27 January 2012

The Loss of a Giant

It's sad losing an old friend, even when it's a big ole tree. No it's not on the level of a human life. It is wrenching, at least to me, to see a grand majestic old tree, three of the actually, and some say over 300 years old, lying on its side, roots completely snapped off, almost like they didn't even exist.  A fallen giant. One gargantuan beech tree that had given so much pleasure over the years to many. There were initials carved into the trunk professing love that perhaps still lived on and maybe not. The spread of its limbs and broad green leaves shaded a pilone or way station that housed a serene ceramic Madonna inside where many had laid flowers by long burning candles in tall red glass cylinders over the years. Many stopped by when out for a stroll in the neighborhood. It was hard not to as it had been lovingly decorated with biblical scenes depicting John the Baptist and San Antonio  blessing the animals. A lovely point easily missed whizzing by in a car on the way through to the Grandubbione valley end of our paved road. However, on foot one is easily drawn in for a moment or two of contemplation, perhaps even petition or maybe a little solace on our Serre Marchetto hilltop.
Our almost 300 year old beech tree 
And so it was with great sadness that we discovered this sight when we strolled to the top of our road after a day and night of ferocious winds. The neighbors were already there and beginning to remove some of its limbs as it was blocking the road. The owners of the house were very lucky that the tree didn't fall the other direction or on anyone on the road. It fell about one in the morning according to a nearby neighbor. The most amazing part of this story is that not only did the tree come down squarely on the cement house that housed the ceramic Madonna, completely and utterly destroying the structure, the ceramic Madonna's head and shoulders were still completely intact. The lower half of her body was mostly gone, but her face and head were still in one piece. Very, very surprising indeed. Someone had set her up in front of the tree and now she has been put aside to be restored for the new prayer station that the neighborhood has already begun to discuss rebuilding plans.
The surviving Madonna
 There was a steady stream of people coming up to see the remains for themselves as the story of the felling of this old tree made it into two of the local papers. There was a fair amount of interest for a couple of days afterwards and even a small busload of school children yesterday came up to survey the scene. It's all mostly gone now, cleaned up, cut up and hauled away. It's a big open space now and will take some time to get use to and I must say I am looking forward to the rebuilding process, but the tree won't be able to be replaced, especially not that close to the house either, but it will be replaced and I welcome that.
Here are some photos of the tree and pilone that I took when they were both still intact. It's nice to be able to share this lovely companions in their former glory. I hope you will enjoy them as we have here.
Winter wonderland

San Giovanni Battista on San Giovanni day

John the Baptist 

 San Antonio Abate blessing the animals

16 January 2012

Melanzane and Zucchini Lasagna

A is for aubergine, e can mean eggplant which is the more common American name for the same vegetable and m is the beginning of the Italian word for melanzane. You know, that purple skinned vegetable that is oh so versatile and oh so abundant for a good portion of the summer. Now that it's winter and some ex pats living in Italy started a group a while back, to share recipes and food ideas, tips and tricks, they have put together a little challenge to share some recipes amongst ourselves and for us to share with you. I made this dish a couple of time this summer out of necessity, but never quite got around to posting it or actually coming up with a definite recipe. It is probably more suited to late summer when your garden and the market have an explosion of these three vegetables, that in my mind, go together like a three way blind date, eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes.  Whoa, I think I might be digressing. 
This holy trinity of veggies turn up in a number of dishes and so I have turned it into a definitely crowd pleaser, lasagna.  With a bit of grilling, which in the summer you might even have your grill up and running for some other type of meal in mind, you could maximise the use of your coals and get these ready for another dish for the next day even. I make use of a Rowenta electric grill that grills both sides of medium thick aubergine and zucchini slices and needs next to no oil to get them soft and flavorful with those great grill lines. I go the easy route in the summer using a ricotta and Parmesan cheese mixture, although you could easily make a bechamel sauce and layer them up and away you go. I made one version with some sauteed porcini mushrooms and that added another great dimension to the lasagna. Like most great lasagna, the flavors improve after sitting a day as they have time to settle in and mingle. I think you can easily get away with canned tomatos instead of fresh in the winter and one friend asked about using reconstituted dried eggplant. I think they would work just fine, although she never did get back with me and say how it worked out.  I like the grilling of the veggies for the smoky flavor, but also it seems to use less oil with out compromising any flavor. If you think your veggies are too dry, them by all means drizzle a bit of extra virgin oil over your veggies as you layer them up. If this is not for you this winter then I recommend you book mark it for next summers abundance and tell me what you think after giving it a go. 

Melanzane (Eggplant/Aubergine) and Zucchini Lasagna


2 large eggplant/aubergine/melanzane, peeled and sliced lengthwise in medium thick slices,
2-4 large zucchini
4-6 large tomatoes, fresh or a large can of crushed or diced tomatoes
Basil, handful fresh,
1 large or 2 medium eggs500g (2-12 oz containers) Ricotta
200g (1c ) Parmesan or other hard grating cheese, and a bit more for topping
1/4 t or less nutmeg, fresh gratedSalt and pepper
Hot red pepper

Feel free at add any tidbits of goat or other flavorful cheese you might have kicking around begging to get used up. This recipes lends it self to much variation.

Wash and prepare your vegetables, slicing them lengthwise so the are about 1/4"/1/2cm thick. Heat your grill up and begin grilling your vegetables, while you prepare the remainder of your ingredients.
Wash and pat dry the basil and cut up into thing strips, or if you prefer, tear into bite size bits
In a bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg and Parmesan cheese. Add a few good gratings of nutmeg.
Season the cheese mixture with salt, pepper and a pinch of hot pepper.
Take a 9"x13"pan, or something equivalent, and grease with olive oil or or line with baking paper, like I do for an easy clean up.
Drizzle a bit of olive oil and begin you vegetable layering with grilled slices of aubergine laid singly sibe by side to cover the bottom and cover with a single layer of the zucchini, sprinkling a bit of salt and olive oil if you haven't seasoned the vegetables while grilling. Spread 1/3 to half of the
ricotta mixture over they layered vegetables. Cover the cheese, with a single layer of sliced tomatoes or part of your crushed tomatoes, sprinkle some salt over and scatter about 1/3 of the fresh basil. This is not a super tomatoey saucy version, so it doesn't have to be a solid layer of crushed tomatoes, but a solid layer of sliced tomatoes is good. 
Continue layering 2 more times if you have enough ingredients ending with the tomatoes as the top layer. Try to use the last of your basil under the tomatoes for the top layer so it doesn't burn. Sprinkle a light layer of parmesan on top. 
Cover loosely with another layer of paper and aluminum foil. Try to keep above the top so it doesn't stick to the top layer.  
Bake in a preheated 350*/190* for 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and bake a few minute langer till bubbly and the top browned up.
Let the lasagna rest 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

Usually even more flavorful the second day. You make it one day ahead before cooking.

06 January 2012

Benvenuta "La Befana" with Lavender Limoncello Stars

Were you naughty or nice? Coal or treats that is the question come the 6th of January in Italy. You just need to see what was left in your stocking to come to some sort of conclusion. I have written a number of posts over the years about the Italian tradition of La Befana, so I thought I might put up some links to blog posts past. Befana is an interesting mixture of what to me seems like Halloween and Christmas. Befana is a kindly old woman or witch on a broomstick who flies everywhere on the night before Epiphany or 12th night as it is also called, and either fills up your stockings, that should have been hung by the chimney with care, with treats or small presents, or you get a lump of coal. Fortunately, for Italian children, the lumps of coal have been transformed into black confections that make for a more more pleasant time taking your lumps of coal in stride.

Here are a few links to previous posts I've posted over the years. some have more of the story of La Befana's origins and others are recipes for dishes designed to serve on a Befana menu.
Martha over at Go Italy has a great post on the origins of la Befana, that you might enjoy reading.
I also made some cookies this year called La Befana Stars. This version is a departure from the usual anise flavored variety and met with an appreciative round of approval. Unfortunately, I forgot to get a photo of them before they were all given away and eaten right up. Any size star cookie vutter will do. You can make a milk glaze and add sprinkles or just give them a dusting of powdered sugar. This was a great way to use some of my home made limoncello and abundance of lavender from our garden.

Head over to  "The Leftover Queen" to check out Jen's version of the La Befana traditional recipe for what are usually anise flavored cut out star cookies. You'll find the recipe in it's entirety. 
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