Healthy Italian Cooking at Home

Category Archives: sweet potatoes

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For centuries all food was farm to table. People grew most of their own food or bought it from nearby farmers. The food that they put on the table was fresh, local and literally farm to table. During the early part of the twentieth century more people moved into urban areas and, along with improved transportation and refrigeration, made it possible for foods to be transported from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. Food was no longer picked on the farm and served within just a day or so. The longer the time between harvest and your dining room table, the more quality is lost. Nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly.

As we become more concerned with where food comes from and how it is prepared, the term “farm-to-table” has become more prominent. Farm-to-table is more of a movement than a particular cuisine. The focus is on eliminating as many steps as possible between where the food is grown and where it’s eaten. Getting food straight from the farmer cuts out the middleman – like packaging and processing plants and commercial vendors – and assures consumers that their food is fresh, nutritious and locally produced. When you buy locally produced foods, you are being more environmentally friendly, keeping business in the community and supporting the local economy.

Farm-to-table food offerings encompass any type of whole food imaginable, as long as it’s in season. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, nuts and even baked goods; just not anything processed – like a bag of potato chips or packaged chicken nuggets. A common fallacy is that the farm to table label means that the ingredients are organic. Sometimes the farmer uses organic techniques but can’t afford to meet the procedures that the government requires for the certified label. Other times the farm may use non-organic fertilizers or pesticides.

Wondering where the nearest farmers markets are to you?

The USDA launched a searchable Farmers Market Directory that includes over 6,000 locations in the United States: http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/default.aspx

In Canada: http://www.farmersmarketscanada.ca/ and in England: http://www.localfoods.org.uk/local-food-directory

After the long winter months of scanty crops, root vegetables and tubers, the farmers markets are reawakening and brimming with bright-colored vegetables, enticing baked goods and delicious jams that make for a full sensory experience. Strolling by the colorful stands of produce, you’ll find fresh field strawberries, crisp green beans, plump artichokes and bright green asparagus. Following are some facts about the spring produce that is emerging and some recipes on how to make use of them.

Asparagus

asparagus

Perhaps because it’s only harvested during a brief six to seven-week period between April and June, asparagus is the one vegetable we most associate with the arrival of spring.

When picking asparagus at the farmers market or at your local store, look for bundles with firm spears whose tips are closed, plump and green. Avoid dry, brownish looking spears. Once you’ve made your pick, it’s very important to store your asparagus properly to keep them fresh, as it is a rather fragile vegetable. Wash asparagus repeatedly in water until clean, pat dry, and cut off the hard stem ends. Then wrap a moist paper towel around the stems and place them in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. Or, even better, stand them upright in a couple of inches of cold water. If stored properly, asparagus will keep for 2 or 3 days.

Blanching

To blanch asparagus, drop whole or cut, into a large pot of simmering water and cook for 3 minutes. Then, drain and shock the asparagus by running it under cold water or putting it in an ice bath. When blanched, the texture of asparagus becomes a little softer, but it is still crisp and the color brightens.

Steaming

Steaming is the perfect cooking method for a health-conscious diet because it utilizes very little or no fat. In a large deep pot bring 1 inch of water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Fasten the asparagus stalks in a bundle with a string and place the bundle upright in the water. Cover and steam for 6 to 8 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, use a wide pan or Dutch oven, add a thin layer of water and place a single layer of asparagus at the bottom. Cover and steam.

Stir-frying

Stir-frying is a very quick cooking technique that uses relatively low amounts of fat and very high heat. The secret is to keep the food in constant motion in a wok or sauté pan. Once you’ve cut the asparagus spears in the desired shape (cutting them on a slant is typical for stir-fry dishes), blanch them, then heat a small amount of oil in the pan over high heat. Once the oil is hot enough, add the asparagus and stir constantly until tender but still crisp on the surface, about 2- 3 minutes.

Sautéing

Sautéing asparagus is fairly similar to stir-frying. While stir-frying is more often used in Asian-inspired recipes, sautéing is typical of Western cuisines. It’s the cooking method most often used to prepare asparagus as a side dish to meat or fish entrees or in sauces for pasta. With sautéing, as well as with stir-frying, it’s preferable to use blanched asparagus. In a skillet, heat oil or butter, add the asparagus and cook, tossing occasionally until tender but still firm and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes.

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Roasted Asparagus

This is my favorite way to serve asparagus.

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Half a lemon
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Snap off the bottoms of the stalks. On a large baking sheet, toss asparagus in the olive oil with salt and pepper to taste. Roast until tender and lightly browned, about 15-20 min (depending on the thickness of the stalks). Squeeze the lemon juice over the asparagus and sprinkle with Parmesan.

Sweet Potatoes

sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are not yams and vice-versa. They are two totally unrelated botanical species, although the roots can be similar in shape. What’s the difference? The true sweet potato is related to the morning-glory vine and is native to South America; the yam is native to Africa and Asia. All of this is especially confusing because orange-fleshed sweet potatoes have been traditionally referred to as “yams” in parts of the US. In general, true yams have a drier texture, are starchier in taste and are much lower in beta-carotene (but higher in protein) than sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are number 38 out of 53 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The roots are susceptible to a number of different pests and diseases that are controlled with insecticides and fungicides, so check with your local sweet potato farmer, if you’re concerned about this.

Sweet potatoes are in season in most parts of the US from fall through spring and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most are large and football shaped, with a fat middle and tapering ends, although some heirloom varieties are quite small and slender. Their skin can be russet, tan, cream, light purple or red. Sweet potato flesh is just as colorful: it may be orange (like the common Jewel sweet potato), yellow, creamy white (like the Japanese sweet potato) or even purple-magenta (as seen in the Okinawan sweet potato). Sweet potato varieties can also be divided into “dry” varieties (better for frying or boiling, because they hold their shape better) and “moist” or “baking” types. Look for sweet potatoes that are firm, with no bruises, shrivel-y spots (especially common on their tapered ends) or brown bits. Avoid sweet potatoes that have begun to sprout.

Sweet potatoes can be stored for several weeks under the right conditions: cool, dry and away from light. Don’t store them in the refrigerator, as this accelerates their decline — they don’t like to be too cold or too moist. Sweet potatoes that get too warm tend to sprout and become shriveled and mushy.

Sweet potatoes can be baked, roasted, boiled, fried, grilled, mashed or pureed. They are commonly paired with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and other warming spices, along with brown sugar or maple syrup. They also are delicious paired with oranges (juice or zest) and apples. They can be mashed and added to any number of baked goods, like muffins, biscuits and cakes. Cook sweet potatoes in their skin to retain the most nutrients. You can peel them after cooking. An enzyme in sweet potatoes that converts starch to sugar is most active between 135 – 170 degrees (Fahrenheit), so cook sweet potatoes for a longer period of time at a lower temperature to get the sweetest sweet potatoes. Baking sweet potatoes in the oven at 350 degrees or lower will achieve this.

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Sweet Potato Soup with Apples 

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 small, tart apple, peeled, cored and diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 8 small sage leaves or Italian parsley
  • 3 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 ½ cups peeled, cooked sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • Kosher salt
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1/4 cup sour cream or yogurt
  • Italian parsley for garnish

Directions

In a medium Dutch oven, heat the extra virgin olive oil and butter on medium-high heat until the butter is just melted. Add the onion and cook until translucent (but not browned), about 5 minutes. Add the diced apple, carrot, celery and sage and cook and stir for another 2-3 minutes. Add the chicken or vegetable stock. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, then turn the heat to low. Simmer until the carrots and celery are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cooked sweet potatoes, cayenne, nutmeg and salt to taste. Stir to combine.  Puree the soup in batches with an immersion blender or food processor. Stir in the lemon juice to taste and swirl a tablespoon of sour cream or yogurt on top of the soup. Garnish with parsley.

