The Weekend List 11/09/2013 (Italians don’t drink wine anymore, tradition vs. innovation)

— Italians are not drinking wine anymore. The Associated Press reports that it is more likely for certain Italian wines to be enjoyed abroad than in Italy itself. Well, that is just sad. Why would I care about this if I don’t even like and drink wine? Because beer is replacing it.

Italians’ change of attitude is going hand in hand with the increasing popularity of other, more casual alcoholic drinks — above all, beer, particularly among the young. While the average Italian’s consumption of wine is only a third of what it was in the 1970s, beer drinking has doubled.

But most importantly, the “made in Italy” brand is losing its grip on a society that is painfully unaware of its potential. (I am referring to a lot more than just wine.) I have been feeling blue about the state of Italian commerce, innovation and overall well-being for a while now. It’s true, I don’t live there anymore, but that country is still my home. I see and hear things from relatives and friends, and read the papers…every day. I am bitter that my beloved land is suffering in all facets of its delicate life. Italy is a complex and sophisticated dame who is surrounded by scandal and mockery. She is trapped in a tower, desperately waiting for her prince. I, for one, am scared shitless that this prince may bring Italy’s uniqueness to an end. More on this topic later. I have LOTS to say and ain’t afraid to say it.

Back to wine. I don’t know anything about wine, but I know that Italian wine is freaking delicious – so say the millions of people who think so, and coincidentally, my husband and father, two wine aficionados. Good enough for me.

With interest ebbing at home, more than 50 percent of Italian wine is currently exported, up from 28 percent in 2000. The biggest buyers are the United States and Germany. But sales are rising quickly in many new markets. In China, for example, they grew by almost a fifth from 2011 to 2012.

See what I mean? There are some people who still think we are worth something.

— Ah, the battle between tradition and innovation. I was SO glad to see The New Yorker’s Food Issue at my door step this week. New trends, new restaurants and…OMG… Massimo Bottura!

GetImage.aspxImage: The New Yorker

The magazine highlighted the century-old schism between traditional mores and the spirit to advance in thinking and in practice. Bottura is a renowned chef of one of the best restaurants in the world: Osteria Francescana. (It consistently places in the top 5 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants). He is reinventing Italian cuisine with his wit and creativity.

Take Black on Black, his tribute, by way of squid ink, katsuobushi, and a black cod, to Thelonius Monk. Or Camouflage, his nod to Picasso, with a civet of wild hare “hiding” in custard under a blanket of powdered herbs and spices.

I have never eaten at Osteria Francescana, but I have been a fan of his cultural and culinary avant-garde for some time. I think there is so much more than spaghetti al sugo, or lasagne, or pizza to symbolize my country. Bottura, of course, has plenty of critics who believe he is destroying the very core of Italian cuisine, and by default, the fabric of Italian society. Give me a break. If there is anything Italy needs is a big kick in the ass and a bunch of people at its helm who know that the future is here, now.

— Be still my heart. This guide to Italian cuisine is priceless and oh so needed. Not to be a snob or anything, but there are certain ways in which people treat Italian food and food culture that drive me crazy. Let’s list a few:

Ketchup on pasta. This really shocks Italians.

Spaghetti Bolognese? No! Probably Italy’s most famous dish, yet there isn’t a restaurant in Bologna that serves it.

Red and white checked tablecloths. They don’t exist in Italy, even though countless Italian restaurants abroad use them.

Pasta with chicken – never in Italy. Americans regard this as “typically Italian”, says the report, “but we have to tell you: no one in Italy would serve such a dish”.

“Caesar salad”: unknown in Italy, even if its inventor, Caesar Cardini, was Italian.

Wow, I sound really bitter. Time for hot cocoa and some knitting. Happy weekend.

In which we finally bought a grill

It took us a year and three months, but we finally did it. We bought a grill (euphoria ensued). Since we moved in into our new home last year, I have been dreaming about the culinary possibilities of owning such a fantastic piece of equipment. It arrived in a box, disassembled, on a Tuesday night. It had been raining on and off for three days and the sky looked angry, dark clouds fast approaching. Of course we could not wait until the next day to put the puppy together.

We rushed, read the instruction one minute and checked the sky the next, but we made it…we built it, put a cover on it and waited for the rain, which never came.

grill
Now that this was a reality, I scrambled to find a good first recipe, but I realized that the simplest ones are always the best. We decided on grilled zucchini and patate al cartoccio, potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil and a good steak. It sounds really clique, but there is nothing better after a long day in the office then to come home, head straight to the backyard, grill and listen to the sound of the pond’s waterfall. Very relaxing.
zucchiniThe recipe for the zucchini is so simple, it almost cooks itself. Just slice the zucchini lengthwise making sure each slice is thick enough not to be burned as soon as you put them on the grill. Once the slices have reached your preferred doneness, I personally love a bit of burned crunch on the edges, place them on a plate and drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and fresh parsley for a hint of freshness…and summer.

