Lidia Bastianich's Rice and Potato Soup with Parmesan

Rice and Potato Soup with Parmesan

I just have one question for you today. ARE YOU SAVING THE RINDS OF YOUR PARMESAN CHEESE?

Sorry if that's a little loud, but I just really need to make sure that all of you have gotten the Parmesan rind memo, okay?

I'll try and calm down now. Alright.

Now, have I told you about my freezer? (Okay, fine, two questions.) There are many, many things that I love about living in Europe. But I'll tell you one something: European freezers are not one of them. They are A LOT to get used to and by A LOT I mean not much at all. I have shoe boxes larger than my freezer. Not even kidding!

Anyway!

My freezer. It is the home of a few forlorn Chinese dumplings, some tortillas purchased in Boston in 2019 (sob), a couple of boxes of frozen veg, my KitchenAid ice cream attachment (wheee! It was one of my birthday presents in December and it is brilliant) and about 15 foil-wrapped Parmesan rinds. We go through a lot of Parmesan cheese in this house, as it must top almost every plate of spaghetti (not Hugo's, though, who loathes melted cheese in all forms yes I'm talking grilled cheese and gratins and lasagne and nachos and PIZZA why God whyyyyyyyyyy) and because it is the only cheese that the boys will eat thin slivers of, after dinner, like sophisticated little creatures destined for a life of pleasure and harmony.

Every time we get to the end of a wedge of cheese (and I mean the very end, we're talking just a few millimeters), I wrap them up in a piece of aluminum foil and throw them into the freezer. This way, the next time I make soup, I know I have a little umami flavor bomb just waiting to be pulled into active duty. Straight from the freezer, I unwrap the rind, plop it into the pot of broth and let it do its magic.

As it simmers away in that pot of soup, the rind miraculously continues giving up huge amounts of flavor, enough to scent the house and make your soup taste very, very good. Then there is the added bonus that the rind is entirely edible. As it cooks, it softens and mellows. Upon serving the soup, you can fish out the rind and, depending on the size, either share it with your fellow diners or eat it all yourself, a very well-earned cook's snack.

My mother and I love the rind and always share it. My husband and children do not (it's a textural thing, as it's a little rubbery, which is pleasing to some and not to all), so I get to eat it all myself.

Now, on to this particular soup. It comes from the way back, dusty depths of this very blog, having first been published in November of 2005, when baby Wednesday Chef was just a few months old. A wee bairn! It comes from Lidia Bastianich, grande dame of New York Italian cooking, and it features the absolutely wonderful pairing of potatoes and rice, which will strike some of you as too much starch! and others as just enough. I am firmly in the there is no such thing as too much starch camp and so this soup is one of my very favorites.

It is nourishing and a balm, to make and to eat, and you can, as with Rachel's squash and rice soup, play with the amount of liquid you use to make a looser or stewier soup. If you err on the side of stewy, and there are leftovers, they will cool into risotto, which will please (no, let's be real, may please) the children in your home. The parsley, I feel, is essential because it brings a bit of brightness and the faintest touch of acidity to the soup, balancing out the flavors nicely. If your children are the kind to fall over in a dead faint at the sight of something green in their soup COUGH COUGH, leave it out of the pot and just sprinkle it on your own portion.

One of the oddities of a life in food blogging is the fact that you have the pleasure of eating so many delicious meals that rarely get made again, because there are so many other recipes to get to. This is hardly a hardship, though Max has been known to beg me to remember certain dishes while he's eating them. I'm happy to say that this recipe is one of those rare ones that comes around again and again, lamination-worthy, as I have been known to say. These beloved favorites now have their very own category over there in the sidebar on the right.

Eagle-eyed readers may notice that the categories in general have been cleaned up and clarified a bit, so that now you can quickly navigate your way to quick weeknight dinners, vegetarian main dishes or gluten-free recipes. I hope this helps you navigate all the good food available here. In fact, in the coming weeks, I'll be featuring other favorites that I first wrote about long ago, but that I feel deserve some fresh sunlight and a little love.

Note: This post includes an affiliate link and I may earn a commission if you purchase through it, at no cost to you. I use affiliate links only for products I love and companies I trust. Thank you.

Rice and Potato Soup with Parmesan
Serves 6
Print this recipe!

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
4 to 5 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch cubes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup long-grain or arborio rice
8 cups hot vegetable or chicken stock, plus more if desired
2 2-inch-squares Parmesan rind
1 fresh or dried bay leaf 
A handful chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. In a deep, heavy 4- to 5-quart pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the carrots and celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3-5 minutes. Add the potatoes and stir to combine. Add the tomato paste and stir well to coat the vegetables. 

2. Add the rice, broth, cheese rinds and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, stirring well, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 18-20 minutes. Check the seasoning. If you'd like a looser soup, add a little more broth. Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaf and stir in the parsley. Remove the rinds, cut into pieces and distribute among the serving plates. Ladle the soup on top and serve.


