Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Where does the granddaughter and great niece of the famous Chef Boyardee Italian food dynasty take the family name in the new millennium?  By going back to the family's culinary roots as a teacher of Italian cooking and now the author of DELICIOUS MEMORIES: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $27.50; ISBN 978-1-58479-906-1). Anna Boiardi (and Stephen Lyness), present a  sprinkling of  family lore with a tasty and fresh collection of beloved recipes inspired by the iconic Chef Boyardee brand.

Anna Boiardi' illustrious family traces its culinary beginnings back many generations.  The Boiardi's were from Piacenza, where they had already established careers in the restaurant business.  Anna's great Uncle Paul was the first to emigrate to the United States early in the 1900s. Eventually he became a famous maitre d' at the Plaza Hotel. Another great uncle Hector, the family chef, followed and a few years later, Anna's grandfather, Mario completed the family trio with Paul arranging for them all to work at the Plaza.   Eventually Uncle Hector, who would become the famous face of Chef Boyaradee products, took a job running the restaurant at the Winton Hotel in Cleveland before opening and managing two more restaurants.  A few years later as the chef/owner of his own successful restaurant, Hector often sent customers home with a bottle of his famous red sauce with a small amount of spaghetti wrapped in paper and a little Parmesan cheese for them to make at home.  Out of the demand for his sauce came the Chef Boyardee line, which by 1936 had become the bestselling Italian food products on the shelves the the nation's supermarkets. Chef Boyardee (the name was changed because so many Americans had a difficult time pronouncing Boiardi), is now an established iconic national brand in business for more than seventy years.

Anna Boiardi and her mother ricing potatoes for gnocchi.

Anna's mother was an outstanding home cook, and it was she and her grandparents who taught the young girl the recipes the family had been preparing for large Sunday suppers for generations. Anna now teaches a cooking class, Cucina Academy, and has been profiled on the Today show, CNBC and the Style Network.  She also regularly appears on QVC selling her dessert line, Delicious Memories.

Ann Boardi is a natural teacher. One clever aspect of DELICIOUS MEMORIES is her section at the beginning of the book for 12 Essentials to make 15 Dinners. This is an easy way to make sure your favorite dishes can be made with virtually no shopping time by keeping things on hand in your pantry, in your fridge and freezer and spice rack.   

Thumbing through the many fine recipes in DELICIOUS MEMORIES, Anna Boiardi has learned well the lessons taught to her in her mother's kitchen.  Having recently mastered the art of making gnocchi at home, I turned first to Ms. Boiardi' recipe for Potato Gnocchi.   These heavenly, feather-light dumplings are so easy to prepare.  They are fun to make and I wonder why they are not as popular as pasta for eating at home.  They require some effort, but when the results are as flavorful as they are here, the effort is forgotten instantly.  Serve them with Tomato sauce, a sage and butter sauce or pesto.  Uncle Hector's Tagliatele with Tomato Sauce "Il Giardino," was the inspiration for the trio of sauces that launched the Chef Boyardee brand. The sauce is based on a recipe native to Piacenza and contains no garlic. The Italians rarely combine onions and garlic the way Italo-Americans do, but Anna urges readers to add garlic to their version if that is what they prefer. Tortelli Piacentini, is another dish native to Piacenza.  This rustic stuffed pasta is filled with spinach, ricotta and Parmesan cheese, and is an ideal pasta to serve for a long and leisurely Sunday dinner with the family.  Other dishes that tempted me include a beautiful and aromatic Baked Fennel with Parmesan Cheese and Butter, and yet another outstanding family recipe from Piacenza is Pane Degli Angeli, an "angel-food-like" cake. I was intrigued by its use of potato starch instead of flour.  But for speed and convenience, I'll be making Leaving-Home Penne Rigate, a pasta dish with only four ingredients (six if you count salt and pepper, which I don't).  In this smart dish developed by her mother (to get her kids to eat vegetables), Anna shows how a few simple ingredients, in this case, broccoli and pecorino, can turn into a easy, delicious and impressive dish for any night of the week.

Sprinkled throughout the book are engaging vintage ads for Chef Boyardee products, as well as many beautiful photos of the finished dishes from starters to dessert.  Cookbooks that celebrate family history and lore, are amongst my very favorites. In keeping with family tradition, Anna Boiardi is a talented teacher and I had fun reading and cooking through this lovely book.

Gnocchi with Pesto sauce. 
serves 4 to 6 as an entrée


6-ounce medium Idaho potatoes, unpeeled
large egg yolk
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups firmly packed basil leaves, preferably small leaves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
½  teaspoon salt
½  clove garlic
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino cheese
3 tablespoons heavy cream
pinch freshly ground pepper

