Australia felt like a long, vivid, almost esoteric, lucid dream.
If not for the distance traveled, and the 5-cypher number indicating the amount of kilometers on the plane’s screen, it was so for the flora and fauna. Or for the smells, or the accents. But mostly for the sky.
In the nights in that opposite hemisphere, I kept perusing the sky in search of never seen constellations. Such irony it was that most of the stars would be clearer there than I had ever seen in the North of our planet. The Southerns Cross hanging in the night made Australia feel so distant, I almost felt like I had traveled to a different planet. I don’t know if you have ever felt that feeling of proximity when looking at the Polar Star and, even if on the opposite side of the globe, knew that someone distant could see it as well. That they could smell the fir, acacia flowers, or -. Long distance love has a way to find every excuse to see tempests where there are but a handful of drops.
But I love the feeling of the unknown, and it is even better when you know your hand is being held and you can trust that nothing will harm you. I have been flown to the Unknown and I have once again been drenched in blissful inspiration.
It took me so long to write this post. I kept writing, erasing and re-writing many thoughts that kept storming in.
The retreat we attended was organized by the unstoppable Anisa Sabet in the stunning location of Bundara Farm, Australia. She kindly requested Zaira and myself as teachers, so we partook in this beautiful give-and-take that teaching photography and styling is.
I will let the photos speak for themselves.
Once again, I reveled in the rekindling of inspiration I feel every time I am with Zaira, and I am so happy we have been shipped into this adventure together. She styles food in the most beautiful ways, and I never tire, nor stop feeling thankful, to see her at work, and to learn from her.
I have been told that I am a very good teacher several times, and yet, at this wonderful Australian retreat, I felt like all I did was learning.
We started with a delicious lunch, prepared by the plant-based chefs from Alfie’s Kitchen, who took care of us and cooked some of the best food I have ever had. Their fare was foraged and sourced from organic markets, and they patiently explained to me about all the local wild food there was to be gathered in that stunning part of the Kangaroo valley. Full from locally foraged mushroom ragu and the most delicious roasted vegetables and fresh salads, we shot, styled, talked, drank full-bodied Shiraz and Cabernet. We witnessed the incredible Lean Timms at work styling flowers and our dinner table, as Anisa twirled around like a whirling Dervish to make sure everything was on point with her perfect organizational skills. Ryan, her husband, gave a fascinating class about cocktails. And so we (they) drank away the night, in the bliss that retreats are always made of.
We ended our 2 and a half days together with a beautiful dinner in the Estate’s barn, candlelit and blessed with many delicious courses (I am going to try and replicate the pumpkin soup with truffle oil, cauliflower purée and charred leeks for sure).
There are tons of many things I would love to say. But much as I tried, all I will do is share photos and share thanks. Some stories I just like to keep for myself.
Those Who Made it Happen Anisa, a bomb of a woman. Thank you for making us feel so, so at home. / Ryan, a wonderful host. /Lean Timms, what an inspiration to see you at work! /Megan, for running around like crazy all day and night and being pretty much like our mom. /
It is funny how sometimes, when you are absolutely firm on the decision that you do not like something or someone, life finds a way to make you change your mind.
This is the story about how life decided that I had to like polenta, when in fact I never did.
Some three years ago, when I was working an office job, a freelance guy who was in charge of developing a new app walked in and sat at the desk next to mine.
His name was Daniele, and the first thing we noticed, aside a pair of square glasses framing a constantly smiling, kind face, was his strong accent. His way of speaking made me smile: he was from Vicenza, in northern Veneto. I loved that accent, which felt so close to my heart and to a family heritage I hadn’t explored as much as I wanted to. We quickly became friends.
In August, he invited me to go on a tour of Veneto with him for a few days (there is the chronicle of this on the blog!). We visited Vicenza, Verona, Treviso, Bassano del Grappa, Soave, Marostica, and ended up in Caorle, a quiet sea town where some friends held a wonderful dinner at their home. There, they served us polenta instead of bread.
Before I go on, I should stress just how different each region of Italy is. The Triveneto, the part of Italy that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire and that finds its forte in making the best polenta in the country, is entirely different from the rest of Italy in architecture, language and gastronomy. Triveneto, which includes the ‘Venezia Euganea‘ (Veneto and Venice), the ‘Venezia Tridentina‘ (Trentino Alto-Adige, the region on the Alps), and the ‘Venezia Giulia‘ (Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the north-easternmost part of Italy) has a tradition of polentas of all kinds, colors and consistencies, which are completely unknown to the rest of Italy. And I mean, unknown.
