Ever Stuffed Shells.
foods are so familiar they almost seem like American foods.
If you ask a
child where pizza is from, he is likely to say the United
States. And the same goes for spaghetti and lasagna. Gelato,
Italian food is still the most popular ethnic food in
So it was
natural — inevitable, really — that I would wrap up my
yearlong culinary tour of other countries with a visit to
Italy, the best-tasting boot in the world.
is marvelously varied in the cuisine of its different
regions. Southern Italy provides the food that is perhaps
most familiar to Americans. It is where you will find the
tomatoes, the eggplants, the marinara sauce — and the
Italy is more about beef and dairy; it is home to the
butter-based sauces and the cream. It is also the birthplace
of salted meats, such as prosciutto and salami.
With such an
extraordinary abundance of foods and styles of cooking, I
was briefly at a loss for what to choose that would best
represent the Italian kitchen. I decided to go for dishes
that were well-known and comforting, largely because I had
an ace in the hole: my wife.
is my wife’s late mother, who was the daughter of Italian
immigrants and who was said to be a wonderful cook. I
decided to make two of her best recipes, and then two from a
cookbook called “The Silver Spoon,” which is essentially
the Italian version of “Joy of Cooking.” It’s found in
kitchens all throughout Italy.
cooking begins with a good tomato sauce, and my wife’s
mother’s is absolutely the very best. There is no room for
years, brightly flavored, fresh-tasting tomato sauces have
been the rage, and a lot of home cooks have forgotten all
about the old-school, long-simmered sauces. These take some
time to make, but every passing minute only deepens and
enriches the flavor. This is the way Italians have been
making sauce for centuries.
The version I
made is so spectacularly good because of a few special
techniques. First, it is made with meat: a large hunk of
beef and a somewhat smaller hunk of pork. Both boost the
lower notes of the sauce and provide an umami undertone.
After the sauce has finished cooking, they can be served
separately with a bit of the sauce, or part of the meat can
be shredded or cut into pieces and kept in the sauce.
The pork adds
sweetness to the sauce as well, which is important because
this sauce is made without sugar. The sweetness, which is
just enough to counteract the tomatoes’ acidity, is an
integral part of the sauce and is not merely added for its
And to keep
the sauce from becoming bitter, tomato paste is added only
toward the end of cooking. Tomato paste can become
unpleasantly harsh if it cooks for too long, so it is only
stirred into the sauce for the last half-hour.
trick to the sauce: It has no oregano at all. Apparently,
that’s a Northern Italian thing.
sauce was made, I could use some of it make stuffed shells.
This is one of our most popular dinner-party dishes for the
very good reason that it is utterly magnificent. It starts
with the sauce and only gets better from there.
What makes it
better is the mixture that is used to stuff the pasta
shells. It is nothing fancy, nothing special. Just the
absolutely perfect proportion of fresh ingredients.
with a lot of parsley and a little garlic, which you keep
chopping (and chopping, and chopping) until it almost forms
a paste. This is mixed with rich, almost sweet ricotta
cheese, along with a couple of eggs, a splash of olive oil,
a healthy handful of grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of
nutmeg which, my wife’s mother wrote on her recipe card,
“gives it (an) exotic taste.”
is stuffed into parboiled pasta shells that are covered with
the sauce, baked and served piping hot. Although the dish is
casual in nature, it never fails to impress everyone who
decided to make what is perhaps the ultimate Italian comfort
food. Pasta e Fagioli, which is pronounced by Southern
Italians as “pasta fazool,” is a simple dish of pasta
and white beans; it is just about the most inexpensive meal
you can make.
yes, but warming and inexpressibly wonderful. About half of
the beans are pureed, which creates a nicely rustic texture,
and the pasta is cooked in that puree (with a lot of water),
allowing it to draw in all of those great flavors.
of Italians, it says “home.” To millions of people who
are not Italian, it says, “Wow, this is really, shockingly
I made what may be the most popular Italian dessert,
zabaglione. It is like a custard, but technically it isn’t
one (no dairy); in fact, it is an emulsion. But that is an
ugly word for a dessert that is so light and airy and
It is also
easy, as long as you don’t mind a lot of whisking.
Zabaglione has just three ingredients: egg yolks, sugar (I
used superfine sugar) and Marsala wine. Marsala is the
traditional choice, but other sweetened wines, or even
sparkling wines, will do.
All you do is
whisk together the yolks and the sugar until frothy, add the
wine and then whisk that mixture over lightly simmering
water until it magically begins to coalesce and grow. It
becomes as light as a feather, and almost effervescent.
