Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween and what to do with leftover chocolate: milk-chocolate cornflake brownies

The other day I tackled one of my kitchen cupboards because it was a mess. The kind of mess I have to sort while the kids are not around: to me it is the corner of horrors but they think of it more like a piece of heaven. It is an out-of-reach shelf where I dump store all the candy and chocolate we seem to accumulate over time.

Now, as you know, I am not shy of giving my kids a treat now and then. Their life is by no means devoid of sugar. I do however try keep their sugar intake somewhat under control. I never buy candy but my kids get more than enough at birthday parties and as gifts from well-meaning friends and family. On Fridays we usually get a gelato when I pick them up from school: it is a way to celebrate the beginning of the week end and a compromise to get them to eat their fruit or crackers or raisin snack the rest of the week when most kids around them is nibbling on chips, pizza or candy. Of course the argument ensues whether to get gelato as opposed to the horrendously colorful creations on sticks marketing experts have the guts to call ice cream. I give in fifty percent of the time. I limit Nutella to week end breakfasts and the cereal they eat during the week (an easy solution for F who is in charge of getting them to school while I sit at my desk at the office) is something halfway healthy, with some whole grains and rice to balance out the sugar and salt per gram.


And I bake. I bake my children cookies, cakes, brownies, tarts, pies. I make them hot chocolate in the winter and pop corn before movies sometimes. The salt, fat and sugar content may not be ideal, but at least I know what they are eating, what ingredients go in and that they are not eating highly-processed snacks.

Anyway, back to my clean up. After yet another party a few weeks ago we came home with a bag full of candy. As I tried to put said candy away I was buried under an avalanche of sugar, food coloring and high-fructose corn syrup. I realized it was time to get rid of some while the kids were not watching, especially in view of Halloween and the all the holidays that will follow. I dumped at least a pound or two of lollipops melted out of shape, rock hard gummy bears, leaking chocolate coins and gelées with all sorts of unidientified fuzz and crumbs stuck to them. Not to mention the traditional sugared almonds in all hues (red for graduations, baby blues and pastel pinks for christenings and births) that might have become real estate for some unwanted wiggly creatures for all I knew.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Gnocchi alla Romana

The week is over and I am feeling smug.
I got up at 5:35am and ran a little over 8kms before heading to work.
My son has finally settled into his new pre-K routine.
As he proudly announced on Monday when I picked him up from school, he slept on R's pants.
What he meant was that on his first afternoon there he finally napped on his teacher's lap (after shedding some tears).
Maybe next week he will even be able to stay there for the after-school program so I won't have to go back and forth to pick up the kids four times an afternoon (three of which a moody pre-schooler. You moms hear me, right? You know how long and unpredictable those walks can get, especially when you are on a schedule).
I renewed my ID card at the Town Hall and was the first in line, a once in a lifetime happening. In and out in 5 minutes!
Ok, I admit I had already been there the day before, only to find out I was missing a paper they forgot to tell me about on the phone. But hey, you can't win 'em all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Twice-fried Chinese green beans

What do you do when you have a great recipe and a pretty mediocre picture of it? Do you wait till the next time you cook it and then make sure it is for lunch and not dinner, thus ensuring good light, and that you have your camera handy?
Well, if you have thousands of followers, a cookbook out and a nomination for best photography you might not even have to think about it.
If you are me, however, you consider the pros and cons.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Amor Polenta

Up until the beginning of the Twentieth century, polenta was a staple of northern Italian peasants, to such an extent that the inhabitants of regions like Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto often suffered from pellagra, a disease caused by the lack of Vitamin B3 in corn. So much so, that polentone (literally polenta eater) became a derogatory term for southern Italians to call their northern counterparts.

Polenta is still a well-loved comfort food and a favored accompaniment, in its unadultered form or studded with lovely melted pockets of cheese, for winter dishes such as slow cooked meats, sausage, stews and mushrooms. In Veneto, white polenta often makes its appearance, creamy or grilled, alongside fish (usually baccalà, dried salted cod).

Funnily enough cornmeal is not a common ingredient in other traditional recipes. Sure, I have seen random cookies, loaves of bread and even pasta for the gluten intolerant, but there is no  Mediterranean version of corn muffins or cheesy corn studded cornbread.

