Bring on the Pasta

Ever since my knee operation over a year ago, the “good” Sheila has been holding back on the pasta and other carbs to keep my weight in check to aid in the recovery.  Other than fatigue, erectile dysfunction and periods of  deep melancholy and incontinence, I have not had any life-threatening reaction to my “pasta-free” diet.   Some would say that I have become somewhat more irritable, but I think that is caused by aging and spending too much time watching Wolf Blitzer.

Grapevines and Olive BranchesOn occasion of our upcoming trip to Italy, Sheila has decided to make a few pasta dishes to loosen my stomach muscles.  She immediately turned to Nina Rizzo Renda and Leslie May Rodwick’s delightful cookbook, Grapevines and Olive Branches, which has been kept under lock and key for several months.  In this cookbook, Nina shares some family recipes from the Bernardo Winery aided by Leslie’s mouth-watering photography.   If you need a little taste of the old-country and don’t have much time, this is a “must-have” cookbook for every harried home cook that needs to prepare a great meal without a lot of time or a dash to the supermarket.

I would be remiss in stating that this cookbook only contains pasta dishes, but like a starving dog I decided to turn my back on the salads and antipasti bar and leap into some of the delectable pasta recipes.  Furthermore, there are some great entrees , such as, lamb and fava bean stew and that traditional southern Italian favorite “Chicken Cacciatore.”  Among my favorite pasta dishes is penne with pesto sauce shown below:

Penne with Pesto Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 lb penne or other short pasta
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup pignoli nuts (pine nuts), lightly toasted
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbs of salt

Preparation

  1. In a blender, place the basil leaves, pignoli, garlic cloves, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.  Pulse until the pesto is smooth.  (This can be prepared beforehand and preserved).
  2. Bring a large pot of water (4 quarts) to a boil.  Add salt and pasta and cook until the pasta is “al dente” – normally 10 to 12 minutes.
  3. Drain the pasta and coat with the pesto mix until well coated.
  4. Serve immediately.

It doesn’t get much better than this and my “abs of steel” have now been replaced by a rotund bulge more fitting of a patrician in Rome.  Love pasta!

Lidia’s Baked Fregola

FregolaSome months ago we cooked Lidia Bastianich’s baked fregola 0r fregula stufada.  The recipe, reprinted in its entirety below, is not commonly found in the finer restaurants in Italy, but is a real treat for those who like a variety of pasta dishes.  Now fregola can be handmade, but we prefer purchasing Fregola Sarda (see image to the left) when it can be found.  Apparently, cooking with fregola is quite popular in Sardegna and many believe that this toasted durum wheat balls may have been influenced by the Moors of North Africa.  Certainly, they are similar to couscous (sorry for the misspelling, but some readers in Texas want to demonstrate their spelling prowess), but somewhat chewer and – in my opinion – somewhat more flavorful.

If you would like to step out of your comfort zone, I strongly recommend Lidia’s delightful recipe for Baked Fregola.  It accompanies most meats, but is so delicious that you can also serve it as a main course if accompanied by a salad.

 Lidia’s Baked Fregola

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
  • 1 cup onion, chopped
  • 4 ounces pancetta, cut in 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2½ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoons peperoncino flakes
  • 8 ounces fregola,
  • ½ cup pecorino, grated

Directions

Pour the olive oil into a skillet, and set it over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scatter the diced pancetta in the pan, and let it cook and render its fat, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, 3 or 4 minutes. Drop in cherry tomatoes and bay leaves, season with the salt and peperoncino, and pour in 1/2 cup water.

Cover the skillet, bring the water to a simmer, then set the cover slightly ajar and cook just until the water evaporates and the tomatoes pop open and release their juices, about 10 minutes. (If the pan dries before the tomatoes pop, add another 1/4 cup water.) Turn off the heat; remove and discard the bay leaves.

Meanwhile, heat 4 quarts of water with 2 teaspoons salt to a rolling boil in a pasta pot. Stir in the fregola, and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Empty the pot into a colander or large strainer to catch the fregola. Spill them into the skillet, and stir the pasta, tomatoes, and pancetta together until thoroughly blended. Pick out and discard the bay leaves. Heat the oven to 400 degrees, and brush the bottom and sides of a baking dish with olive oil. Pour all the sauced fregola into the dish, and spread in an even layer. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top, and set the dish in the oven.

Bake, uncovered, 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown and crisp on the edges. Serve piping hot. Spoon the fregola into warm bowls as an appetizer, or, to serve family-style, put the baking dish on the table.

– See more at: http://lidiasitaly.com/recipes/detail/270#sthash.vQkiMllp.dpuf

Wild Turkey Day in Chestertown

Wild Turkey SeasonIf I had known that we would be celebrating “Turkey Day” in Chestertown, MD, I would have invited Taleggio Langston to join us.  On April 20, they kick off the opening of the wild turkey season for hunters in Maryland.  Brave camouflaged “bwanas” from all over the country descend on tranquil towns and villages on the banks of the Chester river to hunt these beautiful birds.  I have been told that wild turkey (if properly cooked) tastes like  . . . chicken, but I have no way of knowing for sure.  In Chestertown, most wild game is thrown into a slow-cooker with three cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and cooked for 12 hours.

Mind you, most vegetarians think hunters are sadistic killers with unresolved childhood problems. Actually, hunters are quite smart at “gaming” the system.  It seems that the ultimate tax dodge is to buy a piece of property greater than 20 acres to create your own private hunting preserve.  State governments subsidize this counter-intuitive behavior by creating a tax-break for “farmers” who plant a “money crop” on the farmland:  hay is a great cover for pheasant, although pesticides from Monsanto have killed most of them off.

Actually, it was simply a coincidence that we happened to be in Chestertown for the start of wild turkey season.  Sheila and I travelled south to visit our friends Lord Cheseline and Lady Mary Anne of Maiden Lot Farm.    Despite being a rather quaint farm town, Chestertown has got more culture than our hometown of Greenwich.  Furthermore, it has one of the oldest colleges in the United States:  Washington College.

Chestertown has a lot going on for even the most jaded bon vivant, but we appreciate the “small town” feel of a local market, bakery, cheese store and used bookstore.  Found below are just a few samples of food items that we found last weekend.   Please note that the beautiful mushrooms are grown by a college student trying to pay for tuition and boarding.

Chestertown mushooms

Chestertown Flowers

Chestertown Spices

Thanks to our lovely hosts for a delightful weekend and a less than memorable golf outing.