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

Fig and pine nut biscotti: A Veneto-inspired recipe

I brought home a bushel of citrus from the farmers market a few weeks back with no particular plan, except perhaps to ward off the grey of  long winter days. Along with bergamot, tangerines and the first blood oranges, Sicilian lemons served to brighten up the kitchen. Continue reading

Baked pumpkin and chanterelle risotto

Saturday is definitely my favorite day of the week because it is full of promise. Rarely is Saturday defined by schedules or obligations. Rather it is the perfect example of limitless possibility. After a luxuriously silent and relatively early morning coffee, I start my day with a trip to the farmers market. My task of the morning is to soak up the sights, ultimately deciding which ingredients will take part in of the weekend ritual of cooking.

Although I have often promised myself to make lists and menu plans for the work week, my mind simply refuses this kind of obligation. By mid afternoon, I make my way home with linen bags filled with ingredients and thoughts swimming with opportunity. Continue reading

Yellow summer zucchini and purple basil salad

September is all about bright colors and abundance. It’s also about sun-ripened vine tomatoes and the delicate, intensely yellow zucchini. While the days of Indian summer are still ahead, I am doing just two simple things: cooking on the stove as little as possible and stuffing my kitchen with bunches of herbs and tomatoes for as long as it lasts.

The following recipe paints a picture like a suggestion. In fact, there are no steadfast rules to this salad.  Follow the recipe below if you will; but see it above all else as a leisurely collection of simply beautiful ingredients paired on a plate. To my mind this is the perfect kind of recipe. 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

Raw tomato summer pasta “al sugo crudo”

I cannot remember which of my Italian friends taught me to make a “sugo crudo al pomodoro” but it was most certainly on a warm summer’s day.  It’s magic is in the mixture of freshly sliced tomatoes shimmering in a small pool of olive oil, perfumed by leaves of fresh basil. Given a moment to marinate, these ingredients marry as it were — the tomatoes taking on the flavor of basil and the basil melting into the juices of the fresh tomatoes.  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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