The Sicilian Cleanse Diet

Cubist Taormina

Six nights on Sicily went by so fast.  We had two nights each in three locations:  Syracuse, Taormina, and Palermo.  I think the most resonant take away from this frenetic island is the astounding natural beauty.  The sea had just a few more shades of turquoise and cerulean than I usually see, and Mt. Etna is a show stopper, though I am partial to volcanic mountains.  Sicily is also odd, though; may I say it?  It has such interesting underpinnings of the many cultures that have dominated it over the millennia:  Greeks, Normans, Spaniards, Arabs, and Romans, but there is also a haunting spirit of callousness.  Development has been marred by a profusion of 70s era apartment blocks and lavish private homes have been plunked onto precious partitions of real estate like beautiful dot islands and precipitous cliff sides.  It felt like some people have a lot of privilege and others try not to mind. I could certainly see the sweet Sicily through it, but I had to focus.

The food was also simpler than I had anticipated.  Unlike the plattered feasts one might have elsewhere in Italy, we had small plates of fried fish, straight forward bowls of pasta, and sometimes, very thinly sliced fried or grilled meat.  Some restaurants had an antipasto buffet and there we found delicious grilled and marinated vegetables which I loved.  Overall, though, we didn’t overeat and got lots of exercise.  It was just yesterday, spending 9+  hours on the ferry crossing, that put us into a food comma.  Having to be in the ferry line in Palermo at 7:00 AM and getting off in Tunis around 9:00 PM, we had to pack food to eat all day.  The easy solution was dried meat like salami and prosciutto, cheese, fruit, and bread.  We had excellent  quality of each, but by the fifth round of hitting the food bag, we couldn’t face another bite of salty meat and even that pistachio studded pecorino had turned soft and unappetizing.  Allan and I both woke up with a headache this morning and agreed that some simple low fat, low salt meals, including lots of greens from our garden, was how we wanted to eat this week.  This recipe from Donna Hay was a delicious tonic meal while still being a little bit Sicilian.

Chicken Meatball Soup

Chicken and Pecorino Meatball Minestrone

  • 500g ground chicken
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup finely grated pecorino
  • 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon rind
  • Sea salt and cracked black pepper
  • 3/4 cup ricotta
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/5 liters chicken stock
  • 200g small pasta
  • 500g hardy greens (like Swiss chard, beet greens, or mustard), trimmed and roughly chopped

Place the ground chicken, egg, pecorino, parsley, lemon rind, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix well to combine.  Fold through the ricotta and, using wet hands, roll tablespoons of the mixture into balls.  Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large, deep frying pan over high heat.  Add the meatballs and cook in batches, turning frequently, for 5-8 minutes or until browned.  Remove the meatballs from the pan and set aside.  Wipe the pan clean, add the remaining oil and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes or until lightly browned.  Add the stock, increase the heat to high and bring to the boil.  *Add the pasta and meatballs, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and cook for 10-12 minutes or until the pasta is just al dente.  Add the greens, cover, and cook for 1-2 minutes or until wilted.  Divide the soup between serving bowls and top with extra pecorino.

*I knew we wouldn’t eat this all in one sitting, and I didn’t want the pasta and other ingredients to get soggy in the broth, so I cooked just enough pasta separately in well-salted water, then heated the broth, greens, and meatballs for two servings, pouring it over the pasta.

The Best Damn Arancini in Taormina

Christina 2

     It wasn’t until we finished eating that we read the New York Times review of this place.  They discovered it when they saw someone on the street with an arancini and asked where it came from.  Their review simply confirmed what we had already seen for ourselves.
     I hope that Giada de Laurentis will provide me with a good starting place recipe.  If you have an authentic recipe, please send it my way.

 

Da Christina Sign

Spring Capers

Meatloaf

An abiding nostalgia I carry for the 1980s is the ubiquitous restaurant fish saute of butter, olive oil, garlic, a little vermouth, and capers.  I can go right back in my sense memories to a spring break excursion Allan and I took, once we had real jobs, to Long Beach, on the Washington coast.  It was March and we were at the ocean,  so by definition, it was cold, rainy, and windy.   We went there, specifically, to eat at a then famous restaurant called The Ark.  We had received this restaurant’s cookbook for a wedding gift, not long before, and we wanted to have a dining experience there first hand.  This was one of the cookbooks, soon followed by the Silver Palate trilogy,  that moved my cooking thinking beyond hippy basics to cooking that required more technique and relied on fresh ingredients.  I will forever remember walking into the sheltering dining room of The Ark and being greeted with that saute scent that will forever represent essential Northwest cooking to me.

