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Wednesday
Dec222010

Merry Christmas with Meatballs


Polpette di San Giuseppe in Agrodolce


I am currently contemplating a text document on my screen that contains the following:

Drink:
champagne?
amaretto-lemon sparkler?
wine: red/white/both?

Antipasti:
crostini with chicken liver pate
meatballs
fried butternut squash ravioli?
roasted peppers with tuna and salsa verde?
eggplant agrodolce?
marinated cauliflower?
stuffed sardines?
roasted tomatoes?

1st:
spinach cheese soup with prosciutto?
pumpkin gnocchi w/brown butter and sage?
ricotta gnudi with tomato sauce?
risotto?

2nd:
balsamic-braised rabbit?
porchetta?
milk-braised pork?
potatoes: roasted/fried?

3rd:
salad???

Dessert:
espresso and mascarpone semifreddo?
hazelnut zabaione with biscotti?
pistachio panna cotta w/ chocolate-marsala sauce?


It is, as you may have guessed, my Christmas menu. Or what will become my Christmas menu once I've figured out which of the above I actually intend to make. Like last year I'm going for a long, drawn-out and recklessly indulgent Italian affair; unlike last year, at 72 hours out (actually more like 68 hours) I'm still sitting with a stack of cookbooks and weighing the merits of soup vs gnocchi, creamy pork vs tangy rabbit. You see all the question marks? Those are the dishes I still have to decide on. And many of them have multiple versions I'll need to decide on once the dish decisions have been made. Have I mentioned I'm a double Libra, and making decisions is antithetical to my nature?

Well, at least two things are decided already: pâté and meatballs. I made them both last Christmas, and both were so incredible I'm breaking my own no-repeats rule. It's funny, normally I would rather jab swizzle sticks in my eyes than eat the same thing two Christmases in a row. I can't even count the number of times I've announced to anyone within earshot that there are simply too many exciting new special-occasion dishes waiting to be discovered to waste precious time, effort and stomach space on food I already know. Don't I feel silly now.

In all fairness, though, these are two repeat-worthy dishes, not only because they're so good but because they're rich and extravagant and seem tailor-made for a special meal like Christmas. The first is this pâté—but you already know about it, so I won't waste any more breath trying to convince you of its merits. The meatballs, however, I've been hiding like an ace up my sleeve since last Christmas. I served them as our main course, and they were—despite the fact that their preparation was accompanied by major trauma when a certain spouse of mine got so frustrated trying to de-bone chicken thighs that he threw my beloved Global vegetable knife into the sink hard enough to break the tip off the blade—such a hit that I literally have not stopped thinking about them since (of course it doesn't help that every time I look at my sad, tip-less knife I'm instantly reminded).

As meatballs go they're pretty far out there, full of non-meatbally stuff like chicken thighs, salami, candied citron, spinach, cinnamon, almonds and cheese. In all honesty I had my doubts that this strange collection of ingredients would result in anything edible let alone earth-shattering, but that just shows you how little I know. Luckily I know enough to blindly trust Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who in matters of taste has quite literally never steered me wrong. They appear in her lesser-known book The Italian Country Table, where she reports that she got the recipe from a friend of hers in Puglia named Rina Durante, who herself inherited the recipe from her grandmother. In Puglia, she reports, they're eaten on special days like Christmas, Easter and as the name of the recipe indicates, on St Joseph's Day, the holiday in the middle of Lent when everyone's allowed to recharge their piety batteries by indulging in everything they've been missing. I can just see those little Pugliese grandmothers, trying to cram everything forbidden during Lent into one dish—meat, sugar, cheese, wine. Somehow it all works, though, and all the various contrasting elements come together into something much more than the sum of its parts: festive, flamboyant and epically, tradition-inspiringly delicious.

And with that I would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas, dear readers. May your houses be warm, your spirits high and your tables groaning under the weight of good things to eat. And while we're on the subject of tables, if you have a minute to spare I'd love to know some of the things that will be featuring on yours.


