Crazy for Chard

chard rainbowAs soon as the ground warms, spring time gardners prepare to sown the seeds of one of Italy’s iconic vegetable. Our Nonna’s friend, Angelo would bring us weekly bundles of chard throughout the growing season. Versatile at all stages of growth from spring to late fall, chard can be clipped early for fresh baby greens, the young stalks can be cooked like asparagus, the mature leaves cooked like spinach and larger/mature stalks added to fritters and frittatas.

Recent research has shown that chard leaves contain at least 13 different polyphenol antioxidants, including kaempferol, a cardioprotective flavonoid also found in broccoli, kale and strawberries. Another primary flavonoid found in the leaves of chard is syringic acid known for its blood sugar regulating properties. Shown to inhibit the activity of the enzyme alpha-glucosidase. When this enzyme gets inhibited, fewer carbs are broken down into simple sugars and blood sugar is able to stay more steady offering special benefits for blood sugar control.

Sometimes referred to as Swiss Chard, chard was first identified by a Swiss botanist (possibly accounting for its name). Known to the ancient Greeks and Romans it is wildly popular in the Mediterranean and in Italy Swiss Chard,  (bietola) or coste as it is called by the Piemontesi, is a used to flavor soups, pasta, pizza, meatballs, sauces, strudel, served over polenta, as a contorno (side dish) sautéed and slightly wilted with extra virgin olive oil and garlic and in the making of a torta salata (savory pie).

Rainbow Torta di Bietola (Swiss Chard Tart)

Heat  2 T of extra virgin olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add  2 cloves of garlic; saut
 1 minute. Add 2 large bunches (about 1 lb.) of Rainbow Swiss chard (a mixture of red, white and yellow stalks) coarsely chopped leaves and stalks; sauté until excess liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Transfer chard mixture to large bowl. Cool slightly.  Mix in –

torta 2

1 15-ounce container whole-milk ricotta cheese

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano  Reggiano or Pecorino cheese

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

 

Position rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 375°F. To complete you will need 1 17.3-ounce package frozen puff pastry (2 sheets), thawed. Roll out 1 pastry sheet on lightly floured surface to 14-inch square. Transfer pastry to 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Trim edges, leaving 1-inch overhang. Fill pastry with chard mixture. Lightly brush pastry overhang with pastry brush dipped into water. Roll out second pastry sheet to 13-inch square. Using tart pan as guide, trim pastry square to 10-inch round. Drape over filling. Seal edges and fold in. Brush with egg wash. Bake until pastry is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes.

Chianti, Casks and Irises

iris florencePerfumes as offerings to the gods to create pleasing scents have been known since the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. Centuries later floral fragrances, flower parts and by products like orris root kept barrels of beer fresh in Germany and casks of wine aromatic in France. But no one took a greater interest in the qualities of the iris flower than Italy. In Tuscany large districts are given over to the cultivation of irises. So much so that the iris became the emblem of Florence and the practice of using dried iris rhizomes for perfumery and medicinal purposes became a major industry in 19th-century Italy.

In Chianti iris flowers grow along stone walls and olive groves, filling the space between grape vines to scent the bouquets of Tuscan wine. In spring and early summer the handsome garden blooms of Iris florentina with its floppy cupped petals and pollen laden beard color the valley of the Arno and are spectacularly displayed in Florence’s Iris Garden near P. Michelangelo. Open for 19 days it is a spring sight in Italy not to be missed.iris

Cabbage Means Wintertime in Italy

pasta and cabbageAlthough my Eastern European friends may disagree and my Irish friends may wonder if I’ve had one too many shots of espresso cabbage did originate in Italy. The crinkly Savoy cabbage (cavolo versa or Cavolo Milano) dates to the early 1500’s when it was a popular wintertime vegetable in the Savoy, a region of Italy that borders on Switzerland and France. It was often sauteed with garlic and olive oil, used in soups, served alone or with rice or pasta and is one of Italy’s favorite wintertime dishes.

A rustic, toothsome pasta pairs well with braised cabbage and other vegetables making it well worth trying. We recommend tagliatelle or La Bella Angiolina Olive Leaf Pasta from CosituttiMarketPlace for a vegetal flavor that pairs well with a St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef and Cabbage.