Kohlrabi

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Kohlrabi is a member of a group of vegetables that include kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, turnips, radishes, horseradish, mustard, arugula and rapeseed. The kohlrabi “root” is actually the swollen stem of the plant that grows above ground, topped by leaves resembling kale or collards. Fast growing and easy to cultivate, kohlrabi is becoming more popular in the US, but its strongest foothold is in Germany, Eastern Europe and India.

Kohlrabi are susceptible to the same diseases and pests as other members of the cabbage family, so pesticides to control fungi and insects may be applied. If you are concerned, the best thing to do is ask your local kohlrabi farmer about his or her growing practices.

Kohlrabi are available in most US markets from late spring through late autumn. In many areas, the vegetable can only be found at farmers’ markets, CSAs and smaller grocery stores (like food co-ops). Kohlrabi prefers cooler weather, so summer-harvested kohlrabi may be woodier than those grown in the spring and fall. In warmer climates, kohlrabi may be available in the winter and may even have two growing seasons. The kohlrabi bulb should be firm with no spongy bits and no visible brown spots. If leaves are still attached, they should be firm, green and free of wilt or mold. Younger kohlrabi are more tender and you can differentiate between young and old primarily by size — younger kohlrabi are smaller, usually between 2-3 inches in diameter. Kohlrabi should be spherical in shape; stay away from kohlrabi that are tapered, as they also tend to be woodier.

Kohlrabi will keep in your refrigerator’s veggie drawer for several weeks. Note that the bulbs tend to become woodier the longer you store them. Remove the leaves before storing. The biggest barrier to frequent kohlrabi consumption is peeling the bulb. The little knobbly bits make using a vegetable peeler virtually impossible, so you’ll have to use a paring knife to get the skin off. The bulb can be quartered and roasted like potatoes, pureed, steamed, grilled or simply thinly sliced raw and tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Kohlrabi also makes a delicious slaw, grated or cut into thin matchsticks.

slaw

Apple and Kohlrabi Slaw 

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 tart apples, cored and grated or julienned on a mandolin
  • 4 small kohlrabi, peeled and grated or julienned on a mandolin
  • 2 shallots, diced (or 1/2 an onion)
  • 4 tablespoons Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all of the above together and chill in the refrigerator until serving time.

Rhubarb

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A relative of buckwheat, rhubarb is native to Siberia, and it grows best outdoors in similar climes such as northern Michigan, Washington state, Ontario and Yorkshire in the north of England. Rhubarb can only be harvested several years after planting, as it needs time to develop an appropriate root system. While not as popular as it was in the first half of the 20th century, rhubarb is receiving renewed interest in the U.S. as a local, seasonal plant.

Rhubarb is typically harvested in early spring while the plant is at its maximum flavor. Choose medium-sized ruby colored stalks that are firm and crisp. Greener stalks are usually a sign of sourness, while a thick stalk will be stringy. Rhubarb keeps for about a week wrapped in the refrigerator. Rhubarb freezes very well, so stock up during the spring season. I cut the stalks into one inch pieces and freeze 2 cups per ziplock freezer bag. Frozen rhubarb is great for making a fruit pie.

Just like celery, rhubarb has strings. To remove, use a paring knife. The strings will likely break down during cooking, but cooked rhubarb has a smoother texture without them. An easy way to cook rhubarb is to slice the stalk into inch-long chunks, remove all leaves, add sugar and boil until tender, adding a little bit of lemon zest to the mix. As rhubarb is quite sour, it pairs well with foods and ingredients that balance out the acidity. This sauce is good served over ice cream or frozen yogurt.

crumble

Rhubarb Crumble

Combine 1 cup flour, 1/3 cup oats, 3/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl.

Stir in 6 tablespoons melted butter and 1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts; with your fingers squeeze into large crumbles and place in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Mix 2 pounds chopped rhubarb, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon orange zest and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a 8-by-8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish.

Scatter the crumbles on top and bake in a preheated 375 degrees F oven until golden and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Strawberries

strawberries

Locally grown strawberries are available only from Spring to the middle of Summer. Look for glossy fruit without visibly bruising, softness or moldy spots. Strawberries range in size from tiny wild-like, or alpine, varieties, to the fairly enormous Tri-Star type. The berries start out white on the plant, so look for strawberries that are deeply red colored without traces of white at the stem. Strawberries are labor-intensive to cultivate and are susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests. The seedlings must be planted by hand and the berries are still harvested by hand, even in large industrial operations.

Strawberries rank a super high number 3 out of 53  on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide. The EWG recommends buying organic due to the high pesticide use in conventionally grown strawberries. Unfortunately, the pesticides used in conventional strawberry production are some of the very worst – including methyl bromide, which sterilizes the soil and acts as an insecticide. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methyl bromide is categorized as a “powerful ozone depleting substance.” It was “phased out” in 2005 in the US’s attempt to comply with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, but the US lobbied for — and won — “exemptions” that include strawberry production, both for seedlings and fruit. In addition to its effects on the ozone layer, methyl bromide is a highly toxic pesticide that can cause neurological, lung and kidney damage and an increased risk of prostate cancer. And it’s not just methyl bromide — a variety of other pesticides are also used in conventional strawberry production. The environmental and health-related impacts of conventional strawberry growing are high, so if you are concerned with these issues, look for locally grown strawberries and ask your local farmer about his or her production methods.

Fresh strawberries deteriorate fairly quickly after purchase. You can keep strawberries fresh by waiting to wash them until just before eating and by storing them in the refrigerator in a paper-towel lined basket or bowl without a cover.

Strawberries are a versatile fruit and perform well under a multitude of cooking methods — they can be roasted (try tossing with a tiny bit of sugar, roast just until caramelized and drizzle with good balsamic vinegar), stewed, baked into a pie, made into jam, churned into ice cream or frozen into an icy sorbet. But strawberries really shine when eaten raw, either completely unadorned or sliced and tossed with a little sugar, orange juice, red wine or balsamic vinegar.

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Quick Refrigerator Strawberry Jam

Unlike other jam recipes, refrigerator jams don’t require canning equipment or techniques. The sugar and acid in the jam preserves the fruit, although refrigerator jam keeps for far less time than classic strawberry preserves — only about 2 weeks in the refrigerator. This jam will also be a bit looser than regular strawberry jam, as there is no pectin (a thickening agent commonly used in canning) involved. Adjusting the amount of sugar will also affect the looseness of the jam (more sugar equals less liquid).

Makes about 1 1/2 pints

Ingredients

  • 1 quart ripe, organic strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 3/4 to 1 cup granulated sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Directions

Place a small plate in the freezer.

Combine the strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring the strawberry mixture to a rolling boil, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon and mashing the strawberries slightly. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.

Put about a teaspoon of jam mixture on the cold plate from the freezer and swirl it around on the plate. If the jam runs, cook for 2-5 minutes longer and repeat the process. (The jam should firm up when it hits the cold plate and should no longer run.)

Transfer to clean glass jars and cool. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.

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Flooded banks of the Brazos River, Texas, c.1910

The few Italians who came to Texas during the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were mainly explorers, adventurers or missionaries.

The Italian presence in the state goes back to the earliest years of Spanish exploration. Like Christopher Columbus, Italians were often in the employ of the Spanish during that early period of discovery. Some soldiers of fortune came from northern Italy, but the larger numbers were from Sicily and Naples, provinces that were under the Spanish crown at various times. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s explorations in 1541 included soldiers with the Italian surnames of Loro, Napolitano and Romano, among others. When Texas became a settled territory in the late 1700′s, individual Italian merchants began to arrive. Among them was Vincente Micheli who came to Nacogdoches from Brescia.

