Recipe: Bolivian Soup with Wheat Berries (Sopa de Trigo)

29 Jan

There are probably as many versions of this soup as there are Bolivian families, and all of them likely to be delicious, but this is the version that has evolved at our house over the years. I love the bright-red color that comes from the tomato and chili pastes; it brightens even the coldest, most dreary day. I also love the soup’s many layers of flavor, each one contributing to the overall symphony. It’s even better the next day, so it’s a great make-ahead dish. And it’s very adaptable: make a vegetarian version by eliminating the beef/lamb, adding more veggies, and using vegetable broth/bouillon. Or substitute quinoa for the wheat if gluten is an issue.

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Bolivian Soup with Wheat Berries (Sopa de Trigo)

Wheat/Hominy:
1/3-1/2 c. dry wheat berries/trigo pelado
1 can (14 0z./400 gr.) cooked hominy/mote blanco, undrained
–OR 1/2 c. dried cracked hominy (maiz blanco trillado)–see photo below

½ c. freeze-dried potato/black chuño (optional)

Soup broth:
12 c./3 liters beef broth
1 lb./500 gr. meaty, bone-in beef or lamb
1 large onion, halved
1 large tomato, quartered
2 carrots, peeled and halved
2 bay leaves
beef bouillon cubes (optional)

Soup Vegetables:
3/4 c. petite peas
2 large carrots, julienned
3 large potatoes, julienned (it’s traditional to julienne both the carrots and the potatoes, but I have been know to dice both instead…)

Sofrito:
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lg. onion, finely diced
1 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1-2 tbsp. red aji (chili) paste (aji colorado/aji panca)–see photo below
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. dried oregano
coarsely ground black pepper, to taste

Toppings:
2 green onions, finely sliced
1 tsbp. finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp. finely chopped  fresh mint

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Dried cracked hominy

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Red aji (chili) paste

Preparation:

  1. Note: If using  the optional freeze-dried potato/chuño, soak it in warm water overnight prior to making the soup. Before adding it to the soup in step #5, drain it and squeeze as much water out as possible. If necessary, chop into small pieces.
  2. Place the wheat berries (and, if using, the dried hominy) in a medium saucepan, cover with several inches of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 60-90 minutes or until both wheat and hominy are soft. Drain and set aside. If using canned hominy, pre-cook only the wheat, and add the undrained canned hominy to the soup in step #5.
  3. Meanwhile, add the broth and meat/bones to a large pot and bring to a low simmer, skimming periodically until no more foam is produced. Add the halved onion, quartered tomato, halved carrots, and the bay leaves and continue simmering slowly until the vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes. Check the seasonings and add beef bouillon cubes to taste, if needed.
  4. Remove the beef/lamb to a dish and let cool. Strain the broth through a fine-meshed sieve into a large bowl, mashing the tomato pieces to extract any remaining liquid. Return the broth to the pot and discard the vegetables.
  5. Shred the meat, discarding the bones and any fat, and add the shredded meat to the pot along with 1 c. of the cooked wheat, the hominy, the freeze-dried potato/chuño (if using), and the peas, carrots, and potatoes. Bring to a low simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, prepare the sofrito: Heat the olive oil  in a skillet over medium-high heat, add the onion, and cook until soft and slightly golden. Add the remaining ingredients to the skillet and cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, to make a fragrant paste. Add the paste to the soup pot, stir to mix, and continue simmering the soup, covered, for 15 minutes or more to develop the flavors and ensure all vegetables are soft. If the soup seems too thick, add more water. If it needs more salt, add another bouillon cube.
  7. Serve with the sliced green onions and herbs sprinkled on top, and with plenty of crusty bread.

Two Days in Bologna, Italy

7 Nov

Bologna has at least three nicknames: La Dotta– “the learned one,” for being home to the world’s oldest university, founded in 1088; La Grassa–“the fat one,” for its wonderful food; and La Rossa–“the red one,” originally for its terracotta rooftops, but also reflecting the city’s long-time political leanings. Speaking of leanings, the city also has two famous towers that–depending on your perspective–are now left of center. Plus miles and miles of porticoes, refuges from all the elements.

