Tag Archives: Italian Food

Ink, Pixel, Dirt

21 May

I’ve been keeping a garden diary in a little black and red notebook.

I find it amusing that the notebook is from Poland, and that its calendar is going to run out after this year.  I also think it’s funny that I find it easiest to keep this record in pen-and-paper form.  I spend my entire day in front of a computer.  I share my life with the world via a computer.  And yet, every week on Sunday night, I sit in the passenger’s seat of our car and scribble away as we head south, back to the city.

And that might be the reason I like it so much; it’s the antithesis of the 50-odd hours I spend chained to my desk at work each week.  Anytime I stay there past 7pm, which is everyday, I have to sign-out in a log book.  I’m often shocked at how hard I find writing after a long day of typing and conference calls.  I grab the pen and my brain pauses.  My hand feels weird curved around the pen.  And then it all comes back and the letters flow with the ink, in a halting, inelegant script.

Things are really speeding up in the garden, and the last two weeks have required two or more pages each to record all the developments.  By the end of those two measly pages, my hand is always cramped up and sore.  I can remember back in my high school days being able to write and write and write for hours on end.   I filled up notebook after notebook with my musings and stories and poems and rants.

For tomato talk and a twilight walk, head below the jump.

The Recipe Tree

14 Aug

Where do recipes come from?

Do they fall, fully formed, from the recipe tree that stands on the middle of the earth, whose branches are so wide that they cover the entire world? Or do they swim about in the oceans, infinitely small, leaping out like a silvery fish to inspire when they feel they are needed? Or maybe they grow in the earth as grains of an idea, ready to help those that are hungry.

I’m not sure, but I know some of my favorite recipes have been an attempt to recreate a favorite meal that I ate while traveling. It’s just such a meal, about 15 years ago now, that first got me into cooking.

I was a junior in high school. Our German class had a sister gymnasium near Saarbrücken that we would attend every-other year for two months at a time. On the years we weren’t in Germany, our German friends would come and stay with us in the States.

My host-sister, Miriam, was a few years older than me, and in my eyes, so cool and accomplished. She had a wonderful older boyfriend (to whom she is now married), who was already in university and had a car. And so, we skipped out on a week of school and went traveling.

We went north, to Köln and Düsseldorf and Aachen and Belgium, and somewhere along the way, I cannot remember where, we ate in an Italian restaurant where I had a plate of pasta that still haunts me. It was simple, a ying yang of white and green linguini, with olive oil, crispy garlic and fried sage, but to me, it was the most exciting thing I had ever eaten.

Up until that point, pasta had always just been pasta. Something that should be covered in cheese or tomatoes. I’m also not sure I had ever thought of sage, at all, before that meal. And crispy, toasted, golden, transcendent garlic? It was too much. I was in love.

And so I arrived home, dressed in black, feeling cooler than cool, and immediately dove into trying to recreate the meal for my family. I think I remember my mom being amused, and I think I remember everyone actually enjoying the meal. From that point on, some of the most treasured souvenirs I’ve brought home from my travels have been recipes, or at least the germs of recipes.

On Saturday I tried to recreate one of the more recent souvenir recipes that I picked up, a pasta dish that I had on Good Friday in Florence. It was farfallle pasta with artichokes and fish. I have no idea what kind of fish it was, and I know our artichokes here aren’t the same, tender, breathtaking carcofi they have there, but when I saw crates full of teeny, tiny, impossibly adorable artichokes at the Greenmarket last Friday, I knew I had to try.

And so I did, with thunderously wonderful results. I used branzino, and braised the baby ‘chokes in vermouth and flavored the whole deal with a fragrant, pine nutty pesto. It was dreamy and delicious and immediately transported me back to that rainy, soggy, impossibly Italian night spent in a steamy, jewelbox trattoria, sitting next to the crotchety old man who ate an orange for dessert.

So, tell me, where do your recipes come from? Are they inspired by travel? By the ingredients you find at the farmer’s market or pull from your backyard? Do you prefer to riff on recipes from magazines or cookbooks? Or are you some kind of recipe evil genius?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and links if you’ve got them!

