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The Monte Bene Blog

A Traditional Italian Holiday Meal (Simplified)

A Traditional Italian Holiday Meal (Simplified)

We're calling it a traditional Italian holiday meal, but if we wanted to be really traditional, we'd add about 5 more courses. Ours is a simplified version (just the main course and dessert), but you can never really go wrong with fresh, authentic ingredients.

Baked Cannelloni 

 

Ingredients:

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 24 oz. jar Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce
  • 8 cannelloni
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 10 oz. container ricotta cheese
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano, grated
  • 1 cup Mozzarella, grated
  • 5 tbsp. white wine
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350. Heat olive oil in a medium sized skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and garlic and simmer until onion is translucent. Add beef and stir well. Pour in the white wine and increase heat to let the alcohol burn off. Add salt and pepper and set aside. Meanwhile, boil cannelloni until not quite al dente. Drain and place in an 11X7 baking dish, making sure the cannelloni do not stick together. Spoon meat mixture into a large bowl. Stir in ricotta, ¼ cup Mozzarella and 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheeses. Add about 1 cup of Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce. Once combined, spoon filling mixture into cannelloni, being careful not to over-stuff the pasta. Place in a row in the baking dish. Top with remaining Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce and Mozzarella cheese. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until sauce is bubbly and cheese is completely melted. Plate and top with extra Pecorino Romano cheese.

Easy Tiramisu 

Ingredients:

Serves 4 to 6

  • 8 oz. Mascarpone cheese
  • 8 oz. heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 12 ladyfingers
  • 1/2-1 cup espresso
  • 2 tbsp. amaretto liquor
  • 3 tsp. baking cocoa

Preparation:

Beat Mascarpone cheese and powdered sugar together until well blended. Add whipping cream and beat until stiff peaks form. Add liquor and mix gently until fully combined. Pour the espresso into a small bowl and dip each side of the ladyfinger into the espresso for a few seconds (dip for a longer time for softer cookies). Create one layer of lady fingers in an 8X8X2 baking dish. Top with a  layer of cream. Create another layer of espresso-dipped lady fingers and finish with another layer of cream. Sprinkle with baking cocoa. Cover and refrigerate for 3-4 hours or until filling is set. Serve with fresh raspberries or blue berries and an after dinner drink.

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More than a Single Day: Italian Christmas

More than a Single Day: Italian Christmas

The story goes that the three Wise Men were lost on their way to visit the Christ child. They came to the home of a strange old woman. With a long nose, warty skin, and scraggly gray hair, she was far from beautiful. But the three Magi told her about their journey – how they were looking for a great king and were bringing him lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They asked the old woman if she knew where to find the child, but she did not. They asked her if she would like to join them in their search for the king. She only laughed, probably thinking these strange magi had lost their minds. She refused to go, so they left her alone in the house.

When night came again, she saw a great light in the sky – a star brighter than any she had seen before. Suddenly, she regretted not going with the Wise Men. She decided she would try to follow after them. All she had to bring to the new king were the toys of her children, who had died many years ago. She gathered these up in a sack, put on her cloak to keep warm, and then mounted her broomstick. After all, if she was going to catch up to the Wise Men, she would need to fly.

But as the old woman flew through the night, searching and searching, she could not find the great king child anywhere. Centuries later, she still flies through the night with her toys in a sack. Every year, on January 6 – the feast of the Magi, or the Epiphany – as she searches for the Christ child, she brings toys to young boys and girls in Italy.

…Or so legend would have it. “La Befana” is just one of many Christmas traditions celebrated by Italians. While Santa Claus is still more of a northern European and American tradition, La Befana is not the only one known for bringing gifts in Italy. Some Italians believe that the blind St. Lucy brings gifts to children on her feast day on December 13. Others celebrate on Christmas day with gifts from the Christ child Himself. The idea in Italy is that Christmas is more than a single day. It is an entire season of celebration, beginning in early December and running until January.

And of course, at the center of any true Italian Christmas celebration, is the food.

While Christmas is basically an all-day feast, Christmas Eve is a celebration of particular Italian significance. Known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, it is technically a day of fasting. According to Italian Catholic custom, you shouldn’t eat meat the day before a major feast day. Fish, however, is perfectly acceptable. As Italians would have it, the day of fasting eventually became a night of feasting, with a 7 (or 10 or 13) course meal. Fish, of course, is the main ingredient in most dishes.

It’s unclear why “7” is the important number. Many (including our own Chef Neil) think it may have something to do with the Seven Sacraments. Others celebrate with 10 courses in honor of the 10 Stations of the Cross, or 13 in honor of the 12 apostles plus Jesus. Any number you choose, the point is to remind you of the reason for the season and to celebrate the coming of Christmas with family and friends. 

Some of Chef Neil’s favorite dishes form the centerpieces of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The best seafood comes from the southern, Campania region of Italy, where Chef Neil grew up. There’s nothing like fresh Mediterranean seafood and shellfish over a bowl al dente pasta, drizzled in cold pressed olive oil and tossed in fresh Italian tomato pasta sauce. For Chef Neil, it brings him back home, which is where everyone wants to be on Christmas Eve.

While we don’t have a whole feast laid out for you, you can try Monte Bene Linguine Scoglio for a taste of an Italian Christmas Eve.

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What You Didn't Know About Halloween (The Italian Perspective)

What You Didn't Know About Halloween (The Italian Perspective)

It’s the big question on everyone’s mind at this time of year. The weather is
beginning to get crisp (or already is), and nothing sounds like more fun than traipsing from door to door, tripping over jack-o-lanterns, and asking for candy. But first we all have to ask ourselves one thing: what will I be for Halloween this year?

The familiar question is actually a pretty new one in Italy. The first “real” Halloween
celebration in Italy was in 1993, when a bunch of young people got together to have an “American” Halloween. They chose a famous, spooky bridge in Tuscany to play games, hold costume contests, and watch scary movies. According to legend, the “Ponto della Maddelena,” – an elaborate bridge with impressive arches – was built with the help of an evil spirit, making it the perfect place to celebrate the spooky holiday.

But while Halloween is becoming a more popular holiday in Italy – with haunted amusement parks and Halloween candy popping up all over the country – the real celebration takes place on the days following the last night of October.

The Ponto della Maddelena 

The first of November is known as All Saints Day, a day in which Italians celebrate the deceased whose souls are believed to be in heaven. All Souls Day is on the second of November, meant to commemorate the souls of departed loved ones who haven’t quite made it to heaven yet. “Halloween” is actually derived from “All-Hallows-Eve,” the Eve of the Holy Ones, or Eve of All Saints Day.

The trio of celebrations are actually all part of the Roman Catholic tradition (the major religion in Italy), but the tradition of remembering the departed with special festivities grew out of pagan traditions of celebrating the dead.  

The pagan Irish, Scottish, and Romans (just to name a few) all believed that the late fall – when the harvest was in and the earth was barren and gray – was when the dead spirits wandered the earth. The spirits would often visit their earthly homes before journeying on to the next life. The jack-o-lantern comes out of the Celtic tradition of “Samhein,” an end-of-harvest celebration of lights. The light glowing in the gourds was meant to scare off evil spirits (who also wandered with the good spirits). Parentalia was a Roman festival during which the Romans quietly remembered and honored their deceased parents. They brought offerings to tombs and celebrated with their families in the late fall. As time went on – and the Roman Catholic religion had its effect on Europe – the celebrations gradually evolved into what we have now. Dressing up and trick-or-treating, therefore, aren’t exclusively American, but came out of the traditions of the English, Irish, and even Romans. European immigrants brought their traditions over to America where the celebration took on the lively character we all know and love.

Italian Halloween at the Ponto della Maddelena, while Americanized, still keeps with the more Italian celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Days.  “Ponto della Maddelena” means “The Bridge of St. Mary Magdalene.” While the old bridge may have a spooky legend, it is in fact dedicated to a saint, making it the perfect place to celebrate Halloween one night and the more traditional Italian holiday the next morning.

Wherever Halloween and its surrounding holidays are celebrated, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. People want to believe that their departed loved ones still walk among us, or – if not quite – are never too far away.

Sources: 

"A Brief History of Halloween in America." Deleriumsreal.com

"The Devil's Bridge at Borgo A Mazzano." inyourtuscany.com

"A Most Unholy Architecture: Six Devil's Bridges." altaobscura.com

"Ponte della Maddalena." altaobscura.com

"Pumpkins in Italy." theamericanmag.com

"Halloween in Italy." goitaly.about.com

"Garfagnana: The Devil's Bridge." turismo.intoscana.it 

"All Saints." catholic.org 

"All Hallows Eve." catholiceducation.org 

"Halloween Italian Style." iitaly.org 

"Parentalia." novaroma.org 

"All Saints Day." timeanddate.com

 

 

 

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Why "Al Dente?" : 6 Tips for Making Amazing (and Perfect) Pasta

Why

If you take a look at most of our recipes, you’ll see that we say to cook your pasta “al dente.” It sounds like just a fancy term for making sure your noodles are done. “Al dente” literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. That means that well-cooked pasta must have a soft bite, a “snap” that you can feel when you chew. Why?

Go back about six hundred years and you won’t find these instructions in Italian cookbooks. In their history book, "Italian Cuisine,” authors Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari explain that in the 1500s, the proper cooking time for macaroni was about 2 hours. Apparently Italians of the renaissance preferred their pasta to be mush. It’s not clear when exactly firmer pasta became the thing, but we’re glad it did. The taste of the pasta comes out so much better in al dente pasta, which we think offers the reason for the change in cooking time.

But lucky for all of us, there’s actually more to the cooking technique than the texture and the flavor. Eating your noodles al dente is actually healthier for you.

Hot water breaks down the molecule bonds in starches – that’s how it turns dry pasta into cooked pasta. The longer the noodles are cooked, the more the molecules are broken down, and the faster your body can convert those carbs into fuel. That fast breakdown causes blood sugar levels to rise suddenly and then crash only a few hours later, leaving you tired and hungry again. When pasta is cooked al dente, it takes longer for your body to break down those carbs, which keeps your blood sugar levels more stable and your body more sufficiently fueled and filled. The result? You’re less likely to overeat or to eat unhealthy snacks after your meal. Keeping those blood sugar levels stable can prevent weight gain and type two diabetes.

So here are 6 tips for cooking your pasta to (al dente) perfection:

  1. Use the right pot: The bigger the better, but make sure it’s light enough so you can easily lift it to drain your pasta. Marcella Hazan (famous chef) suggests using enameled aluminum that heats quickly and is easy to handle.
  2. Use enough water: You should never use less than 3 quarts of water for your pasta, regardless of how much you’re making. Good Italian cooking says you should use 4 to 6 quarts of water per pound of pasta.
  3. Use just enough salt: Add salt once the water begins to boil but before you add the pasta. Let the water come to a boil again before adding your noodles. Use about 1 ½ tbsp. salt per 4 quarts of water.
  4. Test your pasta: Follow the directions on your dried pasta package for al dente pasta, but never trust that the suggested time is completely accurate. There’s nothing wrong with tasting a noodle or two intermittently to check the texture and to keep from overcooking the pasta. 
  5. Drain right on time: Once your pasta reaches that perfect al dente texture, drain it immediately. Even a minute too long can throw off the consistency of your pasta.
  6. Toss with sauce: You’ll notice that most of our recipes say to toss your cooked pasta in a cup of sauce. There are two reasons for this. For one, it prevents the noodles from sticking together. Just as importantly, it coats each noodle with sauce so that you get the perfect combination of noodle and sauce in each and every bite. Pasta, after all, was made for sauce. 

 

Sources:

Hazan, Marcella. Essential of Classic Italian Cooking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997: 126-128.

Capatti, Alberto & Massimo Monanaar. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 54.

"10 Ways to Slim Down Your Pasta Dinner." Eatthis.com. 

"Can Noodles Ever be Healthy?" Yahoo.com/health. 

"Taste and Health: Two Big Reasons to Cook All Your Pata Al Dente." Brightonyourhealth.com 

"How Much Water Does Pasta Really Need?" nytimes.com 

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The Story Behind the Staple: Chicken Parmigiana

The Story Behind the Staple: Chicken Parmigiana

 

It’s another Italian staple…or is it?

 

As a sauce company that blends Italian with American grown tomatoes, we love recipes that have been born out of a blending of cultures. We also love recipes that use a few, simple ingredients to create authentic, hearty flavors. Chicken Parmigiana is one of those recipes.

While the delicious medley of breaded chicken, warm tomato sauce, and gooey cheese seems like an Italian staple, it actually isn’t. Not exactly anyways. Chicken Parmigiana has its origins in the United States, where it was popularized among Italian-American communities. Italian immigrants created the meal, which quickly became conceived as an authentically Italian dish. Of course, it does take its inspiration from Italy. Eggplant Parmigiana, or Mellenzana alla Parmigiana, is the original Italian recipe. Eggplants are lightly breaded, fried, topped with fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, and then baked. The switch to chicken in the United States might have been due to several reasons – Italian restaurant owners saw the American preference for meat over eggplant, Italian immigrant workers were able to afford meat now that they had higher paying jobs, or eggplants just weren’t as common a produce in the United States.

The origin of the Mellenzana all Parmigiana is also debatable. According to some, it originated in the northern Italian city of Parma – hence the name, which means “In the style of Parma.” Others say the dish came out of southern Italy where eggplant is grown widely. Most early Italian immigrants also came from southern Italy, so it would make sense that they brought the recipe over with them. Today, Chicken Parmigiana often has its name simplified to Chicken Parmesan – referring to the delicate cheese made in and around the province of Parma. Interestingly, “Parmesan” is actually the French simplification of Parmigiana. The cheese became popular among the French nobility in the 1500s. It’s uncertain if the French had an influence on the eventual American classic, but it is clear that Chicken Parmigiana is truly a global dish.

Try some of our recipes for delicious Parmigianas.

Sources:

http://www.parmesan.com/history/history-of-parmesan-cheese/

http://www.parmesan.com/recipes/tag/chicken-parmesan/info/

http://www.chasingtravel.com/the-truth-about-chicken-parmesan/

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The Story Behind the Staple: Spaghetti and Meatballs

The Story Behind the Staple: Spaghetti and Meatballs

 Spaghetti and meatballs, perhaps the staple of Italian food in America, actually has a more interesting history than you might expect. The next time you serve this easy meal, share this story with the family.

According to legend, Marco Polo discovered the noodle on his travels through China and brought it back for Italians to enjoy. Needless to say, Italians are not very content with this legend and would prefer not to give Asia the credit for their signature food choice.

According to a National Geographic article published in 2005, the oldest noodle does have its origin in Asia. Scientists unearthed an over 4,000 year old bowl of long, yellow noodles in the Lajia archeological site in northwestern China.  But, according to numerous sources, when Marco Polo wrote about discovering pasta, he was really just talking about a different kind of pasta than that of Italians. Marco Polo traveled in China between 1271 and 1291 (give or take), but according to John Dickie and his Epic History of Italians and Their Food, there was hard grain durum wheat pasta in Italy at least a century before. Clearly, Marco Polo didn’t “discover” pasta any more than we discovered tomato sauce. 

But there are so many kinds of pasta out there…how did spaghetti become the staple? Italians can’t take credit for this one – well, not exactly. It was Italian-Americans who made spaghetti famous in America. Before over 4 million Italians immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pasta was rarely served as a main dish. But in America, pasta turned into the center piece for dishes because of its low cost and high carb content. Spaghetti was most likely the pasta that was most readily available.  Red sauce has a similar story. While the legend of its origin is very Italian, its prevalence in America has to do with the easy availability of crushed tomatoes.

What about meatballs? Those too take their origin in Italy but were reshaped (literally) in America. "Polpettes" were a popular, simple food in Italy in the late 19th century. They were small meatballs with an equal ratio of meat to bread crumbs. When Italians came to America and began earning more money than they did in Italy, meat became a staple rather than a delicacy. Ground beef, of course, was the cheapest option. Once shaped into large, flavorful balls they added the perfect finishing touch to a bowl of pasta.

The long story behind spaghetti and meatballs is just one example of how Italian food has been shaped and changed through culture and circumstance. One thing has remained the same – it’s sometimes the simplest foods that taste the best.

Sources:

John Dickie: Delzia: the Epic HIstory of the Italians and Their Food. pp 45-47

National Geographic: 4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China 

Culinary Lore: Marco Polo and His Chinese Noodles Pasta: Legend or Fact? 

National Pasta Association: Fun Facts  

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Start the Day Right - Italian Style

Start the Day Right - Italian Style

Getting kids up in the morning for school can be hard enough. Getting them to eat a substantial breakfast can be even harder. But studies show that children who eat a well-balanced breakfast every day typically do better in the classroom, perform better on the field, and exhibit better concentration and hand-eye coordination. Studies also show that skipping breakfast can lead to higher cholesterol, weight gain, and even diabetes later in life. The reasons?

First off, a well-balanced breakfast gives you the energy and nutrients you need to start your day right. Math class becomes that much easier when your brain has the right kind of proteins and carbs to fuel it. When you skip breakfast, you’re also more likely to snack on unhealthy foods during the day or to overeat at the next meal. Not only can that cause weight gain, but it can also create unhealthy highs and lows of glucose (or blood sugar). To compensate, your body produces more insulin. Overtime, the high insulin levels can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.

So serving kids breakfast may be one of the best things you can do for them right now and in the years to come. But while you may know all the facts about feeding them properly, sometimes the real struggle is finding healthy foods they will actually eat. Enough with the sugary cereal. Try one of these fun, balanced recipes that turn boring old breakfast into delicious Italian adventures. They won’t even know they’re eating breakfast with these savory bites. Serve with fresh fruit or yogurt.

 

Mini Frittatas

Kids love “dip-able” foods. This fast recipe makes a lot. Cut the recipe in half or save some in the fridge or freezer for tomorrow’s breakfast or an after school snack.

Ingredients:

  • 1 jar Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce
  • 6 large eggs
  • ½ cup whole milk (or 2% for lower fat content)
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • 5 oz. honey ham, thinly sliced and chopped
  • ¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
  • Fresh basil, chopped
  • Salt to taste

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 375. Lightly grease two mini muffin tins. In a large bowl, mix eggs, milk, pepper and salt until well blended. Add ham, basil, and cheese and stir until well combined. Pour egg mixture into muffin tins, filling to just below the rim. Bake frittatas for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops begin to puff. Heat Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce. Carefully remove frittatas, plate, and serve with a side of pasta sauce for dipping.

 

Breakfast Pizza

What kid doesn’t want to eat pizza for breakfast? To make this one faster, use pre-prepared pizza crust (if you want to make the dough yourself, though, follow this recipe).

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce
  • 1 pre-prepared roll of pizza dough
  • 3-4 eggs
  • 1/3 cup whole milk (or 2% for lower fat content)
  • 5 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 7 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 4 oz. ham, thinly sliced into strips
  • 4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled (optional)
  • 4 breakfast sausage links, sliced (optional)
  • Fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400. Grease a pizza pan and lay out pizza crust. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and salt and pepper. Gently pour over the center of the crust and spread it to the edges. Add one cup of Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce on top of egg layer, using a spoon to spread evenly. Add cheese and meat as desired. Bake on center rack for 12 to 15 minutes or until crust is golden brown and egg is cooked. Remove and top with basil. Allow to cool five minutes before slicing and serve with heated Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce for extra dipping.

 

Breakfast Calzone

 This is the perfect meal for kids on the go. Wrap it up in a napkin and give it to them as they board the bus. Once again, use pre-prepared crust for an easy, quick meal.

Ingredients:

  • 1 jar Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce
  • 1 pre-prepared roll of pizza dough
  • 4-5 eggs
  • ½ cup whole milk (or 2% for lower fat content)
  • ½ to 1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • Sliced pepperoni (as much as desired)
  • 4 tsp. Pecorino Romano cheese or Parmesan, grated
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a pizza pan and lay out crust, creating a 14X10 rectangle. In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, milk, and salt and pepper until well combined. Add olive oil. In a medium skillet, cook egg mixture until eggs are set but moist (about 3 to 4 minutes). Slice dough into 4 evenly shaped rectangles. Add mozzarella to one side of each rectangle, leaving ½ inch of space on the edge. Add pepperoni, Pecorino Romano, and eggs. Fold empty side of dough over toppings and press the edges closed firmly. Bake for 12 to 13 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Heat Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce. Remove calzones from oven and serve with pasta sauce for dipping. For an on the go meal, add 1 to 2 cups of pasta sauce inside the calzone and bake a few minutes longer.

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