Thursday, March 31, 2011

Squid, pesto and asparagus pasta

The ingredients really make the dish here. They are the stars. The added value of your cooking will be practically nihl, but despite the less-than-10 minutes it will take you to make it, your guests will be glad you didn't spend more time slaving over the meal. This dish tastes and looks like spring, with green and pink tones and the freshness of basil and asparagus. 

It all started with a squid. It had been a busy, long day for us and I silently cursed myself for having defrosted it in the morning now that I had so little time on hand. When I made the decision, I still didn't know we would be lugging and building furniture all week end. I had very little time to cook before the kids' bedtime and I was tired on top of it, so pasta seemed like the easiest solution. While I cleaned and cut the squid and peeled a few cloves of garlic I started thinking about how to make the sauce. Tomato sauce and olives? Plain old garlic and parsley? As I opened the fridge to get some water, I heard something crash onto the floor. I looked down and didn't know whether I should curse or laugh when I saw it was the worst thing that could have fallen and broken: a plastic tub of pesto (yes, store-bought pesto). Half of the green, oily and garlicy mass was splattered across my kitchen floor (ugh) but the other half was still usable (the jar had conveniently just split across the bottom). I immediately knew what was going in my pasta. Still, I wanted a vegetable and that is where Tiffany saved the day. I took a couple of the asparagus and used a potato peeler to make thin ribbons of raw asparagus. I sauteed a little garlic and the calamaro in olive oil, just enough for the latter to change color and not turn tough. I threw in the remaining pesto and the asparagus ribbons and tossed it all a few times. When the pasta was ready I drained it, but not excessively, and tossed it with the sauce. Some fresh pepper and voilà, dinner was served.

Ingredients (4 servings)
1 large (or 2-3 small) squid
a half cup of pesto
a couple of asparagus
olive oil
garlic (optional)
500gr pasta

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bake sale for earthquake victims

Today is the big day! The day of the bake sale to help earthquake victims in Japan. We are making food to give food. We are "raising dough"! Thanks to the amazing work done by The Tomato Tart, with the contribution of over 90 food bloggers from around the world, you can bid on your favorite dessert and if possible, the goods will be shipped to you. Andrew Sigal from The Uncarved Block will be matching the first US$500 of this fundraiser!

I am honored to participate in this bake sale with my Chocolate Ganache Tart with a hazelnut crust and chocolate glaze. Go on, click on the link above for The Tomato Tart and pull out your fork. For every bite you take you will be giving one to someone living on rations sometimes as small as one banana, one orange and a cup of water per day. You can help just by reading this and spreading the word. Tweet, post on Facebook, put the badge on your blog! Let's make a difference.

Thank you!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Maple syrup and rolled oat scones

This past week end was an Ikea week end. Ikea is like a black hole, everything you do on an Ikea weekend, before or after, somehow revolves around your trip there, gets sucked into it. First comes the idea: should we take a quick trip to Ikea to look at xyz (replace xyz with any Swedish name)? Come on, even while you are saying it, you know no trip to Ikea is a quick one. Whether you think you will just glance around or go exactly to aisle number 3 to pick up that one box, forget it. They will be out of that product or you will get distracted on the way there by those cute new blue-and-white striped napkins. Or you will suddenly need the four adorable colored bowls that cost only €3. If that doesn't happen, you will end up in the restaurant eating kottbullar (yup, the meatballs) or drinking a cup of coffee and nibbling on one of those flourescent green cilinders dipped in chocolate. And if you don't go to the restaurant, be sure you will end up driving home with some gravad lax or a bag of frozen pyttipanna from the store, which you will eat for dinner or lunch the next day (and a few dozens of candles and lotsa lightbulbs, because if you buy a lamp there you are doomed).

If you have kids, don't even get me started. Sometimes you go there just because you don't have a sitter. You park in the family parking space right next to the entrance. Your kid gets a ladybug sticker with her name on it, a number stamped on her hand (and you do too) and off she goes to play in the enchanted forest of Smaland, where nice people play and draw with her for free while you roam the floors, look at all the Billy bookshelves filled with fake Swedish books, your other kid or dog happily seated in trolleys made just for them. While you speak to the nice man with the yellow and blue Ikea shirt your child plays with those multifunctional columns strategically placed among the furniture. You end up buying a a stuffed rat or elk and a 7-pack of bibs while your child goes through the hole and down the slide in the kiddie section, which is strategically placed next to the cafeteria. The only way to lure them away is by promising them the full, organic lunch for €2. And then, while you sip your coffee, Daddy takes the little one to the bathroom because there are changing tables and tiny toilets and sinks in the men's room too.

