Thursday, January 29, 2015

Zucca in agrodolce, or sweet and sour grilled butternut squash

Life is bittersweet in all of its nuances, in the big things and the little things.

In the big picture there are love and loss, health and illness, success and failure.

And then there are the daily minutiae, some good and others not so much: a great meal, your wireless not working right before a deadline, a good laugh with a friend, a bad driver in front of you.

An unexpected drawing from your child, a tantrum.

A great day in the office, a note from the teacher.

The list goes on and on, day after day. And then, every once in a while, there is perfection.

Not because everything is exactly what you hoped for or dream of.

Not because something earth shattering happens, but because for a moment in time everything falls into place, like the pieces of a puzzle. They fit perfectly and it just feels so right in its utter simplicity.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Making bone broth and soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) in Asian-inspired pork bone broth

The worst thing is starting a new week with little sleep.

I know because my week began with just a handful of hours between Sunday and Monday.

It all started with a nightmare and soothing a little one back to sleep. Just as I was finally managing to drift back off almost an hour later, the crying started again, with sniffling pleas to come into our bed, a special treat (for us so that we can get right back under the duvet, or for them?) for the really bad nights.

I quickly agreed and tried to re-enter slumberland with my little boy's body curled into mine with such an intensity that I doubted it was going to happen any time soon. That is when I felt the scorching heat, it was like lying next to a radiator. I dragged myself out of bed again to get the thermometer and surely enough the little guy had a high fever.

As he slept on in his aura of heat, I lay awake, my mind racing. I was supposed to be in the office extra early that morning because there was a lot to deal with and it was just going to be one of those days. People were counting on me being there, but there was no way I was going to find a sitter at 3:00am in the morning. I started sending messages and emails to warn my colleagues. Then I lay awake feeling guilty. My husband was snoring, oblivious. My son was sleeping a fitful sleep and everytime I tried to move away from his burning limbs wrapped around me to cool off, he nudged his way right back into my arms.

Needless to say, we both awoke feeling lousy.

He didn't want any breakfast so lunch had to be nourishing and I wanted to keep him hydrated throughout the day. I knew I had some bones and some scraps of vegetables in the freezer. I would make bone broth, the healing, nutritious superfood of our grandmothers, great grandmothers and great-great granmothers.
Rich in protein, vitamins, and nutrients and minerals in general, it is actually known to block cold symptoms and help build up your gut. I even read somewhere that warm salt water helps keep mucus thin and kill bacteria and vegetables are known to help boost the immune system.

I had never used pork bones before, but I had randomly picked a few up the previous week and thought they would make an even richer, darker broth. However, when I started making it, I noticed the smell was stronger than usual, more penetrating, to the point that it almost bothered me a little. My mind started working: the strong flavor probably would stand up to some very bold, aromatic ingredients, and that was how this oriental-inspired broth was born. I threw in a large knob of ginger, some star anise, a nice glug of soy sauce for saltiness and there it was. At that point, the soba noodles sitting in a drawer and some fresh bean sprouts seemed like the perfect match.

It was our lunch and then it became dinner for the whole family with the addition of a runny scrambled egg that firmed up nicely when I poured the boiling broth over it.*

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to use up leftovers: riso alla Cantonese (or Yeung Chow fried rice) fried in duck fat

Alternative title: Chinese food that really isn't Chinese

Most of us are aware that the Chinese food we eat is often heavily bastardized. I still haven't had the privilege of eating the authentic thing, but between NY and Milan (the latter appartently boasts the largest and oldest Chinatown in Italy), I have been lucky enough to get a little closer to the real deal compared to the food we are so often served on this side of the world.

Taking a step back, I think even the concept of Chinese food is a foreign invention, because it is such a regional cuisine, with dishes and ingredients varying enourmously from one part of the country to the other. Much like Italy might I add. Another thing to consider is that meat does not often take center stage in an authentic Chinese meal, leaving much more room for fermented foods and tofu, and when it does, the cuts, the kind of animals (insects and jelly fish just to mention a few alongside pork, chicken and beef...) and animal parts used (chicken feet, duck tongues, pig ears and blood are just a few examples) are often not quite suited to Western palates (although many of us are becoming more adventurous and curious eaters). The same goes for certain flavors: chefs often add sweetness (sweet and sour pork anyone?) or dial down the heat or fermentation factor to appease their local clientele. Last but not least, many authentic ingredients never make it over to our side of the world, so we substitute them with more common ones. And when they do, it is sometimes hard for a Westerner to order them (more often than not, they are listed in Chinese or simply a given and not even put on the menu). I like looking at what my Chinese neighbors are eating and whenever I enquire with the person serving us about certain unknown vegetables, they don't even seem to have a translation for them. The answer is invariably "verdura verde cinese", or green Chinese vegetable.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Chocolate layered Kit Kat and M&M birthday cake

After these holidays my brain feels like it has been given a hard reset: blank. Totally devoid of any important or useful information to function. Empty.

When I was preparing my daughter's schoolbag the other night I couldn't remember what books to put in for Wednesday and whether she needed to wear a gym suit to school or not.
This feeling of vagueness continued as I prepared for the office and kept trying to remember what days I was supposed to meet with what people and on a more practical note, what I had to put in my bag for my dark, winter morning bike ride and day in the office (gloves, ear warmer, helmet.... uhm... bike light... something missing ... ah, my badge...).

