Thursday, April 29, 2010

Orecchiette with broccoli

I have told you many times how much of a pain in the ass I was a kid and how long my "I don't like/eat this" list was. What I've never told you is that my pickiness ceased to exist as soon as I left the comfort of my home and was having lunch or dinner at a friend's house. Their mother would ask me something like "Do you like asparagus?" and since I was too shy or too polite to tell her that I didn't I ended up forcing myself to eat whatever it was in my plate, something that of course didn't make me love asparagus or spinach any more than I did before.

When I was 15, however, a miracle happened. My —then— new friend Francesca invited me over for lunch on a Saturday and when we got to her dad's house he was already in the kitchen, cooking away. "I made your favorite," he told his daughter. And then to me: "I hope you like pasta with broccoli!"

I hated pasta with broccoli.

The pasta part was fine, of course, but broccoli were one of my least favorite vegetables. What I really didn't like was the odd consistency of the florets, which my parents loved and always left whole. Well, that one Saturday afternoon at Francesca's house I was in for treat. The broccoli was sort of mashed, first of all, which solved the consistency problem, and it was wonderfully spicy and flavorful. In other words, it was the best pasta with broccoli ever. I ate it and when I got back home that day I told my mom that, if she wanted me to eat broccoli, she would have to prepare them like that. What a revelation.

To this day, orecchiette with broccoli is one of my favorites and this past weekend Francesca prepared it for me as a way of saying "welcome back". It was delicious as it always is.


In a large pot bring water to a boil, season it with salt, then blanch the broccoli in it until crisp tender. Using a slotted spoon transfer broccoli to a pan but keep water and use it to cook pasta.

Drizzle broccoli with olive oil, season with salt and crushed red pepper to taste and add a few tablespoons of the water to the pan. Add half a vegetable bouillon cube and cook over medium heat and mash broccoli with a fork or wooden spoon. Serve over pasta.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Travel, food and more

As ash cloud infested air-travel goes, I have to say that my journey from Fort Myers to Atlanta to Milano went exceptionally well. Sure, there were a couple of drawbacks, but I consider the fact that we reached our destination without any of our engines getting damaged by volcanic ash a major success.

The cat, too, was an absolute angel to travel with and I can't tell how grateful I am for that. Not only he didn't let out a peep during the whole trip, he also avoided other major headaches (for me, not for him) like pooping or peeing. I'm telling you, this animal travels like a pro!

Believe it or not, I also half enjoyed my meal on the long haul between Atlanta and Milano. No, I have not lost my mind. But since I'm well aware of the fact that you usually get to choose between rubbery chicken and smelly fish, I decided to try something new and, when I booked my flight, told them I am a vegetarian.What a  good idea that was. While the poor soul next to me was moving his sad looking piece of chicken breast and mashed potatoes around the tray, I literally feasted on a spicy potato and vegetable curry over white rice. Who'd have thought? And to add insult to injury, a few hours later my vegetarian breakfast also turned out to be fantastic —who doesn't love a toasted multigrain bagel with cream cheese?— while his knock-off, microwaved egg mc muffin looked and smelled (and I'm guessing here, tasted) awful.

As I mentioned before, though, there were a couple of less-than-perfect moments. On the first, short flight to Atlanta I was supposed to seat in the front row, which would have been really nice, but as I was boarding the plane (second to last passenger as usual) they told me I couldn't sit there because I needed to have a seat in front of me so that I would have a place to shove the poor cat. So they made me trade seats with the person that was right behind me who, needless to say, had a ticket for seat 44F -you know, the charming one all the way to the back of the plane where you are so close to the bathroom you can smell it.

