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Ditalini mania

Remember how I lamented the inability to find ditalini? Well, I shall not want for them any longer. Upon hearing of my plight, my beloved great aunt Anne in Schenectady shipped off a care package containing seven boxes of the…

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Ribollita: Tuscan bread soup

In March of 1998, DPaul and I traveled to Italy for the first time, embarking on the typical American’s Grand Tour of the country through Rome, Siena, Florence and Venice. En route from Rome to Siena, my family ran us through a few of the charming hill towns that pepper the Tuscan countryside: Pienza, Montepulciano and San Quirico d’Orcia. Spring was just awakening, and I remember so clearly driving through fields of almost blindingly bright green grass. I was smitten.

When we returned the next year, it was in October, an entirely different experience. We spent a week in Umbria, basing ourselves in Assisi and taking day trips to surrounding towns. Through the chill autumn air thick with the smoke of burning grapevines, we crossed back over into Tuscany one day to visit Cortona, the quintessential hill town made famous by Frances Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun. Ignoring the slavish American tourists clutching their copies of the book alternately as their guidebook and bible, we ascended the narrow streets of the town to go see the mummified body of Santa Margherita. As we huffed past a doe-eyed girl clutching a puppy who looked up at us and said ciao, we asked a local gentleman how to find the church. His response was, “sù, sempre sù.” Up. Keep going up. And so up we went, finally reaching the pinnacle of town so we could breathlessly admire Santa Margherita in her wizened glory.

Thanks to Ms. Mayes, Tuscany became the penultimate romantic destination for Americans well into this decade, and marketers latched on to this phenomenon. Suddenly, “Tuscan” was appended to anything Italian (or Italian-American) to make it appear more refined and highfalutin, and to raise the profit margin by a few percentage points.

In point of fact, most Tuscan food is far from fancy; it’s downright rustic. Grilled meats, brothy soups and, famously, beans feature prominently. Case in point is the deliciously simple ribollita. While this is now a staple in restaurants in Tuscany and beyond, its roots are clearly in the home — or the farmhouse.

Classic ribollita is actually not one dish, but three. It starts out as a minestra, a simple vegetable soup with greens and white beans (which, incidentally, is very easy to make in the pressure cooker). The next day, leftovers of of the minestra are extended with pieces of stale bread to make minestra di pane. On the third day, the soup is reheated (ribollita means “reboiled”). As is typical with most soups, the flavors meld and improve with time. No matter which phase of its life you are consuming, be sure to serve it with a drizzle of very good, fresh, fruity olive oil.

But ribollita’s life needn’t end there. Around the time we first sojourned to Italy, a new restaurant called Delfina opened around the corner from our (now former) apartment. Chef Craig Stoll’s debut menu offered a new twist: Pan-fried ribollita. I can’t claim to have exactly reproduced Chef Stoll’s creation, but my approximation is adequate.

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The great tomato canning of 2008

Yes, kittens, it’s that time again. Time when the bounty of summer comes tumbling down all around us, when we must work like hell to preserve produce at its peak of perfection lest it slip through our fingers for yet another year.

We’ve not done as much canning this year as we have in years past. In 2006 in particular we frenetically canned everything that wasn’t nailed down. But based on last year’s successful tomato canning venture, we knew we had to do it again.

Last year, working with our friends Nick and Russ, we processed and canned 80 pounds of luscious heirloom tomatoes, netting six gallons of bright marinara sauce. This year, we upped the ante and went for 100 pounds. Gluttons for punishment, we are.

While we once again worked with ripe, organic heirlooms (luckily more ripe than our friends’ quarry), Nick this year opted for a variety that was largely based on beefsteak. This not only resulted in a richer color, but a sauce with more body as well.

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Pasta e fagioli

Why is it so damn hard to find ditalini around these parts?

Where I grew up, ditalini was a sine qua non of the pantry, an ur-pasta good for almost any application. It’s the pasta used in minestrone, for example, and is without exception what is used most frequently in the ultimate peasant dish, pasta e fagioli. (Note: That’s pronounced pahs-ta va-ZHAWL.) Yet, look high and low though I may, there was not one box to be found anywhere. I wasn’t all that surprised not to find them in A. G. Ferrari, specializing as they do in less pedestrian fare. That they were missing from mainstream grocery stores I took in stride. But to go to Lucca Ravioli, temple of all things authentically Italian, and still be thwarted really chapped my hide.