In said 80s, capers were brand new to this Colorado girl, and it’s only at this time in my life that I realize they are native to the Mediterranean.  Thriving in harsh environments, they can be found popping up in the cracks of walls around historic ruins and self-seeding in barren soil.  They are one of those tenacious plants that likes to exist in the trampled terrain that humans and animals have created.  The plant’s berries and leaves are harvested and they are brined or salted for preservation.

Capers are one of the food products we can buy in the Tunisian markets by the kilo, and since I did just that, I am looking for all sorts of uses.  If you are getting tired of winter dishes based on a saute of onions, celery, and carrots, you will be pleased that this meatloaf has none of them.  It gets its flavor foundation from garlic, lemon, parsley, and of course, capers.

Home-grinding turkey breasts, which are plentiful here, is something I do routinely, so I used turkey in this recipe instead of chicken.   I think this recipe works particularly well with white meat and can’t see it as well with ground beef.  Either way, the sauce keeps it moist and brings up the base flavors.  Enjoy this spring-green comfort dish.

Roasted Chicken and Bacon Meatloaf with Caper and Lemon Sauce

Recipe adapted from Cuisine NZ, Issue 162

  • 800g minced free-range chicken or turkey
  • 1/2 cup finely diced bacon
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs soaked in 1/4 cup milk
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 100ml dry white wine
  • 3 tablespoons capers
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon (or to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 200 C or 375 F.  Put the chicken, bacon, garlic, soaked breadcrumbs, zest, salt, and 2 tablespoons of the parsley in a large bowl and mix well.  Shape into a loaf shape and put in a roasting pan.  Drizzle with the oil.  Put in the oven and roast for 30-40 minutes or until a skewer inserted produces clear juices and the top is slightly browned.  Remove from the oven and take out of the roasting pan.  Keep the loaf warm.

Pour the fat from the pan and place over high heat.  Add the wine, let it bubble for 20 seconds then add the capers and stock.  Boil until reduced and slightly syrupy.  Add the lemon juice, butter and remaining parsley, taste and season.  Serve the loaf sliced with the caper and lemon sauce over the top.

Serves 6

Mamie Lily

Pumpkin, overex

Recently, the blog Tasting Table posted about a little restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, called Take Root.  I was moved by the story of two married women who make this single seating, 12-course tasting menu restaurant both their livelihood and their artistic passion.  The New York Times review quote on their website gives a sense of the generosity that comes through their food, “It is a rare thing to pay for a meal but feel as if it were a gift”.   The two of them do everything in the restaurant from the ordering, to the prepping, to the serving, to the washing up.  Then they drop into bed at night, have an excellent cup or two of coffee in the morning, and begin it again.

I have experienced a similar spirit at a restaurant in Tunis.  Teaching a comparative religions unit, to my 7th graders, on the monotheistic faiths, we took the first of 3 off-campus visits to observe and experience the religion and culture of  specific faiths in Tunis, this time Judaism.  Jacob, our host at the kosher restaurant/Jewish cultural center began his talk to us, in his heavily French-inflected English, saying the history of the Jews in Tunisia is a love story.  By that, he means both the love of Jews for Tunisia and also the general acceptance they have enjoyed here.

His restaurant Mamie Lily is his mother’s cooking, assisted by some local help.  The neighborhood where it is set, La Goulette, is historically an immigrant neighborhood, being near the Port of Tunis and the fishing piers.  It has the pace and simplicity of the 1950s.  The tiny synagogue is just around the corner and along the street, in between, you could buy all of the artfully displayed fresh produce, the kosher chicken, and the fish with fins that Jewish dietary laws require.  Then, mother Lily puts a loving hand to the cooking, along with a little French technique and Tunisian custom.  She and her staff prepared a set meal for 50 of us and the main course, chicken in a pumpkin sauce with a hint of lemon,  was particularly where the knowledge of local tradition and the cooking skills of Mamie shown through.  Our 12-year olds, being much like 12-year olds the world around, found that sauce to be a challenging new taste, but they got to try it, and I am happy about that.

Mamie

I had been cueing up to make this Bon Appetit recipe for a fresh pumpkin carbonara sauce.  I carried a little of Take Root’s ethos through by blanching and freezing fresh herbs in ice-cube trays and then grating them with a micro-plane grater to use.  I also finished my carbonara sauce with a squeeze of lemon to try and hit that silky sweet/tart balance of Mamie’s sauce.  The thing I think Take Root, Mamie, and I are sharing was summed up in the TT article:  …trying to coax big flavors from humble ingredients.

This pumpkin sauce is useful as a sauce or as a soup.  I suggest you make up a huge batch and put a couple of quarts in freezer bags for either use.  Also, take the few extra minutes to make some handmade pasta.  These orechiette are really not difficult and they cook up to make chewy little cups for holding this rich sauce.

oriechette

Pumpkin Carbonara with Pancetta and Sage

Serves 4

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 4oz pancetta, chopped
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh sage or thyme
  • 2-lbs pumpkin, kabocha, or butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2″ pieces (about 3 cups)
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 12oz  fettucine or linguine
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino, plus shaved for serving

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add pancetta, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 8-10 minutes.  Add sage and toss to coat.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer pancetta and sage to a small bowl; set aside.

Add squash, onion, and garlic to skillet;  season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, 8-10 minutes.  Add broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until squash is soft and liquid is reduced by half, 15-20 minutes.  Let cool slightly, then puree in a blender until smooth;  season with salt and pepper.  Reserve skillet.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente.  Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Combine pasta, squash puree, and 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid in reserved skillet and cook over medium heat, tossing and adding more pasta cooking liquid as needed, until sauce coats pasta, about 2 minutes.  Mix in 1/4 cup Pecorino;  season with salt and pepper.

Serve pasta topped with reserved pancetta and sage, shaved Pecorino, and more pepper.

Do Ahead:  Squash puree can be made 3 days ahead.  Let cool;  cover and chill.

Fresh Pasta

  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp fine durum flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 cup semolina flour (pasta flour)

Combine durum wheat flour and semolina flour in a large bowl.  Bring a saucepan of water to a bare simmer.  Add 2/3 cup hot water to the flours and mix with a fork until mixture just comes together.  Turn out dough onto a surface lightly dusted with durum flour and knead until smooth and elastic, 8-10 minutes.  Alternatively, mix in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook for 5 minutes.  Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let sit a room temperature for 1 hour.

How to form orecchiette pasta

How to form strozzapreti pasta

Want one more delicious but humble recipe from Take Root?  I’m going to be making their Beans and Greens this week.

Small Batches

Jam SpoonThese are the months of the school year when teachers will tell you we make the distance with students.  There is just something about the pace of human learning that requires a sizable amount of time to establish rituals and practices that lead to deep consolidation during the winter months.  I am also groping to consolidate a lot of my own learning.  I’ve recently adopted a principle from the short motivational book Do the Work, by Steven Pressfield:  Begin before you are ready.  Whether it’s cooking, trying to take a photograph, or learning a new technology application, I can continue to read and research or I can just try to do it.  Research indicates that we learn quickly that way, but the deep practice of those skills often requires more uninterrupted time than I can make.

This week, I’ve hit upon the mantra of small batches.  It came to me last Saturday when Allan and I saw rows and rows of strawberry punnets at the market.  We haven’t eaten enough strawberries this season yet, and both of us had a craving for some strawberry jam.  Not long ago, I would have purchased several kgs. of strawberries and then my Sunday would have been pretty much dominated with jam-making.  I had a realization, though.  We didn’t at all want enough strawberry jam to last until next Christmas.  We’re not concerned about saving the strawberry season to distribute throughout the rest of the year.  We just wanted a little jam this week and maybe a little more in another week or so and then a couple of jars to give away.  I made up my favorite Donna Hay jam recipe in a small pot with ingredients I already had on hand:  sugar, a vanilla bean, and a few lemons.  I had some jars with sealable lids, but it could just as well have gone into the refrigerator.  It took no more effort than making a side dish to go with dinner.

Now I’m thinking about other things in life that I can small batch.  Getting to a blog post is one, for sure.  I have several multi-themed blog posts in my draft  file waiting for the right photograph or some finishing writing, but I have a few minutes this afternoon and I’m just going to think small about strawberry jam and its transformational symbolism, that’s all.  Working on another language is another.  It’s hard to find time to lay out the grammar book and have a study session, but with Duolingo on my phone, I can get at least a few words of French out of my mouth in a day, and that feels like progress.  Small batching means enjoying the rewards of a reduced-sized project when the alternative might be no project at all.

Jarred JamI posted this recipe three years ago now, but I think it bears sharing again.  The flavors are bright , and using the natural pectin in the lemon seeds to thicken the jam makes me feel extra self-satisfied.

Basic Strawberry Jam
donna hay, issue 55
1 kg strawberries, hulled and halved
1 tablespoon water
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1 kg white sugar
½ cup (125 ml) lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon seeds, wrapped in a piece of muslin
Step 1  Place the strawberries and water in a jam pan or large, deep frying pan over medium heat and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the fruit begins to beak down.
Step 2  Add the vanilla, sugar and lemon juice and tie the muslin bag to the handle of the pan, ensuring it is immersed in the jam.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Bring jam to the boil.  Place a sugar thermometer in the pan, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until temperature reaches 105 degrees C (225 F).
Step 3  While the jam is simmering, use a large metal spoon to skim any foam from the surface and discard.
Step 4  Remove the vanilla bean and carefully pour the hot jam into sterilized glass jars.  Seal with the lids and cool.  Makes 4 cups (1 litre)

Salad Genetics

I replanted our salad garden terrace in January and it got a fairly slow start due to some chilly, rainy weather.  I’m not super finicky about putting in the greens seeds.  They are so small that I just divide the nicely prepped planters into sections, sprinkle over a few pinches of seeds, and lightly ruffle them through the soil.  I figure I can always rearrange them later when they’ve gotten established.  My concern is always that I will weed out my seedlings before I recognize what they are, so I put in some markers.

Strangely, the markers immediately started getting dislodged and scattered around the garden.  I would come home from work and find two or three of them plucked up and lying in the wrong section.  One of them went missing entirely for about two weeks until I found it slightly buried.  In my mind, I was blaming all sorts of unseen nemeses, mostly focused around our maid and some workers who had been repairing the terrace door.  I wondered, Why, why would they tamper with my markers?

Then, I remembered the particularly fat dove I had chased off several times for fear he was eating my seeds.  It must have been the dove that had made a little game with the markers.  I put them back where I recalled they should go, but following some rain and near 70 degree temperatures last weekend, all of the seedlings popped out with their familial characteristics and I realized I needn’t have worried about recognizing them.  They look exactly like their families.  Here are some family portraits:

Bok Choy 2

Poor little bok choy, you’ll go through life with your father’s big, round ears.

Swiss Chard 2

The Swiss chard kids. You can hardly tell one from another, all tangled together like a pack of puppies.

Curled Kale 2

Pretty little curled kale has her sister’s hair.

Freckles Lettuce

Lettuce has her mama’s freckles.

These greens are still a couple of weeks away from eating, but we have some perfect mache or lamb’s tongue lettuce from the local farms.  Getting a little dreamy about our planned spring break trip to Sicily, I made this dish from the cookbook Love Italy by Guy Grossi.

Lamb and Salad

Costoletta di agnello in crosta

Herb-crusted lamb cutlets with mache and mint salad

  • 12 lamb cutlets, French-trimmed if possible, excess fat and sinew removed
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped sage
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped thyme
  • 1 tbsp grated parmesan
  • 200g dried breadcrumbs
  • Sea sale and cracked black pepper
  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 200ml olive oil

Mache and Mint Salad

  • 100g fresh shelled peas
  • 100g mache leaves (lamb’s tongue lettuce)
  • 20 mint leaves
  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 50g marinated goat’s cheese or feta
  • Sea salt and cracked black pepper

1.  Lightly beat the lamb cutlets until they are about 5mm thick.

2.  Combine the herbs, parmesan, and breadcrumbs in a bowl and mix well.  Check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Place the flour in a shallow bowl and the eggs in another.  Lightly flour a cutlet, shaking off any excess, then dip it into the beaten egg.  Place the cutlet in the herb and crumb mix, pressing the crumbs onto the meat to coat completely.  Repeat with the remaining cutlets.

3.  Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and add the cutlets.  Cook for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden brown.  Drain on paper towel.

4.  Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and add the peas.  Simmer for about 1-2 minutes, then drain immediately and refresh in cold water.  When cool, drain the peas again and place in a large bowl with the mache and mint leaves.

5.  Make a dressing by whisking together the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and shallot.  Pour over the leaves and mix well.  Crumble in the goat’s cheese or feta and check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.

6.  Serve the herb-crusted lamb cutlets with the mache and mint salad alongside.

The Sunday Braise

BraiseWe’ve got some busy days coming up.  First of all, our architects are returning this week and you know what they will be bringing?  Site renderings!  They came twice last fall and interviewed every possible stake-holder in the school about what they would like to see in our new school building.  They’ve done aerial views and studied the engineering challenges of the site.  Now, it’s time to get our first look at the baby.  It’s going to be pretty thrilling, but it will entail a bunch more meetings.

Second, Allan and I are starting proper French class.  We’ve worked here and there on our own tutorials these past years, but we’ve always meant to get something consistent on the calendar.  Tuesdays after school, now, we will be in an actual class with some other colleagues (accountability…), a textbook, and homework.  Gulp.

Then, Allan has started co-coaching the soccer team which keeps him at practice until 5:00 PM.

This is all just by Wednesday, and I knew that if we wanted to eat proper food this week, I  had to get it not only planned ahead, but actually cooked, today.  Even before reading Michael Pollan’s book Cooked last spring, in which he dedicates an entire section to his Sunday braises, I had hit on that pattern, too.  The practically hands-free cooking, that allows you to get a few other things ready for the week, is reason enough to put a braise in the oven, but its beauty is multi-faceted.  First, you can make it using any meat (or none), plus any vegetables (or none), plus any liquid.  I generally don’t put beans in, but today I had some freshly-shelled fava beans, so I cooked them together.

The sequence is always the same.  You brown the meat, remove it and cook the vegetables until they are softened, then put is all back together and add some liquid:  water, stock, wine.  Cover it tightly and cook it for several hours on low, low heat, just so little heat bubbles are surfacing, slowly.  For the last half hour or longer if you choose, remove the lid and allow the liquid to reduce and the ingredients to caramelize.  You can eat the braise immediately or cool it and put it in the refrigerator.  The dish actually improves in flavor by 1 to 3 days in the refrigerator before serving, and you can reheat it all or just in servings.

A braise is a perfect way to use up vegetables and other flavor enhancements at the end of a week.  And now my tragic confession:  I was sorting through the fridge, making decisions about cooking components, when I came across my bottle of lemon olive oil that was basically finished.  Acting efficiently, I filled the bottle with warm water to soften all of the remaining lemon pulp and the chilled oil and ran it down my garbage disposal.  Not until I was building the braise did I regret that I hadn’t put all of that flavor into my pot.  The lemon pulp would have completely dissolved into the sauce and been absorbed by the meat and fava beans.  I won’t make that mistake again.  From now on, the bottom of the bottle goes into the braise.

Chicken and Fava Bean Braise

Ingredients

  • 8 chicken thighs or other pieces
  • Rosemary salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Hot paprika
  • 6 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 leeks, chopped
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 fennel bulb, chopped
  • 2 mild green peppers, chopped
  • 2 cups parsley, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cups fresh fava beans, shelled
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup of lemon olive oil pulp (optional)
  • Fennel fronds
  • Cured black olives
  • Grated lemon rind

 Rub chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and paprika.  Heat oil in heavy-bottom, Dutch oven and brown chicken on all sides.  Remove chicken from pan.  Add leeks, shallots, fennel, and garlic.  Cook until vegetables are beginning to soften.  Add peppers, parsley, bay leaves,  and fava beans.  Soften slightly.  Place chicken on top of beans and vegetables.  Add chicken stock, white wine, and lemon olive oil pulp, if using.  Cook at 300 degrees for 2 hours, monitoring frequently for liquid level.  Add more if needed.  Remove lid, increase heat to 350 degrees.  Cook until liquid is reduced and ingredients have caramelized. Serve immediately, or cool and chill in the refrigerator for 1-3 days.   Garnish with fennel fronds,  olives, and lemon zest, if using.