Rainbow chard and cavolo nero with garlic and red peppers

Rainbow and cavolo vertical photoSince cooking is my profession, following the seasons is more than a simple guideline. Fresh ingredients are the very tools to my kitchen and vegetables are the tangible instruments of my work. A weekly visit to the farmers market is my moment for inspiration. Those who are capable of farming and cultivating food are fascinating to me because of their connection to the earth.  Although I know what vegetables to buy when and where and why, I know much more about how to cook. Learning how to design and plan a garden patch is high on my priority list.  And for this reason, between cooking, thinking about cooking, and writing about food, I read avidly about garden to table projects.

In order to gain the knowledge and the confidence to dig my own hands into the ground, I make it a habit to visit farms and gardening projects during my travels.  This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Edible Schoolyard Project at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. This illustrative garden created by Alice Waters, chef and owner of the restaurant Chez Panisse, is built around a public school, in a small paradise east of San Francisco. The garden is cultivated by the students and their teachers. They not only design and plan and their own garden, they cook their harvest from the inspiring kitchen bordering on their edible schoolyard as well. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of Alice Waters this piece of land has become exemplary of innovative food education in the United States.

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Rosemary polenta and pizza gialla

Polenta pizza with tomato and pepperI grew up in northern Italy surrounded by Renaissance architecture and mysterious Venetian works of art. I experienced childhood in the romantic countryside and dreamt of becoming a writer. In my teens I filled my first notebooks with philosophical thoughts and poems, interwoven with recipes. My mind and my pen wandered as I sat at a white baroque-style desk, gazing at the purple Alps from my bedroom window. I soaked up the Italian way of life effortlessly, where food, people and culture are so closely interwoven. I learned how to cook from my mother, while living in a part of the world where grilled polenta and risotto are an essential part of weekly homemade meals. Cooking from scratch came naturally at our house and the kitchen was the center of a vivid social life.

My idyllic Italian past forms the foundation for a rich legacy of shared family recipes. Cooking is the constant factor in my life and I have written about food, culture and society for as long as I can remember. My love of the kitchen, for the simple beauty of the changing seasons and for sitting down at the table with friends and family, are habits I take with me wherever I go. In the course of my travels, I have come to realize that cooking is an inspiring activity appreciated by all. To my mind, exchanging food brings the world together. It is what we all have in common, no matter which culture or country we come from.

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Coleslaw and spicy avocado dressing

Jalapenos and cilantroBarbecue is serious business down home in Texas and bringing meat to the fire is a task trusted only to masters of the pit.  The story behind a classic Texan barbecue involves a number of essential and in many ways, secret cooking methods. The first step in the process involves marinating the meat with the right mixture of dry herbs and spices. The second step requires choosing the perfect blend of local firewood from Mesquite, Oak, Pecan or Peach trees. The pit, a customized pot-bellied drum with a built-on chimney is then filled and set on fire. Once the wood has burnt to embering coals, the meat cooks low and slow in a perfumed smoke bath.

The smell of  roasting meat and smoking wood is irresistible even for a vegetarian. Just how pit masters make the sacred Texan brisket, German style sausage or glazed baby back ribs, remained a mystery this summer. But thanks to my brother’s excellent suggestions I visited some of the best locations for barbecue in San Antonio and the surrounding hill country.

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Grilled okra gumbo

The decorative wrought-iron gates marking the entrance to distinctive Texas ranch houses can be easily overlooked while passing through Kendalia. Before you know it, you simply miss its post office, established in 1895. There’s not much to see in this settlement or so it seems. With about 350 inhabitants, Kendalia is located in the midst of the generous landscape of the Texas hill country. On a lazy Saturday morning, I slowed down at the sight of a watermelon painting along the dusty Farm Road 3351 from San Antonio in the direction of Fredericksburg. Just around the corner, I happened upon an even larger sign leaning against a parked tractor, with the hand painted promise of “Sweeet Watermelon”.

Under the shade of a Texas live oak tree stood Richard, the proud owner of beautiful vegetables and fruits from his own garden. As Richard told me about the laid back lifestyle of his small town, my plans for the day slowly changed. An enjoyable conversation later, I left with a paper bag full of fresh green okra, beautifully ripened tomatoes, jars of salsa and of course a huge watermelon.  Filled with the perfume of the garden, I rode back home along the winding country roads to cook a Texas-inspired gumbo for Saturday supper.

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Smashed raspberry mascarpone

Raspberry mascarponeMidsummer visits to the market promise an abundance of scarlet raspberries tucked into small paper boxes layered in wooden crates.  Cool, creamy mascarpone makes the perfect match to the most delicious of red fruits imaginable. When asked to make a sweet treat I choose a simple combination of fresh fruit and cream. This dessert on a spoon is inspired by the Italian “dolce a cucchaio”, a homemade tradition made in a bowl instead of the oven. Enjoy the unmistakable happiness that simplicity brings.

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Eggplant and red lentil stew

This is a recipe that I make when in a rush. The combination of eggplant with tomato, sweet potato and lentil barely need attention, just a bit of organized chopping and dicing. The ingredients mix and mingle on the stove into a spicy and satisfying vegetable stew within less than an hour. It’s the solution for one of those days when it seems there is no time left over for dinner and yet there is!

Making a double recipe is well worth it because this dish is excellent cold. The flavors of the vegetables become even richer after a day of rest in the refrigerator. Serve it chilled dressed with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil,  as if it were a bowl of salad. On the hottest days of summer, top the stew with lots of fresh mint, basil and arugula leaves.

Cook early in the morning  when it is still cool and enjoy your meal as if you were in Italy,  in the shade of the afternoon.

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Chocolate almond tart

This is the kind of dessert that goes perfectly with espresso. It is neither a cake or a brownie.  It is an intense dark chocolate tart with the crunch of almonds, inspired by the island of Capri and its famous “torta”.  It owes its place in my kitchen journals because of the simplicity of its ingredients and the roasted richness of its flavor.

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