Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Week 46: A Journey to Italy

For months, I stared at the word Italian written across this week’s schedule and considered how I might approach the week with the necessary and appropriate reverence befitting such a beloved cuisine.  With a history that spans over two thousand years, the spirit of this cuisine which embodies the idea of cooking with fresh, local ingredients progressed as new ingredients and new ways to preserve food evolved in its regions.  Although Italian cuisine immediately evokes the idea of pasta and tomato sauce for many, its true dishes are not far removed from those that American households have served for years.  While I’ve noted previously that Italian cuisine is the only “non-Southern American” food my mom ever served in our East Tennessee kitchen, I had not considered just how much Italian cuisine truly influenced our table.  Although I was referring to the fact that mom made spaghetti, lasagna, and manicotti, most of the other dishes she served are rooted in Italian cuisine, as well, such as braised roast beef, fresh vegetables from the garden cooked with pork, and baked chicken coated in bread crumbs.  Even those bologna sandwiches and sloppy summertime tomato sandwiches made with tomatoes picked fresh from the vine could be categorized as Italian (minus the Miracle Whip component of our versions).  At its heart, the American table is more influenced by Italian cuisine than any others.

With a limited amount of time for cooking this week, I created a menu for a full traditional Italian meal celebrating fresh, seasonal ingredients.  Although I already had a few dishes planned, I turned to my copies of Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home and Babbo Cookbook for the inspiration I needed to realize the complete menu.  After thoughtful consideration, I crafted a menu for an Italian Autumn Feast and invited over a few friends for Sunday Supper.

The apertivo is a pre-dinner drink served to introduce a meal.  It may be as simple as a glass of prosecco, but Italians often indulge in a cocktail made with Campari.  The Negroni is likely the most popular Campari cocktail.  It is made with gin, vermouth, and Campari and generally garnished with an orange peel.  This is not a cocktail for the faint of heart as it boasts a strong, piney flavor, and it is best defined as a a “sipping” drink.  For our dinner, half of the guests indulged in a Negroni while the others enjoyed a glass of prosecco.

frying the suppli di riso
The antipasto course offers guests an array of snacks that may range from a simple platter of cheese and meats to more elaborate salads and sandwiches.  A few weeks before our Italian dinner, my friend Stephanie told me about the suppli di riso (fried stuffed risotto balls) that she had in Italy while visiting with her friend Marco’s family.  She graciously asked Marco for his mother’s recipe so I could make it for our dinner, and a few days later I received an email that began with Marco’s family recipe in Italian and ended with his English translation.  
suppli di riso

Marco’s mother makes this dish with risotto flavored by homemade chicken stock and stuffs it with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto.  What an incredible dish!  It was also surprisingly simple to incorporate into the meal.  I made the risotto on the Saturday afternoon.  Then, I formed the risotto balls and stuffed them with the prosciutto and fresh mozzarella on Sunday afternoon, so the only task during the meal was to coat them in egg and bread crumbs before frying them. 

sauteed green and black olives
in tomato sauce
Because I knew the suppli di riso would require my full attention, I opted to serve two dishes that could easily be prepared before my guests arrived, such as sautéed black and green olives in tomato sauce and fresh herbed ricotta cheese served with homemade boules.  The recipe for the olives came from Batali’s Molto Italiano.  I made the tomato sauce on Saturday (enough for this dish and the braised veal I served in the secondo course), and on Sunday afternoon, I sautéed the olives with garlic, added the tomato sauce, and simmered them for about thirty minutes.  I served them at room temperature.  
fresh herbed ricotta

Making fresh ricotta cheese was a task I had tackled previously.  It’s simple to make and most recipes for it are similar.  My version is a hybrid of Michael Schwartz and Ina Garten’s recipes.   I just add some freshly chopped herbs, parsley in this case, for flavor and color.  For the boules, I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe in The Best Recipes in the World, and even though I’ve made many homemade breads, I was a little nervous about getting the consistency right when making such a classic bread; however, they turned out beautifully.  I thought two loaves would be enough bread, but everyone loved these boules so much that we ran out of bread before the antipasto course was complete.  They had an incredible crunchy crust with a perfectly tender center ideal for sopping up the tomato sauce with the olives. 

