D and I were just standing side by side looking into the fridge, pointing to various leftover items, just to make sure we know what all was in there to eat.
D: So let me get this straight, we have leftover brisket, hot wings, rib roast, pork loin, pork belly, and also shrimp from the party?
Me: Yes. Oh and I forgot about the creme brulee. There are three with jam and three without.
D: Hand me one of those.
Me: Yeah, I’m eating that for lunch too.
All that savory food and straight to the dessert. Pretty much sums up my holiday season.
Before I get to posting about some the the food we made for New Year’s Eve and Day, I’m going to finally post some pictures and a menu from the second benefit dinner we did in November, “Taste of Italy.” This dinner is my favorite; sometimes the menu includes family recipes, but often I turn to my cookbook collection, or that of the library, and challenge myself to make some new dishes. The regions of Italy are varied in terrain, culture, climate, and ingredients so this dinner is an opportunity to explore the traditions, look at familiar foods in a new way, and also see what more modern Italian chefs are cooking.
- puff pastry “pizza” with Gorgonzola, caramelized onions and pears
- bruschetta three ways: basil pesto, caponata, and ceci with olive paste and ricotta salata
- antipasti tray with marinated mozzarella balls, olives, salami, homemade pickled veggies and mushrooms, marinated artichokes and hearts of palm, mortadella canapes, roasted red peppers
- polenta stuffed with peppers and goat cheese
- gnocchi roll stuffed with cheese, spinach and pumpkin served with tomato cream sauce
- pennette pasta with ragu Bolongese (not vegetarian)
- roasted chicken with olives, saffron, mint and potatoes
- short ribs Agrodolce served with pumpkin orzo
- rosemary spedini (kebobs) of herb marinated pork, spicy smoked sausage, sweet sausage and bacon.
- mixed greens with radicchio, radishes and pinenuts with a light balsamic vinagrette
- steamed “black” kale and steamed zucchini dressed with lemon and garlic
- “classic” tiramisu
- frangipane (almond) tart baked with wine soaked dried plums with a shortbread crust
For some reason this year I really agonized over the antipasti. Its important to have something to snack on with wine and cocktails at these events: guests don’t always know one another and nibbles encourage mingling and conversation before dinner. Items need to be easy to eat with a toothpick or fingers off small plates. For the cook they need to be things that can be made ahead or “assembled” by the guest and aren’t too fussy – like making individual tartlets or stuffing dates with cheese (learned a lesson on that one year). The restrictions mean that lightly marinated vegetables, sliced meats, and items you can pile on a crostini make an appearance most years. I went for a simple pizza this year using frozen puff pastry (Don’t wince too much Doristas), blue cheese, caramelized onions and pears inspired by a pear and gorgonzola tart recipe; it was the guest favorite with not a piece left. My favorites this year: caponata made with garden fresh eggplant (Thanks Maureen!) and the chickpeas (ceci) tossed with oil cured olive tapennade and small cubes of ricotta salata. I put the cauliflower, wax peppers and carrots I pickled at the end of summer to good use by re-marinating them in lemon juice, fennel seed heads, thyme and olive oil to lend them a more Italian flavor.
The first year we did this dinner, I did a plated sit down dinner for about 15 in my own home. Five courses. So many plates! LOL. We started digging into the everyday plates by the time dessert rolled around. With the number of guests now averaging around 25-30, a buffet is really the only way to manage the crowd. What I’ve found as we’ve switched to buffets hosted by people with larger homes (thank you K/G and A/D !!) is that rather than kicking back, I tend to make more food: Chicken? Pork? Beef? Why not all three?
Growning up, one of the folks who rented a room from us was Italian. She brined her own olives and made a seasoned breadcrumb stuffed broiled spedini that I’ll never forget. (That, and her professional nursing skills that patched up one of my early kitchen injuries.) I could not pass up a Jamie Oliver inspired meat kebob using rosemary twigs from my herb garden as skewers. The rosemary smelled fantastic cooking and let and light piney herbal flavor to the skewered pork loin, sausages, and bacon.
My favorite two dishes of the night had to be the stuffed gnocchi roll and the beef short ribs. For years now I’ve been wanting to make gnocchi from scratch for one of these dinners. The first year I made my grandmother’s hand rolled dumpling style ravioli and decided that the desire to make any hand rolled pasta for 30 people from your home kitchen is some sort of mental illness as yet undescribed by the DSM4. Each year I pass over the gnocchi, until this year when I stumbled over a stuffed gnocchi recipe similar to a pasta rolltini where a sheet of dough is rolled around a stuffing and sliced. In this case, the potato-based gnocchi dough is lightly rolled into about a 1/3 inch thick sheet, filled and rolled into a log. It is then wrapped in a cloth with the ends tied like a giant sausage, then boiled until cooked through, cooled overnight, sliced and re-heated. Brilliant. Flavors and texture of soft fluffy gnocchi dough, filled with fall vegetables and ricotta, but faster than rolling individual gnocchi “balls.”
Second favorite? The short ribs “Agrodolce” for completely the opposite reason. It took three days to make, required me to go to three stores just looking for the ingredients for the stock, chop 12 onions, make my own grape must, and lacking a food mill, apply serious elbow grease to press the completed sauce through a strainer using the wooden pestle from my large Vietnamese pestle and mortar (I am seriously getting a food mill this coming year). In the process I learned a great new recipe for a light clear meat stock using oxtails, beef neck bones, beef chuck, chicken backs, and pig feet. Despite its low and long cooking, and what the recipe said, the meat remnants pulled from the stock pot made up a great impromptu bollito misto and beef tacos for several days after. In the end, the ribs were braised in a rich sauce of the meat stock, prosciutto, aromatic vegetables, herbs, porcini mushrooms, red wine, tomato, grape must, and balsamic vinegar. Each ingredient combined balanced out the sweet, savory, herbal, salty, smoky, into that indescribable “umami” flavor of deliciousness.
Though in Italy you may not see dessert immediately after dinner, Italians love sweets and finding just the right ones for the season and the event is a highlight of making this meal. Our host requested tiramisu for dessert and who am I to refuse? This one is what I consider the classic version: marscapone cheese folded with cooked sweetened egg yolks, layers of ladyfingers (I use the packaged crisp ones) soaked in strong coffee and Amaretto, topped with whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa. It is decadent, being filled with a creamy cheese yet with a certain lightness from the airy but softened cookies. The second dessert this year was an almond paste filled tart, baked with dried plums which had been softened in sweetened red wine, and made more appealing with a buttery shortbread type crust.
Having watched a decade of TV chefs on cable, I’m a bit wary of any cookbook with a familiar face on the cover. And, admittedly, I’m a chef snob. If you have a PBS show you are more likely to get a pass from me than if you are a regular on The Food Network or have your own daytime TV show (you know of whom I speak). Of the 30 or so cookbooks I got from the library, I found myself at home night after night returning to three by Mario Batali and one by Jamie Oliver. After this dinner, I’m going to have to start judging TV chefs solely on the merits of the recipes. With that, here are some of the cookbooks I used for inspiration. As always, its rare for me to make a recipe exactly as written, its normal for me to combine several recipe’s ingredients, pick and choose the elements I like best and substitute ingredients available locally. For example, many recipes especially in older cookbooks seem to use an excessive amount of olive oil – with non-stick pans the amount of oil can often be reduced. If you have any questions about a dish, let me know.
The Talisman Italian Cookbook by Ada Boni – Described as the Italian Joy of Cooking, published in the 1950s, snap up a used copy if you find one cheap – its out of print. caponatina, antipasto
Waverley Root’s The Best of Italian Cooking – Originally published in the 1970s, wide variety of Italian foods and regions represented, also out of print but available used. caponata, antipasti, marinated vegetables, marinated mushrooms
Sicilian Home Cooking by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene – Gorgonzola and pear tart, chicken with oilves, capers, mint
The Wine Lover Cooks Italian by Brian St. Pierre – polenta terrine (stuffed polenta), also check out Sarah’s guinea hens alla rusticana
Italian Slow and Savory by Joyce Goldstein – gnocchi roll (strucolo di patate alla triestina), also lots of great brasied recipes
The Babbo Cookbook, Molto Gusto, Molto Italiano by Mario Batali – pumpkin orzo, ragu bolognese, chicken with saffron, green olives and mint, marinara sauce, braised shortribs also check out autumn vegetables, fettuccine with oyster mushrooms and dessert tarts
Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli – Many of the recipes are time intensive and involve unusual ingredients, but the recipes are detailed and easy to follow. meat broth, short ribs agrodolche, plum tart
Jamie’s Italy by Jamie Oliver – The naked Chef makes cooking Italian at home easy, while not sacrificing authenticity. spedini, pasta roll, fig tart, salads, veggies
A16 Food + Wine by Nate Appleman, etc. ingredients, mosto, chocolate budino tartlets
Lidia’s Family Table, Lidia’s Italy, Lidia’s Italian Table by Lidia Bastianich – While I’m not a huge fan of her shows, her cookbooks and recipes have never failed. lemon tiramisu, mushroom ragu, pasta sauces, cookies.
The Classic Italian Cookbook, More Classic Italian, Marcella Says, Marcella Cuchina by Marcella Hazan. The godmother of Italian cooking and the cookbooks I always return to.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes – while the travelogue describing her love affair with Tuscany now seems like a bit of a cliche, her recipes are great. And so is the book.
Contemporary Italian by Robert Helstrom – recipes from Kuleto’s, amazing San Francisco restaurant and still one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever eaten. The cookbook was more “contemporary” when it was published in 1993, and many of the recipes and ingredients have simply become part of our Italian food lexicon.
Red White and Greens by Faith Willinger – I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with cooking vegetables alla Italia the last couple of years, maybe it was all those greens we needed to use up from the CSA, so I love when cookbooks are simply divided up by main ingredient and you can turn to the chapter on “Cabbage and Kale.”
The Silver Spoon Cookbook and its many offspring Vegetables from an Italian Garden, Recipes from an Italian Summer, Tuscany by Phaidon Press