Thursday, April 30, 2015

Farrotto al pomodoro

When I made this, the wisteria was still blooming outside of our kitchen window. The weather was warm, the smell was divine and we kept the window open all day to make the most of that warm, scented spring breeze and lovely view. Every now and then, I cut off some of the flowers and livened up our table and my blog photos. 

That lasted about a week.

Now the flowers are gone and it has been raining and chilly. Our beautiful wisteria has gone back to being a flowerless nuisance, getting tangled in our rolling shutters, crumbling the stucco of the building façade and the paint on the pre-war wooden fixtures, attracting pigeons to nest in,  and making our kitchen pretty dark. I will admit that it helps keep the room cool in the blazing summer heat, but it also unfortunately hides the view of our building's quaint courtyard and magnolia tree.

But that is the cycle of life, of nature, is it not? And what makes it all the more special: nature shows itself for an instant in all of its ravishing, fleeting beauty, only to leave us with the memory of what was and what can be, for the rest of the year.
Luckily nature, besides providing vegetation with transient beauty, also offers a great variety of plants for our everyday nutrition. Some of these less-known varieties - like farro, which has been around for millennia - are experiencing a comeback.  
Clockwise: in the making
A farrotto is simply a risotto made with farro, or if you prefer, farro made using the risotto technique. You can use pretty much any ingredient to make this, just as you would in risotto, but here I used the most humble of pantry ingredients, canned tomatoes.
This dish is not gluten free, as some may think, because farro is a member of the wheat family, but it does offer a valid alternative to white rice, especially for those who are looking to substitute highly-processed white carbs. You may not be eating less calories, but what you are ingesting is a complex carb that breaks down slowly, making you feel fuller for longer. Farro is also a cholesterol-lowering fiber (about 8gr per cup versus the 4gr per cup provided by white rice!). Farro is rich in magnesium, vitamin B, and protein, and although I eat it for all of these reasons, our main reason for buying it is its nutty flavor and pleasantly chewy texture.*

400gr farro
1-1.5l vegetable stock
1 400gr can chopped tomatoes
1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced
1 large clove garlic, slivered or chopped
4-5 anchovy filets

Parmesan cheese
extra virgin olive oil

Heat some olive in a pot. Peel and dice/sliver the onion and garlic. Cook them in the olive oil on a low flame, until the onion is soft, then add the anchovy filets. When they have melted, raise the flame a little and add the chopped tomatoes (or you could add the farro beforehand to toast it a little). When all the flavors have melded, pour in the farro and start making the farrotto, by adding a little stock whenever the grains have absorbed most of the liquid and stirring a little. Constant stirring is not necessary, because the grains do not release starch like white rice would. Also, the hull doesn't stick as easily to the bottom of the pot. When the farro is ready (keep tasting, but it will remain al dente, with a little bite), serve immediately sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, freshly ground pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  

We sprinkled over a little Pimenton de la Vera this time (see above)

* Please note that this is a personal blog and that I am by no means a professional nutritionist, dietitian, or doctor. The information on this blog is purely based on my personal opinion, experience, and research.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

10 minute, one-bowl dark chocolate cake (with secret ingredient)

Yet another quick, one-bowl cake recipe? Yes, because you can never have enough, especially when they involve lots of dark chocolate.
But if you have had enough, you will forgive me the next time you have guests coming over and you have to make a last-minute dessert, trust me. This is a trick to have up your sleeve.

The only minor catch is that you need a very specific ingredient to make this cake, so be sure to stock up on it when you come across it (as it might not be as easy to get a hold of where you are and it does keep for a very long time).

I am talking of chestnut jam, or spread or sweetened puree. It comes under many labels, and there seem to be a variety of preparation methods (some follow a basic jam making technique, others use boiled chestnuts mixed with boiled egg yolks and sugar, some simply puree marrons glaces), but I believe whatever kind you have available should work fine in this cake (as long as you do not buy the unsweetened paste).
Crema di marroni or marmellata/confettura di castagne is quite common in northern Italy, an area that abounds in chestnut tree forsets. I know it is also a well-beloved spread in France, so you should be able to find it in specialty stores without too much of a problem.

The story of this cake began when, my daughter came home from school one day and exclaimed: "G had the best sandwich today. There was a brown spread in it, but I don't remember what it was called, and it was soooo good!". I enquired when I bumped into G's mother the next day and it turns out it was chestnut jam. After a few weeks of pestering,  I gave in and bought a jar. That Sunday, a happy girl sat at the breakfast table, spreading her chestnut jam on a slice of bread. 

Just that Sunday, I must add.

Week end after week end I put the chestnut spread on the table along with our assortment of  jams and honeys, and week end after week end I kept putting it back into the fridge.

When I opened it last Saturday, there was still that one, lonely dent made by her knife over a month ago. And a tiny little spot of white fuzz in a corner.
I gave my daughter 'the speech', how we do not waste food in our household, that if you buy something it has to be used up, etc. I scooped out the tiny fleck of fuzz and decided to prove my point.

I remembered a recipe a running companion told me about a few weeks prior (yes, we burn calories and talk about cake). I googled it and came up with a few options. I chose the one with less chestnut jam and more dark chocolate, purely for convenience as the brand we had bought came in a smaller jar. That evening, with guest coming at 7:30, I set off to bake my cake at 7:20. At 7:30 it was in the oven and it was baked at 8:10. By the end of dinner it had cooled, I sprinkled over some powdered sugar and served it.

Lesson taught to children - check
No waste - check
Great new recipe - check

All in all, a good result if you ask me.

The cake in itself is pretty grown up*: it is dense, not overly sweet and tastes like the chocolate you used, so choose well. It has a moist, yet chalky texture - excuse the oxymoron, but it is a very difficult texture to describe.

It is not a grand cake, although it is discreetly elegant if you ask me (and you could make it grand by serving it with chestnut jam flavored, rum-infused whipped cream).

My husband, who wrinkled his nose at the idea of chestnut spread in cake batter and went on to declare he wouldn't have any, managed three slices in a row.

Recipe from Il Cuore Arrosto

400gr chestnut jam
100gr butter
150gr best quality dark chocolate
3 eggs
2 tbsp flour
a drizzle of rum (optional)

powdered sugar

Preheat your oven to 180°C/375°F.
In a saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter on a low flame, mixing every now and then.
In a bowl, scoop out the chestnut puree and then add the butter-chocolate mixture and mix well. This should cool off the mixture, but check that it is not too hot before you beat in the eggs one at a time. Drizzle in a little rum and the two sifted tablespoons of flour.

Pour the mixture into a greased and lightly flour-dusted springform pan and bake for about 40 minutes.

Let cool, unmold and decorate with icing sugar.

*Nonetheless, my kids scoffed most of it.







Friday, April 10, 2015

Pasta with zucchini, saffron and smoked pancetta


I do not showcase pasta as much as I probably should on this blog, given that I live in Italy and we all love it in any shape or size. The reason is that more often than not, we throw together a pasta on a Friday night, while opening a bottle of wine to unwind, using up the last wilted greens and limp vegetables left in our fridge, and embellishing it with some pantry favorites (tuna, anchovies, smoked pancetta, olives...). No recipe, no amounts, no pre-planning. Just a relaxed, last-minute family meal made even better by the endless possibilities of the whole week end stretching ahead of us.

Granted, pretty much all of the recipes I blog about are easy and foolproof, but pasta somehow always just seemed too obvious to write about. That is until I started thinking about all the times I look up techniques or recipes  that are extremely common, staples in many households, especially when they are dishes from different cultures. If I look up how to make an authentic curry or how they cook rice in Japan, there must be someone in India or Japan wondering how much to salt their pasta water or how to get their pasta dishes creamier without adding butter or cream.
What may be obvious and second nature to some of us, isn't necessarily so for others. Sometimes we just need basic guidelines or flavor profiles to boost our confidence when trying to cook something new.