Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Zeppole for La Festa di San Giuseppe

Today (19 March) is La Festa di San Giuseppe (the Feast of Saint Joseph), a Catholic feast day celebrating the earthly father of Jesus.  Celebrations in the middle of Lent are usually non-existent, but since it's St. Joseph's day, sweets and celebrations are the order of the day!  Go to a Catholic church and you might find all sorts of things going on, from processions to St. Joseph's Tables/Altars laden with all sorts of goodies. Some of my favorite goodies that are made around this time of the year are zeppole.

San Giuseppe
Zeppole are deep-fried balls of dough, covered in powdered sugar.  Simple, but extremely delicious.  It's quite easy to make your own, which in my opinion is the best way to do it, since they are at their most delicious when they're still hot!

To make zeppole, start with 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast and 2 teaspoons of sugar.

I know it looks like there is more yeast than sugar here,
but it spread out a bit more than the sugar.
Then add 3/4 cup of warm water and stir for 2 minutes until the yeast and sugar is dissolved.

In another bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of flour with 1 teaspoon of salt.

Then, pour in the yeast mixture and mix until it's all blended.

The dough will be super sticky.  It's normal.  Cover with a cloth and set in a warm spot to rise for an hour. (I usually wet a paper towel with warm water, wring it out and place it over the bowl, then I place a tea towel on top of that.  That way, when it rises, it won't get stuck to the tea towel.)

When it's ready, it will look something like this:

Very poofy, yet still sticky
Pour some vegetable oil in a pan until it is about 2 inches deep.  Keep the oil heated to 190°C /375°F. Drop dough, 1 teaspoon at a time, into the hot oil and cook until golden in color.

Remove from the oil and drain (I use a couple paper towels over a cooling rack).  Then toss in powdered sugar.

These little puffs are absolutely delicious and so easy to make, you really have no excuse not to try it yourself!


1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
vegetable oil for frying
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 cup warm water
powdered sugar

Combine the yeast and sugar in a small bowl and add the warm water.  Stir for 2 minutes to completely dissolve the yeast and sugar.
In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt.  Add the yeast mixture and stir until blended.  Cover and place in a warm place to rise for 1 hour.
Pour the vegetable oil into a pan until it is 2 inches deep.  Heat to 190°C /375°F.  Drop the dough, 1 teaspoon at a time, into the hot oil and fry until golden in color.
Remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel, then toss in some powdered sugar.

Buon Appetito!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Giorni della Merla (Days of the Blackbird)

The last 3 days of January are called Giorni della Merla...the Days of the Blackbird) in many parts of Italy. Merli (blackbirds) are completely black birds (in my opinion, they look a lot like American Robins, but are completely black).   They like to eat worms and insects, which are not so easy to find in the cold weather of January.

A little snow on a tree in Tuscany!
Last year, Simone told me a story about the Giorni della Merla.  I asked him to tell me the story again so that I could share it here with you.  This is what he said:

The Giorni della Merla are the three coldest days of the year and are the last three days of January, the 29th, 30th, and 31st.  Many years ago, January had only 28 days and February had 31 days.  Originally, the merli were not black, but had beautiful feathers that were as white as snow. January liked to send a lot of cold and icy weather to Italy, which made it difficult for the birds to find enough to eat.  One very smart merla became so annoyed with January's cold behavior, that she started to hide some food in her nest so that she would have enough during the cold 28 days of January.  After the 28 days were over, she came out of the nest singing loudly and laughing at January saying she was so much smarter than him.  Well, January became very angry with this and asked February if he could borrow 3 days from him so that he could exact revenge upon the merla.  February agreed, so January made the three days bitterly cold with a terrible wind and he covered everything with ice.  The merla had to find shelter, so she hid in a chimney. When February 1st finally arrived, the merla emerged from the chimney, but her beautiful white feathers were now completely black, and so that is why the merli have black feathers today!

A cute little merlo in the grass
I love stories like this that were passed on throughout the ages. Different areas of the country have their own versions of the story, but the basic story of the white bird hiding in the chimney and becoming black is the same.

This year, it seems that the winter weather is really cooperating with the story!  There is snow and ice in some areas of Tuscany and most of the US is under a blanket of cold and snow.  Maybe there's something to be said about this legend!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fast and Easy Pasta Sauce

Once I learned how easy it was to make my own pasta sauce, I never bought commercial sauce again.  As fast as it takes to boil pasta, you can create a fabulous sauce that is fresh and delicious, using ingredients that you may already have in your pantry.

