When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents lived in the same city as I did in New Jersey.  They had a large house ( because they needed it for 7 daughters) and a large yard. My grandfather was a great gardener and he loved it.  He could make anything grow and was eager to share his bounties with you.  He had row after row of stunning roses, gladioli and lilies of the valley. Whenever I went to his house, he would send me home with a big bunch of whatever flowers were in season or a bag of zucchini and tomatoes.  I loved that my grandfather had such a gift. After my husband and I bought our first house that was not too far from his house, he would come over and spruce up my yard for me. He saved a great, little magnolia tree in the center of my yard and, boy, did my tomato plants thrive. Wish I could remember, now, what he did to those tomatoes to make them so fine.

Italians have had a very close relationship with food throughout history, but the famine endured by most Italians during World War II, shaped their cuisine into a more simple and inexpensive one. The hardship of war meant that Italians grew vegetables in their own backyard gardens, even if the garden was only 10 yards across. Owning land and the cultivation of a vegetable garden have always been popular for Italians and a right they have taken full advantage of in Italy and in the US..

My grandfather certainly espoused that philosophy and most of his yard was dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables. He even grew grapes – for wine, of course. The grapes, he grew, were white and light red, but I don’t recall what kind of grapes they were. He would cut off a bunch, usually the white ones, with his pocket pen knife and hand them to me for a snack.  I would eat a couple but they tasted awful – tart and full of seeds. I would eat a few because I did not want to hurt his feelings.  He was very proud of those grapes.

The grapes were grown on a trellis that overlooked a large bench he had for sitting in his yard. The trellis was impressive and I would sit there under all those grapes and feel quite cozy in what felt like another world.  My grandfather did make wine with those grapes and he would bring the wine to Sunday dinner, usually in a big jug. My father would put the jug on the floor near his feet and occasionally hoist the jug up and fill the glasses on the table – not mine, of course. You may have heard that European children drink wine with dinner, but not in our house. Wine was for grown-ups.  I remember my mother passing on my grandfather’s wine, saying, it was a bit too strong for her, but my father and grandfather enjoyed it.

Using Wine in Your Recipes

The function of wine in cooking is to intensify and enhance the flavor and aroma of food – not to mask the flavor of what you are cooking but rather to fortify it.  Use wines in your cooking that you would drink for dinner.   Wines, labeled cooking wines, are not quality wines and they often contain salt and food coloring.
When you take some of the fat out of dishes, you usually need to add another ingredient to replace the lost moisture. Here are some examples of how wine can do just that:

  • Instead of sauteing veggies in butter or oil, you can saute them in a smaller amount of oil plus some wine for flavor and moisture.
  • Instead of making a marinade with 1/2 cup of oil, decrease the oil to 1/4 cup and add 1/4 cup wine.
  • You can add wine to the pan while fish is cooking or drizzle fish with a tablespoon or two of wine and bake it in a foil package
  • For certain types of cakes, using wine or sherry in place of some of the fat not only lightens up the cake but adds flavor.
The following recipes use wine in their preparation and range from appetizers to desserts.

Appetizer course 

Italian Octopus Stewed in Wine and Tomatoes

This is a recipe for Southern Italian stewed octopus with white wine and tomatoes. Octopus requires long, slow simmering over low heat to keep it tender. Serve with crusty bread. This recipe serves 4.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb small octopus
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes or peeled, chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • Salt and pepper

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the octopus to the boiling water, return to a boil and cook for 1-2 minutes, then remove. Discard water.
Cut the octopus into pieces and saute in olive oil over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and saute for another minute or two.
Add the wine and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir well and let it cook down for 3-4 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and chile flakes and bring to a simmer.
Add the salt and the honey.  Mix well, cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, add the capers and half the parsley.
Check the octopus — sometimes small ones will be tender in just 30 minutes.
If they are still super-chewy, cover the pot again and simmer for up to another 45 minutes.
When you think you are about 10 minutes away from being done, uncover the pot and turn the heat up a little to cook down the sauce.
To serve, add the remaining parsley, basil and black pepper.

Soup Course

Zuppa di Cipolle:  Italian Onion Soup

Ingredients:

  • 5 large yellow onions 
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 ounces pancetta, diced
  • 6 cups beef stock, low sodium
  • 3/4 cup dry red wine
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 slices country style bread, about 1/2 inch thick
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated or shaved

Directions:
Peel the onions and cut in half.  Thinly slice the onions crosswise.
Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add in the diced pancetta and cook for about 3-5 minutes until some of the fat has been rendered.
Add in the sliced onions, stir. Cover the pot. Lower the heat to medium low and slowly cook the onions until tender, about 15 minutes.  Stir often.
Stir in the stock and wine. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Toast the bread slices.  Rub the toasted slices with garlic. Place the bread slices in individual soup bowls. Pour the soup over the bread.
Either sprinkle grated cheese or shave cheese over the soup. If your bowls are oven proof, you can then place them under the broiler until the cheese melts.

Second Course

Osso buco is another traditional dish that uses veal, in this case, veal shanks. There are many recipes for Osso Buco that also use pork, beef or lamb shanks Turkey thighs are not traditional but create the same effect and contain less fat than shanks.

Turkey Osso Bucco

  • 6 turkey thighs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 2 carrots, finely diced
  • 2 celery stalks, finely diced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 ½ cups dry white wine
  • 5-6 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 2 large sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 350.

Pat the turkey with paper towels to dry and ensure even browning. Season the turkey with salt and pepper and dredge the turkey in the flour to coat.

In a heavy roasting pan large enough to fit the turkey thighs in a single layer, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the turkey and cook until brown on both sides, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer the turkey to a plate and reserve.

In the same pan, add the onion, carrot, and celery. Season vegetables with salt. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 6 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the wine and simmer about 3 minutes.

Return the turkey to the pan. Add enough chicken broth to come 2/3 up the sides of the turkey. Add the herb sprigs, and bay leaf to the broth mixture. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the heat. Cover the pan tightly with foil and transfer to the oven.

Braise until the turkey is fork-tender about 2 hours, turning the turkey after 1 hour. Serve this dish over risotto or polenta with a side of green peas.

Side Dish

Broccoli Sautéed in Wine and Garlic Roman Style

Makes 6 servings

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 pounds broccoli, cut into spears
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Grated zest of 1 orange

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until just sizzling. Add the broccoli and cook, tossing frequently and gradually adding the wine to keep the garlic from browning until the stalks are tender 8 to 10 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and zests, and tossing well.

Dessert Course

Biscotti, means twice-baked, and these cookies have grown to become an Italian classic.  As its name implies, the cookies are baked twice, first in the form of a log. They are then baked again after the log is sliced into diagonal strips. The crisp, crunchy cookie is perfect for dipping in coffee or dessert wine or even simply for snacking. Because they don’t need to be moist, biscotti are naturally low in fat.
It is said that biscotti were originally created as a provision for Venetian sailors and businessmen who went to sea for long periods of time and required foods that wouldn’t spoil. Many Italians eat the cookies as part of their breakfast with café latte. The varieties of biscotti differ throughout the many regions of Italy, but they are famous for their classic anise, almond or hazelnut flavor.

Vin santo ( the wine of saints) is a late-harvest wine from Italy, generally Tuscany. It’s usually made from white grapes, namely Trebbiano or Malvasia, that are semi-dried before being pressed and fermented; then the wines are stored in small barrels for up to 10 years, usually in attics which turn hot and cold with the seasons. There is a wide diversity in styles, from sweet dessert versions to dry, sherry-like styles, and quality varies.

Biscotti al Vin Santo

Makes about 20 biscotti

IngredientsCantucci e vin santo (Almond biscuits & dessert wine, Italy)

  • 1/2 cup (3 oz) sliced almonds
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz butter), cut in small pieces
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3/4 cup sweet white wine, (substitute a sweet Madeira or sweet Marsala for Vin Santo, if unavailable in your area)

Directions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Let them cool.

Mix the flour with the baking powder and salt in a bowl and stir in the sugar and lemon zest. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender, then stir in the almonds. Make a well in the center and add the wine and almond extract. Stir gradually drawing in the flour to make a smooth soft dough that holds together. If it seems dry, add a little more wine.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and shape the dough into a log about 1 inch thick, 4 inches across and 12 inches long. Wrap it in plastic wrap, then flatten it slightly. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours and longer if you wish. The dough can also be frozen.

For the first baking:

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Unwrap the log, set it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until lightly browned and firm on the outside 35 to 40 minutes. A skewer inserted in the center should come out clean. Let the log cool on the baking sheet and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

For the second baking:

When cool, cut the log with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices – they will be quite soft, almost cake-like in the center. Space the biscotti on the parchment lined baking sheet and bake, turning halfway through,  until they are dry and lightly browned on the cut surfaces, 20 to 25 minutes. Let them cool on a rack and store them in an airtight container.

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