It’s still snowing: Braised Beef with Polenta

It’s the end of March. It should not be snowing. Central Virginia was covered with a soft blanket of snow yesterday and as much as I love snow, snow days, snow cones, I cannot. take. it. anymore. I had all these plans of actually getting stuff done in the garden, which currently looks like an abandoned field with twigs and dead leaves everywhere. It’s a mess. I am embarrassed. I was supposed to fix that. But no, I had to postponed my plans until the weather clears up and warmth decides to pay us a visit.

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But what do you do when you can’t go anywhere, when it’s cold and all you want to do is curl up in bed with a hot chocolate, surrounded by your kitty cats? (wow, that would have been awesome!) We cooked.
A few weeks ago, we bought two pieces of great-looking beef chuck roast with the intention of braising them in red wine. I found a delicious recipe (Emeril Lagasse) while browsing the web. I tweaked it, made it more to my taste, added a little, eliminated a few ingredients.

Beef Braised in red wine
(Recipe adapted from Emeril Lagasse, 2004)

2 pounds of beef chuck roast
4 carrots
3 stems of celery
2 cups of onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste
1 bottle of Nero d’Avola red wine
2 cups of chicken stock
Sage
Rosemary
Thyme
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

We finally got to use our spanking new Le Creuset dutch oven – and that my friends, is reason enough to celebrate. But I digress. Coat the bottom of the dutch over with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil. Turn on the heat and let it warm up. Add the beef (cut in small pieces) and let it brown on all sides. We didn’t season the meat before browning, because we added salt and pepper to the stew a little later. Once the beef is browned, remove it from the heat and keep it covered. To the beef fat in the dutch oven, add onions, celery and carrots, minced, and cook until tender (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic, minced as well, and cook it until brown.

Return the meat to the pot, add the chicken stock, the entire bottle of Nero d’Avola (gulp!), the tomato paste, the rosemary, sage and thyme. Season with salt and pepper – but don’t worry about the exact quantity. You will be able to taste the broth and balance out the seasoning once the cooking gets underway. Bring the stew to a boil, covered, and lower the heat to medium and cook for 3 hours.

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If after 3 hours the stew is too liquidy, uncover it and let it cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. The result is a velvety and deeply flavorful sauce that coats the beef chucks completely. Serve immediately.

After tasting the braised beef, we felt invincible. We decided to make polenta as a side and the result was incredible. These two were almost meant to be served together. Soul and tummy were satisfied.

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What is your comfort food on cold and wintry nights? Drop me a line and share your traditions! Happy…SPRING!!

 

Homemade Meat Tortellini (with VIDEO)

As it happens after heavy eating, drinking and merry making, the last thing I wanted to do was think about food. But Francesco’s aunt, Liviana, gave me a reason to get up and get going. “Do you want to learn how to make homemade tortellini?” How can I say no to that?

I was a mere spectator at first, attentively observing how Liviana moved in the kitchen; how she prepped a huge wooden board on the table and began pouring the flour on the board. She made a whole in the center of a mountain of flour. She poured the eggs in and began mixing. We were making pasta from scratch, hands deep in the dough. I’ve actually never made pasta without a mixer. By forcefully using my hands, I could feel the texture and consistency of the pasta dough and make slight adjustments to it.

For the next 20 minutes, I wrestled with the dough. Pasta making is a great workout.

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The recipe we used is perfect for a dough that has to be elastic for filling: one egg per every 100 grams of flour (Farina Tipo 00 in Italy, but at home in Central Virginia, I use any organic, unbleached all-purpose flour).
For 3 kilograms of tortellini (about 6.5 pounds), we used 800 grams of flour and 8 eggs.

The filling. The recipe Liviana shared with me is pork-based, but a vegetarian version – spinach and fresh ricotta cheese – is on my to-do, or better, wish list.
Filling: 100 grams of prosciutto crudo (3.5 ounces), 100 grams of mortadella, 100 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano and 300 grams of a mixture of pork loin and one sausage. The beauty of food made at home, by hand, is that you can adjust it to your liking. With this particular recipe, you can add more prosciutto, mortadella, or sausage. Customize away.

