What could be welcoming in your kitchen than a big warm pan full of lasagna, a pot of braised short ribs or a casserole dish holding fragrant mussels, tomatoes and herbs? When you think of comfort food, the first cuisines that comes to mind is Italian and nobody knows that better than Mary Ann Esposito, host of the longest-running television cooking show in the U.S., Ciao Italia. In Ciao Italia Slow and Easy, Mary Ann tells us how to slow down, take it easy and fill the kitchen with Italian slow-cooked goodness. By braising, baking, roasting and simmering, she gives readers a treasure trove of wonderful dishes like
-stove top lasagna with artichokes
-prosciutto-wrapped chicken baked in parchment
-tomato braised short ribs with rigatoni
-pasta shells stuffed with a ragu of pork and cream
-one-skillet chicken supper with tomatoes and green beans
-layered polenta pie with mushrooms and sausage
-mussel, potato and tomato casserole
Ciao Italia Slow and Easy is filled with Mary Ann's sensible advice, knowledgeable asides about the history of Italian cuisine and, most of all, a sure sense of what tastes good.
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About the Author
MARY ANN ESPOSITO is the host of the long-running PBS series "Ciao Italia." She is the author of nine successful cookbooks, including Ciao Italia Pronto! and Ciao Italia in Umbria. She lives in Durham, New Hampshire.
Mary Ann Esposito is the host of the long-running PBS series Ciao Italia. She is the author of eleven successful cookbooks, including Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites, Ciao Italia Pronto!, and Ciao Italia Slow and Easy. She lives in Durham, New Hampshire, with her husband, Guy.
Read an Excerpt
Ciao Italia Slow and Easy
Catch of the Day Casseroles
FISH AND SHELLFISH MAKE TERRIFIC, QUICK CASSEROLES but because they are delicate in texture, extra care needs to be taken when cooking with them. Fish and seafood casseroles require types of fish with firm flesh that will not disintegrate in cooking like swordfish, monkfish, sea bass, haddock, halibut, and salmon. Shellfish types good for casseroles include dry scallops, mussels, shrimp, clams, oysters, crab meat, and lobster.
Be aware of some simple rules when purchasing fish and seafood. Ask where the fish is from and if it has been frozen; many times fish is flash frozen as it is caught at sea and then delivered to market. Read the signs in the fish case that tell you if the fish is fresh or frozen and where it is from. If you live near the coast, try to buy the local catch if possible because that is a sure sign of freshness. Fish should always smell fresh with a hint of sweetness; smelly fish is not fresh. Be aware of how the fish looks; fish should look moist, not dry and yellow. Seafood like clams and mussels should not have cracked shells; scallops shouldlook plump and milky. Shrimp come frozen in most cases but are defrosted for sale. It is best to buy them frozen and uncooked. Lobster can be cooked to order or ordered ahead of time. Refrigerate your purchase immediately and use the fish or seafood within a day.
Sauces for fish casseroles should not be too heavy because they can mask the flavor. A thin white sauce, or one made with fish stock, wine, or citrus are good choices.
Cacciucco alla Livornese
CLASSIC FISH STEW FROM LIVORNO
1 large onion, coarsely chopped3 garlic cloves¼ cup fresh Italian parsley leaves8 fresh basil leaves¼cup olive oil1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes2/3 cup dry white wine2 cups fresh or canned peeled, diced plum tomatoes1 cup clam juice, fish bouillon, or water1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or more to taste1/2 pound cleaned squid, cut into 1-inch rings1/2 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into 1-inch chunks1/2 pound medium shrimp (about 13), shelled¼ pound sea scallops¼ pound monkfish, cut into 1-inch pieces2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice8 toasted bread slices
This dish originated with fishermen in Livorno who sold the best of their catch and used what was left over and unwanted at day's end to make a fish casserole or stew. A variety of fish went into the pot, including squid, monkfish, and cod. Tradition dictates that at least five different types of fish be used, one for each of the c's in the word cacciucco, which means mixture. This stew was traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot atop the stove. Begin by adding the fish that takes the longest time to cook. Make sure that all the fish is cut the same size for even cooking. From start to finish, this should take about 25 minutes. It is even better the next day. Crackling, crusty bread and a crisp salad make the meal both wholesome and complete.
