Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Dinner 2009

Oh how much I love to get Christmas dinner together!! I think Jenna likes it too because she does not have to do any planning, shopping, and cooking. I did not go as extravagant as I did in the past couple years (remember sea urchins?) especially because I did not spend the last two months in Italy where I would get few funny things to try on Christmas day. So, I think I did pretty good with what I could find locally, with the exception of one dish. I will let you guess which one. The menu consisted of four appetizers, two pasta dishes, turkey with roasted potatoes, tiramisu, and San Pellegrino water a go-go.
Here are the details. We ate for four straight hours. Oh how much I love Christmas dinner!! (Did I already say that???).

Like last year, I made a platter of Italian cold meats, which is pretty traditional in my home country. I cover a large tray and a bowl with aluminum foil and use it as my serving plate for the meats. I buy them at Harmon's as I am fairly pleased with the quality, texture and flavors of their Boar's Head Italian selection. This year we had Parma Prosciutto, Italian dry salami, Genoa Salami, Pancetta (Italian cured bacon), and Mortadella with pistachio nuts.

Next, another classic from my Christmas at home as a young boy: Shrimp in cocktail sauce. I believe I posted this recipe before, but here it is again just in case. I get a bag of frozen cooked tail-off shrimps at Costco (2 lbs) and thaw them under lukewarm water. In a bowl I mixe 1/4 cup of ketchup, 1/2 cup of mayo, 1 pint of heavy whipping cream, and two tsp of Paprika. Then I add the shrimp and mix them with the sauce. They tasted like candy!

Here is something new that I did not try for Christmas before: mussels au gratin. I buy the mussels at Walmart as they have a 2 lbs bag of froze, cleaned, cooked mussels ready to eat. And the price is excellent (less than $4). I place the sealed plastic bags under hot water and let the mussels thaw. I open the bags, discard the liquid, and remove the half shell that is empty. In a bow I mixed two cups of bread crumbs, minced garlic, parsley and olive oil as to make a nice moist mixture (garlic and parsley may vary depending on taste). I fill each half shell with some of the mix and the press with the palm of my hand to make sure it is nice and compact. I place the mussels on a cookie sheet and then in the oven at 350 for 1/2 hour. They taste better if they are still warm.

Here is the table before we sat and started eating. The appetizers are all there. From the top, the Italian cold meat platter (with a rose butter on the top...), a nice chunk of Parmesan cheese some friends from Italy brought me as a gift a couple of months ago, sliced artisan bread from Costco (I love it! But Jenna can make some pretty good bread too) in a banana leaves basket we got in Hawaii last October, the shrimp in cocktail sauce, and the mussels au gratin. Buon Appetito!

The two pasta dishes were quite simple, but very very tasty. I love the pasta from Costco, both the fresh and the dry one. For this year dinner we got some of their large ravioli filled with squash. I served them with a light butter and sage sauce. They also taste like candy. We could not have enough of them. For the second pasta dish I did something a little extraordinary (that was the surprise for this year... surprise that usually I am the only one to appreciate!!). I used the dry egg noodles from Costco. It was the first time I tried them and they also tasted very good. For the sauce I sauted two black truffles finely grated that I brought with me from Tuscany last June. I have frozen them and waiting for a special occasion to sacrifice these two beauties (see picture). Jenna saw them on the counter and nearly fainted for the look and the smell... :) I simply adore them. Truly one of my favorite food ever. I added a cup and a 1/2 of heavy whipping cream and let them cook together on medium heat for few minutes. D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S!!!!

The meat dish was turkey with a side of roasted potatoes. Both recipes come from my grandma Perego. In fact, I knew my parents ate the same dish this year as grandma's only Christmas job is to bring the sacrificial turkey to the table. I bought a small young turkey at Costco and then using a large butcher knife, I cut it in pieces about the size of my palm, plus the two legs and two wings (I then used the body with the little meat left attached to it to make turkey stock). I place everything in a large pot with: dry sage, dry rosemary, dry juniper berries, garlic, dry bay leaves, and a couple of bouillon cubes. I add two cups of white wine and some water and let it cook slowly, moving the pieces around from time to time, until it is mostly cooked and the spices have done their job. At this point I move everything in a roast pan with lid and place in the oven at 300 for a couple of hours, checking on it from time to time and making sure the pieces are moist. The meat just fall off the bones and it melts in your mouth!! The roasted potatoes are very easy and tasty. I used 5 lbs of peeled potatoes cut in pieces and place in a large oven open pan. I sprinkle them with dry rosemary, two-three crumbled bouillon cubes, extra virgin olive oil and some coarse salt. I baked them at 380 for 1-2 hours, until soft, moving them around to make sure the top one would not get too dry (no photo available).

The real Italin tiramisu recipe asks for fresh mascarpone cheese, which is hard to find and quite expensive here in Utah. So, I came up with a less expensive alternative using ingredients that could be found locally. My wife had both and she thinks they are both very good. In a large mixing bowl, mix six large and very fresh egg yokes with 1/2 cup of sugar until lighter in color and fluffy. Add a box of American Neufchatel Cheese, which is similar to cream cheese, but with a much lighter flavor (and 1/3 of the fat). Next, add two containers of creamy cool whip and mix until the cream is smooth and velvety. In a Pyrex pan, make a layer of lady fingers (Savoiardi, which you can buy in many stores, particularly Italian grocery stores such as Caputo and Granato in the Salt Lake Valley). I soak them (with the help of a spoon) with an unsweetened roasted barley drink as a substitute for coffee. Postum or Pero could do it too (the latter is better). I then cover this first layer of cookies with half of the cream and repeat the operation for a second layer. I cover the whole thing with surround wrap and place it in the fridge until ready to serve. When ready, I cut a small portion on a dessert plate and sprinkle it with unsweetened cocoa powder.

I can't wait for next Christmas dinner already!! :)

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Summer is almost over and thanks to the "great" weather Utah has... this is also the peak of the gardening season. Tomatoes are ripe, zucchini are abundant and people bring you over all sort of veggies that they planted for fun and now they don't know what a heck to do with them. I received bags of goodies last week and made several bags of ready to use tomato sauce, sliced zucchini, and a great "peperonata." Peperonata is a vegetarian dish (or sidedish) made with bell peppers. It is very simply to make and very tasty.

Since I had 12 peppers, I based my recipe on this amount.

- 12 bell peppers, washed, cleaned (no tops or seeds), and cut in small pieces;
- 5 fresh tomatoes;
- 1 can of tomato sauce;
- 6 small/medium size potatoes;
- a small onion, minced;
- 1/2 stick of butter;
- 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil;
- 2 boillon cubes.

Place oil, butter, onion, and cubes in a large sauce pan. Cook until onion is soft. Add bell peppers and let them cook over medium heat until tender. Add diced tomatoes, diced peeled potatoes, and tomato sauce. Cook covered with a lid on low heat for about 45-60 minutes. Stirr occasionally. The peperonata is ready when all the veggies are tender and the sauce is reduced.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Eggplant Parmesan

A friend recenly asked me for this recipe as this is eggplant season in Utah and I have been eating Eggplant Parmesan almost every other day. My mother was visiting from Italy and we asked her to make three pans of it so that we would have some even after she left. This is actually her recipe. I will post some pictures when I bake the next pan.

Here it is.

I usually buy two or three medium/large size eggplants at the grocery store (Walmart has them too). In the stores you usually find the dark purple fat ones. There are many variety of eggplants. Choose the ones that are firm and not squishy (they are either old or have been dropped). Farmers Market has some great eggplants nowadays. I got myself 6 last Saturday (Borsky Farm table). They have the white and light purple kind that are sweeter and tastier. I made two large pans over the weekend!! Yummy. Prices varies. Usually between 1-2 dollars each eggplant. The ones I got at Farmers marker were $2 each, but they were all worth it!!

At home: wash them and slice off the top where the eggplant attached to the plant. Peel them using a knife or potato peeler. Slice them about ¼ inch thick per slice and place them in a large bowl. Sprinkle some salt on each slice. Let them rest for 20-30 minutes. The salt will remove some of the bitterness from the eggplants (you will notice large dark drops sweating from the slices.

Rinse under cold water thoroughly as to remove as much salt as possible. Dry the slices using a kitchen or paper towel. Fry the slices in canola or sunflower oil until tender (not golden). Do not overfry them. Place them in a container with papertowels to remove some of the grease.

Make a tomato sauce using regular tomato sauce (I love the brand found at Costco in cans), some minced garlic, basil (dry is fine), and extra virgin olive oil. You can add more spices (IE dry onion, etc.) if you want to, but I like it this way as I want to taste the tomato sauce.

