Sep 28, 2010

La pasta!

Popular pasta shapes and types

It’s a vast world beyond fettuccine. Eclectic starchy carbo-nutrient and key meal staple in the Italian diet–whether home made or store bought–offers a mammoth choice in terms of different variations, sizes, colors, textures and shapes.

Regarded as a whole, pasta can be divided into three broad categories: pasta di semola di grano duro, made from durum wheat flour, water, and salt. Dried hard wheat pasta is the one most commonly sold in grocery retail stores. Then there's pasta all’uovo, which is made by mixing eggs and regular flour; and homemade pasta.

Homemade pasta is generally made with cake flour (which has less gluten) and eggs. Therefore, since durum wheat flour is not being used, the cooking time of homemade pasta is critical; if you leave it in the water to boil for too long, it will become wallpaper glue.

Extruded pasta all'uovo is made in smaller (usually neighborhood) factories by artisans whose chief concern is quality. The golden yellow pasta all'uovo is made with all purpose flour and eggs of corn-fed free range chickens.

Another pasta commonly extruded at local artisan pasta makers is the casareccia kind, (homestyle) which employs durum wheat flour, water, and salt (no egg).

Pasta that’s extruded is essentially forced through a bronze die, and then cut to the proper length and dried. The bronze die leaves helpful microstriations on the pasta dough, and the good thing about the rough surface of organic home produced or artisanal extruded pasta is that sauce and dressings will literally cling to the grain. Extra ridges, ripples and grooves are often added by commercial manufacturers to their pasta products to create that very same sauce-capturing effect. Conversely, smooth Penne and Ziti, for example, are intended for richer, chunkier sauces that don’t necessarily need to stick to the pasta.

Italians divide la pasta semantically into two basic groups: "long" pasta and "short" pasta. The long category includes Spaghetti, Spaghettini, Capelli d’angelo (literally, angel hair), Linguine, Fettuccine, Tagliatelle, Bucatini etc., intending all those foot-long strand, ribbon or noodle-type pastas.

The short pasta class includes Penne, Rigatoni, Gnocchi, Farfalle, Fusilli, Tubetti and so on.

Some shapes, that don't qualify for either of the long or short categories, are large enough to be stuffed and baked, and others, like soft egg Ravioli or Agnolotti, Tortelli, Cappelletti and Tortellini, come already stuffed.

Regional pastas would deserve a chapter of their own. Allow me to mention however that some regional pasta types have become enormously famous worldwide, like for example Orecchiette from Puglia, buckwheat Pizzoccheri of the Dolomites, Liguria's Trofie and the copious production from the Gragnano realm (near Naples). Some of the more modern varieties of regional pasta, like Scialatielli, and Paccheri (both hailing from Campania) are also quite popular.

Pasta normally is white-yellow or bright golden (depending on egg quantity) but other colors exist. By adding tomato, pumpkin, beetroot or spinach (or in some daring cases, squid ink) in the dough, the rainbow of colors available is virtually endless.

In some very kitsch Italian grocery/souvenir stores you can even purchase sex-themed short pasta shapes for aphrodisiac Isabel Allende-style orgy dinners or for dinner guests with an extravagant sense of humor. The choices are boundless, multicolor selections and variety male/female packs. I once brought penises in zucchini & basil sauce at a girls' night company potluck dinner and never got invited back.

Soup pasta is another sub category of short pasta and it features Stelline, Corallo, Semini, Tempestina (a close bleb relative of tapioca), Farfalline, Anellini, Quadrucci, etc. These perform their best in chicken soups, vegetable broths and Minestrone. On a cold night, the next best antidepressant to chocolate, is a steaming bowl of clarified chicken stock with a fistful of any of these, loads of Parmigiano and a warm blanket.

"Italians have only two things on their mind. The other is spaghetti."
–– Catherine Deneuve (at the time when she was married to Marcello Mastroianni)

Pasta is the pinnacle of the Italian food pyramid and Mediterranean diet. The miriad varieties of pasta are therefore not surprising. Of the 650 plus existing pasta varieties, I have illustrated only the few pivotal examples of Italian home-style cuisine. Here they are:

Agnolotti, Ravioli – Pockets of pasta dough stuffed with ground meats and/or vegetables. Can be round, squared or crescent shape, and each in different sizes.

Bavette, Trenette, Linguine – flattened long strand pasta, whose section is a rather flat ellipse. They love pesto.

