27 October 2007

Thanksgiving in a Box

photo by Emi
Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. It's not all apparently wrapped up in frantic consumerism nor blind patriotism nor any particular religion, though of course you can find all those qualities if you look hard enough. For most, however, Thanksgiving is about food and family, and being grateful. Basta.

Thanksgiving doesn't exist in Italy and maybe because of the already daily emphasis on food and family, they don't really get the point. I miss it, and this year I've decided to celebrate it for the first time over here, inviting a mix of ex-pat Americans and enthusiastic Italians. Problem: where to find all those important Thanksgiving ingredients? I did some scouting and came across cranberry sauce and pumpkins- essentials yes, but the fare stopped there. No need to panic, however, for:

I received the best care-package of my life yesterday.

Fortunately, I planned well-enough in advance to request some of those indispensable and unavailable-in-Italy Thanksgiving supplies. My parents put together an adorable and heart warming package of goodies that was a joy to receive and contained all the essentials to recreate a Texas Thanksgiving in Milan.

The Inventory:
  • 4 bags Texas pecans (for stuffing and other treats)
  • 2 bags dried cranberries
  • 1 bag brown sugar (essential)
  • 1 bottle Chipotle Tabasco Sauce
  • 1 can Chipotle peppers
  • 1 box graham crackers (for pie crusts)
  • 1 shaker of Allspice
  • 1 can condensed milk
It was better than Christmas, everything we pulled out of the box was accompanied by squeals of delight: "Oh! Oh look! BROWN SUGAR!!... and what's this? Woooowwww!!! ALLSPICE!" It was a dream come true, the promise that Thanksgiving could and would happen for me this year. I would like to start off the season by officially giving thanks for my parents, for understanding my spirit, and sending me Thanksgiving in a box.

24 October 2007

I did it! I made an Apple Pie!

That's right folks, I overcame the intimidation and launched myself head-first in to my first pie-baking experience. It may be lumpy, torn and a bit ugly, but the final product miraculously looked and tasted suspiciously like... a real apple pie!
I have a theory that pie-bakers ferociously attempt to defend their territory by circulating horror stories of rubbery or leathery crusts that can absolutely ruin an otherwise-delicious pie. Everywhere I turned, there was a demoralizing tale of "impossible to work" dough which baked in to a horrifying excuse for a pie shell. At first, I was daunted. I put aside all pie-baking delusions for a week or so, before I came to a shocking conclusion: I have never met an apple pie I did not like. I have never used the words "rubbery" nor "leathery" to describe a pie crust, in fact, I have never even attempted to describe a pie crust, I was always too engrossed in eating and enjoying it. So I left the paranoia to the pie-connoisseurs, made an amateur apple pie, and loved it.
I followed the Cook's Illustrated recipe for "Foolproof Pie Dough." The title captured me and it used vodka as a key ingredient, so why not? The only problem was that it called for shortening, which I couldn't find here, so I substituted two full sticks of butter, certainly a recipe for disaster, I feared. It turned out delicious, however, and no one accused my crust of being leathery. Phew! I did roll it a bit too thin, which accounts for the overall torn and lumpy aspect of the pie however.
For the filling I used a mixture of several different recipes, as usual. I mostly used Kim's recipe and another Cook's Illustrated recipe. That was definitely the easiest and most fun part of the whole ordeal.

Laurel's Amateur Apple Pie:

Crust: Follow Foolproof Pie Dough recipe
4 Granny Smith Apples
4 Other apples (I used Fuji because they were all I could find)
3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp table salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 egg white , beaten lightly
1 Tbsp sugar, for topping

Preheat oven to 425°. Peel and core apples, cut in to 1/2-to-3/4-inch slices. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with the sugar, lemon juice and zest, salt and spices. Turn fruit mixture, including juices, into chilled pie shell and mound slightly in center. Sprinkle with the tablespoon of flour, distribute the butter chunks. Roll out second dough ball and lay it over the filling. You should have at least an inch of overhang. Trim top and bottom edges to 1/2 inch beyond pan lip. Tuck this rim of dough underneath itself so that folded edge is flush with pan lip. Flute edging or press with fork tines to seal. Cut four slits at right angles on dough top. Brush egg white onto top of crust and sprinkle evenly with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake at 425° until top crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Reduce to 375°; continue baking until juices bubble and crust is deep golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes longer. Pull that baby out of the oven and let it cool a bit. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream, of course.

photo by Emi

16 October 2007

Una Domenica (semi) Italiana

At first, Italian Sundays unnerved me. I was accustomed to my family's concept of The Sunday, which was quite a contrast to the whole catholic observance of the holiday. At my house, it was toss-up between the slave labor let's-teach-the-children-the-value-of-hard- work Sunday, or the quality-family-time-excursion Sunday. The latter of which might sound more appealing, but in reality required loading all of our household belongings in to a car, driving to a body of water, recreating a comfortable living room in the great outdoors, eating a few soggy sandwiches, then re-loading it all and driving back home, where we commenced to unpack. Don't get me wrong, we had great times on Sundays, or at least got a lot of chores done, but it wasn't exactly the "day of rest" I kept hearing so much about.

In Italy, however, I reluctantly discovered what Sunday meant to The Others: the loafers, the eaters, the drinkers. I now regularly partake in Marathon Sunday Lunches, where I rise from the table 6 hours later, my ass flattened, my abs fattened, and my several liters of wine sloshing around in my head. There was I time when I resisted, when drinking in the middle of the day still struck me as so negligent, so idle, so UNPRODUCTIVE. My efficient American sensibilities refused to accept such a careless and irresponsible use of a day. Surely there were back-wrenching chores to be done? Lawn chairs to pack? Soggy sandwiches to choke down? But no, not here, not now. I'll never forget the betrayed look on my Emilio's face the first time I enthusiastically tried to involve him in some highly effective, and exhausting endeavour one Sunday morning. His face fell perceptibly, all he could do was stutter, with quivering lip, "bbbbut... it's.. SUNDAY!"

Now I believe a cultural compromise has been reached. I have discovered that Sunday is the best time to host a dinner or lunch party; the true answer is in the PREPARATION, not simply the consumption of said Sunday meal. My diligent and industrious persona is satisfied while my inner sloth and glutton are finally allowed space in my day. I make a point to do all the grocery shopping on Saturday (actually because nothing here is open on Sunday, the sacred day of rest), that way I wake up at a leisurely hour, and unhurriedly begin to prepare food between multiple cups of coffee, stubbornly sporting my pajamas until an hour before dinner. It's a delicate balance.
Now, with that said, I would like to share with you this week's Sunday Dinner, which I pulled off swimmingly.

Sunday Night Dinner for 5:

  • Spicy olives
  • Peanuts in shell
  • Roasted garlic and goat cheese crostini
  • Toasted walnuts, goat cheese and dried fig crostini
  • Creamy bell pepper dip crostini
  • Tuna, Salmon and Avocado Tartare
Dessert (brought by the guests):
  • Strawberry cream cake
  • Marron Glacé

09 October 2007

Salmon, Tuna and Avocado Tartare

photo by Emilio
This is a dish I consumed at Le Caveau des Arches: a cosy, underground, cave-like restaurant (picture below) in the village of Beaune in Burgundy, France. We ate here on the first and the last night of our trip, and I ordered this dish both times so I could effectively memorize and copy it. I made immediately when we got home (my tartare is pictured above). The trick is, obviously, to use the freshest fish you can find, since you will be eating it basically raw. mmmm.. It's good as a small appetizer, since it is very filling and you can't eat much of it.

Ingredients (for 2 people):
1 fresh tuna steak
1 salmon filet or steak
1 ripe-but-firm avocado
lots of chives, diced
3-4 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
salt pepper
olive oil

Skin and de-bone the fish and cut into tiny cubes. Toss it in a tupperware and set aside. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the last 5 ingredients, to taste. It should turn out like a nice vinaigrette. Mix this in with the fish in the tupperware, close tightly and put in the fridge for an hour or two. The fish will "cook" in the citrus juice and should turn a more opaque color. Taste it at this point and add more of whatever it might need. Get out a ramekin and squish some tartare in there real well, then turn it upside-down, remove the ramekin, and you should get a perfect little tartare tower! You can also make a fusion version using wasabi, sesame and soy-sauce as flavors.

Le Caveau des Arches, foto from website

08 October 2007

Mid-Afternoon Meltdown?

Looking for the perfect, quick cure for that afternoon low, when blood-sugar and caffeine levels hit rock bottom? Search no further, for I have discovered a practical pick-me-up that will satisfy your stomach, your palate, and you caffeine addiction, all in one delicious and healthy treat! Introducing the...


photo by Emilio
  • 1 Banana
  • 1 shot of espresso
  • 1 cup of ice
  • a splash of soy milk (optional)
Toss all ingredients in the blender, and voilà! Enjoy your instant attitude adjustment!
The possible variations here are just endless: Try adding other flavors like cocoa, cinnamon, or vanilla. For a hardier breakfast version, try adding yogurt. It would also be fabulous with some chocolate-covered espresso beans thrown in.

Fillet of Sole Gruyere

This is a really delicious fish recipe that my mom and I make for dinner parties. It's great because you can make it a couple hours a head of time and throw it in the oven at the last minute. Serve with rice or quinoa.

3 T butter
1 medium onion, sliced
1/2 lb. mushrooms
1 c. grated Gruyere (or a little more)
4 fillets of sole
1/2 t paprika
salt and pepper
fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400.
Melt butter, saute onion and mushrooms.
Butter baking dish.
Cover bottom with 1/2 of onion and mushroom mix.
Sprinkle with 1/2 of the cheese.
Fold each fillet in half and place on top of stuff in dish.
Top with rest of onion and mushroom, then remaining cheese.
Season with salt, pepper, paprika.
Bake for 20 minutes.
Then brown top quickly under broiler.
Garnish with parsley.

J'aime le fromage de France!

Wow. We just got back from a week in France: 3 days in Paris and 3 in the Burgundy countryside. There are more pictures and posts to come, I just wanted to give you all a sneak peek of the highlight of our trip. On our last day we spent all our remaining money at the cheese shop pictured above, and on wine from the vinyards pictured below... and what a delicious splurge it was!

photos by Emilio