Pomodori al Riso

This post was originally published in the Granby Drummer. September 2016PomodorRiso

 

If months had mascots, September’s would surely be the apple.  Symbolizing the beginning of fall, the gift for the teacher, and all things cool and crisp.  This summer has been anything but cool and crisp.  The scorching and waterless July turned supple green lawns into flaxen crisps. Blossoms wilted and gardens stalled. This is pure botanical conjecture, but perhaps the lack of rain drove the roots deeper, so when the August rains finally came, they were stronger than ever….like a drought-hardy vineyard rootstock. The September symbol, this year at least, might just have to be the Love Apple.

 

Centuries ago, the tomato earned the nickname of Love Apple.  Some say the tomato was originally misclassified into the nightshade family, which included the aphrodisiacal mandrake root. There’s theory that when the Moors brought apples to Europe from Africa, the Italian ‘pomi dei mori’ (‘apples of the Moors’) may have morphed into ‘pommes d’amour’ (‘apples of love’) in French.  While we can hardly imagine Italian food without tomatoes, the fruit, originally from Peru, didn’t arrive in Italy until the 1500’s.  Happily, whatever the history, the plants are currently producing abundantly in our New England gardens.

 

The simplest tomato cookery involves no cooking at all: slide up to the nearest plant. Pick. Eat. If you want to get fancy, slice it or dice it and add some fresh basil and a sprinkle of good salt.  (Tomatoes want salt.  Damp, coarse crystals harvested from the waters off of Sicily are particularly fantastic, but any salt will do. In a ‘pinch’.) To make a traditional caprese (kah pray zay) salad, add fresh mozzarella to the tomatoes and basil, and season with salt, a drizzle of olive oil, and an optional splash of balsamic vinegar.  (And not to get too brackish, but sweet, mild and creamy fresh mozzarella likes salt, too).  Your red, white and green caprese combo can easily be added to a pizza, pasta, panino or mixed with eggs for breakfast.

 

For many families, September means back to school, back to lessons, back to practices, back to busy-ness.  When the days are still hot (and sometimes overscheduled) but the nights are getting cooler, make the most of cooking in the evening for meals over the next few days.  If you find yourself grilling chicken for dinner, make some extra for lunchtime salads.  If you go through the trouble of turning on the oven for baked mac and cheese or any sort of casserole, make an extra pan for another night and pop it in the freezer.  And if you find yourself with a supply, of juicy, ripe, delicious tomatoes, assemble a big tray of Pomodori al Riso – Tomatoes with Rice.   They’re quite simple to assemble, require zero time standing by a hot burner, and they taste even better at room temperature, the next day.  

 

POMODORI AL RISO

This recipe is easily doubled, tripled or multiplied based on your tomato supply….just keep the ratios about the same. It’s very forgiving. It also just happens to be gluten free, dairy free and vegan, and substantial enough to be the main course.

6 medium to large ripe round tomatoes

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Small handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

½ cup (8 tablespoons) of arborio or carnaroli rice (or whatever rice you have)

4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

 

  1. Rinse your tomatoes then cut off, and save, the tops (they will become lids). Carefully scoop the flesh out of the tomatoes, catching all of the juices and pulp in a bowl.  (A grapefruit spoon or a melon baller work particularly well for the task.) If you’re a purist, you can pass all of this tomato goodness through a food mill to make a smooth puree and eliminate all of the seeds.  Or, simply give the larger chunks a quick chop and call it a day.
  2. Add the garlic, basil and rice to the bowl of tomatoes.  Season with salt and pepper, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Let bowl sit while you get potatoes ready.
  3. Put the potato chunks into a 9×13 pan, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.  Nestle the tomato shells into the potatoes so they are standing upright.
  4. Give the tomato-rice mixture a stir, then spoon it into the tomatoes. Keep the top third of the tomato shells empty, or they might burst when you roast them. Extra filling can be stirred into the potatoes.
  5. Put the ‘lids’ back on the tomatoes, drizzle with a bit more olive oil for good measure, and throw the whole pan in a 375 degree oven for an hour or so.  They may take longer, and that’s ok.  Once the oven is on, you should go outside and enjoy the evening air with a cool beverage of your choice.

