Brunch all’italiana

One of the things I love doing more than experimenting with new recipes is cooking for friends and family. A couple of weekends ago, we invited good friends over for brunch. Mind you, I’ve never prepared a brunch before, but how hard can it be, right? So, I started brainstorming recipes; hearty Italian recipes that even an almost 2-year-old would eat (their daughter is the cutest thing on the planet). I settled on frittata [I had just scored 12 local and organic eggs] – focaccia (just like this one), some bruschette and carrot muffins.

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Francesco is a master frittata maker and I gladly left that task to him. We decided to have one veggie frittata –  with asparagus – and a meaty one – with bacon – to satisfy all appetites.

Although it could seem a bit intimidating, a frittata is just like an easy omelet.

  • First, prep the eggs. We used two whole eggs and one egg white and added salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika, because it gives the dish an extra layer of flavor and because it’s one of my favorite spices. Add a little milk and whisk all the ingredients together.
  • For either frittata, we heated a non-stick pan (very important!) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sauteed the asparagus until tender and the bacon until slightly brown. In both frittate with added scallions for crunch and flavor.
  • Pour the egg mixture in the pan making sure it covers the vegetables or the bacon. Add some Gruyere cheese.
  • Let the eggs cook for a few minutes, or until golden brown. Flip the frittata and let it cook for at least 5 minutes.
  • Serve warn. Sprinkle diced scallions as garnish.

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Le bruschette are, to me, the quintessential summer snack or appetizer. If you have some cherry tomatoes in the fridge, a few kalamata olives, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, you are in business.

Toast the bread, add fresh garlic by grating each clove on the grilled or toasted bread slice and add the tomatoes. It’s colorful, healthy, fresh and quick – definitely a winner in my kitchen.
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I was living in Naples, Italy when I tasted the best bruschette. It’s should not have come as a surprise since the Campania region has the juiciest and flavorful cherry tomatoes in the world. In a perfect bruschetta, the bread is soggy from the tomato juice and the garlic is so fresh, it is almost spicy.

What are you got-to brunch recipes?

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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!

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.

pesto9_logoTry this delicious summer treat: Pasta with homemade pesto, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella bites. Let me know what you think!

Out and About: 5 days in Madrid

Excuse the blog silence, but I had a lot of eating and culturing to do in Madrid. What a city! I was somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, the cuisine (both similar to my own), but, boy, this trip was a wake-up call. In between tapas, paellas, jamon Iberico, strolls in Plaza Santa Ana and breathtaking museum exhibits, I found myself again. Sure, trips to dynamic, metropolitan capitals would tend to make anyone think about his or her own existence, but somehow, it was different this time.

My daily life has become a monotonous ritual: home – work – home. Detours are rare. Not good. In Madrid, and that’s true for Italy as well, people take their free time seriously. Every afternoon/evening on our trip, people were out and about, sipping sangria, a cold cerveza, and enjoyed each other’s company. In Madrid, life is centered on living, and I mean…really living. I promised myself I would take note and start throwing some curve balls to my daily routine; nothing fancy, but just enough to feel more alive: a stroll in our gorgeous neighborhood alongside Francesco, a late dinner with dancing, a relaxing afternoon my the waterfall in our backyard. Simple things.

We landed in Madrid early Saturday and took the metro to the city’s bustling downtown district, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our luggage and hopped with excitement down the street. This was the first trip Francesco and I took by ourselves in a long time and I wanted to savor every little piece of it. The photo below was taken at Plaza del Sol, where Madrid’s official code of arms is represented with a larger than life statue.

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We decided to start our tour at one of Madrid’s most famous plazas: Plaza Mayor. The public square had many different uses throughout history including being the location for public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

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It’s a stunning spectacle of architecture, culture and history and a center of life for Madrilenos to this day. I am a history nerd, so I stopped to inhale every scent, every sight and sound of that plaza. Much of our trip was punctuated by historical monuments and architectural brilliance, but I would be lying if I said food played no role. In fact, it was our companion day and night. Jet legged and famished, Francesco and I made our move: we had heard about this great indoor market where we could find delicious treats. Here enters Mercado San Miguel, an incredible mix of tourists and townspeople looking for the best lunch or snack in town.

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The sight as we entered…and we thought that Madrid was already near and dear to our heats. Jamon Iberico was everywhere we turned. The smell of smoked and cured meat was so enticing, it literally accelerated our hunger to the point that at 11am, we decided to just go with it and eat everything we felt like.

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Our first meal in Madrid consisted of this: The famous and utterly mouth watering jamon iberico with Manchego cheese served in a crunchy baguette. We could not have been happier to have discovered such a gem. The deal with cured meat is simple: growing up in Italy, one has unobstructed access to prosciutto (cotto or crudo), mortadella, bresaola, salame, coppa, pancetta, and the list goes on and on. But when one leaves Italy and moves to the United States, one realizes that the same quality products are really hard to find…hence, our ridiculous exuberance at the first taste of the jamon.

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But when you are in Spain, it would be an inexcusable miss to avoid paella entirely. See, when I was a teenager, my parents bought a motor home that allowed us to travel through Europe during the summer months. One year, we ventured westward and trekked along the Spanish coast from Barcelona to Tenerife (unbelievable and unforgettable trip). At one of our very first stops, mom, dad, brother and I dove into big portions of paella, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes in the world. Of course, I was not going to let this one go by.

