Olive oil from Sicily: a mouth full of flowers and memories.

A summer long, long ago on an island not so far away my husband and I were working with a friend to renovate a house just outside of the town of Marsala in Sicily. The client put us up in an apartment nearby and provided us with olive oil in 5 litre jugs. There was a grove of orange and lemon trees on the property and open-air market two days a week. I would ride there on a borrowed bike with an orange crate wired to the back to carry the produce. Much to the dismay of our friend I did so in a skirt; he said that would attract the wrong kind of attention while I felt it would somehow keep the erratically driven cars from crashing into my erratically piloted bicycle. As far as I’m concerned, my strategy paid off.

It was the end of June and cherries were in season. I bought them 5 kilo at a time; Matthew and I ate them on the roof of the apartment in the cool of the morning while looking out over the suburban rooftops and antennae, towards the sea where we imagined we might glimpse Tunisia.

It was gloriously hot and we ate lunches of melon with prosciutto crudo and sandwiches of fresh tomato and buffalo milk mozzarelle and basil grilled in the skillet. All of it with this olive oil that densely green, perfumed and which tasted like a mouth full of flowers.

We left Sicily in late July having visited Trapani and Palermo all too briefly; having watched Italy win the world cup on the television in a barber’s shop where complete strangers had invited us in to watch and then joined in the explosion of jubilation in the streets that followed. On the way back north, with us we carried 5 litres of olive oil, it didn’t last long enough.

Olive oil is to Italians (and some ex-pats) as chilli is to Texans: everyone has an opinion. Tuscan oil is best, but no, the stuff from Abbruzzo is just as good and less expensive; still, others prefer oil from Umbria or even as far north as Lago di Garda where a microclimate allows olives to survive the cold winters. I’m a solid fan of Sicilian Olive oil although I have to say that I’ve bought jars of olive oil from Trapani at the supermarket in hopes of recapturing that mouth full of flowers and found it light and bland. We’ve made due, enjoyed other lovely olive oils from other parts of Sicily, and lately had some nice oil from Lazio.

Matthew is working again with that same friend, this time designing a staircase for an apartment in Milan. He came home for the weekend of the Epiphany with this:

My mouth is singing flower songs. Orange blossoms tumble in with memories of rooftop cherries, summer swimming in crystaline, warm water and platters mounded high with fresh, steamed mussels. It’s hard to imagine a lovelier way to start the new year.

I wrote a suite of 4 poems about this experience, you can find some images and the audio HERE.

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!

Last taste of summer salad

  Here they are…the simplest of ingredients for a delicious ‘last taste of summer’ salad that has a fabulous combination of sweet-crunchy, and crumbly-salty:
to serve 2 for a light lunch or 4 for a side.


  • one ‘pear williams’ they yellowish ones with red cheeks, not too soft
  • one small bulb of fennel, if you can’t find this I imagine that celeriac (celery root) would be a good replacement.
  • parmesan cheese (a chunk but nothing like as big as in the picture! maybe 1/3 cup)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • basalmic vinegar
  • salt and crushed corriander seed (or powder) to taste

Okay, now slice the stuff and (gently) mix it up! It’s that easy. I use my mandolin slicer and it takes about 5 minutes but you can use a regular knife and cut it into medium or large dice and it’s good like that too. Then spoon two ‘salad’ spoons of olive oil over the salad and then fill the third spoon and rest it on top of the salad. Into this full spoon, drop 4-6 drops of basalmic vinegar into the oil, sprinkle it with  salt and coriander, mix inside the spoon with the a fork and finish dressing the salad.

The last weekend of summer…

Mamma and Papa got a little something at the MIPAM too…3 cheeses,
2 kinds of salami and the bumpy thing in the back which is an amazingly sweet pumpkin!
Robin want’s to be a statuette of a ballerina on the mantle

Beautiful, tiny ferns grow in every crevice….

the postman lets Robin do some work sticking stamps to letters

Every so often Matthew does take a break from work.

Robin on her second annual horseback ride at the MIPAM in Laveno

Our little cowgirl ;).

We all pat baby pigs (they’re soooo cute!)

