Cooking Outside the Box

I am in complete agreement with Sybarite Sauvage who recently remarked that it was just “too darn hot” to mess around with elaborate stories. Hot weather makes creative juices dry up, and one needs an extra effort and a reason to get excited about writing and cooking. So, why not use a little trick, and challenge yourself by using fun new ingredients?

1. Cucuzza squash

During a recent trip to the farmer’s market, I was delighted to see an old friend, – gargantuan-sized Italian squash that goes by the name of “cucuzza”. When we were hiking on the Amalfi coast last September, we saw cucuzzi hanging down from the trellis like some alien baseball bats:

So, I quickly bought the smallest specimen I could find, and spent a good part of my yoga practice thinking about what I was going to do with the darn things. All-in-all, they could be used like other types of summer squash; but they tend to be more flavorful and nutty, plus they keep their shape very well during cooking.

Once I started thinking Italy, squash, zucchini,…the next thing I was remembering was the fabulous zucchini pizza from Forno Campo de’ Fiori in Rome:

Thus, it was decided: it is going to be quasi-pizza, with WholeFood’s tandoori bread as the base:

The first creation was “pizza bianca” with cucuzzi, mountain oregano (indigenous to Amalfi), whole-milk ricotta blobs, a little drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, freshly ground pepper, and shredded Pecorino (salty and sharp sheep’s milk cheese). Before serving, I sprinkled it with finely julienned mint.

It was followed by “pizza rossa”, built with a very thin layer of arrabiata, cucuzzi, Pecorino, pepper, and combination opal & Italian basil. Here is what it looked like just before I put it in the oven for 5 minutes at 400F:

Ok, now I have used up half of the smaller squash…the question is, what in the world am I going to do with the rest???

2. Tamarind

My must-have dish at any good Vietnamese restaurant is Hot and Sour Soup (Canh Chua), the current favorite being from Saigon Café (located across from Eden Center in Virginia). It is, essentially, a shrimp, tomato, and pineapple soup in tamarind broth. My goal was not to recreate anybody’s version, – I was not following any particular recipe, nor did I have all the ingredients that traditionally go into the soup (such as the wonderfully spongy elephant ear). However, I wanted to make sure it maintained its distinctive taste.

This type of soup epitomizes everything that I love about Vietnamese food, such as the use of fresh ingredients (a variety of herbs and vegetables) to provide different textures and flavors within one dish.  The goal is to create perfect balance of hot (from the chili paste or chili flakes), sweet (from the pineapple), and sour (from the tamarind and lime juice) components.

So, first, you must make your stock using vegetable broth (or shrimp stock), water, tamarind paste,  fish sauce, lemongrass, chili flakes, or chili paste (such as the Pantai paste I used, complete with chilis, garlic, shallots, spices, shrimp paste, etc.). Strain it, and if you can, let it sit in the fridge overnight, in order for all the flavors to marry. The rest takes no more than 10 minutes, as you throw in the pineapple, okra (my approximation for elephant ear), and tomatoes.

A symphony of flavors and colors

At the last possible moment, add shrimp, lime juice, and aromatic herbs (I happened to have opal basil and cilantro on hand). Serve with additional basil and cilantro, if you wish.

In order to push things just a bit further, try a Txakoli (pronounced “Chacoli”) from the Basque region of Spain with your makeshift pizza and soup. In general, it can range from a simple, undemanding quaffer to a wine of extreme focus and character. Getariako Txakolina from Mokoroa certainly has enough acidity, minerality and freshness to bring out the most harmonious chorus from the crazy symphony of textures and flavors of the hot & sour soup.

Singing flavors *are* the best remedy for heat-induced sloth!


7 X 7 Link Award: Two Pigs Spill the Beans

First of all, I wanted to thank Anastasia at “While Chasing Kids” for nominating me for the 7X7 blog award! Hip Hip Hooray!  Without further ado, I will now fulfill my end of the bargain, and comply with the rules of the award:


I. Share something about yourself that others don’t know.

Generally I am a secret squirrel, but I will happily recount some random childhood food experiences that have undoubtedly shaped my idiosyncratic likes and dislikes.

