This story was written by Linda Lombroso.
There’s nothing warmer than hosting an intimate New Year’s celebration, but after all that holiday cooking, who wants to start fussing in the kitchen again?
You don’t have to. With easy one-dish meals like those featured in Nyack author Julia della Croce’s new “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul” (Kyle Books, $29.95), you’ll have the satisfaction of being cook and guest at your own party.
The dishes in della Croce’s book — classic Italian comfort food from many of the country’s regions — are rustic and homey, but hardly ordinary.
“Each is bursting with flavor and beautiful to look at without being complicated,” says della Croce, who travels frequently to Italy. “It is a universal belief that New Year’s Day should begin with pleasure and good luck, and that’s just what such homey food brings: comfort, health and prosperity to the body, and an uplift to the spirit.”
A favorite dish of della Croce’s comes from her grandmother: Polenta Layer Cake with Meat Sauce, a lasagna-like entree that uses polenta in place of pasta and sheep’s milk cheese instead of the usual ricotta and mozzarella.
“People always love these kind of layered dishes, and having so many different things going on in the same dish -— you have the meat ragout, which is delicious on its own, you have the nuttiness and creaminess of the polenta, and you have the ooziness of the cheese — it kinds of pulls it all together,” she says. “It’s a beautiful dish and delicious.”
Equally beautiful are the Tart Chicken Alla Cacciatora (which della Croce got from a family-run restaurant in Umbria), the Juicy Meat Loaf with Tomato and Red Wine Glaze (with sopressata, a nice addition for the holidays) and Casa Janca’s Roasted Peppers, borrowed from cookbook writer Rosetta Costantino, who ate the dish at an agriturismo in Calabria.
Although the recipes aren’t complicated, pre-party planning is essential, even with one-dish meals, says della Croce. Be sure to have all ingredients in the house, rely on trusted sources (now is no time to experiment) and don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring an appetizer or dessert.
Della Croce, who also came out this year with Williams-Sonoma “The Pasta Book,” says that narrowing down the choices while offering guests a hearty one-dish meal makes sense at the end of the food-focused holiday season.
“Comforting home food is really what people love most, and such lovely and intensely flavored traditional dishes are an auspicious start to the new year — especially this year, when as a nation we crave simple joys and comfort in the face of hard times for so many.”
Nonna Giulia’s Polenta Layer Cake with Meat Sauce
My maternal grandmother’s polenta cake is much like baked lasagna. except that polenta replaces pasta in between the layers of winey meat sauce and tangy young sheep’s milk cheese. Nonna Giulia died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish, called pasticciata di polenta in Italian, is one of her heirloom jewels.
Note that polenta must be made from polenta cornmeal. Cooked ground corn used for corn bread will not result in an edible cornmeal porridge.
Serves 6 to 8 (enough for polenta layer cake)
7 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups polenta cornmeal
boiling water, as needed
Bring the water to a boil in a deep pot. Add the salt and bring the heat down to medium. Then add the cornmeal very slowly, almost in a trickle (a doccia, “like a shower”) — this gradual introduction of cornmeal to the boiling water prevents lumps from forming. Keep the polenta at a constant simmer and, from the instant the cornmeal is added to the water, continuously stir it with a long-handled wooden spoon or whisk, always in the same direction. After all the cornmeal is absorbed, continue to stir until the polenta is thick and pulls away easily from the sides of the pan. If the polenta is quite thick but still not pulling, add a little more boiling water and continue to stir until it is ready. It should be perfectly cooked, thick and creamy in 25 to 30 minutes.
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 carrot, chopped
1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds
1 pound ground, lean pork, or mixed ground pork and beef
1/2 cup good quality dry red wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded, and chopped, juices reserved
3 tablespoons minced basil leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt
[0xbd] pound semi-soft pecorino cheese such as Fior di Sardegna, or Tuscan caciotta, or substitute Spanish Manchego, shredded
Olive or vegetable oil for oiling polenta board or work surface
To make the sauce, warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, carrot and celery and continue to sauté until vegetables are soft, 10 minutes. Add fennel seeds and the pork and sauté over low heat until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate, 1 minute. Add the tomato paste diluted in a few tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices followed by the tomatoes, another 1/2 cup reserved tomato juices, basil and the salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If necessary, add a few tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices during cooking if the sauce seems to be drying out.
Lightly oil a 9-by-13 baking dish and set aside. Make the polenta and turn it out onto a lightly oiled board or counter surface. Use a rubber spatula or knife dipped into hot water to spread it out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let stand until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into 3-inch squares; set aside.
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange half the polenta squares in the bottom of the baking dish. Pour half the sauce over the polenta squares and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of each. Bake until the “cake” is heated through and the cheese is golden brown, between 15 and 20 minutes.
Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.
Signora Cibocchi’s Tart Chicken alla Cacciatora
“Alla cacciatora,” meaning “cooked the hunter’s way,” probably once described methods for cooking game, but Italians use the term today to mean any number of stove-top methods for cooking every kind of meat, domesticated or otherwise. No doubt it was the hunter’s wife who did the cooking. Such is the case at Ristorante Cibocchi, a little out-of-the-way trattoria in the region of Umbria, where the owner’s aunt is behind the stove. Her version of chicken alla cacciatora is a zesty combination of chopped lemon, peel and all, fresh rosemary and sage.
