First, you need to think like an Italian cook. Don't worry about the recipe; consider, instead, what is fresh today in the garden. The essence of good Italian cooking is to use fresh, first-quality ingredients (that is what our seeds grow) and cook them simply.
Other than fresh ingredients, you need a good quality olive oil. Buy olive oil that is (1) cold pressed (2) extra virgin (3) first press. Other items to use are a good quality imported pasta; a good quality parmigiano-reggiano cheese (or other good grating cheeses but not the stuff you buy pre-grated in the supermarket); if you can find it, pancetta (kind of an Italian bacon, but unsmoked). Other than that, you do not need anything fancy.
Here are some easy recipes that convey the spirit of simple, fresh Italian cooking.
Greens. (Spinach, Kale, chard, endive, chicory, etc). There are two basic ways of cooking greens if you are going to eat them as a side dish. The first, which works best for sweet, tender greens like spinach and liscia verde da taglio chard, is to (1) wash them and tear into smaller pieces (2) set them in a colander to drain. Mince a clove of garlic. Slowly cook (do not brown) the garlic in a tablespoon or two of olive oil; when it has changed color, add the greens & mix well. Add some salt & pepper if you wish. Cover and braise on slow heat until done (10-15 minutes or so). The vegetables come out almost creamy. Divine. The second technique works well for all vegetables. Wash them well, drop them in a pan of boiling water. Cook them until almost done; cooking time varies, so taste them to see. When almost done, take them out of the water, run cold water over them to stop the cooking and squeeze them dry. Reserve some of the cooking water. When greens are cool, cut them or tear them into smaller pieces. You can later either:
1. Serve them at room temperature with just a drizzle of good olive oil and perhaps a little bit of lemon juice.
2. Mince a clove or so of garlic. Cook it briefly in some olive oil. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional). Add greens. Add some of the water. Cook on med-high heat for 3-4 minutes until the water is mostly evaporated and the flavors all amalgamated.
3. Take them from the water and drain as above but save all the water. Bring water back to a boil. Add ½ finely diced peeled potato and some pasta (use a short pasta like penne, orecchiette or farfalle) and cook until about ¾ done. Reserve a cup of cooking water & drain the pasta. Cook some garlic in olive oil as above, add the red pepper flakes (if desired), salt & pepper if desired), the greens cook to meld the flavors. Add ½ cup of the reserved water. Turn the heat to high, bring to a boil, & add the pasta. Toss everything for a few minutes until most of the water has evaporated & the pasta finished cooking. You will be left with a bit of creamy sauce (the reason for the ½ potato). Add some good grated cheese and enjoy.
Radicchio/Chicory/Endive/Escarole. Chicory and endive are great in salad, but they are equally excellent cooked. Italians frequently cook their radicchio or endive. You can cook them in soups, with borlotto beans, or simply by themselves as in the recipe for Radicchio di Treviso in Frittura. You need (1) flour mixed with a pinch of salt; (2) two or three beaten eggs (3) breadcrumbs (4) olive oil. Clean the radicchio and remove some of the outer leaves. Cut it into quarters. Dry each quarter as much as possible. Dust or coat with flour. Then dip in the beaten egg and then the bread crumbs. Put in the pan and fry until golden grown. Remove & drain a bit on a paper towel, then serve. You can do this with any radicchio (chicory) or even endives. You do not need to use one with a firm head.
Zucchini. Everyone wonders what to do with zucchini. They taste good, so they go quickly. Secondly, you treat them like an Italian. Eat lots of the zucchini flowers (prevent a zuke); pick them when small, no more than five inches and they are nice even smaller. For the bigger ones (up to 8 inches or so), go to #3 below.
1. For the flowers, simply pick them when they are open, remove the stamens inside the flower, dip them in beaten egg, dredge them in some flour, then fry them in olive oil. You can also stuff them and then fry them.
2. For small zucchini, simply split them in half, marinate them an hour or two in some olive oil & minced garlic, grill them lightly.
3. For the bigger ones, do them as my mother did. Slice them on a diagonal 1/8 inch thick. Dip them in beaten egg, then seasoned flour. Fry in some olive oil until crisp but not burned. Add some salt & pepper. Serve at room temperature.
French beans. Pick the beans when no thicker than a pencil. Cut off the tips if you want. Boil them until almost done (not long; five minutes or so). Remove from pan and chill by running cold water on them. Let them dry a bit. Grate some bread crumbs. (Use good bread that has gone stale, not supermarket crumbs). Cook a clove of minced garlic in a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Add beans & mix well. Add bread crumbs. Turn up heat some & cook until crumbs are toasted. Add salt & pepper if desired. Use green and yellow for a nice color contrast in this recipe.
