Wednesday, July 22, 2015

11 ESSENTIAL ITALIAN KITCHEN TOOLS



What are the essential tools that would make your kitchen truly Italian? After months and months of pondering, I'm ready to present you with my final list. It is based mostly on my personal experience as an expat, especially from the first year in Mr Bee's house, where I would search every drawer and cabinet for these little gems before calling my family in tears. Here they are, in all their indispensable glory.

1. MOKA POT

Moka pot


In Italian, la caffettiera. This beautiful, beautiful object appears in many formats in every single Italian household. The moka pot is the best and quickest way to have a strong coffee (just a little less concentrated than regular espresso) any time of the day, and especially in the morning. Just fill the bottom half with water, insert the portafilter, add espresso-grind coffee, and screw on the top half. Place on the stove, and you'll have your coffee in minutes. And, unlike an espresso machine, a moka pot is completely portable and requires minimal maintenance—just rinse in hot water after each use. In my opinion and that of many others, Bialetti makes the best.




2. GAS COOKER TRIVET

Gas cooker support for moka pot
Add caption



In Italian, la crocetta. This is a godsend if you're using a smaller moka pot on a gas cooker. It's a support to keep the moka pot in place on larger gas burners. It usually starts out much shinier than the one in the picture, which is by now well oxidated.







3. FINE CHEESE GRATER

Cheese server for Parmigiano


In Italian, la grattugia. If you need to grate Parmigiano or Pecorino for your pasta—and it's completely acceptable to do it right at the table before you eat—you need this. The small holes and the rounded surface allows you to grate the cheese in fine and soft ribbons, so that it starts melting immediately on your dish in all its salty and creamy goodness. The large-holed cheese grater that you use to shred cheese is not popular in Italy, where I believe it's only used for vegetables. I use this small grater from Ikea, but in Italy people use a larger one.




4. CHEESE SERVER


In Italian, la formaggiera. When you're not grating cheese straight on your plate, you can use a cheese server, great for formal dinners but definitely used everyday on the traditional Italian table. It needs to be filled with fresh Parmigiano, and people pass it along and sprinkle one or two teaspoons of cheese on their pasta. When I was younger, my grandparents would ask me to grate a small mountain of cheese on a plate and then pour it in the server in time for lunch. This one is from Alessi.



5. CRUMB SWEEPER





In Italian, il raccoglibriciole. In my opinion, nothing else encapsulates Italy more than this plastic brush designed to clean up your tablecloth from breadcrumbs after a meal. The popularity of this object means two things: that Italians like to eat at a table covered with proper tablecloth, and that they are going to have bread with whatever their eating. After over ten years in the United States, I wonder whether Italians are keeping up with their social eating and bread dependency. I really hope so.




6. PASTA MACHINE

Pasta or pastry cutter

In Italian, la macchina per la pasta. I'm positive that Italians today do not make homemade pasta as often as their grandparents. However, this is a beautiful object that everybody who loves cooking should have. There are few things more satisfying than cranking your pasta machine on a floured table (and now that I have fresh pasta on my mind, I can't really think of any). Mine is a gorgeous red Imperia. Ask for one for you birthday.









7. PASTA CUTTER


In Italian, la rotella. If you own a pasta machine, then you cannot forgo the pasta cutter. It's perfect to cut ravioli, and of course you can also use it as pastry cutter for all your pies and quiches. Mine belonged to my maternal grandmother, and it's light, sturdy, and precise. I also love the sweet rattling sound it makes as it cuts through the dough. So satisfying.









8. DOUBLE-HANDLE MEZZALUNA


potato ricer

In Italian, mezzaluna ("half moon"). I was genuinely surprised that this was not a staple of American kitchens, too. It's perfect to chop herbs and nuts. Just rock it side to side, occasionally sweeping everything back to center for another round of chopping. You can object that a knife would be quicker, but that's true only if you have good knife skills (I don't). Plus, you'd be really missing out on all the fun, and I can't condone that.




9. RICER



In Italian, lo schiacciapatate. This is basically a gigantic garlic press for vegetables, and especially potatoes, that gives you the creamiest, fluffiest ribbons of potato you can ever dream of. Use a ricer to make puré, the (slightly) lighter and more elegant version of mashed potatoes, but also potato gnocchi, and my favorite fancy ice-cream creation: spaghetti ice cream.






