Weekly Photo Challenge: It Is Easy Being Green! Different shades, textures, and forms of green from the garden.
Anyone interested in passion and heartbreak need look no further than a flower garden. And there is no better place to look than Keukenhof (in Lisse, the Netherlands), which opens tomorrow for its 2017 season. It is the largest flower garden in the world and it specializes in tulips–which, like orchids, have driven people to distraction, debt, and death.
Keukenhof means ‘kitchen garden, but don’t let the name fool you into thinking it’s unobtrusively tucked round the back of a manor house; it covers 32 hectares (79 acres) and is known as the Garden of Europe. This botanic wonderland features 7 million bulbs in bloom, including 800 varieties of tulips: botanical tulips; Greigii tulips; parrot tulips; single early, double early, single late, and double late tulips…. The list goes on.
High on that list are “broken” tulips, which originally were cultivars infected with a tulip breaking virus that “broke” the plant’s single-color code, causing streaks, stripes, and flames of different colors to appear on the petals. Today, the same effects are achieved through breeding; only a few varieties of truly “broken” tulips still exist. But 380 years ago, the virus and those tulips caused people to lose their heads. While tip-toeing through the crowds at Keukenhof may not be for the faint-hearted, neither was the tulip trade in 17th-century Amsterdam.
Tulips are believed to have originated in current-day Iran; in fact, some scholars suggest the name “tulip” comes from the Persian word for “turban.” The flowers were highly prized by the Ottomans, and it is from ambassadors and visitors to the Ottoman courts that the flowers likely made their way to Northern Europe, and to the Netherlands. Carolus Clusius, a Flemish botanist and professor at the University of Leiden, planted the Netherlands’ first tulip bulbs in the university’s botanical garden in 1593.
Clusius’ tulips received a great deal of attention. Tulips were already considered an exotic flower in the Netherlands, and the virus only made them more so. As a result, there were regular raids on Clusius’ gardens and the market for tulips began to heat up, leading to the infamous Tulip Mania of 1634-37. At its height, a single, prized tulip bulb was worth exponentially more than the average person’s annual income, and more than a luxurious canal-side house. The tulip had become the ultimate status symbol. Some people put mirrors in their gardens to suggest there were more tulips than they actually had. Those who could not afford the bulbs bought furniture, art, and tableware decorated with tulips instead. And then the world’s first—but not last–speculative bubble burst, leaving a trail of shattered dreams and destitution in its wake. (This animated Ted Ed video puts it in perspective.)
If you want to see the flowers that inspired these events, Keukenhof’s 2017 season runs from March 23 to May 21. As you wander the grounds, you will see that modern-day tulips still have the power to inspire; it is not unusual to see visitors climbing into the flower beds to pose for photos while lying among the blooms. But spare a moment for the many other flowers you are likely to see, too, because they are also worth the attention:
River of Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) ‘Blue Magic’
Spring is in the air and that means the Garden of Ninfa, which has been called the most romantic garden in the world, will soon be open for its limited 2017 season. Ninfa is the Italian word for nymph. It is an apt name for this sylvan place that time forgot, with its flowers, trees, and gurgling streams, and its ruins covered in vines.
Located near Cisterna Latina 75 km (46 miles) southeast of Rome, Ninfa has a long and colorful history. A thousand years ago, it was a small town by a flowing stream, home to a temple dedicated to the water nymphs from whence it got its name. By 1100 it had become an important and wealthy place next to the only north-south road that was passable when the Appia Antica was flooded.
Pope Alexander III was crowned there in 1159, but the town’s honor and glory would not last long; the Pope’s enemy the Emperor Barbarossa sacked the town. It eventually passed into the hands of the Caetani family, though it suffered a long and steady decline starting in the 1300s. During subsequent centuries, nature took its course, engulfing the abandoned medieval town, which faded from sight.
But not from memory. In the early 1920s, Gelasio Caetani decided to reclaim the swampy land via a custom-built drainage and irrigation system, and establish a garden amid the ruined town with the help of his English-born mother and American-born sister-in-law. Gelasio’s’ niece Leilia Caetani and husband Hubert Howard continued the family’s work. They imported plants from all over the world; the 8-hectacre (20-acre) site is home to more than 1,000 plant species, including dozens of roses, clematis, climbing hydrangea, water irises, ornamental cherry trees, cypress, magnolias, oaks, and poplars, among many others.
Today, a foundation maintains the garden, which is only open on certain dates and is accessible only via a guided tour. In 2017, visiting season kicks off on April 1. The majority of open days are in the spring, though the season runs through November 5. Check online for dates and to buy tickets–and if you are going to go, get there early. If you have a few minutes before your tour starts (or after it ends), you can cross the road and visit the Horti Nympharum, a classic citrus garden across the lane complete with fountain, a family of swans, and castle ruins to wander through. There is a separate entry fee for that garden, but it is worth the price.
Finally, if you are making a day of it, head up to the walled hill town of Sermoneta for lunch; the town itself is charming, and the views of the valley from above are gorgeous.
You’ve vowed to eat more leafy greens, and you’re doing a great job adding more collard, kale, mustard greens, spinach, and other leafy greens to your diet. In Italy, where I live, those other greens would also include borage, broccoli rabe, chicory, escarole, watercress, and wild greens. But as you munch your way through one high-fiber, high-mineral, high-vitamin leafy green after another, there comes a day when you realize that, much as you love them all, one sautéed leafy green looks much like another. You have fallen into a green rut. That’s when Swiss Chard comes to the rescue. With Swiss Chard, you can have your leafy greens and ruby-red stems, too (if you get the right kind; chard stems can be white, yellow, or red).
Swiss Chard, or bietina/bietola in Italian, is widely eaten in Italy and around the Mediterranean. Why, you may ask, is it called Swiss Chard? No one knows. It’s not Swiss. But the plant may have first been described by a Swiss botanist, so that could be the answer–though it’s possible a German botanist actually did the describing first. It is one of those common plant-name oddities, like Jerusalem Artichoke.
This recipe uses tender, baby red Swiss Chard. If the chard you have is bigger/older, you may need to cut the leaves off the stalks, and add the chopped stalks to the skillet first, to give them more cooking time.
Recipe: Sautéed Baby Red Swiss Chard
1 1/2 lb. (3/4 kg.) baby red Swiss Chard
2 cloves garlic, chopped
chili flakes/crushed red pepper
salt and pepper
1. Trim the stalks by cutting them off the root end of the bunch of chard. Most stalks should be thin and tender. With larger stalks, take a knife and carefully remove the stringy part by peeling down the center of the stalk.
2. Wash the greens in plenty of cold water, swishing and swirling to remove any dirt or grit. Drain in a colander.
3. Drizzle some olive oil around the bottom of a heavy skillet; add the garlic, chili, and salt; grind some pepper over; and cook the garlic and chili over medium-high heat for about a minute. Add the chard, stirring occasionally to make that sure none of the leaves get stuck to the bottom of the skillet, and that all leaves get cooked. As with all greens, what looks like a huge amount will soon cook down to a fraction of its former volume. If the pan seems too dry, add a bit more olive oil.
4. Check the seasonings, and serve either warm or at room temperature.
Sometimes, you need comfort food. While home today with a very sore throat and not much food in the fridge, I wondered what to make for lunch. It needed to be soft. It needed to make me feel better. It needed to be made from the few items I could scrounge up, and it needed to be prepared quickly. There was only one possibility: Spaghetti with Ricotta and Pecorino Romano, a double dose of sheep-milk heaven — and ready in less than 15 minutes. Perfect.
Spaghetti with Ricotta and Pecorino Romano
This is a free-form recipe; you can adjust any of the ingredients to suit your tastes. The quantities below are for one hungry pasta lover, but this dish could serve two people if part of a multi-course meal.
- 113 gr./ ¼ lb. spaghetti (or fettucine, tonnarelli, or other pasta)
- 1 tbsp. /14 gr. butter, cut into small pieces
- ¼-1/3 c. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- fresh, coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
- 65 gr./ 2 ¼ oz. sheep’s-milk ricotta, crumbled or cut into small pieces (* use the best, freshest ricotta you can find)
- Start boiling lightly salted water in a generously sized pot. When the water comes to a boil, add the spaghetti and cook just until al dente—often that’s about 1 minute less than indicated on the package.
- Meanwhile, place the pieces of butter in an unheated skillet or large bowl next to the pasta pot. Add the Pecorino Romano cheese, grind black pepper over top (to your liking), and sprinkle 2 tbsp. cooking water around the sides of the skillet or bowl.
- When the spaghetti is done, quickly scoop it out of its cooking water with a pasta ladle and drop it into the skillet or bowl. Don’t shake off all the cooking water; it is an essential ingredient. Stir and swirl the spaghetti vigorously to melt the butter, the Pecorino Romano cheese, and the cooking water into a light sauce. Add more cooking water if the pasta appears too dry.
- Check the seasonings (adding salt and more ground pepper if needed), gently fold in the ricotta, and serve immediately, with additional grated Pecorino Romano on the side.
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.
Bolivian Soup with Wheat Berries (Sopa de Trigo)
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)
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)
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…)
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
2 green onions, finely sliced
1 tsbp. finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint
Dried cracked hominy
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Serve with the sliced green onions and herbs sprinkled on top, and with plenty of crusty bread.
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.
Unfinished facade of Basilica di San Petronio
Non-politically correct window-shop display: “Tortellini: To trick your husband into thinking you made them!”
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
A small sample of the beauty of the Eternal City.
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
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
(very slightly adapted from the recipe for Raspberry Blackout Cake with Ganache-y Frosting in Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz)
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
- 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.
- Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- 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.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet in batches and mix until everything is incorporated.
- 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.
- 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.
¾ c. + 1 tbsp. vanilla soy milk
6 tbsp. non-hydrogenated margarine (such as Earth Balance)
12 oz. vegan chocolate chips
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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).
5. Drain the fried flowers on paper towels, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and eat as soon as possible!
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…
7. … enjoy!