 

Test them after an hour, if rice is still too al dente, give them a bit more time. Tomatoes will slouch and blister a bit as they cook – take it as a sign of happiness. Let them cool for at least 30 minutes before eating. Store cooled tomatoes in the fridge and enjoy the next day.  They are quite delightful aside a fried egg for breakfast, as a tasty first course, or with a simple salad for lunch or dinner.

 

September holds three entire weeks of summer, so move over MacIntosh, we’ve still harvesting Love Apples.

 

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Food Rules

TASTING ROME via TORTA RUSTICA

Tasting Rome via Torta Rustica

6/4/2016

(Note: this post originally appeared in the May issue of the Granby Drummer, and is reprinted here with their permission.)

Somewhere between an impulsive creative nature, a nettlesome need to question any directive, and the likelihood that I’m missing a key ingredient (or five), I’ve never quite been able to follow a recipe exactly as written.  With a few decades of professional cooking experience under the old apron strings, you can’t help but develop some knowledge of how ingredients are likely to come together. You’d think after so many years one wouldn’t need to search for any more recipes, but with so much delicious material to choose from, it’s impossible to resist.

Like many other food enthusiasts, I’m a bit of a culinary bibliophile. Whether it’s a well-loved ancient classic like Escoffier, or a tasty volume hot off the press, the world of food and cooking is simply limitless. I tend to read cookbooks for pleasure and reference them when I have an abundance of a certain ingredient, like “What can I do with all the rhubarb in the garden right now?” My favorite gems are those that tell stories—Where did the inspiration come from? Why are the ingredients combined in this order? Who taught you how to make this? And, of course, how can I tweak this recipe to account for my different ingredients or aptitude or weather conditions or budget or time restraints or children’s taste buds? Understanding the background of a recipe, at least for me, is a critical ingredient to my ability and incentive to tackle it.

Last April, during a trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of meeting Katie Parla, a knowledgeable woman from the states who now lives in Rome. We had hired her to show us around the Roman Testaccio neighborhood. Armed with a sommelier certificate and a master’s degree in Italian gastronomic culture, this Jersey native and Yale graduate was the perfect choice for an enlightening and entertaining food tour. Already highly published in many food and travel magazines and guidebooks, Katie mentioned that she was excited to be working on a cookbook.  Lucky for us, Tasting Rome – Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City was released a few weeks ago. With outstanding photography by Kristina Gill, and an appetizing foreword by Mario Batali, Tasting Rome is a culinary treasure. Rich with Roman cultural history, classic favorites like cacio e pepe (and how to perfect that ultimate combination of pasta, salt, pepper and cheese), street food re-creations, and plenty of culinary helpful hints, there’s something for everyone.

In just a few short weeks, my copy is naturally falling open to the ‘Torta Rustica’ page with a descriptive recipe for the savory pie. “Torte rustiche [plural of torta rustica] feature prominently on Rome’s wine bar menus and in local bakeries. Fillings may change with the seasons, the vegetal ingredients in the recipe, carrots included, grow in the Roman countryside. In Rome, you’re most likely to find this savory delight served as a snack alongside Prosecco or a cold beer when you’re dining al fresco, but you can also serve it as a starter, or even as a light main dish.” (Seriously, I don’t care what is in the dish if it’s a ‘savory delight served al fresco with Prosecco in Italy.’ You had me at the setting of the scene, Katie.) This torta rustica (literally “rustic pie”) is a tasty combination of spinach, Swiss chard, carrots, dandelion greens, onions, ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and eggs, all nestled happily in a puff pastry crust. Her instructions for a ‘rough puff pastry’ are accessible even for the beginner baker: it’s all a matter of flour, butter, a bit of salt, and a simple method of chilling and folding. If the thought of pastry causes a panic attack, just buy it frozen. Cooking is supposed to be fun.

The recipe in its entirety is too long to print here (but when you buy the book, you’ll find it on page 46), but the general premise is: sauté all the wonderful vegetables until they’re happy (and have given off most of their moisture), add eggs, ricotta and parm, bake in crust, cool slightly, enjoy! With plenty of spring spinach in the markets and swiss chard on the way, it’s a great time to try your hand at torta rustica. Dandelion greens are best eaten before the flowers bloom, so I haven’t been including them in my version, but on the next time around I think I’ll be incorporating some asparagus. Other classic torte rustiche variations include meats (prosciutto, salami, sausage) and other cheeses—the possibilities are endless. I’m totally into veggies, though, and as the summer gardens grow, who knows what new combinations we’ll find?
Email: susan@accetura.com
Blog: LaCucinaFrutteto.wordpress.com

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Filippo and the Big Cheese

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Several weeks ago I found myself in the heart of Sicily, surrounded by a group of amazing women who shared my love for food and writing.  There’s a chance I could round up a group of like-minded folks right here in New England, but, well, sometimes you just need to get away from it all for it all to come into focus. And the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School on the Regaleali Estate of Tasca Wines is a ridiculously incredible place. So incredible that it’s difficult to adequately describe in simple words – you just have to go there.

