Monthly Archives: February 2012

Lunch In Siena; Spectacular!

Saturday we took a day trip to Siena. After a short bus ride I was transported to yet another beautiful Tuscan city. 

Beautiful Siena

We assembled on the steps of the Basilica Cateriniana Di S. Domenica, who is one of Italy’s two beloved patron saints, (St. Francis of Assisi being the other). She not only took part in religious life (being a member of the Dominican Order), she was also a philosopher, theologian, and politician, and worked her whole short life (Died at 33), to bring lasting peace to the city states, aswell as being responsible for bring the papacy back to Rome

The impressive Duomo

After visiting the church, which incidentally houses her actually head in a gilt bust from bronze, we took the short walk to Siena’s Duomo (above). Here was yet another amazing cathedral, and I wondered how on earth anyone who lived in this country could be anything but devote. Religion was all around you, for better, or for worse.

My friend Shawn sketching from a nook on the rooftop of the Duomo's gallery

After meandering through the Duomo’s Museum, (Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo), and more importantly climbing to the top of the museum to enjoy a fantastic rooftop view of Siena, I began to get excited about lunch!

Our merry band off to lunch

Shawn, who has been to Italy just about every year for the past seven, knew of a great place to eat lunch. We ducked out of the Duomo early so as to secure a table at one of the most popular Trattorias in Siena (for those in the know at least…).

Our Table at Trattoria La Torre

As we entered the Trattoria La Torre we arrived to a completely empty restaurant, the calm before the storm as it were.

Tri-color elephant pasta

The first thing I noticed was the giant pasta strands being displayed on a table in front of the small open kitchen. This was a very good sign.

My first course of Ravioli with Olive Oil and Sage

We were greeted by a tower of a man whose easy, quiet charm permeated the room. I immediately felt at home, and found my place amongst our party of seven.

Marco's Minestrone Soup

After the flurry of water and wine being poured, the same man, who turned out to be the owner of the Trattoria stood alongside our table and proceeded to list off what was available today for our first course. With the help of our friend Marco, and the little bit of Italian I was picking up (mainly due in fact to Marco, our Italian teacher!), I was able to figure out that I wanted everything being offered!

three of us had this amazing dish; Pappardelle al Ragu di Cinghiale

However, being that I did not want to make a pig of myself in public, I settled for some wonderful-sounding ravioli, and a bite from everyone else’s plate.

My simple roast chicken dish which was singularly perfect

My dish was exceptional, and the fresh sage brought out the best of every other ingredient used. I also swooned over the Cinghiale (boar; my son’s new favorite thing!) with those giant colorful noodles.

Mario's delectable Pork Chop

I was in food heaven, and could not believe that this meal topped the one I had in Lucca the previous Saturday (see post Lunch in Lucca). I think it has been decided that each Saturday (over the next seven), as we visit a different city, I will be spoiled beyond imagining, in my pursuit of the best meal in town.

My daughter had the Osso Buco; the best I have ever tasted.

As the restaurant began to fill to the rafters, our second course arrived. I had a very simply roasted chicken, which I believe is the gold standard by which to measure excellent food. If you have been following my recipes at all, you will know that I cook chicken more than any other meat.

The busy stove top at La Torre

When a chicken is roasted perfectly, with crispy skin and delicately moist meat, I am completely won over. The chicken at Trattoria La Torre had all the requirements as far as I was concerned, and it was very hard to share a bite with anyone.

very satisfying indeed

We ended the meal with espresso and were graciously thanked by the owner. When Shawn complimented him by saying it was the best restaurant in Italy, the man coyly replied, “no, in the world” We laughed at how his modesty was replaced by boastful humor, as we headed over to Siena’s giant Piazza del Campo for a lazy nap.

The Piazza del Campo in the heart of the city where we napped after lunch, which is also the site of the famous Horse Race ( Il Palio) held here each year!

