Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hot Summer Nights

I’d like to tell you I’m an amazing and brilliant cook. But I am not. If I only had a brain things might go better in the kitchen. Yesterday was one of those days.

It’s been crazy hot in our neck of the woods. At the same time our a/c is broken and I’ve been avoiding the kitchen as if it were filled with molten lava. But I started this blog and dagnamit people have to eat. As such I dredged Regional Italian Cuisine for light summer recipes. I settled on Panzanella (cold bread salad), Caprese salad (mozzarella and fresh tomatoes), Insalata di funghi (raw mushroom salad) and Gelato di ricotta (Rum-flavored ricotta ice cream).

Most ingredients were procured from the farmer’s market (I love the farmer’s market!). Of course the farmers didn’t have everything on my list. My hubbie graciously agreed to go the store for the remaining items. After he left I realized I’d forgotten to add bell peppers and mozzarella. Gah! Where was my head? Apparently at high temperatures the gray matter turns to vapor and dissipates into the atmosphere.

Now I realize that most people would call their spouse and have him pick up the missed ingredients. However we are cellularly challenged. Much to my children’s dismay we have only one cell phone for our entire family. Uno. One. And it’s a prepaid phone at that. Typically the phone is not charged and we simply forget to use it. It was already 7:30 pm. I was not about to go back to the store. We were going to have to get creative.

So we had caprese salad with sharp white cheddar instead of mozzarella. Quite honestly the cheddar was better than the mozzarella. Mozzarella is too spongy for my taste; I’m simply not fond of the texture and often eat around it. My husband likes mozzarella but really enjoyed the tangy cheddar goodness.

Our panzanella didn't have peppers. We also made a few other alterations to the recipe. The bread was toasted in the oven at 200 F instead of sitting out overnight. And we left the crust on; it added a nice little crunch which I suspect was the purpose of the peppers.

The Insalata di funghi went off without a hitch and was surprisingly good. I was initially nervous as it called for a raw egg yolk. Raw egg? Yuck! But then my friend reminded me that it was simply a mayonnaise (egg yolk and oil) and suddenly it didn’t seem so bad. The salad had a lovely piquant flavor that paired well with the raw mushrooms.

Then on to the Gelato di ricotta. Let me just tell you that ice cream is better with CREAM. Enough said. Strangely my family devoured said dessert despite its utter graininess and lack of essential ingredient (I bought cream but forgot to use it!). I did, however, remember to add the rum and yes I let my children eat it. Inebriation did not result. Today I’ll be giving the recipe another go - this time with all the ingredients.

Overall the dishes were perfect for a hot summer evening and they didn’t add too much heat to the kitchen. Our tummies were satisfied and we had left overs to boot. I combined the Panzanella and mushrooms into a single salad for today’s lunch. Mmmmm, mmmm!

The recipes were not followed to a “t” but I'm checking them off my list anyway. After all, making do with what you’ve got is the heart of a home cooked meal.

Buon Appetito!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ravioli alla genovese

Well the kids are back from their grandparents. This means my house is once again noisy, messy and generally out of control. In an attempt to keep these monsters entertained I am including them in our culinary adventures. Naively I’m also hoping the kids might be encouraged to try new foods if they help prepare the meal. Yesterday my nine-year-old daughter chose the night’s recipe - Ravioli alla genovese.

This recipe calls for calf’s sweetmeats. I’d never heard of sweetmeats and thus turned to that veritable source of information known as the world wide web. And just what are sweetmeats? They are a calf’s thymus and/or pancreas.

Much to my dismay (not) we couldn’t find these particular organs at our local market. I wasn’t too disappointed. You see in “real life” I’m a veterinarian and thus am intimately acquainted with the likes of livers, kidneys, pancreases. To me any filtering, excretory or hormone producing organ is not a foodstuff. Don’t get me wrong - I’ll give it a good ‘ol college try when the time comes but yesterday was not the day. Instead we substituted additional sausage and veal for the sweetmeats.

We also used chicken stock instead of veal stock. The market did carry veal stock but it was ten dollars a quart. We opted to use homemade chicken stock and spent the savings on a bottle of wine (which was needed by the time the night was over).

I’ve made homemade pasta before but never by hand. It seems I am a weakling (made weaker by children laughing at my ineptitude). I started kneading the dough and found I didn’t have enough strength to meld it together. Eventually I had to stand on a chair and put my weight into it and even then it didn’t knead as well as I’d like. The dough turned out decent but I next time I’ll definitely use the stand mixer. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with them there technological kitchen gadgets when they get the job done!

I smartly elected not to roll the dough out by hand and used my pasta maker instead. The kids would have loved this part but by that time they’d wandered outside to make “chicken salad”. I’d love to have a Kitchen Aid Pasta Attachment but really the hand crank worked just fine. Initially I rolled the dough out to the finest setting (6) but it was too thin to hold the ravioli filling without falling apart so the next batch was rolled to the next to last setting. This worked much better.

We topped the ravioli with melted butter and parmesean cheese. The kids were initially hesitant to try our creation because it contained green stuff (swiss chard, basil and parsley). However they managed to get over their fear and tasted it. They didn’t exactly gobble the ravioli down but each child did eat a small amount. Baby steps mama, baby steps.

