Memories Of A Tuscan Spring

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My love affair with Lucca began four years ago when we spent two weeks outside of town in the borgo of Sant’Andrea di Compito. Just five or six miles outside of the centro, this little hamlet is quite peaceful yet close enough to pop into Lucca for dinner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It rained almsot every day, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. Laden with umbrellas we took long walks in the surrounding hills. One morning we were awakened by a thunder storm which knocked out power in the house and we couldn’t have been happier!

vines

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s not much in Sant’Andrea di Compito-a bakery, which was out of bread by ten every morning and one restaurant. There was a bar, but it was more like a men’s club. I never saw one female anywhere near it. Our favorite spot in the morning was Pasitcceria Sottopoggio just a few minutes away by car. I still crave their cornetti filled with mascarpone and salami.
.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s spring again but I’m not anywhere near Lucca. I’ll just have to make do with my photos and memories until the next time…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dreaming Of The South

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s been six months since I was last in Italy. Leaving is never easy and not a day goes by that I don’t day dream about being there. As much as I am taken with Lucca and the Garfagnana area, I think a trip south is long overdue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve been carrying Carla Capalbo’s book-The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania-around with me and have been studying it page by page. She reviews the provinces in this area and each chapter begins with a map to help organize visits to restaurants, wineries, bakeries, cheese producers and more. I envision us setting out each day and heading to a different town in hopes of discovering its culinary treasure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The easy part of this dream trip was deciding where to base ourselves-Calitri-the birthplace of my grandparents. It’s been nine years since we last visited and that was only a brief overnight on our way the Amalfi coast. This time I hope to connect with relatives and maybe get someone to tutor me in the art of Calitri’s pasta dish-cingul-similar to cavatelli. I’ve made it a few times, but so far have not mastered getting it to the melt in your mouth consistency that my grandmother’s had.

A lot has changed since our last visit. At that time the restoration of the centro storico was just beginning and there was only a handful of people living in this part of town. Now this area is thriving and and it’s here that we will rent an apartment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If any of you have been to Calitri I would love to hear from you so leave me a message.

It’s Finally Spring!

crostini

You know that spring has arrived when you see fresh fava beans at the farmers’ market. Yes, they do involve a bit of work, but the flavor of the freshly shelled beans will more than make up for your efforts.

I was looking for a simple appetizer and decided to make crostini with fava bean puree toppe with a little shard of parmigiano. I blitzed the barely cooked favas with a hand blender, added a bit of cream and finished with salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread on crostini, shave a little parm over top and that’s it. Open a bottle of presecco and you’re done!

Curried Crab & Scallop Cakes

crabcakes

What is it about crab cakes? I see them on a menu and feel that I have to give them a go. I walk into a party and someone is passing a tray and I’m right there and I’m taking more than one. Is that okay?

I’m a fool for crab cakes and have been looking for an excuse to make these Asian inspired ones that I found on Food 52. We hosted our almost twenty year old “wine dinner” (I’ve written about our dinners here and here and here) on Saturday night and even though the rest of the meal was Italian (are you surprised?), I had to serve these crab cakes as a starter.

I’ve been using a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa for years and they are absolutely delectable but I was drawn to this recipe when I saw that curry was included. I am partial to crab cakes that have almost no “filler” and so rather than using the 1 cup of panko that’s called for in the recipe, I used a half a cup as the scallops help to hold the cakes together. The finished product isn’t overly “Asian”, but the curried mayonnaise for dipping is slightly addictive and with the leftovers of this dipping sauce I’ll be making curried tuna salad.

Curried Crab & Scallop Cakes

½ pound scallops (sea or bay work fine)
½ pound crab meat
red bell pepper
4 green onions
1 cup panko, plus additional for dredging (1 ½ to 2 cups)
1/3 cup curry and lime mayonnaise, plus additional if needed
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1 ½ teaspoons sweet curry powder
1 teaspoon lime zest
¼ teaspoon Diamond kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Canola oil for frying

Curried Mayonnaise

1-3/4 cups best quality mayonnaise (I use Best Foods/Hellmans)
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon sweet curry powder
1 teaspoon lime zest
1/8 teaspoon cayenne

To make the mayonnaise whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Place scallops in food processor. Pulse until finely chopped and a bit paste-like, with pieces no larger than ¼-inch remaining. (The paste-like texture will help in binding the cakes.) Transfer to a medium-large bowl. Break large pieces of crab up with your fingers, and add to the bowl with the scallops.

