I LOVE to cook, so I was very excited to hear that I could join the Whisk It review team! My first assignment was Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking by Mario Batali.
In the opening chapter Batali discusses what a typical ‘real’ Italian meal is like, and it is quite unlike the all-you-can-eat pasta extravaganzas you get at North American restaurants. A typical meal opens with a few antipasti selections, followed by a salad, then a small portion of pasta or pizza, and ends with a cheese course or bit of dessert. I tend to think of seafood, olives & cured meats when I hear the word antipasti, none of which I find appealing, so I was thrilled to see that Molto Gusto has a whole chapter on vegetable antipasti, and another on salads- perfect for the Friday night meatless meal that I had in mind! So with a week to plot & plan the menu, and four family members agreeing to be my guinea pigs/taste testers, I decided to make the following dishes:
Antipasti: Chickpeas with Leeks (pg 27), Green Beans with Charred Onions, Tomato Bruschetta (recipe not from cookbook), & dolmas (cheated- these were from a can)
Insalata: Arugula with Tomato Raisins (pg. 125)
Pasta: Pennette with Cauliflower Ragu, Pennette with Swiss Chard Ragu*I used spelt penne (couldn’t find pennette) & breadcrumbs as I needed a wheat-free pizza alternative for my mom, who has a wheat sensitivity.
Pizza: Pizza Margherita
Dessert: Fresh Blueberries and ‘Caramelized’ Peaches with Cold Whipped Zabaglione (pg. 243)
I know that this is a lot of dishes to make and wouldn’t plan such an elaborate meal any old day, but I was on vacation last week and felt ambitious. I had planned on making most of the antipasti and sauces Thursday night so that preparations on Friday would be a breeze, but I ended up spending most of Thursday painting (and repainting) my bathroom. But catching up only took me a few hours Friday morning, so it wasn’t too time consuming. I still had lots of time to clean the house and set the table outside (we were dining al fresco).
I started off in the morning by making the Leek Ragu recipe (pg. 93), which I needed for the Chickpeas with Leeks dish. It was dead easy (basically all you need to do is chop the ingredients & stir fry) and smelled divine. The finished ragu is then stirred into a bowl of chickpeas along with some olive oil. The recipe called for far more olive oil that I would normally use, and I almost halved the amount. I’m glad I didn’t- see my note below about how I found creative ways to use my leftovers. Here is a shot of the finished dish before I popped it in the fridge to let the flavours blend.
Next I made the Lemon Vinaigrette (pg 24), the dressing for the Arugula With Tomato Raisins salad. It is a simple lemon & olive oil dressing- again, very easy (took about 5 minutes).
Then I started the two Ragu sauces for the pasta dishes. Why two? They both sounded so darn good I couldn’t make up my mind!
Both ragus were very easy to do- I just chopped the ingredients, fried them briefly, then added water and continued to cook until everything is soft. During this last stage I dug out my blender, threw in a few slices of spelt bread, and ground them up to make fresh breadcrumbs for the Pennette dishes. The recipes call for the crumbs to be toasted in a bit of olive oil, which took only a minute or two and added a nice crunchy texture to the dishes.
Each ragu serves 6, and as I only had five coming for dinner I divided each in half and put what I wasn’t using away for later. I then whipped up a batch of tomato bruschetta , stowed everything in the fridge, and called it quits until later in the day.
A few hours before dinner, I started the Tomato Raisins- grape tomatoes mixed with oil & spices and oven roasted for several hours at a low temperature so they shrink and become very sweet. Right before serving, these are taken out of the oven and added to a bowl of arugula that has been seasoned with a bit of the lemon dressing.
With the tomatoes roasting, I started the Pizza Dough. I have a KitchenAid stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, so I didn’t have to mix the dough by hand- yay! I just followed the step by step instructions (and photos) from the cookbook and the dough was ready in minutes. Have I mentioned that I LOVE my mixer? The one hiccup was that the recipe called for you to use something called ‘00 flour’, which thanks to Google, I now know is a particular grind of flour. I used regular all-purpose flour and everything worked just fine. This is another ‘make-ahead’ recipe: once the dough is mixed, you divide it into 8 pieces, shape them into circles and par cook the dough. I tried to shape the first piece of dough by hand, which wasn’t a huge success, then switched to my rolling pin and had much better results.
