venere black rice bowl, inspired by obicà

So here it is October already and if I were a good little food blogger, this post would involve a pumpkin. Ideally, something that could be called Decadent Pumpkin Fill-in-the-Blank. (Ok, brief aside…did pumpkin marketing frenzy start with those Starbucks drinks or what? It’s too much.)

There will be things pumpkiny and squashy soon (It is fall. Oh, well). But I returned less than a week ago from traveling in Italy and that’s pretty much all I can think about. I spent two whole weeks(!!) there, not an epic amount of time, but enough that I felt totally immersed. In the language, food, art. The color of the sky and the taste of the caffè. Every night since I’ve been back home, my dreams have been set in Italy. I’m still processing it all.

Being in Italy only made me hungry for more Italy. I soaked it up, and it will be spilling over and inspiring me for a long time – hope you don’t mind.

Italians make their way of life a priority. It’s a life close to the earth, the seasons, and hundreds of years of tradition, but the basis is simplicity. It feels so different from how we live here in the States, which may explain why it seems idealized to me.  I saw an art exhibit spanning the 16th and 17th centuries in Florence, at the Uffizi Gallery. It’s titled Puro, Semplice e Naturale: Pure, Simple and Natural – those are the perfect words to describe what I love about the place in this century.

In a few weeks, I’ll be sharing more about my experience as a DaVinci Storyteller, which is what brought this Italian adventure my way.

For now, here’s a few shots I took while wandering in Florence one beautiful day; the first was a small produce stand I walked by on a narrow street near the Duomo and the second an inviting-looking restaurant, open and ready to serve pranzo.  [Read more…]

wheat berries, tomato, arugula & ricotta

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Farro is a whole grain that’s become a usual suspect in my every day cooking. I really like its creamy, barley-like texture and that it cooks in about 20 minutes. I make a risotto with farro along with cannellini beans. My kids usually clean their plates when I make it, so I’m guessing they like it a little.

But the other day I couldn’t find any farro in my kitchen and pulled out a bag of grains that my sister-in-law Liza brought me from a Portland farmer’s market. They came from Ayer’s Creek Farm , a small family farm in Oregon.

The bag was labeled “Frumento – Soft Red Wheat”. I couldn’t find much info after I Googled “frumento” other than it’s Italian for wheat or grain. I decided to treat the grains like wheat berries instead of the imported Italian semi-pearled (semi-pearled makes for quicker cooking) farro that I usually have, which meant I soaked them in a bowl on the counter for a few hours.

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I’d planned to roast a few supermarket vine-ripened tomatoes I had on the counter, my go-to method for tuning up their somewhat bland, out-of-season taste, but I forgot to turn on the oven. So I put the whole tomatoes over the gas flame for a few minutes until their skins were black and blistered.

I liked the combo of smoky tomatoes and the full flavor of the cooked frumento; definitely springier to the teeth than farro, but in a good way.

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I’m glad I had  Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck on hand while researching and cooking this post. Maria is an expert on whole grains and I love her Mediterranean-influenced palate.

Lia at Nourish Network also has great info and a recipe for wheat berries – and lots of other healthy foods – on her site.

wheat berries with charred tomato, arugula & ricotta

Add some cooked beans like cannellini or chickpeas to the wheat berries for extra protein and nutrition.

Ingredients

  1. 1 ½ cups soft wheat berries
  2. Salt
  3. 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  4. 1 teaspoon prepared harissa or red chili flakes
  5. ½ teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
  6. Extra-virgin olive oil
  7. 2 or 3 small vine-ripened tomatoes or ¾ cup canned fire-roasted tomatoes
  8. 2 big handfuls baby arugula
  9. ½ cup fresh whole milk ricotta

