August 31, 2015

Nonna's Tomato Sauce

July came and went in the blink of an eye, and now August is following the same path, leaving me wondering where summer went.

I have been travelling a lot in July, not so much in August. The two months had a noticeably different rhythm and a very opposite feel. July felt suspended, ethereal, with me constantly on the move and up in the air, struggling to feel settled or make sense of where I was, for I wasn't anywhere for long enough. August, in contrast, was a static month, and yet one full of restless anxiety, of changes, of big announcements and strict deadlines. I suppose all these factors, in different ways, are part of the reason why I have been a Tom Sawyer of sorts, shirking from this space and missing the chance to write about much of the good food that has appeared, despite everything, on our table.

However, I did want to share some photos of my nonna that I took on a short visit I paid to my homeland back in July, as she recently turned 95 and made her first appearance on a foreign national paper. I captured her in her beloved 'basement kitchen' while she was jarring tomatoes and making fresh tomato sauce, teaching me a thing or two about canning. You might remember reading about her already when I wrote about her chicken, so I just thought I would skip introductions. Here she is:


July 8, 2015

Zucchine alla Scapece

Before you start reading – this long premise hasn't much to do with today's recipe. Somehow, though, fried courgettes seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate five years or so of blogging – more than cake, even. I don't say this lightheartedly, but you see, these happen far more rarely than dessert in our home and felt way more special. 

I often ask myself what it is that keeps me here and keeps me going. What inspires me and draws me to this space, no matter the circumstances, five or so years (gosh!) after I typed the first words onto this blank canvas thinking I had something to say about food?

The answer never seems to be a masterfully photographed recipe planned meticulously, and cooked in a chunk of carefully chiseled, never-so-spare time. It is not the giveaway I get sometimes asked to host, or more traffic, or a long list of comments (for much that I love having plenty of them). The more I see myself coming back to this space, despite the tiredness and the lack of time, the more I realise I am here for the stories. I am still here because some of the most meaningful moments in my life took place in the kitchen, and many of these stories are still left untold.

'Is there someone interested in hearing them though?' I ask myself as I type. For this is so crucial! I have never really liked talking to myself, and besides, it would be silly to think that I am here just to talk. No, what truly keeps me here is the mutual passions, the collision of ideas, the interchange of thoughts and personal experiences that are triggered by a common feeling or a shared memory. I am here to hear. I like nothing more than reading your posts, thoughts, comments, notes and emails. I am truly grateful to be part of this community that shares food stories so generously and genuinely. I want to earn my place in it the best I can.

So here I am today thanking you for being still here five years after it all started, holding a plateful of fried courgettes.

Jesse calls them 'the joke vegetable'. In the part of the world where he is from (a rural village of south-west Illinois) summers are scorching and humid just like where I am from. There, courgettes (or shall I rather say zucchini) grow at an unmanageable rate, seemingly overnight, and keep coming and coming despite the quick turnover, and the inventiveness in the kitchen. Once picked, his whole family would grate them at industrial rates. Some are then made available for immediate consumption in the form of zucchini bread; others are packed in freezer bags and stored for the rest of the year, usually destined for more zucchini bread.

My grandparents had a few courgette plants in their garden, too, but not so many that we couldn't cope with the eating. The issue was rather that they would let them grow too big, large and watery, with seeds as big as watermelon pits. It might have been because they forgot about them, or perhaps they thought that the larger they would get the better – more to eat, right? When in fact they were ten times better when small and crisp. Sure, it was free, genuine food and we learnt to use it up and make it taste good, but with courgettes that size there wasn't much we could do. We did grill them, but they required quite some time in the sink to drain the excess of liquid. We sometimes stir fried them in oil and garlic, then tossed them with pasta, but the high water content would cause them to stew in their own juices rather than becoming crisp and flavoursome. What we certainly never did was frying them. No, the frying was absolutely out of the question. Which is exactly why, looking back, I know I missed out big time on one of the most delicious foods ever invented. 

