Sunday, October 30, 2011

Moroccan lamb stew with lemon and pomegranate couscous

Today my father in law came over to our house for lunch. He originally wanted to go out to eat couscous and lamb in a restaurant he had heard of, but when he tried to make a reservation it was closed.

My father in law grew up in Libya, a country we have heard of so much lately in the news, back in the day when it was an Italian colony. I love hearing stories of his years there, before the new regime confiscated everything they owned, of how he lived as a child on acres and acres of farm land to later move to Tripoli, then a bustling, cosmopolitan city, to finish his schooling and attend University. 

His parents had tried and failed to become parents several times before he was born and he came very late for the standards of those days. I wonder what it must have been like for his mother to live so far away from her family in Sicily and how lonely it must have been there without children to rear for so many years. I like to imagine the pride and joy she must have felt when she took a ship back to her hometown (the baby must be born in Italy!) to finally give birth to a healthy little boy, sorrounded by clucking sisters, aunts, cousins.

Despite being born in Sicily and living in Italy for most of his adult life, my father in law grew up speaking Arabic and soaking up the culture of his surroundings. To this day couscous and lamb stew are his comfort food.

How could I deny him this pleasure?

The ripe and juicy pomegranate I had bought last week as a part of my centerpiece for another dinner inspired me to look up recipes that included it. This recipe turned out to be the perfect combination of a fruity, fresh couscous and a fall-off-the-bone tender, fatty lamb cooked in a tomato-based stew filled with the warm flavors of North African cuisine.

Recipe adapted from BBC Food Recipes

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Crock pot pulled pork and a secret ingredient

Here is the post I promised on Sunday, the one that called for BBQ sauce.

Before I go into lengthy descriptions I just wanted to say this recipe is for my friend Y.

Why you ask?

First of all she just got her first Le Creuset for her birthday so I am psyched that my next few posts involve my beloved, appropriately pumpkin-colored crock pot.

Second of all, the girl grew up in Houston so I thought a real Southern, meaty dish served with BBQ sauce couldn't be more appropriate.

Third, the girl loves Coke.

Coke? What does Coke have to do with it?


Ok, so let me start from the beginning.

Several moons ago, and I mean several, that same girl was pregnant with a baby who is almost two now. She and her husband and first child were visiting in us in Milan and I bought a six pack of caffeine-free Coke for her to drink while we enjoyed a glass of wine or beer or whatever is was we were drinking. Well, a few of those cans were still lurking in a corner of my kitchen until recently. I usually don't keep soft drinks in the house, soda is a rare treat for my kids. But lately they had started noticing those red and gold cans. Asking about them, hinting they wanted some. A lot. I had to get rid of them.

Fast forward to  a few days ago, when I was rightly so, gawking at pictures on Foodgawker of pulled pork sandwiches. I had been reading recipes for pulled pork long before I got my Le Creuset last year. I had some friends coming over for dinner and I decided the time had come. I came across quite a few recipes that used Coke as one of the main ingredients to make this delicacy. I realized it wasn't authentic, and I have to admit it sounded a little revolting at first but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. I was sure the Coke would tenderize the meat fabulously, and realized the sugar and other aromas would somehow work. Plus, it would be a great way to get rid of those cans. So that is how I killed my proverbial pig birds with one stone.


The result was melt-in-your-mouth, flavorful meat that I served alongside white polenta (which I in turn served again with leftovers grilled) and doused in the home made barbecue sauce. I certainly made for a different meal here in the Old Continent and a succulent one if I may add. Whatever you do, make lots so you can enjoy left overs, perhaps one of those sandwiches that triggered this whole post.

Also, need I add that this is the perfect meal to prepare when you have a lot of other things going on and you want a great result without too much effort?

Adapted from

about 2kg pork roast (I got one piece shoulder and one piece butt)
2 pressed garlic cloves
3 small onions sliced thinly
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1/4 tsp Pimenton de la Vera (or cayenne pepper), ground
1 tsp liquid smoke
3 cans of Coca-Cola (or enough to cover the meat; if it doesn't turn the pieces a few times)
a pinch of salt 
barbecue sauce 

Soften the onions in some oil in the crock pot. Place the meat in the pot, add in the garlic, pepper and Pimenton de la Vera, the liquid smoke and the Coca-Cola. Set the meat on low heat and cook for 8-10 hours. When ready, remove from the pot, remove bones and trim fat. Use a fork to begin pulling the pork apart. You can serve the barbecue sauce mixed in. I preferred to serve it with a little of the cooking liquid mixed in to keep it moist and drizzled the sauce on top.
The result was delicious, exactly how I imagined it, although I might add a little salt next time I make it (so I included it in the ingredients - you know, to contrast the sweetness). Of the two pieces I preferred the shoulder as it is a fattier cut (which made it more tender) with a more complex flavor, but both were fall-apart soft.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Homemade BBQ sauce

After the first week at the new office was over (much quicker than I expected if truth must be told, despite the long hours) I dove head first into the week end with lots of cooking and entertaining for friends and family. It felt great to have meals to plan and things bubbling on the stove. I am always so worried about summer and the long days of light ending, that I tend to forget how much I love the fall and all it has to offer. There is something great about the air turning crisper, the leaves changing color and falling and the feeling you get when you walk into a house and get enveloped in the warmth of a kitchen that smells of cinnamon and simmering stocks.

I have pulled out my appropriately autumn-colored crock pot more than once in the past weeks and cooked up comforting meals. The last one I prepared required barbecue sauce, which I did not have in the house and couldn't find at our two neighborhood supermarkets. Let us not forget I live in Italy.

After making my own ketchup, I really had no excuse not make BBQ sauce so I turned to the same source, my faithful copy of Joy of Cooking and was thrilled to find out I had each and every listed ingredient in my kitchen. That is not something that happens all too often and fills me with great satisfaction. The list may seem daunting but I can assure you you will have most of them on hand and it takes just 5 minutes of simmering to get delicious results.

In case you are curious, I will be back very soon with the recipe I used it for. In the meantime, here is the secret to making your very own finger licking BBQ sauce. I wish you all a good beginning of the week.

1 1/2 cups ketchup
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup brown sugar (next time I am using less, it was a little too sweet for me)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Worchesteshire sauce
1/4 cup, or to taste, Pimenton de la Vera (the recipe actually calls for ground Cayenne pepper but I was out of it and liked the idea of the smokiness P de la V would add)
2 tbsp dry mustard
1 tbsp grated, peeled fresh ginger or 1 tsp ground ginger (I had both but used the latter out of laziness)
2 garlic cloves minced (I used 1 tsp garlic powder for the same reason as above)
2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
3 slices lemon (I omitted)

Mix all the ingredients above into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. You can store the sauce for up to two weeks in the fridge in an airtight container.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pumpkin muffins with streusel topping and maple cream cheese filling

You know from my last post that the past week has been kinda rough. On Friday my colleagues and I filled box after box, took our children's drawings off of the walls, erased the pictures of them on our desktops. Co-workers from other floors filed in one at a time or in small groups to shake hands, hug us and wish us luck. We had a farewell coffee with pastries and foccaccia. A tear or two was shed. It was tough. The hardest part was saying goodbye to three great girls I have been working with for a long time, some even eight years. In this time they have become good friends, a family away from home. We became mothers together, we literally grew up together and all I can say is that I still miss being with them in the same room every minute of my working day.

When I got home yet another good friend came to bid me farewell.  An American expat like myself, our girls were born a few days apart and literally grew up together, going to the same day care, pre-school, kindergarden and elementary school. Needless to say they are best friends and over the years our families bonded. We went on to have two boys and spent many a vacation and week end together. Now she has left too, she lives in a different city and I am happy for her and her new life despite the loss.

But you will agree with me when I say it is cruel to say good bye to four sisters in just a handful of hours.

But then I had a bittersweet phone conversation on Skype and met beautiful little Laura. And the next evening my best friends and husband stepped in at just the right time and organized another, delayed birthday party for me. Just to remind me that I am one lucky girl, with lots of great friends and a job to keep me safe and comfortable.

And so instead of curling into the fetal position and crying myself to sleep like I admit having considered on Friday I decided to celebrate the coming of the fall and Halloween and all that is good in life. Life is full of spice, just like these muffins (that are really cupcakes in disguise, minus the mess because the frosting is on the inside), with a rich and sweet heart.
Make these for your family on Halloween. They are insanely moist with a creamy heart and the lovely crunch of sugar and cinnamon on top.

Adapted from Annie's eats.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pizza and changes


Ok, so I haven't been totally honest with you.

Or rather, recently I have been omitting a part of my life in this blog for various reasons. First of all, because I was waiting for a certain outcome before mentioning it. Secondly, because my blog is my happy place and I do not want the stress of my daily life to permeate it. 

There has been a lot of stuff going on at work. Let's just say finance is not a great place to be working these days.

Our division was sold and we are moving in a matter of days. The saga started over a year ago (yes, it has been a long, exhausting wait) but the last few months, the last few weeks in particular, have been a whirlwind of meetings with management and unions. There has been a lot of whispering by the coffee machine. Each and every person has a point of view, and not one is positive.

It has been emotionally taxing to say the least. All this talk, these conspirancy theories day in and day out have really worn us out and eroded what little self assurance we still had. We have said goodbye to friends and colleagues who were moved to other departments or offices after working together for many years. We have watched our team fall apart over more or less serious issues. People we trusted disappointed us, we have been left guessing about our future and what lies ahead of us.

There was no clarity, no certainty until yesterday.

Now we know. Some of it is good and some is bad.

We still have a job. And a nice office right in the center of town that I can bike to.

Something you don't take for granted when you find out you might have to wake up at 5am to get to work (in a dangerous place right by the urban fringe) by 7am, even on holidays, due to the nature of our jobs. And that you might have to pay for help on the same salary and that you may only get to see your children for an hour a day before bedtime. So yes, I am grateful.

But these deals never take place without some damage, some loss, some resentment. Things will not be the same. And the future still holds a lot of uncertainty.

I have gotten through this year by remembering how fortunate I am and how some people I care about are experiencing much more difficult circumstances right now. It helped me to keep in mind that these are minor mishappenings in the course of life. I have focused on the one thing that gives me strength and that pushes me forward.

My family. My husband and my children.

Knowing that they are there for me at the end of a long day. Knowing they are healthy and that we all have each other. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my job, the indipendence it gives me. I love being out there in the world, doing my part. But ultimately I work to live and not the other way around.

So what better recipe to write about than the pizza we made last week end. It was a true family effort, teamwork, little and big hands working together to prepare our evening meal. It felt so good, sitting in the kitchen together, music blasting from the IPod, laughing and making a mess. My children were so excited, the room was warm and cozy despite the first autumn chill in the air. I knew once again that this is all I needed to be happy. 

It was good but for one thing. I made the mistake of trying out something I knew I would probably regret. When I was at the supermarket I saw that an upscale brand of buffalo mozzarella was marketing a new kind for pizza. I was tempted, although I usually know better than to buy mozzarella for pizza rather than the real thing. It melted well and stayed more gooey whe cooling down but it burnt easily. This somewhat ruined the pizza because I had to take it out earlier than I had planned to and the bottom crust was a little undercooked. Luisa's (or should I say Jamie Oliver's?) recipe was certainly not to blame.