Prospero Bernardi bust

Prospero Bernardi, an Italian immigrant who took part in the Battle of San Jacinto, where he was wounded on April 21, 1836.

In 1836, when Texas won independence from Mexico, Italian-born Prospero Bernardi was one of the Texans who fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. The older cities of San Antonio, Nacogdoches and Victoria have Italian families who date back to this period. Not until the 1880′s, however, did Italian immigrants begin to arrive in Texas in large groups. Between 1880 and 1920, immigration to Texas increased from a trickle to a flood. In 1870 there were 186 Italian residents in Texas. By 1920 their numbers had swelled to 8,024.

The immigrants’ primary goal was to provide a higher standard of living for themselves and their families. The Italian immigrants were drawn by railroad and steamship advertisements, notices published in the Italian-language press, letters from Italian immigrants already in America and word-of-mouth information. Italian Texans learned to grow cotton and corn on Texas soil, to speak the English language and to adapt to their new environment. They purchased land, opened businesses and acquired a degree of geographic mobility.

Italian-owned Val Verde Winery, Del Rio, Texas

These were mostly farmers who settled in three areas: the Brazos Valley around Bryan, mainland Galveston County and Montague County in the Red River Valley. The Montague group was from northern Italy. Never large in number, they engaged in agriculture, including planting some vineyards, primarily to supply the family table, but a few small wineries operated until Prohibition. Over in southwest Texas, Frank Qualia, who came from northern Italy to Del Rio, established Texas’ oldest winery in 1883. The Val Verde Winery managed to survive Prohibition by selling table grapes from the Qualia family vineyards.

A fourth group has largely “come and gone.” These Italians were the thousands of miners and brick makers of Thurber. Between 1880 and 1920, this coal-mining town grew to a population of 10,000. Now, it is a virtual ghost town, a mere exit sign on Interstate 20, west of Fort Worth. Most of the Italians of Thurber moved to other areas when the mines and factories closed.

Another group of Italians worked building a railroad in 1881 that extended from Richmond and Rosenberg to Brownsville. So many Italians were employed that the rail line became known as the “Macaroni Line.”

Financial problems halted construction at Victoria in 1882 but many of the workers stayed in the area and settled in Victoria, Houston, San Antonio and Galveston.

The Brazos Valley Italians came from impoverished Sicily, specifically from three villages, Poggioreale, Corleone and Salaparuta. After a period of tenant farming cotton and corn, they began to acquire land, some of it being flood-prone bottom land that had been passed over by previous immigrants. Estimates in the late 1800′s on the numbers of Italians along the Brazos ranged from 2,400 to 3,000.

In 1899, heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in the Brazos bottom and some of the Italian families left the area for mainland Galveston County, where other Italians had begun to establish vegetable and fruit farms.There another weather disaster, the Galveston hurricane of 1900, created havoc for these Italian-Texans, damaging their farmland with the surging saltwater tide. (In the first week of December in 1913, major flooding occured in the state of Texas. According to the official records, the Brazos crested at 42 feet at Highbank. In September of 1936, another flood hit Highbank but this time the river crested at 40 feet). However, the families stood fast, continuing their farming or finding employment in nearby Houston. Today, the Galveston County towns of League City and Dickinson retain their Italian heritage.

Bales of Cotton Saved From Flooding

The pillars of Italian cultural identity in Texas have been principally food, faith and family. First is membership in the Roman Catholic Church. This can be seen in “Italian” parishes today, such as St. Anthony’s in Bryan, Shrine of the True Cross in Dickinson, St. Francesco Di Paola in San Antonio and others. Also, the tradition of the St. Joseph Altar on the feast day, March 19, remains a custom in several Texas cities. On this day in Sicily, dishes of pasta, cakes and breads were placed on a specially decorated table in the church to symbolize food to the poor.

Second, knowledge of the preparation of Italian cuisine and the customs that go along with the celebration of the meal – such as folk music and dance – are other important factors in maintaining Italian identity. One distinguishing dance is the tarantella, almost always part of the wedding feast. Social historians describe the Sicilian tarantella as “full of movement and abandon,” a dance that centuries ago fused with the Spanish fandango, performed in the Italian style without castanets and played with a certain melody. At times the sole accompaniment is the rhythmic clapping of hands.

Annual Festa Italiana

 Festa Italiana University of St Thomas 3800 Montrose Boulevard Houston, TX

Third, the foods and folk customs are almost always shared with the family. Italian consciousness does not depend on any one of these attributes, but a sum of all of them all. It is manifested in a pride in Italian achievements, especially, in architecture and sculpture. Courthouses designed by immigrated Italian architects grace many Texas county seats. Other public spaces are anchored with sculptures by Italian-Texans. Among such artists is Pompeo Coppini, who was born in Tuscany in 1870 and arrived in Austin in 1901. His sculptures include the Littlefield Fountain at the University of Texas in Austin, the statue of Gov. Sul Ross on the campus of Texas A&M University and the Alamo Cenotaph Memorial in San Antonio, the city he made his home and where he was buried in 1957.

Littlefield Fountain at the University of Texas in Austin by Pompeo Coppini.

Oscar and Frederick Ruffini, two Genoese brothers, designed many Texas public buildings. Frederick (b.1851) arrived in Austin in 1877. He was the architect of 19th century courthouses in Henderson, Longview, Georgetown and Corsicana.  Oscar (b.1858) settled in San Angelo and was the architect for several West Texas courthouses including those in Concho, Mills, Sutton, Sterling and Crockett counties. Other Italian artists in Texas include: John C. Filippone, print maker for George Roe’s version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; Rodolfo Guzzardi, painter of landscapes, including “Palo Duro Canyon-Texas”;  sculptor Louis Amateis and Enrico Cerrachio, creator of the Sam Houston monument in Houston’s Hermann Park.

Parks, airports, streets and communities bear the names of prominent Italian immigrants, among them Bruni Park in Laredo, named for Antonio Mateo Bruni and Varisco Airport in Bryan, named for Biagio Varisco. The Italians in Texas constitute the sixth largest ethnic group in the state, according to figures from the U.S. census of 1990. In that year, when the total population of Texas was 16.9 million, the number of Texans who said they were Italian or part-Italian was 441,256.

Sources: Texas Almanac and The Italian Experience in Texas, by Valentine J. Belfiglio, Eakin Press, Austin, 1983.

A Few Oral Histories:

Photo taken in Poggioreale, Sicily in the mid 1990′s.

“In the 1870′s and 1880′s, a wave of immigrants from Sicily boosted the population of the Highbank settlement to over 300. These early settlers travelled by wagons, stage coach, by horseback and Model T Ford from the Ports of New Orleans and Galveston to the banks of the Brazos River. Many of the Highbank settlers came from Poggioreale, Sicily and from surrounding villages and towns. Poggioreale was the former home of many of Highbank’s settlers, including the Falsone, Guida, & the Falco families. Other settlers came from small towns in an around Poggioreale like Alcomo and Palermo.”

According to Mary Lena (Salvato) Hall, “My grandfather, Carlo Salvato passed away on November 22, 1949 at the age of 82. He was born in Italy on November 2, 1867. He came to the United States with his brother Frank Salvato. The two families purchased the Rogers farm that set up the beginning of the Italian farming community in High Bank. He is buried in Marlin, TX. He had five sons, Tony Salvato, Frank Salvato, Ross Salvato, Nick Salvato and Carlo Salvato and all are buried in Marlin except Tony Salvato who is buried in Houston. Four daughters Lula Lewis, Pauline Vetrano, Fena Rao and Mary LaPagelia all deceased and buried in Houston. They originally came through Louisiana.” “Our old house consisted of three bedrooms: a combination dining room and living room and a small kitchen (ten feet wide and fifteen feet long). The kitchen was located next to the bedroom, which was no bigger than today’s modern walk in closet. Linen were stored in metal trunks. Sunday clothes worn to church were hung in a cloth cabinet called chiffonier.”

