One thing Italians share with the rest of the world is their love for pasta. Pasta remains part of a rich tradition that impacts every corner of Italy, meshing with regional cultures and influencing local cuisine.
Orecchiette is a pasta specialty from the beautiful southeastern region of Puglia, down in Italy’s southern ‘heel’. It’s one of the country’s flattest and most fertile regions, with wheat and olive oil produced in abundance.
Orecchiette translates to ‘small ears’—a fitting name for a dome-shaped pasta that looks like tiny ears. This pasta has a thin, concave center, chewy edges, and a rough surface texture. Orecchiette require only three ingredients: hard wheat flour, water and salt.
Their particular shape, combined with the rough surface, makes it perfect for any kind of sauce, especially vegetable sauces.
With its deep-rooted history in the region, use of simple ingredients, and its convenient versatility, orecchiette has become a defining part not only of Puglia’s cuisine, but its culture, as well. And its popularity extends far beyond the region of Puglia.
I absolutely love orecchiette with its chewiness and nice ‘cupping’ ability. Pared with some cheesy meatballs, this meal is so good!
Orecchiette w/ Cheesy Chicken Meatballs
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta & cook until tender but still firm to the bite., stirring occasionally, about 8-10 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Transfer pasta to a bowl & add the parmesan. Toss to lightly coat orecchiette, adding reserved pasta water, if needed to loosen pasta.
Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a large baking sheet with foil & rub with oil.
In a large bowl, combine ground chicken, Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, egg & garlic. Season with salt & pepper. Form into 30-40 meatballs, then place on prepared baking sheet & bake until browned & cooked through about 25 minutes.
In a large pot, add chicken broth & tomatoes & bring to a boil. Reduce heat & simmer until tomatoes are soft. Remove from heat & add meatballs & pasta/cheese mixture. Combine grated mozzarella cheese with basil paste.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter a 9-inch baking dish.
Place meatball/pasta mixture in baking dish & top with mozzarella cheese/basil mixture. Bake only until cheese is melted.
Italian cuisine has developed through centuries of social and political changes and is noted for its regional diversity and abundance of difference in taste.
Tortiera di Patate Carciofi e Salsiccia or ‘potato pie with artichokes and sausage’, is classic, simple comfort food at its finest. A seasonal dish that can serve as a hearty vegetable side dish (omitting the sausage) to a meat or fish meal, but which can also be the main course by adding the sausage meat as I did here.
Being a vegetable lover, I think vegetables are all good, but put together they make for fantastic preparations.
This is a very easy preparation, which does not require special techniques or even special skills. Potatoes go very well with artichokes and sausage, making it a dish with a harmonious and truly savory taste.
Potatoes Layered w/Artichokes & Breadcrumbs
In a small saucepan, add milk. Slowly whisk in flour until blended then add salt, pepper & smoked paprika. Bring to a boil over medium heat while whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low & simmer, stirring for about 5 minutes. remove from heat & stir in parmesan.
Veggies & Sausage
Cook potatoes in microwave until soft but not overcooked. Peel (if you wish) & slice into 1/4-inch slices; set aside.
Clean artichokes, remove the harder outer leaves, cut them into fairly thin slices & brown in a pan with oil, season with salt. Add water & cook only until soft. Drain any excess water & set aside.
Scramble fry sausage meat, remove from heat & drain on paper towels. Grate cheese. Prepare some breadcrumbs for topping.
Line a 8-inch round baking dish with foil & brush with oil. Place a layer of potatoes in the bottom of pan then top with a layer of artichokes. Sprinkle half of the sausage meat on top then half of the grated cheese. Spread half of the béchamel sauce over all. Repeat the same procedure to form a second layer.
Bake for about 45 minutes or until bubbling & hot. Remove from oven & allow to cool about 10 minutes. Invert onto a serving plate. Carefully remove foil & sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Serve.
Biscotti are time consuming to say the least, but they’re also one of the easiest and tastiest cookies you’ll ever make. No special equipment is needed; just a bowl, a couple of baking sheets and some parchment paper.
The word biscotti is derived from the Latin biscoctus, meaning twice baked or cooked: the dough is formed into logs, baked, cooled and baked again. Whereas Italians use the word ‘biscotti’ to refer to various cookies, North Americans use the term to refer to the singular long, crisp, twice-baked Italian cookie. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that biscotti became a treasured North American favorite.
Despite their centuries old heritage, there is no one perfect way to make biscotti. Some recipes call for eggs, which is the traditional method, while others use butter or oil. The choice is yours; just keep in mind that those made with butter or oil will have both a softer texture and a shorter shelf life.
