May 15, 2011
Sometimes I need comfort, but not too many calories. I need to pair a boost of spring energy with a warm hug. I need to have something exciting enough to fulfill my taste buds, without challenging them with exotic flavours. There is one food to match the bill. Risotto. Namely, risotto ai piselli.
In Italy piselli are heralds of spring – early spring. Here up North they are more of a herald of Summer, but never mind: the important thing is that I know that every year I can count on my fix of fresh peas. Shelling the plump pods, getting my nails green, already feels like healing from whatever is aching. I love the way the pods crack open and fill the air with their sweet smell. I love running my hand in the fresh bounty of peas. I like them so much that when they are really tiny I’d eat them raw, until I feel a bit queasy.
Today I bought fresh peas for the first time this year. My partner had already made me promise – weeks ago! – that I’d hold my usual culinary experiments and cook the very first peas in form of a ‘humble’ risotto. One of his favourite dishes, and I have to admit, now that I think about it, also one of mine. I never feel like cooking risotto: I used to eat so much of it growing up, that I have developed a thick crust of indifference to it. I will not accept any risotto less than outstanding, and it would rarely excite me. But when I actually cook it, well, it feels like meeting a friend after a long time, and finding out that the years did not change you in the end, and you still are really fond of each other. A very good feeling.
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May 13, 2011
This salad looks a bit demure. It can be given a makeover with a nice presentation, on special occasions, but some people will keep thinking it is just another boring vegan blob. As if someone had invited also the ugly sister to a dinner party just to please the beautiful one.
It does not smell particularly strong – maybe a whiff of sour and mint if you go really close, but when it is at room temperature, it does not really hit.
And then you taste it, and it explodes. It smacks you in the face with smokiness, then unfolds its complexity as you chew through it. Fresh and sour notes come in, then meatiness and a hint of sweetness as you tackle the lentils, while the slightly bitter, crunchy, nutty walnuts predominate as you chew them last.
The heart of this salad is smoked aubergine, the one used for baba ghanoush dip. I had never smoked an aubergine before starting to learn about Middle East food. I always thought the natural destiny for an aubergine, the right, glorious end for its charming black beauty, is to be deep-fried in olive oil. More often than not I ended up playing it down, pan roasting it in cubes with just a bit of oil, roasting it in the oven, cut into wedges, or even grilling it, sliced. A defeat for taste.
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May 4, 2011
One of our closest friends here is a couple from the US. They introduced us to Thanksgiving, and tomorrow we are going to celebrate together Cinco de Mayo. Originally a Mexican historical event, it is felt strongly by the Latino community in the US and as such adopted by all the people, especially my friend, who comes from California. We have been chasing ‘the best Mexican food of Nordrhein-Westfalen’ together for quite a while now: my friends love Mexican food and they miss it considerably. So far we have had no luck. Even the best Mexican food here seems to be pretty mediocre. So, tomorrow we are going to have a real fiesta at their place. I volunteered to bring dessert and decided it had to be a chocolate one.
I actually use my blog quite a lot: after all, I am collecting here my favourite recipes with my own notes, which is definitely useful, at least for me. I was quite shocked then when I realized I had not talked to you about the best cocoa brownies yet – a recipe by Alice Mendrich I’ve been making for quite a while, and I’ve also been sharing with all the people who have tasted them. There is something about these brownies that the others don’t have. I normally prefer chocolate to cocoa in cakes; however, although chocolate brownies are good, to me they miss some essential brownie quality. I can’t really explain it better than that, but I always had the feeling that chocolate brownies were a mere fattier and sweeter version of molleux au chocolat. These cocoa ones are totally satisfying on their own, on the other hand. Maybe, like Deb says, it is that they taste as if they may come out of a box, in a good way, and I associate that mouthfeel with brownies. Anyway, I’ve found myself baking this recipe in many occasions: it is totally fuss free, very good, and it does not require me to have chocolate bars at home when I want to whip up a batch. Chocolate bars are not a cupboard ingredient to me. They tend to disappear too quickly to qualify.
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April 20, 2011
The first time I went to Paris, I got off the train at Gare de Lyon. I walked out and was welcomed by a spectacular array of oysters. And a spectacular array of palaces. It was love at first sight.
Other visits have followed. Also this time, I was bewitched.
Paris is tiring. Among my memories of it, endless walks, cycles and metro stairways play a considerable role, without counting the miles you can walk inside museums. I’ve always known this, but somehow left it in the back of my mind: I was always fit and well, apart from that night spent with food poisoning after eating the aforementioned oysters. I’ll spare you the details, but I had a really rough time. As you may remember, I spent quite a while without walking lately. I’m not back to my usual shape yet, but in Paris for the first time I tested myself and had the impression I could make it.
I had a lot of fun, actually.
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April 4, 2011
Ok, ok, I know, officially spring is coming. I know that soon I will have too much asparagus to cook with and zillions of the best strawberries ever. But in Germany spring does arrive late. Oh so late. Yesterday an English friend of mine was telling us how he’s so fed up with the trees for not displaying any #@&%$? leaves, yet. The weather did turn milder, but the fields are still bare.
So for the moment I’m relying on the usual leeks, potatoes, cabbage, plus more or less tasty imports. I live with a serial tomato eater. When we came back here after being in Calabria for a month, we went to shop for food. While I was all in all quite happy with the selection of products, he bursted out: “Where are the vegetables I can actually eat?”. He loves Brussel sprouts, potatoes and leeks, but when you grow up with tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, you miss them bitterly. Now and again I buy them because food nostalgia is too strong.
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March 28, 2011
And after taking a stroll around the world, foodwise (I saw this lovely old movie a few nights ago), here I am, back home: back to Italy, with pasta.
Like most Italian people who cook, I often make my own. Fresh pasta is a completely different product from ‘regular’ dried durum wheat pasta, the one sold in every supermarket; and it is infinitely better than store-bought fresh pasta, unless of course you have a good pastificio artigianale down the road. For these reasons, if you have never eaten it, you really should give this (or any other recipe) a try. Once you learn the basics, it is easy to make: I have tested this on a few friends, who asked me to teach them how to make pasta: they could not believe the sumptuous dish of pappardelle al ragù we produced after a mere couple of hours work.
(It can take less than that, with some experience; it will take more than that, if you make ragù without a pressure cooker).
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February 6, 2011
My favourite snack is an apple. As a student I used to always bring an apple or two in my bag, and I never stopped to. I think it must have started when I was very young, probably right after primary school. My public primary school was indeed quite a progressive and unusual one. Children had the option to stay at school also in the afternoon (in Italy they spend only mornings at school). There was a canteen providing food for everyone, fresh, locally prepared, healthy food, with a pool of voluntary moms that were allowed to supervise after a careful training on health and safety procedures. My stay-at-home mum was one of them and she was impressed by the quality. I have to admit that as a youngster I was not very inclined to appreciate that, and while I do remember some food with pleasure, my main memory is that of hating the salad because it had so much vinegar in it. At mid mornings and mid afternoons snacks were provided during the long breaks. You were not allowed to bring any food from outside and as far as I remember the rule was enforced. So we all snacked on fruit and milk. Fruit was oranges or apples, usually. And it all started there, I think. If you think about it, this is a great trick to teach children to eat healthily. We were all hungry and so learned to snack on fruit without having to have it cut and cleaned for you by mummy first. We did not need to care that much about advertisement featuring sugary, unhealthy food and drink, since the ‘cool’ factor associated with it could not be boasted at school with your mates, and thus lost most of its appeal.
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February 5, 2011
I’m back to Germany, and it is starting to kick in. These days the trees outside have been incredibly beautiful. The world is wrapped in a blanket of fog, which freezes and makes each little branch of the tree sparkle, covered in ice crystals. Blissfully, there is no snow, making it possible to lead an almost normal life.
However I am not in the mood for appreciating this place. I won’t blame it, I know it is me, mainly. I just feel out-of-place, and I feel as if my efforts to fit in have been useless so far. I find it more and more difficult to make plans, to find something fun to do. And when I feel this way, so purposeless, I know there is only one thing that can help me: cooking. I never feel out-of-place in the kitchen. I do feel more than a bit cheesy, like Nigella happily declaring: “whenever I am in the kitchen, I am happy”, but there is some truth in it.
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February 2, 2011
I am posting these ‘nutella’ inspired cookies hoping that you will be inspired as well. Saturday is World Nutella day – fun, isn’t it? Last year I tried making my own Nutella version, because actually, of all things, I’m not really a Nutella person, though I definitely am a chocolate-and-hazelnut person. Tthat his year, you’ll see it on Saturday, but let me say that I am quite pleased with the results I am currently munching, together with these cookies.
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January 29, 2011
We Italians have a big fault. Well, of course; but I was not talking about politics. I mean, we have a big fault food-wise. We don’t do dressings. We don’t understand them. We dress salad with oil, salt, vinegar, be it balsamic, white or red wine or maybe even apple vinegar; occasionally with lemon juice instead of vinegar. This is it. I personally don’t even use vinegar, and more often than not, I leave out even the salt. And it is only five years, maybe, that I dress my salad at all (a common trauma from bad food at school). We eat salads like everyone else does – it is after all one of the best office lunch fares on offer in many bars – but I’ve never seen any other dressing being used. Our creativity stops at the ingredients – solid ingredients – level. When abroad, one of our biggest problems is eating salad. Why do people insist on those horrible dressings? Why would you want to drench your poor, delicate, innocent leaves of salad in cream, of all things?
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