Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Signature Dish: Tortelloni Primavera with Pesto

Tortelloni Primavera with Basil Pesto

Although I do like the challenge of mastering a new recipe, or attempting a new cooking method- I am a dietitian through and through. The proof? Because no matter what I'm making-  I find myself scheming how I can add a vegetable, reduce the butter, increase the fiber, etc. Even if I don't actually do it, it is my heart's desire to somehow get butternut squash puree into the cookie mix (haven't tried that yet..but it's on my mind!) And I have to say, our return from Tuscany left me culinarily (is that a word?) inspired. I usually experience a new burst of confidence and think, at least for a few days, that I can bump up my cooking level from "super easy" to just "easy." Or sometimes tasting somebody else's simple goodness is just the extra little boost I've needed to convince myself to throw that extra spice in the mix.

Last week,  I was planning to make one of our staple meals from my "super DUPER easy" repertorie of recipes: Tortelloni with Basil Pesto. This is Chris's all-time favorite meal. (Cute sidenote: his mom also informed me it was one of his first meals as a child...if that doesn't foreshadow a high-class-future-eater, I don't know what does!). Not shockingly, our local Italian grocery store has an entire aisle of fresh pastas with every imaginable stuffing so we can be pretty fancy without having to do much. This time we opted for Spinach and Ricotta tortelloni:

And even though our basil plant is thriving, I opted for the pre-made pesto also. I was ready to call it a meal when the dietitian voice said "that's not enough fiber!" So I scoured the fridge to see what I could find, and here's what we had:

  • handful of frozen spinach, (mostly thawed and extra water squeezed out)
  • big handful of frozen green beans
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and julienned
  • 2 large mushrooms
  • 4 whole sun-dried tomatoes (in oil), chopped
  • 1 can of chick peas, rinsed and drained
Cooking Instructions:

1. Cook 16-20oz tortelloni according to package directions. Tortelloni only takes about 5 minutes.

2. I peeled and prepped the veggies, then heated some olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. I added some of the sun-dried tomato oil to the olive oil for a little extra flavor. I added the carrots first, since they seem to take longer, and sauteed for about 2 mins. Next I added the shrooms, Then threw in the spinach and green beans, and finally the tomatoes. I reduced the heat to medium low and let them all cook together for a few minutes.

3. Add a big spoonful (2 tbs) of basil pesto and stirred all the veggies together together. Season with s&p (if needed). Finally I added  1/2 can of chickpeas to the mixture. Turn off heat but allow to stay on the burner to keep warm until ready to mix with pasta.

4. Drain pasta and put back into pot. Toss gently with pesto of choice (we used a good 1/4 cup)

5. Serve tortelloni in shallow bowls and top with vegetable mixture. Say "Yum!" after the first bite, since you will be pleasantly surprised :)

Serves 4-ish.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Signature Dish: Green Grape Salad with Toasted Almonds

Creating my own unique dishes- regardless of how simple- always makes me nervous. For one, I hate wasting food..and I think "one bad move and it's $10 down the drain!" Also, I hate to mess up, so when I create something less than tasty I usually have a few dramatic moments where I threaten to never cook again, throw all our plates out the window, and then the next night I'm cooking dinner again. Tonight was a night I was less than hopeful, but determined to do minimal cooking. I was pleasantly surprised, as this salad was light, sweet and refreshing- and the perfect compliment to our simple roasted chicken main dish. My husband said it was "Cheesecake Factory worthy," which is a big compliment in this house (the man loves CF). 

So here we go. The best part? It was 5 ingredients! (I cheated and used a pre-made dressing, but this could be easily homemade with a wine vinegar, oil, a pinch of sugar).


1/3 cup Sliced Almonds
3 cups green grapes, halved or quartered (mine were huge, so I quartered)
3 Tbs Crumbled Feta
1/4 cup finely minced red onion
2 Tbs sweet vinaigrette salad dressing (I used Brianna's blush wine vinaigrette)
Salt and Pepper, to taste


1. Toast Sliced Almonds on the stove: heat in a skillet over low heat for 4-5 minutes. NO sprays or oils needed. (I knew mine were done when it started to smell like popcorn.) Remove from heat and set aside.

2. Halve or quarter grapes and set aside in bowl.
3. Mince onion and add to grape bowl, along with crumbled feta. Give a couple grinds of salt and pepper and add 2 Tbs of dressing of choice. Again, I used this one:

4. Last, add in toasted almonds and gently toss until mixed in evenly. Adjust s&p as needed. Tastes delightful at room temperature!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Happy 1 year of blogging! (And trip to Tuscany)

It seems I have overlooked a monumental occassion- I've been blogging for 1 year! In celebratory reflection, I read through my year of posts and took note of what has been accomplished thus far, how my "direction" with the blog has changed, and likes/dislikes (additional comments welcome). I originally started this blog with the idea of following and learning more about various diets; specifically diets prescribed for medical purposes. I spent a good deal of time following a gluten free diet, and realized there was so much to learn that I continued it for longer. Then, with the change of life events (getting married and moving out of the country) my goal seemed to morph into simple, quick, healthy meals-, all while cleaning out my pantry and saving money.

Upon my move to Italy, I've gotten back to the art of enjoying food and, really, have since rediscovered the heart of why I love food and nutrition in the first place: the built in simplicity that what's good for you is also deliciously satisfying. Recently I've desired to get back to my original plan when it occurred to me that in reality, I already have been via the Mediterranean lifestyle. What better way to truly learn and experience the Mediterranean diet than by living in southern Italy? As I've written, we eat seasonally (even it means zucchini at every meal), avoid most processed foods, and indulge in the occassional gelato or margherita pizza (or bag of oreos if my husband participates in the grocery shopping). Yes, I feel that in fact I have been abiding by my mission after all. I'm fortunate to have some time to spare at this stage in life, which I am trying to take advantage of and become a more well-rounded cooker, and eater. I must thank my husband who is such a good sport during all of my culinary adventures- the man doesn't even blink when he finds grated vegetables in his brownies, or when I tell him that the mashed potatoes are actually mashed cauliflower. He's gotten so used to my fascination with food that he now enthusiastically reminds me to take a picture of my meals before I take the first bite in restaurants. I'm sure I looked like the ultimate tourist when I took a picture of my rosemary bread roll in Tuscany.

What did we eat in Tuscany, you wonder? Well, I did some reading before our little weekend getaway- a book that would probably only be interesting to a true food-obsessed person (like myself) with significant time on their hands: A Thousand Days in Tuscany, written by a chef turned food and wine critic turned European traveler who moves to the farmhills of Tuscany to experience true Italian cuisine and culture. Granted it varies depending on region, but thanks to her, I learned that Tuscan food and tradition runs much deeper than good Chianti. I learned about chestnut and olive and truffle harvests, herbs that grow as freely as grass, and the significance of good homemade bread.  It's surprisingly not a big pasta region (traditionally), although their local pasta is most likely to be pici (big thick spaghetti-like noodles. One is more likely to find Grigliata Mista (literally "mixed grill"); a dish made up of whatever meats were fresh and available that day. And if in season, you'll find mushrooms on any menu You can also get a good bowl of Fagioli (literally "beans"), which is as simple as white cannellini beans cooked in a tomato sauce. And we saw the sweet treat panforte just about everywhere, and of course had to try it! It's a rich cake made with honey, dried fruit, and nuts (we opted for chocolate with almonds and dried apricots).

The Rosemary bread rolls

Pici pasta with shaved truffles and ricotta

Panforte Nero (chocolate)

Sampling olives used to make olive oil

Of course good wine wasn't hard to find either :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I hear the Wine is good in Italy...

Some "almost ready" red grapes
I swore I would blog about our recent wine-tasting tour before we head to Tuscany this weekend to do  some more wine sampling. Not that any 2 wines (or wine tours) in Italy are the same- or even close! I remember shopping for wine in the States before moving here, and getting excited when I saw an Italian wine. "Ohh-Italian! It has to be good!" my inexperienced self would say. Granted, I haven't encountered too many bad wines here, but I am learning the ins and outs of Italian wine and how they vary vastly from region to region.

In most parts of Italy the natives will tell you Naples is nothing to brag about-even the Neopolitans will tell you this! While there is certainly much to experience outside of Naples, I think my temporary home has some things to boast about too, and wine is one of them. So boast I will!

Wine made in the Campania region is unique because of one of the nearby landmarks- Mount Vesuvius, which is an active volcano that famously erupted in AD 79 destroying the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, and most recently erupted in the 1940's. The volcanic residue drastically changes the mineral content of the soil, giving it a distinct "feel" and taste. It is often bubbly and somewhat "salty," as the wine growers describe it. This, in combination with the fact that Naples is a coastal city allows for endless variations of the mineral make-up of the wines. During our first unofficial wine-tasting experience (in the lobby of the mini-mall on base), the wine expert/seller/our-new-friend taught us about how to identify wine grown "on the mountain" versus wine grown "by the sea" and wine with combination of mountain/sea soil. We were utterly fascinated! So depending on the mineral content, a wine may be more or less bubbly, and more or less "salty"

Side story: My husband and and I experienced this "slight" carbonation first hand when we re-corked an opened bottle of Naples red wine and awoke the next morning to a red-stained kitchen (which was mistaken for blood for the first 10 seconds). We quickly identified last night's wine as the culprit and said a silent prayer of thanks for military tiled kitchen walls. However, some of my cookbooks will forever bear the mark of our first Neopolitan bubbly wine.

Anyway, here are some pictures from our recent wine tour at Cantina del Vesuvio. This particular vineyard is the closest to the peak of the volcano, and the wine it produces is well known in South Italy and among the locals.

Rows of grape vines

Green grapes which will make white wine

Steel vessels used in the fermentation process

Oak barrels where some of the wines are further aged
Viola! The finished product

Va bene! A good wine consumer gives it a good sniff first

..And make sure you have a good bowl of pasta nearby.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

101 ways to use a zucchini

Zucchini, like all seasonal produce, is overwhelmingly abundant here in Italy. Like the garlic, and tomatoes, and onions, and eggplant- if it's in season, it's about all one can find at the market. And I've learned that it is not just garlic that comes in large quantities, but it's quite a struggle to try to purchase uno mezza chilo (or 1/2 kilogram, versus a whole) of anything. (My husband asks, "well, why would an Italian need anything less than 5 heads of garlic?!) So, because the same angry man who sold me the original kilo of garlic has the best selection of most produce, I usually come home with a crate of tomatoes, 7-8 zucchini, 8-10 onions and about 14 bananas (and he still seems angry.. I don't get it!) Then the mad hunt for recipes using these ingredients ensues.

Well, this week both my mother and a friend of mine here in Italy sent me separate articles on how to tackle an overabundance of summer squash. The choclate cake from this article ( looked so good- I couldn't even wait! I grated up some zucchini right then and there and stirred it into a Betty Crocker brownie mix. (See above-It still counts as a vegetable serving, right?) I followed the instructions for cake-like brownies because I knew the zucchini would provide extra moisture. I plopped large spoonfuls into paper lined muffin tins and viola! The husband didn't even know there was zucchini in them (I wasn't sneaking it, I just forgot to tell him.)

picture from C&D website

In addition to my zucchini sweet treat, I also made a Raw Summer Squash salad, which I adapted from another food blog that I have recently become obsessed with: The recipe can be found here: . Naturally, I added a clove of finely chopped garlic. This recipe is much better after sitting for a least 30 mins. I've been eating it for several days and it gets better every time.

I am anxious to see what the fall and winter seasons will bring food-wise. Not that I am wishing away the summer, but a girl can only eat so much zucchini! At least it is never a challenge to get in those 5 servings of fruits and vegetables everyday :) Next weekend Chris and I are taking a roadtrip to a small village in Tuscany to stay at a Bed & Breakfast on a vineyard. I can't wait to see what we'll come across there! Maybe I'll try real Panzanella Tuscan bread salad.