Seafood Stew & My Ongoing Path to Wholeness: Part 1

Fish Stew

 

When I make and eat this stew, which I have several times already in the past few months, I feel like I am aligning with everything I want to when it comes to food in my life right now. I am eating something wholesome, bursting with flavor, absolutely nourishing, not to mention satisfying and when I am through eating, I feel good, not heavy and not deprived.

Over the last few months I have changed my relationship with food. This is probably a process that will be ongoing for the rest of my life, but I hope not. I hope to be the woman in the vision I had a few months ago. Sitting at a large table, outside, under a pergola. We are surrounded by hills of farmland and trees. The sun is warm on my skin and I see it glistening over everything. There is a beautiful breeze blowing and the air smells so clean with a hint of wood fire smoke lingering. There is laughter in the air and the murmuring of a large group of people. The table is crowded with family and friends and it is laden with delicious dishes – homegrown fruits and vegetables, succulent seafood, cheeses, olives, cold cuts, fresh baked bread, wine, various kinds of salads and a gorgeous dish of pasta, glistening with the freshest tomatoes and olive oil, the scent wafting in the air. I make a plate for Alba and then a plate for myself and I eat it all, enjoying each bite, savoring each moment.

In my body I feel light as a feather, nothing heavy weighing me down, physically, mentally or emotionally. In that moment I am happy, so happy I could just dance with glee. I feel free and vibrant, utterly alive and primal and full of the love that is in my life.

Over the past several months upon returning home after an extended trip to Italy, I have come to really embrace Italian eating habits and some of the Italian way of life. Before this last trip, I spent the last 3 years battling Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune thyroid condition that is currently under control. I was overwhelmingly tired, putting on weight quickly, developing some skin conditions and I was reacting to various foods. In my quest for optimum health, I turned towards the Paleo diet since it is touted as an anti-inflammatory diet that is especially good for autoimmune conditions.

I truly believed this way of eating would help me lose the weight I put on, clear up my rosacea and eczema, give me the energy of someone in their early 20’s and allow me to get super fit and buff again. The idea of Primal/Paleo appealed to me because I never did well as a vegetarian (in hindsight, I think being a low-fat veggie for over 10 years led to some of my health issues) and I liked the idea of sticking to certain foods and not having to count calories. All the books, blogs and articles led me to believe as long as I stayed away from the “bad foods” and ate of the “good foods” I would be at my optimal health. It was a done deal I had this thing beat. I was on my way!

In addition to starting a new regimen of supplements prescribed to me by my naturopath and which actually helped IMMENSLY, I also spent a lot of time eliminating foods from my diet – eggs, dairy, beans, corn, soy, refined sugar, in rotation trying to find the magic bullet to feel as wonderful as all the books, articles and blogs I read told me I would feel. Then when it didn’t, I would beat myself up and try to figure out what I was doing wrong.

I concentrated my efforts in the kitchen on making gut healthy foods – lots of ferments like sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and yogurt. I made my own condiments and never ate sugar. I also quit coffee and tea. I took probiotics. I made my own bone broth and ate it often. I ate copious amounts of butter and coconut oil; lard and duck fat made regular appearances on my plate. I ate organ meat, fish eggs and fermented cod liver oil. I soaked my nuts before eating them. I drank raw milk.

But even with all of this, my rosacea continued to flare, my eczema didn’t go away, I gained a little more weight (maybe a pound or so a year in total, but it still added up). I still got tired often and my environmental allergies were so bad, I couldn’t take a sweater out of the closet and wear it without washing it first or my eyes would be so watery and I would become so congested I needed to take over the counter allergy medicine just to survive the day – and then I would beat myself up over that because I am the kind of person that doesn’t ever take things like that, and the cycle would start all over again.

On a recent trip to Sardinia in Italy, I was sitting down at an ocean front restaurant trying to figure out what to eat for lunch. I had just been to an Erboristeria (Herbalist) looking for something to relieve my dust allergy that was making me miserable. The herbalist there gave me a black currant tincture. He also told me to stay away from shellfish and when my gluten allergy came up, he suggested I might want to stay away from dairy as well, because those two allergies can sometimes be linked.

I almost had a melt-down at the table reading the menu. There was all this beautiful food on it that I couldn’t eat – all the pastas, the pizza and the bread. But then there was all the amazing cheeses and of course, being on the sea, tons and tons of shellfish. Since I was trying to be grain free and stick to my paleo diet, I was pretty much living on meat – prosciutto, mortadella and salami in all their various forms, as well as some delicious Sardinian sheep cheese. There was some fruit and yogurt involved in my meals as well, but if I was going to try cutting out dairy again, that was going to leave me with a very boring diet. It was just too much. I was asking too much.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream in frustration. I wanted mussels in marinara.