  • When I was very young, once I was given two chicks for March 8 (Women’s Day). I named them Chick and Rick, after the characters in a popular children’s book.

photo credit:

    They spent the first few months in a cage, in our tiny Moscow studio apartment, and in the summer they were taken to the country house (“dacha”), where the boisterous chicks turned out to be girl chickens (!) who laid eggs. At the end of the summer we had to leave the adult chickens with the neighbors who lived there all year round. I kept getting reports about Chick and Rick, till several months later, I was finally told they were made into a delicious soup. I am glad I did not get to eat any; I do not ever want to know the name and the life story of my meal, a la “Portlandia” chicken episode.
  • My father was in the tourism business, so I started joining him in his travels at the age of 6. In Bulgaria, we had access to the finest seafood, cheeses, fruit, meats, you name it. Unfortunately, I was too young to realize that or care at the time; and as much as I would have liked, in retrospect, to be the kind of gourmet kid who asks her parents for smoked duck for her birthday (like Master Sommelier Andrea Immer’s son Lucas), those three summers I primarily subsisted on steamed rice and shunka (canned ham), with occasional sweet crepes (palachinki) for dessert.
  • Throughout my childhood, summer months were typically spent in the country house with my grandmother, some 50 miles away from Moscow in a true “farm to table”, “locavore” mode of existence. We relied on foraging (mushrooms and berries), fishing, and fresh fruits and vegetables (the other villagers lived there all year round  and had self-sustaining, impressive gardens where they grew potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, etc.).  Since we only stayed there a few months out of the year, all we grew ourselves was fresh herbs and strawberries. We also had an orchard where raspberries, gooseberries, and currants grew like weeds, in addition to the twelve formidable apple trees we actually took care of. We bought fresh goat milk from the neighbors (I was allergic to cow milk, or at least, that’s what I made my parents believe). One of my favorite meals was buckwheat porridge with milk and sugar. Years later, I tried feeding that to my boyfriend (now husband), and let’s just say, he did not share my childish excitement, even though he was too polite to say so at the time.
  • When I turned 13, I followed my parents to spend my first summer in the former Yugoslavia (this shows how old I am 🙂 ). We were based on the Adriatic coast, in a 5-star hotel complex near Sibenic, Croatia). It was the first time that I became aware of the infinite culinary possibilities. The hotel chef was a friend of the family, and he was happy to do extra things for us such as bake exquisite “Princess” pastries (puffs with crème anglaise) for our afternoon snack. I had lobster at our going-away dinner at the hotel, and was given the tip of its footlong tail to take to Moscow as a trophy (of course, I left it behind on the balcony of our hotel room 😦 ) This was also the summer I had an authentic Italian wood burning oven pizza for the first time. We were separated from Italy only by a body of water, and there were several ethnically Italian villages in that part of the country. I remember having to wait till 10pm to eat dinner (those damn Italians! 🙂 ), to be able to enjoy the pizza family-style.
  • My international food exploration continued a year later, in the former Czechoslovakia, at the famous resort of Karlovi Vari (the historic name is Karlsbad). The main activity in that sleepy town involved walking up and down the river, sucking on the mineral water from your assigned spring.  Since I was young, I was spared from drinking the gross water, and instead I walked back and forth eating gelato (I had to eat it slowly, as I was only allowed two a day, and I had to make it last). Every morning we went to our favorite bakery and deli to buy amazing freshly baked croissants and fabulous farmstead hams and cheeses…

II. Link 7 posts from your blog that you think are worthy.

III. Nominate 7 other bloggers that deserve the award and haven’t received it yet.

Calling All Vegetarians and Mathematicians

Our Saturday morning routine during much of the year involves a trip (a 2-minute walk across the street) to the Adams Morgan farmer’s market, where I get a few essentials and a few extras that strike my fancy. For me, bad weather is almost synonymous with cooking, so yesterday I had to stick to my routine and go shopping outside in the rain. Cursing under my breath, I was picking through wet vegetables bins, when I was rewarded with a most beautiful Broccolo Romanesco specimen:

Broccolo Romanesco is a native of Lazio, Italy, and is known in the U.S. as Roman cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, or coral broccoli. It is a beautiful and fascinating object on several different levels, as it is a mathematical plant (its shape is fractal, meaning each mini-floret is arranged along a logarithmical spiral, which, in turn, is part of a larger spiral).



