Jun 29, 2009

Peperoni ripieni - stuffed bell peppers recipe

I opened the windows to air out the apartment early this morning. It must have been seven. The crisp spring air wafted in and brought with it a curiously untimely smell of... roasted bell peppers. Who the heck roasts bell peppers at 7 am? - I wondered, as I peered out past the geraniums on the window sill.

But then I remembered, today is a holiday. On this day the city of Rome celebrates two very important fellows, St. Peter and St. Paul. Hence the bell peppers.
The Festa di San Pietro e Paolo, or properly the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, is a holiday commemorating the martyrdom in Rome of the apostles Saint Peter and Paul of Tarsus, observed on June 29th. The celebration is of ancient origin, and in Rome it is a closely observed holiday. All business shuts down and people have the day off work. Picnic lunches are packed and taken to nearby beaches. Hence the bell peppers.

Saint Peter is also known as Ben-Yonah/Bar-Yonah, Simon Peter, Cephas and Kepha (Kepha and Cephas כיפא are all words that mean 'rock') - his original name is Shimon or Simeon. In Greek Πέτρος, Pétros also means rock. Pietro (in Italian the word pietra means rock too) was one of the Twelve Apostles, chosen by Jesus from his first disciples. Pietro was a Galilean peasant who ran a fishing business. He was assigned a leadership role by Jesus (Matthew 16:18), and is always in the lists of the Twelve Apostles and is also frequently mentioned in the Gospels as forming with James the Elder and John a special group within the Twelve Apostles, present at incidents at which the others were not, such as at the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Saint Paul, also called Paul of Tarsus (whose name in ancient Greek was: Σαούλ (Saul), Σαῦλος (Saulos), and Παῦλος (Paulos) was a Pharisee who called himself the "Apostle to the Gentiles." According to the Acts of the Apostles, his conversion took place on the road to Damascus as he was en route to persecuting more Christians after having slaughtered many in Jerusalem. Paolo's influence on Christian thinking arguably has been more significant than any other New Testament author. Paul's letters are largely written to churches which he had founded or visited; he was a great traveler, visiting Cyprus, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), mainland Greece, Crete and Rome bringing the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth with him. His letters are full of expositions of what Christians should believe and how they should live. He does not tell his correspondents (or the modern reader) much about the life of Jesus; his most explicit references are to the Last Supper, the crucifixion and resurrection.

Above, Caravaggio's dynamic depictions of St. Peter's crucifixion and St. Paul's conversion

Roman Martyrology (a rather and extensive but not exhaustive list of the saints recognized by the Church) assigns June 29th as the feasts day of both Peter and Paul. St. Augustine of Hippo says in his Sermon 295: "One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one."

That smell of bell peppers drifting in my kitchen as I brewed breakfast espresso, brought to mind a summer recipe my mom used to make when packing a basket with goodies before hitting the beach at Ostia or Fregene every June 29th. Mamma's peperoni ripieni is a complete meal in itself, the perfect Mediterranean meal combining pasta and a seasonal veggie, all in one baked delicacy. 

That premature lunch aroma made me want to make some today, to bring to my friend Barbara's pool, where our kids will be splashing around in her garden, water wing-clad, squealing with prune fingers and and eyelashes clustered.

My mother's recipe for these refreshing Neapolitan stuffed bell peppers yields 6 servings. Why don't you celebrate San Pietro e Paolo with us today and make some yourself?

12 large bell peppers
500 g (1.1 lb) short pasta (tubular or spiraling would be best)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled and smashed
5 plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and chopped
2 tbsp salted or pickled capers, well rinsed
3 tbsp pitted organic black olives, coarsely chopped
3 salted anchovies (visit a delicatessen for these, or use canned anchovy fillets packed in oil if you cannot find them). In any case, wash, bone, and mince them.
A small bunch of fresh basil, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).

Prepare the peppers by leaving them whole and cutting around the stems, shaking out the seeds, washing them, and patting them dry. Next, broil them over the stove top flame to blister the skins, making sure you don't burn your hands. My mom's failsafe system is to then cool them off for a few minutes in a brown paper bag, the skins will peel right off: gently rub the bell peppers with a towel, taking care not to pierce the flesh. If you wish to leave the skins on you can, but in this case you'll have to increase the final baking time to an hour.

Sauté two cloves of garlic in their "shirts," that is smashed and with skins left on, in 1/4 cup olive oil, removing and discarding them when they have browned. Stir in the tomatoes and simmer for 15 minutes, then add the olives and capers, lower the heat, and cook for five more minutes. After removing the pot from the stove, stir in the anchovies, parsley and pepper.

Cook the pasta in lightly salted water until it's half cooked, drain it, and season it with the tomato sauce.

Divide the filling mixture into 12 parts and stuff the peppers. Put them in a well-oiled ovenproof dish, drizzle with olive oil to taste (I go with a lavish hand) and roast for 30-45 minutes (or an hour if you choose not to peel the peppers).

They're wonderful served cold, and even better the next day. They'll go very well with a chilled fruity white wine, for example Vernaccia, Fiano or Vermentino, and a crisp iceberg salad.

Buon San Pietro e Paolo!

Jun 24, 2009

Panzanella recipe

Panzanella is a fantastic (and easy) summer dish made with bread, it's a Tuscan traditional summer dish and is a great example of how Italians make good use of leftovers. I have posted several recipes that employ leftover foods: Frico, Meatballs, Riso al salto and Torta di Pane.


