Monday, February 27, 2012

Elba, Il Cantuccio

We just got back from a few days on the island of Elba, taking advantage of my daughter’s days off from school on Thursday and Friday for the later Milanese Carnival. It is a longish drive and ferry boat ride away, making it a bit of a journey to stay just a little over two days, but the amazing weather, the joy on my mother-in-law’s face upon our arrival and the beautiful landscape made it well worth it.

It was our first time there in the winter and after seeing the beauty of the deserted beaches, the turquoise water and the quaint atmosphere of the seaside towns helped me understand how usurped the locals must feel in the summer when the hoards of tourists hit and sully their picturesque shores. 


The kids enjoyed the briny, fresh air and the total freedom of running around the shores choosing smooth white rocks to paint, picking shells and collecting fallen fern-like branches to use as wings. They sucked on the shells of sea snails and nibbled on fried shrimp. We went with their nonna to buy fresh fish right off the boat and she treated us to many a delicious, if not exactly light, meal.

It was difficult to dissuade her, but we did not want her to cook for us the whole time we were there and insisted on taking her out for a drive and lunch one day given the beautiful weather.

By the time it was noon the kids were starving and we found ourselves knocking on the door of a charming looking restaurant (the only open one actually) in the almost-deserted town of Marina di Campo. We were ushered into the empty rooms and seated at a table, an old glass-covered horse carriage wheel (yup, just like the one in When Harry Met Sally), by the window. The place mats were sheets of yellow paper that my mother in law explained was what they once used to wrap the pasta in at the pastifici, where people bought pasta in bulk before the days of packaging and supermarkets, when she was a girl. It was also used to wrap fried fish. It turned out to be very useful to keep the children busy drawing while we awaited out meal.

The owner/maitre (?) was not very kind to begin with and we were a little surprised given we were the only people there and it was an out-of-season week day in the sleepiest time of the year. We were not handed a menu (rich in delicious offerings of the land and sea of Tuscany) and we were curtly told they do not make pizza at lunch (my mother in law was disappointed, she had had it there before and was looking forward to it). The man went on to list the day’s specials and we were pleasantly surprised so things started looking up. Once we had ordered we were brought a basket of warm, crusty sourdough bread, quite a rarity here in Italy. It was quickly devoured and we were brought more immediately and throughout the meal (free of charge may I add).

Things were getting better by the minute. I looked around while I waited. The furnishing was simple, rustic, with a mix of old and new that is predominant in many Italian trattorias. It was actually quite charming and picturesque to sit in but the camera does not do it justice (not just mine, check out the website and prepare yourself for some pretty bad English). There were very good bottles of wine and pretty wine crates strategically placed around the restaurant, the promise of a good cellar and a reminder that this place has been serving wine since 1930. 

The restaurant started filling up unexpectedly with an array of different people. A middle aged French couple was seated near us and curiously eyed our dishes before ordering. Four builders walked in and sat at a back table, chatting away and sharing jokes with the owner and waitress. A group of fashionable young people sat in the other room and sipped wine and laughed.

Then our orders arrived and we were impressed.
The riso al nero di seppia, rice with black squid ink, that my husband and children ordered was served in an edible basket of crispy Parmesan. The rice was perfectly al dente, lusciously black and creamy and studded with chewy yet tender pieces of squid.

I ordered a plate of spaghettini with baby calamari. I am not exaggerating if I tell you this was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had. The pasta was toothsome, the squid ink fresh and full of flavor and it was filled with the tiniest, most delicious calamaretti, all drizzled with top quality garlic and chili infused olive oil (incidentally, they have an impressive olive oil menu). The French tourists ordered the same and ooohed! and aaahed! the whole time they ate it. I was so in love with the dish that I enthusiastically covered our host in praise despite my initial antipathy towards him. This softened him. This and perhaps seeing my well-behaved (if I may say so myself; not always the case, but in this occasion definitely) childrens’ faces covered in black ink and nibbling on fish heads.  

