March 26, 2009

In Italy, life is a runway


Prada, Versace, Gucci, Armani, Valentino, Bulgari, Zegna, Brioni, Cavalli, Ferragamo, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana. That Italians love fashion is not news. But is it true? Of course! Men and women, they both are utterly sexy and personal appearance is one of their major concerns.

Where does this Italian obsession come from? I don’t know, but I think it has always been like that. Just think of the intricate hairdos Italian women used during Roman times. I mean, they knew how to work it out! Ever since imperial times, in Italy there has been a fascination for personal opulence which translates into embracing a perfect sense of style. Fare bella figura, which means something like to give a good image of yourself, is the personal motto of most Italians. This includes how to behave, how to keep your reputation, and how to dress appropriately!

Related to the Italian love of fashion, the ultimate Italian social ritual is not a wedding, a baptism or a funeral, but la passeggiata. In every Italian city and in every Italian town, Italians love to dress up for their daily late-afternoon walk. The idea is to see and to be seen. Before dinner, you pick your best clothes and then go out. You greet your friends, you window shop, you sit around the Renaissance fountain on the main square of your town and talk endlessly by cell phone, you sit on a terrace of a restaurant and have a glass of wine with your friends, you check what everybody else is wearing and you show your new shoes (or your new love)!


But what’s the core of this fashionista way of life? The real Italian obsession is a passionate love of beauty! Just think of the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raffaello, Botticelli, Giotto, Vasari, Tiziano, Ghirlandaio... I can go on and on citing Italian artists whose works reflected their love of beauty... and please note how Botticelli made his Venus naked, but Flora is hurrying up to cover Venus with a gorgeous piece of Florentine fabric – almost an allegory of fashion!

Going to more recent times and beyond clothes, think of Italian design for cars, furniture and home goods. Not to mention the uncountable number of anonymous artists of ancient Rome who copied the work of anonymous sculptors and painters from Greece.


This is another dimension of the Italian character. In Italy, life is a big theater and appearance (again, fare bella figura) can be more important than the real thing. You can sacrifice other things, but you’ll never see an Italian with a suit that doesn’t fit; because if you’re Italian you’re concerned with how you present to your public, which is the rest of the world. So, you’re a poor Sicilian country boy? It doesn’t matter! During the passeggiata you have to look wealthy! In addition, Italians know they look good with their signature sunglasses… so, the sun is not shining? It doesn’t matter because you know you look fierce! Italians always make the joke that you can recognize your connazionali (other Italians) living in London, because they are always wearing their sunglasses, even with heavy rain – which in London is the normal day, you know.


I remember I was in Rome when Valentino decided to retire. He organized a big fashion show in the temple of the goddesses Rome and Venus (how Roman is that?). At the same time, and after many years of restorations, the Ara Pacis Augustæ was open to the public. The Ara Pacis is the big Altar of Augustan Peace built by the first Roman emperor Augustus, the very Caesar who took a Rome made of brick and turned it into marble (by covering the brick with marble… I told you that the important thing is appearance). The Ara Pacis celebrates the period known as Pax Romana or Roman Peace (however, you should ask the Parthians and the Goths what they thought about this Roman peace). Anyway, the Ara Pacis is a really nice thing to see by itself, not only because of the historical value but also because of the art involved. But if only in an Italian-themed flower show you can find shoes, only in Italy can you find a fashion exhibit in an almost 2,000 year old monument, the big opening of the Ara Pacis with a glamorous Valentino retrospective. I’m not complaining, because the setting was striking! The work of the most Roman fashion designer displayed in a grandeur that’s only possible in Rome. The mannequins looking like Vestal Virgins – the priestesses of the goddess Vesta in Ancient Rome – seemed to be ready for a sacrifice in the name of good taste, high fashion and style. Well, you know. In Italy, life is a runway.



Tips

If Augustus was the first emperor, Valentino is the last one to date. At least that’s what the new movie Valentino, the Last Emperor claims. The film features the last two years of Valentino’s career, including the big Roman finale I just told you about. It also tells you the story of his partner of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti.







