Apr 26, 2009

The gypsy caravan is leaving town

On the road again... This is what my job entails. Packing another suitcase, spending lonely nights in one more anonymous hotel room, and eating hotel food. Good luck.

I'm off on a week of filming on location around the Lazio region. I shall be visiting Norma, Ceccano, Sermoneta, Ninfa and Casamari, among others. Click on the names of the locations to view some random images uploaded from the web.They seem beautiful, and being the setting for the Medieval story the film tells, they should be laden with character and history. There'll be beauty abundant.

The suitcase contains my grandmother's cookbook and my notes. My camera and my laptop. I've got the script marked with the scenes to be shot, those still owing and the few omitted. I've got my stopwatch and my stapler. My pens and markers. I've packed my rain gear and one pair of heels for the evenings. I've got it all but one. I'll be leaving my baby behind. He stays with his loving nonna and his dutiful nanny, this time. I'd love to bring him along, but for just a few days it's not worth it. He's recouping from a high weekend fever and very comfy in his cozy home.

I'll be back in time for my birthday, May 2nd.

In the meantime, I shall be posting:
a) quick updates from the set;
b) simple recipes, comfort food Linus blankets, and any interesting fares I'll be encountering during my travels;
c) photos and images captured on the road, etc.

I may not have time to visit each and every one of you, or be able to comment on your posts, but I will be traveling solo with you and your hearts with me the entire time.

Ciao amici, buona domenica!

Apr 24, 2009

Leek Frittata

Making frittata unscrambles the mojo.

Even if you enjoy cooking like myself, at the end of a hard working day the last thing you want is finding the energy for it. Although calling in for delivered pizza seems like the easiest option, I remind myself how a few minutes of stoveside multitasking can help me unwind. Whisking eggs and whatever's left over in the fridge into an omelet was my Nonna Titta's lazy supper solution. Paired with a crisp salad, warm bread and a glass of robust red wine, simple frittata turns a modest dinner into a feast.
Image © yumsugar.com

Frittata di Porri - Leek Frittata

Denser than the whisked, French omelette; Italian frittata is always cooked whole, served sliced like a pizza, and not folded over. Leek frittata is my favorite quick fix oner. Delicate yet assertive, it can be great as a stand-alone TV dinner or sandwich filler for picnics and kids’ lunchbox. I make one mean frittata, here's how:

4 eggs, beaten
2 large leeks
1 tbsp milk
1/2 bouillon cube
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

Soak the leeks in plenty cold water and baking soda to remove any traces of pesticides, chemicals and dirt. Rinse well and towel dry. Thinly slice (a mandoline helps) and toss into a skillet with the oil and 1/2 stock cube over low heat. Cover and simmer, adding a shotglass of water should they dry too much during cooking. Leeks should maintain a handsome blonde hue, browning causes horrid bitter taste.
In a large mixing bowl, combine beaten eggs, milk and a dash of salt. Pour mixture in leek skillet and reduce heat. Frittata needs to cook covered and over very low heat. Check doneness by lifting the edge with a fork. If this phase is accomplished well, there will be no need to perform any stunt flipping acts. Otherwise carefully use a lid and firm hand to tip over and slide uncooked side back into the skillet.

This dish begs to be consumed steaming hot, preferably in religious solitude during an important soccer event, accompanied by a tall frozen cold beer and the freedom to belch aloud.

Apr 23, 2009

SkyWatch Friday, my first

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Spring 2005

I couldn't have entered my first SkyWatch Friday post on other than an African welkin. The sky in Africa is alive, it is overwhelming. It is beyond words.
This was the road I traveled to and from work, every day for 8 weeks, during a film shoot in South Africa. Every day, as we drove off into the sunset, we were rewarded with the ever-changing spectacle performed by sun, clouds, atmosphere and heat. This is what we'd be blessed with, as we crossed the tracks and left the Zulu Nyala Reserve behind and ventured back to our dwellings. This photo was taken on a Friday. I remember that day well.

To enjoy more SkyWatch Friday images from all over the world, click HERE.

buona notte

Apr 22, 2009

I should be asleep...

I feel guilty for not posting a recipe for this week's WCW, but I'm too tired. Plus, one of my favorite blogger fiends, Rosaria (lakeviewer) from sixtyfivewhatnow has tagged me for this "Meme of the Moment."

I had to play.

1. What is your current obsession?
Blogging. And now that I'm busy 12 hours a day with work, I'm in withdrawal.

2. Which item of clothing do you wear often?
Lately it's all about rain gear, wellies and baseball hats (I'm shooting in the outdoors, and the weather's been crappy all week). I love to dress up when I go out occasionally (have been quite house-bound recently), and that's when old vintage dresses, boots, czarina overcoats and crazy striped Wizard of Oz-type stockings come into play.

3. What's for dinner?
I got home early today and was lucky enough to spend some time with E., AND make dinner. The menu featured pasta with sauteed broccoli raab (recipe hailing from Puglia, shall post it soon) and a slice of chocolate cake my mom dropped off this afternoon while the house was empty. She's like a little mouse that instead of stealing food, leaves goodies behind.

4. What are you listening to?
The sound of my son's snoring. In my first post, I write about this favorite background music.

5. Say something to the one that tagged you.
Rosaria, I'm happy you tagged me for this game. You were my first blogland contact, later my friend; and since then you have introduced me to many wonderful others. I applaud your dedication to teaching on all levels, your caring nature, and the romantic side of your storybook life. There are a few years between us, but the gap is non-existent. Thank you so much for all you give us with your blog.

