Basics

Malfatti;Italian ricotta and spinach dumplings

Malfatti; Italian ricotta and spinach dumplings

 

Malfatti, which loosely  translates as “poorly made” in Italian, are billowy dumplings of ricotta and spinach. Essentially gnocchi, but without the dough casing. A wonderful choice for a gorgeous light meal that is sure to satisfy even die hard meat sauce lovers.

Malfatti speak for themselves. Unlike gnocchi, there is no fiddling about making perfectly shaped dumplings. These have a very rustic homemade allure that harkens back to 17th century northern Italian cooks in the countryside. Malfatti can be steamed, boiled, sauted, or gently cooked in a simple tomato sauce.

I make my own ricotta (see recipes here) paired with the simplest tomato sauce (see recipe here) made with imported Italian tomatoes or tomato passata, fresh Italian tomatoes which have been passed through a food mill to remove the skin and seeds. Imported passata is readily available. To a passata just add onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil and you have the simplest of red  sauces made in no time.

 

Malfatti: makes about 15    3 servings

Malfatti in red sauce

Malfatti in red sauce

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • large bunch of young spinach leaves, chopped
  • 6oz/170g ricotta cheese
  • 1 organic egg, whisked
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ tsp finely grated nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
    prepared red sauce
  • whole dried red chiles (optional)

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the spinach and saute just until the spinach has wilted, about 1 minute. Transfer the spinach to a paper towel to absorb excess water and set aside.

Place the ricotta in a mixing bowl and add the wilted spinach, egg, ¾ cup of Parmegiano-Regiano, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and flour. Fold the ingredients together until just combined and coming together.

Cover the mixture and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will make the malfatti easier to form.

Then scoop out a generous tablespoon size portions of the mixture and form into elongated egg shapes without being too concerned about their uniformity. Think malfatti!

Place them on a parchment lined tray, cover, and refrigerate until you are ready to cook them in red sauce.

Preheat the oven to 350f/180c

Warm the red sauce and pour a cup or so in a baking dish. Then add the malfatti to the dish and add more sauce to nearly cover the malfatti with only the top exposed. Add the dried chiles if using and transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake for 20 minutes.

Open the oven and add the remaining ¼ cup grated Parmigiano over the tops of the malfatti. Turn the baking dish for even baking and continue baking until just lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

Serving:

Serve the malfatti as pictured in a pool of red sauce along with a mixed greens salad and some crusty bread.

A perfect summer meal!

Meatballs....perfect (Basics)

Meatballs….perfect (Basics)

 

Just a mention of meatballs and spaghetti is probably going to conjure up a flashback to one of those cafeteria lunch offerings we would all rather forget from our childhood. And of course most of us didn’t have an Italian Nona to cook for us, so we were left with the next best option, the ubiquitous Italian American restaurant versions of meatballs and spaghetti which were just often delicious enough to keep us coming back. 

Fortunately, the true glories of meatballs have surfaced in nearly every culture and cuisine throughout the ages. From China’s Qin Dynasty, the Romans, the Persians, and of course the modern day Italian’s cuisine we are all familiar with today.

The recipe that follows does not stray far from the wisdom of the Italian Nona. My one exception is making the meatballs larger than the smaller traditional Italian “polpettes”. I much prefer the tender juiciness of these meatballs that are slowly simmered in a simple traditional “passata” tomato sauce. Serve them as they are or with pasta along with a beautiful crisp salad and you have a perfect pairing for simple meal for any season.

Meatballs (Basics)

Meatballs (Basics)

 

Meatballs…(Basics)     makes twelve 2 ½ oz meatballs

  • 1 pound/ 455 g best quality ground beef
  • 1 pound/ 455 g lean ground pork 
  • 2 thin slices pancetta, minced
  • ½ cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Regiano
  • 1 small onion, minced (about ¾ cup)
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • ½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 extra large organic egg, whisked
  • ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons flaked sea salt + more to taste
  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Passata tomato sauce
  • 3 bay leaves

In a large mixing bowl combine the ground beef, ground pork, and minced pancetta. Toss with your hands until well combined and set aside.

In a small mixing bowl combine the bread crumbs and milk. Set aside for 5 minutes and then squeeze out the excess milk.