I remember looking across the table at Roberto and saying: “I feel like a self-flagellating nun in the land of decadence and debauchery”. He ordered the mussels and a glass of wine, he made me eat the mussles. I felt better.

After that moment I realized I was the one who was making myself miserable. Yes, I have a gluten allergy, but that’s it. Why was I depriving myself of all grains, beans, sugar, etc. ? I realized that for years now, I had been waking up every morning thinking that I was “unhealthy” and wondering if I really would ever be healthy again. I was identifying too much with my condition and letting it become a part of me. From that moment I knew I had to be the one to take control of this situation. So I started eating gluten free pasta and bread everyday and enjoyed several gluten free pizzas. I even had my first Coke in 20 years (in Italy they are still made with cane sugar). It was cathartic.

JennEatingPizza

When I came home I was determined to lose the weight I had put on over the years, between the Hashimoto’s and my diet. I found a wonderful book Flat Belly Diet! Gluten-Free Cookbook: 150 Delicious Fat-Blasting Recipes! and despite its cheesy name decided to work my way through it. It was tough, because I don’t really believe in diets and calorie counting. But I had also started to believe that I would never lose this weight again. Being in Italy, I talked with someone who had lost 40 pounds. How did she do it? She went on a diet. Was she worried that the weight was an underlying problem to a bigger health issue? No, she just ate too much and needed to rein it in. What a simple perspective! So I decided to try this book, the recipes looked delicious and I was excited about getting some new dishes into my repertoire. Within a month of eating this way I lost 10 pounds. After 2 months, I didn’t stick to the diet, but used techniques and the portions I had learned from the book to keep my eating in balance and have since lost another 5 pounds. Something that even the strictest version of the Paleo diet couldn’t do for me. After 3 months of eating this way, there has not been a return of Hashimoto’s flare ups, which was another concern I had and so I really feel like this is successful for me.

I came to learn that being a food lover doesn’t mean I always have to indulge, nor do I have to prove that all you have to do is eat high quality food in any amount and all will be well. I believe that food quality is still the most important thing, but I learned that I can’t stuff myself everyday and expect to remain at the weight I want. I can still enjoy amazing food, just smaller portions and make sure my meals are really balanced.

That is where this chowder comes in. Although everyone in my family, my husband, my father in law and even Alba, loved the recipes from the book, I felt the need to let my cooking creativity flow again and one day I made this chowder from leftovers and pantry staples. It was touted one of the best recipes I ever made and we have had it often since that first time.

It is full of delicious flavors, lots of wonderful vegetables and absolutely satisfying. I like to enjoy a steaming bowl of this with a nice slice of gluten free bread smeared with butter.

INGREDIENTS:
2 TBS olive oil
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 small onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, diced
½ red bell pepper, diced
1 russet potato, diced
salt and pepper
1TBS turmeric powder
1 cup veggie broth (if not using homemade, I like Pacific Foods Organic Vegetable Broth
1 can organic tomato sauce
½ cup white wine
4 whole tomatoes diced (or 2 cans)
1 can filtered water
1 lb of seafood (fish, clams, shrimp)
2 TBS capers
1TBS lemon juice

METHOD: In a large soup pot heat the olive oil, then add the vegetables, salt and pepper. Once veggies are getting soft, about 5 minutes, add the turmeric and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.
Add the veggie broth, tomato sauce, wine, diced tomatoes and wine. Cover pot and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until potatoes and other veggies are tender.
Add seafood and continue to cook until cooked through – less time for shellfish and a bit longer for fish. I like to use halibut or cod for this, and I usually let it simmer in the broth for about 7-8 minutes. If you are doing a mixture of fish and shellfish, cook the fish for about 5 minutes and then add the shellfish.
Once all the seafood is cooked, turn off the heat and stir in the capers and lemon juice.

Serves 6 dinner sized portions

Veal and White Bean Stew with Buckwheat Spätzle

 

(Veal and White Bean Stew with Buckwheat Spätzle)

Normally, when I cook I just take stock of what I have around to concoct something and rarely use recipes. But like any foodie I have a ton of cookbooks. Cookbooks for me are a bit like inspiration, it gives me general ideas, but I find I usually need to augment the recipes – either to make them gluten-free or to our tastes.

That is the story of this buckwheat spätzle, a dish I made some time back in the height of winter. One of my favorite cookbooks is Black Forest Cuisine by Walter Staib the executive chef at the historic and famed City Tavern in Philadelphia. I have always liked German cuisine, but never made it at home. With this cookbook that all changed. The recipes range from simple home cooked meals, to comforting gastropub fare and fancier hotel restaurant fare with more international influences. I got this cookbook as a way to explore another ancestral cuisine, although my ancestors hail from Bavaria, there is a lot of crossover, including spätzle which is considered a classic Bavarian dish.

(Buckwheat Spätzle – in Italian we would call my spätzle, Spätzle-one, or giant spätzle )

The flavors of the Black Forest are homey and delicious, the ingredients, simple and flavorful.  The chef in the introduction talks a lot about traditional German fare, about abundant family gardens, food preservation skills and my favorite story of all – that it is common for German families to take a walk through the woods on the weekend to get to a specific restaurant, pub or café serving some specialty – maybe a confection or cake or perhaps a home-style hearty meal to enjoy. I just love the idea of that. We did something similar in Italy, taking the Via Francigena to San Gimignano and enjoying a lovely meal of gnocchi with truffle sauce and stewed wild boar. One of the best meals of my life. Food tastes so amazing when it is well deserved.

It was this romantic thought that inspired this meal. I imagined myself taking an invigorating walk through the black forest, coming out of the forest, with a scent of something savory cooking in the air and following my nose to a cozy warm gastropub to enjoy a hearty meal.

The veal and white bean stew is entirely of my creation. The buckwheat spätzle is based on the original spätzle recipe in the cookbook.  We had originally made the spätzle to accompany a recipe for kielbasa and lentils from the same cookbook, being its traditional accompaniment.

(Kielbasa and lentils with buckwheat Spätzle )

We used some homemade kielbasa and it was good, but not nearly as outstanding as this combination!

Veal and White Bean Stew:

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups of cannellini beans, cooked (I use dry beans, soaked overnight in warm water and a TBS of apple cider vinegar and then cooked until tender)

1 lb of veal stew meat browned in 1 TBS butter

2 onions, caramelized (cooked down with red wine vinegar and a little water to prevent burning)

2 cups beef stock – homemade is preferable

1 cup of water

Bay leaf

1 clove of garlic, minced

2 TBS tomato paste

2 carrots, chopped

2 cups green cabbage, shredded

Season with salt, pepper and thyme

METHOD: The day before, cook the beans, or you can use canned. You might also want to caramelize the onions, brown the veal and make the spätzle. The day of cooking place all the ingredients in a crock pot, except for the spätzle . Cook on the high setting until it comes to a boil (about 2-3 hours). Then add the spätzle and cook on low for another 5-6 hours until everything is heated through. You could put the spätzle in at the start and just cook on low for 10-12 hours, but it might become a little more mushy.

(Making Spätzle  using the “cutting board method”)

Buckwheat Spätzle

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups of buckwheat flour

4 large eggs

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp fresh ground nutmeg

1 cup cold water

METHOD:  Combine the flour, eggs, salt and nutmeg in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (I don’t have an electric mixer and make the dough using my hands). Mix on medium until combined and slowly pour in the water until the batter is smooth, mix for five minutes more until the dough is elastic.

Bring 2 quarts of lightly salted water to boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Scrape dough into a potato ricer or colander with large holes and press dough into boiling water. Alternately, place dough on a cutting board and scrape dough into the boiling water. Cook until they are tender but still firm, stirring occasionally, about 3-4 minutes, they will rise to the surface when done. Lift the spätzle out of the water with a large slotted spoon, shake off the water and place in a bowl, mix with some butter or olive oil to prevent sticking together. Spätzle is also very good, reheated by sautéing in butter until golden.

*Note, I used the cutting board method, and as this was my first time making spätzle, they were a bit bigger than what is traditional, but I think they were the perfect size for my slow cooked stew, if they had been smaller, I would not have allowed them to cook with the stew, but stirred them in at the end before serving.

Sardinian Purcavru in Agru Durci

Purcavru in Agru Durci garnished with mirto

I told you all I was going to be making things interesting on here with different recipes from a variety of different world cuisines!

With the first in this series, I am giving a nod to my husband’s Sardinian roots. Sardinia is a small island off the coast of Italy in the vicinity of Rome. I was lucky enough to go there this past year when Roberto and I went with our moms on the “roots tour” of Italy. Roberto was born in Sardinia to Sardinian parents, but grew up in Rome. On our visit there last fall, we spent time with the extended family. It was lovely.

