Wednesday, October 22, 2014

gnocchi di ortica, cacio e pepe

CACIO E PEPE NETTLE GNOCCHI
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You would think that nettle is a spring harvest, and it is, but for some reason it's growing in my garden now, in fall. Believe it or not, tomatoes and eggplants are still producing this time of year. It's like having a greenhouse without a greenhouse, in summer that's not summer, yet it's fall but not fall ... you know what I mean? My vegetables are having an identity crisis! And so am I.  I'm sweating, wearing sandals and eating tomatoes in October as if it were July. 

Nettle has been growing wild and fastidiously, it proliferates between my tomato paths and cabbage trails, next to the kale and the eggplants and right in the middle of my misticanza (small mixed salad).  I've tried to eradicate it and it keeps growing, the more I rip, the more it grows, the more it grows, the more I'm stinged and the more I find myself with rashes. Then, while I was on the web searching for something that could alleviate my rash, I learned that nettle juice would have eased the stinging of the rash brought about by contact with the plant's own bristle leaves. Isn't that unbelievable?! Finally, I understood that this arm wrestling thing would bring nowhere. I needed to understand this herb, which I always thought was a weed, and get along with it. 

Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our "modern" diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs . . . those plants which — although not well-known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored "guests" on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents' homes.  Mother Nature News

When cooked, nettles lose their sting and have a similar flavour to spinach. They are a good source of vitamin C, iron, and calcium and also provide a surprising amount of protein. They can be eaten raw, although we certainly don’t recommend it, and a World Nettle Eating Championship is held every year at the Bottle Inn, Dorset, England. Young Veggie

Nettles were one of the main ingredients in English beer until the 1800s. Nettle beer, wine, champagne and cordial are all still commercially available. Young Veggie

Stinging nettles provide the only food for many species of butterfly larva. Young Veggie
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Nettle is the secret green ingredient for my gnocchi.  Secret ... because you would never guess that I harvested nettle in fall. Of course you don't need to wait for spring to make these gnocchi, in lack of nettle, you can use chard, spinach, kale and whatever sweet green comes to your mind. They'll be just as good.

Young and tender nettle tips is what you're looking for.  Be sure to use gloves and scissors when you are in contact with raw nettle.  The stinging effect will cease only once it's cooked, and you can manage it safely with your bare hands.  Briefly boil the nettle for 1 minute and plung into ice water. Drain and chop roughly.  like to see the greens that stand out, this is why I prefer to chop them roughly.  Otherwise, you can cut the greens really thin and this will give your gnocchi a green uniform color.

To make perfect gnocchi, read this article from Food & Wine.
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Once your gnocchi dough is ready, fold in the cooked and chopped nettle.   A handful would be enough in an amout of gnocchi dough for four people. 

The sauce. I find that cacio e pepe is definitely the perfect sauce for these gnocchi, it somehow enhances the flavour of the potatoes and brings out the grassy aromatic scent of the nettle.  My way of making cacio e pepe for any kind of pasta is easy.   

While the gnocchi are in the boiling water, preheat a large pan.  Place some freshly grated cheese, a mixture of parmesan and pecorino cheese, and half a cup of the gnocchi's cooking water in the pan and let it sit on low heat until the gnocchi are ready.  Don't let the gnocchi overcook, drain them as soon as they float on the surface and place them in the pan let the watery cheese mixture absorb in the gnocchi by moving and tossing the gnocchi with the pan and without the use of a spoon, keep rotating the pan, add some freshly ground pepper and more cheese. Keep moving the pan around.  This should take no more than a minute from when you drain the gnocchi and place them in the pan.

Serve hot and dust with more cheese and some more freshly grounded pepper.    

