New Project: Raspberries and Ruminations

Few months ago, a group of women got together and brainstormed about ways to marry the mutual love of food, books, reading and writing. It didn’t take them too long to come up with a solution called Raspberries and Ruminations. (www.raspberriesandruminations.com)

Yes, I’m one of the women and yes, I can’t seem to get away from food blogs. I love it. Through Raspberries and Ruminations, we chronicle our successes with family recipes and our failures with new ingredients. It’s a bit like Top Chef—competitions…but less catty—but more importantly, it’s a venue to express what it is about food that makes us want to turn into professional chefs. Food is life and life with food is divine.

It is so fitting that my first entry was about risotto. Check is out and set back, relax and enjoy the new ride.

Risotto for life

I don’t really know what it is about risotto that makes me giddy. It may be the shape— a nice, friendly oval-shaped grain (or how we say it in Italy, chicco), or it may be color—pearly white (who wouldn’t like that?), but risotto is special for the memories it carries. I didn’t learn how to cook properly until I was in my 20s and even now, the results are at most amateurish (I still can’t bake decent cookies). What I have spent my entire life doing is observing family members move in the kitchen, juggle pots and pans, measuring ingredients, tasting obscure sauces and making risotto: Risotto this way, risotto that way, risotto prepared by one aunt, risotto made by my grandmother. It was a risotto-filled adolescence. Not that I minded. I love me some creamy rice.

Before I get too wrapped up in my melancholic story, I must say that risotto is staple of the regional cuisine of Northern Italy, where I was born. Risotto alla milanese, or risotto from Milan, is probably one of my first food memories. It’s a very simple and humble dish: rice, saffron, broth and Parmesan cheese, but it resembles my heritage, my childhood, my identity.

I think about my grandmother Pierina at the kitchen stove, stirring a big pot of rice and broth. If I close my eyes, I can still see her –  her strong arms stirring and stirring and stirring and stir some more, only the occasional taste test would interrupt that action. She would pout, she would smile and she would stir.

Nowadays, I love preparing risotto, but I use a pressure cooker, which cuts the time in half. If my grandma finds out I am cutting corners with food, she would get really upset. Ah, conveniences, she would probably say. Even my aunt Rosanna, an incredibly skilled and fearless cook, uses a very old pot to make risotto and she would never be caught with a pressure cooker. She says the years of that pot add to the deliciousness of the risotto, and in fact, she has cooked the best risotto I have ever eaten and that I have tried to replicate for our first suppah club challenge.

So, in honor of my mom Patrizia, aunt Rosanna, great-aunt Cesarina and grandmas Pierina and Rachele, I give you risotto with saffron and sausage.

Risotto with saffron and sausage

INGREDIENTS: (serves 4 people)

  • 1 packet of Arborio rice
  • 3 fresh pork Kielbasa sausages
  • 2 packets of Italian saffron
  • 1/2 cup of white wine
  • 5 cups of chicken broth
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 table spoons of extra virgin olive oil

PREPARATION:

The first thing is to add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a pot (I use a pressure cooker but any pot will do). Dice the garlic cloves and add them to the pan. Roast the garlic in the oil for about 3 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the sausages. De-case them and cut them into little pieces. Once the garlic is nice and golden, drop the sausages into the pan and let them cook for about 5 minutes. Add the white wine and the saffron, stir until the saffron evenly coats the contents and let them cook for about 5 more minutes.

Add the rice – with Arborio rice, there is no need to wash it, so it’s ready to go right our of the box. Stir the rice and the sausages until the rice is well coated with saffron (a nice orange color). At this point, add the chicken broth. To make a creamy risotto, add more liquid to the pot (as a rule of thumb, the liquid should cover the rice and sausages) and cook it, stirring often, for 25 minutes. Here is where the pressure cooker comes handy. Once I add the chicken stock, I close the lid and let it do its things for 10 minutes. It’s that easy.

Once the risotto is nice and creamy, plate it and add some Parmigiano Reggiamo and, if you want to be a bit fancy, a bit of fresh Italian parsley. Buon Appetito!