Festonati with homemade sauce
topped with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
All you need is some olive oil, a little chopped onion, a clove or two of chopped garlic, some crushed tomatoes (in Italy, I use polpa di pomodori), and maybe a bit of your favorite chopped herbs.  I use chopped parsley a lot (if you use parsley, make sure it's the flat-leaf, Italian kind), but sometimes I switch it up and use some chopped sage or chopped basil.  It depends on (a) what I have available, and (b) what flavor I'm in the mood for.

Pasta sauce with pomodorini and olives
To make the basic sauce, heat some olive oil in a pan and add chopped onion and garlic.  When the onions get nice and transparent, add some crushed tomatoes (we use canned) and let it cook down a bit while your pasta cooks.  Add your chopped parsley (or whatever herb you prefer) when it's almost finished.  When the pasta is almost ready, drain it, reserving a cup or so of the cooking liquid.  Add the pasta into the saucepan with the sauce and stir it in.  Add a little of the pasta water and let it cook until the pasta is finished cooking.

When we are just cooking for ourselves (2 people), we usually use  1/2 of an onion, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, and around 1/3 of a can of tomato.  You can adjust the amounts depending on how many servings that you are making.  You can also add in anything you would like to the basic sauce.  Olives, pomodorini (cherry tomatoes), zucchini, etc.  Sometimes we will add in some shrimp to cook in the sauce, or some mussels.  We tend to add a little red wine into the sauce (if we have an open bottle).  This really gives it a fantastic flavor (and don't worry, the alcohol cooks out of it, so you can serve it to anyone).

Spaghetti with homemade sauce made with canned diced tomatoes
and sliced fresh zucchini 
The sauce should cling to the pasta and not puddle around the plate.  Italians (well, at least those that I know in Tuscany) don't eat "a little pasta with their sauce" in the way that I've seen it be served in America. Simone gives me a hard time if I make a bit too much sauce and jokes that I'm doing things like in America again. Funny thing is that I didn't like a lot of sauce when I was a kid.  I guess I was always a bit Tuscan, even before I realized it!

Give this pasta recipe a try the next time you make pasta.  If you are anything like me, you'll never go back to canned sauce again!

Fast and Easy Pasta Sauce
(for 2 people)

2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1/3-1/2 can crushed tomatoes
salt to taste
chopped parsley (or other herb) to taste
1/4 cup (or so) red wine (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onion and garlic.  Let cook a few minutes, then add the tomato.  Let cook down while your pasta is cooking, adding the chopped parsley and salt to taste.  (Add the wine at this time, if you choose to do so.)  

When the pasta is not quite done, drain it, reserving a cup or so of the cooking liquid.  Add the pasta to the pan with the sauce and mix in.  Stir in a little bit of the cooking liquid (don't let the sauce get too thin) and let cook until the pasta is ready. 

Serve hot.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Walk like a...Tuscan

It's no wonder that most Italians are in good shape..they walk A LOT!

People walking in Giardini di Boboli on a spring morning.
In the US - especially in some areas - people tend to drive everywhere.  In Italy, people drive, but in many towns, like Florence and Prato, for example, there are areas where traffic is restricted. The Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL) is the area where only residents of the city (and police/emergency vehicles, special permit holders, etc) are allowed to drive 24/7.  Other vehicles are prohibited entry, except for certain times of the day/days of the week.  There are some streets which are pedestrian only as well, so people must walk (or ride a bicycle) if they want to get into certain areas of town.

Rainy weather won't stop Tuscans from walking!
Piazza della Repubblica, Florence
Not only are they forced to walk due to the restrictions, they walk for fun too!  La passeggiata is a daily tradition in Italy where people will exit their homes and take a nice stroll around town, stopping to chat with neighbors or for a gelato as they enjoy the evening.

Una passeggiata at Parco delle Cascine in Florence
It's easy to incorporate more walking into your own lifestyle.  If you live in town, try walking to the store when you just need to pick up a couple things.  Take a walk during your lunch break at work. Park further away from the entrance of buildings.  When the weather is nice, take some time and walk around a local park.  Adopt your own passeggiata by taking a nice, leisurely stroll with a friend instead of sitting in a bar or coffee shop.  You can still visit and be getting some exercise!  It's a fun way to get moving!

Simone walking through an olive grove.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Winter Lunch Lasagne

Winter weather in Tuscany usually involves a lot of rain, fog, and chilly days.  Occasionally it will snow, but normally the snow doesn't stick around very long.  I prefer to just see it adorning the mountain tops several kilometers away!

Snow on the mountains above Florence
One part of winter that I adore is all of the heartier meals that are prepared!  Comfort food at it's best!  Roasts, stews, and soups all prepared to fill the belly and warm the soul.

Lasagne, ready to pop into the oven
Lasagne  is one of my favorite treats to make and enjoy during the winter months.  We don't eat it often, but it is a wonderfully nice treat to have on occasion when the weather is chilly!  Plus, if you need to feed a crowd, it's perfect.

This is not the lasagne that you may be used to finding in Italian restaurants in the US.  There is no mozzarella or ricotta cheeses.  Instead, the traditional recipe uses a besciamella sauce (which you may know as béchamel or "white sauce"),  Simone and I created this recipe last winter when we wanted to have lasagne for lunch, but didn't want to pay for the pre-made stuff at the supermarket.  It's our take on traditional lasagne.
Simone was proud of our creation!
You'll notice that the word "slowly" is used quite a lot in the recipe, especially in the instructions on how to make the ragù (meat sauce).  It is really important that you take your time when you cook the sauces in order to get the correct consistency and flavor.  If there is one thing I've learned when it comes to cooking traditional Italian food, it's to not be in a hurry!  Believe me, it is well worth the time spent!

Lasagne, fresh from the oven

1 package lasagne pasta 

200 grams (or so) grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (approximately 1 1/2 cups, or so)

For the ragù:

Extra-virgin olive oil (about 4 Tablespoons)
500 g (about 1 lb) ground beef
1 carrot, finely minced
1 rib of celery, finely minced
1 onion, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 cans crushed tomatoes
1 glass red wine (we use Chianti)
salt and pepper, to taste

For the besciamella:

750 ml (a little over 3 cups) milk 
75 g (about 3/4 stick) butter, cut into pieces
75 g (a little under 3/4 cup) flour
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the ragù:

In a large pan over low heat, very slowly cook the carrot, celery, onion, garlic in about 4 Tablespoons olive oil until soft.  Stir in the tomatoes and let simmer.  Meanwhile in another pan, slowly cook the ground beef, stirring frequently until browned and finely crumbled.  Drain the fat and then stir the meat into the tomato sauce.  Add the glass of wine and let slowly simmer, partially covered for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the besciamella:

Over low heat, melt the butter in a saucepan.  Stir in the flour (I usually use a very small whisk) and let cook for a for a few minutes, stirring constantly.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the milk with a wooden spoon, mixing well.  Return the pan to the burner and let cook over low heat until it begins to boil, then stir in the salt and nutmeg.  Cover the saucepan with a lid and let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  

For the lasagne:

About the pasta:  Barilla makes an oven-ready lasagne noodle that I have found in the US.  If you use these, you don't have to pre-cook the pasta at all.  If it is the regular dried variety, cook it in boiling salted water until almost al dente, then drain (Simone then likes to rinse the lasagne noodles with cool water in order to help it to not stick together).

Drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom of a lasagne pan, then spread some of the meat sauce over top (I just use a big spoonful, which is probably around 1/2 - 2/3 of a cup).  Then layer as follows:

1. pasta
2. besciamella
3. ragù
4. parmigiano reggiano (a generous portion)

Usually we make 3 - 4 layers.  End with the parmigiano reggiano and then bake in a pre-heated 160°C / 325 °F oven for around 50-60 minutes.  When it is done, it's surface will be beautifully golden in color.  Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before cutting into slices.

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tuscan Diet - Dairy

Tuscany produces a wonderful array of cheeses, so there is no doubt that like all of the other elements of their diet, Tuscans take their dairy seriously.

A light supper of pecorino cheese, multicereale bread,
cinghiale sausage and walnuts

Many cheeses in Tuscany are made from sheep or goat's milk, such as caprino, and my personal favorite, pecorino.  Fresh ricotta can be made with sheep, goat or cow milk and is delightfully smooth and creamy.  Other typical Tuscan produced cheeses include raviggiolo (a soft, fresh cheese) and caciotta (a soft crust cheese).

A wonderful etruscan pecorino
Of course another very famous dairy concoction that can be found in Tuscany is gelato!  Gelato was created by Bernardo Buontalenti, a Florentine cook who created the delicious dessert for Catherine de'Medici....and the rest is history!  Florence has tons of gelaterie (gelato shops) serving up mounds of creamy gelato year-round.  Gelato is similar to ice cream found in the US, but believe me...gelato is much better!  It's wonderful dense creaminess is due to it being churned at a slower pace, which causes less air to be incorporated into the dessert.  It also has less fat in it than US ice cream, which helps to intensify the flavor and not coat the mouth like ice cream does.

Caffè (coffee) , fiordilatte (a plain "flower of milk" flavor),
and nocciola (hazelnut) gelato at GROM in Florence

As wonderful as their cheese and gelato are, dairy is much more minor element in the Tuscan diet.  Personally, we enjoy an occasional glass of milk and yogurt (Italian yogurt is fabulous!), but for the most part, a very small percentage of our diet consists of dairy products.  Olive oil is preferred over butter, and we don't use a lot of cream in our recipes like some other folks do, simply because we prefer to eat in a more health-conscious way.  

A variety of Italian  yogurt

Occasionally we will make what Simone calls a "cake" with yogurt.  Simone created the recipe and it's very simple.  He lines a casserole dish with savoiardi biscuits (ladyfinger cookies) and then spoons a layer of yogurt on top.  He keeps layering the cookies and yogurt until it is almost to the top of the dish, then he places it into the refrigerator overnight.  By the time morning arrives, the yogurt has softened the crisp svoiardi and he spoons it up to serve.  We eat it for breakfast occasionally or as a dessert.  You can make it with whatever flavor of yogurt you prefer, or do like Simone does sometimes and use a different flavor for each layer. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tuscan Diet - Meats

Another part of the Tuscan diet is meat.

The Etruscan tables would usually find dishes of cinghiale (wild boar), which to this day are hunted by Tuscans for their meat.  These large beasts (which can weigh up to around 190 kg) roam around Tuscany, irritating gardeners and farmers since they tend to like to eat their produce and destroy their plants.

Cinghiale head at Antica Macelleria Falorni in Greve in Chianti
Cinghiale can be found in sausages, roasts and in a delightful dish called Pappardelle con ragu' di cinghiale, which is a dish with flat, broad pasta covered in a tomato-based sauce with wild boar.  The meat is flavorful.  To me, it has a richer flavor than pork and is almost beef-like in texture.  It's definitely good and worth a try if you ever get a chance to taste it.

The tastiest burger in the world - 250 gr burger at
Dario DOC in Panzano, Italy
Chianina cattle have been raised in the Tuscan region for over 2200 years.  The gigantic white cattle are known for the large size, excellent health, and their high tolerance to heat and sun.  The meat is very high in quality and has great nutritional value, which explains the higher prices on the labels for Chianina vs. other beef.  Indeed, it is absolutely tender and delicious.  One of the most famous Tuscan dishes, bistecca alla fiorentina, is made from a cut of Chianina beef.

Chianina steak
Tuscans use every bit of the animal, even the stomachs.  One of the best panini (sandwiches) that I have ever had was a lampredotto panino.  Exclusively Florentine, this sandwich is made up of lampredotto, which is the fourth and final stomach of the cow.  It's cooked in a delectable vegetable broth, chopped up, placed on a crusty bun with some salt, pepper, and salsa verde (a green parsley based condiment).

Lampredotto panino from Nerbone
at Mercato Centrale in Florence

There are many birds that are eaten as well.  Chicken, gallo (rooster), turkey, guinea fowl, quail, duck, can all be found on Tuscan tables.  Roasted, boiled, takes all forms and is very tasty.

Poultry for sale at Mercato Centrale in Florence
Rabbit and lamb can also be found at local butcher shops and supermarkets.  We often like to pick up some lamb chops and cook them with rosemary and a little olive oil for dinner.  Pork is also a favorite, either in the form of prosciutto, salami, or a delicious roast.

One of my favorite pork dishes is rosticciana, a simple dish made with pork ribs, garlic, rosemary, and wine.  Below, you can find my recipe for this delicious (and easy) dish.  I like to serve mine with a side of sauteed spinach.

Rosticciana with sauteed spinach and garlic


Pork Ribs
1 glass white wine

Cut the ribs into sections about 3 cm (a little over an inch) thick.

Stovetop method:
Place ribs into a large frying pan and add several sprigs of rosemary, a few cloves of garlic, and a glass of water.  Cover and cook over low heat for about an hour.  Make sure to turn the ribs frequently until the water has completely evaporated.  Increase the heat, add a little salt and a glass of wine.  Allow the wine to gradually reduce, browning the meat evenly on all sides.

Oven method:
Place all ingredients into a rectangular oven dish and roast for 40 minutes at 180°C/350°F.