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Family favorites: Italian cooking may take time, but it is simple, hearty

To tell if pasta is done, Maria Wilson's family throws a few strands against the wall. If it sticks, it's ready. But most people overcook their pasta, says Wilson, owner of Santa Lucia Restaurante in Fargo. She's revolted by mushy noodles. "Pasta...

To tell if pasta is done, Maria Wilson's family throws a few strands against the wall.

If it sticks, it's ready.

But most people overcook their pasta, says Wilson, owner of Santa Lucia Restaurante in Fargo.

She's revolted by mushy noodles.

"Pasta is supposed to be al dente," she says. "Seven minutes is the maximum boiling time."


It's then strained under cold water to stop the cooking, and coated with scorching olive oil.

Wilson's grandmother would drop bread crumbs into the pot to test the olive oil. If they sizzled, the oil was hot enough.

Al dente pasta is just one feature of authentic Italian cooking.

The first step to good Italian food is using the right ingredients, Wilson says.

Extra virgin olive oil, authentic cheeses and fresh garlic, oregano and basil accentuate every dish.

Susan Hinsperger, culinary manager for the Fargo Olive Garden, learned about authentic Italian food while at the Culinary Institute in Tuscany two years ago.

She saw chefs going to the market to buy fresh herbs and vegetables.

"Their produce was incredible," Hinsperger says. "I have never seen anything like it."


She learned the importance of layering ingredients -- adding one at a time to a soup or sauce -- to build the flavors of the dish.

All that stirring and simmering may take time, but she says Italian is very simple cooking.

Wilson says that Italian food can be healthy, with lots of fresh vegetables.

It can also be economical.

For example, cacciatore, Italian for "hunter," is a mishmash of whatever is in the fridge, Wilson says.

While the sauce typically features mushrooms and peppers, cooks can use celery, artichoke hearts, carrots, broccoli, squash or eggplant as well.

And large recipes, like trays of lasagna and pots of sauce, accommodate busy families.

"Italian food is the kind of food you can make at the beginning of the week and eat for the next three, four days," Wilson says.


Cacciatore sauce

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced

2 large garlic cloves, roasted in the oven and finely chopped

1 red pepper, chopped

1 large green pepper, chopped

5 fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 large tomato, chopped


¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

3 tablespoons sugar (optional)

½ tablespoon pepper

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon oregano

28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed

6-ounce can tomato paste


Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until onions are caramelized.

Stir in peppers, mushrooms, chopped tomato, parsley and basil. Add sugar, pepper, salt, oregano and crushed tomatoes. Fill can half-full with water and add to mixture. Boil for 10 minutes.

Turn heat to low, then add tomato paste. Let simmer over low heat for 1 hour, until thick. Add more salt if needed.

Serve over any kind of pasta, with or without roasted chicken. Serves 6.

Recipe from Maria Wilson, Santa Lucia

Chicken Castellina

1½ pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1- to 1½-inch pieces

6 ounces flour


¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

1½ ounces olive oil

2 ounces white wine

1½ pounds cooked pasta

Castellina sauce (recipe below)

Fresh parsley, chopped

Mix flour with salt and pepper. Coat chicken in seasoned flour, shake off excess flour.

Heat olive oil in large sauté pan. Add chicken in a single layer and cook until golden brown on both sides, approximately 7 minutes. Using a meat thermometer, make sure the internal temperature of the thickest piece of chicken reaches 165 degrees.

Begin pasta in a separate pot according to package directions.

Add wine to chicken in pan. There will be a low flame in pan. Toss gently until wine is evaporated. Once reduced, bring to a boil on medium-high heat.

Place 6 ounces of cooked pasta on each plate. Evenly distribute chicken and Castellina sauce over pasta. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serves 4.

Castellina sauce

2 ounces bacon, diced

3 ounces butter, cubed

1 teaspoon garlic, chopped

2 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, diced

12 ounces heavy cream

12 ounces milk

1 ounce corn starch

2 ounces grated Parmesan

3 ounces smoked Gouda, chopped

3 ounces mushrooms, sliced

8½-ounce can sliced artichokes, drained

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

In a 3-quart saucepan or large pot, sauté bacon over medium-high heat until crisp and golden, not dark.

Lower heat, add butter and melt. Add garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. Sauté for approximately 1 minute stirring frequently. Do not brown.

Whisk in cream, milk and cornstarch. Raise heat to medium-high. Whisk in Parmesan and Gouda. Once cheese melts, add mushrooms, artichokes, rosemary, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and let stand uncovered.

Recipe from Olive Garden

Berries and Zabaione

8 extra large egg yolks

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup Amaretto or Frangelico liqueur

1 cup whipping cream

4 scoops raspberry sorbet or sherbet

2 cups fresh strawberries cut in half lengthwise

1 cup fresh blueberries

Whip egg yolks in the top of a double boiler. The upper pan should not touch the hot water.

Stir in sugar and liqueur until smooth, at about 165 degrees.

Cool until mixture is below 40 degrees. Fold in whipping cream and mix well. Set completed Zabaione aside.

Place one scoop of raspberry sorbet or sherbet inside four wine glasses. Add ½ cup fresh strawberries and ¼ cup of fresh blueberries to each wine glass and top with Zabaione. Serves 4.

Recipe from Olive Garden

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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