The Cornerstone Of Italian Cuisine

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Many of us think of Italian food only as pasta with marinara sauce. But, chef and cookbook author Maurizio Mazzon wants to shatter that myth.

In his new cookbook, "The Il Foranio Pasta Book," he shows The Early Show that pasta is the cornerstone of Italian cooking. He says it's a foundation for an endless variety of dishes reflecting the different flavors of Italy. Mazzon demonstrates some of his favorite recipes that he collected from 20 regions of Italy, from Piemonte to Calabria.

Pasta is simply made of flour, water and a few other basic ingredients, such as salt. The book highlights the different specialties and ingredients the different regions of Italy are passionate about.

Mazzon knows that many people consider fresh and dry pasta to be more or less the same. However, he wants everyone to know that they could not be more different. Both serve the same purpose and are made from similar materials, but you cannot confuse the two.

Fresh pasta is made of flour, eggs, and other dairy products such as milk, ricotta and grated cheese. Its ingredients give it a soft texture and absorbent surface. It is cut or formed into a variety of shapes, including sheets used to enclose a filling.

Dry pasta also has virtues. You should cook it until it is firm to the bite. It is a staple throughout Italy and most popular in the South. It is less absorbent than fresh pasta. It is ideal for matching with olive oil and tomato-based sauces. The best dry pasta is uniform in color and has a slightly rough texture to help grab the sauce.

Chef Mazzon says never wash or rinse the pasta after it's cooked. The starch that remains on the pasta acts as a thickening agent for a sauce and helps the sauce attach to the pasta. Always reserve a small portion of the water in which the pasta was cooked. If a sauce has become too thick, a spoonful of the cooking water will thin it out.

Here are four recipes demonstrated on The Early Show:

Thin Pasta Strands With Lobster Sauce

When it comes to lobster, Sardegna is Italy's Maine. These briny creatures are abundant in the seas surrounding the island. Although black truffles are not indigenous to the region, Mazzon says he once added a small amount to this dish and it was so delicious, he includes it ever since.

Ingredients:

For the lobster:
3 live 1 1/4 pound lobsters
1/3 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed

For the broth:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1/3 cup diced onion
1/3 cup diced celery
1/3 cup diced carrots
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/3 cup brandy
1 cup dry white wine
5 cups water

For the sauce:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
3 tablespoons diced white onions
1/2 dried peperoncino broken into small pieces
3 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 1/2 cherry tomatoes halved
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
5 tablespoons sea salt
1 pound dry spaghettini
1 black truffle, thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Method:

To prepare the lobster:
Set the lobster on a cutting board, shell side up. Make an insertion in the middle of the head with a sharp chef's knife and cut the body in half, lengthwise. Cut off the claws. Break the claws by hitting the top of the claws with the back of a heavy knife. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan and add half of the lobster bodies, shell side up and all of the claws. Add the garlic and cook until the lobster meat begins to turn brown and crispy 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the lobster bodies to a bowl. Let cool slightly. Separate the meat from the shells, reserving the liquid. Chop the meat into large pieces. Cut the shells into small pieces.

To make the broth:
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the garlic, onion, celery, carrots and parsley; cook 2 minutes. Add the lobster shells and cook until dry, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the brandy and light with a match. Return to the heat. Carefully swirl the pan to mix the ingredients and cook off the alcohol. Cook until nearly evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the wine when the flame is extinguished and cook until evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30-minutes. Strain through a fine sieve or food mill to eliminate the shells. Squeeze them to remove all the liquid. Return the broth to the sauté pan and bring to a boil over medium- high heat. Cook until reduced to 1 cup, about 5 minutes. Pour the broth into a bowl and wipe out the sauté pan.

To make the sauce:
Heat the olive oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, onion and peperoncino. Increase the heat to high and cook 2 minutes. Add the basil, tomatoes and salt; cook 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of a bowl of a food processor and coarsely chop for 5 seconds. Return to the pan, add the broth, and bring to a boil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lobster meat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and keep warm while the paste is cooking.

Bring 5 quarts of water and the 5 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a large stockpot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Transfer to a colander to drain. Add to the sauté pan with lobster sauce. Add the truffle, if desired, extra virgin olive oil, parsley and pepper. Toss to mix well.

Note: For a dramatic presentation, leave the shell and meat of the tail portion whole for the garnish and follow the directions for the remaining shell and meat.