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The meats, cold cuts and cheese need to be minced and blended together to the consistency of a sticky paste….think Pâté. Once the mixture is ready, place it in  a bowl and cover it to avoid dryness. The filling needs to retain its moisture for the tortellini to be soft and chewy.

The next step is getting the pasta ready for cutting. Just like when making lasagna, we started with sheets of pasta laid out on the kitchen table. With a tortellini cutter, we cut the sheets into squares of about 1 inch each- that was our desired size for each tortellino.

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Once the squares were ready and separated, we had to act quickly to avoid the pasta getting too dry. We added a dollop of filling onto each square and “closed” the dough to make the tortellino. It took me a few “closures” to get the hang of it, but I finally mastered it: folding the dough in such a way that it prevents the filling to leak even while cooking in boiling water or both. It’s a laborious process, but bloody fun. That’s me below in action. Two hours and change and we had 6.5 pounds of tortellini.

Tip: While you are prepping and cutting the sheets of pasta, keep them covered with plastic wrap or a open ziploc bag. The dough won’t dry as quickly and it will be much easier to fold and seal each tortellino.

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The “closing” of the tortellini is an art, I found…and it takes lots of practice. In the time I was able to successfully make one, Liviana and her daughter, Roberta, made 10 or more. The folding process is easier shown than explained. Check out yours truly in the video below:

The best way to serve tortellini is with homemade chicken broth. The best time to eat it is on a snowy night. I made my own batch of tortellini as soon as Francesco and I got home from Italy. I have to say, they were good. Really good…and they even look decent!

To cook them in broth, bring the liquid to a boil and add the fresh tortellini. Cook them in the boiling broth for about 5 or 6 minutes (I like them a bit al dente) and serve them with some Parmigiano Reggiano. They heal the soul…or achy bones on a winter night. Either way, a slam dunk.

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Tip: Because the process to make tortellini can easily take all afternoon….(it did for me), make a big batch and freeze them. If you are like me, a little forgetful in the kitchen, this little tidbit of information can save you from disaster – don’t place fresh tortellini in a bag ready for the freezer…you run the risk of creating a ball of frozen tortellini that won’t even come undone in boiling broth. So, freeze them as you work: place the filled tortellini on a tray and put the tray in the freezer for a couple of minutes, or until the tortellini are cold enough not to stick together. This saved my life…I am known to make these kinds of disasters.

Buon Appetito!

Know what I miss most about Italy?

THIS.

A well-stocked macelleria
Well stocked

A cold cuts butcher’s shop. Carnivorous or not, that is one good looking spread. My preferred combination is prosciutto crudo with cantaloupe during steaming summer months.

 THIS.

Cheese and more cheese
Cheese and more cheese

Although slightly lactose intolerant, I cannot resist a hearty Fontina or a creamy Crescenza.

AND ESPECIALLY THIS.

Need a hand with those?
Need a hand with those?

Well, this is what I dream at night. Parmigiano Reggiano is, in my humble opinion, the perfect cheese. And as you may have noticed, we Italians use it in just about every dish – there is even Parmigiano ice cream.

Christmas in Italy (Rieti and Milano)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuna time: pasta with tomatoes, tuna and olives

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

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

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Pesche Sciroppate

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

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

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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.

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Word of the day: crunchy

MILANO

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

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

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

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

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Valtellina

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

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

Homemade lasagne

La lasagna is without a doubt one of the most well known Italian dishes. It’s like an old legend depicting the beginnings of Italian cuisine.  It is also an art and as such, it comes with artistic freedom: there isn’t a right or wrong way to create the dish; you have your secret recipe and I have my recipe and grandma has her recipe. It’s the circle of life.

I have learned making lasagne from my mom, who, in turn, learned from her mom…. you get the drift. Every family in Italy adds a slight twist to the original recipe and it is not an exaggeration to say that each lasagna tastes a little bit different – more besciamel, less Parmesan cheese, a pinch of oregano, etc.

Without further ado, here is my family recipe. (Mom and dad have graciously agreed to be hand models….)

