I think of the Italian culture and its people as very earthy. By that I mean that they are very real and “down to earth”. People are natural and warm and live close to the rhythms of life and the four seasons. The earthiness is even evident in the Italian language. Funghi, literally translated funguses, is the word for mushrooms. The definition from my “Dictionary” app says that a fungus is a “single-celled organism. . . that lives by decomposing and absorbing the organic material in which it grows. . .” There is no attempt to hide the disgusting sounding term for this delicacy that we politely call mushrooms.
One of our favorite pizzas is the pizza ai funghi. Those of you that read this blog regularly know that we make pizza once a week. We make the crust from scratch. We vary the toppings, but always use fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and often accompany the pizza with a simple Boston lettuce salad dressed with EVOO and sea salt.
The pizza is also a family project. Matteo is now in charge of making the crust when he gets home from school so that the dough can rise one hour before we make the pizza. We call him our pizzaiolo (pizza maker) as he now makes the pizza crust better than either one of us ever did. Then, Marco or I make the topping. The remaining teammate makes the salad. All of this is a nice way to ensure home cooked food with busy schedules so that one person doesn’t have to carry the whole load.
The funghi are an assortment of gourmet mushrooms. Simply sauté garlic slices in olive oil. Then, add the mushrooms and cook for about 3-4 minutes on medium-high heat until lightly browned. Add about a half of a cup of white wine and increase the heat to high, cooking until the wine is fully evaporated, stirring occasionally. Salt and pepper to taste and they are ready for the pizza.
These mushrooms can also be a nice tapas or side dish by simply adding some parsley for color near the end.
For the pizza crust recipe and other details, click here to see the video.
We are enjoying our farm fresh tomatoes that we canned last summer. Each time we open a jar, the freshness of summer seems to fill the air. The taste is far and away better than any store-bought tomato or any jarred sauce. It’s like walking out into the garden in August, plucking a red juicy tomato from the vine, sinking your teeth into the fruit, and slurping up the sun-drenched goodness.
The tomatoes are the base of a marinara sauce by simply sautéing garlic in olive oil and then adding the tomato sauce. It is the base of a vodka sauce (click here for the post on this). Some shallots are sautéed in olive oil before adding the sauce with preferred seasoning and you have a basic tomato sauce for pasta. It can also be the key ingredient for the chicken dish, pollo alla pizzaiola, that we shared in this post (click here).
We eat fish at least once a week. Recently, we had some cod in the house and decided on a simple, quick, and tasty dish using our canned tomatoes. First, we sautéed sliced garlic cloves, capers, and one anchovy in olive oil. Then, we added the tomato sauce and salt to taste, letting the sauce simmer. A pinch of red pepper flakes could also be added. After about 8-10 minutes, we added the cod and cooked for 3-4 minutes.
We served the cod with some whole roasted cauliflower with an almond-herb sauce (click here for the recipe from the New York Times).
Who would have thought of a soup with bread in it? ? ? the Italians, that’s who! They love their bread! This is a traditional Tuscan soup made with tomatoes, bread, and olive oil. Literally, it means “mush of tomato”. It is served cold, warm or piping hot so it is a versatile meal for all seasons but best when the tomatoes are fresh from the garden.
Recently, we had some at our favorite local Tuscan Italian restaurant in Salem, Firenze Trattoria (click here). They brought us over some of their pappa al pomodoro to tide us over until our meal was ready and we immediately fell in love! It is a dense soup with the dominant flavor of tomatoes and nice notes of garlic and the soffrito (carrots, celery, onion) base of many Italian recipes. The texture is difficult to describe, perhaps velvety, smooth, but best understood only by trying it for yourself!
The recipe is from the book “Flavors of Tuscany” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (1998, Jenkins).
- 2 pounds fresh red ripe tomatoes, cut in chunks
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
- 1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
- 4 or 5 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed with the flat blade of a knife, and chopped
- 1/2 pound country-style bread crusts removed
- 1 stalk basil
- pinch of sugar
- Extra virgin olive oil and basil leaves, for garnish
- place the tomatoes, onion, carrot, celery, and parsley in a soup kettle with about 1/4 cup water
- bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are all very soft
- midway through the cooking, taste and add salt and pepper
- add a little boiling water to the pan from time to time, if necessary, to keep the vegetables from sticking
- when the vegetables are tender, remove the kettle from the heat and allow to cool a little
- use a food mill to purée the vegetables
- heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium-low heat
- add the garlic and cook, stirring, until it softens (do not let it color)
- while the garlic is cooking, tear the bread into big pieces and add to the pan, together with the basil and 2 cups boiling water.
- cook the bread and basil in the water, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up the bread and adding more boiling water from time to time, up to 1 cup more
- when the bread has thoroughly broken down and absorbed the water, add 2 1/2 cups of the tomato purée and stir it in
- taste again and adjust the seasoning, if necessary, adding a little sugar if desired
- cook over very low heat, stirring frequently, for 1 hour longer, adding a little more boiling water or hot tomato sauce to keep the soup from sticking
- it should be very dense but still possible to eat with a spoon
Serve it room piping hot, room temperature, or even chilled!
