Sunday, August 8, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market

Inspiration comes in all forms, and my eyes, nose and tastebuds are always on alert. I’m certain that in a culinary sense, travelling anywhere in the world would offer more ideas for creativity in the kitchen than could be used in a lifetime. Thus far, my travels have taken me primarily to European countries, so the meals emanating from my kitchen are largely influenced by the colors, scents and flavors favored in this part of the world.

As an avid reader, film goer, and lover of richly woven textiles, I often find myself craving cuisines from the cultures represented, and have tried my hand at many, including those from Latin and Asian countries, and the Caribbean.

But as you know, I am currently in Italy, so naturally, my mind is reeling with snapshots of the ingredients and dishes native to this land. Strolling through the many local farmers’ markets in Rome, Florence and tiny villages in Tuscany is similar to the experience many of us have in our own local outdoor markets. Is there anything more stimulating than wandering aimlessly in the early morning, when vendors’ stalls are overflowing with fresh meats and produce, considering what looks best and deciding upon the evening’s menu?

I for one, am always thinking about sharing this abundance with friends and family, so I look to gather large quantities of a multitude of ingredients. I often return to the tried and true, especially with seasonal herbs and vegetables, but what really delights me is the prospect of trying something new, thereby introducing new experiences for our inquisitive palates.

At times, this can be a daunting task. Imagine the culinary delights possible with a bounty such as the one we discovered at “Perini” (at right), where an overwhelming cornucopia of specialty hams, salamis and so much more is offered by a welcoming duo, intent on stuffing us with food samples and wine, while laughingly taunting us with their prized Boston Celtics souvenir pencil acquired at a game attended years before. Along with several types of meats and a hunk of parmesan cheese the size of a child’s head, we purchased a delicious sweet and spicy “salsa” mixed with boiled chunks of pork resembling short ribs. The purveyers explained it can be used to top crostini or alongside a piece of roasted turkey, pork and even a roast beef. All I know is when I return to my own kitchen, I intend to try my best to replicate it, using it again and again throughout the year. (

Finally, our lunch at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano , known for it’s wonderful assortment of crostini and sandwiches made with foccaccia bread, offered some excellent examples of the endless variety of flavor combinations that can be achieved with just a couple of ingredients, each yielding remarkably different results.

Here is a picture of just one of the assortments we tried. Take a close look and imagine what you could accomplish using this plate as your inspiration! I almost can't wait to get back in my kitchen and start experimenting...I hope our friends are hungry.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Good, The Bad, and The Delicious

I am of the belief that for all the joyful experiences and happy remembrances a family vacation brings with them we must sometimes bare heightened tensions, sensitive nerves, and not-always-welcomed insights into one another’s character and the complex nature of closely bound relationships. It is the combined adventure of stepping into the unknown or unfamiliar, coupled with the inordinate time spent in undiluted company, that brings about such familial lightheartedness and oftentimes, drama. In other words, travelling with loved ones can be a real bitch.

With the whirlwind touring of sights and teeming streets of steamy Rome and Florence behind us, I’m taking today, a rather uncertain day weather-wise, to review and organize our travel photos to share with you as inspiration, perhaps propelling you on an adventure of your own, culinary and otherwise. Sitting here in our rented house in our favorite retreat, the tiny hillside village of Panzano in Chianti, I scan the pictures, marveling most at the bounty of colors and flavors offered to us at restaurant tables, and overwhelming the bins and shelves of numerous stalls of every kind of food merchant imaginable. Within these amateur photographs lies for me, that which is the joy of Italy and the expressions of my life.

Cooking is something I turn to in times of great joy, terrible sadness and everyday monotony. It is for me, the best means of communicating my deep need to nurture others, thereby nourishing myself. No wonder then, my heart fills, my eyes widen, and my pulse races when I come upon the sumptuousness of Italian markets and kitchens. The flavor combinations are limitless, anything is possible, and I want to share it with those that I love. Who can gaze upon these treasures and not feel the same?

With creative juices flowing and excitement mounting, I quickly jot ideas in a tiny notebook for future experimentation upon returning to my own kitchen in Los Angeles.

These eye-popping porcini we discovered at the Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo area of Florence are waiting to be softly sautéed and tossed gently with homemade tagliatelli and a drizzle of truffle oil. Reminded of the utter simplicity of the Italian cuisine, I will restrain from adding other elements, such as cheese or cream to the dish, and simply offer the pungent earthy flavors of the earth at my table. And all will be right with the world, at least for a time…..