kitchen stuff

Slotted spoon or wire mesh spider, available at Asian cooking supply stores
Potato ricer
to make the gnocchi, put the potatoes in a large pot. Add cold water
to cover and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring the water to a boil, turn the heat down so
that the water just simmers, cover, and cook the potatoes 30 minutes. (Don’t
get curious and poke the potatoes with a knife or fork while they cook. If you
puncture the skin, the flesh will get watery and absorb too much flour, which
makes the gnocchi heavy.) Remove the cooked potatoes to a plate with a slotted
spoon or spider and let them sit until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes.
Peel the potatoes with a small knife—the skin will slip off easily.
Set a cutting board on your work surface. Press the peeled potatoes through a
ricer onto the cutting board. Use your hands to gently make a well in the center
of the riced potato. Put the egg yolk in the well and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon
salt. Using a spoon or clean hands, sprinkle the potato evenly with the flour.
With a fork, beat the salt and egg together. Little by little, begin drawing the
potato-flour mixture into the center of the well with the fork, and work it into
the egg until the egg mixture becomes too stiff to work with the fork. Use your
fingertips to gently draw the rest of the potato mixture into the center and
mash it all together with your fingertips to make a rough dough. Gather the
dough into a ball and fold it over on itself several times, gently kneading, until
the dough is well blended, soft, and smooth. This will take just a few minutes.
Shape the dough into a log 12 to 14 inches long and 4 inches wide. Set it at the
top of your board.
To shape the gnocchi, lightly flour a baking sheet and put it next to your cutting
board. Use a pastry scraper or a knife to cut off a 1- to 1½-inch wide chunk
of dough. Roll the dough between your hands on the cutting board to make a
rope about ¾ inch thick. Cut the rope into 1-inch lengths (each of these will
be a gnoccho). Lightly flour the tines of the fork. Hold the fork with your left
hand so that the tines are almost flat against the board. Place a piece of dough
across the tines of the fork, close to the handle. With your right thumb, mash it
against the tines while rolling it down and away from the handle. It will roll over
on itself so that instead of being plump and smooth, it will be curled, with an
indentation from your thumb. Set the finished gnoccho on the floured baking
sheet. Continue just like this to shape all of the gnocchi from your rope.
Cut, roll, and shape more gnocchi, until you’ve used all the dough. As you get
adept at the shaping, you’ll get more of an assembly-line thing going: roll three
ropes at a time, cut them all into pieces, and shape them all into gnocchi. Just
like that. I promise.
to make the pesto, combine the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and salt in a
blender. Cut the garlic into pieces and add it to the blender. Blend until the mixture
is smooth and creamy, and you don’t see any more large pieces of basil.
Scrape the pesto into a medium bowl. Stir in the cheeses and then the cream, 1
tablespoon at a time. Stir in the pepper.
To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add enough salt to
make the water taste salty (about ¼ cup). Set a colander in a bowl, and place
next to the stove. Add half of the gnocchi to the boiling water; when they rise
to the surface, set your timer to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or spider to
remove the gnocchi to the colander when done; let drain. Transfer to a bowl.
Return the water to a boil, add the rest of the gnocchi, and cook and drain the
same way. Don’t pour out the cooking water yet. To serve, spoon about half of 
the pesto onto a large serving platter and stir in a spoonful of the pasta cooking 
water (this will thin the pesto). Spoon the gnocchi on top in an even layer. Spoon
the rest of the pesto over the gnocchi, and gently toss with the spoon so that the 
gnocchi are entirely coated with the pesto. Sprinkle all over, very lightly and
evenly, with more Parmesan cheese, and serve.
I didn’t get the hang of gnocchi making until sometime in my early teens.
For years, I watched my mother make them, and it always looked so easy
in her hands. When I tried it, I’d get these shapeless blobs. “Push down
harder, cic,” she’d say (that’s pronounced “cheech,” short for cicetti, an
affectionate term—something like little sweetheart), and then . . . “No, not
too hard!” And always, “You have to go a little faster.”
Gnocchi do require some practice and dexterity, and when I got a little
proficient at making them, it was a real milestone in my cooking career.
My mom still talks about it: the day I mastered gnocchi was the day I truly
became a help to her in the kitchen. And I began to feel pride that I could
make a contribution to the household aside from setting the table and spinning
lettuce. Now the two of us can bang out a batch of these little delicacies
in a little over an hour. Good thing; I adore them.
My niece and nephew get a kick out of making gnocchi, too. They put on
aprons and sit at the kitchen counter with my mom—pretty impressive for a
five-year-old and an eight-year-old. She gives them each a piece of the dough,
and they roll it into ropes and cut it into pieces, just like they’re playing with
Play-Doh. When the gnocchi are cooked and sauced, they’re very proud of
their handiwork (and we don’t tell them otherwise).
Potato gnocchi freeze very well: shape them, stick them (on the floured
baking sheet) in the freezer until they’re frozen hard, then dump them into
freezer bags. When you’re ready to eat, cook the still-frozen gnocchi in boiling
water just as if they were fresh. Gnocchi last several months in the freezer.
Potato gnocchi are traditionally served with tomato sauce (page 80),
Bolognese sauce (page 92), or sage butter (page 98), but I like them best
with pesto, a finely chopped mixture of fresh basil, garlic, and Parmesan
cheese. Some pestos are chunky; I like mine ultimately smooth—the texture
of a sauce rather than a chopped condiment—and we add a little cream to
smooth it out even further. My students love pesto because it’s super easy:
throw all the ingredients into the food processor and press the button.
The best pesto is made from small, mild-tasting young basil leaves. It
lasts well for a couple of days in the refrigerator, but it freezes well too.
Spoon it into ice cube trays and freeze; then put the pesto “cubes” into a
freezer bag. We use pesto on so many things: Caprese salad, panini, pasta, a
dollop on top of deviled eggs, or on bruschetta. And it’s great on sandwiches.

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