29 July 2015


CHIAVARI, Italy – Truthfully, with the heat wave we have had the past few weeks; no one has really been in the mood to cook. The bustling morning market hasn’t been bustling as much as crawling, but that all changed the other day when a cool breeze began to blow in off of the sea. 
  The Market in Chiavari
With the morning temperature a more agreeable 80° F there was a bit more activity at the market yesterday. Watching to see what the Chiavarese mamas were buying, it soon became obvious they were choosing plump peppers, eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes. The Genovese have a real fondness for stuffed vegetables and I have a sneaky suspicion that is exactly what the mamas had in mind. 

The beauty of stuffed vegetables is that you can fill them with almost anything, bake them in the oven, and they won’t disappoint you.  It is a tasty way to make something delicious out of the little bits of left over this and that in the fridge. 
 Perfect Round Zucchini
Living in Genova greatly expanded my love of stuffed vegetables far beyond my mother’s peppers with rice and ground beef. Or it could be that just being in Italy makes everything taste better. Hidden in the alleys of the city’s historic center, there are take-out food shops, no bigger than a closet that sell stuffed zucchini and stuffed onions alongside trays of farinata and foccacia. It takes a strong will to walk past one of those shops without being drawn in, and I can’t say I’m particularly strong willed.

Stuffed vegetables are also easy to make at home.  One Genovese mama I know makes stuffed zucchini  using the scooped out center of the zucchini mixed with small chunks of ham and a béchamel sauce. Then she sprinkles the stuffed zucchini with breadcrumbs flavored with olive oil and grated cheese and pops them in the oven to heat through and brown the breadcrumbs.
 One Way to Stuff an Eggplant
Another variation of the zucchini filling is bread (the soft white center) soaked in milk, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a variety of herbs, preferably marjoram, and eggs to bind the mixture. Fill the zucchini with the milk soaked bread (squeezed dry of course), herbs and egg and top with the breadcrumbs.

The flavoring agents depend on what vegetable is being stuffed. For eggplant, you might want to add chopped porcini mushrooms plus a little garlic and oregano. When stuffing zucchini and onions, try leaving the mushrooms out and throw in a pinch of nutmeg for good measure.

You can also use mushrooms as part of a bread stuffing for artichokes, while chopped parsley is good added to the filling for stuffed tomatoes. The artichokes recipe also calls for the chopped stalks of the artichokes, chopped leeks, oregano and nutmeg. Best not to waste anything isn’t really a Genovese motto, but it could be.
 Stuffed Tomatoes
Here’s an easy stuff tomato recipe from the Corriere della Sera, Milan’s daily newspaper. 

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes

Serves 4

4 large tomatoes
80 grams of ground beef (more or less 3 ounces)
60 grams of long grain rice
60 grams of fresh (or frozen) peas
2 small zucchini
1 carrot
1 white onion
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash the tomatoes and cut off the tops. You can also cut a very little bit off the bottom so they stand up better. Scoop out the inside of the tomatoes, chop it into pieces no larger than the peas, and set it aside.  Chop the onion, the carrot and the zucchini also into pieces no larger than the peas. 

Put a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add the chopped onion, carrot and zucchini, the ground beef, the rice, a cup of water and let it cook together for about 10 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. 

Fill the scooped out tomatoes with the rice and ground beef filling, and cover them with the tomato tops.  Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of them and then place a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a casserole pan and bake in a preheated oven (160 C/325F) for 40 minutes. 

The recipes calls for making a sauce out of the chopped tomatoes and serving the stuffed tomato on top of it, just as you see in the photo, but to tell you the truth you could just as easily add the chopped tomatoes to the rice and meat mix and reduce the amount of water, or leave it out altogether. 

You can use this filling for any vegetable you want to stuff. You can substitute the rice with couscous or the soft center of Italian bread, or tiny pasta, or leave them out as well and just chop the vegetable centers you’ve scooped out, either with ground beef, lamb or pork, or no meat at all. You don’t need peas or carrots either, but you do need onions.

