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).

RIETI

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.

polipo_cozze
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!

Duck_breast
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.

Pasta_Tonno
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.

pesche
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.

pizzoccheri
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.

valtellina
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.

The Weekend List 02/27/2012

I have had an interesting week and I have spent it reading all kinds of food writing. The great thing about the realm of writing about food is that it follows its own rules. It can be edgy, funny, narrative, and wrapped up into one killer piece.

-I am a uber fan of Lucky Peach, the brain child of chef David Chang. It’s more than a magazine, it’s a dairy, a novel, a notebook, a song, it’s all these things and more. There isn’t a set label to describe it and I have the feeling Chang wanted it that way. And speaking of rules, Jeff Gordinier writes in The New York Times that although the “strict” rules for creating a magazine are still very relevant, being a literary rebel works, too.

You’re supposed to put a sexy person on the cover of a magazine. You’re supposed to lure readers in with a tempting (yet delicately neurosis-inducing) display of hyperbolic phrases about getting a killer beach body in five minutes and embarking on a dream vacation to Costa Rica and making cocktails that rival the ambrosial nectars of the Greek gods.

I highly recommend picking up the third issue. It’s so worth it.

-As you have probably discovered already, I am a cookbook freak. So you can guess my excitement when I found Eater’s Spring 2012 cookbook preview. The added thrill? April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories. Why this particular book you ask? It’s a funny story. Last winter, I picked up The New Yorker’s food issue and found one of my favorite pieces of food writing: a profile of April Bloomfield, the chef at NYC’s The Spotted Pig. Since then, I have been a huge fan of Bloomfield, rooting for her that same year when she was nominated for  the 2011 James Beard Awards. On April 24, you can find me at the nearest bookstore. Other notables:

* Nobu’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Nobu Matsuhisa

*Pierre Hermé Pastries by Pierre Hermé

*The Southern Italian Farmer’s Table: Authentic Recipes and Local Lore from Tuscany to Sicily by Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino.

-The 2012 James Beard semifinalists have been announced! David Chang, momofuku ssäm Bar, in NYC for Outstanding Chef; Kevin Gillespie, woodfire Grill,  in Atlanta (Top Chef, people!) for Rising Start Chef of the Year. The Best Chef: NYC category is a powerhouse: April Bloomfield, Marco Canora, Scott Conant, Wylie Dufresne and Anita Lo.

-Have you liked The Italian Fork on Facebook?

“Cena Italiana”: The best excuse to reminisce in Charlottesville

La Cena Italiana is something of an institution for a group of expats who call Charlottesville their new home. We are quite the group actually: architects, winemakers, students, reporters, engineers, editors, software engineers, you name it. We tend to not be able to speak Italian during our busy work lives, so once we get together to reminisce about the old country, there is no English allowed. And we are quite strict about that. Problem is, I am beginning to forget words in Italian and resort to blurt them out in a heavily accented English.

This month’s extravaganza had two special guests: one the member’s two sisters arrived from Italy the week before and were looking forward to hosting a night of Italian classics from appetizers to desserts. I was in charge of making tiramisu’ (which literally means “pick me up”), one of my favorites and well-practiced desserts in my repertoire.

This is how the table was set when we arrived. Green, white and red ribbons artfully paired with each napkin. This is how we do it. We go all out.

After a few appetizers  – bruschetta with grape tomatoes with a drizzle of excellent extra virgin olive oil, olives, and roasted cherry tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs – i primi piatti were served. First up were homemade tagliatelle with a hint of extra virgin olive oil and baked artichoke hearts,  a light and filling pasta dish from the Veneto region in Northern Italy.

Next up, risotto with sausage. So simple, so unbelievable delicious. When I make this type of risotto, I usually add saffron to give it just a slightly bolder taste.

And here is my favorite. Polenta. I grew up eating polenta…I love the taste, the texture, the color. Everything. I still remember my grandmother Pierina at the stove on Christmas morning stirring a huge pot of boiling polenta. We used to pair it with mushrooms and rabbit (I know, I know). The great thins about this dish is its versatility: it tastes even better the day after and it can be grilled, fried and boiled. This night, polenta was served with another staple of my family’s Christmas meal: spezzatino…chunks of meat with tomato sauce, potatoes and carrots.

And finally, dessert. The tiramisu’ tasted great and everyone enjoyed it. (Phew!) But it wasn’t all. We had Gearharts chocolates, amazing nuggets of deliciousness, and meringues.

These dinners are so much more than just a food experience. We may be thousands of miles away from our home country, but for one evening a month, Italy comes to us.

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.