Monday, December 14, 2009

About Risotto

For some reason, the desire to learn to make perfect risotto hit me while walking through the market a few weeks ago. It began when I saw a beautiful piece of bright orange pumpkin and from then on I could think of nothing else but the creamy/chewy taste of pumpkin risotto in my mouth.

The first time I had risotto was while we were still living in Slovenia, which borders northern Italy from which risotto originated. I had ordered seafood risotto not really knowing what it was but wanting seafood. After one bite I was so impressed, I asked the waiter more about it. He said, "It's mice" Seeing my expression, Sean leaned over and said, "I think he means rice". "Rice!", I said, "its not possible. Rice is boring and steamed, this is chewy, yet creamy with such amazing depth of flavour." That was 12 years ago and I have been a fan ever since. Sadly, I had never quite achieved what I tasted from Italian cooks.

After much reflection and research on my failure, I realized that mainly two things were stopping me from my goal: patience (of which I have very little); and my aversion to using butter in cooking. In Tuscany we pride ourselves in mainly using olive oil in our kitchens (except for desserts). Risotto comes from the North of Italy which has less olive trees and alas uses more butter in their cooking. Furthermore, I don't like the affect butter has on my body and so generally tend to avoid using it. You can start Risotto off with olive oil but you have to beat 5 tablespoons of cold butter into the risotto at the end to emulsify it and achieve the desired texture. I had been sort of skipping this step.

The patience part comes from the need to stir continually and apparently slowly to create the perfect texture. You can't abandon risotto or rush it. As you stir, the starch is knocked off the rice and is key to "building up" the dish. An Italian once said to me, "The risotto will feel your stress and absorb it". Perfect. Stress is my middle name. Usually I have a few kids running around saying "mom, I need" and a plethora of other things vying for my attention during the meal preparation. But maybe I could manage, now that the boys are older, to announce, "I'm making risotto!", close the kitchen doors, start with a little prayer, pour a glass of wine and commence without stress. Hmmm, that could work!

So, apart from patience and butter, I think I had all the other important elements of risotto mastered. Actually a lot can be said about risotto but I will try to keep it to a minimum. Just make sure, in addition to the following elements, that you have good quality fresh ingredients.

Rice. You must use a short grained rice. If you use long grain rice it isn't Risotto. For years I used Arborio but then I took a cooking class and the unanimous consent was that Vialone Nano is what they use "up North" where Risotto originates. Here in Italy you always go back to the original, traditional recipe to get it right. You can also use Canaroli. The important thing about these rices is they have the proper combination of starch to achieve the creaminess of Risotto and yet an inner core that will stay intact.

Brodo (stock). The hot stock of course is added a ladlefull at a time and needs to be good quality. Italians usually make chicken brodo by throwing a cut up chicken in a pot with an onion, couple of carrots, a few celery stalks with leaves, bay leaf, and peppercorns. There are slightly more complicated brodo's which involve roasting the meat for 15 minutes first with a bit of tomato paste brushed on but the simple version seems to work fine. I've also learned to make fantastic vegetable brodo which is sometimes needed instead of chicken broth, from Giorgio Locatelli's cookbook which is deserving of a recipe entry all by itself. I usually keep some in the freezer for making risotto so I have this step already done when I start.

Soffritto- This is the aromatic flavor base of the risotto and usually involves sweating onions or shallots in olive oil (or butter/olive oil combo) until they are soft but not brown. Sometimes other things are added like porcini mushrooms or sausage at this stage but needs to be able to withstand the cooking time at a fairly high heat.

Tostatura- This is the toasting of the rice in the pan which comes after the soffritto and lasts for about 3 minutes.

Mancatura- This is the part I had been skipping. Once the rice reaches the al dente stage after about 17-20 minutes you pull it off the heat and beat in cold butter and parmesan cheese. This achieves the perfect creaminess while maintaining the body and texture of the dish.

So with all this said, I will begin posting my recent risotto recipes which I must say have not disappointed me anymore! Make sure the table is set and the family notified when you start stirring the risotto because it must be served immediately once it is finished.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carbonara

I had been on the quest of learning to make real Carbonara when I met Michele. Michele is a cocky, young chef from Calabria that lived above us last year when he was working in the kitchen of San Michele, a hotel in Fiesole that charges 1500-3000 euro a night. During the summer when we were eating in our very small yard, he would lean out the window and mock my cooking. "You call that Carbonara?"he'd say as I set the plates of pasta down for the family. Or he'd shake his finger at me and say "Non va bene". Finally I put my hands on my hips and said in my best italian, "If you're so smart get down here and show me how to do it!" To my delight, when he wasn't working or chasing young girls he would show up at our door and ask, "What do you have in the kitchen?" The first time, it was the ingredients for "the perfect pasta" which I will share with you later. The second time I made sure I had fresh eggs, pancetta, red onion, and parmeggiano so we could make La Carbonara. I also had panna (cream) in the refrigerator which he wound up using but which I think is a cop out. What does he know about real Carbonara anyway, he is from Calabria. Real Carbonara comes from Rome and doesn't usually include cream. The American version's I've seen is nothing like Roman Carbonara as it is mostly cream so you might as call it pasta with cream sauce rather than Carbonara.

This is not an easy dish to make even though it only has 4 ingredients in the sauce. If you aren't careful you will wind up with scrambled eggs and bacon in pasta which is so far from what this dish can be it makes me cry to think about it. If done right it has a silky creamy texture without the heaviness of cream.

The best thing about Carbonara is that my boys love it and I can get protein in the pasta dish if I'm not making a secondo (meat course). I love the smiles on their faces when I say I'm making La Carbonara!

Here is the recipe. Let me know if you achieve the creamy texture or scrambled eggs. I have a weakness for leeks so sometimes I substitute them for the red onion but try the traditional way first.

140 grams Pancetta chopped (bacon in the States)
Half a red onion minced
4 to 5 eggs (actually 1 egg per person and if over 5 people increase other ingredients
parmesan cheese (as you like but I put about 1/2 cup grated)
500 grams of spaghetti
pasta water

Put the water on the boil for the pasta (make sure you salt the water) Saute' the pancetta and onion in olive oil until it starts to brown a bit. Add a little pasta water as needed if it starts to stick to pan.

Break the eggs in a bowl and beat. Add the parmesan and then when you cook the spaghetti a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Don't salt the eggs at this point as it will cause them to "cook" too fast. If you want to you can add a little cream to this but the authentic way is just with eggs.

Cook the spaghetti al dente. Take it off the heat when it is still a little firm drain it then put it back into the pot. Immediately put a little olive oil on the pasta, add the cooked pancetta and onion, give it a stir and then add the eggs all at once. If you add the eggs before everything else they will scramble. Add more pasta water if needed.

Stir the spaghetti to incorporate everything and then put it back on very low heat and keep stirring until it reaches the right consistency. Should be a smooth slightly runny sauce but not too runny. The slight heat will firm it up to just the right consistency as you stir. DON't cook too much! Add salt and pepper and more parmesan on top and chopped fresh parsley if you want!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mulled Cranberry Sauce

I found this recipe in a Bon Appetit magazine. I didn't know that cranberries were indiginous to the U.S. until I lived in Europe. Thankfully I'm able to talk someone into hand carrying a bag over in the Fall so that I can freeze them and use them for Thanksgiving. This isn't Italian, obviously because of the cranberrys, but I'm sure if Italians did anything with cranberrys they would cook them in wine! It is so good that I could sit down and eat a bowl of it.

1 12 once bag cranberries
1 1/2 cups fruity red wine
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1/3 cup crystallized ginger
1 Tablespoon grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat stirring until sugar dissolves. The recipe says to "reduce heat to medium and cook until liquid is reduced to 2 2/3 cups, stirring occasionally about 12 minutes" but it takes a little longer for me it seems and I don't measure but just watch until it starts to look thicker. It will thicken more as it cools. Transfer suace to bowl. Refrigerate until cold, about 3 hours. Can be prepared 1 week ahead. Cover, keep chilled.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Porcini, Chestnut Stuffing

This isn't technically an italian recipe, but I created it while living here because of my love for porcini and chestnuts which are in season in Tuscany in the Fall. I love having our Italian friends over for Thanksgiving. Their response is always the same when we invite them, "We've only seen it in the movies". Whole turkeys are an anomaly and none of our Italian friends have ever seen a whole roasted turkey before. They take pictures and ooh and ahh over everything. It is the only proud moment with American cuisine that I have so I live it up. Here is my favorite stuffing recipe.

1 1/2 loaves of bread (tuscan or rustic NOT sliced bread) torn or cut into 1 inch pieces (20 cups) Dried
1/2 stick (2 oz) butter
1/4 cup olive oil ( for sauteing)
4 1/2 cups boiling water
2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
10 oz fresh mushrooms (whatever you like)
roasted chestnuts (you decide how many)
1 onion
4 shallots, quartered
2 celery ribs, sliced
2 carrots, halved then sliced crosswise
3 garlic cloved, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh sage
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt q.b. (means quante basta)
pepper q.b.

Pour hot water over dried porcini and soak 20 minutes, then drain, squeezing porcini and reserving soaking liquid. Rinse porcini under cold water to remove any grit, then squeeze out water and chop.

Heat butter and oil in skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides then cook fresh mushrooms, onion, and shallots until golden 10 minutes.

Add celery, carrots, garlic, porcini, chestnuts and cook, stirring another 5 minutes or so. Stir in thyme, sage, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Stir cooked mixture together with the bread and add 1 cup reserved porcini-soaking liquid to skillet and deglaze by boiling over high heat while scraping up browned bits. Add remaining soaking liquid and pour over bread mixture. Adjust seasonings and toss to coat evenly.

Spread stuffing in a baking dish which has been coated with butter and cover tightly with buttered foil then bake in upper third of oven until heated through about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake stuffing until top is browned 10 minutes more. If stuffing becomes too dry add vegetable or turkey stock to moisten.

Can be made two days ahead and kept in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Caponata

Have you ever met a food that was perfect for you? You wonder where it has been all your life? It finally happened to me last year. It was love at first bite. For a week after we met I could think of nothing else but when we could meet again. My husband Sean called me from work to check in. "I'm head over heels in love" I say. "With who?" he asks. "With Caponata" I say. Sean, "Wierd". Me, "I know, but I can't help it I've never felt this way before." Click.

I had admired Caponata from afar but had never learned to make the real Sicilian version because for a long time I harbored a secret fear of......frying. There are may versions of Caponata but to make real Sicilian Caponata, the kind I fell in love with, you need to first deep fry the eggplant. My fear stemmed from a couple of things. First, the mess that it always seems to create and secondly, the effect that it would have on my body to consume deep fried foods.

As with all my fears, they are best faced with a friend and in this case it was Michele who showed up at my door and agreed to show me how to make it. I cowered behind him as he cubed, floured and fried the eggplant and when he was done my fear had disappeared. It never fails to amaze me how bringing our fears to others rather than keeping them in the dark helps put the proper perspective on the matter.

Eggplant is a bit moody. It you treat it wrong you will be sorry. When I first tried to cook with it years ago it would just end up an oily soggy mess. Then I tried salting it with sea salt first to get the moisture out, but made the mistake of rinsing off the salt instead of brushing it off and you might as well just throw it away rather than cooking it at that point. There is a season for eggplant which in Italy is more in the spring and summer than right now, but I made it anyway last night because I had promised to introduce my friend Charmaine to Caponata. Turns out she also has had a fear of frying.

Ecco la ricetta- La Caponata:

1 Eggplant
1 red onion cut in half and sliced
3 or so whole garlic
around a half cup green olives-whole are fine
around 1/4 to 1/2 cup capers
5-6 anchoveys (the kind in oil)
a can of chopped tomatoes
handful of chopped parsley

If you've never had a fear of frying skip this next part but for those of you with my disease I will include a few tips on frying. To start, choose your cooking oil carefully. Peanut, safflower, sunflower or canola are best as they don't break down at high temperatures. Choose a deep, very heavy skillet to fry with. Add oil to the cold pan, leaving a headspace, or space at the top of the pan, of at least two inches. It is very important that food that is fried must be dry so this can be tricky with eggplant. It is a good idea to flour it and let it sit on a wire rack for 20 minutes to ensure this. Heat the oil until a cube of white bread browns in 60 seconds, about 350-375 degrees. Don't add too much of the eggplant at once or the oil temperature will drop and will absorb fat instead of instantly searing.

So with that said, heat oil, add cubed, floured, dry eggplant in batches and drain on a paper towel. Meanwhile in a big skillet heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and saute the onion and whole garlic for a few minutes. Add the capers, smashing them in your hand as you put them in along with some of the liquid from the jar. Saute a couple of minutes then add olives and a ladel of water to keep everything from sticking. Finally add the tomatoes and saute' 15 to 20 minutes adding more water if needed. Turn off the heat and add the fried eggplant and parsley. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil before serving in bowls as an appetizer or on bread.

Ecco La Caponata. My true love.

By the way, the cooking demonstration was accomplished with two dogs and 6 young kids running around the house trying to wrestle my very tall 13 year old to the ground, cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet. No blood, no burns, full tummies. Let's see Gorden Ramsey do that without cussing. Who are the real Top Chefs? Us mom's!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lasagna

My first encounter with Lasagna in Italy was similar to a conversion experience. I swear I heard the refrain from that famous hymn, no turning back...no turning back. When I put the first bite in my mouth, it actually melted. I just sat there thinking where did it go? You see there is a HUGE difference between using those dried lasagna noodles that turn kind of rubbery when cooked and fresh past sheets. Fresh pasta just melts in your mouth. I will never go back to old way of living using rubbery lasagna noodles, I am a new person!

In addition to fresh pasta, in real Bolognese Lasagna (lasagna originally comes from Bologna, Italy) you use beciamella sauce which is creamy velvet texture unlike that the ricotta which many recipes in the States use. Another difference is that like all Italian pasta dishes, the pasta is the star. So that means you use lots of layers of fresh pasta with thin layers of sauce and cheese rather than the other way around.

Don't let the length of this post scare you. All you really need is fresh pasta sheets which are really easy to make or if you live in a city like Portland, Oregon there are stores called Pasta Works that can help you out. I won't give the recipe for making the fresh pasta as I of course buy it for a couple of euro's at my local casa della pasta. Then you need a good Bolognese meat sauce, beciamella and mozzerella for the top. I suggest making the meat sauce the day before then it doesn't seem so difficult to put it all together.

Lasagna:

One batch Bolognese Ragu' (see below for recipe)
Besciamella (recipe below)
2 balls fresh Mozzerella Cheese for the top (if you don't have fresh then about a cup and a half of grated to sprinkle on top)
2 cups grated (fresh) parmesan cheese

Bolognese Ragu' (meat sauce, NOT associated with the American brand name Ragu)

This is from my friend Tricia who is currently living in Bologna, so it is the real thing. Her Italian neighbor assures her that instead of chicken livers, they use pancetta (a type of bacon) so don't feel any pressure to go the traditional route. I use various types of meat sauce so if you have a favorite use it instead.

1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
These should be minced very fine.

1 Tbsp. butter
8 oz. ground lean pork
8 oz. ground lean beef
2 chicken livers, finely chopped, or 100 grams of pancetta, finely chopped
1 cup dry red wine
13 oz. or 400 grams canned tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper to taste (at least 2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper)

Saute the minced vegetables in butter for 5-7 minutes, until very tender. Add the pork, beef and chicken livers or pancetta, saute for 2-3 minutes, until redness is gone (from livers). Slowly add the wine to moisten and cook until it has evaporated. Stir in the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cover and leave to simmer gently for at least one hour, stirring frequently. Do not allow the sauce to stick to the bottom of the pan. If sauce is too soupy after one hour, continue to cook longer. If too dry, add a little water 1/4 cup at a time, until the right consistency is reached. Best if cooked 4 hours.

I would make extra and freeze it for tossing on Tagliatelle pasta, or spooning on top of Polenta which are other traditional ways to serve this meat sauce.

After you have the Meat sauce you need the Beciamella.

Beciamella (White Sauce):

1 liter milk
a sprig of fresh parsley
a pinch of nutmeg
1/2 an onion, peeled and sliced
6 black peppercorns
80 grams or 2 3/4 oz butter
65 grams or 2 1/4 oz flour
150 g freshly grated parmesan cheese
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the milk, parsley, nutmeg, onion and black peppercorns into a pan and bring gently to a boil. Melt the butter in a second pan and add the flour. Mix well, then strain the hot milk and add it a ladleful at a time, whisking well until you have a thick smooth white sauce. Simmer for a couple of minutes while stirring then take off the heat, add the parmesan and season well.

Now that you have the pasta, meat sauce and beciamella sauce you are ready to assemble the lasagna. Start with a little extra virgin olive oil drizzled in the pan, 1 or more sheets of fresh pasta to cover the pan to the edges, then a layer of meat ragu (see the bolognese sauce recipe below), then white sauce (besciamella, also below), then a sprinkling of Parmesan and repeat until you run out of room in your pan and have around 5 to 7 layers. Keep back enough white sauce for a final layer, then top with white sauce and mozzerella, (fresh mozzerella if possible). Sprinkle chopped fresh sage on top and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the center of the oven for 30-35 minutes or until it is brown on top and all the cheese is melted.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tuscan Beans

I never thought that I would be eating beans in Italy. I thought only of pasta and pizza as local cuisine before I moved here. Tuscan's, however, are famous for eating beans. There is a peasant feel to the food as so many Tuscan's were farmers originally. My first bite was a revelation. I never knew beans could taste so good.

You can use these beans for making Ribollita, as a side dish with your best olive oil poured on top, and as a topping for bruschetta, but the best "marriage" is with Tuscan or Italian sausage. The Italians I talk to call pairings of food that are perfect together a good marriage. I love that. What they literally say is a beautiful marriage (bel matrimonio) but in America we usually use words like right and wrong, good and bad instead of beautiful (bello and ugly (brutto. Peccato.

As with most things, the Italian way of saying this best captures the essence of the idea. There is a glint in their eye when they say a bel matrimonio that hints of passion, love, emotion, sex. If you've never associated food with these things before, then it is time to try tuscan beans with sausage, gorgonzola with marscapone, Brunello wine with bistecca Fiorentina and say un bel matrimonio!

There is nothing hard about making tuscan beans with sausage besides perhaps finding good sausage where you live. The sausage we buy is hand delivered on Thursdays to our favorite deli and so fresh that Marco behind the counter squeezes it out on a cracker for a treat as we wait. Mom, if you are reading this, I know that you told me never to eat raw meat and that I could die from the "t" word that I can't spell but what a way to go. It is amazing, but please don't try it in America where the art of hand made cuisine has been lost, only at Marco's where it is hand delivered by the same guy who made it. Anyway, once the beans are made, we just pour olive oil on top along with the grilled sausages. The beans almost have a creaminess to them if they are cooked right and balance the bold flavors and fat of the sausage.

Tuscan Beans

* 2 1/2 cups dried white beans. Tondini are smaller than canneloni beans and I find them to be the best.
* 10 cups cold water
* 2 fresh sage sprigs
* 1 bay leaf
* 1 head of garlic, cloves separated and skins removed
* 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

* Accompaniment: fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil, (freshly pressed new oil if you can even get it is heaven).

* Special equipment: a 5-quart terra-cotta bean pot or heavy saucepan

Put beans, cold water, sage, bay leaf, and separated garlic cloves in a terracotta pot or bean pot if you have one. If not then the heaviest saucepan you have. Cover and bring to a simmer over the lowest heat possible. Cook for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours until the beans are tender but not mushy. Remove from heat and stir in sea salt.

When ready to use, drain almost all cooking liquid from beans (reserve for making soup if desired) and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper to taste. Now for the fantastic part, drizzle on top a good amount of new oil or the best quality olive oil you can get your hands on.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Laura's Schiacciata

Around 5:00 it is essential to have a merenda (snack) ready for the kids and whoever else happens to be around. My friend Laura always has warm schiacciata (literally smashed bread) and is famous for it among my group of mom’s. I have found it to be a recipe I can’t live without as I make it for any gathering of children and adults and it is a hit with everyone. I will give you Laura’s recipe and then add the changes I make at the end.

1 cup of water
1 cup of milk- (you can use less milk and more water or rice/soy with equally good results)
One square of fresh yeast (lievito)
½ teaspoon salt
1Tablespoon oil
500-800 grams of flour
Sea salt and rosemary for the top

Heat water and milk together until tepid. Remove from the heat and stir the yeast into the liquid until dissolved. Add ½ t. salt, oil and 500 grams of flour. Keep adding flour until it becomes a consistency that you can handle and begin to knead. Knead for 5-10 minutes and then put in an oiled bowl to let rise until double for about 45 min. I say about because when I’m rushed I just use the time I have and it always turns out fine.
Punch the dough down and spread it out in a large pan that has been covered with olive oil. I use a 35-42 cm pan (14 by 17). Drizzle on olive oil and sprinkle salt on top. Let it rise about 10 min then in rows press the dough down every 5 or so inches so there are even indentations. At this point you can sprinkle on fresh or dried rosemary, olives or add slices of potato or tomato. For merenda I usually just do rosemary. Bake at 200c(400f) for 30 minutes or until brown on top.

Shandra’s changes: I use half whole-wheat flour and lessen the amount of milk to ½ or 1 cup. I also use soymilk because of Shad.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Passata del Vedure

The name of this recipe is best in Italian and I really don't know how to translate it well so feel free to jump in and help. It isn't really a soup, and certainly puree of vegetable doesn't do it justice. Perhaps a velute' of vegetables? It is creamy without having cream and has subtle spice with the curry and garlic. I usually make this with broccoli and not only I love it but my kids gobble it up too. Once my son's friend Davis came over and he ate two bowls. Loved it. Later his mom called and said, How did you get my son to eat broccoli? He has never eaten broccoli."

This recipe is part of a collection from the only cooking class I've taken in Italy. The name of the school was Le Cordon Bleu. I would never have chosen a cooking school with a French name in Florence but my amica del cuore,, Laura wanted me to go with her so I did. Thankfully the teachers were Tuscan and for the most part they stuck to Italian cuisine but I know they had spent time in France because they kept sneaking butter into the recipe's. Tuscan's who have never left Tuscany usually only use olive oil in their cooking. I personally am glad to be living in a region that only uses olive oil because as soon as I start to use butter the seal affect takes over (a layer of fat starts to form under my skin as if my body was preparing for a very cold winter) .

I am diverging but I can't help talking about olive oil because as I write they are picking the olives out my window and I know very very soon I will have the taste of wonderful spicy olive oil hitting the back of my throat. Olio nuovoSigh. It is seriously one of the best things about living in Tuscany. When it is freshly pressed the flavor is so intense and spicy. After a couple of months it fades unless you freeze it.

Anyway back to the recipe. Last night I made this with a vegetable that is a cross between broccoli and califlower and it was amazing. You can use any vegetable you want.

500 grams of vegetables (I usually use just broccoli)
2 or three potatoes
4 big spoons of olive oil
3 or more cups of broth.
1/2 teaspoon of curry
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
white pepper
salt
olive oil, or cream to drizzle on top

Heat the broth. Peal and cut in medium dice the potatoes. Wash and chop in pieces the vegetables.

In a pot heat the oil and add the potatoes. After a few minutes add the garlic and curry and saute for a few more minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and the the broth and boil for about 10 minutes. Puree everything. Reheat and serve what you like on top.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pumpkin Ravioli with Pecorino Mint Sauce

I guess the first recipe on this blog should be what inspired me to start my kitchen diary. I discovered this marvelous first course when we went out to eat in our village for some friends going away party. The combination of the sweet pumpkin, sheeps cheese and the the fresh mint which hits you a few seconds after the rest of the flavors almost made me moan. I didn't, thankfully, but when I looked up, I caught the eye of someone else who was also equally delighted so I needn't have worried.

I have to mention the fact that the party was, of course, for American friends who were moving because in the 9 years we've lived here, none of our Italian friends have ever moved away. I mention this because, in a way, it does relate to food. Given that most Italians prefer to stay in the region in which they grew up, you find traditional Tuscan dishes in Tuscany, Sicilian dishes in Sicily and so on throughout all the regions of Italy. These traditional dishes have been passed down from generation to generation and are absolutely treasures. You definitely find nouveau creative Italian cooks in some of the nicer restaurants and on the T.V. but the heart and soul is still the traditional dishes. There isn't the melting pot of people and flavors that you find in most places in America.

I prefer to ask the people I run into in the markets, stores and the Trattoria's for their recipes. That's how I learned to make this dish. I asked the cook at our local Trattoria that night at the going away party and she told me and I went home and made it. I will try to write it down but since I learned a voce don't be too concerned with the exact measurements. In fact, this is the first time I have actually written it down so try it and let me know if it works.

First, I confess, that I usually buy the Pumpkin Ravioli. It makes this so much easier and here, of course, you can buy amazing pasta so inexpensively. If you can't buy it, write me and I can also tell you how to make it.

Once you have the ravioli, you only have to make the sauce. You basically start with a beciamella sauce or white sauce and then add pecorino and fresh mint. I made the white sauce more complicated by adding the parsley, onion, and pepper but you can easily leave it out and just make a basic white sauce. So here it is:

Pecorino Sauce with Mint

1 liter milk
a sprig of fresh parsley
a pinch of nutmeg
1/2 an onion, peeled and sliced
6 black peppercorns
80 grams or 2 3/4oz plain flour
65 grams or 2 1/4oz butter
fresh mint leaves about half a handful?
150 g freshly grated pecorino cheese (fresh sheep's cheese). More or less as you like.
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the milk, parsley, nutmeg, onion and black peppercorns into a pan and bring gently to a simmer. After a bit, not too long, strain the milk and return it to the pot on the stove to keep it warm. Melt the butter in a second pan and add the flour a little at a time whisking well so that no lumps form. As soon as it is all mixed in well start adding the warm milk a ladleful at a time, whisking well until you have a thick smooth white sauce. Add the mint and simmer for a couple of minutes while stirring, then take off the heat, add the pecorino and season well. Cover and set aside. Remove the mint before serving.

Cook the pumpkin ravioli and drain, adding a little of the water to the pecorino sauce if it has gotten too thick. Serve in bowls with the sauce on drizzled on top and a sprig of mint if you have it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

L'Inizio

While in the States this summer, a friend said to me that one of the best meals of his life had been at my house the year before when he and his family were traveling in Tuscany. Really? I remember the night he and his family ate with us, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what I had cooked. Che peccato. Seeing my confused look, he reminded me that I had tried something new, pumpkin ravioli with pecorino mint sauce for the primo. I had a moment of panic as I thought, how did I make that? As most of the things I make are passed to me from Italians a voce, if I don’t write them down or cook them again soon, they could be forgotten. After my initial panic subsided at possibly forgetting how I made someones favorite meal, I decided it was time to get serious about taking kitchen notes. Thus, my kitchen journal is starting. Hopefully I can continue through all the glorious seasons of the gastronomic flavors here in Tuscany.