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Florentine Rags (Cenci)
Jan 28th, 2010 by

Some people add a little lemon juice or lemon zest to the dough but this recipe did not call for any.

Some people add a little lemon juice or lemon zest to the dough but this recipe did not call for any.

Here’s another recipe from the classic 19th century Italian Cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, by Pellegrino Artusi.

Cenci are a Florentine winter treat, made from Epiphany to Mardi Gras. This deep-fried pastry looks like little rags and tastes a little like fried dough, but not as heavy and never greasy.

Ingredients/Shopping List:

  • All-purpose flour (2 1/4 cups)
  • Butter (2 tbsp.)
  • Confectioners’ sugar (1/3 cup, plus more for dusting the finished cenci)
  • Large eggs (2)
  • Brandy (1 tbsp.)
  • Salt (just a pinch)
  • Water (Optional; 1/4 cup or less; just enough to make dough)
  • Vegetable oil or lard (enough for deep frying)

I recommend using a cast iron skillet when deep frying. Get the oil good and hot, but not smoking.

I recommend using a cast iron skillet when deep frying. Get the oil good and hot, but not smoking.

What I did:

Making the Dough: Mix all of these ingredients in a bowl, making a fairly stiff dough. You may have to add a little water to incorporate all of the ingredients. Knead the dough thoroughly on a lighted floured surface. Add a little flour if dough comes out too soft. Shape into a ball and flour it. Let it rest, covered, for about an hour.

After it rests, the dough will much softer and easier to roll out. (If the dough formed a crust while it sat, knead it a little before rolling it out.) Roll it out into a thin rectangle (about 1/8 inch thick).

Use a pastry wheel (or knife) to cut it into strips as long as your palm and two fingers wide.

Twist and crinkle the strips and then fry them in the hot oil or lard.

Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to catch the extra oil.

Transfer to a clean plate and when cool, dust them with confectioners’ sugar.

Find more recipes in the Food section.

Christmas Befana Cookies
Dec 16th, 2009 by

My grandmother used cookie cutters shaped like the four suits on playing cards. All I have is the spade cutter, which I use along with a star-shaped cookie cutter.

My grandmother used cookie cutters shaped like the four suits on playing cards. All I have is the spade cutter, which I use along with a star-shaped cookie cutter.

La Befana is an old woman who visits children in Italy on Jan. 6 in celebration of the Epiphany. Similar to Santa Claus, she enters their homes through the chimney in order to deliver gifts.

Small towns throughout Italy celebrate her arrival each year, including Barga, in northern Italy, near where my family is from. Many people from Scotland have settled in this area and this year the local school put on an outdoor show, featuring Father Christmas and La Befana.

My grandmother, Bruna, made these Befana cookies every Christmas. Requiring 8 cups of flour, her recipe made enough of these biscuit-like treats to last well past Valentine’s Day. Here, I’ve cut her recipe in half, which still makes about 100 cookies.

This recipe is pretty easy as you just dump all of the cookie dough ingredients in a bowl and stir.

This recipe is pretty easy as you just dump all of the cookie dough ingredients in a bowl and stir.

Ingredients For the Cookie:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter
  • Skin of 1/2 orange, grated
  • Skin of 1/2 lemon, grated
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Milk, just enough to work with (about 1/4 - 1/2 cup)
  • Crisco shortening (enough to grease a few cookie sheets)

The egg white makes the filling expand in the oven.

The egg white makes the filling expand in the oven.

Ingredients For the Filling:

  • 1/2 cup of almonds
  • Sugar (1/4 cup plus 1/8 cup)
  • Skin of 1/2 orange, grated
  • Skin of 1/2 lemon, grated
  • Vanilla (1/2 tsp.)
  • 1/2 ounce of Anisette or Whiskey
  • 1 drop of red food coloring
  • 1/16 tsp. of cinnamon
  • 1 egg white (beaten until foamy)

Keep a close eye on the cookies while they cook, so they don't burn.

Keep a close eye on the cookies while they cook, so they don't burn.

What I did:

To make the cookie dough, put all cookie ingredients in a bowl and stir well to blend ingredients.

Put flour over your hands and over a flat surface. Take dough from bowl and knead a few times until all ingredients are blended well.

Take large chunks of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface with a rolling pin covered with flour. Roll it out to about 1/4-inch thickness.

Grease a couple of cookie sheets by spreading Crisco shortening over them and then flouring them.

Take your cookie cutters and cut out cookies. Put on a greased baking sheet and with your index finger, make a small indentation in each one (This is where the filling will go.)

Here, even Santa celebrates La Befana!

