Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Risotto al finocchio, or fennel risotto

I was standing at my kitchen counter slicing, stirring and thinking. I was thinking about life, how much - or rather how little - time we have. I was thinking about how we all want to leave a mark in this world, how we all want to be remembered.
Not everyone is born an artist, a genius with words, notes, paintbrushes; not all of us have magic in their hands. We don't all excel in our careers or have children to pass on our genes, our teachings, our experience. But I think we all strive to be remembered, we all want our life to have had a meaning, to have left some sort of an impact.
I kept stirring and musing. I was making a family favorite, risotto, using a totally new ingredient, the humblest of vegetables. I had never once heard of or even thought of making risotto with fennel bulbs until recently. I ask myself why, now that I have experienced the delightful creamy, delicate yet almost buttery flavor fennel imparts.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Baccalà alla vicentina

There are different versions of how the inhabitants of Vicenza, the vicentini, came to love baccalà.

Some say that this recipe from Vicenza was already greatly appreciated back in the 13th century. There is a story that tells of how the Veronese opened the gates of the castle of Montebello in a battle against Vicenza when the latter called out that they were carrying polenta and baccalà.

The most accredited version of the recipe's origin, however, dates back to the middle of the 15th century, when an expedition led by the Venetian Querini was shipwrecked on Rost, an isolated island way off the coast of Norway. The unfortunate event however resulted in a few specimens of stockfish, dried cod, being brought back to the Italian shores, and it was the beginning of a neverending love story. It is undeniable that dried fish was a great solution both for seafaring people all over the world and those they left at home. Preserving food was not as simple as it is today and stockfish became the perfect substitute for fresh fish, then extremely expensive and easily perishable. The people of Vicenza found many a way to cook this fish, but it seems that  a well-loved woman, familiarly called siora Vitoria, the owner of a trattoria came up with this simple, yet very tasty way, of making baccalà at the end of the 19th century: the recipe now known all over Italy as baccalà alla Vicentina.

A few notes:

For those of you who may not be familiar with the difference, stockfish is dried cod while salt cod is made by preserving the same fish in salt. The different ways of preserving the fish are a direct consequence of the seasons. Cod is fished in the northern waters surrounding the coasts of countries like Scandinavia, Canada and Iceland. When the fish was caught in the winter months it was set out to dry in the cold sea air on rocks or wooden racks. In the warmer months, when this was not an option, the fish was cleaned directly on the boats and preserved in layers of salt in barrels. Once the fish is soaked for several days in fresh water, the result is quite similar.

In Italian cod is called merluzzo and the two variations are respectively called stoccafisso and baccalà. The people of Vicenza traditionally use stoccafisso in this recipe although they call it bacalà. They are neither ignorant nor confused, they simply call stockfish bacalà with one "c" and salt cod baccalà with two "c"s. So the truly correct name of the recipe is bacalà alla vicentina, although my post is called baccalà alla vicentina because I used salted cod instead of stockfish to make it (and I made boiled potatoes to go with it instead of polenta, because my daughter came down with the stomach flu and I couldn't hop over to the supermarket as I had been planning).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Braised rabbit with black olives and ground almonds

I'm not that kind of girl. Really.
It is not like me to turn my back on a meaningful relationship because things aren't the way they used to be. Things change, we get older. I always knew that. And let's face it, he was no spring chicken to begin with. When we met he was stylish and wordly but he had had his share of relationships before me and they had certainly left their mark. It didn't matter to me then, I coveted him from afar and waited patiently, because I knew he would come to me. He did and the fact that he was older didn't matter to me at all because I loved him. All I cared about was sharing my time with someone who was really there for me, supportive, someone who was in it for the long-term. So when we walked down the street I didn't care if people stared, I just walked on, my hand curled around him, head high, confident of what we shared, disinterested in what people thought of us. So what if he was old? Nobody knew what we really shared. He knew everything about me, kept all my secrets. He made me laugh, he made me cry. Thanks to him, I contacted old friends I hadn't seen in years. He got me to stay more in touch with my family, he travelled around the world with me. He shared my fondest memories: my children growing up, our travels. So even if I saw the signs of his ageing, I shrugged them off. Until there was just no ignoring them anymore: he was suddenly slow, he just couldn't keep up with my pace anymore. He often needed to rest, to recharge his batteries.

And then it happened. A few months before Christmas, I met the object of my desire. Young, sexy, sleek, sophisticated. Fair, so different from the darker tones I was used to. He knew everything about anything, he seemed ahead of his time. I accidentally brushed him with the tips of my fingers and was amazed at how responsive he was to my touch. My head was spinning, I had forgotten what that felt like. I left immediately, ashamed of my behaviour, my heart pounding. I told no one for the longest time, not you, not my friends, not my family. How could I? I turned my head and went on with my life. I pretended I had never seen him, that he did not exist, that he wasn't suddenly everywhere I looked. I am not one to make sudden decisions and I knew I did not want to invest in a whole new relationship, the cost would be too high, it was not worth it. All relationships get old sooner or later, the excitement wears off quickly. But I couldn't shake the memory of our first encounter and my relationship was undeniably starting to show the strain. I kept trying to ignore all the signs but finally I gave in and went to look for him.
I could not resist, I succembed. Forgive me, but I am in love or call it lust if you prefer. I know things will change, but for now I have decided to enjoy every second.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Honey poppy seed dressing

