My Journey into the Kitchen “Les Dames D’Escoffier: My Culinary Village”

Les Dames Chicago 20th Anniversary fundraiser at the Ritz Carlton

A simple cup of coffee in the morning always brightens my mood and gives me the spark I need to seize the day.  But when that cup of coffee was shared with my mentor, friend and Café Provencal owner Leslee Reis, it was she that picked me up, not the coffee.  Leslee was my morning jolt, my inspiration.  From the day we met we shared many of the same passions: a love of food, an obsession with travel, and a decidedly offbeat sense of humor.  Laughter was our common elixir.

We began meeting for morning coffee in the late sixties but those get togethers were infrequent given the demands of our young children.  However, after I moved back from England in 1979, seeing Leslee became an essential part of my day.  What we had in common at this point was immense: we were two women in our thirties each with two teenage children and both up to our eyeballs in the food industry – Leslee opened her restaurant Café Provencal in 1977 and I opened my food and wine market Convito Italiano in 1980.

We needed one another.  Our coffee-sipping sessions became therapeutic – the perfect time to swap ideas and support one another in both our personal and professional lives.  Then one morning Leslee told me about a recent project – her involvement in an organization called Les Dames d’Escoffier.  She was a charter member of the newly formed Chicago Chapter.  As she described it, Les Dames was an organization of women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality professions that was originally formed in the early-seventies in New York City.  The goal of the organization was to open up the world of food, wine and hospitality to women in an industry which – like many others at that time – was rife with discrimination.  During those initial years, the New York Chapter focused on challenging patriarchal hiring practices, championing pay equity and encouraging professional educational opportunities for women in the industry.  Though their mission was met with resistance typical of anything which advocates for systemic change to the status quo, there were many professionals – women, as well as men – who supported their goals enthusiastically.  Some ten years after its formation, the New York Chapter began reaching out to women in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. to form what would soon become an international organization to promote the advancement of women in the culinary industry all over the world.

One morning Leslee told me she was going to propose me for membership.  As lofty and as important as the goals of this organization seemed, and as much as they clearly echoed many of the problems Leslee and I had pondered, I was hesitant to commit myself to anything other than my business at this point.  Adding more responsibilities to my already hectic life didn’t seem like a good idea considering I already felt at a loss to find enough time for my family and my business.  However…how could I say no to Leslee Reis?!  The woman sitting across from me sipping her coffee was about to begin a jam-packed day running her world-renowned restaurant  while taking care of her family as well.  Was her schedule any less packed than mine?  The answer was no, so of course I said YES and told her that I was honored to be considered for membership.

What a life changing decision that turned out to be.  It wasn’t long before I realized that everyone in this organization was in the same position I was in, juggling professional responsibilities with personal commitments.  But that didn’t change the fact that I waded into the organization cautiously.  My initial participation in Les Dames was minimal – attending a few programs here and there – but quickly grew more substantial after I began to meet one interesting member after another.  It didn’t take long to realize I had found myself amongst a very special group of women who willingly gave up their time and energy to bring change to our industry, to provide opportunities to women in the beginning of their careers and to support each other whenever and however they could.  I was sold!  Only two years after I joined I accepted a position on the Board.  After that I became the Fundraising Chair, then the Membership Chair, then President of the Chicago Chapter (1991 to 1993) and eventually President of Les Dames International (1995 to 1996).  I became Chapter President again in 2007 and have held various other positions along the way.  It is amazing how one can find the time to do anything when you become a part of a group whose cause you so firmly believe in.  You simply make the time.  And saying you’re  “too busy” in this particular group of women are words you dare not utter.

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Leslee Reis

Over the years I eventually came to realize that Leslee gave me an incredible gift, a professional support team of women who shared my interests and who have enriched my life in so many different ways.  They were not just enthusiastic about food and wine, they were professionals whose expertize in their respective fields offered me – offered all of us – a wealth of invaluable information and perspective.  Many of these women became good friends, cooking buddies and some even traveling partners.  Our culinary interests made for strong connections.  We saw food in similar ways – as a great unifier that connects us across culture and generation.  It wasn’t just about taste.  Food was about much more than just eating. Food is history, it is tradition, and it is art.  As our most famous Grande Dame, Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the very best people”!

 

Leslee And I at Riviera party

My first Les Dames cooking and traveling buddy was – of course – my sponsor Leslee Reis.  During the early-eighties when Leslee and I were consumed with our respective restaurant careers as well as our Les Dames membership, we still somehow found time to cook together.  Our most celbrated collaboration was our “Riviera Party” where we created  dish after dish of Mediterranean fare that reflected the flavors of both of our restaurants – Italy and southern France. Our party was held outside at my Glencoe home on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Both the weather and the party turned out to be perfect!

 

 

 

The Chicago Tribune even wrote an article about it with the headline –  “Though Guests couldn’t quite see the Riviera, the flavor was there”. The article continued, Perhaps the next best thing to being on the Riviera is going to a party that recreates its sensuous, spirited feeling.  That’s what Nancy Barocci and Leslee Reis did one recent Sunday evening when 80 friends savored delicacies of the Mediterranean and partied in the relaxed spirit of the famous region.”  Recipes for Nicoise Salad, Rosemary Walnuts, Spinach, Onion and Egg Tian and the below were included in the article.

 

 

Leslee’s Crudites with Aioli

 

Fresh Vegetables (choose among the following)
Carrots with tops
Celery with leafy tops
Radishes with leafy tops
Cucumbers
Small zucchini, summer squash
Green and red peppers
Green onions
Whole mushrooms
Belgian endive
Hard cooked eggs

Garlic mayonnaise
3-4 firms cloves garlic, peeled
1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup good quality olive oil

In a wicker basket, put an assortment of vegetables and hard-cooked eggs.

For garlic mayonnaise, drop garlic into food processor.  Process until finely chopped.  Add egg yolk, salt and lemon juice; process to blend.  With the machine running, drizzle olive oil into machine in slow steady stream.  Process until smooth. Taste and season accordingly.

 

Cooking with Leslee was a joy but traveling with her to Italy and France was even better.  Her curiosity and sharp wit made each day a new adventure.  We viewed travel and life in much the same way – taste and savor it – but don’t crowd in too much.  You must have time to reflect on what you’ve seen or tasted, to let everything steep! What I liked best about her companionship was that we agreed up front that we didn’t have to be stuck together like glue.  If she wanted to nap and I wanted to go to a museum – or vice versa, that was fine.   However, we always came back together for lunch and dinner; sometimes taking detailed notes on the wine and food we were enjoying and sometimes barely commenting on the food and just living in the moment.   Either way, we always found time to discuss our profession and in what way we could benefit the women in our community who were not as fortunate as we were.

 

Leslee and I with Count Alighieri at his Veneto vineyard

Our very last trip together was especially wonderful.  We started in Venice then drove through much of Veneto then Friuli-Venezia Giulia ending up in Lombardia visiting many of the friends I had acquired since opening Convito. Leslee’s compelling personality charmed everyone she met: the famed grappa producing Nonino family in Friuli; Sandro Boscaini, owner of the prestigious Masi winery in Veneto; Luigi Lazzaroni, the biscuit king from Saronno and finally Neil & Maria Empson, leading Italian wine exporters living in Milan.  She not only delighted each person she met, but also impressed them with her keen intellect and comedic delivery.  You simply could not be around Leslee without having a stimulating and marvelous time.

Our last night in Italy was spent with Neil & Maria Empson.  As the evening wore on and our conversations became more intimate, Neil decided to share a touching story about finding and reconnecting with his long-lost daughter.  Though all these years later I don’t recall all the details, but I do know that I was moved enough that I would forever feel a closeness to Neil that took shape over that night.  Leslee was also touched by Neil’s story, but to a degree that almost made me look callous!  So moved was she that Neil had to ask the waiter for a box of Kleenex to soak up Leslee’s tears.  By the time our evening ended and Leslee had emptied the entire box of Kleenex, it was clear that the Empson’s were smitten – and pledged they would visit Café Provencal in Evanston during their next visit to Chicago.  Sadly, that would not happen.

 

Leslee passed away about a year after this trip in 1990 at age 47.  She was in New Orleans with her husband and our mutual friends George Schaefer (owner of the iconic Schaefer Wine & Spirits) and his wife Cookie when she had a heart attack.  The Schaefers and I celebrated Leslee not long after she died with a recreation of the last dinner she and I shared on our final trip to Italy at Antica Trattoria Suban on the outskirts of Trieste.  That meal was absolutely delicious and incredibly substantial (the owner learned we both owned restaurants, so he added many courses to the ones we had already ordered).  That was one night when Leslee and I had taken copious notes, so I had all the information I needed when I decided to sell it at a Les Dames auction as a meal to be cooked in the future at Convito.  The Schaefer’s bought it and invited me to join.  We all looked forward to this “Suban Dinner” night when we could enjoy both a fantastic meal as well as “Leslee stories”.  She was one of a kind.  George and I often talked about the impact Leslee had on our lives both professionally and personally and how very much we enjoyed being in her presence.  (George had been the consultant for Leslee’s wine lists at all three of her restaurants – Café Provencal, Leslee’s and Bodega Bay).

 

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Nancy Harris

Another cooking buddy, Nancy Harris, entered my life at the same time that I became a member of Les Dames since we were in the same “charter group”.  Nancy was the former director of Cooks Mart Cooking School in Chicago and owner of Moveable Feast Catering.  My Les Dames career path pretty much followed Nancy’s – becoming both Chapter President and International President immediately after her.  She likes to point out, however, that even though she preceded me in both of these positions, she is the younger of the two Nancys which I suppose qualifies her for wunderkind status!  She was passionate about the goals of this organization and taught me much about how our leadership could help to achieve them.

Our cooking relationship intensified in 1996 when she moved into the same building that I was living in downtown Chicago.  Since we both liked to entertain and did a lot of it, we not only cooked together but also often attended one another’s dinner parties. I almost never left Nancy’s home without requesting a recipe of some dish she had just cooked for one of our dinners.  We also began traveling together – once to South American and several trips to Italy.  (Nancy’s recipe from an Italian trip we made together is  –Ribollita, which appears in an earlier blog  – Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”).

Nancy, Candace and I in Chianti

One especially memorable cooking session was a Thanksgiving meal we prepared together using the turkey recipe from our good friend Abby Mandel’s cookbook Celebrating the Midwestern Table.  The directions seemed complicated, but we were determined.  They began – Cut three 3-foot lengths of heavy-duty foil.   Working on a large flat surface, place the foil lengths side by side to make a wide sheet that will be pieced together – they continued.  Was this an origami art project we wondered?  Except using tin foil instead of paper.

Soon we decided that the countertop of my kitchen was not a large enough surface for this project, so we placed the roasting pan on the floor where Nancy began double folding the long edges and securing the seams while I stood over her continuing to read Abby’s instructions trying to make some sense out of what we were doing.  By the time we got to the actual placement of the turkey  – bringing the foil up over the sides of the turkey, making sure to leave airspace on the top and the sides making the tent airtight, I had joined Nancy on the floor where we were doubled over in laughter as we continued to struggle with our 22 pound bird.

Once cooked and out of the oven, we did have to admit that the meat was incredibly moist as promised, but not at all brown, making it impossible to make a dark, rich gravy.  Because Abby’s recipes (she was another of my cooking buddies) were legendary and pretty much infallible, we figured we must have missed something.  A step?  A fold in our tent?  We’ll never know for sure but both Nancy and I reverted back to the old traditional method of roasting a turkey at future Thanksgivings.  No more foil tents for us.   However, not a Thanksgiving goes by where we don’t have a good laugh remembering our “tin-foil-turkey-tent struggles”.

It was difficult to select a recipe from Nancy for this blog.  I have so many.  But I decided upon one that she made for a baby shower she gave my daughter Candace.  Many of the guests asked for the recipe afterwards, a sure indicator of a winning dish.  It is a take on the Piemonte dish called Vitello Tonnato – cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like tuna sauce.  This delicious version uses chicken instead of veal and because it is served cold, is an easy dish to make for a buffet.

© rob warner photography 2021

Cold Poached Chicken Breasts with Tuna Basil Sauce
(6 servings)

3 pounds whole skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 3)
2-3 cups chicken broth (or stock)
Salt and Pepper (if stock is not seasoned)

Sauce
6 ½ oz. can tuna packed in olive oil, drained well
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup plain yogurt
3 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoons drained bottled capers plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves, or to more to taste
lemon slices for garnish
6 fresh basil sprigs for garnish (optional)

20 Mixed brine-cured black olives – such as Niçoise and Kalamata – cut in half

Place the chicken breasts in a skillet large enough to hold them without layering. Pour enough stock over them to cover completely and bring to a simmer for 18 minutes, uncovered. Remove the skillet from the heat, and let the chicken cool in the liquid for 30 minutes. Do not bring to a boil.  Drain the chicken and let it stand until it is cool enough to handle. Separate the two sides of each breast, then wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

In a blender or food processor blend the tuna, mayonnaise, yogurt, anchovies, 1 tablespoons of capers, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste until the mixture smooth. Transfer to an airtight container, and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Cut the chicken breasts diagonally into ¼-inch slices and put each breast on a plate. Just before serving, stir the chopped basil into the sauce. Spoon some of the sauce over each breast and garnish the chicken with additional capers, the basil sprigs, lemon slices and sprinkle olives on top.

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Abby Mandel

Dames at Abby’s shower for Candace

Abby Mandel, cookbook author and Chicago Tribune “Weekend Cook” columnist and founder of the Green City Market in Chicago was a Chicago force to be reckoned with.  Abby, Nancy and I all came into Les Dames in that second charter group but it wasn’t until several years later than I became friendly with her.  Abby was thought of by many of us in Chicago as the “Martha Stewart of the Midwest”. Her parties were legendary, not only for her excellent food but also for her table settings. Many of them followed a theme like her “Bistro Evening” where typical bistro food was served in a casual yet elegant setting.  Her parties were also very clever like the wedding shower she gave for my daughter, Candace.  Her invitation in the form of a poem requested that each guest bring a recipe and a gift to match – like a pie plate with a pie recipe.  It made for an afternoon of delightful discussions about the origins of everyone’s recipes.

The main dish she served for this luncheon (recipe below) was from her cookbook”Celebrating the Midwestern Table”

 

© rob warner photography 2021

Abby Mandel’s Baked Salmon with Fresh Tomato & Capers

 

Tomato & Caper Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced (about ½ tablespoon)
3 large shallots, minced (about ½ cup)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
6 large plum tomatoes, outer shells only, cut into ½ inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon capers, drained
Pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Salmon
Six 5 to 6 ounce uniformly thick fresh fillets
1-tablespoon olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large basil leaves, cut into fine julienne for garnish

 

Put a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a jellyroll pan (cookie sheet with sides) with foil.  Set aside

For the sauce, heat the oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the garlic and the shallots.  Cook until softened, about 4 minutes.  Add the wine and simmer 1 minute.  Add tomatoes, capers, sugar, salt & pepper.  Heat just until warmed through.  Stir in butter until melted.  Remove from the heat.  Adjust seasonings.  This sauce can be made several hours ahead and kept at room temperature.  Gently reheat before using it.

For the salmon, wash the fillets and dry them with paper towels. Place the fillets, skin side down, in a single layer on the prepared jelly roll pan. Rub the surface of the fillets with oil.  Season with salt and pepper.

Bake until the fish is sizzling and lightly browned around the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes. To be sure they are cooked, use a small paring knife to cut through the thickest part.  Do not overcook.

To serve, use a metal spatula to transfer the fillets to a large serving platter or to individual plates. Spoon the warm sauce over them and garnish with the julienned basil.  Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled.  If serving chilled, refrigerate the fillets up to 3 hours with the sauce on them.

 

Abby in a local market in Provencé

I was fortunate to travel to France with Abby once, an experience that was especially memorable because of her strong connection to that country.  Not only did Abby speak beautiful French, but she was also familiar with its best restaurants having trained in many of them while she was writing her Cuisinart cookbooks.  We began in Paris, then moved on to Provence to visit my daughter Candace who was studying at the University of Provence in Aix.  A big part of our agenda was to survey the amazing farmer’s markets in Provence.  Just about every village has a weekly or bi-weekly market and it was truly a pleasure to accompany Abby as she checked out the amazing produce, gorgeous prepared foods and beautiful Provencal printed linens – always surrounded by the heavenly scent of lavender.  Even though we did much nibbling in each market we always found time to have a leisurely lunch in a nearby café, reviewing our market finds while savoring a glass of local Rosé.  Oh the life!

Abby claimed many of her ideas for Chicago’s Green City Market came from these markets.  Visiting them over the years she said deepened her commitment to supporting small farmers in the Chicago area and fired up her passion for educating the local community about why these farmers who were providing the community with healthy and sustainable food deserved our support.  Once again, it was thrilling to be with someone so knowledgeable and so committed – a trait I found in so many Dames members.

 

Leslee, Abby and I

Les Autres Dames

Leslee, Nancy and Abby were some of my earliest and closest Les Dames friends, but I have met so many smart, interesting, wonderful women though the organization that its almost impossible to tell all their stories.  In the early 1900’s I began attending the Les Dames International Conferences in the various chapter cities around the country opening up yet another path to culinary adventures and friendships.

International Board at a Napa meeting

Conferences in L.A., New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Palm Springs, Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, D.C. and others not only brought me in contact with chapter members from all over the country, but exposed us all to the culinary highlights of each location.   The Host Chapter always planned an amazing four-day event including tours, classes, tastings and incredible dining experiences.

In 1994 I became a member of the International Board as a Vice President.  At that time, the Board was comprised of President, Past President, 2 Vice Presidents, Secretary and Treasurer.  The Board held four meetings during the year, our last being the annual conference.  The other three meetings were usually held in cities that we hoped would ultimately form their own chapter and we always made a point of seeking out women in the community who might be the most likely candidates to become members.

 

Paula Lambert, Nancy Harris and I

Our days during these smaller meetings were filled with policy discussions and agenda plans for the upcoming conference.  But our evenings were reserved for exploration- checking out the newest or best bars, markets and restaurants of the city. Paula Lambert, American cheese maker and cookbook author from Dallas, served on my board.  With her deep connections all over the U.S., we left the planning of our evening activities up to her- guaranteeing that they would be of the highest quality.

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Some of my best Les Dames memories are of these smaller gatherings.  One in particular was the lunch meeting in Boston with Julia Child in her Cambridge kitchen (the very kitchen now housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.).  I pinched myself throughout the whole meeting.   Another was the delicious dinner we enjoyed at the famed Cakebread Napa Valley Winery with the Cakebread family sipping their fantastic wines throughout the dinner and hearing about their history.

 

Dames with Julia in her home at the Boston conference

As is always the case, smaller groups produce deeper relationships.  One of those deeper relationships was with Ann Yonkers.  We clicked immediately.   She was co-founder and co-director of Fresh Farm Markets in Washington D.C.  Dorene Centioli-McTigue who owned Pagliacci Pizza Company in Seattle Washington was another.  I keep in touch with both of them and make a point to see them as often as possible.  Another great by-product of getting to know these fellow international board members is the fact that when you travel to their city, you know it is simply a matter of a phone call to either make a date for lunch or ask advice on where and what to visit in their respective cities.

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In 1995 I had the honor of becoming President of Les Dames d’Escoffier International.  The conference during my term was held in my favorite city, New York.  At that time our conferences were not as expansive as they are today.  We had just 17 chapters. Today Les Dames has chapters in over 40 cities – five of which are international including Paris and London.  Although we continue to promote our original goals, in recent years Les Dames has added ambitious community service projects like the Green Tables Civic Agriculture and Gardening Initiative, which has been implemented in a variety of established garden-to-table organizations all over the country.  Grants, scholarships, mentoring and community service programs continue to be our hallmark.  If it wasn’t clear before it is now: women are now a force to be reckoned with!  Attending these conferences or keeping up with our impressive membership by reading our Quarterly – the newsletter written and edited by Cici Williamson of D.C  (author and recipe tester) –  always brought me back to the happiness and pride I felt in being a member of this illustrious professional organization.

After my term as President of International, I continued being active in the Chicago chapter, chairing various committees and eventually becoming President of the chapter for a second time.  One group that has provided me with a wealth of knowledge is the PPAC – the Past Presidents Advisory Committee.  We all have much in common after serving as president of this very prestigious and diverse group of women, all of whom have strong opinions about almost everything.  They are a very interesting group of women each with knowledge, skill and competence in their own particular area of the industry.

 

Past Presidents at the 20th Chapter Celebration

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Barbara Glunz and I

I can always call on Carol Haddix, former food editor of the Chicago Tribune, for help in writing or editing; Jeanne Lubeck, Suzanne Florek, Rita Gutekanst, Nancy Harris or Barbara Glunz, all owners (or former owners) of restaurants or catering establishments, for advice in all matter of things related to my business.  And Toria Emas, Private Club and Events Planner and Nancy Harris were experts in matters of policy and procedure. They along with Mary Hess, a recognized expert in food and nutrition, never fail to answer whatever questions I might have in these categories.  I continue to consult Nancy Harris on many other things.  She had been president or on the board of almost every culinary organization known to man so her perspective is always valuable.

In recent years it has become a custom for the current President to organize a PPAC luncheon.  Current President Portia Belloc Lowndes, caterer and events/conference planner, organized the last one.  Portia’s very calm and congenial demeanor set the tone of the luncheon – one of comradely and cooperation.   Since it is really up to the current president to decide how much help she wants or needs from the PPAC, our participation has varied over the years.  Portia made it clear she would most likely call on all of us for help in various areas.   She welcomed our perspective on things. And then came the pandemic!

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I met Linda Calafiore when she was a Chicago dame.  After she sold her incredibly successful company CHIC (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) to Cordon Bleu, and moved to Carmel, California, we have continued to stay in touch over the phone, during her visits to Chicago to see friends and family, traveling together and my visits to her charming home in California.  We share a love of many things, especially a passion for Italy and its ceramica.  Linda so loves Italy she even considered making it her home moving to Rome for a summer.   But after a few months, decided that visiting Italy was way better than living there.

 

Linda and I in Carmel

Her Carmel home is always a great respite from the bitter cold Chicago winters. Besides invigorating walks along the ocean, a highlight is having a meal cooked by her and served outside in her lush beautiful garden.   She is a most gracious and generous hostess.  During my most recent visit, Linda made a pasta dish I loved – and have since used in my restaurant.

 

Linda Calafiore’s Autumn Orecchiette
(Serves 5 – 6)

 

¾ pound orecchiette cooked al dente
2 ½ pound butternut squash – peeled cubed into ½ inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-teaspoon brown sugar
1 pound crumbled mild Italian sausage
5 – 6 cups Swiss chard, loosely chopped
¼ to 1/3 cup stock
Grated Parmesan
Sage

Toss cubed butternut squash with olive oil and brown sugar and place on a cookie sheet.  Roast in a 400-degree oven for approximately 25 – 30 minutes until tender and slightly browned.  Set aside

In a large skillet, brown the sausage.  Add the Swiss chard and sauté for 2 minutes.  Add the broth and mix well.

In the meantime cook the pasta until al dente.  Drain and mix into the sausage, Swiss chard.  Add the squash.  Mix all together until heated.  Serve with grated Parmesan.  Optional – top with fried sage.

 

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Linda’s point of view as a culinary school administrator has been valuable to me over the years.  As a no nonsense, straight-to-the-point kind of gal, I have found her advice both intelligent and practical.  It is always interesting to hear other people’s take on my business.  Sometimes I have even hired a Dames member as a consultant to my stores and restaurants.  Dana Benigno – recipe developer and marketing consultant – and I had become friends as a result of our board connection.  Her delightful, spirited voice was always ripe with new and fresh ideas and I loved her for that.  During one of our lunches at Convito, she began making observations and comments about both the café and market – interesting ideas about everything from the color of the bowls we used in our prepared food cases to our marketing focus both in print and social media.  I ended up hiring her.   “Convito is so comfortable”, she observed once.  “How about using the phrase “Come Home to Comfort. Come home to Convito” in your marketing push?  We did, and we still use that phrase frequently.  Not only did I value many of Dana’s suggestions, but more than anything it was just damn fun working with her.  Lots of laughter!

Dana Benigno

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Good friend Joan Reardon and Jill Van Cleave were also two relationships that came as a result of board connections.  For years the three of us met for a February dinner to celebrate our February birthdays.  Joan is a well-respected author of four culinary books and Jill was a prolific cookbook author and food industry consultant.

I got to know Jill even better when she became the Program Chairman on my board.   She was – in my opinion – the best Program Chairman the organization had ever had.  In addition to her own culinary career, she was also married to one of America’s foremost food and wine writers, Bill Rice.  Constantly wined and dined as the “hot culinary couple” in Chicago and throughout America, Jill came to the position of Program Chairman with a wealth of experience and incredible credentials.  Her programs ranged from stimulating lectures like “Sustainable Seafood” held at the Shedd Aquarium to delicious and educational lunches and dinners like The Green City Market lunch at North Pond and the dinner at Vichyssoise where chef Bernard Cretier cooked up dishes in celebration of Julia Child’s recent passing. Her Beer and Cheese tasting deviated from the more classic cheese pairing of wine and actually surprised many of us how interesting that combination could be.  Then she really surprised us all when she decided to end her term on a decadent note – a private event held at Saks Fifth Avenue with a Dames Fashion Show and personal make-up sessions.   “Every program doesn’t have to be heavy”, said Jill laughingly.

After Bill passed on in 2016, a group of Les Dames friends gathered around a then ailing Jill as a “cheer-her-up” dinner group taking her bi-monthly to various restaurants all around the Chicago area.  The group included, Barbara Glunz, owner of the House of Glunz, Chicago’s oldest and finest wine & spirits shop; Sofia Solomon, owner of Tekla, a prestigious purveyor of fine foods and cookbook author Karen Leven.  Over the expanse of the 3 years we spent dining together, Barbara and Sofia expanded my wine knowledge exponentially.  Even though I have been involved with Convito’s wine market since we opened – tasting the wines, visiting wineries and ordering our selections – my knowledge of wine outside of Italy was lacking.   Sofia loved to begin our evenings with a glass of her favorite Champagne, Pol Roger, which she generously brought along to share with us.  It became an integral part of our “cheer-her-up” dinners where ironically the cheeriest of all of us was, Jill.  Her take on life was simply inspirational.  The four of us have continued seeing one another even after Jill passed on in 2018.

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Although brief, my relationship with Linda Avery came about also from a board connection.  I first got to know her when she served as Communications Chairman on my board and then by working with her on two different fundraisers.   When she became a co-chair on the fundraiser “Fashion Plates” during my second term as president, it became evident why this totally reliable, highly organized and smart-as-a-whip person was such a sought-after member for any committee.

Linda Avery

Linda came to the food community later in life.  She began in the financial department at Leo Burnett Advertising Agency eventually rising to the level of senior vice president.  Linda claims we actually met when I lived in London and she came with the Chicago financial team to meet with my then husband Bob.  I don’t remember that dinner, probably because those events were usually focused on business and my role of “wife” was primarily one of just being charming and accommodating.  I do remember, however, that hiding my extreme boredom was always way more difficult than being charming and accommodating.

By the time she joined Les Dames, Linda had left Leo Burnett and came to us as a James Beard award-winning food editor for her work on Leite’s Culinaria, a celebrated cooking and food blog.  Her recipe writing was impeccable.  Shortly after we met, we would frequently share meals together sometimes joined by either Meme Hopmayer or Jen Lamplough cookbook author and food educator.  All of us appreciated Linda’s wicked sense of humor and insightful observations.  Because she was a part of the cookbook review committee for both the IACP (International Association of Cooking Professionals) awards as well as the James Beard awards, she was on top of all the latest food trends and would share that knowledge with us over dinner.

Linda and I took several long weekend trips together over the course of three summers: first to Madison, Wisconsin to explore its famous farmer’s market coming home with sacks full of corn and tomatoes; then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to enjoy its lakefront museum and German restaurants this time purchasing an assortment of Wisconsin cheeses and for me, some good old Wisconsin brats; and finally to Saugatuck, Michigan to amble through its quaint little shops bringing home every kind of delicious Michigan blueberry product imaginable including syrup, jam and even soap.  We actually stayed in cookbook author Julie Rosso charming Wickwood Inn.  Sadly, the next sojourn we planned to New York City was cancelled.  Linda’s untimely and early death in the fall of 2016 was unexpected and devastating to us all.

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Swank group (L to R) Co-Chair Meme Hopmayer, Budget Chair Linda Avery, President Jen Lamplough and Co-cChair Nancy Brussat

Meme Hopmayer and I became close friends after working on several committees together.  We collaborated on many a Les Dames program and fundraiser over the years but our most fun collaboration was the fundraiser we co-chaired called “Swank-a-licious”.  This crazy supper-club themed dinner and auction was made complete with a band and vocals led by the husband of one of our past presidents (Dave Gutekanst) accompanied at times by the Broadway-quality voice of our upcoming president, Julie Chernoff.

Before President Jen Lamplough asked us to chair this fundraiser, Meme and I thought our Les Dames chairmanships were over.  We had put in many, many hours over the years!  But Jen had so much on her plate we didn’t have the heart to say no. She was after all one of our favorite young, up-and-coming members.  And having worked together on many previous events, Meme and I had a certain rhythm to our partnership.  I will never forget our first meeting after we accepted this co-chairmanship.  My goal was to make a list of all those we wanted to chair our sub- committees: our dream team!  “Ok”, I said after we made the list, “let’s divide up the names and call them all by the end of the week”.  “No”, said Meme “Let’s call right now!”  With that she pulled out her cell phone and proceeded to call everyone on our list.  I was astounded.  Not only did we reach every single person, but every one of them said yes, most importantly our budget and event coordinator, Linda Avery.   Wow!  We had our Dream Team just like that!  I was immediately reminded of why I liked working with Meme so much.

Swankaliscious dinner party auction: Meme’s condo, Convito food, Barbara Glunz wine and Malika Ameen -famed pastry chef – desserts

 

Like so many Dames, Meme’s food credentials were impressive.  At one time she and her husband Gary owned Original American Scones, a bakery located in downtown Chicago, which in addition to their store, serviced the many Chicago Starbucks locations.   They also consulted with several Chicago markets and restaurants including the Corner Bakery and Fox & Obel, a Chicago food and wine market.  Meme’s specialty is baking and it was always on spectacular display at her famous Ultimate Cookie Exchange, an annual event where guests are invited to come up with a “truly delicious and different cookies” and bring 3-dozen of them (including a recipe) to her much-anticipated Sunday holiday lunch.  The guest list always included illustrious Chicago pastry chefs, so it could be rather intimidating for those of us who consider ourselves cooks, not bakers.  But nonetheless, I came every year with my humble offering and looked forward to sampling some of the best cookies I have ever tasted.

 

Meme Hopmayer Cookie Party

Meme’s Biscotti
(Yield: 24-30)

 

¼ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange rind
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup dried currants (or cranberries)
1-¼ cups salted pistachios
1 egg white mixed with a bit of water
½ cup sanding sugar

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheets with parchment paper

With an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugar, zest and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and gradually beat into butter mixture.  Beat until combined well.  Stir in remaining ingredients.  Chill dough 30 minutes until it no longer feels sticky.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and halve.  Form each piece into a flattish log about 12 inches long by 2 inches wide.  Brush log with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar.  Arrange logs about 3 inches apart on baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Bake in the middle of oven for about 30 minutes until pale golden brown.  Cool logs on baking sheet on a rack for about 5 – 10 minutes.

Transfer logs to cutting board and cut crosswise on a diagonal into 1 inch thick slices and arrange cut sides down on baking sheet.  Lower oven to 200 degrees and bake biscotti until dried and golden.

Transfer biscotti to racks and cool completely.

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Ann, Dorene, Linda and I in Tuscany

Many of us who established friendships through our international connections have gotten together over the years.  I have visited Ann Yonkers and her renaissance-man husband Charlie at their Chesapeake Bay home many times.  Their farm and grounds overlooking the Bay are incredible, as is their new kitchen – a heavenly place where cooking and comradery is ever-present.

 

Ann and Charlie were a part of the most memorable communal cooking session that  I described in a previous blog (Tuscany I “My Country Experience”) where Linda Calafiore and I visited Dorene Centioli-McTigue and her wine savvy husband Terry at their beautiful villa just outside of Cortona, Tuscany where they lived for two years.  Ann and Charlie were already there when we arrived.  The meal we cooked together as a group was divine – the results not surprising given this group of food and wine lovers endowed with considerable cooking skills.  The meal is described in (blog Tuscany).

 

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Some things come along at just the right moment and becoming a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier was important to me on so many levels.  Working alongside these amazing women was always inspirational whether our goal was to raise funds for culinary scholarships or local food banks, to plan programs for our membership, or to simply work toward achieving the goals of this organization: the promotion, support and development of women in the food and wine industry.

Les Dames has given me the opportunity to develop professional relationships that would become invaluable to my business, introduced me to the food and wine of countless American cities, and provided me with access to a group of women who have been my advisors, my teachers, my supporters and my friends.  The organization is like no other I have ever belonged to. LDEI has given me – and woman like me – a place where we can find support, stimulation and recognition for our achievements in a profession that was not so long ago the exclusive territory of our male counterparts.  And though I have found amazing friendships and inspiring professional collaborations outside the universe of the Dames who I have come to love and respect, nothing compares to being able to learn from, mentor and honor other women in whom I recognize both my past and future self.  Whether they are a cooking collaborator, a dining partner or travel buddy, their impact on my life has been profound.  Even those who have passed on remain with me in spirit.  Their friendship and counsel will always be firmly engrained in my very existence.

Needless to say, my culinary journey would not be nearly as rich had I not been invited to be a part of this marvelous organization.  So once again I toast my long-departed best-friend and partner-in-crime Leslee Reis.  Thanks Leslee, you would be so proud to see what this marvelous organization has become.  And I will always be proud to be a small piece of its history.

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My Journey into the Kitchen “My Three Mentors”

Sautéing, braising and searing are just a few of the culinary skills I accumulated on the road to becoming a cook.   And while there are some moments in my culinary education where I can identify the precise moment I learned a particular technique, others came to me over time, by reading  cookbooks, observing and assisting cooks I met all over the world and – perhaps most important of all – making mistakes and corrections in my own kitchen.  Much of what I know was developed by simple experimentation; like gradually understanding that to make French Fries the way I liked them – with a slight crispness and a light browning – I needed the frying oil to be intensely hot and the potatoes dried of all excess moisture.  No cookbook was ever able to guide me to make fries exactly the way I liked them.  But time, experience and patience did.

The more I cooked, the more I became aware of the importance and meaning of those skills.  Sautéing cooks food quickly and keeps flavors vivid.  Braising – essentially low and slow cooking – is used to break down the connective tissue of tougher meats to render them fall-off-the-bone tender.  And searing – cooking on an extremely hot surface, causes what is referred to as the Maillard reaction which creates a golden crust on food that looks, smells and tastes wonderful.

Once skills like those are properly executed, one doesn’t forget the succulent juiciness of that perfectly sautéed chicken breast or the incredibly delicious and flavorful beef stew that slowly braised for two plus hours on your stovetop.

Three women – all incredible cooks – introduced me to many of those techniques, but what most stands out in my mind when I think of their influence on my culinary journey is the role they played in my understanding and appreciation of Italian cuisine.  Mary Barocci, my once-mother-in-law, introduced me to authentic Italian cooking.  Wanda Bottino, the Milanese mother of my original business partner, showed me its great regional diversity.  And Violet Caldarelli in her role as Convito’s first chef, taught me how to take that culinary knowledge and translate it to the countless dishes we still sell to this day.  Their skills, their love of food and their culinary knowledge provided me with a dream education, one you couldn’t get from a TV cooking show or a classroom.  It was up close and personal, intense and always hands-on.  Cooking alongside them and watching their command of the kitchen was not only educational, but also incredibly inspiring.

 

 

 

Mary Barocci

It was in Mary Barocci’s kitchen that I first came face to face with true Italian cuisine.  I had been dating her son, Bob for six months before we decided to take a break from our studies at the University of Wisconsin and visit his mom and dad at his home in Cudahy to experience some good home cooking.  It didn’t take long to recognize that Mary’s Italian dishes were in a whole different league than the Italian food I had tasted before I met her.  From my first taste of her spaghetti sauce I knew that her cooking elevated that dish to something I had not experienced before.  Even though I continued to thoroughly enjoy every Italian meal that Mary cooked – especially when they introduced to new tastes like polenta and potato gnocchi – it wasn’t until many years later when I became responsible for cooking meals for my own family that I began to fully appreciate her talent and to recognize that her culinary skills were prodigious.

There was always something extra in each dish Mary prepared.  She had her own unique touch that both elevated a dish and also gave it her signature.  I vividly remember watching her make a simple cucumber salad.   Hers was crunchier and more “cucumbery” than others I had tasted.  Her secret I observed, was to slice the cucumbers very thinly, salt them heavily and then leave them soaking for an hour or so to bring out the excess water (cucumbers consist of 95% water).  The process is called sweating.  Later she would “wring out” the excess moisture like one would with a damp washcloth – and then carefully separating each of the slices, add thin slivers of onion and toss the mixture with oil and cider vinegar – heavy on the vinegar!  I make this salad frequently and whenever I “wring out” my cucumber slices…I think of her.

The direction Mary’s life took was deeply impacted by the skills she developed in the kitchen at a young age.  I learned about her childhood from her daughter Katherine, the oldest of Mary’s three children and the self-appointed family historian.  Since Mary herself rarely spoke of her childhood, Katherine learned most of her mother’s history from piecing together tidbits of information gleaned over many years listening to her aunt and uncles.

 

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Mary was born in Michigan to first-generation Croatian parents.  She spent most of her youth in Bessemer, a small mining town in the upper peninsula of Michigan where her father worked in some of the deepest mines in the United States.  As in most mining communities, life was hardscrabble and fraught with danger and fear and everyone in the family had to contribute to the running of the household.  Mary, the oldest of four, was responsible for many chores at a very early age and one of those was cooking for the family.  Because Bessemer contained such a diverse collection of ethnic influences, she not only learned to cook her family’s Croatian dishes but also those from other miners’ home countries like England, Ireland and Italy.

Not long after her sixteenth birthday when her siblings were old enough to contribute to running the house, Mary was sent to work as a maid for a wealthy family in St Louis.  After a few years there, she moved to Cleveland where she became the nanny for another wealthy family.   Eventually, Mary returned to Bessemer and married an Italian man, Louis Barocci, whom she had met some years before.

Louis became a teacher, eventually settling his family in Cudahy, a suburb of Milwaukee where Mary became a mother of three and an extremely skilled homemaker.  Family roots – in combination with Mary’s early employment and the fact that she had married into an Italian family – greatly influenced Mary’s evolution both as a homemaker and in the kitchen.  Certainly, the impact of her early years of living and working in the homes of highly educated and wealthy families surrounded by beautiful things had an impact on her taste level.  Because a teacher’s salary could not buy many of the high-quality items she had been exposed to, Mary became very adept at watching for sales.  Her son Tom recalls growing up with many lovely things – and especially remembers the perfect table his mother set every Sunday all complete with beautifully folded white linen napkins, an elegant lace tablecloth and quality china and glassware all placed in their proper positions.  “She knew all about those things,” Tom told me.  “And all about proper etiquette, another set of facts she most likely learned during her days serving as a maid and a nanny.  I grew up with my own private Emily Post,”

Mary’s Italian recipe file expanded greatly after her marriage to Louis.  His family was believed to have emigrated from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna specifically from around the town of Parma, arguably the greatest of Italy’s food regions and home to world famous food products like prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano.  I not only became familiar with those products under Mary’s tutelage, but also learned to cook a whole myriad of Italian dishes like rich tomato and mushroom Chicken Cacciatore, succulent potato gnocchi drenched in browned butter, plum dumplings in a yummy brown sugar sauce, and creamy polenta to name just a few.

