By Ann | May 15, 2015
For someone who spends a lot of time in France, I eat an awful lot of Italian food. Even when I’m in France, I’m cooking/eating/researching/dreaming about Italian food. I’ve tried to analyze why—is it the sinuous pleasure of that final drizzle of extra virgin olive oil? Is Parmagiano Reggiano addictive?—but really who has the time for analysis when the carbonara’s calling? Sizzle up some pork fat, I’m hungry.
I never tire of eating my favorite Italian dishes, so I was thrilled to bits when I received a copy of Elizabeth Minchilli’s new book Eating Rome. I first met Elizabeth in 2011, when my Italian publisher invited me to Rome; we were fellow panelists on several book talks. She was so friendly and warm, so generous about helping to translate in a pinch—so knowledgeable about Roman food—that I immediately purchased her Eat Italy app on iTunes because I wanted to spend the rest of my visit stuffing my face at all her favorite trattorie. Now, she’s published this marvelous volume, a cookbook and guidebook rolled into one, sandwiched together with her personal anecdotes and cheerful advice. If you are planning a trip to Rome, this must-have book will lead you to Elizabeth’s favorite markets, restaurants, cafés, gelato shops, and more. If, like me, you are simply dreaming of planning a trip to Rome, this book is a must-have for her fantastic recipes.
Since receiving the book two weeks ago, I have already made Elizabeth’s carbonara (fantastic), minestrone (fantastic), pasta al forno (fantastic), and cacio e pepe (once I figured out the secret—sublime). “We’ve been eating a lot of rigatoni,” said my husband. “Honey, it’s Elizabeth’s favorite pasta,” I said. I mean, Elizabeth has become my new idol. Guess what? She also hates making fresh pasta. She also loves artichokes—so much that she devotes an entire chapter to them, with recipes. She also struggled with feeding her kids—if, by kid, you actually mean “dog.” Elizabeth has two daughters who eat everything. Her pup’s actually the picky eater of the family.
Because my life’s passion is poking my nose into home kitchens and asking relentless questions about family recipes, I quickly gravitated towards the chapter entitled “Cooking like Mama.” The mama in question is Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, a fantastic cook who lives in Puglia (which sounds like food-lover’s paradise). Like the Italian granny of my dreams, Nonna Minchilli has her own recipe for meatballs, and after reading about her secret ingredient, I had to try them. What can I say? Like everything other recipe in this book, they were spectacular.
Elizabeth Minchilli’s Italian mother-in-law’s meatballs
Adapted from Eating Rome by Elizabeth Minchilli
*Note: Olive oil plays a bigger role in Italian cuisine than I originally suspected. “It’s not just a vehicle for softening the garlic or onion in a dish,” says Elizabeth. “But is one of the main ingredients that give body and texture, not to mention taste.” Here, it’s the secret ingredient that emulsifies the savory mixture.
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground turkey
1/2 cup grated onion (I just grated half an onion for as long as I could stand it, before it disintegrated and I felt like I needed a chemical burn eye flush)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves, minched
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for frying the meatballs)
1 28-oz can whole, peeled tomatoes
In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, turkey, onion, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, egg and 1/4 cup olive oil. Form the mixture into meatballs, about the size of unshelled walnuts.
In a large skillet with high sides, heat 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the meatballs to the skillet, about 8 at a time—don’t overcrowd them. Brown them, using a spoon or chef’s tongs to turn the meatballs until they are golden all over. Remove from the pan, and repeat with the rest of the meatballs, adding more oil if necessary.
Add the tomatoes to the skillet and scrape up any bits of browned meat. Bring the sauce to a simmer and return the meatballs (and any juices) to the skillet. Cover with the lid halfway and simmer until the tomatoes have softened and broken up and the liquid has slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.
By Ann | May 4, 2015
I first met Elizabeth Bard in Paris, when we shared a plate of duck tongues and swapped book publishing experiences. She had just published a food memoir, Lunch in Paris, and given birth to a baby boy, and I remember feeling quite awestruck by her unflappable calm. A few months after our lunch, Elizabeth and her husband, Gwendal, moved to a small village in Provence. I followed their news on Facebook as they opened an artisanal ice cream parlor, but I was curious to learn more about their adjustment to country life, and adventures raising a Franco-American son. Happily, Elizabeth has gifted all who loved her first, romantic book with a second volume. Picnic in Provence is a heartfelt ode to her new home, as well as an honest portrayal of motherhood. I loved it.
I was lucky enough to read an early galley of the book for a blurb. Here is what I said: “I was entranced by Picnic in Provence from Elizabeth Bard’s very first encounter with spring asparagus in the French countryside. Her tale of delicious adventure left me drooling—and her sensitive thoughts on marriage and motherhood were like a heartfelt conversation with a true friend. A delightful book, filled with humor, heart, and the heady scent of lavender.”
One of things I loved most about the book is the romantic way Elizabeth and Gwendal discover their new home. While on a pre-baby vacation, they decide to trace the footsteps of one of Gwendal’s heroes, the WWII resistance leader and poet René Char. After bit of delicate (yet dogged) investigation, they discover that Char’s home is actually for sale—and that his heirs hope a young family will buy it and settle in the village. This bit of kismet provides just the impetus Gwendal and Elizabeth need to make a GIGANTIC leap from Parisians to Provençals. They celebrate in the best way: with a picnic! Each chapter ends with a flurry of enticing recipes, including this simple, light and lemony tahini dip, which Elizabeth pairs with the first spring asparagus. It’s a fitting start to her tale of new motherhood, new professional passions (including entrepreneurship!), and new kitchen adventures (many of which involve frozen desserts :) If you love stories about France and food, you’ll love Elizabeth’s new book.
Asparagus with tahini sauce
Adapted from Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard
*Note: Elizabeth says this sauce is “an alternative to hollandaise,” and she pairs it with steamed asparagus and poached salmon. I roasted my asparagus and doctored the sauce so that it’s a bit more fluid. If you prefer a thicker sauce, replace the plain yogurt with the Greek variety and omit the olive oil.
1 1/2 lbs asparagus (look for thin stems)
2 tablespoons tahini
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup Greek yogurt (whole milk is best)
1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Wash the asparagus and snap off the tough ends. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the asparagus stalks in a single layer, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss gently to combine. Roast for 10 minutes, or until stalks are bright green and tender.
Prepare the sauce. In a medium, non-reactive bowl whisk together the tahini and lemon juice. Whisk in both kinds of yogurt and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Serve the asparagus warm, or at room temperature, with a generous dollop of sauce.
By Ann | April 28, 2015
First, let’s review the facts:
– I really like to cook.
– But after a full day of work and baby wrangling, I don’t have a lot of energy left.
– I try to create a weekly meal plan and do all the grocery shopping in one fell swoop.
– Creating a weekly meal plan and doing all the grocery shopping in one fell swoop makes me feel like a cranky old fuddy-duddy. Like a MOM.
– Lately I’ve been stuck in a cooking rut, plodding along on well-worn path of chili, soup, pasta with broccoli, and other similar wholesome dishes that I am completely sick of.
After seeing rave reviews on social media, I decided to shake up my kitchen routine by trying out Blue Apron. This is a weekly meal delivery service that sends a refrigerated box containing pre-portioned ingredients, as well as illustrated recipe cards that tell you how to cook everything. My box contained three meals for two people, for $59.99. Please note, this is not a sponsored post—thanks to a friend’s reference, I got the first box free, but I wanted to give the service a fair shot, so I paid for the second week myself.
The first box arrived on Friday night. The ingredients for each meal were precisely measured and wrapped, but the produce was unwashed. I loved the healthy infusion of leafy vegetables, but lordy, there is nothing I hate more than washing and drying sandy greens. For five of the six meals, I faced the tedious task of rinsing and patting spinach, kale, or Bibb lettuce. (Yes, I considered skipping this step—I often buy pre-washed spinach or kale to save time—but an email from Blue Apron instructed me to “wash all fruits and vegetables before cooking.”)
