We’ve reviewed our recipes and ingredient lists, we’ve combed through amazon to purchase all the necessary equipment and we are finally ready to try and recreate our amazing traditional Italian meals. My in-laws were coming in for the weekend, so what better time to try out our new Italian recipes! We chose to serve them sundried tomato crostini, gnocchi in tomato sauce, herb-rubbed pork tenderloin, and panna cotta for dessert.
The first thing that struck me about Italian food, is how much of it they eat! First, in Italy lunch (pranzo) is the largest meal, and it’s generally 3 -4 courses with wine. You might start with a crostini of some sort, then comes the pasta course (without meat but with plenty of unsalted Tuscan bread), then the meat and vegetable course, followed by dessert. This is lunch – every day. The sisters assured us that pasta, as a first course is essential and that Italian families eat pasta at least once, if not twice a day. Here in the states when we think of Italian food, we generally think of a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, or maybe fettuccine alfredo, or chicken parm, perhaps served with a crisp Caesar salad – hate to break it to you, be these things are NOT Italian food- you absolutely will not find them on an authentic menu in Italy. They are adaptations of traditional Italian food, but they have been “Americanized” to reduce the number of courses, and to promote convenience, for example in Italy you can order Spaghetti Pomodoro as a first, and you can order meat balls, as a second course- but in America, we combine them into one dish. The sisters constantly have to re-define the correct idea of traditional Italian food to their students. So now that you know the correct courses and process, let’s get into the good stuff, the food!
Starter: Sundried tomato & olive crostini:
While perusing the Mercato Centro in Florence I purchased a small bag of wonderfully fragrant sundried tomatoes after the stall owner had offered us a tasting of a spread she’d made from them. It was really quite simple but so delicious, a few large pieces of sundried tomatoes blended with olive oil. When we made it at home, I had the Mr. roughly chop the sundried tomatoes and some Kalamata olives before combining with a generous amount of olive oil using the immersion blender. We blended about ¾ the mixture and then mixed in the chopped pieces to give texture to the spread. I really liked the acidity and brine of the tomatoes and olives but some people might prefer a pinch of sugar to lessen the bite. We toasted some bread in the oven, rubbed a clove of garlic on each side of the toasted bread and then smeared the spread on top. Fun fact- sun dried tomatoes are incredibly good for you- Full of protein, vitamin C, and several over vitamins and minerals too.
5 large sundried tomato sections
Handful of olives
½ cup of olive oil
Directions: Chop olives and sundried tomatoes, with food processor or immersion blender combine with olive oil to form a paste.
First Course: Gnocchi in Tomato Sauce
Gnocchi is a very interesting dish – it’s used as pasta, but really it more of a dumpling- made using mashed potatoes and flour. This combination creates a light and fluffy, melt in your mouth, bundle of goodness.
Start by boiling about 2lbs of Yukon potatoes with the skins on (this is important to keep the starches intact), until they are soft, drain from water and let cool before peeling the skins off. Mash the potatoes, to a smooth consistency without lumps. The best way to mash your potatoes is with a ricer – this is the easiest way to get the lump-free consistency with the least amount of effort. You DO NOT want to use a hand mixed / blender to mash your potatoes, it will affect how starches react and will create more of a gummy texture. If you don’t have a ricer, a hand masher will work to, but work in small batches to ensure the mixture is smooth throughout. We did not have a ricer and we did not make sure the potatoes were mashed completely and therefore ended up with a lot of lumpy pieces in our dough – not ideal! Kindly, my mother-in-love offered to buy a ricer for future use !
After your potatoes are mashed and cooled to the touch, combine with flour, baking powder, pinch of salt and 1 egg. Stir to combine first, or dig right in with your hands to start working into a dough. It will be very sticky, so keep some extra flour on hand to help your better handle the dough. Once it’s well combined and worked through, form into a ball and start pinching off small sections.
On a well-floured surface, roll out a log about finger-width wide and cut into a small pieces, roll the pieces along a gnocchi paddle (small wooden board with grooves) or using a fork to create ridges. Place on a well-floured tray or cooking sheet. This is a time consuming project. The Mr. and I did this assembly-line style, with me rolling the dough and creating the pieces, and him using the gnocchi paddle to create the ridges, and sprinkling with flour, and this stage it still probably took an hour.
It made a lot of gnocchi though, so we separated a portion out to freeze for future use.
We served the gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce made from crushed tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, herbs and touch cream but you can use store bought sauce too.
2lbs Yukon potatoes
250 grams all purpose flour (1.5cups) + extra for coating
16 grams baking powder (1 tbsp)
boil potatoes with skins on, drain and let cool, mash with a ricer. In a large bowl combined mashed potatoes with flour, baking powder and egg. Work into a dough. Working in small batches, create logs and cut off little sections, roll across a gnocchi paddle or fork to create ridges, and rest on well-floured tray/ cookie sheet. When ready to eat, boil gnocchi in salted water until they float. Mix with sauce of your choice, topped with fresh pecorino cheese – serve hot!
1 large can (22oz) of crushed tomatoes
½ cup finely chopped celery, carrots, onion
Fresh basil and oregano, pinch of sugar, salt & pepper to taste
Milk/ cream (optional)
Direction: finely chop veggies and sauté in olive oil until soft, reduce heat add crushed tomatoes and heat through, add sugar, herbs, salt & pepper to taste, add cream if you desire a creamer/ less acidic sauce.
Main Course: Herb-rubbed Pork Tenderloin
Meantime I had the pork in the crockpot. In Italy we roasted the pork in the over, but I so love my crock-pot and am much more experience cooking pork in it to tender perfection, than I am roasting in the over – plus its already nearly 90 degrees in Charlotte so why add anymore heat to the kitchen by using the oven?
I coated my crock pot with olive oil, and placed about half of my finely chopped herbs in with the oil, and then I took my 2lb tenderloin and rubbed it all around in the oil and herbs to coat, I sprinkled the remaining herbs, some salt and fresh black pepper and continue to rub them into the meat. I then added a little Worcestershire sauce and chicken broth for extra flavor. In Italy, we used white wine to moisten the meat as it cooked.
Fresh herbs tend to lose potency in the crock-pot vs in the oven, creating a more subtle flavor profile, so you might consider making a rub of dried spices instead of fresh if you want a really powerful herb flavor when using the crock pot. I set the crock pot on low for about 3 -4 hours until it reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
2lb plain pork tenderloin
2 handfuls of herbs finely chopped (rosemary, sage, parsley)
1/3 – ½ cup of chicken broth
A few shakes of Worcestershire
Salt & Pepper to taste
Olive Oil to coat
Direction: massage/ rub/ coat the pork in the oil and herbs – cook on low for 3-4 hours in the crock pot, or roast a 350 for 2 hours in the oven.
This would serve about 6 people
Dessert: Nutella & Vanilla Panna Cotta
Panna Cotta is supposed to be a super simple- practically fool- proof dessert, and when we made it in Italy – it really was, at home it was slightly different story.
In theory all you have to do it is mix together heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla ( we used real vanilla bean pods, but extract would be ok too) and heat over low heat until it just starts to simmer, then pour into another bowl with gelatin ( we used sheets in Italy, but the powdered kind should work just as well) and mix well. Once it’s combined pour into the container or cups of your choice, we used little espresso cups for individual servings, or I have seen them in wine glasses, ice cream bowls, etc, then pop in the fridge to set ( much like pudding or jello).
We followed the direction to a T – the only difference being we had to use powdered gelatin instead of the sheets. The recipe called for 30grams of gelatin, which in the states equates to about 4 packets of powder. We made a vanilla version and a Nutella version; excitedly we filled our little bowls with the creamy and sweet smelling liquid and popped them into the fridge to cool. An hour or so later we checked on our little mounts of fluff – only to be thoroughly disappointed!
I had read somewhere that the consistency of panna cotta should resemble the jiggle of an ample woman’s bosom, but ours was more like the chest of a body builder – lovely to look at but hard as a rock! The flavor was great, but the texture was all wrong! Fortunately we had started this process a few days in advance of our company arriving, so we had time to try again. After combing through recipes and articles about Panna Cotta I concluded that we had used way too much gelatin. The next time around we only used 1 packet of powdered gelatin, about 7 -10 grams to 3 cups of liquid, and this time the result was perfectly wiggly-jiggly. So with the right recipe, it really is a simple dessert!
1.5 cup half & half
1.5 cup whole milk
½ tbsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 packet powdered gelatin (7 -10 grams)
For Nutella, add ¼ – ½ cup of Nutella depending on your preference of flavor
In a sauce pan add milk and sprinkle gelatin on top, let sit for a few minutes before adding sugar, vanilla, half & half; turn on low heat, stirring to dissolve. Be care not to bring to boil, as it starts to smoke and heat through, ensure sugar and gelatin are fully dissolved by dipping your fingers in the mixture and rubbing together to ensure no grit is present. Remove from heat and let cool slightly before filling cups and placing in fridge for an hour or so to set.
Follow the same direction for Nutella version, except reduce the vanilla by half and add your Nutella spread into the liquid, stirring and melting until completely combined.
We made the vanilla base first, let it set, and then added the nutella layer on top. Each flavor is great on its own too, and there are endless options for creativity with panna cotta.
We started cooking about 8:30 that morning and by 1:00 we were all ready to dig in! I was pleasantly surprised everything turned out as I had hoped- the flavors and textures were just as I remembered them being in Tuscany. It was a lot of effort – and I was quite nervous to cook relatively un-tried recipes for my mother- in- love (as she is a terrific cook herself!) but it was worth it- and like most things in life – its not necessarily about the destination, but about the journey along the way.
Buon Appetito, Yall!