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Showing posts with label Italian food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Italian food. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gnocchi and Summer's Best Produce

Walk through any farmers market and the bounty of summer will be on display in mounds of freshly picked carrots, beets, lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, peppers, onions, parsley, zucchini, corn, celery, green beans, tomatoes and spinach.
Nearby there will be baskets of fat figs ready to burst, bright pink peaches, sharply colored pluots and plums, nectarines the size of soft balls and clusters of black, green and red grapes, seedless and seeded.
How great is all that wonderful food! Now, what to do with it? That's the challenge.

It's hot outside, so who wants to cook? You've grilled all summer long and while you love grilled vegetables, you need to take a break.

My suggestion is simple, make gnocchi.

If you've never made gnocchi, you're probably saying it's too difficult to make. Only Italian chefs can do that.  The truth is, gnocchi are easy to prepare.  And it doesn't take much time in the kitchen.

For Zesterdaily I wrote an easy-to-make recipe that lays out all the steps to making gnocchi at home.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Praise of Leftovers

I love to cook. I love to eat. I love to go out to restaurants and eat. 

Those are my primary directives, to borrow a Star Trek expression. I have a couple of others.
Waste nothing. Get good value out of whatever I buy.

Combining all those together means when I go to a restaurant I always bring home a doggie-bag so I always get a second (sometimes a third!) meal out of my restaurant meal. That saves money and I exercise my creativity transforming one chef's ideas into my own.

Portion control is another advantage. Because I know I am not going to eat everything on the plate, I save the calories for another day.

That probably sounds obsessive, compulsive or just nuts, but there you have it. Me in a nutshell.

For Zesterdaily I posted two recipes that demonstrate the method in my madness.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Eat Like a Rock Star in Your Own Kitchen: Fresh Ravioli With Tomatoes and Butter

Sean Stone and Steve Jenkins serve rock stars through Eat Your Hearts Out catering company
Complaining that busy lives preclude shopping for fresh ingredients and making home-cooked meals, most people rely on shortcuts that include fast food, prepared meals, or bowls of cereal for dinner.

Imagine how you would eat if you were living the life of a rock star, traveling from city to city, performing for hours before thousands of screaming, out-of-their-minds fans.
For big-name musical groups, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll don't cut it anymore. Healthy, freshly prepared meals are the order of the day.

To see just how it's done, I hooked up with Green Day in the fall when they were performing south of Los Angeles at the Irvine Amphitheater.

For Zesterdaily I went behind the stage to check out how chefs Sean Stone, Steve Jenkins and Steve Ricalis keep Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool happy and well-fed when they are on tour.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Italian Sausages and Roasted Tomatoes

With summer still months away, the tomatoes at the Farmers' Market leave something to be desired. Still juicy and fragrant, they lack the exquisite flavor of tomatoes ripened by the full heat of the sun.

And yet....

Roasted, with a little olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper, spring tomatoes add depth to a braise or stew. Traditional Italian recipes pair sausages with peppers and onions. Substituting roasted tomatoes for the peppers softens and sweetens the flavors. Adding pasta makes a main dish that is filling, economical, and easy-to-make.

Roasted Tomatoes

Yield: 1 quart

Time: 60 minutes


3 pounds tomatoes, washed, stems removed
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the tomatoes on a Silpat or aluminum foil covered baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Place in the oven
and roast for 60 minutes.

Use a rubber spatula to save the clear liquid, tomato essence that has accumulated on the baking sheet. Place the cooked tomatoes and the liquid into an airtight container. The tomatoes can be refrigerated for several days or frozen for months.

Italian Sausages and Roasted Tomatoes

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes


4 Italian sausages, washed, pat dry
1 quart roasted tomatoes, skins removed, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped
2 medium yellow onions, washed, skins, tops, and stems removed
1/2 pound mushrooms, brown or shiitake, washed, thin sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 box pasta
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Sea salt and black pepper


The sausages and pasta can be made ahead and reheated with the sauce or prepared simultaneously while you are sauteing the vegetables.

Brown the sausages either by grilling or roasting in a 400 degree oven. Remove and let cool so you can cut them into 1/2" thick rounds. Set aside.

Boil 4 quarts water with kosher salt. Add the pasta. Stir well to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta and return to the cooking pot. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the unsalted butter. Stir well. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Lightly cover with a sheet of aluminum foil. Set aside.

Saute the garlic, parsley, onions, and mushrooms with olive oil until lightly browned. Add the sausages, roasted tomatoes, and tomato liquid. Simmer 15 minutes, reducing the sauce by half.