Serves 4 (can be doubled)
1 (3 1/2-pound) free-range or organic chicken, including giblets, cut up
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, cut into small pieces
1/2 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage, or 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried sage
1/3 cup pitted, brine-cured tart green olives such as piccholine, sliced
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons good quality dry white wine
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon capers, minced
1 lemon slice, 1/4-inch thick, seeded and minced, including peel, plus 1 lemon, thinly sliced, for garnishing
pinch of red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Rinse the chicken pieces, dry well and trim off all excess fat. Trim any dark spots, fat and membrane from the liver and heart, and dice. Trim the tough outer layer from the gizzards and chop.
In a deep, heavy-bottomed skillet ample enough to accommodate all of the chicken pieces without crowding, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot enough to make the chicken sizzle, add the chicken pieces. Allow them to brown nicely and evenly on all sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.
Drain off a tablespoon or two of the fat from the pan if the amount seems excessive. Add the garlic, onion, rosemary and sage, all at once. Sauté over low heat until the garlic and onion are thoroughly cooked but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Return the browned chicken pieces to the skillet along with the olives. Use a wooden spoon to toss all the ingredients together. Pour in the wine and add the vinegar, capers, lemon, red pepper flakes and salt. Cover partially and continue cooking the chicken until it is done or registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 20 minutes. Add up to 1/2 cup water, if necessary, to prevent the chicken from drying out.
Transfer the chicken and its sauce to a warmed platter. Garnish with the lemon slices and serve immediately.
Juicy Meat Loaf with Tomato and Red Wine Glaze
Italian meatloaf is delicately seasoned and almost always made with several kinds of meat. I’ve gotten into the habit of working a little minced fresh tomato into the mixture, which helps to keep it moist. Toward the end of cooking, the pan juices are fortified with tomato purée and wine to form a delicious sauce. Serve this succulent meatloaf for dinner, or left over at room temperature — it is equally good hot or cold.
6 slices stale white bread with crusts removed, shredded
Milk or meat stock (for soaking the bread)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, minced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
3 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
6 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, or 2 teaspoons dried crushed thyme
3 pounds mixed lean ground beef and pork, or 3 pounds lean ground beef
4 ounces sopressata, minced
2 fresh, large firm tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and minced
6 tablespoons meat stock or water
1/2 cup good quality dry red wine
3 cups canned tomato purée or strained tomatoes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak the bread in enough milk or stock to cover. Squeeze dry and discard the liquid. Shred the dampened bread well and set aside.
In a skillet, warm the olive oil and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until soft, about 7 minutes; cool.
In the meantime, scatter the breadcrumbs on an approximate 12-by-18-inch work surface. Grease a 9-by-13 baking dish.
In an ample mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the salt, pepper, grated cheese, parsley and thyme. Add the meat(s), soppressata, shredded bread, sautéed onion mixture and minced tomato. Wet your hands and thoroughly blend all the ingredients together. Spread the meat mixture on the breadcrumb-covered work surface, using your hands to form a typical long and narrow log-shaped loaf. Place the meatloaf in the baking dish and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the stock or water around it.
Slide the meatloaf onto the middle rack of the oven and bake for 50 minutes, or until an instant-read meat thermometer registers at 160 degrees, adding the remaining stock or water after 15 minutes. Baste it several times during baking with the pan juices, adding a little more water if they seem to be drying up (no more than a tablespoon or two, if any, should be necessary). There should be sufficient juice in the baking pan to keep the meatloaf moist and to guarantee pan juices when it is done. Fifteen minutes before the meat is cooked, add the wine to the pan and pour the tomato purée over the top to glaze the surface.
When done, remove the meatloaf from the oven, tent with foil and let rest for 15 minutes. Pass the sauce and drippings that have formed in the pan through a sieve into a saucepan, and heat through over low heat, stirring to blend. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
Cut the meatloaf into 3/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange them in a “shingle” fashion, one slice overlapping the other on a serving platter or on individual plates. Moisten with the sauce and serve, passing additional sauce at the table.
Casa Janca’s Roasted Peppers
Cookbook writer Rosetta Costantino, author of “My Calabria,” offered this recipe from Casa Janca, a rustic agriturismo near the fishing village of Pizzo in Calabria. The owner, Rita Callipo, is a highly regarded cook who runs a restaurant out of her home. The peppers can be served as a vegetable side dish or as an appetizer, as they do in Calabria.
Serves 4 (can be doubled)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 medium-sized mixed red and yellow bell peppers
1 tablespoon capers, chopped if using large capers
6 anchovy filets, cut in small pieces
18 to 20 small cherry tomatoes, cut in half or quarters if large
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet or pan large enough to fit the peppers once they are cut into eight halves. In a small bowl, combine the grated cheese, breadcrumbs, garlic and parsley and mix well.
Cut the peppers in half lengthwise. Remove the stem and seeds. Place the peppers cut side up in the baking pan. Sprinkle with a little salt, the chopped capers, anchovy pieces and cut-up tomatoes. Distribute the breadcrumb mixture on top and drizzle each pepper half with the olive oil.
Slide the peppers onto the middle rack of the oven; bake until the peppers are thoroughly soft and nicely colored, about 45 minutes or longer, depending on the size of the peppers and their freshness.
Serve warm or at room temperature.