The primo course serves as the first course of the actual meal and commonly includes pasta, gnocchi, risotto, polenta, or soup.  This is another course that I planned weeks before our dinner.  I was lamenting over my failed experiences of making homemade pasta with my friend Christine, and she immediately offered to bring her pasta maker to my house and give me a personal pasta lesson.  Fortunately, we had that conversation during my week of French cuisine and I still had some duck confit left in my refrigerator.  She suggested that I freeze it so that we could make duck ravioli.  Brilliant!  So, on Sunday afternoon, Christine arrived with pasta maker in tow, and she proceeded to make beautiful pasta for us.  (It’s so nice to have chefs for friends!)  Watching her work was so much fun…partly because she makes gorgeous food but also because it was nice to take a break from cooking for a minute.  She made a delicious brown butter and sage sauce for the ravioli and then topped each dish with orange zest.  It was amazing! 

duck ravioli in brown butter sauce with sage
The secondo course functions as the main course.  It is generally the heartiest course and includes meat. I made braised veal rolls in tomato sauce from Batali’s Molto Italiano. I thought
 that the stuffing mix of bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, prosciutto, currants, pine nuts, and parsley evoked a sense of Autumn flavors that would enhance our seasonal feast.  I also liked the idea that I could make the dish just before my guests arrived and let it simmer on the stovetop as they enjoyed the first courses of the evening.  To make this dish, I spread the stuffing mixture on thin slices of veal that I rolled and secured with butcher’s string.  In a Dutch oven, I sautéed pancetta and onions in olive oil, and then I browned the rolls in the same oil and removed them.  I added the tomato sauce I made on Saturday afternoon and red wine to the Dutch oven, and then I added the onions, pancetta, and veal rolls back to the pan to simmer for over an hour.  The resulting dish was a tender piece of veal complemented well with the sweetness of the pine nuts, currants and tomato sauce, saltiness of the pancetta and prosciutto, and earthiness of the parsley and red wine.
onions with balsamic glaze
braised veal rolls in tomato sauce
broccoli rabe in the style of Puglia

For the contorno, or accompanying vegetable dishes served with the main course, I selected two dishes from Batali’s Molto Italiano:  broccoli rabe braised in the style of Puglia and onions with balsamic glaze.  The broccoli rabe is braised with garlic and red pepper flakes.  Then, chopped black olives are added just before serving.  The onions with balsamic glaze turned out to be one of the group’s favorite dishes of the evening.  This dish is the ultimate example of Italian cuisine at its best…only a few quality ingredients and time.  I was so proud of the beautiful, thick balsamic glaze on those sweet onions.  Both dishes complemented the veal rolls nicely.

Traditionally, the formaggio e frutta course (cheese and fruit) is served between the main course and the dessert case.  Although I had nice Italian cheeses (parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, fontal, gorgonzola) ready to serve with some green grapes, I knew that we were nearing our maximum capacity, and I didn’t want to spoil our dolce course, so we agreed to forego this course and move ahead.

pumpkin cake with toasted pine nuts
olive oil gelato
The dolce course is the dessert course and usually includes baked goods such as cake or cookies.  Again, I turned to a Batali cookbook for this course and opted to make pumpkin cake with toasted pine nuts and olive oil gelato from his Babbo Cookbook.  It was every bit as good as it sounds, too.  I loved the pumpkin cake, because it only included one cup of brown sugar which served to elevate the sweetness of the pumpkin puree.  Even better, the cake is studded with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins soaked in grappa, and finely chopped fresh rosemary.  Pairing it with the unctuous olive oil gelato provided the perfect dessert…not too sweet but full of flavor and definitely reminiscent of a beautiful autumn evening. 

I offered espresso for the caffe course, and I intended to ask everyone if they would like some grappa for the digestivo course, but after dessert, I looked over and saw all of my friends lounging across the couches.  We had reached capacity, and even the idea of the digestive was too much.  This is not a group of lightweights either.  None of us is a small portions, calorie-counting, leave food on the plate kind of person, but this feast knocked us out!  Well, except for Patrick.  He even had two servings of the olive oil gelato, and I’m sure he could’ve handled the cheese course, too.  There’s a reason that the Italians reserve these large, traditional meals for special occasions.

I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the cuisine of Italy than an evening spent with friends around a table of exquisite dishes.   I was so caught up in keeping our dinner on schedule that I completely forgot to document the incredible Italian beer that Patrick shared with the group and the numerous bottles of delicious Italian wines we enjoyed, but they have not been forgotten.  All in all, we had a lovely evening, and the feast was incredible. 

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