Bigoli – extruded tube-like pasta similar to bucatini. The implement used to make them (bigolaro) is a beautiful object that the bigolatore sits on while extruding.

Bucatini – hollow spaghetti-like strands, part of the spaghetti extended family, which are commonly used with moderately thick sauces. Amatriciana defines bucatini. And viceversa.

Cannelloni, Crespelle – large sheet, tube or rolled crêpe-shaped pasta usually stuffed with condiments, béchamel, meat and vegetables. Used primarily in baked pasta dishes. Often, but not always all’uovo, i.e. with eggs.

Capelli d'Angelo, Capellini – Angel hair describes the long, delicate, extremely thin noodles. Because they are so fine, capelli d’angelo must be served either in a very light sauce or in a simple broth.

Cappelletti, Tortellini – Cappelletti is Italian for "priests' caps," while Tortellini were inspired by a sexy belly button. Whatever their name, these are small, twisted or crescent-shaped stuffed pasta filled with a cheese and prosciutto mixture. And they are to die for with Ragù alla Bolognese, with heavy cream & prosciutto, or–like tradition requires–mostly swimming in broth.

Cavatelli, Conchiglie, Pipe, Lumache – short, narrow, ripple-edged and seashell/snail shaped.

Ditali, Tubetti – thimble, stout tube-shaped soup pasta. Ideal for Pasta e Patate soup.

Eliche – round pinwheel shaped pasta, literally "propellers". Kids worship them.

Farfalle – bowtie shaped pasta. Due to their particular bunched up shape, they take forever to cook, about 16 minutes.

Fettuccine – long ribbon pasta, usually egg-based. Lovely and chewy, I love fettuccine...

Fusilli – corkscrew twists, "short" type pasta, excellent with a sautéed zucchini & pesto sauce.

Garganelli – rolled up, thin tube section pasta from Emilia Romagna. Divine when paired with a sausage, black pepper and cream sauce.

Gnocchi – hand made potato pillows. The rubbery commercial kind, I don’t like.

Gnocchi di Semolino – flat hockey puck-sized tapioca and cornmeal dumplings. Delish.

Lasagne – rectangular shaped sheets of pasta. Layered with ragù and grated Parmigiano, or pesto and béchamel then baked in the oven for 10 minutes and you’ll be moaning with pleasure.

Maccheroni – medium tubular "short" type pasta. A neverending love affair.

Malloreddus – Sardinian cavatelli-like pasta. Again the best are handmade.

Maltagliati – unevenly mix-matched broken shapes of assorted pasta.

Mafalde – ripple edged, large ribbon pasta named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, which work quite well with rich sauces, like a braised wine and beef sauce.

Mezze Maniche – (literally, half sleeves) are stubby, fairly broad tubes that work quite well with chunky ragù, and mixed ortolana vegetable sauce (a simplified ratatouille). I own several necklaces made by my son with these.

Orecchiette – rough, ear shaped round shells, the size of a fingernail. The only truly viable ones are the homemade ones from Bari, but the store-bought kind, boasting the Puglia quality control stamp are OK too...

Paglia e Fieno – green and yellow colored fettuccine (the color is obtained with spinach and extra eggs added respectively to the dough).

Pansotti – meatless triangular shaped ravioli from Liguria. Stuffings include ricotta & spinach, mixed greens and shine when dressed in a creamy walnut sauce. Mmm...

Pappardelle – wide ribbon Fettuccine-type pasta. These broader strips are generally used for chunky sauces, like wild boar or hare ragùs. Most pappardelle are made with egg.

Penne – sharp edged tube section "short" pasta. Everybody loves penne.

Perciatelli – another (Neapolitan) name for bucatini.

Pici – Tuscan version of Venetian bigoli, again the best are home made. The most delicious I ever had were dressed in a rich boar sauce, served at a delightful restaurant in Siena called Gallo Nero.

Pizzoccheri – 3" long buckwheat tagliatelle. In Valtellina, home of Pizzoccheri, they are commonly boiled along with Swiss chard (Savoy cabbage) and cubed potatoes. This mixture is then drained and layered with chunks of local Casera cheese and grated Parmigiano, and then dressed with garlic and sage previously sautéed in browned butter.

Rigatoni, Sedani, Tortiglioni – large tube section "short" pasta, always ribbed. I make my spectacular Pasta alla Norma with these.

Spaghetti, Spaghetti alla chitarra, Spaghettini – long strand noodle-type pasta. The rulers of the pasta roost. The name of this blog is tightly connected to spaghetti...

Strozzapreti, Strangozzi – literally 'Priest Chokers,' are a hand-made cross between gnocchi, malloreddus and cavatelli.

Tagliatelle, Taglierini, Tonnarelli – thinner ribbon pasta than pappardelle, but thicker than fettuccine. These are obtained by flattening homemade pasta dough to a thin layer, then rolling like a giant burrito and consequently cutting it into curly tagliatelle ribbons.

Tortelli – Same shape as tortellini and cappelletti (see above), but in this case filled with either erbette (spinach or Swiss chard), potatoes, pumpkin; and most usually dressed in a simple browned butter and sage drizzle, or–only in the pumpkin tortelli case–pancetta fat drippings.

Trofie – hand rolled, chewy and slender squiggles. Usually boiled along with potato chunks and string beans and then tossed in with Ligurian pesto sauce. More mmm...

Vermicelli – thinner spaghetti, they cook in 5 minutes.

Ziti – long pipe-shaped pasta, broken by hand before cooking and usually topped with Ragù alla Genovese.

Each pasta shape has an ideal dressing. That much should be considered when choosing one particular type of pasta over another.

Go make some, hurry. I know you want it.

Image credits: - rachel eats - algont@wikimedia commons - - - valeria verini -

Sep 23, 2010

Italian language class II - Fragrances, herbs and spices

Welcome back to class, I'm happy to see so many of you returned. Now that you have mastered your basic Italian kitchen terminology and made good use of common foods employed in eco-friendly household and beauty tips we can upgrade your Italian language knowledge {in the kitchen} with a number of new key words.

ERBE e SPEZIE – Herbs and Spices
Useful and odorous, herbs and spices will enhance and improve your recipes and culinary inventions with simplicity. Whether dried, store-bought and kept in convenient spice shakers or mills; or garden fresh, growing from a potted plant on the windowsill, or blooming in your herb garden, the useful cook’s helpers should never be missing from your kitchen. Here are the Italian names–and practical use–of nature's most perfumy creatures:

Aglio [AH jli oh] I have written entire encyclopedias about garlic, you may want to refresh your memory by reading a little about aglio at Love Letter to the Bulb

Alloro [ah LOHR roh] Also called laurel leaf, or bay leaf, is an aromatic herb that comes from the evergreen bay laurel tree, native to the Mediterranean. Early Greeks and Romans attributed magical properties to the laurel leaf, and associated the shrub to Hermes as his representative hallmark. Alloro has long been a symbol of honor, celebration and triumph, as in “winning your laurels.” The crown of the Roman imperial Cæsars was a gilded wreath of laurel leaves strung on a crimson ribbon.
Bay leaves are used to flavor soups, stews, vegetables and meats, but generally removed before serving. Fresh bay leaves are available in markets in Italy but can also be picked off the spontaneously growing shrubs that line city streets and offbeat country roads. Dried bay leaves, which have a fraction of the flavor of fresh, can be found in supermarkets. Store your bay leaves airtight in a cool, dark place.

Tip: Overuse of this herb can make a dish bitter.

Aneto [ah NEH toh] Thought by 1st-century Romans to be a good luck symbol, dill has been around for thousands of years. This annual herb is marketed in both fresh and dried forms. The distinctive flavor of fresh dill weed in no way translates to its dried form. Fresh dill does, however, quickly lose its fragrance during heating, so should be added toward the end of the cooking time. Dill weed is used to flavor many Italian dishes such as mixed misticanza salads, grilled vegetables, meats and smoked tuna carpaccio in particular.

Anice [AH nee chey] Anise is used in many Italian preparations. Like the Romans and Greeks did back in their time, it still commonly flavors poultry, pork and rabbit meats.
Anise is also used as a dessert ingredient in many regional cakes, biscotti, and gingerbread peppered with pine nuts, raisins and candied fruits. It is also a prominent ingredient in many southern Italian gelato flavors, namely ghiaccioli (popsicles). Sweet anise flavored desserts can be made with either dried and powdered seeds, or thanks to an anise liqueur: Pastis, Absinthe and Anisette in France, Raki, Ouzo and Arrak in Greece and Turkey, which are other names for the same thing: Sambuca! In Sicily it is called Tutone, and Mistrà in the Marche region, but whatever its name, it is a wonderful fresh and highly alcoholic liqueur often enjoyed chilled "con la mosca" (with a single floating coffee bean) or to doctor up espresso in "caffé corretto" (corrected coffee).

Basilico [bah ZEE lee koh] Fresh basil has a pungent flavor that some describe as a cross between licorice and cloves. It’s a key herb in Mediterranean cooking, and essential to the delicious Ligurian Pesto. Basil is a summer herb but can be grown successfully inside during the winter in a sunny window. Choose evenly colored leaves with no sign of wilting. You can refrigerate basil, wrapped in barely damp paper towels and then in a plastic bag, for up to 4 days. Or display a gorgeously decorative and fragrant bunch of basil, stems and roots down, in a glass of water.
Fresh basil should always be hand-torn, since the leaves cut by a metal blade lose much of their fragrant properties. Hence the reason why genuine pesto is made with an olive wood pestle and a marble mortar rather than an electric food processor. The difference is however not that dramatic, I've tried both methods, so trust me.
Dried basil loses much of its aromatic potency. A solution is preserving fresh basil in olive oil: place only the dry wiped leaves (no stems or flowers) in an airtight container filled with extra virgin olive oil. The basil fragrance will permeate the storing oil, giving you a double-flavor bonus. Use your basil-oil and leaves as the base for pasta, to dress salads and stir-fry vegetables.

Trivia: Elisabetta da Messina, heroine of Boccaccio’s naughty Decameron, actually buried the head of her dead lover in the vase of a basil plant and watered it with her tears... Bizarre or what?

Cannella [cah NEHL lah] Once used in love potions and to perfume the skin of wealthy Romans, ages-old cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. The bark is harvested during the rainy season when it’s more pliable. When dried, it curls into long quills, which are either cut into lengths and sold as cinnamon sticks, or ground into powder. Ceylon cinnamon is buff-colored and mildly sweet in flavor; Cassia cinnamon is a dark, reddish brown color and has a more pungent, slightly bittersweet flavor. Cassia is the common variety used and sold in many countries. Cinnamon is widely used in sweet recipes of course, but also makes an intriguing addition to Italian savory dishes such as stews and marinades.

Chiodi di Garofano [KYO dee · dee · gah ROH fah noh] Considered one of the world’s most important spices, cloves are the dried, unopened flower bud of the Indonesian evergreen clove tree. Reddish brown and peg-shaped, their name comes from clavus, the Latin word for 'nail.' Pungent and aromatic cloves are sold whole or ground and can be used to flavor a multitude of dishes ranging from sweet to savory; but also used in warm tonic beverages, like Vin Brulé. Its Italian name is perhaps derived from the ‘clove pink,’ a clove-scented Eurasian herbaceous plant from which the carnation is bred. The Italian word for carnation is garofano.

Trivia: Did you know the oil of cloves is the key element in aromatic analgesic oil extracted from these buds and used medicinally, especially for the relief of dental pain?

Dragoncello [drah gon CEL loh] Tarragon, terragon or estragon, is a perennial herb native to Europe and parts of Asia; its Latin appellation is Artemisia dracunculus. The narrow, pointed, and dark green leaves (either fresh, or preserved in vinegar) are used to enhance foods with their distinctive anise-like flavor. Tarragon is widely used in classic European cooking for a variety of dishes including chicken, fish and vegetables, as well as many sauces, the best known being béarnaise sauce. Terragon is available fresh in the summer and early fall and year-round in dried and powdered forms.

Note: Care should be taken when using terragon since its punch can easily dominate other flavors.

Erba cipollina [EHR bah · chee pohl LEE nah] Related to the onion and leek, chives have slender, vivid green, hollow grass-like stems, hence the Italian name which roughly translates to 'little onion grass.' Chives have a mild oniony flavor and are available fresh year-round. Look for those with a uniform green color and no signs of wilting or browning. Once harvested, it can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to a week. Fresh chives can be snipped with scissors to the desired length, and are delicious in many cooked dishes but should be added toward the end of the cooking time to retain their flavor. Both chives and their edible lavender flowers are a tasty and colorful addition to salads, cold soups and marinades.

