Monthly Archives: April 2014

Perfectly “Pici” Pasta

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A new culinary experience for us while in the Tuscany region of Italy was “pici” (pronounced pea-chee), a thick, hand-rolled pasta, like a fat spaghetti. It originates in the province of Siena in the Montalcino area, and is also referred to as pinci. The dough is typically made from flour and water only. The addition of egg is optional, being determined by family traditions.

Since we have been back in the States, we watched several online videos on how to make pici. Basically, the dough is rolled out in a thick flat sheet, then cut into strips. In some families, the strip of dough is rolled between one palm and the table, while the other hand is wrapped with the rest of the strip. It can also be formed by rolling the strip between the palms. Either method forms a thick pasta, slightly thinner than a common pencil. Unlike spaghetti or macaroni, this pasta is not uniform in size and has variations of thickness along its length.

Pici roller on a cutting board of olive wood.
Pici roller on a cutting board of olive wood.

Intrigued, we thought about making pici at home, and were thrilled when we came across a “pici roller” (see photo above) at one of the many wine, cheese and pasta shops we visited. However, while in Rome — or Tuscany as the case may be — we found pici on almost every menu in every town, and therefore at least one of the four of us would order the pasta. The introductory experience was our first night at Il Poggio as a “Primi” first course, where Lynn ordered the Pici with Asparagus and Cinta Pork Bacon, and Mike and Russ chose the Pici with Tuscan Ragout. Let’s just say “Love at first bite!”

Pici with ragout at La Grotta in Radicofani.
Pici with ragout at La Grotta in Radicofani.
a house special, Pici with ragout at Il Poggio.
A house special, pici with ragout at Il Poggio.
In Pittigliano, their house pici with a spicy tomato sauce at La Grottino.
In Pittigliano, their house pici with a spicy tomato sauce at La Grottino.
Pici with a duck sauce in Montepulciano.
Pici with a duck sauce in Montepulciano.
I pici cellesi con aparagus e pancetta di Cinta senese della nostra Azienda.
I pici cellesi con aparagus e pancetta di Cinta senese della nostra Azienda.

From that day forward we dined on pici with a variety of sauces in Pittigliano, Radicofani, Montepulciano, Siena and Celle sul Rigo. So if you ever find yourself in the Tuscany region of Italy, make sure to avail yourself of their region’s specialty, pici pasta!

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Cooking Lesson with Italian Chef Massimo

Family, Friends, Romans and Countrymen…
OK forgive me but we just returned from a recent trip to the hills of Tuscany Italy and one of the highlights was our preplanned cooking lesson with the world renowned head chef Massimo, who luckily for us, had a minor command of the English language. Midway into our eight-day stay at Il Poggio, just outside the medieval town of Celle sul Rigo, we enjoyed a personalized one-on-one (actually a two-on-four), hands-on session making three types of homemade pasta, gnocchi and biscuits (cookies.) I won’t lie, I was really hyped up and Russ was thrilled that we were making homemade pasta, the recipe of which was incredibly simple: a ratio of 100 grams of 00 flour*, 1 egg and about 1/4 teaspoon of salt; we multiplied that by 5. The success is knowing how to incorporate all of the ingredients and getting it to just the right consistency — and with the assistance of Massimo, we were triumphant!

* 00 flour is hard to come by in the States. Instead you can mix 1 part pastry flour with 3 parts all-purpose to make a substitute, or just use plain all-purpose flour.

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Upon entering the commercial kitchen, and after introductions were made, Massimo split us up into two groups. Our traveling partners, Mike and Paula Graham were assigned the task of making Italian biscuits under the guidance of sous chef Simone, who by the way, spoke no English at all. The first task for Russ and me was to make the pasta dough. Once we achieved the correct texture (with a lot of support from Massimo), we were instructed that the dough should sit for an hour before rolling it out. To our collective surprise, Massimo waited about 10 minutes before he demonstrated the art of shaping it with very, very long rolling pins.

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Once we had it rolled out to the perfect thickness of about 1/16″ (no easy task and taking close to half an hour), Chef Massimo sliced off a portion from our somewhat misshapen 3 1/2-foot diameter circles to use for the raviolis. The stuffing of fresh mozzarella, eggplant and basil was pre-made by Simone. From there, Massimo showed us the technique of making tortellinis using the same ingredients — well, let’s just say, we won’t quit our day jobs just yet 😉 Both Russ and I each had a large portion of dough left, so the follow-up lesson was how Massimo folded each end into the middle creating a very long rectangle with several layers.

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Next he demonstrated the proper way to cut the pasta depending on how wide you wanted the strips to be (i.e. linguine, tagliatelle, pappardelle, etc.). I was doing fabulously well with my knife skills with an extremely sharp knife (notice that giant knife on the cutting board), so much so that I realized my middle finger knuckle was bleeding before I ever felt any pain. So I stopped immediately before I tainted any of the pasta dough, and Massimo quickly went into nurse mode and attended my cut. 

The technique of sliding the knife under the cut strips, sliding them off and twirling them into your other hand in preparation to be dropped into baskets of boiling water was extremely impressive. By the way, any left over bits of dough were finely chopped to be used in pasta fagioli or some other soup (I guess that’s another tutorial.)

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After our pasta lesson, we switched places with Paula and Mike, and learned the art of Italian biscuits, a recipe that contained no eggs. Once the ingredients of flour, sugar, olive oil, white wine, baking powder, lemon and orange zest were properly combined, Simone instructed us on how to roll out the dough into long tubes about 16″ long. After the strips were cut into about 4″ pieces, we then pressed our three middle fingers into the strip to lift, turn upside down into a tray of sugar, and then place sugar-side up onto a baking tray. Simone placed them into a 185 degree celsius oven (about 365 degrees fahrenheit) and the kitchen filled with the most wonderful aroma!! I must confess, both Simone and Massimo scolded each couple as we made our biscuit strips too long, too fat or too uneven… well practice makes perfect, right?  … Between the two couples, we had to have made approximately 300 cookies. Next lesson, making gnocchi dough.

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When we first arrived in the kitchen, there was a huge pot of potatoes gently boiling on the commercial stove. While we were all busy making pasta and biscuits, Simone riced the potatoes in preparation for making gnocchi. Massimo slapped a large mound of the cooled riced potatoes, along with 3 eggs and an unidentified amount of flour on the board and proceeded to teach us the fine art of making perfect gnocchi. My take away? Keep adding a lot of flour! All four of us got to roll out tubes of the dough, then cut into about 1/2″ pieces, while Massimo made a few choice comments on our culinary skills, or lack there-of. Earlier when Paula and Mike were doing their pasta lesson, Massimo assessed their skills and declared going forward, Paula should make the pasta while Mike should do the cutting!

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The grand finale was pairing the sauces with the pastas. In his unassuming way, Simone had been quietly working in the background crafting three sauces: a marina for the raviolis, for the tagliatelle I can’t exactly remember, and a meat ragout for the gnocchi (our pathetic tortellini attempts seemed to have disappeared.) We watched in wonder as Massimo magically flipped the pasta with the sauce — magnifico! And finally, with panoramic views of the Tuscan hills on a beautiful spring afternoon, we all sat down to enjoy our simple, yet elegant lunch with the chefs sipping Proseco and fabulous red wine. On the table was a shaker of Massimo’s special hot pepper mix which he advised against using more than a smidgeon because it was extremely intense. And you know how I love spicy food, but I allowed him to add just the right amount — and yes, it was perfect.

It really couldn’t have been any better
…well maybe our prepping techniques…

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Arrivederci!

A few notes on Chef Massimo:
During our lunchtime conversations we found out that 37-year-old Massimo has been head chef at Il Poggio for 10 years living in an upstairs apartment. He works 10 months out of the year, 12-14 hours per day, six days a week with Tuesdays off (when he usually goes fishing.) His vacation time is January and February during which he travels for one of those months exploring exotic locales like Thailand, South America, the Carribbean… On at least three occasions, he has also visited the United States journeying to New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. Before working at Il Poggio, he spent 6 months in Moscow helping to establish a restaurant that was 80% Italian and 20% French. He has one 18-year-old son who is a commercial fisherman on the Mediterranean.

The Last of the Three Amicos

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Our dinner excursion to Florentino’s is the final in the trifecta of Chef Franciso Argueta’s restaurants in Bucks County, PA. The quaint BYOB establishment is located right on Sycamore near State Street in the heart of downtown Newtown. (You may recall my earlier blog’s on his other two restaurants, Mamita’s and Francisco’s on the River.)

