Lake Trasimeno where I live Image via Wikipedia
I live in the "green heart" of Italy - that's how Italians call Umbria. Il cuore verde dell'Italia. Right next to Tuscany, it is the land of black truffles, ham, cheese, wine, olive oil, fabulous vegetables and pasta not to mention meat. The famous bistecca alla Fiorentina comes from beef produced 10 miles from where I live. What better place to experiment with cooking?
Recently I've set up my own vegetable garden, not far from Lake Trasimeno, famous for its spectacular sunsets:
Lake Trasimeno sunset Image by wege7 via Flickr
This year, for the first time we've grown our own vegetables (we've always lived in the city) and it's been quite an adventure: too much of one sort (eggplants, leeks, zucchini), too little of another (cucumber, melon). But whatever we managed to produce tasted exceptional. Tomatoes were actually RED!
You've guessed it, because of the vegetable garden, I found myself often in the kitchen. Thank God I love cooking! Food was always a matter of intense interest in my family, probably a combination of our French background and the numerous travels that brought us in contact with exotic cuisines. When I grew up, we moved all over: from Sweden to Egypt, Belgium, Russia, France, Colombia, the United States, Russia again, Italy, in that order. I've lived in Italy for the past...35 years - longer than anywhere else in the world!
But now that I'm here by Lake Trasimeno, I feel at home.
Being married to an Italian, I tend to cook Italian-style to please him...and myself! This is a country where you learn to love genuine, unaltered food rather than try to make clever sauces the way the French do.
This said, a nice tasty sauce to accompany fish is always welcome, particularly when if you live far away from the sea and the poor fish has lost its sea flavor in the long haul to your home!
If you can't grow your own veggies, I'd recommend you get bio food in spite of the extra cost. Bio is generally worth it because...I know, you think I'm going to tell you it's healthier. Maybe it is, this I don't know. But I do know bio food tastes noticeably better...except for eggs! I don't know why. You can't tell a bio egg from one that isn't. Worse, bio eggs don't poach well at all...Just like all the others! I mean, if you try to drop them in slow-boiling water, well...you have a mess! The egg white separates from the yolk and starts floating in the water in long filaments. If you've found a way to avoid that problem, let me know!
For some Italian recipes, like eggplants alla Parmigiana, it's taken me over twenty years to figure out exactly how to do it, and get the eggplant to be both light and airy inside and crisp on the outside. No soggy, oily stuff for me! In fact, I positively hate oily food and use olive oil as little as possible, just enough to avoid burning!
Eggplants alla Parmigiana Image by bro0ke via Flickr
This said, NEVER leave out cooking oils (or butter - provided you don't burn it!) from your cooking. A little oil is necessary for the body to function properly.
Actually that's been my life rule: since doctors keep changing their advice about what constitutes a healthy diet, I've decided to eat a little of everything, and use every cooking method, not leaving any out. Do you remember how a few years ago, you were supposed to avoid eggs and spinach? Yet in an earlier decade, eggs were considered extremely healthy and Popeye the Sailor is said to have been invented to promote spinach eating...out of a can, for Goodness' sakes!!!
And you know something odd? The eggplants coming out of my garden, grown without fertilizers or additives of any kind, DON'T TASTE BITTER at all! All cookbooks tell you to sprinkle salt on the eggplant slices and leave it there to soak up the "bitter liquid" inside the eggplants. Well, mine don't have that liquid! They're incredibly sweet and I can cook them without any preparation at all.
Makes you wonder how industrial farms grow eggplants and what it is exactly that you buy in supermarkets...
I set up a separate blog for my recipes - more a den for family and friends than a real blog! It contains nothing but true and tried recipes, the kind I give to my children and hope they will continue to make for their own children...
Click here to go to that blog, try the recipes (they're all super easy) and enjoy! I've pasted below my recipe for Waterzoie, the Belgian National Dish (oh yes, I forgot to tell you, I'm Belgian, not Italian!)