Please, bear with me if my posts slow down a bit in the weeks to come. I may need a little extra time to adjust, to figure out where I stand, to make all the parts of my day fit together in a new routine. I will still be cooking and thinking up things to write, it may just take a little longer to share.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Whole wheat, oat and banana muffins (and an award)

They say you really notice the passing of time through your children. This morning, reading the paper, I felt the same way about Paul McCartney. So, it seems he got married again yesterday. Again? But wait, didn't he just get divorced? And then I read he has been in a relationship with his now bride for four years. Where was I when you were all keeping up on Sir Paul's love life? Probably reading the food column instead of the gossip column.

Looking up the perfect breakfast muffin recipe. For you.

After all those chocolate cakes I have been baking, it was time to show my new Kitchen Aid we do some healthy baking in our house too.

WHAT? I didn't tell you I am the proud owner of a brand new, shiny Kitchen Aid? How could I forget?

Forgive me, I will immediately introduce you. Kitchen Aid, please meet my many friends who read about the lovely things you help me make every week.

Aww, don't blush.

OK, back to the muffins. Having a hard time focusing this morning.

This is the perfect breakfast muffin because it is not too cloying. The first bite might leave you thinking you could've used a little more sugar or honey but then the natural sweetness from the bananas grows on you and ends up being just right to accompany a nice warm cup of coffee, especially if there is already a spoonful of sugar in it.

They, however, were not sweet enough for the boys, but the husband enjoyed them with a trickle of honey and my son was more than happy to eat them with a thin spread of Nutella. All pretty delicious options, so nobody was complaining. Me? I enjoyed them just as they were and did not feel guilty when I helped myself to a second.

Recipe from Honesty Rain.

Ingredients (for 12 muffins)

dry ingredients:
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

wet ingredients:
2 eggs
1/4 cup oil (or you could use apple sauce)
1/4 cup milk
2 large ripe bananas

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine the wet ingredients in another bowl. Add wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix until combined. Grease muffin tin and fill up to about 3/4. Bake for about 20 minutes at 400° F/200°C in a preheated oven.

The other day I received an award from An Italian Cooking in the Midwest. Thank you Pola, it is a real honor, as a non Italian (although I did grow up in Italy, married an Italian and have half Italian kids), to receive this award for cooking and spreading authentic Italian cuisine throughout the world! Grazie mille!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Chocolate almond torte. For Laura

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned being upset because of sad news from close friends who live on the other side of the world and of the equator. They used to live right next door, our children grew up together, we learned to be parents together. Today the news was confirmed and it is was much worse than I ever imagined. I can't believe they are so far, that I cannot be with them, embrace them, bring them some comfort.

Today Laura was born. This is my birthday cake to her, because this will be her only birthday and I want to celebrate it. To celebrate her life, her fleeting presence in this world. She spread love to those surrounding her without even meeting them. She is love.

Happy birthday baby Laura.

Recipe from the Joy of Baking.

1 cup (100gr) finely ground almonds
4 large eggs
7oz. (200gr.) bittersweet chocolate (I used over 70%), chopped
11 tbsp (150gr.) butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup (150gr.) sugar, divided
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
a handful of almond slivers

If you are grinding your own almonds, preheat oven to 350° F (177° C) and place the blanched almonds on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven until lightly browned and fragrant. Let cool completely and then process until finely ground. Increase the oven temperature to 375° F (190° C) and line an 8 inch (20 cm) springform pan with parchment paper.

Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. Make sure they are at room temperature. Melt the chopped chocolate and butter in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water or in the microwave. Then add  1/2 cup (100gr) of white sugar to the egg yolks and beat together until pale and thick. Beat in the melted chocolate mixture and vanilla extract. Fold in the ground almonds. My batter was very dry and I worried I had made a mistake but it loosened up considerably when I folded in the egg whites.

Place the egg whites in a clean bowl and whisk until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and continue whisking until soft peaks form. Gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup (50gr) sugar and whisk until stiff peak forms. Fold about 1/4 of the whites into the chocolate batter to lighten it. Then quickly fold in the rest of the whites and mix only until incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. The cake rises during baking but falls during cooling, leaving some cracks in the crust. Decorate with powdered sugar or almond slivers.