Winter Vegetables Smoky, Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside

Listening: Antonin Dvorak, Romance for Piano and Violin Op. 11

After 26 winters, I am finally starting to see how charming the light is in January and February.
Here in the countryside, sunny winters are blessed with a warm light that is pink and beautiful, and the ice glistening on the grass against that light gleams and glitters like the wings of a faery. Every sunset looks like descending divinity amongst the bare branches of the trees, on which, if you look close, you can see the new buds, and I see spring in them as if I were dreaming a dream the moment before waking.
How could I fail to see winter’s beauty up until now?
Now, my personal hour of freedom away from the craziness of work and news are walks in the countryside, bathed in the beautiful pink light of winter. No music, no phone: it is just me, here and now. It is the closest I could ever get to meditation.
And I think ok those who walked these lands before me.
My great grandfather, who was an illiterate man but lived in sync with all natural phenomena, lived in sync with the light – be it of the sun or the moon: They knew that garlic, carrots and roots should be planted during the new moon, while lettuces and greens shall grow better on a crescent moon. I am more and more drawn towards this sync with the Earth, and recognize how blessed I am. 

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking
I realized that, as I walk, I remember this knowledge that was passed down to me – along with pasta making and many other things – and take mental note of where all the edible herbs and greens are, so I’ll be able to come back and forage them when the time is ripe. Each kind leaves hints around them: burnt stems, or browned leaves, or even flowers. Without even thinking, I learned to recognize each root, leaf, petal and seed.
Many of the various edible herbs and greens – I could name at least 20 I could harvest during my walks – are, incredibly, all flowering right now. According to the rhythms of nature, no green should be eaten while flowering – always before. The pretty white flowers you see in the photos belong to a plant called sheperd’s purse, or Capsella Bursa Pastoris. many of their names I just managed to figure out by research, as I learned to know them following my mom’s wise eyes. But I can now identify those tasty greens: Barbarea Vulgaris, Malva Sylvestris, Chichorium Inthybus, Papaver Rhoea, Picris Echoides, Portulaca Oleracea, Sonchus Asper, Taraxacum Officinale, Urtica Dioica, Calamintha Nepeta, Mentha Suaveolens, and many more. I find myself calling out their beautiful names as I see them, remembering their name in dialect, never sure what their name in Italian is, save for some. Their names express their properties: when a plant is called officinalis, it means it was used in medicine. Suaveolens means it is sweet-smelling. On the contrary, graveolens means strong-smelling. I love to let my imagination revel in those names and think of all the possible recipes that could come out of them.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

This pretty flower here is a wild green that is called Sheperd’s bag, or Capsella Bursa Pastoris. It is a delicious wild greens I usually forage to cook with other greens to use as a filling for piadina or ravioli. But, as it is flowering, I will need to wait until the spring to forage it.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking
Those greens are in sync with the light, too. And I am learning to be, as well, almost without thinking. The light, here in Romagna, is the color of our produce: the fruits like peaches, strawberries, plums, and the abundance of greens are all the result of our light, which hits us first from the East. How different is the light in other parts of Italy!
All farmers and winemakers say it: the secret is in the light

Still, it is no time for those wild greens now. For those, I will come back after the rains, and I will remember where they flowered and collect their new spawn. The light now – or lack thereof – tells me it is time for all those vegetables that grow under the earth, and it is time for the darkest of leaves – kale in all of its forms: purple, curly, lacinato. Grandmas in Tuscany, where kale is one of the most common vegetables, say that it is at its best after the frost. I love the meaty, licorice-y, intense, soft cooked winter vegetables, probably more than I love summer vegetables. I embrace all the foul smell of cruciferous vegetables as they cook, and I delight in the pale, almost timid hues of greens, whites and purples of beets, romanescos and apples. I love the warmth of spices like nutmeg and cinnamon and pungent flavors smoke and cheese molds: all additions that smell like a fireplace, and are equally warm and cozy.
This recipe was born from the love of those flavors, and from the inspiration that light bestowed upon me and after my daily walk of meditation.

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian CookingWinter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

This breakfast bake is quick, easy to make, and a really good way to wake up in the morning. I started making it when I realized how much better my body works if I stick to savory breakfasts, and it has become a staple for me – even without cheese. Sometimes I sub pumpkin for celeriac, following exactly the same process. In this case, I do not use cardoons and add more pumpkin (just substitute the 3.5 oz cardoons with the same weight in pumpkin). Because it is something I like to have for breakfast, I want there to be fat and protein, but I do not want to overdo it with the fat – hence the egg whites and the relatively small amount of cheese. Adjust the cheese to taste – 1/4 cup is really very little cheese, so go ahead and use at least 1/2 cup if you want more of a full bodied dish.

My favorite version of this casserole always has something smoky, and I always make it differently: Last time I made this, I did not use the cardoons and cheese, but added some smoky diced speck to the initial stir-fry (so it ended up being speck, celeriac and kale). Another time I made it with Pumpkin, chestnut flour and smoked scamorza. You could use blue cheese instead of the scamorza, or any cheese you can easily find. You could use sweet potatoes or boiled romanesco or boiled broccoli instead of the celeriac. Or whatever you fancy. I know it will be delicious anyways!

