Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

An evening in Venice

Well, not exactly. But it sounded good, didn’t it? Did you think I was about to tell you that I’d gone all the way to Venice just for the evening?…. Ah, if only.

What actually happened was that I went to Covent Garden, to a restaurant called Polpo. Now, the more astute amongst you will be thinking, I’ve heard that name before, didn’t she mention that a while ago?

Well, yes I did. To celebrate having done 200 posts, I cooked a big Italian feast with all the recipes taken from Polpo’s cookbook which, by the way, is the most beautiful cookbook I have ever seen and the recipes are so simple, only about four ingredients in most things, but so delicious. Since having the cookbook, I have been meaning to go to the restaurant. Finally, last night, my friend and I decided it was time to go.

After a bit of faffing around in Hammersmith station trying to get onto the same platform and figure out which train to get and then walking an extremely long way around, we made it to the restaurant. It was long and thin and in the middle, there was a bar where people perched, with plates of different cicheti (which, I think, means starters) nibbling and chitchatting on tall stools. Behind this, was an area with lots of small tables. We were seated against the back wall by a lady who’s smile remained in place all night, despite my requests for recipes from the kitchen, which must have been a bit annoying and slowed her down.

The menu was a paper place mat and I recognised so much of it from the cookbook that I already felt like I was in a familiar place. The Smiths and Goldfrapp played somewhere in the distance and gave me a good feeling about the evening.

We ordered four small plates of food to share for our starters and mains and, unfortunately, my photographs came out either too dark to see or lurid yellowy from my flash. So just bear with the bad lighting on these photos please.

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An aubergine and parmesan wrap

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Spicy pork and fennel meatballs (these were really good)

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Flank steak with rocket and white truffle cream (this was the recipe I requested from the waitress, it was lovely)

We also had a bruscetta with ricotta, proscuitto and artichoke which we stuffed in our faces so fast that I forgot to photograph it. It was really really good though. Maybe my favourite thing, along with the steak and truffle cream.

For desert, I had a panna cotta with rhubarb and pistachio…

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… and my friend had a tiramisu.

Both were tasty and served in a small glass, so just the right size after all the other bits had filled us up. My only sticking point with my panna cotta was that I had a small teaspoon when I really wanted a huge soup spoon, to be able to eat it faster. I also had an alfogato di caffe (I think I’ve spelt that wrong), which is an espresso with a ball of vanilla ice cream in it. It’s a very Venetian thing, apparently. So I got one, in my ongoing attempt to become an Italian coffee-lover. I was unsure whether I was supposed to drink the espresso then eat the ice cream afterward or wait for the ice cream to melt, therefore sweetening the coffee then eat the whole thing with a spoon. I went for a bit of both but I’ve definitely got quite a way to go before mastering the technique. When I go to Venice (one day) I will make sure I have it sorted.

Afterward, we got something called chocolate salami, which I have made before at home. It was tasty when I made it so we ordered some of that as well as all the other things we were having for desert.

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It is essentially a fridge set chocolate biscuit, with lots of things crushed up and mixed into it. It was quite a bit saltier than mine, so was slightly at odds with where we were in our meal. We were on sweet and we were happy there. Then suddenly salty came along. It was nice but probably needed something else with it. It would have been nice dipped in coffee, to warm it slightly and make the chocolate a bit melty and added a little edge to it with the coffee taste. Well, anyway, I know for next time.

All in all, we were very happy with this trip. It also wasn’t that expensive, given how many different things we ate. I was pleased to see that the fame from the book hadn’t turned them into an expensive once-a-year type of place.

The people at the next table started chatting to us at one point about what the chocolate salami was and what we had eaten and what we recommended for deserts. It’s nice that way. It has an informal feel to it. The waitress checked in on us regularly, was happy to get into conversation about the truffle cream and how great the cookbook was. And the high seats at the bar, where people ate small plates of antipasti with glasses of wine or vin santo, were constantly full. I imagine it’s an ideal place to perch if you’re dining alone or just looking for something small and tasty after a long day at work. Very nice indeed.

Thumbs up for Polpo, just how I wanted it to be after loving the cookbook so much.

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An Italian feast – the carb light version

On Wednesday it was Halloween. Last year on Halloween, I got some sweets in and waited for the kids to come trick-or-treating.

They didn’t come.

I ate the sweets.

Apparently the thing you’re supposed to do is put something Halloweeny in the window or somewhere visible, to show you’re in on the fun. So this year, I got a few little pumpkins, put them in the window and planned to bake some goodies, flapjacks or something.

Well, then I got cooking for dinner as I had a friend coming over and didn’t get time to bake goodies for the kids, so good job no-one knocked! (I think I might be feeling a bit offended though. Why didn’t they want my sweeties?)

So I was back in the kitchen with my favourite cookbook, Polpo, by Russell Norman. My friend and I are both ex-Dukaners so try to not to go too mad on carbs. I definitely don’t avoid them, you can’t really, when eating like an Italian, but I just try not to have loads of them.

The antipasti was the carb-heavy part but I kept it out of the mains. Here’s the antipasti plate.

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Top centre are my signature grissini sticks, wrapped in prosciutto and pickled chicory. To the left are music paper crackers. To the right is one of my favourite things in life ever, truffle butter, and just behind that, black truffle oil. In the white dish to the left is homemade basil pesto, in which I used pecorino and black truffle oil. Right at the front, the little pink squares are ham hock terrine and to the left are cherry tomatoes with a little shred of mozzarella and some torn basil on the top, then sprinkled with truffle salt. In the middle are little crostinis with ricotta, mint and broad bean on half of them and goat’s cheese, roasted walnut and grape drizzled with white truffle oil and thyme on the other.

For the mains, they unfortunately don’t photograph well so I will just have to tell you about them. I made a parmigiana with aubergines and courgettes, in which I used fresh basil and oregano where I usually use dried as the flavour is more concentrated. After having used just fresh this time, I think I will go back to using dried as the lovely oregano smells you usually get with a parmigiana definitely weren’t as strong. I also made a duck, black olive and tomato ragu which was far tastier than I expected. You spend about two and a half hours just slowly cooking the tomato sauce so the flavours are really strong and lovely. I also steamed some kale, spinach and fresh basil together as a side dish.

The dessert was vanilla panna cotta with blackberry coulis on top.

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I also made something called a chocolate salami for having with the espressos I decided were a good idea at 9.30pm.

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It is chocolate with egg yolks whipped into it, with crushed up sponge fingers, chopped dried fruit and loads of nuts. You just fridge set it until it is hard enough to cut in slices and have as little biscuits.

We then proceeded to have a super long chat about my visit to Mr Red Wine’s house. I must just add that I washed quite thoroughly, thirteen times, in between visiting Mr Red Wine and preparing this food!

Coffee (the sequel)

A little while ago, I wrote a post about coffee. About how I had tried, and failed, over the years, to like coffee. I’d worked with it for ages. I knew exactly how to steam the milk and run the coffee so that it might appear more tasty. But none of it had worked. I was quite definitely a tea drinker.

So then we went to Rome, where I made a concerted effort to fit in with the locals and stand at espresso bars sipping on a granita or getting straight in there with a ristretto (not sure about spelling, it means a really short, really strong espresso). And actually, I think it worked. The coffee tasted different there. I’m not sure if there’s something different about the way they roast their beans or whatever, but it’s different. It didn’t make me too hyper. It was bitter, but the coffee taste itself was the overriding memory I have.

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Back in England, I’ve found that the coffee is more bitter. That’s the overriding taste, so that only if I’m really concentrating, can I taste the actual coffee in the background somewhere.

So I thought I’d seize the moment, on arriving back from Rome and start drinking espresso. I’ve been having one a day, mid morning ish. I have it quite short, about half the size of a standard espresso, with nothing in. No milk or sugar.

What fun! I’m so Italian! Look at me everyone! Look! Look! Watch me drink coffee like a grown up! Look, I’m one of you guys, a grown up. Look!

I’ll admit now, it was mostly for show, my self-imposed coffee habit.

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So then, I started getting headaches. Dammit. I found out, through various experiments, that if I drink shedloads of water beforehand and make sure I have some food in my tummy, then I’m ok. If, however, I drink it before I drink water or eat anything, then I start to talk very fast for a while, before suddenly feeling tired and getting a bit headachey.

The headaches seem to have passed now, although I am tired a lot. This could be many things, not the coffee. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night (although sometimes I do get enough sleep but I still feel tired), maybe I’m partaking in lots of exhausting activity (not really)…..

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I’m not sure. As a newcomer to the world of coffee, I’m unfamiliar with the initiation ceremony. Is this how it goes? Headaches first, then the tiredness, then what….?

Is this the normal route to developing a coffee habit? Can any coffee drinkers out there tell me what to expect next?

Or should I stop now? Stop now while I’m just at tiredness? I mean, it’s not like I even notice when I don’t drink them. As I say, it’s all for show. I’m a bit too lazy to have any kind of actual addiction to coffee.

I should probably just let it go now, hey?

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Another Italian feast

Yesterday, two of my favourite friends came over. One had just handed in two peices of work, which signalled the end of her dissertation. The other is half Italian. I therefore went crazy on the organising front and decided to make a feast of epic proportions, much like the last time someone came for dinner.

This time though, I was equipped with truffle oil…! The night before, I had prepared the delicate carta di musica – music paper – and made the pesto. Where last time I went for a rocket and walnut pesto, this time I was without food processor (it broke when I used it to whizz almonds for cantuccini) so I made the simpler traditional basil and pine nut pesto as it’s easier to bash together in a pestle and mortar. I lightly toasted the pine nuts first and it gave them a really creamy texture.

Then the morning of the big feast, I made walnut brittle, which I then bashed into breadcrumb-size peices and added to a delicate mixture of whipped cream, whipped egg white and whipped yolk and sugar. I froze the whole thing to make semifreddo, which means half-cold in Italian. It basically comes out like an ice cream but is different, somehow.

I also whisked a few eggs with sugar, 00 flour, crushed nuts and I forget what else, to make cantuccini. I fridged the whole thing first, to let it chill and set a little, to make the baking process easier later.

Then I went bread crazy for a bit, making my pizza dough and leaving it to rise and then tackling the grissini. I had just bought them at the shop last time and felt a bit like I’d let myself down. So this time, I made them from scratch. I melted a bit of butter in a pan then added milk. In a bowl, I put 00 flour, dried yeast, salt and a handful of parmesan. I added the butter and milk to this, kneaded it for a while, then left it in a warm place to rise. Although I was supposed to be using strong white flour, I couldn’t find any in my cupboard. So I used 00 flour and wholemeal flour mixed together and hoped it would be fine.

It was fine! Surprisingly. And I even thought it looked a bit more interesting than if I’d used totally white flour. Check them out.

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I love the uneven nature of the sticks, how some are a bit short and stubby and others are quite long and thin and smooth all around. They also got a great reaction from my guests, one of whom said it was their favourite thing out of everything we ate.

After making these, I rolled my pizza dough into twelve balls (used one to make myself a pizza for lunch, just to test it, you understand), put them on a tray covered in a damp towel and fridged until needed.

Finally, after a whole day of prep, I was ready for guests. And here it is in all its glory. The antipasti…

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Prosciutto, figs and mint.

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From the back, you can see truffle butter, pesto (in the glass), grilled aubergines with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil (at the front) carta di musica (to the left) and in the centre, the homemade grissini wrapped in salami milano and pickled chicory. The little purple thing off to the right contains truffle oil and balsamic vinegar.

There was much dipping of grissini into truffle butter and eyes lighting up. The pesto was a firm favourite with my half Italian friend, who kept an eagle eye on it whenever anyone else took a slightly-too-large scoop on their breadstick.

We also had tomato, mozzarella, basil sticks as well but herein lies the problem with mozzarella. The better quality you use, the higher water content it has. Which means that it gets all over you when you’re touching it and all over whatever you’re trying to do with it. So my basil leaves and tomato wedges were covered in mozzarella water, making them unpretty for photographs. But they were there, honest.

Next up was the mains, for which I went traditional Italian…

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With a courgette, rocket and basil salad with a lemony-parmesany dressing…

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My half-Italian friend polished most of this off single-handedly.

For the pizzas, I just rolled them fairly small and topped them with whatever I felt like. Chicken, fennel, white asparagus, romano peppers, truffle oil, proscuitto, courgette, mushrooms, red onion, mozzarella, chilli flakes. And so we ate. And we ate. And we ate some more. The mains and the antipasti were all lingering around in front of us and we just kept nibbling. A mouthful of pizza. A bit of grissini dipped in truffle oil. A tomato, mozzarella stack. It just went on. And on. And on.

We waited maybe five minutes before I discreetly cleared the plates and got bowls out for everyone. Loud declarations of “O, I can’t eat dessert yet, no way!” were made.

“Don’t worry,” I said, calming their fears. “I’m just putting the bowls out. And the semifreddo needs to be out of the freezer to soften up for a bit.”

But, of course, I set up all the stuff on the table and our stomachs forgot about how full they were and we got started.

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Ok, from left to right. Slow-baked figs, then cantuccini. In front of the cantuccini is a little dish of walnut brittle, a jar of honey, then to the right is the walnut semifreddo. The order of things for the semifreddo is as follows – scoop some semifreddo out and put it in your bowl, drizzle with honey, top with walnut brittle. Add into the equation a few figs and try using the light  crumbly cantuccini to transport the last few bits of ice cream to your mouth and suddenly, you’re not full anymore. You’re back in the game. You’re ready for action! More semifreddo! More figs! More honey!

We sat, shell shocked and taken aback, viewing our destruction before leaving the scene of the crime to go and watch a program about plane crashes (don’t ask, I wasn’t in charge of the dinker).

And now I have leftovers for at least the next week. Well, I say ‘the next week’…. They’ll last me a day or two….

More awards. More of my nonsense.

Ok, it is time. Now that all the holidays and fancy lunches have died down, I am going to address the Liebster Award I was given by iamkaturah, who’s blog Internets Can’t Handle Moi, is a fabulous read. She’s young and witty and her blog contains a healthy amount of tongue-in-cheek.

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(This is the first time I’ve ever worked out how to put a banner for an award up, very exciting! Apparently you just copy and paste…..)

The rules are that I answer the 11 questions posed to me. Then I nominate 11 other blogs and pose 11 questions to them.

1. If you were money, where would you most want to be spent?
I would most want to be spent on some amazing food. I would feel well spent then. Something unusual and very tasty. Some lovely truffle oil, maybe.

2. What is the most important quality in a friend?
Calmness. I’m not into the whole friends-with-drama scene. I like a calm life. My brain doesn’t operate well with drama. People who are into the dramatic thing, having awful boy/girlfriends, staying in jobs they hate etc. Then moaning about it. It’s irritating. I’m outta there!

3. What advice would you give to your 16 year old self?
Chill out. Mind you, I like looking back on the anxiety-fraught bad decisions of my teenage years. I would tell me to stop worrying about small stuff because I move to Africa when I leave school and things start to make sense. Life starts happening.

4. What did you think about life when you were 16 compared to now?
I don’t think I really thought about ‘life’,  as a concept. I just went to school, went to work, went to clubs. Now I think life is about finding things you like doing and trying to do them as often as possible. And it’s about finding people you like and spending as much time with them as possible.

5. Chocolate or lollies? Why?
I think chocolate. Because there is a little specialist chocolate shop near where I live and their stuff takes A LOT of beating.

6. Would you rather be a man who looked like a lady or a lady who looked like a man?
Man who looked like a lady.

7. What is the best book you’ve ever read?
It’s a toss up between The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night by Fitzgerald, The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd and Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeta Naslund.

8. What is 27 x 16? ( Don’t use a calculator!)
Well, 20 x 10 is 2000. And 20 x 6 is 120. So 20 x 16 is 2120. Now 7 x 10 is 70 and 7 x 6 is 42. So 7 x 16 is 112. So, technically, 27 x 16 should be 2232…. Did I get it right?

9. What is your favourite thing to cook?
Italian food. O, and banana bread.

10. If you could invent anything, what would it be?
A way to insert more hours into a day but without getting tired.

11. Why do you blog?
Because I like it. (See question 4)

So next up, my nominations are as follows:

1. Maggie of SomeoneFatHappened. Yet again. Because she said I can clean her yard for chocolate cereal bars. Four boxes of them.

2. My Little Italian Kitchen. What’s not to love? The clue’s in the title. This blog is one of my favourite recent discoveries.

3. Read Stuff With Me – this blog covers anything and everything and, predictably, is a space which encourages reading, which is a very admirable pursuit, I’d say.

4. Barcelona Street Scraps – Great photos. I love taking time out of my day to browse around the posts on this blog.

5. Reflections of a Book Addict – if nothing else, this is for recently reviewing a book I’ve been wondering about for ages and helping me make up my mind!

6. CyclingEurope.org – a great blog about all things bike-y. His book, Good Vibrations, about cycling to Italy was an obvious winner with me (I’m into all things Italy since my trip to Rome).

7. Fitness and Frozen Grapes, again. The great pictures of food, the impending move to the Big Apple, the Downton Abbey love. It’s all going on in this blog.

8. Little Commas – Because everything in this blog is beautiful. Everything. It’s all very very beautiful. Fact.

9. The Usual Bliss – Her Bliss Bits posts are lovely, that’s why. That’s not the whole reason, but it’s a large part of it.

10. The Idiot Speaketh – Because I think he needs cheering up after his wife gave him an old M&M as a congratulations….

11. Canadian Hiking Photography – This blog was a recent find and the photos are stunning. Check them out.

And my 11 questions are:

1. You go to the fridge and all you find are some garlic bulbs, celery sticks, marmalade, an aubergine, double cream and chilli chocolate. What do you make?

2. What is your favourite part of the day?

3. You can only listen to one song for the rest of your life. Which one is it?

4. How do you feel about Paulo Coelho?

5. How many of the wonders of the world have you seen?

6. What is your favourite place in the world?

7. How long do you stick with a book you’re not enjoying before you give up? Do you give up?

8. Do you think Kylie Minogue should make a comeback?

9. I’d like some good life advice. Do you have any?

10. I’m thinking of taking a minibreak for my next birthday. Any ideas?

11. Zombie films… Love or hate?

The big 200 and an Italian feast

So it’s my 200th post! Very exciting. I haven’t been swimming in a little while as I’ve had a cold so I’m going to try, from next week, to swim 200 lengths in honour of it. Not all at once. I’ll try a bit each day. I need to do 30 each day, right? Wish me luck!

I’ve got lots of birthdays and excitement this week so am going to give it til Monday to start the challenge. Thanks for staying with me or joining me along the way. It has been lots and lots of fun. To celebrate this milestone and to embrace my recent trip to Italy and in honour of seeing a friend for the first time in ages, I prepared an Italian feast!

I got a beautiful cookbook the other day. The most beautiful cookbook I’ve ever seen.

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It’s full of Venetian recipes and the antipasti section is amazing. In an effort to impress, I insisted on making one of everything!

I finished work at 3pm and had timetabled in when to start everything so that I’d be ready by 7pm. I suddenly realised, at 3.35pm, that I didn’t have almonds for the cantuccini biscuits. I set my white wine and white wine vinegar and juniper berries to boil (for the pickled chicory) then I quickly grabbed my purse and ran down to the shop. I got the almonds and ran back to the house…. When I said ‘I quickly grabbed my purse’, that’s exactly what happened. I grabbed my purse AND NOTHING ELSE! I was locked out. There was no-one else with keys who would be back before 6pm. We had taken the spare key from the next door neighbour because it didn’t work anymore, it was always getting stuck. We kept meaning to get another cut, but didn’t. O no! The next door neighbour walked by and I explained my predicament. We went in her garden to see if I could climb over her fence into my garden and try and figure a way to get in. It’s not really a climb-over-able fence so I was stuck outside, pan boiling inside, on a tight schedule for preparing dinner, with no way into the house.

We eventually got in but another neighbour played a very risky game of almost falling through a roof to do so and it all took about an hour. I was VERY behind schedule.

When I was back in the kitchen, I pickled my chicory, made my duck stock, grilled my aubergines and dressed my rocket. I was back on track. As I was whizzing the almonds in my food processor for the cantuccini, it popped and stopped working! This was NOT on my schedule! It wouldn’t have been a very big deal had I not needed to whizz the duck breast fillets for my duck and porcini mushroom meatballs. My only option was my handheld whizzer thing. You know the type that you stick in a pot of soup to whizz all the lumps out?

