Thursday, March 31, 2011

Keep the Italian Light! ...and Hearty. Also: Art for H2O.

I've long promised to clear up some misconceptions about Italy and--specifically--Italian cuisine. It is inevitably going to come off as if I'm being conceited and/or snobbish, but there is a reason people are stunned when they travel to Italy and find that Italians don't have the gross obesity problem that we have in the United States, and that their fantasy of the 'fat, happy, laissez-faire Italian' is a total myth.

Let us start with a Certain Franchise Chain of So-Called Italian Restaurants in The United States. Let's call them "The Garden of Olives." It claims, in its television ads, to send its recipe cooks to Italy to learn Italian cuisine from professional native chefs, and that they bring back native recipes for use in their restaurants. I can tell you, I've never heard of most of their recipes, and I am speaking from 20-plus years of Italian living, in Italy. Believe me, there is no such thing as Soffitelli in true Italian cookery. It is a contrivance. In fact, heavy cream sauces are more of a French peculiarity than an Italian one--Alfredo sauce is, after all, American. True Italians prefer light sauces, sparingly used, tomato-based, rather more watery--unless they are classified as a ragȏut (ragù, in Italy). We also do not use heavy dressings on our salads, even vinaigrette blends; you are more likely to have bottles of olive oil and wine vinegar placed before you, or a wedge of lemon, and salt and pepper shakers. Don't get me wrong, I like The O.G. But don't be fooled--it's about as Italian as mac & cheese.

Italians cannot even take credit for modern pizza: it was invented in Naples, Italy, but perfected to the pies we love today in New York City.

Adding "-illi" or "-oni" or "-elli" to a recipe name does not automatically make it Italian. The best way to authenticate Italian food is to study what real Italians eat every day.

Unfortunately, this rules out Italian-Americans. Truth be told, most Italian-Americans are of Sicilian extraction, and though they seem to have a taste for heavy, rich sauces, the abundance of cheese, and baked pasta dishes, even true Sicilians don't eat those things. Perhaps there are some who still swear by their great-grandmother's 8-hour slow-cooked Chianti meat sauce. If one were to travel to Sicily, perhaps the most surprising thing would be how much they rely on fresh fish, their fragrant lemon and citron groves, and their rich olives for oil and fruit.

Enough with dispelling myths, for now. On to the GOOD stuff--the food!

Recent offerings from our kitchen...

Vegetarian Salsa Verde Chili (Chilli):

We recently discovered Salsa Verde--a most amazingly fresh, piquant and tangy version of the famous Mexican sauce, seemingly milder but bursting with grassy, spicy flavor. Our bean-y, onion-and-garlic saturated vegetarian chili benefits from its addition, and the fresh corn adds the usual sweet bite!

String Beans & Shrimp Sauté with Cannellini:

Stir-fried in olive oil, parsley, and lemon juice, this is such an easy recipe, and delicious if you keep the string beans slightly undercooked and snappy!

Steamed White Asparagus:

I was suspicious of white asparagus, but we tried them the "usual way," with salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar, and they are a full-bodied, delightfully sweet version of the original. Oh, they are good!

Lentil Soup...Paola's Way:

Totally vegetarian, as well--which is shocking, considering the decidedly smoked-meat flavor of this hearty soup! I say hearty, but it is surprisingly light and delicious over crusty bread (the French way). You can see we've added carrots, onions, garlic and stewed tomatoes to the broth. Red Lentils alone make this taste as if we'd added bacon to it--which we haven't! Good for winter or summer, really, and indigestion-proof.

Buon Appetito!

PLEASE READ ONI want to take a moment here to address a serious problem which needs worldwide attention. A vast number of people are living without clean, fresh water to drink or with which to clean themselves. Women and children in certain parts of Africa have to travel MILES to draw water from dirty, choleric rivers or wells. You can help: go to , Paola's art site, and 50% of profits made from any artwork sold between March 15 and June 30 will be donated to WATER.ORG. This magnificent organization directly helps poor countries by building wells and proper sanitation systems, so that clean water is available to everyone. I was astonished to learn that a child dies of water-borne disease every 20 seconds. It is an unacceptable statistic, and can be prevented. Take action if you can! Thank you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Little Bit of Everything (Visual)

There has been little time for wordiness these days, so perhaps we're at a good point to make one post that is totally about the visual. I'll limit the commentary to notes about the recipes themselves. Here, then, is a list of a few dishes from the past few days:


We're talking a rather mild chili here, made with red kidney beans, chili powder & other spices, garlic, sweet onions, chopped chicken, canned corn, chopped garlic and jalapeno sauce. We make this one soupy, sometimes, and serve it with grated American cheddar and a dollop of sour cream:


Boil the broccoli rabe until just tender, toss with pasta, minced garlic, olive oil, parmesan, crushed red pepper--and some people (like us!) like to throw in some minced anchovies. That's real Italian cooking!


Disclaimer: this is not how we usually cook them. This is a recipe with meat and tomatoes and onions. What we usually do is grate a few potatoes and a lot of fresh ginger, chop some onions, and cook the lot in a frying pan with a few spoons of oil, mild yellow curry powder, salt & pepper, and stuff all that into the peppers. Oven at 350 F for maybe 40-45 minutes. Believe me, it's the best thing ever! So savoury and aromatic!


If you have some grated potatoes & sweet onion left over, you can make a great frittata by frying them in some oil (canola) and adding beaten eggs at the end. I didn't think I would, but I enjoyed this made with just egg whites, too (wonderful and low cholesterol).

Next, we'll clear up some misconceptions about Italian food, and yes...more pics!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Golden Fruit

Tomato sauce: the life's blood of any good kitchen!

There is something to be said for the Italian-American tradition of cooking crushed tomatoes for 8 hours, with various spices and a splash of Chianti, but despite what those Sicilian mainstays in your favorite Brooklyn neighborhood will tell you, that is NOT what most native Italians will call a "plain" tomato sauce...the famous "marinara."

The first time I ever heard the term "marinara," I'll admit that even I thought it had something to do with seafood. I mean, it has the prefix "marin--" right in there. As a matter of fact, marinara sauce was served aboard ships, because the lack of meat, and the high acidity of tomatoes, meant that it didn't spoil quite as quickly in the galley.

I will further admit that in our family, we're not too proud to use tinned crushed tomatoes--though we will often splurge for the San Marzano variety, which are famously grown in the volcanic earth of the Campania region. In today's post, though, we are working with fresh local tomatoes from South Florida fields. Twenty years ago, our own house was surrounded by tomato fields!

First, the tomatoes are scalded until the skins split.

Next, I scald my own hands by peeling the skin off. 

Tomatoes are then blitzed in the food processor, but we really prefer to keep the sauce a little on the chunky side, just to really enjoy that tender, fresh bite of the fruit--

Into the pot. Now, for a traditional marinara, you would have first put a few cloves of fresh garlic in to sizzle with some olive oil, then added the sauce, salt, basil leaves and a few crushed red pepper flakes, which is probably my very favorite style--

--but in this case, we made the sauce a bit milder, with basil and sweet Vidalia onions...more "alla fiorentina" (Florence-style). I am always under the impression that the further south one travels in Italy, the spicier things get, and that's probably due to the Arabic influences in the south. (N.b. Italy is a fairly small country, and what can be called "arabic" influence--and Byzantine, for that matter--is fairly obvious even in the architecture as far north as Venice. Just look at the bronze statues of the Moors in Saint Mark's Square). At this point, it's fairly obvious that Italy is, and has been, as much a melting pot as any other major country on earth.

Sugo di Pomodoro alla Fiorentina:

Can't you just smell it? :)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Cook, the Kitchen, My Mom, & a Camera.

Welcome to our kitchen!
It isn't gleaming with brushed steel, and there are no turnip-peelers or sub-zeroes, but it is nonetheless the birthplace of some truly gorgeous plates of food. My mother (La Cuoca) was born half an hour outside of Venice, Italy. She has little patience for what commonly passes for "Italian food" here in the U.S. This blog will definitely be touching upon some common misconceptions in that arena. Ours isn't an exclusively Italian kitchen, though, and we love to use the local produce of South Florida as often as we can. We've international tastes, having traveled so much as a family. There will be a few recipe secrets and delicious advice given out here, but this is no Julie/Julia project; we mean to educate, entice, and entertain!

That's where I come in: as La Cuoca's daughter, I'm the Sous-Chef, photographer, and online record-keeper. Having said that, it's important to point out that, while the blog was my idea, mamma is most definitely in charge (we spent half the day thinking up a title, and the other half finding a profile photo she could live with. Artists!*).

To start, something simple.

You can scorch-roast some fresh bell peppers on your gas stove burners (after lining them with foil), but in all honesty, you get very similar results by setting them on a lined cookie sheet, and sticking them under your oven broiler, set to high:

See how nicely they roast? Don't let anyone tell you it tastes different--it's the exact same process.

Here I am, attempting to both peel the still-piping roasted peppers, and achieve 3rd-degree burns, at which I'm succeeding beautifully.

Meanwhile, La Cuoca is sautéeing some toothsome baby eggplants in a sweet-and-sour red wine vinegar reduction:

Eventually, she will insist that I wait until the food is off the stove and properly plated before I snap these shots, but until that spatula comes flying at my head, I'll look forward to the steam on my HP camera lens. I hope you all will, too! BUON APPETITO!

Next: Simple tomato sauce, made from fresh tomatoes.

* Mamma isn't just a Michelangelo in the kitchen--she's also a bona fide fine artist. You can browse her online gallery and purchase exclusive pieces at