Brussels Sprouts With Dates And Walnuts

Brussels Sprouts with Dates and Walnuts

Except for the ubiquitous date nut bread, I’ve never cooked with dates, and usually eat them only whenever I receive a gift of dried fruits at Christmastime. But all that changed after I hit the date mother lode on vacation last week in Southern California.

I had told my husband I was on the lookout for a date farm, so as we left Palm Springs, we took the local road – route 111 – rather than heading straight for the highway to start our drive through the desert to Scottsdale, Arizona. In less than 20 minutes, we were driving through Indio, in the Coachella Valley, where dates are an important crop.
 I wasn’t disappointed when we came across this sight and my husband pulled to a quick stop:
 Shields Date Garden, a date farm with a gift shop selling all kinds of dates and other dried fruits. There’s a cafe too with a 50s vibe, a garden out back, and a video you can watch entitled “Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” Yes, you heard that right.
By Visitor7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26340574
The store sells many different varieties of dates, and we tasted samples of at least half a dozen types. My favorite was the large, sweet and creamy medjool, considered by some to be the “Cadillac” of dates.
Medjool dates were first grown in the California in the 1930s, from 11 offshoots of trees imported by the USDA from Morocco. The original trees in Morocco were destroyed by disease and all the Medjool dates grown in the world today are descended from the offshoots brought to the California desert.
You can have a meal at the Shields cafe, or just try a date shake, which we did. I must admit it was a bit too sweet and too rich for my taste, and we were able to drink only a small amount.
I was glad to stock up on some medjool and deglet noor dates though, to bring home. Deglet Noor, which means “date of light,” are semi-dry dates originally from Algeria. Today they’re the leading commercial variety grown in the U.S. They ship well because they’re semi dry and are chewier, but they’re not as rich as medjools.
Before I eat them all out of hand, I do plan to make some sort of dessert with some of these dates.
But since I’m not eating any cakes, cookies or pastries until Easter, I made a recipe for a savory dish from the Lebanese cookbook author, Maureen Aboud.
Her recipe uses brussels sprouts, walnuts and dates, and it’s a winning combination of sweet and bitter flavors.
I started by toasting some walnuts lightly in a dry saucepan, then I removed them and wiped the pan clean.
Then I added a little butter and olive oil, placed the sprouts cut side down, seasoned them, and put a lid on top.
Check them in four or five minutes. If you let them cook too long, or at too high a heat, they might brown too quickly, or even burn. So keep an eye on them.
Add the rest of the ingredients according to the recipe and you’ll have a quick, easy to prepare and delicious side dish.
Just a few more “nerd notes” about dates:
They’re the oldest known cultivated tree crop and one of the most expensive to produce.
From the time a date palm is planted, it can be 8 to 10 years before the first commercial crop is harvested. Though the date palm is a desert plant, it requires as much water as a willow.
Each female tree produces 150 to 300 pounds of dates per year, depending on the variety.
The trees at Shields Date Garden are 15 to 90 years old. To harvest the dates, workers climb permanent ladders that are attached to each tree and moved higher every few years as the trees grow.

 

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Brussels Sprouts with Dates and Walnuts
from Maureenaboud.com
printable recipe here

INGREDIENTS
  • 16 oz. brussels sprouts
  • 1 tablespoon salted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup dry white wine (or substitute lemon juice)
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • 6 medjool dates
  • ⅓ cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Trim and halve the brussels sprouts.
  2. In a large saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the brussels sprouts cut-side down, and season lightly with salt and pepper. I covered with a lid at this point, but keep an eye on them because they’ll burn quickly if on high heat. Mine cooked in only four or five minutes. Cook until the brussels sprouts are golden brown, adding more olive oil if the pan gets too dry. Stir the brussels sprouts and add the wine or lemon juice to deglaze the pan for about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and cook at medium high heat, stirring occasionally until the brussels sprouts are tender. Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. In a serving bowl, combine the brussels sprouts with the dates and walnuts. Serve immediately.
Codfish With Chickpeas

