Laura

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Jarring your own tomato sauce base (passata) – the Italian way!

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If you’ve seen a few neighbours toiling away late at night over a pot of tomato sauce in their garage, you know it’s tomato season.

Every year, Italian families gather together to get the key pantry staple for their house ready for the winter. Canned, or jarred, tomatoes. If you don’t do this often, this massive undertaking seems a bit mysterious and I’ve been asked by friends and neighbours, “how” and “why??” for years. Here’s a bit of insight into how it’s done:

Italians take their food ingredients seriously: freshness and seasonality are two key tenets to this. When vegetables, or meats, are in season they need to be preserved for the winter so we always have that taste of fresh tomatoes whenever we put a pot of sauce on (or the multitude of other dishes that tomatoes can be used for).

There’s a few different ways that tomatoes can be preserved in jars. My preferred method is plum tomatoes: taking heirloom tomatoes, seeding and peeling them, jarring and boiling the jars. When used later these tomatoes need to be broken down through cooking or blending. Some people also put fresh small tomatoes in jars and bake the jars. (I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m told it works).

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Below though, is the most common process, using San Marzano tomatoes. These small tomatoes are treasured for their flavour and “meatiness”, that is that they have a lot of flesh so you don’t loose a lot of vegetable when you remove the core and seeds. In this process, the base to tomato sauce (passata) is made by cooking the tomatoes, crushing them and jarring. These jars can rest in a cool place for up to 2 years and when broken open are used to make sauce for pasta, though you’ll add in meat or other vegetables and continue to slow cook until you get a thick and flavourful sauce.

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While Italians do this by the bushel-ful, the same process can be used for any number of tomatoes, so even if you only want to make a few jars.
Here’s what you’ll need:
– San Marzano tomatoes
– Fresh basil leaves
– sterilized glass mason jars and lids
– a large pot (and heat source like a stove or outdoor burner)
– a few large bowls
– a tomato crushing machine
– knives, funnel, ladle, jar handler
– towels, lots of towels

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Wash all of the tomatoes and lay them out on old towels or tablecloths to dry a bit. Using a paring knife, core tomatoes, remove any seeds (this can add a sour taste to your sauce) and cut the tomatoes in half or quarters. The more people you have, the faster this process is.

Cook the tomato pieces in a large pot (do not add any other ingredient or any water, they will make their own as they break down), for about 30-45 minutes.

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By |04/09/2015|Recipes, Salse (sauces)|3 Comments

Mixed Summer Vegetables with Cornbread (Impanata di Verdure)

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This dish is one hot mess. But delicious! I mean, look at it. Not exactly the most appealing thing you can cook, but it’s my favourite vegetable dish. It’s super tasty with minimal seasoning, showcasing what a home garden or farmers market can grow with love. This was a specialty of my Nonno’s – his garden yielded all the vegetables needed to get this dish in motion. And it was his cornbread he made in the early mornings that he’d add in.

“Impanata” traditionally means “breaded” or “to bread” something like meat cutlets or eggplant. In that process, the meat or vegetable is coated in flour, egg, then a breadcrumb mixture that includes seasoning and cheese. Check out my “fettini”/veal cutlets recipe for an example. However, in the case of this mixed vegetable dish, “impananta” means to mix in bread, in a way to fortify the dish and make it a bit more substantial. The bread used is “frizzini”, made when fresh hearty bread rounds (like cornbread) are sliced in two and dried out slowly in the oven. This was a method of preserving bread when ingredients were scarce. The bread can then be eaten hard or reconstituted with water, oil, soup or when added to a dish like this “impanata” I’m featuring today. You can make your own frizzini or purchase them at any good Italian food store.