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole
Serves 4
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter (or coconut oil, or more olive oil)
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 200 g kale (7 oz - a small bunch) (lacinato or curly), chopped
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) cardoons, trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces
  • 300 g (10.5 oz - about half a small one) Celeriac, peeled and cubed
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons chickpea or buckwheat or regular flour
  • ¼ cup to ½ cup smoked scamorza (or other smoked cheese), grated
  • Parmigiano to top
  1. Add the fats to a large pan, and add the onion. Stir-fry until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the cardoons and sauté for a couple minutes, then add the kale and cook until wilted, about 2 more minutes. Finally, add the cubed celeriac along with a scant ½ cup water. Add salt (about a scant teaspoon), a pinch of pepper, and the nutmeg. Cover, and let cook until the celeriac easily gives in to the pressure about 25 minutes, adding water if the vegetables stick. When done, uncover and let all the water evaporate. Turn off the heat and keep covered.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ / 200 C˚
  4. Separate the egg white from the yolk, and add the egg white to a large bowl along with the other whites. Add the yolk into a large bowl that will eventually contain all the ingredients, and mix it with the flour. Add the cooked vegetables and the cheese, and stir to coat (there will be a large amount of vegetables compared to the yolk and flour). Whip the whites until nice and stiff, adding a pinch of salt, and fold them into the vegetables.
  5. Line a baking dish with baking paper and pour the mix into it. Cover with a nice grating of parmigiano and, if you fancy, add slivered almonds or breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil. Bake until the top is golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
  6. It is best served hot, but it is also delicious cold. It reheats wonderfully in the oven. You can also portion it and freeze it, then reheat it straight in the oven in the morning.

NOTE: If you’re interested in adhering to #immigrantfoodstories, an initiative to share recipes from countries tortured by war, or from any kind of American immigrant, the date to publish seems to be February 7th. Wether you post sooner or later (or at all), It will be a nice collection of recipes!

Winter Vegetables Cheesy Breakfast Casserole, & a Walk in the Countryside | Hortus Italian Cooking

Story & Recipe of ‘Rosolio di Portogallo’, a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor

“’tis the sun that gilds flowers, oranges, and our hearts with its mellow, golden coat of love; and its color, its smell, its purity… ”
~ Engelmajer

I am 27 years old, a number that, at times, feels a thousand years heavier.
My name is Fortunato [‘lucky’ in Italian]. There could be more apt names for sure, but I would be a fool were I to deny it is quite fitting: as I roamed the Seas, I survived wars, venom, shipwrecks and famine, and emerged from each with just a few scars and a missing finger, which I lost as I tried to grab a hold of the sails during a disastrous storm.
I was born in Venice and I am no more than a miserly, foul seaman, yet in love with all things that belong to the world of poetry. In this century of the Lord 1700, I board cargo ships that import citrus fruit from China to Amalfi, Genoa, Venice and Spain. We also carry citrus and silk to Villa Pisani, in the countryside outside of Venice.
We carry citrus fruit in that villa of the Pisani family, where she resides.
As we carried our citrus fruit to the villa, we could hear her voice in the air, singing Scarlatti’s arias, taught to her by her Neapolitan music master.

She, who wanders through her father’s orangerie, her golden hair falling on her shoulder and her straight nose smelling its perfumes. She who is the only reason why I go back and forth to Asia, carrying citrus fruit for her family: so I can see her from afar when we unload our treasures at her home, and dream about her. Lady Amalia! How lulled I was by dreaming of you during my long travels!
“Don’t stare too long, for even eyefuls have a price here,” says Sperindio, one of the loyal fellow seamen who I always board cargo ships with.
Besides myself there are, in fact: Sperindio, a talented thief who escaped Amalfi under mysterious circumstances. Joining us there is also Angiolino, an under-the-table distiller hailing from the Veneto countryside, who made friends with me after I saved his legs during the same thunderstorm in which I lost my finger. Angiolino spits a great deal of tobacco, and speaks with the most peculiar accent. He has such a curly mustache and such a pointy chin – they almost look like they were designed using a goniometer.
We are no more than three tramps… not even the sum of us could produce a gentleman, even when properly combed and dressed up. I like to think we are good in other ways.
“That is not true, my friend,” I object. “Eyefuls are just like your thievery: there’s no [punizione] to pay unless they catch you red-handed…”

Story & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian Cooking

I loved to spy on her whenever the lord of the Orangerie called us upon his garden.
I saw her amongst the cedar and orange bushes, moving ever so graceful as she put flowers in between her golden curls. I imagined her to smell like citrus herself – though I could never get close enough to determine it – emanating the same smell as the oils exuding from those shiny peels, her gilded corsets tightening her white skin and breasts as round as those fruits. 

…Mentr’io godo in dolce oblio
Con piu lento mormorio
Scherzi l’aura intorno al cor!

Oh, Donna Amalia! Oh gleaming, oh fair lady! How your silk gown caresses your thighs and all else that hides underneath it! How I imagine your touch, how disturbed are my nights by the thought of your skin! I would squeeze you and I would peel your silk gown off of you as it is done with those oranges of yours, and this is all that I am going to write as if I am caught fantasizing dirty fantasies such as these I am going to have my legs cut off and maybe some other body parts as well.
Today, after the sweet endeavor of unloading the cargo, after I finally saw you again from afar after months out in the sea, we all get back to being the harbor rats we always are, ready to plague once again the decks of our ships. 