Add the cooked pasta and 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Stir well to coat. Simmer for a few minutes.

Serve with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.


To the sauteed vegetables, add 2 cups spinach leaves, washed, stems removed, roughly chopped

For heat, use hot Italian sausages

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Eating with the Seasons in Italy

I met Ashley and Jason Bartner on line. We connected through our love of cooking, good food, and travel. I read about their new life in Italy and I am very jealous. Not that I want to trade places--I love our life in Pacific Palisades--but I would definitely enjoy a long weekend or even a month staying at their farm house in Piobbico in the Marche region, just below Emilia-Romagna and east of Umbria on the Adriatic Sea.

They were generous enough to send me a description of their life and a few recipes which I can't wait to try
. fyi: A "glug" is roughly 1 tablespoon.

After years of travel and eating our way through every city, state and country we visited, we decided to share our love for food with others in an unique way in the Marches, Italy and opened La Tavola Marche Agriturismo & Cooking School. We took a leap of faith and traded in the hustle bustle of life in NYC to slow down in every aspect of our lives & started growing our own food in the Italian countryside!

Jason is a professional Executive Chef & I am a customer service/hostess extraordinaire and currently write a monthly column for Italia! Magazine. During our travels to Italy, we felt at home & really enjoyed the diversity of recipes in each region combined with the atmosphere of staying on a working farm or agriturismo - plus the Italians & their passion for life & good food!!

We love connecting our guests to the people, land & culture of this little known-region through the food! That is exactly why we decided to work for ourselves & open an inn, farm & cooking school in Italy! We were ready for a change...Why not?! We thought we were just crazy enough to pull it off! It took us a year & a half from our first trip to Italy to living here! And we've never looked back ~

Slow Food & slow living is huge for us! Here we live it everyday- we have slowed down in all aspects of our food & life here in Italy! For us, Slow Food philosophy translates to celebrating traditional Italian country living by eating locally & seasonally and becoming s self-sufficient as possible. This is a complete shift in our 'previous life' in the States.

We are so lucky that our neighbors & friends have taught us the ropes: from age-old family recipes to plucking chickens! It's all new to us and if we can do it - so can you! In the winter Jason makes sausages & salami by hand & hangs them to dry in the rafters of the house and in the summer months, since I can't cook, I contribute by creating home made liquors! It is such a kick to create these homemade treats!We jar, jam & preserve fruits & veggies in the summer extending their season -we even make our own homemade liquors! The most full-filling aspect is that we grow our own fruits & vegetables - from apple, cherry & plum trees surrounding the house to our enormous farm garden with over 600 onions, 400 tomato plants, loads of lettuces, spinach, garlic, cucumber, pepper, eggplant, melons, zucchini, pumpkins, radishes & more!!

Wild game, mushrooms & truffles as well as strawberries, blackberries, asparagus, wild dandelion greens & much more are collected from the woods behind our house! We are really excited because this spring we are adding CHICKENS! And this coming from two city kids! Our neighbors are in awe by "young Americans" with the most beautiful garden! Locals stop by to eye the goods & leave with an armful of gifts from the garden!!

The most incredible part for us is being accepted into the small farming community of Piobbicowhere we live, making a world of difference in our their experiences. As always in Italy, the conversations turn to food as neighbors pop in to say hello & see what's cooking! At first the thought of an American Chef cooking traditional local dishes did not blow over well - they figured all he could do was hamburgers & hot dogs! But that has all changed!

Now Jason is thought of as kin in the kitchen - grandma's are always sharing their secret recipes and he is trusted with cooking for big holidays & family events - for Italians! As testament - opening day of hunting season was celebrated at our farmhouse with a feast of wild game with a huge group of hungry local hunters!

We just love sharing this experience/connection to food with our guests - we specialize in Cucina povera (peasant cooking) with farm to the table cooking classes. Each cooking class starts with a walk through the garden to collect the night’s dinner.

Jason is so very proud of what he has created & loves sharing that with our guests - and it seems to be contagious! Many guests return home with a longing to eat locally, start a garden, join a CSA & all around become more connected with the food they are eating & understanding where it comes from!

Here you will eat what your fed, there is no menu options & the guests love it! This gives us the freedom to work with what is at the height of the season & best looking at the market each day. Guests are surprised by every dish, with whispers of 'what's to come next...' Jason enjoys the time he spends at each table explaining the dish, it's history & ingredients or where the meat is from. It helps connect them to the food they are about to eat.

"We hope our guests take home a taste of la dolce vita, the simplicity of good cooking, great stories to share, and an appetite to return."