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For the vegetables: look for the first tender garden produce, or young vegetables to get this recipe right: shiny small eggplant, young zucchini, and flat beans where the bean itself isn’t fully grown and plump yet. Add these into a pan for a little slow cooking and it’s vegetable heaven on your plate. Nothing says “summer garden fresh” more than this dish. I eat it as a main, but it works as a side dish as well, you just might have to convince your family or guests to take a bite first. Yes, it’s not pretty but it has all the things Italians love: fresh vegetables, slow cooking, using what you’ve got (the bread!) and eating as a family. This recipe makes enough for 6-8 people, but if you have leftovers just crisp them up in a frying pan the next day.

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Mixed Summer Vegetables with Cornbread (Impanata di Verdure)
3-4 frizzini (dried bread)
3/4 lb Italian flat beans
1 yellow onion (or one bunch green onions)
1 19oz can plum tomatoes (or 5-6 fresh, peeled and seeded tomatoes)
2 small eggplants
1 medium zucchini
5-6 large basil leaves, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
(optional: red peppers or hot peppers, seeded and thinly sliced)

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By |17/08/2015|Contorno (sides and snacks), Recipes|1 Comment

Walnut Shaped Filled Cookies

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We ended June with a celebration: our baby boy was baptised! And after the formal ceremony, feasting – of course – was in order. My sister made the cake, my mom brought trays of cookies. I had the time to contribute just one cookie, but a fancy one – walnut shaped filled cookies.

These cookies are a constant reminder of fancy events from my childhood. They would appear only at weddings or showers. They are a bit labour intensive, so anytime someone saw them on a cookie table, they “ooh’ed” and “ahh’ed” and grabbed a few for themselves. In my memory, they are the epitome of the Italian cookie form and tradition, lovingly made and unique.

The trick for these cookies is you need special baking trays. The forms can be found in Italian grocery shops and also easily found online. Try to avoid the forms that are individual nut halves, these are tough to get into the oven without tipping over. The one I have that is a full tray (see the photos) is the easiest to work with. The dough isn’t hard to make, but you do need to dedicate some time to this project, unless you buy a lot – A LOT – of forms. Either way, they are well worth it! I’m getting compliments on these cookies even a few weeks later.

Walnut Shaped Filled Cookies
1 pound butter
8 tablespoons powdered sugar
4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dutch-processed cocoa
4 teaspoons cold water
4 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
Nutella for filling (as needed)

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By |14/07/2015|Dolce, Recipes|3 Comments

Guest Post: Rediscovering Italian family and history in Toronto

 My grandmother with her father and bridesmaids outside of St Francis
My grandmother with her father and bridesmaids outside of St Francis

In honour of Italian Heritage Month, we welcome guest writer Marianne Iannaci, a Ryerson University journalism student who comes from an Italian background and loves everything about her heritage. Having just moved to Toronto a few months ago, she’s rediscovered where her family settled and grew up when they first arrived in Canada and shares her experience with us.

I may not be the most Italian girl out there. I wasn’t born on Sicilian ground- heck, I’m not even Sicilian. My parents didn’t come to Canada as kids and my grandfather didn’t grow up under Mussolini’s rule. I swear in Italian and I call a drying a cloth a mopine, but I couldn’t say more than buongiorno to an Italian who wants to hold a conversation. As a kid, I would sit alongside the men in my family who would discuss the premise of The Godfather or The Sopranos over Sunday dinner and was always told that “when you are old enough, you can watch them.” My Italian heritage was prominent growing up, to the point that I understood the danger of a wooden spoon, but getting older I’ve gotten to know what it really means to be an Italian- Canadian in my family.

My grandmother, Sandra Iannaci, walking up to St. Francis church on her wedding day.

My grandmother, Sandra Iannaci, walking up to St. Francis church on her wedding day.

