Homemade pesto

Now that spring and summer are officially on the horizon, pesto will become a staple in my kitchen (more than it already is). The beauty about pesto is that basil, Genovese basil to be exact, is readily available in the warm and hot months and I can just walk to my vegetable garden and pick a few leafs. Last summer, my friend Sharon surprised me with a full load of basil, literally.

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See, Sharon leaves in Albemarle County and her vegetable garden is at least three times the size of my little speck in the ground. She called, asked if I wanted “a little basil” and off I went, happy as a clam to be receiving some tasty garden offerings. Little did I know that what Sharon meant as “little” was really at least 10 whole plants – with roots attached. We run out of bags and decided to just throw everything in the trunk, that way I would be able to do my initial “cleaning” from the car.

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This is what I was working with: three bags full of aromatic basil (the aroma lingered in my car for at least a week – not that I am complaining, mind you).

The very first step in preparing for pesto making is the simplest, yet most time-consuming: washing. Every basil leaf needs to be plucked and washed thoroughly. The stem is too stringy, tough and bitter. It is also really important to inspect every single leaf – if it’s wilted or is excessively damaged, toss it. I plucked, washed and inspected every single leaf. Throughout the process, I asked myself whether I would like pesto once the ordeal was over. It turns out I still love it.

The simplest way to clean and wash the leaves is to fill the kitchen sink with water and let the basil soak in it for a few minutes.

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Pour the leaves into a colander, fill up the sink with water and soak the leaves once again. Repeat this process until the water is clean with absolutely no dust or debris. It took me 6 hours to wash the three bags of basil!

What you need:

Parmigiano Reggiano
Pine nuts
Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Take a fistful of fresh, clean basil leaves and place them into a food processor. There are really no true measurements for making pesto. Depending on how tangy you want the mixture, you can adjust the ingredients. I love a bitter/tangier pesto and for that I add quite a lot of garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano. If you like a sweeter pesto – to use as a marinade or as a meat sauce, add more pine nuts and be mindful of the amount of garlic.

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Season with salt and pepper to taste. Grind the ingredients to your preferred texture. Tip: if you use pesto with pasta, you can leave it a bit chunkier than you would a meat marinade.

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That’s it! You are done! You can use the fresh pesto for a quick lunch or dinner or you can can it. With my load of basil, I decided to can it and freeze it for posterity. At the end of the process, I had 11 jars of fresh pesto! I gave some to Sharon and others as house warming gifts.

To can, pour the pesto into the jar making sure that it coats all the sides of the jar. Once it’s filled to the brim, close it up and place it in the freezer –  it will last you for months, in fact, I have been eating pesto all winter long.

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Tip: Once you start using a jar, add extra virgin olive oil to the remainder pesto and store in the fridge. Even if the basil will darken in color, it’s still as delicious as before.

pesto9_logoTry this delicious summer treat: Pasta with homemade pesto, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella bites. Let me know what you think!

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Homemade Meat Tortellini (with VIDEO)

As it happens after heavy eating, drinking and merry making, the last thing I wanted to do was think about food. But Francesco’s aunt, Liviana, gave me a reason to get up and get going. “Do you want to learn how to make homemade tortellini?” How can I say no to that?

I was a mere spectator at first, attentively observing how Liviana moved in the kitchen; how she prepped a huge wooden board on the table and began pouring the flour on the board. She made a whole in the center of a mountain of flour. She poured the eggs in and began mixing. We were making pasta from scratch, hands deep in the dough. I’ve actually never made pasta without a mixer. By forcefully using my hands, I could feel the texture and consistency of the pasta dough and make slight adjustments to it.

For the next 20 minutes, I wrestled with the dough. Pasta making is a great workout.

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The recipe we used is perfect for a dough that has to be elastic for filling: one egg per every 100 grams of flour (Farina Tipo 00 in Italy, but at home in Central Virginia, I use any organic, unbleached all-purpose flour).
For 3 kilograms of tortellini (about 6.5 pounds), we used 800 grams of flour and 8 eggs.

The filling. The recipe Liviana shared with me is pork-based, but a vegetarian version – spinach and fresh ricotta cheese – is on my to-do, or better, wish list.
Filling: 100 grams of prosciutto crudo (3.5 ounces), 100 grams of mortadella, 100 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano and 300 grams of a mixture of pork loin and one sausage. The beauty of food made at home, by hand, is that you can adjust it to your liking. With this particular recipe, you can add more prosciutto, mortadella, or sausage. Customize away.

