Monday, September 26, 2011


When I received a copy of Cucina Povera, a new cookbook by Pamela Sheldon Johns, I couldn't stop turning the pages. Not because it has glossy pages with slick copy - it doesn't. I was drawn to it because of the rustic, matte feel of the paper, the jagged, deckle edges of each page and most of all, the beautiful photos, recipes and stories of the people whose very lives and traditions are outlined in this book.

For these people, cucina povera (peasant cooking) was a necessity. And even though most of us can afford to indulge in small culinary luxuries nowadays, that doesn't mean we shouldn't respect the bounty that's available or waste food either. Eating what's in season, making simple dishes from the freshest ingredients, and preserving foods for the lean days of winter are lessons we can all benefit from in order to live healthier lives and preserve resources.

Cucina Povera contains delicious recipes - from soups to pastas, meats and vegetables to desserts like this cookie called "sfratti," plural of the word "sfratto," which means eviction. These cookies are one of the old recipes from Pitigliano, a Tuscan town that once housed a large Jewish population. Sadly, many of the Jews were forced to flee during World War II, following Mussolini's racial laws. This recipe is a traditional Rosh Hashanah treat from Pitigliano's Jewish heritage.

Sfratti may be considered "cucina povera" but there's no feeling of deprivation once you've tried these. Here's a visual guide on how to make them, followed by the recipe.

After you've madethe filling, spread it out on the rolled-out dough.

Roll the dough over the filling.
Continue rolling until you have something that looks like a large cigar. The shape is meant to evoke the batons that officials used to bang on the doors of Jews to evict them.
Brush with beaten egg yolk and bake.
Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.
Betcha' can't eat just one.


From Pamela Sheldon Johns' "Cucina Povera"

Printable Recipe Here


  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup sugar

  • pinch of slat

  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 2/3 cup sweet white wine

  • 1 cup honey

  • 4 cups walnuts, chopped

  • 2 tsps. grated orange zest

  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1 egg yolk, beaten

  1. For the pastry: In a large bowl, combine, the flour, sugar and salt. Stir with a whisk to blend. Stir in the olive oil and wine to make a smooth dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

  3. For the filling: In a medium saucepan, heat the honey over medium heat. Add the walnuts, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves, and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

  4. Divide the chilled dough into 8 pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll a piece of dough into a 4 x 10-inch rectangle. Spoon 1/2 cup of the filling along the center of the length of the dough and roll it up. Place on the prepared baking sheet, seam side down. Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling. Brush the pastry with the egg yolk, and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

  5. Transfer the pastries from the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. To serve, cut each pastry into 1-inch thick slices and dust with confectioner's sugar. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Makes about 6 dozen slices

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ribollita and Vegetable Soup

I don't know about you, but my vegetable garden is looking pretty raggedy in these last days of summer. That is, except for the swiss chard and Tuscan kale. They're the champions of the garden - still going strong and perfect for vegetable soup and ribollita. For the record, the photo above isn't vegetable soup - it's ribollita, an Italian word that means re-boiled.  The first time I ordered ribollita in Italy, I was surprised to be served something that was more of a thick, vegetable stew than a liquidy soup. But that's what it's meant to be. In an attempt to use every morsel and not waste anything, thrifty Italians took leftover bread and added it to the previous day's vegetable soup to make something even more hearty. It's a classic recipe from the region of Tuscany, whose landscapes never fail to enchant.

It's also one of the easiest and best ways to use up some of those delicious and nutritious fall vegetables you might still have in your garden. Here are the basic ingredients for my soup, whether it's vegetable soup or ribollita. You can use your imagination and add other ingredients if you like. If you've got a leftover parmigiano reggiano rind, throw that in. I always have a few that I've saved in the freezer.
Once the pot has simmered for a while, add the beans and it should look like this - a hearty and soul-warming soup to ward off the chill from a brisk fall day. Leftovers freeze well too, so don't worry about making too much.
Here it is served as a brothy vegetable soup.
And here it is as ribollita, after adding some bread and reheating. Traditional ribollita is much thicker than this, and you can practically have a spoon standing on end inside a deep bowl of it, but this was prepared immediately following the vegetable soup. If you let the bread soak overnight and reheat the next day, it attains the thicker consistency.

Vegetable Soup/Ribollita

Printable recipe here

This isn't like making a cake where you have to be exact in the quantities, so feel free to change or add/subtract whatever ingredients and quantities you prefer.

1 large onion, minced

6 cloves garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

3 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

swiss chard, about 20 leaves chopped and stalks sliced

Tuscan kale, lacinato kale, dinosaur kale (same thing) - about 16 -20 leaves, chopped up

1/2 savoy cabbage, chopped up

2 small zucchini, chopped

8-10 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned is fine and you can add more if you like a stronger tomato flavor)

2 14-ounce cannellini beans

1 parmesan cheese rind

16 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)

salt, pepper

fresh or dried thyme and basil as you like

a hearty, stale bread for ribollita

olive oil to drizzle on top

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until limp. Add all the rest of the ingredients except the beans and simmer for about a half hour. Add the beans and cook another half hour. Serve immediately as vegetable soup with some parmesan sprinkled on top. Or layer some soup and bread in a bowl or pot and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. Reheat the next day and you've got ribollita. Serve with parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Do you really need another chocolate chip cookie recipe? Don't answer that until you've tried this recipe. These cookies spread out and are flat, rather than sit in a cake-y lump on the cookie sheet. They're crunchy along the edges, yet soft and chewy in the middle. Hot out of the oven with the chocolate softly melting in your mouth, they're irresistible. They may become my standard chocolate-chip cookie. The only thing I'd do different in the future is add some walnuts.

They're included in a new cookbook called "The Cookiepedia" that was sent to me recently. The book includes a diverse array of cookies, but I immediately was drawn to the Italian biscuits recipe since it reminded me of Serpette - a cookie I eat whenever I'm in the Castelli Romani, a series of towns southeast of Rome. Serpette always have a crunchy, sugary top, so I brushed some egg white and sprinkled some sugar on the top before baking - something that wasn't in Cookiepedia's recipe. It added just the right amount of sweetness to a cookie that's not very sweet, but is addictively delicious. My go-to cookie is always my friend Lilli's biscotti, but these are also destined to be a classic in my cookie repertoire now. Add a glass of vin santo or a cup of espresso and you can't get much better.

From the Cookbook "Cookiepedia" by Stacy Adimando

Chocolate Chip Cookies

makes between 16 and two dozen cookies

printable recipe here

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda

  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

  • 1/3 c. sugar

  • 1/2 c. light brown sugar

  • 1 large egg

  • 3/4 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 1 cup (about 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks

  1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt into a big bowl and stir. Set the bowl aside.

  2. Cream the butter and sugars for several minutes, until they look light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix until just combined. Add the flour mixture right into the butter mixture. Mix on low speed until they're incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips.

  3. Go down the line dropping tablespoon-sized balls of dough onto parchment-paper-lined cookie sheets. Leave about 2 inches between them so they have plenty of room to spread. Bake for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven, rotating the sheets halfway through baking.

Italian Biscuits
makes from 16 to 2 dozen cookies
  • 4 T. unsalted butter

  • 1 3/4 cups plus 2 T. all-purpose flour

  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder

  • 1/4 t. salt

  • 2 eggs

  • 1/3 cup sugar

  • 1 1/2 t. vanilla extract

  1. Melt the butter and set aside to cool slightly. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl and set it aside.

  2. With a mixer, beat the eggs on medium speed for a minute. Add the sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to mix on medium until they're combined. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the cooled butter and vanilla.

  3. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed just until the dough comes together.

  4. Scoop out tablespoon-sized balls of dough and roll them between your fingers into ropes about 5 inches long. Gently form the ropes into S shapes. Place the cookies on sheets about 2 inches from one another. Let them sit for 15 minutes before baking. (Optional - brush with a little egg white and sprinkle sugar on top.)

  5. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until golden brown.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Risotto con Persico (perch)

Some of my favorite recipe ideas - like this one - come from eating in restaurants. Like me, you've no doubt made risotto countless times, but have you ever tried it with perch - while overlooking the lake where it was swimming just a few hours earlier? Me either, but while I was in Italy this summer, I spent a few days on Lago Maggiore, one of the beautiful lakes in Northern Italy.
On my last night there, I had the best meal of my entire trip at a restaurant called Verbano - on the small island of Isola Pescatore, located on Lago Maggiore. It's one of several islands on the lake and is oozing with charm. You can walk all its streets in just fifteen minutes but I could spend a lifetime looking at the views. All around you are the foothills of the Alps, and you can see Monte Rosa in the distance - Europe's second highest mountain. 
From my table, I looked directly onto another island - Isola Bella - and the beautiful Borromeo palace, built in the 1600s. 
The baroque palace is filled with precious artwork, tapestries and furniture, but the gardens surrounding it rival the building in their grandiose splendor.
In the photo below, Isola Bella and its gardens are in the foreground. The island in the distance at left is Isola Pescatore, where I enjoyed the risotto con persico and other great dishes.
As long as we're here on Lago Maggiore, let me show you another enchanting wonder along the lake - the hermitage of Santa Caterina. Legend has it that a wealthy merchant shipwrecked on these rocks in the 12th century and prayed to Saint Catherine to guide him to safety. In return, he promised to live a hermit's life, which he did, holed up in a cave here for 35 years. The existing structures, which include a monastery and a church, were built starting in the 13th century. 
As you approach by boat, you can see the building clinging to the sheer cliffs of the island. You have to wonder how they achieved this engineering feat so many centuries ago.
One thing that you won't find to be a feat is making this risotto I ate for my first course at Verbano. I was able to find perch at my local fish store, but if you can't find it, you can use lots of other types of fish to achieve similar results. Flounder, sole, tilapia would all work just fine.
Start by cutting up the raw fish into small pieces, but save one nice size piece to place on top.
Poach that one small piece for a few minutes in fish broth. Cover it to keep it warm. You'll use the fish broth to cook the risotto too. I make my own anytime I cook shrimp and save it in the freezer for later use. Just take some shrimp shells, plus some onion, black peppercorns, garlic and parsley and simmer it in a pot of water. Strain it, then cool it before putting it in the freezer.
Start cooking the risotto as you do any other risotto, slowly adding a bit of broth at intervals.
In the last five minutes, add the small pieces of fish and more broth. Keep stirring until the fish is opaque and the risotto is cooked. Add minced parsley and a pat of butter at the last minute.
Garnish with the small piece of fish that you poached separately and a little cherry tomato.
The rest of the meal was equally as good if not better - including the main course of striped bass and a dreamy lemon dessert - a liqueur-soaked lemon cake resting on a pool of lemon sauce, all accompanied by a cup of lemon mousse and decorated with a lemon leaf, whipped cream and fresh currants.
On my way to the ladies' room, some of the chefs were catching a smoke outside and I asked for the cake recipe, which they graciously gave me. At a certain point, I'll post it here, but not until I've experimented in my home kitchen and whittled down the recipe from the gargantuan portion written by the chef. In the meantime, try the risotto.

Risotto Con Persico (perch)

for two servings
3 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1/4 cup minced shallot
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup arborio rice
3-4 cups simmering fish broth (use a mixture of water and clam juice if you don't have or can't find fish broth in your store)
1/2 pound perch, cut into small pieces (cut off two larger-sized pieces to use on top as decoration)
salt, pepper
minced parsley
1 pat of butter

Melt the butter with the olive oil and saute the shallot until wilted. Add the rice and stir until coated, then add the white wine. Slowly add the broth, a ladle or two at a time, stirring all the while until the rice absorbs each ladleful. It should take about 20 minutes to finish cooking the risotto. During the last five minutes, add the parsley and pieces of fish and cook through until they're opaque. Add a pat of butter and stir into the risotto. Serve in bowls with a small piece of fish and a cherry tomato on top for decoration.
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Friday, September 9, 2011

72 Hours In Chicago

I was in Chicago once - eons ago when dinosaurs walked the earth I think. Come to think of it, the only thing I remember about that visit when I was six years old - other than my aunt's wedding - was the Field Museum, where today you really can see dinosaurs that move.
This time around I had people to meet and things to see that didn't include triceratops and T-Rex. A lot of my three-day trip with my friend Lilli involved exploring Chicago's food scene, and you can read about that here. This post will take you along for the non-food part (yes I do more than just eat), starting with a relaxing boat trip highlighting the architectural wonders of the windy city. It was a great introduction to Chicago's diverse architecture and a good way to get a sense of where things were.   
Later on the trip, we explored on foot some of what we had seen on the water, including the Chicago Tribune building, a neo-Gothic building with lots of beautiful tracery near the front entrance.
Embedded near the base the building are myriad stones, bricks and artifacts that were collected from all over the world. I felt right at home when I saw the piece of stone from Princeton University.
You can't help noticing the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower). It's the highest building in North America, and stands 1,450 feet high.
You get a great view of the city from the top. On a really clear day, you can see across Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
A couple of years ago, these glass balcony boxes were added to the building, allowing visitors to step out and look 1,343 feet below to the street. Yours truly had to go for it, and honestly, it's not as scary as it might seem. 

But if you'd rather stay at ground level, there's plenty to see and do. Take the time to head to the beach - right in the city. Except for the lack of waves, you might think you're at the ocean rather than Lake Michigan.

Walk the magnificent mile along Michigan Ave. and you'll find not just trendy shops, but sidewalks brimming with beautiful plantings, and even small fountains in some cases.

One thing I definitely didn't think I'd see in downtown Chicago was this crenellated building that looks like it belongs in Disneyworld. Turns out it was built as a water tower in 1869 but now serves as one of the city's official visitor's centers.
You'll find public sculpture along the sidewalks too, including these - the top left is by Picasso, the large one at right is by Jean Dubuffet, and the Marilyn sculpture (temporary until Spring) at lower left is by New Jersey's own Seward Johnson.
But the one that really captured my attention was "Cloud Gate" - more affectionally known as "the bean," created by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor. 

It's located in Millennium Park, a really fun place to spend some time. It's where Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion also is located, and you even might be able to hear a concert while you're there, as we did.

One of my favorite things about the city has to be the Crown Fountain, also located in Millennium Park. It's an interactive sculpture that uses light-emitting diodes on its glass-bricked towers to feature the constantly changing faces of local residents. Water spurts out of the mouth periodically, entertaining all the children playing there and the people watching, including me. Click on the video and see if it doesn't make you smile too.
Here's a nighttime view of the fountain, but it's never the same twice.
While we're on the subject of fountains, you've got to visit Buckingham Fountain too - a beautiful pink marble fountain that's one of the largest in the world. 
 When we walked into the Chicago Cultural Center, which has a glass dome designed by Louis Tiffany (the largest in the world) we thought we'd entered a concert hall. A talented pianist named Clara Min was rehearsing for a performance that we were sorry we would have to miss. The interior of the building was stunning, with glittering mosaics everywhere.

My very favorite place in Chicago has got to be the Art Institute. I spent three hours there one afternoon, but was wishing for at least three more. It's got a fantastic collection, and is the major reason I definitely want to come back to Chicago.
Here's only a smattering of the art I saw - clockwise from top left -  Renoir, Seurat, Sorolla, Monet, Pisarro and Degas.
      It was hard to tear myself away from the impressionists, but there was so much more to see - just a few more examples to entice - clockwise from left - Singer Sargeant, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Magritte and Severini.
Next time I go back, I'll plan a whole day. And it will be during the season for the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Symphonic Orchestra too. Riccardo Muti, save a seat for me.

The winner of the Blue Willow tea set giveaway - chosen with a random number generator - is Barbara of Dish N'That. Congratulations. It'll be on its way to you tomorrow.

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