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.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

I love to travel. So much so that I surprised people a few months back on a Facebook quiz by saying, even above cooking, that it’s my favorite thing to do. That quiz was not fabricated; similarly to good meals, I find myself thinking about our next vacation as soon as the current one is over. Last year (yes, it was sooooo 2009) we ‘took it easy’ and spent a week in Antigua, soaking up as many rays as the Caribbean sun would allow, scratching mosquito bites that only I seemed to get, and drinking more Merlot than I, quite frankly, cared to drink in a lifetime – but when it’s ‘free’ you gots to drink what they give you! Plus, for Merlot, it was good.

We took a long weekend trip to Napa as well, at which time I fell in love with the place and have made it my life’s goal to own a B&B there. And the year before Antigua, we were in Spain. I smuggled chorizo, ate kangaroo, and shopped in an outdoor grocery market that was so big, and so awesome, that I couldn’t have even dreamed it up. Strangely enough, it was in Spain that I was summoned by Morocco.

Yes, Morocco. Literally a hop, skip, and a jump across the Mediterranean Sea via the south of Spain lies beautiful, colorful, Morocco. Ever so slightly, I was reminded of its’ proximity to Sevilla, a city we’d considered touring during our visit. I thought about how easily we could hop on over to Morocco for a day or two, ending our trip back into Spain with a relaxing day at a beach along the Costa del Sol. Then I remembered Barcelona and Hubs’ insistence on not ‘city-hopping’ but instead taking in the sights at a relaxing pace – and I knew Morocco and all that Spanish sunshine would have to wait.

So, in the meantime, we have cold, we have snow, we have cloudy skies, and we have meatballs. Meatballs haphazardly studded with onions, garlic, and the next best thing you can add besides a trip to Morocco itself – all of its’ amazing spices & herbs – cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cilantro, parsley. I tell you, those Moroccans – they know a thing or two about spices. There’s the fresh, almost floral hint of ginger, the sweet warmth of cinnamon, and the turmeric and saffron – in small quantities – help to round off the spice profile but also color the dish a beautiful golden, amber shade. And then you’ve got the bitterness of spinach, the acidic tomatoes, and the golden raisins working together in a totally harmonious way so that every bite is true perfection.

You may not actually be there, but if you eat this (and add the b’stilla from last week to your weekly menu), you may soon find yourself searching Expedia for the next trip, just like me.

Moroccan Beef Meatball Tagine
Adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2010; serves 6

‘tagine’ has double meaning: in some cases, it’s the oddly-shaped clay cooking vessel with a triangular lid, made to keep condensation on the bottom of the dish. Here, it’s an actual Moroccan stew, which is commonly called a ‘tagine’. I prefer the stew with a nutty, firm grain like barley or farro – they are great in the stew, adding a nice texture. if you’d prefer though, go all-Moroccan and use couscous.

printable recipe

ingredients

meatballs
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1/3 c coarsely grated onion
1/3 c panko breadcrumbs
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
1 lg egg, beaten to blend
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 t turmeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t coarse kosher salt
1/4 t ground ginger

stew
1 c pearled barley (or other grain, like farro)
1 T olive oil
3 1/2 c chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cinnamon stick
1 t turmeric
1/8 t saffron threads, crumbled
2 c beef broth
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1/4 c golden raisins
2 c 1/2-inch-thick carrot slices (cut on diagonal)
1 zucchini, peeled and sliced diagnoally (optional, if you have it)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro plus additional for garnish
1 5-ounce package baby spinach leaves
cilantro and lemons, for garnish, optional

instructions
For meatballs:
Line large rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap. Gently mix all ingredients in large bowl. Using moistened hands and 2 tablespoonfuls for each, roll meat mixture into 1 1/2-inch meatballs. Arrange meatballs on sheet.

For stew:
Bring barley and 3 cups of water to boil and reduce to simmer. Cover and cook about 1 hour or until tender. Keep warm.

Heat oil in heavy large ovenproof pot over medium heat. Add onions; sauté about 15 minutes. Add garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, and saffron; stir 2 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes with juice, and raisins.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Bring stew to simmer. Stir in carrots and zucchini. Carefully add meatballs to stew; gently press into liquid to submerge. Sprinkle 1/4 cup cilantro over. Cover pot; place in oven. Bake until meatballs are cooked through and carrots are tender, about 35 minutes. Sprinkle spinach over stew. Cover and bake until spinach wilts, about 5 minutes longer. Gently stir to mix in spinach, being careful not to break meatballs. Remove cinnamon stick. Season tagine with salt and pepper. Spoon couscous into bowls; top with tagine. Garnish with cilantro and lemons.