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In Autumn, A Touch Of Italy

The Saturday Early Show's Our Chef on a Shoestring, Scott Conant, prepares a simple Italian meal with fall flavors.

Conant opened the restaurant L'Impero in 2002 to great reviews. He earned a glowing 3-star review in the New York Times, and he went on to win several awards:

  • In May 2003, L'Impero received top honors at the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, earning "Best New Restaurant 2003" and "Best Restaurant Design 2003."
  • In the March 2004 issue of Gourmet, Ruth Reichl proclaimed L'Impero one of her favorite New York restaurants.
  • In May 2004, he was named as one of America's Best New Chefs by Food and Wine magazine.
  • In 2005, he was nominated as "Best Chef: New York City" from the James Beard Foundation.

    In April 2005, he opened his second restaurant in New York City. Alto features the food of the Alto region of Italy. He proves that Italian food is more than just about pasta because the menu at Alto is remarkably different from L'Impero.

    The menu for Saturday:

    Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Crispy Shallots and Goat Cheese
    Fettuccine with Escarole and Wild Mushrooms
    Individual Apple Crostatas

    FOOD FACTS

    Shallot: Shallots are part of the onion family but have a much milder flavor than regular white or yellow onions. The shallots Scott makes for the soup wind up being quite sweet because they cook so long.

    Escarole: This green is actually a type of endive, but is less bitter than endive. Escarole has broad, slightly curved, pale green leaves. It's available year-around, but peak season is July to October. Store in the refrigerator for three days tightly wrapped.

    Crostata: This rustic Italian dessert is pastry and fruit or jam. After topping the pastry circle with the fruit you simply fold the edges over the fruit, resulting in an imperfect-looking dessert. Scott's crostata calls for cornmeal, Marsala wine and Pecorino Romano cheese in the crust. He also sprinkles the cheese over the apples before baking.

    RECIPES

    All recipes from "Scott Conant's New Italian Cooking" by Scott Conant with Joanne McAllister Smart (Broadway, October 2005, $35).

    CURRIED BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH CRISPY SHALLOTS WITH GOAT CHEESE
    (Please note that we cut this recipe in half for the purposes of Chef on a Shoestring)

    Makes 6 to 8 servings

    For the soup
    1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
    2 medium onions, chopped
    1 ½ teaspoons curry powder
    2 medium (21/4 pounds) butternut squash
    2 quarts homemade Chicken Broth (page 14) or purchased low-salt chicken broth
    Kosher salt

    Method
    Peel and seed the squash, then dice it into 1-inch pieces (about 6 cups). Heat half of the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and cook, stirring, until the onions are tender, 10 minutes. Add the squash and chicken broth. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, and cook until the squash is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat. If you have an immersion blender, add the remaining ¼ cup olive oil now and puree the soup in the pot. If not, puree the soup in a blender or food processor in batches, adding some of the olive oil to each batch to create an emulsion. Season to taste with salt.

    For the crispy shallots
    2 shallots, thinly sliced
    2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as canola, corn, or grapeseed oil

    To Finish
    Fresh goat cheese, plain or herbed
    For the crispy shallots: Heat the vegetable oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned all over and crisp. This will take a while, 10 to 12 minutes, but be patient. If you rush, the shallots won't be as sweet or crispy. Drain the shallot slices on paper towels.

    To serve: Reheat the soup if necessary and divide it among bowls. Top each with about a teaspoon of the goat cheese and a sprinkling of the shallots.

    FETTUCCINE WITH ESCAROLE AND WILD MUSHROOMS
    Makes 4 servings

    Ingredients
    1/3 cup olive oil
    5 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
    1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red peppers
    8 ounces domestic or wild mushrooms (a mix is nice), wiped clean, stemmed, and sliced or broken into bite-size pieces
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
    1 medium head of escarole, any wilted outer leaves discarded, well washed and dried, and chopped into 1- or 2-inch pieces
    1 pound fettuccine
    Chopped fresh parsley (optional)
    1/4 cup freshly grated Parmiagiano-Reggiano cheese

    Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook the garlic, swirling it off the heat to prevent scorching, until it just takes on some color. Return the pan to the heat, add the mushrooms, season with ample salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms release most of their liquid, 4 to 6 minutes. Ass the chopped escarole and cook, stirring until wilted. Keep warm.

    Meanwhile, cook the pasta until just al dente. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta. Toss the pasta and about ¼ cup of the reserved water with the escarole and the mushrooms over medium-high heat. Taste and add additional salt and pepper. If the sauce looks too dry, add a bit more of the cooking liquid. Divide the pasta among four warm bowls and sprinkle each with some parsley and cheese.

    INDIVIDUAL APPLE CROSTATAS
    Makes 4 Servings

    For the Pastry:
    1 1/2 cups (7.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon cornmeal
    1/4 cup sugar
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1/4 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon baking power
    Zest of 1 lemon
    4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
    6 tablespoons heavy cream
    1 tablespoon Marsala
    2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano (optional)

    For the Filling:
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    6 medium apples (7 ounces each; Galas are nice), peeled and cut into 12 wedges each
    1/2 cup sugar
    2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano (optional)

    FOR THE PASTRY:
    In a large bowl or in the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and lemon zest. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is crumbly by either pulsing it in the processor or using a pastry blender, a couple of knives, or your fingertips. If using a food processor, be sure not to overmix, which will cause the butter to soften too much. Add the heavy cream, Marsala, and the cheese, if you're using it. Pulse briefly just until moist clumps form or stir with a fork until just combined. Shape the dough into a ball or disk, wrap it well in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour and up to a day.

    FOR THE FILLING:
    Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter in a very large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the apples, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are lightly browned, 10 minutes. Add the sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are lightly browned, 10 minutes. Add the sugar and cook, stirring, until thick and syrupy, 5 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and let them cool to room temperature.

    TO BAKE THE CROSTATA:
    Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and flour a work surface well. Shape the tarts either by rolling each one individually or rolling out all of the dough and cutting out the circles. To roll each one out, divide the dough into four equal pieces and roll the dough into circles 7 inches across and between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick (they don't have to be perfectly round). To cut out circles, use a sharp knife to make circles 7 inches across.

    Top the dough rounds with the cooked apples, leaving a 1-inch border of dough empty. If using the pecorino, sprinkle about ½ tablespoon over each crostata. Fold the edges of the rounds up and over the apples, pleating loosely. Carefully transfer the tart to the parchment-lined baking pan. Bake the crostata until the dough turns a deep golden brown, 22 to 27 minutes. Cool slightly and serve with additional grated pecorino, if you like.

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