It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Italians know their way around the kitchen.
Pretty much every meal I’ve had in Italy, including the simplest things…tomatoes and pasta tossed with olive oil or even a piece of fruit bought off a local vendor…has been spectacular.
There are a lot of reasons for this and one of them is that the Italians are fiercely seasonal. They eat veggies and fruits when they are ripe and just out of the ground…and they celebrate each season’s produce accordingly.
Which is why in Rome in the late winter and early spring, you’ll see artichokes (carciofi) popping up on menus all around town.
It’s no secret that the Swiss are known for their cheeses.
But what you might not know is that real Swiss cheese tastes nothing like the deli version that they call Swiss. Instead, in Switzerland, you’ll find creamy Gruyère and bold Alpkäse. And quite a few other lesser-known varieties, including my all-time favorite: a cheese made with pine needles, which you can find at the fresh market in Bern, Switzerland.
The man who sells the pine needle cheese also happens to know just about everything there is to know about Swiss cheese in general…down to which cow produced which of his products. Make sure to ask him about everything he’s selling that day.
And do have a bite of the pine needle cheese for me.
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The secret to seeming like a really fancy chef (even if you don’t feel like you are) is making your own sauces and serving more than one at a time. Anything served four ways or three ways or two ways feels more impressive than a simple “here’s your chicken with pesto, enjoy.”
Which is why I chose this meal for my February date night. Each sauce and the chicken itself…all pretty simple. But when you put them together, you look like a kitchen rock star.
To make this as I did, you’ll want to start the night before (primarily to marinate the chicken, but you can also make the sauces a day ahead of time and then throw it all together quickly the next night).
Ingredients for each sauce and marinade are in the links below and you’ll also want to buy a jar of good jam (I used organic strawberry rhubarb, but most jams would probably work well here) and, of course, chicken breasts. I also served this with a simple salad, so if you want to copy my meal completely, grab some salad ingredients and start with that (mine was a spinach salad with some veggies, walnuts, cranberries, and a combo of soy sauce and oil as dressing).
Without further ado, then…chicken four ways:
First, prepare your chicken. I used this simple brown sugar and soy marinade and let the chicken sit in it overnight (in a ziplock bag) in the fridge. The next day (just before serving), I sliced the chicken into strips and sauteed it on the stovetop in its marinade with a little water added.
Since there were two of us, I only did three large chicken breasts (and it was plenty and we had two meals worth of leftovers).
Next, start on your sauces.
The first sauce is a homemade pesto (I used this recipe). It’s super simple…just grab a bunch of fresh ingredients, throw them in a food processor (or blender, which is what I did), and then put in a jar and refrigerate until the next day. I chose to do Romano cheese (mostly because it was the first thing I found in the store), but I’m sure the Parmesan version is just as good.
The second sauce is a fruity mango strawberry salsa made by following one of my all-time favorite recipes. This can also be made the night before and stored overnight in the fridge in a sealed container.
The second and third sauces both start with this whipped ricotta recipe. Start by whipping up the whipped ricotta according to the recipe, but don’t add the olive oil, lemon zest, and pepper just yet. If you are making this the day before, just store the whipped ricotta in a closed container in the fridge and finish the sauces off the next day. If you’re making it just before serving, you can finish off the sauces as described below.
Once you’re ready to serve up your supper, place strips of chicken breast (two to three, depending on size) in four places on each plate. Now, over one set of chicken breasts, spoon some of the homemade pesto. Over another, spoon the mango strawberry salsa. Over the third, spoon your whipped ricotta and now add (over that) some olive oil, lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Over the final chicken serving, spoon some more of the whipped ricotta, but instead of olive oil, lemon zest, and spices, add a spoonful of good jam (I used organic strawberry rhubarb and it was a big hit).
Finally, apologies that I don’t have photos of my actual meal. The photos didn’t come out very well, but I didn’t want to deny you the recipes just because my photographic talent was taking the night off.
This is the first time I’ve ever attempted to make homemade cinnamon rolls.
I am, really, more of a cook than a baker, an artist rather than a scientist. And my sweet tooth runs more toward good, warm chocolate chip cookies.
But then I met a guy whose first food confession to me was that he’s in love with cinnamon rolls. So it was time to make an attempt.
I chose to follow Pioneer Woman’s basic cinnamon roll recipe (in part because it incorporates maple flavoring—another favorite of the guy I was trying to impress), but I’ve since adapted it quite a bit, so I’m going to post my own version below.
The following recipe easily satisfied five of us and I made the dough a few hours before finishing off the rolls and frosting. Total baking time, including all the time the dough needs to sit between steps, is about three hours.
1/2 quart whole milk
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cup brown sugar
1 package dry yeast (.25)
4 cups flour (plus 1/2 cup reserved and some extra for flouring your surface and rolling pin)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (overflowing)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (exact)
1/2 tablespoon salt (overflowing)
1 1/2 cups melted butter
2 – 3 tablespoons cinnamon (I used Vietnamese cinnamon)
2 1/2 – 3 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons maple flavoring
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 melted butter
1/4 cup brewed coffee (I used instant coffee of the Starbucks variety)
1/8 teaspoon salt
To start the rolls:
1. Heat milk, oil, and 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan on medium heat until it’s just below boiling, then remove from heat, let it cool for a couple minutes, and sprinkle the dry yeast on top of the liquid. Let it sit for about a minute.
2. Add four cups of flour and stir until combined. Cover the bowl with a towel and let it sit for an hour at room temperature.
3. Once that hour has passed, add baking powder and soda, salt, and that final 1/2 cup of flour. Mix.
4. Once it’s well mixed, let the dough sit in the fridge for an hour or two.
5. Set the oven to 375 (F) and flour one of your kitchen surfaces and a rolling pin. (Pro tip: if you have a large enough cutting board or a built-in cutting board in your kitchen, this would be a good place to do this so that you can roll and cut in the same spot.)
6. Roll the dough out on the floured surface into a rectangular shape. Try to get the dough pretty thin.
7. Pour about a cup of melted butter over the dough and spread it across the entire surface. Cover with cinnamon and 1 cup of brown sugar and try to spread it relatively evenly.
You can add more butter or sugar if you feel like you need it.
8. Once the surface is covered, use your hands to roll the dough toward you, keeping it as tight as you can (gaps are problematic).
9. On a cutting board, take your now-rolled cinnamon roll log and cut the rolls into relatively equal (and thick) portions. Turn them upward and place in a circular baking pan (or, if you don’t have one, a cookie sheet works).
10. Drizzle or drench the rolls with the remaining melted butter and let them sit on the counter (covered in a towel) for about 20 minutes before tossing them in the oven.
11. Take off the towel and bake for 15 – 20 minutes. The rolls should be browning a little and you can cut into the middle of one if you’re not sure if the dough has cooked through.
12. While they’re in the oven, focus on the frosting: whisk powdered sugar, milk, butter, coffee, and salt.
13. Once they’re looking good and combined, add the maple flavoring and whisk again. Then taste and add more butter, maple, sugar, etc. as needed.
14. Once the rolls are done, take them out of the oven and drench them in the icing, letting it run down the sides and soak into every nook and cranny.
15. Cool and enjoy.
The dough doesn’t keep well, so I recommend making it the same day. The completed rolls do keep well and I ate the last of the second batch about a week after I made it.
Finally, a kitchen tip for the traveler: one of the downsides to constantly being on the road is that every kitchen I cook in is equipped differently. Sometimes I have an epic blender, sometimes none at all. Sometimes I have a cheese grater, sometimes not. And in this case, I was doing without circular baking pans and without a rolling pin. To replace the rolling pin, I used a wine bottle, which works just as well (but do keep a good grip…you don’t want that thing falling off the counter). And instead of the circular pans I just used a cookie sheet (and made a bit of a mess with the frosting as a result…but it worked).
Europe’s best kept chocolate secret isn’t found in Switzerland or Belgium. It’s not a high-end boutique or a Hershey-style factory.
No. To find Europe’s most intriguing and tastiest chocolate, you’ll need to head to a tiny cafe in an unassuming town called Bayonne in southern France’s Basque Country (home of not only chocolate, but some fabulous local peppers).
Located about half an hour by train from glitzy, popular Biarritz (a tourist town on the coast), just a short way from the Spanish border, Bayonne is supposedly where chocolate-making first came to France. It came with the jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, across the border.
And so came the chocolate , served as a drink, hand-whipped and frothy…which is how you can still find it served today at the amazing cafe Cazenave (19 Arceaux du Port-Neuf).
During my own winter in Basque Country, I sought out Bayonne’s famous chocolate and Cazenave did not disappoint. The cafe itself doesn’t look like much–a collection of tables and doilies in the back of a chocolate shop–but the chocolate is like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.
The chocolate itself is hot and frothy and tastes somehow more real than the sugary concoctions we’re used to. There’s a slight bitterness to it, but also a sweetness and an almost earthy, grounded flavor.
It’s served with hand-made Chantilly cream–thick and sweet whipped cream–in a little bowl on the side and most people also get theirs with thick slices of toast.
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If you’ve ever even thought about going to Paris, I’m guessing you know that the city is all about food. From the fresh, seasonal produce of the weekly markets to the fancy establishments where you can indulge in some foi gras. This is probably part of the reason I love Paris so much.
The first time I visited Paris, it was a whirlwind five days. This time, I had nearly six weeks to relax, stroll the cobbled streets of Montmartre, and delight my tastebuds utterly with everything from the simple (fresh gingerbread) to the traditional (raclette) to the extravagant (artichoke tart with fried egg).
And because so many of you asked for more details and addresses in my survey this month, here are a few of my favorite places to eat, drink, and browse for things to eat or drink:
Le Pain Quotidian
This charming cafe on Rue Lepic has free WIFI, good coffee, and a decidedly international crowd (I’ve heard English, Italian, French, and one or two languages I didn’t recognize). Of the handful of cafes I spent my time in, I think this might just be my favorite.
Montmartre farmer’s market
Located at Metro Anver, the little farmer’s market runs every Friday from around 1:30 to around 7, depending on weather and supplies. This is the little market where I found my fresh gingerbread and strawberries (seen above), which served as an amazing breakfast and dessert. Everything I bought there was perfect and wonderful.
La Chambre Aux Confitures
This shop might just be my official favorite spot in Paris. I mean…fruit jams, flower jams, chocolate jams, honey, and jams for cheese and foi gras. How could I possibly not be in love with this beautiful little store?
Okay, so this one isn’t in Montmartre, but it’s worth every second of the twenty minute metro ride. After all, it’s owned by the former chef of the American Ambassador to Paris; it’s renowned for its foi gras (which I, sadly, did not get the chance to try on this trip); and it’s a five minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Yeah. You’re welcome.
The drinks are fun, the tapas delicious, and the waiters handsome. This is where we, very appropriately, spent a girls’ night out. (Sorry, no food photos here.)
Pretty much any boulanger
I have yet to find a boulanger I didn’t want to propose to. Just sayin’.
(But if you want the absolute best baguettes, my favorite is the little red shop on Rue Clignancourt right across from Rue Christiani.)
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