Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stuffed Squash blossoms and last summer thoughts.

Every winter and spring I wait, and plan, and look forward to summer…”This summer I will…” and the list goes on and on, entertain more, run more, take day trips, swim the dog more, cook this and that, plant something, clean something, paint something, do nothing… And as the cooler night of fall set in, I sit here in my missed, cozy sweater and take stock… as usual; the summer flew by and was not as productive as I hoped.  As if an old woman regretting all the “could have done” of her life, I am saddened for the missed opportunities each and every summer… There was always something I wanted to do but just didn’t get around to it

When I saw gorgeous fresh squash blossoms at the farm, I had just a glimpse of hope that it may not be too late to accomplish at least one cooking project I intended for the warm months.  When zucchini blossoms start appearing at farmer’s markets around May, I always intent to make them, but never get the actual opportunity as these delicate flowers cannot be bought on a Tuesday or Wednesday and  live to see me free to cook on the weekend.  Flowers wilt, and quickly, just like summers…

Stuffing and frying flowers is not a big whoop, you just need a bit of patience and delicate hands.  And I don’t like them heavily battered either.  I lightly tempura them so that the fright batter is thin, crackly and translucent, almost like glass, preserving the flower’s color and shape.  It is what I would like to do to summer, preserve it in a little, crisp, see through shell, to hold up to the light, to admire it’s beauty , to taste its ever so short life…

One last pretty bite and it is time to cozy up with a mug of something warm, breathe in the crisp autumn air and think of something to look forward to….Ah, yes, Thanksgiving!

Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Freshly cut blossoms of squash or zucchini (squash blossoms are actually easier to work with as they are larger.  Buy them just cut, preferably the same day you plan to use them, but you can store them in a cool, dry place for one day, but unfortunately no longer)

2 tbs ricotta cheese drained

½ tbs grated parmesan cheese

½ tbs chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil and mint work well alone or combined)

Salt and pepper

For the Tempura batter

1 cup all-purpose flour

A pinch of salt

1/3 to 2/3 cups of ice cold seltzer

Vegetable oil for frying

Whisk together the ricotta, parmesan cheese and herbs.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  Gently open each flower and remove the pestle ( you can use your fingers for this or just snip it with scissors).  Stuff each flower with the cheese mixture using either a piping bag or a very small spoon ( I knew the baby spoons would come in handy one day!).  Gently close and slightly twist the petals around the stuffing. 

In a deep skillet heat 1 ½ - 2 inches of vegetable oil to 300F – 325F.  Prepare the tempura by whisking the four and salt and then seltzer.  Do not over mix, stop as soon as no large clumps of flour are visible.  The batter will be very runny.  Dip each flower into the batter and gently shake off the excess.  Fry 1 to 2 minutes turning carefully in the oil, until crisp and slightly browned.  Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.  You can finish them with a bit more salt as soon as they come out of the hot oil.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Travels and Tastes of Italy - Rome

Every guide book on Italy will tell you: “ Beware of pickpockets and scams”, and honestly, getting scammed is part of the experience as long as it doesn’t cost you too much.  A guy working the Naples tolls into his own pocket rang every warning bell in my brain, I knew I was getting scammed as the 2 Euro toll cost me 12, unfortunately by the time I assembled all the gut feeling signs into a conclusion I was on the road, long past the tolls…. Oh well, it is part of the Italian adventure… thank god in was only 10 Euro worth….


Rome is Rome…. It is the city of cities, which endured thousands of years’ worth of history… grand, beautiful, dirty, touristy, spiritual, noisy, glitzy, chaotic, and very, very old…  So old in fact that when you are visiting the Coliseum and Palatine Hill you marvel at the splendor, the achievement, the advancement of that civilization…. How can it be that a civilization this advanced and evolved was simply forgotten, put to sleep for hundreds of years to be reinvented anew…
How can artists forget the craft of painting and sculpture, the engineers lose the ability to create magnificent buildings, build roads and bridges?  How could have the world plunged into the darkness of the middle ages?  And is our civilization doomed to the same fate?  Will archeologist uncover the I-pad a million years from now and marvel it’s advancement?  Will our skyscrapers invoke the same awe as the Roman forums?

Are all those tourists asking themselves the same questions or simply looking for a menu in their native language?

I swear, finding a decent place to eat in Rome is like searching for a needle in a hay stack.  The sigh of tour groups zipping through the main sites happily decentering upon any restaurant boasting a menu in their native tongue made me queasy.  I wanted something austenitic, Roman, not your 10 Euro compound Pasta / Pizza combo….

If you step away from the crowds just a bit and examine the menus with care you can still find great food in Rome. 
 It is known for its great fresh pastas, fresh to hold the richer sauces better… the wonderful Carbonara, the Amatrichiatta, the rich Bolognese….

And even here, the produce in season is the key….
End of August, beginning of September in Europe means mushrooms…. This is the time of year when my mother and I took a few days, just before school started and went away to pick Porcini.  This is the taste of my childhood, the taste that meant cooler nights, and shorter days, the crisp of new school uniform, the hearty soups during long cold winter….the strings of mushrooms drying on our balcony….it is a taste of fall…

The baskets of freshly picked Porcini were outside every restaurant   around the ancient center.  And when the waiter came to take my order I had only one request, I want those…. And keep the coming…

And they did... the beautiful fresh mushrooms, lightly grilled with just a touch of olive oil and garlic, slathered on toast of crispy bread, sautéed into a cream steak sauce…

If Romans did not have a dedicated Mushroom God, they should have… I would have worshiped him with delight.

There are many ways you can become homesick…. And with all of our love for travel after the two weeks were becoming restless, longing for the familiarity of our own beds, wider highways and stronger water pressure.  The glorious Italian food was growing tired and thoughts of Mexican and Sushi filled our heads…  For last lunch in Italy we came upon a Tuscan restaurant and happily devoured rabbit, hearty wild boar stew and suckling pig as the site of pasta and pizza was no longer bearable…. A last desert of fragolini with whipped cream and we were ready to park our tired legs on the plane home….
I have been forbidden from cooking Italian food for at least a few month but when I will make pizza and pasta again I will cook it while imagining the breathtaking views of the sea, the warm sunshine of Amalfi, the dizzying roads, the welcoming smiles of the people and the ancient streets…. And I bet a little of those thoughts will translate into my flavors….  Arrivederci, beautiful Italy, until we meet again!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Travels and Tastes of Italy

Amalfi Coast ( part 2)

A breakfast with the view


Deserts deserve a separate mention.  Italian gelato of course is always highly praised but there is difference between just gelato and home-made Sicilian style gelato which is all over the Amlfi coast.  It comes in every flavor imaginable and my key to trying most of them is my daughter who eats a minimum 3 of these a day. 

 I selfishly let her; with the only condition… she cannot order the same flavor twice throughout the whole trip… I think it’s a win-win deal for everyone involved.  And trust me, you have not lived until tasting a hazelnut gelato, or the pistachio one or the one with wild strawberries ( fragolini) or the mango, melon, peach, pear…. This is why I travel with my kids, they eat everything and provide two more tasting plates at each meal expanding my food experience tremendously.  And you thought I intend to culture them up?

So back to deserts, since Lemon is the key here, you get your Lemon domes, which are sponge cake soaked in Lemonchello filled with cream, your Hazelnut torts again filled with lemon cream and of course the sfogliatelle, which alone can easily be the only reason to come to Amalfi coast. 
 A thousand layers of crispy goodness filled with Lemon Ricotta cream…. I once looked at the process of making it and decided this will be the only desert that I will greatly admire but will never attempt.

All this gorgeous food needs to be washed down with wine.  I made it a point to only order local Campania wines, most of the time, just house wines and was not disappointed.  House wine is cheaper than soda here (something I keep telling my 15 year old) and it is great.  Grape varietals are unusual to our palates, something we are not used, but complex and delicious never the less.  And if you ask for a recommendation from the ever so friendly, familiar and truly hospitable restaurant staff, you will get an even better treat.

Imagine walking into a restaurant on  thundering evening to find your family the only customers… an owner comes out and starts chatting with you like he has known you all his life… You don’t get menus, he tells you he wants to ‘feed” you, you will like it… just surrender to his all Italian hospitality and you do…  We had an experience like this in Scirocco restaurant in Monterpertuso and even though Rocco’s food was great but not the best we tasted on our trip we came back to him on our last night…just to experience this unbelievable hospitality, the true old fashioned enjoyment from feeding people.  He asked us if we wanted wine, I said “Just bring me the wine you want me to drink” he brought one of the best wines I ever tasted… He showed up with a huge Florentine steak, and antipasti and some of home- made gnocchi and at the end of the night with a plate of all of his deserts….
The Scirocco family
A grand big smile, and invitation for my son to come and stay with him any summer and another bottle of wine to take home (“come back and tell me how you like it” -  he said, I would have come back anyway) and on our last night he kissed us all on two cheeks and shook our hands and made you feel like you had family to come back to anytime you wanted….

And he fed us mozzarella…. Nine years ago, sitting in a tiny restaurant outside of Florence’s Duomo I had a religious experience.  I bit into a slice of mozzarella and knew I can never forget the taste.  And I didn’t, I searched for it everywhere in the US, coming close but it was still not the same.  The pure taste of milk, unpasteurized buffalo milk….. Pulled by hand, melt in your mouth….when Rocco put this cheese on our table and I took the first bite I knew I finally found it…. This mozzarella needs not to be dressed with anything; it needs to be savored like fine caviar….

Campania region is where mozzarella comes from, and there are many varieties but all are split into cow milk Mozz and Buffalo.  Mozzarella is delicious everywhere in this part of Italy but if you happen to be down near Paestrum, this is where the buffalo mozzarella farms are.
 I decided to kill two birds with one stone, visit the ancient Greek temples and eat the best mozzarella on the planet, so what that it is 3 hours away along some of the most dangerous roads….
My family had no say in this one…. Although I think they enjoyed it, at least they very well pretended. 

This trip was not all about food or great views, we had to get a sense for the ancient way of life and visited Pompeii, Heraclium and Paestrum.  There is something about touching a 2000 year old house wall and imagining a family that lived here, touched that same wall, and walked the same streets…. I always found it fascinating, a bit haunting, and almost invasive into their long gone lives…. What did they look like, what was their daily life like, what did they eat?  Surprisingly, fast street food is not a modern invention… two millennia ago it was just as popular in bustling cities of the Roman Empire… Roman McDonalds….

 Like ketchup pumps, these urns dispensed a kind of fermented paste of fish and animal intestines that Roman’s found irresistible and smeared on everything… Oh how the tastes change!

Bathed in Italian sunshine, properly salted by the blue water of Mediterranean and well fed, we headed to Rome…. And yes, all roads do lead to Rome if you manage to decipher the Italian road signs and get through the tolls without adventure… we didn’t.

To be continued….

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Travels and tastes of Italy

Amalfi Coast (Part 1)

It has been nine years since I last been to Italy, but knew immediately upon arriving that nothing has changed.  The car rental wing of the Rome airport is still under construction, the drivers are still anarchists and the food and the coffee is still amazing at every single gas station along the highway.  As a matter of fact the selection in those drive-in-and-gas-up places was one of the most vivid memories of my last trip. 
You can always count on a great espresso and a full bar by the road.  You got to love Italy! -  Have a drink and take the edge of the road rage next time someone cuts you off!

Picked up by espresso and salami sandwiches we headed for Amalfi coast and all was well until we hit the beginning of Amalfi coast drive just outside of Sorrento.   This road deserves a paragraph of its own and let me jump ahead and say all was well for the entire week we drove on it, but boy, I sure am glad I learned to drive in New York city.

When the donkey routes used for centuries all along the Amalfi coast were paved, the road engineers just made the roads wide enough for two donkeys to pass.  And unlike glorious Romans two millennia ago the modern day engineers did not contemplate sidewalks.  Combine that with 360 degree blind hairpins, car drivers who think of road rules as mere suggestions, scooter drivers who believe all cars are evil and therefore should be annoyed and cutoff at every opportunity, bicyclists who rightfully adopt an attitude of “Hit me and deal with mayhem!” attitude and pedestrians who, once again, have no sidewalks therefore being forced to walk the same road – well, you get the picture.  You also have to anticipate full size buses driving on the same road, parked cars along the side and broken blind curve mirrors, all threatening to plunge you into abysses of the sea at every opportunity.  And once you get used to all of that… well you may just encounter a peacefully sleeping dog in the middle of the road.  After all, he is just resting outside his owner’s business and you are a “turisto..” so deal….

And if you are the unfortunate driver you cannot possibly enjoy the most outrageous views the Amlfi coast has to offer.  The natural beauty of the whole coast is breathtaking and can only be described as majestic.  Every time you see a view that cannot possibly be topped and you can see yourself staring at it for eternity it is bested at the next turn.  Plunging coastline with clear blue waters and little towns perched up on its shores like marltets nests.  Yachts, new, old, rich and simple, rolling gently in the Lagunas and the mooring fields.  Gargantuan rock formations adorned with lush vegetation and vertical gardens frame the skyline, the deep true blue of Mediterranean everywhere.... you could go mad seeing this kind of beauty..   

I got to see this view every day from the terrace of our apartment.  We lived in a village just above Positano called Monterpertuso.  Unlike Positano, it was not as touristy and offered a glimpse into a simpler life.  Older folks, with sun wrinkled skin sitting on the sides of the only piazza just taking in the scenery.  Little grocery store selling what the neighbors grew in their gardens.  “local, organic, artisanal” are meaningless here, they are the way of life, the only way….

We had a garden with tomatoes, eggplant, basil, grapes and plums we could pick.  Chickens to say good morning to every day and to give us fresh eggs.  Almost every house in the village keeps chickens and you wake up to fresh sea breezes and rooster calls, which I loved and strangely my city dwelling family did not…

There is something about picking only what you need for the meal from the garden, walking into a grocery store and seeing only what grows in the back right now… you know, I am a patriot, I love my country, but it is just not possible in the mainstream US… unless you are from California, in which case I am green with jealousy…  I never tasted tomatoes sweeter, pears riper or eggs fresher than I did in Italy.

The whole of Amalfi coast is plush and lush with gardens, every gaze falls upon lemon, olive or fig trees.   The artichokes are on the menus but “Scuzi,  not in season…., how about eggplant?”.  The Senior Limone is the predominate here, celebrated in everything you see… candy, dishes, artwork, liquor… Lemon is everywhere and no wonder…

 Amalfi coast grows over 40 different varieties; most memorable are the huge football size lemons that are mostly used for making Lemonchello.  And they are everywhere, on the back of every fruit cart, sold from the back of the car right in the middle of the road and gardens of them lining every road. 

 You are generously offered a frozen glass of Lemonchello at every meal, but if you grow sick of lemons, you can enjoy a nice melon or pistachio liquor or something tasting a bit like medicine… I was told it is good for you digestion… The jury is still out on that one.  Of course if you find yourself just a bit wary of any type of alcohol due to early hour or too many the night before, you can just lose yourself in a little espresso and fresh orange juice….

Amlfi coast and Island of Capri draws some of the wealthiest and sparkly crowd.  If you look down at the mooring fields you can glimpse into the shameless boasting of wealth of the owners.   There are the romantic sailboats, the obscene four deck yachts and the vintage lovers steam boats.  It is fun to observe them from ashore and imagine up stories about who the owners are and what they are doing here. 

The coastline and all the little towns are completely vertical, so every activity resembles a Stairmaster session.  When we arrived we were told that Positano is a mere 20 minute walk, only discovering that its made up of 800 steps taking you just to the upper road.  To get down to the beach is another 300 steps… oh Joy!  But if you want to eat you have no choice so we went climbing…

Every steep step is worth it, because the food here is amazing…  This region of Italy offers the simplest and tastiest staples of Italian cuisine.  Few choicest freshest ingredients make all the difference.  Starting with the pasta.  Compania region of Italy is known for dry winds so when the pasta was introduced to the region from the Middle East, this was the perfect place to dry it.  And contrary to popular belief fresh pasta is not always better, the choice between fresh and dried depends on the dish and the type of sauce the pasta will hold.  Fresh homemade gnocchi in tangy tomato broth,  mushroom and herbs pappardells were the most succulent and memorable of the fresh pastas here.  But the true star, the most memorable and unforgettable dish that I can still smell and taste was the Spaghetti and wild clams. 

This dish is a true showcase to the region’s cuisine, delicious simplicity with only 5 or 6 ingredients…we couldn’t get enough.  In fact one of us ordered it every night and all picked at it shamelessly… The dried Spaghetti cooked perfectly al dente dressed with just a bit of olive oil and garlic and the colorful wild clams taste of the sea with surprising sweetness.  Sometimes tossed with a few sugar tomatoes and a bit of parsley, I can eat this every day for eternity.  I would take a break only for other seafood from here.  It is fished daily, swordfish, muscles, anchovies… 

 Mediterranean  is a salty sea, which gives all the local fish a brinier, brighter flavor.  It was deliciously and simply prepared everywhere and in ways which I have not tasted before. 

 Adding raisins and pine nuts to a simple sauce for dressing grilled fish is a great idea… I am definitely stealing that one. 

To be continued….