Saturday, November 20, 2010

Minestra di Fagioli

Fagioli beans in Emiliana's hand.
I always say there are two kinds of Italians from my father's generation -- the ones who will always love minestra di fagioli because it sustained their families through the darkest days of WWII, and the ones who can never look at a fagioli bean again because it's all they ate throughout the darkest days of WWII. Both are totally understandable.

My dad falls firmly into the love category -- in fact fagioli is practically a religion in our family. We grow them every summer, spend time together harvesting and shelling them, freeze them, eat them all winter, and have heated debates about whether we should add potatoes to a particular batch. My brother Paolo has been known to eat nothing else for days and swears it is the best possible breakfast.

In our family, we use the word fagioli exclusively, but I have learned the beans we are referring to are more commonly called cranberry beans, a perfect name given the deep red veins of colour running through both the pods and the beans themselves. To add to the confusion, we also use the same word for both the beans and for the dish, a thick stew/soup of celery, onion, carrot and lots of beans. It is wonderful as a vegetarian dish, and also great with a good chunk of pork in it.

As with most of our family recipes, I learned it without measurements, just ingredients, so the measurements below are approximate, and nothing to be too particular about. Cook from your heart and you can't go wrong with a rustic, wholesome dish like this.

2 large onions
2 large carrots 
3 or 4 celery stalks (with lots of leaves)
1 leak
3 or 4 garlic cloves

2 small tomatoes (skins removed)
2 cups cranberry beans (canned or frozen - if dried, prepare/soak in advance. Romano beans also work well)
4 tablespoons canola oil (canola is what my Nonna would have used, olive oil is fine too)
2 or 3 pork ribs
3 cups water
Salt & pepper
Freshly grated Parmigiano, Montasio or Pecorino Romano cheese
Handful of parsley 

Finely chop all of the vegetables (except parsley) and sauté in the oil until softened. Add the meat and continue to cook for 10 or 15 minutes. Add beans and water. Simmer gently for about an hour, more is better. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove 1 to 2 cups of the soup and puree it in a blender, then add it back into the pot so about half of the beans are still whole, and the rest have added a creamy rich texture to your dish. (My mom accomplishes this without using her blender, she takes a big wooden spoon and gently mashes a little less than half of the beans against the side of the pot - it is old-world perfection).

Reheat before serving, stir in a handful of freshly chopped parsley and top each serving with a generous grating of cheese. It is one of those magical soups that is better the next day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Friulano Garden . . . in Canada

We're just pulling out the last of the radicchio and cleaning up the garden for winter. We'll plant garlic soon (if it ever stops raining long enough) so it can tough out the winter.

One of the first things Kelly and I did when we moved out of the city to this house on the Sunshine Coast was to put in a vegetable garden. After years of growing tomatoes and cucumbers in pots on our urban Vancouver roof deck, having space for a wonderful big garden is thrilling.

That first summer though we didn't do very well. After we'd dug the plot, bought lumber for edging and hauled in several truckloads of soil to augment the rocky surface of our lot, we only managed a very small crop of beans and cucumbers that year. We joked about eating our $12 cucumbers.

We're still newbies, learning all the time, and luckily we have my dad, Italo, to teach us (which sometimes sounds a little like barking orders but we're good with that!).

Growing up, my mom and dad always had an amazing garden. I think they were always delightfully surprised at how well the hearty winter vegetables of Northern Italy grew in the cold (and rainy) northern BC climate. Every year, we had an abundance of cauliflower, broccoli, various zucca (squash), beloved fagioli beans and the ubiquitous zucchini (monsters!). Oh, and raddicchio and arugula -- absolute staples. My dad has always had a greenhouse as well for the more delicate produce, like gorgeous tomatoes and fragrant little cucumbers.

And so, we too are learning the nuances of gardening: planting by the phases of the moon as my dad insists; carefully saving, drying and replanting the seeds from the best specimens; harvesting and freezing the bounty to savour all winter; and, most of all, just enjoying the simple satisfaction of feeding our family a meal we grew with our own hands in our own soil.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


These puffs of loveliness are made with yeast dough and flavoured with cheese, fresh herbs and crumbled pancetta.

I make these from my homemade pizza dough – tearing off a knob of dough when I make it and saving it to make into fritters, either the same day or freezing for a day when a doughy pick-me-up is in order.

Once you have the dough made, the fritters are a wonderful opportunity for creativity. For this batch, I used montasio cheese, pancetta and fresh parsley. Other great combinations are asiago, salami and olives, or parmesan, basil and bits of oven-dried tomatoes.

For my kids, I make a mean cheese and pepperoni version and call them “pizza balls” – a name that elicits mischievous little giggles.

Fresh pizza dough (but really, don’t make dough just for this! Have a fabulous pizza night and save a little dough for these.)
Chopped herbs
Crumble pancetta, bacon or finely sliced ham or salami
Finely grated parmesan, montasio or asiago cheese (or any cheese you love)

Break off a piece of pizza dough, about the size of a golf ball. Knead about a tablespoon each of herbs, cheese and cooked meat into the piece and roll into a ball. Repeat until you have as many dough balls as you’d like.
Heat about 3 inches of oil in a deep pot to 350 degrees. Gently fry a few fritters at a time, removing to a paper towel lined plate once they are golden brown. Lightly sprinkle the hot fritters with salt and serve immediately.

I served these with freshly sliced prosciutto (made by my Dad, Italo) and arugula from the garden dressed simply with oil, red wine vinegar and garlic.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Spicy Prawns

Fresh caught prawns straight off a Pacific coast fishing boat and into an Italian kitchen … only good things can come from that.

This spicy dish is a result of that, wonderful over fresh pasta or a simple risotto. Since it's never quite the same way twice when we make it at home, this version comes with inspiration from Giada DeLaurentis (love her!).

A pile of fresh prawns or shrimp, uncooked and peeled (about ½ a kilo)
Olive oil (about a tablespoon)
Butter (about a tablespoon)
Chopped red onion
Finely diced garlic (3 or 4 cloves)
White wine (about a cup)
Diced canned tomatoes (about a cup)
Chopped fresh basil and parlsey
Dried red pepper flakes (1 to 2 teaspoons)
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the prawns in butter and oil until just cooked through, about 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Put a little extra oil (if needed) and the onion into the pan and soften, add garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Add tomatoes wine and red pepper flakes and simmer 15 minutes or so. Return prawns to the sauce, cook for 5 minutes or so, adding salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving dish and dress with parsley and basil. 

Friday, September 10, 2010


You simply cannot talk about food in Friuli without talking about frico . . . beautiful, decadent, frico. We even saw t-shirts in Udine that said “Make frico not war.” And yes, one taste of any of the many versions of this dish of pan fried montasio cheese, and you would have to agree that the world would be a much more peaceful place if everyone could sit down with this delicacy and get lost in its simple perfection.

At its simplicist, frico is finely shredded montasio or piave chese pan fried into a crispy, lacey tuille. Other versions mix the montasio with potatoes and sometimes onions to make a cheesey pancake, crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside. We grew up calling that gorgeous version “Nonna’s potatoes” and my brother Paul has perfected it and often serves it in his home, no doubt with a toast to our Nonna, Adrianna.

Today, I made the simple montasio crisp version to go along with a late summer salad fresh out of the garden.

I did my first batch in a dry, non-stick pan on the stovetop. They are finicky and I found I could only do one at a time so I tried a batch in the oven and they worked well.

Arrange the shredded montasio, about 1 tablespoon at a time, in circles on a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving space for spreading between each circle. Bake for about 4 minutes in  pre-heated, 400-degree oven, watching constantly for that golden colour. 

Late Summer Salad

A few fresh things from the garden, a knob of fresh cheese, a drizzle of olive oil . . . this is my favourite way to eat. An assortment of delicate, flavourful bites that are all fresh and simple and mostly home-grown.

Tonight, I tossed some fresh arugula, tomatoes, some thin slices of zucchini, celery leaves, fresh parsley and basil – all straight out of the garden – onto a plate. I tore up some fresh mozzarella and dressed everything generously with extra virgin olive oil, a little red wine vinegar and lemon juice, some sea salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Add some frico and prosciutto and it makes a perfect meal.

We sat on the back deck, drinking glasses of cold white wine and savouring these little plates of late-summer lusciousness.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Rebellious Polenta in Pancetta Cups

Lately, I have been a bit of a rebel in my father’s eyes. I have done the unthinkable– made polenta with (gasp) cream and cheese and pancetta. A lifelong good girl and a decidedly non-rebellious teenager, I am finding my kitchen bad girl streak quite exhilarating . . . and delicious.

This week, I made these pancetta cups filled with soft, creamy polenta. A drizzle of white truffle oil put them over the top.

Crispy Pancetta Cups
Fry paper-thin slices of pancetta in a dry pan
While still hot, press each slice on an overturned shot glass, let it cool and then transfer to a paper-towel lined plate

Creamy, Cheesy Polenta
½ cup corn meal
½  cup milk
½ cup cream
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup finely grated montasio, asiago or parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish
Garnish: Finely grated herbs, cheese, white truffle oil

Bring cornmeal and liquids to a slow boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and continue to stir over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. When polenta is soft and creamy, remove from heat and stir in cheese.
Spoon polenta into pancetta cups, garnish with more grated cheese, herbs and a drizzle of white truffle oil or extra virgin olive oil.

Spread any leftover polenta is a shallow pan before it cools. This can be kept for several days in the fridge. Slice into wedges and grill in the oven under the broiler.

