Brunch all’italiana

One of the things I love doing more than experimenting with new recipes is cooking for friends and family. A couple of weekends ago, we invited good friends over for brunch. Mind you, I’ve never prepared a brunch before, but how hard can it be, right? So, I started brainstorming recipes; hearty Italian recipes that even an almost 2-year-old would eat (their daughter is the cutest thing on the planet). I settled on frittata [I had just scored 12 local and organic eggs] – focaccia (just like this one), some bruschette and carrot muffins.

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Francesco is a master frittata maker and I gladly left that task to him. We decided to have one veggie frittata –  with asparagus – and a meaty one – with bacon – to satisfy all appetites.

Although it could seem a bit intimidating, a frittata is just like an easy omelet.

  • First, prep the eggs. We used two whole eggs and one egg white and added salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika, because it gives the dish an extra layer of flavor and because it’s one of my favorite spices. Add a little milk and whisk all the ingredients together.
  • For either frittata, we heated a non-stick pan (very important!) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sauteed the asparagus until tender and the bacon until slightly brown. In both frittate with added scallions for crunch and flavor.
  • Pour the egg mixture in the pan making sure it covers the vegetables or the bacon. Add some Gruyere cheese.
  • Let the eggs cook for a few minutes, or until golden brown. Flip the frittata and let it cook for at least 5 minutes.
  • Serve warn. Sprinkle diced scallions as garnish.

frittata_collage
Le bruschette are, to me, the quintessential summer snack or appetizer. If you have some cherry tomatoes in the fridge, a few kalamata olives, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, you are in business.

Toast the bread, add fresh garlic by grating each clove on the grilled or toasted bread slice and add the tomatoes. It’s colorful, healthy, fresh and quick – definitely a winner in my kitchen.
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I was living in Naples, Italy when I tasted the best bruschette. It’s should not have come as a surprise since the Campania region has the juiciest and flavorful cherry tomatoes in the world. In a perfect bruschetta, the bread is soggy from the tomato juice and the garlic is so fresh, it is almost spicy.

What are you got-to brunch recipes?

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In which we finally bought a grill

It took us a year and three months, but we finally did it. We bought a grill (euphoria ensued). Since we moved in into our new home last year, I have been dreaming about the culinary possibilities of owning such a fantastic piece of equipment. It arrived in a box, disassembled, on a Tuesday night. It had been raining on and off for three days and the sky looked angry, dark clouds fast approaching. Of course we could not wait until the next day to put the puppy together.

We rushed, read the instruction one minute and checked the sky the next, but we made it…we built it, put a cover on it and waited for the rain, which never came.

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Now that this was a reality, I scrambled to find a good first recipe, but I realized that the simplest ones are always the best. We decided on grilled zucchini and patate al cartoccio, potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil and a good steak. It sounds really clique, but there is nothing better after a long day in the office then to come home, head straight to the backyard, grill and listen to the sound of the pond’s waterfall. Very relaxing.
zucchiniThe recipe for the zucchini is so simple, it almost cooks itself. Just slice the zucchini lengthwise making sure each slice is thick enough not to be burned as soon as you put them on the grill. Once the slices have reached your preferred doneness, I personally love a bit of burned crunch on the edges, place them on a plate and drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and fresh parsley for a hint of freshness…and summer.

I first made patate al cartoccio when I was still living at home. I remember we had some friends over for dinner and I wanted to contribute to the cookery and, let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with potatoes. I cut the potatoes in thin slices and placed them in a “cup” made of aluminum foil – just wrap the foil in a manner that forms a cup – and added extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt, pepper and rosemary. I closed the “cup” and put it on the grill. That’s it. No stirring necessary and the result is rather sophisticated. I let it cook for about 10 minutes, checking from time to time that nothing is burning. Serve it in the foil.

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I cannot reiterate enough how excited I am for this grill. I feel like I have a new world of possibilities to explore.

What are your favorite grilling recipes? I’d love to know!

Italian music Fridays – Il venerdi’ musicale

It’s Friday, the weather is less than optimal (I would venture to say it actually sucks) and you find yourself wanting something good, pure…anything – a cupcake, a hug. What I can offer is music, but not any banal music choice, Italian music. My other love, (other than food). So, I thereby announce that every Friday, I will entertain you with a bit of music from my past and culture. Music I grew up to and still gravitate to. And here it goes, il Venerdi’ Musicale.

We have a strong and strange relationship, music and I. It accompanied me through the peculiar time in one’s life called adolescence. I was 15 when my family and I decided to move from Milano in Northern Italy, to Naples, in the south. My childhood friends were still around; we still giggled together in class, we still went for pizza on weekend nights. We were still a whole. When I moved, I left them 700 kilometers (400 miles) behind. But I was still a teenager, moody, solitary and with the intense desire to be a rock star. I remember posing in front of the bathroom mirror screaming at the top of my lungs and waving my hairbrush as a microphone. Ah, good times.

