Out and About: Milano, Italy

It so happens that when I was living in Milano, from birth until I was about 15, I wasn’t really fond of the city. Call me crazy, but I did not see anything special about a polluted, traffic-infested and constantly foggy city. Granted, I actually lived about 30 minutes outside the metropolis, in a small, rural town called S. Agata Martesana. From my bedroom window, I could see the green fields and cows strolling in the nearby farm—that kind of rural. My favorite thing, however, happened in the summer. Because of the heat and no air conditioning, my bedroom window was always propped open and I used to love going to bed and listen to the symphony of a myriad of happy frogs singing in the nearby creek. S. Agata was a magical place until I became a teenager and longed for new friends and a bigger and more serviced town.

I used to commute to downtown Milano every morning to go to school, I would take the metro, the green line or linea verde, get off at the Lambrate stop and hop on a bus that would take me straight to my liceo. It was about an hour commute, but I cherished that time as simply mine. Now, well, it’s a different story.

No matter how many times I see it, the Duomo manages to take my breath away every. single. time. The Galleria, below, is just as beautiful…and I have to say that I love seeing it crowded, with people from all walks of life.

Our trip to Milano was accentuated by some deserved family and friend-time. I got to spend some quality time with my great friend Eliana who got married (and I served as one of the bridesmaids). What’s better than seeing your best friend’s happiest day and be part of it? Not much.

Here is the beautiful bride with her sassy grandma.

Eliana and I know each other since early childhood. We used to be next door neighbors, go to school together, come home from school and instantly go out to play together. In a few words, she is a special friend…one who will always be on your side and make you smile.

The wedding was set in the gorgeous hills of Italy’s Reggio Emilia region (in Moglia to be exact)—the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, Lambrusco wine and the decadent tortelli di zucca, pumpkin ravioli. The menu was punctuated by regional dishes—risotto with saffron with Porcini mushrooms, straccetti with over-roasted potatoes, just to name a few. De.li.ci.ous.

Not far from Moglia is the land of Ferrari, you know, the super slick red cars that single-handedly represent Italian design? Yeah, those. So, we hopped on my uncle’s car and drove to Maranello. Imagine: Ferrari rumbling through the streets at every turn, the Ferrari Museum offering the history of this famed brand and we got lucky to score the last two tickets for an exclusive tour of the Fiorano’s Formula One racing track.

Back to food. The last thing I thought would happen actually did. I learned something new about my city, something I may have to experience every year. I left Milano when I was 15 and I never really spent much time on my trips back. This could sound like an excuse, but imagine my surprise, and embarrassment, when I was told by Francesco’s dad about il Panificio Luini…a Milanese institution. Nestled in one of Milano’s many narrow streets, Luini, I discovered, makes the best panzerotti in the world.

Panzerotti are fried nuggets of dough filled with prosciutto and mozzarella. Hungry yet?

Are you hungry now?

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: 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: Slate’s take on best food show on TV (and I agree)

There is so much trash food TV around these days that it has become almost impossible to pick the freshest programs from the stale and boring ones.

Jennifer Reese writes in Slate that the best food show on TV is America’s Test Kitchen—by the staff of Cooks Illustrated magazine—on PBS. Yes! Hands down the most informative, creative and well-made food show around. Not that I would ever call myself an expert, but I happen to live in a city that got hammered with foot over foot of snow for two years in a row and what did I do for hours during those wintery weekends? I was glued to the TV. We couldn’t drive anywhere and I resorted to spending my waking hours salivating over meals I would probably never going to be able to make. And that’s the problem. As Reese states in the article,

If you’ve ever turned on the Food Network or Cooking Channel, you know that cooking shows circa 2011 are as much circus acts as culinary tutorials. Just about every Food Network star has a shtick, often accompanied by a signature hair style. Paula Deen is the zany Georgia matron with the silver mane. Guy Fieri: frat boy with the Rod Stewart mop. Anne Burrell: saucy chef with the Phyllis Diller shag.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Nowadays, food shows concentrate more on how good you will look in your friends’ eyes by cooking elaborate meals rather than actually learning why garlic works better than onions in a risotto (well, that’s actually a preference of mine, but I’d like to think that it’s true!), or that fresh ingredients are ALWAYS a better choice than canned or processed ones. Ehm, ever heard of Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade? Take this Wild Mushroom Dip recipe: a package of dry wild mushrooms, a can of condensed mushroom soup, a package of cream cheese and a few other things. Really? I wouldn’t get near this so-called dip.

And then there is Giada De Laurentiis. I like her, I really do, it’s just  that when she overemphasizes and over-pronounces every Italian word, I want to duck my head in the sand. But there is no denying that her recipes are approachable and very Italian. Paula Deen is a pleasure to watch (I really, really love her), but not for her food….have you seen the amount of butter she adds to all her recipes? Insane. I feel I gain weight just watching her doing her magic in the kitchen.

TV is tough work, I am sure, but if we want to inform and educate people, we should look for good, sound, healthy recipes to share with the public and not promote unhealthy shortcuts. We are all busy, I get it, but a homemade pizza dough takes 15 minutes. I promise.

So, do yourself a favor and watch  America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

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.

Image

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!

Food Reads: I’ve got some reading to do

I have been in a food coma for some time—the food book kind of coma. I obsessively check the latest arrivals at the local used book stores (Daedalus and Read it Again Sam) for a possible addition to my wordy arsenal. I’ve got eight books waiting for me and one that I am currently thoroughly enjoying: Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, My Year of Cooking Dangerously: An honest and raunchy account of life between Julia Child-derived meals. Right up my alley. Love it.

