Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

The Way to a Man’s Heart May Be as Simple as a Tomato

 

tomatoplant

According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being the way to a man’s heart was apparently through a tomato.  Advice given in the Tacuinum was based on an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise, the Taqwīm as‑siḥḥahتقويم الصحة (“Maintenance of Health”), and describes detailed accounts of the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants including a veiled reference to the tomato.

During the 14th century manuscripts of the handbook were commissioned by northern Italian nobility during the 14th century as a practical guide for improving health.  Lavishly decorated manuscripts illustrate nobles engaged in work, play and romance and the cultivation of all manner of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Directions for the use, preparation and experience of the plant is explained through an elaborate iconography of meaning.  Feudal lords, ladies and laborers engage in the work of the estate in a world where horticulture, health and personal relationships are intertwined.

Medieval gardens with wattled fences are carefully tended to bring out the best attributes of  the fruits, vegetables and those who ate and tended them. In one scene a couple embraces in a garden of eggplants implicating their aphrodisiac properties.  In another carrots are harvested and described in the Latin text to stimulate sexual relations but slow down digestion, and that the purple type, ripe in winter, are the best. Other scenes depict harvesting dill, picking chestnuts, the usefulness and dangers of cabbage, tending marjoram and making soup.

A mixture of medicine and myth where tomatoes become botanically related to the mandrake or “love plant”,  believed to inflame a man’s amorous intentions and said to be able to “lead a man like a dog”. As dogs were often used to pull out the root of the believed-to-be-bewitched mandrake with a man standing in wait to see if the dog survived the mandrake’s deathly curse, it may have seemed like the mandrake and related tomato had powers to lead a man.

tomatoes

When the Spanish brought the first tomato seeds to Southern Europe in the early 16th century, a large percentage of Europeans feared the perceived properties of the fruit.  But around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato’s popularity grew. The Italian pomodoro (pom d’or) apple of gold was becoming a sought after ingredient, juicy, full of flavor, both tangy and sweet.  Italian cooks embraced it’s use in sauces that would eventually catch the eye (and taste buds) of a Queen named Margherita.  Every Italian Nonna has her favorite recipe for a tomato ragu’ or marinara that keep her sons and grandsons close to home.  So it may not be so far fetched to think that the tomato has powers both in and out of the kitchen.

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Posted in Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

Eat All That Is Excellent

In the world to come, a person will be asked to give an account for that which, being excellent to eat, she gazed at and did not eat. (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin) 

Food is a celebration and a pleasure. Taken together, they make the everyday act of eating more than a blip on the radar of life.  Whatever we eat or drink should bring health to the body and joy to our day. I believe this because after eating, shopping, cooking and traveling in Italy with our Italian family and friends I’ve learned that every plate of food and every bottle of wine brings life to the Italian table. I’ve come to realize the pivotal place food has in Italian culture.

Italians take time and effort to prepare a well-laid table where there is beauty and grace in the smallest detail. Meals are an essential part of Italian life. Not that they obsess about food or over indulge. Italians truly value food and its preparation. Generational family recipes bring meaning to what is eaten. Shoppers rely on traditional and local ingredients. Excellent ingredients stand out in a dish providing both taste and nutrition and bright lively flavors.

Back in the States, the mediocrity of eating is a well traveled road we take everyday. Lower food priorities and less inspiring ingredients and options often cause us to settle for less. We eat and say the food was ok, it was good, but was it great. We generally don’t expect it to be so. Our busy lives, filled with multi-tasking, can feel really uncomfortable to do anything else but simply eat and accept what is put before us.

It’s been said that we are what we eat. It’s been shown that mindfully eating with attention to the ingredients, methods and preparation of the food has positive satisfying benefits. Spending time sourcing your ingredients impacts food choices far beyond a single table. It sends a message to suppliers that you value what they do and encourages them, many of whom our small producers and generational families, to continue bringing their products to the market.

