Our very first From Plate to Page workshop is approaching like a speeding train coming at us head on and we are tied to the tracks (though no Damsels in Distress, we four!)! I have been neck deep in conversation and preparation with Ilva, Meeta and Jeanne, tying up loose ends, planning the menus, dealing (happily) with our fabulous sponsors and finalizing details for our own writing workshop sessions with Jeanne so I have had very little time to devote to my own blog and my own dear readers. Bear with me for just a little while longer then hopefully I will be back with you a little more often.
But I must backpedal a bit first. Lael was far from the first of her family whose notice was brought to my attention. It was actually in Italy about 15 years ago that I first learned of the illustrious name of Hazan. Living in the center of Milan, there was never a doubt that such a reader as I would not rapidly discover the tiny, dark English bookstore barely off the beaten track, slightly askew from the main stretch of road that rambled and bustled through my part of the city. I would spend hours in that warm, homey space, heaven for the book passionate, my fingers skimming softly along rows of book spines, murmuring titles softly under my breath. Occasionally, one would call to me, luring me into the pages between an intriguing cover or arousing my curiosity with a catchy title. I would carefully pull it from amongst the others, slide my hand down the cover as against a lover’s bare skin, hold it up to my nose and, eyes closed, breathe in the luxurious bouquet like a fine wine, the new book aroma making me dizzy with thoughts of quiet childhood moments nestled in an armchair or in the branches of a favorite tree, hidden from the world, losing myself in an adventure. Or I, already fascinated by food and cooking and the magic of a great cookbook, would wander over to the cookbook shelves and scan the meager offerings. And there it was, Marcella Hazan, the name veritably jumped out into my waiting hands, book after beautiful book on, yes, Italian cuisine. But as new a cook as I was, it was all too overwhelming for me and, losing all confidence, I always came to the conclusion that I simply could not live up to her recipes, my novice to her master, and sadly I would walk away, back out into the harsh Italian sunlight and find my way back home with yet one more Charles Dickens carefully tucked under my arm.
Many, many years later, traveling through space and time and happily ensconced in my new life, somewhat more confident in my cooking abilities, albeit much more secure in my talent as a writer than ever a cook I could be, I published my first articles on The Huffington Post. And lo and behold, the appearance of the second illustrious Hazan in my life: Giuliano left a warm, exuberant comment on one of those pieces I had written. And contact was made, Facebook and Twitter, such a charming, friendly man. And this connection followed quickly by an introduction to his wife, Lael. Oh we found each other without his help but the excuse was there to meet. And meet we did and slowly but surely a friendship bloomed across the miles, flying over that wide expanse of ocean. And finally, finally I bought a cookbook by a Hazan, Giuliano.
Far from Italy now, much too far for my own good, flipping through Every Night Italian brought all the sights and sounds, odors and flavors of my fabulous years in that marvelous country, a country where I truly learned the value of good food, ingredients straight from the dirt, simple cooking that turned those basic ingredients into something delectable, homey yet luxurious all at once. Arrosto, spezzatino, carciofi, budino and crostata, words that jump out at me from the page, are words heavy with memories for me, the first language of food for my baby boys, words infused with our seven years in Italy. My courage now stronger after years of experimenting and learning, I decided that it was time to delve into this book and….cook. And cook I did.
I began with Ossobuco in Agrodolce, Sweet and Sour Braised Veal Shanks, a twist on the traditional Ossobuco that I love so well, a favorite family meal. Normally I would serve this with a traditional Risotto alla Milanese, yellow saffron risotto, but selected instead Giuliano’s Risotto ai Pepperoni e Pomodoro Fresco, Red and Yellow Pepper Risotto, just to try two of his recipes at once. The meal was such an incredible success that several days later I made Pollo alle Olive Verdi, Chicken with Green Olives which, he explains, was actually first published in Marcella’s Italian Kitchen!
And an exchange of birthday gifts between Lael and me, who happen to both have birthdays in January, and I became the thrilled owner of How to Cook Italian, Giuliano’s third cookbook. Well, the book quickly filled up with tiny yellow stick-its bookmarking so many must-make recipes that it was truly hard to choose. But I settled on one filled with memories, a family favorite from Italy, Torta di Ricotta, a simple but far-from-humble Ricotta Tart, a special treat ordered after so many meals in so many Italian restaurants during those heady Italian years in Milan. And how was it? I must admit here that I had trouble with his pie crust, possibly because I had no food processor and it didn’t quite come together by hand (I felt it needed more butter), so I fell back on my own Sweet Pastry Crust. But the filling was a snap to put together, baked up beautifully, and created a simple yet luxurious, light yet creamy and just perfectly, tenderly sweetened ricotta tart and one that I most definitely will be making over and over again. JP swooned in delight and satisfaction with each mouthful, a sure sign of a great recipe in my home!
I already have so many recipes bookmarked that I will most definitely be making: the Torta della Nonna, Grandmother’s Custard Tart, Fettuccine or Risotto with Artichokes and of course Lael has heartily suggested that I make Giuliano’s Tiramisu and compare it to my son’s, all recipes from How to Cook Italian and his stunning Crostata all’Arancia, a Sicilian Orange Tart, and an incredible-sounding Semifreddo al Caffé from Every Night Italian. Do I have your attention yet?