“The Italian influence can still be seen with Italian surnames appearing on most of the area mailboxes!. Prominent Italian families in the Highbank area once included the Salvato family, Alfano family, the Barbera and LaBarbera families, the Burresha family, the Cangelosi family, the Catalano family, the Corpora family, the Falco family, the Falsone family, the Margoitta family, the Martino family, the Parrino family, the Salvaggio family and others.”

The following description of early Highbank comes to us from Robert Falsone who was born in Highbank in 1911 and lived there with his family that included ten children. Robert Falsone has taken the time to share many of his early memories of Highbank that provide a facinating account of life in the early days in Highbank! 

“My name is Robert Falsone and I was born in Highbank on July 24, 1911. The following are my recollections of our early life in Highbank. When I was thirteen years old, daddy hired someone to paint door frames of the house. When the painter was out for lunch, I took the bucket of paint and the brush, went behind the car garage and printed R F 13 years old. Everytime I would go behind the garage , I would look up to see 13 still on the wall. It seemed like I never would get to be 14″.

“The old house was a single wall frame house with one window in each room. A netting was tacked on the walls from the ceiling to the floor. Mother, with the help of the neighbors, papered the walls. The paste for sticking the paper to the wall was made what looked like flour mixed with warm water and brushed on the back side of the colorful paper. While the paste was still wet it stuck firmly on the netting tacked on the walls. In the winter when the North wind blew strong, the wall paper would push out and the go back against the wall. It appeared the wall was breathing.

In the flood of 1913, water stood four feet deep in the house. It seems that when the house was built, the builders forgot to put an opening in the ceiling to get in the attic. As the water began to enter the house, daddy took an ax to cut a hole big enough for us to get up in the attic. I was only two years old when the flood took place, but mother explained to me years later why there was still a hole in the ceiling”.

“My father, Dominico Parrino, was the first farmer to buy a tractor and everybody told him he could not plow a good field with the plow and big tires on the tractor, but he did well. So the next year, many of the other farmers bought tractors and are still plowing the fields that way! Course now they have even better tractors. We all had gas pumps on the land for fueling the tractors. The gas was Mobile Gas and we had the Red horse with wings on the pumps.

I remember that each winter, Dad would kill a hog on a cold day (we had no refrigeration) and we made a lot of Italian sausage and hams, which my dad smoked in a barrel and then stored them in coolers in Marlin”.

“Many of the first Sicilians to arrive in Texas took jobs as farm laborers because this was what they were most familiar doing. Soon, enterprising immigrants began selling their produce in the markets and as they acquired capital, they opened small corner grocery stores. According to the Houston City Directory for 1907, 13% of all grocery stores in Houston were owned by individuals with Italian surnames. Damian Mandola’s grandfather, Vincent, and his great uncles, Frank and Giuseppe, were among those who opened such stores. Vincent’s was located in Houston’s near east side and stocked canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables and household supplies. But, as was common for many Italian grocery store owners, Vincent also sold Italian cheeses and deli meats, such as prosciutto, salami and pancetta.

For the Italian immigrants who came to America in the early 1900s, food and cooking were (and remain for their descendants) essential components of social life. The immigrants who came to Houston maintained their culinary traditions, just as they did in such places as New York or Boston. However, the effect Italian immigrants had on Houston’s culinary landscape was more diffuse than in northeastern cities. Houston has never had a Little Italy, but scattered in neighborhoods throughout the city, Houston’s Italian groceries fostered the growth of small food empires. Damian recalls one man who parlayed his corner grocery into a pasta factory; another went door-to-door selling olive oil and cheeses. His own father started a meat packing business, which ultimately failed after an untimely accident.”

“There was always a stove in the back of all the stores where the women would cook,” muses Frankie B., who recalls making Italian sausage in the back of his parents’ store. “Our grandmothers would cook these huge Sunday meals for 50 or 60 people; our friends couldn’t believe it.” It was only natural for some of the sons and daughters of grocery store owners to start serving the recipes of their parents in a cafe setting.

The Food of Italians In Texas

Texas Ultimate Italian Sub

Ingredients:

  • 1 large round loaf of Italin bread about 10″ in diameter
  • 1/2 lb. mortadella
  • 1/2 lb. capicola
  • 1/2 lb. genoa salami
  • 1/2 lb. prosciutto di parma
  • 1/3 lb. provolone cheese
  • 1 jar (16 oz) olive salad
  • 1 jar (7 oz) roasted red peppers, sliced
  • 1 jar (12 oz) marinated artichoke hearts, drained & chopped
  • 1 jar (12 oz) mild banana peppers, sliced
  • balsamic vinegar

Directions:

Carefully slice the loaf in half . Scoop out the insides (top and bottom) to make a large cavity for the filling. Begin layering and alternating the meats, cheese and condiments. It helps to lay everything out assembly line style and layer in order, making sure to get everything evenly distributed. Use all the meat and cheese. You’ll likely have extra condiments (these can be served on the side if you like). Once the loaf has been filled, put the top back on and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Put a heavy pan over the top to weigh it down and chill the sandwich for at least 4 hours to let the flavors come together. Unwrap, slice in wedges and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

Italian Quiche

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups eggplant, peeled and chopped into 1/4″ cubes
  • 1 cup zucchini, chopped into 1/2″ cubes
  • 1 cup red bell pepper, chopped into 1/2″ cubes
  • 1 cup yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 4 artichoke hearts, chopped (water packed)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup egg whites (from a carton of Egg Beaters)
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, torn into pieces
  • 3/4 cup mozzarella, shredded
  • cooking spray

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a large skillet over medium heat, saute onion, eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper and garlic in oil for about 10 minutes. Turn off heat and fold in artichoke hearts.

In a bowl, whisk egg, egg whites, milk, black pepper, thyme and oregano. Add egg mixture, basil and mozzarella to vegetable mixture. Gently stir until eggs and mozzarella are evenly distributed.

Coat an 8″ square pan with cooking spray. Pour in quiche mixture. Place in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let sit for 10 minutes to set.

Prego's Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Prego’s Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Shrimp

From Chef John Watt

Ingredients:

  • 5 lbs Sweet Potato
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 4 cups All Purpose Flour
  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 1 cup Dark Brown Sugar
  • 2 cups Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • Pinch of Salt
  • 8 Jumbo Gulf Shrimp
  • 2 green onions
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley
  • Handful of sage leaves

Directions:

Roast whole sweet potatoes drizzled with olive oil. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10-15 mins. Remove all the skin from the sweet potatoes. Place the peeled sweet potatoes in a food processor and mix to a rough texture. Add the flour, brown sugar, parmesan cheese and the eggs and continue to process until smooth. It should look and feel like a pizza dough; very elastic.

Lightly dust flour over a wood countertop/cutting board. Separate the dough into five equal balls and begin rolling each ball out into a long thin string about 2 inches in thickness. Once all the dough balls have been rolled out, use a dough scraper/cutter to cut all five strings at once into 2 inch by 2 inch gnocchi.

Lightly dust the cut gnocchi with flour and roll each gnocchi with a dinner fork to give them the traditional design.

Heat a saute pan to medium high heat. Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot add the chopped green onions and saute for 2 minutes. Add the jumbo shrimp and cook until pink. Add the chopped parsley and toss.