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The meats, cold cuts and cheese need to be minced and blended together to the consistency of a sticky paste….think Pâté. Once the mixture is ready, place it in  a bowl and cover it to avoid dryness. The filling needs to retain its moisture for the tortellini to be soft and chewy.

The next step is getting the pasta ready for cutting. Just like when making lasagna, we started with sheets of pasta laid out on the kitchen table. With a tortellini cutter, we cut the sheets into squares of about 1 inch each- that was our desired size for each tortellino.

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Once the squares were ready and separated, we had to act quickly to avoid the pasta getting too dry. We added a dollop of filling onto each square and “closed” the dough to make the tortellino. It took me a few “closures” to get the hang of it, but I finally mastered it: folding the dough in such a way that it prevents the filling to leak even while cooking in boiling water or both. It’s a laborious process, but bloody fun. That’s me below in action. Two hours and change and we had 6.5 pounds of tortellini.

Tip: While you are prepping and cutting the sheets of pasta, keep them covered with plastic wrap or a open ziploc bag. The dough won’t dry as quickly and it will be much easier to fold and seal each tortellino.

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The “closing” of the tortellini is an art, I found…and it takes lots of practice. In the time I was able to successfully make one, Liviana and her daughter, Roberta, made 10 or more. The folding process is easier shown than explained. Check out yours truly in the video below:

The best way to serve tortellini is with homemade chicken broth. The best time to eat it is on a snowy night. I made my own batch of tortellini as soon as Francesco and I got home from Italy. I have to say, they were good. Really good…and they even look decent!

To cook them in broth, bring the liquid to a boil and add the fresh tortellini. Cook them in the boiling broth for about 5 or 6 minutes (I like them a bit al dente) and serve them with some Parmigiano Reggiano. They heal the soul…or achy bones on a winter night. Either way, a slam dunk.

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Tip: Because the process to make tortellini can easily take all afternoon….(it did for me), make a big batch and freeze them. If you are like me, a little forgetful in the kitchen, this little tidbit of information can save you from disaster – don’t place fresh tortellini in a bag ready for the freezer…you run the risk of creating a ball of frozen tortellini that won’t even come undone in boiling broth. So, freeze them as you work: place the filled tortellini on a tray and put the tray in the freezer for a couple of minutes, or until the tortellini are cold enough not to stick together. This saved my life…I am known to make these kinds of disasters.

Buon Appetito!

Saffron risotto with shrimps

I have a love affair with saffron. It may be because it appears in many dishes from my region, Lombardia—best known is Risotto alla Milanese. In my humble opinion, saffron marries perfectly with risotto, but I have used it in pasta sauces, vegetable medley and as a marinade for either a nice halibut filet or a juicy rib eye steak.

For this recipe, I ventured a bit outside my comfort zone and purchased precooked, frozen shrimps from the new, pimped out Whole Foods Market in Charlottesville. It may look intimidating, but this dish is a breeze. I promise.  All you need is 1 1/2 cups of shrimps (any size will do), garlic, good white wine, 2 packets of saffron, 4 cups of Arborio rice (for 4 people), 1 cup of vegetable stock, salt and pepper. See? Nothing too fancy.

After washing the shrimps…and making sure they are all devenied, get out the best tool in the kitchen: the pressure cooker! It will cut the cooking time in half. No joke.

Mince the 3 cloves of garlic and place them in the cooker with some extra virgin olive oil. Roast the garlic for 3 or 4 minutes, or until golden. Add the cut and cleaned shrimps and the saffron and cook for about 2 minutes. The saffron that I use is from Italy and was sent to us by Francesco’s parents. I use two packets or the equivalent of 2 teaspoons. Mix the ingredients until they all look uniformly orangey. Call me crazy, but I just LOVE the color of saffron.

Add the Arborio rice and cook all the ingredients for 5 to 10 minutes. Now comes the fun part. Add the wine, and don’t be alarmed if it makes all kinds of noises and smoke. Stir it until the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the vegetable stock and make sure the liquid covers all the ingredients.

Add salt and pepper, taste it and cover it up. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Once it’s ready to serve, sprinkle some Parmigiano Reggiano and let it melt. Buon Appetito!

