There’s nothing like the memories of food and emotion to mark your travels. The flavours we sample when out of our daily routine sometimes stay with us for years. And even when you think you know all about Italian food, there’s always something that will still surprise you. For this post, student Daniel Elia brings us his adventure of Finding Panelle in Italy.
During the Fall of 2012, I was given the opportunity to spend a year in Italy on exchange, attending university while teaching English at a private school. Growing up in an Italian household, food was always at the centre of any encounter or celebration. I had always associated good food with sitting down at my Nonna’s house with homemade soppressata, wine and parmeggiano. As a twenty year old in the middle of his university education in Canada, I had obviously devoured my fair share of street food after a night out drinking. I had never envisioned Sicilian street food tasting surprisingly as delicious as my family gatherings back in Canada.
A childhood friend also on exchange in Denmark and I traveled to Palermo, hoping to attend a soccer game and encounter a greasy Mafioso in his natural habitat. Upon arriving to our hostel, we were greeted by an unbelievably friendly Australian working at the front desk and were swept away with the rest of the occupants of the hostel to the area known as La Vucciria – the meat market. After seeing buildings still in ruins from WWII and interacting with friendly locals who had quite an odd interest in reggae music, we were told we had to indulge in a traditional late-night snack. We were led to a carello with a greasy man, hair greased back, and his chest hair hanging out of his shirt; the quintessential Sicilian stereotype. Without hesitation we paid for our unknown snack and were given the sandwich; Panelle.
It’s holiday season again! It’s also my sons’ first Easter. It would be slightly more exciting if he were crawling or walking and hunting for eggs but I’ll still take the opportunity to get some classic sweets on the table to celebrate. And boy, am I going classic!
Lemon twist cookies. If you know an Italian, you probably know these cookies. Tangy, dense and not-too-sweet but still a treat. Every Nonna has a recipe like this one and, in fact, this was my Nonnas’. One way to tell this for sure: it is made with oil, not butter. Also, the ingredients include lemon zest and juice. Many modern recipes ask for lemon extract, but I’m betting they didn’t have any of that in her mountain town in Italy. Dipped in a lemony glaze and decorated (usually with sprinkles – but more about that later), you can find these on many cookie tables at special events.
Since it’s Easter, you’ll find them next to Easter Ciambelle and Easter Bread and one of those large Italian chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in brightly-coloured foil. All this probably following a meal of lamb and spinach and ricotta pie. It’s a big celebration with all the family, and all the food you would expect. To tell the truth, the kids might bring Easter baskets to fill up on chocolate eggs, but these days my basket just gets filled up with Easter leftovers and I don’t mind a bit. Double up this recipe and you’ll have plenty to share too. Happy Easter! Buona Pasqua!
Italian Lemon Twist Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
3 tsp baking powder
Zest and juice of one lemon + 1/3 cup lemon juice for glaze
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups icing sugar
First let me tell you this was the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. But who could expect less? Presented by the “How Italy does Italian” tour in advance of World EXPO 2015 in May, Michelin-star Chef Giancarlo Morelli brought his cooking and style to George Brown College in Toronto and I was lucky enough to be part of the whole experience. Focusing on the art of simple food with pure ingredients, Chef Morelli reminded me why care in cooking and selecting products makes such a difference in your food. And now with his recipe for risotto, you can give it a try too.
Part of me was expecting complicated techniques and foreign tools from the demonstration. What I got was a reminder that the best food is cooked simply and authentically with attend paid to bringing out the flavour of each element. Care and creativity is in the process, the ingredients and the end taste. For Chef Morelli, this was his first day in Canada leading into a week-long tour by Italian product producers showcasing the best Italy has to offer. “Just because it has an Italian flag on it, doesn’t mean it’s Italian,” says Chef Morelli, reminding us to know where our ingredients come from. Among his shared cooking philosophies (which I am adopting!): he doesn’t use salt during the cooking, only to finish the dish. His reasons for this are two-fold: it’s important to avoid too much salt for a healthy life and “if you can’t get the feeling and flavour of each ingredient when you taste a dish,” he notes, “then it doesn’t work.”
Below is Chef Morelli’s risotto recipe, which you have to try as he won “best risotto in the world” in a competition of 1,100 dishes at the Concorso Premio Gallo in 2010. Yet, Chef Morelli is clear to tell us that risotto has been the same for 200 years. He doesn’t change the culture of food but perfects and modernizes how it is created. Some tips on creating this winning dish from the Chef himself:
– Choose an organic carnaroli rice, not necessarily arborio. You can find this at most Italian grocers.
– Use vegetarian stock only. Add 2kg of seasonal vegetables to 5L of water (no salt!) and cook for 2-3 hours for a rich stock.
– It’s impossible to have risotto without butter. Use butter or butter and oil to start the dish, and butter to finish it. Use frozen butter when finishing, this will help to develop the creaminess of the dish properly, instead of the butter breaking down too quickly.
– The rice will cook in exactly 13 minutes, so set your timer.
– Never leave the rice alone, it’s like a baby you have to nurture.
– Balance the dish at the end with the butter and the cheese, no additional salt, off the heat. This technique is called the “mantecatura”, finishing with fats and stirring vigorously to add air into the dish.
The recipe, below, to stay true-to-form, is in Italian and English. Use care in picking your ingredients and in your cooking and you’ll have a winner too. If you give it a try, let me know how it works out in the comments (hint: you can omit the bone marrow and wine caramel topping and it’s still amazing!).
Confession: I gave up sugar for lent. And I’m craving cookies.
If you know me well, you know that cookies are my downfall. And Italians have SO many good cookie recipes. The options run through my mind all day and it’s got to stop. On top of the cravings, I get emails – lots of emails – about cookies, especially during the spring.
Spring often means bridal showers and that means home baking for the cookie tables. I would guess this is one of the most popular times for baking each year (second only to Christmas). Have you never been to an Italian bridal shower? You can check out pictures from my own and my sisters from this previous post, then you’ll understand the allure. To help you get ready for your baking (for whatever the reason) and save me from eating cookies myself, I’ve found an easy, traditional and flavourful recipe to add to your repertoire. From Rosetta Costantino’s book Southern Italian Desserts, Pezzetti di Cannella (little cinnamon cookies) are the classic Nonna cookie. In fact, my husband’s eyes lit up when he grabbed a few off the tray the last time I made them, he hadn’t had them for years. Rosetta’s book is a recommended purchase for anyone who loves Italian desserts, I refer to it regularly! Enjoy the baking!
A foreword from Rosetta: My mother’s friend Yolanda Tateo shared her mother’s recipe for these cookies. Yolanda moved to the United States from Sava (Puglia) when she was in her twenties. This is one of the few recipes from home that she has kept over the years. These bite-sized cookies are perfect to have on hand for visitors or to enjoy with a cup of coffee or tea. It’s worth splurging on good-quality cinnamon because it is the predominant flavouring. The recipe makes a lot of cookies; they can be stored for up to a month in an airtight container.
Pezzetti di Cannella
2 cups (264 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1/4 cup (60 ml) safflower or other neutral-tasting vegetable oil
2 tablespoons whole milk
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
We spent the summer putting away fresh vegetables and meat products into the freezer. We like knowing where our food comes from, how it is prepared and preserved. Our freezer is well stocked for the winter and even has an accompanying spreadsheet and map (it’s needed! As are labels on everything!). But all that work means making sure we use everything too.
That can be a little difficult months later when you want to branch out to new dishes instead of the same old. There is only so much rapini one person can eat, says my husband, who, last summer, thought it was a good idea to freeze a bushel of the greens. When I pulled out what I thought was a packet of pork last week, and it ended up being chicken, it was time to break out of the go-to recipes and think about something we hadn’t had in a while.
The answer: chicken cacciatore. I’m not a huge fan of green and red peppers, which is why we don’t have this dinner often, but after making it this time, I’m not sure why not. I stuck to the recipe that my family uses, and they used at their Italian restaurant they had when I was young. This is a basic cacciatore recipe, relying on the flavours of the tomatoes, peppers and chicken, rather than wine or capers as you may see in more modern recipes. Smothering rice or pasta, it’s perfect for a workplace lunch the next day too. Now to find a way to get my husband to eat more rapini…
2 pounds, bone-in chicken pieces
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 pound button mushrooms
1 large onion
1 jar or can plum tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
There’s a draft coming in from the base of our sliding door. Maybe we need more insulation or a new door but for now, my feet, under the kitchen table, are getting stone cold. It’s funny how a little line of insulation, filling in the tiniest crack, can make all the difference to making you fill warm and comfy.
Protection from those icy winds of January, at least the ones we have here in Canada, can mean the simplest of things. A good warm blanket, a crackling fire. And to keep your belly and toes warm, a hot bowl of Nonna’s secret weapon: pastina.
My baby boy isn’t old enough yet to appreciate this recipe, but no doubt he will learn it soon enough. The subtle broth and simple pasta make a bowl of goodness that every Italian kid knows well from deep winter nights and those days spent home from school with a cold. Plain enough that every kid will eat it and hearty enough that even adults crave it years later, pastina is as basic as it comes and every Nonna knows it well.
This cold draft is starting to give me the sniffles, so it’s off to the stove to warm up some of this myself. Feeling chilly? Try out the recipe yourself…
1 cup pasta, any tiny kind like stars, rice shapes, or the most typical: acini di pepe
4 cups chicken broth
1 cheese rind (optional)
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, to taste