Though the kids didn't eat much I'm going keep on cooking and keep on offering a variety of foods. Perhaps someday they'll eat an entire exotic meal. How do you get your kids to try new things?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fiori di zucchini ripieni (Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms)

I tried my first zucchini blossom in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. We had walked to the ghetto from our apartment in Trastavere, crossing the Tiber river and the Isola Tiberia (Tiber Island - which, by the way, has spectacular pistachio gelato). If you were to zap me back to Rome Star Trek style I could show you the way. But for the life of me I can not explain how to get there or remember the name of the restaurant. I wish I’d been more like the hero in Everything is Illuminated - incessantly documenting details. Because now, though the memory sits with me, the particulars are foggy. I do, however, recall the zucchini blossoms. We had asked the waiter what was good. We allowed him to choose our meal. When the zucchini blossoms arrived we hesitated. "What is it?" we inquired in broken Italian. Zucchini was the reply. Of course the dish did not look like any zucchini we knew. These were stuffed, breaded and fried blossoms. Then we remembered where we were and you know the saying ... when in Rome. So we tasted them. Pure heaven.

Now back in the states these blossoms are a rarity (at least I haven’t seen them around). I suspect they could be found in the larger farmer’s markets but they do not seem to exist in my little town. However this year I have a fledgling vegetable bed am growing my own zucchini. The plants have done surprisingly well and have begun to bloom. Yesterday I harvested both male and female blossoms and managed to get nine flowers from two plants (though I must admit some were a bit more wilted than I’d like). This the perfect number of blossoms for two people but would not do well for a dinner party. Next year I may plant an entire bed of zucchini so we can host a true Italian affair.

The recipe in Regional Italian Cuisine is for baked blossoms - a different twist from our first experience - with a stuffing of zucchini, potatoes, basil, majoram, garlic, an egg and parmesan cheese. The potatoes are boiled and then pressed through a potato ricer. The zucchini is briefly boiled then pureed. The ingredients are combined and the blossoms stuffed then baked.

There was only one problem. We don’t own a ricer. You see I’m not a big mashed potato gal. The first and last time I attempted mashed potatoes was fifteen years ago. My then fiance (now husband) and I were hosting our first Thanksgiving. We wanted things done right, i.e. homemade. Back then our kitchen was even more sparse. We didn’t have a ricer, a mill or a masher. Silly me I attempted to make mashed potatoes in the blender. As my husband put it “Honey, can I have a straw?” Our friends were ever so gracious and ate them with a spoon. In retrospect I should’ve put the "mashed" potatoes in bowls and called it soup because that's what it was.

In all that time I never had the urge to try again and thus don't own a ricer. And yesterday I wasn’t ready for another purchase as we just spent a pretty penny on Vanilla Sugar. Then I looked carefully at the photograph of the potato ricer. It looked suspiciously like a garlic press. I had a garlic press. And since I was using baby red potatoes (they happened to be on hand) it seemed plausible that the garlic press might work. And you know what? It worked perfectly. Now I suspect I’ll have to invest in a potato ricer at some point because there are other recipes in my future such as Gnocchi di patate alla piemontese (Small Potato Dumplings Piedmont Style). And there are reasonable ricers to be found online. But yesterday the garlic press did the deed.

The blossoms were good though a touch bland. They were definitely not as tasty as those in the Jewish Ghetto. But my husband has a point - everything tastes better fried. For my next attempt at blossoms I’ll be looking for a stuffed, breaded and fried recipe.

Only half of yesterday's stuffing was used for the blossoms and I didn’t want to waste the remainder. The rest was spread on slices of crusty bread, sprinkled with additional parmesan cheese and briefly broiled then topped them a tomato slice and sprinkled with Kosher salt. These crostini were absolutely delicious. The salty tomato and crunch of the bread made all the difference. Were I to make the same recipe again I’d definitely top the blossoms with a fresh diced tomato.

All in all it was a good experience and I haven't given up on the blossoms yet.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Biscotti di Prato (Almond Biscotti)

My husband and I are vastly different cooks. I’m a by-the-seat-of-your-pants gal. If something calls for a teaspoon of salt I’ll toss in a couple of pinches (and throw a touch over my shoulder for good luck). Now my husband ... if something calls for a teaspoon of salt he uses exactly a teaspoon -- not one grain more or one grain less. He should’ve been a chemist.

So when we were looking over the recipe for Biscotti di Prato (Almond Biscotti) he became concerned. The recipe calls for vanilla sugar. What is vanilla sugar? Well it seems it is sugar infused with a vanilla bean. We actually had a vanilla bean and we had sugar but we didn’t have a week to wait for this infusion to happen. My suggestion? Leave it out and just use regular sugar. Or add a touch of vanilla extract. The husband? No way, no how. We would not could not bake without the proper ingredients. And so he went to the store and bought vanilla sugar to the tune of $20.00 for 8.5 ounces!

