Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cena di Natale 2009

After pouring over many, many recipes and researching Italian Christmas menus, I have formulated my own. Ecco qua...





Cena di Natale 2009

Antipasti
Pere con Proscuitto
Fichi cotti al forno con Gorgonzola Dolce

Primo
Inverno Lasagna Bianca

Contorno
Arrostito fagoli verdi e pomodorini

Dolce
Una selezione di biscotti festa fatti a mano 

 

Did you cheat and go straight to Google Translator???  Did you learn some new words in Italian?  I did. :)
Okay, sorry, enough of the Italiano...

Here, here...


Christmas Dinner 2009

Appetizers
Pears wrapped with Proscuitto
Baked figs with Sweet Gorgonzola

Main course 
Winter White Lasagna

Side items
Roasted green beans and cherry tomatoes

Dessert
A selection of handmade holiday cookies



Buon Appetito and Merry Christmas!




Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

Sure, it's wonderful... if wonderful means being stressed about all the presents you must buy but can't really afford.  Trying to shop in the crowded stores just gives you a migraine.  And the traffic...oh, the traffic...makes you want to pull your hair out and scream as loud as humanly possible.  And don't forget about that lovely, lovely holiday travel- just terrible.  Ask me about last year's travel.  Okay, please don't.  I'll just say it was a pure nightmare.  Check out these articles about travel nightmares turned reality.

An Airport Terminal as Home, With Too Many Siblings in It
Out of Control Crowds at JFK

I'm usually not much of a cynic..actually sounds like Michael took over for this blog post... I actally really enjoy Christmas and the holidays.  But, I just wanted to exclaim to the world that we're so glad we are staying put in Italy this year.  Of course, we will really miss all our family and friends, and it really won't feel the same.  We just want a relaxing holiday vacation that doesn't involve setting foot in JFK airport. 


 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Cookies

Baking cookies is one of my favorite holiday traditions.  There's nothing better than a little Christmas music, some kitchen-dancing, and seasonal cookies to 'rouse up my holiday spirit.  Maybe it's the fragrant dough, or licking the sweet icing off my fingers, or the childhood memories in the kitchen.  (Like the time when the dough was so stiff, we broke several wooden spoons trying to mix it.)  Or just maybe it's the "oohs" and "aahs" of friends and family when you present them with your sweet creations.  Whatever it is, it was happening this past Sunday.  It was the absolute perfect day for cookie baking.  Outside, it was a typical cold and snowy winter day, while inside we were warm- rolling, cutting, and baking this year's batch. 

I scoured many baking sites in search of a do-able cookie recipe.  As I have mentioned, I have limited equipment and even limited supplies.  Having no electric mixer is a big hindrance and I had to find a recipe that could pass with old-fashioned elbow grease.  I finally selected one from my favorite baking blog site Joy the Baker..... Chocolate Peppermint Sandwich Cookies!



Our final creation has similar taste and texture to an Oreo, but with a much more superior cream filling (pure white chocolate).  I'm lucky they tasted so good, and here's why...

Michael started out reading me the recipe from the computer.  As I was measuring the dry ingredients into my largest bowl (which happens to be a salad serving bowl), we realized not all the ingredients were going to fit.  I carefully switched them over into my pasta pot, trying to salvage as much as possible.  Michael then called out the last dry ingredient- 1.5 teaspoons of salt.  I filled up the 1 tablespoon with salt and said "Wow, that seems like a lot of salt.  Well, it does bring out the sweetness of the sugar" as I dumped it in to the pot.  Of course as soon as I did, Michael yelled "Was that a teaspoon or tablespoon?"  I frantically dug out the excess salt hoping that I didn't also remove the baking soda.  Michael tried to ease the situation by saying "Ah, it's okay.  It's not really an exact science."  No, actually, baking is an exact science.   Ideally, I would have tossed it and started over, but I didn't have enough cocoa powder for that.  I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best...

 
In the end, they turned out way better than expected and received rave reviews from Michael's co-workers. 

I close this post with some reflection...  Most of the afternoon cooking projects I select have two things in common: they always take twice the amount of time I expect and hubby starts helping and then eventually takes over. :)
      

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Recipe Hunt

I'm on a mission.  I'm searching out special seasonal recipes with Italian flair.  It's my first time cooking Christmas dinner.  And even though it's only for two, I'm aiming to make it special.  It's also our one and only Christmas in Italy, so I want to attempt something traditionally Italian. 

Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) is usually meatless and the menu features seafood. My research lead me to the "Feast of the Seven Fishes."  It seems the tradition may have began in Sicily and worked its way across the pond to the Italian-Americans.  The number seven seems to symbolize the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church.  It's questionable if the Italians actually apply this symbolism to their Christmas Eve meals.  I'll have to consult with my Italian acquaintances for further confirmation.  Regardless, in the Catholic faith, no meat is eaten on holy days and I am sure their dinners are laded with seafood.  Midnight Mass follows.  An interesting side note.... This year's Midnight Mass performed by the Pope at St. Peter's Cathedral will be held at 10 pm rather than midnight...I suspect due to the Pope's evening energy level.   
      
As with non-holiday cuisine, menu specifics for Cena di Natale (Christmas Dinner) vary based on the region. Pasta will definitely be present.  Here in the north, lasagna is a biggie, as is tortellini brodo (tortellini pasta in broth).  A roasted meat usually follows and the type- poultry, pork, or beef varies based on the traditions of the family and region.   




And let's not forget about New Years Eve.  It's also hubby's birthday, so I really want to provoke some shock and awe for that one.  I've found a champagne risotto combo that seems fitting.  I'm thinking of possibly a calamari antipasta to start...  I've already selected the recipe for his birthday dessert, but won't reveal until after the celebration.  I want to keep it a surprise....
   
New Years Day typically features lentils.  They are thought to bring prosperity and good fortune for the new year. 


Christmas sweets round out the list.  I usually make cream cheese cookies, actually a cookie/cake hybrid- the traditional Christmas cookie for my family.  I'm looking for a new recipe that I can master sans mixer.  (I'm working with very limited baking equipment.  At least I have measuring cups now...)



Thursday, December 10, 2009

December Update

I'm still here. I've just been absent lately.

Thanksgiving has come and gone.  We spent that week in Amsterdam and Brugge.  Friends, Eddie and Julie, met us for a fun-filled and memorable vacation.  Details and more photos of that adventure to come...




Next, after only three days back in Italy, we made a whirl-wind trek across the Atlantic. We were in The States for only three days but managed to fill each one with activities including Michael's commissioning test, a Phish show, and an early family Christmas celebration.



We're finally back in Italy and ready to enjoy the slow, easy pace of an Italian Christmas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Taylors Visit Italy: Venice

The finale!  I remember the first time I stepped out of the Venice train station.  You are greeted by the hustle and bustle and instantly overwhelmed with the people, boats, bridges, and buildings, decaying and dripping with elegance.  I'll never forget it and always love to see the reactions of first-timers. 


We immediately hopped onto a vaporetto (a water bus) and sailed away.  The route takes you down the entire length of the s-shaped Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.  Along the way, you are treated to the most picturesque view of the canal's palaces. 



We arrived to Piazza San Marco with it's raspberry swirl Doge's Palace, ornate basilica, and towering campanille.  After a quick panini lunch, we wandered through the inside of the basilica, gawking at the glorious gold mosaics.


We took another vaporetto to the island of Murano.  Immediately upon arriving, a man directed us to what we thought was a glass factory/demonstration.  Of course it was only the expensive showroom....We window-shopped and gawked at all the glass along Murano's canals.   It was our first visit to Murano as well, and I especially enjoyed the lack of crowds.  There were several interesting modern art sculptures done in glass scattered over the island.



We headed back to the main island of Venice and strolled casually to the Rialto.  The moon was out and glowing over the canal.  From here, we started our dinner pub crawl.  We hopped from one wine bar to the next, ordering a glass and whatever munchies looked tasty.  Afterwards, we crawled over to San Marco to take in the lights and orchestras.  We listened, danced, and laughed in the night air.  To end the evening, we hopped on the vaporetto once more for a flood-lit ride past the decadent palaces, back down the Grand Canal.  



We returned to Venice the next day to peruse just a little more.  We visited the Frari Church in the San Polo district.  Titian's The Assumption of Mary at the alter is one of my favorites.  I especially enjoy how the choir frames it when you stand by his tomb.

We visited the Rialto again and stood at the top, taking in all the activity below.  It was entertaining to watch how all the boats navigated around each other.  There was a full range of sizes- tiny gondolas, mid-size water taxis, and large vaporetti.  Somehow they made it all work while seeming effortless.



We ended the evening with dinner at Zairo in Padua.  It was a lovely ristorante with delcious food and the perfect Italian sendoff.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Taylors Visit Italy: Vicenza, Soave, and Verona

We arrived in Vicenza just before dinner.  We decided to go to Portega Vecchia, a ristorante pizzeria that we frequent often. 
 
In the morning, we visited the market in Piazza dei Signori.  I've always loved how the city comes alive on market days.  It was neat to share that with my family.  Michael had never been to the weekly market, so it was a first for him too!  We purchased all the makings for lunch and dinner from the many vendors: veggies, cheese, and seafood. 

After a lunch of caprese salad, bread, and wine we followed the tradition of siesta- afternnoon relaxation.
Later, we ventured back out to the center to enjoy apertivi- food and drink that stimulate your appetite for dinner.  Spritz are the common appertivi here in the north of the boot.  I'll share more about spritz later....

For dinner, Michael and I cooked an Italian-American dish: Venetian Mac-n-Cheese with shrimp and radicchio.  We dined and drank wine, hearing about the previous part of his parents' Italian vacation, while planning the days to come.

The next day, we set out to tour Soave in the morning, Verona in the afternoon and evening.  Soave is a small town famous for it's production of the fine white wine called....Soave.  The center is small and quaint, and it felt sleepy compared to Vicenza and especially Florence.  We climbed to the ruined castle on the hill overlooking the town.  It's surrounded by many, many beautiful vineyards.  After exploring the park and hiking back down, we popped into Cantina di Soave for some tasting.  We tried two different varieties of Soave and a Valpolicella, a local red.  After our purchase, we headed to Verona in a happy mood.





Once in Verona, we ate lunch at another fav, Locanda di Juliette, where we munched on a plentiful variety of crostini.  We wandered the streets, checking out Juliet's balcony and her statue along with the frescoed Piazza Erbe.  We paused many times for cafe, wine, and spritz; meandering here and there.  We ended the evening with another wonderful meal at Pizzeria Du de Cope, in our opinion the absolute best pizza place in north of Italy!   
        

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Taylors Visit Italy: Florence and Pisa

A few weeks ago, Michael's parents traveled across the pond for an Italian vacation.  They flew into Rome, spent a few days there, rented a car and drove to Florence.  I trained down from Vicenza and met them in Florence. 



After dropping of my luggage and grabbing a panino, we wandered the streets of Florence, the birth place of the Renaissance.  We found a wonderful ceramics shop with beautiful pieces, all handmade and hand-painted.  I purchased this olive dish after falling in love with the pattern.

We returned later and my mother-in-law purchased olive oil and balsamic vinegar holders to add to my new collection.  Thank you again! 

For dinner, we ate at a personal favorite and highly recommended place called Trattoria Za-Za.  It was delcious, as expected.





The next day, we visited the Boboli Gardens.  Boboli in Italian means wooded area. The name is perfect for this place.  Sprawling, green, peaceful, and lovely only begin to describe the space.  It's a nice escape from the loud, crowded streets of Florence.  I'm sure the gardens are even more impressive in the spring when every thing's blooming.  In addition to the landscape, the gardens provided a picturesque view of the city, including Brunelleschi's Dome and Giotto's Campanile. 




We found a cute enoteca (wine bar) for lunch, where we had mozzarella di bufala wrapped with prosciutto.  My mouth is watering now just thinking about it.  After lunch, we roamed the art-filled Pitti Palace, taking in the decadent royal apartments.  The palace and the gardens definitely reminded me of  the Chateau of Versailles in Paris.

When we were leaving the palace, I noticed a guy in a Phish t-shirt.  I struck up a conversation and found out that he's studying abroad this semester and will be missing Phish's show at his school, Syracuse, this fall.  I totally understand brah... we missed shows in our own town for the same reason- being abroad...
   
We capped off the Florence visit with a trip to the Galleria dell'Accademia to pay our respects to Michelangelo's David.  It was my second viewing, and I was in just as much awe as the first.  The scale, the life-like anatomical preciseness and detail down to the muscle origins and insertions always impress me.  There was a special exhibit as well- Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form.   It showcased his photography of the human form, sometimes only body parts, sometimes comparing the body to other forms in nature or a still-life.  He also displayed the androgyny of the male and female bodies.  The exhibit presented an excellent comparison of Michelangelo's study of the human body through sculpture and Mapplethorpe's through photography and film. I really enjoyed it.  This review describes how the modern photographs compliment the Renaissance sculptures.

