Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pasta e fagioli

I spent a lot of my childhood locked in a closet, a trunk, or with a soap bar stuffed in my mouth.
She, on the other hand, always got into trouble, even when it was my fault, because she was older.
I spent years following her around and copying her every move.
She spent years figuring out how to get rid of me.
I kept her up at night, whispering and making her sing along to songs from musicals. Evita, specifically.
All she wanted to do was sleep.
When we were very young we, or rather she, used to play this game where she pretended she was dying and would say goodbye to all her dolls and stuffed animals one by one, in tears. I sat and watched and sobbed, impotent. Finally, she went to her favorite stuffed animal and kissed it goodbye and then gave it to me and said: "my beloved sister, please take care of xyz for me, make sure nothing ever happens to him/her, keep each other company and don't ever forget me". This game made me spiral into a state of desperation and I fell for it every time, even if we played it at least once a week.
We fought like there was no tomorrow, I drove her nuts and she could be pretty mean to me. But we were always together, whatever side of the Atlantic Ocean we were living on at the time, no matter what our family nucleus was at any given moment.  Our lives changed pretty often, but we were a certainty for each other, whether we liked it (I) or not (she).
That is what being sisters means: you are blood sisters and soul sisters, a bond that can never be broken.
So sure, we had our differences.
She was reserved and kept her feelings deeply buried inside.
I was a chatterbox and wore my feelings out in the open, for the world to see.
She was popular and loved to socialize.
I was goofy and painfully shy when it came to my peers.
She loved being out there, doing stuff, away from home.
I got really homesick and hated "doing stuff".
When we went our separate ways in the summer, I sometimes had to concentrate just to breathe without her. I spent the first part of my vacations away from her crying. One summer we were reunited in London after more than a month apart, me back from the States and she back from a great time at summer school. I was happy, I felt safe again. She hated it, because "seeing you means my summer is really over".
But despite our differences, we shared a lot.
Bizzare and embarassing memories, for example. Like soaking our wash cloths in hot water and then scrubbing our limbs until they were raw and red, because her seven year old self said it would get rid of germs; or almost falling into a canal on the way home from school when we had just moved to Venice and were experiencing our first acqua alta episode.
There was the time in New Delhi that we bought a really cool embroidery set at a street market and were so anxious to try it out, that we cut some fabric from the back of the luxuriously thick curtains of our hotel room while our mother was in the bathroom. She, by the way, just found out about that when we all reunited for my grandmother's memorial service right before Christmas. We had the whole family laughing hysterically with some of those anecdotes, and I'm telling you, it was so good to mix tears of laughter with the tears of grief.
And then there was the time we were in a hotel in Salzburg and had such a bad fight that we almost wrecked the hotel room (am I the only one noticing a recurring theme here?). Our mother had gone out to a ball and gave her two teenage daughters some money to get some food and watch a movie in their room. Next thing, the younger sibling was flying across the room and knocking down a lamp and some other decor in the trajectory.
If you ask our husbands, they both have stories of their first encounter with the "other sibling" that involves some kind of the physical evidence of fights prior to their arrival. Maybe, and I am neither confirming this piece of information nor denying it, something along the lines of being kicked in the stomach or an arm being twisted and bruised.
What can I say? We have had a passionate relationship and have pretty much gotten the fighting out of our systems. Now we laugh together like with nobody else. That initially loud, then totally mute kind laughter that encompasses your whole body and leaves you feeling tired and revived and rejuvinated, all at the same time, when it stops.
We are sisters and if I hadn't gotten her, I would've chosen her. She is the reason I wanted another girl, but now that I am blessed with a boy I hope every day that my kids will feel that way about each other when they grow up.
So here is to sisters, and to mine especially, who is about to land here any minute.
As the last weeks of cold weather envelop this part of the globe, here is a dish some of us won't be able to enjoy for much longer,  while others on the other side of the globe will just be getting into the mood for. Italian comfort food at its best.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Asian beef stew with Thai garnish (+ how to make another meal out of it)

On Monday morning I went to work in a wet mess of snow mixed with rain. My throat was sore, my nose was tickling and my eyes were stinging, the beginning of a horrendous cold. Yesterday, however, it was a beautiful day: it was sunny, the air was clean, the sky was a clear blue. When the sun shines these days, it shines a little warmer, the air instantly turns balmy, everything looks brighter. Then, a cloud covers the sun and the chill in the air envelops you, reminding you are still in the grip of the icy fingers of winter.

First of two batches

This dish sort of reminds me of this time of the year, when it is definitely still winter but little hints of spring start showing up here and there. The stew is hearty, warming, bursting with the flavors from the Far East. While it bubbles on the stove and cooks slowly, ever so slowly, in the oven it pleasantly warms up your kitchen. But mind you, it is not a heavy meal. The meat is tender and lean, the sauce is far from rich, more of an intensely flavored and tinted broth. Every bite is accompanied by the fresh, brightly colored hot and sour Thai salad it is served with. The tangyness of the lime juice, the umami from the fish sauce, the crisp and cool julienned vegetables, the bite from the chilli peppers and the potent aroma of the coriander leaves all contribute to that feeling of spring that is slowly creeping into all things winter.

Don't be scared off by the list of ingredients, if you already cook Asian-inspired recipes at home, you will already have most, it not all, of them in your kitchen. And if you don't it is not a big deal: I used Mirin instead of Chinese wine, small red chilli peppers instead of large red and green ones, cinnamon powder instead of sticks. I also realized that I forgot to add in the ground coriander at the beginning while I was writing out the ingredients for you. It turned out great anyway. The procedure is extremely simple and allows you to prepare ahead of time: a perfect dinner party dish. All it requires is a few hours of unattended slow cooking (I was taking measurements at Ikea while this baby was in the oven). The flavors are wonderful (even my half Thai friend loved it and asked me for the recipe) and the meat just falls apart at the touch of your fork.

1. Sauté ginger, garlic and onion; 2. add stock; 3. add sauces and spices; 4. boil down sauce once meat is ready.
A few notes:
Nigella (Lawson of course) suggests making this with ginger mashed potatoes and parsnips, which I'm sure is delicious, but I just couldn't be bothered and made it with basmati rice instead, which worked perfectly to soak up the sauce.
If you end up not using all of the sauce (I used boneless meat  - she suggests either or - so that could be why... less bulk), DO NOT throw it away! Store it in a jar in the fridge for future use.
On Monday, to nurse my cold, I heated up some stock, poured in a few tablespoons of said sauce and then dumped in the leftover basmati rice: the most perfect meal for a congested head and chest and a runny nose. I loved it so much I decided I wanted to integrate it into our dinner. I had some tuna that I had bought a couple of days prior that needed using up. I heated some more stock, mixed in the rest of the jar of sauce and then added in some rice noodles. On the side, I sauteed some rapini in a pan with olive oil and garlic. Last, I seared the tuna steaks coated in sesame seeds and then cut them into thin slices. I served all the ingredients in a bowl with spoons and chop sticks. Success all the way round!
I am telling you, there is nothing better than a meal that yields one, or even two more!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Healthy-Enough-For-Breakfast Cake


While white smoke was billowing from the Vatican on Wednesday evening announcing the newly-elected pope to the world, I was in my kitchen dusting white clouds of powdered sugar onto this lovely little creation of mine.
Ok, so that isn't entirely true.
I baked the cake on Tuesday, not Wednesday, and quickly sprinkled on some sugar for styling reasons before it had truly cooled down just so I could snap a few pictures before it got dark. So excuse my use of artistic license... a blogger's gotta do what a blogger's gotta do, right? ;o)

What you don't need, however, is an excuse to have cake for breakfast anymore (not that that has ever been an issue here in Italy).
There is no butter, no sugar (except that little sprinkling added for styling purposes) and no highly processed flour in this cake. Yet it does not taste like cardboard. I promised you a long time ago I would never publish healthy yet unappetizing excuses for a dessert. And I never have, although I have made my share over the years. So trust me on this one, 'kay?
This cake is moist (really, really moist) and packed with nutritious ingredients: honey (antioxidants, antibacterials), olive oil (antioxidants and vitamin E), carrots (beta carotene, vitamin E), coconut (vitamin C, fiber), Greek yogurt (calcium, acidophilus), oat flour (vitamin B, iron, calcium), wholewheat flour (fiber, folates, vitamin B).

See how moist it is?

