Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Italian Cooking Makes You Sing!

If ancient Greek culture is the foundation of European culture, Italian cuisine is the foundation of European cuisine. It’s smart, stylish, tasty, and makes everyone happy – I have never met anyone who dislikes Italian food. For me, cooking any kind of Italian food is enjoyable, and has a way of making me break into song in the kitchen.

My culinary training was very much based on classic French cuisine, which requires a lot of complicated learning, hard work, technique and kitchen hierarchy, plus artistic talent to complete any job... from carving vegetables to hanging the pots and pans nicely on the rack. I was pleased to learn it passionately and enjoyed the opportunity to work with many good chefs and cooks, but it was often stressful. I do not think anybody wants to do that at home, because it could destroy a family! Cooking and mealtime should be fun... not end in arguments over how to properly deglaze.

Italian cooking is different. It’s fairly easy, fun and stress free! And once you master the basics, you can execute dishes just like those from your favorite restaurant. 

 My assistants at work like it when I cook Italian food... not so much because they want to enjoy the taste,  but because I become relaxed and not grouchy,  and often find myself singing while cooking (when cooking French food I need to be quite serious, so there’s no singing). 
O Sole Mio is my number one choice for making seafood pasta, O Mio Babbino Caro is for making porcini mushroom risotto, Tosca is for rosemary rotisserie chicken with roast potatoes, etc.  Many Italian chefs sing while cooking, but the French do not.

My old friend Andreas was a cook from Sardinia. He was a small guy with a big mustache, but he was a great singer and would almost always sing while cooking. It was so much fun to work with him, because I really like Italian songs and I believe singing helps create a good working tempo in the kitchen. His repertoire included many great canzoni, but his best was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly while making Osso Buco alla Milanese. I loved it. Frankly, I cannot sing many Italian songs, so I often improvise O Sole Mio to begin, then change to Moon River ...or something else. But hey, it makes me happy in the kitchen.

Now it’s time to make Pasta Puttanesca while singing O Sole Mio. This is my most favorite pasta dish, a specialty of Napoli. Some sources says it was created by busy working women (prostitutes). The recipe is nothing complicated, and all the ingredients to make the sauce are pretty much common stuff in everyone’s pantry:

fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion, capers, anchovy filet, black olives, fresh oregano and flat-leaf parsley

Just chop and put all the ingredients in a pan and cook with olive oil until softened and flavorful. That’s it... quick and delicious! You need not have all the above ingredients. If no tomatoes or capers, that’s OK. Most important are the onion, garlic, anchovies and black olives. If you do not like anchovies, you might use calamari or octopus, or even sun-dried tomatoes. I improvise this sauce all the time, but I always love it, and it’s 100% Neapolitan. Go ahead and sing!

Pasta Puttanesca

Serves 4

4 oz anchovy fillets (2 small cans), lightly chopped
6 oz black olives (preferably Italian), chopped
1 onion medium size (8 oz), chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium tomatoes (8 oz) peeled, seeded and diced
10 tablespoons good olive oil
3 tablespoons small capers (optional)
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano or marjoram (do not use dried)
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 oz good dried pasta – spaghetti or linguini

1 tablespoon dry red chili flakes (optional)
¼ cup grated Pecorino cheese (optional)

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the onion until soft for 2-3 minutes, stirring often with a wooden kitchen spoon. Do not brown the onion. Add garlic and cook 1-2 more minutes until it smells heavenly in your Italian kitchen.

The above are the most important basic ingredients you must almost always begin with before adding other ingredients.

Add 5 tablespoons olive oil to the skillet, then add the anchovy, olives and tomatoes. Stir gently and mix well all ingredients. Turn down the heat to medium-low and continue cooking the sauce for another 5-6 minutes, stirring every  minute or so. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Finally, add the fresh oregano and the chopped parsley and mix gently.  Set aside in a warm place.

Meanwhile, add about 4 quarts of water to a large pot. Bring to boil, then add 1-2 tablespoons sea salt and the pasta. Stir pasta constantly with a long spoon or tongs for the first couple of minutes to make sure  it doesn’t  stick together and each strand is separated. Simmer the water, continually cooking pasta until just slightly firm in texture (“al dente”), about 8-10 minutes depending on the product you are using.

When the pasta is cooked, drain the water and toss pasta with Puttanesca sauce. Add 2 remaining tablespoons olive oil or more if you prefer.

Serve Pasta Puttanesca with dry red chili flakes and grated Pecorino cheese.

Note: Do not use those whole or sliced black olives that  come in a can or packaged for pizza topping at supermarkets. You won’t get the right taste for Puttanesca.  If you cannot find good black Italian olives, substitute  Greek Kalamata olives. I personally like/recommend small black niçoise olives, which have a distinct, slightly tart flavor. However, if you like green olives...  why not use those. Use pitted olives to save prep time. I like De Cecco dried pasta and Sagra extra virgin olive oil (mild taste and fragrant). They are both reasonably priced and widely available.