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

*****torta di mele

IMG_1375apple cake
If you open my mother’s recipe book, you’ll find it is composed of 77 handwritten pages, with an index and glossary.  You’ll find recipes from friends, like Mary’s cookies or Anna’s meatloaf, and 6 versions of Panettone, classified in rank order of preference. Roasts or pastas, which I clearly remember were served on big platers and passed around tables of 20, 30, sometimes 50 people, are all documented in her recipe book. Some recipes may have a star indicating, I presume, good feedback or something she liked best and proposed more than once. You'll also find photos that were cut out from magazines. Like the photo from homemaker’s magazine of chef Carol Bink’s prizewinning Neapolitan Gateau. It's not easy to guess how Carol's gateau is assembled by only reading the recipe, but with the photo you know exactly how it's done. She used to make the gateau on special occasions and only when it was strawberry season, she marks it with 5 stars. We are talking more than 20 years ago, I don't even know who chef Carol Bink is but her Neapolitan Gateau remains my favorite. 

The book has clear signs of use, each page has a stain or a bent corner, words have blurred, notes fly loose and there are some torns here and there.  It's not immaculate, that's for sure. Nonetheless, it's accurate, organized and each recipe is garantueed success, especially the ones with the stars.  And when you need to find something , there's a precise index too!

Sunday my sister was over at my place for lunch and while we were having coffee and going down memory lane we needed one of mom's cakes.  I grabbed the recipe book, opened it on page 21, sure to find mom's apple cake.  The recipe is scribbled down quickly, half in italian and half in english, rather concise, somewhat telegraphic but if you follow the few essential words, you can’t go wrong. No stars were there, but my sister and I give it a 5 star plus an extra bonus star because mom is mom and her apple cake is the best in the world.

Here's mom's recipe for the torta di mele. I fixed the guidance on the procedure to make it less telegraphic and more user friendly.

Torta di Mele {apple cake}

4 eggs
1, 1/2 cup oil
1, 1/2 cup sugar
2, 1/2 cup flour
5 teaspoons bakingpower 
5 medium size apples
3 teaspoons cinnamon
Icing sugar

Mix the sugar and eggs, add the oil and water, mix, add the flour and baking powder, mix. Butter and flour a spring form pan or line with parchment paper. Pour in half of the batter, cover with half of the apples that you have previously washed, peeled, sliced thinly and covered with cinnamon and a tablespoon of flour. Pour the other half of the batter and place the other slices of apples in a vertical position so that they stand up in the batter. Place in a preheated oven at 180ºC for circa 45/50 minutes. Use the toothpick method to see if it is done.  Half way through baking time, place a piece of parchment paper on top of the cake so that the apples don't burn. *I usually wet the parchment paper first and wring it like a towel before placing it on top of the cake.  Sprinkle with icing sugar.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

an unexpected vineyard

GRAPE BREAD
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Last year, this time around, we planted some grapevines in the garden.  Never would I have thought that one year later we'd be picking our first grapes off the plant. Black tiny berries of sweet, juicy nectar that need nothing but hands to pick and mouths to eat.

With my surprise the plant expanded quickly and vigorously, it now covers almost the whole wooden structure that supports its weight.  A beautiful green foliage and bouquets of deep purple strawberry grapes fall from above. What was initially supposed to be a shaded eating area has become our private little vineyard, if four grapevines in row can be defined as suchObviously nothing like the vineyards we've seen in the movie "The Good Year" with Russell Crow, but definately a miniature resemblance of that same feel of serenity and quaint.

Very few grapes came this year but plenty enough to feed the family with fresh, healthy, untreated fruit.  Next year, I'll probably be making jams and jelly and then the year after, who knows, maybe some wine.  

For now, I've attempted to make this bread.  Grape bread.
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This bread is soft, fragrant and releases a perfume of fall.  It's what you want to eat this period of time and is perfect to usher in the fall season.

All you need is a basic bread recipe.  Like this one here. Flatten the dough with your hands, de-seed some grape berries and spread them on top of the flattened dough.  Sprinkle with some raw sugar.  Roll the dough to form a rope, pinch the edges and fit the dough in a previously greased loaf pan.  Cover with some plastic film and let it rise, over night, in the fridge.  Remove the loaf from the fridge and let it rise at room temperature 1 hour before baking.  Place some grape berries on top of the loaf and sprinkle with more raw sugar.

Bake in a preheated oven for about 40 minutes.  Slice when the bread is cool.

This is excellent for breakfast, toasted and smothered with butter.

