Friday, December 31, 2010

The land of plenty...and Michael's puttanesca

The first thing any foreigner notices upon landing here in the USA is how big everything is, how much of everything there is. Cars are big, roads are wide, supermarkets are huge. Portions are enormous, when you order a sandwich you get a choice of five different kinds of bread and six different kinds of cheese and if you are looking for a box of cereal or a can of Coke make sure you know what you want before venturing down the endless supermarket aisle. I know this and come prepared but trust me when I say I still found the choice of hummus at our local store mindboggling, with edamame hummus the most boring choice on offer!

So when they predicted a strong snow storm last week we knew to expect a big one. Things here are however always a touch 'more' and we awoke to a city blanketed in white. The streets were empty except for very few taxis, people walking in between them to avoid the impossible sidewalks.

But now let's get serious and talk puttanesca, a dish made in the past in Southern Italy by whores (thus the name) for their clients. A very simple, poor dish full of flavor and heat to satisfy the most manly of appetites. So why, you must be wondering, am I giving you the recipe for this dish when I am so far from its country of origin, the place where I live.

Well, my father was back in good spirits last night and decided to treat us to his favorite meal. He is known to many for his spaghetti alla puttanesca and I have helped  make it more times than I can remember for small and large gatherings. People have tasted it from near and far and when he throws a dinner party they know what they will be eating (and preparing - it has become a sort of tradition to get anyone polite enough to arrive on time, unlike my dad, to help peel, chop and pit). An old friend of his, a well known home economist and businesswoman we won't name, loves it and asked to use it in one of her cookbooks many years ago, but it was inevitably changed to please more delicate palates.

My father makes pretty much the same amount for four or twenty four, but I will give you approximate amount per can of pelati and you can multiply from there.

This is a puttanesca on steroids compared to its Italian cousin, just like everything else in this country. So don't say I didn't warn you and remember, don't make this for your vampire friends. I would avoid a first date too, but I think my father wined and dined many a woman with this who am I say?

Happy New Year to all of you out there, wherever you are in the world...although come to think of it,  it is already 2011 for many of you!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Beauty and the beast

NY glitters and shines, fairy lights sparkling in every corner. The yellow cabs drive around in the hundreds, making their way through the Christmas traffic. The stores are crowded with tourists and last minute shoppers, bustling around the counters stacked full of goodies from all over the world at Zabar's and Fairway. We wake up every morning long before dawn and stare down into the dark streets for a few hours, watching other early birds like us, until the sky turns pink and then the most dazzling blue and another day of cold crisp sunny weather accompanies us in our expeditions.

There is a lot to write about, of things we have eaten, places we have been, dear friends and family we have re-embraced. There has been a birthday and a big tree and Christmas Eve is right around the corner. All the words are in me but are stuck in the tips of my fingers, startled by the what I was aware of, what I thought I was prepared for. The beast has lifted its snarling head, we laugh and play to cover the sound of its low growl. It has been hungry these past few days but perhaps now that is has fed itself to its delight it will lie dormant for a while, at least for the  holidays. I will revel in the NY Christmas lights once more, in the feeling of pure energy and freedom that pervades this city and I will continue tasting my way through every street and avenue.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas or holiday season with your families and friends, may it be a wonderful end to this year and a lovely start to the new one. And may it be, above all, a healthy one for all of us, because when it comes down to it, that is all that really matters.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Baked apples, the Big Apple and Foodies in Mi

New York City, here we come (if the snow falling outside my window stops soon)!

Tomorrow (Inshallah) I will be in my hometown with my family and friends that are so close they may as well be family. Tomorrow I will ride in a yellow cab over the Queensboro bridge and see that amazing skyline that makes me catch my breath each and every time.

Tomorrow I will be in the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. Yes, there will definitely be sleepless nights and early mornings with two jet lagged children. There will also be a lot to do, with my 4 year old's birthday coming up, Christmas just after that, my BFF's wedding, ice skating at Rockefeller Center under the tree, the Childrens' Museum to explore, the tree and the Neapolitan baroque Créche at the Met to look at, the Nutcracker to watch. I promise, however, that I will eat lots of good food, just for you. I will take lots of pictures, I will go to restaurants (except at this stage of my life I am more likely to make a list of child-friendly places rather than hot spots in town) and who knows, I may even get around to cooking, although I am not promising a lot of that. So check in, because I will be posting for sure.