Next came our three orders of fritto di paranza, generally a plate of bite-sized fried fish. This fish was actually larger in size, but it was fried perfectly, golden and crunchy with little more than a hint of grease. A squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt and we were set to eat, head, tail and all.

By the time we ordered coffee, the kids were getting a little restless and my youngest was ready for a nap so we skipped dessert. Well, I will be totally honest with you, we had homemade cannoli waiting for us at home.

Our last surprise was the extremely reasonable check. We didn’t have wine or dessert but our meal of three first courses and three mains, three large bottles of water and three coffees turned out to be €88,000. Not bad for a fresh fish meal if you ask me.

The food really was excellent, the fish fresh and I will definitely go back in high season in the evening my husband to taste some more dishes and a good bottle of wine. I am sure it will not disappoint. I just hope that the sun of summer will warm up our host’s very professional yet icy mannerism.

Ristorante Il Cantuccio
Largo Garibaldi 6
Marina di Campo
Isola d'Elba
Tel. 0565.976775

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pasta with dried porcini and prosciutto ragout

This is a post about ends. A long-awaited end and prosciutto ends.

But before the end, the beginning.

Yesterday my day started at my local police station and ended about 8 hours later in the central immigration office. Well, to be exact it started several months ago with endless phone calls, trips to various municipal offices and the Consulate, but you know that already.

I am now the proud holder of a permanent resident visa after decades of renewals, endless lines and many moments of distress. I still cannot believe it, I still am scared to even put it down in writing lest the law change and someone in uniform come knock on my door and take that precious slip of paper from me.

I think immigration is a nightmare wherever you are, what makes the difference in this country is the uncertainty of the outcome. Usually you know where you are going, what you have to do, what you have to bring. If all the requisites are there, you get what you went for and if they are not, you just don’t.

Not here. Laws change quicker than a model at a fashion show. What was valid yesterday may not be today, what was a fact the last time you called that office is now dubious. I think I got about ten different versions of how to renew my permit and what papers to present over a few weeks. I filled out forms and sent kits and was handed computer-generated appointments only to find my self once again filling in the same paper form I used ten years ago after a day at immigration last week and a broken down computer system. I paid fees at the post office only to find out that the new fiscal budget, which became effective on the day I sent in my kit, required an additional €200,00 payment. Then I ended up not paying a thing. I did not question that.

Now, I understand and admire the people working in these offices. They find themselves having to explain a system they don’t understand themselves to hundreds of foreigners who do not speak a word of Italian. They are constantly interrupted in their work by impatient, angry and somewhat desperate people asking all kinds of questions. Also, let us not forget that until recently Italy was a country of emigrants and it has not yet quite learned to deal with the soaring levels of immigration of the past two decades. To make things worse, public funding is at a minimum and more than one officer complained that they did not even have paper to print on (one actually asked me if he could use a copy I didn’t need to print something out for me on the other side. I kid you not).

Then again there is the other kind of employee: comfortably seated behind a glass partitioning who is rude, arrogant and impatient. The kind who raises his voice and treats people differently according to the color of their skin, their passport, their clothes even. The kind who forgot that at least one person in his family probably emigrated to the US, South America, Australia or some country in Europe. I am aware these people exist everywhere, not just here, and whenever I watch these things happening I feel a tightening in my chest.

I can count myself lucky as I am usually treated civilly once they hear my fluent Italian and see my US passport. Being a woman can be helpful too, but then again it may work against you according to who you end up dealing with. After many years, I have learned my way around. I bring pretty much any document I own with me (my husband teased me the other day when I wondered if I should bring some totally unrelated papers with me, which I incidentally ended up using) and copies of them all.