In a separate saute pan; heat 4 tablespoons of butter. As the butter begins to foam around the edges add the gnocchi and sage. Toss and top with the shrimp.

And Desserts In the Sicilian Tradition……

Ricotta-Filled Zeppole

DOUGH

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 6 eggs
  • Vegetable oil for frying

FILLING

  • 2 pounds of ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup of semisweet chocolate chips
  • 12 Maraschino cherries

Directions:

Bring water, butter and salt to a boil. When boiling add flour and stir until thoroughly mixed, for about 1 minute.

Remove from the heat and put into electric mixing bowl and cool for 10 minutes. Mixing at a low speed add 1 egg at a time allowing each egg to be absorbed.

Put dough into a pastry bag. Cut 12 pieces of wax paper into 3-inch squares and lightly dust with flour. Pipe a doughnut shape onto each piece of paper.

Heat oil to 350ºF in a deep pan. Carefully slide batter off the wax paper into the oil. Fry for 7 to 8 minutes turning every couple of minutes. Doughnuts should double in size.

Allow to cool on absorbent paper. Slice horizontally.

Mix ricotta, sugar and vanilla extract in another mixing bowl on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add chocolate chips and mix for 10 seconds.

Put cream in pastry bag and fill center of each zeppole. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and place a cherry on top of each pastry.

Cannoli

Sweet Cheese Filling

  • 2 pounds ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons candied cherries, cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Drain the ricotta in a colander placed over a large mixing bowl for about two hours at room temperature. Press the cheese with a spatula to release more whey. Discard the whey and transfer drained cheese from the colander to the mixing bowl.

With an electric mixer, whip the cream in a small mixing bowl until it holds stiff peaks. Set aside. Beat the sugar and vanilla into the ricotta until smooth. Fold in the whipped cream with a rubber spatula. Add the cherries and chocolate chips. Cover and chill.

Shells

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 large egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water

To make the shells, sift the flour, sugar,and salt together into a large mixing bowl. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

With a fork or your hands, mix in the milk. Continue mixing until you have a soft dough. Cut the dough in half.

Roll out each half on a floured work surface to a thickness of 1/8-inch. Using a 3-1/2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out circles of dough.

Heat the oil to a depth of 4 inches in a deep saucepan or deep fryer until it registers 325°F on a candy thermometer. Wrap each dough circle around a metal cannoli tube, sealing overlapping dough with the beaten egg white.

Fry in the hot oil until golden brown (about 4 minutes). Remove carefully and place on paper towels to drain and cool.

To assemble:

Fit a pastry bag with the largest tube or snip 1/2-inch off the corner of a resealable plastic bag. Pressing one finger over the tube opening or pinching the corner of the bag shut, spoon filling into the bag. Fill each cannoli tube with the filling. Cover and refrigerate up to 1 hour or until ready to serve. Makes about 30 cannoli.

 

http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/06/14/little-italy-new-orleans-style/Birmingham, Alabama’s “Little Italy” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
West Virginia’s Little Italy Communities (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Philadelphia’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Chicago’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Cleveland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
New England’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Ybor City – Florida’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Little Italy – Manhattan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/03/08/new-yorks-other-little-italies/
http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/03/15/little-italy-new-jersey-style/
http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/04/12/delawares-little-italy/
The “Little Italies” of Michigan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
The Hill” St. Louis’ Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/05/24/indianas-little-italy-communities/


Grilling vegetables is not difficult. With so many possible vegetable choices and recipes, the biggest challenge is narrowing them down to just a few special recipes that take advantage of the outdoor grill flavor. Many different kinds of vegetables can be grilled with great results. Beets become sweet on the grill. Potatoes get crisp on the outside and stay sweet and moist on the inside. Carrots and onions caramelize.

Select vegetables that are firm and that can hold up to slicing and grilling. Slice them in large, thick (at least 1/4-inch) sections, since small pieces can easily fall through the grid and into the fire. Cut zucchini lengthwise or on a long diagonal, for example. If you plan to prepare a recipe that calls for smaller pieces, try grilling them on skewers or wrapping them in foil packets. Vegetables such as peppers can simply be grilled whole, then peeled and sliced.

Soak vegetables in cold water for about 30 minutes before you grill them to keep them from drying out. Pat dry.

Because vegetables lack fat, they need oil, liquid, or some sort of marinade to prevent them from burning and sticking and to keep them moist. Brush vegetables with oil (preferably vegetable oil because it has a high smoke point) or a flavored oil mixture, such as a salad dressing or your own mixture of oil and herbs or other seasonings. Marinate the vegetables for at least 30 minutes before grilling.

White wine, oil, garlic, onion and celery salt make a good marinade, as do beer, oil, garlic and cloves. Lemon juice also makes a good base for a grilling marinade. Try pineapple juice, soy sauce, lemon juice and garlic for firm vegetables. Orange juice, turmeric, ginger, garlic and lemon zest make a light marinade for summer squash or softer vegetables.

Consider the texture of the ingredient to determine marinating time. Mushrooms, summer squash, and tomatoes may need only 30 to 40 minutes to marinate. Tougher ingredients, such as, sliced carrots or potatoes can marinate for a couple of hours.

To further prevent food from sticking to the grill and to aid in cleanup, spray the grid with nonstick cooking spray before heating (never spray into the fire) or wipe the grill rack with oil before you start cooking.

Special equipment is minimal. A special grill top basket is useful to keep small veggie foods from falling into the fire. Metal or wood skewers are useful for making kebabs that are easily rotated on a grill. (Wood skewers should be soaked in water for at least 30 minutes prior to threading the vegetables so they won’t burn on the grill.) Heavy-duty foil is the best type to use for lining grills or for wrapping food in packets for grilling.

Some Popular Vegetables For The Grill

Asparagus: Cut off ends. Soak in water for 30 minutes to an hour. Pat dry and brush with olive oil. Place on grill, turning every minute. Remove when tips start to turn brown. You can add some extra flavor to asparagus by mixing a little sesame oil in the olive oil before you brush them.

Bell Peppers: Cut through the middle of the pepper top to bottom. Remove stems, seeds and whitish ribs. Brush lightly with oil and grill for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Corn on the cob: Gently pull back the husks but don’t remove. Remove the silk and cut off the tip. Soak in cold water for about 30 minutes. Dry and brush with butter. Fold the husks back down and tie or twist the ends. Place on the grill for about 5 to 7 minutes. Turn oten to avoid burning.

Eggplant: Cut lengthwise for smaller eggplants or in disks for larger eggplants. Soak in water for 30 minutes. Pat dry, brush with oil and grill 2-3 minutes on each side.

Garlic: Take whole bulbs and cut off the root end. Brush with olive oil and place cut side down over a hot fire. Grill garlic bulbs for about 10 minutes or until the skin is brown. Use to flavor other grilled vegetables or meats.

Mushrooms: Rinse off dirt and pat dry. Brush with oil and grill. 4-5 minutes for small mushrooms, 6-8 minutes. Use a grill basket for small mushrooms.

Onions: Remove skin and cut horizontally into 1/2 inch thick slices. Brush with oil and grill 3-4 minutes on each side. Use a wide spatula to turn onion slices, so they do not fall apart.

Potatoes: There are many ways to grill potatoes. You can do them whole for a baked potato. Rub with oil. Wrap in aluminum foil and grill 35-40 minutes, turning occasionally. Or, cut into thick wedges, brush with olive oil and grill until browned.

Tomatoes: Cut in half, top to bottom. Brush with a light coating of oil and grill cut side down 2-3 minutes.

Zucchini and Yellow Squash: Slice into 1/2 inch pieces. Brush with oil and grill 2-3 minutes per side. They can also be cut down the middle into halves and grilled.

