Thursday, October 28, 2010

"In the Kitchen with Love" by Sophia Loren - Baked Pasta

Date I made this recipe: October 24, 2010

In the Kitchen with Love by Sophia Loren
Published by: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
© 1972
Recipe: Baked Pasta I – p. 42-43

A week ago Monday was my Aunt Rose’s 92nd birthday. Wow—what an accomplishment. She’s closing in on her mother’s record (her mother being my Grandma Vita who lived to be 97 years old). In her later years, my grandmother forgot how old she was and locked and loaded on age 85 (or 86 or 87) depending on when you asked her. “Grandma, how old are you?” we asked. “You believe-a me? Eighty seven. You believe-a me?”

Like we were going to tell her we didn’t!

At any rate, I felt like I should cook something Italian in honor of my aunt (technically, we are Sicilian) and although I have quite the collection of Italian cookbooks, most just didn’t do much for me when I looked through them—at least as far as birthday-appropriate recipes went. But then I saw the cookbook (one of two) written by actress Sophia Loren and thought “Perfect!”

My aunt, like Sophia Loren, is beautiful inside and out. And call me biased but in the cooking department, there is no comparison. Oh, I’m sure Sophia is no slouch but she’s not my aunt.

Now had I really wanted to pay homage to my aunt, I would have made her sauce recipe or at least one of her pasta dishes from our family cookbook. But as simple (and delicious) as her sauce recipe is, I’m not ready to share that yet. So you have to accept Sophia as your substitute du jour. It bites, I know!

Another thing that my aunt and Sophia have in common is that food coming out of their kitchens is made with love—just like the title of Sophia’s book says. As I’m writing this, I am harkening back to all the fabulous meals we ate when we visited (my grandmother lived with my Aunt Rose and Uncle Alex). Why I wasn’t 1000 pounds is beyond me. (My grandma always encouraged us to eat – “mangia, mangia” – because in her eyes we were too skinny – ha!). But contrary to popular belief, most of the food Italians eat is not fattening. Delicious, yes; fattening, no. Of course, how much you eat in one sitting makes all the difference!

Sophia’s cookbook has a range of delicious-sounding dishes but in the end, I decided that simple was better and so settled on baked pasta. Oh, I toyed with making a dish with vermicelli noodles (my last name, Verme, means “worm” in Italian and “vermicelli” means little worm) but didn’t really like the rest of the ingredients.

The number one dish I really wanted to make, and have for years, is a pasta and eggplant recipe. You see years and years (and years and years ago), this recipe was featured in and article and photo shoot about Sophia in Good Housekeeping Magazine. For whatever reason, that photo and recipe stuck in my head, particularly the noodles since they are long and crimped and I had never seen anything like that before. But as much as I would have loved to make that dish, my husband is not fond of eggplant and so there went that. (But let me just say that this dislike only means that every Christmas when my family breaks out the caponata (an appetizer containing eggplant) that’s all the more for me!)

Sophia’s recipes are all written in prose and so creating a shopping list was a little challenging. As it is, the first grocery store I went to was out of fresh basil and I completely forgot about it at the next store and so used dried. And to my amazement, Sophia didn’t include garlic in her sauce recipe. I mean – what the heck is that all about? (For the record, Aunt Rose uses garlic but one must be careful. If you move beyond sautéing it to browning it, it will become bitter).

So anyway…belated birthday wishes, Aunt Rose! (Of course I sent her a card—I mean, as if…). This recipe is good but still pales in comparison to your cooking.

As grandma would say “Mangia, mangia!”

(By the way, one of my favorite episodes of I Love Lucy was when Lucy and company were in Italy while back in New York, Little Ricky celebrated his birthday. Lucy, of course, was upset at missing Little Ricky's big day. In an attempt to cheer Lucy up, one of the little boys who shined shoes at the hotel announced “She’s-a my birthday, too.” Lucy then decided to throw him a party complete with presents. Well, deciding if some is good, more is better, the little boy recruited all of his friends to come to the party where they all announced “She’s-a my birthday, too!” I have seen this episode a hundred times and it is always funny - always!) (And just so you know, for me, October 9th was "She's a my birthday, too!")

Baked Pasta I – serves 6 or so
1 onion, minced
1 large can diced tomatoes (I used Pomi a boxed, chopped tomato)
1 8-oz ball mozzarella
Fresh basil leaves (or a handful of dried if you don’t have fresh)
½ teaspoon of sugar (or more, to taste)
Pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper
1 pound penne pasta (or rigatoni or ziti)
Olive oil (for sautéing)
Grated cheese, preferably pecorino but Parmesan is okay (about 4 oz or so)
Bread crumbs (for sprinkling over the top—maybe a couple of tablespoons)
Small chucks of sausage (If desired—although note, she doesn’t say whether the sausage should be cooked or not and so I passed on using it.)

