Parmesan Garlic Shells with Spinach, Zucchini and Ham

Parmesan Garlic Shells with Spinach, Zucchini and Ham
Parmesan Garlic Shells with Spinach, Zucchini and Ham

This is a super easy and tasty dish that I whipped up one night with some of the ingredients I had on hand. It’s a light and savory pasta dish made with large shell pasta, sauteed spinach, zucchini and ham with garlic and a creamy parmesan alfredo sauce, with a few sprinkles of red pepper flakes, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Perfect dish for a weeknight dinner, with some crusty French or Italian bread, a green salad and glass of wine. You can also substitute whole wheat pasta in any shape or size you please. Cooked diced bacon or prosciutto are also delicious in place of the cooked ham. If you want to experiment with the veggies, try broccoli or peas or yellow squash, what ever your heart desires!

Parmesan Garlic Shells with Spinach, Zucchini and Ham

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 bag of medium-large shell pasta (fresh or dried)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large zucchini, sliced 1/4 inch thin and halved
  • 1 bag of fresh spinach (leaves), chopped
  • 1-2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup of cooked Virginia ham, diced (can sub cooked prosciutto or bacon)
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
  • PARMESAN GARLIC SAUCE:
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons flour
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • 2 tablespoons neufchatel or cream cheese
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese
  • Fresh parsley, chopped for garnish
  • 1 green onion, sliced for garnish

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add pasta shells and cook according to package directions until al dente (about 8 minutes dried, 3 minutes fresh). Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking water and set aside.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a medium-large saute pan and add zucchini. Sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper to taste and cook for about 8-10 minutes until zucchini is soft. Add 1 tablespoon of garlic and saute for another minute or so until garlic starts to brown. Remove zucchini-garlic mixture from saute pan and set aside in a medium-large mixing bowl.
  3. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the saute pan and heat for a minute or so. Add the fresh chopped spinach, salt and pepper to taste, and red pepper flakes, stirring through. Saute spinach about 3-5 minutes until wilted. Add the cooked diced ham and saute another few minutes until browned. Remove spinach and ham from saute pan and add to cooked zucchini in mixing bowl.
  4. To make the Parmesan Garlic Sauce:
  5. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
  6. Add the garlic and cook until soft and lightly browned, about 1 minute.
  7. Add in the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, another minute.
  8. Whisk in the milk, a sprinkle of sea salt and cook, whisking constantly, until just thickened, about 3 minutes.
  9. Add the Neufchatel and parmesan cheese; whisk until melted, about 1 minute.
  10. Combine the cooked pasta shells, 1/2 cup cooking water from pasta, sauteed zucchini, spinach and ham to the alfredo garlic sauce, stir thoroughly to mix ingredients for another minute or so.
  11. Sprinkle additional salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste into the pasta mixture. Remove from saute pan and place in a large serving bowl. Top pasta with chopped fresh parsley and green onions, and top with more parmesan cheese to taste.
  12. Serve the pasta with some crusty bread, a green salad and glass of wine.

Notes

You can also substitute whole wheat pasta in any shape or size you please. Cooked diced bacon or prosciutto are also delicious in place of the cooked ham. If you want to experiment with the veggies, try broccoli or peas or yellow squash, what ever your heart desires!

http://www.theartfulgourmet.com/2013/03/01/parmesan-garlic-shells-with-spinach-zucchini-and-ham/

Pure YUM.
Pure YUM.

Other Recipes you may enjoy:


Smitten Kitchen’s Pasta with Garlicky Broccoli Rabe

Spinach and Artichoke Pasta

Pioneer Woman’s Pasta Primavera

What Katie Ate’s Conchiglia with Mushrooms and Parmesan Cream Sauce

Recipe Girl’s Spaghetti with Cremini Mushrooms, Lemon & Thyme

In Jennie’s Kitchen Pasta Carbonara

Italian White Bean, Vegetable & Pasta Soup

Italian White Bean, Vegetable & Pasta Soup
Italian White Bean, Vegetable & Pasta Soup

I always look forward to the season change to Autumn – there’s something calming to the beautiful colors of the leaves, the cooler temperatures, and sunny skies. It’s a time of harvesting and celebration of autumnal fruits of the earth mixed with a sadness for the upcoming cold Winter months.

I love the heartier, warming foods Autumn brings, and there’s nothing better than a delicious bowl of homemade soup. It reminds me of when I was a kid – my Mom would always have a big pot of soup simmering away on the stove to warm us up after a day outside romping in the leaves in the brisk, cool weather. Mom’s soup was always something to look forward to and a safe haven to come home to.

This recipe for Italian White Bean, Vegetable & Pasta Soup is a simple and nutritious soup chock full of fresh vegetables and herbspasta and Italian Great Northern white beans. It’s great topped with some freshly grated cheese, served with crusty bread and a leafy green salad.


The good news with vegetable soup is you can substitute just about any veggies you want – throw in some kale or spinach, zucchini, green beans, peas, corn; whatever your heart desires. It’s healthy and filling and warming to the soul.

And it’s definitely worth taking a romp in the leaves if you know there’s a pot of goodness on the stove waiting for you.

Italian White Bean, Vegetable & Pasta Soup

Rating: 41

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup chopped red onion
  • 3 cups chopped fresh tomato
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1-2 stalks diced celery
  • ½ cup chopped yellow bell pepper
  • ½ zucchini squash, cut into thin slices, halved
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • ½ cups dried pasta (bow-tie, penne or shells)
  • 1 can Italian white beans
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)
  • ¼ teaspoon paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon dried ground fennel seed
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (or ¼ tbsp. dried)
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil (or ¼ tbsp. dried)
  • 3 cups water
  • 3 cups vegetable stock (low sodium)
  • A few fresh thyme sprigs or leaves (for garnish)
  • Freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (for garnish)

Instructions

  1. In a large stock pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil and sauté onions, tomatoes, carrots, celery, bell pepper and zucchini over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes.
  2. Add the pasta, white beans, salt and pepper to taste, paprika, fennel seed, chopped fresh herbs, water and vegetable stock; cover and simmer over medium-low for 30 to 40 minutes until cooked through and vegetables are tender. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, and extra stock or water to adjust desired consistency and thickness.
  3. Garnish with fresh thyme leaves and freshly grated cheese; serve with crusty Italian bread and a leafy green salad.

Notes

Feel free to substitute or add any veggies you like to the soup: Zucchini, Green Beans, Squash, Corn, Peas, etc.

Adjust thinness or thickness of soup by adding more or less broth and/or water to the soup while it cooks down.

http://www.theartfulgourmet.com/2012/10/05/italian-white-bean-pasta-soup/

 

California Dreamin’ :: Chicken, Wild Mushroom & Fontina Cheese Lasagna

Room with a view
Room with a view

On a recent trip to San Diego with a group of friends, we made an awesome dinner one night, and definitely one to remember. We rented an amazing house right on the ocean at Mission Beach that had gorgeous views of the sunset  – –

Sunset
Sunset

a huge round disk of bright orange, yellow and red hues sinking into the horizon – absolutely breathtaking..

Chicken, Spinach & Wild Mushroom Lasagna
Chicken, Spinach & Wild Mushroom Lasagna

My friend (Paula) showed up with a delicious recipe for Chicken, Spinach & Wild Mushroom Lasagna (by Daniel Boulud) which was an amazingly creamy, savory dish to die for! The lasagna is made with a creamy base of sauteed celery and onions, white wine, nutmeg, flour and cream mixed with fresh spinach, wild mushrooms (we used Chanterelles but you can use any mix of wild mushrooms you prefer) and chicken breast. We topped off the lasagna noodles and chicken and mushroom mixture with several gooey layers of Fontina and Parmesan cheese, and baked it into a bubbly pot of goodness in the oven.


We served it with some Parmesan-Garlic Crostini and a green salad, and of course a few bottles of white wine to accompany. Daniel Johnnes, wine director of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants suggests choosing a wine from the Campania region of Italy, such as the 2009 Fiano di Avellino from Feudi di San Gregorio ($19). An alternative is Occhipinti SP68 IGT Sicilia Bianco 2009 ($26). Both of these choices are medium bodied with bold flavor and a soft texture.

Noodle Slap
Noodle Slap

**Note*** Men should definitely stay out of a female-dominated kitchen to avoid a big noodle slap when making a dish as good as this! Enjoy 🙂

Parsley and Fontina Cheese
Parsley and Fontina Cheese
Chicken-Mushroom-Spinach
Chicken-Mushroom-Spinach
Lasagna Ready For Oven
Lasagna Ready For Oven
Parmesan Garlic Crostini
Parmesan Garlic Crostini
Rooftop Sunset
Rooftop Sunset

Oh, and don’t forget the rooftop with great friends and an amazing view to top it all off. We had such an awesome time I’m already planning my next visit back to this gorgeous beach..

Dusk, Mission Beach San Diego
Dusk, Mission Beach San Diego

Until then, I’ll just keep dreaming about that fiery red glowing sunset… 🙂

California Dreamin’ :: Chicken, Wild Mushroom & Fontina Cheese Lasagna

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 10-12

Ingredients

  • 5 tablespoons EVOO
  • 2 medium onions, diced fine
  • 2 celery stalks, diced fine
  • 1 pound wild mushrooms (chanterelles, black trumpet, hen of woods), trimmed and washed, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 pound spinach leaves, torn and washed, no stems
  • 4 tablespoons butter, plus extra grease to pan
  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1/2 bunch Italian parsley leaves, chopped
  • Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
  • 16 dried lasagna noodles
  • 1 pound of Fontina cheese, diced or cut into medium-thin slices
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions

  1. Prep all vegetables (chop onions, celery, spinach, mushrooms, parsley), cut up chicken and pat dry.
  2. Measure out all wet and dry ingredients (wine, cream, milk, flour, nutmeg, salt and pepper, grated Parmesan).
  3. Cut Fontina cheese into small dice, or medium-thin slices for layering.
  4. Sauté celery and onions with salt and pepper over medium-low for 3 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high, add mushrooms, cook and stir for 3 minutes. Add spinach, salt and pepper, cook until wilted and mushrooms are tender. Remove from heat and reserve.
  5. Add butter to same pot, adjust heat to medium. Season chicken on all sides with salt and pepper, add to butter. Cook stirring 6 minutes until chicken is browned. Add wine, simmer until almost reduced. Sprinkle flour over the chicken and cook, stirring for 5 mins, allowing flour to coat the chicken and absorb the liquid.
  6. Gradually stir in cream and milk, scraping pot, stirring with a whisk to break up cooked flour. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, allow liquid to thicken. Reserve 1 cup of liquid and remove pot from heat, add cooked mushroom and spinach mixture. Add parsley, season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Cook lasagna noodles 8 mins in salted water. Drain and rinse in cold water. Toss with 2 tablespoons EVOO.
  8. Preheat oven to 350. Butter a 9x13 baking pan. Layer 4 noodles on bottom. Top with 1/3 chicken mixture and 1/3 Fontina cheese. Repeat layers twice, finish with layer of noodles. Spread reserved sauce over noodles and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. (can put in fridge or freezer at this point, tightly covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap).
  9. Cover with foil or lid and bake for 30 minutes. Increase heat to 400 degrees and remove foil and cook until golden brown and bubbly, another 10-15 mins.
  10. To make the Parmesan Garlic Crostini:
  11. Slice a loaf of Italian bread into 1/4-1/2 inch slices and drizzle with olive oil, shredded Parmesan cheese, garlic powder and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until lightly golden brown and crunchy.
  12. Sprinkle the lasagna with chopped parsley, some extra grated cheese if desired, and serve with the parmesan garlic crostini.

Notes

Serve with a leafy green salad with a vinaigrette dressing, some crusty garlic bread and a dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.

The lasagna can be made a day ahead to save time, just keep it tightly covered with plastic wrap of foil and pop it in the oven when ready to bake.

Freezes well too - wrap in plastic and foil in individual portions and reheat in the microwave or oven.

http://www.theartfulgourmet.com/2012/05/04/california-dreamin-chicken-wild-mushroom-fontina-lasagna/

 

Veal Saltimbocca & Roman Sauteed Peas w/ Pancetta

Veal Saltimbocca
Veal Saltimbocca

Veal Saltimbocca is one of my favorite dishes, and makes a simple, elegant meal for any dinner occasion. This traditional Roman dish uses thinly pounded veal scallopine cutlets which are sautéed in butter and oil, then topped with crispy prosciutto and sage with a buttery white wine sauce.

This Romanesque Italian dish is usually served with a side of mashed potatoes or Piselli alla Romana – savory buttered peas sautéed with onion and pancetta (recipe follows). Make it a complete meal by serving with an Arugula salad, topped with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a dressing of EVOO and lemon juice and some fresh cracked black pepper. Enjoy with a glass of dry white wine and crusty Italian bread.

