Polenta . part v . Veneto-inspired pasticcio with mushrooms

Ask anyone from the Veneto, and they will tell you that mushrooms are as essential to  winter  as golden cornmeal itself. It is fitting that a polenta-inspired recipe includes two traditional ingredients, that fit together like the perfect married couple.

Before moving on to the recipe, allow me to tell you a bit about the Italian word pasticcio. This term is most readily translated by the culinary terms pie, pastry or even casserole.   A pasticcio is used in the Veneto to describe any type of layered, oven-baked dish made from pasta or other grains. A savory pasticcio invariably includes layers of cooked vegetables, thick sauces or both. Last but not least, it almost always involves the use of dairy.

This dish takes some time to make, so find a meditative moment to slow cook. If you need some kitchen encouragement, just imagine aromatic mushrooms layered between creamy layers of polenta, laced with ground white pepper. Add melting Parmigiano cheese and butter to the story and an amber-colored ode to comfort food is born.

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Fig and pine nut zaleti : Veneto-inspired biscotti

In the last few years, I find myself coming back more and more to my friend Luisa’s vast kitchen and gardening wisdom . Our exchanges on family memories fixed in the Veneto countryside, has led to a renewed fascination for a simple ingredient, namely cornmeal. When not consulting my mother’s handwritten recipe notes on the subject of food, I turn the pages of cookbook favorites for culinary inspiration. By the way, I readily admit I adore books, old, new and out of print. . . In the name of research, it makes for the perfect excuse to collect printed wisdom on food and other essentials in life. . .

The list of some of my favorite books on Italian cooking,  particularly of the Veneto, are listed below in my notes. Like old diaries, my books are often dog-eared and blemished by the signs of time; others are filled with pencil-written notes, recording various changes or observations about the original cooking instructions.

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Polenta . part i . minestra de farina zala

With winter in full swing, now is the perfect time to bring up the subject of polenta. It is an ingredient that sparks highly conflicting opinions. Many adore it, while others are convinced it is tasteless. That being said, I grew up in the Veneto. In this part of the world, polenta and risotto are not only food staples, they are food icons.

So to those who say polenta is inedible, I can only promise that they must try a bowl made by someone who understands how to make it. To those who love it, I feel a recognizable connection. All opinions aside, as with many foods it is a question of texture. Think of polenta as a soft, silky mash that replaces the potato for example; imagine it as the comforting neutral base to stews and thick, chunky minestrone style soups. I am convinced that like me, you will jump at the chance to have some.

Read the nostalgic recipe below, to learn how to make a creamy, pale yellow soup, known as minestra di farina zala, in Vicentino dialect. I believe it is the perfect starting point in the appreciation of simplicity.

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Citrus-Infused Cream Tart

This is a recipe for baked cream infused with citrus, wrapped in a crumbly pastry crust. It is the kind of tart that reminds me of wandering through Paris without a purpose. Envision narrow streets filled with cafés spilling out onto the sidewalk . . . . . . bookstore window-shopping and artfully arranged pastry shops worthy of a starring role in a romantic movie . . . . . . and you are at the exact place that inspired this dessert.

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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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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