirring or electric devices you would only consider buying if you owned a ski pad in the Italian Alps, or the use of instant polenta. There is not doubt that the real deal is better, in flavor and texture, as all things made from scratch. But the difference is subtle enough, especially when baking or frying the polenta afterwards, to justify (unlike instant mashed potatoes) using the quick-cooking variety.

Whichever way you decide to make your polenta, you will most likely have some leftovers because polenta just happens to be one of those dishes people tend to make in large quantities. Ragu being another: I usually make it in large batches and tuck some away in my freezer for emergencies.

If you don't have any ragù, a whole list of delicious leftovers you can use come to mind: all kinds of vegetables (broccoli rabe sauteed with olive oil, garlic and anchovies anyone? or mushrooms with parsley and garlic), bits and pieces of leftover cheeses, any sort of fish cooked in sauce (codfish works wonderfully), mozzarella and ham... the list just goes on and on.
Parmesan cheese, grated
olive oil (optional)

1.1 lbs/500gr polenta
9 cups/2 l water
1 tbsp olive oil
To make the polenta (if starting from scratch) the old fashioned way, bring water to a boil, reduce heat and salt the water to taste. Add in a tablespoon of olive oil and then slowly pour in the polenta (to avoid lumps forming), stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk until the polenta has thickened. This takes anywhere up to 45-60 minutes. If the polenta is getting too thick you can loosen it by adding some water as you go along. Mix in any ingredients (cheese, butter etc.) you intend to use and pour it out onto a smooth surface, like a cutting board, or into a bowl and let stand for a few minutes before serving. I usually keep mine a little runny because that is the way I prefer it and it makes it easier to work with leftovers.

If going instant, just read the instructions on the back of the package.

Pour the polenta (or spread leftovers with a spatula) into a greased baking pan. Spread over a layer of ragù or whatever else you are using. Sprinkle with some grated Parmesan cheese and keep layering until you have finished using up the leftovers. Sprinkle with a last dusting of grated Parmesan cheese, add a few flakes of butter and bake in a preheated oven (375°F/180°C) for about 30 minutes, until the top and sides turn golden and crusty and the filling is nicely heated.

Using a deep pastry ring (what they call a coppapasta in Italian), cut out circles from the pan and serve on small individual plates. Dust with Parmesan cheese, pepper and trickle of olive oil and serve.

*While writing this post I actually discovered there are other ways to make polenta from scratch that are much simpler. There is a 12-minute microwave version and another one involving a great amount of time (more than 3 hours) but very little stirring. Who knew? I intend to try them at some point and let you know.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Arrosto di lonza al latte - pork loin slow cooked in milk with apple and onion fall roast

I am mentally and physically gearing up for my daughter's sleepover party on Friday. Friday the 13th, might I add.
Not that I am superstitious or anything, but I really didn't need a bad omen hanging over my head on the night I will be having 6 girls sleep over at our apartment, plus baby brother, husband and myself.
We live in a charming apartment with hard wood floors, molding and bow windows in the center of a big city, the urban slang equivalent of small. I literally had to get out a measuring tape to make sure all the mattresses would fit, wedging them in like Tetris pieces (our Christmas tree is taking up additional vital space these days).
Next came the pillow issue. We have plenty of sheets and blankets (although sleeping bags were heartily suggested on the invitation), but who has 10 pillows in a city dwelling? I mean, let's face it, every pillow you are not using to sleep on takes up an approximate $500.00 real estate value for storage. Luckily the Martha Stewart in me partially solved that problem by having decorative pillows on my bed. Off come the fancy pillow cases, on go the Ikea mice in carrot race cars.
I've done my research and if there is one thing I have learned is that you need a plan, some structure to avoid things spiralling out of control. So we will start with an organized activity, we will progress with pizza, soda and birthday cake; pop corn, potato chips and a very girlie movie will follow. Then, hopefully, a lot of whispering and giggling in bed, some sleep, a big breakfast and a 10:00am pick up.
I learned a valuable tip from another mom: having them change into their pjs shortly after they arrive, so they feel like they are getting into the mood, while you are really aiming to get them changed before the sugar high hits.
Back to the activity, I am having them decorate Christmas cookies - that I will pre-bake - around the kitchen table. Each girl gets to take home a bag of cookies she decorated, solving the party favor issue too. Bingo!
I am secretely fantasizing about baking an extra batch of cookies and setting up a decorating sweat shop so I have them ready to bring to the Christmas school bake sale the following week. Dozens of nimble fingers will do that to an overworked mom just before the holidays.

This is the plan behind the scenes: F and I will keep the little guy busy with the precious help of Lightning Mc Queen. After watching a movie in our bed, he gets to fall asleep there, a rare and special treat. Once he is deep asleep (because sleeping in his room without his beloved sister could trigger all sorts of drama) we will carry him into his bed and hopefully, although not definitely, manage to sleep ourselves.
I will let you know how it goes, and if anyone has any suggestions they are more than welcome.
In the meantime, here is a dish you can easily make without the help of child labor.
A while back I told you about a pretty common method for preparing meat here in Italy: slow-cooking it in milk. I often make pork loin this way, because it is a cut that can turn out pretty dry when roasted. Also, you get the added bonus of a delicious sauce.


