Tag Archives: Italy

A Toast to Summer: Honey Roasted Tomatoes on Whipped Feta Toasts

3 toasts
If I’m being completely honest, I really only have myself to blame. It all started with a trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy in 2011. It was there I first discovered the joys of Prosecco and “Aperitivo.” The literal translation is an alcoholic beverage that is consumed prior to a meal with the intention of stimulating the appetite. It almost always involves a few nibbles to have along with your drink, and I’m not talking about a “happy hour” dish of peanuts.

Depending on your location in Italy, the snacks change. In the south it is typically freshly roasted warm salted almonds, a bowl of spicy marinated olives, home made potato chips, or little squares of pizza.

Several years later we visited Umbria in Northern Italy. Aperitivo here meant little crostini topped with pecorino cheese and drizzled with local wildflower honey, suppli (deep fried breaded rice balls stuffed with cheese) and all sorts of amazing charcuterie.

I decided to adopt Aperitivo hour at our cottage. It was recieved quite well by all our visiting friends and family. (What a shock, I know!) It’s gotten to the point that around 6 pm, my husband, children, siblings and friends will ask, “What are we having for aperitivo tonight?” I have conditioned them to expect a little snack along with pre-dinner drinks. Like I said, all my own fault! Truthfully, I love aperitivo hour. Everyone comes together on the back deck, cell phones are put away into pockets and we chat.

I am always looking for interesting snacks that can be put together without too much fuss or bother. A  few months ago, my sister Bo sent me a recipe for whipped feta. I filed it away, thinking it would be perfect, spread on some crusty bread for aperitivo hour.

I decided to top the whipped feta with roasted tomatoes. Little grape or cherry tomatoes get tossed with garlic, olive oil, honey and thyme.Drizzling tomatoes with honey30 minutes in a hot oven until they are slightly shrivelled and bubbly. You can roast the tomatoes early in the day and just leave them out on the counter until you need them. roasted tomatoesThe whipped feta dip was a recipe from Ina Garten. I adapted her recipe, cut back on the feta and added some whole milk ricotta to the mix. It love the lightness it added to the spread. This can also be made in the morning. Just wrap well and chill until serving time.Making whipped Feta-RicottaStart with some really good bread. A baguette or ciabatta loaf are perfect for this. Good quality bread will have big holes in it like this. I bought a ciabatta lunga from Ace Bakery. Ciabatta LungoIn bread freak lingo, these big holes are known as “an open crumb structure.” They are achieved by a long slow cold fermentation, gentle handling so you don’t deflate all the built up gas and  a high hydration dough.

I like to split the loaf horizontally, toast it gently on a grill or in the oven, and then cut it into serving size pieces before topping them.5 toasts2 toasts with prosecco

Click here to print recipe for Honey Roasted Tomato and Whipped Feta Toasts.

1 toast with a bite taken


Aperitivo for One

I learned about the concept of “Aperitivo” when I was in Italy last fall. Aperitivo are pre-dinner drinks accompanied by appetizers. Derived from the Latin aperitivus, to open, aperitivo is meant to stimulate the appetite and tease the taste buds, previewing the delights of dinner. In my mind, I picture stylish Italian men in their Armani or DSquared2 clothing, and Italian women in their classic navy or black sheath dresses with a scarf knotted effortlessly around their necks, stopping whatever they are doing at precisely 5:00 pm, donning their helmets, hopping onto their Vespas and heading out to the nearest bar for Aperitivo.

In Italy there is an “Aperitivo Culture”. It is a very social custom where people meet in bars to catch up on the happenings of the day, to drink and to eat. Typical aperitivo snacks can be as simple as olives and chips, or more elaborate fare, like frito misto, arancini, potato croquettes and assorted crostini.

This is such a civilized custom. Sadly, during, most of the year I am just too busy to stop whatever I am doing at 5 pm for Aperitivo, but come the summer, when I am up at my cottage, I indulge. Almost every day at 5:30 pm I pour myself a glass of Prosecco or white wine and have a little snack. Some days it’s just carrot sticks and humus but some days, I will treat myself to something more elaborate. Now, full disclosure here, most weekdays it is Aperitivo for one. Which sort of goes against the whole social aspect of the custom, but don’t feel too sorry for me. I thoroughly enjoy my own company and find myself quite amusing! I have been voted the 5th funniest of our family (we are a family of 5, but they just don’t appreciate my sense of humour!)

My new favourite white wine this summer is Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc. From the Marlborough region of new Zealand, it is a fantastic white wine for summer quaffing. It is refreshingly acidic with an intense concentration of citrus flavours, notably grapefruit. It has a crisp lingering finish and is the perfect choice for summer aperitivo.

This week I found that I had a surplus of tomatoes on the counter. My local supermarket has been carrying some beautiful heirloom tomatoes as well as Kumato tomatoes, which are sweeter than regular tomatoes and are a godsend in the winter months. I also discovered the first early corn of the season, being sold roadside near my cottage, so I picked up a few ears and decided to make a corn-tomato salsa.

The July-August issue of Cook’s Illustrated featured a corn salsa recipe that I decided to try. Most corn salsa recipes call for grilling the corn, but sometimes you just can’t be bothered to fire up the grill if all you are making is some corn for salsa. Using the corn raw was considered, but raw corn kernels always seem too starchy. Boiling the kernels destroyed the “freshness” you want from a corn salsa.  Keith Dresser  of Cook’s Illustrated solved this problem by coming up with quite a genius solution. He explains,

“Softening the hull without overcooking the center seemed impossible until I considered salsa’s natural partner: the tortilla chip. Corn tortillas are formed out of masa, a dough made with ground hominy, which is dried corn that has been soaked in alkaline limewater. This ancient process, called nixtamalization, was first used by Mesoamerican cultures thousands of years ago to soften corn and loosen the hulls.

Could I get a similar effect by introducing alkali to the cooking water for my corn? A quarter teaspoon of baking soda added to the boiling water worked like magic: As the corn steeped, its hulls softened just enough that they weren’t leathery, but the kernels still burst with crisp sweetness.”

I have much love and admiration for the food science geeks at Cook’s Illustrated.

Here’s my tip for getting the corn off the cob without having the kernels flying all over the kitchen: invert a small bowl into a bigger bowl. Stand the corn cob on the smaller bowl and use a sharp knife to cut off the corn. The kernels will land in the bigger bowl, not the floor. You will thank me later!

Tomatoes, jalapeno, cilantro, shallots, lime juice, salt and a drop of honey finish off the salsa.

If you have corn or flour tortillas in the freezer, take the time to make your own tortilla chips. I used whole wheat flour tortillas, brushed them with vegetable oil and sprinkled them with a little kosher salt. Then I cut them into strips, instead of triangles. Bake them at 350 °F  for about 10 minutes, until crispy. They look so pretty when you stand them in a mug or vase. Sometimes I buy the flax or spinach tortillas and delude myself into thinking that these are really healthy!

Click here to print recipe for Tomato Corn Salsa .

Pour a glass of something cold, gather all the amusing people you can find and enjoy Aperitivo. And if you drink alone, I won’t judge.

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 10 (Our last day!)

Before I get down to the business of reporting on Day 10 I am excited to share with you the debut post of a brand new young food blogger. (O.K, full disclosure here, it’s my daughter, and I couldn’t be prouder). Check out her first post at http://bostonbakesforbreastcancer.org/tales-of-a-chocoholic/

O.K. back to Day 10 in Umbria.

My original plan, when I embarked on my trip to Umbria, was to blog at the end of each day, about the single best thing I had eaten. Boy was that a naive plan! First of all, trying to narrow down the best thing you ate all day, while travelling through Italy, is no easy task. Almost every morsel I put in my mouth had me declaring, “Could be the best thing I”ve eaten today!” Secondly, after attempting to blog on my first night, full with both food and wine and exhausted from touring all day, I quickly realized I would not be able to write a very coherent post. So I decided to take lots of photos and notes and do it all when I got home. I arrived home on Sept 25! It has taken me over 7 weeks to post about all 10 days, but here we are, finally at the end.

