The Thanksgiving table is exquisitely symbolic. Aside from pumpkin, and of course turkey, which clearly represent bounty, some other harvest symbols are fraught with ambiguities – and not only in American culture.
This week, the nice weather inspired me to check out my neighborhood “community gardens”, and I found a few fun things to cook with. Of course, if you live in the suburbs, you might already have a lot of these interesting greens growing in your own property.When it comes to that stubborn backyard weed… why kill them when you can eat them?
Dandelion greens, for example. They make a great addition to a salad, but you can also try something fancier. They pair perfectly with cheese. Make sure they are not treated with toxic chemicals. And stay tuned – more “weed” coming soon! Next is borage…..
Macaroni and cheese occupies a special place in the American heart, as the ultimate comfort food.
To tell you the truth, when I moved here from Italy and found out that people were so crazy about this abomination in a box, I thought you guys were all a bit eccentric. Really – why would you want your (processed, powdered) cheese to be orange? Not that it was a big deal: I have my own issues with junk food – namely, digging into the Nutella jar when under pressure.
However, when my children started coming back from school demanding Mac & Cheese, I went from mildly entertained to outraged (after all, I spend hours canning made-from-scratch tomato sauce!). I did try to lecture them about the superiority of fresh ingredients, the importance of vegetables, blah blah blah, but they ignored me. I needed a better strategy. Here is how I gained back my cool factor.
Meet Pasta ai Quattro Formaggi, the Italian ancestor of Mac & Cheese. While it’s probably terrible for you (I can’t imagine another dish that packs in as much butterfat), at least this homemade recipe does not include any chemicals, plus it tastes infinitely better than Kraft’s packaged version. You might still end up needing a bypass, but at least you’ll have enjoyed getting there!
The term “comfort food” originated in the US, and I’ve heard it used In Italy only recently, mostly by food-bloggers. That’s not to say that we didn’t have comfort food before, we just didn’t have a name for it. On top of that, our choices are often different. Where you go for hamburgers, we dig into spaghetti; when you take out the ice cream, we open the Nutella jar. There is one exception, a unifying, universal ingredient: mashed potatoes. In Northern Italy, when a mom wants to comfort her kids after a not-so-great grade at school, a broken heart, or simply a long week of rain, she will serve this crowd-pleaser as a side: Pure’ di patate (potato puree), a silky, creamy and scrumptuous blend of starchy potatoes, milk and butter.
While mashed potatoes can be dry, lumpy, hyper-garlicky, and even gloppy, puree is velvety smooth, and will win the pickiest palates over with its decadence. Not even your carb-phobic friends will be able to resist it.
* for a non-dairy version, replace the butter and milk with olive oil and vegetable broth.
* *if you are watching your weight, you could replace the whole milk with 1% and halve the butter; but do add some butter for flavor.
*** If you need to reheat it, you should add a little more hot milk or broth.
- 2 pounds starchy potatoes (Yukon gold or russet, not too young)
- 1 stick butter
- 1 cup milk, or a little more
- salt to taste
- a pinch of nutmeg
Cook the potatoes with the peel (whole, if they are small-ish, or halved or quartered if they are very large) in a pot of salted boiling water (30-45 minutes). If you are in a rush, you can cook them much faster in a pressure cooker or even in the microwave (about 15 minutes). Test them with a fork to make sure they are soft, and drain, discarding the cooking water. Allow them to cool until they are still very warm but not too hot to handle, and peel them.
Put them through a ricer or potato masher, gathering them back into the pot. Place the top over low heat and add the butter, and then slowly the hot milk, stirring with a wooden spoon.
Keep stirring until the puree is soft, smooth and silky! Adjust the salt, add a pinch of nutmeg, and serve immediately.
Have you ever heard of “Caffe Viennese” or “Vienna Coffee”?
I have to confess that I never really checked if it actually has anything to do with Vienna, or if it does my version may not be the most authentic: I discovered this perfect beverage during my college years, in the historic cafes of Venice and Trieste – such as the Florian and the Tommaseo – and regarded it as my grown-up upgrade from Italian hot chocolate. My roommates and I found that it helped immensely with the cold, the fog, the all-nighters before exams, and heartless boyfriends .
While in general I find that most elaborate coffee drinks are just bad examples of “gilding the lily”, please trust me with this: it’s an improvement upon perfection!
Keep in mind that we are not talking about ordinary ingredients. Yes, chocolate tastes great, but there is more to it than what meets the lips: it’s full of chemicals that are associated with mood and emotion (phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and tryptophan, since you are asking), to the point that a shocking percentage of women report to prefer chocolate to sex (sorry, guys!). Daniele Piomelli, from the University of California, compares its effects to those of marijuana.
