Homemade Giardiniera

One of the challenges (or joys, depending on your outlook) of flying by the seat of your pants is you can’t confidently predict an outcome. This is true for me in the kitchen, even when I am doing that flying through a familiar recipe. When I cook, I generally do not follow a recipe to the letter; rather, I follow my instinct to complete a meal using the ingredients I can find. This is why my mac and cheese is never exactly the same, and why I have so many meatloaf recipes in my repertoire, including a stuffed one that I made last winter that I never got a chance to share with you—but I will (it involves bleu cheese).

Last month, when I whipped up the Italian Deli Tortellini Salad, I made a promise that I would share my homemade version of giardiniera, which I had declared is far and away better than any stuff you’ll buy in a jar. I’m making good on my promise, but before I continue, I must explain that my on-hand ingredients this time produced a giardiniera that would be perfect for serving at, well, Easter.

It’s pink!!!

In my previous times making this quick-pickled vegetable medley, I have used sweet or yellow onions and I didn’t have this pastel outcome. But in the ruckus of preparing to remodel, I had to forego an extra trip to the market, and I just used the red onions that I had. It was disappointing at first, because I am a perfectionist who wants everything to be just so, especially if I am sharing it on my blog. But there is also great joy in some of these culinary surprises, and it got me wondering what would happen if I used purple cauliflower along with the red onions, and maybe even purple carrots?

No matter the hue, I find the homemade version to be not only more flavorful, but also far crunchier than the jarred versions. I grew to love this stuff when I worked in a supermarket, as a house-made version of it was always in the prepared foods section of our deli department, and it was a perfect side to a beef on weck sandwich (now there’s a recipe for my culinary bucket list)!

Giardiniera is simple to make, but I suggest you plan ahead because it requires a few days and a decent amount of space in the fridge, at least during preparation. When it is finished, you’ll need a tall jar or good-sized container for keeping it, and it will last in the fridge for a few weeks.

One more thing to mention about my variation of giardiniera—it is intended as a riff on the Italian version, not the “Chicago-style,” which is marinated in olive oil rather than pickled.


Ingredients

About 4 cups fresh cauliflower florets                                            

1/2 cup carrot slices

1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, or pepperoncini or cherry peppers

1/2 onion (remember that red onion will make the dish pink!), cut into slices

3 celery heart stalks (strings removed), sliced thickly on the bias

Other vegetables would be good in this as well, provided they are crunchy. If I had made that trip to the store for yellow onions, I would have also picked up a bulb of fennel—that would be fantastic.

1/4 cup kosher salt* (see notes)


*Notes

I use kosher salt for most of my cooking and especially when brining or pickling. It has a pure salt flavor and the large grains take up more space than regular table salt. The additives in table salt (iodine and anti-caking agents) can add an unpleasant flavor and will likely result in a cloudy liquid. If you only have table salt, it is OK to use it here, but I’d recommend using less of it—maybe 3 tablespoons plus a teaspoon.


Instructions – Day One

Combine all the cut-up vegetables in a large bowl. Pour salt over them and use your hands to toss until evenly salted. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and refrigerate several hours, up to overnight.


I’ll stop right here and admit that in my distraction over all the remodel prepping activity, I let my vegetables brine in the salt way too long, but it was not a disaster; a couple of extra rinses on the second day washed away the excessive saltiness.


Instructions – Day Two

Drain the released liquid from the vegetables and rinse well under cold running water for about two minutes. Taste one or two pieces for saltiness. If they are too salty, cover them in the bowl with cold water and let them rest half an hour, then drain and rinse again. When they taste seasoned, but not unpleasantly salty, they are ready for the next step of pickling.

This part of the recipe project felt like a scavenger hunt, mainly because I have packed away my spices based on which ones I figured we would likely need for easy cooking during our remodel.

Believe it or not, I used to know where everything was.

In case I have not mentioned previously, I have a lot of spices—enough to fill up both sides of this cabinet (and surplus spices, which live in a cabinet above the washer and dryer), and there are too many jars to fit in a single box for short-term storage. We expected to be put out of the kitchen two weeks earlier, and when the delays gave me time to make giardiniera, I had to go in search of my ingredients.


No worries. It will all be worth it when the kitchen is done. 😊


Pickling Ingredients

1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar* (see notes)

1 1/4 cups water

3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed*

2 tsp. each mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds

1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

3 Tbsp. cane sugar

2 tsp. kosher salt (slightly less if using table salt)


*Notes

I usually have two kinds of apple cider vinegar on hand. One is raw, which means unfiltered and unpasteurized, which I will use for salad dressings or health purposes, but it is expensive. The other is a grocery store brand that is clear, which means it is filtered and pasteurized. I use the latter for this purpose because the vinegar is heated and that destroys the probiotic benefit of the raw vinegar anyway.

