Monday, March 28, 2011

Cecina- chickpea flour flatbread

Recently it has become evident to me that I can no longer cook the way I used to. I was feeling sort of bad about this as if I had become less of a cook, but now I'm embracing this change because I know it's temporary. Before Roman was born I spent most of my free time planning, shopping and executing elaborate, multiple course meals for friends. Those meals were my creative and social outlet. My favorite pass-time. Now my focus in life has changed and in the kitchen I gravitate towards quick and simple recipes because my attention is being pulled in other directions.

A friend brought over a plate of flat bread made from chickpea flour called cecina (pronounced tche-tcheena). I was excited to discover another use for chickpea flour since the sformato I made last year. Plain and simple, but also tasty and healthy, cecina is a flatbread made of chickpea flour, olive oil, water and salt. It has been eaten for centuries in many different parts of Italy and the Mediterranean and goes by different names including farinata di ceci, and calda calda. It is well known in Tuscany and Liguria but is also eaten in Sardinia and as far away as Morocco where they add egg.

Makes two 22 cm (8 inch) flatbreads

Cecina can be made plain or you can add rosemary, chopped onion, sliced artichoke before baking it. Even plain, it's great as a snack, aperitivo, or to pack in the picnic to the park or the beach. For lunch, top with ham, cheese and avocado for an open face sandwich. The recipes I found on line all said the mixture must sit for a few hours before baking, so be sure to plan ahead. You could use a jelly roll pan and make one large flatbread, which would yield a slightly thinner flatbread.

8 ounces (250 grams) chickpea flour
3 cups (700 ml) water
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 scant teaspoons salt

Sift the chickpea flour into a bowl containing the 3 cups of water, stirring to combine and prevent any lumps. Let this sit for three hours. After this time, stir in the olive oil and the salt. Grease two 8 inch baking tins and divide the batter between the two (it will be very liquid.) Bake at 425 (220 c) for about 15 minutes, or longer to brown the top slightly.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lemony Pasta with Roasted Cauliflower, Pancetta and Crème Fraîche

Any culture has its idiosyncrasies and Italy can be an interesting place to live and observe these quirks. I've never seen a city of people resist Spring to the extent that the Romans do. We've had a few days of bright sun with temperatures in the high 60's (near 19 celsius) and most people on the streets have yet to unburden themselves of their heavy scarves and hats or shed their down jackets.

I grew up in New England, and no matter what the thermostat said in March, I remember putting on last year's short sleeves and running outside to watch the last of the snow melt. Maybe I thought my behavior would encourage Spring to finally arrive. So here in Rome, where we've hardly had a winter by any measure, you'd better believe that I am not putting a jacket back on no matter what.

I buy things that smile at me when food shopping and that's exactly how this dish started. Two gorgeous heads of purple cauliflower, a bag of mezze maniche (literally "half sleeve") pasta that I bought for the name alone, and a walk home to ponder flavors that would pair well.

To welcome Spring, a bowl of short sleeve pasta seemed appropriate.

Lemony Pasta with Roasted Cauliflower, Pancetta and Crème Fraîche
As it turns out, those beautiful heads of cauliflower lost their luster once roasted, kind of like a top model without make up and styling. So feel free to use whatever cauliflower you can find. Paired with some salty but sweet pancetta, crème fraîche and the refreshing zest of lemon, this simple dish made for a nice lunch and goodbye to another winter. Short sleeves optional.

For two

1 large or 2 small heads of cauliflower
3 ounces (100 grams) cubed pancetta
4 large spoonfuls crème fraîche
zest of one lemon
1/2 bag of pasta
parmesan optional

Cut the cauliflower into florets and drizzle with olive oil. Roast at 400 fahrenheit for about 30 minutes.

Cook your pasta al dente.

In a sauce pan, drizzle a little olive oil and fry the pancetta until it begins to brown. Drain out some of the fat onto a paper towel. Turn off the heat and stir in about 4 good soup spoons of crème fraîche and stir to melt. Add the zest of one lemon and toss in the cooked pasta to coat. Serve with freshly ground pepper and some parmesan if you like.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tricolore for my Colonel

Today Italy is celebrating 150 years since the unification and the tricolor flags are slung over balconies everywhere, soaking up a good dose of Spring rain.

Since we are about three months from our departure date, I am starting to wonder if anyone will notice when we are scooped up, flown off and deposited on another soil, far from here. Living abroad, observing people is a pass-time. I'm not sure if they are aware they're being watched, studied and wondered about by a complete stranger.

One of the figures who has caught my attention is a gentleman who lives in a building adjacent to ours. I often see him passing through the gate that connects our two properties. I've always wondered about him, where he's coming from, what he does, details like who cooks for him, or whether he prepares his own meals. He looks about 85 years old, yet he's always dressed in a suit, an overcoat, a proper gentleman's hat and a touting a briefcase. Always impeccable, not a string out of place. He walks with measured steps, you could set a metronome to his gait.

He had never looked up at me, until yesterday when I encountered him with Roman as we were milling around downstairs getting some air. He fumbled for the correct key to open the gate to his building and Roman passed through before him, “broom broom-ing,” eager to explore another property with parked scooters and colorful cars. I thanked him and we passed through. As he walked towards his building I called out “buona sera” and he turned and tipped his hat at me, uttering “di nuovo, buona sera” (good evening, again) as if in his mind he had already wished me a good evening.

I imagine his apartment. A table with a place setting already laid out, a Corriere Della Sera folded just so for him to read. I imagine an old radio or record player playing something soft in the background. Maybe opera. He's not like the other old men I see all over our neighborhood. They stand in groups smoking, talking idly, loudly, never going anywhere, not moving for us to get by on the sidewalk. This man is different. Engaged somehow, yet withdrawn. Always coming or going. Alone. Polite. From another era. I keep thinking about the tip of the hat. I wonder again what he'll have for dinner.

If you want to find out something about someone in Italy, ask the portiere. I mentioned my mystery man to our doorman Alfio and he raised his eyebrows in recognition. “The Colonel,” he said. It turns out he's a retired Colonel from the Italian army and he goes to a military mess hall nearby to have his main meal every day. “He's a widow?” I ask. “No,” Alfio tells me, “he's alone.”

This man served his country and I wonder what he's thinking today and what this day means for him.

In the spirit of the tricolore, I made this radish leaf pesto and topped it with fresh bocconcini and rosy tomato slices.

Radish leaf pesto

Inspired by Chocolate and Zucchini's recipe

I used the leaves from two bunches of small, young radishes. If you get them very fresh, you can also use radish leaves in a salad of mixed greens. It feels great to find a use for something that I used to just throw away. These greens make a terrific pesto that would add a zing to pasta, pizza or spread on a sandwich. As for the quantities, you can wing it and make it just to your taste.

Wash the radish leaves well and place them in the food processor with a small garlic clove, a handful of pine nuts and whizz until processed. Drizzle in some olive oil and then stir in some freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gnocchi di Magro- Wine and Olive Oil Cookies

We are lucky to be within walking distance to one of Rome's best enotecas (wine boutique). When I need wine for a recipe, Roman and I go in. Otherwise, I leave the wine purchases to P, who has spent much of the last 18 months learning about and enjoying Italy's finest wines. We're usually the first customers of the day, and they normally sell me something for under 5 euro, since it's for cooking. I neglected to buy wine for this recipe, so P had to open up a bottle of 2005 Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello tends to run a bit pricey, but it's worth it. We've seen it in the States for 70 dollars a bottle and up. We pay less than that here since we're not paying importation fees. At first, P cringed at using one of his good bottles to make cookies, but I explained that to get a good outcome, you have to use quality ingredients. When he tasted these, he agreed wholeheartedly that the brunello was a wise choice.

I discovered gnocchi di magro when I walked into the entoeca to buy red wine for my coda alla vaccinara and saw these bags of little, tiny nuggets of cookies sitting on the counter. Intrigued, never having tasted a dessert gnocco, I paid the whopping 8 euro for a bag, curious as ever to try them. I waited till we got home to pop one in my mouth. Made in Umbria, gnocchi di magro are about 30% olive oil, 30% red wine, flour, sugar and a bit of leavening agent. I visited the website of the producer, but did not find a recipe there. So, I googled and talked to some Italian food bloggers who directed me to a recipe that I think worked nicely. The original recipe from which I adapted this is for ciambelline, so I made a few in that dough-nutty shape. But what I really wanted was a tiny, bite size cookie to toss into my mouth (one after the other). What these cookies lack in looks, they make up for in decadent flavor and uniqueness. Diamonds in the rough.

Gnocchi di Magro
Yield will vary based on size of cookies you decide to make.

These are vegan by nature and they come together in a snap. You don't need to be at all fussy about the shape. Just form logs, slice into little bits, toss in sugar and bake. To me, part of their charm is that they are all shaped slightly differently, like things in the real world. They taste great along side a glass of wine, but would be equally good served with a strong hot chocolate, or better yet a rich chocolate mousse. Then again, their flavors would pair well with fruit or a plate of cheeses.

500 grams flour (17.5 ounces, or slightly over 2 cups)
scant cup of sugar (for the sugar, oil and wine, I used a dry cup measure and filled to about a centimeter below the rim)
scant cup of fruity olive oil
scant cup of high quality, dry red wine
leavening agent (I used a packet of cream of tartor, but you could substitute about 2 teaspoons of baking powder.)

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, then transfer to the counter top and knead until nicely incorporated. Form small logs with your hands and slice off little bits. Toss these gently in more sugar and place on a baking sheet lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes, then turn them over and bake for another 10 minutes or so. Baking times will vary depending on your oven, but you want them to be slightly golden brown.

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