Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pasta, Pasta, Pasta

As something I eat every day in Italy (and one of my favorite foods to cook and eat for as long as I can remember), I think pasta deserves a post all to itself. It is practically the core of the Italian diet, as the giant pasta aisle at the supermarket can attest to. Every night my host mother cooks a small serving of pasta for me and my roommate, and every night we wonder what new she dish has concocted. Although all her cooking is excellent, my host mother's pasta dishes are almost certainly the best part of the meal. Presented in a simple white bowl, the pasta appears understated, almost minimalistic. It is always judiciously sauced, sometimes with jewel-like bits of vegetables nestled throughout, or at others with a silky coating of sage-butter, a flurry of grated cheese, and a sprinkle of black pepper. There is never a dull moment with pasta, and certainly the endless array of possible pasta and sauce combinations are part of what make Italian cuisine so interesting and satisfying.

The primo piatto is something I eagerly anticipate, but it is a pleasure that seldom lasts long enough. Although I make an effort to savor my pasta slowly, deciphering its nuances, usually very little time usually elapses between the first bite and the last. Before I know it, my bowl is spotlessly clean and white yet again. Eating the perfect plate of pasta is only a fleeting pleasure, but in its simplicity it is a truly sublime experience.

And now, onto the photos and recipe...

Penne con ragĂș

Farfalle with zucchini and saffron (Farfalle con zucchine e zafferano)

Penne with tomatoes and basil (Penne con pomodori e basilico)

Rotini with tomatoes and tuna (Rotini con pomodori e tonno)

Casarecci with zucchini, cream, and cheese (Casarecci con zucchine, panna, e formaggio)

Spaghetti with Spicy Tomato-Olive Sauce (Spaghetti con salsa piccante al pomodoro e olive)

This pasta, I think, comes closest to providing the most pleasure with the least amount of effort as any I have tasted. It is also excellent when tossed with some tuna (the olive oil-packed Italian variety, not the bland American stuff in water). Use the highest quality ingredients you can find and afford.

Serves two as a main course or three as a first course

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
Hot red pepper pieces, powder, or flakes, to taste
1 t. dried basil
5 to 10 (or more or less, depending on your taste) very good green or black olives, pitted and halved lengthwise
1/2 to 3/4 cup skinned pureed canned tomatoes (if you can find bottled Italian tomato puree, use it)
Salt, to taste
1/3-1/2 pound paghetti (or penne or other short pasta)
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces

In a medium saucepan, warm the oil over medium-low heat, then add the garlic, hot red pepper, and dried basil. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, then add the olives and tomatoes. Reduce the heat to low, and stir to combine. Let simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, making sure that the garlic does not brown. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the pasta.

Simmering sauce

When the garlic is soft and beginning to turn golden, remove it and the hot red pepper pieces, if using. Season the sauce with salt to taste and remove from heat until the pasta is almost done.

When the pasta is still somewhat undercooked, drain it and add to the saute pan with the sauce. Turn the heat up to medium and toss the pasta to coat it with sauce, then add the fresh basil and toss for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the pasta is just cooked but still somewhat firm to the bite.

Transfer the pasta to shallow bowls and serve with good bread to soak up any excess oil.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Back in Florence

Having just returned from an eight-day sojourn in Vienna and Prague, I'm a bit melancholy but frankly quite thankful to be off the diet of meat, potatoes, bread, and beer. However, it wouldn't be fair of me to completely skip over the fare I consumed in the north. Although it was heavy and perhaps "unsophisticated" to some palates, the food was certainly hearty and sustained me during the many hours spent exploring the museums, churches, and streets of those beautiful cities.

I consumed my fair share of "traditional" Austrian food in Vienna - bratwurst bought on the street, wienerschnitzel, a taste of goulash, and plenty of good beer (no pastries, sadly). The brat was particularly tasty, perhaps because all I'd had to eat that day was some stale bread from Italy and an apple. Mine was doused in plenty of curry powder (so it was actually currywurst), splashed with a bit of sweet ketchup-like sauce and served with a nice hunk of soft, squishy bread.

The definite culinary highlight of Vienna (and perhaps the whole trip) was the Naschmarkt - a giant, sprawling outdoor market that gave the two-story Mercato Centrale here in Florence a serious run for its money. There were stands overflowing with fresh produce - unusual greens, exotic fruits, vegetables of all sorts, fresh dates, etc., as well as barrels of sauerkraut, chocolate shops, purveyors of Italian cheeses, olives, meats, as well as many kebab and bratwurst vendors. I bought some fresh dates as a snack, but otherwise I simply ogled the dizzying array of available foods and wished I had more room in my suitcase and stomach (not to mention more money in my pocket) to try more things.




Viennese architecture


Prague is not a city known for its outstanding cuisine, but we certainly enjoyed the change in pace from Italian food. Portion size was a whole other matter – meals there are huge! Our first night we sat at a communal table and watched a quite portly group of Czechs down many slices of fried bread rubbed with raw garlic and smeared with raw ground beef.

On the second night, we enjoyed some unusual beer and filling Czech specialties (including the fried brad and garlic, sans beef) from a brewery my Czech friend had recommended. My nettle beer was quite grassy and refreshing, though it didn’t pair very well with my potato dumplings, sauerkraut, and smoked pork. It was quite a satisfying meal after all the exploring we'd done that day though.

Prague's cathedral

View from the top

Nettle beer

Pork, 'kraut, and dumplings

As we do in Italy, we ate bread and pastries for breakfast, although the offerings tended to be lightly sweetened and either filled with poppy seeds or cheese. This particular roll was somewhat like challah, though less dense.

Charles Bridge

The old Jewish cemetary

By the third night, we were in the food for something lighter, so we nibbled on some hummus, baba ghanouj, and stuffed eggplant from a small tea lounge/hookah bar near Old Town Square. On our fourth and final night, we took the tram with my friend about half an hour from our hostel to a restaurant that served some tasty Balkan specialties. I dug into a nicely charred patty of beef and lamb, served on top of heavenly home-made bread with some raw onions on the side (a “Balkan burger”, perhaps?)

I did purchase one food souvenir while there – a small bag of red sauerkraut from the produce stand near the hostel.

My host family is very curious about “the kraut”, so I’m planning to cook them dinner with it in the not-too-distant future – most likely braised sauerkraut with apples, pork chops, and mashed potatoes. There will, of course, be pictures to follow!

Upon our return, we enjoyed one of the best Italians inventions to grace the planet - pizza. I splurged and got the "Caprese", with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, though it was a bit watery due to the cheese.

The pies from Il Pizzaiuolo, a bustling restaurant on Via de' Macci, are good but not great Neapolitan-style pizza. The dough is deliciously salty and chewy and nicely charred, but the pizzas have a very large crust that tends to get in the way of the toppings, which are judiciously applied, though almost to the point of stingyness. Next time I think I'll stick with the classics (or just try a new pizzeria!)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eye Candy

Tomorrow I'm headed Vienna and Prague for eight days, so there's not a lot of time to write a very in-depth post before I leave, so I think I'll just provide a little writing and some fun pictures. Two days ago I went to the Mercato Centrale to pick up some tomatoes for lunch and then remembered that I'd also wanted to buy some nibbles to sustain me on my upcoming travels. Dried fruit and nuts seemed to work the trick while I made my way down from Denmark to Italy by train in August, so I decided I'd purchase them in the market. I'd heard rumors of a supposedly legendary purveyor of all sorts of dried and dehydrated fruits on the second floor of the market, which was where I was to begin with. This is what I encountered:

Well, needless to say, I got a little carried away and snapped a ton of photos after I had purchased an etto (about 100 grams) each of dried apricots, dried pineapple rings, dried sultana raisins, and almonds. Sort of a boring selection given all that was offered, but I'd had some more exotic fruits (slices of kiwis, limes, and starfruit as well as whole kumquat and baby oranges) from a vendor downstairs that were very underwhelming. These, however, are delicious (yes, I sampled some, but I'm trying to save the rest for my travels!)

As long as I'm on the topic of fruit, I had to add an photo of the oranges that were temptingly hanging off of small potted trees in the garden of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. They may look green, but they are definitely oranges. Most oranges are not perfectly orange when ripe and are instead gassed so they will look more appealing to consumers. Yep. Oranges are green.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

An Autumn Meal

After more than a month of blazingly hot sun and mosquitoes, things are finally cooling down here. The cooler temperatures, coupled with the fact that Italian houses (many of which have large windows and tile floors) are designed to stay cool in the summer means it can get quite chilly indoors at night. (Oh, did I mention that the heat won't be on until November?) You can imagine how thankful I was, then, when we received this beautiful dish of risotto and lentils for dinner last night.

The rice, interspersed with earthy lentils, golden onion, and bits of sausage, was toothsome and hearty; it was the perfect meal for a dark, blustery night. The best part, however, was that I was able to watch Linda as she cooked it! Some time ago, she noticed that whenever she serves risotto, I absolutely devour it. I had also told her that I wanted to learn to make risotto properly, so she called me downstairs last night around when she had just begun to heat up some oil, onions, and sausage in a pan...

What follows is my attempt to write a recipe for Linda's Lentil Risotto (Risotto e Lentiche)

Serves 2 as a main course, 3 as a starter

In a saute pan over low heat, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of thinly sliced white onion and 1 1/2 tablespoons of crumbled sweet Italian sausage. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and golden but not brown.

Add 1 1/2 cups arborio rice, stir to combine with the onions, and cook until the rice is toasted. Raise the heat to high, add 1/2 cup of dry white wine, and let cook until the wine has completely evaporated (the mixture should bubble vigorously).

At this point, add 1 cup hot lentil broth*, stir, cover the pan, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally (contrary to popular belief, there is no need to constantly stir risotto). When all the liquid has absorbed, add another cup of broth, but this time add some of the lentils (about 1/2 cup) with the broth. Taste a bit of the rice and season with kosher salt as needed, then stir, cover, and continue to cook over low heat, stirring occasionally. As before, when the liquid had absorbed, add another cup of broth (and more lentils) and a few dashes of ground hot red pepper (about 1/8 teaspoon). Stir to combine, then cook, covered, over low heat, until the liquid has absorbed. Test the rice for doneness - if it is still crunchy or too chewy, add up to 1 more cup of broth, season with more salt if needed, cover, and cook as before.

Before serving, season with more salt to taste. It is important not to add too much broth or the rice will be overcooked. When done, the risotto will be creamy in consistency, but each grain of rice will still have some bite. Before serving, let the risotto sit in the pan, covered, for 5 minutes, then garnish with snipped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley. Buon appetito!

*In place of chicken or beef broth, Linda cooked the risotto using the liquid from the lentils, which contained carrots, celery, and sage. (She also added a dash of soy sauce.) The lentil "stock" is easy to make and imbued the whole dish with a lovely flavor. As long as you're cooking lentils, you might as well throw in a few aromatics into the water. That said, you could just as easily substitute any other kind of broth. You will probably need about 4 cups of broth in total, although it may turn out to be less.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Primer on Italian Meals

Figuring what my first "real" post should be is proving to be a bit perplexing, so I think I'll begin with a quick overview of how meals are structured in Italy.

Breakfast ("colazione"), is very simple in Italy and usually consists of some sort of starch (bread or a pastry) and some source of caffeine (coffee with milk or capuccino). Often, it is more convenient to purchase breakfast in a bar, where the coffee and pastries are almost guaranteed to be delicious. Where I live, my roommate and I each receive one white roll, which we spread with butter or jam (or, lately, "crema alle nocciole", better known as Nutella) and wash it all down with a cup of coffee or black tea (I'm beginning to think I should switch to coffee, since good tea in Italy is hard to come by). This, of course, isn't really a stick-to-your-ribs meal, so I usually supplement my breakfast with a piece of fruit.

The Ubiquitous Nutella

Lunch ("pranzo") used to be the main meal of the day in Italy, when everyone would come home from work or school and enjoy a leisurely meal together. Nowadays, many Italians take a light lunch in the form of a sandwich or salad, much like we do in the US. My host family, however, still eats a large midday meal around 1:00 in the afternoon, complete with a pasta dish (primo piatto), a meat dish (secondo piatto), and a vegetable or side dish (contorno).

Dinner in Italy is consumed considerably later than in the US, so an afternoon snack ("merenda" or "spuntino") around 4:00 is almost necessary. This is especially true for young children, who, like me, favor bread or bananas with Nutella.

Finally, dinner ("cena") is eaten around 8:00 (perhaps later but usually not earlier). For Italians who make lunch their main meal, like my host family, dinner is generally very light - perhaps a bit of meat or other protein, a vegetable side dish or salad, and fresh fruit for dessert (dolci). I, on the other hand, have class all day and tend to eat lunch on the go. When it comes to dinner, though, Linda prepares a veritable feast, complete with primo piatto, secondo, contorno, and dolci. The following photos are gathered from some of my first meals with Linda and her husband, Sergio.

Penne with a subtly spicy tomato sauce and green olives

Pan-fried pork chops with rosemary, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar

Potatoes sauteed with olive oil and seasoned with plenty of salt and rosemary

Late-summer Italian fruit: pesce, prugne, e uve

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


It's only taken me over a month, but the food blog is finally up and running! No matter about the late start, though, since the intent of this blog was not to have a methodical, day-by-day record of everything I consume. I hope to share some of the culinary highlights and discoveries of my time here in Florence in the form of a food-focused travel journal rather than a gastronomical log. I may organize the first few posts thematically by food type and then progress to writing a few times a week about specific dishes. Naturally, pictures will accompany the writing, and I will try to procure some of the recipes for the wonderful home cooked meals made by my host mother, Linda. Now, with all that said, let the blogging commence!