Stuffed Zucchini

I realized that this past year, I've made more than a few vegetarian friends -- my workplace seems to be full of them, and I can count 6 just off the top of my head. Having lived in Bologna, where ragu' is king (which often contains beef, pork, and veal) and now living in Rome, a city where pork reigns supreme (I'm looking at you, guanciale) my savory recipes have not always been very vegetarian friendly. In fact, recipes that are usually suitable for non-meat eaters usually become off limits when in my hands. If I'm making a risotto, I'm likely to sneak in a little pancetta, because everything is better with pancetta, right? If I have a green vegetable, I'm known to spruce it up with a little prosciutto, because prosciutto is never a bad idea in my book. 

The many vegetarians in my life have inspired me to find good, filling, yet still meat free recipes (it's always sad to see the vegetarian eating a green salad while everyone else has a steak). I've set aside the amatriciana and saltimbocca in favor of butternut squash and zucchini tarts, roasted tomato soup, spinach and potato frittatas, rigatoni with eggplant, and tomato cobbler. I've also tried out more seafood recipes for the vegetarians that eat fish, like this swordfish or salmon with strawberry salsa. In November, I revamped my Thanksgiving menu to make it vegetarian inclusive, providing meat-free stuffing and alternatives to the turkey. Overall it's been a nice challenge for me, culinarily speaking, and has made me rethink my usual repertoire.

The latest meat-free recipe to come out of my kitchen is for these stuffed zucchini, born in an attempt to use up ricotta leftover from a pound cake. The result is superb, one that I'm sure my vegetarian friends will be pleased with -- festive boats of bright green zucchini packed with a cheesy filling, crispy brown on the outside and creamy on the inside with a sprinkle of basil for freshness, a dish substantial and filling enough for the vegetarians to not feel like they're missing out. Added bonus: these are a great way to use up all that summer zucchini and basil that are about to take over your gardens. 

A couple of notes: I used a dryer variety of ricotta here, which worked great. The ricotta sold in American supermarkets tends to have a bit more moisture so you might have to add more breadcrumbs than listed below if the filling does not seem firm enough. These are great served hot or at room temperature, and make a delicious side dish or even appetizer as well as a vegetarian main dish. Here I was cooking for a small group so the recipe is for 4 people, but feel free to increase the proportions if you'd like. Enjoy everyone!
  
STUFFED ZUCCHINI

Ingredients:
4 zucchini
1 cup Italian bread, chopped into small pieces
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup ricotta
1 egg
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon plain dry breadcrumbs
1/4 cup basil, chopped, plus extra for garnish
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bring a large pot of water to boil. Place the zucchini in the boiling water and cook for about 6-8 minutes. Drain the zucchini and place immediately in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. While the zucchini cool, soak the 1 cup bread with the milk and set aside.

When the zucchini are cool enough to work with, slice them in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulp using a small spoon. Place all the pulp in a bowl and set aside the zucchini shells. Using a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, squeeze as much water as possible out of the zucchini pulp, then finely chop it and put it back in its bowl. Mix the egg, ricotta, and softened bread/milk mixture into the zucchini pulp. Next add the breadcrumbs, basil, and Parmesan and stir everything together. Season the filling to taste with salt and pepper. If the filling mixture seems too dry, add a tablespoon of milk and stir to combine. 

Place the zucchini shells in a lightly greased baking pan and fill with the stuffing. Drizzle the stuffed zucchini with a bit of olive oil (this will make it nice and brown on the top) and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the zucchini filling is set and nicely browned. Let cool slightly before serving. Sprinkle with more basil and another drizzle of olive oil if you'd like. Serves 4. 