After a heavy
Italian meal, nothing is better.
PICRONI’S TOMATO SAUCE
quarts (43 servings)
2 1/2 to 3
pounds chuck roast or other boneless beef roast
1 cup onions,
cloves, peeled and left whole
3 to 4
(28-ounce) cans whole plum (Roma) tomatoes — a 6-pound can
canned tomato sauce
1 large bay
1/3 cup fresh
tablespoons dried basil
1 to 1 1/2
pounds boneless pork
makes about a gallon of sauce. Consequently, it requires a
very large pot; 12 quarts is best. Leftover sauce freezes
very well. If doubling recipe, use 3 1/2 to 41/2 pounds of
beef and 11/2 pounds of pork.
1. Cut fat
off beef and render it in pot over medium-high heat until a
thin layer of melted fat covers bottom. Discard fat. Brown
beef on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove roast to
a plate. Add onions and garlic to pot, and sauté over
medium or medium-low heat until onions are translucent,
about 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Cut each
tomato into 3 or 4 pieces and add to pot, along with juice
from can. Stir in tomato sauce, bay leaf, parsley and basil.
Return beef to pot, add pork, and simmer for about 21/2
3. Stir in
tomato paste and simmer 20 to 30 more minutes, until beef is
tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, if necessary. Remove
garlic cloves, if you can find them, and bay leaf before
serving. If desired, shred or chop some of the meat and add
to the sauce. Or serve meat separately, with a little of the
177 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 29 mg cholesterol;
12 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 310
mg sodium; 66 mg calcium
1 large bunch
1 cup grated
Parmesan cheese, divided
tablespoons olive oil, plus more to oil the pan
jumbo pasta shells
4 cups Mama
Picroni’s Tomato Sauce
oven to 350 degrees.
parsley and garlic together until it almost forms a paste.
Place in a large bowl with eggs, ricotta, 1/2 cup of the
Parmesan, olive oil and nutmeg; mix until thoroughly
combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste (Parmesan is
salty, so it will not need much salt). Cover and place in
refrigerator to set.
3. Boil 4 to
6 quarts of salted water in a large pot. Add pasta and boil
until partially cooked, about 9 minutes. Rinse with cold
water and drain well. Spread out on plates to avoid
sticking, separating any shells that have nestled inside
others. Oil the inside of an 11-by-7-inch baking pan.
4. Fill each
shell with the ricotta mixture, and place one layer — open
side up — in the prepared pan. Cover with half of the
tomato sauce and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Add
a second layer of the shells on top, cover with the
remaining tomato sauce and the remaining 1/4 cup of
Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake until done, 30 to 40
559 calories; 28 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 150 mg
cholesterol; 36 g protein; 44 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 5
g fiber; 700 mg sodium; 460 mg calcium
dried white beans such as cannellini, soaked in cold water
overnight and drained
6 sage leaves
or 1/8 teaspoon dried sage
strained tomatoes, such as Pomi
ditalini pasta or small elbow macaroni
1. Put soaked
beans in a large pot, add cold water to cover by at least 3
inches and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 2
hours. Transfer half the beans to a food processor and
process to a puree.
2. Heat oil
in a large pot, add the sage and garlic and cook 2 minutes;
do not burn the garlic. Add the bean puree and 61/4 cups of
water; season generously with salt and pepper, and stir in
the strained tomatoes. Add the whole beans. Bring to a boil,
add the pasta, and cook until al dente, according to
instructions on the package — cooked, but still a little
chewy. Serve hot, cold or warm.
347 calories; 10 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol;
16 g protein; 51 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 12 g fiber; 103
mg sodium; 100 mg calcium
“The Silver Spoon”
4 egg yolks
superfine sugar, see note
Marsala, dry white wine or sparkling wine, see note
make superfine sugar, blend granulated sugar in a blender at
high speed for 10 to 15 seconds until powdery.
cup of wine gives this dessert a strong wine flavor, which
is traditional. Use less if you prefer less of a wine taste.
1. Whisk the
egg yolks with the sugar in a heatproof bowl until pale and
fluffy, then stir in the Marsala or wine a little at a time.
2. Place the
bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and cook over low
heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture starts to rise.
Remove from the heat and serve hot or cold in glasses.
Zabaglione may also be used as a sauce on coffee or hazelnut
106 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 184 mg
cholesterol; 3 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; no
fiber; 8 mg sodium; 22 mg calcium
“The Silver Spoon”