From my dream of rock stardom came my undying love of music. Any genre. Music was therapeutic, it helped calm that inner anxiety that at times took over and made for a colorful co-habitation atmosphere.

Today’s pick is Lorenzo “Jovanotti” Cherubini, Italian singer songwriter, lyricist, author and humanitarian. I have followed Jovanotti since his early days of catchy Italian pop songs with silly lyrics. His evolution is remarkable.

Image via Facebook

Jovanotti played Bonnaroo in 2011 and opened SXSW this year. He has moved my generation to think positively and do good. I hope you enjoy his songs, which I consider poems, as much as I do.

You can follow him on Facebook here and hear more here. Buon ascolto!

 

Christmas in Italy (Rieti and Milano)

For the last five years, Francesco and I spent Christmas either with friends in Virginia or with my parents in California. Great times were had, awesome meals were eaten, but spending Christmas in Italy is the ultimate nirvana – (and he had not spent December 25th with family in all these years). So, early in the summer when we begin our vacation planning for the year, we looked at each other and went straight to the computer. We opened our preferred cheap flights website and typed: FROM: Washington Dulles  TO: Rome. In a heartbeat, it was done. We were going to Italy for Christmas! (And extra nirvana: my parents and brother would be there as well!)

My mind, of course, went straight to Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch. It’s just how I am wired; I associate holidays, and memories, with food. Since we were spending the holidays with my in-laws, I was curious to find out their Christmas tradition. In my family, the biggest celebration happens on Christmas day and lunch is usually an unforgettable feast with local food from the Lombardy region: polenta, chiodini mushrooms and some sort of meat  – Panettone and Pandoro covered with a mascarpone cream were a must for dessert. Talk about watching your weight.

As it turns out, my in-laws’ biggest culinary feat usually happens on Christmas Eve. Dinner is served around 8pm and the menu is predominantly seafood based. (Poor husband of mine hates fish of all shapes and sizes….he had to settle for pasta al pomodoro).

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Just remembering the dinner gives me goose bumps. I was served a myriad little bites of perfection: pan-fried mussels, a polenta-based shimp cocktail served in a small terrine covered in a spicy tomato and chili sauce, fried codfish and my ultimate favorite, steamed octopus served with salt, pepper, parsley and a drop of olive oil.

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Pan-fried mussels and steamed octopus. Oh, my taste buds were making cartwheels

There are not many things I don’t like, but that night, what was put on my plate made me quiver. Francesco’s dad painstakingly sliced smoked duck breast and elegantly placed it on a buttered toast. So, imagine my face when I was presented with four slices of bright red meat and was encouraged to take a bite.”Thanks, but no thanks?” I reluctantly put that thing in my mouth and chewed. Oh God, what was I thinking? It was borderline idyllic. The flavor practically burst in my mouth, overtaking, as if for just a moment, my senses. More, please!

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Francesco may be holding the toast, but he did not have the courage to eat it. Just sayin’

First course, as if the appetizers didn’t fill me up enough, consisted of pasta with a delicate tomato-based sauce with tuna and black olives. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. First, the olives were from the olive tree that greets you as you step into my in-laws’ front yard. They were tangy, salty and mixed well with the subtle flavor of the cooked tuna.

The dinner was much more than just a meal. Sitting at the large wooden tables were four generations of my husband’s family, talking over each other, critically dissecting the food in front of them. There was something personal about each of them in their food. The olives were my mother-in-law’s great conquest; the codfish, a family recipe my husband’s aunt revived for the occasion; the polenta-shrimp cocktail, a last-minute genius concoction by my father-in-law.

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Tuna time: pasta with tomatoes, tuna and olives

It’s clique to say that the only way Italians really talk to each other is through the food they prepare, but I found it to be true. Especially during the holidays. So much history, emotions and feelings in those dishes that I, for once, learned a bit more about them without opening my mouth. Well, I actually open my mouth to eat the food, but what I meant is….you get the point.

Desserts were varied and without a doubt too caloric, too full of this or that, but who cares. I was in Italy, enjoying a restaurant quality meal and was not about to chicken out on the best part.

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Pesche Sciroppate

My mother-in-law’s juicy peaches with simple syrup and a healthy dose of whipped cream made my night. Gorgeous to look at and quite easy to make – a fresh alternative to boring chocolates or ricotta cakes. But there was more.

Panettone and Pandoro are the staple Christmasy desserts, but Francesco’s grandma, Luisa, had a trick up her sleeve. She made il rotolo, a favorite among my husband and his brothers.

Rotolo
Nutella is involved. Enough said

It’s not a hard dessert to make and it takes less than 30 minutes to make, but oh boy…it went fast. One word: Nutella. A rolled cake dough with Nutella blissfully embracing its inner parts. I could have eaten just that and I would have been a happy camper. Really. With Nutella around, I lose control.

If you think that Christmas is the end of your food-related fantasies, think again. December 26 is still a holiday, Santo Stefano, and you eat like you have not stuffed yourself to the brim for two days. Tortellini in brodo was served, probably my favorite dish of all, with lasagne (a much better result than my attempt) cold cuts and more desserts.

lasagne
Word of the day: crunchy

MILANO

Our time spent in Milano with my family was also filled with food and related food coma. I was starting to doubt I would fit into my jeans at that point, but when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? So I kept going. The food from the Lombardy region is much different than that of the Lazio region, where Rome is located and where Francesco is from. Our cuisine is heavier, simpler, often made from leftovers, very little seafood and lots of meat and potatoes.

My favorite dish in all the land happens to be very heavy, impossibly unhealthy. It’s called Pizzoccheri: it’s whole wheat pasta with cabbage, spinach, potatoes and a boat load of different cheeses. The more, the merrier.

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Pizzoccheri. It’s even more dense than what it looks like

We actually drove three hours to try the so-called best pizzoccheri in Lombardia. Oh, and to see my cousin and her family. We were deep into Valtellina, a valley in Northern Lombardy bordering Switzerland, following unbeaten paths, getting lost and finding our way back, when we finally arrived at a small, unattractive barn with a trattoria sign hovering over its door.

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Valtellina

The service was family style: you eat what the cook has prepared for the day and that’s it. You don’t like it? Too bad. After a few appetizers, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. A steaming plate of pizzoccheri made its way to my seat at the table. I have eaten my parents’ pizzoccheri and loved it every time, but this was from another planet. The cheese, real Fontina cheese from Valtellina, was gooey, it melted in my mouth like cotton candy. It was superb and I am not exaggerating. Major success. I went home full and happy.

Needless to say, our trip was fantastic. Spending time with family and eating good food is my kind of fun.

Back with a vengeance!

I’m back and I am here to stay. It has been quite a while since my last post and boy, things have changed in my life. I left one job, found two amazing jobs, bought a house, painted every room (thanks to Francesco and my dad) and moved…all in one month. Whew! Of course, there are still boxed everywhere, but the kitchen….arguably the most important room in the house, is all set and ready for some cooking!

The hardest thing to decide was the color of the walls, and not just for the kitchen, but for the master bedroom, for the dining room, the bathroom, because once it’s painted…it’s permanent…at least for a year (that was and still is a deal I made with myself). So, we went from this…

To choosing a sage green color that matches the granite!

We absolutely love our kitchen! We can both cook uninterrupted and have already made a few of our favorite dishes: gnocchi, pizza and even a cheese souffle. We have been hard at work. Now, instead of wishing a bigger, better kitchen, I wish for better cooking skills! That, however, can be fixed.

Although the house is still in a state of disarray (boxes and bags in the entryway, my clothes and shoes in suitcases) and are still missing some key components: i.e. dining table and chairs and a bed for our master bedroom!!!!, the short drive home from work is one of the happiest moments of my day. I get to open the door and run to the kitchen to prepare lunch or dinner. (Maybe now I can try new recipes?)

By the looks of it, even Diego is liking it here.

A flashback in photos

I have been meaning to look through old photos for a while, and what I found brought back incredible memories. I apparently really LOVED gelato. See for yourself.

I used to go over to my grandpa’s house after school and dig through the freezer. There was always something for my brother and I in there: gelato, ice cream cookies, Calippo, and ghiaccioli. On those hot and sticky summer days in Milano, nothing was better than eating my ghiacciolo with my friends in a field of red poppy flowers. My last trip home was traumatic. Those fields are no longer there…poppy flowers, which used to grow so easily around my small town, were nowhere to be found. I guess I was trying to keep those memories intact and relive those fun and innocent days. Thank goodness for these photos…especially the gap in my teeth in the first one and the gelato drop on my nose. Classy!

Buon Natale!

It’s finally my favorite time of the year! Family, food, food and family. We woke up this morning to a happy kitten, a cold but sunny morning … a perfect time for vanilla pancakes. Every Christmas in Milano we would meet at my parents’ house. Tables were set up for about 20 people. Pounds of steamy polenta with chiodini mushrooms decorated our plates and Pandoro with mascarpone cream filled our tummies with festive sugary treats. Ah, the memories!

I wish you a very yummy Christmas. Buon Natale!