Ricotta Pie With Summer Vegetables

Ricotta Pie With Summer Vegetables

The dog days of summer are here! A bit late in the season, but better late than never. Believe it or not, I like it hot, so I’m not complaining. However, when the mercury rises, my desire to stand over a hot stove and stir around in pots goes down drastically. Which is where this delicious ricotta pie comes in. It relies on the freshest and ripest green beans, tomatoes, and basil of the season, and shows them off beautifully against the backdrop of cool ricotta cheese and fruity olive oil. With the help of a food processor, the pie crust is made in a snap. This pie is a great dish to serve at a party, especially with a glass of crisp white wine. I know I keep repeating myself, but if summer only lasted forever…

Ricotta Pie With Summer Vegetables
For the crust (24cm round springform pan):
200g flour
28g corn starch
1/4 teaspoon salt
80g butter, very cold and cut into cubes
1 egg yolk
80ml cold water
4 basil leaves, finely chopped

1. Put flour, corn starch, and salt in a food processor. Process for 5 seconds.
2. Add butter and egg yolk and process until crumbs form.
3. Add water and basil leaves and process until a smooth dough forms. Add more water if the dough does not come together.
4. Press dough into a disc, wrap in plastic foil and let rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
5. Using a rolling pin, roll dough to about 0.5cm thickness and transfer to springform pan. Press into pan, shaping a low border up the sides of the pan.
6. Prick dough all over with fork, cover with baking paper and baking weights or beans, and bake in preheated oven at 200C for 15 minutes.
7. Remove weights and paper, and continue baking for another 10 minutes or until slightly golden.
8. Remove from oven and let cool completely on rack.

For the topping:
400g ricotta
6 San Marzano tomatoes, cut into thick rounds
150g green beans, cut into 2 to 3cm long pieces, blanched in boiling water for about 3 minutes
30g grated parmigiano
fresh basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil
salt, pepper

1. In a bowl, mix ricotta with 10 finely chopped basil leaves, the parmigiano, and season with salt and pepper.
2. Spread 3/4 of the ricotta mix into the pie crust.
3. Top with green beans and tomatoes.
4. Top with spoonfuls of the remaining ricotta mix, and season with salt and pepper.
5. Top with basil leaves, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

Enjoy!

 

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Caponata

Caponata, the iconic Sicilian eggplant dish

The deep purple and maroon hues of eggplants and their different shapes and sizes have always fascinated me. But for the longest time, I had a big aversion to them. Until I sampled eggplant dishes in Italy and Turkey. That’s when it hit me: I had simply never had eggplant this delicious before! My aversion had nothing to do with this beautiful vegetable, but everything with the way it was prepared.

I discovered my latest eggplant love during my recent trip to Sicily. Caponata, one of the most iconic dishes of the island’s wonderful cuisine is served there as an appetizer, sometimes at room temperature, sometimes cold. There are as many recipes as there are cooks, but all of them share one common trait – a delicious contrast of textures and aromas. Caponata is at once earthy and elegant, sweet and salty, comforting and very easy on the palate.

Make sure to use dark purple eggplants, preferably capers conserved in salt (vs. capers in vinegar), and a good quality red wine vinegar. Enjoy it with some crusty Italian bread and a glass of red wine, and you’ll wish summer would never end!

Caponata (serves 4 as an appetizer)
1 large eggplant (500 to 600g), cut into small cubes
300g pelati (canned peeled tomatoes)
50g green olives, cut into rounds
1 tablespoon capers in salt, rinsed
20g pine nuts
20g raisins
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
handful of fresh basil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
extra virgin olive oil
salt, pepper
sea salt

1. Put eggplant cubes in a bowl and mix with a few tablespoons of sea salt (this will extract the bitterness of the eggplant).
2. Let stand for 10 minutes, then rinse well under lukewarm water. Pat dry.
3. Deep fry eggplant in olive oil for a few minutes.
4. Transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels.
5. Deep fry celery in the same oil used for deep frying the eggplants.
6. Fry until golden and crispy, then transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels.
7. Pour off excess oil from pan except for 3-4 tablespoons.
8. In remaining oil, sautee onion for a few minutes, then add tomatoes and their juices.
9. Crush tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Mix well and simmer for 10 minutes.
10. Add sugar and vinegar, and cook until almost all liquid has evaporated and the sauce is relatively dry.
11. Add pine nuts, raisins, capers, and olives.
12. Add eggplant, celery, and whole basil leaves.
13. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for a couple of minutes.
14. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
15. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Enjoy!