I won’t be posting for a little while, because I’m going to northern England for a few days. But don’t worry, I’ll be wearing my sunglasses there!
Posted by Daziano at 8:05 PM | 13 comments  
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March 25, 2009

Happy cherimoya sorbet

This is not quite the cherimoya ice cream you can enjoy in Santiago while you walk around Plaza Italia (Italian Square). However, this is just as good… or even better!

Ingredients
2 cups freshly squeezed blood orange juice
2 cherimoyas
½ cup sugar
1 Tbsp of Chilean pisco, if you can find it.

In a saucepan over medium heat, dissolve ½ cup of sugar in 1 cup of blood orange juice. After two minutes, turn the heat off and let it cool. Add the rest of the blood orange juice and the cherimoya flesh. Puree the happy cherimoya mixture using an electric blender. If you want, add a touch of pisco, which is a South American grape brandy. Then pour the happy cherimoya puree into your ice cream machine and let the machine do its work.

Branching out
Bloody Happy Cherimoya



Posted by Daziano at 9:57 PM | 7 comments  
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March 24, 2009

Sugar time: I cupcakes italo-canadesi


When spring comes to Quebec, we have normal winter-like days, by international standards. There’s snow on the ground, but since the temperatures are mild (-10C/14F), there’s no suffering when you go trekking. It’s also le temps de sucres (sugar time!), i.e. the time of the year when you go visit the cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks). A cabane à sucre is a rustic place right in the woods where the maple sap is boiled to turn it into maple syrup. The maple sap flows when you have a continuum of above-freezing temperatures followed by below-freezing temperatures. That’s exactly what happens in Quebec from the beginning of spring until Easter. During sugaring season, a mature maple tree produces about 40 liters (10 gal) of sap, which when boiled down turns into only 1 liter (1 quart) of maple syrup!



Not just maple syrup can be found in a sugar shack. When you boil maple sap, first you get maple syrup, then maple butter (which is REALLY good), and then maple sugar. And between maple syrup and maple butter, maple sap gets the perfect sugaring point to make the most scrumptious treat you can make with maple (my humble opinion): tire d'érable or maple toffee. The hot liquid is poured directly onto snow, and the cold snow solidifies the maple sap and you get a soft maple candy! To lift the maple toffee you take a wooden stick and roll it to get the candy! It’s SO good!



Now, let’s go to my very own tribute to Quebec and its cuisine, my Italian Canadian cupcakes!




Ingredients

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt

3 eggs

1 stick of butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

⅓ cup maple syrup

⅓ cup blueberry jam

3 Tbsp milk


Glaze

1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 Tbsp blueberry syrup

1 Tbsp maple syrup


In a bowl, beat the butter with the sugar. Add the eggs one by one, beating continuously. Add the milk, the maple syrup and the blueberry jam. Stir to incorporate. In another bowl, mix the dry ingredients: flour, salt and baking powder. Little by little, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Stir to incorporate. Preheat the oven to 325F. Use some cooking spray on your muffin pan, and then scoop the batter into the pan. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes.
Prepare the glaze by adding the blueberry syrup and the maple syrup to the sugar. If the icing is too dry, add a little bit more syrup. If it’s too wet, add a little bit more the icing sugar. When the cupcakes are cool, coat them with the blueberry and maple glaze.

Tips

75% of the world production of maple syrup comes from Quebec, and that’s almost 85% of the Canadian production!
So what is Canada's share of world maple syrup production (algebra problem!!)?

I made my express blueberry jam with just a touch more water. This way, the jam turned a bit more liquid, so I was able to get some blueberry syrup from the liquid part of the jam.

Branching out
Blueberry jam
Blueberry gelato
Ricotta blueberry muffins

Crostata ai mirtilli
Frutti di bosco jam
Protein-rich blueberry sorbet
Lac Saint-Jean
Posted by Daziano at 9:46 PM | 19 comments  
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March 21, 2009

Trota alla griglia – quick and easy grilled trout


Trout is a much appreciated fish in northern Italy. In fact, trout is the most consumed freshwater fish in the north of Italy. And because trout prefers cool waters, it is mostly farmed in the Po Valley or Pianura Padana in Italian, which is the valley of the Po river, from Piemonte and the western Italian Alps to Veneto and Friuli right on the Adriatic shore. Trout is a fish closely related to salmon (salmon prefers salt water though). Actually, I prefer trout over salmon because I think it has more flavor. Although I do think that salmon is more versatile just because its flavor is more subtle. A perfect way to enjoy trout is by grilling it. You can grill the whole fish, or just trout fillets which are more convenient.