Head below the jump for the recipe for Ann’s Good Friday Pasta.

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Perfetto Primavera

29 May

Has Lidia ever changed your dinner plans?

The Harbor Meets The Hudson

She’s a dangerous lady to watch when you’ve only got tentative dinner plans, trust me. That’s just the situation I found myself in on Sunday. Earlier in the day I had gone for a really long run, and then Isaac and I had gone on a not so long walk, but either way, I was sore, and tired, and felt that I had earned a kip on the couch.

Tugboat

But there was Lidia, back in Maremma, my favorite place in Italy, and dastardly lady that she is, she was making pasta with ceci and spinach, my favorite food in the world (pasta) combined with my favorite legume (chickpeas). And then, right after that, she made swiss chard with magic Tuscan beans. It was too much. Our dinner plans had to change.

Birdbath

I peeled myself off the couch and trotted off to the Korean bodega a few blocks away. I grabbed chard, and since I am often indecisive (and greedy) a can of ceci and a can of canellini beans, because, even as I was watching the show, the two separate recipes were combining into one.

Koi

We ate a lot of Italian food this weekend. We had been hoping to get away for the holiday, but for a number of reasons, that didn’t happen. So, we stuck around and indulged in the relative quietude the city sometimes offers on this first weekend of “summer.”

Tom Otterness Tableau

We went to Hearth for dinner on Saturday night for no reason other than we could. Wait, that’s not 100% true. We went to Hearth on Saturday night because the food is awesome and we could score a perfect reservation with no trouble. Our meal gave me a new faith in sauces and dressings. And then we breakfasted on the antipasti platter and a perfect pizza on Sunday at Adrienne‘s. And then on Monday night I whipped up my own “pizza” to go with a delightful salad (hopefully more on that pizza another time, because it was awesome).

V. Ponte & Sons

And even after all that, I still think this pasta was the highlight of the weekend’s eats. It’s such an earthy, honest and goshdarnit, delicious dinner. Oh, and it’s easy and quick to make, too.

Umberto Brothers Storage

This recipe is perfect for busy moms with too many nearly grown men nipping at her heels, hounding her about dinner. It’s also perfect for the newbie entertainer that’s having his first dinner party and wants to impress the ladies but is afraid of messing up an expensive cut of meat. And, it’s perfect for a couple like me and Isaac that treasures delicious leftovers as the only way to survive our too busy weeks.

Perfect Pasta with Beans & Greens

What I hope you take away from this is that this is a perfect dinner. Pour yourself a glass of crisp white wine, whip up a green garlic salad dressing to serve over the tiniest, most dainty spring greens and sit down with this pasta for a perfect evening. Enjoy!

Head below the jump for the recipe for Perfect Pasta with Beans & Greens.

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Creamy Evil

23 Apr

I got my first sunburn on Saturday.

Our Neighbor's Cherry Tree

I also ate an extortionately priced orange, found a Baby Jesus sausage, bought a racially insensitive cookbook, walked over eight miles and crossed three bridges. It was a great day!

Manhattan Bridge

Isaac and I did the “Three Bridges” walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge. I had never heard of, or even really thought of, walking over more than one bridge in a day until the other Ann left a comment about it way back in January.

Manhattan Bridge

We had kept it in the back of our minds as something we really wanted to do for four months, waiting for the perfect day. It finally came on Saturday. Sunny, but not too hot and delightfully breezy, we haven’t had a more glorious day in about six months.

Water Tanks from the Manhattan Bridge

We started in Chinatown walking over the Manhattan Bridge into Dumbo. The Manhattan Bridge is still my favorite. I know it’s not fair to play favorites, but I just love it. I was in a horrific mood when we started. I’d been woken up by work (on a Saturday!) and my mood had gone from cranky to downright foul in about 2 seconds. But, by the time I was out over the middle of the East River, everything was once again right in the world.

Manhattan Bridge

We bumbled about in Dumbo. It really is a beautiful neighborhood, and there’s a fabulous bookstore there, P.S. Books, that all book loving geeks should make a pilgrimage to. They have a terrific selection of books on art and history, a great cookbook and fabulous biography sections and a neat place for kids to play and read. It’s a lovely bookstore, the sort I wish we had out here in Bay Ridge. I found a tiny old pamphlet on the cooking of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish may know a thing or two about pickling and pork, but racially sensitive they are not. A well spent $2.50 if you ask me!

