I love Italian food.
And I always have fun cooking Italian at home. The best part is that it only takes a handful of ingredients to feed a lot of people and not break the bank. Start by following a few basic techniques to master all these recipes in no time. You may even find yourself giving them your own accent.
The Melon River Caprese Salad has the wow factor and is light and refreshing. Both the Tomato-Basil Risotto and the Cacio e Pepe make wonderful side dishes for steak or grilled chicken. And the Chicken-Artichoke Pesto Pizza serves as the perfect main- course dish for summer dinners. I even opted for a good-quality, store-bought pizza crust to make the recipe even easier—and it was delicious! Plus, we have so many wonderful pizza places in town, so I think it’s best to leave the homemade crusts to them.
Melon River Caprese Salad
14 cantaloupe balls
14 watermelon balls
14 honeydew balls
1 English cucumber, sliced into 1⁄4-inch slices
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
1 (8-ounce) package Pearls mini-mozzarella balls or snacking-size mozzarella balls
Fresh basil and mint leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Good-quality balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper Decorative skewers
On a large white platter, arrange melon balls, cucumber, and tomatoes. Place mozzarella, basil and mint leaves, dipping sauces, and salt and pepper in small bowls. Serve with decorative skewers for each person to make his or her own.
2 (14-ounce) cans chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup Arborio rice
1⁄2 cup chopped yellow onion
3 garlic cloves, chopped
5 vine-ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
20 basil leaves, cut into thin strips
1 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnishes: shaved Parmesan cheese and sprigs of basil
Bring chicken broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; reduce and simmer.
Heat oil and butter in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add rice, onion, and garlic. Sauté, stirring constantly, 5 minutes. The rice will begin to look clear. Reduce heat to medium.
Add 1⁄2 cup warm chicken broth to Dutch oven; cook, stirring constantly, until liquid is absorbed (about 5 minutes). Stir in tomatoes. Continue stirring constantly. Repeat procedure with remaining broth, 1⁄2 cup at a time, stirring constantly, until all liquid is absorbed, adding fresh basil midway through.
Stir in cheese, salt, and pepper. Serve immediately, or let stand for 5 to 10 minutes covered. Garnish with shaved Parmesan cheese and fresh basil sprigs.
Cacio e Pepe
12 ounces dry spaghetti
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (preferably from a pepper mill)
1⁄2 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
In a pan just wide enough to hold the pasta, add water to fill pan up to 1 inch. Season water with a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Spread the pasta in the pan, and cook over medium- high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Allow the pasta water to reduce; do not add more, as you want the starchy water to be minimal when the remaining ingredients are added. (If the pasta becomes al dente before most of the water has evaporated, simply remove the extra with a ladle.) Note: All pasta brands cook slightly differently.
Meanwhile, add the ground black pepper to a separate small pan over medium heat. Toast it a minute or two until fragrant.
Once the pasta is al dente and the pasta water has reduced so only a slight coating remains at the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat and add the toasted ground black pepper and the Pecorino-Romano. Stir and toss quickly and vigorously (to avoid any clumping) until both ingredients are well incorporated in the pasta. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil, and season with salt. Serve immediately.
Serve with more black pepper, Pecorino- Romano, and a drizzle of olive oil if desired.
Chicken-Artichoke Pesto Pizza
MAKES 2 (10-INCH) PIZZAS
2 thin-crust pizza crusts
Leslie’s Pesto Pronto (see recipe below)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1⁄2 pound chicken tenders, seasoned, baked, and cut into bite-size pieces
1 (12-ounce) jar artichoke quarters
1⁄2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced (optional, but encouraged!)
Olive oil for drizzling
Preheat oven to 425°.
Assemble pizza in this order: crust, pesto, mozzarella, lemon zest, chicken, artichokes, onion, and jalapeños. Do not overtop. (I know it is tempting because you might have a few extra ingredients, but don’t do it.) Lightly drizzle with olive oil.
Bake 12 to 15 minutes until hot and bubbly and crust is golden brown and crisp. Turn oven to broil for the last 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately, or cover and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish with shaved Parmesan cheese and fresh basil sprigs.
Leslie’s Pesto Pronto
MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP
2 cups fresh basil leaves, gently packed
1 to 2 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
1 (2-ounce) jar pine nuts, toasted
1⁄2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano
1⁄4 cup olive oil, or more if needed
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon coarse black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a mini food processor. Pulse until smooth. Add extra olive oil if needed for desired consistency. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Perfecting Italian at home:
1) Buy high-quality ingredients including olive oil.
2) Use fresh herbs and fresh garlic.
3) Serve with Italian wine. (I love a good Chianti.)
4) Serve with delicious, fresh breads.
5) Let everyone help in the kitchen.
6) Serve family style.