Monday, December 30, 2013


Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, which inevitably reminds me of the big dinners my family used to have on that occasion when I was a little girl. Those were the 80s, and a staple appetizer on our table, as on many others in Italy, was crostini with butter and smoked salmon. This is an incredibly delicious combination that might sound completely outdated and a little trashy today, an embarrassing remnant of the world's blind reverence for French gourmet food. But I don't care if butter and smoked salmon are now regarded with the same contempt as carpaccio with arugula and shaved Parmigiano, cordon bleu, puff-pastry appetizers, and cream on pasta or chicken. I will defend these crostini because I could eat a million of them at any time, without apologies.

Is there any such thing as a smoked-salmon eating contest? I think I could win at one.

So, today I share with you my take on these infamous crostini. I believe this recipe will actually be my only (yet great!) contribution to mankind. Reader, behold, The Smoked Salmon Butter! Yes, the idea is to mix together butter, shredded smoked salmon, and dill. It is not entirely new, I admit, and you will find similar recipes online. However, my recipe asks for some whole-grain mustard, which, pardon the modesty, makes all the difference.

This smoked salmon butter is so delicious I have a hard time not eating all of it by myself in one sitting. The first time I served it was during a butter-themed party, and I was happy to present it as a huge brick of luscious fattiness surrounded by slices of pumpernickel bread (and if you want the brick, just double the ingredients in the recipe below). This year, my husband felt it was only appropriate to use fish molds to shape the butter. Both versions are scary enough to help you figure out who your friends really are.


2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
4 oz smoked salmon, shredded by hand
2 tsps dill
1 tbsp whole-grain Dijon mustard
salt and pepper if desired
crostini (sliced toasted bread)
  • Mix all ingredients in a bowl. (You can use the paddle attachment in your electric mixer.)
  • Line a mold with plastic wrap and, using a spatula, place the butter inside.
  • Refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
  • Take out of the mold and serve on crostini. 

Need more recipes for New Year's Eve? Please make Braised Lentils: Italians believe lentils will bring money in the new year, and Italy is the richest country in the world, right?

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Q: Dead Chef, do you like children?
A: Of course I do! Well, I like mine, mostly. And a few others. But really, mostly mine, and even them only a few hours a day, and between the ages of 18 months and 2 years. And even that depends greatly on how much I slept and on my glucose level. But, my god, I love children!

Q: What is the ideal number of children to have?
A: If you have a boy, you should definitely have another, but only within 3 years from the first. You really need a substitute for those impromptu and unwanted wrestling sessions initiated by your first born. I just had my second, and I figure I'll be bruise-free in about 16 months.

Q: What is your advice for new parents?
A: The first years with a child can provide you with an excellent opportunity for smugness. Take it and enjoy it to the fullest. You should make sure you exude total self-satisfaction whenever you meet someone who is not at that moment in the company of a child. Your message is: "My life is incredibly hard and yet rewarding in ways you can never hope to understand." You should act this way mostly because this is your last chance in life to be smug. As soon as your children will be able to articulate properly their disappointment with every single aspect of your appearance, personality, and life choices, your smugness will be replaced by the terrifying and definite acknowledgement that your life has been totally futile and misspent.

After 2 years, this father is actually standing straight here.
Q: What is the best way to get back in shape after pregnancy?
A: You can only get back into shape if your child is in daycare or school. In any case, I highly recommend a physical therapist rather than conventional exercise. The truth is, you started an intensive exercise regime already in the early stages of parenting, and let me tell you: Parenting is the worst possible workout for the human body. You lift, jump, rock, sway, and bend over in positions where your spine and neck are unnaturally wrenched into monstrous coils of pain. Your muscles are called to perform abruptly and always work in complete disharmony. Your tendons have become tight and hard as celery stalks. You need medical intervention, now. Pilates can wait.

Q: What movies do you recommend to a pregnant woman?
A: Excellent question! Pregnancy is a beautiful, mysterious, and unsettling time where perceptions and feelings are heightened. I'd take fully advantage of the hormonal intensity to watch only the best and weirdest movies around and make your already weird dreams even weirder. Rosemary's Baby and Upstream Color to deal specifically with pregnancy fears, and then Akira Kurosawa's Ran, most movies with Jeanne Moreau, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and finally all of David Lynch if you're a brave one (I must admit I wasn't). I'd avoid all rom-coms and holiday movies: Those are movies to be watch ironically while on a plane trip; you don't want to be caught shedding precious hormonal tears for that crap.

Q: Do you think being a mother is the hardest job in the world?
A: No, I don't think so, but don't tell my husband. That's the line I used to stop doing house work.

Q: What have you learned from being a mother for almost three years?
A: I learned that it really takes a village. Specifically, a village located in a country where grandparents ask nothing more than to spend quality alone-time with their grandchildren.

Q: What's the best thing about having a child?
A: All that food they leave on the plate.