10. CITRUS SQUEEZER


soup plate, use in Italy for the first course

In Italian, lo spremiagrumi. In winter, mothers all over Italy spend the best part of their day squeezing juicy Sicilian oranges for their little ones, because you know, vitamin C. And let me tell you, you really get to respect your mother when you see her exerting tremendous force on a tiny squeezer to obtain even the last drop of orange for your morning breakfast. Small and easy to clean, it's an Italian must-have.








11. SOUP PLATES



In Italian, i piatti fondi. Don't be fooled by their English name, the piatto fondo is not only for soups. Rather, it is the plate where the first course, or primo, is served. On a classic Italian table, you eat your pasta, soup, or rice dish on the soup plate, and then your second course on a dinner plate. I was dumbfounded when I came to the United States and discovered you only use dinner plates for pasta. The soup plate is the perfect vessel so that your primo feels neither too crudely exposed nor too infantilized. (Makes sense, right?) Luckily, my MIL gifted me a set of 6 soup plates so I can feel a little better when I get a little homesick and make myself a megaportion of ravioli.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I'M HOT AND YOU'RE COLD: CAFFÈ SHAKERATO


I need to voice one regret I have about my expat life, and that is that I moved from the horribly humid and mosquito-infested Venice summer right to the horribly humid and mosquito-infested DC summer. It was really a masterstroke for someone who, when exposed to summer heat, turns into a wheezing fuchsia toad covered in welts. And yet here I am, surviving in DC in July (barely but surely) thanks to my highly refined immobility skills and Arctic A/C. What also helps? Caffè shakerato, or Italian ice coffee.

I don't need to convince anybody of the worthiness of ice drinks, and ice coffee in particular. And yet, many times I've felt like regular ice coffee doesn't really cut it, mostly because the melting ice tends to water down the coffee flavor and its ability to wake me up from my heat-induced stupor. The only answer is the Italian variation of ice coffee that is caffè shakerato. This is basically a long shot of espresso, sugared to taste, and shaken in a cocktail shaker so that it produces a thick and lovely foam on top. In Italy caffè shakerato is served everywhere, usually in a Martini glass, and it can really be a glorious break for your summer afternoon.

That's my husband's hand. I don't know why I get so paranoid about you thinking it's mine.

However, if your coffee bar doesn't serve caffè shakerato and if you don't care about formalities, you can make one at home very easily and drink it whenever you prefer. What I do is add a little bit of sugar to my coffee and shake it in a canning jar with three ice cubes. It's ready in 15 seconds with minimal amount of physical effort (which is really all I can afford in 99% humidity), and cools me down and wakes me up in no time. I almost (almost) feel like a functional human being when I drink one. Give it a shot.
CAVEAT! To make caffè shakerato, you can only use espresso or coffee made with a moka pot. If you don't have an espresso machine, I really suggest you get hold of a moka. It's fairly inexpensive, it's quick and easy to use, and it's one of the most beautiful objects you can own. Until I write a post about it, learn how to use it here.

CAFFÈ SHAKERATO 

Makes 2 coffees

Equipment needed: espresso machine or moka pot, one-pint canning jar

2-3 shots of espresso, or the coffee brewed in a 2-Serving moka pot
sugar to taste
5 ice cubes 


  • Brew the coffee, with a little bit more water than usual.
  • Add sugar to taste and stir well until dissolved.
  • Place the ice into the canning jar, and pour in the coffee.
  • Close the jar tightly, and shake vigorously for no more than 15 seconds. 
  • Pour the coffee into two glasses, holding any leftover ice in the jar with a spoon, letting the coffee foam pour over your coffee in all its luscious creaminess.

Friday, July 10, 2015

SLOW FOOD/FAST COFFEE

Last year, my sister visited from Italy, and I took her to a beloved neighborhood coffee place. We placed our order for two espressos, and then I stood back to analyze the various stages of shock she was bound to experience. The reason? The espresso making took FOREVER. My sister stared in increasing disbelief as the barista took all the time in the world to go through the 7 Steps of modern American artisanal espresso-making:
  1. Pour ground coffee into the handle in atomic increments.
  2. Press the coffee down with complete concentration in carefully-applied 30-lb thrusts.
  3. Polish the border of the handle until it shines, completely speckless.
  4. Let the coffee drip into the cup with monastic patience.
  5. Examine the espresso closely for possible flaws that would nullify the process.
  6. Send a silent prayer to the coffee gods to ensure future blessing.
  7. Place the finished espressos on the counter for the costumer to finally enjoy. (Avoid eye contact.)
You know what it's like: It took at least 10 minutes from start to finish. My sister looked at me, her brown, life-filled Italian eyes wide open, and said, "We need to open our espresso bar. We'll be millionaires!"

See, espresso in Italy (we call it coffee) is actually a very quick experience. Even in the nicest torrefazioni (cafes where coffee is roasted and served), it might take a minute at most for a perfect espresso to appear in front of you after your order. It's not only that Italians barista are quick, it's that they have to be. We Italians are physically and culturally addicted to coffee and to its almost instantaneous kick, so much that we don't even care about sitting down at a coffee bar. We need our espresso, and we need it NOW. That's why at home we use the little stovetop moka, because it produces a concentrated coffee in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, my sister thought Americans would love to have their coffee just as fast. She thought, arent' they addicted, too? Well, as much as her fantasy of opening an espresso bar appealed to me, I knew it would never work in America. Nobody cares about a fast espresso here. Instead, a carefully-poured espresso is popular because it reminds American of the artistry and tradition of coffee. An express espresso would not have the same charm.

So I started thinking, and I realized there is a major difference between American and Italian approach to food and coffee that I summarized in this handy infographic:


Italians will happily wait 20 to 30 minutes for the appetizers to show up and would never dream of having lunch in the car, but need their espresso right away, preferably standing up, and five minutes later they're already on their way. In Italy, a barista is as swift and invisible as a ghostly apparition, seen only with the corner of your eye.

Who is right, then? Well, Italians, of course. We're always right on food. But I will concede that slow coffee has its charms. I very much appreciate the dedication that American baristas are giving to our home staple, and I am definitely thankful to them for taking espresso seriously enough to transform it from a bitter soup to a creamy deliciousness that is often just as good as the original. And as soon as you get addicted as Italians are, I know you'll learn to make it quick. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

STRAWBERRY RICE TORTE

Strawberry Rice Torte, or rice pie with strawberries.

I love spring because my CSA starts again, rescuing me from a winter of badly-planned grocery shopping where I fill my house with too many cabbages destined to be forgotten in the back of the fridge. I always have grandiose plans for my cabbages, plans I promptly forget when I need them, as if they were only beautiful dreams from the deepest of sleeps. But I digress... Back to my CSA. This week, I bought a pint of pulpy strawberries that looked and tasted too good to be wasted on my kids' afternoon snack. (It's not that my kids don't deserve good strawberries, but the afternoon is usually a time of angry screaming and hurled toys, so rock-hard pears would do just fine. Am I digressing again?) I thought about it for a while, and I remembered the recipe for Strawberry Risotto that I had so loved in my childhood. I probably had it only twice then, but I tried it again a few years ago and found it lovely.

I thought that recipe for Strawberry Risotto would be perfect for the blog, so I started researching its origin to give you, my dear readers, some damn culture. As I started my Web browsing, I was already beginning to imagine an adorable alpine village in the north of Italy, nestled in the middle of a perfumed grazing pasture and animated by colorful wildflowers waving in the breeze. There, a small group of stern but kind matrons would throw handfuls of fragrant wild strawberries in a rice cauldron, stirring the Risotto with their massive wooden spoons around and around... Sadly, my Italian daydreaming was stopped short. My research immediately revealed that Strawberry Risotto was not an ancient Italian tradition. In fact, it's nothing but A FANCY RECIPE FROM THE 70s, a self-satisfied gimmick of a culinary period that thought itself above history and taste, and possibly the Italian equivalent of this Chicken Fricasee. My bucolic fantasy was shattered. I saw the wildflowers wilt with a cracking sound, and adorable black-and-white cows stampede all over my imaginary matrons and their northern village. A cloud of hairspray engulfed the land, and massive vol-au-vents began hailing all around me. Then everything turned glossy, and I passed out.

Well, not really. I find 70s food amusing, actually, but this time I wasn't interested, so I decided to employ my strawberries in a different direction. I still liked the idea of rice and strawberries, and so I researched a dessert that would use them both. I found this recipe for Torta di Riso al Balsamico con Fragole, which is fancier than my adaptation here given its inclusion of balsamic vinegar, but whatever. What I did was a very simple sushi rice cooked in milk and then mixed with sugar, egg, and a little rum. I spooned the mix into a cake pan in two batches, so that I could have a layer of sliced strawberries in the middle. The result is a simple, pretty cake that is the emblem of spring. It is light and delicious, and perfect for a picnic. And, in case you need it, it's also gluten-free.

Garnish it with good fresh strawberries, if you have them, and eat it warm, or at room temperature, or cold. And let's forget that the 70s are back.

Strawberry Rice Torte, or rice pie with strawberries.

STRAWBERRY RICE TORTE


3 C milk
1 1/2 C sushi rice (or other short-grain starchy rice like Arborio)
1 C sugar
6 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp rum
1 Pint of strawberries (half for the filling, half or less for topping or accompaniment)
  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Cook the rice in milk on the stove until cooked through, then transfer to a large bowl and allow to cool down.
  • While the rice cooks, wash and slice half of the strawberries.
  • Stir in the butter (broken in little pieces), the eggs, the vanilla, and the rum.
  • Line a 9'' round cake pan with parchment paper (or butter and flour the pan if you prefer), and pour half of the rice batter in.
  • Arrange the sliced strawberry in a single layer over the rice batter.
  • Pour the second half of the batter over the strawberries, then slide the cake pan in the oven for one hour, or until cake is firm and top is slightly golden.
Note to ramekin lovers: This recipe works great in individual ramekins as a spoon dessert. Just check the ramekins after 35 minutes for doneness. 

Slice of Strawberry Rice Torte, or rice pie with strawberries.
Microbee's unforgiving claw.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

IS HOME COOKING ANTI-FEMINIST? AN ITALIAN PERSPECTIVE


At the end of last year there was a resurgence of articles questioning the feminist or anti-feminist nature of home cooking. The debate is not new, but it flared up in response to the publication of "The Joy of Cooking?" (the article is not longer available for free, so buy it here or read about it here), an article by three sociologists from North Carolina State University that was based on their interviews with 150 black, white, and Latina mothers and on over 250 hours of observation of 12 working-class mothers dealing with cooking and family life.

The article was quite discouraging for those who believe America should embrace home cooking in the name of public health and a lesser environmental impact. What emerged from it is that mothers, even when they hold full-time jobs, are still the ones saddled with cooking and all its implications, from meal planning to grocery shopping, from making the time for cooking to cleaning afterwards. To make matters worse, the onerous home-cooked meal stands a good chance of being rejected by the kids AND the husband, so the whole ordeal might end up in a maddening waste of time, energy, and money. The mothers' uphill battle is not only confined within their homes: Junk food is advertised everywhere and easily available, and school cafeterias most often serve just that (it reminded me of a comment in the movie Fed Up, defining some schools today as "7-11's with books"), so convincing their children to start eating healthy, home-cooked meals becomes a near impossible task.

To be fair, the article never uses the terms "feminist" or "anti-feminist" to define the problem, but much of the debate that sparked from it posed that very question. Is home-cooking feminist? The debate intrigued me. I've often heard Italian mothers complain that they have to do all the cooking, but I had never seen the blame being put on home cooking. In fact, home cooking is still upheld as one of the best things Italians have accomplished, and I've always agreed. But should I? I started thinking about my Italian experience with home cooking, about its rituals, meaning, and consequences on Italian family life. As you may already know, food in Italy is pretty much sacred, and most Italians are very educated (and opinionated) about nutrition. We have a great, incredibly varied cuisine that spans from the very simple to the refined, from the perfectly healthy to the obscenely sweet and/or fat. Is cooking for Italian women a source joy, a necessary chore, or just a tool of oppression? I decided to talk a little bit about food culture and home cooking in Italy to see if it could help shed some light on the American cooking conundrum.

The following considerations come from my personal experience (I do not work full time at the moment, but I was raised by a mother who did) and that of a few Italian female friends I spoke to who were raised by full-time working parents or are working mothers themselves.






HOME COOKING IN ITALY


How Do Italians View Food? 

Of course you know this, but I have to say it: Italy is a food-centric nation. Italian cuisine is exceptionally varied and relies on a fantastic quantity of amazing produce for each season. It is also worth remembering that Italians' rural past is just a couple of generations away. Almost all Italians have strong connections to people growing produce or raising livestock, be it in their family or in or around the place they live in. In my personal experience, even though I grew up in the city with two full-time working parents, my family would often stay at my grandfather's home in Tuscany, which had a small farm right behind it where my sister and I would pick fresh fruit and eggs, help with the animals, and occasionally be given the chance to milk a cow.

How Does Home Cooking Work in Italy? 

I would say the vast majority of families eat mostly home-cooked meals during the week, although, compared to previous generations, they tend to prepare easier and quicker meals (home-made pasta is a treat to make once in a while) and eat out more than in the past. Cooking skills are passed on from generation to generation, and even if you were not interested in cooking or your parents were less insistent on your learning (that would be me), Italy as a whole is permeated by a constant conversation about food and its preparation. You cannot be immune to that information: You are going to pick up at least the basic techniques, recommended ingredients and combinations, meal planning ideas, nutritional information, etc.

Who Cooks? 

Mostly women. Men in my family did grocery shopping and some of the cooking, but I know that was not the norm among my acquaintances. I have to be honest about this: Italian culture is still deeply sexist, and men are not expected to provide any help in the kitchen. In fact, some of my male friends grew up never once helping around the house whereas their sisters were absolutely expected to. Italian men may cook for their own pleasure or on special occasions, but it's not common to see them actively participating in every aspect of meal planning, preparation, and cleanup. I know the situation has evolved, but we can't talk about equality yet.

Is it easy to eat healthy food in Italy? 

Yes, and the reason is simple: Produce is still the cheapest option in Italy. Even in the expensive Northeast where I come from, you can subscribe to a CSA to provide you with organic produce for a family of four for 7 euros a week. Non-organic produce is even cheaper and readily available in markets.

How Do People Shop for Groceries in Italy?

Today many Italians might visit a supermarket once a week like Americans, but up to the 1990s (when big distribution really took off in Italy) the situation was different. Italian cities and towns were still densely packed with small specialized grocery stores where people could by quality local food easily and cheaply. Small stores disseminated all over the cities made for frequent but quick visits that allowed for a pantry populated with fresh food. Even though today many of the small grocery stores have closed, especially in the North, people still tend to have quick and easy access to a wide variety of foods in their neighborhoods and towns.

Do Italian Children Eat Everything? 

No, they don't. Some of them do, but just as in the United States, many children have very definite preferences and aversions that need to be defended at all costs. Yet, junk food in Italy is much less available compared to the United States, and society expectations on children's diets are higher (Italian restaurants do not serve kids meals, except for smaller individual pizzas), so I think Italian children tend to grow up appreciating a wider variety of foods.

What Food is Served in Italian Schools? 

There might be some debate about accessibility and quality of Italian school cafeterias, which are only present in preschool and elementary school (from middle school onwards, Italian kids are mostly home for lunch), but food options in school cafeterias are much healthier than in the United States. It's unthinkable for a school to offer fast-food items to children, and desserts are generally absent (fruit tends to end a meal). Mealtime in Italian school is seen more and more as an opportunity to teach children about healthy behaviors. It doesn't work all the time, but at least the school cafeteria is not sabotaging the parents' efforts.

What's the general opinion about junk food? 

Italians have always had a strong stance against processed food, so fast-food never really took off in Italy like it did in the United States. I actually remember the uproar when the first McDonald's opened in my town in the early 1990s: Even as a teen willing to try the greasiest of foods, I knew very well that was unhealthy and could never become a staple in my diet. Also, a McDonald's meal was still much more expensive than better-quality food made at home, so the appeal was simply not there. I would say that, for Italians, junk food is a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation, but hardly a meal-replacement option to be consumed several times per month (this survey suggests that about 39% of Italians practically never eat at fast-food restaurants).


My conclusion 

So this is it. I offer no solutions, no great idea for steering America back towards home-cooking, and especially on how to help working American and Italian women lessen their burden. And yet... Even though Italy is a sorry mess of a country, economically and morally, I do think that the Italian experience might have something to teach us at least in terms of availability (both economic and physical) and a proud culture of healthy eating.

Personally, I think cooking is a wonderful skill. I know, I have a food blog, so of course I'd say that. But I also really believe there's something magical about the way cooking can make us healthier, happier and bring us together. Good ingredients, a touch creativity, and a table with family and friends to celebrate a great day or to gather in silence after a horrible one. It is a gift of health, human connection, and time. And also, there are so many practical skills we can learn and share with our kids, and home cooking is one of the easiest to tackle.

If I think about the gender implications of home cooking, I wouldn't say that home cooking is in itself anti-feminist but that serious issues of gender inequity surround and complicate the matter. In fact, as I reread the original article, I have a nagging feeling that one real problem was left unexplored. I never see fathers questioned about their role in all of this. Once again, this looks to me like it's being presented as a women's issue rather than a family issue. Sure we should indict an economic system and a food culture that pushes junk food before healthy food, but why are fathers never mentioned, never asked to participate? Home cooking can greatly contribute to improve the health of the Italian families, but we can't expect mothers to do all the work.





Wednesday, May 13, 2015

HAPPY PASTA (PUT AN EGG ON IT)


In the past years, there have been few things that made me happier than the rehabilitation of the egg as a health food. It is really up there with the comeback of leggings and the birth of my children. Really, I love eggs. I love them in all their gastronomic incarnations and for their simple beauty (please check my humble Pinterest homage, "The Egg Came First"). In fact, I'm pretty sure my elder days will see me as an Italian-American version of Edith Massey's Egg Lady, juggling hard-boiled eggs in the air and dishing out frittatas left and right. You've been warned.

You can only imagine how I felt when I found the recipe for "pasta with a fried egg" in a tome of ancient traditional Italian recipes that a friend gave me when I moved to the United States. The dish is from Calabria, the region of bold and spicy flavors, and is so simple and genius I could not believe I had spent thirty years of my life without it.

So, what's pasta with a fried egg about? Well, it is simply good-quality spaghetti tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, and pecorino, and then topped with a fried egg. Once the dish is presented to you in all its sunny cheerfulness, you just break the egg with a fork and release the runny yolk for your personal, instant mini-carbonara.


The first time I made it for myself and Mr Bee, we became almost giddy with joy. This spicy, hearty pasta was flavorful and creamy, and probably one the best examples of old-Italy comfort food. Also, for someone as lazy and perennially late as I am, I could not get over about how easy it was to make.

Now to the important stuff. For a dish this simple, the pasta needs to be good quality, which means it needs to have flavor on its own and be able to keep "al dente" (many low-quality pasta turn to glue a minute after you take them out of the pot). For the past few years, I've been using Trader Joe's organic spaghetti, but they've recently changed brand, and I still need to test it. I think De Cecco pasta should work, and you definitely can use hardier long pasta like Venetian bigoli or bucatini. In a pinch, and for a healthy accent, I like to use Trader Joe's whole-wheat pasta, which has surprising great bite and taste. I know that's not traditional, but we're not purists here: We just have standards, right? One last piece of advice: I would not use egg pasta; as much as I love eggs, that would be redundant.

So let's celebrate the good weather we're having and the decreasing pollen count with a simple, quick, cheap, and happy pasta that is as fun to serve as it is to eat. And for the hearts of stone out there, how can you resist that yolk's adorable stare? DIG IN.




PASTA WITH A FRIED EGG


Makes 4 portions

10 oz spaghetti (good quality)
1/2 C grated Pecorino
1 whole dried red pepper, crushed, or 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or whatever you feel comfortable with)
3 tbsp EVOO + more of drizzle on pasta
4 eggs (preferably pasteurized)


  • Cook the spaghetti al dente in a large pot of salted water.
  • While the spaghetti cook, fry the eggs in the EVOO until the whites are firm, and the yolks are still runny.
  • Drain or scoop the pasta out of the water (you want it to retain some of the water to better bind with the other ingredient) and place in a bowl. Stir in the Pecorino, the red pepper, and some more EVOO to taste.
  • Divide the pasta on the plates, and top each with a fried egg.
  • Sit down to eat, chop the egg coarsely with your fork so that the yolk runs all over your pasta, and enjoy.

And since we're making pasta, let's refresh our basic pasta skills:


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY

BUSBOYS AND POETS?

Before last week, I had never been to Busboys and Poets, the DC "community gathering place" where you can eat and read (my favorite pastimes). So when Mr Bee woke up on Sunday and suggested I take two hours away from the kids to have coffee by myself somewhere, I got dressed and ready in 10 seconds flat, grabbed my laptop, and rushed to the new Busboys and Poets location in Takoma, DC. When I got there, the place was packed, but I saw one free tables in the café section, albeit with a few dirty cups from the previous patrons. I asked the hostess if I could sit there and plug my battery-pauper laptop, and she said yes. Ten minutes passed with me standing in front of my dirty table, so eventually I picked the cups, put them on the bar, and sat down only to realize there was no outlet to plug in my laptop. The waitress finally came and acknowledged the lack of outlets. We looked at each other in the eyes for a long instant, and then I told her I would go somewhere else. As I left the place, a little confused and a little sad, I realized the last thing I expected from a place called "Busboys and Poets"  was to have to bus my own table and leave. So the only appropriate thing to do was to write my own poem as well. That'll teach them.

Dear hostess,
Are you useless?
Or just smarter than me?
'Cause I cleaned up your table
And did not get my tea.


DONE WONDERING


MicroBee is in the sunny last line. 
A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of boredom, I was perusing the apps on my smartphone when I opened the "baby" folder and found again The Wonder Weeks, the companion app to the bestselling infant development book of the same name. For those who might not be familiar with it, the Wonder Weeks are ten stages of mental development that all infants go through on their way to becoming accomplished toddlers. A Wonder Week is an amazing mental "leap" during which your child becomes magically able to master new physical, mental, and emotional skills. Unfortunately, each Wonder Week is preceded by an exhausting period of extreme, unforgiving, back-breaking rage and neediness from said genius child that I believe the authors were too chicken to call The Month of Shit. It is the other side of the infant coin. In any case, according to the app chart, my 18-month-old MicroBee has finally emerged from the rollercoaster of mental growth-spurts that are The Wonder Weeks. So I guess my parenting will be downhill from here. *pats own shoulder* 


BIOMETRICS BUMMER

I'm currently in the process of becoming a US citizen, and the second step, after submitting all of the paperwork, is getting fingerprinted and photographed for the so called biometrics. I went through this process once already when I applied for my green card, and the experience was marred by my assigned officer complaining multiple times about my "greasy, greasy thumbs" that were preventing her from collecting my fingerprints. This time, I arrived all clean and made-up, and with perfectly degreased thumbs, only to be told that my bangs could not be in the photograph. I had two hairpins with me, but no mirror, so I started pinning my bangs back blindly with very poor results. How do I know the results were poor? Because this time my assigned officer had a laughing fit while looking at my image on the screen. And when I told her, "I don't want to see how I look," she answered, "Yeah, YOU DON'T WANT TO SCARE YOURSELF." Oh well, so much for my hopes of gaining that world-famous American confidence through naturalization. I guess I'll be the eyesore in America the Beautiful. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NOT TOO LATE: MALLOREDDUS WITH LAMB RAGÙ

Malloreddus with lamb ragù, a Sardinian pasta

One of the main differences between Dead Chef and a serious food blog is that the serious food blogs publishe holiday recipes on time, so that readers have all the time to make up their minds on their menu, buy the necessary supplies, and even attempt a recipe once before the big day. So it is with a little shame that I present you with my Easter recipe a full two weeks after Easter. The recipe is Malloreddus with Lamb Ragù, which should lessen the shame quite a bit since it's a pretty damn delicious.

So, Easter. I love lamb: so soft, so flavorful, so fat. It was one of the main reasons that Mr Bee and I spent our honeymoon in Sardinia, the beautiful Italian island that is heaven on earth and that perfected the use of lamb in cooking to an art. Among the million amazing dishes we tried on our 6-day trip (we ate in our sleep, too), there was a simple pasta with a lamb ragù that captured our hearts and possibly initiated their clogging. The pasta was malloreddus, a traditional small "dumpling" you can find in specialty stores or at conventional grocery stores under the name of "gnocchetti".

The main focus of the recipe, however, is the lamb ragù. I based my recipe on the Florentine ragù preached by Giuliano Bugialli in his precious tome The Fine Art of Italian Cooking (incidentally, a great culinary history book, too). I made Bugialli's ragù many times with beef, veal and pork, and even turkey (surprisingly flavorful), and it always comes out extremely well: rich, earthy, velvety, and abundant. I believe the secret lies in the use of dried porcini mushrooms to impart a robust, earthy vigor to any sauce. You might want to find some good-quality dried porcini for this; I get mine straight from Italy.

Once you have your lamb ragù, you just mix it with the cooked pasta and serve the dish drizzled in good extra-virgin olive oil and topped with grated Pecorino. It's a super-flavorful pasta with the pomp of a winter recipe and the simplicity of a last-minute spring lunch. Perfect for Easter, then, or right afterwards.

Malloreddus with lamb ragù, a Sardinian pasta


MALLOREDDUS WITH LAMB RAGÙ

FOR THE RAGÙ

4–5 large pieces of dried porcini mushrooms 
3 tbsp EVOO + more to top off pasta in the end
1 onion, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 celery rib, minced
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbs tomato paste
1 lb ground lamb
1/2 C red wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1 1/2 C vegetable stock

1 lb malloreddus (or Barilla "gnocchetti")
3–4 tbsp grated Pecorino, preferably Sardinian


  • Soak the mushrooms in a cup filled with warm water for at least 20 minutes.
  • Make the soffritto: Heat the EVOO in a large pot (I use a Dutch oven), and then add the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery and let cook at a low heat until soft and a little caramelized. You might want to splash some water here and there if the soffritto ever gets dry.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes.
  • Turn the heat to medium, and mix in the ground lamb. Sauté for 15 minutes, then spoon off most of the fat. Unless you want to keep it, of course. I'm not judging. *tips hat*
  • Add the red wine and cook until evaporated, for another 10–15 minutes.
  • While the wine cooks down, pureé the tomatoes with an electric blender.
  • Once the wine is cooked down, add salt and pepper to taste and mix in the tomatoes.
  • Lower the heat and cook for 25 minutes.
  • Remove the porcini mushrooms from the water, give them a good squeeze, chop them, and add them to the sauce.
  • Strain the water from the dried mushroom through paper towels or a fine sieve to remove any grit.
  • Add the mushroom water and vegetable stock to the ragù and cook for another 1 1/2 hours.
  • Cook the pasta in abundant, salted water, then strain and mix with the ragù in a large bowl.
  • Drizzle the pasta with EVOO and top with grated Pecorino.

Note: If you really cannot find malloreddus, you can use other types of short pasta like conchiglie, orecchiette, elbows... Do not go as small as orzo, though, or it will turn into a sad slop of a dish. 

Another note: The original recipe was for a beef ragù, but I made it with veal and pork and even with turkey, and it always turned out great. And at this point, you can use it for anything you want,  from pasta to lasagne to chili to the Sloppy Joe of you life. 


And since we're making pasta, let's refresh our basic pasta skills:


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

SPIDERMAN, SPIDERMAN...

Forgive this silly post, but the entire family is sick and suffering from massive sleep deprivation, so this is the best I can do. As some of you may know, I am ambivalent about superheroes and their unironic stronghold on the contemporary male psyche. I really hope children will grow less obsessed than their fathers with high-flying musclemen dealing with unresolved childhood traumas. To speed up the process, I've started my own little campaign of placing superheroes into a more rational perspective. It all began when I revealed to my Italian nephew that the name Wolverine is not a play on the word "wolf", but it refers to an actual skunk-like species whose name in Italian is gulo gulo, which sounds a lot like "ass ass". He was crushed, but I believe for the better.

Today, I'm making sure that my son's budding admiration for Spiderman is kept in check with this little song. To be administered three times a day for two weeks, at monthly intervals.


Spiderman theme song, revisited.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY

PHILOSOPHY

As I approach the mid-point of my journey on this planet (take that euphemism), I am starting to question more and more the meaning of it all, and what should be my line of conduct for the rest of my life. I know I've abandoned the staunch idealism of my youth, but I'm also wary of the comfy judgementalism of old age. So I have come to my personal conclusion. Presently, I have been trying to live according to the Buddhist precepts of "letting go" and "releasing the ego", which I combined in my personal mantra of "letting myself go". Which brings me to the next point.


BARRE NONE

As long as I can remember, I've done all I could to avoid physical exertion. Sweating and toiling for the sole purpose of sweating and toiling always sounded absurd to me, and a long time ago I decided the best exercise would be walking briskly because I was late for stuff. It worked, until I had kids. After my second pregnancy, I found myself as strong, nimble, and quick as an octogenarian toad. So last week I appealed to the last bit of energy in my atrophied muscles and signed up for a barre class. Cursory research told me that barre is an exercise inspired by ballet and Pilates, and pictures showed slender, smiling women in yoga pants gracefully holding a ballet barre and keeping a perfect posture. More importantly, none of them was covered in sweat. It looked dreamy. Well, I had my first class on Sunday, and please know I'm in physical pain even now as I type this. Barre is not easy. There was a moment where I had to sit on an invisible chair with my back against the wall while opening and closing my legs for what I'm pretty sure was 45 minutes (okay, maybe 3). I was shaking like something powered by a steam engine and I was pretty sure my kneecaps would pop out and my ligaments would roll out in the air like curly ribbon on a gift box. I had none of the grace and poise I was envisioning, I was sweating through every pore, and every single time the instructor was not looking I would flop down on the floor like a sorry, empty tutu. All that said, I'm not giving up. Even with all the pain and humiliation, my barre class is an excused absence from my house. I'll take it.


VIDEO TUTORIALS = UKULELE

For many reason that may or may not include my clumsiness and lack of manual skills, I watch a lot of video tutorials in my spare time. One thing I cannot explain is the directors' over-reliance on upbeat ukulele music (like this), the kind you are also likely to hear on most tech gadget commercials. Actually, it's not so much that I don't understand it as I hate it. Really, it makes my nerves jump out of my skin. I don't know exactly why... I suspect it might be a reaction to the current infantilization of everything and the modern penchant for unthreatening cuteness. I promise, though: If I ever make a video tutorial, the soundtrack will be this.