Polpette di San Giuseppe in Agrodolce (Sweet-Sour Meatballs for St Joseph's Day)

Last Christmas I served these as a hot main course with a side of roasted cauliflower; this year I'll set them out at room temperature as an antipasto. They're absolutely perfect either way. They can also easily be tweaked; if you can't buy skinless, boneless chicken thighs (and don't feel like boning your own, an endeavor I would approach with patience and a very sturdy knife) you can substitute pre-ground chicken or turkey; lean ground pork would probably also work in a pinch. If you have trouble tracking down candied citron, don't fret; either substitute candied lemon peel or go for something like currants or golden raisins (sultanas).  
p.s. The original cheese called for in these is something called fontinella, which seems to only be available stateside. Since asiago is listed as a good substitute, I inferred that parmesan would also be one, so that's what I've been using. If you can find fontinella, though, go ahead and substitute an equal weight.
Serves: 3 to 4 as a main course and 6 or so as an antipasto, but consider doubling the recipe as they always go faster than you think (not to mention make delicious leftovers)!
Source: adapted from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

For meatballs:
2 large cloves garlic
2 oz (60g) Italian salami or
capocollo
12 oz (350g; about 4 to 5) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, or an equal weight of ground chicken
5 oz (150g) frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry   
1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup (30g) fresh bread crumbs
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 oz (90g) freshly-grated parmesan or asiago cheese
1/2 cup (2oz/60g) almonds, toasted and chopped medium fine
1/3 cup (2oz/60g) candied citron, finely minced
1 large egg

For sauce:
extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (125ml) dry white wine
6 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup (250ml) chicken broth


In a food processor, mince the garlic and salami into small pieces. Add chicken thighs, spinach, onion, salt, pepper and cinnamon and process until very finely chopped. Turn everything into a bowl. Blend in bread crumbs, cheese, almonds, and the egg until well mixed. Check the seasoning by sauteing a little patty of the mixture until firm, then tasting. Add more salt if necessary. Shape into 2-inch balls.

Pour a sheer film of oil over the bottom of a 12-inch (30cm) saute pan and place on medium heat. Add the meatballs and brown on all sides, turning gently, about 10 minutes. Adjust the heat so the meatballs don’t burn.

Tip the pan and spoon off most of the fat. Pour in the wine, and simmer until thick and syrupy. Blend in the basil, sugar, vinegar, and stock. Cover and simmer very gently for 15 minutes, or until meatballs are cooked through. Turn them once or twice during cooking. Remove the meatballs to a shallow bowl. Boil down the pan juices to a thick, rich-tasting sauce. Pour them over the meatballs and serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Monday
Dec062010

My Calabria

Well, the joke is on me. After confessing that I just couldn't seem to let go of summer this year, the universe responded with something along the lines of "What the heck, we don't need fall anyway!" and fast-forwarded us all straight into winter. Gone are the frosty mornings, muddy fields and last stubborn yellow leaves; in their place have appeared knee-high snowdrifts, frozen ponds and temperatures nobody expected to see until January. Apparently it was the coldest start to December in Germany for centuries. I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or go back to bed until April.

Then again, escape sounds pretty good right now too. Not physical escape, although I certainly wouldn't say no if someone handed me a plane ticket to a sunny locale, but the next best thing: armchair escape. Much quicker to plan and easier on the wallet, there's only one thing you need (besides the armchair, of course)—a book that takes you somewhere you'd rather be. In my case that's somewhere with plenty of sun and good food, somewhere a turquoise sea laps against fragrant orchard-covered hills, somewhere like Calabria, the enchanting region at the toe of the Italian boot. Feel like coming with me?

You might recall that a couple of years ago I visited Calabria for work and came back totally enchanted with the landscape, people and food of this little-known and even less-visited region. Shortly after writing about it here I received an email from a woman named Rosetta Costantino, herself a Calabrian immigrant and cooking teacher in Oakland, California. She thanked me for saying such nice things about the region* and informed me she was currently neck-deep in research on a Calabrian cookbook to be published in late 2010. I couldn't wait! But of course I had to. Drawing upon my deepest reserves of patience, I set my mental timer and started counting down the months.

Two and a half long years later, I finally have a copy of My Calabria in my hands, and I must say it surpasses even my high expectations. This book is, first of all, beautiful; full of gorgeous food and location photography by Sara Remington, the latter featuring Calabria as well as Oakland where Rosetta and her parents cultivate a garden of biblical proportions. The stories she tells are evocative and heart-warming, recounting the hardships faced by her family as they struggled to survive in one of Italy's poorest regions, and their bittersweet decision to immigrate to California when she was fourteen. The book has great info on Calabria as well, including a description of its provinces and products, a guide to its wines and a fantastically-detailed list of where to eat, drink and sleep in the region.

