The Birds & the Bees of Zucchini Flowers... or... Everything you always wanted to know about Zucchini Flowers (but were afraid to ask)

It's that time year when zucchini blossoms are everywhere here in Italy... and they happen to show up frequently in my cooking classes and private dinners... ;-)  But there is more to the humble zucchini blossom that meets the eye! For instance, did you know that there are both male and female flowers on each zucchini plant, and that each serves a different purpose in the culinary world?

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Let's begin with the female - she is easy to recognize as she can be found on a short stem close to the center of the plant literally 'birthing' the zucchini.  In fact, they are frequently sold with their little zucchini offspring attached.  The flower is bulbous near to the stem and the stigma inside is composed of tiny 'fingers' to catch pollen from the males.  The females tend to be softer and wither rather quickly after harvest, so I use them to toss in pasta dishes and frittatas. 

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Our friend the male zucchini blossom, on the other hand, stands at attention (hee hee) on a long slender stem.  Inside you will find a single stamen, which one could correlate with a part of the human anatomy (ahem).  The male flowers tend to remain, umm, firmer (insert joke here)... so I use them for stuffing and deep frying as they can better take the heat.

Here is my recipe for Fiori di Zucca Fritti (Fried Zucchini Blossoms)

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Mozzarella (a type made for pizza – drier than traditional buffalo mozzarella)
Salted anchovies (de-spined, rinsed and cut into small pieces)
All-pupose flour
1 ice cold beer (I use a mild tasting beer like Peroni)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (sometimes I cut the oil with organic sunflower seed oil to cut down on the cost)
 
CzirVDO2i0Hud8g3Ld0dFkamMA30iM-Qh9MXtDq1s0_BCu78UtQuk3x57iuOsWfo14-FSARpIdqA2TQnf7tmxIgmAy3eIjB18Oo-MkU8QdsS9TqHxENOYREugORYmicuM4RWT-hYrkh79A2LAly1lBopopNK7W2sutGN1cRZWYzdlv1DvD2z2s72pNRaU_dQtVXTMDrouwVa7WQRq-99l5uwqsq4hKCarefully remove the stamens from the zucchini flowers. 
Then stuff each flower with a piece of mozzarella and a piece of anchovy and twist to close.  
Whisk the beer into the flour, should be like pancake batter.
Pass each flower in the batter.
Drop into hot oil to fry, will be done after 2-3 minutes, when the bubbles start to slow down.
Drain on paper towels and salt while hot.


Farmers' Markets in Umbria: Back to the Future!

Bruschettina-1One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced when I moved to Umbria from Seattle was something completely unexpected  - there were no farmers' markets!  Now, whilst living in Seattle, I was a central part of the booming farmers' market industry there - I had a very popular stand called Bruschettina, lines down the block, I even had an employee - the farmers' markets were my life.... So imagine my shock (and dismay and horror) when I moved to a place where, honestly, in America we think we are modelling our markets after, that is barren, so to speak. 

Understand that other than bananas and citrus, I had not bought a piece of produce in a supermarket in years.  I was dying on the inside...  The 'markets' here were what I oh-so- lovingly deemed Socks and Underwear Markets.  Basically a bunch of stalls selling knock off clothing and plastic crap.  Deep within the rows of socks and underwear, there might be a fruit/veg stand, but you know if they are selling bananas (and they always are) that most likely nothing is local and forget about organic.

When I moved from Foligno to Cannara I had the absolute fortune of discovering Ada.  Ada is mentioned frequently on my blog as she was my 'savior.'  She and her family have a small farm here and she sells her produce 2 days a week in our town.  So that solved my produce predicament, but I was still driving all over the hinterlands to buy meat, cheese, grains etc...

Now, I always joke that Italy follows in the footsteps of the United States (right or wrong), only 20 years later.  When the American style big box stores and supermarkets came in, small farmers in the area went out, as did the markets.  Slowly but surely, Italy is again following the fashion (better late than never) and catching on to the Farmers' Market trend.  What really kills me is when I see Farmers' Market written in English - I just want to scream - don't you know this is your lost tradition?!?!  Anyway....

In the past few years, a national group called Campagna Amica has been introducing markets showcasing local products all over Italy... and I am so happy!  The first time I went to one I felt all the memories of the Seattle markets rush back because many of the producers in these Campagna Amica markets are already my friends/ trusted producers - now finally all together!

If you are visiting Umbria, please take the time to visit and support one of these local markets, granted they are not the immense banquets of Provence, but it's a start in getting back to our future.