Peperonata. This is usually made with yellow and red peppers and cooked slowly. There are as many variations of this recipe as there are cooks in Italy, but all work. Garlic is optional. You need 2 large yellow peppers, 2-3 red peppers, a red onion, a zucchini, 4-5 peeled San Marzano tomatoes (drop them in boiling water for 3-5 seconds, remove them from the water, cut off the stem end, and slip off the skin), a minced clove of garlic, a T or two of broth or water, and salt & pepper if desired. Cut the peppers up into coarse chunks. Slice the onion and 'soften' in a pan with a Tbsp. or two of olive oil. Add the peppers, zucchini, garlic & broth and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Chop the tomatoes roughly and add them. Simmer for another 20 minutes until everything is thick & shiny. For an even richer peperonata, remove from heat, let cool some, then stir in a beaten egg (you want it cool enough so that the egg does not cook).
Orecchiette e Cima di Rapa. This is a classic from Puglia in the south of Italy. Cook about 1 lb cima di rape in slightly salted water. When almost done, remove & cool under running water, then drain in a colander. Save the water to cook your orecchiette until ¾ done. Drain. Mince a clove of garlic & sauté briefly in 2 T or so olive oil. Roughly cut up 2-3 anchovies add them along with a pinch of red pepper flakes and cook for a few minutes more. Chop the cima di rape and add it to the pan, mixing it well. Add the drained pasta & a little bit of the water. Cook until most of the water is evaporated. Revove from the head, add some grated cheese and serve. If you do not have cima di rape (perhaps because it is the middle of August), use chard or kale or the side shoots from our Calabria broccoli. Still mighty good.
Bruschetta with tomato & arugula. Grilled bread, rubbed with garlic & drizzled with olive oil and topped with something fresh is a perfect example of simple Italian food. First, you need some good bread-chewy, dense Tuscan bread cut ½ inch thick (a good country French type will work, but do not use supermarket Italian bread). If possible grill it on a gas or charcoal grill until the surface is a light golden brown, yet still soft inside. You can also use a toaster, your broiler, or even a gas stove. Rub it with a peeled clove of garlic on both sides and drizzle with olive oil (I use a Misto sprayer which works fine and cuts down on the oil.) For a topping, peel 2-3 tomatoes and dice them; add a handful or two of arugula (cultivated or wild) roughly chopped), salt & pepper and let sit for a bit. Put on the bread. There are infinite variations. My wife's favorite is to peel and chop 2-3 large tomatoes and put in a bowl. Finely mince a small onion, a clove garlic and add to the bowl. Tear up a dozen or so genovese basil leaves and add. Add a T or two olive oil, a T of good balsamic vinegar and salt & pepper. Let it sit at room temperature an hour or so (if you can wait that long). Top the bread with this. Another variation is simply to use thick slices of tomatoes, a few leaves of lettuce leaf basil, and some salt & pepper. Even better is some lettuce leaf basil, fresh mozzarella cheese & salt & pepper. I could go on & on. Use whatever is ready & fresh.
Squash soup. Simple, satisfying & delicious. Peel a pound or two of winter squash and cut in 1-2" chunks. Peel and dice a couple of potatoes. In a heavy pan, sauté a large onion roughly chopped, 2-3 carrots diced & 2-3 stalks of celery. Add the potatoes & squash. Add a quart or so water (or stock if you have it, or half stock, half water) and cook until the squash is soft. Add more water or stock if necessary. Put everything in a blender and mix it long enough to puree the squash & potatoes, but to leave the carrots still a little chunky. The soup tastes like you made it with cream.
Roasted winter vegetables. Peel some carrots & cut them into uniform pieces (leave them 1-2 inches long). Cut up 2-3 potatoes (leave the skin on). Peel & cut up some winter squash (1" chunks perhaps). Quarter 2-3 onions (or if you have any nice cippolino left, just add them whole. Put everything in a bowl. Mince a handful or rosemary & the leaves from 2-3 sage leaves. Add to bowl along with a few T olive oil, mix everything. Put in a roasting pan (try and keep everything one layer deep). Roast at 350 until the vegetables are soft in the middle and crisp on the outside.
Cabbage with fennel seed. This is amazingly simple and unbelievably tasty. You need good cabbage, however. Slice a large onion or two and cook slowly in a Teaspoon or so of olive oil. Cut a cabbage in half & remove the core. Slice the ½ cabbage thinly, then slice into strips. Add to pan and sauté a bit. Add a teaspoon of fennel seed and a cup or so of chicken broth. Cook on medium heat until most of the liquid evaporates. Turn down the heat, cover & cook until tender. If a lot of liquid remains, turn up the heat and cook quickly until most of it evaporates.
