Figs in the pan

We had an early warm spell this year in March and April, giving a boost to fruit crops in our area. That includes my honey fig tree, which produced several dozen figs, and is on it’s way to a second crop–if fall weather lasts long enough to ripen them.

In Sulmona, Italy our landlady for a few weeks, Signora Giusseppina, brought us bags of fresh figs and hung them on our door. They were dark, purplish and dripping sweetness. I’m in a different climate, and my honey figs are pale green even when they ripen.

Late figs 3The figs I have already picked are delicious, and here’s my favorite way to prepare them: Wash them off, trim off the stem, and cut in half from stem to base. The skin is edible, and pretty difficult to remove from a ripe fig. figs raw





Melt two or three tablespoons of butter in a pan on medium-high heat, and place the figs cut side down in the butter. Let them fry until they begin to brown. It won’t take long.

figs fryingTurn the heat down a smidge, and add a little orange juice. Just a couple of tablespoons, from a fresh orange if you have on (though I am not a purist about it). Let that sizzle in the pan for another couple of minutes.

Now spoon those babies out onto a plate and eat them. I especially love them for breakfast, dessert, or as a side with lunch or dinner. In other words, anytime at all!

Now I would like to find a savory fig recipe–so, readers, what do you suggest?figs close


Abruzzo’s gift that keeps on giving

Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on the table.

Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the table.

We drank a lot of wine in Italy. Italian wine. Big mouthfilling reds and crisp Calabrian whites. But one of the most lasting wine pleasures we discovered was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a wine I had never heard of before spending a few weeks in Abruzzo.

So last week my brother, Glenn, forwarded me an email from a wine store, touting “a true gem of a wine” in Fantini’s 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The email claims a wine score of 90 for it, though my online research turns up 85 or 87. Am I concerned? Naaa. I’m gonna go look for some of this, which is available from several places at about $10 a bottle, and I’m gonna bring it home, and I’m gonna cook up some pasta with sauce that includes zucchini (because I am overloaded with it right now). Then I’ll pour a couple of big red glasses of that stuff.

I’ll be wishing my brother was here to enjoy it, like we did in Sulmona in 2004 at the Cantina di Biffi. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has become my go-to red since then.

Readers, please share your best Italian wine experience in the comments. What made it special?

Timpano–the big drum of baked pasta!

If you saw the movie The Big Night which I reviewed last week, then you’ve seen timpano, an Italian dish I had never heard of before watching the film. I tried to buy the cookbook written by actor Stanley Tucci’s mother but it is out of print, so I’ll be scouring for a used copy. In the meantime, I find that the internet is full of recipes for timpano, and I’m going to share some links with you to find them.

I have never made this dish. I now live in a household of two, and making a six-quart baked pasta is a little intimidating, not to mention the complexity of the dish. Have you made it? Is a smaller version possible? I have to admit, we do have a pretty big gathering for Christmas and I think this may be our next Christmas or Christmas eve dinner!

Here are some links to recipes:

There is one in Los Angeles Magazine online.

And another with a video tutorial! from Coco’s Italian Market.

This one from Epicurian is made in a 10″ or 12″ springform pan, but from the list of filling ingredients, I don’t know how it could fit in that size pan.

And here’s another adaptation, just for the fun of it–with lots of good photos of the construction process. And it’s a little smaller, so maybe I’ll try it for a dinner with some friends.

Rules of the table: Dining etiquette in Italy

Cappuccino_Loves_ItalyEverywhere you go, there are certain dining practices, expectations, and rules. In Argentina, mate (a tea) is served in a gourd with a silver straw, and is passed from person to person around the table. In Morocco, if you take a bone from the stew, you are expected to suck out the marrow. In Russia, table settings typically include a vodka shot glass. Japanese chopsticks are different from Chinese chopsticks.

I have always found Italy pretty laid back about rules in general, but there are some “food rules” that continue to come up. Cappuccino (and coffee with milk in general) is for morning. Don’t twirl spaghetti using a spoon. (That’s for children.) And please for the love of all that is edible, do not put cheese on seafood dishes.

Some people have compiled and explained these rules, and one of the places to find them is a website called Etiquette Scholar, which can help you with dining and related etiquette just about anywhere in the world.

Life in Italy also has a post about Italian food rules, and the comments on it are fun and instructive as well.

And Conde Nast Traveler‘s website has advice for Italian dining from a couple of Italians.

I’m sure during my travels in Italy, I have broken lots of the “rules” and nobody made a big deal of it. I know I’ve had cappuccino in the afternoon. Hubby loves grated cheese on his seafood pasta. But if I see an opportunity to learn more about Italian life and culture by adjusting some dining habits, I’ll do it! Most often, Italians will be gracious enough not to point out your gaffe, but if they do, I hope you’ll be able to thank them for teaching you something new. Buon appetito!

Supper Party by Gerard van Honthorst, ca. 1619. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Supper Party by Gerard van Honthorst, ca. 1619. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


Are ‘pasta’ and ‘gluten-free’ compatible? Yes!

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Today I’m welcoming my sister, Marlie Johnson, to the blog with a food post on eating gluten-free and Italian:

One of the best things about being part of a family with Italian roots has to be the food.  Pasta, pizza, pastries! These have been staples on the table my entire life… until about a year ago.  I was diagnosed with an allergy to wheat!  That explained a lot of problems I had been having, but it also caused havoc with my diet. After a lot of research, I decided it was easier to go gluten free than try to avoid just wheat.  Then I found that gluten free is not the tastiest.  I found a few gluten free pastas, but they didn’t taste very good.  I was very surprised when I found two companies in Italy who were making gluten free pasta, and it is good!   They are Delallo and Barilla.  Between the two, there is a great variety of pasta, including penne, spaghetti, orzo, shells, and fusilli – these are the ones I have found so far.Marlie-4

The most important lesson I have learned for cooking gluten free pasta is to not overcook it AT ALL.  It will turn to mush.   If you are going to add the pasta to a sauce and bake it, then stop cooking it about a minute before the directions for al dente – it will finish cooking while baking, and be perfect.

Here is a recipe that I have used gluten free penne in, and it turned out great.  I had it “taste tested” by people who only eat gluten free, and several who eat anything!  They all said it was really good, and asked when I was going to make it again.

Here is the original recipe (what I changed follows):

1 lb hot Italian sausage links                    1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1 (16 oz ) package of rigatoni                   2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (24 oz) jar of marinara sauce                 salt and pepper to taste

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, thinly sliced       1 cup shredded Monzzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmesean                           1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup grated Asiago                                  1/2 med. yellow onion, chopped.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, and cook pasta until almost tender, about 10 minutes.

Cook the sausage in a large skillet over medium heat, turning frequently, until cooked through.  Remove from skillet, cool, and cut into slices.  Add the garlic, fennel and onion to the skillet and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the roasted red peppers, basil and sausage and the marinara sauce.  Heat through over low heat until warmed.


Ready to bake…

Combine the pasta with the sauce and vegetables in a 9 x 13 baking pan.  Spread the cheeses on top.  Garnish with a few fennel leaves.  Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and broil for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned.

The changes I made are:

I used bulk sausage instead of links.

I used Barilla Gluten Free Penne Pasta, and cooked it one minute less than the package called for al dente.

I cooked the vegetable for about 10 -12 minutes, until the fennel was almost fully cooked.

I did use a jar of marinara… (sorry, Grandma)

…. and ready to eat!

Would I change anything else the next time I make it?  I would try it with sweet Italian sausage, or an equal mix of hot and mild.  It had great flavor, but it was spicy hot!  For me this one is a keeper, and I will make it gluten free for everyone who is coming to dinner!

Serve with salad, or a green vegetable, garlic bread and your favorite wine.  Watch salad dressings for gluten…it hides in all kinds of condiments!  You can make croutons and garlic bread from gluten free bread.   Rudi’s brand bread is the best I have found.  It is good for French toast ….if you want to send your taste buds a little farther north in Europe!

Ricotta-Almond Cake: Make it. Eat it. Die happy.

Ricotta-Almond Cakes (1280x721)I was Googling around looking for Italian food post ideas, and saw this Ricotta-Almond Cake picture on a website called Italian Food Forever. I love almonds, but it sounded like it might be a complicated pastry thing, and maybe more than I wanted to try making.

However, in its favor, I was recently given a container of almond meal/flour, which was one of the (rather short list of) ingredients in the recipe, and I had been looking for a way to use it. Sometimes I find foods and recipes online that look good, and I blog about them without making them myself. But this time, I decided, I’ll make it and report the results.

The only ingredient I didn’t have on hand was ricotta, which was easily solved at the grocery store. I also used low-fat ricotta rather than the full-fat called for in the recipe, and instead of sliced almonds, I took some whole almonds and whirled them in my mini food chopper for a chopped up texture.

I cannot be trusted with full recipes of dessert lying around the house, so I halved the recipe, and then baked the cake in two small pie tins–the kind that frozen pot pies come in. (I confess I don’t own a springform pan, but I could borrow my mom’s.) Fortunately for me, a fellow Italophile stopped by while the cakes were in the oven, so I gave one of them to her. I was left with one small cake to share with my hubby. I cut it in half and took a photo of it on a favorite plate I brought back from Italy… and then before I even started making dinner I took a bite of the dessert. With all the self-control I could muster, I took the plate to my husband and offered him a bite. I did manage to save half of it for us to eat after dinner! It was moist and rich, yet not heavy as I had expected. Ricotta-Almond Cake (678x1280)

I will be making this again. You should too!

Here’s the recipe just as it appears on Italian Food Forever:

Ricotta Almond Cake

Yield: Serves 8 – 10     Prep Time: 10 mins    Cook Time: 45 mins


1 Cup Full Fat Ricotta Cheese
4 Large Eggs, Separated
1 Teaspoon Almond Extract
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 1/2 Cups Almond Meal
1 Teaspoon Finely Chopped Lemon Rind
1/3 Cup Sliced Almonds
Powdered Sugar


Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Use baking spray or lightly grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan.
Use an electric hand mixer to beat together the ricotta cheese, egg yolks, extract, and sugar until smooth.
Stir in the lemon zest and almond meal.
In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.
Fold half the egg whites into the almond mixture, then fold in the rest.
Spread the batter into your prepared pan and sprinkle the top with the sliced almonds.
Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Cool the cake for 10 minutes then remove the sides.
Cool completely, then lightly dust the top with powdered sugar and serve.

I didn’t get the prep time down to ten minutes, but I found it wonderfully easy to put together, and definitely something I’d serve for special occasions or for dinner guests.

The Italian Food Forever website contains a trove of recipes, and lots of other Italian resources besides. The recipes are well indexed making it easy to find what you want, and the photos are delicious to look at. It inspired me, and might just inspire you as well!

Ferragosto fun in the Sila

The western end of Lago Arvo.

The western end of Lago Arvo.

Six months ago I hoped to have most of my adventures from last August posted here–but that hasn’t happened. So today I am revisiting one of my favorite days in Calabria. The weekend after Ferragosto we drove up to the Sila, the mountains above Scigliano, to Lake Arvo. As we drove higher, the lowland tree cover gradually gave way to evergreens. We passed through a small town with some kind of dirt bike motocross gathering, and beside the road a stand was set up to sell local mushrooms. Sila motocross (1280x960)When we reached the lake, the town of Lorica had a street fair in progress. Sila bar (1280x935)After refreshments at a local bar, we wandered along the lake and through the stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, toys, and leather goods. What a crowd! Families were out for the holiday weekends, and kids took turns getting pony rides.Sila pony (1280x1066)

We decided to continue to the far end of the lake, and find a place to have some lunch. As the road wound through thick pines, traffic clogged to a crawl, with cars parked Italian style all along the road, wherever they would (almost) fit. It was easy to see the cause of the backup–a roadside grill sent smoke and a mouthwatering aroma into the air. We drove a bit further, and then turned back to try lunch at the grill.

The line at the grill caught our attention.

The line at the grill caught our attention.

We each had a grilled sausage on a bun with various toppings–sauteed greens, mushrooms, sauces–and beer was the ideal drink in the summer heat. The few tables were crowded, but we were able to join a couple at a larger table, and visited with them in my feeble Italian. They were enjoying their annual tradition of a summer day trip to the lake. The crowd was definitely Italian–we didn’t recognize any other foreign visitors. Our entertainment was the team manning the grill, with one guy warming the bread on a side grill, while two others grilled sausages as fast as they could, taking them from long ropes of sausage hung up above the smoking stove.

The grill team cranked out a lot of sandwiches!

The grill team cranked out a lot of sandwiches!

We returned to our rental in Malito with great memories of our day in the Sila.

I certainly enjoyed mine!

I certainly enjoyed mine!

Food, glorious (Italian) food!

Tomato shopping in an Italian grocery store.

Tomato shopping in an Italian grocery store.

Food is a perennial favorite topic here–actually more than perennial. It’s a daily interest for most of us! I had hoped to visit a cooking school in Sicily last summer, but could not fit it into my trip. However I did spend several wonderful hours in the kitchen of my Italian cousin, Anna Maria, as she prepared a late supper for us. The tomatoes of August were at their prime, and she chopped a chunky bowl of them, added sliced white onions and freshly minced garlic. A sprinkling of salt started the tomato juices running, and then in went some fresh basil and oregano from plants on the terrace. A splash of vinegar? I think that went in, too. My mouth is watering as I sit at my desk six months later remembering it. Olive oil topped it off, mixing with the juices to make a wonderful “dressing” for the salad.

Later, at the table, we dipped rustic bread into the juices. The tomato salad was one of several dishes at that dinner, but sticks most firmly in my memory–the simplicity, the freshness, the mouth-watering beauty of it. I’ve made it that way several times since then, and imagined what I might have learned in a cooking class.

I don’t get to Italy often enough (Is such a thing even possible?) so I was delighted to run across some Italian cooking schools in the USA. Have any of you been to one of these?

Rustico Cooking in New York City:  They offer classes and team-building experiences for up to 150 people (or as few as 12). Their website alone presents a culinary tour of Italy, with lots of indexed recipes, and descriptions of Italy’s various regions along with the food specialties from each.

Al Boccalino in Seattle: Luigi DeNunzio offers classes nearly every day at Al Boccalino, his Pioneer Square restaurant in downtown Seattle. The link leads you to the website, with a video tour led by Luigi, and information on classes, menus, and a foodie tour of Italy.

Little Italy in San Diego: Cooking demonstrations and hands-on cooking classes fill up fast. Classes incorporate foods and wine from various regions of Italy, made with fresh ingredients. Students participate in every step, from the shopping to the eating.

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, Massachusetts: In the Boston area, Dave’s classes specialize in specific elements of Italian food. There’s a class on risotto and gnocchi, another on ravioli and stuffed pastas, and a class teaching you to make mozzarella cheese at home. The basic pasta and sauce classes fill up fast.

If you know of classes in your area, add a link in the comments! We’ll all be cooking Italian soon.