Weekly (not socks & underwear) Markets in Umbria

  • Santa Maria degli Angeli (Assisi) - Monday
  • Todi - Monday
  • Spoleto - Tuesday 
  • Città di Castello - Tuesday
  • Perugia (Pian di Massiano) - Thursday
  • Foligno - Friday
  • Gubbio - Saturday
  • Umbertide - Saturday

Most of the markets run from 8:00 - 12:00/13:00.  Perugia also holds an organic market once a month and of course, Ada is in Cannara on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

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An Italian Recipe...

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This week some students of mine asked me to teach them how to make a certain type of cookie that they had been eating in nearby Spello.  Now remember, here in Umbria (as well as pretty much all of Italy) recipes and typical dishes can vary greatly from town to town - even villages just 10 km apart, like Spello and Cannara.

Continue reading "An Italian Recipe..." »


The 12 Days of Umbrian Christmas

 

Sing along to "A Partridge in a Pear Tree" aka "A Coppa di Testa (Stuffed Back into a Pig's Head)":

 

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...

 

IMG_617912 bottles of Umbrian wine

 

 

11 liters of extra-virgin olive oil MMG_2243

Photo 1(1)  10 types of Italian cookware

 

            9 Nativity scenes Photo 3

 

MMG_0994

8 pounds of curing meats

 

 

                7 Sicilian oranges  Photo 3(1)

Photo 2 6 (00) grams of white truffles

5 Rotting Persimmons (perfect by Italian standards) Photo 4

 

Photo 3(2)

  4 Slimy eels (they're for Christmas eve)

 

 

                3 Panettone Photo 1(2)

 

Photo 2(1)2 Gingerbread Houses

 

 

 

... and a Coppa di Testa (Stuffed Back in to a Pig's Head)!

Photo 1

Happy Holidays!!!


Il Camino

PhotoLining the back of my fireplace, or camino, are two iron plaques:  one is of a griffin, the symbol of Cannara and also Perugia (which makes sense, as we live in the town of Cannara in the Province of Perugia...); the other, however, is the image of a large ship (like an Argosy...or a Clipper... or maybe a Galleon.... ship identification is not my area of expertise...), which I would like to believe is maybe the symbol of some other province, and placed there as an homage to the seafaring life that person had lived before transferring to land-locked Umbria.  From my 6 minutes of research that my infant and toddler allowed my to complete, I found that both Rimini and Savona have ships as their symbols.  The one from Savona looks a little a bit more like my ship, but I will have to investigate this further (which means getting the gossip from some of my older neighbors) at a later time.

So, in honor of the nautical side of my fireplace, I decided to make Zuppa di Pesce con Pasta alla Chitarra (Fish Soup with pasta made on the Chitarra), a dish from Abruzzo.  Cooking this slowly in the fireplace gave the soup an even richer flavor.  Here is the recipe:

  • In a terracotta pot (if you have one, otherwise enameled cast iron or a heavy bottomed stainless steel pot will work as well), heat extra-virgin olive oil with chopped onion, carrots, celery, a few whole garlic cloves, a few hot peppers, and 2 bay leaves.  Cook until the onions are translucent.
  • Add shellfish and cook in the oil until the shells start to darken
  • Add small whole fish and squid cut into rings
  • Deglaze with a glass of red wine (that's right red)
  • Add crushed or pureed tomatoes to cover by about an inch and season well with salt
  • Simmer for about 15-20 minutes
  • With a strainer, remove the fish from the sauce, set aside in a warm place
  • Add hot salted water to the sauce - this will depending on how much your sauce has reduced, but you will probably need at least a liter, bring to a rolling simmer
  • Add your Chitarra (recipe to follow) and cook for about 10 minutes, the sauce should reduce almost completely
  • Serve the pasta alongside the fish and enjoy with a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo!

Photo Photo 3 Photo 2 Photo 1

Pasta alla Chitarra

  • on a wooden cutting board, make a well with 300g semolina flour, 100g AP flour, and 4 whole eggs
  • mix together and knead until smooth, about 15 minutes
  • let rest for 45-60 minutes
  • divide the dough into 4 pieces and roll out into rectangular sheets 3-5mm high
  • place a sheet of dough over the chitarra, and pressing firmly, roll over the dough with a pin until the pasta is cut by the strings of the chitarra
  • toss with semolina flour and cover with a towel until ready to use

Photo 5 Photo 4

 

 

 


You don't know beans about beans! ... or do you?

Saturday.  8:52am.  Ada's vegetable truck, Cannara:  I get into a heated argument with a 4ft tall 90 year old man about the best time to eat shell beans....

 

IMG_3142I've been reading posts lately on the concept of integration (namely from fellow bloggers Rebecca & Elizabeth).  Integration is a hot-topic for us expats, and those of us who are (self-proclaimed) integrated definitely have a superiority complex over those who have not yet achieved said status.  What defines being integrated in Italy?  According to me, you must be fairly fluent in Italian, have physical Italian friends (friends you call and go out with, not just on Facebook), and know and accept that you will spend approximately 45% of your time in Italy in the post office.

All that is fine, but after Saturday morning's incident, I began to wonder if it is possible to cross the line and over-integrate.  Lately I have been catching myself doing things that I wouldn't have done even 2 years ago (I've now been here for 7 years):

  1. Haggling.  I am not now, nor ever have been a haggler.  But I've haggled twice in the past month, and not with some gypsy selling crap on the side of the road.  I haggled in Leroy Merlin (a big box store, like a fancy Home Depot) - you don't haggle in these kind of stores - the price is the price.  I did it though - using the "I'll give you €xx for this item - otherwise I walk out the door" technique.  I can't believe I did it; I can't believe it worked.  I also just haggled with a giant, scary Napoletano selling porcini mushrooms on the side of the road.  That was actually kind of fun, because we were both playing the game.  I got him down to €60 from €95 for a case of porcini.  Now I know, always buy mushrooms at the end of the day. 
  2. I yell out of my window (from across the room) to join in my neighbors' conversations (which I have been obviously listening in on).  And they, of course, respond - willingly yelling back.  This is something that really only occurs when you live in the center of a town, and definitely a sign of over-integration.
  3. I sit down on any chair, anywhere.  If you have ever walked around an Italian village in the warmer months, you will notice that there are groups of chairs around in front of people's homes.  This is for the residents and their friends - because Italians don't really do a full passeggiata, walking around town after dinner - they walk to the first chairs they can find - be they at a neighbor's house or a bar, as long as they can sit down again fairly quickly.  I now sit down on people's chairs whether they are there or not, whether I know them or not, any time of day.  A sign either of over-integration or that I am turning into an 80 yr old Italian woman.
  4. Responding when spoken to in 2nd person plural.  This is advanced, people.  This goes beyond fluency.  Italians have a formal tense (3rd person, singular) which is used when speaking to people you don't know, doctors, officials, etc.  BUT!  There is an older version of the formal tense which went out of fashion with black & white movies (where I learned it, by the way) and it is the 2nd person, plural.  Confused?  It is confusing.  I didn't realize that my elderly neighbor had been speaking to me in this tense until one day she caught me by myself - I was looking over my shoulder to see if someone was behind me because I couldn't understand who else she was talking to!  aaahhh, old school formal - I get it!
  5. And of course, as mentioned in the beginning, arguing with old people about things like cooking beans.  Just for the record, I had some 70 year old peeps on my side!  Definite Over-integration.

Umbria vs. Ireland: The St. Patrick's Day Challenge

Baking Soda Breads

(photo: Soda "Cake", Irish Soda Bread, Torta al Testo)

This time of year my Irish roots always always get the better of me and I find myself craving a pint of Guinness, beef stew, and Irish Soda Bread.  It's one of those "expat" holidays that I have learned to just keep to myself.  When I happily proclaim to my neighbors that it is indeed St. Patrick's Day, they look at me like I have three heads.  When I go to the "pub" and order a Guinness, it comes out looking like a Coca-Cola.

Anyway, in my annual research of Irish Soda Bread recipes, this year I stumbled upon The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.  Let me tell you, these people mean business!  The site is full of interesting tidbits about the history of this controversial bread.  Why is it controversial?  Well, first of all, it is not supposed to be sweet!  Any additives such as eggs, raisins, sugar, orange zest, whisky etc., and you no longer have Irish Soda Bread, you have Soda "Cake" (which is what I always made...)!

So what is the real Irish Soda Bread?  Well, as it happens, it is not a far cry from Umbria's own Torta al Testo (obviously la torta is flat like a pizza, but the idea is the same).  Flour, baking soda, salt... and because it is Ireland, a healthy dose of buttermilk instead of our ubiquitous olive oil.  In the olden days it was cooked in a bastible pot (or dutch oven) with coals placed above and below the pot - just like the southern Umbrian version of Torta al Testo, Pizza sotto il Fuoco.  Makes sense:  2 agricultural lands, covered in rolling green hills, both steeped in the traditions of peasant cooking.... 

Therefore, tonight I will feast on Irish Beef Stew with a nice stout and Irish Soda Bread.  Tomorrow.... Spezzatino di Manzo (beef stew), a bottle of Torgiano Rosso and Torta al Testo.  Salute!... or... Sláinte!

