The Italian Table: Creating Festive Meals for Family and Friends

Elizabeth Minchilli, who has lived in Italy for a quarter of a century, has created a way for all of us to experience certain special food events that comprise the country’s heritage in much the same way as their monuments (think The Colosseum, St. Peter’s and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) are must-sees for visitors.

She shows us how, in her latest cookbook, The Italian Table: Creating Festive Meals for Family and Friends, to completely replicate such Italian food culture in such chapters as a Sunday Lunch in Email-Romagna, Farm to Sicilian Table, Panini Party in Umbria and A Table by the Sea in Positano. Because Minchilli’s background and interests are not only culinary but also envelope style and architecture, she tells us not only what to drink and eat but also how to create the tablescape as well.  As an example, her Pizza by the Slice in Rome meal calls for “for the authentic pizzeria al taglia vibe, use plastic or—more sustainable—paper.”

              Minchilli, who is from St. Louis, Missouri but moved to Rome with her parents when she was 12, developed such a passion for the all things Italy (she even married an Italian man) and in her words, had an Italian baby, an Italian house and an Italian dog.

              “That was after I returned as a graduate student to study Renaissance garden architecture in Florence,” says Minchilli when I talk to her using Skype as she was at her home in Rome.

             I discover, as we talk, that I already have one of her books, a luscious tome titled Villas on the Lakes: Orta, Maggiore, Como, Garda  that someone had given me years ago and which I still leaf through to marvel at all the wonderful photos. Minchilli is one of those people who seems to do it all, she’s written nine books including Restoring a Home in Italy, takes all her own photos, writes an award winning website, elizabethminchilli.com, developed her Eat Italy app and offers food tours to behind the scenes culinary destinations as well as posting on You Tube and other social media.

              She tells me that her love for food began when she was given one of those easy-bake ovens when she was a kid.

              “I became the cook of the family,” she says, though she obviously she’s moved way beyond a toy where the oven is heated by a light bulb.

              The Italian Table is her ninth book.

              “I’m really happy about it,” says Minchilli. “This is really the book where I can bring everything together—the food, the people who make the plates, what is surrounding us, the whole experience.”

              She was motivated to write the book after being questioned countless about how Italian food and dining. To showcase that, she decided on highlight 12 different dinners and photograph and write about them in real time—as they were being planned, cooked and served.

              “I wanted people to know how Italians really eat and I decided to do that by meals in different areas and then narrowed it down by going deeper into how it all comes together,” she says. “I set it up so you can go through the cookbook and decide what you like.”

              She’s also included a time table, what to do, depending upon the dinner, two days before, one day before, two hours before, one hour before and when your guests arrive. And there are ways to lessen the cooking load for the more intensive and elaborate dinners.

              “Food is about being social and sharing,” Minchilli tells me. “A lot of people are scared to have people over and so I wanted to take fear out of the equation. That’s why I give people a game plan by telling people when to shop, when they should set the table and also how far ahead to do things so that there’s less to do at the last minute. It reduces the stress and fear and makes it more approachable.”

Elizabeth Minchilli will be at Ceres’ Table, 3124 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL on Monday, April 22 at 8 pm (EST).  The Book Cellar is handling the event.  The price of the ticket includes a signed copy of the book, five course dinner selected by Elizabeth from dishes in her book, taxes and service. Tickets, which cost $82 per person, can be purchased by visiting the event page at bookcellarinc.com or calling (773) 293-2665.

Rotolini di Zucchini con Ricotta

Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini

4 medium zucchini, trimmed

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 bunch of fresh mint, leaves only

Sea salt

11/2 cups of fresh ricotta

1/2 cup of poppy seeds

Fresh sage or basil leaves, for garnish

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling (preferably your best variety)

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Using a sharp knife or mandoline, cut the zucchini lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick ribbons. (You should end up with at least 12 full-length, unbroken ribbons.) Place the zucchini in one layer on one or two baking sheets. Season them with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, half of the mint, and salt to taste and bake them for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

In the meantime, place the ricotta in a medium bowl with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the rest of the mint, roughly chopped. Using a fork, whip it until smooth and creamy.

Place about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture on each strip of zucchini and roll it up. Place the poppy seeds in a shallow bowl. Dip both flat ends of the rolls in the poppy seeds, coating the ricotta.

To serve, place two or three rolls on individual plates. Garnish each roll by placing a sage or basil leaf on top and tucking the ends in so that it follows the curve of the roll. Drizzle with your best extra-virgin olive oil and serve.

Radicchio with Pancetta and Parmigiano

Makes 8 servings

4 heads of radicchio di Treviso, leaves separated

30 thin slices of pancetta (about ½ pound)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

8 shelled walnuts, roughly chopped

4 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (1 cup)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay the radicchio leaves on top. If some of the inner leaves are very small, you can put two together to make a larger base.

Fry half the pancetta in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until it has released its fat a bit. Don’t let it burn. You won’t need any oil, as the pancetta should be pretty fatty. This may need to be done in a few batches. Each batch should take only a few minutes.

Season the radicchio with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Distribute the cooked pancetta on top of each leaf, then add the chopped nuts and sprinkle with the Parmigiano.

Wrap each stuffed leaf with a slice of uncooked pancetta. Bake in preheated oven about 20 minutes, until pancetta around the outside is cooked and beginning to sizzle. Serve immediately, while warm.

Torta di Spinachi

Spinach Tart

About 2 pounds of spinach or other greens

1 cup fresh ricotta

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

½ cup of whole milk

4 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

1 tablespoon of fresh marjoram leaves for ½ teaspoon dried

½ teaspoon sea salt

A few grindings of black pepper

Place the greens in a pot with about an inch of water and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until wilted. Drain and when cool enough to handle, squeeze the greens into a ball, squeezing out every last drop of moisture. You should have about 1 cup. Roughly chop the greens and set aside.

About an hour before you are going to bake the tart, place the ricotta in a fine sieve and drain it over a bowl to remove the excess whey.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

Put the chopped greens in a clean bowl with the drained ricotta, whole egg and yolk, milk, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, ¾ cup of the Parmigiano, the marjoram, butter, salt and pepper. Mix well with a fork.

Pour the mixture into the pan, leveling off the top with the back of a spoon. Cover with the remaining olive oil and Parmigiano.

Bake for 50 minutes, until the tart begins to brown and is well set. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a knife and, using an offset spatula, turn it out onto a serving platter.

Serve.

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