Towpath's Olive Oil Cake

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One of the most underrated cookbooks of the past couple of years is, in my opinion, Aleksandra Crapanzano's The London Cookbook. a wide-ranging collection of recipes from London's best restaurants, pubs, cafés and holes-in-the-wall. I got a copy from my editor (the writer and I share a publisher) and over the past several months have slowly fallen in love with it. (It was published in the fall of 2016, when I had my hands full with my own book launch!)

The premise isn't, at first glance, my kind of thing at all. I'm really pretty uninterested in restaurant recipes. Restaurants have completely different goals, budgets and team numbers than a home cook. While I can appreciate that some home cooks would like to know how a three-star restaurant makes a 15-step duck confit, my sense is that most of us couldn't care less. If we can afford to go to that kind of restaurant, we enjoy that kind of cooking there. If we can't afford it, it remains a thing like a fancy sports car or a luxury vacation - something to view from afar. Or is it just me?

But Aleksandra gets that attitude and while there are of course several multi-step recipes in the book that kind of make my eyes glaze over, there are a surprising number of truly doable, simple gems in every chapter. In the introduction, it turns out, Aleksandra specifically mentions the fact that she wanted to only include recipes that were "easily made at home." If a chef wasn't able to adapt a recipe realistically for a home cook, it wasn't included. If you know restaurant cookbooks, that's pretty remarkable. Even more remarkable is that Aleksandra, clearly a first-rate home cook and the kind of cookbook writer we should all strive to be, managed to hone the recipes to make them truly accurate (and isn't that what we're all looking for in recipes?!). What you end up with is a book full of gorgeous, vibrant, interesting recipes from all kinds of amazing places in London that are also totally doable and approachable for home cooks. It's a slam dunk.

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The very first recipe that I tried was this olive oil cake from a café in London called Towpath. (I've never been myself, but I've heard about it from all sorts of discerning food people over the past several years.) And it was...perfect. The recipe was precise and correct (even without metric measurements) and the cake was out-of-this-world delicious, especially considering how simple it is. Everyone from Joanie, my baking North Star, to my father, who'd usually rather eat a plate of kimchi than a piece of cake, was ravished by it. By a simple, orange-scented olive oil cake, you guys!

I think the reason it was such a home run, beyond the fact that it was such a pleasure to follow such a well-written recipe, was a combination of the cake's flavor and its texture. The flavor was sort of delicate and floral, but also satisfyingly creamy and comforting, like a really good yellow cake. The crumb was fine and moist, but not greasy or oily in the least. Sturdy, too, the kind of thing you could almost eat out of hand, but without being dry or tough. It was marvelous. (The only weird thing? No salt in the recipe. The recipe came to Towpath via a Tuscan olive estate, which explains the lack of salt - most Italian dessert recipes (most European ones, actually) eschew salt. Out of habit, I added a pinch. You can go either way.)

When I made this, in mid-February, we still had a few chocolate Santas lying around the house and one of them was a fancy dark chocolate one, so on a whim, I chopped it up and added it to the cake. I think it was a mistake, or rather, an unnecessary fiddling and one I wouldn't recommend. This cake deserves to be left alone, served up proudly in its stark simplicity. No chocolate or whipped cream needed.

The recipe's in my forever files; the book's on my kitchen counter.

Note: This post includes affiliate links and I may earn a commission if you purchase through these links, at no cost to you. I use affiliate links only for products I love and companies I trust. Thank you.

Olive Oil Cake
Adapted from The London Cookbook
Makes one 9-inch round cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1 to 2 teaspoons grated orange zest
Juice of 1 orange
Pinch of salt, optional

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Butter the sides of a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

2. In a small bowl, stir the flour and baking powder together.

3. Place the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until thick and pale yellow, about 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Add the olive oil, milk, orange zest and juice and beat for another minute or two. Turn off the machine and fold in the flour mixture by hand.

5. Scrape into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack completely before serving.


Tasting Rome's Picchiapò

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This post is brought to you by my iron-deficient blood which periodically makes me crave red meat, like, sit-straight-up-in-bed-practically-slavering-for-an-8-ounce-steak-crave, if you know what I mean. (In German, anemia is also called Blutarmut, which translates to "blood poverty", which always makes me think of my poor little blood walking around with a kerchief on its head, like the Little Match Girl, asking for alms. But I digress!)

I was recently sent a copy of Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. It's a gorgeously photographed collection of recipes gathered from every corner of the sprawling wonder that is Rome. To be specific, as written in the introduction, "[Rome's] peripheral, graffiti-clad neighborhoods, patrician districts, archeological parks, neighborhood bakeries, artisanal gelato shops, dimly lit cocktail bars, chaotic markets, and innovative restaurants." While I hardly need another recipe for spaghetti cacio e pepe or my most beloved of Rome's recipes, rice-stuffed tomatoes, I am always, always, always interested in the other recipes, the ones I didn't grow up with or, even better, have never even heard of before. And on that count, as on many others, Tasting Rome totally delivers. 

