Growing up during a certain time in the Midwest, “Italian” meant one thing:

Spaghetti and meatballs.

The pasta was always spaghetti (was there any other kind?); the sauce was always red; the meatballs were always ground-beef based.

As I got older, the repertoire got a little more expansive. Ricotta cheese made an appearance in stuffed shells. Vegetables eased their way into pasta primavera. As a young adult, I even ordered a seafood pasta dish at a restaurant and came face to face with squid.

Still, spaghetti and meatballs remained the Italian touchstone.

That all changed the Christmas my husband gave me The Italian Country Table.

I’m always amazed that this book by Lynne Rossetto Kasper doesn’t find its way onto “Best Italian Cookbook” lists. Published in 1999, it chronicles the regional cooking of Italy’s countryside.

There are red sauces, yes. But pasta doesn’t dominate. There’s poultry (balsamic-roasted chicken); meat (garlic- and caper-grilled pork chops); and fish (trout marinated with sweet onions). There are vegetables (carrots with fresh sage); and desserts beyond tiramisu (chocolate polenta cake).

Then there’s this:

potato-gatto1

Parmesan mashed potatoes studded with salami and peas, wrapped around onions and fresh mozzarella and topped with homemade breadcrumbs. Kasper describes it as a potato lasagna. I call it a pasta-less mac and cheese. The recipe claims to feed six to eight people; three of us gobbled up all but a corner (which I’m saving for today’s lunch).

I love Marcella Hazan and Lidia Bastianich — doyennes both of Italian cuisine.

But Lynne Rossetto Kasper taught me what Italian cooking is.

And is not. (Sorry, spaghetti and meatballs!)

***

This is my 400th post. That probably means nothing to you, but for a lover of round numbers and record keeping, it means a lot to me.

I love the community of blogging. I love the surprises. And I’m struck each year by the handful of posts from fellow bloggers that stick with me. These authors may be writing about food, but a turn of phrase captures the imagination. They may be writing about family or travel, but their insights prick beneath those topics to probe something deeper.

Here, the five blog posts that touched me this year during my journey to 400:

Thanks for the inspiration, guys!

potatoes

Potato Gatto (The Italian Country Table, Lynne Rossetto Kasper)

  •  3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into quarter-inch dice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 3 to 4 slices sourdough bread
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 pound salami, cut into quarter-inch dice
  • 1 1/3 cups frozen peas, thawed
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, drained well and cut into quarter-inch slices

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water, season generously with salt and bring to a boil. Cook until tender.

While the potatoes are cooking, glaze a saute pan with olive oil. Add the red onion and season with salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onion softens. Add the minced garlic and cook another 30 seconds.

Scrape the onion and garlic onto a plate. Set the saute pan aside.

Drop the whole garlic clove into a running food processor and process until it’s minutely chopped. Add the sourdough bread and process until you have finely chopped breadcrumbs.

Glaze your saute pan with olive oil once again. Place over medium heat, then add the breadcrumb mixture. Stir until golden, then turn the crumbs out on a piece of foil to cool.

Drain the cooked potatoes. Place them back in the saucepan. Add the butter, Parmesan and milk and mash well. Season with pepper, then taste to see if you need any additional salt.

Stir the salami and half of the peas into the mashed potatoes.

Coat a 9-inch casserole dish with nonstick spray. Spread half the potato mixture in the bottom.

Top the potatoes with the remaining peas and the sauteed onions and garlic. Lay the mozzarella on top.

Spread the remaining mashed potatoes atop the casserole, then place your dish on a rimmed baking sheet.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven and sprinkle on the breadcrumbs. Bake an additional 10 minutes.

If you let this sit for 10 or so minutes after it comes out of the oven, you’ll get pretty layered squares of potato and filling. I have no patience for waiting. Scoop the potatoes onto plates and let them ooze around in all their Italian glory.

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