Recently I was in Chicago and ate Italian. It wasn't a deliberate decision but, scanning the restaurant reviews, the astonishing wealth of ethnic cooking in Chicago was impossible to resist. This menu is a potpourri of the best of the dishes we ate -- fresh, imaginative, somewhat nouvelle but far more satisfying than much of the new style.
It's still tomato season and first comes a variation on the old favorite of sliced tomato, cheese and fresh basil, moistened with olive oil. Instead of the usual mozzarella, here gorgonzola is creamed with fresh mascarpone and spread on the tomatoes.
Everything depends on the quality of the ingredients: the gorgonzola must be creamy and mild, the olive oil green and aromatic from the first pressing; the basil fresh and, of course, the tomatoes ultra-ripe. I'm an advocate of plum tomatoes, but beefsteak are good too, and if you have vine-ripe fruit in the back yard or can find it at your local farmer's market, this is the recipe to make best use of it. Fresh basil is relatively commonplace, but fresh thyme or oregano could be substituted, together with mozzarella for the cheese mixture.
For the pasta course, buy (or better still, make) fresh fettuccine if you can. The sauce calls for smoked salmon that is diced and added to a savory saute' of wild or cultivated mushrooms. Expensive though they are, a few fresh or dried wild mushrooms go a long way and any variety will do. Otherwise use ordinary button mushrooms. They, and the salmon, are simmered a moment in stock, then tossed with the noodles just before serving.
Chicago is meat city, but the excellence of the veal chops we had there still came as a surprise. They were wonderful -- juicy and pink with a slight lemon and garlic tang from the marinade. Completely plain, they had been sprinkled with salt and pepper and cooked on one of those grills that create a lattice pattern on the meat. Garnish was a wedge of lemon and a green salad on the side. Take your choice of lettuce or escarole and dress it, in Italian fashion, with olive oil and lemon juice.
To tell when meat is broiled or pan-fried to just the right point, there are two simple tests. When little "pearls" of juice appear on the surface of the meat, the heat has reached the center and it is medium done. Alternatively, press the meat with your finger: rare meat is soft, medium done meat is resistant around the edge and well done meat will be firm to the touch.
Dessert is an iced coffee "gelato," a variation on the theme of zabaglione but flavored with coffee and enriched with cream. Eggs and sugar are beaten over the heat with a few spoonfuls of strong coffee to a fluffy mousse, then whisked until cool and combined with whipped cream. The mixture is so rich an ice cream machine is not needed to keep it smooth. It is frozen directly in stemmed glasses and served with a sprinkling of freshly ground coffee.
Like so much Italian food, this is a menu which calls for last-minute preparation. The tomato salad can be finished at the table, the fettuccine is best cooked to order, as it were, as are the veal chops. Only the dessert can be completely prepared ahead and, if you care to make this an impromptu meal, even this can be done just before serving. Omit the whipped cream and serve the coffee mousse of eggs and sugar like zabaglione, while still warm. It's delicious! TIMETABLE
Up to one week ahead: Make coffee mousse and freeze.
Up to two days ahead: Make salmon and mushroom mixture and refrigerate.
Up to three hours ahead: Prepare tomatoes and cheese and keep at room temperature. Marinate chops in refrigerator. Wash lettuce and store in refrigerator; make dressing. Set the table. Chill white wine.
20 minutes before serving: Heat water for fettuccine.
Just before serving: Transfer coffee mousse to refrigerator to soften. Sprinkle tomatoes with basil and pepper and serve.
After serving tomato and cheese salad: Cook fettuccine, drain and mix with sauce. Heat grill for chops.
After serving fettuccine: Grill chops and toss green salad. TOMATO, GORGONZOLA AND MASCARPONE SALAD WITH BASIL (Insalata di Pomodori, Gorgonzola e Mascarpone al Basilico) (8 servings) Fresh ricotta or cream cheese can be substituted for mascarpone. 2 pounds very ripe tomatoes 6 ounces gorgonzola cheese 5 ounces mascarpone cheese 1-2 tablespoons light cream (optional) 5-6 tablespoons olive oil Small bunch fresh basil Black pepper
Cut tomatoes in 1/2-inch slices, discarding core (you should have at least 24 slices).