Here’s what I made:
–Chile-blackened cod with epazote, avocado, and red rice salad (stated cooking time: 25-35 minutes; me: 50 minutes).
–Pan-seared chicken verjus with pearled barley and mushrooms à la Grècque (stated cooking time: 35-45 minutes; me: 1 hour, 20 minutes).
–Roasted Japanese sweet potatoes with miso-dressed spinach and candied cashews (pictured above) (stated cooking time: 25-35 minutes; me: 45 minutes).
–Lemon and black pepper shrimp with fresh linguine, and fava leaves (stated cooking time: 15-25 minutes; me: 45 minutes).
–Spiced turkey meatball pitas with sugar snap peas and Bibb lettuce salad (stated cooking time 25-35 minutes; me: 1 hour).
–Pan seared steaks with green peppercorn sauce, creamed spinach, and roasted fingerling potatoes (stated cooking time 25-35 minutes; me: 35 minutes — and only because I didn’t wash the spinach).
What I liked:
I enjoyed using new ingredients like white miso paste, red rice, epazote (a strong herb), fresh fava leaves, pickled green peppercorns, and the greatest flavor boost of all time, chicken or beef demi-glace (where can I buy this stuff, I want to mainline it).
I learned a few new techniques, like quick-candying cashews to add sweet crunch to salad. I also learned that two teaspoons of olive oil is enough to sauté almost anything.
I appreciated the partial break from meal planning and grocery shopping. I say “partial” because I try to cook at least five dinners a week, so I still had two nights to fill.
What I didn’t like:
The meals took way too much time to cook—especially for only two portions. I missed having leftovers for lunch the next day.
Sometimes the portions were too small. For example, the shrimp linguine meal offered only 3 oz of fresh pasta per person—we had to supplement with bread. After the turkey meatballs, my husband woke up hungry in middle of the night.
Though ingredients came pre-measured, I still had to wash the veg, peel and mince garlic and/or ginger, pluck herbs—e.g. all my least favorite kitchen tasks
Because the meals are designed for “quick” preparation, they’re limited to certain techniques. While the flavors and cuisines varied, every meal seemed to feature similar basic building blocks of sautéed fish or meat, boiled grain, roasted or sautéed veg. Also, the recipe instructions specify an awful lot of washing and reusing of the same sauté pan. I’m not sure if Blue Apron thinks its customers only own one pan? But if speed is the goal, it’s certainly faster to cook several items simultaneously.
To cancel the service, you have to send an email request and wait. Once I received Blue Apron’s response, the instructions were easy to follow, but the process could (should?) be more straightforward and easier to find on the website.
Would I sign up again?
Honestly, no. The meals took too long to prepare and produced too little food for the amount of time and money invested. This could be a good service for people who really don’t like (or know how) to cook, but for me it missed the mark. I may dislike meal planning, but it turns out I like my kitchen independence.
By Ann | April 13, 2015
Two sweet things happened this weekend. First, I made baked these blueberry banana muffins—my third batch since the new year. I’m not sure why I’ve been keeping these muffins a secret because they’re lovely, lightly sweet with a crumb that manages to be tender and nutty at the same time. They’re not health muffins—the recipe contains butter, eggs, sugar, and gluten—but they use these ingredients in moderation. Let’s be honest, muffins are cake, but these taste wholesome.
The nutty bite comes from whole wheat flour and a scoop of that wheat germ that’s been hanging out in my cupboard since this post. The rest of the recipe is pretty typically cake/muffin-like: beaten butter, sugar, eggs, milk, mashed bananas, and a cup of frozen blueberries to keep things moist. By the way, if your brown sugar dries to an impenetrable rock like mine does, here’s a kitchen tip: store it in the freezer! It defrosts in a minute to a perfectly moist, packable texture.
