Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a pan over medium heat and lightly fry the couscous until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Add a cup of cold water to the pan and stir. Once all of the water has been absorbed, add more water, ½ cup at a time, until the couscous is cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Cut the ends off the cucumber and halve lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds of each half with a spoon. Peel the skin off of one half and cut each halves into ¼-inch pieces. Cube the feta cheese into ¼-inch pieces as well.
Remove the mint leaves from the stalks and tear them into small pieces. Add the mint, feta, and cucumber to the couscous. Add 3 tablespoons of mandarin olive oil, season with salt and pepper, toss, and serve chilled.
Olive oil and candied bergamot syrup cake
I often find it odd that Earl Grey is an almost ubiquitous beverage, whose tell-tale floral perfume scents teacups the world over, and yet its key ingredient, the bergamot, is a rare specimen whose glowing presence amidst the jumbled crates of a farmers market stall is guaranteed to send serious food-lovers into paroxysms of excitement (and, subsequently, to lead to heightened activity on Instagram as we first show off our esoteric citrus haul and, not long after, start crowdsourcing suggestions on what on earth to do with this highly underrated and underused knobbly lemon thing). Earl Grey is available in myriad forms, from high-class zesty loose leaves for infusing in china teapots to the tannic dust likely to fill your cup in a greasy spoon café or on an aeroplane meal tray. That the actual source of these plentiful, cosmopolitan cuppas remains elusive is one of the strange realities of our modern food supply system.
Fresh young things
Spring rains and the warming earth have at last brought forth a lovely April crop of vegetables, giving us a whole new spectrum of flavors for cooking.
It's time to set aside those hearty winter stews full of big rutabagas, parsnips, and turnips that simmer slowly on the back of the stove, or roast at low temperatures in the oven. Spring's vegetables are so sweet and tender they are meant to be eaten raw, blanched, or barely cooked.
In France, these highly valued vegetables are called "les primeurs" - the early vegetables - and each year people look forward to the special dishes that can only be made properly in spring, with spring vegetables. Carrots are given a delicate glaze, shelling peas are briefly cooked with lettuce, and asparagus appears with aioli and in scrambled eggs, always just barely cooked.
It is a moment to seize and savor, because spring's vegetables are fleeting. As time goes by, sweet delicate peas and favas become starchy and hard, green garlic and green shallots develop into mature bulbs, and asparagus begins to grow into ferns and bloom.
Artichokes in all sizes are tender in spring, their furry chokes still undeveloped. The green leaves of young roots, freshly pulled, are still bright and tender, and are so different than the large turnips and carrots that come out of storage, their green tops long gone.
I've been watching my garden carefully and am reaping the rewards, picking favas and cutting asparagus everyday.
My artichokes were hit hard by voles, little mouse-like creatures that chew through the roots, but they didn't get everything. I'm harvesting the big heads that rise from the center of the plants, and deep between the leaves I can see artichoke "buttons," the leaf-axil buds. These are the ones that I'll pick when they are just the size of a golf ball, using them in braises with the favas.
The garlic and shallots and onions are forming bulbs, just right for pulling and grilling. Some of the leeks are still thin, while others are already thickening, and the winter-planted carrots are just barely baby-size.
Even if you don't have a garden, you can find the season's new crops at farmers' markets and well-stocked supermarkets. Look carefully, choose the freshest you can find, and savor the season.
Recipes & more ideas for spring vegetables on Page E4
Simple ideas for spring vegetables
Green Garlic & Fresh Ricotta Spread. Mix fresh ricotta with minced green garlic, salt and pepper.
Radishes with Sea Salt & Butter. Choose small, young radishes. Clip the root end, but leave several of the green leaves intact. Serve with coarse sea salt, butter and bread.
Favas in the Pod. Choose pods with small, young beans. Serve the pods whole, along with coarse sea salt and butter, letting your guests shell their own beans. Provide a dish for the discarded pods.
Fresh Pea Soup. Cook fresh shelled peas or shelled, skinned favas in chicken or vegetable broth until tender. Purée, add salt, pepper and reheat. Stir in crème fraîche and garnish with fresh mint, chervil, parsley or thyme blossoms. Also works with fava beans.
Carrot Salad. Grate carrots on the fine hole of a grater and toss with red wine vinegar, a little extra-virgin olive oil, optional salt and pepper
Young Carrots with Mustard Glaze. Cook carrots (leave some of the young green leaves intact) in broth until tender. Drain and add butter, a little sugar and Dijon mustard. Cook, turning often, until a glaze forms.
Grilled Baby Turnips. Cut baby turnips in half lengthwise, leaving some of the green leaves attached. Toss in extra-virgin olive oil with a little salt and grill just until lightly golden. Serve with aïoli or plain mayonnaise.
Leeks in Vinaigrette. Choose pencil-size leeks, then blanch or steam until tender. When warm, dress with a vinaigrette of extra-virgin olive oil and red wine. Serve warm or at room temperature topped with finely chopped, oil-cured black olives or minced, hard-cooked egg.
Oven-Roasted Spring Vegetable Medley. Choose a selection of tender young vegetables, cut in half or on the diagonal, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs and roast at 400ºF, turning often, until tender and lightly golden.