When you get home you think you left Ikea at the turnpike, but no, it has followed you albeit without the pleasant smell of aromatic candles and the helpful salespeople (where are they when you need them?). The boxes seem to have multiplied in your trunk on the drive, those big blue bags are all over the place. The Kritter bed you thought would take five minutes to build has four different kinds of screws (x11) and you only realized you inverted the parts of the Stefan chair when you are about to put in that last screw. You marriage is at risk by evening and when you calm down enough to understand it is that darn instruction manual's fault, you are too exhausted to have make-up sex. Days later you will still find allen spanners strewn across the apartment, a sweet reminder that Ikea is just at an arm's reach if you need it.

Scones are a bit like Ikea, they make you feel cozy and pampered. You can be in Turkey and still feel like you are in England when you bite into one, just like Ikea makes you feel like you are in the organized, environmentally aware Sweden even if you are in Rome.

When Smitten Kitchen posted these last week, I knew my time to try making scones had finally come. Oatmeal, check. Maple syrup, check. Yup, I had almost everything I needed, and Deb kindly responded to my enquiry of what to substitute the 1/4 cup of wholewheat flour I didn't have with, regular flour or oats? I was set to go. They turned out just right, not too sweet, with a strong enough but not overpowering aroma of maple syrup. Since they are best when made the same day you intend to consume them, I prepared them and left them unbaked in the fridge the evening before and baked them the next morning. They were perfect. I then froze the baked ones and reheated them the morning after that and they were still just as good. My only note: the recipe suggested baking for 20-25 minutes. When they had been in for 18 minutes I realized they were turning dark and took them out just before the bottoms would have started burning. So keep an eye on them while they are in the oven. I made some maple butter to eat with them by beating a little maple syrup into softened unsalted butter, but if you have clotted cream on hand by all means indulge.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sweet polenta bread. Are you a purist or not?

Let me just clarify: I am not trying to be fancy. I am not calling this recipe polenta bread instead of plain old corn bread because I want to give myself airs. The truth is I used polenta flour in it and my impression is that it is ground a little coarser than corn meal. I am however not so sure about this anymore, after some research on the Internet. There seem to be very discordant opinions. Some vouch they are exactly the same thing, others say the flour used to make polenta is coarser. Who knows? What matters is that they are pretty interchangeable and so let's just say I called it polenta bread in honor of the country I live in.

Before you read this, I apologize to all corn bread purists. I know to you corn bread is sacred and I will understand perfectly if you skip on to another post with mild annoyance. It has happened to me many a time and a few posts I read this morning got me thinking. How important is it to exactly execute a traditional recipe? Is there a right way to cook something in the world we live in today, where everything is going global and fusion is ever more popular?  In a world where food bloggers are inspiring each other to cook recipes from every corner of the planet, using new ingredients and techniques?

I started thinking about this when I commented on Taste of Beirut's new post. Joumana asked herself why she had never thought of doing something before that saved her lots of time cooking a traditional recipe. My guess is that when you have been taught to do something a certain way, it is so imprinted in your being that it is sometimes hard to think of a simple change that will be helpful and that may seem obvious to someone from another background. Then, when I read Design, Wine & Dine's new post, she mentioned substituting one ingredient for another missing one. Mind you, they are both ingredients that are very much used in that cuisine and I am sure either way, the dish is delicious. But as I read the post after my morning reflections, I couldn't help picturing a Maroccan somewhere tsssk-tsssking because this foreigner had ruined his/her mother's recipe.

Now, I live in a country where tradition is everything. Recipes have been made just so for decades, even centuries. In Italy you cannot even speak of regional cuisine, it is more a local cuisine. I have read endless debates on whether pumpkin ravioli should be made with or without adding amaretto cookie crumbs to the filling. These ravioli are typical of the Mantua area (even this may raise a debate...) and if you move just a few kms north or south the dogma changes. It basically boils down to how your nonna made them. That is the recipe, the only way to make something here.