Veal Saltimbocca with Buttery Wine Sauce (Saltimbocca alla Romana)

1 lb veal scaloppine, ¼ inch thick
Salt and freshly ground pepper
12 to 14 sage leaves
¼ lb thinly sliced prosciutto, slices halved
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
Sage leaves, for garnish


Place veal cutlets between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and with a meat pounder or heavy sauce pan, pound veal to 1/4 inch thick. Cut scaloppine in half crosswise and season on both sides with the salt and pepper.

Place 1 sage leaf on top of each scaloppine and cover each with a half piece of the prosciutto.

In a large skillet, combine 2 tbsp of the butter and the oil and heat over high heat. When the mixture starts to brown, add the scaloppine, prosciutto side down first for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium and flip over scaloppine, sauté turning as needed, until the scallopine are evenly browned and cooked through about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the scallopine to a warm platter and tent with foil to keep warm.

To make the sauce, add the wine to the skillet and with a wooden spoon scrape the pan bottom to deglaze it. Increase the heat to high and allow the sauce to reduce until golden and syrupy, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining butter. Season with the salt and pepper, and pour over the veal. Garnish with the remaining sage and serve warm.

Serves 6.

Roman Sauteed Peas
Roman Sauteed Peas

 Roman Sauteed Peas with Pancetta (Piselli alla Romana)

1/2 cup butter
1 medium onion, chopped fine
4 cups peas, fresh and shelled (or 1 package frozen peas*)
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp. chicken stock or water
6 thick slices pancetta, chopped fine (can also use bacon or prosciutto)
1/4 tsp. sugar

Place butter and onion is a saucepan and saute over medium-low heat until the onion is soft and translucent. Add peas, salt, pepper, stock and pancetta; cook until peas are tender and pancetta and onions are cooked through. Add sugar, mix well and serve hot with Veal Saltimbocca.

*If frozen peas are used, follow cooking directions on the package after cooking the onion.

Serves 4-6.

Recipes from Techniques of Italian Cooking, Institute of Culinary Education.

 

Meet the Chef: Jimmy Canora of Valentino’s on the Green

Chicken Valentino

Check out my behind the scenes interview with Chef de Cuisine Jimmy Canora from Valentino’s on the Green – the legendary fine dining Italian restaurant in Bayside Queens. The Chef demonstrates his infamous dish Chicken Breast Valentino with Creamy Polenta, Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Spring Vegetables and Madeira Wine Sauce and discusses his background and history as a Chef and Cookbook Author.

Valentino's on the Green
Valentino’s on the Green

Valentino’s on the Green is a romantic fine dining Italian restaurant in a beautiful old mansion in a neighborhood rich in history, culture and style. This elegant establishment pays homage to Italian-born silent film legend and former resident, Rudolph Valentino. Valentino was America’s first sex symbol derived from his provocative roles in films such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Sheik (1921). He helped launch the new era of film and film stars and was one of the most iconic figures of Hollywood. Valentino’s on the Green combines this romantic history and Italian culinary expertise into a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

Giorgio Kolaj & Don Pintabona
Giorgio Kolaj & Don Pintabona

Headed by restaurateur Giorgio Kolaj, and renowned chef and cookbook author, Don Pintabona, who helped Robert DeNiro launch Tribeca Grill in NYC, Pintabona has served as Executive Chef for over a decade. Jimmy Canora, an award-winning chef, also formerly of Tribeca Grill and Delmonico’s; has brought his culinary mastery to Valentino’s on the Green and created an exceptional menu for this gorgeous historical landmark.

Valentino's interior
Valentino’s interior

Valentino’s on the Green has several dining rooms inside elegantly furnished with chandeliers, grand mouldings, burgundy leather and mahogany furnishings and large windows. They have a gorgeous outside patio for dining in the warmer months, overlooking a golf course and beautiful park. They serve lunch, dinner and brunch on Sundays and have a spectacular dessert menu as well as a special Mother’s Day brunch annually. Reservations are accepted for private parties in the banquet hall with space for up to 220 guests, and catering is also available.

Start your meal with an Appetizer of fresh seafood including Shrimp or Crabmeat Cocktail, Grilled Octopus and Oysters or an Antipasti platter, soup or salad. Their Pasta is fresh made daily – Braised Short Rib Ragu with Mixed Mushrooms, Ricotta and Rosemary and Sweet Pea Mascarpone Ravioli or Lemon Tagliatelle Frutti Di Mare are just a few of their popular selections.

