Fashion and food

Italians are born and bred with at least two special gifts for the discernment of beauty. . .  an eye for fashion and a taste for food. Milano is one of the world’s fashion capitals and it’s no wonder because Italians seem to have some gene that produces a natural affinity for color, texture, and style that go into a fashion statement that is classic, bold, and constantly reinvented. 

Marco was horrified by my clothes when he met me 21 years ago. I wore pleated Khakis and a short-sleeved button-down shirt. He has a point. Probably only in New England and the U.K. do so many men wear these pleated pants that do a disservice to the male form. The beige color is also a testament to the drab days of winter gloom and fit right in with the clouds and mist and rain. And don’t even get him started on the short-sleeved button down. . .

In terms of food, I don’t even know where to begin. I was raised on tuna noodle casserole. . . he was raised on spaghetti alla carbonara, I was raised on peanut butter and jelly. . . he was raised on Nutella spread on a fresh-baked bread, I was raised on meatloaf. . . he was raised on polpette.

The other day, we were eating this year’s  favorite winter soup, the one with butternut squash and chick peas. We each had sprinkled a bit of grated Grana Padano cheese on top and drizzled some extra virgin olive oil. Then, Marco commented that the cheese was “stale”. He has a refined Italian palate honed through years of wonderful Italian home cooked meals. I couldn’t tell the difference. I grew up on grated parmesan from the carton, so this grated cheese was just fine. I stopped and tasted again, trying to put these 21 years of Italian training to the test, and, I have to admit. . . the cheese was not its freshest.

You see, we get the Grana Padano wedges when we visit Cremona and freeze them. Then, we grate the wedge and have it in a sealed container ready to use. This reminded us of that simple Italian rule: cook with the freshest of ingredients for the best tasting food. So, from now on, we will freshly grate the wedge each time we need it!

Ingredients: (4 servings) – click here for recipe in Italian with step by step photos

  • 430 g butternut squash, peeled, cubed (the recipe on Giallo Zafferano uses pumpkin, but we prefer the butternut squash)
  • 400 g pre-cooked chickpeas
  • 100 g kale, cleaned, sliced thin
  • 1/2 onion, chopped 
  • 3 juniper berries (double if they are small)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1.5 L water
  • we add the “Better Than Bouillon” brand paste for a chicken stock that gives the soup more flavor
  • extra virgin olive oil q.b. (quanto basta or as needed)
  • black pepper q.b

Process:

  1. sauté the onions and juniper berries  in the olive oil over low heat until the onions are soft
  2. add the squash pieces and brown them, adding a little water to the pan
  3. add the  chickpeas, kale, salt, pepper, bay leaves and the rest of the water
  4. cook over high heat for 15 minutes
  5. remove the lid and cook for another 15 minutes
  6. remove the juniper berries and bay leaves
  7. serve and drizzle with olive oil

 

 

Buon appetito!

Cooked with love

My sister just returned from a stay at our condo in Cremona, so she thanked us with an evening out at our favorite place outside of Italy to eat Italian without Americanized flares, Firenze Trattoria (click here). On the way in, her husband asked me about the word Trattoria. I told him that it’s basically a term for a casual restaurant, often owned and run by family members. The food is usually the best home-cooked, local recipes in an atmosphere that welcomes you in and embraces you as one of the family.

This is exactly what we love about Firenze Trattoria in Salem. It is the best of Italian food, with recipes representing the local foods of one region in Italy. Each bite brings you to the rolling hills of Tuscany with its golden hues, picturesque country-side, and terra cotta-tiled hill-topped towns. Owners and brothers, Andi and Zamir welcome guests to their family run neighborhood dining room like members of their family.

The foods of a Trattoria are made with simple, fresh ingredients, representing the flavors of local products. We often strive in our home cooking to cook this way. As I’ve said before, we are now using a meat delivery service. Walden Local Meat Co. (click here) delivers meat throughout the Northeast sourced from local farms where the animals graze in fields like in our grandparents days. 

A recent monthly share delivery included some lamb pieces intended for stew. Marco searched and searched for a recipe and landed on a Stufato di Agnello (Lamb Stew) from tastykitchen.com (click here to view on Pinterest). For the “herb mixture” he used Herbs de Provence and he couldn’t find pearl onions so used a regular onion coarsely chopped. It was a wonderful stew of simple flavors, combined with love, worthy of any fine Trattoria.

Buon appetito!

Winter warmth

We don’t like winter. But, given this reality, we do the best we can to turn this around and make the most of it. We plan fun times with friends. We ski some. We enjoy our fireplace on most cold nights. We catch up on favorite television series and oscar-nominated films. And, we make lots of soup!

Currently, one of our favorites is a soup with butternut squash, kale, and chickpeas. It’s flavored with  juniper berries, and, being a fan of gin, I love the little taste these tiny berries give to the soup (and, of course, to gin!) Lately, we’ve been bringing this one to work for lunch. It’s a nice way to eat vegetarian, get some protein from the chickpeas, enjoy the flavors, and, especially, be warmed by a hot, homemade soup.

The soup in today’s post is a little more hearty and not quite vegetarian with some pancetta thrown in. Potatoes are also in the mix for this nourishing, dense, and rustic soup. With a fettunta (click here to check out this simple crostini) alongside the soup you have a nice meal.

Ingredients: (or click here to view a video and recipe in Italian)

  • 3 medium potatoes
  • 250 g of dried borlotti beans (can be called cranberry beans in the U.S. and a substitute could be pinto beans or a red kidney beans)
  • 80 g of smoked pancetta
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 white onion
  • 1 celery stick
  • 4 sage leaves
  • a bunch of parsley
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 4 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste

Process:

To prepare the potato and borlotti soup, start by soaking dry borlotti in cold water (if you use fresh ones, do not do this) for about 10/12 hours. Then cook for 15 minutes in a pressure cooker, with salt water (if you want you can also add a carrot and a leg of celery) or for about 40 minutes in a regular pot.

Once cooked, drain them conserving the water. Meanwhile clean the onion, carrot and celery and chop finely. Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes. Chop half of the bacon.

In a pan place the extra virgin olive oil and add the clove of garlic, the chopped onion, carrot and celery and sage leaves. Let them wither and then add the smoked bacon you have chopped as well as the remaining in small cubes. When the bacon has browned, add the potato cubes and brown them. Then add 4-5 ladles of the cooking water of the beans and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until the potatoes are tender; if necessary add more cooking water. (We also added some sliced tomatoes).

Season with salt, pepper and, if you prefer, remove the clove of garlic that has released its aroma. Finally add the cooked borlotti beans and leave everything to flavor for another two minutes. Take about half of the soup and process it with an immersion mixer. When it reaches a velvety consistency, add it to the rest of the soup, then sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley. Serve the hot potato and borlotti soup with grated Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil!

Buon appetito!

Penne panna prosciutto e piselli

I wish you could hear Marco say the name of this dish! It’s a fast, tongue-twister sounding collection of words that tantalizes with fun and frivolity. Translated, it means “pasta in the penne shape-cream-ham-peas”. The prosciutto is short for prosciutto cotto. As you know, prosciutto is a cured meat that is uncooked, so, the Italian for ham literally means “cooked prosciutto“.  

Actually, you get to hear him say it by clicking the play button below:

 

This is a classic Italian dish that you’ll find in almost any Trattoria. It’s a plate of pasta that will appeal to most kids and adults with your favorite roasted ham flavor, the mild taste of peas, sweet spice of shallots and the creamy goodness of panna. It’s quick to make for a weeknight meal, a family lunch, or, tasty enough to impress your guests for a weekend first course or a main with a side salad.

Ingredients for 4 people:

  • penne 280 g
  • olive oil
  • 1 large shallot
  • 1 cup of peas
  • 1 cup of cubed ham
  • 1/2 cup of cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Parmesan cheese (optional)

Process:

  1. heat the olive oil on medium heat and sauté the shallots till lightly brown
  2. add the peas and 1/4 cup of cooking water and let it simmer for a few minutes
  3. add the ham and saute for a couple of minutes
  4. salt and pepper to taste
  5. add the cream and let it simmer till the sauce is creamy
  6. drain the past and combine it with the sauce
  7. sprinkle with Parmesan cheese if desired

Buon appetito!

Soul and stomach

My sister just got back from a week in Italy. We were texting and I typed, “buon rientro!”, which is “happy return to work from vacation” in Italian. She responded that Italy must be good for her soul, because the adjustment back to work went a lot smoother than usual.  We then made dinner plans to swap Italy stories and chose our favorite, Firenze (click here), where, I told her “. . . it will bring you right back there!. . . with your soul and stomach!”