Mind you, it’s not that they didn’t have a reasonably suitable alternative. They carry Barilla tubetti. Like ditalini, tubetti are small, tube-shaped pasta (hence the name); the difference is simply in proportions. Ditalini are generally as wide as they are long; tubetti are slightly narrower and longer. Sure, we’re talking by millimeters here, and so of course the tubetti worked just fine, but they’re just. Not. The. Same.

But I digress.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, captures the rustic spirit of cucina povera — the food of the poor, or as my mother calls it, "Italian soul food" — better than this dish. I mean, it’s pasta and beans, basta. It’s a dish that neither requires nor invites embellishment. Getting too fancy with it is like putting lipstick on a pig. It really will improve neither the appearance nor the flavor. That said, I favor Rancho Gordo beans. That’s as much gilding the lily as I do.

It’s not only possible but actually de rigueur for pasta e fagioli to be not only vegetarian but vegan. After all, the poor folks hardly ever could afford meat. Personally, I happen to like a little pork in my beans and chicken in my stock, but both are optional.

So great and pervasive a staple is this that there are many variations on it. Within my family alone, there are two distinct preparations, one from the bloodline hailing from Benevento in Campania (near Naples), and the other from our ancestors from the tip-toe of the boot at Reggio di Calabria. The former version is lighter, using cannellini beans and a touch of tomato; the latter, with kidney beans, is heartier, thicker and stick-to-your-ribbier. That’s a word, right?

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Coniglio alla cacciatora


My great grandfather, Carmine Battaglia, came over from the wee town of Salle, in Abruzzo (that’s the calf of the boot, for the visually inclined) at the tender age of 16 in 1906. I never knew Grandpa Battaglia — he passed when I was just an infant — but the stories about him are legendary. A man of lusty appetites, he fancied himself quite the ladies’ man (though the ladies perhaps did not see things quite the same). At the dinner table, he would consume not only the meat from a chicken, but noisily crunch down the bones as well.

He also notoriously loved his wine and whiskey. In fact, the family would often say that his car wasn’t capable of making it up Broadway hill in my hometown of Schenectady, NY, to the house, as Cappie’s bar was halfway up. He was an avid hunter, which in itself is not a bad thing, but in combination with his drinking had unfortunate results. When he’d return home from the hunt short one of his dogs, he’d say that it got "gun-shy," which no doubt any creature would be after being shot by a crazy, drunk paisan’.

Still, he managed to bring home the occasional rabbit (at least, I hope they were rabbits), and when he did he would prepare them, aptly, in the hunter’s style, or alla cacciatora. This quintessentially rustic Italian preparation has been popularized with chicken in restaurants everywhere, but really lends itself to any small game. Since we prefer to keep our dog, we decided to get our rabbits the new-fashioned way: at the meat market.

Rabbit is not commonly cooked in American homes these days, and finding it can be a challenge. Luckily, when I called Golden Gate Meats to inquire whether I would need to special-order it, I was told that they always have it in stock. Perfect.

Now, when you attempt to butcher a rabbit of your own (and you will have to), you may think you have found yourself on the set of Alien Autopsy. The instinct is to dissect it much like a chicken, but this is no fowl. Do yourself a favor and procure a copy of the excellent Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson and follow the exceedingly lucid step-by-step instructions there.

Not long ago, my aunt decided to make Giada De Laurentiis’ chicken cacciatore recipe after seeing it on the tube. From the first Proustian bite, she was transported back to childhood and Grandpa Battaglia’s rabbit. The only difference, I’m told, true to his lusty nature, was that he had a heavier hand with the red pepper. That is one trait I myself have inherited.

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Good morning

Squash blossom frittata with spring garlic, anyone? Yes, please. What, you want a recipe? Uh, how about some eggs; a mess of grated parmigiano; your blossoms (chopped, with a few whole reserved for effect) and garlic; dash of salt, pepper…

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Hey, we only get so many hot days a year here in San Francisco, so when the season approaches, I like to be prepared and have a cooling cocktail at the ready. Last year, it was all about the michelada. But as the summer came to a close, and we journeyed to perhaps the hottest place of all, Palm Springs, I enjoyed a spectacularly refreshing drink at Spencer’s, called the Bicicletta.