Oh...just out of curiosity, did you know that grape seeds are edible and full of antioxidants?
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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

pizza sfoglia

ZIA VINCENZA'S PIZZA SFOGLIA
Pizza Sfoglia
Zia Vincenza and I made a pizza sfoglia in my grandmother's old house. The house was locked up ever since 2009 when the earthquake took place in l'Aquila. It hasn't fallen apart, but nearly. Its kitchen, reign of the women in our family, strangely remained intact. It felt good to open the window and welcome the light back in.

After so many years, stepping into nonna's house touched me with a profound sense of emptiness that I still carry with me today.  Certainly not what we were used to when each summer, cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents filled the house with laughs and good hearty meals. Nonetheless, in all its empitness, those memories are still there. Alive. Echoing across the walls, and now cracks of a home that was once our little kingdom of happy summer days.  

The women I've lost in my life, including my dear mother, were all there, in that very kitchen and in that very moment when zia Vincenza and I were making the pizza sfoglia.  I don't know why, but I felt they were there. Had it been the nostalgic feeling, or the consciousness of how time flies so quickly, I felt, in a moment of bliss, that they were all there.  I like to believe it's true.  I feel good if I believe it's true. I hope I'm not a lunatic :)
Pizza Sfoglia
Pizza Sfoglia
So this summer, I convinced my 92 year old aunt to teach me how to make pizza sfoglia in the kitchen where my nonna used to make hers. The task wasn't as easy as you may think. She doesn't go by the book, forget about the dose, it will never be the exact same. It's all by the eye, with the exception of a handful of this, a little bit of that, accompanied by a brief comment of encouragement "with some practice you'll get it right".  

If there's a food I can say that marks a memory in my childhood, this is probably it.  I grew up with this pizza sfoglia, first in Toronto with Zia Angelina's version, my grandmother's sister. Then, when I moved to Italy, it was my grandmother's version, and when she passed away, it was Zia Vincenza's version, my grandmother's cousin.  That's the history.  

All versions were good but also different at the same time.  I think it's that "handful of this and that" thing that gave the personal touch.
Pizza Sfoglia
Pizza SfogliaPizza Sfoglia
This traditional pizza sfoglia has origins in Campotosto, far back in time.  Nonna Elvira, my grandmother, always said, that her grandmother used to make it, so I'm guessing waaaaay back in time.  It's something you can't buy in a store, you need to have a grandmother from Campotosto that makes one for you. Uh!...or a friend like me, that can teach you how  :))

It was nice to see this little 92 years old lady, knead the dough with all her strength, just to show me how to make a pizza sfoglia. Thank you zia.  Pizza Sfoglia
What makes this pizza sfoglia so good is the use of lard, it can't be substituted in any way, it won't have the same flakiness and crispiness.  It will lose fragrance and the aroma will change.  I tried to make a healthier version using olive oil, it was a waste of time.  

Serve when it is warm, not hot, not cold.  It needs to rest about 10 minutes from when it is removed from the oven.

Don't cut it with a knife, break it with your hands.  Don't ask why.

Serve with anything that's cheese and cold cuts.  Typically it's served with pecorino cheese and mortadella from Campotosto.


Recipe - Pizza Sfoglia di Zia Vincenza 

500g flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup of melted lard (shortening)
1 tbsp olive oil
a cup of cold water

Make a well in the flour and add the salt, olive oil, baking powder and a few tablespoons of cold water, add the water a little at a time, enough to gather the flour and form a dough similar to a pasta dough.  Knead until elastic and let it rest for 30 minutes.

Cut the dough in 8 pieces and roll out each piece with a pasta machine. Make 8 thin strips.

Lay each strip on the your working surface, slightly overlapping the edges of each so to form one full sheet.  Pour the melted lard on the pasta sheet and with a pastry brush spread the lard on the whole surface.

Roll the sheet longwise starting from the edge closer to you. Roll to form a cylinder shape, like a long snake.  Hold the cylinder shaped dough on each end and twist. Roll it once again, this time inwards, to form a flat spiral. Lightly poke with a fork, brush some more lard on the surface.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for approx. 30 minutes or until lightly golden.