Cat makeup (her first face-painting experience) and a helium baloon


Pasta with onions, tuna, tomato and Taggiasche olives

I made this the other day because I started frying one little sliced onion in a dry skillet in preparation for making something else when the smell made me want more onion and the rest of it fell into place based on an Italian dish Matthew has made several times with onions and tuna. Sorry no picture!
(main dish for 2 – double for 4 abundant main serving portions)
200 g bow-tie, fusili, or spaghetti
2 small yellow onions
1 small can of tuna in olive oil (drained)
10 cherry tomatoes (those really sweet oblong ones are good)
1/8 cup pitted Taggiasche or Nicoise olives in oil (if only available in vinegar, rinse and drain)
1 TBS tomato paste
Salt to taste
Pasta water on to boil, two small yellow onions sliced thin and simmered over low heat first in dry (preferably large and cast iron) skillet and then add a bit of olive oil. Keep the onions simmering for about 10 minutes or until they’re transparent and golden, add one small can of tuna in olive oil (drain off oil first), then 10 cherry tomatoes quartered turn up heat slightly and saute a minute before adding 1/4 cup pitted Taggiasche or Nicoise olives. Turn heat way low, add a bit of salt if it needs it. Put the pasta in the briskly boiling salted water, don’t let it get mushy! Keep an eye on the ‘sauce’ you want the sugars in the onion and tomatoes to caramelize but not burn, if it looks right (golden-orange and a bit sticky) add the tomato paste and turn off the fire and remove it from the heat until the pasta is al dente. Ideally the pasta is ready just as the sauce turns carmellish, drain the pasta and toss into the skillet, crank up the heat and add a bit more oil if necessary to encourage the sauce to coat the pasta ;)! Good served with a cool, crisp green salad after to balance out the flavours. Nice with a semi-bubbly white wine, or a dry still one like Oriveto (secco).

New adventures in pesto…something summery

Sundried Tomato, Lemon Zest, Mint, Walnuts

There is a lot of fresh mint growing in the garden this year and the basil is a bit thin…we figured out what to do; this is the stuff! Matthew has been bugging me for about a week now to try a pesto of Sundried tomatoes, Lemon Zest and Mint. Little Robin is not so crazy about things with lemon peel (though she is happy to lick sliced lemons), so, we decided to try it today at lunch while she is enjoying her last few days of school food.

2 abundant servings or 4 side servings :

For the pesto:
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes in olive oil
2 Tbs. fresh mint
Grated Zest of one small lemon (appx. 1 scant lightly packed Tbs.)
Scant 1/4 cup walnuts, pecans or pinenuts (pinoli)
Extra Virgin olive oil

To make pasta salad:
160 grams – about 1/3 lb ( of pasta, cooked in boiling, salted water then drained and well-rinsed in cool water and drained again)
1/2 cup of whole milk ricotta, crumbled (use low-fat if you want but it’s just not the same!)

To make the pesto, put all the stuff in a pile (see picture), mince fine with a mezzaluna or chef’s knife. Take roughly chopped stuff and run through a small food-processor (or use an immersion blender) with additional olive oil (up to 1/2 cup but start with less – maybe a few tablespoons) turn it into a paste with the consistency of well…pesto ;)!

Place cooled pasta in a large bowl and coat with pesto. Add crumbled ricotta and stir in gently.

It should look something like this and taste wonderful!

Suggested wine: Oriveto classico (chilled) or light Beaujolais (chilled).

Happy eating!

An American Kitchen in Italy

I’ve been editing a series of cookbooks this week: appetizers, cupcakes, tappas, amuses-bouches…I’ve also been cooking because NOW is the time to get fresh produce in Italy. Honestly it’s always a good time but summer is when classic Italian veg is at it’s peak: tomatoes, aubergines (eggplant), zucchini, bell peppers. It’s all good.
There is another wonderful thing that I’ve discovered since I moved here and that’s veg prepared sott’olio. My favourite is melanzana (aubergine or eggplant). Conserving things (even cheeses) ‘under oil’ is an Italian tradition but I do the ones that stay in the fridge. I don’t have time for canning but a lovely lady from piedmont explained to me how she made her’s (which were delicious) and I worked out my own way to make them at home.