I first made patate al cartoccio when I was still living at home. I remember we had some friends over for dinner and I wanted to contribute to the cookery and, let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with potatoes. I cut the potatoes in thin slices and placed them in a “cup” made of aluminum foil – just wrap the foil in a manner that forms a cup – and added extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt, pepper and rosemary. I closed the “cup” and put it on the grill. That’s it. No stirring necessary and the result is rather sophisticated. I let it cook for about 10 minutes, checking from time to time that nothing is burning. Serve it in the foil.

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I cannot reiterate enough how excited I am for this grill. I feel like I have a new world of possibilities to explore.

What are your favorite grilling recipes? I’d love to know!

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!!

 

Italian music Fridays – Il venerdi’ musicale

It’s Friday, the weather is less than optimal (I would venture to say it actually sucks) and you find yourself wanting something good, pure…anything – a cupcake, a hug. What I can offer is music, but not any banal music choice, Italian music. My other love, (other than food). So, I thereby announce that every Friday, I will entertain you with a bit of music from my past and culture. Music I grew up to and still gravitate to. And here it goes, il Venerdi’ Musicale.

We have a strong and strange relationship, music and I. It accompanied me through the peculiar time in one’s life called adolescence. I was 15 when my family and I decided to move from Milano in Northern Italy, to Naples, in the south. My childhood friends were still around; we still giggled together in class, we still went for pizza on weekend nights. We were still a whole. When I moved, I left them 700 kilometers (400 miles) behind. But I was still a teenager, moody, solitary and with the intense desire to be a rock star. I remember posing in front of the bathroom mirror screaming at the top of my lungs and waving my hairbrush as a microphone. Ah, good times.

From my dream of rock stardom came my undying love of music. Any genre. Music was therapeutic, it helped calm that inner anxiety that at times took over and made for a colorful co-habitation atmosphere.

Today’s pick is Lorenzo “Jovanotti” Cherubini, Italian singer songwriter, lyricist, author and humanitarian. I have followed Jovanotti since his early days of catchy Italian pop songs with silly lyrics. His evolution is remarkable.

Image via Facebook

Jovanotti played Bonnaroo in 2011 and opened SXSW this year. He has moved my generation to think positively and do good. I hope you enjoy his songs, which I consider poems, as much as I do.

You can follow him on Facebook here and hear more here. Buon ascolto!

 

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.

The Weekend List 03/05/2012

There is snow in the ground. After a week of mild temperatures and sunny afternoons. There is puffy, soft snow on the ground. My grandpa Pietro taught me how to “smell” snow…or, better, how to tell incoming snow by smelling the air. It always work. Milano’s climate is practically twin with Charlottesville’s: summer is hot and winter is cold. Occasionally, snow covers the landscape. So, according to grandpa, once the air gets crispy, wet, snow is coming. Last night, I felt it: crispy wind, perfect humidity and the scent of snow. It’s undeniable. I woke up this morning and what do you know. Snow happened.

– On a snowy day, there are a few dishes that hit the spot. Ravioli in brodo is definitely one of them. Saveur Magazine has a great recipe. Give it a try when the winter blues hit you.

– Elina Shatkin’s exit interview as a food writer at LA Weekly is a pleasure to read. Granted, food writing is something I have always wanted to explore, but knowing how food writers think, what’s inside their heads, is fascinating. There are so many food bloggers out there that I fear the craft is suffering. Although it may seem easy to write about food, the basic principle remains the same: writing, and Shatkin sums it up perfectly.

8. How do I become a professional food writer?
DO NOT quit your despised but lucrative day job, move across the country and expect to get paid writing work based on your Yelp reviews.

Now, it’s simple: WRITE.

My first question to aspiring writers is always: “Do you write?” You might be surprised — or not — how often the answer is no. If you want to be a writer, on food or anything else, you must spend a lot of time alone with nothing but your thoughts and a computer, a typewriter or a blank piece of paper.

In broad strokes, build a portfolio by writing for low-level websites, blogs and publications. Maybe start your own blog. You will make little or no money doing this, but you will have written stories and made connections that you can use to pitch editors for paid writing work. Keep in mind: Reviewing is only one type of food writing, and it is the subgenre for which you are least likely to get paid.

– Jose Andres can do no wrong. The Spanigh uber chef has added to the Washington D.C. food truck craze with Pepe (Andres is behind the truck’s Spanish twist on sandwiches). As the Washington Post reports, Pepe goodies range from $8 to $11, but there are a few exceptions, like the Pepite de Ternera “a thin, crusty baguette stuffed with seared beef tenderloin, caramelized onion, pepper confit and blue cheese.” Ah, two hours to D.C. is so doable!

