Penne alla Norma (Al Forno)

Penne alla Norma

I am posting this recipe at the request of Theresa Russo from Verona NJ. I make 2 different versions of this Sicilian inspired classic depending on my mood, a baked and a stove top version. Today’s recipe is the baked . In my opinion there are 2 keys to the execution of this simple dish:

1. Finding quality Eggplant.- I used Italian Eggplant, which is smaller than conventional Eggplant and has less seeds. Look for shiny unblemished skins and a firm fruit.

2. Making a Fresh Uncooked Sauce- Note I do not believe in cooking tomato sauce a long time and I certainly do not believe in cooking it twice, which is what you will be doing if you elect to use a cooked sauce. Don’t get me wrong the dish will still be pretty darn good, but you will be cooking the freshness out of the tomato causing the tomato to lose it’s bright acidic flavor. Use a cooked sauce to garnish at the end, this way you will have a fresh and concentrated tomato flavor working for you at the same time. I am assuming that if you have read my blog and looked at my previous recipe you are a fairly serious home cook, which would mean that you have your own Tomato Sauce recipe. That is good….because you are not getting mine. At least for today.

Also, an additional word about Eggplant, before I move onto the recipe. Eggplant has the tendency to soak up oil like a sponge. If you wish or if you plan the meal far in advance (which I almost never do) you can salt it and press it “Grandma style” to collapse the cell structure of the fruit. A faster method is to Roast the Eggplant whole at about 400 degrees from anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the fruit. The flash roasting method will still keep the Eggplant firm enough to slice but condense the cell structure sufficiently enough where you will not take on an excessive amounts of liquid or lipids. If you happen to roast it too long, well… you will have babaganoush, which is still pretty good. Note that I did not press or pre-roast the eggplant for my recipe, because I actually like it when the eggplant releases the infused oil and other flavors when it breaks down. I also like the custard like texture in the center, providing that the oil use is not too excessive. There is also a myth circulating that by pre-salting you can extract the bitterness from the fruit. This is false. If you happen to encounter bitter Eggplant this is because the fruit that you selected was too mature. Salt will only extract the water from the fruit and help break down the cell structure. The phenolic compounds that cause the bitterness will still remain. Well, enough on eggplant science and onto the recipe.

Ingredients:

3 to 4 small Italiant Eggplant sliced into 1/4″ thick rounds

One 28 oz Can San Marzano Tomatoes or other High Quality Imported Whole Peeled Italian Tomatoes

1 lb Dried Penne Pasta (High Quality. None of that Ronzoni)

1 recipe Garlic Basil infused Oil (see recipe below)

1/2 Cup grated Pecorino Romano

1 fresh or a mixture of fresh or dry aged whole milk mozzarella cubed

12  basil leaves plus extra for garnish

1 recipe Toasted Bread Crumbs (recipe to follow)

Homemade Tomato Sauce for garnish.

Method:

Prepare the uncooked sauce: Open the tomatoes and discard the basil leaf and crush lightly by hand to remove any peels or green cores that you may find. Pour the tomatoes in blender with about an 1/8 of a cup of the infused oil, and salt an pulse lightly until fairly smooth. adjust for seasoning, adding a pinch of sugar (only if necessary, taste first don’t just add!). Set aside the sauce until you are ready to assemble the dish.

Grease an oven proof baking dish lightly set aside and pre-heat your oven to 425 f

Set a pot over a flame and bring 6 quarts of water to boil

Set a saute pan or 2 over medium heat with Infused Oil. Season the Eggplant with salt and pepper and add Eggplant and Garlic in batches to fry until lightly browned and mottled in spots.

Set aside and blot dry on paper towels discarding the garlic

Salt the pasta water until it tastes like the sea and drop your Penne and Cook about half the cooking time listed on your package instructions (It will cook the rest of the way in the oven)

Drain the pasta and toss it with a small amount of reserved uncooked sauce.

Lay down a thin layer of uncooked sauce at the bottom of the dish, resisting the urge to go heavy.

Add one complete layer of Eggplant rounds over the top of the sauce.

Add a generous layer of Toasted Bread Crumb over the eggplant.

Lay down a layer of Penne .

Add mozzarella cubes.

A generous dusting of Pecorino Romano.

Add Basil leaves and Press down gently.

Dot with more tomato sauce.

Layer Eggplant, Bread Crumb, Penne,Mozzarella, Pecorino, more Basil leaves.

Press.

Finish up with Eggplant and a Breadcrumb and Pecorino coating on the top. Dot with some Uncooked Sauce.

Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes or until top is well browned and the Pasta is crispy at the edges.

Add additional fresh Basil leaves.

Let the casserole set for 2o to 30 minutes or until it sets up like  a cake. Garnish with Homemade cooked Tomato Sauce and Pecorino Romano.

Toasted Bread Crumb Recipe

Ingredients:

3/4 cup Panko Bread Crumbs

1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Tablespoons Freshly Grated Pecorino Romano

Basil or Mint leaves cut in Chiffonade.

Salt.

Method:

Heat the Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a saute pan over medium heat.

When a couple of crumbs begin to sizzle add the bread crumb and toast until it is a light golden brown. Adding a small amount of oil if too dry.

Empty pan into a metal bowl.

Toss with the Pecorino and lightly season with salt and mix in the fresh herbs.

Infused Garlic Oil

Ingredients:

2 heads of garlic with cloves peeled and trimmed

1 teaspoon of Chili Flake

2 Branches of Basil with stems and leaves attached.

2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Heat oil and garlic cloves over low heat in a small pot add Basil and Chil flake and roast until the Garlic is a light golden brown for about 20 minutes.Remove from the heat and Strain.

The Italian American Experience

The video excerpt that I am sharing, was posted to my Sunday Sauce Diaries Facebook page by a contributor. Even in Robert Loggia’s gravelly voiced narrative, it is an accurate and tender portrayal of what it was like to be raised in an Italian-American home. The love affair with food and Grandmothers house being the headquarters for Sunday gatherings and Holiday feasts are all very palpable experiences that I can relate to while growing up.

However, on the sad side of the ledger is the very real and slow dissolution of the traditions that we once cherished, and the distance that modernity has put between the family members. As the narrator points out we are all very much Americans now and that is what our grandparents and great grandparents would have wanted for the future generations. We know a measure  of prosperity in material things that I am sure that they never could have imagined, but sadly we are much poorer in the more valuable commodities of generosity and warmth that they gave to us as an inheritance. We have been poor stewards in this regard,  but it is never too late to rekindle these virtues that our forebears bought with them to these shores. I know that I want to make a greater effort to impart this to my children, for I know that is  a legacy that is much more enduring value than any material possession. Please enjoy the video and thanks to Chuck Smith for bringing it to my attention.

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Chicken Cacciatore Modo Mio

Chicken Cacciatore has become a cliche of Italian-American Cooking, but it actually has it’s roots in the “Mother Country”. In Rome, it is prepared with white wine and no Tomato. Here I use Tomato and prepared an Agrodolce which is a vinegar caramel or what is called a gastrique in French cookery. Also used are Roasted Peppers, Pepperazi Peppers, Roasted Fresnos, Capers, Olives and a base of Pepperoni Soffrito. Note that Pepperoni has received a bad wrap as being a low brow Italian -American snack and poor substitute for real Italian Salumi. But there is a 3 fold purpose for using the Pepperoni. The first is to extract it’s unctuous orange oil and season the vegetables, the second is because Pork makes everything better and Pepperoni tastes better once it has been cooked and the fat has been rendered. The third reason is that using it will tick off those sanctimonious Italy Firster’s that bash Italian American cooking.

Chicken Cacciatore

Recipe: Chicken Leg Cacciotore

Serves 4

12 Drumsticks or 6 Whole Legs

1 cup Pepperoni Soffrito. Recipe to follow.

3 Roasted Red Peppers cut into 1/2″ strips. Recipe to follow.

4 Roasted Fresno Chiles into narrow strips. Recipe to follow.

7 or 8 Pepperazzi Peppers (you can sub Peppadews)

1/4 cup approx Agrodolce.

1/2 lb Cremini Mushrooms quartered.

1/4 lb Olives (I like Castelvetrano when I can get them, but I used Kalamata for this recipe) Sliced in half if purchased without the stone. Cut into petals if purchased with the stone.

2 tablespoons of capers.

2 cups Homemade Tomato Sauce or 1 28 ounce can of Whole Peeled Italian Tomatoes.

1/4 cup Vermouth ( Cinzano ).

1 tablespoon Porcini Powder.

3 tablespoons Vegetable Oil or Grapeseed Oil and Extra for Greasing the Pan and Chicken.

7 or 8 Torn Basil Leaves.

Method :

Turn On The Broiler

Slick the Chicken Legs and a half sheet tray with a little bit of oil (anything but Olive Oil).Season chicken legs heavily with salt on all sides and a little bit of black pepper. Roast skin side up until niceley browned and charred in some spots for about 3 minutes taking care to rotate the tray so as not to burn the Chicken. Flip the pieces and do the same on side B taking care not to burn. Turn the heat down to 375F and drop the Chicken down in the middle rack and continue cooking the chicken until cooked through about 15 minutes. Insert the tip of knife to the bone to ensure it is not red at the bone. Discard the fat in the sheet pan and set the pan on two burners over Medium Heat and deglaze the pan with White Wine and scraping the browned Chicken bits with a Spatula.

Meanwhile, add the Soffrito, Olives and Capers to a wide sauté pan with high sides on Medium Heat. The Soffrito should already have plenty of fat from the Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the fat from the Pepperoni. Sauté Until the Soffrito begins to take on additional color changing from Amber to golden. Then add the wine and Chicken tratradrippings from the sheet pan and reduce to nothing.

Set the sheet pan over the burners again on Med High Heat and add 3 tablespoons of Vegetable Oil. When the oil runs across the pan freely add the Cremini Mushrooms and cook until they begin to brown, scraping up any remaining bits of Chicken. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper then add 1/4 cup of red vermouth and reduce to nothing allowing the mushrooms to take on a slight glaze from the sweetened reduced Vermouth. Add the mushrooms to the sauté pan with the other ingredients and add about a tablespoon of Porcini Powder to the mixture and stir until distributed. Now add the Agrodolce and bring to a simmer. Then add the tomato and bring to a boil, season with salt to taste then lower to a simmer and cook for about 10 min. Then add all of the Peppers and cook the Sauce about another 10 minutes until the water is cooked out and the sauce is slightly thickened. Now add the reserved Chicken Legs and warm with the sauce until heated through garnish torn basil leaves and anoint with some Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Serve over Polenta if desired.

Pepperoni Soffrito

2 Spanish Onions minced very finely with a knife.
2 Stalks of Celery chopped coarsely then minced finely in the food processor.
1 Fennel Bulb-Fronds and stalks discarded, chopped coarsely then minced finely in the food processor.
1 stick of Pepperoni chopped coarsely and minced in the food processor.
1 cup of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
1 tablespoon of garlic minced with a knife.

Method:

Finely mince your Spanish Onions, then heat the oil over medium heat. Pulse the fennel and celery followed by the Pepperoni in the food processor. Combine together in the hot oil toasting the vegetables 20 min. or until it takes on a light amber color. Then add the garlic and cook until it gives up its odor. Take off the heat to cool. At this point it can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week. Makes about 2 cups.

Agrodolce:

1/4 cup water
1/4 cup of sugar
1/4 cup of Red Wine Vinegar

Method:

Place a sauce pan over High Heat and combine the water and sugar together stirring until dissolved. Let the mixture simmer until a light caramel is formed. Add the Vinegar off the heat and stir. Then place back on the heat until it simmers again. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Roasted Bell Peppers and Fresno Chilis

3 Red Bell Peppers
4 Fresno Chiles
Grapeseed or Vegetable oil to coat the vegetables and Sheet Pan.

Method:

Heat the broiler and place an oven rack on the first or second level of the Broiler. Then slick the Peppers, Chiles and sheet pan with a thin layer of oil. Roast the peppers until the skins are charred and black on all sides. Rotating the pan as needed. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes.

Place the peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let them steam a half hour longer. Unseal and peel the skins and discard the seeds reserving the pepper liquor for another or use. Cut the Bell Peppers into 1/2″ strip and the Fresnos into a julienne.

My Story

I grew up in an Italian-American household. Like most Italian-American families there was a great deal of forethought and care that went into the rite of preparing  the family meal. This was never more evident on Sundays and Holidays when an array of Antipasti, Primi, Contorni and Secondi  adorned the table.  Pasta and Neopolitan Ragu (aka “Sunday Sauce”) were staples and usually the centerpiece of the festivities. Sometimes a Roast Chicken, Duck or Turkey would make an appearance. Desserts consisted of homemade Italian Cookies, Cakes, Pies and elaborate Pastries that were purchased from the Italian Bakery.

During these gatherings my Grandparents would play to their strengths. Grandma was adept at making homemade pasta. She would use the “mattarello” which would give the dough a unique “cat tongue” like texture that could not be achieved with the pasta machine. My Grandfather was known for his baking, and generosity as he would prepare Biscotti, Cookies, Turnovers and Zeppole for family, friends and neighbors alike.

My mother was a terrific all around cook that brought gourmet sensibilities to the Italian Table. She paired rich and luxurious sauces and Ragu’s with meats, and as counterpoint was capable of making delicate and refined sauces for Seafood. She had an unerring palate and was able to dissect the ingredients from her favorite restaurant dishes. Often replicating them faithfully and improving on the original, all without a recipe. Let’s just say that dinner time did not suck at the Cimolo residence!

Then as time passed, faith in my culinary patrimony slowly was eroded. My Grandfather, the patriarch of the family passed away in 1991 leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the family. His passing also swept away the desire for large scale entertaining. Family gatherings were just not the same without him.

The Mid- Nineties gave rise to a new awareness about food throughout the country. On the strength of programming by the Food Network there was greater attention being showered upon Chefs and the ingredients they were using. Everyone wanted to learn to cook and the occupation of Chef was now conferred a level of respect that it never held in the past. Also, a rotund redheaded Italian by the name of Mario Batali emerged from the Food Network line up and became a rock star. He effortlessly churned out regional Italian Specialties with flair and grace and regaled us with stories of his time in the Borgo Capanne region. When he apprenticed for 3 years at a family owned Trattoria in the mountainside.

Suddenly the Red Sauce joints of my youth were now anathema to the Culinary cognoscenti. Mom and Pop places were now marginalized for using shitty Sysco ingredients to cut costs. Even the high-end gangster haunts that piped in Sinatra over the sound system were in retreat. Once thought of as fine dining establishments, they were now criticized for their dated menus, fish tanks and stuffy service. They were thought of as relics of the 1950’s. I was now startled to find that all the Chicken Parmigiana that I consumed by the acre as a youth was not legitimate Italian Fare. Our meatballs were too big and we used too much garlic in our sauces. The Italian-American food of my youth was not to be thought of as a legitimate cuisine. Instead; it was the bastard brother offspring of Neopolitan and Sicilian immigrants, which were looked upon as less than Italian themselves in their own native land.

I didn’t want to be irrelevant, so I sought to cook like Mario. Fuck Lobster Fra Diavolo and Chicken Scarpiello, I wanted to make Red Wine Risotto and Braised Duck leg in the style of Foggia and prove my culinary chops to family and friends. If the family didn’t like it, that was tough! They needed to get with the times and get educated on the culinary heritage of our forebears.

After about a decade of chasing every imported Italian ingredient and faithfully trying to replicate dishes from the Piedmont and other regions that I didn’t know, I realized what an asshole I had been these many years. I was never going to ascend to heights of masters like Michael White and Mario Batali who lived in Italy and experienced Italian Regional  cooking first hand. Hell, I was not even going to surpass the skill of the Guatemalan line cooks that I observed in action at my weekend job at a local Italian eatery. All of which could churn out Pastas more supple and soft than anybody’s Nonna .  This was their story and I had my own to tell. Italian-American food is legitimate. As is any other cuisine that arose in this country through the process of immigration and cultural assimilation.

The authentic is merely the merging of all the influences that helped shape our lives as we know it today. Food made with care, love and attention to detail is worthy of respect in any culture. This blog is open to those of all backgrounds that have their own stories and you are free to post as well. No matter your background I count you all as Friends. Please enjoy the posts on this page in the days ahead. God Bless!

Anthony