The campo was crowded with people taking a break from their day to enjoy the sun, and relax after lunch. The red bricks were warm, and there was nothing more pleasant than lying on them and soaking in the blue sky.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f1/Palio_di_Siena_2008_%282%29.jpg

the famous Il Palio horse race

This Campo is also the site of the famous twice annual horse race; Il Palio. Ten horses are ridden bareback, decked out in the appropriate colors, representing ten of the city’s seventeen wards or districts.

This treacherous race lasts no more than 90 seconds, as the horses fly at breakneck speed around the piazza (which is filled with dirt for the occasion).

There is great celebration after wards, with the winning horse having top honor at the head of the table!

Beautiful Siena

We spent the rest of the afternoon getting lost on the streets of Siena, stopping off for gelato before heading back to Cortona. What a life!

Exploring The Thursday Market In Camucia

We met at the bus stop in Cortona to take a trip to the Thursday Market in the town of Camucia, down in the valley.

the most scenic bus stop in the world

 It was a burstingly fresh Spring day, and was hard to fathom that the town was covered in snow a week earlier. I was excited to be going to another Italian market and buying some oh so fresh veggies, and any other must-have item.

Artichokes anyone?

We wound down the meandering road to the main street in Camucia and made our way towards the bustle of the market. The first stalls I happened upon were full of amazingly fresh vegetables. I had to stop myself from getting carried away. That was only after being reminded that the market was large, and I had lots more to explore before I should commit to buying anything.

Giant basket of hazelnuts

That was smart, especially after realizing I would have to lug my purchases around all morning before getting back on the bus.

capers

So, from what I can gather, a weekly Market happens in almost every sizable town around Italy. it is filled with the things you would expect to find at a local, open-air market; fresh produce like vegetables, meat, fish, cheeses, and plants.

Dried Chilis

What I didn’t realize, and was not prepared for, was the vast selection of clothing, (new and old), footwear, from slippers to trendy leather boots, kitchen equipment galore, household items like curtains, even a whole booth or two dedicated to sewing tools, and other haberdashery.

The fresh fish looked amazing, and I would have bought some only I didn't want to stink up the bus on the way back up the mountain to Cortona!

A new acquaintance of mine informed me that the Italian “Market” was the equivalent to a big-box store in the United States. A place to buy thing cheap, conveniently located at the same time and place each week.

This vendor knows her fish!

I must admit to getting caught up in the hunt for a good bargain. I walked the market with my kids, my man and another new friend.

I was also interested in the kitchen equipment

At every turn, we were offered samples of this and that. These samples were not like the miniscule tidbits handed out where I come from. If you wanted to sample a piece of cheese, a giant hunk was lopped from a wheel or wedge, and thrust into your hands. You could literally walk this market and be full by the time you left!

Wonderfully smelly cheese with the hay still clinging to the rind.

I managed to weigh my bags down with lots of fruit and vegetables. I also treated myself to a little rolling-pin, and a heavy-duty chopping board. Dave bought a sweat shirt which sported the name of a local soccer team on the back, while a couple more in our party also found ridiculously good bargains at the various clothing stalls.

A visual pleasure

It was a very fun way to spend the morning, and get to know a little more about Italian life. I better watch out, I could get use to this.

Cortona; back where we started.

Late Dinner of Penne with Parslied Olive Oil & Garlic (serves 4)

After we got home from our momentous visit to Pisa and Lucca in the province of Tuscany, it was late, and I was tired. I was also hungry, so dinner had to be made despite my lack of enthusiasm.

The cathedral at Pisa (along with a strange leaning tower in the background?)

As I struggled to figure out what I could make in lightening speed, my man Dave (who had lingering in town to grab a bottle of wine), walked in followed by two buddies, Chris and Shawn. Hmmm….judging by the bags and bottles of wine under their arms I sensed an Aperitivo was imminent.

The earth on each side of this beautiful marble path (which joins the two buildings which house the graves of affluent and important Pisa citizens) contains 5 shiploads of soil from the Holy Land, making this some of the most holy ground in Italy.

For those of you that don’t know; an Aperitivo is a little party before dinner with drinks and appetizers. The drinks traditionally served in Italy are Campari, Aperol, Negroni, and sparkling drinks like prosecco. They are often mixed to make aperitif cocktails (see my post on Aperol Spritz).

