Monday, 31 March 2014

Fragola di Bosco - Italy's Wild Strawberry

The first time I saw a fragola, I mistook it for a raspberry. They look nothing alike but it was the small size of the berry that confused me. I was sitting in a restaurant and noticed the table next to me eating a bowl of fragolas for dessert (as you can see, a lot of my food discoveries come from watching what other people eat).  I was actually craving something refreshing after eating a pastry for breakfast and pasta for lunch so I ordered a bowl of fragolas. 

They are unlike anything I have ever tasted. It is small in size, fragile, has a soft texture to it, and has an intense flavor and taste.  
Fresh fragolas from the market
Also known as an Italian wild strawberry, the fragola is a bright red berry and you can eat it plain or have sugar sprinkled on it or even add red wine to it like we had below.


 But the most amazing way we had the fragola was when it was incorporated as a gelato. Next time you are in Rome , you must stop by Gelateria dei Gracchi. We had planned to each get one cup with 3 flavors in it, but the gelato was so good, that we ordered another cup each.  Our favorite flavor was the fresh fragola gelato!


Friday, 28 March 2014

I'll have a Cappuccino please!

There are a few moments that I look forward to every day.  One of them is sitting down with something to read and enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning. The beautiful aroma as I’m about to take my first sip of coffee brings a smile to my face and it’s my form of zen, where I just  tune the world out and enjoy my hot cup of coffee in peace.

Two of my favorite coffee beans are Blue Mountain Coffee from Jamaica and Kona Coffee from Hawaii. The flavors are so crisp and clean to me, and don’t give me that acidic after taste that I find with a lot of other coffees.  Blue Mountain Coffee is known for being one of the most in-demand and expensive coffees in the world and is grown in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica. Kona coffee is also one of the most expensive coffees in the world and comes from the Kona Districts of Big Island, Hawaii. Both have a remarkable flavor from the ideal growing conditions of the beans.  But I was really looking forward to Italian coffee and adding it to ‘my favorite coffee’ list.

Italian coffee is wonderful. It tastes so smooth and it seems slightly stronger and rich in flavor.  Every time I see pictures like the one below, it puts a smile on my face and makes me wanting more. The espresso, the warm milk, the foam, the taste, the cute spoons and cup, the aroma…. and I could go on.



While enjoying my morning cappuccinos in Italy , this is what I observed and learned:

-         When you go into a coffee bar, you normally drink coffee standing up at the bar. The bar is usually a nice granite countertop of some sort, and then you take a few sips of your beverage and you are finished and ready to go. 
-         You pay for your beverage first, get the receipt, show it to the barista and then you wait for your coffee drink be prepared.
-         Cappuccinos are drunk in the morning and generally not in the afternoon. To be honest, I’m not sure why that it is but that’s what I was told from someone local.
-         The size of the beverages are much smaller than in North America . You would never see a grande or vente size drink at a coffee bar.
-         The coffee machines are unreal. What I mean is that the machines look so sophisticated, so fancy, so beautiful, so shiny, so powerful, and so big.


Look at this beautiful espresso machine! I wonder if it will fit on my kitchen counter....

There are so many different coffee beverages in Italy that you can order. The ones that I tried while in Italy are:
o       Caffe – a shot of espresso
o       Caffe Ristretto – a more concentrated form of the regular caffe
o       Cappuccino – espresso with hot milk and foam (my drink of choice)
o       Caffe Macchiato – an espresso with just a splash of milk or ‘stained’ with milk
o       Caffe Americano – espresso with hot water added
o       Caffe Latte – hot milk mixed with coffee and served in a glass
o       Caffe Con Panna – espresso with sweet whipped cream

What makes coffee in Italy so good is that they seem to have the right formula for the perfect cup of coffee. The perfect roast, the grind of the beans, right temperature of the milk steam, right ratio and quantity of coffee grounds, right type of bean, etc. I was also told that the milk they use in Italy also contributes to the delicious taste. Similar to how the water in New York is one of the factors that makes a New York pizza taste so good and distinct.

One of my favorite places where I enjoyed my morning cappuccino was at Sant Eustachio Il Caffe which is just steps away from the Pantheon. I had read about this place beforehand and I noticed that it was packed with people when I walked in. The coffee here is incredible and I highly recommend this place!  The way they make their crema, the frothy cream which tops their espresso, is unique and a well kept secret that they will not reveal.  



Of course a perfect cup of coffee should be accompanied by non other than a canoli! I mean, this is Italy afterall…..






Thursday, 27 March 2014

Artichoke Season in Italy

I love artichokes. I can eat them steamed and dip the leaves one by one in butter, I can eat them deep fried, I can eat them as a dip with asiago cheese, I can eat them out of a jar with crackers and I basically, can’t get enough of them.