Frittata. Again, there are as many variations as there are cooks in Italy. However, there are a couple of general rules. The eggs are there to bind together whatever other ingredients you choose to use; you are not making an omelet. Use lots of vegetables. Certain vegetables (peas, chard, zucchini & spinach) do especially well in a frittata. Basil & parsley combine well with these ingredients. This variation is typical. Dice a small zucchini or two in fairly small pieces and sauté it lightly in some olive oil in a nonstick omelet pan. Add some thinly sliced onion if you want. Remove and place in a bowl. Add some chopped chard leaves. Toss in some roughly torn basil or chopped parsley. Add 2 beaten eggs and mix well. Put back in omelet pan and cook on low to medium heat until bottom is cooked. Loosen with a spatula, put a plate over the top of the pan, flip the pan & plate, then slide the frittata back in the pan. Finish cooking. Eat then or let it cool & slice into wedges or squares. Use whatever happens to be fresh in the garden when you have a yen for a frittata. Squash blossoms are nice, so are beans; spinach is wonderful, etc.
PASTA E FAGIOLI (Venice)
This is a classic Venetian recipe of Pasta with beans. THE bean to use is a borlotti called ‘Lamon', but ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ or ‘Borlotti from ’ could also be used.
13-14 oz. Fresh Borlotti beans ‘Lamon’ (if using dried beans, soak 6 hours before cooking)
A packet of tagliatelle
10-12 oz pork ribs or piece of ham
1 Carrot ‘Nantese of Chioggia’
A stalk of Celery ‘Dorato d’Asti’
The ‘crusts’ of some parmesan cheese
Olive oil, salt, black pepper.
Wash & trim the pork. Immerse in boiling water for a few minutes.
In a heavy saucepan, place all the ingredients (except the pasta & olive oil) and cover with unsalted water. Place on the burner and simmer until the beans are tender. With a slotted spoon take about half the beans, puree & keep warm.
Cook the pasta in plenty of water. When cooked, remove and strain it Add the pasta and pureed beans to the pan and cook a bit to meld the flavors. Add some olive oil. Cut the meat and parmesan crusts into equal portions and divide between your guests.
RIBOLLITA ALLA TOSCANA (Florence) - Serves 4
This is the national dish of Florence and the key ingredient is the Cavolo Nero kale which is found only in this region of Italy. The word ‘Ribollita’ means re-boiled, and this dish has added flavor made a day in advance, making it a good dinner party offering. This isn’t fine eating. It’s one of
those old fashioned hearty winter dishes that only needs a hunk of bread and copious quantities of wine to enjoy.
8 oz of Stale bread
3 Cooking tomatoes
12 oz of Cannellini beans
1 pound of Cavolo Nero Kale
1 Glass of extra virgin olive oil
1 Onion, leek, celery stalk, carrot
1 Clove of garlic
Seasoning to taste
In a heavy iron saucepan, gently toss the chopped onion and garlic in the oil until softened. Add the finely chopped leek, celery and carrot and then the chopped tomato after 5 minutes and season to taste. Cook for a further 10 minutes.
Cook the cannellini beans by covering in water and boiling until tender. Put aside ¼ of the cooked beans and squash the beans in their cooking fluid until you have a creamy mixture. Add this to the vegetable mixture and add the shredded cavolo nero kale. Cook for about an hour, making sure the
kale is well cooked, then add the previously reserved beans.
Slice the stale bread and place into each serving bowl. Pour the hot soup onto the bread and drizzle some good oil over to taste. Ribollita is traditionally made the day before and is even tastier the next day. Add parmesan cheese to taste if you wish.
Roman Artichokes (Rome) - Serves 4
8 Cooked Artichokes (with stalk if possible)
2 Cloves of garlic
Seasoning to taste
If using fresh artichokes, remove the tougher outer leaves until you have left only the most tender parts, and leave about 5cms of stalk. Immerse each artichoke in water to clean, and then place into a bowl with cold water and lemon juice (or wine vinegar) so as to keep their color.
Chop the parsley, mint and garlic and add to half a glass of olive oil and season to taste. Open up the artichokes and stuff with some of this mixture, then place into a saucepan, with the stalks pointing upwards. Pour the rest of the mixture around the artichokes so that the hearts are just covered, then add water with a little lemon juice to cover up to the stalk. Simmer gently until the water has evaporated, and serve hot.