In a Pyrex pan (9x13 or smaller depending on how many eggplants you are preparing): place a couple spoonfuls of the sauce on the bottom and arrange a layer of eggplant slices. Cover with few spoonfuls of tomato sauce and sprinkle some mozzarella and parmesan cheese on the top. Repeat the process until you have 4-5 layers (leave about ½ inch from the top border of the pan). Complete with the two cheeses. If you are going to save it or if you made more than one pan, cover with aluminum foil and place in a freezer. Otherwise, leave in the fridge until you are ready to bake it (cover with aluminum foil). Place in oven at 350F for 1 hour. Remove foil and let it bake another 15-20 minutes until cheese has melted. Remove from oven and let it stand for 15-20 minutes before serving.

Buon Appetito! Ugo


As promised, here are some pictures taken a couple of weeks ago when I made some more Eggplant Parmesan. I made a particularly large pan, which I then froze for a perfect time to enjoy them in the near future. The approach I took is to simply fried the eggplant slices in canola oil "au-naturelle". Other options to get them ready would be to pass them in flower or bread crumbs prior to frying them or, for a lighter version, to grill them.

After slicing and soaking the eggplant (ca. 30') in cold water,
rinse well and pat them dry on clean kitchen towels before frying:


Fried slices:

Marinara sauce
(tomato sauce, olive oil, dry onions, dry basil, salt, pepper, sugar):

Everything is ready:

First layer:

First layer with cheeses:

Ready to bake:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Firenze and Perugia (Tuscany and Umbria), Italy - June 2009

During my last week in Italy, I was invited by my good friend and colleague Alessandro Achilli to a quick trip to Florence (Tuscany) and Perugia (Umbria). I think it is needless to say how beautiful the countryside and these two cities are. Everyone should get a chance in their lifetime to visit them. I can't wait to take Jenna and the kids there (maybe next year?). The purpose of our trip (at least my part) was to meet with the ancient DNA people at Dr. Caramelli's lab in Florence (with whom we have a number of collaborative projects) and a lecture at the faculty and PhD students of the Life Sciences department at the University of Perugia, where Alessandro has a position as a researcher and instructor.
The trip was the crowning experience of my two months in Italy, the last required stay for my PhD three year PhD program. We were on the road most of the time, but we had some very productive time both with those who we met as well as discussing plans for the next few months. Moreover, we had some of the best food Italy has to offer... and that is always good!

B&B Mille Soli (Perugia)

B&B Mille Soli - Surroundings

A centenary olive tree

"Il Rifugio" restaurant - Caprese Michelangelo

Pecorino cheese with black truffles

Homemade egg noodles with Porcini mushrooms

Crostoni with cheese and Porcini mushrooms

Crab meat with cheese and black truffles

Bread crumbs soup with Porcini mushrooms

Bread crumbs with cheese and black truffles

Agnolotti with meat filling and black truffles

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Beautiful Region of Marche, Italy - May 2009

Taking advantage of a speaking invitation in San Marino, the Achilli family and I spent the weekend in the beautiful region of Marche (for more information about this area, see MARCHE). The Achilli family own a small vacation home in the hilly village of Penna San Giovanni. This is a great place because it is on a hill (about 2000 feet in altitude), but only 30 minutes drive from the beach and 30 minutes from the mountains. It is also a place for great eating experiences and for relaxing. We started on Friday evening, when we stopped in a great restaurant in Porto San Giorgio, right on the beach. The restaurant name is Lo Storione. We could only manage to eat the apetizers and the pasta dishes... Here are some snapshots:

Agritourism "L'Antico Gusto" di Penna San Giovanni (MC)

Space for children to play with the backdrop of the beautiful Marchigian hills


...and AFTER!

The restaurant

Appetizers (round #1)

Appetizers (round #2)

Lunch at "Il Fiorentino" (Citta' di Castello, PG) - Appetizers

Lunch at "Il Fiorentino" (Citta' di Castello, PG) - Homemade noodles with black truffles

View from my bedroom in Penna San Giovanni, MC

Walking around Penna San Giovanni, MC

"Downtown" Penna San Giovanni, MC

Restaurant "Lo Storione" in Porto San Giorgio, MC - Seafood appetizer #1

Seafood appetizer #2 - Prawns

Seafood appetizer #3 - Mussels with tomatoes sauce

Seafood appetizer #4 - Code di Rospo

Seafood appetizer #5 - Sea snails

Seafood appetizer #6 - Fish tripe

Seafood appetizer #7 - Steamed mussels and clams

Seafood appetizer #8 - Mussels "au gratin"

Pasta dish #1 - Homemade noodles "allo scoglio"

Pasta dish #2 - Homemade gnocchi with white Marinara sauce