Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Baked Mushroom, Tomato and Cheese Pasta

This is my own creation. It would be a great party or buffet dish. It is a combination of Greek and Italian influences along with a necessity of using up the garden's cherry tomato crop. I planted some unusual tomatoes this year. One plant is sprawling all over one quarter of the garden. It has cherry sized tomatoes, but they are bright yellow with a distinctive top like a pear. They are pretty and sweet as well. They are borne in clusters of three or four and there are tons on the plant. I also grew cherry like tomatoes that ripen to look exactly like an orange gumball. I almost made a mistake when I saw a couple in a dish on the counter. I was sure I was going to have a chew. I also did regular grape tomatoes...John had to try one of those upside down tomato planters. Good, but no better than on the ground...still had to wash them. I also had a couple of plum tomatoes in one corner of the garden.

In this recipe, I was not looking far enough ahead to make enough white sauce. When I realized this, I added a can of Campbell's Mushroom soup with just enough milk to thin it to sauce consistency.

Prepare a lot of these components ahead by an hour or so, and it will be less hectic to finish near dinnertime.

Pre-prepare the following components....

1. Mince half a pound(more if you like) of button mushrooms stems and all. Saute in olive oil(or if you prefer, butter) till they collapse and become very soft. Set aside.

2. Melt five tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Add four tablespoons of all purpose flour(Always..Always unbleached flour). Stir the flour into the butter and cook for several minutes till the flour has cooked and loses its raw flavor. (Do not do this till it colors. The mushrooms will color it some but you basically want a white sauce.) Add a pinch of salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne.(You might add mustard to this as well, but not for this mushroom recipe.) Add the first mushroom mixture and two cups of milk(warm) and whisk till smooth.(smooth as possible with all those mushrooms in it) Stir continually till it has a chance to bubble and cook the flour mixture into a smooth sauce. add a small handful of parsley.

This is where I messed up. I made just about half what I needed, forcing me to use the mushroom soup. If you like the idea of the soup, it could be great with any number of creamy Campbell's condensed soups to vary the flavor.

3. Chop a large onion and halve a pint or more of cherry tomatoes. You can also use plum tomatoes cut into chunks.

4. Chop a generous handful of basil. This would also be wonderful with sage or parsley.

5. Cook one pound of pasta like Penne, small rigatoni, farfalle or shells. It should be quite Al Dente as it will continue to cook in the oven.

6. Oil or spray a lasagna pan. I use glass or ceramic to ease clean up.

7. Mince two or three cloves of garlic.

8. Grate your favorite mixture of cheeses in a bowl. Two cups would be fine, but three would be luxurious. I use Parmesan, mozzarella and(domestic) Provolone.(The aged imported that I usually use for Provolone is sharp, which I love, but too strong for this dish) It would also be wonderful with Gruyere, Taleggio, Fontina or any number of good melting cheeses.

Have ready, about half a small can of tomato paste.

Generously oil a large frying pan.
Over medium heat, saute the onions till just clear.
Add the garlic and continue to cook for a minute.
Add the halved tomatoes. Cook in the oil briefly. If they seem to need moisture, add a bit of broth or water. Cook the tomatoes till tender, and flatten them slightly, but do not allow them to lose their shape and color into a mass. Part of the beauty of this dish is the mix of tomato colors. If you are using just one type of tomato, this is not as important.
Push the tomato mixture aside and add the tomato paste to the bare part of the pan. Stir in the bottom of the pan, bringing in the juices of the tomato to thin it down. Add water if this is necessary.
Bring the rest of the mixture into the paste and make a thin sauce, adding water or broth if necessary.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from the heat and add the chopped basil leaves.
Stir and allow to cool while you are beginning the assembly process.

Pour half of the cooked pasta in the lasagna pan.
Spread half of the white sauce with mushrooms over the pasta.
Dot this mixture with half of the tomato mixture so that every fork-full will yield a bite of tomato.
Add another layer of pasta, white sauce and tomato. Drizzle a half cup or so of milk over the entire pan so that the moisture of the white sauce will not be sucked up by the pasta in the baking process.
Cover the entire top of the dish with a heavy layer of cheeses.
Drizzle liberally with olive oil.
Bake in a 375 degree oven till hot and bubbling. About 25 minutes should do it, but run it under the broiler if necessary to brown the cheese a bit.

Now, this would lend itself to any number of bumper crop vegetables. Chopped Zucchini, peppers of various colors and heats, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant...anything that will cook tender either added to the tomato or instead of it. You could also caramelize a ton of onions cut into rings till golden brown and nearly collapsed instead of the other veggies...this would be wonderful with Swiss or Gruyere cheese especially. Try this with left over Caponata, Ratatouille or a similar vegetable dish

Layer in some shredded cooked chicken, either your own or perhaps grocery store roaster chicken if you are not up for mostly vegetarian.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lets Talk Marinara

We never ate Marinara in my house. Mom always ridiculed any cook's sauce that did not take three hours or more to cook. This is funny because our island traditions do not really lean toward very long cooked sauces. This is more distinctly Sicilian. Northern versions would be like a Bolognese sauce. That does not mean that it does not exist elsewhere, but it is most commonly found in those places. When I describe Mom's sauce, Italian-Americans of southern origin generally say,"Oh, yeah, we call that gravy." Hurray for the Italian-American traditions and names. Grammie did do simple sauces. It is one of those little tragedies that I talk about so often that I was not old enough to remember her cooking on a grand scale. When I was a kid and she lived upstairs from us, she had the little apartment stove, perhaps cooked sauce in tiny portions for herself, but often ate with us. It was not necessary for her to cook sauce that often. I,like a loyal Momma's Boy did not taste her sauce ever, that I remember. (IDIOT)
I have listened to many recipes from friends, read dozens of cookbooks, seen dozens of TV shows and eaten hundreds of pounds of other people's pasta dishes over the years. This is what I have gleaned from those sources, a simple Marinara sauce.
I would love to hear about your variations on this theme. I will include a few suggestions for variations at the end.


Chop one large onion into medium dice

Fry in plenty of olive oil at a very low temperature till the onions clear and then just start to brown.

Just before the caramelizing begins add two or three finely chopped or crushed cloves of garlic.*

Add one tablespoon of sugar(to taste), salt (to taste), black pepper(to taste) and one 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes. I would prefer chopped or diced tomato, but usually these contain Calcium Citrate. The problem with this is that the preservative does not allow the tomatoes to break down as they cook in the way that a fresh tomato would. Italians use mostly canned tomatoes, just as we would. Fresh tomato can be out of season there just as here. San Marzano tomatoes, both fresh and canned, are the best to use. Substitute fresh chopped tomatoes if you prefer, but cherry tomatoes are sublime.**

Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce the temperature so that the sauce just simmers. Simmer for ten minutes or so. Longer cooking will reduce acidity, but may not be traditional.

In the last few minutes of cooking, add a handful of whole, chopped or torn Basil leaves. You may use dried Basil(earlier in the cooking), but this is absolutely inferior. The Basil should cook only enough to release the oils from the leaves.

Serve in any application you like with Parmesan, Ricotta Salata, Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano cheese. This might be a good opportunity to use the grating cheese you often see in the Salumeria with peppercorns all through it. The sauce is so simple, it may show up well.


Melt two anchovy fillets in the oils as the onion finishes cooking.

Add black olives or possibly even green if you are serving the sauce with fish.

Add capers, also particularly good with fish.

Add ground almonds.

Add mushrooms to the sauce as it begins to boil.

Stir in fried or grilled eggplant, Zucchini or other cooked vegetables.

Bake fish fillets or Sardines or Italian Herring under a layer of the sauce or just cook in the sauce as it simmers.

Drop in whole peeled shrimp, mussels or clams in the last few minutes of cooking, but cover tightly to steam.(try grated lemon peel and pepperoncino flakes with it)

Stir in Pepperoncini before you add the tomato.

Dry bread crumbs or fresh, sauteed in oil (with or without pepperoncini) sometimes top the final sauced dish instead of cheese.

Fry cuts of meat, pepperoni or sausage in the pan. Remove the meat, and make the sauce on top of the pan brownings. Scrape the brown bits into the sauce as you cook it. Serve the meat separately, or return it to the sauce during the simmering time. Remove the meat and serve as a secondo. Salami does not make a good meat for sauce unless you find salami Piccante from an Italian grocer. This is actually a pepperoni.

Many of the above or combinations of the above have specific names in Italy such as: Puttanesca, Norma, Arrabiata(mad sauce), Con Sarde, Cacciatore etc.

* Just a note about cooking garlic. Use fresh garlic cloves whenever you can. The longer you hold the garlic, the more likely they are to sprout a bit. If you cut the garlic cloves, you may notice the green sprout in the center of the clove. This sprout will be a little more bitter than a fresher clove. If you must use it, remove the sprout before you cut it any further. You might like the sprout minced very fine, fresh, in a dressing or just to eat. If you do want to cook it, it should be just barely wilted at a very low temperature.

** Prepare your fresh tomatoes by cutting a tiny X in just the skin of the tomatoes at the flower end. Plunge the tomatoes a couple at a time into a pan of rapidly boiling water. The skin will split from the X and loosen slightly from the tomato. Lift the tomato out with a slotted spoon, and plunge into cold water, or pick them up with a fork stuck in the stem end. Peel them with your thumb and the edge of a knife. Put the tomatoes aside to cool in a bowl. When cool enough to handle, cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and clean out the seeds with your finger. You may wish to put them into a soup or stock to be strained out later. If they have not cooked too long in the hot water, you might also spread them out in the sun to dry for planting later. The amount of heat will determine the viability of the seed though.
Now the flesh of the tomatoes may be chopped and used for cooking. Include any juices that can be saved.

I like smooth sauces. I do not like big chunks of slimy tomato in my sauce. I use canned tomato as most Italians do, but I crush the tomato so that the sauce does not have tomato slugs floating around in it.(Stewed tomatoes are the worst! However, if you mash them up they can be OK.) On the other hand, I do not mind the tomato in big chunks if it is not cooked to that slime consistency, and retains some of its fresher tomato character. You must decide for yourself how you like the finished character to be and what you remember from home. I think that the bottom line for me is that if it is on pasta, I like it smooth...if it is on a slice of grilled bread, topping a cutlet, slab of grilled zucchini, eggplant or something like that, chunky is great. I hate eating a plate of spaghetti and finding the chunks of tomato on the bottom because it did not stick. The whole point of the pasta is to make a uniform dish, so how does it work if all the chunky tomato slides off. That is not to say that it is no fun to mop the left over sauce with a piece of of food's greatest pleasures.

So here I am...on a diet...there is a big pot of vegetable stew on the stove. Now, all I can think about is a big plate of spaghetti and a chunk of bread dipped in olive oil and pepperoncino with Parmesan!!!!!!! Now where is my bread recipe?...Maybe I can burn off some caolries if I bake some bread.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tomato Sauce Quandry.

The Vasquez family has a distinct lineage from the Cafarellas...Spanish versus the family from Campagna...then there are the Cincottas and the Sangiolos. We were all island people of course, but the names might give an idea of the shading that each family might have in it's lineage. The Iberian people have an affinity for Cinnamon and Allspice with their foods...the Greeks are all about the Oregano and lemon. The Arabs like fire and spice and fruity flavors...well, what are we?
We have an incredible ethnic mix. If you have travelled in Italy, you know that there are regional differences in every common food. Tomato sauce is one of the most diverse, and in addition to it's regional variations, there will be variations depending on the meat, fish or vegetable that it is cooked to accompany or that might be mixed into it. Even the shape of the local pasta will influence the texture and ingredients in a sauce. So, to get down to the heart of this discussion, I loved my mother's sauce(I liked my step-father's sauce even better, but since he was Welsh, Scottish and French, I won't go there...suffice it to say that he learned from my mother.) We always think our mother's sauce is the best. Unless we are better than her of course. I recently invited Col. Joe and Mary Cafarella, Jennie Da Fina, Anerio(Fred, Sonny) and Flo Cincotta, my cousin Mildred and my sister for a big dinner...along with my partner John and neighbors.
I made Pasta Amatriciana...That was a real departure and taking a real chance, because it is nothing at all like an island or even a southern sauce. I love it while I fear it's heart clogging richness, but I really held my breath when they were eating it. I got no bad comments, but I wonder what they were not saying to me and how the conversation went in the car.
I guess that the only way to handle this issue is to post my sauces both from my mother and my experiences and hope that other family members will do the same.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ida's Ravioli from Mildred Cafarella Sinor's family

1/2 cups water
2 lbs ground chuck
1/2 lb ground pork
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 handful of parsley
1 flat handful of salt

Cook until all looks done.
Add 7 eggs
1/2 lb grated cheese(Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, Grana Padano or Ricotta Salita are all good choices)
l 1/2 to 2 cups medium size bread crumbs.

Mix in a bowl, then knead on board until it doesn't stick and has no holes in center--

7 eggs, beaten
a little oil
3 cups water
4 lbs flour(It is good to weigh flour as moisture in the air changes the was cups of flour work and pack)
Keep dough covered so it doesn't crust over. Roll in strips, and put 1 tsp filling in.
Fold dough over and put finger in between filled sections and cut apart with a pastry wheel. Approximately 8 to 10 per strip. Makes about 150 ravioli.

Pasta Amatriciana

OK, so it is not an island thing, but it qualifies as my new favorite sauce.

Halve and then thinly slice one very large red onion. (Italians do this with fairly coarse slices)
Saute in olive oil till it starts to clear. Add a minced garlic clove if desired.
Remove the onion and set aside. Add more oil and about four ounces of diced Pancetta.(Guanciale is better but hard to find.) Use as much as you like if you want a meatier sauce.
fry in oil until the meat browns all over.
Add one can of tomato paste to the pan and stir into the meat.
Continue to cook on low heat till the paste browns very slightly.
Return the onions to the pan and stir to incorporate.
Add chicken stock(canned or fresh) and stir vigorously to dissolve the paste into a smooth sauce.
Continue to add broth till a nice saucy consistency is achieved. You may add more as it cooks as needed.
Add a few basil leaves and cover and cook for twenty minutes stirring often. Basil is also wonderful put in at the very end and many cooks prefer it that way.
Add salt and pepper to taste(the broth will probably have salt in it so wait till near the end).

This is traditionally served with Buccatini, but any thick spaghetti will do nicely.
Toss with the pasta and grate Parmesan or Romano cheese over it.

The Pancetta can be any size you like. I have an aversion to the feeling of fat in my mouth, so I do it quite small, but you could do up to 1/2 inch cubes. This recipe adapts to any combination of vegetables and meats that you like. It is a very quick sauce that seems to have been cooked for a while.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mom's Sauce

I am going to do the best I can here. It has been years since I was really satisfied with a sauce made this way. I remember her teaching me how to do this very well, but some how in recent years it has been nearly impossible for me to get just that taste that I remember. Perhaps it is something I am doing, or perhaps brand names that are no longer available make a big difference. I know that my brother and I have always appreciated a very hot and spicy sauce, and that habit of making it spicy may have made me lose the original intent of her sauce. Of course, most sauces are not as they would have been in Italy, and Grammie having lived for a time in Naples must have altered her way of cooking there compared to the island...Sooo, the best I can do is write this as I remember it.

In a heavy bottomed pan:

put a generous coating of olive oil and place over low heat. Add:
1T Oregano
1 1/2 T Basil
1t crushed red pepper
1 large bay leaf
3-4 Cloves(whole preferred)

fry for a few moments. Add:

6-7 cloves of garlic peeled and whole

Continue to fry at a very low temp. You are not browning anything here, only sweating oils from the herbs.

Add one pound of ground beef*
stir into the herbs and brown lightly while breaking up the meat. Continue till completely cooked. Add:
1 Large can of whole tomato or crushed tomato. Use a good brand or substitute fresh chopped tomato (skins removed and seeds removed preferred, but you may use them as you find them). NEVER USE TOMATOES WITH CALCIUM CHLORIDE IN THE CAN.
bring to a boil and reduce to barely simmering. Allow to cook for about ten minutes. Add:

1 small can of tomato paste and dissolve in the sauce. Add water to thin as necessary to prevent the sauce from being so thick as to sit on the bottom and scorch.

The heat should now be very low, and the sauce barely moving at all. Add:

1 T sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 packet of Lipton's Onion Soup Mix(she would roll over in her grave if she knew I told you that)
1 coarsely chopped onion(yellow or white)( Mom did not like wimpy half dissolved onions so she put them in late, you may like it better added with the meat)
1 chopped green pepper

Cover the pot tightly and simmer for at least two hours. Check and stir often.

Taste and correct the seasoning, adding any of the herbs, salt and pepper necessary.

Continue to cook at least one more hour.

*Beef was preferred in our house, but pork, or veal would be perfectly OK. A classic combination would be to do a third of each. We would also add pepperoni at this point.
You can double the sauce without ground beef and add meatballs in the last hour.
Chicken, beef and pork cuts would also be great, and if the temperature is kept low, they will fall off the bone, or, cooking longer, will fall apart in the sauce. Mom preferred to poach her meatballs in the sauce rather than pre-cooking them in any way. White meats did not have clove in the sauce.
Try this sauce without the ground beef and then pot roast a large cut of beef in it. Great for Bracciole made with bread crumbs, raisins, parsley, nuts, garlic and cheese.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Anerio Cincotta's Tomato Sauce

Sauce to Save and Freeze

in a large pan (the heavier the better):

brown broken, crumbled and whole sausages of your choice in:
1/4 cup of olive oil


3 Tablespoons of minced garlic and continue to cook till soft only.


6 lg cans of Kitchen ready tomato sauce (Pastene)
1 teaspoon Vino(I [Bill] would use 1/4 cup but that is just me.)
Italian seasoning or Oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer, Simmer, Simmer.

In a large bowl, make meatballs:

Mix together:

2 pounds of Hamburg with low fat content
3 tablespoons minced garlic (Howards)
A small onion cut up fine
Grated cheese 1/4 cup(Parmesan, Romano, etc.)
Two and a half cups of bread crumbs
Three whole eggs

Roll by hand into ball

Either bake in the oven or fry in a frying pan until brown.

Add the meatballs to the pan.

Simmer, Simmer, Simmer on lowest setting.
You do not have to boil it. It will take care of itself.

Mom used a large stainless pan that would normally come with a set of pans. Before that there was cast iron, which was wonderful for simmering or going into the oven. The problem is that tomato is so acidic that you can end up with a distinctive Iron taste to the sauce. Big, heavy Dutch ovens with enamel coating are ideal for this. They can sometimes be very expensive though. There is a Chinese manufacturer that makes a great pan endorsed by Cook's Country or America's Test Kitchen which is quite affordable. The one they showed was green enamel with a white or cream interior.
I always used my very heavy pressure cooker made of stainless steel. That worked perfectly and I never noticed a taste that I did not want.
Never...Ever...Use Aluminum or cover tomato sauce with Aluminum foil for more than a few minutes. You will see after a night in the refrigerator that the tomato sauce will eat right through the foil wherever it touches. There was once a link from cooking in Aluminum to Alzheimer's. I do not think they still say that, but it pays to be cautious with something that is so easy to corrode.