Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Stuffed Peppers

When my brother and I were little, my grandmother, Nanny, used to make stuffed peppers every once in a while. It's likely she made them quite often, now that I think about it, but it was never enough for us. When we went to her house and saw the dish of peppers sitting on the counter, we were utterly thrilled! Now we only get them once a year, when my mother makes them for Christmas, so I decided to give them a try; happily, they were just as I remembered them.

Stuffed peppers

2 jars whole cherry peppers, either hot or sweet (B&G are best)
1 onion
1 stick butter
3/4 package of firm white bread
1 apple, peeled, cored and grated
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
10 leaves of fresh basil, chopped
Pinch dry oregano
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Olive oil

The peppers. I prefer the bite of the hot ones.
Saute the onion in one stick of butter until soft. Put aside. In a food processor, pulse the bread in batches and crumb until fine. Add salt, pepper, oregano, garlic powder, cheese, basil, apple and lastly the onion to the bread mixture. Dampen the mixture slightly with milk, one tablespoon at a time, and mix together using your hands. You will notice that as you get toward the bottom of the mixture it may be dry; continue to dampen with milk, as you want the mixture to be moist but not wet.

The bread mixture.

Core and stem the peppers and remove the seeds, leaving an opening large enough to stuff (be careful not to touch your eyes if you're using the hot peppers). Stuff each pepper with the bread mixture, packing tightly. In a large skillet, heat at least 1/2 cup of olive oil over medium heat and brown the peppers slowly, starting with the stuffing side down and moving to the bottom of the pepper. Fry the peppers until soft, turning the larger peppers on their side (for smaller peppers, frying the top and bottom will do). Drain on paper towel and eat at room temperature. 

Stuffed and ready to eat

These little beauties take a long time to make, to be honest, but they're so worth it. They've been a part of my Christmas tradition for a long time. I introduced them to my new in-laws this year and they were quite the hit, though they almost didn't make it to the Christmas table as Ryan attempted to devour them in one sitting. Buon appetito!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More cold weather soup

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go to a cooking class at Macy's De Gustibus Cooking School. It was run by my friend Sandra Lotti, master chef and owner of Toscana Saporita, a mecca for cooks and located in Tuscany. I was there in the summer of 2010 (see my earlier post about my time there), and let me tell you, there's nothing like cooking in the hills of Tuscany.
This week's class was a bit different in that Sandra was cooking wintry foods, not the summer foods I experienced in Tuscany in June. She made braised pork shoulder -- called stinko in Italian, if you can believe that -- that fell off the bone. For dessert there was a light olive oil cake with orange zest.

Braised pork shoulder with broccoli rabe and polenta

Orange zest and olive oil cake

But before this she made soup, a hearty white bean, which I made a few days after. It's perfect for a cold winter night, and incredibly easy to make. I will write about the method I used, which was a bit easier than hers in that I used canned beans -- perfectly good and much easier for the busy cook.

Cannellini Bean Soup with Crutons

2 cans of white beans, with their juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
Panchetta, lardo or a piece of prosciutto rind (which you can get from a good meat store or deli)
1 large red onion
2 carrots, diced
1 celery stalk, diced

3 cloves garlic
1 cup canned tomatoes, with their juice and crushed by hand
4 leaves of fresh sage
Fresh rosemary
1 cup croutons, fried in a bit of olive oil
Fresh nutmeg (optional)

  • Pour the olive oil into a pot and add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, rosemary and panchetta. This is your soffritto, your base. Add the soffritto to the oil when the oil is cold, not hot; you're not sauteing, you're building a base for the soup. Cook until the vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes or so, stirring frequently.
  • When the soffritto is done, add the tomatoes, beans and sage and cook for another 10 minutes.
  • Transfer the soup into a glass bowl and puree it with an immersion blender. (If you don't have one, use a stand-up blender but puree it in small batches -- hot soup expands and will, literally, explode all over if there's too much liquid in the blender). You can puree the soup as much or as little as you like. I enjoy a few pieces of whole beans in the soup.
  • Transfer back into the pot and add enough water to make the soup hearty -- about a cup or so, adding slowly. Make sure the liquid you introduce is hot; adding cold water will slow the cooking process.
  • Bring to a boil and season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Serve with croutons and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

White bean soup

What I love most about this soup is the sweet and unexpected flavor of the tomatoes. This is easy to make and really delicious. Serve with a pinot grigio or another dry white wine...delish!

My history geek moment: Beans are some of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, and some of the most important. When ancient Egyptians buried their dead, they would sometimes add beans to the treasures left for them to take to the next world.