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Flowers for Delia

Flowers speak. Red roses, desire; daises, innocence; hydrangeas, gratitude—there’s a whole language of blooms, one that came in handy in Victorian times, when “talking bouquets” could say the unsayable. But with the plants we eat, we tend to listen more to the hanging fruits and sprouting veggies than the flowers. Zucchini blossoms are here to change that, together with a nonna named Delia.

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Zucchini flowers are just as edible as their fruits. The blossom tastes (surprise) like a bite of squash condensed in its thin orange membrane—faintly sweet, sort of grassy. For being so delicate, they pack a punch of flavor and color on a plate.

Italian cooking has long embraced the flower’s versatility: it can be added to frittatas and risotto, put on pizza, stuffed and deep-fried, batter-fried on its own, even tossed raw in salads. Different regions have preferred methods, but all share a common frugality—that Italian virtue of letting nothing go to waste, of making scraps sublime.

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Nonna Delia with Tina, her favorite chicken (“Tina La Gallina”)

My introduction to zucchini flowers was through Nonna Delia, my aunt Monica’s grandmother who lived in the Piedmont region of Italy. She was a living archive of kitchen and garden wisdom, “a nonna with a capital N,” as my aunt says. One of her signature dishes was stuffed zucchini flowers, which she prepared in a way I have yet to see anywhere else beyond her kitchen. Instead of stuffing the flowers lengthwise, she filled them three-fourths of the way, then folded over the ends of the petals to form a compact little bell with a flat base. This method allows all the sides of the blossom to brown evenly while cooking, without the stuffing spilling out. Her filling didn’t have any rich cheeses, but was more of a trick to stretch whatever meat was on hand using simple ingredients like milk and stale bread—a carryover from harder times, which she transformed into a kind of luxury.

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Nonna Delia’s blossoms hit all the right notes: they’re satisfyingly salty from the ham and pan-fried oil, but still light and zippy with the flecks of fresh parsley; to round it out there’s the quirky reminder of squash that comes from the flower. To me, beyond taste, they say happiness in being resourceful.

Nonna Delia died in August 2009, in the last weeks of zucchini season. I worked with my aunt to write out her recipe for stuffed flowers, with estimates for American measurements. In this quick moment before summer’s petals shut, here’s the recipe:

Nonna Delia’s Zucchini Flowers
Fiori di zucca della Nonna Delia

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A note on the flowers:

When you add zucchini flowers to a dish or fry them whole, you don’t have to worry about finding wide-open blossoms. But when you stuff them, that becomes key—so it’s best if you can pick the flowers yourself. Get to the garden early in the morning, when the first sunrays sweet-talk the petals open. You can cut the female flowers that grow directly off of the zucchini, as well as the male flowers that have their own stem (these tend to be more plentiful, and the stem is helpful when stuffing). Catch them later on and they’ll be stubbornly shut (pulling the petals apart is a disaster).

Back in the kitchen, rinse the flowers and rest them facedown on a towel. (Here, I’m always reminded of the dance of the flowers scene in Fantasia—admiring the elegance of these grand dames on their dance floor, it’s easy to forget that this recipe was born from pinching pennies.) Right before filling, carefully remove the pistil from the middle of the flower, without tearing the petals. I usually have the most luck here by slightly twisting the pistil out with my thumb and forefinger.

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Filling ingredients (for about 20 flowers):

  • Day (or so)-old bread (about ¾ of a large loaf)
  • Milk (2 to 3 cups, depending on how tough the bread is)
  • Fresh parsley (about a half a bunch)
  • 2 egg yolks (ideally, Tina’s)
  • Prosciutto cotto (about 1/3 lb)

Note: Prosciutto cotto is the Italian version of basic ham. (We’re used to seeing more of prosciutto crudo, which is cured, as an Italian import. “Crudo” = uncooked, “cotto” = cooked.) Prosciutto cotto is light but packed with flavor, so a few slices go a long way. You can find it in the deli sections of European-leaning grocery stores (Gran Biscotto is a good imported brand that I’ve come across). Ask the meat cutter to cut a thick slice rather than individual paper-thin slices; that will make it easier to dice. If you can’t track down any prosciutto cotto, you can substitute any leftover meat you might have on hand.

