It’s no secret that I have a love affair with Italy—a country to which, thus far, I’ve never been. So after two days of beautiful Thanksgiving celebration, with all the standards and a few new foods, it’s also no surprise that my first post-holiday culinary retreat is slow-cooked Italian. Today, my inspirations were comfort (I’m exhausted from being coerced by my sister and mother to black Friday shop at ridiculous hours) and Giada, who earlier cooked a veal dish that made me head to the store for red meat, albeit not veal. I don’t really do veal. I won’t explain nor do I judge if you’re a fan. I’ve had veal. It’s delicious. And I don’t normally do it. I digress.
The scents in my house at the moment couldn’t be much more comforting. Upon arriving home mid-day Scott built a fire and has been burning brush since. A bit of that smoky wonderfulness has floated inside on a warm breeze through wide-open windows. I started the afternoon with a homemade stock that’s now simmering on the stove in a fall minestrone. I followed that with hot Italian sausage drowned in sweet tomato sauce, and have prepped simple sirloin steaks for greatness by salting and beating the heck out of them with a rolling pin. Soon they’ll be flash cooking in a thin layer of butter, meeting up with pork and bathing in a sultry, creamy and light sauce that’ll conjure a silky breeze across a bare shoulder.
Still savoring the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m sipping a Firestone Gewürztraminer that’s sweet but also mellow. Kind of buttery too, which is a welcome surprise because I adore buttery whites but don’t normally associate that characteristic with Gewürztraminer. This coupled with Diana Krall and select other slow-groove, jazzy songstresses imparting their takes on Christmas classics has added to a very relaxed vibe in my kitchen. I couldn’t be happier.
To the food. By now you may have noticed that I don’t generally list ingredients in recipe form. This post is no different. One day soon…I plan to post recipes. Well, lists of ingredients with loose instructions, anyway. For now, let’s begin with stock for the soup. The ends of onions, carrots, greens and mushrooms (etc.); the halves of lemon you’ve squeezed into something else; the leftover parts from a chicken you’ve recently roasted…all of these are the makings of a lovely homemade stock. It’s pretty simple, really, at least my take on it. You toss these items into a large Ziploc bag and store in the freezer. Add to it as you go, meal by meal. You’ll end up with a large bag (or several bags if you’re like me) of stock-making goodies. When you’re ready to put on a soup, pour a good bit of water into a large pot and add your frozen treasures. (You’ll obviously discard these when finished.) Cover and boil-then-simmer gently for a while—20, 40, 60 minutes or longer…whatever works for you. This is your stock. It’s unique to you and your life and everything you’ve cooked in the past weeks. I think that’s cool.
Make soup by pouring a little olive oil (or whatever healthy oil fits your dish…I almost always use olive) in another large pot and sauté things like onion, carrot, celery and garlic. These ingredients are great starters for a lot of soups. Let them go 10 minutes or so and start adding other ingredients. Today, I added leftover ham that I’d let sit out to thaw after being in the freezer, cut into small bits. Fresh pancetta would’ve been better here, but I had this ham…so I used it. Brown the ham or pancetta bits. Next came a can of diced tomatoes and some caper berries (along with a touch of the vinegar from their jar). Caper berries are like capers but larger, so you get even more of that gorgeous, pungent flavor. And then I added my stock. After a while, I dropped in colorful Swiss chard and red kidney beans. I could’ve used several other greens on hand, including brussel tops, turnip greens, kohlrabi greens, etc. The idea is that you add a lovely green and it makes the soup that much more beautiful, interesting and delicious. The kidney beans came from a can, which I drained, rinsed and salted. Feel free to insert your favorite bean here…and dried is even better but I don’t quite have the patience for pre-soaking. Remember to salt and pepper your soup along the way, several times—or commit to doing so later in each bowl—otherwise your soup may turn out quite flat.
You’ll remember that my craving for Italian also included the spicy sausage I mentioned earlier…which I browned in a large pan with onion and garlic before adding store-bought tomato sauce. (I don’t have a very good excuse for not having canned or frozen sauce from my own garden ~ next year.) Regarding store-bought tomato sauce, I spent a good bit of time in the pasta aisle one afternoon evaluating the options and I now, almost exclusively, use Bertolli’s Vineyard series. These sauces have less salt and additives than others and contain natural ingredients that I would use in my own sauce (and that I can pronounce). The spicy sauce will eventually be married with pipette pasta—though you should use whatever pasta floats your boat—and then tossed with fresh basil and parmesan. It’s fairly important to use good parmesan…and to never use the stuff that comes in a green cylindrical container. It simply bares no resemblance to the real thing and, as far as I’m concerned, will sabotage your efforts.
A classic Italian meal is comprised of several small courses, as opposed to one large main course, beginning with antipasti. Translated, anti means “before” and pasti means “meal”. This course is normally served prior to a pasta dish, or primi, followed by a meat course, called secondí. (One or two vegetables, or contorno, often accompany the meat dish and the meal generally closes with a sweet, or dolcí.) A Roman friend, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing my kitchen during his season in the states, explained that historically Italians served a less costly primi course such as pasta, risotto or soup to fill them up a bit prior to enjoying a more expensive protein dish. (I’ll share his authentic pasta all’Amatriciana and pork cutlet di pomodoro very soon.) Today, my minestrone serves as our antipasti and my sweet tomato pasta with spicy sausage is our primi followed by our secondí…a quick-fired, smothered sirloin.
Generally speaking, the filet is my choice cut of beef as it is the most tender and lean and delicious. But some days I want to try something different and today was one of them. I chose sirloin steaks for my dish knowing I would tenderize and thin them by covering with sea salt and parchment paper, placing in a plastic bag and, as previously mentioned, beating them with a rolling pin. Then I dropped them in a very hot, buttered pan—you must hear an immediate and strong sizzle—and seared them for a couple of minutes on each side. Pull them out and set aside, covered, while also turning down the heat a bit to medium. Next add a cup or so of broth from your soup or from a carton/can along with a can of diced tomatoes. Let this cook for 10 minutes or so until it has reduced and thickened. Add a half cup or so of milk, whatever sort you have, or cream if you want the sauce to be very rich. I save cream for days when I’m feeling very decadent and today we already have a good bit of fat from the meats involved so I opted for a lighter sauce. Season the sauce with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring around a bit. At this point your ready to reintroduce your steaks, adding them back to the pan. I placed a couple of thin slices of ham on top of them, followed by sauce from the pan, and covered the whole thing for five minutes more to heat the ham. Your heat should be low now so you don’t cook the steak much further. You’re going for medium rare. If I had fresh herbs from the garden I’d be adding thyme or oregano here. Serve the steaks with plenty of sauce over top.
That’s pretty much it. I couldn’t have been happier with how the smothered sirloin steaks turned out. I’ll definitely make it again. Keep in mind that you could give the same treatment to chicken breasts or boneless pork loin and you’d be just as happy. You could also add cheese to the smothering…but we’re trying to be somewhat healthy here, right? Buon appetito!
P.S. It should be said that I do not speak Italian, so pardon me for any misfires here. Learning it is on my list and growing much closer to the top :)