Ingredients
4 trout fillets
Parsley, roughly chopped
Dill, roughly chopped
1 big lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

Brush the trout fillets with olive oil. Add some salt and pepper and grill over medium heat, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Meanwhile, extract the juice of 1 lemon and mix it with the chopped herbs. Add about 1 Tbsp of olive oil and the minced garlic. When the fish is ready, serve it with the herbs and lemon juice mixture on top.

Tips
In Italian we call trota salmonata (salmon-like trout) the trout that have been nourished to get flesh that has a salmon pink color.

The trout that we usually eat was introduced to Italy from North America around 1880. Around the same time, trout was also introduced to the coolest parts of the southern hemisphere: New Zealand, some parts of Australia, southern Chile and southern Argentina. One of the best trout I’ve ever had was in the restaurant of the Chilean-German Club Zur Wassermühle in the Chilean Lake District.
Posted by Daziano at 8:53 PM | 12 comments  
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March 20, 2009

Guilt-free gnocchi alla bava


Snow on the ground: 1 meter/3.3 feet... Temperature: -8C/18F... welcome to spring in Quebec City! However, the good thing of the winter-like spring in this part of the world is that here you can still enjoy winter comfort food in spring time! Like my gnocchi alla bava. Gnocchi alla bava is a traditional recipe from Valle d’Aosta, one of my favorite regions in Italy. This recipe combines exquisitely fresh pasta, a very northern Italian thing, with fonduta or fondue, a very Alpine thing… and Valle d’Aosta is in northern Italy right in the Italian Alps! This is a very rich dish, I can’t think of something more ideal for après-ski! So, after spending your day skiing in, let’s say, Mont-Tremblant, prepare a good cup of hot chocolate and some gnocchi alla bava: it’s quick, it’s cheesy and it’s extremely comforting! And if you want to feel less guilty about it, do the same trick I did: use whole wheat gnocchi!

Ingredients
1 lb whole wheat potato gnocchi (storebought is fine)
7 oz Italian fontina cheese, diced
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp milk
4 Tbsp grana cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano)
1 garlic clove

Melt the butter in a saucepan, over medium heat. Add one garlic clove, peeled. Cook the gnocchi in salted boiling water, for about 2 minutes. Meanwhile, take the garlic clove out of the saucepan and add the cheese and the milk. Stir to gently incorporate the cheese with the melted butter. When the gnocchi are ready, they’ll be floating on top of the boiling water. Drain the gnocchi, and toss them over the cheese fonduta. Add some grated grana cheese, give a quick little stir, and your gnocchi alla bava will be ready! If you want, add some ground black pepper and some sage leaves.


Tips
You can also find gnocchi alla bava in Piemonte.

I’m not sure if you want to know what 'alla bava' means. Let's say gnocchi alla bava is Italian for mouthwatering gnocchi (ok, the real meaning is drooling gnocchi).

Actually this year spring was welcomed with snowfalls in southern Italy: Reggio Calabria, Molise, Puglia… all covered with snow! So, what’s the difference? There everything will melt by tomorrow, and then nice weather will be there to stay all summer long!


Branching out
Thick hot chocolate
Gnocchi à la cassonade
Posted by Daziano at 9:39 PM | 11 comments  
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March 18, 2009

Because only Italians take the shoe obsession to the next level


I didn’t notice the Italian obsession for shoes until one day I was watching Italian TV with some American friends around. It was a cooking show (la prova del cuoco), and when the host appeared the first thing was a close up of her shoes. To me, it seemed normal. Then another show started, this time a show about legal procedures, immigration and citizenship (Sportello Italia); then my friends, who don’t speak Italian so they didn’t care about what was being said, noticed that every 30 seconds the camera made a close up of the host’s shoes. That time I agreed it was a bit strange, albeit a very Italian thing.





SO Italian, and yet even I was surprised when I went to the Italian-themed 2009 Philadelphia Flower Show just some days ago. Not only magnificent flowers (amazing tulips by the way) but also shoes everywhere! OK, the shoes were made of and/or decorated with flowers or things you normally find in a garden… but everyone must agree with the fact that you can find shoes only in an Italian-themed flower show! In fact, the Milan setting was all about clothes, accessories, and shoes! It was FABULOUS!!! However, at first glance it wasn’t that obvious it was a display for a flower show. Alta moda was the name of the Milan theme, which means high fashion in Italian.





Of course, there was another recurrent subject in the show. Can you guess? Food and wine, of course!!! Fashion and food, arts and beauty… you just can’t get more Italian than this! So, every part of the show had some food-related arrangements. There was even a part fully dedicated to various gorgeous Italian tablescapes!






The Bella Italia 2009 Philadelphia flower show was really nice. Sometimes embracing some stereotypes, but that’s part of the show, right? Even so, the central theme, which was all about Rome, was a bit tacky. I liked the Roman gardens though. The Venice theme was spectacular, very baroque. It even had a gondola and a bridge over a Venetian canal. The lake region theme was incredibly pretty. The San Remo theme was glamorous and chic. In the Tuscany theme there was a tablescape with real salame and Italian cheese (I must confess I almost jumped into the exhibit to eat it)! But again, the Milan theme was just stunning.






Tips
They had olive oil tasting, wine tasting… you were able even to buy Italian furniture or a Vespa!
Oh, and Danny DeVito was there signing his Limoncello bottles for his Italian American fans from New Jersey.
Posted by Daziano at 9:00 PM | 18 comments  
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March 16, 2009

‘Bloody’ Happy Cherimoya or Anona Molto Felice anche se un po’ insanguinata


Have you ever seen this exotic fruit in your local grocery store? If you have, chances are that you don’t have any idea what to make of it. Cherimoyas aren’t very good for marketing; they just don’t look very appealing. But trust me; you don’t know what you have been missing! Cherimoyas have engaged some prominent spokesmen such as Thaddäus Haenke, a 19th century explorer, who called cherimoyas a ‘masterpiece of nature’. Even Mark Twain described cherimoyas as ‘deliciousness itself’ and ‘the most delicious fruit known to men’. And yet, cherimoyas remain as the Andean best kept secret. Cherimoyas originally come from Peru and Ecuador. People in those countries say that cherimoyas don’t like to touch the snow but they like to see the snow in the distance. That’s why this fruit adapts pretty well to Mediterranean climates with cool but temperate winters. I’m familiar with cherimoyas because in Chile, where I lived, cherimoyas are considered the national fruit. Everybody loves cherimoyas in Chile, and cherimoya is one of the most preferred flavors of Chilean yoghurt and ice cream! If cherimoyas like to see the snow in the distance, I can understand why they grow so happily in Chile. I’ve never seen a more impressive view of snow capped mountains in an urban environment than in Santiago. Just take a glance of the view of the mountains near my parents’ house there:


Cherimoyas have a green skin and white flesh. Usually, when the skin is brown it means that the fruit was frozen, with a terrible impact on quality (remember? Cherimoyas don’t like to touch the snow!... however, some cultivars do have a brown skin). The flesh is soft, creamy and extremely fragrant. The exquisite flavor of cherimoyas recalls pears, bananas, strawberries and pineapple. All over the inside of the fruit you’ll find big black seeds that you have to discard – they are really big. You can tell if the cherimoyas are ripe by touching them. Like an avocado, a ripe cherimoya will be soft and tender, but not too much. Then, smell the cherimoya: it has to have a very pleasant and fragrant aroma.

In Chile, there is a dessert called chirimoya alegre or happy cherimoya, which is cherimoya with freshly squeezed orange juice. The Peruvian version of chirimoya alegre has more ingredients, but I like the simplicity of Chilean cuisine, because simplicity is also an attribute of Italian cuisine. If you want to go totally exotic, then you can try a happy cherimoya with an Italian twist! Of course, I’m talking about blood oranges! A fruit that tastes like sweet orange, grapefruit and raspberry is the perfect match for a fruit that tastes like pear, banana, strawberry, and pineapple!





