Dec 31, 2010

Addio, 2010

Farewell old 2010, I've had enough of you. So I'm glad to see you go.


You've been nothing but trouble and disappointment. Your 365 days gave us more wars and horrible renewed conflict in many countries, the earthquake in Haiti, the BP oil spill, floods in Pakistan, Europe's near-simultaneous debt crises, terrorist and drug traffic attacks, the eruption of Iceland's Eyafjallajokull volcano, the Polish air tragedy, WikiLeaks, and the departing of many dear friends. This is your legacy.

I maintained my resolutions, but you haven't. You promised great things, and none happened.
The only good obtained has been through hard work, sacrifice, stubborn optimism and pondered choices. All of which reside uniquely within ourselves. We've matured out of the difficulties that 2010 presented. On a personal level, the hardships of the past year allowed me to find my voice, and through its expression, I have grown. I don’t feel belittled, dear 2010, instead I feel stronger and more confident. So for that I thank your obstacles and bad turns, because through many of them I have been elevated, empowered and emancipated.


Tonight I will welcome 2011 with a smile, red knickers and lots of champagne. I will eat lentils (carriers of money) and 3 white grapes at midnight for good luck. I will toast to my family, the rock upon which all my steadiness stands. I will thank God for his love and constant attendance to my prayers. I will bid farewell to Tessa, Renee, Mario, Corso, Piero, Aldo, Pietro, Suso, Tiberio, Claude, Mario, Arthur, Tony, Sandra & Raimondo, Angelo, Furio, Tom, Lynn, Jill, Dino, Dennis and Blake and all the many others that left us during 2010. And I will shoot fireworks, hoping they might see them from heaven.


Addio, 2010...

Benvenuto 2011 !

Dec 17, 2010

Sauces for Bollito Misto

Elemental foods can greatly benefit from a condiment. Just think how a roasted shank of lamb can find excellent partner in a gentle complementary pomegranate sauce, how piquant vinaigrette does justice to fresh garden greens, or how grilled zucchini and pumpkin love to bask in the simplicity of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

There are also dishes that cannot be called complete without their supportive sauces and condiments, Bollito Misto and Fondue Bourguignonne come to mind. The different flavors that pair with each morsel of tender cooked meat, make each bite essentially a different dish.

Rich, flavorful Bollito Misto is a traditional Northern Italian dish, particular of the Po River Valley. The mixed boiled meat feast is a regular winter evening offering at (mostly Northern) restaurants, where it’s wheeled out on a warmed cart and carved at the table.


Traditionally, Bollito Misto envisions seven cuts of meat, seven vegetable side dishes and seven sauces. Families make it on weekends to celebrate special occasions. In my home, it was a Christmas Day lunch staple.

Today I'm sharing my Nonna Titta's two traditional Piemontese meat seasoning condiments, Salsa Verde and Salsa Rossa: the keystone elements of the complex Bollito Misto ceremony. While your large chunks of meat cook in seasoned broth until tender enough to be eaten with a fork, assemble the following:



Salsa Verde
This spectacular sauce also goes by the name Bagnét Vert, or little green bath.

1 hard boiled egg yolk
1/4 pound of parsley
1 garlic clove
2 salted anchovies
2 slices of stale bread, crusts removed
2 small mild pickles (without dill would be better)
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
A little less than 1 cup of red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Soak the bread in the vinegar. Bone and wash the anchovies. Mince them along with the parsley, garlic, egg yolk, and the pickles. Gently wring the bread to drain it, and add it to the mixture; continue mincing with a mezzaluna for a couple more minutes, then transfer the blend to a bowl.

Using a wooden spoon, slowly stir in the olive oil, working the mixture well to obtain a fairly fluid, emerald green sauce.


Tip: Best results if prepared one day prior to serving.

◉⃝◉⃝◉⃝

Bagnét Ros
Keystone number two. Jazz up your Bollito Misto by adding this red sauce to boiled beef, chicken, veal, cotechino, tongue and testina (calf's head).

1 kg (2.2 lbs) ripe tomatoes
400 gr (2 cups) onions
2 medium carrots
1 celery rib
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt

Coarsely chop the tomatoes, onions, carrots and celery, and put them all in a pot with half the oil. Bring the vegetables to a boil, reduce the heat to a minimum, and stir in the sugar.

Simmer uncovered for about an hour.
Purée the vegetables through a foodmill into a bowl, stir in the remaining oil, and add salt to taste.

Dec 10, 2010

Sformato di Capellini ~

 This is a very showy dish. Baked pasta always looks elaborate, when in fact it's not.

I often make this angel hair timballo for important multi-course dinners and every time it's a success, always guaranteeing a bella figura.

When serving yours, don't let the compliments and moans of pleasure lure you into revealing it's made with few simple (and cheap) ingredients.

Essential equipment needed for this recipe:
  • 1-quart capacity ring mold
  • Double boiler (or 2 stacked pots) for baking en bain marie

◉⃝◉◉⃝◉◉⃝

150 gr (3/4 cups) capellini d’angelo (angel hair pasta)
1 lt (1 quart) whole milk
1 egg + 1 yolk
50 gr (1/4 cup) Parmigiano, grated
50 gr gr (1/4 cup) butter, softened
More butter and 2 fistfuls of breadcrumbs to coat the mold

◉⃝◉◉⃝◉◉⃝


Preheat the oven at 180° C (350° F).

Boil the pasta in the milk until all the liquid is absorbed (al dente rules don't apply here), and set aside to cool.

Once the pasta is lukewarm, stir in the egg and additional yolk, butter, and Parmigiano. Adjust seasoning, and pour in a greased mold, coated with breadcrumbs.

Bake en bain-marie (double boiler, the bottom pot filled with water) in the oven for 35-40 minutes until a golden crust forms on top.

Remove from the oven and allow the flan to cool completely, then flip it onto a platter and serve garnished with either a thick ragù, stewed peas, or a porcini and tomato sauce, overflowing from the hollow middle.

Hardly ever a let down.

Image © unacenaconenrica.com

Dec 5, 2010

BISCOTTI ~ how a cookie can save your life

baked and written by Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti


Delicious BISCOTTI book cover

I had never been to the American Academy in Rome. I missed the Alice Waters visit in spring and never followed up on the insisting advice of friends, fellows and bloggers to sit down at the AAR table and and enjoy the fruits of its collaborative dining program. I'd been putting off savoring the delightful fares prepared by Executive Chef Mona Talbott and her busy staff of assistants, interns and supporters of the Rome Sustainable Food Project for too long.

So yesterday I broke the spell. I walked through the heavy gates of the Academy's monumental main entrance, and timidly followed my steps as they echoed in the stunning courtyard lined with marble busts and bas reliefs.
Memories of teenhood naturally occupied my mind as I noticed the house next door. A beautiful two-storey townhouse nestled in a corner of the Janiculum Hill, where my mates Claudia and Joana once lived with their parents Celeste Maia and Robert during their stay in Rome. Growing up here, and living in apartment buildings, it's rare to experience a "house" in the middle of the city. Sloped roof, wooden floors, personal handrail on the stairs, children's height measurements etched in a door frame, back door, garden... a house. I loved that house. Most of all I loved the olfactory impact it had on me each time I first walked in: the aromas of Maia's Mozambique/Portuguese fusion cuisine mixed with the adorable smell of oil paint oozing from small metal tubes and unfinished canvases in her studio.

Peeking through the hedge as I neared the Academy's main building, I took a moment to observe the house. Not so big as I remembered it (funny how size and scale invert as you grow up). It's undergone a little renovating, gotten a fresh hand of paint and a lazy gardener has let the surrounding lush forest slack a bit. But it still exercises its fascinating charm on me. I continue straight ahead.

End of digression.
Light drizzle of rain. Warm lighting invades the cold winter from the cozy salone to the right of the main staircase. I catch a glimpse of Mona Talbott tending last minute tweaks to the buffet table laden with trays of spiced and nutty cookies, turning a perfect salver of minuscule fig-newtons clockwise by 2 degrees, brushing a crumb from the white linen tablecloth...

Downstairs, the panel is ready. The room is packed, interns proudly occupy the front rows. Kids high on sugar and beauty, giggle behind door jambs. The room falls silent. Mona Talbott introduces the book BISCOTTI, written and baked a quattro mani–four hands for a magic duo. Fifty recipes. Fifty love letters to the palate. Each memorable little cookie infused with the history and conviviality of la cucina romana, rich Sicilian confectionery art, Chez Panisse, American childhoods, tall glasses of milk, and solid international friendships. All coconut kisses, pistachio morsels and sesame Reginas aside, the best part of the afternoon tea and book presentation, is meeting Mona's co-author, Mirella. A shy and graceful donna del sud.

Sicilian-born Mirella Misenti worked in the Academy's kitchen as dishwasher. As told beautifully in Mona's introduction of BISCOTTI, Mirella was never a professional cook. But like many of us Italians, grew up cooking and baking alongside her mother, nonna, aunts, etc. Possessing the passion, pride, and perfectionism necessary to qualify as pastry chef, she was "promoted" in the field by Mona. Happily wearing a different apron, Mirella began making her native island's biscotti, and not just for fun, or for staff snacks. Mona describes Mirella's Sicilian pastry knowledge and cookie contributions as elegant and inspired. They took their rightful place in the American Academy's daily production.


As I drive back home, the rain has subsided. I smile at the pleasant irony of having bumped into many friends, made new ones and worked out extraordinary coincidental acquaintances and schoolmates from my academic past in a setting like the Rome American Academy.
Signed copy of the book and stash of biscotti tucked in my handbag, I linger on Mona's kind words, "Without Mirella there would be no Rome Sustainable Food Project BISCOTTI book–she was the key ingredient."

That's why I believe this is not only a committed and socially involved recipe compendium. It's a book about friendship, love, and how a cookie can indeed save your life.


Image © Annie Schlechter

Dec 3, 2010

Pasta alle Noci ~ Savory Walnut Condiment

A couple of weeks ago I posted a recipe for a Ligurian specialty, focaccia stuffed with cheese, a sinfully tasty delight. Today I want to tell you about another typical recipe from that blessed region: salsa alle noci.
Ligurians dress their pansotti (herb-stuffed ravioli) with this creamy walnut sauce. It is however also excellent daubed over spaghetti, ribbed penne, mafalde or linguine (or any other pasta type that "grabs" the condiment).


Traditionally salsa di noci was called "Tocco de nux" and prepared with walnuts harvested during the autumn months. To make your own nutty concoction, assemble:

150 gr (3/4 cups) husked walnut meats (you can blanch them to make peeling easier)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 pinch of dried marjoram
100 gr (1/2 cup) fresh ricotta cheese
Salt & Pepper

Image © supercolli

Using a pestle and mortar (or thrown in a blender), reduce the walnuts, garlic, marjoram and a pinch of salt to a fine powder, diluting with a thread of olive oil. Work in the ricotta with a fork, and blend well.

Use 2-3 tablespoons of the obtained sauce to dress your pasta. Always remember to save a small amount of starchy pasta cooking water for a creamier effect. The completed dish can be dusted with grated Parmigiano, a spin of the pepper mill, and garnished with a fistful of coarsley ground walnut meats. Serve lava-like hot in contrast with the chilled bottle of stand-by white wine...


Note: For those who have trouble with garlic, in this dish, it can be substituted with less pungent chives.

Nov 29, 2010

Fishing for compliments


The one weak spot in seafood is its perishable nature. Already after few hours from being caught, the heinous action of enzymes and microorganisms begins to attack fish. This more so during torrid summer months, when the high temperatures hasten the alteration process. It is however not impossible to identify truly fresh fish.

As handed down by expert fisherman, old family friend and Positano sea authority Salvatore Capraro, here is a checklist of what you should always consider when buying your beautiful fresh pesce.

  • Rigidity: when holding a bony fish horizontally by the head, the body should never fall limp, rather maintain a somewhat stiff condition. 
  • Firmness: flesh should appear solid yet elastic to the touch. A good trick is to press a finger gently on the fleshy part: the trademark of freshness is if the dent disappears almost immediately.
  • Eyes: fish eyes must be alive, shiny, convex and rounded to the outside. An eye that is sunken or flat, opaque and dull looking means the fish has been dead for a long time.
  • Skin: must appear lustrous and well taut. Scales, if present, should remain well attached to the body, even when lightly stroked in opposite growth direction. Furthermore, in extremely fresh fish, the entire body is usually shrouded by a thin and translucent organic film.
  • Gills: should always be pinkish-red, intact, clasped shut and laced with transparent mucus. If the fish has a blowhole or nostrils, they should always be found tightly closed too.
  • Belly: the abdomen of the fish is the part that contains all the entrails, and which is the easiest to alter. If that should happen in a fish, the belly would result flaccid or swollen. A fresh fish’s belly is instead turgid and flexible.
  • Smell: Extremely fresh fish smells like the sea. A salty, marine fragrance. The aroma should be subtle and never unpleasant.
  • Fins & Tail: must be in perfect condition, never frayed.

When buying squid, octopus or calamari, the best way to judge the tentacled creature’s freshness is by closely examining its color. It should always be bright and clear. After a few days, colors fade and become opaque, and in the central "belly" areas, the flesh acquires a yellowish-gray tone. Three to four days from the catch, cephalopode skin begins to form new colors, initially in small specks, then extending to larger body areas in various shades of pink, all the way to a burgundy wine color. At this point, the mollusk is no longer edible.



The role of seafood in the Italian diet has always been very important. Up until the early 60s, the Catholic Church required that the faithful eat fish on Fridays and all days of penitence, for example all during Lent. Most large cities had fishmongers to meet this demand, but there were also traveling fish merchants who, on their itinerary, covered those towns too small to support a specialized fish store. Globalization has wiped out this custom almost completely.

Many local pescivendoli and pescivendole – Italian for fishmongers and fishwives – are a dying breed. With the advent of the many modern ways of packing and distributing food, larger retail establishments often opt for less expensive alternatives to these highly skilled professionals. Fishmongers are in fact trained at selecting and purchasing, handling, gutting, boning, filleting and selling their marine product.

You can read more about surviving neighborhood fishmongers like Signor Mastroianni pictured above, in the article I contributed to The Travel Belles.

Nov 24, 2010

Tagliolini al Limone

I avoid making this delicate pasta dish in the hotter months of the year because of the caloric cream. But the welcome freshness of the lemons brings a whiff of spring in the bleakness of this rainy mid winter. If you decide to make homemade tagliolini from scratch for this recipe, your guests will have an extra reason to feel pampered.

Image © Pentole di Rame


500 gr (1.1 lb) tagliolini
The zest of 2 lemons, plus their juice
200 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
1 small shallot, finely chopped
50 gr (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
Parmigiano, grated
White pepper (optional)


While you wait for the pasta water to boil with a fistful of sea salt, film a large skillet with butter and heat over medium-low heat.

Sauté the shallot and add the lemon zest and juice. Stir in the cream and maintain at a very low simmer.

Drain the tagliolini al dente with a pair of tongs (to retain a little pasta cooking water) and toss them into the creamy lemon sauce in the skillet. Blend to coat the pasta well over mild heat for a few minutes, and serve garnished with more sprinkled zest, grated Parmigiano and an optional light dusting of white pepper.

You can pair your lemony tagliolini with fruit-forward white wine and a veal second course or a rich mesclun salad and seasonal fruits, steamed prawns and flowers thrown in among the greens.

Nov 20, 2010

Focaccia al Formaggio ~ Liguria's cheesy treat

Much of the cuisine of Liguria has origins in the historical port of Genoa and the many nearby businesses that offered quick meals for the camalli, the local dock workers. Liguria street food devotees flock to the sciamadde, which were typical streetside shops with wood-fired ovens in back, where you can still sample the local fainà, a slang twist of the word farinata, a pancake-type flatbread made with chickpea flour (regional shift on Cecina).


Tasty deep-fried treats served in a paper cone include frisceu, tasty sage, borage, and lettuce fritters (depending on the season), fried battered fish, strips of panissa (fried codfish), zucchini blossoms and sgabei (fried bread pieces). Other portable foods that are easy to eat on the go are Liguria's traditional vegetable pies: in Genoa there's pasqualina–a paper-thin crust stuffed with collard greens, eggs and local prescinseua cheese; with a variety of different fillings, from seasonal artichokes, zucchini, pumpkin, and onions to mention a few.


But the flagbearer of Ligurian street food is focaccia. Here this delightful flatbread – and don't call it pizza, for heaven's sake! – is eaten at all hours: with espresso or cappuccino for breakfast, or as an aperitivo snack, along side frosted glasses of Sciacchetrà or Pigato wine. A number of tasty variations on the original focaccia can be found all along the Ligurian eastern and western rivieras: in the province of Imperia there's pissallandrea, made from bread dough and topped with sautéed onions, Taggiasche olives and anchovies; in Sanremo there's sardenaira, made with tomatoes, basil, marjoram and thyme, garlic and onions, and the punchy machetto, a paste made with salted sardines and local olive oil. Another wood-fired speciality typical of Ligurian portable food is fugassa, a soft foccaccia made from wheat flour, left to rise for many hours and then served hot from the oven, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with grains of sea salt.

It is the town of Recco however that claims paternal origin of the most decadent, messy and flavorful of Liguria's focaccias: the unique Focaccia al Formaggio.


500 g (2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
400 g (2 cups) soft cheese, like Crescenza or Stracchino (or any mild and creamy cheese that will melt)
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Lukewarm water
Salt

Preheat oven at 200° C (390° F).

Add a pinch of salt to a hollow mound of flour, and slowly add the oil and small amounts of lukewarm water to obtain a firm, satiny dough. Shape it into a small loaf, wrap it in a clean cloth, and let it rest for an hour.

Divide the loaf in 2 equal parts and roll out the dough in 2 flat disks, about 1/8-inch thick.

Grease a cake pan and lay one of the disks. Sprinkle the surface with the cheese, and blanket with the second layer of dough. Jab the entire surface with the tines of a fork, but don’t pierce it through. Baste with a little olive oil and season with (very little) salt.

Bake in the hot oven for 40 minutes and apply to face.

Nov 15, 2010

Olive Ascolane ~ Stuffed Olives

L'infinito

Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell'ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quïete
io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l'eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s'annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare.


In one of his most appreciated works, the poem L’infinito, Giacomo Leopardi narrates an experience he often has when he sits in "his" secluded place on a Recanati hillside. His eyes cannot reach the horizon, because of a hedge surrounding the site; his thought, instead, is able to imagine spaces without limits. The silence is deep; when a breath of wind comes, this voice sounds like the voice of present time, and by contrast it evokes all times past, and eternity. Giacomo's thoughts drown in new and unknown waters, but il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare, "my drifting shipwrecked in this sea is so sweet."

The Marche region can be defined as a food confederacy: influenced in the north by neighboring Romagna, southerly Abbruzzo and by Umbria, Toscany and Lazio to the west. The region's capital is the mountain-locked city of Ascoli Piceno. And the typical specialty there is Olive Ascolane, known to restore hope to even the rockiest, despondent pessimist.

Stuffed, breaded and fried olives from Ascoli: actual size

A blow to the liver, but incredibly tasty and original: green lightly brined olives that are rolled into perfect balls of ground veal and pork meat, then breaded and deep fried into crisp and tangy bite-size morsels of steaming nirvana. If buying the frozen supermarket kind doesn't appeal to you, assemble:

1 kg (2.2 lbs) green Ascoli olives (large, salted)
1 small onion, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 celery rib, minced
150 g (3/4 cup) lean veal or chicken
150 g (3/4 cup) lean pork
100 g (1/2 cup) prosciutto
A fistful of Pecorino Romano, grated
A fistful of Parmigiano, grated
4 eggs
50 g (1/4 cup) tomato concentrate
400 g (2 cups) breadcrumbs
400 g (2 cups) flour
1/2 glass dry, white wine
Extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Put meats and prosciutto through food processor. Brown the meat mince, onion, celery and carrot in a skillet with the olive oil, adding very little salt and pepper and moistening with the wine. When the wine evaporates, cover and continue cooking until the meat is thoroughly browned, but not dry. In a large mixing bowl, incorporate cooled meat mix and cheeses, a dash of breadcrumbs, nutmeg, tomato and 2 eggs. Combine all by passionately blending with your hands, and cool off from the sensual kneading with a nicely chilled glass of Falerio dei Colli Ascolani.

Remove the pit from the olives. A good way is to carve them away with a sharp paring knife, starting from the top and working your way down, obtaining one single long strip like when peeling an apple. I've seen folks use a cherry pitter, and it works just as well.
Stuff the pitted olive pulp with the meat mixture, rolling each into 1-inch globes. If during the pitting phase some break, you can reconstruct them during stuffing.

First tumble them in the flour, then plunge them in the remaining beaten eggs and finally roll them in the breadcrumbs. Let the orbs rest a little before frying. So after a short nap, heat your vegetable oil in a large frying pan, or better, start the electric fryer (this will avoid the crust from falling off the olives during frying). Drop the balls in the hot oil and deep-fry for a few minutes.

Briefly dry on paper towel and polish off at luciferine temperature.


Planning to visit Ascoli Piceno?
WHAT TO SEE
  • The Roman Bridge of Solestà, built in the age of Augustus, and almost perfectly preserved. It can be visited inside, which offers rare insight on Roman bridge architecture.
  • The historical center of the city, built in grey travertino marble, extracted from the surrounding mountains.
  • The central Renaissance Piazza del Popolo is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy.
  • The cathedral of Sant'Emidio, period.
  • The Malatesta Fortress, rising on the site of ancient Roman baths, and reconstructed under Galeotto Malatesta, the lord of Rimini. The fortress was used as a prison until very recent times.
  • At Castel Trosino, there's an ancient necropolis, that dates back to the 6th century AD.


DON'T MISS
On the first Sunday in August, the historical parade for Sant'Emidio, the patron saint of the city. Fifteen-hundred citizens, outfitted in impressive Renaissance costumes, march down the corso to the sound of a steady drum-beat, and several file past on horseback. The parade is followed by a jousting tournament, called Quintana, during which six knights–each one competing for one of the six historical quarters in the city–in turn and armed with heavy lance astride their steed, thunder around a racetrack lunging forward, trying to pummel a cardboard figure of a Saracen warrior, Il Moro.

Image © Massimo Carradori

If you attend the Quintana festival, be prepared for a hot and exciting afternoon. The crowds get wildly involved in the scores of the jousts, cheering for their sestiere, much like the Palio held in Siena twice a year. For an out-of-town visitor however, an hour or two of parade and jousting might be enough, especially if traveling with children. It might be wiser at that point to repair to an air-conditioned room, lots of gelato under a leafy canopy, and plan dinner and more activities for the cool of evening. 

GETTING THERE
A rental car is your best bet. From the autostrada A14 (eastern coastal toll highway), take the exit San Benedetto del Tronto. There are easy to follow road signs that direct to the Ascoli city center from there on.
Ascoli Piceno can also be reached by regional trains, which run quite frequently and leave every 30 to 40 minutes, from either San Benedetto del Tronto or Porto d'Ascoli; both are stops on the Adriatic rail line. But be aware that the train station is just outside town, so you'll need to take a taxi to get to the centro. There is also a bus service from San Benedetto del Tronto that leaves from the train station and arrives in the center of Ascoli Piceno.


For more ideas and travel tips in Le Marche, be sure to swing by my friend Valerie who lived in Ascoli for a number of years before moving further south to Basilicata.

Nov 10, 2010

Polpettone di Tonno ~ Tuna Loaf

Blurry vision and dry mouth.

I'm driving to work in gridlock traffic while my son's pale forehead burns, throat parched and tiny stomach still upset from the previous night's retching, gurgles ominously. Soft goodbye at his larger-than-usual chestnut eyes and infinitely long lashes: I whisper a guilty 'mommy has to go to work now,' and I choke back tears, while the unfamiliar babysitter stands in the doorway pretending she's not preoccupied.

This was Friday. A day that seemed neverending.

Fortunately this season's influenza intestinale only lasts 24 hours. The temperature is gone, no more projectile vomiting, and several sips of cola later, smiles and pink cheeks are back on Little E's face. I on the other hand have counted numerous new silver streaks in my hair.

It's hard to juggle work and a sick child. It's impossible to stay focused on the job while the person in charge of your sole reason for living can't get a clear reading on the thermometer (I couldn't help chuckling at how the sitter took my son's temperature, more like how you carry a baguette than an armpit lodge).

Tonight I cooked him the first real meal after 3 days of tea and white rice. It felt like a party and the menu had to include a celebratory favorite. So I went with Tuna Loaf.



On a rainy sick day, nothing restores a smile back on my child’s face like a good meatloaf, unrestrained cartoon-watching during dinner, and lots of potatoes. This recipe revisits a family classic, employing tuna instead of leftover roast.
It takes very little effort, and your kids will gratify you with plenty cackle at the table.



600 gr (3 cups) oil-canned tuna, well drained
150 gr (3/4 cup) coarse homemade breadcrumbs
200 gr (2 cups) Parmigiano, grated
9 eggs
1 cup broth concentrate (can be made with 2 bouillon cubes per 1 cup of water)
Dash of ground nutmeg


Put tuna and eggs through the food processor to obtain a supple purée. Remove from blender and knead in the breadcrumbs, cheese and nutmeg; and slowly ladle in some cooled stock, to keep mixture soft. You may not need to use up all the broth, just enough to moisten the loaf.

Wrap the tuna loaf in a clean kitchen towel and fasten the ends with knots, candy wrapper-style.

Fill a large stew pot with water and bring to a rolling boil. Cook the 'tuna candy' for 20 minutes. Unwrap and let it cool. Serve sliced drizzled with olive oil and lots of steamed potatoes.

Nov 6, 2010

Palle di Riso ~ Fried Rice Balls

While forced to cope with capricious skin, summer crushes and wild hormonal hurricanes, my Positano teen posse and I would often sneak into the Buca di Bacco kitchen at 10 a.m. while chefs were just beginning their morning shift, and order dozens to go. We would pack our fried goods and dash off to the pier where someone’s motorboat was always ready to take us out to sea for a swim. Hours later–exhausted after diving competitions, snorkeling, trolling for scorpion fish, messy water polo matches and lazy sunbathing in the silence of a secluded cove–wolfing down our sun-warmed palle di riso was the best part of the day.


In Sicily they’re called arancine, and quite a complex architecture of a snack. Pear-shaped and featuring elaborate fillings, the classic breaded and deep fried rice balls the size of a fist, traditionally have meat ragù, mushrooms and stewed peas in their filling. In other parts of Italy, similar flavor bombs–according to geographical area and assorted filling–go by different monikers: supplì (in Rome) are tomato-flavored and bullet shaped croquettes with a heart of mozzarella; arancini di riso are almost always creamy saffron risotto dome-shaped pucks, or round like oranges (the noun arancino means, small orange). Exotic new fillings in the rice mixture may include the likes of chopped porchetta, a pecorino and pepper mix, and even squid ink.

Palle di Riso–childhood lexicon–are the signature piece of Italian Fritto Misto all’Italiana–a sumptuous mixed vegetarian fried platter. Honoring tradition, I still prepare them according to the long-established Buca di Bacco recipe handed down by chef Andrea Ruggiero himself. I serve them along with a sauceboat of hearty homemade tomato sauce, and three in each plate: a meal.


500 g (1.1 lb) Arborio rice
100 g (1/2 cup) freshly grated Parmigiano or aged Provolone
300 g (1 1/2 cups) mozzarella, finely chopped
5 eggs
A packet of saffron, dissolved in 1 fl oz of hot water
Breadcrumbs, toasted
A fistful of polenta (cornmeal)
Flour for dredging
Oil for frying
Salt


Combine the chopped mozzarella and a fistful of the grated cheese, and set aside.

Boil the rice in lots of lightly salted water, until it reaches the al dente stage. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Let it cool for 10 minutes, then season it with the remaining cheese, 2 lightly beaten eggs, and the diluted saffron. Mix well and let the thick mixture cool some more.

To make a rice ball, take a heaping tablespoon of rice and flatten it out against the palm of your hand, cupping it to make a hollow. Fill the hollow with a tablespoon of the mozzarella mixture and cover the filling with a little more rice, shaping the ball into an orange. Roll it in flour and repeat the ball-making process, until all the rice is used up.

Beat the remaining 3 eggs, season with a pinch of salt, and dip the balls in them. Combine the cornmeal and breadcrumbs and roll the eggy balls in the mixture, coating them well. Fry the palle in hot oil, until golden. Drain well on a paper towel, and serve them hot with your basic tomato sauce for some serious dipping.

Image © stefaniav

Trivia:
In Rome, supplì are often described as "al telefono" – or, on the phone; do you know why? Because when you bite into a proper supplì, the mozzarella should string out like a telephone line. The advent of cordless phones has made this old way of saying sadly obsolete.

Nov 1, 2010

Ossa dei Morti ~ Bones of the Dead

My Nonna Titta raised me like a mother; like all grandmothers do in Italy–even before it was customary for working moms to leave home to bring income to the household.
Yet Giuditta–Titta for her friends and immediate family–was not your average granny. She told fairy tales, baked cakes and occasionally knitted; but in her youth she had been a talented, successful and beautiful theater actress. And with a childhood worthy of a novel.


Born into a theater family, she began touring around the world with the Ermete Zacconi theater company along with her parents and brothers from when she was old enough to stand (as a small child she was forced to play only boys' roles, a female child in theater was not happy news). The kids (four boys and one girl, Titta) were the younger thespians acting opposite turn of the century celebrities, while my great-grandfather was the "trovarobe," in charge of painting backdrops, collecting furniture, set dressing, props, etc. Nowadays this role is called Production Designer. His wife, my bisnonna Luigia, was a seamstress. She designed all the costumes for each production, and was in charge of cutting, stitching and fitting all.

This wild assortment of talent traveled away from Italy each summer, headed to South America, where the company performed mostly for immigrant patrons in theaters all over Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Italians didn't only land in Ellis Island…
My nonna Titta didn't speak a word of English, but thanks to these annual 6-month tours, she was fluent in Spanish and grasped the rudiments of Portuguese.
Once the season ended abroad, the company would pack the staging equipment and navigate the Atlantic on steamships back to Europe, just in time for winter in the northern hemisphere. Titta loved the summer, because for so many years of touring, she said, summer was not an option.

Later, as she grew into a teen and then into a young woman, her talent and sophisticated flair put her in the limelight. She soon became leading lady in many popular 1920s stage productions, and her repertoire spanned from the Greek classics, Shakespearean drama, to humorous, intelligent and ironic contemporary pieces. In 1930 she met my grandfather, whom she formed a company with, and eventually married seven years later. My mom was born the following year, and this gave Titta the chance to finally retire from the theater scene at age 42.

Nonna and Nonno in Venice
Despite her separation from my grandfather (divorce didn't exist in Italy at the time), the hardships of WWII Italy, and being a single mother in the 1950s, Nonna managed to keep it together, and star in 25 films between 1933 and 1966. One of the last roles she played was in 1962, as Marcello Matroianni's mother in the Fellini masterpiece 8 1/2.

As I said, like many nonnas, mine was a key figure during my childhood, she was there for me while my mom was working full time, adjusting to divorced life, and mourning my grandfather's premature death. Nonna Titta was great company, a playful, unconventional, tender and witty companion. She and I produced wonderful role games, during which I'd introduce her to my latest child (I owned many dolls at the time) and we'd chat and gossip like ladies over teacups of sugared tap water. Nonna spoiled me like only grandparents can (and are allowed to). And she taught me to appreciate good food through her virtuoso cooking skills.

Me and Nonna, 1970
My son didn't get a chance to meet his great-grandparents, one of my biggest regrets. It's important that he learn about his extended family, here in Italy and the one abroad. I can start by introducing him to his great-grandmother Titta, by telling him her wonderful stories, showing him photographs and paintings, reproduce her recipes and replicate those everyday gestures of love I grew with.


We don't celebrate Halloween in Italy. The related observance we do honor is on the other hand i Morti: an Italian two-day festivity bridging November 1st (All Soul's Day) and November 2nd (Day of the Dead). This is not a morbid or mournful holiday, rather a celebration of life. Ossa dei Morti, or "Bones of the Dead," are among the numerous traditional (and almost always almond-laced) Italian cookies commonly enjoyed on this occasion. There are many different regional recipes for Ossa dei Morti, these particular hard and crunchy meringue ones are from Piemonte, where nonna Titta was originally from.

She was very superstitious, so I hope she won’t mind if I associate her to this rather disturbing, sepulchral recipe name. If you hear thunder tomorrow, it’s probably her, complaining from heaven.


250 gr (1 cup) flour
100 gr (1 1/4 cup) hazelnuts (ideally from the Langhe region, in Piemonte), shelled and left whole
100 gr (1 1/4 cup) almonds, coarsely ground (I put them in a freezer bag and pound the heck out of them)
400 gr (2 1/4 cups) brown sugar
2 egg whites, beaten
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of cinnamon
Butter and flour to grease and dredge the cookie sheet

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, egg whites, and lemon juice. Work in the nuts and spices, and continue kneading until you have a fairly firm dough. Roll the ball of dough out with your hands forming it into a rope. Cut the rope into 2-inch sections.

Preheat oven to 180° C (360° F).

Butter your cookie sheet, dust with flour, and lay the 'bones' on it distanced form one another, and bake for about 20 minutes. Let the cookies cool to jaw-breaking hardness before serving with a glass of Moscato or Vin Santo. Amen.

Image © savoringtimeinthekitchen.blogspot.com

Oct 24, 2010

Gnocchi from scratch


You have to be patient.

Making gnocchi takes practice and persistance. At their best potato gnocchi can be delicate. At their worst, they turn ot dense, rubbery, or soggy. In the worst case scenario, the gnocchi fall apart in the boiling water before even meeting their condiment. I'm not trying to scare you off from making them, I just want you to know what you're in for. The trick is using a small quantity of egg to hold the potato/flour mixture together.


1 kg (2.2 lbs) russet potatoes
300 gr (1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Salt

Boil the unpeeled potatoes 30-40 minutes (according to potato size) in lightly salted water, resisting the temptation to pierce them with a fork, this floods the potato structure with boiling water, thus damaging the dough.

Let the potatoes cool a bit then peel and mash them with a hand-powered mill or a ricer, straight into a bowl.

Once completely cool, mix them with the egg yolks and olive oil. Now sift the flour over the potatoes and mix it in with a wooden spoon. Do this with gentle movements, only until the flour is moist and the dough looks crumbly.

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 a minimum to obtain a uniform consistency, considering you'll be also 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.
Image © Foodnuveau.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 or plastic wrap, so the gnocchi keep warm. Repeat the casting-fishing routine until all gnocchi are cooked.

UPDATE:
For a splendid gnocchi tutorial, complete with extra information and a useful video, visit Foodnouveau – Merci, Marie!

Oct 22, 2010

Pasta con le Sarde & Finocchio

Earlier this week I wrote a guest post for Mangia Monday, a weekly column over at Wanderlust Women Travel, in which I spotlighted a secret Tuscan restaurant called Osteria il Vignaccio.

Today I welcome Wanderlust Women Travel's owner Lisa Fantino who will be launching our first installment of the 2010 You’re The Cook Today series. Lisa will be taking us to Sicily and introducing us to her Nonna’s rendition of a classic Sicilian dish, Pasta con le Sarde. 



In Italy, this is a seasonal dish, one commonly made between March and September, i.e. the only time of year during which Sicilian pescherie (open air fish markets) carry the perfect size of fresh sardines; and when fields are most abundant with wild fennel just begging to be hand picked.


But let’s hear how Lisa makes this delectable Sicilian treat.


Prego, Lisa. The toque is yours. 




"Growing up in a Sicilian-American household my lunches consisted of mortadella sandwiches instead of bologna and capicola instead of ham. I also ate babaluci (snails) and voosteddi (spleen sandwiches) but one of my favorite dishes was Nonna's "Pasta Finocchio Sarde" (pasta with fennel and sardines). Now, don't roll your eyes or scrunch your face because I am about to share with you a bit of heaven that’s really easy to make because it's partly ready-made.

Trust me, this dish is so easy that I have taught a native Jamaican woman how to make it and she's now speaking with a Sicilian accent. Also, you must know that Sicilians don't measure anything so everything here is an approximation.


Ingredients
5-6 cloves of garlic (or as many as you desire without scaring the neighbors) The garlic should be thinly sliced and not chopped
Handful of pinoli (pine) nuts
Handful of golden raisins (for some reason they taste better than regular raisins here)
Olive oil (extra virgin, first-pressed, certo)
Nonna's cast iron skillet if you're lucky enough to have one.
1 lb perciatelli pasta (some folks use thin spaghetti but I prefer perciatelli which allows you to make that sweet sucking noise as you savor this taste of heaven)


Start by boiling your pasta water so that it can cook while you prepare the dressing which only takes about 5-7 minutes. (BTW – the perciatelli should be cooked al dente. This is the wrong dish for mushy pasta!)

Heat the oil in your skillet until hot and toss in the garlic for a minute and then the pinoli nuts. Simmer until golden brown but do not burn them. Both of these ingredients are extremely delicate in that regard, and can both taste rancid if burnt to a crisp.

Toss in the can of sarde mixture.

Add the raisins and simmer on low for approximately 5 minutes, or until the wrinkles come out of the raisins and they look plump.

Toss the entire mixture over the drained perciatelli and mix well. Serve with grated cheese and/or moddica (typical Sicilian toasted breadcrumb) to garnish.

The dish itself is of Arabic origin, as are many things on the island of Sicily, but don’t tell that to my family."



Grazie Lisa, this was wonderful. 
I’m sure many native Sicilians out there are swooning with memories of this great dish.

::

Lisa Fantino is an award-winning journalist and attorney, and the Italy travel concierge and creative force behind Wanderlust Women Travel and the recently launched Amalfi destination wedding site, Wanderlust Weddings. Her love of the Amalfi Coast has also inspired her to gather sterling silver jewelry and gifts inspired by the beauty of the region at Amalfi Blu. She also writes travel features for MNUI travel insurance and blogs as Lady Litigator.


Interested in reading more about Sicily and its glorious food?
Check out my articles (with recipes) on Pasta alla Norma ~ Panelle ~ Caponata ~ Grilled Swordfish Steak ~ Orange Salad alla Trapanese ~ Gelo di Anguria


Image credits and © cateringadomicilio.it | Adriao via WikimediaCommons

Oct 18, 2010


As many of you know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month worldwide.
The annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities and organizations every October works toward increasing awareness of the disease and raising funds for research into its cause, prevention and cure. Charities like Pink Ribbon aim to create a global community to support breast cancer patients, survivors and their families.
As well as providing a platform for breast cancer charities to raise awareness of their work and of the disease, this is also a prime opportunity to remind women to test with mammography and ultrasound for early detection.

Many native Italian and expat bloggers in Italy–as part of the 17th Nastro Rosa campaign–are blogging in pink today.

Our gracious hosts Barbara, Chiara and Carolina were the minds behind this important joint blog event. I am honored to participate, and I thank Rosa at Bell’Avventura for letting me know of this opportunity. Please visit Mamma Felice for a complete list of participants.

My contribution for today's worldwide effort to spread the word about breast cancer awareness is... you guessed it, a recipe!


Blushing Pink Strawberry Risotto
~ Ingredients ~
2 tablespoons minced onion (I use shallot)
3 tablespoons celery, julienned
50 gr (1/4 cup) butter
400 gr (2 cups) Arborio or Carnaroli rice
250 ml (1 cup) good quality dry sparkling wine, or prosecco
Simmering vegetable broth (chicken broth is OK too)
300 gr (1 1/2 cups) firm strawberries, calyx removed and finely sliced
4 tablespoons Parmigiano, grated

::

Sauté the onion and celery until translucent in 2/3 of the butter, then remove with a slotted spoon and set them aside.

Toast the rice in the butter and cook over a moderate heat, stirring with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes. Return the bruised onion and celery back into the rice, mixing to heat through, and add the bubbly. Continue stirring until the sparkling wine is completely evaporated; then start adding the broth, one ladle at a time.

The rice should be done in about 15 minutes: this is when you add the strawberries.

Cook stirring gently for one more minute, turn off the heat, and fold in the remaining butter and the cheese. Cover for a minute, and then serve in individual portions, with the four prettiest heart-shaped strawberries, placed on each. You can also garnish each bowl of risotto with a sprig of mint or fresh basil leaves.

Image © thechefisonthetable

Raise your pink champagne glasses with me and let's toast: SALUTE! To our health!



_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_



:: V E R S I O N E    I T A L I A N A ::

Come molte di voi sanno, ottobre è il mese della prevenzione del tumore al seno.
La campagna annuale organizzata da istituzioni benefiche nel mese di ottobre è volta a sensibilizzare la consapevolezza riguardo a questa malattia; e nella raccolta fondi per la ricerca, prevenzione e cura del tumore alla mammella.

La campagna mondiale è anche un'opportunità per ricordare a tutte noi donne di sottoporsi a regolari controlli ed esami di diagnosi precoce quali mammografia e ecografia, per sconfiggere sul tempo eventuali insorgenze.

In Italia, la campagna Nastro Rosa è organizzata dalla LILT, che da anni si dedica alla prevenzione del tumore al seno. La campagna non opera unicamente come raccolta fondi e nello svolgimento di varie attività benefiche, ma anche a sostegno attivo nell'offrire informazioni a donne affette da tumore al seno, alle sopravvissute e alle loro famiglie.

In occasione della 17esima edizione della campagna Nastro Rosa, molti blogger Italiani e stranieri della Penisola oggi si tingono di rosa. Grazie alle generose Barbara di Mamma Felice con Chiara di Ma Che Davvero e Carolina di Semplicemente Pepe Rosa–le tre menti dietro all'iniziativa del post collettivo–per averci dato modo di partecipare a questo evento internazionale di straordinaria importanza. Ringrazio inoltre Rosa di Bell'Avventura per avermi invitato a partecipare.

Il mio contributo per la campagna è una ricetta... tutta in rosa!


Risotto alle Fragole

~ Ingredienti ~
2 cucchiai di cipolle tritate (io uso lo scalogno)
3 cucchiai di sedano, affettato a julienne
50 gr burro
400 gr riso Arborio o Carnaroli
250 ml buon vino frizzante secco, o prosecco
Brodo vegetale (ma anche quello di pollo va bene)
300 gr fragole, private della corolla, e affettate sottilmente
4 cucchiai di Parmigiano grattuggiato

::

Saltare la cipolla e il sedano in 3/4 del burro fino a farli appassire. Toglierli dalla pentola e tenerli da parte. Tostare il riso nel burro e cuocerlo a fuoco moderato, mescolando per 5 minuti. Aggiungervi la cipolla e il sedano appassiti e riscaldare. A questo punto versare il prosecco, mescolando fino a farlo evaporare del tutto. Un mestolo alla volta, aggiungere il brodo caldo, man mano che il risotto lo assorbe in cottura.

Il riso sarà cotto in circa 15 minuti: a questo punto aggiungere le fragole affettate.

Ultimate la cottura mescolando dolcemente per un altro minuto appena, togliere dalla fiamma, e incorporando il restante burro e il Parmigiano grattuggiato. Far riposare coperto per un minuto e poi servire in porzioni individuali decorate con spicchi di fragola (avrete tentuo da parte le 4 più belle a forma di cuore) ed eventuale fogliolina di menta o basilico fresche.

In alto i calici di champagne rosé e brindate con me: ALLA NOSTRA SALUTE!


 

Oct 13, 2010

Chocolate Ravioli

Yes, chocolate.
While lazily shopping for staples in a new supermarket a few days ago, I came across a famous Italian brand of commercially sold fresh pasta–not the dried variety, nor the kind extruded through precious metal dies–but one that actually fulfills one of my biggest fantasies. Chocolate pasta.

I'm not talking about a vague flavoring, or a slight a beige hue, no. This is serious choco-mania material. Large percentage of fair trade cacao mixed into the dough, and a decadent chunky hazelnut chocolate filling.

The term ravioli just went up a notch.

chocodecadence 2010

What follows may not be a crowd pleaser. But my name is Eleonora and I am a chocoholic. So bear with me on this one.

The manufacturer calls these "tortelli" given their exotic filling, even if in this particular case they're square-shaped and stuffed, like what I'm more comfortable calling 'ravioli.' For more on pasta shapes and types, please read my La pasta! post.

The box suggested the pasta be served as a quirky dessert, and offered a number of original cooking ideas. But I had to experiment with flavors, and take my chocofantasy all the way.



So I boiled the ravioli in salted water.


I prepared a basic dressing. What you normally do when employing star ingredients that need to shine, like white truffles, garden sage or a special stuffed pasta, like in this case. 
This every day elemental dressing is salted butter and very good quality, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.


Fresh pasta needs very little cooking, the box said 2 minutes.
I drained the ravioli, saving a little starchy cooking water. I poured them into my bowl with 1/2 stick of butter and generous fistful of grated Parmigiano, and stirred gently to coat evenly. I then added a splash of cooking water for creaminess.


As a final touch, I dusted a minimal amount (about a tablespoon) of chocolate caviar, another sinful item I picked up some time ago and cannot seem to do without lately. I normally use it over gelato, fruit salad or tiramisu; but I've had days when it was perfect sprinkled over pizza bianca, or dropped liberally in my morning cappuccino and evening Irish Coffee.


Chocolate is so versatile, that it can very well be used in savory preparations. The soft smoothness of the chocolate elements, and the salty notes of the grated cheese and melted butter offered a very interesting flavor combination. The glass of full-bodied and voluptuous Amarone I drank with it also contributed.

sweet~savory chocolate ravioli for lunch



This post is is one of many submitted worldwide for Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust & Lipstick
Head over to Beth's to learn more about ethnic (and unconventional) cuisine from around the world.

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