Monday, February 27, 2012

Purple Potato Salad from the Sea

Insalata di Patate e Calamari was a dish discovered years ago. A light potato salad with baby squid and a black olive tapenade spread mixed into the dressing. The flavours were out of this world. It wasn't very pleasing to the eye, however, as the tapenade tinged the potatoes grey. Enter the purple potato. These babies do loose a bit of vibrancy when boiled, but when spritzed with the lemon afterwards, bounce right back to a startling violet hue. Perfect for salads.

I remember reading Rome-blogger Apron and Sneaker's post about her hunt for violet potatoes, and so when I stumbled upon them at a local market, I quickly nabbed a few packages. I new they were prime for salads. The memories of the calamari salad I'd made years ago had left quite the impression. It's the heavy dose of tapenade in the dressing that makes it stand out among potato salads. Zingy lemon and a bright black olive spread tie the potatoes and seafood together just so well.

I've used strictly calamari in the past, but this time went for a calamari-based seafood mix I'd picked up. The seafood is brought to life in a quick aromatic boil of wine and herbs, then cooled to be mixed with the potatoes. Not at all overly fishy for a salad, and would serve well as a light lunch or side to a grilled meaty main.

Next time violet potatoes present themselves, I'm trying Apron and Sneaker's salad with tomatoes, pancetta, and blue cheese. But for now, while biding my time for proper fresh tomatoes, this bright salad from the sea is just what the mid-winter blahs needs.

Continue to Recipe...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Poaching - Round 2 {Eggs Florantine}

Sauces can be daunting. Lately, Hollandaise has been taunting. Every so often, when eating my eggs, I can hear the soft and silky voice of Hollandaise, "C'mon, why didn't you make me? You know you wanted to. Oh, that's right. You can't." And there it is. Being taunted by a sauce that doesn't exist on my breakfast plate while nibbling a dry corner of toast is not the best start to a morning.

Making a bad sauce is worse than no sauce at all. In my book, anyways. Sure, it's a bit strict, but just having moved from the Czech Republic where over half the national dishes were covered in a sauce, I've learned that a bad one, once used, makes for a hungry diner. 

Hollandaise is one of the classic sauces I've been warned about. The hot butter can do a number on the egg yolk if not added slowly enough. But as vinegar pulled me out of my poaching paralysis, it came to the rescue here as well. Vinegar stabilizes eggs. I'd learned to add some to the egg-poaching water, and saw great success (past poaching post here, video tutorial here). So when I read something about a vinegar reduction sauce being used in Hollandaise, well, the light went on. 

I've kept my version light and simple, to make it as DIY-at-home as possible. Sure, there are more refined Hollandaise sauces out there, but this one (with a smidge of nutmeg added in) easily did the trick and allowed me to transform my usual egg and spinach frittata into a beautiful Eggs Florantine. A twist on the old Eggs Benedict, a good dose of bone-strengthening vitamin K found in spinach replaces the traditional fatty ham slice. 

The relative healthiness of this egg dish does not make it any less than it's Benedict original. In fact, I prefer this one, not only because of that smug feeling one gets after eating heaps of spinach before even cracking open a newspaper (or firing up the computer), but because it just tastes that good. The Parmesan, or sometimes a firm Pecorino, resounds perfectly with the sauteed spinach. And the hint of lemon in the hollandaise makes it bright enough to be the perfect breakfast accomplice. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mandarin Cake with Amaretto Crumble

"..and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.." Suzanne, Leonard Cohen.

Some weekends deliver that perfect setting of quietude usually found only early in the mornings. And when that introspective peacefulness can stretch over the course of the weekend, well, when it can do that, it is something to be savoured.

It can happen on a particularly grey and rainy weekend, or when one feels a cold coming on and they've been admonished by colleagues to stay tucked in bed until Monday. And it can happen especially when seeing a very close friend with whom silence is just as pleasant as anything else that can fill a room.

When that kind of weekend wraps itself around you, it's nice to have cake. Not luxurious eye-poppingly decorated cake meant for guests. But cake meant for tea. Simple cake that can be had with a quick rummage through the kitchen. A bowl full of mandarins and a half package of amaretti cookies inspired this light and brightly flavoured afternoon treat.

A good amount of milk is used, and it almost has a sponge-cake-like feel. So light. So bright. Perfect for whiling away the afternoon sipping black tea in white tea cups, discussing with a like-minded soul on who gave most life to the song Suzanne: Leonard Cohen's original or Nina Simone's version. I'm a Cohen girl myself, but can't deny that Nina brought an extra something to it.

Whatever the topic lazily discussed, this cake makes for a good weekend nibble.

Continue to Recipe...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vanilla-Poached Fig, Cherry & Pistachio Parfaits

The final two heart-healthy ingredients - pistachios and cherries - make for the perfect figgy dessert pairing. Greek yogurt, honey, and vanilla bean are all that's needed to prepare four super-sized, creamy parfaits.

Pistachios make for such a nice flavour with the figs, but for the next morning, the poached fig mix easily goes into breakfast mode with some muesli and walnuts stirred in with the yogurt. Either way, dessert or brekkie, it will put a smile on your heart.

The heart-loving menu:
Dessert: Vanilla-Poached Fig, Cherry & Pistachio Parfaits

Continue to Recipe...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Muesli-Pancakes with Honeyed Berries

Orange juice on Corn Flakes? Grape juice and Fruit Loops? Or chocolate milk with your Chocolate Krispies? These were some of the 'creative' breakfast adventures had by my sister and I while growing up. Sitting at the table in the morning, reading the backs of the three or four cereal boxes in front of us could get boring after awhile. Assorted sugary beverages as milk replacement was our answer to jazz up the morning.

Now, I (hopefully) have developed better strategies for breakfast boredom. This one still plays with cereal a bit, but rather than adding something to the cereal, it adds cereal to the something. And that something is pancakes. Not just any pancakes, but the pancakes promised as part of this weeks heart-healthy menu. Nutty, whole-grain, buttermilk pancakes with heart-healthy flax, cinnamon, walnuts, and topped with honeyed berries. If that sounds too healthy for a sweet Saturday morning brekkie, put any reservations aside. They were soft in the middle, crispy around the edges, and plenty sweet throughout.

The original recipe called for oats to be soaked in buttermilk. And I had wanted to add walnuts to it for a bit of body. Well, oats were nowhere to be found in the three Italian supermarkets and one health shop visited this week. Do they not exist in Italy? No matter. Muesli to the rescue. It's mostly oats and nuts, exactly what I wanted. Add in a small pinch of freshly ground cinnamon and nutmeg to round out the flavours. Toothsome, wholesome...and some other ----some adjective. A great way to kick off the weekend.

Since maple syrup is not exactly abundant in this area either, a syrup of berries simmered in honey does the trick, and really complements the texture of the starring flapjacks

The heart-loving menu:
Brekkie: Muesli-Pancakes with Honeyed Berries

Continue to Recipe...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Heart Healthy Fish {with Orange-Avocado Salsa}

Second in line in the Valentine's week of heart-healthy meals is a quick and easy dinner of pan-fried fish with a citrus salsa. It all went from pan to plate within 30 minutes. Because that's how eating healthy should be - manageable.

I am of the persuasion that most standard fish varieties taste great with a citrus salsa. Most recipes in this vein call for mahi-mahi. And while its sweetness certainly makes a good match, in my kitchen, this salsa has even graced the top of some cod. Snapper or bass I imagine would fit well, and even tuna would round out the flavours plus give all those tuna-y health benefits.

Whichever fish you chose, this is great in the winter using blood oranges if you luck out on finding a good avocado. Happy avocado hunting!

The heart-loving menu:

Dinner: Pan-fried Fish with Blood Orange and Avocado Salsa

Continue to Recipe...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romance in Rome?

Rome. Roma. Romance.

Place is often labeled as being romantic. Or not. There are lists every year of the most romantic cities. They are predictable for the most part. Major European cities, plus San Fransisco and/or New York, usually grace such lists. But what makes a city romantic?

Last year on Valentine's day, a great article by Kaid Benfield at the NRDC identified common elements found in the top four romantic cities - Rome, Paris, Venice, and Prague.

What are some of the features they have in common?

A connection to the past through strong historical preservation,

walkable centres,  


well-developed public transport,

public spaces designed to actually serve social interaction,  

green spaces,
strong community in neighborhoods,


This year, journalists have upped the ante - screw romance, we want sex. Huffpost tried to make a case for Detroit's sexiness by laying out sexy city parameters. So what are they?

Energetic vitality, density (the bumping elbows, or other parts, with strangers type of density), wide range of choice, anonymity, and of course, beauty.

So Rome, how does it stack up? Sex or Romance?

Before answering, let's talk about Prague. Also a so-called romantic city. When meeting Roman locals and mentioning I recently moved down from the Czech Republic, there is a common reaction of a head-nod, and a murmured, "Ah, yes, Prague. Such a romantic city." At first, this threw me a bit, as Prague certainly has a romantic vibe, but still many people abroad often complain of the time they were ripped off in a taxi, or the authentic reenactment of socialism they got at the supermarket with the clerks. But the Romans, for the most part, focus on the romance.

The reason? By comparison, Prague has got the romance covered, and Rome the sex.

Rome is a sexy, sexy city. Perfect for sexing. It's hot most of the year, crowded, energetic, and breathtaking. Even the food is sexy. Light small portions sprinkled throughout the day leave one prepped for a good romp at any moment.

I suspect the locals know it. They know romance is in the back seat. That's why I get this "Ah, Prague, very romantic" comment at every introduction.

The thing that makes Rome the sexiest, is that it covers it up well with a romantic veneer. Every woman is called beautiful by a handful of men she comes into contact with daily, whether it be the young lads working reception at work, or the man tending the coffee bar. Roses are regularly spotted on the windshields of cars. And heart confetti adorned the pavement along the river one a cold January day.

By all appearances, romance exists in Rome in abundance. Don't be fooled. It simply covers up a much more primal dynamic effectively well.

Enjoy it, sway along with it, learn from it, mimic it, just don't fall for the romance of Roma. When you find yourself starting to fall (and despite warnings, you will), think of Cupid - from the Latin cupido, or desire. Remember, Cupid's arrows were sharp.

Happy Valentine's day from sexy-pants Rome!
- Jo

Monday, February 13, 2012

Love a Heart with (Healthy) Food

Heart Healthy Foods 
(from MedHelp)

Whole Grains


Olive oil


Tea (3-6 cups of black/green)
Coffee (2-4 cups)
Red Wine (1-2 glasses)

One can hate it, or embrace it, but it is near impossible to simply ignore Valentine's day.

Living abroad, I find myself having to defend Valentine's day year after year. Not that I want to, or even that I feel as a good American expatriate that I necessarily have to. It just ends up that way.

Comments on the holiday from my past Czech students were overwhelming focused on the forced emotional element. We'll see about the reactions tomorrow among my new Italian students. Differences?

A large part of the negative image I believe stems from all the usual side effects of an exported holiday. Other cultures see the overpriced junk in the shops, and the nauseatingly clichéd displays of overdone emotion on the sitcoms. They are missing the perspective of holiday nostalgia, meaning, the image of a holiday we have as experienced as a child, and formulated though the lens of nostalgia.

I always attempt to explain that it's not just forced emotion between two young lovers. In fact, I remember it best as a family holiday. The ones with the kids get all the fun with it. Heart-shaped anything sweet is enjoyed immensely. Wearing red, pink, and white to school was something silly my sister and I looked forward to (as well as sporting our new hearted V-day socks and toting an array of garishly designed sparkly pencils to school.)

Valentine's day, to me, is simply a day to think about anyone in your heart. Near or far. And when someone is in your heart, you want to take care of them. Whether that means baking yummy confections with sprinkles, or looking after their health. This week, in honour of Valentines day, I've dug up one of those lists of heart-healthy foods and created a full days menu using every single food on that list. As a foodie afar, it's  the best I can do to love the heart of someone dear - my dad. Like many American seniors (note: he does not object to this title, rather loves it for the prime parking spots it acquires) he has been told to stick to a heart-healthy diet by his doctor. Growing up at the table of his mom n pop's greasy spoon diner, he has somehow not yet satisfied his desire for hamburgers and all things that would make a modern nutritionist shudder.

This menu is for my dad. I think he would like it. It's not too exotic, and its a full day using every food he is supposed to be eating. It's from one heart to another. Happy Birthday dad!

The heart-loving menu:
Lunch: Black Bean Chili with Swiss Chard 

More heart-loving menu recipes in the coming days. 

Black Bean Chili with Swiss Chard
Serves 4
Time 50 minutes (plus bean soaking time)
Eat with Rioja

250g dried black beans (1 1/2 cups) (or 2-3 cans worth)
olive oil
2 shallots
2 cloves garlic
2 - 3 large red bell peppers
2 Tb chili powder
1 Tb cumin
1 Tb smoked Spanish paprika
1 can stewed tomatoes
2 1/4 cups (500ml) vegetable broth
1 tsp salt (optional)
1 medium bunch (3 packed cups, chopped) Swiss chard - leaves only

garnish: chopped avocado and/or Manchego (or other sheep's milk cheese, like Pecorino)

1) Soak the beans either overnight, or quickly (cover well with water, bring to boil, turn off heat and let soak for an hour...more or less depending on the size of your beans.)

2) In a large pot, heat the olive oil on low and gently cook the chopped shallots. After 5 minutes, add in the garlic and cook on low for another 2 minutes. 

3) Chop the bell pepper into bite-sized bits, add into the pot and stir the chili powder, cumin, and paprika into the mix. After a minute, when the spices are fragrant, add in the pre-soaked beans (but without their soaking water of course), tomatoes, vegetable broth, and optional salt. Bring to boil, reduce to a simmer and leave it there with a lid on for about 20 minutes.

4) Add in the chopped chard leaves and cook another 5-10 minutes, until they are softened considerably. 

Serve with cheese or avocado atop.

- Jo

Friday, February 10, 2012

Three Ways to Truffle Your Chocolate

It's good. It's bad. It's in, and then it's out. Leading up to Valentine's Day, it's always in. Chocolate.

Prevents heart disease, lowers blood pressure, minimizes risks to cancer, and maybe even turns us on. Chocolate.

Films have been made. Books have immortalized it. Blogs are founded on the stuff. Histories have been charted. Wedding fountains spout gallons of it. Chocolate.

Flavenoids. Antioxidants. Caffeine.

Dark. Milk. White.

Have wars been started over it? Here's hoping a history buff is reading and can attest to that.

It snowed in Rome last weekend. And the city shut down. Paralizzato was the word heard for days. I tucked myself away and played with chocolate.

Returning from Castroni, which is Rome's premier cloud nine for all foodies, I had a good-quality half kilo bar of 60% chocolate. By the time the snow hit, I was scanning the kitchen for assorted bits to roll up into truffles.

Three ways were found:

Marsala-Prune-Honey, the sweetest version.
Olive Oil and Orange, my personal favourite, as a small love exists in me for olive oil + chocolate.
Vanilla Black Tea, super creamy, balanced in sweetness, and covered in toasted almond bits.

All were delectable.

Truffles are best to be made the night before, and set in the fridge to firm up before rolling out the next morning. Or just put in the freezer for an hour. However you decide, they are fairly easy, and as long as you've got the double boiler lined with melted chocolate, you may as well make a variety of flavours.

The three recipes here were made with a 60% cocoa content chocolate (seems to be standard percent for truffles) totalling 450 grams. I am not sure where that other 50 grams ran off to. I've heard this is a common problem when making truffles...disappearing chocolate.

Three Ways to Truffle Your Chocolate
Makes 40-48 truffles
Eat with Port or other dessert/sparkling wine
Time 2-3 hours active time (plus chill)

General truffle making instructions:
Melt: In a double-boiler (or small pot in a bigger pot with an inch or two of boiling water) melt the chocolate and other ingredients. Line a shallow dish with wax paper and pour the melted mix into that. 

Chill: Place in the fridge overnight or freezer for one hour. Truffles made with cream are harder to roll out and should be chilled longer than those made without.

Roll: Place the cocoa powder on a plate and cover your palms with cocoa powder as well to prevent sticking. Using two small spoons, mush together a ball from the chilled chocolate. Then using your hands, cover in cocoa powder and roll between palms/on plate to smooth out. Place on another plate covered in wax paper.

They keep in the fridge for up to a week, or the freezer for a month.

Recipe: Marsala-Prune-Honey Truffles
Adapted from Apron and Sneakers
Makes 13-15

1/4 cup Marsala
2 Tb chopped prunes (or sub any dried fruit...raisins, cherries, etc.)
160g chocolate, finely chopped
1 Tb honey
1 Tb butter

cocoa powder

1) Put the prune bits in a small dish and cover with the Marsala. Let sit for at least 30 minutes. Strain out the Marsala into a separate cup and top up to make sure it's 1/4 cups worth.

2) In a double-boiler, heat the butter, honey, and Marsala. Add in the chocolate bits and melt until smooth. Stir in the prunes.

3) Chill and roll out in cocoa powder. 

Recipe: Olive Oil and Orange Truffles
Adapted from Edible Paradise
Makes 10-12

120g chocolate, finely chopped
2 1/2 Tb butter
4 Tb best quality extra virgin olive oil
pinch of sea salt

1/8 cup cocoa powder and zest of half an orange
Maldon sea salt flakes

1)  In a double-boiler, melt chocolate, butter, olive, and tiny pinch of salt until smooth.

2) Chill and roll out in cocoa powder mixed with orange zest. Press a flake of Maldon sea salt onto each.

Recipe: Vanilla Black Tea Truffles
Adapted from Gourmet, Dec 2002
Makes 17-20

2/3 cup cream
2 Tb butter
2 heaping tsp loose black tea leaves (vanilla flavoured or otherwise)
170g chocolate, finely chopped

1/3 cup cocoa powder and 1/4 cup minced, toasted almonds

1) In the double boiler, heat the cream and butter until just before boiling. Add the tea leaves and steep 5-8 minutes. Either add the tea leaves into the cream contained in a tea ball (then steep at least 8 minutes), or strain cream into a small dish to get rid of the tea leaves. 

2) Add the cream back into the pot, and stir in the chocolate until smooth and melted.

3) Chill, and roll out into cocoa powder mixed with the toasted chopped almonds. Press the almonds firmly into the truffle so they have staying power.

- Jo

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mushroom Risotto on Repeat

There are few dishes I make repeatedly. Sure, I detest boredom of the palette as much as the next foodie, and a shortened attention span runs in my American eighties-baby blood. When something does get repeat play, it is guaranteed to be simple, relatively quick, and full of basic ingredients found in a mid-week kitchen.

Chicken fajitas is one such recipe that's been in the rotation for years. Another is a fennel-orange salad - as a side or a quick brekkie, it's been hitting the spot for quite some time. And ever since I convinced a cute Sicilian to teach me a local dish, a saffrony pasta with sardines has been my cupboard staple favourite. And in the colder months of the year, butternut squash with curried lentils can be found in my bowl.

I realized I've made mushroom risotto a total of three just as many weeks. I had to share.

A good-quality mix of frozen mushrooms makes this all too easy to start a pot going at a moments notice. Having a bottle of Marsala in the kitchen is invaluable, and it really rocks a risotto.

The recipe is fairly flexible allowing for substitutions. Focus on the best quality of everything, a slow stirring of the pot, and a creamy (but still firm) plate of fragrant shroomy rice is sure to develop.

Recipe: Mushroom Risotto
Adapted from "Cook with Jamie"
Serves 3-4
Time 1 hour
Eat with Pinot Noir

1 Tb olive oil
handful of cubed pancetta OR 1 Tb butter
1/2 onion, minced
1 shallot, minced
stalks of 1 fennel (or 2 stalks celery)
1 1/3 cup (300g) arborio rice 
1/2 cup Marsala
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp dried thyme
3 large handfuls mixed mushrooms
3 1/2 cups (850ml) vegetable/chicken broth
1 large handful flat-leaf parsley
juice of 1/2 lemon
ground pepper
good extra virgin olive oil
freshly grated Parmesan

1) Heat up the broth and keep on low.

2) Heat the oil and pancetta (or butter) in a large pot on low heat. Slowly cook the minced onion, shallot, and fennel. After 10 mins, when onions are nearly clear, stir in the rice to coat with oil. Splash in the Marsala and let it steam up for a moment. Add the garlic, thyme, and mushrooms. Stir until liquids have been absorbed.

3) Now, find a glass of wine to sip, and a friend to chat with, so you can slowly stir in the broth one ladle at a time. It should take a good 30 plus minutes. After every ladle (or half-cup) stir until the liquid is absorbed, and then add a bit more.

4) When creamy, try the rice, it should still have it's shape and texture, but not be crunchy and undercooked. If it tastes good to you, it's done. Stir in the parsley, lemon juice, and pepper (more salt if needed).

5) Serve with a splash of olive oil and a good pile of Parmesan.

- Jo

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...