Pistou Soup

I realise that writing about soup in the dead-heat of summer might be a controversial choice. Very few of us think about craddling a big, hot bowl of soup in our hands when the cicadas are screaching outside and we’re still daydreaming about popsciles and swimming pools and cool, tile floors. But there is one soup that deserves our attention right now and not a moment later – and that, dear friends, is soupe au pistou.

Pistou soup is really a blank canvas for whatever is seasonably available. In the summer months, when market produce is abundant, you can more or less throw in whatever looks most attractive to you – zucchini, beans, chard, fresh peas. This is a handy back-pocket dish for people like me, who often browse the market without a list and end up adopting too many vegetables (because they all looked good and they all needed a home). Like ripe tomato salads and fragrant berry pies, this soup is an honest expression of summer, whose crowning glory (the pistou) is made with what might arguably one of the best endowments of June, July and August – sweet basil.

As you’ll see in the recipe below, French pistou is nearly identical to Italian pesto, the only difference being that the French variation doesn’t contain pine nuts. You can think of them as fraternal twins – both use generous amounts of fresh, leafy basil and parmesan cheese, pounded into a fragrant paste with a little olive oil and salt; both are delicious tossed into pasta, slathered onto fish, or swirled into vegetable soups like this one, which, I think, is one of the best ways to tip your hat to summer.

Go forth and harness the bounty.

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Pistou Soup – lightly adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes about 5 quarts of soup

Note: In a perfect world, you’re making this soup with dried beans that have been soaked overnight and cooked. But if you haven’t done this step, just use canned and don’t mention it to the purists.

  • 1 cup (200g) dried canelli beans (or canned)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and diced (or: 3 leeks, cleaned and sliced)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 medium carrots carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1/4 pound green beans, tips removed and cut crosswise into quarters
  • 2 leaves swiss chard, chopped (optional*)
  • a few leaves of raddichio, chopped (optional*)
  • a couple of green cabbage leaves, chopped (optional*)
  • 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup  fresh, shelled fava beans  (or: fresh or frozen peas)
  • 1 cup dried pasta (any small variety will do, such as orzo, tubetti, or shells)

*optional because I tossed these only because I had them on hand.

For the pistou – makes 1 cup

  • 1 large clove of garlic, peeled
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 ounces parmesan, grated

Directions

If using dried beans:

  • Rinse and sort the beans. Soak the beans overnight covered in cold water.
  • The next day, drain the beans and put them in a large saucepan with the bay leaves and enough water to cover the beans with about 1 1/2 quarts (1.5l) of water. Cook the beans for about an hour, or until tender, adding more water if necessary to keep them immersed. Once cooked, remove the beans from the heat and set aside.

1) In a Dutch oven or large stockpot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions (or leeks) and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.

2) Add the thyme, diced carrots, zucchini, green beans, cabbage (if using) garlic, and salt. Season with pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked and fragrant (about 10 minutes). Add the cooked beans and their cooking liquid and bay leaves, then the peas and pasta, plus 2 quarts (2l) water. (if using canned beans, you’ll need to add about a 1/2 litre of water to make up for the cooking liquid). Bring the soup to a boil, and simmer a few minutes until the pasta is cooked. (if using the swiss chard and raddichio, you can toss them in a couple of minutes before the pasta is cooked.)

Note: If the soup is too thick, you can thin it with additional water, but make sure to adjust the seasoning too.

3) While the soup is cooking, make the pistou: pound the garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle (or use a food processor) with a generous pinch of salt. Coarsely chop the basil leaves and pound them into the garlic until the mixture is relatively smooth. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly, while pounding, then pound in the cheese. Taste, and season with more salt if desired.

To serve: Remove the bay leaves. Ladle hot soup into bowls and add a generous spoonful of pistou to the centre. Serve with extra pistou on the side.

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Italy, condensed – Pt.2 – Palermo

This is part two of a three-part post on Rome, Palermo and Sclafani Bagni (Case Vecchie), cobbled together from notes in my travel journal. To read Part One, click here.

Italy Part Two // Palermo, Sferracavallo, Mondello // 1 week

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Seeing Sicily for the first time felt like virtual reality – the blues were so blue, the greens were so green, the mountains so immense, primeval and jagged they felt Jurassic. As our plane decended, I stayed glued to the window. There it was, Sicily in the flesh – in all it’s rugged, craggy glory. A place that sits on three tectonic plates and is home to Europe’s two largest active volcanos; an island that has been invaded and inhabited by Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Spaniards, and Normans; a triangular nugget snipped from the tip of Italy’s boot, left to evolve and percolate off-continent.

Like a lot of people before me – and a lot of people to follow – I’d fallen head over heels for this beautiful chimera. Sicily had slain me and I hadn’t even left the tarmack.

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—–

Sferracavallo, Palermo
Tuesday, June 14th
8:30pm

This afternoon, the airport shuttle bus dropped me off in a suburb outside Palermo, where I was meant to catch a second bus – the one to that little horseshoe-shaped speck on the map north of Palermo, with the promise of the sea – a town with the lyrical name, Sferracavallo. When I booked my trip, I remember thinking that it might be a bit tricky coordinating transit from Palermo centre to this small, sparsely-populated (read: off-the-beaten path) fishing village by the water. My concerns were confirmed once I found myself standing on that dusty meridian outside Palermo, in the middle of a deserted boulevard, far, far away from home.

Palermitan bus schedules – posted on large boards high above each bus stop – aren’t the easiest to decipher; to the uninitiated, they are a complete and utter nightmare. There was no conceivable way of knowing if I was on the right side of the road, or whether I was heading east, north, south or west, or if I’d been blown away by a tornado in Kansas and dumped somewhere along the yellow brick road. (sidenote: while most people travel with data on their phone to help them get around, I don’t. It’s a symptom of having a frugal octogenarian living in my brain. I promise to catch up soon.)

I wandered around for a bit, rolling my bulky suitcase over cracked sidewalks and nubby curbs, in search of a tabacchi where I could buy a bus ticket and possibly get directions – ones that would be more accurate than, say, sticking a wet finger into the wind. A couple passing by told me there was a ticket counter in the piazza, pointing to a large roundabout in the distance, with a tuft of palm trees sticking out of the middle. It was so far and hot, the trees were surrounded by wobbly mirage lines. I looked down at my suitcase, which looked more worse for wear than I did, wondering if I should just shell out for a cab. Just one more ticket. One more bus. Almost there. The ticket vendor directed me to the correct stop, a whole three blocks away from where the shuttle dropped me off, and on the other side of the road.

I waited a long time for that second bus – maybe 45 minutes – but it came, and I got on; I was so tired, I barely noticed the gum I stepped in and the cockroaches crawling around my luggage. A young mother and her two girls got on soon after me. One of them – the youngest of the two – stood facing me and started to stare. Not in a coy or curious way, as sometimes young kids are prone to do, but rather in this unflinching, scowling way, with a toughness I couldn’t quite place. She stared like this for a good couple of minutes. I pretended to ignore her. At some point she nudged her sister, glanced down at my mid-section and said to her quietly, “Ha una borsa la.” (“she’s got a purse there”, referring to my chic, beige, slightly sweat-damp waist wallet). We locked eyes and I inched forward, “Come stai, ragazza? Bene?“, making sure she understood that I understood, whatever her intentions might be, malicious or not. I’ll risk being perceived as a weirdo over having my fanny pack stolen on sweaty bus. The look on her face shifted from tough to stunned as her gaze dropped to the floor. The three of them got off at the next stop.

That’s when I met Roberto, the macellaio – an older man from Isola delle femmine with kind eyes and suspenders who said that my Italian was “proprio buono“. We chatted for a bit and at some point I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to get off. “Non te preoccupare, te lo dico io“. I was glad to have him there, like a spry version of my grandfather, telling me where I needed to go. A couple of stops before mine, he mentioned that he worked in nearby Mondello, as a butcher, and that if I happened to make the trip out, that I should come and see him. I took down some notes – Mondello, Roberto, macelleria, near la sirena (the mermaid), open on Saturdays. Visiting him seemed like a long-shot, but part of me really liked the idea. I pocketed the notes and stepped off the bus, waving him goodbye from the sidewalk.

—–

With my suitcase safely deposited at my apartment rental, I headed down to the water to sit on the rocks and watch the sun slowly dip down below the horizon. It took me a train, a plane, two buses and a lot of broken Italian to get here. But I’m here – in Sferracavallo – that miniscule seaside town on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea, sandwiched between a natural reserve and a craggy mountainside. The shore is populated with what look like pastel dollhouses, frozen in time. It smells of salt and seaweed, summer and infinity.

This is what you take a train, a plane and two buses for – a landscape so beautiful it sucks the air straight out of your lungs. It’s at this point you can pause, take a deep breath and know that it was worth every bloody step.

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—–

Sferracavallo, Palermo
Wednesday, June 15th
8:50am

Sferracavallo only has one supermarket – a dusky little place with two aisles and a lot of vacant shelf space, with a charcuterie counter at the back, rows of sunscreen at the front, and one sullen cashier manning the checkout with her no-bullshit, frosty gaze. The thing is, even in dingy little supermarkets, in tiny nowhere towns, you can still find grocery gold – palm-sized balls of mozzarella for 50 cents; fresh ricotta spooned into parchment paper and sold by weight; long, thin slices of prosciutto cotto; yogurts with interesting flavour combinations (hazelnut/fig is brilliant), not to mention a selection of totally acceptable table wine for under 5 euros a bottle.

At the cash register, a woman noticed the bottle of San Benedetto iced tea that I’d plunked onto the conveyor belt. “È buono questo. Lo comprato anch’io”, pointing to the stash of iced tea bottles in her cart. She tells me that she sometimes makes iced tea at home from scratch – black tea, lemon juice, un po di zucchero – hinting that her decision to get the store-bought stuff usually depends on how much is in the bank account. We start talking a little about the increase in food prices and the economic difficulties in Italy, and more specifically Sicily. My Italian is rusty and stunted in dialect, but we seem to understand eachother. At some point she mentions arrangiarsi, or the ability to “arrange oneself”, to manage, to get by with what you have (in French, se débrouiller). We talk about how cooking at home is such an important part of arrangiarsi, as an expression of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

As we talk, I think about the exorbitant 18 euros I spent on restaurant ravioli last night, at one of the few places in town whose entrance is plastered in Trip Advisor stickers. My stomach sinks a little just thinking about it. Apprehensive of making the same mistake today for lunch, I turn to the idea of arrangiarsi. Before the woman leaves with her groceries, I ask her if there’s a produce vendor in town. I follow her outside the store, where she points down the street, “dritto e poi a destra“.

There, under the shade of big, colourful awnings, are a series of fruit and vegetable stands. Vendors call out to customers and stride back and forth behind rows of wooden crates stacked with Sicilian produce – broad beans, peaches, vine-ripened tomatoes, eggplant, fresh garlic, onion and basil. It’s my first time encountering fragolini, delicate, wild strawberries that have centres closer to ripe, mashed banana. Then there is the mammoth cucuzza, a mild, Sicilian zucchini, grown several feet long, along with their silky, tender leaves called tenumeri, often used in soups. After selecting a few things, including a big bunch of basil that I haggled down from 1.50€ (astronomical, aka “tourist price”) to 0.50€ (closer to the norm), I ask the vendor for some garlic. He brings me a whole braid, with about ten bulbs on it. I laugh, “Oh no…solo uno per favore“, explaining that I’m only here for a few days. He says they don’t normally sell them a l’unità, but then shrugs and snaps ones off from the braid, tossing it into my bag. When I offer to pay him for it, but he shoos away my offer, “Va bene, signorina“.

Market freebies like this one are more or less common around Italy;  I imagine they help vendors build a regular client base. It’s a simple, somewhat Pavlovian technique, but it works; I visited his stand every day after that, and every day something was tossed in at no cost.

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Across the street from the produce stands is the Swordfish Man, who, I am told, arrives every morning with a new haul. It’s a fairly basic operation – a stainless steel counter, a cutting board, a cleaver, some fresh water and ice. You tell him how much you need – in grams, or for how many people – and he slices off slabs, eyeballing the requested amount. He sells a few other items, including bright scarlet gamberi rossi (Sicilian red shrimp) and some small fish with iridescent skin, but it’s the swordfish you really come for. As he prepares my order, I ask two women beside me how they usually prepare theirs. One of them says, “Solo olio, sale, e un po’ di pepe. Nient’altro”.  She lowers her glasses and raises an cautionary finger when she says it. In other words, do not mess with the fish. Keep it simple. Capisce?

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I return to the apartment with my spoils, feeling gratified and happy to be back in the kitchen, making my own meals. Over the next few days, I make my way through the different bits and bobs I picked up at the market. The peaches, added in slices to a picnic sandwich of prosciutto cotto, basil and mozzarella, are so fragrant and ripe they melt in your mouth; the tomatoes, sliced thin and seasoned with salt and Sicilian oregano are so flavourful they pinch the insides of my cheeks; the ricotta, smooth, cool and cloud-like, collapse gently on spoonfuls of warm minestra.

And the swordfish, well, the swordfish made me weep. Like, actually weep. I sat at the table, fork in hand, my eyes welling up with hot, fat tears, stunned at how something so simple, so seemingly innocuous, could trigger such a deep-seated feeling of unadulterated joy. It’s the kind of food that reaches into your chest, squeezes your heart and in some magical, unspoken way, changes you.

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—-

Palermo, City Centre – day trip
Thursday, June 16th

It’s hotter than stink today. 45 degrees in the shade. When I opened the window early this morning, expecting a fresh gust of cool air, a blast of scorching air greeted me instead. It was only 8am. Had Mount Etna blown? Or was this the beginning of the apocalypse? Groggy and confused, I failed to find a reasonable explanation beyond those two.

A short time after, my host, Giusy (pronounced “Juicy”, short for Giuseppina) said, “C’è proprio un’fuoco oggi“. I thought she meant, quite literally, that there had been a fire. That makes sense, I thought. I asked where the fire was. “Ah, no – è solo un espressione, quando fa molto caldo.” So there’s no fire. It’s just an expression. In other words, we’re going to be on fire today. This also happens to be the one day I chose to visit the city centre, on foot, without reprieve of the sea or the occasional cold shower. Brilliant.

10:30am

I catch the first of two buses to Palermo centre. It’s packed to the gills; we’re a mound of sweaty, lethargic commuters, trying our best not to come into physical contact with one another, but failing miserably. About ten minutes in, a ticket agent steps on, requesting to see proof of validation from all passengers, one by one. He quickly gets into an impassioned argument with an old man standing next to me. Did he touch someone inappropriately? Did he steal something? No, the problem is he doesn’t have a ticket. A minute later, the ticket agent’s wrath is directed at a second passenger – a woman – who he also discovers is ticket-less. With a voice tht fills the whole bus, he tells them they’re thieves; he threatens to take their pictures and report them to the authorities. It’s a mess of words, of shouting, of veins protruding from necks. At the next stop, he orders them off the bus. They oblige, begrudgingly, telling him he’s a monster for forcing them off the bus in this heat. Once they’re off the bus, he catches my gaze; his face is now suddenly calm, the blood flowing back down from his temples and neck. He shugs, and with both hands cupped together in prayer pose, asks rhetorically – “Ma che posso fare? E il mio lavoro“. I’m not quite sure why I become the confessional, but I nod sympathetically before turning my head to the window, heart pounding, hoping in vain to catch a cool breeze.

—-

In Palermo I’m meeting a friend of a friend, a Palermitana named Fabrizia, who occasionally takes friends on food tours of the city. Of specific interest to her is Palermo’s street food, which you can often find in and around the city’s outdoor markets. In a string of online messages in the days preceding my visit, she asked me if I had any aversions or allergies, to which I answered an excited “Nope! [smiley-face emoticon]. I’ll try anything”. I knew that this would leave me open to a Pandora’s box of eclectic delights, many of which I’d never had before and most of which incorporated scraps, leftovers, rifuti from the butchering process. In other words, the bits that would normally be thrown away. I was curious about the different kinds of Palermitan street food, and I felt lucky to have Fabrizia – someone so well-versed on the subject – leading the way.

First stop is the Capo market – a narrow, winding alley flanked by vendors on each side. As we enter, Fabrizia points out the local specialty “babbalucci” – tiny, translucent snails in stripy, cream-coloured shells. Stacked high in sturdy crates, they look like piles of ornamental seashells (that is, until you spot the few that are writhing around). Fabrizia says that to cook them, they’re normally tossed into a fry pan with olive oil, slivers of garlic and chopped parsley. The vendor doesn’t have any ready to eat, so we continue to meander down the alley, slowly squeezing between old ladies and pushy scooter drivers -not unlike the babbalucci trying to squirm around eachother.

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Soon after, we come to a cart on wheels with a heavily concealed wicker basket placed on top, draped in layers of cloth. “This is frittola“, Fabrizia tells me. “You know frittola?“. “The stuff leftover from the calves’ slaughter, right? Cooked in lard?”. “Exactly“, she says. The dishtowels are to retain the heat of the frittola, but I’ve heard that it’s also part of the tradition of shrouding the whole thing in mystery; Fabrizia confirms this, “Yeah…you never really know what you’re going to get. It’s a surprise every time.

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We order a serving. The vendor smiles, bearing gaps in the places where his molars should be, the corners of his eyes crinkling. I can tell he’s eager to see me try it. He rolls up a strip of waxy charcuterie paper into a cone shape, then plunges his hand deep into the mystery basket. He mixes it together a little, then pulls out a handful of gnarly bits – toasty in colour, heady with fat. We add a squeeze of lemon, some salt and dig in. Some pieces are squishy, some are crispy. They all have the same deep-fried flavour, thanks to the lard; the taste is close to roasted chicken skin, but its texture is closer to tripe. Or maybe aorta?After a few bites, I’ve reached my limit. Fat saturation comes quickly with this kind of street food, which – unless you’re a construction worker – is best enjoyed in small doses.

 

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frittola

photo by Giulia Oddo

A little further along, we stop at two little shops – one that sells minestra with tenerumi, deep-fried potato croquettes with chopped mint (crocchè), thin chickpea-flour fritters (panelle), fish croquettes, and a salad with the fresh anchovies, marinated in oil and vinegar; the other, a piatto misto with sweet and sour caponata, fava beans, string beans, potatoes and chopped tomatoes – all of it scooped up with chunks of bread. For good measure, we also ordered the sfincione, a deep-dish Sicilian pizza, this one garnished with oregano and anchovies.

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piatto misto

photo by Fabrizia Agnello

There’s one more thing just outside the Capo market that Fabrizia wants me to try. “Have you heard of musso?“, she asks. I had, but only because I did a bit of online research before coming to meet her. “It’s either pork snout or cow muzzle, right?” She nods her head and tells me there’s a man nearby that has a stand entirely dedicated to cow parts – utter, cartilage, bull penis, and, of course, musso. His products are laid out plainly on thick blocks of ice, ready to be carved and doled out to customers. Fabrizia orders some musso for us. “Un pezzo carnoso, per favore.” She specifies wanting the meatier piece without cartilage. The vendor is a man of few words; the only thing that slips out of his mouth is a sullen critique of what we’ve ordered. “Vi state perdendo la parte più saporita“, he cautions in a gravelly voice. Apparently we’ve chosen the less flavourful part. He prepares it for us, almost begrudgingly, laying thick slices of musso on a piece of parchment paper.

The flavour reminds me a little of roast beef, if roast beef were boiled and icy cold. It’s a nice counterpart to all the grease-laden (albeit tasty) bits of street food we’ve picked at throughout the market. The meat is chewy, cool, neutral tasting, and dare I say, a little like a palate cleanser.

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A little futher along our walk comes Mercato di Ballarò, equally well-stocked with fresh produce piled high, different types of fresh and preserved fish, various incarnations of sheep and cow-milk cheeses (the baked ricotta was perhaps my favourite), as well souk-like stands with their myriad displays of nuts and spices. The offer of street food continues, with fried rings of calimari, stuffed whole squid, and bite-sized sardine saltimbocca, rolled up and fastened with toothpicks. In several spots, there are vats of boiled corn on the cob, potatoes and artichokes (carciofi), ready to eat. Everything before us – from the prepared food, to the squat Saturn peaches and fresh, fuzzy-skinned almonds – is astonishingly inexpensive. At least by North American standards.

I still can’t believe that whole basket of plums was one Euro.

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It’s at Ballarò that I end up having my first taste of babbalucci.  After asking for a sample, the vendor plucks one from the pile and hands it to me, its shell slicked in oil. These are not French escargot. There are no dainty two-pronged forks to extract them with; no crispy breadcrumbs adorning the top. These are babbalucci, my friend. No-nonsense food that you lift to your lips and suck out the shell in one go. They’re chewy, as you might expect, but not in an unplesant way – a little like cooked calamari. They’re also very delicious. The mixture of warm olive oil, sautéed garlic and parsley remind me of my Nonna’s pasta aglio e olio. Even minutes after we’d left the stand, I kept turning to Fabrizia, “Those were good. I mean, really good”. It’s extra special it is when something completely unexpected lights up your tastebuds like that. It’s exciting. I never thought that sautéed snails would be capstone of my Sicilian street food experience, but there it was – one of the world’s simplest, most modest foods – securing a place along some of my best food memories. Who knew.

—–

By the time we reach the third spot – Mercato Vucciria – the market day was winding down. Many of the vendors had closed up shop and the customers had returned home. “They’re going to re-open again tonight, for the night market.“, Fabrizia points out. Oh, right. The night market. In the little that I’d read about it, the Palermitan night market sounded mythical – late-night browsing, beers, more street food, like those spleen sandwiches (milza) cooked in lard and sprinkled with wispy bits of shredded cheese, or spit-roasted delicacies like stigghiola (lamb or calf intestines), dressed with a quick squeeze of lemon. I’m regretful not to be staying in the city centre that night, but am also looking forward to escaping the heat by heading back to Sferracavallo, that little safe haven of cool, salty breezes, where the only daily commotion comes from the church bells and squawking seagulls.

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Fabrizia accompanies me back the the square where I’m to take the first bus home. On the way, we bump into one of her friends who says she’s been waiting for an hour for the bus. Apparently, some of the city’s bus drivers have refused to go to work because of the heat. This bodes well. It’s early afternoon and the air has gotten thicker and even more oppressive; the sun beats down hard, making my exposed forearms feel like they’re sizzling. There are strong gusts of wind, but they’re thick, not refreshing, hitting you like a wall. The sound of ambulance sirens can be heard throughout the day. There’s a man across the street lying listless on a bench, being fanned by his friend as paramedics arrive. At different points in the day, I’ve been told – by Giusy, vendors, Fabrizia – that even for Palermo, this kind of heat isn’t normal.

Mercifully, the first bus comes shortly after I arrive at the stop. As I wait for the second bus outside Palermo centre – the one I would eventually wait nearly two hours for – I see in the distance that a piece of Monte Pellegrino is burning. Later that evening, on the news, I’d find out that the whole island was covered in wildfires that day.

Sicily was, quite literally on fire. It seems that Giusy’s expression wasn’t just an expression any longer.

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—–

Sferracavallo, Palermo
Friday, June 17th

After yesterday’s heatwave and the resulting brushfires, I was grateful to wake up in Sferracavallo this morning to cooler air. The sun was bright, but not oppressive; worlds away from yesterday’s inferno. I’ve decided to stay in Sferracavallo today, instead of returning to Palermo centre for more sightseeing. You can chalk it up to a mild case of post- traumatic stress from being stranded by buses in the blaring heat. My head still feels cooked and I’d much rather stay here, where the water is closeby and I can wander around at the slowest of paces.

I suspect I’ll have no regrets.

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—–
1:30pm

Giusy is home for lunch today. She proposes we make a pranzo di rifuti – a meal pulled together from whatever’s hanging out in the fridge. I tell her I’m fully onboard. We each get to work in a different corner of the kitchen. I start by slicing onion and zucchini for a frittata, while she combines a mixture of ground meat, pine nuts, currants and mint in a bowl to make meatballs (polpette), while a small pot of leftover tomato sauce simmers over one of the gas burners. I mix some eggs with a fork and excavate a bowl of cooked green beans from the fridge – remenants from last night’s dinner – cutting them into smaller pieces before adding them to the eggs, along with a small handful of parmesan. Instead of frying the onion in olive oil as I usually do, before adding the rest of the fritatta mixture, Giusy suggests adding them to a fry pan with the diced zucchini, but without oil, then adding just enough water to cover them. With the heat, they bubble and soften; once all the water has evaporated, we add the olive oil and then the rest of the mixture – eggs, beans, parmesan which have all been beaten into a slurry.

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We unwrap some muffuletta (bread stuffed with prosciutto cotto and cheese, covered in sesame seeds) bought from the bakery that morning, cutting it into little squares before taking it outside to the rooftop terrasse with the rest of our bounty.

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We eat quietly and contentedly, in the shady corner of the terrasse, looking out at the water. It feels like a dream.

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—–

4pm

Since arriving in Sferracavallo, I’ve quickly fallen into a daily gelato habit. On some days, it’s a twice-daily habit, for which – to be clear – I make no apologies or excuses. I don’t see this as something transgressive. Excessive, perhaps. But then again, isn’t excess the cornerstone of all good vacations?

It’s worth pointing out (possibly to justify my new-found habit) that Sferracavallo is known to have one of the best gelaterie in this part of Sicily. According to Fabrizia, some people make the thirty-minute drive all the way from Palermo with the sole purpose of having gelato at Gelateria La Delizia. They drive to Sferracavallo, eat gelato, go home. That’s  a pretty solid endorsement for ice cream if I’ve ever heard one.

Each of the gelati and sorbetti at La Delizia are made in small batches with the freshest ingredients and no addditives. I know that sounds like a TV advert, but it’s true. What they make is artisanal, in the truest sense of the word. And it’s delicious. In the short week that I’m here, I partner up as many different flavours as I can, especially the ones that are hard to come by at home – pistachio and zuppa inglese; almond and cinnamon; mulberry and lemon; prickly pear and setteveli (based on a seven-layer Sicilian cake). On one occasion, I order the brioche, a well-known specialty in Sicily. It’s basically a soft, sweet bun, halved, then stuffed with an obscene amount of gelato. I ask for one with panna and stracciatella. As the the girl behind the counter stuffs the brioche, she tells me that people sometimes eat these for breakfast. I think about all the kale smoothies North Americans have choked down in the early hours of the morning before work. I wonder if a Sicilian brioche very so often wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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A visit to La Delizia is best followed by a long, leisurely (babbalucci-paced) walk through the streets of Sferracavallo. The town’s palette – mellow and creamy, interspersed with bursts of colours – are a little like gelato and sorbetto, mixed side-by-side, the whole thing flecked with terracotta and tile, stucco and wood, and pots of two-toned succulents.

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—–

Mondello – day trip
Saturday, June 18th
12:20pm

Vendors call out “Aqua, Birra, Coca, Tè!”, trucking beverage coolers across the beach like deeply-tanned mules. Their chant is a melodic jingle; it bounces off the sand and enters your brain like an earworm, despite your best efforts to ignore it.

I’ve found a spot on a sunchair, under a parasol, at the far end of the beach. I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to pay for the luxury of sitting elevated, off the sand, but in the absence of any signs telling me so, or some inspector-type person wagging their finger at me, I’ve decided to roll with it and see how the day unfolds.

The woman beside me is layed out on a sunchair, on her cell phone, plucking stray hairs along her bikini line with her fingernails. Beside her is a boy – maybe nine or ten years old – drenched in sea water, snuggling next to his mom. Everyone is Coppertone bronzed, as only Europeans manage to do with such exquisite consistency. Even the children look like they’ve been baking for weeks – true coast kids, like the ones out of Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro. They might as well have flippers for feet.

In the parasol area there are also batches of women in their 50s and 60s grouped together on sunchairs, hunched over and smoking, chatting, slathering themselves at regular intervals with bronzing oil. Teenagers monopolise the spaces closest to the water, the boys play boomboxes and splash the girls; there are neon-coloured Speedos and glow-in-the-dark rosaries.

Mondello, my friend, is where you come to see and be seen.

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In my short time here, reclining on this chair I haven’t paid for, I’ve observed that if you’re a woman – and no matter what kind of body you have – the two-piece is what you wear. Woman of all ages, shapes and sizes with tapestries of stretch marks, cellulite, soft midriffs, vericose veins, all of it completely normal and on display. It isn’t often that I’ve seen women with pillowy limbs sauntering around with such blasé confidence in a two-piece. I come from a culture that tells us – constantly – to cover up our physical imperfections and work on our quote-unquote beach bodies. It goes without saying that Italian woman are sold the same superficial, body-shaming messages as women in North America (watch any Italian variety show), but the women at Mondello beach seem to let the notion of a “beach body” roll off their perfectly-oiled backs. And it’s fantastic.

Lunchtime

The beach food at Mondello is like the beach food you’ve had anywhere else – somewhere on the spectrum of deep-fried and nutrient-free, salty and delicious. I come back from the boardwalk vendors to my little nest on the sand, with a fizzy bitter lemon drink and arancino con ragù, a deep-fried, rice ball stuffed with meat sauce, peas and mozzarella. It’s nothing fancy – the equivalent of a hot-dog and a Coke – but it’s magnificent in its own way; the kind of stuff your parents would buy on a family vacation – the bad-for-you junk that was verbotten at home, but totally acceptable on say, a roadtrip. The stuff my mom would refer to as a treat.

Today, I’m referring to this as lunch.

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After a considerable stretch of time in my shady nook, under the parasol, and a few dips in the water,  I leave the beach to walk along the boardwalk towards the centre of town.

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It’s at this point that I remember Roberto, the grey-haired butcher I’d met on the bus from Palermo, the one who told me he worked in Mondello, “Avvicina de la sirena”.

And lo and behold, there she was, in the middle of town – the mermaid.

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Behind her, I spot the tinest macelleria, squeezed between two restaurant patios. I walk in, sheepishly ask if a “Roberto” works here. A few seconds later, he emerges from the beaded curtain at the back, with his butcher-stained apron. “Giulia! Come stai?!” He’s clearly surprised to see me. I’m just as surprised that I even found him. He gives me the tour, showing me the meat selection behind the glass vitrine, all of it carefully arranged onto aluminum display trays. We chat for a bit; then, before I leave, I ask him if there’s a place in Mondello that sells good cannoli. He tells me he doesn’t really eat the stuff, but that the place across the piazza called Antico Chiosco has some. He steps out of the shop and points me in its direction, “La, a destra della sirena” (I like that la sirena is Roberto’s compass). We say goodbye and I make my way toward a building with a long green awning facing the piazza.

I order a cannolo and macchiato, served by two very serious, no-nonsense men in bow-ties with salt and pepper hair. Professional barristi. Stone-cold barristi. I carry my spoils carefully to the bus stop bench, to wait for the AMAT bus back to Sferracavallo. The cannolo’s shell – toasty, crisp and light – is the perfect vessel for the smooth ricotta filling. Unlike some of the cannoli I’ve had before, this one is subtly sweet and remarkably light, despite its obvious richness.

As you can imagine, few pleasures in life compare to eating a fresh cannolo at a bus stop in Mondello. I’ve got ricotta filling all over my fingers and powdered sugar practically up to my nose, but it might be the single happiest moment of my day. Bless you, Sicily.

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—–

Sferracavallo, Palermo
Sunday, June 19th
2pm

I’d seen them the day before – a handful of husky men, huddled around a barbecue along the boardwalk, knocking back bottles of Moretti. A group of comrades shouting, chuckling, exchanging insults in Sicilian dialect, of which I barely understand a word. Smoke, a deep, fiery dragon smoke, billows from the grill, quickly swept away by the seaside wind. I keep my curiosity at a safe distance, watching from the other side of the street as an incognito bystander – the straniera hidden safely behind her sunglasses. They haven’t noticed me yet, but if I linger any longer, my presence, my interest in their activity, might begin to seem strange. La straniera might soon be considered loitering- mouth-breather. And no one wants that.

Instead of leaving, I take a breath and make a beeline for the barbecue and its makeshift vendor’s station – a wooden table outfitted with a hefty granite slab for prepping and serving, with pieces of green and blue tarp (the kind you use for camping) draped behind it like a wall, to cut the wind. Once I get closer, I can finally see what it is – glossy, pink intestine. From which animal, I don’t know.

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I approach the counter, locking eyes with the barbecue man: “Questo è solo per locali? O posso provare?”, asking if I can have some. My request is met with equal parts confusion and reservation. I suspect he’s thinks I’m a bit of a naive kook, wondering why I’m not eating at the bougie seafood restaurants looking over the sea, like the rest of the turisti. The word “straniera” (“foreigner”), that has been in big, bold imaginary letters on my forehead since arriving in Italy, are now glowing neon bright. “Posso?”, I ask, pointing to the coils of skewered meat, spitting and sizzling over the grill. The vendor shrugs , “Si vuole”, before adding, “Due Euros.

As I reach for some change in my pocket, an older, mustachioed man – whose name I never asked – comes up behind me and waves off the vendors request for money and says to him, “Lo pago io per lei“. He’s paying, apparently. He pours me some beer into a plastic cup and orders us a plate. At first I insist on paying my part, but he shakes his head, “No, no, no…e’il mio piacere, signorina“. Eventually, I acquiesce. “Grazie, signore.” We clink our plastic cups together, along with those of his nearby friends. “Salute.

While we sip our beer, I tell him about my street food experience in Palermo – about the frittola, the musso, the babbalucci. He can’t believe I ate the frittola, telling me I must have a cast-iron stomach. We’re within earshot of the BBQ man, whose ears seem to perk up at this. It is the first indication that I’m legit – that I know this is organ meat and that I’m not some dolt looking for an Eat, Pray, Love experience. I just want some barbecue, BBQ man. The tension between us starts to melt. I ask him what animal it’s from “Maiale? Agnello?“. “No, è vitello” (veal). He explains that it comes from a nearby farm owned by his mother, which he and his son (pictured above) prepare for passerbys, whenever it’s available. He doesn’t dress them in anything before placing them onto the barbecue, they remain unembellished as they cook over the coals. “Puro. Naturale.“, he says, explaining that he can do it this way because they’re so fresh. The fat around them keeps them nice and insulated, preventing them from sticking to the grill.

We keep chatting as he plucks one of the skewers off the grill and slides the seared pieces onto a chopping block, cutting it up into smaller chunks before piling them onto a plate lined with parchment paper. My dining companion dresses our plate with salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. (I’ve heard that the latter is used in a lot of Sicilian street food, both for flavour and for microbe-killing properties.) We dig in. The pieces are chewy, but crispy and caramelised in that way that can only be achieved with a hot barbecue grill. The flavour is rich and smoky – a bit like a well-seared steak, with flavours of blood pudding and liver hanging out faintly in the background. “È buono“, I tell my companion. He seems happy that I like it. “Ti piace? Ah, bene!

BBQ man smiles for the first time since I arrived, and it feels like a small triumph.

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When there’s nothing left on the plate but a little pool of lemon juice and grease, I scrub my hands with a napkin and tell them I have to get going. They tell me to come back in a couple of days for another round; I tell them it’s my last day in Sferracavallo. “Oh, no, vero?” “Si, si. Devo partire domani mattina.” BBQ man asks me what time I’m leaving. I ask him why. He says, “Potrei accompagnarti“, telling me that he could drive me to the airport in Palermo, since he has to go into town tomorrow. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, considering that thirty minutes ago I thought I was persona non grata. Our brief relationship seems to have done a 180. I also can’t believe how scary a prospect that is (solo female traveller getting into a car with a stranger? Can you hear the alarm bells ringing?), and so I of course decline, but thank him for the offer, and the expertly-cooked street meat. My dining companion, for his part, gives me a farewell pat on the shoulder and a handshake. “Arriverci, signorina. Buon viaggio.” I wave to his friends, who are now perched on chairs on the opposite side of the street, in the shade. They wave back, “Ciao, ciao!“, before returning to their beers.

And with that chance encounter – at a nomadic barbecue on the boardwalk that forced me be bolder than usual – I leave Sferracavallo with a full belly and an even fuller heart.

Sogni d’oro, Sferracavallo. Grazie per tutto.

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Summer Dinners – Arctic Char

This is going to be a lazy post; a quick and dirty one. See this as a public service announcement – a bit stern and to-the-point, but useful. I really do think your life – at least your culinary one – will be better for it.

The impetus for this post came in the form of a Bon Appétit recipe that I came across when looking for something to make with fish. “Mackerel with Cauliflower ‘Couscous’ and Tahini” was one of the first to pop up in my browser, and after glancing at the photo – filled with ruby-coloured pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs, and crispy, silvery mackerel – I knew I’d hit the money. The only issue was sourcing the ingredients – two of my regular fish mongers didn’t have mackerel that week, and the pomegranates at my green grocer were looking a little peaked (to be fair, they’re not exactly in season).

I took Bon Appétit‘s advice and substituted the mackerel for arctic char, a cold water fish that keeps its shape when cooked and whose skin crisps up nicely in the pan. As for a pomegranate seed replacement – I went digging in my crisper and found two beets – one striped, one not – and figured that, at least colour-wise, they might make an acceptable surrogate. I also had a few radishes leftover from the previous week’s market spoils, so I tossed a few in for good measure.

The result was better than I’d expected – the fish was tender, the cauliflower nicely roasted and browned in bits, the raw vegetables were crisp and pretty, and the tahini dressing united the whole thing, lending a silky, nutty hum to it all.

It’s a vibrant, crunchy, creamy dish that won’t make you feel like you’re bursting at the seams after you’ve downed the last forkful. Perfect for the heat. Perfect for summer.

Please dig in.

Arctic Char with Pulsed Cauliflower, Quick-Pickled Beets and Tahini Dressing

Arctic Char with Pulsed Cauliflower, Quick-Pickled Beets and Tahini
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 2, with leftovers

Ingredients

Tahini Sauce

  • 1 garlic clove finely grated
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt

(you will have leftover sauce, which is good – use it on salads and vegetables throughout the week)

Cauliflower and seeds

  • 3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 small head cauliflower, cored, cut into large florets
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt
  • 2 Tbsp raw pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds (in Montreal, I buy mine here)

Quick-pickled beets

  • 2 small beets
  • juice of 1/2 lemon (or splash of white wine vinegar)
  • salt

Fish and Assembly

  • 1 filet of arctic char (or 1-2 whole mackerel, cleaned)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1-2 radishes, thinly sliced

Directions

1) Make tahini sauce and the pickled beets: stir garlic, tahini, lemon juice, oil, and ¼ cup water in a small bowl; season with salt. Peel and dice the beets; put in a small mixing bowl and dress with the lemon juice (or vinegar) and season lightly with salt.

2) Cauliflower and seeds: heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high. Working in batches if needed, cook cauliflower, tossing occasionally, until florets are browned in spots but still crunchy, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool. Reserve skillet.

3) Working in 2 batches, pulse cauliflower in a food processor until the size of rice grains. Transfer back to bowl, toss with lemon juice, and season with salt.

4) Cook pumpkin seeds and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in reserved skillet over medium heat, stirring, until seeds are golden brown, about 1 minute. Season with salt. Toss in a small bowl with sesame and nigella seeds.

5) Mackerel and assembly: heat the 1 Tbsp of olive oil a pan on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, but not smoking, place the fish in the pan, skin-side down; cook  2-4 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness. Remove from pan and let rest for a couple of minutes.

6) Spoon cauliflower onto plates. Remove fillets from fish and place, skin side up, on top. Top with seed mixture, pickled beets, cilantro, radish slices and a sprinkle of salt. Dress with tahini and serve.

Italy, condensed – Pt.1 – Roma

How do you distill the most important bits of a three-week trip, without lazily listing the highlights and making your audience feel like they’re forced to watch an endless stream of blurry slide-projector photos? I’ve been back home for nearly three weeks and have quickly slipped back into the daily routine, making the memories feel like they’ve piled up into one, big messy tangle, as opposed to a clean, chronological narrative. There are blips of recollections that contain everything from the scent of citrus fruit and diesel, to the sound of swallows and broken plates.

Where do you even start?

Without quite knowing how to come at this, I decided to rely on my travel journal – that flimsy, grey blotter that I dutifully towed alongside me every day, to jot down notes on park benches, in noisy tratorrie, and on bumpy buses. For better or worse, the journal seemed like a good way to introduce these places to you. There’s a lot more information, images and ideas from the trip still percolating in my brain, but it’ll take a bit more time to coax them into the proper channels (recipes! oh god, all the recipes!). So in the meantime, I’ve selected a few journal entries (tweaked for the sake of coherence), along with some photos to help flesh things out. There will  be a post on Rome, then Palermo (and surrounding areas), then one on the writing workshop with Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss at Case Vecchie (Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School) in Sicily.

I hope that these glimpses and echoes of stories will nip your wanderlust square on the bum and encourage you to explore more – be it geographical, cultural, gustatory, or in any way you see fit.

Baci, Julia x

—–

Italy Part 1 // Rome // 4.5 days

Testaccio, Rome
Friday, June 10th, 9:45pm
Tratorria Da Bucatino

Yelling. So much yelling. The Romans are having dinner and it’s as though each thought, each string of words is as important – if not more so – as the last. Their hands and shoulders move in gestural waves – broad movements in competition with their own voices for airspace. The spectacle is punctuated by peals of laughter, a roll of the eyes, or a fist coming down hard on the table to further prove a point. It’s like a playful exercise of sensory one upmanship, where the men – with presumably a fair amount of vino and/or grappa circulating through their veins – are definitely winning.

Da Bucatino is the kind of place that instantly draws you in, largely thanks to its one-part Godfather, one-part Twin Peaks mystique. There are several dining rooms, each connected by small doorways which the waiter guides me through until we reach a table in the centre of the room. It has a “riservato” sign on it, which he hastily removes and shoves into his pocket. He catches my eye and winks, Non l’ho visto, l’hai visto ? (“I didn’t see it, did you?”). I shake my head, “no”, wishing I had the words to compliment his impromptu magic trick.

After a quick glance at the menu (which is in both English and Italian, with a wine list bearing only two dubious-looking, albeit succint, descriptors: “red” or “white”), I can’t tell if this place is a total racket or one of Testaccio’s best kept secrets. After a little while, it becomes clear that it’s somewhere comfortably in the middle – not ultra-gimmicky, not sublime, but a lovely in-between. The neighbourhood tratorria, the kind of place you come to with your family or your friends on a Thursday night, to eat platefuls of gnocchi, veal coda, and stewed fagioli, all while getting nicely looped on a carafe of wine called “red”.

I order the pici alla gricia, hand-rolled pasta the size and shape of thick shoelaces, slicked in a savoury sauce of pan-fried pancetta, fresh baby artichokes and a dusting of sharp pecorino. The pici get twirled happily into clusters on my fork, until there isn’t a single slippery noodle left in the bowl. It’s the kind of simply-prepared, unfussy pasta dish that hits all the right buttons, especially for the weary traveller who’s had nothing to eat all day, save an in-flight, cellophane-wrapped slice of banana bread, an oily square of potato pizza and an apricot.

To avoid the dearth of vegetables that’s beginning to slink into my tourist diet, I also order a 6 Euro plate of stewed chicory with the pici, which the waiter is quick to clarify will only come after the pasta, “Dopo il primo piatto, okaaye?”, as per Italian dining customs. I try to act with blasé assurance, Sì, sì…perfetto, but secretly wish he’d bring it all to the table at one time so that I won’t be stuck eating a mound of chicory meant for 2-4 people, all on its own (and all on my own). When it comes – a large, conical pile of tangled greens, swimming in garlicky stewing juices – the undertaking seems larger than expected. I dig in, like an obedient child, forkful after forkful, until the mound slowly diminishes, using the bread from the bread basket to mop up as much of the leftover juices as I can. It’s really tasty; just far too much for one person.

Right around the time I start to feel like John Candy in the steak scene from The Great Outdoors, a new batch of patrons rolls in through the front doors. It’s 10:45pm. The waiter asks if I want a dolce; I clutch my chest, “No, grazie, non posso” and ask for the cheque instead.

After heading out – or perhaps more accurately, rolling out of Da Bucatino, I make my way down the block to Piazza Testaccio a block for a gulp of fresh air. The piazza is nearly empty, except for a family of four with two gangly kids out for a late-night stroll. I notice they have cones of gelato in their hands. My midriff – the one that, just moments ago, felt like it was bursting at the seams, the one that said, “No, grazie, non posso” when offered dessert by Mr. Magic-Trick waiter – is suddenly keen for a frozen slurry of milk, cream and sugar. Not too far away is a gelateria, glowing in a halo of neon lights.

As I make my way over, I start to wonder how many times I’ll be able to use the excuse “when in Rome” before I fall flat on the floor.

Piazza Testaccio

—–

Testaccio, Rome
Saturday, June 11th
Caffè Barberini, Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, former Mattatoio al Testaccio

Breakfast starts with a cornetto and macchiato at Barberini, on Via Marmorata. In Italy, a lot of cornetti (the Italian interpretation of a croissant) are made with vegetable shortening, but Barberini is apparently one of the only places in the city that makes theirs with real butter. No mucking around.

This hot tip came from Natalie, when I mentioned I was heading out for breakfast near the apartment in Testaccio. She also said they made good coffee – which they do. Like most Italian coffee bars, the baristi are exclusively men, decked out in white button-up shirts (some also wear grey vests and bow-ties), expertly navigating the line between flirtation and professionalism with their female clients. Regulars breeze in at different intervals, greeting the barista with a quick salve! as they lean up against the bar. Seconds later, the barista slides their espresso toward them. They don’t even need to order; he knows them that well. They chit chat for a couple of minutes, the client knocks back the final sip of their espresso (there are about three total) and they wish eachother a buongiorno! goodbye.

I’ve been to Italy before; I’ve seen this dozens of times. But it’s a ritual that never fails to impress me with its simplicity – the two minutes spent chatting with your local barista while you sip your coffee, before heading off to work or running errands. To the Italians, there’s nothing precious about this routine – to them it’s just that – routine. And that, I suppose, is what makes it all that more alluring to the outsider.

Testaccio, Rome

Around lunchtime, Rachel takes me round the Testaccio market (Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio). Nuovo, because it opened in 2012, migrating from its original location in Piazza Testaccio, where it stood since the 1920s. The new building has the same squeaky-clean brightness that causes a lot of modern architecture stick out in older, urban settings, making it feel strangely anachronistic. Rachel tells me that the new market was initally met with a good dose of skepticism, mainly because of the squeaky-cleanness of the new structure and the additional walking distance from the more central square where it used to reside. I can empathise with Romans who are resistant to change when it comes to their markets; when I think of my own outdoor market back home – Marché Jean-Talon – I realise how apprehensive I am when changes are made to the stalls and producers (where the heck did my Madame Laitue go? Why have they replaced the produce stalls with bougie artisanal products?). I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me on those days. Some Romans probably do too. Because when something so important to your daily life gets shifted around like that, it can throw you for a loop (especially for all us octogenarians at heart).

As we move along the pathways of the market that connect each stall, Rachel points out her favourite produce man (one of the few remaining farmers at the market that sells the produce he actually grows himself), her fish monger (he might be the most vocal vendor there), and her bakery, Da Artenio, which makes these lovely little pizzette – small, oval-shaped pizzas no bigger than the size of an out-stretched hand, with simple toppings like tomato sauce, or sliced potato, or red onion. In provision of lunch later in the day, I order a half loaf of bread and a bag of ciambelline al vino e finnochio, circular biscuits made with wine and fennel seeds and a coating of sparkly sugar crystals. They’re meant for dessert, but I like to dunk these in wine or beer (like the Moretti that’s quietly chilling in the fridge back at the apartment).

After visiting the market, we stop for a quick espresso at a nearby tabbacchi. Rachel tells me it’s one of the last remaining tabacchi that also has an espresso bar. I wish I had a better photo to show you – one with a view from the inside, through the beaded curtains that dress the front door. Like the woman who runs it, this spot is an utter gem – time-worn, modest and lovely.

Testaccio, Rome

Adjacent to the Testaccio market is a series of buildings that used to house the neighbourhood’s slaughterhouse. After it shut down in the 1970s, the spaces have been restored and reappropriated by different institutes and collectives dedicated to art, culture, and education, the largest ones being the Macro Testaccio, University of Roma Tre, and Città dell’Altra Economia, the latter featuring a small bio-agricultural market on Sundays that sells fresh produce, cheese and small-batch food products. (It pained me to leave the market without one of those jaw-dropping wheels of cheese in hand, but I had to remind myself – four days. You’re only here for FOUR days.)

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From Città dell’Altra Economia, you can see Monte Testaccio (or Monte dei Cocci), a hill made almost entirely of fragments of discarded earthenware (amphorae) used by the ancient Romans to transport olive oil. It’s quite a fantastic sight – a carefully engineered, ancient garbage dump of sorts. If you look closely (squint, maybe), you can make out the pieces of broken pottery covering the hill:

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When we leave the old slaughterhouse district, it’s mid-afternoon and I realise I haven’t had any lunch. Rachel and I part ways and I head back to the apartment with my market spoils to cobble together something that will sustain me for the rest of the afternoon. In a couple of hours, I’ll be heading out again, this time for a long walk along the Tiber to Latteria Trastevere, to meet Natalie for pre-dinner drinks and salumi (i.e. aperitivo hour).

I can think of worse ways to spend a day.

Testaccio, RomeTestaccio, Rome

—–

Vatican City, Rome
Sunday, June 12th

I have to buy Nonna a rosary at Vatican City today. That was my mission when I left the apartment this morning.

I head out, smeared in sunscreen SPF 110; my skin is still a shade between “snow-capped” and “Canadian-ivory”, which doesn’t exactly help me blend in with the locals. I take it a step further by fashioning my trusty cotton scarf into a makeshift headscarf, to protect my scalp from the hot sun, which by 10 am is already beating down something fierce. (Anytime I try to channel Ava Gardner in Night of the Iguana, I end up looking more like Edie Beale in Grey Gardens. It’s inevitable.). Since I don’t have enough hair to achieve a regal-looking Nefertiti situation, I end up looking vaguely infirm. That, or bat-shit crazy, if you consider the oversized sunglasses that swallow half my face and the canvas bag I’ve decided to cart along – you know, the one that has the outline of a naked woman lounging solo on a shag rug, smoking a bong. Oh and did I mention I went bra-free too?

Way to make an impression there, tourista.

headscarf

Canvas bag

It’s safe to say that sartorial choices such as these will not make you go unnoticed in Vatican City. One positive offshoot is that it tends to ward off the souvenir hustlers, possibly because they don’t quite know what to make of you. If you’re travelling alone, and don’t mind staying alone, I highly recommend it.

(Sidenote: before my Catholic-raised mother has a heart-attack reading this, I should mention that when I was actually in Saint-Peter’s Square (I didn’t go inside the Basilica or the museums), I had the good sense to turn the canvas bag inside out and toss on a long-sleeved shirt.)

—–

Among the vendor stalls outside Peter’s Square, all of them strewn with various forms of religious paraphernalia, I was able to find a couple of things that Nonna might like, namely a plastified card emblazoned with a smiling Pope Francis and a silvery medallion, and a rosary – a simple one made of white beads, with its own nifty pewter case.

I like to imagine grandma keeping these tokens by her bedside, making her feel safe.

Vatican CityVatican CityVatican CityVatican CityVatican CityVatican CityVatican CityVatican City

1:25 pm

About a twenty-minute walk from Vatican City is Bonci Pizzarium – a pizza-by-the-slice counter discreetly located on a sidestreet across Cipro metro. Knowledge of their proximity wasn’t a fluke, or dumb luck; I’d planned these two excusions back-to-back after hearing from a handful of reliable sources (including two Roman-dwelling food pros I’d met – Katie Parla and Natalie Aldern Kennedy) that Pizzarium has some of the best pizza-by-the-slice (al taglio) in town.

I enter and take a ticket; with every rotation of the crowd, I get closer to the vitrine. Once it’s my turn, I’m face-to-face with large sheets of pizza splayed out with every topping imaginable. There is no menu; what you see is what you get. It’s buy-by-eye – roasted red pepper with pine nuts, tomato and anchovy, mortadella and marinated eggplant, zucchini, ricotta and almonds…

I finally settle on four kinds before they call out my number: potato and rosemary; headcheese (coppa), shaved celery and orange zest; chicory, ricotta, and nutmeg; and mushroom with caciocavallo. I collect my bounty and head to a standing banquette outside. The first few bites trigger contented grunts; the slice with the coppa garnered a couple of under-the-breath swear words. An American tourist standing next to me nudges his wife, “OMIGOD OMIGOD, have you tried this one?! This one might be the best”, only to repeat the same statement with each subsequent piece (they all win “best”).

His enthusiasm is warranted. It’s the kind of food that sparks deep-belly felicity; the kind of food that makes you happy to be alive.

Viva Bonci Pizzarium.

Bonci PizzariumBonci Pizzarium

—–

Rome // Conclusion

Four and a half days in this city hardly seems enough. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some things I’ll miss and hope to re-visit again: the public fountains that double as drinking fountains, the banter between neighbours that echoes off the walls of interior courtyards, the screeching swallows, the clinkity-clank of noisy tratorrie, the smell of pizza bianca wafting from stone ovens, the homicidal scooter-drivers, the way the ancient bits of the city meld with the modern, laundry hanging from windows, 1 euro macchiati, aperitivi in the piazza, and, of course, having some of the most beautiful, fresh (and wildly inexpensive) food products right at my fingertips, every single day.

Ah, Roma – spero che ci rivediamo subito.

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Mal d’Italia

“We all have it in some way, that desire to return to an impossible elseware.”
– Adam Leith Gollner, Saveur, April 2016

I’ve been awake since 5:30 this morning. Not because I had to – or particularly wanted to – but because the butterflies in my stomach kept fluttering around, making it impossible to sleep in, the way I had intended. So I’m here, with you. Eyes half-mast and looking a little rough.

I hope you don’t mind.

The butterflies are equal parts nerves and excitement – in a few hours I’ll be on a plane crossing the Atlantic to spend three weeks in Italy. It’s a solo trip, one that, the more I think about it, was probably long overdue. The first few days will be in Rome, then one week in the fishing town of Sferracavallo in Sicily and then another week further inland, in Sclafani Bagni, where I’ll be taking a food writing workshop with two of my favourite writers – Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss. The workshop takes place at Case Vecchie, which houses the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school, nestled among the rugged fields and vineyards of the Sicilian countryside. If the online photos do it any justice, then yes – it might actually be paradise on earth.

Given that the workshop itself has been something I’ve had my eye on for awhile – it still seems a bit surreal that I’m actually going, even in the few short hours leading up to departure. I’ve never felt this wired – in both the good and adverse sense of the word – for any trip I’ve ever taken. It’s quite impressive as a feeling, part of it stemming from the anticipation, but also from things as banal as transit logistics (charting out an itinerary in Sicily has been tricky, with entire trainlines suddenly going out of order. It seems that David Lebovitz has even experienced the peculiarities of Sicilian transit), unexpected technical issues (my computer), as well as my (perhaps archaic and ill-advised) decision to use paper maps instead of GPS or Google maps. (This should be interesting.)

Most of all though, I think that the churning in my stomach comes from something a little more abstract than the kind of excitement I’ve had in the past when planning a vacation. And in that sense, it’s more charged, too. I recently read an article on Sicily in the April issue of Saveur, where Adam Leith Gollner talks about the feeling of mal d’Africa, the “heartsickness” for Africa that Sicilians have when they’ve been travelling away from home (North Africa having had such a remarkable impact on their food, culture, and architecture, that’s it’s inextricable from Sicilian life and sensibility). My mind went back to those words when I thought about the reasons I wanted to visit Italy again. Not because I consider it home necessarily, but because – being the product of a Canadian father and an Abruzzese mother – there’s part of me that will always be Italy. It sounds clichéed to lay it out like that, so plain and saccharine, but it’s true. There’s a sort of mal d’Italia that lives inside me.

In that way, Italy has often felt like a phantom limb. Its presence is there – in the minute details of gesture, of speech and of sensibility – when I share a joke with my grandmother in broken dialect, or lift a peach to my nose at the market, or place my hand on a stranger’s shoulder (and wonder if touching them was the acceptable thing to do, in the cool anonymity of urban North America). Italy is in there, all the time, in some way shape or form. And I suppose that travelling back to terra madre is my way of restoring the bits that I feel I’m beginning to lose or forget, as my grandmother slowly enters into her mid-nineties and I come to the realisation that she, in fact, has been the one thread that’s kept me connected to that sense of Italian-ness, that sense of patria, as she calls it. When she’s gone, I’ll have to find ways to reconnect to it when I can; I suppose this trip is part of laying that groundwork.

—–

There’s lots more that I’d like to tell you about – not the least of which is this workshop with Rachel and Luisa (a total dream). But aside from not having the wherewithal to get into that now, I should probably tie up a few more things before I go, like weighing my bags to make sure they meet the airline requirements.

As a parting gift, I’m leaving you with this photo of the seafood risotto that my boyfriend made me this past weekend, with celery, fennel, white wine, homemade fish stock and a handful of mussels, shrimp, and cod. He wanted to make something in the spirit of Sicily, and I think he succeeded. (even if we committed the ultimate act of Italian food sacrilege and added parmesan to it.)

See you here again soon – hopefully more well rested, a little less wired, and with a lot of good stories to tell.

Baci x

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Faking Fancy

You’re having friends over for dinner and you want to make something nice. But it’s a work night, a Thursday, so you’re already a bit bagged, and a little unmotivated, thinking about the Jenga tower of dishes that will invariably pile up in the sink if you start making something quote-unquote fancy.

This is when you need to pull a rabbit (or two) out of your hat to successfully fake your way to a meal fit for dinner guests – a meal that will involve minimal amounts of messing around in the kitchen, but will look and taste a little more special than the everday.

There are, of course, different ways you can do this. For starters, if you’re committed to the idea of using the oven, you can choose recipes that compliment eachother’s cooking time and temperature; that way, you can cook a couple of things at the same time, and even bake dessert at the end, with that still-warm oven. The other advantage is that you can slide whatever you’re making into the oven, let it work its magic, and go back to the things you were doing beforehand, like the multi-tasking mavrick you are.

We all have different shortcuts in the kitchen, which is nice, because it means that we can learn from eachother’s acumen – that mental Roladex of tips and tricks we’ve stockpiled over the years. Below you’ll find a few of my own back-pocket recipes (the rabbits up my sleeve, if you will) for when I’m having people over, but don’t want to fuss. It’s a simple potato and roast chicken dinner that can be served with a green salad or some steamed vegetables. The potatoes can be slipped into the oven about 30-40 minutes after the chicken. The dessert is easy too – no need to wrangle dough or batter, just toss some sugared apples onto some prepared puff pastry and watch it pouf up in the oven after the potatoes and chicken have come out.

All of it gives you more time to be with your guests, which, let’s be honest, is the most important part.

FAKING FANCY TIP NO.1 – RE-VAMPING THE HUMBLE POTATO

Potatoes, simply prepared, often come in two forms – boiled, or diced and roasted. Both of these options have virtues of their own, but there’s another variation on the potato that should be on everyone’s radar, and that, dear people, is the smashed potato. I first learned about smashed potatoes during a period in the mid-2000s when I binge-watched Laura Calder‘s French Food at Home, before food blogging and celebrity chef-dom had exploded and you could actually rely on The Food Network for quality programming (wow, can you hear the octogenarian coming through? Don’t get her started on styrofoam food packaging). The Food Network aside, Laura Calder is known in her own right for her pared-down, no-nonsense – and très, très français – approach to food, where the most important elements are quality of ingredients and method, as opposed to flashy additions or lengthy processes. Her smashed potatoes (she calls them “squished” potatoes) are simplicity incarnate, but the nice thing is that they are just the slightest bit different than a boiled or a roasted potato, because they’re in fact BOTH: you take some nice, small, waxy potatoes, skin-on, and let them cook in boiling water until just tender. Then you drain them, set them on a work surface and gently press each one with whatever sturdy kitchen equipment you have on hand (I like using the bottom of a cast iron pan), dress them with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt (I add fresh rosemary too), then lay them on a baking sheet and toss them into a hot oven for 30-40 minutes, turning once halway though. The beauty of the smashed potato is that you get a tender interior and these lacy, crispy edges. They also look more interesting than a in-tact boiled potato, sort of more lived-in and wild. And they are a treat to eat.

SMASHED BABY POTATOES WITH ROSEMARY – from Laura Calder

  • 2 lb baby potatoes
  • olive oil
  • flaky salt (such as Maldon)
  • freshly ground pepper
  • a couple spring of fresh rosemary

1) Scrub the potatoes and cook, unpeeled, in boiling salted water until tender. Drain. When cool enough to touch, gently squish them flat with whatever kitchen tool you see fit. Don’t let them explode, just flatten until the edges break a bit, but they are still in one piece. Toss with some olive oil, the rosemary sprigs, and season with salt and pepper.

2) Heat the oven to 400°F. Spread the potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until crisp outside, turning once halfway through.

(*I didn’t get a chance to capture the finished result, so you’ll have to use your imagination – but they come out crackly, crispy, dark golden on the outside. A bit knarly, but beautiful.)

Smashed Potatoes with Rosemary

Smashed Potatoes with Rosemary

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FAKING FANCY TIP no.2 – ELEVATING ROAST CHICKEN

Let’s be honest, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about roast chicken in and of itself. But if done right, roast chicken can be one of the most delicious things you’ll put on the table, especially if you employ a good, healthy dose of butter. Here too, you have different options. Molly Wizenburg has a recipe for Thomas Keller’s roast chicken where you slather it with melted butter after it’s cooked and serve it with Dijon mustard (which, though I’ve never tried it, actually sounds pretty wicked). My usual fall-back is smearing butter under the skin, along the breastbone, before cooking. For added flavour, I like to use compound butter – in other words, softened, unsalted butter that you mix with herbs, or zest, or other seasonings. The butter “insulates” the breast meat (which tends to get dry) from the heat of the oven, while permeating it with rich flavour. You don’t want to be using butter like this everyday (you’d be well on your way to a heart attack), but for occasions that are out of the ordinary – say, having friends over on a Thursday night – it’s a lovely way to make roast chicken a little more frilly.

Roast Chicken with Butter

WHOLE ROASTED CHICKEN WITH HERBED BUTTER

Ingredients

        • 1 whole, 1.5 kg (3-3.5 lbs) good-quality chicken (I like to get mine here when I can)
        • 1 lemon, pierced all over
        • 3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed, skin-on
        • a handful of fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, tarragon, etc. – chopped
        • about 3 oz. butter, softened
        • salt and freshly ground pepper
        • 1/4 tsp paprika (for colour; optional)
        • kitchen twine

Directions

1) Take your chicken out of the fridge about 30 minutes before it goes into the oven.

2) Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Mix the chopped herbs with the softened butter, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine; set aside. In a small dish, mix some salt, freshly ground pepper and the paprika (if using). Prepare two lengths of kitchen twine to wrap the legs and the thighs.

3) Set aside a roasting pan big enough for your chicken. Blot the outside of the chicken with paper towel (removing excess moisture will help ensure a crispy skin). Season the chicken with the prepared salt, pepper and paprika. With the cavity of the chicken facing you, gently run your fingers under the skin along the breastbone, separating the skin from the meat. Then, gently stuff portions of herbed butter under the skin, spreading it evenly over the breast meat. Put the garlic cloves and lemon in the cavity of the chicken.

4) Tie the legs together snugly (this prevents the bird from drying out). If the lower half of the chicken looks like it’s still pretty loose, I sometimes tie a second piece of twine around the top of the thighs. Place the chicken in the preheated oven and roast for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes (see note below*), basting a couple of times during cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before carving. Serve with the pan juices.

A note on cooking whole chicken: total cooking time will vary, depending on the actual size of your chicken, as well as the intensity of your oven. A good rule of thumb is to calculate 15 mins per pound at 400ºF, but I use a meat thermometer just to be sure – it should read 165ºF* when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh but not touching bone. (*A lot of thermometers and government sources will give 180ºF as the ideal internal tempertaure, but they are usually overly-cautious (resulting in over-cooked, dry meat). If you pull it out when it reaches 165ºF and then let it rest, covered, for about 10-15 minutes, you’ll be good to go. The juices should run clear, not pink, when you cut into it.)

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FAKING FANCY TIP no.3 – USING FROZEN PUFF PASTRY

When you’re having people over, it’s sometimes nice to have something sweet at the end of dinner, but making a cake or a pie or something along those lines can be more work than it’s worth – the careful combining, the chilling, the rolling, the aforementioned sink full of dishes. This is when frozen puff pastry becomes a trusty pal – once thawed, it’s at your service and ready to use. The best part is that the free-form styling of the outer edges means that you can very easily get away with calling it “rustic”. Adding a quick dusting of powdered sugar to your finished tart (or any dessert for that matter) will make it look like a snowy, Scandanavian dream. I highly recommend it.

Puff Pastry Apple Tart

Puff Pastry Apple Tart

SIMPLE APPLE TART

        • 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry* (about 450 g), thawed
        • 2-3 firm, medium apples (such as Empire or Gala) – cored, halved and thinly sliced
        • 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
        • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
        • 3 Tbsp butter, melted
        • 1 Tbsp rum
        • squeeze of lemon
        • 2 Tbsp powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

*one of the luxuries of living in Montreal is that many of us are within a stone’s throw of a bakery, many of which sell prepared puff pastry. If you don’t have a bakery close-by, you should be able to find puff pastry in the frozen foods section of most grocery stores.)

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. In a bowl, add a sqeeze of lemon juice to the apple slices, then add both sugars, the melted butter, the rum, and gently combine; set aside.

2) On a lightly floured surface, unfold the puff pastry sheet. Roll it out a little bit (to about 1/2 inch thick). You should have a long rectangle about as long as a standard baking sheet (I don’t measure). Roll about 1 inch of the edges inward to form a border (or, if you prefer, you can lightly score a border along the inside of the rectangle, as this video demonstrates). Poke the inner rectangle all over with a fork to prevent air bubbles from forming while baking.

3) Layer the apple slices, overlapping them slightly. Bake for 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown, then transfer the pan to a wire rack. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar, the transfer tart to a cutting board for serving. Pairs well with vanilla ice cream (obviously).

A Bit of a Blur

There isn’t time for many words today – this post is going to be a bit of a blur – because in twelve minutes flat, I have to head out the door, hop on a Bixi, and get my sorry rump to yoga class (I like to at least pretend that I’m a fit, adult woman. Come to think of it, I also like to pretend that I’m an adult woman. As in, a grown-up; as in, a lady.)

Before I run down the stairs and start frantically biking until I’m out of breath, arriving at the studio like the wheezing, sweating, mess of a lady that I sometimes am, I wanted to quickly – very quickly! – share a recipe with you. (It seems that my top priority is making sure you are all well fed. We can discuss my poor judgment another time. Along with my poor use of punctuation/over-use of parentheses in this post.)

But right now – SPICED CHICKEN PATTIES IN LETTUCE CUPS! WITH DATE CONFIT! THEY’RE A REVELATION! MAKE THEM! (I don’t know why I’m using caps; these things practically sell themselves. Which I’m grateful for, because I should’ve already left the house.)

Eat well and be well, friends. Big love x

—–

Spiced Chicken Patties in Lettuce Cups, with Date Confit – adapted from Food Republic
Serves 4

Chicken Lettuce Cups

Ingredients

Patties

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed*
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
  • 2 tsp Ras el hanout
  • 1 tsp curry
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil

*economical alternative: I prefer buying a whole, good-quality chicken and taking it apart myself – using the different pieces for diffrent recipes and freezing anything I don’t use.

To serve

  • 16 small hearts of lettuce leaves
  • 1/2 English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, seeded and diced
  • 1 small red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves

Date confit

  • 15 fresh dates, pitted and halved
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 Thai chili, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

For the date confit:
Put the dates in a bowl, cover with just-boiled water and leave for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet and fry the shallots on medium-low heat, covered, for 15-20 minutes until very soft.

Drain the dates and add them to the pan, squashing them with the back of a fork to break them down. Stir in 4 tablespoons water, the cinnamon, chili and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until it forms a thick jam consistency. Add more water if it is too thick. Stir in the pomegranate molasses and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the confit into a serving bowl and leave to cool.

For the chicken patties:
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 100°F. Pulse the chicken in a food processor, then add the garlic, ginger and spices. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse again to combine. Form the chicken mixture into 16 equal balls, the size of golf balls. Flatten each one to make a little patty. (Note: you can freeze the uncooked patties on parchment paper, in one layer (I use a pizza tray), then transfer to freezer-proof container, with parchment between each patty to prevent sticking).

Heat two-thirds of the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Fry the patties, in batches (don’t overcrowd the pan) for 3 minutes on each side. Just before they finish cooking on each side. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in the low oven while you cook the remaining patties, adding more oil when necessary.

For serving:
Put a chicken patty on top of each lettuce leaf, scatter a little cucumber, red onion and cilantro over and top with a spoonful of the date confit. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Lettuce Cups

A Complicated Love

When I was younger, I wasn’t much of a picky eater, but tomatoes – either in their raw form or cooked – proved problematic for a good portion of my childhood. The woman who ran our daycare, Sandra, used to make us a lunch of Campbell’s tomato soup and Kraft-singles grilled cheese, about once a week. It probably goes without saying that the grilled cheese was gobbled up with ease; the soup, however, was another story. I can still remember the tart, salty, faintly metallic canned-tomato flavour that would coat the back of my throat with every reluctant spoonful. That tomato soup was the bane of my five-year-old existence; it was like punishment in a bowl.

Then there was that trip to Italy, to visit family – when I was seven and my brother was five – and neither of us would eat pasta with tomato sauce; only with burro (butter). This was incomprehensible to our Italian relatives, who’d shake their heads, and with furrowed brow, ask, “Ma, non ti piace i pomodori?” (Don’t you like tomatoes?). Their question breathed equal parts bewilderment and despair, but would quickly melt into capitulation with a shrug of the shoulders, when they’d swirl a spoonful of butter into our pasta, as requested. To the dismay of our relatives, we spent that entire trip avoiding pomodori in every way, shape and form.

Fortunately, I’ve since mended by ways with tomatoes; they’re often in the recipes I make at home – from sugo di pomodoro, to lentil soup, to foccacia, to tomato salad. That said, I’d be lying if I said that our relationship was an uncomplicated one. Raw tomatoes are the ones that still, on occasion, send a shiver down my spine. We can blame both latent childhood sensibilities and the Canadian climate for that one: I grew up in a place where, for a good six months of the year, tomatoes were (and still are) flown in from exotic destinations, arriving in a grainy, hard, tasteless state, then flaunted in their raw form – in big, rough chunks – tossed into a plain green salad, or Greek-style, swimming alongside cucumber and slivers of red onion. Unless those tomatoes are vine-ripened under the hot, summer sun and served within a few miles of where they were grown, tasting like the rich, sweetly acidic fruit that they should be, they usually aren’t coming anywhere near my lips. Otherwise, it’s just a waste, because I will, without fail, pick around them.

To this day – most likely stemming from Sandra’s Campbell’s soup days – I also don’t have a particular affinity for tomato soup. That said (and since the criteria by which my brain accepts and rejects tomatoes is still a total enigma) there is one notable exception – and that is for the Moroccan soup harira, a tomato-based blend made with chickpeas, lentils and a handful of spices. It’s traditionally served during Ramadan as a nutrient-rich dish to break the daily fast, but I’m told that it’s served in different regions of Morocco, all year round. I first had harira at my friend Sophie’s house, when her husband, Hicham, cooked us dinner one night, a few short weeks after he’d come to Canada. We had it as a starter to lamb tagine with dates. A CD of gnawa music played in the background. We drank wine. He tried to teach me a few expressions in Arabic, though I only remember the words for ‘hello’, ‘no’, ‘look’ and ‘enough’. But the harira – I’ll always remember the harira: silky and tangy and heady with spices. It was the one tomato soup that broke the rules to my aversion. And for that – and to Hicham – I am forever grateful.

—–

A note on the recipe: Most recipes incorporate meat (beef, lamb or chicken), broken up vermicelli noodles or rice, as well as a roux (called tadouira) of water and flour at the end of cooking to thicken it up a bit. The recipe below doesn’t have any of these things, but it’s a close approximation to Hicham’s harira, which is always filled with warm spices and creamy chickpeas, which he cooks from dried (not canned).

It’s a simple soup – but well-rounded, sustaining and comforting. Hope you like it.

Vegetarian Harira Soup

Makes 4-6 servings

Harira_prep

Ingredients

  • 100g lentils, rinsed and picked through
  • 150g cooked chickpeas
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • handful fresh parsley, chopped
  • 400g ripe tomatoes, smashed
  • 700ml vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper, to season

Spices:

  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne

To serve:

  • lemon
  • pita bread
  • fresh cilantro, chopped

Note: only add the salt at the end, otherwise the lentils won’t cook through.

Directions

1) Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Sauté the onion until browned. Add the garlic, spices, tomato paste and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the parsley, lentils, and smashed tomatoes (with their juices) and stir.

2) Stir in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper.

3) Ladle into bowls and top with chopped cilantro, a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice (the lemon is important – don’t skip it!). Serve with pita or flatbread.

Harira

 

Snack-Time Salvation

A little while ago, I started buying Bounty bars from the second-floor vending machine at work. It might have been a relatively infrequent excursion, but as any office worker knows, when you sit in front of a computer for several hours on end, you start to crave bad stuff – usually something with high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil – around 3pm. And when you don’t have access to something healthy and sustaining, you sometimes end up scouring your desk drawer for pocket change to plunk into an old vending machine for something that will satisfy your primal brain.

In my case (and to make matters worse), I also had an accomplice. My friend and office mate – we’ll protect her identity by calling her “M” – also loved Bounty bars and, like me, was really good at reducing her dissonance. We agreed that splitting a candy bar between us wasn’t as bad as eating the whole thing by ourselves, and if we didn’t read the spooky list of ingredients and enjoyed it alongside a cup of herbal tea, it didn’t seem like such an unsensible thing to do.

But then “M” went on an eight-month work transfer out of town, and I was still getting Bountry bars out of the machine. One a month became two, then three, then I realised that it had become an almost-weekly habit. No bueno.

The obvious solution was to come equipped to work with snacks. Good snacks. Snacks that would make my mom and your mom proud that they had raised well-adjusted, responsible adults. That’s when I came across a recipe, from French food writer Clotilde Dusoulier, for homemade energy bars. A mixture of dates, nuts, cinnamon and cocoa, they’re sweet and chocolately, and filled with things that aren’t palm oil or high-fructose corn syrup (they’re actually filled with vitamin A, fibre, iron, calcium, antioxidants, and potassium. Thank you, dates!).  I rolled mine in shredded coconut for the “Bounty bar effect”, but if you don’t have any in the pantry, they’re swell without it too.

Here’s to better snacking in front of our computers. Have a good week, everyone x

Date-Coconut Energy Bites

Date-Coconut Energy Bites – adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini

    • 50 grams date paste*, diced
    • 100 grams mixed, unsalted nuts (Brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts…)
    • 2 green cardamom pods, seeds only
    • 100 grams Medjool or fresh dates (about 4), pitted
    • 3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
    • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
    • 1 Tbsp cacao nibs
    • 1/4 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut (for rolling)
    • a good pinch salt

*Date paste can be found at natural foods stores, or in North African or Middle Eastern shops. It comes as a solid block, so if it seems dry and hard, cut it into slices and soak for an hour in a little cold water to soften. Drain well before using (save the date water – you can freeze it too – to use in smoothies).

Directions

1) In a food processor, combine the diced date paste, nuts, and cardamom, and process in short pulses until the nuts are chopped to small bits and blended with the paste. Add the rest of the ingredients and process in short pulses until the mixture comes together.

2) Pour the shredded coconut into a plate; scoop a teaspoon of the date-nut into your hands and form into balls between your palms. Then roll them in the shredded coconut.

3) Lay the date-coconut balls in a airtight container, with parchment paper between each layer to prevent sticking. Transfer to the fridge to set for a few hours or preferably overnight. They will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for about a week.

Date-Coconut Energy Bites
Date-Coconut Energy Bites

Cast-Iron Love

It’s a thing of beauty, is it not? A cast-iron pot filled with slowly-braised meat, caramelised and falling off the bone, sitting snugly alongside bright veg and pillowy dumplings?  I’ll never tire of that sight – that hot mess, mingling together in a heavy-botoomed pan, like many gifts in one. It might be the extravagant use of meat (which we all know we should be eating less of), but this, to me, is big-time luxury food, regardless of how simple it is to make.

While it might seem late to be posting about braised anything one day shy of May, the weatherman seems to think there are a few more crisp, cool days ahead of us – at least in these parts (I swear I saw a snowflake yesterday) – and so I think there’s still some wiggle room for a few more dishes like these, the ones that require the slow, steady heat of the oven to reach their full potential.

I’m reminded that these are the dishes that make me feel gratified about rescuing that old, blaze-coloured Creuset from the family basement a few years ago, when no one wanted it – for lack of space, or to prioritize lighter, less cumbersome cookware. Over the years, and before its hibernation in the basement, it had become a well-used and well-loved beast, bearing a hefty scar – a deep, cinereal gash right across the lid – from an earlier incident involving a sharp plunge to the tile floor, back in the house I grew up in. Some might have thrown the thing away, but Dad, the industrious Anglo-Saxon that he is, worked his magic with the sodering iron and sealed it back together, to create something of a Franken-Creuset.

IMG_1445

Bequeathed with what is now considered a family heirloom, I try to find ways to use it whenever I can, and as often as I can. And each time, I marvel at how it turns unglamorous cuts of meat into ravishingly beautiful braised dishes that you want to mop up with bread until there’s nothing left on the plate. I’ve learnt to treat the Creuset with care, to pay attention to its scar, as a reminder to not do anything that would make any new ones.

It rewards me in kind, every time.

—–

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Adapted from The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook and Joe Beef for Food 52
Serves 4

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

For the Lamb

  • 2 lb (about 1 kg) lamb shoulder, bone-in*
  • Salt and pepper, to season
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1 small leek, white + light green part cut into rings
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 3-4 small turnips, washed and quartered
  • 10 cloves garlic, smashed and skins removed
  • 10 sprigs thyme
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cup beef stock (plus one cup to add at the end with the dumplings)
  • 1 cup frozen or very fresh shelled peas (to add at the end of cooking)

*depending on the size of your baking vessel, you can ask your butcher to cut the lamb shoulder in half.

For the Date-Mint Chutney

  • 1 cup pitted dates
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 cup jarred horseradish
  • 2 Tbsp fresh mint
  • 1/2 Tsbp Worcestershire sauce

For the Herb Dumplings

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp milk

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 375° F. MAKE THE LAMB: Season the lamb on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof sauté pan over high heat. Add the lamb and sear for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, or until you get a nice golden crust. Transfer to a plate.

2) Reduce the heat to medium, throw in the onion, leek, turnip, carrot, and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until nicely browned. Add the thyme, nestle the lamb on top of the vegetables, and pour in the wine and the beef stock. Cover the pan, place in the oven, and braise for 4 hours, basting the lamb every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices. If the pan begins to dry out, add some water.

3) While the lamb is cooking, MAKE THE CHUTNEY: In a small pot, combine the dates and water, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil for about 10 minutes, or until soft. Reduce the heat to medium, add the vinegar, and cayenne, and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved and the condiment has the consistency of jam. Remove from the heat, add the horseradish, mint, and Worcestershire sauce, and whisk until combined. Let cool before serving. (Leftover condiment can be stored in a tightly capped jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

4) MAKE THE DUMPLINGS (see instructions below)

5) About 20 minutes before the meat is ready, heat the remaining cup of stock in a saucepan; remove the lamb from the oven and arrange the dumplings around the meat, pouring over the hot stock; add the peas. Cover and return to the oven to cook about 15 minutes longer.

4) When the lamb is ready, transfer it to a warmed platter with the vegetables and dumplings. Serve the condimint on the side.

To make the dumplings

1) Heat a large saucepan of salted water. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Mix in the black pepper and fresh herbs. Rub in the butter untill the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. In a seperate bowl, beat together the egg and milk, then stir into the flour to make a soft, sticky dough.

2) With floured hands, divide the dough into 10-12 pieces and roll into balls. Once the water in the saucepan has reached a gentle boil, drop the dumplings, one by one, into the water; partially cover and cook for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, gently remove the dumplings and set them in a colander to drain. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney