Monday, May 27, 2013


Why would you want to buy cream cheese when you can make it yourself?  A pure, white, healthy, whole fat yogurt, strained and transformed in what turns out to be a delicious cheese spread. Effortless and absolutely sensational seasoned with za'atar and extra virgin olive oil.
Before I go any further on how good this cheese is, I need to make a special note on "za'atar".  Many of you probably already know this spice, I discovered it recently from Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks. One of my favorite reads, the place I learn how to make good use of simple everyday food, where natural and healthy ingredients take a step forward on the scale of good habits.  

Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend, a combination of several spices including sesame seeds. You'll find sumac, marjoram, oregano and thyme as the primary spices.  Many adjust the blend to ones preference but the basic blend is probably the most used.  In Italy, you can't find Za'atar easily, nor sumac (or maybe it's just me).  I mentioned my za'atar desire to a friend of mine BarbaraT, she's what I define the Sherlock Holmes of any kind of ingredient you can't find around the corner and will answer your question, even before you finish the sentence, with an "elementary Watson".  With me, she went beyond, not only did she find it, she brought me some to try.  How can I thank her more, I now have a new favorite spice on my kitchen shelf. I've tried za'atar on flat bread, pizza, vegetables,'s that type of spice that  adds tang to just about everything seasonable. 

For me, the perfect combo is za'atar on labneh.  They were born to be together.  Labneh is a yogurt cheese and is made by straining a full fat yogurt in a cloth overnight. The whey is removed and the yogurt thickens perserving its sour taste. It takes this one step to make your own cream cheese.  Season it with za'atar, olive oil and salt.  Labneh is versatile and combines beautifully with olives or chopped vegetables, I'd rather not complicate it too much and leave it simple as simple it is to make.  Believe me, once you try this, you won't buy a store bought cream cheese anymore.

Recipe - Labneh

1 kg plain white full fat yogurt
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 tbsp za'atar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Stir the salt into the yogurt and pour over a sieve lined with cheesecloth.  Place the sieve over a bowl that is slightly smaller, keeping the sieve suspended so it doesn't sit in the liquid.  Cover and place in the fridge for 24 hours,  the more it strains, the more it  thickens.  Follow your preference of thickness.  I kept mine overnight and the texture was perfect.  Remove from the cloth, sprinkle some za'atar, salt and extra virgin olive oil.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A quick dinner solution - Clam Soup

Clam Soup
This soup is the proof of how fast cooking and genuine ingredients can bring extreme flavor and exquisite food to your table.  A clam soup is a perfect weekday dinner for people like me, that come home late from work with a huge appetite and production effort reduced to zero. Just the time to set the table and the soup is ready.  How convenient is that?!  Fast cooking is an ideal time saver but is also the correct method for all shellfish.  If shellfish are overcooked the meat will be tough and chewy, whereas a quick cooking method will keep the natural juices and therefore, all the flavor intact.  I won't get offended if you make this dish richer by adding mussels or shrimp, or both, and why not, some rice noddles wouldn't be bad either, but the simplicity of this particular clam soup accompanied with some toasted crunchy rustic bread, dipped in its flavorsome liquid is a heavenly welcome home after a long day at work.  And why not, a couple of glasses of white wine will top it all off merrily!
Clam Soup
Recipe - Clam Soup

1 kg large clams 
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots thinly sliced
1 glass white wine
1 glass tap water (or vegetable broth)
some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, chives)
1 lemon juice and lemon zest
1 garlic clove
1 chili pepper
serve with slices of toasted rustic bread 

Note: Purge your clams from the sand.  Place them in a bowl with abundant water and a tbsp of salt (some also add 1 tbsp of cornmeal - they say the cornmeal makes the calms cough out the sand).  Let them soak for 1 hour.

In a bowl, place the minced herbs and garlic clove.  Add the lemon juice and zest, 2 tbsp of olive oil, salt and chili pepper and let it rest while you prepare the clam soup.

In a large high edged pan heat 2 tbsp of olive oil and 2 thinly sliced shallots.  When shallots are soft and transparent, add a glass of white wine and a glass of water or vegetable broth, bring to a boil.  Add the clams and cover with a lid.  Let them cook for 10 minutes, remove the lid and remove any clams that have not opened.  Drizzle with the lemon herb vinaigrette on top of the clams and serve hot, steamy and with lots of toasted rustic bread.   