MAKES ABOUT 2 QUARTS OR 8 SERVINGS
In a food processor or by hand mince the onion, garlic, parsley, and basil together. Heat the oil in a heavy pot and stir in the minced onion mixture. Cook over low heat until the ingredients soften, then stir in the pepper flakes and cook 1 minute longer.
Raise the heat to high, pour in the wine, and allow most of it to evaporate. Lower the heat and stir in the tomatoes, clam juice, and salt. When bubbles just begin to appear on the sides of the pot, begin adding the fish pieces in the order given, allowing the squid to cook for 5 minutes before adding the swordfish. Cook just until the fish turns opaque or whitish and flakes easily with a fork and the shrimp have turned pink. Stir in the lemon juice and correct the salt if necessary.
Ladle the soup over the bread slices and serve piping hot.
2 tablespoons olive oil 1 onion, diced2 celery stalks, diced2 cups coarsely chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned1 tablespoon capers in brine, drained and minced1 bay leaf2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves2 pounds fresh cod, cut into 1-inch chunksFine sea salt to taste
It takes molto pazienza (a lot of patience) to prepare baccalà, a dried, salted cod that is as stiff as a board. Several slow soakings in water eventually transform it into plump white flesh that is the prime ingredient for merluzzo stufato, stewed cod. But here is a shortcut using fresh instead of dried cod to make the stew.
Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion and celery and cook until soft. Stir in the tomatoes, capers, bay leaf, and parsley and simmer covered for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the cod, cover, and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the fish easily flakes with a fork and looks opaque. Season with salt.
TIP: The stew can also do double duty as a sauce for spaghetti.
FISH STEW LAGO TRASIMENO STYLE
¼ cup olive oil plus more for drizzling2 garlic cloves, minced1/3 cup minced fresh Italian parsley leaves1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes1 cup diced celery6 cups diced fresh plum tomatoes1/2 cup dry white wine1 teaspoon saltFreshly ground black pepper to taste2 pounds assorted cleaned fish, cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks6 toasted bread slices
This delicate fish stew is typical of the cooking of the island of Isola Maggiore on Lago Trasimeno in Umbria. (The island is also known for its exquisite lace making.) Traditionally, a combination of eels, tench, perch, trout, whiting, and grayling goes into the stew, but use what is available, such as cusk, haddock, swordfish, and scallops. Make sure the fish are all cut the same size so everything cooks in about the same time.
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and when the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic, parsley, pepper flakes, and celery; cook until the garlic and celery begin to soften. Stir in the tomatoes, wine, and salt and pepper. Lower the heat to simmer and add the fish. Cook slowly uncovered for 5 to 8 minutes, just until the fish easily flakes with a fork. Serve the fish in soup bowls over toasted bread slices. Pass olive oil to drizzle on top.
Casseruòla di Aragosta, Gamberi e Finocchio
LOBSTER AND SHRIMP CASSEROLE WITH FENNEL
6 tablespoons unsalted butter1/2 cup pine nuts1 pound medium shrimp, in the shell1 cup diced fennel (white bulb only)¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour1 small, whole star anise, ground to a powder¾ cup cooking liquid from shrimp2 cups light cream1 pound cooked lobster meat, cut into bite-size piecesSalt to taste2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley leaves
Italian lobster (aragosta) is smaller and sweeter than the species we get here. Since I live in New England, it seemed right to include a stovetop lobster and shrimp casserole with an Italian twist. With the addition of diced fennel and ground star anise, the flavor intensifies without being too overpowering in this delicate dish.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small sauté pan or skillet and toast the pine nuts until they are nicely browned. Transfer the nuts to a dish and set aside.
Put the shrimp in a medium pot, cover with 11/2 cups cold water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook the shrimp just until the shells turn pink. This should take only a couple of minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the shrimp to cool in the water. When cool, drain, reserving ¾ cup of the water. Peel the shrimp, discard the shells, and set the shrimp aside.
Melt the remaining butter in a 10×2-inch stovetop casserole dish. Stir in the fennel and cook it over medium heat just until it softens.
Whisk in the flour and the star anise until the mixture forms a pastelike consistency. Slowly whisk in the reserved cooking water and the cream. Continue whisking until the mixture looks smooth.
Gently fold in the lobster and shrimp until well blended. Season with salt. Stir in the parsley. Sprinkle the top with the nuts and serve.
TIP: Lobster bodies and shrimp shells make an excellent stock when combined with aromatic vegetables such as carrots, celery, and onions. To make a simple shrimp stock, place the shells from 1 pound uncooked medium-size shrimp in a one quart saucepan and add 21/2 cups water. Add 4 sprigs of Italian parsley tied in a bunch, 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1 stalk celery cut in half, and 1 small carrot. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Strain through a colander set over a bowl, press on the solids, and discard the solids. Stir in the juice of one lemon.
SARDINIAN FISH CASSEROLE
¼ cup olive oil1 onion, coarsely chopped2 garlic cloves, minced1 small red chili pepper, chopped2 cups chopped cherry tomatoes¼ cup dry white wine Salt and pepper to taste21/2 pounds mixed fish, such as squid rings, octopus, sole, halibut, and red mullet, cleaned and cut into 1-inch piecesToasted bread slices
Sardinia has an important fishing industry and out of it comes some fabulous fish casseroles like cassola, which can also be considered a stew. To make sure all the fish is cooked at the same time, be sure to cut into uniform pieces.
SERVES 6 TO 8
Heat half the oil in an ovenproof sauté pan. Stir in the onion, garlic, and red pepper and cook slowly over medium heat until the vegetables soften. Stir in the tomatoes, wine, and salt and pepper. Bring the mixture slowly to a boil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, sauté the squid in the remaining oil for 3 or 4 minutes. Slowly pour in the tomato mixture. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the remaining fish and cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until all the fish is fork tender. Serve in bowls over slices of toasted bread.
Frutte di Mare in Padella
2 tablespoons olive oil2 medium leeks (white part only), diced1 cup diced fennel (white bulb only)1 medium red bell pepper, diced¼ cup minced fresh Italian parsley leavesSalt to taste1/2 pound squid rings, fresh or frozen1 pound swordfish, cut into 1-inch chunks1 pound sea scallops, cut in half crosswise 1 pound medium shrimp, peeledJuice of 2 limes1 cup canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed well1 cup dry white wine2 cups rinsed fresh spinach leaves, torn into pieces
This casserole is a takeoff on the traditional dish known as frutte di mare (fruits of the sea), which combines a variety of fish and shellfish in a vinaigrette.
SERVES 4 TO 6
Heat the olive oil in a cast iron or other skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the leeks, fennel, bell pepper, and parsley and cook until the leeks begin to soften. Season the mixture with salt. Transfer the mixture to a dish.
Add the squid and swordfish to the pan and sauté until the squid and swordfish turn opaque. Stir in the scallops and the shrimp. Continue to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and season the mixture with salt. Return the diced vegetable mixture to the pan; stir the ingredients gently but well. Stir in the beans.
Raise the heat to high and pour in the wine and allow it to cook for 1 minute over high heat. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for 5 minutes. Uncover and scatter the spinach over the top of the fish. Cover the pan and cook for 2 or 3 minutes or just until the spinach has wilted.
Mix the spinach carefully into the ingredients and serve hot in soup bowls.
Calamari Ripieni in Padella
STOVETOP STUFFED SQUID CASSEROLE
1/2 cup olive oil1 large garlic clove, minced1 medium onion, minced¼ pound bay scallops1 teaspoon fine sea salt1 teaspoon capers in brine, drained1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs4 fresh or frozen cleaned squid, about 6 inches long2 large plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced1/2 cup dry white wineFreshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh squid are a delicacy in my book and perfect in this stovetop casserole. There are two types of squid: calamari and totani. The calamari is more tender than the totani. My general rule when cooking squid is to use very small ones for grilling and in seafood salads. Use larger ones for stuffing. Slow cooking ensures tenderness every time.
In a large skillet, heat ¼ cup of the olive oil. Add the garlic and onion and sauté the mixture for about 4 minutes. Add the scallops and continue sautéing quickly for 3 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl; add the salt, capers, and bread crumbs and mix well. Divide the mixture and stuff loosely into each squid body. Do not overpack the squid or they will split during cooking. Close the openings with toothpicks and set aside.
Heat the remaining ¼ cup olive oil in a large skillet, add the stuffed squid, and brown slowly over low heat for 5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, add the tomatoes and wine, and cook for 2 minutes. Cover the skillet, lower the heat, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the squid are easily pierced with a knife. Serve immediately with some of the pan juices poured over the top.
Pesce al Marinaio
2 cups crushed fresh or canned tomatoes1 tablespoon flour11/2 cups diced onions2 tablespoons unsalted butter2 teaspoons salt1/2 teaspoon white pepper¾ teaspoon dried oregano¼ teaspoon dried mustard¼ teaspoon whole allspice1-inch-long piece fresh ginger, peeled2 pounds haddock or perch fillets, cut into bite-size pieces2 large eggs, slightly beaten 2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley leaves2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice
This hearty mariner's casserole made with haddock or perch fillets comes from the fishermen's wives of Gloucester, Massachusetts, a largely Sicilian community whose heritage has been tied to the sea for centuries. Serve this as a "stew" with crackers or rolls, or ladle it over cooked rice. The ginger and allspice provide an interesting flavor component.
Put the tomatoes in a 2-quart stovetop casserole or Dutch oven. Stir in the flour and mix until smooth. Stir in the onions, butter, salt, pepper, oregano, and mustard.
Place the allspice and ginger in a small piece of cheesecloth; tie with kitchen twine and add to the pot. Cook the ingredients, covered, over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add the fish and cook for 10 minutes or until it easily flakes with a fork.
Remove the casserole from the stovetop and discard the cheesecloth bag. Whisk in the eggs and parsley, then the lime juice. Return the casserole to the stovetop and cook just until the mixture thickens slightly.
Pesci Misti con Biscotti
VELVETY MIXED FISH CASSEROLE WITH BUTTERY CRACKER TOPPING CRACKER TOPPING
5 tablespoons melted butter11/2 cups Ritz crackers, crushed
2 pounds mixed cut-up chowder fish, such as haddock, cod, halibut, and monkfish2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice1 small onion, finely minced1 pound spinach, stemmed, washed, drained, and torn into bite-size pieces
1 fish bouillon cube1¼ cups boiling water2 tablespoons butter2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flourSalt to taste2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
Mixed chowder fish is used to make this stovetop casserole with a cracker topping. Be sure all the fish pieces are cut the same size (about 2 inches) to ensure even cooking.
Melt the butter for the cracker topping in a 9×2-inch stovetop casserole dish or cast iron skillet. Stir in the cracker crumbs and coat them well. Transfer them to a small bowl and set aside.
Toss the fish pieces, lemon juice, onion, and spinach together in a large bowl. Set aside.
To make the sauce, dissolve the bouillon cube in the water and set aside.
Melt the butter over medium heat in the same casserole dish used to brown the bread crumbs; whisk in the flour and continue whisking until a smooth paste is formed. Slowly pour in the bouillon and continue to whisk until the mixture begins to thicken; keep the consistency loose, not too thick. Season with salt. Stir in the tarragon and thyme. Lower the heat.
Transfer the fish mixture to the casserole dish, add the sauce, and gently combine.
Cover and cook the casserole over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, just until the fish easily flakes with a fork. Remove the cover. Sprinkle the crumbs over the top of the casserole and serve hot.
TIP: Substitute frozen or fresh peas for the spinach.
Pomodori Ripieni con Tonno e Patate
STUFFED TOMATOES WITH TUNA AND POTATOES
4 medium beefsteak tomatoes, stemmed and cut in half horizontally4 small cooked red-skin potatoes, peeled and dicedOne 6-ounce can chunk tuna in olive oil1 small red onion, cut into quarters2 tablespoons capers in salt, rinsed well¼ cup fresh Italian parsley leavesExtra virgin olive oilSalt to tasteCoarsely ground black pepper to taste¼ cup fresh bread crumbs
Beefsteak tomatoes make great containers for this tuna and potato casserole. The dish can stand alone as an easy and light lunch or supper, or serve it as a side to meat, fish, or poultry. Buy good quality Italian tuna in olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Gently squeeze out and discard the seeds from the tomato halves. Spoon some of the pulp into a bowl and add the potatoes.
Flake the tuna with a fork in a separate bowl and then add it with its oil to the tomato and potato mixture.
Mince the onion, capers, and parsley together and add to the tomato mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Divide and fill the tomato halves with the tomato mixture. Do not overpack them because they could split while baking.
Lightly oil a baking dish and sprinkle the bread crumbs in the dish. Place the tomatoes over the bread crumbs. Drizzle the tops with oil and bake for 30 minutes or until the tomatoes appear soft but not collapsed. These can be served hot or at room temperature.
Tiella di Cozze
3 pounds fresh mussels1/2 cup dry white wine¼ cup extra virgin olive oil1 onion, thinly sliced2 cups halved cherry tomatoes1 pound all-purpose potatoes, such as russet, peeled and thinly sliced into roundsSalt to tasteCoarsely ground black pepper to taste¾ cup grated pecorino cheese2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves1 large egg, slightly beaten
One of the classic dishes of the region of Puglia (Italy's heel) is tiella, a mussel and potato casserole made in an earthenware pan. This dish is built of many layers and is said to be descended from the Spanish paella. There are countless versions of the dish, but all must contain potatoes. Be attentive when buying mussels and make sure that no shells are broken.
SERVES 4 TO 6
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Scrub and rinse the mussels well. Pull away the beards and discard them. Throw away any mussels with cracked shells. Put the mussels in a sauté pan, add the wine, cover the pot, and steam them until the shells begin to open. Drain them in a cheesecloth-lined strainer or colander over a bowl. Reserve the liquid.
Remove the top shell of each mussel. Set the mussels aside. Spread the olive oil in a casserole dish. Arrange a layer of onions over the olive oil. Add a layer of tomatoes and a layer of potatoes. Place the mussels in their shells over the potatoes in a single layer.
Salt and pepper the mussels to taste.
Combine the cheese, bread crumbs, and parsley together in a small bowl. Sprinkle some of the mixture over the mussels. Continue making layers of onion, tomatoes, potatoes, mussels, and cheese.
Pour the reserved mussel liquid along the side of the pan. Pour the beaten egg over the top of the casserole.
Bake uncovered until the potatoes are browned, about 45 minutes. Use a spoon to scoop and serve.
Vongole e Pasta
CLAMS AND PASTA CASSEROLE
3 tablespoons olive oil2 large garlic cloves, slivered10 ounces minced fresh clams, drained, liquid reservedFine sea salt to taste¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper¼ cup minced fresh Italian parsley leaves2 tablespoons minced fresh basil12 ounces rigatoni, cooked4 anchovy fillets in oil, drained and cut into bits11/2 cups fresh or canned peeled, diced plum tomatoes (3 or 4)8 oil-cured black olives, pitted and diced1 teaspoon dried oregano
Clams and pasta are paired perfectly in this easy-to-do-ahead casserole. Cooking clams over low heat prevents them from becoming tough, so don't be in a hurry with them.
SERVES 4 TO 6
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Brush a 131/2×9-inch ovenproof casserole with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a sauté pan and slowly cook the garlic over medium heat until it just starts to turn golden brown. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the clams together with their juice. Cook for 2 minutes over medium-low heat. Stir in the salt, pepper, parsley, and basil and cook slowly until the liquid is reduced by half.
Combine the cooked rigatoni with the clam mixture, then transfer it to the casserole. Sprinkle the anchovies over the top, then the tomatoes, olives, and oregano. Drizzle the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil over the top. Bake uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, until heated through. Serve hot.
Photographs copyright © 2007 by Dawn Smith Photography