I wanted to share 2 recipes that are easy to recreate, tasty and represent our area in the winter.

Yield 6 servings

Time 10 minutes


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
6 chicken livers, trimmed
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Scant 1/2 cup dry white wine
2 egg yolks
Juice of 1 lemon, strained
4-6 whole-wheat bread slices, lightly toasted
Sea salt & pepper


Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the carrot, onion and celery and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Dip the chicken livers into the vinegar, pat dry with paper towels and add to skilled. Pour in the wine and season with salt & pepper.

Cook, stirring frequently, until browned. Remove the chicken livers from the skillet and chop finely, then return them to the skillet and cook for 2 minutes more. Beat together the egg yolks and lemon juice in a bowl. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the egg yolk mixture.

Spread on slices of lightly toasted bread. Serve immediately.

Yield 4 servings

Time 2 hours


4 pieces of osso buco--veal shank
A nice size carrot, chopped finely
A nice onion, chopped finely
A couple cloves of garlic, smashed & remove the skin
1 bay leaf
Any aromatics you like - rosemary, we used juniper berries because we have them in the woods
A little flour for dusting
Sea salt & pepper
A good handful, about 5 oz, of canned tomatoes, skins removed or fresh tomatoes with skins & seeds removed
Olive oil
White wine, a couple of glugs
Half a cup of water or stock


Salt & pepper the osso buco & then dredge in the flour. In a good size casserole or roasting pan, on med-high heat, add a glug or 2 of olive oil & a pad of butter.

Sauté the osso buco for 2 minutes on each side.

Then add the vegetables & continue cooking the osso buco, turning frequently until it is nice & colored.

Add the white wine cook until the wine is reduced by 2/3. Add the tomatoes, aromatics, crack of pepper & salt, water or stock & bring up to a simmer.

Remove from stove & place in a 350 degree oven, uncovered for about an hour & half or until the centers of the bone have melted away & the meat is falling away from the bone.

If you need to add a little more water or stock towards the end, do so.

Serve over polenta, potatoes or rice to soak up the juices.

Follow Jason & Ashley on Twitter
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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Caramelized Vegetable Pasta

If you can't get your kids to eat vegetables, try caramelizing them to bring out their natural sweetness. It's as easy as tossing them in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and pepper, sauteing, grilling, or roasting them in the oven.

For a quick, affordable, nutritious meal, add pasta, leave a little broth in the bottom of the bowl, top with grated cheese and they'll come back for seconds.

Caramelized Vegetable Pasta

Yield: 4

Time: 30 minutes


1 small yellow onion or 3 shallots, washed, peeled, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1/4 pound mushrooms, shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, thin sliced
1 cup Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 cup corn off the cob during the summer
1 cup broccoli stems or florets, washed, roughly chopped
1 pound pasta, preferably De Cecca, spaghetti, gnocchi pasta, penne, ziti or whatever you like
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt and pepper


Saute all the vegetables in 1 tablespoon olive oil until softened. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Boil a large pot of water. Add the Kosher salt. Add the pasta. To prevent sticking, stir well throughout the cooking, about 10 minutes. Put a heat-proof cup or a Pyrex measuring cup that can hold 1 1/2 cups into the sink next to the strainer. When you drain the pasta, capture 1 1/2 cups of pasta water. Set aside.

Put the pasta back into the pot. Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over the pasta. Toss well. Season with sea salt and pepper. Toss. To keep the pasta warm, lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the pot but do not seal. Set aside.

Put the sauteed vegetables back on a medium flame. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta water and the sweet butter and reduce over a medium flame for 15 minutes. Toss the vegetables to coat. Add the pasta and another 1/2 cup of pasta water. Toss the pasta and vegetables to mix well. If you need more liquid, add more of the pasta water.

Just before serving, pour the pasta, broth and vegetables into a large bowl. Serve with the grated cheese alongside.


To add heat, put 1/4 teaspoon of tabasco or a pinch of cayenne when you're sauteing the vegetables.
Add 2 cups sliced cooked chicken breast.

Add 1 cup raw shrimp, washed, deveined, roughly chopped to the vegetables when you add the pasta water.

In addition to the vegetables in the recipe, add others you enjoy, like peppers, asparagus, zucchini, celery, chopped tomatoes, even cooked potatoes.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region Comes to Il Fornaio

Wedged between Austria and Slovena, the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south and the Alps to the north. Reflecting a climate which can be buffeted by cold fronts, the region's cuisine emphasizes comfort food: hearty soups, polenta, charcuterie, grilled meats and fish, risotto, gnocchi, and ravioli.