Sophia says to use 1 tablespoon olive oil to sauté your minced onion. I think that’s too much. I always just coat the bottom of the pan with oil and then put in the onion.

Heat the oil over medium heat then sauté (or brown but I prefer sauté) the onion. Then add tomato pulp (Sophia recommends you run whole tomatoes through a sieve but I tend to go with diced tomatoes for less fuss, less muss). She says to use ½ to 2/3 cup per person; I used 1 large box (24 oz) of chopped tomatoes as it just seemed easier. This makes your sauce a little thicker so adjust according to your taste levels (i.e. you might want to use a blender or Cuisinart to puree the tomatoes).

Add the salt, pepper and sugar and cook over moderate heat for about 20 minutes.

When the sauce is ready, cut the mozzarella into thin short slices then prepare the basil leaves by rubbing them with a clean, dry cloth.

Boil the pasta as directed and then drain. Add a little bit of the sauce to the pasta and stir.

Grease the bottom of a fireproof casserole with oil or butter (or lard, if you have it) and dust with bread crumbs. Add one half of the pasta to the casserole, then more of the sauce, then mozzarella, then some of the basil, grated cheese and sausage if you decided to use it. Cover this with the remainder of the pasta, pour over the rest of the sauce, add a little more cheese, a “veil” of breadcrumbs on top, and finish off with a few drops of oil or a pat of butter or lard.

Put in a hot oven (I set mine to 350) for a few minutes, so that the mozzarella will begin to melt and “bind everything to perfection.” I started with 15 minutes, but the cheese wasn’t melted, so I went another 10 and then decided enough was enough – let’s eat!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Cooking with Spirits" - Beef Stroganoff Neumann

Date I made this recipe: October 17, 2010

Cooking with Spirits by Ruth Vendley Neumann
Published by: Reilly & Lee
Copyright 1961
Recipe: Beef Stroganoff Neumann – p. 80

How do I love [the TV show] Mad Men? Let me count the ways--thirteen of them to be exact, one for every episode in this terribly short season. (Note to Matt Weiner—

A few months back, when Mad Men started its 4th season, I made a recipe from The Madison Avenue Cookbook, written, oddly enough, by a former advertising man.

So it seemed fitting to end the season with a nod to the show and what better way to do so than to make a recipe from a cookbook called Cooking with Spirits (spirits being “alcohol” for those unfamiliar with that term)? Alcohol, after all, plays a pivotal role in this series. Back then, drinking in the office was part of the daily work life and even in the early 80’s, my coworkers and I would partake in an occasional liquid lunch with full knowledge and approval of management…mostly because they joined us! Yes, I know—how times have changed…

…but not in my house! I have quite the retro drink cart in my home as well as another beautiful wooden liquor cabinet a friend made me. Although many of the bottles are for show, a few did come in handy for this recipe as I had both red wine and the requisite bourbon on hand. This is especially helpful on a Sunday when the liquor stores are closed (at least in Minnesota; nearby Wisconsin is much more flexible allowing the sale of spirits at a gas station. You’ve got to love that—gas up and get gassed all at the same time!)

So anyway, I got a late start and barely got this dish done in time for the finale but it was worth it. The only complaint is that I am used to my stroganoff being a little thicker than this one was but that’s about it. (By the way, I consider stroganoff a typical 60’s dish along with chicken Kiev and beef burgundy—another perfect touch to celebrate a show taking place during that time).

Before I leave you, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few things about the show. First, was there ever a funnier character than this year’s Miss Blankenship? You had to love the episode where Don, for whom she worked, came in and she yelled at the top of her lungs: “GOOD AFTERNOON. YOUR DAUGHTER’S PSYCHIATRIST CALLED.” In addition to her lack of discretion, Blankenship had an amazing knack for announcing Don’s visitors after they had already been seated in his office. It’s a darned shame that they killed her off this season but such is life. RIP, “Ida.”

And then there’s one of my favorite characters, Roger Sterling. Roger is the king of one-liners and has a knack for making hilarious comments when least expected. My personal favorite was from a couple seasons ago when Don and Betty entertained Roger as well as fellow ad-men Crab Colson and Duck Phillips. When Roger introduced the men to each other he said (and I quote) “Crab, Duck. Duck, Crab.” I say that line all the time if for no other reason than it is funny – damned funny.

