We all have days when we don't know the answer to the question, "What's for dinner?" Busy papa, busy Mama, busy Nonna... stuff happens and we forget to plan ahead. But even if you are a newcomer to the Cucina Italiana, there are always simple, quick meals that you can throw together without any pre-planning, as long as your Italian Pantry is stocked with essentials.
Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil) is one of the simplest, yet fulfilling meals any Italian can make. The cooking time is little more than the time it takes to boil your dried spaghetti and can be a base recipe for adding ingredients from leftovers. Even the most basic Italian pantries should have a box of spaghetti, extra virgin olive oil and garlic...
1 lb spaghetti (optional: fettuccine, bucatini)
6 garlic cloves, skins removed
EVO - extra virgin olive oil
Fresh ground pepper
Peperoncino (red pepper flakes - omit if you don't want heat)
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley (adds color & sweetness, but optional)
Fresh ground Pecorino Romano (also, aged cacciocavallo or Parmigiano Reggiano)
Fill your pasta pot with water, add a handful of sea salt and bring to a rapid boil.
Add your spaghetti into the pot, fanning it out around the edge of the pot. Gently push the pasta into the water as it softens and bends, then give a couple of swirls to make sure all the strands are separated. Boil the pasta, partially covered (place a long wooden spoon under one side of the lid to prevent over-boiling) until the pasta is al dente.
Meanwhile, remove the paper skins from the garlic and cut into thin slices. Do not mince or use a garlic press (which would make their taste too hot). You want a garlicky, sweet taste.
Heat 2 tablespoons of EVO on a medium-low heat in a saute pan. Add the garlic and peperoncino, then heat slowly until the garlic is lightly browned. Remove from heat.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it well (reserve some of the pasta water).
Place the saute pan back on a medium heat, then add the pasta, parsley and a handful of pecorino Romano to the saute pan, tossing or mixing using a pair of tongs. (Adding a tablespoon or two of pasta water while tossing will help bind the sauce to the pasta.)
Salt and pepper to taste and serve. Top with grated or shaved pieces of Pecorino Romano.
Serve with slices of crusty bread and some Chianti for a simple and tasteful meal.
This recipe is certainly a classic from Naples, but you can think of it as a base recipe for adding other ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, diced prosciutto, capers, olives, etc. Don't ever hesitate to be creative with Italian recipes!
Obey the the most important rule and use the largest pot you own for cooking pasta. If you use a small pot and too little water, you will get a starchy mess and your pasta might stick to each other.
Always add a generous amount of sea or Kosher salt to your pasta water. It helps water boil faster and adds flavor to the pasta.
When cooking any pasta--fresh or dry--make certain the water is in a rapid boil before adding pasta.
For spaghetti, fan the pasta out and lean them against the side of the pot--spacing the pieces away from each other. Then, with a spoon or tongs, press the pasta down gently as the water starts to soften it. Give a good stir after all is submerged.
After your pasta is placed in boiling water, stir strongly for 20-30 seconds, getting a vortex going. This will prevent sticking.
If you like to break spaghetti in half, grab your batch of halved spaghetti around the middle, then let the spaghetti fall into the center of your pot as you turn your hand, allowing them to fall separately. This will fan out the pasta like spokes of a wheel, preventing it from sticking to each other in those first crucial seconds. As before, stir into a vortex.
NEVER add oil to the pasta water... no matter what your Nonna told you. Pasta should absorb its sauce to enhance the flavor of the dish. Oil will prevent that from happening.
Bring your water back up to a boil quickly by covering the pot with the lid slightly ajar. You can place a wooden spoon under one side of the lid to prevent boil-over.
Alternate: To keep the pasta from boiling over while cooking, place a wooden spoon across the top of your pot. When the bubbles touch the spoon's handle, the boiling settles down. Uncovered pots do take longer to reach a boil.
Do NOT rinse pasta after draining--ever. This would wash off the starchy surface which helps a sauce stick and become absorbed by the pasta.
When you're planning a baked pasta recipe in a casserole, try this trick: Place the pasta in a bowl of well-salted water, swirl it around the bowl a few times with your hands, then let it rest while you cook the sauce or prep other ingredients. The pasta will absorb the perfect amount of water by the time you are ready to put your casserole together. Drain any water left after about 30 minutes of soaking. This hack can also trim at least 10 minutes from your normal bake time.
Beef Ragu over Cheesy Polenta A rustic, belly-filling recipe from simple ingredients. The cook time from pan to table is under an hour, so it's great for a quick family meal during the workweek...
1 cup quick-cooking polenta
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup mascarpone
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground chuck/beef
1 medium diced sweet onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Tuttarosso crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves or two teaspoons dry
Cook polenta in a medium saucepan according to package directions. At the end, stir in 1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano and mascarpone. Cover to keep warm.
