Category Archives: Vegetarian

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

Broccoli Rabe or Broccolini®: Is There a Difference? Yes!

broccoli rabe

I have seen a new bait and switch tactic going on in food circles these days.  When I order broccoli rabe at some restaurants, I’m not getting the familiar leafy vegetable of my upbringing, but a stalky substitute called broccolini.  In some magazines, I’ve seen articles on recipes for broccoli rabe with pictures of broccolini. Is there a difference between broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, and broccolini?  Yes!

Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is in the same family as other well-known vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. It most resembles turnip greens or mustard greens that are popular in the southern United States. In fact, turnips are in the same species as broccoli rabe, Brassica rapa.  Broccoli rabe, like turnip and mustard greens, has a bitter flavor that dissipates when prepared properly.

We know broccoli rabe, or rapini, by its Italian name, as it is most associated with Italian cuisine, particularly southern Italian cuisine, although other cultures prepare it and it now grows all over the world.

broccoli rabe

The most common way to prepare it is simply blanching it, then sauteeing it in olive oil, and serving it dressed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. In the southeastern heel of Italy, Puglia, there is a popular pasta dish called orecchiette with broccoli rabe or rapini.

Italian immigrants of 100 years ago had grown broccoli rabe in their gardens, and the Andy Boy company in California is credited with commercially bringing broccoli rabe, or rapini, to the United States.  Their website lists all the attributes of rapini and has a plethora of recipes.   In the first decade of the 1900s, Sicilian immigrant Andrea D’Arrigo came to the United States, learned English, and earned engineering degrees.  His brother, Stefano, joined him and founded Andy Boy produce company.  In 1926, they invented a way to ship produce across the country in refrigerated cars.  The first vegetable shipped across country was broccoli, grown here from seeds they brought over from Italy.

broccolini

Broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, a vegetable popular in Chinese cuisine, also known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale.  It was developed by a Japanese seed company, Sakata Seed Inc., that was looking for ways to extend the growing season of broccoli.  After seven years, it was developed and brought to the U.S. market in 1993.  Sakata trademarked the name Asparation because its stalks resembled asparagus.  Mann Packing Co. in California is the grower who trademarked the name broccolini.  (The COO’s wife, Debbi Nucci, came up with the name.) Mann’s website has product information and recipes for broccolini.  Mann’s was founded in 1939 by H.W. “Cy” Mann, a Stanford graduate, and became known for its broccoli.

Both rapini and broccolini end in -ini, which is an Italian suffix meaning “little,” and are often used interchangeably in recipes and restaurants. But they are different. Broccoli rabe is more leafy while broccolini has longer stalks with more broccoli heads. They also differ in taste with broccolini being more mild, and broccoli rabe being more earthy.  They are both nutritionally sound. From a culinary standpoint, they can be used interchangeably in recipes.  But from a traditional standpoint, broccoli rabe is the vegetable eaten for years in Italy and brought to the United States by Italian immigrants.  If a restaurant purports to sell broccoli rabe, it shouldn’t be switching it with broccolini, and vice versa. It comes down to personal preference whether or not one chooses broccolini or rapini, but it should be a choice, not the result of a convenient switcheroo.

–Dina Di Maio

10 Foods to Try When Visiting Naples

If you are visiting Napoli, these are the 10 must-try foods that I recommend.  There are so many wonderful dishes, foods, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, seafood, etc that come from Naples or the Campania region.   It’s hard to narrow it down to ten.  But the average travelers don’t have an Italian nonna to cook local dishes for them nor do they have access to a refrigerator to buy groceries for themselves.  So I compiled this list with the vacationer in mind.  I think these foods are the best for visitors to try.

  1. Pizza–In the birthplace of pizza, there are many places to try the city’s favorite dish.  Neapolitan pizza is different from American-style and New York-style pizza.  If you prefer the crispy crust of a New York-style pizza, you may not like Neapolitan pizza.  However, the ingredients on Neapolitan pies are usually top notch.  A trendy place to try is Sorbillo.  My favorite was Vesi, although I liked Da Michele too.