Sardinia is an interesting place, I immediately loved it because it has a rich culture both with herding animals (sheep and goats) but is also the place in Europe which has the greatest amount of megalithic structures, making this farm girl and history buff very happy!

These megalithic structures, round tower-fortresses called nuraghi, which ancient villages were built around are over 35,000 years old and there are over 8,000 of them on Sardinia, an island that is about the size and shape as Vermont. So that is a lot of pre-history going on there! If you aren’t into history, Sardinia is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, La Costa Smeralda- The Emerald Coast. There are also beautiful mountains (yes they get snow!) and lunar looking rock formations. There is an area towards the middle of the island that is called Valle Della Luna – The Valley of the Moon and looks just like Rohan from the Lord of the Rings movies. Fascinating landscape!

But the thing I loved about it most is that it is home to some of the oldest trees in Europe. We were able to visit 2 of these old olives, the oldest being 5,000 years old and the second oldest being around 3,000 – and still producing olives!!! For me, a nature worshiper it was akin to meeting Gandhi. The most amazing thing about Italy in general is that you can grow so much food! Nearly everyone that has even a small plot of land has fruit trees, some grapes to make homemade wine, nut and olive trees, veggie gardens, etc. I saw tons of pomegranate and fig trees. There is just so much abundance there!

Sardinia actually has its own language, Sardu, of which there are several dialects. Sardu has been influenced by Catalan, Spanish and indigenous Nuragic elements with some roots from Phoenician and Etruscan. So instead of the more familiar Italian “a” and “o” word endings, Sardinian words end with “u” and “s”, like our last name, Campus. This is because Sardinian is much like Latin. You can see this in the name of this dish Purcavru Agru Durci, which in Italian would be Cinghiale Agrodolce.

So what about the food? Well because of its location, Sardinian cuisine has been able to capture tastes from various Mediterranean influences: Catalan, Corsican, Spanish, Italian. The diet is rich in meats, like lamb, goat and pork, fresh vegetables, wonderful cheeses, fresh veggies and of course copious amounts of olive oil and rich red wine, famed for its high level of antioxidants- Cannonou. On the coast, where we didn’t spend much time, there is also a lot of fish and seafood consumed. And, like the rest of Italy the population consumes large amounts of pasta and bread. In fact as a gluten-intolerant, I had a hard time in Italy in general staying away from wheat as it is in almost everything from bread and pasta, to a thickener in sauces and a coating on vegetables and meats. I asked the question on facebook the other day after reading an article about how wheat is killing the world, how people like Italians, and especially Sardinians, known the world over as healthy and one of the longest living peoples could be in such a good state of health (the island has the world’s highest documented percentage of people who have passed the century threshold.) if wheat is the only factor. It was an interesting discussion, but none of us were able to really make sense of that!

But I digress. One thing which is very unique to Sardinian cuisine is the use of Mirto, or Myrtle. The plant is symbolic of love and immortality, and in Sardinia it is an essential plant. The berries (which look a bit like small blueberries, although there is a white version as well )are used to make a delicious aperitif, called “mirto”, which uses both varieties of berries separately, creating a red and white version and the leaves. Sardinians also use the leaves in cooking, similar in manner to bay leaves or other herbaceous plants. I was able to get some to bring home with me, and this is one of the ingredients that really makes this dish. The taste is very hard to place for me, but is most similar to a bay leaf.

I wasn’t able to get wild boar for this dish, but we did use meat from the half pig we bought this year (and butchered ourselves) from a local farmer.

Purcavru in Agru Durci (from Cooking in Sardinia)

INGREDIENTS:

4-5 TBS olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp myrtle leaves (substitute bay leaf)
1 ½ lbs boneless boar or pork meat, cut into bite sized pieces
1 tsp sugar
1 TBS red wine vinegar
1 TBS tomato Paste
Salt to taste

METHOD:
Sauté onion in a pan (I used cast iron) with 4-5 TBS of olive oil. Add about a tsp of chopped myrtle leaves. Add the meat and a pinch of salt and brown over medium heat. Blend sugar and vinegar, stir and pour over the meat. Then dilute tomato paste in a cup of warm water, add to the pan, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 45 mins. You will have to add more water intermittently so the stew doesn’t dry out. During the last five minutes, uncover pan to reduce the sauce.

Return to La Torraccia

I never understood why some people would return to the same places over and over again when traveling. With a whole world to explore out there and so much to see that no human could do it all in just one lifetime, how could anyone ever justify going back to the same place twice? That was before I ever made any profound connections to the people at a certain place, a vacation spot, before I met my favorite chef in the world, before I drank my favorite wines and fell in love with the peace and joy a certain place can bring. That was all before Torraccia Di Chiusi.

Over three years ago, Roberto and I first had the opportunity to visit the Agro-Turismo,Torraccia Di Chiusi. We had a wonderful time there soaking in the beautiful landscapes, visiting medieval villages, eating amazing food, meeting wonderful people who would become friends. While that was all happening, other important changes were going on internally for both of us that were helped along by this visit to this amazing place. Some places give you peace of mind, time away from the grind to have a quiet place to listen to the stirrings of your soul. Torraccia di Chiusi is one of those places for me, where I feel at home, away from home.

Three years ago, we were still living in Florida, planning to move to Vermont and begin our homestead lifestyle. We were full of big dreams and super excited for the change. La Torraccia was like a place of confirmation. Donatella and Stefano, the owners and all the people like Grazia and Bruno, that make the place what it is were already doing the kinds of things we wanted to – raising animals, fruits and vegetables for food and making artisanal products out of those labors of love. Their place, ideas and philosophy were truly beautiful and inspirational, a bucolic dream. We spent time after dinner each night talking about the simple, good life. Just being there and talking to everyone made us see that these dreams we had were very possible. Not just possible, but in many parts of the world very normal. This touched us both deeply and firmly footed us in our dream moving forward.

Things began to change after that trip. First and foremost my food philosophy changed after I met Bruno, my favorite chef, who cooks the amazing dinners at Torraccia di Chiusi. He is truly a master of simplicity. Pasta sauced with butter, oil, cheese and sage was a revelation. Bruno is the true personification of simple is better, and if you want simple, you better get the best ingredients. Bruno doesn’t understand fine dining where the portions are too small, and you leave hungry. He doesn’t see the point. Better to fill people up and really nourish them with good, healthy and soul filling food. He does this, every night at La Torraccia. His integrity when it comes to cooking and life really, I have never seen surpassed. I have to say that Bruno, along with Grazia, Stefano and Donatella are inspirations for Roberto and I, and the way we are now living out our lives, with purpose.

(photo courtesy of Bruno and Grazia)

I would highly recommend Bruno and Grazia’s cookbook, Cucinar Cantando*  which is a mixture of food philosophy, artwork (he is also a painter) and words of wisdom, as well as recipes. Well worth it. Not only that, but it was entirely produced by Bruno and Grazia themselves – the writing, the translations from Italian to English, the illustrations, etc. I am the lucky recipient of one of the original 11 copies, each of which have unique covers. The production of those original editions were paid for with all the tips Bruno and Grazia had received from guests over the summer before, another labor of love, to be sure.

When I returned to my own kitchen after that first visit, I really started paring it all down to the basics. My dishes became much more rustic, and I began to rely on simple herbs, good oil and salt to season food, instead of my array of exotic spices I had always relied on before. I had a new and profound appreciation for butter and stock as well as the art of braising and slow cooking. I learned that you can never really use too much olive oil and that local and fresh produce is paramount. If it is not in season, and not fresh what is the point in preparing it? It will never be as good as something that is in season. In Tuscany, you would never think of preparing a dish without local products, let alone produce from another country. Why bother? When dishes start getting too out of touch from these simple philosophies, I summon Bruno in my mind and I am put back on track. Simple is best, simple is art.

Bruno and Grazia especially have become our good friends over the years. We have stayed in touch via facebook and email, and we even did a giveaway of their cookbook Cucinar Cantando on The Foodie Blogroll and there is another one in the works soon! I came to find out that my posts about our visit to La Torraccia has brought them business over the years, and for that I am profoundly pleased because they definitely deserve it. Due to this fact, Donatella and Stefano invited us to be their guests at La Torraccia for a few days to thank us for our support over the years. How could we say no?

We spent 3 wonderful nights and 2 very restful days there. The first day all we did was rest, nap, eat, and spend time walking around the farm seeing all the changes and improvements they have done over the three years. I can tell you, I did not build up the place unrealistically in my mind. It was even better this time around! One of the biggest changes is the developments in their wine-making, which I will talk about in another post. But we had a great time seeing how much they had done in just 3 years!

The second day we took another attempt at walking the Via Francigena to San Gimignano. It was a perfect sunny, cool day and we didn’t get lost! We spent the day in San Gimignano eating (of course) wonderful cheeses, and we went back to Beppone to have a repeat of the meal we have been thinking about for years -stewed wild boar, perfect gnocchi in truffle cream sauce and we topped it off with what I believe to be the best gelato in the world.

