Food for the feasts of Italy

Celebrating Italy: the tastes and traditions of Italy revealed through its feasts, festivals and sumptuous foods (English and Italian Edition)

I began looking for food topics to post about for today, and ended up buying this book. I wanted something about food traditions surrounding the Feast of Santa Lucia, December 13. In our family, our oldest daughter, starting when she was nine or ten, dressed in white with a crown of candles (battery operated!) and delivered freshly baked Orange Danish rolls to us in bed. We usually thought of the celebration through the lens of my husband’s Scandinavian roots. But she was, after all, a Sicilian girl.

I’m looking forward to cooking my way through Carol Field’s beautiful book of Italian festivals and their foods, and you are sure to hear more about them as I go along!

To allow you time for your Christmas preparations, I’m keeping this short. Enjoy the journey through Advent, to Christmas.


Time to make torcetti

My Italian great-grandparents, the source of my torcetti tradition. Josephine (Gualtieri) and Francesco Arcuri.

With December approaching, my Italian thoughts always turn to torcetti, the Italian pastry I grew up with. So for this “fifth Friday” bonus post, I’m giving you the recipe again, via my original torcetti post last year.

I’m also including a link to another blog with a torcetti recipe–however, it is in Romanian. I could not resist sharing it because of the beautiful finished product. I have never used chocolate on mine, but might try it after seeing this.

Do you have an Italian Christmas tradition–food, religious observance, family activity–that you love? Please tell me about it in the comments!

More about rapini…

I recently discovered that “rapini” is by far the most popular search term that leads people to my blog. I find it a little baffling, however here’s another blogger’s rapini recipe, to give all those “rapini” searches another place to land. Check out the nuovastoria blog for more on life in the Italian south.


The weather is changing in Martina Franca. While we’re not swimming in flood waters like the unfortunate residents of Venice, our skies are grey and the wind is whipping down our cavernous city streets, prompting a spontaneous show of woolly scarves and winter coats. There’s only one thing to do: make pasta.

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Ravioli con la zucca: Lessons in cooking and Italian

The Pumpkin, late 17th century by Bartolomeo Bimbi

I’ve been dealing with pumpkins this week, and the stores are overflowing with them. I have lots of pumpkin puree in my fridge and freezer, so I found a way to use some of it, and I’m sharing it with you. Cook up that zucca and make this for dinner! With many thanks to the Italian Food Net, which presents this cooking lesson in Italian with English subtitles.

Now be honest, can you cook this way? I’m distracted in so many ways–the Italian language in my ear, conversion from metric to whatever my ‘normal’ is called, the impossibly clean kitchen, and the friendly and attractive Italian chef who wants to help me cook up something delicious.

Aside from looking up recipes, have you learned to cook something by watching video instructions online?


Help me, Blogiverse! I’m losing my figs!

Is there any hope for these figs? I have a honey fig that grows two crops a summer, but my summer hasn’t been long enough for the second crop to ripen. (It rarely is long enough, but this year there are lots of late figs.) The leaves are fading and dropping off, but there are dozens of figs that haven’t ripened. Does anyone have tips for getting them to ripen after picking them? Or what if I cut the branches and put them in water in the house? Or… ??? Fig experts, please help!

This fig tree was a gift from my mother after we visited Italy. Fresh figs were a revelation to me, as I had never lived where figs grow. I’d love to salvage them if they can be used. Take a look at this wonderful concoction and see if your mouth waters!

Do you like figs? How do you like them best? Please leave a comment!

UPDATE!  Good news/bad news. There is a way to ripen the figs, but I have missed the time frame for it!

My friend Karen sent me this on Facebook:

Mamma Agata Cooking School on the Amalfi Coast

Plans are solidifying for a trip to Italy next summer, and I am considering how I will spend a couple of weeks there, when what I’d really like is a couple of years!

Somewhere in the south, I want to take a cooking class. My mother did this a few years ago in Sorrento, and had a great time. The food part was wonderful, but she was just as amazed that the teacher spent half the day cooking with several students, while wearing what Mom described as a black “cocktail dress” with no apron, with no spills or flour smudges at all.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a cooking class offered in Palermo, and here is another, in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. I love making simple pasta like this for lunch!

Mamma Agata Cooking School on the Amalfi Coast.

