Monday, March 15, 2010

La Cassola!

Cazzuola o Cassola (lit. "casserole") is a pork-and-cabbage-base dish typical of Brianza, a very beautiful hilly area north of Milan and between the two branches of Como's Lake (Lago di Como). Every time I visited my parents, my mother would prepare this family favorite for everyone. Now that my future visits to Italy are quite uncertain, I have decided to experiment in the kitchen and see if I could make it myself. I made it twice in the past month and both times it turned out excellent, which means, according to science, that it was no accident and that I can actually duplicate my initial success. :) The difficulty with this dish lays in finding the ingredients and in the amount of time they need to cook. Besides that, it is not very complicate to make and the final results is a true feast for all your taste buds. It is a dish that require faith also. The ingredients and process may not be very stimulating at first (my wife comment when she first saw me making it was: "...and we are going to eat THAT?!?!"). However, when I pulled it out from the oven and she tried some, I could not keep her away from it! The photos with this blog entry are from last week preparation, which was for a large dinner we had Sunday. The quantity of ingredients I used was for at least 12 adults (about 2-3 times the normal recipe for 4-6 people). So, the recipe I am describing here will serve 4 to 6, not the amount you see in the photos.

- Large slab of adult pork ribs (half rack)
- One package (5-6) fresh pork bratwursts
- One pig foot cut in two halves (don't freak out yet)
- 4-5 pieces of pork neck bones (OK, you can freak out now) :)
- One small onion
- 3 carrots
- 4 celery stalks
- One cup of white cooking wine
- One large green cabbage
- Half stick of butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2-3 Bullion cubes (optional)

Rinse the pig foot and place it in a large pot with the neck bones. Fill the pot with cold water until all pieces are covered and boil for one hour. I found pig feet and neck bones at Wal-mart in the fresh meat section. They are both fairly inexpensive (duh! - who really buys this stuff?!?!). The pig feet I got came already cleaned, halved, 5 pieces per tray (which is what I needed for the amount I was preparing). For the regular recipe you can boil two halves and freeze the rest, or boil all of them together for extra rich pork stock. My mother keeps the pig foot with the rest of the meat as my grandfather loves it. In my case, after the pork stock was ready, I only kept the neck bones (rich of meat) and got rid of the feet. The traditional recipe would ask for cotenna (pig skin) boiled with the pig foot. The boiling turns them into a tasty gelatin, but I just can't get myself to like the texture. That is why I replaced the skin with the neck bones. The end product is a rich, flavorful, and thick pork stock to be used for cooking the ribs, sausages, and cabbage.

In another large pot, melt the butter over medium heat with the finely chopped onion, until golden. Cut the meat as to have single rib pieces and cook with butter and onion. When the ribs are lightly brown, pour wine and keep cooking until it evaporates. Add finely chopped carrots and celery. Stir as to ensure all the ribs are cooking evenly. Chop the cabbage in large chunks, removing and disposing of the stem (the cabbage will eventually cook down to nothing, releasing much fluid to the juice). Add to ribs. Poke the bratwursts with a fork 3-4 times, cut them in three pieces, and place them with the cabbage and ribs. Add 3-4 cups of the pork stock, the halved foot (one or two pieces) and the neck bones). Cover and let it cook on low heat for another hour. From time to time, move the pieces of meat around as to ensure they cook evenly. If necessary, add more pork stock (you can then freeze the rest for soups). Add salt and pepper to taste.

After about one hour, transfer the content of the pot in one large oven Pyrex pan (9x13). For a more flavorful dish, you can crumble 2-3 small Bullion cubes on the top of the meat. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 300 for another hour. After about half hour, check to ensure that the meat on the top is not getting too dry. Use a spoon to pour some of the juice on the top or move meat around carefully. Continue to cook until the meat is basically falling off the bones. I like my meat well done so I tend to cook it a little longer. Remove foil if you desire your meat a little more dry (which provides a contrast to the more juicer pieces at the bottom of the pan).