Next, heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
Saute onion until translucent, then add beef and garlic, stirring often to break up meat. Cook until meat is no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Transfer beef mixture to a plate using a slotted spoon and discard excess fat. Return meat to the pan, then add the crushed tomatoes and all the spices. Simmer for 20-30 minutes with the pan covered on low heat.
Divide polenta evenly among 4 shallow bowls. Top each serving with the ragu, top with a few fresh basil leaves and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
I remember one of the first times I had potato gnocchi (pronounced "NYO-kee"), was at a New Jersey, Italian-American restaurant when I was a teen. I wasn't impressed. They were gluey and heavy. Perhaps they were frozen, but more than likely they had lost something in the translation from the old country. Still today, people in New Jersey might still pronounce them, "Nocky". In our family, we didn't have gnocchi until I was older. I remember one of my sisters making them on occasion. We nicknamed them, "sinkers" because they were so heavy.
Well into my 30s, and after I had learned how to cook pretty well, I asked my mother to teach me to make gnocchi--especially after learning that her mother, Nonna Mariantonia, had taught her. When I asked why she never made them when I was a kid, she just shrugged and said, "Sure, with all the free time I had raising five kids plus working all day?" She's right. She worked in a factory as a supervisor her whole adult life, yet somehow still managed to put dinner on the table for us after she got home. Better late than never, and I was eager to learn...
No boiling--Baking helps remove moisture
So, she set out to teach me on her kitchen table, where all miracles of Italian cuisine take shape. Her secret? "Not too much flour and use yellow potatoes", similar to what we call Yukon Gold today. Apparently, these mimic the starch and low moisture content of the typical yellow potatoes they use in Italy. The old Nonnas in Italy warn of using perfectly smooth-skinned, "pretty" yellow potatoes, but recommend using the "wise, old" potatoes. The more sporco (dirty), the better. In fact, even my Mother told me that they would buy large bags of potatoes and store them in the cellar. Then waiting until most were gone and only then, they would use the older ones to make gnocchi. Older means drier and more starch turned into sugars, adding to the lightness and flavor of the finished results. The drier the potato, the lighter the gnocchi.
Potatoes scooped out of their skins while hot
Rice the potatoes while still hot
After one yolk is mixed in, blend with your hands. After this, add the beaten eggs.
Ingredients (for two batches: one for eating fresh, the other for freezing) 4 pounds of Yukon Gold or similar yellow potato--stored 1 week in a dark place before using 1 egg yolk 2 whole eggs, beaten 2 tablespoons sea salt "00" Italian style flour - 1/4 cup per pound of potatoes (or more, depending on humidity) ("00" makes a more tender gnocchi.) Equipment needed a Gnocchi board, or fork, fingers, or the back side of a cheese grater (each makes a different shape/texture) 2 half sheet pans (For drying and for freezing half the batch) Potato ricer (Do not use a masher) cotton kitchen towels or parchment paper
Rolling the snake
My Mom didn't use a gnocchi paddle, or rigagnocchi. She used her fingers and the back of a fork. She actually taught me two methods for two different shapes--the back of a fork and her first two fingers. The fork makes ridges on the back side---good for holding a thick ragu. The two fingers made a sort of cavetelli shape, by taking a small cylinder of dough and pressing into it while dragging toward herself on the work surface. This made one smooth side and a little cave in the other--good for cream and thinner sauces. I can still remember Mom's bent, arthritic fingers rapidly producing them one by one. In this recipe, I'll be shaping with a fork and gnocchi board.
Preheat your oven to 400 F.
Place the 4 pounds of potatoes on a half sheet pan, piercing each with a fork to allow moisture to escape while baking. An alternative method is to place them on a rack on top of your sheet pan, or even to slice them in half for baking (this might require less baking time).
Bake the potatoes for 45 minutes to 1-1/4 hours, depending on size and moisture content. They are ready when you piece with a fork or paring knife with no resistance.
When finished, cut the potatoes in half and let them cool just long enough for you to handle them--about 5-10 minutes. You don't want them to cool off--ricing needs to be done when they are hot or warm.
Scoop the potatoes out of their skins with a spoon onto a baking sheet or waxed paper.
Dust a work surface with some flour and start ricing the potatoes onto it. When done, cover with plastic wrap and let the riced potatoes cool for at least 20 minutes.
When cooled, make a well in the middle of the potato pile and drop one egg yolk into it. Mix with a fork and then with your hands for a moment to incorporate the yolk.
Sprinkle the salt on top of the potatoes.
Now, make another well and pour the beaten eggs into the middle of the potatoes. Mix with a fork, then with your hands until well blended, but do not overmix!
Next, start dusting the flour all across the dough mixture, while kneading the dough, just until it starts to form into a dough. Use only enough flour to create a dough ball that will stay together. Unlike pasta dough, you do not want this dough to be overworked and smooth. Mold it with your hands... if if stays together without crumbling, that's enough flour. If for some reason, you think your dough has gotten too heavy and thick, misting with a spray of water, then reworking a bit should loosen it up.
