December 31, 2008

Christmas Eve dinner

As in most Catholic families as far as I know, Christmas Eve is the big night in our house. Growing up, we would sometimes have 15 to 20 people over for Christmas Eve dinner. My mom did all the cooking and when my brothers and I were young, we got to open almost all of our presents on that night too. Christmas morning was reserved for the presents that Santa brought.

It's still the night that my family celebrates with a big dinner. When my mom was alive she did the cooking and it was always traditional Italian fare: stuffed manicotti or shells, baked ziti, breaded chicken cutlets, and always an assortment of beautiful homemade cookies and desserts.

Now that I am the cook, I still make something Italian. One year I did baccalà (it was a disaster, but some day I'll try again), and last year I did a Sicilian pork roast with olives and grapes. But the family's favorite is probably my Cioppino.

In the South of Italy it is traditional to eat the "Feast of Seven Fishes" on Christmas Eve -- usually seven courses all with a different seafood ingredient representing the seven holy sacraments. I have not been that ambitious (yet) so I make a seafood stew and throw all seven (almost) fishes into the pot. This year it was shrimp, scallops, mussels, halibut and clams.

My recipe is from Michael Mina and the best part is this little spicy basil oil that gets drizzled on at the end before serving. It's also nice to bake some large crostini with garlic and olive oil to serve alongside the soup.

And this year, we had my brother's slow-roasted Heritage Farm pork as a second course with the most delicious orange-glazed sweet potatoes. It was one of our best Christmas Eve dinners to date. It was fun to cook together with my bro this year. I hope that's a tradition that continues.

And, for dessert, I made the special almond-orange cake with pears and creme anglaise pictured above. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful meal. Our family chose not to do gifts this year and there was something really refreshing and simple about that. Everything then revolves around the food, which is fine with me! To cook together and eat together as a family was the best gift we could get.

December 23, 2008

Nocino + Holiday wishes

As I said in the last post, this is the year for making homemade gifts. Some people have always made fruitcakes (which I happen to love). My family always made Italian "pizzelles" (white snowflake-like cookies made with a kind of waffle iron) and my mom's sugar cookies were the favorite gift of all of my friends. My Aunt Kate made the best toffee and peanut brittle which we all looked forward to each year.

It's not surprising that these kinds of gifts are so much more appreciated than something you picked up at the mall. And this year they have a special significance I think. Not only because we're all in this "economic crisis" together, but because perhaps this downturn will make us focus more on inventive things we can do ourselves--even if they take a little more time and effort.

This year the one new thing I made that I'm really, really proud of is something I hope will inspire all of my friends and family to try their hand at making homemade gifts: Nocino.

In addition to the baking which is something I do every year, this year I wanted to try making one of my favorite things that friends in Italy give me-- homemade walnut liquer. In Italy it's a common "amaro"--an after-dinner drink--and it's almost always homemade. It's dark black and tastes like nuts and spices. It's the perfect winter warmer.

I gathered the walnuts from a neighbor with a huge walnut tree this fall. He didn't have a use for them so I went over there and took as many as I could carry. I followed a recipe I found on-line and then put it up to age for 40 days down in the crawl space of our house. Every once and while we would go down there and shake the bottles to mix up the alcohol, sugar and spices, each time more eager than the last to take a little sip. But we waited patiently.

And when it was time to strain it and pour it into little bottles, each with its own gift tag, I have to say it made me proud to write "homemade walnut liquer" just for you!

