Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The Italian Table" & "Cooking with by Sisters" - Classic Polpettine (Meatballs) and Lasagna with Meat and Cheese

Date I made these recipes:  October 14, 2012

The Italian Table – Eating Together for Every Occasion by Ron Suhanosky
Published by:  Kyle Books
ISBN:  978-1-906868-56-7
Recipe:  Classic Polpettine (Meatballs) with Ricotta and Creamy Polenta – p. 98-99

Cooking with My Sisters by Adriana Trigiani
Published by:  Random House
ISBN:  1-4000-6259-4
Recipe:  Trigiani Lasagna with Meat and Cheese – p. 62-64

It’s October!  On the 8th, we celebrated Columbus Day, the day that Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, Italy, discovered America.  Naturally, it only follows that Italian food became extremely popular with the American public, am I right? 

And on October 9th, this half-Sicilian gal celebrated yet another birthday but with a busy schedule, I was unable to get my “Italian” on until the weekend rolled around. (Truth be told, I was at my community band rehearsal, prepping for a big concert on the 23rd.  Oh yeah, we’re talking about birthday excitement!!).

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have an inordinate amount of Italian cookbooks in my collection, probably because as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I am kind of a regional snob when it comes to Italian cooking – no white sauce, no gnocchi, no pesto.  These items are just not found in Sicilian cuisine.  But I do so love red sauce and meatballs and ricotta cheese and so these recipes fed my birthday soul.

Oddly enough, there was a Minnesota connection in both books even though neither author is from here.  So let’s start with the first book, The Italian Table.

Now, I don’t want to sound picky, but [author] Ron Suhanosky’s name does not sound like an Italian name.  For the record, neither does mine although let me assure you that it is a) Italian (it means “worm”) and b) it’s the un-altered last name of my grandfather, Arcangelo Verme.  Oh yeah, now that name works, doesn’t it??  Well, turns out Ron has street cred:  his great-grandmother’s name was Rose Carbone and grandma’s name was Rachel Gaudino.  So the guy gets a pass and that helps a lot.

But here’s what really drew my eye as I was looking at this book (sold at Common Good Books in St. Paul, owned by author and MPR radio star, Garrison Keilor):  the author’s wife’s grandfather was Joe Piazza who owned and operated Café di Napoli, an Italian restaurant (read:  institution) in downtown Minneapolis for many years.

I loved that restaurant.  I loved the leather booths, I loved the classic Italian (red-sauce) food and I loved the murals of Italy that adorned the building.  So when I saw a photo in this cookbook of the Café di Napoli booths, and read the Café di Napli story (p. 96) as I was looking at this book in the bookstore, I decided that I had to have it in my collection right then and there.  And then I decided to make the meatballs on the page following the photo because well, why wouldn’t I?  What I did not make though, was the polenta as that is just not in my Sicilian-cooking wheelhouse.  Instead, I made Adriana Trigiani’s family lasagna and had the meatballs on the side as we often did at my family table.

Author Adriana Trigiani’s Minnesota connection hits close to home:  her grandfather, Carlo Bonicelli, immigrated to New York from Italy and then decided to head to Minnesota and Minnesota’s Iron Range in Chisholm, Minnesota, to start a shoe shop.  It is often a surprise to non-Minnesotans that there are a lot of Italians up on the Iron Range but many of them went to work in the mines and if they didn’t work in the mines, they ran businesses catering to the miners and their families.

Well, never mind that I am a huge fan of Adriana’s to begin with but her latest book, The Shoemaker’s Wife, loosely based on her grandparent’s story of coming to America, made me cry.  I am a sucker for an immigrant story, and this book made me think about the similar struggles my grandparents had when they came to America from Sicily.  You should run, not walk, to a bookstore to pick up a copy of that book and while there peruse the shelves for some of her other “family” stories, like my favorite, Lucia, Lucia.

Since I was already launched on my Italian theme, I decided to throw Adriana’s cookbook into the mix, making her family’s lasagna recipe to go with my meatballs (or was it the other way around?!).  Both recipes were simply scrumptious and earned a rousing “molto benne” from me and my husband; we are now enjoying leftovers as we speak.

So I’m getting everything prepped for these recipes and damn it all, I ran out of bread crumbs for both recipes and I also realized that I forgot mozzarella for the lasagna, a near-tragedy in this household. ( Lucky for me, my husband volunteered to go to the store while I continued my prep while watching the NY Yankees, my favorite baseball team, battle the Detroit Tigers; Michigan is my home state but I just don’t have the loyalty to them like I do to New York where my father is from.  Both cookbook authors also live in Manhattan and so I felt like the circle was complete with my recipe cooking and baseball viewing!

The only warning I will give to us with regard to the meatballs, is that I needed more sauce so I added some chopped tomatoes from my panty to what I already had on hand rather than adding water as the recipes calls for.  The meatballs, with their unique filling of ricotta and Parmesan cheese, were also a little soft and crumbly, prompting my husband to call them Meatball Sloppy Joes, but they were tasty and so who cares?

By the way, there’s a group shot of Adriana’s family on the same page as the lasagna recipe with a caption:  “A party in Grandmom’s basement.  Italian-Americans love to give parties in their basements and garage.  Please don’t ask why.”  I have almost the exact same photo of my family taken in my aunt’s basement and I can tell you why—because in New Jersey in the summer it is hotter than Hades and so to the cooling basement we go. No sense packing in lasagna and meatballs and raviolis and pizza while sitting in the sizzling heat!

When it’s time for dinner in my family, we use our family battle cry to signal it’s time to start eating:  “A Mangia!”  Enjoy these recipes.

Classic Polpettine with Ricotta and Creamy Polenta – serves 6 to 8 (Makes about 16 2-inch meatballs or a whole lot of 1-inch ones!)
3 pounds ground veal
2 cups whole milk ricotta
1 cup dried unseasoned bread crumbs
2 large brown eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Pinch of red pepper flakes
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Two 28-ounce cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, pureed by passing through a food mill

Creamy Polenta (note:  this requires 2 hours advance prep)
6 cups water, at room temperature
2 cups coarsely ground cornmeal (polenta), soaked in water for 2 hours in advance and drained
1 small garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
About ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

To make the meatballs:
Preheat the oven to 400F. 

Combine the ground veal, ricotta, bread crumbs, eggs, one-half of the minced garlic, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl.  Use your hands to thoroughly mix and work all the ingredients together.  Form and roll the mixture into somewhat firm meatballs 2 inches in diameter; these quantities should yield about 16 meatballs.

Position the meatballs 2 inches apart, so they are not touching, on a large sheet pan.  Bake until they are slightly brown and firm, 30 to 35 minutes.

Place the grapeseed oil (I used olive oil) in a heavy-bottomed casserole or cast-iron pot over high heat.  Lightly sauté the remaining garlic.  Add the pureed tomatoes and 1 tomato can of water.  Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 3 ½ hours.  The meatballs should remain submerged to braise in the tomato sauce; add a small amount of water to the sauce if necessary.

To make the polenta:
Place the water, cornmeal, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the red pepper flakes in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Whisk continuously until the ingredients are fully incorporated and a smooth, lump-free consistency is achieved.  Continue to stir.  (At this point, you may want to switch from a whisk to a wooden spoon.)  Continue to cook, while stirring continuously, until the polenta pulls away from the side of the pan, 15 to 18 minutes total.  Add the butter and the Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Adjust the seasonings, adding salt and red pepper flakes to taste.

Ann’s note:  I did not make the polenta, substituting the lasagna instead.  I don’t add red pepper flakes to my food—it’s not my family’s way of cooking and I used some of the sauce for my lasagna recipe to cook my meatballs instead of his recipe as they were pretty close in ingredients. 

Trigiani Lasagna with Meat and Cheese – makes 9 entrée portions or 12 side portions

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 ½ cup crushed tomatoes
12 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Ricotta Cheese Filing
15 to 16 ounces ricotta cheese
5 ounces shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 ounces bread crumbs
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 5 sprigs of Italian parsley, finely chopped

Meat filing
1 pound very lean ground beef
Salt and pepper to taste

12 lasagna noodles, either oven-ready or precooked

Sprinkling cheese
10 ounces shredded mozzarella (use 5 ounces in the layers and 5 ounces for the topping)
5 ounces shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano

Make the sauce by combining the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer until the tomatoes have been liquefied, 20 to 30 minutes.  While the sauce is simmering, mix the ingredients for the cheese filling.  Brown the ground beef, season with salt and pepper and dry.  Set aside.  Cook the pasta noodles.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Coast a large roasting pan with live oil, lightly.  Assemble the lasagna as follows:

Layer of pasta
Thin layer of sauce
5 ounces mozzarella
Ricotta cheese filling
5 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano
Layer of pasta
Thin layer of sauce
5 ounces mozzarella

Bake for one hour, covered.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.  Slice into squares and serve.

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