In a medium bowl combine the milk soaked bread crumbs, 1 cup grated Parmegiano-Reggiano, minced onion, minced garlic, chopped parsley, whisked egg, ground pepper, pepper flakes, and sea salt. Toss the ingredients together until well combined. Then scatter the mixture over the ground meats and pancetta.

Using your hands, toss all the ingredients together until they are completely combined. Cover the mixture with cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Once the chilled meatball mixture has firmed up, remove from the fridge, and weigh out 12 2 oz portions. Roll each portion gently between the palms of your hands until uniformly rounded. Do not over compress the mixture as you roll the meatballs. The less densely compacted they are the more tender and juicy they will be when cooked.

Gently roll each meatball in the flour until evenly coated. Shake off excess flour and place the meatballs on a tray. Cover the filled tray with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will firm up the meatballs so they retain their shape while browning them.

Preheat the oven to 350 F/ 180 C

Remove the chilled meatballs from the fridge. Place the olive oil in a wide shallow braising pan or oven proof skillet set over medium heat. When the oil is nearly smoking add half of the meatballs to the pan and cook them until evenly browned on all sides. When done remove the meatballs and set them aside on a platter while you brown the remaining meatballs.

Once all the meatballs are browned, pour most of the oil out of the pan and remove any remaining bits left in the pan using a paper towel. The pan should look fairly clean. Add a bit more fresh oil if necessary.

Return the browned meatballs to the braising pan and pour the preheated “passata” tomato sauce into the pan until it nearly covers the meatballs leaving just the tops exposed. Tuck the bay leaves into the sauce and transfer the pan to the oven. The braising can also be done on the stove top if an oven is not an option.

After 30 minutes open the oven door, turn the pan, and add more sauce if needed. Return the pan to the oven for another 30 minutes. When finished the sauce should have thickened somewhat and the tops of the meatballs nicely glazed.

If you are serving the meatballs on a bed of pasta as pictured, have the pasta cooked al dente and ready for serving as soon as the meatballs come out of the oven.

Serving: Place the pasta on individual plates and top with 3 meatballs per serving. Spoon sauce over the pasta and a little over the meatballs. Top each meatball with the remaining grated Parmegiano-Reggiano and serve.

 

“Passata” Tomato Sauce:

  • 2  24 oz bottles or cartons of Italian passata tomato sauce (Mutti brand is very good)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a pinch of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon ground red chile (optional)
  • chicken stock as needed

“Passata” describes a process where vine ripe Roma tomatoes are passed through a food mill and then cooked. The process removes the seeds and skin from the tomatoes and once cooked makes a simple tomato sauce with just a few added ingredients.

I highly recommend using imported passata. There are several brands available. Mutti is my favorite and makes a beautiful sauce bursting with flavor.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when nearly smoking pour in the passata and stir. Once the sauce comes back to a boil lower the heat to a simmer. Stir in the salt, black pepper, sugar, and chile powder if using. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add hot chicken stock if the sauce needs thinning.

Keep the sauce warm on the stove top to add to the meatballs for braising or for saucing pasta before serving.

You will most likely have left over sauce which you can freeze for later use.

Chili (Basics)

Chili (Basics)

 

Who doesn’t love a “bowl of red”, that infamous hot and spicy earthy red chili stew from Texas and the American Southwest. Chili’s popularity really took hold when local chili joints starting popping up across the country in the early 1900’s. A Chili nation was born and chili has been embraced as real North American food ever since!

But hold on, beans, tomatoes, chile peppers, and cacao are all native to the Americas and cultivated by native central American peoples as staple foods along with maize as cornerstones of their diet. Stews not unlike what we now know as chili were likely being cooked up by the Aztecs long before the Europeans ever set foot in the new world. With the arrival of the Spanish and the Portuguese spices like cumin from the eastern Mediterranean and cinnamon from south Asia were introduced into the local native cuisine and influenced the evolving cuisines of Central and South America.

So yes, Chili’s North Americanization and enduring popularity is undeniable, but it is also a testament to the ingenuity of earlier native American cultures as well.

Making an authentic chili is really quite simple. What follows is a very basic recipe to build from. For me, a well made chili hinges on using the very best authentic ingredients. A stellar chili is a stand alone dish that needs little embellishment. Forget the chili season mixes, the cheese, and the sour cream. It is all about savoring the deep the earthy flavors and aromas of chile combined with the earthiness of the beans!