Cassola is traditionally served on a bed of Polenta (corn mash), which can be prepared about 5 minutes before serving the meat. (Note that in the picture I am only showing one of the two Pyrex pans I obtained with the larger amount of ingredients I used for my dinner. One Pyrex pan should be sufficient for the amount of ingredients listed for this blog entry).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Great food in Italy!

Of course, during the week I was in Italy to complete my PhD requirements, I also tried to eat as much of the local food as possible. Let's simply say that I have a different approach to the "ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT" concept!! Here are some of the delicious food I had while I was there.

This first item is called SPAGHETTI AL CARTOCCIO. It is a seafood pasta dish where spaghetti noodles are mixed with a rich tomatoes and cream sauce and an incredible variety of shellfish (shrimp, mussels, prawns, clams, squid, etc). Then, the whole thing is placed in aluminum foil and served as a "cartoccio" (rough looking package). Very messy, but an absolute treat for seafood lovers like me). I ate this at the Ristorante Pizzeria Italia, one of my favorites in Pavia, both for quality and quantity (as well as reasonable prices) in Pavia.

Another day, Ale and I met his wife Patrizia for lunch and went to a very fancy restaurant downtown Pavia (I can't remember the name, but as soon as I find it I will add it here). It has a lunch only menu with few specials that change from day to day and the pricing was reasonable. They serve an awesome tray of mixed breads and then I ordered some gnocchetti al ragu di mare (small potato dumplings with a diced seafood and tomato-based sauce), trota salmonata with zucchine trifolate (pink trout with sautee zucchini) and a delicate dessert made of sliced cupcakes and fresh custard cream.

On the Saturday before I left, I was able to take the Achillis to one of my favorite restaurants near where my parents live. The name of the place is Ristorante Simposio and they are famous for their seafood dishes (for a change). We really overdid it here!! But who could resist. First, who knows when I would be back here. Second, it was a goodbye with some very good friends and there was a little bit of uncertainty now that the PhD was over about when I was going to be able to see them again. Lunch was absolutely incredible. We started with some appetizers and things the kids could also enjoy such as Antipasto Misto di Mare per Patrizia (mixed seafood appetizers) and some Fritto Misto (mixed fried shrimp and calamari) for Leonardo. Ale and I instead enjoyed a very tasty, yet delicate Risotto al Pesce Persico (risotto with perch fillet). It was a joy for every taste buds. I think Ale ended up ordering a second serving since his daughter Beatrice was eating all his.

Next, we ordered one of the house specialties and the very reason we came here to eat: their magnificent and colossal seafood soup (with some more grilled fish just in case we were still hungry! What a feast for the eyes, the fingers and the mouth!!

The last item on this glorious week of food delicacies was dinner at my parents' home with the sweet company of my grandparents Perego. Mom made one of his the dishes she is famous for: La Cassola (aka Cazzuola), a typical dish of this area of Italy (Brianza). It is a mix of cabbage, pork sausage and pork ribs cooked slowly in the oven and eaten with Polenta (corn mash). I need to learn how to make it myself because once a year is just not going to do it for me! Grandma Perego completed an already perfect meal by bringing a beautiful Meringata ice-cream cake (a cake made exclusively of vanilla ice-cream and meringues), which is my very favorite dessert in the world (it is only better when eaten with hot chocolate poured on it!).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year's Day

Italians are a very superstitious people. This is particularly evident on the first day of every year. Everything that happens or that you do, could be potentially reflecting on the type of year you are going to live. The first phone call you receive... The first person you see on the street... And of course, the first meal you have. The traditional dish in Italy on January 1st is a pig leg called Zampone (=big leg) or Cotechino (which is basically the same thing without the pig foot at the end of it). For how awful they may sound, they are actually delicious since what you are really eating is a cooked, juicy, soft salami. Here is a photo I found on the internet.