Because this is a double recipe, you may want to half the dough at this time, forming each into a ball and covering with plastic wrap.
Wait for 15 minutes or so--the dough relaxes and incorporates itself during this step.
Take one of your dough balls and, using a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut off a piece and with floured hands, roll a snake out--about 1/2 - 3/4" thick.
Start cutting gnocchi from about 1 - 1/2" long. Working in batches of 10 gnocchi or so, start forming your final gnocchi shape with either the back of a fork, a ridged gnocchi board or even the back side of a cheese grater (as seen below).
A gnocchi board for delicate sauces, a fork for thick sauces
The reverse side of a cheese grater makes a raised nub texture
Shaping Gnocchi As you shape your gnocchi, place them (not touching) on a cotton kitchen towel spread on top of a half sheet pan. Let them dry for 15 for about 1 hour before cooking. Then place them into a large pot of well-salted, rapidly boiling water, give a couple of gentle stirs, then cook until they all float to the top.
After all are floating, cook for another minute, then drain in batches using a spider, placing them into either a saucepan containing your preferred sauce, cooking and turning gently for a minute or two until the gnocchi have absorbed the sauce's flavors. Turn out into a pasta bowl, and top with your favorite cheese--Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, cacciocavallo, etc.
My son Lucas shaped all the gnocchi for this recipe
Back Row, gnocchi board - front row, fork
To shape a cavatelli shape, pull and roll toward you with two fingertips
Freezing the Second Half of The Gnocchi After the first half of your dough is finished, repeat and fill a second sheet pan, then let dry as with the first batch. The second pan can then be placed immediately into a freezer for a future meal. (If a half sheet pan won't fit, place the gnocchi on smaller trays that will fit).
After they are frozen rock solid (at least 10 hours), immediately place them into a large zip-lock plastic bag, squeeze to remove all the air and zip it closed. To prevent against freezer burn, place it into a second bag.
Once you hone your gnocchi-making skills, you can experiment with all sorts of different types--pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot, ricotta and more. Gnocchi are great with both simple sauces (like butter & sage or olive oil, garlic and pepperoncino) or complex sauces like bechamel, pestos or even ragu Bolognese.
Enjoy, and don't forget to let me know how yours turned out!
Well... Almost. Canederli are bread dumplings found in the north-east of Italy (Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli, and part of the Veneto), typically served in beef broth, dry or with a sauce. They are made using stale bread, milk, onions, parsley, eggs and a little flour. Often they are stuffed with speck (a smoked prosciutto), cheese, mushrooms or pancetta. You can also serve them as a side with sausages.
Stuffed with cheese
Topped with speck
Canederli with Speck Ingredients 1/2 pound of stale bread 2 eggs, beaten 6 ounces diced Speck 1 medium onion, diced 6 cups milk fresh parsley 4 tablespoons butter, softened 1 tablespoon flour pinch nutmeg Pinch salt
Put the pieces of stale bread in a large bowl and soften them with some milk. When completely soft, wring out excess milk.
Add the diced speck and then some salt, the butter, parsley and the onion.
Season with some nutmeg and salt.
Mix with two eggs and stir thoroughly adding some flour if necessary. Cover and leave to rest for 20 minutes in the refrigerator.
Forms 2" balls from the mixture and boil them in salted hot water for 15 minutes or until they float to the top.
Serve hot in a bowl with broth, tomato sauce. Top with grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Asiago.
Black wormy spaghetti, green monster eyeballs with bloody roadkill sauce... Yummy. Perfect for the little ghouls in your family.
Ingredients 1/2 tsp black paste type food coloring (they come in small jars). 1 16 oz box of thick spaghetti or bucatini (if it's too thin, it won't have that wormy look) 4 quarts of water 3 tablespoons sea salt or Kosher salt Large green olives stuffed with pimentos (Buy the fresh large ones, not bottled), or as an alternative, use buccatini (mozzarella balls) for use as eyeballs. Spaghetti sauce, preferably a textured, meaty sauce, like a Bolognese.
Fill a large pot with 3-4 quarts of water (pasta needs a lot of water to cook properly), and add 3 tablespoons sea salt.
For the black color, add 1/2 tsp. food coloring to the water. Be very careful when using paste food coloring... this black stains your hands easily.
Bring the water to a boil, then add the spaghetti and give a stir after a minute or so.
Cook uncovered approximately 10-12 minutes, or until al dente, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat and drain well in a colapasta (colander) .
Top the pasta with a Bolognese sauce and place olives around looking like monster eyes staring at your little diners.
You might even try using meatballs topped with halves of buccatini with sliced, pitted olives as the eyeballs on a bloody plate of spaghetti.
Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.