Authentic New Mexico pure ground red chile, ground chipotle chile, Mexican oregano, and chorizo are all available on line if they are not available where you live.

 

Chili:   serves 6

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup cold pressed peanut or olive oil
  • 4 cups diced onions
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 ¼ pounds/570 grams best quality ground beef
  • 3 tablespoons pure ground red chile (New Mexican is ideal)
  • 1 tablespoon ground chipotle chile
  • 2 tablespoons toasted cumin seeds, coarsely ground
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano (Mexican is ideal)
  • 2 tablespoons pure unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste (imported Italian is best)
  • 1 quart beef stock, hot
  • 2 cans kidney beans or pinto beans (or home cooked), partially drained
  • 1 oz/28 g thinly sliced chorizo, cut into thin strips
  • 4 chopped fire roasted green chilies
  • diced red onions

Place 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy bottomed soup pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot add the onions and reduce the heat to medium low. Season with a little salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic, stir, and cook another couple of minutes.

While the onions are cooking, place a skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil is hot add the ground beef, season with a little salt, and saute until the beef releases its juices and is lightly brown and crumbly, about 15 minutes.

Transfer the beef to the soup pot with the onions and stir to combine. Add the ground chile, ground chipotle chile, cumin seeds, oregano, cocoa, and cinnamon. Season with a little salt and stir until well combined. Then form a well in the center of the pot and add the tomato paste, smashing it against the bottom of the pan to caramelize the paste for about 2 minutes. Then add about two thirds of the hot stock, stir to combine, and bring the contents back up to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Stir in the beans and add the remaining stock. Bring the contents back to a low simmer, add the chorizo, and cook for another 30 minutes, or until the chilli has thickened and is a beautiful deep red. Taste and add salt if needed.

I like to serve the chili family style with individual chili bowls set out for each person. Be sure to have small bowls of chopped fire roasted green chilies (see here) and diced red onions for those who want to add some fiery heat to their chili. I love to serve my chili with freshly steamed tamales (see here) as well, but a basket of warm flour tortillas or cornbread will do nicely as well.

Paella Mixta photo: Kevin West

Paella Mixta photo: Kevin West

 

Paella needs no introduction. It is one of Spain’s most celebrated culinary exports. A Spanish rice dish that delights like non other and loved the world over. A paella makes a spectacularly colorful presentation that promises a tantalizing combination of simmering Mediterranean ingredients seasoned with distinctly Spanish herbs and spices that bring this rustic Spanish dish to life.

Imagine a gigantic paella pan filled to the brim with locally sourced ingredients from land and sea simmering over a fragrant wood fire out in the open air, wafting aromas beckoning one and all. The pleasures of Paella are all about savoring the robust flavors of traditional Spanish cookery with friends and family.

Paella is simple in concept and, with a little organization and planning, will come off without a hitch. Over the holidays I managed, along with a friend’s help, to have three paella pans simultaneously bubbling away on the stove top. Miraculously they were all perfectly finished and on the table as planned to everyone’s great delight.

For the recipe that follows I have broken down the cooking sequence and ingredients, including portions of ingredients per person, into steps which should be easy to to follow and apply to any paella you want to make no matter what ingredients you choose to use. A paella is truly a dish for all seasons!

Paella Mixta photo: Kevin West

Paella Mixta photo: Kevin West

 

Paella Mixta:        serves 12

Paella Mixta is very popular, but not a traditional paella in the strictest sense. Liberties have been taken that traditionalists would certainly frown up, but the idea of mixing seafood and meats does make a splendid feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Following the ingenuity of early Spanish cooks, using a traditional paella pan really makes sense. If you do not happen to have one a cast iron skillet is your best alternative option. That said, for a small investment, a paella pan will serve you very well for years to come and available online (click here).

As appealing as the idea is, cooking a paella over an open fire is not likely. The next best option is a two step cooking method that I have been using in my kitchen  for years that turns out consistently beautiful paellas time and time again. Beginning the cooking on the stove top insures that you have the much desired thin layer of crisp rice in the bottom of the paella pan. The pan is then transferred to a very hot oven to quickly finish the paella with a perfectly colored surface and moist rice in the interior.