Unfortunately, I was so consumed in my search for fennel seeds that I did not remember the garlic when I made this batch, but I recommend it for an extra zing of flavor.

Combine the pickling ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt, then remove from heat. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables in a clean bowl and press the veggies under the surface of the liquid as much as possible. If it seems there is not enough liquid to go around, add equal splashes of vinegar and water to ensure good coverage.

Cover the bowl with plastic or a lid. Allow the giardiniera to cool, then refrigerate it at least overnight before enjoying it. For longer storage in the fridge, I transfer the giardiniera to a tall jar, and pour the pickling liquid through a mesh strainer to catch the seed spices and bay leaf.




Cheesy Stuffed Crust Supreme Deep-Dish Pizza

Every so often, I get a kick out of looking at the National Day calendar, which reminds me of the non-official occasions I can choose to celebrate on a given day. For example, yesterday was Talk Like a Pirate Day, but I didn’t mark the occasion because that felt ridiculous.

Perhaps it is a bit of serendipity, or just coincidence (which my husband, Les, does not believe exists) that I discovered today, Sept. 20, is both National Pepperoni Pizza Day and National String Cheese Day. The two seemingly separate “events” are both going to be recognized with this insanely over-the-top deep-dish pizza that we made at our house a full three months ago. Sometimes, in the rush to get something else posted on the blog, I end up putting some delicious thing on the back burner. In this instance, it worked out, because this pizza, which I dubbed “Go Big or Go Home,” happens to be perfect for this day. The toppings included pepperoni, but also sausage, peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and a ton of cheese, and the Chicago-style crust had a circle of string cheese strips enclosed all around the edges.

So much Italian flavor in here and soooo much cheese!

We had been dreaming about a cheesy stuffed crust pizza for a while, but I had a hard time imagining how to keep thick mozzarella sticks secured inside the dough without making a square pie. My solution was to tear the string cheese into strips and then overlap the strings in layers all the way around. Why didn’t that occur to me sooner? It resulted in a perfectly cheesy, ooey-gooey pizza experience, and made it one of the most fun versions of a deep dish that we have made (so far 😉).


Ingredients

1 recipe deep dish pizza dough (see my previous post for Chicago Deep Dish or use your own)

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

5 sticks of mozzarella string cheese, pulled apart into about four strips for each

1 packed cup shredded whole milk mozzarella, divided

1/2 cup cooked Italian sausage (we used a spicy variety)

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped and sauteed

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped and sauteed

About 20 pieces thinly sliced pepperoni

1/2 can San Marzano tomatoes, drained and squeezed by hand

A few spoonfuls of your favorite prepared pizza sauce

Several shakes of your favorite Italian seasoning blend


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in center position.
  2. Add olive oil to a 14-inch, deep dish pizza pan and swirl it around. Shape the pizza dough, leaving as much extra dough around the edges as possible.
  3. Arrange the strips of string cheese, overlapped so there is plenty of cheese thickness all the way around the edges of the pizza dough. Gently stretch and pull the edges of dough over the string cheese strips and press to seal it to the base of the dough. Portion half of the shredded mozzarella onto the base and use your hands to press it firmly into the base of the pizza and also to cover the stuffed crust seam.
  4. Layer on the cooked Italian sausage, then the peppers, onions and mushrooms. Arrange slices of pepperoni generously all over the pizza. Scatter the crushed canned tomatoes randomly over the pepperoni, and then drop a few spoons of pizza sauce in-between the tomatoes and spread it lightly.
  5. Sprinkle the pizza, including the dough around the edges, with your favorite Italian seasoning blend. Sprinkle the rest of the shredded mozzarella, along with any remaining strips of string cheese, on top of the pizza.
  6. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. The cheese will be lightly browned and bubbling also. Let the pizza cool in the pan for 8 minutes before transferring it to a pizza tray. We use a large pancake turner and a wide fish spatula to get under the pizza to move it. Alternatively, cut the pizza right in the pan and serve up the wedges.

See? Go big or go home!


Handmade Lemon-herb Pasta

March was National Flour Month, and I’m finally catching up on paying respect to the many ways flour feeds us, beyond the obvious (bread). My first attempts at making handmade pasta 10 years ago were outright disastrous, mostly because I had assumed the method of stirring eggs by fork into a mountain-like peak of all-purpose flour was going to be easy. In my defense, the shows I had watched on Food Network made it seem easy, but in real life, it was a humongous freaking mess that left me cussing up a storm and vowing that I’d “never make that again.” Truth is, it is those really frustrating failures that inspire me the most to give it another go, and I’m so glad I did!

In my later efforts, I enjoyed more success, letting my KitchenAid do the mixing, but there was always something about the handmade pasta that didn’t sit right with me, even after I had invested in a “Made in Italy” hand-crank pasta roller. The dough always seemed heavy or thick, even on the thin roller setting. It fell apart or crumbled, or stuck to the roller or cutting blades. But a few years ago, I found the perfect, James Beard Foundation-approved recipe that fixed all the problems I had encountered. My issue was not only how I was making the dough or rolling the pasta, but also the ratio of ingredients I was using. To that point, I had been using only all-purpose flour and whole eggs (yolks and whites). I had no idea what temperature was best for my ingredients, nor did I fully understand how long to knead the dough or whether it needed to be rested.

I cringe when I see this old photo. Besides all the background junk in my tiny, post-divorce apartment kitchen, the ragged edges on my pasta sheet reveal how much I had yet to learn! 🙂

The better recipe, and the one I use to this day, takes advantage of a special variety of wheat called durum, which is used to make semolina flour, the gold standard in authentic Italian pasta recipes. Semolina lends a warm, slightly nutty flavor, a light yellowish color and a firmer, more toothsome texture. It has been a game changer in my journey to making handmade pasta.

The other big difference was a shift in liquid ingredients in my formula. Rather than using whole eggs, the recipe that has become my standard requires separation of the eggs, using only the yolks, plus an amount of water. Once I found this easy formula, the flavor possibilities became near-endless. And that’s where the real fun of making handmade pasta begins! Being creative with the colors, flavors and shapes of handmade pasta is one of the things that gives me—a home cook—a very satisfying sense of accomplishment.

I won’t claim that handmade pasta is “easy,” because I still feel the ego bruises from my early attempts, but I will say that if you are already making handmade pasta, go on and experiment with the flavors until you find something amazing. New flavors make their way into the mix either in the liquid, perhaps by using finely pureed vegetables as part of the water measurement, or by way of dry add-ins, as I am sharing in today’s post. And if you’re still on the fence about trying handmade pasta, I hope my adventure inspires you!

This recipe has helped me use some of the abundance of fresh herbs I’ve had since my husband, Les, gifted me the countertop hydroponic herb garden that keeps throwing parsley at me. The lemon, parsley and basil combination is terrific and perfect for spring, but you could just as easily flavor your pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, roasted red peppers or—well, you can imagine your own (and I do hope you’ll share those fabulous ideas).

Making your own pasta is so much fun. I hope you’ll try it!

Adapted from
Semolina Pasta Dough Recipe | James Beard Foundation

Ingredients

8 oz. semolina flour (plus extra for rolling pasta dough)

4 oz. unbleached, all-purpose flour* (see notes)

2 oz. white whole wheat flour*

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 cup filtered water, room temperature*

2 egg yolks, room temperature*

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (mine is whole lemon-fused for bright lemon flavor)

Zest of one organic lemon* (only the bright yellow peel)

2 Tbsp. very finely minced fresh herbs (I used a combination of Italian parsley and Genovese basil)


*Notes

All-purpose flour is easy to find, but “00” flour is better if you can get your hands on it. The double-zero flour is milled to a very fine texture, and its use results in tender, silky pasta. I have seen it in well-stocked larger supermarkets, gourmet shops and online. I also use some portion of whole grain flour in my pasta dough, but if you prefer, skip the white whole wheat and make up the difference with equal amount of additional all-purpose or 00 flour.

As with bread dough, I have found that hydration of flour for pasta dough is much improved with room temperature or slightly warm water. Cold water makes for very stiff dough that is tougher to knead.

Eggs are more easily separated when cold, but once this is done, cover the bowl of yolks and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before you begin mixing the pasta dough.

Most of the time, conventionally-grown citrus is fine. But when you intend to eat any part of the peel, it’s best to choose organic to avoid chemical pesticides.


Instructions – making the dough

  1. Zest the lemon and mince the herbs first, and spread them out on a cutting board so that the add-in ingredients dry out a bit.
  2. Combine flours, salt, lemon zest and lightly dried herbs in the bowl of a stand mixer.
  3. Combine egg yolks and water in a separate bowl and whisk them together until the mixture is light and frothy.
  4. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour the wet ingredients into the center and use the dough hook to do the blending. Though it might seem logical to mix with the beater blade, using the dough hook completes the blending from the center-out, in the same way as the chefs using only a fork to gradually mix the eggs into the flour. Allow the mixer to do this work for you, until the dough mixture is combined but crumbly, and no dry flour remains in the bowl. Add more water, one tablespoon at a time, if needed to achieve this stage.
  5. Empty the dough onto your work surface, and knead by hand for at least 10 minutes, probably more like 15 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic, with no creases or cracks or lumps. If the dough shows any sign of cracking or breaking, wet your hands and continue to knead, repeating as many times as necessary until the smooth texture is achieved.
  6. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough ball at least one hour, or up to overnight. Do not refrigerate more than a day.

Time to make the pasta!

Here’s my work station for rolling pasta dough. My machine is clamped onto the edge of the counter, my cookie sheet and drying rack are ready, and my chilled dough is resting at room temperature.

Remove the pasta dough from the fridge (still wrapped) about 30 minutes before you plan to roll it, to remove some of the chill. Set up your pasta rolling machine, and keep fresh semolina out to aid in rolling and to prevent the dough from sticking. Have a parchment-lined cookie sheet within reach, and set up your drying rack if you’re using one.

Instructions – rolling the pasta

  1. Unwrap the pasta dough and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to slice off sections of dough about one inch thick. Keep remaining dough tightly wrapped until ready to roll, so it doesn’t dry out.
  2. Flatten a piece of dough into an oval-shaped disk, then roll it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting. For the first few passes, fold the pressed dough in half and run it through again on the same setting. Fold it in thirds, as you would fold up a letter, and turn the dough 90° so that it runs through the machine at a different angle. This helps to reduce curling or bending when the pasta dries later. When the dough feels supple after running through the press several times, begin reducing to thinner setting with each pass.
  3. When the dough reaches the desired thickness (either the thinnest or next-to-thinnest setting, allow the sheet to dry slightly before cutting into strips or using as ravioli. In my experience with pasta, the cutting and shaping stage seems to work better when the pasta is not super-soft. If you rush directly to cutting it, at least with a machine, the dough tends to stick in the rollers, and it will definitely stick to a ravioli mold.
  4. After pasta sheets are complete, allow them to rest for a couple of minutes before cutting, either with the pasta machine or by hand with a fluted pasta trimmer, pizza slicer or sharp knife. If cutting by hand, the simplest way is to fold the pasta sheet crosswise multiple times, and slice through the layers with a pizza wheel or sharp knife. Dust the pasta really well with extra semolina flour before cutting to minimize sticking.

This time, I’ve opted to use the cutter attachment for my pasta roller to fashion my lemon-herb pasta into fettucine strips, but this lemony pasta would also be terrific for making sweet crab-stuffed ravioli, or ricotta-filled tortellini. I will save those for another day. 🙂

We used the lemon-herb pasta in a couple of ways—first, with littleneck clams in white wine broth, and again as a base for an amazing dish of chicken thighs in vodka sauce that Les made for us.



Chocolate-Cherry Tiramisu

“No tiramisu for me, because I don’t like coffee.” This was the reply I’d come to expect from my husband, Les, who definitely does not share my love for a freshly brewed morning cup of java. The classic Italian dessert has long been one of my favorites—its not-so-sweet flavor is perfect for my not-so-sweet tooth. But this issue of coffee has been a real problem for my tiramisu goals. I could make it for myself, of course, but then I would have to eat the whole thing (yikes), and I really wanted to find a way to make it enjoyable for both of us.

Tiramisu is traditionally made of delicate biscotti cookies that have been soaked in rum- or liqueur-spiked espresso, layered with a rich and creamy mascarpone custard and dusted with real cocoa powder. It is, essentially, an Italian version of an icebox cake, and with no baking required, everything about it works—except, for my husband, the darn coffee.

A few months ago, I couldn’t help noticing the ads that kept popping up in my Pinterest feed: “brews like coffee, benefits of cacao.”

OK, I thought, a coffee substitute that might give me an occasional break from the caffeine crashes that disrupt my sleep. So, without any specific intended purpose, I ordered some. I wasn’t blown away by the flavor of it on its own, and though it was interesting, I couldn’t see myself actually trading in my beloved dark roast coffee. Until the day it suddenly hit me: this brewed cacao might work in tiramisu!

As with several other recipes I’ve delayed trying, tiramisu has turned out to be remarkably simple. I leaned on the expertise of Ina Garten, the “Barefoot Contessa” whom I admire not only for her seemingly effortless cooking style, but also for her absolute devotion to her husband. She is always preparing special cocktails and favorite foods for Jeffrey, and I can relate. Ina’s recipe for tiramisu seemed simple enough, and it was very easy to cut the ingredients in half for a smaller portion for the two of us. I made several swaps—cacao for espresso, amaretto for rum, and cherry juice and preserves to flavor some of the mascarpone filling. But the technique and ratios of ingredients are the same, and it turned out perfect for our at-home Valentine’s Day celebration.

Chocolate and cherry together, my valentine’s favorite! The unsweetened flavor of the brewed cacao was a perfect stand-in for the espresso, and I will definitely make this again!

If you’re considering trying this little “pick me up” (it’s what tiramisu means in Italian), here are a few helpful things I learned along the way.

Tips for Tiramisu Success

Eggs are more easily separated while they are cold, but the yolks should be room temperature when you begin whisking for the recipe. The eggs are not cooked in this mostly-traditional recipe, and if you’re concerned about health risks from this, you can find pasteurized eggs in a well-stocked supermarket. They will allow you to stick to the recipe but with complete safety.

The mascarpone, like the eggs, should be room temperature for this recipe. If it is cold, it will clump rather than blend into the yolk mixture.

Brew extra cacao beverage (or espresso) than recommended in case you need it for dipping ladyfingers. The delicate cookies absorb the liquid very quickly, even when dipped for no more than five seconds, and it’s good to have a little extra on hand. This should be cooled to room temperature.

As with most recipes, it’s helpful to have all your ingredients, tools and dishes ready to go when you begin. Ina’s recipe recommended a 9 x 13” glass dish; I halved the recipe and used a 2.75 quart Pyrex dish that measured 8 1/2 x 7″. The recipe yielded six generous portions of tiramisu. With some fiddling, I think you could split the cookies and make it work in an 8 x 8″.

You probably need an electric mixer, either handheld or stand mixer, for this recipe. It would be difficult to properly whip the eggs and mascarpone by hand.

Finally, this dessert needs several hours in the fridge to set up properly, so plan accordingly.

Adapted from:
Barefoot Contessa | Tiramisu | Recipes

Ingredients

3 egg yolks, room temperature (save the whites for your next omelet)

2 Tbsp. caster sugar* (see notes)

1/4 cup amaretto, divided

1 cup brewed dark roast cacao*, cooled

8 oz. mascarpone, room temperature

2 Tbsp. cherry juice

4 Tbsp. premium cherry preserves*

7 oz. (200g) package ladyfingers (biscotti savoiardi)

Double Dutch dark cocoa* for dusting between layers and top of tiramisu

Luxardo premium cocktail cherries, for garnish (optional, but fun if you have them)


*Ingredient Notes

Caster sugar is sometimes called “superfine” sugar, and I’ve chosen it for this recipe because it dissolves more readily than regular cane sugar.

The roasted cacao is made very similarly to coffee, and I prepared it in my French press. You can find the product I used online (just search it once on Pinterest and you’ll get ads for the rest of your life), or check with a local chocolatier to see if they have a similar product. Of course, you could also make tiramisu with espresso, as is traditional.

I made a midstream decision to fold cherry preserves into part of the mascarpone mixture, given that Valentine’s Day was already a chocolate-and-cherry kind of day. This brand is delicious, but a similar thick fruit spread would also work.

The Double Dutch dark cocoa powder is a King Arthur Baking product; it’s a 50-50 mix of regular Dutch-processed cocoa and black cocoa, which is very dark and somewhat bitter. It’s a richer color and flavor than most grocery store cocoa powders, but you could certainly substitute Hershey’s dark or any other cocoa.


Instructions

I have pictures of my adventure, of course! See how it went, and keep scrolling for written instructions and a downloadable recipe for your files. 🙂


  1. Prepare brewed cacao according to package instructions (or use espresso as instructed in a conventional tiramisu recipe. Combine brewed cacao with 2 Tbsp. amaretto in a shallow dish and set aside.
  2. Using the whisk attachment for stand mixer, whip egg yolks at high speed until smooth and slightly thickened. Gradually add caster sugar while eggs are being whisked and continue until sugar is dissolved and the mixture is light, fluffy and lemon-colored.
  3. Add cherry juice, 2 tablespoons of amaretto and mascarpone. Whip into egg mixture at low speed until the mixture resembles that of soft whipped cream.
  4. Divide mixture into approximately half. Fold in cherry preserves to one half of mixture.
  5. Sift cocoa over the bottom of glass baking dish.
  6. Moving quickly, dip the ladyfingers (one or two at a time) into cacao-amaretto mixture, for no longer than five seconds. Arrange them in a single layer over the cocoa powder.
  7. Spread the cherry-infused mascarpone mixture evenly over the ladyfingers, to the edges of the dish, and then sift cocoa over the layer.
  8. Repeat with the remaining ladyfingers, topping the second layer with the remaining mascarpone mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least six hours, or preferably a full 24 hours ahead of serving.
  9. At serving time, cut tiramisu into squares. Sift additional cocoa over the top of each serving and finish with a Luxardo cherry garnish.


Want to give it a go?


You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my brand recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀


Midwinter Minestrone

Cold weather and shorter days gettin’ you down? Me, too. We’ve had a few close calls this season for snow or wintry mix, but not much has materialized here in the South, though we’ve had our share of cold, dreary days and nights. My friends and family around New York and Boston have seen far more than their share of winter this week, thanks to the Nor’easter that dropped a foot or more of snow. And Punxsutawney Phil, the jumbo rodent in charge of this whole thing, saw his shadow (or perhaps felt the snowflakes falling against his fat cheeks) this morning, and declared “six more weeks of winter.” The bottom line is that winter is getting old; we are all tired of it. What we need is some warm and nourishing comfort food.

I finally pulled out our 7-quart cast-iron Dutch oven and made a huge batch of this soup that never fails to chase away my midwinter blues—a steaming hot bowl of Italian flavor that is chock-full of fresh, nutritious vegetables, spicy Italian sausage, creamy beans and petite pasta. This is the kind of food that warms you from the inside, whether you’re dining at the table or curled up with a soft blanket on the sofa while eating your minestrone from a pottery mug and binging on Netflix. Whatever comfort looks like for you, this soup has it covered.

Minestrone is Italian, obviously, so I’ve seasoned it with my own “Mamma Mia” blend of herbs and spices. This seasoning blend was born more than a decade ago when I participated in a “reverse offering” experiment at church. We were given $20 and challenged to double (or more) that money for charitable donation. The effort was intended to show how we could use our own talents to make a difference in the world. I bought a bunch of bulk spices, turned them into blends and packaged them into baby food jars (which I found for free on Craigslist) with little fabric-wrapped tops for individual sale. The end of the story is that my $20 turned into almost $60 (a fine return), and I still have several of my blends in regular rotation today. Mamma Mia seasoning contains dried oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram and ground fennel seed, plus garlic and crushed red pepper. It’s zesty, herbal and a little bit spicy, and just the right punch of flavor in this minestrone.

Nothing says “comfort” better than a bowl of nourishing soup, and I hope you’ll find it just right for stuck-at-home days, snow days, waiting for snow days, sick of the snow days and—well, pretty much all the days.

Who says comfort food can’t be good for you? This soup has so much going on nutritionally.

This recipe makes about 4 quarts. You will need a large soup pot, slow cooker or Dutch oven to hold all the ingredients, but the recipe can easily be halved for a more manageable batch. This soup also freezes well, so you can pack some away for another gloomy day.


Ingredients from the pantry

Choose low-sodium, organic ingredients as much as possible. The spice blend in the jar is my own Mamma Mia seasoning.

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (of course)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh chopped garlic

1 carton low-sodium vegetable broth

1 carton low-sodium chicken broth* (see notes)

28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in tomato puree (San Marzano preferred)

15 oz. can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed (cannellini)

15 oz. can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

2 tsp. Mamma Mia Seasoning blend (see the end of the post for ingredients, or substitute another salt-free Italian seasoning + a few hearty shakes crushed red pepper flakes)

2 cups dry ditalini (or other petite shaped pasta, such as small elbows or mini farfalle)


Ingredients from the fridge

It looks like we are eating the rainbow with this soup!

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 cup chopped carrots

1 cup each green and red bell peppers, chopped

1/2 bulb fennel, sliced and chopped*

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 fat handful kale leaves, chopped small*

1 handful fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley, cleaned and finely chopped for garnish at serving

1 or 2 lbs. bulk hot Italian sausage* (optional, see notes)


*Notes

Minestrone is perfectly adaptable for a vegetarian, or even vegan, option. Simply swap more vegetable broth for the chicken broth and skip the sausage in favor of additional beans. For texture and interest, I’d recommend a can of garbanzo beans in place of the meat.

Fennel provides a real Italian flavor to minestrone, and the flavor is echoed in my Mamma Mia seasoning, which includes ground fennel seed. It has a crunchy texture that is similar to celery, and a slight licorice flavor that blends well with the other ingredients. Use only the white bulb part of the vegetable (see the slides for more description).

Any type of kale can be used in minestrone. Lacinato kale is commonly used in Italian cooking, but I used curly kale. If you prefer, you could also substitute about 1 1/2 cups finely shredded and chopped green cabbage. These hearty greens add texture and fiber to the soup.

You decide how much sausage, if any, you use in this recipe. My batch included only 1 pound this time, and I used a chicken sausage that was labeled “hot Italian.” Turkey or pork sausage would also work or as mentioned above, you could omit the meat altogether for a vegan version.

Want to make this in a slow cooker? Go for it! The soup doesn’t need much attention other than occasional stirring or adding ingredients. After the initial cooking of sausage and veggies, simply dump everything into the slow cooker and let it go on high heat for several hours, or low heat overnight. It may help to give the kale a quick sauté before adding to the crock, given that it is much larger volume before cooking and most slow cookers recommend filling only 2/3 full.


Instructions

First, the pictures, or you can scroll down for written instructions and a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook until browned, breaking up larger pieces with a spoon or wooden utensil.
  2. Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, peppers, fennel and garlic. Stir and cook until vegetables soften, and the moisture released from them has mostly evaporated.
  3. Scatter Italian seasoning blend over the ingredients and stir to combine.
  4. Move the sausage and vegetables to the outer edges of the pot and drizzle another tablespoon of olive oil in the center. Toss in the mushrooms, half at a time, and gently toss them around to lightly brown them. If you’re using a slow cooker, transfer the mixture at the end of this step.
  5. Add the whole plum tomatoes, squeezing each thoroughly by hand directly into the pot. This will assist in breaking down the tomatoes for quicker cooking. Empty all puree into the pot as well.
  6. Add the vegetable and chicken broths and stir to combine. Heat soup to a low boiling point, then reduce heat to a simmer. This will take about 15 minutes.
  7. Stir in finely chopped kale and stir. Add piece of Parmesan rind and allow it to simmer with the soup for a few hours.
  8. Near the end of your expected cooking time, drain and rinse the canned beans. Season them with salt and pepper before adding them to the soup.
  9. Fill a large pot with water and cook the ditalini (or other petite pasta) to al dente texture. Drain pasta and add to the soup just before serving. Alternatively, drain the pasta, toss with a small amount of oil to prevent sticking, and transfer it to a separate bowl to be added to soup as it’s served. This will help you enjoy the soup several days later, without mushy noodles.
This soup is destroying my midwinter blahs!

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Mamma Mia Seasoning Blend


1 Tbsp. granulated garlic

1 Tbsp. dried minced garlic

1 Tbsp. dried Mediterranean oregano

1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves

1 Tbsp. fennel seed, crushed

2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. dried marjoram leaves


Chicken Cacciatore

Genealogically speaking, I don’t believe I have a single Italian bone in my body. Nope—my people came from other parts of Europe and beyond. But I am so in love with Italian food, especially the southern regional dishes, such as layered baked pasta dishes and big red sauces (or “Sunday gravy,” as it would be called). My grandmother taught me some authentic Scandinavian dishes, but I had to do my own research to learn the real deal on Italian flavors, so I could ditch the bland and overly sweet jarred sauces. I’ve learned how to make my own pasta (that’ll be another post), and hopefully I’ll prove today that I can rock a red sauce that is molto buono!

Chicken cacciatore is my “comfort du jour,” moist and oh-so-tender chicken, stewed slowly and thoughtfully with tomatoes and Italian herbs and spices. This is some serious, old-school Italian comfort food right here! I can’t say that I’ve added a twist to this recipe (maybe the bomba?), but if you’ve never made cacciatore before, I hope you’ll find my recipe approachable. You’ve got this—and here’s a quick rundown of what I learned before I made my own.

What’s the big deal about San Marzano tomatoes?

For Italian sauce recipes, there is really no substitute for San Marzano tomatoes. They are super meaty with a perfect acidic-to-sweet balance, and exceptional for the richest Italian sauces. In appearance, they are essentially plum tomatoes and they are the genetic ancestors of the common supermarket Roma, but to be legally called San Marzano, they must be cultivated in the southern region of Italy of the same name, where the climate and rich, volcanic soil work their magic. Are real San Marzano tomatoes worth the extra buck per can? You bet!

What is bomba sauce?

This bomba is the bomba!

Delicious, that’s what! Bomba sauce is typically a paste-like seasoning, centered around dried chile peppers from the southern regions of Italy, mixed with olive oil, spices and vinegar. It’s a pungent condiment that is meant to be used sparingly. Trader Joe’s has its version of the sauce that I absolutely love—it’s unique because the Calabrian chiles are fermented, which lends extraordinary depth and flavor. I’ve added a very small amount to my cacciatore, but it wouldn’t be the same without the bomba.

Can I substitute skinless chicken breast for the chicken thighs in this recipe?

Of course, you can always substitute white meat, skinless or boneless, but the dish will not have as much depth and richness, and you’d need to use extra oil to prevent the meat from sticking in the pan. I choose large, bone-in chicken thighs for this recipe because they’re a perfect portion size and the dark meat is so flavorful. Keeping the skin on allows you to draw every bit of chicken-y goodness into the meal. Also, I only select organic, free-range chicken because birds that have freedom to roam in the fresh air and sunshine are healthier, and you know what they say—we are what we eat.

What flavors are in Italian seasoning?

Italian cooks have always relied on the abundant flavors of fresh herbs. If you pick up any bottle of “Italian seasoning” at the supermarket, you can predictably find it contains the big three—oregano, basil and thyme, but there are many other flavors that play well with Italy’s flavorful sauces and roasted meats. In the north, you’d expect to see rosemary and sage. In the south, spicier flavors like red pepper are prominent. Two of my favorites are marjoram (cousin of mint and very similar to oregano) and fennel seed, which has a floral, slightly licorice flavor. It’s what makes Italian sausage taste special. I make my own “Mama Mia” seasoning blend without salt, and I use the big three, plus garlic, fennel seed and crushed red pepper. It’s good for a little punch of flavor in any Italian red sauce, sprinkled on pizza or mixed with olive oil as a bread dipping condiment. If you want to make mine, the recipe is at the end. Otherwise, substitute as noted in the ingredients.