I had already noticed how Veneto definitely lacked decent bread and pizza (sorry Venetians, it’s just how it is), so, at that party, I grabbed a bite of polenta out of politeness, and as soon as I put it in my mouth I couldn’t believe what I tasted.
The consistency. The flavor. Everything was so intense, so much more intense than what I was used to at home.
Polenta, being the epitome of the poor man’s food – even more so than bread alone, had been present in my household of farmers for years and years and years. The point of it was always dousing it in sauces, wether it was meat sauce, mushroom sauce, bean stew, clam ragu, or any other tomato-y, oily, delicious condiment. My mom bought the only polenta she easily found at the supermarket, the kind of flavorless pre-cooked polenta ready in 5 minutes.
Still, even though polenta was definitely present in the traditions of Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany, I had never had a polenta like that, which was just delicious on its own.
I have not seen Daniele in a while, but sometimes I miss that warm feeling that irradiated from his calm smile, and the polenta he, his friends and his family had offered me. One night, his dad came home late and we happened to come back from a bar we had visited, and all he had for dinner was a plate of green beans from the garden, dressed with some oil from the Garda lake, and polenta. No more.
Those days I spent in Veneto, it rained a lot. Yet, I started associating polenta to that feeling of welcome, warmth and kindness, like the sun coming out after a big storm, like the burst of flowers in bloom when spring is in full swing. I felt a little fire kindling inside my heart, and I left veneto with a bag of that same polenta I had in that house on the sea in Caorle.
Then I met Zaira. At her home, I tried white Venetian polenta for the first time. When we went to S. Stino di Livenza to shoot a job for a client, we tasted the most delicious polentas from ancient varietes of corn: red polenta, white polenta…as well as al the other Venetians, including Valeria (who has a book coming out soon!!) who is definitely a great resource for polenta.
But this is a story for another time.
What made my love for polenta come full circle was Marco.
He is a chef and gastronomy specialist, hailing from Udine, in Friuli, but living in Parma. He had something that reminded me of Daniele: the same square glasses framing his face, the same kind smile. When he takes off his glasses, his short-sighted eyes go from tiny licorice-black pepitas to large, deer-ish irises. I love looking at him in the eyes when he talks about food: they light up, and their light reminds me of the sensation of that little warm fire kindling inside my heart. La polenta va bene con tutto, he says, in his nordic accent which is slightly reminiscent of that of Veneto, but slightly sweeter. Polenta goes with everything.
Even his name seems to hint at his bond with polenta: Furmenti, his last name, reminds me of the word furment, which in Romagna dialect indicates the kind of coarsely ground corn used to either make polenta in ancient times or to feed the hens. So I have been calling him Polenta since day one. Funny, isn’t it?
He works at Podere Stuard, the place where I took these incredible photos. Podere Stuard is a large farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, but minutes away from Parma, surrounded by greenhouses, fruit orchards and freely scuttling hens, turkeys and roosters, all of which – veg, fruit and animals – of heirloom varieties and races. They grow over 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and chillies and rediscovered some incredible forgotten varieties of delicious produce. The farmhouses here are a strange architectural mix of those found in Emilia, square and almost castle-like, and those found in Veneto, with large arched porticos called barchesse. Under the Podere’s porticos, herbs, garlic and chillies hang to dry. I can see Marco working on the kitchen through the old glass door under one of the porticos. In this spring bursting with flowers, the warmth of the sun feels very similar to that polenta feeling I got in Caorle.
‘In Friuli, polenta is made in a copper pot,’ he explains. ‘Technically, polenta is only properly made when it completely detaches from the pot and creates a crust, rather than sticking. It is stirred with a long wooden oar-like spoon, and it is cooked over an open fire in a fireplace or over a traditional stove. When poured over a wooden board – or rather, unmolded, it is left to set a bit and cut with a cotton thread – it would stick to any knife. My grandpa was the one who always did it. To us, it was a ritual.
