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.

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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!

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My mom’s polpette (meatballs)

My mom’s polpette (meatballs) are the best. Hands down. She cooked them for my brother and I when we were athletic kids in need of a different kind of dinner. We were not picky eaters, but we were quick to get bored from pasta, pizza and other common dishes. That, and the combination of my mom’s curiosity and creativity in the kitchen made for a very entertaining cooking process. My parents wanted us to try all foods at least once and if we didn’t like it, not a problem….but at least we made up our own mind and did not settle for what our friends thought. I am so glad they did that. There are plenty of foods I don’t like, even in adulthood, but still today, I would give anything a try. (My mom once prepared soy ragu’ and told us it was real meat. She didn’t fool anyone, but I was actually fond of the taste….my brother and dad not so much).

These polpette are different from the generic meatball. They are healthier and crunchier and they literally take 10 minutes to make.

What you’ll need: (makes 4 meatballs)

Half a pound of lean ground beef
1 egg
1 zucchini
1/2 cup of bread crumbs
1/4 cup of parsley
Smoked paprika
Salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Finely dice the zucchini and place them in a bowl. Add the ground beef, egg, bread crumbs, parsley, paprika, salt and pepper and mix with your hands. The zucchini help the mixture from falling apart and add a crunchy bite.

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Once the mixture is uniform, grab a handful of mixture (depending on how big you want the meatball to be) and form a ball with your hands. Place them on a clean plate and repeat until you run out of mixture.

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At the same time, add extra virgin olive oil (or your preferred olive oil for frying) to a pan, making sure its entire surface is covered and tun on the heat to medium. My mom taught me a little trick to stop the oil from burning: add a piece of bread. Give it a try, it works every time.

Once the oil has reached the right temperature (you will want to hear a nice shhhhhhh), place the polpette in the pan, cover it and let it cook for a few minutes. Turn them over and let them cook until the outside is crispy and the inside is to your preference. Pat the polpette with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Eat.

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So quick and easy, this will become a favorite – it was the first time Francesco tried polpette with zucchini. Positive verdict means many more polpette on the horizon.  Buon Appetito!

Homemade pesto

Now that spring and summer are officially on the horizon, pesto will become a staple in my kitchen (more than it already is). The beauty about pesto is that basil, Genovese basil to be exact, is readily available in the warm and hot months and I can just walk to my vegetable garden and pick a few leafs. Last summer, my friend Sharon surprised me with a full load of basil, literally.

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See, Sharon leaves in Albemarle County and her vegetable garden is at least three times the size of my little speck in the ground. She called, asked if I wanted “a little basil” and off I went, happy as a clam to be receiving some tasty garden offerings. Little did I know that what Sharon meant as “little” was really at least 10 whole plants – with roots attached. We run out of bags and decided to just throw everything in the trunk, that way I would be able to do my initial “cleaning” from the car.

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This is what I was working with: three bags full of aromatic basil (the aroma lingered in my car for at least a week – not that I am complaining, mind you).

The very first step in preparing for pesto making is the simplest, yet most time-consuming: washing. Every basil leaf needs to be plucked and washed thoroughly. The stem is too stringy, tough and bitter. It is also really important to inspect every single leaf – if it’s wilted or is excessively damaged, toss it. I plucked, washed and inspected every single leaf. Throughout the process, I asked myself whether I would like pesto once the ordeal was over. It turns out I still love it.

The simplest way to clean and wash the leaves is to fill the kitchen sink with water and let the basil soak in it for a few minutes.

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Pour the leaves into a colander, fill up the sink with water and soak the leaves once again. Repeat this process until the water is clean with absolutely no dust or debris. It took me 6 hours to wash the three bags of basil!

What you need:

Parmigiano Reggiano
Pine nuts
Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Take a fistful of fresh, clean basil leaves and place them into a food processor. There are really no true measurements for making pesto. Depending on how tangy you want the mixture, you can adjust the ingredients. I love a bitter/tangier pesto and for that I add quite a lot of garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano. If you like a sweeter pesto – to use as a marinade or as a meat sauce, add more pine nuts and be mindful of the amount of garlic.