Serves 4 – Prep in 20 minutes, cook for 90 minutes

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

4 large chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on)

2 large bell peppers, seeded and sliced lengthwise, about 1/4” thin

1 medium-size sweet onion, sliced lengthwise 1/4” thin

4 or 5 cloves fresh garlic, rough chopped or sliced

2 tsp. Mama Mia Italian seasoning blend—or
1/4 tsp. each:  oregano, basil, ground fennel seed, thyme leaves, garlic powder, onion powder, crushed red pepper flakes (this is not exactly the same as my Mama Mia blend, but close)

1 or 2 tsp. Trader Joe’s Italian Bomba hot pepper sauce

Handful Kalamata olives (pitted), rough-chopped into pieces

1/4 cup dry red wine (It doesn’t have to be Italian; I used a CA red blend that was already open)

1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes in puree (San Marzano, if possible)

1/2 package linguine (preferably “bronze-cut” for best texture)

Freshly grated parmesan or parm-romano blend, for serving

Small handful Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned and chopped

A loaf of fresh Italian bread for sopping up every single drop of the sauce


Instructions

  1. Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and season both sides generously with kosher salt and black pepper.
  2. Heat a large (12”) cast-iron skillet (or electric skillet) to medium-hot, and swirl in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When oil is just shimmering, place chicken thighs in pan, skin side down, leaving plenty of room between them. Cover the pan (I use a spatter screen) and leave them undisturbed about 7 minutes to allow a deep golden crust to form on the skin. Loosen and turn the thighs and cook until just lightly browned on the other side, about 2 minutes. The chicken will finish cooking later in the sauce. Remove the pieces to a plate and keep warm while you prep the sauce.
  3. If the remaining oil is sputtering or popping in the pan, allow a few seconds for the moisture droplets to cook off. Reduce heat to medium. All at once, add your onions and bell peppers to the pan, and stir them around until they begin to soften. Add the Mama Mia seasoning, plus salt and pepper, over the entire mixture. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onions are slightly translucent. Stir in the Kalamata olives, the Bomba sauce and the red wine.
  4. Add the peeled tomatoes, using your hand to squeeze each one into the pan. This releases more of the juices quickly and gives the tomatoes a head start on breaking up. Pour all remaining juice from the tomatoes into the pan, but discard any large basil leaves that may have been included in the can (they’ve already done their job). Add a splash of water (or wine!) to the tomato can to swish out every last bit of flavor in there. Scrape up any browned bits that may be stuck to the pan and stir the mixture until it has a uniform appearance. Cover and allow the mixture to come up to a slight boil.
  5. Add the chicken thighs back to the pan, skin side up, and spoon the tomato mixture lightly over the tops. They don’t need to be buried in it, but you want to moisten them with the flavorful sauce. Cover the pan and reduce heat to medium-low, turning the chicken only twice over the next 90 minutes.
  6. When the sauce is a deep red color and the chicken shreds with a light twist of your fork, reduce heat to warm and prepare your pasta water. Remember to use plenty of water and plenty of salt.
  7. When the salted water reaches a steady boil, add your pasta and stir at once to prevent sticking. Cook to just barely al dente, or a couple of minutes under what seems perfect. You’re going to finish it in the sauce. Before draining the pasta, ladle out 2 to 3 tablespoons of the water into the sauce. This adds the pasta starch to the sauce, which helps “marry” them to coat the pasta better.
  8. Move the chicken pieces to the outer edges of the pan (or remove to a plate if the pan is crowded), making a well of sauce in the center. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the center of the pot, stirring quickly to evenly coat it in the sauce. I use silicone tongs to do this because I can grab hold of the pasta while moving it. Cover the pan and turn off the heat while you pour another glass of wine and call everyone to the table.
Mangia!

Portion the pasta onto the serving plates, top with a spoonful of sauce, then a chicken thigh, and divvy out the rest of the flavorful sauce. Sprinkle some grated cheese and a bit of fresh chopped parsley on top and enjoy!


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Mama Mia seasoning
(makes about 1/3 cup seasoning blend)

I created my own blend of Italian spices, to customize the flavors we like best at our house. Most of my blends do not contain salt, and this allows more flexibility with different application and better control of the sodium in my dishes. Most of the time, I double the recipe so I always have a jar of the blend at the ready. The beauty of a blend like this one is that you can increase or decrease or even eliminate ingredients based on your taste preference. And every time, it’ll be perfect!

This blend is great for your own Italian red sauce, or add a teaspoon to a puddle of extra virgin olive oil and top with freshly grated parmesan for a flavorful bread dipping oil.

1 Tbsp. whole fennel seed
1 Tbsp. dried minced garlic
1 Tbsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves
2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano
1 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1 1/2 tsp. onion powder

To make it:

Heat a dry skillet (no oil!) over medium high heat and add fennel seeds, swirling the pan constantly for about one minute, until the seeds become fragrant. Remove immediately to a bowl to cool completely, then crush seeds with a mortar and pestle or pulse a few quick times in a spice grinder.

Add all other seasoning to the bowl and stir to combine. Transfer to a jar or empty spice bottle.

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