Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Officially Italian?...Pasta Siciliana says "yes!"

This is not the one I cooked..we gobbled it down too fast. This is the
 restaurant's down the street (i.e my competition)
Have I mentioned I am Italian? Well, only 1/4 Italian if we want to get specific, but it's the largest piece in my cultural-heritage-pie. And since it's the largest, and the only one still actively cultivated in my family, it tends to be a pretty big 25%. (And thanks to my dark hair and Italian-looking mama, people usually don't ask too many questions. My sister on the other hand...) We grew up incorporating Italian traditions into holiday meals and festivities, and Italian cooking was always encouraged. And Italian weddings- don't get me started! If you haven't been to one, you need to get yourself an Italian friend!

Anyway, I just enjoyed a wonderful week-long visit with my former roommate and Resident Expert (RE), who flew all the way to Italy to come hang with me! And if you recall, RE has a pretty restricted diet, so I knew we would be packing meals and eating home-prepared foods daily. It's amazing how much fun you can have in Italy sans pasta and pizza..we were proof! But I admit, after being immersed in Southern Italy for the past week, I was feeling pretty bold and couragous when she left, and that usually leads me straight to the kitchen. Pasta Siciliana was calling my name and I wanted to make it myself. Now, you know I was running on adrenalline because I didn't have a recipe to go by. I just know what's in it: tomatoes, eggplant, olive oil, fresh mozzarrella and beautiful rigatoni pasta. (Here, whenever something is called _____"Siciliana" it means it has an eggplant sauce.)

So armed with my Alice Waters The Art of Simple Food,  a bottle of wine (mostly for cooking, people), and an optimistic attitude, I began. (Chris and I also had the unspoken arrangement that we would be eating eggs and waffles if this plan bombed.) But luckily, it did not. This was, if I may say so, a dish that will give any Italian restaurant a run for their money. It is not, however, something to whip up on a quick night you don't feel like cooking. It took a little time and lots of pans. Here we go:

Pasta Siciliana ala Heather


1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (divided)
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 lb eggplant (1 small)
4 oz fresh mozzarella cheese (the kind packed in water); thinly sliced
12 ounces penne or rigatoni pasta (I used whole wheat)

1. Slice eggplant into 1/4 inch rounds. Salt each side and set in a colander for 20 minutes to extract excess moisture. Then, lay slices on paper towel or clean kitchen towel and blot both sides to remove water. cut rounds into thin strips.

2. Next, heat 1 Tbs olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 1-2 minutes until garlic softens.

3. Add red wine, tomato sauce, and oregeno to the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Then, quickly reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 20-30 minutes. Sauce will thicken and reduce.

4. Meanwhile, in another large skillet, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. Once hot, add 1/2 of the eggplant strips. (NOTE: eggplant will almost immediately absorb all the oil in the pan. Don't be alarmed. As they fry, they will release alot of the oil back into the pan. Once about 1/2 the oil is back in the pan, the eggplant should be a nice golden brown and very soft.) Use a slotted spoon to transfer eggplant to a papertowel lined plate.

5. Add remaining oil to the pan and fry the second batch of eggplant. (You may not need to use all the reserved oil..use enough to cover the bottom of the pan about 1/8-1/4 inch.) When finished add eggplant to tomato sauce along with a small amount of the eggplant oil. Gently stir in 1/2 of the mozzarella slices. Cover pot to keep warm while pasta cooks.

6. Cook pasta al dente according to package directions. Once finished, put in a bowl and serve with Siciliana sauce on top. Top with extra cheese slices, if desired.

Garnishing with fresh basil is also recommended..but this kitchen was fresh out :)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hello, 2012...Sorry I'm late!

Now that January is nearly come and gone..it seems like a fine time to talk about my New Year's goals. That's right- I said "goals." I pick this word because my resolutions aren't generally related to self improvement, but rather, new things I want to accomplish in the coming year. And true to character, they tend to be about food.

After ringing in the New Year, I realized how quickly my time in Italy is flying. And if I want to leave here knowing a little bit more about Italian cooking then I need to get movin'! So, my first goal is: learn to make pizza dough. GOOD pizza dough. This will, however, require that I conquer my fear of cooking with yeast. Right now, I just don't want to! But I know it must be done. So perhaps, this is the year. I feel I've met my previous year's goal of learning to make real-deal Italiano tomato sauce. I can make a mean sauce these days.

Second, I want to cook more vegetarian meals. I used to do this pretty often BM (before marriage), but have really gotten away from it since marrying Tazmanian devil (don't worry, it's a pet name). I believe in baby steps, so the initial goal is 1 meatless dinner per week. I've actually already started to do this, so I need to keep on keepin' on. (Major kudos to my friend Angie over at I Sweat the Small Stuff for her goal of 3 meatless dinners per week! I'll be coming to you for healthy ideas!)
Caprese Panini- one of our recent vegetarian lunches
(tomato, fresh basil, buffalo mozzarella)
Thanks, Mom for the Panini Press!!
Pumpkin BBQ Sauce
Next, I want to continue (and improve) on reducing food waste in our home. Besides the obvious "don't you know there are starving children in xyz-country?!" reason, it helps reduce food costs and, seriously- maybe it's a little OCDness in me- but I cannot stand to throw away foods just because they went bad before I was able to use them. Honestly, I think we do a pretty darn good job of this now, but there's always room for improvement. I'm a big fan of the "make extra and freeze some!" approach, but this only really works for bread and baked good in our house.We have a freezer full of homemade waffles and muffins. Rarely do I make a big batch of soup and think, 3 months down the road, "man I could really go for some potentially freezer burned chili!" But here is a recent example of avoiding waste before the stick-it-in-the-freezer option: Last week I made some roasted pork loins and overcooked them. They were TOUGH! Poor Chris kept saying "no, honey- it's really good!" But halfway through, he confessed his jaw hurt and he couldn't finish. So I pulled out my handy dandy Magic Bullet and chopped up the rest, mixed it with some delicious Pumpkin BBQ Sauce (see previous post), and the next day we had "pulled pork" sandwiches for lunch!

And last but not least, I desire and hope to blog more. I've been writing more non-food related things, but have become infrequent in blogging the past few months. It's a wonderful creative outlet for me, allows me to stay connected to friends and family, and saves Chris from the late-night brain storm sessions about the all the potential ways I can use, say 36 lbs of pumpkin, for example.

Well, until next time! We recently had the opportunity to travel to central Italy with my in-laws and I can't wait to write about that! Arrividerci!

Sunset view from our trip to Orvieto
Inside the walled city of Orvieto

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

You know it's true love when...

...your husband buys you 36 lbs of canned pumpkin for Christmas (and you as the recipient also happen to really love pumpkin). AND he gives you a guide on how to use it (see picture below). AND he does all this with the understanding and willingness that he himself will also have to eat a whole lot of pumpkin in the coming months. We have approximately 18 months left in Italy. I have 10 additional pounds of pumpkin in my pantry. So, based on our calculations: 18 months left in Italy divided by 46 lbs of pumpkin = we will need to consume an average of 2.5 lbs of pumpkin per month. I can commit to that! Especially with the awesome cookbook he bought me to go along with the gift.

Who needs jewelry when you can have the gift that gives all year?
(half serious)

First on the list? BBQ chicken thighs. Pumpkin is used in the BBQ sauce to enhance the sweetness of the molasses and brown sugar, as well as the tangy-ness of the vinegar, juice and mustard. See? There is a great big world out there beyond pumpkin pie. Here's the sauce recipe:

Spicy Pumpkin BBQ Sauce
(makes about 2 cups)

3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs molasses*
1/2 tsp hot sauce

Whisk all ingredients together. If using right away, brush both sides of 8 chicken thighs with sauce and cover and marinate at room temperature for 30 mins, before grilling, baking, or pan-frying. With remaining sauce, bring to a boil in a small saucepan. reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Sauce will keep for up to a month in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

*Molasses is one of those ingredients which previously caused me to avoid recipes that called for it; thinking "I'll buy a whole bottle of it, use 2 Tbs, and then never touch it again." WRONG! I have used it so many times this past fall/winter for marinades, cookies and, my personal fave: gingerbread waffles. Yum!  Besides, it stays good forever practically.