Prep and cooking: only about 30 min!
2 small Eggplant sliced in rounds 1/4″ thick (before you blanch and stick your tongue out and screw up your face in disgust…they’re GOOD this way; I swear! If you you can’t tolerate the idea use zucchini, or even yellow ‘crookneck’ squash)
2 TBS chopped fresh herbs. I suggest the following combinations: Eggplant / sage; Zucchini / mint; Yellow squash / thyme. Feel free to experiment.
2 cups extra virgin olive oil (it’s alot but you can use what’s left in the dish for the next batch.
3 cloves garlic sliced paper thin (optional – if you don’t like garlic you can replace this with shallot or even sweet red onion)
1 tsp. basalmic or red-wine vinegar.

Okay, now it’s really easy: slice the veg. sliver the garlic. chop the herbs fine.

Heat a large cast iron skillet until it smokes. Before setting mine on the stove I rub it with 2 TBS seasalt and 1 tsp olive oil and then wipe all of that out with a paper towel. Don’t use stainless steel. Don’t use anything thin. If you’re stuck use a non-stick skillet. I repeat: DRY SKILLET!

 Place the eggplant rounds (or zucchini strips or squash strips) in the skillet (don’t crowd) and let them toast. It will take awhile, they’re full of water (squash and zucchini will cook much faster!).
While you’re waiting, fill a flat, fairly small glass casserole or plastic dish with 1/3 of the oil, vinegar, herbs, and garlic or shallot. Wiggle the tines of a fork around in it to mix a bit and sprink with salt.

When the edges of the eggplant start to turn colour, turn them ;). They should look like the pic below, if they don’t turn them back and let them cook longer.

Let them continue cooking until the under sides look like the tops.

Now, take each slice out of the pan with a fork and set it down in the dish of oil wiggle it with the fork and then flip it over so that both sides are coated.
Arrange them in a fan as you work and squish them down with your fork.

Layer #1

Add more slices to the pan and keep going like this, adding layers as you go along with oil, herbs, garlic and a few drops of vinegar as you go. Remember to coat both sides with the oil and keep pressing lightly with a fork. It should look something like this:

Layer #2 (the white things are garlic slices)

Finish the final layer with a bit more oil and a final sprink of herbs. Let cool on countertop. Cover with plasticwrap (clingfilm) and put in the fridge. You can eat them right away and they’re good, but they’re even better the next day (or the day after). They will keep for at least a week; in our house they never last that long! After resting they will look like this:

These tasty slices are DELICIOUS with soft or aged goat cheese (chevre), fresh mozzarella, feta, or shaved parmesan. Party plating would be to take a tablespoon of or strip of fresh mozzarella, roll-up in one of the eggplant slices, close with a half a cherry tomato and a toothpick. They are also good over a slice of toasted bread with thinly sliced tomato and chevre or mozzarella.

Pesto: It’s not just a recipe, it’s an adventure!

My daughter has been asking for Pasta con Pesto for 2 days now. It’s her steady dinner request second only to Pasta al pomodoro. Our basil isn’t big enough yet so today we just decided to play with what we had:

Summer Savory
Lemon rind

Making Ragu á l’americana

First of all, I have to say that I know the recipe for traditional Italian Ragu. This is kind of like it but not it because that would require going to the butcher to get the precise mixture of meat ground there. Instead, this is the Ragu that I make almost every weekend with ground pork sausage that I buy at the store and what I have in the house…it’s still really good! It also does that wonderful trick of making up 3 meals worth of sauce for our family of 2 grown-ups and a little girl.
Start with mirpoix (onion, celery, carrot) either diced very small or minced fine.
The total volume of minced vegetables should be equal to the volume of meat. I use about 1 pound (500grams) of PORK sausage, this is a good quantity for 2.5 people to get 3 meals worth of sauce. It doese’t have to be Italian sausage or skinny but don’t use Jimmy Dean (which is delicious, but not for this). If in doubt, just buy high quality ground pork; but not lean, it needs some fat in it.

Saute the veggies in 1-2 tbs. of olive oil (you can use half olive oil and half butter if you want). After about 10 min over med-low heat they’ll start to caramelize a bit (if you’re lucky).
While this is cooking mince garlic (2 cloves or less) and crush some clove or get the powdered clove from the cupboard. If you’re one who’s tempted to have a heavy hand with spices, now is the time to back off by half. One of the fine qualities of good Italian food is clear, simple flavours. You can, if you like that kind of thing, crush a single juniper berry and add it to the 1/8 tsp (or less) of clove. Don’t add these yet, just have them ready. You may also chose not add any of these spices/garlic, esp. if you’re using a gourmet sausage like the kind one can find at Whole Foods.

Now comes the part where you add the wine (red or white or even a desert wine or a marsala). I’ve also used cognac. Just be aware that what you use to de-glaze the pot will effect the flavour, sweet wine, dry wine, red or white shades the tone of the finished Ragu.
This is going to cook a long time. The flavours will concentrate. If you don’t do the alcohol kind of thing, you can de-glaze with water and it’ll be okay. For the quantity I mentioned above I use 2-3 tablespoons…enough to get the good stuff off the bottom without making soup.

Now, let the wine cook down and the veggies dry out a bit in the pan. If you have sausage with a casing on it, use this time to remove the sausage ‘skin’. when the veggies have absorbed the wine and are about to start caramelizing again turn down the fire to low. Then, add garlic and spices along with the meat. Take a wooden spoon and start breaking up the sausage right away, don’t let it brown on cook up into clumps. You want it to be the consistency of…well, dog food. You can also add 1 or 2 (but not more) twists of black pepper from a pepper grinder. Do not, under any circumstances, add salt.

Once the meat is no longer pink but not brown. Turn off the fire under the pot (or move to a cold burner if you have an electric stove). Let the flavours sink into the meat while you decide about the tomatoes.
Tomatoes depend on the season. If the tomatoes you’re finding at the store have a blast of acid tang but otherwise no discernible ‘tomato’ flavour, skip them and use a good brand of canned tomato. If, on the other hand, they are big and beautiful or small and sweet, chop up about 1-1/2 cups of them being careful to conserve all of the juice. Right now it’s winter, good tom’s are hard to find so I’ve opted for pre-diced, canned tomatoes. You can also use canned if you’re just not feeling like doing all that chopping.

Okay, now that you’ve happily resolved the tomato issue, move the pot to the smallest burner on your stove, with it’s very lowest fire (or setting). Splorp in the tomatoes!

Okay, here comes the easy part :). Making sure that the meat is broken up as small as possible, stir in the tomatoes and slid a lid half way onto the pot and sit down to drink a glass of wine. Ragu is slow food, it needs to cook over this low fire for at least 3 hours for edible and preferably 4 for irresistable. If you started in the morning thinking you’d have it for lunch and suddenly find that it’s not going to happen, relax, you can have it for dinner. Never start a ragu later than 2 or 3 in the afternoon…unless you want it for breakfast. Remember this is 2-3 meals you’re going to put 2/3 of it in the freezer and have a care-free, ready in 20 min. meal twice next week.

Now, just to be sure, when I say a low fire on a small burner, this is what I mean. You’ll need to stir it about every half hour (unless you smell it burning). If it seems to be getting to dry, add in a dash of wine and cover it completely with a tight lid.
Brief warning, don’t cook it even 10 min. more than 4 hours, the meat will turn to saw-dust, trust me, I tried it once.
Okay, boil the pasta in well salted water (1 scant Tbs. of sea salt for every 2 quarts of water) 100 grams of pasta per person for adults. Use something that has ridges or crevices to grip the sauce or spagetti (any fresh egg-pasta is also good including filled ones such as cheese ravioli or tortolini).
Now, and only now, taste the sauce to see if it needs salt. When the pasta is almost done take the lid off the ragu and add about 1-2 tablespoons of the starchy pasta water to the sauce, turn up the heat. Drain the pasta put it in the serving bowl, add butter (yes butter, not olive oil) 1 tbs. to the pasta and one to the sauce. Turn off the fire.  If you want to eat Italian-style pasta con ragu, ladle out about 1/3 cup of sauce for each 100 grams of pasta…. Italians do not drown the pasta in sauce, if the pasta is good, it is nice to be able to taste both. In Italian they call this kind of dish pastasciutta, pasta is the main ingredient to which the sauce is added as an accent.

If you want american-style spaghetti then put the whole pot of sauce over a pound of cooked spaghetti.

Stir the sauce through the pasta and then dish it up! Tastes great with a dusting of freshly grated parmesan.

Divide the leftover sauce into two containers (about 1 cup of sauce per container) and let cool before putting in the freezer. You can also use this sauce for the meat-sauce part of Lasagna but that’s a whole day project!

Hope that you enjoy making it as much as eating it.

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