You can use grated zucchini instead of carrots, substitute some of the yogurt, olive oil or even honey with apple sauce... well, you get the gist. Just make it! We have been eating it all week and it is as moist and satisfying as the first day.

Wishing you all a lovely week end. I know I am looking forward to mine!

3/4 cup wholewheat flour
3/4 cup oat flour
2 heaping tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cup honey
1 1/4 cup finely grated carrots
1/2 cup unsweetened dried coconut
1- 1 1/4 cup Greek yogurt
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C and grease a traditional round layer cake pan or a springform tube pan (I used the latter). Whisk together flours, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Beat the eggs, mix in the yogurt, eggs, honey, finely grated carrots (I used a food processor), coconut, oil and vanilla. Then mix in the dry ingredients. Pour into the pan and bake for 40-45 minutes (or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean). Let cake cool on rack for a few minutes and then ummold. When the cake has completely cooled down you can sprinkle it with powdered sugar, or not if you want to stick to the healthy -enough-for-breakfast rule.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Cascina Lasso and Vigevano

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you will have realized that I do not often post about restaurant meals. For a variety of reasons, I might add.

The first being that I don't dine out half as much as my former self, the one without children. Exhaustion, the need to meticulously plan ahead and finances play a key role in that decision.

Secondly, dining out with a 3-year old and a 7-year old is just not that amusing. Granted it is getting easier every year, but however fun and delicious the experience might be, it is definitely not relaxing. It is all about cutting up food, mopping up spilled drinks, pulling out toys and books from your bag quicker than Mary Poppins, eating quickly and getting out before the people at the other table starts rolling their eyes at us. Not to mention multiple trips to the bathroom after a miniature member of the family loudly announces their need "to go" and exactly what category "needs to go" so that all the diners can hear.

However, although it is not a daily event, we do still go out. Our wining and dining can be split into categories.

a) Going out sans kids either means date night or having dinner with friends, but we are usually too busy knocking back cocktails and having adult conversation to remember to take pictures of what we are eating.
b) Going out with kids involves more casual affairs in child-friendly environments, often local hang outs, usually at lunchtime, that are good'n'all, but not something to write home post about.

The other reason I don't post much, truth be told, is that I hate being that person taking pictures of her food in a fancy restaurant. I admire all of you great food bloggers who entertain us daily with your  fantastic food and restaurant shots all over the world, but I just don't have the guts. I am incapable of shrugging off what other people are thinking: I don't feel comfortable when waiters sniff at me, when other tables watch me disapprovingly or with mild curiousity. I hate making others at the table wait for me to snap the picture because I feel rushed. I would die of embarassement if someone came to my table to tell me pictures aren't allowed and (it makes me cringe to admit this) I don't want to pass for that person who has never dined in a nice restaurant and absolutely needs to send pictures home, as shallow and silly as that may sound. And let us not forget the impossibility of taking a decent pictures (inconspicuously or not) at night. How do you do it?

I admit I have tried on various occasions and all of them have failed: bad lighting, bad angle, bad shots. I just end up throwing away the god-awful pictures I took hiding under a napkin or behind a menu each and every time.

I have embraced the fact that I will never be that person who demands a table by the window to get the perfect shot and that jumps up to get a great angle. I am just not that bold. I only snap pics when I am in totally casual sorroundings or positive that I am in no way disturbing anybody's sensibility by taking pictures. And of course the meal has to be worth it. Not an easy combination.

Last week end was the perfect example. We went for a drive: the weather was reasonably decent after some days of snow and rain, the kids needed to get rid of some pent up energy and my mother had never been to Vigevano, a somewhat hidden jewel in the province of Pavia. Surrounded by the famed rice paddies of the Lomellina, that produces the best risotto rice in the world, lies this dormant town with one of Italy's most beautiful examples of Renaissance  piazza, presumbly designed (together with the tower) by Bramante. The castle was originally a fortress and hunting lodge for the Visconti family and then renovated by the Sforza family.
Upon arrival, not only were we delighted by the beauty of the Piazza Ducale, with its frescoed arcades, but also surprised by the replica of an old carousel that the kids (and I in tow) rode on before walking up to the tower and castle.

Once we had worked up an appetite, we got back into the car and drove just a few minutes to Cascina Lasso, in the Parco Naturale del Ticino, a park and protected area in the Ticino valley. Cascina is the word used in Northern Italy, usually Lombardy and Piedmont, to describe a working farmhouse, with or without livestock.

Cascina Lasso has been owned and run by the same family since the early 1900s. A family of four lives there now: the husband farms the land and takes care of the animals, while the wife, a mother of two, is a gracious hostess in the restaurant, that is only open on week ends, when they hire extra help to cook and serve clients. Most of the food they serve is grown on the farm and what isn't they acquire from neighboring farmers. This guarantees a meal that is extremely fresh and seasonal for a comparatively low price for the Milan area.

The meal consists in several courses, so be warned and come hungry! The restaurant is located in the renovated barn, on two floors and is charming and cozy in its rustic simplicity (and extremely clean!).

Antipasto 1: homecured meats (salami, coppa and ham) accompanied by homemade warm focaccia

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Florentine lace cookies and almond brittle ice cream

Thump. Thump. Thump.

With every step I get closer. And with every step I go farther.

Closer to home, farther from her.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Just keep running. Keep your mind on your breathing, on the beautiful moon, on the vans delivering boxes and boxes of goods to stores.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

My watch reads 6.35am. If I run a little faster, I might just make it home before she gets into the taxi to leave. Maybe, but probably not. I know her well enough to be pretty certain that she is already downstairs with her luggage, waiting. As soon as the taxi arrives, she will get in and they will drive away.

So just keep your rhythm, stay with the others, chit chat about your day. Get rid of your blues by keeping your body and mind busy.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

As I approach my street, I look over to see if the taxi is there. It isn't, as I suspected. It is 6.40am on the dot, the time the taxi was due, but I know they always come early hoping to make and extra buck or two. They left, she is on her way to catch her plane.

I run on, no point going home right away anymore. I still have five minutes to spare. I watch the sky turn from pink to grey-blue. Then I say good bye to my running companions and sprint across the street.

Thump, thump, thump.

I enter the apartment. It is dark and quiet. The kids and F are sleeping behind closed doors but it feels empty. I smell her perfume, or something more subtle, perhaps her face cream? I glance into her room, see the tousled sheets. She has been gone for so little that her pillow might still be warm, but probably not. I smile remembering how much I had to insist last night for her to leave the bed undone... no bed making allowed before 7am when you have a flight to catch.

I am sad I missed her on my way back from my morning run. I would have loved to have said goodbye again. I am glad I missed her on my way back from my morning run.  Good byes are hard.

It does not matter who you are or what you have achieved in your life, whether you have a career, whether you have won a Nobel prize, whether you are a mother, a father, a husband or a wife... when you are with your mother you are a daughter, you are a son, you are her child.

It takes time to readjust, to go back to being an adult with responsibilities and a family of your own, to protecting others instead of feeling protected.

We spent some lovely days together, the two of us alone and the two of us with my children and F.

We spoke, we laughed, we remembered, we ate, we drank. We went to museums and shopping.

We spent a decent amount of time in my kitchen chatting, looking through recipes and planning meals. I cooked, she watched and took note. She researched and suggested and I listened.

I may have mentioned before that growing up my mother was not a woman to wear an apron and cook up a Sunday roast. Having lunch out and seeing an exhibit was a more normal way for us to spend a Sunday. That does not mean we do not have our share of family favorites or that she does not know how to cook up a feast. And even if I do not have childhood memories of tinkering in the kitchen with her, I have her to thank for my love of good food and cook books, my fearlessness of trying pretty much anything.

We came up with this recipe together (and I created a new Pinterest addict in the process).

This, in short, is how it went:
1. Mom tastes friend's failed (friend's words, not mine) delicious cookies and is reminded of her love of florentines.
2. Mom starts obsessing about florentines.
3. We decide to dedicate an afternoon to baking together.
4. We make florentines, love them, but both agree they should have baked a little darker.
5. I want to show off my ice cream making skills and machine to her.
6. I decide to crumble the florentines and use them in said ice cream.
The florentines were truly delicious on their own, but the ice cream was sublime: each custardy, rich spoonful studded with crunchy morsels of caramelized nuttines. I am sorry I did not get a better picture of it, just to get your taste buds going, but there was none left the next day to photograph in day light.