The Weekend List 11/12/11

I’ve decided that this weekend is going to be pure relax. After the week I’ve had, all I need is time to actually think. Tuesday was election day in Charlottesville and as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, my day—and the week leading up to voting day—was consumed by all things political. Not that I mind. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoy following the day-to-day of local government and I have to admit, I loved live tweeting (is that how you write it???) from the polls—140 characters of pure spontaneity, and you can read my work twitter feed here. That said, here is the list.

–As you may know, I am an obsessive fan of Top Chef. I’ve followed the show since its first season when Harold took the prize home. Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Top Chef Texas finally hit the airwaves with a slightly new format (on-the-spot eliminations…and the Bubble Room!) and two new judges: Emeril (bam!) and Hugh Acheson of Top Chef Masters fame. What I love most about this show is the competitiveness of each contestant, their quirkiness and loud mouths…and let’s be honest, head judge Tom Colicchio. He is not kidding around, especially this season.

–Thanksgiving issues. I always look forward to the monthly arrival of my favorite food magazines: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and the always impressive Real Simple. This month, unsurprisingly, they are all about creating the most perfect Thanksgiving feast. Being Italian and all, I have never really celebrated this particular holiday. Sure, I’ve gone to dinner where turkey was served, but really never tried to do it myself. Of the three, this month’s favorite is Food & Wine mainly because they touched on all some of my favored things: Southern food, Dave Matthews, how to make chicken stock and David Chang.

–Florence Fabricant’s “The lost art of buying from a butcher” piece in the New York Times. My parents used to regularly buy meat from the butcher when my brother and I were youngsters. I still remember entering the shop and being amazed by how knowledgeable was the person behind the counter. My mom or my dad would tell him what they intended on cooking and he would direct them to the best and most appropriate cut of meat. Since moving to the U.S., and Los Angeles to be more specific, I’ve lost that. Charlottesville is home to The Organic Butcher, an amazing resource of good and hearty meat. I guess I’ll be stopping by more often.

Buying some pork or most other meats is not as simple or as cheap as picking out an apple. Do not tweet your friends for advice; consult the butcher.

–All things Anthony Bourdain. After reading both Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw and seeing his show with chef Eric Ripert, I decided I can’t get enough of him. It’s true what they say…you either love Tony, or you hate him. I definitely fall into the love category: his sarcasm, crass, ego, loud mouth. All of it. I consider it a breath of fresh air. While waiting for his new show, The Layover to premiere in a couple of weeks, here are some interesting Q&A that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

Happy weekend!

The Weekend List

They are calling for snow in the mountains of Charlottesville. I cannot believe winter is already here. To honor the capricious season, here is the Weekend List:

*Since I am obsessed with saffron (see here and here), I found Tim Carman’s story about the Saffron King running out of his namesake spice both an interesting and sad tale. Read it here.

*I would love one of these.

*It’s going to be freezing cold (and snowing), so I might just give that Beef Bourguignon a try. Or this.

*This weather makes my want to roast some chestnuts and have a quiet afternoon with this spread.

*Almost done reading this. Next up is Barry Eastabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Listen to this NPR interview.

*I couldn’t get enough of Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, looking forward to seeing this on Sunday night! Look out for a full report!

Happy weekend and happy thoughts!

Food Reads: 10 Best Food & Wine European Cities (according to TripAdvisor)

I love these lists! TripAdvisor listed the top 10 best European cities for food and wine. Out of 10, 5 are Italian cities. (Though I am just a bit disappointed that Milano is not featured…remember our dish de force?)

WE RULE. Period.

1. FIRENZE

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One surprising thing about Firenze’s food is its bread…no salt! They call it il pane brutto, the ugly bread, but there is nothing ugly, or wrong, about a oven baked loaf of unsalted bread. Oh, and don’t forget the perfect steak, la Fiorentina, thick and juicy.

3. ROMA

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La porchetta, freshly roasted sliced porkloin that can be eaten both cold and warm, is a staple of Rome and a favorite of Francesco. When in Rome, do as the Romans do…eat pounds and pounds of porchetta.