I love that Katie and Kristina include recipes from the Libyan Jewish community in Rome, like a dish of stewed fish with ample amounts of hot pepper, cumin and caraway, served over couscous, or chicken meatballs seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and pistachios. A book on Rome is of course not complete without recipes for offal and in Tasting Rome, a whole chapter is devoted to chicken gizzards, pork liver and tongue. The cocktails reflect contemporary Rome and its electric nightlife. The recipe for pizza bianca is accompanied by a photograph so fetching that I keep finding it difficult to not stick my hand through the page to get at the pizza.

If you need them, all the classics are covered (vignarola, carbonara, cacio e pepe, supplì and so forth). But the recipe I want to tell you about today is a slightly less exalted one, though no less delicious. Long-simmered beef is shredded and stewed in a spicy, oniony tomato sauce, then served in a soft white bun (move over, meatballs!) or ladled over a piece of nice sourdough bread. It's classic Rome food, really, making leftovers shine in a new and humble way. (Though it's a new one for me - and my mother, incidentally!) When I first saw the recipe, in all its beefy glory, my poor blood and I sat up a little straighter.

Hello, lover:

Beef

The recipe comes from the Mordi e Vai stand in Testaccio Market. You start with a piece of beef shin, but I actually ended up using a piece of brisket, because that's what the butcher had and it was perfect, too. You simmer it with some aromatics for a couple of hours. Alternatively, because this is a dish that is meant to recycle leftover beef, you could simply use leftover brisket or leftover pieces of beef from a previous meal. Either way, the meat must be shredded, and some of the soft carrots that you cooked with the beef, roughly chopped. Then you make a simple tomato sauce, flavored only with onions, marjoram and hot pepper. Once the spicy sauce has thickened, the shredded meat and carrots are stirred into it and simmer together until it's all one big, aromatic stew.

I loved making it from start to finish, salting the beef, the long and gentle simmer, the two-forked shredding, and the light stewing in tomato sauce. This is slow cooking at its best; simple and uncomplicated. And what is more satisfying than turning tough old cuts or sad leftovers into something juicy and irresistible?

Shredded beef and carrots

If you had (or have!) a grandma whose specialty was brisket, like I did, let me tell you something. This dish tastes like Grandma's brisket died and went to heaven. The sum of the toothsome shredded beef with its soft little pockets of fat and connective tissue simmered into submission, the addictively spicy tomato sauce, and the sweet and tender carrots, not to mention how good the savory juices soaking into a nice piece of soft bread are, is actually more than I'm able to describe.

You can blame that on me being out of practice, I guess. Or blame it on the anemia! It makes me light-headed and a little woozy. I guess I'm just going to have to go make another batch.

Note: This post includes affiliate links and I may earn a commission if you purchase through these links, at no cost to you. I use affiliate links only for products I love and companies I trust. Thank you.

Carne alla Picchiapò
Adapted from Tasting Rome
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound beef shin or brisket
1 cup dry white wine
2 carrots
3 onions
10 black peppercorns
3 cloves
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram or 1/2 tablespoon dried
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1. Salt the beef all over and place on a plate. Refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours.

2. Place the beef in a large pot with water to cover. Over low heat, slowly bring the water to a very gentle simmer, skimming off any foam that rises to the top. Once the water simmers, add the wine, carrots, 2 of the onions, whole, the peppercorns and the cloves. Cook at a low simmer until the beef is fork tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Transfer the meat to a plate and shred it with two forks. Coarsely chop the carrots. The rest of the cooking liquid can either be discarded or reduced to a broth, if desired. It should be strained before serving.

3. To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Meanwhile, dice the remaining onion. Cook the onion with a pinch of salt in the oil over medium-low heat until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the marjoram and hot pepper, stir a few times, then add the tomatoes. Cook until the sauce has thickened and reduced a bit, about 15 minutes.

4. Add the shredded beef and carrots to the tomato sauce and mix well. Cook for another 15 minutes. Serve immediately as a sandwich filling on soft bread, served over a slice of crusty bread, or as a stand-alone dish.


Riso al Forno alla Siciliana

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We are in the final days of our vacation, when things get sort of panicky and weird. The temperature has dropped and it's now colder here than in Berlin, which is no good at all. I'm wearing a very strange mish-mash of clothing (palm-frond leggings! a stained t-shirt! my mother's cardigan! white Birks!) from the vacation closet to stay warm. And in a minute, I'm heading downstairs to make our third crostata this vacation so far. But! I know what you're making for dinner tonight! Or tomorrow. Or this weekend. WHENEVER. You're making this.

I found it in yet another of my mother's cookbooks, you know, the ones with no author, the ones you'd normally see in a grocery store instead of a bookstore and pass on by without a second glance. This particular one was published by La Repubblica, the newspaper, and is part of a series on regional Italian cooking. The region in this case, Sicily.

I paged through it the other day and found about seven hundred and thirty things I wanted to make right away, but this baked rice dish stood out because it didn't require much of anything exotic, besides maybe caciocavallo cheese (which I substituted with provolone.)