I like to keep these muffins in the freezer, and pull them out on mornings that seem otherwise grim. Thirty seconds in the microwave softens both their crumb and my mood—every day starts better with a muffin! And aside from the fact that they are like a cakey Prozac equivalent, my other favorite part about these muffins is that they come together so quickly. An hour of baking left me plenty of time for the second sweet event of the weekend: A trip to Brooklyn with the baby to visit some of my best friends and their babies.
There were swings, bouncy bridges, a long interlude moving sticks and pebbles around a hollow tree, and a little girl who couldn’t get enough of the big, twisty slide. “Again! Again!”
Blueberry banana muffins
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Note: Overripe bananas and my desire to make muffins never seem to coincide. So, when a banana turns black, I peel it and pop it in the freezer. It defrosts and mashes beautifully.
Makes 16 muffins
1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup milk
2 ripe bananas
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup frozen blueberries
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. In a bowl, combine the flours, wheat germ, baking soda, and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugars until fluffy. Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated. In a separate bowl, use a potato masher to crush the bananas. Stir in the milk and vanilla.
Using a wooden spoon, alternately add the flour mixture and banana mixture to the butter mixture. Fold in the frozen blueberries.
Divide batter among the muffins cups. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a chopstick inserted in the center of the muffin comes out clean. Repeat with the remaining batter (I usually get 16 muffins from one batch).
By Ann | April 7, 2015
Turnips have their share of haters, but if I was ranking root vegetables they’d land near the top. I like their texture, dense yet juicy, and faint bitter savor. People say you should buy turnips small, snow white, and young, but the ones I picked up at the store were verging on middle aged, the size of softballs, tops stained with purple—and they were still perfectly fine, absolutely edible (though maybe I’m just seeing them as a metaphor for an upcoming big birthday—eek!).
You know what makes turnips really, really delicious? A blizzard of Parmagiano-Reggiano. Peel your turnips and slice them into sturdy strips, then shower them with cheese and spices. If you step lively, you can toss this together while your toddler is occupied with a cup of Cheerios. A blast of the oven will melt the root’s rock hard flesh tender while toasting the cheese golden brown and heat-blistered. I could have eaten the entire pan straight out of the oven, but managed to restrain myself and saved (most of) the “fries” for a quick, late-night, post-wine-class supper, paired with a mushroom-cheddar Boca burger. Later, I realized I misread the original recipe and used four times more cheese than actually called for—but, hey, that’s four times more delicious, right?
Parmesan turnip fries
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Note: The original recipe calls for 1/2 ounce of Parmesan cheese, so reduce as you prefer.
2 lbs turnips, peeled and cut into sturdy wedges
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 oz Parmagiano-Reggiano, grated
Preheat the oven to 475ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, combine the turnips, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, and olive oil. Toss to combine and season generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese and toss gently to combine. Arrange the turnips on the baking sheet in a single layer. Roast for 12 minutes and flip the turnips. At this point, the melted cheese will appear oily and stringy. Continue roasting another 12-15 minutes, until the oil absorbs and the turnips turn golden brown.
By Ann | March 23, 2015
At the risk of public flagellation, I’m going to make a confession: We don’t eat a family dinner. I know, I know, research and lifestyle bloggers regularly tell us how important it is to gather round the table once a day. Babies eat a bigger variety of healthy foods, they connect with their parents, and obesity, drug use, teen pregnancy, etc. are all avoided. But here’s the reality: Lucy eats dinner at 5:30pm. (I sit with her and appease her demand for stories. “Boook. Boook,” she says, reaching to touch pictures of dogs with avocado-smeared fingers.) Her father gets home at 8pm (or later), and I usually eat with him. Right now, while she’s still so little, Lucy’s dinner simply exists on a separate plane from ours.
I’m sure things will change once she gets older (e.g. stays up past 7pm). But for now I tamper my guilt by preparing one family meal of the week. On Saturday mornings while Lucy and her papa are out, I whirl around the kitchen like a madwoman. When they come home at noon, we sit down to lunch, the three of us all eating the same thing. I try not to dumb down the food too much, because part of the exercise is about community and expanding the palate. On the other hand, there’s always the fear that she won’t eat anything. I try to split the difference, which is how I found myself making spinach soufflé for a toddler.