To us, people from Friuli, polenta made in a copper pot and cut with cotton thread is what fresh pasta made with a rolling pin and fresh eggs is to you in Romagna’. And once again, ‘food’ is what we had as kids. In our memories, we are all brothers.
Marco loved polenta so much that he somehow made my love for it explode as well, like a girl who is sold over a grand gesture from her guy at their third date.
I wanted to try polenta with a fully vegetarian/vegan sauce for the longest time, and I think I really nailed this one. I used a simplified recipe for a ragu made with spring vegetables that my mom usually makes for tagliatelle, and added seeds to the polenta for added protein and nutrients.
This recipe looks long, but it is super easy to make. You can even make the spring ragu and pea pod cream in advance, or, if you cannot be bothered to make the cream, use some good pesto of your choice. Do not even think of using instant polenta. Try and find stone-milled polenta: the best quality one will have several black speckles, meaning it is whole and stone-milled. If you really cannot find polenta, you could try this recipe with grits. I am sure it is not the same, but I don’t see why it could not work. I got my polenta from Podere Stuard’s shop, produced by Pederzani. This recipe would be even better if you let the polenta set, then cut it into slices and griddle it, so that it will get crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Then spoon the cream/pesto and ragu on top as if it were bruschetta.
It is an earthy, abundant, and delicious dish!
Marco says he would like to steal the recipe for a vegan dinner he is planning.
Coming from the king of polenta, it sure is more than flattery.
Seeded Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Cream
A scant ¼ cup mixed seeds (sunflower, chia, sesame...)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
(For a non-vegan version: 3 heaping tablespoons grated pecorino or parmigiano)
FOR THE SPRING RAGU
1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
½ small onion
200g shelled fava beans
200g fresh peas, shelled
5-6 wild asparagus spears (optional)
½ cup vegetable stock (or water plus ½ teaspoon veg bouillon)
Salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE CREAM
The pods from the peas
½ small onion, chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
¼ cup packed basil leaves, chopped
3-4 long chives, chopped
Salt to taste
Extra virgin olive oil (preferably garlic or basil flavored)
Fresh chives and chive flowers
Shaved pecorino or parmigiano (skip if keeping vegan, and use toasted seeds instead)
MAKE THE SPRING RAGU
Add the olive oil and garlic to a pot and heat the oil on medium low, until the garlic sizzles slightly and flavors the oil.
Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until translucent.
Add the fava beans, peas, asparagus if using and stir well. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the stock/water and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked, about 10 minutes. Check for salt.
MAKE THE PEA POD CREAM
If you cannot be bothered to make this, use any good pesto instead of this.
Remove all the strings from the pea pods. Add the pods, onion and stock to a pot and bring to a boil. Cook until the pods are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the stock, and blend with the basil, chives and a good pinch of salt. Add a little stock of the cream seems to thick, but we are aiming at a fairly thick consistency.
Pass the cream through a sieve, pushing it with the back of a spoon, to get rid of all the stringy parts of the pods.
MAKE THE POLENTA
Add the water to a pot and bring to a simmer - not a boil. When bubbles appear on the bottom of the pan and the water smokes, start adding the polenta, little by little, and whisking constantly and vigorously. This is important to avoid the formation of clumps. Bring the heat to low and stir well. Add the seeds, oil and salt, and stir well again. Let the polenta cook for about 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes. Refer to the instructions on the package for exact cooking time. If you want to use cheese (super tasty addition) stir it in when the polenta is almost ready. When the polenta is ready, immediately transfer it to a serving dish. If you time things right, you should have all three parts of the recipe ready at the same time.
If you're not keeping the recipe vegan, add a couple tablespoons of grated pecorino or parmigiano when the polenta is done cooking, and stir it in. Delicious!
SERVE AND GARNISH
Spoon the pea pod cream (or a little pesto if not making the cream), then the spring ragu on top of the polenta. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil, preferably basil or garlic or lemon flavored, and chopped chives and chive flowers. If keeping vegan, sprinkle some toasted seeds. Otherwise, some pecorino or parmigiano shavings would be great!
When you eat polenta, I hope you will think of this warm feeling. I hope you will feel that soft warmth of spring, when everything feels velvety and tepid, like the feathers of the chicks and petals of every flower. Think of those elderly people from Veneto and Friuli stirring polenta over the coals.