Hmmm, just thinking about these delicious combinations is making me hungry. I think I'll head for the kitchen and rustle me up some grub Italian style. Buon Apettito.

26 July 2015

LIFE: Summer Dreams

CHIAVARI, Italy - On these hot summer days with the temperatures hovering in the 90's, I’ve been thinking about a trip I took to Lake Como a couple of years ago with a friend of mine from my Conde' Nast days. The plan was to take the ferry to Cernobbio and have lunch at the opulent Grand Hotel Villa d'Este.
Overview of Villa d'Este 
The villa, a Renaissance residence, was originally called the Villa del Garovo and the villa, and the 25-acre (100,000 m2) park which surrounds it, has seen many changes since it was built in the sixteenth-century as a summer residence for the Cardinal of Como.

Today it is a luxury hotel with room rates averaging €1000 ($1400) a night and top suites averaging €3500 ($5000) per night, and has been called the best hotel in the world by Forbes Magazine. 
 Villa d'Este, Lake Como
The restored villa is set in a large Italian Renaissance garden, complete with a rippling waterfall that starts at the fountain of Hercules and ripples down a stone staircase. Inside, the villa is furnished with museum quality antiques and crystal chandeliers. 

With the sun high in the sky, we decided to have lunch under the tall chestnut trees on the Villa’s lake front terrace. We picked a lakeside table with a view of the sapphire blue water, and with the sound of the lake softly lapping against the shore, it was impossible to not get caught up in the magic of this sweet dolce vita. 
Villa Carlotta, Lake Como
In the afternoon we took the ferry north, along the west side of the lake to visit the Villa Carlotta. In 1843 the Princess Marianne of Nassau, the wife of Prince Albert of Prussia, bought the villa and gave it to her daughter Carlotta as a wedding gift. It was Carlotta’s husband, Georg II of Sacen-Meiningen (don’t you love their titles!) who took charge of the garden and the planting of the 150 varieties of spring blooming rhododendrons and azaleas you see there today.

The Villa Carlotta is just about mid-way around the lake, at the Tremezzo/Cadenabbia ferry stop, where the lake is at its widest and most beautiful. Here the sparkling water is framed by the mountains that hug the border between Italy and Switzerland, opening up from the spur that makes up the inverted Y shape of the lake.
 Villa Balbianello, Lake Como
The fairy tale pink Castello Maresi is impossible to photograph as it sits behind high stone-walls and heavy wrought iron gates in a lush, flower filled park-like estate. It’s tall towers and turrets add to the castle's secluded romantic atmosphere which is why it was, and still is, the perfect place for a secret rendezvous.

The beauty and languorous melancholy of Lake Como has long attracted lovers from all around the world. Even famous ones. It was rumored that Prince Charles secretly rendezvoused with Camilla at Castello Maresi in nearby Griante when he was still married to Diana. The rumor was hotly denied by castle employees, but of course they would have to say that wouldn’t they. 
Terrace Dinning Room, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Lake Como  
From the ferry dock in Tremezzo it is only a short ride across the lake to Bellagio. The white neoclassic Villa Melzi, known for its exquisite gardens, anchors the town at one end and at the other end is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, the playground of the rich and famous. 

During the 18th century the Russian and European upper classes and royalty often made the hotel their own. It was no surprise for hotel guests coming down to breakfast to see the Empress of Russia, Prince Metternich or Queen Victoria buttering their toast in the hotel dining room. Even the 19th century French writer Stendhal considered Bellagio the most beautiful place in the world and confesses to having spent his happiest summers here enjoying opera, fighting duels and falling in love. 
 Early Evening, Lake Como
With the sun starting to set behind the mountains, it was time to board the ferryboat and return to Como. Standing at the rail, watching   the lake unfold before us, the light soft and sheer, it was easy to see why, since the days of the Romans, all who pass fall this way not only fall in love with Lake Como, but continue to dream about it for the rest of their lives.

22 July 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Sweet Summer Pea Soup

CHIAVARI, Italy - Long before I decided to move to Italy I worked as a cook at the Syracuse Hotel, in Syracuse, New York. The Chef, who was from Switzerland, had been trained in Europe and had worked in some pretty impressive restaurants. He was delighted to have me in the kitchen for unlike the rest of the staff, I was interested in food, I liked to cook, wanted to learn
 They Don't Call Me Sweet Pea for Nothing
Most of the others wer ex-military cooks whose culinary training consisted of a Mess sergeant telling them to cook whatever they were cooking until it was dead, real dead. And they did.   

Unfortunately the Chef and I didn’t work together very often. He did volume cooking for banquets and weddings which required massive amounts of food cooked in pots that were bigger than my bathtub and I was assigned lunch duty at one of the hotel restaurants and responsible for the cold dishes  served at the Sunday brunch. 
 Just Defrosted, Not Cooked 

Lunch was a lot of work but brunch was fun. On Sunday mornings I would go into the giant walk-in coolers and see what was left over from the banquets and events that had been held during the week.  

Whatever was in there was what I had to use for the brunch table, but first it needed to be transformed into “new” food. It was a fascinating journey because there were always unusual and interesting foods, like hearts of palm, to experiment with.

What I found one auspicious day was a tray of hollowed out  tomatoes that had been filled with something smooth and green. I tasted it. Puree of peas most certainly, but there was also something else, something I couldn’t identify but made the puree very, but very delicious. I couldn’t wait to see the Chef and ask him what the other ingredient or ingredients were.
 So Good
“Calves brains,” he said when I finally caught up with him. “It’s a puree of peas with calves brains.” 

Oh yuck!

That kind of put a damper on my love affair with pea puree that is until last summer when I decided it was time to try it again. After a bit of thinking I came up with a simple version that is actually quite delicious. Not as delicious as the puree in the Chef’s stuffed tomatoes, but delicious enough that my friend Gary took the recipe home and made it for Chris, his significant other. It got a thumbs up.

As with many of my recipes there are no exact measurements, so you'll have to use your own best judgment.
Sweet Summer Soup

One large bag of tiny frozen peas (not defrosted)
1 bouillon cube (vegetable or regular)
1/8th teaspoon fresh lemon or lime juice
Boiling water
A tiny pinch of salt

Dissolve the bouillon cube in enough boiling water to cover the frozen peas. When dissolved, turn off the heat and add the entire bag of frozen peas. Let the peas sit in the hot bouillon for a minute or two until they are defrosted, but not cooked.  

When the peas are defrosted put them, take them out of the broth and put them into a blender. Add a small amount of the boullion and puree on medium speed until perfectly smooth. The soup should be thick, but pourable. Add the fresh lemon juice and stir. Transfer to a glass pitcher and cover. Let cool. This soup is best served cold. 

In Chef Thomas Keller’s best selling cookbook “The French Laundry” there is a pea puree soup similar to mine except I don’t think he adds lemon or lime juice but what he does add is a few drops of white truffle oil just before serving. He also serves the soup with cheese crisps, aka fricos.

Fricos can be made in a nonstick sauté pan one by one, or in batches on baking sheets in the oven. The idea is to just sprinkle enough cheese so that it melts and creates a crispy, lacy circle that holds together.  Makes 8 crisps.

  Parmesan Fricos

1 cup finely shredded or grated parmesan cheese.


Heat the oven to 375°F. 

Cover two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of grated cheese to form a 4- to 4-1/2 inch round.

Spread the cheese evenly with a fork.

Repeat with the rest of the mixture, leaving 2 inches between each round.

Bake each sheet (one at a time) until the crisps just begin to color, 6 to 8 min.

Don't let them fully brown or the cheese will be bitter.

Use a spatula to lift the edges of the crisps and loosen them from the baking sheet.

Remove the crisps and immediately lay them over a rolling pin or the side of a bottle to give them a curved shape.

Or for a flat frico, just transfer to paper towels.

You can eat them as soon as they cool or store them in an airtight container for up to two days.