Note 2: Anchovies and olives are normally very salty, so be careful using extra salt.

Wine suggestions: a simple dry white such as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo or Sauvignon Blanc... or Nero d’ Avola (also called Calabrese), if you prefer red wine.

Hope you enjoyed this post. I will post more about Italian food, cooking and wine soon.
Stay tune!


Here an Italian song for you:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Tiger Tea Cakes, Anyone?

Have you ever heard about tiger cakes? As far as I know, no one knows about them here in America, but everyone knows about them in Paris, where you can find them anywhere. This is one of my favorite tea cakes, and it is easy to make. It is a soft buttery almond cake made from egg white, almond flour, butter and a little chocolate – perfect to indulge in at anytime and any occasion. What I especially like is there is not too much chocolate (which can sometimes overwhelm my palate... sorry!).

I found this recipe in Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan. It is a very charming dessert cookbook made up of recipes from well-known Paris pastry shops. Dorie writes interesting stories about each shop/owner/chef, and of course their confections. I find it a lot of fun to read, and you might too.

Anecdote by Author: The only thing that’s the least bit tigerish about these irresistible butter-and-almond tea cakes is their light chocolate striping, a result of folding chipped chocolate (or mini chocolate chips) into the batter just before popping the little cakes into the oven. Tigrés, a Parisian creation, are very simple cakes, sometimes topped with a squiggle of chocolate ganache and sometimes not. Although you can find them all over their native city, I love the tiger cakes at Eric Kayser’s bustling bread shop for just one reason: they’re perfect. They are rich and buttery, of course, but they are also beautifully moist and tightly crumbed, like pound cake. Kayser makes his Tigrés in 2 ½-inch (6-cm) dome-shaped molds, so that the finished cakes line up on the counter like so many igloos, but muffin tins, mini or regular, work like a charm.

Tiger Tea Cakes – Tigrés

Recipe adapted from Maison Kayser,  at page 118 in Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan:

Makes 16 muffin-sized cakes or 48 mini-muffin-sized cakes

6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 ¼ cups (235 grams) ground blanched almonds
¾ cup (150 grams) sugar
1/3 cup (45 grams) all-purpose flour
1 ½ tablespoons (25 grams) light corn syrup or honey
1 stick plus 7 tablespoons (7 ½ ounces; 210 grams) unsalted butter
5 ounces (145 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped, or mini chips

Bittersweet chocolate ganache (optional)
6 ounces (180 grams) bittersweet chocolate (60% or more), finely copped
¾ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 2 pieces at room temperature

Working in a medium mixing bowl with a whisk, beat the egg whites just to break them up. Add the ground almonds, sugar, flour and corn syrup and stir until the batter is smooth. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight.

When you are ready to make the tigrés, position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter enough muffin molds to make 16 large tigrés: if you have muffin pans with molds that hold about 1/3 cup (85 grams), you should be able to make 16 cakes; if you are using mini-muffin molds with a 2 tablespoons capacity, you should be able to make 48 cakes. Remove the batter from the refrigerator.

Put the butter in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Remove the butter from the heat and stir it into the batter. When the batter is no longer warm, stir in the chocolate.

Spoon about 3 tablespoons batter into each buttered regular muffin mold or 1 tablespoon into each mini-muffin mold. Bake the cakes for 15-20 minutes, or until they are puffed and golden: a knife inserted in the center should come out clean. Allow the cakes to cool for 2-3 minutes, then turn them out onto racks to cool to room temperature.

When the cakes are cool, you can top them with ganache, if you wish. To come as close as possible to Eric Kayser’s dome-shaped tigrés, turn your cakes upside down. Spoon the ganache into a small pastry bag fitted with a star tip and pipe a small rosette of ganache in the center of each tigré.

Keeping: Tigrés will keep in a covered container at room temperature for up to 3 days (although ganache-topped tigrés are best eaten the day they are made).
Packed airtight, the cakes can be frozen for up to 1 month.

For Ganache:
Pour the heavy cream into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the chocolate, then let the mixture rest for 30 seconds. Using a whisk, very gently stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth, then whisk in the butter until melted.

Note: Do not throw way leftover egg yolks. You can use them for making flan, crème brûlée, crème anglaise sauce, etc. More opportunities to make sweet stuff!

Crème Caramel

Using 6 leftover egg yolks:
Makes six 6-ounce ramekins (net 4 ounces each)
6 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups almond milk or whole milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Caramel sauce:
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water

Set a rack in the center and preheat the oven to 350°F. Put the ramekins in a baking pan with hot water half way up the side of the ramekins and bake 30 minutes. Cool the crème caramel on a rack, then chill at least 2 hours.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Savory Clafoutis -- for Mother's Day Brunch (French-style AND gluten-free)

It is always a joy to find a good cookbook. LA TATINE GOURMANDE, written and photographed by Béatrice Peltre is one I have enjoyed for the past year. All the photos are beautiful and appetizing, and the recipes are simple and quite modern, yet gluten free. This is a cookbook for the 21st century that everyone should have. Someday when I have the opportunity to write a cookbook, I would like to do something like this.

When I saw this recipe in the book I immediately grew an appetite and started cooking, because eggs have been an important part of my daily diet since childhood. As in many other cultures, the traditional Japanese breakfast always has eggs, and often raw eggs (a fresh raw egg beaten with a little soy sauce and poured over hot, steaming rice is delicious!).

Living and cooking professionally in the U.S for many years, I know that many Americans are not fond of soft eggs, and definitely not raw ones. Often, perfectly cooked soft, juicy eggs were returned with complaints in restaurants where I worked. I still do not really know why but everyone has different texture preferences, I guess. When I was a child, I was told that cooking an egg too much destroys not only the taste but also the nutrition. And my grandmother would tell me that a pale yellow soft egg is like a gentle woman... or something like that.

Clafoutis is a very popular dessert all over France in spring and early summer. And as many of you know, it is normally made with pitted cherries and other seasonal fruit like plums or fresh berries. However, this dish is a wonderful savory version for brunch/lunch or supper. It is even delicious cold the next day. Egg is a relatively inexpensive food but quite nutritious. So it is very important to use fresh organic eggs to make this dish stand out. Spend a little more in order to treat your palate and your health!

Caramelized cherry tomato, zucchini, and goat cheese clafoutis
Recipe adapted from La Tartine Gourmande by Béatrice Peltre

Serves 4-6 (using one oval baking dish about 10” long and 7” wide)

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the dish and zucchini
1 red onion, thinly sliced
2 thyme twigs
1 bay leaf (optional)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound (440 g) medium cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon raw sugar
1 medium zucchini (or asparagus and mushrooms) thinly sliced lengthwise (use a mandolin if you have one)
4 tablespoons cornstarch or potato starch
½ cup whole milk
3 large eggs
½ cup heavy cream (or another ½ cup milk)
1 oz grated Pecorino or Comté cheese
5-6 basil leaves, coarsely chopped or julienned
Salt and pepper
2 oz fresh goat cheese, crumbled

1.       Set a rack in the center and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Brush a 10-inch baking dish with oil and set aside.
2.       In a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and thyme twigs and cook without browning about 4 minutes, stirring until fragrant and the onion has softened. Add the bay leaf and garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring gently, then add vinegar and sugar. Continue to cook for 3 more minutes. Discard the thyme and bay leaf; set aside.
3.       In another frying pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Arrange zucchini slices at the bottom (you might need to do this in a few batches) and cook for 30 seconds on each side, adding more oil as needed. Season with a little salt and pepper.
4.       In a small bowl, beat the cornstarch into the milk. In another medium size bowl, beat the eggs. Mix the diluted cornstarch, the heavy cream and grated cheese into the eggs. Add the basil, season with sea salt and pepper, and mix well. Arrange the vegetables at the bottom of the dish. Pour the egg batter in and top with the crumbled goat cheese. Place the clafoutis in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until the egg flan is set and the top is golden brown. Serve with a green salad.

NOTE: The first time I made this dish, I did not have zucchini, milk, Pecorino, Comté or fresh goat cheese, but I had fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. I made it with what I had, and it was pretty good. However, this recipe (especially with the Comté and fresh goat cheese) results in a really “French taste” that I love. You may substitute asparagus or perhaps fresh peas for the zucchini. And in my opinion, good, mild Pecorino cheese is not easy to find, so I do not recommend using it unless you really like it. You may also substitute unsweetened almond milk instead of milk and heavy cream (or use all milk and no cream). If you do, add 2 more tablespoons corn/potato starch.

Approximate nutrition per serving as a side dish (1/6 of pan), assuming ½ tsp salt added:

290 calories, 23 g fat (9 g saturated), 130 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 14 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 9 g protein.
Good source (at least 10% Daily Value) of vitamin A,  vitamin C and calcium.

Without cream (using total of 1 cup whole milk, plus extra cornstarch):
250 calories, 16 g fat (5 g saturated), 105 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 9 g protein.
Good source (at least 10% Daily Value) of vitamin C and calcium.
(Note:  Calories, fat and saturated fat will be even lower if non-dairy milk or low/reduced-fat milk is used)

Nutrition data by Palate Works (