November 24, 2015

Flourless Pumpkin Cake

As you might have grasped from the latest updates, I am no longer in Veneto. A few things have changed since the last post, mostly regarding the fact that I put a few miles between me and the homeland. Long story short, I am now in sunny Sydney. 

The plan is to be here for a few months (more on that another time). Meanwhile, I am just enjoying the fact that I'm escaping winter and getting a double dose of summer instead. The seasonality change might twist things around a bit on these pages, mostly because this is meant to be a seasonal recipe journal, and what's in season here now are lovely green peas and crisp asparagus. It feels a bit confusing, admittedly, so I'm trying to take things easy. For now, just to get into the groove of the holiday season and tune in with what's happening in our respective home countries, Jesse and I have been baking quite a few autumnal delights. That, despite the fact that it's very warm and sunny outside my window.

As temperatures soar well into the 40°C, we agreed that we could skip Christmas lunch this year. Our wedding anniversary being right before Christmas, we thought we would celebrate that instead. Thanksgiving, though...He won't let it be missed. No matter where, how, no matter whether traditional or haphazard, the meal shan't be skipped. We celebrated one in Piedmont and a couple in London, and now, we'll do one in Sydney. If everything goes according to plans, dinner will be quite untraditional and on the lighter side. Maybe a potato and green bean salad to go with a roasted bird of some sort. Maybe a starter of spritz with bruschette or crostini to throw some Venetian flair in there, too. As for cake, that's sorted – it'll be this one I'm telling you about now. 

November 11, 2015

Padova: A Food Guide

Padova holds a special place in my heart. You might know by now that it's where I lived during my undergraduate years, the first big town where I moved to live on my own – or rather, with other people other than family. I recall some things about courses and classes, but what really stuck with me, sometimes causing high peaks of nostalgia, is the freedom and unruliness of those years; the friendships that were sealed and are still alive and present even at a distance; and the conviviality and the aliveness of the city, so full of youth and students one sometimes forgot that actual people lived there. What I also remember, is the host of great food I had access to without having to drive for miles: the daily vegetable market, the many great pastry shops and bakeries, not to mention the high concentration of bars making tasty sandwiches and serving cheap but excellent spritz. It is not a surprise, then, if I am totally biased when I write about this city. My judgement is somehow fogged by the sweet, boozy memories of such glorious past. Still, Padova has a lot to offer to unbiased visitors, too, with dining and food shopping ranking high on the list of things to do.

Only a 30-minute train ride from Venice, Padova is a city that runs around two things: the prominent University, and commerce. Close to sixty thousand students are currently studying at Padua University, whose foundation as a school of law dates back to 1222 and makes it the fifth oldest in the world. You can still admire the remnants of such glorious, ancient past by walking into the courtyard and under the frescoes vaults of the oldest building belonging to the University, Palazzo del Bo, headquarters of the Law faculty; and in the lush Botanical Gardens, created in the 16th century and still a place of studies for many botanists. You might also notice the high presence of students rushing on their bikes, slaloming cars, buses, trams, pedestrians (for lack of proper bike paths)on their way to the next class on the other side of town. Although often subject to much public criticism – they degrade the city, some say! – the high number of students has always had a good influence on the economy and liveliness of Padova: businesses thrive thanks to the money they pump into the economy of the city in the form of rents and living expenses; and bars and vendors often offer a range of inexpensive, honest, good eats and drinks to cater their cravings.

Padova is not just students, though. Residents enjoy a high standard of living and reflect their buying power on the commerce of the city. Padovani love to dress up and look cool, they love shopping and strolling up and down the city centre on a Saturday, stopping in front of the many sleek boutiques where they can find the latest trends. When it comes to eating, drinking and shopping for food, though, most still enjoy the same small pleasures their parents did. Impeccably dressed couples taking a break from their shopping to grab an ombra of wine (a small glass of house wine, that is) and a panino with porchetta, standing at the counter of a scruffy-looking osteria, won't be such an unusual sight; the same goes with spotting them queuing, or trying to, in front of the folparo, ready for their dose of folpetti (baby octopus). Likewise, most will still shop in the independent food businesses that have become institutions in the city, calling the vendors by name and trusting their weekly recommendations. 

This diverse demand sums up in a wide range or pretty great food options, all fairly concentrated in the heart of the city. You’ll find a bit of everything, from real street food institutions alongside bars feeding the hungry with panini or tramezzini washed down by spritz, to traditional osterie that offer more substantial dishes linked to the typical flavours and recipes of the province. What is more, there is no shortage of good spots to do some food shopping, so you get the chance take a taste of the city home and savour it without rush. I recently visited Padova again to re-write and confirm my list of favourite places to eat drink and shop, most of which are still fairly undiscovered gems only known to locals - you'll find them all below. At the bottom, I also listed some beautiful things to see while you’re at it, including a few key monuments and museums. I hope it’ll help you navigate the city and tempt you to visit it next time you find yourself in the area. It’s well worth your time.  


November 4, 2015

Girolle Mushroom and Speck Risotto

Five years have passed since that gloomy night when, standing in front of the stove in my tiny kitchen in via Peschiera in Bra, I showed Jesse how to make a proper Venetian risotto. We weren't dating yet, not officially at least; but my kitchen had quickly become a focal point, a gravitational centre in our strange, undefined relationship. Cooking and eating together was a way to feel each other out, to test our compatibility, to make sense of who we were as individuals, and as a couple. Everything in our lives back then passed through the filter of food. Food filled our days – we were studying it in all its aspects, eating it copiously, often cooking it collectively – and permeated our minds, our conversations. We breathed food, dreamed about it, talked about it all the time. Naturally, we thought it was only going to work between us if we could make our eating habits collide, our food ideas click.

Little did I know, standing in front of that steaming pot of risotto, that just over a year later I would have married him in my Venetian hometown. All I wanted back then was for him to learn how to make risotto properly, without all the adulterations and additions one sees all too often travelling outside of Italy. Risotto mattered to me, so I wanted it to matter to him. Actually, now that I think about it, he asked me to show him the tricks – I just obliged. Although I believe the whole thing made me feel fairly important. Thankfully, my risotto with radicchio tardivo turned out pretty fine that night, and so did most of the risotti I've stirred up for us thus far (gaffe avoided there!). Five years later, though, and Jesse is still afraid of making one for me, yet he eats mine with such enthusiasm and profusion of compliments that I don't really want to change the current culinary status quo.

That Venetians take great pride in their risotto-cooking skills is an understatement. Rice in engrained in our genes: starch of choice in the region for the past five centuries, it was even more popular than polenta – which up until recent times, wasn't really a choice but rather a necessity. Rice dominated the tables in the countryside as much as in the city, featuring in savoury and sweet dishes alike. Rice is for us Venetians what pasta is to the South of Italy – a staple but also a blank canvas of sorts. It nourishes while allowing culinary freedom, versatility, and the sweet taste of possibility. And yet, it wasn't until recent times that risotto made its appearance on the tables of the Veneto. In fact, it is considered a modern adaptation of minestra de risi (a soup of rice with the addition of vegetables, meat and/or fish, like in this thick soup or rice and pumpkin), which is why many Venetians risi dishes retain a rather soupy, liquid consistency, often described as all'onda (wavy).

Faithful to my origins, I learnt to make risotto à la Venetian, which is rather loose; and to like it this way more than others. I get a thrill of pleasure when I see it spreading freely on my plate, taking shape and moving around in all its lush creaminess, carrying with it, like a wave carries small shells and pebbles, the ingredients that enrich and define its flavour. I wish I knew how to make it flip over and back inside the pot with just a sharp movement of my wrist, the way great Venetian chefs can, for this movement would trap air at every salto (jump), giving it the beautiful fluffy texture that is so welcome in, say, a risotto di pesce. Alas, I can't. So I rely on my rather fatigued arm and the humble holy (with a hole, that is) wooden spoon to do the job of whipping my risotto energetically, trapping air as the butter and cheese melt and gift the final dish with the sort of glistening appearance that captures the light in the room as much as the attention of the table. This passage, called mantecatura, I find rather tiring but crucial for a creamy, homogenous, plain delicious result. 

"The elementary rules once grasped, it remains only to be borne in mind that the simpler the risotto the better." says the wise Elizabeth David in her brilliant book called Italian Food. Indeed, apart from the basics (oil and butter, onion, rice, wine and stock) a couple of add-ins are usually enough, being them meat, fish, seasonal vegetables and/or cheese. The best risotti have just one or two dominant flavours, sometimes complementary, others contrasting, but never colliding. Many vegetables like radicchio, leeks, asparagus or broad beans go well with a bit of pancetta or salsiccia (see this leek and sausage risotto, for instance), a bit of grated parmesan perhaps, but not more, and they could even make a risotto on their own. Likewise, artichokes, or seafood, need little more than a light dusting of finely chopped parsley. 

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