Italian Cooking, Southern Style

Chef Frank Stitt is a fixture of Southern cuisine, with four restaurants in Birmingham, Ala., but he's just out with his second cookbook whose title says it all: "Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef's Love Affair With Italian Food."

The Italian recipes in the book incorporate many Southern ingredients and techniques.

On The Early Show Thursday, Stitt prepared some of his favorite dishes from the book.

Stitt has won praise coast-to-coast, and was awarded "Best Chef of the Southeast" by the James Beard Foundation. He's up for the foundation's 2008 Outstanding Chef Award, and Bon Appetit magazine has dubbed Stitt a "culinary legend."

The main dish Stitt demonstrated Thursday was Braised Short Ribs and Oxtail.

While oxtail may sound exotic, it's actually quite inexpensive and easy to find; it's one of those meats people simply skip over in the grocery store because they're unfamiliar with it, though Stitt points out that many of our grandmothers probably used oxtail frequently in stews and other dishes. He finds that oxtail has lots of beefy flavor, and that it really elevates the richness of the broth when cooked alongside short ribs. Of course if you can't find oxtail, you can simply omit it from the recipe.

The recipe is a fairly traditional braise that includes carrots, onions, garlic and red wine. What really sets it apart is the "gremolata" he sprinkles over top of the dish before serving. The garnish is a mixture of orange and lemon zest, parsley and a hint of garlic. Stitt also garnishes the finished dish with green olives to balance the richness of the meat. You can take that simple combination and use it to freshen up your own beef stews and other rich, red meat dishes.

Stitt cooks the whole mixture in a roasting pan in the oven but, before covering the roasting pan, he places a sheet of parchment paper on top of the meat. He finds that this really helps hold in the moisture while cooking, and makes the dish that much more succulent.

RECIPES

Short Ribs and Oxtail with Gremolata and Green Olives

Serves 4 to 6

Carefully braised short ribs and oxtails are extremely tender, moist, and so beefy tasting. Long, slow cooking makes the meat soft and keeps the flavorful broth clear; too fast, and the braising liquid will become cloudy. The parsley and orange zest gremolata and green olives provide contrast and balance to the creamy richness of the beef and polenta.

Four two-and-a-half-inch-long kosher-cut short ribs (about 4 pounds), trimmed of excess fat
1 1/4 pounds oxtail, in 4 pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 celery stalks, cut into 1/2-inch dice
5 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 cup medium-dry sherry
2 cups dry red wine
About 4 cups Chicken Stock (page 241) or beef stock, heated
3 thyme sprigs
3 parsley stems
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, broken into pieces
and rinsed
Creamy Polenta
1/2 cup green Greek or Sicilian olives, pitted and
coarsely chopped
Parsley and Orange Zest Gremolata (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Bring the meat to room temperature. Have at the ready a roasting pan large enough to hold the short ribs and oxtails snugly in a single layer.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a very large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the meat. Add the short ribs to the hot oil, in batches, and brown well all over, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a rack to rest. Add the oxtails to the pan and brown well all over. Transfer to the rack.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and heat over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and carrots, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 5 minutes more, until the vegetables are tender and the onion is translucent. Add the sherry, scraping up the browned bits, bring to a boil, and boil until thick and syrupy. Pour in the red wine, bring to a boil, and reduce until it becomes syrupy. Remove from the heat.

Arrange the short ribs and oxtails in the roasting pan. Add the vegetables and their cooking liquid, along with enough warm stock to come three-quarters of the way up the sides of the meat. Add the thyme, parsley stems, bay leaf, and porcini. Cover with a piece of parchment placed directly on the meat, then cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil.

Place the roasting pan in the oven and reduce the heat to 310°F. Cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender-check for doneness by transferring an oxtail and short rib to a cutting board: The meat should be falling off the bones. If it isn't, return the meat to the pan, cover with the parchment and foil, and continue cooking until it is tender.
When the meat is done, transfer it to a cutting board and let it rest, uncovered.

Strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a saucepan, pressing on the vegetables with the back of a spoon or spatula to release all the concentrated flavors. Place the saucepan half on and half off a burner and bring to a very gentle simmer over medium to medium-low heat, skimming off the fat that accumulates on the cool side of the pan. Continue simmering and skimming for 20 minutes, until the liquid is slightly reduced and no fat remains.

Transfer the short ribs and oxtails to a pot, add a little of the braising broth, and warm gently over low heat.

Serve the meat on the warm creamy polenta, with more of the braising liquid spooned over. Garnish with the green olives and gremolata.

To Drink: Barolo (Elio Grasso or Luigi Einaudi)

For more recipes, go to Page 2

Parsley and Orange Zest Gremolata

Makes about 1/4 cup

Traditionally, gremolata is a mixture of chopped parsley, garlic, and lemon zest. Here, we make a very small variation and add orange zest. Be careful not to let the garlic dominate-this should be more about the citrus aroma and green parsley, with a hint of garlic.

The aromatic oils are more intense if you combine the ingredients just before serving. It's the just-prepared flavor and aroma of the fresh zest and chopped herbs that make this preparation so wonderful.

Gremolata is classic with osso buco and adds bright flavor to other rich, meaty braises like our Short Ribs and Oxtail with Gremolata and Green Olives.

1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
Zest of 1/2 orange-removed with a zester and chopped
Zest of 1 lemon-removed with a zester and chopped
1 small garlic clove, crushed and very finely chopped

Combine the parsley, zests, and garlic on a cutting board and finely chop them together. Scrape into a small bowl. Use as soon as possible.

Fennel with Blood Oranges, Pistachios, Endive, and Gorgonzola

Serves 4

The tart-sweetness of the citrus mellows the bitter bite of the crisp endive and the earthiness of Gorgonzola. Green pistachios and plump red pomegranate seeds are like little gemstones garnishing this salad of Moorish-influenced Sicilian flavors.

To extract pomegranate seeds, cut the pomegranate in half gently and pry the pulp-coated seeds from the surrounding bitter membrane. Be careful -- don't stain your shirt!

1/2 fennel bulb, halved lengthwise and very thinly sliced crosswise
1 Belgian endive, halved crosswise, bottom half trimmed and thinly sliced, top separated into leaves
1 head frisée, torn into pieces
1/2 head radicchio, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Scant 1/4 cup Balsamic-Sherry Vinaigrette (recipe below)
2 blood oranges, peeled, pith cut away, and sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1 heaping tablespoon pomegranate seeds
1 heaping tablespoon pistachios, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 pound mountain (naturale) Gorgonzola, cut into little pieces

Combine the fennel, sliced endive, frisée, and radicchio in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and toss with 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette.
Artfully arrange the greens on serving plates, distributing them evenly, and placing the endive leaves decoratively around the other greens. Tuck in the slices of blood orange, letting them peek out. Scatter the pomegranate seeds, pistachios, and Gorgonzola evenly over the salads. Drizzle a little more vinaigrette around the edges of the plates and serve.

To Drink: Gewürztraminer (Tramin)

Balsamic-Sherry Vinaigrette

Makes about 1/2 cup
I sometimes like to lighten a balsamic vinaigrette with some sherry vinegar-it's less sweet and less intense, and adds complexity of flavor from the Spanish sherry vinegar.
1 shallot, finely minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the shallot, vinegars, and salt and pepper in a small bowl and let macerate for 5 to 10 minutes. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings. The vinaigrette will keep for several days in a jar in the refrigerator.

Ravioli with Pumpkin and Sage Butter

Serves 4 as an appetizer

Pumpkin-zucca-is a classic filling for pasta in the Emilia-Romagna region around Bologna. To me butternut squash is more flavorful than our pumpkin, so I usually use it, but if you can find flavorful pumpkins or Hubbard or Delicata squash, don't hesitate to use them. Although some recipes include crumbled almond biscotti in the filling for added texture and sweetness, I prefer this version, which enables you to savor the simplicity of the pasta and the autumn flavor of the filling with just a bit of sage and melted butter.

