Category Archives: cooking

Ceci Neri

Things are pretty quiet around Umbertide this time of year. But we are moving slowly towards spring. The days are getting noticeably longer and the temperatures are no longer as cold.

I tried a new, for me, ingredient I found at the market. Ceci Neri, or black chickpeas. I guess it is popular in Indian cooking. I decided to make soup with them.

Dried ceci.

After soaking overnight.

Sofrito.

I wanted something green in the soup so I added Beatole.

The finished product. Pretty good.

I posted this picture on my FaceBook page but I thought it was worth a repeat here. A surprise guest. For dinner a couple of days ago, I was making roasted Cauliflower. I rinsed and trimmed it and when I returned I found this! His name is Stan and he’s on the terrace now. Good luck to him!

More experimental fireplace cooking

I bought a nice, plump chicken for dinner and decided not to use my usual roasting recipe by Thomas Keller. I wanted to challenge myself and warm up the kitchen at the same time. So, I decided to roast the chicken in the fireplace. Our fireplace obviously used to be the cooking fireplace as it comes with an iron hook that swings out over the fire. A while ago I had bought a piece of chain thinking I could make a cage in which to hang food from the hook.

Here is the trussed chicken before cooking.

I got the fire going well and suspended the chicken.

The advantage is that the fire kept me warm and cozy too! It was at this point I realized I had a design flaw. Uh oh. I could see the bird was only cooking on the bottom nearest the fire. Not good. So I carefully removed it and undid the chain, turning it so that it was hanging the other direction. Then I re-suspended it. Next time I need to come up with a detachable part with hooks or something so I can flip it more easily. After that all went fine.

Nearly finished. I used an instant read thermometer to check the internal temperature from time to time.

An finally…ta da! the finished product. It came out smokey and crispy.

I served it with egg noodles and roasted cauliflower. Just a way to have fun on a winters day with the added bonus of a meal at the end!

Ethnic food and ingredients

As you all probably know, I miss the diversity of foods in the US. Having come from the Washington DC area where you can find a restaurant or foods from every nation on earth due to the diplomatic community. It’s hard to transition to a place like Umbria. Here people are super set in their ways and foods are Umbrian and that’s all.

So if we want something different it’s on me to figure out how to make it here. My top go to foods to make are from the Southwestern US. Chili is one that, in winter, we really enjoy. Everything that goes into it comes from here except the chili powder and Chipotle peppers in adobo. Both of those must be imported from the US when we go.

We also love Chicken Fajitas. Grilled peppers and onions and chicken breast meat from here. I can find flour and (sometimes) corn tortillas here.

I add the marinade of chili powder, cumin, garlic etc. I only need to import the chili powder. Black bean chili and soup is also another favorite. Black beans are found in cans here but not dried, commonly. I buy the dried from Amazon in Germany (really). Or I ask my friends who are coming to bring them 🙂.

Amazon in German had these. I’ve asked many friends to schlep these but now that I’ve found a source I’m all set.

These I find here. I prefer the dried because cans hold such small amounts.

Other favorites are an Egyptian spiced chicken on skewers which uses African spice I bring from the US. There are African, Chinese, and Moroccan shops around if you search and they have many hard-to-find ingredients. The whole thing takes a lot of time. If I find something I’ve not seen before, I buy it.

Here are many of my ingredients that I’ve scrounged here and there as I find them.

I found a bourbon BBQ sauce recently. Really!

We also love Thai food with coconut milk. Interestingly that’s something I’ve found here and there and snatch up when I see it. Of course there are the really obscure ingredients like Kafir lime leaves and lemon grass that I have to forgo. My friend Ely grew lemon grass in her garden this past year. She gave me some 🙂

In summer I make slow grilled BBQ ribs which are popular with the Italians. I do rub them with chili and spices. I grill them on my Weber kettle grill (which we bought here) and I use soaked mesquite chips, which I found here in one, not convenient, place. But they last a while.

I also make Mexican foods. Mole is a favorite and I have to import the dried peppers, like Anaheims and Poblanos that I use as well as the chili powder. The chocolate is from here, of course. I can find avocados, papayas, etc in some stores but not reliably. Cilantro is super scarce here. People say, grow your own, but it is hard to grow. Our Moroccan store occasionally has it but you have to go in and ask.