So there I was, with a handheld whizzer thing, trying to whizz duck breasts. I got it done in the end but it wasn’t easy and bits of mashed up raw duck kept flying about and sticking to my face and arms.

I threw together an apparently Italian drink, minus the alcohol – elderflower cordial with mint, lemon and ice, then topped up with ginger beer.

I was nervous about attempting the Carta di Musica (music paper) as it needed to be rolled really really thin. It’s basically a paper thin cracker made with semolina. It went surprisingly well. I had some rocket and walnut pesto I had made that morning and after grilling some aubergines with parmesan, mozzarella and basil then rolling them up, I was almost ready to go. I just wrapped the end of a few grissini sticks in salami and pickled chicory and stuck them in a glass, put some dressed rocket into the braesola and rolled it up and put some truffle butter in a dish and we sat down and dug in. (Yes, you heard me right, truffle butter! I finally got some! And it was totally worth it.)

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At this point, I noticed that the caster sugar was on the side, unopened and realised that in my panic over the food processor breaking while I was making cantuccini, I had forgotten to put the sugar in! What I had was a savory almond dough! I whipped the biscuits out of the oven and binned them then mixed some sugar into my remaining dough. It didn’t really mix in very well though. I just wrapped the dough in clingfilm, fridged it and hoped for the best.

Next was the main course. We had a parmigiana, a roast tomato risotto, a duck and porcini meatball in a duck stock and tomato sauce, and scallops and pancetta on a bed of minty pea stuff.

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The parmigiana looks quite large and intimidating, I didn’t realise that when I cut it!

After eating everything and having a bit of chitchat and sneaking another meatball or two, it was time to address the cantuccini disaster. I cut my dough into six pieces and put it in the oven. It did not go well. Because there wasn’t enough dry stuff in the mixture, it didn’t bake hard enough. It also wasn’t sweet enough. I made us espressos in a percolator, which were really strong, and we dipped our biscuits in.

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I felt a bit feeble, with my savory, slightly soft almond thingys. So I implemented a back up plan. There was ice cream in the freezer! Mascapone, cherry and pistachio. Score! The dinner was rescued and we tucked in.

All in all, a success, I think.

Happy 200th post to me! What a fabulous way to celebrate.

Reflections on Rome

Since returning from Rome, I have introduced some new habits into my daily routine, in an attempt to pretend I’m still on holiday.

I have at least one espresso a day. I have it quite short, a bit less than a single shot of coffee. I don’t put any milk or sugar or anything in it. And it is much tastier. I think the longer you run the espresso for, the more bitter it goes. As my previous dislike of coffee generally arose from the bitter taste, I am well on my way to liking coffee if I can figure out how to make it not bitter. So I just have a short one.

I also eat little Italian pastries quite often and, as yet, am unsure whether this is a reliving-the-holiday thing or a greedy-cow thing. I will usually have one with my espresso. Maybe that habit needs to calm down…? (When I was wondering aloud with a friend about how the Italians are not fat, she said, in an ominous tone, “O but they are! Check them out after they’ve turned 30, it’s not pretty.”)

I have eaten risotto both evenings for dinner since my return. Both times, I made it with porcini mushrooms and when it was cooked all the way through, right before I put it on the plate, I mixed in white truffle and parmesan. Porcini mushrooms and white truffle with dinner every evening will start to make me a poor Laura, if I don’t watch it…!

On the truffle front, do you remember when I went mental on discovering the truffle butter at the Fine Food Fair?

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Well, I was worried about trying to find it online because I thought it could turn into a real obsession, if I knew how to get it. Stupidly, I was having a truffle moment and was ordering some truffle pasta online and found the EXACT truffle butter I tasted. So I ordered one black and one white. This could be the beginning of my downfall, people. I’ll be writing posts about how I’m scared to go outside and I just stay inside all day, eating sticks of butter as though they are chocolate bars. I’ll quit my job and have bad cholesterol and turn my nose up at green vegetables. I may need you all to help me through.

I also wear my very Italian apron, when cooking my risotto, as it helps me feel all Italian. I got it at a little shop near the Pantheon. Here is a photo of me posing in it….

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I asked Danda what things he learned from our Roman Holiday and what habits he has kept up. He said “Ice cream.”