Finocchio [fee NOK yo] All the parts of the fennel plant can be used in the kitchen! The white swollen, bulb-like stem base can be eaten raw dipped in olive oil as crudité or chopped and tossed in salads, or even grilled, with butter and grated parmigiano. Wild fennel, in Italy commonly called "finocchietto selvatico", whose flowers and seed-like fruits are commonly used either in dried form–which can be more or less sweet, peppery to bitter, according to variety–or fresh, along with the leaves (a dill-like grassy beard). This part is typically used to flavor soups, seafood, salads and cheeses. Wild fennel leaves are one of the key ingredients in the divine Pasta con le Sarde recipe from Sicily.
The dried flowers are used to perfume boiled chestnuts, baked porcini mushrooms, brined olives and porchetta. The so called "seeds" are used in Puglia's Taralli crackers, Ciambelline or other homemade pastries, or to spice up mulled wine and herbal teas.

Ginepro [jee NEH pro] The astringent blue-black juniper berries are native to both Europe and the Americas. Juniper berries are too bitter to eat raw and are usually sold dried and used to flavor meats, sauces, stuffings, etc. They’re generally crushed before use to release their flavor. These pungent berries are the hallmark flavoring of gin. Although we Italians use ginepro berries most commonly to make killer homemade grappa.

Maggiorana [mahd joh RAH nah] Early Greeks wove marjoram into funeral wreaths and planted it on graves to symbolize the loved ones' happiness both in life and beyond. There are many varieties of this ancient herb, which is a member of the mint family. Marjoram is available fresh in some produce markets and supermarkets with large fresh-herb sections; more often, it is found dried. The Italian hardy species is called pot marjoram, which has oval, inch-long, pale green leaves and a mild, sweet flavor. Marjoram can be used to flavor a variety of foods, particularly meats (especially lamb and veal) and vegetables. Because marjoram’s flavor is so delicate, it’s best added toward the end of the cooking time so its essence doesn’t completely dissipate

Menta [MEHN tah] Long a symbol of hospitality, Greek mythology claims that mint was once the nymph Mentha. She angered Pluto’s wife Persephone, who turned her into the aromatic herb. There are over 30 varieties of mint, the two most popular and widely available being peppermint and spearmint. Mint grows wild throughout the world and is cultivated in most of Europe, the United States and Asia. It’s most plentiful during summer months but many markets carry it year-round.

Mentuccia [mehn TOO tchah] Wild peppermint is the more pungent of the two species. It has bright green leaves, purple-tinged stems and a peppery flavor. And it grows virtually everywhere in Italy, from grassy public park carpets to cracks in the cobblestone-paved city streets. When you crush the plants, walking over them, the aroma is intoxicatingly good. Mentuccia is commonly used in cooking Carciofi alla Romana, tripe and my favorite summer frittata.

Origano [oh REE ganoh] Greek for "joy of the mountain," oregano was almost unheard of in the United States until soldiers came back from Italian World War II assignments raving about it. This herb, sometimes called wild marjoram, belongs to the mint family and is related to both marjoram and thyme. Because of its pungency, fresh oregano requires a bit more caution in its use. Choose bright green, fresh looking bunches with no sign of wilting or yellowing. Refrigerate in plastic bags for up to 3 days. Dried Mediterranean oregano is readily available in any supermarket in both crumbled and powdered forms. As with all dried herbs, oregano should be stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 months. Oregano goes extremely well with some fresh tomato-based dishes and is a commonly used pizza herb for marinara and in Pizzaiola sauce, yet not in everyday pasta sauce, as many are led to believe overseas.

Tip: Trying to lose some stubborn pounds before the impending holidays? Try a herbal tea infusion made with oregano for appetite suppression.

Pepe [PEH peh] Pepper in one form or other has been used around the world to enhance the flavor of both savory and sweet dishes for eons. Because it stimulates gastric juices, it delivers a digestive bonus as well. The world’s most popular spice is actually a berry that grows in grapelike clusters on the pepper plant Piper nigrum, a climbing vine native to India and Indonesia. The berry is processed to produce three basic types of peppercorn–black, white and green. The most common is the black peppercorn, which is picked when the berry is not quite ripe, then dried until it shrivels and the skin turns dark brown to black. It’s the strongest flavored of the three: slightly hot with a hint of sweetness. The less pungent white peppercorn has been allowed to ripen, after which the skin is removed and the berry is dried. The result is a smaller, smoother-skinned, tan berry with a milder flavor. White pepper is used to a great extent for appearance, usually in light-colored sauces or foods where dark specks of black pepper would stand out. The green peppercorn is the soft, underripe berry that’s usually preserved in brine. It has a fresh flavor that’s less pungent than the berry in its other dried forms. And pink pepper, do you like it? Whole peppercorns freshly ground with a pepper mill deliver more oomph than do preground peppers, which lose flavor fairly quickly. Roman pasta dishes like Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe and Amatriciana would be nothing without a generous dusting of pepe.

Peperoncino [peh peh ron CHEE noh] Red hot chili peppers (one of my favorite bands too) are the thin, 1/2 to 2-inch long chiles that have a bright red, wrinkled skin. When fresh, they have a slightly sweet flavor that can range from medium to medium-hot. Peperoncini are most often sold dried and their spice potency is invertly proportionate to their size. The smaller, the fiercer. The hotness-degree also increases as we descend down the boot-shaped peninsula; the southern region of Calabria produces peperoncini that are appropriately called Diavolicchi or little devils, whose Scoville heat index (for measuring a pepper’s pain to your palate) rating could equal that of their Mexican Habanero cousin. When crushed, the spicy components released actually bring tears to your eyes.

Prezzemolo [pretz EH moh low] In ancient times parsley wreaths were used to ward off drunkenness–though proof of their effectiveness in that capacity is scarce. In olden day retrograde rural communities, Italian midwives were said to perform abortions with the mysterious use of parsley. Today, this slightly peppery, fresh herb is thankfully more commonly used as a flavoring and garnish. Though there are more than 30 varieties of this herb, the most popular are curly-leaf parsley (mostly used for garnishing) and the more strongly flavored Italian or flat-leaf parsley.
Italian parsley is sold in bunches (although many produce purveyors will throw it for free in your shopping bag along with an onion, a carrot and a rib of celery: calling it simply "odori") and should be chosen for its bright-green leaves that show no sign of wilting. Wash fresh parsley, shaking off excess moisture, and wrap first in paper towels, then in a plastic bag, and refrigerate for up to a week. Dried parsley is available in the spice section of most supermarkets but bears little resemblance to the flavor of fresh.

Note: Never attempt picking your own flatleaf parsley in the wild, as its leaves are dangerously similar to those of hemlock, a poisonous herb that if ingested can cause serious health issues. Being so similar in appearance, the two herbs can easily be mistaken. So instead of seasoning your fish entrée you could end up like Socrates, sprawled on the Athens jailhouse floor.

Rosmarino [ros ma REE noh] Used since 500 BC, rosemary is native to the Mediterranean area, where it grows wild (much of it on my window sill). Rosemary is now cultivated worldwide, its silver-green, needle-shaped leaves highly aromatic and whose flavor marries well with roasted garlic, meats and chunky cereal soups, like Pasta e Ceci. This herb is available in whole-leaf form (fresh and dried) as well as powdered.

Salvia [SAL vyah] Sage, a native Mediterranean herb has been enjoyed for centuries for both its culinary and medicinal uses. The Italian name salvia comes from a derivative of the Latin salvus, meaning "safe," a reference to the herb’s believed healing powers. The narrow, oval, velvety gray-green leaves of this pungent herb are slightly bitter and have a musty mint taste and aroma. I like to serve them deep fried in a crisp batter or sautéed in browned butter, drizzled over ricotta and spinach ravioli. As I have mentioned before, my grandmother Titta would have me rub a fresh sage leaf on my gums for healthy teeth. She died at age 77 with not a single cavity in her mouth.

Santoreggia [sahn toh REG jah] Winter savory, or its blander summer variety, is a herb the Romans used often to flavor their foods served in orgies and banquets. In cooking, winter savory has a reputation for going very well with beans and meats, very often poultry, and can be used in poultry stuffing. It has a strong spicy flavor but loses much of it under prolonged cooking. It may also be used medicinally, it is a stimulant, and is also a known aphrodisiac. Those Romans sure knew their herbs.

Timo [TEE moh] There are several varieties of thyme, the mint-family member, and perennial herb native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Garden thyme, the most often used variety, is a shrub with gray-green leaves giving off a pungent minty, slightly lemony aroma. Subvarieties include the narrow-leafed French thyme and broad-leafed English thyme. The most well known subvariety of wild thyme–a thick ground cover–is lemon thyme, a herb with a more pronounced lemon aroma than garden thyme. Whatever the variety, thyme is widely used in cooking to add flavor to vegetables, meat, poultry and fish dishes, soups and sauces. It’s a basic herb of Italian cuisine and integral to mazzetto aromatico, the Italian term for bouquet garni.

Zafferano [tzaf feh RAH noh] Legend has it that Hermes was casting his discus one day, and struck his friend Crocus, who fell dead. To honor Crocus’s memory Mercury {Hermes's Roman name} tinged the flowers upon which his friend lay, scarlet. Not the petals, which are a pale purple, but the pistils. The legend doesn’t say if Hermes also gave the stigmas the distinctive, rather haunting aroma that has made saffron one of the most sought after spices on the world markets, in case he did, we thank him for the gift. Abruzzo is Italy's major saffron producer, and it shines in local preparations like for example Scapece di Vasto, a savory fish stew similar to bouillabaisse.

What are your favorite and local herbs & spices you most commonly cook with?

Stay tuned for our next Italian Language class, in which we will discover the names and uses of Italy's finest staple ingredients. Until then...

Buon appetito!

Sep 19, 2010

Guest post at 2 kids and a dog

Have you met the web's quirkiest family? If you haven't you must. American mom living in Rome with her Sicilian husband, two vivacious kids and their dog Amleto.

Together they've created, a site that hosts an ongoing comic web series, which thrice weekly reveals in short clips what really happens backstage while making their ridiculous yearly family calendar. What initially started like a Christmas gift project turned into a popular webseries that documents the activities is a multi-tasking mom and a burnt-out pop, cooky costumes, home-made sets, an absurdly busy doorbell, a slow burning soup on the stove, surreptitious sibling rivalry, and a lot of barking. 

I was kindly invited to be 2 kids and a dog's first guest blogger, and I gladly accepted!

Between Mom's lates bra problem and Dad's rap feat, I put in my own two cents about Roman kids, food, recipes and healthy school lunches... it's all there.

Visit 2 kids and a dog to read my contribution and... meet the family!

Sep 14, 2010

Eco-friendly household and beauty tips

A few weeks ago I held an Italian Language Class in the Kitchen, in which I shared some common Italian culinary terms with annotated translations. Seeing it was such a huge success, I thought another informative article could tickle you to the kitchen.

Here are a few enviroment-friendly tips, common homemaker knowledge and typical Italian make-do-with-what's-in-the-house practical philosophy.
  • To expunge foul smells in the refrigerator (main culprits usually are lemons, cut onions and cheese that have gone off), place a glass filled with baking soda in a back corner of the middle section of your refrigerator. Revive its beneficial odor-absorbing qualities by stirring weekly. 
  • Every day wear and tear can cause your alluminum-clad pots and pans to blacken. A natural remedy to help them regain lustre is boiling apple skins and rhubarb leaves in the pots. Results are surprising.  
  • The best way to avoid your potatoes from budding is putting a Granny Smith apple in their basket. 
  • Vinegar can break the lime build-up around the faucets in your sink, and maintaining your iron’s pressing performance. 
  • To polish your wood surfaces, blend 1 cup raw linseed oil, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 10 drops lemon essential oil; and store in a clean glass bottle. Shake well and apply to all wood surfaces with a soft rag. Acts as a fabulous dust magnet too! 
  • I don’t use chemicals to wash my windows, I instead spritz them with a solution of hot water and lemon juice, and then dry them off with old newspapers. 
  • Did you know that the acidity in curdled milk that's gone bad is excellent to shine silver? Or that yougurt passed its expiry date works perfectly to buff brass? Just rinse surfaces very well after polishing! 
  • Worried about your child handling engineered chemicals when playing Matisse and leaving lovely handprints all over your walls? Make your own paint! Mix together 1 cup cornstarch, with some cold water to dilute. Add this to 3 cups of hot water, stirring swiftly to avoid lumps. Boil until thick and clear and then add desired food coloring and an optional tablespoon of glycerin (for gloss). Store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator! 
  • I go on and on about garlic's medicinal properties in Love Letter to the Bulb.
  • Honey is a natural moisturizer, skin nutrient and excellent scar tissue ointment. 
  • Rub your gums with a fresh sage leaf, this will prevent gum bleeding and strengthen the dental collar around your pearly whites. 
  • Nature’s best skin care antioxidant against free radicals? Extra virgin olive oil! I began using it scrubbed with a soft brush on evening skin before bedtime; and I’ve never suffered T-zone oiliness since! 

  • Cleanse the house from toxins and poisons with plants. Certain plants are even capable of absorbing air pollutants and electromagnetic fields! Combat formaldehyde (commonly found in household foam insulation, modern sofas, carpets, floor coverings cleaning agents and cigarette smoke) with plenty of Poinsettia, Lattuce, Chrysanthemums and Philodendron around the house. You can reduce Benzene absorption (responsible for ear, nose and throat mucus membrane irritation, and nerve and skin sensiblity) by scattering potted Peace lily, Sweetpea, English ivy and weeping fig in every room. Place a large cactus or a bowl of prickly pears near your computer to minimize the devastating effect of electromagnetic fields generated by electrical equipment, power sockets, power cables, and elecrticity meters. We web and iPhone addicts should beware. Purportedly these could be the cause of thumping headaches, menstrual disorders, infertility, miscarriages, skin rashes and depression... 
What are your best food-employing tips?

Image credits: Shutterstock - The Knot

Sep 10, 2010

Baked pears with gorgonzola and honey recipe

The quirky flavor combination of cheese and honey is recently very much in style on Italian dinner tables. I have adapted that to the ancient Italian maxim that reads Al contadino non far sapere quant'è buono il formaggio con le pere (don't let the farmer know how tasty his pears are, eaten with cheese–intending that once he finds out, he won't share his pears with you).

This 10-minute marvel will gratify your tastebuds and have you imploring il contadino for more.

4 large Williams (aka Bartlett) pears
200 g (2 cups) sharp Gorgonzola
1 oz fluid honey
Pine nuts, lightly toasated

Heat the oven at 200° C (390° F).

Blanch the pears by soaking them in boiling hot water for 2 minutes, then cut them in half, and scoop out about 1/2 inch of the central pulp, to remove seeds.

Place pear halves on a greased cookie sheet flat face up, and cover them evenly with thick, messy slices of sharp Gorgonzola.

Bake pears in the oven for a few minutes, or until the cheese has fully melted, and begins to bubble slightly.

Carefully transfer on a serving platter and drizzle with warm honey and garnish with toasted pine nuts. Serve with bold red wine as a prelude to robust meat courses and hefty lasagna, or simply as a restoring midnight tonic.

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating. 
–– Luciano Pavarotti

Sep 3, 2010

Caponata recipe

Italy is one great vegetable patch from the Alps down to the Sicilian volcanoes. Anything that can be cultivated easily turns into delightful side dishes of one sort or another, many of which also double as main course in a light meal, or a pasta condiment. The sunny climate, close proximity to Mediterranean coastlines, hard water and mineral-rich volcanic soil, all contribute in giving Italian vegetables an intense, unique flavor.

The savory dish most people probably associate with Sicily than any other is caponata, an eggplant delight of purported Spanish origin that has spread throughout the Peninsula. But much of the caponata eaten outside of its volcanic island home is a shadow of what it should be–a piquant delicacy ideal for perking up a lethargic appetite on a hot summer day.

4 kg (8.8 lbs) eggplants
200 g (1 cup) Kalamata or Gaeta olives, pitted
100 g (1/2 cup) salted capers, rinsed
2 kg (4.4 lb) celery
3 large onions, finely sliced
4 large tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped
100 ml (3 fl oz) wine vinegar
2 tbsp. sugar
Fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp. pine nuts
Extra virgin olive oil

Begin by stripping the stringy fibers from the celery stalks, and blanch them in lightly salted water for 5 minutes. Drain them, cut them into small chunks, sauté them in a little oil, and set them aside.

Wash the eggplants, dice them, put the pieces in a large colander, sprinkle them liberally with salt, and let them sit for 30 minutes to draw out their bitter juices. Once the eggplants have been "purged," rinse away the salt and pat the pieces dry.

Sauté the onions in olive oil; once they become translucent, add the capers, pine nuts, olives, and tomatoes. Continue cooking, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the tomatoes are done, about 15 minutes, and then remove the pot from the stove.

While the tomatoes are cooking, heat some olive oil in a large skillet, and fry the diced eggplant. Do this in several batches to keep the oil from cooling down.

When the last batch is done, return the tomato pot to the fire and stir in the fried eggplant, together with the previously sautéed celery. Cook for several minutes over a low flame, stirring gently, then pour in the vinegar and the sugar. When the vinegar has almost completely evaporated remove the pot from the fire and let it cool.

Serve your caponata at room temperature, garnished with fresh basil. There will be a lot, but don't worry, because it keeps for several days in the fridge, and it is common Sicilian knowledge that tastes better after a few days. Makes a perfect sandwich filler too...
Image credits: joana hard, miss_yasmina