We were only there for one weekend. Two days will give you just a taste of the city’s delights. Okay, many tastes–it isn’t called La Grassa for nothing and you won’t be able to resist. And once you’ve tasted Bologna, you’ll want more.

Day 1: In the morning, we walked around the historic center of Bologna, including Piazza Maggiore, Basilica di San Petronio (with a trip up to its terrazza for a roof-top view of the city), Palazzo Archiginnasio (once the main building of the University of Bologna, and home to a gorgeous library and fascinating anatomical operating theater, built in 1636), and the food shops in Mercato di Mezzo. Then we went on a tour near Modena to visit a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory and a small balsamic vinegar producer.

Food: For lunch, we had an antipasto platter at Tamburini, followed by gelato at Cremeria Funivia and  coffee at Caffe Terzi.  At night, we headed to Ristorante Ciacco, where we had another antipasto platter (with prosciutto, mortadella, salame rosa, parmigiano-reggiano, and friggione–a tomato-onion accompaniment), meat-filled tortelloni, tagliatelle al ragu, and cotoletta alla Bolognese, with rice cake for dessert.

  
The two towers; Bologna portico


Roof-top view of Bologna from San Petronio


Piazza Maggiore: Palazzo del Podesta (l), Palazzo dei Banchi (r)


Unfinished facade of Basilica di San Petronio

  
Interior of Basilica di San Petronio; Candles at Bologna Cathedral


Palazzo di Archiginnasio


Anatomical Theater, Palazzo di Archiginnasio


Non-politically correct window-shop display: “Tortellini: To trick your husband into thinking you made them!”

  
Produce stall in Mercato di Mezzo; window display at Tamburini (prosciutto, culatello, and mortadella)


Wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano


Barrels of balsamic vinegar

Day 2: We worked off part of Day 1’s excesses by hauling ourselves up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, via one of the longest porticoes in the world: 666 arches, 3.5 km/2.17 miles long. Did I mention that at least half the route is steeply uphill, with many sets of stairs? It was, amazingly, a Sunday outing for many, with dogs, children, and power walkers making the trek. It’s an experience not to be missed–and there is a bus back down to town afterward if your legs have turned to spaghetti after reaching the top. Once we were on flat ground again, we headed to Piazza Santo Stefano to meander through the interconnected complex of seven churches therein, and then we walked back through the historic center, looking at shops and street art, listening to musicians under the porticoes, and dodging the many Bolognese residents out for a Sunday passeggiata.

Food: For Sunday dinner,  we went to a non-traditional but highly regarded eatery: È Cucina Leopardi, where you never know what you will get, but you know it will be good. Chef Cesare Marretti offers you three choices: meat, fish, or vegetarian. Then you sit back and see what will appear–the waiters don’t even necessarily know what the chef will hand out; it can vary from table to table depending on what is coming out of the oven (or off the stove) at any given time. We had buffalo ricotta with an apple/pineapple compote, roast chicken breast with roasted celery and apricot, lamb cutlets with a Grana Padano cheese souffle, roast pork loin with pureed pumpkin, and three desserts (they may have brought that many by accident; we did our duty, though we were about to burst): sweet mascarpone in a persimmon puree, ricotta mousse with roasted chestnuts and cinnamon and cocoa, and a molten chocolate cake.

Next time we are in Bologna, we will have to climb up to San Luca twice!


Colorful buildings en route to the portico to San Luca

  
The ascent to San Luca; Cyclists skirting the portico on their way up

  
Final stretch, inside and out views


San Luca


Piazza Santo Stefano

 
Stairs encircling the shrine of San Petronio in the Santo Stefano complex; the shrine

  
“Afghan Girl” street art, Anti-Renzi (Italian PM) graffiti ahead of the constitutional referendum

Photo Collage: A Year in Rome

27 Sep

A small sample of the beauty of the Eternal City.

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Row 1: Teatro Marcello at night, Acanthus flower at the Roseto dei Bufalo, Fountain by Centrale Montemartini museum, Tree and Laundry-Via di Donna Olimpia, Rose at Roseto dei Bufalo, Angel on door at Basilica Sta. Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Row 2: Triangular building in Monti, Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, The Boxer at Palazzo Massimo museum, Carbonara at Trattoria Perilli in Testaccio, Bernini’s Medusa at the Capitoline Museums, Pigeon with walnuts and hazelnuts at Vicolo della Moretta farmers’ market

Row 3: Castel Sant’Angelo, Graffiti of Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus in Trastevere, Tomatoes at Testaccio Market, The Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Phlomis (Jerusalem sage) at Roseto dei Bufalo, St Peter’s Colonnade

Row 4: Market in Piazze delle Coppelle, Tabernacle at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Angel of Grief at Testaccio Cemetery, Artichokes at Testaccio Market, Pantheon dome and oculus, Pizza at Pizzarium

Row 5: View of  Capitoline Museum rooftops from Vittorio Emanuele II monument, Il Babuino talking statue and fountain, Sweets at Pasticceria Barberini in Testaccio, Buildings at sunset by Largo Argentina, Obelisk and Bernini’s elephant at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church, Beer display at Open Balladin near Campo de’ Fiori

Row 6: Pomegranate flower at Villa Sciarra, Statue of Artemis at Centrale Montemartini museum, Graffiti  and chair by Via Ostiense underpass, Fresh sheep-milk ricotta at Antica Caciara in Trastevere, Arched doorway decor at Palazzo Altemps museum, Ceremonial procession by Italian Senate building

Recipe: Raspberry Chocolate Cake with Ganache Frosting

22 Sep

This moist, raspberry-scented chocolate cake is a family favorite. It’s also a crowd pleaser, though very few people who ooh and aah over it realize it’s vegan. I love it because it’s easy to make and I can lick the bowl with a clear conscience. But mainly, I love it because it’s a great cake, perfect for anyone who wants a delectable, double dose of dark chocolate.

Note: There are times I have made a non-vegan version of this cake out of necessity; some of the vegan ingredients can be hard to come by here in Italy. So, if you are making this for a non-vegan crowd, it is possible to substitute regular (ideally, whole) milk for the soy milk in the cake and frosting, and to also use butter and (preferably dark/bittersweet) regular chocolate chips in the frosting.

Raspberry Chocolate Cake with Ganache Frosting

Raspberry Chocolate Cake with Ganache Frosting
(very slightly adapted from the recipe for Raspberry Blackout Cake with Ganache-y Frosting in Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz)

Serves 12

Cake

1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ c. vanilla soy milk
½ c. canola (or vegetable) oil
1 (10-oz.) jar seedless raspberry preserves (reserve ½ c. for batter)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ c. sugar

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8-inch round cake pans with cooking spray,* place a round of parchment paper on the bottom of each pan, and spray again.
  2. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Combine the soy milk, oil, ½ c. preserves, vanilla, and sugar in large bowl and mix well. The preserves should be mostly dissolved; small clumps are okay.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in batches and mix until everything is incorporated.
  5. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool in pans.
  6. When cool, remove one cake layer from the pan and place on a cake plate or stand. Spread with a thin layer of the remaining raspberry preserves, then with a thin layer of chocolate ganache on top of the preserves. Place the second cake layer on top and repeat, then ice the sides.

* In lieu of cooking spray, coat lightly with vegetable oil.

Ganache Frosting

¾ c. + 1 tbsp. vanilla soy milk
6 tbsp. non-hydrogenated margarine (such as Earth Balance)
12 oz. vegan chocolate chips

Preparation:

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring soy milk to a low boil. Add margarine and melt, turn off the heat, then add the chocolate chips and stir until smooth. Let cool–then refrigerate the frosting for an hour or so to thicken to a spreadable consistency. Check to make sure the frosting does not become too firm–remove from the refrigerator if necessary.

Recipe: Fried Zucchini Flowers and Sage Leaves

24 Jun

Fritti LR
Zucchini flowers taste as good as they look, if not better. Stuffed with fresh mozzarella, a hint of anchovy (or not),  lightly battered and fried until crisp and golden, they are summer on a plate. Fresh sage leaves–encased in the same warm, crispy shell–will turn your thoughts to autumn. But the good news is, you can have them now. Two appetizers straight from the garden.