So in the spirit of giving from the heart and not the wallet, here is the best Christmas wish I could find. It's from Hugh Fearnley–Whittingstall of River Cottage:

"And so it is with great pleasure that I wish you all, first and foremost, a sumptuous, delicious and yet highly relaxing Christmas; but thereafter, and not without a fairly eager sense of anticipation, a truly abundant and rewarding new year,

Or, to put it more succinctly,


Recipe for Nocino:

(The best is to have access to a walnut tree --either yours or a neighbor's. If not, try to ask your local farmer's market for about 30 nuts with their rinds. They should be dark green which means the nuts are immature, and almost the size of tennis balls.)

wash the nuts well and assemble these ingredients:

1 1/2 quarts of grain alcohol (available at most local liquor stores)
1 1/2 lbs (3 quarts) of sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
10 cloves
1 pint of water (plus another pint at the end if too strong)
rind of 1 lemon, cut into strips

Begin by quartering the nuts with a heavy bladed knife or cleaver. Wear gloves and do this outside on some newspaper as the walnut juice will stain. Put the nuts and the remaining ingredients in a jar, cover it tightly, and put it in a cool, dark place for 40 days, shaking it every two or three days.

Once the nuts have steeped, taste the nocino. If it's too strong, dilute it with some spring water. Then line a funnel with filter paper and strain the nocino into bottles of your choosing. When giving away, tell people they can age it for 6 more months in a cool, dark place or enjoy immediately.

(from, based on the recipe from Pellegrino Artusi's The Art of Eating Well).

December 19, 2008


I have been busy in the kitchen lately. It has been a regular Santa's bakeshop around here. I decided at least a month ago that all of my gifts this year will be homemade. So if you're reading this and you are expecting a gift from me, this is a SPOILER: your gift will be so delicious.

That's because I had a marathon baking day with my good friend and stellar baker, Betsy. She roped me into baking for a neighborhood artisan market last weekend where all of our cool, hip neighbors sold their artistic wares in a new vacant building space in East Nashville. It was a very fun community event and I was glad to be a part of it. Not only did I hawk a few baked goods, but I met many nice people and was reminded of why I love this 'hood so much.

Betsy and I made s'mores in the shape of little houses with homemade graham crackers, homemade marshmallows and chocolate. She made the most beautiful linzer tortes with a X-mas tree on each piece.

We made a lot of yummy things, including two kinds of biscotti: almond dipped in chocolate and chocolate-orange-pistachio.

We made mini cranberry walnut loaves and maple-glazed pumpkin spice loaves (the best-seller of the day), and our baker friends Lisa and Tom joined in the fun and made cheese straws, chocloate cookie crisps, sugar cookies, walnut fudge and apricot-pecan bread. Our table was overflowing with homemade goodness. You should have been there.

With what I have leftover, I am giving all kinds of nice presents to friends in the coming days. It's the perfect year for making homemade gifts, really. Not just because we're all broke, but because it recalls a time when life was simpler and giving the gift of something made with love in your home kitchen was greatly appreciated.

I hope this year is no exception.

December 16, 2008

a huge thanks to our farmers

I was moved by the words of Jeff Poppen, the Barefoot farmer in his last missive of the growing season to the CSA supporters. I share part of it here along with a few examples of how we've loved his produce over the last 8 months as a way of saying thanks.

In Jeff's words:

"You get something besides food from this farm, and we get something besides money. I’m reluctant to name it, because it might be love, and love is scary. It makes me woozy, dizzy, so happy and so sad. When you think of us, we feel it here at the farm. And you can feel our care when we are planting a crop before a rain, or harvesting an acre of potatoes. We are connected, and that creates happiness. As the last delivery pulls into town, the sadness of our winter separation dawns on us. We will miss you, but it’s easy to transcend the emotions. We’ll continue to draw on your thoughts and support to get the soil ready for another great year to come."

It's our last week and our last bushel of beautiful produce (like the above roots) from the Long Hungry Creek Farm. We will do it again next year. The farmers have become our friends and we respect what they do more than ever. We've made good use of our farm share and feel fortunate that we were able to use most if not all of what they gave us in some new and interesting ways. I still have butternuts that need to get used. And strange cabbages are crowding my vegetable drawer. There's a radish that is scary long and bitter but tastes great with some sweet cream butter on bread with salt.

