Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Before I knew I was going to Italy or even considering culinary school — and when I wasn't following recipes from my favorite sites like Bon Appétit and Smitten Kitchen or cookbooks by Alison Roman and Carla Lalli Music, my home "cooking" usually looked like this: pre-cooked brown rice from those microwavable Trader Joe's bags with sautéed scallions, spinach and a fried egg. Or Trader Joe's chicken sausages with sautéed bell peppers and mushrooms. Or, back when I had a sense of dietary self-control I can no longer comprehend, Trader Joe's turkey patties with sautéed cauliflower rice and fart-y vegetables like cabbage and Brussels sprouts — all flavored only with garlic, black pepper and, if I was really feeling wild, red chili flakes. Sensing a theme here: shortcut TJ's ingredients, little to no added flavor and exactly one cooking method: sauté.
Fast-forward to the end of my second culinary class, Tradition of Italian Food 1, and I'd say with nerdy earnestness that the most important thing I've learned is that cooking represents a world of possibilities I'd never considered. I was pushed to treat familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways and introduced to a few totally new foods, and I feel like I've taken one big step toward breaking some of the less than creative home-cooking habits I mentioned above.
Now, sautéing is still my favorite cooking method because I like how fast it is, I don't want to turn the oven on if it's not necessary and I love how it introduces golden color through a hot surface and moisture through cooking oil. We sauté a lot in class, and I always enjoy how our onions and leafy vegetables taste after a quick stint in a hot pan.
But now I know that it's worth going the extra mile to turn on the oven for, say, cheesy bell pepper involtini (recipe below) or baked onions stuffed with potatoes, carrots and salame. I know that blanching cauliflower — instead of roasting or steaming — in a meaty, tomato-y stock results in non-mushy florets that taste like bacon and don't smell like hot garbage. And, because I'm not going to stop talking about sautéing, I know that artichokes, which I usually find overly chewy and not worth the trouble, are awesome when sliced thinly and, of course, sautéed.
And then there's flavor. I knew I liked anchovies and raisins and capers, but I never thought to use them like herbs and spices, minced finely and sprinkled into sauces and stuffings. We used these fresh flavorings in a lot of recipes, which you'll see below, and I'm glad we did — because I can't wait to discover new ways to use them in meals at home. Even olive oil, which I'd previously only used as a cooking fat or in salad dressing, can be used to marinate sharp onions to tender tastiness or to drizzle over a finished pasta or soup for a flavorful sheen.
I'm still working on developing the instinctual palate of an experienced cook. My most common feedback from class has been that I could use a little more salt. To counter that on final-exam day, I dumped about a pound of coarse salt into my pasta cooking water, which resulted in rigatoni al pesto that was so salty, Chef Lorenzo's eyes popped out of his head. So, while I work on my relationship with salt and ability to assess my own dishes for flavor, I hope you cook some of my favorite recipes from class, written below.
Pappa al pomodoro
The Italian word for soup is zuppa, but this classic Tuscan dish is called pappa because of its thicker, almost fork-able texture — thanks to bread. Tuscans invented this dish to make use of dry, day-old pane, which soaks up lots of garlicky tomato goodness in the simple soup, tasty both hot and at room temperature.
--Enough extra-virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of a pot
--4 garlic cloves, peeled
--4 slices of red chili pepper
--A good pot-ful of tomatoes, sliced into large chunks (We used smaller cherry and datterini tomatoes, but you could use whatever looks good at the store.)
--Salt, to taste
--A couple handfuls of cubed old, dry bread (you can toast it to make it even drier), enough to soak up the tomato juices so the soup is chunky throughout
--Fresh basil, chopped
--More olive oil, salt and black pepper, for serving
1. Coat the bottom of a big pot with extra-virgin olive oil, and set over high heat. Add garlic and chili pepper, moving around the pan to lightly brown but not burn.
2. When the garlic and chili have some color, add the tomatoes and a big pinch of salt. Stir.
3. Cook the tomatoes until very soft and jammy, about 10 minutes.
4. Remove the tomatoes from heat, and pass through a food mill to separate the juices and pulp (which you want) from the skins (which you don't).
5. Put the smooth tomato mixture back into the pot or into a large bowl. Add cubed bread, and let sit for a few minutes until softened. Use a whisk to crush up the bread until you have a homogenous mixture.
6. Stir in fresh basil.
7. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper, fresh basil and more salt, if needed.
Fresh ravioli with ricotta, arugula and pine nuts in sage-butter sauce
Thinking of fresh pasta triggers me to a sweaty day in class where we had to make two different fresh pasta doughs, form them into two different shapes and combine them with two different sauces in an hour and a half — which felt more like 30 minutes because I'd spent the first half hour leisurely snapping photos of my pasta dough before I realized my cavatelli were severely misshapen and I hadn't even begun to make my ravioli filling.
However, thinking only of the ricotta-filled ravioli we cooked and topped with a buttery sage sauce makes me think only of pure deliciousness, and I hope you make it too!