The drink is simplicity itself, just Campari, white wine and a spritz of club soda, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I am fond of Campari in general, but especially on hot days. Aside from memories of sweltering days on the Amalfi Coast, I find that Campari actually has a cooling effect. The white wine rounds out the cocktail, mellowing the intense bittersweet of the amaro, and of course the club gives it a fizzy kick. They are surprisingly easy to sip on during the dog day afternoons when nothing else is feasible. Luckily, the club soda and ice ensure that you can do so without getting completely fuore come un balcone.

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Photo courtesy Anita.

If there’s one thing I adore about the foodieblogosphere, it’s how inspiration spreads like ooey gooey jam over the peanut butter-covered surface of the web. Stephanie drew sufficient inspiration from my previous posts on making limoncello to pursue a batch or ten of her own. When I saw Stephanie after her first foray into ‘cellifying, she spoke of doing a grapefruitcello, and thus the inspiration came full circle.

Many of you may already be aware of my almost pathological aversion to orange, but I really adore grapefruit — all varieties, from the face-twistingly sour to pleasantly sweet-tart. I love the complex bitter-sour-sweetness of its flesh.

Straight away I made my way to the farmer’s market the following Saturday and found a booth bursting with glorious globes of various shapes and sizes. "So," I asked both naïvely and curiously, "which grapefruit has the best flavor in the zest?" They were stumped. So I grabbed an Oro Blanco and a couple pink-fleshed puppies and lugged them home.

Now, in my past few rounds of playing the ‘cello, I’ve learned a thing or three. First, as stated before, Everclear (the 151-proof stuff; we can’t buy the rocket-fuel 190 proof in California) is the way to go. Second, I like my ‘cellos a hair on the bitter side, not so cloyingly sweet, so I use a grater rather than a Microplane to extract a little pith along with my zest. And lastly, I dial down the sweetness even a touch more by making a simple syrup with a 4:5 ratio of sugar to water, rather than a standard 1:1.

The Pompelmocello, as I dubbed it (pompelmo being Italian for grapefruit), was a success. Surprisingly flavorful, it started off with a bright, orangey note, after which a pronounced grapefruit flavor came to rise, tailing off with a pleasantly lemony finish — the full spectrum of citrusy goodness. It was sweet without being too sweet, with an intruiging bitterness that tickled the sides of the tongue.

The ‘cello plays on — I currently have a massive batch (as in, almost five liters!) of limoncello going, a cuvee if you will of Lisbon lemons from Hillsborough and meyers from Potrero Hill. My standby recipe follows after the jump. Cin cin!

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Bucatini, a love story in two acts

With some foods, it’s love at first sight. Others make you work for it, requiring that you endure their flaws and imperfections to unveil their charms. Perhaps they intrigue you at first, capture your fancy, invite your attentions; but then they do something to irritate, confuse our outright hurt you, and you just don’t know where you stand with them. No big deal, you say, there are plenty of fish in the sea, to say nothing of what grows on land. And so you take your affections elsewhere.

But then you catch yourself making furtive glances in their direction. Your curiosity is piqued. Sure, they’re … difficult, but somehow also interesting for it. If only you could crack the code and discover the inner beauty.

So it was with me and bucatini. Until last weekend.

Bucatini, for those not versed, is a cruel joke of pasta: Thick, spaghetti-like strands with a narrow hole running the full length. To try to twirl the pasta around your fork results in irregular, spattering flailing of the snake-like noodles, flinging sauce artistically all over your shirt, kitchen walls and occasionally ceiling. Then, once you’ve crammed the tangled mass into your mouth, dribbling sauce down your chin and onto your lap, you cannot even slurp the dangling tubes in, as the hole in the center of the pasta makes each noodle into a fine straw through which you suck saucy air. Even bucatini’s most famous and celebrated dish, bucatini all’amatriciana, though deliciously bacony, is infuriatingly difficult to pronounce. (For the record, it’s boo-cah-TEE-nee all-lah-mah-tree-CHA-nah.)

So, bucatini was destined to be forever too high-maintenance for me. So many other pastas, so little time. But … being of Italian descent, I just couldn’t bear to turn my back
on one of my people’s creations. Bucatini are beloved by millions. They can’t all be pazzi. Can they?

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Math is hard

A couple decades ago, Mattel had the misguided vision to release a talking Barbie doll, one of whose onion-skin-witty quips has apocryphally been forever captured as "Math is hard. Let's go shopping!" This Barbie and I, we're, like, BFFs . I…

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