Ricotta Pound cake with Strawberries

 
I'm back in Rome after two weeks in the U.S and am as per usual jet-lagged, still in the phase where hunger strikes at odd hours and my wake-up time is noon (my alarm clock is apparently no match for a 6 hour time difference). I am apparently so jet-lagged that I forgot to save the post I had originally written for this recipe -- that would have required clicking the "save" button, which I did not do before shutting off my computer -- so I'll be keeping this post short and sweet and have included all that my sleepy brain remembers having written for it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- I'm a big fan of every day cakes like this one, or rather versatile, simple cakes that can be whipped up in the middle of the week and eaten for breakfast, snack, or dessert, that do not need different layers or fillings or frostings, just a dusting of powdered sugar to dress it up at most (this can be evidenced here and here and here and oh also here). Now, as simple as this cake looks -- just a plain loaf cake, really -- it is not to be underestimated. It is rich and buttery and dense and vanilla-y, and the star ingredient here, the ricotta, adds something special, making it extra fluffy and moist. When topped with a mound of tart juicy strawberries and a dusting of powdered sugar, it is pure pound cake perfection, truly one of the best things I have ever baked. Are you running to your kitchens yet?

A few notes on this: Use the best quality ricotta you can find. Depending on the variety of ricotta you use, you might have to adjust the baking time as well and could go over the suggested 40 minute time below, if your ricotta has more moisture. I used a fairly dry variety from the cheese shop in my neighborhood and ended up baking the cake about 45 minutes. If the cake browns too quickly on the outside, just cover it with some aluminum foil until it is done baking in the middle. Berries are a nice accompaniment to this cake, but it is also great served plain as is. A teaspoon or two of lemon or orange zest in the batter would also be a nice addition. This cake is better the day after it is made, so feel free to make it in advance. Any leftover cake (though there is rarely leftover cake when I make this) may be wrapped in plastic and kept at room temperature for up to 3 days. The cake also freezes beautifully, wrapped in plastic wrap, and placed in a large, sealable plastic bag.

I'll be back next week with some brunch recipes and also hopefully more energy! In the meantime, enjoy!  

RICOTTA POUND CAKE WITH STRAWBERRIES  

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups fresh whole milk ricotta
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) butter, softened
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups strawberries, sliced 
Sugar for mixing with the strawberries, if desired
Powdered sugar for serving, if desired 

Directions:  
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray or butter, dust it with flour, and tap to knock out the excess.  

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, ricotta, and sugar on medium speed until smooth and light, about 2 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, scraping down sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract. On low speed, beat in dry ingredients to combine them, scrape down sides of the bowl, and beat batter for 30 seconds on medium speed. 

Pour batter into prepared pan and use a spatula to smooth the top. Give the pan a few gentle whacks on the counter to remove any air pockets (I forgot to do this, and as you can see, my cake has a few little holes in it). Bake the cake for 15 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees to ensure even browning. Lower the temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking until the cake springs back lightly when touched, the sides have begun to pull away from the pan, and a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 25 to 35 minutes more. While the cake is baking, mix together the sliced strawberries with a teaspoon or two of sugar. Set aside until the strawberries begin to release their juices. 

Allow cake to cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then carefully invert it onto the rack to cool completely. Dust the cake lightly with powdered sugar, if desired. Slice and serve with the strawberries and any strawberry juices. Serves 10.

Barely adapted from the Dolce Italiano cookbook, by the late and ever so talented Gina DePalma.


24 hours in New York City


As much as I love the history and cuisine of Rome, the familiarity and ease of Bologna, and the busyness and warmth of Madrid, there really is no place in the world like New York City. It has a certain energy and life that I've never encountered in any other city and I try and make an effort to go as often as possible when we're back in the States. My sister and I were lucky enough to be able to take a quick trip to NYC last week (combined with a trip home to Rhode Island) to see a performance by the New York City Ballet, do a bit of eating (as always) and enjoy a little vacation within our vacation. The details below!
Our trip to the Big Apple got off to a bit of a rocky start. To get to NYC, we opted for the Greyhound bus, which charges only $20 per ticket. The ride however end up being 6.5 hours long due to traffic and other issues that arose along the way (including difficult passengers). In this moment we greatly missed the efficient, budget friendly trains of Italy -- 6.5 hours in a hot crowded bus is a very long time!
We finally arrived in NYC at about 3:30, and were quite hungry (a granola bar for breakfast at 7am does not go a very long way). We had done our homework before the trip and decided to have lunch at Añejo, a Mexican restaurant on 10th Avenue, not far from our hotel. We opted for the guacamole and homemade tortilla chips to start, followed by short rib tacos and shrimp tacos. Everything was absolutely delicious and the service was excellent -- highly recommended!

