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

Chili and citrus marinated olives

My adoration of olives was born in my teenage years, when visits to the food markets of Naples were heavily encouraged by my mother’s pleas to help her with the daily grocery shopping. Little did I know,  as I strolled unwillingly past vibrant market stalls overflowing with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, that all the colors and sounds of Italy were making a profound impression on my senses. Continue reading

Wild garlic spaghettata

 

It was Sunday evening after the movies and it was time to eat sooner if not later. I was in the mood for a spaghettata — the charmingly Italian name for a late night bowl of pasta.

spaghettata is all about cooking with pantry ingredients. It goes hand in hand with noisy nights with friends stuffed around the kitchen table filled with conversation. It’s symbolic for spontaneity in other words.

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Strawberry fields forever . part I .

The very first bright red strawberries have made their way home. Strawberries are a modestly delicious  fruit; the kind that lend themselves to sweet family gatherings rather than to complicated cheffy creations. I cannot help but love these berries for what they symbolize.

I have favorite ways to bring them to the table, none of which I would really call worthy of the name recipe. One of them is Italian in origin — the country I grew up in — the country that drives my creativity.

Imagine summer in southern Italy somewhere outside the rowdy city streets of Naples

Put yourself under the shade of an umbrella, seated at a table close to a busy family kitchen

Envision a terrace filled with huge terracotta pots of brilliantly blooming red geraniums

Amidst vivid conversation on a warm August evening, a chilled porcelain bowl is brought to the table 

Floating in red wine are freshly cut strawberries that go by the name “fragole al vino”

This summery Italian dessert is a breeze to prepare. Wash a bunch of bright red strawberries and tip them into a bowl. Squeeze the juice of a half of lemon over the berries and add the faintest sprinkle of sugar. Toss and stir gently. Pour a slightly chilled red wine to barely cover the fruit just before serving.

Note

I will be sharing more of such narratives.The next one will be Dutch in character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’re here ! I mean the luscious red berries in this enamel bowl.

Bitter and blood orange marmalade

I once read in the preface to a novel that every cook is obsessed and I immediately nodded silently in agreement. I know my obsession: it’s with  citrus.

I am equally, if not more fascinated by all things Italian and that most definitely includes lemons and oranges. Therefore, whether I need them or not, the sight of perfumed bergamot – and especially paper-wrapped Sicilian blood oranges –  inspire me to carry bags full home at every shopping expedition.

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Bergamot-perfumed sea salt

It’s well beyond January and new year’s promises. Short grey days have turned into weeks knitted together by yarn-like thoughts of starting anew. I have doubted, questioned and wondered just how this year would be different from the last one long before I put up the Christmas lights.

So here it is, a short post; one that illustrates my love for simple things. Continue reading