The artichokes I’ve had at home are smaller so imagine my delight as I sampled my first artichoke in Rome.  They are nothing like the ones I have ever had before!  I knew they were seasonal so I tried to eat them often in restaurants or order them in gourmet shops. If I had the time, I would strip the layers one by one and eat them slowly!



There is a lot more substance to an Italian artichoke. It tastes meatier, there is a lot more of the edible portion available, the flavors are light and subtle, and there are so many variations of what you can do with it.  The main way they prepared it when I was in Italy was to steam it and drizzle olive oil and lemon on it.  At home, I would have to eat a couple because of the size, but in here, one was plenty, even for sharing.

Artichokes are one of the staples of Italian cuisine and they even have artichoke festivals every year to pay homage to this wonderful vegetable. Many restaurants offer prix fixed menus centred around the artichoke. It is low in calories and fat, a good source of dietary fibre,  folic acid and contains many antioxidants. So the next time you are craving a donut, reach for an artichoke instead!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Pasta in Rome

When someone asks, ‘what’s the first thing you that comes to your mind when you think of Italian cuisine,’ instantly you hear the word pasta! I often wondered how something so simple with only a few ingredients of durum wheat flour mixed with water or egg, can taste so delicious. But it’s such a versatile dish that you can dress up with different sauces, meats, vegetables and cheese or eat just plain.   My philosophy is that if the ingredients are fresh and the dish is prepared with passion and care, I will hands down choose the plain version of anything so I can actually taste the true flavor of the dish. However, Italy is also known for their wonderful sauces so my philosophy also holds true with pasta sauces. A few fresh, seasonal and local ingredients from the sauces combined with pasta is my idea of a perfect meal.

I was determined to have the best pasta experience while I was in Italy . I’m not an expert in pasta or pasta making but I do know the following things:

- There are both fresh (pasta fresca) and dried (pasta secca) pastas in numerous shapes, sizes and thickness
- In Italy, dry pasta is cooked al dente style which is slightly firm with a chew rather than soft and mushy
- Some pastas are made with egg and flour versus water and flour
- There are just over 350 different forms of pasta

The large selection of dried pasta available at Campo de Fiori market in Rome
- The rule of thumb is that simple sauces like a plain tomato sauce goes well with thicker pastas (i.e. linguini) while more complex sauces with different ingredients go better with pasta shapes (i.e. penne) as it can cling onto the shapes of the pasta better.

You can generally serve pasta 3 different ways:
Pasta asicutta – the version that many of us think of where you have cooked pasta served with a sauce (i.e. spaghetti with marinara sauce)
·       - Pasta in brodo – this would be where pasta is part of a soup dish (i.e. minestrone)
·     - Pasta al forno – this is where you have pasta that is baked into some dish along with some other key ingredients (i.e. lasagne)

I know it’s hit and miss when you go to touristy areas of cities where you may want to experience something authentic.  Some restaurants may serve something of poor quality or disguise something that is pre-packaged or pre-made, where they try to capitalize on tourists who have money to spend.  But I try to research most food establishments first before deciding to go, or ask locals for some recommendations, or if a restaurant is packed with people inside, I’ll give it a try.

I’m pleased to tell you that I had one of the best pasta experiences when I was in Rome! It was in a restaurant called Pereli in the Testaccio area.  The d├ęcor was old fashioned and had a cozy feel to it. There were a lot of locals dining there so it was fairly busy but the mood was lively inside and the staff were very attentive considering that it was the lunch time rush.  But the food… wow, it was amazing! Very authentic, Roman specialities here. My 2 favorite pasta dishes in Rome actually came from this restaurant.

Penne carbonara – carbonara is a sauce made with eggs, cheese, garlic and bacon. This dish was so flavorful and the pasta was cooked perfectly. Look at the deep and rich yellow color of this dish. This obviously comes from eggs that are high in quality.


Bucatani with tomato sauce – resembles a thick, hollow spaghetti with a hole running through the centre of the pasta. It was simple and not complicated by too many ingredients so I could actually taste the excellent quality of the fresh tomato sauce with just the right amount of seasoning and al dente chew to the pasta.




Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Puntarelle: A Roman Vegatable

I saw a dish that looked like a bowl of big, curly green onions being served to the person sitting next to me at a restaurant. I was a little curious on what it was but had my eye on a pasta dish while scanning the menu. I got up to go to the bathroom when I passed 3 other tables with the same dish on their table. Finally I asked our waiter what that dish was as almost everyone seemed to be eating it. 

He said it was puntarelle, a chicory with light green stems and dandelion shaped leaves. Our waiter said it was basically a Roman salad and their version came with an anchovy, garlic, lemon, and olive oil type dressing.    Instantly, I said, ‘I would like one too!’    I had one bite and I was hooked. It was slightly crunchy, watery and absolutely tasty and refreshing.  I was told that this is a true, local dish and a source of Roman pride and we were fortunate enough to be in Rome when it was in season.