Fried courgettes might have been a rarity on our table, but as soon as I tasted them, they immediately became my favourite way to eat this otherwise pretty insignificant vegetable. Exposed to this delight later in life while travelling to Campania (the land of fried vegetables) for work, I was presented with a starter of zucchine alla scapece. I remember being truly struck by their sharp flavour and intense, almost nose-unclogging smell – I had never thought courgettes could taste so much of something. They were sour and sweet, garlicky and fresh, tender and chewy, with their oily juices dancing on the plate and been mopped away by a piece of sturdy bread. They were so instantly addictive I had to order a second round, happy to skip the pasta course in their favour. It soon realised that garlic, vinegar and mint (rather than courgettes per se) were the flavours I was tasting, and everything made more sense. I was intrigued. No, actually, I was really hooked.


June 17, 2015

Pollo coi Peperoni

'So you don't even eat...chicken?'

Grandma's inquisitive, bewildered eyes were moving slowly between my brother – who appeared to be shielding himself behind a tall chair – and the pot warming up on the stove.

Our casual visit had turned into a lunch invite. It had been a while. Far from being the weekly recurrence it once was, lunch at grandma's had become more of a special occasion reserved for New Years and Easter. We visited often, of course, spent some time and chatted for a good while, but we rarely stopped for a meal. We liked to tell ourselves the reason was that grandma was getting old, and that we didn't want to give her any extra work in the kitchen. We knew in fact that her hearty food was something to be had in moderation. That day, though, she convinced our reluctant selves to stay.

Grandma isn't a woman who could ever be taken by surprise. Her pantry was always well-stocked, her fridge was full, her garden bountiful, and you could stay assured she had cooked something for, at the very least, six people. That day, she emerged from the 'real kitchen' downstairs with a pot of chicken in red sauce she had probably started cooking at the break of dawn. I say the real kitchen because she had two. The one on the first floor (the part of the house she was living in) was barely used to make coffee and wash the dishes. The kitchen on the ground floor was the operative one. It was nothing more than the old kitchen – easily from the 1960s – she had previously upstairs. She had kept part of the cupboard, plus the stove and the oven, and had fitted it in a room downstairs. Despite the fact the hobs were ancient and could only be partially lit, she would stubbornly just want to cook there. It was, after all, the one she was truly familiar with. She still knew all the tricks to make it work the way she wanted.

When the chicken arrived upstairs, my brother grinned. He than said, as delicately as he was able to, that he had recently embraced a vegetarian diet. 'Didn't I tell you? I am pretty sure I did tell you. Yes, I told you last time I came', he said cautiously.

'So what? You do eat chicken anyway, right?'

'Not exactly'

'I've got fish. Tuna?'

'How about cheese'

'You can't just eat cheese. Don't be silly, just eat the chicken. This is my chick, one of those you see roaming outside' she said, pointing energetically outside the window. 'It's good.'

'I would rather not...Oh, whatever, fine'.

June 8, 2015

Runner Bean Salad with Tarragon

Almost. I almost gave in to the idea that I live in a place where springtime doesn't seem to exist. It is, on the one hand, a healthy admission that spares me some nerve-wracking moments, yet one that makes me unmistakably living in projection of a summer that might as well last a few weeks, then fade away with the first August rain. In fact this seems to me more of a lose-lose situation. Which is why I welcome this shy English June feeling mildly grumpy about the low temperatures still in the single digits, but grateful for any bit of sunshine and abundant daylight it has to offer.

I am sorry. I haven't showed up here in a while and I am talking about the weather, boring you to death. I should rather be concerned that the last recipe I posted here is terribly old story. Artichokes have gone well out of season. Luckily, you might still find local, sweet tiny peas and fava beans that are small enough to be eaten raw, straight out of their verdant pods. Comes June, though, and I am happy to leave them on a side to make room for tomatoes, stone fruits, courgettes and beans.

For years June marked the end of the school year, and the beginning of a time that seemed to stretch infinitely. Long, sleepy days were filled with lots of reading and plenty of boredom – I now struggle to remember what that felt like. June also stated the beginning of the procession to Grandma's house to pick vegetables from her garden. As soon as the humid heat of the Venitian countryside had settled in for the following three months, the garden started to go bonkers in all possible good ways. Tomatoes and courgettes were popping up by the bagful, and required daily watering and harvesting. Green and runner beans could grow too big and stringy in a couple of hours, and the lettuce would turn tough and inedible if not cut promptly. The cucumbers, as long as my arm and almost as large, were also pretty needy, and the aubergines and peppers would become all wrinkly under the burning midday sun in a matter of minutes. In a mad rush against time, I was there almost every day, right before sunset or as soon as the temperature of the soil had decreased to a simmer rather than a boil. Each time, I was getting enough produce to make a side dish or salad for our family's evening meal, as well as for lunch the following day. Usually more. We certainly ate way beyond the five-a-day.

My favourite thing to harvest was lettuce: easy and straightforward, it would come off with one swing of the serrated knife. My least favourite: green beens. I found them tedious and requiring too much patience and discernment – was that one too small to pick still, or would it turn too fibrous if left on the plant longer? It truly took ages to make a bag full enough to feed a party of four, and as soon as the picking was done, there came the trimming, one by one, top and bottom. Not worth it. I thought runner beans (both white and green) were much less labour intensive – their larger size created more volume in my supermarket-branded plastic bag – and just as good as green beans. They quickly became my favourite.

Mum, just like grandma, used to steam them or boil them whole, usually cooking them until very soft – or shall I rather say 'to death', the Italian way. They were then served with oil and vinegar, and sometimes with some torn basil leaves, alongside some grilled chicken or fish. The addition of the vinegar was what always stroke me. Still lukewarm, the beans propagated a sour, pungent yet pleasant aroma mingling with the fresh sweetness of the basil. It smelled of summer in the best possible way. Nostalgically, I have been making runner beans in a similar way ever since I left home. In time, though, I discovered that I love them topped with fresh tarragon even more than with basil leaves. I don't really know why they go so well together. It might be the vague taste of anise and liquorice of tarragon, embracing the sweetness of the beans and saving them from the risk of monotony. All I can say is, it just works. Still, knowing that many people are not fond or tarragon – for anise is certainly a controversial flavour, just like fresh coriander - good young basil (the kind with small, tender leaves) is always a good alternative. 


May 11, 2015

Bucatini with Vignarola and Burrata

It occurred to me that I never mentioned on this space that a few months ago I have started writing a bi-monthly column for Italian paper Corriere della Sera. I am in great company of two talented and just plain fantastic women and fellow bloggers, Valentina, and Emiko, and I am humbled and honored to be part of this group. The column, you guessed it, focuses on market-to-table eating and seasonal, simple recipes loaded with produce, and very much inspired by the Italian way of eating and cooking. Written in Italian, the column feels a lot like the extension of Life Love Food after I dropped bi-lingual posts on this space. That said, the plan is to start writing the articles for the column in English as well as Italian, so that everybody can read and hopefully enjoy the recipes. For now, I wanted to share some favourites here, too.

Onto the recipe. The decadence and totally over-the-top nature of this pasta is what makes it so very good. I don't say this lightheartedly: usually Italian recipes are very much about the 'less is more' approach, and this is what I love about them the most. Yet, sometimes, piling it all up high is just the right thing to do. In the case of this recipe, for example, it works. 

The base is a Roman-inspired spring concoction called vignarola. This is a dish made of fresh peas, broad beans, artichokes, sometimes lettuce, sometimes fresh herbs, others bits of guanciale for extra flavour - all braised in oil and white wine until tender and utterly flavoursome. Vignarola is often served on bread, which has the double pourpose of carrier, and of sponge for absorbing the delightful juices left at the end. You can sometimes find vignarola served alongside some fresh ricotta, but mostly, it can hold the stage on its own. 

The inspiration for serving vignarola on pasta came after a meal I had last year while visiting Rome around Easter. Rachel (who happens to have just written about it, beautifully as always) had invited us for a lunch at Cesare al Casaletto in Monteverde, and after a round of antipasti, my tonnarelli alla vignarola arrived. I was hooked. The sweet, oily juice in which the vegetables had stewed made the perfect seasoning for the fresh, slightly chewy ribbons of pasta. A generous topping of grated pecorino, melted into the hot pasta, with a little help from some starchy cooking water, added a dose of addictive saltiness and creaminess to the whole. It all disappeared in a shamefully short amount of time. 
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