Fried Zucchini Flowers and Sage Leaves
4-6 servings

1 c. (250 ml.) water–regular or sparkling
1 c.  flour, spooned lightly into the measuring cup (about 133 gr.)
salt and pepper
12-14 zucchini flowers*
9 0z. (250 gr.) fresh mozzarella
2-3 anchovy fillets (salt-cured, packed in olive oil)–optional
canola or sunflower oil–enough to fill a medium sauce pan to about 2.5 inches (6 cm)
handful of fresh, firm sage leaves

*Use male zucchini flowers. They appear at the end of long stems, unlike female flowers, which appear at the end of the emerging zucchini.

Preparation

1. Prepare the batter: Put the water in a medium bowl and sift the flour over it, whisking to incorporate. Add a pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper. The batter should be thick enough to coat the flowers, but not pasty. See the right consistency for a light batter below. Set aside the batter while prepping the flowers.

Fritti LR-9

2. Lay out all the zucchini flowers, wipe them clean, and discard any that appear bruised or past their prime (they are quite perishable). Trim the stems to about 1 inch (2.5 cm), leaving enough stem to grasp and dip. Pull off the sepals (the spiky green parts at the base of the flower). Gently work your thumb and index finger into the flower and pinch off the pollen-topped stamen. You will probably tear the flower slightly; that’s ok, but try not to tear it too much, or shred it. See the prepped flowers and discarded sepals and stamens below:

Fritti LR-4

3. Mozzarella and Anchovies: Cut the mozzarella into as many 2.5-inch ( 6 cm) long rectangular pieces as you have flowers–or whatever size best fits into the flowers you have. You can omit the anchovies, you can go all in and lay a nice piece of anchovy fillet on top of each piece of mozzarella before placing both in the flower, or you can take a moderate approach. That entails placing the anchovy fillets in a bowl, drizzling them with some extra olive oil, mashing them with a fork, then placing the mozzarella pieces in the anchovy oil so they get a hint of the flavor rather than a wallop. Either way, you want to place the mozzarella pieces (with or without anchovy) into the flowers, covering them up as best as you can and twisting the ends of the flowers closed to create a mini pouch.

4. Bring the oil to high heat in a medium saucepan. Holding the stem end of a sealed zucchini flower, dip it into the batter in a twirling motion to keep it closed (sealing any open parts with your fingers and twisting the bottoms closed again if needed). When the flower is completely covered in batter, carefully lower it into the oil. Repeat for as many flowers as will fit into the saucepan in one layer without crowding; you will need to cook the flowers in batches. When one side is golden, turn the flower over (or push the flowers gently under the surface of the oil as they cook, to ensure both sides become golden).

Fritti LR-5

5. Drain the fried flowers on paper towels, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and eat as soon as possible!

Fritti LR-6

6. Now for the much-easier sage leaves: Wipe them clean, dip each one into the batter, and fry until golden. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and…

Fritti LR-7

7. … enjoy!

Fritti LR-8

Geneva’s Botanic Garden-and Plant Theft

4 Jun


Any flower garden is a pleasure to behold, but a thoughtfully curated, beautifully laid-out, well-maintained botanic garden is truly magical. It is a living museum based on sustainability and conservation where knowledge and art come together to educate visitors and expose them to collections they might not otherwise see. The Geneva Botanic Garden — with its outdoor rock gardens, streams, and ponds; its conservatories; and its arboretum — is such a place.


I visited it twice and saw hundreds of gorgeous plants, including the ethereal, ballerina-like Pulsatilla serotina Magnier:

  
Gunnera tinctoria (Giant Rhubarb) and Orontium aquaticum (Golden Club), at water’s edge:

  
…  Paeonia tenuifolia (Fern Leaf Peony) and Euphorbia rigida (Gopher Spurge):

  
Because botanic gardens are such peaceful places, it is hard to imagine any nefarious activity occurring in them. But botanic gardens contain items of great beauty and of great worth, and just as there have been art heists, there have also been famous plant heists: from the almost-daily theft of tulips in Carolus Clusius‘ botanic garden at Leiden University in the late 1500s (precursor to the really nasty Tulip Mania that would follow) to the 2014 theft of a water lily brought back from the brink of extinction at London’s Kew Gardens–a crime Scotland Yard was called in to investigate.

The result is that at many botanic and private gardens, and in other unexpected places, increased security is now par for the course. Pun intended–a lone, wild lady slipper orchid found on a golf course in England in 1930 (the only one if its kind–the plant had been declared extinct) is said to have more police protection than the Queen.

I was reminded of this dark side of the botanic world twice in recent weeks: first, by a sign in an empty spot at the Geneva Botanic Garden: “Here a plant was STOLEN by someone without scruples and without respect for our collections.” It was a sobering sight.


And second, on a private garden tour on the outskirts of Rome, where a well-dressed elderly lady surreptitiously took clippings of numerous plants and hid them in her handbag.  Luckily, the owner of the garden is usually quite gracious about clippings, when asked. But what is it that compels people to possess something beautiful, rather than simply admire it?

The Independent said it well in an article about the obsession with orchids: “It is a curious and dispiriting aspect of human behaviour that some of the most beautiful features of the Earth can be destroyed by people’s love for them.”

Steak de Cheval: Did We or Didn’t We?

21 May

On a recent day trip out of Geneva, we made a spur-of-the moment decision to stop in the gorgeous old  lake-side resort town of Vevey for a scenic stroll and some lunch. The stroll was lovely, though it was a blustery day:

vevey1
Having worked up an appetite, we were primed for the siren call of steak and pommes frites –and so when we spotted both words on a chalk-board menu in front of a charming restaurant frequented by locals, we headed straight in with barely a backward glance.  No need for menus—we knew exactly what we wanted. The steak was served “au paprika” – which traditionally means a sauce made with sautéed minced onion, paprika, cream, and butter.  The sauce enrobing our steaks was silky, savory, and plate-lickingly delicious. The medium-rare steaks themselves were succulent, and we ate every bite with a sigh on our lips. The pommes frites (french fries) and accompanying vegetables rounded out the dish, and we left the restaurant in a pleasant state of euphoria. I was reminded of the Virginia Wolf quote:  “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

vevey2
In hindsight, it was clear I did not begin thinking until after lunch. First, I thought to take a photograph of the chalk-board menus outside, as a reminder of the excellent meal we had just eaten.  And then I thought to read the description of the chef-recommended dish a bit more carefully, as the steak we had eaten seemed to be a special kind of steak—steak de cheval. And then I thought—“Wait a second, doesn’t ‘cheval’ mean…”? Yes, it does. It means horse. Whereupon I thought, “Oh no.”

vevey3
So, did we or didn’t we? We did. For a brief moment, I hoped the dish was somehow “à cheval,” which is a (beef) steak with a fried egg on top. Except ours did not have an egg on top. And it was “de cheval” not “à cheval.”

I’ve eaten calf intestines, cartilage salad, chicken feet, slivered eel, fish eyeballs, squid ink, stewed pig skin, and assorted other animal parts. But this dish—as absolutely delicious as it was–struck a bit close to home. For Americans, eating horse meat is taboo. As the French food sociologist Claude Fischler has argued, we eat within a culture, and that culture determines what foods are considered edible, how to prepare them, when and how to eat them, and with whom. What we eat marks “us” vs. “others.”

Though people have been consuming horse meat  for millennia, in the United States (and in most English-speaking countries) it is culturally inappropriate to eat it, even though some commentators argue there could be good reasons to do so. But across Europe (including in Italy, where I live), and in Asia and Mexico, horse is on the menu.

If I’m honest, when I ate “steak de cheval au paprika” in Switzerland, I dined extremely well. But it also made me think—about cultural norms, and what is taboo, and why. My conclusion:  As someone who enjoys eating other domesticated animals, I cannot judge those who eat horse. And I have to remind myself that this squeamishness works both ways; many of the things we eat have historically disgusted others. This is how the Chinese once described cheese: “the putrefied mucous discharge of an animal’s guts.”

Umm, mmm good.