Italian food that’s good for your taste buds and body


We just returned from another amazing adventure in Italy, one of many since our first visit 40 years ago. This was a short trip to see the Christo art installation “The Floating Piers” on Lake Iseo in northern Italy. It also gave us an excuse to visit our friends in Tuscany and Lake Maggiore.

One of our special, innovative lunches was at Il Cavaliere Ristorante at the Gabbiano Winery, outside of Florence. We were joined by our dear friend Bettina Rogosky, owner of the Carnasciale Winery in Tuscany, who brought a magnum of her special wine, Caberlot, to enjoy with lunch. 

Also at our table was chef Francesco Berardinelli, whom we have known for many years. He served us several dishes based on healthy, fresh ingredients and explained that they were originally part of Cucina Ebraica (“Jewish cooking” in Italian). He said the early Italian Jews adapted local produce and recipes to comply with dietary laws; for the same reason, vegetable dishes were developed to provide meatless meals. 

Chef Francesco began our meal with fresh-picked string beans from his garden. The beans, chock full of fiber and vitamins that contribute to healthy eyes and bones, were lightly steamed and tossed with a yogurt-lemon sauce, then topped with chopped mint and roasted hazelnuts.

Then he served a cold, thick Tuscan  Tomato and Bread Soup called Panzanella. The ingredients feature cancer-fighting vitamins and also included cubes of fresh mozzarella, lots of shredded fresh basil leaves (a virtually calorie-free source of Vitamin A) and extra virgin olive oil.

My favorite was Farinata, a pizza-pancake recipe made with chickpea flour, which is sold in Italian specialty shops and health food stores. Ideally, the batter — rich in fiber, protein and iron — is prepared a day in advance so it can mature before baking. 

It is interesting to note that chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, were another food staple that the Italian Jews always served; the dishes reflected the poverty of the Jewish community, which included refugees from Sicily and Southern Italy.

Farinata is now available in downtown Los Angeles at a new restaurant, Officine Brera, where chef Angelo Auriana bakes it in his pizza oven. It is vegan, gluten-free — and delicious! 

PANZANELLA (TUSCAN TOMATO AND BREAD SOUP)

  • 1 cup dried bread
  • 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut in cubes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
  • Basil leaves for garnish

 

Soak bread in warm water to soften and squeeze out excess water. 

Place tomatoes in a food processor or blender and pulse to blend. Add bread, olive oil, chopped basil, salt and pepper and blend. Transfer to a bowl and mix well. Spoon onto bowls and top with mozzarella cubes and basil leaves. 

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

GREEN BEANS WITH YOGURT-LEMON DRESSING

  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed into 1 1/2-inch lengths
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
  • 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts

 

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Drop in the beans. When the water returns to a boil, cook the beans for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drop into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, salt and pepper, honey and olive oil, and mix well.

Drain the beans and blot them dry on paper towels. Toss with yogurt dressing and top with mint and roasted hazelnuts. 

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

FARINATA (CHICKPEA PIZZA) 

  • 2/3 cup chickpea flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 

Sift the chickpea flour with the salt into a medium-size bowl. Slowly add 1/4 cup of the water, whisking constantly to form a paste. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup of water and, if time permits, cover with plastic wrap and let the batter stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or overnight, then stir in the chopped rosemary.

Preheat the broiler. 

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet. Stir the batter once, and pour about 3/4 cup of it into the skillet. Cook the pancake over moderately high heat until the bottom is golden and crisp and the top is almost set, 2 to 3 minutes. Burst any large air bubbles with the tip of a knife. 

Sprinkle pepper over the top and place the skillet under the broiler and cook until the pancake is golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Slide onto a wooden board. Using a pizza cutter, cut into wedges and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter. 

Makes 2 Farinata.

Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com.

Latkes and farinata: Something familiar, something new


These days, my family has spread out, but as always, we will all be coming together for Chanukah, because no one wants to miss the Chanukah reunion dinner, our favorite family get-together.

It is a time to catch up on family gossip and enjoy each other’s company, a time to sit around the table and reminisce about the past, light the Chanukah candles, eat and open the holiday presents.

When everyone arrives, we serve my special potato latkes, fried at the last minute and served hot and crispy, topped with applesauce or sugar. In addition, we always include something new. Last year it was corn blinis with salmon caviar. This Chanukah I have a new recipe that is a specialty of Liguria, Italy: Farinata, a thin chickpea pancake usually cooked in a wood-burning oven. Similar to a pizza, it can be served topped with roasted vegetables or soft cheese and can also be eaten plain, right out of the oven. Crisp and golden on the top, soft and moist on the inside, glistening with the fragrant olive oil it is fried in, Farinata is a finger-lickin’ food that nourishes the soul.

The main course will be a family favorite: my mother’s recipe for roast chicken baked in a tomato-wine sauce with lots of fresh vegetables and mushrooms from the farmer’s market. Perfect, because it can be made several days in advance and is easy to reheat and serve. I serve the chicken with green tomato marmalade, a wonderful recipe I discovered while taking a cooking class on one of our previous Italian trips. I make a large quantity of the marmalade using unripe green tomatoes available at this time of the year, fill jars and store them in the refrigerator. If there is leftover sauce from the roast chicken, I use it with pasta the next night.

Several years ago, I asked Michel Richard, when he was the chef at Citrus Restaurant in Los Angeles, if there was a way to serve chocolate ice cream without using dairy products. He said, “Why Judy, of course.” The next day he served me the most delicious bittersweet nondairy chocolate sorbet I have ever tasted. This is a perfect dessert for a nondairy meal. In addition, I have asked each family to bring a tray of their favorite homemade cookies to accompany this delicious chocolate dessert.

Judy’s Crispy Potato Latkes

This latke recipe was chosen as one of the top 10 recipes of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times.

4 baking potatoes, peeled
1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Heat 1/8 inch of olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about 2 minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes about a dozen latkes, or four servings.

Farinata (Chickpea Pancake)

In Liguria, which flanks Genoa along Italy’s northwest coast, the regional comfort food is Farinata. A deceptively simple street food, Farinata resembles a large, thin crepe or pancake and is traditionally cooked in a wood-burning oven.

Crisp and golden on the top, soft and moist on the inside, Farainata can be stuffed or garnished with any vegetable, cheese, or sauce, or it can be eaten plain. In some places minced onions or rosemary are sprinkled on top before it is baked.

2/3 cup chickpea flour
1/3 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
6 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1/4 cup chopped tomato
1/4 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon capers, (optional)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Sift the chickpea flour with the salt into a medium bowl. Slowly add 1⁄4 cup of the water, whisking constantly to form a paste. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup of the water and let the batter stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, then stir in the rosemary.

Preheat the broiler.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet. Stir the batter once, pour it into the skillet and drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil on top. Cook the pancake over moderately high heat until the bottom is golden and crisp and the top is almost set, 2 to 3 minutes. Burst any large air bubbles with the tip of a knife.

Sprinkle the rosemary, tomato, onion, capers (if using), Parmesan and pepper over the top, then place the skillet under the broiler and cook until the pancake is golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Slide onto a wooden board, cut into wedges and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Makes 2 Farinatas.
Note: Chickpea flour is sold in Italian specialty shops and health food stores.

Grandma Molly’s Roast Chicken With Mushrooms and Whole Garlic Cloves

1⁄2 cup olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
1 (15-ounce) can peeled tomatoes with juice, diced
1 cup dry white wine
2 (3-pound) chickens, cut into pieces
12 medium mushrooms, quartered
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 head garlic, cloves separated, unpeeled
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 sprigs of fresh rosemary or 2 tablespoons dried rosemary

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

In a large roaster, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions, minced garlic, carrots and celery, until tender. Add the tomatoes with juice and wine. Bring to a boil and simmer a few minutes. Arrange the chicken pieces, whole garlic cloves and mushrooms into the sauce and baste to coat the chicken. Add salt and pepper to taste, simmer for 5 minutes.

Place the fresh rosemary sprigs on top, cover and roast for 1 hour or until the chicken is tender.

To serve, spoon the sauce onto individual heated serving plates, place the chicken pieces on top with the mushrooms and vegetables and be sure to put an unpeeled garlic clove on top of each serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Chef Klaus’ Green Tomato Marmalade (Marmellata di Pomodori Verdi)

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
8 cups (2 pounds) green (under-ripe) tomatoes, diced (about 4 large tomatoes)
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, heated
Grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
10-15 mint leaves, sliced (optional)

In a large, heavy skillet combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil, mixing constantly, until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sugar begins to turn golden. Add the tomatoes, orange juice and zest, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the tomatoes are soft and the liquid has reduced to a thick syrup, about 20 minutes. Mix in the mint leaves, if using.

Cool.

Makes about 3 to 4 cups.

Michel Richard’s Nondairy Chocolate Sorbet

3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
4 cups water
1 1⁄2 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
1 cup port or cranberry juice

In a large, heavy saucepan, mix the cocoa and sugar together. Add water a little at a time in thin stream, mixing with wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Bring to boil for 5 to 10 minutes, until thick. (Straining is optional.)
Add chocolate and port, bring to a boil, then simmer until thick. Pour into an 8-cup pitcher or bowl and then place in a larger bowl filled with ice and water, stirring until cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer sorbet to a covered container and freeze at least 2 hours to mellow. If frozen solid, soften in refrigerator or at room temperature until creamy.

Makes 1 1⁄2 to 2 quarts.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Morrow, 1988) and “The International Deli Cookbook (Chronicle, 1994). “Judy’s Kitchen” appears on Jewish Life Television. Her Web site is www.judyzeidler.com.