For the pasta:
--200 grams soft wheat flour, preferably 00, which is finely milled
For the filling:
--3 tablespoons ricotta
--Small handful toasted pine nuts, chopped
--A few leaves of arugula, cut into ribbons
--A good drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
--Salt and black pepper, to taste
For the sauce:
--2 tablespoons of butter
--5 sage leaves
--A splash of pasta cooking water
--Salt, to taste
1. Make filling: Combine all ingredients with a spoon, and set aside. You're looking for a mostly white mixture with flecks of green, so make sure you don't use too much arugula, or it will taste too bitter.
2. Make pasta: Whisk together flour and eggs with a fork.
3. When just combined, move the dough to a flat, preferably wooden, surface. Sprinkle the surface lightly with flour. (Don't add too much more flour to the dough, or it will affect the ratio of wet to dry too much.) Knead the dough until it resembles a smooth ball and bounces back when you poke it with your finger, about 5 to 10 minutes. Wrap in plastic and set aside to rest for 10 minutes.
4. Now that the gluten has had a chance to relax, the dough is ready to be shaped. Use a pasta machine to form the dough into flat sheets, then cookie cutters or another pasta-shaping device to make you favorite shape of ravioli. We made mezzelune (half-moons), which you do by cutting the dough into large circles, adding a small spoonful of ricotta filling just above the center, and folding the other half over. To make sure the dough sticks, wet your finger with water and trace it over the edges of the circle before folding, then lightly pinch the edges together. We only used about a fourth of a dough ball to make one serving.
5. Add the ravioli to salted boiling water, and cook for about 2 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a pan over high heat. Add sage to cook, as well as a splash of pasta cooking water. When the sauce is thick and bubbling, add the ravioli and gently stir. Serve immediately.
Involtini di peperoni alla Barese (rolled-up roasted bell peppers filled with yummy stuff)
These soft-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside involtini are a more interesting way to eat roasted bell peppers than plain or in a salad (read: with cheese, breadcrumbs and anchovies). We didn't use goat cheese in class, but I'm adding it here because I thought the filling could use a little more moisture and creaminess to complement the toasty breadcrumbs — and more cheese is always a good idea.
--A spoonful of finely chopped anchovy
--A spoonful of finely chopped capers
--1 garlic clove, finely chopped
--A couple spoonfuls of breadcrumbs
--A couple spoonfuls of finely chopped parsley
--A couple spoonfuls of grated pecorino cheese
--A generous spoonful of goat cheese
--Enough extra-virgin olive oil to turn the mixture into a wet-sand-like paste
--A few roasted red peppers, sliced into flat squares — or what I call blankets — that are a few inches wide on each side (It's OK if some of them have tears; they should still roll up nicely)
1. Preheat the oven to, well, Chef didn't tell us the temperature, but I'd say 375 degrees F would do the trick.
2. Combine anchovy, capers, garlic, breadcrumbs, parsley and pecorino in a small bowl. Stir with a spoon and drizzle in enough EVOO until the mixture resembles wet sand. Set a couple of spoonfuls of this mixture aside. This will be the crispy topping.
3. Stir in the goat cheese to the leftover mixture. This will be the creamy filling.
4. The peppers will probably be pretty wet, so you can pat them with paper towels to clean up some of the mess. Working on a flat surface and using your fingers, add a thick line of goat-cheese filling to the bottom edge of a pepper sheet. Roll into a cylinder, and top with a line of the reserved dry breadcrumb mixture. Repeat with remaining peppers, and arrange on a baking sheet.
5. Bake for 7 minutes, or until the filling is hot and the topping is golden brown.
Caseccere e cavolfiore alla Napoletana (pasta and cauliflower in a tomato-y pancetta broth)
Florence was in the midst of a lethal heat wave when we were due to made this hot, soupy pasta, so Chef Lorenzo turned off the kitchen lights and told us to close our eyes, imagining darkness and a wintry chill in the air as we took our first bites. I still felt hot, but after one spoonful of this comforting, deeply flavored dish, I didn't care.
--Enough extra-virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of a medium-size pot
--2 cloves of garlic, peeled
--A handful of diced pancetta
--About 2 cups of cauliflower florets, cut into bite-size pieces (Hint: they should match the size of the pasta you're using.)
--About 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
--Salt, to taste
--1/3 pound of caserecce pasta (Penne, farfalle or small rigatoni would also work.)
--A couple spoonfuls of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
--More olive oil and black pepper, for serving
1. Cook garlic and pancetta in olive oil over high heat, stirring frequently, until both begin to brown and crisp, but don't fully cook.
2. Add cauliflower and tomatoes, and stir. Add salt, and stir.
3. Cook the mixture for a couple of minutes until the cauliflower and tomatoes begin to soften, then add a few inches of hot water and/or stock, enough to cover the vegetables.
4. When water begins to boil, add the pasta, cooking until the pasta is al dente and the cauliflower is softened but not mushy.
5. Remove from heat and stir in a drizzle of olive oil and cheese.
5. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of black pepper. The final dish should look like a soupy pasta, so be sure to add plenty of liquid to the bowl.