Q: What's the worst thing?
A: The food is often partially chewed.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Nonna Rosalia, my paternal grandmother, was a great cook as most Italian grandmothers are. She was not, however, a traditional grandmother chained to the kitchen from dawn to dawn*. In fact, with her degree in Math obtained in Palermo in the Forties and her teaching job, she considered herself (and rightfully so) a modern, emancipated Italian woman. This also meant she liked to escape the dogmas of traditional Sicilian cooking and experiment with more modern recipes, mostly successfully. (Especially if I disregard her green-apple mousse that still counts as one of the most vile things I've ever ingested.) 

In the early 2000s, Nonna Rosalia acquired the recipe for Bombe, which are fried, savory doughnuts made with gnocchi dough and yeast and filled with mozzarella, prosciutto cotto (Italian ham), and mushroom. I was lucky enough to be there during the first preparation: Prepping the bombe's filling, waiting nervously as they rose under a kitchen towel, and tapping my foot and biting my lip with excited expectation as they finally rolled and puffed up in boiling oil. 

The bombe were a complete triumph: They were soft, not greasy, a perfect explosion of Italian comfort-food flavors. They forever hooked me, my sister, and our cousins from the very first bite. And thereafter we felt like bombe had been there for us all of our lives, fueling our physical and emotional growth, lovingly tying us to our family roots, reconnecting us to the best of our childhood, even though we were tasting them for the first time in our early twenties. Bombe became an instant family tradition, one that we begged Nonna Rosalia to bring back for birthdays and holidays, and one that now makes us immediately think of her now that she's no longer with us. 

Two months ago my second child was born, and my sister came to visit and help. She and I decided then to celebrate with a massive batch of bombe. They came out great, and it felt great to make them again. Here's the recipe.


1 packet active dry yeast
1 lb Russet potatoes
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt

3 eggs
1/2 lb ham, shredded
1/2 lb mozzarella, cubed
1/2 cup cooked mushroom
enough oil for deep frying
  • Activate the yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water.
  • Boil the potatoes in salted water for 30 min, or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Let them cool to a reasonable temperature and peel them.
  • Press the potatoes through a ricer into a large bowl. If you don't own a potato ricer, I hear you can use a grater and then fluff the grated potatoes with a fork.
  • Add the flour, salt, yeast, and eggs until the dough is manageable and soft and comes together, but is still a little sticky. If you've ever made gnocchi, that's what it should feel like.
  • Roll the dough into a 3-inches wide log, then cut 1-inch wide discs and arrange them on a floured surface.
  • Place a disc in the palm of your hand and place a little ham and mozzarella, or mushroom and mozzarella (about a tablespoon) in the center. Pinch the edges together to close the filling inside.
  • Continue stuffing the bombe, arranging them an inch from each other.
  • Cover the bombe with a floured kitchen towel, and let them rest for an hour or until they have doubled in size.
  • Fry the bombe in at least 3 or 4 inches of oil and serve them warm.

*Pardon the stereotype. I base it only on my other relatives from Sicily, whose reason to exist seems to produce unlimited quantities of culinary triumphs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I can't believe it took me almost 9 years to set foot inside an H Mart, the Korean supermarket with locations in Fairfax, Gaithersburg, and my beloved Wheaton. H Mart is a wonderland of Asian foods and beyond that transforms the idea of perimeter shopping from boringly healthy discipline to an amazing adventure in meal planning: The first side offers all kinds of noodles, dumplings, and miso; the second side has the best array of fish, mystery fish, meats, and offals; the third side explodes with beautiful herbs, roots, and greens; and the fourth side is where you pay, but not too much.

I have been going to H Mart for a few months now, and I have discovered many sauces, spices, and vegetables that now have become staples in my house. But the food I now have to buy every single time I shop there is their lovely whole fresh mackerel. It is dirt cheap at about $2.50 per fish and grants a most delicious dinner that will make all of my family members perfectly happy. 

Your Meyers-Brigg Type determines whether you are drawn to or disgusted by this photo.

We usually buy three whole mackerels for a whole dinner. (The staff at H Mart will gut the fish for you if you're not up for gutting.) It might seem like a lot, but our toddler eats a whole one on his own without batting an eye, so we had to adapt. Since I have lately become an apostle of dry salting for meats and fish (do yourself a favor, get your hands on Molly Stevens's All About Roasting), I pat the mackerels dry and then salt them heavily inside and out. I let them stand on the counter for about 2030 minutes so that the salt has the time to extract and then seal in all of the flavors, and then I broil the fishes on a roasting pan for about 10 minutes, turning them once. I know they're ready when their skin blackens and puffs up to resemble a Neapolitan pizza crust. It's a kind of esoteric sign for me, I guess.

The result is a tender, fat, incredibly flavorful mackerel that will light up your dinner and that may also bring all neighborhood cats caroling outside your door. It's almost Christmas, so be nice to them.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Postcard from the Dolomites: Will Hike for Food

Oh, Italy, its lovely charm, its indomitable chaos, its adorable immaturity! Just give in to the proverbial Italian sense of fun and forget all about responsibility and decorum, just like her cheerful inhabitants!

WAIT!!! There is one place in Italy where this charming anarchy does not exist, where rules shan't be broken or even slightly bended, where the beauty of the landscape is painstakingly preserved by an army of blond, incorruptible Italians who actually long to be Austrian. Welcome, my American friends, to the uncompromising beauty of Alto-Adige/Südtirol.

Alto-Adige is the northernmost region of Italy, bordering with Austria. Its inhabitants speak German and Italian (often with a German accent), which are the two official languages of the region, and all the towns have a German and Italian name. In my childhood, I spend several summers in the lovely San Candido/Innichen.

Of those summers, I remember fondly the breathtaking mountain views, the kittens living outside our rental apartment, and the formidable local gastronomy strongly grounded on butter, cheese, wild game, and mushrooms. Every morning, my sister and I would stuff our innocent and perfectly-functioning stomachs with krapfen with cream, and on our frequent excursions to mountain "refuges" we would banquet with plates of melted cheese, roasted venison with pears and currant jam, porcini risottos, Wiener Schnitzel with fries, canederli with speck, black bread and butter, butter, butter. As we hiked through the enchanting woods (all dressed up in our mushroom-picking uniforms of woolen socks, corduroy breeches, and flower shirt), we would pick deliciously ripe blackcurrants, raspberries, and tiny wild strawberries.

I loved Alto Adige then and I still love it today. But I went back a few years ago and I have to say I have felt like a complete foreigner despite being just 3 hours away from my hometown. Alto-Adige inhabitants have rules that my friends and I would clumsily break all the time: We would order from the menu inefficiently (the rule is to order all the primi first and then the secondi unless you want to cross the waiter), we left our lamp on in our hotel room when we left for dinner (the hotel manager scolded us mercilessly), and then we stupidly tried to have breakfast past 9:30am, lunch past 1pm, and dinner past 8:30pm, about two hours later than usual for each meal (all restaurant staff despised us).

And yet, with each and every one of our cultural faux-pas, Alto Adige would offer us delicacies that we could not resist. Each portion of their excellent food corresponds to four portions in the rest of Italy. In a restaurant in Sesto we gorged almost to death on speck and deer prosciutto, herb ravioli drowned in fresh butter and sprinkled with fried speck bits, pork shanks and two ladlefuls each of the most fragrant wild mushroom you can ever have. It was the first time in my Italian life that I asked for a doggy bag, and I didn't feel ashamed.

So here's a quick reference list of foods you should not miss when you visit the area. Only remember to be punctual, orderly, and never loud.



To each his own doughnut.
These are the doughnuts of the Dolomites. Truth be told, Krapfen are German and Austrian, but I had them every day on my Alto-Adige vacation, and I need to celebrate them here. They're huge, fried, sweet, soft, and filled with custard or jam. And they are miraculously not too greasy (I mean, they'll make their wrapping a little see-through, but that has to happen).


The smoked, cured meat of the gods, lined with a strip of luxurious fat but otherwise rather lean and wonderfully tender. The spices used are salt, juniper, and laurel. Speck is hard to find in DC—and when you find it tends to be rather old and leathery and improperly sliced—but you can get some good quality cuts in Philadelphia.


This is the Italian version of the Knödel served in Germany, Austria, and Central Europe. These are bread dumplings the size of a small fist containing bits of speck, cheese, and parsley and served either in broth or alone, but drizzled with melted butter and topped with cheese. There's also a spinach variation that I remember loving dearly.


The sausage is a size 12.
This is a champion plate that represent the entire food pyramid with a glory that not even the Ancient Egyptians dared to attempt. This is a perfectly flavorful, fresh, and yet trashily fat dish that Americans would LOVE. Mushrooms include porcini, which in the US are very difficult to find fresh and that taste better in Italy anyway (sorry, but it's true).


I could not find the right photo, but this should do.
Didn't you read the fourth paragraph? ROASTED VENISON WITH PEARS AND CURRANT JAM. I had this at the age of ten and, if I close my eyes, I can still taste this sublime combination in my mouth and shed a single tear of joy. A wonderfully unusual dish that combines strong flavors without being overwhelming. You'll probably eat this in a cabin, with the perfume of charred polenta caressing your nostrils.


Gelaterie, or ice-cream parlors, are wonderful, especially the ones that allow you to sit down for beautifully presented ice-cream cups. In the mountains, gelato is a perfect pleasure thanks to the high-quality milk and eggs of the region. This preparation consists in two scoops of vanilla gelato topped at the last minute with fresh, warm raspberries, and an optional dollop of fresh whipped cream (no cans). Incredibly easy to replicate at home, if I might suggest.