Soufflé aux épinards sounds labor intensive and it does use its fair share of pots and bowls. But really, a soufflé is just a very thick, egg-yolk enhanced béchamel sauce, mixed with whipped egg whites—a simple concept that’s also a good way to eat spinach if you don’t have many teeth. I started with the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and adapted it to suit my needs. This meant frozen chopped spinach squeezed dry, and enough eggs to fill an 8-cup soufflé dish X 2 — because I made an extra for the freezer, to be defrosted for weeknight baby dinners.
Soufflés need an extra whipped white or two to give them lift, which means you’ll have yolks leftover. Here’s a thrifty tip: mix them with sugar (one teaspoon per yolk) and freeze for later use in homemade ice cream.
Use a light hand when folding the béchamel sauce and egg whites together—don’t worry if they’re not completely combined. I like to leave large dollops of whipped whites streaking through the thick sauce, which I think allows for a more extravagant rise.
I timed lunch perfectly that day, everyone seated at the table, salad dressed, baby bibbed, and baguette sliced, just as the timer dinged. I felt unusually smug as I surveyed my beautiful soufflé, which puffed gently over the rim of the dish, golden with toasted cheese. Parenting can sometimes feel like a relentless slog, but then there are moments like this: sitting down with your little pack, your family, to enjoy a home-cooked meal together.
And then there is reality. Don’t let this picture fool you—Lucy ate two bites of soufflé and I had to beg her to even put those in her mouth. Like most babies, she eats when she’s hungry (a novel concept!) and that afternoon she was not hungry. (She went on to scoff a huge portion at dinner the next day, so all is not lost.)
What are your favorite family meals?
Spinach soufflé / Soufflé aux épinards
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Serves four (on its own) or six (with a salad)
Julia Child’s soufflé recipes use a 6-cup dish, but I increased the quantities for an 8-cup dish because I feel like if you’re going to make a soufflé, you might as well go big. Leftover soufflé is delicious, though no longer airy, I still enjoy the denser texture—and the taste remains the same, of course.
1 package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
4 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
6 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
8 egg whites
1/2 cup grated Gruyère or Comté cheese
Butter to grease dish and 1-2 tablespoons fine bread crumbs
Special equipment: 8-cup soufflé dish, electric beaters
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Thoroughly squeeze the liquid from the chopped spinach. Butter the soufflé dish and sprinkle with enough breadcrumbs to generously coat the interior, tapping out the excess (this prevents sticking).
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook until it smells slightly toasty, about 2 minutes. Add the milk, whisking continuously until the mixture forms a very thick sauce, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Separate the eggs, dropping the whites into a large, clean, dry mixing bowl. (Any trace of fat will cause failed whipped whites, so make sure your bowl is scrupulously sparkling clean.)
Whisk the egg yolks, one by one, into the hot béchamel sauce, until fully incorporated. Add the chopped spinach and stir until thoroughly combined. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg (the egg is raw, but I usually taste at this stage so I can adjust seasonings; sample at your own risk).
Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat them until stiff. Stir one quarter of them into the sauce (this lightens the mixture). Add all but 1 tablespoon of the cheese. Gently fold the rest of the egg whites into the sauce and spoon the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and place on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Turn the oven down to 375ºF and bake for 30-35 minutes until the soufflé is puffed, golden, and slightly jiggly when you shake the dish. Serve immediately.
By Ann | March 7, 2015
I hesitate to start out by saying that the food at Bouillon Chartier isn’t that bad. But the truth is, no one comes here for the food. Three of us lunched at this cavernous restaurant a couple of weeks ago, and we chose the place for two bald reasons: 1) We wanted to meet near les Grands Boulevards; and 2) It’s open on a Monday. Oh, and 3) It’s historic. And 4) It’s cheap (bonus!).
The word “bouillon” in the name of Bouillon Chartier refers to a fascinating bit of Paris restaurant history. In 1860, a butcher named Monsieur Duval had the brilliant idea of opening a restaurant that served cheap bowls of beef broth to the workers at Les Halles (Paris’s former central food market). Eventually the word bouillon, or broth, became synonymous with a type of inexpensive restaurant.
(Little did Monsieur Duval know that 155 years later, East Village hipsters would rename bouillon “bone broth,” and sell it for $7 a cup.)
At the end of the 19th century, the Chartier brothers expanded upon Monsieur Duval’s concept and founded their own chain of bouillons. Though only two still exist—Bouillon Chartier and Bouillon Racine in the 6e—these establishments continue the mission of offering a “decent meal at a reasonable price” with “good service.”
From the great big door on the busy Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, you walk through a courtyard to the restaurant at the back. The line can stretch all the way to the street, but when we arrived on a rainy Monday at 12:30pm, we were seated right away.
The dining room is full of Art Nouveau charm, a vast space with high ceilings, soaring mirrors, brass rails, and carved balustrades. Along the walls are wooden armoires with small, numbered drawers where regulars once stored their couverts, or silverware and napkins. I tried to peek inside, but they’re now sealed shut. Tables are shared, which means if you’re eating alone, you can expect three strangers to be seated next to you.
The menu still features bouillon, now renamed consomme, a daily brewed vegetable broth offered for 1€, which is officially the cheapest thing I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant in France. It was thin and watery, but I could taste a faint, earthy hint of vegetables in there somewhere, as if the liquid held a distant memory of carrots and leeks. The table’s other entrées of oeuf mayonnaise and carrottes rapées looked better, dressed with industrial-esque vinaigrette and mayonnaise, yes, but simple and tasty (though accompanied by perhaps the world’s saddest tomato garnish).
The list of main courses reads like a dictionary of classic bistro cuisine, including choices like roast chicken and fries, grilled andouillette, or tête de veau with tangy sauce gribiche. At a place like this, it seemed wise to keep things simple with confit de canard, pommes grenailles and I am happy to report that the confit was one of the better versions I’ve had, the fat completely rendered (whether by design or neglect, no matter) and the skin pleasingly crisp. Accompanying new potatoes were properly roasted, though without crunchy edges. My friend, Erin, described the steak as “definitely not the worst I’ve ever eaten.” Also, it arrived perfectly cooked, à point.
Old-fashioned desserts included fresh pineapple, wine-soaked prunes with ice cream, and other classics, but I splurged (calorically, at least) on the chou glace vanille chocolat chaud, a spongy profiterole puff filled with vanilla ice cream, flooded with warm chocolate sauce, and garnished with a handful of toasted almonds. Though my watery first course had left me hungry, I couldn’t finish the generous portion.
Efficient service meant that three courses AND coffee were served in less than an hour. (Noisy, casual, and fast, this is a great place to eat out with kids.) Before we even knew we wanted to leave, our waiter had bustled up and calculated the bill on the paper tablecloth—the first time I’ve ever received the check in France without asking for it. Three courses for three people plus two coffees (no wine) came to €50.70 or €17/person, when rounded up.
Ah, Bouillon Chartier, still cheap after 119 years.
7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre
01 47 70 86 29
A little note: If you enjoy reading my blog and would consider nominating it for a Saveur Magazine blog award, I would be so grateful. All you have to do is visit Saveur’s nomination page, enter my blog’s URL (www.annmah.net) and tick off as many categories as you see fit. (May I suggest “best culinary travel coverage” and/or “best writing”?) Nominations close Friday, March 13. Thank you so much for your help. Your support keeps me going! xo
By Ann | March 1, 2015
Last February, I had the opportunity to visit Ravenna, Italy, a small city in the Emilia-Romagna region known for its stunning collection of Byzantine-era mosaics. You can read more about my adventures in my article for New York Times Travel, but the trip was so visually memorable, I wanted to share some of my photos. The Basilica di San Vitale, pictured above, is Ravenna’s most visited site.
Built in 525, San Vitale allegedly inspired the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Mosaics lavishly decorate the apse.
Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.
The three Magi at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo wearing outfits that inspired Roberto Cavalli.
The buildings—like the Arian Baptistry—so humble from the outside, revealed glittering artistry within.
Like this water wrought in mosaic.
The Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe is two miles from Ravenna.
At the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, these leaping flames inspired Dante’s “Inferno.”
The starry sky and trompe l’oeil border date to 425. NBD.
Ravenna is a well-heeled town with a very accessible (and adorable) historic center.
After finishing his masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy,” Dante died here in exile in 1321. Locals say his unhappy spirit still wanders the streets. His tomb, pictured above, resembles a pepper pot.
A lamp burns continuously in Dante’s tomb, the oil a gift from his guilt-ridden hometown, Florence.
The Romagna region is famous for piadina, a type of griddle-coked flat bread. Here, a sandwich filled with proscuitto, arugula, and squacquerone cheese.
I also loved the handwritten menu at Osteria dei Battibecchi, a small restaurant near the Piazza del Popoplo dripping with Old World charm.
I usually don’t like eating out alone, but the food here was so good—rustic and honest—it was company in and of itself, like these handmade spinach-filled tortolloni, tossed in sage butter sauce.
I had never seen peas and meatballs together, but this plate of polpette e piselli were a meal unto themselves, no spaghetti necessary.
The Piazza del Popolo is truly the heart of the town.
It rained during nearly my entire visit, but when the sun emerged, it gleamed in bright slivers. I left Ravenna clutching a hunk of Parmagiano-Reggiano (produced in the neighboring Emilia region, but fresher than what we’ve got at home), and dreaming of ancient glass tiles.
By Ann | February 22, 2015
The Count of Monte Cristo?
But everyone raved so passionately about Alexandre Dumas’s gripping plot and deliberate pacing, that I immediately went and bought the novel on my Kindle. At first I was skeptical—the book takes at least a hundred pages to get its hooks into you—but all of a sudden, I found myself gripped by a tale of blood-thirsty revenge. The book tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a happy-go-lucky sailor who is framed by his frenemies—dangerous even in 19th-century France, who knew?—and wrongfully imprisoned. After escaping from jail, he vows to seek revenge—a quest that leads the story into many convoluted twists and turns, including hidden treasure, secret aliases, deserted islands, and more, all lavished with the trappings of bottomless wealth. As I read late into the night, I found myself pondering questions of justice, innocence, vengeance, mercy… and sandwiches. Surely the Monte Cristo sandwich would make an appearance in this literary classic?
Hélas, non. Le Comte de Monte Cristo scarcely eats at all, and he certainly does not indulge in ham-and-cheese sandwiches that are dipped in egg batter, fried in butter, and sprinkled with powdered sugar, strawberry jam, and/or maple syrup. Perhaps you’re wondering, who created this
monstrosity marvel? A quick internet search revealed that the Monte Cristo sandwich became famous in the 1960s when it was served at Disneyland; the name is a tribute to its French croque monsieur roots, and (sadly) has nothing to do with the book.
Nevertheless, after wolfing down Alexandre Dumas’s masterpiece, I needed to chase it with a toasty, melty sandwich. The Monte Cristo seemed too decadent for even this intrepid cook to tackle, however, so I whipped up a couple of café classics: the Croque Monsieur, and his wife, Croque Madame .
In my mind, there are two types of croques. There’s the kind that starts with an oversized slice of country bread, heaps it with sliced ham and grated cheese, and achieves a golden crust in the broiler (see photo of “type A”). The other kind dabs béchamel sauce on square, white, sandwich slices, before topping with ham and cheese, and broiling (see photo “type B”). Both are delicious, but if forced to choose, I might admit a slight preference for type B, with its velvety, nutmeg-scented nappage marrying the elements. “B” stands for béchamel! Or best!
If you’re not careful, however, type B can quickly become soggy, with its sauce and floppy-crumbed bread. There are a few secrets to creating a pleasingly crunchy croque B. Toast the bread before assembling the sandwich. Prepare a thick béchamel. Allow it to cool before spreading. Be sparing.