Ricotta frittata (that's fun to say) with chard and citrus
I'm a baby and usually turn up my nose at dishes that star super dark greens like chard and kale, but there's so much fluffy egg and frittata going on in this recipe, I don't mind the greens a bit. Don't leave out the citrus zest; the surprising ingredient adds so much brightness to the creamy ricotta, and it's actually a good way to counter the bitterness of Swiss chard.
--1-2 tablespoons olive oil
--1/4 a big red onion or half of a small one, julienned
--A couple of slices of chili pepper (Optional; I forgot it when we made it in class and I was still a fan, lol.)
--Salt, to taste
--A few big handfuls of shredded Swiss chard (It'll wilt.)
--2 big spoonfuls ricotta
--Most of the zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1. Sauté onion and chili pepper in olive oil with salt until fully cooked. Add chard, stirring for a couple of minutes until just wilted. Salt again if needed.
2. In a bowl, whisk together eggs, ricotta and zest.
3. Add chard and stir to combine, working quickly so the hot chard doesn't cause the eggs to cook in the bowl.
4. Add olive oil to a clean pan, using a paper towel to evenly distribute the thin layer of oil. Set to medium-high heat, and add the egg mixture. Cook until golden brown on one side, about 4 minutes. Flip, and cook the other side until brown, which will probably only take a couple of minutes since the pan will be hotter. Cut into triangles and serve immediately.
Rigatoni with summery almond pesto
Pesto that doesn't require expensive pine nuts or a blender and tastes like summer itself??? Sign me up! That's what you'll get from this tangy, briny, herby almond pesto, which could be enjoyed on toast but is delicious with big ol' rigatoni and salty bottarga. My friend Amanda's mom made it and added anchovies because she's smart, so I'm sure you could also experiment by stirring in a little cheese, toasting the almonds or throwing in different herbs.
Ingredients (for one big serving):
--5 pieces (basically, halves) of sun-dried tomato
--Big handful of fresh basil
--1 big garlic clove, peeled
--1 tablespoon capers
--Small handful raw and peeled almonds
--1 big serving of rigatoni (But any pasta should work.)
--A good drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, enough to combine all of the ingredients into a moist paste
--Bottarga, if desired, and more basil and olive oil, for serving
1. Place the tomatoes in a small bowl, sprinkle with salt and cover with water to rehydrate.
2. Boil a small pot of water, and add basil, blanching for a few seconds. Remove basil and place in a bowl of cold water. This will preserve the bright green color; otherwise, the basil will turn blackish.
3. Add cold water to the same pot, and place over high heat. Add the garlic, keeping it there until the water boils. Remove the garlic, pour out the water, and repeat 1 or 2 more times. This will help mellow out the sharpness of the garlic since you'll be eating it raw. (Honestly, if you're a big fan of garlic, I think you could skip this. Italians just use less garlic than Americans do, I've learned.)
3. Finely mince tomatoes, basil, garlic, capers and almonds. It's a pain, but the finer you chop them, the better they will coat the pasta.
4. Meanwhile, bring salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta.
5. When you're satisfied with your chopping, place ingredients in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and combine into a moist paste. Taste and adjust until you're happy with the balance of flavors. You might not need to add salt since there are capers.
6. When the pasta is al dente, add a few spoonfuls of the sauce to a big bowl, add the pasta and a little bit of cooking liquid, and stir. The pasta should be moist, but not liquidy, and evenly sprinkled with sauce.
7. Serve with a tiny drizzle of EVOO, fresh basil and, if using, bottarga.
Pistachio-crusted lamb chops with sweet sautéed artichokes
This one was a pleasant surprise for me, as I'd never cooked lamb before (it turned out great) and I've always found artichokes too chewy and not worth the trouble they take to prep (turns out, I like them thinly sliced and sautéed).
For the lamb:
--2 ribs from a rack of lamb
--Salt, to taste
--Juice of 1 lemon
--1 teaspoon honey
--Small handful pistachios, finely minced
--3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
--2 heaping tablespoons grated pecorino cheese
--1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
--3 tablespoons Marsala wine (or another sweet wine)
For the artichokes:
--2 artichokes with the chokes, tops, bottoms and all of the outer petals removed, finely sliced into shred-like pieces
--2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
--Salt, to taste
--3 tablespoons Marsala wine (or another sweet wine)
--1 teaspoon fresh marjoram or another herb
1. Whisk together lemon juice and honey in a small bowl. Salt the lamb on both sides, then brush with lemon-honey mixture on both sides.
2. Use a fork to combine pistachios, breadcrumbs and cheese. Coat lamb generously with mixture on all sides, patting the mixture onto the meat gently so it sticks.
3. Heat olive oil in a pan over high heat. When hot, add lamb, cooking until the pistachio coating is crispy and golden brown but the meat is still pink inside, about 1 or 2 minutes on each side.
4. Lower heat slightly, add wine and partially cover the pan with a lid until the wine reduces and moistens the meat with a little liquid, about 20 seconds.
5. Set lamb aside, and heat olive oil in another pan for the artichokes. Add artichokes and salt, and sauté until the artichokes are crisp-tender and lightly brown, a few minutes.
6. Add marjoram and wine, and stir, cooking until the wine reduces, a couple more minutes. Serve with the lamb.