Pork Tenderloin with Favas & Goat Cheese Pan Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
The pan juices are blended with a little chicken broth and goat cheese to make a pan sauce that compliments the delicate flavor of the fava beans. Once the favas are shelled and peeled, this is a quick and simple-to-make dish. It goes well with rice, fresh pasta or new potatoes.
- 2 pork tenderloins, each about 3/4 pound
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 3 to 4 ounces soft goat cheese
- 2 pounds young fava beans, shelled and skinned (see Note)
Instructions: Trim the pork loins of any silver skin and extra fat, or ask your butcher to do it. Preheat an oven to 400°. Season the tenderloins with the salt and pepper.
In an ovenproof frying pan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. When the butter is foaming, add the tenderloins and sear them until browned, about 3 minutes. Turn and sear the other side another 3 minutes. Place the skillet in the oven and cook the tenderloins until only a hint of pink remains, 12 to 15 minutes.
Return the frying pan to the stovetop. Remove the meat to a platter and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Be sure to use an oven mitt in while preparing the sauce - that frying pan handle is hot! Over medium-high heat, add the chicken broth, stirring to scrape up any clinging bits. Reduce the heat to low, and stir in the goat cheese until a sauce forms, 2 to 3 minutes, then stir in the favas, cooking just to ensure the favas are tender, about 2 minutes.
Cut the tenderloins into 1/2-inch thick pieces and arrange them on a platter. Pour the sauce over them and serve immediately.
Note: Be sure to choose young, small fava beans that are so tender they can almost be eaten raw. The larger, more mature ones are not suitable for this preparation.
Per serving: 300 calories, 36 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat (3 g saturated), 71 mg cholesterol, 483 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
Wine pairing: The sauce's goat cheese gives it a little tart kick but not enough to interfere with most wines, and young, delicate favas add some vegetable sweetness. An unoaked or gently-oaked Chardonnay will work. Add a moderately light, soft, fruity red like Barbera or Dolcetto to the table for red wine lovers.
Oven-Roasted Asparagus with Mandarin Aïoli
Serves 6 to 8 makes about 2/3 cup aïoli
Roasting gives the asparagus an added bit of flavor, but they could be served steamed as well. If Mandarin-infused olive oil is not available, try another high-quality citrus-infused olive oil. The Mandarin oil is unusual in that it has a hint of sweetness.
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds asparagus, trimmed of tough ends
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- -- Finely ground sea salt to taste + 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper + white pepper if needed
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup Mandarin olive oil
Instructions: Preheat the oven to 400°.
Put the asparagus in a shallow baking dish and add the olive oil, fine sea salt and pepper. Turn to coat well. Roast, turning once or twice, until the asparagus tips are lightly golden and the color has darkened, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and set aside.
To make the aïoli, in a mortar and pestle, crush the coarse salt and garlic clove together to make a paste. Transfer to the bowl of a standing mixer and add the egg yolks, beating on high. When thickened, very slowly drizzle in the oil. When it begins to thicken, and to become slightly stiff, the oil can be added in a small, but steady, stream. When stiff, remove to a bowl and adjust seasonings with salt and white pepper, if desired.
Per serving: 177 calories, 3 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 17 g fat (3 g saturated), 53 mg cholesterol, 291 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Wine pairing: On its own, asparagus can be tricky to pair with wine. Adding aioli eases the match toward light- to medium-bodied whites with good but not over-the-top acidity. Consider varietals like Torrontes, a soft Sauvignon Blanc, as well as white blends. Try the crisp 2007 Sauvion Loire Valley Muscadet Sevre et Maine ($9 ) with its melon, pomelo and white grapefruit character.
Spring Vegetable Salad with Couscous
You can mix and match the vegetables, according to your taste and what looks best at the market. Be sure to taste the finished salad and adjust for salt, pepper and lemon juice as desired.
- 1 cup couscous
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt + more to taste
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice + more taste
- 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper + more to taste
- 1/2 pound fresh English peas, shelled, to make 1/2 cup, blanched 1-2 minutes and shocked in cold water or left raw if very fresh
- 1 to 2 spring onions, red or white, thinly sliced, to make 1/2 cup
- 1/4 pound sugar snap peas, cut into 2 or 3 pieces (left raw)
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced radishes (about 2 radishes) + 4 radishes, halved lengthwise, a few green leaves left intact
- 1/2 cup finely diced cucumber
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 1 head Little Gem lettuce, cut into chiffonade, or substitute heart of romaine, to make about 1 1/2 cups
Instructions: In large bowl, combine the couscous, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the boiling water. Stir to blend. Cover and let stand until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Uncover the couscous and let cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper to make a vinaigrette. Set aside.
Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette over the couscous and gently turn with a fork or your fingers, separating and coating the grains. Fold in the peas, spring onions, sugar snap peas, sliced radishes, cucumber and the parsley. Taste for salt, pepper, and lemon and adjust seasoning if needed.
Spread the couscous mixture on a platter. In a bowl, toss the lettuce with the remaining vinaigrette, then scatter it over the couscous mixture. Garnish with the halved radishes and serve immediately.
Per serving: 205 calories, 6 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (1 g saturated), 0 cholesterol, 276 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Wine pairing: While the melange of vegetables chosen comes into play when choosing a wine, the couscous and lemon juice are constants, making it wine-friendly. A Sauvignon Blanc is usually a plus when simply prepared green vegetables come into play, though most moderately zippy whites would work well.
