Monday, October 13, 2014

PIZZE FRITTE (DEEP-FRIED PIZZAS)

Last week I had my birthday. If you're dying to know, I turned 38, which apparently is considered the best age, at least according to this article I found by googling "38 is the best age". To celebrate, my dear husband fulfilled my dreams (and his) by getting me a deep-fryer. Of course, we had to put it to work right away, and the first dish that sprang to mind was deep-fried pizzas.

That's right: These are mini-calzones minimally filled and deep-fried. Please note this recipe is not a culinary junk dare like these deep-fried donut bacon cheeseburgers that I don't even want to comment on. It's actually inspired by a traditional Neapolitan recipe: the pizza fritta.



The original pizza fritta was born in the poor neighborhoods of Naples after the devastation of WWII. People could not afford pizza cooked in a wood-fire oven, so they started frying it in the streets instead. The pizzas were filled with ricotta and chitterlings, or left empty. In one my favorite movies, Vittorio De Sica's "L'Oro di Napoli" (The Gold of Naples) from 1954, you can see a young and impossibly beautiful Sophia Loren as a pizza fritta vendor. The pizza fritta is not as common today in its original form, but you can still find the calzone fritto: a whole calzone filled with ricotta, mozzarella, salami, and ham and deep-fried to perfection.



But back to my birthday. I have no illusion our deep-fried pizzas would compete with their Neapolitan inspiration, but they were super delicious: soft, chewy, salty, and not at all greasy. We filled them with mozzarella, a little bit of San Marzano tomato sauce, and fried eggplants. We didn't make the dough ourselves because, living in D.C., we are blessed with great ready dough from two delicatessens, Vace and The Italian Store. We used Vace this time, and were thrilled to try their own mozzarella, prepared in-store every day.

These pizzas are fairly easy to make, and definitely very fun for a Sunday with friends. Of course, this is if your guests don't mind the smell of fryer oil on their hair and clothes for a week. Present it as a party favor: You might get away with it.

D.C. people: Start frying.



PIZZE FRITTE

Makes 16 little fried pizzas.

3 quarts of frying oil (or 3 inches if you are doing it in a dutch oven over stove heat)
2 pizza dough disks
2 whole mozzarellas, cubed and drained for 10 min in a colander
1 1/2 C of tomato sauce (make your own with San Marzano tomatoes)
1 large eggplant, cubed and deep-fried
fresh basil leaves
EVOO
Salt
Pepper


  • Heat the oil in your deep-fryer or dutch oven to 375 degrees.
  • Cut each dough in 8 parts on a well floured surface (flour is your friend, it helps soften the dough and make it more elastic) and then flatten each mini-dough, starting from the center (about 4'' diameter). Be careful the dough doesn't tear. Use your hands here; using a rolling pin is not advised for pizza. (It will cause it to tear more easily.)
  • On each pizza disc, place a small handful of mozzarella cubes, 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce, 1 tablespoon of fried eggplants, and a basil leaf.
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little EVOO.
  • Fold the dough over and press firmly to seal the pizzas into tiny calzones. It is important to create a good seal so the moisture from the cheese and sauce does not mix with the hot oil and splatter. 
  • Deep-fry until the pizzas are puffed-up and golden, turning once, just under 2 minutes. 
  • Serve immediately.

Note: These pizzas can be easily made vegan. Fill with tomato sauce, eggplant, olives, and everything you would like to see on pizzas with the exception of pineapples. 
Another note: Pizza fritta can also be made like this. My friend Checco makes this kind every year in Italy, and it's a celebration to remember. Just fry the open pizza dough and then spoon over tomato sauce and grated cheese.





PASTA WITH FRIED ZUCCHINI (AND THE GARLIC RULE)


I woke up this morning and was shocked to see it's October and not August. Where did late summer go? Halloween decor has been gracing the shelves of my CVS since July 5th, so perhaps I've trained my brain to screen out all references to Fall. But I know whom to blame for my confusion: My CSA is still offering zucchini and squash, so I'm still in summer mode. You'll have to scalpel away the Haflinger cork sandals from my dead, tan feet. (Sorry, this is a horrible image.)

Today I present you with a classic Sicilian recipe that my grandmother and mother prepared many times for my sister and I when we were little girls. The main ingredient is zucchini, thinly sliced and fried until golden brown and then spooned over spaghetti and topped with grated cheese. The sweet juices from the zucchini are going to give your spaghetti a nice brown color once you mix all the ingredients, which is something I remember perfectly from my childhood.

Standing in front of a frying pan for 20 minutes, carefully turning over zucchini slices is not my ideal approach to summer heat, so maybe it's really better if we make this pasta in October, when the air is nice and cool and our sunny past is just behind us.

Fried zucchini at rest.

THE GARLIC RULE

And here's the Garlic Rule you've been waiting for since reading this post's title. As you will see in the recipe below, the garlic is just crushed, added to the hot oil until golden, AND THEN DISCARDED. This is key concept in Italian cooking that people used to Italian-American cooking might not realize. Italians love garlic and use it often, but they like it mostly in moderation, as a small pungent accent. Heaps of minced garlic are NOT a thing in Italian cuisine. By frying the garlic for a minute, you basically infuse the oil with garlic flavor and perfume and you don't turn it into a branding tool to stamp the word "garlic" on your entire meal.

Eat me.

SPAGHETTI WITH FRIED ZUCCHINI

4 medium zucchini
2 garlic cloves, crushed 
1/4 C EVOO (or enough to fry the zucchini)
1 lb spaghetti
1/4 C grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt
Pepper


  • Cut the zucchini in 1/4'' disks and set up a large pot with water for the spaghetti.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan.
  • Cook the garlic cloves in the hot oil for one minute, or until golden. Then discard.
  • Place the zucchini disks in one layer in the pan and fry on both sides, a few minutes per side, until golden brown. You might need to fry the zucchini in batches.
  • Remove the zucchini and place them on a plate covered with paper towels to drain the excess oil.
  • Cook the spaghetti al dente. You might want to use the technique for pasta with uncooked sauce outlined here.
  • Mix the spaghetti in a large bowl with the zucchini, the cheese, and some freshly-ground black pepper.
  • Serve immediately.

And since we're making spaghetti, let's refresh our basic pasta skills:


Monday, September 22, 2014

DEALING WITH "HELP": A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

This post is aimed mostly at mothers, but I believe it might be useful for everybody else, too. So read on, and let me know what you think.

I believe that one of the most difficult tasks a new mother is presented with (together with taking care of an infuriatingly ungrateful living creature while being continually chastised by society) is getting the help she really needs. Since I had my first child over three years ago, I was lucky to have family and friends come and visit often in order to help me. The help was mostly well received, but to be honest there were times I wished I had no help at all. I'll give you a few examples.

One time I thought a simple nap WITHOUT MY BABY would save my life, whereas my mother thought I needed her to reorganize my kitchen drawers. Another time, a well-meaning friend pestered me to tell her exactly how she could help me, but I was too tired to answer so she reorganized my kitchen drawers. Once I dropped my baby in my father's arms and ran to take a nap. I awoke to my child screaming out of mad hunger in a soiled diaper while my dad was happily reorganizing my kitchen drawers. See a pattern here? 

At first, I thought the problem was finding a way to communicate effectively what I needed. But that was only half of the problem, since there are people who won't meet your needs even when they are expressed in a simple sentence written in a bold Helvetica typeface on the side of a zeppelin and echoed by a Gospel choir. The real lesson I had to learn before I asked for any help was a simple one:

THE HELP YOU'RE GOING TO GET = THE HELP ONE IS WILLING TO GIVE YOU

There are different kinds of helpers in this world, and unless you learn to recognize and accept their strengths and limitations, your pleas for help are going to be exhaustingly unproductive. So let me introduce you to a framework to help you identify the types of Helpers in your life so that you, dear mother, can maximize the support you're receiving.

Type 1. The Moderate Helper

As you can see from the diagram below, the Moderate Helper will help you in some of the things you need done (the Help Offered is a subset of the Help Needed). The Moderate Helper listens to your requests and usually takes on the easiest and quickest tasks. People in this category tend to be friends without children, so their judgement is not impaired by blood line or by supposed "experience with kids".


Babysitting: Up to 30 minutes for a non-crying baby.
Duties performed: Allows you to shower and take a short nap, makes sandwich and/or coffee.
Advice offered: Suggests interesting new releases on Netflix.

Type 2. The Good Helper

The Good Helper does everything s/he can while in your company. S/he will listen carefully to your requests and even spontaneously assess your situation in order to provide help that you feel too embarrassed to ask for. People in this category are usually well-adjusted individuals with children close in age to yours, and rarely blood relatives. As you can see from the diagram, they perfectly cover all your needs.



Babysitting: Up to 3 hours.
Duties performed: Lets you take a bath, cleans up your living room, brings a bag of groceries (prompted or unprompted).
Advice offered: Generic and non-judgmental tips on baby-rearing.


Type 3. The Great Helper

The Great Helper doesn't even need to hear your requests. S/he will immediately help you with everything you need and with other things you didn't even know you needed (Help Needed is a subset of the Help Offered). People in this category are usually successful members of society with a high level of empathy. Please note this is the Holy Grail of friendships. Honor it.


Babysitting: Up to 12 hours (overnight included).
Duties performed: Schedules appointment with lactation consultant as soon as you're back from the hospital, lets you drop off your child at their house and then kicks you out, brings gourmet food unprompted, leaves dry shampoo in your beauty-case without mentioning it, changes your bedsheets, instills in your child awe and respect for nature.
Advice offered: None.

Type 4. The Bad Helper

The Bad Helper will technically help you, but will feel obligated to "help" with tasks you couldn't care less about. Bad Helpers technically don't deserve the "Bad" label, since they are actually helping, but you will get so irritated at their misdirected efforts that I have to call them that. People in this category are usually close relatives or people whose adult children live in another state/country.




Babysitting: Up to 1 hour.
Duties performed: Sets the table, brings junk food, distracts you with mildly-entertaining gossip, reorganizes kitchen drawers.
Advice offered: Long, heartfelt discussion on the best way to change your parenting style completely but successfully, based on their personal experience.

Type 5. The Really Bad Helper

The Really Bad Helper is someone who will not do anything you need because s/he knows better than you. In this diagram, you see how Help Needed and Help Offered do not intersect at all. Really Bad Helpers are usually a parent (yours or your partner's) or a parent's sibling. In case of the sibling, having children is irrelevant to their uselessness.



Babysitting: Up to 30 minutes (while you are printing some weird document they need printed).
Duties performed: Polishes brass you didn't know you had, vacuums laptop keyboard, irons your wedding dress, spends hours online researching scientifically obsolete diet plan for you to follow, informs you your child needs to learn some respect.
Advice offered: On all fronts, because they think you're being too soft but also too insensitive to your child's needs.


OK, BUT WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?


Being able to identify the types of Helpers in your life is hugely important. While it's true you will have to deal with each of them at some point, knowing their role will help you decide who to call and when, and whose offer to politely reject. For example, Great Helpers need to be called right after birth, whereas Really Bad Helpers can be invited for tea on a weekend or whenever you and your partner are both home to support each other. I would also suggest you share this framework with your Helpers, so that people can take a hard look at themselves and see whether they can drop the brass polishing already.


Monday, September 15, 2014

FIGS ARE HERE ☞ ROASTED FIGS

Do you still have figs around? If you do, I applaud your restraint for not having eaten them yet. It took a massive effort in self control for me to store a dozen figs in order to make this second fig recipe of the month (find the first one here or just scroll down to see my previous post). Since this summer is being especially gracious with its temperature, I turned the oven on and did some roasting. FIG ROASTING.

Out of the oven.

Now, if there is one cookbook I find myself recommending again and again is All About Roasting by Molly Stevens (gifted to me by my incredibly intuitive husband a couple of years ago). It's a wonderfully informative book that explains the science and beauty of roasting and then provides very reliable basic and also sophisticated recipes to roast meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit. The recipe that struck me like a divine and life-changing apparition was this "Orange-Scented Honey-Roasted Figs". I followed the light.

So here they are, a panful of figs drenched in orange juice and honey and then sprinkled with black pepper. They come out perfectly caramelized and spicy, while retaining some of their chewiness. The pan juices, red and sticky, are a delight.

I served the figs with vanilla ice-cream, which is the most obvious choice, but I still have two children under four and I'm lazy, so I'll work on something more interesting next time. (I was thinking about a polenta dessert.) What I would like to try is swapping the orange juice with wine, perhaps a Grecante I once found at The Italian Store. I'll let you know what happens.

On ice-cream.

You can find the original recipe in All About Roasting, otherwise this one from Bon App├ętit should do.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

FIGS ARE HERE ☞ FIG TART


I'm just going to come out and say it. I don't care much about fruit. In fact, if I didn't have children, I would probably never buy it. Does that make me a monster? Yes, it does. So what.

There is one fierce exception to my indifference to fruit: Figs. I love figs and I could eat dozens at a time. They are beautiful, they are sweet, they are luscious, and they bring me back to blissful childhood afternoons, sitting on a fig tree branch with a couple of friends and gorging on the fruits. Interestingly, the fig is one fruit whose seasonality seems to be respected both in Italy and the United States. You find it just twice a year, at the beginning and at the end of the summer. Italian figs are usually bigger, with a thicker skin that can be easily peeled off.

Come to me, my darlings!

You can only imagine my joy when I found a recipe for a "Brown Butter Fig Tart" in John Besh's My New Orleans: The Cookbook, a wonderful book I found at my father-in-law's during a winter visit (a great review here). I immediately copied the recipe on a piece of paper, and then sat on it for months until figs became available.

An empty center. That's what I get for eating half a dozen figs while halving them.

The tart is easy to make, and the result is rather paradisiac (of course). Since the tart is baked for only 40 minutes, the figs maintain their shape and some of their bite. They are also folded into the most delicious custard. And if you're lucky like I am, you have also a secret killer recipe for the perfect pie dough, perhaps with cream cheese. *winks*

The cocoa trick.

The tart you see in the picture was slightly overcooked, so a little too brown on top. To mask my mistake, I sprinkled a little cocoa powder, which is the only deviation from John Besh's recipe. I have to say, the cocoa worked perfectly with the figs and the custard, so I will definitely make it part of future preparations. And if you don't have figs, and like me have fruit in the fridge that you're not going to eat, please know this tart works great with plums and peaches, too.

Find the recipe here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

TWO ITALIAN MOTHERS, BLINDED BY FOOD AMBITION

I just spent two happy months in the company of my sister and her two wonderful kids, aged 10 and 12. We had a great time between summer camps, the beach, and bowling nights, but there was one issue we struggled for the entire vacation: What to eat? I have to say, my sister and I are both blessed with children who eat everything and are happy to experiment. The real struggle was to find a common denominator between our assorted demands for healthy food. We are both very health-conscious Italian mothers, after all, which means we want to provide only the best for our children so that they will, hopefully, never leave the house. 

In the flowchart below (and what a great flowchart it is), I've listed all of our joint food requirements for our summer together. I start with the basic requirements and then go into each subset. Our resulting diet is detailed at the very end. Let me know what you think.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A MID-SUMMER SNOBALL MIRAGE

In late July, my family spent a week in Fenwick Island, a lovely coastal town sandwiched between the romantic charm of Ocean City, MD and the austere beauty of Bethany Beach, DE. We were joined by my sister and her two kids, aged 10 and 12. After lying on the sand on a particularly sunny morning, we dared order a "Snoball", which is shaved ice topped with flavored syrup served in a styrofoam cup. We were hoping it would taste like a Sicilian granita, the heavenly inspiration for what you call "Italian ice": It did not.

Because of my sugar-free credo, I didn't order a Snoball for myself. I did, however, taste everybody else's: watermelon, orange, chocolate, and bubble-gum. As the kids sprinted to play in the water under my sister's watchful eyes, I slipped into a nauseated sleep. I'm sure it must have been the combination of the sugar, the synthetic flavoring, and the heat that introduced a strange and unsettling vision that haunts me to this day, and that I will recount to you now in this post.


Shortly after falling into my sugar coma, I woke up to find a plump, tanned woman in a black bikini sitting right next to me and looking towards the ocean. I had no idea what she was doing there, and I thought she was sitting a little too close, but there was something reassuring about her so I didn't protest. She was sitting against the sun in silhouette, so I could only catch glimpses of her face. What I could see is that she was probably in her mid-sixties, with long wiry grey hair and thick dark eyebrows. Her belly was big, round and smooth and the color of a cappuccino, and so were her thighs and arms. I remember thinking she actually looked like a giant smoked scamorza.

"There are lots of dolphins in the water today," she said, still looking at the ocean. Her voice was familiar somehow and carried a faint Italian accent; it reminded me of my mother's voice, but with a more deadpan tone.

"Are you Italian?" I asked.

"Yes, but I moved here a long time ago," the woman replied.

I asked her where in Italy she came from, but she didn't hear me, or decided not to reply. Instead, she started talking as in her own private conversation.

"The beach here is so different from Italy. It took me a long time to understand the waves."

"I know!" I exclaimed. "My husband put me on a body board four years ago, and I almost died. Two giant waves swept me off and I must have spent thirty seconds rolling underwater like a rag in the spin cycle. I haven't gone in since. I miss the Mediterranean Sea... calm and flat and unchallenging like an infant tub."

"And what about American beach food?" she asked, and I think I saw a complicit smile.

"Oh god! It's just burgers and pizza everywhere!" I replied. "And funnel cakes and fries! I think I'm getting tanned but it's just liver spots. No prosciutto e melone, right? Or a nice gelato."

"I miss the fresh fish," she said. "Not the frozen, chewy stuff they serve here. A big tray of fritto misto, to be shared with friends."

I was still trying to see her face through the blinding light of the sun, when I was distracted by my son calling me. He wanted me to go play in the water with him. I waved to my sister to take care of it. After the Snoball sampling, I wasn't sure I could move my legs.

"Is that your child?" she asked me.

"Yes. I have another one at home. He's napping with his dad now."

"I also have two boys. They're big now. They still come to the beach with me sometimes, but they have their own ideas of vacation now. They want better waves, so they can surf."

"No crossword puzzles under the umbrella for them, I bet!" I joked.

The woman shook her head slowly in response. She looked again towards the ocean and smiled at my son, but I knew her mind was elsewhere. My son was now happily running around his cousins, who were burying each other in the sand.

"Another thing that scares me," I started again, "is looking at families here, when they stroll on the boardwalk. Loud kids running all over the place and eating junk food into the night; their parents clothed in fluorescent T-shirts and khaki shorts, staring into space, just putting one foot in front of the other until they reach the next gadget shop. All the while the most god-awful music from ten years ago is blaring through all the speakers, canceling all their thoughts. Is my family going to look like that one day? Chilling, really."

The woman turned her gaze to me, and said, "Do you really think your family will be any different?" I could pick out a hint of a mocking smile on her face, and I immediately felt like an idiot.

"It will" she continued, "But only you will notice."

She moved her head to the side a little, and a ray of sunlight momentarily blinded me. I rubbed my eyes with one hand for a second, and when I looked back to the woman, she was no longer there. I looked around in the semi-deserted beach, but she had disappeared.

My son called me again from the water. I stood up and went to play.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY/2

INVASION OF THE MICROBIOME SNATCHER

Over the past year or so, I've be reading more and more reports about how science is now examining how our thoughts and behavior may be dictated by our gut flora (read here and here). To clarify: We always thought stress caused our intestinal problems, but it might be the opposite. This news is truly fascinating to me, and also creepy, if you consider the implications. In fact, if I were a journalist I would sensationalize these findings more. I just can see the titles: "Evil bacteria: At last, scientific proof for demonic possession" or "We found the human soul, and it's made of yogurt".

Thursday, June 19, 2014

DRIVE YOUR ITALIAN HOSTS CRAZY #3: THE WORLD CUP EDITION

The world's heaviest Ferrero Rocher
Usually, I don't watch soccer. The reason being that 1) I never really cared and 2) I was scarred forever when in 2004 the general manager of my local team, Venezia, was caught by the police with a bag with €250,000 IN CASH received for intentionally losing a match. Venezia was then punished by having to play forever somewhere completely inoffensive like the Baby&Tots Itsy-Bitsy Soccer League for Fun, Fun, Fun. Or something like that.

However, every 4 years my soccer soul awakens and stirs like that of a moulting cicada in DC. I resurrect from my soccer slumber and for a month straight I live and breathe World Cup. This frenzy is shared by all my fellow Italians, of course, which brings me to the third rule of the Drive Your Italian Hosts Crazy series.