‘So, what about women?’ asks Sperindio. ‘Still thinking about the Pisani chick? I know what I’d do with that silk gown of hers…’
‘You – !’
‘Do not disturb his idols’, says Angiolino as he starts to chew a brand new piece of tobacco.
‘Ah! If I could only carry her with me in my next journey! If I could hide her in my pocket! If I could bottle the gold of her hair and her scent of orange and carry it on myself, as I would with a bottle of rum! How quieter my nights would be, and how lulling the tides!’
‘I trust life on the ship would be sh*t all the same,’ states Sperindio, and that’s where our dialogue ends.

Story & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian Cooking

The captain of the [bastimento] that would have us on board next was Eugenio Aureliano Dell’Arcimboldo, son of some goddamn local duke, a cretin with an ecru wig and, given how tight his jackets always looked, a little too much love for banqueting. His only talent was manage people who could run a ship – not even running the ship himself.
Rumor had it that he and my sweet donna Amalia Pisani were about to be engaged. Ah! What unfair world could give such beauty in marriage to a fat, wigged man who wears the same womanly corsets to keep his overflowing belly on hold?
And there we are, ready to board.
Angiolino sticks a bottle in my hand.
‘What is this?’ I whisper.
‘Rosolio di Portogalli,’ [orange rosolio], he answers under his black moustache. ‘Here is your lady, all bottled up: the saffron I stole from a Venetian cargo as the gold of her hair, and the oranges I stole from a carriage of Neapolitan merchants enclose her scent, and all the rest of the poetry you would like to see within this alcoholic solution. You are no more than a rough seaman, but this is art: I used up some of it for your ugly face in regards of that time you saved my legs along the Chinese shores. Hide it well inside your pants, and drink a few drops at night to ease your dreaming.’
I was surprised and I was grateful as I had never been.
’Shucks, there’s no use dreaming too much about it,’ butts in Sperindio, who had been eavesdropping from the back rows.
‘Everybody knows ’tis the captain who shags your fair lady.’
Angiolino kicks Sperindio’s shin with his heel.
’Such is life,’ whispers Angiolino. ‘Do not listen to that party crasher. If you cannot have her, you can at least dream a little.’

Mormorando su la sponda
Vada a passo l’onda
Or che poso in grembo al fior…!

‘What are you carrying?’ asks the boarding constable, as we are called to board the ship.
’Nothing. Just my dreams.’
The constable gives me a sideways look. He flicked his pen as a sign to move on and get the hell outta his sight.
Once on the ship, we form our usual row in front of the captain. In my head, confused amidst the sounds of the Lagoon, the words of Scarlatti’s ‘Mentre io Godo in Dolce Oblio’ still echoes.
The captain scratches his head under the wig with a porcupine needle. He fixes his curls and, with a whip on his constable’s butt, he orders the horn be blown.
‘Off we sail,’ he declares. ‘Art here those who art here, and that which is missing…well, just dream of it.’ 

Story & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian Cooking

This is just a silly little story I wrote without even thinking, almost as soon as I read this recipe for rosolio ‘di Portogallo’ in Pellegrino Artusi‘s book, La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, the most important Italian cookbook ever written.

A couple historical notes about this recipe: back when cargo ships and carriages would carry oranges from the Far East, oranges were called ‘Portugals’ (Portogalli in italian and Portugals in French). The reasons why could be several: maybe because the kingdom of Naples bought most of its oranges from Portugal, or maybe because the name was changed from the Greek word for orange, which is portokalos… who knows, really?
Whatever the reason, the name of the recipe makes sense, as it is made with orange peel.
This liquor is wonderfully scented and absolutely delicious, and it is slightly reminiscent of a limoncello, except that it is less alcoholic and sweeter. Back in the 1800’s, in Artusi’s time, rosolio was very popular among ladies and one of the most famous rosolios was made with roses. Still today, rosolios are mainly used to brush sponge cakes, as addition to custards and cream, and in sweets  and baking in general.
I had a lot of fun writing this little story, and I had loads of fun making this liquor, which will surely be the first of a series.
The original recipe called for 650g of sugar. I used 300 and felt like it was the perfect amount. I suggest you do not use a whole 650g of sugar – sugars back then were not as refined as they are today and had less sweetening power.
I used a fat pinch of saffron strands – I think they ended up being about 10 – 15 strands, and the saffron flavor was veeery subtle, which was perfect for me. But the saffron I was using was a little old and surely lost some of its power. I am sure that, is using fresh saffron, you would need no more than 5 to 10, depending on how strong you like it.

'Rosolio di Portogallo' Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor
Orange and Saffron Rosolio Liquor ‘Rosolio di Portogallo’ Recipe #746 from Pellegrino Artusi’s book ‘La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene’, 18—.
Recipe type: liquor
Cuisine: Italian
  • 375 ml (1½ cups) 95˚ edible alcohol for liquor making
  • 625 ml (2½ cups) pure water
  • 250 ml 35˚ alcohol solution (see above instructions to make it)
  • The peel from 1 medium organic orange
  • The peel from 1 small lemon (my personal addition)
  • A fat pinch saffron strands (5 to 10, depending on how strong you like it)
  • 300 g powdered white sugar
  • 360 g Water
  1. Simply measure out the 95˚ alcohol and water and combine them together. Store in a bottle.
  1. Measure 250 ml (1 cup) of the alcoholic solution and add it to a large glass jar.
  2. Carefully cut the orange peel, avoiding the white part (scrub it off if you can't leave it out). Add it to the alcohol along with the saffron, and cover the jar with a cotton cloth and a rubber band to keep it in place (or, if it is a Weck-type jar, use its lid without the rubber band and clasps). Let it infuse for 3 days.
  3. On the fourth day, combine the sugar and water in another jar and shake well to dissolve the sugar. If the sugar does not dissolve completely, slightly heat it up in a pot. Add it to the alcohol and stir very well to combine. Let sit for 8 more days.
  4. When ready, filter through a clean cotton cloth into a pretty bottle.
  5. This light liquor, which is really easy to make, is perfect to use in baked goods, as an addition to custards and cooked fruits - especially berries.