Now the biscottis are good but I can’t honestly say - wow that vanilla sugar really makes a difference. Then again I’ve not made the recipe without it. Perhaps you can make your own vanilla sugar (which will still cost a pretty penny as vanilla beans themselves aren’t cheap). Or, and don’t tell the husband I said this, leave it out.

The recipe also calls for butter - some to spread on the pan and an additional teaspoon. I used a silpat mat instead of buttering the pan. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out when or where the additional teaspoon of butter was supposed to be added so I left it out as well (shhhh!).

After the wet and dry ingredients were combined the dough is supposed to be kneaded until smooth. My dough was crumbly (perhaps the butter would have helped?). I used my hands to knead it into a semi-solid shape then formed the recommended biscotti "sausages" by mushing everything together. It held well enough.

They baked perfectly, sliced nicely while still warm and hardened into perfect little cookies. The yield was quite large - we had enough to eat and give away and still have some remaining (though to be honest I didn’t count the exact number of biscotti made).

These cookies taste decent when eaten on their own (if you like crunchy) but are best dipped in coffee. Then they soften perfectly but don’t fall apart and that delectable coffee flavor melds perfectly with the slightly sweet almond from the biscotti.

The recipe overall was quite simple and this is something I’ll definitely make again.

Note: I found Vanilla Sugar for sale at  It's less expensive than what my husband found and may be worth it if you don't want to make your own.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Welcome to Novellino Cucina

In 2007 my husband and I were lucky enough to travel to Italy. We ate fried zucchini flowers in the Jewish Ghetto, let pistachio gelato drip from our fingers while wandering past the Vatican, sat down to the best mushroom ravioli ever in the middle of nowhere after escaping chaotic Pisa, munched on salami, cheese and crusty bread while reposing on the Vernazza pier, lingered over salt-crusted fish in Riomaggiore, drank numerous bottles of Italian wine and downed untold volumes of espresso and cappuccino. And oh how could I forget the night we polished off an entire bottle of limoncello. Thank goodness we were on foot.

Given that this is a food blog you might think my favorite Italian memory would be of the food; whether the taste or aroma or combination of the two. But you’d be wrong. My absolute fondest memory is of the clinking of dishes. No matter where we were, city or country, and no matter the time, early morning or late night, there was always the gorgeous tink tink of glassware. This sound epitomizes everything that is right about the Italian way of life and all that is, perhaps, not so right with my American life.

“To go” didn’t seem to exist in Italy. Espresso was drunk in the cafe from a porcelain demitasse cup. People didn’t wolf down Taco Grandes while driving the expressway. They didn't scarf a peanut butter sandwich while themselves sandwiched between appointments. Shops actually closed for lunch. Life slowed down at mealtimes. Eating was leisurely.

Italians take the time to taste their food. All too often in America we eat but forget to experience the taste, texture and aroma. It seems we eat to live while Italians live to eat.

Don’t get me wrong. McDonald’s exists in Italy too. But these imported fast food restaurants aren’t for Italians. They are for Americans who simply can not live without their standard fare.

Which reminds me of another story ... while in Corniglia (which required an arduous climb up 33 flights of stairs) we were accosted by a fellow American.

“Howdy Folks,” he greeted as we huffed and puffed past.

“Hello,” we responded and attempted to continue on our way.

“Hey!” he shouted, “You American?”

“Yes,” we whispered under our breaths (we were hoping to be mistaken for Canadians).

“You been to the Olive Garden School yet? If you see nothing else you gotta see the Olive Garden School!”

“Thanks for the tip,” we said not wanting to be rude and quickly scurried off.

Let me tell you this right now. We did not travel all the way to Italy to go to the Olive Garden. Uh-uh. No way. Needless to say we skipped that part of the tour.

Shortly after coming home from our trip I happened across a garage sale. At this sale was an Italian cookbook Regional Italian Cuisine; More than 200 authentic recipes and cooking techniques from every region in Italy. For a mere $3.00 how could I not bring it home? The volume was promptly placed with our other cookbooks and promptly forgotten.

But a series of recent events has led to the unearthing of this text. First I’ve been reading a lot of food related books lately. Notably Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. It seems I’ve had cooking on my mind.

Then last weekend there was a knock on our door. Sleepy-eyed I answered in my pajamas. It was my neighbor bearing a tray with homemade cappuccino complete with porcelain cups. This guy is awesome. Not only does he make espresso on par with any Italian barista but he also roasts his own beans (hey get your own neighbor - this one’s mine!).

Now I’d also recently read a post by a blogger friend, Molly, from a Foothill Home Companion who reminded me to never return an empty container. Ah, I thought, I’ll make biscotti to return in the cups. And out came the Italian cookbook.

As I was flipping through the pages I realized there were a lot of recipes I’d like to try and a lot of things I’d never made. I also really began to miss Italy and our brief respite from this harried life. Well, I thought, since I can’t afford to go back to Italy maybe I can bring Italy home. And on the spot I decided to cook my way through this book Julie and Julia style.

My husband and I have subsequently been to the fish monger in search of Red Mullet (the search is still on) and right now a batch of almond biscotti are cooling in my kitchen. One recipe down, 199 to go. Welcome to Novellino Cucina ... the Rookie Kitchen.