Eating all that is excellent is about choices. Commit your time, effort and food budget to better ingredients and better preparation. Preparing a well-laid table to share and enjoy with your family and friends in a relaxed and tranquil manner is a lost pleasure that must be found again and one thing we can do to make a better life.

family table

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy

An Italian View of Zucchini

zucchini

Fritters, sun-dried, zucchini flowers fried and stuffed (Fiori di Zucca), sautéed with olive oil and Italian herbs. Italians love zucchino, the diminutive of zucca “squash”. When grown properly it is tender and palatable. The thin skin need not be removed like its invernale (winter squash) cousin and can be eaten raw or cooked.

Italians love it. Every garden grows zucchini and depending on where you are in Italy they are at their height and plentiful all three months of the summer. Italians use zucchini in many ways: on top of pizza, inside lasagna, baked into focaccia, in soups and as a contorno, side dish. Our Nonna made them simply with onions and tomatoes sautéed in olive oil with basil and oregano.

Italians literally relish in the natural verdant flavors of zucchini and typically don’t feel compelled to turn this vegetable into something it is not such as a dessert mixing in cocoa and chocolate in a sneaky attempt to get their kids to eat more vegetables. They don’t feel the need to conceal its texture, treat it as a second class ingredient or masquerade its flavor. They like it and accept it as it is. There is not one recipe in The Silver Spoon, Italy’s most iconic cookbook, that uses zucchini as a dolce. Perhaps the closest interpretation may be as an ingredient in Verdure Agrodolce, a sour and sweet mix of vegetables in a vinegar and sugar base flavored with herbs and garlic.

However when zucchini is baked into something sweet, like this recipe from a family feast for Italian Cinnamon Zucchini Bread  from Boston’s famous North End, pretty much anyone can get behind this Italian summer squash.

Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

To Please the Taste of Italians Combine Art and Science

 

 

table quotes

Together with Collodi’s Pinocchio and Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Pellegrino Artusi’s          La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene is one of Italy’s most read books. With over 700 printings it is one the most referenced books on the science and art of cooking and eating well.  Known as the “great-grandfather of all Italian cookbooks” it has been in print continuously since 1894 and translated in hundreds of languages.

The common matter that these three books share is one of instruction and advice. As Pinocchio learns how to prove himself through the pages of Collodi’s book, Pope Francis recommends Manzoni’s book to engaged couples for guidance before marriage. Artusi, though not a trained professional cook realized a need for a book of instruction and began classifying Italy’s great culinary and cultural tradition of  regional, domestic cuisine and what it takes to become a good cook. And what we learn from his writings is that cooking is both an art and a science.

ARTUSIArtusi believed there is a science or technique to the “art of making something as economical, savory and healthy as possible”.  That technique is as important as the ingredients used in preparing a dish and affect the dish as much as the ingredients themselves. Artusi knew that to please the taste of Italians you need to combine la scienza e l’arte . Time, temperature and proper combinations are the science and the cooks’s intuition the art.  He advises his readers with an air of scientific authority to make a dough more tender and digestible, add a little lard when mixing the flour with cool water and salt and “the schiacciata will puff up better if you drop it in a skillet when the fat is sizzling but which you have removed it from the fire”.

These tips on technique should not fall on the deaf ears of a cook. According to our Italian cousin Andrea who recently graduated from a culinary course of study in Milan, one should always chill your blade attachment and blender bowl in the freezer when making pesto to avoid damaging the tender basil leaves from the heat generated by the motor of the food processor.  The science behind the art of making a great pesto!

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy

Artusi’s Solemn Sacred Less Than Penitential Menu for Good Friday

Good Friday (venerdi santo) is a solemn, sacred day in Italy and when it comes to food the menu for a ‘pranzo di quaresima‘, a luncheon meal for this final Lenten observance has a long and important tradition that goes back to the recognized bible of Italian cooking, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. Generations of  Italians have grown up with the book of Artusi as a main guide to cooking. Written in 1891 with over 700 printings it is one of Italy’s most read books, together with Pinocchio, and a copy was present in almost every Italian home. Today there is a center in Artusi’s hometown of Forlimpopoli dedicated to his work.

book artusi

Artusi wasn’t a chef but a merchant from Romagna who after a successful career decided to retire and dedicate his time to his hobbies –  writing and cooking. He collected and compiled recipes and insights on the culinary and cultural traditions of regional Italian food from various sources, friends and relatives codifying and classifying the tradition of Italy’s domestic cuisine gathering together hundreds of regional Italian recipes and experimenting with them. He recognized the long and important tradition of foods eaten on holidays and seasonal celebrations especially those at Easter time and those eaten just before Easter. On the last few days of Lent when only “lean” foods were to be eaten, ones that Italians call “magro”.

The menu for “il pranzo di quaresima”  doesn’t seem to be so lean or penitential as the ingredients are quite rich and lavish in this day and age. The meal begins Minestra  –Zuppa alla Certosina, (Carthusian Soup) a fish and tomato soup that originated in a Tuscan monastery, the beautiful Certosa del Galluzzo which sits on top of a hill just outside Florence on way to Sienna.

artusi-book

This is followed by a course Artusi refers to as the Principii, –  Baccalà montebianco con crostini di caviale , pounded codfish with cream, a garnish of raw truffles and croutons or crostini of caviar. Followed by Lesso –  boiled/poached Pesce con salsa genovese, fish with a Ligurian pesto sauce.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
Gnocchi alla romana

Then an interposed Tramesso of Gnocchi alla romana, discs made from semolina flour topped with butter and melted cheese. Next an Umido (stew) of Pesce a taglio followed by Arrosto grilled Anguilla (Comacchio eel).

eel
Grilled Comacchio eel

For dessert, Dolci of Pasticcini di marzapane e gelato di pistacchi, marzipan filled pastry tarts and pistachio ice cream.

A Lenten feast that gives real and lasting joy in sharing ourselves at the table.

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy, Travel, Videos

Italian Bread Winners

The fascinating story behind two legendary Italian breads.

Coppia Ferrarese,a bread whose twisted shape was first served at the ducal banquet tables of Ferrara.

pane coppia-ferrarese

Coppia Ferrarese is a regional bread particular to the province of Ferrara in Northern Italy.  With IGP (protected geographical indication ) status similar to Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma you know it must be special. The name comes from the shape of the bread made by the coupling of two pieces of dough  twisted together to form the distinctive four-point X shape.

Type “O” soft wheat flour, pure pork lard, extra virgin olive oil, yeast, salt and malt are used to make this golden-crusted, aromatic bread. The history of bread making in Ferrara dates to 1287. Historical references in the late 1600’s talk about the bread of Ferrara, highlighting its goodness and strange shape, types of flour used for the special process and the contribution that it gave to the fame of regional gastronomy.

 

 

Pane Carasau, also known as Carta di Musica (sheet music) because of its extremely thin paper-like quality.

pane carasau

The inhabitants of the island of Sardegna eat a fiber rich diet of fava beans (high in folate) and a type of nutritive wafer-thin flat bread known as Pane Carasau or  Carta da musica. The bread is named for its cracker-like crispness (in the Sardinian dialect  “carasare” means toasting) and its large and paper thin shape similar to a sheet of music.  Remains of this type of bread were found in archeological excavations of nuraghi (traditional Sardinian stone buildings) dating to before 1000 BC. Traditionally a bread of shepherds, who carried it in their saddle bags, it could be preserved in the long months (up to one year) they were away from home. Here is a link to a remarkable documentary of the making of Pane Carasau.  The bread is baked in 7 stages and requires 3 women  to make it. The ovens used in the baking must be at 840°-930°F to achieve the characteristic puffiness and flavor.

State side versions (although not as authentic) were once available at Trader Joe’s  as Pane Guttiau – Sardinian Parchment Crackers or you can make them with the following recipe.

Pane Carasau – Sardinian Crisp Bread

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 1 12teaspoons salt
  • about 1 13cups lukewarm water
  • about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
  • sea salt, to taste
  1. Combine first 3 ingredients in large bowl. Slowly mix in enough lukewarm water to form moist soft dough. Knead in bowl until dough is no longer sticky. Knead dough on lightly floured work surface until smooth, about 15 minutes. Cover with plastic and let stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes and up to 1 1/2 hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F Very lightly dust 2 large baking sheets with whole what pastry flour. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Pat 1 piece into disk (keep remaining dough covered). Roll out disk to 13-inch round, lifting and turning often. Transfer to baking sheet. Bake until edges begin to turn up and bread is still malleable, about 3 minutes. Turn bread over and bake until bread bubbles in spots and is golden in places, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to rack.
  3. Brush oil over bread. Sprinkle with sea salt.
  4. Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield 8 sheets. Serves 16-32.

Sardinians call pane carasau – pane guttiau when sprinkled with salt and a drizzle of olive oil and then warmed  for a few minutes.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

Italian Sentiments For Valentine’s Day

 

 

 

 

Il giorno di amore is 7 days away and you’re shopping for the perfect Valentine’s Day card. Because just buying and signing that card and giving it to your loved one doesn’t quite cut it show how much you really care by adding your own personal Valentine’s Day message.

And because no other language is more romantic than Italian here are 7 sentiments of affection to write in that card for an Italian inspired Valentine’s Day. Pair that with a sparkling bottle of Franciacorta, a slice of Tiramisu and a cuddle on the sofa to watch Heath Ledger in Casanova for a perfect Valentine’s Day.

love quote 6       love quote 3

quote love

love quote 5

love quote 2

love quote 4

love quote color

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy

Italy’s Aqua Cottura

pasta boil

A key ingredient common to all Italian pasta dishes is l’acqua di cottura, the residual water that was used to boil the pasta. Literally translated to mean “the water of cooking” or cooking water which they consider to be liquid gold. The water used to boil your pasta is makes your pasta dish more delicious and helps the sauce adhere to the pasta better while also improving the flavor and texture of the sauce. L’aqua cottura adds moisture and makes the pasta creamy without adding too much oil or grease.

The magic of pasta water is due to the starch the pasta releases as it cooks so its important to use a good quality artisan pasta. Use only as much water as you need to cover the pasta as it boils (typically 1 pound of pasta to 4 quarts of water at a rolling boil). As long as you give the pasta a few vigorous stirs during the first two minutes of cook time the noodles will not stick together. This is essential because it is at this moment when the pasta can clump together as the first layers start to soften and release starch. Time according to package instructions and when the pasta is done the starch content will be concentrated in a ghostly glaze in the pasta water.

Drain but retain a few tablespoons of the water to add to the pasta as you finish it with the sauce in a separate pan. The sauce will adhere to the noodles in a beautiful marriage of the two and you will have a flavorful pasta with a thick, creamy sauce.

Posted in Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy, Travel

What Do Anthony Bourdain and I Have in Common?

butcher sample

What do celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and I have in common? Absolutely nothing until I spent a Sunday afternoon in late October drinking wine and sampling porchetta and salumi at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Now I am part of a select confraternity of those whose motto is “meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista” translated to mean “it is better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist”.

MUCCA

This old Tuscan proverb only holds true if you are privileged enough to access and eat meat that according to butcher and shop owner Dario Cecchini have come from animals that have

  • lived a good and healthy life with ample room to grow and thrive
    experienced a humane and “good death”
  • been processed by a good butcher who knows the right way to bring out the best qualities of the meat
  • prepared and cooked by someone who in Dario’s words “can dignify the animal and all those whose labors led it to the table”.

Lofty and solemn words from an Italian butcher who is somewhat of a celebrity himself (Elton John, Sting and Prince Charles buy from him). So much so that Bourdain, never at a lost for a snarky comment, is at his deferential best when he visits Cecchini at his shop in Panzano.

My visit was much more chaotic. I was part of the Sunday afternoon meet, greet and tasting frenzy that surrounds an a gratis sampling of Cecchini’s work. Like attending a gallery showing of a famous artist, fans press through the doorway of the little butcher shop located on a side street off the main piazza. They are offered a wine pour of Chianti from a traditional Italian fiasco and upon entering jostle themselves to a sideboard for a sampling of traditional Chianti salami with wild fennel pollen, lardo made with olive oil, white wine, sea salt and herbs (which Cecchini calls Chianti butter) and Tuscan porchetta that is so good it will bring tears to your eyes.

The logical extension of attending Mass in Chianti on a Sunday morning would be to end up in Panzano in the afternoon. The views from the town are inspiring (Panzano has been called the Tuscan hill town with one of the most beautiful views of Chianti). The townspeople are warm and welcoming and a stop to sample or eat at Antica Macelleria Cecchini (there is a small restaurant next door with convivial tables ) is an uplifting experience that will make you realize the respect and reverence we should have for the food we eat.

The incensual aroma of herbs, meat, oil, wine and herbs wafts through Cecchini’s shop on my visit lingers into the late October afternoon. Cecchini spontaneously sings opera arias and quotes Dante. I pass by and glance at the master of Italian butchers. He smiles and gives me a kiss on the cheek. Some people call Tuscan lardo “Crema Paradiso” .              I would submit that a trip to Panzano’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini comes as close to gastronomic heaven as one can be on earth.

 

Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy, Travel

A Venetian Shadow

venice canaletto-veduta-del-canal-grande-

Just returned from from Venice whose fatal charm is still as strong as ever despite the crowded vaporetti and tourist hype. The reflected light off the water still shines as unique and beautiful reflecting onto the colors of the buildings and still magically morphs into shadows. The light of Venice is legendary. Canaletto’s 18th century scenes of  Venice’s Grand Canal play on the reflections of light and shadow. In Venice the Italian phrase bere un’ombra means “to drink a shadow” and un’ombra, “the shadow”, they are referring to is a glass of wine.

venice san marco

In the past, Piazza San Marco was filled with vendors of all kinds. At the foot of the massive Campanile across the square was a wine seller. During the day, he used to adjust his stand to stay in the shadow of the bell tower and soon “let’s go in the shade” became an in-the-know way of saying “let’s go have a glass of wine”.

The movable wine shop is no more but “drinking a shadow” remains the traditional phrase for drinking a glass of wine in the seductive city of Venice.

 

wine and venice

However un’ombra is not a typical bicchiere di vino, (glass of wine) drunk with a meal but a small glass typically ordered with *cicchetti, an assortment of appetizers or tiny snacks served at a Venetian bàcaro, a tavern or wine bar unique to Venice. Un ombra typically is an inexpensive, young wine ( vino sfuso)  sold for around 1 euro a glass in bars  served with a delicious cicchetti it is an essential Venetian ritual for a person’s health and well-being.

Small Bites in the Shade

crostini and pesto

Pesto Genovese & Sun-Dried Tomato Crostini

8 ounces Mascarpone cheese, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup La Bella Angiolina Ligurian Basil Pesto
1 jar Italian Sun-Dried Tomatoes packed in extra virgin olive oil
1 loaf of rustic Italian bread
In a mixer or with wooden spoon, blend softened cheeses until smooth. Gently fold in pesto or place a dollop on top. Spread on bread slices and top with a piece of  roasted or sun-dried tomato.

polenta and cod

Grilled Polenta with Cod Fish Mousse

10 oz. dried salt cod
4 cups milk
1 medium yellow onion, halved
1 rib celery, halved
1 clove garlic, crushed
1⁄2 cup olive oil, plus more
1 1⁄3 cups Biancoperla white corn polenta
24 small radicchio leaves
2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley

Place cod in a 2-qt. saucepan, and cover by 2″ with cold water; boil for 20 minutes. Drain cod, return to saucepan, and repeat process twice more. Transfer cod to a 6-qt. saucepan and add milk, onion, celery, garlic, and 10 cups water; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until cod is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain cod, reserving 1⁄4 cup cooking liquid; discard vegetables and skin and bones from cod. Process cod and cooking liquid in a food processor until smooth. While processor is running, drizzle in 1⁄2 cup oil; continue mixing until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt and pepper; chill cod mousse.

Cook polenta according to package instructions. Transfer to a greased 12″ x 9″ rimmed baking sheet; smooth top and chill until set. Cut polenta into 2″ x 3″ rectangles; brush with extra virgin olive oil. Grill polenta, turning once, until slightly charred, about 4 minutes. Top each rectangle with radicchio leaf and a dollop of cod mousse; sprinkle with parsley. (adapted from a recipe at Saveur Magazine)

*the word cicchetti is derived from the Latin ciccus meaning very small