There is however one exception: Amor Polenta, a corn and almond meal-based pound cake that was created in the Lombard city of Varese and that is as a consequence also known by the name of Dolce di Varese. It is a simple cake (and very quick to mix up), to be enjoyed with a cup of afternoon tea, for merenda (the mid-afternoon snack of all Italian children), for breakfast or as an unpretentious dessert. It tastes like home. Yet, despite its modesty, the cornmeal adds a delicate crackle when you bite into it and the hint of rum is warming and unexpected.

It is normally made in a traditional rounded and ridged loaf pan but I don't make it often enough to justify buying one. I am not excited by the obvious alternative, a loaf pan, because I feel this utterly simple cake deserves a little extra decoration, so I use my kugelhopf tin filled halfway. Ingredients are in grams but you can use the converter link at the top of the blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Risotto ai finferli (with chanterelle mushrooms)

It is still quite warm in this corner of the world but you can definitely tell fall has arrived when walking through the market stands. Figs, pumpkins, apples, chestnuts, grapes everywhere. I couldn't resist when I saw a bright yellow basket of chanterelles the other day (although I was not quite as excited while I stood in my kitchen cleaning them). There really is nothing better for an early Sunday dinner than a nice, creamy risotto that tastes like the forest in autumn.
You can pretty much put anything you fancy into a risotto but there are a few things that are a must in my book and that involve a lot of Italian words like al dente, all'onda, mantecazione, Vialone nano and Carnaroli.
Go here if you want to find out what any those words mean or if you need a risotto tutorial. I made an exception to one of my rules and used chicken stock to make my mushroom risotto instead of vegetable stock because I had some homemade stock in the freezer and I thought it would add flavor to the dish.
The amounts below are approximate. 
Ingredients (5/6 servings)
500gr chanterelle mushrooms (finferli)
500gr rice
vegetable/chicken stock
2-3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
pepper for garnish
Clean and chop the mushrooms into bite size pieces. Heat olive oil in a heavy-based pot and the stock in a separate pot. Peel and chop up a couple of cloves of garlic and lightly brown in the oil. Add in the mushrooms and a most of the parsley (set aside a little for garnish) and cook a few minutes before toasting the rice. Cook the risotto following the tutorial. Remember to add the butter and grated Parmesan cheese a few minutes before serving, making sure you mix fast to release the starch. Garnish with a little more parsley, a good sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and pepper.
For a vegetarian dish, substitute chicken stock for vegetable stock.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Do not enter unless...

.... you are any, some or all of the below:
  •  a fan of Andrew Zimmern's Bizzarre Foods
  •  an adventurous, curious eater
  •  a person with a strong stomach
  •  a fool for Halloween or anything gory
  •  NOT a vegetarian
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nectarine streusel cake

Growing up in a multicultural family was not always easy. I spent a lot of my life feeling like the odd-one-out wherever I was, like I never fit in anywhere 100%.
I was always a little different, the American when in school, the Italian when going back home for vacation. I had German speaking nannies in the States, English speaking nannies in Italy.
Then again, being a mix of sorts had its perks.
I got to travel a lot to see family.
I learned early on that different is good, interesting, enriching.
It also meant learning many lanuguages.  
My first words in New York were German. When the English was starting to sink in we moved to Paris for a year and my brain got rewired. I wouldn't really say I speak French, but I certainly have a knack for it. Then we moved back and when I finally learned to read and write in English, we moved to Italy, where I started over again in a new language. I even picked up Venetian on the way and a few words of Swedish and Spanish.
When we were kids, my sister and I had fun listening in on tourists' conversations, we always had a secret language to gossip in wherever we were and we got to daydream (more than we usually did) during English and German class in school. 
I could read books and watch movies in a variety of languages and making friends on vacation was easy once I got over my initial painstaking shyness towards my peers.
I never, however, was shy around adults and it entertained them to no end to hear me readily switch from one language to another without a moment's hesitation.
Languages are key for who I am and what I do today.
Last, but not least, languages are useful if you spend a lot of time ogling recipes. If my mother wasn't German, I probably would not have been able to make this recipe and translate it for you. Which is a very good thing, believe me. Once you have tasted how the silky fruit makes the baked batter go all custardy in its proximity, becoming the perfect contrast to the crumbly, crystallized buttery topping, you will understand how right I am.