Pasta, Ham, Eggs, and Cheese Baked between Eggplant Slices

Mazzon says the recipe may take a lot of time to prepare, but it is well worth your effort. It can be assembled one day in advance.


Ingredients:

4 to 5 large Japanese eggplants (about 2 pounds total) cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
5 teaspoons sea salt, plus extra for seasoning
1/3 cup plus one tablespoon olive oil
6 ounces ground beef
6 ounces ground pork
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 cup vegetable oil
one 28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice.
1/2 white onion diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 small dried peperomcimo broken into small pieces
1 cup shelled fresh green peas
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
12 ounces dry tube pasta, such as rigatoni or penne
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup freshly Parmigiano Reggiano
3 eggs hard boiled, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup julienned imported Italian ham or salami
Six 1/8 inch slices Cariocavallo or Provolone

Method:

Arrange the eggplant slices on a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle liberally with salt. Let sit at least 30 minutes to eliminate any excess moisture.

Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the beef, pork, and a pinch of salt. Stir to break the meat into pieces. Cook until evenly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook until nearly evaporated, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside. Wipe out the pan and return it to the stove.

Heat the vegetable oil in a pan over medium high heat. Pat the eggplant slices dry with a paper towel. Cook the eggplant in batches: add to the pan in a single layer (about 6 to 8 slices) and cook until browned and crispy, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. Continue until all of the eggplant is cooked, adding more oil if needed. Wipe out the pan.

Place the tomatoes in a medium bowl and break up with your hands. Set aside. Heat the remaining 1/3 cup of olive oil in the large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook 1 to 2 minutes. Add the basil and peperoncino and sauté 1 minute. Add the tomatoes to the pan. Add the meat mixture and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the mixture 25 minutes. Add the peas and cook 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 450F

Brush the bottom and sides of a 4 quart casserole dish, 10 inches in diameter and 3 inches high, with olive oil. Coat the bottom with the bread crumbs, discarding any extra. Select uniform eggplant slices and arrange in concentric circles on the bottom, beginning in the center and over lapping each slice. Line the side of the dish with eggplant slices, beginning at the bottom. The slices should eventually hang over the edge of the dish, and the entire inside of the casserole dish should be covered. Reserve 6 slices to cover the top. (If there is additional eggplant chop it and add it to the tomato-meat sauce.)

Bring 5 quarts of water and the 5 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a large stockpot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, or firm to the bite. Transfer to a colander to drain. Add to the pan with the tomato-meat sauce. Add the pecorino and toss to coat evenly. Season it with pepper.

Pour a third of the pasta mixture into the casserole dish. Spread half of the parmigiano over the pasta. Arrange half of the egg slices over the parmigiano, and then half the ham over the egg. Cover with half of the caciocavallo. Press down gently to compress. Repeat the layers, beginning with the third of the pasta, then the remaining of the parmigiano, egg, ham, and caciocavallo. Top with the remaining pasta. Arrange the remaining 6 eggplants over the top and fold the eggplant slices hanging over the edge over the top of the pasta. Cover with a plastic wrap, and press down to compress and hold the ingredients together. Refrigerate 30 minutes. This dish can be prepared to this point up to one day in advance.

Remove the plastic wrap and cover with aluminum foil. Bake 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for 1 minute. Invert onto a plate.

Delicate Fresh Crepes With Spinach-Ricotta Filling
Crespelle alla Fiorentina

Serves 6

The French cooks once used by Florence's nobility introduced crespelle to Italy. Like its cousin the French crepe, the Italian version is prepared as a sweet or savory, and varies from one region to the next. This version, which incorporates a Florentine classic combination of spinach and cheese, is easy to make and can be prepared ahead of time. The bechamel sauce gives the impression of a rich, creamy dish, but the taste is light and fresh.

Ingredients:

For the Crespelle:

2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
Pinch of sea salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons milk

For the filling:

2 teaspoons sea salt, plus extra for seasoning
10 ounces baby spinach leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 cups ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
freshly ground pepper

For the bechamel sauce:

4 cups milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
olive oil for drizzling

1/2 cup Salsa di Pomodoro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Method:

To make the crespelle:
Beat the egg yolks, egg, and salt together in a medium bowl, using a whisk. Add the butter and mix well. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Gradually add the milk, whisking continuously.