You can freeze the extra ravioli this recipe makes in batches to pull out as needed. Drop the still-frozen pasta into boiling salted water, and you'll have a delicious meal in less than five minutes.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Balsamico, made without the balsamic (recipe follows)
1/2 cup ricotta
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pasta Dough (recipe below), rolled out as directed on
page 109 and cut into 24-inch lengths
Cornmeal for dusting
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large sage leaves, torn into pieces
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cracked black pepper

To prepare the filling, combine the squash, ricotta, nutmeg, and salt and pepper in a bowl, mixing well. Refrigerate for 1 hour to firm up the filling.

Remove the filling from the refrigerator and spoon it into a pastry bag without a tip, or a plastic bag with a 1/2-inch opening cut in one corner.

Fold one pasta sheet in half so that the two short ends meet, to mark the center, then unfold the sheet so that it rests lengthwise in front of you. Working on one side of the crease, starting 2 inches from the end, arrange tablespoonfuls of filling down the sheet at 4-inch intervals. Fold the other side of the pasta back over so that the edges again line up, and press the dough around the mounds of filling to seal. Center a three-inch scalloped cutter around each mound of filling and cut circles. Press the edges together firmly to seal, without losing the pretty scallop. Place the ravioli on a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal, and repeat with the remaining dough and filling. (You need only 12 ravioli for this recipe. Arrange the remaining ravioli on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and freeze until firm. Then transfer to heavy-duty freezer bags and freeze for up to 2 months.)

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Drop the 12 ravioli into the boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until just tender.

While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When it is foamy, drop in the sage leaves and cook for 1 minute, or until lightly toasted but not brown.

Lift the ravioli out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon and place in the sauté pan with the sage. Add a small splash of the pasta water and gently toss to coat the ravioli with the butter. Serve in warm pasta bowls, sprinkled with a little grated Parmigiano and cracked pepper.

To Drink: Refosco from Friuli or Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna

Roasted Butternut Squash and Balsamico and other recipes on Page 3

Roasted Butternut Squash and Balsamico

Serves 4 to 6

In cool weather, when you want a taste of the season, butternut squash lends an old-time country rusticity to dishes. Roast it until tender and season with sweet-tart balsamic vinegar and fruity olive oil for a slightly exotic, savory change of pace.

1 butternut squash, cut lengthwise in half, seeds and membranes removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fruity extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon good-quality balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Season the cut surfaces of the butternut squash with salt and pepper and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Place cut side down on a baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until just soft.

Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove the skin, then cut the flesh into 2-inch chunks. Toss with the balsamic vinegar and the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and serve.

Pasta Dough

Makes 12 ounces dough

Making pasta forces you to rely on your senses, especially touch. The goal is a smooth, elastic, slightly tacky dough. Factors like humidity and egg size are variable, so you may get a different result each time. As with anything else, with practice you'll learn to make the necessary adjustments, such as adding more or less flour, to yield perfect results. Here I provide both a hand and mixer method for making the dough.

Fresh pasta keeps from 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator covered with a damp towel; after that, it oxidizes, darkening in color, and gets tough. If you don't plan to cook it right away, freeze it on a baking sheet in a single layer until firm, then transfer to freezer bags. When ready to cook, drop it into boiling salted water right from the freezer-do not defrost.

1-3/4 to 2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
9 extra-large egg yolks

To make the dough by hand, mix the flour and salt and mound on a work surface. Make a well in the center, like the crater of a volcano. Place the egg yolks in the well and, using a fork, mix them together. Start gradually bringing in a little flour from the sides, then continue adding the flour bit by bit until the dough comes together and all the flour has been incorporated. Knead the dough, flouring the work surface as necessary, until it is smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes; it will be a bit sticky. Shape it into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

