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Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen

 


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Scampi Appetizer "Alla Buonavia" - Clams Casino - Baked Clams Oreganata - Italian-American Lasagna - Italian-American Meat Sauce

from Chapter 1

Antipasto

Among the many things Italians brought with them to this country is their love for antipasti-those little bites to nibble on before the meal. An antipasto can be as simple as prosciutto e melone, affetati (an assortment of sliced, cured meats), or a lemony seafood salad. Or it can take up the better part of a table with a display of vegetables that are grilled, pickled, tossed in vinaigrette, broiled to golden brown, or fried; fish that has been cured, preserved in oil or salt, tossed in a salad, or made into a terrine; as well as all kinds of cured meats, cheeses, legumes, salads, and crostate (savory pastries). Whether simple or elaborate, an antipasto is meant to stimulate the taste buds and start the gastric juices flowing with an assortment of flavors, textures, colors, and aromas.

At home antipasti were usually made up of food that could be found in the cupboard-cured, marinated, smoked, dried, or otherwise preserved foods and meats, and an assortment of dried or aged cheeses. In Italian-American restaurants of the 1970s and '80s, "antipasto" meant a plate of prosciutto, salami, cacciatorini, cheese, roasted peppers and all kinds of vegetables-artichokes, giardiniera, pickled mushrooms, assorted olives, beans-tuna in oil, anchovies, and hard-boiled eggs. All this would be dressed with some virgin olive oil and wine vinegar. Today, antipasti include a whole repertoire of hot preparations and salads in addition to these traditional favorites.

It is easier than ever to present an authentic family-style antipasto at home, because it is easier to get traditional products imported from Italy. Prosciutto, whether from Parma or the type of prosciutto known as San Daniele, from Friuli-is the king of any antipasto assortment and can now be found across the United States, as can many imported Italian cheeses, cured fish, and vegetables. The surest way to capture the flavors, colors, and textures of a culture is by using authentic products. If you take a bite of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or taste a drop of aceto balsamico tradizionale, there is no doubt in your mind, or on your palate, that you are eating Italian. Use that to your advantage and search out these authentic products, which will bring your table that much closer to Italy. And remember that cooking techniques are also important to the authenticity of a dish. In this chapter I share with you some of the antipasti that have become my favorites.


SCAMPI APPETIZER "ALLA BUONAVIA"

This appetizer was very popular at my first restaurant, Buonavia, which opened in 1971. It was a time when lots and lots of chopped garlic was used in Italian-American cooking. If you like a milder garlic flavor, use crushed or sliced garlic cloves instead, and remove them from the dish before you serve it.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing dish
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 pound extra-large (about 25 to the pound) shrimp, completely shelled, deveined, and cut crosswise into 3
pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper
Salt
6 slices Italian bread (about 1/4 inch thick and 2 1/2 inches wide), toasted and kept warm
1 lemon, cut into slices
Whole chives and/or parsley sprigs, optional

Makes 6 servings

In this dish, high heat and speed are essential. Make sure the pan is good and hot when you add the shrimp and that it is wide enough to hold all the shrimp pieces in a single layer (so the pan doesn't cool down as the shrimp go in). And be sure to have all your ingredients right by the stove-once the shrimp go into the pan, it's "full speed ahead."

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, shaking the pan, until light golden, about 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high, add the shrimp, and toss until they are bright pink and seared on all sides, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chopped chives, then add the wine, butter, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, and boil until the shrimp are barely opaque in the center and the sauce is reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley and crushed red pepper. Season with salt.

Place a piece of warm toast in the center of each of six warm plates. Spoon the shrimp and sauce over the toast, drizzling some of the sauce around the toast. Decorate the plates with lemon slices, and with the parsley sprigs and/or whole chives, if using.


CLAMS CASINO

The restaurant business is tough on family life. Joseph, my son, was only four years old when we opened our first restaurant, Buonavia, in Forest Hills, Queens. He would spend many days playing on tomato boxes, and when he got a little older, he would make pocket money by standing on a milk crate and helping with the dishes or the preparation of the day's vegetables. But he did have his rewards, and a plate of clams casino was one of his favorites.

36 littleneck clams
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 red or yellow bell peppers, roasted and peeled as described below, cut into 1-inch squares
12 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch squares
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup dry white wine

Makes 6 servings

You can prepare the clams right in their baking dish up to several hours in advance and bake them just before you serve them.

Preheat the oven to 450’ F.

Shuck the clams as described on page 7, reserving the clam juice and arranging the clams on the half shell side by side in a 13 x 11-inch baking dish. Strain the juice through cheesecloth or a very fine sieve into the baking dish. Sprinkle some of the parsley over the clams. Top each clam with a square of roasted pepper. Cover the pepper with two squares of bacon. Using about 3 tablespoons of the butter, dot the top of each clam with about 1/4 teaspoon butter. Cut the remaining butter into several pieces and tuck them in and around the clams in the baking dish. Add the wine and remaining parsley to the baking dish.

Bake until the bacon is crisp and the pan juices are bubbling, about 12 minutes. Arrange clams on a warmed serving platter, or divide them among warmed plates. Pour the pan juices into a small saucepan and bring to a boil on top of the stove. Boil until lightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Spoon the juices over the clams and serve immediately.



Two Ways to Roast a Bell Pepper

Roasting peppers imparts a subtle flavor to them, softens the texture, and removes the skin-which some people find hard to digest. Here are two ways to roast a pepper. Whether roasting green, red, or yellow peppers, choose thick-fleshed peppers that are boxy in shape-they will char more evenly and be easier to peel.

Turn the gas burners on high and, working with a pair of long-handled tongs, place the peppers on the grates, directly over the flames. Roast the peppers, turning them as necessary, until evenly blackened on all sides, about 8 minutes. Remove the peppers, place them in a bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 40 minutes.

Or place a rack in the uppermost position and preheat the oven to 475’ F. Put the peppers on a baking sheet and roast them, turning as necessary, until all sides are evenly blackened, about 12 minutes. Remove the peppers to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 40 minutes.

To peel the peppers: Pull out the stems and hold the peppers upside down, letting the seeds and juices flow out. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and, using a short knife, scrape away the blackened skin, ribs, and remaining seeds.




BAKED CLAMS OREGANATA
Vongole Oreganate


This is a tasty dish adored by many people. Shucking the clams is easy, if you follow the directions on page 7. And it beats steaming them open, which toughens the clams.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
36 littleneck clams
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper, chopped fine
2 cups coarse, dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup cubed (1/4-inch) peeled and seeded tomatoes (see Note below)
1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably the Sicilian or Greek type dried on the branch, crumbled
1 lemon, cut into thin slices

Makes 6 servings

I always add diced fresh tomato to this dish, because I think it contributes a little freshness. Now is the time to try to find the
Greek or Sicilian oregano dried right on the branch-it makes a difference. Many Greek and Italian groceries will have it.

You can buy powdered hot red pepper, but I like to chop up the flakes myself.

Let the oil and garlic steep in a small bowl 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 475’ F. Shuck the clams as described on page 7, reserving the clam juice. Strain the juice through cheesecloth or a very fine sieve into a 13 x 11-inch baking dish. Add the white wine, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the parsley, the butter, and half of the crushed red pepper.

In a deep bowl, toss the bread crumbs, grated cheese, tomatoes, 3 tablespoons of the garlic-infused oil, the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley, the oregano, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper until thoroughly blended.

Top each clam with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the bread-crumb topping, packing it down tight. Set clams in the prepared baking pan and drizzle the remaining infused oil over them. Bake until the pan juices are bubbling and the bread crumbs are golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer the clams to a warm platter or divide among serving plates.

To keep the bread-crumb topping crunchy, spoon the sauce from the baking dish onto the plates-not over the clams. Serve immediately, garnished with the lemon slices.



To Peel and Seed Tomatoes

Use this method with either plum or round tomatoes. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and set a bowl of ice water near the stove. Cut the cores out of the tomatoes and cut a small x in the opposite end. Slip a few tomatoes into the boiling water and cook just until the skin loosens, 1 to 2 minutes depending on the tomatoes. (Overcooking will make them soggy.) Fish the tomatoes out of the water with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon and drop them into the ice water. If necessary, let the water return to the boil and repeat with any remaining tomatoes. Slip the skins off the blanched tomatoes and cut the tomatoes in half-lengthwise for plum tomatoes, crosswise for round tomatoes. Gently squeeze out the seeds with your hands. The tomatoes are now ready to dice or cut as described in the recipe.




ITALIAN-AMERICAN LASAGNA

2 pounds fresh or packaged whole-milk ricotta cheese
Italian-American Meat Sauce
Salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds lasagna noodles
2 large eggs
2 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 pound mozzarella cheese, preferably fresh, sliced thin

Makes 12 servings, plus leftovers

I am always telling you not to add oil to the water when you cook pasta, because it will reduce the adherence of sauce to the pasta. Cooking long, flat pasta--like these lasagna noodles--is the exception. They have a tendency to stick together when they cook; the oil will help prevent that. Inevitably, some noodles will break. Save the pieces; they will come in handy to patch the layers of lasagna.

You'll notice in the meat-sauce recipe that the final consistency of the sauce should be fairly dense. Following that pattern, I suggest you drain the ricotta first, to remove a lot of the moisture. Removing excess moisture from the ingredients will result in a finished lasagna that is more compact and intense in flavor.

You may assemble the lasagna completely up to a day before you serve it, but don't cook it until the day you plan to serve it. Lasagna tastes better and is easier to cut if it is allowed to stand about an hour after it is removed from the oven. It will retain enough heat to serve as is, or, if you prefer, pop it back in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. My favorite way to serve lasagna is to bake it and let it stand 3 to 4 hours. Cut the lasagna into portions, then rewarm it in the oven.

Line a sieve with a double thickness of cheesecloth or a basket-type coffee filter. Place the ricotta over the cheesecloth and set the sieve over a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to 1 day. Discard the liquid that drains into the bowl. Make the meat sauce.

Bring 6 quarts of salted water and the olive oil to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat. Stir about one-third of the lasagna noodles into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, set a large bowl of ice water next to the stove. When the lasagna noodles are al dente, remove them with a wire skimmer and transfer to the ice water. Let them stand until completely chilled. Repeat the cooking and cooling with the remaining two batches of lasagna noodles. When the cooked noodles are chilled, remove them from the ice bath and stack them on a baking sheet, separating each layer with a clean, damp kitchen towel.

While the noodles are cooking, beat the eggs with a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl until foamy. Add the ricotta and stir until thoroughly blended. Preheat oven to 375° F.

To assemble the lasagne, ladle about 3/4 cup of the meat sauce over the bottom of a 15 x 10-inch baking dish. Arrange noodles lengthwise and side by side so as to cover the bottom of the baking dish and overhang the short ends of the dish by about 2 inches. (A little "cut and paste" might be necessary. Also, the noodles will most likely overlap in the center of the dish. That is fine.) Spoon enough meat sauce, about 2 cups, to cover the noodles in an even layer. Sprinkle the sauce with 1/2 cup of the grated cheese. Arrange a single layer of noodles crosswise over the cheese so they overhang the long sides of the baking dish by about 2 inches, trimming the noodles and overlapping them as necessary. Spread the ricotta mixture evenly over the noodles. Arrange a single layer of noodles lengthwise over the ricotta, trimming the noodles as necessary. Arrange the sliced mozzarella in an even layer over the noodles. Spread 1 cup of the meat sauce over the cheese and sprinkle 1 cup of grated cheese over the sauce. Cover with a layer of noodles, arranged lengthwise. Spoon enough meat sauce, about 2 cups, to cover the noodles in an even layer, and sprinkle the sauce with 1/2 cup grated cheese. Turn the noodles overhanging the sides and ends of the dish over the lasagna, leaving a rectangular uncovered space in the middle. Spread a thin layer of meat sauce over the top layer of noodles. Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake 45 minutes.

Uncover the lasagna and continue baking until the top is crusty around the edges, about 20 minutes. Let rest at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours before cutting and serving. To rewarm a lasagna that has been standing, cover it loosely with foil and place in a 325° F oven until heated through, 15 to 45 minutes, depending on how long it has been standing.

Pasticcio is the Italian word for things that are put together in a messy fashion and in no particular order. In Italian cuisine, the same word is used to describe baked pasta dishes layered with different kinds of sauces and fillings. This pasticciata is made with layers of crepes and spinach-ricotta filling.



ITALIAN-AMERICAN MEAT SAUCE

Sugo di Carne

Two 35-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced (about 2 cups)
6 to 8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
5 to 6 meaty pork neck bones (about 34 pound)
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
Salt
4 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably the Sicilian or Greek type dried on the branch, crumbled
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup tomato paste
3 to 4 cups hot water

Makes about 8 cups, enough to fill and sauce Italian-American Lasagna (page 156) or to dress about 2 pounds pasta

If you have trouble finding ground pork, or if you prefer to grind your own, it's really very easy. (And if you buy a piece of bone-in pork to grind, you'll have the bones you need for the sauce.) Remove all bones and gristle from the meat, but leave some of the fat. Cut the pork into 1-inch pieces, and chill them thoroughly. Grind about half at a time in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse, using quick on/off motions, until the meat is ground coarsely.

In my region of Italy, tomato paste is usually added along with the onions to caramelize a little bit. But around Naples, and the rest of southern Italy, tomato paste is stirred right into the sauce. Tha's how I do it here.

When the sauce is finished simmering, you can pull the meat from the bones and stir it into the sauce, or you can do what I do--nibble on it while the sauce perks away. This makes quite a bit of sauce--enough to feed a small crowd and have enough left over to freeze in small quantities for a quick pasta meal for one or two.

Pass the tomatoes and their liquid through a food mill fitted with the fine disc. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4- to 5-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Make a little room in the center of the pot, dump in the garlic, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add the pork bones and cook, turning, until lightly browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and pork and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring to break up the meat, until the meat changes color and the water it gives off is boiled away, about 10 minutes. Continue cooking until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaves and oregano, then pour in the wine. Bring to a boil and cook, scraping up the brown bits that cling to the pot, until the wine is almost completely evaporated. Pour in the tomatoes, then stir in the tomato paste until it is dissolved. Season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a lively simmer, and cook, uncovered, stirring often, until the sauce takes on a deep, brick-red color, 2 to 3 hours. Add the hot water, about 1/2 cup at a time, as necessary to maintain the level of liquid for the length of time the sauce cooks.

Skim off any fat floating on top and adjust the seasoning as necessary. The sauce can be prepared entirely in advance and refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.




Tomato Paste

Tomato paste is the essence of tomato in a concentrated form. I use tomato paste to bring an intense tomato flavor to a dish, or when I want the sweetness and mellow flavor of tomato without the acidity of fresh tomatoes. I also add tomato paste to soups, braised meat dishes, and slow-simmered tomato sauces for a rich color and complexity of flavor. The next time you make a roast, dilute a tablespoon of tomato paste in a cup of hot stock or water and add it to the pan. It will give the roast a bit of color and a lot of taste.

Traditionally, tomato paste is made by spreading very ripe tomatoes on a wooden board to dry in the sun. As they dry, the tomatoes are turned daily and spread out on the board, like plaster of Paris, until most of their water is evaporated. During the drying process, the tomatoes' acidity is greatly reduced and their flavor and sweetness are intensified. Today, tomato paste is dehydrated in commercial plants by boiling the tomatoes down, then drying them in a slow oven.

To give tomato paste a nuttier flavor, I like to caramelize it by cooking it in oil along with vegetables before the other ingredients are added to the pot. And, to get the most out it, I like to cook it longer than I would fresh or canned tomatoes.


Excerpted from Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich Copyright 2001 by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.