But the worst was yesterday morning, when I realized on my way to work that I wasn't sure I remembered the code to get into the front gate (luckily it was broken and open) or my last password on my computer (lucky again, it had expired and the system asked me to put in a new one).

All this got me thinking. Is this what getting old feels like? Or does it mean that I truly managed to get away from it all during this break? I like to think it was the latter of course.

It was a good holiday, if not really relaxing, filled with breathtaking mountain scapes, fresh air and mountain sports (but not snow). I experienced skiing with both my kids together for the first time and it was a moment (truly a moment) of pure bliss that made all those years of ski school torture worthwhile.

Because you ski-school parents know what I mean, right?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Passata di zucca e funghi porcini - Cream of pumpkin and porcini mushrooms

Hi friends, forgive me for being away for so long. I will admit I was tempted several times to post a hurried recipe with bad photos taken on endless rainy days and not much of a story just to let you know I hadn't disappeared into thin air, but then I decided against it, because this is one of the few places in my life were I shouldn't feel like I have to clock in, right?

In between all the pre-holiday craziness and work and just life, I was lucky enough to hop over to NY for a long week end (without kids or husband - a first - but more on that some other time), which required a certain amount of planning ahead and some catching up after, but was totally worth it.

And so now I am finally back to give you the perfect autumn recipe right before winter comes knocking on the door. A recipe that my daughter, who strongly dislikes pumpkin (I know, what is that about???), specifically requested - so that is how good it is. I suggest that even you pumpkin haters out there (if there are any besides my offspring) try it.

If you love the umami of dried mushrooms and love warming soups, check out this recipe too.

1kg pumpkin
20gr dried porcini mushrooms
1l water or vegetable stock
1 onion or 2 scallions
1tbsp olive oil
1tbsp butter (optional for a vegan recipe)
grated Parmesan cheese (same as above)
pumpkin seed oil and thyme for garnish

Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl in hot water for at least half an hour before using. Peel and coarsely chop the onion or scallions (or both!).
In a heavy-based pot heat olive oil and butter and sautée the onions. While they are softening, clean and de-seed the pumpkin and cut into cubes. Add into the pot, cook for a few minutes and add the water/stock, the mushrooms and the liquid they soaked in. Cook until the pumkin is tender. Adjust for salt and pepper.
Purée the vegetables until creamy.
Serve with lots of grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper. I also drizzled over a little pumpkin seed oil and garnished with some thyme.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sea bass two ways: quenelle in fish fumet and roulade with seafood and shrimp bisque reduction

In my previous post I promised you two recipes we prepared during the the course at the cooking school Salotto del Gusto with Chef Maurizio Dall'Omo.
As impressive and fancy as they look, they were both quite simple and really let the main ingredient to shine through. They are perfect to serve at a dinner party: I promise your guests will think you slaved away in the kitchen all day.

It is hard to give you exact quantities as there were so many of us, but I would calculate one average sized Mediterranean sea bass per diner, if you are making both courses.

Sea bass quenelle in fish fumet

As a starter we made a sea bass quenelle in a fish fumet. The fumet was exceptional, so simple and essential, yet full of flavor... the true essence of the sea in a spoonful. The quenelle was extremely delicate in texture and taste and perfectly accentuated by the thyme.

Monday, October 27, 2014

About fish, freezers and more. Did you know...?

A few weeks ago a close friend drove a couple of hundred kms to attend a cooking course we had booked as a birthday present for each other for our 2013 birthdays, so a little over a year later. Considering we live far apart and three out of four of us have young children, we didn't do too bad!

The course was all about cooking fish and we really enjoyed it: not only was the chef sociable, interesting and experienced, there was also a good vibe during the lesson and I had a great time with my girls.

I personally am not scared to cook fish, I actually find it pretty straightforward, they key being to not
overcook it in my opinion. Also, I am not in the least squeamish when it comes things like innards and eyes. Truth be told, I am much more scared of getting egg whites to reach the perfect consistency.

We made two simple, yet very tasty recipes that I will tell you more about in my next post. What I really liked about the course, however, was the preamble.

If there are two things that do slightly intimidate me about cooking fish, knowing  how to buy a fresh, sustainable and healthy specimen is the first, closely followed by cleaning and filleting it. I usually cook fish whole.

The right way
Of course, I know that if I go to the renown fish monger downtown and pay four times more than average for wild Alaskan salmon for a special occasion, his fish will be fresh and top quality. But what about feeding my kids on a daily basis without spending more than I would at my favorite sushi place and still bringing a healthy, sustainable meal to the table?
Both my fears were addressed during the course: I learned how to fillet a seas bass, but given it looked like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre had taken place at my work station, I think I have to practice a lot more before trying to teach you how to do it. And, the chef gave us a lot of interesting and useful tips that I want to pass on to you. 

The wrong way: Texas Chainsaw Massacre style

He started from the more obvious things, like how to tell if the fish you are buying is fresh. As he spoke,  I realized that things that were a given to me, weren't for others and viceversa. I also learned some things that seem obvious once you know them, but that can be a real eye-opener when discovering them.

There is so much more to learn in the kitchen than just plain technique, and this learning process never ends. So I hope you too will find something useful in this post too.