Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cream of mushrooms

Since summer it's practically here, I decided it would be a good time to use up everything that is in the fridge and pantry that is kinda wintery, so that I can make room for fresh and delightful summer ingredients and food. See, the thing is refrigerators, pantries and kitchens in general are much smaller in Europe, unless you live in a humongous mansion. Which, in case you are wondering, is not the case. For the time being I'm staying in a wonderfully cozy and cute attic that oozes charm —but has a tiny kitchen and virtually no room for food storage. Hence the idea of using up ingredients that don't scream "summer" to me because the weather has been gorgeous lately and the warmer and sunnier it gets, the least I want to eat heavier, richer winter foods.

Which brings me to today's recipe: cream of mushrooms. Mushrooms make me think of rainy fall evenings, walks in the woods, a nice pot of risotto on the stove. I love them, but they are —at least to me— the anti-summer food, which is why I decided I had to finish off the bag of dried porcini I had leftover from the winter. And since these days I'm mostly cooking just for myself I decided that making risotto would be kind of ridiculous, which is why I made soup instead. Although you can't really tell by the picture, it turned out to be delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I didn't even tried to take better pictures, I just sat down and ate it all.

Serves 4 

3 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
1 cup broth
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Ground black pepper
2/3 cup half-and-half or milk
2 teaspoons sherry
In a large saucepan, cook mushrooms in the broth with onion and thyme until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. 

Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture, leaving some chunks of vegetable in it. Set aside. 

In the saucepan, melt the butter, whisk in the flour until smooth. Add the salt, pepper, half and half and vegetable puree. Stirring constantly, bring soup to a boil and cook until thickened. Adjust seasonings to taste, and add sherry.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Negroni & the Negroni "Sbagliato"

If Milano were a spice, it would be pungent saffron. If it were a noise, it would be the subdued bell cable cars ring when they turn into the street. If it were a smell, it would be the way the wet asphalt smells after a quick summer storm. And if it were a drink, it would be a Negroni.

This, I have to admit, is sort of a nonsense since this incredibly popular cocktail was invented in Florence. Still, I have a hard time imagining any apertivo in Milano without the cheerful reddish orange drink sitting on almost every table. The Negroni, and it's lighter, girlie version the "sbagliato", aren't timeless classics like —say— a stiff martini or a Manhattan. They are evolutions. They are hybrids. They are old and modern at the same time.

So how exactly did the Negroni become the Negroni? Well, we have to go back to the 1860, when a drink made of bitter Campari and sweet vermouth, topped with a splash of soda water became popular. Since Campari was produced in Milan and vermouth in Turin, the cocktail was called the Milano-Torino and, other than becoming an Italian favorite, it also quickly grew in popularity with Americans, which is why later on the drink was renamed "Americano".

And that was just the beginning. In 1919, at Caffè Casoni in Florence, Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender, Fosco Scarselli, to strengthen his Americano by adding gin rather than soda water. The drink was an instant success and it was named after the Count who, I'm guessing, didn't live very long if he drank a gin and campari mixture on a daily basis. Anyhow, many Italian and international drinkers quickly became fans of the cocktail, including Orson Welles who discovered it while filming "Cagliostro" in Rome and wrote, rather enthusiastically, that "the bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other."

On to the Negroni "sbagliato", which literally means "wrong" Negroni and features spumante brut instead of gin. I have to admit that I like the Sbagliato more than I like the Negroni itself, mostly for sentimental reasons. The Sbagliato was invented in the 60s in Milano, at Bar Basso, an old fashioned, wonderfully aged bar and cafe' not far from the house where I grew up. When I was a child, my parents would go there to have a drink before dinner and while they enjoyed their cocktails I devoured bowl after bowl of chips and green olives while happily sipping on mineral water. It was a family ritual that made me feel like one of the grown ups and I enjoyed it particularly because I was the only kid sitting at the fancy tables on the sidewalk. When twenty years later I took my first sip of Negroni sbagliato I had no idea it was invented at the Bar Basso, but now that I know it, I like it even more.

1/3 gin
1/3 sweet vermouth
1/3 bitter camparu
A slice of orange to garnish

Fill a tall glass with ice cubes, add the liquid ingredients and stir gently. Garnish with a slice of orange.

A few drops of Angostura (optional)
1/3 spumante brut
1/3 sweet vermouth
1/3 bitter Campari
A slice of ornage to garnish

Fill a tall glass with ice cubes, add the liquid ingredients and stir gently. Garnish with a slice of orange.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Life on Lake Lugano

I learned to love lakes only recently, as a twenty-something spending two months between Lake Como and Lake Lugano. As a child lakes made me sad, although it would be difficult to say why. I think they sort of conveyed an almost impalpable feeling of melancholy, one that I was never able to explain to lake lovers nor to the rest of my family. My paternal grandparents owned a lake house on a small, picturesque lake in Piedmont, Lake Orta. I spent most of my childhood secretly wishing they hadn't bought the place, for I was sent there to "breathe some fresh clean air" every June and, truth be told, I hated being there. Don't get me wrong, I loved my grandparents dearly and they were both fantastic in their two very different, almost opposite, ways. And they loved the lake and the lake house and since I was such a polite kid, I never really said out loud that the lake did nothing for me. At least not to them. Every day, when my parents called to say hello, I would half whisper to my mom that I was bored and that I wanted to go home. Soon, she always said. Soon, of course, would never come fast enough. The days stretched out endlessly, as I walked the grounds pretending I was someone else somewhere else. I helped grandma pick vegetables from the garden. I learned the names of all our flowers from grandpa. I waited for the bell tower clock to strike six o'clock because I knew that that was the time when my mother would call. The afternoon took forever to end and the lake sat there, still and silent, much like everything else in the village. 

Fast forward twenty years. It's 2007 and Tommy and I take two months off so that I can show him around Northern Italy. We stay at my parents' house on Lake Lugano, the very house from which I'm blogging right now. And all of the sudden, the lake seems beautiful to me. Granted it's not the same lake, but still. I even ended up liking Lake Orta, and all the other lakes in between.  

Now I even enjoy the lake when the weather is less than stellar, like it was the day I took this picture. The mountains reflecting in the water and the ferry lazily going by are reasons enough to smile these days. I guess the older you get the easier it is to be entertained. Or maybe the older you get the least likely you are to miss your parents or your house while you are at the lake and all of the sudden you don't find it sad at all. Or maybe it's just that now this is my home, at least for the time being.

And there is one more thing about lakes that I love: ducks. Especially ducks with their babies. I saw the first baby duck of the season not long ago and I spent twenty minutes watching her following her mom around, swimming super fast to keep up and following the big ducks around to eat the stale bread kids were throwing around. Another sign of old age? Perhaps.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes, capers and olives

One of the things I missed the most during the nine years I lived in the U.S. is bright red, great tasting tomatoes. Which, come to think of it, is kind of a non-sense since tomatoes originally were brought to Europe from the Americas. Some believe that the Spanish explorer Cortes may have been the first to bring a small yellow tomato plant to Europe from the Atzec city of Tenochtítlan in 1521. Others believe Columbus was the first European to take back the tomato as early as 1493. Regardless, the Italian physician and botanistPietro Andrea Mattioli wrote about the new fruit in 1544 and named it "pomo d'oro", golden apple. Since then, Italians have fallen in love with tomatoes and have become the fifth biggest tomato growers in the world, after much bigger countries like China, the United States, Turkey and India. I'm not a tomato expert, I've done my research on it though.

As most Italians, I absolutely adore tomatoes in all their shapes and colors —from beefsteaks to cherry, and from green to yellow. So imagine my shock when I moved to Florida, the place where tomatoes come from, and they were... bland. Especially in the summer. I was baffled. I mean, how could it be? Thinking about it in retrospect I should have come up with this theory years ago, but I'll be honest and tell you that it came to my mind only very recently. How can the same fruit grow to be the same in soils and climates that are completely different? Simple: it can't. I'm guessing —I'm no botanist— that the heavy rains and the relentless Florida heat are a little hard on tomatoes and they leave them tasting like they have been watered-down. So, anyhow, I was very happy the other day when I went to the grocery store and found the tomatoes pictured above —pomodori from Pachino, Sicily— which are round, and bright red and downright delicious. They are amazing on their own, maybe with just a little salt and drizzled with EVOO, but I decided to go all out and make a nice pasta with them, although I was cooking just for myself on a quiet Friday night. The result was amazing, even though I say so myself!
Serves 6

One pound spaghetti
3/4 pound cherry tomatoes, halved
3 tablespoons capers preserved in salt, rinsed
A handful of green marinated olives, sliced
Crushed red pepper to taste
1/2 a lemon
A few leaves of basil, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil

Cook spaghetti according to directions.

In a large serving bowl mix tomatoes, capers and olives. Season with crushed red pepper and very little salt (capers are very salty, so be careful), dress with olive oil and lemon juice. Set aside.

When spaghetti is ready, drain and add to the bowl. Mix well, sprinkle with basil and more olive oil if needed.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Review: Al Pont De Ferr, Milano

Al Pont De Ferr
Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 55, Milano
Phone: 0289406277
Prices: medium-high. Appetizers are around 12 Euros, main courses around 20.

There are places where the decor and the food go hand in hand —think steakhouses with dark wooden booths and green carpets or Mexican joints with bright wall hangings and sombreros. And then there are places where by looking at the dining room you'd never imagine what kind of dinner you are going to enjoy. Al Pont De Ferr falls into this second category. From the outside the restaurant is barely visible —a one door, one window facade that overlooks the Ripa di Porta Ticinese canal is hardly something to write home about since it's only one of, let's say, a gazillion establishments on that same street. Once inside it looks like an old osteria, with dark wooden tables, heavy chairs and unexciting and bare white walls. The menu and the food, though, are everything but. Both the quality and the presentation will wow you and your dinner experience will be something in between an actual dinner and a carnival ride. I swear.

See, when it comes to food Al Pont De Ferr's chef works not only as a chef to prepare delicious dishes but also as an illusionist that crafts foods that look like, say, an onion, but are actually made by caramelized sugar and goat cheese. Think I'm kidding? I'm not. Every appetizer on the menu —there are about ten— is pleasantly deceiving like that.
See? This red onion looks like a red onion, but, as I said, it's made of caramelized sugar on the outside and melting, tangy goat cheese on the inside. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is only the beginning. The chef also prepare a "fake egg", made with goat cheese and pumpkin that fooled all of us when it was presented at the table.
Some of the appetizers are slightly less deceiving, but always edgy and unique. The "oyster tree" is one of them. Mounted on a wire sculpture shaped like a tree are some arugula leaves that have been grown near oyster beds and therefore carry a faint oyster flavor. Four raw oysters are minced, mixed with seasonings like you would do to make a tartare and then put back in their shell and topped with a very delicate foam that mellows out the stronger flavor of the oysters.
Main courses, although less visually exciting, are definitely worth a try. The spaghetti with breadcrumbs, anchovies and crushed red pepper is a delightful entree —spicy, salty and tasty, it easily wins the 'best dish on the menu' award. Also amazingly good and quite interesting as a concept are the ravioli filled with olive oil essence and topped with Mediterranean flavors: fresh tomatoes and fragrant herbs.
The surprise, here, is that when you bite into one of the ravioli you don't get a spoonful of filling in your mouth. Au contraire, your taste buds are hit by a volatile yet delicious essence of fruity EVOO, while the herbs and tomatoes round up the dish making you feel as if you were tasting a slice of Italy itself. Yes, it's that good.
Desserts, needless to say, are fantastic and so pretty you almost feel like you don't want to ruin them by eating them. The above apple, of course, is not a real apple, although it looks one. It's a caramel shell that holds Al Pont De Ferr's rendition of a French classic, the tart tatin. Apples, caramel and ice cream... need I say more? As everything else at this small, rustic looking restaurant, the tatin was divine, the perfect ending to a fun, intriguing meal.

Baked pasta with cauliflower

When people think of Italy, they envision rolling hills basking in the sunshine and imagine that the weather around here is always mild and basically beautiful. Well, if they had been here since April 22nd like I have, they would definitely change their mind. The term "unseasonably shitty" has taken a whole new meaning here and, although this may make me sound like an old lady, I'll say it: I have never seen weather like this in May and this might be the coldest spring of the millennium.

To be honest, cold temperatures have never bothered me. What is getting old really fast is the monsoons of freezing cold rain we have been having pretty much every day for the last two weeks. It's May, for crying out loud, it should be in the 70s and beautiful, not 55 and rainy!

So what's one to do with this weather? Every morning I wake up dreaming of going to farmers markets and the likes, and every morning I have to change my plans because to go to said markets I would have to take a canoe to navigate the streets. So instead I've been cooking dishes that normally wouldn't cook in May like bean soups and pasta bakes. This particular one I've made before my parents went back to the U.S. and I liked a lot, although my dad said it could have used more salt. But since he says that pretty often, I wasn't too surprised. What I liked about it is that it's an easy and quick recipe, and that it has tons of cauliflower in it and since cauliflower is my new favorite vegetable I can't get enough of it.

Adapted from Cooking Light

6  cups  cauliflower florets (about 1 1/2 pounds)
8  ounces  pasta
1/4  cup  all-purpose flour
3  cups  1% low-fat milk
2  teaspoons  chopped fresh or 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
3  garlic cloves, crushed
1  cup  (4 ounces) shredded reduced-fat sharp cheese
1/2  cup  (2 ounces) grated fresh Parmesan cheese
3/4  cup  finely chopped chives
2  teaspoons  Dijon mustard
Black pepper
2 slices white bread
2  teaspoons  butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400°.

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan; add cauliflower and 1/2 teaspoon salt to boiling water, and cook 4 minutes or until tender. Remove cauliflower with a slotted spoon, reserving cooking liquid; set cauliflower aside. Bring cooking liquid to a rolling boil. Add pasta, and cook 7 minutes or until al dente; drain and set aside.

Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup, and level with a knife. Combine flour and milk in a saucepan, stirring well with a whisk. Stir in thyme and garlic; cook over medium heat until thick (about 8 minutes), stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt, cheeses, chives mustard, and pepper. Combine cauliflower, pasta, and cheese sauce in a large bowl. Spoon the cauliflower mixture into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Place bread in food processor; pulse 10 times or until coarse crumbs form to measure 1 cup. Combine breadcrumbs with butter; sprinkle evenly over cauliflower mixture. Bake at 400° for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Beautiful Bellinzona

Yes, I've been incredibly lazy. I could blame it on the time change or on the crappy weather —which has been incredibly crappy around here...— but I'm not going to make up excuses. The truth is, I've been lazy because I have been seeing old friends and eating at restaurants and so on, which means I haven't cooked much nor have I had time to sit down and write in this blog.

Anyhow, now my parents are en route back to Florida and I'm here all alone, with the cat, and soon I'll start cooking and posting again. In the mean time, here are some pictures I've taken in Bellinzona, Switzerland, a beautiful town famous for its three medieval castles and narrow streets. Our idea was to go eat at one of the castles, Castelgrande, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but alas we went there on a Monday, and the place is closed on Mondays. I swear, as soon as the weather gets better I'm going to go there and have lunch on the castle's terrace. And while I wait for the weather to get decent, I'll be cooking and posting about it. I promise.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Making Mexican in Milano: salsa and guacamole

I know that making Mexican food in Italy may sound like a bizarre idea. After all why would I bother coming all the way here to eat fajitas or tacos? You see, the truth is, Mexican food in Italy sucks. I kid you not. I've tried several restaurants throughout the years and they were all less than memorable. To be honest, some of them were horrible. Which is weird because, let's face it, Mexican food is so easy to make if you buy the right ingredients.

So here's the solution: if you want good Mexican fare while you are in Italy you have to make it yourself, which is what my friend Carolina and I did on Friday night. While she was in charge of making chicken and beef fajitas, my contribution was my famous guacamole and my famous salsa. Why famous, you might ask?

Because I'm the only one in town who knows how to make good ones. Great reason, right?

They are both super easy recipes and, although some people at the dinner table were concerned by the amount of crushed red pepper I poured in both recipes, later they admitted that both were really, really good, although they were really, really spicy. But that's the point of Mexican food —spiciness. Anyhow, the dinner was a success, everyone loved the food and we ended up drinking a little too much wine, something I paid for yesterday on the way to the lake. But that's another story, one that really doesn't belong on a food blog...

Serves 6

3 ripe haas avocados
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
Salt and crushed red pepper to taste
Juice of one lime

Mash avocados with a fork, mix with the other ingredients and dress with lime to avoid browning.

Serves 6

2 cups chopped fresh tomato
1/2 red onion, chopped
Juice of one lime
Salt and crushed red pepper to taste
One bunch of cilantro, minced

Mix all ingredients in a bowl, let stand for ten minutes before serving.


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