Codfish with Chickpeas

The Lenten season is here and that means no meat on Fridays for many of us. Even if you don’t observe Lent, this dish is one of my favorites for so many reasons.
First of all, it’s delicious. Second of all, it’s easy to make and third of all, it’s low in calories.
What more could you want, except maybe someone to shop for you and cook for you?
One of the things that takes this over the top in flavor are the tomatoes I used in the recipe.
They’re small grape tomatoes that come in a jar and I bought them at a local gourmet store. Use canned or jarred cherry tomatoes if you can’t find these grape tomatoes, or just plain old canned diced tomatoes from the supermarket. But if you can find these specialty jarred grape tomatoes, or a similar brand, they’re worth the extra cost.
They’re so sweet I could have eaten them from the pan just with the chickpeas and seasonings added. A nice swipe of bread is all I needed. Actually, dropping a few eggs into this would make a wonderful lunch or dinner too, even without the fish.
But back to the cod. After you’ve cooked the sauce, add the chunks of codfish and put the lid on the pan.
Cook the fish for five minutes with the lid on, and you’re done. Sprinkle with more basil and parsley and serve.
This dish comes together start to finish in less than a half hour. It would make a great do-ahead dish for company too if you cook the sauce and chickpeas ahead of time, then add the fish just before you’re ready to eat.
Wouldn’t you like to dig into this?
This next photo has nothing at all to do with the codfish recipe, but it’s a teaser to let you know we still have a couple of spots available for our writing retreat in Varenna, on Lake Como, Italy this coming September.
Spend your mornings with an experienced writing teacher, workshopping that family, travel or food memoir you always meant to start.
Afternoons are free to do as you please, or you could join me on a few excursions around the lake.
And take a look at this dreamy view from your accommodations at Villa Monastero.
 It could be yours each morning if you sign up for “Italy, In Other Words.”
Click here for more details.
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Codfish with Chickpeas
for two people
1 lb. codfish, cut into large pieces
1/4 cup minced onion
2 large garlic cloves
2 T. olive oil
1 12.4 oz. container cherry or grape tomatoes (datterini)
1/3 cup white wine
15 oz. can chickpeas
salt, pepper
1/4 tsp. dried basil
freshly minced basil
freshly minced parsley
Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil until wilted. Add the tomatoes and smash them flat with a fork or wooden spoon. Sauté briefly then add the white wine and stir. Next add the chickpeas, salt, pepper, basil and parsley, keeping some of the fresh herbs aside to use at the end. Put the lid on and simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes.
Add the codfish, season with salt and pepper, then put the lid on again, for about five minutes or until just cooked through. DON’T overcook or it will break up into small pieces.
Crostata Di Marmellata Alla Sorrentina

Crostata di Marmellata alla Sorrentina

Are you ready for Pi Day? It’s coming up next week and you need to be ready with a real pie – or in this case a crostata (close enough). Of course, you all know that Pi, represented by the Greek letter π, is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, and is commonly approximated as 3.14159.

Pi Day is celebrated around the world on March 14 (March=3rd month, and the 14th day, hence 3.14), which also happens to be the birthday of Albert Einstein, whose legacy is omnipresent here in Princeton, where the Nobel laureate gave lectures at Princeton University, but mainly served as a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Studies from 1933 until his death in 1955.
Princeton honors Pi Day with all kinds of events, from an Einstein look-alike contest, to a pie-baking contest. (The first year of the contest, I actually won second place, with “Alessandra’s crostata.”)
I made a couple of goofs while making this crostata, but in the end, it all worked out.
It calls for a mixture of amaretti cookie crumbs to be mixed with egg, then spread on top of the jam.
But I misread the recipe and put the amaretti cookie crumbs in first, before the jam. Whoops!
Fortunately, I was able to scoop them up before I went any farther.
So after scraping out the amaretti crumbs, I put in a mixture of jams – orange and plum. You can use only one kind if you like, or mix any others – apricot and plum are delicious too.
Now is the time to spread the amaretti mixture. I didn’t have quite enough, but it was just fine. Kind of looks like peanut butter and jelly at this point, but it tastes much better.
Spread the lattice strips on top, then brush with egg.
While baking, the amaretti crumbs and eggs puff up slightly and peek through the lattice strips.
The flavor is delicious and it slices so easily you may want to eat more than just one slice. After all, you are doing research on the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, right?
Happy Pi π Day.
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Crostata di Marmellata alla Sorrentina
from “The Southern Italian Table” by Arthur Schwartz
printable recipe here

your favorite pasta frolla recipe (pastry crust – I cheated this time and used one from Trader Joe’s)
1 12 ounce jar marmalade (I used a combination of plum and orange)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup finely ground amaretti cookies (about 3 ounces, depending on the brand)

Place a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll out the dough between sheets of waxed paper or parchment. Line a 9-inch tart or cake pan with two-thirds of the pasta frolla, bringing the pastry up the sides of the pan just to the top. Save the other third of the pastry to make a lattice top.
Mix the jams (if using two different ones) and spread evenly on the pastry.
Beat one of the eggs in a small bowl until well blended, then add the amaretti crumbs and mix well. Spread this mixture evenly over the jam filling.
Roll out the remaining pastry. With a sharp knife or rolling pastry cutter, cut it into 1/2 inch wide strips. Arrange the strips on top of the tart in a diamond-shaped lattice. Turn the edge of the bottom pastry over the edge of the lattice top.
Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl, then brush the pastry with it.
Bake the tart for 30 to 35 minutes until nicely browned. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove the tart from the pan and finish cooling it on a rack.

