Monday, April 13, 2009

There's History In Every Kitchen... And A Sformata Recipe, Or Two!

"There's history in every kitchen." I wrote that line in the introduction to my last book, and the sentiment was inspired by the history that had yet to be written in the brand new, never-been-used kitchen into which we'd recently moved. Lon and I were still unpacking boxes in our new condo as I was tending to the book's final edit, and as I pulled out pots and pans, cookbooks and measuring cups, I was excited by the potential that this new kitchen held. The combination of preparing my tried-and-true recipes - both family and personal favorites - with these gleaming new appliances was thrilling, and I couldn't wait to turn up the heat.

Now, barely two and a half years later, we have found ourselves in another "new" kitchen, this time on the other side of the country. I have put "new" in quotations because while this kitchen is new to us, that word hasn't been used to described this room's condition since approximately 1968. In fact its outdated and neglected state can best be described as "one only a cook could love." And even then, let me tell you, nurturing a relationship with this kitchen, since the economy has forced our planned renovations to be placed on the proverbial back burner, has tested the limits of The Love They Call Unconditional. 

Yet in the five months we've been here, despite its cosmetic and technical shortcomings, this kitchen has served us well. Thanksgiving was a little rocky but this past week's Seder was flavorful and worthy of Passover's rich history. 

For me, though, it was Easter Sunday and the brunch's menu that was presenting a culinary, and personal, challenge the likes of which I had never faced. I was counting on my kitchen to see me through. 

This was the first Easter in my adult life when I would be unable to celebrate with my family. The tradition that my parents brought to the holiday's table always mattered to me more than whether I actually liked the food that was being served. Being of Eastern European decent and of the Catholic faith, a number of symbolic, ethnic dishes were prepared year after year. And as this Easter Sunday drew near, I found myself at a crossroads: I could carry on my family's traditions in my own kitchen, and prepare an Easter meal as authentic to the one served by my parents (and my grandparents, and their parents) as possible, or I could leave that history completely behind and venture into culinary territories unknown. 

Some aspects of the meal were resolved easily enough. For instance, I couldn't serve kohlbasi simply because it was made with pork. (For better or worse, we try to keep a somewhat kosher kitchen.) And making the traditional Easter cheese that my parents always made was also out of the question. Its preparation involved some logistical aspects that were too challenging so late in the game. 

But I didn't want to completely abandon the foods that I felt would help me bridge the distance between my parents' Easter table and my own this year. I wanted to honor their traditions while establishing some of my own.  I'd watched as Lon's family navigated their way through this dilemma - how to continue their own holidays' traditions in the years following their parents' passing. For them it's been a process of adaptation. Some dishes have been kept, some have been updated, and some have been left to history.  

In the end, I opted to follow that example, and honor traditions old and new. The classic Italian sformata I served was a tried-and-true brunch dish that Lon and I have made for guests ever since we picked up the London River Cafe's "Italian Easy" cook book on one of our monthly trips to Costco years ago. Since beets were a part of my family's Easter Sunday tradition, I made sure that there were roasted red beets in the salad I prepared for yesterday's meal. And, of course, we had Easter eggs. Granted, they were dyed in an eco-friendly way using pomegranate juice, wine, celery seed and the beet's peels for color, but they were there on the table, representing, just the same. 

This first Easter Sunday brunch is now already history, just like the sformata, but I think the meal was a success. It had, after all, the most important ingredients - beloved family and friends.  

When it comes to family, it's said that we can create our own. The same goes for holiday traditions, I suppose. But I think we are most blessed when both the family with whom we celebrate, and the holiday traditions we honor, pay tribute to the old and the new. As for the food? Well, I'm learning that we just need to step out of the way and let our kitchens write our history for us, one meal at a time. If we let them, they will serve us well. 

Sformata di Ricotta (adapted from the Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe.) 
2 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
8 TBS butter, room temperature
1/4 lb Parmesan, grated
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 pound cherry tomatoes 
6 eggs, room temperature
1 cup creme fraiche
2 TBS fresh thyme 
zest of one lemon
1 TBS olive oil 

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Take butter and rub into sides and bottom of a casserole dish, preferably 9 X 13 or larger. Sprinkle the grated Parmesan across the buttered dish. Set aside. 

2. Place garlic, tomatoes and olive oil in a separate bowl and mix well. When tomatoes look well-coated with oil, add to casserole dish along with the half of the thyme and half the lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper, and stir to mix with the cheese - I just shake the casserole dish back and forth - and then slide into the oven for 15 minutes. When done, scoop out the tomato mixture and reserve momentarily in a bowl. 

3. While casserole is in oven for the first 15 minutes, mix the ricotta and eggs in a food processor. Make sure there are no yellow streaks of yolk left visible. I then add the creme fraiche into the food processor and mix till smooth (though the "Italian Easy" authors advise removing egg/ ricotta mixture and stirring, in a bowl, with creme fraiche.) 

4. Pour ricotta mixture back into casserole dish, scoop tomato/ garlic/ cheese mixture over top (it will sink in) and top with remaining thyme and lemon zest. Bake for at least 20 minutes then check. The mixture should rise fully, like a souffle or an egg pudding. If the center is still moist or jiggly place back into oven. Be careful that the browning on the sides doesn't turn into "burning" of the sides! Serve immediately once the sformata appears set. 
NOTES: I made two of these for Easter. The first was the one described in the recipe above, but I substituted a Piave cheese instead of Parmesan. I have substituted other hard cheeses in the past with great results. For the ricotta, I would look for a cheese that is not too dry. I also prefer a sweeter ricotta in mine. For the second casserole I substituted two cups of fresh asparagus and two cups of fresh, mixed mushrooms for the tomatoes. (I blanched asparagus first in boiling water for a minute then plunged the spears into an ice bath.) I also replaced the garlic with a shallot. In hindsight, there was too much inherent moisture in the asparagus and the mushrooms and I would advise using far less than the two cups of each that I put into this casserole. I think even 3/4 cup, of each, would do nicely. 


Charles G Thompson said...

Hi Steven-

Really nice post and written in the spirit of Easter. Liking the idea of creating new traditions from old. And the sformata recipe sounds really good too!


Steven said...

Charles, Thank you very much. You know, after reading your site, I wanted to share with you that Jeremiah Tower's recipe for poached chicken (from Julia Child's Cooking With Master Chefs series) was a real catalyst for change in my kitchen. I meant to tell you that last week but felt a little sheepish about doing so! Thanks again and hope you had a good weekend!

Charles G Thompson said...

That's so great to hear (and no reason to feel sheepish!). I've known Jeremiah for a long time now, we are still friends. I think he did, has done, amazing things for food in this country, and I think he's an incredible cook. Nice to hear from someone how he affected their own cooking... and now I have to find that poached chicken recipe! Happy Cooking!

Ozge said...

It feels warm and nice to read this... Well, even though I don't have a religion or family culture to preserve. There's still some sense of not feeling out of what you mention in this, for me.