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Essential Italian

Rima Barkett and Claudia Pruett - March 22, 2010

Cooking a simple, delicious Italian meal may seem like a lofty goal, but these recipes will have you on your way in a heartbeat. If you plan ahead so that you have the herbs on hand and the bread started, preparation should go by quickly.

Focaccia Prep Time: 5 minutes Rising Time: 3 hours Cook Time: 20 minutes Serves: 16

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast, about 1 1/2 packages
  • 1 1/4 cups club soda
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, not extra-virgin
Day before or 2 hours ahead: Pour flour into a large mixing bowl. Add salt and yeast. Stir to combine. Add club soda. Beat for 3 minutes with an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Start on low then increase speed to high, or mix the dough with your hands until the flour has absorbed all the water and does not stick to the bowl but a little to your fingers.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise overnight at room temperature or in a warm place for 2 hours. An oven heated for just 2 minutes will do.

Pour olive oil onto a 9 x 12-inch baking sheet with 1-inch sides. Transfer dough to pan and gently spread to fill pan. With your hands, put some of the oil that is at the bottom of the pan on top of the dough. Or flip it over so both sides are bathed in olive oil. Make little dimples on the top of the focaccia with your fingers (children love to do this). Let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 450° F.

Make more dimples on the top of the dough. Bake focaccia for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes or until the oil is absorbed. Cut into squares or long slices and serve the same day.

Variations: For a different flavor, add thinly sliced tomatoes, zucchini, onions, or vegetables on top just before you bake it. A common Italian variation is to add fresh rosemary, sliced onions, and sliced olives on top.

Buonissima Salad Prep Time: 20 minutes Serves: 4 to 6

For the dressing:

  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • dash of freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad:
  • 2 cups grilled or cooked chicken, cut into small cubes
  • 1 head romaine lettuce, rinsed, dried, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 avocado, peeled and chopped into small pieces
  • 1 tomato, rinsed and chopped into small pieces
  • 2 large eggs, boiled, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup blue cheese crumbles
Prepare the dressing: Combine vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Whisking continuously, slowly add the olive oil until it is thoroughly blended with the vinegar. (You can also use a hand-held mixer or blender.) Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Prepare the salad: Place lettuce in a large salad bowl and toss it with half the dressing. Add the chicken, then layer the remaining salad ingredients: tomato, avocado, chopped egg, and blue cheese. Drizzle the remaining dressing on top of the salad.

Penne al Forno This recipe takes a while to make, but it's nearly effortless. It is a very traditional recipe from Rima's family and is prepared for many parties and loved by everyone.

Prep time: 20 minutes Cook time: 3 hours Serves: 8 to 10

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 4 pounds yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced in half-moons
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 pound penne pasta
  • 4 cups Béchamel White Sauce (see below)
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil in a large pot over low heat. Add the onions and garlic. Cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, salt, and pepper. Cover and let cook for 1 1/2 hours.

During the last 20 minutes, start cooking the penne. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. When the water is boiling, add penne and 2 tablespoons of salt. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally. Heat oven to 350° F.

Drain the pasta a few minutes before it is done. (It will continue cooking in the oven.) Transfer to a large 9 x 13-inch baking dish or individual ramekins.

Stir in the onion mixture and half the Béchamel White Sauce until well mixed. Spread the remaining Béchamel on top and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 40 minutes. Broil for 3 to 4 minutes or until top is golden brown. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Béchamel White Sauce Cook time: 20 minutes Makes: 4 1/2 cups

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, better if freshly grated
Heat milk in a medium saucepan over low to medium heat to just below boiling point.

Meanwhile, melt the butter over low heat in a large saucepan. (Be careful not to let it burn!) When melted, remove from heat and whisk in the flour until well combined. Slowly whisk in heated milk.

Return to low heat. Add salt and nutmeg, and continue stirring until the sauce reaches a boil. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.

Double Chocolate Biscotti Enjoy at snack time with milk, or for dessert with hot chocolate.

Prep Time: 20 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes Makes: 30

For the biscotti:

  • 1 cup almond meal (finely ground almonds)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup Nutella, chocolate hazelnut spread
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
For the frosting:
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips--melted separately
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips--melted separately
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease one baking sheet or line with a silicone baking mat.

Combine ground almonds, flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa in a large bowl. Mix well and set aside.

Put eggs in a large mixing bowl. Beat well. Add melted butter, Nutella, and vanilla extract. Stir well or beat with an electric mixer. Stir in flour mixture. Dough will be stiff. Turn out onto prepared baking sheet, making two even rectangles of dough, measuring 10 x 3 x 1/2 inch.

Bake on the center rack for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife inserted near center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes.

Starting from the narrow end and using a serrated knife, slice into 1/2-inch thick bars. Lay biscotti on their sides, on the same baking sheet. Put back in the oven and bake at 325° F for 10 more minutes.

Remove and let cool for at least 30 minutes. Spread with a thin layer of melted semisweet chocolate and decorate with melted white chocolate. Allow chocolate to harden. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container.

--- Excerpted from Cooking Dinner: Simple Italian Family Recipes Everyone Can Make. Restaurateurs Rima Barkett and Claudia Pruett wrote this book with the approach that the whole family can and should be involved in cooking dinner. Available at amazon.com.

© Copyright MEGA Publishing, 2009.