Monday, May 13, 2013

Risi & Bisi

When I saw these precious little jewels at the market last week my eyes lit up like a X-Mas tree!  Maybe I was a little too enthusiastic about them but I find peas are so beautiful, I really do see them as jewels, pea-necklace, pea-earrings.  I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I decide to show up at work adorned with peas...and I’m not even joking. 
peasRisi e Bisi
Peas are the example of nature’s perfection, their shape, the bright green color, the pods that protect them, their remarkable sweetness.   They are just so perfect and so “spring”!  When I find them fresh at the market I buy them in bunches and make them the same day,  this time I bought a little too much.  The farmer selling them said:  “You’re going to be busy shelling these babies!”  I said.  “Not to worry, I’ll be putting everyone at home to work”.  And that’s what I did.  I gathered the family around, put the peas in their hands and had them shell…one at a time they were shelled and one at a time they were eaten.  Their sweetness carried us away and they were gone in a blink of an eye together with my plans for lunch.  That’s what peas do, they enchant you with beauty and taste.  Not always will you find them so sweet, the longer they sit the more they become starchy and lose all their sweetness.  So if you can’t pick them straight from the plant, make sure you purchase them fresh, crunchy, bright green and use them preferably the same day.  Having these peas been so sweet also proved me that the farmer was trustworthy, selling a very fresh product, so I went back and bought some more.  Of course he recognized me right away as the pea lover, wait till he sees me with my pea-earrings, he’ll never forget me after that! :-)

My recent trip to Venice inspired me to prepare a risi & bisi soup (rice & peas).  This traditional Venetian dish is served on April 25 for the Feast of St. Mark’s, to celebrate the arrival of the new season’s peas.  You can definitely use frozen peas but the whole purpose of this recipe is to use fresh peas, otherwise it’s not risi e bisi but just rice and peas.  Needless to say that the flavor of fresh peas is one of a kind.  The consistency of risi e bisi should be liquidy and more of a soup than a risotto although I prefer my risi e bisi less soupy and more like risotto.  Degustibus non disputandum est! (in matters of taste, there can be no disputes).

Recipe - Risi & Bisi [Rice & Peas]


2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 glass dry white wine
2 small spring onion - thinly sliced
8 slices of prosciutto thinly sliced and chopped
1 handful (or 1 cup) rice per person preferably vialone nano, in absence carnaroli or arborio
4 cups (or more) vegetable broth (made with 1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 celery stick, salt)
3 cups fresh spring peas
fresh chopped herbs parsley, thyme, chives (optional)
parmesan cheese 

Place a wide pot (I like to use copper pots for risotto) on medium heat, add the olive oil and butter, when the oil and butter are hot add the sliced spring onions and stir until soft.  Add the prosciutto and peas, stir constantly for 2 minutes.  Add the rice, continue to stir for 2-3 minutes.  Pour in the white wine and stir.  When the rice absorbs the wine add the vegetable broth, 1 cup at a time, let the rice absorb the broth before you add another cup.  Stir constantly. Taste for salt and add if necessary. Cook the rice al dente.  The finished rice should be soupy, although I prefer mine with less liquid.  Add the parmesan, some butter and fresh herbs, give the rice a final stir and serve.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Aperitivo in Venice

Although Venice is close enough to Rome to just grab a train and go, it took me forever to make this decision and I'm still asking myself why.  You can't even imagine how much I've been longing for a trip to Venice and now I finally went! With a map in one hand and a list of things to see-do in the other, I managed to get lost...and this is how I enjoyed Venice to the hilt! Lost in a maze of emotions by just wandering around in calli, campi, fondamenta, rii.  You can breathe the magic from this city in every corner.  Words cannot describe what only eyes seize in a glimpse and emotions strike at once, like the drifting by Marco Polo's residence on a gondola, while a man's voice sings from far.  I know, it sounds ridiculously romantic!  Romance oozes everywhere in Venice even if your just sitting out of a bar enjoying an aperitivo spritz with chips.
For those who are romantic and for those who are not, here's how to recreate a venetian aperitivo at home. Spritz, is a typical cocktail in Venice, really easy to make, you just need some prosecco, aperol, ice, an orange slice and a big green juicy olive (note: if you don't see the olive in the picture, that's because my husband and son, caught in a moment of anticipated hunger, ate them...I could have killed them!).  Next to your aperitivo you can serve olives, salted peanuts, chips.  I decided to make homemade chips, they are fast to make and much healthier than the ones you buy, plus you feel less guilty if you eat more! I hope you enjoy this drink as much as I do.  Cheers.      

Recipe - Homemade Oven Chips 

Olive oil
freshly chopped herbs (sage, parsley, chives, marjoram, your choices, I used them all).

Peeled or un-peeled, cut the potatoes in big round thin slices (I used a mandolin).  Place the potatoes in a pot with cold water and bring them to a boil.  As soon as the water starts to boil, immediately remove and drain.  In a large bowl, season the potatoes with olive oil and some chopped fresh herbs.  Cook them in a preheated oven at 200ºC for 15/20 minutes, depending on how thin you sliced them.  Remove from the oven and sprinkle with salt (I used maldon salt).

Spritz Cocktail

Ice cubes (3/4 ice cubes per serving)
2/3 ounces Prosecco
1 1/2 ounces Aperol
A splash of sparkling water
Orange wedge
Green Olive

Stir, don't shake.