You par-cook Arborio rice and dress it with olive oil and grated cheese. Then you stew together garlic, onions, bell peppers, eggplants and tomatoes and season them with basil, some red pepper flakes, salted capers and cured black olives. This mixture is layered with the par-cooked rice and more of that grated cheese and baked in the oven until the top is good and melty and brown.

It sounds sort of fussy, but the payoff is huge. We loved how elaborate it looked and tasted and yet I slapped the whole thing together just before lunchtime. Vacation lunchtime, but still - this could totally be a weeknight dinner. (I'd even go so far as to say it could be dinner party fare, but it falls apart on the plate in a way that might not be quite what you're going for when you have guests. But I don't know your life, so do whatever the spirit tells you to do.)

150 grams of cheese sounds like a lot of cheese, but it's spread out throughout the dish and seasons the rice really nicely. Plus, when you dig out a scoop of the rice, tiny filaments of cheese hang off the spoon and wiggle. YESSSSS.

Riso al Forno alla Siciliana
Serves 6

320 grams Arborio rice
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the dish
150 grams caciocavallo or provolone, grated
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 small eggplants or 1 large one, halved and sliced
3 plum tomatoes, cored and sliced into thin strips
2 tablespoons salted capers, soaked and rinsed
1/4 cup cured black olives, pitted
Red pepper flakes, to taste
8 basil leaves
Salt

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the rice and lower the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, then drain the rice. Place the rice in a bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir in 50 grams of grated cheese. Set aside.

2. Place the remaining olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two, then add the onions, peppers and eggplant. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Then lower the heat to low, cover and stew for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the lid and add the tomatoes. Stir well, then cover again and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

4. Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium-high, add the capers, olives, red pepper flakes and basil leaves. Stir well and cook for a few minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Oil a baking dish.

6. Place half the rice in the dish evenly. Distribute half the vegetable mixture over the rice evenly. Top with half of the remaining grated cheese. Repeat with the remaining rice, vegetables and cheese. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 25 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.


Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese

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I've just returned from a week in Sicily, where Rachel and I taught our food writing workshop at the splendidly picturesque Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. I have so much to tell you, but the words and impressions and images are still swirling around in my head and haven't had a chance to settle yet. While I was away, Hugo and Max went to visit Max's grandparents in deepest Bavaria. They communed with sheep, cows and chickens, wore rain boots all week, and generally had the best vacation a little boy could hope for.

We all got home this past weekend, to an empty fridge and an uninspiring larder. Even the bread box was bare. And since stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, shopping was out. Mercifully, my mother had us over for lunch on Sunday. There were oven-baked polpette encrusted with breadcrumbs, roast potatoes, salad, and gratineed eggplant. After a week of being cooked for at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I thought I might feel like cooking again once I got home. But no, actually, being fed by someone else still felt pretty good.

At dinnertime, though, we were on our own. I picked up and considered a can of baked beans, a jar of millet, some carrots asleep in the fridge. I thought about doing a bit of tinkering. Roasting nuts, cooking lentils, trying to make something fresh out of the drabness staring back at me from the pantry. But after all that Sicilian home cooking - the expertly balanced menus, richly flavorful sauces, the vegetables that tasted so deeply of themselves and the earth, and crisp fritti - culinary experimentation felt a little sacrilegious. And after a week of not seeing my loves, the last thing I felt like doing was sequestering myself in the kitchen for an hour.

Instead, I went all the way back to the most basic of basics with the things I always always always have around: rice and peas and a little bit of broth; an abbreviated, simplifed risi e bisi. You could go elsewhere for more complicated versions of that classic Italian dish (David Tanis' with pancetta and pea shoots and lemon zest, oh my, or Rachel's via Marcella Hazan, with homemade stock, fresh peas and Italian rice). But in a pinch, it's good to know that cutting corners works just fine too. This is how I cook when I don't want to cook.

I heated olive oil in a pan, then cooked the rice (regular long-grain, nothing fancy) in the oil until it was toasty and fragrant. In went a lot of water, enough to cook the rice and still have a bit pooling in each plate after serving. The water sizzled as it hit the hot pan. Then a few spoonfuls of Better than Bouillon's vegetable base were stirred in. (You could also use a bouillon cube. I often do.) When the rice was halfway cooked, tiny droplets of oil pooling at the surface of the water, I added twice as many frozen peas, then let the whole mixture cook together until the rice was finished.

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I spooned the rice and peas into our bowls, the broth pooling just slightly at the edges, put grated Parmesan on top to shrivel in the heat and melt. It felt like the truest nursery food, calming and nourishing, piping hot and agreeably savory.

You don't actually need a recipe for this, I think. But sometimes it's nice to know about the simplest, silliest meals, how we feed ourselves when we must make do. Knowing how to make a little thing that will fill you up and taste like home is just as important as knowing how to make a feast. These are the dishes that end up making up the fabric of flavors of your life.

Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese
Serves 2 adults and one toddler

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup long-grain rice
2-3 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon vegetable base (or a bouillon cube)
2 cups frozen peas
Grated Parmesan, for serving

1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan, then add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is fragrant and slightly toasted. Pour in 3 cups of cold water and add the bouillon base. Bring to a boil, then reduce to the heat to a simmer, with the lid on and slightly askew.

2. After about 7 minutes, add the frozen peas and stir well. Raise the heat to bring the water back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer again and finish cooking, with the lid on and slightly askew, another 7-10 minutes. The rice should be soft but not mushy. There should still be some liquid in the pan.

3. Ladle the mixture into bowls and top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.


The Best Roasted Vegetables Ever

Roasted vegetables
Sometimes I say to myself, I say, Luisa, does the world really need another recipe for and then I fill in the blank with whatever thing I'm about to tell you about, cookies or soup or roasted vegetables, say. And then I hem and I haw with myself for a good while, feeling alternatingly dejected and enthusiastic and, er, also slightly mad, before I make a decision.

For example: A batch of oatmeal cookies with chocolate (milk chocolate!) and raisins I made a few months ago? I decided against them. (Even though they were pretty good!) Because I kind of feel like I'd just be adding to the internet bedlam. These cookies are the best! No, make these cookies over here! No, no, my cookies are the be-all and end-all! Gah. Sometimes a girl just gets a little tired of all the noise. You know?

And so it was with these roasted vegetables. I mean, I love them and I think they are lamination-worthy (anyone reading here who still remembers that? ha!), but chances are you already roast your vegetables your very own way and is my little blog post really going to get anyone into the kitchen when it's hot and sticky out and everyone would rather be eating popsicles and swilling cold cocktails after hours and so on and so forth?

(It was a self-doubt kind of day, friends.)

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But ultimately, the deliciousness factor made me change my mind. I mean, even if just one person starts to make their roasted vegetables this way, I guess I will have won (what contest I couldn't even say) and so that was enough deliberating for me. Besides, my aunt Laura made us these vegetables the first day of our vacation and then was obliged to make them four more times over the course of the two weeks because none of us, not me, not my mother, not Hugo, not Max, could stop eating them. That's how good they are.

(SO GOOD.)

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Okay, so I don't know about you, but when I roast vegetables, I always just take the vegetable I'm going to roast (asparagus, say, or parsnips or Brussels sprouts or whatever), cut them into pieces (or not!), put them on a sheet pan with a little bit of oil and salt and stick them in a hot oven. I try not to crowd the vegetables so that they have space to brown and blister and get crisp, and I turn the heat up way high. And that's it.

But Laura did everything differently. First, she mixed a whole bunch of vegetables together. An eggplant, a zucchini, an onion, two carrots, a bell pepper, a few small potatoes and a couple of tomatoes. Tomatoes! She cut everything into little pieces, much smaller than I usually do (so small that about 3 pieces could fit into Hugo's (admittedly) widely-opened mouth once cooked). Then she piled all the vegetables into a baking dish. The vegetables were layered a few inches thick, squished willy-nilly on top of and next to each other. Laura also used way more olive oil than I usually do (which left a gorgeously hued puddle of delicious cooking juices at the bottom of the pan that we battled over, armed with pieces of bread, at the end of the meal). And finally, she turned the heat a little lower than I usually do and let the vegetables cook for much longer. Close to an hour, I'd say.

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For seasonings, she used this herb mixture (garlic already included) and a bit more salt and some pepper. Since then, I've done some experimenting, using herbs like thyme or rosemary or wild fennel, and I have to say that all of them work deliciously. Just make sure you mince your rosemary or else you will have poky little pieces strewn throughout your soft, fantastic vegetables and they will make you feel a little stabby. (Or is it just me?) What's important is that you include garlic in some form (either minced or left whole or in the herb rub), use plennnnnty of olive oil, crowd the vegetables as best you can into a dish (the more crowding, the better!) and let them cook for as long as you can stand.

What you will get, at the end, are vegetables that have sort of contracted and shrunk and sweetened. They get wholly infused with the flavors of the herbs, garlic and oil. The potatoes turn into potato candy - all chewy and sweet and incredible. The tomatoes lose all their moisture to the pan, but miraculously retain their shape, so you get little bombs of tomato flavor now and then. The onions snake their way throughout, perfuming every bite. The eggplants soften into silk. And all together, ooh, it's just so good that it's worth every bit of interest noise I might herewith create.

Ready? Here we go:

THE BEST ROASTED VEGETABLES EVER!!!!!!!

Roasted Vegetables
Serves 6 as a side dish

1 medium onion
1 medium or 2 small carrots
1 zucchini
1 eggplant
2 small potatoes
5 small tomatoes
1 red or yellow pepper
2 cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Dried herbs (sage, thyme, rosemary, wild fennel are all good choices - either individually or combined in some form)
4 to 5 tablespoons of olive oil, plus more to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F (180 C). Quarter and slice the onion thinly. Dice all the vegetables into pieces that are approximately the same size (no larger than 1/2 inch). Pile the vegetables into a baking dish so that the vegetables lie a few inches thick. Season with salt, pepper and herbs to taste and then pour the olive oil over the vegetables. Mix thoroughly but gently - you don't want to destroy the tomatoes before the dish goes into the oven. Now check the vegetables to make sure they are well-coated and glistening with oil. If need be, add more oil.