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It is not a joke when I say I would have eaten the entire pan, but alas, the tapas size (about 2 cups) was perfect to satiate my delirious appetite. Francesco and I looked at each other and we knew we had found El Dorado. The city itself was dynamic, loud, cultured and it was all represented in its architecture, a mixture of styles that assembled together clearly resembled its essence. We walked for miles and miles, but never once thought of us as tired or exhausted. The sky was clear, the sun shined, our belly were full and our hearts really were close to explosion.

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Dinner usually happened no earlier than 8pm and included some sort of meat or its derivatives. Our first night, we opted for the traditional tapas in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana, a quick walk from our hotel. We sat with our city guide book and took it all in: slices of jamon Iberico, slices of Manchego cheese and my personal favorite: croquetas de jamon, fried potato dumplings with cheese and diced jamon.

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We had heard that the most traditional, oldest and authentic restaurants in Madrid were in the cuevas, underground caves that were converted into restaurants. By walking through Plaza Mayor, we stumbled into this cueva gem: Restaurante Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, founded in 1949. According to its history, the restaurant is named after Luis Candela, a legendary bandit that is said to have robbed the rich to give to the poor.

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The restaurant was literally carved out in the underbelly of Madrid. An incredible experience. Sure, the cuevas were more expensive than every restaurant we tried, but the sensory experience was enough to make that hefty bill be legitimate and worth it.

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Although this restaurant is known for its roasted suckling pig or Madrid stew, Francesco and I went traditional tapas again. Almost every night, our dinner looked like this:

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Even breakfast was a meal to take seriously. The very last day, we told ourselves we deserved a treat, from start to finish. It turns out, Madrid’s preferred desayuno is chocolate with churros. The chocolate is not the typical American hot chocolate, but it’s much similar to what my mom used to make us kids on dark and cold winter nights: tick, bitter dark chocolate with just a hint of milk to make it drinkable. I dunked my churros, fried pastry, into the chocolate over and over again. After “drinking” that beverage, I needed a cold bottle of water. It was so insanely delicious.

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For lunch, we didn’t even try finding a little restaurant, but went directly to Mercado San Miguel, where we feasted on paella, jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese and what closely resembled small salami. We ate more jamon in this trip than I can honestly reveal, but let’s just say that I am perfectly OK with not eating it for a while.

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For dinner, we asked for recommendations and we ended up eating one exquisite meal – meat paella full of chicken, lamb, beef with a mountain of bell peppers, peas and mushrooms. I even drank an alcoholic digestif! Cream of chocolate with cherries. I went to bed happy.

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This trip has taught me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy the good, the bad and the in-between, because all we experience makes us that much richer. Hasta luego Madrid, we’ll see you soon!

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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!

The Weekend List 04/12/13

All day Thursday, I thought and lived as if it were Friday. Disappointment ensued when I finally figure it out. It has been THAT kind of week. I am looking forward to the next few days, chock-full of events and exciting beginnings.

First and foremost, the Charlottesville City Market celebrated the opening of its 40th season last Saturday! I happen to be on the board of Market Central, a non-profit organization that supports the market, its vendors and customers, and the farmers market is a big deal for us. Personally, perusing the stalls at the farmers market makes me giddy like a school girl: fresh produce, accessible food. It is really an educational tool for society.

1) In keeping with the social aspect of food and its production,  In When Eating is an Economic Act, interviewed Frederick Kaufman who has a new book out called Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food an important look into the politics of our food system. Give it a read.

2) There is something about celebrities and cookbooks that I find amusing. I can’t decide whether I am annoyed or revolted, but either way, it’s got to stop. Yet,  this take on Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in a while. Hilarious does not do it justice. It’s so much more. had me at “hello.” She gets it.

This is my favorite excerpt:

While waiting for my pre-breakfast Best Green Juice to finish draining — “Just about as energizing as a cup of coffee,” Gwyneth has promised — I begin the recipe for my actual breakfast: Millet Fig Muffins. I dutifully measure out my gluten-free flour, my raw millet, my unsweetened almond milk. I grind flax seed, pinch fine sea salt, toss chopped figs in a spoonful of the dry ingredients, line my muffin tins with paper liners. It’s only noon, and I’m almost done cooking my first meal of the day.

Time to settle down with my green juice, which has acquired a bright emerald color and tastes like a cross between a lemon and a lawn, and wait for the timer to buzz.

Meanwhile, we have 20 to 25 minutes to ponder the meaning of Gwyneth Paltrow.


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I like Paltrow as an actress, and I even like the fact that she has taken the lead on the über local, fresh, no dairy, super healthy. But I can shake off the feeling that they, these celebrities, are all in for themselves. I know, I am naive.
Look at this list of celebrities with cookbooks:
Trisha Yearwood, Valerie Bertinelli, Stanley Tucci (ok, he is beyond awesome), Eva Longoria, Sheryl Crow, Gloria Estefan, Victoria Gotti (!!!!) and my favorite, Teresa Guidice from the Real Housewives franchise – wait…she has 3 cookbooks????? I rest my case.

3) Speaking of celebrities, Antony Bourdain sat down with Andrew Zimmern for a friendly chat on the eve of Bourdain’s new CNN show, Parts Unknown. The thing with Bourdain is that you either love him or hate him. No way in between. I love, love, love his bombastic, foul-mouthed persona. And he is a terrific writer.

In this piece, they talk about the writing process, mainly, Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, being called a gonzo journalist, to which Bourdain replies, “I’m an essayist”, and his hosting duties on that weird (very bad) show called The Taste – and the best part, both Zimmern and Bourdain recall reading children’s books to their offsprings and shed a few tears.