Instructions

  1. Soak the wheat berries in enough water to cover, either overnight or before you go out for the day.
  2. Bring 3 quarts water and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil in a saucepan; add the drained wheat berries. Simmer for about an hour, or until the wheat berries are plump and al dente when you test one. If they seem too hard, cook up to an additional 15-30 minutes, keeping in mind that when fully cooked they will retain a small bit of “chew”.
  3. Drain all but a small amount of water (1 or 2 tablespoons) from the wheat berries; put them back in the pan and stir in the garlic, smoked paprika if using, harissa or chili and 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
  4. If using fresh tomatoes, char them directly over a gas flame on your stovetop or under a hot broiler, turning them until their skins are blackened and blistered. Chop into rough pieces and add them (or the canned tomatoes) to the wheat berries.
  5. Transfer the wheat berries to a serving bowl and toss with the arugula; taste and season with salt if needed. Dollop with spoonfuls of ricotta and drizzle with a little olive oil before serving.
http://familystylefood.com/2013/01/wheat-berries-tomato-arugula-ricotta/

Toffee Oatmeal Chip Cookies

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I don’t know why I don’t bake cookies more often – they are such an excellent tool for bribing the kids to do the small, important jobs that happen to appear on their weekly chore lists, but for some reason don’t actually get done.  Like walking the dog.

We adopted Poppy, our little Jack Russell-mixed mutt, almost a year ago and since then she’s been keeping our family busy, taking us for walks and arranging playdates. So very busy.

How was I to know that the same dog who greeted us for the first time by docilely flopping down at our feet, presenting us with her soft, pink underbelly would turn out to rival Perez Hilton in her intense need to meet, greet and butt-sniff every dog in the neighborhood?

I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy the walking – it’s great exercise and all, but after a few trips around the block in a day I prefer to delegate the job.

I pulled a few pans of these Toffee Oatmeal Chip cookies from the oven and set them on the counter to cool, and like magic my children began to float around me like happy, dizzy dust motes. It occurred to me that I was in the position of ultimate power: Alpha Mom with Treats. Oh, you’d like a cookie? Walk the dog first.

Bingo! The lead was on Poppy’s collar and she was flying out the door with a child attached in two seconds flat.   A win-win for all parties. I love that!

Heidi Swanson was the inspiration for this particular cookie recipe. Her healthy cooking blog 101 Cookbooks is one of my favorite sites, and my copy of her cookbook Super Natural Cooking has pages falling out from over-use. One recipe I’d flagged and have been meaning to try is Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies. I was intrigued by the recipe because it calls for an ingredient that I’d never heard of or seen before (gasp!) – mesquite flour.

It turns out that mesquite flour can be difficult to track down. Commonly used as a staple among Native Americans of the Southwest,  mesquite flour (also labeled mesquite powder or meal) is made from the ground fruit pods from mesquite trees and is said to be super-nutritious.  What got me interested is Heidi’s description of its flavor; smoky, malty, sweet and chocolate-like.

I didn’t get my hands on some until just recently; my friend L brought some back after scouting it out at the super-duper Whole Foods flagsip store in Austin. (An online source for mesquite meal is the Raw Guru site.)

I made a batch of the cookies, and really liked the toffee-like quality the mesquite flour added. Since Heidi recommends substituting an equal amount of flour in place of the mesquite,  I tweaked her recipe a bit to make it a bit more accessible – I realize that most (sane) people don’t go to such lengths to find an unfamiliar ingredient.

These cookies have a similar texture and taste, perfectly good bait for anyone you need to gently influence – wink.

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Toffee Oatmeal Chip Cookies

Adapted from Heidi Swanson

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup stone-ground whole wheat flour

1/2 cup malted milk powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 sticks butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup light brown sugar

3 eggs, at room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 cups rolled oats (not instant)

1 cup chopped toffee (I used Heath brand)

1 cup chocolate chips (I like dark but use whatever you like)

Heat the oven to 375 degrees for at least 30 minutes before baking. Line 2 or 3 rimmed baking sheets with parchment or reusable non-stick sheet like Silpat.

Combine the flours, malt powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Gradually add the sugars, starting with the granulated sugar, beating until incorporated before adding the brown sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until a thick dough forms.

Lower mixer speed to “stir” and add the oats, toffee and chocolate chips until evenly mixed. The dough should be dense and moist.

Drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the prepared sheets, about 2 inches apart to allow cookies to spread. Bake one sheet at a time for about 13 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Cool on the pan 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely, or until it’s time to walk the dog.

Yield: 3 – 4  dozen cookies

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