The heart of this book, though, is its recipes. It's by no means a comprehensive work nor does it try to be; instead Rosetta has distilled the collection to reflect what makes Calabrian food different and unique, and to explain the what, why and how so that we can really understand the food. Above all her recipes introduce us to the simplicity of Calabrian food and the tremendous respect placed on both quality and thrift. Vegetables are celebrated in dozens of different forms, including fried, stuffed, marinated and folded inside pitta, the local cheeseless double-crusted pizza; animal parts you or I might throw away here feature in succulent dishes like braciole di cotenne, braised pork-skin rolls; and nothing but flour, water and a deft technique are used to make dromësat, a couscous-like specialty of the ancient Arbëresh community. The building blocks of Calabrian cuisine are well-covered too, things like the local hot fennel sausage, home-canned tomato sauce and rustic, chewy pane calabrese. The thing you won't find—I feel duty-bound to warn you—is a recipe for 'nduja, the insanely addictive Calabrian spicy pâté-cum-sausage that is cured, cold-smoked and aged for up to a year. Although like all salumi it's probably better left to the professionals, that's cold comfort to those of us who can't come by it locally.

all above photos © Sara Remington

Since quite a few of my most vivid Calabrian food memories revolve around the region's exquisitely sweet and silky sheep's milk ricotta, it seemed only natural to feature one of Rosetta's ricotta recipes here. There are quite a few to choose from, including a recipe for the ricotta itself, but so far I haven't been able to move past this delicate, sensuously creamy fritatta. Like all her recipes, it gets its character from a few top-notch ingredients, in this case sweet ricotta, farm-fresh eggs, salty pecorino and melting strands of sauteed onion, gently cooked into a kind of omelette-cum-savory cheesecake. In Calabria it would probably be found cut into little wedges and served as part of their legendary antipasti spreads; served alone it's a perfect meal for two or three hungry people, needing nothing more than a salad and a hunk of good bread to satisfy completely.

I'm really grateful to Rosetta for writing this book; not only was Calabria desperately in need of the kind of in-depth treatment so many other regions of Italy have been receiving for years, it just might convince a few more people (maybe you?) to include this wonderful and still largely undiscovered region on their itineraries. But take it from me: it won't stay undiscovered much longer now that the secret of its food is out.

*Incidentally, she wasn't the only one; imagine locals thanking you for saying nice things about Tuscany or Rome! That tells you something about Calabrians.


Frittata di Ricotta

Rosetta says that a lot of Calabrians make this more substantial by adding some crumbled Italian sausage; if you want to do this remove one or two links from their casings and brown before combining with the cooked onion. If you're not too concerned with authenticity you could just as easily add some sauteed pancetta or even bacon, and you certainly play around with the herbs, using things like sage, rosemary and thyme in addition to or instead of the parsley. One tip: do seek out a good quality ricotta for this, something sweet and creamy enough that you're tempted to eat it straight out of the container (or make your own!).
source: slightly adapted from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino
serves: anywhere from 2-6, depending on what else you're serving

1 cup (8 oz/225g) whole-milk ricotta, store-bought or homemade
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (25g) freshly-grated pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste {you may find you need a little more depending on the saltiness of your ricotta and pecorino}
freshly-ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced


Preheat the oven to 400F/200C and position a rack in the middle. If using store-bought ricotta, put it in a sieve set over a bowl for about 30 minutes to drain.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, pecorino, parsley, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and several grinds of pepper. Whisk with a fork until blended.

Heat the oil in a 9- or 10-inch (23 or 25cm) nonstick ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Spread the onion around the pan and pour on the egg mixture, distributing it evenly. Cook without stirring until the frittata begins to firm and the bottom is golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes. Lift the edges with a rubber spatula to check the bottom, and lower the heat if necessary to keep the bottom from overbrowning.

Transfer the skillet to the middle rack of the oven and bake until the top of the frittata is golden and puffy, about 10-15 minutes.

Slide the frittata onto a plate or cutting board to serve. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Note: I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Norton.

Monday
Nov222010

The Pumpkin Stops Here


A couple of weeks ago we were at my in-laws' when the conversation, as it often does at this time of year, turned to Thanksgiving. While trying to explain why and what we celebrate, I found myself once again surprised at how little is known about this holiday in the rest of the world. Not that that's a bad thing; the fact that Thanksgiving is still confined to North American shores just stands in stark contrast to all those other holidays we seem to have exported to the furthest reaches of the globe (Valentine's Day and Halloween in particular come to mind). While it's true that Non-North Americans have heard of it, know it revolves around a turkey and may have even attended a Thanksgiving dinner staged by a homesick expat somewhere, most still don't really understand it. In particular no one seems to be able to grasp that there's no religious or political motivation behind it, that it really exists for the sole purpose of getting together with friends and family and stuffing ourselves as full as those turkeys on our tables!

While trying to decide whether I should feel proud or embarrassed by this fact, my step-father-in-law Jürgen interjected to inform me that Germans, in fact, have a comparable holiday. It may not have anything to do with giving thanks, or eating oneself into a food coma for that matter, but it at least falls in November and involves the roasting of a large bird. This holiday is called Martinstag, or St. Martin's Day, in honor of a Roman soldier-turned-monk who was canonized after ripping his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a blizzard, and apparently one of the ways this selfless act is celebrated is by roasting and eating a goose. Since any kind of roast fowl is cause for celebration in my book, I suggested we stage a hybridized holiday: they'd introduce me to the goosely charms of Martinstag, and I'd show off some traditional Thanksgiving specialties. A date was set for the following weekend.

Before I even sat down to mull over the menu, I knew one of my Thanksgiving contributions had to be a pumpkin pie. It's an unwritten essential, one of the pillars of Thanksgivingdom. It might even be more important than turkey; after all, I've been to various turkey-free Thanksgivings, but never one without pumpkin pie. There was no question that I had to make it. There was, however, a problem: I don't actually like pumpkin pie. I never have, and for most of my life I considered that a positive thing since when faced with the typical Thanksgiving multi-pie spread and limited stomach space I had one less decision to make. For a four-person dinner, though, I couldn't possibly justify making more than one pie. I also knew I couldn't serve my in-laws a pie I would rather scrape into my napkin than eat myself. The solution, obviously, was to find a pumpkin pie I liked. It couldn't be that hard, could it?

What followed was a week of pumpkin mania. From someone who hadn't so much as thought about pumpkin pie in years, I became obsessed with finding the perfect one. I started by listing the characteristics I detest in pumpkin pie (soggy, mealy, over-spiced), and conceptualizing my ideal one (tender, creamy, and actually tasting like pumpkin!). My next step was to assemble a few good candidates for pies. I didn't want anything that strayed too far from the standard, so anything with nuts, chocolate, cranberries or apples was out. I combed my books and the internet, looking for pies that looked like they might satisfy my rather abstract desires and finally settled on four contenders: one from Bon Appetit, one from Gourmet, one from Pam Anderson (of CookSmart fame, not Baywatch!), and one from the late, great Richard Sax. I wanted to include the famous one from Cook's Illustrated, but had to drop it when I realized canned yams are about as common in Germany as coconut palms, and at the last minute added in the classic Libby's back-of-the-can recipe for control purposes. And then I baked them all. Well, I didn't actually bake five pies; I cut each filling recipe by three-quarters and baked them in custard cups, using the bright-orange flesh of a hokkaido squash I roasted and pureed myself (canned pumpkin being about as common here as canned yams).

To my surprise, there was no clear winner. Every pie had something I liked and something I didn't. I liked the soft custardiness of the fillings that contained heavy cream, the almost cheesecake-like tang of sour cream in the Gourmet pie, the slightly saltier edge in Pam's and the Libby pies, and the sweet suggestion of vanilla in Richard's. The best texture of all belonged to the Bon Appetit pie, which included a tablespoon of cornstarch; this seemed to simultaneously soak up any sogginess and prevent the custard from getting too firm. On the other hand I didn't like the fluffy, souffle-like texture of the Gourmet pie; Pam's condensed-plus-evaporated-milk filling tasted too strongly of cooked milk to me; the Libby's pie was, just as I remembered, kind of bland and watery; and all of them were too heavy-handed with the spices. In particular I found myself rebelling against the large amounts of ginger in every single recipe. I don't know if I'm alone in the world in this, but I really don't like the fusty taste of powdered ginger; it always reminds me of gingerbread, lebkuchen and all the other over-spiced sweets I avoid like the plague at holiday time.