Grandma’s Cabinet: Unconventional home remedy for a stressful day

I must admit, this has to be the most unorthodox and unscientific home remedy in history. Still, it works every time! Let’s pretend you’ve had a really stressful day…work is driving you crazy, the weather is not cooperating, you are feeling less than ideal. All you want to do is go home, put on your comfy sweatpants and curl under your blanket. I do it all the time…with the added bonus of having my kitty Diego snuggle with me. My favorite part of these days, however, is running home to make my mom’s perfect Riso e Prezzemolo – Rice and Parsley.

Parsley is a fun little spice, vegetable and herb. It is said that Apigenin, a chemical found in parsley, has anti-cancer properties, it fights bad breath when chewed and parsley seed extract can help lower blood pressure.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 potatoes
  • A handful of Italian Parsley, chopped and some for garnish
  • 1 vegetable bouillon
  • 2 cups of Arborio rice
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • hint of extra virgin olive oil

As long as you have good potatoes, this dish won’t fail. It just cannot fail. Peel the potatoes, dice them and set aside.

Now the parsley. A fresh bunch is preferred, and the great flexibility of parsley is that it freezes beautifully. The amount of parsley in this dish is absolutely subjective. I love my rice to have tons of parsley, my husband, on the other hand, prefers it with a light sprinkle of fresh parsley. Once you have decided the right amount of this leafy green, finely cut it and set aside. This will be added to the boiling rice almost at the end.

The secret to this dish is the vegetable bouillon. I usually use a store-bought one (as pictured below), although I am experimenting with a homemade version. More to come on this, so stay tuned!

Add the diced potato to a pot with hot water. Before the water and the potatoes are brought to a boil, add the bouillon.

After the bouillon is in the pot, stir it quickly so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Once the water boils, add the rice. I use a 1 cup per person, although that makes for quite a bit of rice. Arborio rice is perfect for risotto and works great for this dish as well. No need to rinse the rice before adding to the water.

Once the rice is added to the boiling water, turn down the heat and let it cook slowly for 10-15 minutes, or until tender. Do not overcook the rice, like I did multiple times, or you’ll have mushy rice and not broth.

Add salt and pepper to taste, stir it and add the parsley and serve it with grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a hint of extra virgin olive oil. It’s that easy. Not only will this dish make you feel so much better, but you’ll want to make it again and again. I usually make a big batch,  store it and bring it with me to work the next day. It makes for a superb quick lunch.

I hope this recipe will help you with your stressful days. I’d love to hear what are your go-to recipes to relief stress. Personally, this dish represents everything I want when I am down. It also reminds me of my mom at the stove, making it for us in the pit of an icy winter in Milano.

Out and About: Copenhagen, Denmark

One of Francesco’s conferences brought us to Copenhagen, Denmark. I have been there once before, when I was young…with my parents and brother in our beloved motor home…ah, the memories! We landed early on a Friday morning and it only took us 20 minutes to get to our hotel. At 8:30am, jetlegged, tired, hungry and grumpy, we were told that our room would be ready at 2pm. So, we began walking. We walked up and down the Nyhavn Canal, to and from the famous Little Mermaid Statue, Amelienborg Slot, the Royal Residence, and just wondered through Copenhagen’s splendid little alleys, streets and gardens.

Of course, our guide became our best friends…we took it everywhere, read it while waiting for lunch or dinner.

It seemed fitting that our first dinner would be on the Canal, at Nyhavn 17 Cafe’ – the setting was pure entertainment: We sat on the outdoor patio, smack in the center of the bustling pedestrian street. It wasn’t warm by any means, but the Danish are so genius…for every table, they had a fleece blanket and better yet, a Carlsberg fleece blanket.

I made a promise to myself that I would try seafood dishes and I did. My first Copenhagen entree was fish cakes with boiled potatoes and asparagus. Delicious. Much better than crab cakes. Slam dunk on the first night. Booya!

Francesco, who doesn’t even want to consider seafood, went with a chicken sandwich with bacon and potatoes. Oh, and fries of course! Eating on the canal was the perfect people watching exercise. People from all over the world, walking, drinking beer, laughing. I could finally feel the European air filling up my lungs and for a moment I imagined myself living there.

Of course, when in Denmark eat what the Danish do best…Danishes! I found one of the most renowned, and best, bakeries in Denmark and I did a little damage…2 danishes, 1 chocolate croissant at Lagkagehuset. I mean, look at these beauties!

Here are some photos from out trip. Enjoy!

Guards at the Royal Residence.

Us at Tivoli.

Our lunch at Cafe Ultimo in the Tivoli gardens.

Copenhagen’s architecture was impressive. Amidst medieval alleys with classically built buildings, there are these ultramodern structures that highlight this city’s impeccable aesthetic. Case in point, the fantastic Opera House and Royal Theater.

This is the Opera House, whose biggest auditorium was apparently built in the shape of a heart to signify the love of music. Genius.

And this is the Royal Theater with adjoining sandy park (built for the Copenhagen Design Week).

Out and About: My parents’ orto in Los Angeles

It’s been quite a while since my last post. My apologies. I have done some traveling, some eating, cooking. It’s been an interesting summer, but I am back and ready to roll.

Our first stop was Los Angeles. My cousin Federica, her daughter Gaia and husband Alessandro traveled from Italy for their first U.S. vacation. I hadn’t seen them since our wedding in May 2010 and since Federica and I are really close (she is the older sister I never had), it just felt right to hop on a plane and spend some time together…plus, the last time I was home was Christmas. Either way, it was a win-win.

One of the things I love coming home to is a plentiful garden, l’orto. My grandma Pierina and grandpa Piero used to tend to what I used to call “a little forest:” carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage, you name it, they were growing it. My parents are keeping up this family tradition.

After only a few minutes in the garden, we had at least 20 big carrots, a couple of bunches of green onions and tons of lettuce. It never really hit me until I found myself without an orto, but getting my hands (and knees) dirty is divine: the cold and wet soil underneath my fingernails, the occasional snail slowly making its way through the arugola patch. It’s an almost invisible microcosm, a grounded cycle of life.

These tomatoes were juicy and so much tastier than the ones I usually buy at the local grocery store. These fantastic fresh veggies didn’t go to waste, they went right into our bellies! My mom and dad made a simple, yet sensational, veggie soup, much like a Minestrone.

Our tomato bounty. Can you imagine a fresh Caprese salad with these and Mozzarella di Bufala? That’s right. I dream of it at times.

Aside from the orto, the garden sports an impressive spread of citrus trees: two orange trees, one lemon and a grapefruit, too. Every summer morning, my brother and I used to make homemade orange juice. Of course we complained and our—well, at least my less-than-optimal arm strength, would only produce a couple of drops. Nonetheless, we never got sick – no fever, sore throats, no flu. This summer, we all pitched in and collected pounds over pounds of oranges, and even little Gaia got into the game.

A homemade garden is a healthy, communal and revolutionary notion. It brought my family together, enhanced my desire to learn how to cook and made for a better life, plain and simple.

Of course, a Los Angeles vacation could not be complete without its stunning sunsets. Cooking with family is good for the soul. Do it and do it often.

Food reads: Is cooking school worth it?

I have been fantasizing about going to culinary school for a while now and I don’t mean any cooking school in the United States, but the renowned Le Cordon Blue in Paris. Just like Julia Child. Who wouldn’t want that kind of relationship with food? I want romance, I want adventure. I certainly have met people who have gone to culinary school and cringe when I tell them that I’d love to follow in their tracks. “It’s not easy,” they say. It’s a lot of work, the teaching chefs are usually jerks and it’s becoming harder to find a well-paying job even after potential employers see the shiny diploma. That’s a major buzz kill.

Ah, beautiful Paris…. {Image}

Apparently, they are absolutely right. According to this TIME article, culinary schools now charge up to $30,000 a year and most students struggle to find work other than line cooking. More than 800 current and former students are involved in a class action suit against Le Cordon Blue in Pasadena, California, for… basically selling false hope.

So, I ask you, are cooking schools worth it? The article even takes it a step further.

Are creative careers like cooking, fashion design and even journalism best learned by going to school or by getting your foot in the door and training on the job?

That’s a very  interesting question since I did go to journalism school. Could have I learned my skills on the job? Probably, but it’s the finessing of those skills that I learned in J-school; it’s the opportunity to learn about new media and dipping my feet into print, TV and radio journalism. I do admit that with food, however, the argument is a bit different. The newly minted cult of celebrity chefs has made going to school almost obsolete: If you have a computer, a camcorder and at least some cooking skills (well, not really… Food Network has a show called Worst Cooks in America), you are good to go. Maybe we should go back to working hard and doing things the right way. Just a thought.