Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Octopus panzanella

The month of June was a pretty rainy, cool month here in Milan. It got a little frustrating after the tenth storm in a row at exactly 5.30pm, which is when I pick up the kids up from daycare and kindergarden. But hey, I'm not complaining because it was not hot and humid.

Until a couple of days ago that is.

You know the summer heat has hit in Milan when:
- you can park exactly where you want to on week ends
- the sidewalks are full of little holes left by the fashionable Milanese wearing their multicolored Tod's and Car Shoes
- you can find a table outdoors under the pergola at your favorite brunch place with only a few day's notice
- you have visions of biking home in the winter with gloves and a hat on while waiting for a light to turn green
- you start looking forward to going to work every morning because of the AC
- you look and smell like a mosquito repellent sales rep
- you dream of eating ice cold, soggy toast

Yes, I just wrote that.

No, it is not as bad as it sounds. Not if the toast has a mild garlic taste and the crunchiness is softened by the juices of ripe red tomatoes and the best quality olive oil.

In comes panzanella, the famous bread salad.

This is a panzanella made my way. I am aware that panzanella is traditionally made without seafood, with the addition of raw onions and vinegar, and last but definitely not least, with stale bread, preferably the Tuscan variety without salt. But hey, I didn't have any stale bread so I used delicious whole grain bread with sunflower seeds instead. Do you blame me? And since it was a week night (i.e. I would be mingling with colleagues in the office at 7am the next morning) and the kids were eating with us, I decided to leave out the red onion and rubbed the abovementioned bread with garlic bruschetta-style. It was oh so good... And to give it the missing crunch I threw in some celery. No vinegar, which I normally use, because I wanted the delicate flavor of the octopus to really shine through. If I had had some black olives in the house (or preferably the small Taggiasca variety) I would have added those too.

Here is another panzanella recipe you might like.

whole grain bread
extra virgin olive oil

Prepare the octopus this way. Slice the bread and toast it. Rub it with garlic and cut into approx. 1 inch squares. Cut the octopus, tomatoes and celery into bite size pieces. Chop up some fresh mint. Mix all the ingredients together, dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve cold. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sweet cherry pie for my sweet

My baby turned two yesterday so even I, despite being a somewhat delusional smitten mother, can no longer justify calling him a baby. He is now officially my big boy or my little guy.

Last summer, inspired by all the blogs I read, I bought a cherry pitter on sale.

I know this has no connection with what I just wrote, but bear with me.

It was already the end of cherry season so I put it away and by the fall I knew I had bought yet another one of those kitchen utensils that would end up at the back of my kitchen drawers. However, as summer came round and cherries started appearing at the market and at our table, I thanked my lucky stars I had bought that gadget.

You see, my son is cherry obsessed, he cannot get enough of them. He is also a toddler, with all the fixations that ensue. There is no way he will eat a cherry that I lovingly prepare for him by cutting it into small pieces (to get rid of the pit and to ensure he doesn't choke). Nope, he does what his big sister does, thank you very much, and believe me, he has his ways of convincing us. I will leave it at that.

Enter the cherry pitter, my best friend (I already have a lover), my saviour. Mommy and Daddy quickly pit a few cherries and he gets his bowl of round, red whole spheres minus the pits and he is happy as a lark. And so are we. No more ear plugs required at the dinner table.

So I decided to make him a cherry pie for his birthday. He nibbled at it, like my kids mostly do around cake, and even had a cherry. It was a success.

So happy birthday, little guy.

My little guy, who sings "to youuuu" every time someone says happy birthday to him (in Italian and English).
My little guy, whose canines are as pointy and sharp as a wolf cub's. And don't ask me how I know.
My little guy, who loves cows and monkeys above all, except his sister maybe.
My little guy, who repeats whole sentences, gestures and intonations without really saying a word.
My little guy, who offers his cheek when asked for a kiss.
My little guy, whose legs turn to jelly when he doesn't want to do something.
My little guy, who still loves it when I kiss the sole of his feet like when he was a teeny baby.
My little guy, who drinks water like there is no tomorrow.
My little guy, who sings along to any song he hears.
My little guy, who was an ugly duckling that is turning into a swan.
My little guy, who never wanted to come out and left sagging tummy skin visible signs of protest.
My little guy, who proves to me daily that I was wrong, that it was much better having a little boy instead of another girl.

Happy birthday baby big boy. I love you.

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pasta with ricotta and sundried tomatoes

Remember we spent last week end in the Alps?

Well, after trekking through the forest and sitting among the flowers in the meadows to have a picnic we also stopped to admire cows (my son, who is currently obsessed with bovines as only a toddler can be, calls them cow, mucca - Italian for cow - moo or even all three in a row depending on his level of excitement) and then walked up to a little farm to buy cheese, butter and salami.