Looking over my notes, a recipe started to take shape. To get the tang of the Gourmet pie I would use something sour; to get a soft, custardy texture I would use only cream, no milk, and a little cornstarch. Seasoning had to include vanilla and a generous measure of salt but no ginger, and a mixture of brown and white sugars would give depth without masking the pumpkin's own flavor. By this point I had run out of time, though, so instead of being able to give my new formula a test run I crossed my fingers, threw together my favorite crust, and popped what I hoped would be the answer to my pumpkin-pie fantasties in the oven with only a couple hours to spare before our big dinner.

Everything that night was delicious, and we all ate so much goose, gravy, potatoes and stuffing I wondered whether anyone would have any room for the pie. But I needn't have worried: my dessert-ambivalent husband had seconds, my equally dessert-ambivalent mother-in-law Silvia asked for the recipe, and Jürgen said he wished he'd eaten less goose so he could've fit in thirds. And me? Well, after seeing how much they liked it I gave my in-laws half the leftover pie to take home with them, but a few minutes later, when I was in the kitchen cleaning up and my gaze fell on the two lonely pieces of pie that remained, something even more unexpected happened: I felt a not-so-tiny twinge of regret that I'd been so generous.

That, I think, says it all.


p.s. If there's still a hole to fill in your T-day dessert spread, check these out:

Autumn Trifle with Spice-Roasted Apples, Pears, and Pumpkin-Caramel Sauce
New-Fashioned Toll House Pie
Perfect Pecan Pie
Pistachio and Almond Tart with Orange and Cardamom
Treacle Tart, a la Heston Blumenthal


  

Tangy, Creamy Pumpkin Pie

This is without a doubt my favorite pumpkin pie ever. I love the freshness of the sour cream, the warm subtlety of the spices and the velvety-soft texture of the filling. If, like me, you've ever found yourself wondering why on earth people get so excited over this dessert, prep your shopping list now. This is a pie that does pumpkin justice.

A couple of tips on ingredients: whether you use crème fraîche or sour cream is up to you—crème fraîche is my choice since it's a little richer and makes for a slightly smoother filling but it's not worth going to great lengths to obtain (though remember, you can easily make it yourself!). Also, I know time is short on T-day but if you can manage to find the time, definitely roast and mash your own pumpkin—the difference in flavor is more than worth the effort. And don't think you have to stick to pumpkin; in fact other squashes are just as good if not better, particularly butternut, acorn, hubbard and kabocha. Finally, do grate your own nutmeg for this. It's not even the same spice as the anemic pre-ground stuff.

p.s. To roast your own pumpkin or squash, cut it in half, scrape out the seeds, rub the cut surfaces with vegetable oil and place cut-side down on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Cover with a second piece of aluminum foil, lightly tucked around the sides to hold it in place, and bake at 375F/190C until completely soft and a knife passes through the flesh with no resistance. Cool before scraping out of the shell and mashing with a fork (it doesn't have to be perfectly smooth since the pie filling goes into the blender). To parbake your crust, fill it with aluminum foil and pie weights or dried beans and bake for about 12-15 minutes at 375F/190C, then remove the weights and foil and bake until lightly golden all over, about another 7-8 minutes. Let cool slightly before filling.

Yield: 8-12 pieces

1 1/2 cups (375ml) pumpkin puree (preferably from a pumpkin or winter squash you've roasted and mashed yourself)
1 1/2 cups (375ml) crème fraîche or sour cream
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (100g) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (100g) white sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 9-inch (23-cm) pie crust, parbaked (see headnote above; use your favorite crust or mine)

Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 325F/160C. Place everything for the filling except the sugars and cornstarch together in a blender or food processor. In a small bowl stir the white and brown sugar and cornstarch until no lumps remain. Add to pumpkin mixture and blend until everything is smooth and homogeneous. Pour mixture into parbaked crust.

Place pie on preheated baking sheet in oven and bake until the filling is puffed and just set, about an hour, lightly covering the top of the pie with aluminum foil if the crust starts to brown too much. Cool completely, and serve at room temperature with lightly-sweetened whipped cream.

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