Gretchen McKay

Lidia Bastianich gives a lesson in Italian cooking

Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce/Gretchen McKay

Lidia Bastianich has written a dozen cookbooks since arriving in America more than 40 years ago, introducing at least two generations of Americans to the delights and intricacies of regional Italian cooking.

Rather than simply dazzle like so many celebrity chefs, she keeps it simple. Ms. Bastianich’s persona on TV and in print has always been that of teacher, from how to choose the right ingredients, to the need to taste as you go to the importance of technique in certain recipes. In “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50), she offers aspiring cooks what she calls her “master class.”

Nearly 2 inches thick, the soups-to-nuts primer is a handsome companion piece to the third season of “Lidia’s Kitchen,” her 26-part series on PBS. Its 400-plus recipes run the gamut from appetizers, salads and sauces to pizza, pasta and seafood, and she also includes an extensive guide to the ingredients and techniques essential to Italian cooking. Near the end, there’s a 46-page glossary of words that tend to pop up in Italian kitchens.

She also includes some tasty insights to Italian culture (there’s a reason it’s called “wedding soup”) along with a handful of phrases that would come in handy at her ristorante in the Strip District, where on Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. she’ll feature some favorites at a dinner to promote the cookbook. Cost is $55 (plus tax and gratuity), with an optional Bastianich wine pairing for an additional $30.

“This book provides the forum for me to collect everything I want to communicate to you in one place,” she writes in the foreword. “Here I have gathered my life’s memories, my philosophy, my passion, my art. These are the ingredients I love to cook with, and the cooking techniques I have learned and developed through my 40-plus years in the kitchen.”

Italian food at its best is simple, made with seasonal items. Many of Ms. Bastianich’s recipes require just a handful of ingredients, many of which are pantry-friendly. All you need for her tomato sauce, for instance, is olive oil, garlic, a can of Italian plum tomatoes, crushed red pepper and basil; for gnocchi, it’s simply potatoes, eggs, flour, salt and pepper.

One dish that immediately caught my eye, and one that will be offered on Sunday at her restaurant, was her mother, Erminia’s, recipe for Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives. Ms. Bastianich ate the dish often growing up, and when she became a mother, she served it to her kids, too. Salty, succulent, crispy and tender, it might be one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever made. And it was easy to prepare, requiring only my large cast-iron skillet, a handful of ingredients and the resolve not to polish off the bottle of white wine used for cooking while the dish simmered oh-so-fragrantly on the stovetop, whetting my appetite.

Previous incarnations of the dish called for bacon slices rolled into little bundles and pickled cherry peppers to imbue the dish with a mellow heat. The recipe in this book swaps that slow burn for the bite and brine of olives and tang of red wine vinegar.

I also very much enjoyed her recipe for Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce, which was included in the chapter on appetizers but made a lovely dinner when paired with crusty Italian bread and a salad.

With winter marathon-training season underway, I’m looking forward to trying the book’s many soups and pasta dishes and vow to perfect my risotto-making with her detailed instructions. (Stir, cook and stir some more.)  And the Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake, which involves an entire jar of Nutella, is on my menu for Valentine’s Day.

Readers might lament the book’s lack of glossy pictures to tempt them (it’s illustrated with black-and-white drawings), but “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” would be a great addition to any kitchen library, for novices and seasoned cooks alike.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

 

Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives

Chicken with Olives and Potatoes/Gretchen McKay

(Cosce di Pollo con Patate ed Olive)

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“This might be the best chicken you’ve ever made,” my husband told me after eating it, and his portion had been frozen and reheated. But it’s true. This poultry dish is absolutely terrific, fancy enough for a dinner party but also so simple that you can make it for the family midweek.

12 medium chicken thighs

1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning

All-purpose flour for dredging

Vegetable oil for browning

2½ pounds medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1½-inch chunks

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

1½ cups pitted large green olives

4 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

½ cup dry white wine

Season chicken thighs with 1½ teaspoons salt. Spread flour on rimmed plate, and lightly dredge chicken thighs on all sides, tapping off excess. Heat large shallow Dutch oven or large skillet over medium-high heat with ½ inch vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add chicken, skin side down. Brown well on both sides, about 10 minutes, and remove to plate.

