Author Archives: hollychase

Cinco de Mayo

Aside from enjoying good food, we also love to tell the stories behind it. As we were discussing whether we had anything to offer in celebration of Cinco de Mayo, we reached back to our cookbook, Almost Italian; we’d deconstructed Caesar Salad, an Italian-American standard, first created south of the border, in Tijuana. Then we began to list post-Columbus culinary contributions from the New World to Italy, notably, several plants, all native to Mexico— maize, chocolate, new varieties of beans and squash– and of course, all those peppers and tomatoes.

A while back, as we were watching a pair of skilled hands produce a sublime pizza that we devoured a few minutes later, it hit us like the contents of a just-whacked piñata:* Mexico’s not-so-secret contribution to Italian food in America has been her PEOPLE. Par for the course, that day, our Florida pizzaiolo hailed from Oaxaca, not Napoli.

So today, May 05, 2020, let everyone who eats in America acknowledge the Mexican men, women, and children who work as field hands– along with the truck drivers, rancheros, and conveyor-belt produce sorters— all handling the bounty of North America’s farmlands.

While many a survey has indicated that “Italian” is America’s favorite “ethnic” cuisine, those surveys ask fewer questions about who hustles that food onto plates. Almost every restaurant that claims to serve Italian dishes— from Domino’s Pizza and Olive Garden to Chez Panisse and Babbo— has long depended upon Mexican staff.

The late chef-provocateur Anthony Bourdain sang their praises, and so should we. Supporting more celebrity chefs than Dansko clogs, Mexican dishwashers, bus-boys, cleaners, line-cooks, servers, and chefs are essential players at every level of American food production, delivery, and service.

Gracias y Viva Mexico!

*From the Italian pignatta, originally a Carnival tradition, these paper forms filled with treats and sweets, may have originated in Asia, but were introduced, via Italy, to the New World

Panzanella

Hurricane season calls for comfort food, something to soothe us during days of relentless what-if TV coverage and weather app updates on the wind and rain of the latest named storm.

Ice cream may well be comfort food, but it requires refrigeration, and a puddle of spumoni will comfort no one. So we suggest something that doesn’t rely on contrived cooling: panzanella, the Italian salad of bread and raw vegetables. A no-cook dish that can be made ahead, its textures and flavors transcend its humble genesis– domestic frugality, making use of bread that, if not yet stale, has aged beyond its best self.

 Late Harvest Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Late Harvest Organic Heirloom Tomatoes
Photo by Vince Lee on Unsplash

Chunks of bread absorb the juices of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onion that have been dressed with oil & vinegar. The salad is seasoned with salt, black pepper, and fresh herbs, usually basil and parsley. Like many Old World Italian classics, panzanella exemplifies how much can be made of very little. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, and a rescue dish for home gardeners.

Occurring at what is the peak of the home garden output, the most active weeks of the North American hurricane season can be cruel to gardeners and late summer’s ripening produce. We urge you to harvest ahead of the next credible storm threat, before torrential rains do in the fruits of your hard work.

Should you be overwhelmed with produce, remember that panzanella is like your nonna at Sunday lunch– ever ready to welcome more guests.

In other words, your Panzanella di Tempesta, Hurricane Panzanella, has room for some ad hoc additions and garnishes. Optional produce that can be added raw to the salad’s seasoned oil & vinegar are: young zucchini, radishes, scallions, celery, tomatillos, lettuces, arugula, very young string beans, sugar-snap peas, pea tendrils, chives, mint, oregano, thyme… Of course, if you are growing these things, you already know many other ways to show them the respect they deserve and would never let a storm claim them!

With a little forethought to stocking your Almost Italian pantry, the Blessed Panzanella Trinity of good bread, olive oil, and wine vinegar, can be the basis of varied meals over a few days, even if those days are without electricity. For the record: panzanella saw the AlmostItalian.com writers through an entire week during and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

It goes without saying that if you are among our readers, you already have a nice red or white wine vinegar and flavorful olive oil on hand.

Before the power goes out: gather bread, something better than the hot-dog rolls left over from your Labor Day cookout. Panzanella demands bread with heft; day-old or older is fine– “artisan” or sourdough, white or dark– anything but sweet. If there’s time to plan ahead, tear or cut the bread into 1-inch pieces and lightly toast them in the oven. When they are cool, store them in tightly closed plastic bags. This way, they won’t go moldy in the damp weather ahead.

Like cut flowers, your fresh herbs, flat-leaf Italian parsley, basil, mint… will stay fresh with their stems in a glass of water.