Christmas Eve in Italy is a traditional time for fish and seafood. For Catholics in Italy is a vigil, waiting for Christmas, an occasion to abstain from meat. In some parts of Italy, particularly the Central and Southern regions, it is an evening to have 7 fishes. This has been imported to the U.S. where many Italian-Americans celebrate an evening of 7 or 9 or some other number of fishes. There are many explanations for the significance of the numbers, but, nevertheless, it is a tradition that carries on through the generations.
The north of Italy doesn’t choose a number of fishes, but, true to the Catholic culture of Italy the vigilia involves abstaining from meat. Marco grew up in a northern family where Christmas eve is also a night of seafood. His mother often had an octopus salad, perhaps a pasta with clams or mussels, and another fish dish.
We’ve adopted the tradition of seafood on Christmas Eve. This year Marco’s mother suggested spaghetti with cozze (mussels) and a tomato base. We still have several jars of our fresh tomato sauce that we canned in the summer. We used this as a base, cooked some mussels in shallots, olive oil, and white wine. Then, combined everything into the sauce with a pinch of red pepper flakes. It is a delicious, simple, and satisfying way to enjoy fresh mussels.
Ingredients (serves 4):
- 1 pound cozze
- 2 small shallots
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1 cup tomato sauce (more or less to taste, but remember that Italians do not generally overwhelm pasta with the sauce)
- pinch of red pepper flakes
- salt to taste
- in a pot, sauté one of the shallots in olive oil until just soft
- add the wine and bring to a simmer
- once it begins simmering, add the mussels and cover, cooking about 10 minutes
- take the mussels out of the pot, reserving the liquid
- take the mussels out of the shells, reserving 1 or 2 in the shell to garnish each plate
- saute another shallot in a pan until translucent, about 2 minutes, and add the tomato sauce
- add salt to taste and a pinch of red pepper flakes
- meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted water
- about 2 minutes before the pasta is cooked, add the mussels
- when the pasta is finished, strain and combine with the sauce
It’s the time of year for chicken noodle soup. It’s not an Italian dish, but my version is a fun blend of the Italian and the American! I combine all that I learned from Marco and his mother with what I know about a traditional New England chicken noodle soup. Marco’s mother actually never makes this, never had it until mine, and it really isn’t even found in Italy, but, I tweaked a few things with input from two of my favorite Italians.
Even if you don’t read any further, here are three Italian secrets that make this soup better. First, most chicken soups include a pasta of some kind that is added when making the soup, simmering for so long that the pasta becomes mushy. Marco insists on making the entire soup first. Then, 9 minutes before eating, take just enough servings of the soup from the large pot and add some pasta so that it can cook al dente.
The second secret comes right from Adelina’s kitchen! She uses this for minestra, broth, and other simple soups. Take the crusts of a Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese and cut them into small pieces. Place several in the serving bowls of soup. The crusts melt in the piping hot soup providing a flavorful addition.
Third, most chicken soup and stock recipes, simply state to add the vegetables in with the water or stock. I prefer the Italian style of sauteeing the vegetables in the olive oil first, enhancing the flavors. This is called a soffritto and is the basic building block of many fine sauces.
For the soup itself, I often make it with chicken broth already prepared, usually the Whole Foods brand. This time, however, I had several chicken carcasses in the freezer and decided to make my own broth using the recipe below.
- 1 roasted chicken carcass, meat removed and reserved for the soup
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 quarts (12 cups) water
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 medium celery stalk, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- using kitchen scissors, break up the carcass into several smaller pieces and set aside
- heat the oil in the pot over medium-high heat until shimmering
- add the carcass pieces and cook, turning occasionally, until lightly browned all over, about 8 minutes
- remove the bone the carcass pieces and set aside
- add the carrot, celery, and onion pieces and sautee until just soft
- place the carcass pieces back in the pot
- add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon
- bring to a simmer (do not let the stock come to a boil) for about 1 1/2 hours
- remove and discard any large pieces of carcass.
- pour the stock through the strainer (you should have about 6 cups)
- discard the contents of the strainer
For the chicken noodle soup itself, I scoured many recipes and chose the herbs that I enjoy. I also chose to keep the flavors simple. The garlic may be another nod to the Italians.
- 16 cups chicken broth (so, if you’re making your own stock, you’ll either need more chickens or reduce these quantities accordingly)
- 1 ½ lb. boneless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces
- 8 oz. spaghetti – broken into quarters (or 8 oz. barley)
- 2 carrots sliced
- 2 celery stalks sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- ¼ chopped onion
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup cornstarch mixed in ¼ cup water
- 1 tsp. sage
- 1 tsp. thyme leaves
- 1 tsp. pepper (and more to taste)
- 1 tsp. salt if no salt in the broth (then more to taste)
- heat the olive oil and saute the onions, carrots, and celery
- add the garlic slices and saute until lightly browned
- add the chick pieces and sear for a minute or two (don’t worry about cooking through because it will cook when simmering)
- add the stock, herbs, and spices and bring to a simmer
- add the cornstarch mixture and stir
- simmer for about 20 minutes
- if you’re eating all of the soup, add the spaghetti in the last 9 minutes, otherwise, just take out the amount you wish and cook the pasta for the time recommended for al dente