Friday, January 31, 2014

Potato and porcini mushroom soup

There was a time in my life when I woke up every morning to what is considered one of the most breathtaking views in the world. The Dolomites, that unique part of the Italian Alps that turns pink during sunrise and sunset, were so much a part of my everyday life that I barely noticed them outside of my window.
I am sure that being a teenager at the time didn't help my indifference to nature, busy as I was whispering with my girlfriends, listening to my Walkman, sometimes doing homework but mostly daydreaming about some guy I had met the day before out on the slopes. In boarding school you rarely stop to smell the roses, to breathe in the fresh mountain air, to look at the silver pine trees or admire the snow sparkling in the sun.
Now, however, whenever I get the chance to go to the mountains - any mountains - things are very different. I gasp at the beauty that surrounds me, I rejoice in watching my children run in the tall grass and wild flowers or making snow angels in the winter. I realize those years changed me without me even noticing it. The mountains have stayed within me, in my heart and soul, and few places make me feel so at peace.
I already wrote about going back to visit those mountains. Once every few years we visit an old friend. Our kids play together, our husbands talk airplanes (seriously, how many chances are there that your high school bestie will marry a guy who is as obsessed with civil aviation as yours is?) and we reminisce about how silly and boy crazy we were (did I mention the boarding school was not co-ed?) and about the ups and downs of being a teenager. We still giggle and there is still wine, but it is no longer hidden away in a pillowcase inside a shoebox in a suitcase somewhere in the back of our closet.
My friend and I also sometimes collaborate. This recipe was part of a project we worked on and I couldn't not share it with you, my friends. It is a recipe from La cucina delle Dolomiti by Dino Dibona and was chosen to allow tourists to easily recreate the flavors of those mountains in their own home.  To make this you simply have to procure a package of dried porcini mushrooms, an ideal ingredient to carry back in your suitcase because they are so lightweight. If, on the other hand, you haven't been skiing in the Dolomites, luckily for you dried porcini are nowadays readily available almost anywhere and although they are pricey, a few go a long way.
In this essential and effortless soup the (once) humble ingredients really shine through. In old times people from these valleys used to prepare this kind of meal to fill their bellies and warm their bodies during the freezing months using what was available to them from farming and foraging. Potatoes held well all winter and mushrooms were plentiful in the fall and were then sliced and dried for the colder months.
What I loved most about the soup is the incredible flavor these few ingredients can create when combined: its is so much more than the sum of its parts. The texture is wonderful too: the soft, sweet  potato nuggets absorb all that flavor and the mushrooms add a subtle earthiness and chew. Every bite tastes and smells like you are walking through the forest, dark fronds towering over you, your steps softly sinking into the warm, dry mossy carpet.

Ingredients (4 servings)
600gr/3 medium-sized potatoes
1 liter/4 cups/35 oz. vegetable stock
100gr/3.5 oz. fresh porcini mushrooms or 50gr/1.7oz. dried porcini
50gr butter/about 3tbsp butter (or oil for a vegan recipe)
1 yellow onion
2 garlic cloves
chives, for garnish

Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic. Clean and roughly chop the mushrooms if you are using fresh porcini. If you are using dried porcini (like I did), rinse them quickly with cold water and then soak in hot (but not boiling) water for up to an hour. Set aside the liquid when you drain them.
Melt the butter in a pot over low heat and add the potatoes, onion and garlic. Sauté for about 3 minutes, mixing constantly.

Pour in the stock, bring to a boil and simmer covered for about 20 minutes.

Add the porcini mushrooms. If you are using dried mushrooms, pour in part of the remaining liquid for extra flavor. 

Raise the heat and cook for another 10  minutes. Garnish with finely chopped chives and serve.




Monday, January 27, 2014

10-minute carrot and ginger pickle (and a salad to go with it)

If you ever bumped into Peter Rabbit, he would be sure to tell you that carrots are absolutely delicious, worth risking your life for in Mr. McGregor's garden. He would probably go on to tell you they are really healthy and he would ask you if you have ever seen a rabbit wearing glasses. Well, perhaps if you were four years old, and you had a very vivid imagination...
The truth is carrots may be good for you and quite tasty at that, but they are also pretty boring and not a vegetable you normally serve your guests, well aside from a few exceptions.
These on the other hand are sweet, they are sour, they are crunchy and they have some heat. They take 10 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to pickle. They last in the fridge for up to a few days, probably even more, but I can't vouch for it because they have never lasted that long in our home.
So far we have had these carrots in a lentil salad, the chickpea salad above, in mixed green salads, with cheese and cured meats and even alongside roast chicken. You can use the leftover pickling liquid in a salad dressing with olive oil and perhaps a drizzle of sesame oil or you can just spoon it into your mouth like my 8-year old did last week. 



Once again, I have to thank Lorraine for this brilliant tip and so should you ;o)
2 large carrots, peeled into ribbons or grated
1 or 2 tsp grated ginger
4 tbsp rice wine vinegar
3 or 4 tbsp quick-dissolving sugar (like icing sugar)
1 tbsp water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp soy sauce
Mix together together the vinegar, sugar (I used a little under the 4 tablespoons indicated in the recipe) and salt until they dissolve completely. Add the water and soy sauce.
Peel the carrots into thin ribbons or grate them. Grate the ginger and mix into the carrots and then fit them into a jar about the size of a jam jar. Pour over the pickling liquid, making sure it completely covers the carrots. Close and pickle for about 10 minutes, turning the jar upside down halfway through. Use immediately or store in fridge for a few days.
Chickpea salad with feta, apples and pickled carrots
3 cups chickpeas
2 cups arugula
150gr feta cheese
handful fresh coriander, chopped
1/2 apple, sliced
pickled carrots, about half the amount above
I cooked the chickpeas, but you can just as easily use the canned variety. Rinse them well, chop up the arugula and coriander leaves, crumble in some feta cheese and add in the pickled carrots and the thinly sliced, bite-sized pieces of apple. Drizzle over some olive oil and lemon juice, mix and adjust for salt.



Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Granola two ways: everything and maple pecan


Despite my non-resolutions, I will admit to having started a healthier, lighter eating regime this month, eschewing carbs and processed sugar as much as possible.
This new routine involves eating oats in as many forms possible in the morning rather than the five or ten two or three wholewheat cookies I normally hastily dunk into my caffe latte every morning at my office desk. It also involves thinking and preparing ahead but turns out to be less of a bother than I thought it would be. I just have to remember to boil and soak some steel cut oats in water about once a week or alternatively mix and bake my own granola, of which I have already made several batches.
I am aware that making your own granola is not the discovery of the century and that many of you are already doing it, but for those of you who don't, it is so easy and so much healthier than buying those (often) sugar, salt and fat-laden industrial ones, of which there is very little choice here to begin with. So I am indeed very excited, just as excited as I was about last week's lentils ... what can I say, I guess I am an enthusiastic kinda gal, although I promise to spare you Dr. Seuss this time round.
I have made a variety of combinations with very different ingredients and two different methods, both of which worked very well for me, and I cannot help patting myself on the shoulder everytime I take a bite: not only do I get to clean out my pantry and freezer (I cannot begin to tell you the amount of dried fruit and nuts I have stashed away), but I can choose from an endless combination of ingredients, I have control of what I am feeding my family, how sweet I want my breakfast cereal to be and also how much fat, sugar or salt I want or rather don't want to use. Not to mention I get to decide whether I want big clusters, small clusters or none at all.
We have been eating it with cold milk, warm milk or yogurt as breakfast and after-school snacks and we have yet to get bored of it. I am already thinking dried figs, medjool dates, apricots, pistachios, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins. My kids are already dreaming of chocolate chips in all colors or sizes and peanut butter chips...
Quick note: I have been using instant oats because I had a large tin to use up and they worked well but normally granola recipes call for rolled oats. You can go either way. Also, play around with the ingredients you like by substituting, adding or taking any of them. Last but not least, I recently read some recipes that did not call for any kind of fat in the preparation, so I will be trying that next.*

*Six months later I am still making this weekly: I now use rolled oats or 6-grain mixes, I have cut the amount of maple syrup and add flax/linseed to the mix, and the maple granola is definitely my favorite although I sometimes swap pecans with a seed mix (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, linseed etc.).

Everything granola (makes enough for one baking tray)
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup butter
1tsp muscovado sugar
1 tsp poppy seeds
1/4 cup unsweetened, dried coconut
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup almonds, roughly chopped
3 cups rolled/instant oats 
a pinch of salt
1/2 cup mixed red berries

Preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F.
Melt butter and honey (you can melt the honey using the bain marie method or in the microwave) and mix together in a large bowl. Add in all the other ingredients and mix well using a spatula.
Line a baking tray with parchment paper or aluminum foil and spread the mixture evenly. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, mixing halfway through. Let cool, crumble and mix in the berries. Store in an airtight container.

Maple pecan granola clusters (makes enough for one baking tray) - with updates
3 1/2 cups instant oats (I have now switched to a 6-grain rolled mix) 
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup ground flax/linseed
1 tsp cinnamon, optional
1/2 to 1 cup pecans, roughly chopped
a pinch of salt
1/4 cup canola oil or other
2/3 cup pure maple syrup (I have since reduced the amount to 1/4 cup approximately)

Preheat oven to 150°C/300°F.
In a large bowl mix together all the dry ingredients. In a small bowl combine oil and syrup and then pour over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a spatula. Spread evenly onto a previously lined baking tray and bake without mixing for about 30 minutes . Let cool, break up in to pieces and store in an airtight container.





Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lentils, lentils lentils (and a soup with Tuscan kale and pancetta turns into a warm winter salad with oranges)


Lentils are small, lentils are round,
lentils are red, yellow and brown.

I like them in soups and burgers for sure,
I love them as curry, vegan and more!

I like them warm, I like them cold,
I like them fried or a couple days old.

They make sense as a snack, they are perfect in salad,
I love them, adore them and wrote them this ballad.

There may be no scoop
on lentils in soup,
but they still make you want
to jump through a hoop!

And just in case you don't already know,
here are two things about them before you go:
Thing 1: protein, fiber and iron make them healthy,
Thing 2: Italians believe they make you wealthy.

Just try them,
just eat them,
just have some already.
They are good, they are great,
it is never too late!


I admit my reading several Dr. Seuss books to my son last night contributed to this post, but lentils also just happen to be something I get childishly excited about.
Yesterday, like so many other times, I cleaned a big, bright orange carrot, I cut a couple of stalks of celery, peeled a clove or garlic and an onion and prepared a mirepoix which I sauteed in some olive oil until the little chunks turned shiny and translucent. I added a bay leaf, and a handful of diced pancetta and let it brown slightly before adding the rinsed lentils and water. I lowered the flame, covered the pot and let the magic begin.
A couple of hours and few more cups of water later, the lentils were soft yet still slightly toothsome, the water had turned into a dark, earthy, savory broth and the kitchen was warm and smelled delicious. I added a good pinch of salt and some chopped up Tuscan kale (but you can use spinach, Swiss chard or any other leafy green).

I seasoned it with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a good glug of extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes I will add some grated Parmesan cheese, but this time it was perfect just the way it was, those little nuggets of smokey goodness from the pancetta satisfying me one hundred percent.
The left over soup turned into a delicious salad for lunch, so much so that I am still wondering why I never paired oranges and lentils before. Think slightly warm lentil quenelles,  the chew from the pancetta and the cool sweetness of the orange segments, highlighted by their zest. I think some crumbled feta cheese, small black olives or thinly sliced red onion - perhaps pickled? - would work great in this too.


So before I go all Dr. Seuss on you again, just go and make some!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Back... and back to basics. No-knead light wholewheat oatmeal bread

An Italian saying goes l'Epifania tutte le feste porta via. Indeed, in many European countries the holiday season officially ended on Monday, with the Catholic celebration of the Adoration of the Magi, also known as the Epiphany. In Italy this day is marked by a nightime visit of the befana, an old lady resembling a witch, dressed in rags and covered in soot that stuffs children's stockings with sweets or lumps of coal, according to how they behaved the previous year.

It is also traditional to take your tree down on January 6th and most kids go back to school the following day.

So with the new year now in full swing, I have been thinking of my resolutions, or rather the resolutions I have not made yet, and what I truly wish and hope for in 2014.

There is little I desire, considering I have all the things that really count (a family I love, good health, a job - albeit not one I love and that doesn't pay as much as it used to but on the other hand gives me more time with my children - a roof on my head and good friends). Sure, there are things that I would really like but they come after the list I mentioned. Who doesn't want more financial security, a home to call their own, the possibility to travel and see more of the amazing planet we live in?

If there is one resolution I think we should all make it is ackowledging what we do more and feeling less guilty about what we don't. It is easy to beat ourselves up, to look around and see what others are doing better than us, to feel like we are not enough. We always feel compelled to work harder, to run faster, like hamsters spinning endlessly on their wheels.

There will always be somebody who is doing better than we are, sure, but there is always somebody who is doing worse too. Just because someone is driving a fancier car, it doesn't mean they worry less than you do at the end of the month. Sure, some problems are bigger than others, some people are luckier than others, but we all have to face obstacles, fear and problems. Rich or poor, we all have loved ones to take care of, children, parents, relatives or friends. We all care, we all worry, we all grieve.

I will not deny that I get caught up in this vicious cycle. I need to loose weight, I should look for a new job, I should be more organized...
I compare my kids' life with my very priviledged childhood and wish I could give them more. Of course I wish I could take them to exotic places on the spur of the moment or that our five-day ski vacation could be two weeks instead, but I am also aware that my husband and I work very hard to give them a taste of everything we had growing up and that what we can't provide materially we make up for in love and presence.

But no worries, I am not getting all Christmas-movie on you and will not start telling you about how I didn't take my family on a cruise to the Carribean but made a snowman with them instead and about how we all rolled in the snow and laughed and hugged and ended the day drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire. Because at the end of the year day, we all have shit to deal with, each and every day, whoever we are and no matter how much we have or don't have.

So this year why don't we all take it a little more easy on ourselves?

Pat yourself on your back, let yourself know you are doing a great job as a friend, a mother, a daughter, a son, a dad, a husband, a wife, a companion, a sister, a brother, a boss, an employee...

I will not to beat myself up about all the things I think I should be doing better and more of. I will not make unattainable resolutions and then feel guilty or lacking because of them. I am going back to the basics, focusing on what matters, on what I have and taking my life one step at a time.

Let this be your resolution for 2014.

By all means, strive to do more, fix some targets, aim higher - because this is human and healthy to a degree - but also let the new year be a time to stop running, to take inventory of your life and let yourself know that you are doing a good job being who you are, providing what you do, caring the way you care.

Go back to the basics.

Here is a little Instagram testimony of the basics in my life: my family, my children, beautiful nature, great food and good friends to call-in the New Year.