Cruising Down the River


Had a first-time experience recently sloshing down the Rhine River from Basel Switzerland to Amsterdam aboard the Avalon Waterways “Affinity” pictured above.  Affinity for what is not exactly defined.

They say the Rhine River is unique in that it flows from south to north.  Looking at the map it’s no surprise for a river that starts up in the Swiss Alps at 5000 or so feet above sea level and winds up in Holland at zero feet.  Law of gravity no?

Continue reading “Cruising Down the River”

Agnolotti Are Not Ravioli – or are they?


There is another name for stuffed pasta found on menus just about everywhere in Italy but apparently nowhere in the U.S. except maybe in the high end restaurants.  The name is Agnolotti and you don’t ever pronounce the “g”.

These tasty items are normally stuffed with ground up braised veal or pork and parmesan cheese.  According to the scholars the more familiar Ravioli usually,  but not always,  are stuffed with other cheeses such as ricotta and vegetables such as spinach, in addition to or instead of ground meat.  So you ask,  all in all what is the difference?

Continue reading “Agnolotti Are Not Ravioli – or are they?”

From Caponata to Ratatouille

One day recently I nearly lapsed into a catatonic state watching the Food Network’s “Pioneer Woman” whip up a hearty batch of steak n’ eggs for all the buckaroos on the ranch.  Before passing out I had a straight off the wall idea flash before me.  I imagined that I would become the world’s leading expert on the connections between French and Italian cuisine.

All I needed was a place to start.  I thought and thought.  I figured I would begin with the complex and move on to the simple. For the first installment I decided a most convenient example of the introduction of Italian influence into French cooking might be the famous Bouillabaise and accordingly a rendering of the similarities between that dish and the Italian Zuppa di Pesce appears elsewhere on these pages if you can find it.

Continue reading “From Caponata to Ratatouille”

Ricotta Cheesecake – Crostata di Ricotta

Despite being the totally unaccomplished baker that I am I foolishly accepted an invitation from the Order of the Sons of Italy in America, Ocean City Lodge, to prepare a seasonal dessert dish for a recent meeting of members.  Since the OC Lodge has around 150 members,  roughly 100 of whom show up at every meeting,  other members were drafted to perform similar service for the occasion,  each preparing something different.

Since it was Easter season I chose the one item that probably sits quietly on every Italian family table on Easter Sunday,  waiting for the lasagne and roast pork or lamb to be consumed in their entirety.  Crostata di Ricotta!   Ricotta cheesecake.

Some idle background (which of course you should skip):

The word “crostata” is Italian for anything,  sweet or savory,  wrapped in a crust or pie dough, one version of which is commonly known in Italy as “pasta frolla.”  You can make “pasta frolla” from scratch or you can make the pre-mixed boxed Pillsbury stuff, or you can make Betty Crocker’s Cookbook classic apple pie dough recipe and most likely no one will know the difference.  I decided to take the high road.

In this instance I followed a recipe published by Chef Carlo Middione in his excellent volume The Food of Southern Italy (William Morrow & Co., New York, 1987, p 271)How many remember Carlo as the host of the now defunct TV series “Carlo Cooks“?  It was one of those rare shows that provided straight no-nonsense informative content minus the family walk-ons (Lidia),  the non-stop chatter (Rachel, Sunny),  annoying slapstick (Alton Brown),  or the mindless video clips of the local  butcher or farmers market (Ina Garten).  Carlo where are you buddy??

In any case once you get a handle on the “pasta frolla” you are on your way to a classic treat that actually does not need a holiday or particular season as an excuse to serve.

To make life interesting I set out below Carlo’s recipe for pasta frolla and in parentheses a popular recipe from an Italian website.  Slightly different as you can see.

Crostata di Ricotta

For the pie crust “pasta frolla:”

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (same)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar (sifted confectioners sugar)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (no salt)
  • 1/2 cup “sweet” butter cut in small cubes (unsalted butter)
  • grated rind from one lemon (same)
  • 4 or 5 tbsp. ice water (four egg yolks)

Process the flour,  sugar,  salt,  lemon rind and butter until the ingredients just begin to look like coarse sand.  Slowly add the water (or the egg yolks) until all ingredients come together in a rough ball.  Turn onto a floured pastry board and knead quickly for two or three minutes or until everything holds together.  Flatten the dough, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

For the ricotta filling:

  • 1/2 cup golden raisins (or dark if you want to avoid a special trip to the market)
  • 3 or 4 tbsp. dark rum (or light if you already drank all the dark)
  • 1 1/2 lbs. ricotta (the Sorrento/Galbani brand is the only one to use)
  • 1/2 cup chopped blanched almonds (or non-blanched to avoid yet another trip)
  • 2 large eggs
  • zest of 1 lemon and 1/2 orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 tbsp. all purpose flour


Have ready a 9 or 10-inch springform pan and preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Soak the raisins in the rum for 20 minutes.  Mix all the other ingredients in a bowl.  Divide dough in half and roll out one half into a 16 inch circle,  or one large enough to line the bottom and side of the baking pan,  allowing a one inch border hanging over the edge.

Pour the filling into the pan to one inch below the rim and proceed with the top layer of dough.  Now here is the caveat:  Carlo’s recipe, and many the italian versions, call for making the fancy checkerboard interlaced strips for the top layer.  I instead call for avoiding that like the plague,  thus saving over an hour of agonizing labor with a crimping cutter.  As a result more “pasta frolla” dough might be necessary for a wall-to-wall top crust,  I took the precaution of making up a dough recipe with increased ingredient quantities all around.  Three cups flour instead of 2 1/2,  etc.

I omitted the candied orange peel called for in Carlo’s recipe.  It seemed superfluous given the inclusion of orange and lemon zest.  But it is traditional.

OK,  brush the pastry top with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar, any kind, then bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until crust has a gorgeous golden brown color.  If it doesn’t look gorgeous toss the whole thing and start over.

Being paranoid I allowed the cake to cool down to room temperature,  then tapped it all around with the back of a spoon before attempting to release from the springform.  Mine came out just fine so I rewarded myself with a double Margarita since the rum bottle was still hanging around on the kitchen table.


Fry Me To The Moon!

Among all the various technical skills required to turn out edible meals frying is my most challenging.  This is unusual because virtually all ancestors in my royal lineage could handle the job with one hand tied,  especially my father.  So to gain more confidence I recently decided to seek treatment and was fortunate enough to locate a yoga expert who specializes in people with friophobia.  (Yes this is a valid medical condition and treatment is covered by Medicare).

One of the exercises I had to perform was to hold a hot frying pan over a campfire, filled with oil and battered calamari,  with bare hands,  standing on one leg,  blindfolded,  until cooking was completed.  It worked!

So now I feel qualified to turn out one of the most popular dishes served all over Europe, particularly in the south, as well as the US.  The descriptive term most frequently encountered is the Italian “fritto misto” or its equivalent in French, Spanish, Greek or Portuguese.

As you probably know by far the most dreaded aspect of the frying ritual is batter preparation.  Until recently I have experienced no luck whatsoever in creating a batter that can compare with the fast food enterprises like KFC and Arthur Treacher (remember him?). But now after hundreds of attempts I have created a batter recipe that does exactly what people expect. Crunch!

It is reproduced below without copyright so feel free to cut and paste.

Meantime once again a comparative analysis is in order (you of course can skip this).  My “go to” Italian website is “Giallo Zaffirano”, which would have us believe that no batter is required at all!! The fish are simple dredged in durum wheat flour.  The problem is of course that durum wheat flour is rarely found in any store in the U.S. as far as I know. Every now and then I find it in an Italian specialty shop but it’s rare and I don’t know why. It is basically the familiar semolina flour used in pasta preparation but ground more finely so that it resembles all purpose flour that everybody recognizes.  Unfortunately good ol’ AP flour does not work well all by itself.

The solution I found is a mixture of ordinary AP flour in equal parts with rice flour and the recipe is —may I have the envelope please:

1 part all purpose flour
1 part rice flour
1 heaping tbsp. corn starch
1 tsp. salt or more to taste
1 can more or less any beer lying around in the fridge

The trick is to mix all the dry ingredients well and whisk in the beer slowly until a moderately thick batter is obtained.  If you like a thin light batter use more beer,  if not just drink the remaining beer.  Experimentation is in order.

Once a suitable batter consistency is obtained you proceed to the refrigerator and locate any random seafood that may be lurking and that has not spoiled since you placed it there a month ago. Otherwise head for the local fish counter an pick up one or two of everything on display.

Seriously there are, as expected, no rules for fish fry ingredients.  In my latest attempt I used frozen flounder filets (defrosted of course),  shrimp and calamari (rings and tentacles).  The Europeans almost always include entire aquatic animals (gutted of course) such as anchovy,  smelts or sardines.

Grab a large high-sided saute pan, fill it halfway with canola oil, or even olive oil (thus disregarding the expert advice not to use it because of the so-called low smoking point).  Get the temperature up to 350 degrees or so and go to work.  A large wire spider helps a lot with dunking, frying, and draining off the fish onto paper towels.

Sprinkle the fried pieces with fresh lemon juice and start eating.  Try not to reach for the tartar sauce or other foul fattening dip.  If you can’t resist the urge to dip get your home made marinara sauce out and heat it up.  They don’t do this in Europe but, hey, what do they know?

The all-vegetable version of fritto misto is equally simple,  just make sure the pieces are cut up more or less in the same size so everything fries up together.  Frying time is usually not much more than three minutes depending on oil temperature.  My example shown here contained broccoli,  cauliflower, thin-sliced carrot,  bell pepper, mushroom and onion.

Which reminds me that the batter is most suitable for making beer-hall onion rings for the Saturday games.