Maybe I should change my blog's name to Nuts about vinaigrette.
Maybe I should start posting a vinaigrette recipe for every day of the year. "365 dressings for a healthier 2013". Whaddya think?
Maybe I should just shut up make something else.
But I feel like I finally understand what Brenda, Elvis, Willie and the Pet Shop Boys were talking about. I just can't seem to get this stuff off of my mind or my salad.
I get home from the office and there it is, sitting in the corner of my kitchen, that big, white book beckoning me. Before I know it I am flipping through those pages, fingers trembling, cursing myself for not using the ribbon bookmark that was purposely sewn into the binding for just this purpose. I need more, I need to find yet another way to make my evening salad even more delectable than yesterday's. There are just so many, I can't stop myself!
And so, until I get rid of this addiction and start publishing something you can actually chew rather then surreptitiously lick off your finger from an empty bowl while you are filling the dish washer, you get yet another from me.
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp cider vinegar (or any other kind of fruit vinegar)
1 small shallot, minced
2 tbsp mustard (the book suggests Dijon, I used an estragon-based one)
1 tsp poppy seeds
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
If you are using a food processor, first mince the shallot and then add all the ingredients minus the poppy seeds and run until creamy. When the dressing is ready, add the poppy seeds and give a good last mix with a spatula making sure all the honey is mixed in as opposed to stuck at the bottom of the bowl.
If you make this by hand, mince the shallot and then mix all the ingredients together (poppy seeds included) minus the olive oil, which you will add in at the whisking until you obtain an emulsion.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Parmesan vinaigrette

I love salad.
In Italy, salad is usually a pretty simple affair. Unless you are eating it as a main course during your lunch break in one of the many bars near the office, where it is often served with a choice of corn, tuna, mozzarella or shrimp, it usually consists in a mix of greens, perhaps some carrots and/or tomatoes. No ingredients like croutons or cheese to distract you from the perfect balance between tender soncino leaves, crunchy lettuce or romaine, the peppery bite of arugula and a bitter hint of radicchio.
The dressing is also understated, it's purpose being to compliment the perfection rather than drench it in creamy richness in an attempt to make you forget you are eating salad to begin with. You usually use a good glug of extra virgin olive oil, a dash of vinegar (balsamic or other) or freshly squeezed lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt (and lotsa pepper if you are me).
Now I am perfectly happy having just greens with some meat or fish anytime. But when I have salad for lunch I usually add in whatever leftovers I have sitting around, from chickpeas to roasted vegetables, meat, fish, feta cheese, avocado, herbs. A sprinkle of sunflower seeds, cranberries, sone chopped dried figs or furikake and I am set. My dressing however is always the same, the kind described above, simply because living here I tend to forget about the variety of options there are out there.
Arugula, feta cheese, roasted butternut squash and sunflower seeds

F, on the other hand, is not as salad crazy as I am so at times like this, when leaves are a constant presence on our dinner table in an attempt to eat healthier and lighter after the holiday bonanza, I try to shake things up a little. Yesterday it hit me: the man loves eating salad abroad because of vinaigrette! Why don't I think of that more often?
So I pulled out my Joy of Cooking and was blown away by the amount and variety of dressings it describes. Yesterday (and I think this is the beginning of a trend) I made this vinaigrette paired with romaine lettuce and chopped celery. Boy was it good and it took under five minutes to make!
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 small garlic clove, grated
3 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tsp crushed fennel seeds
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
A few notes: I used less vinegar because I am currently the owner of a very good-quality, aged balsamic vinegar with a syrupy consistency so a little takes you a long way. I used a very small shallot and less garlic than suggested because I was worried they would be overpowering as we are not that used to eating them raw. This amount worked perfectly for us, but feel free to go crazy. I also used less olive oil than suggested because I used less vinegar.
I put all the ingredients in a mini food processor at the same (I previously crushed the fennel seeds in a mortar). I merely peeled the shallot and garlic and put them in whole with the rest. I pulsed for a minute to obtain a creamy consistency. If you are making it by hand, mince and grate the shallot and garlic, crush the fennel seeds and then mix everything together, adding the olive oil last while mixing with a whisk to emulsify. Dress salad right before serving.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Hello 2013!

Apple ice wine from Quebec

Happy New Year to all of you!
I know I haven't posted in ages and I am not going to bore you with excuses of  pre-festive crazyness, my offspring's birthday right before Christmas and right after I got back from a trip, packing for a ski trip (mountains of stuff, pun intended), said ski trip, back to office, kids home from school, homework, back to school, large work load. Although I just did.

The truth is, despite having packed up all the Christmas decorations for another year; despite having resumed my exercise routine (and fantasized more than I should have about liposuction); despite us having settled back into our daily routine; despite the human species needing food to survive, I haven't been cooking. Or at least nothing blog-worthy. To top it all off, blogger has been having some issues, making me even more lazy about posting.

But, my dear friends, I have missed you and wanted to check in and say hi. So here are some long overdue pictures of the Fiera dell'Artigianato, where we went with the kids at the beginning of December, just so I have an excuse to post.


The Fiera dell'Artigianato is an annual event, open to anyone and free. It is held at the Milan Fair and brings together artisans and craftspeople from all over the world. There is a pavillions dedicated to the regions of Italy, another to Europe and others still to the rest of the world. The hundreds of stands offer local food, products (ranging from junk and tacky souvenirs to beautiful and even valuable goods) and crafts (some of which are disappearing all too rapidly) from all these countries.

Mantecaos from Andalucia: two of the many flavors offered (pistachio and chocolate&hazelnut)

I won't lie: it is crowded, noisy and the restaurants/snack bars offer pretty stereotypical and often average food, but you can also come across some true gems and learn new things about far away places without ever leaving town. It was an especially fun experience for the kids, who learned about people, cultures, food and music from all over the world in a handful of hours. Last but not least, it is a good way to get a lot of Christmas shopping done at once.

I realize now most of my pictures are of food... big surprise, eh?


...and more France

Learning how to carve wood in Val d'Aosta