Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Perfect Summer Pantry Pasta with red peppers, tuna and olives

Summer can get tricky when there are two working parents in a family.

Many children here leave town for a good part of three months to spend time with grandparents at the sea, in the mountains or in the country, while parents or fathers stay in town to work. Grandparents here are a very popular form of free 24/7 year round babysitting and nobody seems to think much of packing off multiple children to their elderly parents, who take care of them without a complaint for months on end.

Our parents don't do the 24/7 thing, whether for health reasons, distance or simply because hello, they have their own lives + should enjoy their golden years and their grandchildrens' occasional presence + spoil them rotten and leave the dirty task of parenting to the parents already! As much as we would ideally love for the abovementioned to kidnap our kids for weeks on end and free us of the worry of how to organize yet another summer in the city and enjoy multiple dates on week nights, we are realistic and totally believe that it is wrong and should not be.

To be truthful, things have luckily been changing noticeably in the past years, with August no longer being that month where everything is closed in the city (no tumbleweed rolling down the streets anymore!) and more and more women working alongside their spouses. The city and schools offer summer acitivities for children all through August, something quite unheard of until recently. If you ask me, July and August have almost become pleasant, relaxing months to be in Milan, this summer in particular, where the weather has been extraordinarily good and cool. We almost feel priviledged to be here.

There are however a couple of factors to deal with, no matter how well you actually know you are coping. The first one is that atavic, irrational feeling of guilt all parents live with, or at least all working mothers (yeah, sure, it makes us more accomplished women, better moms blablabla but truth be told, most of us don't really have a choice anyway). And then there is the fact that I (as also my husband) was a priviledged child who travelled and spent several months away from home every summer (chaperoned by a balanced mix of grandmothers, nannies and parents).  

As a result, to compensate, we have been away pretty much every weekend this summer, trying to give our kids concentrated shots of the seaside, the mountains and the country. We have been alternating these short trips with some stints away for our oldest with F's family. The little one is still too small and too much work. Luckily he doesn't understand yet and still prefers being with Mommy and Daddy for now.

The result is short weeks, where Thursday has become Packing Evening (I never cease to be surprised at the amount of things you need to take for the under-6 category, even for just 2 days) and Monday has become Unpacking/ Laundry Evening. This means very little time to cook and even less time for foodshopping (thus an empty fridge).

This is where a pasta like this comes in handy. All pantry staples except for some fresh peppers, which you can pick up at any corner supermarket. Not bad, eh? It is very quick and so flavorful it will make your taste buds sing. Go on, make it tonight. Tomorrow is Packing Night again.

Recipe adapted from here, a wonderful source for many tasty recipes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Under the Tuscan sun...

So much has been written about Tuscany, must I add more?

Chocolate and mojito

Antipasto toscano
Under the Tuscan setting sun...

Room with a view
La Fiorentina!

Making olive oil

Schiaccia: Tuscan focaccia made in a wood fired oven

View from the other pool

Filetto di carne chianina

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Homemade Kê-chiap (better known as ketchup or catsup)

The thing I love about blogging is that you discover all kinds of useless interesting facts.

Did you know that even ketchup was originally invented by the Chinese?

In the 17th century, according to Wikipedia, the Chinese invented a concoction of pickled fish/sea food and spices pronounced kôe-chiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁, simply the word for brine), reminiscent of Asian fish sauces and the various popular condiments of Roman times, among which garum, made from fermented fish, spices and vinegar. It found its way to modern day Malaysia, where it was called kĕchap, and then picked up by the British, who were already using it as a household staple by the mid-eighteenth century. Tomato only started being used about a century later and tomato ketchup was important in changing early Americans' perception of this fruit, considered poisonus by many. For a long time ketchup was the most popular way to use tomatoes, as people often still believed they could not be consumed raw. Sugar was a later addition and salt was originally used in great quantities for its preservative qualities. It was a popular condiment, made in most households despite being quite timeconsuming. The first industrially made catsups were thus very successful.

Back to me. The other day I wanted to make some burgers. After buying everything we needed for our meal, I realized we were almost out of ketchup. There was no way I was going back to the supermarket with a toddler in tow to pick up a bottle. I decided the time had finally come to try making my own. I decided to use a recipe I found in the Joy of Cooking.

Now, I was making this on the spur of the moment with what I had in the fridge. Eyeing my ripe tomatoes and my red pepper (hey, how lucky was it that I actually had one!) I thought I would be able to make just enough for our meal. I have very little experience with canning (another kitchen phobia of mine), so I was more than happy to make a small amount for immediate consumption. I also didn't have all the spices required and I had to approximately calculate the proportions according to my weight in tomatoes in grams (my math sucks!), so it was a real experiment.

The result was pretty good. The texture was perfect, if a little less liquid (note to self) when compared to the leftover store-bought ketchup we had, and the flavor and color more vibrant. The difference in taste was noticeable when sampled right after the Heinz we had in our fridge. We are so used to the oversweet, tangy flavor of industrial ketchup, that it is addictive. The spices in the homemade stuff had a more distinctive flavor, not so overshadowed by the sugar, which takes some getting used to.

All in all it was definitely a success and very satisfying, sort of like when you make your own cheese, butter or vanilla extract. It was quicker than I thought it would be and you have the added bonus of knowing what you are putting into it. The next time I will try using the same spices used in the original recipes and balancing them differently (I went a little heavy on the cinnamon because I didn't have a stick) to get a closer match but let's face it, the great thing about making your own catsup is that you can decide how sweet, sour or spicy you want to make it. The whole point is that it is similar, yet different from the industrial product.

I am posting the original recipe and my changes so you can play around with the ingredients and decide what you like best. Have fun!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Black and white chocolate berry tart

When it comes to grilling, every country in the world has its traditions. In the US a BBQ just isn't a BBQ without hamburgers and hot dogs. In Italy, grilling or la grigliata is all about our friend the pig. The preferred meat is undoubtedly pork. A hamburger is a very rare (no pun intended) find, but there will be no lack of sausage in all shapes and sizes on an Italian grill and even pork ribs, chicken and lamb will often make an appearance.

And then, the one thing you will find at pretty much every BBQ in Italy, the spiedino.
It looks pretty much the same (and tastes pretty much the same if you ask me) wherever you go, north or south, east or west, at a town fair or in your back yard. It is a brochette with alternated pieces of pork in various forms (sausage, pancetta, pork loin), red or green peppers for a dash of color, and onions and frankfurters if you get lucky.

Perhaps you have to be an Italian to really appreciate it and I will not argue the importance of its presence on la griglia as long as you don't start questioning that delicious, juicy burger on my grill. But I love pretty much everything else a grigliata has to offer: summer, friends, ripe red tomatoes, flowing local wine, cold beer, salami made by the farmer next door, wonderful grilled and marinated vegetables picked in the morning from the garden, lamb chops and sausage, beautiful landscapes and if you get really lucky, the ancestor of the modern BBQ, a grill over an authentic wood fire.

The kids made perfume: note the fig and green tomato for fruitiness

And to top it off a summery tart that is quick to make, not too sweet and cleanses your palate after all that oink oink.

What do you barbecue where you come from?

Ingredients (for 12 servings)

For crust
250 gr (1 box) Digestives (or graham crackers)
130gr butter
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 tbsp conferctioner's sugar

For filling (adapted from a recipe in Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess)
75gr white chocolate, melted (plus a little for decoration)
200gr mascarpone cheese
150gr cream

1 cup raspberries
1 cup blueberries

In a food processor or by hand, crumble the cookies and then mix in the butter, sugar and cocoa. Grease an 11 inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom and press the cookie mixture into the bottom and along the sides. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
Start making your filling by melting the white chocoalte. While it is cooling, beat together the mascarpone cheese and the cream and then gently fold in the white chocolate. Fill the crust and decorate with the raspberries and blueberries, or another berry of your choice, and sprinkle with some grated white chocolate. Serve cold.