La Torraccia and Tuscany hold a very dear and special place in my heart. The people are committed to their local food traditions and the landscape with all its farms and trees remind me so much of Vermont. I just wish we could grow olives here! If we did, my life would be perfect.

*If you wish to order a copy of Cucinar Cantando (and I highly recommend it!) please contact Grazia and Bruno at cucinarcantando@libero.it

Lobstered OUT!

BOOTH BAY HARBOR

We just got back from a family trip to Maine. We spent a week in Booth Bay Harbor with Gwen, my dad and stepmom and some family friends. It was nice getting away and having a change of scenery. Living in a land-locked state, it is always enjoyable to be near the ocean and this trip was especially nice as we were able to bring our dogs!

 

MINI P and PEPINO hanging out at Damariscotta Lake State Park

Too bad they don’t consider goats, sheep or chickens as pets!

One of my goals of the trip was to eat lobster every day. At about $5.99/lb market price, this was super easy to do. We cooked every dinner but one at the house, to showcase the many wonderful cooks that were on this trip! This made the whole thing much more economic – and we thought, way more fun! We enjoyed whole steamed lobsters, lobster sushi, lobster pizzas, lobster deviled eggs, lobster rolls, lobster club sandwiches, lobster and corn brulee, lobster risotto and lobster gnocchi.  Of course we also ate some other wonderful seafood such as mussels, oysters, shrimp, clams and scallops. I probably ate more seafood in one week, than I do in months here at home and we all really enjoyed it.

We had a few dinners that included fresh chicken that we raised , as well as some local beef. But even with that, we were totally “lobstered out” by the end of it! But come this winter we will be enjoying some beautiful lobster stock, and saffron Spanish style mussels for a stew base made by our friend Alice. Thanks Alice!

Anyway, we are adjusting to being back at home, and so I feel as though this post is rather boring, so I will just let the pictures explain!

Gluten-Free Potato Gnocchi

Even though I grew up in an Italian household, I have never been a huge fan of pasta. Don’t get me wrong, I love the filled pastas – tortellini, ravioli, cannelloni, etc. but just regular ‘ol pasta…meh. However, when it comes to gnocchi, I just can’t get enough of it. Maybe that is because I have always loved potatoes, and those soft pillows that just soak in the sauce, have always been irresistible to me.

When I became gluten-free, my pasta options reduced significantly. Pasta is such a quick and easy meal to prepare when you don’t have as much time to spend in the kitchen as you would like, and it is so easy to dress up with veggies, meats, cheeses and various sauces. Plus my husband, born and raised in Italy grew up eating it 2 times a day.  Like Roberto always says, you can eat pasta twice a day your whole life and never get bored of it because of all the various ways it can be prepared.  I can’t say I agree, but I do enjoy the convenience of it once in a while. Commercially I can get corn pasta, in two shapes – spaghetti and elbows. That is fine, but sometimes you want something a little different!

(The First Attempt)

For New Year’s Eve 2011, when my step-daughter Gwen was visiting, we decided to try our hand at homemade gnocchi. I made a big mistake and mixed it in the food processor the first time. It turned out kind of gummy, but was still pretty good. We made the gnocchi gluten-free by using potatoes and potato starch. However, for me, the consistency was still too gummy – it wasn’t just the fault of the food processor.

Gwen was visiting again last week and wanted to make gnocchi again, this time instead of the potato starch, I suggested we use gluten-free oat flour. This made the gnocchi much more like I remember – a bit firmer and toothsome. We served it with a tomato sauce that Gwen and Roberto made on New Year’s Eve – it made a lot, so we froze the leftovers.

I also like these gnocchi served with brown butter cream sauce with truffle oil. When Roberto and I were in San Gimignano, in Tuscany, almost 2 years ago, we had the most amazing truffle gnocchi, and since then, I have been dreaming about it. The version we make at home comes pretty darn close!

Tonight we are going to have the leftovers with butter, peas and prosciutto. Like I said, so versatile!

Making homemade gnocchi is very easy and straightforward and much less time consuming than other types of homemade pasta. Since we have made it a few times, we no longer use a recipe, but this is a good starter recipe from Italian: The Definitive Professional Guide to Italian Ingredients and Cooking Techniques, Including 300 Step-by-step Recipes..

A note about the book – this book includes all the Italian classics, and has detailed process pictures as well. Roberto loves this cookbook because everything we have made from it turns out like an Italian in Italy made it.

Gnocchi di Patate


INGREDIENTS:

2 lbs waxy potatoes, scrubbed
1 TBS sea salt
2 – 2 1/2 cups of flour (we use gluten-free oat flour)
2 TBS butter

METHOD:

Place the un-peeled potatoes in a large pot of salted water, Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are tender, but not falling apart. Drain, and peel the potatoes as soon as possible, while they are still hot.

On a work surface spread out a layer of flour. Mash the potatoes with a hand masher directly onto the flour. You can also use a food mill or ricer if you have those.  Sprinkle the top of the potatoes with about half of the remaining flour and mix lightly. Begin to knead the dough, drawing in more flour as you knead.  Keep doing this until the dough is light to the touch, no longer sticky or moist, and can be rolled easily. Do not overwork the dough, or the gnocchi will become too heavy.

Divide the dough into 4 parts. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a snake about ¾ inch thick, and cut the dough into ¾ inch long pieces.  Hold an ordinary table fork, with long tines sideways.  Once by one press and roll the gnocchi onto your thumb, making ridges on one side and a depression from your thumb on the other side.

Bring large pan of salted water to boil. Then drop about ½ the gnocchi in.  When the gnocchi rise to the top, after about 3-4 minutes they are done. Scoop them out, allow them to drain and place in a serving bowl. Dot them with butter.  Keep warm while remaining gnocchi are cooking. AS soon as they are done, stir in with other gnocchi and more butter. Then serve with extra butter and Parmesan cheese, tomato sauce or any other sauce you wish.

Serves 4-6

Holiday Baking Series: Polenta & Sesame Biscotti

A season full of sweets and baked goods for those of us who are gluten-intolerant or go without refined sugar can be a bit daunting. I have made plenty of sweet treats that are not GF to send to family and friends this year. But I want to enjoy some treats too! So I have been having fun experimenting in the kitchen and making some delicious GF cookies. That is why I was really excited to find a biscotti recipe in Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen by Gina De Palma, using polenta as a base flour. The rest of the recipe is easy to convert to make it GF and refined sugar free!

Polenta or cornmeal is a staple dish in the north of Italy, and always reminds me of when we were visiting Venice and Tuscany.  Funny how eating a certain food can so readily return vibrant memories…So, I like to say these are Northern Italian inspired cookies. Venetian in particular, with the use of sesame seeds and sweetened with honey hearkening to the days of ancient Venice and the use of exotic spices and ingredients.

Making biscotti with cornmeal is very easy and the results are crunchy and delicious – probably my favorite as far as biscotti go. These are very unique and therefore special biscotti, making them great gifts. I made the version inDolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen to send to friends and family, and made this version to satisfy my own sweet tooth!

Polenta and Sesame Biscotti
adapted from Dolce Italiano

INGREDIENTS:

3 cups GF flour – try a GF baking mix, or even oat or coconut flour
1 ¼ cup fine polenta
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup raw honey
4 large farm fresh eggs
3 large farm fresh egg yolks, plus 1 egg white for glaze
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup sesame seeds (I used a combination of white and black)

METHOD:

In a large bowl mix together GF flour, polenta, baking powder and salt and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer cream the butter and honey, about 2 minutes. Then add the eggs one at a time then the yolks one at a time beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the vanilla extract. Add the dry ingredients and beat on low to form a soft dough. Beat in ½ cup of sesame seeds until they are thoroughly incorporated. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours, or until firm enough to handle.

Preheat oven to 325F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough from the refrigerator. Using well floured hands(the dough is very sticky), divide it into 4 equal portions and roll each portion into a log about 1 ½ inches in diameter and 12 inches long. Place 2 logs spaced 3 inches apart on eah sheet.

In a small bowl beat the egg white until frothy, and with a pastry brush glaze the surface of the logs with the egg white. Then sprinkle them with the remaining sesame seeds. Bake logs unti; the are golden brown and feel somewhat firm to the touch – about 30-35 minutes. Rotate the sheets 180 degrees halfway through baking to ensure even baking.

Allow the logs to cool on the baking sheets or on a wire rack until cool to the touch – about 40 minutes.

With a sharp serrated knife slice the biscotti, slightly on the bias into ¼ inch wide slices. Lay sices on the baking sheets in a single layer and bake in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes more until they are toasted, dry and crisp. Cool biscotti completely n baking sheets. Store in a clean airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 6 dozen biscotti

Romantic Birthday in Québec City

Today I am going to interrupt the holiday focused posts and take a quick detour to Québec City. I am a very lucky lady, my husband is wonderfully romantic. When we first met over 5 years ago, he jokingly told me that in Italy, they have “romance classes” for young boys in school along with art, math, sciences, history and languages. It was meant in jest, but if you know Roberto, you would believe that he attended those classes as a young man growing up in Rome.

So my lovely, romantic husband whisked me away on a surprise trip to Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) City to celebrate my birthday, this past weekend. Living in rural, Northern Vermont, the closest city to us is Burlington. But Burlington is the smallest large city of any state in the USA. So for us to get a taste of the city life, we generally head to Montréal, which is the closest large city to us, closer than New York City or Boston. That said we are not really city people but we love French-speaking Canada because it is very European. The streets are full of cafés, bistros, and shops displaying beautiful handmade items, either made locally,or imported from Europe. I didn’t pick up a single item the whole weekend that was made in China. Even the utensils at the restaurants were from France and the dishes from England.

Another aspect that we so enjoy about visiting Québec Province is that breakfasts are usually included with the room… and you actually want to eat it. When I stay at hotels in the US, I always have to bring my own food for breakfast. Being gluten-intolerant, and not eating sugar, HFCS, food dyes, etc there is very little at the continental breakfast that I can eat. But in Québec there is incredible variety. During our trip, the hotel we stayed at offered a breakfast buffet with our room. We got to chose from a variety of amazing choices each day: Fresh fruit smoothies, 3 types of fresh cooked eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, potatoes, crepes, yogurt w/ fresh berry coulis and maple sugar, muesli, oatmeal, fresh fruit (including figs), hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon, rillettes, cretons, local cheeses and of course about 20 different varieties of croissants, breakfast pastries, brioche and breads. I ate until my heart’s content every morning, and Roberto was happy to have real, European style breads to chose from – a real luxury for him. I particularly enjoyed the whole fillets of smoked salmon, the quality which is far superior to anything I can get in my local area. As well as the rillettes and local cheeses!

We enjoyed a lot of delicious food in many quaint establishments in Vieux-Québec, including Cassoulet avec lapin (rabbit), Bourguignon de caribou sauvage (wild caribou stew in a wine and blueberry cream sauce), various Pate (wild meat pies) quebecoise,  and yes, I did splurge on a crepe, and a croissant filled with pastry cream and apricots washed down with a perfect Café au lait.

We made up for all the eating with taking several long walks, and hikes around the city on Friday and Saturday. Vieux-Québec is a walled city with a fort, and during this time of year, the Citadelle is pretty deserted. The Citadelle is surrounded by The Plains of Abraham, a park and green space that runs parallel to the Saint Lawrence River. Historically it was grazing land from about the late1500′s to the mid 1600′s and was the place of the last battle between the French and the English in 1759. This place was a wonderfully quiet and magical place to take a walk on Saturday morning. There were a few other brave tourists, and some locals, snowshoeing and Telemark skiing, but for long stretches there was no one but us. It snowed all of Friday night with huge, fluffy flakes and on the Plains of Abraham the snow was at least a foot deep. I am really glad that Roberto told me to bring my winter boots! This hike was one of my favorite parts of the trip! I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for lack of proper footwear.

Vieux-Québec has an interesting layout with an upper and lower city. There is a Funiculaire or Funicular that links the two parts of the city, and has been in use since 1879. Or you can use the stairs, which on a freezing cold day, definitely counts as an intense hike. The Funicular freaked me out, so we did the stairs or climbed our way up steep winding sidewalks to get between the upper and lower city. This also ensured our ability to eat our way through Québec guilt free.

Vieux-Québec is an unparalleled destination for those seeking a European experience in North America without having the expense of overseas travel. The skyline is dominated by The Château Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world. It sits on a bluff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, and looks every bit like a medieval castle bedecked with turrets, flags and sparkling lights. Truly a sight to behold, and certainly the architectural cornerstone of Vieux-Québec. It doesn’t stop there though, all the streets are lined with ancient stone buildings, many part of the original capital city of New France.

During the holiday season, there are a variety of holiday markets, including the German Christmas Market where we enjoyed spiced wine, traditional bratwurst with sauerkraut and roasted chestnuts. We also visited a large public market at the Old Port where we bought rillettes, cured salami, smoked fishes and fresh pasta and tasted traditional meat pies only made during the holiday season.

This is a great time of year to visit Quebec. One of the servers at the crêperie we went to told us that the mayor of Quebec wants to make Quebec THE city of Christmas. It has my vote. With its streets looking like something out of a magical Christmas village, all the beautiful holiday decorations and all the special events and holiday experiences to be had.  It is a perfect destination to get you into the magical spirit of the season. Even Bon Appetit agrees!