eggplant parm mac and cheese

eggplant-parm-mac-and-cheese-recipe

Eggplants are to Sicilians what potatoes are to the Irish. - Fabrizia Lanza

However you personally define comfort food, somewhere down the line it all comes down to memories of being cooked for and fed before you were able to do so on your own. I can’t help guessing what would trigger my food cravings if I hadn’t grown up in the United States during the sixties and seventies, but rather in a completely different culture; like Japan or India.

Or, a hundred years ago in the areas of Italy where my ancestors lived.

Instead of the sweet, white and starchy things that my generation learned to want as kids (and probably what lots of 21st century ones do, too) my taste buds might have been formed by a another set of flavors and textures. And if I had been a child during my Italian ancestors’ time, those things would have been the stuff of peasant cooking; la cucina povera.

baked-eggplant-parmesan-recipe

I’m drawn to those humble, earthy foods so completely that I wonder if it’s somehow coded in DNA. How else do I have a taste – and even a sense of nostalgia for – a way of eating and living I never experienced? A plain explanation must be just that it TASTES GOOD.  No matter the origins of any person’s family tree, we can all relate to satisfying our hungers with recipes that are grounded in peasant cooking.

I can’t know for sure that my great, great, great grandmothers prepared something similar to what Americans know as Eggplant Parmesan, but it’s safe to say that Neapolitans and Sicilians have definitely been eating eggplant, tomatoes and fresh cheeses like mozzarella for thousands of years.

I was thinking about my take on comfort food when the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board asked me to contribute a macaroni and cheese recipe to the blog 30 Days, 30 Ways with Macaroni and Cheese. Eggplant Parm plus any kind of pasta with cheese are right at the top of my list of favorites.

My everyday style of cooking doesn’t usually mean deep-frying, which is often a step in classic recipes. So I’ve come up with an oven-roasted method for crusty eggplant  – not exactly old school, but somehow it brings the old world and 21st century comfortably together.

eggplant-parm-mac-and-cheese-recipe

eggplant parm mac and cheese

Serving Size: Serves a table of 6

I make my own marinara sauce, but feel free to use your favorite.

Ingredients

  1. 1 medium eggplant, ends trimmed; peeled
  2. 1 egg
  3. 1 teaspoon salt; plus more to taste
  4. ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  5. 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  6. 3 cups Italian-seasoned panko crumbs or bread crumbs
  7. Olive oil
  8. 2 tablespoons butter
  9. 2 tablespoons flour
  10. 2 cups whole milk
  11. ½ cup grated Asiago cheese
  12. 1 pound cooked pasta shells or spirals
  13. 1 cup marinara sauce
  14. 3/4 cup grated Fontina cheese

Instructions

  1. Place a large rimmed baking sheet on an oven rack and turn oven to 450 degrees to preheat.
  2. Slice eggplant in half lengthwise and then into ½-inch wide half-moons.
  3. Whisk together egg, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and garlic in a large bowl; add eggplant and toss to coat. Dredge eggplant in crumbs on a cookie sheet.
  4. Pour enough olive oil over the bottom of the preheated baking sheet to cover to a depth of 1/8-inch. Lay eggplant on pan and roast 10 minutes; flip eggplant slices over and roast an additional 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender and crust is golden. Lower oven temperature to 400 degrees.
  5. Meanwhile, heat a medium saucepan over moderate heat; add butter and heat until foaming subsides and butter is melted. Whisk in flour; cook 1 minute. Slowly pour in milk while whisking. Bring to a simmer; lower heat and cook 5 – 10 minutes, whisking occasionally, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in Asiago cheese; season to taste with salt and pepper.
  6. Combine the pasta with the milk mixture and transfer to a large casserole or baking dish. Top with the eggplant, marinara and Fontina cheese. Bake 15 minutes, until hot and cheese is melted.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/01/eggplant-parm-mac-and-cheese/

orecchiette cacio e pepe with parsnips

orecchiette, parsnips cacio e pepe recipe

When I first made classic pasta cacio e pepe - with cheese and pepper – I referred to a recipe by Mario Batali in Molto Gusto, which calls for 1/4 cup black pepper to sauce one pound of spaghetti.

Whoa, baby! I like it hot, but turns out that was too much pepper for me. It felt harsh; like my tongue was sweating and my throat burning like a white hot piece of smoldering charcoal.

While I was moving things around on my spice shelves in search of black pepper, an avalanche of other containers came raining down. I started to put everything back when my hand landed on a jar of green peppercorns. They’re such a pretty color, unlike the color you usually find in a basic black peppercorn, and I rarely find myself needing to put green peppercorns in anything.

Why not? It was one small Eureka! moment in a sea of not so many. I located some whole white pepper to make a trio of color, along with fennel seeds. The mix turned out much more palatable; perfect for the pasta I was planning to make with roasted parsnips.

parsnips-cacio e pepe-recipe

I love orecchiette pasta, “little ears’ in Italian. Their cute shape serves as a cup to hold whatever they’re sauced with; in this case chunks of crusty, caramelized parsnips in peppery-sharp, creamy sauce.

The fennel seeds in my peppercorn rainbow remind me a little of the crunchy pepper biscuits I find in bakeries when I visit home in Rhode Island. I’ve made taralli that came close to duplicating their flavor; minus the black pepper. I always find myself packing bags of pepper biscuits to take back with me, stashed in the freezer to tide me over until my next visit.

tre-pepe orecchiette-little ears

Cacio e pepe is a dish with deep roots in ancient Rome; the production of Pecorino Romano cheese dates back more than 2,000 years and black pepper was a commodity in the early days of the spice trade.