Today, it seems, biscotti is everywhere with an endless array of flavors. Classics such as almond, anise and hazelnut to gingerbread, maple walnut or mint chocolate chip. There are also savory biscotti made with various cheeses and herbs that are so good when paired with a charcuterie plate, an assortment of olives and cheeses or even a bowl of soup.
Since the holiday season is upon us and as you have probably noticed, I like making the most of basic recipes with some variations. Being able to make four different flavors using one basic recipe definitely speeds up the process.
Basic Biscotti Dough (use 1 recipe per variation)
Cardamom Orange Variation
Seeded Cranberry Variation
Speculoos Spice Variation
Preheat oven to 300 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
TO MAKE 80 BISCOTTI IN TOTAL, USE ONE RECIPE OF THE BASIC BISCOTTI DOUGH FOR EACH VARIATION. THE MIXING PROCEDURE IS ALWAYS THE SAME, JUST VARY EACH ONE WITH THE DIFFERENT ADDITIONS.
Using an electric mixer, cream together butter & sugar until light & fluffy. Add eggs & vanilla extract (add orange zest in CARDAMOM ORANGE variation). Mix until combined.
In another bowl, whisk together flour, (SPICES where called for), baking powder & salt.
Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients a little at a time, mixing on low until JUST incorporated. Add CITRON PEEL or PEPITA SEEDS & CRANBERRIES to the variations calling for them.
Shaping & Baking
For each recipe (or variation), shape dough into a log that is about 16-inches long. Place 2 logs on each baking sheet. Use your hands to flatten the dough logs until they are about 3/4-inch thick. Gently press the sides & ends of the logs to even them out & flatten them.
If desired, sprinkle logs with coarse sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until lightly golden & the center of the logs is almost firm & bounces back when touched.
Let the logs cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 275 F. Using a sharp knife to cut the logs into 3/4-inch thick diagonal slices. Press straight down with the knife, rather than using a sawing motion. Lay the slices, cut side up, back on the lined baking sheets.
Bake another 20-25 minutes, turning halfway through baking time. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 1-2 weeks or in the freezer for 3 months.
You will have roughly 20 biscotti from each variation.
- Since I have a nut allergy, sadly I can't use them, but don't hesitate to make some variations of your own.
Risotto, a classic Italian dish with origins in the northern part of the country, is traditionally made with Arborio rice, a short-grained rice with a particularly starchy consistency. While the classic version is always a treat, I love the versatility of risotto, which can be made with just about any grain. In particular barley, not only because this nutty grain adds complexity to the dish in terms of taste and texture, but also because of the many health benefits of the grain.
The amount of work involved with this dish is much less than you’d think. Risotto has the reputation of needing a lot of attention, but in reality, it just needs a few stirs now and then, and little else.
Risotto is undoubtedly pure Italian comfort food. This creamy, hearty dish is usually associated with cold weather. However, risotto can be made with just about any seasonal ingredient and is delicious enjoyed year round!
Risotto can be as elegant or as simple as you like. Using butternut squash & beets adds some winter vegetable interest.
Barley Risotto w/ Roast Butternut Squash & Beets
Rub unpeeled beets with some oil & bake until soft. Cool slightly, peel & dice. Set aside.
In a skillet, melt half the butter & sauté onion until soft; add the barley & mix until coated with butter. Add the wine, stir & allow to evaporate. Heat the broth & add a ladle to onion/barley mixture & leave until most of the broth is absorbed. Uncover, add some more broth; do not let the barley dry out. Cook barley until it is soft, over a medium heat. It should take about 20 minutes. Season with salt & pepper to taste.
On a baking tray, place squash, drizzle with some olive oil & sprinkle with pepper & add rosemary. Roast at 350 F. until soft but still firm. During the last 3 minutes add the beets to reheat them. Remove the rosemary.
When barley is cooked, remove the pan from the oven; add remaining butter & parmesan & stir well. Set aside for a couple of minutes. It should become quite creamy.
To serve, place on serving plates & top with roasted vegetables. Serve immediately.
Instead of making the basic ricotta and spinach stuffed pasta shells which you can easily find in the frozen section at your local grocery store, I wanted to kick the flavors up a notch. The savory and salty prosciutto pairs perfectly with the creamy, butteriness of the brie.
Brie is a soft, creamy, buttery cheese that originated in France, and is produced internationally. It has a creamy interior with a soft, bloomy, edible rind of white mold. Brie is traditionally made from cows milk, but can be made from goat’s milk.