Story & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian CookingStory & Recipe of 'Rosolio di Portogallo', a Sweet Italian Orange & Saffron Liquor | Hortus Italian Cooking

Creamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce & Poppy Seeds

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As I listen to Die Moldau by Bedrich Smetana, I inevitably think about rivers. That is what this music is about: at first, the pizzicato of the violins and the flutes evoke the sparkling water, dripping down from its fresh spring. The spring turns into a stream, and the stream starts running faster. That is when the orchestra bursts in. During its course, the river bumps into rocks, overflows, passes under the bridges of the city, goes faster, slows down. But it keeps going towards its destiny.

As I listen, I think of the several things that started off this new year which are not resolutions but things that I have already been mulling over for a while, and that make me feel exactly like that flowing river. 

I have been getting rid of unnecessary things: clothes, books, contacts, icons on my desktop, weight, tasks, calls, ingredients in recipes. Even elements of styling in my photography, wherever I can. I just prepared a few bags to sort stuff that I can recycle, sell or just plain trash, and got busy sorting. It is a way of letting go of attachments – both emotional and physical. Let it all go. I know my peace of mind does not need that extra shirt I haven’t been wearing for a while. It is kind of like saying that everything that is not music is noise. I let my feelings and needs dictate what music is. Otherwise, I embrace silence.

Creamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce | Hortus Italian Cooking

I am trying to manage to grow something. After visiting Podere Stuard in Parma, an incredible place where they sell all sorts of heirloom and forgotten varieties of Italian fruits and vegetables from local farmers, I was gifted seeds for two kinds of yellow heirloom tomatoes. I have always been passionate about Medieval gardens and was even more inspired to take advantage of the vegetable garden that is already outside my home – the ‘Hortus’ this blog takes its name from, and actually plant some of those veggie wonders. Aside the tomatoes, I got bear garlic, vineyard garlic, heirloom purple carrots, black strawberries, and a plethora of wild herbs and flowers that should pretty much grow on their own. I plowed the earth and got rid of all the weeds, and are now slowly but steadily learning about assembling an organic garden. I consumed Eva’s article on starting your own seeds, and hopefully will actually be able to be consistent and follow through with my garden commitment.
I love the metaphor of having to take care of something to see it bear fruit. I will keep it as a reminder for all things in life – not only the garden.
(And speaking of, would you like to see posts related to my garden? It would be even more doable if we do this together!)

Creamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce | Hortus Italian CookingCreamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce | Hortus Italian CookingGrottammare, Marche, Italy | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce | Hortus Italian Cooking

I am exploring photography more thoroughly. I will be teaching several workshops this year (calendar coming soon) and the more I teach, the more I learn. It is a wonderful process and I am definitely not done in finding my own voice. This new background in these photos are shelves from a piece of furniture that was in my home.

Ashley Rodriguez, who taught the part about finding our visual voice in our Online Workshop (you can still sign up!) said that everyone should find three adjectives to describe the feeling we would want our work to convey. I would say that I’d want my photos to feel elegant, yet rustic, and timeless. I would want you to feel the heart-filling sensation of my love for all things that sprout from the earth, and that I feel when I forage wild herbs or flowers. I love botanicals and I love those rustic, countryside feels, and I hope my photos can convey just that.

Grottammare, Marche, Italy | Hortus Natural CookingGrottammare, Marche, Italy | Hortus Natural CookingCreamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce | Hortus Italian Cooking

I rediscovered ‘offline’ things: I am setting aside a little time each day to read or draw, two lost and found loves of my life.
I realize now that I could hardly finish a drawing because I was scared to get some lines and shades wrong. There’s no Ctrl+z in the analog world, and I felt like I needed to remember that.
I feel the need to reconnect with the history and the customs of my own land. Today, I have the power to to the same things and think of the same goals, often using the same tools they used 100 years ago – wether is is cultivating the garden or making pasta. It’s the same gestures, the same proceedings, the same looking at the moon phases on the calendar. Hundreds of years later, it is still the same, but with a new mind I dig my hands into the land that belonged to my great-grandfathers.

I take several minutes each day for writing. Ten minutes a day of anything can literally change your life. It is one of those things that I want to grow into a habit – those that therapeutically shield the noise I mentioned above. In the meantime, I listen to lots of music. I love classical and opera.

I plan to show you as much of Italy as I can, and I hope we can embark in this journey together. I want to be like the flowing river. Hitting the rocks or sliding by gently, but ever going, until, calmly, it disperses into the sea.

This recipe for creamy, luscious, bright yellow saffron taglierini embellished with poppy seeds was inspired by two things: one, the work of the guys from Vallescuria, a group of young countryside lovers who started a small saffron cultivation in Brianza, Italy. I strongly admire their work and am happy to help their business with this recipe. Two, a trip I recently took to the coast of Marche, one of the most beautiful places ever, which I will talk about more thoroughly soon.
Saffron and taglierini are two things that are very common in Le Marche’s cuisine: saffron from Marche and Lombardy is famous and precious. Taglierini, like chitarre and capellini, are long, thin pasta formats that are especially local to the area I visited, and the addition of poppy seeds is something I read in the back of a box of Filotea pasta, which is produced in le Marche.

You can make this vegan and gluten-free, too! And, of course, if you fancy making your own pasta, follow the instructions in these posts.
Put on Die Moldau when making this pasta, and be like the flowing river. It feels good.

Creamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce (with vegan variation)
Serves 2
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
  • 1 cup full fat milk
  • A pinch saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons / 30 g butter
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1 tablespoon rice flour or starch
  • 160g taglierini, tagliolini or angel hair pasta
  • ½ cup grated parmigiano cheese
  • ½ teaspoon salt, plus coarse salt for the boiling water
  • Some of the pasta cooking water
  • Poppy seeds, to finish
  • (For vegan variation, see description below)
  1. In a small pot, warm the milk, but to not bring to a boil. Add the saffron threads, and stir them into the warm milk. Let sit for about 15 minutes. Keep the milk warm but do not boil it.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add coarse salt (about a scant tablespoon every 4 cups).
  3. In the meantime, melt the butter and oil in a pan. When the butter starts to bubble, take the pan off the fire and add the flour. Stir well to melt it and create a paste with the butter.
  4. Add the warm saffron milk a little at a time, stirring to incorporate it. When it is completely incorporated, bring the pan back on a medium-low flame, add salt, and stir constantly until the mixture thickens. It will look sort of loose and might feel too watery, but it will thicken up later with the pasta starch and cheese.
  5. Boil the pasta. If you made them at home, they will take about 3 minutes. If store-bought, cook as indicated in the package, but drain them a minute or two before indicated. Reserve about a cup of the pasta water.
  6. Add the pasta to the pan along with a couple tablespoons of the pasta water and the grated cheese, and stir to form a cream. If too thick, add a little extra pasta water until you reach the desired consistency.
  7. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of poppy seeds on top.
VEGAN VERSION: use a light-tasting oil instead of the butter, and substitute the milk with full-fat coconut milk. Just skip the cheese - add a teaspoon or two of nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor. The saffron has a very strong flavor and will likely cover all other flavors.
  1. If you do not want to use coconut milk, use half cup cashews, soaked for several hours, blended with half cup water.
  2. For a gluten free version, use gluten free pasta.

 Creamy Taglierini Pasta with Saffron Sauce | Hortus Italian Cooking

Hortus’ 2016 Gift Guide

This year, I decided to put together a little list of Italian-inspired gifts, paired with some of my American favorites.
This idea was born from my days roaming the shelves of New York stores, full of excellent products that I wished like crazy someone could just drop before my door.
There is a little known fact, and one I am almost intimidated to say out loud to my fellow countrymen: many of the most excellent Italian products I know, I discovered in New York. Wether it was at Whole Foods, in specialty stores like Di Palo’s, or even at a supermarket like Fairways, Italian artisanal products were everywhere to be found.

Fast forward to 2016, when I started to work with Italian food&wine export, and I discovered that most of our best products get shipped out to the US, China or the Arab Emirates. Of which, I must say, I am quite glad: I am glad that the rest of the world have access to some incredible food produced in this generous country, and I am glad that the world seems to appreciate it so much.

I have never stressed much over gifts – mostly because I’ve only ever made gifts to people I am extremely close to, but I understand that they can be a struggle for many. 

When in doubt, I resort to food.

It is usually a gift that can be made on a budget, and one for which you can really care about quality. After all, the best pasta you can possibly buy will hardly ever sell for over 6 ~ 8$.It is useful and hardly ever wasteful. And, if your edible gifts are carefully selected, they will make for an even more heartfelt gift. 

So, reminiscent of my experience in the States, when I discovered that brands such as Pasta Mancini and Italian truffles were to be found through Amazon if not at a physical store, I was inspired to put together a little list of Italian-inspired gift for the foodie who’s dreaming of Europe, ranging from totally affordable to slightly pricier but of very high value. This list aims to be a marriage of American and Italian finesse that would make every food aficionado, I am sure, very very happy. At least, I know for sure they would make me happy to say the least.

Furthermore, you can find some link love for further inspiration at the bottom of this post!

What are your favorite Italian products that you can find in your country? And what are some of your favorite homemade gifts to make? Leave a comment below!

Food, Wine & Books

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural Cooking

{ The Pantry }

1. /Bitterman Salt Co. Cervia salt
I was surprised to see, amongst Bittmann’s array of salts, one coming from Cervia. Cervia, a town in Romagna, not far from where I live, is famous for its high quality, hand-harvested salt. It will make a perfect finishing salt – as would most wonderful salts of the same brand.

2. /Pasta
I am fond of Pasta Mancini Pastificio, which I discovered for the first time in NY. They make small batch pasta with the wheat they grow themselves around their factory near Fermo, Marche. Their pasta has great texture, thickness and quality.
Other brands I like are Monograno Felicetti and Alta Valle Scrivia. If looking for a nice US-made pasta, have a look at Sfoglini.

