Lessons from Julia Child

We have a bit of Julia Child in all of us. What I love most about Mrs. Child is her fervent humor (witty and pointed). While I was reading My Life in France, her book with Alex Prud’Homme, I began thinking about my own food related memories and heritage. I grew up in a family of excellent and inventive cooks—mom is a champ baker (her crostata is to die for) and dad is an unafraid alchemist, mixing ingredients and revising recipes without a hint of anxiety. I have only recently rediscovered the sheer pleasure in making a meal from start to finish. Pity. In college, I relied on Ramen instant noodles, processed, really-bad-for me, so-called food. Sure, I’d add in the ever-present pasta dish. Sad. It was only when I began cooking for two that I realized I needed to get over myself and learn how to cook properly. Hence, my infatuation with Julia.

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Interestingly enough, Julia Child is not well-known in Italy. I actually never heard of her before moving to the United States some 10 years ago. Is the never-ending feud/rivalry between Italy and France to blame? Not sure, but I am disappointed to have met Mrs. Child so late in the game.

I am a romantic at heart and I found the book melancholic, but exciting at the same time. From Julia and Paul’s arrival to Paris in the Blue Flash, their oversize, very American Buick, to their farewell to France many years later, I was transported back in time. Reality seemed to stop, at least for me. I have been to Paris before (it is my favorite place on earth), but I would give anything to go back and see it through Julia Child’s eyes; to navigate the streets of the city of lights with her, a braccetto, cheerfully stopping at our favorite butcher to pick up the ingredients for the glorious Boeuf Bourguignon.

Needless to say, I ordered Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After dreaming about Julia’s life and kitchen in their first grandiose apartment in Paris, I was hooked. The recipes’ butter content is something I will need some time and training adapting to…but I will try anything once. I’ve always wanted to master the art of brioche making and now I have my chance. No more excuses. Until next time, Bon Appetit! (Image)


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Saffron risotto with shrimps

I have a love affair with saffron. It may be because it appears in many dishes from my region, Lombardia—best known is Risotto alla Milanese. In my humble opinion, saffron marries perfectly with risotto, but I have used it in pasta sauces, vegetable medley and as a marinade for either a nice halibut filet or a juicy rib eye steak.

For this recipe, I ventured a bit outside my comfort zone and purchased precooked, frozen shrimps from the new, pimped out Whole Foods Market in Charlottesville. It may look intimidating, but this dish is a breeze. I promise.  All you need is 1 1/2 cups of shrimps (any size will do), garlic, good white wine, 2 packets of saffron, 4 cups of Arborio rice (for 4 people), 1 cup of vegetable stock, salt and pepper. See? Nothing too fancy.

After washing the shrimps…and making sure they are all devenied, get out the best tool in the kitchen: the pressure cooker! It will cut the cooking time in half. No joke.

Mince the 3 cloves of garlic and place them in the cooker with some extra virgin olive oil. Roast the garlic for 3 or 4 minutes, or until golden. Add the cut and cleaned shrimps and the saffron and cook for about 2 minutes. The saffron that I use is from Italy and was sent to us by Francesco’s parents. I use two packets or the equivalent of 2 teaspoons. Mix the ingredients until they all look uniformly orangey. Call me crazy, but I just LOVE the color of saffron.

Add the Arborio rice and cook all the ingredients for 5 to 10 minutes. Now comes the fun part. Add the wine, and don’t be alarmed if it makes all kinds of noises and smoke. Stir it until the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the vegetable stock and make sure the liquid covers all the ingredients.

Add salt and pepper, taste it and cover it up. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Once it’s ready to serve, sprinkle some Parmigiano Reggiano and let it melt. Buon Appetito!

Vocabulary:

Risotto – rice

Zafferano – saffron

Aglio – garlic

Gamberetti – shrimps

Here’s to a happy and cool weekend…with watermelon!

It’s Friday and you know what that means, right? The weekend is knocking at my doors! Problem is, it’s 107 degrees outside (but it feels like 115) and who in their right mind would want to move from the couch? Not me. Yet, I’ll brave the heat and drag my overheated body to the farmers market tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, there is a purpose to my madness: I will be looking for my one and only remedy for summer heat: watermelon, anguria in Italian.

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With 92% water and 6% sugar, watermelon not only is my go-to fruit of the summer, it also is the only food I can stomach when the weather is as hot as it is today. Bonus points: Watermelon contains large amounts of beta carotene (let’s get tanning!). I don’t have a proven scientific method for choosing the right fruit, but what I usually do is tap it once and if it sounds a bit hollow, it usually means it’s ripe, juicy and ready to go. The best way to eat it? Cut it in small cubes, sprinkle a bit of lime juice and refrigerate. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

What is your favorite watermelon recipe? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy weekend, everyone. Stay cool!

