Love for Italian Food – Week 1

Where do I even begin with Italian food? I’ve set a limit of 10 meals per month (with less days this month!), so I had to choose wisely. Two of my three meals this week came from Half Baked Harvest cookbooks, and the rest of the month I have a few challenges in store for myself. Including maybe using my pasta roller I got as a wedding gift…over 3 years ago. For this week, like most weeks, I needed to get most of the effort out of the way on Sunday, for an easy weeknight meal.

CHICKEN MOSTACCIOLI (slightly adapted from Half Baked Harvest)

Sauteed bacon & onion, tomato paste & red wine, and simmered chicken thighs & chicken breast – WITHOUT PEAKING – for two hours. The sauce had a smoky richness to it that was surprising considering the ingredient list. The result: absolutely tender, flavorful chicken that shreds like a dream, in a thick sauce that perfectly coats the noodles. I made the chicken on Sunday and when I wanted it for dinner on Wednesday, I boiled the pasta and made a quick Italian salad with tomato, red onion, mozzarella and homemade crouton. I modified to use only boneless, skinless chicken, and to make only a half recipe. My adjustments made 4 very generous servings.

INGREDIENTS

  • 10 whole all-spice berries, tied in a cheesecloth with baking twine
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 -4 slices of bacon, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 inch chunk or rind of Parmesan
  • Grated Parmesan for serving
  • 1/2 lb mostaccioli, penne, ziti, or whatever you have on hand
  • salt & pepper
  • Optional: mini mozzarella pearls
  1. In a Dutch oven, saute the bacon until cooked through, then add onion & garlic. Once softened, add the chicken seasoned with salt & pepper. Scrape the bacon, onion & garlic out of the way so the chicken can brown a little – flip to brown both sides.
  2. Add the tomato paste and 1.5 cups of water and stir to combine all ingredients. Then add the all-spice berries, bay leaves and Parmesan rind. Put the lid on the Dutch oven and simmer on low for 2+ hours. DO NOT REMOVE THE LID DURING THIS TIME.
  3. After 2 hours, remove the lid and the chicken can be shredded and put back in the sauce. Also remove the all-spice berries, bay leaves and Parmesan rind. Add more salt & pepper to taste.
  4. If serving immediately, boil 1/2 pound of pasta of choice, drain, and add to the sauce and stir to coat. Add grated Parmesan to garnish.
  5. Or, save this for another day, and make the pasta when you’re ready to serve. The meat & sauce can be re-simmered briefly while the pasta cooks. Add the drained pasta and stir to coat.
  6. Add fresh mozzarella pearls just before serving. I didn’t do this – but would next time!

SUNDAY MEATBALLS

I’ve made meatballs many different ways. My mom’s “sweet & sour” meatballs, smoked mozzarella stuffed meatballs (my favorite) from Giada de Laurentiis, chicken marsala meatballs from Smitten Kitchen, BBQ meatballs, turkey meatballs…you get the picture. I was intent on making Giada’s recipe this month, but then a new recipe from Half Baked Harvest caught my eye.

The meatballs are very basic – but include a trick with milk-soaked bread to make for an absolutely tender meatball. The sauce felt like a slightly unexpected combination of ingredients – including crushed San Marzano tomatoes, pickled jalapenos (this one threw me off!), sun dried tomatoes, wine, and a host of traditional Italian seasonings. These ingredients made for a rather chunky sauce, with a kick! Shaun wasn’t much of a fan of the sauce, but he did enjoy the very tender meatballs blanketed in provolone and mozzarella. Guess that means I get the leftovers! I made the meatballs ahead of time and boiled pasta when we were ready to eat.

It’s never wrong to hide under a blanket of cheese, especially in February.

FLORENCE SANDWICH

Just over 8 years ago, I did something I never thought I could do – booked a European trip with a bunch of people I had never before met. There was a group of about 30 people from around the world, and we met in Madrid, Spain, and traveled through Spain, France and Italy for two weeks. It was an absolutely incredible experience. I had so much amazing food. And sangria. And gelato.

One of my favorite meals was the simplest sandwich – goat cheese & sundried tomatoes on bread. I remember when we walked into this hole in the wall, I was underwhelmed. But our tour guide insisted we’d be blown away, and he suggested what to order. So I got my sandwich, a glass of chianti, and sat on the streets of Florence enjoying such a simple treat. Maybe it was because I should have been back in the US (California at the time), at my desk, but there I was in Italy, just sipping my wine and savoring my sandwich.

After finding my photographic evidence of this sandwich, I did a quick Google search and found that Fratellini’s has some rave reviews. So if you’re ever in Florence – make sure to stop by.

In then meantime, you can make this at home.

FLORENCE SANDWICH

  • Italian bread
  • Goat cheese log
  • Sundried tomatoes in oil (I like Trader Joe’s)
  • Pesto (I also like Trader Joe’s, although I sometimes make my own) – optional
  1. Using a 4 inch section of Italian bread, split the bread
  2. Spread goat cheese on the inside pieces
  3. Put a thin layer of pesto on top of the goat cheese on one side
  4. Add sundried tomatoes to the other side of the bread; put the sandwich together
  5. Wrap the sandwich completely in foil, and bake at 350 for about 10-12 minutes

I served this with a simple Caprese salad – tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, with fresh cracked salt and pepper, and drizzles of olive oil & balsamic vinegar.

The oil from the sundried tomatoes make the bread soft, while baking it makes the crust crustier & melts the goat cheese.

I almost forgot the most important thing I made all week – Shaun’s birthday cake! I had been trying to think of ways to combine some of his favorite flavors – chocolate, cheesecake, Oreos, Bailey’s or Rum, into one fabulous dessert. I couldn’t find any rum and chocolate recipes that sounded palatable. And, he is a simple guy who prefers a simple dessert – nothing too elaborate. So I decided on this Chocolate Cream Cheese Bundt cake from Sally’s Baking Addiction. This bundt cake includes a surprise cream cheese center to fulfill cheesecake cravings and cake cravings simultaneously. A thick ganache covers any cake imperfections and adds a decadent touch. To decorate, I used a ceramic octopus and mini bottle of Kraken to showcase his love of rum.

The cake was a hit. Perfectly chocolately and moist, with a ribbon of cheesecake in the middle, and covered by thick chocolate ganache. The recipe suggests salted caramel or ganache; both sound amazing to me!

Hubby’s 40th birthday cake!

Time to start working on next week’s menu plan! I have a few new items I’ll be making! Items that I’m more likely to order at an Italian restaurant and less likely to make at home, so it’s time to challenge myself.

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