To make the dough in a mixer, combine the eggs and salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the dough hook and beat to break up the eggs. Gradually add the flour and mix until the dough just pulls away from the sides of the bowl. It should still be a bit tacky to the touch. Do not overmix the dough, or it will become tough. Press the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the remaining dough covered with a towel or plastic wrap. Sprinkle a portion of dough with a light dusting of flour, then pass it through a pasta machine at its widest setting. Lay the ribbon of dough on your floured surface and fold it in half, so that the ends meet, and pass it through the same setting a second time. Adjust your pasta machine down a setting and pass the sheet of pasta through. Fold it in half again and pass it through the same setting a second time. Continue in the same fashion until you have passed the sheet of pasta through the thinnest setting twice. When the dough sheet becomes too long to handle, cut it into manageable lengths. Transfer each finished sheet to a lightly dusted work surface and keep covered with a slightly dampened towel to keep the pasta from drying out while you roll out the remaining dough.

The pasta is ready to use.

Aurora Tart

Serves 10

Even my grown-up willpower is no match for this incredible caramel tart topped with praline-flecked whipped cream! You have to cook the caramel long enough so that it becomes dark and flavorful, but pay close attention-go too dark, and it becomes bitter.

For the Caramel Custard Filling
3 cups heavy cream
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 large egg
4 large egg yolks
1 baked Basic Tart Shell, cooled (recipe below)
For the Chocolate Glaze
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Praline Cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter for the pan (unless using a silicone pan liner), softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup almonds or pecans, lightly toasted
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

To make the caramel custard, bring the heavy cream to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and keep the cream warm while you caramelize the sugar.

Put the sugar in a 2-quart saucepan and cook it over medium-high heat, stirring continuously, until it dissolves and the caramel syrup turns dark amber, 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the warm cream to combine-be careful, the mixture will bubble up. If it seizes and hardens, stir it over low heat to liquefy the lumps of caramel, then remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, and let the caramel cool for about 5 minutes so that it will not cook the eggs when added to them.

Whisk together the egg and egg yolks in a heatproof bowl. Slowly at first, then in a steady stream, add the warm caramel to the eggs, whisking constantly until incorporated. Strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve, then pour it into the prebaked crust in the springform pan.

Bake the tart, rotating the pan occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the filling is just set-it should still jiggle slightly in the center when the pan is shaken. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool to room temperature, then transfer it to the refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

To make the chocolate glaze, melt the chocolate with the cream in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water. Add the vanilla and stir to blend.

Spread the warm glaze over the chilled custard in a thin layer, then chill the tart again for at least 1 hour.

To make the praline cream, line a 12-by-17-inch jelly-roll pan or baking sheet with parchment paper and grease with the butter, or line it with a silicone liner.

Put the sugar in a small heavy saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it dissolves and the caramel turns light amber, about 6 minutes. Add the nuts and continue stirring over the heat, being very watchful, just until the sugar syrup turns dark amber, 1 minute more. Carefully pour the hot praline onto the lined pan, spreading it evening into a thin layer. Let it cool completely.

Break the praline into pieces and grind into a coarse powder in a food processor. (The praline powder can be made ahead and stored in a jar for several weeks at room temperature or frozen in an airtight container for 1 to 2 months.)

Whip the cream in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold in 1/2 cup of the praline powder.

Pipe or spread the praline cream over the chilled tart. Sprinkle the remaining praline powder over the top, and refrigerate the tart for at least 8 hours, or overnight. (The tart can be refrigerated for up to 2 days)

Serve chilled.

Basic Tart Shell

Makes one 10-1/2-inch tart shell

1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter,
cut into cubes and chilled
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Whisk together the yolks, cream, and vanilla in a small bowl, add to the butter mixture, and pulse until the dough comes together. Gather the dough into a ball, flatten into a disk, and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, or overnight.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a 14-inch circle, turning the dough with each roll to prevent it from sticking. Carefully drape the dough over the rolling pin and ease into a 10 1/2-inch springform pan, pressing it evenly over the bottom and up the sides. Chill the tart shell in the freezer for at least 1 hour, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Line the tart shell with foil and weight with dried beans or pie weights. Bake until the pastry is set and cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and bake for about 5 minutes longer, just to brown lightly. Cool on a rack before filling.

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