When you enjoy all four seasons in Canada, you learn that each season has its own sweet spot. Summer’s best time is the end of June when everything is in bloom but the stifling heat of July hasn’t chased you indoors. Fall is wonderful, right when the leaves turn and the cool breeze first fills your lungs for the first time in months. Winter is beautiful during the first couple of snowfalls then it comes at you with all it’s icy, cold force. Between fall and winter – those rainy, damp late November days – the skies are grey and you realize summer is long gone. So you wait by the window for the first picture-perfect snow, those big fluffy flakes that land on the window, resting just long enough that you can see the crystals in full form.
I say: why wait for it? On those grey days, I get to baking, and, well, make my own snowflakes. In the form of pizzelle. These thin biscuits are simple to make, so long as you have the pizzelle iron, and resemble snowflakes so much to me that I really only get the craving for them in the winter. The easy batter can take on flavours, the cookies themselves can be molded into shapes, and each one comes out the press unique – each their own special snowflake.
I’m trying to be positive, that is, calling each one unique. I used to try as hard as I could to get each one perfect – filled fully to the edges and not over to get each full pattern. Trying this will drive you crazy. You have to love the pizzelle for what they are – handmade snowflakes that disappear as soon as you make them, gobbled up by you and anyone you serve them to. A great staple for the Christmas cookies trays, but also a simple cookie to have around for coffee, pizzelle are popular and there’s a lot of recipes for them. But I would be remiss not to include them here on the blog. Plus, it also gave me a chance to photograph my mom’s pizzelle maker, I love it’s tarnished, well-loved look.
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla (you may opt for other extracts like anise, almond, coconut, etc.)
1 pinch salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
Sometimes recipes become traditions a little later in life – or we add them on from other family members as we go. For me, a vegetable-tomato sauce is one of those recipes.
My husband’s grandmother – Marianna – who unfortunately passed away earlier this year at 92 years old, shared many recipes with us. In fact her little black book of recipes is one of my husband’s cherished items. Even before we were married she would recite recipes from memory to me at the kitchen table. She grew up in Italy with five brothers and would help her mother prepare food each day to sustain them all, including bread batches so large that when she was a little girl she had to knead the dough with their feet just to keep up. When she came to Canada with her husband, she did her best to cook wisely and on a budget and this included making traditional tomato sauce with a twist. Whenever she had extra vegetables from the garden, she would throw these into the pot as well, making a sauce that was healthy, yes, but also sweeter and lighter. And it also meant that nothing went to waste.
Soon after she told me this, I gave it a try and I love vegetable sauce, in fact sometimes I even prefer it. The first time I had it, I also paired it with homemade pasta with a new pasta extruder so I could make short shapes of pasta. Now that I have a child (who eats pretty much nothing but pasta) vegetable sauce has been the perfect way to get more nutrients into him. We bottle it, freeze it and make it last minute even during the winter. In honour of Nonna, here’s her vegetable sauce recipe.
It’s so easy, here it goes:
Tomatoes or Tomato Passata
Any other vegetable you have from the garden or in the refrigerator. I’ve used beans, spinach, kale, eggplants and hot peppers depending on the spice level you like.
Ever have one of those people in your life that just knows everything? Yup, you do. I know you do. Like that friend of a friend, who upon hearing I had a food blog about Italian recipes took up five minutes of my life telling me pasta was Chinese.
Sigh. Yes, there are Chinese noodles. They are similar. In fact, most cultures have some semblance of a pasta-like dish (spaetzle, anyone?). I’m sure most cultures have their version of salad or bread too.
It’s not a matter of who came up with what dish first – each has evolved. But pasta – made with durum wheat or semolina – is completely Italian. Durum gives pasta a high gluten content, and semolina isn’t highly absorbent – both qualities that give pasta the ability to be dried and last long, but also give that al dente bite when mixed with sauces.
