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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
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
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
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
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