The following grilled vegetable recipes will make great sides for your next barbecue.

Grilled Ricotta Basil Tomatoes                                                                                            

Ingredients:

  • 6 round large tomatoes or 12 small round tomatoes
  • One pound of ricotta cheese
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon of minced garlic
  • 12 small, whole basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

 Directions:

Preheat your grill to medium and grease the grill grates with oil.

Combine the ricotta cheese, whole egg, parsley, marjoram, chopped basil and garlic, mixing well.

Rinse the tomatoes and cut into halves. Scoop out the seedy pulp, leaving the outer flesh and skin of the tomatoes intact. If using small tomatoes, do not cut in half, just hollow out the center of each tomato.

Coat the tomatoes lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon some of the ricotta filling into each tomato half.

Place the stuffed tomatoes directly on the grill grate, making sure they are placed securely between the grates.You can also place the tomatoes in a grill top basket.

Grill for five to ten minutes over medium direct heat, until the filling has firmed up and you see some bubbling around the tomato edges.

Insert whole basil leaves into the filling of each tomato and serve immediately.

Grilled Sweet Potato Fries

3-4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions:

Set up your grill in a 2-zone configuration, one side hot, the other side cool.

Peeling isn’t necessary, but you can do it if you prefer. Cut potatoes into halves lengthwise and then into thick fries. Place in a large bowl. Drizzle the oil over the top and toss to coat.

Mix remaining ingredients in a small bowl and sprinkle over potatoes. Toss to coat.

Lay fries on the grill so they’ll get horizontal grill marks and close the lid. Cook about 3 minutes, or until potatoes have brown grill marks on one side. Turn the potato fires over. Cook and turn until all sides are marked. 

Potatoes are done when easily pierced with a fork. You may need to move the fries to the indirect-heat side, if they’re not done after good grill marks are formed.

Grilled Summer Fresh Peppers

Ingredients:

  • 1 each yellow, orange and red pepper
  • 18 fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 18 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 cup shredded part-skim Mozzarella Cheese
  • 1/4 cup Balsamic Vinaigrette, divided (recipe below)

 Directions:

Heat grill to medium-high heat.

Cut each pepper lengthwise in half. Remove and discard seeds.

Make the filling: Combine the chopped tomatoes, chopped basil and 2 tablespoons of the Balsamic dressing,

Fill each half with some of the tomato filling and, then, top each pepper half with mozzarella cheese.

Grill 8 to 10 minutes or until peppers are crisp-tender.

Place peppers on a platter and drizzle with remaining dressing.

Balsamic Vinaigrette

 Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, mustard and garlic. Add the oil in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Makes about 3/4 cup

Grilled Artichokes                                                

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 8 small artichokes, trimmed and halved
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • Salt to taste
  • Spicy Lemon Aioli, recipe below

Directions:

Preheat grill and oil the grill grates.

Cut lemon in half and squeeze out the juice into a bowl. Save for later. Cut lemon into quarters.

Boil artichokes in water with 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, lemon quarters and thyme. Cook until artichokes are just tender (about 20 minutes).

Remove from the water and set aside for about 5 minutes, allowing them to dry.

Brush with olive oil and place on the grill cut side down. Grill for about 3 minutes or until they start to brown. Turn and grill for 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with the reserved lemon juice and salt.

Serve with the Spicy Lemon Aioli, if desired.

Spicy Lemon Aioli

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Pepper to taste

Whisk together all ingredients and season to taste.

Grilled Zucchini-and-Summer Squash with Citrus Splash

4 servings

 Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons grated orange rind
  • 3/4 cup fresh orange juice (about 3 oranges)
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice (about 3 limes)
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 red onions
  • 4 zucchini, each halved lengthwise (about 1 1/4 pounds)
  • 4 yellow squash, each halved lengthwise (about 1 pound)
  • 3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil

 Directions:

Combine first 7 ingredients in a large zip-top plastic bag. Peel onions, leaving root intact; cut each onion into 4 wedges. Add onion, zucchini, and yellow squash to bag.

Seal and marinate in refrigerator 1 hour, turning bag occasionally.

Prepare grill and oil grill grates.

Drain vegetables in a colander over a bowl, reserving marinade. Place vegetables on a the grill and cook for 8 minutes or until tender; turn and baste occasionally with the reserved marinade.

Place the vegetables on a serving platter; sprinkle with the basil. Serve the vegetables with any remaining marinade.

Marinated Mushrooms

The mushrooms are a great side for grilled meats.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of small crimini mushrooms
  • 2 lemons
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped fine
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Directions:

Preheat your outdoor grill and oil the grill grates.

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp towel and trim the tips from the stems.

Juice and zest the lemons and combine with the olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Whisk the dressing thoroughly.

Lightly brush the mushrooms with a little of the dressing. Set the rest of the dressing aside.

Grill the mushrooms over medium-high heat for two to three minutes. Turn mushrooms over and grill another 2 or 3 minutes.

Add the grilled crimini mushrooms to the reserved dressing. Mix well.

Allow the mushrooms to marinate for about one hour on the countertop. You can make this recipe the day before and refrigerating overnight.

Bring to room temperature before serving.

Parmesan Garlic Corn                                                    

4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 4 ears of fresh corn on the cob
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 clove garlic, grated on a microplane grater
  • 1/4 cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped Italian parsley

Directions:

Preheat grill and grease grill grates with oil.

Remove husks and silks from the corn. Combine grated garlic and butter in a small glass bowl.

Place bowl in the microwave for 10 – 15 seconds on high.

Grill corn until lightly charred and deep, bright yellow (about 15 – 20 minutes). Turning often to keep from burning.

Brush garlic butter over corn and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and Italian parsley.

Crusty Grilled Onions                                                                                              

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 4 Vidalia onions or other sweet onions, cut in half
  • 1/4 cup canola oil

Directions:

Heat the grill to medium-high and grease the grill grates.

Pulse seasonings in the processor until thoroughly combined and place in a shallow bowl.

Brush onions on all sides with oil and coat in the seasoning mixture.

Place onions on the grill and cook until golden brown and a crust has formed, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn and continue grilling until thoroughly cooked and crusty.

 


Nothing beats the winter chill like a steaming bowl of soup. Soup can be filling and also budget-friendly, since it can last for weeks or months in the freezer. Let the soup recipes below warm your cold bones. Soup doesn’t have to be rich and creamy to be satisfying, though. The soup recipes here include recipes for a vegetable soup, a chicken soup and several other easy soup recipes that are healthier versions of their more traditional counterparts. I have also added recipes for homemade broth, if you are so inclined.

Here are a few tips to help you add flavor to your soup recipes. These tips will help take bland tasting soups and turn them into delicious, full flavored soups.

Use fresh ingredients at their peak of flavor. Many make the mistake of using old or leftover ingredients, especially vegetables, to make soup. The basic soup vegetables needed for starting soups are, onions, carrots, leeks, celery, sometimes green and/or red bell pepper, parsnips and garlic. Of course you can add other vegetables depending upon your soup recipe.

Homemade broth can really make a difference in how your soup tastes. Soups need bones. Unless you are a vegetarian, this is important to develop a flavor base. You need a flavorful broth or stock and soup bones are key to making a flavorful broth. I save bones from steak, chicken or roasts, etc., in my freezer for this purpose. If not, you can buy soup bones or meat parts that have bone attached. You can buy a whole chicken and keep the non-meaty parts like the neck or back for soups. Chicken wings or a turkey carcass also make a delicious soup stock. Beef shanks make excellent beef stock.