Pure Polenta

Roasted polenta and spinach fritatta
A hot June day in my uncle’s house in Friuli. We had spent the morning at the marcato – the Saturday outdoor street market – in San Giorgio Di Nogaro, and, in a move that made it clear I was by no means a local, I had been out hanging laundry in the blazing mid-day heat while the kids napped. Kelly and I decided to take the family for a drive and as we piled into the Fiat (which blessedly decided to work that day) our little 5-year-old boy Jack suddenly had a major milestone toward manhood – his first moment of sarcasm. “Oh good,” he said dryly, “maybe we’ll see a corn field.”
And so it is in Friuli, beautiful mountains, gorgeous seaside to be sure, and a central region with fields of corn stretching out before you, punctuated with a towering campagnile (bell tower)or church steeple piercing the clear sky.
It is no wonder that this region, perhaps more than any other in Italy, embraces polenta as a mainstay of their cuisine.
My father is a polenta purest and makes it simply with ground cornmeal, water and salt. We eat it fresh and creamy with a nice stew, then cool the rest in a baking pan, cut it into rectangles and grill it the next day. A favourite summer lunch is simply grilled polenta, cheese and a salad of radicchio or arugula.
The recipe for this polenta is simple. A cup of fine corn meal, 4 cups of water, about ½ a tablespoon of salt and a well-watched, constantly stirred pot on medium heat for about 30 minutes.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


A beautiful tomato sauce is the beginning of so many beautiful meals and so many perfect memories.

Years ago my now husband and I arrived home to my parents home up north to spend the Christmas holidays with them. My brother, Paul and my sister-in-law Sherry were there as well, having just arrived from Ontario with their baby girl, my sweet niece Taylor (my darling nephew PJ would be born 2 years later). As we sat down to a gorgeous meal of homemade lasagne, Kelly and I excitedly announced our engagement. Paul and Sherry and my mom all cheered and hugged us and clinked glasses, but my dad sat very still, thinking, not sure how to react, processing the news of his baby girl marrying this young Americano in front of him. The jubilation died down and a bit of tension crept in as we waited for my normally cheerful and good-natured father to react. He looked up at Kelly, slowly reached over, and took away his plate of lasagne.

A perfect, simple moment that brought gales of laughter from all of us.

Tossed with beautiful pasta, or as the basis of a lasagne or eggplant parmigiana, a rich tomato sugo is a little bit of old country perfection. My parents make what they call pomorollo - a meatless tomato sauce - in mass quantities in late summer, using up all of the produce from their vegetable garden. My dad carefully shaves all of the vegetables into thin slices on a mandolin and these paper-thin strips of leaks and fennel and celery and garlic dissolve and disappear into the sauce. It is a thing of beauty. They freeze it for use throughout the winter and I have been known to ration those little frozen bags of goodness over the long Canadian winters.

Here is a classic sugo, a Bolognese meat sauce. The recipe is a mixture of my mom's own technique and a recipe in a favourite cookbook in our family, Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

2 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons butter
Diced vegetables (about 1/2 cup each) - onion, celery and carrot are the must-haves, but add whatever you have in your garden (onion, green onion, shallots, leaks, fennel, zucchini)
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
1 cup milk
pinch nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken or beef stock
2 cups canned tomatoes
salt, pepper and grated parmesan cheese

Soften the finely chopped vegetables in the butter and oil until the onion is translucent. Add the meat, breaking it up with your spoon as it cooks. When the meat is just cooked through, add the milk and let it simmer away until the milk pretty much disappears. Add pepper and a tiny - really tiny! - bit of grated nutmeg (Marcella says about 1/8 of a teaspoon). Add the wine and 1/2 of the stock and continue to simmer about 15 minutes, then add the tomatoes, reduce to low simmer, and cook for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally and adding the rest of the stock when it starts to look too dry. Add salt and pepper to taste as you near completion. Serve over hot past tossed lightly with butter and topped with freshly grated parmesan or montasio cheese.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back Home

16 Finch Street, circa. 1971. Paul, Elisa & Mom, Cindy.
Growing up, 'back home' always meant Friuli, the beautiful province in Northern Italy my father comes from. Even my mother, a Canadian girl from Saskatchewan with French/Scotch/Irish heritage, came to think of Friuli as 'back home". We spent every second summer there, and my mother made it her mission to learn the culture, the unique Friulano language and – in a soulful, natural, as-though-I’ve-been-doing-this-all-my-life sort of way – the cooking from my Nonna, Adriana.

Back home in Northern BC, she recreated not just the delicious dishes, but also the warm ambiance inside the walls of our little yellow house on Finch Street. No matter how high the snow bank outside, inside my parents filled our home with good friends, good food, hilarious arguments and endless funny stories. It was Little Friuli – a million miles away.

Now, when I talk about ‘back home’, that is where my mind is, not in the original Friuli of my father, but in the Little Friuli my mother and father created on the Pacific Coast. It was true fusion long before California chefs had ever adopted the term – Italian foods with Pacific Northwest ingredients; an adopted extended family of people who had all landed there from different parts of the world; and a warm and gracious way of living in a beautiful, rugged northern rainforest.