On the second, longer flight, my only complaint, other than the polar temperature and the flimsy blanket I was given to stay warm, is that while I was sleeping like a baby some genius sitting close to me decided it was time to check out the sunrise from up above, which woke up the whole freaking plane. But well, who cares now? In three days I've already seen great friends, had lots of fun and ate delicious food —the plane ride is already nothing more than a vague memory. Here's some of the things I've feasted on this weekend:
Seafood salad at La Palma, a great little restaurant on the lake here in Bissone, Switzerland.
Again from La Palma: my favorite pizza in the world, a very simple marinara made with just tomato sauce, garlic and spicy olive oil. Delicious. Their crust also happens to be one of the best I've ever had.
A Milanese institution: the aperitivo. Which means that during happy hour you receive tons of delicious free food. What's not to love about that? And this happens in EVERY bar, which makes it really fun.
And of course pho, which I have to try everywhere I go. I had it at a cute little place in Milano, called Vietnam Mon Amour. It was the first of many ethnic restaurants I was looking forward to try while I live here. The list is long, but I'm sure I'll get through it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of travel and projective homesickness

An amazing sunset over the clouds.
The bags are (almost) all packed. The passport is sitting on the kitchen counter, along with print-outs of my e-ticket and my e-tenerary, and the cat has promised me not to poop or vomit too much on our plane ride. All that had to be done has been done. Everything is ready.

It’s time for me to sit back and be homesick for a while.

Ever since I was very young I experienced what I call “projective homesickness”, an odd phenomenon that ails me on the day before any departure.

See, being homesick is a funny thing. Most people experience it when they are away from the house, the people, the life they love. Not me. Ever since I was very young I experienced what I call “projective homesickness”, an odd phenomenon that ails me on the night before any departure. On the eve of my going away I find myself looking at silly things around my house, the coffee maker that always leaks on the kitchen counter, my cookbooks on the shelf, the quiet familiarity of my bulletin board still showcasing memorabilia from high school, and all of the sudden I realize that I love all of it, in the same kind of way you love an old uncle that regularly embarrasses you at family gatherings.

I’ve left and returned to various places I called “home” many times in my life, but there’s a part of me that just can’t get used to it. At the same time, though, I know that the second I get there, the moment that my plane will pierce through the clouds and I’ll spot my hometown’s skyline from a distance, my heart will jolt and I’ll oddly feel at home again. Apparently, being a dual citizen is not only a political idiosyncrasy: it’s also the strange feeling you sense when you feel truly at home in two different continents.

As continents go, North America and Europe are pretty similar, if only for the fact that most North Americans have strong European roots. We look similar enough and share similar traditions and habits that makes it easy for us to get along: the custom of offering a bottle of wine to your hostess at a dinner party is regarded as polite whether you are in Seattle or Florence, as much as burping at the table is frowned upon in San Francisco and Paris. Still, there are differences that make trips to “the other side” of the Atlantic unique and memorable.

I will never forget walking around New York City when I was 6 years old and candidly asking my mom why all the buildings were so “new”. I’ve seen the same look of wonder on tourists’ faces in Italy when they look at a church built in the 1200s. How can everything be so new? How can everything be so old? How can everything be so different and, yet, so similar?

Some questions are difficult to answer when one is sitting in her cozy den in Southwest Florida. Usually you find the answers when least expected, in the oddest of all places. That is what I’m really looking forward to: hopping around from country to country, enjoying both my roots and traditions that are alien to me, learning things I’ve never even dreamed of, trying new foods and enjoying old favorites.

It’s easy to follow a tour guide, or even a guide book, around a foreign city, but when it comes to traveling “easy” isn’t always the best option. Traveling is about exploring, getting lost, making mistakes, meeting new people and gathering with old friends. Ultimately, it’s about discovering ourselves, because somehow, when we are away from home, we truly show our colors.

So tomorrow, as I will leave behind the place I've called home for eight years, I'll do so with a mixture of excitement and melancholy. And on Thursday, when I will write my first post from my cozy new spot on a cozy new couch, I know that I will already feel at home. Or at least, I hope I will.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Grandma Licia's red pasta bake

Last night I had my going away, which was graciously hosted by my friends Jayne and Bruce. The original idea was for me to make vodka pasta, my signature dish, but as the headcount raised, I decided to make something a little less time consuming and labor intensive: grandma Licia's red pasta bake. Grandma Licia wasn't my grandma, but like most Italian grandmas she had a bunch of fabulous recipes she was famous for. This pasta bake, made with tomato sauce, sharp cheeses and olives, is one of them. Let me tell you, it turned out great as it always does and everyone loved it so much they forgot all about the original idea of having vodka pasta. Which is great, because in these last few days before my departure I could definitely use something that went down smooth and easy.

