Italy in Three Parts

Since we started this project, I have been looking forward to cooking Italy. No offense to my second culinary love, France, but authentic Italian food will always be my favorite. Italian food is just so homey and comforting (read: carb filled), it’s hard not to love it. Not to mention, some of the food I had during my first trip to Italy (Venice, age 19, with my boyfriend and his parents for spring break. Awesome.) remains the best I’ve ever had. For example, my mouth still waters thinking about the deep-fried soft-shelled crabs I devoured at this amazing, expensive, tiny family-run restaurant in Venice. My second favorite meal of that trip was far simpler – homemade pasta and amazing sauce, served at a casual trattoria on our first night.

My goal for Italy was to make a version of that meal – simple, hearty, with the sauce as the star. I’ve longed wanted to make an amazing Bolognese and tonight I did it. Additionally, I made perhaps the best cookies I’ve ever eaten and a super simple and satisfying artichoke salad. All the recipes are courtesy of Lidia Bastianich’s website www.lidaisitaly.com. (In case you aren’t familiar with her, she hosts a cooking show on PBS. Unlike some “Italian chefs” (cough, Giadi de Laurentis) she doesn’t seem to have sold out and is actually from Italy.) For our Italian menu, I made:

Ragu alla Bolognese
Artichoke and Chickpea Salad
Pignoli cookies

This was definitely a whole-day kind of meal. I started the cookies at 2:30 pm, the sauce at around 3:00, the salad at 6:00, and served dinner to my lovely friends at 8:00. Obviously, the bulk of the time went to the sauce. You could easily make the salad on a weeknight and, as Lidia suggests, toss in some grilled chicken or tuna and call it a meal. The sauce, though, that requires commitment. So, let’s start there.

Part 1: The sauce

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This sauce makes no qualms about being a meat sauce before anything else. As you’ll see in the recipe, it includes more than 4 pounds of meat, between the beef, the ground pork, and the bacon/pancetta. It is meaty, but not meaty in an overwhelming way, like our Brazilian meal.

The recipe is broken down into three parts: making the pestata and prepping the meat and vegetables; making the sauce base; finishing the sauce. As you’ll see, the link includes recipes for “ancien” and “tradizionale” styles of Bolognese. I followed the “tradizionale” instructions.

The pestata is basically a meat paste. Cut the bacon in small pieces and throw it and some garlic into a food processor (the food processor was definitely the MVP of this meal.) and pulse away. After processing it looks like this:

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Not particularly appetizing, I know. But put that feeling aside and continue on.

The pestata goes in the pan (use a large skillet/pan. I used my dutch oven. You’ll want high sides and a wide base, along with a lid.) along with the aromatics. After cooking those down a bit, you had the meat, which is first blended together and then drenched in white wine. A tip: don’t use super cold meat and/or wine as I did. The easiest way to mix these ingredients together is by hand and my hands got cold!

Into the pot goes the meat, which begins to brown. With so much meat, it took a fair amount of time to brown it all. Once it was done, the meat started letting off liquid like crazy. After about 45 minutes, all my liquid had been absorbed and I was able to add the saucier ingredients (tomatoes, tomato paste, red wine, and the first of many cups of vegetable stock). Then the waiting begins. For 3 hours you let that pot of yumminess simmer away, checking every 20 minutes on the liquid level and adding more stock as needed. It might seem like forever, but each one of those minutes made the sauce that much more complex and delicious. You can literally see the flavor developing.

Eventually, this is what you get:

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It is even better than it looks. I served it with Rigatoni and parmesan cheese. You’ll definitely want to use a pasta that can handle the sauce, so forget anything like spaghetti or angel hair pasta. I forgot to take a picture of the completed dish because by that time I’d already had a glass or two of wine and was socializing with my dinner guests, so you’ll have to use to your imagination.

The sauce definitely got raves from my friends, who insisted it was “restaurant quality” and delicious. I’ll definitely agree with the latter.

Part 2: The salad

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The salad, as I mentioned is way easier than the sauce. I had about half the ingredients on hand already, and just needed to pick up the bread for the croutons and the artichoke. (The recipe instructs you to use three-day old bread, which I didn’t have. So, instead I bought a loaf of focaccia and left it out all day long. This actually worked.)

Aside from the croutons, which needed to be baked and the almonds, which need to be toasted, this is a salad of the open ingredients and mix them variety. The vinaigrette is a simple blend of red-wine vinegar, olive-oil, and fresh herbs. I made this ahead in a jar and dressed the salad right before we ate.

It was really good; the flavors married well with each other, and I thought it was a nice contrast to the heaviness of the pasta.

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Part 3: The cookies

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I’ll cut to the chase: these cookies were so, so easy and so, so good. I made a little over two dozen cookies and not a single one was left by the time the night was over. I want more, immediately. It’s a good thing I don’t have marzipan in my pantry!

In addition to being delicious, these cookies are also dairy and gluten-free, if you care about that sort of thing. The fat in the almond paste works with the egg whites as a binder and the paste itself, once processed into crumbs works like flour normally would.

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Cookie assembly was easy. Roll in a ball, then roll in the pine nuts. For this, I had an awfully cute assistant pastry-chef.

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Quinn happened to be a big fan of the dough.

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Really, these were truly phenomenal. A little crunchy on the outside, slightly sticky and sweet on the inside, with the almond flavor permeating every bite. The pine-nuts added saltiness and texture and balanced out the sweetness. They were also pretty.

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All in all, this meal was fan-freaking-tastic. I have literally no complaints about any part of the meal. I only wish I could make a 5 hour sauce in 30 minutes. Alas.

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