So, I’ve got some reading to do and in no particular order:

-Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food

Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by New York Times food writer Kim Severson

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (who, by the way, will be in Charlottesville in October with none other than Eric Ripert)

Ruth Reichl‘s Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples

The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

Best Food Writing 2009

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipe from Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (of Orangette, one of the best blogs around!)

Phew! That is is for now.Or maybe not. Any books I should add to this list?

Out and About: Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace

On the day of our first wedding anniversary, our good friends Farah and Lee brought us to one of New Orleans’ most renowned restaurants for a unique experience: Jazz Brunch.

Commander’s Palace is an institution, voted most popular restaurant by the Zagat guide in 2009. We were escorted to our table by a suited gentleman. We walked through the busy kitchen and by the smell of it, I knew we were in for a delicious treat. The menu was pure decadence. After a quick read, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of dishes I wanted to try out: Oysters, crabs, cheviche. For appetizers, I decided to go with the quintessential New Orleans treat—and the recommendation of the cordial, animated staff.

Oyster & Absinthe “Dome” – Plump P&J oysters poached with bacon, artichokes, Absinthe and a splash of double cream ~ Presented under a flaky pastry shell.

When Farah’s appetizer reached the table, I was jealous. The shrimps were fresh and spicy, the texture of the remoulade was perfect.

Wild Shrimp Remoulade “Moderne” – Spicy boiled shrimp with Tabasco mousse, crispy brix, Creole remoulade and salt cured lemon zest.

Before we dove into each entrée, the meal took a musical turn. As per tradition, a jazz band goes around the restaurant’s various rooms and plays jazzy tunes. At time, the players invite the customers to join in the fun and that’s exactly what happened to me.

The band came around and I found myself dancing, with my napkin in the air, around the room with Lee.  It’s called Jazz Brunch for a reason! (Yes, that’s me with my friend Lee).

Picking an entrée was like choosing the perfect pair of shoes: You wanted the make the smartest decision. Being in New Orleans, I decided to order something that I would not so easily find in Virginia, so I went with a soft shell blue crab, fried, on a bed of greens with a poached egg smothered with Hollandaise sauce.

The crab was perfectly married with the sweet and tangy Hollandaise. I had never had a whole fried crab before. It didn’t taste like anything I have ever eaten before and the more I think about it, the more I’d love to eat it again and again.

Farah also picked fish: Griddle Seared Gulf Fish – Butter roasted artichokes, asparagus, pequillo peppers, grilled eggplant and tiny tomatoes with brûléed citrus & lemon-thyme vinaigrette.

Francesco went with the only non-fish dish on the menu: A beautiful beef filet adorned with a poached egg and a myriad of extraordinary sauces. The meat was so tender, it blended with the smooth texture of the egg and accompanied white sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we still had dessert. Commander’s Palace, it turns out, is known for its bread pudding souffle. Farah recommended it, we listened and agreed: It was insanely good.

The pudding was rich and velvety and the occasional raising gave it an unexpected crunch. Yet, the star of the dish, according to Francesco, was the luxurious whiskey cream—which was carefully served at the table, when the souffle was still warm.

In order to try another specialty, I picked something reminiscent of an American classic—strawberry shortcake with local strawberries and handmade whipped cream. The cake was soft, moist. The whipped cream was light and with a hint of vanilla. The strawberry syrup was rich, but not too sweet.

This was most likely the richest and most satisfying meal of my life. Great food is hard to come by, and good friends are even harder. Farah, Lee and the carefully prepared food made our first anniversary simply unforgettable.

Food Reads: Bon Appetit’s The ITALY Issue

I couldn’t have missed this. Don’t mock me, but I tend to gravitate towards all things Italian (and, often, I find that I am either offended by the blatant misconception of Italian culture or amused by the silly stereotypes…Jersey Shore ring a bell?). When I came across the latest Bon Appetit’s issue, well, I jumped up and down for joy. I wasn’t really taken by the cover image—it kind of looks like something I would cook and photograph—but by the headline: The Italy Issue, written in bold, red letters. (Thank the deities it wasn’t imitating the colors of Italy’s flag).

Yet, the entire cover look seems a bit uninspired. And boring to be honest. But newly minted editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport (formerly style editor at GQ) has his reasons. “I love just a clean, graphic cover, and there’s something simple and beautiful about pasta pomodoro and made the right way and it’s glossy and luxurious and there’s a luxurious simplicity to it,” he said in an interview with Eater.com.

Kudos for giving Emilia’s food culture nice relevance—it is, after all, the land of Parmigiano Reggiano and of the prosciutto di Modena—but it would have been equally, if not more successful, to break away from the rustic ideals and move towards the new wave of Italian chef-artists. Chef Massimo Bottura is the new Michelangelo. His restaurant, Osteria Francescana, recently ranked as the fourth best restaurant in the world. It’s haute cuisine. Italian food can still be comfort food, but it’s so much more—it’s conceptual, inspired, cosmopolitan, it’s relevant, new and different.

{Photos: Bon Appetit}

Here, for example, is Massimo Bottura explaining how he uses foreign ingredients and honors them in their purest forms.


And here, Bottura shows his genius. Oh, it’s only in Italian, but if you forward the video a bit, you can see how he creates a modern twist on a traditional dish from Emilia – snails bourguignon. He went hiking in the hills of Modena one winter and was inspired to recreate the environment he observed into his dish—the soft looking whipped cream you see as he completes the dish is a garlic foam that represents snow. The title of the video says it all, I think. La rivoluzione siamo noi – We are the revolution.