As a kid who’s only ever lived in the suburbs, I viewed the city of Toronto as an actual “Little (version of) Italy.” My grandparents, aunts and uncles all grew up in the city within two blocks of each other. My grandmother lived on Bellwoods Ave. and my papa, her boyfriend at the time, lived around the corner on Henderson. They would tell stories of how they used to buy roasted red peppers at San Francesco Foods just down the street, and by the age of eight I experienced for myself, the best tasting pizza from Bitondo’s, right across the road. I would hear about mornings at Café Diplomatico on College St. in the 1970’s and by the time the Azzurri won the World Cup in 2006, it was a known fact that it was the only place to watch the game. My papa’s small house on Henderson lived to see me bust through those doors every Easter Sunday more than 15 years ago. It used to hold my entire family and a dining room table full of antipasto. And it wasn’t until my great grandmother passed away that I got to experience the beauty of St. Francis Church; the same church that held my grandparents wedding more than 45 years prior.

Through my journey to become “old enough” I understood why you should “leave the gun and take the cannoli.” I grew up learning how to make grandma’s cannelloni and memorized the Italian national anthem so I could shout it before the Azzurri took the field. I began to love Louis Prima every time my dad would play his CD throughout the house on a Sunday, and just like all of my aunts and cousins, I ALWAYS WORE BLACK. There was never a time when the front closet wasn’t full of black coats when the family came over.

Just eight months ago, I moved to the city of Toronto. I am now 19 years old and living blocks away from where my family first grew up. The most unforgettable memory of my own in this area, came from the first day in my new place. I went to lunch with my father and his sister at Café Diplomatico now, for me, just down the street. Halfway through our meal an older man rose from his table with his companions and came to ours. Before he could say a word, my aunt’s face brightened. The man was a neighbour of my grandmothers’ and happened to know my dad and my aunt as kids. For more than an hour we all talked about the things that happened on that street. And from then on, I knew the bond and compassion that Italian families hold is unlike any other. I left that lunch after giving the man two kisses on the cheek- and I can safely say, I’ve never felt so close to home.

Christmas 1957 in Toronto, with my grandmother, great aunt and great uncle

Christmas 1957 in Toronto, with my grandmother, great aunt and great uncle

By |16/06/2015|Culture, Images|1 Comment

Celebrating Italian Heritage Month 2015

ihmp2015It’s Italian Heritage Month! Buona Festa!

June always has a buzz about it at our house: the weather is great, the garden is beginning to grow, there’s family celebrations everywhere plus weddings and baptisms. And it’s Italian Heritage Month which means a slew of events to celebrate, remember and share being Italian.

If you’ve never been out to an Italian event, I can assure you the food is good, it’s a bit loud and there will be some Nonni dancing somewhere, which is always fun to watch (and they’ll pull you in too!). Here’s where to start and a selection of upcoming events:

  • Check out the official Italian Heritage Month event calendar. Events launched on May 31 at Castello Italia (that’s Casa Loma in Toronto) and continue on everyday through out the city, province and country.
  • The Italian Contemporary Film Festival is on June 11-19. Roberto Benigni & Nicoletta Braschi (Life is Beautiful and other films) are in town!
  • Ready to eat? How about hitting up La Rose Italia Fest in Milton on June 7. Or the Taste of Little Italy June 19-21 in Toronto.
  • Out West? Get ready for June 14: Italian Day on the Drive in Vancouver.
  • If you’re an admirer of the arts: Books and Biscotti events, and Italian Family Story time, are on tap. Plus music and art shows (too many to list) all found on the events calendar listed above.
  • History buffs will want to get out to the Royal Ontario Museum as well where Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano is opening.

These are just a few ideas to get you going. From home you can get in on the action too. Scroll through my tours of a few Canadian Little Italy communities in TorontoMontreal and Ottawa. Or a visit to Pier 21 in Halifax, where many Italians entered Canada for the first time. In 2013 I was also invited to share my thoughts on being Italian Canadian on CHIN RADIO – have a listen.

On the blog, recipes will be on hold this month while we take a look at different views of Italy and being Italian: fun and easy reads to remind you, we’re not just about food!

By |12/06/2015|Uncategorized|0 Comments

“Mini” Spring Pasta

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At the moment my life is all about small things. The little boy is seven months and he’s ready to motor. That means pint-sized shorts and mini socks. Tiny sandals and mini baseball hats for the summer. Teeny toes and fingers reaching for everything. I’m starting to cut up small bits of food and I’ve found it’s changing the way I’m looking at dinner and grocery shopping.

That’s how I ended up with “mini mini bocconcini” in my fridge. Tre Stelle asked if I wanted to take a fresh look at their cheese selection, so off to the market I went with coupons in hand. And in looking over all the options in the cheese aisle, I realized that I seem to only buy the regular size bocconcini (rounds of fresh mozzarella) when I’m having an event – tossing them into salads or on skewers for appetizers. In honour of my son, why not try the “mini mini” bocconcini and see what we can do with them? Paired up with “mini” (or cherry) tomatoes, there’s no way this cheese can lose.

Plus, chunks of cheese in pasta means my husband had his two favourite things together. For me, I wanted something fresh and spring-like for dinner. Fresh cheese, with raw tomatoes and a dose of garlic scape pesto says spring to me. For you readers, I realized I hadn’t posted a pasta recipe in a little while, so it was time to catch up.

Turns out, mini items are fun to eat. This pasta, which serves two, was devoured in minutes. And while he’s not ready for this food yet, my son was eyeing my bowl, those little fingers reaching as far as they could to get a taste!

“Mini” Spring Pasta
250g of your favourite semolina pasta
1/2 recipe of garlic scape pesto
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 container Tre Stelle mini mini bocconcini (200g)

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By |30/05/2015|Primo, Recipes|0 Comments

Fried Garlic Scapes (Scapi D’aglio Fritti)

Fried Garlic Scapes

The tops of fresh spring garlic are popping out of the garden. I’m always so glad to see it’s survived the winter! I don’t have enough room to plant tons of garlic, but the 18-20 bulbs I do get in the ground always come in handy. The best thing about growing your own garlic – collecting the garlic scapes. But you can also buy them in bunches at local farmer’s markets.

I’ve written about garlic scapes before: scapes are the curling tops of the garlic plants. They should be picked before the developing flower opens. To eat them raw, you should pick them when they begin to emerge from between the main garlic leaves, even before they start to curl, when they are still tender. If you catch them a little later, they can always be blanched to soften them up a bit. Two years ago I posted two recipes for garlic scape pesto.

The pesto is still a favourite of mine, but with garlic scape season just around the corner, I thought I’d share another way to cook them up: lightly battered and fried. I’ve served these for dinner, over steaks or chicken, or even as an appetizer. Trimming and blanching them first removes any fibrous parts that aren’t so pleasant to chomp into. The batter makes them crisp as you bite into the light, fresh garlic taste.

Fried Garlic Scapes

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By |19/05/2015|Contorno (sides and snacks), Recipes|1 Comment

Quick and easy pasta dough (to freeze!)

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After a small dinner party last week, one guest pushed back her chair and threw up her arms. She told us that we must have some tricks to being able to whip up dinners so easily. I’m glad it looked easy – it was hard to balance with a six-month-old!- but we just love cooking and having people over.

So I usually say, no, I don’t have any tricks. But the truth is there are one or two things we rely on to get good food on the table. The first is the freezer – we do large batch preps in advance and when vegetables and meats are in season – so it’s all ready to go. The second is my FoodSaver. If you’ve been paying close attention to some posts you’ll see the FoodSaver bags in the background or note my suggestions to vacuum seal vegetables. That’s how all my freezer foods stay fresh.

Well the folks at FoodSaver noticed and sent me a new FoodSaver 4400 to try out. With it, I’ll show you a third trick – you can freeze pasta dough so you can have it fresh any day you want.

So for dinner guests that say, “I can’t believe you made fresh pasta!” Well, we did…we just did half the prep in advance! This comes in very handy when we get a few flats of eggs from my husbands’ families’  duck farm. One can only eat so much quiche and I’d hate for them to go to waste. So we make large batches of pasta dough and freeze them for later use. This was an experiment we did last year and it’s turned out pretty handy. If you ever make too much dough, want to prep for a dinner party or find eggs on sale, this is a perfect way to make your pasta in advance.

First – an easy pasta recipe:

Nonna makes pasta by eye, she knows just the right amount of flour by looking at it and when the dough is ready by the feel. I have yet to acquire that talent, so instead I use a rule of thumb: about 100g of flour to one large egg. If you want to get technical about it you can weigh your eggs since size can vary and weigh your flour as sometimes it can have more moisture in it and use a 3:2 ratio of flour to eggs. I’m not mathematically inclined, so I’ll stick to my rule of thumb.

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200g all purpose flour
200g semolina flour
4 eggs

This makes about one pound of pasta, or about four servings. Stick it all in a mixer and set it to medium. When the dough comes together, stop the mixer and dump it out on a floured surface and knead it five or six times. Form the pasta into a smooth ball.

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By |07/05/2015|Conservare (preserving), Primo, Recipes|1 Comment

Guest Post: Finding Panelle

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There’s nothing like the memories of food and emotion to mark your travels. The flavours we sample when out of our daily routine sometimes stay with us for years. And even when you think you know all about Italian food, there’s always something that will still surprise you. For this post, student Daniel Elia brings us his adventure of Finding Panelle in Italy.

During the Fall of 2012, I was given the opportunity to spend a year in Italy on exchange, attending university while teaching English at a private school. Growing up in an Italian household, food was always at the centre of any encounter or celebration. I had always associated good food with sitting down at my Nonna’s house with homemade soppressata, wine and parmeggiano. As a twenty year old in the middle of his university education in Canada, I had obviously devoured my fair share of street food after a night out drinking. I had never envisioned Sicilian street food tasting surprisingly as delicious as my family gatherings back in Canada.

A childhood friend also on exchange in Denmark and I traveled to Palermo, hoping to attend a soccer game and encounter a greasy Mafioso in his natural habitat. Upon arriving to our hostel, we were greeted by an unbelievably friendly Australian working at the front desk and were swept away with the rest of the occupants of the hostel to the area known as La Vucciria – the meat market. After seeing buildings still in ruins from WWII and interacting with friendly locals who had quite an odd interest in reggae music, we were told we had to indulge in a traditional late-night snack. We were led to a carello with a greasy man, hair greased back, and his chest hair hanging out of his shirt; the quintessential Sicilian stereotype. Without hesitation we paid for our unknown snack and were given the sandwich; Panelle.

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By |17/04/2015|Mangia|0 Comments

Italian Lemon Twist Cookies for Easter

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It’s holiday season again! It’s also my sons’ first Easter. It would be slightly more exciting if he were crawling or walking and hunting for eggs but I’ll still take the opportunity to get some classic sweets on the table to celebrate. And boy, am I going classic!

Lemon twist cookies. If you know an Italian, you probably know these cookies. Tangy, dense and not-too-sweet but still a treat. Every Nonna has a recipe like this one and, in fact, this was my Nonnas’. One way to tell this for sure: it is made with oil, not butter. Also, the ingredients include lemon zest and juice. Many modern recipes ask for lemon extract, but I’m betting they didn’t have any of that in her mountain town in Italy. Dipped in a lemony glaze and decorated (usually with sprinkles – but more about that later), you can find these on many cookie tables at special events.

Since it’s Easter, you’ll find them next to Easter Ciambelle and Easter Bread and one of those large Italian chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in brightly-coloured foil. All this probably following a meal of lamb and spinach and ricotta pie. It’s a big celebration with all the family, and all the food you would expect. To tell the truth, the kids might bring Easter baskets to fill up on chocolate eggs, but these days my basket just gets filled up with Easter leftovers and I don’t mind a bit. Double up this recipe and you’ll have plenty to share too. Happy Easter! Buona Pasqua!

Italian Lemon Twist Cookies
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
3 tsp baking powder
Zest and juice of one lemon + 1/3 cup lemon juice for glaze
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups icing sugar

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By |02/04/2015|Dolce, Recipes|14 Comments