And think of those who are their grandchildren. I am sure that you can feel a little bit like them at every bite, and I am sure the polenta will be tenfold as delicious.
When I was in New York, there was a place I always went to for fresh ricotta about once a week. I reached for that plastic tub, and I did for several reasons. Sure, I did because I knew that ricotta was locally made with organic milk, and I also did because pasta with basil, ricotta and peas has always been one of my staples (care for the recipe?).
But the main reason was another.
Whenever I reached for that tub, I could not help but think of what those snow-white curds meant for me. I did because, as I grabbed it and held it in my hand, which inevitably turned numb with the cold, clouds of images started forming in my head.
I snapped a mental photograph of my post-school afternoons, when for merenda my mom would spread a thick layer of fresh ricotta on a slice of white bread – the kind of fluffy, classic Italian baker’s bread I never liked but never had the courage to tell her, and sprinkle it with honey or sugar. I thought of the pool of the many things I never had the courage to tell her, as, though she never admitted it, she has the same tendency to snap at remarks as me: I never told her how I never liked the shoes she picked for me, or how I once hid a door key that we both never found again in an attempt of vengeance for what I thought was an undeserved punishment.
But, even on that bread I did not like, ricotta and honey were a crown on a poor man’s head. It was my favorite merenda, and one of those many things that just tend to fade with adulthood, without a specific reason. It is like Bianca Pitzorno says in her book La Voce Segreta (The Secret Voice), in which Cora, the little girl protagonist, can talk to objects and small children with a secret voice that everyone said would disappear as she grew older.
Then my mind proceeded to paint the picture of my mom, sitting at her table as a kid, in those little dresses I always saw her wear in her black-and-white photos. She told me how, when they could have merenda, it was always that white bread from the baker downstairs, topped with the freshest ricotta from the countryside, where her grandmother still resided. A sprinkling of sugar topped it, and that was it. A merenda that bore the milky taste of her countryside heritage, mixed with the store-bought bread which so well represented their attempt to embrace the ever gentrifying town lifestyle. In their countryside home, the outdoors wood-fired oven built into the wall had been bricked up.
She took her slice and went and hid in the attic, where she hid a pile of books that the family preferred she did not read. She, too, had many things she did not have the courage to tell her mother.
I thought of all the other things I could have used that ricotta for. I could have made pane e ricotta again, and sprinkled a touch of cinnamon on top, which I so learned to love after spending a fall in the States. Or I could have made a spiced sugar with rose petals and sweet spices, or maybe a honey bomb, to top it. I could have made a cake, or a filling for crespelle. Or maybe I could have eaten it as is, with honey and walnuts.
This whole, Orient Express-like train of thought lasted no more than a few seconds. It vanished as I put the ricotta in the basket, like when you wave smoke away with your hands.
Pasta with ricotta and peas it would be.
As I grabbed that tub again to pass it to the cashier register, I thought of what that same tub of ricotta could mean to other people. I wondered if there was something people thought as they grabbed that very same tub. And I though about what stations those trains of thoughts could stop at today, and where they could go in the future.
This meaning behind food is way too important to me, and the reason why I try my hardest at keeping this blog going in spite of the work overload I accepted for the year. I am just back from the event Cibo a Regola d’Arte organized by Corriere della Sera and Angela Frenda, where I was a finalist for their #CucinaBlogAward. I was so happy I had the chance to meet and listen to some of the most inspiring people ever, including the winners and other finalists (full list at the end of the post!). In particular, I loved a speech given by Andrea Berton and Antonio Santini about how their work as (Michelin starred) chefs is tied to their roots (more on this in another post, coming soon), and I was happy to meet Amanda Hesser, and hear her talk about her experience as a writer and entrepreneur.
I was most happy to exchange a word with Francesco Zonin – a man who stood out both for his stance and his quiet composure – head of a very large company of winemakers, which sponsored both these awards and the Saveur Awards. I asked him what he loved most about his job.
‘As wine dealers we always have to keep our feet both forward and back,’ he said. ‘We have to explore new trends for sure, but we can never forget who we were and what our ancestors did. The moment we lose track of our past, we’re lost.’
And we – writers, bloggers, photographers, and ultimately cooks – can all relate to that.