  • Freshly grated parmigiano cheese (about ¼ cup)
  • Breadcrumbs (if necessary, about ¼ cup)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

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  1. Remove the crust from the bread and discard. Break the bread into big chunks and transfer it to a bowl (this will make it easier to drain later on). Pour the milk over the bread, making sure that all of the bread is covered. Let the bread soak for at least 5 minutes (you can start chopping other ingredients in the meantime). Once softened, gently squeeze the bread to drain excess milk.
  1. Finely dice the prosciutto and chop the parsley.
  1. In a large bowl, mix the bread with the prosciutto, parsley, and salt and pepper, to taste. Add two lightly beaten egg yolks and the parmigiano cheese. The filling should be soft but not runny; if it’s too liquid, you can stir in some breadcrumbs to thicken.
  1. Carefully remove the pistils from the zucchini blossoms. Using your hands, fill the flowers so the filling rises above the point where the petals begin to break off from the base. Fold each petal flat over the filling to seal the flower, creating a bell shape with a flat base. Place facedown on a plate.
  1. When all the flowers are stuffed, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Once the oil is hot, place the stuffed blossoms facedown in the skillet. Cook for about a minute, then rotate on each side for an additional minute or so, just until the flower is lightly browned all over.
  1. Remove from skillet and set on a plate lined with paper towel blot the oil. Serve when still warm.

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Since you can’t predict the number and size of blossoms you’ll find in the garden (or market), you might have leftover filling. It’s Piemontese tradition to use any leftovers to make friciulin—little fritters made by pan-frying balls of filling in an oiled skillet. Truly, nothing goes to waste!

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A tale of two nonnas

People say that to learn how to cook, you must find a grandmother.

I never met either of my grandmothers, since they died before I was born. So when I came across an article from the 1970 Waterloo Courier tucked between the pages of a scrapbook, I thought I had struck gold.

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In this “Shop Talk” featurette, my grandmother, Mary, stands in her kitchen, sharing her trademark Italian recipes: ricotta and spinach ravioli, spaghetti sauce, zucchini casserole. Here was my culinary ancestor preserved in print, offered up to the world (or at least the townspeople of Waterloo, Iowa). I began to see the ravioli already, piled high in her painted bowl that I took with me to college – ricotta-filled pillows for my dreams of maternal heritage.

“Italian-American Auxiliary Presents Fashions of Today and Yesterday.” Grandma Mary Amelang (nee Stabile) is seated center-right, in peasant dress and shawl.

“The Italian-American Auxiliary Presents Fashions of Today and Yesterday.” Grandma Mary Amelang (née Stabile) is seated center-right, in peasant dress and shawl.

I knew that my grandmother was part of that defining story of melting pot America from the early 1900s. Her Campania-born parents passed through the fabled gates of Ellis Island, where her maiden name became “Sta-BILL” instead of “STAH-bee-leh.” Then they moved from a tenement on Little Italy’s Mulberry Street to the greener pastures of the meatpacking Midwest. Love, or something like it, struck in the form of goofy Merle Amelang, who hailed from a ramrod-straight German family in Iowa. And from this, the world as I know it began to take shape: three boys and a girl, the motley crew of uncles, aunt, and Dad that has witnessed my own growth – just high-schoolers in this article.

I asked the four siblings about Mary’s Courier-worthy ravioli but, as I made my way down the list, I realized that the flat responses weren’t just worsening senior moments; these ravioli were simply not a thing in the family. Spaghetti sauce was a common enough sight on the dinner table, and lasagna and mostaccioli made appearances on special occasions, yet no one remembers seeing their mom stuff dough with this filling. Instead, my aunt recalls Mary borrowing the ravioli rolling pin for the article photo shoot – and she’s pretty sure they didn’t even have ravioli for dinner that night.

Beyond the “Mamma Mia!” beehive-and-pearls kitsch, there was a real mystery. Maybe my grandma was playing the writer, or the writer was playing the reader, but somewhere, something had been lost in translation.

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Left: Mary Stabile Amelang, Right: Liliana Lavino Minato

I began to think of my other grandmother, Liliana, on my mother’s side, who was born, raised, and died in a two-horse town called Cossato, nestled in the Italian Alps. This is a woman who spent a week cooking in preparation for a visit from a Roman telephone operator; she had invited him to the mountains for a hunting trip as a thank-you for putting her in touch with my mom, who was at college far away in the Midwest, long before the age of Skype. Lavish Piemontese spreads of antipasti were Liliana’s strong suit. I wondered how she might react to Waterloo’s idea of “typical dishes Italian cooks are expected to prepare.” Indigestion was a strong possibility.

