Orange peel paradise

Every cook has at least one obsession. A  clear preference for a certain preparation method, distinct focus upon specific kitchen equipment, or the fascination for a certain sort of ingredient are all telltale signs of what I like to call a cook’s character.

A unique personality manifests itself not only in what an individual cooks, but also in how they go about doing so.  Food memories, though different for each of us, are inevitably related to people we love, or moments in time of special significance. Our human experience comes together through the power of the senses.

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Pumpkin Spice Cake for Breakfast

This is a decidedly uncomplicated cake. More like a bread than a dessert, it fits in the category of simple cakes made with vegetables like carrot and zucchini bread.

The title of this recipe reveals its story . . . it goes well with the kind of breakfast that promises a day-long stay in your pajamas. It is that comforting.

Like day-old bread,  it makes for the perfect piece of toast.

Make this pumpkin spiced cake a day before you want to cut a thick, nonchalant slice from the baking tin, so you can get back to the woolen blanket and exaggeratedly long book you have been saving for a perfectly quiet day at home.

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Zuppa !

Zuppa is the Italian name for soup made with a mixture of vegetables, cooked in broth. The word zuppa can also describe any general mix-up of things outside the soup bowl or the kitchen for that matter . . . such as a chaotic meeting or a confusing conversation for example . . .  It is derived from the word inzuppare which literally translates as to drench or to soak. 

Now back to the story of soup. The wonderful thing about zuppa is that its composition is a free-for-all for individualists. A limitless possibility of ingredient combinations are open to interpretation, depending on the cook’s mood and the availability that comes with the season. Continue reading

Roasted tomato and plum tart

This tart was born by coincidence.  In the midst of the steamy (some say unbearable) heat of August, plums and tomatoes compete for attention. When I go to the farmers market I am absolutely inspired.  I choose color first, shape and texture later . . . and so as you might imagine, I end up with brown paper bags bursting at the seams with ripe fruit and vegetables every time I go!

Once in my kitchen, I arrange my edible treasures in bowls and turn my refrigerator into a topsy-turvy puzzle of ingredients. (Honestly, opening my refrigerator carelessly can involve multiple sorts of vegetables rolling out on to the floor, but that’s another story. . . )

As luck would have it, I decided to roast plums and tomatoes together one day,  just to create some space on my shelves. This is when the tart happened. It was a question of chance meeting destiny I think . . .

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Savory oregano pastry

This pastry has earned a prominent place in my kitchen repertoire because it is quicker to make than pizza dough . . . which by the way is a source of continuous experimentation at my house . . .

It forms the base to many a colorful vegetable torta, and even shapes the crust for my interpretation of the famous chard filled erbazzone. It is also the type of pastry I use to make savory crackers, flavored with anything from fresh rosemary and slivers of garlic, to grated Parmesan and coarse black pepper.

To make this pretty pastry only two things are needed:  good flour and butter, preferably organic and produced close to home

Mixing the cold butter through the flour with a gentle hand helps the end result to be perfectly crumbly and delicious.

Oh . . . did I say you can replace the butter with extra virgin olive oil ? See my notes for the explanation how to replace butter with olive oil.

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Sweet crumbly pastry

When I started to cook for a living, baking was not my preference. Absorbed as I was with herbs and vegetables, working with sweet ingredients was an absolute afterthought. My desserts were simple and bowls of fresh fruit were invariably at the center of the table. In the summer, I topped fresh fruit (especially strawberries) with Marsala and honey mascarpone. In colder seasons, oven-baked fruits and homemade biscotti were an effortless alternative to cake.

My shortcrust pastry efforts failed on a regular basis, thus confirming an old bias that cooks are generally skilled in either the sweet or the savory. One day, I discovered the beauty of patience and of flour!

The process of mixing cool finely ground grains with cold butter and the richness of egg yolks became a fascination as well as an early morning ritual (because baking somehow still turns out best when it’s my first task of the day . . .)

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Elderflower water forever

If given the opportunity I would probably wander the fields gathering blossoms and greens every single day of the year – only to take my discoveries home to study and create in the kitchen. These delicate elderflower blossoms were foraged for me. I found them at the organic market close to where I live. Once I got my stash of pale golden flowers home, I wrapped them in newspaper and put them in a jug of water for the afternoon to experience their delicate perfume.

It didn’t take long before I simply had to get cooking. I always try to work simply, adding more ingredients or complexer techniques only if necessary. I guess that sums up my idea about cooking — the closer I can stay to nature’s flavors the better. The effort required to make elderflower infused water is minimal and the result is more than worth the time. Continue reading

Strawberry rhubarb romance

I love it when things come together unexpectedly.  Even though it seems obvious now, I had no idea strawberries and an absolutely sour stalk of a vegetable make for a match worth obsessing about. . .

Strawberries hardly need an introduction — they are the luscious berry of family picnics and summer holidays — they are the sweetest and most universally loved fruit imaginable.  I would even go so far as to call them the poetic symbol of spring.

Rhubarb on the other hand is relatively unknown. It is grown mostly in North America, the British Isles, Scandinavia and northern Europe. It goes beyond tart, is practically impossible to eat raw and cannot be brought to the table without somehow making its way to the stove first. It’s most redeeming quality seems to be its brightly colored outer stalks.

What makes these two work so well together and why didn’t I know about this earlier I wonder?  Suffice it to say that my upbringing in Italy didn’t familiarize me with this particular ingredient. Incompatible in their raw state, when heat comes into play, these rivaling  ingredients suddenly melt together to form the perfect pair.

I have made this conserve over and over again in the last few weeks. I am even finding every excuse to drizzle it over the ingredients to every meal, from whole grain toast in the morning to my green salad with goat’s cheese and pink pepper for supper. In fact as I write these words, I am trying to ignore the urge to take the jar out of the refrigerator for just one more spoonful . . . Continue reading

Polenta porridge

This morning I sit at my desk to tell a short story that seems fitting for the times. My subject is yellow like saffron, but with much humbler origins. My ingredient is flour made from corn. My recipe is for something essential to every northern Italian table and it goes by the name of polenta.

Polenta is a mash much like porridge. In the Veneto it is symbolic of simple sustenance. To make it only a few ingredients are needed, namely cornmeal water and salt. But to create the perfect bowl of golden, soft, pillowy polenta requires the tools called patience and time. Continue reading

Raw fennel and blood orange salad

I cannot remember the first time I ate a salad made with raw sliced fennel mixed with beautifully dramatic blood oranges.  Surely it was while having lunch at our neighbor’s house just outside of Pozzuoli,  close to the baroque city of Naples….

At first glance this combination may seem to be a strange mixture of flavors.  Yet crunchy and savory fennel tossed, with sweetly-juicy orange wedges, is the perfect example of light, bright and fresh. In other words, the making of this salad makes the moodiness of winter weather in the midst of spring promises somehow disappear.  Continue reading