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This is an ode to fennel, one of the most beautiful winter vegetables and, indeed, the most elegant. Fennel id the vegetable of this nostalgic time of mist hanging over the fields and veiling the sun, coating all the hair-thin fronds in pearly droplets and frosting the grass at 6 AM. Fennel is the offspring of this fall/winter mood, that finally seems to have stricken Italy after one of the warmest, driest Octobers since my birth.
I had this salad for the first time in the most interesting context: I was at a dinner organized in a theater, and they put tables instead of seats, and we ate as a mini-show went on to accompany each course. The show was absolutely beautiful (and so was the setting), but this salad is one of the things that hit me the most.
Fennel, orange and good extra virgin olive oil is a very Italian combo, and what better time to make this salad, now that new, freshly pressed, emerald green olive oil is out?
I added lemon thyme and szechuan pepper for a fancy kick, but you can skip both and use regular pepper instead. Olives are often added to this salad, and, if you’re not vegan, some pecorino shavings round this up beautifully.
To make it a full meal, add something like quinoa or any other form of protein that fits your diet – this salad goes well with pretty much anything (especially fatty fish if you’re not plant based).
Do you like fennel? What is your favorite recipe with it?
Fennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon Thyme
Peel the oranges with a paring knife so you can get rid of the white part as well. Cut them lenghtwise into thin wedges, or cut the oranges crosswise as to show the sections of the oranges, which look beautiful.
Toss the shaved fennel and sliced oranges in a bowl with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, the lemon or orange juice, torn leaves from the lemon thyme, salt to taste and pepper.
Serve the salad in individual bowls and sprinkle on top the toasted almonds or nuts, and olives and pecorino if using.
My cookbook, Naturally Vegetarian, is out today! Visit this page to grab a copy, or go straight to Amazon!
The photos of myself in this post were taken by the wonderful Serena Cevenini, and the video on the book page was shot by Laura Ascari. These two incredible ladies are a super talented team who shots and films weddings – check them out!
My book is out. It is a strange sensation, indeed. The photos below portray one of the many situations that happened during the creation of this baby, shot by Serena and myself.
I thought I would have more to say, but I really don’t. It was a weird Tuesday: I had to say two major goodbyes – the kind of goodbyes that mark your calendars – that left me with mixed things and feelings, like a bike from 1940 to fix, the idea to renovate my studio entirely, some furniture to do it with, and promises that great things are to come. Which is probably true.
A friend just told me that everything that leaves, also leaves behind a seedling; and a chance to grow this seedling into something beautiful. So it is out duty to nurture this seedling with all the love and care we can give it. Nurturing these seeds is our choice and no one else’s.
This cookbook of mine was born from a very similar feeling. I will be sharing 2 – 3 recipes from it here on the blog, and I hope they’ll make you excited enough to want to buy this for Christmas for someone you’d like to spend sometime in the kitchen with.
There are several people now who tried the recipes from the book and gave them rave reviews. Amongst these, a chef friend of mine, who worked in many high-end restaurants, cooked recipes from my book a couple times. We cooked together the Vegetarian ‘Carbonara’ with zucchini and a dish of Tortelli with mushrooms and truffle (that you can find on the blog), and was enthusiastic (and he was, really. He’s not the kind of person who’d say he likes something just because you’re his friend).
So, I hope you’ll be amongst those who try the recipes as well! If you decide to try any, PLEASE send a photo my way!! or even just a note, or a thought…or even a complaint but I’d LOVE to interact with you and know what you think! Do it via Instagram, or Facebook…any way!
The first recipe I want to share from the book is one of the simplest I came up with, and by far one of my favorite pastas: a buttery, luscious pasta dish with tons of herbs, toasted nuts and a slight hint of lemon zest, perfect for a Sunday lunch or for a night when you feel like a comforting bowl of deliciousness.
Although butter is kind of king here, this recipe can be made vegan provided that you use some very good extra virgin olive oil instead of the butter and skip the cheese. In this case, use 3 more tablespoons olive oil instead of the butter.
One thing there is never a shortage of here in the countryside are wild herbs and aromatics, which grow both in my garden and all around the fields all year long. When the coldest months of winter strike, and the vegetable garden needs some rest, the comforting aroma exuding from their freshly snapped stalks spreads and fillsthe kitchen, and reminds us that nature is far from dead. I love to awake the dormant spirit of spring with dishes like this pasta – so quick to make that the longest task will be boiling the water – and take a nice smell over the pan, as if I were breathing in the scents from our rosemary and sage bushes…
Pasta with Herb Butter Sauce from my Cookbook 'Naturally Vegetarian'
320 g (11.5 oz) long fresh pasta (tagliolini, angel hair, tagliatelle)
½ teaspoon salt, plus coarse salt for the pasta water
4 tablespoons grated Pecorino cheese
Dry-toast the pine nuts by tossing them in a hot pan, shaking them very often for a couple minutes. When they start to render the oil and turn slightly brown, they are ready. Set aside.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add coarse salt.
Melt the butter with the oil in a pan over a medium-low fire, and add the herbs and lemon zest.
Let the butter foam slightly and the herbs release their aroma, about two minutes. When the herbs have sizzled slightly, turn off the fire.
Boil the pasta for the time indicated in the package (or until it floats to the surface if it is fresh pasta). Turn on the fire under the pan with the herbs and butter to medium, and drain the pasta into the pan, reserving the pasta water. Add about ¼ cup pasta water, and stir the pasta to form a creamy base with the fat and starchy water. Adjust salt if needed.
Finish with freshly cracked black pepper and che cheese. Serve immediately and garnish each dish with the toasted pine nuts.
You can add more lemon zest if you prefer a stronger lemon flavor.
PS: a huge last-minute thank you goes to Umberto, who patiently sat with me through some recipe-testing and prop-fixing: thanks, even though you’ll never read this, because you can’t. You’re the sweetest obnoxious person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know!
A huge thank you also goes to Marco, who deserves all possible praise the food world has to offer!
I don’t know if it ever happens to you: You meet a person, or step in a place, and it feels more like you were reunited rather than introduced. Like when you do your laundry and throw all your clothes in the washing machine, and when you collect them you can’t seem to pair all your socks correctly, or you lose one of a pair. You’ll swear out loud, rummage through your drawers and clothes and, very likely, forget about the missing sock.
Then one day, unexpected, it pops up again.
‘That’s where it was’.
It is a glass half-full of emotions.
When I saw Friuli-Venezia Giulia for the first time – the northeastern most region of Italy, bordering with Veneto and Slovenia – the feeling was just that. It was a lost sock of mine, one sibling of of a pair I didn’t know I owned. That unknown land of mountains I had barely ever seen, of lush vineyards and apple trees, felt like meeting an old friend whose face I had forgotten.
I like to think that this feeling is somehow connected to my Venetian lineage, and that, in a previous life, I must have belonged to the mists of the Northeastern plains.
Friuli, with its many, many unknown wonders, is one of those lands that has somehow remained hidden behinda curtain – a pretty, smart girl sitting in a corner, unnoticed.
And yet, like most silent beings, it is full of surprises: the bluest rivers, mingling into Slovenia, majestic mountains – the Alpi Giulie – and, as you slope down into the valley through fields upon fields of vineyards that produce, in my opinion, the best white wines in Italy along with Trentino, and hills that blend into the last shores of the Adriatic sea. It keeps its own identity, though sometimes bastardized by its neighboring Mitteleuropean lovers, and speaks its own language. Signs on the streets are written in both Italian and Friulan.
My missing sock in particular I found in a small town called Faedis, just north of Udine.
Flavia is tiny but has the temper of a lion. Her blue eyes run through the many bottles of the Friulano and Refosco wines she produces, as she makes room for us to start boiling the potatoes and kneading our dough. Her country home in Faedis is the one next to Ophelia’s, and her tiny cellar produces one of my favorite wines.
Marco, whose past is tied to the mountains in Carnia like a tight hug, is getting ready to prepare a batch of cjalsons for the whole house. In the other room, Flavia’s grandma and grand aunts are making fresh butter, using milk from their cows. They serve us espresso, accompanied by some of said milk, that her cousin just milked from the cows.
Here, in this scenario that I am constantly afraid Italy will lose, Marco explains the lack of pasta in Friuli and the presence of cinnamon in the area, as he kneads the dough for cjalsons.
‘Wheat was scarce in this area. We only had corn and potatoes. Pasta isn’t really a thing here in Friuli…but spices are. The reason why cinnamon was used in such a poor cuisine is that sellers would bring them up to Austria and Germany via a sort of cabinet full of tiny drawers, and they ended up using whatever powder stuck to the bottom in their recipes. People were so, so poor. And yet, this recipe is so comforting…cjalsons are the closest to pasta we ever got, even though I am making the potato dough version.’
And on we folded, as my mind ran through these repeated gestures of ‘pasta’ making that I have always witnessed. To me, a woman born in Emilia Romagna, where other women spent a whole life folding tortellini and sealing ravioli, where smells of rich sauces and eggs and long strings of tagliatelle dance and mingle like sacred Djinns before our senses, this process of pasta making brings with it a consciousness of the heritage each shape and filling brings with it, as each piece is folded almost like a prayer – like saying a rosary – pearl after pearl, ravioli after ravioli, cjalson after cjalson. And, like after a prayer, the feeling that is left is one of renewal, of gratitude, and of knowing that what is to come next can only be good.
Cjalsons are a celebration of making do with what one has as their disposal. Cjalsons are that beautiful girl bashfully sitting in a corner, who added flowers to her tattered dress and turned her colorless self into pastel-like gracefulness. Marco, with his delicate gestures and nimble fingers, is the perfect Prince Charming to take this ignored girl by the hand and dance with her in the center of the stage, and turn her into royalty.
And there you have it. Mismatched socks, finally reunited with their legitimate sibling.
So far, I have eaten cjalsons a total of 5 times in different places, and so far each time was completely different, as if we were talking about totally different recipes. One time, they were made with an eggless pasta dough kneaded with pureed spinach, and stuffed with tons of herbs and a little ricotta, and two raisins for each cjalson. Another time, they were made with gnocchi dough and stuffed with herbs, ricotta, grated apple and raisins and had more cinnamon than in other recipes. Another time, they were smaller and had no raisins, but had Montasio or Latteria cheese in the stuffing. Each recipe was absolutely delicious – way beyond what you could imagine from this strange mix of ingredients.
An then there’s Marco’s version. By far, my favorite, and one of the simplest. He makes them out of gnocchi dough, stuffs them with a mix of foraged young greens such as nettles, poppy leaves and baby chard, and fashions them in a way that is called ‘Priest’s hat’, then drowns them in a wave of browned butter and a snowing of smoked ricotta and cinnamon.
Their flavor evokes smells of fireplace and wooden houses, of crisp air coming down from the Alps and that scent of mixed flowers and herbs that is everywhere in Carnia and Carso.
Make them – please make them. They are my favorite Italian ‘first course’ so far.
5.0 from 1 reviews
Cjalsons, Herb & Ricotta Ravioli with Butter and Cinnamon from Friuli
25g (2 heaping tablespoons) aged Montasio (sub Grana cheese if unavailable), grated
Salt and pepper
200g (1½ stick) butter
Smoked ricotta (or another smoked cheese)
MAKE THE DOUGH
Boil the potatoes until very tender, then mash them through a potato ricer so that the skin remains behind. If using other ways to mash them, peel the skin off first. Let them cool enough to handle them, but work them when still warm.
Add the egg and flour and knead until you get a soft, elastic dough. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour.
MAKE THE FILLING
Chop the greens and steam them until tender. If you have a steamer, you can steam them in the same pot where the potatoes are cooking. When ready, let them cool enough to handle, squeeze off excess water and chop them very finely.
Combine all the ingredients for the filling in a bowl, add a pinch of salt and pepper and mix to combine.
You can prepare the dough and filling in advance and store in the fridge for a day.
MAKE THE CJALSONS
Roll the dough down on a floured surface until it is 1 cm thick, then cut off circles using a glass. Flatten each circle slightly, but not too much.
Add a teaspoon of filling into each, and seal them. See the photos above to get an idea of how to seal them in a triangular shape, but you can also seal them in a half-moon shape. If they seem too much, you can freeze them for later use (in which case, drop them in boiling water without thawing and just cook a minute or two more).
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add coarse salt, about 1 teaspoon per liter.
Dump the cjalsons carefully into the boiling water. They will be ready when they float to the surface, which could take 3 to 5 minutes. Drain them, preferably with a slotted spoon.
MAKE THE DRESSING
Add the butter to a large pan, and turn on the heat on medium-high. Let the butter melt and sizzle. Keep cooking, swirling often, until the butter stops sizzling and turns a nutty color: the sizzling is caused by the residual water when it evaporates. Be careful not to burn the butter! If it browns too quickly, turn down the heat.
Add the cjalsons and sauté to coat them with butter.
Serve 3 or 5 cjalson per person, drizzle with butter from the pan, dust with cinnamon, and add a showering of smoked cheese.
Thanks to Di Gaspero wines. If you have a chance to taste wines from Friuli, please do!