Category Archives: Italian cooking

The Best Lasagna Ever

I’m sure you’re shaking your head at the notion that any dish could be the “best ever” of its kind. But trust me. This is The Best Lasagna Ever. At least I personally think so, and judging by the “oooohs” and “aaahs” coming from my dinner guests’ (dad, J, mom) mouths as they ate, I’d say they agreed. Continue reading

Farmer’s Market Pasta

Do you ever hit a road block when you’re trying to figure out what to make for dinner?  It happens to me on weeknights here and there, but it hardly ever happens when I know in advance that people are coming over.  In fact, I get really excited about the prospect of cooking for others and have so many recipes I want to make that I have to reign it in.  Yesterday, however, was totally different.  I must have flipped through 15 or so cookbooks, spent a good hour on Foodgawker, yet nothing grabbed me.  We finally decided to hit the Pasadena Farmer’s Market and hoped inspiration would hit while we checked out the produce.

Pig’s Head Bolognese


I’ve written about my addiction to cookbooks before, and I’m not lying- if I spy a beautiful, hard-covered cookbook filled with glossy photos of beautiful food, it’s virtually impossible to turn away without buying it.  Ditto if I see one online, especially if it’s won a James Beard Award or is highly recommended by a chef or food personality I admire.  So you can imagine how quickly I grabbed Il Viaggio Di Vetri: A Culinary Journey as it sat alone on the top shelf of the cookbooks section at Borders.  After all, it was written by Marc Vetri of Philadelphia’s Vetri Ristorante, which Mario Batali called, “possibly one of the best Italian restaurants on the East Coast.”  Suzanne Goin once said “I do pretty much whatever Marc [Vetri] tells me to do.”  Yup, count me in.

I’ve never been fortunate enough to dine at one of Marc Vetri’s restaurants, but had heard he makes some of the best pasta in the United States.  After inviting my parents over for a family dinner, I started flipping through the pages, looking to see which fresh pasta I would try and recreate from Vetri’s many recipes.  However, one recipe in particular caught J’s eye, Pig’s Head Bolognese, and although it was one of the few pasta dishes in the book that called for dry, semolina pasta, I couldn’t deny the power of the pig and chose it being my journey into cooking a la Vetri.

So, who do you call when you need a pound of ground pork jowls?  Say it with me now, “McCalls Meat & Fish Company.”  I got on the horn with Nathan, asked him to order me a pound of pig’s jowl and to please have it ready for me to pick up in a couple of days.  No problem, he said, then even suggested I take an extra one, not ground, to perhaps cure some of my own, homemade guanciale.  Although I appreciated the vote of confidence, I wasn’t sure if I could find a place to hang the cured meat at a steady 55 degrees for over three weeks, so I declined.  But maybe one day I’ll get into the art of charcuterie.

I arrived to get my ground up pig’s jowl and will admit to you that, at first glance, was a bit….scared.  I knew jowls were fatty, but holy pig, the thing looked like a bag of ground…well, fat.  Even Nathan sort of looked at me like “yup…..well…” and I asked him whether or not he felt it would cook down to virtually nothing, if I should supplement it with some regular ground pork, etc.  After some thought, he advised me to follow the recipe to the letter since he, too, felt if it was a Marc Vetri recipe, it would probably work out great.  So with that, I grabbed my bag of fat and headed home.

I’m going to post the rest of this post in photos, just to show you how it cooked down, melted the aromatics and came together to make a gorgeous bolognese:
Here’s the meat, as it looked when I got it from McCall’s:

Into the pot it went:

Starting to render down:
10 minutes in:

20 minutes in:

Adding the aromatics and herb sachet, which I made from a coffee filter:


Vegetables in the pot:


Contiuning to break down:

At this point, add the remaining ingredients- white wine, 1/2 cup tomatoes and a couple of old parmesan cheese rinds, which I always save for soups:

After a couple of hours in the oven on low temp, here’s what came out:

All of the onions, carrots and celery had basically melted into the sauce, and although you can see a layer of grease, it wasn’t too oily/fatty when tossed with the hot pasta:
How was it?  It was soooo delicious- the collagen and fat in the jowl meat made the sauce so unctuous, deeply flavorful and rich, but not too rich.  The flavor from all of the ingredients really came together, and I think the addition of the parmesan rinds is key to this recipe.  We all loved it, and J and I sat on the sofa two days later and wolfed down the leftovers cold right out of the tupperware. 
For sides, I kept it simple and served Mario Batali’s marinated zucchini, which I think calls for waaaaay too much seasoning (a tablespoon each of pepper and salt!) so, even though I cut it down, it was a bit overpowering:
And a simply sauteed brocolli rabe with garlic and a dash of red pepper:
There’s something about Italian food that always makes me feel at home, and I’m glad I’ve been introduced to the world of Marc Vetri’s cooking.  I can’t wait to try out his other recipes!

Garganelli con ragù d’Anatra (garganelli with duck ragu)

As you can see, I finally got my camera battery and I am back in business!

This meal was awhile ago- it was to celebrate my mom’s birthday which was on Valentine’s Day. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, but I’d always loved the ridges in garganelli pasta and wanted to try making it myself. I’ve made homemade pasta in the past, but never a tube-shaped pasta, and certainly not anything with ridges. After a quick email for advice to my friend (who is also the Executive Chef at Osteria Mozza and is patient enough to answer my nagging cooking questions!) I found that I could make the ridges by rolling squares of egg pasta around a quill on a gnocchi board. It was time consuming but relatively easy, and I found the whole process very relaxing.

I measured out pasta squares using a Post-it!

My quill was actually a pen, but don’t worry, I washed it first!

Anyway, here’s the photographic evidence of the meal from start to finish:

Cave-aged Gruyère served with pear mostarda, an Italian condiment made from candied pear and mustard powder or essence. The sweet/hot jam is usually served with boiled or roasted meats but is good with salty cheese as well.

Frisée salad with navel oranges, toasted hazelnuts and Dijon-citrus vinaigrette. I love the combination of red onions with sweet oranges and spicy Dijon mustard.

Garganelli con ragù d’Anatra (garganelli with duck ragu). The tubes fell a little bit so next time I’ll let the pasta dry longer before freezing and boiling. I froze each batch after I made it so I could pile them in Ziploc bags without risking squishing them flat, and it worked. Overall, it was absolutely delicious and perfect with a generous grating of parmesan.

For dessert I made a simple toasted hazelnut cake that was moist and tender.

I got a chance to break out these little coffee cups that J and I purchased in Italy years ago…

Aren’t they cute?

Speaking of cute, here is Cory, caught in the act of licking the curtains, an odd habit. It’s something she has done since she was a kitten- she seems to like the roughness of the gauzy curtain on her tongue.

She grabs the curtain with one paw, holds it to her mouth:

Then licks it:

When I wear a sheer, gauzy shirt she’ll lick the sleeve too. Strange, but perfectly harmless, at least to her…it probably isn’t so great for the curtains and clothes!

More coming soon! Thanks for your patience:).

A Good Place To Eat

My favorite kind of restaurant is one that is cozy and makes you feel at home.

Ones with soft, pretty lighting…………….

Ones that put a nice, crusty baguette on the table to start your meal……………….

A good salad is key in a good restaurant as well, you know, since every meal should have some green……………….

And if they let you get a peek into the kitchen to see the magic happen, it’s even better…………………

Family-style always makes me feel at home in any restaurant, and piles of Fusilli in Spare Rib Sauce never hurt anyone. The beautiful Italian platter it was served in was the icing on the cake…..

Oh and speaking of cake, what meal would be complete without a sweet treat at the end? And if the sweet treat is an airy and impossibly light cheesecake, well then you really couldn’t ask for anything more, could you?

Let’s take another look at the fluffy cheesecake, made light by folding beaten egg whites into the mixture, the chef told me…..

And once the meal is done, a good restaurant lets you sit and enjoy the moment for a bit longer, no? I mean, no one wants to be rushed………..

Which is why, more times than not, the best meals are enjoyed at home……..or, in this case, my parents’ home! When the chef is your father, and you’re with family in a beautiful home with lots of good food and wine, why would you want to go anyplace else?

Thanks Mom and Papa!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Sometimes, a photo can just jump out, grab you by the stomach and make your taste buds go bonkers. As a food blogger who reads TONS of food blogs, I’m constantly exposing myself to these types of photos. It’s a dangerous thing, but like any drug, the more I’m exposed to it the more I want. Gorgeous food photos are as addictive as crack- not that I know firsthand how addictive crack is…..but I watch Intervention so I have a good idea….! (Ok, that was meant to be a joke). Foodgawker exists for a reason- people love to see photos of delcious food.

Well, looky here at a perfect example of food porn/crack photo:

The minute I saw the gorgeous cover of January’s Gourmet Magazine, all plans to make gnocchi for supper went out the window and I knew I had to have spaghetti and meatballs. I mean, would you just LOOK at this?? How can anyone resist, especially with the chill outside (the Los Angeles chill, which I know you’re all laughing at but 45 F is bone chilling to us wimps)? I grabbed two containers of homemade marinara out of the freezer and dashed off to the store to buy everything I needed.

I did tweak the recipe a bit- instead of using veal, pork and beef I just used beef and turkey. Otherwise I was pretty faithful, cutting the recipe in half because the original recipe makes enough to feed a small army. It’s a classic recipe, and although I’d made similar versions in the past I had never added lemon zest to any meatball until this one.

I formed the meat into ¼ cup balls………

Browned them in a hot pan……………

Then drained the fat and poured my marinara into the same pan, loading it up with the browned meatballs and letting them simmer for 20 minutes………

OY, how good did the house smell?!?!?! SO GOOD!

I boiled up some whole wheat spaghetti and tossed it with some of the marinara that had been stewing with the meatballs, then topped the pile of pasta with a few of them and finished it all off with a grating of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano and basil.

It was everything I’d hoped for and more. The meatballs were tender, juicy and flavorful, and the lemon zest really added something special. Eaten with some crusty bread, a salad and a glass of red, it was the perfect supper on a cold evening.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Dinner At Home With Friends……..

Don’t get too excited by the excellent quality of these photos- they were not taken by me nor do they signal the beginning of any Gorgeous Photography Era of Tuna Toast. I wish I had an eye for beauty and composition but unfortunately I did not inherit my father’s sense for photography. These were all taken by my good friend and honorary little bro, Dylan, of the blog Eat, Drink & Be Merry and his beautiful lady, Jeni, of Oishii Eats.

Cory, creeping downstairs to join the party

We’d been wanting to get together with Dylan and Jeni for awhile and finally got the chance to last week when they came over to our house for dinner. I made oxtail ravioli while Dylan snapped away at my cat, Cory and our house. I wish I could shoot half as well as he and Jeni, and hope one day to learn how to see the world as they seem to see it. It’s amazing how lovely everything looks in well-composed photographs, isn’t it? We had lots of food, wine and great conversation and I think even the usually prissy Cory had a grand ol’ time.

Here’s the night as told by the amazing photography of Dylan and Jeni- enjoy!

Me, cooking away in the kitchen. Yes, I do realize that the bar needs to be cleared off so we can actually use it as a bar!

The food:

A little Prosciutto di Parma to nibble on…

My favorite pate from Nicole’s Gourmet Imports in South Pasadena

The ravioli ready for their hot water bath…

J sprinkles a classic gremolata (parsley, lemon zest and minced garlic) onto his ravioli

Oxtail ravioli served up.

A simple green salad always rounds out a meal at our house

The people:

Cory, sitting next to J’s beloved upright bass which he hasn’t named yet

Dylan and Jeni, in the one slightly unfocused and fuzzy photo because, you guessed it, I took it!

J and I, sitting in our backyard

After awhile we noticed that Cory wasn’t anywhere downstairs, so I took Dylan and Jeni up to our bedroom to show them Cory’s hideout….

…under the covers of our bed!

It was a wonderful night with good food, friends and now these lovely photographs – thanks Dylan and Jeni!

Homemade Gnocchi

So the Big Eating Day is finally over and I have no turkey post for you. Not that I didn’t have turkey- I had plenty of it plus oyster stuffing (my absolute favorite!), sausage stuffing, corn, watercress salad, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, uni mousse and pumpkin pie at my parents house. All of it was delicious, but I’ll leave the posting of that to my sis since she took photos and all that.

This post is somewhat Thanksgiving related. You see, my parents bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes with which to make mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, but of course 10pounds was about 8 pounds more than we needed. So, in addition to the usual turkey/stuffing packs that they send home with us, they also added a few potatoes to each parting gift. It’s strange- as much as I love potatoes, I rarely buy them. Maybe it was the whole carb thing that scared me off of them for awhile…..well wait, I still eat loads of bread so that can’t be it…but for some reason they don’t find their way into my kitchen often. I stared at the little suckers and wondered what to do.

Milled potatoes

Then it hit me. Gnocchi! I’d been meaning to try my hand at the small dumpling-like knobs of dough for awhile, but I’d also been a bit fearful. I’d heard so many tales of how overworking the dough resulted in tough erasers or how not kneading the dough enough resulted in the gnocchi falling apart in the boiling water. I set my fears aside and opened up my trusty Mario Batali cookbook. It seemed easy enough- potatoes, check. Egg, check. Flour, check. I boiled my potatoes and got to work.

The skins came off easily from the still-hot potatoes and I ran them through my food mill which resulted in a big pile of fluffiness. After a liberal sprinkle of flour and one egg and a bit of salt, I worked the mass with a fork until it came together. I continued to knead it with my hands for only four minutes, as the recipe said, and it ended up in a nice ball- still a bit tacky but not at all sticky.

Now the time consuming part began. After dividing the dough into six sections, I realized that I needed to divide it even more in order to easily roll each into a one-inch rope that would still fit on my cutting board. For the next hour or so, I rolled, cut, rolled over tongs of a fork, placed on a cookie sheet and then boiled a batch for one minute, dumped the gnocchi into an ice bath and did it all over again about four times. It did take some patience but I got the hang of it after awhile, and I was pleased to see that the cooled gnocchi did not stick together at all. Mario’s recipe calls for you to toss the finished gnocchi in 1/2 cup of oil in order to store it, but I skipped that step entirely since it was unnecessary and I didn’t want my gnocchi coated with oil.

Boiled and cooled gnocchi

The recipe made a LOT of gnocchi so I bagged a couple of batches into ziploc bags and froze them. Then I took my portion, boiled it in salted water until they floated to the surface and tossed them in homemade marinara mixed with chicken sausage and eggplant. A sprinkle of parmesan later and dinner was served.

How were they? TOTALLY worth the effort!! It’s true what they say- homemade gnocchi are as light as air if done right and these were fluffy and tender. Each was like a potato pillow and would be delicious tossed with just a bit of browned butter and pecorino, as well as a heartier tomato sauce or pesto. I would definitely make these again, and it’s a good thing that one recipe makes so many of them. Mario himself stated that you could make any old weeknight meal special by whipping out a batch of these homemade gnocchi, and he’s right. I’m looking forward to eating them again and again.

Recipe here.

Braised Oxtail Ravioli w/ Gremolata

Things have been absolutely bonkers at work so I’m afraid I’ll have to keep this very short before I keel over into a state of a coma!

Last weekend I asked my very handy dad to come over and replace a broken faucet in the kitchen since J and I are so very unhandy. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not helpless with tools but after one look at the 14 step installation drawings (what’s with manufacturers not providing written instructions these days???) I figured I’d better call Papa since I didn’t want to flood my kitchen.

Braised oxtail….doesn’t look like much but it’s delicious!

As a big THANK YOU I invited him and my mom over for dinner that night. It’s always a challenge to figure out what I’ll make for guests since I literally have a thousand recipes calling out to me “Please try me! You said you’d make me one day!” As much as I love a dish, I always seem to pluck a new recipe from the pile when it comes to cooking for more than just J and me. Of course the many food blogs that I peruse are a constant distraction from the recipes in my cookbooks and magazines, and of course that is where I found my latest project: braised oxtail ravioli. It’s a dish that, if I ever spy on a menu at a restaurant, I must order, but I’d never attempted to make it myself. Actually, although I’ve made handmade pasta several times, I’d never attempted any ravioli.

The oxtail “filling” was a breeze to make, and the smell of beef, wine and veggies stewing in the oven filled the house on that cool Friday evening. After it all had cooled, I picked out the meat “cylinders” from between the layers of gelatinous tissue which makes up most of an oxtail. That part was a bit time consuming but nibbling on some of the meaty bits made the time go by faster. The meat was then combined with the veggies they were braised with to make the filling, and the cooking liquid was reserved to sauce the ravioli.

I decided to use Mario Batali’s recipe for fresh egg pasta since I’d always used Thomas Keller’s but wanted to try something new. Mario’s is similar except that it calls for no oil or water- just eggs and flour. It came together quickly and took a bit of muscle to knead for ten minutes. After a nap in the fridge overnight, I started the process of rolling it out and making the ravioli. The dough was as smooth as silk and very easy to work with. I had originally wanted to use my small, round ravioli cutter that I’d just bought but found that it made for tiny ravioli containing little filling. So, I went ahead and cut them by hand.