We love Indian foods. I did a lunch for our friends of Tandoori chicken, lamb curry, eggplant, rice, cucumber salad which was fun. Another one was Lamb, scampi, eggplant, salad, Naan, rice pudding. I had to make the Naan. Not terribly difficult, and yummy.

Just a few of my spices.

Speaking of that, many things you can make yourself. You can make sour cream and buttermilk, which are hard to find. Vanilla extract is practically non-existent. When we first came I made it by steeping vanilla beans in vodka. Now I have an ample stash from friends. When in doubt I google how to make something. Or for substitutes. Cheddar is hard to find here so we bring it back from the US or Britain. Sometimes specialty grocers will have it. I’ve not been lucky enough to find any though.

Last week we bought a duck. Luther really likes duck any way. I thought it might be fun to try to make Peking duck. It came out pretty good. I found a recipe to slow cook the duck at low heat in the oven for 7 hours. Nothing to do but let it cook, and the house smelled fantastic! When it’s done you can shred it. I also made the pancakes to wrap the meat in. That was a bit tedious but with the duck and cucumbers and onions (spring onions are not common here so used red) it was tasty. Next time I’ll try more spices and will make the plum sauce.

Most recently I did a Cajun lunch for an adventurous Italian family. Gumbo, deviled eggs, quiche, bread pudding. I had to bring the file powder from the US. Also, vanilla extract in the pudding. It was a hit.

Gumbo.

So, we make do here, with the ethnic foods we can recreate at home. And, as you can see, it is not easy to pull it off. My pantry is full of imported dried chili peppers like Anaheims and Poblanos, spicy hot sauces (I made an order from Amazon in the US, last trip, for $76 worth of hot sauces!), dried Pozole or hominy, dried black beans, dried black eyed peas, canned chipotle chilis in adobo, chili powders of various heats, file for gumbos, grits (yep for low country cooking), etc.

Just some of the hot sauces!

The only spicy thing the Umbrians use regularly is the spice Peperoncino. You can buy them whole and dried or powdered or in flakes like pepper flakes. It is super spicy and is added to things like Pasta Arribbiata or angry pasta.

Then there are the things that you just plain miss or cannot get here…which I bring back when I go home. Or sometimes a friend will gift me some from the commissary in Germany! (thanks Joanne)

And it’s not that we don’t love the foods in the Umbrian restaurants too. It’s just that our American palates crave more variety now and then. I’ve seen many posts on forums that disparage a person for wanting the tastes of home. “Why move to Italy then?!” they say. But everyone craves the foods of home. And we can love both.😋

Olive Oil

I paid a visit to Ely at Calagrana to pick up the oil she was sharing with us after helping with the harvest. Brilliant green.

I visited the new lambs!

And we sat in a sunny spot with coffee and caught up a little.

I got to meet the newest addition to the family…Sparky…she arrived in the engine compartment of a workman’s car. Maybe she’s Sparky because of the spark plugs? Anyway she lives up to her name!

When I got home I put some of “our” oil on bruschetta. It was peppery and grassy…the way I love it, and why Umbrian oil is the BEST!

A dream come true! 🙂

On domenica I helped my friend Vera reach her dream!! Who would think I could ever do such a thing? But, when I tell you her dream it will be clearer. She told me her dream was to cook a whole turkey…tacchino in Italian. Last year I invited Vera and her family to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Her two girls were spellbound by the whole turkey. Turkey is eaten here but only in pieces. Like a drumstick, or a breast, or slices. And Italians are notoriously unwelcoming to the unknown. Vera and her immediate family are different. They welcome different things. So, her dream was to cook and serve a turkey to her more extended family. And she needed my help. Ahem.

It was quite an experience. I got up at 5am and got ready and arrived by 6am. It was soooo foggy! I had a hard time driving there. We prepped the turkey (guessing it was 16-17 lbs) with butter and layered pancetta and stuffed it with orange and onion. Salted it and toted it down to the forno (outside wood oven) which Vera had been fueling all night. This was also a new thing for me and I was none too sure how hot it was nor how long to cook the turkey of unknown weight! Oy. So when we approached the forno it was smoking like mad. She said “uh oh”. When she opened the door a blast of flame came out and she ducked! Wowsers! So we decided it had to wait till the oven cooled for her to put it in. I left her with it. Of course the suocera (mother-in-law) had to get involved later, adding oil and wine to the pan. It was OK really.