We decided to just hang out at our incredible villa for our last day before the magic was over, and we all turned back into pumpkins to return to our real lives. Although, the body shapes of some of us was beginning to resemble pumpkins, after 10 days of eating our way through the Umbrian countryside. Over breakfast we just feasted our eyes on the incredible views from our terrace.

Liria, our wonderful host, volunteered to give us a cooking class this morning. She offered to teach us whatever we wanted to learn. Without even hesitating, I told Liria I needed to know how to make pappa al pomodoro, the Tuscan tomato bread soup I’d eaten at Cibreo in Florence. Without a doubt,  this was the best thing I ate on our trip. I was smitten with this soup.

We gathered in the kitchen and Liria outfitted us with out aprons, chef”s hats and gloves. Gloves??? Wow, I was impressed. When I remarked to Liria how blown away I was with her attention to hygiene, she laughed and said, that she only wears the gloves to protect her manicure and figured  that we were like-minded women. Boy, had she pegged us right!

The kitchen here at the villa is a sight to behold. I coveted it all, but most especially, the induction cooktop. I had always thought that a gas cooktop was the best, but the temperature control you get with this cooktop is incredible. The marble  back splash was nothing to sneeze at either!

We began with fresh plum tomatoes, basil, spring onions and salt. They were simmered for about 15 minutes and then transferred to a food mill for processing. The food mill is an extremely handy kitchen tool. The skins and seeds of the tomato are separated from the flesh and no peeling is required on your part! It also makes incredible applesauce (no peeling required) and wonderful, fluffy mashed potatoes. We all got a chance to have a spin.

While the tomatoes were being milled, Liria gently simmered some garlic, basil and, her secret ingredient, whole cloves, in a generous glug of olive oil. I was shocked that she used cloves. They are one of the few spices I can not stomach the aroma of. I find them extremely cloying and leave them out of every recipe that calls for them. Liria said that she only uses 4 of them for a huge pot of soup and you can’t really taste them. They just add a background note that enhances all the flavours. She stressed that low heat is key at this stage, as you do not want to brown the garlic, as it would become bitter. After a 10 minute low simmer, the tomato puree is added and that cooks for an additional 10 minutes.

The final addition is breadcrumbs to thicken the soup.

After an additional 10 minutes of simmering, the soup is ladled into bowls and finished off with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some fresh julienned basil.

Click here to get the recipe for Papa al Pomodoro.

 After lunch we had a chance to tour the gardens and see all the fresh produce that grows here at Casali di Monticchio. Grapes, eggplant, olives and figs are just a few of the things we observed, in addition to chickens in a coop for farm fresh scrambled  eggs every morning.

 For our farewell aperitivo, Liria pulled out all the stops and fed us a feast. Even the villa dog, Parcetta, perked up when the prosciutto came out!

I feel so grateful to have such wonderful and loving friends to have shared this incredible journey with. What a ride it’s been! Thanks to all who have followed along to read about our adventure.

The Best Thing I Ate Today In Umbria Day 9

Just realized I completely forgot to tell you all about the best thing I ate each and every morning for breakfast at our villa, Casali di Monticchio. Each morning Liria and her daughter Johanna, set out a buffet for us. Before we arrived, an e-mail went out to all the guests asking us about our food preferences. Apparently 12 out of 18 of us requested non-fat greek yogurt and berries with granola for breakfast. I know… we are such an exciting bunch! I will not divulge what the other 6 asked for.

Each morning, I started my day with had a bowl of yogurt with fresh berries, sometimes ripe peaches and bananas and always a small handful of this incredible granola sprinkled on top. It was sweet, but not too sweet, had lots of nuts and seeds and some coconut and just a few dried fruits. But the best part was that this granola had huge clumps. Everyone always eats the big clumps of the granola first and leaves the little crumbs in the box for the end. This granola had very few little crumbs and lots of huge clumps which maximized the yummy crunch factor! I needed to get Liria’s secret granola recipe. When I finally remembered to ask her this morning, she went into the kitchen and came out, sheepishly holding a huge bag of Kellogg’s fruit and nut granola. I have been searching for it ever since I came home but can’t find it. I think it is something developed for the European market. It will haunt me for a very long time.

Fortified by this excellent breakfast, about 8 of us headed off on the mini-bus, with Claudio, our ever-faithful driver, to the outlet malls. When we were first planning the trip, my travel agent, Linda, looked over the itinerary and noticed that we had not scheduled any official shopping time. WHAT?? How could I have forgotten to do that? When I asked her what she would recommend, she quickly responded that we must visit the outlet malls, situated just outside of Florence. When some people hear the words, “outlet mall”, the adrenaline starts pumping through their veins and their pulse starts to race just a bit faster. I’m just not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I get just as giddy as the next Canadian woman when I come within a 1 mile radius of a Target store, but outlet shopping always ends up disappointing me.

The clothes are usually just heaped on shelves and racks and I find that so aesthetically unappealing. I just don’t have the vision or the patience to sort through it all. The changing rooms are usually scuzzy and they have a limit on the number of items you can take in. Sometimes the change rooms do not even have mirrors and you have to come out to look in the mirror in a general changing area. I hate that! And finally, most of the stuff in outlet stores is the kind of stuff you would have felt quite “fashion forward” in last year but left you asking, this year, “What was I thinking?”

After I explained this all to Linda, she started to laugh at me. She explained that Italian outlet Malls are nothing like North American ones. They are very high-end and while the items may be last season, most of the designs are so classic, they will become wardrobe staples for a very long time. My girlfriend Marla is an excellent shopper. She has incredible patience and stamina, both of which you need in abundance to shop sales and outlet malls. She has a knack of combing through the sales racks and finding that one gem. That one flexible classic piece that can be dressed up to go black tie or can be worn with jeans to go for coffee. I love to shop with her, follow her into the change room and try on all her rejects. All the glory and none of the hard work. Luckily, she would be joining us on the outlet shopping trip in Italy.

The build-up to our shopping day was kind of intense. We decided to visit “The Mall” (it’s actually called that!) and “Space”. The Mall is a beautiful high-end outdoor outlet shopping centre located in the town of Leccio, about a 30 minute drive from Florence. Shops at The Mall included a veritable who’s who of big name designers.  Alexander McQueen, Armani, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Hogan, Loro Piana, Marni, Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Sergio Rossi, Stella McCartney, Tod’s , Valentino, YSL, Zegna. “Space” is the Prada Outlet store. There was quite a discussion about which to visit first, “The Mall” or “Space.” We had heard that there were huge lineups at Space and they only let 100 people in at a time. In developing our strategy, we consulted Liria, the owner of our villa. She advised us to visit The Mall first and then Space. She said that lineups on a weekday in September would not be an issue.

When our bus pulled up at The Mall, Marla had her shopping strategy well mapped out and made a beeline to the Marni store. We all followed her like baby chicks after their mother hen!  The mall was everything Linda had promised. The grounds were beautifully manicured, the stores well-lit and appointed and all the wares were beautifully displayed. You would never guess you were in an outlet mall. The staff all spoke English, and were very helpful. No attitude at all. The changing rooms were large and well-lit  with mirrors. Best of all, there was no limit on the number of items you could take in at once. We were very successful at The Mall, and most of us found at least one or two treasures. My brother-in-law, (first photo in this post) was happy to be our bag mule as long as we fed and watered him.

I was so busy trying on clothes and attempting to keep up with Marla’s speedy pace, that I only managed to take a few photos. Most of these are from The Mall’s own website.

After The Mall, it was off to Space, the Prada Outlet. Located in an industrial area, just outside the town of Montevarchi, there were no identifying signs to let you know you had arrived. I guess Prada does not want to advertise that they have an outlet store. Try as they may to hide this outlet store, Claudio, our trusty driver, managed to ferret it out!

There was no line-up at all when we arrived, so we sailed right in. When you first enter the store, a very handsome Prada model hands you a ticket with a number on it. This is your PIN number for the day. You are not allowed to take items you wish to purchase from one department to another. Once you try the item on and decide you want to purchase it, you hand the items over to a sales associate and they set it aside with your PIN number. When you are all done shopping, you proceed to the checkout and all your items magically appear. Luckily, you are still able to change your mind at the cash and they don’t even get snarky about it!

Prada knows a thing or two about merchandising. Upon entering, straight ahead, front and center, is the shoe department. Like moths to a flame we were drawn right in! Purses, accessories and collection pieces are on the right hand side of the store and skin care, sunglasses and sportswear flank the left side of the store. Menswear, as usual, is buried at the back. I’m always surprised that men don’t have a complex about this.

Although this was an outlet store, the displays were quite beautiful and there was a large selection of items and sizes. I managed to find a beautiful black cashmere sweater for 70% off and a cute little evening bag to bring home to my daughter, as a consolation prize for daring to go to the Holy Grail (Prada Outlet) without her! Prices were really good. One friend bought two purses, one for herself and one for her sister. (Lucky sister!) My sister-in-law got some gorgeous shoes that we all coveted. All in all, a successful trip!

Stay tuned for Day 10 (our last day before going home – sob!) when we get a cooking lesson from Liria, in her fabulous kitchen!

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 8

This morning, after breakfast, we headed out in the mini-bus and were dropped off about an hour’s hike away from the town of Pitigliano. This little hillside town, south of Florence, on the Tuscan border, has a fascinating Jewish history. Our guide for the day was a young woman named Elisabetta. She grew up in Pitigliano as a history and archaeology scholar. She also runs the local library in Pitigliano. As we hiked into town, she gave us a brief history of Pitigliano.

Jews began settling in Pitigliano in the 15th Century. The Jewish population continued to grow as more Jews were forced out of Rome because of Pope Paul IV’s segregation policies, requiring Jews to live in ghettos. Pitigliano was an attractive place to settle for many Jews because it was not part of the papal state and was an independent province, ruled at the time by the Orsini family. The Orsini’s social policy was quite laissez-faire and the Jews were permitted to live a freer lifestyle. A synagogue was built in 1598, followed by the construction of a school. Jews were permitted to set up their own businesses as carpenters, tailors, weavers, shoemakers and moneylenders. The city soon became known as La Piccola Gerusalemme or “Little Jerusalem.”

Over the next several hundred years, depending on who was in power, the fortunes of the Jews of Pitigliano either waxed or waned. However, despite restrictions during various periods, the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper.  In the mid 1800’s the Jewish population of Pitigliano reached almost 400 people, which represented over 10% of the total population.

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the Jewish population of Pitigliano began to decline. Many Jews moved to larger cities nearby for economic reasons.  By 1931, there were only 70 Jews left living there.  Anti-Semitism was rampant by 1936 and then in 1938 racial laws were instituted. During the Holocaust, the brave Christian people of Pitigliano risked their lives to hide and save Jews that were escaping from the Nazi terror. They hid them on farms in the valleys and in caves up in the hills.

After the war, only 30 Jews returned to Pitigliano. The synagogue had been damaged during the war. Today despite the fact that there are only 3 Jews left in Pitigliano, the Jewish cultural heritage has been preserved. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1995. One of those Jews is Elena Servi.  She is president of Associazione La Piccola Gerusalemme (The Association of Little Jerusalem), an organization made up of both Catholics and Jews. Elena and her nephew have made it their life’s mission to tell the story of the history of Pitigliano so that future generations can learn from it.

It is a beautiful story of cultural and religious co-existence, tolerance, compassion, respect, friendship and affection between Christians and Jews. The association has raised funds to restore and preserve all the Jewish monuments in the town, including the Synagogue, the “Forno di Asimo” (the Kosher oven) and the Jewish Cemetery. The citizens of this town honour the memory of the Jewish citizens that once thrived in this place. They feel strongly that it is important to remember and preserve the history and maintain these sites so that it will never be forgotten. It is a very moving tribute.

A beautiful web site, devoted to Pitigliano has been created by one very special man. Click HERE to check it out!

We went to see the Kosher oven where matzoh for Passover was baked so many years ago.

We had the privilege of meeting Signora Servi and she spoke to us about her experiences during the Holocaust. She and several members of her family left the town in November 1943 and were hidden away by farmers and peasants, outside of town, moving from one small farm to another, until June 1944. The last 3 months of hiding were spent in a cave under the protection and support of a local Christian farmer.

After meeting with Elena, Elisabetta took us over to an old wine cellar (Cantina Sociale) where we were served an incredible lunch.

Platters of food kept arriving at the table. Of course the requisite Pecorino cheese made an appearance. We had a 2-month old one which tasted very fresh and nutty and a 1-year-old one which was drier and had some straw undertones. Then they brought Stracchino, a mild soft white cow’s milk cheese to the table with 3 sauces (cactus, acacia honey and pear and pepper) to accompany it. The name of the cheese derives from the Italian word “stracca”, meaning “tired. It is said that the milk from tired cows coming down from the alpine pastures in the fall, is richer in fats and more acidic. These qualities were discovered, according to legend, in the milk of cows who were moved seasonally, up and down the Alps to different pastures. The milk of such cows gives the cheese its characteristic flavors. It has a mild milky flavour, similar to cream cheese but a bit more acidic, with just a hint of tartness. It just melts in your mouth. When paired with the sauces it became something different all together. I loved it best with the pear and pepper sauce.

The crostini with olive oil was unbelievable. I have never had an olive oil this fruity. The olive oil soaked into the toasted bread and softened it ever so slightly. There were two kinds of farro salads, both with chickpeas. The first had thinly sliced purple onion and was dressed simply with olive oil and sea salt. The second had tomatoes and basil and was also dressed with olive oil and sea salt. I could not get enough of these farro salads. My favourite eat of the day! The chewy nutty farro contrasting with the creamy chickpeas was an unbeatable combination. When I came home I created my own version of this, adding pickled shallots.

Click here to see the recipe for Farro and Chick Peas with Pickled Shallots.

Of course we were served kosher wine, produced by The Pitigliano Cooperative Cellars. It is sold in a winery just outside of town.

We finished with a wild cherry and sheep’s milk ricotta cheese pie.

After lunch we had a chance to tour the wine cellar.

Then it was time to visit the Synagogue.

Once inside the synagogue, one of our friends asked Elisabetta if it would be okay if he could lead our group in the mincha (afternoon prayer) service. To hear Hebrew being sung in this place was very emotional for all of us. This  town of mostly Christians wish to honour the memory of the Jewish citizens that once thrived in this place. They feel strongly that it is important to remember and preserve the history and maintain these sites so that it will never be forgotten. It is a very moving tribute that left me feeling very hopeful about a future when all religions can peacefully co-exist.

After we left the synagogue, we felt kind of drained of all our energy, but in a good way. We just wandered around the town, taking it all in. The buildings in this walled city are constructed out of the soft yellow volcanic rock, “tuff.” The cobblestone streets are narrow and the pride the residents take in their homes was beautiful to see.

We discovered that Italian cats like to dine on pasta,  elderly men in Pitigliano like to hang out in a group, outside on benches, just like elderly gentlemen all over the world and my friend Philip discovered that the women of Pitigliano are incredible flirts.

Stay tuned for Day 9 when we become totally shallow, abandon all interest in culture and history and visit the Italian outlet malls!