    Da Michele

    Da Michele pizza

  2. Sfogliatelle–A Neapolitan pastry that can be eaten for breakfast or dessert.  It’s a popular one in Italian-American bakeries.  The sfogliatelle is a difficult pastry to tackle and master–not one for the home cook.  You must try one from Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio, a bakery not far from the main train station.  It is by far the best I’ve ever had.  It comes hot from the oven.  The thin layers are crisped to perfection for a wonderfully crunchy bite.  The custard and cherry ones are a special treat too.

    sfogliatelle

    sfogliatelle

  3. Pizza portafoglio–This pizza is the perfect fast food.  It is sold from carts outside pizzerias.  It’s a personal-sized pizza folded in quarters.  Unlike most Neapolitan pizza, this pizza is crispier and doesn’t have the “soggy” center.  It also doesn’t have much cheese. But the taste is divine.

    portafoglio

    portafoglio

  4. Taralli–A crunchy ring of dough, taralli is Neapolitan snack food.  It comes in sweet and savory varieties. IMG_2938
  5. Pizza fritta–Pizza fritta is a popular Italian-American snack too.  It’s a fried calzone with a cheesy filling in the center.  It is also sold from carts outside fry shops.

    pizza fritta

    pizza fritta

  6. Rum baba–This pastry can be seen all over Naples.  It is also a popular pastry found at Italian-American bakeries in the United States.  IMG_2870
  7. Neapolitan ragu–aka Sunday gravy in the United States.  Ragu is a slow-simmered tomato-based meat sauce for pasta. IMG_2660
  8. Frolla–The frolla is the easier version of the sfogliatelle that can be baked by home cooks.  Or just as easily bought at numerous cafes in the city.

    pasta frolla

    frolla

  9. Gelato–There are many gelateria in Napoli. One of my favorites with multiple locations is Fantasi Gelati.  There are many flavors to choose from.  I liked the cioccolato–so rich–and fior di panna. IMG_2755
  10. Mozzarella–Try some mozzarella di bufala made from buffalo milk.  Yes, this is available in the United States, but it loses something on its refrigerated trip here.  It is absolutely creamy and wonderful fresh. You can order it as antipasto or in a Caprese salad. IMG_2630–Dina Di Maio

Tandem, a Ragu Restaurant in Napoli

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Tandem is a restaurant just steps off of the main drag, Via Tribunali, in Napoli’s Centro Storico district. The restaurant is dedicated to Napoli’s claim to fame, ragu, or gravy, a slow-cooked tomato-based sauce with various cuts of meat like beef or pork.   Tandem’s website says it is the first restaurant dedicated to only ragu, and that ragu is virtually unknown outside of Napoli.  This latter statement is a fallacy, as ragu is known in other parts of Southern Italy and in the United States where millions of Neapolitan and Southern Italian immigrants settled over 100 years ago.  Ragu is what is known in America as Sunday gravy.

At Tandem, the gravy is cooked for 6-8 hours similar to how it is cooked at home.  Opened just three years ago, the restaurant is trendy and not to be missed for the visitor to Naples.  It is a popular destination, so I would suggest a reservation.  However, I did not have a reservation and was able to be seated immediately outside.  (While I enjoyed dining outside because the restaurant is located on a side street with much local color, the general downside of dining outside in Napoli is the panhandler.  Panhandlers in Napoli are more aggressive than the ones I’m used to in NYC, and unlike the ones in NYC, they don’t just want money, they are happy with food or anything you are willing to give them.  I won’t get into a discussion on how one feels about panhandling, as people have different views, some see it as a nuisance and others want to take a more spiritual route and give.  I tend to fall in the former camp–I’m a New Yorker–and it’s always good to have a healthy suspicion so you do not fall prey to crime.  So yes, if you surmised that there was an aggressive panhandler there that night, you would be right. However, he eventually went away and he did not detract from the delightful experience.)

While ragu has meat in it, the great thing about Tandem is that there are plenty of vegetarian alternatives, including seitan.

I got the manfredi with ragu and ricotta.  It was delicious.
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My friend got the gnocchi with vegetarian ragu and provola.  It was also delicious.

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We shared grilled eggplant, and this was probably the best eggplant I’ve ever eaten.

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We also shared grilled provola cheese from Sorrento that was wonderful.

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If you are visiting Napoli, I highly recommend a visit to Tandem.

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

 

 

Russian Carrots in Milk Sauce

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I bought this Russian cookbook at a Russian event and since springtime is synonymous with carrots, I decided to make carrots in milk sauce.  It’s a simple recipe.  I liked it, but no one else did.  If you like cream, you will like it.  It is bland, but I found it to be pleasant.  I got a bag of sliced carrots and cooked them with a teaspoon of sugar and pinch of salt.  The milk sauce is a roux made with milk, flour, butter and salt.

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