New Year’s resolutions (eat more vegetables)

I never know where the time goes. It’s already January and I have yet to start on my New Year’s resolutions. (Blame it on the short vacation, beautiful weather, copious amounts of food and beverages). But January it is and the resolutions better start soon. Here they are: (in no particular order)

Eat more vegetables. I always tend to dance around veggies while preparing dinner. Coming home from work tired and deprived of imagination, I go for boring rather than creativity: potatoes, potatoes and potatoes (and Brussels sprouts).

Write more posts. This shouldn’t really be on the list, but with the little time I have to devote to the blog, I am going to make it my mission to populate this baby with tons of delicious recipes and posts.

– Therefore, cook more creative dishes. This really means that I need to experiment with ingredients, find perfect combinations (like truffle and butter), try new things (never cooked with collard greens),

Invent recipes. When I cook, I always try to think of other ways to incorporate a certain ingredient or how to transform a tired recipe into something new, fresh and fun. Wish me luck! Well…actually, wish Francesco luck because he will be the one trying my creations!

So, let’s get started! May 2012 bring all of you happiness, love and success.

Chiara


Out and About: Blue Moon Diner in Charlottesville

There are so many little secrets in Charlottesville. The Blue Moon Diner, a rock-and-roll eatery, is certainly one of them. Located on West Main Street, the largest artery in town, this one-of-a-kind diner is an institution. We’ve dined there for brunch, lunch and dinner and it has never disappointed our hungry mouths. The best thing is that it’s only a 3-minute walk from our apartment.

Aside from the Elvis-inspired decor, which is honestly the best I’ve seen around, the Blue Moon Diner’s food is the talk of the town. Sure, pretty amazing musicians grace the “stage” (more like a corner between two benches) on a weekly basis, and CLAW found its official home, they even have pancakes with faces on them! (Rainn Wilson, for example) but, again, the food is what it is all about. Hearty. Local. Simple. Perfect.

So, this time around, we chose brunch. Something Francesco and I love to do is wake up late on Sunday morning, take a quick shower and walk to Blue Moon. No matter what you get: “Huevos Bluemoonos ,” blueberry pancakes, meatloaf, any of the burgers platters, eggs any way you want, it’s always a solid bet. It’s going to taste good. On this day, I chose my own omelet with feta cheese, spinach and bacon. Delicious. It is served with house potatoes and a drink of your choice…hot tea for this girl.

And let’s spend a minute to discuss service. Servers are cool, fast and genuinely nice. Hearty brunch, good service and  fun decor. All things that point to a winner.

GQ’s Best Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: Brookville Restaurant

It’s not every day that a chef from a small town in Central Virginia makes the same list of super chefs of the caliber of Thomas Keller. Brookville Restaurant‘s Harrison Keevil made a grilled cheese sandwich so good, that it landed him on a national spread of GQ Magazine.

I’ve eaten at Brookville before and I can honestly say that it is one of the best new restaurants in town. Sure, the decor is simple, yet sophisticated, but it’s the attention to details that makes Brookville stand out from the rest. Local produce and meats, frequent menu changes and a hint of molecular gastronomy are the right combination.

[Image]

Picture: the first layer is The French Evolution by uber chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry. The second is the brain child of Brookville’s chef Harrison Keevil and is called Southern Comfort and the bottom one is The Crispy Caprese from Artisanal in NYC.

From GQ:

The French Evolution
Chef Thomas Keller, The French Laundry, Yountville, California, and Per Se, N.Y.C.
1 Tbsp. butter
2 slices brioche
2 oz. Gruyère, thinly sliced
Southern Comfort
Chef Harrison Keevil, Brookville Restaurant, Charlottesville, Virginia
1 Tbsp. butter
2 slices rustic bread
3 thick slices high-quality pre-cooked bacon
3 thin slices Granny Smith apple
2 Tbsp. Duke’s mayonnaise (optional)
2 oz. Swiss cheese or Gouda, thinly sliced
The Crispy Caprese
Chef Terrance Brennan, Artisanal, N.Y.C.
1 Tbsp. butter
2 slices pagnotta (Italian country bread)
1 ripe tomato, sliced
Several sprigs fresh basil
3 oz. fresh burrata or mozzarella
Brookville made it on my list of most decadent desserts in Charlottesville (something I wrote for my paper’s Food and Drink Annual – scroll down to the very end of the page). I had the really hard task of going around town tasting desserts and deciding what made my nose tickle. Brookville’s Maple bacon waffles with grilled peaches were right at the top. Do yourself a favor, go try it.

The Weekend List 11/27/11

The week of Thanksgiving is always a strange one, working wise. But this year, we had the incredible treat of being guests at Emily’s parent’s house for turkey day. Amazing. Lots of family, lots of love and of course, lots of food and two words: glow sticks.

–An intriguing article by Thomas Madrecki in The Atlantic about working for six weeks in the kitchen of the world’s best restaurant, NOMA. Located in Copenhagen, Denmark, NOMA voted voted the best two years in a row. In our recent trip to Copenhagen, not being able to dine at NOMA is my only regret. Excuse to go back? I particularly like this passage:

At Noma and at other top restaurants, anything but striving for complete and total perfection is a disgrace. And to be frank, it is still a disgrace even outside of those top kitchens. The lesson here is just as simple as having a sense of urgency: Don’t bother doing anything but your best. Don’t half-ass anything. It’s either perfect — or it’s not.

Led by chef Rene Pedzepi, NOMA perfects Nordic gourmet cuisine while keeping the traditional cooking methods of the region. A reviewer from Scotland had this to say about the restaurant. “I could very quickly run out of superlatives attempting to describe our meal experience at Noma! For me, it was quite simply the best meal I have ever eaten.” Not too shabby.

Buttz BBQ in Charlottesville. I knew the restaurant existed and I knew about its reputation around town—and was the runner-up of C-VILLE Weekly’s BBQ contest, but I never actually took the time to go to The Corner district and try it out. Big mistake. The pulled pork platted was the best I’ve ever had: the right amount of juiciness and spice with a nice and lasting smoky flavor. I am not lover of super spicy foods, so I went with their Texas BBQ sauce, a sweet addition to my already delicious pork. After reading the owners’ explanation of their product, I like them even more.

We aren’t pros… just guys that love BBQ.  We are not your traditional Memphis, Texas, North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ.  In fact, we’ve combined the best of all regions into OUR BBQ.

[Image]


–Currently on my nightstand: Tender at the bone by Ruth Reichl. I giddily enjoyed Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires – the trials and tribulations of a food critic, so I didn’t think twice about picking this up. It’s so fascinating to read of Reichl’s difficult relationship with her mother (The Queen of Mold),  her early encounter with French gourmet cuisine via a classmate in Montreal, Canada and her escapades (which somehow end up being  always food related)  as a summer camp counselor in the French countryside. Can’t wait to read on.

Bon Appetit magazine cookie spread. It’s so unbelievably amazing. This particular page is of Peppermint meringues and cardamon crescents, but the spread includes Cherry pistachio nougat, chocolate macaroons with orange ganache, almond-oat lace cookies, butterscotch blondie bars, lemony slice-and-bakes, and chewy ginger cookies. I have plenty to choose from for this year’s Cookie Exchange!

What to do about dinner with an (almost) empty fridge?

When you have fresh ingredients, you can’t go wrong. Francesco and I don’t always have time to make a three-course meal, so we just get creative.  I used to brainstorm for hours about what would make a decent dinner with the ingredients I found in the fridge. Now, I just wing it, and most of the time, they results are comestible  – eggs and cheese? Add a bit of bacon or prosciutto and you have yourself a frittata. Tomatoes and mozzarella? A nice Caprese salad. We both like bell peppers (a staple in our fridge), shallots and beans, all kinds of beans, and that’s what we had the night we decided to put them all together.

There isn’t really a recipe to follow, but here are some instructions. We thinly sliced a trio of orange, yellow and red bell peppers – I use the royal “we,” but Francesco should take the credits for this dish. We did the same with the shallots and threw them into a hot pan. Let them cook for about 8 or 10 minutes, until tender.

The one ingredient we willingly chose to use in the dish was meat. We decided on skirt steak, one of my favorite cuts and a breeze to grill. We sprinkled some salt, pepper and smoked paprika and placed it on a grill pan. There are many disadvantages to not having an outdoor grill and one of the worst is smoke! Although our kitchen resembles my hometown in Italy on a morning after a night of heavy rains – foggy and muggy – the flavor of grilled meat make up for it.

Skirt steak is lean and very flavorful. Its only downside is that if overcooked can be chewy and hard. One fun fact that I was unaware of is that this cut is often used to make Bolognese sauce (or ragu’). Ah, the things you learn on the Internet.

While the bell peppers and the meat are cooking, prepare the beans. We used store-bought big Pinto beans, but Cannellini beans (my favorite) work just fine. Wash them thoroughly and add them to the bell peppers. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.

After the meat is done, let it rest for at least 15 minutes – this will leave it tender and its juices intact. Then cut it in small strips.

Heat up a c0uple of tortillas (we chose flour tortillas, but corn will do) and fill them up with the delicious vegetable medley and add the meat and a sprinkle of olive oil.

This dish took about 20 minutes to make. It’s an easy and healthy quick dinner for busy professionals. Enjoy!

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!

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.

Out and About: Ambrosia Bakery and Blue Ridge Pig BBQ

What began as a leisure hiking and blackberry picking weekend morning trip turned out to be an unexpected, wild adventure. Sunday morning, 8am, Bradley, Wesley and I left Charlottesville for Crabtree Falls for an easy hike to awake the dormant soul. Crabtree Falls are arguably the most scenic falls in Virginia, at least that’s what I have head, because I wimped out and waited for my partners in crime at the bottom of the hill. I am scared of heights and I got to the point where my knees started shaking, my heartbeat accelerated, sweat dripping from my forehead…in short, I was a mess.

In my defense, did you read the sign????? Twenty three people have died hiking to the falls. In my mind, there was danger at every turn. I gladly settled on terra ferma, camera in hand and all of a sudden very happy to be alive. I am exaggerating, of course. (Maybe just a little). On a positive note, during my time perusing the earth for some photo-worthy creature, I met a chatterbox of a park ranger, who informed me that millipedes had recently been spotted around those woods. Not bears, not jaguars, not mountain lions. Millipedes. I could hardly contain my excitement. (I did not find a single millipede, to my disappointment).

My brave buddies, who reached the falls and graciously vowed not to make fun of me for bowing out and run to the bottom.

Before the pseudo-hike, we trekked down Route 151 and found the unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Ambrosia Bakery & Deli. What a surprise! We caffeinated our bodies with coffee and tea and went straight to the bakery counter adorned with blueberry tarts, spinach and feta croissants, apple turnovers and many other incredible desserts.

As soon as my eyes found big, round cookies, I was lost. The best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had: hearty, crunchy and at the same time soft and sweet. Did you know that chocolate chip cookies were actually discovered by accident? Who knew! Apparently, Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner and founder of Toll House Cookies, was baking her favorite butter and chocolate cookies when she substituted a chocolate she cut up into cubes, to her usual dark baker’s chocolate.

This is Wesley’s breakfast, a sizable cinnamon twist with a sweet, creamy sauce. When served hot, the enticing aroma is very hard to resist.

And this is my breakfast of champions. There was really no escaping the chocolate chunks of all shapes and sizes.

Our hike, or I should say my freak out, run us very low in calories, hence our next stop. Right next to Ambrosia Bakery & Deli on Route 151 rests one of the best BBQ places in Central Virginia. I say that without a sheer of doubt, since the newspaper that employs me, said so. In July, C-VILLE Weekly hosted a BBQ contest complete with official judges, photos and prizes. It turns out, Blue Ridge Pig stands out above … almost all the rest. The judges found it just as appetizing as Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville.

One judge called Blue Ridge Pig “clearly superior.” Now, I haven’t yet tried Barbeque Exchange, but the competition gave me a neat idea. I want to chronicle, and eat my way through the BBQ pits of Central Virginia. Blue Ridge Pig was my first victim.

When I thought about a hole-in-a-wall, I had a faint idea of what that would actually look like. When I stepped into Blue Ridge Pig, I thought I entered a far away galaxy. Nothing I was looking at seemed familiar, but everything smelled divine. Sheets of paper and business cards covered the tiny restaurant wall to wall and pigs in all shapes and forms (stuffed animals, lamp stands) adorned the space. It was a magical place and the meat did not disappoint.

We ordered a beef BBQ sandwich on a kaiser roll, split it in three and dove in. The smokiness hits my palate first, then the vinegar-based sauce and, last, the cabbage. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was better, much better. The meat was perfectly cooked, sweet, juicy, it melted in my mouth. Even after a good 30 minutes, the smoky flavor still lingered in my mouth. Definitely a welcome companion.

And look at this turkey sandwich, one of Bradley’s favorites. A sweet and refreshing dill mayo rounded up the distinct flavor of turkey. All in all, this joint really deserves national headlines.

Next time, I take Francesco with me. They even have his favorite, beef brisket.

Out and About: Blackberry Harvest Festival in Nellysford

One of my favorite things about summer is the myriad of festivals around the Charlottesville area. On Saturday, we drove 4o short minutes from town to discover a little piece of heaven that is Hill Top Berry Farm. Nestled within luscious green hills, Hill Top is a small berry farm whose landscape is reminiscent of my beloved Tuscany.

Ok, maybe not Tuscany per se, but it was really a wonderful sight nonetheless. Right?

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the overwhelmingly hot and humid summer—and we are talking about a relentless heat wave of 100-degree days—dried out all the fruit trees. What I thought would be the best summer find (imagine the cobbler I could have baked!), turned out to be a sad reminder that the weather does control our food source.

But not all is lost. Apparently, we are supposed to get some much-needed rain in the coming weeks and I bet all the dried, sad little blackberries will be coming back to life.

The ripe and fatty ones we tried, however, were fabulous. So, until next time, happy picking!

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.