Friday, March 11, 2011

Benny the Chef! and the Vaccinara!

I always thought I knew how to cook Italian food. After all, I learned from cookbooks that were written by my husband's aunt, Mama D, who was schooled by the best cooks from Calabria, Italy. It never occurred to me that cooking would vary from one area of the country to the other or that some of what I learned was really Americanized Italian. Not sure why this did not enter my mind. After all, recipes and standard fare changes wildly from one area of America to another, so why would Italy be different?

Then I found a book by a fantastic Roman Chef - Benny the Chef and I bought the best cookbook ever - The Art of Cooking, According to Me. Benny represented Italy at Paris Cookbook Fair 2011 where he presented his book and made cooking presentations to the delight of the huge crowds. You can find out more about Benny at his Page on Facebook - give him a Like and start cooking the Roman way!

The Art of Cooking According to Me
This is not just a cookbook, but an overview of the history of Rome and food, a bit of an autobiography of Benny, and a wonderful collection of simply irresistible recipes. Garlic is used when it is necessary to make the food sing, not just because you always add tons of garlic until that's all you taste. Cheese is used to accent rather than to cover up a meal's flavors. Seasonings are always chosen because they are just right for the dish and are never superfluous.

After carrying on in rapture over this book and bombarding Benny with emails, he kindly offered me the opportunity to give you one of his recipes in my blog - Thanks, Benny!!!

The choice was so very hard - too many wonderful recipes! But I finally prepared a dish called - Vaccinara, Roman oxtail stew. Vaccinara is easily one of the ten best meals I have ever eaten.


Vaccinara

Ingredients:

2 1/2 lbs of oxtail (already cut)
2 lbs of peeled tomatoes
more stuff
5 ribs of celery
3 carrots
2 onions
1 cup of white wine
extra virgin olive oil
bay leaves
Marjoram
Crushed red pepper
All purpose flour
Salt

Preparation:

Rinse the oxtail with very cold running water and dry with a towel. Put 1 cup of oil in a large saute' pan and let it warm up over a high heat.

Flour the oxtail pieces and put in the pan with the oil. Sear the meat and adjust with salt. Add the wine, and fade away (reduce, but I just love Benny's term for it!). Add 1 cup of warm water and cook for a few minutes over a medium-low heat.

Remove the oxtail from the pan and set aside. Discard the grease. Clean and chop the onions, the carrots, and the celery. Put 1/2 cup of oil in another saute' pan and let it warm up over medium-high heat. Add the chopped vegetables and cook for a few minutes. 

Adjust with salt and crushed red pepper, and add 1 cup of water. Continue cooking over medium heat and stir occasionally.

Now, in a large pot place the oxtail and the peeled tomatoes. Add the vegetables, a couple cups of water, and bring to a boil.

Turn down the heat, add a couple of teaspoons of marjoram and bay leaves, and cook over low heat for a few hours. Stir occasionally and add some water if needed.

The oxtail should be ready when the meat begins to fall off the bone and the sauce is thick and dark red.

Serve it hot with a lot of good bread.

(!): The real Vaccinara is made by using just oxtail. The veal tail is used to prepare different dishes.

(?): Vaccinara is the most popular oxtail Roman stew. Its name comes from "Rione Regola," which is one of the most ancient districts of Rome and very famous for the "vaccinari" (cattle butchers). Every Roman family has its own way to make the Vaccinara; some add ground meat,  while others like to use the guanciale, pancetta, or proscuitto to make the "soffritto" with the vegetables to add to the sauce. The Vaccinara is generally prepared in advance and used also as a pasta sauce, often sprinkled with Pecorino flakes and fresh chopped parsley.

(a): Add to the oxtail sauce a handful of pine nuts and raisins. Adjust the flavor with ground cinnamon and nutmeg, and finish with a sprinkle of chocolate flakes. The sweet and sour taste will turn on all your taste buds!

More from Mindful Palate: 

I added a bit of Italian imported tomato paste near the end to thicken it as I wanted to use it over pasta and like a thick sauce. Other then that I made no changes in Benny's recipe. If you add paste, please make sure you only use imported Italian versions and read the ingredients before buying it. There should be only tomatoes in the list! If it says dried red bell peppers (yes, some actually do that!), put it back on the shelf.

Oxtails are readily available in grocery stores. I made one error and did not consider placing a request at the butcher ahead of time to make sure I got the size I prefer - the medium and small ones. As a result, and as you can see here, I had a few very large pieces mixed in with the other sizes and as these have more fat I needed to skim the stew a few times as it cooked. I cooked it over a low temperature and the fat rose right up and was easy to scoop! Next time, though, I'll use the medium and small oxtail only.

To eat them, simply picked up each delectable oxtail and chewed on them as you would ribs. My husband loves the small ones best because he can pop them into his mouth and suck off the tender meat so easily!

Enjoy Vaccinara mindfully with family, good friends, a lot of laughter, and a nice Chianti.

Then go buy Benny's book asap and remember, as Benny says "Never mess with the Chef! Because he is the one who has to cook for you!"
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Savory Baked Chicken

Here's another delicious recipe from my friend and guest blogger crazypotato.

I was having a busy week and wanted to do something super quick (to prepare) and easy (meaning let it cook in an oven or crock pot without me having to mess with it). This recipe fitted the bill. Delicious, just sprinkle the stuff on top and put it in the oven while you take care of other business (such as, piano practice, painting, exercising, quality time with family, or watching Star Trek reruns on Youtube). Then just take it out and eat it. :-)

Savory baked chicken
2 1/2 to 3-lb frying chicken, cut up
3 tbsp margarine, melted
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp tarragon leaves
1/4 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp pepper

Heat oven to 325 F. Place chicken pieces in 13x9 inch pan. Combine margarine and lemon juice; pour over chicken. Sprinkle with salt, tarragon, paprika and pepper. Cover with foil. Bake at 325 F for 45 minutes. Uncover; bake another 15 minutes or until tender.

From The Pillsbury Cookbook