It's hard to catalog this traditional cucina povera preparation. For as much as the main ingredient is bread, it is not a soup, and not a salad either, even if it contains abundant veggies. It is difficult to place panzanella in the 'antipasto-primo-secondo' Italian meal articulation. Here I have classified it as an antipasto; and considering the amount of carbs, it is best paired with meats or fish and not served before a pasta dish or a Tuscan soup, many of which usually employ the use of bread or pasta in their preparations. Here's what you need for your summery panzanella:

10 slices of stale bread, or rusks, the best is pane casareccio*
6 mature heirloom tomatoes, finely chopped
1 small white onion, sliced
1 small red onion, sliced
1 cucumber, sliced
Fresh basil leaves, hand torn into shreds, the more the better
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more as the bread absorbs the condiment
1 tbsp white wine vinegar (not balsamic)
Salt and pepper 

If you're not so keen on the onion front, reduce quantities or omit the white onion altogether, granted you at least employ the more delicate red variety.

Soften the bread in water for 10 minutes while you pour some Vernaccia di San Gimignano dry white in a jug and set it in the fridge to chill.

Wring away water from the bread and crumble it coarsely with your hands in a salad bowl. Add sliced onions, chopped tomato, sliced cucumber and basil. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and drizzle with vinegar and abundant olive oil. Toss with your hands and add a little more oil to the mix.

Refrigerate 2-3 hrs before serving along with the jugful of wine.

*Note: The best leftover bread to use for this recipe is the typically Tuscan unsalted kind, but not all ovens carry it, so any healthy, home style whole-wheat kind will do.

Image © cookaround.com

Buon appetito!

Jun 22, 2009

Cooking tips - beans

Fagioli––Italian for beans––are the cheapest, most rendering edible leguminous plant found in Italian kitchens. The famous pasta e fagioli soup is a peasant dish, made with leftover bits of pasta and common kidney beans. Very affordable and ginormously tasty.

I'm no fundamentalist when it comes to cooking beans. I use canned beans freely (provided they be well rinsed of their gelatinous storing gunk), but the healthiest, tastiest and most common beans used in Italian cuisine are dried beans. Yes, cooking dried beans takes more time than opening a can, but you’ll be richly rewarded with superior flavor and texture. They will keep almost indefinitely, and a well-stocked Italian pantry always has a selection of two or more kinds of dried beans.

Here are a few of my mother's storing tips:

A) Dried beans should be stored at room temperature in covered containers.
B) Do not keep dried beans in the refrigerator! If stored incorrectly, the beans may absorb water and spoil before you have a chance to use them.
C) The plastic bags beans are packaged in are good for storage if they are airtight. Once opened, the bag can be closed with a twist tie.
D) For the longest storage life, keep beans in a glass or ceramic container with a tight fitting lid.

There is a specific routine when preparing dried beans and other pulse. Here it is:

1. Sort: Arrange dried beans on a sheet pan or wide platter and sort through them to pick out any small rocks, pieces of dirt, beans with holes or cavities, badly misshapen or shriveled ones and those greatly undersized or discolored. Running your fingers through the bag feels great, but is not enough.

2. Rinse: Rinse the sorted beans well in cold, running water. Do this right before soaking, as beans tend to start the rehydration process as soon as they come in contact with liquid.

3. Soak: Soaking beans before cooking shortens cooking time and helps to leech out some of those indigestible sugars that cause, among other things, proverbial bean flatulence. There are two simple ways to get the job done, one involving a longer procedure. Overnight soaking takes time and some advance planning, but needs very little effort.

a) Regular soak: Put beans into a large bowl and cover with 2 to 3 inches of cool, clean water. Set aside at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight; then drain well. (If it's really warm in your kitchen, soak the beans in the refrigerator instead to avoid fermentation, which makes the beans turn sour. Soaking in refrigerator requires a little while longer though, as cold water slows rehydration and the beans will take longer to cook)

b) Quick soak: Put beans into a large pot and cover with 2 to 3 inches of cool, clean water. Bring to a boil and turn briskly for 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and set aside off of the heat for 1 hour; then drain well.

4. Cook: Put soaked beans into a large pot and cover with 2 inches of water or stock. (don't add salt at this point, since that slows the beans softening.) Slowly bring to a boil, skimming off any foam on the surface. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary, until beans are tender when mashed or pierced with a fork. Cooking times vary with the variety, age and size of beans; generally you’ll be looking at about 1 to 2 hours.

Trivia Note: I have to check with Renee about this, but dreaming of beans is sometimes said to be a sign of impending conflict.

Fagioli all'Uccelletto recipe

Beans with a light tomato sauce and fragrant sage leaves: a Tuscan classic side dish. When added with sausage links, it becomes a perfect entrée.

I still haven't found the reason for their name, which translates "beans little bird-style."

Since the temperatures are dropping all over Italy this week, why not cook up some fagioli, watch a sports event on TV and call it an early night?