And, because I am in a NY state of mind, here is a little something you can whip up quickly during the holidays that will make your home smell like a Yankee candle and that will actually make your guests feel good about the three helpings they had of your fabulous Christmas meal.

Ingredients (recipe adapted from Simply Recipes)
4 large good baking apples
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup currants or chopped raisins
1 Tbsp butter
3/4 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 375°F. Wash apples, remove cores. I used an apple corer. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon, currants/raisins, and pecans. Place apples in a baking pan. Stuff each apple with this mixture. Top with a dot of butter. Add boiling water to the baking pan and bake 30-40 minutes*, until tender, but not mushy. Remove from the oven and baste the apples several times with the juices. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or cream.

* I baked my apples for a little over 40 minutes and they were still a little underdone. I don't know if it was the variety of apples I used or just my oven.

Last but certainly not least, I wanted to thank Jasmine and Manuel from Labna for organizing the Foodie in Mi Christmas party. It was my first blogger foodie meet up and despite feeling a little nervous upon arrival, both hosts went out of their way to make me feel at home. I also had the pleasure to meet and chat with other bloggers, like Cinzia who works with Chiara at Made in Kitchen and Sara. Next time I hope to get the chance to exchange a few words and ideas with all of the participants.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Puntarelle alla romana - Roman chicory salad

The thing I love about Italy is that, despite globalization, there is still a charmingly (and sometimes annoyingly) predominant national, regional or even local aspect to everyday life in this country.

For example, did you know that before Christmas priests still bless each and every house or apartment in their parish? And offices sometimes too. I kid you not. Yesterday, a bunch of financial analysts and traders stood around a priest crossing themselves and murmuring Hail Marys and Our Fathers while he sprinkled holy water over the market monitors and stacks of financial papers.

Hand-carved South Tyrolean wood crib figurines

Every year a girl in our office, who is famous for her recipe, makes large amounts of crema di mascarpone (mascarpone cheese, eggs and more) to eat with the office panettone and pandoro at Christmas time. Panettone is originally from Milan and is made with raisins, candied fruit and lemon zest. Pandoro (golden bread), a simple sweet yeast bread, is originally from Verona, it is star shaped and covered in confectioner's sugar to resemble snow. 

My writing this post has ignited a discussion in my office. Many of my colleagues come from towns that are often only a few kms apart and just outside Milan, yet their traditions are a total revelation to their neighbors. My colleague and friend who sits facing me, from the Northern part of Lake Maggiore, mentioned she was suprised to notice there were no camels in the bakeries on Januray 6th. Camels? January 6th is the Epiphany but in Italy it is also the day of La Befana, an old lady dressed in rags who brings good children presents and sweets (or black candy in place of the charcoal of olden days if the children were naughty) on a broomstick. This day marks the end of the holiday season in Italy. But how does a camel fit in with brooms and rags? It seems the origins of this tradition are unknown, but it definitely is linked with the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the manger. My colleague to my right is from Milan but her mother is from Lodi. It was traditional at her house to put a glass of water out on Christmas Eve and to drink a sip of it the next morning, because the water had supposedly turned holy during the night.

On the day of Santa Lucia, December 13th, in Sicily they eat cuccìa, a pudding (although there are savory versions made with chickpeas too) made with boiled wheat berries, ricotta cheese and sugar to commemorate the relief from a food shortage on the island in the 17th century. On that day Sicilians traditionally do not eat bread or pasta, although it is more a thing of the past. My mother in law made this dessert on Monday and I tasted it for the first time and enjoyed it. Then again, what don't I enjoy?

Back to the variety of Italian recipes. 

