Friday, April 29, 2011

Ricotta Mousse with Fragoline di Bosco


If there is one thing I love, it's indulging in a simple yet elegant dessert on a weeknight with an extra long spoon. This ricotta mousse took 10 minutes to prepare and will raise your spirits on a regular hum drum night, but is special enough to serve to guests.


Fragoline di bosco are "wild" strawberries that are cultivated in a town called Nemi about 30 minutes outside Rome in the Alban Hills. The strawberries are grown on the side of the lake which is actually a volcanic crater. We escaped the heat of Rome two summers ago to Nemi, as do many Romans when the heat gets unbearable. As we strolled through the streets of this tiny town, we stopped to enjoy some of these fresh berries.



Fragoline are popular this time of year in delicate fruit tarts and desserts. They are very fragile and must be consumed quickly. They cannot be washed or they practically dissolve. Like a lot of things that grow in the wild, they have also been used medicinally. These little beauties can alleviate digestive disturbances, and are also high in vitamin C, iodine, iron and calcium. All this in addition to their rustic charm.

Mousse di Ricotta
This recipe was created by Cristiana from our favorite restaurant in Rome, Santa Lucia. She was kind enough to share the recipe with us. It makes enough for 4 small servings. The original recipe calls for Grand Marnier but I didn't want to buy a bottle so I used some lemon oil which adds just the right fresh, bright flavor I was looking for.

250 grams (1 cup) cows milk ricotta
2 soup spoons sugar
2 soup spoons Grand Marnier or substitute 1/4 teaspoon lemon or orange oil
3 soup spoons Whipped Cream

Beat the ricotta and the sugar for several minutes with an electric mixer until it becomes creamy. Add the Grand Marnier. Whip the cream (or use whipped cream from a can) and fold in with a spoon or spatula. Serve with wild strawberries, raspberries or blueberries.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fava Bean Puree for pasta or crostini


Fava Beans are a sure sign of Spring in Italy and they are ubiquitous this time of year. They are a powerhouse bean, meaning they are full of protein, iron and fiber, and are sometimes called the "meat of the poor."

In Rome, fava beans are eaten as a rite of Spring in a special meal on May 1st when they are prepared in a salad with soft pecorino cheese as Romans head out to the countryside. Some people even carry a fava bean for good luck and it is believed that in doing so, one will never be without the essentials of life.

In a variation on the Roman recipe, I made a puree that can be eaten on crostini (toasted bread) or as a pasta sauce as I did today.


Fava Bean Puree
Widely adapted from Bonny Wolf (NPR's Kitchen Window Archive)

I suggest using a pasta with ridges that will hold the sauce well. I used cavatappi, which incidentally means corkscrew. Because I like to vary the types of grain we eat, this pasta was made with Kamut (read an interesting history of kamut here.) For a vegetarian dish, omit the pancetta but add additional pecorino cheese or some salt.

2 lbs (1 kilo) fresh fava beans (once shelled, this should render 2 cups.)
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 cup pancetta, cubed

Remove the fava beans from their pods and set some water to boil. Boil the beans for 10 minutes and drain. While the beans are cooking, fry the pancetta until lightly browned and drain on paper towels. Put the hot beans into a food processor along with the crème fraîche, pepper and pecorino cheese. Blend until smooth. Combine the puree with the cooked pasta and sprinkle with pancetta and additional pecorino romano to serve.
This makes enough for 2 - 3 servings.

If making crostini, toast a high quality bread and spread with the puree, then sprinkle the pancetta on top.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gnocchi alla Romana


For several months now, I've been cooking with Elena, my adopted Italian nonna. This week at my request, we made gnocchi alla romana. Unlike these gnocchi which are made from potato, Roman style gnocchi are made from semolina and baked. They have butter, milk and parmesan so they are not light in calories, but no one says you have to eat the whole batch.

Elena came over during Roman's nap so we could have the kitchen to ourselves. I had to lie down with him to get him to stay asleep at one point, and she continued on in the kitchen. From the dark bedroom I could hear her whisking away on the stove and I lay there thinking how nice it felt to have a grandma in my kitchen, even if she's not really "mine." To have a female companion at all in the kitchen is something that is pretty foreign to me. I could very well figure out all of these recipes on my own, but it's a cozy feeling to have an older woman spending time in my kitchen.

These are moments that are usually passed from grandmother to granddaughter, or mother to daughter. I'm lucky that Elena has taken a liking to me and seems to look forward to our Thursday meetings with even greater anticipation that I do. After all, her own busy family doesn't seem to have much time to spend with her.

Our conversation drifts from my weekend trips outside Rome to our upcoming move and then to family, and the past. She tells me that by the time she was 37, she had three kids and was suddenly alone with them when her husband died. She was very in love with him but they had a bad marriage, she says. He talked very little to her and she never understood why. This is why she says she never remarried, because although she loved him, she was skeptical that she would find a man who would be good company for her. She wonders out loud if solitudine is not better. I tell her we all feel alone sometimes, even if we are married. In the end, we are. It reassures me to see a woman who did not have an easy life but who is still upbeat and carries on with a good spirit.

I had never used semolina in a savory dish before. It occurs to me that we call this "cream of wheat" in the States and usually eat it as a hot breakfast cereal, which I love. Called semolino in Italian, this durum wheat is used to make factory bought pasta. Here in Italy (and other countries for that matter) it is also used in desserts, and I am eager to experiment with more recipes using it.

Gnocchi alla Romana
courtesy of Elena

You can serve these as a first course on their own so that you can enjoy their full flavor and texture. They are a distinct comfort food, with a slightly creamy yet savory flavor from the parmesan. The crispy exterior and firm but smooth interior gives them a uniqueness that should not be covered up with a sauce.

1 liter part skim or 2% milk (about 4 cups)
175 grams semolina (1 cup)
1 teaspoon salt (go sparingly and taste before proceeding to step 2.)
55 grams butter (1/4 cup)
1 egg yolk
85 grams parmesan (3 ounces)
freshly grated nutmeg, about 1/2 teaspoon

1. Heat the milk to luke warm in a heavy bottomed pan. Pour the semolina in slowly while whisking to avoid lumps. Add the salt and continue to stir with a whisk or wooden spoon as the milk comes to a light boil and the semolina is slightly stiff, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, half the parmesan and egg yolk.

2. Spread the gnocchi mixture onto a flat surface (I used a jelly roll pan) into a layer about 1 1/2 cm thick and allow to cool completely.

3. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 c). Cut rounds using an espresso cup or small biscuit or cookie cutter. Knead all the scraps together and use to make rounds so you don't waste any of the dough. Butter a baking dish at least 13 x 9 in size and place the rounds so they overlap slightly. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan and then bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Cool for about 5 minutes before serving.

If you are serving fewer than four people, I recommend freezing some of the gnocchi before baking. Then put them straight into the oven from the freezer without defrosting.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Una Coca Dulce, a yogurt and olive oil cake


For years I've kept notebooks where I write down unforgettable meals. A cocktail we had in Thailand I intend to recreate one day, a soup we ate in Laos, an avocado and grapefruit salad, and a cold cucumber soup that Fanny made me in France some 15 or more years ago that I haven't forgotten....

Sometimes I write recipes down and keep them for decades. The one pictured above dates back to a summer spent in Spain when I was about 19 years old. That year I worked as an au pair on the Costa Brava for two little girls.


One day while we took a break from swimming, their mom said, "let's teach Nicole to make a coca dulce" and out came the ingredients onto the counter. The girls were excited. It's one of those easy going but genuinely good cakes that it is a part of the repertoire of many kids or teenagers all over France, Spain and Italy (see a beautiful Italian version here courtesy of Amelia).

I hadn't made a coca since so many years ago in Spain, but this winter, with a steady flow of friends coming over for play dates, I found myself thinking of it. I searched my paper archives for the recipe and there it was. I stuck it up on the refrigerator and started to turn out cocas in all shapes and sizes. I also used muffin tins, mini bundt molds. Then I started to make different varieties. This time I added poppy seeds. There was also a variation with coconut. It helped me work my way through a 5 liter jug of Tuscan olive oil. Everyone loves this cake, and I hope you will too.


Coca Dulce or Yogurt and Olive Oil Cake

To measure you will use the container that the yogurt comes in. My yogurt container contains 6 ounces (170 grams), but the recipe will work with a slightly larger yogurt container. This is a great cake to have as a snack or even in the morning as a treat instead of your normal breakfast.

1 container of yogurt (I make my own yogurt using whole milk.)
2 eggs
1 container full of oil (I always use olive, but the original Spanish cake was made with sunflower oil.)
2 containers full of sugar (I use cane sugar.)
3 containers full of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Zest of one lemon (Make sure it's organic if available, or wash the skin well.)

Optional: 2 tablespoons of poppy seeds. If desired, top the cake with cinnamon and sugar before baking

Mix together the yogurt, eggs, oil and sugar. Sift the sugar and baking powder into this mixture, then add the lemon zest. Pour into your cake mold, muffin or loaf pan (grease pans if necessary) and bake at 350 F (180 C) for about 30 minutes (bake time will vary depending on the size of your cake(s) and your oven). Check periodically. Cake is done when a toothpick comes out clean and it is slightly brown on top.

Three Variations:
1) For a coconut cake, substitute one measure of sugar with shredded, unsweetened yogurt
2) For a chocolate cake, substitute one measure of the flour with powdered chocolate for baking (omit the lemon rind)
3) For an orange and almond cake, use orange rind instead of lemon and substitute one measure of flour with ground almonds

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Radish, Fennel and Apple Salad

IMG_6126 by pncriss

Spring is about awakening, being reborn, growing, transitioning. It's about bright colors and sharp tastes. Surprises in the form of complex flavors and textures. This salad is all of that.

This salad is like taking the covers off your bed and sleeping under a crisp, clean sheet that was dried in the sunshine. This salad is like walking barefoot on blades of green grass and feeling the cold, damp ground under your feet. This salad goes crunch and zing, then sweet and tart. It says "wake up, taste buds, it's time to play."

IMG_6144 by pncriss
Radish, Fennel and Apple Salad
Serves two as a light main course, or four as a side. Serve along side a simple fish or chicken filet. This salad will left you feeling cleansed and fresh.

For the salad
2 bunches of radishes, or about 20 small radishes each cut into quarters
1 bulb of fennel cut into bite size pieces
2 golden delicious apples cut into small chunks
1/2 small red onion diced

For the dressing:
1 clove of garlic
Fresh ginger (a piece about the length of your thumb and twice as wide)
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
5 tablespoons olive oil
salt to taste

Sesame seeds and poppy seeds

Combine all of the salad ingredients. For the dressing, grate the garlic and ginger into a bowl using either a microplane grater or one with small holes. Add the rice vinegar and olive oil, then salt to taste. Sprinkle the dressed salad with sesame and poppy seeds and serve with some of the fronds from the fennel to garnish.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gladiator Pancakes

Last weekend we flew from Rome to the UK for a weekend trip to Richmond Upon Thames, outside London. We spent the weekend walking along the Thames, playing on the green and visiting with friends for P's birthday. It was a much needed change of air and scenery. I realized that feeding a toddler can be challenging while on the road, and I have spent the last two days since we returned home making sure he gets salmon, broccoli, kiwi and what has evolved into "the Breakfast of Gladiators."

When I was pregnant with Roman, my enormous belly got a lot of attention and Romans around the city center would say he must be a campeone or gladiatore, which always made me smile. Since I am the sole "provider" in the kitchen, I take our meals very seriously, and even more so since I'm raising a gladiator.

Enter the pancake. In its "pure" form of white flour and butter, it's not the healthiest choice for breakfast. But with a whole lot of tinkering in the form of cooked oatmeal, spelt flour, grated apple and cottage cheese, it makes for a complete meal, not to mention one that is portable and stroller (or shall I say "buggy") friendly.

Gladiator Pancakes

All winter long I have been making some form of this pancake. When I started I would use the homemade fruit purees that Roman never ate. The pancakes in the photo above have coconut oil and pumpkin puree. There was also a version with pureed prunes and apricots. You can also add ricotta instead of the cottage cheese.

1 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Cooked oatmeal (3/4 cup uncooked oats and 1 cup water, prepared in microwave or on stove top)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 apple or pear, grated

In a medium size bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and cinnamon with a whisk. Add the milk and beaten eggs. Stir in the cottage cheese, cooked oatmeal and grated apple or pear. Cook on a skillet with butter for several minutes each side and serve hot with pure maple syrup. Freeze any leftovers and reheat in the toaster oven.

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