The beginning of our impromptu Aperitivo

We made some spritz-y drinks, had a couple of bottles of great red wine (which Chris splurged on!), and an array of cheeses and cured meats.

By the time I got dinner started it was very late indeed. I managed to cook something that can be ready in about 12 minutes (if you are not distracted by friends, chatting, and alcohol). It was the perfect dinner to soak up all of those lovely drinks, and I wouldn’t hesitate doing it all over again.

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You will need: 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, 2 cups finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1 tsp sea salt (I used Maldon), 2 tsp cayenne pepper flakes, (use 1 tsp if you are shy of heat), 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated, 4 eggs (optional), more seal salt, black pepper & hot pepper flakes to taste, 1lb Penne (I used Barilla brand).

1 – Put pot of water on for pasta. When it comes to a boil, cook according to instructions. Before draining scoop out a 1/2 cup of pasta water, and reserve.

2 – While pasta is cooking, quickly get the rest of your dish together. (The object is to have this done by the time the pasta is ready). Put a big saute pan on low/ medium heat and add the oil. When it warms, add the oil and garlic. Cook for about 30 seconds before adding the parsley and cayenne pepper flakes.

Pasta with strong flavors

3 – When pasta is cooked and drained, immediately toss into the oily pan, along with the salt and several grinds of black pepper. Swirl together, and toss in a little of the pasta water to loosen everything up.

* If you want a softly fried egg with this (I did!), fry it in a little olive oil just before the pasta is cooked.

It is great topped with a softly fried egg and some cayenne pepper flakes

Divide between shallow bowls and dress with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, some more pepper flakes, black pepper, AND a fried egg.

A Very Good Lunch in Lucca, Tuscany!

The plan was to stop in the ancient town of Lucca on our way back from Pisa for a tour of the points of interest, as well as to have lunch. We were all famished!

The ancient city walls of Lucca in the late afternoon sun

As we approached the city, I was taken aback by the mighty wall (one of three incidentally, as the town continued to conquer and expand their territory), which stoutly embraced its inhabitants.

San Michele Church in Lucca

We all gathered in the Piazza in front of the San Michele church to listen to Danielle (one of the wonderful professors on our little school tour) tell us about the history of the church and the town.

Trattoria da Leo on an obscure corner in Lucca

 As we were all hungry and somewhat tired from our early start (6am), she said she would make it brief.  She pointed to the namesake of the church referring to him as St. Mike. There was an embarrassed pause, following by apologies and laughter. We chalked it up to hungry delirium.

Polpette di Carneall Appetitosa (fried meatballs in tomato sauce and capers)

As we broke away for lunch and complete freedom for the next five hours, we decided to tag along with Rebecca. Food is very important to me, and I hate to be landed in a strange place absolutely starving. These are the very times that bad food decisions are made, (the other one being to eat doughnuts while supermarket shopping, and going home with a tummy ache and no appetite).

Minestra di Farro Lucchese (Local speciality with spelt and red beans)

Rebecca has been living in Cortona for the past 20 years (a love story I have not heard all the details of yet!), and has also been hungry in Lucca several times! So, she knew of a place known only to locals and transplants like herself.

Ravioli alla Crema di Zucca (ravioli with pumpkin cream)

We followed her down a street off the piazza, and after a few short turns, we had arrived at Trattoria da Leo. She was all worried that we would have to wait for a table. Being that we were all ready to turn cannibal, I crossed my fingers.

Cavolfiore Gratinato (Baked cauliflower with Parmigiano)

Low and behold, we were greeted with much gusto by one of the owners (an unassuming elderly lady in a house coat!), and led to a couple of tables close to the kitchen, which she pushed together in a businesslike fashion.

Tortellini in Brodo (tortellini in Chicken Broth)

As we sat, she appeared again with bottles of water (both still and sparkling), and a big carafe of wine. There wasn’t a question that we wouldn’t be enjoying red wine with our lunch (I love this country!).

Baccala alla Livornese (Stewed Saltcod)

 I was so happy to have the chance to eat in a restaurant that prided itself in basic Italian fare.

Caffe Macchiato con Biscotti

The other great thing is that while I have been here, I have never had to worry that my kids will lack for something to eat. They love everything, from the salt cod to a rich ragu.

A sweet ending to our good lunch (limonciello)

 It was the best lunch I have had to date.

The busy front bar at Leo's

 It was a combination of things really. The lady who welcomed us in was also the person who took care of our table. When she figured out that we were new in town (based on my bad Italian pronunciation alone!) she proceeded to treat us like royalty. Along with what we ordered, she brought us a plate of meatballs and some ravioli to try on the house

Mother and son happy to pause for a photo-op during their bustling lunch business

We were loud, and ravenous. The wine disappeared fast, while we all tried a bite of each other’s dishes. My favorite thing was the salt cod, and the pumpkin ravioli.

Chatting after lunch.

We ended the meal with caffe macchiato and limonciello. The treats did not end there, as our newly adopted grandmother came to our table with a plate of almond-y biscotti to compliment our coffee.

Shawn getting ready to do a little after lunch exploring. (this picture is for Sharon. X)

As we left, we were hugged and kissed, with promises for our return. I know that things don’t always work out so perfectly, but on this particular Saturday I had a day to remember.

Very Italian Chicken Soup (Serves 4)

When I say this is “very Italian” many honest-to-goodness Italians might be rolling their eyes.  Forgive me, but I can explain.

Good Spoonful

I have never come across such industrious soup makes in my life! On every menu I have read since arriving in this fair land, there are at least 6 soups to choose from. There is always Ribollita, whose main ingredients are stale bread, cabbage and beans. There is also a local take on minestrone, as well as a farro and spelt soup, to name but a few.

the ingredient that dressed up my soup

It is no wonder I felt compelled to make soup last night for dinner. I went to the vegetable stand and was baffled with choices. I wanted a bit of everything, so, I ended up buying a bit of everything! The one great purchase was a bunch of tiny little mushrooms called Agrocybe Aegerita, (commonly know as poplar or velvet mushrooms. They grow in tight clusters). They had dark brown caps and looked like they were picked by fairies (seriously!)

last night's sunset in Cortona

Having become so inspired by all the wonderful soups I had tasted over the past few weeks, I decided to try my hand at a very rustic, all-in-one sort of soup. I had some cooked, basmati rice leftover from a previous meal, and knew I could dump it in last-minute to round out the dish and make it more dinner-y.

It was delightful in every way, and the kids couldn’t get enough of those cute little mushrooms.  I may have created a culinary monster, as I was asked to make soup again tomorrow….hmmm.

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You will need: 3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil, 2 chicken breast fillets, chopped into bite-sized pieces, 1 large onion, diced, 1 large celery rib, including leaves, chopped, 1 large carrot, sliced, 1 bunch swiss chard, leaves chopped roughly (about 6 cups), 1 zucchini, chopped into thick match sticks, 1 small red pepper, diced, 2 cups tiny mushrooms, OR 2 cups crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced, 1 tsp cayenne pepper flakes, 1 tbs tomato puree concentrate, 1 good quality chicken or vegetarian bouillon cube, 8 cups water, 3 cups cooked basmati rice, sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste.

1 – Prep all ingredients before you begin the actual cooking.

saute veggies in stages

2 – Add the oil to large soup pot and place on medium heat. Add the onions, celery and carrots and cook for 5 minutes.

continue to add veggies and saute

3 – Add the peppers and mushrooms and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, before adding the zucchini. Cook for another 3 minutes or so.

add liquid and chicken

4 – Add the liquid and cayenne pepper flakes, and bring it to a boil.

5 – Add the chicken, tomato puree, and chard, and bring back to a boil. Turn down to low, cover and cook for about 10 minutes.  Add rice and cook until rice warms (about 3 minutes). Turn off heat and let sit on stove top for about 5 minutes before serving.

serve with Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino cheese (if you like)

Serve in shallow soup bowls as is, or with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Crusty bread is also a nice addition.

Simple Pork Chops with Wilted Escarole (serves 4)

My cooking has changed since moving to Cortona, Italy. I have always cooked in a very spontaneous way, but never more so than now!

My new habit has to do with the way this little town works. The shops open early, and if you want fresh bread and pastries, you should really get there in the morning. The fresh fish is here in the piazza on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and, if you want the best pick of chicken legs or pork chops, you need to check in everyday.

Simple Pork Chops with Wilted Escarole

I love getting up and taking the short stroll down to the center of town. I stop in for a frothy cappuccino, and, armed with little shopping bags, I make my rounds.

I have been trying to learn the names of the different pastries, vegetables, and cuts of meat. I’m sure by the time I am ready to go home I will have them all down!

delicate escarole

I have no plan for dinner until I make my morning purchases. This particular day, the pork chops looked delicious, and this head of escarole practically jumped into my arms; chops and escarole it is!

My man Dave sampling a bit of prosciutto

And so, this is how my cooking has been going here in my new hilltop city. Lazily shopping, and cooking while sipping on my new favorite aperitif, and, last but not least, spending time with my lovely family, along with dear old friends mixed in with some great new ones.

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You will need: 4 pork chops, (this would also work with six chops. If you do, add more onions), 4 (or more) tbs extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tsp sea-salt (I used Maldon sea-salt flakes), several grinds cracked black pepper, 8 small onions, peeled & left whole, 6 cloves garlic, left whole in skin, 1 cup white wine, 1 cup chicken broth, 1 sprig fresh rosemary, 1 head escarole, 1 tsp cayenne pepper flakes.

Preheat oven 400*

1 – Season meat with salt and pepper.

Season chops. (I used Maldon sea salt flakes)

2 – Put saute pan on high heat and add about 2 or 3 tbs of oil. When it is hot, add the chops in a single layer. Sear on both sides until nicely browned. Transfer to a heavy pot or casserole.

sear meat on both sides

3 – Turn heat down and add the onions. Cook until starting to brown on all sides (about 10 minutes). Add the rosemary at the end of the cooking time.

saute whole onions

4 – Add the wine and boil until it is reduced by half. Add the broth and bring back to a boil. Pour liquid with onions over chops. Cover and place in oven for 45 minutes, or until the meat is tender.

boil white wine under it reduces

5 – While meat is cooking, wash the escarole and roughly chop. Put about 1 1/2 cups of water in a big pot and when it comes to a boil, add the escarole and cover. Simmer for about five minutes. Put big saute pan on medium heat and add 2 tbs of oil. Add the drained escarole and cayenne pepper flakes. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for addition of salt and pepper.

cook escarole while meat is in the oven

Serve each person a chop (serve 2 if it is for two people), a couple of onions, some rich flavorful broth, and a side of escarole. This can also be served with rice, pasta or crusty bread.

ready to serve

Pondering Pasteries (Italian Style)

Buying pastries in Italy is no humdrum affair. It is a heavenly experience, and is one I plan to indulge in often.

Shop window screaming "come in!"

First of all, the pastries are displayed like a Tiffany window, with each artisanal delight proudly lined in neat semi-circular rows, and piled high, Cathedral-like, with much fuss, and attention to detail.

Delightful Delights

By no means does the pomp end at the display.  When it is then time to pick out pastries, the shop assistant neatly packs each custard-filled tart, or sugar-sprinkled doughnut onto a gold-foiled tray.

My selection

It is then wrapped in wax paper, which sports the shops motif and name. But wait, that’s not all! It is then tied with ribbon before being ceremoniously delivered into your greedy hands.

how beautiful

There is no way you can just stuff this work of art into a shopping bag, and cart it home. It becomes a treasured parcel that is carried respectfully with two hands, taking care not to disturb so much as a crumb.

Custard-y goodness

This is a ritual that is seemingly performed at almost every pastry shop in Italy (well, at least every place I have purchased sweets over the past three weeks!).

Heart-Swelling!

It is truly amazing how a piece of gaily-ribboned paper can swell your heart, and make everything all right with the world.