Spring Peas with Mint & Braised Chicken Thighs
This is a version of fresh peas cooked in lettuce from Philippe Gandiol, a French friend of mine. During cooking the lettuce virtually disappears, providing moisture as well as a hint of flavor. The chicken is cooked separately, and then served with the peas
- The chicken
- 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- The peas
- 2 pounds fresh English peas in the pod
- 1/2 head romaine lettuce
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons minced shallots
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- -- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup finely chopped mint leaves
For the chicken: Trim the thighs of excess skin. Spread the flour on a plate or a sheet of plastic wrap and dredge the thighs well. Sprinkle on both sides with the salt, pepper and thyme. In a frying pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil and butter until the butter foams. Add the thighs, uncrowded, and cook until golden, about 7 minutes. Turn and cook the other side until golden, about 7 minutes. If necessary, do this in two batches. Add the wine, scraping up any clinging bits. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender and cooked through, about 30 minutes more.
For the peas: Shell the peas. You should have about 3 cups. Roll the lettuce leaves and cut them crosswise into very thin strips.
Once the chicken is ready, set it aside and keep warm while you finish the peas.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and saute until translucent, about 1 minute. Add the peas, lettuce and chicken broth, and cover. Cook until the peas are tender to the bite and the lettuce has melted into the peas, about 5 minutes, depending upon the age of the peas. Starchy, more mature peas will take longer. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired, and stir in the mint. Using a slotted spoon, remove the peas to a warm serving platter with the chicken. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 464 calories, 35 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 22 g fat (7 g saturated), 115 mg cholesterol, 765 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.
Wine pairing: Moist, well-seasoned chicken is one of the most versatile foods to pair with white wine. Adding spring peas and mint lightens the dish, so a fresh, light- to medium-bodied white wine will complement but not overwhelm as a red might. Italian whites like Arneis, Pinot Bianco and Tocai Friulano are excellent choices.
Uniq Citrus and Cucumber Salad
Have you ever heard the term “so ugly, it’s cute”? Typically this refers to animals and babies, not to food. And it shouldn’t. Actually I’ve never seen anything so ugly that it became cute. Cats with no hair…ugly! Smashed up face dogs with ubers of wrinkles…ugly. Your newborn baby…sorry moms…ugly (but not forever of course). Croc shoes…ugly! But oh so comfortable. Just because something is ugly doesn’t mean that it’s not likable, lovable or delicious for that matter.
I finally broke down and ordered a new pair of Crocs.
Consider food we grow ourselves, often not the ultimate specimen for the cover of a magazine, but nothing tastes better. Think about the food at the farmer’s market or the organic produce section, maybe what you receive in a CSA? Is it all beautiful? When shopping, we’ve been trained to look for the perfect specimen, to let the ones with a blemish sit in the bin until? Often staying there and never selling, wasted.
Well, you all know how I feel about waste! I decided to stop being picky and looking for the ‘photo perfect’ and pick some fruit that looked ugly, but interesting. Sometimes ugly is in this fruits genetic make-up. Blotchy skin, giant pimple like top, wrinkles and crevices, it’s all there. Every ugly detail, every ugly delicious detail.
The largest citrus pictured (far right) is the bastard of a love triangle, the child of the grapefruit (or pomelo), orange and tangerine. It comes from Jamaica. Someone was high on weed when they dreamed this up, and thank goodness! Mine had a beautiful yellow pulpy flesh with a tartness that reminded me of a lemon, but sweeter. It is quite large and had a strangely hollow center, not tight like other citrus, and it was sans seeds. Not surprisingly this Uniq fruit as it was labeled, is also well know as Ugli fruit.
My friend here, with the distinctive bump on top is also a hybrid. It’s part tangerine and grapefruit (or pomelo*). It lacks the 3rd fruit of a love triangle like the Uniq had and is distinctly more beautiful, other than the giant pimple like top. Like it’s above cousin, it is also less sweet, taking on some of that grapefruit tartness (which is fine in my book) but retaining the beautiful orange of the tangerine. This fruit with the bump is usually called a tangelo (probably from the pomelo name), it is also known as a Minneloa and Honeybell, I don’t know why.
Although the next guy, the one with the leaves and a deformed knobby top, looks like a tough guy but it’s actually quite delicate. This is the brain child of a Japanese citrus grower who wanted to combine the easy to peel Satsuma with the sweet California oranges. He ended up with what is touted as the “perfect” citrus fruit. It is known here in the states as a Sumo citrus. It’s easy to peel, seedless, super sweet, it also has very little albero (white netting), so it sections easily. A low mess sweet citrus! I didn’t know much about this variety, so I got most of my information here.
The last citrus, the one with the pebbly texture and golden color is called the Gold Nugget for obvious reasons. This variety is not a pure strain either, unlike the aforementioned crossbreeds, this hybrid is a marriage between two mandarins. The hybrid was created by University of California, Riverside to produce a longer fruiting tree, which was done successfully. It also produced a super sweet mandarin and the pebbly skin makes it easy to peel. The Gold Nugget is like other hybrids and is seedless, making it a good ‘pack in your lunch’ citrus. (source)
*Pomelo, pummelo, pumelo, Chinese grapefruit, and shaddock are all the same fruit.