The CSA experience has definitely made me a more creative cook. I am no longer a slave to the same lineup of veggies I have always used. I can whip up a turnip gratin, or a butternut squash risotto and it will taste amazing. And I made pumpkin bread from real organic pumpkins and sweet pickles out of baby cucumbers. We tried and loved mizuna in our salads and there is nothing better than Jeff's baby sweet potatoes, roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper and a touch of saffron.

pumpkins and squash

pumpkin spice breads

moroccan sweet potatoes

turnip gratin

sweet potato pie

I will probably never go back to not eating seasonally. We just may have to wait until Spring to taste veggies this good again. But it'll be worth the wait.

December 9, 2008

Cannellini with pork and rosemary

As the last week of our CSA farm share approaches the pickings are starting to get slim and the variety in our bushel is matched by the harshness of the cold winter air.

So it's now that I turn to putting more meat on the table. It's not that we will be eating meat every night. No way. It's still the side dish to vegetables in our house, but I do find myself wanting to cook hearty stews and experiment with slow roasting, braising and other flavorful and comforting dishes this time of year.

And yet, no matter how hard I try, the accompaniment ends up being the main event in my house. It's like the second-rate opera singer in the chorus who, because of her charm and gumption, always ends up stealing the show from the prima donna.

Maybe it's because I try never to use accompanying ingredients that are second-rate. The cannellini beans in this dish were fresh, purchased on my recent trip to Italy at a farmer's market. They're from a farm in Umbria and I'm not likely to ever find them again, which makes me almost want to cry. Knowing this, I felt I had to put them to good use. So when I came across this recipe in the December issue of Gourmet, it caught my eye because it was called "Cannellini with pork and rosemary" and not Pork roast with cannellini beans or some other meat-centric title. (Get the recipe here.)

And it was delicious. We loved it. It filled the house with the aromas of slow-roasting pork and rosemary and filled our bellies with warmth and goodness. We scooped up the beans and their broth with crusty pieces of toasted bread on Sat. night (with a great bottle of Montefalco Rosso from, of all places, central Umbria! Thanks, Woodland Wine), and finished off the leftovers for lunch on Sunday.

I will make this recipe again for sure. I just may have to go to Italy to find the beans. Unless someone out there can tell me where to get good fresh cannellini beans in Nashville? Anyone?

December 2, 2008

Barbeque and beer

Ok, I know you'll think it's a strange transition to make from white truffles and the Four Seasons to BBQ and beer in North Carolina, but such is my life these days. It's a contradiction, I know, but I love it.

After the whirlwind cross-country trip with the Italians my tastes for fine dining and wine were more than adequately satisfied: Cipriani's in NYC, Atelier de Joel Rubochon in Las Vegas, Mastro's Steakhouse in L.A., and Shanghai 1930 in San Francisco. And that's not counting the lunches in between. But I was genuinely happy to get home and was looking forward to my Thanksgiving trip with my boyfriend's family to Asheville, N.C.

I wanted simple, Southern food and beer and that's what I am going to talk about here. But we dined for Thanksgiving at the historic Grove Park Inn, which bears mentioning.

I thought the gigantic fireplace and the building itself were more interesting than the food, but the Thanksgiving buffet satisfied all kinds of tastes and pleasures. It's just that I'm old-fashioned and nothing beats a home-cooked turkey with all the traditional trimmings.

The next day, while gallery hopping and browsing in all the local crafts shops (of which Asheville has plenty) we stumbled upon a place in the River Arts district that the locals raved about called 12 Bones Smokehouse. I liked the sound of it so I headed over there without delay only to find a line out the door of about 40 people. It was lunchtime so I took a look around and decided to come back that afternooon.

I dragged everyone in my party there, whether they were hungry or not, and boy was I happy I did! Turns out the place is famous --not least because on a recent trip to N. Carolina before the last debate, President-elect Barack Obama ate there and the neighborhood was still bragging about it. In fact, he overnighted at the Grove Park Inn, but ordered take-out from 12 Bones for his whole staff to be brought to the hotel. Now that's a guy who knows what's up. Forget the fancy hotel options and go straight to where the locals eat.

Now I am no BBQ expert, although I've learned alot since moving to the South. I know what I like and this was definitely the best I've tasted. The slow-cooked pork was so moist and flavorful it didn't need any of the sauces, but they were good just the same. The jalapeno cheese grits were creamy and spicy --an improvement on the typical Southern fare. But the best thing on the plate were the collard greens. I don't know what they did to them, but they were fabulous --just a tiny bit bitter, with just the right amount of pork and the perfect soggy consistency. With the vinegar added like they do it in the South, it was a combination of flavors that was unbeatable.

And even the cornbread was different. Instead of the usual dry and crumbly fare, this one was moist and didn't fall apart and offered up the slightest hint of sweetness and maybe even a spice like cinnamon perhaps. Whatever it was, it got my approval.

The beers were also outstanding. We tried 6 different local brews and all of them were tasty. In fact, I had more good, locally brewed beer that weekend than I care to remember. I only wish I had thought of bringing some home to share.

Unfortunately, I did not get to try the baby back ribs that were the claim to fame with 2-3 daily changing flavors like blueberry chipotle and pumpkin or cranberry. (??!!) That's what I imagine Barack eating --blueberry chipotle ribs or sliced beef brisket with sides of buttered grean beans and corn pudding or cucumber salad and cole slaw...and I bet he likes dessert!

I will definitely return to Asheville and you can be sure that my first stop will be 12 Bones Smokehouse.

November 20, 2008

On the road again...

I have been away from my own kitchen for a week now and having lots of fun. I am being flown around by my family friends to act as interpreter for their Italian relatives on their first ever trip to America.

gianfranco and dora direct from Brescia, Italy to Central Park

We spent four days in NYC and here are just some highlights. I don't have much down time as this is a full-time job and then some. But needless to say, we have been doing some really fun things and eating some really nice food.

Before meeting up with the Italians, I spent a night in Brooklyn with my brother, Greg, a budding cook himself. Here he is with Carlo, a really great guy who cooks at Roberta's in Brooklyn.

greg and carlo with housemade dry aged steak

Located in one of the far reaches of the burrough (261 Moore St., Brooklyn), we pulled up to what looked like a garage or a dive bar. But once inside, the aromas of wood-burning oven pizzas greeted us along with the warm smiles of the local guys who run the place. It was an odd little narrow place with wood paneling on the walls, a sort of country lodge meets urban steak joint. But the food was some of the best Italian food I've tasted outside of Italy.

Carlo treated us to delicacies like fluke (fished off Long Island) crudo, housemade bresaola, a delicious, creamy acorn squash with lardo, pulled pork that melted in our mouths, pappardelle with lamb ragù, and the most delicious steak for two that I've ever tasted. I don't have any photos because I was too busy devouring everything that was put in front of me, plus the lighting was bad. Roberta's may not have been the fanciest place I ate in New York, but it was definitely my favorite.

On our last day in NYC we ate a very nice lunch at the MOMA before taking off to the airport. It was in the restaurant attached to the museum called 'The Modern' (9 W. 53rd Street). The sleek, modern decor matched the location and the clientele were all movers and shakers in suits and ladies lunching in between Bergdorf's and Saks. But the best sighting was author Malcolm Gladwell, having lunch there after a late night appearance on The Colbert Report.

Here are some of the artfully presented and creatively composed dishes that made up our lunch:

steak tartare with quail egg

cavatelli "carbonara" with wild mushrooms and escargots

modern cheesecake

And, one of the culinary highlights of the trip for me so far --risotto "mantovano" white truffles flown in from Piedmont.

This at a beautiful dinner hosted by the family in their Las Vegas home. Chef Tom pulled out all the stops, serving 8 courses each beautifully prepared like this agnello with gnocchi di zucca (lamb with sweet potato gnocchi)

I'll keep eating my way through this whirlwind Italian-American tour and hopefully I'll live to tell more tales...

November 11, 2008

Chard gratin

I think I am going to enter a "gratin" phase. I've never really been a fan, finding the cheesy, potato-y dish too starchy and synonymous with bad potluck dinners. But I found a recipe that fits the comfort-food bill and is healthy at the same time.

Who would have thought you could make a gratin out of greens? It comes from my go-to book when I am at a loss for what to do with veggies: Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. I have gone to her for guidance in my moments of exasperation when I have too much squash or too many parsnips from the farmer and can't bear another pasta dish. This was one of those times. I had used up all the ideas I had for butternut squash and swiss chard and still we kept getting more from our farmer.

So there it was: Chard gratin, in its simplicity calling out to me to be given a chance. I did, however, tweak it to suit my needs and bulk it up a bit. I had half a butternut squash in the fridge that need to get roasted and used. So I put that in the oven on 400 and roasted it until it started to carmelize and become tender, about 45 min.

Then, finding some one or two-day old bread on the counter, I made some fresh bread crumbs. Alice and I agree that using bread crumbs made fresh is always better than the kind you buy in the store. They're more flavorful and just better looking too in their uneven and careless chunkiness. After processing them to a not too finely ground state, I baked them with a couple teaspoons of butter for about 10 min.

Then I cooked my chard alone in salted boiling water for just about 3 min. until it wilted. Drain that and set it aside until you need it.

Then I sautéed onions in some butter until translucent and soft, and added the chard with 2 tbsp of flour, 1/2 cup of milk, some salt and stirred while cooking it to let it thicken. This formed the basis of the dish. After putting that in the buttered baking dish, I scooped the squash out of its skin and layered it on top of the chard.

Then --and this is really what makes something a "gratin" --I sprinkled the bread crumbs on top and added some pats of butter to encourage browning. Temptation got the best of me and I sprinkled some freshly grated parm on top too but that was not in Alice's recipe. She's way too healthy for that.

The dish was baked for about 20-30 min. or until it looked golden on top and was bubbling just a little bit. This is one of those dishes that you bring to a party and everyone wants the recipe. You tell them you made it up with a mental nod to Ms. Waters.

November 5, 2008

Let them eat cake

The election of Barack Obama as President was a moment I'll never forget. It was epic and inspiring and emotional all at once. People cried and celebrated all over the world. It marked a turning point not just for his supporters but for everyone. Most people will tell their children where they were when the first African-American was elected president of the United States.

I, for one, will tell them about my cake. This cake is special for two reasons: one because it marks a personal first for me, as in the first time I've ever felt patriotic enough to make an American flag cake. And two, because my mom always made this cake for the 4th of July and it holds a special place in my family's heart. Mom was very patriotic and loved to bake and throw parties.

I had about 30 people over to watch the election results together. It was a great party. People ate, drank, watched and cheered as the race turned into an electoral landslide. I made lots of food and some people brought food and we went through many bottles of wine and bubbly.

I decorated the house in red, white and blue and had a lot of fun doing it. I made "bombay sliders" (an Indian twist on an American staple, don't ask why) and a warm potato salad with arugula that was a huge hit. The sliders I found in a F&W issue from a long time ago and they have curry and cumin, green onions and cilantro mixed with the beef or ground turkey. Yum. I assembled them on a big platter with heirloom tomatoes (the last from my garden), a piece of lettuce and a curry-mayo sauce.

Other hits included this "mousseline" of three cheeses, pesto and sundried tomatoes in the shape of an egg (something else my mom would have loved), made by our friend Judy Forsythe.

I also made a plate of mascarpone brownies that got eaten in two seconds. But the cake --brought out at the point when Ohio was announced for maximum effect --was the biggest winner other than Obama.

It's just a white sheet cake with cream cheese frosting. The recipe came from the Barefoot Contessa's book and it was a perfect cake recipe--light and moist and very easy to make. This is one I am sure I will make again and again.

The flag is typically made with raspberries or strawberries, and blueberries for the stars. That's fine if it's July and berries are plentiful and cheap. But it's November and they're way out. So I used strawberry jam for the stripes and oh lucky me, I found concord grapes at the market that were perfectly round and blue! They have the tiniest of seeds but the the kind you don't mind eating. I can tell you that nobody minded eating them on this cake.

So when my Election Party 2008 was over and all that remained was the star confetti on the floor, I smiled and went to bed happy and feeling hopeful for the future.

November 1, 2008

farro with chickpeas and butternut squash

This is yet another variation on the squash theme that lately has been a big part of meals at my house. This time I wanted to feature farro, an ancient grain that the Romans ate and the Etruscans before them. It has a nutty flavor that I love. It is said to be closest to spelt here in the U.S. but is really a grain in its own right. They eat a lot of it in Tuscany and Umbria where it was cultivated for thousands of years, sometimes ground into a paste before cooking.

I bought some at the organic farm where we stayed in Tuscany and learned about the special Tuscan heirloom pigs, called Cinta Senese. This beautiful, organic grain--one of the healthiest grains there is --was one of the products they sold at Tenuta di Spannocchia, the rustic, centuries old eco-bed and breakfast near Siena. We toured the organic gardens, watched the huge, striped pigs graze in the open fields, hiked and got lost on the unmarked trails, and ate this amazing farro with butternut squash. I remember it being the best thing we ate there.

So I looked around for recipes trying to recreate this dish and found this one. They make it at The Kitchen, one of my all-time favorite restaurants in Boulder, Colo. It's a simple and straight-forward preparation, like a lot of the classic dishes at The Kitchen, where ingredients sourced locally and seasonally are the focus. It's a recipe that could stand up to endless substiutions and changes. For example, the next time I make it I will leave out the tomatoes. They gave it an acidic quality that it didn't need and masked the delicious flavors of the roasted squash and farro.

Here is the recipe. Take it, tweak it, make it your own. And while you're at it, browse some of The Kitchen's other great recipes for healthy, organic and just plain lovely food.

I wish I was there right now, sitting at the bar, sipping coffee and eating a fresh-baked cannele.

October 27, 2008

seasonal abundance (moroccan sweet potatoes)

So, here I go again, you will say, harping on the importance of eating seasonally and locally. I will never stop preaching this, just like I won't stop trying to help people "see the light" about the upcoming election. Like today, when I lectured the cable guy on the urgency of voting for change and eventually got him to agree to leave my house and go vote for Obama! A minor victory, but still.

My countertops are filled with the bounty of fall and I love it. Our farmer has been coming through with even better stuff than I thought possible this season. Like the beautiful little sweet potatoes that I turned into this dish: Moroccan spiced sweet potatoes (adapted from Alice Waters) that we loved.

Or the big, dark green chard I used in this dish of chick peas, tomotoes and chard.

Both were equally delicious and while they could have served as perfect side dishes to something more substantial, I didn't have to serve then with anything so I didn't. We just ate them on their own with some spicy red wine on a cool autumn evening. No meat necessary, but a nice roasted chicken would have been the perfect thing. Come to think of it, because of the abundance of beautiful local greens, squash, potatoes and other veggies, we haven't eaten meat in over a week!

We probably had something with apples for dessert as they too are overflowing onto my kitchen counters. Apple sauce, apple cake, apple pie, you name it. It's all in the name of eating seasonally. And if you weren't sure that this was good for your health, read this article a friend sent to me today on the surprising benefits of eating seasonally.

Moroccan sweet potato salad (from A. Waters' The Art of Simple Food)

Peel about 1 lb of sweet potatoes and cut into large cubes.
Toss with olive oil and salt and roast on baking dish in 375 degree oven. When done, remove and let cool.
Whisk together:
a pinch of saffron threads, 1/2 tsp. of grated fresh ginger, a pinch of cumin, 1 tsp. of paprika, salt, 2 tblsp fresh lemon juice, 3 tblsp extra virgin o. oil.

Stir in:
2 tblsp of chopped cilantro or parsley

Spoon the marinade over the lukewarm sweet potatoes and let sit for 30 min. Serve at room temperature.