Savoy Cabbage and Pasta

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 small head savoy cabbage, about 1/2 pound
1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 large cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1/2 pound La Bella Angiolina Olive Leaf Pasta
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Chop cabbage into coarse shreds and sprinkle with salt. Allow to set for about an hour and drain squeezing to remove excess water. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the garlic. Heat until the garlic just barely starts to color, then remove from the heat. Discard the garlic. Add drained cabbage and slowly braise until caramelized and soft. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil with the salt and boil pasta. Combine drained pasta with the cabbage in skillet. Pour additional melted butter over (if needed) and toss until all the ingredients are well mixed. Season with coarsely ground pepper and taste for salt.

The Night of the Red Underwear

red-underwear-2In Italy, New Years Eve, l’ultimo dell’anno, is celebrated with rites, rituals and events that are meant to bring good fortune, happiness and prosperity in the coming year. Derived from Roman celebrations in honor of Janus, the god of gates, doorways, beginnings and endings, New Years Eve in Italy is a time to put an end to the problems of the past and open the door to the possibilities of a New Year. And being Italian you want to ensure that you do so on the most fortuitous manner!

So wear something red, the traditional color of good fortune, on New Year’s Eve. If you’re Italian that would be red underwear! and eat grapes for good luck and prosperity and throw something old out the window.

Fill your table with regional Italian dishes that symbolize good fortune and abundance. Pork, coin shaped pasta and specialty sausages like cotechino and zampone served with lentils are traditional to the holiday. If you can’t find cotechino or a zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter), make your favorite sausage to serve with Giorgi Locatelli’s recipe for Herbed Lentil Soup

Then think about the wonders, beauty and blessings of the past year with a short “ringraziamento“, thanksgiving, and begin Capodanno 2016.

A Dose Of Italian Drama

tableThe theatrics of drama played out in our social lives might be a little overwhelming at times but a dose of drama injected into the food we serve at our tables can be a good thing. Every once in a while it’s a good idea to re-interpret a traditional skill set of ingredients in new and different ways,  stirring up conflicts with  stimulating flavors and unexpected combinations.

A dose of Italian drama begins with the  table setting. Italians take time and effort to prepare a well-laid table where there is beauty and grace in the smallest detail.  When people gather to eat in Italy it’s about celebrating life, friends, family, and culture. The tablescapes of the Italy can be as rustic as a rural casa colonica or a refined as a Renaissance villa. Digital inspiration boards like Pinterest can help you design your vision of the perfect Italian dinner party.

The menu and meal should be alluring yet approachable, structured yet casual with an element that brings a sense of unexpected amazement. Something that Italians refer to as sprezzatura, a certain sense of nonchalance; meaning to make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. Often people think that recipes have to be complicated to be good. Italians typically focus on the quality of the ingredients rather than the number of ingredients. So choose a centerpiece dish that is as impeccably crafted as a well designed Brioni suit. 

Above all remember that the purpose of food is to “delight the palate and cheer the spirit”.  Food can be very evocative. Capitalize on the cuisine of Casanova’s Venice, Italy’s Lake District, the seaside villages along the Italian Riviera, the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria, the vineyards of Piemonte, the trattorie of Rome and the piazze of Florence. A dose of drama at the table elevates the shared and enjoyable experience of dining.  Here is a topping combination for a dramatic pizza that  will have your family and friends wondering at what Italian cooking school you’ve been studying.

pizza and lemons

Topping Combinations for a  Meyer Lemon, Smoked Mozzarella and Basil Pizza

8 ounces smoked mozzarella, pinched into bite-size pieces
2  Meyer lemons (ends trimmed), each cut crosswise into 8 very thin slices
About 3 tablespoons olive oil, for drizzling
8 to 10 basil leaves
2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese

My Perfect Panzanella

tomatoesIt’s almost time for my favorite summertime salad made with vine ripened tomatoes fresh from the garden. I’ve been waiting for those firm, smooth, brightly colored fruits of the vine all year and now their brief time has come. Cold weather and refrigeration will kill their flavor and create a mealy texture so now is the time to use them to their greatest potential and for me that is in the making of panzanella, a Tuscan bread and tomato salad. Mine is patterned after a perfect panzanella eaten at the table of Tenuta di Capezzana, near the village of Carmignano, northwest of Florence. The scent, aroma and flavor of their highly acclaimed estate bottled extra virgin olive oil elevated the simpliest of ingredients into a work of food art. Simple but sublime panzanella is Italy’s “everyman” summertime salad as much enjoyed by King Vittorio Emanuelle, while he was a guest at a castle in Chianti as the Italian contadini in the fields.