6. Favorite vacation spots? (I've made this plural, couldn't decide one over the other)
Venice for its intrigue, art, architecture, sensuality and food.
Positano for its sea, landscape, seafood and related memories.

7. What I'm reading right now?
"The Sound of Waves," by Yukio Mishima

8. Four words to describe myself.
Dreamer, stubborn, compassionate, epicurean.

9. Guilty pleasure.
I have fantasies of spending a week in a spa in Bali. Alone.

10. First Spring thing?
Picking (and then feasting on) local wild strawberries in the misty countryside that borders Lake Nemi, near Rome.

11. What do you look forward to?
I have written a cookbook, actually more of a tour guide of Italian food and lifestyle. My wish is to see in print. Some day...

Now it's my turn to tag 8 others to do the same, respond to the questions, rework those you need to rework, replace, add, and tag 8 worthy others.

Mandy @ Fire Byrd

Fhina @ Woman of No Importance

Delwyn @ Hazy Moon

LoriE @ Family Trees May Contain Nuts

Giorgio @ Man of Roma

Erin @ Woman in a Window

Sallymandy @ The Blue Kimono

Patrizia @ Prattle...From the Flatlands

Thanks again, Rosaria, for this play op.

Apr 21, 2009

The way the cookie crumbles

This made me laugh. Considering my epitaph will read 'She Died by Cheese,' and my obsession with Oreo cookies, this twist on Whistler's Mother looked like a viable alternative.

Image by Daniela Edburg

See the complete Drop Dead Gorgeous image gallery, and read an interview with the author here.


Apr 20, 2009

Mellow Yellow Monday #15

Simon's Town cafe
with MetroRail train whizzing by in the background and sunflower

May 2005
(when I was still a smoker)

visit Mellow Yellow Monday
for more photos in giallo [jah low]


Apr 19, 2009

Scribbles and Drizzles

Ciao my blogland friends. This week flew by in a flash!
After my escape to blissdom for the Easter holiday, the religious rituals and the Pasquetta picnic, the return to Rome and its daily routine gave me a chance to evaluate and understand how terribly fond of (and addicted to) blogging I am.

I am virtually lost without my 'publish' button.

Cooking is my passion. Now, through the multi-dimensional blogworld, I'm able to share my recipes, my stories and my thoughts regarding these and more, freely and in an ever expanding, stimulating dialogue with my bloggy friends.

My day is regulated by the blogroll. My hours carefully budgeted to an international clock. The rhythm of posts and comments is dictated by hemispheres and time zones. These range from early ones in the day from Australia and Asia, followed by the Europeans, the ones hailing from the beloved African continent, the Americas and Canada, starting with the Eastern coast first, followed by the Midwest and finally closed with the West coast of California and Oregon. I will not specify names, because you know who you are. And since there are many of you, I didn't want to post a long list of links. I will eventually, because I love dishing in the kitchen, but also opening doors for new visitors to come in, get acquainted, sit and lend a hand in the chopping and stirring, and adding their opinion to the conversation. My list of regulars grows, this means the formula works.

Tomorrow I start a new job. I will be employed on a film for 8 weeks, shooting in the city, on a sound stage in Cinecittà, and on location around the Lazio region.

Needless to say - considering my working hours on set, plus travel to and from there - this means I will blog much less. I will not have half the necessary amount of time for posting, blog-hopping and commenting. Since I have become somewhat of an addict, it will be like going to weblog rehab.
It'll take time. Effort. Commitment. Drugs even. But that's how it is. My day will most always start at 6am, driving in the dawn lights to the designated set location. Getting inevitably lost and cursing at my GPS navigator, and sadly arriving to a lukewarn plastic cup of bad espresso. I will work for 5 solid hours with no break before lunch. With no phone calls to my baby boy because we record live sound. No time to amble carelessly at the farmer's market. And no time to blog-surf.
Lunch break on an Italian film set is paradoxically an insult. We eat packed lunches from a catering cardboard box, containing stale Bel Paese (sad) cheese and leathery prosciutto (oxymoron), overcooked pasta and a dry chicken drumstick. I'm seriously thinking of starting a catering service for the Rome-based film industry. It would be a guaranteed hit.
One more shot of bad coffee and back to work we go for another 4/5 hours. I drive wide-eyed back home in the dark and cuddle a sleeping toddler when I get there. Before diving head-first in the down pillows of my king-size bed, perhaps I will quietly run to my laptop for a quickie. Just a little minute in blogland, before I surrender to Morpheus' capacious embrace.

Proofreading back, it sounds like I work in the mines of pre WWII Belgium, I don't actually. I work in a very relaxed, easy going environment; surrounded by friends and often attractive men. I carry out a stimulating chore and I'm professionally challenged and excited by what I do: something fun and different every day. If I'm lucky and the project it worth it, I remind myself that I'm contributing to making a piece of art. Plus I get to hang out with celebrities. And to some, that's really something. I've sort of become immune to them, I am no longer star-struck. I have worked with the great and the near-great. Each star or wannabe has left a mark, a wink and smile. My greatest heart palpitations occurred at the beginning, when I was graced with the laid-back company of people like Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Jessica Lange, Vittorio Gassmann, Daniel Day Lewis, Spike Lee, Stefania Sandrelli, Bob Hoskins, Giancarlo Giannini, Leonardo DiCaprio, Willem Dafoe, Cameron Diaz...
Nowadays, all I really long for is to spend time with my son, the true superstar VIP of my life. My greatest masterpiece. My blockbuster epic hero: little E.

I'm leaving you this past week's recap before I sign off, wishing you all a very pleasant goodnight/good day and many happy ones to follow, before our next tableside chat.

Monday I posted this photo for Mellow Yellow Monday. Many of you were concerned about me driving fast and without an airbag device while taking a picture. We Italians do that kind of risky things. And yes, I was wearing a seatbelt.

Tuesday I blogged about Italian men and their innate charm; and a curious episode I witnessed during my late pregnancy. Most of the comments on that post were compliments and signs of female solidarity. W le donne!

Wednesday I posted about the enchanted island of Sicily and a local recipe for What's Cooking Wednesday called Pasta alla Norma. The replies there were enthusiastic, which made me very happy. I love Pasta all Norma, so I was glad to share it with you.

Thursday I became a show off peacock, proudly displaying 2 (not 1) awards and passing them on to worthy blogger friends. I also then posted a recipe for Stewed Octopus, to which I received mixed reactions. I knew I was in for that, I know tentacles tend to freak people out.

Friday's multi-menu featured sauteed spinach with raisins, a side dish I love to make and eat, especially if impromptu guests show up and I have not gone to the market; and the recipe for Pappa al Pomodoro, which is a Tuscan tomato soup I entered in the April edition of Dinner and a Movie.

Saturday is when I really like to pamper you. That's why I posted the recipe to Monte Bianco, one of my favorite desserts, made with pureed chestnuts over a meringue and whipped cream filling. A monumental blow to the battle against cellulite.

So this is the menu for this week, I hope you all enjoyed. I promise to check in as often as I possibly can, throwing in a few recipes here and there. Let's not call this a good-bye, rather a disguised weight loss program called arrivederci.
We'll binge again soon, I promise. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my archives. There's some old recipes I posted in January and February worth making before all the winter season produce leaves the scene.

Ciao for now,

Apr 18, 2009

Monte Bianco

One fantastic summer of several years ago, I shot most of the action scenes of a film at 11,000 ft elevation at Helbronner Point on the Mont Blanc massiff, short of breath and estatic. To see the indescribable beauty of the silent montagna, you can take a virtual tour here.

The giant snow capped glacier colossus is reproduced in this amazing and likewise substantial dessert, also known by its francophone name 'Mont Blanc.'
  • 600 gr (3 cups) chestnuts, whole
  • 50 gr (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 50 gr (1/4 cup) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 packet of vanillin, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 10 small meringues, crumbled
  • 250 ml (1 cup) fresh cream
  • Milk
With a sharp paring knife (or the appropriate implement) “castrate” the chestnuts by scoring a lengthwise incision on the skin of each, and boil in water for 10 minutes. Strain and peel once cool. Be sure to remove the thin inner husk as well.

Put the chestnuts in a saucepan and cover them with milk, add vanillin/vanilla extract and sugar, and cook over moderate heat for about 45 minutes.
Strain (saving the cooking milk) and mash with a food mill into a large mixing bowl, adding some cooking milk in order to obtain a soft yet thick purée. Let the blend cool while you work the butter and the egg yolk into a paste with the tines of a fork. Once they are cooler, add the eggy paste to the mashed chestnuts and relax for a moment while you put the stovetop moka on the fire for a nice cup of espresso.

Place the crumbled meringues on a round serving platter and pile on the chestnut mix, forming a mountain. Some like to use a potato ricer to make long spaghetti with the chestnut paste mix to build their mountain. I’m more a trowel-kind of girl, I spread my nutty plaster like stucco with a spatula.

Whip the cream and confectioners’ sugar with a hand mixer and evenly distribute on the pinnacle, designing snow patches, glaciers and crevasses to your own geologic whimsy, and refrigerate.
When ready to serve chilled, adorn the summit with a cocktail toothpick flag. Afterall you did conquer one of the hardest Italian desserts to make!

Image courtesy of Akiko Ida & Pierre Javelle
for the project Minimiam

click on the link for awesome food and fun images by these two genius artists

Apr 17, 2009

Pappa al Pomodoro - Tuscan Bread Soup

I crashed the wrong wedding. I was supposed to sneak into a much sought-after VIP social event wedding banquet in a Villa in the outskirts of Florence with three friends who had invitations. We inevitably got lost in the dirt roads creeping around a verdant hilltop and ended in what we ignored was another Villa, where a lavish wedding reception was being grandly celebrated. It was not the one we were aiming for, but when we found out it was too late. We were welcomed at the gate, escorted in the garden and immediately introduced to the bride and groom, who waved us in courteously and fainly aloof. Just like the characters in the 2005 film Wedding Crashers, my friends and I were somehow able to bluff our way through the wedding party when guests and relatives asked who we were. I pretended to be a wealthy American oilman's daughter, while Bruno, Emanuela and Cesare played the fashion industry card.

I was young and carefree, then. Just out of university and high on life. The excitement of sneaking into a forbidden realm, and acting out a part like in a film, had me all worked up. I started hovering over the champagne buffet quite soon. When I was informed that this was yes an Italian nobility wedding, but without any slim connections to any of the guests, and our foul play surely soon to be discovered, I downed a few bubbly flutes in a row. Needless to say, I got very drunk. Very quickly.

I made a total fool of myself, as I always do when Dancing Under the Influence.
I did the following things, before being chased off the premises by a well-upholstered bouncer, complete with earphone and Armani tux:

I walked away from the buffet and dropped my 'all-you-can-eat' heaped plate 2 feet from the bride and groom's table, spattering food everywhere. All I remember is the luncheon gazebo going very silent. It was an instant which to me lasted a geologic era.

I fell in the pool.

I lost a Ferragamo sandal.

I cried, and my eye make up bled even more, making me look like a 1930s silent movie diva.

I hit on the caterer chef.

And subsequently dated him for a while.

The dish that stole my heart on that roller coaster evening was a poor man's soup. I loved the idea of attending a blue blood event and watching the bejewelled guests ceremoniously sip on what Tuscan housewives fix to re-employ stale bread. I found this a touch of genius.
I asked to be introduced to the caterer to give him my regards and compliment him on the tongue in cheek menu choice. The rest is slurred kudos, clumsy flirtation and quite a number of great intimate meals.

Here's the recipe to that wonderful soup, I had way of obtaining it during our brief liaison.

Pappa al Pomodoro is cucina povera at its utmost. This summer Tuscan bread-and-tomato 'pappa' (Italian baby talk for food) sounds like a kid's dish, and in fact it is – but for kids of all ages. In the past it was also very much an unpretentious meal, a tasty and clever way to use leftover bread that no housewife would ever dream of serving to a guest. Now it's on the menus of Florence's trendier restaurants. And socialite wedding receptions.

To serve 4 (or less, expect guests to want multiple servings) assemble:
2-3 garlic cloves, whole
1/4 cup olive oil
250 g (1 cup) unseasoned tomato sauce
500 g (2 1/2 cups) day-old Italian or sourdough bread, crumbled
1 liter (1 quart) of vegetable stock, or more as necessary – heated
2-3 sprigs of fresh basil
2-3 sprigs of fresh sage

Prepare a bouquet garni by placing herbs and garlic in a knotted gauze.
Put all the ingredients – except the stock – in a large stewpot.
Simmer adding heated stock for about 15 minutes, or until the bread has fallen apart, then season to taste.
Remove the herbal pouch and whir the soup in the blender, adding more stock if necessary.
Serve sprinkled with more freshly torn basil and good olive oil dribbled in abundance.

Buon Appetito.

Sauteed Spinach and Raisins

My mother’s pièce de resistance side dish. When unplanned dinner guests come a-knockin', she whips up an easy pasta dish, uncorks a good wine and distracts them with these sweet and piquant spinach, while she frantically fixes the entree.

This was also her only way to make me eat greens when I was a child. Sweet raisins and savory, garlic-flavored sauteed spinach are an unusual match. Some like to add pine nuts too. Try it and see.

500 gr (1.1 lb) small spinach leaves
1 glass of water
50 gr (1/4 cup) butter
2 tbsp raisins
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 spicy peperoncino or 1/2 tsp flakes (optional)
a pinch of pine nuts (optional, I don't use them)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

Soak raisins in lukewarm water. Perform usual anti-pesticide ritual for the fresh spinach with water and baking soda, rinse and towel dry. Steam or boil briefly in unsalted water. If pressed for time and guest are already ringing doorbell, tear open the plastic bag of store-bought frozen spinach and toss directly in the skillet.

Melt butter and a swirl of olive oil in a skillet and sauté the garlic (and optional peperoncino flakes) in it. Add spinach and strained raisins, blending flavors for a few minutes. Salt to taste and ingurgitate.

Apr 16, 2009

Purpetielli Affogati - Stewed Baby Octopus

When I was a young girl, my beach friends and I used to go skin diving on shallow reefs along the Amalfi coast, just between Positano ans Praiano, and came home with octopus almost every day. We’d set off early in the morning with our blue & red canvas materassini (inflatable rafts), snorkeling masks and a piece of white cloth tied to a string.

We’d swim what felt like 300 miles of coastline to reach the designated fishing spot, elected by the group’s elder, Gianluca. He was 13 afterall, and we were all in the third grade still. We’d arrive breathless and sweaty (odd the sensation of sweating in water when swimming), scanning the shallow rocks beneath us. Half clung to the materassino, head plunged below water’s edge, we’d let the string unfurl and start playing with the octopuses. Cephalopods are like kittens, wave anything at them, like a piece of white cloth tied to a string, and they’ll float right out from under their rocky enclave to chase the billowing fabric.

We’d farm an average 8 to 12 polipi each in a little under 3 hours, just in time to swim back to our beach, parade the catch across town, and get home for lunch.

Normally, I would NEVER share this secret (yet very easy) recipe. Call me selfish, but some tricks are best kept covert. I however am so enamoured of my readers, my followers, my friends, that I am compelled to let them in on this dish. I can't stay a day without pampering you all with my silly stories, my kitchen tips and my family recipes. It's what I do. I like to cook and then write about it. I love it when my food gets complimented, even if only savored in a virtual world. When a fellow blogger actually sends me feedback of proven recipes being a success, my heart flies. This is how I show my love.


Here's the recipe for Purpetielli (Neapolitan for polipetti, little octopi) Affogati, which is a cooking term used commonly for savory dishes stewed in flavorsome tomatoes and wine.

