Saturday, November 22, 2014

Recipes from Lazio, Italy

There's something about Italian food that resonates with me, and I'm not really sure why. My mom never did Italian when I was a kid, unless you count spaghetti (and I don't). Italian food is just comforting, even if you have no childhood experience with it. So I always like coming back to Italy, and I even kind of wish I'd broken up the country into smaller sections when I made my list, which would give me a good excuse to make even more Italian food.

Looking back, I've got some Italian provinces earlier in the alphabet I probably should have skipped to before tackling Lazio, but I guess I'm just kind of blindly plowing through the alphabet at this point. Anyway, Lazio is sort of the middle front part of the boot. It’s mainly flat and/or slightly hilly, and it has a nice long coastline.

The city of Rome is in Lazio, which means that all the cool stuff is there, like the Roman Colosseum and the Pantheon. It also has a lot of natural hot springs—if you’ve ever seen images of the ancient Romans in their baths, Lazio was probably the setting for that. For history lovers there is other cool stuff in Lazio, like Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana, which was the residence of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The Appian Way (one of ancient Rome's most strategically important roads) still runs through the region, too.

The Colosseum, Rome. Lazio, Italy. Photo by  Dennis Tang.
The food in this region tends to be simple and easy to cook, which is good for me personally. Vegetables grow well in the area so are a big part of the cuisine, and meat dishes are often very heavily seasoned—this harkens back to the days when the poor lived outside of the cities and often had only the lesser cuts of meat to cook with. For my main course, I chose a chicken dish:

Pollo Arrosto con Arancia ed Uvetta
  • 1 4lb chicken, cut through the backbone and flattened
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • Juice zest of 1 orange
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp chili flakes
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp salt
And then I did some pasta on the side, because of course you have to do that:

Cacio e Pepe
  • 1 lb fresh spaghetti noodles
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
  • 3⁄4 cup Cacio de Roma, finely grated (substitute Pecorino Romano)
And finally:

Roman Artichokes
  • 4 large artichokes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped fine
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
Let's start with the main dish. First, place the chicken in a large casserole dish. Mix everything but the salt together in a large bowl.

Pour over the chicken. Cover and let marinate in the fridge for 24 to 72 hours, turning occasionally.

Now preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Salt the chicken and place breast side down in the roasting pan. Let roast for 45 minutes, basting occasionally. Then flip the chicken over and roast for another 35 minutes, until the chicken is golden and a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reaches 175 degrees.

Now for the artichokes, which also take a bit of time:

First snap off the leaves about halfway around the outside of the artichokes. I actually found them to be so tough that I had to cut them off with kitchen shears. What you're doing is getting rid of the tough top parts and the stickers and leaving the meatier bottom parts.

Keep at this until you start to see the red tips of the inner leaves. Now take a very sharp kitchen knife and cut off the top of the artichoke, across those red tips. 

Now comes the hard part—scoop out the hairy choke on the inside of the artichoke, and all of those really small stickery leaves. This is really challenging. I found myself in there with a pairing knife trying to loosen up all the stuff that needed to come out, and I still didn't get it all out. When you think you've done an acceptable job, trim the stems.

Now place the artichokes in a pan, stem sides up. Mix the olive oil, salt and pepper with the garlic, mint, lemon juice and vinegar. Now, the recipe said that the liquid should go about halfway up the sides of the artichokes, which let's face it is a ton of olive oil and you'd basically be deep frying them at that point. I didn't use that much oil. My artichokes did come out a little burned at the tops, but I really can't afford to use that much olive oil in one recipe! So I just stuck with a cup—add more if you want. You will probably get better results.

Cover the pan and heat over a medium flame. You're going to get popping sounds like you get anytime you deep fry something, but you're going to let these go for 40 minutes or so, so keep checking to make sure they don't burn or stick.

OK now for the easy part:

Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and set aside, reserving a cup of pasta water.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over a medium flame and cook the pepper for 1 or 2 minutes, or until fragrant.

Add ¾ cup of the pasta water to the skillet with the oil and bring to a boil. Add the pasta, and sprinkle with ¾ cup of the Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma.

Toss to combine, then transfer to plates and sprinkle with the remaining cheese and additional black pepper to taste. 

I loved loved loved this meal. It was really simple, and the fresh spaghetti was really good with just that little bit of cheese and black pepper. I also really enjoyed the artichokes, but artichokes are my favorite vegetable so I'd really have to screw them up in order to not enjoy them. The chicken was really good, too. It came out nice and juicy and had great flavor. It was an easy meal and tasty too, with that Italian food comfort on the side.

Next week: Lebanon


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