Now mom makes her own whole wheat bread; she does because I taught her how to make it, and yet I never tried ricotta and honey on it. I like it better on its own. Maybe a properly dressed gentleman needs no extra accessory other than what he is already wearing perfectly.
or maybe I like the memory of the food more than the food itself. Maybe we all do, and maybe that is the point of a good part of food writing. Who can say.
But for sure, as long as we get those long trains of feelings going back and forth, we’re all good.
The photos from this post were shot when Signe Bay came and visited me in Gradara, all the way from Denmark. I also shot some of these photos when Monika came for a workshop with me all the way from Hong Kong. And this is the part of blogging that is most incredible to me: the power of people coming together, (almost) never as rivals but as the newfound companions we always wished we met, who understand us and can relate to our lives, fears, and joys. I met the most important people of my life through blogging and I know there are many more to come.
I feel like I can never be thankful enough.
For this recipe, I went back – way back – and decided to tackle an old recipe from Ada Boni’s book, Il Talismano della Felicitá, and brought it forth with a few twists. It has that flavor from ancient recipes, so familiar to my Italian palate: it is not very sweet, and almost of a flan-like consistency, spiked with candied citrus, which was so common in the olden days. I added a little more flour, as I found it a little too flan-like, and used a sugar I made out of brown sugar, cinnamon, and dried rose petals that Saghar gifted me from Iran, as well as tons of lemon.
I baked it in a crown-shaped mold, though I suggest you bake it in a springform pan, as it really tends to stick and is quite soft, plus it tends to fall. It is an absolutely delicious cake, and if you like the kind of dense baked goods, then this cake is totally for you.
Could you not expect deliciousness from a book that is called The Talisman of Happiness, after all?
And what about you? What is it that comes to mind when you grab a tub of ricotta?
2 tablespoons liquor like rum or limoncello (I used pistachio liquor)
Extra: lemon or orange blossom essence
30g potato or corn starch
50g whole wheat flour (or brown rice flour for a gluten-free version)
2 teaspoons baking soda
A large handful candied lemon peel, chopped and lightly floured
A large handful candied orange peel, chopped, or soaked raisins, squeezed and lightly floured
Finely chopped toasted pistachios, for serving
MAKE THE CINNAMON ROSE SUGAR
Combine all the ingredients in a powerful blender or a spice grinder, and process for a few seconds at maximum speed, until you obtain a fine powder. I did this with my Vitamix.
Store in an airtight container or jar.
MAKE THE CAKE
If your ricotta is a little watery, set it in a strainer lined with a paper napkin and leave in the fridge to drip for a few hours, or overnight. If it seems to not release any water, it is good to go. Choose high quality, organic, full-fat ricotta.
Preheat the oven to 180 C˚ / 355 F˚, and grease and flour well the springform pan or silicone mold where you will be baking the cake.
Separate the egg whites and yolks into two large bowls, and set the egg whites aside.
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and honey until pale and frothy.
Add the ricotta, pushing it through a sieve with a wooden spoon or with a spatula. Beat it in until fully blended, along with the scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, the lemon zest and the liquor (and the lemon or orange blossom essence if using). Cut the empty vanilla bean in half crosswise and add it to the jar/container with the cinnamon sugar, and just leave it there so it will infuse the sugar with its scent.
Sift in the flour, starch, baking soda and salt, and mix them well. Add the candied lemon and orange peels and stir them in until well distributed.
Beat the egg whites until stiff, and fold them delicately into the ricotta mixture with a circular downward and upward motion, until fully incorporated.
Pour the batter into the mold, scraping it with a spatula and leveling the surface.
Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven. The surface of the cake will turn quite brown and the inside will remain moist but, when pierced with a toothpick, the toothpick should still come out clean.
Let cool completely before unmolding.
When cool and unmolded, dust generously with extra rose cinnamon sugar and chopped pistachios. The cake is not very sweet, so feel free to dust extra sugar and pistachios on individual slices as well.
The cake keeps very well outside the fridge, or refrigerated is the temperature is very warm, for several days. It also makes a nice breakfast, snack or light dessert served with yogurt or cream and berries, or extra pistachios and honey.
By the way, Cora from The Secret Voice ended up never losing it. And, according to the author, she never did because she kept telling stories and believing everything was possible all her life. Which is kind of what every writer should do. Can you write stories you do not believe in?
I think not.
This is ours, and here are all the people who keep writing it: