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NEW YORK Lidia Bastianich serves up a helping of common sense along with techniques for home cooks to make creamy risotto, moist meatballs and other popular Italian dishes in her 11th cookbook, "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking."
The award-winning chef co-owns six Italian restaurants, including four in New York, one in Pittsburgh and one in Kansas City. Whether in a casual or upscale atmosphere, she says each restaurant showcases the styles and flavors of Italy.
The 66-year-old, who was born in Pula, Croatia - once part of Italy - spoke to Reuters about her latest best-selling book, which she co-wrote with her daughter, Tanya, as well as her tips for home cooks.
Q: In the beginning of your book, you quoted Voltaire, who said: "Commonsense is not so common." What is your common sense approach in the kitchen?
A: You cook pasta. You put the cover on the pot. You save a third of the energy. You put the pasta in boiling water. It cooks faster and it doesn't stick together. When you salt your food, you do it intermittently. Salt your major ingredients as you are cooking instead of putting it all in. If you add it all in the onion, it might not get to the meat. Look at the oven. We all cook with the middle rack. There is a top rack and it's there for a reason. You want crispness with your roasts or meats or your pudding? Put it on the top rack.
Q: You speak often about not wasting food. What ingredients do most Americans end up throwing away?
A: We all have carrots. We munch on them every now and then, but we don't use them for much else. You could make an apple and carrot salad with shoestrings of apples, shoestrings of carrots and a bit of lemon juice. It's a great winter salad. Recycle bread whether it is in a salad or a bread pudding. You spend a lot of money on expensive Italian cheeses. Don't throw that rind away. Scrape it and put in a soup or a broth.
Q: You travel to Italy frequently. Are there dishes there that you think Americans should know more about?
A: What I would love to see more here is rabbit. This summer when I was there, I ordered it every time I saw it on the menu ... I love to see scungilli (sea snails). I ate them when I was a child.
Q: What kind of activities you recommend for children in the kitchen?
A: They can wash the vegetables, set the table, make the centerpiece depending on how old they are and what they can handle ... It makes them part of this event, doing these things for one another.
Q: Besides being a great chef, you are a businesswoman. What advice do you have for running a successful restaurant?
A: The restaurant is really a tough business. You have to know food or you have to understand a chef and appreciate his knowledge. But it goes well beyond food. Today's consumers are so informed. Food needs to be socially conscious, raised properly. It needs to nourish us properly. You also need a good setting. You have to make them (customers) feel welcomed. You have to give them good value.
Meatball and Eggplant Tagliatelle
Meatballs (Makes about 20 1-1/2-inch meatballs)
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
½ cup fine dried breadcrumbs
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Sauce and pasta (makes 3 quarts, enough for 3 lbs of pasta and for up to 18 servings)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 medium Italian eggplant, peeled, cut into ½-inch cubes
Two 28-ounce cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand crushed
Kosher salt for the pot
1 pound tagliatelle
¼ loosely packed cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
For the meatballs: Combine all of the listed ingredients in a large bowl, and mix well. Form into 1-½-inch meatballs and place on a sheet pan.
For the sauce: In a large straight-sided skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic. Once the garlic is sizzling, add the eggplant. Brown the eggplant on all sides, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side, then add the tomatoes. Slosh out the cans with 2 cups pasta water and add it to the skillet. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook until eggplant is almost tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the meatballs and continue simmering until the meat is cooked through, about 20 minutes more.
In the meantime, bring to a boil a large pot of salted water to cook the pasta. While the pasta cooks, transfer half of the meatballs and sauce to a container, to freeze or refrigerate for another time, leaving half of the sauce and meatballs simmering in the skillet.
When the pasta is al dente, transfer it to the sauce with tongs, and sprinkle with the basil. Toss to coat the pasta with the sauce, adding a little pasta water if the sauce seems too thick. Remove the skillet from the heat, toss in the grated cheese and serve.
Note: To make a serving for six, use half of the sauce and meatballs with 1 pound of dry or fresh fettuccine. Don't forget the fresh basil and grated Grana Padano. The meatballs and sauce reheat well and will keep in the freezer for a month or so.
(Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Patricia Reaney, G Crosse)