Since we couldn't make up our minds, we ended up buying most of the cheeses on display.

One of the cheeses we bought was ricotta, although it technically isn't cheese as most of you probably already know, because it is made from a byproduct of cheesemaking, whey.

We ate it that same evening so that we could taste it at its freshest. This ricotta was not the white, sweet, smooth cream you can just gobble down by the spoonful that you buy at the supermarket.
This was the real deal, it was a little grainy in texture and tasted slightly like the stable and the cow it came from. It almost mooed.

 So I decided to make it with some pasta and to offset the creamy texture and slightly milky sweetness I chopped up some sundried tomatoes preserved in oil.

Those little ruby nuggets added a punch of fabulous flavor to each and every forkful. Add a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, a dusting of freshly ground pepper and this pasta is the thing of gods. I think I will try adding some toasted pine nuts the next time I make it.

 Have a great week end!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

For Monet

One of the things that surprised me the most when I started blogging was becoming part of a community. The blogosphere may be a virtual place, but everything about the support, the friendship and the comraderie that thrives in the foodie blogging community is real. I have seen virtual babyshowers held for expecting moms that live on the other side of the world. I have gotten teary over pictures of children and laughed until my stomach hurt over stories about them. I have felt emotional reading posts about mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and partners. We spend time with these people pretty much every day, we often read their innermost thoughts. Time passes and we become friends, without really even noticing it.

The story that touched me the most since I entered this world was Monet's. She is a young, inspired and inspirational young woman who has been through a lot of hardship in the past years. A few months ago she lost some close members of her family in a tragic accident and through her words we have been experiencing her pain, her bereavement, her rediscovery of the small joys of life, things that make her smile.

When all this happened two of her blogging friends, Liz and Kate, decided to do something that would let Monet know that many of her followers were thinking of her, there for her, close to her. Since we are all united by the love of food and creating it, they thought it would be nice to create a book of comforting recipes. They asked each of us to send one from our blog that warms our souls and that brings us comfort. They then worked hard and long to put them all together and send her the book.

Monet has asked that we all share our recipes today.
I am honored to share my recipe, to be a part of this community. To Monet and her family, but mostly to Pam and to Jeremy.

Click on the link below for the full recipe and post.

Ossobuco with risotto alla Milanese

Monday, June 20, 2011

Double chocolate chip cookies

I reached cookie nirvana on Friday.

These are the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. This is what I expect from the perfect cookie, what I have never been able to replicate in my kitchen. This cookie is chewy, chunky and fudgy. My other chocolate chip cookies were pretty good if I can say so myself but these are perfect. In taste, texture, size. And they didn't turn flat a few minutes out of the oven. Don't ask me why or how. I've tried all the tricks. Freezing. Resting the dough for 24, 36, 48 hours. I've tried adding more or less butter. I've used different kinds of sugar. I've tried underbaking and they turned out... well, underbaked. While baking these I even added the egg later than I should have. It mattered not, still perfection.

The recipe did not seem so very different from others I had used. There were the usual promises of the best cookie ever, but I wasn't convinced. I had seen beautiful photos before and my end product never turned out looking quite the same. So I can't tell you why they turned out so good. What I can say is that just writing about the lack of inspiration I was feeling on Friday, putting it out there, got my creative juices flowing again. I literally ran home from work and baked these beauties in the two hours I had to pack, pick up the kids and leave for the week end. I barely had ten seconds to take a couple of pictures. They do not do these cookies justice. Make them yourself, you'll see.

These are brownies and chocolate chip cookies all in one. They made the perfect gift for the perfect week end. Nature leaves me speechless, by the way.

Please click to is worth it, I promise

You forget that a few hours from a city, even in an overcrowded country like Italy, there is such beauty.

Thank you for your comments, for sharing your similar experiences and for your support on my last post. I know that for every comment left there are at least ten more of you out there that feel the same way. And last but not least, check out my blogroll. I finally updated it a few weeks ago with some of my favorite blogs.

Recipe adapted from A Full Measure of Happiness.

Friday, June 17, 2011

To post or not to post?

I started writing this post after commenting on a blogging friend's post this morning, but it had really started forming in my mind last night when I was sorting through some pictures for my blog. I was wondering what I would write about today, what I should post. I had no recipe I considered post-worthy, no eye candy and I was also feeling a tad uninspired. The truth is, I wanted to be passed out in front of the TV, not sitting at a desk working. The kids were finally in bed and asleep and I felt like I was going through the motions of yet another daily chore.

Empty wash machine
Load wash machine
Empty dishwasher
Sort socks
Write names on 50 diapers for daycare
Edit pictures for blog

Wait, since when has my blog become a chore?

I love this blog, it is my newest born child. I nurture it, I think about it throughout the day and I look forward to spending time with it. It is my creative outlet, my space to be me and not somebody's mother or wife or colleague.