Another benefit to preparing a small quantity of béchamel is that it’s surprisingly fast to make—one might say it even falls under the category of “easily whipped up.” After that, the sandwich is a snap to assemble, making this an achievable meal to cook (and even photograph) while wrangling a curious toddler.
A word of advice: Make sure you watch your broiling sandwich like a hawk, or you’ll wind up with extra toasty edges :)
The addition of a fried egg is optional, but a gooey, salty bite swirled in a pool of creamy yolk is pretty irresistible. If you’re keen on eating while reading, the eggless Croque monsieur is more easily enjoyed one-handed. Either way, this is a meal fit for a count! (Especially if you use Comté cheese, ba dum bum.)
I think the amounts of sauce and cheese given here are perfect for exactly two sandwiches. For a Croque Madame, add a fried egg to the top of each sandwich.
4 slices sturdy, white sandwich bread (I like Pepperidge Farm)
2 thin slices of ham
2/3 cup grated Comté or Gruyère cheese
1/2 cup béchamel sauce (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup milk
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Make the béchamel sauce. In a small saucepan, melt the better over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Add the milk and whisk over low heat, until the milk boils and the sauce thickens. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Allow to cool.
Preheat the broiler. Lightly toast the bread. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread two slices of bread with a thin layer of béchamel. Add a layer of grated cheese and a slice of ham. Dab lightly with béchamel. Top each sandwich with the second slice of bread. Spread a thin layer of béchamel on the top of the second slice. Add a layer of grated cheese. Place both sandwiches on the baking sheet and broil under golden, about 5 minutes. (The edges will darken very quickly, so it’s a game of chicken between the golden center and rapidly blackening crusts.) Serve immediately with sharp mustard.
By Ann | February 10, 2015
I grew up in the suburbs sprawling south of Los Angeles, but you could call me a bad Californian because I don’t like dates. I mean, does any other fruit so sharply evoke So Cal in the 1970s as the sugary date, blended into icy sweet milkshakes, the iconic treat of an arid desert corrupted by manmade oases? And yet, I find dates overly sweet and mealy—too sticky to be enjoyed as a fruit, too fruity to be enjoyed as a sweet.
I went decades without a date crossing my palate. But a few weeks ago, I made a Sticky Toffee Pudding for my book club and made three discoveries. 1) Sticky toffee pudding may sound quintessentially British, but it was invented in the 1970s and is really just a gussied up name for date cake. 2) You can’t taste the dates in Sticky Toffee Pudding, which makes it perfect for date haters. I’ll share my recipe soon. 3) You will have leftover dates after making Sticky Toffee Pudding.
Which begs the question: If you don’t like dates, what on earth do you do with the leftovers?
Hooray for my friend, Amy Thomas, who came to the rescue with this crunchy, bright, sweet and savory salad!
The recipe is simple and the ingredients might even be in your fridge right now! Take a bunch of celery, the fresher the better, and slice the stalks thinly on the bias. Pit and chop a handful of dates. Toast some chopped almonds in a pan, season them with a pinch of sea salt. Spritz on the lemon juice, drizzle over the olive oil, and lavish the whole with shavings of Parmagiano Reggiano. The lemon juice and dates create a lovely sweet-tart balance that’s offset by salty, soft bursts of cheese, and the golden, toasty crunch of almonds. It’s an elegant, unusual, perfectly seasonal salad. And the best part is, you’d never know there were dates in it :)
Celery salad with dates, almonds, and parmesan
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves two generously, or four modestly
1/3 cup raw almonds, roughly chopped
8 celery stalks, thinly sliced on a diagonal
6 dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
Juice of one lemon
2 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (separated)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Fleur de sel (or salt), pepper
2 oz Parmagiano Reggiano
In a small skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the almonds, stirring frequently until golden. Season with a generous pinch of fleur de sel (or salt).
In a large bowl, combine the celery and dates. Toss with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and crushed red pepper flakes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Shave half of the Parmagiano Reggiano over the salad and toss gently to combine. Serve immediately, with the remaining half of the cheese shaved over the top.