Following a delectable breakfast on our first morning at Regaleali, our small group boarded a bus and cackled like hens as we crept around the hairpin turns and up the quilted hillsides for a field trip to Filippo’s farm. Filippo Privitera is a shepherd in every sense of the word. He and his modest crew milk a few hundred sheep by hand twice a day. By hand. Twice. Every day. No modern milking machines, no antiquated milking machines. By hand. Filippo feels that the only way to thoroughly know the herd, to notice any problems, to ensure their health, is to milk them by hand.

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We arrived at his farm after the morning milking had been completed. There was a slight presence of fatigue in the air – the farm hands milled about a bit weary (while our day had just begun you could tell they’d been working for hours already), even the sheep dog padded around lazily.  The Sicilian air was already hot, but still refreshing to our queasy selves exiting the warm bus. A few breezes, and a moment to look out over the pastoral panoramic, provided adequate rejuvenation before we entered Filippo’s cheese-making room.

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We gathered around while Filippo added a bit of rennet to a large (50 gallon?) vat of warm sheep’s milk. Loose solids (called cagliata) began to form on the top of the milk as the curds, with a bit of Little Miss Muffet magic, began to separate from the whey.  We pulled aside a plate of cagliata to taste before the bulk of it was gently cut into small chunks. Filippo transferred all of the curds into baskets where they would be pressed and aged to make tuma (ready within a week) or pecorino romano  (aged 3 to 6 months or more). (The designation of pecorino simply means sheep’s milk.) The remaining liquid whey was piped into another vessel and heated to 70 C (158F), where additional curds developed and were pressed into more baskets to create ricotta. Nothing was wasted. Everything was delicious.

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Rennet is a natural enzyme present in the stomach of animals.  I’m fascinated by the discovery of certain edibles…like who figured out you could eat a thistly artichoke?  And what about the sea urchin – who stumbled on that and decided to eat it rather than curse its spiky shell?  As I wondered about the revelation of rennet and cheese-making, Fabrizia Lanza (our splendid hostess and owner of the cooking school) offered, “If you carry around a sheep’s stomach full of milk and let it bump up and down on the side of your donkey all day, eventually you will end up with at least some yogurt.”  She’s quite brilliant, that one.

There is a dairy farm near our home – Sweet Pea Cheese – where they raise goats and cows. Despite a reliance on milking machines, life seems very similar. Milking twice a day, every day.  Each girl must still be positioned at the machines, wiped down to prevent contamination, and led back to pasture. Every day. Twice a day. There is no break for the dairy farmer…who works relentlessly and then goes on to exhibit super-human traits during the sleepless lambing or kidding season. We stopped by their farm yesterday to bring some cows’ milk to friends who had moved out of town. The boys grabbed a few single-serve bottles of chocolate goat’s milk and proclaimed it to be the best chocolate milk in the world. Normally I not a big advocate of adding chocolate and sugar to milk, but sometimes exceptions are meant to be made.

Several months ago, when a random cheesey inspiration hit,  I ordered a bottle of rennet from Amazon. A few days later I was attempting homemade mozzarella with several gallons of Sweet Pea Dairy’s amazing milk, only to discover my thermometer was off by a few dozen degrees. The result was edible, but a bit too reminiscent of salt water taffy at best, Silly Putty at worst. There may be future attempts at cheese-making, but perhaps impetuous chefs like me should leave the curds and whey to the professionals, and avoid anything that requires a thermometer. Or exact measurements. Or a timer.

Actually, if you have access to really good fresh milk and cream (ideally from a sheep, goat or cow), you might venture into the tasty world of panna cottaPanna cotta means, quite simply, cooked cream. It is quite forgiving, receptive to endless flavor variations, and remarkably tasty.  Like creme brulee tasty, but so much easier. It goes something like this:

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

Combine 1 cup whole milk with 1 packet (or 2 1/2 tsp) unflavored gelatin in a medium saucepan.  Let the gelatin ‘bloom’ for a few minutes….which simply means you need to let  the gelatin granules slowly start to absorb some liquid and soften a bit, otherwise they will never properly dissolve later in the recipe. And it will be grainy and lumpy and ick.

After about 5 minutes, put the pan on the heat (medium should do) and stir it while the gelatin dissolves.  It doesn’t have to boil, just warm up.  If you aren’t sure whether all the gelatin has dissolved, just dip your (clean) finger in the mixture and make sure there are no little granules remaining.

Next,  add 2 cups of heavy cream, 1/2 cup of  granulated sugar and a pinch of salt.. Continue stirring – use a whisk or a wooden spoon. Add 1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp of real vanilla).  I find it easier to add the whole bean, then remove it later and scrape out the yummy seeds.  The bean flavor seeps into the hot liquid, and the hot liquid softens the bean so it’s easier to scrape out.  Simmer it for a few minutes until sugar is fully dissolved (see finger test above if unsure).  It should be hot and steamy, but don’t bring it to a boil. (I’ve been meaning to try this with brown sugar, for a bit of a caramelly spin.)

Remove the pan from the heat, and remove the bean from the pan. Carefully cut open the bean and scrape the seeds back into the creamy mixture. (Discard the pod.) When the mixture has cooled slightly (a few minutes), slowly whisk in 1 cup sour cream.  Whole plain yogurt works well here, too, especially tangy goats’s milk yogurt. (This is dessert, people, don’t skimp with skim.)

Pour the mixture into 6 or 8 small glasses, cups or ramekins, and chill it for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Some folks like to get all fancy and unmold the panna cotta onto a plate.  I prefer to serve it in the container it has chilled in, usually a jam jar, where I’ve left plenty of room for tasty garnish. Like caramel sauce and whipped cream. Or fresh berries. Or lemon curd. Or whatever your heart desires.

Happy cooking. And when you use fresh dairy in your kitchen, remember the shepherds and the dairy farmers…and be grateful.

 

Cherries…..Jubilee!!!

Red-and-gold jewels

I have just finished the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver and it’s, well, inspiring. Her writing style is fabulous, and she has filled my head with so very many amazing thoughts and ponderables….but most notably is the desire to connect with the land.

We were away at the beach for a week and immediately upon returning (OK, immediately after I started the first load of sandy laundry) I needed to head outside and spend some time in my gardens.  Sadly I didn’t put in a vegetable garden this year – with the exception of some potted herbs on the deck – but my perennial beds and borders are prolific. Particularly so after we’d been away for a week.

Typically, I have to say that I specialize in invasives.  The primary crop around here seems to be bittersweet, closely followed by poison ivy, thistle, wild grapes, wild roses, wandering wisteria, and more.  Fortunately we haven’t yet been invaded by the crazy wild morning glory that has been creeping up in our area, but I would happily trade that for the bittersweet. At least the morning glory can be pulled without pulling your muscles. (If you have ever dealt with bittersweet, you understand.)

Many years ago I planted two small wisteria plants on either side of a wood arbor/archway in a corner border bed in the back yard.  I was eager to see the gorgeous dripping clusters of lavender blooms (and this was before I started traveling to Italy in April). I had heard that wisteria could be a bit finicky about blossoming, so I was patient. After a few years we were rewarded with beautiful blossoms…..and vines so strong they completely annhilated the wooded structure of the arch.  Reinforcing the arch with steel poles was still no match for the powerful vines.  We’ve had a love-hate relationship for quite some time now.

The vines have traveled and taken root as far as 25 feet away, where they suffocated a fabulous butterfly bush.  The battle continues each year. I am losing. The space where the archway once stood has been taken over by bittersweet, wild roses, wild grapes, wild raspberries, and, yes, more wisteria.  Earlier in the spring I cut and pulled most everything from that space except for the wild black raspberries. The kids love to pick these for summertime snacking.  Beside the former arch a small unidentified tree had started to grow and I had allowed the wisteria to climb up it. We’ve had discussions, this purple creeper and I.  When it reaches out to the neighboring hydrangea or weeping cherry tree I have said “NO, You are not allowed here.” Whack. “You may stay here and climb this other unknown sapling so I can see your blossoms in spring, but DO NOT WANDER.” Sadly, despite my clearly audible out-loud words, the vines don’t seem to listen.

Today I tried to prune back some of the wisteria (the blossoms have passed, and long fuzzy pods have taken their place) so that the raspberries might flourish.  There are many berries on the bushes – mostly pink but some (yum) deep purple. As I pruned large vines of wisteria from the tree branches above to give more sun to the berries, I uncovered small golden fruits blushed with red….cherries!! My first thought was that the neighboring ornamental weeping cherry branches, that bow down and mingle with the vines, had somehow started producing fruit. After some careful sorting and unknotting or vines and leaves and branches, it turns out these little golden cherries were growing on the wisteria’s unidentified ‘host’ tree. Delicious. Golden. Cherries.

Many years ago we had a few golden cherry trees on the orchard where our street now passes through….I can only assume this was once a pit from one of those trees, carried here by a bird, the wind, or spit from the mouth of a summer snacker.  The wisteria vines are as thick as the tree itself, and have tightly wound their way into the very flesh of the branches.  With a bit of tough love, most of the vines have been untwisted from the branches…and most of the cherries have been enjoyed. With continued diligence, strong words and aggressive clippers, I’m hoping for a much bigger crop next year.  As for the beautiful dripping blossoms, well, I can always go back to Italy in April.

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2015 Italy Food Diaries, Day 10

So Sunday was a partial travel day, and one fraught with a pile up of frustrations. First world frustrations, mind you, but frustrations nonetheless. I guess after hauling around a foreign country for 10 days, you get a little cranky. But with the bad, there was plenty of good.

We packed up our Florence apartment and headed to the train station for a 10am train to Milan and Stresa. I was unable to buy tickets at the kiosk for some reason so we went to the window and waited our turn. Apparently coach was sold out (second class), so I had to buy business class (not part of our budget travel plan) or wait an hour and a half for the next train (waiting is not my forte). OK, bonus, we had complimentary beverage service. But no coffee on the cart, which makes perfect sense because (I’m guessing) the Italians recognize that serving any sort of coffee beverage out of an airpot on a cart (instead of properly pressed through an espresso machine) would be total sacrilege. OK, I have to agree with them. I got water and Joe got a (real) coke.

Our seats were not actually together, but a very kind Italian man (this place is crawling with them….chivalry is a live and well in Italy) switched seats with me so I could sit next to mio figlio. Which reminds me….(tangent alert)…last year we were driving through Torino and the car in front of us stopped, the driver got out and ran around to my side back door. He was looking a little too stylish to be hijacking our car – not to mention he already had his own car which he’d momentarily abandoned – so I opened my window. He explained with great urgency that the belt to my jacket had been caught in the door and was in danger of dragging on the street. I mean really, that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me coming back!

We had to change trains in Milan to get up to Stresa, a sweet little town on Lago Maggiore (kinda like Lake Como but slightly to the west, and no George Clooney.)  If you need a snack in the Milano station, go into the centrally located Bistro area. It’s a bit pricier than the cafeteria place on the North side of the building, but worth it.  We grabbed a caprese salad with tomatoes, lettuce, fresh bread, oodles of prosciutto and a chunk of fresh buffalo mozzarella the size of a tennis ball…Joe being a new fan of fresh mozzarella and bread, it was the perfect lunch to share on the cattle train.

The next train was packed. There were some American tourists on the train who, well, were sort of the stereotypical American tourists that we try very hard not to be. Kind of loud, hauling a tremendous amount of luggage, entering the wrong end of the car so they had to travel the full length of the aisle with their bags and caused a 10 minute pile-up and were still not seated until we were quite a distance from the station. We deliberately made our way to the exit doors a few minutes before our stop, just in case they were planning another traffic jam.  I saw them start to shuffle as we pulled into the station and, truth be told, I should have went back to help them. I can’t see how they could have mobilized their trunks in time to get off the train. (But I had my young son to watch and he was already 10 paces ahead of me….) Note to all: underpack.

Our hotel in Stresa is a short walk from the station. We went directly downhill to the lake so we could walk along the water. Joe kept asking, “Is this one our hotel?” with each Grand Hotel we passed. Nope. Keep walking. We turned up from the water to the town square (just about 100 meters in) and came to Hotel Elena.  Mind you, Hotel Elena is not a grand hotel, it’s not fancy, it’s not on the water, there are no bell-hops or chandeliers. And I love it.  It is a small family run operation with a bar (and reception and dining area) on the main floor, and maybe 15 guest rooms on the floors above. (I believe the family lives on the first floor).  We were greeted with an enthusiastic “Buon Giorno!” from Marco behind the bar, and a warm hug from Laura, the owner. (I think Elena was her aunt.) We’d hoped for a room on the fourth floor but only the third was available. We could still see the peaks of the Alps over the rooftops, and had a lovely view of a rooftop garden next door.20150419_161231 (2)

Laura gave us our key and let us get settled before signing in and all.  This is our third visit to Hotel Elena and we feel like part of the family.  The little balconies overlooking the central square (Piazza Cadorna) are positively charming. We love to sit up there and watch the people below.  I particularly like to watch the women setting up the tables in the square in the morning. Opening the canopies, smoothing the tablecloths, sweeping the cobblestones, straightening each chair….everything is done with such deliberateness and care.

So there were a few reasons we came to Stresa. First, it’s a lovely place to relax after a busy week or so in the cities…sort of a vacation from your vacation so you can arrive home rested (and it’s a reasonable distance from Milan Malpensa airport). Second, my husband and I love the amazing food and the charismatic chef at Ristorante La Botta. Third, there is a cable car that takes you up Mottarone mountain (elevation 4892 feet) which is lots of fun and has an incredible view of the lake and surrounding alps. We also like to pop in to the local Carrefour grocery store for souvenirs to take home – like Kinder chocolates, espresso coffee and other little things we can’t get easily at home.

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While checking in with Laura I learned that the chef at La Botta was gone and there was a new owner and chef.  The Mottarone cable car was closed indefinitely, or until they found funding for repairs (OK, I admit it was a bit shaky the last time I went up it). My only saving grace was a walk over to the grocery store. I did. It was Sunday, and it was closed for the day.

We’d spent the last four hours getting here, things felt like they were unraveling and I was starting to have a little pity party. I left Joe back in the room to test out the abilities of the free wifi, and I went for a walk. To remedy my disappointments I stopped at a new gelato place…well. new to me, I hadn’t seen it before. It looked homemade. I chose something called Viola. It was pale purple. I’m thinking it was violet or lavender, I know it was delicious. (Trying to figure it out though, there seems to be a famous “Viola Gelato” maker too….more research required) I also added Riso Flan – rice pudding(?) gelato. Totally yummy. Things were looking up. (I swear a good gelato can solve a lot of problems). Strolling up the street, however, I found myself standing against a stone building, eating gelato in the sunshine, and watching this:

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I was glad I had my sunglasses on when the tears (of joy!) began….I was standing in the warm sun, enjoying a delicious gelato, watching old men play bocce. On a Sunday afternoon. In Italy.  Life really was OK. Fabulous even.

We decided to check out La Botta that night. We dined early and had a nice chat with the new owner. The wife is the hostess and runs the front of the house, the husband is the head chef.  They trained with the old chef for a few months while they transitioned the business. The menu was almost identical, the vibe was not quite so boisterous (but we were early), a line was growing outside the door, and the food was delicious. I recognized the edgy tattooed waitress from last year – she has been working there for 17 years.  We enjoyed broiled mozzarella with speck (an unusual presentation but made sense in this alpine part of the country where speck is dominant and cheese is often melted), gnocchi (like fluffy pillows!) with venison ragu, risotto with gorgonzola and pears (a flavor combination I’ve enjoyed in tortellini at Quattro Leoni in Florence and on bruschetta in Rome), wine, desserts and water. And as part of the ambiance – a bowl on peanuts in the shell on the table. We thanked the owner when we left, wished her the best of luck, and told her we hoped to see her next year. I hope we do.

For a bustling little town, Stresa really quiets down in the evening. We bid Buona Notte to the mountains in the distance before turning in for an incredibly peaceful sleep.

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2015 Italy Food Diaries, Day 9

Saturday was our last full day in Florence and the first day in our entire vacation with any genuine threat of rainy weather.  Things were a little drippy in the morning, so we lay low for a bit….reading, checking email, eating leftover bistecca for breakfast. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the forecast when you’re travelling over here. There are plenty of indoor activities (well, more so when you’re into art and churches and museums), certain outdoor activities that are better avoided during rainy days, and of course there is the laundry to think about. The Italian style clothes dryer is the line or the folding rack….all drip dry.  We were fortunate to have a small terrace in this apartment, which sped up the drying process (What took about 36 hours in Rome, took about 18 here – a little drier air I think).  It is a benefit of apartment renting, however. Pack three or four outfits and do laundry every few days.

We had other hometown friends visiting Florence who had just arrived and were able to meet up with them for lunch. They suggested Trattoria Georgio in Oltrarno, so I called to reserve a table.  We dawdled a bit too long and only gave ourselves 20 minutes to reach the restaurant. For the record, it’s not easy – even at a fast clip – to get from Mercato Centrale area to Santo Spirito area in 20 minutes.  The trattoria offered some lunch specials (Primi, Secondi, Contorni for a fixed price), but we went with individual items.  It’s easy to be tempted by the multi-course options, and usually they are a better package price, but often it’s simply too much food and you’re better off picking a few items. Here’s what reached our table (I forgot to take pictures!)….

Risotto with Onions and Pancetta

Ravioli with Beef Ragu

Antipasti with Salumi, Olives, Pickled Onions, Crostini Toscana (chicken liver pate)

Pappardelle with Cingiale (wild boar) Ragu

Green Salad (just lettuce – very common here)

Tomato Salad (just real fresh tomatoes)

Water, Coke, a little Wine, Coffee, Bread

Everything was very good, it was wonderful to catch up with friends, and i think our total was 50-55 euro for the four of us. We saved just enough room for gelato by the river.

We walked towards one of our favorite gelato places by one of the bridges. As we walked in something didn’t seem quite the same as I remembered then I realized we were one bridge up from our usual spot. We left there and continued down to the Santo Spirito bridge, and the gelato spot I remembered.  I can’t recall what everyone else chose, but I went with Mascarpone & Fig, and Frutti di Bosco Cheesecake. It was yummy.  (Ironically later that evening I asked a chef-instructor where his favorite gelato place was in all of Florence and he said the one by the third bridge….the one we walked OUT of. Next time!!)

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We meandered back towards our apartment through the ritzy part of town – Gucci, Prada, Dolce e Gabana, that sort of thing. I am entirely out of my element in places like that but it’s fun to look in the windows. Our friends were walking towards the main train station to get their bearings and see where they would be catching a bus to Siena on Monday morning.

Lunch and our walk were leisurely, and after a short stop in the apartment we were heading back out for our cooking class. As a cook/baker kind of professional, I’ve really never had much interest in taking a cooking class, I thought it might be a bit boring for me, but it seemed like a good activity for a teenager on a rainy day. He choose the ‘Pizza and Gelato’ class. Oh what fun.

We walked 15 minutes to a spot past the Duomo to meet the class at the Florencetown offices. We then all walked back to their kitchens, about a block from our apartment.  There was a fun group – 18 of us I think – from all kinds of places.  A couple of Aussies, I believe a French couple, some Cuban women from Brooklyn, a sweet couple from Minnesota, two college students from Germany, another student (of Russian descent) from New York….and the two of us. We washed up, grabbed aprons, signed wavers, and each took a spot at one of the marble-topped tables.  One of the chefs guided us through making pizza dough by hand, making a well in the flour and adding a simple cup of water mixed with yeast and sugar. Nothing else. We mixed and kneaded the dough then left the dough balls to rise in the center of the tables while the second guide/chef demonstrated gelato making.

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He discussed ingredients, the difference between gelato and ice-cream, how to spot the best gelato, and more, while mixing up the sugar and cream and cocoa for our chocolate base. When he put the mixture into the gelato machine, we all went back to work on our pizzas. We learned how to properly flatten and stretch the dough with our hands (alas, no throwing it up in the air!), we each made a customized identifiable pie, used the pizza peel to bring them in by the ovens, and the chefs loaded them up.  WIth a 700+ degree oven, they cooked in about 5 minutes and were delish!

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The instructors were entertaining, it was fun to mingle with other travelers, and at about 50 euro a person (less for students/kids) it was wonderful way to spend three hours.  (Not to mention that it included dinner – pizza, wine and gelato!) The company (Florencetown) offers all kinds of tour outings – cooking, biking and more. We will definitely be using some of our new pizza skills at home!!  (and keeping an eye out for a commercial gelato machine!)