Finely dice ½ cup of red pepper, you want pieces no larger than 1/8th inch so they incorporate well, and don’t hamper the cakes from binding. Add the pepper to the bowl. Cut the roots off the green onions, then slit the white and light green parts lengthwise. Cut the onions crosswise into thin half-moons. Cut enough of the dark green parts so when measured you have a total of ¼ cup green onion. Add the onion to the bowl. Add panko, mayonnaise, cilantro, curry powder, lime zest, salt, and cayenne to the bowl. Mix gently, but thoroughly.

The mixture should be moist and sticky. Add an additional tablespoon or two of mayonnaise if necessary. Gently roll heaping tablespoon portions into balls. Roll the balls in the panko and flatten slightly so they are about ½-inch thick. They should be bite-sized, so scale up or down if needed. Set formed balls aside on a plate or tray. Heat about ¼-inch of canola oil in a 12-inch frying pan over medium heat. You want a piece of panko dropped into the oil to bubble, but not furiously.

Fry about a dozen bites at a time until golden-brown on the bottom (about 3 minutes.) Turn them and fry the other side until it is also golden-brown. Tranfer bites to a large paper towel lined plate. Fry remaining bites in batches, adding additional canola oil between batches to maintain ¼-inch depth. Serve immediately.

You can make these ahead of time if you want. Allow to cool to room temperature then transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. To reheat: Remove the tray from the refrigerator and preheat your oven to 350º F. Uncover the tray, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes until heated through.

Cannelloni Al Radicchio

crespelle

Do you like radicchio? I happen to love this scarlet member of the chicory family but I know that many of you are not enamored with its bitter taste. This recipe will win you over to the joy of cooked radicchio-the bitterness has disappeared and its flavor is actually quite subtle and a little sweet. I saw this recipe a while ago in one of my favorite books-Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Pasta of Italy-and have been looking for an opportunity to serve it.

This is a great do-ahead dish as you can make the filling, the bechamel and the crespelle (if using rather than lasagna noodles) up to three days earlier. I opted to make crespelle since I was a little pressed for time on the day of the dinner. Served with a green salad and crusty bread this was the perfect supper for an evening with friends. To be honest, if I hadn’t said it was radicchio I’m not sure anyone would have identified what was in the filling!

Cannelloni al Radicchio
Makes: 10 first-course servings or 5 to 6 main-course serving

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, halved, thinly sliced
2 heads radicchio, quartered, cored, finely shredded
Kosher or fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups whole cow’s milk ricotta cheese, drained in colander lined with damp cheesecloth for at least an hour in the refrigerator depending moistness
8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into small dice
1 batch Béchamel Sauce, heated to simmer (see below)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

Lasagna Noodles or crespelle (crepes)

Bechamel Sauce

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
3 cups milk (heated until almost boiling)
salt
freshly grated nutmeg

In a medium saucepan, heat the butter until melted. Add flour and whisk until smooth. Continue cooking (and whisking) over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Add the warm milk about a cup at a time, whisking constantly until very smooth. Bring just to a boil and remove from heat. Season with salt and nutmeg. If you’re not using immediately, cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Yield about 2 cups.

Directions:

Heat olive oil in a large, deep frying pan over medium heat. Add shallots and stir. Sauté, stirring for 7 to 8 minutes, or until shallots are soft and translucent (not browned). Add radicchio. Sprinkle with 1 tsp salt and pepper. Cover pan, raise heat to medium-high, and cook radicchio for 8 minutes, or until wilted. Uncover pan and toss the radicchio. Cook for another minute or two, or until radicchio is purple-brown, wilted, and tender. Remove from heat and let cool to room temp. in the pan. Remove a handful and set it aside to garnish the cannelloni.

In a large bowl, work the ricotta with a fork until it is creamy. Fold in mozzarella. Add radicchio in the frying pan to the cheese mixture and fold to distribute evenly.

Heat oven to 375°F. Lightly coat two 8-by-12-in. baking dishes with butter.

Bring large pot of water to boil and salt. Drop in 4 or 5 lasagne noodles; Do not crowd pot. Boil pasta for 1 minute if you’ve made your pasta-if not follow directions for dried pasta. Use large skimmer to remove lasagne noodles and gently immerse them in bowl of ice water. Use the skimmer to remove noodles; let drip, then spread out on the tablecloth. Repeat until all noodles cooked and cooled.

Spread thick layer of béchamel sauce (about 3/4 cup per dish) in bottom of each prepared baking dish.

Place a lasagne rectangle on a clean work surface. Spoon 2 tbsp of the radicchio-cheese filling onto center, and spread it out with spoon, leaving a border all around. Roll up pasta rectangle, and place it, seam-side down, in one of the prepared baking dishes. Continue to fill and roll the cannelloni, arranging 10 cannelloni in each dish.

Divide the remaining béchamel between 2 baking dishes, spreading it over the filled cannelloni. Strew a little of the reserved radicchio over top. Sprinkle the Parmigiano cheese and walnuts over the cannelloni. Cover dishes with foil.

Bake for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for 20 more minutes, or until cheese and béchamel sauce bubble and top is golden brown. Serve cannelloni hot from the oven.

Simplify: Radicchio filling may be made in advance and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Store-bought dried cannelloni or dried lasagne noodles may be substituted for fresh ones. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cooking. Can substitute store-bought fresh egg pasta sheets, and cut them into lasagne noodles.

***Photo was taken before the dish went into the oven-sorry I didn’t get a chance to take one of the finished product.

Red Lentil & Coconut Dal

dal

This is one heart warming bowl of food! I saw this recipe on Food 52 and correctly assumed that the combination of lentils and Indian spices would be the perfect meal for a rainy wintry evening. It’s not at all spicy, but what it lacks in heat it certainly makes up for in flavor. Make a salad, warm up some naan and watch Monsoon Wedding one more time…

Red Lentil & Coconut Dal

3 cups red lentils (masoor dal)
1 medium yellow or red onion, roughly chopped
1 cup tomatoes, canned or fresh, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1/2 medium red or yellow onion, finely chopped
15 to 20 fresh or frozen curry leaves (optional but worth seeking out)
1 14-oz can coconut milk

In a large saucepan, combine the lentils, coarsely chopped onion, tomatoes, cayenne, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, and salt. Add 7 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the lentils begin to break down.

In a frying pan, warm the vegetable oil over medium to high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds and the mustard seeds. Cover the pan and wait briefly until the mustard seeds begin to pop. Then add the finely chopped onion and the curry leaves and cook, stirring to prevent the leaves from burning, until lightly browned.

Add the curry leaf mixture to the lentils along with the coconut milk. Cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the flavors have melded.

Buttermilk Coffeecake

coffeecake

Once upon a time there was a well known restaurant in Mendocino, CA called Cafe Beaujolais. Unfortunately I never made it there in its heyday, but I have their cookbook in my collection. I’ve tried a variety of recipes in the book but I would have to say that this recipe is one that I keep coming back to whenever I’m in need of a coffeecake. Word has it that this cake was the most popular item on their menu and their loyal customers were in an uproar when they tried to stop making it.

This cake reminds me of one that your grandmother might have made. It’s quite moist with a nice crumb. It’s particularly addictive when served warm. I frequently made this at my cafe (here’s a rather wordy post from the first month of my blog) baking it instead in a 9″ springform pan which will give you a much thicker slice. Just adjust your baking time if you choose to do it this way. You may need to add about 12-15 minutes.

Cafe Beaujolais Buttermilk Coffeecake

2 1/4 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup corn oil
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (original recipe calls for sliced almonds)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
powdered sugar for dusing (optional)

Mix flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, salt and ginger. Blend in oil until smooth. Remove 3/4 cup mixture and combine with nuts and remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Mix and set aside.

To remaining flour mixture, add baking powder, baking soda, egg and buttermilk. Blend until smooth. Pour into buttered 13×9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle reserved nut mixture evenly over surface of batter. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 35 minutes. Place pan on wire rack to cool. Cut into squares to serve. Makes 8 to 12 servings.

Soup’s On-Ribollita

ribollita

I’ve got a soup thing going on. Every weekend I seem to find myself in the kitchen cooking up pots of soup. Yes, it’s winter and soup seems like a natural meal, but here in sunny southern California we’ve been having unseasonably warm weather. The temperature doesn’t really matter to me. I am still craving soup.

Ribollita (which means re-boiled) is a soup I’ve made before but this time I followed a recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks-The Glorious Vegetables of Italy by Domenica Marchetti. I’ve talked about her other books here and here and this recent book featuring vegetables is just as good as the others.

Ribollita is a stick to your ribs kind of soup which makes it perfect for a winter supper. It’s chock full of vegetables and beans and thickened with slices of hearty country bread. My first bowl of ribollita was eaten some years back in a cozy trattoria in Radda in Chianti. Since then I’ve ordered it more than a few times and whenever I eat it I am transported back to that very first bowl. This version has me dreaming of Tuscany. Thanks Domenica!

Ribollita

1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 cloves garlic lightly crushed
8 oz. tuscan kale (also known as dinosaur kale), coarsely shredded
8 oz. savoy cabbage, coarsely shredded
1⁄2 tsp. fine sea salt, or to taste
2 oz. pancetta, cut into small dice
2 carrots, cut into bite size, cut into bite size pieces, about 1 cup
2 small ribs celery, cut into bite size pieces (about 1/2 cup)
1⁄2 cup diced red or yellow onion
1 tbsp. minced fresh flat leaf parsley
2 red bliss or yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice
Generous pinch of red pepper flakes
1 14.5 oz.diced canned tomatoes
2 cups cooked cannellini beans, plus their liquid
4 cups vegetable broth or best quality commercial chicken broth
One 2″ piece of Parmigiano_Reggiano rind (optional)
4-6 cups of bread croutons

Bread Croutons

To make bread croutons, spread 2 cups cubed Italian country bread on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle 1-2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil over them. Toss well with a wooden spoon or spatula. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, if you like, and toss again. Spread the bread cubes out on a single layer. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are evenly brown and crisp. Let cool before using.

In a large sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil with 2 cloves of garlic over medium-low heat. Cook until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add the kale and cabbage in batches, covering the pan and letting the greens cook until they begin to wilt. Cook, stirring now and again, until the greens are wilted and tender, about 20 minutes. Season with the salt. Remove from the heat and set aside.

In a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-low heat and add the pancetta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta is lightly browned but not too crisp and has rendered its fat, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, onion, and parsley and toss to coat well with the oil. Cook until the vegetables are shiny and beginning to soften, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the potatoes, toss, and cook until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the wilted greens and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the greens are heated through. Pour in the tomatoes and the beans and stir to combine everything well. Add the vegetable broth and raise the heat to medium-high. Toss in the Parmigiano rind, if using. Bring the soup to a simmer, lower the heat to medium-low or low, and let the soup simmer until all the vegetables are cooked through and tender, about 30 minutes.

Add the bread croutons and stir them into the soup. Let simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes, until all of the ingredients have had a chance to meld. Taste and add additional salt if you like. Turn the heat off and cover the soup. Let it sit for just a few minutes to bring the flavors together.
Ladle the ribollita into shallow rimmed bowls and drizzle each serving with a little olive oil.

Herb Marinated Goat Cheese

herbs

I came across this idea in the latest issue of Food & Wine and wondered why I had’t done this before. I seem to remember making a version of this years ago with dried herbs but I can now say that fresh herbs is the way to go. I say “idea” rather than recipe because this is so simple. All you need are fresh herbs, a log of goat cheese and some good quality olive oil. Feel free to use whatever herbs you might have on hand. I used dill, basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme.

Simply spread half the fresh herbs on the bottom of a deep canning jar. Cut the goat cheese into thick slices, stack them in the jar and cover with the remaining herbs. Fill the jar with olive oil so that everything is submerged. Cover with lid, place in fridge and let marinate for 3 to 5 days. I will confess that I only did mine two days ahead of serving and it was still very tasty. Remove from fridge a few hours before using and serve with crostini or baguette slices.

cheese

My Arezzo Hide Away

lane

As much as I am smitten by Lucca, my heart will always belong to Arezzo. It was in 2008 that I spent a month in this somewhat off the beaten track Tuscan town and fell hard and fast. I was there to study Italian and immerse myself in the language and it turned out to be the perfect place for me to leave English behind. This is a town that’s not overrun with tourists and Italian is what you’ll hear when you’re out and about in town.

giardino

When my month was up it was all I could do to pack my bags and move out of town. My charming landlady drove me to the car rental office and with tears in my eyes, I vowed to return to Arezzo. It took three years, but in 2011 I once again enrolled in Cultura Italiana and started searching for a place to stay.

I had some info about an apartment in the centro that a schoolmate had rented for a year and contacted the owner. As luck would have it, this little gem was available and I moved right in. Tucked away down a quaint lane the apartment actually was hidden behind an ancient stone wall.

wall

Who has garden in the middle of the centro? Well, I did! My kitchen door opened onto this wonderful giardino (garden) and it was all mine-the owners happened to be away during my stay.

yard 2

Spring in Tuscan means wisteria and I had my own secluded spot complete with a table and chairs. It was the perfect spot to study but I must admit that I probably did more sipping of wine under the wisteria than studying Italian!

wisteria

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 460 other followers