27 April 2011

Pasqua, Pasquetta, and Primavera musings

Our wild cherry trees in bloom
Springtime in Italy's northern mountains is well and truly underway. As always the weather is a source of conversation and speculation. We had summer like temperatures in the early part of April tricking our wild mountain cherry trees into thinking that they were late for an important date and beginning to bloom before most of the trees had even thought about leafing out and almost a month earlier than usual.  A few day trips around in the valley and plains where fruit production is one of the main farming endeavors we saw blossoms galore, cherry, pear and apple all just a wee bit early for comfort. Mountain weather can be most unpredictable at best and down right heart breaking at times. So far so good. We have weathered a couple of cold snaps and our fruit trees haven't been nipped in the bud, so we'll revel in all this primavera glory. 
Staffarda Abbey with Monviso in the background
Easter has come and gone now and what a week it was. It seemed everyone had spring fever and an itch to get out of the house and go somewhere, anywhere, even if, just for the day.  Our SerreMarchetto neighborhood was bustling with activity with all of the extended family up for Easter lunch. 

Easter lunch with friends and family
Peasant Bread, Easter Egg bread and Chocolate Torte
My contributions to lunch
We did our part to make a group passeggiata after pushing away from the remnants of the epic holiday lunch to do the ciao ciao with our neighbors and survey what was new in our surrounding woods. We caught up with who had been chopping wood on their property, what was in bloom, what already had berries, the wild blueberries, very surprisingly, who was fixing us their property or putting out some replacement flowering shrubs and on and on till we stumbled back home to face a couple of drops of grappa and coffee before we put together some of the leftovers and a smal bollitto misto, before the dispersal home. 
Friends from New York looking towards home
Passeggiata photo at our SerreMarchetto overlook
Then comes Pasquetta, or little Easter, the Monday after Easter is national picnic day. It seems sometimes to almost be more important to Italians than Easter. Everyone heads to the hills or seaside or flees from the family to picnic with their friends. 
Fair Fare
This year was triply interesting because Pasquetta also happend to fall on April 25th, which is Liberation Day, when the allied forces freed Italy in WWII and it happened to be the last Monday in April which happens to be the ongoing Pinerolo semi annual fiera or fair. 
Italian Liberation Day WWII
If you couldn't find something to do Monday, it wasn't for a lack of offerings. We managed a couple of the offerings. We drove to Pinerolo to take in the fair and see if there was anything we couldn't live with out, and were rewarded with a couple of hand painted platters, one decorated with olive branches and the other with local favorite icon, porcini mushrooms. On our way there we stopped for the town marching bands and military displays. I could have stayed longer at all of the different festivities, but we had a bbq to attend and the ribs were calling our name. The show rolled on. 
Master bar b que chef cousin Paolo
Italian ribs and sausage
We hadn't been to our cousins place before and it is a nice oasis in the fertile flats of the Po river valley. The grass was tall, the weather warm with a gentle breeze and apricot trees that had fruit big enough to start thinking about ripening. 
Green apricots April 25, 2011
They are at least a month or so early. I was truly astonished. 
Pasquetta Picnic
Another round of eating, and some family tales and fellowship before heading home with the holidays being truly over. Well, at least until May 1 when there is yet another  holiday, the Italian equivalent of Labor Day. 
Whew, these holidays are hard work.  