The ideal mollusks to use for this dish would be the tiny moscardini (8 tentacles and a single line of suction cups on each), but any small, tender kind will work. The smaller the octopus, the lower chance of a chewy, rubbery outcome, once cooked. Polipo in fact, requires long, slow simmering, so keep your temperatures low and give yourself plenty of time. I like to do this with the baby octopus you find frozen in Asian markets, but as I said before, you can use any kind. Serve with home style, crusty bread for sopping up droolworthy sauce and juices, and keep the wine bottle well chilled. Happy Love Thursday and Buon Appetito!
  • 8 small octopuses, weighing an average of 150gr each (5 oz)
  • 500 gr (2 1/2 cups) plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 250 ml (1 cup) dry, white wine
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • A small bunch parsley, minced (optional, I don't use it)
  • 100 ml (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small fiery red peperoncino hot pepper, crushed
  • Salt to taste
Clean and trim any hard or non-edible parts of the polipetti, like the beak, entrails, stomach sac, eyes, gladius and bony innards. If you don't want to do all this, have your fishmonger clean and prepare them for you to take home.

Take a medium, high-sided pot, and put all the ingredients in it, adding a little water as well.
Cover the pot, bring it to a boil, and simmer the octopuses partially covered (or “drowned,” as the recipe's name calls for) for 20 minutes, after about 10 minutes, check seasoning. Serve them with their sauce and lots of bread for mandatory scarpetta (a divine Italian table custom I will post about in the near future).

Tip: A popular belief suggests that to make polipetti (or any other size of octopuses for that matter) become more tender during cooking, they must be stewed with a cork stopper in the cooking pot. It actually works, so take that smirk off your face.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Roses and Zombies

My peacock tail is big and wide. I have been bestowed 2 (not one, two!) awards in one day. Due!
This is the first one:

Tessa, a delightful artist, poet, friend and compassionate philanthrope, has awarded me a very important Palabras Como Rosas award. It translates to "Words Like Roses" (isn't Spanish a lovely language?).
Using Tessa's gentle words, I would have liked to pass this award onto everyone whose blogs I follow so avidly, but to follow my obligation to give this award to 9 people whose words are truly like the lingering and sweetly scented petals of a perfect rose I choose these bloggers:

Pat of Prattle...From the Flatlands
Laura of Ciao Amalfi!
Michael of God of Another World
Natalie of Musings from the Deep
Rosaria of Sixtyfivewhatnow
Delwyn of A Hazy Moon
Chuck of Chef Chuck's Cucina
Angela of Letters From Usedom
Nicky of Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah)

The second award was bestowed by Michael, who decided to divide his own Zombie Chicken trophy into 5 parts and give me the gizzard. I will dutifully pass it onto 5 bloggy friends who respond to these requisites:
"The blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the zombie chicken-excellence, grace, and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, these amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award, you now have the task of passing it on to at least five other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by not choosing wisely or not choosing at all..."

And the recipients of my lovely decaying birds are:

Fhina of Woman Of No Importance (although she's been awarded it already)
Attracted by Shiny Objects of A Tidings Of Magpies (although she's been awarded it already)
Janet of Under The Blood Red Sky
Karen of Border Town Notes
Jennifer of At The Table In My Sunroom

And since I'm feeling very generous in my proud peacock tail, I will also post a recipe later on in the day. Think fish. Think sinful. And lavish.

Ciao my friends.

Apr 15, 2009

Pasta alla Norma

I am in love with an island. Sicilia is her name. A natural museum of art and culture between sun and sea.

Tears of lava, limestone plains swept by the wind, sunny lands the color of bronze, a sea perennially the color of sapphire, home to dolphins and swordfish. And a people of unmeasured hospitality and creativity.

At least once in a lifetime, one should visit Sicily. To see, to learn, to enjoy, to savor what has enchanted all those who have ventured through its expanses in the past four thousand years. And to dream. Rove the archaeological parks of Piazza Armerina, Agrigento or Selinunte; witness the sunset in the Greek theater at Taormina or from the ruins of Megara Hyblaea. Swim in the sea of the Eolian archipelago, or in Camarina, knowing that buried under the sand lie the relics of ancient ships.

And to sail along the coasts witnessing dawns and twilights, while the coast stretches out before you with its monstrous architectural horrors, which can be pardoned only by the sudden appearance of a temple or twin columns still standing on a coast that is sometimes unspoiled.

In the Sicilian language, behavior, food, and religion – its people carry fragments of Greek culture, but also Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Norman, Angevin, Aragon, Catalan… Each of these has left a mark, architectural traces, masterpieces of art, transforming the island into a unique open-air museum.

Rather than a cultural residue, la cucina Siciliana is the most resistant trait of a whole culture. The dining table is the place where the many different civilizations that have passed through the island come together.

Sicilians are masters of cooking eggplant, and their island home is the source of countless other delicious and interesting ways to prepare it. The queen of popular cuisine, caponata, for instance–which is the aubergine appetizer/side dish served as a sweet and piquant sauce–was originally created in the kitchens of the courts of pre-Islamic Persia.

Today, I will be sharing another eggplant recipe from Sicily, one that I am particularly fond of:

Pasta alla Norma

In the past when meat was scarce, eggplant, with its chunky look and meaty flavor, was often used as a substitute. This recipe, named for the opera Norma by Catania-born Vincenzo Bellini, is quintessential Sicilian home style food. Here's what you need to make your own:

1 kg large or medium eggplants, about 2 lb total
Extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 to 3 lb fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 1 can (28 oz) plum tomatoes with their juice
100 g (1/2 cup) fresh basil leaves, hand torn into small pieces (cutting basil with a knife kills the flavor)
500 g (1.1 lb) ribbed penne or rigatoni
100 g (1/2 cup) ricotta salata cheese, coarsely grated (plus more for garnish)
Salt for purging the eggplant, plus more to taste

Cut the eggplants crosswise into slices 1/2" thick. Make a layer of slices in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Continue layering and sprinkling with salt until all of the slices are used. Top with a plate and a heavy weight, such as a pot. Place the colander over a bowl or in the sink. Let this stand for 1 hour to drain off the aubergines' bitter juices. Rinse off the salt and dry the eggplant slices with paper towels.

