Cook some familiar Italian food

  • Mama Picroni's Tomato Sauce. (Lauri Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
  • Best Ever Stuffed Shells. (Lauri Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Many Italian foods are so familiar they almost seem like American foods.

If you ask a child where pizza is from, he is likely to say the United States. And the same goes for spaghetti and lasagna. Gelato, too.

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No wonder Italian food is still the most popular ethnic food in America.

The country is marvelously varied in the cuisine of its different regions. Southern Italy provides the food that is perhaps most familiar to Americans. It is where you will find the tomatoes, the eggplants, the marinara sauce — and the pizza.

Northern Italy is more about beef and dairy; it is home to the butter-based sauces and the cream. It is also the birthplace of salted meats, such as prosciutto and salami.

With such an extraordinary abundance of foods and styles of cooking, I was briefly at a loss for what to choose that would best represent the Italian kitchen. I decided to go for dishes that were well-known and comforting, largely because I had an ace in the hole: my wife.

Actually, it is my wife’s late mother, who was the daughter of Italian immigrants and who was said to be a wonderful cook. I decided to make two of her best recipes, and then two from a cookbook called “The Silver Spoon,” which is essentially the Italian version of “Joy of Cooking.” It’s found in kitchens all throughout Italy.

Italian cooking begins with a good tomato sauce, and my wife’s mother’s is absolutely the very best. There is no room for debate here.

In recent years, brightly flavored, fresh-tasting tomato sauces have been the rage, and a lot of home cooks have forgotten all about the old-school, long-simmered sauces. These take some time to make, but every passing minute only deepens and enriches the flavor. This is the way Italians have been making sauce for centuries.

The version I made is so spectacularly good because of a few special techniques. It is made with meat: a large hunk of beef and a somewhat smaller hunk of pork. Both boost the lower notes of the sauce and provide an umami undertone. After the sauce has finished cooking, they can be served separately with a bit of the sauce, or part of the meat can be shredded or cut into pieces and kept in the sauce.

Mama Picroni’s Tomato Sauce

Yield: 4 quarts (43 servings)

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chuck roast or other boneless beef roast

1 cup onions, chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

3 to 4 (28-ounce) cans whole plum (Roma) tomatoes — a 6-pound can is ideal

16 ounces canned tomato sauce

1 large bay leaf

1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons dried basil

1 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork

18 ounces tomato paste

Note: This makes about a gallon of sauce. Consequently, it requires a very large pot; 12 quarts is best. Leftover sauce freezes very well. If doubling recipe, use 3 1/2 to 41/2 pounds of beef and 11/2 pounds of pork.

1. Cut fat off beef and render it in pot over medium-high heat until a thin layer of melted fat covers bottom. Discard fat. Brown beef on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove roast to a plate. Add onions and garlic to pot, and sauté over medium or medium-low heat until onions are translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Cut each tomato into 3 or 4 pieces and add to pot, along with juice from can. Stir in tomato sauce, bay leaf, parsley and basil. Return beef to pot, add pork, and simmer for about 21/2 hours.

3. Stir in tomato paste and simmer 20 to 30 more minutes, until beef is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, if necessary. Remove garlic cloves, if you can find them, and bay leaf before serving. If desired, shred or chop some of the meat and add to the sauce. Or serve meat separately, with a little of the sauce.

Best-Ever Stuffed Shells

Yield: 8 servings

1 large bunch parsley

1 garlic clove

2 eggs

2 pounds ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to oil the pan

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

16 ounces jumbo pasta shells

4 cups Mama Picroni’s Tomato Sauce

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mince parsley and garlic together until it almost forms a paste. Place in a large bowl with eggs, ricotta, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, olive oil and nutmeg; mix until thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste (Parmesan is salty, so it will not need much salt). Cover and place in refrigerator to set.

3. Boil 4 to 6 quarts of salted water in a large pot. Add pasta and boil until partially cooked, about 9 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Spread out on plates to avoid sticking, separating any shells that have nestled inside others. Oil the inside of an 11-by-7-inch baking pan.

4. Fill each shell with the ricotta mixture, and place one layer — open side up — in the prepared pan. Cover with half of the tomato sauce and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Add a second layer of the shells on top, cover with the remaining tomato sauce and the remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake until done, 30 to 40 minutes.

Pasta E Fagioli

Yield: 6 servings

2 pounds dried white beans such as cannellini, soaked in cold water overnight and drained

3 tablespoons olive oil

6 sage leaves or 1/8 teaspoon dried sage

1 garlic clove, crushed

3 tablespoons strained tomatoes, such as Pomi

3 ounces ditalini pasta or small elbow macaroni

1. Put soaked beans in a large pot, add cold water to cover by at least 3 inches and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 2 hours. Transfer half the beans to a food processor and process to a puree.

2. Heat oil in a large pot, add the sage and garlic and cook 2 minutes; do not burn the garlic. Add the bean puree and 61/4 cups of water; season generously with salt and pepper, and stir in the strained tomatoes. Add the whole beans. Bring to a boil, add the pasta, and cook until al dente, according to instructions on the package — cooked, but still a little chewy. Serve hot, cold or warm.

Zabaglione

Yield: 4 servings

4 egg yolks

1/4 cup superfine sugar, see note

1/2 cup Marsala, dry white wine or sparkling wine, see note

Notes: To make superfine sugar, blend granulated sugar in a blender at high speed for 10 to 15 seconds until powdery.

— One-half cup of wine gives this dessert a strong wine flavor, which is traditional. Use less if you prefer less of a wine taste.

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1. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a heatproof bowl until pale and fluffy, then stir in the Marsala or wine a little at a time.

2. Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture starts to rise. Remove from the heat and serve hot or cold in glasses. Zabaglione may also be used as a sauce on coffee or hazelnut ice cream.

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