14 April 2011

Focaccia Ripiena and Shaved Fennel Lemon Salad

Bread in all it's many forms is one of my enduring passions.  I am so completely fascinated by the fact there are so few ingredients and yet endless possibilities. I generally keep  a back up of bread dough in the fridge for unexpected times when the need arises to have fresh bread on the table. As a general rule, the longer a dough ferments, the tastier the bread is as it has time for al the natural sugars and proteins to break down and develop flavor. That is not to say that bread doughs will last indefinitely, but most people don't realize that you can hold a variety of bread doughs in the fridge and bring it out and bake fresh bread a lot m ore easily and frequently than you would think.  It can be challenging at times with refrigerator space and varying room temperatures, but eating the results are so worth it. If you are new to making bread or the concept of holding dough in the refrigerator to use as needed, I would recommend the very delicious book, "Artisan Bread in Five minutes a Day", by Jeffery Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. The premise being that you mix up a batch of dough, usually two loaves, and bake them off on the day you want to eat them after arriving home from work and have them ready to consume in time for dinner. The recipes work beautifully and there are enough basic dough formulas that can be easily varied, that it really is a good starting point for busy people that appreciate fresh quality bread. Your bread is a good as the ingredients that you use. I have made quite a few recipes out the book and find them accurate and  delicious. They scale up well if you are cooking for a crowd and have the refrigerator space to hold the dough.  I do however have two personal cautions as a general rule for all the recipes. The salt content is way beyond my taste and I systematically cut the amount by about half and the amount of yeast for me is excessive as well. You are able to bring the dough from the refrigerator to the oven in about 20 minutes, so they have boosted the amount of yeast that, for me, it has a too yeasty of a flavor to it. I consistently either cut way back on the amount of yeast, use a combination of my natural sourdough starter and commercial yeast or leave it out completely and  use my sour dough starter only. I am not usually in that big of a hurry that I need to use that amount of yeast and the result, with less yeast, is full flavor bread without  the delicate notes of the bread being overwhelmed by the yeast.  
I didn't start out to do a book review here, but I do think this is a solid starter bread book worth adding to your library and helping novice and more experienced bakers get into the routine of making your own daily loaf.  I see that they have a new book out called "Healthy Breads in Five Minutes a Day" with 100 new recipes, whole grain and  some non gluten ones as well. I imagine it is an excellent one as well.  I found their recipes to be tried, true and delicious, noting my aforementioned personal preferences in regards to adjusting the yeast and salt.  I vary most of these recipes with whole grains and variations as the spirit moves me. I would encourage you to do the same after making their basic formula a few times to get a feel for them.
I said all of that to get to my filled focaccia recipe.  I adapted the "Olive Oil Bread" recipe from "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day? for this focaccia as a starting point. I had already made the dough a few days previous for rosemary focaccia for an impromptu dinner with friends and knew I need to get this dough out of the refrigerator and on to our table. I rummaged around and found that we had some Cima di Rapa, also known as broccoli rabe, and some fresh pecorina ricotta that was begging to be used. It didn't take long to have this greens and ricotta filled focaccia on the table rising and baked off in time for  lunch. I added an incredibly easy shaved fennel and lemon salad that I found over at Val's "More than Burnt Toast" blog and we were feasting like royals in nothing flat. Ok, maybe more like the royals contadini (farmers), but very happy contadini.

For the
This is the original amount for 4- 1 pound loaves. (4 - 500g loaves, more or less)
I used a little less than half of the dough for a 25cm/10" round, with a removable ring.
It will work  with just about any kind of pan.
Oil your pan generously. I use olive oil.
I have adjusted the salt and yeast. I used instant granulated Saf yeast

6 c flour, bread or all purpose variety
1/2 c whole wheat flour
1T yeast, dry instant, a light tablespoon, 1 package
2 tsp sugar
1T salt
1/4 c olive oil
 2 3/4 c tepid water

Mix the flours, yeast, sugar, salt together in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and water, mixing till a a rough dough is formed. Knead lightly till smooth and return to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
I mix by hand, but you could use a stand mixer with the dough hook or a food processor. Mix till it just comes together ad finish with a few light kneads till smooth.  Don't over mix or knead the dough too vigorously.  A light hand is good.  Let rise in a warmish spot for a couple of hours  or until the dough has risen to about double and begins to flatten or collapse on itself.
You can use the dough immediately or refrigerate in a lidded container. It is easier to handle when cold. I tend to use some immediately and then use the rest of the dough a few days later. I made this from the dough after several days in the refrigerator.
Use half of the dough, making sure that comes to room temperature. After the initial rise, I usually try not to handle it too much and don't knead it again. I cut the dough in half again with  one half being slightly larger than the other. The larger half I use for the bottom. I flour the table and gently coax the dough in to a circle to fit the bottom going up on the sides slightly. I flatten the top part the same using my fingertips to dimple the dough and stretching it to the right diameter to cover the bottom half.

For the filling

1/2 onion, sliced in to lengths
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1# (400-500g) cima di rapa, washed and chopped into 1 inch lengths
You can use whatever greens or combination that you prefer. Broccoli rabe, is similar to mustard greens in that they have a bit of a bite, so consider using them or a mix of your favorite combo of greens.
Olive oil to saute the vegetables
200 g ricotta, a pecorino with a bit more flavor is good, you could use cottage cheese too
100 g parmesan or ricotta salata
These are the cheeses I had on hand. A combination of a soft mild cheese with a more potent salty style cheese is what you are looking for.
Salt and Pepper
pinch of peperoncino or hot pepper

Saute the onions in a small amount of oil till the soft. Add the garlic and  continue to cook adding your clean chopped greens. Add some water after the greens have wilted, cover and cook until the greens are soft but not all the way cooked. Season with salt and pepper.  let cool enough to handle.
Prepare your baking pan with oil and stretching your dough to cover and up the sides.
Spread your cooled greens around on the dough. Sprinkle with a pinch of hot pepper.
Distribute the ricotta cheese around the disk of greens and generously sprinkle your grated parmesan cheese over all.
Cover the top with the other piece of dough.
I let it rise about 1/2 hour, more if it seems like the dough hasn't really risen enough. You want the dough to be light, so let it rise as long as you think is necessary.
Drizzle some olive oil on top  of the dough.
Bake in the bottom shelf of a preheated 350*F/180- 190*C oven till the dough reaches a golden brown.
I have a convection oven so it only takes about 25-30 minutes.
In a conventional oven I think it will take 40- 50 minutes to get the bottom of the crust done.
Cool slightly, remove ring around the dough or flip out of your pan and serve warm.

I served it with this simple

Shaved Fennel Lemon salad

2 bulbs of fennel, the rounder bulb variety are less stringy and good for salads
1 lemon, organic is good as you will be eating the peel. Plump and firm, not one that is tired from languishing around waiting to be used.
4 tsp lemon juice, optional for me. I found it didn't really need it as my shaved lemon made it zippy enough, your call
Olive oil 
Pepper if you like, I didn't bother

Use a mandoline or slicer on the thinnest setting that you can.
Shave the fennel and then the lemon into a bowl big enough to be able to toss the salad
Sprinkle a bit of good sea salt to season
Dress with enough olive to lightly coat the salad but not drown it.
Serve immediately.
You could shave the fennel and lemon and refrigerate until just before serving and then dress with oil and serve.

08 April 2011

Rome in a day or two

All roads lead to Rome....so the saying goes. 
Colosseum by Day 
Or  the Colosseum by night,
probably Rome's most recognizable symbol
And so, we finally found ourselves there as well recently. 
What an exhilarating trip to Rome we embarked upon.
 It seems that all Italian trains eventually arrive in Rome too. At least, that is what it looked liked when we rolled in to to Roma Temini one Saturday morning in March. Our train stopped a fair way back from the terminal, with so many tracks stretching across to the other side it was difficult to count how many there actually were. 
We're not exactly that close to Rome, being that we are in the alps on the French border and Switzerland is just over our shoulder, so to speak. So to decide at 5:30 pm that we would take the overnight train to Rome and be on it by 9pm was one of those spur of the moment decisions that keeps life sweet and good for the telling of tales later on. One of my all time favorite things about Europe has always been the trains. Making connections to major and, to a lesser degree, minor cities through out Europe is really a breeze. If you want to get off the beaten track, it isn't quite the way to see the country side. It does make the city break a great option. After we left Torino about midnight and seemed to be left in a cabin all our own we snoozed off and on till reaching Rome in the early am and ready to discover all over again, what makes this city so worth a neck stiffening jaunt on down the coast. The weather was warm, the flowers and trees were just starting to break out of their winter dormancy. We felt the same way. After a stop at the terminal information office, we walked all of 2 blocks to a 2 star hotel that was adequate and a perfect location for us for the night, but if we had been staying longer, I would have upgraded slightly. Last minute budget accommodation was a little slim.  Sufficiently comfortable and helpful friendly staff made it a reasonable choice. On our return home, I discovered The Beehive hotel and cafe, through an ex-pat group, and I think that would be an excellent starting point for checking out affordable Rome accommodation.
Cafe culture 
I must say that we were more than a little surprised to find Rome to be quite welcoming and friendly. It was a far cry from the fast paced, in your face kind of city that I remember from my childhood. Perhaps time has softened the edges. Fabrizio agreed that he thought Rome and Romans had changed too. We found them very helpful with a much more open, "can do" attitude. Perhaps too it was spring before the toll of the heat and the massive amounts of tourists have maybe worn their welcome a little thin. The city seemed fresh and easy going for a grande old dame.
St Peters Square at the Vatican
I haven't been to Rome since I was a kid and it had been a few years since Fabrizio had been there as well, we were perfectly happy to just see and do all the usual tourist sights of Rome.  I hadn't even picked up a guide or made any attempt to do any research, so it was kind of liberating actually. Two full days in Rome and you can skim the surface of the basic sights. If, however, you want to see any museums, dig deeper than the main core of Rome, or get a bit further away from the center,  do add on more time.  I feel like if we went to Rome again, I will enjoy finding the more obscure nooks and crannies that are "off the beaten path".  I am perfectly happy with our jaunt around the town. Course we didn't see or do it all, but it was a couple of fabulous days made even better by decent weather. Not too hot, and yet sunny with a bit of wind, and manageable crowds. Early spring in Rome is a good time to visit.
View of Rome's National Monument form our Roma Cristiana Tour bus

Ideally, it would be nice to do a mixture of obvious tourist "must sees" and not so well known ones. If you've never been to Rome before, I would suggest to stay at least 4 days. Another nice option for accommodation is to rent a flat, especially if you stay for more than a couple of days. You may not feel like going out to eat every single evening and it's nice to have breakfast more casually sometimes especially if this stop is part of a longer journey. It's fun to shop in the mercato or small shops and put together your finds, even if perhaps you are just snacking or putting a picnic together. It's a fun way to go and you can feel like "when in Rome"...
Trevi Fountain
My other top tip for a whirlwind tour of the city is to take one of the hop on and off sightseeing buses. They really are great for getting yourself oriented to the city and the lay of the land and landmarks.
The Pantheon
There are quite a number of options to choose from and if you make good use of them, they can be economical. We found that we needed one for one full day with the hop on and off option which worked well for us. 
Pick your flavor
If we had been going to make the time to got to at least one maybe two museums or such type pay sights, then a longer 2 day pass would have made sense for us, but we were only able to use it one day and we were quite happy with our choice, especially after the first day and our legs were so sore from all the walking we did. It was quite delightful to be able to ride around for awhile, with the wind in our face and all the sights and sounds of the city there for you to just relax and take it all in. As far as eating, you will be spoiled for choice I think. 
Pizza by the slice. No this isn't one slice
Plenty of "grap and go" options. I've always found the fast food options in Italy so much more to my taste, real food prepared simply fresh. 
There are many wonderful restaurants to choose from and I must say, that we chose at random by just looking at the menu, interior, gut reaction, that sort of thing. I found that we broke several of my normal rules for selecting places to eat, like steering clear of the places in the heart of the tourist centers, menus that look to be oriented to the tourist and that sort of thing.  To our great relief and delight, we ate one block from the colosseum and the other night closer to the train station with a set tourist menu which we noticed on our way home the previous night, that had been busy with an interesting tourist menu and we enjoyed delicious fresh food. It stands to reason that Fabrizio being Italian and having worked in the food business his whole life, has excellent instincts about restaurants. He does. Gotta love that in a guy.
Grilled calamari that was part of a €18- 3 course meal. Delicious!
If you're feeling like you could use a bit of hand holding with the choosing, I think you would find the "Eat Rome" application for your smart phone a godsend. Elizabeth Minchilli knows her Rome and is happy to share her secrets. Her blog,  is wonderful as well and will whet your appetite for eating your way around Rome and beyond.  I wish we had a smartphone to have taken this along. There are a number of websites and blogs dedicated to helping you make the most out of your time there.  Katy Parla's Food is another great tantalizing blog about Roman food and beyond.  Some you might not be so familiar with, aside from Rick Steves, whose guides are deservedly helpful, if not now, quite mainstream.
Some other wonderful  and extremely helpful resources for information for Rome and Italy are  Go Italy and  Why Go Italy? It's a shame that Why Go Italy doesn't feature any Bed and Breakfasts, but fortunately Go Italy does and you'll find our Bella Baita B&B listed in their picks.  The Eye on Italy podcasts are quite  informative about a wide range of topics all relating to all things Italian. They have had quite a few guests lately on concerning various diverse elements of Italy and Rome specifically. You can find them on itunes. You will need to scroll back a ways. It seems I am a bit behind on the podcasts. 
Always good to research where you are going, but an adventuresome spirit,  open mind and embracing of the moment will take you far on your travels anywhere you go. 
Marla in from of fountain in Piazza Navonna
Seize the day, you never know, you just might find yourself in Rome one of these days. 
I recommend it!
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