To celebrate the New Year, a group of friends gathered at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800), opposite the Santa Monica Pier, for a tasting of the Festa Regionale (January 4-17) . Along with a selection of regional dishes, we also sampled wines from the family run Tenuta Luisa winery located close to the Slovena border.

When we arrived at the restaurant, a cold chill caught us by surprise, so soup was the order of the day. The Cannellini Bean Soup (Zuppa E Antipasti) was deeply flavored with carrots, potatoes, and Swiss chard, topped with a thin slice of Il Fornaio's bread, crusted with grated Parmesan cheese. The light and fruity but not sweet Friulano (2008) made a good companion for the soup.

While we studied the menu, we feasted on a basket of delicious, fresh-from-the-oven Il Fornaio bread--the restaurant is called "The Baker" after all--with slices dipped into a small plate filled with their own extra virgin olive oil. The struggle, always, is to eat only a few slices of the bread and not the whole basket.

Although off the familiar tourist routes, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is well-known for one of its products, San Daniele prosciutto. Our appetizer was a plate composed as much for the eye as the palate (Prosciutto San Daniele e Formaggi Misti). The sweet, delicate San Daniele could be eaten by itself, each slice practically melting in your mouth.

What's fun about a charcuterie plate is the mix-and-matching that is possible. A piece of prosciutto can be eaten with a bite of a meaty Cerignola olive, or it can be wrapped around a crisp thin bread stick studded with sea salt. My favorite way was to dredge a slice of soft Montasio Vecchio in olive oil I seasoned with sea salt and pepper, quickly wrapping the cheese in the San Daniele, popping the little package in my mouth before too much of olive oil dripped off, followed by a sip of Friulano. Yum.

Reflecting their proximity to the Alps, the pasta courses featured hearty cream sauces. Usually anathema to calorie counters, a special dispensation should be made for these delicious sauces.

When there is a choice between Ravioli with Roast Duck in an Asparagus Cream Sauce (Ravioli d'Anatra Agli Asparagi), Pasta with Shellfish in a Parmesan and Tomato Bechamel (Pasticcio alla Gradese), Gnocchi with Sausage in a Tomato Cream Sauce (Gnocchi alla Friulana), or Risotto with Mushrooms and Vegetables in a Cheese Sauce (Risotto del Cansiglio), you'd want the tasting to focus entirely here and never move on.

But good sense prevailed and we sampled two of the four.

The ravioli hit every comfort note. The sauce, light and creamy, was leavened by the asparagus. The filling of braised duck meat was mixed with San Daniele prosciutto and pillowed softly inside the delicately sweet dough. Needless to say, generous amounts of fresh bread were used to collect every last drop of the sauce.

In the risotto, the sauce had been absorbed into the grains of rice. By comparison with the ravioli, the effect was almost austere but the effect was no less luxurious. The risotto melted in the mouth, with thin slices of wild mushrooms and fresh vegetables providing added flavor to the sweetness of the rice.

With both courses we had the Pinot Grigio (2008), a crisp companion perfect to contrast with the pastas' richness.

For protein, the region looks both to the mountains and the sea. Shrimp and Spaghetti in a Marinara Cream Sauce (Gamberoni alla Busara con Spaghetti), Wild Sea Bass with Mashed Potatoes and Spinach (Filetto di Branzino alla Greca), and a Mixed Grill of Chicken, Sausage, Lamb, and New York Steak (Carne Mista alla Brace).

Choosing the sea bass, I would have happily just eaten the mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach with cherry tomatoes, capers, Kalmata and Cerignola olives. They were that delicious. The sea bass had no trouble competing with such formidable accompaniments. Moist and sweet, the skin turned into a crisp confection that dissolved in my mouth. The Friulano was a bit too fruity for the dish and the Pinot Grigio too crisp, so we switched to the Sauvignon (2008) which had just the right amount of lightness and full flavor.

Outside we could see people leaving the Santa Monica pier, their coats pulled tightly around them, so although we were well-satisfied with the meal, we decided to take another moment and relax in the warm comfort of the restaurant and share the regional dessert.

A small cake topped with ice cream came to the table. The Italian name, Tortino di Mele con Gelato al Rum, was certainly a mouthful. But we were so busy eating the cake, we didn't bother practicing our Italian. To our simple American tastes this was a great version of a Fruit-Nut Cake. And the rum raisin ice cream was as good as it gets.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia

The first Tuesday of every month, my wife and I have dinner with a group of friends. We go to the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Pier, Santa Monica 90401; 310/451-7800) for a tasting of the current Festa Regionale.

The dinner is on the early side, so it is a bit of a rush to get there from work, but the idea is to meet, talk, eat, sample the wines, and still get home early enough to deal with kids and other obligations.

The region celebrated this month is Lombardia. The dishes have substance, the better to fight off the cold in this northern region of Italy, so there are entrees of osso buco (Ossobuco alla Milanese) and beef tenderloin with mascarpone and gorgonzola (Filetto di Bue alla Lombarda), which is something of a gilded lily but the side of grilled polenta and sauteed spinach help ground the rich dish.

A Franciacorta Brut, Tenuta di Montenisa, a light fruity sparkling wine, the Malvasia '"Tasto di Seta," Castello di Luzzzano, 2007 with a pleasant mineral flavor, and the Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese, Carlino, Castello di Luzzano, 2007, with a full-bodied quality that would please any Bordeaux-loving oenophile were the regional wines selected for the month.

By group consensus the Lombardia menu was pronounced Best of the Best. The butternut squash and potato soup (Zuppa di Zucca), tomato and mache salad with polenta croutons (Pomidoro alla Padana), polenta squares with six different toppings (Crostini di Polenta), sauteed salmon fillet with red grapes and shallots in a reduction of the Franciacorta (Salmoncino Franciacorta) were all excellent.

Our favorite dish was a very simply prepared pasta with a mix of porcini, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms (Pappardelle Gialle ai Funghi). The savory mushrooms were supported perfectly by the soft, wide strands of freshly made pappardelle. We liked them so much, the whole group is going back again on Sunday.

The end of the meal was another high-point. The Semifreddo all'Amaretto combined custard and creme anglaise with a soul-comforting whipped cream-creaminess.

All articles about restaurants are duty-bound to include photographs, the better to help readers appreciate the food.

My wife is out of town and we missed her at the tasting, so these photographs are as much for her as they are to document a great meal at Il Fornaio in Santa Monica.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale

From May 4-17, Il Fornaio celebrates the food of Campania. One of the better known regions of Italy--home to Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, the island of Capri, and the Amalfi Coast--Campania enjoys a warm climate and a long growing season. Mario Lombardo designed the regional menu, pulling favorites from his mother's kitchen and the dishes his father prepared as a chef in Campagnia at O'Parrucchiano-La Favorita.

At Il Fornaio's Santa Monica restaurant (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800), we enjoyed another tasting as we continue our exploration of Italy through its regional cuisines.

As befits a coastal region, the Campania menu features seafood. There were mussels with breadcrumbs (Tegamino e Cozze), linguine with clams (Linguine cu e Vongole), risotto with shrimp, mussels, and clams (Risotto e Amalfi), and seabass baked in parchment paper with shrimp, mussels, and clams (Spigula Dinto o Cuoppo).

Our starter was the cannelini bean soup (Menesta Schitana). The beans thickened and sweetened the broth, which was complimented by barely cooked fresh tomatoes and crisp pieces of pancetta. With the soup we were served the Fiano di Avellino, D'Antiche Terre (2007) a dry white with strong fruit notes. At first it seemed counter-intuitive to have wine with soup (who does that?), but they worked well with one another.

The second appetizer was a beautifully plated selection of heirloom tomatoes (Pummarole e Capri) with first-of-the-season Pineapple and Brandywine tomatoes, topped with soft cubes of mozzarella di bufala. With the Pummarole, we had the Greco di Tufo, D'Antiche Terre (2007), a white wine with a touch of sweetness to leven the acid of the tomatoes.

For our pasta course, we had crepes filled with ground beef (Cannelloni e Pascale), mixed with a trifecta of cheeses--ricotta, mozzarella, paremesan--and seasoned with fresh basil. Resting on top was a coating of tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. When my Jewish mother cooked comfort food, dumplings were usually involved, which always made me very happy. I have to imagine that cannelloni have a similar effect on the children of Campania.

The menu offered a meat course of veal (Scaluppine a Caprese), a mixed grill of lamb, game hen, and sausage (Carne Mista 'Ncoppa a Griclia), or seabass in parchment paper (Spigula Dinto o Cuoppo). We decided to try the Scaluppine.

Thin slices of veal were sauced with lightly cooked chopped tomatoes and melted fresh mozzarella, accompanied by fresh English peas sauteed with pancetta and roasted baby Yukon Gold potatoes. A richly flavored Aglianico, Terredora (2007) was served with the veal. One of our friends described the aroma as "almost like you're drinking it inside a wine cask." Deliciously musky, the Aglianico was perfectly paired with the veal.

Well-known as a citrus growing region, for our Campanian dessert we had half-glasses of chilled limoncello and a serving of light-as-air lemon sponge cake with lemon pastry cream inside (Delizia a Limone). All too often lemon's tartness is counterbalanced with a heavy addition of sugar. Not so with the limoncello and sponge cake. Sweetness softened lemon's edge but didn't overwhelm its flavor.

One of these days we'll take a long postponed trip to Italy, but until then we look forward to Il Fornaio's monthly Festa Regionale.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio

One of the things I like about Il Fornaio's monthly, regional menus is the chance to take an armchair journey to Italy. This month's region is Calabria.

Located on the toe of the Italian boot and extending into the Mediterranean, Calabria has developed dishes that feature seafood.

With a group of friends, we went to our neighborhood Il Fornaio in Santa Monica (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800) and shared the dishes family style.

While we read through the menu, we ate baskets of Il Fornaio bread dipped in seasoned olive oil. The fresh bread is so delicious there's always the risk that we'll be full before we even begin the meal.

We started with bowls of the delicious three bean soup (Zuppa Millecuselle) which paired cannellini, borlotti, and garbanzo beans in a vegetarian broth, flavored with lentils, mushrooms, and cabbage and thickened with tomatoes. Adding the lentils was an especially nice touch because they grounded all the contrasting flavors.

We followed the soup with an inventive salad of organic greens (Insalata Monte Poro) with fried goat cheese balls, dressed with fresh strawberries and a strawberry-raspberry red wine vinaigrette. With these two dishes we had a Greco Bianco by Alberto and Antonio Statti (2007), a crisp, light white that complimented the soup and salad.

For our pasta course, we shared plates of spaghetti with shell fish (Spaghettata du Pescatori Calabrisi). Fresh black mussels, butter clams, calamari rings, and shrimp were tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with saltiness provided by capers and slices of giant green olives. We were still drinking the Greco but decided we should try the other wine from the region, a Gaglioppo also from the Satti brothers (2007).

For the main course we had a choice of chicken with mushrooms (Petto di Pollo alla Cacciatora), roasted boneless leg of lamb (Agnello Arrustutu), or a swordfish loin (Involtino di Spada). We decided on the swordfish because the menu said it was a favorite of the region.

Chef Bruno Amato, the Il Fornaio Chef-Partner, who designed the menu, prepared the fish in a manner I've never seen before. Instead of grilling the swordfish, he stuffed it with a mixture of shrimp, almonds, garlic, pecorino, and caciocavallo cheese. Topped with bread crumbs and drizzled with olive oil, the fish was a masterful combination of textures: crunchy, soft, and moist. Accompanying the fish were roasted potatoes, eggplant, and red and yellow peppers in a tomato sauce with a touch of heat. We had more of the Gaglioppo. It benefited from spending time in the glass. Its flavors had softened so it paired perfectly with the swordfish.

For dessert we had the ricotta pudding (Budino di Ricotta) which reminded me of ricotta cheese cakes I used to eat in Providence, Rhode Island. Not too sweet, a little on the dry side, and delightfully flavored with golden raisins, orange, and lemon zest

The regional menu is served until March 15th, so we have time to go back and try the ravioli stuffed with salami and ricotta (Ravioli ca 'Sopressata) and have another bowl of the delicious soup.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Omelets Strike the Right Note at Breakfast

Breakfast is all-important. We need to be energized to take on the world but all too often we have the same meal, day in and day out. Bacon and eggs. Waffles with syrup. Cereal. Toast. A bowl of fruit. Power shakes. What started out as stimulating gets tedious.

Because they're so versatile, omelets are an antidote to breakfast-boredom. Just about any favorite herb, spice, vegetable, meat, or cheese works well with eggs. The only limitations are what you like.

(All the recipes are for 2 omelets.)

Cheese Omelet

The cheese omelet sets the stage for more ambitious fillings.

4 eggs (or 8 egg whites)
1 teaspoon butter
1 tablespoon half and half, whole milk, or low fat milk
2 tablespoons cheese (cheddar, brie, Swiss, Parmesan), grated or finely chopped
2 shallots, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley (or basil, tarragon, oregano), washed, stems removed, leaves whole or roughly chopped
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

There are 2 essentials to making a good omelet: fresh eggs (ideally, Farmers' Market fresh) and a non-stick pan. The risks associated with Teflon are minimized if low heat is used and you avoid scratching the surfaces by using a rubber spatula.

The starting point for an omelet is to sauté the fillings. Too often in restaurants vegetables with high water content aren't cooked with a watery result. Sauté the shallots and parsley with the olive oil over a medium flame until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

To make 2 individual omelets use an 8"-10" non-stick skillet. Even though I use a non-stick pan, I add a pat of butter for flavor. For an Italian touch drizzle a bit of olive oil. For low cal versions use egg whites, skim milk and low fat cheeses.

Melt the butter over a medium-low flame. Beat the eggs (or egg whites) together with the milk and pour into the pan. Cook a few minutes until the egg has set on the pan side. Spread the shallot-parsley sauté over half of the omelet. Add the cheese. Using a rubber spatula fold the "empty" side of the omelet onto the side with the sauté. Cook another 2 minutes then slide onto a plate. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.

As they do in all good restaurants, offer yourself a choice of hash browns, fresh fruit, sausages or bacon, toast, or orange juice to go with your omelet.

Preparation Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

Bacon and Cheese Omelet

Using the basic recipe, start to build up the layers of flavor by adding bacon (or another salty meat like sausage or ham).

4 eggs (or 8 egg whites)
1 teaspoon butter
1 tablespoon half and half, whole milk, or low fat milk
Olive oil
2 tablespoons cheese (cheddar, brie, Swiss, Parmesan)
2 shallots, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, stems removed, leaves whole or roughly chopped
2 tablespoons cooked bacon (or sausage or ham) crumbled
Sea salt and pepper

Use the Cheese Omelet directions above, adding the cooked meat at the same time as the cheese. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

Vegetable Omelet

Instead of using meat to add flavor, use vegetables. Just about any vegetable will work: spinach, zucchini, onions, carrots, kale, artichoke hearts, broccoli, asparagus, English peas, potatoes... Walk down the aisles of your local farmers' market and think "omelet" as you pass the row after row of fresh vegetables.

Sauté the vegetables for sweetness and the added flavor of caramelization but they can be steamed. Tomatoes can be used sautéed or fresh, although I prefer fresh.

The amount of vegetables you use depends on their final volume. 1 cup of uncooked spinach will yield 1/4 cup of cooked spinach. 1 cup of zucchini will yield 3/4 cup for the filling. If you like a thin omelet, 1/4 cup of sautéed filling per omelet is probably sufficient. For a plump omelet, 1/2 cup per omelet is probably more to your liking.

Sauté the vegetables with olive oil, garlic, shallots, and parsley until softened or lightly browned then set aside. Follow the Cheese Omelet directions above for technique. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

Chicken Livers Omelet

I love chicken livers but they aren't everyone's cup of tea (certainly not my wife's). If you do like them, you'll really enjoy this recipe.

4 eggs (or 8 egg whites)
1 teaspoon butter
1 tablespoon half and half, whole milk, or low fat milk
Olive oil
2 tablespoons cheese (cheddar, brie, Swiss, Parmesan)
4 shallots, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, stems removed, leaves whole or roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
2 mushrooms (brown or shiitake), washed, julienned
2 chicken livers, washed, cut into nickel-size pieces
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)

Sauté the shallots (I doubled the amount of shallots for this recipe because their sweetness goes well with the livers), garlic, parsley, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Add the chicken livers and brown on all sides being careful to keep the insides pink. Season with sea salt, pepper, and cayenne (if you want some heat). Remove from the burner and set aside.

Make the omelet as described above, place the chicken liver sauté on one half and turn the "empty" side onto the side with the sauté. Let cook for 2 minutes and serve.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

With a Little Help from a Friend I Discovered Guidi Marcello's deli

Cooking is one of life's great pleasures. But routine can be its enemy. Always using the same recipes, the same ingredients, or shopping at the same markets will wear down even the most foodie of cooks. I'm very grateful when someone puts me onto a new direction that reinvigorates my cooking. My good friend, Alexandra, an expert in all things Italian, did just that when she told me about the wholesale/retail importer Guidi Marcello (1649 10th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90404, 310/452-6277). The outside of the building is so nondescript I didn't find it at first. Inside is one of the best selections of affordable Italian imports in Los Angeles: cheeses (cow, sheep, goat), olives, cured meats, frozen desserts, pastas, olive oils, ceramics, breads, spices, chocolates...

There are so many great ingredients to try it's difficult to know where to begin. I started with the olives because I seem to be stuck in a routine of buying oil cured black and cracked green olives at Iranian markets. Guidi Marcello has rows of olives I hadn't seen before. One in particular looked intriguing: Castelvetrano green olives. Grown in Sicily, the olives are packed green and brine cured. The buttery flavor is quite surprising and delicious. Using them in a simple salad shows off their qualities.

Mozzarella Salad with Green Olives, Avocado, and Reduced Balsamic Dressing

For the dressing I like a simple mix of extra virgin olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. I've talked about making balsamic vinegar reduction in quantity but for one salad just reduce 4 tablespoons of vinegar to 1 on a low flame in a sauce pan. The vinegar turns sweet. Let it cool and drizzle it over the salad with the olive oil. You can buy the fresh mozzarella at Guidi's or around the corner at Bay Cities Deli where they also carry the extraordinary Felino salami.

2 large fresh Mozzarella pieces, dried, cut into 1" squares
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, cut up
15 green olives (Castelvetrano or any other good quality olive), pitted, quartered
6 slices salami (Felino or any other good quality salami), casing removed, julienned
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon reduced balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and pepper

Combine all the salad ingredients in a large bowl, drizzle with the olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar, and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss. Serve with a fresh baguette and sweet butter.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 10 minutes.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Plate Envy: Il Fornaio Gives It Away

Restaurants live or die on their repeat business. To bring their customers back again and again, some rely on exceptional food and personalized service, others try affordable prices and a pleasant setting. Il Fornaio adds another element to the equation.

For two weeks each month, all 21 branches of Il Fornaio ("The Baker") feature recipes from a different region of Italy: Fruiuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Puglia, Liguria, Abruzzo, Scilia.... The dishes illustrate that region's distinctive ingredients and cooking styles. Nothing can compare with actually going to Italy and having a great meal, but when we want a delicious, affordable Italian dinner, it's great to be able to visit the nearby Il Fornaio in Santa Monica. The restaurant is devoted to all things Italian. Not only are the meals an effort to give you the experience of dining in Italy, each month you'll receive a uniquely Italian gift.

Pick up a "Passaporto" during the Festa Regionale and you'll be given a gift: packages of cannellini beans or hand-made pasta, arrabiatta spices, specialty olive oils, balsamic vinegar, loaves of bread, calendars, olive bowls, and, my personal favorite, dinner plates.

Have your Passaporto stamped each month and on the sixth visit, you'll take home a dinner plate, hand-painted with a distinctive image of Italian life.
For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Il Fornaio Serves Up a Recession Busting Tasting Menu - Piemonte
I am obsessed about those plates. Something about them makes me so happy. To make certain we'll get the new ones, we go to the restaurant every month. So far, we have more than 60 and are several Passaporto away from being completely out of shelf space.

The plates are great, but so are the gifts that help us practice cooking Italian meals at home. Last month we were given packages of fagioli cannellini with a Tuscan recipe by Il Fornaio's Executive Chef Maurizio Mazzon. I added roasted tomatoes and spinach to his Fagioli All'Uccelletta recipe.

Cannellini Beans with Roasted Tomatoes and Spinach

If you want to serve cannellini beans, you have to plan ahead. Before they can be cooked, they have to be soaked overnight. Cooking takes time as well, so this is a great weekend project. Since they keep well in the refrigerator, the beans can be quickly reheated for a weekday meal and served with a grilled chicken breast, steak, or tuna fillet.

Yield 6-8 servings

Time soak beans overnight, 2 hours to cook


2 cups cannellini beans
½ celery stalk, washed
½ onion, peeled, washed
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 carrot, washed, peeled
18-20 sage leaves, washed, torn into pieces
5 tomatoes, washed
1 bunch spinach, washed thoroughly, stems removed, roughly chopped
Olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt


Soak the beans overnight with 5 cups of water. Drain. In a large pot, put the beans and 10 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the celery, onion, 2 whole garlic cloves, and the carrot. Cook on a low flame for 1 hour or until the beans are al dente. Drain, but this time save the water. Discard the vegetables.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the stems out of the tomatoes, put them on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or a piece of tin foil, sprinkle sliced garlic on top, season with sea salt and black pepper, then drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 1 hour. Let cool. Put the tomatoes in a bowl. Take off the skins and discard. Tear the tomatoes into small pieces. Set aside.

In the large pot, sauté 2 finely chopped garlic cloves in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until lightly browned, add the sage and sauté for a few seconds, then add the roasted tomatoes with their juice, the cooked cannellini beans, the chopped spinach, and 5 cups of the reserved water. Bring to a low boil and cook for 30-45 minutes until the sauce thickens.

Serve with a grilled or roasted meat.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio