Amid shelves of cookbooks and piles of recipe magazines, my mother’s house holds a small worn notebook full of recipes. The pages are torn, stained and layered with scraps of paper (usually the back of envelopes) that have recipes scribbled in ink or pencil. Sometimes there are instructions and no measurements. Sometimes ingredients and no baking instructions.
Sorting out what cookies get baked for Christmas is less about going through her recipe list and choosing and more about remembering. “Those ones with the nuts on top.” “The round ones that Comare brought over.” “Dad’s favourite.” Proper names for cookies are useless, we all just associate them with people, places or times anyway. This little biscotti recipe lives on a scrap of paper with the simple heading: Zia’s Biscotti.
Zia, meaning Aunt, could mean, well, anyone in the family or extended family. It doesn’t matter though, they came from family and have always been a staple. These biscotti are light and crumbly. I’ve tried several recipes from various books (versions with harder dough I find too dense, those made with butter seem to taste overwhelmingly of butter) but keep coming back to these ones for their simplicity and their texture. You can swap out the almonds for different nuts or other ingredients like chocolate chunks or cranberries, or even add cocoa to the dough for a chocolate version. It’s a great base that’s easily adapted.
Anyway you make them though, these biscotti are classic, just the memories we all hold dear of our family and favourite cookies.
6 large eggs
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
In the basement there’s a treasure. No matter how much I despised trekking into the basement to fetch something for my mother, the truth was that a trip to the cantina (cellar) meant stepping into a magical room full of our favourite foods and a year’s (or more!) worth of work. Yellow lupini beans, red crushed tomatoes, brown mushrooms, all gleaming from behind their glass homes. One of our favourite cantina inhabitants was, and is, olives.
Calabrese cracked olives, named as such because of the way they are cracked (smashed, really) open, were always a staple in my house growing up. Served as a snack with soppresata, cheese, taralli and other antipasti, we stocked up on jars of this green gold in the cantina. The recipe for preserving olives is held mainly in the minds of older Italians, much like the recipe for preserving green tomatoes I shared here previously. You can find recipes online with a similar name, but they are often written in Italian and not quite the same.
In North America, green olives are picked at the end of September to about the middle of November. In Europe, the harvest is a bit later and into the winter. Preserving olives is another one of those food events that calls for a big gathering of family if you are going to make a lot, just like making sausages or canning tomatoes. Part social event, part necessity, Italian food preservation has always been an integral part of life for southern Italians. These days, the family gathering part is more important than the preserving, but the results – good food and some fun – are the same.
Some tips for this recipe: you’ll need some time and some patience, smashing the olives can get messy and don’t let the olives get brown or mushy at any point, then they’ll lose their taste and allure. Finally, be sure to add these to your pantry or cantina collection, for olive lovers this is a great way to have a fresh olive taste all year around.
Calabrese Cracked Olives (Olive Schiacciate)
1 case green olives
1 lb salt (1 box)
2-3 tbsp dried oregano
2-3 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp granulated garlic
hot pepper flakes to taste
Select a case of olives where the fruits are still firm and are a medium-large. If the olives are very fresh, you may need to allow them to sit for a few days in a cool place such as a cantina or garage. The olives are ready to process when they break open easily with a bit of pressure.
If you follow this blog regularly you know that I love posting traditional recipes from my family. A lot of people enjoy these recipes just as much as I do, especially for those who swear by the Mediterranean diet, but I often get questions about “tweaking” the recipe for the extra health-conscious: can I bake instead of fry? Can I replace all-purpose flour with whole wheat? Can I reduce the sugar?
I ask readers to let me know, if they give the recipe a twist, how it works out. One of my more popular posts on this blog is spelt pasta, which started as an experiment in my own kitchen. Today I’m asking you how you’ve adapted traditional dishes to meet dietary needs for a chance to win a new cookbook! (keep reading….)
The thing with traditional recipes is that they don’t change much. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done though. Recently, Fina Scroppo, an editor and writer, shared her new book with me “The Healthy Italian: cooking for the love of food and family,” a cookbook that puts alternative spins on Italian classics. I’ll admit, I may have been a bit skeptical (can you really put quinoa in eggplant parmesan?), but the only way to really know if these new recipes work, is to try them.
One of Fina’s recipes immediately spoke to me: farro risotto. First, it uses a whole grain (farro) which draws in a lot of questions from readers each time I write about it (and I’ve become a bit obsessed about myself). Secondly, it’s made creamy not by the starch typically found in the classic risotto arborio rice, but from goat cheese, which is one of my favourite ingredients. Fina tells the story about how her family had to find alternatives to Italian recipes when her sister was diagnosed with celiac disease. For me, I had to make two more little adjustments: the original recipe called for asparagus which is not seasonal right now (a big part of Italian eating), so I used squash instead and I used whole grain farro instead of semi-pearled as I don’t mind the extra chewiness. If you are new to farro, or prefer the consistency of rice, use the semi-pearled type.
The result was a creamy, extremely tasty dish that offered no guilt after you devour the whole bowl full. Enjoy the recipe – and if you want to try Fina’s recipes yourself, here’s your chance: Enter to win “The Healthy Italian: cooking for the love of food and family,” by telling me how you’ve adapted a traditional family recipe for dietary or health reasons in the comments. A winner will be selected at random at midnight on November 22. Good luck!
Farro Risotto (from “The Healthy Italian”)
2 cups butternut squash, cubed
3 1/2 cubes reduced-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp light butter
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups semi-pearl farro (spelt grain, also called emmer)
1/2 cup white wine
2 tbsp crumbled light goat cheese
2 tbsp each fresh parsley and fresh basil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for serving (optional)
Our memories from childhood stick with us throughout our lives and dinner with my grandparents (who lived right next door) make up so many of my good memories about food and this particular recipe: patate fritte (fried potatoes).
I’m a meat-and-potatoes-girl while my sister was all about pasta. So when my grandparents called to invite us over for pasta dinner, I dragged my feet. But when it was slow roasted chicken legs with roasted potatoes, I was out the door before my mother even finished hanging up the phone. The only thing that could move me even faster was patate fritte.
This is a mess of a dish that may not look gourmet but tastes heavenly. It’s a prime example of typical Calabrese home cooking that uses what you have around the house. It’s particularly best at this time of year when gardens are winding down – maybe you have one lonely eggplant left or need to get rid of some beans or onions. Slowly pan-fried, this meal results in crispy potatoes and a mix of vegetables that are irresistible. Of course, you can omit the vegetables all together and just come up with a great potato side dish, or you can add small pork tenderloin pieces to the frying pan to round out the meal.
I’ve grown to love pasta a bit more now, but in still – patate fritte is my ultimate Italian comfort food and my best memories in one dish.
[By the way if you like this recipe, and love this blog, vote for An Italian-Canadian Life for Best Canadian foodie Blog in the MiB Awards today!]
Yellow or Yukon Gold Potatoes
Fresh romano beans
Dried hot pepper flakes or one fresh hot pepper (as desired)
I do a lot of cooking for our house, but the one thing I don’t do with any frequency: make sauce. Sure I do quick tomato sauces (what people call marinara or arrabbiata sauces), but those long-boiling, Sunday-dinner, one huge pot of gold sauce (sugo) – that’s really my mom’s and my husband’s domains. They do it well, really well, so I don’t bother to challenge them on it.
And I have to say, there’s nothing like walking into a house where tomato sauce has been bubbling away all day. The warmth and the pure, sweet smell generates hunger pangs right away. I once had a doctor suggest I was allergic to tomatoes and that I should cut them out of my diet to be sure – I couldn’t fathom it and I still haven’t tried it. For Italians, tomato sauce is the ultimate comfort food and it’s no wonder that I get requests for tomato sauce recipes from readers and friends.
Everyone has their own take on tomato sauce and no one way is correct – they are all perfect in their own way. Each has a special touch from the sauce maker. This recipe was originally called “Sal’s Nonno’s Sauce.” That is, it comes from my husband’s grandfather. But truth be told, it’s actually a mixture of his grandparent’s recipes (from both sides) that make up this awesome sauce. True to form, it really is Sal’s own recipe now that he’s perfected it. And it always gets rave reviews. The shredded meat makes this sauce perfect for huge pasta shapes like rigatoni or a lasgana or pasta al forno.
Many thanks to my husband for pausing long enough for me to take photos and our good friend who spent the day with us making sauce, reminding me to take photos and write this recipe down finally.
500g (1 pound) total of three types of meat. (Either a mixture of pork, veal, and goat OR three different cuts of the same type of meat)
Salt and pepper
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 cloves chopped garlic
2.8kg (100 ounces) of peeled tomatoes
6 cups room temperature water
Fresh basil and parsley
There’s zucchinis coming out of gardens all over the place and today I’m preparing one of my favourite uses for them: pitticelle cucuzze. These zucchini fritters are the ultimate summer snack: light, crispy and made with readily available ingredients. And boy are they available! Our Sicilian zucchini (called tromboncino)-which was featured in my recipe for Tenerumi Pasta-has produced massive zucchini at 4.25 feet long and 6.8 pounds for the largest one.
My grandfather always used to make pitticelle cucuzze during the summer and I struggled to say the Calabrese name for zucchini right: cucuzza. I often mixed it up with Cocuzza, the name of a mountain region in Calabria (Monte Cocuzza). Either way, it’s way more fun to say than the traditional Italian name: zucchino or zucchine.
These pitticelle are a great way to use the zucchini but also zucchini flowers. Many people fry up zucchini flowers on their own and my comare, in Sicilian-style, breads the zucchini flowers and cooks them up like a cutlet (also very good!). In these pitticelle, the flowers add colour and taste but you can make them without the flowers.
Here a tip about pitticelle cucuzze: they are best right out of the frying pan or the next day toasted up to crispy in the oven. Want a little some extra in the pitticelle? Sometimes if my grandfather had it, he would add some shredded mozzarella to the batter as well.
(If you missed my previous posting on pitticelle/fritelle/fritters, check out my explanation of these snacks along with my recipe for pitticelle di pane).
2 cups packed thinly sliced zucchini
5-6 zucchini flowers (optional)
1 cup room temperature water
1-2 tablespoons salt (to prepare the zucchini, you’ll wash this off after)
1/2 teaspoon salt (for the batter)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil (to taste, optional)
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese