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Jim Sikes: Summer's a great time for Italian food that's light, or at least lighter than lasagne

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Our classes in June focused on Italian cuisine. The take this time was not geographically oriented. We already looked at Italian American dishes, and then what we did to make American Italian dishes. You know, more is better. More sauce. More cheese. So on.

Well, it hasn’t exactly worked perfectly. Some of that excess has buried the heart of the food. We took a look at dishes that used traditional ingredients made with a lighter hand. Less weight and meat. More veggies and flavor. Food certainly just right for Summer.

“My Italian” was our name. I wrote recipes to support this direction. The result was really tasty food with less on the plate, so to speak. There was plenty of food. Guess what? No pasta, but there was rice for risotto. Cheese, but not too much. No garlic bread. Ham, chicken and pork that didn’t overwhelm the dish. Adequate sauces that stayed in place.

Let’s take a look at the fun time we had making My Italian.

For the first dish, we sort of made a croque monsieur sandwich from last month—without any bread. We started with a slice of ham and topped that with a slice of cooked eggplant. Just like in the sandwich, we sprinkled a little cheese and topped with bechamel seasoned with fresh sage. Bake those little stacks until bubbling.

Goodness, how wonderful! These fit all those things we wanted, and it still had some cheese. Just no heavy sauce. What a great way to start our meal.

Risotto came next. We make it using asparagus. Also had fine Carnaroli rice. Veggie stock. Real Parm. Been scarce around these parts. It’s easy to forget how good this simple rice dish is. Set up with asparagus and finished with a generous blob of butter. It would have been easy to have a whole bowl and go have a nap.

Speaking of scarce, plain bone-in skin-on chicken breasts are hard to find. I wound up getting Billy at Wright’s Market to order me a case of whole 3-pound chickens. I cut the breasts out and had what I needed. My neighbors and we, of course, will enjoy the other parts.

We stuffed butter with juniper, rosemary and garlic under the skin of the breasts. When they roasted, that wonderful flavor oozed into the meat. Since juniper is the primary flavor in gin, we flambéed the finished chicken in it and used the juices for a sauce.

These were so tender and juicy with a powerful sauce.

Instead of trying to stuff the chicken breasts, we made dressing. Good idea. It had bacon and onions. Crusty French bread and rich chicken stock, too. Enough said. It sure was a fine dish moistened with the sauce from the chicken.

It was time for more veggies. Spinach and asparagus did just fine. We baked them with ricotta, pecorino and eggs. Perfect as a side or a great lunch with ripe fresh fruit.

Our final dish used some pork. Slow cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes and fennel. It was perfect in the taste and looks department. Serve it like it is or with rice or garlic bread. The leftovers make a rich sauce for baked pasta. That’s our dinner on Thursday.

My friend Fred Varner said he and Toni wondered what I was making for class. Their conclusion: “I bet it’s not lasagna.” That was right. As good as that is, it’s not summertime fare. Unless you lighten it up a good bit.

We had fun with My Italian. Nobody left hungry.

Tomatoes are our theme in July. Come join us.


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