500 g (1 lb) dried cannellini (white beans), soaked for 3 hours.
50 g (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
7-8 leaves of fresh sage
1-2 fresh plum tomatoes or a small can of tomatoes (I use half of a 14-oz can)
Boiling water
Salt and pepper to taste
8 Italian link sausages (OPTIONAL see below)

If you choose to serve your fagioli all'uccelletto with sausages, you'll want to choose a kind that won't overpower the beans in terms of spice and oomph. For this dish, I always use 2 or 3 per guest of my favorite sausage, luganega.

Begin by boiling the beans until 3/4 done in lightly salted water. This will take about an hour, though you should begin checking them after 30 minutes. You don't want them to go mushy on you. If you are including sausages, prick their skins lightly with a fork and simmer them separately in boiling water to cover for 15 minutes to render out some of the fat.

Once the beans are almost done, set the olive oil to heat over medium heat, in a heavy bottomed clay pot or Dutch oven. When the oil has become hot but not smoking, add the garlic and the sage (not more than seven or eight leaves; too much sage will make the beans bitter). Cook until the sage crackles and the garlic is lightly browned.

Add the tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, then add the beans and some of their bean broth to cover. Season with salt and pepper, add the sausages, and simmer everything until the beans are quite soft, stirring occasionally and adding bean broth as necessary to keep it all from drying out.

Which wine? I would go with a simple Chianti Classico.

And just in case, I suggest you sleep with the windows open...

Jun 21, 2009

The sky's on fire!

I must have been 4 years old. My dad held me tightly as the sky lit up in technicolor explosions. I was terrified, but his firm grip and familiar smell of Old Spice comforted me and made me feel safe in his capacious arms.

Me and Dad, 4th of July, 1976
Me and Dad, 1976
The 4th of July evening celebrations catered by the American Embassy in Rome that year featured a barbecue and a firework show to which Rome was not accustomed to. We were among the hundreds of US citizens in the Eternal City, invited guests of the Ambassador that evening. An informal gathering, open house, they called it. All sprawled on the vast grassy expanse of the designated bucolic venue, everyone enjoyed the pyrotechnic performance. All but me. I wasn't having any fun. Those fireworks were scaring the hell out of me, I didn't understand their loudness, and I kept thinking the burning streaks would land on us, burning us alive. I had never seen such a fiery sight before.

I hid my face and curled up against my father's chest, damp grass underass and chilled toes in hand. If I shut my eyes, it'll stop, I kept mumbling, as my dad kept repeating, "don't worry," Easy for you to say. The apocalypse is ablast, and I'm not even potty trained.

I have patchwork memories of that otherwise festive night. I remember my mother not being there. She probably felt this had to be a father-daughter moment, us being the Americani in the family, and all. Or perhaps for another reason, the nature of which I know not. My assumption is that this was to be my dad's day with me, and she just backed out elegantly. I don't remember how long we stayed after, nor the food we ate before. I just have the recollection of that loud open night sky, alight with chrysanthemums of sparks and artificial stars.

It is an event that my father often reminds me of. I believe it was one of those bonding moments that inevitably happen between parent and offspring. Perhaps there, on that freshly mowed lawn that night, is where my father first felt the full weight of my child vulnerability. As he held my scared little being in his warm embrace, he probably understood how much a defenseless child is dependent on a father, on a pair of two strong arms and a soothing baritone voice. Maybe it made him feel good to calm me. And the relief was mutual. I was tiny and seeing the sky detonate in colors was a scary first for me. My dad's presence and his soft words of comfort made it all OK.

My dad's not too keen on emails. Until very recently, my father and I exchanged handwritten letters. He usually writes his on yellow lined notepad paper. His words are written in loopy rounded, large swooping characters. I have saved many of his letters in a special velvet folder, and I treasure them more than he can imagine. I keep one special one in my wallet. When my apartment got burgled (with me in the house: THAT'S something to be scared of, not fireworks!) and my handbag pillaged, I went straight to check not the monetary damage, but that the letter had not been dislodged from its space between the checkbook and the lottery stubs. It was still there. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

"The other day, July 4th, as we were finishing our phone call - I reminded you of that one time - years ago - when you had been afraid of the fireworks - and you replied 'yeah, but you held me in your arms, and you made it all OK.' Oh, Eleonora you don't know how happy I was that you remembered, and that you said that the other day. I love you so much, with all my heart - and I am so proud of you and of your life... (I'm crying now)..."

Every Sunday dad and I have an appointment. We talk on the phone. It's something we've done ever since I can remember. Sometimes it's a brief chat, sometimes it's a long marathon that lasts hours. We hardly ever exchange handwritten letters anymore, but that's alright. He is a loving father and a dedicated Grandfather for my son. He sends packaged boxes addressed to him filled with wonderful books in English, and toys, clothes and trinkets always accompanied by a sweet note and a few loving words for me too.

This summer my son and I will be visiting my dad in California. It will be my boy's first time on an airplane, his first time out of Italy, and my first intercontinental flight with toddler. We're both very excited and can't wait for our departure date. My dad though, seems to be the one who's the most anxious and giggly with anticipation for this trip. Phone calls and emails have doubled in these last few weeks. Sometimes we talk every day, exchanging short news updates or just for no reason at all other than hearing our voices. It will be a very important time for us, all together. My son's first encounter with his full American side of the family, and my first time back in the States as a mother. The new me in the New World. He is four and we'll be watching fireworks. History repeats itself.