2. Put the dish in the oven and cook for 45 minutes to an hour. Halfway through the cooking process, remove the dish from the oven and very gently stir the vegetables so that the ones at the bottom come to the top. Towards the end of the cooking process, stir a second time. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Check for seasoning and serve.


Laura's Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Salad

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My aunt Laura, my mother's sister, was with us for most of our holiday in Italy. This was a good thing for several reasons, not the least of which was the guarantee of good meals every single day. I don't say this to knock my mother, mind you. She, too, freely admits that with Laura around, the level of dining in our house rises several notches at least.

Laura made us juicy bistecca alla Fiorentina and insalata di riso (cold rice salad) and the very best roasted vegetables I've ever had (more on those in another post soon). We had four different kinds of ricotta and really delicious bread and peeled almonds for breakfast, and she taught me to stir an egg into Hugo's evening pastina and made meatballs that he would have happily eaten every day for the rest of his life.

Laura also proved the usefulness of a ridged grill pan, which I now am coveting and need to add to my arsenal right away. Laura used it for grilling meat, of course, but what really opened my eyes were the vegetables she grilled with it. Thick slices of parboiled potatoes, for example, to dress with olive oil and herbs like dried oregano, or long strips of zucchini and eggplant.

And best of all was the salad she made with the grilled vegetables. After the grilled vegetables (eggplant and zucchini sliced lengthwise, then grilled on the hot pan with no oil on both sides) cooled, she cut them into thickish strips and put them in a salad bowl. She added two garlic cloves, slightly crushed (not entirely smashed - the aim is the perfume the salad without making anyone eat raw garlic), a good amount of salt and a healthy glug of peppery olive oil.

You know how raw eggplant soaks up olive oil quickly and in cooking can turn sodden and greasy? Well, if you grill the eggplant first and then dress it, the olive oil can't penetrate it anymore. It simply coats the eggplant pieces and leaves them still delightfully chewy and toothsome.

The salad is perfect summer fare - easy to make ahead of time, best at room temperature, hearty and cooling at once. It goes very well with grilled sausages, but also with a cool ball of mozzarella leaking milky fluid alongside.

Once I've got a grill pan in my possession, I'll be making this all summer long.


Capuliata

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Okay. Let's say you've recently come into some sun-dried tomatoes. And not just a few, but a good couple of handfuls, maybe even an entire paper bag full. What on earth am I going to do with all these sun-dried tomatoes?, I can hear you asking yourself. Aren't they so 1998? Aren't we all so over them?

Why, yes, dear reader, I do believe you have a point. I personally think the sun-dried tomato shark was jumped at the precise moment when people started putting sundried tomatoes in their bagel dough. With slivers of them already polluting every pasta sauce and sandwich spread I came across, it was at the bagel store that I decided I never wanted to see another sun-dried tomato again. And so, over the next decade, I did my very best to avoid them at all costs.

Until my Sicilian uncle (of course it was him) introduced me to something called capuliata.

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Capuliata is nothing more than sun-dried tomatoes whizzed to little bits, put in a glass and topped with olive oil. You can add a dried chile to the mix or dried oregano or garlic, if you like, or you can keep it plan. What's important is that the capuliata always be covered with olive oil (which keeps it from spoiling). It's intense, this stuff, but it totally rehabilitates the sun-dried tomato. Capuliata is so good, you'll find yourself hoarding it. Max and I once finished a whole jar in less than a week. I do believe some competitive eating might have been involved.

But what do you do with capuliata, I can hear you asking. Well, you can use it as a crostino topping, or dollop it alongside some cured meats for an antipasto. You can use a few spoonfuls to dress pasta, along with copious amounts of chopped parsley and grated pecorino. You can spread a dollop of it on a nice crusty sandwich along with something smooth and cool to calm down the flavors, like ricotta (I'd add some arugula, too). Or you can, like my husband does, eat it from the jar with a spoon. (Only recommended for the diehards, though - my mouth would explode if I tried this.)

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As you can probably already guess, it makes for a really nice present, especially when jarred in a pretty Weck glass. As long as there's always a thin film of oil on top, capuliata will keep for up to a year, though I very much doubt it would ever languish in anyone's pantry that long.

You hardly need a recipe, but here's how I do things:

Capuliata

Find yourself some sun-dried tomatoes. My most recent batch of capuliata came from 8 1/2 ounces of sun-dried tomatoes (240 grams). Put them in a food processor and pulse them until they are finely chopped. According to taste, add a healthy pinch of dried oregano and/or a dried chile to the processor before pulsing.

Wash and dry some jam jars (I was able to fill two). Fill the jars with the chopped tomatoes. You may have to push them down a little, but do not stuff the tomatoes into the jar too hard. Pour good-quality olive oil into each jar, pausing halfway through for the oil to slither into all the nooks and crannies, until the capuliata is covered with a thin film of oil. Close the jars. Store in a cupboard for up to a year (no need to refrigerate after it's been opened, as long as there's always some oil on top).