‘Bloody’ Happy Cherimoya or Anona Molto Felice

Ingredients
Cherimoya flesh
Freshly squeezed blood orange juice
Sugar to taste

Peel the cherimoyas and separate the flesh from the seeds. In doing so, you’ll have little pieces of cherimoya that you can put in a bowl. Squeeze the blood oranges and add the juice to the cherimoya. You want to cover the little pieces of cherimoya with juice. About 5 oranges are enough for 2 medium sized cherimoyas. Add some sugar if you want and put it in the fridge. Let it rest at least 20 minutes and serve cool.


Tips

In Italy, cherimoyas (anona in Italian) are grown in the Reggio Calabria area. However, they are considered an exotic and utterly expensive delicacy. In North America, cherimoyas are grown in California.
Posted by Daziano at 9:26 PM | 12 comments  
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March 12, 2009

Italian Brownie Muffins

Ingredients
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 cup olive oil
1 ½ cup sugar (up to 2 cups if you want it sweeter)
1 cup milk
1 tsp orange essence
2 large eggs
Orange zest
¼ cup coffee
1 cup cocoa
Pearl sugar
Pinch of salt

Mix the dry ingredients: flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a cup, mix the olive oil and cocoa. Add the wet ingredients – including the eggs and the cocoa mixture – to the dry ingredients. Mix until everything is incorporated. Preheat the oven to 350F. Use some cooking spray on your muffin pan, and then scoop the batter into the pan. Put some pearl sugar on top. Bake for about 25 minutes. Do you want to give your cupcakes a kick? Brush the bottom parts with some Grand Marnier mixed with a touch of sugar!
Posted by Daziano at 8:37 PM | 17 comments  
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March 10, 2009

A really quick salad… with Lima beans!

Ingredients
Mixed greens: mâche, radicchio and arugula
Lima beans, drained
Red onion, chopped
Italian parsley and basil, chopped

Just mix everything and serve! What about the dressing? Go for the quick Italian way: lots of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some salt and olive oil… and you’re all set!
Posted by Daziano at 9:40 PM | 7 comments  
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March 6, 2009

Hearty chiocciole with rapini fritti

Chiocciola is the cute word in Italian for snail. Nowadays you say ‘chiocciola’ in Italian a lot. Far more often than, let’s say, 15 years ago. I’m sure you are wondering why. I’ll give you an example of when we use ‘chiocciola’ in Italian, and then you will have a clue… even if you don’t speak Italian. If I say something like ‘daziano chiocciola mymail punto com’… does this tell you something? Well, we say chiocciola for @! Maybe this is the first time you actually realized that @ does look like a snail!!!

The other day I found some organic whole durum wheat chiocciole (a kind of large elbow macaroni, known as pipe rigate or lumache in Italy – lumaca is another word for snail). This chiocciole pasta is very flavorful with a perfect texture when cooked al dente and, of course, entirely wholesome! So, a perfect match for this hearty pasta is rapini fritti (sautéed broccoli rabe)!

Ingredients
1 lb chiocciole pasta
1 big bunch of broccoli rabe or rapini (or cime di rape)
1 garlic clove
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Pecorino toscano cheese

Wash the broccoli rabe and discard the stems. Then soak the broccoli rabe in salted water for about 1 hour. Drain the broccoli rabe and pat it dry. Chop the broccoli rabe and sauté it in a saucepan with olive oil. Add the garlic, some salt and pepper and continue sautéing for about 15 minutes over medium heat. Boil the pasta. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and toss the pasta over the sautéed broccoli rabe. Add a nice touch of olive oil and give a quick stir. Serve with grated pecorino toscano cheese!

Tips

Chiocciole is pronounced /ˈkjɔttʃole/ something like ‘key-aw + cho-lay’

The name I knew for this kind of pasta was lumache. Apparently, chiocciole is the name chosen for the North American market.

This is also an entry for the 2nd Annual "Festa Italiana" hosted by Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita and Marie of Proud Italian Cook! We expect you to come in large numbers!

Posted by Daziano at 10:43 AM | 17 comments  
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