Tag Archives: cheese

Truffles and Chestnuts: Two Festivals in One Day in Umbria

13 Nov

Last weekend, we took our first road trip. Destination: Umbria–specifically the Truffle Festival (Sagra del Tartufo) in Fabro. This medieval town is just under two hours away from Rome (slightly less if you can make it out of Rome without getting lost…). And its woods (below) are full of truffles.

The Festival is in the higher, older part of town and consists of about 50 stalls, many selling truffles, truffle sauces, truffled cheeses, truffled sausages, and almost anything else that can be truffled. Unfortunately, we were a day late to see (and taste) what was billed as the world’s biggest truffle omelette. But we did sample our way up and down the stalls; being equal-opportunity eaters, we devoted attention to non-truffled items, too:


I did a double take when I saw the sign below, thinking mule salame was on offer along with the wild boar and venison versions. But no–it was just salame shaped like mule testicles….

After visiting the festival, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch (because really, the festival was just a long snack…), where we ordered truffled pasta to share and I had pheasant with a sauce made from truffles, pate, and cognac. That may sound expensive, but it wasn’t; during truffle season in Italy you can get all sort of truffle-related dishes for very reasonable prices. Of course, if you are hoping to buy a whole, hefty, wrinkled, earthy, deeply aromatic truffle–that’s an entirely different proposition. But we weren’t. I was happy with the few tastes I had. A blasphemous statement, I know–but I find that a very little truffle goes a very long way.  Now, porcini mushrooms, on the other hand….

After our very late lunch, we could have gone back to Rome, but we decided to (literally and figuratively) squeeze in one more festival–the Chestnut Festival (Sagra della Castagna) in Narni. The Festival itself was very small, with not much on offer. But Narni was striking at twilight and night, and we did happen upon chestnuts roasting over an open fire:


Recipe: Crackers with Cheddar and Fig

24 Sep

The pairing of sharp cheddar and sweet fig is another match made in gastronomic heaven. This recipe–though it hardly deserves to be called that–is an embarrassingly simple way to bring the two together. Take out a few crackers or crispy flatbreads (or cut a few slices off a baguette), top with a small wedge of cheddar, and add a dollop of fig spread or jam* for a delicious snack. Or, put some of the fig spread in a tiny bowl and place it on a larger cheese board, along with the cheddar.

For a Spanish variation on the theme, pair Manchego cheese with membrillo, a lovely fruit paste made with quince.

*  I can get fig spread at my local store, and now always keep a jar in the fridge; if you make your own spread or jam, even better!

Recipe: Pasta in Cream Sauce with Pancetta and Pecorino Romano

18 Jun

With three children away from home, and the fourth frequently out and about, my husband and I are adapting to eating dinner by ourselves. It is a necessary exercise; in one more year, we will be empty nesters. We have made some adjustments, but not all recipes for six translate easily into a meal for two, so I am beginning to rethink my approach to dinner. Luckily, this recipe is very adaptable and can easily be scaled down (or back up).

It’s also quick, which makes it perfect for a busy week night. But more importantly, it will satisfy proponents of the two different schools of thought on pasta cream sauces. When this dish is first put on the table, the cream sauce will be fairly thin (as in the photo). In our family, there are staunch supporters of a thinner cream sauce; they say a more liquid consistency allows for maximum “soppage” with a nice piece of crusty bread. Other family members prefer a thicker sauce, which coats the pasta very nicely. Luckily, it’s possible to have it both ways: thinner-sauce aficionados can dig right in; thicker-sauce advocates can nibble on salad or bread and let the sauce cool a bit. Regardless of their sauce philosophies, family members agree on one thing: this is good to the last bite, thick or thin.

Note: Feel free to substitute Parmesan cheese for the Pecorino Romano, and bacon for the pancetta (I used bacon this time, after discovering at the last moment that the pancetta I thought I had in the freezer was a figment of my imagination).

Pasta in Cream Sauce with Pancetta and Pecorino Romano
Serves 2-3

1/2 lb. (227 gr.) pasta; I used gemelli
2 oz. (57 gr.) cubed pancetta [in the U.S., Trader Joe’s sells a 4-oz. package*], or 4 slices bacon, chopped
1/2 tbsp. olive oil
1 small clove garlic, sliced
1 c. (237 ml.) half and half, which is half light cream and half milk (or you can use all light cream or heavy cream–the heavier the cream, the thicker the sauce)
small pinch salt
freshly ground pepper
1/2 c. (about 60 gr.) grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese


1. Bring an ample amount of water to boil in a medium pot and cook the pasta just until it is al dente.
2. While the water is coming to a boil, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan and cook the pancetta/bacon until crisp; remove the pancetta/bacon, place on a paper towel to drain, and set aside. Leave about 1/2 tbsp. of oil/drippings in the saucepan; discard the rest. Add the sliced garlic to the pan and cook just until golden (you do not want the garlic to burn). Remove the garlic and discard. Turn heat to low and add the half and half (or cream). Grind black pepper over the surface of the sauce. Add a small pinch of salt (be conservative at this stage because you’ll be adding salty bacon and cheese to the dish; you can adjust the seasonings afterward). Keep the sauce warm without letting it boil.
3. When the pasta is done, drain it well, return it to the pot, and immediately toss with the cheese. Add the reserved pancetta/bacon, mix well, and then pour the cream sauce over. Stir well and adjust the seasonings (I usually add more pepper at this stage). The sauce will appear thin at first, but will thicken as it cools.
4. Serve with salad and crusty bread.

*I stock up on packages of cubed pancetta and freeze them. Then, I add the frozen, cubed pancetta directly to the hot oil. It cooks (and crisps up) beautifully, and is oh-so convenient.

Recipe: Peruvian Chicken in Creamy Walnut Sauce with Chili (Ají de Gallina)

4 Jun

We lived in Peru for a couple of years, and considered ourselves to be in gastronomic heaven. Peruvian cuisine takes advantage of the country’s geography (coast, jungle, mountains) and history (including the Inca, Spanish conquistadores, African slaves, Chinese indentured labor, and many other immigrants). All these influences–different foods and cooking techniques–came together to contribute to an absolutely wonderful cuisine, one that continues to evolve.

Of the many Peruvian dishes I like, Ají de Gallina is one of my favorites. Ají means chili; the yellow in this dish comes from the signature yellow chili peppers that symbolize Peruvian cooking (plus a bit of turmeric). Gallina means hen–in this case, shredded chicken. And the creamy, cheesy, nutty part of the dish speaks to European influences. It is traditionally served with black olives (which I had on hand) and boiled yellow potatoes and quartered hard-boiled egg (which I belatedly discovered I did not have on hand).

This is not a difficult dish to make, but does require some preparation time, so if your weekdays are busy, this may be best made on a weekend. I tend to make it in stages while taking care of other tasks around the house and in the garden.

Ají de Gallina (Peruvian Chicken in Creamy Walnut Sauce with Chili)
Serves 8

3 lb. (1.4 kg.) boneless chicken breast halves
½ onion
2 carrots, peeled
2 bay leaves
4 slices white bread, crusts removed, cut into quarters
1 (12-oz./354 ml.) can evaporated milk, plus extra milk if needed
3 tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced
4-6 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. aji amarillo paste (yellow chili paste)–available at international/Latin food markets
2 tsp. turmeric
1.5 tsp. salt
pinch pepper
1 cup (120 gr.) chopped walnuts, toasted (see below)
¾ cup (84 gr.) grated Parmesan cheese

boiled yellow potatoes, peeled and halved
black olives
hard-boiled eggs, quartered


1. Place chicken breasts in a large pot, and add onions, carrots, and bay leaves. Add enough water to cover the chicken, then lightly salt the water. Bring water to a boil, immediately turn off the heat, cover pot, and let the chicken poach for about an hour. Remove chicken from the broth, let cool, and then shred with clean fingers. Reserve all of the broth.
2. Meanwhile, soak the bread in the milk.

Clockwise from top left: chicken broth from poaching process, shredded chicken, aji amarillo (yellow chili) paste, bread soaked in milk.

3. Sauté onion in oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch Oven or large pot over medium heat until softened and turning golden at edges. Add garlic, cook 2 more minutes, then add the turmeric, salt, and pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, then add aji amarillo paste and cook for 5 more minutes. Note: 2 tbsp. chili paste gives this dish a nice little kick; for more heat, add 3 tbsp.
4. Toast the walnuts (place walnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer, and toast in a 350-degree oven for about 5-10 minutes or until lightly golden and aromatic; be careful not to burn them, as I have done on more than one occasion when trying to do too much multitasking….).

Left: onion-garlic-chili paste mixture. Right: toasted walnuts

5. Put the bread and milk into a blender or food processor, add the toasted walnuts and a splash of reserved chicken broth (about 1/4 c.), and blend until smooth. Add this mixture to the onions in the pot, cook for a few minutes, adding more broth if necessary to thin, then add chicken and parmesan cheese. Thin as needed with more milk or broth (you will probably need a fair amount; add more milk for a creamier texture, more broth for a lighter dish). Add more salt and pepper to taste.
6. Serve over rice and with suggested accompaniments. Garnish with some chopped parsley for additional color, if desired.