4. SORRENTO

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In the Campania region, where Sorrento is located, one cannot decide what to call its standalone dish. There are too many. First, the mozzarella….fresh Buffalo mozzarella and juicy grape tomatoes make for an unbelievable Caprese salad; the limoncello liquor made from fresh, sunny bathed lemons and all kinds of delicious and fresh seafood.

6. SIENA

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Wild board, salami, pork…that’s the strength of Siena. And the biscuits…almond paste with vanilla. YUM.

7. BOLOGNA

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Ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, ragu’ alla Bolognese…there is so much to choose from!

What is your favorite Italian dish? The most surprising? The craziest? I’d love to know!

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!

Food reads: Is cooking school worth it?

I have been fantasizing about going to culinary school for a while now and I don’t mean any cooking school in the United States, but the renowned Le Cordon Blue in Paris. Just like Julia Child. Who wouldn’t want that kind of relationship with food? I want romance, I want adventure. I certainly have met people who have gone to culinary school and cringe when I tell them that I’d love to follow in their tracks. “It’s not easy,” they say. It’s a lot of work, the teaching chefs are usually jerks and it’s becoming harder to find a well-paying job even after potential employers see the shiny diploma. That’s a major buzz kill.

Ah, beautiful Paris…. {Image}

Apparently, they are absolutely right. According to this TIME article, culinary schools now charge up to $30,000 a year and most students struggle to find work other than line cooking. More than 800 current and former students are involved in a class action suit against Le Cordon Blue in Pasadena, California, for… basically selling false hope.

So, I ask you, are cooking schools worth it? The article even takes it a step further.

Are creative careers like cooking, fashion design and even journalism best learned by going to school or by getting your foot in the door and training on the job?

That’s a very  interesting question since I did go to journalism school. Could have I learned my skills on the job? Probably, but it’s the finessing of those skills that I learned in J-school; it’s the opportunity to learn about new media and dipping my feet into print, TV and radio journalism. I do admit that with food, however, the argument is a bit different. The newly minted cult of celebrity chefs has made going to school almost obsolete: If you have a computer, a camcorder and at least some cooking skills (well, not really… Food Network has a show called Worst Cooks in America), you are good to go. Maybe we should go back to working hard and doing things the right way. Just a thought.

Kobi Levi food-inspired shoes

It’s Friday and the weekend brings good and happy thoughts. Although we are impatiently waiting Hurricane Irene, Francesco and I are actively house hunting and, of course, cooking up a storm. So, expect some delicious fajitas all’italiana coming your way. Yes, this post is really random, but let me explain. I have two weaknesses in life: chocolate and shoes. Imagine my delight when I discovered these!! Kobi Levi is a freelance designer and, obviously, pure genius.

The banana peel shoe. Fantastic. It will go with anything in my closet, because, really, do you need an excuse to wear a pair of these? (Image)

Tea or coffee cup? Who cares. Amazing. (Image)

The coffee or tea cup even in black. (Image)

Not a food-related shoe, I know, but I couldn’t resist. (Image)

Pardon. Again. But, hello? I want a pair now. (Image)

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.

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.

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)


Here’s to a happy and cool weekend…with watermelon!

It’s Friday and you know what that means, right? The weekend is knocking at my doors! Problem is, it’s 107 degrees outside (but it feels like 115) and who in their right mind would want to move from the couch? Not me. Yet, I’ll brave the heat and drag my overheated body to the farmers market tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, there is a purpose to my madness: I will be looking for my one and only remedy for summer heat: watermelon, anguria in Italian.

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With 92% water and 6% sugar, watermelon not only is my go-to fruit of the summer, it also is the only food I can stomach when the weather is as hot as it is today. Bonus points: Watermelon contains large amounts of beta carotene (let’s get tanning!). I don’t have a proven scientific method for choosing the right fruit, but what I usually do is tap it once and if it sounds a bit hollow, it usually means it’s ripe, juicy and ready to go. The best way to eat it? Cut it in small cubes, sprinkle a bit of lime juice and refrigerate. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

What is your favorite watermelon recipe? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy weekend, everyone. Stay cool!