At any rate, this is a fun dish that doesn’t involve duck or crab (couldn’t resist) but does have those spirits that Mad Men is known for. Until next summer (sigh)…

Beef Stroganoff Neumann in bourbon and red wine – serves 8 generously2 lb. lean beef, cut into 1-inch cubes and rolled in flour
¼ lb. butter
1 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced, or 2 3-oz. cans broiled mushrooms
6 medium onion, sliced thin
1 cup canned tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. celery salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 tsp. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced
3 beef bouillon cubes
T tbsp. bourbon
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1 cup sour cream
1 cup pitted ripe olives, liquid reserved
½ cup liquid from can of ripe olives
Noodles or rice

Brown meat in butter over low heat. Add mushrooms and onions and cook 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, wine, seasonings, garlic and bouillon cubes. Cover and simmer at low heat for about an hour or until meat is tender. Mix bourbon and cornstarch until smooth, and add to meat mixture. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Then stir in sour cream and ripe olives and simmer for 10 minutes longer. If extra liquid is needed for gravy, add liquid from lives. Serve with hot buttered rice or egg noodles.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Horoscope Cook Book" - Macaroni and Cheese

Date I made this recipe: October 7, 2010

The Horoscope Cook Book by Sonia Allison
Published by: St. Martin’s Press
© 1971
Recipe: Macaroni A La Reine – p. 92

So I found this book a while ago and as you might suspect, it contains both recipes and horoscopes. Seeing as how today is my birthday (October 9th—this makes me a Libran for those of you keeping track), here is a sample of my horoscope from this cookbook: Libra -“Character Study – Librans tend to be tall, very handsome and slender people, with long slim hands and legs. (True, true, continue!)They usually have symmetrical and classic features, beautiful complexions, fine skins, soft and expressive eyes – in blue or brown – round faces, high cheekbones, thick straight hair (not on your life. My hair is a bush, a tree AND a shrub!) which can be either dark or very fair and well-proportioned limbs. All Librans are inclined to put on weight in middle age, due to overindulgence of rich food."

Okay, let’s stop right there. I did make a “rich food” dinner two nights ago but I definitely did NOT overindulge. I’m not sure I even “ulged.” No sir. And that’s because I was already feeling the weight of my middle age! (Up until then, and aside from the hair, eyes, skin and face comments, this person had me at “Hello.”). I mean seriously, about six years ago I gained a stomach and never looked back. And while I was feeling kind of thin this summer, now that fall is upon us, it’s all over but the crying. When it’s cold in Minnesota the body adjusts by craving carbs. It’s ridiculous but there it is.

Aside from the fact that making this dish would be playing into the authors hands about loving rich foods, was going to give it a pass because I just wasn’t sure about the Stilton cheese. It seemed like it would be too overpowering. But people, I am glad I went ahead with it because it was de-licious! I considered other recipes and was even willing to pull a “it’s my birthday so I get to decide” card and switch it up if I needed to but lucky for me, and you, I didn’t need to go there.

I will say this about food and I don’t think that it is indicative of one zodiac sign or the other: when it comes to birthday meals, I want what I want and what I usually want is comfort food. Having a fall birthday (even though I hate fall) is conducive to that.

As far as comfort food goes though, we never had mac and cheese growing up (it was just not a Midwestern thing and I’m sorry, Kraft in a box doesn’t count) and because of that deprivation and because this recipe had potential I made this dish. The best thing is that it took less than a half an hour to make (unless you add in the time for my husband to go out and get the butter that I assumed we had on hand). I mean who wants to celebrate a birthday tied up in the kitchen for hours on end? Not this gal!

Okay, back to my horoscope: “…They are artistic, fond of grace and elegance in all things, perceptive, amiable, generous, affectionate, well-balanced…” (Sop it, you’re killing me!)

Happy Birthday, fellow Librans!!

Macaroni A La Reine (Macaroni for the King…or Queen!) – serves 6 as an horsd’oeuvre
6 oz. elbow macaroni
2 oz. butter (1/4 cup)
3 oz. Stilton cheese
¾ pint double cream (2 cups whipping cream)
¼ level teaspoon powdered mace (you can also substitute nutmeg or allspice)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons fresh white breadcrumbs
About 1 extra oz. butter (1/8 cup) for the top

Lightly butter 6 individual heatproof dishes. Cook macaroni in boiling salted water until tender. Drain thoroughly. Put butter into saucepan. Thinly slice cheese and add with cream, mace and cayenne pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring continuously until smooth, thick and hot. Season to taste with salt. Add macaroni and mix thoroughly. Transfer equal amounts to prepared dishes. Sprinkle with crumbs and top with flakes of butter. Glaze under a hot grill and serve straight away. (Note: I used one large casserole and that worked out fine. I also baked it for about 10-15 minute just to make sure it held together).