- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Lately, I’ve been trying to re-create old family recipes. Both my grandmother and mother were excellent home cooks. Fortunately, they wrote down

many favorite family recipes for their children and grandchildren.

I’ve been testing the recipes because memories fade, ingredients don’t stay the same, and tastes change. The reward is that I’ve been able to remember many details of growing up in a close-knit Italian-American family through the food we shared.

One meal I remember fondly was a dish Mom called “steak alla pizzaiola.” Her recipe calls for a thick piece of center-cut beef chuck steak, canned tomatoes, cut-up onions, carrots, celery and a pinch of dried oregano.

As a child, I was especially fond of this dish. The beef, still on its bone, was tender and juicy. Mom served steak alla pizzaiola with homemade french fries. She fried them in a shallow pool of oil in a black iron skillet. They were dark golden brown on the outside and soft and moist within. When I was old enough to use a large knife, she taught me to cut the potatoes in evenly sized pieces so they would cook evenly. To this day, I am careful to cut ingredients in uniform sizes.

“Alla pizzaiola,” according to “The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink” by John Mariani (Broadway Books), refers to a dish made with tomatoes or tomato sauce, herbs and garlic, and sometimes meat or fish or with a vegetable such as eggplant. The reason it is called pizzaiola is that the tomato resembles the topping used to make pizza. The word pizzaiolo alone simply means the pizza maker.

Because the beef available today doesn’t taste anything like the steak I ate as a child, I telephoned my mother, who is still cooking at the ripe age of 91, to ask her about substituting round-bone lamb steaks for the beef. She liked the idea, so I tried it. The results were a resounding success.

The broth was rich from the lamb juices, and the lamb was succulent and tender. I served it with potatoes, boiled and rough-mashed rather than fried (perhaps another sign that tastes have changed dramatically).

For the following menu, I suggest serving lamb steak alla pizzaiola on a bed of orzo, a small oval pasta, to soak up the delicious lamb-juice-laced tomatoes.

For dessert, take advantage of the oven’s having been on for an hour and bake pears in red wine. This is a carefree recipe because the pears don’t have to be ripe and the skins don’t have to be peeled. Just mix all the ingredients in a baking dish, and bake the pears in the oven along with the lamb.

The beauty of preparing these two dishes is that the preparation time is relatively short, and once they’re in the oven, you can practically walk away from the kitchen while the two dishes bake.

Preparation: Prepare both recipes and roast in the oven at the same time. About 15 minutes before the steak is ready, cook the orzo.

Lamb steak alla pizzaiola

The preparation time is 15 minutes, and the cooking time is 1 hour.

8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 carrots, cut into 1/4;-inch-thick diagonal slices

1 large sweet onion, cut into ¼-inch-thick wedges

1 rib celery, cut into 1/4;-inch-thick diagonal slices

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 to 1-1/2; pounds round-bone lamb steaks, each about 3/4-inch thick (2 or 3 steaks)

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes in juice

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Orzo (recipe follows)

In a roasting pan or baking dish large enough to hold the lamb in a single layer, toss green beans, carrots, onion, celery and garlic with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Season lamb with salt and pepper, and tuck it among vegetables. Pour tomatoes and juice over lamb and vegetables, and sprinkle with oregano. Break tomatoes with your hand or snip into small pieces with kitchen shears. Cover with foil; bake in preheated 400-degree oven 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake 15 minutes more, or until lamb is tender.

Meanwhile, cook orzo according to recipe that follows. To serve, spread a layer of orzo on individual plates. Cut lamb into chunks, using kitchen shears.

Spoon pieces of lamb and plenty of sauce on top of the orzo. Makes 4 servings.

ORZO:

The preparation time is less than 5 minutes, and the cooking time is 15 minutes.

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup orzo, or other small pasta

Heat 2 cups of water and the salt to a boil. Add orzo and cook, stirring constantly until the water returns to a boil. Partially cover, and cook over low heat until the water is absorbed and the orzo is tender, about 15 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Pears roasted in spiced red wine

The pears taste great, and they fill the air with the most luscious aroma while baking.

2 cups dry red wine

½ cup sugar

4 whole allspice berries

1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

4 large Bosc pears, washed and dried

Combine wine, sugar, allspice, cinnamon and bay leaf in a baking dish just large enough to hold the pears side by side. (A 10-inch pie dish works well.) Stir to blend.

Cut a thin slice from the bottom of each of the pears so they stand upright. Place them in the wine mixture, and spoon some of the wine mixture over.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven until the wine has begun to bubble and thicken slightly, about 1 hour, basting the pears with the hot wine at least twice while they are baking. The pears are done when skins are crinkled or are tender when pieced with a toothpick or thin skewer. Serve at room temperature in shallow soup bowls with the wine syrup spooned over each. Makes 4 servings.

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