Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pasta alla Norma

I became an honorary Sicilian the other day.

How, you ask me?

I married a man who was born in Sicily.


I carried two half-Sicilian children in my womb for eighteen months (that is 9 x 2, I am not an elephant. Yet.).


I made something that is so second nature to a Sicilian that they wouldn't think twice about it, like when you lock your front door and don't remember doing it.

I deep-fried eggplant.

So what is the big deal? 

Well, first of all, deep frying has always scared the bejesus out of me. I do not deep fry anything. Ever. But I decided that now that I have a food blog I have to face up to my fears and tread into the unknown. Secondly, I have been eating my mother in law's fried eggplant for the last 16 years and it somehow never occured to me I could make it myself.

I had one, lonely eggplant in my fridge. I couldn't come up with any ideas and I wanted to make something quick on a week night. What else is new? I decided to make pasta alla Norma. Pasta with a simple, garlic-based tomato sauce, fried eggplant and ricotta salata (see below) sprinkled over it. The dish, which seems to have originated in Catania, was dedicated to the composer Vincenzo Bellini (from this city) and his best-known opera La Norma.

So chop, chop. chop and fry, fry, fry I went.

Result? It had to be good because my DH, who was presumably already drinking fried eggplant in his bottle, said it was perfect, or to be more accurate, perfetta!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Been South Tyrol

Sorry I haven't posted in a few days, but I was here...

...doing this...

Roe deer venison goulash with red craut, berries and polenta

...and this...

Innichen - San Candido
Abbazia di Novacella

Speck, Gurken, Bretzeln and farmer bread

Liver Knoedel (canederli) in broth

Homemade fettucine with porcini mushrooms

Air dried meat with chiodini mushrooms

Raspberry gratin with vanilla mascarpone sauce

Apple dumplings with vanilla ice cream

Venison medallions with polenta

Okay, if you want to ski in the Dolomites and have a glass of Lagrein in your own chalet in front of a crackling fire while looking out onto the snow covered mountains. If you want to take a walk through the fields and farms of South Tyrol and have a hearty mountain lunch in a stube. If you want to swim in a pool with a mountain view and hang out in one of the many saunas. If you want to enjoy a sumptuous meal and then have a candle lit jacuzzi before falling into a feather bed, this place is for you.

We went for a family reunion and to celebrate an important birthday. Six adults and five children between 0 and 9 and we still managed to relax. It is not easy to find a resort that offers a touch of luxury while being a family hotel. This is both.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Brasato or braised beef

I did it. I went out and 'bought me' a Le Creuset for Christmas. Well, to be honest my in-laws contributed greatly with a Christmas envelope, otherwise I probably wouldn't have treated myself to one just yet, but I am now the proud owner of a big 'n' heavy cast iron enamelled French pot to play around and experiment with.

The experiments have begun. I am pretty much into throwing anything I can get my hands on in there and slow cooking it for hours until it gets all soft and melty. Yes, I'm talkin' to you, slabs of meat, bags of beans, greens. Watch out, you plump little children running around my kitchen! Beware when the orange pot is sitting on the stove, for I may grab you and make you for supper! You shall not fool me by sticking bones through your cage, for my eyesight is pretty good (thank you B&L disposable contact lenses) and I know a dimply finger when I see one.

My first attempt at a stew was successful but in the excitement of the moment I forgot to take a picture of the finished dish. My second attempt was just as good (I will say so myself since the pot and meat get all the merit) and this time I remembered to take a few pics. In this cold weather I just cannot get enough, so get ready to read a lot of recipes for stews, soups and braised meats.

Adapted from the Joy of Cooking

cut of beef approx. 3-5 lbs
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup red wine, stock or other braising liquid + additional as needed
olive oil
bay leaf

I usually buy my meat at the supermarket since the quality of meat in supermarkets is usually pretty good here. On the label it tells you the best way to cook the meat you are buying. I chose a cut that was good for boiling or braising. These cuts are usually cheap because they are tough if not cooked slowly. Make sure you buy a piece that has marbling and connective tissue. The way you cook the meat will break down this tissue, making the meat tender and moist.
Pour some olive oil into your pot and then, after having accurately dried your cut of meat and seasoned it with pepper and salt, brown it on all sides, making sure you sear in all the good juices. Once it has browned nicely, set it aside on a plate and pour out the fat, keeping approximately two tbsp in the pot. Sauté the chopped vegetables until they soften and turn slightly golden. Pour in the cup of cooking liquid and drop in a bay leaf. Let cook for a couple of minutes and then add in the meat. It should not be covered more than halfway. Bring the liquid to a boil and lower the heat. Cover the pot with a tight lid and cook for up to 3 or 4 hours, according to the size of your cut, turning it about every half hour and making sure the liquid doesn't dry out. It should cook on very low heat, the liquid just barely simmering. If it gets dry add a little liquid. When it is fork tender it is ready, keep in mind it is possible to overcook when braising despite the general idea of "the more the better". You don't want your meat to turn stringy and dry. Take out the meat and the bay leaf, squash the vegetables with a fork (or strain the sauce if you have texture issues), add a little flour and butter and let the liquid thicken into a gravy, adding seasoning if needed. In the meantime, once the meat has cooled down, slice thinly and then serve with its sauce. I served polenta alongside.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pretty in pink & Saragli

This past weekend was a whirlwind of pink, glitter and sequins. Barbie meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

My daughter's BFF's birthday is in January and since the former was on the other side of the pond when she turned five, far from all her friends, BFF's mom and I teamed up to organize a joint birthday bash. For obvious reasons, like my daughter already having a little party in NY, I didn't want to get caught up in the craziness of party organizing and entertainers. We decided to keep it small, quiet and as simple as possible. We planned to do it at BFF's house, to invite just the few five year old girls of each class and to spice it up and make it a little girly, we called it a princess pizza party.  big deal for someone who asked the world to abstain from giving pink presents when she found out she was expecting a girl.

So anyway, going along with the totally casual feel of it all, I printed out some free printable invitations with a crown on it, handwrote the info (smiling at the thought of the hours usually dedicated to photoshopping the perfect invitation) and hand distributed them at kindergarden. BFF's mom had some peel off nail polish from the States, she ordered a pink cake, we ordered some pizza, I rented the pinkest, girliest Barbie movie I could lay my hands on (because we envisaged total mayhem with 12 girls and no specific organized activity), I bought some pink princess paper plates and napkins and we were set. Ready to roll.

Well, girl after girl after girl showed up and with them - totally unexpectedly - crown after crown after crown. Some had blonde wigs with platinum highlights attached, others had buttons on them that lit them up. There were wings and magic wands. There were party dresses and party shoes. There was a lot of twirling and checking each other out and looking into mirrors. There was squealing and sighing. When the nail polish came out it was total frenzy. First came hands, followed by shoes being scattered around and panty hose being torn off. My friend and I became the most sought-after manicure and pedicure stations in Milan and little brothers got involved and painted too. Even the tomboy of the group, who was a little horrified when she arrived, succumbed and had her toe nails painted. One of my daughter's presents was a Princess dress, a triumph of polyester and plastic, ruffles and frills. It never came off for the rest of the week end, and neither did the nail polish. Until last night. Ugh.
However, the party was a success, my little girl was happy and so was I.

So when I decided to bake I craved something that was a little more grown up, with NO pink or frills. And guess what? The kids loved it. So did we.

As you may have noticed by now, because I do not have time to flip through cook books at home, most of my recipes come from you these days. And what a lucky girl that makes me! Thanks to Magda at My Little Expat Kitchen, her lovely photo tutorial and detailed instructions, I managed to make my first really exotic dessert! I am no expert but they tasted pretty authentic to me.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Cannellini and swiss chard stew with poached egg (R.E.R. part 3)

This morning I was reading yet another lovely post by Jamie and although I am by no means an envious person, one to harbor feelings of jealousy or dissatisfaction,  I have to admit I felt a teeny twinge of longing for what she was so acurately describing. Time.

The words "take my time", "slowly", "savor", "calming" kept ringing in my ears.

I miss time. Hours, even just one hour, to quietly flip through my cookbooks in search of something I feel like making, to sort through my ingredients, to slowly chop, mix, marinate, knead. The total luxury of running out to pick up that missing ingredient and to browse through the aisles of the supermarket for further inspiration. Even just moments - if not an hour - of total silence, in which I can focus only on the food, the flavors, the smells. 

While the abovementioned blogger, who inspires me weekly, fingers through page after page of her cookbooks, I am trying to get tiny chocolate fingerprints out of that cookbook I have had for two years and am using for the first time. While she watches her dough rise like a mother watching her baby sleep, I am frantically rocking my baby trying to get him back to sleep while the butter in the pie crust I waited patiently to roll out till the kids were in bed is melting. While she slowly drizzles ganache I am mopping up the marinade I was holding when my daughter decided to ambush me from behind. Nothing is done in "perfect tandem" in my kitchen: as she glides through her motions, I trip over trucks and slide on beads strewn all over my kitchen floor. Nothing is spooned precisely, at most I shake my wooden spoon threateningly at the kids for scratching each other over a new toy. And it definitely isn't quiet. Constant crying, fighting, calling accompanies every step of my syncopated preparation of a meal.

Two things I must clarify.

1) I think Jamie is a wonderful cook, a fantastic writer and a very sensitive woman. I know she has kids of her own and had her share of mayhem before me and deserves every minute of the time she spends baking, cooking and regaling us with the results.
2) I love my kids with every bone in my body, every beat of my heart. I know there will be a day when they are older and will have their own lives, when I will pine for these moments together. I will miss the dimples in there sticky, chubby fingers, my daughter's hair tousled from wrestling with her brother. The way my son stands between me and the stove, facing my way, puts his arms around my legs and sticks his head forcefully between them (yes, right beneath my crotch) when he wants attention, when his patience waiting for me to stop cooking has run out. But oh, the frustration of never being able to do things the way I want or plan from beginning to end. The luxury of an afternoon all to myself to cook without interruption, to be able to improvise without using stuff I shopped for the previous week end, to be able to take pictures in daylight without a child piggyback-riding on me while I try to keep the camera still.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Elia's honey cookies

Sometimes in life you need simple things. Things that just make you feel comfortable, at home. If the known, the predictable, the ordinary did not exist, the highs, the peaks wouldn't be quite as interesting, would they? This applies to emotions but it also applies to the more simple things in life, like food. After gorging on Everything Cookies on a great sugar high on vacation, I feel the need to nibble on something a bit plainer, if you know what I mean. 

I loved every chocolate chip, every morsel of pecan, every raisin and dried cranberry I had in New York. I pressed each and every last buttery crumb onto my index finger and brought them to my lips, savoring the final hint of salty and sweet on my tongue. But now I am satiated and I want to rediscover the taste of home, the familiarity of honey and butter, the same gestures repeated time and time again. The routine of a less eventful yet just as satisfying day.

I need the sweet simplicity of honey cookies.

These are beautifully soft, chewy yet crumbly cookies. The are great savored on their own, but sublime with a cup of tea or a big glass of milk. They are quick to assemble and even quicker to bake. You can pretty much make them any shape and they are big and fat and satisfying. We usually braid ours or make them ring shaped. Your children will have fun helping you invent new shapes. So what are you waiting for?

I call these morsels of goodness Elia's cookies because the colleague and friend N who passed on the recipe: a) is Elia's aunt; b) got the recipe from her mother. Still not clear? Ok, N's brother (Elia's father) is an apiculturist. He makes a wonderful, organic honey from bees he raises in the countryside surrounding Milan (if you live in Milan, you should try it. No chemicals used in the process, local...). His son is called Elia, thus "Il miele di Elia" (Elia's honey). N's mother bakes the cookies using this honey named after her grandson, and so do I. Thus, Elia's honey cookies.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wondee Siam, Thai to die

As you may have noticed, I usually do not post about restaurants and this is for two very simple reasons:

1) we don't go out as much as we did when we were a carefree couple without children, especially not to the kind of place you would be inspired to blog about, and when we do it is such a special occasion that we do not want to waste a precious moment.
2) the times I have been somewhere memorable and brought my camera it was a total failure. I try to avoid flash if possible (also, I hate disturbing other diners with the light) and when I do use it the results are of course terrible and the ones I take without are dark. Last but not least, I still feel uncomfortable constantly whipping out my camera in a nice restaurant. Any suggestions on how to get a better restaurant picture? Many of you do excellent jobs.

Wondee Siam, however, is a place that cannot go unmentioned or unphotographed.
It is nothing fancy and totally a place to go with the kids, although it isn't what you would call a family restaurant. If they hadn't recently redecorated I would still call it a hole in the wall, it is really small (keep in mind, if going with children, there is no room for a highchair or a stroller) and unpretentious. This is a place you go for the food, which is absolutely outstanding, so please promise me you will give it a try if you go to NY (but also promise to go to the original one, not the ones followed by numbers).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Goodbye New York - a picture story

We are all back, except F's suitcase and a piece of my heart. We expect the bag to be sent over on the next flight to Milan but I know my heart won't be whole again until my next trip back. A little part of it will keep on beating in the congested streets of Midtown, among the yellow cabs, between the trees of Central Park, close to family and friends.

However many decades I have been living abroad, however different or foreign some things may seem upon arrival, New York is still my city and no place in the world gives me the same sense of energy, freedom and opportunity.

There is so much to tell on all fronts: about how my little girl turned 5 and lost her first tooth; about the joy of watching two of our closest friends exchange their simple yet beautiful vows; of the love and pride of watching my children with their grandparents, my little boy sitting on my father's lap; of the trips to many museums and playing in the snow of Central Park; of spending time with people I don't often get to see but that feel like friends I speak to every day once we are together. Of F's extended family, their great generosity, about sitting around a table and discovering the Italy these people left half a century ago, the dialect, the recipes. Of boeuf bourguignon, crispy duck and pineapple salad, many a hamburger, bagels and Persian rice. I will tell you this story through pictures of food, because needless to say, it was a part of each and every special moment spent in NY.

Happy Birthday!

NY isn't NY without a bagel...or several bagels