So I returned about 11am and we went to check the bird. I had an instant read thermometer. It was a little overdone but not bad. We took it upstairs to rest. Then I made the gravy from the drippings and the broth Vera had made from the turkey bits. Malia and Desiree, her daughters were mesmerized. I had brought the stuffing I made from home. And frozen-from-last-year cranberry sauce. And Vera had boiled potatoes which I mashed with milk and butter. She also had spinach and kale for veggies. And, just in case someone wouldn’t eat the tacchino she made cinghale ragu. She served it as a first course with pasta. It was wonderful!

In attendance there were Vera, her husband Graziano, and the two girls, Vera’s dad, Graziano’s brother and his wife with tiny baby and their other daughter, and la Nonna (grandmother). Il Nonno (grandfather) was hunting boar. Vera had said the wife of the brother wouldn’t eat the turkey. But she was pretty enthusiastic. She loved the turkey, dressing and the cranberry sauce. La Nonna brought a scrumptious dessert. I’ve had two of her desserts now and she is amazing! Sooo good. I could have eaten several pieces!😋

Such a fun time with our Italian friends and an American feast. Always an adventure.

Stock makin’s. I don’t think we’d have the feet in the US !

Turkey with pancetta covering. Ready for the oven.

Oven!!! Hot!!!

Cinghiale ragu on fresh pasta.

The finished tacchino

La famiglia with our pasta.

Serving all the traditional thanksgiving foods.

I had fun! I think most everyone had fun. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Porcini freshci!

Only in the fall can you find porcini freschi or fresh, not dried, porcini mushrooms. And only sometimes! At the Wednesday market I found them and bought three. Not cheap at about €15 for the three. I let the woman pick them for me; firm with the earth still on the bottoms. I need to change my dinner plans, I thought to myself, as they do not keep. Eat the day you find, or buy them. Porcini are loved everywhere, called Steinpilzen in Germany and Cepes in France they are usually foraged in the woods, never cultivated. Here they are!

Luther is not a mushroom fan but he must indulge me sometimes. Last night I made these beauties into a lovely pasta. Quite easy and I wish I’d thought to take more pictures.

I sautéed pancetta (bacon can be substituted) and minced a couple of garlic cloves which I added with the sliced porcini to sauté. The mushrooms give up their liquid and cook down. I added a little white wine to deglaze the pan and then a dollop of cream 🙂 . I cooked the fettuccini until almost al dente and added to the sauce to finish. Sprinkle with pecorino romana. Mmmm mmmmm good! A wonder in the autumn.🍁

Another autumnal favorite – chestnuts! You will see them roasting in the piazza most Sunday evenings. My friend Angela gave me a basketful. They will be roasted but scoring them with a knife is a difficult process! Maybe they will go into stuffing eventually.

Great visit with recent guests!

We had been anticipating our upcoming guests, Chuck and Terry. Chuck is Luther’s cousin and Terry is his wife. They live in Knoxville. I had only met Chuck once or twice and very long ago. We had a superb time with them. It is always a pleasure to have guests who so obviously enjoy everything we show them and are always up for anything.

We went to Montone the evening they arrived for a dinner at Antica Osteria. It was good as always. The next day we had planned to go to Assisi which is always the top site to see in Umbria. Terry bought a pretty purse at Michaelangelo Leather shop right in the main piazza. I also was interested to look at the briefcases they had which were quite plentiful. I have a friend coming soon who will be looking for this item.

The day was amazing. The mornings in Umbertide are always very foggy starting in about September. It is like clockwork every year! It burns off in an hour or so. The sky was brilliant blue. Here are some Assisi pictures.

The Rose Window on the Basilica of San Francesco.

The lower church in the Basilica. It is made up of the upper church, built on top of the older, lower church, which is above the crypt where St. Francis’ remains are interred.

Street. I like the blur in the background on this one.

I was captivated by the dog who looked to be chained beside this window on the first floor.

Fortress above Assisi. See that sky!?

In the main Piazza is this fountain. The water droplets were shining in the sun. I had never noticed the top tier on this is a mushroom.

One of my favorite stories is about St. Francis and the Wolf. The legend took place in Gubbio. St. Francis also is known for preaching to the birds. 

After all that sightseeing we took a break for lunch. We ate at Piazetta dell’Erbe as we almost always do. My favorite restaurant there. I had the octopus and the black gnocci with truffles and parmesan cream.

After lunch we visited Deruta where Chuck and Terry bought a beautiful bowl for her table. I hope they got it home safe and sound.

On Wednesday we were expecting the Stufa serviceman so we had to stick close. But then, it is market day with plenty to do right in town. I introduced Chuck and Terry to the Porchetta Panini. Makes a decent breakfast. We wandered the stalls and afterward we went to Patrick’s Enoteca for lunch.

That evening we had my World Famous Bolognese sauce on Strangozzi. 🙂 Everyone seemed to like it.

Thursday we thought we’d go wine tasting. It was overcast and showered on and off but not too bad. First we visited DeFilippo Winery. They are Bio-dynamic and use natural pest control…geese! and horses to plow.

We had time for one more winery and ended up at Pardi in Montefalco. This winery, where we’ve been once before, is owned by a pair of brothers. They are trying interesting things with wine.

Next was…what else? Lunch! We had a reservation at L’Alchimista in Montefalco. We did sit outside despite the sprinkles which we had to shift a couple of times to avoid under the Umbrella.

The visit passed too fast but we did get in three full days with them and we hope they come back to visit us soon. They are always welcome.

While they were packing up to go I was making a gazpacho with a bunch of itty bitty vegetables that my friend Angela had given me. All kinds of things and only a little of each so I though they would work well for a Gazpacho. It did smell wonderful while cooking and nearly got Chuck and Terry to stay a while longer…

Raw ingredients…

Finished product!

Faccio la zuppa!!

Ottobre is upon us. Morning fog lies in the valley. Cool nights. Still mostly sunny days.

It is so funny how ready I am to make soups and stews as soon as the weather turns. Today, it being Wednesday, was market day in Umbertide. Many of the fall vegetables are now abundant. I had a left over chicken carcass from last night so decided to make stock. Since I was doing that I decided to get ingredients for soup. Borlotti beans are everywhere. In English they are cranberry beans I think. So pretty. Red and white inside and out. Sadly the cooked beans lose their color. But they taste great. Into the soup pot they will go.

I also wanted to showcase an ingredient unique to Umbria and central Italy. Cicerchie. Prononced Chee-cher-key-ay. They are only available dried and I always keep a stock of them in the pantry.

I thought they would go well with the beans. These legumes must be soaked for 24 hours and the soaking water discarded because it contains a neurotoxin. After soaking most of the toxin is removed, but they are not to be eaten often. Only as a special treat. We just have them occasionally. In the past, when peasants in this area had nothing else to eat they ate these everyday. They will grow anywhere and withstand all manner of weather. So oftentimes it was the only thing thing they had. Because of that people got a condition called Lathyrus.

Soaked on the left, dry on the right.

Once my cicerchie are soaked I will precook for about 30 minutes. Then they will go into the soup with the borlotti beans. First I’ll sauté the soffritto in olive oil. It’s the holy trinity of celery, onion and carrot. It is also called mirepoix in French. I think every country has their version. In the grocery store you can buy containers of these three ingredients in the produce section, all ready for soup, stew or pasta.

Into the pot will go garlic, a can of whole tomatoes chopped, parsley and some sliced cabbage (or any green leafy vegetable). Then the beans, cicerchie and the chicken stock. Cook for 45 minutes or so and then add in a handful of pasta and cook until done. Any shape will do. Salt, pepper, drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with Pecorino Romano cheese if you want.

Welcome to autumn!

Pasqua Pranzo…Easter Lunch

As anyone knows Easter or Pasqua is a very important day in Italy. And it seems, more for the big lunch that everyone goes out to enjoy together. We had reservations with two other couples at our favorite place, Calagrana. We started our short 15 minute drive and ran into a traffic jam. OK Easter Sunday, 12:45 yes it can be rush hour in Italy…Rushing to lunch that is! And it seemed everyone was headed to a restaurant or someones home.

It was a pretty day in Umbria. Sunny, a little chilly but at least it was not raining. Our lunch was excellent as usual. A real feast. And here is photographic proof!

Table greeted us with a sure sign of spring.
daff

Ravioli with foie gras. Came close to missing this picture!
ravioli

One of the entrees. Lamb porchetta with Yorkshire pudding
lamb

Salmon
salmon

I did NOT like it…. Hah! SO good.
all_gone

Dessert
dessert1

Eggs for on the way home.
eggs

To prove it was a pretty day, here is La Rocca in Umbertide when we returned.
laRocca

Buona Pasqua a Tutti!!