The weather has not been cooperative for my last Florida weekend —we had an annoying drizzle all afternoon yesterday that made poor Jayne move the patio furniture seven times. And then today the rain has been (and still is!) coming down so hard all our plans of going boating had to be canceled, and we are sitting in the living room watching "Cape Fear" instead, which is not exactly what I had in mind for my last weekend in Florida. Oh well. There's always gin and tonics, right?

And if that weren't enough, there is this stupid Icelandic ash cloud that has thrown most European airports (including my destination of Milano) in a total chaos and nobody knows when and how flights will operate again. Needless to say, it had to happen when I'm moving back there. On the bright side, I'm almost done packing my suitcases. Plural. Two suitcases. But I figured out that when you are moving you are allowed to have a little extra baggage. I'm also almost positive I've forgotten something incredibly important, but if I did, I can always use it as an excuse to go to Zara and H&M and shop like there's no tomorrow.

Anyways, back to the recipe. Last night I made a triple batch, two 13x9 baking dishes, but here's the original version, for a normal sized crowd!

1 1/4 pounds rotini or cavatappi
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
1 can  green olives
1 can black olives
1/2 pound sharp provolone cheese, cubed
1/2 pound asiago cheese, cubed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
6 tablespoons bread crumbs
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 450 F.

In a large pot bring water to a boil. Cook noodles  being careful not to overcook them... remember they have to go in the oven afterwards.

In the meantime heat olive oil in a large skillet, saute the onion until tender and add tomatoes and olives. Season with salt and red pepper and turn off heat. Set aside.

Grease a large baking dish with butter, and sprinkle with 4 tablesopoons of bread crumbs.

Drain ziti and add to skillet. Mix noodles and tomato mixture very well. Add cubed cheese and stir. Tranfer into baking dish and sprinkle with remaining breadcrumbs. Bake for 30 minutes, then cover with foil and bake for an additional 15.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Snapper Veracruz style

Cooking dinner last night made me realize that there are certain ingredients that I will miss dearly once I'm in Europe. They are not what most people would miss, I tell you.

For instance, I won't miss the mind boggling variety of sodas you can buy in this country, mostly because the only two types of sodas I occasionally consume are club soda and tonic water, respectively as a mixer to vodka and gin.

Also, I won't miss the mesmerizing selection of breakfast cereal because, you guessed it, I never really enjoyed cereal. I tried, mind you, several times. As a kid, every time we stayed on vacation for longer than 5 days in any U.S. city, town or state I'd beg my parents to buy me Fruit Loops or Coco Pops or Frosted Flakes. My parents, I have to admit, knew better. They usually fed me those miniature cereal boxes that you find at breakfast buffets in mid-range hotels. What followed was comical. I very ceremoniously dumped half the content of the tiny box in my bowl and splash it with the equivalent of two and half tablespoons of milk. Then I would take two, maybe three bites, and declared I was full. Similar behavior, at home, would have developed into a full fledged family drama —I was never allowed to leave anything in my plate— but because we were on vacation and we we had an airplane/boat/bus tour to catch my parents, very forgivingly, muttered something about that back in their day they didn't even what cereal was and hauled me away from the breakfast tabel, so that we could "make good time", something my parents felt very strongly about in the mid 80s.

So what the hell are you goning to miss once your gone, you might ask? If you are thinking about fast food, you are wrong again. Although I was born in 1980, my mother had a very futuristic, very progressive, very 2010 if I may say that, approach to feeding her child. I'm proud to say she never spoon fed me that baby-food-out-of-a-jar-crap that I see so many infants swallow. She made my meals from scratch —each and one of them— and turned me into an incredibly happy and healthy baby. And as I grew older, while other kids at preschool were dreaming of drinking Coca Cola or Sprite, all I wanted was water. And fast food to me meant a meal my mom would cook from scratch in less than 30 minutes. So no, I'm not going to miss fast-food in the McDonalds-good-knows-what's-in-your burger way.

Enough with the guessing. I'm going to stop telling you what I'm not going to miss and tell you one thing I will miss dearly: freshly caught snapper from the Gulf of Mexico. Because I'm pretty positive no one will stop by my house in Milan, Italy, and drop off something that they have just caught nearby. And if they do, I'll run for my life.

 Adapeted from Cooking Light
Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds of snapper fillets
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cumin, to taste
Olive oil
1/4 cup chopped green olives
1/4 cup bottled salsa (I used hot, but you can use whatever you prefer)
1 15-ounce can good quality chopped tomatoes, such as Del Monte Organic
3 tablespoons minced cilantro
1/2 lime
Cayenne pepper

Season the fish on both sides with salt, pepper and cumin. Lightly grease a large baking dish with olive oil, place fish in baking pan and broil in preheated oven for 4 minutes, then flip and broil for another 4 minutes.

In the mean time mix remaining ingredients in a bowl. When fish is ready serve it smothered with prepared salsa.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Oven "fried" chicken with honey mustard sauce

I have a question for you all: how do you pack for a trip that is longer than a year? I have already figured out how to take my winter clothes and shoes with me (in the trunk of my car, which is going to be shipped from Miami to Genoa at the end of the month). The problem is, there is still a lot in my closet that doesn't fall in the categories above —winter clothes and shoes. Stuff like summer clothes, bathing suits, summer shoes... handbags, belts... and more. Normally I'm a firm believer in packing light —I've learned a long time ago that you usually end up using a third of the clothes you take with you on  any given trip— but when you are moving to another continent this philosophy kinda goes out the window. Seriously: how do they expect your whole life to weigh 50 pounds or less? The least airlines could do is offer a moving special. Or a hoarder special. Or both. Instead they want to charge you $75 for each additional bag, which I'm so not going to pay. So that's it. Everything —actually: everything I own that combined weighs 50 pounds or less— has to fit in one bag. In my carry on backpack I'll have to stuff my laptop and some reading material that isn't too heavy (good luck with that, right?), while my "other" carry on will be the cat who, I'm sure, will make this whole travel experience even more pleasant. And then they wonder why I wake up in a panic in the middle of the night...

Anyways, all this to say —once again— that I have a great reason for not having posted much on this blog lately. Because I'm not cooking much and when I do, I'm too distracted to cook something worth blogging about. But I promise, once I'm there the posts will flow, both about wonderful recipes and about my travels. In the mean time, here's a favorite of mine which, I suspect, I won't be able to make anymore once I'm in Europe, the reason being that I think they don't sell honey mustard dressing over there. So, unless I make my own, no more oven "fried" chicken with honey mustard sauce for me!

Adapted from the Weight Watchers Complete Cookbook
Serves 2 or 3

3 chicken breast halves, boneless and skinless
3/4 cup honey mustard dressing
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
3 scallions, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 cup crumbled corn flakes
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 425F.

In a shallow bowl mix the honey mustard dressing, scallions and dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste and place the corn flake crumbs in a small dish.

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Dip each breast in the dressing, turning to coat well. Shake off excess. Reserve extra dressing. Dredge into crumbs and place in a baking pan coated with cooking spray.  Cook in preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until crust looks crunchy and done. Drizzle with reserved dressing and serve immediately.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Asparagus and eggs, Milanese style

Two weeks from today, I'll be flying over the Atlantic on a Boeing 767 en route from Atlanta to Milano. The thought, I have to admit, is at the same time exciting and scary, and I'm not referring to the fact that I'm afraid that the cat will decide to poop/pee/vomit several times during the crossing or the fact that I always, always sit next to one of those passengers that hog the armrest and have smelly feet.

The truth is I'm a creature of habit, and although I don't necessarily like most of the habits and routines that I've developed here, I still have this irrational, almost ridiculous attachment to my life as I know it. It's the little stuff, mostly. As I sit here with my patio doors open there's a sprinkler on —the damn thing has been hosing down my patio furniture, ruining it for years— and I find myself thinking that I'll kind of miss it. See? Little stuff. Little, stupid stuff. I like to concentrate on the little stupid stuff because, that way, I don't have to concentrate on the big, important things that would scare me shitless, and rightfully so. See? It's a little trick. Let's think about the sprinkler instead of thinking about the fact that god knows if I'll get a job once I get there. Sheer genius, I know.

Another ridiculous thing I'm concentrating on is cooking out of my pantry and come up with new and different ways to use the overabundance of eggs in my fridge. While most normal people would probably like to eat out as often as possible two weeks away from a transcontinental move, I don't. I want to cook as many meals as possible in the kitchen that has been my kitchen for seven years, so that I can bitch one last time about my electric stove or once more burn my hand in the oven. What can I say? I'm easily entertained.

So here's one of the recipes I've cooked to get rid of the many eggs that are sitting in the fridge. It really isn't much of a recipe. It's just asparagus sauteed in butter, seasoned with salt and pepper, moved to a side of the pan to make room for a few eggs, and everything topped with grated Parmesan cheese. Ta da.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Chicken piccata

Great news. Both in the sense that the news is big and that is also good. I have booked my flight to Italy. From April 22nd I'll be cooking, and blogging, from Milan, and hopefully I will also be traveling around Europe at any given chance. Ok. Who am I kidding? I will be traveling as much as humanly possible. And I will be eating and cooking new (old) things and having the time of my life. Of course I will be blogging about it and hopefully I'll be doing a better job at it than now. The thing is, I feel like I have a million things to do before I take off on the 21st and time, all the sudden, has started going by really fast.

Take Easter, for example. I seriously couldn't believe it yesterday when I woke up and I realized it was time to celebrate it already. I had this crazy notion that Easter was far, far away and that I had all the time in the world to prepare for it. Not that I had something specific in mind, but still.

The same, unfortunately, goes with packing. I feel like the endeavor is so huge, I don't know where to start from. I've moved across an ocean once before, but for some reason this time it feels more difficult. Maybe it's because I still have to do it. Maybe it's just the thought of it. Regardless, in the mean time I leave you with this great recipe for chicken piccata, which is chicken in a lemon butter sauce with capers.

Adapted from Tyler Florence
  • 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (about 11/2 pounds)
  • All-purpose flour, for dredging
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 lemon, with rind, cut in thin rounds
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons capers
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Put the chicken breasts side by side on a cutting board and lay a piece of plastic wrap over them. Pound the chicken breasts with a flat meat mallet, until they are about 1/4-inch thick. Put some flour in a shallow platter and season with a fair amount of salt and pepper; mix with a fork to distribute evenly. In a wide bowl, beat the eggs with 3 tablespoons of water to make an egg wash. Heat the oil over medium-high flame in a large skillet.
Dredge both sides of the chicken cutlets in the seasoned flour, and then dip them in the egg wash to coat completely, letting the excess drip off. When the oil is nice and hot, add the cutlets and fry for 2 minutes on each side until golden, turning once. Remove the chicken cutlets to a large platter in a single layer to keep warm.
Toss the lemon slices into the pan and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add the wine, broth, and lemon juice, simmer for 5 minutes to reduce the sauce slightly. Roll the butter in some flour and add it to the skillet, this will thicken the sauce. Stir to incorporate and dissolve the flour. Reduce the heat to medium-low and return the chicken to the pan; place the lemon slices on top of the cutlets. Simmer gently for 2 minutes to heat the chicken through. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped parsley before serving.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring savory pie

So where do I disappear when I don't post for a week? Nowhere exciting. Most likely my couch. That's where I've spent most of my time lately; that and dashing around the house trying to pack stuff before leaving for Europe. Since the house needs to be put on the market and everything needs to be packed, the packing is as crazy as it gets, as I try to decide what to bring, what to put in the storage and what to give away.

Because although I've moved several times in my life, so far I have not been a good moving person. But I plan on changing that this time around. I have about three weeks to get my shit together, which means that I'll probably wait until the last four days to really do something useful. Because, who am I kidding? That's the way I am. 

So far, the only good thing I've done is cooking out of my pantry and freezer, trying to get rid of all this food that's around house. Granted that Tommy will stay behind and will have to eat for a couple of months without me, still I feel it's a good idea to get rid of some food. Which brings me to this savory pie that I made, or quiche if you will, a creation that put together refrigerated pie crust, leftover asparagus, frozen peas, eggs and cheese. You can always count on a quiche to get rid of lots of ingredients.
One pie crust, such as Pillsbury
2 eggs, beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup green peas, frozen or canned
1/2 pound asparagus, cooked and chopped
Salt and pepper

Grease a round pie pan and unroll the pie crust on it.

In a bowl, mix eggs, cheeses and vegetables and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour mixture into pie crust.

Preheat oven to 400F. Cook pie in preheated oven for 20 minutes.


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