Food Reads: Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone”

What better way to spend a rainy day than to read a good book, under the covers surrounded by my kitty cats? Not much, really. I have been reading a lot of food-related books lately, and it has only increased my appetite for more. This time, it was the great Ruth Reichl.

Reichl has had a pretty sweet life – full of passion, happy and sad memoriesI have read a few of her books in the past and for every single one, I found myself wanting to be Ruth Reichl, the food writer. Perhaps, one day.

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table was all I wanted and more. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I was transported to the places Reichl visited (summer camp in France!), her cottage, her room, and especially her kitchen. At 7, she was already cool. Actually, at 7, she was already cooler than I’ll ever be. By the time she was a teenager, she could do no wrong in my book. There are so many instances where I wanted my life to mirror hers…to be her – from her life in a New York City apartment accompanied her trials and tribulations of a creative roommate, to just cruising through life with experience, grace and fierceness.

Her mother must have been hysterical, although probably not really easy to live with. The queen of “mold,” as Reichl calls her –  the failed parties, failed dishes, the 70’s…those were the days.


Her adventures as a summer counselor on Ile d’Oleron, France, brought back so many memories of hot, sticky Italian summers spent playing in the muddy grass and traveling around in my family’s RV.
Reichl’s spontaneous trip with Madame and Monsier Deveau to an isolated farm to discover the best berry tart on the planet was mouth watering, literally. But, why, Reichl asks, was that tart so my better than any other tart? “Good butter from fat cows and wild berries grown in the island air.” Wow. Doesn’t that make you want to get on a plane?

Her voice is unmistakable. Reichl’s wit is present at every turn: during her school years in Canada, in Manhattan apartments, in a commune in Berkeley, California. It almost makes you wonder whether you, yourself, are experiencing life at its fullest. Are you actually doing what you love? Sure, it may sound like a clique, but it’s probably the hardest question you will ask yourself and when you find that you indeed are not doing what you were intended to do in the first place, well…life can suddenly appear much brighter.

Food for thought.

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?

Lessons from Julia Child

We have a bit of Julia Child in all of us. What I love most about Mrs. Child is her fervent humor (witty and pointed). While I was reading My Life in France, her book with Alex Prud’Homme, I began thinking about my own food related memories and heritage. I grew up in a family of excellent and inventive cooks—mom is a champ baker (her crostata is to die for) and dad is an unafraid alchemist, mixing ingredients and revising recipes without a hint of anxiety. I have only recently rediscovered the sheer pleasure in making a meal from start to finish. Pity. In college, I relied on Ramen instant noodles, processed, really-bad-for me, so-called food. Sure, I’d add in the ever-present pasta dish. Sad. It was only when I began cooking for two that I realized I needed to get over myself and learn how to cook properly. Hence, my infatuation with Julia.

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Interestingly enough, Julia Child is not well-known in Italy. I actually never heard of her before moving to the United States some 10 years ago. Is the never-ending feud/rivalry between Italy and France to blame? Not sure, but I am disappointed to have met Mrs. Child so late in the game.

I am a romantic at heart and I found the book melancholic, but exciting at the same time. From Julia and Paul’s arrival to Paris in the Blue Flash, their oversize, very American Buick, to their farewell to France many years later, I was transported back in time. Reality seemed to stop, at least for me. I have been to Paris before (it is my favorite place on earth), but I would give anything to go back and see it through Julia Child’s eyes; to navigate the streets of the city of lights with her, a braccetto, cheerfully stopping at our favorite butcher to pick up the ingredients for the glorious Boeuf Bourguignon.

Needless to say, I ordered Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After dreaming about Julia’s life and kitchen in their first grandiose apartment in Paris, I was hooked. The recipes’ butter content is something I will need some time and training adapting to…but I will try anything once. I’ve always wanted to master the art of brioche making and now I have my chance. No more excuses. Until next time, Bon Appetit! (Image)


A twist on a classic: Pasta all’amatriciana with leeks

Francesco was very nervous about changing a perfectly executed classic. Bucatina all’amatriciana is some sort of untouchable dish in his native region. He is from Rieti, right in the center of Italy and about an hour from Rome. Just a few miles away is Amatrice, a small town made famous by the savory sauce. Still today, 10 long years after moving to the United States for grad school, he still feels uncomfortable messing with it.

It just occurred to me that I haven’t shared any of my pasta and sauce recipes. It turns out that 2.2 million of Italians are “addicted” to pasta and eat it for lunch AND dinner every day of the week (from the first Coldiretti-Censis report). Twice a day for seven days a week! That’s very impressive.

Francesco and I decided to twist the amatriciana sauce with leeks instead of shallots. Leeks are much softer, both in texture and taste. The traditional base for the sauce stayed the same: Two big cloves of garlic are thinly sliced and cooked in a non-stick pan for about 2 minutes or until golden. Instead of shallots, we diced one medium-sized leek and added it to the pan.

The traditional recipe calls for guanciale, unsmoked bacon derived from a pig’s cheeks, but we used Italian pancetta—equally delicious.

After dicing the pancetta and adding to the pan with the rest of the ingredients, we added a bit of white cooking wine and seasoned with salt and black pepper.

At this point, we added crushed tomatoes and let the deliciousness simmer for about 8 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, pour water in a pan and bring it to a boil. When ready, add the pasta—we chose penne rigate for its versatility (bow ties or fusilli will also do), and cook it for about 10 minutes or less if you, like us, like it al dente.

Strain the pasta, place it back into the pan it cooked in and pour the sauce over the pasta. To complete it, grate a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano or, even better, Pecorino cheese on top. Buon Appetito!

Vocabulary:

Il porro – leeks

La pasta – pasta

La pancetta – Italian bacon

Il pomodoro – tomato

L’aglio – garlic

The gnocchi experiment

What can one do when it’s ungodly cold out? But make gnocchi, of course! My husband and I have been wanting to try his grandmother’s recipe for a long time, but shied away for fear of a disaster. Last night, we decided to take the plunge.

Gnocchi are a staple of Italian cuisine. According to some sources, the word gnocco has a negative connotation and means a silly person, thus giving the dish a rustic feel. Problem is, gnocchi are everything but rustic. The dumplings are one of the oldest dishes ever recorded and have become a sophisticated addition to any menu.

The secret to soft and light gnocchi is the choice of potatoes. Luisa, my husband’s grandmother, had one rule and one rule only: Yellow potatoes, the starchier the better. For our experiment, we chose big, Russet potatoes (low in water and high in starch), able to hold the dough together. The process was fairly easy and it took us by surprise.

GNOCCHI

1 kg of yellow potatoes

350 g of flour

1 teaspoon of salt

1 egg

 

Russet potatoes get washed

The potatoes are washed and ready to be boiled. We left the skins on the potatoes while boiling, but we peeled them once they were cold to the touch. Smash the potatoes and add flour a bit at the time and the pinch of salt. Once the ingredients are are well mixed, add the egg and work the dough until soft and elastic.

Work the dough until it's soft and malleable

Cut the dough in smaller pieces and work them into long and thin rolls. Once the rolls are uniform in size, cut the gnocchi and place them on a floured surface.

Cut the dough in small pieces

In a pot of boiling water, add the small dumplings. Gnocchi cook in a few minutes, in fact, they will rise to the surface once ready. Drain them and add the sauce of your choice. We chose a traditional and simple tomato sauce with a bit of pesto.

Once ready, gnocchi will rise to the surface
Potato gnocchi with tomatoes and pesto

In the end, the experiment was a huge success. The gnocchi were soft, tasty and, most importantly, they did not stick together!

Vocabulary:

Le patate – potatoes

Il sale -salt

La farina – flour

Bollire – to boil

 

 

Viva il pane

Il pane has been one of my best friends since childhood. I used to make myself decadent snacks: ciabatta bread slices loaded with pounds of my other best friend: Nutella…who can say no to that?

All of my memories, turns out, have something to do with food. But with bread, the connection is different, deeper. Bread is the protagonist of every Italian meal. I still remember my great-aunt Cesarina beeming while showing off a smooth, soft pagnotta, loaf, (it was still warm) specifically bought for my grandpa. “Che bonta’!”

I sincerely do not remember a meal at my family’s dinner table without bread. Funny thing is, when I turned 15 and I began thinking about fashion, body image, I started being cautious of how much bread I ate. My grandmother found out, looked straight through my eyes, and said, “Chiara, that’s nonsense,” and she handed me a panino.

Bread can do no wrong in my book: sotf, hard, sweet, savory, yeasty, non-yeasty, French, Italian. With the help of the amazing Joy of Cooking book, I tried making baguettes. Experiment succeeded. Delicious.

Turns out, bread is one of the earliest prepared foods…dating back about 30,000 year ago.

The babies right before the oven.

And here it is. Gorgeous baguette!

Vocabulary:

Il pane – bread

La farina – flour

Il lievito – yeast

La pagnotta – loaf of bread

Buona Festa del Ringraziamento!

In Italy, the closest to a Thanksgiving celebration was the Romans’ feast Cerelia, in honor of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and of autumn. It was celebrated on the Fourth of October. I don’t remember ever celebrating Ceres, but I would have liked to give thanks to the goddess of agriculture since my paternal grandparents were farmers, and really good ones!

I still remember my dad’s stories about an adolescence spent running around la Malachina, the farm he lived until he was 20. Only ruins remain today, but the memories are still fresh in his  mind.

So, not to be overdone by my American friends, I have decided to give a Thanksgiving favorite, the apple pie, the Italian treatment. I am giving you my favorite Italian dessert, one that my mom has taught me when I was a little girl: Italian apple cake. No crust, but oh the goodness!!

TORTA DI MELE

2 pounds of fresh and yummy apples

150 gr of sugar

3 eggs

200 gr of flour

1/2 cup of milk

1 tsp of vanilla extract

1/4 cup of baking powder

Pinch of salt

 

Join sugar and eggs in a bowl and stir them until a nice, thick cream is created.

Add the flour, vanilla extract and baking powder.

Add milk to the mixture so that it’s creamy.

Peel the apples and slice them in thin layers.

Pour the mixture from the dry and wet ingredients in a pan and add the apples.

Sprinkle sugar over the apples.

Bake in the over at 350 F for 5o minutes.

And, voila’.

Buon Appetito!

 

 

La festa del Ringraziamento – Thanksgiving

L’autunno – fall

L’agricultura – agriculture

La mela – apple

Lo zucchero – sugar

Il latte – milk