Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Burrata and Tomato Bruschetta

Looking for a quick lunch? Or munchies to have with drinks? Try these bruschette with burrata cheese and grilled tomatoes. These little tomatoes have been ripening in my garden faster than you can say "pomodori" and grilling them is one of the best ways to enjoy their intense flavor. 
While you're at it, have you got any zucchini blossoms? If you're looking for a recipe other than frying, try grilling them -- stuffed with some of that burrata cheese (or a good mozzarella). 
Start with slices of Italian or French bread that have been grilled. Using some aluminum foil (or an aluminum foil pan), pour in a little olive oil, add some garlic slices and the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the tomatoes about 10 minutes or until they've burst open. Place slices of burrata and the tomatoes on the grilled bread, then place the bread on a part of the grill that's away from direct flame. Close the lid to the grill for a couple of minutes until the cheese softens. 
For the zucchini blossom, cut a strip of burrata and stuff the blossom with it (remove the stamen in the blossom first). Place the blossom on the aluminum foil that's been smeared with a little olive oil. Cook for a couple of minutes, turning once, until the cheese starts to melt.
Bookmark and Share

Friday, July 27, 2012

Grilled Veggies

 For those of you with gardens, your zucchini is coming in fast and furious right now, I'm sure. If you haven't got a garden, they're plentiful in farmer's markets too. How to use all those zucchini? I've posted lots of recipes on the blog, from stuffed zucchini to raw zucchini salad to  chocolate zucchini cake.  But grilled veggies are great for summertime, especially if you're having guests. You can make this ahead of time and serve it at room temperature. And sometimes you want something different from the ubiquitous potato salad and oil-and-vinegar-based side dishes. That's where grilled veggies come in. My favorite is zucchini, because they don't soak up as much oil as eggplants. Here I've combined the zucchini with roasted peppers (instructions here), and a sprinkling of feta cheese. Start with slicing the zucchini rather thick - about 1/4 inch. If the slices are too thin, they'll scorch on the grill. Thick slices gives the zucchini time to cook on the inside and develop nice grill marks too.
I don't have a picture for you, but I normally put the slices in a large bowl, season with minced garlic, salt, pepper and fresh herbs - here it's chives and thyme. Pour some olive oil into the bowl, then mix everything together, using your hands. Place the slices on the grill (don't stray far, they'll cook fast) and turn them once, until they're browned on each side.
Serve them alone, or with roasted peppers, more fresh herbs and a scattering of feta cheese.
Onions are great on the grill too, but to avoid having the rings fall through the grates, I use an aluminum foil pan. Run a little olive oil on each side, then season the same way - salt, pepper and fresh herbs. These take a little longer to brown, but it's worth the wait for that  caramelized goodness. I use the same technique for grilled tomatoes.
If you have leftovers, so much the better. Grilled veggies are delicious in a sandwich, as a topping for pizza, or added to pasta or rice.

Grilled Veggies

vegetables, like zucchini, eggplants, onions
olive oil
minced garlic
fresh herbs (thyme, chives)
salt, pepper

Slice the vegetables on the thick side (about 1/4 inch). Place in a bowl (not the onions or tomatoes - put them on an aluminum pan and season with the oil, garlic and herbs) Pour some olive oil over the vegetables to coat them, season with the garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Place on a hot grill and turn once, after the first side has developed nice grill marks. Flip and do the same on the other side.



Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ice Cream Treats

No baking involved on this one. It's ice cream, stuffed with a surprise and rolled in a topping. It may not cool down the temperature outdoors, but this treat is bound to cheer you on a hot summer's day. Make a bunch of these ahead of time and you've got a ready supply to serve at a fancy dinner party or holiday event too. I used three flavors of ice cream. The first one was vanilla ice cream stuffed with amarena cherries. If you've never had these, look for them at a good Italian grocery store, or online. They are nothing like the neon-red maraschino cherries sold in grocery stores. These wild cherries are steeped in a sweet syrup, making the flavor a delicious sweet and sour sensation in the mouth. They're made in Emilia-Romagna, the region my mother's from.
Take a scoop of ice cream, but don't completely make a sphere yet. Add a cherry or two to the center.
Then cover it up with more ice cream.
I then crushed some amaretti cookies and rolled the ice cream ball in them.
And tried to roll them in hot fudge sauce, but you can see it was initially a mess, since it started to melt the ice cream quite rapidly. I froze them again, then poured more cooled sauce over the top. 
I toasted some almonds for the filling I used with the toasted almond ice cream.
Then rolled the spheres in some coconut I toasted.
Freeze the balls for a couple of hours and you're ready to go. It's hard to say which flavor I loved best - they were all scrumptious. What flavor combos can you think of?
 Congratulations to Lori Lynn, of "Taste With The Eyes," the winner of the giveaway for the chitarra maker on my last post.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Maccheroni alla Chitarra + giveaway

 Maccheroni alla chitarra is a typical Abruzzese pasta made with an egg dough and an implement called a "chitarra," the same word used for the musical instrument, the guitar. It's a multi-stringed rectangular wooden implement with metal wires across the top. 
Before the invention of the chitarra in the mid-19th century, the same shape was achieved by cutting the pasta with a shoemaker's hammer called a rintrocilo. In some places in Abruzzo, the rintrocilo is still used, although now it's made expressly for pasta, not for shoes, and it looks like a grooved rolling pin. Centuries ago, the rintrocilo was made of iron, but today it's made out of soft wood like beech.
While I was in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, our writing group from Italy, In Other Words, got a first-hand demonstration on making spaghetti alla chitarra by Liliana Coceanig, who along with her husband Carmelio Fulgensi, runs the restaurant and agriturismo "Al Borgo." 
Liliana made the dough with flour and eggs and rolled it out in rectangles, using a short rolling pin, in preparation for running it across the top of the chitarra. The pasta emerges at the bottom in long strands that are square shaped. She also demonstrated how she uses a large rolling pin for cutting tagliatelle or making ravioli. When she finishes rolling it out, the sheet of pasta covers nearly the whole table.
For the tagliatelle, after making the dough, she holds the opposite edges of finished sheet with her hands and rolls each side toward the center. It looks something like a jelly roll with a slit in the middle. She then slices it, lifts it from the center using a long knife as a guide and it unfurls into separate strands.
Liliana favors orange clogs, just like the well-known American chef Mario Batali.
Here are Liliana and her husband Carmelio, each with a different size rolling pin, or mattarello. Their son Silvan, whom I introduced you to on my last blog post featuring lentil salad, is a lentil grower and owner of a new bar in town called "Il Ristoro degli Elfi." 
That night at dinner, we ate Liliana's maccheroni alla chitarra, plus a few other dishes she made, including ravioli with mushroom sauce. 
And gnocchi too. 
The meal started with a platter of homemade affettati (sliced cold meats) and a spicy eggplant and hot pepper spread.
The grilled smoked scamorza was excellent, better than anywhere else I've tried it.
Here's a video of Liliana making pasta for our group. Take a look at a real expert making the dough. 


And check out her technique in rolling out the dough:
Now for the giveaway. Wouldn't you love to own one of those wooden implements to make your own maccheroni alla chitarra at home? I'm giving one away so you can try it yourself.

 All you have to do is leave a comment stating your favorite pasta dish and sauce. Please don't leave your comment in my email - you need to leave it on the blog to be eligible. You don't need to have a blog, but I need some way to contact you if your name is chosen (by random number generator), so leave an email or home address please.