Yesterday I was given at least three reasons why I couldn’t renew my visa:
I didn’t have my husband’s tax returns with me (hello, I work, this is the 21st century, I have my tax returns with me).
I didn’t bring a certificate of family status with me (hello again, the Municipality offices gave me this paper – pull out – saying that as of 1 January 2012 they can no longer issue this paper for residents using them in PA offices. The PA must contact them directly. And by the way my children and husband’s social security numbers are on my tax returns).
I was told I had to go to another office for my specific case and when I did, they asked me (after waiting for 80 numbers before my turn) why I had gone there for the renewal (uhm, because you sent an email to the officer I was talking to asking him to send me over). I was then warned that the new law no longer envisaged ten-year renewals, the maximum was five. Bummer. So, how did I end up with a permanent visa? Once again, I am not asking.

I gave my Oscar-worthy performance: I played the helpless blonde with the grateful smile, I played the sympathetic friend who fully grasps the difficulties of being a public official, I played the taxpayer filled with indignation, I played the hard working feminist who supports two Italian citizens and I played the graduate from law school pulling out laws and lists.

Whatever I did it worked and I am grateful for what I was given. I just wish everybody on every line in every office could feel how I feel today, the relief, the joy. But I unfortunately know that will not be the case.

Now to the prosciutto end. This pasta is packed with flavor thanks to the prosciutto and with umami from the dried mushrooms. In Italy you can buy the end part of a prosciutto leg, that little piece that you can no longer slice with the machine. Sort of like that last little part of the pencil you can no longer sharpen. This works fine of course with some lovely sliced prosciutto too, but if they are slicing it freshly for you, ask them to make thicker slices. Otherwise, try asking at the counter for that endpiece, you might get lucky. Amounts here vary depending on how many people you are making this for, so I will give you a general idea.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Focaccia alla Genovese

We get inspiration for our meals in in a variety of ways.

1) There is the inpsiration you get from the leftovers in your fridge or your cupboard. Often the results are satisfying (if only because you are not wasting food), sometimes they are amazing, other times less-than-stellar.

2) Then there are the special recipes you bookmarked from a blog, in a cook book or a magazine. Those are the kind of recipes you go out shopping for, the kind that usually leaves behind an array of ingredients to be used up in recipe number 1).

3) Then there are those spur-of-the moment ideas and when you check you are just lucky enough to have the basic ingredients you need in the house.

A lot of my cooking falls into category 3) these days, just because I haven’t been focused enough or had the time to sit down, plan a meal and look for a fitting recipe.


My weekend cooking scenario looks somewhat like this:

Me sitting at my kitchen table. The kids are playing, the husband is in the shower or out buying the paper.

It is a Saturday morning and I waver between the luxurious feeling of the whole week end stretching ahead of me and knowing I have no time. An idea is forming in my mind and I pick up my iPhone and start searching. I google, I check out some blogs, I log onto Foodgawker. I get impatient while the phone loads, I mumble under my breath as I misspell that word for the third time. I hear the clock ticking in the back of my head and I know I am wasting precious time but there are a million recipes and I can’t seem to find exactly what I was looking for. I finally find a recipe I like and I read through it to make sure I have all the ingredients and the technique is clear, that there will be no surprises half way through. All clear and well, only one problem, this recipe makes much more than I want, so I decide to halve the ingredients.

As I start calculating, the phone rings. I dust off my flour-coated fingers and go answer.

When I get back to the kitchen counter 15 minutes have passed and I need to start over, weighing the ingredients again. I am cutting a piece of butter when...

"Moooooommmyyyyyyyy, I’m doooooone" from the bathroom. I go, I wipe, I come back, I wash my hands and start over.

Just as I am measuring the flour again, in walks my son.

"Acqua" he says looking up at me. As he comes closer I realized water isn’t all he needs. I pour him some water and off we go for a diaper change and teeth brushing and dressing while we are at it.


Back in the kitchen, after another handwash, I put in the ingredients in the stand mixer. As I start washing up, the fighting starts.

"Stoooooop! That is mine".

"No! Mio."




"Moooooooooommmmmmmyyyyyyyy!!! Whaaaaaaaahhhhhh".

So long for not overmixing.

Finally eyes dried, snotty noses cleaned and peace restored, the kids are in the kitchen with me. They are drawing and I am content, forget their crap strewn all over the floor between the sink, the Kitchen Aid and the oven, which are strategically placed in different corners of the kitchen. I trip and slide over the stuff and hum along to my Ipod, because I’m in a good mood. It is Saturday after all.

Even when little fingers start poking the dough or try to grab an ingredient just as I am chopping it, I keep on humming (ok, maybe with a teeny bit of hollering in between).

Taking my time and spending a relaxing afternoon in the quiet of my kitchen just doesn’t happen, so it is no surprise to me when I forget to beat the egg whites or add in an extra yolk. I post these recipes anyway if they turn out good. Because that is my life as a mom and food blogger and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I made one of my usual mistakes in this oh-so-simple recipe because I decided to halve the ingredients and then didn’t halve them all. Ooops. So there is more yeast in this focaccia than called for. If it turned out this good with the wrong amounts, I am sure it will be fabulous if you make it right. Of course, the consequence is that it was a little on the bread-y side (and I am usually somebody who likes focaccia to be quite thin and chewy), but it turned out to be just what we needed to sop up the oil from the gambas, so I’m not complaining.

As I already insisted in my last post, when you are making something with so few ingredients, they have to be good quality, down to the salt and water.

I got the recipe from La cucina italiana.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gambas al ajillo

I have some fun recipes lined up for you, but not today. Today is just deliciousness in a dish without a recipe per se.

I have been cooking and baking and taking pictures but I find my mind goes blank whenever I have a couple of minutes to write. Work has taken up a lot of my time, thoughts and energy recently as you may have noticed from my less frequent posts lately.

I do however feel like hanging out with you and chatting a bit even if I just can't get my act together so humor me, will you? Just for today.

I read this comic strip and this one and this one that cracked me up, so I thought I would share them with all you parents of young ones. Story of my life. Maybe that is why I feel drained in the evenings, hehe.

I remember singing along to How Will I Know? day dreaming about a much older guy (a friend of my sister's - he was 18!) like it was yesterday. Whitney Houston was really a part of my adolescence. It is so sad to see yet another example of extraordinary talent leave us.

I made this dish the other evening and it was finger lickin' good. And I am not just saying that. We actually licked our fingers after eating this. There was almost oil dripping from our elbows we got so into it, talk about crowd pleaser.

Why did it take me so long to make this at home? Why wait to go to Spain to eat this?

Having the right dish, a cazuela de barro, may make it look and feel more authentic, but you can prepare this typical tapa with any heavy-based pan. Make sure your very few ingredients are top quality and you will be on a roll. I overcrowded the pan because I was lazy about making two batches since I only have one clay pot and the family was hungry, but believe me when I say they were delicious anyway.

about 20 large shrimp
2 cloves garlic
good quality extra virgin olive oil
chili to taste
salt to taste
Heat enough olive oil in a pan to cover the shrimp. Peel and cut up a couple of cloves of garlic and let sizzle in the hot olive oil with some chili pepper, making sure the garlic doesn't burn. The garlic and heat factor are completely up to you. Add the shrimp and cook for a couple of minutes, just enough to ensure it is cooked through otherwise they will get tough. Sprinkle with some salt and eat with lots of good bread to soak up the garlic studded oil. Accompany with some cold wine or beer.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Tomato chickpea soup with roasted cumin

Where is the time going? Another crazy week at work has come and gone, hand in hand with more snow and another child at home with the flu since yesterday.

A few random questions I have been asking myself in the past days:

Who knew that picking up a report card as a parent would be almost as excruciating an experience? This week my oldest child got her first report card and I’m telling you, that walk down the hall, sitting in front of the classroom waiting to be judged, that feeling of dread, insecurity all came back in a flash. Except this time it involved someone I love more than I loved myself way back when, so multiply it by 100.