Here, even Santa celebrates La Befana!

To make the filling, put almonds and sugar in a food processor and mix until very fine.  Empty into a small bowl.

Add the rest of the filling ingredients, except for the egg white, and mix well. Then fold in the egg white.

Put a small drop of the filling on each cookie and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, until the cookies turn a dark golden brown on the bottom. (Note: You only need about a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of filling for each cookie as the egg white makes the mixture expand during cooking.)  (Warning: If the cookies are too thin, they will cook quickly and could burn if you don’t watch them.)

Let them cook on a rack and bake the rest in batches.

Find more recipes in the Food section.

Ribollita Soup
Dec 6th, 2009 by

Ribollita means to "re-boil" in Italian.

Ribollita means to "re-boil" in Italian.

Also known as “Tuscan Bean Soup,” this is a real crowd pleaser. I’ve tripled this recipe and fed nearly 50 people with it at our annual Christmas open house party.

I got this recipe from the Barefoot Contessa, but incorporated a few short cuts so you can make this in about 1 1/2 hours. Using a food processor to chop all of the vegetables also helps make the work go faster.

The taste is sweet and a little sour with a punch of heat from the crushed red pepper flakes. It’s a great, hearty soup on a cold winter night.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large can of cannellini beans (about 19 oz.)
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil, plus extra for serving
  • 1/4 pound diced pancetta
  • 2 cups chopped onions (about 2 onions)
  • 1 cup chopped carrots (about 3 carrots)
  • 1 cup chopped celery (about 3 stalks)
  • 3 tablespoons minced garlic (about 6 cloves)
  • 1 tablespoon salt (I always use Kosher as it’s the most flavorful.)
  • 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 (28 oz.) can Italian plum tomatoes in puree, chopped
  • 4 cups coarsely chopped kale
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 4 cups sourdough bread cubes, crusts removed
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (preferably the imported Parmesan Reggiano), for serving

What I did:

Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot.

Add the pancetta and onions. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the onions are translucent. (Stir occasionally)

Add the carrots, celery, garlic, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Continue cooking over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. (Stir occasionally)

Add the tomatoes with the puree, the kale, and basil. Continue cooking over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. (Stir occasionally)

Rinse the cannellini beans under cold water. Puree half of them in a food processor with about 1/2 cup of water.

Add pureed beans to the soup. And then add the remaining half of the whole beans. And stir.

Add the eight cups of chicken stock.

Bring soup to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

Add the bread cubes to the soup and simmer another 10 minutes.

Serve hot in large bowls. Sprinkle a little freshly grated parmesan cheese on top. And then drizzle a little olive oil over it.

Find more recipes in the Food section.

Take a Four Minute Trip to Italy (Audio Slideshow)
Aug 28th, 2009 by

This ancient door is located in the walled city of Barga, not too far from Lucca and Florence.

This ancient door is located in the walled city of Barga, not too far from Lucca and Florence. (All photos by Mark Micheli)

(Click here or the photo above to watch an audio slideshow on the doors and windows of Italy. To watch it full screen, click on the arrows in the lower right corner of the slideshow.)

With the euro high and the economy weak I thought I’d help by creating an audio slideshow mini-staycation for those who are dreaming of traveling to Europe but simply can’t justify it with their bank account.

For me, traveling to Italy is all about immersing myself in the colors and shapes unique to that part of the world: the earthen yellows, burnt orange, and dusty browns of the stucco buildings; the ornate architectural embellishments; and the soft shadows cast by a gentle sun.

Looking through photos from my trip there in 2007, I realized I captured much of this in the photos I took of windows and doors. Some of them are the typical, sentimental shots of flowers dripping down from small rod-iron window balconies; clothes drying on the line in the cool Tuscan air; or old bicycles parked haphazardly on ancient city streets.

But they are all real and representative of what you see there. These images slowly become a part of you and can alter your aesthetic sensibilities. These visual memories are the most important thing you bring back home, but often get overlooked in favor of the souvenir guide of Rome, the leather bookmark from Florence or the Murano glass figurine from Venice.

It’s my hope that this audio slideshow will offer you the same visual treat you’d get on an afternoon stroll down the Via Veneto, the back streets of Tuscany, or alongside  the Grand Canal in Venice. So sit back and relax with a real or imagined glass of Chianti and enjoy this staycation. You deserve it.

–Mark Micheli for RootsLiving

(P.S. — There’s a message on one of the doors. See if you can find it and if you do, follow the instructions. You’ll be rewarded.)

Not Oregano, Not Basil
Jul 7th, 2009 by

The fragrant leaves of Nepitella look very similar to oregano.