Variation:
Sprinkle 2 Tablespoons of finely chopped nuts – toasted almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts – on the bottom pastry before pouring in the marmalade or jam.
At Masseria Astapiana, Villa Giusso in Vico Equense, near Sorrento, a fifteenth century former monastery now operating as a bed and breakfast and party venue, they make a rather complex, but not difficult to accomplish, version of this tart. Instead of using 12 ounces of marmalade, use only 6 ounces. Then dip about 28 whole amaretti quickly into dry white vermouth. Arrange a layer of the cookies over the marmalade, packing them in closely and pushing them slightly into the marmalade. Now combine 2 beaten eggs with 3/4 cup toasted and finely ground almonds. Pour this over the amaretti. There should be just enough to barely cover the cookies. Arrange a lattice pastry top. Bake as above.

Broccoli Romanesco Or Cauliflower “steaks” With Salsa Verde

Broccoli Romanesco or Cauliflower “steaks” with salsa verde

Broccoli romano, also known as broccoli romanesco, is probably my favorite vegetable (although artichokes are a close second). It’s not easy to find it here in the states, but occasionally I see it at farmers’ markets or even in my supermarket. When that happens, I don’t hesitate to buy it, even though it’s a bit pricey.
Aside from the taste, which is more like cauliflower than broccoli, it’s just a beautiful vegetable that is an exquisite example of fractals (go look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls – [if it still exists] – I guess I should say look that up in Wikipedia!)

In any event, even if you can’t find broccoli romano, you can make this recipe using cauliflower, which is easy to find in the markets.

First cut off the leaves and trim the stem, then slice into pieces about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch thick.

Smear with some good olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then place it in the oven at high heat while you chop up herbs and other goodies for the salsa verde.

Flip the “steaks” over half way through cooking. If it’s getting too browned, lower the temperature.

Place on a platter then spoon the sauce over it.

Served with some quinoa and glazed carrots, it made for a colorful and delicious vegetarian dinner. For once, I didn’t miss the real meat.
 
Broccoli Romano “steaks” with salsa verde
1 head of broccoli romano (romanesco)
1/4 cup olive oil (plus more to brush on surface of broccoli romano)
juice of 1/2 lemon (or more if your lemon is small), plus a small piece of the lemon rind
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 T. red onion, minced
2 T. capers
fresh parsley, minced (about 3 or 4 T.)
salt, pepperPreheat oven to 425 degrees. Slice the broccoli romano – or cauliflower if you can’t find the broccoli romano – into pieces between 1/4″ and 1/2 ” thick. Smear them with olive oil, then sprinkle on some salt and freshly ground pepper.
Place them in the oven for about 15 minutes – flipping over once (and repeating the olive oil, salt and pepper).Take them out of the oven when they feel tender to the fork, or when you can easily pierce them with a knife. Depending on how thick you sliced them, they’ll need more time (or maybe less if they’re thinner than mine).
While they are cooking, make the salsa, by mincing the lemon rind, garlic, onion, capers and parsley. Add the olive oil, plus the lemon juice, and a little salt and pepper and stir everything together. Spoon the salsa verde over the broccoli romano or cauliflower steaks.

Doughnuts!

Doughnuts!

Doughnuts, doughnuts and more doughnuts. More doughnuts that we could possibly eat in one sitting, but with my decision to abstain from eating desserts for 40 days starting Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), I figured it’s time to indulge these last few days. 