There is a vegetable, called puntarelle, that is typically Roman. Why, you must be wondering, am I writing about a recipe that lists an ingredient you probably can't get where you live? First of all, because all streets lead to Rome so you may pass through one day and decide to taste this specialty while you are sitting in a trattoria in a picturesque piazza. Secondly, because it seems many of you enjoy posts related to Italian peculiarities.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Very French French toast

Today I have both my childrens' Christmas recitals/parties pretty much at the same time, which means F and I will spend most of the afternoon running back and forth from the venues like the characters in a sitcom (luckily they are in adjacent buildings). This after I spent the past two weeks hunting down light blue tights for my daughter's recital. All I can say is that the most I got was a smirk from the sales girls and the statement that baby blue was last winter's collection. ???


Daaaahling (as one of you would say), you are soooo last season!

Finally, I tracked them down in the city of Genoa of all places, and surely enough I was told they were left over from last year's stock. Only to find out yesterday that my daughter will be wearing them ON HER HEAD! Don't ask, all I know is that she will be one of Santa's little helpers because I have heard her sing it over and over and over again for the same past two weeks. My little boy is still too small to dress up or sing, so I think he will just be stuffing his face with food and some of the Christmas decorations.

Aaaanyway. Remember my French friend Sally Lunn? If any of you decided to bake her recipe, please promise me you will set aside a few slices to make French toast with. It is out of this world! Luckily we only had two slices left each or I would have just kept on eating and eating, and I am usually totally a pancake person.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sally Lunn

It is snowing out, but despite the stone floor and walls of the kitchen, the room is warm from the fire crackling in the hearth and the new glass panes in the window, that have become more and more popular in the past decades. She gently but thoroughly works the dough with her small, red hands and then sets it under a cloth to rise. She watches the snowflakes fall, listens to the silence and puts the bread into the oven. While it bakes she breathes in the warm, sweet scent and starts to prepare a new loaf. As she kneeds the dough she thinks of her homeland, Normandy, of the brioche her mother used to prepare on special occasions. Her bread is similar and the locals seem to like it. More and more people in Bath have started coming into the bakery to ask for the sweet bread she makes. She smiles to herself when remembering how they call her in this country. Her name is Solange but they prefer to call her Sally and when they ask for her bread they refer to it as Sally Lunn's.

This bread, reminiscent of brioche, was seemingly made by a French Huguenot immigrant in the second half of the 17th Century in Bath. It quickly became fashionable in the aristocratic circles, eaten to accompany both sweet and savory foods.

Another story attributes the name to the mispronunciation of the French words "soleil et lune", to describe the golden and white interior and exterior of the loaf.

Whatever the origin, this sweet bread is still popular today, although it is not always served the traditional way, cutting it horizontally to spread it with clotted cream or butter and then slice it into vertical portions.

I had never had it before but was flipping through one of my cookbooks for a recipe similar to a brioche. The preparation seemed simple enough  to someone like me who is still a little frightened at the prospect of making bread, and I had everything I needed to bake it...uh...expect the right pan to bake it in. I only noticed that minor detail halfway through. It should be baked in a Turk's head mold or a tube mold, so I had to invent something quickly and came up with the contraption you see in the photo: a circular cake dish with two cocottes stacked on top of each other in the center. It turned out a little darker than intended and the circle wasn't perfectly centered, but it tasted exactly as I imagined it would and accompanied breakfast, lunch and dinner at our house for a few days.

I thought it would be a perfect recipe to share for these holidays, a little extra something like I promised in my last post to add to your traditional Christmas feast, something that will taste great with your turkey, ham or goose but that will also feed a hungry household on a holiday morning (it serves 24!).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Balsamic red onion marmalade

As the festivities approach, I am on the look out for new and fun touches to add to the Christmas feast. Most of you, I am sure, already have a traditional family Christmas menu that you have been making/eating for decades. Your grandmother's recipe for the most amazing stuffing ever, your sister-in-law's killer mash potatoes and your dad's special gravy. A menu you look forward to for a whole year.

