Tuesday, October 13, 2009

pesto time

All of that wonderful basil that has been growing in our garden all summer needs to be used before the nights turn chill and it starts to get a little bitter. Carol (left), one-half of classicpasta.com, and her good friend Judy got together so Judy could learn to make pesto. One of Judy's, and our, favorite dishes is halibut a la Carol, which we will divulge in a subsequent blog. It uses pesto to a beautiful result.

We make pesto with the basic Marcella method, and a slight variation. This is her blender pesto from "The Classic Italian Cook Book" and "Essentials." There have been a few bursts from some with "make-it-authentic" zeal that call for using the actual mortar and pestle (from which pesto gets its name). But the blender is what is now used in almost all of Italy, and it works fine, without all the mortar-pestle effort.

  • two cups fresh basil
  • one-half cup olive oil
  • two tablespoons pine nuts
  • four cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • one-half teaspoon salt
  • two tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Toscana (or Parmesan)
  • three tablespoons of butter, softened

Gently tear the leaves of basil into small pieces (about the size of the smallest full leaf). Carol, generally in a hurry, skips this labor and just puts the basil leaves, as is, into the blender. Put the basil, the olive oil, the garlic, the pine nuts and the salt into a blender. Blend at high speed. Using a spatula, halt from time to time, and spatula the ingredients down into the center of the blender, to get a uniform, complete blend.

When well blended, one can go to (1) completion or (2) freezing for use later in the winter.

For completion (to use right away), put the blended pesto in a bowl, add the cheese and work it in with a wooden spoon. Easy to do (although one can just add the cheese to the pesto while in the blender and blend there). When the cheese is evenly distributed, add the softened butter and also mix it in with the wooden spoon.

Marcella suggests, very wisely, that when one is cooking the pasta, reserve a tablespoon of the pasta liquid and add it to the pesto, and stir, just before adding the pesto to the pasta.


Ah, pesto in the winter, tasting as fresh (almost) as when it was prepared in the summer. To do this, halt when you have blended well the basic pesto, before adding cheese and butter. Take the pesto and put it into a freezer jar, preferably small, seal well, and freeze. Carol also takes the basic pesto blend and spoons it into an ice cube tray, providing many small cubes of pesto ready to be used at different times. Works beautifully.

Then, when it is pasta time, have the frozen pesto already thawed (takes about five seconds in the microwave)) and then beat in the cheese and butter and serve. This just sparkles with flavor!

There are plenty of wonderful pasta and pesto recipes in www.classicpasta.com.

Next: pesto in its native habitat --Portofino!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tupper Lake

This isn't exactly the Lake Country of Northern Italy: actually it is the lake country of Northern New York. The publisher, Pietro, is comporting himself on Big Wolf Lake, near Tupper Lake, in the beautiful Adirondacks, on a very recent vacation.

However, even though we were far from a friendly Italian deli, we ate fine. The local Tupper Lake grocery had a wide variety of Buitoni pasta, and also a butcher who made wonderful sausage. Plus it was late in the summer, almost Labor Day, and the tomatoes were ripe and flavorful.

It did not take much to improvise successfully.

For a pound of penne, we took about a quarter cup of olive oil, added about five cloves of garlic, finely chopped, and then about thirty seconds later, an onion, also finely chopped. We let the onion get quite soft, almost starting to carmelize, when we added a half pound of this wonderful sausage, which we has also chopped. We cooked this over medium-high heat. The key is to continually pound the sausage with a wooden spoon as it cooks, to really break it up.

When the sausage was brown we added about four ripe tomatoes, which we had diced. We brought this mixture to a boil and then turned it down to a good simmer, about eight minutes, until the tomatoes had broken down. We added a good dose of salt and some freshly ground pepper, and stirred vigorously.

Meanwhile, of course, we had the penne in boiling water. When the penne were ready, we drained them (saving a cup of the liquid) and added them to the sauce, stirring well. If dry, we added some of the reserved water.

Then we did our special trick: cover the pasta and sauce, turn up the heat and steam vigorously for about a minute. This gets the pasta steaming hot, of course. And serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.

