Greens, Pumpkin and Rice Torta

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If I had to pick all time favorite vegetarian meals they would have to be Mediterranean. They probably focus on lots of greens and wrapped in thin flatbread or dough (proper Falafel is probably on the top of that list). This Italian gem of a recipe from Paula Wolfert is one of those recipes and I’m happy to write about it at this time since it seems very autumnal.

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Ligurian cuisine is famous for the emphasis on herbs and greens. That’s where the beloved basil-pine nut pesto comes from, herb studded olive oil soaked Focaccia and all manner of simple pasta and seafood dishes. So, it is not surprising that Wolfert’s Ligurian recipe relies on large amount of greens sauteed in generous doses of olive oil and filled in a pastry enriched with more olive oil.

I prepared the dough first by mixing flour, water, olive oil and salt. The dough is very nice and pliable. It smells great due to the fruity extra virgin olive oil in it. That gets divided into two equal portions and can sit in the fridge wrapped in plastic for up to a couple days. It could seep some oil in that time but that is ok.

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Spinach and swiss chard made up the greens portion of the filling. The most important step is to make sure these are very very well washed. There is nothing more irksome than grit in an otherwise delightful dish (same goes for removing the poop “vein” from shrimp…I hate it when lazy cooks leave it in and we get nasty grit!) Anyways, back to the filling. I shredded a few handfuls of a small pumpkin using the coarse side of the grater and tossed these in some salt for a bit. The same salting treatment was used for the coarsely chopped greens. The salt draws out some of the water and helps reduce the astringency of the raw greens.

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After rinsing and draining the greens I sauteed them with onions and olive oil until wilted but still retained their firmness. I tossed in the shredded pumpkin and cooked that for a few minutes too. Once the mixture is cooled, I added a bit of short-grain rice that was soaked in water for 30 minutes, Parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella and a couple of eggs. I rolled the dough into large 14-inch rounds and topped one with the filling before covering it with the second round. I debated building the whole thing on a pizza peel and sliding it on my baking steel directly. I decided against that and went with building and baking the torta on a round metal baking pan. Next time I might give baking it directly on the baking steel a shot and see what happens (hopefully no burnt dough or a huge mess). My favorite way to enjoy this pie is at room temperature, sliced into wedges and eaten by hand. It is delicious, satisfying and keeps well. It makes lovely meals for days if you do not polish it off the first night.

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Coppa e Cavatelli: Pork Collar in Whey, Ricotta Cavatelli, Onions and Peas

Pork in milk-Ricotta cavatelli

Pork collar is normally cured and dried and is the delicious coppa that I’ve posted about before. Chefs figured out that this cut can be more versatile than just a salted and cured coppa. I’ve seen several recipes in books and restaurant menus recently that treat this marbled cut like an awesome pork loin. It has a great meat to fat ratio making it ideal for slow roasting or even braising. In this recipe I cooked it sous vide in whey, sliced it and pan-seared it.

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I prepared some good ricotta a day or so before using Jenn Lewis’ recipe from her Pasta by Hand book. It’s a really great book for all things pasta that require no machines or rolling. They are mostly referred to as “dumplings” in her book and she has a fascinating collection of pasta shapes and recipes from all over Italy with ingredients ranging from potato gnocchi to grated “pasta” and 100% semolina pasta.

Ricotta cavatelli

I had pasta in mind to go with the pork and the ricotta became the main ingredient in ricotta cavatelli. The dough is comprised of the homemade ricotta, eggs, flour and a little milk. It comes together quickly in the Kitchenaid mixer and is pretty simple -if a bit time consuming- to roll and form into ridged cavatelli on the little gnocchi wood board I have.

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I hate wasting when it comes to food, I try to use as much of my odds, ends and trimmings as possible. The whey produced by the ricotta making process (I also use Lewis’ recipe from the same book made with half and half, milk and buttermilk) is really tasty stuff and there’s quiet a bit of it. Typically, I mix it with about 1% salt by weight and put it in the fridge to use for cooking, baking or drinking. It lasts a couple of weeks with no problem. Lewis recommends using the whey to slow cook pork in the style of maiale al latte (pork in milk), a classic Italian recipe from Emilia-Romagna. I’ve done that before to cook a chunk of pork shoulder and it was delicious. I refined the same process for the coppa and bagged it with salted whey, thyme, lemon slices and garlic cloves. I cooked that sous vide for [[TEMP/TIME]] and allowed it to cool in the bag.

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For a tasty garnish I went with whey-cooked shallots. This is just whole peeled shallots and an onion simmered slowly in a mixture of whey and butter along with some thyme. The mixture cooks until all the liquid evaporates and the onions are golden meltingly soft and a bit caramelized. To serve, I sliced the pork and used a biscuit cutter to make neat disks. I browned them in a hot pan till crispy on the outside. The cavatelli were tossed with peas and butter. I plated the meat with the pasta around it and topped with the shallots.

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Chicken, White Wine and Porcini Fricassee, Simple Risotto with Verjus

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I cooked this when mom mom was visiting recently. I’m glad she loves Italian food as much as I do and especially risotto, pesto sauces and any form of pasta. Really, who doesn’t? I have a nice pasta dish coming up soon but for now it’s a soul satisfying dish from one of my go-to Italian food resources, the late Marcella Hazan. I flipped through to her chicken section in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and settled on this homey fricassee.  Since mom loves risotto I chose to make a simple one to accompany our chicken dinner.

Chicken Porcini Fricasse Risotto

The chicken dish is based on dried porcini mushrooms and white wine. I soaked the dried mushrooms in very hot water while I got the chicken pieces browned in a hot pan. That pan gets deglazed with white wine and then I add the mushrooms along with their strained soaking liquid and some chopped canned San Marzano tomatoes. The chicken pieces cooked in this mixture while I worked on finishing the risotto.

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Butter-Verjus

The risotto is a traditional and very straight-forward preparation. I cooked onions, carrots and celery in a mixture of butter and oil before adding the rice and cooking it for a few minutes. I add wine to that and then gradually add good flavorful chicken stock. I wanted to give the risotto a bit of tartness. So, all the way at the end after adding butter and Parmesan cheese I flavored the risotto with a few splashes of verjus.

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Rich, flavorful chicken and a perfect risotto made for a delicious meal. More importantly earned mom’s seal of approval.

VDP: Penne with Cauliflower and Pesto-Ricotta Sauce

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Having a bounty of basil in the backyard gives me more of an excuse to eat pesto. I love the stuff on almost anything. Here as a pasta sauce for cauliflower. I was hoping to make some fresh pasta for this dish, but on a Tuesday in a busy week, I had no time. First, I par-boiled the cauliflower. Then it went in a pan with olive oil, onions and garlic while I boiled the pasta, Penne in this case.

For the sauce I mixed pesto with homemade ricotta, minced garlic and parmesan cheese. When the pasta was done and the cauliflower fully cooked, sweet and starting to brown I tossed everything in a large bowl and mixed in some lemon zest for good measure. The addition of the lemon zest was a spur of the moment thing, but it really made a big difference and transformed a good dish to an excellent one. I served it with chilli flakes, more grated parmesan and olive oil toasted breadcrumbs.

If it sounds a bit odd that I add toasted breadcrumbs to the pasta, let me write a couple of lines of background. It is not something I made up or thought of myself. First time I read about it was in one of Jamie Oliver’s books. It’s correct name is Pangriata or Pangritata and it’s origin goes back to poorer Italian cooks who used it as a substitute to the more expensive grated cheese topping. It really is a wonderful way to add crunch and extra flavor to pastas and risottos especially. Anything can be mixed in it too, like maybe some herbs or chilli flakes.