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.
Some things change and some things always stay the same. Right around when the holidays approach I think of how much has changed in my family over the years and yet how many things, like Italian traditions, stay the same no matter how we progress. From the Christmas Eve seafood feast to planning visits to relatives, the holidays are now in full swing. I’ve already started my Christmas baking with my favourite recipes from when I was young and this year, I have to try out a few of my mom’s tried and true (and difficult) Italian treats.
With food, as with heritage, I’m a fan of pieces of Italy found right here in Canada. Today, it’s this beautiful vintage Italian postcard from 1906, found at a paper show just north of Toronto, that I’m loving and sharing with you. A reproduction of a painting, the postcard depicts Rio Van Axel in Venice as seen in the late 1800s. Those greenish-blue colours are my favourite tones and I love the serenity of the image. How much as Venice changed since 1906? As much as the Italian focus on family, food and tradition has: very little.
Well, you judge for yourself. Here’s a photo of modern-day Rio Van Axel…
(look carefully though…might it be that the water is higher? Venice, get those floodgates working!)
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)
What does it mean to be Italian in North America? Today An Italian-Canadian Life welcomes a guest post by Amy Di Nardo, a university student studying nursing in Toronto, who hopes to work in the gerontology field. She loves garlic, kitchen-floor dances, and espresso. (I can’t say I blame her…)
The neighborhood I currently live in Toronto (Downsview) is very diverse. If I go for a walk on a Saturday afternoon, it excites me to hear different languages — whether it be Yiddish, Italian or Russian being spoken at different intersections. At a nearby park, I see young children playing on the swings, while a group of elderly ladies walk by, deep in conversation.
I have lived in Toronto for just about two years and it was a huge transition. I found that it took a great deal of time to adjust to the the rhythm of a large city. In my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, I grew up in an Italian bubble. The city contains a very large Italian population relative to its size and due to its isolation from other major cities (nine hour drive to Toronto), a unique culture was created that lives and thrives within the community.
The ways in which ethnic communities interact, both internally and externally to other groups, seems very different in small versus metropolitan centres.
It didn’t take me much time to find an Italian presence in Toronto. The first experience I had was going to College Street for the Tarantella Festival. The street was closed off for dancing, musicians, vendors and artists such as Mimmo Cavallaro and Rionne Junno. I wouldn’t expect this sort of large-scale event to come to Sault Ste. Marie.
After this event, I was introduced to the popular GTA magazine, PanoramItalia, and the newspaper Lo Specchio. There were profiles, articles, events, language classes — everything you can think of! I quickly realized how organized and vastly different the Toronto Italian community is from Sault Ste. Marie — however, I still cannot put my finger on the exact variances.
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)
It’s been a little quiet on the blog lately and I’ll tell you why – I’ve been travelling through Norway, Finland, Russia and a few other countries, getting some new experiences and trying out some new foods (like reindeer and bear!). I have to tell you though that there’s two things I really missed: working on this blog and a good bowl of pasta. Pasta was the first thing that was served up for dinner when we returned and now I’m back to work on the blog!
Now you all know how much I like to take pictures of my food, especially pasta. (If you didn’t see my previous post on lasagna, check it out). Well now’s your chance to show your photography abilities with your own bowls of pasta and celebrate pasta through World Pasta Day!
I’m a juror for a great contest being run by Aurora Importing & Distributing. It’s super simple and the prize is a great pack of pasta products from Aurora (looks like a whole shopping cart full!). You just upload a photo of a pasta dish you have prepared on Facebook by October 22, get your friends to help vote your photo into the top 5 and us jurors pick the top 3 pics.
If I wasn’t a juror, I would be submitting a photo lickety-split! It doesn’t have to be fancy, just look really tasty – just remember to use your camera or phone to take a pic before you dig in (this is an error I make frequently. I usually remember to take a photo when my dish is almost empty – ooops!). Check out these cellphone pics below from my Instagram account as inspiration and let’s see your photos!
Hurry – contest entries need to be in by October 22 on Facebook!