Holiday Cookie Exchange: Vanilla Meringues

Well, yes, it’s been a while since these meringues graced the shuffle board table at Emily’s house for the annual Holiday Cookie Exchange, but I was so proud of this accomplishment, I wanted to share it. It first started when I received my monthly copy of Bon Appetit magazine with succulent peppermint meringues on the cover. I usually not one for tricky recipes, but those little buggers looks adorable. I had to give it a try!


What did I tell you? Impossible to resist. Now, I had never made anything remotely similar to meringues before, but I have always found them like little pockets of candy heaven…sweet, sugary and perfectly able to melt in one’s mouth.

For this project, I needed to go shopping (and that’s never a bad thing). I started out scouting Micheal’s in search of the appropriate equipment: pastry bags, pastry tips and anything else that would make this task easy breezy. I settled on Decorating Tip No. 12 and, in true Chiara fashion, I bought one too many of everything. (But the good thing is, I will be making meringues until the end of time).

The recipe called for peppermint flavored meringues, but I am a big fan of minty candy, so I decided to use vanilla extract instead.

Here is the recipe, adopted from Bon Appetit, December 2011. (Makes about 30)

3 large egg whites at room temperature

1/8 tsp. Kosher salt

1/3 cup of sugar

1/2 cup of powdered sugar

1/8 tsp. of vanilla extract

12 drops of red food coloring

Preheat the over at 250 F. In a mixer, beat egg whites and salt until a nice, consistent foam forms.

Gradually add the sugar in 3 additions. Whip and whip and whip and whip and whip again, until the peaks are well-formed. Just like this.

Add powdered sugar and the food red coloring. At first it looked like something out of a Halloween movie, but once the mixture is formed, the food coloring melts beautifully creating luscious strikes of bright pink.

Prepare the pastry bag. Add the decorating tip and spoon meringues into the bag until half full. On a baking sheet aligned with parchment paper, pipe 1″ rounds about 1″ apart. Bake the meringues until they are completely dry, about 2 hours or so. Let them cool for about 1 hour and enjoy.

My free-hand piping work leaves something to be desired, but as my first attempt, I can be satisfied. At least, they tasted great! And the vanilla added a new dimension. What I thought was an insurmountable project, something way out of comfort zone, turned out to be a pleasurable, and quite sugary adventure. More of this, please! (And I cannot be responsible for the incredible sugar high. Ehhhhh!) 🙂

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.

The Weekend List 11/20/11

What a week! And Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This year, Francesco and I will be spending la festa del ringraziamento (Thanksgiving in Italian) with our good friends Emily, Rick and Emily’ family in Northern Virginia. I am very excited to try an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner. For my part, I’ve decided to delve into dessert –Torta Caprese, which has nothing to do with Caprese salad, although they originate from the same region, Campania (Naples, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast…). The Torta Caprese is a decadent chocolate cake punctuated by hints of roasted almonds.

–The annual winter library sale is one of my favorite activities in Charlottesville. The city’s public library puts thousands and thousands of used and library books for sale. It was really no surprised that I went directly to the cookbook section. Who wouldn’t? After a couple of hours of perusing dusty and event ancient books, I settled with Julia Child by Laura Shapiro, a biography of the amazing Julia, and a cookbook of the cuisine of Emilia Romagna, the home of the original and still best Parmigiano Reggiano. First recipe that caught my eye? Parmesan Cheese Ice Cream. I kid you not. Mind=blown.

–Tons of reading was done this week….because there was a lot of reading to do! The New Yorker Food Issue (more on this in a later post) came out, the second issue of David Chang’s Lucky Peach (look out for a post soon) and my usual bedtime reading schedule. After listening to this Fresh Air interview on NPR with journalist Barry Eastabrook about his latest work, Tomatoland, I was intrigued. Tomatoland is Eastabrook’s detailed and shocking investigation of the complete destruction of America’s tomato agriculture and the abuse of its workers.

“Worker were ‘sold’ to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by arm guards.”

Makes you think twice about buying tomatoes, doesn’t it? I’m only half way through the book and I believe this quote won’t be the only one that makes my arm hair stand up.

— The Associated Press reported that the Locally Grown business is a much more lucrative business model then previously thought…to the tune of $4.8 billion in 2008 and an estimated $7 billion this year. It’s a good thing that Charlottesville has a bustling farmers market, one that was voted 14th best in the nation. I am all for locally grown, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could all have a vegetable garden in our backyards? Food for thought.

Happy Sunday everybody!