Pork loin
2 carrots, a few stalks of celery and 1 onion for 'soffritto' (see below) 
pork loin
2-3 cups milk
salt, pepper to taste
mixed herbs

The method is easy: you season the meat with salt, pepper and you preferred choice of herbs. Crushed fennel seeds work well, or a mixed herb rub or bay leaf directly in the milk. Sear the meat on all sides to lock in the juices and set aside. Next you prepare a soffritto by finely chopping carrots, celery and onion and then you fry them in olive oil until the carrots are slightly tender and the onion and celery are transluscent. This time I prepared my soffritto in the food processor so the result was almost a paste, which pleasantly tinged the milk during the cooking process as you can see below.
When the vegetables are yeilding put the meat back in the pot and then add about an inch or two of milk. Let the meat simmer, covered, for at least an hour (depending on size) on low heat, turning the meat a few times during the process. The milk will reduce and start curdling. Take out the meat and let it sit for a few minutes. In the meantime let the sauce reduce and mash the soffritto with a fork if the pieces are too big for your liking. Taste for seasoning. Thinly cut the roast and spoon the sauce over the meat.
Fall roast
2 apples
2 red onions
6-8 cloves garlic
a handful of pinoli
olive oil
aged balsamic vinegar

You can prepare this dish while the meat is cooking.
Pre-heat your oven to 220°C/440°F and line a baking sheet or pan with paper. Peel and chop 2 apples and 2 red onions into bitesize chunks. Throw in a few cloves of garlic, peel on, and a couple of branches of rosemary and a handful of pinoli. Toss with olive oil, balsamic vinegar (if it is very liquid use very little or the vegetables/fruit will not roast), pepper and salt. Cook in oven for about 20-30 minutes stirring a few times so the apples and onions roast evenly.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Cappelletti and making fresh pasta

As so many of you already know from past posts, our family celebrates a mish-mash of American, German and Italian traditions. This makes for some very happy and fortunate children and some very busy and sometimes stressed out parents, especially when it comes to Christmas.

Our Christmas period officially begins with the ending of Thanksgiving (as is customary in the States), is reinforced with the German traditions of the four days of Advent, Advent calendars and Nikolaustag on the 6th of December (when the kids put their letter to Saint Nick in a boot on the balcony that he then fills with candy or a branch), followed by the Immacolata on the 8th of December, when Italians traditionally decorate their tree. We then enter the full swing of things by celebrating Christmas Eve with present-opening the German and Southern Italian way (and thank goodness F and I have that tradition in common), followed by stockings from Santa on Christmas morning like in the US. And finally we close the season on the 6th of January with the Epifania, affectionately called la Befana by the kids, when they get a stocking filled with candy or charcoal by the rag-wearing Italian witch. A lot of footwear involved in our holiday season, eh?

I guess I should consider myself lucky that my Jewish grandmother had a tree (although I apologize to all my Jewish readers on her behalf), because Hannukah presents and a Menorah on top of the rest would have probably caused a nervous breakdown. When we had our ten-year stint in Sweden, there was a risk of Santa Lucia entering our repertoire on December 13th and now that one grandmother lives in Spain, the Three Kings could have been tricky, but the Befana put a quick stop to that with her menacing broom. She was not willing to share her day with anyone else.

And did I mention (I am sure I do every year) my daughter's birthday is a couple of days before Christmas, adding to the - shall we say excitement - of the moment?

Now that you get the picture, just because I wasn't feeling frazzled enough wrapping, baking cookies for Christmas bakesales, organizing a birthday party, googling frosting recipes for cake and writing a million Christmas cards that most Italians don't really 'get' to begin with (but who cares, because we can't skip another one of those German/American  traditions, right?), I thought I would fill this month with yet another tradition. The tradition of handmaking a few hundred cappelletti, or tiny meat-filled tortellini to eat with homemade broth, a very traditional first course of Italian Christmas lunch.

I know what you are thinking, that this was my doing so I should just shut up and stop whining already; that it serves me right; that I never should have asked my mother in law to teach me. But I have my reasons...

...but F grew up eating these every Christmas for almost half a century

...but they are divine

...but somebody has to pass on the tradition

...but we can't expect my mother in law to keep doing all this work on her own for the next thirty years

...but I want my children to have memories of their nonna and mother sitting around the table in a cozy, warm kitchen making cappelletti, Christmas music playing softly in the background

So there goes. I made a wish and my wish was granted. Last week end my mother in law arrived at my house with a bag of flour, eggs, various cured meats and her pasta rolling machine.

At first she instructed, I took pictures. Then I shyly started making a few myself and by the end of the afternoon we were both sitting around the table rolling and pinching.

I wouldn't say I could manage it on my own just yet, but over the next few Christmases I hope to start making a noticeable dent in her work. And perhaps one day I will be able to serve her a bowl of hot, savory broth with cappelletti, while she sits back and rests for once.

Pasta, like so many Italian recipes, is made in as many different ways as there are mothers and grandmothers in this country. People use varying proportions of plain flour to semolina flour, some use eggs and egg yolks, some only use whole eggs. Some people use more eggs, some use less, some don't use any at all. Some use water, others add olive oil. Some fold it while rolling it out, others do not. Some add salt to the flour and eggs, others don't. Whatever way you do it, there will be someone out there telling you their way works better. My suggestion is keep experimenting and choose what works best for you. The same goes for making ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti etc. Choose whatever technique you find the easiest, because this is my mother in law's way, not the right way. What I can say, however, is that her way makes a pretty fine plate of cappelletti in brodo.

Please be warned that the measurements below are for a feast, they make about 1kg of cappelletti which will easily feed 10-15 people. The good news is that if you make them for a smaller crowd, you can freeze the excess for another meal.