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This time we had a 6 p.m. booking on a Sunday night which proved to be quite the different experience from previous reservations when we arrived between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday. It was blessedly uncrowded with a low ambient noise level from other dining patrons — although by the time we left, both the crowd and the noise had intensified. As luck would have it, we were able to choose a window table up front which allows more elbow room then the other tightly packed tables within. Plus, with daylight savings time, we were able to watch pedestrians stroll by and occasionally peer into the restaurant.

Our friendly waitress presented us with two menus, one listed their regular fare, and another with Additional Menu items. For starters we again ordered their fabulous Whole Wheat Garlic Bread (also on the menu at Francisco’s), and this time it arrived, hot and savory, within minutes of our request. As an appetizer, we split the Arugula & Radicchio salad, lightly dressed with lemon vinaigrette and parmigiano cheese. We both selected from the “Special Plates” section of the menu with Lynn choosing the Veal and Shrimpsautéed with garlic, green onions & sun dried tomatoes in a white wine sauce; and Russ finally deciding on the Veal Gorgonzolasautéed with garlic, topped with cream sauce made with fresh gorgonzola. Each entree came accompanied with rustic garlic mashed potatoes and a perfectly sautéed vegetable medley.

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So now if you’re ever in the Newtown, PA area and are looking for really good food, you have three restaurants to add to your repertoire. But plan on making reservations if going on a weekend because we have found they are almost always full.

Chicken Cacciatore

One Sunday we were both in the mood for a good chicken dinner that wouldn’t take hours and we thought of Chicken Cacciatore. While there are countless versions of this recipe, Russ had one ear-marked in our “All New Joy of Cooking” that had passed the test of time. Including prep, it’s about 90 minutes from starting the prep to passing around the platter.

Chicken Cacciatore, which literally means “hunter’s style” in Italian, can be served with polenta, rice, egg noodles or pasta and since our pantry held an array of pasta types, we opted to pair the dish with a La Piana tortellini filled with eggplant, zucchini and bell pepper. Top with grated parmesan, add a side salad and Viola, magnifico!
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Ingredients

  • 4 lbs. chicken parts, rinsed and patted dry, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp. minced fresh sage
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red (or white) wine
  • 2 oz. canned whole tomatoes with juice, crushed with your hands
  • 1/2 cup oil-cured black loves, pitted and sliced
  • 8 oz. mushrooms sliced

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chicken.in.sauce

Directions:

  1. In large heavy skillet over med-high heat, brown chicken on all sides in batches; remove to plate as they are done.
  2. Remove all but 2 Tbsp. of fat in the pan, reduce heat to medium.
  3. Add onions, bay leaf, rosemary and sage.
  4. Cook, stirring until the onions are golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add minced garlic and cook about 30 seconds more.
  6. Return chicken to the pan and pour in wine.
  7. Cook over medium heat until all the wine is evaporated (enjoy a glass for yourself), turning chicken and scraping up browned bits on the bottom with a wooden spoon.
  8. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer gently for 25 minutes.
  9. Add olives and sliced mushrooms.
  10. Cook covered for 10 minutes. Uncover the skillet and boil the pan juices over high heat until slightly thickened.
  11. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Flavors blossom when this dish is cooked a day ahead, just be sure to undercook slightly and reheat slowly to finish cooking.

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Cheater’s Version

On a whim while grocery shopping, we picked up a new Kraft boxed item called “Recipe Makers” which comes in a variety of flavors and gives you a jump start on a variety of home cooked meals. Our choice was none other than Chicken Cacciatore. In addition to a quick-fix weeknight meal, we wanted to compare the results to our Joy of Cooking meal (recipe above.)

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This is a slow cooker meal, so I prepped the veggies the night before and threw all of the ingredients in the crock pot before I left for work. The box components feature 2 cooking sauces: one a lemon oregano simmer sauce, and the other a tomato and Italian herb cooking sauce. Initially you coat all of the veggies and chicken pieces in the slow cooker with the simmer sauce, then top with the cooking sauce.

I have to say the house smelled great when I got home from work! This time we paired it with mini whole wheat rigatoni and a side of broccolini. While it wasn’t as intensely full-bodied compared to the homemade version, it is something we’ll do again— and we’ll even try some of the other flavors!

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Bon Appetit!