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Quick Italian-Style Garden Pickles, part 1

Quickpickles1I like pickles. I like all things pickled. I’m an equal-opportunity pickle lover, too. Tart, zingy dill pickles? Great. Sweet-sour bread-and-butter pickles? Ideal. Salty garlic pickles? Yum! And so now, with the Zojirushi equation looming over our heads, I have a yen to make pickles so as to have some variety at our fingers.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Quick Pickles on impulse. The promise of making bright, colorful folk pickles was too much to pass up. I promptly set it on the shelf and more or less forgot about it. But one of the joys of having too many cookbooks is the rediscovery of one that’s been lurking in a dark corner, or hiding behind a bigger book, or that you look at flat out hundreds of times and simply stop seeing.

I picked the recipe for Italian-Style Garden Pickles for its simplicity and its familiarity. But of course, I didn’t follow it exactly to the T. (Do I ever?) Rather, the vinegar is mostly apple cider vinegar with some white wine and red wine vinegars thrown in to make up the balance (it’s what I had in the house), and I tossed in some extra dry herbs to pump it up a bit.

The flavor will develop over the next few days. I’ll report back accordingly. The recipe, as usual, after the jump.

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New favorite restaurant: Acquerello

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I’m in love. Giddy as a schoolgirl. It’s been a long time since a restaurant has utterly swept me off my feet, maded me wrinkle my brow in wonder and then smile uncontrollably. Last night, I fell in love with Acquerello.

I’ve been eager to go to Acquerello for some time now. Many people have raved about it, especially the foodies and italophiles. Qualified praise, that. So I was thrilled when our friends Nick and Russ invited us to join them for dinner there with their friends Seth and Shadi. Apart from Nick, all of us were Acquerello virgins.

I’ll aspire to describe the evening as best as possible. I did not take any photos, despite recent guidance on how best to do so. I also wish I had gotten a rundown of the wines. Nick worked with the sommelier on the selections, and so I only know what we drank in broad strokes. But they were phenomal wines all.

Acquerello’s dining room is reminiscent of a Tuscan farmhouse or perhaps even a Romanesque chapel, with ochre- and siena-tinted walls and a vaulted ceiling of dark wood with a panted floral pattern. A large fresco on the far wall and numerous watercolor paintings (hence the name: "acquerello" means watercolor in Italian) round out the design. The overall effect is transportive, just edging on over-the-top yet still distinctly bearing the stamp of Italian aesthetic. Its warm and comforting atmosphere balances the formality of the place.

Notes on the dishes, wines and (perhaps most importantly) service after the jump.

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Adventures in leftovers: Faux risotto

FauxrisottoPerhaps it was due to the thick, chunky tortillas. Or perhaps we just bought too much seafood. At any rate, we were left with a nice collection of grilled shrimp and scallops from the weekend’s taco adventure. What to do, what to do.

As I’ve said before, we are masters of leftovers. Italian cooking makes that easy — there’s pretty much nothing you can’t throw in a pasta or slap on a pizza. After toying around with the options, and considering what we had in the pantry, I fell back on one of my staple recipes, faux risotto.

I love risotto, but the difference between an OK risotto and a truly euphoria-inducing one is far more art than science. I’m of the lazy and imprecise ilk, so I prefer to use pasta, which is far more forgiving. I used orzo, which technically makes this an orzotto, nothing faux about it. But I sometimes use the smaller riso pasta, which would make it … risotto. Sort of. Whatever. Anyway, using the pasta instead of rice makes for a nice, silky texture that will not turn to glue as easily.

This is another one of those non-recipes. There’s nothing precise about it — you just kind of go with the flow. But an approximation of the recipe follows after the jump.

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Pasta alla Franca

Yet another in our series of standbys. When our dear friend Franca (pictured, courtesy DPaul Brown, again from the cookbook) from Rome came to visit for the first time, she made us this dish. She wanted to make ragù, but as I was still vegetarian at the time, there was a little meat problem. No worries — she frequently made a vegetarian version, as she has several veg friends back in Rome. The dish immediately entered our repertoire, and we named it after her.

This is my favorite summertime pasta, with bright colors and bold flavors. But it is not a particularly subtle dish. Rather, it is a dish of amplitude: It uses a lot of oil, a lot of salt, a lot of herb. When all’s said and done, it fools you into thinking it’s a nice, light veggie pasta, but when you get under the hood, it’s far from health food. Who cares — it tastes good.