All this ugliness is completely transformed in this beautiful citrus salad, proving that ugliness is only skin deep. Wait, I mean “beauty is on the inside, not the outside”. However that saying goes, these citrus could be the poster child for it.
You can use any combination of citrus to make this, I feel I got lucky with my choices, some super sweet and some on the tart side providing a good balance. The salt and cayenne bring out the sweetness. The cucumber, shallots and cilantro give it a nice crisp texture and herby flavor. A drizzle with olive oil adds another depth of flavor and makes it pleasantly slide around in your mouth. I added some lime zest and juice because you just can’t have enough citrus.
What I ended up with is the perfect light salad for Cinco de Mayo! Just picture a margarita or mojito with it. This salad was so good, this is almost embarrassing to say, but I ate the whole platter by myself! Based on my hogginess, when I make this for friends this weekend I will have to double the recipe so I can eat half and they can have the other half.
For dressing: Zest lemon to measure ½ teaspoon zest, juice lemon to measure 2 tablespoons juice. Combine zest, juice, vinegar, sugar, oil and poppy seeds. Whisk until blended. Cover and refrigerate.
Hull strawberries and cut into quarters. Cut cucumber in half lengthwise remove seeds and slice. Place spinach in large serving bowl. Add strawberries, cucumber and onion. Whisk dressing pour over salad. Gently toss to cover. Sprinkle with almonds.
Butternut Squash and Pomegranate Salad
1 and ½ cups uncooked barley
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ½” chunks
1/3 cup mandarin olive oil
2 tsps fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 medium to large pomegranate, seeded
1 bunch green onions, sliced
Cook barley in 3 cups water until water is absorbed, (just like rice). Cool.
Toss squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Roast 20 minutes in oven at 375 degrees, stirring ½ way through.
Mix 1/3 cup mandarin oil with 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar.
Combine cooked barley, squash, pomegranate seeds and green onions in a bowl. Pour oil/vinegar over and mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
¼ cup Colwell mandarin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons Colwell balsamic vinegar
½ head iceberg lettuce, torn into pieces
½ head romaine lettuce, torn into pieces
2 whole green onions, chopped
3 fresh mandarins, peeled, sectioned
Mix all of the dressing ingredients and chill.
In a small pan over medium heat, cook the almonds and sugar, stirring constantly until the almonds are coated and the sugar has dissolved. Watch carefully- the almonds will burn easily. Cool, and store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Combine the lettuce, celery and green onions. Just before serving, add the almonds and oranges and toss with the dressing.
Dark Chocolate and Mandarin Agrumato Olive Oil Madeleines
Absolutely mind blowing. Here's a perfect example of using olive oil not simply because it's amazingly good for the human body, but also because if used in the proper context , it can elevate even the most humble of culinary applications.
The bright, citrus notes of the Mandarin Agrumato (fused) Olive Oil play beautifully with the deep, earthy, rich dark chocolate. The exterior edges are just ever so barely caramelized, while the middles are ethereal and moist.
1 cup flour + 1/4 cup for pan
1/3 cup cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 cup Mandarin Agrumato (fused) Olive Oil + 1 tablespoon for greasing pan
Preheat the oven to 375.
Grease a 12 portion madeleine pan with with mandarin olive oil and then dust with flour.
Combine the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl and beat for 2 minutes until light and thick. Add the olive oil and beat for another minute. Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa in another bowl and fold in to the wet ingredients making sure to not leave any dry spots.
Spoon in the to the prepared madeleine mold(s) and bake in the upper portion of the oven for 10-12 minutes, or just until the tops spring back when lightly touched and the edges begin to darken slightly.
Immediately un-mold the cookies on to a rack to cool. If you only have one madeleine pan, clean it and repeat the process above a second time as this recipe makes 2 dozen cookies.
Ginger and orange plum breakfast cobbler with ricotta
On a January morning, you need dessert for breakfast. This is probably my favourite category of recipe, and the one most of my cooking falls into. I should point out that this does not mean you are ever justified in eating a chocolate orange, Magnum or cheeseboard before 12pm. Instead, it means adapting certain post-savoury classics to make them a little healthier, a little more substantial and a little more appropriate for the beginning of the day. I try and cut out a lot of the refined sugar and processed flour, sticking with wholesome staples like honey, spelt flour, oats, polenta and unrefined muscovado sugar. I like to think I have this down to a fine art, perhaps evident from the number of ‘breakfast crumble’ recipes in my repertoire.
This event happened in October of 2015 in Lucca, Italy. It changed my life and I wanted to acknowledge all my friends in Lucca who have opened my heart and showed me that anything is possible. The story is longer than usual so sit back with a coffee or glass of vino and enjoy.
This story is dedicated to my dear friend Davino, who showed me the real Italy, who taught me how to eat chestnuts and who had the biggest heart, always filled with love and generosity. I miss you Davino.
A celebration of friends and food
This birthday stung. I felt like I was being propelled from the comfort zone of my “middle ages” into the “senior” zone. A downward spiral. What would mark the “age of wisdom” was otherwise depressing. We all experience milestones in our lives. I would survive.
To make this transition bearable, my mom, our dear friend Claudia and I planned a trip to Italy for late September into October. A visit to Florence, a week’s stay in Pienza and the grand finale, a week with my dear friends Angela and Davino on their comfortable farm, La Mimosa, in lovely Lucca.
As always, Lucca invited us in with open arms.
La Mimosa nestles itself into a landscape of spring mix salad greens, rolling hills, olive trees, and villas. My favorite view from the property is a stark but peaceful and eye-catching white washed convent that seems to hover, like a pair of angel wings, at the top of a hill in the distance. La Mimosa’s vast property houses two living spaces. One home for Angela and Davino and a renovated barn we three would share for a week. To me, this is the most peaceful place on earth and I was eager to reunite with my friends, their dogs Pongo and Gilda, the many cats and three donkeys that call La Mimosa home.
I’d been to Italy many times before but on this trip I would discover why I am seduced into returning here, to Lucca, even when there are so many other places I yearn to visit. The seduction was revealed during a festa, or party, thrown by Angela, Davino and my mom so I could reunite with all the friends I’ve made here the past three visits. The party would also take the sting out of my birthday. How exciting!
By early October, the autumn weather has shifted dramatically from warm sunshine to cool breezes. Black skies loom overhead throughout the day giving the feeling of constant dusk. The coziest and warmest room in the house is the kitchen, and, at its heart, a wood burning fireplace tucked in at waist level, delivering instant heat. An old wooden and well-worn farmhouse table sits in the middle of the room becoming the square kitchen’s centerpiece. When friends gather, it is often around this table where wine or espresso is shared and conversation flows freely. An antique meat slicer rests on a corner counter ready to deliver paper-thin prosciutto slices whose recipients are often one of the many lucky cats living at La Mimosa. Angela’s favorite cooking gadgets and appliances line another deep counter and directly above, open shelving houses plates and glasses.
In the comfort of this kitchen, Angela begins making Zuppa Verde, a traditional Tuscan bean soup with Fagiolini, a brown bean with swirls of red and shaped like a kidney. In Italy, this labor of love has many stages, the first of which is to cook the beans in garlic and sage. She then passes the beans through a hand-cranked press that extracts the skins pushing out only the inner bean. Next, Angela makes a soffritto, the Holy Trinity of Italian flavor basics: onions, carrots and celery. These ingredients are sautéed then added to the beans along with some pomodoro or tomato water. Aromas of the soffritto, which flavors the beans, steam from the tall pot on Angela’s large rustic stove, as the soup simmers for hours. Next, Angela stirs in chopped kale, swiss chard, celery and leek and the soup continues its journey building flavor upon flavor. “We have a contest here,” she tells me, “to see who makes the best Zuppa Verde in Tuscany!” Like our chili cook-off’s, I think to myself, only more sacred.
Our friend, Nico, arrives late in the still-dark day. His contribution to the festa would be homemade spinach-stuffed ravioli. We need ingredients so Mom, Nico and I pile into the car for an adventure at COOP, a large grocery store with good prices on the west side of town. Nico carefully chooses all the ingredients to make his special ravioli and we also purchase olives, jars of marinated red onions, and bottles of Prosecco to drink with the antipasti. The Italians love their coffee and with one whole aisle dedicated to this tradition, Mom finds an espresso coffeemaker to take home. She has learned how to make espresso the Italian way and so will carry forth the tradition – way to go Mom!
The rain is relentless. On the way home, Nico wants to show me where he works, at a center for learning that encompasses acres of land for group or individual gardens. Here he teaches organic gardening to children and disabled people. I can see how this is a good fit for him as he is so patient and kind. The garden is a canvas of design, color and texture. Some rows are well-manicured housing healthy, gorgeous heads of green and red leaf lettuce, spinach and arugula. On the other end of the color spectrum, scraggly bean stalks are saying goodbye to the season. A few aging eggplants still hang on. Nico explains, “This is not only a garden for the center, but the community can use it too for the small fee of 10 Euro a year.” Nico knows all the families, which plots they have and advises them on organic gardening methods. An Armenian family has even created a large coop for chickens and turkeys. Nico points out a giant white “Cinderella” pumpkin making an appearance in an open field. Nearby, a pergola houses hanging gourds of all shapes and sizes. We duck inside from the persistent rain to be semi-sheltered. The long hanging gourds almost form a curtain in the doorway. Some gourds look white-washed with their necks stretching three feet long. Some are deep green with a skin painted like a watermelon and oblongated bodies, perfectly shaped by nature. One must weigh 10 pounds and still hangs proudly on its sturdy vine. We traipse through the beds, picking various lettuces for the party and nibbling the spicy, fresh baby arugula. I am enchanted by this special place, this little microcosm of nature outside of Lucca, like a painting with rotating artists creating their own picture, year after year.
We return to La Mimosa around 5pm to begin making the fresh pasta. Nico proudly shows off his culinary skills by cracking the eggs into the flour to make the pasta dough, and Mom, his eager understudy, rolls the dough into long sheets in preparation for the ravioli. Angela pours us all a glass of their house-made red wine and takes a break from cooking to share her zuppa recipe with me. Then, with Nico’s guidance, I make the spinach filling for the ravioli. This filling is an Italian variation using half cow ricotta and half pecorino ricotta which give it a pleasantly tangy flavor. In a large sinkful of water, we clean, then blanch the abundance of fresh spinach we’d plucked from the community garden. Yes, we will have plenty of filling! We roll the pasta dough into six long wide strands and then dot three of them with the perfectly seasoned spinach, ricotta and parmesan filling. Another pasta layer is carefully placed on top and then gently sealed with fingertips to hold in the filling. “Which ravioli cutter should we use Nico? The big one?” I ask. “Use the small one,” Angela chimes in as she stirs the Zuppa. “We could use the wheel to make squares,” Mom comments. Nico was set on round. So small round it was.
Pasta dries quickly in a warm kitchen so we add pressure to cut through both layers of dough. A dusting of flour on top and voila! we have a finished product. The dough does not make as many ravioli as we project to feed 15 people. Considering all the food that would be served, I think we will have plenty, but the good Italian, Davino, wishes copious amounts of food for his guests. “When Italians are invited to dinner,” he reminds me, “they expect to be fed well.” No cocktail parties here! Yes, a feast, an Etruscan banquet this will be. We share a light meal with Angela and Davino before heading off to bed.
Friday – Festa Day
In the early morning, Mom and I drive to the seaside town of Livorno to purchase olive wood products for my olive oil business. The rain has not let up and is actually even more deliberate in its full throttle shower. The drive is exhausting and I need a nap.
Soon Davino is at the door, asking me to go with him to pick up the sausages for tonight’s festa. The weather is behaving brutto-ugly with angry booms and cloud bursts of torrential water. Onward we drive, winding in and out of country roads, making our way to his friend’s machelleria or butcher shop. Tucked away down a tiny, rural road is a short driveway and a small store front, the butcher’s living accommodations upstairs. Davino says this is how they can make a decent living, by having their shop in their house. The butcher and his wife, a handsome couple in their 60’s, dressed in their matching white aprons, stand proudly behind the small counter. Davino chats away with them, sharing the stories of the day. I watch as the butcher cuts the sausages from a long string, counting out 35 or two per person. How can we possibly eat all this food? The cost is 29 Euro, not bad for freshly ground, fat, pork sausages. Another slice of life in Italy. Doing what you love, even if it means living upstairs from a room of animal carcasses!
We return home and Davino insists that my mom goes with him to pick out the pastries for the party. He tells me I can’t go. “But pastries are my thing!” I whine. “No!” Davino says with a smile. “Only your mom and I!” They will drive to Davino’s home town, nearby, and meet his sister, the baker. I learn later that they are picking up my birthday cake and didn’t want me to see it before the party. My mom returns with stories of Davino’s home town and a glimpse of his past life. I think they really bonded!
I wander over to the main house to see how the preparations are going. Nico is busily poaching the ravioli and a pomodoro (tomato) ragu, to accompany them, bubbles on the stove. They look divine. Davino teaches me how to use the large, antique slicer to make thin salami slices for the antipasti. Nico prepares a gorgeous Mediterranean farro salad with beans, mint, tomato and onion. I place this in bowls and set up the antipasti area in the next room before going back to the barn to change my clothes. I wish I’d had something more appropriate to wear but had not packed for a party. The weather has shifted, fall is early and all my dresses are sleeveless. I put on my garnet-colored sweater and matching tank, some eye makeup, my favorite dangle silver earrings, rose-colored lipstick and now am ready to meet and greet.
Annalisa, Angela’s painting friend arrives first, followed by Mattia and Michelle, the incredibly talented opera singers I had stayed with the year before. Simonetta and Federico, Mattia’s parents whom I had met last year at their Vendemmia (grape harvest) came next and then Antonio, a well-regarded Tuscan painter, Liliana, his dentist wife and their daughter, Francesca, a concert pianist. The two Germans staying in La Mimosa’s studio also join us. A diverse, educated and artistic crowd will make for a lively evening. It is a quiet sort of mingle for the antipasti. Everyone gathers in the living room for Prosecco and Nico’s delicious farro salad. Soon Angela calls us all into the kitchen for La Cena. The kitchen table is flanked by two more tables creating a dining space the length of the room. A white tablecloth, white plates and simple white cotton napkins line the table along with carafes of Tuscan red wine. The food is to be the centerpiece. The fireplace roars with crackling wood, filling the room with warmth.
Presentation is everything. Angela lines a very large green ceramic bowl with day old bread slices, spooning the steaming Tuscan soup, Zuppa Verde, on top to soften the bread. Fantastico! From this bowl, she then scoops out some of the bread and ladles the hot zuppa on top into individual bowls for the guests. We all complete the zuppa with a ritual drizzling of Italian extra virgin olive oil. There is a hush and the only sounds are of spoons clanking the sides of the bowl scooping out every savory, creamy drop. The bowls are cleared away and new ones appear. Soon Nico’s ragu-baked ravioli are placed into the bowls along with a slice of thin, meat lasagna. It turns out Davino didn’t think there would be enough food so bought a beautiful homemade meat lasagne just in case. I am already getting full. Our ravioli are bursting with the delicate spinach and cheese filling and every mouthful dances on my tongue.
Listening to the various conversations is challenging since everyone is speaking in Italian but I manage to understand quite a bit. Mattia is clearly the entertainer, making everyone laugh and occasionally bursting out into song. His wife, Michelle, obviously adores him and enjoys bantering back at him. Antonio is a quiet and serious man with a big heart. I imagine him constantly creating a new painting in his mind’s eye. I hear him chiming in to comment, adding only a few words here and there. He is mostly focused on the food and like any artist, appreciating, with gusto, Angela’s masterpiece of the zuppa.
Angela comes alive, leaving her soft-spoken self and with animation, recounts a recent news story of people in Austria (her home country) trapped and locked away in a house for years. She has the entire table under her spell. It is a time to continue the digestion before more food.
Again, Angela clears away bowls and fresh plates arrive. She must have a magic replenishing cupboard! While we devour the ravioli, Davino is busy grilling the fresh salsicca (sausages), over the open fire in the kitchen. A cat appears and rubs up against my leg. He apparently smells the meat and invites himself to the party. The hot, aromatic sausages are delivered to each guest by Davino. How could I possibly eat more? But every bite tastes so good! Still the food keeps arriving. It is a dream I never want to end.
Earlier, Nico and Angela prepared fagioli, beans, simmered with copious amounts of garlic, onion and sage. So rich in flavor, I could eat these everyday. This is the accompaniment to the sausage. Dio Mio! By this time, my stomach is swelling out of proportion. Thankfully, after this course, we all retreat upstairs for some entertainment.
Francesca, Antonio and Lilliana’s 19 year-old daughter, is a classically trained pianist and treats us to a Beethoven concerto. I am mesmerized as her slender fingers slide so easily over the keys, making musical notes leap into the air. It is a masterpiece only to be understood by those of us lucky enough to be present in her company. Mattia and Michelle sing “Ol Sole Mio” and with gusto, everyone sings along. I have goosebumps. How can an evening be more perfect? I am about to find out.
I follow the rest of the guests down the stairs and back into the kitchen. To my surprise, the kitchen is dark and on the table sits a large gorgeous cake with “Happy Birthday Mary” written on it. A tiny firecracker sizzles and I blow out the candle that read “60.” Everyone sings Happy Birthday. It is beautiful and I feel a surge of love for these Italians who have become my family. This outpouring of food and genuine well wishes is overwhelming. I make a wish (to someday live in Lucca!) and cut the first slice of “Svoglia.” The cake is a giant Napoleon. When Davino ordered the cake, from his sister’s bakery he asked for a cake for 15 people. Instead, he got a cake for 50 people! A thin cookie crust creates the base, followed by layers of puff pastry, then panna (cream) and a thick layer of dark, gooey, delectable chocolate pastry cream fills the center. The entire cake is frosted in whipped cream with pretty flowers piped decoratively along the edges. A pink rose garnishes each corner. It is fantastico!
My incredible birthday cake!
Davino loves gelato and no party is complete without it. After cake, he brings out his four favorite flavors: Hazelnut, Pistachio, Chocolate and Cassata. I am ready to explode. Oh, all this with more Prosecco.
Nico, who is sitting next to me, gets up and presents me with a beautiful white bag. Inside is a bottle of perfume encased in a gold and white box. I am stunned. “Nico, sei troppo gentile.” What a sweet, sweet gift from this gentle man. Michelle then stands up and comes back with another white bag. This one holds a tiny dark blue bag closed with raffia. Inside are a pair of silver earrings studded with two rounds of emeralds. “Bellisima!” Again, I am almost in tears. This outpouring of love and gifts is almost too much for this person who is so unused to attention. The group cries “Speech, speech!” With Nico whispering in my ear, the Italian words I want to convey, I thank my guests for coming, express gratitude for their friendship and then say “Amo i miei amici Lucchese!” I love my Lucchese friends. Everyone claps and the chatter returns.
I sit in between Nico, who speaks English, and Simonetta, who doesn’t and try desperately to carry on a conversation with her in my intermediate Italian. She is a fabulous cook as well as an accomplished Flamenco dancer and I love her confidence and style. She has made my favorite Italian dessert, her specialty of Semifreddo, an Italian frozen mousse. We don’t even get a chance to eat it – we already pushed the gastro limits beyond capacity. It will wait patiently to be appreciated the next day.
I have an epiphany at that moment. Italy itself is oozing out of this table, like a tube of oil paint and with each squeeze and stroke of the brush, coloring the event with art and artists. Everywhere, art is complementing art. I am surrounded by artists all in their own right. Three fine art painting artists, two opera singers, one concert pianist, one European architectural restoration artist, one dancer, three cooks, and one garden expert and historian. This is Italy. Living, breathing, art. I am a part of this art, drinking in all its humility on one side and its ownership on the other. It has taken me years to fully grasp this concept even as “art” keeps singing in my ears.
The evening is ending and I say goodnight to all. I will always remember this very special day and how my mom, Angela and Davino planned the perfect surprise just for me. That night as my mom and I lay in bed, she tells me how she had planned this party back in March as soon as she knew we were coming to Italy. She wanted me to feel happy and loved after the year of struggle and ill-health I experienced. I am learning to accept love and attention. This is a start. I am so grateful for my mom and all the friends who truly care about me. Lucca is a gift and a treasure and I cherish every moment I am here to experience her loving arms and joyful vitality.
My Tips for Hosting an Incredible Paella Party in 5 Simple Steps
Seafood Paella made with Love
For me, the most important thing is starting with a great guest list. I choose family and compatible friends who have met before. This creates an intimate, comfortable atmosphere for all, and you, the host/hostess, need not worry about guests feeling left out because they don’t know anyone. You will be focused on making layers of flavor with the paella, with fleeting moments of conversation with your guests! Remember to read your guest’s facial expressions. Does everyone feel part of the party?
Oftentimes I encourage interaction between people who might not know each other well by taking photos of them together. This usually prompts a conversation between them and keeps the party moving along.
Keep the menu simple. Paella, Green Salad, Plenty of Drink, Dessert. This is not a time to try a new recipe or overload your guests with too many appetizers. I usually ask one guest to bring light appetizers like olives and Manchego cheese. Something to snack on to absorb the alcohol while viewing the entertainment – me singing while stirring the paella! Making the paella on a grill outdoors keeps the party contained outside and creates a side show for the guests.
Involve your friends by asking them to help. Our Fire Man, Bob, kept the grill fire fueled. In between fire duties, he connected the Flamenco music to outdoor speakers and later in the evening switched it to good old rock ’n roll. When it comes to drinks, I have resorted again to keeping it simple. I’ve made Sangria for past parties but have found that most guests prefer their favorite cocktail or variety of wine. Pelligrino is a favorite sparkler to quench thirst between drinks. All beverages are on hand and within easy reach on a dedicated “bar” table. This year, my sister-in-law, Mirna, brought me a bottle of fine Vapor Distillery Rhok gin( formerly Roundhouse), made in Boulder, Colorado as a gift. It was a warm evening and suddenly gin sounded really good! I know this is not a traditional Spanish accompaniment to paella but Mirna started whipping up cocktails with the gin and they were such a hit, several of the guests were requesting her special drinks! This is when you just go with the flow and enjoy the moment.
Enlist a co-chef! What would I do without Eva who has been my co-chef for three years? Eva is able to co-taste with me and offer suggestions to improve the recipe or technique. Choose someone compatible that you work easily with, does not freak out and understands flavor combining. Discuss each other’s roles beforehand so you are not duplicating tasks. Two people cooking also helps keep the pace moving along so you are not eating at midnight!
Prep all ingredients for the paella in the morning. Have them measured out and in bowls in order of appearance to be added to the dish. When you start cooking, there’s no need to look at the recipe. It’s all right there in front of you. Continue to monitor guests for engagement and over dinner, ask them to share a favorite summer food memory.
End the evening with one spectacular dessert. I always make a traditional Australian Pavlova. It’s my mom’s favorite dessert and works well for a crowd. The mouth feel of soft and creamy meringue and whipped cream, accented by tangy lemon curd and fresh berries is undeniably one of the best combinations on earth. And, it’s different. Make the meringue and lemon curd the day before. The night of the party, just assemble by spreading the curd onto the meringue, lavishing whipped cream over all and sprinkling with the freshest berries you can find. Done. Your guests will thank you.
All the girls pitched in to help finish off the Pavlova. Such a great group! Love them all!Spreading on the lemon creme Pavlova Extraordinaire! Barb and Ali lighting the candles Beautiful Mom. In celebration of You!
“He tastes of rice with a touch of saffron. He says I taste of seafood. I guess we’d make a good paella.”
― Chloe Thurlow, Girl Trade
Estela by Ignacio Mattos
Ignacio Mattos’s downtown Manhattan restaurant Estela has a cult following among British chefs. James Lowe invited Mattos to cook at his Shoreditch restaurant Lyles in 2017 and Matthew Young, formerly of Elroy and Mayfield’s, is a fan. Before opening Estela in 2013, Uruguay-born Mattos worked for Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café and Alice Water and David Tanis at Chez Panisse in San Francisco. In the book’s introduction, he sites Francis Mallmann, the godfather of elemental open fire cooking, as his ‘main mentor’ and with whom he cooked outdoors in New York during a snowstorm and on top of a mountain in Mendoza.
In the brief introduction, Mattos talks about his culinary travels that have allowed him to explore everything from Italy’s cucina povera to modernist cooking in Spain from classical French cuisine to the Afro-Brazilian cooking of Bahia, Brazil. That global perspective is reflected in the ‘Estel Essentials’ chapter that lists Italian bottarga, Southeast Asian fish sauce and Japanese furikake seasoning among Mattos’s favoured pantry ingredients.
In less intuitive hands, such broad open-mindedness could result in fusion-confusion. Mattos however has an ace up his sleeve with his underlying ethos of ‘layering, tension and balance’ that brings harmony to disparate elements through the considered and subtle use of vinegars, citric acids, spicy heat and savoury items such as fish sauce or juiced green garlic that bring his dishes to a ‘happy place just at the borderline of too much’.
It’s an approach typified by a signature dish of sushi-grade fluke that’s cured in sugar and salt, diced and mixed with Arbequina olive oil and mandarin olive oil and served with sea urchin roe, yuzu kosho (a paste of chillies fermented with yuzu juice and zest and salt) and white grapefruit zest. Other stand outs from the collection of more than 133 recipes include lamb ribs with chermoula and honey cured foie gras wrapped in grape leaves, grilled and served with chicken jus seasoned with soy and ponzu, and steak served with black sesame bearnaise and turnips.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes a book like Estela to prove you (delightfully) wrong. Mattos has a particular and distinctive take on what can make up the menu of a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’, a viewpoint that will provide a wealth of inspiration to chefs no matter what type of establishment they are cooking in.
Suitable for: Professional chefs/confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars