STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — As Staten Island’s cooks would have it, the topic of Italian food dominates readers’ questions this holiday season. In past years of doling out cooking advice at this time of year, experience tells us to address such concerns by turning to our local experts.
Here are the top three burning food queries our readers have shared in the last week.
Question: The lasagna…can I freeze it? And, can I prepare my lasagna ahead of time for the holidays?
Answer: The answer is yes, a lasagna that’s fully cooked can be frozen, then thawed out and reheated, coaches chef Giacomo Alaio of Patrizia’s.
“That’s the best way,” he assures.
Cookbook author and food blogger Camille Mule Pizzo of Quartine Kitchen Facebook fame advises to use “no boil” lasagna sheets for an easy lift.
She adds, “Prepare your sauce with chopped meat as you would for any lasagna. Cool before using. If it’s hot, ice crystals will appear when frozen.”
For further tips, Pizzo says, “Arrange the lasagna in layers with pre-drained ricotta, mozzarella and meat sauce. Repeat.”
And a little advice from this here Food Editor: instead of ricotta cheese try Impastata (Impostata) which is a medium-dry version of ricotta cheese. You can make this by straining fresh ricotta cheese — the best ones come in a tin! — overnight in a strainer at room temp.
Q: I use flour and egg, no breadcrumbs to make eggplant parm. Can I fry the eggplant and then freeze the fried eggplant for a week or two before assembling the dish? Or make it and freeze the whole finished product?
Chefs polled for an answer to these questions agree that a flour-egg-breadcrumb coating on the eggplant is the way to go. But with tried-and-true recipes from Nonna, we’re going to lose this breadcrumb-versus-flour conversation which is on the level of “Is it sauce or is it gravy?” kind of battle.
That said, Chef Lou Marfoglio of Daddino’s Catering Hall at Seaview says to make the battered eggplant slices a few days ahead of time, then assemble the casserole the morning it will be served. This way the egg coated-layers won’t meld into one another.
Says the chef, “We use flour-egg-breadcrumb in that order. It’s better to flash fry it at a higher-than-normal temp real quick and then freeze it after it cools to room temperature. It keeps perfectly fine.”
But on food handling, Marfoglio instructs on defrosting the pre-cooked product in the fridge. That prevents the coating from cracking before assembly.
Chef Ed Canlon of Canlon’s Restaurant in Oakwood adds that another way to go is cooking the eggplant parm from start to finish, then cooling completely and freezing.
Either which way it’s made, this discussion is making me want eggplant parm right now.
Q: What kind of salad do you recommend serving at the holiday meal with Italian food and when do you dress it?
A: Frank Puleo of Framboise Catering in Tottenville suggests keeping it simple. He says, “I would suggest shaved fennel with watercress — with a splash of balsamic vinegar and just enough oil to make it glisten.”
He additionally offers, “For a festive holiday salad, I like to marinate apples in a mustard vinaigrette, and use that dressing to toss romaine lettuce with chopped hazelnuts. While cranberries do not grow in Italy, we like to use fresh cranberries sliced in half and marinated in a simple syrup for two days — to make them edible in a fairly raw state. Toss them in at the last moment for a very dramatic looking salad, with lots of crunch, color and a very bright taste.”
That salad, by the way, is on the caterer’s Christmas Day delivery menu.
Other “Frank” thoughts along the Italian vein of cooking: dress the salad just before the meal starts, even if it’s the last thing eaten just before dessert.
“This, of course, depends on the types of greens selected. A mesclun mix, which has been so popular in the U.S. for years, wilts just looking at it, especially when not kept refrigerated,” he opines.
But heartier greens can withstand more time on the dressing — kale and (gasp) iceberg.
“Growing up, iceberg lettuce was my mom’s lettuce of choice all winter long because it was indestructible. You could dress it, wait an hour, eat what you want and what you did not eat, you could wash off and re-refrigerate and eat it the next day. Nothing would kill that crunch. I know that as a chef, I am supposed to hate it — but I love it,” Puleo confesses, adding, “I like crunchy salads.. All iceberg is, is a vessel for the dressing — so the dressing needs to be extra exciting. Blue Cheese atop iceberg was a classic combination.”
Think “wedge” salads of the classic American steakhouse variety.
The common Italian-American combo of radicchio, arugula and endive is interesting only for its red, white and green, flag-inspired salad, says Puleo.
He explains, “For me, bitter, bitter and peppery bitter does not make an interesting salad except for the colors.”
Other salad considerations can be a Sicilian version of just sliced oranges, with thinly sliced red onions and a few black olives with a splash of red wine vinegar.
He concludes, “The simple answer to the question should be that for the holidays, let your entree and side dishes shine and be the stars of the show — and keep your salad in a supporting actor category. Not everything you eat at one meal, needs to be the best item you have ever eaten. After all, you want your guests talking about that Cassoulet that took you two days to make, rather than the mixture of greens you were lucky enough to find at a Staten Island supermarket.”
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at [email protected].