My mother in law, for example makes a turkey that is to die for. It is stuffed with truffle and chestnuts and so much more. My DH dreams of it year round and as excited as he is to travel over to the Big Apple with me in a week, I am sure a teeny part of his heart will remain in the Alps, where his mamma will be stuffing her turkey on the 25th. I also think he has already asked her to freeze a few slices for him.
Another tradition in his family is handmade tortellini for Christmas Eve, a real delicacy to be eaten in a clear broth made with several varieties of meat and vegetables (so, to be precise, I should call them cappelletti).

My family, of proud Prussian origin on my mother's side, is more goose oriented. I will never forget the look on my future Italian step brothers' face in the late Seventies when my step father flew them to New York from Venice to "meet the family" and my mother walked out of the kitchen after hours of cooking and basting and set down a platter with a huge goose on it accompanied with red cabbage and apples and a bowl of hearty bread, onion, chestnut and liver stuffing. In my opinion, however, the best thing about a goose at Christmas is the schmaltz My mother collects the fat and drippings from the roasted goose and after frying a little onion into it, she lets it set (crispy bits of onion and skin included). The best way to eat this is smeared on toasted peasant bread with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

So, my dear readers, who am I to interfere with tradition?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Yuletide and Nigella's butter cut-out biscuits

The Yuletide has hit our home in all of its German, American and Italian glory!

Over the week end out came the tree, decoration, lights, candles, the Advent calendar, the Tyrolean hand-carved wooden crib. Copious amounts of cookies were baked and decorated, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby's voices floated out of our speakers. Letters were written to Santa Claus and stuck in boots and left last night on our windowsill for Saint Nick to collect, leaving sweets in their place. The Twelve Days of Christmas was sung a cappella and youtube videos of NYCB Nutcracker were watched.

The Christmas season was always a big deal in my family growing up but one thing we never did was bake cookies. Decorating cookies with my kids was something I already imagined as a child and after buying conspicuous amounts of cookie decorations the last time we were in South Tyrol and a dozen Christmas cookie cutters at Villeroy and Boch last month I had no excuse.

Nigella's recipe (from How to Be a Domestic Goddess) is fool proof, all you need is time on your hands because there are various phases involved: preparing the dough, chilling it, rolling it out and cutting out the shapes, baking, cooling and decorating. However, if you decide you are not in a decorating mood, these are great plain too!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Leek soup with peas and sauerkraut, a recipe for love (and marriage)

Today is about his brown eyes, his beautiful hands and his good heart. Today is about love, friendship, companionship, parenthood. Today is about memories of off-white silk and red wine from the hills of Tuscany. 

Ten years ago we were two kids dressed up in party clothes dancing to Abba, inebriated with wine and love. Today we are a family of four. The two lives we created are a source of endless love we never deemed possible, even more so when we thought nothing could be bigger than what we had.

A decade is a long time in our relatively young lives. I raise a glass to these ten years.
I raise a glass to every slammed door, to every flung object, to each and every tear shed in frustration onto a damp pillow, to late night arguments, to every moment of endured nagging, to every soccer game tolerated or renounced, to every sexy human being that ever crossed our path, to every moment of  boredom, to all the instances of child-related fear, doubt and pain, to every fleeting feeling of missing out and constraint, to every weathered disappointment, to the moments of worry and uncertainty, to sometimes feeling misunderstood by the one who knows you best. To sweaty sports briefs, to unflushed tampon wrappers, to hypochondria, to badgering, to everpresent children, to never-present intimacy, to exhaustion, to exasperation.

If, after ten years, you can still look into each others' eyes and know you want to wake up seeing them every morning to come. If you feel a flutter deep down in your stomach when you know a whole week end together is approaching. If what shines the brightest in your kaleidoscope of memories are your shared laughter, the cuddles, tucking your children in at night together and watching them sleep, secret hideouts between rocks on tropical beaches, oysters and champagne in Paris, reading books under a duvet, sharing a pint of ice cream during a movie, a tiny apartment and a greatly missed red tabby, then cheers!

Tonight the kids are going to bed early and Mommy and Daddy are popping a bottle of bubbly and dining on take out sushi.

For you, a recipe that is humble, wonderfully warm and comforting, full of different textures and flavors and with an unexpected zing in every bite...just like marriage, no?