Umbria vs. Ireland:  The St. Patrick's Day Challenge

(photo:  Irish Soda Bread and Torta al Testo with their respective cooking vessels.)

The REAL Irish Soda Bread recipe (from The Society for the Preservation of ISB):

4 cups of all purpose flour.
1 Teaspoon baking soda
1 Teaspoon salt
14 oz of buttermilk

Irish Soda Bread Dough

Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees.  Lightly crease and flour a cake pan.

In a large bowl sieve and combine all the dry ingredients.

Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough.  Place on floured surface and lightly knead (too much allows the gas to escape)

Shape into a round flat shape in a round cake pan and cut a cross in the top of the dough.

Cover the pan with another pan and bake for 30 minutes (this simulates the bastible pot).  Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes.

The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped so show it is done.

Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.

 

 


Sagra-landia

Here's a copy of the guest post I did for Silvia Ceriegi of Trippando!

It’s that time of year again, when small towns in Umbria (and the rest of Italy) literally explode with festivals. Some are music festivals, some are art festivals, some are religious festivals, but my favorites are the food festivals, le sagre.

 So how do you find a sagra?

While you are taking a stroll through town, look around! Posters are usually plastered all over the walls of piazzas boasting the lastest party.

How do you know which ones are good?

I judge a sagra based on organizzation, activities, and general atmosphere, but the golden rule is this: I go “dove si mangia bene,” in other words, where you eat well. Now, there are hundreds of sagras around – some are obviously for kids, like the Sagra della Nutella, some have nothing to do with anything – like the Sagra della Tequila (I’m not making that up!) and some are just plain out of season – like the Sagra della Ciliegia (cherry) which tends to go on a month before cherries are in season (where are they getting their cherries, I wonder???).

So how do you choose? Let common sense be your guide: are you in Norcia in the fall/winter season? Then you can bet that if there is a mushroom or truffle sagra a) you’re in the right place, in the right season, and b) its a local product, so c) it must be good! Still not sure? Grab an older citizen of the town you are in, point to a poster and ask “si mangia bene?” If they nod yes, you are good to go… if they nod no, no worries, people here tend to be full of opinions about food, so they will surely point you in the right direction!

How do they work?

Every sagra is different, and sometimes it can be confusing even to Italians…but most work like this:

1. Bring a pen – you will need it

 2. Look for a long line in front of a booth with a sign Cassa – this is usually where you order and pay.

3. Get a menu – usually there is a table somewhere in front of the cassa with menus scattered around on it. Here is where your pen comes in – check the boxes next to each item that you want to order – its usually 1 menu per table so if you want more than one of something, just fill in the box with a number.

4. Find a table – after you’ve waited in line and ordered and paid, the real challenge awaits – finding a table! We usually split up, so while one person is ordering the food, the other goes hunting for a good spot.

Here’s a little tip: if you see a sweet little old lady sitting by herself at a long empty table, don’t even bother to ask if there is space available as she has been sent on a mission by the younger members of her family to guard their places (usually about 2 tables worth). If you even look twice at those empty seats, that sweet little old lady will practically jump on the table and shoot flames out of her eyes at you to defend her spot!… just keep looking…

5. Once you have a seat, look for a server. The servers are always local volunteers and tend to range in age from 5-15, and then 80+. They will then take your reciept and disappear until the food is ready. Don’t be surprised if dessert comes out with your antipasti, or they just bring everything all together – that’s just the way it is!

And then???

Just when you feel like you are about to explode from eating and drinking, the band starts up and everyone hits the dancefloor! This will explain some of the “outfits” you may have seen as the dress code tends to go from summer casual shorts and t-shirts to clubbing-all-night gear to elegant gala ensembles. Those better dressed individuals will be strutting there stuff all night long, dancing to everything from old italian folk tunes to YMCA – don’t be afraid to join in!

My personal favorites….

Here’s my shortlist of what I consider to be the best sagras in the central Umbrian Valley:

1. Sagra della Porchetta in Costano: this is a whole hog sagra – you can eat everything: roasted ear and foot, braised tripe, liver, salumi, the list goes on… 

2. Sagra della Lumaca in Cantalupo: this little snail sagra stays near and dear to my heart as it was the first sagra I ever went to in Italy and still continues to be my favorite – my husband and I even had them cook their famous roasted snails at our wedding!