The fragrant leaves of nepitella look very similar to oregano.

Nepitella completes the trifecta of Italian herbs that are a must-have in any Tuscan kitchen. Some describe it as a cross between oregano and mint, but I believe it’s more like a cross between basil and mint. And here’s why:

When I cook, I like to think about music. I often have music playing (and a glass of wine poured) but I’m not talking now about the music I’m listening to. Instead I like to think about bass notes and treble notes or low notes and high notes.

Different flavors elicit different types of notes. Example: salt would be a high note and black pepper would be a low note or bass note. When cooking a red sauce, I often strive to have the flavors balanced between high and low. And adding dried oregano pushes the sauce into the high-note territory and adding dried basil takes it down into the bass category.

Nepitella is definitely in the mint family. It has that high note of mint flavor but with a bass note added; not another high note. Therefore I believe nepitella is more like a combination of both basil and mint. But really, it’s in a class all its own.

The plants grow wild and come back year after year.

The plants grow wild and come back year after year.

When Should You Use Nepitella?

So what do I use it for? There are really only two things I use this herb for: mushrooms and artichokes. Whenever I use mushrooms or artichokes in a recipe, I sprinkle fresh (or in the winter, dried) nepitella on them and then add them to the recipe. It is a perfect compliment.

Where Can You Get Nepitella?

My grandmother brought nepitella seeds back with her from Italy many years ago. She planted them in her garden in Boston and a few years later, nepitella was growing everywhere: in the cracks in the asphalt in her driveway and up against her house as well as in the cracks in the sidewalk around her house.

It is a hearty herb and a pleasant one. What it does is re-seed itself. The green leaves sprout light purple flowers that turn to seed and drop in the ground nearby. And in that way, it spreads itself.

I took a few plants from the cracks in her driveway and planted them in my backyard. And now this delightful herb grows wild around my home: just waiting for me to come pluck a handful whenever I’m cooking fried mushrooms or stuffed artichokes.

Surprisingly, nepitella is getting more popular in the States. A search on Google turned up a few articles and places on where you can order it online. Gourmet Magazine even featured a video on its site last year with an Italian chef explaining “why you’ve got to get this wild Italian herb into your kitchen.”  But then he goes ahead and adds it to fried crabmeat. That’s a new one on me.

(Photos by Mark Micheli)

Try this recipe for Nepitella and Mushroom Spaghetti

Nepitella and Mushroom Spaghetti
Jul 7th, 2009 by

This dish is easy meal to whip up on a weeknight.

This dish is an easy meal to whip up on a weeknight.

All that blogging about nepitella made me hungry and so for dinner tonight, I whipped up this tasty dish with ingredients I had on hand. If you don’t have nepitella, you’re forgiven this time, and can substitute a mixture of basil and mint.

Ingredients:

  • One pound of spaghetti
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (a quarter of a cup should do it)
  • Button mushrooms, sliced. (About 12-16 oz.)
  • Capers (about 1 tablespoon.)
  • Nepitella (About 1 tablespoon of chopped up fresh. A little less if using dried.) (A mixture of basil and mint can be used as a substitute.)
  • A pinch of red crushed pepper
  • A half-pinch of nutmeg (this spice is powerful, use caution and add just a little. You can always add more if you desire.)
  • Garlic (one clove, sliced)
  • Butter (About a 1/2 tablespoon for taste.)
  • Parmesano (aka: parmesan) cheese (about 1/4 cup.)
  • Salt (to taste)

What I did

  • Boil water in a large pot. When water boils, add spaghetti
  • While water is boiling, cook mushrooms in about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Sprinkle with nepitella and salt.
  • Half-way through cooking, add the red pepper to the mushrooms. Add the capers too.
  • Cook mushrooms until well done. During the last five minutes, add the garlic (be careful not to burn). And add the nutmeg.
  • Drain the spaghetti and put it back in the empty pot. Add the mushroom mixture and stir. Add about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the butter. Sprinkle on the parmesano cheese. Add salt to taste and serve.

Find more recipes in the Food section

The Real Rocky
Jul 1st, 2009 by

Rocky Marciano, by Andover artist Joe Gemellaro.

Rocky Marciano, by Andover artist Joe Gemellaro.

My friend Joe Gemellaro is one of the most talented artists I know. He has a knack for recreating the human form, especially faces. It is a gift he was born with.

Shown here is a study of a portrait Joe drew of Brockton native Rocky Marciano, heavyweight champion of the world from 1952 to 1956.  Joe donated prints of the final sketch to several charity groups, including the Haverhill Boys Club  which auctioned it off last year to raise money.