Hard-boiled eggs in their shells and cheeses like feta, ricotta salata, and mozzarella can last a few days in a cooler. But if you want additional protein, be sure to have a manual can opener handy for your tins of chickpeas, tuna, and anchovies.

Even after opening, many brined and oil-packed condiments– capers, giardiniera, roasted or pickled peppers, olives– will safely last a few days without refrigeration.

Secure your salt in a screw-top glass jar to keep it dry. Fill your pepper grinder. Have some peperoncino flakes for those who want a bit of heat. Panzanella benefits from freshly minced garlic, but we suggest you add it only to what you plan to consume for a particular meal and no more than an hour before serving. Leftover panzanella is delicious, but garlic left in a salad too long will overpower everything else.

The ingredients you actually have on hand will guide what you make. Proportions of bread to vegetables are the cook’s choice. We use roughly one part toasted bread chunks to three parts vegetables and fresh herbs. We don’t seed or peel any of the vegetables except the onion and garlic; and we leave the crusts on our bread.

The Basics

Good quality bread with some body– fresh or older
Ripe tomatoes
Cucumbers
Bermuda onion
Fresh herbs (at least one): basil, Italian flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint
Fresh garlic
Your favorite olive oil
Your favorite vinegar: red or white wine, or even cider vinegar
Salt
Black pepper in a grinder– you’ll use it freshly ground

Optional Embellishments
Jarred & canned items to enrich (and vary) your panzanella through multiple meals… Don’t forget to have a manual can-opener.

Cannellini, white navy beans, chickpeas
Pitted olives
Capers
Canned tuna
Oil-packed anchovies
Tinned sardines
Roasted peppers
Giardiniera
Pickled cherry peppers

Keep these cool:

Hard boiled eggs
Cheeses such as feta, mozzarella, ricotta salata

Panzanella recipes and photographs abound— in many older Italian-american cookbooks and on scores of online sites. Contrast the classic version offered by Patricia Wells and the gilded treatment presented by David Leibovitz. The mere assemblage of rustic loaves beside a bowl of magenta crescents of Bermuda onion, grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, and basil leaves glistening with oil is indeed Instagrammable. So, why wait for a hurricane? Rain or shine, gather good ingredients and your own panzanella will also be beautiful, whether you make yours ahead or after a power loss, assembling it by candlelight. Click away, but keep an eye on your smartphone’s battery just in case you do need that flashlight feature.

What Would Pope Francis Cook?

Was it only two years ago that we first presented our recipe for Pasta e Ceci to celebrate Pope Francis’s ascension to the Papacy? The peripatetic Holy Father has covered a lot of ground since then and now he’s here, back in the New World.

Pasta e Ceci
Pasta e Ceci
Copyright © 2013, Skip Lombardi

To welcome him, we once again offer this modest, everyday Roman dish, a heavenly combination of ditalini and chick-peas. We can well imagine that after a week of airline food and banquets, the Holy Father may be yearning for a little home-cooking.

For Pasta e Ceci, Romans favor ditalini, which cook quickly within the broth of already-cooked pulses. Also called paternoster and avemarie, Our Father and Hail Mary, these short semolina tubes are reminiscent of rosary beads. Since devout cooks often said their evening prayers while preparing supper, some families maintained a tradition of gauging the cooking of their pasta according to the time it took to recite one or more prayers!

Ditalini and Rosary Beads
Ditalini with traditional kitchen timer
Copyright © 2013, Skip Lombardi

The dish is quickly assembled. Just be sure your chickpeas are thoroughly cooked before you begin.

Ingredients:

For the battuto:

Olive oil
1 large stalk of celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice (reserve any leaves for garnish)
1 medium onion (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley including stems, finely chopped
2 Cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 bay leaf

For the soup:

1/2 teaspoon dry marjoram
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces dry chickpeas, soaked and cooked according to package directions, OR
2 15-ounce cans of cooked chickpeas, drained & rinsed
8 ounces ditalini
4 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped.

To garnish:

Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle
Additional chopped parsley & any celery leaves
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Make your battuto

Heat a 4 to 6-quart pot over medium-high heat, then add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot.

Lower the heat to medium-low and add all the ingredients for the batutto. Sauté, stirring occasionally for approximately 10 minutes, or until the ingredients soften and barely begin to caramelize.

Make the soup:

Add the marjoram and a few grinds of black pepper and stir. Cook for a minute or two, allowing the herbs and pepper to begin to permeate the batutto.