3. Festa della Cipolla in Cannara: this is the big daddy of sagras, and all to celebrate the humble onion! This sagra has everthing: a market which winds through the town, art shows, multiple concerts every night, the onion disco pub, and 6 different stands where you can eat – my favorite is La Taverna del Castello – they make the best onion parmigiana around… and don’t forget the onion cream-filled doughnuts for dessert!


Corn, Corn everywhere, but not a Kernel to Eat!

It cracks me up when my neighbors pull me over to tell me something “top secret.”  This time it was about corn….well not just corn, which is called mais, but Granturco… a whole other world. 

Anyway, I had asked my neighbor if he had any zucchini (as he works a small vegetable garden daily).  He said he didn’t, but then pulled me over so that no one else would hear…and he said in a hushed voice… “oh – I’ve got some Gran Turco – do you eat gran turco?”  Apparently he had planted a few rows for his son (because he likes to eat it) - but the whole operation seemed pretty covert... I don't know why no one can know about the corn, since no one here eats it... I'll just chalk it up to another of Cannara's many mysteries....

So of course I responded yes, because I’ve learned that if you ever turn anything down that’s free, you don’t get offered anything else in these parts.  Then my neighbor explained to me that its not like the corn that I’m used to eating, (ie sweet, tender, and delicious), but its better…  I know what that means – the usual corn that you find around here – corn for polenta (not really for eating).  As I’ve previously written, people around here don’t eat fresh corn.  You can just forget about finding something like Jersey Silver Queen – its either a variety for animal feed or for polenta making (or unfortunately for biomass  - but that’s another topic…). 

As my neighbor’s wife had been listening (purely for gossip puposes) to our conversation, a bag of corn was immediately tossed down to us from the window above.  So I went home to make dinner.  I would call this “late-harvest corn” as the husks were already pretty dried out – not a good sign… So my first plan of attack was to boil it.  Italians love to boil (the crap out of) everything so I figured this was the best way to go.  After about 20 minutes, the Granturco was unbelieveably still a little “al dente,” so I decided to puree it – but it woudn’t puree – it was still too chunky… So I mixed in a leftover boiled potato, an egg and some bread crumbs and tried to make a corn cake out of it.  Boiled, pureed, and fried – I finally got something edible – but it was actually better the next day, as the time spent in the refrigerator softened the corn considerably - that must be the trick.... 

Result:  another corn on the cobless summer….


Stracciatella Affogatto al Caffe': The Anti-Capp

  IMG_3754

Well, I’ve done it!   I’ve cracked the code.  I should get an award or something from the general Italian population.  I figured out a way to get tourists (specifically Americans) to stop drinking cappuccinos in the afternoon.  Now, I’m not a total snob…I lived in Seattle, the coffee drinking capital of the world (probably), and I have spend many an afternoon walking around with a double-tall latte in hand…but that was America.  I don’t live there anymore.  I live in Italy.  Its a different country, a different culture.  And here in Italy, the culture dictates that one does not drink cappuccino after breakfast.

The responses are always the same.  Its either: “but I like my cappuccinos after lunch (or worse yet, dinner)…” or “Italian espresso is just too strong!”.  Its the second response that really gets me… Lets just compare some quick facts.  A standard double shot of “insert brand here” espresso contains 150 mg of caffeine and a tall drip coffee contains 260 mg of caffeine!  Compare that to a standard european shot of espresso which contains between 40 and 70 mg max of caffeine (depending on how short or long one takes their coffee).  Now, I’ve realized that when I tried to explain this to people, no one really cares – they still want their cappuccino… I’ve tried to get people to just suck it up and drink an espresso, I’ve tried to meet them half-way – “you can get a caffe’ macchiato – its like a baby cappuccino,” but nothing works…

So last week I was sitting outside of L’Alchimista in Montefalco on a hot early summer day, winding down after lunch, and, of course, I started to see the cappuccinos float by… (it literally makes me shrink down into my seat in embarrassment for my country)… then I start to hear the rumblings from my little group of Americani – they want cappuccinos too! NOOOO!!!

Then it came to me!  What has basically the same ingredients as a cappuccino, but better;  is absolutely 100% culturally acceptable; and actually makes sense (do you really want to drink a hot cappuccino after a big lunch on a hot day??!?).  Now you may be thinking Shakerato, but that doesn’t really fit the bill… its stracciatella affogatto al caffe’!:  a small scoop of gelato (stracciatella is basically milk flavor gelato with bits of chocolate) with a shot of espresso poured over it.  So simple, so perfect, and who wouldn’t agree that ice cream is better than cappuccino?  At the end its a win-win for everyone:  I wasn’t embarassed, they didn’t get glared at by the locals, and the trip went on happily-ever-after with the perfect ice cream/coffee substitute!