Monday, 24 March 2014

Picnic in the Park With Goodies from Volpetti


We woke up early to head over to the Roman Colosseum. I knew the lineups would be long so we wanted to get there before 9 am to beat the crowds. Okay, it was still crowded but we didn’t have to stand in line for too long.  It was my first time there and I was in such awe of how magnificent it looked. It was incredible to be in a place where people once used this place as a real Colosseum.


Then we walked around the Roman Forum. I loved seeing the House of Augustus and imagining what life was like during this time. I had downloaded an audio tour App from Rick Steves on the Roman Forum so  I enjoyed my time walking around with earphones and listening to the history and description of each area.


After spending the full day site seeing and walking, we were very tired and not overly hungry. Both of us looked at each other and said, let’s do a picnic with charcuterie and a bottle of wine!  This is something we often do when we are at home when we don’t want to cook, or when we want to have a light meal. We go to our favorite deli and bakery and load up on cheese, salami, prosciutto, jams, olives and bread. So to have this as our meal in Rome was just like being at home but this time we were getting our charcuterie right in the heart of culinary heaven.

We headed to a place called Volpetti in the Testaccio area of Rome. 

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We had read about this place in one of our guidebooks and also researched it on the internet and heard great things about it.  We walked in and immediately one of the people behind the counter asked if we wanted a sample of cheese. Yes please we both said with a big smile. When you walk into Volpetti, you see fresh baked goods on one side, a wonderful section of cheeses, meats and terrines in the centre area, and a section of jams, wines, truffles, mushrooms, and other fine foods in another area. I immediately gravitated towards the beautiful brown truffles that were just sitting on a table in the open and took a whiff of that heavenly scent it gives off with my eyes closed.

Look at these beautiful black truffles! It smelt like heaven.
When it was our turn to order our items, we had a really nice man behind the meat counter help us choose our prosciutto and cheese. I mean, there were so many different types of prosciuttos and the selection was a little intimidating, so we asked the man which one his favorite was and that’s the one we went with.   

This man was so helpful and so knowledgeable! He also helped us choose a wine to pair nicely with our food.


Volpetti was a true gem of a find and I highly recommend this place.  The people that work there are so friendly, there is a large selection of local items and the quality is superb. After purchasing some prosciutto, cheese, baguette, wine, terrine, pastries and jams, we walked across the street where we saw a nice park with several benches and small tables.  It was about just before 6 pm and the evening and setting was just perfect for a picnic in the park. There is something to be said about sitting in a park in Rome, munching on a baguette with house cured prosciutto and cheese with a glass of red wine, and just enjoying the moment, as simple as it may be.



Sunday, 23 March 2014

Introduction...

I live in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada which is constantly rated one of the top places to live in the world.  I work in a corporate position and have been doing so since the late 90’s.  I’m not a food or wine connoisseur and certainly have no formal culinary training, but I love discovering, eating, cooking, and sharing my experience on good food and wine.

I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of food and food culture to where it is today. Remember in the 80’s movie ‘The Breakfast Club’ when Claire (played by Molly Ringwald) takes out her lunch and John (played by Judd Nelson) asks what she has for lunch? When she says sushi to all the blank faces and she has to explain it as rice, raw fish, and seaweed, you see the look of disbelief on everyone’s face.  Imagine if that scene occurred today? Sushi is so common today that almost everyone eats it or at least knows what it is.

Or before the explosion of the Food Network on television well over a decade ago, the word celebrity was normally reserved for actors and musicians. Now, we see hundreds of chefs who have reached celebrity status and are now referred to as celebrity chefs. That didn’t exist when I was growing up. I recall watching only one cooking show in Canada on Canadian Broadcast Public Television Network and that was a called ‘Wok with Yan.’  I remember how I thought the chef, Stephen Yan, was so cool making all these delicious meals in his wok because this show was so unique and rare back then.  BTW, Anthony Bourdain is my idol right now.

I also remember when I was in grade school, the snacks that all the kids would bring in their lunches were things like Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Wagon Wheels. I’m pretty sure that with the all the emphasis there is on healthy eating, these snacks aren’t as common.  Nowadays,  the term gluten free or dairy free seem to be everywhere, or having bacon covered donuts, or bacon infused vodka, or bacon ice cream seem to be the way to go right now.

I could go on and on about how food culture has evolved and changed over the past years, but do you know one thing that will stay constant? It’s eating simple, local, seasonal and slow food. I initially discovered the true meaning of this when I was in Europe.  I was delighted to discover something as simple as diced fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and salt on bread could taste so delicious. I just love the food culture in Europe and how Europeans take such pride in their local and seasonal foods. I travel often to various countries in Europe with my husband and a lot of our enjoyment comes from discovering good, local food and wine and sharing it with others.

So grab a glass of wine (or water with gas or no gas :) and I hope you enjoy reading about my delicious Europe travels!