Meatballs for New Mothers

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Hugo will be eight weeks old this week. Eight whole weeks! In the past two weeks, he has started smiling at us, big, toothless grins that I have decided are the best thing since sliced bread, the steam engine and the birth of Steve Jobs put together. He stares at us in wonder when we speak, uttering little coos like he's trying to answer our absolutely inane questions, eats like a champ (and, for that matter, sleeps like a champ, unless the hubris of putting this down in type damns me forever) and is an absolute delight.

I have always wanted to be a mother. I've had baby fever my whole life, at least as far back as I can remember. I babysat avidly as a teenager, nannied as a young woman and fawned over my friends' babies when they were born. I very, very much looked forward to becoming a mother myself one day. And yet, still, the first three weeks of Hugo's life were a kick in the teeth. I don't want to say they were the hardest days of my life, because they were bound up with the wonder of Hugo - the boy who made us family - but they were hard.

(Proof? This tweet, in that wretched third week, was totally, completely, wholly unrhetorical in nature.)

Our culture, our society, prepares us endlessly for birth. But no one prepares you for what comes next. It's because, of course, there is no preparation. The sleep deprivation, the hormones (the hormones!), the terror of realizing in one split second that you are this little person's caretaker, its most important person, for the rest of your life, man, it is seriously heavy stuff that is very difficult to handle, much less prepare for. I realize now how right other societies have it when their new mothers are surrounded by their community for the weeks following birth, caring for her, washing and feeding her. A new baby doesn't really need much, but a new mother needs everything.

If you're a cook and you know a new mother or a woman who will be one soon, these meatballs can be your contribution to the cause of keeping that woman fed and sane (sort of). They're easy to make, they freeze well, they are nourishing and the new parents can even use the leftover sauce for a separate meal (we don't eat meatballs on spaghetti in Italy*) - a boon for those weary souls who will probably find it difficult even just to boil water at first.

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My mother doesn't consider herself much of a cook. (More on that in the book. And more on the book next time! Whee!) She only uses one cookbook, Ada Boni's Il Talismano della Felicità and even that one she only uses for inspiration, shall we say. (She takes a rather loose approach to following recipes, which irritates me to no end, but that's my cross to bear.) These meatballs come from there, but with one crucial difference: instead of frying the meatballs, she plonks them raw into a simple tomato sauce, eliminating a messy step and creating meltingly tender meatballs. (I think she got this idea from me? I'm not sure. I hate frying meatballs with a passion.)

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To make the meatballs, gather up the following:

1/2 pound of ground beef, 1/2 pound of ground pork, two eggs, 2 slices of white bread, the crusts cut off, enough milk to soak the bread, a bunch of parsley, a nutmeg for grating, salt, pepper, and, er, that's it.

Put the meat and eggs in a bowl. Tear the bread into little pieces, then soak them in the milk and squeeze them out, adding them to the bowl. Mince up the parsley and add it to the bowl. Grate a bit of nutmeg into the bowl. (30 strokes? To taste.) And salt and pepper the mixture. (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. I think.)

Then, using your hands, mix all of this together until it's a smooth, uniform mass. Cover the bowl with a plate or some plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for a few hours. When you're ready to cook, form the meatballs. I like smaller-sized meatballs, about the size of a small plum, two inches at most in diameter. Put them on a plate.

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Next you have to make your tomato sauce. Which is as easy as browning a clove of garlic in olive oil and then dumping a 28-ounce can of good-quality tomatoes (puréed, chopped, whatever) and their juices into the pot and cooking this over medium-low heat for about 25 minutes (don't forget to salt the sauce). When the sauce tastes good and cooked, for lack of a better descriptor, gently plop the meatballs into the sauce like so:

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Then put the lid on and let the sauce and meatballs simmer slowly away. Resist the urge to stir the pot; if you are concerned, shake the pot a little. 25 minutes later, turn off the heat. Let the pot sit there until fully cooled. At that point, you may freeze the meatballs or package them up to take to the new mother who needs feeding. This recipes makes enough for at least two meals for two people.

(*Are you asking yourself what on earth do Italians eat meatballs with, if not spaghetti? Well, this Italian likes serving them with polenta (also because leftover polenta fried in butter and doused with maple syrup is a prairie breakfast of the gods) or steamed rice, the better to soak up the sauce with.)

Meatballs may seem like a pretty humble offering, but to a hungry, bleary-eyed, frightened new mother, they can be deeply comforting. Especially if you tell her that I promise that whether she believes it or not, one day, not so far off in the future, she'll be feeling capable enough of making those meatballs herself.


David Lebovitz's Herb Rub

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Poppets, do I have a story for you. Four days before my manuscript due date, last Thursday, to be precise, I woke up feeling rather strange. This strangeness got worse all day and by the end of it, I found myself in the hospital with an anesthesiologist pumping stuff into my arm just before some very nice doctors relieved me of my appendix. Ain't that a kick in the head?

I got out of the hospital yesterday and am feeling a little bit like I got hit by a truck, both literally and figuratively. My head's still all woozy and I have the oddest tugging sensation on my insides and the deadline situation makes me want to cry and I really want to take a shower and it would be lovely to be allowed a cheeseburger for dinner instead of broth and boiled zucchini and to top it all off, I can't stop thinking about how, if I'd been born a Pilgrim, my life probably would have ended rather abruptly at 33. (Of course, if I'd been born a Pilgrim, a great many things probably would have ended my life much sooner than at 33, but logic and rational thought are not having a great day right now in the Mind of Luisa, so bear with me.)

I am trying not to wallow too much in the vat of Self-Pity (see Not Being Born A Pilgrim and so on for reference), but abdominal surgery, a missed deadline and the lack of a daily shower is starting to take its toll on your heroine. But before I slide completely off my rocker into the deep end, I need to quickly tell you about something sort of quietly wonderful.

It starts with my balcony, a little patch of white-tiled space nestled into the corner of our apartment building. By some stroke of luck, though it's on the courtyard side of the building and we are surrounded by apartments on all sides, no one can actually look into our balcony, which would be lovely if we were the type to sunbathe naked and as such is just sort of nice because we can have lunch out there in the summer without feeling watched (old Berliners love to watch people) and because I can neglect the plants out there without anybody giving me a disapproving look.

The only plants I have growing on the balcony are herbs, because I hate buying herbs only to see them grow black and moldy in the fridge and because I like my balcony plants to be useful, not just pretty. (Even if I do go and neglect them every now and then). I have high standards for plants, you see. So I've got two types of mint, oregano, thyme (that keeps migrating from its pot to other pots, magically), basil, rosemary, a very sad lavender bush and an exuberant spray of sage. So exuberant, in fact, that it sometimes feels as though it could be growing about half an inch a day.

The sage got to be a bit of a problem, in truth. To use it up, we tried eating a lot of ravioli in sage butter for a while. Surprisingly, that gets tired pretty quickly. So when I stumbled across David's method for using up sage, I never looked back. He first got the recipe from his friend Judy Witts Francini and, folks, it is a secret weapon if I've ever seen one. Now let me be clear: I have always nursed a healthy suspicion of herb salts. Or herb rubs. They seemed like a gimmicky way for chefs to sell products in grocery stores. The idea of cooking with them left me cold. But David has never led me astray. In fact, I'd probably eat a cold rubber tire if David told me that, marinated in Korean chile paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds, it tasted good. (Actually, that does sound good. Sweet cracker sandwich, people, I need some real food.)

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So I cut back my sage and rosemary plants, chopped them up very finely with a mess of garlic and a big spoonful of Maldon salt and then let the mixture, sandy and herby and fragrant as all get out, dry on my kitchen counter for a few days. When it was good and dry, I packed it into a little jar and forgot about it. Really!

Weeks later, starving on a Sunday night, we had nothing but some nice bread and some very ripe tomatoes in the house. No cheese, no pasta, no nothing. Rummaging through the cupboards, I stumbled upon my herb rub. On a whim, I decided to quick-roast the tomatoes mixed with the herb mixture, liberally splashed with olive oil. What emerged from the oven was rather difficult to stop eating, especially when we started dragging the bread through the herby, tomatoey olive oil at the bottom of the baking dish. Next up was a pot of beans that I'd cooked into creamy submission, but that desperately needed some pepping up. I spooned the beans into a baking dish, mixed them with a bit of the herb rub, a good glug of olive oil and a few shreds of canned tomato and put that in the oven until the house smelled like a rustic Tuscan lodge (or something). We put pieces of toasted peasant bread into our deep soup plates and ladled the baked beans over the bread and attacked. Dinner was a quiet affair that night, nothing but spoons clanking against plates and lips smacking.

The herb rub has pepped up rice salads and simple roast chickens, a lackluster pork tenderloin and countless pots of beans. I've dipped into it over and over again until, a year later, the jar's entirely empty. Which is serendipitous timing, because my sage plant has gone into overdrive once again.

To sum it all up, people, you need this stuff in your stash. It will make countless Sunday night dinners, when you're cobbling together weird little meals out of odds and ends, that much better. It will make you seem refined and with-it when you mix it with olive oil and set it out for nibbles with some nice bread before dinner. It will help your balcony looking neat and groomed and, best of all, it just tastes so good.

That is all. I feel better already.

Herb Rub
Makes 1 small jar

A very large bunch of fresh sage, two to three times as much as the rosemary
A large bunch of rosemary
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 heaping tablespoon Maldon salt

1. Pick the leaves off the sage and rosemary stalks. In a small food processor, chop up the herbs with the garlic cloves and salt until the mixture is pretty fine. Discard any sticks or seeds.

2. Spread the herb mixture on a baking sheet and let it dry for about three days. Once dry, store your herb in a tighly-sealed in a jar for up to a year.