Roasting the bones in a hot oven first also adds more flavor and you do not need to add fat to brown them in the soup pot. Delicious vegetable broth can be made by roasting the vegetables first.

Fish bones are needed for a good fish stock, even shrimp shells will work for this type of stock.

Remove Fat From Chilled Broth

An advantage to making the broth ahead of time, is that the broth can be chilled overnight and, the fat that accumulates on the top of the broth, can be removed before making the soup.

Use herbs and seasonings. Find good fresh, flavorful salt free seasonings. Experiment with different herbs and spices. Try different chilies (they range from mild to hot) and, they are especially good to add to bean soups. Adding freshly ground black pepper can also make a difference and increase flavor in a soup recipe.

Take your time and let good flavorful soups simmer for a few hours or use a crock pot. Make plenty and enjoy delicious, healthy soups even more the next day. Also, put some in the freezer for a quick lunch or dinner.

Stock Vegetables

Easy Method for Making Homemade Broth for Soup

Vegetables do not need to be peeled – just wash – peel and all. Use these broths in the recipes below. Of course, you can use canned broth, if you do not have time to make the broth.

CHICKEN STOCK

Roast 2 lbs. of chicken bones in the oven at 425 degrees F. for 30 minutes with 3 carrots, 2 onions halved, 2 leeks and 2 stalks of celery in a roasting pan. Transfer to a soup pot and add 2 gallons of water, 1 bunch of parsley, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black whole peppercorns and simmer until reduced to half. Strain the broth and refrigerate overnight. Remove the fat and continue with your soup recipe or freeze in pint bags. This makes 1 gallon of chicken stock that will last over 1 year if frozen

SHELLFISH STOCK

Roast 2 lbs of shrimp or lobster shells or fish bones in the oven at 325 degrees F. for 40 minutes with 3 carrots, 2 onions halved, 2 leeks and 2 stalks of celery in a roasting pan. Transfer to a soup pot and add 2 gallons of water, 1 bunch of parsley, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black whole peppercorns and simmer until reduced to half. Strain the broth and continue with your soup recipe or freeze in pint bags. This makes 1 gallon of fish stock that will last over 1 year if frozen

VEGETABLE STOCK

Heat oven to 400 degrees F. In a roasting pan add 4 carrots, 3 onions halved, 2 leeks, 3 stalks of celery, 2 shallots and 4 tomatoes cut in half. Roast for 45 minutes. Transfer to a soup pot and add 2 gallons of water, 1 bunch of parsley, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black whole peppercorns and simmer until reduced to half. Strain the broth and continue with your soup recipe or freeze in pint bags. This makes 1 gallon of vegetable stock that will last over 1 year if frozen

BEEF STOCK

Roast 2 lbs of beef bones in the oven at 425 degrees F. for 30 minutes with 3 carrots, 2 onions halved, 2 leeks and 2 stalks of celery in a roasting pan. Transfer to a soup pot and add 2 gallons of water, 1 bunch of parsley, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black whole peppercorns and simmer until reduced to half. Strain the broth and refrigerate overnight. Remove the fat and continue with your soup recipe or freeze in pint bags. This makes 1 gallon of beef stock that will last over 1 year if frozen

Winter Soups

Potato and Kale Soup

Collard or mustard greens can be substituted for the kale.

Servings 8

Ingredients:

  • 6 ounces bacon or turkey bacon, diced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 8 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium canned
  • 8 potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled, root ends trimmed
  • 1 bunch kale, trimmed, washed and thinly sliced
  • salt, to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

1. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring, until browned, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

2. In a heavy stockpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and saute until softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, potatoes and garlic and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. With a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes and garlic to a bowl; lightly mash with a fork (or use an immersion blender). Return mashed vegetables to the soup pot and bring to a simmer. Stir in kale, a handful at a time. Simmer for 5 minutes, or until the kale is tender. Stir in the reserved bacon and season with salt and pepper.

Roasted Root Vegetable and Apple Soup

Servings 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 sweet potatoes, large, peeled and diced
  • 8 parsnips, peeled and diced
  • 2 small onions, peeled and diced
  • 2 apples, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup walnut oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon five spice powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 4 cups homemade vegetable broth or low sodium canned
  • 1/2 cup Marsala (optional)
  • 2 ounces dried apples
  • 3/4 cup creme fraiche or Greek yogurt

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2. Place the diced vegetables and fresh apples on a baking sheet and toss with the walnut oil, honey, rosemary, five spice powder, salt and pepper. Roast, turning often, until vegetables are softened and lightly caramelized, 30 to 35 minutes.

3. Combine the vegetable broth, Marsala, and dried apples in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; simmer for 20 minutes. Add the roasted vegetables.

Immersion Blender

4. Working in small batches, puree the ingredients in a blender; (or use a hand immersion blender in the soup pot) and transfer to a saucepan. If the soup is too thick, thin with hot water or vegetable broth.

5. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into bowls. Drizzle a little creme fraiche or yogurt over the top of each serving and swirl with a skewer or a knife. 

Easy Minestrone

Servings 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 3 leeks, medium-sized, washed and thinly sliced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups homemade vegetable or chicken broth or low sodium canned
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 red potato, large-sized, scrubbed and diced
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves or Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup orzo pasta (whole wheat, if possible)
  • 15 ounces white beans, canned, drained and rinsed
  • 2 zucchini, trimmed, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 1 pound fresh spinach, washed, stems removed or a bag of baby spinach
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Directions:

1. In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add leeks, garlic and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 3 minutes. Pour in broth and water. Add potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.

2. Add orzo and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 5 minutes. Add beans and zucchini and continue to cook, partially covered, until the vegetables and pasta are tender, about 8 minutes.

3. Add spinach and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Season the soup with vinegar. Ladle into bowls and garnish with Parmesan.

Chicken and Brown Rice Soup

Serves 8

To make a vegetarian version, use vegetable broth and substitute quartered button mushrooms and/or cubed firm tofu for the chicken.

Ingredients

  • 8 cups homemade chicken broth or low sodium canned, divided
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup long-grain brown rice
  • 1 small chicken breast (about 6 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 bunch kale, thick stems removed and leaves thinly sliced or other greens of choice

Directions:

1. In a large pot over medium-high heat, bring 1/2 cup broth to a simmer. Add onion, carrots and celery and cook about 8 minutes or until onion is translucent, stirring occasionally.

2. Add remaining 7 1/2 cups of broth, water, rice, chicken and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook about 35 minutes or until rice is tender and chicken is cooked through.

3. Remove bay leaf and stir in kale. Continue cooking just until kale is wilted and tender, 3 to 5 minutes.

Bean and Cabbage Soup

A thick, simple soup for a chilly afternoon, this dish is easy to make and tastes even better a day later.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup red or white beans (1/2 pound), rinsed and picked over (or use low sodium canned beans)
  • 2 quarts water or homemade chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1/2 head cabbage (about 1 1/4 pounds), cored and shredded
  • 1 – 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • A bouquet garni made with a few sprigs each parsley, thyme, a bay leaf and a Parmesan rind
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly grated Parmesan for serving

Directions:

If using canned beans skip step 1.

1. Combine the beans and broth or water in a large saucepan or pot. Discard any of the beans that float. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer one hour. Season to taste with salt. Do not discard bean cooking water.

2. In a large, heavy soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and add the onions, celery and carrot. Cook, stirring, until tender, five to eight minutes. Add the garlic, stir together for 30 seconds to a minute until fragrant, and add the cabbage and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, for five to 10 minutes until the cabbage has wilted.