To same oil add potatoes. Brown them on all sides, about 10 minutes, and remove to plate with chicken. Dump out oil and wipe pot clean.

Return pot to medium-high heat and add olive oil. Add garlic. Once garlic begins to sizzle, add olives and rosemary. Once they are sizzling nicely in pot, let cook for 1 minute or 2 to bring flavors together, then add vinegar. Boil until vinegar has reduced away, then add back chicken and potatoes. Pour in wine, adjust heat to simmer and cover. Cook until chicken is almost tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Uncover and simmer rapidly, turning chicken occasionally, until it is tender and glazed in sauce, about 15 minutes. Remove garlic cloves and rosemary sprigs and serve hot.

Serves 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)

 

Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce

(Cozze al Pomodoro Piccant)

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I’ve been obsessed lately with mussels, and this recipe, which cooks them in a spicy tomato sauce, shines. Be sure to rinse and scrub mussels clean before using, discarding any that remain open after tapping or are chipped or broken. (Mussels must be alive when you cook them.) If there are any that don’t open after cooking, toss those, too.

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

8 garlic cloves, sliced

28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand

½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably on the branch

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon peperoncino flakes

3 pounds mussels, scrubbed, debearded and drained

10 large basil leaves, shredded

Heat 5 tablespoons olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sliced garlic, and cook until garlic sizzles and is gold around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, rinse can out with ¼ cup water, and add to pot. Season with oregano, salt and peperoncino. Bring to boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Once sauce has thickened, add mussels, stir and adjust heat so sauce is simmering. Cover, and simmer until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Discard any that do not open.

Once mussels are open, stir in basil and drizzle with remaining tablespoon olive oil. Transfer to serving bowl, and pour juices over them. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)

 

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Butter and Sage Sauce

(Gnocchi di Zucca)

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Nothing beats fresh pasta, and gnocchi (the Italian version of dumplings) are easier to make than you might think if you follow this simple rule: Once the potatoes have been cooked, peeled and riced, allow them to completely cool before adding the flour. If you don’t have a ricer, push the potatoes through a sieve or the holes of a colander.

For gnocchi

1-pound chunk butternut squash

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium russet potatoes

½ cup freshly grated Grana Padano

1 large egg

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1½ cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more as needed

For sauce

1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter

10 fresh sage leaves

1 cup very hot water from cooking pot of pasta

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup freshly gated Grana Padano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scoop seeds from squash and place cut side up in pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool slightly.

When cool, scrape flesh from squash, set in cheesecloth and let hang or set in a strainer in refrigerator overnight to drain. You should have about ¾ cup squash.

Cook potatoes in medium saucepan with water to cover until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, let cool, then peel and press through a ricer into an even layer on sheet pan. You should have 2 cups potatoes. Pass drained squash through ricer as well.

In large bowl, combine squash, potatoes, cheese, egg, salt and nutmeg; mix until smooth. Sprinkle in 1¼ cups flour and mix to combine. Dump dough onto your work surface and knead until it comes together. If dough is still sticky, add remaining ¼ cup flour, and knead just until smooth. Do not overknead dough or gnocchi will be heavy.

Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment and sprinkle with flour. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll dough onto floured surface to ½-inch-thick rope. Cut rope crosswise into ¾-inch pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll gnocchi along the back of fork tines dipped in flour, making ridges on 1 side and a dimple on the other. Transfer gnocchi to floured baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. While water is heating, make sauce. Heat butter in large skillet over medium heat until melted and just foaming. Gently lay sage leaves in pan and heat until they crisp up, about 1 minute.

Ladle in 1 cup boiling pasta water, stir sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes, to reduce liquid by half. Grind black pepper directly into sauce.

Keep sauce hot over very low heat while you cook gnocchi.