Now, don’t think that I am going to give you every recipe from his wonderful books. No, no, you must go and find at least one of Giuliano’s Italian cookbooks very soon and make it your own to caress, ogle, stroke, read in the privacy of your own home. And cook. And cook. And cook. He offers us Italy in between the covers, simple, clean, flavorful dishes redolent of tradition and home.
Here is one recipe from each book, just enough for you to try and be tempted once you discover how easy and how fabulous they are. And if you are hungry for more delightful, delectable, thoroughly Italian recipes, visit Lael and Giuliano’s own blog The Educated Palate where you can also savor and enjoy Lael’s wonderful writing, her tales of family life and family cooking with some travel stories and fascinating facts and information thrown in. Thanks and a hug to Lael for being such a wonderful friend and to Giuliano for bringing me back to Italy in my own kitchen.
OSSOBUCO IN AGRODOLCE (Sweet and Sour Ossobuco)
From Every Night Italian by Giuliano Hazan
As Giuliano writes, this is a “different approach to the usual ossobuco… It is cooked with vinegar and raisins, whose sweet and sour flavors…complement the richness of veal shanks splendidly.” I say this is a stunning dish whose complex flavors and succulent, fall-off–the-bone-tender veal are my version of heaven.
¼ cup golden raisins
2 cups yellow onion, very thinly sliced crosswise
3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 Tbs vegetable oil
About ½ cup flour, or enough to coat the veal
Four 1 ½-inch-thick pieces veal shank or veal for ossobuco
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small beef bouillon cube (I use chicken)
1 Tbs shredded fresh basil leaves
½ tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp grated lemon zest
Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with warm water.
Put the onion slices and the olive oil in a heavy braising pan large enough to hold all the veal in a single layer (I used my large Le Creuset Dutch oven). Place it over medium heat and sprinkle the onion lightly with salt. Cook until the onion turns a light caramel color. It may be necessary to raise the heat at the end to get the onion to color.
While the onion is cooking, put enough vegetable oil in a large skillet to come about ¼ inch up the sides and place it over high heat. Place the flour on a plate, roll the veal shanks in it and shake off the excess. When the oil is hot, carefully slip in the meat and brown it on both sides. Transfer to a platter and season with salt and pepper.
Once the onion is colored, raise the heat to medium-high. Add the vinegar and let it bubble for about 30 seconds. Put in the browned veal shanks. Add enough water to come halfway up the shanks and add the bouillon cube. Add the basil, thyme and lemon zest. Lift the raisins out of the water, squeeze out the excess water and add them to the pan. Cover and cook at a moderate but steady simmer until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours, turning the veal occasionally. Add more water if the water evaporates before the veal is done; you want to end up with a thick sauce. If the sauce is too watery at the end, remove the meat, raise the heat and reduce the sauce until thick enough to coat a spoon. Serve hot with Saffron Risotto.
This is one of those long-simmered dishes that gets better over time, improving as the flavors meld and the meat tenderizes in the sauce over a day or two. Simply reheat the veal in the sauce, adding a bit of water if necessary, over moderate heat.
TORTA DI RICOTTA (Ricotta Tart)
From How to Cook Italian by Giuliano Hazan
Lusciously creamy yet light and almost mousse-like, Giuliano adds chopped candied citron or lemon to the filling which I left out. Instead, inspired by my love of chopped chocolate bits in the rich ricotta filling of my Cannoli, I simply drizzled the top of the chilled tart with melted chocolate which solidifies as it hits the top of the cold ricotta filling and adds that fabulous crunch and a hint of slightly bitter chocolate flavor to the tart’s creaminess as you are eating it.
1 pre-baked Sweet Pastry Crust
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup flour
3 Tbs confectioner’s or powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups whole milk
2 cups (1 lb/500 g) whole-milk ricotta
2 Tbs chopped candied citron, optional
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly but thoroughly butter a deep dish 9-inch pie pan, pie dish or springform pan.
Prepare the Sweet Pastry Pie Crust following my directions found here then line the prepared pie dish. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough fitted and crimped into the dish and weigh down with pastry weights or dried beans. Bake in the preheated oven for 8 minutes. Very carefully pull the pie plate out of the oven and lift out the parchment and beans then return the pie crust to the oven and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until very lightly browned and completely set. If using a glass pie plate, you’ll be able to see that the underside of the crust is uniformly golden brown. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack or hotplate.
After the crust is done, raise the oven temperature to 375°F (190°C).
Prepare the ricotta filling while the Sweet Pastry Pie Crust is baking:
Whip the egg, the yolk and the granulated sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until the mixture is smooth, thick and creamy and pale yellow. Add the flour, confectioner’s/powdered sugar and the vanilla and mix just until homogenous. Slowly pour in the milk while whisking on medium-low speed. Add the ricotta and blend thoroughly. If adding candied citron, stir it in now.
Pour the ricotta filling into the pie crust and bake until the filling is firm and begins to brown on top, 1 to 1 ¼ hours. Test by jiggling the pan gently. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight before serving. Serve chilled, drizzled with a bit of melted chocolate, if desired.
The pie will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.