This dish is, as stated, vegetarian, and if you could find suitable eggless pasta could even be — *gasp* — vegan. But I’m not well-versed in the world of eggless pastas, so I cannot make a recommendation.

The real catch to the sauce is that the veg must be very well minced; like, to confetti. I suppose you could use the Cuisinart, but you just want everything broken down to fine pieces, not a puree. Also, you want to cook over moderate heat. The goal is not to sear each little piece, but to sweat it all down and make a soft mixture. When  you mince all the veg, it will increase in volume by an order of magnitude, but will reduce considerably in cooking. Any short pasta will work for this, but fusilli or rotini are ideal, as
the flecks of carrot and zucchini nestle in the nooks of the little
corkscrews.

When I assisted Franca the first time, prepping the ingredients, my knife skills were not quite as acute as they are today. Assessing my chop, she remarked, “Mm, sono un po’ grossetti.” The word grossetti made me chuckle, merging grosso, or large, with the diminutive suffix -etti. Only the Italians can have a word that means both large and small.

As usual, recipe plus a couple of bonus shots after the jump. And as usual with Italian recipes, measurements are for guidance only and are not meant to be taken too literally.

Update: As this was posted on the weekend, and involves copious amounts of herb, I’m throwing it in for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week on Sweetnicks.

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Ricotta pie

This recipe comes from my great Aunt Margherita Pecora, heaven rest her soul. Aunt Margaret (as we Americanized kids called her) emigrated to the states from the Old Country as a young woman, and spent the remaining six decades or…

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Rosette (Anginetti)

EastercookiesBesides the obligatory pizzelle and cannoli, no Easter is complete without rosette, shown here with the pizzelle and the traditional Peeps, a little-known Italian delicacy. These knot-shaped cookies are lightly sweet, somewhat bready in texture and iced with a simple glaze. A drop of food coloring makes for pretty pastel colors to enhance the Easter flavor.

This year, my aunt found an alternative recipe in, of all places, Entertaining with the Sopranos. Previously, she was using a recipe that called for ricotta, which makes for a moister cookie, with occasional clumps of ricotta in the cookie itself. The new recipe, called anginetti in the cookbook, is dried and breadier, which is evidently closer to the original cookie that my great-grandmother used to make. I’ll include both recipes (after the jump).

Which one is better? The jury’s still out. I think I’ll have to make a few batches of each before I decide.

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Pizzelle and cannoli abruzzesi

Cannoli2Everyone loves cannoli, don’t they? The traditional cannolo siciliano is comprised of a crispy, fried tube filled with a sweetened ricotta filling, often with chocolate chips or candied citrus rind. In my family, we make the tubes from pizzelle — crisp, wafer-thin cookies that you make on a waffle-like iron. (These are becoming increasingly available, and you can order one from Sur La Table.) In fact, while pizzelle (pron. peet-ZEHL in our dialectic) are popular all over Italy, they are believed to have originated in Salle, the town in Abruzzo where one branch of my family originated.

Pizzelle are normally flat, sometimes eaten with a dusting of powdered sugar; you can even find them in most grocery stores these days. However, they are pliable fresh off the iron, and can be molded into tubes, cones or cups before cooling and setting. They set within seconds, and it’s a short window between skin-blistering volcanic heat and crumbling cookie. You will burn your fingertips a little, but you will live, and it’s worth it. Recipe and, yes, pics after the jump.

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Stuffed artichokes

Artichokes8Despite my astonishingly WASPy name, I am in fact half Italian-American. It’s the side of the family that I grew up with more, and culturally how I identify myself. The various branches of my mother’s family hail from three places in southern Italy: Salle a hamlet in Abruzzo; Benevento, a medium-sized city not far from Napoli; and Reggio di Calabria, the very tip of the toe of the boot. Our family recipes are a hybrid of the influences of these three regions.

If most people eat to live, Italians live to eat. Every holiday has its obligatory dishes, and every person (well, woman) in the family has her requisite dish(es) to produce. My mother is responsible for stuffed artichokes, to be made at Easter and also at Thanksgiving. She inherited this recipe from her mother, who no doubt got it from hers and so on.

Here in California, where the artichokes come from, most people just steam them and dunk the leaves in mayonnaise, aioli or drawn butter. In my family, artichokes are stuffed with a breadcrumb mixture and then braised until tender. The outer leaves get packed with a savory, bready bite, giving way to the soft inner leaves and finally the creamy heart. They’re good warm, but best served at room temperature and are even not bad cold. Somewhat unusually, they are always served as part of dessert. The full recipe with plenty more pics (featuring my mother, the hand model) after the jump.

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