Cook gnocchi in two batches in boiling water, giving them just a couple of minutes more after they all float to surface. Remove with slotted spoon and transfer to awaiting sauce. Toss until well coated. Remove from heat and toss in the cheese just before serving.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)

This is Pittsburgh Food: Sopressata

"Uncle Sal" Merante stuffs ground pork into natural casings to make sopressata. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The mercury has dipped to 18 degrees when Leon Panella pads into his garage in Prospect, Butler County, at about 8 a.m. on a recent, snowy Saturday. Still, he smiles.

In an hour or so, things will warm up as close to two dozen male helpers — friends, friends of friends, Duquesne University fraternity brothers — start knocking on the front door of his big log cabin in the woods, eager to roll up their sleeves and get busy. The task at hand: Transforming 12 giant pans of pork resting on folding tables into foot-long sticks of air-dried sausage.

It’s an old-country tradition that will take the men the better part of a day, after which they’ll celebrate with a sprawling Italian meal. Mr. Panella’s wife, Karen, in fact, has been in the kitchen since dawn.

Mr. Panella, who is 68, had grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from Calabria and Abruzzi. “In September, Italians think about grapes and make wine,” he says. “When it’s cold, we make sausage.”

PG VIDEO

There’s already been some prepping. Two days earlier, the men coarsely ground 460 pounds of boneless pork butt and pork sirloin from Jefferson Poultry in New Castle into the beginnings of an air-cured salume known as sopressata — or “supra-sot,” as he and his old-time Italian friends call it. Mr. Panella, a semi-retired pharmacist, also has washed and carefully untangled several hanks (a bundle measuring about 100 yards) of natural edible casing into manageable lengths. The pig guts come packed in salt, and have to be flushed clean and then soaked in warm water so they soften and become tender.

Pushing the fist-sized pieces of meat, bit by bit, through the grinders’ blades was easy enough, taking the crew just under two hours working on three machines. Seasoning it to tongue-tingling perfection with the right blend of spices, canned red pepper paste, Morton’s salt and Two-Buck Chuck red wine was a bit more involved, and definitely messier. For that, Kate DeComo of Adams — the sole woman in the annual sopressata-making operation — had to stick her hands deep into bowls of cold meat and squish the ingredients together between gloved fingers.

“He trusts me,” she said of Mr. Panella, who a few years ago was merely the friend of some friends with whom she took an Italian class. Today they consider each other family.

The Panellas’ motto is “the more, the merrier.” So when Mrs. DeComo expressed an interest in learning how to make sopressata four years ago, she was warmly welcomed into the fold, even though the women traditionally support the men in the kitchen. (More on that later.) She was moved up to Head Seasoner last year, she joked, “when I showed aptitude.”

Recipes vary according to family tradition, but sopressata always includes cayenne and red pepper for heat and paprika to give it its distinctive red color. Mr. Panella’s recipe, which originated in Calabria, a region in southern Italy that’s known for the sausage, also calls for 11/2 pounds of salt per 40 pounds of meat for curing. As for the red wine?

“If I tell you,” quips Mr. Panella, “I’d have to kill you.”

Truth be told, the recipe isn’t his own but one he got from his friend Nick Clemente of Donora, who in turn got it from his neighbor Ray Sasselli. The process is dear to his heart. Growing up in Ellwood City, he watched his father, Leo, make sausage while drinking beer with his friends at the Working Men’s Social Club on Division Avenue, a fraternal organization populated by steelworkers of Italian descent.

“He loved the fellowship,” he says.

Sopressata traditionally is made in the winter. It takes between 6 and 8 weeks to cure. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

A part-time butcher who also loved to speak Italian, the elder Mr. Panella was strictly old-school, deboning the pork by hand and using a hand-cranked meat grinder and stuffer. Any excess sopressata was sold to friends, three pounds for a dollar.

Sopressata’s a bit more expensive to make in 2012: the meat alone cost $820. Which is why everyone involved chips in, and not just with money.

Says Mrs. Panella, “If you want it, you gotta work; if you don’t work, you don’t get.”

Fatty, spicy and insanely tasty, the homemade sopressata is culinary gold: Mr. Panella, who’s been making it for two decades, says you only share the spoils with people you “really love” or want to impress, such as your Italian doc.

“When we pay, we give them a supra-sot,” he says. “And we get service like you wouldn’t believe!”

The Panellas have been hosting the sopressata event for 11 years now, usually the first weekend in January. That’s when pigs most commonly are slaughtered in the Italian countryside, but more importantly, that’s when it’s cold enough to safely preserve the meat without cooking it. These guys see this gathering as a way to keep the sausage-making tradition alive while passing it down to the next generation. That, and the male bonding it inspires.

Making sopressata is the ultimate guy thing.

Leon Panella of Prospect, Pa., has been making sopressata for more than 20 years. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Feeding everyone who shows up, conversely, is a girl thing. Mrs. Panella has been cooking for days, starting with the homemade sausage and meatballs and penne she served after Thursday’s meat-grinding session. Today’s menu includes Italian greens and beans and fried hen of the woods mushrooms she foraged herself, along with fried smelts and a garlicky shrimp scampi. Friends also bring enough cookies, cake, pie and tiramisu to feed a small army.

Some might see the division of labor as sexist, but not Mrs. Panella, the daughter of a knife sharpener and occasional butcher who grew up on Larimer Avenue in the East End.

“In the house, we get a chance to talk,” she says. “We pick on everything we put out and swap recipes. We can sit down and enjoy the fire in the fireplace.”

The men are barred from the kitchen, she adds, because if they come in and start to eat, “they get lazy and then the work in the garage doesn’t get done.”

Many of the day’s dishes are included in a self-published cookbook whipped up last year to endow a scholarship for their husbands’ Italian fraternity. Already, “Home Grown Italian Recipes: A Legacy For Our Family and Friends” has raised $10,000 for Alpha Phi Delta.

But, first things first. Before anyone eats, there’s all that sopressata to finish.

The group has been at it long enough that the process is boiled down to a science, with small groups assigned to each step: grind, stuff, tie, net, poke, hang. By 10:30 a.m., the now-toasty garage — two propane heaters are cranked up in one corner — is buzzing like a beehive. Some of the men are feeding the seasoned pork into grinders outfitted with “sausage horns” that guide the meat in the gooey casings, blowing them up like balloons; others work to encase the tied-off sticks in a “Jetnet” sock, and then poke tiny holes to prevent air pockets from forming. There’s not a slacker among the bunch.

It’s a lot of work, but it feels very much like a party. From the box of Oram’s donuts that greet workers at the door, to the bottles of the Panella’s homemade Chardonnay and Alicante Bouschet that keeps everyone lubricated, to the platter of last year’s sopressata served with assorted Italian cheeses on a makeshift table, to the playful banter between the men — it’s all great fun.

Hanging sopressata to dry. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Calabrian-born Salvatore Merante is especially cool to watch, and not just because his white handlebar moustache, which curls to the bottom of his sideburns, is so old-school Italian. Now 80, “Uncle Sal” has been making sopressata and other sausages for more than 50 years, just like his mother taught him back in Italy, with no preservatives and strict attention to the details.

Rather than use a wooden pestle like the others to push the pork through the grinder, for instance, he uses his fingers. He also can eyeball the amount of stuffing to the exact quarter-teaspoon — stretching the casing tight, but not so much it bursts.

“You don’t want to choke it,” he says.

His Uncle Sal’s hot and sweet Italian sausages “have been sold all over the country,” he adds, including Groceria Merante in Oakland, which his father, Pasquale, opened in the 1950s.

The sausages will shrink to about half of their original size as they dry hanging on hooks in the ventilated wine cellar the Panellas had specially designed when they built the house in 2000. Depending on the weather, it’ll take between six and eight weeks to cure. Some store the finished sopressata in big buckets of oil, where it’ll keep for years. Mr. Panella prefers to vacuum-seal it.

In all, it takes a little over three hours to make the dozens of sticks Brian Kopp of Monroeville, a cop with the University of Pittsburgh and friend of Uncle Sal’s, carries down to the basement wine cellar — a record, Mr. Panella declares with a proud smile. Now, only after then men have scrubbed clean the work surfaces and equipment, it’s time to eat!