The Lissoni/Canzi Family Lasagne Recipe

1 large onion

1 pound of ground beef

1 box of pasta for lasagne (I would recommend making it from scratch)

As much besciamella as you like (recipe follows)

2 cans of whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano are by far the best)

2 carrots

celery

a splash of white wine

Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

First things first. Water in a pan. Pan on the stove. Add Extra virgin olive oil. Dice an onion. Add the onion to the oil and let it brown nicely. The base for a lot of Italian pasta sauces is this simple. Let the onions cook for about 5 minutes or until tender and brownish.

Once the onions are the perfect combination of tenderness and color, add the ground beef. We choose a leaner meat option, but you can choose the level of fat your heart desires. Let the beef cook until brown and well mixed with the onions. It is at this point that white wine comes to play.

Add white wine to the ingredients and gently stir until the remnants of the beefy goodness stuck to the bottom of the pan is finally incorporated. It is serious deliciousness. Next, add the cans of tomatoes and stir. There is a lot of stirring involved in Italian cooking – whether you like it or not, you stir pretty much everything.

Next, add the diced celery and carrots to the tomato-beef-onion goodness and let it cook for about 10 minutes. You can add as much or as little (even nothing, nada, zip) of either of these veggies as you prefer. I, for example, LOVE celery and would add pounds and pounds of it, but Francesco is not a big fan. Compromise? You betcha. Results? Still yummy.

Italian cooking is as much as about ingredients as it is about love. No joke. You can add your own secret ingredients to any dish and you’ll always have a spot-on meal. That is the main reason I love my culinary culture: I love to improvise and with a dish like lasagne, I can be as creative as I want to be.

Before going any further, preheat the oven at 350F. And now, my favorite part: besciamella. The light, fluffy, buttery sauce is, no surprise, French. It’s so simple, I often wonder why I don’t use it in more dishes or just eat it out of the pan.

Essential ingredients: butter (of course), milk, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Melt 1 stick of butter in a medium sauce pan. Add 1 cup of flour slowly whisking continuously to avoid clumps. Warm 1 liter of milk and add it to the butter/flour/milk mixture.  Cook the sauce for a 10 minutes and add salt, pepper and nutmeg as desired.

Once the besciamella is thick and creamy, add it to the tomato sauce and stir until well incorporated.

After mixing the sauce it’s time to build the dish. Lay a generous spoonful of sauce on the bottom of a dishpan (foil, ceramic or glass) covering the entire area. Add a layer of pasta sheets. Cover each layer with shredded mozzarella cheese. Repeat 2 or 3 times and on the last layer, add the mozzarella and a pinch of Parmesan cheese.

Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 25 or 30 minutes in a 350F oven. Once cooked, let it rest for 5 minutes and serve hot.

Buon Appetito!

DIY Project: Our very own vegetable garden

With the new house have come new noises at night, new hiding spots for Diego, adjustments to a new routine and a fantastic grassy backyard completed with a fish pond (and a waterfall, no less).

Although I grew up with a vegetable garden and parents who believe in growing our own food (and grandparents who were farmers), I never actually spent any time asking important questions about gardening or growing food. All I thought I needed to see veggies grow were seeds, or plants, sun and water. Oh, was I mistaken. Sure, sun and water are the fundamental ingredients for a bountiful garden, but knowing what type of soil you have is just, if not more, as important. Good thing luck was on my side: My garden rests on very fertile land!

The trick now is not screwing it up. The gorgeous raised/rock beds already inhabited our yard, so we can’t take credit for them, but the happy and sprouting greenery is definitely our doing.

I went a little veggie-plant crazy, but I believe we have the beginning of a great produce season. First off, three plants of zucchine and one of watermelon. I’ve probably said this over and over, but watermelon is one of my favorite foods, ever. It won’t be easy for the little plant to grow, but I am giving it my best care (and I am happy to report it is doing just fine).

A vegetable garden cannot be complete without basil (can you imagine how many jars of pesto I will make by mid-summer? I can hardly wait!) The vegetable I completely lost my mind with is tomatoes. I have 8 plants of many different types of tomatoes: Roma, grape, heirlooms. The scent of their leaves is so distinct, strong but not overwhelming. I am in love with my tomato plants.

Ah, lettuce: the best summer treats. We have two kinds in the garden: a buttery one (my favorite) and an arugula look-alike, perfect for a little spice aftertaste.

