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A Nice Little Italian Minestrone

Italian minestrone

This is called an Italian minestrone — which usually means whatever you have in the fridge made into a soup — and it is a wonderful soup for those occasionally cool rainy days that still show up in April. This came originally from a Bon Appetite article I saw, probably four or five years ago, and with a little tweaking, became a fast friend at my house, at least.

The base for this soup is relatively easy, and it’s very good in just about every situation I can think of. But what’s great, is there are a whole host of other things you can add, which only make it better. I’ve use a little broccoli, some asparagus, some spinach (added late in the soup) and a few other things. I’d stay away from zucchini (courgette) for this recipe, mainly because it drastically changes the taste, but otherwise — go for it. I tend to like the leeks and carrots in this soup. You might try scallions or better yet shallots instead of the leeks, but keep the carrots.

And for the pasta, main thing is to keep it small, little pasta leaves, ditalini, small shells. Just small.

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Pasta e Fagioli (Italian Soup with Beans and Pasta)

Pasta e Fagioli

It’s fun to stumble across a dish that reminds me of something long forgotten and at the same time, opens up a lot of possibilities for exploring another culture through its food. That happened when I came across Pasta e Fagioli on the menu of a favorite Italian restaurant. The name literally means pasta and beans and it is a specialty of southern Italy that like many wonderful recipes from that region, began as a peasant dish and grew into something iconic. It even has at least three different names: Pasta e Fagioli in the south, Pasta Fasule in the region around Naples and here in the US, Pasta Vazool (apparently a phonetic misspelling of the Neapolitan name). Oh, and it’s mentioned in the lyrics of That’s Amore.

The only rule for this dish that I’ve been able to discern is that, of course, it has to have pasta and beans. After that, anything goes, within reason. My first encounter with this rich and hearty soup, not surprisingly, came in my childhood in Eastern Ohio, and while I liked it as a kid, that version was really just a hamburger soup with macaroni. I’d guess it was something my mother found in a magazine or the newspaper and in that part of the country at that time (the 60s) would have been made with what was available. That was when I first encountered the name pasta vazool. 

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Quick, Easy Arrabiata Sauce

Penne Arrabiata

Penne Arrabiata is one of those perfect quick dinners that will definitely warm you up and — especially if you’ve made the peppery sauce ahead of time — can be on the table in the time it takes to cook up some pasta. 15 minutes tops. Even if you’re making the sauce from zero, you can have the meal ready in an hour or less — and you’ll have a restaurant-quality pasta dish to boot.

The recipe uses just a few ingredients. Tomatoes, crushed red peppers, olive oil, garlic and a little basil. You can add a bit of sugar if the tomatoes require it, and a bit of salt and pepper to taste. If you’re one of those folks who takes the time to can fresh tomatoes in summer, this is the place to use ’em. If not, you won’t suffer much using quality Italian tomatoes from the local grocery.

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Genuine Italian Festival Sausage Sandwich

Italian Hot Sausage Sandwich

Every summer, in just about every town of any size in the stretch of the Ohio River valley from Pittsburgh to, perhaps as far as Cincinnati, you could count on an Italian street festival materializing. In the little town where I grew up, you could count on it coming sometime in August, and it was a signal that summer would soon end and school would be starting soon. The photo below (which I “stole” from a friend still living there) gives you an idea what they’re like. The cornerstone of these festivals was (and apparently still is) the hot sausage sandwich.

italian festival

Italian Festival in the Ohio Valley

The hot sausage sandwich I knew as a kid, and can still find at a festival or Italian restaurant in towns up and down the river (actually throughout western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia) has no counterpart in Italy, as far as I can tell, though there are similar sausages in southern Italy and Sicily. The sausage is seasoned ground pork in natural casings with varying amounts of hot red pepper, fennel and occasionally basil in the mix. The best sausages come from an Italian butcher shop, and while I’ve occasionally had to settle for packaged grocery store varieties, those sausages don’t hold a candle to the real thing. I’ve read that the festival-style sausage sandwich originated in Pittsburgh and spread from there. It isn’t the only sausage sandwich. There are versions from Boston to Chicago, and I suspect in any community which had or has a sizable Italian immigrant population. In fact, it appears that the first American sausage made as it is today was created in 1895, in Pittsburgh, by a gentleman named G. Pasquinelli who founded the now defunct Italian Sausage Company. Can’t say that surprises me.

There are rules for the genuine festival sandwich, of course. Authentic hot Italian sausage links are the start. They must be grilled over charcoal (with no wood smoke). There must be green bell peppers and onions, also grilled (not fried, and certainly not sautéed — we’re talking Ohio Valley here, people. Nothing fancy if you want them to sell). And sometimes, if you were lucky, there would be sweet-hot red peppers. Serve that baby on a sausage-size roll made like a small Italian bread. The cardinal rule was/is, no tomato sauce, ever. Sometimes, you could get fresh tomatoes cut, salted and peppered on the side, but that was, essentially a salad. This sandwich is street food, meant for eating while you stroll through the festival in nice clothes (well nicer than everyday, anyway). You can’t have soggy rolls and dripping red sauce and expect parents to cough up a couple of bucks just to create a laundry disaster, right? 

That’s it. Simple, delicious and traditional. 

 

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Veal Saltimbocca

veal saltimbocca

Veal Saltimbocca is one of those amazing Italian dishes that I can’t resist whenever I see it on a menu. It’s also one of those entrees by which you can usually judge the quality of an Italian restaurant and/or the skill of a cook. It’s not difficult to make well, but it does require care and attention.

Saltimbocca literally means “jumps in the mouth” in Italian. And properly done, veal saltimbocca does exactly that. It has layers of rich flavors, wonderful textures and is beautiful on the plate, too. The dish seems to have originated around Rome, but there are now variations throughout central and northern Italy. This version most resembles the Roman version, but not precisely.

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