Italy is good for the soul. There is something about the relaxed pace, the warmth of the people, the timeless beauty, the down-to-earth goodness that feeds the soul.

And, Italy is good for the stomach! By that, of course I mean that the food is wonderful. I think that Italians have an innate respect for the ingredients that make a meal. It is possible to make a delicious dish with minimal quality items that combine to produce a satisfying flavor. There is also a natural mindfulness to eating where the awareness of flavor and the noticing of texture afford a truly pleasurable experience that satisfies the senses.

The lasagne pictured here is one of my favorites. I learned this from Marco’s mother and you can make it by clicking here. The bolognese sauce, béchamel, fresh ground nutmeg, mozzarella, grana padano, and lasagne are the few ingredients that combine for this version of the classic dish. On a cold winter day this food will feed your stomach and your soul!

Buon appetito!

Stimulating the senses

The film “Call Me by Your Name” is as much about the setting in which it takes place as it is about the characters and their stories. “Somewhere in Northern Italy” are the words scrawled across the screen in the opening credits.  What follows is a sensuous love story and an intimate, detailed journey that, not only brings you into the character’s lives, but into the lazy hazy summertime of northern Italy.

The scenes were shot nearby Marco’s hometown of Cremona and capture 1983 with care and attention, bringing him back to his childhood, reminiscing. The tone perfectly captures the warmth and passion of Italian lifestyle, and, I think, the sentiment that travelers to Italy often savor. There is an earthy and beautiful lust for life portrayed in the romance and in the setting itself.

Italian food also has this simple carnal beautiful quality evoked in the film. It reminds me of what I love about Italian cooking:  the lust for life, the earthy goodness of ingredients, the juicy ripe fruit, the physicality in the making of a meal, and the resulting pleasure to the senses.

Pasta is a perfect example of this. The basic semolina wheat, salt and water mixed together and kneaded with hands that produces edible shapes to dress with sauce. It is a process where the body is fully immersed in the act of producing, a physical dance with earth’s bounty, resulting in pleasure. Click here for how to make this pasta.

The craft of filmmaking in “Call Me by Your Name” is clearly on display in this film. The cinematography, the acting, the music, the editing all work together to promote this beautiful portrait of northern Italy. The craft of photography in my blog is important to me and is usually limited by my iPhone photos. This week we have the pleasure of a guest photographer, our friend Martin Provost of Montreal, who composed the images we have here. Please check out more of his art by clicking here.

Buon appetito!

Snow day treats

Marco and I do not like the cold weather! I hesitate to use the “h” word here, but, we do love so much more the hot temperatures. The cold cramps our laid back, Italian due passi (two steps), strolling along the corso (main drag), lifestyle that we love in the warmer weather.

We are also both pretty positive people, so, we make the most of the situations that we face. The recent “bomb cyclone” that hit the coast of New England provided us with a snow day home from work, and a chance to turn the cold around to our benefit.

So, I got up and baked bread for our breakfast (click here for recipe). Then, I put  a smoked, uncured ham, from our local farm delivery service (click here for their delivery service) in the oven for a slow cook. While in the oven, Marco and I took a blizzard walk which was painful, but at least got us moving and exposed us to some “fresh” air. Marco roasted some vegetables (click here for how). Then, I made some homemade limoncello with the grain alcohol-infused lemon zest that I had prepared several days ago (click here for recipe).

We enjoyed a wonderful meal, finishing off with the limoncello. I napped while Marco read. We watched a couple of good films. Marco made the almond Nutella cookies pictured here for an afternoon snack with milk. For the first time, we experienced a  couples meditation from our “buddhify” app. We ended the day by trekking back out through the blizzard to dinner with friends at a local restaurant that stayed open with local employees. 

The day after this experience, I read, “How to Win at Winter When You Hate Winter”, an article in the New York Times by Lori Moore (click here to read), and it actually made the point of our day very nicely. . . it’s important to make the best out of the realities we face. . . and even do some things that you might not get to do if the weather wasn’t so cold.

Now, to the cookies, which were easy and tasty. The bottom part is simply a mix of almond meal, egg white and sugar. A dollop of Nutella is placed on the top and then baked. The nut crunch texture of the bottom is a perfect foil for the creamy smooth of the chocolate top. Check out the recipe below and click here for a short video!