After lunch we went back to the hotel to rest up for the highlight of our trip: an evening performance by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Much how some people follow the New England Patriots or the Boston Celtics, my sister and I follow the New York City Ballet (far more interesting than any sport team in our opinion). A little background for those of you who aren't familiar -- New York City Ballet was founded in 1948 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kerstein. It is known for its neoclassical style, embodied in the many innovative pieces choreographed by Balanchine himself, many of which were considered radical at the time (Agon and Stravinsky Violin Concerto for example). It has the largest repertoire of any American ballet company and a roster of incredibly talented dancers, who are known for their musicality, athleticism, and ability to dance to incredibly quick tempos. 

This evening, the company was performing 3 pieces choreographed by the company's founder, George Balanchine. Ballo della Regina (1978) Kammermusik No. 2 (1978), and Vienna Waltzes (1977). Ballo is a classical, fast paced piece that depends on lots of jumping and quick foot work, while Kammermusik is a very modern ballet, with decidedly un-balletic steps (lots of turned in legs and feet) an all male corps, and two ballerinas with ponytails. Vienna Waltzes is elegant, impressive, and large scale with many dancers on the stage at once, all wearing long ball gowns and tuxedos (only one of the ballerinas in the piece dances on pointe). Each piece was different from the last in terms of music and style, and interestingly enough, were among the last pieces Balanchine choreographed in his career. The show was fantastic and it was super exciting to finally see the company dance live at Lincoln Center. To top the night off? We ran into Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York, on the way home! He didn't interview us for the site or anything -- he was walking his dog and happened to be stopped with us at a crosswalk -- but he was incredibly gracious and nice and chatted for us for a minute. If you don't know the site, click on the link above -- Brandon does great work and has thus far transformed what was originally a small photographic project into a way to raise awareness and money for various causes. 







The next day we checked out of the hotel early and went into the city with plans to visit Magnolia Bakery and reunite with our friend Anna from college (who you may remember from this guest post on pizza). But first, we were in need of caffeine, always hard to come by in the U.S after being spoiled by the coffee in Italy. We stumbled upon a cafe' called La Masseria, as well as a group of Italians (!!!) who work there. It's always exciting to meet Italians when I'm in the U.S, and I was ecstatic to know that Italians would be making my cappuccino (at this point it had been six whole days since my last Italian cappuccino). Despite the very New York style price tag -- about $4.50 -- it was the best one I've ever had in the U.S and I felt like I was back in Rome (thanks Enrico!!!)



Done with our coffees, we headed for our next stop, Magnolia Bakery. Every time we come to NYC we make a point to visit this famed bakery, frequented by New Yorkers and celebrities a like. Magnolia is famous for its cupcakes, but also sells exceptional cheesecakes, cookies, bars, and banana pudding. My sister opted for a chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream, while I opted for the chocolate banana pudding, which has been mentioned on The Today Show, in In Style Magazine, and the Huffington Post, to name just a few. The chocolate banana pudding consisted of chocolate custard mixed with fresh sliced bananas and chocolate cookie crumb swirl (swoon) and was fantastic. I'd like to try and replicate this recipe at home...stay tuned!


Our last stop on our trip before heading to the train station (no bus this time) was lunch with Anna, who is lucky enough to work in NYC! We reunited over bagel sandwiches -- you after all can't go to NYC without having a bagel and I do miss bagels while in Rome -- which were divine. I opted for a toasted bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. And of course catching up with Anna was wonderful.

And just like that our trip to New York City was over! We boarded the 3:30pm train (not bus) back to Providence and slept most of the way. Looking forward to another trip in December, to New York City Ballet's the Nutcracker and repeat it all over again. See you soon, NYC!!!


























Berry Tartlets

Though I don't often reread books, I've read My Life in France, Julia Child's autobiography, more than a few times now (this was previously an honor reserved only for Harry Potter books). Julia Child, for those of you who don't know, was an American who moved to Paris in 1948 along with her husband Paul, who had been posted there by the U.S government. Julia had never been to Europe, spoke no French, and knew nothing about cooking, yet found herself completely at home in Paris and completely fell in love with French cuisine. She took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and began to master French cooking home. She evenntually gained fame after publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a cookbook aimed at adapting the rather sophisticated French cuisine for American home cooks. "The Book" (as Julia called it) was so comprehensive and well-tested that it took her 9 years to complete and proved to be wildly popular in the U.S. Fifty five years later, it is still considered a classic and a point of reference for French cooking. To top it all off, Julia also hosted her own TV show, The French Chef, one of the very first cooking shows in the U.S. which further helped to introduce French cuisine and good food to Americans at a time when TV dinners and frozen food reigned supreme. Not bad for someone who only started to cook at age 36, no?

Despite the fact that Julia was in France and I am in Italy, and that I moved abroad nearly 60 years after she did, I feel a certain connection with her. Perhaps it is because I am also an expat who feels at home in a different country, or because I, too, have discovered Italian food in my years in Bologna and Rome. Kinship aside, My Life in France is a pleasure to read -- Julia's love for cooking and France just about jumps off the pages, and the descriptions of the food she eats and prepares are beautiful. Her curiosity about cooking -- her determination to get a recipe just right, to understand why something works or not -- is admirable. If Julia Child were living in today's world, she would have a great food blog, I think. Along with Deb Perelman and Gina DePalma, she is one of my culinary heroes.

As you can see I could talk volumes about Julia Child, but then you wouldn't hear anything about these Berry Tartlets! Reading My Life in France has made me momentarily put aside and American or Italian dessert recipes in favor of French ones, and thus I was inspired to make these classic French fruit tarts. The crust here is buttery and light and crispy, the cream is sweet and vanilla-y, and the berries are juicy and add a nice tart contrast to both the cream and crust. If you've already written these off as too hard to make, think again! Though there are different elements involved here neither the crust or the pastry cream are difficult to prepare. Plus, both the tart dough and pastry cream can be made in advance, and all that needs to be baked is the crust. I think Julia would have approved.

A couple of notes on this: If you prefer, you can make one big tart instead of individual ones. Use a 10 inch tart pan, and increase the baking time slightly (about 10 minutes with the beans or rice, and then about 20 minutes or so without). If you make one big tart you can also use other fruit, like kiwi, grapes, oranges, or even figs since you have more surface area for decorating. Tart or tartlets, it is best to eat this dessert the day you make it, as the cream will otherwise make the pastry soggy. If you're in Europe, you can get your mini tart pans at Tiger -- they should be about 4 inches in diameter. Enjoy everyone!

BERRY TARTLETS

Ingredients for the crust:
1 1/4 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3-4 tablespoons ice water

Ingredients for the pastry cream:
3 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon heavy cream

8 (4 inch diamter) mini tart pans 

Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries for decorating

Directions:
Start with the tart crust. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt and place in the freezer for 30 minutes. Put the flour mixture into the bowl of a food processor along with the butter and pulse until the butter forms small pieces. Add the ice water and process until the dough comes together. Place the dough on a well-floured work surface and form into a disc. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30-45 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the dough from the fridge and let it sit a few minutes. Roll the dough out into a large circle (about 1/16 inch thick) and cut out 8 circles. I used a small bowl as a template -- use whatever you have on hand and trace around with a sharp knife. You might have to gather up the scraps the re-roll the dough to make enough circles. Place the circles into the mini tart pans, pressing the dough down and up the sides of the pan. Cut off the excess dough with a sharp knife. Line the tart shells with aluminum foil, and then dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake 8 minutes. Remove the foil and rice, beans, or pie weights and prick the bottom of the shells with a fork to allow steam to escape. Bake another 10 minutes or so until lightly browned. Cool the tart shells to room temperature. 

Next, make your pastry cream. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using an electric hand mixer), beat the egg yolks and the sugar on medium-high speed about 3 minutes, until the mixture is light yellow. On low speed, beat in the cornstarch. In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer. Slowly pour milk into egg mixture, whisking steadily, then pour back into saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring .constantly with a whisk or wooden spoon until mixture is thick, about 4 minutes. Bring to a boil and cook on low heat 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove from heat; mix in butter, vanilla, and cream. Pour the custard through a strainer into a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly onto the custard and refrigerate until cold. Place baked tart shells on a serving plate and spread the pastry cream over bottom of each shell. Decorate with berries and serve as soon as possible. Makes 8 tarts. 






Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroons


My late grandfather (known affectionately to us all as "Nonno") was always the center of any family dinner. Whether we realized it or not, my mother and I would always gear our menu towards Nonno's tastes, always eager to impress -- an excellent cook himself, a compliment from him was high praise. Before any Father's Day or Christmas or Easter dinner, we would make sure that the house was spotless. We would prepare at least 3 different appetizers (Nonno loved to start the evening with a glass of wine and a bruschetta,) the beef tenderloin or turkey had to be perfectly cooked, and dessert usually had to include one of Nonno's favorite ingredients: pecans and/or coconut. We made him everything from chocolate coconut pecan pie to coconut cheesecake to coconut layer cake, not to mention this Inside Out German Chocolate Cake, which Nonno ate with gusto, bringing home the leftovers to share with his golf buddies (the cake was extremely difficult to make for my 13 year old self and I couldn't have been more pleased with his reaction). 

Apart from being the king of all family gatherings, Nonno was the supplier of our annual Christmas lasagna, one of the best things I'll ever eat and will probably never be able to completely replicate. He could make fresh pasta from scratch, whip up a pan sauce in the blink of an eye, and was the king of ragù. His house always smelled like something good was cooking -- and even today when I smell olive oil heating in a pan, or sauce simmering on the stove, I think of my Nonno. He was an incredible golf player, a cheese and wine enthusiast, and the organizer of my very first trip to Italy, back in 2003, which proved to be life changing for me.

When Nonno passed away in October 2013, we were all at a bit of a loss. My family had their first Thanksgiving meal in a restaurant, and Christmas just wasn't quite the same. Over the years we have slowly but surely started to construct our family gatherings without Nonno, though he is never far from our thoughts and I always -- even three years later -- expect to see him walk through the door with my grandmother, bottles of wine in tow.

The minute I saw this recipe for Dark Chocolate Coconut Macaroons I thought of my Nonno. We would've made batches of these for him, and he would've scarfed them down at an alarmingly fast rate (my grandmother would've probably scolded him and then hid them). But with good reason -- these are incredibly chocolate-y and fudge-y and almost brownie-like thanks to both melted chocolate and cocoa powder, which perfectly balance the sweet coconut. They are soft and chewy in texture, not to mention extra pretty with a dusting of powdered sugar over the top (don't leave this out!) Bonus: these are also incredibly easy to make -- the recipe is just a matter of blending the ingredients together in a food processor, no electric beaters or softened butter required. Make them for someone you love and enjoy. 

DARK CHOCOLATE COCONUT MACAROONS

Ingredients:
1 (14 ounce) bag shredded sweetened coconut
2/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (about 1/3 cup) unsweetened chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
Powdered sugar for decorating

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. In a food processor, blend the coconut for one whole minute, until it is finely chopped. Add in the cocoa powder and sugar and process again for another minute. In a small bowl, whisk together the vanilla, egg whites, and salt. Add to the coconut and cocoa mixture in the food processor and blend again until well combined. Add the melted, cooled chocolate to the coconut mixture in the food processor and blend again until combined.

Using an ice cream scoop or a tablespoon, portion out the coconut mixture in 1 inch mounds on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes until the macaroons are shiny and just set. Let the cookies cool for 10 minutes before removing them from the cookie sheet. Let cool completely and dust with powdered sugar. Makes about 48 small cookies (if you use a tablespoon) or about 25 larger cookies (if you use a standard ice cream scoop, like I did). 

Recipe from www.smittenkitchen.com