Equipment: 1 to 3 paella pans (depending on size)

Ingredients:

  • 12 cups fish or chicken stock (1 cup per person)
  • 48 saffron threads (4 per person)
  • 3 tablespoons white wine
  • ¾ cup Spanish olive oil (1/3 cup per pan)
  • 6 chicken breasts, skin on (½ breast per person)
  • 6 links paprika sausage (½ link per person)
  • 3 cups diced onions (1/4 cup per person)
  • 12 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced ( 1 per person)
  • 2 large green bell peppers, seeded, cut into thin strips, and halved
  • 2 red bell peppers, seeded, cut into thin stripes lengthwise, and halved
  • 3 small fresh hot chiles, seeds removed and minced
  • 4 cups Spanish Bomba rice (1/3 cup per person) or Arborio rice as a substitute
  • 3 fresh tomatoes, grated, skin discarded
  • 6 tablespoons sweet Spanish paprika (1 ½ teaspoon per person)
  • 24 large shrimp, shell removed, deveined (2 per person)
  • 24 mussels, well scrubbed and steamed until opened, top shell removed and discarded
  • 1 large handful green beans, blanched and halved
  • 3 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
  • 3 oz/ 80 g thinly sliced Spanish chorizo, slices halved
  • flaked sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • chopped flat leaf parsley
  • fresh lemon wedges
  • aioli, (recipe below)

Heat the stock and have it ready on the stove top.

Place the saffron threads in a small bowl. Add the wine and set aside.

Heat the paella pan, or pans, and add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken breasts, skin side down and cook until lightly browned. Turn the breast and lightly brown the other side. Transfer the browned breasts to a platter to cool. When cool enough to handle cut each breast into quarters and set aside to use later.

Using the same pan, or pans, brown the sausage on all sides. Remove and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, cut into bite size rounds and set aside to use later.

Preheat oven to 400 f/ 200 c

At this point if you are cooking more than one pan at a time enlist a friend to help you stir the ingredients in each pan.

Using the same pan, or pans, saute the onions over medium low heat for a couple minutes. Then add the garlic, bell pepper strips, and chiles and saute until softened. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Add the rice to the pan, or pans, and turn up the heat to medium and cook the rice until it is completely coated with oil and just beginning to

Paella Mixta photo Kevin West

Paella Mixta photo Kevin West

color slightly. Add grated tomato and sweet paprika and most of the smoked paprika and cook until incorporated into the rice.

Add the saffron and the white wine and sir into the rice. Then add enough hot stock to just cover the rice and simmer while continually stirring, being sure to release the rice from the bottom of the pan so it does not stick. Continue to cook until the stock is nearly absorbed into the rice.

Repeat the same quantity of stock to just cover the rice and cook, stirring continuously, until the stock is once again absorbed. Taste the rice to test for texture. Ideally the rice should be cooked until soft, but a little on the al dente side.

With that in mind, you may need to continue with another cycle, adding stock to the rice and cooking until you reach the right consistency for the rice.

Once the rice is the right consistency there is no need for further stirring. You want the rice in the bottom of the pan to develop a crisp base.

Add the browned chicken to the pan and push it into the rice until just the top is visible.

Likewise add the sausage, again pushing it into the rice until just visible. Then add the chorize partially pushed into the rice but leaving half still visible.

At this point add just enough stock to just reach the surface of the rice.

Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes and then add the shrimp gently nestled into the rice with most of the body exposed. Position the mussels over the surface around the shrimp. Tuck in the green beans between the shrimp and mussels. Lightly season the surface with sea salt and light dusting of smoked paprika.

If the rice is looking dry around the edges of the pan add a little more stock until just visible. Transfer the pan to the preheated oven and cook about 10 minutes or just until the surface is lightly colored.

Serving:

Remove the paella from the oven. Garnish with a light scattering of parsley and transfer to the table while still piping hot.

Serve with lemon wedges and Aioli.

Delicioso! photo: Paul Milton

Delicioso!

Aioli:  makes 1 ½ cups

  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely grated/ microplaned
  • ½ teaspoon flaked sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 10 saffron threads soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water

Place the garlic, salt, pepper, and lemon juice in a food processor and pulse until the ingredients are combined.

With the motor running very slowly add the olive oil. As the mixture thickens stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the work bowl, then continue adding the remaining olive oil with the machine running. Once the aioli is thick and emulsified slowly add the saffron and hot water until combined.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve.

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