Category Archives: Olive Oil

Dandelion Greens: Nutrition Not Nuisance

When the early Italian immigrants came to the United States, they were criticized for eating foraged weeds such as dandelion. It was thought that they were shorter than average Americans because they weren’t getting the right nutrition–that the meat-and-potatoes diet with plenty of milk was better than the high-vegetable diet of the immigrants. Of course, we now know that is not true, thanks in part to Ancel Keys, who enlightened the world about the Mediterranean diet in the 1950s.

Dandelion is one such weed, rich in so many nutrients.  Since ancient times, in the Middle East and Asia, it was used as medicine.  It’s good for digestion, to strengthen bones, to protect against Alzheimer’s, to protect the eyes or to detox. A great source of Vitamins K and A, it also contains Vitamin C, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper, folate, and phosphorus.

My earliest memories of dandelion are of the puffballs that we would pick and blow to watch the little wisps fly through the air. Little did we know they were seeds and we were helping new dandelions to grow.  Not that they need help. They are everywhere, and while some view them as a pest, others view them as a treasure.

When I was growing up, my mom had a friend who would bring us dandelion greens from her garden.  We laughed because this friend was fishing for gossip whenever she brought these over, so we associated dandelion greens with gossip.

Besides eliciting gossip, dandelion has many uses.  The greens can be eaten fresh or cooked, the roots can be ground into a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be made into wine, as many of the early Italian immigrants did.

Italians eat the dandelion greens in salads or cooked with garlic and olive oil.  They can be bitter, so it is best to blanch them before cooking, especially the more mature leaves.  We then saute them in garlic and olive oil.

However, I prepared them the way Julie Ann Sageer recommends in her new Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen cookbook, blanched and sautéed with caramelized onions.

To cook dandelions, wash them first.  They are not very dirty like some greens can be.  Chop off the large stems from the bottom.  Then roughly chop them.  Blanch them.  They are kind of like spinach.  You have to squeeze them to get the water out.  You can then saute them with caramelized onions, as in the cookbook, or you can saute them with sliced garlic and olive oil, the Italian way.  Either way, they are a nutritious addition to any meal and definitely should not be overlooked in the garden!

–Dina Di Maio

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Lucanian Peppers and Eggs

Peppers are a mainstay of Italian cuisine. Of course, they do not come from Italy but were one of the many gifts from the Americas. In Basilicata, the southernmost region, in the instep of the boot, also known by its more ancient name, Lucania, the peperoni di Senise are a popular pepper brought by the Spanish in the 16th century. Since 1996, these peppers have an IGP designation, which translates to protected geographical indication, meaning they are to be grown in a particular region in order to carry this label. The peppers are hung on strings to dry. The dried peppers are called peperoni secchi. There are many ways to prepare these peppers. Because they are also used to season food, they are known in local dialect as zafaran, or saffron. They can be crushed and added to a sauce, such as a breadcrumb sauce for pasta. These peppers are sweet and impart a smoky flavor to dishes. A popular way to prepare them is to create a snack food or an accompaniment to a recipe or dish by just frying them in olive oil. These are called peperoni cruschi. I used them to make peppers and eggs.

Peperoni cruschi e uova (Peppers and eggs)

6 eggs

3 peperoni cruschi (I used packaged peppers from Zingerman’s.)

about 1 T olive oil

salt

Reconstitute the peppers in a little water for about 10 minutes. (You don’t have to do this, but I did to soften them.) Drain and slice. Heat olive oil in pan as you would to make scrambled eggs. Add peppers and eggs and scramble. Add salt to taste.

–Dina Di Maio

Gluten-Free Italian Easter Pie, Pizza Chiena/Pizza Rustica

pizza chiena, pizza rustica

Gluten-Free Pizza Chiena or Pizza Rustica, or Savory Italian Easter Pie

Pizza chiena or pizza rustica is a savory Neapolitan pie served at Easter time.  My family is from the area surrounding Naples and they called it pizza chiena, pronounced like pizzagaina, or pizzagain, as they pronounce the hard ch sound as a hard g in Neapolitan dialect and the last vowel is often left off.

pizza chiena, pizza rustica

Gluten-Free Pizza Chiena

For the crust:

5 cups gluten-free flour, not sifted

5 teaspoons xantham gum

3/4 cup shortening

4 eggs

warm water

olive oil

Put your flour on your work surface.  Dot with shortening and incorporate until it becomes somewhat crumbly (won’t be as crumbly as gluten flour would be).

Make a well and add eggs, incorporating them.  Add enough warm water until you have a workable dough.  Knead for about 5 minutes.  Put a little olive oil in a bowl.  Add the dough ball.

Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest for about a half hour.

For the filling:

People use different ingredients in the filling.  It usually always has ricotta, eggs, grated cheese and salami.  From there, it varies.  You can also use gluten-free soppressata, capocollo, mortadella, or Italian sausage.  We only used soppressata, capocollo and salami.  One of my grandmas used provolone.  Also, some provolone can be sharp and you don’t want it to be too dominant a flavor.  Some people lump all the ingredients in there, some people chunk it, some people dice it very small, some people layer it.  It’s all your preference. 

1 lb. ricotta (Use a good brand with no added gums or thickeners.)

1 lb. basket cheese (If you can’t get this where you are, you can just use another pound of ricotta.  Or you can let one pound of ricotta sit in a colander or in cheesecloth the night before to drain out water.)

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1 cup gluten-free salami, diced or not (You can use any of the above listed meats, as long as they are gluten-free.)

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1 cup gluten-free prosciutto, diced or not

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8 eggs

1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced

black pepper to taste

egg yolk for egg wash

In a bowl, mix all ingredients.  Just stir it all together.  No mixer needed.