I looked at the recipes through Nonna Liliana’s eyes: what were meatballs doing over stuffed pasta? Is “raviola” even a word? Why would someone need a whole can of tomato paste? Who in God’s name would put sugar in tomato sauce? Were they trying to ruin it by cooking it for four hours?

I realized that these nonnas would have probably butted heads if they had ended up in the same kitchen. I needed to break up this fight.

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From the Plains to the Alps, the nonnas on skis.

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A young Mary Stabile and Liliana Lavino.

All the trouble lies in that single word: “authentic.” It will turn an Italian into a snob, an American into a sap.

Italians starting over in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century created a whole new culture, one that was a natural offshoot of the traditions of the homeland and an adaptation to new conditions in turn-of-the-century America. Whole cans of tomato paste were stirred into a sauce to embolden the watery taste of standard-grade tomatoes (in Italy, instead, paste is sold in tubes like toothpaste, meant to be used in small amounts). Sugar found its way into the pot in an attempt to resurrect the sweetness of formerly local San Marzano tomatoes. Vast quantities of meat from the American heartland took center stage in new renditions of pastas and mains. Sauces were simmered for hours with handfuls of garlic cloves to coax as much flavor possible out of less-fresh ingredients. This was Italian-American cooking, not Italian – equally valid, just different. And Italians will get testy with slip-ups in this vocabulary.

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Left: Mary & the first three of the brood standing in front of their home in Waterloo, Iowa, with snow goddess sculpted by Merle (my dad is on the left). Right: Liliana & her three children posing in front of the family home in Cossato, Italy (mom is on the bottom step).

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The women and their men: Mary and Merle to the left, Liliana and Giuseppe to the right.

But even when you’re careful with your definitions, authenticity is tricky. Are Grandma Mary’s “raviola” authentically Stabile family fare? Where is the line between authentic Italian and authentic Italian-American?

These truths are hard to pin down, maybe even impossible. Sometimes recipes fail us. And sometimes we forget that, behind the glossy page, there is much measuring, glazing, carving, browning, and skimming at work. Life is never as neat and effortless as a recipe on a food blog might have us believe – just like the rest of social media.

My hunch is that the Courier writer learned of Mary’s family background and upcoming trip to Italy through the Waterloo grapevine, and then pitched an idea for a feature, envisioning something along the lines of The Godfather kitchen scenes. She probably wanted to spice up the usual spaghetti-and-meatballs routine that had already began to charm its way into the heart of Americans – hence the ravioli. And Grandma Mary would have called around, asking friends and family for a recipe. Tack on some mentions of the Old Country, and you’ve got yourself an exotic write-up. No one specific’s fault, just a reflection of the times. It’s an editorial mistake that has been made countless times as we explain immigrant kitchens from all over the globe.

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Curious spirits: Mary and Liliana on their travels.

But there is sincerity in the article, perhaps just not in its measurements. Grandma Mary wanted to affirm her connection to the country of her forbearers, with the same curiosity that has me turning the pages of old scrapbooks. As the Courier reports, it led her to host an exchange student from Turin named Raffaella.

Less than an hour’s drive from Turin sits Cossato, where Nonna Liliana encouraged my mom to take off for the States. Mom ran into Dad, and with my arrival the Italian and the Italian-American became even more muddled.

Years later, I retraced my mom’s steps and moved to Turin, where I met up with Raffaella. She led me through the porticoed walkways of the city and gave me my first taste of burrata cheese. As she told me what a great time she had in Waterloo, Iowa, the sap and the snob battled it out inside me. I knew more about my grandmothers than I had thought.

And so the strange dance between homelands continues, always with plenty to eat.

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Sweet and sour, Italian-style

Sitting at the kitchen table, a tacky Italian courtroom show buzzing on TV in the background, I watched my grandfather cut perfect slices of melon. He broke the fruit in half, scooped out the seeds, and swiftly followed the dark green contours of the rind with a knife, creating a plateful of crescent moons. Then, with a gentle confidence, he took each arc in his left hand and, with his right, steered the knife along the curvature of the rind, dipping down as he followed the line where orange disappeared into green. Making his way back up, he steadily drew the knife closer towards his chest, the blade hitting his thumb as a slab of tender sweetness was finally released from its shell.