We then ventured to Pisa.  We saw the leaning tower and took the obligatory holding, pushing, leaning pictures.  We grabbed a quick lunch, dining on the Bapistry steps across from the tower, among many tourists and pigeons.  Then it was on to Vicenza!








 

Friday, November 6, 2009

What's for Dinner? Round 1 Wrap-up

I hope you’ve enjoyed the virtual visit to my Cucina Italiana. Round 2 will follow soon. I’m thinking I’ll let you in on the Christmas holidays, Italiano style…




My friends and family can attest that I’ve come along way. My mom always reminds me of when I had no clue how to turn on the stove. Then, “cooking” was following the instructions on a box of Stovetop stuffing. Remember the easy-bake pasta craze? That was next in my cooking evolution. I once tried to make a dessert that required pudding. I purchased cook-and-serve rather than instant, not realizing there was a difference. All my previous pudding experience involved instant and I had no idea what to do. Luckily, my kitchen savvy friend Julie was there to save the day (and the dessert). Not too long ago, I used canned pre-made sauces like “sun-dried tomato alfredo” and thought they were great. Now, I still need a cookbook or recipe but I make sauces from scratch, starting with simple Roma tomatoes. I’ve pick up tons of techniques by watching Food Network (during my USA visits) and there’s always more to learn. Eventually I would like to go to the market, pick out what’s fresh and just come home and make something - cook without the reliance on a recipe.





Other discoveries I’ve made- cooking isn’t that hard but may require some practice plus trial and error. Anything involving basic ingredients takes some extra time. If you plan ahead, you can double your recipe, do the work once and enjoy easy but tasty leftovers. And finally, it helps to have a wonderful husband who will try everything I make.






Check back soon for my next food challenge: home made pasta! I’ll let you know how it goes…

For now, go cook something!
(Leave me a comment. I’d love to read about what you made!)

Friday, October 23, 2009

What's for Lunch?

Salad! It's my go-to for a quick and healthy lunch. No recipe here. I just start with a base of greens, and then add whatever cheese, nuts, fruit, and veggies that I think go well together and/or look fresh at the market. Fruit in a salad seemed strange to me at first. My wonderful friend Jenny convinced me otherwise. Just try it once and I think you'll be hooked. Dried fruit such as cherries or cranberries are also tasty. And, I toast the nuts to bring out their flavor and to add richness to the overall taste.


For the dressing, I keep it super simple. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar go well with every combination. If balsamic vinegar is too strong, try a white vinegar. In the summer, I like olive oil and lemon. I’ve been known to mix it up every now and then with a Dijon mustard lemon one. Here are the fall combos that I’ve been creating lately.


Salad #1:
Mixed greens
Apples
Parmigiano Reggiano
Toasted pine nuts







Salad #2:
Mixed greens
Radicchio
Pears
Feta cheese
Toasted walnuts





Salad #3
Mixed greens
Pears
Grana Padano cheese
Toasted pine nuts




And as a side to round out the meal- fresh focaccia bread I bought in the am from my neighborhood bakery.


Buon Pranzo!


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What's for Dinner?

The other night we had carbonara. That’s right, more pasta. We eat tons! Carbonara is a common weeknight meal for many Italians and I've read that the dish originated in Rome. It’s fast, easy, and super tasty. While it's not the healthiest... sometimes you just need to indulge... I like Giada De Laurentiis’s version and it’s another one from Everyday Pasta. Traditionally, it’s made without cream, though this recipe includes it. The secret ingredient is……well I won’t spoil the surprise for you. Michael calls it the Italian version of “breakfast for dinner”. He’s right – bacon and eggs.


Cinnamon Pancetta Carbonara
Serves 6

Ingredients:
  • 6 ounces pancetta (about 6 slices), chopped
  • 2 ounces of bacon (2 to 3 slices, chopped) (I only used pancetta)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 18 ounces fresh fettuccine (I sometimes use tagliatelle)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (I leave out the salt. The pancetta has plenty.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (I didn't use these because I can't find chives in Italy...)