The period before Lent that is called Carnevale in Italy is called Fasnacht in Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Alsace region of France, when doughnuts and other fried foods are traditionally consumed. Many descendants of Germans who live in Pennsylvania, (called the Pennsylvania Dutch – although they probably misappropriated the word Dutch from the word Deutsch, meaning German) also celebrate the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday as Fasnacht Day, and eat doughnuts, which they refer to as fasnachts.
The doughnuts my daughter-in-law and I made weren’t fried, but baked, and hopefully contain fewer calories. But no promises here.
 If you want calorie-free doughnuts, take a look at these — they’re painted by Wayne Thiebaud, an American artist known for his colorful paintings of pastries, cakes and other foods.
Fellow blogger Stacey Snacks gave me the idea to make baked doughnuts after she showed the pan she used when she made them. I quickly ordered one online:
But Thiebaud’s art was the inspiration for glazing my doughnuts in a medley of colors and flavors – from cinnamon sugar coated, to chocolate glazed, to powdered sugar coated, to lemon glazed, blueberry glazed and blood orange glazed.
My daughter-in-law Beth piped the doughnut batter into the greased doughnut pan using a pastry bag. If you don’t have a pastry bag, use a plastic baggie, cutting off a tip at one corner.
They take only 10 minutes to bake and you might be tempted to leave them in longer since they’ll be quite pale on top. Don’t. The bottoms are much browner and if you leave them in longer, they’ll be overcooked and dry.
You also don’t want to fill them too high, otherwise you risk losing the “hole” of your doughnut.
Flip them over to cool a bit, and then go to town with the frostings and toppings. I can just imagine sprinkling some chocolate “jimmies” or chopped nuts on top of this doughnut, couldn’t you? Why didn’t I think of it when I was frosting them?
 Or maybe some coconut on top of this doughnut glazed with confectioner’s sugar and the juice of a blood orange.
Invite a crowd over when you make these (or give some to the neighbors as I did), because this recipe gave me about two dozen doughnuts, even though it said it yields 12.
But who’s counting? You’ve still got a couple of days left before Lent. Make merry and indulge.
And for those of you who don’t observe Lent – you have no restrictions. What are you waiting for?

 

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Baked Doughnuts
King Arthur’s website says this recipe makes 12 doughnuts, but I got 24! My pan was obviously smaller than what the flour company uses.
1/4 cup butter (4 T.)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
3/4 t. salt
1 t. vanilla
2 2/3 cup King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly grease two standard doughnut pans.
  1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat together the butter, vegetable oil, and sugars until smooth.
  2. Add the eggs, beating to combine.
  3. Stir in the baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, salt, and vanilla.
  4. Stir the flour into the butter mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour and making sure everything is thoroughly combined.
  5. Spoon the batter into the lightly greased doughnut pans, filling the wells to about 1/4″ shy of the rim.
  6. Bake the doughnuts for 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven, and wait 5 to 7 minutes before turning them out of the pans onto a rack.
  7. For cinnamon doughnuts, shake warm doughnuts in a plastic bag with about 1/4 to 1/3 cup cinnamon-sugar. For sugar-coated doughnuts, shake doughnuts in a plastic bag with about 1/2 cup non-melting topping sugar (for best results), or confectioners’ sugar.
  8. For the chocolate frosted doughnuts, place 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips, 2 T. butter, 1 T. plus 1 t. light corn syrup and 1/4 t. vanilla extract into a microwaveable bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds, then stir until the chocolate is melted and everything is blended. Microwave for a few seconds longer, if necessary. Add extra corn syrup if needed to make a smooth, shiny glaze. Yield: about 1/2 cup glaze.
  9. Linda’s note:
  10. For the paler pink glazed doughnuts, I mixed confectioner’s sugar with the juice of 1/2 blood orange, adding enough liquid until it reached proper consistency. For the more vibrant pink color, I mixed confectioner’s sugar with some blueberry syrup I made by cooking blueberries, water and a little sugar with a little cornstarch and a squirt of lemon.
  11. For the white glazed doughnuts, mix some confectioner’s sugar with lemon juice until proper consistency. For the white powdered sugar doughnuts, put some powdered sugar into a small brown paper bag, add the doughnuts and shake.
No-Knead Ciabatta

No-Knead Ciabatta

The scent of bread baking in the oven and soup simmering on the stove while snow falls outside your window is one of life’s pleasures.
Ok, ok, so relaxing on a Caribbean beach with a Planter’s Punch while your friends and relatives back home are slipping on icy driveways is pretty high up there, too.
But if you can’t hop on a plane to Barbados or the Bahamas, you can at least satisfy your craving for really good bread with this recipe from Jim Lahey.
Lahey, if you recall, is the guru behind the no-knead bread recipe that swept the country (with good reason) many years ago. His first book, “My Bread,” contains this recipe for ciabatta that will spoil you for anything other than artisanal bread.
The only hitch is you need a special clay pot  – a Romertopf – and a pizza stone.
If you don’t have them, or don’t want to buy them, make Lahey’s original no-knead bread with the recipe here.
My kids bought the clay pot for me a couple of years ago when I first made this recipe.
I haven’t made it since — that is, until a couple of weeks ago, when snow was falling in the Northeast U.S.
Never mind that it’s nearly 70 degrees F. this week in New Jersey. You’ll want to bake this any time of year, no matter the temperature.
You have to give it some thought ahead of time, since the first rising takes 12 to 18 hours. Very little yeast is used, hence the need for a long rise, resulting in a dough that’s got a great texture – filled with wonderful small and medium sized holes.
After it’s risen to double in size, add just enough additional flour to shape it into a loaf, then let it rise again for an hour.
You’ll then cut it in half before placing it in the oven.
You need to stretch out the dough into a flatter shape and place it on top of the pizza stone (don’t worry, it seems like you’ve deflated it, but it will rise a little more in the oven.)
Then cover the dough with the overturned Romertopf pot that’s been heating in the oven – careful, it’s extremely hot!
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the pot and bake another 10-20 minutes. Repeat with the other loaf, and you’ve got two gorgeous, crusty and delicious ciabatta loaves.
I guess you know that ciabatta means “slipper” in Italian, referring to the squat shape of the bread.
If it’s not stretched out sufficiently, the ciabatta becomes a little “stouter” in shape, which is fine too. It tastes just as good.
Another time, you might want to try shaping part of it into smaller, sandwich size rolls.

Add some prosciutto and burrata for a delicious panino.

Enjoy with some homemade soup for a satisfying lunch or dinner.
Or skip the soup, open a bottle of good red wine, add a chunk of cheese, slice up the bread and call it a day.

You won’t even miss that warm beach and Planter’s Punch.
 
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No-Knead Ciabatta
from Jim Lahey’s “My Bread”
printable recipe here

3 cups bread flour
1 1/4 t. table salt
1/4 t. instant or other active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups cool (55 to 65 degrees F.) water (I needed more – just add enough until you get a “loose” consistency but not so wet that it can’t be shaped)
additional flour for dusting

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.

When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Dust the surface of the dough with flour and, with lightly floured hands, nudge the dough into roughly a 14 inch square. Fold the dough in half, and then crosswise in half again, so you have a square, roughly 7 inches on each side.

Place the dough in a warm, draft-free spot, cover it with a tea towel, and let rise for 1 hour. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, soak the clay baker for 10 minutes.

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. with a rack in the center. Place the baker on the pizza stone, and put the stone and baker in the center of the rack.

Using pot holders, carefully remove the hot pot and stone from the oven, taking care not to set them on a cold surface. Using a dough cutter or sharp serrated knife, cut the dough in half. Shape each piece into a long flat loaf. Generously dust each loaf with flour (you will bake 1 loaf at a time). Pick up 1 loaf with both hands, quickly but gently stretch it to almost the length of the clay pot (roughly 10 inches) and place it on the stone. Using pot holders, cover the loaf with the inverted pot, and bake for 20 minutes.

Uncover the loaf and place the pot on another rack in the oven, to keep it hot for the second loaf. Continue to bake the first loaf for 10 to 20 minutes, checking the color of the loaf once or twice. It is done when the crust is a light chestnut color. Using pot holders, carefully remove the stone from the oven. Transfer the ciabatta to a rack to cool thoroughly, and bake the second ciabatta the same way.

Penne Alla Vodka

Penne Alla Vodka

It’s anybody’s guess whether this dish is really Italian or not. Some claim the dish was invented at Dante’s, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy. Luigi Franzese, a chef at New York’s Orsini restaurant in the 1970s is also sometimes credited. But other sources relate that a certain James Doty, a graduate of Colombia University, was the originator.
While its origins are murky, the flavor is not.
I’ve never seen it on a menu in Italy, but it’s certainly ubiquitous here in the states and for good reason — it tastes delicious.
It’s also perfect for the home cook owing to its ease of preparation. The whole dish comes together in less than 30 minutes.
It’s also perfect for those of you thinking of meatless dishes to prepare for Lent.
So what are you waiting for?
Pour yourself a Bloody Mary, but set aside a little of that vodka for Penne Alla Vodka.

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Penne Alla Vodka
printable recipe here1 lb. penne pasta

2 T. olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic
4 cups tomato sauce (1 lb. 13 oz. can)
1/2 cup vodka
salt, pepper
red pepper flakes
1/4 cup cream
fresh basil, minced
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for the table.Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil until wilted. Add the tomato sauce, vodka, salt, pepper and a little of the basil, saving some whole leaves to decorate with at the end.
Cook the sauce over high heat until it starts to “sputter,” then lower immediately to a simmer for about 15 minutes to a half hour, stirring occasionally.

Bring the water for the pasta to a boil, adding salt. Dump the pasta into the boiling water and cook according to package instructions.

While the pasta is cooking, stir the cream into the sauce at low heat. When the pasta is al dente, drain it from the water and add it to the pot with the sauce. (I like to take out a little sauce from the pot in case it is too much sauce for the pasta. I don’t like my pasta to be “swimming” in sauce – just dressed lightly. You can always add it back in if it’s not enough).
Stir the pasta into the sauce while you have it over a simmer, until the sauce is permeated through the pasta. Turn off the heat and add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.
Serve with more grated cheese at the table.

A Writing Retreat On Lake Como

A Writing Retreat On Lake Como

Join me for a week on Lake Como, to write about that childhood memory, travel experience, or any other event you’ve been wanting to capture in print.  Spend the mornings in writing instruction, and afternoons in leisure touring the area, eating exquisite foods and pinching yourself that it’s real.

Kathryn Abajian and I hold the writing retreat at Villa Monastero (pictured above) in Varenna, on the banks of Lake Como, Italy. We’re scheduled to repeat it September 24-30., 2017.

Come along with me for an armchair visit to learn about the villa and its origins. Maybe you’ll decide you’d like to spend a week here with us too, improving your writing skills, and partaking of the region’s foods, wines and nearby sights.

          
     The villa was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1208, but its mission foundered in 1667, when the nuns left for Lecco, a city to the south. After three years, the villa was sold to the Mornico family, whose weath came from the iron mining industry in the area. The family converted the monastery to a noble residence, renaming it Villa Leliana. It was held by the Mornico family for nearly three centuries, when it was sold at the end of the 1800s to the German sheep owner Walter Kaas.
       
     But in the lead up to World War II, Kaas was declared an enemy of the state and was sent back to Germany, while Italy took over the villa. The villa was then used by the elite mountaineering unit of the Italy military called the Alpini, until it was sold in 1955 to biologist Marco de Marchi, who converted the villa into a scientific conference center.
         
     Marchi had no heirs however, and left the villa to the Italian government with the proviso that it be used for conferences of a scientific or artistic nature.        

     We hold daily sessions in a sun-filled conference room overlooking the lake, surrounded by beautiful artwork created by local artists. 
      The villa also has a larger conference room that served as a chapel when the nuns occupied the villa, and is the place where Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi taught his last lesson.
                                     
     You can see evidence of a religious fresco is a small niche there, dating to the 13th century.
                                 
        Other rooms in the villa highlight both the Germanic artistic taste of Walter Kaas, as well as highly decorative furnishings bought by de Marchi.
                                   
      The villa’s extensive gardens, containing thousands of species of plants, are open to the public, but at night, we writers have the beauty of the grounds and the silence of the lake to ourselves.
        Most bedrooms have modern furnishings, some with views of the lake, and a few have balconies facing the lake. Sign up early to get priority for one of these.
     Writing instruction is in the morning, and you can set up your laptop by the lake in the afternoons to soak in some inspiration from the peaceful and lush surroundings.
        
     If you need a break from writing, the town of Varenna has a lot to offer, with inviting shops and cafes.
Can you picture yourself seated along the lake sipping a cappuccino, or a glass of Prosecco?
         
     Come with us if you like, on an afternoon visit to Vezio, and step back to the 11th century and a castle that was once home to Teodolinda, queen of the Lombards.
                                      
       From the castle, you get a magnificent view of the lake and the rooftops of Varenna below.
                        
     We also eat well on our retreats, and taste local wines and cheeses, like this taleggio.
           
    Dinners are all special, and we try different restaurants each night.
                       
     If you’d like to go further afield one afternoon, we’ll take you on the ferry to Bellagio, where the streets are as quaint as the shops are prolific.
                         
     You can even try your hand at watercolor, whether you’ve got experience or not. We can arrange a lesson for you.
     It’s not to soon to start thinking about reserving a spot for next year’s retreat at Villa Monastero – September 24-30, 2017. Check out our website at www.italyinotherwords.com for more details.
How many times have you heard the phrase “Life is short?” Well, it’s not just a saying, it’s true.
Live the dream. Now.
It’s a week you’ll never forget.

 

Sacher Torte

Sacher Torte

One of Central Europe’s iconic desserts, Sacher Torte was made famous after Austrian Franz Sacher made the dessert for Prince Wenzel von Metternich in 1832. 

Since then, Hotel Sacher has served it to countless visitors, and will even mail its cakes to devotees around the world who aren’t able to enjoy it in person in Vienna.
Fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of eating Sacher torte in Vienna a few times, including on my honeymoon several months ago when we stayed at the hotel.
After arriving home, I had to try making it and it wasn’t difficult – just a little time consuming.
 I used a recipe from Lidia Bastianich, who knows a thing or two about the dessert since she was born in what’s now present day Croatia, once part of the Austria-Hungarian empire.
I baked it in a springform pan, and while the the top of the cake puffs up a bit while baking, it deflates when it cools.

Most recipes call for two layers, but Lidia’s called for three, so I split this into three parts, then filled the interior with the traditional apricot jam.

Pour a thick ganache glaze over the top, but save some to decorate with the traditional “S” for Sacher.

It’s a really rich cake, so you don’t need a large slice to feel satisfied.

But you do need to serve it with a generous portion of whipped cream.
Anything less would be sacrilegious.

Speaking of religious, here are a few photos of the beautiful city of Vienna, including St. Stephen’s cathedral, with its multi-colored tile roof.
This is one of the entrances to the vast Hofburg – now home to Austria’s president, but once the imperial palace of the Habsburg empire.
You can visit the palace rooms and even enjoy a performance of the famous Lipizzaner stallions here.
Of course, one palace is never enough, so in the summer the Habsburgs retreated a short distance away to the Schonbrunn palace, with its cozy 1,441 rooms,

If you’re in Vienna during opera season, try to get tickets to a performance. Even if there’s no opera or symphony scheduled while you’re there, take a “behind the scenes” tour of one the world’s most elegant opera houses, or just step inside to gaze at the beautiful architecture.

Lovers of Gustav Klimt’s art have myriad venues to view the Austrian artist’s work, including the famous Beethoven frieze at the Secession building, and his painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes, in the Belvedere museum.

But don’t forget to end the day at the Sacher Hotel, with a slice of their incomparably delicious, eponymous cake.

Even if you can’t get to Vienna, you can make the cake at home with the recipe below.
Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter.
Sacher Torte
recipe from Lidia Bastianich
For The Torte:
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) butter, plus 1 T. for the cake pan
1 cup sugar
6 large eggs, separated
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and lukewarm
1/4 t. salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 c. almond flour
For filling and glazing the torte:
1 3/4 c. apricot preserves
2/3 c. light corn syrup
6 T. water
2 T. dark rum
pinch of salt
10 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped in small chunks
whipped cream for serving
Butter the bottom of a 9″ springform pan, lined with a parchment circle. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer, using the whisk attachment, until light and smooth. Incorporate the egg yolks, one at a time, and then pour in the chocolate gradually, mixing it in thoroughly and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. On low speed, incorporate the flour. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the batter with a rubber spatula. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan, and spread in an even layer.
Bake until a cake tester come out clean — or until the top springs back when lightly pressed — 35 minutes or longer. Put the pan on a wire rack,  cool briefly, then remove the side ring of the springform pan and let the cake cool completely.
Lift the cake off the metal pan bottom, and peel off the parchment. Slice the cake horizontally into thirds, making three thin layers. Take the top layer and place it upside down on your cake plate, so the crusty baked top becomes the base of the torte.  Place narrow sheets of waxed paper or parchment paper, all around the bottom of the cake, to catch drips when you pour the chocolate glaze.
Whisk 1/2 cup apricot preserves with the water and heat, stirring, until the preserves dissolve into a loose syrup.  (I used a stick blender to break down the large chunks of apricot.)Brush 1/3 of the syrup on the bottom layer and let it soak in. Then take half of the remaining apricot preserves and spread it over the apricot syrup. Repeat with the remaining layers, ending with the top layer and the thin apricot syrup.
For the chocolate glaze: Heat the corn syrup, rum, salt and water in a small heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Turn off the heat and put the chopped chocolate into the pan, stirring, until the chunks have melted and the glaze is smooth and shiny. Let is cool slightly until it just starts to thicken, then pour the glaze over the top and sides of the cake, smoothing the sides so there are no bare spots. Save a little of the chocolate glaze to make an “S” shape, or to write “Sacher” on top of the cakeif desired. If so, let the glaze solidify at room temperature and for the glaze to become a little thicker. Then use a piping bag to pipe an “S” on the top of the cake.
Polenta With Spuntature E Salsicce (ribs & Sausages)

Polenta with Spuntature e Salsicce (ribs & sausages)

 Years ago, when I lived in Rome, I’d order polenta with spuntature at a restaurant in my neighborhood of Trastevere. But only in winter. It’s a rare restaurant that features it at other times of year, and if it does, it’s likely to be a place devoid of Romans.

Even though you can certainly make polenta in spring, summer or fall, to me, it’s strictly winter food. And now that winter is in full swing, polenta is on my mind.
I’ve made it a few times this season already, but not with spuntature.
Since I was going to be making a ragù, I thought I’d include some sausages too, and put together some meatballs to enrich the sauce even more.
As long as you’re going to the trouble of cooking something for several hours, you might as well make enough to put in the freezer for a few meals later on, right?
So I pulled out my biggest stainless steel pot to get it going.
While the sauce was simmering away, I fried some meatballs.
I know, frying foods isn’t the best thing for you, and I do broil meatballs occasionally too.
But there’s nothing that brings back memories of my childhood like the scent of meatballs frying in hot oil.
As children, we’d stand by the stove while my mother drained a few on paper towels, eagerly waiting to snare one and take that first bite into a crunchy, meaty ball, with steam still spewing out of it.
After sampling one or two, the rest went into the pot with the sauce.
When the sauce had simmered for a couple of hours, I started on the polenta.
I’ve made polenta with a slow cooker, (using Michelle Scicolone’s recipe below). I’ve made it in the oven in an “almost no-stir” method (America’s Test Kitchen recipe below). I’ve made it with my nifty automatic polenta stirrer (the paiolo).

And I’ve made the instant type polenta too. They’re all good, but to me the best tasting polenta is made the old fashioned way – with good coarse grain cornmeal and by constant stirring for 45 minutes while you stand over the pot.
The polenta transforms to a creaminess that’s just begging for a good sauce to slather on top.
That’s where the ribs and sausage come in.
And they could find no better place to rest – except in your stomach of course.

Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
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Ragù with spuntature e salsicce
(Tomato sauce with ribs and sausage)


printable recipe here

2 1/2 – 3 pounds Italian sausage (hot or sweet)
2-3 lbs. pork spare ribs2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, minced
8 – 10 cloves of garlic, minced
2 carrots, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
6 – 23 oz. cans imported Italian tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 T. dried basil, plus fresh basil, if available
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper

about 3 dozen meatballs (recipe below)

Place the sausage in a pot and cook over medium flame until browned, and some of the fat has been rendered. Remove the sausages from the pot and set aside.
Place the ribs in the pot and brown them all around. Remove and set aside.If there’s a lot of fat in the pot remaining from the sausages and ribs, drain most of it, but leave a little for flavor. Add the olive oil to the pot. Finely mince the onion and garlic in a food processor and saute in the olive oil. Do the same with the carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables in the olive oil until softened.
Add the remaining ingredients and put the sausage back into the pot with the sauce. Add the spare ribs.
Add the fried meatballs to the sauce, if desired.
Cook everything together for at least two to three hours on a low flame, stirring periodically.

My mom’s meatball recipe

I sometimes broil these, and they’re good that way, but oh-so-much better when deep-fried. 

2 1-2 – 3 pounds of ground meat (I use a mixture of pork, veal and beef)
about 1/3 of a large loaf of sturdy white Italian bread, preferably a day old
about 1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper

oil for frying 
Trim the crusts off the bread. Put the bread in a low temperature oven for a short while or leave it out for a few hours to dry out. Save the crusts to make bread crumbs for another recipe.
Tear the bread into chunks and place into a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for at least 15 minutes or until it has absorbed the milk and softened. Squeeze as much milk as possible from the bread and discard the milk (or give to the cat). Squish the bread pieces with your fingers into a bowl with the ground meats until there are no big lumps. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well with your hands. Shape into round balls. Fry in a heavy pan with ample oil, or if you want to be healthier, place on a baking sheet or broiling pan and broil or bake at high heat (450 – 500), watching carefully so they don’t burn. When they have a nice brown crust, turn them over and brown on the other side. Drain off the grease and add the meatballs to the sauce.

Basic Polenta
1 cup cornmeal
2 cups milk
2 cups water (or use all water and eliminate the milk)
salt, to taste
a couple of pats of butter
grated parmesan cheese, as desired

Pour the cornmeal and the milk and water into a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir over a low to medium high heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the mixture looks creamy. Add salt and taste the polenta. It will taste “raw” if it needs more cooking and may still have some grittiness. In that case, cook longer. If it becomes too thick, add more liquid. When it’s done to your liking, turn off the heat, add a couple of pats of butter and parmesan cheese, as desired.

Slow Cooker Polenta – – Michele Scicolone, “The Italian Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010)
Serves 6
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1½ teaspoons salt
5 cups water (or half water and half broth)
Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional
In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.
Almost no-stir Polenta
From America’s Test KitchenWhy this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water (I like to use a combination of milk and water – proportions are up to you.)

 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
pinch baking soda
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing Parmesan separately.