Experience the True Culture and Cuisine of Italy – Stay in Italian Farm Hotels

Experience the True Culture and Cuisine of Italy – Stay in Italian Farm Hotels

I have a few friends visiting Italy this spring and wanted to share some of my insight. I was lucky enough to spend close to two years living in Northern Italy back in the early 2000s. I loved it. How could you not?!?!

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Travelers flock to Italy every year to enjoy the beauty, the art, the history, and the food and wine. Unfortunately, most tourists focus on the large cities like Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, missing the opportunity to immerse themselves in the daily life and culture of this wonderful country.

Food is a central aspect of Italian culture and it differs from region to region and even town to town. One way to get a taste of both the food and daily life throughout Italy is to avoid hotels inside city boundaries and book reservations at an agriturismo or two. These visitor-friendly working farms are located in the countryside. They range in cost and amenities. Most include breakfast and some book dinner reservations as well.

Dining at an agriturismo is a culinary delight. The menu features seasonal local ingredients, including a few raised right there on the farm. Visitors will experience the cuisine of that particular region.

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If staying in the Piedmont, truffles may find their way onto the menu along with a hearty barolo wine if you are lucky! The stunning Cascina Barac is one such farm hotel, set in the vineyard. Visitors can book reservations for a gourmet meal, taste their wines, and even tour the family-owned winery. I still make the shaved carrot recipe I was served there. The owner wrote it down for me on the back side of a business card which holds a place of honor in my recipe box to this day!

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Is Florence on your list? I stayed at the Macinello in Montegiridolfi to visit the region. Make sure you get over to Greve for some Chianti! There is also an American cemetery nearby well worth a visit.

Venice is located north of the province of Emilia-Romagna of the famed pasta bolognese, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and lambrusco and sangiovese wines. Why not book reservations at a local agriturismo and use it as your base to visit Venice, Ravenna, Modena and other beautiful cities?

Umbria is another region in Italy often overlooked by American tourists, but honestly it was one of my favorites. Perugia (yes, the chocolate is named after this old city), Spoleto, Assisi, and many other beautiful hillside towns dot the countryside.

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I stayed at the La Quercia Gentile in Valfabbrica as my base. The owners were so nice that upon leaving they gave me a big bottle of their own olive oil to try! The region is known for its Pecorino cheese and egg pasta. Sangrantino and Orvieto are the regions most popular wines.

To really experience Italy, get out into the countryside. Book a room or suite at a farm hotel. Chat with the owners over a meal. Investigate the little villages and sip a cappuccino from the local bar. Hike. Meander. And eat where the locals dine. This way you will experience the true Italy.

Visit the website Agriturismo website to investigate properties and book your reservations.

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Roasted Squash and Pancetta Risotto Perfect Combination of Sweet and Salty

Roasted Squash and Pancetta Risotto Perfect Combination of Sweet and Salty

I’ve shared my method for making risotto in an earlier post. I love that risotto is a blank canvas for whatever flavors you want to add. All you need is time, patience, and arborio rice!

This time I decided to pair two of my favorite flavors, squash and pancetta. Butternut, acorn, delicata, or whatever variety you prefer will work just fine in risotto. I chose butternut this time.

Ingredients
1 butternut squash
Nutmeg
1 package diced pancetta
Fresh sage, chopped
Butter
Olive oil
Arborio rice
White wine
Chicken stock
Chicken boullion
Onion or shallot, finely chopped
Heavy cream
Parmesan cheese

Directions

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Peel and cube squash into bite-sized pieces. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a hint of fresh grated nutmeg on a baking sheet. Roast in 400 degree oven until golden, or to desired doneness. This takes about 20-30 minutes.

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While squash is roasting, render out the diced pancetta on the stovetop until crispy. I tossed in a small handful of fresh chopped sage too. Drain off fat and save for later.

Pour stock into pan and warm it up.

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In a separate pan sauté diced shallot or onion in some olive oil and butter. Add rice and toast slightly.

Slowly add stock one ladle at a time, stirring often and allowing each ladle to absorb before adding the next.

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After the rice starts to puff up and look creamy, taste a few kernels for doneness. It should have a slight bite in the center. If it is still too raw, keep adding stock until it reaches desired doneness. Do not overcook it, unless of course you prefer mushy risotto!

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Once the rice is done, fold in the roasted squash, pancetta, a splash of heavy cream (this is optional), and a tablespoon of butter (also optional). Season with freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

Grate some parmesan cheese over the top and serve immediately.

Pasta with Cauliflower – Not Very Colorful – But Very Satisfying!

Pasta with Cauliflower – Not Very Colorful – But Very Satisfying!

My friends and family know how much I love to prepare pasta. I learned while in Italy that you can use nearly anything to flavor pasta so I frequently raid the fridge or pantry to come up with something new to me. My latest pasta adventure featured cauliflower.

Ingredients
1 head fresh cauliflower
1 pound pasta (any shape you like)
Olive oil
1 cube chicken boullion
3-5 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-2 cups breadcrumbs
Salt, pepper
Grated parmesan cheese

Directions

Break up cauliflower into florets and blanch in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Drain – but keep the cauliflower water and cook your pasta to al dente in it.

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In a large, flat pan over medium heat sauté garlic, chicken bouillon cube, and red pepper flakes in a splash of olive oil. Do not burn the garlic. Break the chicken cube up with your utensil.

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Toss drained cauliflower into pan with garlic and pepper mixture. You may need to add another small splash of olive oil.

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When the pasta is ready and the cauliflower is cooked, but still firm to the bite (5-6 minutes), toss the pasta in with the cauliflower. Add some of the pasta water to moisten. While pasta is finishing up, mix some olive oil into 1-2 cups of breadcrumbs and sauté until light golden in color.

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In a large serving bowl right before you are ready to serve, mix the toasted breadcrumbs in with the pasta/cauliflower combination. Top with parmesan cheese and season to taste.

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The cauliflower really works with the pasta. It is a little too white in color. I think next time I will try this with orange, green, or purple cauliflower to add some interest.

That’s all there is to it! Quick dinner, kind of healthy, and delicious!

If you have a favorite way to serve cauliflower, please let me know. This is the season it tastes best and I am always looking for new ways to serve it up.

Gnocchi and Sausage Soup Warms the Soul

Gnocchi and Sausage Soup Warms the Soul

The great thing about homemade soup is that it is such a forgiving meal. You can forage through your pantry, swag measurements, and make each pot your own creation. The downside is that I can never quite replicate the same pot twice!

That said, this pot of gnocchi and Italian sausage soup was delicious.

Gnocchi and Sausage Soup

Ingredients
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage (I used hot)
1 red bell pepper
1/2 cup diced onion
2 cloves crushed garlic
1-2 chopped fresh tomatoes (optional)
1/2-1 bag spinach
4-6 cups chicken stock (See recipe for homemade.)
1 package gnocchi
1/2-1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions
Brown sausage in the bottom of a stock pot and drain off grease. You could use turkey sausage or links. If you do, remove casings before browning.

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Add diced onion, chopped bell pepper, and crushed garlic. Sauté 3 minutes longer. I had a homegrown tomato in the windowsill and chopped it up and added to the pot. It was not an essential ingredient, but like I said before, it’s soup so be creative!

Tip: If using a milder sausage, add 1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper for some heat. If using your own chicken stock, add 1-2 chicken bullion cubes to intensify the flavor.

Add chicken stock and bring to gentle boil. Add gnocchi and cook 5 minutes or until gnocchi are cooked through. Add spinach and heavy cream. Stir until warmed through and spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

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Italian sausage is a great soup ingredient since it comes with its own built-in seasoning. I’ve also used kale instead of spinach. Of course kale needs to cook a bit longer so I add it during the sauté step. You could leave out the heavy cream or substitute with coconut milk and a tablespoon of red thai curry for a completely different outcome.

bowl of creamy hot sausage and gnocci soup

Serve with a warm slice of home baked French bread. Here’s my recipe!

Let me know how you like it.

Buon appetito!

Brad’s Stromboli, That’s Amori

Brad’s Stromboli, That’s Amori

If you are a Stromboli aficionado, please don’t be offended. I know I broke a few rules, but honestly, this recipe I whipped up is delicious. Like it’s relative, the pizza, you can use whatever ingredients you’ve got on hand. I highly recommend you get a bit adventurous and try a few new combinations.

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This is where the purists will pitch a fit…

I used my French bread recipe as the base. Most recipes call for a pizza dough, but I like the sweet, chewy texture of the French bread I make, so I took culinary license!

Follow the recipe linked to below, but STOP when you get to the directions for punching down the risen dough and separating it into two halves.

French Bread Recipe explained in excruciating detail with photos!

Ingredients for Filling
2 packages or 1 pound sliced Black Forest ham
1 package sliced pepperoni
1 package or 1/2 pound sliced mozzarella cheese
1 package or 1/2 pound sliced provolone cheese
1 bell pepper, sliced
1 egg, beaten

Directions
While your dough is rising, prepare your filling ingredients. I sliced and sautéed a green pepper in some olive oil. If you wanted to use spicy sausage, you would cook, drain, and cool it. You could slice and fry up an onion.

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Roll out dough on a floured surface into a large rectangle. Layer cheese, meat, and vegetables. For my two Strombolis, I used mozzarella, ham, and peppers on one and I used ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, and provolone on the other. Season with salt and pepper. Roll tightly. Please on cookie sheet and brush on egg wash.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Baking time will vary depending upon your oven. Let it sit for a few minutes before slicing. Serve with a small dish of pizza or red pasta sauce for dipping. Please note I did not spread sauce inside of the Stromboli before baking. I was worried it might get a little soggy after sitting. Since the recipe makes two, any leftovers are easily wrapped in tin foil and reheated later.

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How do you like your Stromboli? Please share your preferences!

Linguine with Meatballs – A Pre-race Feast

Linguine with Meatballs – A Pre-race Feast

Have you ever carbo-loaded the night before a long run? It’s a common tradition with a few of my friends. They recently took advantage of my enjoyment of cooking and requested pasta the night before their half marathon. The simple feast did not disappoint! The menu included linguine with meatballs and my first-ever attempt at focaccia.

First Was Batch Not a Total Success

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Okay, so the focaccia was a little on the crispy side, but practice makes perfect! Since I had never made it before, I found a recipe online that looked simple and tasty. Though it was flavorful, the too crispy outcome came, I believe, from my spreading the dough out too thin on the 9×13 baking sheet. Next time I will only use half the sheet. The only other alternation to the attached recipe is that rather than knead by hand, I used the dough hook on my stand mixer. I should have tried it by hand for a more tender result. Lessons learned and I will correct in the future.

Perfect Pasta and Meatballs

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Truth be told, I prefer my pasta dishes to most others. I’m a bit picky about the doneness of pasta. It’s a culinary skill to get it to the perfect bite. Most restaurants in my experience overcook it in the kitchen so that by the time it is plated and served, it’s overdone. But enough soap-boxing! Here is how I made my big tender meatballs and accompanying sauce! The meatballs are adopted from The Meatball Shop Cookbook and they are delicious. The ricotta cheese is a much better choice than Parmesan or Romano I think.

Ingredients
Meatballs:
olive oil
3 pounds mixture of ground beef, veal, pork (meatloaf mixture)
1 container (14-16 oz) ricotta cheese
2 eggs
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1-1/2 teaspoons dried
2-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1/2-3/4 teaspoons ground fennel

Sauce:
3 boxes Pomi or 3 large cans tomatoes
2-3 cloves chopped garlic
1 large diced onion
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup or so red wine
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

I mix meatballs in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Form into golf ball size or preferred size balls. Drizzle olive oil and spread out over 9×13 cookie sheet. Place meatballs on sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes. (Turn over at 10 minutes.) They will finish cooking in the sauce.

In the meantime, saute the onion and garlic in a small amount of olive oil in a deep pot. Add the remaining ingredients and slowly cook for 20-30 minutes. Taste for flavor and adjust as needed.

Gently place meatballs in the pot of sauce and continue to simmer slowly until you are ready to serve.

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Cook pasta of your choice al dente. Drain pasta water (retaining a cup which you may want to add to your sauce to improve its flavor and consistency.) Return the drained pasta to the pot and ladle a few spoons of sauce to mix in with the pasta. Serve from a large shallow bowl or platter with meatballs on top.

My runner friends were content and energized for their run the next morning! I was worn out just thinking about all that early morning exercise!

If you want a pasta dish that’s a bit lighter and easier to throw together, try my bacon and roasted tomato recipe!

Buon appetito!

My Risotto Rocks!

My Risotto Rocks!

I know that when you read the word “risotto,” your brain says, “I love it, but who has time for that?” Trust me, I know! All that stirring eats up a chunk of time and patience. But oh, it is so worth the trouble!

If you were hoping for a recipe with carefully measured ingredients, I am sorry to disappoint. I’ve never really used a recipe for risotto. Instead, I just make it by sight, texture, and taste. You can look up a basic recipe someplace else. But I bet if you let go of your measuring cups, it will be a lot more fun!

Ingredients:

Butter
Olive oil
Arborio rice
White wine or champagne
Chicken stock
Chicken boullion
Onion or shallot, finely chopped
Heavy cream
Parmesan cheese

Whatever you want to mix in. I used mild Italian turkey sausage and diced red bell pepper. You could try anything. I also like sauteed mushrooms, roasted root vegetables, sausage and pear with Gorgonzola, leeks and peas, shrimp, asparagus…the possibilities are endless!

Preparation:

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Start by warming your chicken stock. If you don’t have any on hand, now would be a good time to start a batch. I made this stock as I was prepping the risotto then just strained it as I used it.

Remove the casings from your sausage and saute, breaking up as you go, in a separate pan. Chop the bell pepper and add that to the sausage after it is browned. Cook long enough to take the crunch out of the pepper. (Tip: If you are using a different add-in, prepare it in a separate pan as well.)

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In the meantime, dice some onion and saute it in a pan of equal parts melted butter and olive oil. I used roughly 2 Tbsp of each.

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Add your rice and toast for a few minutes more. (Tip: I added 2 cups of rice.) Turn up your heat to medium high.

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Add a splash of wine or champagne to the rice and onions, about 1/2 cup or so. Once that boils out a bit, start adding your warmed stock one ladle at a time. Cook each ladle-full down before adding the next.

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I have no idea how much liquid you will add. It depends upon how done you like your rice. You will notice it start to get creamy and puff up. Taste it after about 15-20 minutes, then continue to taste often for doneness as you get near the end. I also added one Knorr chicken bouillon cube since the chicken stock is salt free.

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Just before it is finished, add your mix-ins and fold them in. At this point I add about a quarter to half cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a splash of heavy cream. Some folks add a bit of butter too. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Plate it up, add more cheese, and serve immediately!

What do you like in your risotto? Please leave a comment below and share your favorite concoction!