Par cooking was simple. The recipe calls for using an ungreased enameled cast-iron pizza griddle, but my large nonstick frypan worked just fine. You cook each piece of dough for a few minutes on each side until browned in a few spots and then let the finished crusts cool on a rack. I only rolled and cooked what I needed for the meal- the rest of the dough went into the fridge, so I could finish cooking them the following day.
The next recipe was the Green Beans with Charred Onions antipasti dish. I blanched the beans for a few minutes, and then while they were cooling, I charred sliced sweet onions in a dry pan until browned. I just mixed in the dressing and presto- another dish completed!
Most of the recipes for dessert in the cookbook are for gelato, sorbetto and other delicious sounding treats, but I wasn’t confident any of them would work if I used sugar substitute (my dad is diabetic). I decided to make the Zabaglione recipe (using Splenda instead of sugar) as a topping for fresh blueberries and peaches that had been ‘caramelized’ in some Brown Sugar Splenda (following the instructions for Caramelized Bananas on pg. 224).
The zabaglione was very easy to do- basically whipped cream mixed with a thickened mixture of egg yolks, Splenda, a sweet Italian dessert wine called Moscato d’Asti (yum!) and a bit of orange juice. I had a bit of trouble with the caramelized peaches- the sauce was coming along beautifully until I added the fruit. Then it separated into a lump of hardened caramel combined with a thin sauce. I don’t know if this was a result of the use of sugar substitute or if I let the sauce boil too long. It all worked out ok in the end- I just chucked the lump of hard stuff and used the peaches in the thin sauce. The fruit was sweet enough as it was!
With the table set, all I needed to do was start the assembly process. I toasted bread slices for the bruschetta, topped them with the tomato mix and put them out on the serving table with the other antipasti dishes and the Arugula salad.
Next course: pasta. I left a fresh bottle of red wine on the table to keep my family occupied while I went in to boil the pasta. When the pasta was cooked to an al dente texture, I strained it & divided it into two bowls. The half recipe of the Cauliflower Ragu went into one, the Swiss Chard Ragu into the other, both which I had warming while the pasta was cooking. Both dishes are finished the same way- parmesan cheese stirred in and each bowl topped with the toasted bread crumbs. YUM!
Next course was the pizza. I had meant to serve this at the same time as the pasta, but was having issues with my timing. I topped the pre cooked pizza crusts with strained tomatoes, added thin mozzarella slices, a bit of olive oil and basil, and broiled them for about 7 minutes. I made two of these ‘Margherita’ pizzas, and then another one topped with parmesan and stir fried mushrooms (I’m a bit of a mushroom-a-holic). These were delicious and not too filling. The crust is super thin, there aren’t a lot of heavy toppings, and the pieces are small.
Dessert came next. All that was left to do was put a spoonful or two of the Zabaglione over fresh blueberries that I had mixed with the caramelized peaches.
Verdict- All of the recipes that I tried were delicious (family consensus) and very easy to prepare. The cookbook design is perfect for beginners and avid home chefs alike, with mouth-watering photographs of almost every finished dish and very easy-to-follow instructions. I loved that many of the recipes give you the option to make all or part of the recipe ahead of time. I will definitely use this book again.
Endnote- Since I went a little overboard by making so many different courses, I had a ton of leftovers, and have been coming up with creative ways to use them over the past few days. The extra tomato raisins lent some zing to a breakfast frittata the next morning, a few scoops of the Chickpeas with Leeks dish is DELICIOUS stirred into a bowl of lettuce (no extra dressing required!), the Cauliflower Ragu is great served over rice and the Swiss Chard Ragu stirred into scrambled eggs is very yummy. And I still have pizza dough in the freezer ready for a quick meal the next time I get home late.