Not quite Lake Como cuisine, but not bad!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ava loves tomato sauce

Ava, obviously, loves Grandpa Pete's tomato sauce. Her favorite is just pure tomato sauce with, probably, farfalle, although she also likes it with penne. Her older sister, Zoe, is a touch more sophisticated, and her favorite (see previous post) is Grandpa Pete's Best Bolognese Sauce ever.

This is the season, of course, for simple, pure, fresh tomato sauce, and this presentation of pasta and sauce did not last long in Ava's dish.

The sauce is so simple to make. We get very lovely vine-ripened tomatoes at the local farmer's Market. Italian Romas are the best option.
For two pounds of tomatoes: wash them, dry, cut off any edges, and then cut them in halves or quarters.

In a saute pan large enough to hold the tomatoes, heat one-third cup of olive oil over medium heat. Finely chop five garlic cloves and add them to the oil. Cook for about fifteen seconds, letting the garlic just start to sizzle, and then add the tomatoes. Stir. Add a teaspoon or two or salt (two) and a teaspoon of sugar.

Cook, uncovered, slowly, over low/medium heat for five minutes. Should have strong simmer.Take a half cup of fresh basil (we are fortunate to have lots of basil in our garden) and tear the leaves into small pieces. Add the basil to the tomatoes and stir. If you would like, add a sprig of fresh rosemary and maybe a tablespoon of fresh oregano.

Cook for another ten minutes, stirring occasionally. The tomatoes should be soft, but still holding their shape.

Let cool, run through a food mill -- medium is good, but if you want really pure, minus all seeds, run it through medium and then fine.

Put back in saute pan, bring to a boil, and turn off. Taste for salt. Put it on your favorite pasta (farfalle is Ava's). Top with plenty of freshly grated parmesan and some basil leaves for decoration. Serve very hot.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

comfort food

It has been a while since I got to my blog: face surgery, followed by six weeks of radiation. Taste buds coming back! After several weeks of soups and milkshakes, it was time for pasta: and also for comfort food. My choice: spaghetti carbonara!

I know this is a Roman dish, but I also always remember going to a small trattoria a "calle" or so from the Rialto Bridge in Venice, appropriately named Trattoria Carbonara -- I don't believe it exists any longer -- where I feasting on this satisfying dish was an every-trip-to-Venice routine

Carbonara is part of the great Roman pasta triumvirate of "cacio e pepe" and "alla gricia", all simply prepared, flavor-filled pasta dishes (frequently using a more egg-yolk-heavy pasta). For these great recipes, see: http://www.classicpasta.com/ -- and click on pasta and spaghetti.


  • two tablespoons olive oil
  • two tablespoons butter
  • four ounces guanciale (preferred), pancetta or bacon
  • three small cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • one-third cup dry white wine
  • one large egg
  • three egg yolks
  • two tablespoons Pecorino Romano
  • six tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
  • tablespoon or two chopped parsley
  • salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
  • one pound spaghetti

Cut the guanciale (pancetta or bacon) into roughly one-quarter inch long thin strips.

Heat the butter and oil in a saute pan over medium heat. This pan should be big enough to eventually hold and mix the spaghetti. Add the garlic and cook until it starts to sizzle. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned.

Add the wine and cook for about two minutes more, until the alcohol smell has disappeared. Set aside.

In a large bowl, into which you will eventually put the cooked spaghetti, put in the egg yolks and the whole egg. Stir with a fork until they are well mixed. Add the two cheeses and the parsley, salt and pepper. Stir.

Heat 4-5 quarts of cold water to a raging boil. Add two tablespoons of salt, drop in the pasta, stir regularly, and cook until al dente. (test by tasting!) Set aside a cup of pasta water and drain.

Add the cooked pasta to the bowl with the egg mixture. Toss it gently until well mixed and the strands are thoroughly coated. Quickly reheat the pancetta for a minute or so. Add the pasta and egg mixture to the heated pancetta pan. If too dry, add some of the reserved pasta water to keep moist. Cover and heat under high heat for a minute. Should be steaming.

Serve immediately, adding the chopped parsley, and with some more parmesan on the side.

Note: if halving this recipe, use one egg and one egg yolk.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

risotto with fresh green beans

The wonders of a new season -- farmers' markets -- fresh vegetables. It is about this time the first of the new green beans arrive. Here is a risotto that is simply all about fresh green beans!

This recipe serves two regular portions, with a little left over, or four first course servings. For four full course servings half again the recipe.


  • three tbs butter
  • one-half pound fresh green beans
  • one-half cup finely chopped onion
  • one cup arborio rice
  • one-half cup dry white wine
  • 3-4 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
  • one-third cup freshly grated parmesan
  • three tbs fresh basil, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Prepare the beans: cut off ends and cut them into one inch pieces. Put them in a saucepan with water boiling, and parboil until barely tender, about four minutes. Drain.

Prepare your stovetop. On a back burned get the stock to a simmer. On the front burner, add the butter to a pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for two minutes, until tender. Add the arborio and cook for two minutes more, stirring to get the rice coated throughout. Add the wine. Stir gently, allowing the rice to absorb the wine. After two minutes add one-half cup of stock.

Stir until the liquid is almost totally absorbed. Then continue this action, adding a half-cup of stock, stirring until almost absorbed, and repeating. At the fifteen minute mark, add the green beans to the rice and stir.

Continue this action, adding and stirring, until the rice is tender to the bite -- about twenty minutes. The taste test is always the best test for getting the proper al dente. When done remove from heat.

Stir in the parmesan and chopped basil, and add salt and a little freshly ground pepper to taste.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In a recent issue of Saveur, in their "100" issue, they celebrated the "best" cookbooks. The first "best" listed was Marcella Hazan's first cook book, "The Classic Italian Cook Book", pictured above in its original Harper's Magazine Press edition. Nach Waxman, owner of the Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore in New York, said "There are dozens of Italian cookbooks on our shelves, but there are none we use as faithfully as Marcella Hazan's 'The Classic Italian Cook Book," published in 1973.

Nach went on to say that Marcella, with this book, gave American cooks their first comprehensive and authentic Italian culinary compendium, and "all these years later it is still our undisputed favorite source for everything from making risotto to understanding Italian techniques for cooking vegetables. Her recipes are lucidly written and reliable; the fresh pasta we make has always been her version."

"The Classic Italian Cook Book" was re-published by Knopf (exactly the same edition) in 1975 in a green and brown jacket. Subsequently, in 1992, Knopf published an updated volume, "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" containing all of 'The Classic Italian Cook Book' and 'More Classic Italian Cooking.' -- all of those great recipes, revised, updated and expanded.

Nach says: "Our only beef with the the updated version is that the publisher omitted the Italian names of most most dishes. Still it contains all the brilliance of Hazan's first book, the gold standard for Italian home cooking."

The updated volume: "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" is very much in print and selling beautifully. If you would like a copy of one of the original editions, go to Nach Waxman's: www.kitchenartsandletters.com, to find a copy.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


It is nearing summer. Time to think of food and drink. Drink? How about the classic: a negroni. It is one of our favorites, as it is many others. But it has also been described as an "acquired" taste. -- an "acquired taste" being something I like but you probably won't -- at least that is the implication.

But we all will like a classic negroni this summer.

History: in the early 1860's in Florence, Gaspare Campari, the creator of the eponymous aperitif, had a bar where he enticed his customers in tasting his bitter concoction -- a mixture of spices, herbs, bark and fruit peels. The Italians noticed that the visiting Americans, especially during the prohibition period, loved the drink, so they labeled it an "Americano".

However, before it became the Americano, in the early 1900's, the Italian count Camillo Negroni, a frequent caller at Campari's bar, wanted a little more zip in the basic drink. He asked the bartender to use gin rather than soda water. Presto: the Negroni.

Very simple:

one and one-half ounces Campari
one and one-half ounces sweet vermouth
one and one-half ounces gin
decorate with an orange wheel or orange twist

Pour the ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Stir vigorously (no need to shake). Pour into an old-fashioned glass and add the garnish.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

alla gricia

Welcome to the special delights of Roman pasta. Each Italian region has its special flavors and its favorite primi. In Bologna, it's tagliolini, in Milano its risotto, Venice and bigoli, Liguria and trenette, and so on down the peninsula -- and each has its classic preparation, or sauce.

