Say What?

I’ve got one eye open as I take my first sip of my morning espresso.  I unfold the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 12/13th 2013 edition) and start leafing through the pages when lo and behold I come upon an article that jolted me right out of my just-out-of-bed fog.

Italians Lose Their Taste for Pasta.

Say WHAT?  Not this Italian (that would be ME).

I start to read the article and I am aghast.  Per l’amor di Dio (for the love of God) What the hell is this world coming to? comfort food of choice.

Pasta…my comfort food of choice.

It seems that Italians are worried about the “fattening effects of pasta.”  It also reports that Italian women increasingly view pasta as “boring and time-consuming.”  Seriously?  There are a thousand different ways to prepare pasta, how in the world could one ever view it as boring?!  And time-consuming?  Yes. If you make your own pasta but the majority of Italians don’t.    One woman weighed in saying that “Metabolism changes as you approach 40 so pasta is out of the question.”  Yes. Metabolism indeed changes and at 56 I am keenly aware of this fact but to categorically dismiss pasta as out of the question is….well….sacrilegious!  I’ll bet that woman isn’t even Italian!

So what are Italians eating?  Sushi!  My Nonno and Nonna (grandparents) are no doubt rolling over in their graves.

Yep.  Sushi bars are exploding all over Italy.  Chinese and Indian food restaurants are growing in popularity too. That explains that Chinese restaurant on my mother’s street in Udine and my cousin Paolo’s loathing of it since he must see it every single day. Harrumph. Don’t get me wrong. I love both cuisines…but this is Bella Italia people!

My fondest childhood memories (and there weren’t many) took place on that street.  My nonno Pio would walk me down the block of Via Pellicerrie to the local pub and order me an aranciata (orange drink) and a plate of polpette (fried meatballs) and he’d order birra (beer) or a Campari.  My grandparents lived on a third floor flat in a building on the street, Via Pellicerrie 11.  Her cousins (cousin Paolo still lives there) lived on the second floor and an uncle (my Nonno’s brother, Aldo) lived on the first floor.  I was lucky enough to spend several summers in Italy, staying with my grandparents.  Most mornings while mamma slept I’d take 50 lire (before euro’s) and steal downstairs out of the building on a mission to buy an apricot-filled brioche from the little shop just next door.  I’d have to stick a rock in the door of the building’s entrance to prevent it from closing; I wouldn’t dare risk mamma’s wrath by waking her up with a doorbell ring.  I wish I could remember the name of the owners of that little shop.  They were so kind to me as I shyly stood at the counter nearly every morning and pointed to the confection in the glass case.  “Ah, vuoi una brioche,” the sales woman would ask.  “Oh, che piccianin! Si, cara…ecco…prendi  (You want a brioche; Oh what a sweet little one!  Yes dear…here…take it).  I would say “grazie” in my small, hesitant voice, pay, and then scamper back up the three flights of stairs to my grandparents tiny galley kitchen.  I’d sit at the little kitchen table and savor every morsel of that brioche along with a cup of caffè latte.  It’s a wonderful memory….

And so are the abundant plates of pasta I enjoyed during those Italian vacations!  I was a scrawny kid growing up.  Having an Italian mom meant that pasta was a two-to-three times a week staple in our house.  The pasta dishes we enjoyed growing up were simple, often incorporated seasonal vegetables or simply fresh tomatoes and basil and weren’t drowned in tons of heavy sauce  or cream as is prevalent in the U.S.  Mamma’s favorite to prepare was Spaghetti alla Carbonara but even that dish was prepared in the classic Roman fashion that did not include cream or tons of butter.   When mamma was not well it was easy for me to prepare my favorite comfort food, spaghetti with butter, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan cheese.  Years later my favorite comfort food would win over my finicky children every time.

Pasta makers like Barilla are trying to respond to this “crisis” (my sentiment) by advertising that pasta is not fattening at “365 calories a portion” and it has a low glycemic count.  Portion is the operative word here folks!  And yes, while I’ll confess that I don’t eat as much pasta as I used to just three years ago, it’s because I can’t run anymore so I don’t need as much food…simple as that.  Waistlines are growing all over the world and apparently Italy is no exception.  But I’ll wager my meager life savings that it has nothing to do with the food that has been a staple of Italians since as early as the 12th century.  It doesn’t take a PhD. to explain what’s going on here.  Quite simply….people are moving less and eating more. 

My response to this disturbing trend?

I renewed my subscription to La Cucina Italiana ( just this morning.

I refuse to dilute my heritage by skimping on the one food category that has given me countless wonderful memories!   I will not cave to the reality of this slowing metabolism nor will I keep cutting out entire food groups in an effort to keep my waistline from expanding more.  My war cry…..It’s pasta once a week! 

Pasta with veggies. Buonissimo!

Pasta with veggies. Buonissimo!

Life is short and too often it’s buried under a weight of toxicity in the form of sadness, angst, bitterness, anger and, well…you name it.  Why add to all that negativity with more deprivation…less bliss?  All it takes is a little portion control (and even leave some on the plate), moderation, and…most vital of all…keep the body moving by whatever means possible!

Food Coma Bliss

I called out to my husband before laying my tired bones to bed last night.  “Yes…my Queen,” he says as he comes over to me.  “Tomorrow we are going to do better,” I say.  He understands in an instant.  We both sigh.  We’ve just spent a couple of days eating more than usual …it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.

Yes….tomorrow!  The last of that cake has got to go and we are back on track with eating less. That’s the plan!

“We are not going to buy any more sweets, at least until Christmas, “ I say.  “Right-O,” says hubby.  “But what about the ice-cream; we still have chocolate-chip cookie dough left,” he adds.  Hmm….yes the ice-cream.  “OK…after the cake and after the ice-cream,” ….my voice trails off.

Then I think of something I had told my sis just the night before.  Sis and family, on their way to Louisiana for a wedding, stayed with us for a brief overnight visit.  We really had such a lovely time together –as we always do–not to mention it was wonderful to spend time with my awesome-to-the-max nephew, Alexandre-the-Greatest…and his papa too…..

“Sis,” I said….

“If you lived here (in Alabama) it could very well change my whole view of this place I call “middle earth.”  I could even start to like it here. I might even stay in middle earth.”  Oh good God..did I just say that?!

You see, when we get together we do some of my favorite activities (besides physical activities, that is).

We cook….we eat….we enjoy wine…we shop….we just plain hang out.  Unfortunately,  It’s the cooking and eating part of the fun that is hard on me particularly since I cannot pound the pavement to get rid of excess calories like I could do just a couple of years ago. This Italian girl used to eat hefty bowls of pasta two to three times a week; now it’s twice a month, maybe.  I used to enjoy big chunks of toasted La Brea bread with cheese or dipped in extra virgin olive oil on a daily basis.  That’s almost a distant memory now.  Well…the bread that is;  I’m still holding on to my cheese; you’d have to kill me to take that away!

Heavy sigh…

Anyhow, now I must watch every single morsel that goes into my mouth.  I’ve tried to give up entire food groups but tell me…where is the fun in that?  One of my old bosses (that would be the chiropractor) recently messaged me through Facebook trying to rope me into his side (can-you-say-pyramid scheme) business venture….selling Isagenix weight-loss products. Yes, I looked at the docs pictures on Facebook and was mighty impressed–and somewhat shocked too– because I felt he looked borderline emaciated.  The doc and his wife drastically changed their diets and transformed their bodies with the products.  They were thin to begin with, in my humble opinion!   I’d no doubt look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model too if I cut out entire food groups and drank shakes (which I hear are disgusting) for lunch and dinner every day.

Frankly, I am mighty tired of giving up stuff!  Life is just too damn short not to enjoy some of these few pleasures…(good red wine, chocolate, pasta and cheese just to name a few).  Besides, I’ve re-thunk my whole position on living to a ripe old age.  I don’t have any desire to be a centenarian.  Well…OK…If I had money, perhaps.  If I were independently wealthy I could still live in my nice house and afford to have a host of people looking after me.  I don’t want to be a burden on anyone and while it would be nice to be able to count on my children being around for me in my advanced years I’m pretty sure they’d rather roll my wheelchair into the lobby of the nearest nursing home, park it, and visit me once a year (if I’m lucky).  I’ll be happy with living to be …say….88… and I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll still be relatively physically strong and self-sufficient.  Indeed,  hopefully God will smile on me and through His mercy He’ll give me the big one (as in massive heart attack or stroke) so that I can meet Him at the pearly gates in an instant and not after a prolonged, painful and expensive illness.

The bottom line?   I just have to find that happy middle ground.  Moderation.  I’m going to enjoy ice-cream and cheese….yes indeed.  I am not going to stress out about eating pasta two days in a row like I just did.  That’s not something I do often anyway.

So pasta two days in a row….how did that happen?

Here’s how….

In the days leading up to my sister’s brief visit I fretted over what to make for our get-together dinner.  My sis is really an awesome cook and my bro-in-law is equally at home in the kitchen.  I  looked through a few of my favorite cookbooks.  I thought of preparing something from Marcella Hazan in memory of her recent passing….

I thought of my super easy standby…Hard Times Chili.  Nope….I made that for them during their last visit.

I thank my sis for telling me about this cookbook!

I thank my sis for telling me about this cookbook!

Then I looked through my Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker cookbook and settled on something new to try.  Veal stew.

Surprisingly, I found the veal stew meat at Fresh Market.  The morning of their arrival I ran around the house vacuuming and cleaning in preparation of their visit.  At noon I hauled the crock pot out for the first time this year.  It was an easy recipe to put together; after dredging the veal pieces in flour and browning them in olive oil it was just a matter of throwing all the remaining ingredients (a surprisingly short list of them) plus the veal into the crock pot.  While I was preparing the crock pot dish I still couldn’t get my mind off of Marcella Hazan.  My friend Lou had told me of Marcella’s passing at the age of 89 just the day before.  Marcella has been one of my favorite Italian cooking masters for years; she has been instrumental in helping me stay close to my Italian roots in the kitchen.

So, I decided on one of my favorites from her book Marcella’s Italian Kitchen and made Red Peppers stuffed with zucchini and fontina cheese.   I’ve made that dish many times and never fail to get oohs and aahs over it.  Salute…e mille grazie, Senora Hazan.

OK…so I’ve got veal stew….stuffed peppers….I just need to think about an appetizer.

Whew.  The appetizer was easy.  I’d tried an artichoke crostini recipe from Rocco DiSpirto’s cookbook the week before.  That didn’t even take five minutes to whip up.  Sis and bro-in-law raved over it.

Dessert?  OK…we really don’t need dessert.  We’ve got enough food.  Sis and family are only here for an overnight visit…

But…where’s the fun in no dessert?  Oh hell.  Let’s make something I haven’t tried before.  Besides, I rarely bake anymore.  Therefore it only made perfect sense to make a carrot cake with orange cream cheese frosting. Yep…all the fat..and twice the sugar.  I didn’t hold back.

I have to say that our dinner was not only exquisite but it was a team effort.  Sis put her special touch to the veal stew before presentation in her a dash more of this and another pinch of that fashion.  And bro-in-law got into the act too.  The recipe called for buttered noodles or polenta.  I was partial to having buttered noodles, particularly because I knew Alexandre-the Greatest would positively devour them.  Bro-in-law wanted polenta and even offered to make it; definitely an offer I couldn’t refuse!  Still….”why can’t we have both?” I asked.  No reason!

So we hauled out my large, ridiculously heavy, cobalt blue Le Creuset pot and bro-in-law went to town making the polenta while I prepared the noodles topped with divine Plugrá European-style butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

All I can say is that three days later I remain in a blissful food coma and God love her….its my sisters fault!  (Just kidding sis if you’re reading this!)   My veal stew dish was heavenly and even better the next day, along with another helping of buttered noodles.  True comfort food!  And, we’ve had carrot cake for days….even inviting neighbors over to help us get rid of it.  I simply had to get it out of the refrigerator and truthfully, I’m not sad to see the carrot cake go….extremely yummy but the sugar overload definitely was getting to me.  We even passed on purchasing the ingredients for the Williams and Sonoma Pumpkin Squares recipe today while visiting the store.  “No Thank-Ewe,” hubby said in his occasional southern drawl.  “We need a break from sweets I solemnly informed the sales associate.”  His look suggested pity as if to say “It’s not even Halloween yet!”  But the veal stew?  A keeper.  I’m already thinking of when I’ll make it again.

All that cooking, eating, and yes…cleaning… was pure bliss.  Sure, I can definitely feel the over-eating on my hips… but you know, I don’t get to spend a lot of time with my sis and her family.  Life is short.  Watching these beautiful souls in my kitchen…observing Alexandre-the-Greatest happily devour a bowl-full of noodles… hearing all the expressions of delight around the dining room table– with Vivaldi (chosen by bro-in-law for the specific occasion) playing in the background–and knowing that my hubby and sis and family were truly enjoying the feast made me feel blissfully happy.

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade that for size 6 jeans… ever.

Full Moon Madness

Olives 3So I am standing in the check-out line of the grocery store, Publix.  If I haven’t said it before, I will now….I loathe this store.  Every time I go to this store, which is about once a week, I try to get into my “happy place” hoping to find something good about it.   Invariably I walk out in a bad mood.  Today was no exception.  I know I have to get over this if for nothing else because Publix is essentially the only game in town, so to speak.  There is Fresh Market which has a much better ambiance and, more importantly, a better selection of just about everything…but it is not always convenient to get to.

I watch the cashier scan my grocery items with the swiftness of a turtle crossing the road in triple digit temperatures.  I’m getting hot with impatience.  My husband will tell you that I have been like a cat on a hot tin roof all day long.  I’d say I’m more like a tiger…pacing back and forth in a tight cage, waiting to ponce on anything or anybody.  I blame it on the full moon.  But I digress.

As the cashier scans my items she stops at the jar of dry, oil cured olives, I had selected for a puttanesca recipe.  I had just purchased a new Italian cookbook by Rocco DiSpirito and my cart was filled with an assortment of veggies, some pasta, as well as fish for our evening meal. The olives would be for a recipe later in the week.   The cashier holds up the jar of oil cured olives, tilting it this way and that, inspecting it as if it was illegal contraband.  “You may want to get another jar,” she politely drawls, “this one is defective.”  Clearly, I’m confused.  “Um, what is wrong with the jar,” I ask trying to contain my impatience over the hold up.  “There is no liquid in the jar; it’s not supposed to be that way,” she says as if I were the moronic one.  “Ah,” say I, stifling a laugh.  “These are dry, oil cured olives.  They aren’t supposed to be in brine liquid.”   The cashier is skeptical, but she continues to process my items, one item at a time; it’s so painstakingly slow I feel that I might blow a gasket at any moment.    My husband is humming right along as he places items on the belt for scanning, obviously ignoring my dark mood.  I am muttering under my breath words that are not very kind….I know….I’m totally not feeling ANY degree of bliss and for a nano-second I am truly ashamed at myself…

…but really….how can one not know what a jar of dry, oil cured olives should look like?

Now the bagger begins filling my grocery bags.  She moves like cold honey dripping from a spoon.  I’m getting more and more impatient. Is it my imagination or is Hubby whistling even louder now?  The bagger ALSO stops in her tracks when she gets to the jar of olives.  She turns it over and over.  “What is this?” she asks.  “Oh…I think you just have a bad jar.  I can get you another one,” she says with a helpful smile.   It is all I can do–in my present mood–to not pounce.  “That is a jar of dry, oil cured olives, “ I say once again with an obvious edge to my voice.  “If the jar was defective you’d know by the top.  It is sealed air-tight.  The jar is not supposed to have liquid in it.”  I shoot hubby a look to say Okay….I just remembered that I did not have a proper breakfast, nor lunch, so cut me some slack….

Really….seriously….In all the years I have been grocery shopping…even in a tiny, spit-through kind-of-a-town in eastern Oregon, I’ve never had to explain a jar of dry, oil cured olives.  I am living in middle earth indeed.

Better than Rice-a-Roni

“Life too short to eat boring rice” says the advertisement for Arborio Rice in the latest magazine issue of La Cucina Italiana.  Naturally, I couldn’t agree more.  I was thumbing through the issue that had just arrived in the mailbox while indulging in my afternoon espresso, made complete with an almond biscotti.  There are always wonderful and easy recipes to enjoy in this magazine and I almost always select one to try before the week is out.  When I saw the Arborio rice advertisement I noted a recipe for Asparagus Risotto.  Hmm….I say to myself as I check out the list of ingredients.  I have them all….even, as luck would have it, a bunch of asparagus I’d just picked up at the grocery store.  Yes…they do have asparagus in “middle earth.”  I know.  I just couldn’t resist that cynical barb.

Getting the ingredients together

Getting the ingredients together

As I began preparing the risotto recipe for dinner, it occurred to me how odd that I was using the recipe from an advertisement in the magazine instead of selecting one of the myriad of wonderful recipes featured in the issue.  I could have, for example, selected the recipe Torta di Riso allo zafferano (saffron rice cake). Nope. No Sambuca on hand.  Oh dear…I stop for a moment; will I even be able to find Sambuca in “middle earth?”  I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.  Onwards.  Yes…there were a couple of Arborio rice recipes featured in the March/April issue.  In fact, I will absolutely try my hand at the Risotto alla Erbette con Polpettine di Pollo recipe (Swiss chard risotto with chicken meatballs)!  The photo alone of the dish had me salivating… maybe for Easter weekend?  But this time, I opted for what I had on hand, too lazy to get into the car and venture out again in the cold and lazy as well to try something more laborious. I selected a classical music track on Spotify and started stirring away, a ladle of vegetable broth at a time.

One ladle at a time....

One ladle at a time….

Creamy perfection!

Creamy perfection!

By the time hubby walked in the door limp with fatigue after a long work day, I had the risotto dish ready for our evening meal.  A delightful crisp white wine, a mixed green salad, and this wonderful risotto recipe from what may as well have been from the back of the box.  And though it took a bit more time, why on earth would anyone want to prepare a boxed rice dish?  I cringe at all those Rice-a-Roni meals I fed my kids when they were little.  They didn’t need chemicals one cannot even pronounce when I could have spent a extra minutes more to prepare a variety of mouth-watering, wholesome, real rice dishes.  Ay!  Could this be why they ….Oh, never mind…lets not go there! HA.  Anyhow,  I must say, I couldn’t stop patting myself on the back. It came out absolutely perfect; the right balance of creaminess and tenderness.  I don’t often get that lucky. Risotto is not the kind of dish one can make in advance, say for a dinner party and one has to pretty much stand over it for the better part of 25 minutes.

I surprised myself and did not go back for seconds!

I surprised myself and did not go back for seconds!

My hubby was happier than a pig in alfalfa which pleased me to no end.  What could be more blissful on this cold evening?!  My Italian family, both on earth and in heaven, would be so proud!

I’m including the recipe….for my two followers!

Asparagus Risotto

3 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
3 Tablespoons butter or olive oil divided (I used both)
1 pound fresh asparagus spears, cleaned and diagonally sliced into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup Arborio Rice
1/3 cup white wine (plus more to imbibe in whilst cooking!)
1/2 cup heavy cream (it’s optional but I used it and it added to the deliciousness of the dish!)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Heat water and vegetable broth in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat until it comes to a simmer.  Reduce heat to low and keep warm.  Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat; add the asparagus and cook until tender crisp. Remove asparagus; set aside.

In the same saucepan, cook the onions in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil until soft.  Add the rice and stir 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the white wine; stir until absorbed.  Increase heat to medium-high and stir in 1 cup (I used a soup ladle) of the water-broth mixture.  Cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until liquid is absorbed.  Continue stirring and added the remaining water-broth mixture 1 cup at a time, allowing each cup to be absorbed before adding another.  Cook until the rice is tender and the mixture has a creamy consistency, approximately 25 to 30 minutes.

Stir in the asparagus, cream, cheese, salt and pepper.  Stir until the mixture is creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Serve immediately with additional Parmesan cheese to taste.  Serves: 8….but for this Italian woman and her man, more like 4! HA!

Grazie Stanley!

“There is some truth to the old adage “Most of the world eats to live, but Italians live to eat.” ~ Stanley Tucci

Buon Appetito!

Buon Appetito!

I didn’t entertain much during my California years, partly due to having a small abode, partly due to all the expense and energy entailed to entertain well, life constraints, and maybe even  a smattering of feeling not quite up to the task (yes….measuring again).  Lots of excuses….so here I am trying to branch out in “middle-earth” land where no one seems to know what gnocchi is and having to shop in the most depressing grocery store (that would be Publix) I’ve come across in eons….. even the military commissaries are more exciting.  But, I digress….

So… I decided to invite a couple over for dinner (they’ve never heard of gnocchi either by the way).  Again, I decide to make my leek-stuffed tortellini!  Imagine that!!  It’s a rarity indeed that I make tortellini outside of the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday (maybe only twice in a thirty-year span).  And, if I may be so  bold, one could argue why go to all that energy in the kitchen for friends of a scant several months.

I suppose part of me simply wanted to impress but more importantly, as of late I’ve realized that I am sorely in need of sharpening my cooking skills a bit since they are definitely waning due to hubby being away often on business travel.  In effect, I’ve become mighty lazy in the kitchen, not to mention the fact that cooking just makes me want to eat more, something I am amazingly good at as my hips and everywhere else on my body save my nose shows….Aack, even my nose looks bigger!  Again….I digress….

I spent the better part of an hour on Friday afternoon perusing through my new cookbook, The Tucci Cookbook penned by the actor Stanley Tucci.  I happened upon it by chance while at Barnes and Noble several weeks ago (really…I was not shopping for cookbooks!) and I bought it without even opening it because I love Stanley Tucci.  My first “encounter,” with the actor was in late 1997.  I had been invited to a friend’s house; among the several Blockbuster movies available to watch was Big Night with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub (another favorite actor of mine).  In an instant I was transported back to my Italian roots (and in that moment I really needed the connection as I was fresh off the heels of a broken marriage and with it a broken spirit).  Big Night was co-written and co-directed by Tucci and the movie is such a little gem; I’ve loved Tucci ever since even though many of his other roles have been of the villainous sort. In fact, I’ve joked with my loving husband that I’d walk over his head in a New York minute to be with Stanley Tucci!  True…there is that tiny little detail of Tucci marrying last year (Bravo, I say, really)….but still….here is a man who is at home in the kitchen, has Italian roots (OK, Calabrian, the opposite end of Italy for us northerners; the extreme, most southern tip of Italy….right at the toe), has a keen fashion sense, and who has the most delicious dimple on his left cheek…..I swoon dreamily as my husband rolls his eyes…

I decided to try not one but three recipes from the cookbook for my Saturday dinner with friends. The recipes seemed simple enough (my “simple” criteria being no more than a couple of paragraphs, usually).  So, along with the tortellini, I prepared his stuffed mushrooms (an appetizer), a refreshing salad of pears, prosciutto, arugula, and shaved parmesan with a lively sherry vinaigrette dressing, and a polenta plum-cake for dessert (actually made with semolina flour).  For the cake, I went to three different grocery stores and could not find a plum in sight!  I’ll admit to being a little snarky at one point; do middle-earthlings even know what a plum is?  I know, I know…a moment of ugliness hit me but it was born out of stress for trying to find the right ingredients–and yes, I’ve already apologized to HIM for my ridiculous sophomoric thoughts. Fortunately, the recipe included several variations so I was able to substitute figs (Stanley said figs are his favorite in the cake) and a few canned cherries (my spin on the recipe) for the plums.  Although my cake didn’t release from the pan quite as prettily as I would have liked, it was really delicious!  In fact, all of Stanley’s recipes I made that night were wonderful.  Oh, I enjoyed my time nella cucina with Stanley and I certainly look forward to enjoying more delicious meals with Stanley at my side, alas metaphorically!  No harm in dreaming, è vero?

Mille grazie Stanley!

Tortellini Fun

My first memories of Tortellini, the meat-filled pasta rings, were in my mother’s kitchen in Denver Colorado some forty-three years ago. Nearly every holiday–and sometimes for special dinner occasions–My Italian mamma would haul out the little manual pasta machine, connect it with its clamp to the well-used wood chopping block that served as our kitchen’s island, and begin cranking out sheets of fresh pasta for tortellini. I never thought I’d ever make homemade pasta as mamma would say things that made it seem impossible for me to ever achieve such a skill even as I attempted to help her in the kitchen; “ma no, no…no…you are going too slow….you must work very fast otherwise the dough will dry up.” Or “You must shape the dough around the filling to resemble a baby’s head with a bonnet on it…” really.

Some years later, when I was married, I happened to find myself in a kitchen-ware store (I think it was Sur La Table) and I saw the very same pasta machine my mamma had used for years so I bought it on the spot deciding someday to give pasta making a whirl.

My manual pasta machine, just like mamma's!

My manual pasta machine, just like mamma’s!

My first couple of attempts at tortellini-making were stressful not to mention exceptionally messy. Flour could be found in every crevasse of the kitchen (or so it seemed); and, my pasta dough would either be too dry or too sticky and I’d beat myself silly if I couldn’t get the tortellini shapes to be perfect each time. The whole ordeal was so stressful that I just couldn’t see any joy in making fresh pasta.

A shift in my attitude came one year around the Thanksgiving holiday. I knew that my family wanted tortellini and I was, once again, dreading getting out the pasta machine. I happened to mention it to a friend who suggested using semolina flour instead of the traditional, Gold Meadow variety unbleached flour. I honestly didn’t think that it would make a hill-of-beans difference but decided to give it a try. I found a bag of Bob’s Mill Semolina Flour at the local grocery store and there on the back was a pasta dough recipe.

Wow. What a difference! It seemed much easier process; the dough was easy to handle and was perfect from the start. I haven’t used regular flour since! So… for a couple of years I continued to make the same recipe my mother used each Thanksgiving and Christmas which meant a filling of raw ground beef, pork sausage, and egg or two for binding, parmesan cheese and plenty of freshly grated nutmeg. My children loved tortellini in brodo (Tortellini in broth) every Thanksgiving and Christmas day meal and, the following day, any leftover dry tortellini (and there were ALWAYS leftovers) I’d prepare a marinara-type sauce and we’d stuff ourselves silly with heaping bowls of tortellini topped with tomato sauce and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This actually is my favorite way to enjoy tortellini.

I’m not sure what year I started a new trend with my tortellini….sometime when I was living in Northern Virginia…. I decided to try another recipe, one that called for a leek stuffing instead of the heavier, meat stuffing. The recipe was from a Marcella Hazan cookbook. I love her recipes….not to mention that she is born and bred Italian, hailing from a little fishing village (Cesenatico, Italy) a port city on the Adriatic coast (did I mention that I love all things Italian?).

I’ll never forget the first time I served my children the new, lighter, leek-filled tortellini recipe. My son was seventeen or eighteen, my daughter four years younger. I served the leek stuffed tortellini for a Thanksgiving meal; I did not let the kids in on the menu change knowing full well, being the picky eaters they were, that they wouldn’t touch the new version with a ten-foot pole if they knew it was stuffed with a vegetable. When my son took the first bite he immediately asked what I had done to change it. “Well nothing,” I replied as casually as possible. I know…I know…it was a lie…but at the time it was well-intentioned! Besides, I couldn’t pull the ruse off for too long; by Christmas the secret was out and of course by then it did not matter! The kids liked the new version; even my son who is terribly difficult about food, begrudgingly admitted that the leek stuffed tortellini was “just as good, if not better,” than the meat stuffed variety.

Fast forward to Christmas 2012, spent with my sister and her family in Northern Virginia. We truly had a wonderful time with her family during our whirlwind trip. Sis and I did spend a great deal of time in the kitchen and we vowed to make things simpler for ourselves in the future so that we wouldn’t feel chained to the kitchen stove and sink….

Still….we had fun (OK…well, speaking for myself….I had a blast and I think I can safely say my sis did too…wink, wink!)….and this year, tortellini-making was definitely more of a family affair.  Hands in the tortellini shaping process on this frosty Christmas eve were Alessandra (my daughter), Dave (daughter’s boyfriend), my sis as well as helpful onlookers (and jovial commentators) Greg’s witty childhood friend Chad and his equally witty and adoring wife. Over wine, gin-based cocktails (shaken with great strength and form by Dave) and pomegranate martinis, we cranked out rolls of pasta dough and whipped it into about 200 pretty little baby-bonnet shapes in rapid fashion that would have made my mamma proud.

Tortellini; we had two full trays of my holiday favorite!

Tortellini; we had two full trays of my holiday favorite!

The only chink in the cog, if you will, was brother-in-law Greg. And, I say this with great affection (and tongue-in-cheek of course).  Greg was exceedingly curious as to why I changed the recipe from meat to leeks all those years ago. I tried to tell him the story to include my desire to try something new but in his teasing fashion he was not at all convinced of my answer. I can see his point….even our Italian relatives use meat stuffing (prosciutto, mortadella, etc.) for their tortellini. Naturally, Greg’s teasing inquiries prompted me to search for meat-filled tortellini recipes literally at the zero hour…just minutes before starting to prepare the leeks for the frying pan! And of course, now my interest is piqued once again to try something new; I think I will have to experiment with a different recipe or two sometime during the year and perhaps I will be prepared to spring something new on my brother-in-law during our next holiday get-together…if for nothing else so that we may continue what perhaps will become a lovely, good-natured tradition…”so, why did you change the recipe Cristina….?”

As for this Christmas day dinner; Of course the tortellini in brodo, our first course for the holiday dinner, was delicious and the following day our leftovers were heavenly, drenched in tomato sauce. Everyone at the table groaned with pleasure….That is what I call ten degrees of bliss….  🙂


A Creamy Custard Dream with Spirit

The last thing I need to be doing is cooking anything with loads of eggs, sugar, and whole milk but this is the time of year when all sense goes out the window….along with a healthy dose of will power.  I’ve been pretty good for some years now; I haven’t baked cookies in IMG_2093eons and save for the rare rum cake or Tiramisú my kitchen has been a nearly bake-free zone since my children moved out and on their own ten years ago.

Today found me itching to do something new in the kitchen.  I’m not cooking much these days since hubby is on the road a lot and cooking for one isn’t much fun, or even practical, it seems.  I’m having a couple over for dinner so I thought I’d try something new along with the familiar.

I found one of my favorite Italian cookbooks “Trattoria Cooking” by Biba Caggiano on a shelf in the pantry. Since my move from California I haven’t found a good way to easily display my cookbooks….not that I have that many; most of them are sitting out-of-sight on the pantry shelf.  Sitting on a bar stool with a cup of hot tea in my hands, I looked up the pasta recipe that I had in mind for the dinner.  I’ve made it before and it is quite delicious; Pasta with a meat sauce…a ragu of ground veal, mild Italian sausage, porcini mushrooms and tomatoes.   The pasta in this recipe is supposed to be homemade but I’m truthfully not excited about spending hours in the kitchen.  I suppose I’m a bit shallow but these days I feel homemade pasta is exclusively reserved for very special friends and family.  The folks I’ve invited over may very well become the “special friends variety” in time but it’s really too early to tell. Besides, I learned long ago the hard way that spending hours in the kitchen for one meal with a new friend may not result in exuberant appreciation (just saying).  In any event, I just wanted a simple meal of pasta, a salad, some good wine and bread, and of course, dessert.

“Hmmmm”……I mutter to myself as I flip through the dessert section of Biba’s book.  They all look so….so…..hard.  I could make my Tiramisú…that’s always a hit.  But I’ve made it so many times before; I feel it is time to step outside of the box.  If the effort was a flop I had a plan “B”…my Olio Carli order of panettone arrived earlier this afternoon.  I was eager to try it since I’m over the moon for their extra-virgin olive oil (the official olive oil of The Vatican I might add!).

My eyes settled on a dessert called Zuppa Inglese (literally translating to English Soup).  “Well, this looks interesting,” I think to myself…..

“Well Brando,” I say out aloud to the slumbering, snoring poodle at my feet (he’s clearly not interested in my culinary project)…”let’s give this recipe a whirl; it looks pretty straight-forward…..

….Pound cake layers soaked in a combination of dark rum and cherry brandy with creamy custard in between the layers topped with a chocolate sauce.  What’s not to like?
Yum!  Zuppa Inglese….a concoction believed to date back to WWII when British soldiers   were stationed in Italy.  However, according to information from another Italian celebrity chef, Lidia Bastianich, a variation of this recipe appeared in the famed Pellegrino Artusi cookbook published in 1891, well  before Allied forces were even stationed in Italy.  I realized when I saw the Artusi name that my mamma had a copy of this cookbook in her kitchen for years.  I wonder what on earth happened to it!?

I realize that I don’t have quite all the ingredients so I hop in the car and off I go to the local Fresh Market (infinitely more exciting than Publix, in my humble opinion).  I am able to get most of the ingredients except for the pound cake.  “You’re kidding me,” I moaned to myself.  “I’m going to have to go to another store to hunt down the pound cake.”  Luckily I found the last two loaves at the Super Target not far from my house.  I didn’t think the Target brand of pound cake could be all that good but I reasoned that being drenched in two different kinds of alcoholic beverage would make even liver taste delicious.   After the checkout, I made a quick stop at Starbucks for a latte jolt and I was on my way, up and over the hill, back to the house.

Preparing the custard took time, not to mention 10 egg yolks (way too many if you ask me but I wanted to follow the recipe since it was my first try)…..and a great deal of milk (also too much) and continuous stirring….twelve minutes of stirring to be exact.  It took over an hour to complete the sweet concoction.  I’ll admit to sampling several spoonfuls of the custard in the process. Although it tasted fine, it seemed to be a bit soupy to me.  I had followed the recipe to a “T” and hoped that the custard would set after time in the refrigerator (it did; as the recipe stated, it is meant to be a pudding consistency).

Preparing the Zuppa Inglese; soaking the pound cake in rum and brandy!

Preparing the Zuppa Inglese; soaking the pound cake in rum and brandy!

The dinner went off rather nicely.  My guests seemed to enjoy the pasta dish although did not go back for seconds (well, hubby did but that didn’t count).  Naturally I doubted my culinary abilities; if my dish was indeed scrumptiously delicious then people should have clamored for seconds.  Harrumph.  Not the case.  That meant several left-over meals.

Oh well.

When it came time to serve the Zuppa Inglese, I was quite nervous and admitted as much to my guests, feeling comfortable enough to confess that they were my guinea pigs for this dish this evening.  Naturally there were plenty of oohs and ahhhhs when I set the dish on the table.  I spooned generous servings in little bowls and passed them around and waited for someone to take the first bite before digging-in myself.

“Wowza,” I declared as I took my first bite.  I couldn’t help it.  “Yikes….there is no doubt about it….the alcohol is potent in this dish.”  I thought it rather yummy, and I believe my guests felt the same….although I noted that Cynthia left plenty in her bowl.  Harrumph.  Lots of Zuppa left over.  It will be even more potent tomorrow I imagine.   I try not to think about it because I know that it will be challenging to resist a heaping helping of this creamy dream of a dessert.

Since making this Zuppa, I have come across other Zuppa recipe variations.  I think that next time I will give Lidia Bastianichs’ version a go….It has much less milk, far few eggs, and includes orange zest and cinnamon along with, of course, the requisite rum.  I have bookmarked her website and the recipe; who knows….maybe I have one more Zuppa-making experience in me before the New Year!