My bumper crop of lemons this year has me begging the question: am I in Sorrento or Cannara (thanks global warming!)?? Well, I'm definitely not in Sorrento.... but that doesn't mean I can't do lots of fun things with the abundance of citrus fruits right now. Obviously, the fruit I use comes from southern Italy, in particular from Sicily. Since we are expecting a new addition to our family (any minute now!), I won't be making my annual pilgrimage to Verona to get my favorite candied fruits to make my Easter Pastiera (yes, I'm already thinking about Easter lunch); so I decided to take a stab at making my own candied citrus peels - time consuming, but simple. I also made a citrus marmellata and was left with some flavored simple syrups as a by product from my peels to use in the future.
This time of year, "my favorite things" have nothing to do with Christmas (well, with one exception), but with the seasonal products that we can only find NOW!
Who is better than Babbo Natale? The Orange Man! As soon as the temperatures start dipping, I keeps my eyes peeled, waiting patiently for his truck to appear one day on the side of the road. My particular orange man comes up from Sicily a few times a week, loaded with the sweetest oranges, mandarins and lemons. Just take a look at this picture - the mandarin is the one on the left - it is as big as a baseball! You won't find those in the supermarket!
Which means that it is time for Christmas Markets or the Mercatini di Natale. I personally really love to go to the Christmas markets - helps get me into the spirit - and if you choose carefully, you can also support local artisans and craftsmen instead of... well, you know...
Umbria is not as well know for it's Christmas markets as other parts of Italy - such as the traditional Northern markets in the Dolomite area or the Nativity-paloozas down in Naples, but there are still a lot of festive, charming options.
I rarely write about desserts, let alone post recipes, because 1- I don't really like to make desserts (too much precision required), and 2- I live in Umbria - a region not particularly known for it's desserts, which tend to be on the dry and raisiny side... no canolis or rum babas here!
However, it is Carnevale, the season of sweets, the time to use up all of the sugar and lard in the house before the traditional Lenten fast; and even the Umbrians can pull out some awesome fried treats!
Lolita, the mother of my ex-business partner, was the de facto pastry chef of our restaurant (I could never seem to find the time to make desserts...), and she makes the best Frappe (pictured above) and Castagnole (traditional Carnevale treats) that I have ever eaten... and I've done some sampling...
Her recipe below differs from other Castagnole recipes in two ways: First, she uses olive oil instead of butter - we are in Umbria after all! and, second, the batter is much looser than that of other recipes I have seen - kind of a cross between very thick pancake batter and pasta dough - don't be afraid of it - the recipe is very easy and these little fried doughnuts come out lighter than air!
3 eggs, 3 Tbs sugar, juice of 1 orange, 5 Tbs Mistrá (you can substitute Sambuca), 4 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, zests of 1 orange & 1 lemon, 300g sifted flour, pinch of salt, 16g "lievito per dolci" or baking powder, oil or lard for frying, honey
In a bowl, mix together the first 6 ingredients. Then add the flour. Let the mixture sit for about 1 hour.
Heat up oil for frying in a pot over medium heat (the oil should be hot but not smoking) - you should have a depth of about 3 inches.
Add the salt and lievito/baking powder to the batter, mix well.
Using 2 spoons, drop about 1 Tbs of batter into the oil per time. They will puff up into round balls.
Fry until golden brown over medium heat, turning during the frying process
drain on paper towels
toss warm Castagnole in a bowl with a few spoons of fragrant honey
Enjoy! This recipe makes about 25... enough for 2 in my house ;-)
We've had such a mild winter this year (until now - its freezing of course), that after three long years, my lemon tree finally gave me yellow lemons (last year we only had little green ones). So with the right mix of globalwarming weather...it is possible to grow lemons in Umbria!
Anyway, winter is prime time for citrus, but its also the tradional time of year for butchering pigs to make salumi (obviously now its done all year long, but some locals still stick to the old ways). So I was so happy when Ada, my vegetable lady (who sometimes also has eggs and rabbits, etc) presented me with a bag of her homemade lardo (wonderful pig fat). Ada chopped it up very fine to make a paste and added salt for preservation. She advised me to add chopped garlic and rosemary (very simple - this is Umbria), when I want to use it, and to rub it on roasts, or just spread onto bruschetta - can't wait!
This weekend I participated in one of my new favorite annual events: Il Piatto di Sant'Antonio or Dish of St. Anthony. From what I gather, St. Anthony kind of has a St. Francis-ness about him, which is a big deal in these parts, and the short story is that he saved animals from disease in the area around Santa Maria degli Angeli (under Assisi). The day is celebrated in our town the Sunday closest to the feast day (January 17) by a blesssing in the piazza: everyone brings out their animals - everything from snakes to dogs to horses! Instead Il Piatto is celebrated the Sunday after January 17. About 20 local restaurants participate (we went to the beautiful Valle di Assisi), and they all serve the same menu: pasta accompanied by 2 meatballs (made with a special recipe using raisins and pine nuts), 2 sliced of braised beef, and 4 sausages. The best part is that each participant is required to bring a dessert for their table. At the end there are so many desserts that everyone starts walking around exchanging desserts (and wine) with other tables. Needless to say all this creates a very convivial atmosphere - we were even treated to traditional songs from a group of Sardinians. Definitely an event to make one appreciate living in Italy!
Take a look at my page or click on the Cooking Classes & Tours link above to find out more about fun excursions when travelling to Umbria. I offer personal chef service, bicycle tours, picnic lunches, cooking classes, winery tours, farm tours and more - all from an eno-gastronomical point of view!
Hope this is helpful - feel free to contact me for any information on suggested accommodations and itinerary building. Become a fan of my Life...Italian Style Facebook Page for more up to date posts and photos- see you in Umbria!
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What to do when winter's got you down, you feel overworked, and summer is just too far away... (though I've heard they've already started swimming in the sea in Sicily, damn them!) ? Head to the spa! or in my case, the hot springs - they are free! You smell like rotten eggs for 2 days (sulfur), but its definitely the best way to relax and rejuvenate for spring here in Italy...without spending una barca di soldi!!!
My favorite people at the springs: the guy on his cellphone - there is always a cellphone .... the director - I know he's there everyday telling every single person not to put the mud on their faces (the minerals are only present in the water - not the mud - and he doesn't want to here that the mud helps to clean your pours!)... and all of the winter clad onlookers who make you feel like you are in the zoo...