Once Bitten, Twice Boiled

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I found my very own Italian Stallion while drinking & eating my way through Europe’s boot. Hubs and I met during a 5-week Florence-based study abroad trip, and despite his trying to woo me from week 1, I was (somewhat) slow to reciprocate.

Nonetheless, those 5 weeks were some of my very favorite weeks, for many reasons. Well, the obvious – meeting the person I hope will put up with me until the end of time. And making wonderful friends, even though we only keep in touch with less than a handful of them. Where else can you buy a decent $3 bottle of wine? When you’re downing a bottle a night, that’s more than economical :).

And oh my, the food. If I knew then I’d be sitting here today writing about Italian cuisine, I would have taken notes, I would have taken pictures, I would have done my research and made sure to try all those rustic Italian dishes, those dishes I see today and drool over, wishing I’d tasted “the real thing” in 2001. I would have brought back a lot of Caputo 00 flour.

But, alas, I didn’t. And instead, I ate a hella ton of gelato (I think I tried every single flavor at the shop outside of our school), Margherita pizza, and occasionally some pasta with some sauce and some bread. With a drizzle of that heavenly Italian olive oil that at the time, I simply called “dipping sauce”. I don’t remember what type of wine I drank because all I cared about was the price and that, if I bought cheap wine, I could use the rest of my loot to buy pretty Italian clothes and leather jackets and oh yeah, Murano glass.

I know for a fact that I did not have soup. Hell, it was so hot you practically had to wring out your clothes; you couldn’t have paid me to order soup. In actuality, I’d never even heard of “ribollita” until Heidi made it a few weeks ago. It sounded nice, rich, and über-hearty; it seemed like a great Sunday dish. And then I saw it again, in this month’s BA and, despite my general avoidance of vegetable soups, I knew at that point that I had to give it a try.

I do not regret it one bit.

Unlike any veggie soup I’ve ever had, this here is perfect for the (hopefully) last few weeks of winter. Packed with protein and carbs, it’s filling and thus completely appropriate as a vegetarian main dish. It makes plenty (probably more than 8 servings if you use large bunches of greens, as I did) and like a fine Italian wine that I didn’t taste in Italy, it gets better with time, so you can eat it throughout the week and freeze what’s left for later.

Needless to say, I’ll be looking for this dish as we venture out to Tuscany next year in celebration of our 5-year anniversary. And this time, I’ll make sure to take pictures, drink wine that costs a little more than $3, and lay off the Murano glass. I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay away from the gelato, however.

Other Italian dishes:
Sweet Potato Gnocchi
Eggs in Purgatory
Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto (it’s almost asparagus time!)

Tuscan Ribollita
Inspired by 101 Cookbooks; adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010 & 101 Cookbooks

this recipe is highly adaptable. use any beans you want, and any quantity. mix it up with different greens; the kale is a staple of ribollita but if you don’t like it, substitute chard, cabbage, whatever. i enjoy the potatoes, but feel free to leave them out. and the pesto, i added for extra flavor, but it’s just fine without it. definitely keep the zest – it brightens this rich soup up, just a bit.

also, this is a great time to stock up on cooked white beans. I quadrupled the beans and froze the rest – they’ll last for a long time as long as you freeze them in their cooking water (which I forgot to keep all of, so any water works, really).

printable version

ingredients
8 c water, divided
1 1/4 c dried cannellini beans
1 bunch of fresh sage leaves
8 garlic cloves; 5 sliced, 3 chopped
3 t fine sea salt, divided
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus additional for drizzling
1 lg onion, chopped
2 lg celery stalks, diced
1 med carrot, chopped
2 unpeeled Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered through core, sliced crosswise
1 large pinch of dried thyme
1 sm bunch black (Tuscan, lacinato) kale, cut crosswise into 1-inch ribbons
1 sm bunch redchard, center stem removed, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide ribbons, stems diced
4 c thinly sliced savoy cabbage
5 large plum tomatoes, chopped
1 2-inch square Parmesan cheese rind (even better if cheese is remaining!)
1 t dried crushed red pepper
1 T tomato paste
2 T basil pesto, optional
4 c vegetable broth
6 1/2-inch-thick slices whole wheat bread, coarsely torn with crusts; if soft, toasted in advance
2 T balsamic vinegar
meyer lemon zest (or regular lemon), for garnish

instructions
Combine 8 c water, beans, sage, and sliced garlic in large saucepan. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until beans are tender, stirring occasionally, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on age of beans. Add 1 t sea salt; simmer 10 minutes. Uncover and cool beans in liquid. [Can be made and stored in water in advance.]

Heat 3 T oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onion; sprinkle with sea salt. Cook until onion is translucent, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add chopped garlic; stir 2 minutes. Add celery, carrot, potato, fennel, chard stems, and thyme; cook until vegetables are tender and begin to turn brown in spots, stirring often, 15 to 18 minutes. Add kale, chard, cabbage, tomatoes, Parmesan rind, 5 cups water, and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add beans with cooking liquid (minus 2 c) and crushed red pepper. Add 4 c broth, tomato paste, pesto. Season with salt and generous amount of pepper.

Add bread to soup and simmer, stirring often until heated through. Season with sea salt and pepper and stir in balsamic vinegar.

Divide ribollita among bowls, sprinkle with lemon zest, and serve.

Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Apples

fresh-picked apples

While it might be a slightly less-tangling tongue-twister than the original, I can attest to the difficulty of the actual task at hand – apple picking. Now on any other day, I might have reacted differently. But two Saturdays ago on a chilly Halloween morning, we were struggling through the bazillions of apple trees at Royal Oak Farm Orchard trying our damndest to fill up our alotted “peck-sized” baggies in the shortest amount of time possible.

Now what’s so bad about apple picking, you might ask? Well nothing, on most occasions. But combine Jennifer’s lifestyle of “playing it by ear” with my lack of preparation and inability to see past the pure excitment of simply going to an apple orchard in the middle of nowhere, and you are left with two girls traveling blindly into the Chicago outer suburbs on a cold, windy day, sans gloves, warm coat, or appropriate mud-sloshing shoes.

gorgeous apple tress



Which correlates to quickly shifting from excitement to downright pain as our hands became more numb with each apple we chunked carelessly into our bags. And while we desperately wanted our bags to magically become full, we were also saddened by the weight of those bags as we attempted to carry them with our hands in our pockets. Needless to say, the bags’ drawstrings eventually became too painful to hang from our elbow creases, and we were left with no option but to carry our bags with one hand vulnerable to the country “breeze” and cold.

Sometimes, we (meaning Jennifer) had to climb up into the trees for the perfect apple. This was before the cold became somewhat unbearble. The higher up in the trees, the more untouched apples loomed over us, snickering all the while as we stared, eyes full of sadness, knowing we would be settling for the apples closer to our coat pockets.

Jennifer climbing for apples



While there were loads of apple varieties, the ones we really wanted were months and months away:

no candy crisps = sad



We saw a few families out for picking, complete with wagons and multiple peck-sized bags. They also donned appropriate clothing – gloves that I specifically imagined myself wrestling a 10 year old to the ground for. But then I realized that, in doing so, I would become clothed in mud – mud that would not only be cold, but also wet and sticky.

I took the “high road” and we managed to fill our bags and stock up on super cheap winter squash (25 cents a pound!) before darting sheepishly into the warm gift shop where apple cider, fudge, and sugared donuts awaited.

making apple sauce


It may not have been the best day to pick apples, but we made the most of it. Through clenched, clattering teeth we laughed (at ourselves, for being so silly and unprepared) and picked until apples were literally toppling out of our bags. And when we arrived back home into the city, dry and warm, we went our separate ways – both wondering what in the world we’d do with all these apples.

homemade apple butter


Homemade Apple Butter
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks; makes ~40 oz

printable recipe



It might look like it takes a long time, and it does, but apple butter is outta this world. It’s a perfect way to use a bunch of apples and a great way to make the house smell scrumptious.

ingredients
4 lbs of apples, unpeeled & uncored, cut into quarters
1/2 gallon of apple cider
~2 c sugar (or less, if desired)
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t cloves
juice of 1 lemon


special equipment
food mill or very fine sieve
canning jars, ~40 oz in volume
large pot for sterilizing jars


instructions
 

  1. Prepare jars by running them through your dishwasher and using heated dry. Keep door closed until you need the jars.
  2. in a heavy pot over med/med-hi heat, add apples and enough apple cider to cover the apples. bring to simmer. skim foam as it appears (but don’t worry too much about getting it all). cook apples until tender throughout, about 20-30 minutes.
  3. take apples out of pot and, in batches, run through a food mill (or fine sieve, but it will take a while using that method) and into a large bowl. after running all apples through, it will look like applesauce – because it is… applesauce.
  4. put applesauce back in large pot over medium heat. bring to simmer (~220 F). while stirring, add in lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. continue to simmer over medium/medium-low. continue stirring occasionally and keep mixture around 220 F. it will take 1-2 hours from here. the applesauce will thicken up, darken, and eventually start popping and making bubbly noises. once it’s dark and reduced significantly, remove from heat (it will thicken more after this point as well).
  5. fill your biggest pot with water and bring to a boil. the water will need to cover the jars when placed in the pot.
  6. remove jars from dishwasher and fill apple butter to within 1/4 inch of jar top. wipe rims clean with a dry paper towel and screw lid on tightly. using tongs or jar holder, place jar into boiling water for 10 minutes. take out and let cool completely. over time, you should hear the jars pop which means they are sealed and ready to store!