September in Rome

I just looked at the calendar and realized that it’s been 12 years this very month since I was last in Italy. Clearly, that is unacceptable! The weather in Venice this time of year is lovely, the light in Florence is golden, and Rome….well…I don‘t have the vocabulary to describe Rome. David and I really need to plan a trip there soon.

In the meantime, I thought I’d pass along some truly delicious Italian recipes. They will help you use up some of the overabundant basil, tomatoes, summer squash, and eggplants I hope you and your friends, family, and neighbors are still harvesting from your gardens. Since September is still quite warm here in AtlantaLand, you’ll appreciate the fact that most (if not all) of these dishes actually taste their best at or near room temperature. They are also all very easy, and mostly quick – which should help all of you whose kids are back in school, soccer practice, dance lessons, etc.

All of the recipes, except for my decidedly Americanized “Lazy Vegan Lasagna,” are taken from Nonna’s Italian Kitchen – Delicious Homestyle Vegan Cuisine by one of my favorite cookbook authors – Bryanna Clark Grogan. This book is still in print and I love it. The recipes are very clear and well written. Everything I’ve made from it has been delicious. I have literally hundreds of cookbooks, but I’d buy a new copy of this one if I ever lost it.
There are many dessert recipes in the book as well, but most of them are too long to fit in this article. I highly recommend her gelato recipes! (see my July 2002 “Ice Cream!” article for some of them.)

Some notes about ingredients – use the ripest tomatoes, the freshest basil, and the richest olive oil you can find. Look for shiny skins on your eggplants. Use only flat-leaf Italian parsley. (Sound like the notes from my Turkish cooking article, don’t they?) Of course, organic ingredients are preferred wherever you can find them.

Enjoy the end of summer and the harvest.

Panzanella (Tuscan Bread Salad)
This thrifty salad uses up that stale half-loaf from last night’s dinner. It is closely related to the Middle Eastern salad, fatouche, which uses stale pita bread.

Recipe By Bryanna Clark Grogan, _Nonna’s Italian Kitchen_
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

4 cups slightly stale Italian bread cubed
Double recipe Italian Wine Vinegar Dressing (below)
2 cups ripe tomato, diced
1/2 cup red or green onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil, marjoram, or Italian flat-leaf parsley
black pepper to taste
8 romaine lettuce leaves
Optional (and or all of the following):
Up to 2 cups cucumber, chopped
Up to 2 cups bell pepper, diced, any color
A few pitted green olives, chopped
1 – 2 stalks celery, sliced
a few capers

Place the bread in a salad bowl with 1/2 cup of the Italian Wine Vinegar Dressing, and let it sit for 1/2 hour. Just before serving, add the remaining ingredients, including the remaining salad dressing. Toss well, and serve on romaine leaves.

Italian Wine Vinegar Dressing

Recipe adapted from Bryanna Clark Grogan, Nonna’s Italian Kitchen
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 5 minutes

1/4 teaspoon salt
1 small clove garlic, minced
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

With the back of a spoon, in a small round-bottomed bowl or with a medium-sized mortar and pestle, mash together the salt and garlic paste. (The salt grains will help mash the garlic, and the garlic juice will dissolve the salt.) Whisk in the oil and vinegar (and any broth you are using – see note below) with a fork or small wire whisk.
Notes: To reduce fat and calories, substitute chick-pea or cannellini cooking broth for up to 4 tablespoons of the olive oil. Use at least 1 tablespoon of olive oil to impart good flavor.

Lisa’s note – I added quite a bit of vinegar to this dressing. In the printed version, she only uses 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, but I believe that must be a misprint. The dressing was far too oily and bland without additional vinegar. (Classical dressing proportions are 2 parts olive oil and one part vinegar.)

Ciambotta (Southern Italian Vegetable Stew)
Recipe By: Bryanna Grogan Clark, Nonna’s Italian Kitchen
Serves 4
Preparation and CookingTime: 1 hour

1/2 pound eggplant, cubed, with skin
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
5 large garlic cloves, minced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 large handful fresh basil, stems removed and leaves chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, chopped (or 1 15 oz can diced tomatoes)
3/4 pound new potatoes, cut into 1 X 2 in pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
1 large bell pepper (red or yellow), cut into 1/2 inch strips
freshly ground pepper

Toss the eggplant cubes in a colander with the 2 teaspoons of salt. Let it sit in the sink until it starts to “sweat” out the bitter juices. Rinse, drain, and pat the cubes dry, squeezing a little.

In a large pot, heat the oil and add the onion, garlic, and celery. Stir over high heat for about 5 minutes, adding a little water as necessary to prevent sticking and burning. Add the basil and stir for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes. When it comes to a simmer, add the eggplant, potatoes, and the 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir, bring to a boil, then burn down, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the zucchini and peppers, and simmer 15 minutes more, or until all of the vegetables are tender.

Add salt and pepper to taste, transfer to a warm serving bowl, and allow to stand 15 minutes before serving. Leftovers are delicious!
Notes: The recipe is very similar to the French classic, Ratatouille, minus the traditional herbs de Provence.

You may vary the vegetables according to what is available. Use mushrooms instead of eggplant, for example. Use yellow squash or any other summer squash in place of (or in addition to) the zucchini. Add cauliflower or fennel if you wish.

This dish is also delicious cold.

Lazy Vegan Lasagna

For this lasagna, you don’t need to pre-cook the noodles (messy and time-consuming), or buy special no-cook noodles (expensive). Just use your favorite dry lasagna noodles. When baked raw, they retain a little more “bite” and the starch they release into the sauce gives an almost cheesy texture to the casserole.

Recipe By Lisa T. Bennett
Serves 8
Preparation & Cooking Time: 1 hr 20 minutes

1 package lasagna noodles, raw
1 or 2 jars of your favorite pasta sauce, prepared
1 pound frozen chopped leaf spinach (bagged)
1 pound tofu, firm or extra firm
1 package Tofu Hero, Italian Herb Medley (or herbs to taste)
1 pound mushrooms sliced, (optional) or other vegetables of choice (see note)
1/2 cup Soymage Vegan Parmesan substitute

Spray a 9X13 pan with non-stick spray (Pam-type). Preheat oven to 350 F.

Thaw spinach, then set aside. Mash tofu with Tofu Hero or your favorite Italian herbs (basil, oregano, garlic, etc.). You can stir in some nutritional yeast if you like.
Set aside. *

Layer (in order) sauce, noodles (raw), spinach, noodles, tofu mixture, more noodles, sauce, etc., ending with a layer of sauce. Pour enough water into corners of pan to bring liquid up to top of noodles (around 1/2 – 1 cup extra). Top with a sprinkle of Soymage Vegan Parmesan.

Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes to one hour, or until lasagna is bubbly and a fork pierces it easily. Let lasagna set for about 15 minutes before cutting.

Notes: *For a more ricotta-like tofu filling: run extra-firm tofu through food processor until fairly smooth. Add herbs, a handful of nutritional yeast, and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, then proceed with recipe.

All lasagnas are tastier if you make them a day ahead and re-warm them before serving. If you plan to do this, make sure lasagna is still fairly moist. If not, add another 1/2 cup of water or so. Cover top with plastic wrap, then foil., and refrigerate. Re-warm at 350F for at least 1 hour (might take as long as 1 1/2 hrs depending on how dense your lasagna is). Uncover for the last 10-15 minutes in the oven. You can also freeze the lasagna, but it will take a lot longer to bake from frozen.

If you wish, you can make this recipe as complex (and un-lazy) as you like, by sautéing and adding your choice of vegetables, such as sliced mushrooms, diced onions, diced green peppers, diced zucchini, etc.