Articles in Technique

Celebrate World Pasta Day with some pasta sushi. Credit:

Although pasta may seem simple — just boil, right? — you might find that you’ve been doing some things wrong. Since Oct. 25 is World Pasta Day, below are some tips that will ensure your pasta is just perfect.

Riccardo Felicetti, a fourth-generation owner of artisan Italian pasta company Felicetti and new president of the International Pasta Organization, shares tips on how to properly cook pasta. “Pasta gets lonely,” he says, “so be sure to keep it company while it’s cooking so that you can occasionally stir it and so you can try some to test if it’s done.”

Riccardo Felicetti’s Tips to Making Perfect Pasta

  1. Use a big pot and lots of water so the pasta has room to move while it cooks. Use at least 1 quart for every ¼ pound of pasta.
  2. Think horizontally when cooking small amounts or filled pasta. When making long pasta like spaghetti for just one person, Italians put it into a wide shallow pan. You need only fill the pan with enough water to cover the spaghetti horizontally, not vertically!
  3. Do not add the pasta until the water boils or the pasta becomes gummy.
  4. Use the time on the box only as a general guideline. The best way to tell if pasta is ready is to taste it. Start tasting three to four minutes before the package’s suggested cooking time.
  5. Never rinse pasta. The starch on the pasta helps sauces adhere to it, and is a thickening agent for the sauce too.
  6. Always save a little of the pasta cooking water to toss with the pasta and sauce to thicken and meld the flavors. Again, it’s that starch that helps bring everything together.

The International Pasta Organization website provides a fun list of pasta recipes from around the world, nutrition advice and other interesting information. “Representing pasta producers from all over the world,” Felicetti says, “gives me great pride and is a huge responsibility at the same time. Pasta is a global food, nutritionally valuable, and has a central role in almost everyone’s diet.”

Perfect for World Pasta Day is this recipe for pasta sushi, a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines.

Pasta Sushi

Adapted from “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan.

Substitute pasta shells for the white rice, making beautiful, Japanese-inspired but Italian flavored, one-bite appetizers.

Try cooked or raw fish such as poached lobster topped with caviar, diced seared tuna with a dollop of hummus or raw oysters with lemon zest. You can fill them all the same, or make an assortment; just calculate about 4 pasta shells per serving and a heaping tablespoon of filling for each.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Serves as many as you like

Ingredients

For the shells:

4 large pasta shells per person

Salt

Rice wine vinegar or lemon juice, to taste

Mirin or sweet Marsala or sherry, to taste

For the filling (approximately 1 tablespoon per shell):

Diced or thinly sliced raw fish such as tuna or salmon; raw or cooked oysters; sea urchin; caviar; and/or cooked fish like poached lobster, crab, or shrimp

For the garnish (to taste):

Lemon or orange zest; grated horseradish; chopped scallions; fresh diced fruit; mozzarella, cream cheese or other cheese; red chili pepper; and/or sea salt

Directions

1. Boil the pasta shells in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with a splash, to taste, of rice wine vinegar and Mirin. Spread out onto a plate and let cool to room temperature.

2. Fill each shell with a tablespoon of filling. Garnish and season as you like.

Main photo: Pasta sushi is the perfect fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisine. Credit: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy.”

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Bucatini Dome

Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?

I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.

They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.

I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.

Try this at home

Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.

Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?

  1. Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
  2. Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
  3. Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
fresh pasta

A chef presses pasta. Great pasta doesn’t mush. Credit: Francine Segan.

Ways to Spot Superior Pasta

To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.

When cooked, it should:

  1. Taste delicious, even without sauce.
  2. Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
  3. Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
  4. Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
  5. Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.

To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.

Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)

It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.

But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 70 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced

3 medium carrots, minced

¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced

1¼ pounds bucatini

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup grated pecorino cheese

Black pepper

¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.

3.  Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.

4.  Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.

5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of  cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.

6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.

7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.

Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

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Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

Wanting to cook with farm-to-table ingredients is much more difficult in colder months than in the summer. Eating locally in the fall and winter means switching to recipes that feature root vegetables, cabbages and hearty greens like kale. The summer ingredient I miss the most is corn. My solution is to turn my freezer into a garden.

With a few easy steps, I can have fresh-tasting corn even during the darkest days of winter.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Healthy tips to beat back winter’s grip

After years of experimentation, I believe that corn kernels retain their flavors best when frozen rather than pickled or preserved in glass jars. The trick with corn kernels is cooking them quickly and then submerging them in their own liquid.

Frozen in airtight containers, the kernels retain their qualities for several months, long enough to carry the home cook through to the spring when the farmers markets come alive again.

Use stacking containers so you can keep a half dozen or more in your freezer. Besides the containers available in supermarkets, restaurant supply stores sell lidded, plastic deli containers in 6-, 8- and 16-ounce sizes.

Charred Corn Kernels

Once defrosted, the kernels can be added to soups, stews, pastas and sautés.

Yield: 6 to 8 cups depending on the size of the ears

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sautéing time: 5 to 10 minutes

Ingredients

6 ears corn, husks and silks removed, ears washed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

1. Using a sharp paring or chef knife cut the kernels off the cobs. Reserve the cobs.

2. Heat a large frying pan or carbon steel pan on a high flame.

3. Add olive oil and corn kernels. Stir frequently so the kernels cook evenly.

4. When the kernels have a light char, remove from the burner.

5. To avoid burning, continue to stir because the pan retains heat.

6. Set aside to cool.

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Picture 1 of 6

Corn kernels sautéing in a carbon steel pan. Credit: David Latt

Corn Broth

Corn broth keeps the kernels fresh in the freezer. The broth is also delicious when added to soups, stews, braising liquids and pasta sauce. If your recipe only needs the kernels, after defrosting remove them from the deli container and refreeze the corn broth for another use.

Simmer time: 30 minutes

Cooling time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

6 corn cobs without kernels, each cob broken in half

4 quarts water

Directions

1. Place the cobs and water in a large pot on a high flame.

2. Boil uncovered until the water is reduced by half.

3. Cool. Remove the cobs and discard for compost.

Freezing Corn Kernels in Corn Broth

Directions

1. Fill the deli containers with the kernels, a half-inch from the top.

2. Add enough corn broth to cover the kernels.

3. Seal with airtight lid.

4. Place in freezer. Freeze any excess corn broth to use as vegetarian stock.

Chicken Soup With Charred Corn and Garlic Mushrooms

Perfect for cold, wet days, hot chicken soup is a healthy dish to eat for lunch or dinner. The charred corn gives the hot and nutritious soup an added brightness and sweetness.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 5 minutes

Simmer time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces frozen corn kernels including stock

1 teaspoon olive oil

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

2 tablespoons yellow onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

1 cup shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, sliced thin

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Defrost the corn kernels overnight. If you are using homemade frozen chicken stock, defrost that overnight as well.

2. Remove the corn kernels from the corn broth and reserve separately.

3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame.

4. Sauté until lightly browned the corn, onions, garlic parsley and mushrooms. Stir frequently to avoid burning.

5. Add chicken stock and corn broth. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Add cayenne and sweet butter (optional). Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

7. Serve hot with homemade croutons or a loaf of fresh bread and butter.

Braised Charred Corn and Tuscan Kale

Adjust the amount of liquid to your liking. With more broth, the side dish is a refreshing small soup to accompany a plate of roast chicken. Reducing the broth to a thickness resembling a gravy, the corn-kale braise is a good companion to breaded or grilled filet of salmon or halibut.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces corn kernels and corn broth

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 bunch Tuscan (black) kale, washed, center stem removed, leaves roughly chopped

1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins removed, washed, crushed, finely chopped

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. Add kale and sauté, stirring frequently to avoid burning.

6. The kale will give up its moisture. When the kale has reduced in size by half, add the corn kernels, onion and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add the reserved corn broth and the other broth. Stir well.

8. Simmer 10 minutes.

9. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper. Add butter and cayenne (optional).

10 .Serve with more or less liquid as desired.

Onion-Corn-Mushroom Sauté

Personally, when it’s cold outside, I love a steak grilled on a high temperature carbon steel pan. The outside gets a salty crust while the inside stays juicy and sweet. Mashed potatoes are a good side dish, accompanied with an onion, corn and mushroom sauté. The combination of flavors—meaty, creamy-salty-earthly-summer sweet—is satisfyingly umami. Throw in a vodka martini ,and you’ll never notice that outside your warm kitchen the sidewalks have iced over and it is about to snow.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup corn kernels

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, washed, peeled, root removed, thin sliced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, crushed, roughly chopped

2 cups shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, thin sliced

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, pat dried, finely chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both. Refreeze the broth for later use.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. On a medium flame, sauté onions, stirring frequently until lightly browned. That caramelization will add sweetness to the sauté.

6. Add corn, garlic, mushrooms. Stir well. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add sweet butter (optional), cayenne (optional) and rosemary (optional). Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and black pepper.

8. Serve hot as a side dish or condiment.

Main photo: Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

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Pumpkin pappardelle with pumpkin and poppy seed. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pumpkin is an ideal bland food with a distinctive taste. That’s a good thing because it means you have to do something to the pumpkin to make it palatable and delicious. Typically, pumpkin pie is a solution, but nowadays it’s going into all kinds of things from beer to cookies.

Pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae and winter squash family (its Latin binomial is Cucurbita pepo) and when it first arrived in Europe following its discovery in the New World after Columbus’ voyages it did not impress. The Sicilians, for example, thought so little of winter squash such as pumpkin, they even have a derogatory saying about it: “Sali mitticinni nà visazza conzala come vuoi è sempre cucuzza” (Add a lot of salt and seasoning because squash it always remains).

There are four basic species of Cucurbitaceae. Pumpkins or squash are easily hybridized so the range of colors and shapes is quite varied and it is difficult to tell one variety from another, resulting in many cultivars. If you are interested, a thorough and concise description of all the squashes can be found in my book “Mediterranean Vegetables.”

All that counts in this recipe is that you’ll need about 3 pounds of pumpkin flesh. The recipe calls for you to make your own pumpkin pasta and homemade ricotta cheese. That sounds hard, but it’s not. Just follow the instructions in the links.

Alternatively, use store-bought regular pappardelle with a high quality store-bought ricotta cheese. For the homemade pasta, follow the pasta-making instructions for “Homemade White Flour and Egg Pasta” in the pappardelle link below, adding 1 cup puréed and very well-drained pumpkin pulp to the mixture.

Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds

Prep time: 15 minutes, does not include making homemade pasta and ricotta

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

¾ pound pumpkin pappardelle

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

14 ounces fresh pumpkin flesh, cut into 1½ by 1½ by ¼-inch squares

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

¼ pound fresh ricotta cheese

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Prepare the pasta. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and let dry 4 to 24 hours. The recipe in the link will provide 1¼ pounds dried pasta. Set aside ¾ pound for this recipe and store the remainder.

2. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.

3. Add ½ tablespoon butter to the skillet and it will smoke almost immediately. Quickly lay the sliced pumpkin in the skillet and salt lightly. Let cook until golden on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and set aside, keeping the slices warm.

4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

5. Transfer the pasta while still very hot to a bowl with the remaining butter and poppy seeds. Toss well then transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Top with the sliced pumpkin, 4 dollops of ricotta, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

Main photo: Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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pumpkin carbonara

Succulent summer tomatoes are a distant memory, but luckily wonderful pasta sauce can be made with fall’s beautiful bounty of pears and pumpkins.

My passion for pasta with fruit began while researching my first cookbook “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” during which I discovered the many sweet-savory pasta dishes of the Renaissance. Now, I’m always on the lookout for fruit and pasta pairings when in Italy and constantly pester my Italian friends to send me recipes. In Italy you’ll find pasta paired with all sorts of fruit, both dried and fresh — prunes, dates, oranges and lemons — each adding lovely color, brilliant acidity and delicate sweetness to the sauces.

 Pears and pasta

I’m especially partial to pears as they stand up nicely when cooked and add a savory sweet fresh flavor. Grating fresh pear onto pasta tossed with simple jar tomato sauce makes it taste delicately sweet. Adding diced pear to a simple mac ‘n’ cheese adds crunch and a surprisingly almost wine note to a simple dish.

“Open” ravioli with a meat and pear sauce. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Pear is a popular ravioli filling as it pairs so wonderfully with cheese. A classic pear ravioli from the Lombardy region is casconcelli, a decadently delicious, very unusual ravioli, made with an odd but oh-so-tasty assortment of ingredients: sausage, roast beef, raisins, crushed almond cookies and pears. Making ravioli can be a little daunting, so I was thrilled to discover that in Italy they often use the ravioli filling as condiment for dried pasta! Called ravioli aperto, or “open ravioli,” it uses ravioli filling as a sauce, as was popularized by the famous Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who first introduced it back in the ’80s. Nowadays, many Italians, pressed for time, forgo ravioli-making and turn the filling into a free-form sauce for pasta. The flavors are the same and it saves time.

“Open” Pear Ravioli (Casoncelli alla Bergamasca “Aperto”)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

The pear filling for casoncelli, ravioli from the Bergamo section of Lombardy, makes an exceptionally tasty, very unusual sauce for any shape of dried pasta.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 sweet sausage
¼ pound roast beef, thinly sliced then cut into strips
1 garlic clove, minced
3 to 4 small fresh sage leaves
1 large pear, thinly sliced with peel left on
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 cup chicken broth
1 pound calamarata or any shape pasta
Zest of ½ lemon
Grana padano or other aged cheese
Ground cinnamon
Nutmeg
½ bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 amaretti cookies, crushed, optional

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat.

2. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove the meat from the sausage casing and crumble into the pan; cook until browned.

4. Add the roast beef, garlic, whole sage leaves, pear, raisins and broth.

5. Cook the mixture until the pears are soft, about 5 minutes.

6. Meantime, cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until almost al dente.

7. Drain and toss into the sauce. Stir well and cook, adding cooking liquid, if needed, until al dente.

8. Stir in the zest, ⅓ cup of grated cheese, cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and minced parsley to taste, until well amalgamated. Season with salt and pepper and serve topped with more shaved or grated cheese and a sprinkling of amaretti crumbs, if using.

Pumpkins and pasta

In Italy all sorts of pumpkins and fall squash are incorporated into pasta sauces, lasagna, ravioli and gnocchi. You can add diced roasted pumpkin to meat sauce or layer it into lasagna for a savory touch of fall. You can top virtually any pasta dish with thin slices of fried pumpkin for a pop of texture and sweetness.

Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara – hot pasta tossed with raw egg to create its own creamy sauce, punctuated by crisp bits of pancetta and a shower of grated cheese.

It would be difficult to improve on that magical combination of simple ingredients, but by substituting caramelized onions and pumpkin in place of the pancetta, it not only turns it into a vegetarian delight, but creates an even more creamy sauce.

Pumpkin Pasta Carbonara

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Ingredients

1 large onion, thinly sliced
Olive oil
2 cups diced pumpkin or kabocha squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta, any shape
2 eggs
Pecorino or other aged cheese

Directions

1. In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until the onion is very soft, about 8 minutes, then raise the heat to high and continue cooking until golden and caramelized, about 4 more minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.

2. In the same pan, adding another tablespoon or 2 of oil, fry the squash until tender and golden at the edges, about 8 minutes. Return the onions to the pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and keep warm.

3. In a large serving bowl, beat the eggs with 2 heaping tablespoons of grated pecorino cheese.

4. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in the egg mixture, stirring until creamy, then stir in the hot onion-squash mixture. Serve topped with grated or shaved cheese.

Main photo: Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”

In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”

Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.

In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.

First written mention of clams in chowder

There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”

The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.

A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”

Cape Cod chowder is the best

This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.

Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.

A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.

A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.

Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.

Raw milk first used in clam chowder

The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.

Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.

Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.

One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.

Cape Cod Clam Chowder

Prep Time: 3 hours

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

  • 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
  • 2 quarts water
  • 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
  • ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
  • 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
  • Salt, if necessary
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Common or oyster crackers for garnish

Directions

  1. Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
  2. Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
  3. Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
  4. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
  5. Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.

Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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