Heat an 8-inch, nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Wipe the inside of the pan with a small amount of oil. Pour in just enough batter, about 1/4 cup, the coat the bottom of the pan, swirling the pan to evenly browned, about 1 minute. Turn and cook the other side about 1 minute. Transfer to a flat work surface to cool. Repeat until all of the batter is used. Once the crespelle are cool, stack between sheets of wax paper or directly on top of one another. Wrap loosely in a damp towel to prevent them from drying out.

To make the filling:
Bring 2 quarts of water and the 2 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a medium stockpot over high heat. Add the spinach and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a colander to drain. Let cool. Squeeze the spinach between your hands to eliminate any excess liquid. Chop into a fine mixture.

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the spinach, shallots, and garlic. Cook until the shallots are tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the ricotta and parmigiano. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Transfer to a pastry bag with a 1-inch tip.

To make the bechamel sauce:
Slowly bring the milk to a low boil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour to the butter and cook, stirring, until the flour is well incorporated, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk, nutmeg, salt, and white pepper. Cook until the mixture becomes thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil over the top of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming.

Preheat the boiler. Stack the crespelle on top of each other, leaving a 2-inch border at the top of each one. Pipe out an equal amount of the filling onto the border of each crespelle and roll the crespelle firmly around the filling. Spoon half of the bechamel into a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish. Spoon the remaining bechamel down the center of the crespelle. Cover the edges with foil to prevent burning, and place under the broiler. Cook until the bechamel begins to turn brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon the tomato sauce over the top of the bechamel and garnich with the parsley.



Cappellaci alla Zucca

The shape of this pasta inspired its name, which means "ugly hat". Cappellaci are the most popular stuffed pasta in Emilia Romagna; the filling and sauce change from city to city. Deceptively simple, these "hats" are a wonderful way to enjoy an autumn harvest. They can be topped with just browned butter and sage, or with the addition of tomato sauce, which is how I prefer them.

Ingredients:
One 4 pound butter-nut squash
2 tablespoons sea salt plus extra for seasoning
1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmigiano--Reggiano
1/4 cup of walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
freshly ground pepper
2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
1 large egg beaten
1 cup salsa di Pomodoro
30 whole fresh sage leaves, plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Medthod:

Preheat the oven to 350F

Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Place in a baking dish, cut side up. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and bake until tender, about 2 hours. Scrape the meat out of the shell; if too watery, place in a small baking dish and bake until the liquid is evaporated, about 20 minutes. Puree the squash until smooth in a food processor or with a potato masher.
Combine 1 1/4 cups of squash puree, 1 cup of parmigiano, the walnuts, nutmeg and a pinch of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Combine the flower and 1 teaspoon of salt on a flat work surface or in a shallow bowl.
Shape into a small mound. Make a well in the center and pour 1 1/4 cups of the remaining squash puree into the center. Mix and knead the dough as described in the Step-by Step Guide for Making Pasta on page 21. Roll out the pasta and described in steps 1 and 2 under "To roll out Sheets" on page 22. Reserve any remaining squash puree for another use.

Brush each 24-inch sheet of pasta with some of the beaten egg. Cut into 4 inch squares with a fluted pastry cutter. Arrange a small mound of the filling (about 1 table spoon) in the center of each square. Fold in half, corner to corner to form a triangle. Gently place one finger on each edge to push out the air and seal the edges. (This also helps to prevent the stuffing from spilling out the sides). Fold the uncut edge over and pull the corners around to the center to form the "hat" shape. Transfer the cappellacci to a flower dusted platter and sprinkle with a light coating of flower to help dry the pasta.

Pour the tomatoes sauce into a large pan and heat over medium heat.
Put some flower for dredging in a shallow bowl and set aside. Place the whole sage leaves in a small bowl. Cover with the wine and let sit for five minutes. Heat the olive oil in a small saute pan with high sides. Remove the sage leaves from the wine, one at a time, and coat lightly with flower. Add to the pan and cook until crispy, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Melt the butter in a small saute pan. Add the chopped sage and cook until the butter is browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt.

Bring 5 quarts of water and the remaining 5 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a large stockpot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook 2-3 minutes.

Spoon a small portion of the tomato sauce onto each of 6 individual serving plates. Gently remove the pasta from the water with a slotted spoon and divide among the plates. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup of parmigiano. Tuck the fried sage among the cappellacci and pour the butter over the top at the table.
  • Rome Neal

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