Category Archives: Italian

Giblet Pasta Sauce: It’s Offally Good!

Okay, okay, I’ll lay off the puns. But first let me tell you the story of my quest to like offal.

I have always wanted to like offal. When traveling, it’s awful to be the Picky American. The French guy I dated was so proud to proclaim “Elle mange tout,” to all his family and friends. I was safe with him as he didn’t like offal either, but I always felt like he was lying. I don’t eat everything. Well, okay, I never met a vegetable I didn’t like.  I grew up on the bounty of the ocean, devouring the cheeks, eyes, and brains of whole fish.  But the organs of land-dwellers have always been my downfall.

My mother hates offal, and thanks to her feelings about force-feeding children, she never made us liver, heart, kidneys, or tripe.  I have had liver in a fiery curry in Sri Lanka, and tripe as a part of the dim sum menu at Chinese restaurants, and I have to say, I hated both. The liver had a dirty taste that even the curry couldn’t cover, and the tripe….there just are no words for how much I hate tripe.
However, I have always held the belief that picky eaters have been too long rewarded for dysfunctional behavior.  If a child can be taught to like well-prepared brussels sprouts, then surely I could learn to like offal.  It was just a matter of choosing recipes carefully and cooking offal in tiny increments.

I chose this recipe for poultry gizzard and heart because it requires mincing the offal into tiny pieces, which would become indistinguishable once cooked with the chopped portobello mushroom in the sauce. Still, my courage nearly failed me at the meat counter. As the attendant explained that gizzard is the muscle covering the stomach of the chicken, I silently wondered if it would be in poor taste to foist the leftover sauce on Kassie and CJ if I didn’t like it.

I needn’t have worried. Although chopping the gizzards  requires strong nerves and a very sharp knife, the reward is a full-flavored, rich sauce.  Hearty and almost beefy in taste, this sauce demands a full bodied red wine.  Leave lots of time, as the heart and gizzard, the toughest muscles in the chicken’s body need a long, slow simmer to tenderize. Make in large batches as the sauce gets better with age.

Now I only have to get my mother to try it.

Giblet Pasta Sauce

8 oz chicken gizzards and hearts (you may use the giblets of other poultry as well)
1/2 c olive oil
1 1/2 c chopped portobello mushrooms
3/4 c chopped carrots
3/4 c chopped celery
3/4 c chopped yellow onion
1 oz pancetta, minced
2 garlic cloves
1 1/2 c chopped canned tomatoes
1 bay leaf
pinch dried chili flakes
1/2 c. full bodied red wine
small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped

Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Heat olive oil in large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add gizzards and hearts and cook until they brown lightly. Add mushrooms, carrots, celery, onions, and pancetta. Add 1/2 tsp salt. Let sizzle stirring occasionally, then add garlic and stir again. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.

Add tomatoes, bay leaf, chili and red wine. Bring to boil, then lower to the barest simmer. Partially cover, and let cook until giblets are tender about an hour and a half. Check occasionally to make sure that the sauce isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add tiny amounts of water as needed.

Stir in parsley. Taste and adjust seasonings. Sauce may require a pinch of sugar or a teaspoon of tomato paste.

Serve with pasta and a grating of parmesan.

Source: Judy Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook



Filed under gluten-free, Italian

Mushroom Umami Pizza

Several years ago, I dated a guy who hated mushrooms. He ranted about mushrooms the way vegans rant about veal. You could hardly get him to be in the same room as a mushroom. The saddest thing about this relationship (and believe me, there were many sad things about it) is that I stopped eating mushrooms too. Why do we do this? More than one friend of mine has become vegetarian under the influence of a vegetarian partner. While I understand the draw of the ethical foundation of vegetarianism, it’s curious how such conversions end with the relationship. In any case, my ex’s mushroom-rage was hardly philosophical in nature. The only argument he could come up with against mushroom-eating had to do with the fact that mushrooms are fungi. Like yeast. Except that he had no such problem with bread.

I have noticed that all of my friends who change their diets to that of their partners’ have one thing in common: they are people who love food and love sharing the pleasures of the table with the people they love the most. A great meal that can’t be shared somehow misses the point. So I stopped eating mushrooms, because as long as I was with mushroom guy, it didn’t make sense to eat mushrooms alone.

Maybe the moral of the story is that compatibility of palette is as important as all the other things on my already-long checklist. Food is meant to be shared, and this pizza cries out for a great bottle of wine and a table surrounded by people you love. Crunching into the crust is a pure hit of meaty mushroom umami: a puree of mushrooms topped with even more mushrooms. The pizza is creamy with pungent fontina and fragrant with garlic, both sauteed with the mushrooms and minced and sprinkled raw over the dough before topping and baking.

As for the mushroom-hating ex-boyfriend, I was sad when the relationship ended, but it never would have worked anyway. Had I stayed with him, I never would have discovered this pizza, and that would have been a real tragedy.

Mushroom Umami Pizza

While the pizza above was made with American fontina, which was perfectly serviceable, the real, creamy Italian Fontina Val D’aosta elevates the pizza from delicious to transcendent. There are other, cheaper Italian fontinas which are also good, just make sure to avoid Danish fontina, which stinks. (And this is coming from someone who loves stinky cheeses. Danish fontina does not stink in a good way.)

2 cups mushrooms–I usually use a mixture of button, crimini, and if I can get them, wild mushrooms such as wood-ears, chantarelles, or shitakes
1 shallot, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 c. heavy cream
salt and pepper
4 oz. fontina (preferable Val D’aosta)
3 portabello mushroom caps, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. parmaggiano reggiano cheese, grated
1 tbsp. parsley, minced (omitted in the above photo)

2 rounds pizza dough, rolled as thin as possible
1 clove garlic, minced
drizzle of olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven as high as it will go (500-550 degrees).

In a food processor, process the mushrooms until finely chopped. (I do this in batches as I have a small food processor.) Saute shallots and garlic in the olive oil until soft and golden. Add mushrooms. Mushrooms will exude a fair amount of liquid. Cook until this liquid has evaporated. Stir in cream, take of heat, and season with salt and pepper.

Slice fontina. This may be easier if cheese is partially frozen.

Place rounds of pizza dough on a floured peel (if using a baking stone) or a floured cookie sheet. Scatter clove of finely minced garlic onto the dough, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. With the back of a spoon, spread the mushroom puree on the dough. Top with the thin slices of fontina and the sliced portabello caps. Sprinkle pizza with parmesan cheese and slide either directly onto baking stone or place cookie sheet into the oven.

Bake 7-8 minutes if using a baking stone, or 15 minutes with a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with parsley, cut with a pair of scissors and serve.

Source: Todd English, The Figs Table


Filed under Italian

Pizza: The Perfect Thin Crust and Veggie Pepperoni

Update: The pizza crust below is perfectly serviceable, however, I have discovered a pizza crust that’s even better.  Check it out here.

Although pizza-making is technically easy and not as time-consuming as you might think, it creates an unholy mess. The dough sticks to your hands; everything you touch acquires a sticky veneer that hardens into a dried glue. Every kitchen surface ends up covered in flour. And your clothes? Wear an apron, or even better, the clothes you wore when last painting your bedroom.

But the reward of kneading, waiting, rolling, and the inevitable clean-up is a light, crispy dough that’s the perfect vehicle for tomato sauce, arugula, buffalo mozzarella, or anything else you dream up. So invite your friends over, don’t tell them that they’re expected to clean the kitchen, and divide the labor. Pizza is meant to be shared.

There are many different schools of thought on pizza crust. I am of the thin, crisp school, a disciple of Todd English and his Figs pizza. The secret to a light, crispy crust is wet, sticky dough. Yes, it’s a pain, but resist the temptation to add more and more flour to the dough, making it easier to work with. A drier dough will yield a thicker, breadier pizza crust. Keep a butter knife nearby to scrape the webs of dough from your fingers. Swear if you need to.

I named this pizza after a friend from graduate school, who invited me over and served me this pizza on a cool fall evening. We had both just started our Master’s programs, and bonded over food,wine and bluegrass music. The combination of flavors is genius. Susanna and I were both vegetarians at the time (actually, I was quasi-vegetarian), and the combination was at once startlingly delicious and oddly familiar. Then I realized that the combination of sweet caramelized onions, salty olives, and sour sun-dried tomatoes evokes the salty tang of pepperoni. I’ve lost touch with my friend Susanna, but whenever I eat this pizza, I think of her and wonder what she’s cooking now.

Todd English’s Pizza Crust

This crust recipe makes 4 generous individual sized pizzas. While I don’t have a pizza stone, keeping a stone in the oven and preheating your oven an hour before hand will make the crust even crispier.

2 tsp yeast
1 2/3 c. warm water
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp olive oil
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve sugar in warm water. Sprinkle yeast over the water, and let sit ten minutes. (Don’t stress about the yeast being alive–if the yeast is within date and the water is bath temperature, you won’t go wrong.)

Add olive oil to water, beat in whole wheat flour. Add 2 1/4 cup of the all-purpose flour. Sprinkle salt over. Keep beating until mixture is uniform and dough gets stickier and stickier.

Here’s where things get even more sticky: Sprinkle 1/4 c. flour over the dough. Begin to knead, folding the dough over itself, push, then turn a quarter and repeat. (If you use a large enough mixing bowl, you won’t need to put the dough on the counter.) Soon, the flour will be absorbed, and the dough will become sticky again. Add another 1/4 c. flour and repeat. Repeat with the remaining 1/4 c. flour. Dough is ready when it springs back when poked with a (flour-covered) finger. If your dough isn’t ready, but you have used up all the flour, you may sprinkle tiny bits of flour onto the surface of the dough so you can keep kneading.

Divide dough into four equal parts. Place on a flour-covered cooking sheet, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.

Take a round of dough. Sprinkle flour on the top of the dough. Flour a rolling pin, and roll dough as thin as possible–this is key.

Pizza Susanna

I usually make 2 different types of toppings per crust recipe. This recipe makes enough topping for two pizzas.

2 large yellow onions
1/4 c. white wine (opt.)
2 tbsp olive oil
3/4 c. black, brine-cured olives, pitted and chopped (Kalamatas wouldn’t go amiss here)
1/2 c. sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (if not oil-packed, soak in warm water)
1/2 c. chevre

Preheat oven as high as it will go (usually 500 or 550 degrees Fahrenheit). If you are using a pizza stone, it should preheat for an hour. Thickly slice onions. Heat olive oil, add onions, then reduce heat to very low. Let onions cook over low heat until completely reduced and soft, almost like a jam, at least 20 minutes, possibly longer. If onions are sticking to the bottom of the pan, deglaze with white wine and continue cooking.

Place the rounds of dough either on a well-floured cookie sheet or a pizza peel (if using a pizza stone). With the back of a spoon, spread onions on the pizza dough. Top with olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Crumble chevre over the pizzas.

Either slide pizza directly onto pizza stone and bake for 7-8 minutes, or place cookie sheet in oven and bake for 15 minutes.

Sources: Susanna Drake, Todd English’s The Figs Table


Filed under Italian

Italian for Beginners

Six years ago, my sister and I went backpacking through Italy for a whirlwind ten days. Most of the stories of our trip would be familiar to anyone who has been to Rome, Florence and Venice in August: heat, crowds, long lines, great food, beautiful art. We did learn some valuable lessons, about travel, Italy and life, that, in the spirit of generosity, I will now share with you:

1) Don’t ever, ever leave anything of value in a car in an Italian city. Not even if the car is locked. Not ever if your friend’s cousin’s flaky friend who’s a tour guide at the Catacombs told you could because you were only popping to see the church for, like, 5 minutes. Don’t do it. Ever.

2) Don’t stay in hostels. Actually, this advice may not be universal. Let me revise: Don’t stay in hostels if you don’t appreciate being kicked out of your room at 10 am or even just need a day off from being a tourist. If you have to stay in a hostel, for heaven’s sake, stay in one with a kitchen. There is nothing more heartbreaking than going to fabulous Italian markets and not having anywhere to cook anything, not even to boil water for pasta.

3) Do allow your elder sister to bully you into carting 2 liters of water around a day. It’s hot and dry in Italy and you don’t want to have to pay 5 lire every time you get thirsty. If your back hurts from carrying around said bottles of water, don’t complain to your sister. Thirst makes her even more irritable.

4) Do not panic if you get trapped in a hot, stinking, airless toilet. The door will open if you unlock it.

5) Do have your sister who’s meeting you in Germany bring along a giant sized box of Lactaid. You will need it for all the gelato you will have once you get to Italy.

6) Do use the Banana Test. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson we learned, courtesy of the Let’s Go: Italy Travel Guide, 2000 edition. To quickly assess the quality of a gelateria, look at the banana flavored gelato. If it’s a warm, bright yellow color, walk away; it’s packed with artificial colors and flavors and probably has no banana in it. If the banana gelato is an unappealing grayish brown color, you have stumbled upon a reputable establishment. I have since employed the banana test in gelaterias and ice cream shops all around the world, and it never fails. Thanks to the Banana Test, my sister and I ate the most wonderful gelato every single day in Italy.

Most of the gelato has melted (pun intended) into the haze of our grand Italian vacay, but the memory of two particular scoops of sorbetto have stayed with me ever since. It was a day too hot to sightsee, too hot to even walk. Shut out of our hostel and thus the possibility of a siesta (see #2), we dragged ourselves from gelateria to gelateria examining Banana Gelatos. When we finally found one that passed the test, we were too hot, sticky and thirsty (my sister had finally rebelled against all the water carrying) for dairy-based confections to hold any appeal. Instead we turned to the sorbetto, my sister chose mango, I, coconut, and we traded cones every few licks. And therein was the revelation. While mango and coconut sorbets are each delicious on their own, together, they are like the best of couples, each magnifying the best of the other. The mango becomes more fruity and sensual; the coconut becomes creamier and nuttier against the acidity of the mango. Best of all, having two flavors that are so different avoids what I call the monotony problem with sorbet. Either flavor may be delicious and intense, but after a few licks, they start to taste the same. The mango and coconut, however, complement each other so well, that each flavor tastes even better when you return to it.

So when I borrow an ice cream maker last week, I knew that I would take the extra time to make two flavors of sorbet. I may be stuck in the US for a while, but my taste buds can go straight to Italy with two scoops of sorbet.

Mango Sorbet and Coconut Sorbet

I haven’t included the recipe for the mango sorbet because I basically lifted it off of this post with no innovation or adaptation of my own. I omitted the lime zest from the mango sorbet in the recipe because I wanted to keep the mango flavor as pure as possible.

Coconut Sorbet
This might possibly be the easiest recipe in the entire world.

1 c. water
¾ c. sugar
2 c. coconut milk*

1. Combine water and sugar and heat until sugar has dissolved.
2. Add coconut milk, strain and chill.
3. Freeze in ice cream maker.

*There is some confusion about coconut milk. I picked up a can at the grocery store the other day for a Thai curry and discovered, to my horror, that it was actually coconut water (the water inside the coconut), thickened with some sort of emulsifier and a whole lot of sugar. Use unsweetened coconut milk, it should just have coconut and water. Check the label; I wish I had.

* I actually found coconut cream, which is the first pressing of the coconut. It’s rather richer than coconut milk. I used 1 ½ c. coconut cream and ½ c. coconut milk. But whatever you do, it will be fine.

Sources: Chocolate and Zucchini, Making Food. Eating Food.


Filed under Italian