Image by roboppy via Flickr
There are 10 million people in Belgium and probably as many ways to make Waterzoie, the national dish! You can make it with chicken or fish or seafood, but in all cases it will have leeks as its characteristic feature. It really is a leek soup with either chicken or fish floating in it.
Sounds bad? Think again! It really is very, very tasty and remarkably easy to do if you follow my recipe - it can be quite a lot of work if you start from scratch and actually make a broth with bones and vegetables to cook your meat or fish in. We're in the 21st century and I'm not ashamed to confess that I use industrial bouillon cubes...
Another advantage of Waterzoie is that it can be prepared in advance: the perfect dish when you have guests!
So here's the recipe for 4 persons.
- 2 cups of leeks cut in julienne strips (at least 4 leeks and try to use the white part and not too much of the green)
- 1/2 cup white onion, likewise cut in strips
- 1/2 cup celery, also cut in strips
- 1 whole breast chicken, leave it whole or cut in two halves, Alternative: fish or seafood
- 1 or 2 bouillon cubes (chicken broth for chicken of course, and fish broth for fish, natch!
- 1 cup cream (since I live in Italy I use Mascarpone, but normal cream is fine and is what's used in Belgium)
- 1 egg yolk
- Juice of 1/2 lemon (or more as needed - it has to have a sharp "tang")
- Butter: one tablespoon
- Flour to thicken the sauce (about one tablespoonful of flour plus one of cornflour - maizena - but you will need to adjust to the quantity of broth you have)
Boil the potatoes and while they're boiling prepare the waterzoie.
1. Cut all the vegetables, leeks, onion and celery, in thin strips - julienne - about 1/2 inch long. Put in a wide pot,cover with water, add bouillon cube and a small amount (a tablespoonful) of butter.
2. Simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes taking care the vegetables don't burn - add water if need be.
3. After that time and as the vegetables start looking limp, add over them the chicken breasts and sprinkle a little salt over the meat. Cover and continue to simmer another 20 minutes until cooked. At that point the vegetables should be soft and the chicken cooked throughout and tender.
3a. If you use fish then you have to add it after the vegetables have cooked at least 20 minutes: the fish always cooks fast. How long that will take depends on the kind of fish you have chosen: for example, sea bass filets in my view don't need more than 5 minutes. Same with shrimps. More time is needed for lobster. Everytime, adjust the cooking of your vegetables that will always require 30 minutes to reach the right point of mellowness.
4. Now in a saucepan prepare the basis of your sauce: beat in a tablespoonful of flour and one of cornflour in 2 cups cold water and set on the fire to boil. This is how I make a "roux": I don't start by melting butter and working the flour in it. That's not needed! You can always add the butter - fresh, better for your health - at the end, when the sauce is done! Remember to beat it with a whisk so that the flour mixes well in the water and keep beating when it boils. It should boil at least 5 minutes to ensure the flour is cooked.
5. Pull out the chicken (or fish) from the pot where cooked and set aside on a warm serving dish (cover to keep the meat warm) You will serve the potatoes peeled in the same serving dish.
6. Do the sauce: pour the "roux" mixture from your saucepan (that you did in step 4) into the pot with the vegetables. Adjust the quantity of broth (I like it fairly liquid - but it's up to you, how thick a leek sauce you really want). Add chicken bouillon cube(s) or fish broth as needed so that it is rather strong tasting: it shouldn't be too bland because at this point you add the cream + egg yolk + lemon juice. Adjust with salt, pepper and lemon to taste. Once the yolk is in, be careful if you need to warm it up : you cannot boil the sauce anymore or it will turn stringy on you!
7. To serve: put the sauce (which will be very abundant!) in a soup toureen, and cut the chicken and potatoes for presentation on the serving dish.
This dish should be accompanied by full-bodied red wine if done with chicken - white wine if done with fish.
Enjoy! You could be eating this in Brussels!