Vocabulary:

Risotto – rice

Zafferano – saffron

Aglio – garlic

Gamberetti – shrimps

Food Reads: Bon Appetit’s The ITALY Issue

I couldn’t have missed this. Don’t mock me, but I tend to gravitate towards all things Italian (and, often, I find that I am either offended by the blatant misconception of Italian culture or amused by the silly stereotypes…Jersey Shore ring a bell?). When I came across the latest Bon Appetit’s issue, well, I jumped up and down for joy. I wasn’t really taken by the cover image—it kind of looks like something I would cook and photograph—but by the headline: The Italy Issue, written in bold, red letters. (Thank the deities it wasn’t imitating the colors of Italy’s flag).

Yet, the entire cover look seems a bit uninspired. And boring to be honest. But newly minted editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport (formerly style editor at GQ) has his reasons. “I love just a clean, graphic cover, and there’s something simple and beautiful about pasta pomodoro and made the right way and it’s glossy and luxurious and there’s a luxurious simplicity to it,” he said in an interview with Eater.com.

Kudos for giving Emilia’s food culture nice relevance—it is, after all, the land of Parmigiano Reggiano and of the prosciutto di Modena—but it would have been equally, if not more successful, to break away from the rustic ideals and move towards the new wave of Italian chef-artists. Chef Massimo Bottura is the new Michelangelo. His restaurant, Osteria Francescana, recently ranked as the fourth best restaurant in the world. It’s haute cuisine. Italian food can still be comfort food, but it’s so much more—it’s conceptual, inspired, cosmopolitan, it’s relevant, new and different.

{Photos: Bon Appetit}

Here, for example, is Massimo Bottura explaining how he uses foreign ingredients and honors them in their purest forms.


And here, Bottura shows his genius. Oh, it’s only in Italian, but if you forward the video a bit, you can see how he creates a modern twist on a traditional dish from Emilia – snails bourguignon. He went hiking in the hills of Modena one winter and was inspired to recreate the environment he observed into his dish—the soft looking whipped cream you see as he completes the dish is a garlic foam that represents snow. The title of the video says it all, I think. La rivoluzione siamo noi – We are the revolution.


Torta di spinaci

If you want comfort food, this is for you. Since spring has apparently forgotten to come around this year—it snowed last week!!!—I thought this would be the perfect treat for the upcoming week. Enjoy!

 

TORTA DI SPINACI

3 Cups of either frozen or fresh spinach

2 Eggs (to boil)

1 Egg (to add to spinach mixture)

1/2 Cup of Parmesan Cheese

3/4 Cup of your cheese of choice

Salt and Pepper

Hint of extra virgin olive oil

 

Torta Dough

1 Cup of flour

1/4 Cups of butter

3 Tablespoons of water

 

This torta is very easy to make. For the dough, you have two options: buy Phillo dough or make your own. For the handmade version, mix the flour, butter and water together in a mixer until the dough is soft but sticky. Place the dough on a floured surface and work it by hand for 5 minutes. Let it rest for 10 minutes wrapped in a clean, kitchen towel. Cut the dough in half.

For the filling:

If you are using frozen spinach (as I did in this recipe), place the frozen produce directly in a pan (no need to defrost) and cook until tender. Set them aside to cool down. Once the spinach has cooled down and well drained, add the egg and beat the mixture together. Set aside. In the meantime, cut your cheese of choice in cubes and boil the 2 eggs for about 7 minutes.

In this recipe I used Manchego cheese for its tangy, strong flavor, but any cheese will do. The beauty about this torta is that you can use any cheese you want, even leftovers from a tailgate.

In an oiled glass terrine, stretch one half of the prepared dough to cover the bottom of the terrine. Make sure there are no holes.

Next, in a bowl, add the spinach mixture, diced boiled eggs, cheese (Parmesan Cheese, Manchego) and stir until uniform. Pour mixture into the terrine, add a hint of olive oil, salt and pepper and use the remaining half of the dough to cover the torta completely. Brush the dough with a little extra virgin olive oil for shine and crunch.

Bake the torta in the oven for about 40 minutes at 375F. Enjoy!!

 

Vocabulary:

Gli spinaci – spinach

La pasta della torta – dough

Le uova – eggs

Sale – salt

Pepe – pepper

Il formaggio – cheese