I usually bring one with me from Italy as they are vacuum packaged. Unfortunately, this past Fall I did not go there and therefore this is the first time in years that I have to do without. Instead I made a small pork roast cooked slowly on a stove top in milk. As you can see from the photo I just posted, the Zampone is served with mush potatoes (optional) and lentils (mandatory!). Lentils represent money. The more lentils you eat on New Year's Day, the more money you will make during the year. If I am correct, such tradition derives from the biblical account of Esau selling his birthright to his younger twin brother Jacob for a bowl of porridge (and the folklorist version is that the bowl of porridge was indeed a serving of lentils). Of course, I made plenty and ate as many as I could possible handle. Here is my recipe for lentils (great as a side dish or as a soup):

- a package of dry lentils (1lb)
- one small carrot, one small onion, two celery sticks
- 2 cloves of garlic (minced)
- 4 TBSPs extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 slices of bacon
- 2 bouillon cubes (I prefer the vegetable based flavor from the Knorr brand that you can find in the ethnic section of the grocery store)
- 1/2 TBSP of Paprika
- Pinch of black pepper
- 1 small can of tomato paste
- water

In a food processor mince finely carrot, celery and onion (soffritto). Sautee in a large saucepan or pot with olive oil and garlic. Cut bacon in small pieces and cook it with the vegetables for a couple of minutes. Rinse the lentils in cold water, drain and pour in the pot. Add black pepper, cubes, paprika and cover with water. Add tomato paste. Stir occasionally and cook covered on low heat for approximately one hour. Check from time to time stirring regularly and adding more water if necessary (it depends on how "soupy" you would like the end product to be. I don't like mine watery). The lentils are ready when they are soft. Have a prosperous 2010!!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Pasta "Amore" for New Year's Eve

We usually don't do much on New Year's Eve. Since we have been married, Jenna and I have traditionally fed and put the kids to bed at their regular bed time and then I would make a candle-light seafood dinner for the two of us with some sort of sparkling juice and/or San Pellegrino mineral water. However, this year we have been invited by Jenna's cousin to attend a party in Heber City to welcome home her son from his two-year LDS mission in Chile, as well as celebrating the end of 2009 and the arrival of 2010 together. I was asked to cook the main dish for the evening, specifically to make the same pasta dish I prepared last August at Jenna's family reunion. This is a fairly simple dish, very tasty and very rich that I came up with during the past year and it has now become a family (and apparently also an extended family) favorite. I don't have a name for it, so for the time being I will just call it "Pasta Amore". Any suggestions for a better name are welcome! :)
For this occasion I made 6 pounds of pasta and of course the three photos below reflect the amount of ingredients necessary to feed 30-50 people (there were other food available at the party). The following ingredients are for the typical one pound pasta packaging and it would feed approximately 6 people.


- 1lb Pasta. I prefer the Farfalle (bow ties) shape from either Garofalo (Costco) or Barilla (many grocery stores carry it), but even Penne or other pasta shapes would do it;
- 3/4 cup sundried tomatoes (I get mine at Costco);
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced (depending on taste);
- 1 TBSP of dry basil leaves or a couple of fresh ones;
- 1 bouillon cube;
- 1/2 pint of heavy whipping cream;
- 1 lbs of cooked, tail off medium or large shrimp (I get mine frozen in a 2lbs bag at Costco);
- 1 cup of fresh mozzarella cheese (I prefer the Belgioioso Pearls at Costco or any fresh diced mozzarella would do it).

Cook pasta following the directions on the packaging. In a non-stick fry pan, sautee the sundried tomatoes in their oil with the bouillon cube, garlic, and basil. Do not overcook. When the tomatoes look softer, add the whipping cream and continue to cook over low/medium heat. In the meantime, thaw the shrimp (if frozen) under lukewarm water, drain and place in a bowl. If you are using a larger mozzarella loaf or ball, dice in cubes approximately 1/4 inch in size or smaller. Set aside. When the pasta is al dente, remove from heat, drain, and mix with the sundried tomatoes sauce. Add shrimp and fresh mozzarella. Toss and serve immediately.