I had forgotten that today is Father's Day there. We celebrate ours on March 19th, and it is a religious festivity besides being a family one. Reading a friend's post today reminded me that on the 3rd Sunday in June, in America, United Kingdom, France, India, Greece, Canada, Ireland, Japan, South Africa, Mexico and many other countries, daddies are honored and commemorated. We will be having our Father's Day barbecue later this year, on a sandy California beach somewhere, and it will include 3 generations.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I'm shooting fireworks for you here today. And my arms are open wide. It's all OK.

Me and Dad, 1976

Jun 17, 2009

100 achievement meme

Anno showed the way with this one, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to try it myself. The instructions are simple: just copy the list of 100 accomplishments, highlight the ones you've achieved in bold, and elaborate as desired.

Be forewarned, this is another 100-long meme: a marathon to read; just about as long to write.

001. Started my own blog. Two Three, actually. There's this one, which started off as a journal entry one cold winter night, and a restaurant critique blog called Forchettine, which I write in Italian, but not very often.

002. Slept under the stars. On a beach in Mexico, after making love. I was young and carefree. A beautiful memory.

003. Played in a band.

004. Visited Hawaii. Summer of 1982 and I met a young brat pack teen idol who taught me to body surf at Mauna Kea with his brothers and sister. I had no idea who he was at the time.

005. Watched a meteor shower. Every recent mid-August on my friend Selena's garden lawn in Tuscany.

006. Given more than I can afford to charity.

007. Been to DisneyWorld/Land.  Anaheim and Paris.

008. Climbed a mountain. Mont Blanc Massiff, Italian flank, summer of 2004. Harnessed and wearing crampons at 3900 meters altitude, short of breath, terrified and giggly. Awesome.

009. Held a praying mantis. The farm on the Nyala Game Reserve that hosted the set to a film I worked on in 2005 was home to many bizarre, exotic creatures I had never seen other than on TV documentaries. The praying mantis was as big as a pack of cigarettes.

010. Sung a solo.

011. Bungee jumped. You must be kidding.

012. Visited Paris. Many times. And can't wait to go again.

013. Watched lightning at sea. Electrifying!

014. Taught myself an art from scratch. The art of mothering comes with no manual, does that count?

015. Adopted a child. Child sponsorship only.

016. Had food poisoning. Many times. The worst was a bad tin of pineapple juice. I love to eat tons of the fresh fruit, but I will never drink the juice ever again. Ever. The 30-lb fish I caught off the barrier reef in Mexico––and that turned out to be poisonous barracuda––also provided points for this "achievement."

017. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty. No but I made it to the top of the Empire State Building...

018. Grown my own vegetables. Chives and basil qualify.

019. Seen the Mona Lisa in France. Yes, and that tiny wry smile still has me puzzled.

020. Slept on an overnight train. From Rome to Paris and from Rome to Venice. Very romantic.

021. Had a pillow fight. With a 3-year old pillow fights are the order of the day.

022. Hitchhiked. From a friend's summer house to the town center, 5 km away. One of the stupidest things I've done in my life; NOT an achievement.

023. Taken a sick day when you're not ill.

024. Built a snow fort.

025. Held a lamb. I also milked one.

026. Gone skinny dipping. See #2

Playa del Carmen 1993
027. Run a marathon.

028. Ridden in a gondola in Venice. Just once. And the gondolier tried to kiss me afterwards. wtf...

029. Seen a total eclipse. Does lunar count?

030. Watched a sunrise or a sunset. As often as I possibly can.

African sunset at Hluhluwe, S.A.

031. Hit a home run. Softball camp with my eldest sister coaching, during my 11th summer.

032. Been on a cruise. 

033. Seen Niagara Falls in person. In utero, yes.

034. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors. I live in Rome!

035. Seen an Amish community. Only as seen in the film Witness

036. Taught myself a new language. In order to communicate with an Argentine boyfriend, I had to teach myself Spanish. It was very sexy.

037. Had enough money to be satisfied. In spurts, yes - never in one steady flow.

038. Mastered the cartwheel.

039. Skimmed the surface of water on waterskis.

040. Seen Michelangelo's David. And it was love at first site.

041. Sung karaoke. Couldn't be caught dead.

042. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt.

043. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant. I do leave caffè sospeso every time I'm in Naples.

044. Visited Africa. Twice, and it will always be too late when I shall return. I left my heart in Africa, the Mother Land.

045. Walked on a beach by moonlight.

046. Been transported in an ambulance.

047. Had my portrait painted. When I was 7 years old, an aged, an elderly gentleman drew an ink portrait of me. Still the best piece of art in my possession. The man was a costume/production designer called Dario Cecchi, and he was a wonderful man. I sadly never had the opportunity to thank him for my painting.

048. Gone deep sea fishing. Read about it here.

049. Been to the Sistine Chapel in person. The only way to go. Lay on the pavement and soak up beauty.

050. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Didn't quite make it to the top. I stopped at the bistro on the middle level...

051. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling. Florida, summer of 1993. Snorkeling off the Miami coast, catamaran sunset cruise. Lots of scary sharks down below and lots of beer inside me and friends.

