on 21 July 1999
Pasta Improvvisata How to Improvise in Classic Italian Style By Erica DeMane
Reviewed by Liz Waters Copyright 1999 by Liz Waters All Rights Reserved
Improvisation in the kitchen has become something of a lost art in recent years, and Erica DeMane is doing her part to reverse this trend with Pasta Improvvisata. I would bet that many, many of our favorite Italian dishes were once an improvisation by inventive cooks, and I know for a fact that the more one improvises, the more one realizes what flavors should go together and which should not. It is often experience, and confidence that enables an inventive cook. With DeMane's wonderful book in which she shares her extensive experience with gentle encouragement, even the shakiest cook should grow confident enough to start creating without a set-in-stone recipe!
Here is a recipe that we have made "as is" and improvised on a few times in our kitchen. The blend of basil, zucchini, pasta and scallops is a delicious one that can be played with in your kitchen too. But, do yourself a favor and try it "by the book" first.
Basil Lasagne with Scallops and Zucchini
This is a light lasagne that contains no bechamel or cheese. It's wonderful in the summer, when both young zucchini and fragrant basil are in abundance. A good winter version can be made by substituting the same amounts of Belgian endive for the zucchini and parsley for the basil.
(Makes 4 main-course or 6 first-course servings)
1 ½ pounds sea scallops, side muscles removed Salt Freshly ground black pepper Olive oil 2 large white onions, thinly sliced 8 or 9 medium zucchini, sliced in thin rounds 3 or 4 anchovy fillets, chopped 2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled
For the Basil Sauce: A large bunch of basil leaves (about 2 packed cups) Salt Freshly ground black pepper Olive oil 1 ½ cups heavy cream 2 large eggs
1 recipe Three-Egg Herb Pasta flavored with basil (page 368) cut for lasgne About 1 cup bread crumbs, toasted (see page 340).
If some of the scallops are very thick, cut them in half horizontally; otherwise, leave them whole. Season the scallops with salt and pepper and toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Heat a large skillet until it is almost smoking and sear the scallops on both sides (this shold take no more than a minute or so). They should be lightly browned on both sides but slightly underdone in the center. Remove them from the pan and set aside.
In the same skillet add a few more tablespoons of olive oil and saute the onions over medium heat until they just start to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the zucchini, a bit of the salt and pepper, and saute until lightly browned and tender, about 8 minutes. Add the anchovies and cook 1 minute to blend.
To make the sauce, place the basil leaves and garlic in a food processor. Season with salt and pepper and add a healthy shot of olive oil. Grind to a rough paste. Add the cream and eggs and process a few seconds, just to blend the ingredients.
Cook the lasagne sheets in batches until tender Run under cold water, drain, and lay them out on kitchen towels or paper towels.
Ladle a thin coating of the basil sauce over the bottom of a large baking pan (about 12x10x2 inches). Add a layer of pasta. Top with a layer of zucchini and dot with a layer of scallops. Add a thin coating of basil cream. Add another layer of pasta, another coating of basil sauce, then zucchini, scallops and so on. End with a layer of pasta coated with a layer of basil sauce. Top with a; thin but even coating of toasted bread crumbs.
Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake the lasagne for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until the sauce is bubbling and the top is lightly browned, about 15 minutes more. Let rest a few minutes before cutting.
Other vegetables combine well with scallops. I've made a scallop and escarole lasagne that was wonderful. Try sautéing sliced leeks until very soft and using a layer of them instead of zucchini; omit the onion. Spinach, too, goes well with scallops.
I've made a great lasagne by alternating layers of traditional basil pesto (page 102 in book), a lightly cooked tomato sauce, and seared scallops.
Another interesting lasagne can be made from scallops grilled with lemon and oregano and layered with sautéed green chard.
This lasagne is also excellent if you leave out the scallops for an all-vegetable version.
Watch for our Cooking Club Chat featuring Meg Hildreth interviewing Erica DeMane next month: Details about the date and time will be announced soon.
on 11 June 1999
Here's what the New York Times said on June 6, 1999, in a round-up of the year's best cookbooks, by Corby Kummer: "Unlike most books on America's favorite home-cooked supper, 'Pasta Improvvisata' is a book you will use. Erica De Mane, a first-time author, has adapted pasta recipes from all over Italy to her fine Italian-American palate and her well-stocked but not recherche Italian-American pantry. De Mane is a bit talky and not yet a prose stylist, but she is an experienced, generous home cook who understands how both Italians and Americans like to eat, and she deftly manages to bridge the two cultures. I like her abundant good sense and outspoken opinions, probably because I agree with many of them. 'Dried pasta made by American companies is so inferior to the firm, nutty versions imported from southern Italy that it is not even worth considering' (although I would add that my own favorite, Martelli, is made in Tuscany). 'There is nothing wrong with eating a lightly sauced dried pasta dish as a main course, but a big dish of tortellini bolognese is too rich and filling to be eaten in any but small servings.' She borrows French techniques when they suit her and makes freer use of butter, goat cheese, cognac, French garlic sausage and even garlic itself than Italian cooks would. But that's her point. 'When transporting a recipe across country lines, you want to preserve the spirit, adapting it when necessary to the ingredients you have to work with.' This straightforward theory is surprisingly hard to practice. With apparently endless invention and love of actual cooking, De Mane succeeds."