Tip: Salting the eggplant slices draws out their bitter juices. If the eggplant is very fresh, this step is not essential, but if you are unsure about their provenance, it is a good habit against a disappointing dish. Ricotta salata is a salted, pressed form of goat's milk ricotta.

In a large frying pan over medium heat, pour in 1/3 cup of olive oil to a depth of approximately 1/2". Add enough of the eggplant slices to make a single layer in the pan. Fry the slices, turning once, until tender and lightly browned on both sides, about 8 minutes total. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat until you’ve used up all the remaining slices.

In another very large saucepan over medium heat, sauté the garlic in the olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and season with salt. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove the tomato sauce from the heat. Cut the eggplant into strips and stir them into the sauce along with the basil.

Meanwhile, bring a large stockpot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring frequently, until very al dente. Put the tomato and eggplant sauce back on the stove over medium heat.

Drain the pasta and pour it into the simmering sauce. Stir in some cheese and blend well by stirring and one-handed swooping in chef-like manner. Top with more grated ricotta salata cheese, torn basil leaves and serve immediately.

This serves 6 epicureans.

Apr 14, 2009

Cheeky ragazzo

Italian men are funny. In many cases totally immature and unwilling to take on responsibilities, but they're so charming, romantic and witty sometimes (and in some cases, irresistible) one is willing to forgive their defects, and love them nonetheless.

Photo © Owen Franken/CORBIS

I was 7 months pregnant and my bump looked particularly huge that day. Perhaps because it was. I was waiting at the bus stop by the traffic light on an unexpectedly hot autumn day, late for my prenatal yoga class.
E. was dancing the conga in my belly, and I felt unusually serene despite the  bus was nowhere in sight (I usually hate being late).
I was wearing a little premaman dress, a pair of comfy boots and I had draped my raincoat over my arm. The warm breeze twirled my gestational mane of long chestnut hair and billowed my skirt exposing tanned legs. I stood there emanating the trademark motherly glow, waiting. I didn't know it then, but I must've been beautiful in that suspended moment of quotidian bliss.

I say this now only because of that young man, not more than 19 years old. He drove up to the traffic light on his vespa, wearing his helmet unbuckled and pushed back, like James Dean's cowboy hat. As he waited for the light to turn green, he looked me over, giving me a full x-ray type up and down glance and–after a long meditative pause–he leaned in, elbowing me as the connoisseur of such matters, "Hai scopato, eh!?" –which roughly translates to, 'Fess up, you've been busy, right?
The light turned green, he winked and dashed off, riding the back wheel.

I climbed on the bus laughing aloud, flattered and amused. As I said, Italian men can be so funny.

Apr 13, 2009

Pasquetta, or the power of the pic nic

Image © swide.com
Pasquetta is the Monday after Easter. It literally means little Easter and on this day of meditation and rest, city folk usually gather for a scampagnata, [skahm pah ña tah] that is a country outing (from campagna, Italian for 'country') or a gita fuori porta, [gee tah . fwoh ree . por tah] which translates to 'a tour out of the doors of the city. 'The English term outdoors must find its roots in this typically Roman expression.

Pasquetta offers release from the somber religious rituals of the preceding Lent period and the solemn Holy Week events. It is a day dedicated to leisure and recreation, slow travel and comfort food.

Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi is the Italian adage: “Christmas with family, Easter with whomever you choose,” and on Little Easter, the implied appendix for those sequestered in the bedlam of larger cities is "seize that 'whomever' and get out of town." Be the occasion a romantic escape to a secluded tavern by a lakeside, a family pic nic in the meadow or a roaring group at a trattoria on a breezy hilltop, the entire point of Pasquetta is to allow people to eat themselves into a stupor.

In some places, there is more to Pasquetta than just eating. The Ruzzolone race in Panicale, for instance, is a sporting competition that combines elements of bocce, yo-yo and curling. Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds. The players send a 9-pound round of Pecorino cheese rolling around the perimeter of the ancient walled town. The cheese is launched with a leather strap, wrapped around the cheese and pulled by a wooden stick. Spotters run alongside the cheese to mark where it falls. The winner, the player who completes the racecourse in the fewest hits, gets to bring home the Pecorino.

Often the prizes go careening into nearby olive groves or get stuck under the one Fiat that didn't get the "No Parking Here Today" handwritten message. When the race is concluded, the winners are acclaimed by the free wine and hard-boiled eggs being served by the village Pro Loco committee and a band of villagers playing pots, pans, cowbells, horns, ladles and spoons worthy of a scene in a Fellini movie.

My Pasquetta was a quiet drive back home with a slumbering E. Our mini vacation down south is over, it's time to resume normality. As the Abruzzo reconstruction begins, we humbly go about our daily chores with a fresh start. Tomorrow it's back to school day, so I need to get dinner ready and a little homesick boy to bed early.

Tonight I'm making a simple holiday dish, made with healthy greens and very little work involved in the preparation. I want to share it with you, officially reopening our recipe dialogue.

Torta Pasqualina recipe
This is an Easter season classic, a rustic, simple and quick fix staple. Any of it left over is great for sylvan picnics on Pasquetta. Best served cold with mixed salumi, frittata and lavish amounts of cheese for a true Pasquetta binge. Ingredients for 6 sinners:
1 frozen double puff pastry shell

1kg (2 lbs) collards, kale, spinach or mild greens
600 g (3 cups) goat ricotta cheese
100 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
10 eggs
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh marjoram
3 slices of white bread, crusts removed
250 ml (1 cup) whole milk
2 tbsp Parmigiano, grated
Salt and pepper to taste

Take the frozen puff pastry out of the freezer to thaw. Carefully trim and clean the greens in cold water and baking soda, rinsing repeatedly to remove all traces of dirt, pesticides and other chemicals. While you soak the white bread in the milk, boil the washed greens in 1 cup of unsalted water for 10 minutes, then wring dry. Unroll one of the crust layers in a 9” buttered pie shell, trimming any extra dough from the edges. Return it to the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

Spread the blanched greens on a plate and sprinkle with salt, Parmigiano and a few fresh marjoram leaves. Beat 4 eggs and 3 tbsp of Parmigiano in a large mixing bowl. Wring the white bread and add it to the eggs, along with the seasoned greens and the fork-sifted ricotta. Blend lovingly with a wooden spoon as each ingredient is added. Take your time and enjoy the repetitive sensual motion as the elements coalesce.

Pour the mixture into the pastry-lined pie plate and dig 6 evenly spaced-out dimples. In each depression pour 1 tbsp of melted butter, then carefully break an egg in it.

Unroll the second disk of dough and cover. Use a fork or your fingers to pinch the edges together. Dot with tiny flakes of butter and cut 4 small slits in the top, being careful to avoid the areas occupied by the eggs. Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until the crust is lightly browned.

Hint: you can cover the pie edge with a 3-inch strip of aluminum foil to prevent too much browning. Remove foil during last 15 minutes of baking.

Buona Pasquetta!

Mellow Yellow Monday #14

and a malfunctioning airbag

Tangenziale Est, Roma
March 2009

Mellow Yellow Monday
for more photos in yellow...

Back in the Eternal City...

Apr 12, 2009

Traditional Easter Week Processions

In Sorrento during the Settimana Santa, the city lives in feverish anticipation. The year's pinnacle celebration is the processions which take place in the last days of Lent between Palm Sunday and Good Friday before Easter. The men and boys of each Venerabile Confraternita (charitable religious brotherhoods) depart from their headquarter church and march through the crowded town streets for hours.

The fascinating procession of hooded figures is an established Sorrento tradition. These liturgical processions during Easter are a demonstration of the genuine religious beliefs of the inhabitants of the region, between Sorrento and neighboring towns, in fact 20 different processions mark the Holy Week celebrations.

Holy Week processions are an event that the people of these towns look forward to with enthusiasm throughout the year. The protagonists of this unusual celebration are the lay confraternities and charity groups of devotees who have been reviving the evangelical message and traditions for centuries. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday - in an atmosphere filled with emotion and mysticism - the men with hooded black, red or white gowns (depending on the tradition of the confraternity), slowly pass by in silence in the streets lit up by torches, carrying statues and symbols of the Passion and death of Christ. It is a disquieting image. The first time I saw the white robes and hoods with holes cut for their eyes exit the Church of the Addolorata and silently walk down the narrow alleys in locked single-step footfall, carrying torches and crucifixes, enveloped in the silence and solmenity of their lugubrious frocks, it all immediately brought to mind disturbing images of crosses burning and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Needless to say, there is absolutely nothing that links the Sorrento Holy Week processions to the surreal values of white supremacy fanatism. Except for an unsettling visual similarity.

Photo by Luigi Soldatini

The origins of these processions date back to the 14th century. At first, the parades were very simple, but in the 18th century, under Spanish rule and the influence of the Jesuits, the processions were embellished with torches, the symbols of the confraternities and the famous "Mysteries" or symbols of the bodily injuries Christ suffered during his ascent to Golgotha. Only men parade in the ritual attire, the tradition is passed from father to son, and every male in the family participates, even kids.

On Maudy Thursday we watched the Processione dell'Addolorata, better known as the "white" procession, since the men all wear white robes. It is one involving over 300 people, and it is organized by the Venerabile Arciconfraternita di Santa Monica. It symbolizes Mary wandering the streets of Jerusalem in search of her son, arrested by the Temple guards the night before the crucifixion. The long and silent march exits the church at sunset. The participants wearing the snow white habit - faces concealed by the typical pointed hood - carry torches, crosses and the statue of the Madonna on their shoulders on a raised platform and march it all through town until dawn. The men chosen to carry the statues are envied by their fellow brethren immensely.

Photo by Luigi Soldatini

The other main procession is on Good Friday. It is the procession of the Cristo Morto, the dead Christ, better known as the "black" procession. It is the Holy Week's most solemn event, organized by the Venrabile Arciconfraternita della Morte.

Photo by Gaetano Astarita

The men wearing black robes and silver medallions sporting a grim skull & bones insignia, have the honorable task of carrying the 18th century wooden sculpture of the deposed Christ, that of the mournful Madonna, plus all sorts of symbolic objects linked to the Passion of the Christ. Among these I spotted a replica of the flagellation column covered with blood, the crown of thorns, the dice used to gamble over Jesus' robes, the nails of the cross, the rooster which tattled on Peter before dawn, the crown of thorns, a symbolic model of the spear used to pierce Jesus' chest, the sponge imbibed with vinegar, and the bag of 30 coins Judas received as payment for turning Christ in. During the long march, many of the street lights of the town are switched off., and a band opens the parade playing a somber funeral march. The streets are illuminated only by the parading torches, and the atmosphere is even more evocative thanks to the deep voices of the over 200 men singing the Gregorian Miserere.

Buona Pasqua a tutti!

Oggi è Pasqua [oh gee . eh . paz kwa] Today is Easter.
I don't know whether you celebrate the holiday or not, but I wish to share the joy of this day of Resurrection and rebirth of the spring season with you. In tune with Sallymandy's sweet words, let's "enjoy the bounty of beauty that comes with it."

I'm surrounded by beauty today. Here are some snippets of it.

A lovely hillside lemon grove overlooking the Mediterranean Sea...

...the Sorrento harbor...

...the wisteria welcome at the entrance to the Grand Hotel Vittoria...

...the trattoria ran out of tables on its beachfront terrace and organized impromptu lunch on the shore with pool furniture brought down from private homes...

...waking up with the aroma of what Marcella - our host - had just brought out of the oven. Her glorious and freshly baked pastiera Easter cakes... E. demanded to sample some for breakfast...

I will catch up with all your lovely posts when we return home, I promise. I miss reading about you and commenting each and every one as I usually do. I've treasured your warm concern and your reassuring words of comfort in the days after the horrible earthquake tragedy more than you know. I replied quickly to your signs of solidarity and love but it's my wish to take my time and savor your blogs once I settle back home. Don't feel neglected, OK?
Ciao my friends, Sorrento and the sunshine salute you and wish you a wonderful...

Buona Pasqua! [bwoh nah . paz kwa]

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, local quintessence

The secret to gnocchi alla Sorrentina is the tomatoes that grow in the area, the local mozzarella and the indigenous fresh basil. That's why even the greatest chefs are never able to reproduce the true recipe elsewhere, without the original ingredients.
Image © incucinaconpeppa

I will nonetheless tell you how I saw it being made here, in its homeland. We began by assembling the ingredients to make the gnocchi: 

1 kg (2 lbs) russet potatoes
300 g (1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil

Boil the unpeeled potatoes 30-40 minutes (according to potato size) in lightly salted water. Let them cool a bit then peel and mash them with a hand-powered mill or a ricer into a bowl.

Let the mashed potatoes cool off a bit more, sift the flour over them, and mix it in with a wooden spoon. Pour the potato/flour mixture over a board dusted with flour and knead briefly as you would any other pasta dough.

Note: Over kneading may make the dough tougher, so keep it to the minimum to obtain a uniform consistency, dusting extra flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the work surface.

Cut a fist-size piece and roll it into sausage-like cords about 3/4" in diameter and use a knife to cut each into 3/4" buttons. Use your thumb to make an indentation in each piece. This can be achieved with the help of the back of a cheese grater or the tines of a fork, and it gives gnocchi a rough surface in which the sauce finds refuge. As you produce the gnocchi, moves them on a plate and keep going, fistful after fistful, until all the dough is used up.
Gnocchi by Marie Asselin - foodnouveau.com

Technically all this can be done in advance, but it is better not to let too much time pass between the making and the cooking. While you’re cutting the gnocchi, bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Once all the gnocchi are ready, toss a dozen of them into the water and wait until they all surface. This takes less than 2 minutes, so it is important that your attention does not wander. Use a skimmer (or a slotted spoon) to fish the floating gnocchi out of the pot and place them in a bowl covered with a tight lid so the gnocchi keep warm. Repeat the casting-fishing routine until all gnocchi are cooked.

Next we prepare the Sorrentina sauce. Be prepared to meet taste bud euphoria. This is Italian food history happening before your eyes, so a toast is in order. Uncork the wine, please. 

400 g (2 cups) ripe heirloom tomatoes
1 large mozzarella (weighing about 1/2 lb) or Provola cheese, which is a local smoked mozzarella
Parmigiano, grated
Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled
A bunch of fresh basil

Save 2 and blanch the rest of the tomatoes in 1 inch of water and a drizzle of olive oil for about 20 minutes. Peel them, remove the seeds and crush them through a food mill.

While you preheat the oven at 150° C (300° F) you can begin to sauté the garlic and half the basil in 3 tablespoons of olive oil for about 2 minutes. Add the pureed tomatoes and cook over a medium flame for about 10 minutes.

Coarsely chop the mozzarella (or provola) and the 2 whole raw tomatoes. Next we prepare 4 terrines (glazed and preferably earthenware) or a single deep oven dish with a few tablespoons of sauce, a few chunks of chopped mozzarella and raw tomatoes. Cover with some boiled gnocchi, cover with more sauce, more chopped mozzarella and raw diced tomatoes, torn basil leaves and a generous dust of grated Parmigiano, building layers to the top.

Pop in the hot oven and heat through until a crispy crust forms on the top and the cheese has melted.

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina demand to be eaten piping hot, so if you're serving them in the earthenware terrines, consume them directly out of those, minding that you don’t burn your tongue in a mad devouring rush.

The best wine to pair this dish with is a dry white, like a Chardonnay or a glorious Greco di Tufo.