About ten minutes before we sat down for dinner, I just dropped the ravioli in boiling water and heated up the braising liquid which had already reduced nicely. I tossed those together, then added the gremolata that the recipe called for- initially I wasn’t sure how the lemon and garlic would play against the oxtail, but it was fantastic. Absolutely gorgeous! The grated parmesan I finished the dish with was just the icing on the cake.

I would absolutely make this dish again, next time being a bit more careful to push out all of the air pockets in each ravioli. It seems quite labor-intensive, but if you make the oxtail a day or two beforehand, it isn’t that difficult and the flavors will probably improve.

Thanks to stonesoup for the inspiration!

Arrivederci Supper

In a strange stroke of coincidence, everyone in my family is leaving this week- everyone, that is, except for me! My sister left for Italy yesterday, J leaves for Texas today, and my parents are also traveling to Italy on Wednesday. Basically everyone decided to desert me at the same time! Of course I’ll be fine, and my best friend M and I do have some fun plans up our sleeves during the coming two weeks, but it is odd to think that everyone is gone all at once. So, in a nod to the Italian vacations of my sister and parents, plus the fact that I know poor J won’t get a decent meal over the next three weeks (he’s working on a project that will involve long hours and little free time) I decided to whip up an Italian meal for J’s last night at home.

I’d seen a dish on Everyday Italian awhile back that I had wanted to make, but kind of forgot about it. When I discovered a repeat of that episode on my Tivo, it reminded me how appealing the dish seemed and I decided to go ahead and try it. It’s a dish called Lasagna Rolls, and I loved the idea of having a small roll or two of lasagna as opposed to a big slab of it. I knew I wanted to play with the recipe a bit to make it lighter- the days of J and I eating giant bowls of pasta and polishing off an entire baguette are long gone- so I printed the recipe and made some changes.

First of all, I left out the prosciutto and replaced it with sliced crimini mushrooms sautéed with garlic, thyme, olive oil and vermouth. I did keep the one box of squeezed-out, thawed spinach but only used 1/2 cup of ricotta, which I combined in the Cuisinart with one ounce of grated parmiggiano reggiano, one egg, salt and pepper. I then mixed the pureed mixture with the sautéed mushrooms. For the béchamel sauce, I used only 1 tablespoon of real butter, then 1 tablespoon of Smart Balance spread with the 4 teaspoons of flour called for in the original recipe. Instead of using whole milk, I used fat free half and half, plus the fresh nutmeg and salt/pepper. I know a lot of cooks insist you don’t use fat free replacements in recipes, but the resulting béchamel was smooth, creamy and thick. I wanted to get whole wheat lasagna sheets but couldn’t find them (anyone know of any??) after going to three stores, so I bought regular ones which I boiled for eight minutes- which is about two less than called for. You want the pasta to be a bit more al dente than al dente;) since it will finish baking in the oven. After spreading my spinach/mushroom mixture onto each lasagna noodle, I rolled them up, set each seam-side down in a baking dish filled with béchamel, topped each roll with a bit of homemade marinara and grated parmesan, then baked, covered, in the oven for 20 minutes. After another 15 minutes of baking, uncovered, the dish was done. I could hardly wait to sink my teeth into it!!

Hot, bubbling and golden brown……..yum

I wanted it to rest for a bit so I roasted some asparagus and zucchini, warmed a mini baguette in the oven and whipped up a simple dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fresh garlic, honey and black pepper for a mixed green salad. We popped open a bottle of Grand Archer 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and sat down for our meal.

How were the lasagna rolls? They were so good that I’m actually craving one right now as I write this at 9:00 AM in the morning! In all honesty- you do not miss any of the extra cheese or fat in the béchamel. Each roll was crisp on the cheese-coated tops, and the ricotta/spinach/mushroom filling was just creamy enough. The béchamel soaked into the bottom of each roll and the touch of marinara really tied the dish together. Any sauce left on the plate was quickly sopped up with our slices of warm bread. I rarely make baked pastas, but this will definitely be making an appearance on our dinner table often, especially during the cooler months. We really loved it, and I can think of lots of delicious variations (salmon and chive filling w/ béchamel, roasted eggplant instead of mushrooms, etc) that will work with the basic concept of the rolled lasagna.

You can find the original recipe here.