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Sicily – Island Of Light

Zingaro Nature Reserve

We had landed in Palermo on a late flight from Rome, and were greeted by the balmy air of a summer night filled with humidity and a faint smell of the ocean. Cab drivers lazily hung around their cars, smoking cigarettes and motioning us to get into a taxi that belonged to an old man whose face was wrinkled up from too much sun and cigarettes. He was polite and spoke no English, and drove a stubborn 50k/h on the fast highway that leads into the city, at times slowing down to a mere 30k/h, which prompted other drivers to honk at us violently. We drove past endless rows of houses in various states of disrepair, with laundry hanging from the windows and balconies, and giant oleander trees in full bloom. When we got to our hotel, the old man took our luggage out of the car and with an inviting gesture asked us in slurry Italian if we wanted to have some “vino” from his trunk. I knew I was going to like it there.

Sicilian Food and Sights

Palermo is like the cacti that grow in abundance all over the island. Rough and prickly, but not without its charm. Most of the historic sites are shamefully decrepit, and yet alluring in their baroque opulence. Blight, trash, and graffiti make for a crazy chaotic scene, but we never felt unwelcome, in danger, or repulsed. It was all far too fascinating, partly because Palermo’s inhabitants seem incredibly proud of their city, despite its very obvious shortcomings.

We had our first introduction to caponata in Palermo – a wonderfully aromatic dish made with deep fried eggplants, tomatoes, celery, raisins, pine nuts, and red vine vinegar. And we ate copious amounts of arancini, deep fried breaded rice balls that come in two versions. “Al ragu” with meat sauce and peas, and “al burro” with mozzarella and prosciutto cotto. One was never enough, no matter how big.

What we really had come for though were cannoli and cassata – only to find out that both were way too sweet for our taste. So instead, we turned our attention to the wonderfully refreshing granita that are served on every corner. The trick was to get the old fashioned version consisting of shaved ice and freshly squeezed fruit juice, rather than the machine churned slushy mess. Soon enough we gave in to another Palermitan culinary institution- gelato served in a brioche bun. It might sound weird, but it tasted incredibly delicious, especially with watermelon or almond ice cream. Watermelon made another appearance in pastry shops all over Palermo in the form of a jello (gelo di anguria) that is flavored with clove and either eaten by itself or used as a filling in little pies. The jello is usually sprinkled with chocolate chips, symbolizing watermelon seeds. But our favorite sweet treat (aside from ice cream) hands down was latte di mandorla, which is made from locally produced marzipan (made from almonds grown on the island) and served chilled.

Palermo Food and Sights

Once we had our fill of baroque churches and crumbling neighborhoods, we drove west to Marsala, from where we explored the surrounding sites, including trips to the magnificent ruins of the ancient Greek town of Selinunte, picturesque Erice, Lo Zingaro, Sicily’s oldest nature reserve, and the very Tunisian town of Mazara del Vallo with its Kasba. The whole area has a vague northern African look to it, with Tunisia being closer than mainland Italy. It’s all decidedly Italian, but seems very, very far from Rome.

The landscape is dotted with olive trees, vineyards, cacti, oleander, aloe vera, and bougainvillea, and everything is bathed in the most magnificent light, against the backdrop of a deep blue sky. People are proud of the land and its products – capers, salt from the salt flats between Marsala and Trapani, tuna, sword fish, Bronte pistachios, almonds, couscous (reflecting the proximity to northern Africa), an array of cheeses and cured hams, and of course, lemons. We sampled melt-in-your-mouth smoked sword fish, tuna, Busiate (a local pasta) with Pesto alla Trapanese (made with tomatoes, almonds, and basil), fantastically lively Grillo (a local white wine) and fruity Malvasia, and we went on a hunt to chase down the best sweet wine I have ever tasted, Donnafugata’s Passito di Pantelleria . It is made from Zibibbo grapes that are grown on the tiny island of Pantelleria (south of Sicily) and are left on the vine to dry in the sun. The resulting wine is beyond description. One night at a well stocked and cool Enoteca in Marsala, our waiter brought us his favorite Marsala with a small bowl of local almond cookies, and the intense taste of the dry wine was the perfect way to end yet another beautiful day.

Marsala Food and Sights

When our last day on the island came all too soon, we felt like we were not quite ready yet to give up la dolce vita, but parting was made a little bit easier knowing that several bottles of wine, olive oil, salted capers, orange flower honey, and other goodies were coming home with us in our suitcases. And we’ll be back for more, hopefully next spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.

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