Category Archives: Primi Piatti

First Courses

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.

My Grandmother Carmelina’s Lasagne

Lasagne

A big dish of lasagne* always marked major holidays at the LaBella house; we could count on it at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. When I got older, I would prevail upon my maternal grandmother, Carmelina, to make lasagne for my birthday in June—shortening the wait between Easter and Thanksgiving. Noonie, as I called her, always obliged.

Labor-intensive as lasagne is to prepare, it was never the main course on any of our holiday menus. It was, after all, just a “dish of pasta with red sauce,” and thus—in the opinion of the average Italian-American grandmother—appropriate as a first course before the Braccioletone, the ham, or the turkey. Nonetheless, we did acknowledge it as the pièce de résistance; whenever Noonie brought forth the lasagne, the conversation became more animated, the mood brighter, the meal more festive.

The lasagne course invariably included green salad, bread, and perhaps a dish of hot peppers. Indeed, I’ve often wondered why Noonie and Pop (my grandfather) ever bothered with the ham or turkey. I can only guess that it was their way of paying homage to America, the place where Italians and other poor immigrants could afford food in such abundance. Paradoxically, it was at tables like ours (in Middletown, Connecticut) where gastronomy inspired by the Old Country could be celebrated in a way that had never been possible in the Sicilian and Calabrian villages my great-grandparents and their neighbors had been forced to leave behind.

* Lasagne is the correct spelling of this classic casserole and the plural of lasagna—a wide, flat noodle.

Note: Generations of Italians here and back in Italy have boiled their pasta sheets before assembling a pan of lasagne. Several years ago, various American pasta companies began to market “no-boil lasagne,” slightly thinner sheets of dough to be added as uncooked layers. It’s not at all hard to fathom why this seemingly radical departure from tradition works: If the baking pan is covered with foil, the dry pasta simply absorbs the liquid from the tomato sauce and cheeses. You get a firmer, less runny casserole, with pasta that, according to your attentiveness, can still be a little al dente. We (and lots of other cooks who chat online) have wondered if the same technique would work with ordinary pasta. It does. See our instructions below.

Ingredients (see end notes):

Olive oil
2 Cloves of garlic, peeled, and finely sliced
1 Medium yellow onion, peeled, and diced
1 Lb. Sweet or hot Italian sausage, removed from its casings
1 ½ Lb. Ground beef (20% fat)
1 6 oz. Can tomato paste
12 oz. Dry red wine
2 28 oz. Cans Italian plum tomatoes, crushed (preferably San Marzano)
2 Tbs. Fresh oregano, chopped or 1 Tbs. dried oregano if you cannot find it fresh
4 Tbs. Fresh basil, finely chopped
1 Lb. Whole- milk ricotta
4 Tbs. coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 Large egg
1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, freshly grated
1 Cup Parmesan, freshly grated
1/2 Lb. Fresh whole-milk mozzarella, shredded
6 Eggs, hard-boiled, peeled, and thinly sliced
Salt & freshly-ground black pepper to taste (see end notes)
8-10 oz Lasagne
Additional Italian flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Preparation:

For the Sauce:

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot (at least 4 quarts) over medium-high heat, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic and sauté, shaking the pan for about one minute; then add the diced onions. Lower the heat to medium and sauté the onions for 3-4 minutes until they wilt and become translucent.

Add the sausage meat, and sauté, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon or the back of a fork as they go in. Add the ground beef, breaking it up as well. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the meats lose their color and begin to brown.

While the meats are cooking, put the tomato paste into a bowl, rinse out the can with wine and add it to the bowl. Stir gently with a fork to dissolve the tomato paste, then add an additional can of wine (This is how my grandmother measured, but it comes to 12 oz., a cup and a half.) Stir the mixture into the meats, raise the heat to high and boil for a minute or two, evaporating the alcohol.

Lower the heat to medium, add the canned tomatoes and bring the pot to a simmer. Adjust the heat so the sauce bubbles gently. Add the oregano and half the basil; partially cover the pan so that the sauce gives up some of its liquid. Simmer gently for about one and one half hours, stirring occasionally.

For the filling:

Beat the egg in a bowl, then stir in the ricotta. Stir in the Parmesan, the remaining basil, parsley, and nutmeg. Set the mixture aside.

Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Using an oven-proof casserole approximately 9 x 13 inches with 2-inch sides, ladle a cup of sauce over the bottom and spread evenly. Place three or four sheets of lasagne over the sauce, then follow with a ladle or two of sauce. Now gently spread approximately 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the ricotta mixture over the meat sauce layer. Atop the ricotta, place 10 slices of hard-boiled egg (roughly defining each portion). Follow with a sprinkling of Parmesan and a sprinkling of mozzarella.

Repeat this sequence: pasta, sauce, ricotta, egg + the grated cheeses until you’ve filled the pan within 3/4 inch of the top. Add a final layer of pasta and top with a thin layer of sauce.

You may not use all the pasta in a 1-Lb. box and you will have leftover sauce–never a bad thing!

We recommend that the pan be sealed with aluminum foil and baked, in the middle of the oven, for at least 50 minutes. Then, test the texture of the cooked pasta (as you would a cake) with a straw or knife blade. When it’s cooked to your satisfaction, sprinkle on the last layer of mozzarella and place the uncovered pan back in the oven. TIP: Placing a baking sheet on the rack below the uncovered pan will catch any drips.

Bake just long enough to melt the cheese and/or brown the top of the lasagne. Remove from the oven and let it sit at least 10 minutes before serving. Garnish each portion with parsley.

Lasagne is also delectable at room temperature.

Serves 10 as the pasta course in a feast or 6-8 as a substantial main dish.

About the Ingredients:

The time involved in making lasagne demands that you use first-rate ingredients. If you are not growing your own herbs, it’s worth buying fresh basil, Italian parsley, and oregano, rather than substituting dried herbs. If you use low-fat or fat-free cheeses or ultra-lean meat, you will diminish the rich flavors of the dish. Fats and oils are what hold and mellow the aromatic components of the herbs, spices, and garlic. Remember, this is celebratory food, part of a much larger spread. Each serving should be small and slowly savored. Furthermore, in Italy, lasagne was—and still is—a treat enjoyed only a few times each year.

We’ve included salt & freshly ground black pepper in the ingredient list, but we find that with the sausage, cheeses and canned tomatoes, the dish is amply seasoned.