Can I go back to Italy now?

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our country hotel in Assisi

I just got back from Italy and I want to go back right now.

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Piazza Navona, Roma

Happens every time. It is never enough. Perhaps even living there is never enough (it wasn’t when I DID live there!).

What is it about that country? Okay, I’m second generation Italian-American. So there’s that this-feels-like-home phenomenon. But STILL. The small groups that I lead there are Americans from different descents, and they, TOO, want to stay for extended periods of time.

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my group with the proprietors of our Assisi hotel

Italy is the charming country. It’s the beauty. The food…

ravioli w crispy pancetta

Siena lunch: ravioli w crispy pancetta

…the People…

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Every Italian is thrilled with fresh porcini season…here at Mastro Donato In Testaccio, Roma

…the differences between regions. Differences between cities, towns. The food…

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pizza at Mercato Centrale in Firenze

…Striking mountains. Lush hills…

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hills in Tuscany

…Stunning coastlines. Coffee…

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Siena breakfast

…History. Monuments. Art…

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Venus by Botticelli at Uffizi Galleries in Firenze

…Fountains…

…Food…

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Bistecca Fiorentina in Firenze

…Philosophy of life.

And it’s shaped like a boot. What other country is clever enough to be shaped like something so recognizable?

On this recent trip, my group and I tasted the food of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. We dove particularly deep into Firenze, Roma, and Chianti country. I brought back many new recipes from these experiences, and am inspired to recreate many more.

One of my favorites is below. We visited a small winery in the Chianti Classico region, where they served us lunch. The star of the menu was pasta cooked in Chianti wine. Delicious! And so simple. See the recipe below and do try it. Enjoy! Ciao for now…

wine pasta

pasta cooked in Chianti for our wine-tasting at Brogioni Maurizio Montefioralle

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Maurizio, the producer, telling us about the process of wine-making

Pasta Cooked in Chianti Wine (serves 2-3)

1/2 cup chopped pancetta (or bacon)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 lb. cut pasta, such as fusilli or farfalle

3/4 cup Chianti wine or favorite dry red wine

1/4 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino or combination

4-5 fresh sage leaves, diced, stems discarded

salt & pepper to taste

Place a pasta pot of water on the heat. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, place the olive oil and chopped pancetta in a small frying pan. Cook until pancetta cooks through and browns a bit. Reserve in pan.

When water has boiled, salt water well, add pasta and cook until almost done, just before al dente or to al dente (softness of your cooked pasta is up to you, but Italians don’t like it too soft…pasta will cook some more in the wine).

Start heating wine while pasta is boiling. Pour wine into a sauté pan with at least 2-inch sides. Bring wine to a simmer. Add a pinch of salt to wine. When pasta is al dente, scoop out with a strainer and add pasta to the wine. Let it cook in wine at a lively simmer, stirring, for about 2 minutes until wine is mostly or all absorbed. Take off the heat, or transfer pasta to a bowl.

Season with salt and pepper. Pour in pancetta with its oil. Sprinkle and stir in cheese. Sprinkle and stir in diced sage leaves. Stir to combine. Serve.

What to do with Zucchini

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pasta w grated zucchini

I saw a longtime friend of mine on a recent visit to NYC. Gerald Busby is a cherished friend and mentor…AND a great composer. (I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with him on some music projects.)

 

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Gerald and me at his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel…my painting of the Chelsea behind us!

But Gerald is also a very good cook…so our chatting led to food…and he offhandedly described something he cooked up recently. It sounded so yummy I made it as soon as I got home. I LOVE this recipe: Pasta w Grated Zucchini

Simple. Smart. Delicious.

Here’s how it goes: Put your pasta pot of water on the heat to get it boiling. Then start your zucchini sauce. Chop a medium onion into dice. Sauté in a little butter (and I added a little olive oil, too)…

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onions sautéing 

Trim the ends of two medium zucchini. Grate zucchini on the large holes of a box grater.

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grate zucchini

When the onion has softened. Add the grated zucchini to the pan.

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saute zucchini with onion

Try to coincide with also adding your pasta to the pot of boiling water (salt water first) — about 12 ounces, or even up to a pound of pasta.

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I got this pasta while in NYC at Eataly. It’s the Barilla brand that’s made in Italy and it’s rare to see “garganelli” as an egg pasta. So good! I think a cut pasta works best with this recipe.

Sauté zucchini till it starts to simmer, then add a splash of dry white wine. Season with salt, and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened.

Add about a 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Cook till simmering.

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add cream to the zucchini, cook until cream reduces some

Reserve about a 1/2 cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and add it to the pan of zucchini sauce. Stir to coat, and cook until the pasta and sauce are heated together, and the pasta is well coated. Add a little pasta water, or some more butter or olive oil if it needs moistening.

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Transfer to a serving platter. Scatter a little grated cheese. And bring more cheese to the table for individual servings.

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Simple. Smart. Delicious.

Pasta with Grated Zucchini

2 tablespoons butter

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 medium zucchini, trimmed & grated

1/4 cup dry white wine

12 ounces  – 1 lb. cut pasta (i.e. penne, ziti, garganelli)

1/2 cup heavy cream

salt to taste

grated cheese to taste

Place a pasta pot of water on the heat. Heat the butter and oil in a large sauté pan with about 2-inch sides (to hold pasta later). Sauté onion until soft. Then add grated zucchini.

Add pasta to boiling water (salt water first). When zucchini is simmering, add wine. When zucchini has softened (about 3-4 minutes), add cream. Let simmer till cream reduces a bit. Season with salt.

Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and add to zucchini sauce. Heat and coat pasta and let cook for about 2 minutes. Add a bit of pasta water or olive oil (or even a bit of cream or butter) if too dry.

Transfer to serving platter. Sprinkle some grated cheese. Bring some grated cheese to the table for individual servings.

 

 

 

Travel to Italy While Staying Home

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Modica, Sicilia

When I’m not in Italy, I’m in Italy in my dreams, in my imagination, in my thoughts, in my kitchen, and in my paintings. The country is part of my whole being and inspires so much of what I do.

When I am in Italy I snap images, and take video, in an effort to bring home “a little bit of Italy.” Here are two videos I put together with those images. One is a short compilation of the beauty of Venice…

The other is a short tour of Palermo’s Capo Market…and then a peek into the cooking class my group took on a yacht in Palermo’s harbor…

Later this year I’ll be visiting Assisi, Siena, Florence & Rome. I’ll bring back some more Italy for you. (And me.) In the meantime, visit Italy right now from home…and then, if you can, visit Italy.

Growing Pesto

serving 2

pesto & pasta

We moved a few months ago and one of the perks of the new place is garden room. My inner love for soil and green is having a — literal — field day. Yes, after 30 years of NYC life (which I loved) I’m very happy to get my hands in the dirt!

We’re growing string beans, peas, carrots, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, ghost peppers, AND from seeds brought back from Italy: cicoria, Roman artichokes, Italian onions, and hot red cherry peppers.

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carrots, peas, string beans, Italian cicoria, Brussels sprouts

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artichokes, zinnias, Italian onions (plus ceramic painted cat from Mexico)

And, of course, my favorite complement of herbs. I’d been growing herbs at our last patio garden and thrilled to the ability of going out the back door to snip herbs fresh for cooking. (Unlike being on the 6th floor of an apartment building staring out the window at cement.) Now we’ve got some more space for more herbs.

The basil plant that went into the ground about a month ago, filled out so fast into a sizable bush, and already started to flower.

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basil plant

We thought: man, we have to harvest some of this. Man, we HAVE to make some pesto!

cut basil

harvesting basil and parsley

I love when I have to make pesto. We even bought a fancy pasta to have with it (this expensive pasta was on sale…yay!): Cipriani’s tagliarelle…

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Cipriano tagliarelle

You know, you don’t have to wait for basil to grow to have pesto. You can make pesto from any green thing you like. Here’s what I like: arugula, watercress, parsley, mint, even  spinach & broccoli rabe. Mix them up. A few greens together. I’ve even pared down the traditional recipe and often leave out garlic (kinda strong). I love adding nuts, but not always pine nuts. Sometimes almonds (they love this in Sicily) or walnuts. I don’t add cheese until the pesto is mixed with the pasta. Cheese sometimes turns the pesto too gooey.

Here’s what I cooked up the other day.

For an aromatic I used shallot. Peeled & rough chopped. For the nuts: I used walnuts…

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shallot & walnuts

We cut a lot of basil from the plant but also cut some parsley.

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cut basil & parsley

Pinch the leaves from the stems. Discard stems.

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pick off the leaves of the herbs

Place shallots & nuts & basil & parsley leaves in the bowl of a food processor.

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shallot & walnuts in processor

Add some salt & pepper & drizzle a few turns of olive oil.

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adding olive oil

Pulse until broken down, but don’t go crazy. You don’t want a puree.

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pulsed pesto ready to use

Scrape the pesto into your serving bowl. Meanwhile bring a pasta pot of water to a boil. Salt water generously, add pasta. Cook to al dente.

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Cipriani tagliarelle

Before you drain the pasta spoon some pasta water into the pesto to loosen it and make it more like a sauce…less like a paste.

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add pasta water to pesto

Drain pasta and add to pesto. Toss well. Add some more pasta water to moisten. Drizzle some more olive oil to flavor and moisten.

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pasta & pesto

Dust with cheese, and bring some cheese to the table for individual servings.

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your serving of pasta & pesto

 

You’ll get deep fresh flavor. Garden umami. Satisfying and so quick!

Fresh Pesto w Pasta

2 cups basil leaves or combination of herbs i.e. parsley or mint

1 medium shallot, peeled & rough chopped

1/2 cup walnuts

olive oil for drizzling

12 ounces pasta (your favorite — any can work)

salt & pepper to taste

1 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino

Pinch the leaves off the sprigs of herbs. Discard stems. Place herb leaves, shallots & walnuts in the bowl of a food processor. Season with salt & pepper. Drizzle some olive oil (about 1/3 cup or to your liking). Pulse until broken down but not a full “puree.”

Meanwhile bring a pasta pot of water to a boil. Salt generously. Boil pasta until al dente.

Add some pasta water to the pesto to loosen and make more like a sauce. Add drained pasta. Toss to coat well. Add some more pasta water and/or drizzle more olive oil to moisten and flavor. Dust with grated cheese. Pass more cheese at the table for individual servings.

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last bite

 

Will the real Alfredo please stand up?

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

My Dad’s name was Alfredo. Alfredo Bernani Ernani Licitra (I might be missing one name). He was named after a character in the Verdi opera “La Traviata”…Alfredo Germont.

But dad was not the inventor of Fettuccine Alfredo. (Neither was Signor Germont.)

Fettuccine Alfredo

Fettuccine Alfredo

There are a couple of Alfredo’s running around Roman Italian history who say they created the dish. And two restaurants in Rome (not too far from each other) are named “Alfredo” …each claiming to be the originator.

An Alfredo restaurant in Rome

An Alfredo restaurant in Rome

If you’re in Rome you may as well try them both. If you’re not in Rome here’s a recipe for you to try.

When I teach Fettuccine Alfredo in my cooking classes people are surprised to discover the recipe has no cream. No. Cream. It’s a creamy dish. But you don’t use cream.

So how does the pasta get so lusciously creamy?

Butter.

butter

butter

And parmigiano.

parmigiano

parmigiano

And pasta water. That’s it.

pasta water

pasta water

There’s a little finesse to acquire. The right softness of the butter. Adding the right amount of cheese and pasta water. At the right moment. Enthusiastically tossing.

Becoming a master happens fast. And then you get to eat it, too.

True Fettuccine Alfredo 

1 lb. fettuccine

½ lb. unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature

2 – 2 ½ cups grated parmigiano

salt & pepper to taste

Fill a large pasta pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt. Add fettuccine. Stir with a large fork (to keep strands from sticking together) until the water comes back to a boil.

Meanwhile, slice the butter into thin pats and lay them out in the bottom of a large shallow serving bowl. Hold bowl over boiling water to soften butter (not melt it).

Cook fettuccine until al dente. Reserve ¾ cup of the pasta water. Drain pasta.

Place the drained pasta on top of the butter and sprinkle 1/4-1/3 cup of the cheese on top. Using a large fork and spoon (or two forks) toss the pasta quickly, coating it with the butter and cheese. Add some of the pasta water—about half. Continue to toss. Add more cheese, sprinkling it lightly, tossing, sprinkling lightly again. Add the other half of the water. Keep tossing until the pasta is coated in the creaminess of the butter-cheese-water combination. Add more water if it’s too thick of a mixture. Taste for seasoning. Add some black pepper. Serve hot.

Rome: umbrella pines and ruins

Rome: umbrella pines

How to Make a Quick Simple Tomato Sauce

quick tomato sauce

quick tomato sauce

Maybe when I was 17, away at college, and wanting to feel like a cook…maybe…I bought a jar of Ragu. I know I can imagine what it tastes like, so I must have bought one once.

But never again. What’s the point? When you can outdo that taste so easily. When you can make your own tomato sauce in 15 minutes.

I had so much fun making this short video of how-to make your own simple quick (and delicious) tomato sauce.

I’ve probably bubbled this up thousands of times. Not only for pasta, but to slip in a few fillets of fish. Or spoon on an eggplant parmigiano. Or to top a pizza. It goes everywhere!

Simple Tomato Sauce

2-3 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, cunt into small dice

1 garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes

3-4 sprigs fresh herbs, i.e. basil, sage or oregano (optional)

salt & pepper to taste (pinch hot pepper, optional)

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the diced onion. Cook until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add the minced garlic. Cook for about a minute until fragrant (but not browned). Add the wine. Let it almost completely evaporate. Then add the tomatoes. Stir to combine. Season with salt & pepper. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Add  fresh herbs before serving.