Cream gorgonzola and mascarpone, if necessary thinning the mixture with a little cream. Spread cheese on tomato slices and arrange slices flat on 8 individual plates. Sprinkle with olive oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature at least 1 and up to 3 hours.
Just before serving, very coarsely chop the basil. Grind pepper on top of tomatoes and cheese, sprinkle with basil and serve. FETTUCCINE WITH SMOKED SALMON AND MUSHROOMS (Fettuccine al Salmone fumato e Funghi) (8 servings) A delicious example of the nouvelle Italienne style of cooking. 3/4 pound wild or cultivated fresh mushrooms or 1 1/2 ounces dried wild mushrooms, soaked and drained 3 tablespoons butter 1 onion, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic 1/2 cup veal stock, more if needed 4 ounces smoked salmon, coarsely chopped Salt and pepper 1 1/2 pounds fettuccine
Dice or very coarsely chop the mushrooms. In a frying pan melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and saute' onion and garlic until soft. Add mushrooms and cook until tender, 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in stock, bring just to a boil, add salmon, and taste for seasoning. Note: the mixture should be moist and almost soupy; if necessary, add more stock. The salmon and mushroom mixture can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator.
To finish: bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Add fettuccine and simmer until almost tender but still al dente. Fresh pasta takes only 2-3 minutes; dried pasta can take 7-10 minutes. Drain fettuccine and rinse with hot water to wash away the starch.
Meanwhile reheat salmon and mushroom mixture. In fettuccine sauce pan melt remaining butter, add fettuccine and toss until coated. Add salmon and mushroom mixture, and toss again until mixed.
Pile on individual plates and serve. GRILLED VEAL CHOPS WITH LEMON MARINADE (Costolette alla Griglia) (8 servings)
Lamb or pork chops are equally good cooked this way; broil pork chops at least 7 minutes on each side to be sure they are thoroughly cooked. 8 veal chops, cut 3/4-inch thick 1/2 cup olive oil Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons plus 1 lemon for garnish, cut in wedges 2 cloves garlic, crushed 2 sprigs fresh rosemary Salt and pepper
Set chops in a shallow tray (not aluminum). In a small bowl whisk together oil, lemon rind and juice and garlic. Pour over chops and sprinkle with rosemary, stripping leaves from stem. Turn over chops so they are thoroughly coated in marinade, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 and up to 6 hours.
To finish: heat a grilled frying pan or barbecue. Sprinkle chops with salt and pepper and set them, seasoned side down, on grill. Cook 2-3 minutes, turn 90 degrees to mark with a lattice pattern, and continue cooking 1-2 minutes, pressing with a metal spatula so pattern is clearly marked. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, turn and repeat on other side. Transfer to individual plates, and add a wedge of lemon and serve, accompanied by a green salad. ICED COFFEE MOUSSE (Spuma Gelata di Caffe') (8 servings)
For authentic Italian taste, brew the strongest possible espresso coffee to flavor this mousse. Otherwise you can use powdered coffee dissolved in a little hot water. 4 eggs 4 egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup very strong espresso coffee, or 2 tablespoons powdered coffee dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water 1 cup heavy cream, whipped until it holds a soft peak 2 teaspoons freshly ground coffee, or finely powdered coffee (for sprinkling)
In a large metal bowl, preferably of copper, combine eggs, egg yolks, sugar and coffee. Using a large whisk, beat until mixed. Set bowl over a pan of simmering but not boiling water and whisk until the mixture is light and thick enough to hold a ribbon trail when the whisk is lifted, 5-7 minutes.
Note: Do not cook the mousse too fast, or overcook it, or it will separate.
Take bowl from heat and continue whisking until tepid. Set bowl over ice and whisk until mixture is very cold.
Fold in lightly whipped cream and spoon mixture into 8 stemmed glasses. Cover and freeze until firm, at least 6 hours.
Mousse can be stored in the freezer up to a week.
If mousse has been stored more than 24 hours, let it soften in the refrigerator 1-2 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with ground coffee.