Grease and gluten-free flour a 10-inch springform pan or a 13×9 rectangular pan or a large cake pan or pie dish (depends on how much filling you have).

Cut off 2/3 of dough.  Roll it out into a circle and line springform pan.

Fill with filling.

Roll out remaining dough into a circle.  Top pie with it.  I used an Italy-shaped cookie cutter to decorate the top.  You can use any shape you like or no shape at all.  Brush with egg wash.

Bake at 375 degrees for 1/2 hour.  Lower heat to 350 for 1 more hour.  Let cool for a few hours.  Refrigerate.  We eat this at room temperature or cold from the refrigerator.

–Dina Di Maio

Taralli, an Italian Snack

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Taralli are a Southern Italian snack food.  If you’ve visited Italian-American bakeries or grocery stores, you may have seen the ring-shaped snack food sold in different varieties, such as fennel-flavored.  These crunchy snacks originate in Southern Italy.  Like much of Italian food, taralli are different in different regions.

In Naples, they are traditionally made with lard, pepper and almonds.  They were first made from scraps of leftover bread dough.  To this dough was added lard and pepper.  In the Neapolitan language, lard is “nzogna,” so you will see these as nzogna and pepe.  In Naples today, you will see this variety also has almonds.  Almonds were added in the 1800s, but the older version of these did not have almonds.  This older version is what my mother remembers at bakeries of her youth, bakeries that carried on Southern Italian traditions from the late 1800s here in the United States.  In fact, there were other crunchy breads that also had lard and pepper added to them.

In times past, the taralli vendor would sell the snack from a cart.  In Napoli today, miniature depictions of taralli vendors are sold on Via San Gregorio Armeno where you can find the famous presepio, or Nativity figures.

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In Puglia, taralli, or tarallini, are usually smaller, more crunchy and smoother with no almonds.  They are not made with lard but with olive oil and are often flavored with fennel or chili.  These are the ones most often found in Italian-American bakeries and stores.  They can also be made sweet instead of savory, which is popular in Basilicata.

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The origin of the word “taralli” is unknown, but it is thought to derive from the Greek word toros, meaning toroidal or round.  Or the Greek word daratos for a kind of bread.  It could also be from torrere, Latin for toast, or for a French type of bread.

Taralli are served year round but also during Carnevale.  They are made by either baking or by boiling then baking, similar to bagels.

They are plentiful at bakeries in Naples.  I like the nzogna e pepe from Leopoldo Infante.

Sessanta, Southern Italian in Soho

I was walking through Soho and decided to stop in for some pasta at Sessanta.  Sessanta is another restaurant in the trend of regional Italian cuisine.  Its focus is on Southern Italy, particularly the Neapolitan area.  The menu has items that are similar to other regional Italian restaurants like burrata, fritto misto, meatball, malloreddus, branzino.  Other dishes are standard Italian and Neapolitan like eggplant parmesan, spaghetti with tomato sauce and linguine with garlic and olive oil.   My friend and I were walk-ins on a Saturday night, and it was crowded but not overwhelmingly so.  Not too hungry, we didn’t order a full meal.  Even though we ordered only entrees, we thought we would get bread with the meal, but we didn’t.

I got the malloreddus with sweet sausage ragu, whipped ricotta and pecorino sardo.  It was good.

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My friend got the busiate with Spanish octopus, cherry tomatoes, capers and oregano and thought it was good but not great.

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Escarole and Beans

escarole and beans

escarole and beans

Escarole and beans is an Italian soup. It’s great this time of year because it’s a healthy recipe that’s perfect for a post-holiday detox. We always called this shka-roll and beans, as the Neapolitan dialect pronounced sc as a sh sound (which is done in Tuscan/standard Italian only when followed by e or i).

Escarole and Beans

1 lb. dried cannellini beans (or 2 cans cannellini beans)

2 medium bunches of escarole

1/4 cup olive oil

1 or 2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cloves garlic, minced or not

salt and red pepper flakes to taste

parsley

If using dried beans, soak them in water overnight. (Make sure they are covered with water but do not cover the bowl.) The next day, drain the water. Put them in a soup pot and add enough water to cover them. Add the salt, red pepper flakes, parsley, tomato paste, olive oil and garlic. Cook beans for 2 hours. While they cook, wash the escarole. You want to do this carefully, as escarole can be dirty. Chop it into bite-size pieces. In the last 10-15 minutes of cooking, add the escarole. Stir it in and let it cook down. Serve with parmesan or romano cheese. If you are using canned beans instead, rinse and drain them. You do not have to cook them for two hours. Just bring to a boil with all the other ingredients, simmer a few minutes, add the escarole and cook for 10-15 minutes until escarole is cooked.

Pumpkin or Butternut Squash Risotto

I have some carnaroli rice from Italy and decided to make this risotto di zucca by Antonio Carluccio, or pumpkin risotto by Antonio Carluccio, one of my favorite chefs.  I got a locally grown butternut squash so I used that instead of pumpkin.  I think most people are familiar with arborio rice but not carnaroli.  Carnaroli is also from Northern Italy and is used to make risotto.  It is considered the “caviar of rice.”  It has a higher starch content and can stay firm longer as you cook risotto.  This particular dish is a wonderfully creamy and delicious one for autumn.  It comes from Antonio Carluccio’s Italian Feast but he says it originally comes from Hotel Cipriani in Venice.  I adapted it to suit our tastes.  The original recipe calls for Parmesan and I used pecorino romano.  I also used water instead of chicken stock to make it vegetarian friendly.  And I didn’t use rosemary.

risotto, carnaroli, zucca, pumpkin, butternut squash, Antonio Carluccio