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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.

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.)
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)

Grilled Artichokes
Jun 18th, 2009 by

This side dish, or first course, cleanses the palette preparing the way for more grilled treats.

This side dish, or first course, cleanses the palette preparing the way for more grilled treats.

This recipe from Mario Batali’s Italian Grill cookbook is flavorful with hints of lemon, mint, and salt. The jalapenos may be a little too hot for some, so I recommend serving them as a topping on the side.

  • Ingredients:
  • 6 large artichokes, preferably with stems
  • 2 lemons, halved
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped, stems and all, plus about 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves cut into thin slivers
  • 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 to 4 red jalapenos, diced or thinly sliced
  • Course sea salt (or Kosher salt will do in a pinch.)

You can prepare the artichokes early in the day and then throw them on the grill that night.

You can prepare the artichokes early in the day and then throw them on the grill that night.

What I did:

Fill a large pot with 6 cups of water and add the juice of 1 1/2 lemons; add the 3 lemon halves too.

Snap off the tough, outer leaves from one artichoke until you come to the leaves that are pale yellow toward the bottom.

Cut off the top 1 inch of the leaves. As you work, rub the cut surfaces with the remaining lemon half.

Trim off the bottom of the stem, and using a paring knife, trim away the tough outer layer from the stem. Trim any dark green parts from the bottom of the artichoke.

Half the artichoke lengthwise and remove the fuzzy choke (either with a grapefruit spoon or paring knife). Pull out the small purple inner leaves.

Put the trimmed artichoke in the bowl of lemon water and repeat with all of the artichokes.

Add the chopped mint, garlic, olive oil, and wine to the pot. Add more water if needed to cover the artichokes.

Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until just tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain and allow to cool.

Place the artichokes cut side down over the hottest part of the grill and cook, unmoved, for 3 to 5 minutes, until nicely charred. Turn and cook for 5 minutes more, or until golden brown.

Place artichokes on a platter and top with remaining mint and jalapenos (or serve jalapenos on the side). Serve with a bowl of course salt.

Also try the Grilled Pork Chops with Peppers and Capers recipe

Find more recipes in the Food section

(Photos by Mark Micheli)

Tuscan mania, meow
May 12th, 2009 by

OK. Things are really starting to get out of hand. Everywhere you look, products are called Tuscan. It’s as if you slap the label on something and it instantly sells. I’m not sure exactly when this started happening but it was going on long before the book “Under a Tuscan Sun” started selling and was eventually made into a movie.

Tuscan lemonade??

Tuscan lemonade??

Each year it seems to get crazier and crazier. While driving on Route 93 north near Boston the other day, I saw a billboard for Smirnoff’s Tuscan Lemonade . It claims to be flavored with real Limoncello, but Limoncello comes from southern Italy, not Tuscany.

Not even that exaggeration prepared me for the TV commercial I saw last night. They’re now marketing Tuscan food for cats. You heard right: Fancy Feasts is selling a Tuscan recipe line for your feline friend. I have to wonder if in this economy, poor old folks are chasing it down with a Tuscan Lemonade.

(© 2009 Mark Micheli)

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