My 7-year-old self marveled at how this graceful transformation materialized in the rough palms of my grandfather’s hands. Afraid for my thumbs, it was only at this point that I began to help, peeling paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma from their wax paper packaging and wrapping one around each wedge of melon, slippery between my fingers, as I assembled little ships with bright orange bows and sterns and hulls of marbled pork. Mirroring what I had seen many times before on Italian tables, I arranged the slices like a flower, the bows of the salty-sweet vessels meeting in the center of a white platter. The whole presentation evoked a sensuality that I could sense but not yet fully understand.

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When I bit into the fruit of my labor that summer day, I puckered at the impact of the first salt-cured layer. My mouth began to water just as the buttery film of pork melted into melon, relieving me of my thirst – only until the same saltiness chimed in as my teeth sunk into the bite once again. Now, I’m struck by how the pairing of these two deceivingly simple ingredients satisfies a craving at the same moment that it perpetuates it, giving you what you want as it takes it away. That’s the pinnacle of desire: to somehow feel both yearning and fulfillment at the same time.

This push and pull enacted on our taste buds is the foundation of sweet and sour sensations, a contrast expressed in a wide range of cuisines around the world, from Indian chutneys to American barbecue. Italians know this flavor as agrodolce, literally “sour-sweet,” a concept introduced to the peninsula by way of Arabs traveling to Sicily. From continent to continent, the interplay between sweet and sour, sugar and salt, is part of our enduring quest for universal balance.

The prosciutto and melon combination has its roots in the writings of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek philosopher and physician celebrated as the father of Western medicine. He classified foods based on four humors – warm, cold, moist, and dry – and believed that equilibrium was needed between warm-cold and dry-moist in order to ensure the integrity of the human body. In medieval times, fruit was understood as cold and moist, and therefore dangerous – even deadly. In his biography of Pope Paul II, the Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Platina suggests that the pope’s death by stroke was on account of his eccentric love of melons (apparently he ate two the night before he died). Yet when paired with warm and dry foods, particularly cheese and salted meat, the threat of fruit was tempered.

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Of course, to achieve ideal balance great attention must be paid to the quality of the two ingredients. The great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that melon’s destiny was nothing short of perfection, and for this antipasto only a perfectly ripe Tuscan melon will do. Just slightly different from the cantaloupe we are accustomed to in the U.S., this variety has a rind with ridges, hinting at future slices, and a deeper orange color. At the peak of its summer ripeness, the orb is aromatic and heavy, as if all the July sunlight has been condensed into its juicy flesh.

On the other end of the flavor spectrum, there is prosciutto di Parma, painstakingly cured for anytime from one to three years. These prized haunches are imbued with the flavors of the Parma countryside as they hang out to dry. Cut in gossamer slices, the pork also tastes faintly nutty, since the pigs carefully selected for this noble culinary cause feed on the whey produced by local parmigiano makers.

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Watching my grandfather carve a melon, my mind was far from yin and yang and the meaning of terroir, yet now I realize how much these ideas about equilibrium have guided me both in the kitchen and in my wanderings away from the table. I have felt the push and pull of conflicting desires, sometimes as tension, sometimes as precious harmony. I feel it in my simultaneous impulse to live out of a suitcase and my yearning to build a nest for myself, in my self-reliance but also love of companionship, in my straddling of the Atlantic with one foot resting in the U.S. and the other in Italy. And each day I set out to strike a balance, constructing little boats like that 7-year-old girl at the kitchen table.

Other balancing acts:
Kiwi, fig, date / Prosciutto
Pear, quince / Manchego
Fig, pear / Gorgonzola
Apple / Sharp cheddar
Apricot / Brie
Watermelon / Feta
Cherry, peach / Burrata
Cranberry, strawberry / Chevre
Strawberry, fig / Balsamic vinegar

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Tartufini di panettone

Inevitably, as springtime stirs and I reach deep into the pantry, clearing the last of the winter stockpile, I come across a poor abandoned panettone that survived Christmas, having never been unveiled as part of a December feast or found the arms of a friend as a holiday gift.

Panettone, a festive cake studded with raisins and candied fruit, is basically shorthand for Christmas, gracing every Italian table during the holiday season. Many legends celebrate its origin – a nobleman in disguise who invented the cake to save the village baker from ruin and woo his daughter; a scullery boy named Toni who whipped up the original using ingredients he scrounged together when the court chef burned dessert (hence “pane di Toni” or “Tony’s bread”); a nun who baked the cake in the shape of a cupola for her fellow Sisters – all with the common denominator of yuletide symbolism. But panettone’s other trademark is an impressive shelf life – about 6 months, thanks primarily to the long process of fermentation in which the yeast is given the chance to rise twice.

Part of me cringes at the thought of panettone well into March, like Christmas decorations that hang on too long after all the snow has melted and crocuses pierce through the ground, but I’m not one to cast aside perfectly good cake. And, lo, panettone truffles were born. Soaked in rum, mixed with toasted hazelnuts, and coated in dark chocolate, they are barely recognizable as that Christmas fruitcake with a sometimes stodgy reputation.

A note on the recipe: To melt the chocolate for the truffle coating, it is helpful to use a double broiler, or a bain-marie, which is a stovetop setup that allows you to heat ingredients gradually, without burning. I get by with an improvised system that I rig up with whatever I come across in the kitchen. Find a heatproof bowl that sits comfortably on a small or medium pot, making sure that the bottom of the bowl is at least several inches above the bottom of the pot. Add a small amount of water to the base – roughly an inch, never too much that the bowl comes into contact with the water. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer before you heat any ingredients in the top bowl. It’s well worth the small extra effort to melt the chocolate this way; you’ll achieve a more pleasant taste and smoother texture than you would by microwaving the chocolate or heating it directly in a pan.

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Tartufini di panettone
Adapted from La Repubblica – La Cucina di D

Makes about 40 truffles – they freeze well.

1 panettone
1 cup milk
½ cup rum
¾ cup sugar
½ cup grated coconut, plus extra for garnish
3 tablespoons cacao powder
3 tablespoons hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
3 cups dark chocolate, chopped into small chunks

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1. Shred the panettone into small pieces and place in a large mixing bowl.

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2. Add the milk, rum, sugar, grated coconut, cacao powder, and hazelnuts. Stir well; you should notice the mixture begin to stick together, forming a cohesive mass. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

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3. Take the panettone mix out of the fridge. Working with a generous spoonful of mix at a time, roll the batter into small balls with the palms of your hands, and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover the baking sheet and stick in the freezer for another hour.

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4. When the truffles near the end of their time in the freezer, begin melting the dark chocolate with a double broiler. Once the water boils, turn down the heat and add the chocolate pieces. Use a spatula to stir the chocolate, ensuring it melts evenly. If you find the chocolate is too thick, add a little bit of vegetable oil or butter, but not water, which will instead make it clumpy.

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5. As soon as the chocolate attains a smooth, viscous consistency, turn off the heat. Drop the truffles in the bowl one by one, tossing them around so they become fully coated with chocolate, and return them to the same cookie sheet. Here, your greatest challenge is to avoid getting fingerprints all over the truffles to guarantee a smooth chocolate exterior (using the tip of a fork or even plastic gloves to transfer them helps), though you can also go for a more rustic effect.

6. In a final flourish celebrating your achievement as a new master chocolatier, sprinkle grated coconut on the truffles.

7. Loosely cover the baking sheet and place it in the freezer for about 30 minutes to allow the chocolate to harden, or let sit in a cool spot for a few hours.

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Snow day braise

Days like these are made for slow-cooking…

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When I’m snowed in, one of the meals I crave most is the rabbit my grandpa would cook when I visited him in Piedmont during winter. The skillet of rabbit he would bring to the table may have looked humble compared to a whole roast chicken or slab of brisket, but it was full of flavor, tasting like the chestnuts the animal would feed on throughout the fall.

Arguably the most popular and widespread version of rabbit in Italian cooking is coniglio arrosto, which translates to “roasted rabbit.” Technically, the meat is braised rather than roasted, meaning it is initially seared over high heat, then simmered slowly with small amounts of liquid – a way of cooking meat that allows it to remain juicy as it develops an irresistibly caramelized skin.

Each region of Italy is associated with its own unique embellishments to coniglio arrosto, depending on the availability of specific seasonal ingredients and the characteristic foods produced within the area. In Liguria, for example, the meat is typically prepared with black olives, one of the main products of the coastal region. At the foothills of the Alps in Piedmont, where corn is plentiful, coniglio arrosto is often served alongside polenta or, in the spring months, lightly sautéed sweet peas. Regardless of the variations between different regional adaptations, coniglio arrosto, with its rustic informality, is an expression of the value of simplicity and making use of readily available ingredients.

My grandpa had grown up eating the coniglio arrosto cooked by his mother and raised in the farm where his family lived. The family recipe has been passed down not on a piece of paper, but through observation and practice, becoming more of an instinct than a formula. Here is how I’ve learned it, in approximations:

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Nonno Beppe’s coniglio arrosto

1 rabbit, cut into pieces (for those in the D.C. area, I found some Maryland-raised rabbit at Harvey’s butcher shop at Union Market)
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper

1. Heat olive oil in a skillet with the garlic. Add the rabbit, seasoning the exposed side with salt and pepper. Sear over high heat for about 5 minutes, until browned. Turn, seasoning the other side, and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Depending on the size of your pan, you may want to sear the rabbit in two batches to avoid overcrowding the pan.

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2. Add white wine and rosemary sprigs, then cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Once the wine has been absorbed, add about 1/4 cup water. Continue to check on the rabbit to see when the liquid has been absorbed, adding 1/4 cup at a time when the pan is dry.

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3. When the rabbit is almost done (fork-tender), continue cooking without the lid for about 10-15 minutes, until all the liquids are absorbed. On a snow day, serve with polenta.

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Cin cin!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my elders, it’s that you never need much of an excuse to enjoy a glass of prosecco.

Meet Giuseppe and Liliana Minato, my grandparents on my mother’s side:

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In true Minato style, the dapper couple is making short work of a bunch of bubbly. This shot was taken sometime in the late 1960s, but it shows a familiar scene: bottles strewn across the table, with sweets and savory pastries laid out for the taking – or as it’s called in Italy, a brindisi. 

brindisi is a celebratory toast, a way of honoring family and friendship over a drink. It can be as formal or spontaneous as you like; anywhere from a baptism reception to an unexpected visit from a neighbor is an appropriate occasion to toast to health and happiness, especially during the holiday season. Swinging by your great-aunt’s apartment to say hello on the way back from an errand? She’ll promptly whip out a plate of cookies and a bottle of prosecco. A friend pops by to pick up their kid who you’ve babysat for the day? Now’s a good a time as any to open up that bottle of wine you’ve been saving in the cantina. Dropping off a Christmas present at your second cousin’s house? Time for a cocktail!

That being said, Italy, on the whole, is not a nation of raging alcoholics. Yes, it’s totally acceptable to toast anytime beginning at about noon, and theoretically you could transition from your morning cappuccino (acceptable until strictly 11am) directly to booze, but most tend to stick to prosecco earlier in the day, because it’s a lighter, less alcoholic option.

Prosecco, a white sparkling wine, has been getting a lot of press these days since its popularity in the U.S. is rising, while champagne is slightly lagging by comparison. The main differences between prosecco and champagne are the type of grape used (Glera for prosecco, versus Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and/or Pinot Meunier for champagne, with a few exceptions), the geographical area in which the varietal is grown, and the method of fermentation (champagne is fermented for a second time in bottles, while prosecco is usually poured in large vats after the first stage).

Though now it’s also made in other areas of Italy, like Friuli-Venezia Giulia, prosecco production has been long-rooted in the Veneto region, which claims Venice as its capital city. Because of its access to top quality sparkling wine, Venice is the birthplace of many fizzy cocktails, like the famed bellini, which mixes prosecco with fresh peach juice. (My grandfather Giuseppe’s family was Venetian, so I suppose my love of fizz is partially genetic.)

This year, I’ve started to substitute pomegranate juice for the peach nectar to make a holiday twist on the classic. I aim for about 3 parts prosecco to 1 part pomegranate, though if you prefer your drink a bit sweeter you can increase the amount of juice. Seeking out pomegranate juice that isn’t from concentrate will make a big difference in the flavor. Here is my dear friend Gen, making the drink look pretty:

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So, friends of the blogosphere, here’s a virtual brindisi to wish you a Happy New Year! You may already know Salute! (“Health!”), but this year why not try toasting with another way of saying “Cheers” in Italian: Cin cin! (pronounced “chin-chin”). An Italian friend once explained to me that saying Cin cin is meant to complete the sensory experience of your drink. You see the drink’s color, smell its aroma, touch it to your lips, and taste its flavor – but how can you hear it? That’s why you clink glasses, exaggerating the sound with the onomatopoeic Cin cin. Music to my ears.

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The fungus among us

It’s Fall here in the Pacific Northwest, which means we’re in the heart of mushroom season. From about September to November,  damp days promise an abundance of funghi – one of the many similarities between this region of the U.S. and Piedmont, the province in Northern Italy where my family is from. Even on a short hike near Hood River, Oregon this past weekend, I was able to find a bunch of different mushrooms along the edge of the path:

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I’ve combed through some mycology books in an attempt to decipher the spoils of my amateur “mushroaming,” and am pretty sure the big one to the top right is a short-stemmed russola, and the red one a lobster mushroom. For each of the rest, I’ve come up with a handful of possibilities which seem to be either “edible but not recommended” or “deadly poisonous.” Hmmm…

Not feeling quite up to hallucinating this weekend, I foraged my neighborhood grocery store for a local mushroom alternative, and came out with some beautiful golden chanterelles.

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One of my favorite ways to cook mushrooms is in risotto, the ultimate comfort food for chilly nights. It’s a logical choice for using fresh mushrooms in Northern Italy, because the Po Valley, stretching from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is filled with rice fields. Since the delicate creaminess of the rice contrasts so nicely with earthy flavors, risotto is a great way to showcase woodsy ingredients like mushrooms and walnuts in colder months, or nettles and asparagus in the spring.

When buying rice for risotto, try to track down the carnaroli variety. Because these kernels are a bit shorter, they tend not to overcook as much as other alternatives, such as arborio. That being said, it’s perfectly fine to use arborio; you just need to be more attentive to ensure your rice does not cook beyond al dente.

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This recipe serves around 8, with ample leftovers, and takes about 30 minutes to make.

About 6 cups carnaroli or arborio rice – The general rule in Italian cooking is “un pugno per persona” (one fistful per person), but that’s in the context of a larger meal where rice would be only the first of several courses. I usually serve risotto as a main dish together with a salad/side, so I estimate about 2 to 3 fistfuls per person.
About 3.5 quarts (14 cups) chicken stock – The calculation here is about 2 times as much broth as rice. I like to overestimate the amount just in case – you can use any extra broth when reheating leftovers the next day.
About 5 cups cleaned mushrooms – Here I’ve used chanterelles, but other types, especially porcini (even reconstituted dry ones), would also work very well.
1 large yellow onion (about 1 cup diced)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1/2 cup dry white wine
Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped
3-4 tablespoons butter
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

The first step is to clean your mushrooms, something done best with a glass of wine, sitting among good company. Here is my mom preparing chanterelles for cooking – wiping them clean with a damp paper towel, trimming the bottom of the stems, and cutting them in half (large pieces are fine, since they’ll shrink as you cook):

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Next, bring the stock to a boil in a large pot on a back burner of your stove. Season your broth with salt – that way the rice will absorb the salt together with the liquid. Once hot, continue to simmer over low heat to keep the broth warm as you make the risotto.

In another pan, sauté half of the onion in olive oil, adding the mushrooms a few minutes later. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to brown; season with salt & pepper, then set aside.

In either the same pan as you cooked the mushrooms in, or in a new one (so long as it’s big enough to hold all of the risotto- the rice will expand!), sauté the rest of the onion over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once the onion begins to turn translucent, add the rice, stirring continuously and keeping a close eye on it to prevent it from burning. Toasting the rice without liquid at this stage allows it to develop a slight crust so that it absorbs the broth gradually during the rest of the cooking process, rather than all at once. It’s a bit like searing meat before roasting.

After the rice toasts for roughly two minutes, add the white wine and stir gently, keeping the heat at medium high. Once the liquid is just about fully absorbed by the rice, add one ladle of broth, always stirring often. Continue to add a ladle of broth at a time, stirring and waiting for the liquid to absorb before the next addition, until the rice is just shy of al dente – this shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes.

About 5 minutes before you think the rice will be ready, stir in the mushrooms and check your seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Then add your final ladle of broth (stir just to incorporate) and take the pan off the heat. This is the all-important stage called mantecatura, when cheese and butter are added to create the dish’s signature creaminess: add the parsley, 3/4 cup of Parmigiano, and 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter, then cover the pan and let sit for a minute.

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Stir everything together, and serve with extra Parmigiano on the side.

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