  1. Cook the pancetta and bacon in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until almost crisp, about 5 minutes.
  2. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and sauté until the meat is crisp and golden, about 2 minutes longer.
  3. Turn the heat to low.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the cream, cheese, and egg yolks.
  5. Add the cream mixture to the pan with the pancetta and cook at a very low simmer, stirring often.
  6. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until it is just tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally.
  7. Drain the pasta and add it to the cream mixture with the salt and pepper. Continue cooking over very low heat until the sauce coats the pasta thickly, about 3 minutes. (Do no boil.)
  8. Transfer the pasta to a large, wide serving bowl. Sprinkle with the chives and more cheese.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What's for Dinner?

Baked tortellini is one of Michael’s many favorites. This recipe is from Everyday Pasta by Giada De Laurentiis, a birthday gift from my dear friend Eddie. It’s actually really easy once you have made your tomato sauce. I follow Giada’s basic marinara recipe and usually make a large amount, so it’s ready for the next time. There's also mascarpone cheese left over and I use it to make tiramisu.

Cheesy Baked Tortellini

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • 2 cups marinara sauce (store-bought or homemade; see below)
  • 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (I used 1/8 cup dried parsley)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (I used 1 teaspoon of dried thyme)
  • 1 pound purchased cheese tortellini (I used tortellini with prosciutto)
  • 2 ounces thinly sliced smoked mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil an 8x8x2-inch baking dish or 4 individual gratin dishes.
  2. Whisk the marinara sauce, mascarpone cheese, parsley, and thyme in a large bowl to blend.
  3. Cook the tortellini in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 2 minutes.
  4. Drain and add the tortellini to the sauce and toss to coat.
  5. Transfer the tortellini mixture to the prepared baking dish or dishes.
  6. Top with the smoked mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese.
  7. Cover the dish or dishes with foil and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered until the sauce bubbles and the cheeses on top melt, about 10 minutes.

Giada's Basic Marinara Sauce

Makes about 2 quarts

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup EVOO
  • 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  1. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add the celery, carrots, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
  4. Sauté until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.
  5. Add the tomatoes and bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour
  6. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
  7. Season the sauce with more salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What's for Dinner?

Minestrone soup...

This one is full of both veggies and flavor. The beans make this vegetarian meal extra filling. My favorite thing about making soup is that I do all the work once. I get at least two, sometimes three meals. The best part of this soup is the parmigiano cheese topping. Make sure you have good bread for "mopping". I've read that Italians consider bread their fourth utensil.




This one is also from Rachael Ray’s Big Orange Book.

Serves 6

Ingredients:
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO, plus some for drizzling at the table

  • 1 onion, 3/4 chopped, 1/4 finely chopped

  • 4 garlic cloves

  • 2 carrots, shredded

  • 4 celery stalks from the heart, chopped

  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano

  • Salt and pepper (I actually did not use any salt)

  • 1 (15-ounce) can red kidney beans, drained

  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained

  • 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained


  • 2 to 3 sprigs to fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped

  • 1/4 cup tomato paste

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine

  • 4 cups vegetable stock

  • 1 bunch of kale or chard, thick vein removed and leaves coarsely chopped (I used spinach)

  • 1/2 pound whole wheat elbow pasta (I used regular pasta shells)

  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for topping

  • 1 loaf of crusty bread
  1. Heat a soup pot over medium heat with 2 tablespoons of the EVOO.

  2. Add the chopped onion to the hot oil but reserve the finely chopped 1/4 onion.

  3. Add the garlic to the onions along with the carrots, celery, and bay leaf.



  4. Season with the red pepper flakes, marjoram, and salt and pepper. (I left the salt out.)

  5. Saute to soften the vegetables, 8 to 10 minutes.

  6. Add the beans.

  7. Season with salt and pepper and the rosemary. (I left the salt out.)

  8. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes, or until the paste smells sweet.

  9. Stir in the wine, cook for 1 minute, then stir in the stock and 2 cups of water.

  10. Wilt in the greens and bring the soup to a boil.

  11. Add the pasta and cook to al dente, about 8 minutes.

  12. Adjust the seasonings.

  13. Serve bowlfuls of the soup topped with a drizzle of EVOO, a sprinkle of finely chopped raw onion, and Parmigiano. Use bread for mopping up your bowl.