I think I have already mentioned how Italian men will sit at a restaurant eating a plate of pasta and dissect the recipe, comparing what each of their mothers used when making the same dish. Whole meals are spent talking about food. That is why often it is said that Italian cuisine is one of the best in the world, but that it is a touch too traditional, static. Many of you Italian readers right now are probably thinking your food is so good that there is no need to change it, right?
The complete opposite example is Australia, with its everchanging, innovative cuisine influenced by a variety of cultures and ingredients. It is a reasonably young country and as all things young, it is more open to change.

I will admit to cringing or feeling a little snooty at times when I read how someone cooks a risotto or ruins something as simple as a Caprese. I mean, certain techniques or ingredients were chosen because after years of experimenting they turned out to be the best possible choice for that dish. If something has a name, like the above mentioned Caprese, then why make it with avocado and still call it a Caprese? We all feel that when someone goes and violates something that is a part of our history, our heritage or even simply our family tradition, something we have eaten countless times made that way by someone we love, it is wrong. But then we feel equally free to play around and experiment with recipes from other countries by adding, adjusting or substituting ingredients.

The truth is that sometimes a person with a different cooking experience has a new and fresh take on things and they can teach us that change is not a bad thing. More often than not, change is positive and it is only by experimenting and trying that we can come up with something new and perhaps outstanding.

What do you think? Are you a purist or do you like to be adventurous?

This polenta bread is a sweet version of your typical corn bread. It is perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. You can eat it on its own or spread it with jam. It has a wonderful crumb and is rich and moist. I substituted the cup of milk in the original recipe I found on with 1 cup of ricotta and a 1/3 cup of cream I had in the fridge. I also used olive oil instead of canola oil. I used up all the open dairy products in my fridge and came up with a perfect breakfast.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chocolate chip & walnut oatmeal cookies and mini foodies

Considering I am not one for baking cookies, I am on quite a roll these days. Truth being, the not-so-satisfactory outcome of the last oatmeal cookies I made kept nagging me and is probably why I bought a can of rolled oats at the supermarket the other day.

My daughter is home with a yet unidentified fever this week. On Monday, when she started pestering me non-stop to watch cartoons (her daily TV allowance had been reached and the TV was promptly switched off) and I found my 20-month son standing on the living room table grinning at me, I realized I had to come up with an idea, and quick. I suggested baking cookies together. My daughter started jumping up and down chanting "cookies! cookies! cookies!" and I walked off to the kitchen, satisfied to have found a nice way to spend that endless hour stretching ahead of us before dinner time when the kids are especially cranky. I took out the ingredients we needed, helped my son pull the stool up to the counter and answered several questions about oats. Just when I thought we were getting to the fun part, my daughter politely asked if she could go play because she was tired and her arm was hurting from mixing. When I enthusiastically told her it was time to roll up our sleeves and start using our hands, she in so many words said she was annoiata, bored. I told her she was free to go, trying not show my disappointment. My son, as always, readily followed her out of the kitchen (this was probably a good thing since he had been reaching for the discarded egg shells and kept trying to stick his fingers in the bowl while the electric mixer was on).

So there I was, alone in the kitchen, flour everywhere, rolling the batter into balls, putting in and pulling out tray after tray of cookies. The kids were squeeling in the other room, wrestling on the floor and having the time of their lives. I still had dinner to cook, laundry to sort and endless toys to pick up between one batch and the next. Why did I get myself into this on a Monday evening? Story of my life!

I read all these blogs where moms write about their children helping them prepare each and every meal, about kids who actually ask their parents if they can make up a recipe and cook dinner for the family. Many children even have their own cooking blogs. 