Out and About: Vegan pizza from Whole Foods

I am not a big fan of pizza here in the United States. The dough is a bit chewy, the tomato sauce is practically raw sugar and the mozzarella cheese is tasteless. Yes, I am a bit harsh, but imagine my surprise when Francesco and I bit into a slice of vegan pizza at the local Whole Foods Market. The new store is something out of a movie: There is a bar where customers can drink a vast assortment of wines and beers, a homemade pasta section and a wood fire pizza oven that has apparently been crafted and shipped from Italy. Yay!

This was heaven in a slice: The crust was perfectly charred, the tomato sauce was juicy and flavorful and the addition of fresh tomatoes (San Marzano, I presume) was genius. I was so happy I almost cried. This will be my go-to place for pizza. Have you tried it yet?

Out and About: Peach picking at Chiles Peach Orchard

What a gorgeous day in Charlottesville: warm sun and gentle breeze. The perfect weather to go peach picking. After a fun morning at the City Market, my good friend Emily and I trekked to Crozet, Virginia to Chiles Peach Orchard. Picture the green hills of Central Virginia, sun bathed peach trees, families pic-nicking and acres of pretty green hills. Here are some pictures of our fun day. Enjoy!

Emily is an experienced peach picker!

Look at this peaceful landscape…who wouldn’t want to spend some time in the sun in this place?


I picked about 10 pounds of peaches. How many peach cobblers can I possibly make? Emily gave me a super tasty recipe for a spicy peach salsa. Stay tuned. We’ll blow your minds.

Chiles Peach Orchard is open from April through Thanksgiving and it might be the best kept secret in town – at least for me!

An enthusiastic and friendly picker!

Summer treat: Pasta with homemade pesto, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella bites

Summer is finally here and with it comes a set of new ingredients, flavors, smells and tastes. Personally, I think summer rocks—few reasons: watermelon, apricots and fresh, delicious basil—hence homemade pesto. Every chance I get, I made pesto and one of the easiest and tastier summer pastas is with fresh pesto, juicy Roma tomatoes and ciliegine (tiny mozzarella bites).

The most important ingredient is, for course, the basil. I buy mine (I wish I had enough of it on my tiny fake balcony) at the Charlottesville Farmers Market. For this recipe, thee big bunches of fresh Genovese basil is just perfect.

HOMEMADE PESTO

3 Bunches of Genovese Basil

Parmesan Cheese

Pine nuts

Salt

Pepper

Garlic (lots and lots and lots)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

To make the pesto, after washing the basil bunches, pluck the leaves and put them in the food processor (the smallest leaves are the juiciest). Add Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, garlic pine nuts, salt and pepper. Grind the mixture and taste it. I like my pesto to be garlicky, so I usually add 3 or more cloves. For a tart flavor, add more Parmesan cheese than you normally would: It adds a tangyness that marries perfectly with the sweetness of the basil.

Next up: pasta, tomatoes and mozzarella. Fill  a pot with water, put it on the stove at high heat and bring it to a boil. In the meantime, wash and half a good 2 cups of Roma tomatoes.

These have much better flavor than the bigger, salad tomatoes. Big flavors, apparently, come in small packages.The ciliegine, small bites of mozzarella, go through the same process.

Once the water is boiling, add the pasta. I prefer to use Penne, a short and sturdy shape…it holds strong flavors very well. Cook the pasta for 10 minutes, drain it and put it back into the pot it cooked in. Add the pesto and the other ingredients and stir it until the mozzarella is melted. Serve it right off the stove or cold. It’s that simple.  Enjoy!

Grandma’s Cabinet: home remedy for the summer cold

There is probably nothing worse that getting sick—the down-on-your-knees sniffling, coughing-up-a-storm kind of ill—in the summertime. Got the idea? That is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I wouldn’t know how I happened to get that sick. We spent the weekend in a breathtaking estate in Warrenton, Virginia for the wedding of our good friends Jeff and Marla. We enjoyed seeing old friends, ate good food, took a scenic bike ride, wept at the ceremony, danced at the reception, got sick. In that order.

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I’ve had the idea of introducing this new section of the blog for a while, but I couldn’t find the right time. Well, now the time has found me. Grandma’s Cabinet will feature all the home remedies my grandmother Piera and my aunt Cesarina (and my mom Patrizia for that matter) have taught, concocted and given me through the years.

The simplest, and may I say the most effective, is the remedy for the summer cold: a cup of hot milk (don’t heat in the microwave, let it simmer slowly in a small pot) with a spoonful of honey right before bed. It’s not a secret remedy, but it has worked for me every time and I found that the better quality the honey, the better the results. To that end, I only use local honey from nearby Virginia farms: a rich, flowery taste that lingers in your mouth.

Give it a try and let me know if it works for you!