For Main Course, Valentino’s offers classic entrees such as Veal Marsala, Chicken Parmesan, Shrimp Scampi, Grilled Swordfish, Herb Crusted Lamb Chops, Steaks, Pork Braciole “Valdostana”, and their infamous Chicken Breast Valentino, stuffed with Fontina Cheese, Prosciutto and Spinach cooked in a buttery Madeira wine sauce with mushrooms and served with luscious creamy polenta and grilled Spring vegetables (recipe below). Last but not least they have an amazing dish of Spicy Chili Glazed Lobsters, with Spring Onion and Bay Scallop Risotto, Asparagus and Brandied Lobster Sauce that is out of this world.

Appetizers range from $8-29, Soups and Salads range from $7-$13 and Dinner Entrees range from $16-49. They offer a $24 Three Course Lunch Prix Fixe and Mother’s Day Brunches run at $49.50 per person. Reservations are accepted and recommended via phone or OpenTable.com.

Chicken Valentino
Chicken Valentino

Chicken Breast Valentino

Ingredients

6 boneless chicken breasts, pounded ¼” thin
1 c Seasoned all purpose flour
¼ c unsalted butter
¼ c extra virgin olive oil
½ c Madeira wine
1 c chicken stock, as needed
1 c veal stock, or low sodium beef broth, as needed
6 slices Prosciutto Di Parma, thinly sliced
6 slices Fontina cheese, thinly sliced
3 tbsp Parmiagiano Reggiano, grated
6 fresh Sage leaves
1 c cooked mixed mushrooms, (Oyster, Portabella, Crimini & Shitake)
1 small leek, white part only, diced and blanched
2 c cooked polenta, (Mascarpone, Parmesan, Chicken stock, Cream)
2 c roasted Spring veggies (baby zucchini, patty pan squash & baby carrots)
¼ c fresh chopped parsley, garnish
6 springs fresh thyme, garnish

Method

Season and lightly flour chicken breasts, shaking off excess flour.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil/butter, 2 tbsp at a time and when butter starts to foam, add the chicken breasts in batches, sauté until lightly browned about 2 minutes per side. Remove and set aside, and repeat until all chicken is cooked.

Increase the heat and add the mushrooms and leeks and sauté until the release of their liquid and start to crisp, about 1 minute, then add the Madeira wine and simmer to reduce to ¼, adding in the stock along with some more butter, salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to very low and top each chicken breast with a slice of prosciutto, sage, Fontina and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.

Return to the skillet until the cheese melts and chicken is warmed through.

Serve with hot polenta and roasted Spring vegetables and sauce each plate with the Madeira Mushroom sauce. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and a spring of fresh thyme for garnish.

Serves 6.

View the Menu

Valentino’s on the Green
201-10 Cross Island Parkway
Bayside, New York 11360
718 352 2300
www.valentinosnyc.com

Meet the Chef: An interview with Chef Andrew Whitney, dell’anima

Watch the video of a behind the scenes interview with myself and Andrew Whitney, Chef de Cuisine at dell’anima, a charming and popular Italian trattoria located in Greenwich Village, NYC, as he talks about his culinary background and shows how to prep his signature dish, “Chicken Diablo”.

dell’anima, meaning “of the soul” in Italian, is an upscale, intimate Italian restaurant opened by Gabe Thompson of Del Posto, and Joe Campanale of Babbo in 2007. The open kitchen is a cool feature of the space, set right behind the bar and dining room with full view of their Chefs cooking in action. The artwork and photography on the walls is created by Partner and Photographer Jamie Tiampo.


The menu is elegant and hearty, featuring a variety of unique Italian pasta dishes and grilled vegetables, a bruschetta bar, antipasti and salads, seafood, chicken and steak dishes and a offers a robust Italian wine selection. Having gained status as 3 Star Certified Green Restaurant ®, dell’anima uses mainly local and sustainable ingredients and buys from local food producers.

Rustic dishes with a Tuscan influence are the focus of their cuisine. Most entrees, pastas and salads are infused or served with fresh grilled vegetables, herbs and spices in unique combinations to stir up the palate. Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragu, Sweetbreads with sunchoke puree, rhubarb and scallion, and Charred Octopus with rice beans, chorizo and chicories are just a few of their unique dishes that set them apart from the traditional Italian places in New York. Always delicious and standard fine cuisine prices for New York standards at $16-30 for pasta and entrees, $10-18 for antipasti and bruschette for $5-15.