Fun fact: It’s said that Attila the Hun demanded over one ton of black pepper as ransom while he ransacked the city of Rome. You kind of get the feeling he’d have gladly tucked into a super-sized plate of spaghetti, seasoned with a pound of pepper. If only spaghetti had existed yet.

orecchiette-parsnip-cacio-e-pepe-recipe

orecchiette cacio e pepe with parsnips

Serving Size: serves 4

Ingredients

  1. 2 or 3 small parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  2. 3 tablespoons olive oil
  3. Salt
  4. ½ pound orecchiette pasta
  5. 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  6. ½ teaspoon each whole green and white peppercorns (or use an additional teaspoon black pepper)
  7. 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
  8. 2 tablespoons butter
  9. 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus additional for serving
  10. 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
  11. Lacinato or Tuscan kale leaves; about a handful, torn into pieces

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Put the parsnips on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast until tender and lightly browned, 15 -20 minutes.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add 1 or 2 tablespoons salt and the orecchiette; cook until al dente.
  4. While the pasta is cooking, put all the peppercorns in an electric spice or coffee grinder and pulse until coarsely ground (if you don’t have a coffee grinder dedicated to spices, crush the pepper in a manual pepper grinder or a mortar and pestle – it will build up some muscles).
  5. Place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; when the pan is hot, add the peppercorns and whole fennel seeds and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the butter and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir together until the butter melts, then remove from the heat.
  6. Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cup of the cooking water in a heatproof measuring cup. Add the pasta to the sauté pan along with the parsnips and both cheeses; toss it all together. Add some of the reserved water, a few tablespoons at a time, until the cheese melts into a creamy sauce; you might not use it all.
  7. Stir the kale leaves into the hot pasta to wilt them. Serve with additional cheese on the side.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/01/orecchiette-cacio-e-pepe-with-parsnips/

wheat berries, tomato, arugula & ricotta

frumento-arugula-tomato-ricotta-recipe

Farro is a whole grain that’s become a usual suspect in my every day cooking. I really like its creamy, barley-like texture and that it cooks in about 20 minutes. I make a risotto with farro along with cannellini beans. My kids usually clean their plates when I make it, so I’m guessing they like it a little.

But the other day I couldn’t find any farro in my kitchen and pulled out a bag of grains that my sister-in-law Liza brought me from a Portland farmer’s market. They came from Ayer’s Creek Farm , a small family farm in Oregon.

The bag was labeled “Frumento – Soft Red Wheat”. I couldn’t find much info after I Googled “frumento” other than it’s Italian for wheat or grain. I decided to treat the grains like wheat berries instead of the imported Italian semi-pearled (semi-pearled makes for quicker cooking) farro that I usually have, which meant I soaked them in a bowl on the counter for a few hours.

frumento-italian-wheat-berries ricotta-charred-tomatoes-recipe

I’d planned to roast a few supermarket vine-ripened tomatoes I had on the counter, my go-to method for tuning up their somewhat bland, out-of-season taste, but I forgot to turn on the oven. So I put the whole tomatoes over the gas flame for a few minutes until their skins were black and blistered.

I liked the combo of smoky tomatoes and the full flavor of the cooked frumento; definitely springier to the teeth than farro, but in a good way.

wheat-berries-ricotta-tomatoes-arugula-recipe

I’m glad I had  Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck on hand while researching and cooking this post. Maria is an expert on whole grains and I love her Mediterranean-influenced palate.

Lia at Nourish Network also has great info and a recipe for wheat berries – and lots of other healthy foods – on her site.

wheat berries with charred tomato, arugula & ricotta

Add some cooked beans like cannellini or chickpeas to the wheat berries for extra protein and nutrition.

Ingredients

  1. 1 ½ cups soft wheat berries
  2. Salt
  3. 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  4. 1 teaspoon prepared harissa or red chili flakes
  5. ½ teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
  6. Extra-virgin olive oil
  7. 2 or 3 small vine-ripened tomatoes or ¾ cup canned fire-roasted tomatoes
  8. 2 big handfuls baby arugula
  9. ½ cup fresh whole milk ricotta

Instructions

  1. Soak the wheat berries in enough water to cover, either overnight or before you go out for the day.
  2. Bring 3 quarts water and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil in a saucepan; add the drained wheat berries. Simmer for about an hour, or until the wheat berries are plump and al dente when you test one. If they seem too hard, cook up to an additional 15-30 minutes, keeping in mind that when fully cooked they will retain a small bit of “chew”.
  3. Drain all but a small amount of water (1 or 2 tablespoons) from the wheat berries; put them back in the pan and stir in the garlic, smoked paprika if using, harissa or chili and 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
  4. If using fresh tomatoes, char them directly over a gas flame on your stovetop or under a hot broiler, turning them until their skins are blackened and blistered. Chop into rough pieces and add them (or the canned tomatoes) to the wheat berries.
  5. Transfer the wheat berries to a serving bowl and toss with the arugula; taste and season with salt if needed. Dollop with spoonfuls of ricotta and drizzle with a little olive oil before serving.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/01/wheat-berries-tomato-arugula-ricotta/