Rome is special to many of us. For those who love Rome as much as we do, we heartily recommend one of our favorite cookbooks: David Downie's "Cooking the Roman Way". It is truly special and it captures the heart and soul, smells and tastes, of that great city.

As David presents in his book, and as all lovers of the cooking of Rome know, there are four classics in the Eternal City. What makes these classics so special is that they are all so simple. And incredibly perfect!

The four, in order of difficulty are: spaghetti a cacio and pepe (pecorino and black pepper); spaghetti alla griglia (guanciale, pecorino and pepper); bucatini all' Amatriciana; and spaghetti carbonara.

Every kitchen should have the basic ingredients of these wonderful dishes always on hand -- and that is really easy. Invite someone in at the last minute? Presto, an immediate dinner. perfecto!

The simplest of these classics is the pecorino and black pepper dish, shown below, in a photo from the wonderful David Downie book.

The next, in order of complexity (and complexity does not really exist at all here), is today's theme: spaghetti alla gricia (gricia means little bits). The key, everyone agrees, to a perfect alla gricia is the meat: the renowned guanciale, which is cured pork jowel. It has a unique flavor, with a soft, juicy texture -- it is a little stronger than pancetta. It also has the wonderful quality of dissolving into the pasta.

The experts all agree: for a perfect alla grigia (just as for a perfect all'amatriciana or carbonara) one must have guanciale. But let's face it: not always possible! We are fortunate that we have a new Italian salumeria in the Ferry Building in San Francisco, where we can now get guanciale. Those living in Seattle can get it at Mario Batali's father's place, Salumi (see a previous post here). There are places in Chicago and New York that we know of. But not always easy.

So sometimes we use pancetta, and, frankly, sometimes we use very good bacon, and have a wonderful meal. The main thing is to keep it simple and enjoy.

Note that in this recipe there is no garlic and there is no onion. Purist! Mario Batrali has a variation with both garlic and onion. We have that variation at http://www.classicpasta.com/ -- click on pasta and spaghetti and you will find it under spaghetti alla gricia. You also will find at that web site the recipes for alla amatriciana and carbonara, and cacio e pepe.

spaghetti alla gricia
  • three tablespoons olive oil
  • six ounces of guanciale
  • one-quarter to one-half cup pecorino romano, freshly grated
  • strong pinch of red pepper flakes
  • freshly ground pepper (plenty)
  • salt

  • one pound of spaghetti

Get your four quarts of water boiling away. Add two tablespoons of salt.

In a saute pan over medium heat, put in the olive oil, and then the guanciale and the red pepper flakes. We like to cut the guanciale (or the pancetta or bacon) into little squares. Others prefer strips. Cook, stirring, until it is just barely beginning to brown. It should not be crisp! Take off heat.

If we are using bacon, we use only one tablespoon of olive oil at first, cook the bacon until it is brown, and then remove from the heat and drain the pan, putting the cooked bacon on paper towels. We then add the remaining olive oil to the saute pan and the red pepper flakes, and heat through. Then return the bacon to the pan, stir, and set aside until the pasta is ready.

Put the pasta in the boiling water and cook to al dente. When it is al dente, reserve a cup of the pasta water and drain.

Put the pasta in the heated saute pan, add at least a half cup of the reserved liquid, stir. Add the twists of the fresh black pepper. Stir. And add half the cheese, and stir. Do not over-cheese. Serve in heated bowls with the rest of the pecorino at the ready.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's day pasta special

A perfect pasta valentine. The pasta shape is called "zucchette." It is an artisinal, hand-made pasta, from Marella. The name means "small squash". With its rough, ribbed exterior, and hollow insides, it is perfect for many sauces -- holding them like no other pasta does.

Here is granddaughter Zoe, in appropriate Valentine costume, digging in to the serving. For our Valentine's Day menu, we simply used the zucchette and some of the wonderful sauce we made this fall from fresh tomatoes. The sauce, always one of our favorites, can be found at www.classicpasta.com, click on "pasta sauces" and then on "fresh tomato". This is the sauce called "Benedetta and basil".

Perfecto, and Zoe's bowl was empty within minutes!

This is a photo from the Marella web site showing the pasta, a Pugliese pasta, that we used.

Happy Valentine's Day from Zoe and Pietro.

Friday, February 6, 2009


To continue our tour of the less-visited regions of the south, we next go to Molise (#14 on the map) the smallest of the Italian regions, about half the size of Rhode Island.

Molise is mostly mountains, with high plains and valleys that go down to the sea. An agrarian world, farmers have grown grapes, olives and tended sheep in Molise for centuries. It has well-preserved churches, is famous for making bells, has many ancient ruins, and some of ther most natural settings in Italy.

The villages of Venafro, and Isernia, are medieval delights. Campobasso is known for creating knives, and Termoli is a lively and colorful seaside port.

The small region presents a captivating sense of ancient architecture, with castles, churches, and winding streets in the villages.

Molise cuisine:

Similar to its neighbors of Abruzzo and Puglia, Molise features seafood with local vegetables, cheeses, sausages and their own pastas, especially crejoli, similar to maccheroni all chitarra. But their signature pasta dish is a rustic spaghetti, with as many variations as there are Molise cooks. Here is one:

Rustic spaghetti:

for the sauce:

two garlic cloves, peeled and minced
one-half ounce mushrooms, diced
one-half cup chicken broth
one-half cup extra virgin olive oil
one cup chopped onions
one cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in olive oil; drained and chopped
three teaspoons tomato paste
pinch of red pepper flakes
one-quarter cup red wine
one-quarter cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper
one-half cup grated pecorino

for the pasta:

one pound semolina spaghetti

In a bowl, soak the mushrooms in the chicken broth for ten minutes. In a saute pan, heat the olive oil over a medium heat. Add the garlic. Thirty seconds later add the onions. Cook for three minutes. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, the tomato paste, the mushroom mixture, a pinch of red pepper flakes, the wine, a few twists of the pepper mill, a half teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer for ten minutes.

In a pot with four quarts boiling water, add a tablespoon of salt, and then the spaghetti. Cook until al dente. Reserve a cup of the pasta water. Drain.

Add the spaghetti to the heated sauce. Stir, adding enough reserved water to keep moist. Add the parsely and cheese. Stir. Taste for salt and serve.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Puglia (and trulli)

Welcome to Puglia (#16 below), one of the most beautiful and still somewhat undiscovered regions of Italy

Puglia has more coastline than any other region in Italy, running down the Adriatic, through Bari amd Brindisi, to the heel of the boot, and then back up the instep to Taranto, with beautiful villages and harbors such as Trani (above). The coastal region is dotted with sandy beaches and grottos. The interior is stark and rugged, a chiseled landscape, with fields of grain and secolari, the wonderful one hundred-year-old olive trees planted in perfectly straight long lines.

The other landmarks of Puglia are the trulli (below), the conical, drystone buildings used for living and for storage (and for vacation houses).

The wonderful and special orrecchiette, the little ears, are the pasta staple of Puglia. Hand-made (and crafted), from the semolina of the region, they have an unusual almost-fresh-pasta flavor. A natural pasta shape for cauliflower, broccoli rabe, or just greens, they are also perfect for beans.
And so here is a variation with chickpeas.

for the sauce:
  • two nineteen-ounce cans of chickpeas (with liquid)
  • one-half cup extra virgin olive oil
  • two cloves of garlic, chopped fine
  • one red onion, minced
  • two celery ribs, finely chopped
  • one medium carrot, finely chopped
  • pinch (or two) red pepper flakes
  • salt
  • sprig of rosemary
  • one-quarter cup chopped parsley
for the pasta
  • one pound orrecchiette
Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic. When it sizzles, add the onion, celery, carrot and red pepper flakes. Cook three minutes, until the vegetables start to soften. Add the chickpeas and their liquid and the sprig of rosemary. Cook for about ten minutes. You should have a lovely sauce, not too liquid. Add the parsley and remove the rosemary. Taste for salt.

In a pot with four quarts of salted water, cook the orrecchiette until just short of al dente. Test by occasional tasting. Drain, reserving a cup of the pasta liquid.

Add the pasta to the sauce. Stir. Add some pasta liquid if needed. Serve.