How to choose wood or pumpkins…

I’ve learned two things since coming to Italy that make the cold weather more tolerable: how to pick pumpkins that are just right for cooking and how to select firewood. In case you need to know…

Pick a pumpkin that seems heavy for it’s size, the knobbly ones are the sweetest. You can’t carve them for jack o’ lanterns but they make mouthwatering risotto that will make even a 4 year old ask for a piece of bread for ‘la scarpetta’

On the contrary, firewood should be light for its size…weight is not an indicator of density but rather an indicator of how wet and/or full of sap the wood is. Wet or green wood is not useless, it will slow down an overly hot fire if you have a closed wood-burning stove.

 Now, if you feel like settling in to a nice cosy dinner for two by the fire, here’s the pumpkin risotto recipe as taught to me by my sweetie:

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Pumpkin Risotto for 2
1 small knobbly pumpkin cut into ½ in. chunks – approx 2 cups (if you can’t find a good pumpkin, butternut squash is fine)
3-4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
olive oil
½ onion finely chopped
2/3 cups of arborio rice (or other rice for risotto)
1 heaping tablespoon of butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan
if you can find a good, small knobbly pumpkin (not the big smooth orange ones which tend to be watery and tasteless) cut it into cubes, 1.5-2 cm. put a small pot of good broth (Chicken or vegetable) on the burner and in another, medium sized saucepan simmer half a finely chopped onion. when the onions are almost transparent put the pumpkin in there (for a risotto for 2 people, you’ll want about 2 cups of pumpkin. (if you can’t find a good pumpkin, butternut squash is fine) once the pumpkin starts to soften, it may soak up all the oil from the onions, at which point, add a ladle-full of the broth and simmer until it’s all soft but not completely pudding. throw in 2/3 cup of rice for risotto: vallone nano, arborio etc.) and stir continuously into the pumpkin, so that it soaks up all of the oil and moisture from the first simmering. then pour in a ladle of the broth at a time, and continue to stir evenly as the rice soaks up all of the liquid and cooks together with the pumpkin, making a creamy, starchy glop. it should take about 35 minutes to get the rice to the point where the pumpkin is almost completely dissolved into the orange gloppy mass of rice,but the individual grains of rice are still “al dente” under your teeth. it usually takes about 3 cups of broth. when the the rice is still a bit terse but has made a lovely creamy goo around itself, turn off the heat and add an abundant tablespoon of butter and about 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan. stir it all together well and let it sit while you prepare the table (5 min. is perfect)

Warm food for cool weather!

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On our way back from our last trip to Rome we stopped in Pietra Santa and got snacks for the last leg of the trip north. I couldn’t resist. I bought two huge bunches of Cavolo Nero (Tuscan Black Cabbage). It’s the only kind of cabbage that my husband will eat and it makes a marvelous addition to any version of Tuscan white bean soup.

Serves 2 for 3 days. Beans taste good refried in lard and wrapped in flour tortillas or spread on crunchy multigrain toast.
500 grams (appx. 1 pound) Cannellini beans
         (soaked overnight in water to cover)
120 grams (or appx. 1 cup) cubed Pancetta Affumicato
         or Apple Smoked Bacon 
(note: if you want to make this vegetarian, omit the bacon, sauté the vegetables in olive oil and then add 2 or 3 large pieces of Parmesan cheese rind when you add the water)
Minced but kept separate:
1 medium yellow onion
2 small shallots
2 ribs celery
2 medium carrots
Splash of white wine
5 cups water, vegetable or chicken broth
2 big sprigs fresh whole sage
4 big sprig fresh whole rosemary minced fine (2 tbs minced)
4 fresh (or 4 dried) bay laurel leaves
2 small sprigs fresh savory or 1 tsp. dried
4 cloves garlic smashed with the broad side of a knife
3 cups roughly chopped cavolo nero (Tuscan black cabbage) or Collard Greens
½ cup tomato sauce or on 12oz can of diced tomato
Extra virgin olive oil and Parmesan cheese as garnish
Fry pancetta or bacon in bottom of a large stockpot until browned, add minced onion and shallot, sauté until soft. Add carrot, sauté 2 min add celery and sauté until celery is soft and all of it has caramelized in the bottom of the pan, deglaze with a splash of white wine.
Add water or broth, herbs, and garlic together with drained beans to the stockpot atop the bacon and minced vegetables. Bring to a boil and then return to a low simmer for 1-1/2 hours adding water if necessary. When beans are almost tender add the leafy greens and cook for another 30 min and then add ½ cup tomato sauce or can of tomatoes and salt to taste.  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh grated Parmesan cheese.
Next up: an attempt to make casoulet a l’italienne with the leftovers!
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