Pasta e broccoli (exactly what it sounds like – pasta with broccoli) is a great way to showcase the nuttiness, sweetness, and fantastic texture of Broccolo Romanesco (much more versatile than regular cauliflower or broccoli). For this simple dish it is best to use short pasta, such as penne, orecchiette, rigatoni, etc. I rather like using Montebello Strozzapreti (an imported organic durum wheat semolina dry pasta), widely available at WholeFoods, Yes Organic grocery store, among other places.

Broccolo Romanesco is first blanched (3-4 min) and then very quickly sautéed in olive oil infused with garlic and crushed red chilis. Once it is added to the cooked pasta, grate a good amount of Pecorino Romano over the steaming top, perhaps, with a bit of fresh pepper. You can add some more high quality olive oil, if you’d like.

Naturally, another immediate association I have with bad weather is drinking wine, especially a nice red, especially one that has warm spices, earthiness, and depth (besides, I would not dream of having a delicious pasta without a glass of wine :-)). I cannot think of a better wine than a 2007 SanValentino Umbria IGT (a harmonious blend of Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and  Sagrantino, a native of Montefalco) by legendary Paolo Bea to drink with my sweetie on a cold night like this (well, out of what I currently have in my wine cabinet).








Feel free to come up with something different that will warm up your heart; maybe it will be another wine, maybe scotch, maybe a nice piece of chocolate…

What's YOUR poison?


Cacio e Pepe Fridays

I am fond of routines, and food routines are no exception. Plenty examples can be found in traditional Roman cuisine, such as the custom to serve gnocchi on Thursdays.  There’s a Roman saying that goes,“Giovedì gnocchi, Venerdi pesce e Sabato trippa” (gnocchi on Thursdays, fish on Fridays, tripe on Saturdays). Its exact origin is unclear; one of the explanations I have heard is that catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Fridays (thus fish), so on Thursdays they would want to have something filling, such as gnocchi; and tripe on Saturdays because that was the day when the animals were slaughtered.

Jeff and I instituted a tradition of our own, namely, Cacio e Pepe Fridays. Cacio e pepper (cheese and pepper pasta) is one of the staples of Roman cuisine, and the epitome of vegetarian comfort food (perfect for Jeff :-)). The other pastas in the Roman “holy trinity” feature guanciale (cured pork jowl): carbonara (egg yolk, guanciale, pepper, and pecorino) and amatriciana (tomato sauce, guanciale, spicy red peppers, and pecorino). Not being a vegetarian, I am especially partial to amatriciana, and it is one of the dishes I chose to have during our first dinner in Rome at Roscioli:

La Matriciana o Amatriciana

Our tradition involves me driving down to Vace, – an Italian shop in Cleveland Park, incredibly popular on Friday nights, primarily because of their mediocre pizza offerings. I come for their fresh pasta; more specifically, I like using their version of tonnarelli, which is a bit more squared version of spaghetti:

This is a 3-ingredient dish, therefore their quality is pretty important. I think it is critical to have freshly ground pepper from quality peppercorns (I am fond of tellicherries), and freshly shredded cacio (Pecorino Romano – salty, intense, and pleasantly briny). Sometimes I mix it with Cacio di Roma, which is a smoother, younger, creamy textured sheep’s milk cheese, in order to give the dish a more a mild, balanced flavor.

Both cheeses can be found at WholeFoods (make sure you get the “genuine” Sini Fulvi DOP (name-protected) Pecorino Romano, from Italy’s Lazio region.