Maccheroni Alla Chitarra
printable recipe here

For the pasta, follow the step-by-step instructions and recipe here:

For the sauce - use your favorite or this one - a tradition sauce made with lamb and peppers from
Italy Dish by Dish:

1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb lamb, cut into small pieces
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 lbs. peeled tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. fresh marjoram leaves (substitute basil if you don't have it)
a pinch of hot pepper flakes
1/2 red pepper, cut into strips
1/2 yellow pepper, cut into strips
1/2 green pepper, cut into strips
salt, pepper
grated pecorino cheese

Saute the onions and garlic in 1 1/2 T. olive oil, then add the lamb and brown. Add the wine, tomatoes, bay leaf, marjoram and hot pepper flakes and lower the heat. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Let the sauce cook while you make the pasta. After the sauce cooks about an hour, saute the peppers in the remaining olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the pasta in salted water, drain and toss with the peppers, then with the lamb ragu. Serve garnished with grated pecorino cheese.
Bookmark and Share

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lentil Salad

  Maybe you've had enough plain old lettuce and tomato salad by this time of year and you're ready for something a little different. This salad of lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, tossed with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and other ingredients will awaken your taste buds and keep you healthy too since lentils are high in fiber and a good source of protein and minerals.
Lentils from Santo Stefano are just about the finest you'll find anywhere. They're known for their small size, earthy flavor and tender outer husk. Because of their tiny size and extremely thin outer coating, they don't need any special soaking and have a shorter cooking time.
They grow on land that's within Abruzzo's Gran Sasso National Park, at altitudes that can reach as high as 1600 meters (higher than 5,000 feet.)   The cultivation of lentils in this area has been documented by monks as far back as the year 998 A.D.

Santo Stefano provides the ideal climate for growing lentils - cold, long winters and a short, brisk springtime. Lentils love the predominantly limestone soil of the area and don't need any fertilization so they're ideally suited for the poor terrain of the mountains. They're harvested between the end of July and the end of August and the town holds a festival the first weekend of September to celebrate the legume. It can take as long as 15 days to bring in the harvest, which is almost always done manually. That's mainly because the lentils, which must be separated from their pods, are so tiny, and there's a loss of 30 percent to 40 percent with mechanical harvesting. But it's also difficult to get equipment into some of the growing areas.  The photo below shows the lentils just released from their dried pod.
Most of the lentil growers in Santo Stefano are older retired people who cultivate them strictly for family use. That means each year fewer and fewer are available commercially, and they're impossible to find in the U.S.  Even in Italy, they're not readily available outside of Abruzzo. To help stem the sale of lentils falsely claiming to be from Santo Stefano, the local Slow Food organization, or presidium,  requires identification of the grower to be on the label. Below is a photo of Silvan Fulgensi, among the younger growers, and a member of the presidium, shown holding a sifter used to shake the lentils from their outer pods. Silvan and his wife Anna were just putting the finishing touches on a new bar in town called Il Ristoro Degli Elfi, so if you do visit Santo Stefano, stop in, have a drink and a bite to eat.

Lentil Salad

Since you'll be hard pressed to find lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio (unless you're going to be in Abruzzo), try using Puy lentils from France, found at most gourmet food stores, as a substitute in the recipe below.

1 cup lentils - preferably from Santo Stefano di Sessanio
water to cover
1 bay leaf

Place the lentils and the bay leaf in a pot and cover with water to an inch above the lentils. Bring the water to a boil and simmer in a covered pot, for 20 minutes. Drain, remove the bay leaf and let cool to room temperature, then add the other ingredients.

Add:

1/2 cup canned artichoke hearts, cut up into small pieces
1/2 cup roasted red peppers, diced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup jarred green pepperoncini, minced
1/4 cup minced parsley
salt, pepper to taste

Add the above ingredients to the lentils and mix with the dressing. Serve over a bed of lettuce and garnish with tomatoes.

Dressing:

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 T. vinegar (I used white balsamic)
salt, pepper

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Santo Stefano Redux

 Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a town in Abruzzo that beckons with a quiet beauty. It doesn't scream to be noticed, but its austere, centuries-old architecture and setting in the Gran Sasso National Park is a welcome balm to the visitor jaded with tourist traps and rushed itineraries.  It's a place to savor a slower pace, a quieter time and to honor traditions of the past. I've written about it here and here, and went back six weeks ago to help co-teach the Italy, In Other Words writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian. This year, I was just as captivated as ever by this mysterious, enchanting village. I can't think of a place better suited for a week of writing,  and I'm sure the other writers on this year's trip would agree. Nature lovers, history lovers and anyone who values the work and world of cultures who came before us would find welcome respite here too, away from the frenzy of Rome, an hour and a half to the west.
It wouldn't be so captivating a place were it not for one Daniele Kihlgren, who in 1999, happened to be riding past the village on his motorcycle, when he was mesmerized by Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
Daniele Kihlgren and his omnipresent bulldog

 Like many rural villages in Southern Italy, young people were fleeing to the larger cities, leaving behind empty homes and a sagging economy that was destined to become worse. The population had dwindled to about 100 at the time, from about 3,000 in the 16th century when Santo Stefano di Sessanio was a thriving way station on the wool trade route. Kihlgren, whose mother is Swedish and father Italian, decided to do something about it. Fortunately he had the means to fulfill his vision, since his family had made a fortune in the cement industry. He bought up much of the uninhabited buildings, and set about creating Sextantio, an albergo diffuso. 
An albergo diffuso, or "diffused hotel" is one with rooms scattered in various buildings throughout the town. The unique difference is that Kihlgren didn't want to transform Santo Stefano into a "theme park," but wanted it to be "authentic and real," maintaining the integrity of time-honored traditions and materials, while providing comfort to hotel guests. "We didn't want to erase the traces of people who lived here," said Kihlgren, who has completed a similar project in Matera and also plans to renovate nine other towns he bought. The walls look just as they did centuries ago, the bedspreads are woven by the local women, but modern amenities are sprinkled here and there too - note the headboard photographic mural combining old and new.
Young children can be accommodated too, with small beds like this one, of handmade wrought iron:
Bathrooms are equipped with uber-modern fixtures, such as tubs by Phillip Starck.
The sinks are equally sleek, a counterpoint to the wooden towel rack and tin trash bucket.
Bring your own soap if you must, because the hotel provides only these artisanal products in the shower area, in glass bottles on wooden shelves. No aluminum, no plastic anywhere.
In some buildings, hotel rooms have a common space shared by several hotel guests.
The hotel also provides guests with a bottle of home-made liqueur, something typical of the region such as this rosa canina, ratafia, or saffron-flavored liqueur. Hand-woven linens serve as placemat.

Sadly, in April 2009, three years after the hotel opened, a devastating earthquake struck the Abruzzo region. Santo Stefano was luckier than many places that were totally destroyed, like Onna, but it still suffered some damage, including the collapse of its iconic tower (seen in scaffolding) that hails back to the days when the Medici family controlled the town. The hotel's buildings, however, remained intact, thanks to reinforcement of the buildings during the renovation. 
Even though the tower and parts of the town remain in scaffolding, Santo Stefano is still a beguiling place -- with graceful arches and floral sculptural detailing evocative of the Renaissance:
Its beauty is due partly to the Medici family, whose coat of arms is still visible on a wall in town:
 But some of the enchantment comes from the locals who plant flowers in the town's little picturesque nooks:
You'll find courtyards tucked away in exquisite solitude:
And mysterious arched passageways:
And public piazzas too, where locals gather for a bit of fun:
The hotel's restaurant beckons with a candlelit entrance:
Views of majestic peaks of the Gran Sasso mountains and far-off villages like Castelvecchio also lure the visitor to stay a while. "The real value of this place is the mutual and changed relationship between the historic village and landscape around it," Kihlgren said. "And if you're going to keep this relationship for the next generation, I think we are doing something very important."
While we were in Santo Stefano this year, a Swedish TV crew filmed Daniele Kihlgren and some members of our writing workshop talking about the town. If you have a few minutes to listen and watch, you too, may become spellbound by this hidden gem called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Don't worry, even though the beginning is in Swedish, it segues to nearly all English after the first 40 seconds.

My friend Helen, along with Sammy Dunham, of Life in Abruzzo, is hosting a blogging conference in Santo Stefano this September called "Hands On L'Aquila." Proceeds help the people and region of Abruzzo. You can find out more about it here.

Bookmark and Share