And don’t get me started about coffee. How many of us would have graduated from college had it not been for those midnight Americanos, and could we still call New York “the city that never sleeps” without the omnipresent to-go cups of joe?
Obviously, the pairing of the two is a marriage made in heaven – as long as if you don’t suffer from gastric ulcers.
Do not ask me how many calories are in a cup of this concoction. I have no idea. And besides, thinking about the calories may just make you crave it more. Go ahead and enjoy it, just try to stop after the first two cups!
- 4 small cups of espresso “ristretto” (strong and concentrated)
- 4 ounces really good bittersweet chocolate
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 1 tbsp sugar, or to taste
- Whipped cream to decorate, if you like (I prefer it without)
- Ground cinnamon, if liked
Bring some water to a boil in a saucepan and place a second saucepan or heat-proof bowl on top to create a bain-marie. Add the chocolate pieces or shavings to the top saucepan or bowl, and allow them to melt, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add the heavy cream and sugar and keep stirring. Add the espresso and keep heating until some bubbles form and it thickens. Remove from the heat, and add cinnamon or chocolate liqueur if liked. You can also decorate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but… serve immediately!
In Italy, creamy soups – or “vellutate” - are not usually made with cream (an ingredient that we like to leave to the French): the texture is given by the addition of a simple potato or a handful of rice.
The starches in the rice are slowly released during the cooking, and act as a thickener and an emulsifier at the same time. Slowly-released starches are what gives creaminess to authentic risottos, and also the reason why we add the pasta cooking water to our sauce (the starches released by the pasta turn the cooking water into an emulsifier, and a thickener). Better than fairy dust! This method obviously helps limit saturated fats, but it’s also a great resource for the dairy-intolerant, or the kosher cooks who need dairy-free dishes to serve with meat.
If you love smooth textures, you can turn any vegetable soup into a vellutata simply by throwing in a boiled potato and some water and processing everything in the blender. An easy way to recycle your second-day minestrone!
Ingredients (serves 4 to 6):
- 2 pounds carrots
- 1 onion
- 1 celery stick
- 1 ½ quarts vegetable stock or to taste
- 2 garlic cloves
- 4 or more tablepoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup Italian rice (short grain – Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone)
- 1 ½ tablespoons of freshly chopped parsley (or basil/parsley mix)
- 1 bay leaf
- salt and pepper to taste
Peel the carrots and slice them thinly.
Chop the celery, onion and garlic very finely.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy pot and cook the mix of celery, onion and garlic ( “il soffritto“) on medium/low heat for about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and the bay leaf and cook for 5 more minutes. Add 2/3 of the hot stock and bring to a boil, then add the rice, lower the heat, cover almost completely, and allow to simmer for about an hour.
Discard the bay leaf, process with a hand mixer, add the rest of the hot stock and the herbs, and allow to simmer uncovered for 5 more minutes, stirring continuosly. Drizzle with 2 more tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with black pepper and serve.
The combination of hazelnuts and chocolate is wildly popular in Italy – I’m sure you have heard of Nutella! The original version is Gianduja – a concoction made of chocolate and hazelnuts invented in Turin during the Napoleonic blockade, when the precious cocoa beans had become scarce and the famous Piedmontese chocolatiers had to find a way to make them go further-. It didn’t hurt, of course, that their hazelnuts (from the Langhe area of Piedmont) were said to be the best in the world, and that Turin was the birthplace of solid chocolate. As you can imagine, the result was much more interesting than other hard-times-inspired products (such as the French chicory “coffee”), and even after the end of the blockade the Torinese kept enjoying their new delicacy, and named it “gianduja” after a local marionette character.
Besides enjoying the tasty combo in the form of a spread or in confections (the delicious gianduiotti – the first-ever chocolates to be individually wrapped!), make sure you try my gianduja puff cake!
1 pound of puff pastry (home-made, or 1 package store-bought)
3 medium pears
5 ounces dark chocolate (I used 70 % Scharffen Berger)
½ cup ground hazelnuts
6 chocolate-flavored tea biscuits, or small biscottis
2/3 cup (scant) sugar
pinch of salt
1 organic lemon
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons butter, or hazelnut or almond oil
2 tablespoons milk (or non-dairy almond or soy milk)
flour (to dust the counter)
Peel and core the pears, slice them thinly and combine them with the lemon juice, the sugar, and the grated lemon zest. Grate the chocolate and coarsely chop the cookies. If using butter, melt it in a pan or in your microwave.
On a floured surface, roll out the pastry into a rectangle and brush the top with the melted butter or oil; top with the crumbled cookies, the drained pears, and the grated chocolate. Roll up the pastry as if making a strudel, sealing the edges and closing the ends.
Brush the top with the yolk (mixed with a couple of tablespoons of milk or parve almond or soy milk) and bake in a pre-heated 250 F oven for about 30 minutes or until golden. Enjoy warm or at room temperature, on a cold winter night .
The long marathon of Jewish Holiday ends each Fall with Simchat Torah: on this day, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and paraded around the synagogue while people dance and sing around them. Every Shabbat a different portion of the Torah is chanted in synagogue, and it takes a year to complete the cycle: on Simchat Torah, the end of Deuteronomy is reached, and we start again from Bereshit (Genesis).
Because its shape resembles that of Torah scrolls, one of the most traditional foods for Simchat Torah, found in Jewish communities all over the world in different variations, is stuffed cabbage. Italy is no exception: in Venice, we cook it in stock; in Rome they use oil, onion and tomato; others make a Sephardi version, using lamb instead of veal/beef; some add raisins and pine nuts. If you’d like to try something different, instead of stuffing each leaf you can make a large meat loaf and wrap it in several leaves: Italian Jews have many versions of “Polpettone” (meat loaf) made with beef or poultry and stuffed with different vegetables, frittata or boiled eggs, and encased in turkey or chicken skin, or in a goose neck.
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 1 lb ground beef, or veal (or a mix)
- 2 slices bread, crust removed
- beef or chicken stock
- 4 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced
- ½ cup peas, blanched
- 1/2 cup carrot, cooked and cut into small cubes
- ¼ tablespoon nutmeg
- 1 egg
- 2 or 3 tablespoons plain bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
- salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°.
Soak the bread in meat stock and set aside. Blanch the best leaves of a cabbage in boiling water for 1 minute, drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a pan, add the onion and garlic and cook until soft.
In a large bowl, combine the ground turkey, bread mixture (liquid squeezed out), nutmeg, salt, pepper, the egg, and after everything is well combined, fold in the carrot and peas. Allow to rest for five minutes and the mixture will firm up. Only if it’s still too soft, add some breadcrumbs to thicken it. Shape the mixture into a meatloaf and wrap it in the cabbage leaves.
Tie well with kitchen string (to make sure it won’t break you can also place the meatloaf in a muslin bag.
Place in a deep pan, cover with stock (enough to reach the top of the cabbage), and cook on medium/low heat, covered, for 1 and 1/2 hours (checking every 30 minutes and adding stock if it’s drying out). Uncover the pan and if there is still a lot of liquid, allow most of it to evaporate.
Serve with the juices from the pan.
Bruschetta (which, by the way, should be pronounced [bru'sket:ta] ( listen) and not [bru’shet:ta], please!!!) is a snack that Italians have been enjoying for centuries. It’s a simple slice of roasted bread, rubbed with fresh garlic and topped with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh tomato and basil. Tuscans, always the chic minimalists of Italy, skip the tomato and stick to olive oil and garlic; they call it Fettunta, “greased slice”. Of course they use the very first and very best oil of the season, which makes everything else seem redundant!
Just like bread soups or bread puddings, bruschetta was born as a way to salvage bread that was going stale (note to Americans: real bread does get stale!), at a time when it was considered precious and nobody was watching their carbs and worrying about Atkins. Some Italian peasant, who never reached the fame of the Earl of Sandwich but remained nameless, had a culinary epiphany that would revolutionize the concept of snacking.
Who doesn’t like giving their fork a rest and eating with their hands at picnics and cocktails? Although most of us tend to think of bruschetta in terms of tomato and basil, it’s actually a great base for most Mediterranean appetizers and salads, which it turns into finger foods. Just pick your favorite summer ingredient and build your own! Here is mine:
- 1/2 ripe cantaloupe, diced
- 1/4 small ripe watermelon, diced
- 3/4 cup goat cheese, or crumbled feta
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
- fresh mint or basil
- 2-3 tbsps of the best extra-virgin olive oil you can find (not too strong or acidic)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 loaf Italian or French style bread, sliced and toasted, broiled, or grilled
- Rub the toasted or grilled bread slices with the garlic cloves while they are still hot. Discard the garlic. Brush with very little oil.
- Spread a little cheese on the slices.
- Dress the two melons (separately) with the rest of the oil, and little salt and pepper. If using feta, which is saltier, you can skip the salt.
- Top some slices with the cantaloupe and others with watermelon. Decorate with fresh mint.
Italian Jews have always been very fond of lemons, and incorporate their juice and zest into many recipes: just like those with vinegar, these dishes are described as “all’agro” (sour style).
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were apparently heavy lemonade drinkers – in most regions it was sweetened with honey or sugar, but in Rome it was seasoned with salt.*