Getting the perfect texture can be tricky, as first you have to overcome the temptation to overcook the pasta (the cooking time for this particular one is a bit under 1 min!), and then you have to make sure that the cheese clings but not clumps (I love alliteration! 🙂 The nice thing is that this dish is very forgiving, so even if something terrible happens, you are still left with the delicious gooey, salty, and creamy mess, perfect with a white Burgundy (the one below I miraculously bought at WholeFoods for $19.99!!!):

Oh là là!

While planning our monthly NYC weekend, I was very proud of myself for willing to look ahead (to our Southern France trip in May), as opposed to being hopelessly stuck in the past, in my beloved Italian cuisine :-). As a result, the eating itinerary combined a chic French Saturday with the casual Italian Sunday…thank God for the hard-working American spirit which makes it possible to eat at virtually any restaurant in the US on Sunday, – not so in Rome, for example!)I still remember the horrors of neglecting to make a lunch reservation on Sunday (our second day in Rome) for any of the few open worthwhile restaurants, and walking in the heat for hours around Fori and Circo Massimo, without a semblance of a plan… only to be saved by the unexpected appearance of Cristalli di Zucchero and their delicious miniature artisanal savory and sweet pastries (and fresh apricot and blood orange juices)…but I digress.

Un (I).

Jeff and I had fond memories of having tea and macarons at a premier pastry shop Maison Laduree in Paris,

Maison Laduree, 21 Rue Bonaparte, Paris

and I was pleased to discover that their newest location opened in Manhattan (Upper East Side) just a couple of months ago. I cringed at the prospect of standing in line for an hour (or more realistically, at the prospect of Jeff refusing to stand in line for an hour, and therefore, at the prospect of not eating macarons on our short trip); but thankfully, it all worked out “for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Some thirty minutes later, we were already tasting the fabulous macarons in lemon, pistachio, coffee, rose petal, orange blossom, and the ultimate treat, sea salt caramel.

it is not is impressionistic... ok, maybe Jeff's hands were shaking a little with anticipation...

Deux (II).

Our evening plans involved a SoHo French-Vietnamese fusion place called Rouge et Blanc (which I kept calling “Rouge et Noir” throughout the night, till I figured out that I needed to think “rouge” and “blanc” wine, as opposed to Stendhal’s mysterious color scheme). I had heard of the place before, and had vague interest, but never acted upon it, till last week, my friend Alex told me that the food there was “exquisite”. Now, you have to understand that the highest epithet Alex typically uses to describe food is “decent” (by the way, he is a dedicated and experienced foodie) So, needless to say, when I heard that kind of language from him, five minutes later, I was already making the Open Table reservation for Saturday night dinner.

And it did not disappoint. Moreover, I was lavishing praise all night: the bone marrow  & charred baby octopus and en papillote forest mushrooms small plates; fall vegetables in green curry with monkey bread; caramelized fois gras dessert were all pretty amazing, as well as the Domaine Charles Joguet Chinon Les Varennes du Grand Clos Franc de Pied 2006.

The interesting thing about the pairing is that typically, a Cab Franc would be too heavy for vegetables, especially given their method of preparation (Cab Franc and green curry???)  But, at 12.5% alcohol, this low-yield Chinon is both rich and elegant & earthy. Also, the higher level of acidity of that particular cuvee makes that marriage even stronger. As for the food, the common theme for this chef seems to be subtlety and earthiness.

I was looking forward to sharing pictures of the dishes we ate (which I diligently took), but they turned out to be disappointing, due to my utter lack of skill and low lighting. The presentation of the bone marrow small plate was especially dramatic, with a very impressively sized bone across the plate, and the baby octopus piled on top of the bone marrow… I will leave you only with a somewhat interesting, if totally unrealistic, picture of our curried vegetables entrée:

the wonders of flash...

Our Favorite Dishes of the Trip

Best gelato:
-Herb-based offerings from Gelateria del Teatro in Rome (sage & raspberry; wild fennel & caramelized almonds, and lavender & white peach.

-Fig gelato from Fior di Latte in Trastevere, Rome managed to capture the essence of seasonal small figs called “settembrini”.

-Crema della Nonna (custard-flavored gelato) from Natale, Lecce.

Best seafood dish:
-Grano con cozze: grano with mussels in a simple tomato base at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli, Puglia. Grano is one of those fascinating ancient whole grains:

NB: Grano was one of the very few food items we brought home from Italy.

Best fish dish:
Tuna steak (and I don’t even really like tuna and never order it!) as part of the 10-item appetizer course (antipasti della casa) brought to us at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli, Puglia. It was seared on the outside (with a slight balsamic glaze), pretty rare on the inside, and was unlike any tuna I have ever had. I was already full, but I still wolfed it down with pink peppercorns and red onions from another appetizer. It was as big as my head.

Best pasta dish: We ate MANY pastas on this trip, so I think it is fair to include several:
-Cacio e pepe with fried zucchini flowers at Antico Arco in Rome (pasta with pecorino romano and freshly ground pepper). Jeff also wanted to make sure I gave a shoutout to Roscioli’s version because of its amazing texture :-):

cacio e pepe at Roscioli

-Orecchiette integrale con broccoli e capocollo at Il Ritrovo degli Amici, Martina Franca (whole-grain pasta with broccoli and grated local cheese). It is impossible to describe the complexity and texture of this dish, so I am not even going to try.
-Fusilli mollica e crusco (if you thought the previous pasta was not basic enough, here is a pasta with breadcrumbs and crushed red Senise peppers, a Lucan specialty). The ultimate embodiment of cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine), this dish does not feature any fresh vegetables, fish or meat. The owner of Le Botteghe quizzed me about the translation of “crusco” before I was allowed to order it (I passed); quite understandable, since it sounds like some very rare and delicious crustacean.
-Ceci e tria at il Frantoio in Puglia: a ribbon-shaped pasta with a sauce of whole and pureed chickpeas.
-Bottarga spaghetti at Antico Arco featuring mullet’s roe from Cetara on the Amalfi coast. It was topped with the most amazing seabass carpaccio (actually, “carpaccio” was their description; the pieces of fish were actually pretty substantial, much to my joy.

What all these pastas have in common: absence of fancy ingredients and complex sauces.

Best appetizer:
-Very lightly marinated zucchini with mint (part of the 14-course appetizer offering at Parco di Castro, Puglia). Zucchini were in season, and during the course of the trip, we had them on pizza (at Forno del Campo dei Fiori in Rome, – it was incidentally the most inspired by the slice, or rather, “by the chunk” pizza we had);

zucchini pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori, Rome

as a carpaccio in a salad, and in a number of pastas.
-Bruschetta at A’Paranza, Atrani, Amalfi coast (crusty country bread, tomatoes and olive oil). Brilliantly simple, it was our favorite rendition of the ubiquitous classic.
-Caponata at Al Vino Al Vino, Rome. This delectable Sicilian dish is made fresh every day by the Sicilian mother of the wine bar’s owner. I am fascinated by the sweet-and-sour combinations, especially by something that is as incredibly balanced as this version.
-Lampascione and other preserved vegetables (verdure sott’olio) at Il Cucco, Cisternino, Puglia.

Best cheese:
-Burrata with semi-dried pugliese tomatoes at Roscioli in Rome
-Different types of ricotta, scamorza, mozzarella, all eaten within 10 seconds of being made (and the smoked and aged stuff – straight in the cheese aging room) at Caseificio Crovace, Puglia:

Best contorno (side dish):
A plate of porcinis with parsley at Cumpa Cosima, Ravello.

Best fruit:
-Moscato grapes from the neighborhood market in Rome on via Montebello.
-A fig from the orchard at b&b Casa Cuccaro, Nocelle

Best dessert:
Miniature cannolo from Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome
Best soup:
Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa, Montepertuso, Amalfi coast.
Best pizza:
Di Matteo
I Decumani

(both in Naples…)

Best pastry:
Warm frolla from Sfogliatelle Mary, Naples (more on that later).
Pasticciotto con pignoli from Avio, Lecce, Puglia (Leccese specialty pastry with a custard filling and in this case, pine nuts).

Best sign:

sign in front of a shop in Ravello