After ringing the dinner bell, Mrs. Panella asks everyone to lower their heads for grace.

“We come together to share fellowship, love and for nourishment,” her friend Camille Cash prays softly. “Thank you for the many hands that have prepared our food here.”

Heads nod quietly in agreement, then it’s back to business.

“Come in here if you want to eat,” Mrs. Panella shouts to the stragglers. “Mangia!”

Within minutes, a line snakes from the living room to the kitchen, where there’s so many dishes laid out on the center island you almost can’t see the surface. No one’s shy about seconds, especially when it comes to the long line of desserts on the dining room table.

In the basement, the sopressata they’ll eat when they all gather again next year already is curing. And Mr. Panella is smiling.

“It makes the house nice and warm when we get together,” he says.


 

Greens and Beans

This comes from “Home Grown Italian Recipes,” a collection of (mostly) Italian recipes complied by the Ladies Auxiliary of Alpha Phi Delta, a fraternity founded in 1914 by a group of men with Italian roots. Order a copy for $25 by emailing twinkle@zoominternet.net .

  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, coarsely minced
  • Olive oil
  • 2 heads escarole, cleaned and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Water
  • 2 15.5-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Brown garlic in olive oil on medium-high heat in a 5-quart pot; add escarole and about 2 cups water, cover. Cook on medium heat until greens are tender. Add beans and heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve alone or over frizelle (dry hard bread).

— Karen DeRiso-Panella in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”


 

Manicotti

Boxed manicotti shells are convenient, but you can make these light and fluffy Italian crepes almost faster than you can boil water. And there’s no taste comparison.

For batter
  • 3 egg whites
  • 3 whole eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 cups water
  • 4 cups flour

Using a wire whisk, beat together egg whites, eggs, salt and water. Add enough flour to make pancake-like batter. Let stand 20 to 30 minutes. In lightly greased crepe pan, pour 1/3 cup batter and tilt until bottom of pan is coated. Cook on medium-low heat until batter is dry then turn out onto table. Do not let crepes brown. Crepes can be stacked if you used wax paper to separate them.

For filling
  • 3 pounds ricotta
  • 3 egg yolks
  • Grated parmesan and Romano cheeses to taste
  • 4 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix together ricotta, egg yolks, cheeses, parsley, salt and pepper. Spread about 2 heaping tablespoons of filling into the center of a crepe, roll up, forming a tube. Coat bottom of large baking dish with your favorite tomato sauce before adding filled crepes. Spread more sauce on top. If desired, add a second layer or start another pan, coating with sauce. Bake for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes about 20 manicotti.

— Karen DeRiso-Panella in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”


 

Wands (fried Italian cookies)

“My mother and father made these for family and friends’ weddings. They were always such a treat,” writes Karen DeRiso-Panella. “They are very light and you can eat a lot of them before you know it.”

  • 1 dozen eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup melted Crisco (vegetable shortening)
  • 2 pounds flour
  • Crisco for deep frying
  • Powdered sugar

Mix together eggs, baking powder, melted Crisco and flour into a nice soft dough. Roll out on floured board until about 1/16-inch thick. Cut into strips about 6 inches long. Drop dough strips in hot Crisco (they will make all kinds of configurations), fry until golden brown, remove and cool on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Store in airtight containers.

— Karen DeRiso-Panella in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”


 

Hot Sausage Specialty

Just in time for Super Bowl Sunday, this recipe is one you can eat either stuffed in a roll or on its own. If you don’t like it spicy, substitute sweet Italian or mild sausage.

  • 2 green peppers, diced
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 12-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 12 ounces water
  • 2 pounds hot Italian sausage

Saute green peppers, onions, salt and pepper in oil. Add sauce and water. Simmer 30 minutes.

Put sausage in baking pan and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Cut into pieces and put into sauce. Cook on low heat and simmer another 25 to 30 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Giulia Merante Duranti in “Home Grown Italian Recipes”