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The Flavors of Italy are Perfect for Fall Cooking
Gardener and Gourmet Newsletter

Artichokes and asparagus, two quintessentially Italian vegetables, are abundant in the market in autumn, and a cornucopia of others, from tomatoes to zuchinni, makes this a great time of year to become one of the "Old Stoves," as the Italians say, in your neighborhood.

First, you'll need to stock the pantry. Olive oil is essential for southern Italian cooking, and fine quality sweet butter will be needed for northern Italian cuisine. Then there are the "Five P's" of the Italian cupboard: pancetta, prosciutto, parmesan, porcini, and, of course, pasta. Pancetta is unsmoked pork belly, cured and sometimes seasoned with pepper. It is rendered to provide cooking fat, and provides its own special contribution to the flavor of a dish. Prosciutto is surprisingly similar to a traditional Tennessee country ham in flavor, without the saltiness. Hams from specially fed hogs are cured in brine, then air dried. The resulting flavor is indescribably good, especially paired with fresh fruit. Traditionally, prosciutto may be thinly sliced, wrapped around a slive of melon or asparagus, and eaten without cooking. It is also browned and used much like ham or bacon as the foundation for savory sauces.

Parmesan, to the gourmet cook, is not the fluffy powder that comes in that green cylinder. The genuine article, Parmigiano-Reggiano, comes only from Italy, is aged nearly two years, and costs a fortune. There is no satisfactory substitute; however a little goes a long way.

Porcini, or "little pigs," are called cepes by the French, and Boletus edulis by botanists, Seasonal in the fall, they are available year-round in dried form. Buy dried porcini between now and Christmas. They should have a leathery texture. Brittle specimens are last year's crop. The color should be a rich brown, like a properly cooked pork roast, not faded or gray, another indication that the mushrooms are old and have been exposed too long to light and air. The aroma, which is mouth-watering, should be evident despite plastic packaging. Store dried porcini tightly covered in the refrigerator. They will remain in satisfactory condition for six months to a year. Should you be lucky enough to obtain fresh porcini, store them in a plain brown paper bag in the refrigerator.

About pasta we will say only that a good brand of imported dried pasta may be superior when cooked to fresh pasta, despite the trendiness of the latter. If you want good fresh pasta, we suggest that you learn to make it yourself.

The uniqueness of the autumn vegetable garden means that we can have fresh peas and ripe bell peppers at the same time, an impossible feat in the spring. Hence, this recipe takes advantage of that situation.

Penne with Autumn Vegetables

Chop one red bell pepper, stem, seeds and membranes removed, into 1/2 inch dice. Shell enough English peas to make 1 cup, or chop whole snow peas into 1/2 inch dice to yield 1 cup. Peel a large shallot, and slice it into thin slices, separating them into rings. Cut the tips at a length of about one and a half inches from 1 pound of asparagus, reserving the stems for another use. Chop two ounces pancetta into 1/4 inch dice.

In a heavy cast iron skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add the shallots, reduce the heat and cook slowly until the shallots are caramelized. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. (The preparation can be completed up to this point up to 24 hours in advance. Store all ingredients covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before continuing.) Pour off all but a tablespoon of fat from the skillet. Add the peas and the asparagus, then toss and cook for about 1 minute, until their color brightens. Add the peppers and cook for another minute. Add the pancetta, the caramelized shallots, and 1 cup heavy cream, and increase the heat to high. Season with salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until the cream thickens. Serve immediately with penne, cooked according to the package directions and drained well. Garnish with Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated at the table. The recipe makes enough sauce for 1 pound of pasta, or four generous servings.

Since the last tomatoes of the season will be around to share a plate with the first Romaine lettuce, we suggest a simple lettuce and tomato salad with basil vinaigrette. One could also concoct a Ceasar salad, and serve the tomatoes on bruschetta as a first course, for an elegant dinner for company. Then again, one could convert several pounds of the tomatoes into the following sauce, which has a multitude of uses:

John's Universal Tomato Sauce

Use at least five pounds of tomatoes to make this sauce. Smaller batches are hardly worth the trouble, although the technique will work for any amount you desire. It is an excellent way to utilize less-than-perfect specimens. Make sure they are all fully ripened, as green tomatoes will make the sauce bitter.

Wash the tomatoes, drain well, and core. Remove any blemishes or soft spots. Cut each tomato in half, slicing from stem to blossom end. Holding the tomato halves with the skin against your palm, grate each one on a box grater into a seive placed over a large bowl to catch the juices. You will find that the skin protects your hand, and that you can remove virtually all of the tomato, leaving only the skin, which you discard. This eliminates the tedious process of blanching the tomatoes in order to skin them.

Allow the grated tomatoes to drain for about 30 minutes. The juice caught in the bowl is delicious as a beverage, or can be added to soups or stocks. It keeps about a week in the refrigerator.

Transfer the drained tomato pulp to a large, heavy bottomed kettle. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook slowly without stirring until reduced by at least half. This will take an hour or more. Because the tomatoes will contain varying amounts of water, cooking time to produce a sauce of satisfactory consistency is difficult to predict.

Cool the tomatoes and press though a seive or food mill to remove seeds. The sauce keeps a week if covered and refrigerated, and can also be frozen. Try it in the following recipe:

John's Couldn't-Be-Simpler Pizza

Choose your favorite pizza crust. I like to split a pita bread to make two individual pizzas for a quick supper. Foccacia also works. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.

Drizzle a little olive oil on each piece of bread. Top this with some of the tomato sauce. Sprinkle that with minced garlic or garlic powder. Next, sprinkle with dried oregano, salt and a grinding of pepper. Add your favorite pizza toppings (see the following recipe for one possibility). Generously cover with shredded mozzarella. Bake until the cheese bubbles. We prefer Peroni beer and plenty of napkins as an accompaniment. This is faster than delivery and about a million times better tasting.

Roasted Portobello and Bell Pepper Conserve

Prepare six Portobello mushroom caps as described above. (See Market Watch.) Marinate them at least one hour and preferably overnight in 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Place in a shallow roasting pan in a single layer, along with one ripe colored bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut lengthwise into natural segments. The pepper segments should be skin side up. Roast in a preheated 375 degrees F oven for about 30 minutes, or until the skins of the peppers are browned and blistered. The mushrooms will brown lightly, also, and should release the oil into the pan. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan to room temperature. Drain well, reserving the oil, and transfer the mushrooms to a suitable storage container, after slicing them into strips. The skins should slip easily from the peppers. Skin them, cut into strips, and place in the container with the mushrooms. Measure the reserved oil, adding additional fresh oil to yield 3 tablespoons, and combine it with 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. (That's one teaspoon of vinegar for each tablespoon of oil.) Add salt and pepper, and whisk to emulsify the dressing. Pour the dressing over the mushrooms and peppers. Refrigerate for two or three days before using. The conserve will keep at least a month in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature and stir in the oil before use. Besides pizza topping, the conserve is a delicious addition to an antipasto platter.

Gardener and Gourmet Newsletter
October 8, 1998 Vol. 1, No. 14
Copyright (C) 1998, John H. Tullock. All rights reserved.
Published twice a month by Gardener and Gourmet,
3405 East Red Bud Drive, Knoxville, TN 37920-3655
(423) 573-0373

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