Dumbo, Art

We then walked through the park along the river where I tried to help some very, very lost tourists, breezed past the ungodly long line at Grimaldi’s and headed over the Brooklyn Bridge. This is my least favorite bridge to walk over, which is a pity, because it’s so beautiful, but it’s just too chock-a-block with tourists and bikers.

Off-Ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge

We walked under the anchorage, past the Brooklyn Banks and on along to the river. It was a quiet day, not many boats or fisherman, and no, no beavers. But Isaac did spot the world’s saddest dead turtle. All it’s limbs were limp and swaying back and forth in the wavelets. It kind of broke my heart, the hardness of the shell, the softness of its neck…

Brooklyn Bridge

But, we motored on and soon needed a pit-stop, so we headed inland for some pork & chive dumplings at Dumpling North on Essex. From there it was a skip and a hop over to Delancey and onto the Williamsburg Bridge. This is where my legs started rebelling, you finally realize how long the walk has been when you’ve walked and walked, and walked and walked on the Williamsburg and you’re still not over any water yet.

Brooklyn Bridge

The view on the Williamsburg Bridge is obstructed by a cage of safety fencing, so the real pleasure of walking over this bridge comes from the people watching. The endless stream of hipsters wearing ridiculous “ironic” t-shirts is something I find endlessly amusing and I’m always in awe of the beautiful coats worn by the men in some of Williamsburg’s Jewish sects. But the real reason to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge is to get to the other side.

The Brooklyn Banks

Williamsburg, to me, is like a Disney World for adults. Our first stop was Marlow & Sons, to pick up some of Steve’s magic beans (we got Goat’s Eyes and Little Horses). This is where I picked up the extortionately priced orange, too. $2.25 for an orange! But, I must say, it was absolutely worth it. It was the best orange I’ve eaten since we have been back from Italy, and that’s saying something.

Williamsburg Bridge

From there we walked up Bedford to the cheese shop. They have the best pickle selection in the world. It was everything I could do to keep myself from buying a half dozen different types. In the end, all we bought was some farina di ceci, or chickpea flour. I was sad to leave the little baby Jesus sausage where he was lying, but he looked so peaceful. Next time…

Williamsburg Bridge

Our bellies were rumbling again, so we pushed on the last half mile or so to Greenpoint. It was rough, but the siren call of Polish food made our trip quick and our feet light. We were going to get borscht! On a recommendation from Brooklyn Guy, we went to a place called Pyzy that he praised very highly for its soups. Unfortunately, it was a rare miss in our book. The food was decent, and yes it was very, very cheap, but, Polonica‘s food is vastly superior in flavor and freshness. But Pyzy, hands down, has better atmosphere. What a trip!

Williamsburg Bridge

And that was it. We walked to the G train, which oddly enough came instantaneously and went home. It was a great walk, and despite keeping ourselves well fueled, it was tiring. While Isaac napped on the couch I concocted dinner. In Rome one evening, Isaac was aced out of a dish of gnocchi di ceci that both he and I kept thinking about. Gnocchi, made out of chickpeas? It sounded so magical!

Williamsburg

And so that was what I was thinking of when I bought the farina di ceci. A quick search on the interwebs led me to the understanding that these are not your typical gnocchi. They’re more like the gnocchi alla Romana, made of semolina, than like a traditional potato gnocchi. Making them is like making polenta and then playing with your food. I was very excited!

Gnocchi di Ceci

Most of the recipes I found suggest serving gnocchi of this sort with no sauce, just pure creamy goodness covered in cheese. But me? I’m a sauce girl. I love sauce, almost more than I love stuff the sauce is on, so I whipped up a quick rustic tomato and pepper sauce.

Gnocchi di Ceci

This dish is so gentle, so creamy, so pillowy and decadently delicious that it reminded me of a class of potato dishes we kept running across in Italy that I named “Creamy Evil.” They’re cooked potatoes covered in bechamel sauce, sometimes with other healthy accompaniments like boiled eggs or an additional cheese sauce. They are so good, so insanely, swear-word-worthy-good, that yes, they are in fact Creamy Evil.

