Friday, February 12, 2016

Special Italian Dinner

For my dear husband's birthday. It was a nice candle light dinner, with pictures posted on WhatsApp :-) Got lots of requests for describing the food, so I figured it would be nice to break it down...and admit that it wasn't really as fancy as it seemed...and to make it easier for cousins back home to replicate some of the recipes

The Menu:
- Olive Ciabatta (bought from WholeFoods..any nice crusty bread is good) with herb oil (olive oil, salt, red pepper flakes, just a very small pinch of fresh herbs - oregano and rosemery)
- Antipasto (it's basically small, tasty bites). At some nice grocery stores, they have a large selection of anti pasto to buy, so I just select mine from there and arrange it on a plate at home. Any small, cured or pickled foods are good. This time I used marinated artichoke hearts with roasted red peppers, garlic and tomatoes poached in olive oil, olives, and pickled sweet peppers stuffed with goat cheese. Some of these are easy to make at home. In a small pan, heat some olive oil, and on a very low heat, poach whole garlic cloves till they become light brown and really soft and sweet. For roasting red bell peppers, keep it on a flame, rotating as you go till it's completely black. Then set it sit covered, and remove the skin. Add some olive oil, and other seasonings of your choice (garlic, herbs, etc). These can also be marinated in balsamic vinegar.
- Arancini: This is an awesome appetizer. I served it with some marinara sauce (store bought, but it's basic tomato pasta sauce). You start with making a good risotto. I made a mushroom one, but any flavor is fine, even plain is fine for this recipe. Heat oil, add finely chopped onions, and saute till translucent. Then add arborio rice, and keep sauteing till it starts turning white. Now add a bit of vinegar (actually you can add wine, but I don't prefer cooking with it). I also added chopped mushrooms at this stage (I also used some nicer ones like fresh Shitake, and dried ones). Now, keep adding vegetable stock, one ladle at a time (this takes time and patience), keep stirring until the rice is cooked (not mushy). Add salt, pepper, and grated permesan cheese. This risotto can make a great Entree by itself. You can flavor it with any vegetables of your choice. Now, let it cool, and take a ball of the rice, stuff it with a small block of mozerella cheese (I used fresh, but any melty cheese would be fine). Then cover the ball with bread crumbs and refrigerate. Fry at the last minute. It's basically cheese stuffed rice balls. How wrong can you get?
- Shaved Fennel, Permesan and Orange Salad: This is a little tricky to replicate, since I haven't seen fresh fennel (the vegetable) in India. In this menu, any nice salad would do. I sliced fresh fennel very thinly using a mandoline (slicer), added orange seprems (segments without skin), and permesan shaved with a vegetable peeler. Added some lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. That's it.
Here's another great salad to try (I was going to make that one till I saw the fennel at the grocery store)...and is super simple, but super tasty, and can also make a great addition to the antipasto. To some boiled chickpeas, add salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and lots of greated Permesan.Try it and you will crave for more.
- Home made Linguini: The reason why I chose Italian this time, is we bought a pasta maker attachment to our standing mixer. So I had to make fresh pasta. In the past, we've tried rolling it by hand, and it's always been difficult with pasta dough. The machine makes it super easy. The dough had 2 cups of all purpose flour, 3 eggs, a pinch of salt and a dash of olive oil. Make a dough, knead well (also used machine for this), and roll out super thin, and cut in stripes (all machine). I've made pasta without eggs, just with water as well, and it's also ok. The pasta needs to be boiled only for a minute, since it was fresh. Of course, you can use store bought ones and follow the directions. Since the pasta itself is nice and delicate, we made a very simple (but rich) alfredo sauce.  Heat some cream and reduce it a little bit, add some butter (I know), and grated permesan (I know), salt and pepper. Add the boiled pasta, along with some pasta water and serve immediately. By this point, we were getting so full that we had only a small portion, which is how alfredo based recipes are meant to be enjoyed. You can also do the white sauce thing, but actual alfredo is supposed to be this way (I know). Once the fresh pasta is made, the whole thing comes together in about five minutes.
- Balsamic glazed Haricot Vert and Almonds: Haricot Vert is basically a type of green beans. Try to find the most tender ones you can find. Blanch them in salted water (keep them whole). I used some ready to microwave, which was convenient. Now, heat some olive oil, add chopped garlic, saute for a few seconds, then add the beans, and saute for a few more seconds. Add Balsamic vinegar, sliced almonds, salt and pepper, and let it reduce for about a minute or so till the vinegar coats the beans. Serve.
- Tiramisu: Obviously, the star of the show. Also the easiest dessert to put together, once you find the right ingredients. I make mine with eggs, but it can easily be substituted with cream. It also needs this special kind of cookies called ladies fingers, which are crispy and porous. There are recipes online on how to make those at home. You can use some other crunchy, porous biscuits. I also use some alcohol in mine to flavor the Tiramisu (this is my only exception, and it's in small quantities..). I follow this recipe:
Six egg yokes, plus three table spoon sugar, whisk until ribbon consistency. Add coffee, I used some Kaluha this time, and Mascaporne cheese and mix everything till combined. Mix coffee and rum in a flat dish. Now soak the cookies in this, and arrange in the container. Top the layer with the cream, and repeat. Dust on the top with coco powder and some shaved chocolate, and it's done.

Stocking the pantry for making good Italian:
- Extra virgin olive oil. This is clearly a must.
- Balsamic vinegar. This is the sweet, black vinegar, looks like soy sauce. It's available in India
- Real Permesan Cheese. Not the pre-grated, powdered stuff. A good block of cheese will last a very long time in the fridge (since it's a dry cheese), and even though it's expensive, a little would go a long way. I think it's available in speciality stores in Mumbai these days, or ask some one who's traveling. It's worth seeking out.
- Dried herbs. I also have a small window herb garden with fresh versions, but in most cases, dry is fine. Every one knows Oregano and red chilli flakes. It's also nice to have rosemary and thyme.
- Arborio rice. This is a thick, very starchy rice. Used for making risotto. You could substitute it with some other thick rice (the starchier the better..definitely not Basmati).
- Dry Shitake mushrooms. This is a secret weapon that can make a lot of vegetarian dishes give a different dimension (basically, umami flavor). You can grind into a fine powder and add it to stocks, or soups, or reconstitute with hot water and use in dishes. Just a little big makes a big difference. Also has a very long shelf life. They are also supposed to have health benefits.
- Marinated artichoke hearts. These are usually found in jars or cans. Artichoke is an Italian vegetable. The hearts are the inner mot part of the vegetable that's tangy and soft.

So that's it folks. That's the secret to good Italian cooking. Keep it simple. Keep it fresh, and always keep it Semi-homemade (this is copied from a show :-))