Ingredients:

  • 1 egg white
  • 100 g sugar
  • 200 g almond meal
  • Nutella 

Process:

  1. turn the oven on at 360 F
  2. mix egg white with sugar until well combined
  3. add the almond meal and mix well
  4. create individual balls (25 g each) and place them on a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper
  5. with your thumb, press the center of each ball to create a small dip where you will add a teaspoon of Nutella
  6. place in the oven for 10-15 min (we did 12 min)

Buon appetito!

Thank Facebook! (part 2)

Once again, Facebook knew exactly what I wanted! We were looking for a tapas place, in Alicante, on our last day in Spain, when Marco reminded me about our happy experience with Facebook recommending a restaurant in Lisbon. So, after meandering the streets of Old Town Alicante, I stopped and went on Facebook. And, to my delight, the wonderful phrase popped up saying “there are three highly rated restaurants near you that you might like”.

The nearest one was Bandarra Bar. Our waiter spoke limited English so it was challenging to understand his response when he tried to tell us what bandarra means. I think it is a word from catalan or one of the local dialects, and, he said it meant “thug”. We spoke a little more and he made sure that this did not mean a violent person, but more of an attitude. Looking on their Facebook page, I found a description from a review that explains it better. It comes translated by Google, but the point is pretty clear. “His presentation makes it clear: within each person there is a bandarra who wishes to be awakened, that mischievous, rebellious and maverick with the everyday feeling of the irrefutable desire to live and experience new sensations. Free yourself and break with everything you think you know, join us and let the being bandarra flow through your veins… you feel ready?” (quote from review found by clicking here).

We felt ready and experienced a delightful gastronomical journey. We chose 4 tapas recommended by our waiter/chef. He brought each one to the table, where he finished the last cooking details in front of us. Sometimes, he did it with sauces, sometimes with croutons, and often with the heat of a torch. In each case it was like sitting up close by the stove being with the chef as he finished his creations.

We were so enraptured by the experience that we forgot to take photos. So, apart from the dessert photo above, the credit for this other photos is given to the Facebook page of Bandarra Bar (click here). Check out the web site and see how the cooking philosophy of rebelliousness  plays out in the urban art displayed on the walls, and the playful combination in the aesthetic of the decor.

Below is a chicken stew:

We ate the chicken pictured below and it was a playful tapas of stir fried, asian infused, chicken.

One dish, not pictured here, was a pork rib with an apple barbecue sauce. The meat had been prepared ahead of time. It was a little like pulled pork. Our chef/waiter brought it to the table, drizzled the sauce with a dramatic flourish, and proceeded to heat the dish with a kitchen torch. It melted in our mouths. He is in the photo below and appears to be one of the owners.

This bar perfectly captured what we love about the tapas style of dining: the sharing of many smaller dishes, the experiencing of several diverse flavors, and the slow pacing of a meal so that the tastes are paced out without producing a stuffed feeling.

Bandarra Bar took it up a notch with the added fun of a personal (and hot) chef completing the finishing touches at the table. The dessert pictured below was entirely created at the table,  beginning with the vanilla helado (ice cream) filled chocolate ball, placing it over a drizzle of custard and salted caramel, crumbling the cookies, sprinkling the cocoa, and finishing with the torch to heat the ball, melting the chocolate to expose the ice cream center.

Buon appetito!

Thank Facebook!!!

Resting in our hotel room after a jet-lag-infused, 2-hour nap, I opened my Facebook (FB) page to find an advertisement pop-up that encouraged me to check out three local restaurants. And, of course, FB knows me well after 8 years of friendship! It knows my location, my posts, my friends, the things I like, my eating habits (especially this), and who knows what else!!??

The nearest one, Sr. Lisboa, had a review that jumped out at me, where the writer stated that this had become his favorite restaurant in Lisbon. And, I wanted to find a restaurant for my birthday lunch. So, we decided on this. Click here to check out the FB page and watch the video to get a feel for the cozy and inspired decor.

Here are Matteo and I out front, before it opened for the day:

We were drawn to the warmth of the cozy space, decorated with features of a country kitchen with a modern art deco inspired urban feel. Our table was a 50’s era stove top covered with glass. A wine rack made of wooden spoons juts out of the wall above a counter space with sparsely located antique kitchen gadgets. Two stainless steel chandeliers made of the inside of a laundry machine hung in the dinning area. Another light bulb, surrounded by hanging cooking pans hung in the entryway.  And, yet another light fixture,made from a plumbing pipe, hung over the bar.

We each ordered a cup of cream of mushroom soup, followed by four tapas to share. The soup arrived in cute pottery cups covered with little tops. It was a yummy flavor, with no cream in the recipe, but simply a purée of mushrooms with a nice hint of thyme. We ate the crispy shrimp pictured above (I credited Sr. Lisboa for the photo as I found it on their FB page). I don’t know how they did it, but it was coated with the thin wisps of some kind of a batter, and then, deep-fried, without being greasy. 

We had a duck magret salad. I’m not a duck fan, but ate the salad, which was nicely garnished with toasted walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette. We asked our waitress to suggest the top two tapas for our last choices. She offered the cod baccala fritters and the black pig cheek. Both were perfectly prepared, the cod fritters, a nice blend of salt and mild cod-fish, sitting on a dipping aioli. For the pig cheek, we thought of thinly sliced guanciale, but tender pieces of meat braised in a red wine reduction arrived in terra cotta plates.

We were so thrilled and entranced by the meal that we forgot to take photos for FB! It only occurred to us when the dessert arrived. . . a deconstructed pastel de nata. You see the result below, a small pile of thin crispy pastry pieces layered with creamy custard alongside a house-made coffee ice cream.

Eating here this one time, made us truly feel like we were eating in a place that was opening their warm space to us for a home-cooked meal made with care and devotion. I love their advertising slogan, “we share our house and food …proudly.”

Buon appetito!

2 ingredient tort

This blog space often compares the Italian and American cultures from the perspective of an American who is born and raised in one, and semi-lives in the other via marriage, in-laws, and 20 years of visiting. It is sometimes difficult to be in one for want of comparison to the other. When in the Italy, we miss the efficiency and directness of American daily functioning. When in the States, we miss the aesthetic of Italian food and everyday rhythms.

I love the diversity of cultures. One of the things I enjoy about travel is experiencing the differences and suspending one’s own way of life for brief exposure to the other. This doesn’t always have to occur through travel, as we can experience a multitude of cultures in the short distances within our diverse country. Even in my daily work I enjoy many cultures in the patients I work with in our community health center.

Sometimes the small differences can be challenging. A new visitor to Italy is frustrated by the store closings during the afternoon lunch period. A simple visit to a bank for a rudimentary transaction in Italy is an hour-long ordeal. And “service with a smile”, with the American value of customer service, is not readily available in the Italian shopping experience.

Marco is often annoyed at the length of time it takes to get an espresso or cappuccino  in some local coffee establishments in the States. This is one thing the Italians have down to a science. Simply observe a barista in an Italian café during a morning rush and you will see the efficiency and speed that the cups fly from the counter.

The other morning I was picking up a breakfast pastry and caffè lattè at our local bakery for Marco and me. I was a little delayed in arrival, so Marco texted, “where are you?” I responded back, “coming. . . latte slow.” When the friendly barista at the bakery gave me the latte she presented it with the nicest smile and well wishes for my day. Then, I noticed a beautiful little design of some sort of flower made with the last layer of milk froth. I went home to Marco reported that while the service was slow, I got it with a smile and a foamy design. . . wouldn’t get that in Italy!

Here’s a fun little dessert that uses perhaps the favorite export from Italy after pizza, Nutella. It is a simple mix of eggs and Nutella to create a nice little chocolate flourless tort. We found it best served with the coffee Häagen-Dazs ice cream seen in the photos. It is another recipe from the 180° di Dolcezza. Click here to see it in Italian and see a quick video.

Ingredients:

  • 4 eggs
  • 300 g of Nutella

Process:

  1. heat the oven to 360 F and prepare a piece of parchment paper to place at the bottom of a 7 inch spring pan
  2. in a bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer for about 5 minutes on the highest speed to get a fluffy consistency 
  3. heat the Nutella for a few seconds in the microwave and add to the egg mixture, this time using a slow speed
  4. once the Nutella is incorporated into the eggs, pour into the pan and bake for 35-40 minutes depending on the texture that you would like
  5. once the tort has cooled off, sprinkle with a little powdered sugar and its ready to serve

Buon appetito!

Musings about Italian food, life, and culture from America

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