Gnocchi di Ceci

These gnocchi aren’t quite as bad for you, but they do have the same sort of mouth feel, and so, since I’m never (ever, ever, ever) going to allow myself to make potatoes covered in cheese and butter sauce, I hereby officially add gnocchi di ceci to the taxonomy of the food family known as “Creamy Evil.”

Head below the jump for the recipe for Gnocchi di Ceci.

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Sotto Voce

1 Apr

What is there to say about Italy that hasn’t been said before?

Roma

Let’s be honest. Not much. Italy is a beautiful cliché. But, since saying, “I have nothing to say because it’s all been said before,” makes me a lazy writer, I’m going to give it a go.

The Forum

Italy is gorgeous. No, really it is. It takes your breath away. The sky. The earth. The trees. The buildings. The rocks and stones. The vegetables. The flowers. The puddles. The birds. The rain. The sun. The doorknobs. The ceilings. All of them. Breathtaking.

Assisi

The Italians sure know how to celebrate Easter. We were in Florence, where they detonated an oxen cart packed full of fireworks in front of the Duomo. The detonations went off for 15 minutes, ricocheting and echoing off all the stone, until we felt like we were in a WWII battle. By the end our faces were covered in ash. It was very cool.

The Duomo, Florence

That said, never fly into Rome on Palm Sunday. You have been warned.

Absurd

Italian cars are gorgeous and Italian drivers are insane. We rented a Smart ForFour. I loved it. It’s teeny tiny on the outside, but feels like a normal-sized car when you’re in it. Isaac said it handled well, it got great gas mileage and had pretty good giddyup. Regardless, it was no contest for nearly everything else on the Autostrade. Some of the cars that passed us were going so fast they produced doppler effects. They were usually Audis for some reason.

Roma

Archaeological sites are more interesting to the archaeologists. I studied Etruscan archeology in college. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since my sophomore year; I’ve forgotten almost everything I once knew. This makes walking around an old Etruscan city little more than walking around and looking at a pile of rocks. But, stalking wild asparagus while glancing at those old rocks is really fun! So is stumbling on gaudy green lizards and breathtaking views of the sea while worrying about being charged by a wild boar and peeking into old graves cut into solid rock. I’m sure you will agree that it was all very Indiana Jones.

Run Away!

Pizza. The pizza I remember from my trip to Italy 15 or so years ago doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It was thick and doughy with a schmear of intense tomato sauce and a sprinkling of crispy cheese. I loved it. I could buy it on every street corner and I was happy. Alas, it has been supplanted by wurstel carts and paper thin, hyper-crispy pies.

Central Market, Florence

The absolute best I had was in San Gemini, the speck of a hill town in Umbria where we spent our first week. I can’t tell you the name of the place (I don’t think it had one), but I can tell you it wasn’t Happy Pizza and that it’s on the main drag. Seriously, it’s worth stopping if you have to drive past the town. It was extraordinary. The plain slice was covered in the thinnest whisper of milky fresh mozzarella and delicious sauce. Remembering the mushroom slice, with specks of sausage and a flurry of pecorino is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Assisi

Also worth mentioning: a slice Isaac got at the Antico Forno dei Serpenti, a bread and pastry shop near the intersection of the Via dei Serpenti and the Via Panisperna. The slice, a sliver of focaccia topped with olive oil, fresh basil and prefect, oozing, hopefully dioxin-free fresh buffalo mozzarella, was perfection. The one bite I got made me sing and hum with happiness. All pizza should do that.

Art, Florence

I found eating in Italy more difficult than I would have imagined; there are so many rules and different classes of restaurants, and it’s so easy to be duped by a nasty, tourist-trap trattoria masquerading as an honest, delicious, seasonally-driven neighborhood osteria, and it soon became obvious that I’m not quite as familiar with Italian food terms as I had thought I was. But, don’t cry for me just yet. Because despite all these roadblocks, we managed to eat very well.

Flower

In Umbria, my step-dad decided to hire the cook offered with the house so there would be no arguing about where to go for dinner or who should cook each night. This was a very wise choice. Daniella’s cooking is extraordinary. I’ve never eaten so well, so consistently, in my entire life (sorry Mom!). On fresh cheese crostini arugula leaves were pushed into the cheese like the design on a filigree brooch. It was beautiful and tasty, as was the lamb stew with olives, gnocchi con salvia e burro, fresh local catfish in puttanesca sauce, fried squash blossoms, local cheese with truffle honey and oh, the homemade tiramisu. All of them, delicious.

The Pantheon

One night she also made me artichokes in the Roman-Jewish style, because, yes, that’s right, March is carciofi season in Italy. I ate as many of them as I could everywhere we went. I had them raw, sliced paper-thin over a salad of arugula and parmigiano cheese at a wonderful neighborhood trattoria in the Oltrarno in Florence, where I also had them tossed with a delicious, flaky white fish and farfalle. I had them poached and served with a tangy, zippy salsa verde with tarragon at Florence’s central market from the trippa stand. I had them on pizza and as an antipasti more time than I can count. In short, I ate so many carciofi in 12 days that I think I may be turning a little bit green. It was heaven.

Vegetale

I didn’t have any in Rome though. Rome was the toughest city to eat in. We couldn’t find any restaurants with daily specials (this is my new rule of thumb to ensure that the restaurant is buying produce based on the season), but we did stumble upon a Sardinian ristorante who’s menu had a notation that I wish every restaurant in the world should be forced to adopt. They used an asterisk to let you know which proteins were being cooked from the freezer. For example: Scampi* ai Ferri o a Piacare? *Frozen. Scallopine al Vino o al Limone? Not frozen (and in case you were wondering, crazy delicious).

The Coliseum

The restaurant also happened to be next door to the only place in Italy where we got good bread, Panella. Wait, what? Bad bread? In Italy? Oh yes my friends. I always thought that Italian bread would be amazing, but at least in the parts of Umbria and Tuscany that we travelled through, the bread is not so bene. Apparently some folk way back in the 15th century got into a fight with a Pope about salt taxes, and ever since, no salt goes into the bread.

Central Market, Florence

Can you imagine? 600 years of unsalted bread? One of our guidebooks tried to make the claim that the lack of salt makes the bread bland and unassuming, the perfect foil to all of the regions’ spectacular culinary specialties; the cured meats, the cheeses, the truffles, the olive oils! Good try guys, but no salt in bread just makes it boring with bad crust. I’m all for traditions, but people, you’re only hurting yourselves!

Tuckered, Orvieto

And finally, walking. We did a lot of this. Going to the hilltowns of Italy with a man obsessed with climbing hills is an amazing way to lose five pounds while eating every ort of each multi-course dinner for 12 nights. We climbed every damn hill we could set foot on. We climbed to the top of Assisi, and Perugia, and Orte, and Narni (yes, it used to be named Narnia), and Orvieto, and San Gemini, and Montelpuciano, and Piombino, and Populonia, and Florence, and Rome.

Rainbow, Tuscany

Assisi and Narni were the most difficult, and therefore most rewarding, but it was our first day in Rome that nearly broke me. I’m pretty good at getting a bead on a city, but Rome still eludes me. Rome felt very much to me like New York must feel to thousands of people; dazzling, dizzying, confusing, loud, dirty, grey, cold, exhilarating, spectacular and heavenly all at once. Two days were not enough. We saw all the greatest hits, but kept getting lost (in a bad way) which made it difficult to really get a feel for the town. I must go back.

Angel

Since I’ve been back, everyone I know has asked, rather logically, “So, how was Italy?” It seems like a simple question with a predictable answer, but I can tell from the way their faces fall that there’s something amiss when I answer, “Not bad.”

Me

I’m torn about our trip to Italy. Obviously, I loved it, I mean, I’ve already prattled on for over 1,400 words about it, but at the same time, I didn’t come back as relaxed and annoyingly enthusiastic as I did from our trip to Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat, of course, but like so many others before me, I didn’t leave my heart there.

My heart’s still on Hvar.