Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tomato sauce with mozzarella-filled meat balls - perfect for Valentine's Day!

I make ragù on an almost weekly basis and always keep some in my freezer for a last-minute, balanced meal for the kids. Vegetables, protein, carbs, dairy/calcium all in one. Lately, however, I have been on a ground meat roll, making anything from sturdy meatloaf, to shepherd's pie to more genteel meat balls. And  then, the other day I suddenly realized I had never made spaghetti and meatballs for the kids! Such an important part of their American (yes, American! not Italian) heritage.

Italian children of my generation (and later ones) only discovered spaghetti and meatballs when the Tramp nudged that last meatball over to Lady with his damp nose in that charming Italian trattoria, definitely not because their mamma lovingly prepared it for them. Although this dish was originally inspired by similar recipes from the South, in the Old World, it was the Italian immigrants that made it popular in the New World around the turn of last century. 

Disney's Lady and the Tramp - Happy Valentine's day

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tarte tatin


Sunday morning was one of those crisp, clear, incredibly sunny winter days that remind me of New York, a harsh, cold wind sweeping through the streets and cleaning the air. Colors seemed brighter, outlines sharper, like everything had more detail.
You know what I mean, right? When you feel like you are looking at the world through binoculars and you just adjusted the focusing wheel a tad? Like you had gotten accustomed to seeing everything just slightly out of focus, so slightly that you hadn't even notice it until you actually adjusted the wheel?
That is the kind of day it was on Sunday, quite extraordinary for this city. On days like these you can clearly see the snow-capped mountains that surround Milan and they look so close, you feel like you could reach out and touch them. It is a view that takes your breath away.
Flaky, crisp crust
On days like these, I always wonder what it must have been like to leave this city on horseback or on foot centuries ago, back when there was very little to obstruct the traveller's view of the Po valley: lush, green flat land for miles and then the abrupt massiveness of the Prealps and the Alps. What did this view provoke in the mind of a simple farmer from a small village in the plain on a day like this? A man who had never left his village, let alone ventured over the Alps? What did he feel like when he woke up on a day like this to find that majestic alpine belt at a finger's reach? What did he make of the majestic crystalline rock formation he saw so nearby but would never cross? Did he wonder about it, about the foreign people and lands that were right on the other side, yet so unapproachable? Or did he just work the land without wasting time on such unecessary thoughts, thoughts that certainly did not help put food on the family table?
But I digress. My friends tease me about my habit of constantly imagining and wondering what a place was like back in the Middle Ages. What can I say? Living in a country so filled with history, it is hard not daydream about these things.

Anyways, what I really wanted to tell you about when I started this post was how sometimes a handful of seconds can change your life. So back to a sunny, very windy winter day in Milan.
We all woke up in good spirits on Sunday morning. How can you not when blazing sunlight welcomes you after days of grey, wet, foggy weather? We were going out for lunch with my in-laws and the prospect of a short drive out of the city made us even more cheerful. When we walked out of our part of the building into our courtyard, I wrapped my collar tighter around my neck. The wind was colder than I had expected it to be. We walked over to the communal recycling bins where the children took turns at who could separate glass, paper, plastic and metal more quickly. When we were done we crossed the courtyard and walked up to the entrance of the building.

Like so many apartment buildings in Italy, our building is built around an inner courtyard, so when you enter it from the street, you first approach a covered area that opens up through an arch into said courtyard. The main stairwell is located in this enclosed area. If you cross the courtyard you enter the back of the building through a  smaller door and reach a secondary staircase. In the old days, this was the servants' entrance, but after the War the large apartments were split into smaller ones, so now the two stairwells and the apartments are totally independent from each other.
If you are wondering why the apples look different here, it is because the first time I  made tarte tatin I accidentally cut the apples in eights (see here) and the second time I quartered them (see above and below), the traditional way.
 I digress again, forgive me, but this time I am doing it to help you envision what I am about to tell you.
We walked through the arch and towards the main entrance of the building. Right as we stepped out onto the street we heard a deafening thud. Not a crash, more like a loud thump. Startled, we turned and realized a very tall but flimsy plant with a large, heavy plastic vase had just been swept by the wind off of one of the balconies/terraces above and crashed into the courtyard exactly where the four of us had just walked through the arch no more than five seconds before.

Quartered apples
Call it luck, fate, destiny, providence or whatever else you like. All I could think at that moment was that we were alive and going out to lunch on a beautiful sunny day, but that one of us could have been killed or very seriously hurt, if...

...if my son had missed the paper recycling bin while throwing away the empty cereal box on his first try

...if the kids had lingered like they usually do to look at an ant or pick up a fallen leaf

...or if I had stopped to pull down my daughter's hat over her ears to protect her from the wind as I so often do.

If is such a short, simple word, yet so powerful and full of meaning.
The proverbial vase falling from a window sill will never be just that anymore. It will forever remind of that time that was not my time or my family's apparently, of how precious and fleeting life is.
So forgive me for inundating you with a jumble of thoughts mixed with historical and architectural details and just plain weirdness, but the craziness is bound to come out sooner and later if you just laugh it off with your kids when it happens to minimize and proceed to hide your shaking hands for the next hour.

So with this carpe diem attitude, why not make something you were too afraid to make before, just for the heck of it, because life is good and full of surprises and because you never know what tomorrow holds.

In my book this means attempting a tarte tatin. Not a fake one or a trial one, an actual tarte tatin, just like the ones you eat in a bistrot on a Parisian avenue (on the other side of the Alps) with a dollop of crème fraîche to balance out the sweetness of the caramelized pommes.

And you know what? It turned out to be so much less dauting than I expected.

First step: take out your beloved copy of The Joy of Cooking. Or turn to your favorite blogger (moi naturellement).

Second step: make the dough. Use frozen homemade pie crust like I did, make your own fresh (I used this recipe), or buy some store bought crust or puff pastry.

Apples cut in eighths here

Monday, February 4, 2013

To be or not to be? Chocolate and hazelnut biscotti (or cantuccini)

The other day I finally got around to making biscotti, although I feel the need to clarify I am calling them biscotti for your sake, because that is not what we call these in Italy.
Or rather, they are biscotti, because in Italy all cookies - biscuits for non-Americans - are called biscotti (and mind you, it is the plural for biscotto, so if you are eating one, do not call it a biscotti because Italians cringe at the mere sound - the same applies to panini, but that is material for a new post), but more specifically they are commonly known as cantuccini although their original name was biscotti di Prato, the city in Tuscany where Mattei invented them in the 19th century.

If you want to be even more accurate, as Italians tend to be about their culinary traditions, real cantuccini are never chocolate flavored and are not made with hazelnuts. Sure, variations exist now to satisfy tourists market demand but the true cantuccino is made with almonds and is usually enjoyed at the end of a meal accompanied with vin santo, a Tuscan fortified wine to dunk the dry cookies in.
So, come to think of it, if you call them biscotti you actually have a point. The word biscotto (bis-cotto) literally means baked twice in Italian, so calling cantuccini biscotti is really more accurate than calling a bacio di dama or any other typical Italian breakfast cookie a biscotto, as it is baked twice and most of the others are not.

This is a good recipe to keep because biscotti are great to have in the house for a variety of reasons: they are quick to make, you can use pretty much any ingredient on hand in your pantry (any kind of nut, chopped chocolate or dried fruit, seeds etc.), the dough contains no fat (no butter or oil) and very little sugar (but you can play around with quantities, these were definitely not sweet). They are great for breakfast (dipped in coffee, warm milk or cappucino), for tea or after dinner for impromptu guests with a glass of sweet wine. Best of all, they last a long time (although probably not for centuries as Pliny the Elder insisted), so you can always keep some stashed away for just those occasions.
I based my recipe on Lauren's many biscotti recipes. Her enthusiasm finally caught on.