Watching Joe draw is a magical experience. Very quickly, over a matter of a few minutes, a face will start to emerge from the blank, white page. He says he always starts with the eyes, “because if you don’t get the eyes right, then nothing will be right.”

It’s uncanny, just how right he manages to get the eyes. In another framed portrait, all Joe drew was a single  eye. And when you look at it, you instantly recognize Mohammed Ali.

To order a print of Rocky or to see more of Joe’s work, contact the artist directly.

(Note: I’m filing this under “AllThingsTuscan.com,” even though Rocky and Joe’s ancestry goes back to southern Italy. Hey, we’re all Italian. Can’t we all just get along?)

Lenten Spaghetti
Jul 1st, 2009 by

Good Italian food isn't all about red sauce, as this dish proves.

Good Italian food isn't all about red sauce, as this dish proves.

This is a little different, but very good, simple and easy to make.  Pellegrino Artusi, in his famous 1891 cookbook, said that some might exclaim, “What a ridiculous dish!” But we both like it. It’s Romagnan and a little sweet.

Ingredients

2 1/2 ounces of shelled walnuts

1/2 cup of breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar

1 heaping teaspoon of spices (see below)

1 lb of spaghetti

Spices

  • The lenten spaghetti recipe calls for a mixture of spices that several other recipes in the Artusi use, so I made a batch of this that I keep in my cupboard. Called “Spezie Fini” or “Choice Spices” you “grind in a bronze mortar” (or chop in a mini foodprocessor; or however you choose to grind):
  • 2 whole nutmegs
  • 2 ounces stick cinnamon from Ceylon
  • 1 ounce (4 1/2 tablespoons) all-spice
  • 4/5 ounce (4 tablespoons) cloves
  • 2 tablespoons sweet almondsThen “strain the powder through a silk strainer” (or whatever) and store it in a glass bottle. It should keep for years with the same potency.
What I did:
Mash walnuts with bread crumbs, and add some confectioners’ sugar and a pinch of spices.
Drain the pasta, season it with oil and pepper, stir in the spices and serve it.
(Should serve five)
(Find more recipes in the Food section.)
The Landscapes of Italy
Jun 18th, 2009 by

Audio Slideshow: ‘The Transforming Power of Colour’

(Paintings by William Kelley; Photos by Mark Micheli; Music by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez.)

William Kelley (right) at his art show in New York City. Click the photo to run the audio-slideshow of "The Tranforming Power of Colour."

William Kelley (right) at his art show in New York City. Click the photo to run the audio-slideshow of "The Tranforming Power of Colour."

My Irish brother-in-law, William Kelley, paints Tuscan landscapes. For the past ten years he has lived six months in Florence and six months in Sarasota, Florida and I’m ashamed to say he knows more Italian than me.

He had a show in New York City this month at the Walter Wickiser Gallery.

William (aka Billy) moved to Florence a little more than 10 years ago to further his artistic education at the Lorenzo de’ Medici school. He was in his mid-fifties then and stuck out a little at the school where most students were in their 20s.

But Billy is a kid at heart, something that is echoed in the bold choice of color combinations that he uses. See for yourself.

Book ‘em Mario
Jun 18th, 2009 by

My favorite sister-in-law who lives in New York, Marilyn Martucci. That's her husband, Fred, peaking out from behind.

My favorite NY sister-in-law, Marilyn Martucci. That's her husband, Fred, peaking out from behind.

My favorite New York sister-in-law and her husband Fred, gave me this cookbook for my birthday earlier this month: Mario Batali Italian Grill.

It’s filled with tantalizing recipes, using basic, simple ingredients put together smartly in the Tuscan way. Batali knows what he’s doing when it comes to Italian cooking, but I have to admit I laughed when I learned he decided early on in his career that he needed to travel to Italy and live there to learn how to make good pasta. My brother and I only had to watch my mother or travel a few miles to Boston to my grandmother’s kitchen.

The book contains recipes for antipasti, pizza, fish, meat and vegetables.

The book contains recipes for antipasti, pizza, fish, meat and vegetables.

When I first got the book, I flipped through the large, bright photos and scanned some of the easy, step-by-step instructions. I was itching to make something but the right alignment of good grilling weather and list of ingredients in my cupboard and fridge didn’t match up until this week. While walking through the supermarket, some beautifully thick pork chops caught my eye — and they were on sale — so I bought them and figured out later how I would cook them.

Sure enough Batali had a good grilling recipe for them in this book.  And when the sun was shining I was grilling and smiling.

(Photos by Mark Micheli)

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