3. Stir in the tomatoes, salt to taste and the red pepper flakes or cayenne, and continue to cook, stirring, until the tomatoes have cooked down and the mixture smells fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the beans and their liquid. If the vegetables aren’t covered with liquid, add more so that they’re just covered. Add the bouquet garni, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 45 minutes to an hour. The beans should be soft. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve, passing grated Parmesan, if desired, to sprinkle on.

Yield: Serves six.

Advance preparation: The cooked beans will keep for four days in the refrigerator. The soup also will keep for that long and can be frozen.


I still remember the first time I cooked Thanksgiving Day dinner. It was four years after my husband and I had married. Up until that year, my mother-in-law always made Thanksgiving Day dinner. It was her specialty and that was fine with me. I was never really a fan of turkey and all the trimmings and, since I spent Thanksgiving with my in-laws, I got to spend Christmas with my family. This arrangement was fine with my husband because my mother always made lasagna on Christmas.

How I came to make Thanksgiving Day dinner was not for a joyous reason. My father-in-law passed away at a young age about a month earlier and the family was devastated. I offered to make dinner in place of my mother-in-law, who wasn’t up to the job and didn’t even want to celebrate the holiday. We didn’t want her to be alone and convinced her to have dinner with us.The rest of my husband’s family was also invited.

This was a big deal for me because I had never cooked a turkey before, but I welcomed the creative challenge. It was fun planning the menu and I came up with recipes that reflected my Italian heritage. Unfortunately my creative endeavors were not met with rave reviews (other than my husband’s) because I did not make the traditional side dishes that my in-laws were used to having with their turkey dinner.

Nevertheless, I continued to try my hand at different side dishes through the next few years and as my children grew, their likes and dislikes played a great part in how these side dishes evolved. My mother-in-law continued to have dinner with us on Thanksgiving and actually looked forward to my new approach to developing our own traditional meal.

The following are the favorites my family have come to enjoy on Thanksgiving. I don’t make all these dishes at one time (with the exception of the cranberry sauce) but tend to rotate them each year to keep things interesting. All you need is a turkey or a turkey breast,  a stuffing of your choice (see post for recipes: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/11/09/choose-your-stuffing-or-is-it-dressing/) and 3 or 4 of the side dishes below and your feast menu is ready to go.

Cranberry Sauce

Fresh and frozen cranberries work equally well. If you are using frozen, add one to two minutes to the cooking time.

Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cups orange juice
  • 1/2 cup Truvia for Baking or Domino Light sugar or 1 cup regular sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 (12-ounce) bag cranberries, picked through
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

 Directions:

Bring orange juice, sugar, and salt to boil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add cranberries and simmer until slightly thickened and two-thirds of berries have burst, about 5 minutes. Stir in orange zest Transfer to serving bowl and cool completely, at least 1 hour. Serve. (Sauce can be refrigerated for 1 week.)

 

Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces (about 8 cups)
  • 1/3 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Arrange sweet potatoes in an even layer in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Combine maple syrup, butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper in small bowl. Pour the mixture over the sweet potatoes; toss to coat.

Cover and bake the sweet potatoes for 15 minutes. Uncover, stir and cook, stirring every 15 minutes, until tender and starting to brown, 45 to 50 minutes more.

Tip: Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Just before serving, reheat at 350°F until hot, about 15 minutes.

Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes

Sometimes I cook chopped kale with the potatoes and mix it all together.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1 rosemary sprig
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

 In a large saucepan, cover potatoes with cold water by 2 inches and add 1 tablespoon coarse salt. Bring to a boil; cook until potatoes are very tender and easily pierced with a fork, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain; transfer to a large bowl. Reserve 1/2 cup potato cooking water.

Meanwhile, heat together the milk, garlic, rosemary, and thyme then remove from the heat, cover and set aside to infuse flavors.

Strain the flavored milk through a fine sieve, add the olive oil and gently reheat. Using a potato masher or fork, mash potatoes with olive oil and milk until smooth. Add some of the reserved cooking water as needed to moisten. Season with salt and pepper.

Celery Bake

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole bunch celery
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons Wondra all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  • 2 tablespoons Italian bread crumbs

Directions:

Separate celery stalks and leaves. Reserve leaves and cut stalks into 1/2 inch pieces. Put celery in a medium saucepan and fill halfway with water. Add salt, bay leaves and place celery leaves on top.Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium and cook 5 minutes uncovered. Discard celery and bay leaves. Drain and set aside; reserving a 1/2 cup of the celery cooking water.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In the same saucepan add evaporated milk and flour; whisk. Add butter and turn heat to medium and cook sauce, whisking constantly, until it starts to bubble. Remove from heat and whisk in celery cooking water.

Spray a medium baking dish with cooking spray and add half the celery, half the sauce and sprinkle with the almonds. Next, add remaining celery and sauce. Sprinkle top with breadcrumbs.

Bake casserole 30 minutes.

 

Italian Baked Macaroni with Fontina

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound small shell macaroni
  • 1 cup half and half (fat free works just as well)
  • 2 cups Italian Fontina cheese
  • Salt
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Directions

Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot for cooking the pasta. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Coat a 13×9 baking dish with cooking spray set aside.

Dice the butter and place in a large bowl. Warm the half & half in the microwave, about 1 minute. Cover to keep warm. Shred the Fontina cheese and add to the bowl with the butter. Set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add salt and the shells and cook until they are 1 to 2 minutes shy of al dente. Drain.

Add the warm half & half to the Fontina and butter. Stir until the cheese starts to melt. Season with salt to taste and the nutmeg.

Stir the shells into the bowl with the cheese. Toss to coat well. Pour the mixture into the baking dish.

Combine the bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; sprinkle over the pasta. 

Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the topping turns golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Number of servings-6

 

Balsamic-Glazed Cipollini Onions

Cipollini originated in Italy and the word means little onion in Italian.

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 16 cipollini onions, trimmed and peeled
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth 
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat olive oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add onions, stem side down, and cook, until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and continue browning on opposite side, about 2 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.

Add vinegar and sugar; cook, until slightly syrupy, about 2 minutes. Add chicken broth, thyme, and garlic; bring to a boil. Transfer skillet to oven and roast until onions are easily pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, 15 to 20 minutes.

 

Creamed Spinach

Ingredients:

  • 2 pkgs. frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons 1/3 less fat cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons skim milk
  • salt and pepper

Directions

Heat oil in small saucepan and add garlic; cook 1 minute

Add spinach and heat.

Make a well in center of spinach and add milk and cheese.

Heat and stir until cheese is dissolved throughout spinach. Season with salt & pepper.

Spinach-Stuffed Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 6 medium tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 3/4 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper

Directions

Cut a thin slice off the top of each tomato. Scoop out pulp, leaving a 1/2-in. thick shell. Invert tomatoes onto paper towels to drain.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet. Add spinach; cook and stir 7 minutes. In a bowl, combine bread crumbs and Italian seasoning. Set aside 1/4 cup for topping. Add spinach and cheese to remaining crumb mixture. Sprinkle tomato shells with garlic salt and pepper; stuff with spinach mixture. Place in a greased 13-in. x 9-in. baking dish. Toss remaining oil with reserved crumbs. Sprinkle over tomatoes. Bake, uncovered, at 375° F for 20-25 minutes or until crumbs are lightly browned. Yield: 6 servings.

 

Cherry-Stuffed Acorn Squash

Ingredients

  • 3 medium acorn squash
  • 2/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons butter

Directions:

Cut squash in half; discard seeds. Place squash cut side up in two 13-in. x 9-in. baking dishes coated with cooking spray.

Combine the cherries, brown sugar, lemon peel, nutmeg and salt; spoon into squash halves. Sprinkle with lemon juice; dot with butter.

Bake, uncovered, at 350° for 45-55 minutes or until squash is tender. Yield: 6 servings.



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