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Season with salt and pepper to taste. Grind the ingredients to your preferred texture. Tip: if you use pesto with pasta, you can leave it a bit chunkier than you would a meat marinade.

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That’s it! You are done! You can use the fresh pesto for a quick lunch or dinner or you can can it. With my load of basil, I decided to can it and freeze it for posterity. At the end of the process, I had 11 jars of fresh pesto! I gave some to Sharon and others as house warming gifts.

To can, pour the pesto into the jar making sure that it coats all the sides of the jar. Once it’s filled to the brim, close it up and place it in the freezer –  it will last you for months, in fact, I have been eating pesto all winter long.

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Tip: Once you start using a jar, add extra virgin olive oil to the remainder pesto and store in the fridge. Even if the basil will darken in color, it’s still as delicious as before.

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Orange juice and almonds breakfast cake

Cake for breakfast sounds good no matter how you look at it. I remember my mom making cakes for my brother and I since we were little – and that, my friends, was the best part of waking up and getting ready for school. These cakes were low in sugar, but packed with big flavors. The other day, while I was taking a mental picture of my pantry, I suddenly realized that tea and cereals (I am somewhat lactose intolerant) for breakfast every day is just. plain. boring.

So, I ravaged through the kitchen and concocted a breakfast cake that I was sure would be a step up from my usual breakfast. It was an experiment and I am proud to say, it was a well thought out and executed experiment. But I will let you be the judge. Let me know what you think!

Here is what you need:

2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking soda or baking powder (I use a vanilla-based baking powder I buy when I am in Italy)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of orange juice (freshly squeezed is best)
1/3 cup of sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon of grated nutmeg
1 cup of roughly chopped almonds

The first step is to mix together the dry ingredients. In a medium-sized bowl or food mixer, combine the flour, baking soda or baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well.

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Pre-heat the oven at 400F. Add the orange juice, egg and vegetable oil and mix together. While the mixture is mixing, add the almonds, nutmeg and vanilla extract. Mix again until the dough is uniform. This cake is purposely not too sweet: I wanted to taste the distinct flavor of the almonds and nutmeg.

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Pour the dough into a cake pan. To add even more texture, I sprinkled chopped almonds on top.
Bake the cake in a 400F oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Once ready, moved the cake to a cooling rack and let cool for about 10 minutes.
The best thing about cakes for breakfast is that they last three or four days in a cool, dry place.

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This delicious experiment is best enjoyed with hot tea, milk or why not, a glass of orange juice. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear from you! Buona colazione! – Happy breakfast!

A classic: Pasta Carbonara

I often think about my favorite pasta dish. There is so much to choose from, but I have concluded that carbonara is it. I’d much rather eat a steaming plate of carbonara than any piece of meat or slice of cake. First, it has bacon or pancetta. Second, Parmesan Cheese. That alone could be my daily food intake. This dish encapsulates everything I love about Italian cuisine: simple and accessible ingredients. Nothing superfluous.

But I am a lucky girl. Francesco makes a sensational Carbonara. I don’t know what magic ingredient he adds (actually following a recipe???), but he nails it every time. I don’t talk about him often enough, but he is a great cook. He is an engineer, thus  I love watching him cut vegetables, or in this case bacon, with painstakingly precision. It does take him 20 minutes to cut a carrot, but hey, the result is uniform and fabulous.

Here is what you need: (for 4 people)

1 cups of pancetta (or bacon)
500 grams of pasta, Spaghetti or Bucatini
1 egg
1 cup of Parmeigiano Reggiano cheese
a hint of nutmeg
Salt and Pepper

Pancetta, or bacon, is the first ingredient that gets cooking. Cut, or mince – depending on taste, the pancetta and cook it for about 5 or 6 minutes, or until brown. Set aside.
Tip: Don’t oil the pan and don’t add any oil. The pancetta is fatty enough and will release its own juices.

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Next, heat water for pasta in  a medium-sized pot and bring it to a boil. In the meantime – there is never actual waiting time in the kitchen if you time everything right – we can get started on the creamy sauce.
In a small bowl, combine one egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, salt and pepper and whisk until the sun comes down.
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Whisk until the cheese is amalgamated with the egg – it should almost look like a paste; a creamy, cheesy paste. Set the mixture aside.

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Once the water boils, add salt and the spaghetti (angel hair pasta) or the bucatini (as seen below – I much prefer the bucatini for this recipe because each “strand” of pasta is thick and much more chewy than regular angel hair) and cook it until i is al dente – usually 7 to 8 minutes.

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Always taste the pasta before draining –  it may need more seasoning. It is also always a good idea to taste the water before adding the pasta. Salty water will make the pasta much more flavorful.

Drain the pasta using a colander and place it back into the pot. Add the pancetta and pour the cheesy egg mixture in the pot. The cheese will melt and the pasta will be coated with a layer of goodness. Serve while it’s hot.

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Add more Parmigiano Reggiano or pepper to taste. This dish is so simple, but so incredibly delicious, I have to stop myself for making it every week. Buon Appetito!

Focaccia Pugliese (potatoes and rosemary)

I’ve never been able to bake a decent focaccia – either hard as rock or chewy and off-textured. Imagine my skepticism when I decided to give a new recipe a try. Baking has to be my number one passion, I think. I mean, when I think about food, my first thought or memory is bread or cake. Coincidence? I don’t think so. If I could, I would bake sweets and savory treats all day long, hence my unrelenting drive to find baking/bread/cake/pies cookbooks with traditional and unexpected recipes. I’ll say that I would try anything at least once.

While browsing the aisles and shelves of our local bookstore, I found a little book, tucked away in a corner: 100 Great Breads by Paul Hollywood. What I found was a plethora of really simple bread and focaccia recipes that sounded and looked doable. I bought it immediately.

After a few hours of contemplating, I settled for a focaccia with potatoes and rosemary.

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The Puglia region is the hill of the Italian boot. Lots of good food and friendly folks. When I was young, my family used to drive to Gallipoli and camp there for a month. We had an RV and traveled around the coast and stopped at random camping locations throughout the area. I have really great memories of that time and I hoped that by baking something from that sunny land, I would feel the same Joie de vivre. I succeeded. I made this focaccia at least a dozen times since; I served it to my colleagues during a work dinner, to my friends at brunch and my parents at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Here is what you need (my adaptation to the original recipe):

4 Cups of flour
1 Package of yeast
1 1/2 Cups of warm water
3 Potatoes, cleaned and sliced
1 Tablespoon of salt
3 Tablespoons of rosemary
Rock salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine flour, salt, water and yeast in a bowl and let the mixture form a chewy and elastic dough. Let the dough rest in an oiled bowl for one hour, or until it has at least doubled in size. I like to coat the bowl with a thin layer of olive oil to avoid the dough to stick – trust me, it has happened. Not pretty. I usually place the bowl close to a source of heat – that way, the dough rises a little faster.

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While the dough rises, clean, peel and cut the potatoes. I like to use yellow gold potatoes, bu you can try using any other you prefer. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper for the dough.

Once the dough is nice and plump, roll it out onto the said backing sheet and flatten it. Tip: to help flatten it more evenly, I use a round tall glass as a rolling pin and shape the dough to the contour of the sheet.

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Now comes the fun part. With a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the flattened dough with extra virgin olive oil. Add the potatoes by placing them in whatever arrangement see you fit. Be creative.

Once you are done, add pepper; sprinkle rock salt and rosemary. Let the decorated focaccia dough rest for one hour. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven at 450F.
Tip: I like to cover the dough with plastic wrap, so that nothing will disturb it (cats included).

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Once the dough has risen, place it in the oven and bake it at 450F for at least 30 minutes or until the sides are dark and the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. I like to add a bit of extra virgin olive oil to the finished product.

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Ta daaaa! The focaccia is ready to be cut and served. Francesco and I like to eat it with dinner or as a snack. Put the leftovers in the fridge. Enjoy!

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!!