Today’s story comes from the lovely and delightful Donna Williams Barrows, a Facebook friend who is just as enamored with food as I am. She certainly comes by it honestly because her grandparents were first generation Italian-Americans. Just like The Artist, she grew up with homemade Italian foods that the rest of could only dream of.
Donna was born in Kentucky where her father was stationed with the U.S. Army, but they moved back to her parent’s hometown of Houston, Texas when she was just a year old. She married her high school sweetheart and settled down to raise their two beautiful daughters. The girls are now grown, but Donna and her husband have a very large, very handsome and very spoiled Rottweiler named Dylan … after Bob Dylan. The girl has some seriously good taste in both music and dog naming!
When she isn’t in the kitchen creating delicious meals for her family, she works as a legal secretary, supporting six corporate attorneys (three of whom are partners) who specialize in mergers and acquisitions. Having been a secretary myself, I can say that this is an amazing accomplishment that requires tremendous skill, intelligence, patience, organization, and tact.
Donna loves cooking, especially her native Italian cuisine; classic rock music; learning languages; movies; art; theater, opera (all of the performing arts); bicycling; singing; entertaining friends; wine tasting; traveling. She loves just about anything and everything that allows her to be around people.
Those of us lucky enough to be her friend, on Facebook and in real life, are blessed with one of life’s truly incredible women. Loving, caring, supportive, talented and extremely amusing, Donna is a rare gem.
My maternal grandparents were first generation Americans, their parents having been born in Sicily. My grandfather, Tony DeStefano, in particular, loved his culture. Although my grandmother, Katherine Spadachene DeStafano, was also full-blooded Sicilian, she preferred cooking traditional Southern American foods. However, on Sundays, she would prepare spaghetti and meatballs and we would always have lunch at her house.
Even though my Grandpa loved his Southern cooking, he still had a taste for his native cuisine. My Grandma, Memaw, worked in her brother’s grocery store and he carried such lovely items as sardines, big blocks of Parmesan cheese, anchovies, pepperoncini, espresso, salami, prosciutto, etc. He also had a license to sell wine and beer and had quite a selection of Italian wines.
I spent nearly every weekend with my grandparents. And, from the time I was about three years old, I have very fond memories of sitting on top of my Grandmother’s kitchen table, in front of my Grandpas, helping myself to pieces of parmesan cheese, beautifully ripe Italian olives, sardines (yes, I loved sardines) and so many other delicious, typical antipasti type foods. I remember his gusty laughter, as I would take a bite of the highly aromatic delicacies and wrinkle my nose slightly as I ate.
But, I soon grew accustomed to the tastes and developed an intense love of these things. He would let me have an ever so tiny cup of espresso heavily laden with sugar to share with him when he had his afternoon coffee. I was also allowed to have a tbsp or two of red wine mixed with a little water. I’m sure that today’s parents would gasp in horror. But, it was my understanding that this type of thing is quite common in Europe.
Since then, my appetite and love of my native cuisine continues to grow. I was determined to learn as much about the Italian culture and its wonderful foods as I could. I did my own research, bought many cookbooks and watched many cooking programs. Although I am by no means a professional, I have become quite skilled in preparing Italian cuisine and it is my favorite to this day.
In honor of Donna’s weekly Italian meals, I have put together some of my favorites to share with you. You can be sure that I ran the menu past The Artist first and got his approval – if it is Italian, he has an opinion about it, LOL!
We are starting with one of the quintessential Italian cocktails, a Negroni. Made with gin, sweet vermouth and the bitter Italian aperitif Campari, this is a classic way to prepare your palate for the flavorful foods to come. The Negroni was most likely invented in Florence, Italy around 1919 at Caffe Casoni. Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender to make his favorite cocktail, the Americano, a bit stronger by using gin instead of the ordinary soda water. The bartender also added a garnish of orange instead of the typical lemon to set it apart. And a tradition was born.
Aperitifs are designed to awaken your taste buds with bittersweet flavors that tantalize and make you anticipate dinner that much more. The most popular apertivo in Italy, introduced in the 1860’s by Gaspare Campari, is a blend of dozens of ingredients that include quinine, rhubarb, ginseng, orange peels and aromatic herbs. The ruby colored beverage is as beautiful to look at as it is appetizing to drink. It stimulates all your senses.
The next course is something you will see at nearly every Italian gathering, a collection of foods called Antipasti. Contrary to common belief, this does not mean “before the pasta” but is a generic term for any food that begins the meal. The contents will vary depending on which region the family came from, but generally will include cured meats, pickled vegetables, fresh fruits, a variety of cheeses, spreads, and freshly baked breads or crackers. The idea of the platter is to stimulate our appetites, not stuff us so full that we have no room left for the main course and dessert.
The real beauty of serving an antipasto platter is that everything is already made and it is really just about assembling and arranging. Ina Garten, one of my favorites when it comes to getting ideas about entertaining, follows a classic Asian philosophy of arranging … three distinct areas that represent the Sky, Earth and Water. You want something a bit taller on the platter (the sky), something low (the earth), and something that appears to be flowing like water. Watch this video so you can see how she designs her beautiful presentation. And from DeLallo Foods, this video does a great job of explaining the concept of antipasti and which choices may work best for your table. And don’t forget to put some pops of color on your plate. Some fresh green leaves from your garden, bright red tomatoes, black olives, white cheeses, golden kumquats all add sparkle to the plate.
Today I am including a terrific antipasti platter recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. It includes recipes for Pinzimonio (fresh vegetables with a seasoned olive oil dip), homemade marinated olives, and a fabulous roasted red pepper salad. If this is too much work for you, especially if you are planning this on a work night or after a very full day of activities, remember that you can go to your local deli or gourmet grocery store and buy a nice selection of items. You don’t have to make everything from scratch. As Ina says, it is more important to enjoy your guests than work so hard on the dinner that you are too exhausted to carry on a conversation!
And the star attraction of our family meals is a rich homemade Marinara sauce with meatballs served with pasta. The classic American choice for the pasta is spaghetti, but you can use any style you like. The Artist’s family always serves penne as their standard pasta. My personal favorite is capellini or Angel Hair – I love the delicate quality of it against the richness of the meat. If you want to read more about our family sauce and how I learned to make it, check out my post here.
Today you are getting a real treat. My friend, Holly Herrick, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and cookbook author, has one of the best meatball recipes I have ever tried and I am sharing it with you! What lucky people you are!! These are rich and tender, bursting with flavor, and so good you can serve them as appetizers or over cooked pasta tossed with a little of the sauce. When you taste these meatballs you will swear they were fried in oil, but these are a healthier version; they are baked and then finished in the sauce. Even though the recipes claims to make 4 to 6 servings, if The Artist and his brother are at the table, they could probably polish off the whole batch!
The next time you have a crowd of people coming over for a party, serve this wonderful themed dinner. Put on some Frank Sinatra CDs, tell everyone to wear red, green and white (the colors of the Italian flag), break out the Chianti and have a blast!
Mangia my friends!
Food and Wine
Yield: 1 serving
1 oz gin
1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 orange twist, for garnish
Splash of Prosecco, optional
Fill a pint glass with ice. Add the gin, Campari and vermouth and stir well. Strain into a chilled martini glass or coupe and garnish with the orange twist. For more festive celebrations, add the splash of Prosecco.
Giada’s Antipasti Platter
Giada De Laurentiis, courtesy of the Food Network
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 lb assorted sliced deli meats (such as salami, spicy capicola or coppa, prosciutto, mortadella, and bresaola)
1/2 lb Parmigiano-Reggiano, cut into irregular chunks
1 loaf focaccia bread, sliced
Pinzimonio, recipe follows
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Assorted cut-up vegetables (such as carrots, celery, fennel bulb, radishes, red and orange bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes
Marinated Olives, recipe follows
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp dried crushed red pepper flakes
1-1/2 cups Sicilian cracked green olives
1-1/2 cups Kalamata olives
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves
Roasted Pepper Salad, recipe follows
3 red bell peppers
2 orange bell peppers
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp drained capers
6 fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Arrange the meats, cheeses, and focaccia on a large platter. Arrange another platter of Pinzimonio. Place the marinated olives and Roasted Red Pepper Salad in small serving bowls. Serve, allowing guests to compose their own assortment of antipasti on their plates.
Make the Pinzimonio: Stir the oil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl to blend. Arrange the vegetables on a platter. Serve the vegetables with the dip. Alternately, you can parboil or lightly steam the veggies and toss them with the seasoned oil.
Make the Marinated Olives: Stir the oil, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes in a heavy small skillet over medium heat just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat. Add the olives and toss to coat. Add the basil; toss to coat. Serve.
Make the Roasted Pepper Salad: Preheat the broiler. Cover a heavy baking sheet with foil. Arrange the bell peppers on the baking sheet. Broil until the skins brown and blister, turning the peppers over occasionally, about 15 minutes.
Enclose the peppers in a resealable plastic bag. Set aside until cooled to room temperature, about 20 minutes.
Peel, seed, and cut the peppers into 1/2-inch thick strips. Toss the pepper strips, olives, oil, capers, basil, garlic, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl to combine. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.
Italian Sausage and Ricotta Meatballs with Peppers, Onions and Red Wine Sauce
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the Sauce
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups chopped onion
3 cups chopped red bell peppers
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup red wine
2 cups pureed whole peeled canned tomatoes
4 cups hand-crushed whole peeled canned tomatoes
For the Meatballs
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from chewy, Tuscan-style bread)
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1 lb Italian pork sausage, casings removed
Fresh basil to garnish
To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large pat over medium heat. Add the onions and peppers and sauté, stirring until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to sauté until just softened, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Increase heat to high and add the wine. Cook until reduced by about half and you can no longer smell the alcohol. Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer; continue simmering for another 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, prepare the meatballs. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a large bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, ricotta, milk, parsley, egg and Parmesan. Add the sausage and mix, using your hands, until combined. Don’t overwork the mixture once the sausage has been added, or the meatballs risk becoming tough.
Dampen your hands and begin forming golf ball-sized meatballs (approximately 2 oz each; you should end up with about 16). The meatballs should be slightly sticky. If they are too dry, add a little more milk; if too wet, add a few more breadcrumbs.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and evenly space the meatballs. Bake for 20 minutes, or until they are golden brown and firm to the touch. Then, add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer another 20 minutes.
Serve meatballs and sauce in shallow bowls and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese and torn basil. This is also delicious over your favorite cooked pasta.
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