View the Menu

dell’anima restaurant
38 8th Avenue
New York, NY 10014
212.366.6633
www.dellanima.com 

Ecco La Cucina: An Interview with Chef Gina Stipo & Tuscan recipes

Gina Stipo at Ecco la Cucina, Tuscany
Gina Stipo at Ecco la Cucina, Tuscany

I recently took a Tuscan cooking class with Chef Gina Stipo at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, and immediately fell in love with her rustic Tuscan recipes, her passionate, hands-on teaching approach and cooking philosophy; centered around fresh, seasonal produce and local ingredients from Tuscany. We learned the basics of Tuscan cooking, local ingredients, cheeses and wines, and a little bit about Gina’s culinary training. She explained Italian culture and ways of cooking, and we made some really delicious food which we thoroughly enjoyed at the end of the evening.

Pecorino Flan, Kristen making Gnocchi, Artichokes and Lemon
Pecorino Flan, Kristen making Gnocchi, Artichokes and Lemon

For starters, we made a savory Pecorino Flan, served with roasted pears and arugula and paired with a crisp, white Tuscan wine to complement the tangy cheese. We made fresh homemade potato gnocchi from scratch, along with two savory, simple cream sauces – one with fresh crumbled gorgonzola, onion and sage, another with walnuts, butter and parmesan.

For the Roasted Chicken dish, Gina demonstrated the ‘Tuscan’ way of cutting up a whole chicken (with a large pair of kitchen shears), then she threw it gently into a roasting pan along with our fresh trimmed artichokes, lemons, garlic, rosemary and sage and put it in the oven for awhile until it was crispy and browned. For dessert, we savored a light and fruity Strawberry Semifreddo drizzled with melted dark chocolate – straight from the heavens above!

Gina's Cooking Class, Ecco la Cucina Cookbook
Ginas Cooking Class, Ecco la Cucina Cookbook

In my interview with Gina, she discusses her culinary training and background and cookbook Ecco La Cucina, (“Here’s the Kitchen”). Having lived and trained in Italy, Gina specializes in Italian cuisine primarily from the Tuscany region. She also does personalized food and wine tours in Tuscany and around Italy, and offers hands-on cooking classes held on the rural estate of Spannocchia, south of Siena, focusing on Tuscan cuisine and wines. Gina is truly passionate about her work and has found her place in the culinary world. She’s truly an inspiration, and a talented Chef and cooking instructor… Read my personal interview with Gina below to find out more about her culinary training and career, cooking philosophy, her cookbook and a few of the recipes from our class.

Can you tell me a little bit about your culinary and professional career background?

I feel as if my life has always been food focused, I have so many early memories of different foods I loved.  Growing up in an Italian family, meals were very important.  We celebrated with food, we made special trips to buy the right ingredients, and we ate together as a family.  When I was six years old we moved to Italy for four years and the beauty of the country, the food that is such an integral part of their lives, made an indelible mark on me that formed a basis for the way I relate to both the beauty of my surroundings and food. I have been studying food all my life but made a career change when I was in my late 30’s to focus on food professionally.  I came into a little money and I used it all to go travel in Italy and study their cuisine.

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional chef and cooking instructor? Who inspired you most as a young cook? What did you learn from them?

For a long time as a young adult my dream was to live in New York City and go to culinary school but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.  I lived that dream when I was in my late 30’s and then worked in restaurants for several years to gain experience, but I still hadn’t found my niche.  In 2000, some friends who own an estate in Tuscany asked me if I would come and do some classes for their guests.  I set up cooking classes and found that I’m really good at it, that my innate curiosity and constant study of the subject before I went to culinary school had given me a lot of information that people are interested in.

My mother inspired me as a young cook, she has a curious nature and was always buying strange things in the market and figuring out how to cook them or eat them.  The Italian food of my father’s family inspired me.  From my mother I learned curiosity and openness, from my grandmother and aunts I learned the importance of freshness and respecting your ingredients.

Can you tell us about your training at the Institute of Culinary Education as well as abroad in Italy? How were you trained and what was that like? What was your first job as a professional cook and what was that like?

I loved going to ICE, spending every day surrounded by food and talking about it; I got extra bonus points on tests, joyously studied and constantly felt thrilled to be learning and surrounded by people interested in food.  I learned that I love the technique and precision of beautiful desserts and enjoy making them perfectly.

I also trained in Italy, at a school in Bologna as well as by talking to little old people and home cooks about their food and cooking with them in the kitchen.  It’s important to have an open mind and realize that, no matter what you’ve studied or for how long, you don’t know it all, there’s always something new to learn.

How did you get started doing food and wine tours in Italy and can you tell us a little bit more about that?

After I started doing classes for the estate in Tuscany I hit upon the idea of doing a tour for their guests and taking them around the area to great restaurants and wineries, sharing with them the intricacies of the regional foods.  That grew a little every year.  Meanwhile I did single day classes for people who come to Tuscany.  In 2005 my sister came to work with me and is my partner in the States, coordinating the weeklong tours and coming to Italy when we have a group.

Can you tell us a little bit about your cooking style and what makes your cookbook and cooking classes unique?

I would say what sets my cooking apart is knowledge and respect for the ingredients, for the way the dishes developed and evolved.  My cooking style is simple, I don’t believe in making it complicated or scaring people away from food; I want them to have the same acceptance and understanding of the importance of it as an integral part of their lives.  While I enjoy entertaining with stories, my focus is on education, not on reinventing the wheel or making a dish so complicated it takes the joy out of cooking.

Tell us about your cookbook Ecco La Cucina, and what inspired you to write this?

My cookbook is a simple compilation of the recipes we use in my area of Tuscany and was put together by the requests of many of my students.  I put a spiral binder on the first several printings because i want people to be able to use it in the kitchen, not fight with it to get it to stay on the page.  It’s all about making it friendly and comfortable, like Italian cooking should be.

In your opinion, what are the most important elements when creating a recipe from scratch?

There are two questions there:  a recipe from scratch or a dish from scratch.  I do both.

When I went to Italy I worked with an Italian woman who was the cook on the estate.  The owners wanted someone to write down her recipes in English because they had so many requests from their guests.  It hadn’t been done before because she didn’t use recipes, she just cooked.  I worked with her for two months and watched her and learned a lot and wrote the recipes down into a saleable cookbook for the estate.  That exercise helped tremendously when I moved to Italy and traveled around learning about the cuisine and how the dishes were made and allowed me to write my own cookbook years later.

When making a dish from scratch it’s most important to understand the science of cooking; the why and how to make a dish taste good.  There are certain basics in cooking and if you understand those you can create authentic dishes.   But those basics can be different depending on the cuisine.  Indian food is put together differently than Chinese, which is different than French.  The fun thing is learning all of that and making great authentic food!

What is your signature dish or your favorite recipe?

There is my grandmother’s special baked lobster that’s a family favorite and has become my signature dish among friends.  You have to have the courage to kill the lobster and it’s stuffed with bread crumbs, herbs, garlic and drizzled with olive oil, baked and then served on top of thin spaghetti.  It’s fabulous!

What is your favorite spice to cook with and why?

I just did a series of classes on spices used in Italian cooking .  I am crazy about salt and talk a lot about the importance of using unprocessed sea salt, but I don’t think I have one particular spice I like to cook with.  I’m against the constant use of black pepper in absolutely everything without thinking of whether it adds anything good to the dish or whether you even like it.  I love making Indian food for all the wonderful spices there are and adore the smell of cloves, but really in Tuscan cooking we use more herbs than anything because they were free for the peasants, whereas spices cost a lot of money.

What is the most underrated ingredient in your opinion?

Freshness and the seasonality of food.  When you get a vegetable or fruit that is grown in season and is allowed to ripen before picking, there really isn’t much else you have to do to it but eat it.  And by using seasonal ingredients that are local and fresh your dish is elevated before you even begin.

As a professional chef, what was your funniest kitchen incident?

My first job as a professional was in a very hot, very small kitchen at an excellent French bistro in Atlanta.  I was garde manger until I got promoted to the grill.  The first day I was there it was 95 degrees outside and too hot in the kitchen for chef coats so we all wore our favorite t-shirts and ball caps.  After 10 minutes sweat was already trickling down my back and stomach so when the owner asked me if I thought they should turn on the air conditioning in the kitchen, I answered YES!  Everyone laughed because it was a joke they always played on new crew: there wasn’t any air conditioning in the kitchen and, to make it worse, if you kept the kitchen doors open it pulled the air conditioning from the dining room and the guests would be too hot.  I loved how tough you had to be to make it through your shift and the camaraderie you have with the other cooks, like surviving under fire.

When cooking at home, what do you like to prepare for yourself?

Sometimes I like to make complicated braised dishes that take all day, but when I’m hungry I’ll make myself a big fresh chopped salad with walnuts, dried cranberries, blue cheese and grapes.  Or cook up a batch of fried chicken or rabbit.  But I’ve been known to make dinner a bottle of red wine and a bowl of buttered popcorn!

What is your favorite cooking gadget or kitchen item you can’t live without and why?

I really love a decent rubber spatula and a microplane, but I tend to travel with my own special paring knives.

What 5 cookbooks would you recommend every home cook own?

That’s hard because I’m not a big fan of cookbooks, I prefer to read food history or food science.  But the Joy of Cooking is a go-to book in my kitchen for all those traditional recipes that no one knows by heart, plus the original Betty Crocker book from my childhood is great for straightforward American desserts and a bit of nostalgia.   The Greens cookbook from The Greens Restaurant in San Francisco is my all-time favorite book, it’s all vegetarian cooking and every recipe in there is amazing, yet simple.  The Essentials of Italian Cuisine by Marcella Hazan is also an excellent reference book.  My new favorite is by an Italian, Giorgio Locatelli who owns a restaurant in London; his book “Made in Italy” is a wonderful read and a great learning tool

Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs and home cooks?

For aspiring chefs:  respect your ingredients and spend time learning in depth a cuisine rather than trying to reinvent something you don’t understand.

For home cooks:  Don’t be afraid and don’t let them confuse you with complications.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

I’ve really enjoyed living in Italy, studying the foods of the regions and getting to know the people who make the food and preserve the roots of their cuisine.  I love being able to share that with visitors and help them to better understand Italy, to build memories and enjoy their vacation.

Homemade Potato Gnocchi
Homemade Potato Gnocchi

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

2 lbs red skinned potatoes
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
Salt

Preparation

Bring potatoes to a boil in salted water until cooked through, being careful not to cook too much or they become water logged. A fork should enter easily with no hard center. Peel and then put through a ricer onto your work surface. Make a well and add the egg and half of the flour and work until incorporated and evenly mixed, adding the rest of the flour as you go. Knead the dough until its just pulled together and you don’t see tiny potato pieces. Try not to overwork the dough. Form into logs, cut off half-inch sized pieces and roll them on a gnocchi board or fork.

Gorgonzola Cream Sauce
Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

Gorgonzola Sauce

4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
1 medium onion, chopped
6-8 fresh sage leaves
8 oz gorgonzola cheese
½ cup cream
Fresh ground pepper
Salt to taste

Preparation

Saute the onion in butter until soft, add sage leaves and continue to cook gently without browning. Add gorgonzola and cook over low heat until melted, stirring occasionally. Add cream and heat through, being careful not to boil. Season with ground pepper and check for salt; some cheese is saltier than others. Serve over homemade potato gnocchi and top with some fresh ground Parmigiana cheese as garnish.

Walnut Cream Sauce
Walnut Cream Sauce

Sugo di Noci (Walnut Cream Sauce)

1 cup walnuts, chopped fine
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
White pepper, ground
Salt

Preparation

Put the cream, walnuts, Parmigiano, and butter in a saucepan and heat. Salt and pepper to taste; bring to a simmer and then turn off heat. Allow to remain hot until pasta is cooked, then toss and serve with a sprinkling of more Parmigiano and finely chopped parsley. Because gnocchi or pasta continues to absorb liquid, you will need to save some of the pasta water to add when you toss the pasta, as it may seem dry. Serve over homemade potato gnocchi and top with some fresh grated Parmigiana Reggiano cheese as garnish.

Strawberry Semifreddo

Strawberry Semifreddo
Strawberry Semifreddo

1 cup sugar
3 cups fresh strawberries, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice
6 egg whites
½ cup sugar
1 pint whipping cream
Dark chocolate, melted
Strawberries for garnish, whole

Preparation

Combine the first cup of sugar together with chopped strawberries and lemon juice and bring to a boil, allowing to cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and cool completely.

Whip the egg whites with ½ cup sugar until stiff, then whip the cream. Fold together with the cooled syrup.

Spread the semifreddo in a pan, or into individual cups, and freeze until set. To serve, allow it to sit at room temperature 10 minutes then either slice or invert onto plates. Serve with fresh strawberries and chocolate drizzled on top.

To find out more about Gina, her cookbook and Italian culinary tours, visit www.EccoLaCucina.com

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