Add the drained canned chickpeas (OR the home-cooked chickpeas and their cooking liquid) to the battuto. Add additional water so that you have a total of 6 cups of liquid in the pot. Adjust the heat and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.

Have your garnishes ready as the pasta will cook very quickly.

Add the ditalini to the broth and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 minutes before you test one of the ditalini.If the pasta has reached the al dente state, the soup is ready. If not, continue cooking and tasting for another 1-2 minutes.

To Serve:

Ladle the soup into shallow bowls. Drizzle a teaspoon of fruity olive oil over each portion and garnish with parsley and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.


Benvenuto, Francesco e buon appetito a tutti!

Serves 4-6.

Book Launch

At last, we’ve finally published Almost Italian in full color for Kindle. It’s now available on Amazon, and the Nook & iPad editions will be out very soon. So, start a pot of water boiling for your pasta, choose a red sauce recipe from the book, and help us celebrate the launch of Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America.

Poster for the Fabre Shipline
The Fabre Steamship Line
brought Italian immigrants to ports in North and South America.

What if you could channel an Italian grandmother, your own nonna or that lady across the street who showed you how to make cavatelli? Suppose you could cook from her time-tested recipes while hearing the back-stories of your favorite dishes and their originators, the immigrants who created and shared the abbondanza of Italian-American cooking? What if you could serve these with sides of luscious contemporary color photography and vintage Polaroids from the family album? Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America offers all this—and much more.

In our new book, we’ve expanded our popular culinary blog, AlmostItalian.com, as we examine the evolution of Italian cookery outside Italy.

Beginning with Italians who arrived in America during the huge waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we turn our insatiable curiosity to the culinary diversity of Italians and trace traditions from the Old World to the New.

We decode Italian-American dialects and slang, the mystique of Sunday Gravy, and the cult of cucuzza. With the world’s first photo essay on how to clean and cook scungilli, to the racy origins of Valentine’s Day, and our unvarnished opinion of Lobster Fra Diavolo, Almost Italian has the snap and freshness of the first shoots of wild asparagus foraged by Skip’s Sicilian grandparents.

Skip's grandmother Carmelina's lasagne
Skip’s grandmother Carmelina’s lasagne

Here in America, Italian immigrants found a gastronomic landscape of both limitation and opportunity. Initially, some of the basic ingredients we now associate with Italian cooking—olive oil, sheep’s milk cheeses, and even pasta—were not readily available to the newcomers. But at the same time, the Italians were amazed to discover the affordability of other foods that had been out of reach for them back in Italy They were particularly struck by the enormous quantities of meat and chicken, and, surprisingly, by pasta made from durum wheat. We challenge the widespread—but mistaken—idea that pasta was the staple food of poor Italian peasants. (In fact, most European Italians would not enjoy pasta as an everyday dish until the 1960’s.)

It was both this lack—and abundance—that inspired an entirely new cuisine here in the New World, what we have come to know as Italian-American. From antipasti to dolci, Almost Italian tells the story of how cucina casalinga, the immigrants’ home cooking, became “Italian” restaurant fare.

From the Connecticut kitchens of our grandparents and the pizzerie of our teen years to the restaurants and home kitchens where we, too, have cooked—we have watched, listened, chopped, and stirred our way to a profound appreciation of the “red sauce” cooking too often dismissed as “not real Italian.”

In addition to analyzing the Stuffies sold from clam trucks on the Rhode Island shore and recreating the ephemeral Cioppino of San Francisco’s North Beach, we have made pilgrimages to dine in red sauce shrines with maitre d’s and to sit at the lunch counters of grocery stores in Little Italy neighborhoods. Documenting our experiences between bites, we have persisted, like archeologists, working to collect recipes, tales, and delectable bits of trivia.

The final book cover
Now available for Kindle on Amazon.com

Heavily illustrated, Almost Italian includes scores of our own color photos, including shots of Eggplant Rollatini, Escarole and Beans, and Pizza Rustica, which share the electronic screen with nostalgic postcards, posters, family snapshots, and menus.

Whether your taste runs towards Spaghetti with Meatballs or to Pasta Primavera, towards Enrico Caruso or to Louis Prima, we know you’ll enjoy this richly anecdotal and wry commentary on the culture and evolution of Italian food in America.

Almost Italian is an all-American story, one that belongs to us all.

eBook available for Amazon Kindle,
iPad & Nook versions available, too.

For all media inquiries: info@almostitalian.com