Nothing beats a bubbly pasta bake, piping hot straight out of the oven. No matter what the reason you may need some comfort food, these stuffed giant pasta shells filled with chicken, wrapped in prosciutto and covered in a creamy Brie sauce is one for the repertoire.
Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken Stuffed Shells
In a medium mixing bowl, combine shredded chicken, zucchini, red onion, artichokes, reserved marinade and sea salt. Toss to combine.
Stuff mixture into al dente cooked pasta shells. Cut 10 pieces of prosciutto into half lengthwise. Wrap each shell in a piece of prosciutto, placing closely together into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Set aside.
In a heavy bottom saucepan, add flour & butter, whisking over medium-low heat until a blond roux has formed.
Add brie, whisking well until smooth. Pour brie sauce over chicken stuffed shells.
Bake, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes or until shells are fully heated. Remove & top with minced parsley and Parmesan cheese.
Scarpaccia is a savory zucchini tart originating from the northern coast of Tuscany. There are two versions: savory from the town of Camaiore, and sweet from Viareggio. It’s name roughly translates to ‘old shoe’, the reason being twofold; first it bakes up as thin as the sole of a shoe and second, much like a bad shoe that has been worn by many, this tart can be made with a variety of ingredients. Scarpaccia was typically considered a spring time specialty that sailors made with their garden vegetables which included zucchinis and their blossoms. The dish was served warm or at room temperature and enjoyed at the end of a meal (because of its slight sweetness), or a snack food paired with white wine or prosecco. The dish was made by folding zucchini into a simple batter of flour, eggs, olive oil and sugar or honey, then spreading the mixture into a baking sheet and cooking until golden and crisp.
The recipe has evolved to incorporate seasonal vegetables and herbs along with variations on the type of flour used allowing for its enjoyment year-round. It can be eaten for dessert, as a great brunch dish or the main course when paired with a salad.
Every region in Italy has its own specialties, some shared by other regions but with different names. Scarpaccia can be made sweet or savory, thin or thick, crisp or soft – as long as the common ingredients of zucchini and flour are used. Zucchini … what a treasure!
Preheat oven to 375 F. Prepare a 12 x 16 inch baking sheet pan by spraying with non-stick cooking spray.
Slice zucchini into very thin slices & place in a large bowl. Slice red onion into very thin slices; add to zucchini along with corn.
Drain oil from sundried tomatoes into a cup measure and set oil aside. Cut tomatoes into quarters & add to bowl with the other vegetables.
Add pepita seeds, basil, 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, salt & pepper to the large bowl with vegetables; toss all ingredients together.
In a separate smaller bowl mix flour, corn meal and baking powder. Add this to the large bowl and toss again to mix the ingredients.
In that same smaller bowl, beat eggs & add to the large bowl, mixing into ingredients.
Take the reserved cup measure with the oil drained from the tomatoes and add enough olive oil to fill one cup. Add to the large bowl, mixing to combine. Slowly mix the water into the large bowl, only using enough to make a thin batter. You may not need all of the water. Pour batter into the prepared sheet pan, drizzle the top with olive oil.
When it comes out of the oven, sprinkle the Parmesan cheese all over the top and drizzle with a little more olive oil and sprinkle the remaining thyme over the top.
Cut into squares and serve.
Limoncello, (pronounced lee-mon-CHAY-low) the Italian lemon liqueur, is known for its refreshing sweet and tangy flavor. It is made from lemon rinds, alcohol and sugar. Although, traditionally served as an after dinner drink, it is a wonderful ingredient to use in cooking and baking.
Families have passed down recipes for limoncello for generations, as every Italian family has their own recipe. In the winter of 2013, Brion and I spent some time travelling Italy. It was in Sorrento where we tasted limoncello for the first time and loved it. As we walked through the quaint artisan shops packed together onto a maze of medieval alleys, we came across one that sold liqueurs & confectionery. One of the treats that they made were limoncello sugar coated almonds … to die for!
Limoncello origins are disputed. Some say it was created by monks or nuns while others credit the wealthy Amalfi Coast families or even local townsfolk. In any case, its roots are in Southern Italy, primarily along Italy’s Amalfi Coast and the Sorrentine Peninsula known for their meticulous lemon cultivation. These lemons are considered the finest lemons for making limoncello. Prized for their yellow rinds, intense fragrance, juicy flesh and balanced acid.
Today, I’m using limoncello not only in the cake but the glaze as well. This is definitely a refreshing cake, great for a summer picnic or dinner.
Glazed Limoncello Cakes
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray an 8-inch square cake pan with cooking spray or baking pans of your choice.