And mint: a request from Francesco. As they say….when life gives you mint, make Mojitos!

Of course, my favorite flower…the daisy.

One of my favorite features of the backyard is our fish pond: 19 koi and beautiful waterlilies, I take it as a sign of good luck. May be garden force be with you! 🙂

Roasted cauliflower and white bean soup

I’ve always thought that cauliflower and white beans were meant for each other. If you ask why, however, I cannot answer you. Cauliflower strikes me as a sophisticated vegetable, whose flavor pleases a strictly learned palate. White beans, on the other hand, are my kind of vegetable: clear and direct. What you see is what you get (in terms of flavor). Marrying the two could go either way: happily ever after, or a painful divorce.

So, on a stormy night, I opened my fridge and looked in. Staring at me was a head of cauliflower….passed its prime. Since Francesco is away on business, I decided to try something new. I grabbed the few ingredients and made up a recipe as I went along. This is how the love story unfolded.

INGREDIENTS:

1 head of Cauliflower

1 can of white Cannellini beans

1 shallots

3 cloves of garlic

1 cup of chicken stock

1/2 cup of milk

1 teaspoon of nutmeg

extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper

First things first: the head of cauliflower shouldn’t be massive. A nice, medium size will do the trick.

To give the soup a little depth of flavor, I decided to roast the cauliflower before cooking them. Turn on the over to 400F and, at the same time, oil an oven pan. Chop the head of cauliflower into small pieces, wash them thoroughly and place them in the oven pan. Drizzle more extra virgin olive oil, add some salt and pepper to taste and roast them until light brown and tender (about 30 minutes)

Next, open a can of Cannellini beans (my personal favorite) and wash them a couple of times. Set aside.

Next, finely chop 3 cloves of garlic (or less…I love garlic and I tend to go overboard with it) and a shallot. You can use a yellow onion, but I think shallots are sweeter and perfect for this soup. Oil a pot with extra virgin olive oil and add the minced garlic and shallots. Cook them for 4 or 5 minutes or until golden.

While the cauliflower is in the oven, add the beans to the pot (with garlic and shallots) and cook for a couple of minutes. Once the cauliflower is tender and golden brown, add it to the pan with the beans, garlic and shallots. At this point, taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Once the ingredients are added to the pot, let them cook for 5 minutes. I added 1 teaspoon of nutmeg to increase the depth of flavor and because, to be honest, nutmeg is my ultimate favorite spice. You can add as much or as little as you wish…or leave it out altogether. I have to say it was a perfect addition.

After the nutmeg comes the liquid. I added 1 cup of chicken stock and 1/2 cup of milk to the pot. You could add butter for a creamier soup. Cook the ingredients and the liquid for 25 minutes, covered, stirring occasionally. 

Once the soup is the consistency of your choice, puree it with a hand blender until silky smooth. Add a touch of extra virgin olive oil and serve it hot. Buon Appetito!

Pasta with eggplant and cream

This dish is not for the faint of heart. Or for those who are watching their weight, for that matter. It’s one in my endless list of comfort foods. The real star, obviously, is the eggplant, a universally known vegetable that is, botanically, a fruit. Originally from India, eggplant were first used in kitchens in Asia and later Europe.

Although any eggplant could work, choose wisely. I prefer smaller eggplants for a few important reasons: the smaller, the least amount of seeds, the least bitter they are. To get rid of the bitterness, my mom’s trick is to dice the fruit and place it a bowl with water and a pinch of salt.

PASTA WITH EGGPLANT AND CREAM

1 or 2 small eggplants

8 fl ounces of heavy whipping cream

1 or 2 cloves of garlic (depending on taste)

500 grams of Pasta (any kind)

salt and pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

After dicing the eggplants, place them aside. In a pan over medium heat, warm up the extra virgin olive oil and add two cloves of garlic. Let the garlic cook for a few minutes until golden. Add the eggplant and cook until soft. In another pot, bring water to a boil.

After about 10 minutes or when the eggplant is soft, add the whipping cream and stir until well mixed. Cook the mixture until the cream is absorbed and the sauce is thick. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you want to give it a smoky kick, add a pinch of smoked paprika. It’s a subtle, but delicious addition. (For an earthy flavor, add nutmeg).

Once the pasta water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook until it’s al dente. I like to use farfalle for this dish, but you can use any thick cut pasta, one that is able to handle a chunky sauce. (Fusilli is another favorite of mine). Once the pasta is cooked to perfection, drain it and put it back into the pot. Add the eggplant sauce to the pasta and stir until well mixed.

Plate it and serve it hot. You and your guests will ask for seconds, I promise. Buon Appetito!

“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.

Go-to comfort food: homemade pizza

Every time I need a pick-me up, I run to the kitchen and make pizza. Margherita, usually. Simple, pure and very homey. I am not sure whether it’s the fact that I haven’t found a truly authentic Italian pizzeria in Charlottesville, but I always prefer making my own pizza pie then eating out. The best part about pizza is the process and every time I work the dough, I remember why I love cooking. Working with ingredients, making something so complex out of something so simple: flour, extra virgin olive oil, yeast, salt and a hint of sugar.

My mom taught me how to make pizza. She never stopped at the recipe, however, but inserted little pearls of knowledge I only now really appreciate: how to measure the flour, how to choose the best tomatoes available, why use a pizza stone. In a sense, when I make pizza I try to channel her attention to detail, her diligence with instructions (I tend to overlook steps in recipes…and it never turns out how it’s supposed to turn out), and living 3,000 miles apart, I try to channel her. It’s my way of having her so much closer to me.

I like trying out different recipes and the one that I currently like comes from the back of the packet of yeast we bought in Italy.

HOMEMADE PIZZA

For the dough:

500 grams of All Purpose Flour (for a nice crunch, I use 150 grams of Manitoba flour from Italy)

5 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 packet of dry, natural yeast

1 tablespoon of salt

1 teaspoon of sugar

Garnish:

1 can of San Marzano whole, peeled tomatoes (of fresh, always the best bet)

1 cup of fresh mozzarella bites (or a fresh mozzarella roll)

Salt

Pepper

Slices of salame

The first step is taking care of the yeast. Since it’s dry, cream the yeast with a little bit (half a glass, more or less) of warm water and a hint of sugar and let is sit for about 15 minutes. Because yeast is “alive,” it needs food and its food is sugar. It makes perfect sense thinking about it, right?

The yeast will plump up and come to the surface, just like in the picture. While the yeast is working, add the flour, olive oil and salt. One third of the total amount of flour needed for the recipe is Manitoba flour, which was sent to us from Italy. Apparently, and this came as a surprise to me, the Manitoba flour is from North America, hence the Manitoba name (a province in Canada) and it’s starchier than the regular all purpose flour found in the United States.

The dough is not too thick and not too sticky, just the right consistency. Flour a cutting board and add work the dough for about 5 minutes until it’s elastic and uniform. Let the dough rest for about an hour in a warm place. (I usually oil a bowl, add the dough, wrap it with a damp cloth and I put in a plastic bag. It does the trick!). In the meantime, cut the mozzarella bites in half and mince the whole, peeled tomatoes. Set both aside.

Pre-heat the over at a high temperature, 420F.

Once the dough has risen to twice its size, flour the cutting board you used before and work the dough one more time before stretching it. The dough should be soft and not sticky. After five minutes, starting stretching it with your hands and press the edges with your fingers tips. Once the dough is thinner, you can begin shaping to your like. I have a square oven pan and I use my roller to stretch its edges.

Sometimes the square shaped dough is better than others, but I don’t complain. It’s delicious anyhow. Once the dough is either on a pizza stone (recommended) or in an oven pan, carefully pour the minced tomatoes, with the consistency of a sauce, over the entire length of the stretched dough. Make sure that the sauce is evenly spread.

 Add the mozzarella bites (my favorite part).

Add a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and any other garnish you want on your pizza. In this case, we used fresh, Italian salami. Bake the pizza in a 420F for about 20 minutes. If you like your dough a bit crunchy, I like to turn off the over after 20 minutes, but leave the pizza inside to bake a little bit more.

Once the pizza is ready to be served, I sprinkled a little bit of dry oregano. It’s that simple. Eat it by yourself or with company, pizza never disappoint. It makes for a great lunch the next day! Buon Appetito!