Sunday, November 27, 2016

Quarta Parte: A Day in the Life...

Fresh Ricotta


As part of every OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) trip, they include what is known as “A Day in the Life,” where the group experiences everyday life with the locals. On this trip, it was a visit to a dairy farm in the village of Castelluccio. The family that owns the farm has about 100 acres of land, with views of olive trees that stretch for miles. I absolutely fell in love with the countryside of Sicily. 
Gorgeous Persimmons
Their land is rich with beautiful fruit orchards overflowing with incredibly sweet persimmons and luscious prickly pears. The sun was high and warm as we wandered through the orchards, with the family patriarch plucking pears off the trees and doling out big slices for us to eat out of hand, his two trusty dogs trailing us. 

Prickly Pears for the taking
When I thought the day couldn’t get any better, we went to their cheesemaking hut where we helped his son make fresh ricotta (okay, mostly he made it while we watched), which was still warm when we ate it at lunch. Nirvana! 

Kneading Bread
When we returned to the house, the lovely matriarch of the family invited us to make bread with her. She uses an ancient kneading machine, the kind that has been used in rural villages for decades. We all took a turn at this and believe me, it was not easy. After the dough has been kneaded and has risen, it’s formed and then baked in a wood-fired stove where she’s also added some olive tree branches for flavor.
While the bread was baking, we walked through the olive groves to a spot under the trees where we enjoyed salumi, caciocavallo cheese, and champagne (to celebrate the anniversary of a couple on the trip). It was like a Food and Wine Magazine spread.


For lunch back at the house, they grilled fat pork sausages and tender chicken legs that had been rubbed with lemon, oregano, and olive oil, all washed down with homemade wine in mismatched glasses. Everything we ate had been grown or made on the farm. Whatever they don’t use for themselves, they use to barter with neighbors. This is life in a small, rural Italian village. Hard to believe we were not far from the bustling hill town of Ragusa, that is home to a Michelin starred restaurant. Talk about two extremes. And I loved both equally.

Ciao for now!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

RECIPEinaFLASH: Pumpkin Maple Muffins



Greetings, Dear Readers!

Hope this finds you all well.

I know I owe you the next installment of "Bella Sicilia," but I made these delicious muffins today and thought you might like to add them to your Thanksgiving planning. This recipe comes from the NY Times Cooking site. I made them according to the recipe and got 17 regular size muffins. I added a sprinkle of turbinado sugar to the tops before baking for a little sparkle and extra sweetness. 

They are quick and easy to put together, with a really light texture, and wonderful harvest-time flavors. If you have houseguests coming for the holiday, whip up a batch this weekend and throw them in the freezer (that's what I did). Then all you (or they) will need to do is let them defrost. Love these for a quick breakfast, or as part of a brunch, or afternoon tea.



Wishing you and yours a lovely holiday!

Eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Bella Sicilia: Parte Terza

Sicilian Lemon Cake

As we made our way to Agrigento, we drove past rows of huge cactus and beautiful tall palm trees, this makes sense given Sicily’s semi-tropical climate. 
Temple of Hera
Temple to Hercules
Agrigento is home to the Valley of the Temples, where incredible archeological remains of Greek temples stand from somewhere between 510 and 430 BC. Here we walked the ancient road that links the Temple of Hera (Zeus’ wife), who represented love, marriage, and fertility, to the Temple of Concordia (“peace”), connected to the magnificent Temple to Hercules (this was the first temple to be constructed here), and finally the Temple to Zeus. 
Temple to Zeus

Antique Cart
Antique Cart
We had lunch that day at the home of a family whose late grandfather is something of a local legend. Raffaele La Scala, was a master builder of ornately carved and painted carts, which were used to haul items such as salt, grapes, and grain. La Scala’s family has a mini-museum of this man’s extraordinary talent at their home, and we were fascinated to  hear his story and see these beautiful works of art. Other than the painting, La Scala hand-built the carts and carved the intricate designs on these pieces which are now collector’s items. 

Ricotta Squares
Let me tell you about the wonderful lunch we had at the La Scala home, which began with delicious little ricotta squares dotted with sweet peas. This was followed closely by a fabulous pasta dish (I’m not ashamed to say I had seconds!) made with diced zucchini, salted ricotta, cherry tomatoes, basil, and mint. Accompanying the pasta was a simple side dish of potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, olive oil, and oregano. As they say in Italy, you can never have too many carbs!

Pasta with Zucchini
Sicilian Lemon Cake
The highlight for me, though, was the incredible lemon cake (again, two servings!). Fragrant with fresh lemon juice and zest, a hint of vanilla, and a marvelous texture, I had to have the recipe! I beseeched our trip leader, Alessio, to ask our host (Maria) for the recipe, who graciously complied. As she rattled off the ingredients in Italian, Alessio translated, and I furiously scribbled! Of course, all the measurements were in metrics, which I have since converted. One ingredient they used is called Lievito (a leavening agent), which is what in the US we know as  baking powder. 

I  haven’t made the cake yet so this has not been tested, but am providing the recipe here in case you’d like to give it a try. The directions are rather vague but experienced bakers should be able to make it work. When I make it, I will certainly post the results!

The La Scala family adheres to what my family always believed: one dessert is never enough! After the lemon cake, Maria produced a frozen delight: semi-freddo, chock full of caramelized almonds, sugar, and cream. 
Semi-freddo

Still to come: 
  • our day at a dairy farm in the idyllic Sicilian countryside making fresh ricotta and baking bread
  • racing through the streets of Modica in vintage Fiats
  • the beautiful seaside village of Ortigia, where I had probably the best spaghetti and clams of my life
  • the gorgeous hillside town of Taormina with its' impressive Greek amphitheatre
  • meeting the sweet donkeys of Mt Etna
  • and, finally, the amazing lunch at Il Duomo in Ragusa
Ciao for now!








Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bella Sicilia - Parte Due

Bomboloni!
Buon giorno! Thanks for joining as we continue our journey through Bella Sicilia!

As I mentioned at the top of Part 1, a big reason for wanting to make this trip was to explore the land where my maternal ancestors hailed from. My mother had told me when I was young that her parents had emigrated to the US from Palermo, and that earlier ancestors had been dukes and duchesses in the Italian royal court. 

Prior to leaving for our trip, I researched the family name (Librizzi) in ancestry.com and also did a general search for the name in the Palermo area. I found the Ellis Island immigration records, but little else. I was disappointed but decided I would ask our trip leader once we got to Palermo to see if he could help. More about this later.


Caffe Macchiato
First, I have to tell you about the rest stops/gas stations in Sicily! You might think this is a strange entry, but these are not like US highway rest stops. No, no. Most of them have fabulous espresso and wonderful pastry, like the light & delicious vanilla creme stuffed bomboloni (doughnut) pictured above. And no matter what kind of coffee you order (cappuccino, caffe macchiato, or Americano), it is served in a real cup,  no paper cups for my Italian brethren. Just another custom we should adopt in the US (IMHO).

Cefalu
Castelbuono
Castelbuono
Pannettone with Oro di Manna
We spent a day visiting the beautiful seaside town of Cefalu, and the hill town of  Castelbuono (“good castle”), which is so charming that it looks like it was plucked directly from the MGM backlot. Besides the castle which overlooks the town and dates from the 1600s, the town’s main street is lined with ristorantes and shops, my favorite being Fiasconaro, a lovely pastry shop. One of the products they are best known for is their panettone. You are probably familiar with the stale, dried-out panettone sold in the US around Christmas. Forget all you know about supermarket panettone - this sourdough-based cake was amazing! Moist and redolent with fresh candied oranges and raisins, and moistened with Marsala, it was a revelation. To top it off, they served it with a dollop of the most decadent thing I think I ate the whole trip: Oro di Manna. A cocoa and hazelnut creme that I fell in love with (of course, I brought a jar home!). 

Segesta
Pasta Verdura
Fresh Ricotta
The next day we said good-bye to the Palermo region and made our way to Mazara del Vallo, a town along the coast with a large Tunisian population. One of the highlights during our stay in this area, was hiking near the very well preserved ruins of  Segesta, a temple thought to have been built around 420 BC. We had lunch at an agritourismo where the hosts served fresh ricotta, and pasta with zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and pumpkin topped with ground pistachios. By law, everything served at an agritourismo must come from the farm and it must be organic. More on another one of these later.

Dancing Satyr
There is a small museum in Mazara that showcases the “Dancing Satyr,” a bronze statue brought up from the sea by Sicilian fishermen in 1998. Experts date the statue somewhere between the fourth and second century BC. Although the statue is missing both arms and one leg, it is remarkable to see. The head is thrown back, in what archeologists say, is a kind of orgiastic trance. In Greek mythology, these half-human figures, were the escorts to Baccho, the God of wine, which would explain the creature’s pose of delirium. Well worth a visit.

It made sense that our next stop was the Pellegrino Winery , a company specializing in Marsala wine. Like me, you probably associate Marsala wine with the very sweet, almost syrupy types we have in the US. Read on. 

As a quick primer on this subject, Marsala actually means “port of Allah,” Mars (port) and Ala (Allah). Marsala wine is “fortified,” which means that more alcohol is added at the end of the fermentation process, when the appropriate amount of residual sugar is reached. The English invented this process in the 1700s because they wanted to transport the wine home and it had to be stabilized for shipping. They had experience doing this with other wines such as port and Madeira, so this was a natural extension.
We sampled four different Marsala wines during our tour (the company produces twelve in all). The wines age at least one year in oak. Wines older than ten years are considered “aged,” and interestingly, only older Marsala wines have the year on the bottle. We tasted a 1980 vintage (19% alcohol)  that had been aged 25 years - it was delicious - very dry, and similar to cognac or sherry.

Tarralles
Before the next tasting, our host offered us “tarralles,” a hybrid cookie-cracker that I’ve enjoyed in the US. I think I might have to try to make these at home to use at aperitivo time (which my Italian friends have got down to a science). 

The last tasting was their “Rubino,” a dessert wine with 18% alcohol and goes wonderfully with dark chocolate (a specialty of the Modica region which we also visited). 

Pellegrino Winery, founded in 1880, is the largest family owned company in Sicily. 

In this general area, we next visited the salt flats of Trapani. This was a fascinating tour, discovering the process for extracting the delicate “fiore del sale,” which hasn’t changed much in centuries. We visited after harvest season, but a short video provided insight into the backbreaking work done by generations of men. As you approach the flats, you start to see what look like small mountains of snow, of course this is salt. An ancient windmill, no longer used, was built approximately 500 years ago to grind the salt. Inside the windmill, you can see the complicated machinery (including  an Archimedes screw, which would drive the grinding stone). 
Salt flats of Trapani




Frank
Vecchia Masseria
Vecchia Masseria
We spent the night at the gorgeous Agriturismo Vecchia Masseria in Piazza Amerina. This was my favorite hotel of the entire trip, sadly we only spent one night here. Definitely off the beaten path, but if you are in this area, I highly recommend staying here. The property has been lovingly restored and it is absolutely beautiful. Besides nice rooms (some with kitchens), there is a wonderful tavern and restaurant (the property owner and his son are the chefs). A lovely pool area is available for warm days, or you could visit the resident goats and horses, accompanied by “Frank,” the adorable and very friendly, Rottie, who we fell in love with. 

Mushroom Ravioli
We had a wonderful dinner at the hotel that evening, consisting of ravioli with fresh mushrooms, and veal in Sicilian orange sauce, accompanied by plenty of fabulous wine. We slept very well.

Tomorrow, we’re off to amazing Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples - spectacular!

Ciao!



Agrigento - Temple to Hercules

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bella Sicilia!

Pasta con lo Sarde

I just returned from two weeks on the beautiful island of Sicily, a trip in the making for almost a year. A year that I’ve been calling a “milestone” year for several reasons:

  • a “decade” birthday for me
  • a trip to awesome Alaska in May (on my husband’s wishlist for at least 20 years)
  • visiting Sicily as an opportunity to explore the land of my maternal ancestors
  • and, finally, the impending retirement at the end of the year from my pharmaceutical career

I hesitate to use the word “retirement” because I’m not retiring in the traditional sense. But I am retiring from this part of my working life. Many people have asked me “what will you do now?” The honest answer is, I don’t know. Travel is certainly on the list. Perhaps expand my passion for writing about food, baking, and travel. The slate will be wiped clean and ready for a new chapter!

About halfway through every long trip, I get this overwhelming feeling that I don’t want to go home. I want to keep going - I want to keep walking through the ancient streets, through the bustling cities and quiet hill towns, rolling past the beautiful countryside. This sense first came over me during our 2015 Croatia/Slovenia/Bosnia-Herzgovinia trip. I know many people have experienced this. I guess it’s the definition of “wanderlust.” 
Monreale Cathedral

Listening to our trip leader and bus driver speak to each other in Italian (or Sicilian) with Italian folk music playing in the background as we traversed the island, this trip was a true cultural immersion.

We flew into Palermo a day early and after settling into our hotel, we had dinner at a nice restaurant close by. The photo at the top of the post is of the famous Sicilian dish -- pasta with sardines and fennel (both plentiful in Sicily). Made with fresh sardines and anchovies, and topped with toasted breadcrumbs, it is absolutely delicious and was the perfect first meal for our trip.

The next day we kicked off with a street food tour in the Sicilian capital. Run by Streat Palermo (not a typo, that is the name of the tour), this fun four hour tour walks in, around, and through the busy outdoor markets, all the while sampling delicacies (some of which are unique to Palermo), and learning about the sights along the way. Did you know that Palermo has 365 churches (for a population of 60 million)?! One for each day our tour guide told us. 
Arancino

Arancino
Not unique to Palermo (I’ve had them here in the US) are the wonderful little “arancino,” otherwise known as rice balls. These delicious treats can be stuffed with ground beef, peas, and cheese. You may notice the absence of tomato sauce from that description. That’s because authentic Sicilian rice balls omit it. And, interestingly, they can be referred to in two different ways: “arancina” (female), or “arancino” (male, from the Arab influence prominent in Sicily’s history).

BTW: Palermo has the third largest concentration of street food in the world (after China and India). Who knew?

Chickpea Fritters
On our way to our next taste destination (addictive chickpea fritters), we stopped at Monreale Cathedral, built in the 12th century by King William. The cathedral took 30 years to complete and includes 4,000 pounds of mosaics! In fact, this is the largest display of Byzantine mosaics in the world. 

Sfingone
Another delicious legacy from the early Arabs, is “sfingone,” roughly translated means “sponge.” Here on the East coast of the US, we would recognize this vaguely as Sicilian pizza. Thick, soft squares of tomato, caciocavallo cheese, breadcrumbs, and onions. There is one producer in all of Palermo who makes the dough and then individual vendors season it and toss it on a flattop griddle to warm it. 


Pane ca' Meusa cooking
If you’re doing a street food tour in Palermo, eventually you are going to come across a sandwich known as “pane ca’ meusa,” (bread with spleen), or “frittola” (butcher waste). Not a very appetizing description. Developed ages ago by enterprising Palermitanos (who waste nothing) after Kosher Jews discarded certain organ meats (spleen and lung), this is one of those things I think you either love or hate. The cooks slice the meat paper thin, fry it with olive oil, bay leaves, and cheese, season with salt and pepper, and serve it on a brioche roll. Well, I was there so I had to try it. Let’s suffice it to say, I am not in the “love” camp. I can’t even describe the taste. It was so unappealing to me, I didn't even take a picture. Enough said, let’s move on, shall we?

After our adventures with animal organ meats, we were in desperate need of a “digestivo.” Luckily, our guide, Francesca, had just the ticket. At a kiosk, the handsome man behind the counter makes fun drinks (alcoholic or non) for people on the go. He mixes orange or lime syrups, water, and just before you drink it, adds a fizzy tablet to make it bubble up. The trick is to drink the whole thing before the fizz evaporates (and without it exploding all over your clothes) - no easy feat! But it definitely gives your stomach a much-needed break. And, as Francesca told us, it is not considered bad manners to burp out loud after drinking it!
Digestivo Man!
Drink fast!

From there, we headed directly to the crown jewel of this tour: cannolo! Again, not a typo. A singular pastry is known as a cannolo, more than one is cannoli. This is now the cannolo by which all cannoli shall be judged! With a shell so crisp, it shattered into a million pieces when I bit into it, and filled with fresh, fragrant ricotta sprinkled with crushed pistachios, candied orange zest, and chocolate chips, it was magic!

All this history and food and our actual two week tour had not even begun yet. I had a feeling this vacation was going to be epic, for many reasons.

Tomorrow, part two, in which I’ll take you with us as we start the official trip and visit the beautiful towns of Castelbuono, Cefalu, Erice, and more! And you won't want to miss reading about our lunch at the fabulous (two Michelin star) Duomo in Ragusa!

 Ciao for now!