A dreamy menu, inspired by Italy
By David Tanis
Here’s a menu I can get excited about, featuring some of my favorite foods. Fresh mozzarella! Radicchio! Pasta! Crucifers! Cookies! Sometimes, that’s a very good departure point — indulging your own whims, making what you like. And, this month, I’m leaning in an Italian direction, a wistful cook’s response to the urge to get on a plane.
We start with an easy antipasto. You slice some fresh mozzarella, grill some radicchio and make a green sauce. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details.
You want a really good mozzarella. True mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk, and there are some U.S. producers. But, for an American mozzarella that’s excellent and more widely available, look for the cow’s milk type, known as fior di latte in Italy. Whatever you use, there are two caveats for the best experience: The mozzarella must be as fresh as possible, and it must not be served straight from the refrigerator. Allow it to come to cool room temperature, and it will taste a thousand times better. (This is true of most cheeses, by the way.)
In my hemisphere, it is not yet the season to serve mozzarella with tomatoes, so this antipasto pairs it instead with charred radicchio. The contrast is quite pleasurable: Sweet, milky mozzarella meets slightly bitter radicchio, still a bit warm, blackened and smoky from high heat. You cut the radicchio into wedges and cook it in a cast-iron pan, on the grill or under the broiler until well charred and slightly softened.
All that is left to concoct is an easy salsa verde, made with extra-virgin olive oil, hand-chopped fresh green herbs, capers and lemon. Spoon that over the dish to complete it.
For the main course, it’s a baked pasta with two kinds of cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower and broccoli raab. For me, that’s a thrill. You may get more oohs-and-ahs if you call it rigatoni al forno. But please humor me, and don’t call it a “pasta bake.”
The vegetables may be humble, but the resulting dish is a luxurious affair, with two sauces. First, a creamy white béchamel sauce is employed to toss with the pasta and vegetables. The dish gets a generous showering of grated cheese before it heads to the oven. It emerges, bubbly and bronzed and crisp on top, and, finally, a bright, light tomato sauce adorns each serving.
Putting it together is somewhat like committing to building a lasagna — a little fussy, a lot of components — but once assembled, your labor is well worth the reward. No, it’s not a 30-minute kitchen session. But you can, and should, assemble it all in advance, then pop it in the oven when you please. Consider it a clever way to prepare dinner during daylight hours, so all the work is out of the way when you’d normally be in the kitchen.
And, though I always say I’m not big on dessert, I’m an utter fool for a good cookie, apt to devour at least two or three right off the bat. Chocolate chip doesn’t tempt me, but any cookie with nuts, especially almonds, does. The most delectable Sicilian almond cookies I know are made with just a few ingredients: blanched almonds, sugar and egg whites.
Similar to macaroons, they are crisp on the outside, with a perfumed chewy interior. They can be baked plain, or decorated with candied fruit or whole almonds. Or they can be made into thumbprint cookies, filled with a spoonful of good jam. Another good project to accomplish in advance, these cookies keep well in an airtight tin for several days, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. To be on the safe side, however, I’d advise hiding the tin.
Mozzarella with charred radicchio and salsa verde
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 20 minutes
2 radicchio heads, outer leaves removed
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, leaves and tender stems
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, leaves and tender stems
2 tablespoons finely cut chives or scallion tops
1 tablespoon roughly chopped capers
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
1/2 teaspoon sumac (optional)
1 pound fresh mozzarella, at cool room temperature
1. Heat oven to 475 degrees. Cut radicchio heads in half, from top to bottom. Cut each half into 2 or 3 large wedges. Drizzle each piece lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Lay them on a baking sheet and place on the top oven shelf. Roast until radicchio wedges are somewhat softened and charred at the edges, about 15 minutes. (Alternatively, cook the radicchio under the broiler, on the grill, or in batches on the stovetop in a cast-iron pan over high heat.)
2. As radicchio cooks, put parsley, cilantro, chives, capers and lemon zest in a small bowl. Stir in 3/4 cup oil, the lemon juice and sumac, if using. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Cut the mozzarella crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. For each serving, put 2 or 3 slices on one side of the plate. Set 2 wedges charred radicchio beside the mozzarella. Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons salsa verde in the middle.
Rigatoni al Forno With Cauliflower and Broccoli Raab
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
For the Béchamel:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk, or use half-and-half for a richer sauce
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg, or to taste
1 small bay leaf
For the Tomato Sauce:
3 cups canned tomatoes, whole or crushed tomatoes (from a 28-ounce can)
1 1/2 cups chopped onion, any kind
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf or a few basil leaves
For the Pasta:
1 pound rigatoni
1 medium cauliflower, chopped (about 3 cups)
1 bunch broccoli raab, chopped (about 3 cups)
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup grated provolone (about 3 ounces), plus more for serving
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano (about 3 ounces), plus more for serving
1. Make the béchamel: Put the olive oil and flour in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and whisk together. Let mixture sizzle without browning for 1 minute. Whisk in milk 1 cup at a time, letting it come up to a simmer and begin to thicken before adding the next cup. Repeat until all the milk has been added.
2. When the sauce has thickened to the consistency of a milkshake, turn heat to low. Add 1 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Add the nutmeg and bay leaf, and cook for 10 minutes, whisking occasionally. Check seasoning and adjust. Turn off heat and keep sauce warm. (If sauce thickens upon sitting, thin with a little more milk.)
3. Make the tomato sauce: In a small saucepan, put tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, bay leaf or basil, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer mixture to a blender (remove bay leaf before blending but leave in basil, if using). Purée to a velvety consistency and return to the saucepan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep sauce warm, or let cool and reheat before serving.
4. Make the pasta: Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the rigatoni and cook until nearly done, about 2 minutes less than package directions, leaving the pasta still quite firm. Lift pasta from the water with a spider or large strainer, and spread it out on a baking sheet to cool.
5. Add cauliflower to pot and cook until barely softened, 1 minute. Lift from the water with a spider or large strainer and spread out to cool on a baking sheet.
6. Add the broccoli raab and cook until just wilted, 1 minute, then drain in a colander. Rinse with cool water, then squeeze into a ball.
7. Put cauliflower and broccoli raab into the empty pasta pot. Add garlic, rosemary and red-pepper flakes, and stir together. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil.
8. Add the béchamel and the rigatoni. Mix well with the cauliflower and broccoli raab. Add the provolone and Pecorino Romano, and mix well again.
9. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pile the pasta mixture into an oiled 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake until nicely browned and crisp on top, about 40 minutes. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving. (Alternatively, refrigerate the assembled dish for up to 6 hours and bake later. Bring to room temperature before baking.)
10. To serve, put a large spoonful of pasta into individual bowls or plates, making sure each portion has some of the crisp top. Spoon some tomato sauce around each portion and sprinkle with more grated cheese.
Italian Almond Cookies
Yield: 24 cookies
Total time: 45 minutes, plus 1 hour’s resting
2 cups/290 grams blanched almonds
2/3 cup/130 grams sugar
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Amarena cherries or whole unblanched almonds, for garnish (optional)
1. Put half the almonds and half the sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Process to obtain a coarse meal. Repeat with remaining almonds and sugar.
2. Put egg whites and almond extract in a medium bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat whites until soft peaks form. Add the almond-sugar mixture to the whites and use a rubber spatula to incorporate the egg whites until you obtain a doughlike consistency.
3. Use a spoon or small ice cream scoop to make 24 little blobs weighing about 1/2 ounce/20 grams. Roll each between 2 palms to make smooth spheres, then flatten them slightly. Roll them in a bowl of powdered sugar to coat well and place 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Use the end of a wooden spoon to make little round dents in each cookie. Fill dents with whole, unblanched almonds or Amarena cherries, if desired. Alternatively, leave cookies plain with smooth tops. Leave the tray of unbaked cookies at room temperature, uncovered, for 1 hour.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake until lightly browned, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.