052. Kissed in the rain.

053. Played in the mud. I have a toddler.

054. Gone to a drive-in theater. I've always dreamed to, inspired by the Flintstones drive-in.

055. Been in a movie. In a few. But my debut was a talking role in an Italian TV mini series. I was the fabulous Hospital Help Desk Customer #2. I also played an NSA agent in a spy story

056. Visited the Great Wall of China.

057. Started a business. I co-founded and managed a graphic design studio in my early 20s.

058. Taken a martial arts class. Karate, but it lasted for about 3 lessons, then I gave up.

059. Visited Russia. I had the chance and I let it pass me by, stupidly.

060. Served at a soup kitchen.

061. Sold Girl Scout cookies. And ate the other half.

062. Gone whale watching. Monterey Bay, every time I visit family there.

063. Got flowers for no reason. Very nice thing, getting flowers.

064. Donated blood, platelets, or plasma. To a relative in need. Nearly fainted.

065. Gone sky diving. No, thank you.

066. Visited a Nazi concentration camp site.

067. Bounced a check. Sh*t happens.

068. Flown in a helicopter.

069. Saved a favorite childhood toy up until my late 20s. Still have my first teddy bear, it now belongs to my son.

070. Visited the Lincoln Memorial.

071. Eaten caviar. Love it. On buttered toast or blinis. On canapes. Even smeared on body parts.

072. Pieced a quilt.

073. Stood in Times Square. After a 9-hr intercontinental flight, a lost luggage dispute and a Broadway show. Exhausted with adrenaline pumping nonetheless.

074. Toured the Everglades.

075. Been fired from a job.

076. Seen the Changing of the Guard in London. I lived in London when I was 2 but I don't remember a thing, except maybe the snow.

077. Broken a bone.

078. Been on a speeding motorcycle. Don't particularly fancy speeding motorcycles.

079. Seen the Grand Canyon in person. North rim, at age 21. I still have the images vividly planted before my eyes.

080. Published a book. Not yet. But I'm working on it. And I trust my agent.

081. Visited the Vatican. Drive by it 4-5 times a week. Been in it maybe 5 times. Love the Swiss Guards.

082. Bought a brand new car. My first, a brand new 1990 Lancia Y10. It had become an old friend, and sadly missed. I now drive an obnoxious Smart car, of which I am not particularly fond.

My dented Y10 took me places
083. Walked in Jerusalem.

084. Had my picture in the newspaper.

085. Read the entire Bible.

086. Visited the White House.

087. Killed and prepared an animal for eating. Caught numerous Mediterranean fish; then roasted, stewed, fried and/or baked them in various ways, they were almost always delicious. For the only negative experience in this category, see #16.

088. Had chickenpox. I am curiously immune to it.

089. Saved someone's life. Mine.

090. Not known that 90 comes after 89, not 91. Huh?

091. Met someone famous.

092. Joined a book club.

093. Lost a loved one.

094. Had a baby.

095. Seen the Alamo in person.

096. Swam in the Great Salt Lake. Lake water freaks me out. But I did swim in Tashmoo Pond on Martha's Vineyard once, and in Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. And was met by a water SNAKE. End of lake swimming happened there.

097. Been involved in a law suit. No. But I am a huge fan of courtroom drama films.

098. Owned a cell phone. Don't know how I ever lived without one.

099. Been stung by a bee.

100. Ridden an elephant. No, but I befriended one in Zimbabwe during a film shoot.

Jun 16, 2009

Italian chocolate - Modica

A week ago I posted the first "episode" of a chocolate saga. In sharing with you my total and unwavering addiction to cioccolata, my desire is to share a little about Italy's local chocolate distinctions. Today's cacao capital is Modica, a small town in the Sicilian province of Ragusa.

We are talking about one of the world's best chocolate types. The legendary cioccolato di Modica.

It is an extraordinary and unique product manufactured in the small jewel town of Modica. At the very lowest tip of the island of Sicilia, baroque Modica sits perched on a hilltop overlooking a deep gorge and boundless rural panoramas. Trivia digression: Modica was also the birth place of writer Salvatore Quasimodo, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959.

Modica chocolate is not smooth and refined. It is on the contrary grainy, and there is no milk chocolate version, just dark and darker. Cioccolato di Modica is a divine powdery, firm and crumbly block that can only be cut by a sharp knife, scattering crumbs of chocolate like those of a crusty loaf of bread. The peculiar dry texture of this treat surprisingly melts in your mouth almost instantly.

The Aztec recipe, as handed down from Meso-American Montezuma himself to the despotic Spanish conquistadores who later controlled Sicilia between the 13th and 15th centuries, requires the crude chocolate to be initially heated to around 40-50°C. When the minimal amount of cocoa butter melts, the basic ingredient can be worked together with cinnamon (or vanilla) and sugar until it is ready to be placed in the rectangular aluminum molds that give the stocky little bars of chocolate their unique shape. Before the chocolate solidifies, these molds are lined up on a large wooden tray that is beaten relentlessly against the thick pale gray marble kitchen table top.

This extraordinary ritual makes a tremendous racket, but actually serves to expel air bubbles and leave what will become the top side of the chocolate bars satiny and smooth. I'm now going to say something which will change your life:

The near absence of cocoa butter and air, makes Modica chocolate highly digestible and less fat.

After a few seconds of eating, the whiplash of undertaste intoxicatingly sets in, especially in the spiced varieties.

Excellent eaten with tea or a tall glass of milk. After a hefty dinner, a chunk of cioccolato di Modica and a shot of red wine will send you rocketing into oblivion.

Italian chocolate - Modica

Since 1880 the high temple of archetypal chocolate in Modica has been the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. An ceaseless attraction for myriad devotees, local and otherwise, this antique repository of toothsome treasures can be found on Corso Umberto I, the main drag snaking through the hillside on which the town clings like crafted coral.

Flavors range from al naturale, vanilla, cinnamon and spicy peperoncino. More modern varieties include nutmeg, coffee, ginger, sea salt and bergamot essence. Wrapped in the Modican fin de siecle trademark paper, this IGP chocolate is a rare tasting experience that will change your fancy for chocolate forever.

Jun 8, 2009

Italian chocolate - Torino

Susan of MY2K is one of the first blog friends and followers to visit this site. She's a loyal reader and aficionado in my little kitchen, and she posts incredibly interesting stories about Mayan glyphs and the mysterious civilization's multi-faceted culture. She and I share the fascination for all things central American, and among these, chocolate. One very interesting post of hers dealt with cacao beans used as currency. Here is an excerpt from that piece:

"For the ancient Maya, cacao beans were money. A rabbit was worth ten beans, as an example. They really did have money growing on trees. The fruit that surrounds the bitter seeds is sweet and was eaten by both monkeys and early man. Later, early civilizations discovered the seeds to be a wonderful, bitter, enticing food when roasted. The name kakawa is the original name from the Olmecs in 1000 BC. By the time of the Maya, cacao beans were even counterfeited. It was possible to remove the delicious center and substitute dirt or less valuable pieces of food before passing it off as cash."
You can read the full post HERE.

The word "chocolate" in fact comes from the Aztecs of Mexico, and is derived from the term xocolatl which is a combination of words meaning 'bitter waters.' Indeed, the unsweetened hot, frothy beverage with stimulant properties the Aztecs made of pounded cacao beans and spices was probably extremely bitter. Chocolate was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests. The Aztecs esteemed its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Taken fermented as a drink, chocolate was also used in religious ceremonies. Between a bloody game of pelota and a savage human scarifice, a nice cup of steaming xocolatl was the best way to replete. Bitterness notwithstanding, the Aztec king Montezuma so believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac that he purportedly drank 50 golden goblets of it each day (I can see where the legendary namesake revenge comes from).

To quote Susan, from one of our droolsome chocolate-induced conversations, "Aztecs, Olmecs, Maya, Spanish, English - they fought with each other but they kept the name for chocolate intact!" And we thank them on behalf of humanity.

How bland can a day be without a triangle of honey flavored Swiss Toblerone? What's the use of getting out of bed if there are no chocolate shavings in your cappuccino? If you know me a little by now, you'll comprehend how I cannot resist the temptation of Nutella. Can you recall the excitement upon walking in your first chocolatier? I purposely got lost during a guided tour of one of Torino's most famous chocolate factories just to manage a second go at the sample table.

It's my addiction. I'm not a dessert person, but chocolate is my weakness. Blissful is the midnight snack that begins with a chunk of glossy brown heaven wedged between my teeth and a salty crust of bread to go with it.

Italy competes with France and Switzerland for the best European chocolate. In the region of Piemonte alone, there are more master chocolatiers than in Belgium and France combined. In Tuscany, there is such a concentration of fine chocolate makers, that journalists have dubbed the area between Florence and Pisa the Chocolate Valley.

In the course of the weeks to follow I will set an appointment with you. Once a week, I will illustrate examples of the many Italian chocolate excellencies that dot our Peninsula. Let me begin this choco-monograph by telling you of one very chocolaty city in particular.

TORINO, the Gianduja capital of the world
Can you even begin to imagine a city where a special type of milk chocolate first prepared in 1852 by Pierre Paul Caffarel has inspired a famous praline, a Commedia dell'Arte character mask and self-appointed nickname? This decadent preparation of chocolate containing about 50% hazelnut and almond paste, is the symbol of the most epicurean Italian city of them all. The Napoleonic gem, Torino.

Caffrel's invention of Gianduja chocolate was out of necessity. Due to the long Napoleonic Wars, the transport of spices, coffee and cacao beans across the Atlantic was severely curtailed, and Europe began to experience unacceptable chocolate shortages. To extend their meager supplies of cocoa, Caffarel began blending ground hazelnuts into their cacao. The result was a creamy, flavorful delight, and it became an instant success.

Gianduja is a Carnival and Commedia dell'Arte marionette character who represents the archetypal Piemontese: sweet, guileful and overly polite. During the 1865 carnival celebrations in Torino, masked Gianduja began handing out a new chocolate truffle, the gianduiotto.

Gianduiotti are now the specialty of Torino, bite-size chocolate mouthfuls whose shape is similar to an upturned canoe. Gianduiotti are individually wrapped in gold-colored tin foil, and melt in your mouth leaving you inevitably addicted for more. Like it is said of cherries, uno tira l'altro, or "one pulls the next [into the mouth]".

Trivia Note:
Asti-born writer and broadcaster, Bruno Gambarotta, wrote a comic gastro-thriller entitled "Il codice Gianduiotto" (English: The Gianduiotto Code). The novel is a parody of the Dan Brown bestseller and centers on the mysteries of the secret formula for the perfect Gianduiotto.

Jun 6, 2009

Fave e Cicoria recipe

Broad beans have a long tradition of cultivation in Old World agriculture, being among the most ancient plants in cultivation and also among the easiest to grow. It is believed that along with lentils, peas and chickpeas, they became part of the eastern Mediterranean diet in around 6,000 BC or earlier.

The term fava bean (from the Italian fava) is its most common name in the United States, with broad bean being the most common name in the UK.

fava beans and pecorino, a roman classic pairing

In ancient Rome, beans were used in voting; a white bean was used to cast a yes vote, and a black bean for no. Some people carry a fava for good luck; some believe that a broad bean, in pocket will assure the essentials of life. In and around Rome, on May 1st, families traditionally eat fresh fava beans with Pecorino Romano cheese during a daily excursion or a picnic.

cicoria greens and baby spinach
Cicoria is a very interesting green leafy protagonist of Italian cuisine. This relative of the endive has curly, bitter-tasting leaves that are often used as part of a salad or cooked as greens. In the United States, early endive is sometimes erroneously called chicory. I've heard it associated to dandelion greens. Today's trendy radicchio is in effect a red-leafed cicoria.

cicoria ripassata, dragged in a pan with olive oil and garlic

The baked and ground roots were used as a coffee substitute during WWII when espresso was a luxury item sold uniquely on the black market. When a particular espresso is of inferior quality, it's often compared to the wartime surrogate coffee beverage.

This recipe is typical of the splendid region of Puglia, features the pairing of bitter cicoria leaves and a delicate fava bean purée.

250 g (1/2 lb) dried and peeled fava beans, soaked overnight
500 g (1.1 lb) bitter greens (like black kale, aka cavolo nero, dandelion, or chicory)
optional, 6 slices crusty peasant bread, 1" thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Drain the fava beans and place in a saucepan. Cover with water, cover the pot, and cook over medium-high flame. Skim the foam that rises to the top once the water boils.

Once there is no more foam, add a generous pinch of salt and cook the beans, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, or until they have dissolved into the water and have taken the consistency of clotted cream. You may have to add more boiling water to keep beans from scorching.

Using a hand blender beat in 1/4 cup olive oil and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, to taste.

While the beans cook, soak the greens in and baking soda, rinse several times in clean water, and then place them in a saucepan over high heat and cook them in the water that clings to their leaves, adding a little more water if necessary to prevent scorching. Once they are very tender, remove from the pot, squeeze out excess water, and dress with the remaining olive oil and salt and pepper, to taste.

Serve the greens and fava puree in soup bowls over a slice of grilled or toasted bread, drizzled with a thread of raw oil.

Fave e Cicoria - www.aglioolioepeperoncino.com

Buon appetito!

Jun 3, 2009

Cardi al Forno - baked cardoon recipe

Cardoons have won numerous 'disdained vegetable' championships. In posh foodie blogs and specialized magazines, the humble cardoon never gets mentioned. I read rhapsodies about the parsnip, odes to the beauty and versatility of the pomegranate, carousels around kale. Hardly ever cardoon tangents.

Ironic how my mother has over the years tried unsuccessfully feeding me gobbi (cardoons) ever since I can remember. Now that I've become a thistle-fetishist, her cocky smile burns like a branding iron on my ample buttocks.

The cardoon looks like a very strange celery stalk, but with longer, dustier and thicker ribs. The cardoon bunches that are available here in Italy are about 24" to 36" long. Cardi have a reputation for being difficult suckers to tackle, but once you figure out how to trim and cook them to tame their bitterness, it’s all good. The cardoon is related to the globe artichoke, and it has a similar flavor, as well as the capacity to turn your hands black, just like when handling raw artichokes.

The first step to properly domesticating cardoons is in how to clean them. This is done by stripping off the strings or filament ribs. It's not too time consuming, start at one end or the other, and give it an energetic zip. Once you get into it, it's kind of fun.

Yes, I get my kicks in strange ways (I like to shuck corn ears, too).

1 bunch of ripe cardoons, individual ribs trimmed
1 bowl of cold water with the juice of 1 lemon
Unsalted butter
Parmigiano, grated (lots)
Freshly milled black pepper

Working quickly, chop the stripped cardoon ribs into 2–inch chunks, and place them in acidulated water, just as you would with an artichoke (acidulated as in, soured by the acidity of lemon juice or vinegar, I love how you sound so haute cuisine-educated when you say acidulated).

Drop the cardoon chunks into boiling salted water until the pieces are soft. Now, in Italy, that takes about 10-15 minutes; I have friends in California who say that this takes them 45 minutes. Apparently there are quite a few different cultivars of thistle cardoons; what we get here is white or silvery, curved and not too fibrous.

When they are soft, drain the cardoons. Add little specks of butter, season with freshly ground black pepper and sprinkle with generous amounts of grated Parmigiano. Bake your cardi in the oven on a greased oven pan for a few minutes to melt the cheese and form a delish, golden crust.

Cardoons deserve more popularity. Just think how many ways in which you can prepare them besides the typical above-mentioned Umbrian recipe. 

You can: a) dip them in batter and fry them; 
b) further roast the fried chunks with slabs of Fontina, the cheese melts into the batter and scoffing them is a gooey, delicious mess;
c) add them to soups; 
d) make risotto; 
e) dip them in bagna càuda
just let your imagination run cardoon-wild.

Trivia Note: Cardonnacum, derived from carduus, is Latin for a place thick with thistles. This is believed to be the origin for the name of the Burgundy village of Chardonnay Saône-et-Loire, which in turn is thought to be the home of the famous grape variety.

So please, next autumn, when you go to your farmer's market, stubbornly ask for cardoons and pray for a comeback.

Jun 2, 2009

Fragole and Fragoline, the Italian strawberries

With the advent of springtime, few pleasures shadow the guilty one derived by plunging one's face in a bowl of freshly picked strawberries. In Italy we call them fragole.

fragole - strawberries

Fragrant strawberries are a typical Italian dessert item. How sensual and healthy! When my son’s toddler posse takes over the apartment and 4 boys feels like 600 barbarians pillaging my living room, I usually manage to simmer down the energy levels for a few minutes by feeding them fragole e panna for their "merenda" (traditional Italian mid-afternoon snack).

I rid the berries of the calyx and leaves, and rinse them in cold water. I cut them in quarters and marinate them in lemon juice and brown sugar for 15 minutes. Whip up some cream and watch the kids giddily devour the week’s vitamin C intake.

Trivia Note: Did you know that Madam Tallien, a great figure of the French Revolution, who was nicknamed Our Lady of Thermidor, used to take baths full of strawberries to keep the full radiance of her skin? And that Fontenelle, centenarian writer and 18th century gourmet, believed his longevity was due to eating strawberries?

Cosmetically, they are apparently used for whitening teeth. They can likewise be crushed and made into an excellent skin exfoliant that can afterwards be dutifully licked off skin by lover.

The peanut-sized wild fragoline strawberries that grow on the volcanic rim of Lake Nemi in the outskirts of Rome, are a rare and exquisite seasonal treat. Their flavor and fragrance are so strong that at times the aroma of the fruit can be picked up as soon as the car turns off the main road approaching the town. Roll down the window and inhale Nature's own Chanel n°5.

fragoline - wild strawberries

Contrary to the larger, common or garden strawberry, that can be made into sauces, coulis, granita and marmalade, these tiny delicate and highly perishable fruits are best eaten raw, possibly hand picked right off the shrub. No need to rinse them as their growth is purely spontaneous, biodynamic and therefore fortunately not sprayed with chemicals or pesticides. Best served unseasoned in a large glass goblet with an optional dollop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Or a few drops of limoncello.

Fragole, anyone?

Jun 1, 2009

Awards and recognitions

DISCLAIMER: Last week I was awarded with 3 very important recognitions by fellow bloggers. I have waited until now to post about them because I finally have had time to actually sit down and calmly talk about them and the prestigious trophies they bestowed.

The past days at work have been quite stressful, long hours and tediously hot on the sound stage. I guess the sleep deprivation from the past weeks of work, personal issues involving my son's schooling and general yard-long concerns of red-taped nature, have all piled up on each other. Each little problem, big or small, has contributed to this delay. For that I apologize.

Drumroll, please.

This award was personally handed to me by one of it's worthy initial recipients, Ces of Ces and Her Dishes. This award was created in honor of Renee, one human being who has made such a difference in the lives of many just by being. Her honestly, wit, intelligence, and grit are a tremendous source of inspiration. She can elicit raucous laughter and guffaws in her banter, and then turn right around and offer the most heartfelt, gentle words of wisdom and emotional support. She is a spreader of love, simple and true. And her love is infectious.
This is a brand new award, and I have the pleasure and honor of continuing to spread the seed, watching it grow. I hope it finds its way to those who are like Renee: the acorn, a small package becoming a tall and sturdy oak giving more acorns, becoming tall and sturdy oaks, giving acorns…"

This is why I love blogging because I meet brilliant, gifted and talented people. So I am happy to give this award to oak trees, whose acorns spread copious love, words and exquisite thoughts:

Rosaria of Sixtyfivewhatnow
Nihal of CrossRoads

David McMahon of Authorblog
Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita
Edoardo of Clouds and Silvery Linings

- & -

The second award I was given was from sweet Distracted By Shiny Objects of A Tidings of Magpies and it "goes to fellow bloggers who visit frequently and raise spirits with their kind words of encouragement, their beautiful images and their wonderful outlook on life. They make blogging a positive experience and continue to make life richer."

Distracted says,"Please feel free to pass this award along to your friends. I ask that you do name them but you don't have to link to them. Just stop by their blogs and let them know you've given them this award."

I pass this acknowledgement on to ALL my blog friends, you know who you are. I will not list them all in order to end this post in a timely manner. Just feel free to browse my blogroll...

- & -

My third award this week was kindly handed over by Eddie Bluelights of Clouds and Silvery Linings. It is the prestigious Premios Dardos Literary Award.
I was highly honoured to receive this award "for services to literature, requiring deep thinking, innovation and taking risks whilst writing." I am humbled by Eddie's generous gesture and his kind words of praise.

I am pleased to pass on this award to a delightful blogger whom I have known for a while. She writes exceptionally well, involves her readers with her soft spoken posts, and superb writing, triggers emotional response, is a fabulous photographer, an excellent mother, a delightfully generous blogger, and a dear friend.
I am happy to present the PREMIOS DARDO LITERARY AWARD to Lori Ann of Lori Times Five.
She will be picking this up when she returns from her African adventure. Read all about it next week...

ciao my friends, blogging changed my life...