And here is a video of Mamma Agata at work:

How to make (and say) bruschetta

Various toppings for bruschetta at

I love a good bruschetta, but have to admit, I have been reluctant to prepare it myself. My biggest fear has been getting the bread wrong–not crispy enough, or too charred, or soggy from too wet a topping. Camille Parker of Camille’s Dish has given me a little confidence, and with tomatoes now growing in abundance, I am going to try it. Here’s a video lesson on making bruschetta–and I love that Camille pronounces it the Italian way. She’d probably get in trouble with her 92-year-old Sicilian grandfather if she said Broo-shet-a like most people do in America!

I had the best bruschetta I’ve ever tasted in America in the most unexpected place. Not in Little Italy somewhere, or even in my mom’s kitchen, which is a great place for Italian food. No, right in the heart of the midwest, at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse next to the Radisson Hotel at Des Moines, Iowa’s airport. No kidding. My sister and I went back twice when we visited Iowa last year, and would have been happy to make that appetizer our entire meal. I didn’t get the recipe from them, but my sister recreated it at home with goat cheese, finely diced roma tomatoes, garlic, a little basil, olive oil. Yum. Okay, now I’m hungry!

Are there Italian foods you’ve been afraid to make yourself? Something you wish you’d tried cooking sooner? A great bruschetta combination you’ll share with us? That’s what the comments are for!

Food for thought: Is arugula too bitter for you?

Arugula is also known as rocket or roquette.

I started picking up my weekly “farm box” from Nash’s Organic Produce last month, and have already received a couple of bunches of arugula. I *love* arugula!! But I have friends who find it too bitter, just as some people find broccoli or Brussels sprouts too bitter.

Guess what? It’s genetic!


Some people have more sensitive taste receptors than other people, and this includes sweet and salty tastes as well as bitterness. These people are sometimes called supertasters. Supertasters perceive a greater bitterness in foods from the Brassica family (kale, broccoli, cabbage… arugula) although some studies have shown that the sensitivity does not correlate directly with avoidance of them.

Though the phenomenon of varying sensitivity was observed in laboratories many decades ago, only in the last ten years have scientists nailed down the genetic details. A science article in The Guardian newspaper (UK) summarizes the details nicely.

Personally, I find arugula slightly bitter, peppery, and a great base or addition to salads. I love it steamed in pasta with a light sauce (a couple of chopped fresh tomatoes sauteed with onion and garlic, and add chopped arugula for the last couple of minutes, then pour over and toss with steaming hot pasta). I also had arugula in Italy cooked in a light gravy with beef or veal, a delicious combination.

So how about you–yes or no to arugula? And if you like it, what’s your favorite way to prepare it?


The search for bad wine

Our experimental procedure.

During a two month stay in Italy, my husband and I enjoyed a glass of wine with many of our meals. We rented ‘self-catering’, or kitchenette apartments in some places, and bought our own groceries, so had the opportunity to buy bottles of wine from local shops and markets in many parts of southern Italy. And it was so inexpensive!! We were very happy with the $4 and $5 bottles, and pleased we were getting such nice wine at that price.

But what was the $3 wine like? We didn’t want to drink the Italian equivalent of Annie Green Springs or the vinegary Chianti I recalled from my youth in Alaska. We decided to give it a try.

My sister, Marlie Johnson, checks out some Calabrian grapes on the vine.

The $3 wine was perfectly acceptable, so, hey, why not try the next one down?

We carried on with our experiment, right on down to the$1.50 bottles and found every one to be at worst tolerable, and sometimes surprisingly good.

The brand, you ask? They year? Sorry, I’m not talking about brand name wines. In little shops we found locally made wines not produced for export. I imagined them being made in the ‘cantina’ in the walk-out basement of a farmhouse at the edge of town, whatever

The cantina in a private home in Sinalunga, Tuscany.

town we were in, put up in giant casks. Maybe they grew the grapes in a local vigna, or maybe they bought them at the market or a roadside stand, where crates of grapes were stacked for sale in the fall.

We concluded, after many happy hours of experimentation, that Italians do not tolerate bad wine.

Food: Planting Italian

I’ve been doing some gardening during the last few days. Little sprouts of a salad garden are rising from a back-porch pot. Leaves are peeking up where I dropped peas in the ground last week. I love seeing things grow, and getting to eat them when they are ready–tomatoes warm with sunshine, feathery herbs chopped up on greens, or tossed with pasta.

And what would I be growing if I lived in Italy? Maybe something from Franchi Seeds.

Do they Santa Anna green beans taste any different than, say Blue Lake green beans, or the tomato San Marzano 2 from Romas grown at your local farms? I’d love to hear from anyone who has grown comparison crops, or who uses seeds from Italy in your gardens. Please comment and enlighten us!