Here is a recipe inspired by my visits to Capezzana. Do not use stale American bread for this recipe. It is not a substitute for the firm, artisan quality Tuscan bread needed to make this recipe so good.

Ingredients (this recipe will make several servings)           panzanella
10 oz loaf of Italian country style bread
1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
3 large ripe tomatoes cut into cubes with their juice
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar; more or less to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a few cloves of fresh minced garlic

Cut the bread into bite size cubes. Warm 2-3 T extra olive oil in a large skillet. Add minced garlic to perfume the oil being careful not to let garlic brown. Toss bread cubes in oil, transfer to a baking sheet and finish in a 375 degree oven for a few minutes until bread al dente (firm yet soft). Let cool and transfer to a serving bowl and toss with tomatoes making sure to use all the juice the tomatoes yield. Dissolve salt to taste with the vinegar and oil in a small bowl, mix well and drizzle it over the bread mixture. Add basil and a few twists of coarsely ground pepper and toss.  Most Italian cooks recommend leaving the panzanella sit for a while before eating to allow all the flavors to come together.

10 Ways Italians Are Going to Save The World

Everyone’s got problems. Especially today. Maybe it’s because we’ve lost the artistry of living that the Italians know so well. They call it benessere “a sense of well being”. Traveling in Italy and staying with my Italian family and friends has led me to believe that Italians seem to know how to balance work and relaxation, surrounding themselves with beauty and art in their homes and businesses, eating fresh and vibrant food and focusing on family and friends. Italian design and fashion, culture and living, the way Italians prepare and eat their food all combine to create a sense of well being that doesn’t depend solely on the size of your bank account or stock portfolio.

Italians have long understood how art and beauty forge and strengthen our emotional bonds to life to create a sense of well being and lighten our discontent. Here are 10 ways Italian “benessere” is making the world a better place.

figs1. Green agriculture and eco-sustainability

Italy is a country with “un cuore verde”, a green heart. A country that measures its worth by preserving and protecting the land. In Italy green agriculture and eco-sustainability have been a powerful movement for decades. The pleasures of the table and ecologically-balanced farming methods are valued and encouraged. Italy’s farmhouses, family vineyards and orchards have always been a model for land to hand cooking. The traditional agricultural roots of Italian casalinga (homestyle) cooking are a legacy of Italian cuisine that we can all benefit from.

wine pour2. Wine

Wine is not simply considered an alcoholic beverage in Italy. It is part of the local culture, a product of the land, a family tradition and an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. Recently there has been a lot of buzz about the healthy lifestyle and longevity enjoyed by the people of Sardegna who drink Cannonau, a dark red wine said to contain the world’s highest levels of antioxidants (two to three times the level of flavonoids as other wines). The people of Sardegna who drink this wine are 10 times more likely to live to be 100. Research and the known effects of flavonoids have shown that moderate wine consumption may increase life expectancy while also lowering stress levels. Wine may not be able to solve all the world’s problems but reducing stress often allows us to put our problems in perspective and find a more balanced solution.

piazza3. Love, Friendship and Conviviality

Love is in the air all year long in Italy and has been for centuries. While we were busy developing the austere virtues of the Reformation, the Italians were relaxing in the inspiring glow of the Renaissance. And although we might want to identify the Italian style of love differently, Italians more often equate love with the concept of enchantment, charm or delight, innamorato. Italians take pleasure in the companionship of friends and opening themselves to life on the piazza. My Italian friend Luca once told me that his day would not be complete if he did not connect with at least one of his friends.

Olives4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Since ancient times Italian olive oil has been an integral part of the way Italians eat. High in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health, extra virgin olive oils are an important part of a heart healthy diet reducing the risk of variety of diseases and promoting good health. Italians share their love of olive oil and Italy’s precious bottles of “liquid gold” are available all over the world.

camera degli sposi5. Art and Design

Laura Biagiotti, known for her Italian cashmere collection, has said that “Italian fashion is meant to add the extraordinary to everyday life”. From ancient Italian cultures to the Great Masters of the Renaissance, Italian art and design transcend politics, gender, economies and cultural differences to inspire and elevate all peoples of the world.

pecorino sardo6. Cheese

According to National Geographic writer and Emmy award-winning documentarian Dan Buettner the secret of longevity is encoded in an Italian cheese. Whether or not an Italian cheese can save the world remains to be seen but Buettner who travels the globe to examine and unlock the secrets of long life claims that a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese is a start.

Eaten as part of a diet among people in Sardegna, designated by Buettner as a World Blue Zone (regions where long lived people can provide lessons for living longer and improving the quality of life) the cheese, known as pecorino sardo, is made from grass-fed sheep’s’ milk that results in a product which is high in omega-3 fatty acids.

copy-la-dolce-vita-tile.jpg7. La Bella Vita

Italy’s contribution to living a life of purpose and pleasure is eloquently summed up by Andrea Bocelli as he describes the essential elements of living life in Tuscany.

”Man was created for living here, where, with the toil of his labour in the fields, he can procure everything that he needs for a tranquil life and where he can also meditate on the profound meaning and spiritual value of his time spent on earth safe from the contradictions, vices, absurdities and tensions of the increasingly oppressive reinforced concrete world, where saying triumphs over doing, having over being, the frivolous over the useful, and the superficial over the concrete”.

Coffee cup8. Espresso

Although Italians may not have invented coffee they have perfected its making and service. Italian coffee beverages bring enjoyment and satisfaction to millions of people all over the world every day and as an espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee, a little goes a long way in lifting our spirits.

Our Italian Family in the Veneto
Our Italian Family in the Veneto circa 1919

9. Family

Italians appreciate their families and develop strong bonds with older family members. Elders are celebrated and family is revered. Loving grandparents provide child care, financial help, wisdom and motivation to perpetuate cultural and family traditions. In turn, elders are more engaged and feel a sense of belonging in their families and communities. Time and age is more irrelevant and society as a whole more dependent on family values with encouragement and supportive circle of family members.

Conservation sant eustorgio milan10. Conservation

No country is more perfectly constructed to the benefit of man than l’italia. The natural landscape of Italy is awe inspiring. Italians appreciate the true beauty of their country. Preservation, protection and conservation are part of their DNA. Italians have a better perspective and appreciation for their natural resources. Old buildings are left alone. If needed they are repaired or rebuilt, but otherwise they remain part of the landscape and their timeless charm and ancient beauty enhance the landscape. The patina of age is part of the natural landscape of Italy and Italians are more culturally sensitive and socially responsible for preserving heritage sites and promoting restoration.

Hippocrates’ Method to Cure Jet Lag

jet lagI’m an end justifies the means flyer. Unlike my travel companions who relish in the rarified air of the wild blue yonder, I view flying as a necessity more than a pleasure. A way to get from point A to point B. One of the main in reasons for this is jet lag. I try to control it but the 9 hour+ trip to Milano always results in a major upset in my diurnal rhythm resulting in lack of alertness, poor sleep, irritability and stress. Not the way I want to hit the Via Montenapoleone. I’m in Italy and jet lag is part of it.

I’ve read about, heard or tried most of the conventional wisdom on avoiding jet lag. Adjusting your sleep patterns before departure, light therapy, aromatherapy, herbal remedies, vitamins, acupuncture, turning your watch to the time of destination as soon as you get on the plane and various other sleep aids, all claiming to cure jet lag. A recent delivery to my in-box by Afar Magazine seemed to imply that I was approaching it from the wrong way. Don’t fight it. Embrace it and they offered 6 ways on How To Make the Most of Jet Lag.  All focus on a reactive approach which may be the better tack to take than loading up with pills.

My cure for jet lag is proactive and involves turkey, pumpkin pie, football and the somnolentic coma that follows a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner.  You can read about it here as well as a reference to Dr. Charles F. Ehret, a biologist at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory, who developed a program that uses a series of planned foods (proteins and carbohydrates) to re-set nature’s internal clock to help your body adjust to a new time zone. His method and mine, as well as one of Afar’s suggestions, both involve the word “feast”/”food” and to paraphrase Hippocrates about curing what ails you – “Let food be thy flight medicine and flight medicine be thy food”.

A Well-Laid Picnic

cropped-picnic-fiat1.pngA picnic in the Italian countryside in your classic Fiat 500 or ______. Just fill in the blank and your picnic basket with salumi, salame and a crusty loaf  of bread. My choice would be a rustic Tuscan pane and a selection of Italian cold cuts like mortadella, capicola and finocchiona (if I could get it). Add a few bruschetta toppings, a selection of mostarda, some fruit and formaggi (a truffled pecorino would be very nice). For dessert, a melon with prosciutto and biscotti to dip into my flask of Vin Santo. Speaking of wine no self-respecting Italian meal would be complete without vino. So bring along a bottle of wine and to quench your thirst include a bottle of aqua minerale (San Pelligrino or Panna would be a good choice) and Italian soda.

Planning an Italian inspired picnic. Of course you’ll need a cutting board, corkscrew, cheese knife and a nice cloth and plates. Although there is no reliable etymological translation for the world picnic in Italian, an outdoor meal eaten al fuori (outdoors) in the countryside or a garden is widely described in Italian literature and a well-laid table was encouraged to heighten the experience.

Our Italian family were known for a well-laid table set in the Italian countryside.

Our Italian Family in the Veneto
Our Italian Family in the Veneto

Here is a picture of them circa 1919 relaxing in the countryside near Vicenza. To me it represents the idyllic Italian lifestyle and pleasures of “villegiatura”, leaving the life of the city for a villa in the country. Even though our Italian family did not have a villa along the Brenta Riviera they still enjoyed picnics in the Veneto. An Italian inspired picnic is my way of bringing Italy home and capturing a small slice of “la dolce vita”.

Here are a few ideas for your picnic panini –

Mortadella di bologna, emmental, rucola, senape
Bologna mortadella, emmenthal cheese, arugula, mustard

Parma Panini
Prosciutto from Parma, buffalo mozzarella, tomato, extra virgin olive oil

Salame, provolone, rucola, rafano, olio extra vergine d’oliva
Salami, provolone cheese, arugula, horseradish, extra virgin olive oil

Mozzarella di bufala, pomodoro, basilico, olio extra vergine d’oliva
Buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil, extra virgin olive oil

Italy in an Instant – Extra Virgin Olive Oil

olive-oil-drip.jpgNothing can transport you to Italy quicker than opening a good bottle of Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The aroma, flavor and taste reflect the character of the land. From the delicate, fruity oils of the Ligurian Riviera to the pungent, peppery oils of Tuscany to the soft buttery flavors of the Umbria hills, the oils of the Italian peninsula are like a travelogue of flavor.

Yet less than 30 years ago olive oil was relatively unheard of in the US. It was barely mentioned in the early editions of the Betty Crocker Cookbook and wasn’t looked at as an ingredient in cooking until 1973 when Marcella Hazan published her classic book on Italian cooking. Today almost every kitchen on the planet has a bottle of olive oil in their pantry and every grocery store and market an array of oils on their shelves so much so that we may take it for granted.

Oils from CosituttiMarketPlace are sourced from small producers and generational families who are committed to preserving and protecting the culinary and cultural history of regional Italian food.  

Here are 5 of our favorite ways to create an Italy in an Instant moment using extra virgin olive oil.

Spaghetti with Garlic, Olive Oil and Red Pepper Flakes

Goat Cheese in Olive Oil                                                                             burrata

Cerignola Olives with Hot Pepper and Rosemary Oil

Sweet Olive Oil Quick Bread

Lemon and Olive Oil Marinated Fennel with Burrata and Fresh Mint