When did my children’s social life get more active than mine? I used to be out on the town almost every night of the week and between you and me, partying did not involve toy stores, runny noses, drop-offs and soggy layer cake.

Why is everybody surprised I am still riding my bike in sub zero temperatures? If you ask me it is much warmer biking than standing for ten minutes at a bus stop. And besides, entire countries function daily in this kind of weather.

So, as I mentioned above, temperatures are still below zero here in Italy. This is a dish that works perfectly on our side of the equator, to warm the body and soul but it also works well in the summer heat served at room temperature with a nice dollop of cool yogurt or cream. The recipe I followed actually described this as a quick soup to be made with precooked (or canned) chickpeas, so cooking times were much shorter than mine. Nonetheless, I feel this kind of soup benefits from longer cooking on low heat. Also, the next time I make this I think I will sauté some chopped garlic and onion in the pot before adding the spices and the tomato base.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Buttery Greek Ravani with coconut and orange syrup

Friday is always the best day of the week, the whole week end stretching ahead of us with plenty of time to spend with family and friends, doing stuff you have been impatient to tackle all week long. No pre-dawn alarms going off, long leisurely breakfasts and cozy winter afternoons to spend at home reading, baking or watching the game.

Some Fridays, however, are better than others.
This is one of those: I cannot start telling you how excited I am to get this work week over with. It was pretty crappy, let me tell you, with part of our team calling in sick, tons of work and... the dreaded call from daycare on Tuesday to inform me that my son had a fever. I will spare you the long version of how my other colleague got the same call and how we struggled all week with the workload and organizing several babysitter so their schedules would fit perfectly, allowing us to stay in front of our computers to face the emergency.

To top it all off, it snowed. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow and get as excited as my kids when I see the first flakes. But trading in my bike for public transportation before dawn and trying to coordinate the arrival and departure of the aforementioned army of babysitters in the middle of a minor snow storm for several days in a row just made the week that much more stressful.

But now it is late afternoon and my week end is starting. I am savoring this moment, every minute of this Friday night.

I am looking forward to a relaxed evening with my husband and kids. No constant eyeing the clock, rushing dinner so the little ones get to bed on time. We’ll leave that to a school night, thank you very much. Maybe Mommy and Daddy will have a glass (or two) of wine and will listen to them chat away about their week and it won’t matter if it takes twenty minutes longer to finish those vegetables they always relegate to the side of their plate.

After dinner they will climb into Mommy and Daddy’s bed to all read a book together (even a long one tonight, who cares?) and then they will be allowed to fall asleep there, a special weekend treat. Mommy and Daddy will perhaps enjoy a movie and nibble on something sweet and then they will carry their babies into their room and tuck them in for the night.

I know I can get nice and cozy under my duvet and read until my eyes lids start drooping because I don’t have to worry about being at my desk at 7:00 the next morning. There is nothing better than that luxurious feeling of having all the time in the world (or until you can stay awake) to do something you love.

You want to hear about something else that is truly luxurious? A syrup soaked cake. The most dense yet fluffy, moist cake you have ever tasted, a Greek siropiasta (which literally means soaked in syrup) dessert called ravani. The recipe comes from Magda and I knew it would be special because I already made her saragli a while back and they were outstanding. I am usually more inclined towards chocolate and ice cream when I think dessert but as I get older grow up I feel more and more attracted to the sticky, crunchy desserts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern tradition.
I made this using up things in my pantry (dessicated coconut included!). Besides the coconut perhaps, you will probably have everything you need in the house already. What is not to love?

Magda made some variations to the original recipe and I made some more. I used orange instead of lemon because I wanted a really subtle citrus flavor. The next time I will try the lemon to see how it contrasts with the sweetness. The texture is reminiscent of a Bounty bar but the flavors are delicate so don’t let words like orange, syrup or coconut scare you away if you are more of a brownie or custard kind of person. Trust me, because I am. Make this.
I wish you all a fabulous Friday!