Whisk sour cream, white sugar, canola oil, eggs, 3 tablespoons limoncello, and lemon zest together in a large bowl.
Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in another bowl. Add flour mixture to sour cream mixture; stir with a wooden spoon until batter is just combined. Pour batter into prepared cake pan or pans.
Bake for about 35 minutes OR until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool cake(s) in the pan for 5 minutes.
Whisk powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons limoncello liqueur together in a bowl until glaze is thin and smooth. Drizzle glaze over the top of the cake. Cool cake completely before serving. Top with a bit of whipped cream if desired.
- You may need a bit more glaze if you have made individual cakes as I did here.
Lasagna is not a quickie weekday meal but as we (lasagna lovers) all know, it’s definitely worth the effort. There’s several elements involved: making the filling, the sauce, layering everything and cooking it all together.
Canned salmon is a nutritious option to have in your pantry staples. Being very versatile it can be paired with plenty of different ingredients to transform it into a variety of healthy meals. Whether you use red or pink is a personal choice but opt for responsibly sourced wild as opposed to farmed in any case.
I have given ‘meaty’ lasagna a seafood twist that’s just as delicious if you enjoy salmon.
Mushroom & Leek Filling
In a saucepan, heat butter & saute mushrooms, leeks & garlic for 5-10 minutes, stirring over low heat until softened & moisture has evaporated. Add the salt.
Melt butter in a large saucepan until it is foaming. Whisk in the flour to make the roux & cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly until it is incorporated into the sauce. Bring the sauce to a low simmer & cook for 3-4 minutes or until thickened. Whisk in mustard, dill, lemon zest & (40 gm) grated Parmesan. Season with salt & pepper.
Evenly spread a small amount of sauce to the bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking pan. Place a layer of 3 cooked lasagna noodles over the sauce then cover with a bit more sauce.
Spread the salmon over the sauce & top with half of the shredded mozzarella. Top that with a bit more sauce & the next layer of 3 lasagna noodles. Spread the mushroom/leek filling on top then add the remaining shredded mozzarella.
Top with a final layer of 3 lasagna noodles & cover with the remaining bechamel sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan/cheddar combo.
Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from oven & allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing to serve.
Whether you prefer a sweet or spicy variety, there’s no denying the delicious versatility of Italian sausage.
The predominant flavor in ‘mild’ Italian sausage is fennel, or actual anise, a licorice like flavor with a little more earthiness. This emulates the style of sausages in Northern Italy, known for milder flavors with a noticeable presence of both fennel and garlic. It will also typically have a small amount of red pepper flakes to open up the flavors.
The ‘hot’ designation means a higher content of pepper flakes, or the addition of cayenne, giving you that spicier flavor that is more common in the southern regions of Italy.
‘Sweet’ is pretty straightforward, little bit of sugar, milder flavors around that, sometimes some mild herbs, typically a lot of basil and such to round it out.
In this meal, the layers of lasagna noodles blanket a creamy béchamel sauce and a filling with a savory ‘Italian sausage’ flavor and tender artichokes. Truly a comfort food meal.
Italian Sausage Lasagna
Drain artichokes (reserving oil) & slice in halves; set aside. In a heavy skillet, heat artichoke marinade oil; sauté garlic, onions & mushrooms for a few minutes.
Add ground pork, sun-dried tomatoes & spices. Cook over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; add artichokes. Remove from skillet & set aside until ready to assemble lasagna.
In the skillet, melt butter over low heat. Once the butter is completely melted and bubbling, add the flour & mix well. Cook for a couple of minutes until flour just begins to take on some color.
Slowly start adding the milk, whisking continuously to prevent lumps from forming. Continue to simmer until the sauce begins to thicken, stirring often. Season with a pinch of salt, white pepper & nutmeg.
Set aside until you are ready to use, by pouring the sauce into a glass bowl & covering with a buttered sheet of plastic wrap.
Cook lasagna noodles. Grate cheeses.
In a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish, spread 1/2 cup of the béchamel sauce on the bottom. (Set aside 1 cup of the béchamel sauce for the top.) Arrange a single layer of lasagna noodles over sauce; spread some of the filling over noodles, top with a sprinkling of the grated cheeses. (Make sure to reserve a bit of cheese for the topping.) Repeat layers, ending with noodles.
Spread the reserved 1 cup of béchamel sauce over the noodles & top withy the remaining grated cheese. Cover with foil, bake for 35 minutes, remove foil & bake until bubbly & lightly browned on top, about another 15-20 minutes.
Allow to stand 10 minutes before serving.