Thursday, December 29, 2016

New Year's Day Hoppin' John

Here we are, almost one week away from the New Year. Time to make the Hoppin' John! We're getting our shopping list together and plan to make our Hoppin' John on New Year's Eve day so all the luscious flavors have to time to marinate. Then we'll buy a nice crusty loaf of bread, open a hearty Zin, and enjoy it on New Year's Day. 

Wishing you a happy, healthy 2018 filled with peace and love.

Originally posted 12/29/16

Happy (almost) New Year!

Hope you've had a wonderful holiday so far! 

If you've followed the Tour for the last few years, you know that Hoppin' John is our traditional meal on New Year's Day. According to legend, eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day helps to ensure good luck in the coming year (the peas represent coins). I love that idea, but the main reason we make it is that it's delicious! This is a wonderfully hearty stew/soup, jam-packed with spicy andouille sausage (if you cannot find andouille, you could also use a really good kielbasa), smoked ham, and chopped onions, celery, and garlic (the low country trinity). Serve over rice and top with chopped scallions, a splash of Tabasco and cider vinegar. Add thick slices of crusty bread for sopping up the luscious broth, a green salad, and you're all set. If you like collard greens, you could make that as a side dish (collards represent paper money in the legend).

Wishing you all good things for the New Year!

Black-Eyed Peas with Andouille Sausage and Rice
adapted from "Hot Links and Country Flavors" by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly

2 C dried black-eyed peas or 4 C fresh or frozen
1-1/2 LBs andouille sausage or other good quality smoked sausage
1/4 LB chunk of country or smoked ham
6 C chicken stock or water
1 TB bacon grease or olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 TB minced garlic
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1-1/2 t dried
2 bay leaves
1 or 2 dried chili peppers or 1 t red pepper flakes
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t pickling spice
salt to taste
4 C cooked rice
chopped green onions, Tabasco sauce, and cider vinegar for serving

1. If using dried peas, rinse and soak overnight in water to cover by 3 inches. Drain, and place in a 6-8 qt pot with a 1/2 LB piece of the andouille, the ham, and the stock. Heat to boiling, then reduce to a simmer. (If using fresh or frozen peas, boil the stock first, then add peas, the 1/2 LB piece of andouille, and the ham. Return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer).

2. Heat the bacon grease or oil in a heavy skillet, add the onion and celery and cook until soft. Add to the peas with the garlic and remaining seasonings. Simmer dried peas for 2 to 2-1/2 hours; fresh or frozen for about 30-45 minutes. In both cases, the peas should be tender and the liquid should begin to thicken.

3. Slice remaining sausage into 1/2 inch rounds. Fry briefly in a nonstick skillet and add to the peas. Remove the whole piece of sausage and the ham and chop roughly; return to the pot. Cook for another 15 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and pepper pods.

4. To serve, ladle pea mixture over rice and sprinkle with green onions, Tabasco, and vinegar to taste.

Yield: 6-8 servings.

Cook's Tour note: we always make this the day before serving to let the flavors meld.

Eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bella Sicilia: Parte Quinta (part five)

Market Produce

Still so much to tell you about from our glorious trip to Sicily! 

We journeyed to the beautiful town of Modica where we raced through the tiny, winding streets in vintage Fiats (courtesy of the local Fiat club). What a blast that was! My first words at the end of the ride were “let’s go again!” 
After our ride, we visited Antica Dolceria Rizza, a chocolate shop where they still make chocolate the “old fashioned” way, as the Aztecs did. This chocolate has a slightly gritty texture and is not very sweet. Of course, we brought some home with us.

Many people have asked me “what was your favorite part of the trip?” It is very hard to answer that because this was truly an epic journey. But if I had to play favorites, one would be the day we spent in Ortigia, home to an array of architectural wonders, such as the Temple of Apollo and the fountain of Arethusa. Ortigia, is a lovely island situated next to Syracuse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Syracuse is 2,700 years old and the birthplace of mathematician Archimedes. 
Spaghetti and Clams
Grilled Squid

But let’s focus on what’s really important here: the food! We meandered through Ortigia’s bustling outdoor food market ogling the gorgeous produce, cheese, and seafood. Based on a recommendation from the local guide, we had lunch at a simple seafood restaurant called L’Isoletta, smack in the middle of the market. This is where I had probably the best spaghetti and clams ever! No small claim in my book. We began with gorgeous squid, simply grilled with olive oil, lemon, and fresh herbs. Followed by a delicious fennel, mushroom, arugula salad, and then on to the main event. With fresh spaghetti and chock full of sweet clams, this dish was the essence of the Sicilian sea. House wine, crusty bread to sop up the juice, and my meal was complete.
Teatro Greco

The view from Taormina
If you go to Sicily, you must visit Taormina. Although the main city streets with high-end shops can be crowded, this picturesque hillside village with sweeping sea views, is home to an ancient Greek amphitheater (teatro Greco) that will instantly transport you back thousands of years. Built by the Greeks in the third century BC and then rebuilt and enlarged by the Romans, the theatre is still used today for classical, rock, and operatic productions. Taormina has a thriving arts community and hosts an annual international film festival (headed recently by Richard Gere). On a really clear day, you can see Mt Etna, the still bubbling and very active volcano. 
Mt Etna Landscape
Speaking of Mt Etna (“mountain that burns”), we traversed the switchbacks up the famous mountain to spend some time with the sweet donkeys who will take you for an up close view of the black lava. Guided by the father and son team of Etna Donkey Trekking, Santino and Salvo, have lived on the mountain all of their lives, and will never leave. The people who live here love “the Etna.” No matter that some towns have been completely wiped away by her eruptions, they rebuild. They have a bond with this mountain, forged by hundreds of years of learning her ways.
Salvo and Santino
This was an extraordinary day. To stand on an active volcano and see the lava it spews, and hear Salvo talk about the sustainable tourist model they are building, was another trip highlight. Donkeys have been used here for hundreds of years, first as the only real means of transporting people and goods up and down the mountain. Now, they carefully guide visitors along the paths to witness the ancient forests and geological marvel that is Mt Etna. In addition, they are used as therapy animals due to their docile nature.

Etna is the tallest volcano in the Mediterranean, 11 thousand feet above sea level. The last eruption took place in May, 2016 (just a few months before we visited!). Our guide made us feel (slightly) better about visiting a volcano that had just erupted by telling us that Etna is not that dangerous because it erupts so often. Then Santino slipped in the fact that two days ago there was a “big explosion” of one of the four major craters! Somehow, not feeling better…

Santino is the sixth generation of his family to live here (and he says he will never leave). His grandfather’s will specifically delineated that the property can never be sold to anyone outside the family. 
Polpette and sausage

Archimedes Lever
After our donkey ride, Santino welcomed us to his home where his lovely wife had prepared a sumptuous lunch of chickpea soup, tender polpette (veal meatballs), grilled sausage, and “mela,” a kind of apple marmalade. Of course, this was accompanied by homemade wine produced from their 50 acres of vineyards. The building on their property, where they host groups, was built in 1860 to bring grapes for crushing. “Back in the day,” it took ten men to stomp the grapes, using something called an “Archimedes lever.” This huge lever, made out of oak and taking up almost the entire room, ceased being used in the 80s, but it still works and Santino gave us a demonstration.

In the next post, last, but certainly not least, our fabulous lunch at the two Michelin star restaurant, Il Duomo, in Ragusa!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday!


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. 

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

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 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).

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!). 

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.

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

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!


Agrigento - Temple to Hercules