And if you ask me, it’s not pasta “noodles” that I focus on as Italian so much as the sauces. The fresh vegetables and herbs, thrown together straight from the garden; quick mixtures with fresh olive oil or pasta water that coat the pasta in numerous tasty variations. In fact, so many times it is the pasta that takes longer to cook than the sauce. Those fresh flavours, that’s Italian.
And this recipe for Pasta Arrabbiata is a great example of it. It was one of my grandfather’s favourite meals if just for the sheer speed of it. Put the pot for the pasta and the pan for the sauce on at the same time and about 20 minutes later you can dive in. This recipe is so quick that it’s now a tradition to have it when we get home from trips. When I land at the airport, a quick call to my mom and she puts on the pot to boil and by the time we’re in the driveway, it’s ready to eat.
Arrabbiata means “angry”, referring to the fiery dried hot peppers, but in our dialect, we call it “’ragata”. It can be made with penne or spaghetti, but be sure to get great tomatoes for the sauce. Serve it up extra hot for your know-it-all friend!
400g pasta (or 1 full standard package of 454g to 500g)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
150 g (2) cured sausages, sliced (or the equivalent in soppresata, or in pinch, bacon)
1L crushed tomatoes
crushed hot pepper flakes
grated Parmiggiano Reggiano
Sometimes our worlds collide. You think of your home life in it’s own bubble, work in another. Traveling in yet another, friends again another area of your life. But more often then not, these worlds come together in the most amazing ways – mostly because of who you are and your interests.
This is exactly where this recipe lies. At a crossroad of so many things: traditions, travelling and memories. When Bauli – a purveyor of great traditional Italian bread items – contacted me to offer a couple Italian Colomba breads for Easter – I got excited. I hadn’t had a Colomba di Pasqua in a couple of years, since my father’s parents had passed. They bought one, or a few, each Easter.
This traditional bread – much like a panettone at Christmas – is baked in the shape of a dove to represent peace and is served up at Easter for religious remembrance. Growing up, I always thought it was a misshapen cross (I knew there was religious significance in there somewhere). Over the years, the tradition and the softness and sweetness of the bread made it part of my best Easter memories. And Bauli’s La Colomba, with it’s pink Easter box, was always part of Easter.
La Colomba is great on its own but in this recipe, I give in a slight Australian – yes, Australian – twist. Years and years ago my family visited Australia and while we were struck by just how much it felt like home, we were also in awe of the amount of Italians there – just like us in Canada. What I know now, and my blog readers tell me often, is just how similar the experience of Italian-Canadians, Italian-Americans, Italian-Australians, and Italian-Argentinians are (all the countries which were accepting immigrants from the 1940s onwards). In Australia we also fell in love with lamingtons, an icing coated sponge cake that is often rolled in coconut. So when faced with an abundance of Colomba di Pasqua in the house, I turn the dove-shaped bread into an international dessert that reminds me of so, so many things: my grandparents, my traditions, my traveling, and the experience of all my readers across the world.
This is the recipe for soft squares of La Colomba di Pasqua, dipped in a chocolate icing spiked with almonds, and served up like a small cake of its own. It’s Easter made even more special by mixing old and new memories and coming up with something new.
La Colomba di Pasqua Almond Lamingtons
1 Bauli La Colomba
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup cocoa
4 cups icing sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract
20 roasted unsalted almonds
My grandfather was a trouble maker.
He was the youngest of seven children and I can safely say he never lost his mischievous and child-like streak. He was a prankster, a laugher and a storyteller. My sister loves to tell the story of when, as I was reading in a hammock in our backyard, my grandfather snuck out of the garden where he was tending to his tomatoes and got on this hands and knees to crawl under the hammock to knock me out of it from below. He was in his late 70s and was giggling during the entire episode.
My grandfather was always active too, constantly on the go. For many years when I was a child springtime meant late night trips to go smelt fishing. We’d drive to a pier on a lake north of the city, unfurl a square net and dip it into the water and pull it up full of wriggling small fish. We’d usually run into family or family-friends in the same location. It was a fishing tradition that my grandparents had took part in ever since they had landed in Toronto. Gathering food in any way that was traditional (and money saving) like fishing, mushroom hunting or collecting dandelion leaves for salad, were regular occurrences. In fact, in the 1970s my grandfather would go with extended family to Lake Ontario, near Ashbridges bay, to fish for smelt at night. And ever the jokster, he would slip live fish into his sister’s pockets when they weren’t paying attention.
As I got older, the smelt started to disappear. I remember the few times we would go fishing at 1 or 2 in the morning only to come back with just a few. The population crashed in Lake Simcoe in the mid-1990s and a series of invasion species are suspected to keep their populations at bay. I haven’t had smelt in years so when I found them at a local grocery store, I snapped them up.
Smelts were a treat – not a full meal, but a full plate that we would share after a plate of pasta. Other than the frying, they weren’t dressed up in any way. Just fresh fish, fried to a crisp. So my pictures for this recipe don’t have a sprinkling of parsley, or a gremolata for added colour. This is just pure fish, how they were enjoyed. The only thing missing is my Nonno, eating the fried smelt with the heads still on, head first into his mouth with a gleam in his eye, knowing it would gross me out. It always gave him a good laugh.
1/2 pound fresh smelts, cleaned and patted dry with paper towels
1/4 cup all-purpose flour for dredging
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp granulated garlic
Canola oil for frying
Every once and a while my mind wanders to dark, winter nights in my grandparent’s kitchen, where the stove had already been on for hours by the time I got there. This was a time of quiet comfort. The windows reflected our actions in the dark outside and the TV played Wheel of Fortune in the other room. The air was warm with cooking and echoed the quiet shuffle of my grandparent’s slippers on the tile floor. We never bothered to set the whole table for dinner, but threw a tablecloth on half and used a jumble of mismatched glasses and forks with our food.
While so many of the meals served at Nanna and Nonno’s house were familiar, my grandfather also tried new things whenever he felt inspired. Though the one consistent was the food was cooked low and slow. I highly suspect that this recipe is one of his experiments that stayed a regular feature for us (or maybe a few other children of Italian immigrants can prove me wrong). We loved rapini as winter vegetables, their bitter hardiness appearing on our plates for most of the winter. When I was younger, rapini were a bit of a harder taste for me except when presented this way: fried up with mashed potatoes. The creaminess of the mashed potatoes, fried to a crisp on the outside, mellowed the taste of the rapini. Sometimes we’d pair this “impanata” (the name given to something breaded or encased) with a protein, or sometimes just eat it on it’s own. Now it’s more often the dish I use to introduce people to rapini, before they get a full-blown taste of it.
The inside of this dish was always piping hot, burning your tongue almost, while the winter winds blew outside and the snow gathered against the back door. It was, and is, comfort food.
1 half bunch rapini, washed and chopped
4 to 5 medium potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
salt (as desired)
hot pepper flakes (as desired)
Wash and peel the potatoes. Place into cold water in a pot and bring to a boil. Boil until just cooked through (a fork or knife inserts easily). Drain and let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, clean and chop the rapini (for detailed instructions on that, click here). Chop the rapini into inch-long pieces.
After the potatoes have slightly cooled, mash them finely or put them through a ricer.
In a medium frying pan, heat the oil at medium heat. Add in the rapini, garlic, salt and hot pepper flakes (if desired). Cook the rapini until they are slightly soft. Add the potatoes to the frying pan and stir to fully combine, mashing the potatoes into the rapini.
Smooth out the top of the potato mixture and turn the heat down to medium-low. Allow the potatoes to cook until a crust forms on the bottom, which could take up to 20 minutes. You can check the bottom with a thin spatula but also by shaking the pan slightly to see when the potatoes release from the bottom.
When the bottom is browned, remove the potatoes to a plate and then flip it over while returning it to the frying pan to brown the other side, again for another 15-20 minutes.
Remove to a platter when done and cut, in pie slices, to serve.