I think what happened is that I have been feeling a little overwhelmed lately. With the summer approaching quickly and the markets brimming with promise, filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables that we haven't seen in months, I feel like I should be cooking up a storm but I am not and this makes me feel frustrated. I feel like I never have time: time to make a decent meal, time to take a good picture, time to even get to the supermarket. I read about people who have cues of recipes to post and I feel like I am struggling to keep up and this dries up my creative juices.

Time is always the problem, it always has been. In the winter my blogging life was a rush to capture light. By the time I got home it was dark and the only meals I could photograph decently were the ones I made on the week end. Fine, I adjusted. I made a few good eats on Saturday and Sunday and wrote about them during the week. Now spring is here and I finally have the light (I know, that sounds like a sentence stolen from some Fantasy movie) but I never get home early enough to cook because playground season has started and we are often away on the week ends making even our weekly trip to the supermarket to stock up tricky.

Basically, what I am saying is that sometimes you have to stop, breathe and tell yourself to take it easy. Life is full of obligations and responsibilities and chores. Mine is about constantly rushing from one place to the next, feeling guilty at work because I have kids, feeling guilty with my kids because they are enrolled in each and every after-school and summer activity the school has to offer. So if it is Friday and I ain't got nothing to post or to tell the world, I won't post.

Because posting and blogging is supopsed to be fun, because there is always someone out there who has something interesting to say or bake if I don't, because posting is not my job and there are no deadlines (unless I choose them) and if I don't post for a week it is not the end of the world.

Sometimes you just need to sit back and recharge your batteries and follow the example of something as simple as my homemade vanilla extract. This baby is resting in a dark cool place and let me tell you, it is thriving.

Lesson learned.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Insalata di riso - Italian rice salad

I take my bike to work all year long, rain or shine, but now is my favorite time of the year. When I ride to work at 7am it is still cool, the city is quiet and the sky is already blue. Yesterday, while I was riding down the newly-built bike lanes in the center (an effort made for the recent mayoral elections), I had to come to a screeching halt because a pidgeon was crossing the street on a pedestrian crossing. When I saw the bird in the distance I slowed down to give it time to notice me and fly off. But no, it just looked at me and then turned back and continued walking. The nerve, but I guess it had right of way!

Back to the summer, last year I mentioned that there are a few extremely typical Italian summer dishes, the kinds pretty much every household starts making as soon as the hot sun starts shining down on the peninsula. Insalata di riso, one of the most popular Italian dishes yet one of the least known abroad, is one of those and there are as many variations of this dish as there are families making it.

There are however some basic ingredients any insalata di riso must have and strangely enough, none of these are fresh produce, despite the season. What makes it a summer dish par excellence is that it is served cold. These ingredients are cheese, ham, franks, pickled vegetables, tuna. Once you have the basics, you can go crazy.

The cheese should be semi hard: Swiss, fontina or other usually depending on what your grandma used.

Franks: yup, good 'ole hot dogs, possibly best quality.

Ham, or prosciutto cotto. Some like it in cubes and some thinly sliced and then cut up (can you guess how I like it?) .

Tuna in oil is also a really important ingredient, but whether you keep the oil for added flavor is your call.

Pickled vegetables: usually pickles, pearl onions and artichoke hearts are a must, but many like to add other vegetables like peppers or mushrooms.

Some people add olives. I like the Spanish anchovy-filled ones. Most like capers.

Some even add fresh ingredients like tomatoes and you can of course substitute the rice with brown rice, barley or farro. You can make it with pretty much anything that suits your fancy, giving it an oriental kick or keeping it vegetarian. I however wanted to present you with the traditional version, so you can all feel a little Italian this summer.

There is no real recipe because it is up to you to decide what ingredients to use and how much of them to use. Just promise me one thing: try to buy best-quality ingredients because it makes all the difference in this kind of dish. I was never partial to this rice growing up because there are some pretty nasty versions out there, skimping on quality, an absolute no-no in my book when it comes to preserves and cured meats. I admit it, I get very easily grossed out put off by an unappetizing, weird looking chunk of ham or waxy, tasteless olives.

Basically, you boil some rice in water, you rinse it and let it cool and dry. In the meantime you chop up all the ingredients (to give you an idea I used a jar of each preserve, 2 medium sized cans of tuna, 3 frankfurters - no need to cook them - a nice wedge of Swiss cheese and about 8 thin slices of ham for approximately 500gr of rice) and then you mix them all into the rice. The rice should be rich, never dry, but you don't really need to add any seasoning as the saltiness should come from the ingredients and the water you boiled the rice with and the oil and vinegar from the preserves. Once it is ready, store it in the fridge until serving. It is a typical potluck, BBQ or picnic dish.