3. /Aceto Balsamico (Modena Balsamic Vinegar)
Aceto Tradizionale di Modena, the real, aged balsamic vinegar which can only be made in the province of Modena according to Italian Law, comes in small bottles and kind of big prices, but it is well worth the money. It comes in silver label (aged 12 years) and gold labels (aged 24 years) and can be drizzled over meats, ice cream, fresh fruits, cheeses (especially Parmigiano!) and roast pumpkin. It is one of the Italian ingredients I love the most and one I think is really worth the money.

 { Teatime }

4. /Torrone
Torrone, the Italian nougat made of egg whites, honey and nuts, is one of the most traditional Christmas eats. Ones by brands like Sorelle Nurzia and Barbero come in several different coatings and flavors and in some very pretty packaging to boot. You can find these at Eataly or at a specialty Italian shop. 

5. /Chocolate
I love Venchi’s chocolate – both for the flavor and for the vintage wrappings, reminiscent of Piedmont’s old glory. My favorite has got to be their Chocolate Caviar and Gianduja, the Italian chocolate and hazelnut mix from Piedmont.

6. /Smith Teas
I am a mad tea lover, and have tried several brands throughout my life. None has struck me as much as Smith Teas did. The boxes are also very elegant, making them perfect for gifting.}

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Bitterman Salt Co | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural Cooking


7. / Wines from Northern Italy

My favorite wines in the world are those from Friuli and from Veneto, in northern Italy. If you love scented, fresh, intense still whites, then wines from these regions are for you. Eataly Vino has a nice selection that can be found pretty much all around the US, and so does The unmissable bottles are Ribolla Gialla, Friulano (ex Tocai), Soave, Moscato, and Malvasia (NOT sparkling), my favorite. These wines are one of our best kept secrets, even though Bastianich is doing a good job at spreading the word.
Moving south to Tuscany to pick some Reds, one of the best cellars sold in the US is Félsina. You could pick just about any wine and be sure it will be a hit (just look at the ratings).
Two of my other favorite cellars which make killer whites, and some of my favorite wines, are Aloïs Lageder and Stag’s Leap.

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Wine from Friuli | Hortus Natural Cooking

Tools & Table

8. /Fog Linen Works home goods.
Perfect for the design lover: these scissors are beautiful and affordable, and so are these linen napkinsAn alternative for all your friend who love gardening or foraging are these Japanese shears (I love my scissors dearly).

9. /Fog Linen aprons
When Betty got me and Zaira one, I couldn’t believe my eyes. If any foodie you might gift it to is half as happy as we were, you’ll know you’ve found the gift of the year.

10. /Freaky Raku bowls
My friends Zaira and Francesco handcraft their beautiful dishware in their makeshift lab in the countryside right outside of Venice. Get one of their bowls before they become crazy famous and you will have to wait a year before they can make one for you – which is happening soon as they have a rather long request list already.

11. /‘Il Coccio’ Terracotta cooking vessels
These have been the discovery of the year. Use them to cook stews, vegetables, soups and even meat like you’ve never done before. They are healthy, sustainable, quite cheap, and allow for cooking with very little fat. I Have two, and plan to invest some money in more shapes and sizes. This, this and this are some of my favorites. I saw them on sale at Chelsea Market and in pretty much all major cities I’ve been to. 


12. /Happy Socks
They have some rather whimsical underwear designs, sure to make any boyfriend with a sense of humor rather happy!

13. /Klasse14 Watches
These watches are made by a company in Hong Kong, but are entirely designed and produced in Italy. I’ve been loving the rose gold color of mine and I’ve been wearing it religiously.

14. /Scented Candles
Both Le Labo and L’Objet sent me their candles to try out, and I fell in love with all of them. I actually started the habit of lighting a candle in the evening to unwind after learning about theirs. Le Labo’s fragrances are unique and somewhat whimsical, in an extraordinarily pleasing way, and seem especially focused on musky, earthy, almost masculine, intense scents. L’Objet candles are more on the traditional side, though the selection is small and well curated, with scents ranging from flowery to woodsy.

15. /Aesop Oils
I immediately fell for these as soon as Christiann made me try them. They will add a whole different mood to your home and life.

Hortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Le Labo Candles | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide | Hortus Natural CookingHortus' 2016 Gift Guide - Wrapping | Hortus Natural Cooking

{ Books }

15. / There are many great Italian cooking books on sale. My favorites are: Frankie’s Spuntino for super simple Italian fare for beginners and  fuss-free cooks (and quite veggie friendly too); Emiko Davies’ Florentine, about the author’s experience in Tuscany with local recipes; Tasting Rome, the work by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill on Roman cuisine; and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the real bible for mastering all the best recipes of Italian cuisine. Of course, another Italian bible cookbook would be The Silver Spoon (2000 recipes anyone?).
Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine is a lovely book, as well: it has a thorough guide to all Italian ingredients, kitchen tools, perfectly cooking pasta and vegetables, and plethora of nice, everyday recipes. It is one of those fuss-free cookbooks with no photos but tons of good tips and cute illustrations!

Finally, the book from which I got my choice of cookies for this year: Alanna Taylor-Tobin’s Alternative Baker, which I am loving like I hardly ever did a baking book and from which I made Chestnut Chocolate & Cherry cookies to share on the blog (recipe soon)!

Stunning gift guides, Wrapping, & Edible gifts ideas

{Gifts Guides & Wrapping}

~ Local Milk’s 20142015 & 2016 gift guides

~ Eva Kosmas Flores’ 2015 & 2016 gift guides

~ I Am A Food Blog’s cute + design-y 2016 Gift Guide

~ Beth [Local Milk]’s Floral Gift Toppers & 2016 Gift Wrapping

{Homemade Gifts Inspiration}

~ Linda Lomelino’s DIY Edible Gifts in Jars & Swedish Butterscotch Gingerbread Cookies

~ Again, Linda Lomelino’s Homemade Flavored Sugars

~ My Flavored Infused Honeys (the lemon one is to die for!)

~ And my Infused Oils and Ointments (I LOVE the vanilla + lemon one for blemishes)

~ Valentina has these beautiful blends for herbal teas to soothe sore throats, painful periods, and aid digestion. They’d look so pretty in a jar!

~ These Ginger Viennese Swirl Cookies by Jenny would look quite classy in a nice box.

~ Sophie has a *swoon* giftable Chocolate Gingerbread Granola + cute gift tags!

{Christmas + Lifestyle}

~ Christiann Koepke published a guide with the most beautiful photos about setting some Christmas mood in small spaces <3 

My personal cookie choice this year fell with Alanna’s cookies, of which – as mentioned above – I will be sharing the recipe soon. They are hands down some of the best cookies I’ve ever had and the world needs to know about them.

Happy gifting & wrapping!

A Venetian Celery Risotto, & A Freaky Raku Giveaway!

Veneto, a land situated in the northeast Italy of which the large plains turn abruptly into mountains or meet the north of the Adriatic, is a land of misty dampness, blessed with some of the best vineyards in Italy, and with beautiful cities, reminiscent of the Austrian empire that once ruled this area. Veneto is a land of villas, of ghosts of lords who ruled over them and whose presence almost seems to linger amidst the fog. It is a land of canals and ancient royalties, of shipyards and seafood and the preserving culture connected to it.
Amidst this wonder, Venice stands alone, yet blends beautifully into the common traits of Veneto.
And, in this regard, Venice – just like all of Veneto, is a land of rice.
The abundance of water, fog and dampness made it a perfect spot to grow rice, making the whole region famous for its risottos.

My great-grandmother, a native of Chioggia, right off the coasts of Venice, has spent her life bent over a rice field, her feet constantly wet, picking fresh grains of rice.

So, even though Veneto indefinitely not the only place in Italy famous for risotto, to me this special preparation will always connected to this region.

After writing my little post on how to spend a winter day in Venice, I was inspired to replicate a Venetian recipe and, even though there are several to choose from, I could’t help but think of risotto once again.
In venice, risottos tend to be soupier, or ‘all’onda’, as we say (literally ’at the wave’, romantically recalling, I like to think, its proximity to the sea. 

The recipe I chose to share this time is so simple I almost felt it wasn’t worth sharing. I found it in a book called ‘A Tola coi nostri Veci’, which in venetian dialect means ‘At the Table with our Elderly People’, and is an old book of recipes from Veneto, entirely written in Venetian dialect! 

Venetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina Solfrini

When I talked to Zaira, she confirmed that this recipe is definitely very popular amongst Venetian people, and that her parents still prepare it quite often. After Zaira’s confirmation, I felt even more attracted to this recipe. Risotto is meant to be a simple, fuss-free comfort food, which takes pride in its creaminess and texture rather than its ingredients: you will find that most traditional risottos have as little as five ingredients, and usually one defining vegetable. Choose these ingredients wisely, and your risotto will be worthy to be served to royalty. 

In the case of this risotto, the one vegetable that defines it is celery.
In my home, celery has always been a rather neglected vegetable – save for its classic use in mirepoix along with carrot and onion. Anise-y flavors have started grow on me just recently, but even so, my favorite way to enjoy celery was cut into sticks and eaten raw with extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic and a touch of salt.
It was a Hungarian lady I was working forth years ago who taught me how to use it: she would use it in stir-fries, in stews, roasted with cheese, braised. She would use the leaves to add flavor to soups and to make pesto (a recipe I will definitely share at some point).
In this risotto, the celery adds a hint of freshness and turns wonderfully aromatic along with the shallots. For this recipe, use the tender heart of white celery if you can find it. Otherwise, just use the heart from regular green celery – leaves and all. 

Last year, I wrote a guide on how to make the perfect risotto. Give it a read if you need some extra guidance, but this recipes is so simple that it does not need that much preparation. 

Butter and cheese, which are of really high quality in northern Italy thanks to our free-range, grass-fed pastures, are paramount in this preparation. Choose high quality butter and real Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, which you will very likely find in most cheese counters. 

I have recently discovered the most wonderful way to finish risotto, thanks to a friend of Gabriela who kindly invited us to dinner in their home in Bologna, and who works as a chef: he prepared a beautiful pumpkin risotto – common preparation in all of northern Italy – then finished it by stirring in some baccalà mantecato. I discovered that this preparation, which is a very Venetian one indeed, is used to finish risotto a wide area of the Padan plain, from Parma to Mantova and all the way to Veneto. Its creaminess melts into the risotto perfectly, and its high-fat content makes for the best of Sunday dishes for a winter day. If you can find or make baccalá mantecato, it is a treat well worth the effort. I believe that cod brandade would be a good choice as well, should that be easier to find or make.

NOTE: sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find semi-brown risotto rice, which has a little more nutritional value. Unfortunately, brown rice does not really turn creamy, so using risotto rice for this recipe is really important. 

NOTE 2: The cheese you see pictured is actually neither Parmigiano nor Grana. It is Pecorino Romano, which is one of the tastiest cheeses in existence but probably a little too strong for this risotto. Please forgive me for forgetting to stock up on Parmigiano!

Venetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina SolfriniVenetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina Solfrini



There is no one who embodies the essence of Venice like Zaira and her family: the art, the Old Masters, the elegance, the slight air of mystery, the ancient-yet-perfectly-modern style, the overall feeling of noble decadence of the furniture of their home, the neutral grey and blues of their clothes, and humble yet poised warmth of their table. I am convinced that there is an old Venetian duke in the shadow of their past lives. 

The same simple elegance shows through the beautiful ceramics she and her boyfriend Francesco craft under the name of The Freaky Raku. I am honored to be able to use their ceramics in my posts, and I am honored to give one away to you  – specifically, the speckled bowl you see in this photo. 

Follow @valentinahortus @thefreakyraku @thefreakytable on Instagram to be kept posted!

Venetian Celery Risotto | Hortus Italian Cooking by Valentina Solfrini

Look out for a post on Instagram about it in the next couple of days! 

And now, onto the recipe!


Venetian Celery Risotto
Serves 4
Recipe type: Risotto
Cuisine: Italian
  • 50 g (a little less than half a stick) butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 small shallots (weighting about 60g / 2.5 oz.), finely chopped
  • The heart of a white or green celery, with its leaves (use about ¼ packed cup leaves), finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 320g Risotto rice, preferably ‘Carnaroli' or 'Vialone nano’ varieties
  • ¼ cup Marsala wine or white wine
  • 1 lt / 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt
  • 60g / 2.5 oz grated Parmigiano or Grana cheese, or more to taste
  • A touch of grated lemon zest
  • Chopped parsley
  • A good tablespoonful of baccalá mantecato or cod brandade
  1. Melt the butter and oil in a pot, preferably a sautéuse or a pot with a handle and tall edges.
  2. Add the shallots and stir-fry for a couple minutes, until they turn translucent.
  3. Add the celery and sauté for couple minutes, stirring every now and then.
  4. Add the tomato paste and melt it in the fat. Stir it for a minute or so, until the tomato usefully blended into the mix. You can use as little tomato paste or as much as you like: I used very little, as I wanted my risotto more on the white side, but adding a full tablespoon makes for a very tasty risotto.
  5. Add the rice, and stir it around for a minute to toast and release the starch. Add the marsala or wine and let it evaporate. If you do not have any wine, feel free to skip this step.
  6. Start adding the stock: add one cup first, and wait for it to be fully absorbed before adding the next. The liquid should simmer slowly, on a medium-low fire. To stir the risotto, swirl the pot rather than mixing with a spoon, so the risotto will have the best consistency. Only use a wooden spoon every now and then to check the bottom and make sure it doesn’t stick. Add salt to taste - use about ½ teaspoon.
  7. The rice should be left slightly ‘al dente’, but it should not be tough. A regular white rice will take about 15 to 20 minutes to cook. Once of the stock has been absorbed and the rice cooked, you should be left with a creamy risotto that is slightly on the soupy side. If you’d like it more soupy, add half a cup more stock.
  8. Stir in the cheese to finish the risotto. Check for salt, and adjust to taste. If you like, you can finish with a touch more oil or butter.
  9. This super simple risotto can be finished in a variety of ways. Stir in lemon zest and/or parsley, which complement the buttery, cheesy flavor perfectly with their hint of freshness. Or, try my favorite way to finish this risotto and make it even more Venetian: add baccalá mantecato, or cod brandade, whichever you can find or make the easiest.



~ Valeria Necchio has several risotto recipes from Veneto: check out her recipe for Risi e Bisi (rice with peas), Risi e Suca (rice soup with pumpkin), and Risotto with Girolles and Speck.

~ Emiko Davies has a wonderful recipe for a ‘Risotto in Cantina’ (Cellar risotto), made with wonderful white wines from Veneto, along with a story of how it came to be. 

~ Giulia Scarpaleggia has a recipe for one of the best risottos out there – though it may not be exactly in season right now: whole wheat risotto with wild asparagus. And, speaking of spring risottos from Veneto, Skye McAlpine has a recipe for vegetable and mint risotto up on her blog. 

~ Aside my basic risotto guide, last year I also published a simple Fennel Risotto, another Venetian recipe. 

~ Zaira has a plethora of Venetian recipes up on her blog, none of which are risotto but all of which have a little bit of Venice in them, I believe. Plus, they are all served in beautiful Freaky Raku dishware, of course. 

A little final note
I believe that my true calling, as well as the true calling of this blog, is to share the story and recipes of Italian food. Much as I love researching vegetarian and vegan recipes, sometimes I feel like this restriction is limiting in regards of the stories I would love to tell. After all, I eat close to no meat at all, but I am no vegetarian: I grew up next to the sea, and fresh seafood on the table is still a thing in my household.
Of course, I won’t suddenly go showing meat on the blog – the main focus of this blog will still be vegetables and whole foods –  but I will suggest pairings or flavor accents that belong to the omnivore world – like I did here with the Baccalá, because that’s what I do in real life, and I hope you do not mind.