Now, I consider my children pretty adventurous eaters. If you ask my five-year old what her favorite food is she will say sushi. When she was 18 months old she had a wasabi pea phase. When we eat fish we usually fight over the cheeks and we always share the oysters and tail of a roast chicken. My son will stuff his face with just about anything, from rabbit meat to olives. It may sound very "foodie" and cool to write this, but let's be honest, I don't for a second kid myself that my children can already tell the cheek and oyster of the animal they are eating apart from the rest of the meat. They are simply emulating and yeah, they probably have more of chance of becoming gluttons growing up with us than other kids. In our home the rule is to taste everything and to never say food is "yucky". I never cater to my children, unless it involves reducing the heat factor. But my ceviche-eating daughter will sometimes (and lately more often than not) make us sit hours at the table to eat something as unadventurous as string beans and tears easily flow when I present her with the most classic roasted carrots, which she used to gobble up in a second. My son the-vacum-cleaner will inhale a whole bowl of fancy pasta in an instant, chew happily and then discard perfectly round peas one after the other, that he stores in his cheeks just long enough to make me do a mental victory dance. Most of the time my daughter does not eat my baked goods, like I have mentioned many times before, and we have rarely gotten through a whole cooking session together.

So c'mon, how many of you out there really have children who cook gourmet food, eat every plant (after the ager of 1 or 2) that grows on the face of a planet and have blogs before they can read and write?

I made these cookies alone but everyone is eating them, even my daughter.

Adapted from the Joy of Cooking.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Involtini di prosciutto e platessa alla mugnaia - Prosciutto & fish rolls à la Meunière

We spent the day at the beach in Liguria on Saturday with friends. The weather was not great and the beach we went to was not the prettiest the region has to offer, but it was the perfect meeting point with our friends, who were travelling from the opposite direction. We brought blankets and sandwiches. We stuffed ourselves silly on foccaccia (for those who don't know, foccaccia comes from Liguria). The kids dug holes and made sand cakes. They threw stones and pebbles into the water and ran around barefoot in the waves. It is always amazing how busy a little grey, cold wet sand can keep children of all ages. And it is reassuring to see that despite the world we live in, surrounded by plasma screens, blu rays, ipods, ipads, iphones, x boxes, wii, playstation - you name it, kids can still create a whole adventure using a few different colored pebbles, a stick and a bucket of water.

To remember the nice day, yesterday we had fish.

Opposites attract. This dish is living proof of that theory. Surf'n'turf is called mare e monti (literally sea and mountains) in Italian. It may seem a little unusual to combine cured pork and fish but the saltiness of the prosciutto tenfolds the flavor of this delicate fish, making it much more interesting. Add a sort of meunière sauce to it, a few capers and you will be set.

I used plaice for this dish. It is a European, very common flat saltwater fish. Sole haddock can be used as substitutes for this recipe.*

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ricotta pound cake with Nutella swirl - Help Japan

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Italian Unification. It was a holiday in Italy and the city was covered in green, red and white. Flowers, flags, even TicTacs and Nutella dressed up for the occasion. Museums were open and free and despite the rain, the center was crawling with people. Lucky me, I got to go to the office (international stock markets were open and we are in the middle of reporting season). It was a busy morning and I barely even had time to check my Twitter account.

Yes, I entered the world of Twitter. I registered a while ago but hadn't been using it. To be honest, it hasn't caught on here as much as it has in other countries and I just wasn't that into it (until I started reading tweet updates on some of your blogs. I hold you responsible). The other day I had a little time on my hands and started looking into it. I haven't turned back. As one of you food bloggers out there wrote me, it is addictive. True.

This recipe is almost as addicitive.

I had been eyeing My Kitchen in the Rockies' ricotta pound cake recipe for a while. Every time I visited her blog, the picture seemed to be winking at me from the top of her 'Favorites' list. It looked moist and light and I am always on the look out for a breakfast cake to make on week ends.  As I was reading through the recipe my gaze strayed to the bottom of the page, where another photograph caught my eye. In the "you might also like" category was a lovely Nutella swirl pound cake. You know how to sell your wares girl!

It is no secret that I am a Nutella fan and I immediately clicked onto it. As I read the ingredients I realized I didn't have enough Nutella at home to make this. And really, a ricotta pound cake is healthier and lighter... and it looked so incredibly moist. But as I clicked back onto the first recipe, I kept seeing Nutella swirling around in my thoughts. What to do?

The only thing possible: combine the recipes and make a ricotta pound cake with Nutella swirls.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shrimp coconut curry. Ooooohm...

It is cold. It is grey. It is wet. Very wet.

About ten days ago it felt like spring might be on its way, but a lot of rain has washed away any further hope. I know we need lots of rain but I also need my 6:00am runs to burn off some of the chocolate ganache and chocolate chip cookies that have been accumulating on my hips lately. So, on the 5th consecutive day of rain, I must concentrate on my mantra.

Rain is good, rain is good, rain is good. Oooooohm.

Rain is wet. Rain cleans the polluted air of this city. Rain is depressing. Rain washes all the dog waste (and more, but I will not get into that) off of the sidewalks. Rain = mud. Rain = puddles that my children love to jump in, in their cute little rainboots. Heavy rain means taking the subway to work. Light rain means it is just me and my bike in the pedestrian (and usually overcrowded) part of the center. Rain means soaked clothes, wet dripping strollers and umbrellas all over the apartment. Rain gives life.

Rain is good. Rain is good. Rain is good. Oooooohm.

I don't know about you, but all this oooooohming has carried me to warm, sunny Indian beaches and made me hungry. I hear the waves rhythmically breaking on the strand, the breeze gently relieving my skin from the burning sun. I am drinking the water from a freshly opened coconut and I can smell my lunch being prepared not far from where I lie.

Shrimp coconut curry. Big, plump shrimp, the sweat richness of coconut milk spiced up with coriander, cinnamon and turmeric. The tangyness (does that word even exist? Well, it does now!) of lime juice and lots of aromatic basmati rice. You want to join me?

When I attempted my first curry from scratch, I was intimidated by the huge amount of spices and herbs required. Also, I am known to get excited by new ingredients, to purchase them, use them once and then let them sit in my kitchen for eons. The truth is that making a tasty curry is pretty simple and once you have gone out and spent the money, these multicolored, quite inexpensive and wonderfully aromatic packets will go a long way, so it is a worthwhile investment, a promise of many curries to come.

Recipe found on Food & Wine.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chocolate ganache tart with hazelnut crust and chocolate glaze - Help Japan

Posting about a dessert when tragedy has hit my fellow humans in such enormous proportions seems terribly superficial. Talking about ganache and toasting hazelnuts seems inappropriate when what I am really thinking about are my close friends facing yet another difficult health-related challenge. Beating eggs while history is being rewritten right across the Mediterranean seems silly.

The truth is that no matter in what proportions tragedy hits, whether macro or micro, life goes on. Life made up of small gestures like going to work, preparing a meal or picking up your kids from school. These are the things that keep you grounded when your own life has been overturned. We all see enough images of tragedy on the evening news, on the Internet, photographed on newspapers. And lets face it, even if something is not splattered across the front pages of the papers and we go on living our everyday lives, there is still something terrible happening somewhere to someone, for such is life.

I realize this is not the place to discuss the tragedies of our planet. People clicking onto my blog don't need to hear more about them, they come here to get an idea for dinner, but also for distraction, to escape everyday life for a few minutes, or so I like to think. I made lasagne with pesto without commenting on our Prime Minister's frolicking, I baked chocolate chip cookies while dictators were being overthrown and uttered not a word. But sometimes it is impossible to ignore what is happening outside, in the real world. So forgive my digression. This is my ode to normality.

Perhaps rolling out dough and following precise steps can be soothing, can momentarily distract from painful thoughts, can help bring back a touch of normality to someone's home.

For us, this cake was a celebration of friendship. We shared it with good friends and thought of other good friends who are not close enough to come by for a cup of coffee, a slice of cake and some words of comfort. Being close to people you love, family or friends, enjoying their company in a warm home while it is raining outside is a privilege we must never take for granted. So if you make this, promise me you will savor every bite. Think of the earthquake victims. Think of a loved one going through a rough time. And maybe bring them a slice, even just with your thoughts. I know I did.

Adapted from Dulce Delight

With this cake I am participating in the online bake sale for Japan promoted by The Tomato Tart. Sabrina is the mind behind this fabulous idea, a way to try to help support Japan in its darkest hour. I am so happy she has offered me the opportunity to contribute somehow. The auction  proceeds will be donated to Second Harvest Japan, a food bank that is working right now to respond to the immediate needs of the people displaced by this disaster. Whoever is interested in participating, please contact Sabrina directly through her blog. She was very helpful and promptly replied to all my questions.