 

 

As much as Mary is responsible for all my first fine Italian cooking experiences, she also exposed me to other European cuisines.  One of the very first lunches I had at her house was neither Italian nor Croatian, but a delicious little hand-held pie stuffed with meat, potatoes, onions and carrots from Cornwall, England.  It was called a pasty and was an all-in-one meal brought into the depths of the mines by immigrant laborers across the Midwest.  Easy to pack in their lunchbox and even easier to eat, it provided sustenance for the grueling days spent in the dark, damp mines of Bessemer.  How this traditional English dish cross-pollinated into Italian and Croation-American culture is anyone’s guess.  But I suppose that is precisely what makes this country so culturally fascinating.

Croatian dishes were, of course, her specialty.  Once I married her son and became more interested in cooking, I would often follow Mary around her kitchen writing down recipes of the dishes she was preparing for dinner that evening.  I was eventually invited to help stir the polenta, which in retrospect was a little like Tom Sawyer’s fence painting invitation.  The labor intensive nature of this Italian/Croatian dish begins by slowly adding cornmeal to boiling water, then stirring it constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent it from becoming lumpy and to make sure it was perfectly creamy and not bitter.  It is much easier when that the stirring is shared with someone (which is where I came into the picture), since producing “perfect polenta” often takes an hour or more.  Because I love polenta so much it was a tradition I continued in my own family, waiting for the kids to come home from school to help me in the stirring process.

Croatia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, so many Croatian dishes like polenta, resemble the dishes of the countries that were originally a part of that empire.  Chicken Paprikash, for instance, is a dish usually associated with Hungary.  Mary served hers with spaetzle smothered in a to-die-for creamy gravy.  I still cook it for special occasions, as does my son who prepares it annually for each of his family members’ birthday dinners.  I once made it for a group of friends that included food columnist Abby Mandel and she loved it so much she subsequently published it her Weekend Cook column in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks later.

Mary’s authority in the kitchen was unquestioned.  She knew how to cook almost anything including many foods I had never heard of before, let alone tasted.  Things like pickled pigs feet, tongue, and head cheese (a lunch meat made from the head of a calf or pig often set in aspic) were commonplace in her kichen.  I was impressed that she knew what these “strange” items were and even more impressed that she knew how to cook them, but it wasn’t until later that I understood the source of her knowledge.  Growing up in rural Michigan, Mary’s family would buy just one pig, one cow and one sheep every year.  Throughout the warm seasons they would care for those animals until winter came when they would butcher them to use as sustenance through the cold winter months.  As a result, Mary understood how to best utilize every part of each animal – the best way to fry kidneys, the best way to slowly simmer tongue, the best way to quickly sauté liver – always elevating each into something delicious.

Canning was also a big part of her upbringing.  The cellar – sometimes called the root cellar or the fruit cellar – was a structure (usually underground or partially underground) used for storage of many different foods.  Mary, like many Americans back in the early part of the century, canned all sorts of fruits and vegetables in the late summer and early fall in preparation for a long winter.  Her family also canned, jarred or pickled more “exotic” items.  Her youngest son Tom clearly remembers opening a jar of pickled pigs feet and sucking the delicious, chewy meat off the knuckles.  “It didn’t seem strange to me at all.  It was a part of my upbringing.” However, he does remember an animal part he really didn’t like and recalls coming home from school to the smell of kidneys being cooked for his dinner. “I could identify that smell a block away and immediately began to invent a “stomach-ache story” so I could go directly to my room and skip the evening meal.”

When I met Mary she was still utilizing many of those animal parts (often referred to as offal – internal organs) in her everyday cooking. Pig snout went into pots of beans or soups to give the dish more flavor and a richer body.  Ham hocks were used in many dishes especially enhancing the flavor of her pea soup or pork and bean casserole.  I became familiar with many of them and began to appreciate their function.  However, some of the more “exotic” organs and animal parts were never served to me, existing simply as family lore.  Deep-fried chicken feet or scrambled eggs with brains – her husband’s favorite breakfast – were cooked only for the immediate family..  I can’t say I felt the least slighted.

Mary and I in her Cudahy, WI home

Mary was a very intelligent woman who read prodigiously, was very well spoken and kept up on all the happenings of the world.  She was especially proud of her children’s academic accomplishments: Katherine graduated from Marquette and became a teacher; Bob graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin and went on to Harvard Business School; and Tom received a BS, MS and a PhD from the U of Wisconsin and became an associate professor in the Economics Department and Business School at MIT. And her husband was a high school teacher.  So I just assumed that she, like the rest of her family, had gone to college.  When I learned that her education had to be cut short at age sixteen, I was quite surprised.  For someone who placed such a premium on education, that had to be very difficult.

It would have been so interesting hearing about those early days from Mary herself.  The idea of a young poor girl from a small mining community moving to the “big city” and being immersed in a completely foreign world is the stuff of great American literature. What we did know about Mary – what was perfectly clear – was that she was a great cook and I – like her three children – was the lucky recipient of that talent.  Each time I cook one of her recipes I think back to all that I learned in Mary’s kitchen.

Mary’s Spaghetti and Meatballs – the first Italian meal I had at the Barocci home –  is still delicious. It is a vibrant and savory tomato sauce with a hint of cinnamon, which comes from its addition to the meatballs that simmer in the sauce for an hour or more.  The use of cinnamon is typical of the Emilia-Romagna region.  Its sweetness serves to bring savory flavors alive and counterbalances the acidity of the tomatoes.  It is one of many recipes that have been passed on to her grandchildren and will continue to be passed on to her great grandchildren.  They are her legacy.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Mary Barocci’s “Italian Spaghetti”
(aka Spaghetti & Meatballs)
Serves 4

 

Meatballs
1-pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
1/3-cup breadcrumbs
1 small onion finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 small egg, slightly beaten
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

4 tablespoons oil

Mix together the beef, pork, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, egg, cinnamon, salt & pepper.  Form into meatballs about the size of walnuts.  (Will make about 20) In a skillet heat the oil over medium-high heat and fry the meatballs in two batches until browned.  You may need to use more oil.  Set the meatballs aside

In the meantime make the tomato sauce

Tomato Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2/3 cup finely chopped carrots
2/3 cup finely chopped celery
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (28-ounce) can whole Italian Plum Tomatoes, including the juice – broken up into pieces
salt & pepper to taste

In a Dutch Oven sauté the onions, carrots and celery over medium heat until soft – approximately 5 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté for another minute. Add salt and pepper.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a low simmer.  Cook uncovered for 15 minutes.  Pour the sauce into a food mill and process.  Pour the smooth sauce back into the Dutch Oven, add the meatball and simmer covered for about 10 minutes.

Pasta
1 pound spaghetti cooked al dente
grated Parmesan cheese

Combine and sauce and meatballs with the cooked pasta and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Note:  I like to add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to each serving before I sprinkle on the cheese.

 

For more than a decade as I raised my young children in the Chicago suburbs, Mary’s version of Italian became my own.  But it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after I first met her that my Italian culinary education exploded when I met Wanda Bottino, the mother of Paolo Volpara, my then-husband’s new business associate.  Bob and Paolo worked for the same American advertising agency, Leo Burnett; Bob as managing director of London and Paolo of Milan.  The three of us immediately clicked and began spending lots of time together both in Italy and in England.  Many Italian meals and much discussion later, it was decided that once I moved back to the states, I would open an Italian food and wine business with Paolo as my partner. Even though we weren’t sure what form it would take, we knew that in order for me to be effective in promoting Italy and its wine and food, I needed to begin a crash course immediately.

 

 

 

Wanda Bottino

Enter Wanda (pronounced “Vonda”), Paolo’s mother and my soon-to-be-teacher and mentor who would introduce me to the incredible depth and diversity of Italian regional cooking.  From 1979 to 1986 I began one of the most intense learning periods of my life, traveling frequently to Milan where both Paolo and Wanda lived, cooking with Wanda in her small Milanese kitchen during the week and traveling to different regions with Paolo on the weekends.

Wanda’s self-determined mission was to expose me to the myriad differences in the cooking of Italy’s 20 regions.  For this assignment she was well qualified.  She, like Mary Barocci, was a superb home cook.  That was common enough in Italy, but Wanda’s depth of regional experience was what set her apart and made her special.  Back then, most Italian home cooks were proficient in the recipes of their region but not necessarily beyond.  Wanda had the advantage of actually living in many of Italy’s 20 different regions.  In her youth, the family moved with her engineer father to the city of his latest assignment and then as a married woman, to whatever base her military husband was assigned.  However, home base was always the region in which Wanda was born – Piemonte, the land of wine and tartufi (truffles) and neighboring Liguria, the coastal region just 60 kilometers away where fish, pesto and focaccia were ubiquitous.  To Wanda these were the two regions whose cuisine had the most influence on her – the regions she would return to either to spend a vacation on the Ligurian seaside or to visit family in hills of Piemonte.

Her son Paolo remembers happily growing up in the delicious world of Wanda’s cooking.  Enjoying flavors from all over Italy was very much a part of his upbringing.  On Sundays he recalls the smell of the kraphen she baked.  Although its origins are Austrian, many Italian regions like Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and the Veneto (areas once subject to Austrian rule) featured this heavenly sweet pastry filled with cream and covered with sugar. He also fondly recalls autumn evenings when she served farinata, essentially a large chickpea pancake, for dinner.  Farinata originated in Liguria in the middle ages and became a typical food of that area.  To Paolo it was a kind of earthy, satisfying comfort food.  Also comforting was the Tuscan castagnaccio (a dense, thick chestnut crepe/cake) that she liked to serve on a cold winter’s night.  When eaten warm it was chewy and moist with almost a meaty quality and a hint of smoke from the pinenuts.  Her repertoire of recipes was so vast he can’t begin to remember them all.

When we first met, Wanda spoke no English and I no Italian.  That fact didn’t seem to matter to her at all, which I was to quickly learn the very first evening I spent with her.  Paolo thought it would be a good idea for us to meet socially before we began our intense cooking sessions, so he arranged a meeting with a wine producer friend of Wanda’s in Ovada, Piemonte some 100 kilometers from Milan.  The plan was for the three of us to tour the vineyards and then have dinner in one of Wanda’s favorite Piemontese restaurants.

That night would foreshadow what our relationship would become – invariably intense, frequently frenetic and always great fun.  She peppered me with questions about my planned business, my upbringing and my personal life all the way from Milan to Ovada.  The interrogation continued during cocktails with the winemaker, through dinner and all the way back to Milan.  At first Paolo translated, but the pace of her inquisition was so fast that he eventually had to give up.  She was relentless.  I eventually came to understand that in Wanda’s mind if she spoke loud enough and used enough exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions then any non-Italian speakers would eventually have to comprehend what she was getting at.  I have no idea if I answered her questions or she understood my answers, but I certainly spent a lot of time talking that night.

 

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By the time we began our cooking sessions in her tiny Milanese kitchen I had taken several Berlitz classes and had mastered just enough food and cooking terminology to keep up with her.  I was also beginning to understand that if I said “capisco” (I understand in English) or “si” (yes) after her long and sometimes confusing explanations of what she was about to cook, that she would move on to another subject – even though frequently I didn’t have a clue as to what she was saying!  But most of the time I at least understood the general idea.  Never was I more comfortable speaking Italian than with Wanda.  No matter how I struggled, she made me feel like a linguistic genius for simply trying.  “Brava!  Brava!” she would say.

Wanda was a little fireball, a woman of such energy and personality it was often hard to keep up with her, especially in her kitchen – chopping, stirring, pureeing –  there were all done with intensity and great flourish.   Very dramatic she was – a little like an opera diva.  Wanda was an instinctual cook, an experimental one who did not like to follow a recipe. In her mind, recipes took away her creativity.  But I did eventually convince her that recipes were essential for her newest protege.  How would I be able to teach our chefs and share these dishes through our Capitolo publications without a recipe?   Eventually she got used to me following her around her little kitchen with my set of measuring cups and a little stopwatch – always hanging over her shoulder furiously recording every measurement and every move she made.  That way I could later write up accurate measurements and clear cooking instructions for the dishes we had cooked that day.

Once she became more confident in my cooking skills, she finally allowed me to act as her sous chef.  But in Wanda’s kitchen, a good sous chef is responsible for the acquisition of the days fresh ingredients, so it became our habit that after we finished our morning cooking sessions we would spend the afternoons visiting salumerias (delicatessens), pasticcerias (pastry shops), drogherias (grocery stores), panificios (bakeries) and macellerias (butcher shops) where she introduced me to the owners or managers and requested samples of the myriad of cheeses, salamis and assorted delicacies for me to taste.  She especially loved pointing out all the amazing food displays in all of these stores, which in her opinion were the best in the world.  My favorites were the Peck stores which are considered the temple of Italian gastronomy by many chefs and restauranteurs in Italy.  Pecks are landmark shops in Milan where cheeses, prepared foods, wines and all kind of deli items are magnificently displayed in sparkling cases, on tables and in windows throughout their deliciously elegant stores.  And more than any other place, Peck was a direct inspiration for me in envisioning my own business.

 

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Once Convito opened its doors, I continued working with Wanda in Milan but she also came to visit Convito on at least four or five different occasions.  Her first visit was for our September 1980 opening and it was a gala, crowded affair.  We even put up a tent in the parking lot where we served many items that Wanda and I had cooked that day.  As usual, she managed to charm all of the guests while not speaking a word of English.  She was not the least bit shy or worried that she was in a country that did not speak her language.  To her, Italian was the mother tongue, be it in Milan or Chicago.

During those visits we also cooked in my Glencoe kitchen, testing dishes we would feature in Convito’s market – salads like our famous Rigatoni Noci, a pasta salad she had once tasted in Rome and prepared it from memory.   It remains one of our most popular salads to this day.  Like Mary Barocci, Wanda also had her “tricks” – enriching skills like drizzling a fine extra virgin olive oil on a Tuscan bean soup elevating its flavor and giving it that piquant, peppery Tuscan zip.

During her time in the U.S. we came up with many new ideas together, but one area we focused on in particular were the sauce recipes.  Today Convito offers 21 different sauces for sale and almost all of them originated with Wanda and I cooking together.  We first tested recipes for the classics – Bolognese, Pomodoro e Basilico and Sugo di Vongole – but soon began inventing sauces with made-up names like Spinacciola; an intensely flavorful Gorgonzola and spinach sauce (Milano II “Cooking with Wanda).   One sauce she developed during a trip to Chicago was a mushroom sauce – Boscaiola (woodsman-style sauce), a delicious combination of mushrooms and vegetables with prosciutto adding a savory element.  All of her sauces – even if invented, were based on her intuitive connection with the Italian palate.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Boscaiola
Hearty Mushroom Sauce
(serves 4-6 as a sauce for pasta)

 

½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup finely diced onions
¾ cup finely diced carrots
¾ cup finely diced celery
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
¼ cup finely diced parsley
1 pound mushrooms roughly chopped (I use a combination of white, cremini and shitake mushrooms, but other varieties will work)
1 cup diced prosciutto
½ cup red wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup cream

Soak dried porcini mushrooms in water.  When soft, remove mushrooms from water, squeeze dry and finely dice.  Reserve ½ cup of porcini water strained well to remove sand.  Set aside

Clean and finely chop fresh mushrooms.  Don’t make too fine or they will be watery.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil.  Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic & parsley.  Saute over medium-high heat for approximately 5 minutes until vegetables are soft.  Add mushrooms and continue sautéing until most of the moisture from the mushrooms has evaporated.

Add prosciutto and stir into mixture.

Add diced porcini and mix well.  Add wine and turn heat to high.  Saute for approximately 4 minutes until wine has reduced somewhat.

Add tomato pasta and ½ cup of porcini juice.  Lower heat to medium and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add cream, mix well and cook for another 3-5 minutes.

 

Wanda’s cooking class at the original Convito

Wanda’s visits also usually included a series of cooking classes where she managed to charm pretty much everyone in the room.  These classes called “Cooking with Wanda” quickly became wildly popular.  She was a natural born instructor – knowledgeable, fearless and exuberant – and her classrooms were not only instructive, but they were also alive with laughter.  Incidents like a smoking sauté pan setting off the fire alarm or an out-of-control sneezing spell from breathing in a cloud of flour during her pasta making demonstration were all part of the experience.  That was Wanda and nothing fazed her, and nothing embarrassed her. She was our Italian Julia Child.    “Non importante”, Wanda would say when something would go awry and she was always right.  It was the transfer of culinary knowledge, expression of passion for the process and the enjoyment of being with like-minded people that made Wanda an infectious and effective instructor.

My time with Wanda was intense.  Looking back, I can’t imagine a better, more fun, more interesting culinary education.  Her tiny kitchen became my own private -albeit somewhat unorthodox – culinary institute at a critical moment in my education when my learning was at its peak, when my business began and when I became immersed in all things Italian.  And she was at the center of it all.

 

 

 

Violet Calderelli

When Convito Italiano opened in 1980 the most popular items in our brand-new store were those that we prepared fresh on premises.  Every day we filled the deli case and freezer to overflowing with freshly made salads and pasta sauces that would sell out by the time we closed.  With nothing but an outdated four-burner electric cooktop crammed behind our deli case, Convito’s “chefs” (I being the main one) cooked non-stop to keep up with the demand for this wildly popular and ever growing section of our store.  To most Americans in the early 1980’s “take-away” food brought to mind a bucket of fried chicken, a pepperoni pizza or maybe a mayonnaise-soaked potato salad purchased at the local supermarket.  The idea of sophisticated prepared foods was new and exciting to customers and they responded with enthusiasm.  But our bare-bones staff didn’t include anyone to help me prepare all the new recipes I had learned over the past few years, so it quickly became clear that I needed a full time cook.

I immediately sought the advice of my close friend and advisor, Leslee Reis (founder of the iconic Café Provencal) and she introduced me to Violet Caldarelli.  Violet was Leslee’s sous chef from the catering business Leslee ran before she opened her restaurant  Not only was Violet an excellent cook, but she was also an incredibly hard worker and someone who could easily adapt to adverse conditions, so having to cook in Convito’s non-kitchen was an easy fit for her.  Four months after we opened Convito’s doors, Violet Caldarelli came through them and stayed with us for the next 25 years, deeply impacting the quality of our food as well as all aspects of our customer service.  Her work ethic was incredible and became Convito’s gold standard.

 

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Violet Angus came from a hard-working family with a strong food culture which made her a perfect fit for Convito.  Born in Milwaukee to Greek immigrants – her father was from Athens and her mother from Sparta – Violet eventually married another first generation American, Dave Calderelli whose parents were from the Abruzzo region in southern-central Italy stretching from the heart of the Apennines mountains to the Adriatic Sea.  Both families valued hard work and resourcefulness and those ideas were carried forward by Violet and her husband Dave.

So was the entrepreneurial spirit so typical of many immigrants.  In 1952 Violet and Dave opened a school supply store close to Senn High school in the Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  In addition to pencils and notebooks, their store featured a 25-foot marble soda fountain complete with Dad’s Old-Fashioned Root Beer on tap as well as other sodas, milkshakes and ice cream treats.  In the morning students would come in for donuts and sweet rolls and for lunch Violet cooked up hamburgers, Vienna Hot Dogs, corned beef and other special sandwiches.  She managed all this with only a small grill, a steam table, a refrigerator and a stove.  Perfect training for Convito!

Violet was nothing if not hard-working and resourceful.  After she ran her school store for over a decade, she became a Real Estate agent then worked part time for Leslee Reis’ catering business and finally a 25-year stint at Convito. At the same time, she raised her son David and supported him through his many years of an Otolaryngology (ear, nose & throat) study.  Eventually he was named the head of head and neck Surgery at Rush University Medical Center as well as becoming a Professor in the Medical school there from 1975 to 2012.  Violet was exceptionally proud of her son and kept us up to date on his myriad accomplishments.  He is still considered a member of Convito’s extended family to this day.

Violet in Convito’s kitchen with chef Robert Chavis

One of Violet’s enduring contributions to Convito is something I never would have guessed would become a customer favorite when I first conceived of my business in the late 1970’s.  When Violet was still running her lunch counter many years before Convito opened its doors, she made a particular tuna salad that was a student favorite around campus.  Known as Vi’s Tuna Salad, she generously shared with me that recipe and we put it on our menu immediately.  It soon became our most popular salad and remains in that position to this day.  As soon as the word spread that Violet began working at Convito, former Senn students began flocking to Convito from all over the Chicago area in hopes that they could once again purchase their much-loved salad.   And we were happy to oblige them!

Like Mary and Wanda, Italian food was critical to Violet, but it was not her only influence.  Her son David remembers growing up eating both fantastic Greek and Italian dishes like Dolmades, Mousaka, Spanakopita and Baclava, as well as a whole range of Italian dishes from his dad’s side of the family.  Her goal was always to be seated every evening around the table enjoying a hot meal together.  And while that goal was occasionally unrealized given her intensely hectic schedule, she always managed to cook for the family even if they didn’t sit down together.  Violet was always on the go!

After Violet began working at Convito there wasn’t a day when I came to open the market that I didn’t find her already there (probably for hours) surrounded by pots and pans steaming, boiling simmering on our little 4-burner electric stove – some cooking fresh pasta, others with one of Convito’s sauces gently bubbling on the back burner releasing a heavenly aroma that penetrated every square inch of our little store.  Violet was usually busily chopping fresh vegetables for one of the salads she was about to prepare or sautéing onions at the stove with at least two or three finished salads sitting in their pristine white bowls looking all fresh and beautiful and ready for purchasing customers.  She was amazing!

Not long after Violet arrived, we began cooking together and developed one of my favorite dishes – Caponata, a Sicilian sweet and sour eggplant dish often used as an antipasti.  (blog Sicily I “A Salvador Dali Weekend”)  I had always intended it to be a part of our prepared foods selection but because of the work required for its preparation – eggplant, tomatoes, celery, onions, red pepper, capers, which all had to first be chopped then sautéed – I had not attempted to make it until I had full time kitchen help.  Violet usually prepared the first batch of Caponata before the store had even opened.  However, that batch didn’t last long at all.  It became so popular that she often made fresh batches of it several times a day, sautéing pound after pound of eggplant, which, of course filled the market with the mixed aromas of sweet and sour tempting every customer that entered to buy some. “When they bury me, eggplant will be sprouting all around my grave,” Violet would laughingly say.  Caponata is also on our prepared food menu to this day.

When Violet came into my life, my Italian recipe repertoire was extensive.  Since the sixties I had cooked many Italian dishes with Mary Barocci and had been studying Italian regional cuisine with Wanda Bottino for the past several years.   So, my need for new recipes was not a top priority.  What I needed from Violet was someone to help me interpret those dishes, someone with an innate understanding of Italian cuisine to bring that food alive.  She meticulously did just that and – lucky for us – she also contributed many new ideas and recipes for both the market and the cafe.

Violet also taught me things that I hadn’t even realized were absolutely critical in the restaurant business like the care and handling of food and ingredients.  I was mesmerized watching her gingerly fold a lemon mayonnaise into a pasta salad paying attention not to bruise any of the other ingredients.  Her knowledge and expertise were extensive and she treated all ingredients with tender loving care just like they were her children.  I can’t begin to inventory all the food knowledge I gained while working with Violet.  She shared little tricks like the importance of sprinkling a good amount of salt over eggplant cubes to draw out some of its moisture and lesson its bitterness. But she also brought with her skills learned only after working in the food industry for many years, like how to enlarge a recipe.  That talent is indispensable in the restaurant busines because you cannot just double or triple the ingredients in a recipe to get more of it.  If a dish is spicy or contains alcohol, multiplying them as you would for the other ingredients is not the answer because it is easy to overpower a dish.  Trial and error were always required (which fortunately we both loved!) so it didn’t matter how much time we took – only that the recipe came out the way we thought it should.  Most of all it was just damn fun working with Violet on all these kinds of projects. We not only accomplished a lot, but we had many laughs along the way.

Violet’s role at Convito changed over the years.   Catering Director was her next official position.  But even when we moved to a larger location with a larger kitchen and opened two other locations, Violet never got far away from the kitchen.  If she wasn’t preparing market salads or sautéing chicken breasts for our new hot food case, she was checking up on the performance of whatever new chef had been hired in one of Convito’s establishments.  No matter what culinary school a new chef might have graduated from, Violet did not hesitate to correct them if she didn’t feel they were performing up to her standards.  And interestingly enough, most of those chefs (who usually didn’t take criticism well) took it from Violet and actually loved working with her.  They wanted her approval.  A not-so-infrequent question asked in the kitchen was “What would Violet think?”

Violet was a true character.  Sometimes irreverent and sometimes irascible, she was always principled and kind.  She was opinionated, but always listened to reason.  She was dependable, outrageous, caring and strong-willed and she put everything on the line for her customers.  She would do anything to make them happy and they loved her for it, as did I.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Violet’s Pollo Impressivo
(Serves 8)

 

8 – 6 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
salt & pepper
¼ cup olive oil
1-tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup white wine
1-cup chicken broth
½ cup capers
1 tablespoon cornstarch – mixed with a little water

Heat oven to 400 degrees

In an oven proof skillet large enough to sauté 8 chicken breasts, add olive oil and turn high to high.  When hot, place the children breast in the oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and half of the rosemary and sauté for approximately 2 – 3 minutes until breasts are golden brown on one side.  Turn the breasts over and sprinkle with the remaining rosemary and sauté until gold brown on other side – another 2-3 minutes.  Take off the burner and place the skillet with the breasts in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven and place back on stove over medium-high heat.  Add the garlic and the parsley.  Add wine and reduce wine somewhat – sautéing for about 3 minutes.  Then add chicken broth and simmer for another 3 minutes.  Remove breasts and put on a platter or individual plates.

Mix the cornstarch and the water until smooth and add to the simmering broth left in the skillet.  Turn heat to medium and stir until incorporated and the broth has thickened.  Spoon over the chicken breasts and serve hot.

Violet likes to serve with rosemary-roasted potatoes.

 

Violet stayed with us until she was 95, still slicing prosciutto and harassing the chefs in the kitchen and the clerks on the line and always adored by the staff and her customers.  She passed away this past year 2020 at the age of 103. The “spirit of Violet” will always be a part of our history.

 

 

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How lucky I was to have been educated by these three amazing women – all mentors who inspired me along my journey into the kitchen and whose influence on my career can never be fully measured.  I believe that knowledge and education are the basis of most successes, and I know that the gifts I received from these three women are indelibly connected to the success of my now forty-year old business.  The secret to long-term sustainable success is usually found in the basics – good food, good people and good service – and each of these amazing women shared that conviction.  It is to Mary Barocci that I owe thanks for introducing me to the food that would become my passion, to Wanda Bottino for teaching me its incredible depth and variety and to Violet Caldarelli who become essential in bringing those amazing flavors and tastes to all the many customers who have frequented Convito for over forty years. Certainly, all their lessons in Italian cuisine were pivotal – but their lessons in so many things that go way beyond the pots and pans in my kitchen are the lessons that will stay with me forever.

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My Journey into the Kitchen “Cooking and Comradery”

 

It is the summer of 1979.  I am standing – tired and sweaty, surrounded by a sea of cardboard boxes – in a brand-new kitchen in Glencoe Illinois where we have relocated after spending three years living outside London.  We’ve been back for months now, but our kitchen renovation took longer than promised (of course) and our family dinners have alternated between take-out or one of a handful of local restaurants we rotate through each week. And the boxes…well, they are always there…taking up space and reminding me that we are still unsettled.

So, despite what feels like the herculean task ahead of me – to unpack and sort all this…stuff – I’m ecstatic.  Finally, the mission of finding the perfect place for each pot, wooden spoon, polenta maker and wine glass will be satisfied, and I can begin to shape this new space into my own.  I designed this room not only to be the place where I would launch the creative side of my business through food experimentation and refinement, but also to be the focal point of my new home.  It was where I planned to do a lot a lot of cooking, a lot of thinking, and – hopefully – a lot of hanging out with the people that I loved and admired.  I have always believed that there is no better environment than the kitchen in which to bring people together.  Cooking and comradery are natural companions and if everything went according to plan, this new kitchen would become the quintessence of everything I wanted my business and personal life to become.

Memories of our life in England flooded back as I unwrapped the copious layers of bubble wrap and brown paper from the kitchen equipment shipped back from England.  It was complemented by a tower of beautiful newly purchased glassware, china and kitchenware that I hoped would bring some fresh sparkle to our new life back in the United States.  It had only been a few months since we left behind our adopted home in the English countryside, but it already felt like a lifetime away.

Sheila after a day at Harrods

Different recollections emerged from each box I unpacked.  My dear friend Sheila Bradley’s presence materialized from the many boxes of Waterford crystal reminding me of our intense shopping day at Harrods Department store in Knightsbridge, London.  Delicate, finely etched glassware evoked recollections of the wild shopping day I had at the famous glassmaker Salviati in Venice with good friend Mary Nahser.  And it felt like almost every box I unpacked contained something from one of my many shopping escapades with fellow ex-pat Jean Barringer.  It took me days and memory after pleasant memory to get my new kitchen in order.

 

 The final unpacking revealed what I consider to be the nuts and bolts of a kitchen: dutch ovens, bakeware, pots, pans, skillets, sauce pans, mixing bowls, knives and utensils – all the essentials needed to slice and dice and mix ingredients to their maximum potential.  These tools would allow me to actually create the items that would eventually be placed on or in all of that lovely china and glassware.

 

The first challenge for my new headquarters was to test recipes for the new Italian venture that my partner, Paolo Volpara and I had decided to launch.  We were not sure what form that business would take but we knew it would involve Italian food and wine, so my study of Italian cuisine needed to begin immediately.

the first of nine “capitolos”

Our initial idea was to publish a newsletter each month that would feature recipes and wine from the region  – a wine and food club of sorts.  We called them Capiolos which translates to Chapters in English.  Each Capitolo would include articles on regional history and culture, but the main focus was food.  We ended up publishing nine of these Capitolos and since each one contained a minimum of six recipes – and sometimes as many as twelve – I was pretty much tied to my stove, cranking out Italian dish after Italian dish, learning about the great diversity of Italian cuisine along the way.

Something was always simmering on my stove, roasting in my oven or being mixed or mashed or tossed in one of my many newly purchased vessels. For that first year after my return, my friends and family pretty much always knew where to find me – in my kitchen surrounded by pots, pans and a plethora of produce, pastas, meats and numerous other ingredients – some familiar, some not – but all eventually to find their way into some new dish I was about to prepare.

Nancy at stove Convito’s first location

In the end, Paolo and I decided not to limit ourselves to this idea of cultural education and instead decided to open a brick-and-mortar Italian wine and food market, where we offered not just the newsletter, but also the ingredients and prepared dishes that the Capitolos detailed.  But even after we opened this first version of Convito, I still tested most of the recipes in my home kitchen since the tiny little four-burner electric stove in back of our deli was hardly conducive to testing.  As it was, I barely had enough space to slice prosciutto or to wrap fresh pasta, let alone run a test kitchen!  So, my personal headquarters was the better option. 

Working with ingredients and methods that were sometimes entirely new to me was exciting and challenging, but I occasionally ended up with concoctions of a dubious nature.  Though rarely did I throw anything out before someone else had tried it, sometimes even my best efforts at salvaging a wayward dish were unsuccessful.  My built-in tasters (Bob, Rob and Candace) would always arrive hungry and game to sample something new, but even my home team would have to give me an occasionally “thumbs down” when I couldn’t quite salvage a wayward dish.  But I came to understand that these failures were part of the process and I eventually learned to focus on the triumphs instead!

Mostly I worked alone but occasionally my good friend Janet Alms came over to help.  I loved the company and the extra set of hands.  We also shared many a good belly-laugh as we cooked and giggled our way through the list of recipes I put on the agenda for that day.  Often times the laughter came about from just trying to unscramble Paolo’s mother Wanda’s translated recipes.

But more often than not our laughter came from nervously working with exotic and unfamiliar ingredients like bottarga (pressed then dried fish roe, a specialty of southern Italy).  “What the hell is this?”  Janet asked – holding up what looked like a golden-brown, adobe-like brick.  “Is this even edible?” After a good laugh, we tackled Wanda’s recipe for spaghetti tossed with a little olive oil, parsley, chili peppers, and the “brick” (bottarga) grated over the top.  Bottarga has a very distinctive, salty, briny somewhat bitter flavor. I couldn’t imagine I would like it with anything but definitely changed my mind after the recipe was completed.  It was surprisingly delicious!

We were also dubious about Nduja, a Calabrian spicy, spreadable pork sausage mixed with a blend of chili peppers.  Janet and I poked and sniffed it for a while and before shrugging our shoulders and trusting that Wanda’s combination of nduja with tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs would become something special.  Once again we discovered it was also surprisingly tasty – savory, spicy and especially great as a sauce for chicken.  Years later I served in in my café naming it Pollo alla Calabrese (blog post Basilicata and Calabria “Behind Closed Doors”). I was beginning to look forward to new flavors and textures realizing that most often they took me on a new taste adventure and expanded my culinary knowledge.  Janet, an adventurous soul, was excited to be a part of the discovery. (Today both of these ingredients are readily available in most specialty markets.)

The cooking session with Janet that I remember most was the day we were to make a very simple calamari salad from the Veneto region.  Though I was familiar with calamari (I had often ordered fried calamari in restaurants), I had never cooked it. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that you could buy pre-cleaned calamari so instead I came home with a big bag that was frozen, un-cleaned and surprisingly squid-like!    Before we even got to the “simple” salad recipe, we had to first defrost the calamari then laboriously struggle with the cleaning of this alien-looking creature.  Beginning by removing the finned, tube-looking portion from the tentacles (which was weird enough), we bravely continued on to remove the beak and discard the cuttlebone.  Luckily I found cleaning instructions in a Good Housekeeping cookbook (there was no internet back then) to help us through the whole process which probably took way longer than it should have – mainly because we didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing.

By the end of this process our fingers were raw and slimy and we were ready to move on to actually making the salad.  As we were cleaning up, Janet picked up a thin silvery sac that we had put off to one side (it seemed to be particularly gross) and it suddenly split open.  Whoosh!  Black squid ink spilled out in all directions, dripping over the countertop onto the tiled kitchen floor below.  We began frantically mopping up the ink – our hands becoming stained black in the process –   hysterically laughing the whole time, tears streaming down both of our faces.  The grout between some of the tiles turned black and remained that way for years to come as a reminder of that day with the squid!

Once we finally got to the salad preparation, it took almost no time at all.  It was very simple and very delicious!  However, that afternoon session marked the end of my calamari cooking days.  Let the competent calamari-familiar chefs in the restaurant kitchens do all the work I thought – and I will simply enjoy the results!

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Insalata di Calamari
Squid, Tomato & Basil Salad
Serves 6 – 8 as an antipasti

 

2 lbs squid (purchase cleaned and cut into tentacles and body parts)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 cups sliced tomatoes (seeded)
½ cup fresh basil, julienned
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Rinse the squid in water.  Pat dry on paper towels.  Slice the body parts into rings about ¾ – 1 inch slices.

In a large sauté pan over high heat, add the olive oil.  When hot add the squid and sauté quickly (approximately 1 ½ minutes).  Add the garlic.  Then add the lemon zest and lemon juice and cook another minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat.

When cool, add the tomatoes, basil, additional olive oil and vinegar.  Toss well.

Taste for salt and pepper.  Serve at room temperature.

 

Another avenue for testing my new Italian dishes was to try them out for my friends and family at a dinner party.  This way I could retest each dish and ask my dinner guests for their input.  I had many dinner parties during the first five years after my return from England.  Besides being a “testing outlet”, entertaining was something I truly enjoyed.  By this time, I had formulated my “dinner party style,” points I followed for each and every dinner party I hosted – small, large, casual, formal, indoors or out.

The FOOD naturally comes first in my planning.  The menu is what stimulates me to have a dinner party in the first place.  What type of cuisine?  New dishes or old favorites?  How many courses?  Formal or casual fare?  It is a pleasure for me to think about types of food, dishes that go well with one another and just the overall food focus of the event.

Next I think about the GUEST LIST.  Choosing people that compliment each other – whether by common interests or personality – dramatically increases the odds of the success of any gathering.  When it’s a large gathering that is a less important element because there is much mingling of different groups and “matching” becomes more up to the guests than the hostess.   But when the intimacy of a meal for 6 – 10 people where sitting at the table and conversing during and in between courses is a big part of the evening, the guest list is much more important.

Then comes the WINE and how it pairs with the food – important to me especially after I opened my market and café where wine is a big part of my business.   For a large gathering one simply has to pick a good white and a good red but in a small gathering when the dinner is comprised of multi-courses, matching wine and food is an essential and complex task, but one that was always rewarding to undertake.

The last criteria I consider is the LOOK of my table.  Though not necessarily crucial to the success of a dinner party it is for me maybe the most fun part of the planning.  I love working on the centerpiece and pulling together elements from the china and pottery, glassware and other artifacts I have collected over the years to make a table setting match the theme or mood I have decided upon for my “event” – whether a lunch, a dinner, a buffet or a large cocktail party.

 

Paolo and I in the Kitchen

Since most of my testing for the Capitolos was focused on the regions of Italy, the dinner parties I hosted early on had a regional theme. The very first one was to celebrate Piemonte, the northeast region where my mentor and partner had grown up.  Not only was it one of the first regions that Wanda and I tested (some dishes in her small Milanese kitchen and some in my new kitchen) but also because I had visited it frequently with Paolo.  It was close to our Milanese headquarters so weekend sojourns were easy.  I knew it well.

 

The dinner party took place on a cold, snowy evening in February – the weather perfectly in tune with the hearty, robust cuisine and big full-flavored wines of the region.  Once I decided on the menu I turned to the guest list, deciding on a group of “arty” people who I knew had a great appreciation for both food and wine – rather essential I thought for this heavily focused food and wine dinner.  My list began with my artist sister, Karen and her-very-art-knowledgeable husband Jeff.  I expanded the list to include a Chicago art gallery owner and her husband, an architect and an interior designer.

Piemonte table

Because Piemonte is one of the great wine regions of Italy (and perhaps the world) pairing the food with the wine took on even more importance than usual.  Its most important grape variety, Nebbiolo, produces powerful, full-bodied red wines like Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara. But there are other great wines that come from this region as well.  Barbera, Dolcetto, the famous sparkling Asti Spumante and two of my favorite whites Gavi and Arneis are among them.  My goal was to find a way to incorporate as many of these wines as possible into my menu either by matching them with one of the courses or by actually using them as an ingredient in the cooking of one of the dishes.

The evening began with my guests gathered in the living room with a glass of Gavi, a delicate floral white wine, accompanied by breadsticks.  Since breadsticks are said to have originated in Torino, the capital of Piemonte, they fit well with the theme for the evening. Plus they are easy to easy to eat while standing up and socializing.  I like to begin my dinner parties with light fare so as not to fill guests up before the main event.  And the main event this night would be a multi-coursed dinner.

Piemonte dinner

It was here during this hour that I gave guests an overview of what to expect on their culinary journey – – and it was the last time for the next hour or two where I wasn’t shuffling between the kitchen and the dining room cooking and plating the dinner I had prepared.  Bob escorted our guests into the dining room.  The “look” of my table that evening was to somehow convey a wine theme.  The centerpiece contained not just flowers but also grapes and was surrounded by six antique twisted wooden candlesticks intended to give the illusion of grape vines. The lace tablecloth and the simple grape embossed wine glasses gave the table a homey, rustic feeling – the very feeling I had experienced in many of the small, intimate out-of-the-way, restaurants of the region – some of my favorite in all of Italy.

I served the more complex, rich white wine Arneis with the first course – a gratin of roasted red and yellow peppers with anchovies.  It held up to the complexity of the dish.  It also went well with the next course of savory spinach and cheese sausages.   As I scurried back and forth from the kitchen to my seat at the table, I counted on my husband to take care of the wine.  Since I opened Convito Italiano, he had become very knowledgeable about Italian wine, so his commentary on each wine allowed my absence to go largely unnoticed.

I managed to incorporate three wines that night during the main course.  I used a Barbera as a braising ingredient for the roasted leg of veal and served a wonderful big Barbaresco as the accompanying wine.  And the potatoes served with the veal were cooked in Asti Spumante.  Bingo – three wines in one course!  We finished with the coup de gras – pears poached in the most famous wine of the region Barolo.  (All recipes can be found in My Italian Journeys – Piemonte I, II and III).

We finished our wine, relaxed for a while then completed our culinary journey with espresso and a famous chocolate of the region – gianduia – a chocolate pudding with hazelnut flavoring.    As it turned out, the “Piemonte group” had great chemistry.  They matched each other as well as the wines matched the food.  Conversation flowed.  One of the best things about a “themed” dinner party is that it provides built-in conversation and also ties the evening together.  That is, as long as my commentary about the food, wine and culture doesn’t dominate.  The purpose is to take guests on an adventure while still allowing them to socialize.

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The success of my Piemontese dinner gave me the confidence to try something different for my next regional dinner party – an outside affair.  The region I chose was Tuscany and featured Bistecca alla Fiorentina – a steak marinated in extra virgin olive oil and rosemary, seasoned with salt and pepper then lightly seared on a very hot grill leaving the center bright pink.  Since the steak was to be cooked on our patio grill, an outside gathering seemed the obvious choice. 

 

The “look” of the table for the night was less important since it was the height of the summer season.  Flowering bushes and flowering plants surrounded us and the need for candlelight was eliminated since the clear, cloudless blue sky remained light until 9:30.  I did, however, make a centerpiece with flowers from my garden and used my Tuscan pottery for the salad course and my Villeroy & Boch “Medici” patterned charger plates for the main course

Tuscany is another of Italy’s famous wine regions, so like my Piemonte dinner, wine was an important component of the evening.  So was the guest list.  I wanted to make certain that they were wine enthusiasts, so my friend (and famous food writer and journalist) Bill Rice who had visited and written about Tuscany frequently anchored the guest list.  Bill’s credentials for comprehensive knowledge of wine and food were quite impressive.  He was executive food editor for the Washington Post for eight years, wrote for Food & Wine Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and was author of several award-winning cookbooks.

We began our evening gathered around the grill with a lovely crisp white Vernaccia di San Gimignano while munching on a Tuscan favorite of mine – crostini topped with a chicken liver spread. (blog – Tuscany II).  Once we were seated, I served a glass of Vermentino – a more fruity and citrusy white wine with the first course – and a Panzanella salad; a mixture of summer tomatoes, cucumbers, thinly sliced red onion, basil and toasted croutons tossed lightly with a red wine vinaigrette (recipe also in blog Tuscany II).

Chianti – the most famous wine of the region, accompanied the main course – the grilled steak – which I served with a dish of Tuscan beans and potatoes.  White beans –  cannellini in particular – are a ubiquitous ingredient in Tuscan dishes.  In fact, they are so common, Tuscans are often referred to as “mangiafagioli”  – translated it means “bean eaters”.  I loved the combination of white beans and potatoes with sauteed pancetta and onions elevating the savory component of the dish. (blog Tuscany III “ A Region for all Seasons”).

I was not the only one discussing the regional food and wine that evening.   Bill Rice related his many visits to various Tuscan wine estates – where no doubt he was treated like a king – and he also brought along two bottles of incredible Tuscan wine a Brunello di Montalchino from the famous producer Altesino, as well as another Chianti.  I had served Monsanto Chianti with our meal and his was from the equally famous wine producer Antinori.  Both were rich, robust examples of Chianti at its very best.  Given our bounty of fine wine, we embarked on our own mini-wine-tasting headed by the master himself, Bill Rice.  My guests were enthralled by the wine and especially by Bill’s commentary, delivered in his own dry, witty style with sidebar stories by Bill’s wife, Jill Van Cleave, also a cookbook author and friend of mine from the professional culinary women’s organization Les Dames d’Escoffier. After a refreshing dish of lemon sorbetto we ended our Tuscan evening with a glass of the famous Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo and a few almond twice-baked cantucci (said to have originated in the Tuscan city of Prato).

As guests began leaving, Bill asked me if I would share my white bean and potato recipe with him.  I was thrilled and of course, agreed to send it the next day.  It later appeared in his Chicago Tribune column and eventually in his cookbook Steak Lover’s Cookbook – of course giving me credit for the recipe. In his cookbook he described it as “a vegetable side dish that refused to play a supporting role”.

The recipe as translated by Bill, was much clearer and more organized than the one I had originally given him. I was beginning to learn from all of my cookbook-author friends the lessons of good recipe writing as well as the importance of testing and
retesting every recipe.  I was, however, surprised that Bill pretty much followed the exact ingredients and measurements I had given him, though his instructions were much clearer than mine.  I took note!  My recipe writing in the future improved.

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I continued my regional dinner parties with a particularly formal affair featuring the exotic and complicated cuisine of Veneto.  This dinner party was held on New Year’s Eve for our “New Year’s Eve Group” – friends that had celebrated that holiday together since 1969.  The original group (Janet & Paul Alms, Sheila & Ed Bradley, Colleen & Tom Thompson and me and my then husband Bob) had all decided that having a small intimate dinner was infinitely preferable to the noisy, horn-blowing, confetti-throwing events that we had all experienced in the past.  We started what eventually became a tradition at Janet and Paul Alms’ home with a delicious Coq au Vin dinner that set a high bar.  Every year we rotated houses with the host/hostess deciding on the menu.  When my then-husband and I returned from England, the original group was still intact (though Colleen Thompson had become Colleen Remsberg and introduced her wonderful new husband Chuck to the mix) and we also added good friends Mary & Ron Nahser and Colleen & Mike Houlahan.

 

 

When it was my turn to hostess, I chose Carnevale as my theme for the evening.  Carnevale, the pre-lent festival was not until February but its celebratory focus seemed to fit the mood of New Year’s Eve and it was a great chance for me to use all the Carnevale masks I had acquired over the years for the “look” of my table.

The artistic masks would of course, star in my centerpiece of pink and rose-colored flowers.  They sat between beautiful clear and pink etched glass candelabras also purchased during a trip to Venice.   Small etched wine goblets, water goblets and larger red wine glasses were placed just in the top-right corner of pink charger plates completing what I considered to be a very festive table.


The guest list was easy – our New Year’s Eve group, of course – old friends who never seemed to run out of topics to discuss.  What better way to welcome the New Year than with friends that know your history and share your sense of humor.  And because they are all very curious people, they seemed to welcome the regional discussions of the wine, culture and food of Veneto.

The New Year’s Eve Group

I wanted the meal to emphasize both sides of the Veneto I had come to know; the sophistication of the more famous dishes of Venice, as well as he lesser-known fare of the countryside.   I began the meal with a dish that paid tribute to both parts of the region, Prosciutto Wrapped Lemon Shrimp that I passed in the living room along with a glass of sparkling wine.  Who would have thought that prosciutto and shrimp would go together so well?  The saltiness of the prosciutto truly complimented the meatiness of the shrimp and matched well with Italy’s most famous sparkling wine, Prosecco.

All my guests knew about Harry’s Bar in Venice, opened in 1931 by bartender Giuseppe Cipriani and some had actually been there, so I decided to serve their signature carpaccio for our first course.  Harry’s Bar was famous for three things: Bellini cocktails, celebrity clientele and their carpaccio.  Their signature dish was named after Vittore Carpaccio, the Venetian Renaissance painter known for his use of brilliant reds and whites in the minute detail of his landscape painting and the actual color palate of this dish.  I served it with another famous name from the region, a glass of Soave, Veneto’s most famous white wine – its oily-like richness able to stand up to raw beef.

Then came a classic rice and pea dish called Rise e Bisi, representing the homey side of the Veneto, served with one of the most well known wines of the region – Pinot Grigio. I love the simplicity of risi e bisi.  It is similar to risotto but a bit on the soupy side (intentionally) so I served it in soup dishes.  Finally I served a duck breast with a side dish of baked red onions stuffed with a squash puree.  Not only did I use Amarone (the region’s most famous red wine) to make a sauce for the duck, but also served the very same wine to accompany that dish.  The red fruit intensity of Amarone pairs perfectly with duck.

We concluded with Tiramisu, the iconic dessert invented in the Veneto region in the 1960s with, of course, yet another glass of Prosecco.  Lots of food.  Lots of wine.  And lots of good cheer!  Felice Anno Nuovo!

© rob warner photography 2020

Prosciutto Wrapped Lemon Shrimp
Serves 6 (2 shrimp per person)

12 medium shrimp, cleaned and cooked
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
freshly ground pepper
salt to taste
3 slices of prosciutto, sliced thin

 

Marinate the shrimp in the olive oil and the lemon juice, lemon zest, lots of freshly grated pepper and salt to taste.  Marinate for at least two hours.

Cut each slice of prosciutto in half lengthwise, then in half horizontally producing 12 slices of prosciutto.  Each prosciutto slice should be about 6 inches long and 1½ inches wide.  Place each shrimp at the end of the prosciutto slice and roll the shrimp in the slice wrapping it around the shrimp, leaving the ends of the shrimp exposed. Serve at room temperature as a passed appetizer or as a delicious first course serving 2 or 3 prosciutto wrapped shrimp on a bed of arugula tossed with olive oil and lemon.

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My series of regional dinners was not only a great outlet for retesting the dishes I had been cooking in my kitchen, but also were enormously gratifying – an avenue for me to celebrate the many great aspects of the latest region I had been studying and testing recipes for.  But not every dinner party had a single region as its theme.  Some menus were comprised of dishes from all over Italy.  The most memorable of these “all Italian” dinners was the one I cooked for the Great Cooks section of Bon Appetit magazine.  As thrilled as I was to be selected for this honor, I was also filled with nervous anticipation.  Up until this time, press coverage of Convito had mostly centered on my market and café. This article would be much more personal – an actual photo shoot to take place in my home with me as the main attraction.  Yikes!

The theme the magazine had selected was a formal one.   “Elegant Do-Ahead Dinner” would be the headline with the sub-title “An Illinois Hostess Creates a Superb Italian Menu for 12”.  The pressure was on. I immediately began combing through my recipes.  I wanted my menu to represent the diversity of Italian cuisine as well as the strengths of my quickly developing culinary skills.

Test, test, test were the words I awakened to every morning.  I had to get this right.  After all it was a national exposure for my business.  The dishes I selected included Napolitano Marinated Mussels, Venetian Shrimp in Tomatoes, Tuscan Croutons with Broccoli Puree and several dishes from the Piemonte region – Spinach and Cheese Sausage, Spumonte Potatoes and a chocolate hazelnut pudding called Gianduia.  The main course was from Umbria – Chicken in Piquant Liver Sauce preceded by a salad from Lombardia, Artichokes with Mushrooms.  Before the actual event occurred I must have tested each of these dishes three of four times.  My kitchen became my home during the entire month prior to the shoot.

 

 

Finally, the day arrived.  I was ready – or so I thought.  Arriving first was the journalist who was writing the article.  Following her was a food stylist and her assistant, then a woman who was clearly in charge of the whole production – introducing me to everyone and explaining how the day would proceed.  During her very lengthy explanation the camera crew arrived, several men entering the kitchen with what seemed like a whole truckload of equipment, lights, cameras and lots of things I couldn’t identify.  Needless to say I was completely overwhelmed.

The magazine not only wanted to photograph me cooking all the dishes to be included in the article but they also wanted shots of my table, my husband pouring wine and even my kids helping me prepare one of the dishes.  The idyllic family all happily cooking together!  The final photograph would be of the twelve guests.

 

 

When I finished cooking each dish, the food stylist plated the item then whisked it away to the area where it was to be photographed.  To me this was the most interesting part of the day. I learned so many tricks about food photography just by watching the stylist tweak each dish – a little olive oil applied carefully with a brush or a spritz of water to make a dish look fresh and appetizing.  It was amazing to watch.  I would use all those tricks in the years ahead for various Convito food photography sessions and for this blog.  The goal, I learned was to make the dish look mouth-watering not to necessarily taste mouth-watering.  It was beginning to dawn on me that all of the food I was preparing for my “elegant dinner party” would not be edible by the time they all arrived.

It was a thoroughly exhausting, but incredibly fun day.  As the hour approached for my guests to arrive, I left my horribly messy kitchen and went to change into my party dress (I would worry about cleaning up later).  I greeted them all with a glass of wine escorting them into our living where they would be “positioned” by the photographer around my cocktail table, which was covered with bowls and platters of appetizers all of which had been “tweaked” and handled by the food stylist for hours. We all proceeded to “stage” our cocktail hour pretending to enjoy the food while we sipped our wine and engaged in what I’m sure was rather vacuous conversation.  It was hard to concentrate since the camera was clicking and we were constantly being repositioned for what the photographer felt would be the best shot.

All of my guests were good friends who were working at or with Convito in some capacity and had been forewarned that this “dinner party” was really for a photo shoot so nothing seemed to surprise them.  They were all just incredibly good sports.

 

 

As the Bon Appetit crew packed up and left, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  Except for me…I still had to serve dinner for twelve!  It had been clear early on that most of the food I had cooked would be inedible.  As it turned out, it was ALL-inedible.   Once this became an established fact, my husband, Bob thankfully placed an order for pizza.

 

 

When we finally all adjourned to my dining room table – which was formally decked out in a lace tablecloth topped with crystal goblets, bone china and candlesticks – no one cared that our meal was not made up of the elegant dishes that had been photographed (and ruined) hours earlier.  The pepperoni pizzas and a plethora of fine Italian wines was the perfect accompaniment to the comprehensive “review” of our elegant “pretend dinner”.  We would all look at articles like this in magazines and newspapers quite differently in the future.  It was all mirrors and magic!

 

It’s amazing how magic works.  Just recently I ran into one of the 12 guests who attended this dinner.  I told him that I was writing about our Bon Appetit dinner party in my next blog.   “Oh I remember that so well!  Each course was fantastic,” he responded.  “Ron”, I said, “we didn’t eat any of the dinner I had prepared.  You didn’t have a multi-coursed Italian dinner at all.  You just had pepperoni pizza.”  We both had a good laugh!

 

 

 

 

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Fresh Mushrooms and Artichoke Salad
Serves 12

 

4 large artichokes
½ lemon
¾ # mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 ounces Parmesan cheeses, shaved with potato peeler (about 2 cups)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
salt & freshly ground pepper

 

Snap off upper ¾ of each artichoke leaf. (leaving just inner cone of leaves), rubbing exposed parts with lemon as you work, to prevent discoloration. Cut off cone of leaves to just above artichoke bottom.  Trim and discard darker green parts using paring knife. (leave heart and choke in tact)  Bring large amount of salted water to a boil in large pot (or prepare steamer).  Squeeze juice of cut lemon into water then add lemon shell.  Add artichokes, cover pot with paper towel and boil or steam until just crisp tender – about 3 minutes. Drain well.  Pat dry.  Cool.

To serve, remove chokes with spoon or knife tip, then slice artichoke bottoms thinly. Transfer to a large bowl.  Add mushrooms and cheese.  Whisk olive oil with lemon juice one drop at a time.  Pour dressing over mushroom mixture and toss gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Line individual plates with lettuce leaf.  Top with salad.

 

I had my amazing kitchen for almost twelve years.  It is by far the best one I ever had – the most functional, the most beautiful and the very best “hanging around” space I could ask for.  And it was mine during the time that I was at my most creative – testing recipes for my new food venture and entertaining like I had never done before or since.  It is crazy when I look back to all the parties I had during these twelve years – parties for friends, for staff, for family.  I don’t know where I found the time to also manage the details of my new business.  Oh, the energy of youth!

Cooking with friends like Janet Alms, with family-members like my mother-in-law Mary Barocci, with my sister Karen and with my two children Rob and Candace is a gift I will never forget.  I cannot imagine a warmer, more collaborative environment in which to make great food and even better memories.  Those sessions, those dishes, those people, and that kitchen are indelibly etched into my memory bank and remain some of the sweetest and the most delicious times of my life.

 

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My Journey into the Kitchen “My European Classroom”

 

The greatest cities of Europe – Paris, Rome, Berlin – were just a short distance away from where we lived outside of London during the three years I lived in England.  Because I could fly to France or Italy or Germany for just a long weekend, travel became much easier – much more accessible and more frequent.  I learned quickly that I could experience all the glories of Paris not just in April but also in summer, in autumn and even in winter.   To see the avenues lined with stunning fall foliage or alternately, with the happy blossoms of spring or even in the rainy months of winter, the avenues with a kind of soft light glowing from its handsome lamp posts giving them an impressionistic moody radiance   – each season painting a very different picture of this beautiful city. I didn’t have a favorite.  I loved them all – all the seasons – in all of the many countries I had the good fortune to visit during my years abroad.

I also learned the fine art of traveling – how to make the total experience of visiting a brand-new country – whether one of its small villages, its peaceful countryside or its bustling cities – deeper and more meaningful.  That skill of finding the right balance of education and fun was one I picked up from Nancy Youngclaus (now Nancy Tooman), a master at injecting intense touring activities with leisurely lunches and delightful dinners that brought personality and a true sense of place to the town or country being visited.  Our stroll down the historic Champs-Elysees was elevated with a glass of Champagne at Fouquet’s outdoor café;  an already magical walking tour of Strasbourg was made unforgettable when we sought refuge from an unexpected snowstorm by ducking into the much celebrated Au Crocodile for a lunch of inspired Alsatian food; and our exploration of Rome’s most colorful produce market – Campo de Fiori – was transformed when we escaped the crowds and sated our hungry bellies with a slice of pizza from the piazza’s corner bakery Forno Campo de Fiori.

Bill Youngcaus, Nancy’s husband at the time, was employed by the same advertising agency as my then-husband Bob.  Nancy and Bill were experienced ex-pats, living in Caracas, Venezuela and then Surrey, England for over three years.   They knew the plusses and minuses of living abroad.  One of those plusses – a big one – was travel. Travel, they believed, expanded the mind by introducing you to new cultures, new ways of thinking and of course, new foods.  We would eventually travel all over Europe with them and I was the lucky recipient of all their expertise.

Bob and Bill met in Chicago as young account-executives at Leo Burnett before any of us lived abroad. That business connection grew into a friendship, which eventually included Nancy and I, so when they were assigned to the Caracas office in the early ‘70s our budding relationship took a pause.  A few years later it was our turn when Bob was assigned to manage the London office.  Nancy and Bill had already been transferred there too so we were all thrilled at the prospect of reconnecting with them in England. However, that excitement didn’t last long.  Months after we arrived, the Youngclaus family packed up again and relocated to Frankfurt where Bill had been reassigned – once again – to run Burnett’s Germany office. As disappointed as we were, that certainly did not prevent us from making frequent plans to travel together, sometimes with our kids in tow and sometimes just the four adults.  Either way, it was always a delight to be with them and always a learning experience.  Nancy, an art history major, was the perfect museum guide.  She was a brilliant lecturer and instinctively knew just how much history and explanation would take us right up to (but not past) the moment when our children’s eyes would glaze over – actually sometimes even the adults – and she would lose us.  Incredibly, she rarely did, and I think my kids absorbed more cultural history from Nancy than they did in all their studies until they got to college.

Nancy Tooman (then Youngclaus) in Paris

Our first ever trip to Paris was a family affair with Robby (11), Candace (6) and the two Youngclaus girls – Lisa (12) and Ann (11) joining the four adults. While the Dads were in meetings, Nancy treated me and the kids to her Ville Lumiere (City of Light) tour, an age-neutral introduction to Paris delivered as we visited a few of the city’s most magical sites. Number one on our tour was the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of Paris. Our collective amazement of ascending the iron structure via a combination of elevators and (countless) stairs to the top was rewarded with a magnificent view of the city.

Ann, Robby, Lisa and Candace in front of Fouquets on Champs-Elysees

Also included in Nancy’s City of Lights tour was the Champs-Elysees with the Arc de Triomphe positioned at its western terminus where twelve radiating avenues all converge. Its imposing majesty made it a logical second destination for anyone who wants to feel the power and energy of this city.  Sitting in the chic outside café of my go-to spot Fouquets, we enjoyed a feast of ice cream and delicate French pastries and all found ourselves caught up in the excitement of watching an incredible parade of people from all over the world do their “hustle and bustle” on one of the world’s grandest avenues.  It felt like we had arrived at the center of the universe.

Nancy’s goal in this Ville Lumiere tour was to give us a grand overall feeling of the city and its atmosphere.  Much of our tour was spent outside – strolls on the quieter, cobblestone streets of the Left Bank, walks up and down the glamorous and more open avenues of the Right Bank and a most memorable boat trip on the Seine, the river that flows through the heart of Paris giving us all a breathtaking perspective of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Nancy did, however, indulge us with just one museum tour – her “Kid Tour” of the Louvre, the largest museum in the world containing one of the world’s most impressive collections of art.  Considering that this museum is known to be overwhelming even for adults, Nancy decided to substantially shorten our tour by making a beeline to Leonardo De Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Hand in hand, weaving in and out of the crowds, we followed her – at last coming to a halt in front of this famous lady.  Nancy’s lecture on the artist, the mystique of the painting and the lore of its ownership over the centuries, concluded with a hushed description about how the Mona Lisa’s eyes seem to follow the viewer as one moves around the room.  Something scientific about optical illusions was the explanation which I didn’t quite understand at the time (or if I’m honest, to this day), but regardless, I found the idea that Mona Lisa is always looking at you downright eerie.  The kids were mesmerized by this yarn Nancy spun combining art, legend, history and science.   I’m not sure how well they remember it, but for me the painting and Nancy’s stories are forever intertwined.

After an appropriate length of time admiring the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, Nancy turned us all around and again quickly led us through the crowd to the museum’s exit in search of the nearest cafe for lunch. We were starving!  Paris has lots of cafes, bistros and brasseries with kid friendly food and we found a charming one facing the Louvre situated in the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli. My kid’s favorite lunch in Paris (actually in many of the cities they visited) was a grilled cheese sandwich with pommes frites.  It simply felt like home.   Another dish they frequently ordered during this Paris trip was a crepe stuffed with ham and cheese topped with a creamy cheese sauce.

I also had my own Parisian ham and cheese favorite – the Croque-Monsier – basically a ham and cheese sandwich but oh-so much more delicious.  The Croque Monsieur is traditionally made with ham and either Emmental or Gruyere cheese between slices of brioche-like bread, then topped with grated cheese and either baked in an oven or fried in a frying pan. Some brasseries also add Béchamel sauce, making it even richer and more delicious.  Another version is the Croque Madame, which is the same sandwich only topped with a fried egg.  I love both.  The Croque Monsieur is currently on the Convito menu and has become a customer favorite.

We avoided fancier French restaurants with precious (and extremely expensive) food when we dined with the kids. Instead we chose more casual bistros and brasseries where the atmosphere was bustling and noisy and the food simpler and more familiar. The eight of us added to the noise level of any brasserie or bistro we chose by loudly assaulting Bill (the only fluent French speaker in the group) with a ton of questions about the menu, about pronunciation, about everything! We also bombarded him (usually at the same time and at the same volume) with demands of what to tell or ask the waiter. You could see beads of perspiration breaking out on his brow during each dinner. And it wasn’t just the children who were demanding his attention – it was also the other three adults. I never fully learned how fluent he was in French, but it was clear that he was way better than the rest of us, so he became our de-facto translator. Once the ordering was complete you could see him relax and enjoy himself – that is, until the next meal. Poor guy!

Onion soup was frequently my choice of a first course. Since it is so rich and filling, I always tried to follow it with something light. But the call of steak-frites or roast chicken with mashed potatoes was often too strong to resist. Today when I prepare onion soup at home, I usually serve it as the main course accompanied by a green salad. The recipe I still use is from the French cooking classes I took from Leslee Reis before I moved to England. I’m certain Leslee based her recipe on all the many onion soups she consumed while traveling and studying in Paris. I love its somewhat sweet, deep flavor with its savory, cheesy gratinee and crunchy crouton. It is the recipe I use in my restaurant today.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Soupe A L’Oignon Gratinee

Soup
3 Tablespoons butter
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (about 2 ½ pounds)
1-teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar*
3 Tablespoons flour
8 cups beef stock
1 cup white or red wine or dry vermouth
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon sage
¼ cup cognac

Heat butter and oil until bubbling. Add sliced onions and stir. Cover and cook over moderate – low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover pan, raise heat to moderate-high and stir in salt and sugar*. Cook 30 minutes, stirring frequently; onions should be a deep golden brown.

Lower heat, stir in flour, and cook slowly, stirring for 2 minutes.

Remove from heat. Stir in 1 cup of the stock and whisk to blend flour = then add remaining stock and wine, seasonings and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly for 30 – 40 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Add the cognac and stir well. Taste for seasoning.

*Sugar helps to brown onions

 

Gratinee
8 – 10 French bread slices about 1 inch thick*
1 ½ cups grated imported Swiss or Gruyere cheese

Pre-heat the oven broiler.

Ladle the hot soup into 6 individual soup crocks or heatproof bowls. Top each with a browned bread slice. Sprinkle each with ¼ cup of grated cheese. Place the bowls on a cookie sheet for ease in handling.

Set in middle of a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Can run under broiler to glaze cheese.

*French bread slices – better if French baguette is somewhat stale. 6 tablespoons butter melted mixed with 3 tablespoons oil. Brush on bread slices and brown in skillet turning to brown both sides.

 

We continued traveling with Nancy and Bill Youngclaus throughout our time in England.  Traveling as a foursome with two Nancys could be confusing with both of us constantly responding to the name “Nancy” whether it was meant for us or not.  One day not long into our journeys Bill solved the problem starting to call his wife (the taller one) “Big Nanc” and me (the shorter one) “little Nanc” – names we call one another to this day.  One of the most infamous trips we took was another French journey – one that I came to refer to as the Butter Trip.  It was an “adults only” journey through the French Riviera beginning in St. Tropez and traveling north along the Mediterranean Sea with stops in Cannes and Nice and finally ending – fat and full – in Monte Carlo.

We were determined to dine at as many Michelin-starred restaurants as possible, which is how it came to be known as the ButterTrip to me since butter was the key ingredient in almost every French sauce we had. It was also the most crucial component of croissants – the irresistible pastry which we devoured each morning at breakfast.  Nancy claims it was me who decided that we dine in these Michelin restaurants since I had brought along a tattered Gourmet magazine with a dogeared article featuring the French Riviera’s best restaurants.  Supposedly, I referenced it every day of our trip.  Though I wish I could blame someone else for what was probably the most indulgent culinary adventure of my life, her description of the origins of our expedition sounds about right!

Little Nanc and Big Nanc in St Tropez

St Tropez – long popular with both artists and the International Jet Set– was our first stop.  Since Bob and Bill were more than happy to spend their afternoons on the Tahiti topless beach made famous in the Bridgette Bardot movie “And God Created Women,” Nancy and I were mostly on our own.  Though I felt somewhat out of place amongst this rich and famous crowd, the “people watching” – component combined with our many fantastic meals – more than made up for any self-consciousness I might have had to endure.

It was here that I was first introduced to Bouillabaisse, the traditional fish stew of the south of France.  Fish to me represents eating light, but not so with this aromatic, complex and rich dish that also contains potatoes, garlic aioli and thick slices of bread.  Delicious, but not light!  I ordered it several times during our journey and was never disappointed.

I also frequently ordered Loup de Mer, a Mediterranean seabass.  Preparations varied, but I soon came to realize that most of the versions I chose were butter-based.  And when it came to dessert, we continued to indulge!  Without fail we seemed to always pick the richest item on the menu – mousse au chocolat (a quintessential French dessert) or millefeuille (another classic French sweet consisting of layers of razor-thin puff pastry and cream filling).  And how could we resist a cheese course finale with local selections ranging from tangy Roquefort to rich creamy Brie.  It’s amazing we didn’t get gout on this journey!

By the time we reached Cannes we were desperate for something simple and fresh.  We found it in the form of Salades Nicoise which we all ordered for lunch on the beach in front of the famous Carlton Hotel.  Finally no butter!   Salade Nicoise originated in Nice and continues to be a favorite of mine.  Traditionally made with greens, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, Nicoise olives and tuna dressed with a classic vinaigrette; its popularity has spread throughout the world.  The one I had on the Carlton Beach was served in a bowl all tossed together.  I love to serve it in the summer as a composed dinner salad.  But either way it is delicious and to me represents a true sense of place – in this case, the gorgeous and chic French Riviera.

Just last summer my family and I rented a villa on the Riviera and for one lunch the grandchildren and I made a Salade Nicoise. Photo below.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Nicoise Salad

 Following are the classic ingredients.  Amounts and design up to you.

Lettuce – Boston or
Hard-boiled eggs peeled and quarter
Cooked red-skinned potatoes or fingerling sliced about 1/3 inch thick
Cooked haricots verts
Grape tomatoes sliced in half
Nicoise olives
Shallots or red onion sliced thin
Canned tuna packed in oil, drained
A red wine vinaigrette made with a touch of Dijon mustard
Optional – anchovy filets

 

We ended our Riviera journey in the Grill Room on the top floor of Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.  By then we were tired of rich food – actually tired of food in general – but we couldn’t very well forgo a dining experience on the top floor of this gorgeous belle époque-era building with its incredible panoramic view of the Mediterranean. So, of course we proceeded once again to indulge ourselves in yet another memorable Michelin-starred meal. And naturally…there was butter!

It turned out to be memorable all right, but not necessarily because of the food.  For reasons long since forgotten (and perhaps even cloudy at the time) the two men got into a loud argument, which was not a totally unusual occurrence.  At one point during the disagreement they moved their boisterous “debate” outdoors where they angrily threatened to throw one another off the 8rd floor terrace.  The railings surrounding the balcony were not all that high so the threats of doing just that probably seemed entirely realistic to the heads turned in their direction.

But Nancy and I knew it wouldn’t happen.  We had gotten used to a certain volatility between these two men whose shared temperament, intelligence and self-confidence were both the reason they became close friends the first day they met, as well as why they regularly got under each other’s skin like no other person in the world.  So, we learned over time to ignore the bluster and this night we laughed our way to the ladies room to let them hash it out!  Our irreverent acceptance of what had become a staple on our trips always helped diffuse (at least for us) what probably looked like a stressful situation to onlookers.  As usual, upon returning to the table “Team Bill and Bob” were already engrossed in another deep conversation, laughing about something that only they understood, whatever argument that so passionately eclipsed our dinner long since forgotten.

 

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We didn’t know how long we would be living in Europe and wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity we were afforded, so we embarked upon an intense period of travel where I challenged myself to learn as much as I could about different countries across the continent – about their history and about their culture.

All of that education would profoundly influence my future immersion in the culinary world since history is deeply intertwined in both the culture and cuisine of a country.

Because Nancy and Bill lived in Germany, we made several trips to that country.  One dark, gloomy weekend in February we traveled to Berlin when the Eastern half of the city was still controlled by the Soviet Union and separated from the West by a concrete wall and armed soldiers.  Going into East Berlin was quite eerie and more than a little frightening, especially when we narrowly escaped a border “incident” at Checkpoint Charlie.  For some reason, Bob took issue with one of the guards over something that none of us understood.  At times he could become volatile when he perceived some kind of threat was imminent. In this situation where there was clearly an imbalance of power in favor of the border guards, Bob felt (I think) that by “standing up to them” he could put things back into a proper balance. Bill realized this tactic would do no such thing and – if anything – would only make the circumstance worse. Thankfully, he redirected Bob away from the confrontation and from what I was beginning to fear might be a night in jail for him or all of us!  Whatever Bill said to the East German Border guard diffused the situation and we all breathed a sigh of relief, got back in our car and continued (albeit nervously) our tour of East Berlin.

Nancy and I in Berlin

Though East Berlin was interesting, it was also oppressively drab and gray, just like the February weather we were experiencing there.  You could still see bombed-out shells of many buildings and because most areas were blocked off to tourists, there wasn’t a lot to see. That fact – plus our anxiety left over from the Checkpoint Charlie “incident” – made us anxious to get back to the friendlier confines of the Western side of the city.

We stayed right in the center of West Berlin at Hotel Kempinski, a glamorous hotel that overlooked Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous 18th Century neoclassical landmark built by Prussian King Frederick William II which now separated East from West.   A certain mood permeated this city that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Was it danger?  Was it anxiety?  Or maybe it was just the gloomy, rainy weather.  Whatever it was, I found the mood rather mysterious and intriguing.  And since we were told that the real life of Berliners takes place mostly at night, we decided to commit to an uncharacteristic (for us) nightclub night-out to soak in some local authenticity.   The club we picked was dimly lit, so it was difficult to see much of anything except the spotlight on the musicians whose music was some hybrid of disco and rock.  What I did know for sure was that it was loud!  Too loud!  And since I was never any good at lip reading, I could not decipher what anyone was saying. A piano bar is more my style where the music is soft and the conversation understandable.  So, I was not at all unhappy when the group decided to call it a night and go back to the hotel satisfied that we had at least witnessed a small slice of Berlin’s night life.

Good food was always a priority with the four of us when we travelled, and our Germany trips were no different.  The traditional German breakfast was substantial: a breakfast of bread rolls, marmalade, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and various cold cuts.  Because we ate late and the breakfast was so filling, we could easily go from breakfast to dinner without stopping for lunch allowing us the time to see all the sights and visit all the museums on our agenda. And since we were only staying the weekend (and Nancy – of course – had a full agenda planned) we had a lot to pack in.

Dinner was our leisurely “review-the day-and-relax” meal. We choose restaurants that served typical German food and wines rather than the “international” cuisine popular in many of the hotel restaurants.  To this day I really enjoy good German food.  They love their meats – especially roasts – as do I.  And with all good cultures come accompanying starches!  One of my favorite dishes was spaetzle – a type of egg noodle dumpling –  lightly tossed with butter, accompanied by one of their famous meat dishes.  In this case it was Weinerschnitzel, a thin, breaded and pan-fried veal cutlet.  That combination along with a glass of elegant German Riesling, one of Germany’s superstar wines, was one of my favorite meals.

kids visiting Youngclaus family in Frankfurt

Besides Berlin, we made several side-trips from Frankfurt where the Youngclaus family resided, to explore the many charming villages nearby.  One memorable adventure we had with the whole family was a day of medieval castle-hopping on the banks of the Rhine.  The medieval castles on the hilltops, the lush green vineyards and the narrow riverbanks painted a romantic picture not dissimilar to the Brothers Grimm books our children so loved.  Exploring these amazing castles while imagining the lives of the knights and princesses who had lived there turned out to be the idyllic kid trip.  They especially loved the towers – I’m sure imagining them as the home of German fairytale characters like Rapunzel, “The Maiden in the Tower”.

German cuisine also appealed to the kids.  Frankfurters and bratwurst were easy choices for both lunch and dinner.  I too enjoyed a good brat, especially one grilled with a slightly crispy skin and served in a bun with mustard and loaded with sauerkraut.  The number of different kinds of sausages made in Germany is mind-boggling – more than 1,500 different varieties we learned, so there is always plenty different kinds to choose from.  And Germans also prepare potatoes in a number of ways – fried, baked, sautéed, boiled, so that was another guaranteed hit with the kids.  Potatoes are ubiquitous – paired with almost every German dish – which was perfect for this midwestern gal who never let a fried, roasted or baked potato go to waste!

Probably the most memorable side-trip we made from Frankfurst was a very treacherous snowy drive to Strasbourg just over the border in Alsace, France.  When we began our two-and-a-half hour drive the weather was lovely.  But by the time we reached Strasbourg, the snow was so intense it was pilling up in huge drifts along the highway making our journey much slower than we anticipated.  We decided that Strasbourg would be our only stop – lunch and then back on the road to Frankfurt.  The medieval villages we intended to also visit like Colmar and Riquewihr would have to wait for another journey.

Because this is the area thought to be the homeland of my great grandfather (on my father’s side) I was always fascinated by its turbulent history and was really looking forward to this visit.  Although Alsace-Lorraine is located in France, it was not so long ago that it had been a part of Germany.  Annexed by Nazi Germany in 1949, it reverted back to French control at the end of WWII where it remains today.

 

I was excited to see it for both its history and my family’s so I was disappointed that our visit would be limited.  What was possible to see through the falling snow revealed a city with a very distinctive old-world character.  The snow fell like confetti against our faces as we walked through the quaint cobblestone streets in the ancient quarter of the city.   Finally arriving at the restaurant Nancy had reserved for lunch and happy to be out of the cold, I chose a dish that would actually become one of my favorites from anywhere in the world.  It suited my taste buds perfectly.

The dish –Choucroute Garni – is a traditional specialty of Alsace, France.  What arrived at the table was a steaming platter of sauerkraut piled high with a variety of hearty sausages, frankfurters, salted meats and cooked potatoes – a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish and perfect to be consumed in the height of a blizzard!  I had made a simple version of this dish several times for my family using a recipe that my grandfather loved – sauerkraut served with ring baloney and boiled potatoes, but this took things to a new level.

Nancy with plate of Choucroute in Strasbourg at Chez Yvonne many years later

I later learned that choucroute means “dressed sauerkraut” in French.    Although “sour cabbage” actually originated in China some two thousand+ years ago, it eventually made its way to Eastern Europe then to Germany, Alsace-Lorraine and France.  Various interpretations of the basic recipe emerged from each country, but the Alsatian version is my favorite.  In this version the sauerkraut is accompanied by a selection of meats (usually pork) and boiled potatoes.  The sauerkraut preparation can vary but always includes onions.

My Choucroute Garni recipe pretty much follows the typical Alsatian recipe except I add more onions.  The onions are sautéed to the point of being almost caramelized adding a slight sweetness to the sauerkraut.

 

Choucroute Garnie
Serves 6

2-½ pounds sauerkraut
2 ounces slab bacon, diced
2 ½ # pork back ribs (2 ribs per person)
2 cups finely sliced onions
1 clove garlic minced
2 cups chicken stock
¾ cup Riesling wine
1 bay leaf
4 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
8 juniper berries
salt & freshly ground pepper
6 knockwurst
1 pre-cooked Polish Kielbasa
boneless boiled ham (3-4 inches wide) sliced into 6 pieces ¼ inch thick
12 potatoes (approximately 2 inches in diameter)

 

Drain sauerkraut, reserving juice. Wring out well.  Set aside. Heat oven to 325 degrees

In a large casserole (at least 5 quarts) cook bacon over medium heat until golden.  Remove, draining well.  Leave fat in casserole.  Cut ribs into 6 sections – 2 ribs per section.  Brown the ribs.  Remove.

Add onions and sauté over medium heat for approximately 12 minutes – almost caramelizing.  Add garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes.

Add sauerkraut.  Add stock and wine. Bring to a simmer.

Add bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves and juniper berries.  Return bacon. Add ribs, tucking into sauerkraut mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and bake for 1-½ hours.

Put knockwurst and kielbasa in with sauerkraut for last 20 minutes to heat through, ham for last 10 minutes just to warm.

Meanwhile in a large saucepan, cover the potatoes with cold water.  Add salt and bring to a boil.  Cook the potatoes until tender when pierced.  Drain.  Cover to keep warm.

To serve, mound the hot sauerkraut in the center of hot dinner plates.  Tuck in the ribs and slices of kielbasa.  Arrange ham and knockwurst around sauerkraut with boiled potatoes.  Serve with assorted mustards and horseradish.

Note:  many different meats are used in different recipes – mostly always a form of pork

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Before we left Strasbourg for our long drive home, we visited the beautiful Cathedral of our Lady of Strasbourg – also know as Cathedrale de Notre Dame – an outstanding example of Gothic architecture and one of Strasbourg’s most famous sights.  After admiring the spectacular stained-glass windows, we cautiously made our way back to the car and began the very long journey back to Frankfurt driving through a sea of white in howling winds, dreaming of the warmth of the Youngclaus home, our smiling children and maybe a cup of hot cocoa.

Denmark with Younglaus family – Legoland

Among the highlights of my entire time spent living aboard was a 10-day journey around Denmark that we took with the whole Youngclaus family.  By this time the eight of us had become a family of sorts, bound together in a common interest of new adventures and most certainly a love for the humorous aspects of any situation. Laughter was always a priority.

Another reason I remember this trip so fondly is because both Nancy and I were relieved of our planning responsibilities since the Managing Director of Leo Burnett Denmark did it for us!  Knowing that four children were accompanying the adults, he made certain to include kid-friendly stops as well as to give us an overview of flat and windy – but breathtakingly beautiful – Denmark with all its lovely farmland and quaint seaports.

We began in Copenhagen, the capital and economic center of the country, then traveled in our red rental van (named Beep by the kids) all the way to the tip of Denmark to Skagen, a port town at the north end of Denmark where the Baltic very dramatically crashes into the North Sea.  We also made many kid-friendly stops along the way including a trip to the original Legoland and a visit to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the second oldest operating amusement park in the world.

with Robby at North Sea & Baltic Sea

Food and wine, I was learning, reveal more about a country than simply their culinary tastes.  Denmark’s food is described as Nordic which emphasizes locally grown and sustainable ingredients.  The isolated geography and fast-changing climate that all Nordic countries share given their position in the northern reaches of the European continent helps explain the similarities of their cuisine, though each country and region has its own specialty dishes.  In Denmark these often featured root vegetables which are easy to grow in Denmark’s very short summers.  Cabbage cultivation is also suited to Denmark’s climate, so you find many dishes based around this leafy plant.  And of course, Denmark is surrounded by the sea, so fish is ubiquitous; especially salmon, cod and herring.

All of these ingredients can be found in one version or another of Denmark’s signature dish, Smorrebrod.  An open-faced sandwich using traditional Danish-style rye bread as the base, the toppings vary greatly depending on the season and the region of Denmark you find yourself in.  It can be as austere as buttered bread with thin slices of cheese or cucumber, or as complicated as versions that feature multiple layers of roast beef, pickled fish or an assortment of root vegetables slathered with remoulade sauce and garnished with shredded horseradish, carrots, radishes, celery root, pickles, and always arranged in a most artistic way.   The main ingredient on my favorite Smorrebrod is one of Denmark’s gifts from the sea – the popular smoked salmon.  As New York Times writer R.W. Apple wrote about the dish; “Leave it to the Danes, those post masters of form and color, to turn a sandwich into a still life.”

 

Smoked Salmon Smorrebrod

 

A slice of rye bread
Remoulade
Smoked Salmon
Thinly sliced cucumbers
Thinly sliced radishes
Fresh dill
Capers

Sauce rémoulade
1 cup mayonnaise mixed with 2 tablespoons mixed herbs (parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon), 1 tablespoon drained capers, 2 finely diced cornichons and a few drops of anchovy essence (optional). Some recipes use chopped anchovy fillets.

Spread the remoulade on top of a slice of rye bread; artistically arrange cucumbers, radishes and fresh dill on top.  Sprinkle with capers

 

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The Youngclaus were not our own travelling companions during those years we lived in England.  But even when we were travelling with others, the lessons from Nancy’s thoughtful planning informed the increasingly detailed itineraries which I began to create for visiting family and friends.  True to my obsession with English customs and traditions, any of my England-based trips included plenty of time for my guests to enjoy a totally “English experience.”  To me that meant relaxing over a cup of tea at one of London’s tea salons after a busy day of museum-hopping; a pub dinner and a pint of ale at the conclusion of intense driving on the “wrong” side of the road through the Cotswolds; or savoring a typical English dinner in Covent Garden before going to the theatre in London’s West End.  No matter what the agenda, those experiences always combined local food and beverages with the day’s activities.

after a game of tennis with the Humphries and visiting guests Claire and Bill Stickney

After a stay with us in England, many of our visiting friends would accompany us to other European countries in the region.  I was a veteran tour guide by this time and religiously followed the Nancy Youngclaus principle of injecting quintessential food experiences into whatever town or village we were visiting.  Rome, Paris and Venice seemed to be the preferred destination of many and fortunately for me they were all cities I was delighted to return to over and over again, every visit providing me with some new discovery to add to my growing appreciation of my favorite places on earth.

 

ROME

Trevi Fountain in Rome with Younglaus’s

Rome was a city I visited with many different friends and I will never tire of all that it has to offer.  We spent several lovely long weekends there with Nancy and Bill wandering through its ancient cobblestone streets, enjoying a gelato at the Trevi Fountain and lustfully window-shopping on the Via Condotti, one of the most fashionable streets in Rome.  And it was they who introduced me to my first taste of regional Italian cuisine at Trattoria Sabatini in the Bohemian district of Trastevere overlooking the picturesque Piazza di Santa Maria.   The restaurant was famous for its Roman dishes like oxtail stew, deep fried artichokes (a Roman Jewish dish) and a favorite – Stracciatella alla Romana, an egg drop soup seasoned with parmesan cheese, nutmeg and pepper.

O’Malley’s and the Youngclauses at the Roman Ruins

We took many trips back to Rome with many different friends.  Dennis and Mary Lu O’Malley accompanied us there with Bill and Nancy, as did the new friends we met in England, Jean and Paul Barringer from Boston and Chris and Vivian Humphrey from South Africa. We enjoyed many great moments with all of them – visits to many of my favorite spots.

Barringers and the Humphries at the Trevi Fountain

Often new to them, but not to me, but I relished them just the same.  It was always a pleasure sipping on a morning cappuccino at Rome’s famous landmark café, Antico Caffe Greco on Via Condotti; or toasting friendship and travel with a pre-dinner Bellini cocktail (white peach juice and Prosecco) at Harry’s Bar (his second location) on Via Vittorio Veneto; or lunching at the rooftop restaurant of the Hassler Hotel where one could savor a bowl of pasta or a plate of beef carpaccio while simultaneously looking out across the rooftops of Rome.

Rome at night provided endless choices for dining as well.  Andrea, a small club-like restaurant just off the Via Veneto and famous for its delicious Catalan lobster salad, was a favorite.  There was simply no end to the things you could do and the food and drink you could happily consume in this great city.  And repeating them over and over again only made them more precious to me. I supposed it made them somehow feel like I was becoming a local in each of my favorite European cities.

 

PARIS

Sheila Bradley and I in front of the Louvre in Paris

Ed in Paris with Sheila’s clock

We also visited Paris with many different couples – Ed and Shelia Bradley on one occasion and another with Colleen Remsberg. The highlight with Sheila and Ed was the flea market where Sheila purchased an antique clock – not a small one – that Ed had to drag around the city for the rest of the day, perpetually looking for a place to set it down so that he could rest his weary arms.  “True devotion” we teased!

Colleen Remsberg and I having lunch at a Parisian cafe

Colleen who accompanied us on one of Bob’s business trips mostly remembers the opulent Michelin restaurant Ledoyen not so much for its food – which was amazingly delicious – but for the bill.  The three men who were dining with us decided to play a trick on Colleen and had the waiter present her the bill pretending it was her treat.  I will not forget the look on her face when she read it!  Pure shock!

Paris is just one of those cities I would visit time and time again – both during my time in England and after.  Having a latte at the Caffe Deux Margot (famous as a hangout for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso), or walking along the Seine after a pate and baguette lunch at L’Ecluse, a cozy little wine bar that my friend and mentor Leslee Reis introduced me to is always a thrill.  It is a city where I can always still find something new  – sites and restaurants and museums that I discover with each visit and can’t imagine how I missed them the first time!

 

VENICE

Barnettes and the Nahsers in Piazza San Marco, Venice

Venice was yet another city I found myself enthusiastically returning to.  Our first trip was one rainy April when we took our kids there during one of their breaks from school.  Piazza San Marco was flooded, but despite having to cross the piazza on wooden planks, Venice still presented itself as one of the world’s unique cities.  The very next year I would enjoy Piazza San Marco in the sun with good friends from back home – Ron and Mary Nahser and Joe and Charlene Barnette – enjoying a glass of Prosecco in front of the famous Caffe Florian, the oldest operating cafe in Italy…and actually the world.  Mary remembers having a most divine liver dish called Fegato alla Veneziana (Calf’s Liver Venetian style) at Ristorante Antico Martini, a clubby, old world romantic restaurant close to Teatro La Fenice, the famous Venice theater.   Even non-liver lovers sometimes enjoy this dish of thinly sliced liver with gently stewed onions.  My favorite accompaniment is with soft polenta.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Venice in every season and no matter what weather conditions– rain, sleet or sunshine – its magic always shines through.

 

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With each succeeding trip, my culinary education would continue to deepen throughout my three years in England.  And just as Bob’s transfer to London years before allowed me to begin this journey, his promotion would accelerate it.  When Leo Burnett moved him from Managing Director of London to Managing Director of all of Europe, he decided that the agency would benefit greatly from frequently getting all of the European managing directors together in one room to discuss agency strategy.  Each meeting would be held in one of the European cities where the agency had offices, and since spouses were included, my culinary education would also benefit from these conferences.  While the men sat in windowless rooms discussing agency business, I had the privilege of wandering city streets, visiting museums and – most importantly for my education – having a lunch or a coffee in one of its cafes, all the while soaking in the culture of each unique city.

Every conference had its own personality.  Organized by the Managing Director of the host city, the goal was always to conduct company business, but at the same time, to expose the conference attendees to the food, the wine and flavor of their city.  The events were usually grand affairs featuring local cuisine and always attempting to outdo the previous meeting.  We enjoyed everything from Spanish Tapas on gloriously sunny Costa del Sole in Andalusia; Wiener Schnitzel and Apple Strudel in Vienna; Foie Gras, Duck a l’Orange and Millefoie in Paris; delicious risotto at gorgeous Villa D’Este on Lake Como, Italy and good old hearty Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding in my adopted hometown of London.

One of the most memorable conferences for me was held in Italy organized by Milano managing director Paolo Volpara who – unbeknownst to me at the time – would eventually become my partner in business and lead me on the culinary adventure of my lifetime.  Although I had visited several cities in Italy before these Italian conferences – Rome, Florence, Venice, Verona as well as many of the little towns of the Italian Riviera – the regional aspects of Italian food were still new to me.  I had barely an inkling of the great diversity in all of Italy’s 20 regions.  But I was soon to get my first lesson from Paolo.

I connected with him immediately.  Not only was he smart and charming, but he also had a fantastic sense of humor, my favorite quality in both men and women.   This particular conference was held in Taormina, Sicily at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, an elegant Renaissance–inspired hotel with views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Taormina. I sat next to Paolo at dinner the first evening of the conference.  After professing my interest in all things culinary, Paolo pointed out that our menu for the evening featured many typical Sicilian dishes.  When I inquired why those were different from Italian dishes in general, what ensued was our very first regional discussion.  “Italy is not all spaghetti and meatballs,” he began.

He pointed out that one of the dishes on the menu that evening was particularly representative of the region we were in– Sicily.   All 20 regions had been influenced by different factors: geographical position, proximity to surrounding countries and certainly the history of the region (who invaded, and who stayed – all factors that helped to develop each region’s identity).  The dish he was referring to, Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe and Olives, revealed a North African influence.  Its ingredients, golden raisins, anchovies and black olives, can be found in many North African Moroccan dishes.  Sicilian cuisine, I was learning, has been greatly influenced by many different countries – from North African nations to the Middle East.  What an exotic region!  And the home of the Italian mafia as well!

All of this fascinated me, and the opportunity to combine two of my favorite things – history and food – was irresistible.

© rob warner photography 2020

Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe and Olives
Serves 4

1 ¼ pound broccoli rabe, stems cut into pieces and florets separated –steamed al dente and set aside
¼ cup olive oil
1 large shallot finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
20 oil-cured pitted black olives cut in half
3 tablespoons golden raisins
½ cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper

1-pound spaghetti cooked al dente
3 tablespoons grated parmesan

Heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Sauté the shallots and the garlic for approximately 1 minute.  Add the anchovy pieces and stir into mixture. Then add the olives, raisins and parley. Sauté briefly.  Add cooked broccoli rabe, salt & pepper.  Stir until heated.  Mix with the cooked spaghetti.  Top with grated parmesan.

 

Paolo and I forming our partnership in Glencoe living room

It was shortly after these conferences that we moved back to Chicago, thus ending my three incredible years in England where I not only learned about English cuisine, but the cuisine of many other European countries.  My recipe files and my understanding of cultural diversity expanded exponentially during this time.  Travel most certainly broadened my horizons, setting me on a path that would eventually lead me to a career in the business of what I love most – the business of food and wine.  Paolo’s and my partnership would form shortly after I arrived back in Chicago.

But more than anything, my three years of living abroad fundamentally changed me and the way I thought about and related to the world. My Living in another country gives you a new perspective about all kinds of things.  It challenges old habits and entrenched belief systems by compelling you to consider other ways of doing things, other ways of thinking.  Travel does the same thing, but on an accelerated timetable.  It expands your mind in ways you never thought possible, by introducing you to things you had never imagined existed.  My years living abroad and the extensive travel that came with it was a gift that continues to enhance my life every single day.

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My Journey into the Kitchen: “Teatime, Top Hats and Tradition”

 

Almost immediately after my move to England I became entranced by the customs and festive events of the British people.  The rich tapestry of ritual and tradition deliciously woven into all aspects of the country’s social practices captured my imagination and became an inspiration to my own way of entertaining.

One of the first English customs I fell in love with – one that was filled with delightful ritual – was afternoon tea.  Shortly after my move to England, one of my husband’s associates invited me to tea at The Claridge, a Mayfair hotel considered by many to be the epitome of timeless elegance.  She had been “assigned” by my husband’s office to be my “international relocation guide”, to help me ease into and acclimate to the many challenges of living in a new country.

We met at 4 pm, the proper hour to “take tea”.  Sitting amidst the plush old-world décor at The Claridge – the London hotel most closely aligned with British royalty and often referred to as an annex to Buckingham Palace – I was feeling rather out of my element.  Enchanted as I was with all things British, proper tea etiquette was at this point beyond me, as were most of the English customs I had thus far encountered.

Fortunately, my hostess sensed my anxiety and turned our conversation into a light-hearted discussion about the English penchant for manners and socially appropriate behavior.  “We British,” she began, “can sometimes take the idea of being ‘proper’ to an extreme, as in the rules for ‘proper’ tea etiquette.”  She laughingly went on to describe examples of those extremes – behavior that would be considered gauche if not adhered to.  “Never blow on your tea to cool it down”. “Do not cradle your teacup in your hands”.  Even more horrid; “Unless your tea party is very informal and you are somewhat of an idiot, dunking biscuits in your tea is a complete no, no.”  But my favorite was the rule regarding the actual stirring of tea.  “To be done properly, the teaspoon must move through the tea in an up and down motion. Never in a circular movement”.

Describing these British idiosyncrasies out loud even made my host laugh and we quickly transitioned to an animated conversation comparing life in the UK and back in the US, followed by me questioning her about recommendations for shopping, restaurants and the great London theatre scene that I had heard so much about.  However, when our tea was delivered to the table, it was back to business.  Rules were followed, mistakes were made and tea was (eventually) drank, but ultimately my hostess had to admit that even though she often ignored many of the pedantic rules of tea etiquette, she did pay attention to proper management of tea accompaniments;  “milk is only added after the tea is poured, never before,”she stated. “Sugar is added last.  And never combine milk and lemon as it will curdle.”  Would I ever be able to just relax and have a cup of tea?  She assured me I was already well on my way.

 

As usual, I felt compelled to learn more. According to James Joyce, the Irish writer and poet, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”.  Served around 4 pm it was originally intended to fill in the long period of time between lunch and dinner when the later was not served until 8 pm or later.  In the 1840’s, according to legend, the Duchess of Bedford was the first to create a more formal and elaborate tea, which included not only a pot of loose-leaf tea (never teabags) with milk and sugar but also more substantial and “fancy” foods like scones, dainty pastries and crust-less sandwiches.  And all served with great style and decorum.

I so loved this post-lunch ritual I found almost any excuse to invite friends for tea.  It turned out I already had a tea table – a mahogany one – which before my move to England had served as just a table between two love seats but now was put to use in its intended capacity.  Soon it became the centerpiece for my own personal afternoon tea ritual; the surface on which I placed little plates of finger sandwiches, sweets, teacups, my new china tea strainer and an English bone china pot of brewed tea all snug in its newly purchased Tea Cosy (an adorable little teapot sweater that keeps the pot insulated and the tea warm) – all the accouterments of my burgeoning tea service collection.

There was no end to my teatime fascination.  I even ensnared unsuspecting people into my “teatime web” like the young man who was dropping off fabric samples from the company I hired to make kitchen curtains.  Looking back, I can only imagine his total surprise at finding himself sitting across from me sipping tea and nibbling on a crust-less cucumber tea sandwich.  “Who was this crazy American lady”, he must have been thinking.

I did not always have appropriate little sweets on hand for these spontaneous teatime occasions, but I usually had the ingredients for finger sandwiches.  I could easily whip up egg salad or tuna salad to spread on little cut out squares or rounds from the bread I used for my kid’s lunch sandwiches.  I usually also had cucumbers – one of my favorite salad ingredients – on hand.  Most of the time I stuck to the traditional cucumber tea sandwich spreading little bread rounds with butter then placing a thin slice of cucumber on top.  Totally simple, but somehow totally delicious!  But when I had the time and the occasion was not so spontaneous, I would make something a little more complicated like a lemon-dill-cucumber sandwich.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Lemon Dill Cucumber Sandwich
Servings 10 – 15

4 ounces cream cheese
2-tablespoon yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon chopped dill
¼ teaspoon white wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1 English (unpeeled) cucumber cut into thin rounds
fresh dill (for garnish)
extra lemon zest (for garnish)

White or whole wheat thinly sandwich bread.  Using round biscuit cutter or small glass (approximately 2 inches in diameter).  Cut bread rounds inside crust area.  (Do not include the crust)  Set aside.

In a bowl, mix together the cream cheese, yogurt, lemon juice, lemon zest, dill, vinegar and sugar.  Mix well until smooth.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Spread rounds with cream cheese mixture.  Place one cucumber slice on top.  Garnish with a piece of dill and sprinkle with more lemon zest.

 

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I also became a “tea sleuth” of sorts wandering the streets of London searching for the best afternoon tea locations – oases of Britishness where I could take my visiting American friends to experience this most quintessential of English rituals.  After considerable research (of which every moment was savored), I decided the Ritz Carlton, Fortnum and Mason, the Connaught Hotel and The Claridge were my favored locations.

In the end, however, The Ritz Carlton became my tea salon of choice.   I couldn’t resist its glittering chandeliers, elegant mirrors and sophisticated ambience.  Most days a pianist and harpist provided the afternoon soundtrack to the Merchant-Ivory movie I was starring in, as a formally dressed staff presented a bounty of bespoke pastries and finger sandwiches on handsome three-tiered silver trays.   In addition to my favorite cucumber sandwiches, I also became enchanted with the dense – and impossibly crumbly – scones that were invariably accompanied by Clotted Cream (also known as Devonshire cream) and Fruit Preserves.

Clotted cream is amazing.  It’s as if a thick rich cream was blended with an equally rich creamy butter.  To me it is the height of decadence even more so than chocolate.  And then to make the occasion even more indulgent, a glass of Champagne elevated this very elegant British tradition to what is referred to as a Royale Tea.  Oh my! I so love this tradition that I have continued my tea party obsession to this day.

My sisters Joan and Karen treat me to a birthday Tea at Fortnum and Mason

I consider my years of living in England as my fancy time – my fairytale years – and the insatiable appetite I had for new tastes and new experiences was never more completely fulfilled than during the British social season. The Season as it is referred to in England, takes place from Spring to the end of Summer and includes an array of prestigious events such as the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, The Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, the Henley Royal Regatta and more.  The attention to detail in all aspects of each venue – including the food, the beverages, the fashion and the rituals – was awe-inspiring.

 

Nancy ready for The Season

Glyndebourne is the English country estate that has hosted an annual summer opera festival in East Sussex since the early 1930s.  And it is the perfect example of these mythical Season events that so entranced me.  Initially, operas were performed in the house itself, but quickly the event became so popular amongst the British social class that a separate free-standing opera theater was built on-site.  Because the theatre is small, there are simply no bad seats and the intimacy and splendor of the event is enhanced at the long intermission where operagoers dine in one of the several glorious restaurants spread around the equally glorious grounds.  The restaurants are distributed across the sprawling estate, set amongst fountains, reflecting pools and rolling lawns resplendent with an exuberance of flowers, bushes and flowering trees.

We attended several different operas over our years living in England, but none was more memorable than the one with good friends and opera aficionados Janet and Paul Alms. They had been decades-long subscribers to the Lyric Opera in Chicago, had travelled to New York City to attend operas at the Met, and had timed their visit to the UK to coincide with Glyndebourne. As opera savvy as they were, they always considered this particular performance of Verdi’s Falstaff performed in this incredibly gorgeous and intimate setting one of the pinnacles of their operatic experiences.

 

Paul and Janet Alms with Bob and I before Glyndebourne

Though there is no official dress code, formal attire is customary at Glyndebourne, so most of the men wear black tie and the women either cocktail attire or long gowns. Janet and I chose the latter and even threw in a vintage mink stole for good measure.  We felt – and unfortunately looked like – mid-Victorian era versions of our mothers.  It was, however, in keeping with the spirit of the event and we had a sublime time.  Of all the people who came to visit us in England, no one enjoyed the English “pomp” as much as Janet and Paul.  Janet appeared “to the manner born” so to speak. Pomp brought out the peacock in her. And after all, she was a Leo, the sun sign known for their love of drama – bouncy show-offs with big hearts – so the vibe coming off her when we attended Season events together was pure, unadulterated joy.  They actually attended three events with us – Glyndebourne, Wimbledon and Royal Ascot.  Paul, the showman that he was, also loved the drama.  A talented actor and singer who had starred in many an amateur production back in Chicago, Paul’s role-playing during these events was always entertaining. His affected British accent and exaggerated British manners were quite convincing, but we knew him for the down to earth guy he was, so his pretense at British royalty threw us into fits of laughter.

Janet Alms: “to the manner born”

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Intermission at Glyndebourne is also quite spectacular. You either dined in one of its three restaurants or picnicked on the estate’s splendid grounds out of picnic hampers most likely packed by one of London’s famous food stores like Harrods or Fortnum and Mason.  Given England’s unpredictable weather, we always chose one of its rain-protected restaurants.  Every dish I ever ordered was reliably delicious but the most memorable part of our dining experience – the piece de resistance – was the formally clad and incredibly efficient waiters who served the food wearing pristine white gloves adding to the complete majesty of the whole Glyndebourne experience.

My menu choices most always included some combination of salmon with a cucumber salad; two items I still to this day associate with The Season.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Grilled Salmon with Cucumber Dill Salad

Salmon
4 (6 ox.) fillets, skin on
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

 

Cucumber –Dill Salad
1 English cucumber
¼ cup finely diced shallot
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
½ teaspoon sugar
freshly ground black pepper
fresh dill sprigs

 

Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise.  Scoop out the center seeds the cut each section into thin slices.  Place the slices with the shallots in a colander and toss with salt.  Let sit for at least a half hour until the water from the cucumber is drained out.

In the meantime, combine the sour cream, vinegar, dill, sugar and black pepper.

When the cucumbers have been drained of water, pat them dry with paper towels.  Add to the dressing and cover and chill until ready to serve.

Preheat the grill to medium high.  Brush it lightly with oil so the salmon doesn’t stick. Rub the salmon with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Place the salmon fillets skin side down and gill until golden brown – approximately 5 minutes).  Turn the fillets over and continue grilled for done approximately another 3 minutes. Let cool slightly.  Serve with the cold cucumber-dill salad piled over the salmon. Top with fresh dill.

 

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Wimbledon was another Season event I was lucky enough to attend.  Having played tennis in the States for quite a few years as a young mom, I thought I knew all about it from faithfully watching the matches on TV.  I knew it was the oldest tennis tournament in the world and that it was played on grass courts.  I even knew that strawberries and cream was the iconic dish of the tournament.  What I didn’t know until I stepped into the prestigious All England Lawn Tennis Club was the electrifying aura and atmosphere that permeated every square inch of what is often referred to as the Mecca of the tennis world.   Certainly it was an amazing sporting event, but it was so much more than that.  It was yet another example of the unparalleled way the British stage their unique and iconic cultural and social events. I am not an expert in sporting events in general. Nor have I attended that many but this one was so very civilized.  Lovely, unobtrusive restaurants and food stands were scattered over the grounds and a sort of quiet, well-mannered atmosphere permeated pervaded throughout.

It was especially thrilling to watch the tournaments on Center Court or Court Number One, the two courts that held the most important matches of the day.   Seeing the likes of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg – no matter who won the match – was electrifying. In the seventies the Wimbledon dress code for the players was totally white.  Now the requirement is “suitable tennis attire that is almost entirely white”.  But still no shades of cream or off-white are acceptable.  That code goes back to the nineteenth century and was put in place to insulate the genteel British spectators from having to witness any unsightly sweat stains, which are less apparent when an athlete wears white clothing.

Although there was no strict dress code for those attending the event and formal attire was not required as in many of the other Season events, my English friends recommended that dressing “smartly” was important – whatever that meant. “Smartly” may not be a definitive dress code but somehow I felt it was clearly conveyed in the clothing choices of Wimbledon attendees.  Gentlemen for the most part dressed in casual but crisp lightweight cotton or tweed sports coats and women wore a variety of light blouses and skirts or informal, sporty dresses.  Not a ragamuffin in the group.  English manners, of course, were also on display.  There was no tolerance for crowd participation, so shouting “Come on Jimmy!!” from the stand would get you a stern look and perhaps even a verbal scolding from the umpire.  Instead, the crowd conducted themselves with a respectful silence during play and enthusiastic – but polite – clapping after each point.

 

a fancy spread at our Wimbledon party

 

We loved this event – especially my husband Bob who all three years he was managing director of the London agency, used it as the perfect way to entertain clients.  Who didn’t want to attend this iconic event?  One year we rented one of the private Wimbledon tented restaurants and provided our guests with a catered lunch and another year we hosted a pre-tennis affair at our home in Oxshott.  We were located only a half hour away from the tennis courts.  Under a lovely blue and white tent set up near the rose garden on our grounds, clients and friends were invited to lunch on a selection of delicious salads and poached salmon concluding, of course, with strawberries and cream.

 

Far and away though, my favorite event of the Season was Royal Ascot.  Ascot Racecourse is a British horse racing track located in Ascot, Berkshire.  It is one of the leading racecourses in the United Kingdom.  Races take place there on a regular basis, but Royal Ascot is the crown jewel; a four-day event that takes place every June.  Each day the Queen and the rest of the Royals make a spectacular entrance at 2 p.m. in horse-drawn carriages down the racetrack and into the parade ring.

A highlight for everyone is getting a peek at the Queen and members of the royal family once they’ve retired to the Royal Box in the Royal Enclosure. The Royal Enclosure is a two-story-stand with surrounding grounds.  To obtain admittance one has to either be a member or the guest of a member.  It is the essence of Royal Ascot and an actual invitation into the Enclosure is a very sought after and difficult thing to obtain.  Somehow Bob always managed to get one.  Here men are required to wear traditional morning dress: black or grey tailcoat, striped trousers, a waistcoat and a top hat, even if it is boiling hot. The dress code for women is not as strict, but they must wear a dress or pantsuit and of course, a hat.

Royal Ascot was different from many other events of the Season in that the general public was also invited.  A large portion of the grandstand has no particular dress code, but still – in a confirmation that even the English working class is not above the observation of etiquette and tradition – most of the women still wear “fancy” hats, the signature of Royal Ascot.  Gawking at those hats – some outlandishly gorgeous and some just plain wild – was always a thrill.  The horseracing I hardly noticed.  The best part was playing dress-up and watching the rest of English society swagger and preen.  So each year we would don our formal attire and hobnob with fancy folk while watching – or pretending to watch – some of the most thrilling thoroughbred racing in all of England.  At some point during the races we would head down to the railings to be as close to the racing as possible – just like in the scene from My Fair Lady.  We always brought guests – either English friends or visiting guests from the U.S.   And always, I left feeling like a little kid who had just gone to the best dress-up party of her life.

Bob and I ready for Royal Ascot

 

As with all Season events, lots of different foods are available in the many stands and restaurants throughout the grounds, but it is a beverage that I think of when I recall this glorious event.  Champagne is to me the drink that most matches the prestige and gravitas of Ascot. And of course, I felt obligated to indulge.

For centuries The British have provided the world with a template for formal entertaining.  I especially loved reading books about the Edwardians whose lavish soirees were quite something to behold serving sometimes up to twelve courses at their most elegant, marathon dinner parties.   In recent years the TV series Downton Abby told the story of a wealthy 20thCentury aristocratic family – the Crawleys – during England’s Edwardian period.  On occasion the series highlighted a typically grandiose Crawley dinner party where elegantly clad diners (a dowager or two can always be spotted wearing a diamond tiara) are seated around a flawlessly set table resplendent with tall slender candles in the multiple arms of silver candelabras alongside artistically arranged flower centerpieces in all their magnificent glory.  Sparkling crystal, plate after plate of elegant bone china and a confusing amount of silverware are always in abundance.   As were the many servants – usually outnumbering the guests.

I was certainly not interested in serving twelve courses at my dinner parties, nor did I have even one servant to tend to the details of such an event. No tuxedo-clad footmen were around to fold the napkins in the Bishop’s Miter style (like a bishop’s hat) or to use their Butler Stick to measure the distance from the edge of the table to the glasses, salad and bread plates.  In fact, the idea of even sitting through a twelve-course meal is not remotely appealing to me (a good friend once named these-type of marathon dinner parties as “dinner jail), but I loved reading about them.  It was like reading a fairytale book for adults.

 

Dinner party at our Oxshott home

My dinner parties were, of course, far less elegant and certainly not as formal.  But…I had learned to pay attention to details.  My menus at the time consisted primarily of French dishes.  Before I move to England I had spent a lot of time learning to cook Chinese food through classes and Italian food via my mother-in-law, but I eventually began to focus on French cuisine once I met the woman who would become my close friend, Leslee Reis (My Journey Into The Kitchen “Beginnings”).  So, it was recipes from either the Julia Child’s book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” or ones I had collected from Leslee’s French cooking classes that dominated my early dinner parties.  Usually I served four or five – maybe six courses beginning with drinks and appetizers in the living room then once seated, an amuse-bouche or soup, followed by a main course, then a sweet and finally concluding with a cheese course.

I often chose soup for my first course, because, well…soup was easy!  I had already prepared it earlier in the day and all that was left was to reheat it and ladle it into serving bowls.  Vichyssoise was a recipe I used frequently.  I liked its versatility.  In warm weather it could be served chilled and in cold weather warmed.  Leslee’s recipe for Vichyssoise au Cresson is delicious. Not only does it produce a smoothly silky soup but also the addition of watercress (cresson) gives it a slight peppery accent and its lovely green color.  According to Leslee it wasn’t actually a French recipe though.  A chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York originally invented it in the early part of the twentieth century.  However, that chef, Louis Diat, was French so – as she laughingly stated – who gets credit?

 

© rob warner photography 2020

 

Vichyssoise au Cresson
Makes about 7 cups

4 leeks
1 medium onion
2 Tablespoons butter
4 medium boiling potatoes, sliced 1/8 – ¼ thick
3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 ½ cup milk
1 ½ cups half and half cream
handful of watercress, finely chopped

Sauté the white part of the leeks and the onion, all thinly sliced in the butter until the vegetables just turn golden.  Add the potatoes, peeled and sliced, chicken stock, ¾ of the watercress leaves and salt.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 35 minutes until potatoes are very soft. Rub the soup through a fine sieve (or food mill), return to the heat; add the milk and half and half.  Bring to a boil.  Turn off heat and let cool.  Rub again through h a fine sieve (or food mill) and chill.  Sprinkle with the remaining watercress.

Cold version: you may want to add a little more salt

Warm version: reheat the soup slowly so that the cream does not change consistency

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Despite the fact that my menu was predominately French, I always ended the meal in a very proper English way with the bold flavors of a glass of Port and a small wedge of Stilton.  The finest English Stilton is creamy with a subtle, yeasty sweetness and a salty, nutty finish.  When paired with a glass of port, it is heavenly. The sweetness of the port and the pungent saltiness of the Stilton is, in my opinion, one of the great wine/food matches in the world.

 

© rob warner photography 2020

Of course, for such an iconic English ending to a meal I had to have equally proper cheese knives and forks.  My “antiquing friend”, Jean Barringer of Boston first introduced me to the Silver Vaults of London, a large subterranean market that housed shops selling a myriad of silver items.  It was mind boggling to see the number of different pieces of silverware created for almost every food: there were soup spoons for bouillon, for cream soup and for heartier soups; specific forks for various salads, for escargots, for shellfish; knives meant only for particular cuts of beef, only for butter, only for cracking an egg .  But since I already had a beautiful set of (generally intended) sterling silver flatware, I limited myself to acquiring a fine set of British cheese knives and forks.  The cheese course was – and continues to be – my favorite dessert course, I was determined to find the perfect set.  It was here in the Silver Vaults that I purchased them –  slender forks and knives with beautiful pearl handles – old and somewhat wobbly – but to me, they were exactly what I was looking for.

Jean and I on a shopping trip to London

As a small town midwestern girl, the whole English cutlery scene seemed overly complicated – the placement, the number of pieces and the shifting of the cutlery when a course was finished was truly over the top.  Yet somehow it seemed to match the whole English entertaining scene.  Maybe overly complicated, I still loved it – especially when performed by very formally attired waiters in the elegant country inns we so came to love.  It was like performance art!

Bob with knife

This very theatrical “changing of the cutlery” became an act – a very theatrical and exaggerated comedy routine – performed by my then husband Bob at the end of our dinner parties.  Right before the cheese course was served, he would very dramatically move the cheese knife and fork from the top of the plate where they had originally been placed, down to either side of the cheese plate.  It was all done with great flourish and to the delight of not only our American guests but our British guests as well.   The British fortunately, are known for their ability to laugh at themselves and I think they got a bigger kick out of it this routine than the Americans!

 

 

Whether it is a tea party, a dinner party or a large gathering, the attention to detail I learned so well during my English years, comes to mind when I am in the planning stages of any event.  After I returned to the U.S. there was nothing discernably English in my entertaining – or in me for that matter.  No English accent, no affected royal airs.  I didn’t wear outlandish hats or white gloves when I served dinner.  I didn’t have any more reserve or more of a stiff upper lip than before I moved to England. But I was influenced by the years I lived in England in a very profound way.

More than anything else that influence manifested itself in the process of preparing and executing all elements of a gathering  – big or small, casual or formal.  Through witnessing some of the most glittering, beautifully executed festive activities, I learned that the success of a dinner party, a tea party or really any kind of party or gathering is way more than the food being served.  Whether it’s the guest list, the décor, the drinks or the food it is important to tie all elements together into one cohesive unit. If it’s casual, than be casual – if it’s formal then formal is the order of the day – or night.

I also came away from my years in England with a great respect for ritual and tradition.  I had already established many family traditions before I moved there, but after England I added elements to each that made them richer – deeper.  Rituals mark the most important moments in our lives, from personal milestones like birthdays and weddings to seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving and religious holidays; to me they become more meaningful with ritual – things that bring special meaning to the participants – especially if they’re repeated year after year.

So whenever I fill my three-tiered silver tray with delicious tea sandwiches, or set my dining room table with lovely bone china plates and sparkling crystal goblets, or plan my Christmas dinner, or organize an extravagant fundraising event or a special program for one of the organizations I belong to, I am transported back to my three years living in England where I learned the true art of entertaining from the British who are considered by many – certainly by me – to be the masters.

 

 

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My Journey into the Kitchen: “The Myth of English Cuisine”

It wasn’t until I finally learned how to pronounce Oxshott – the small, wooded English village where my family and I resided for over three years beginning in the summer of 1976 – that I was able to actually get home in a cab from my frequent day trips to London.  When I first arrived in England I would be met with blank stares from cabbies when I told them where I wanted to go. “Aak-shaat” I would repeat.  “Where?” they would again ask, always accompanied by a blank stare. “Never heard of it,” the exchange would continue.  “It’s located in Surrey about 45 minutes southeast of here” I would explain.  More blank stares.  Though I quickly realized it was my American pronunciation that was standing in the way of my ride home, it took months for me to figure out how to actually make the sounds that got me where I needed to go.

“You must teach your mouth a new way to move and use different muscles in your throat” an English neighbor advised.  It felt strange at first – and a little unnatural – but I did eventually learn the proper British way to pronounce the name of my village –uk-shOT.  No more blank stares!  And although I never did acquire a British accent during my time in England, I did at least learn to tone down the nasal intonations of my midwestern twang enough to get around the country with a little more ease and a lot less self-consciousness.

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I arrived in England in the summer of 1976.  My then-husband Bob had come several months before I arrived with our two young children in tow.  He was worried that this move to a new country would be difficult for me and that I would greatly miss America, my American friends and the American way of life; so before I arrived he signed me up for a membership in the American Women’s Club thinking this would ease my transition.  I went to my first meeting and was met with nothing but complaints about all things British: “why do these saltshakers only have one hole in them?” That was all I needed.  I left that meeting, closed the door behind me and never returned.  Though I was still a little disoriented in this new country, I felt a warmth and a curiosity towards my new home and – at least for the time being – was ready and excited to embrace the English way of life, one-holed saltshakers and all.

In fact, I presumed I would be using those saltshakers quite a bit, given the bad reputation English food had at the time. Almost universally I had been told the food there was flavorless, overcooked, uninteresting and even unhealthy; and that good restaurants were impossible to find.  All of this was especially disconcerting given the fact we would be living in London for two months in a Mews House (a row-house apartment that had been converted from a former stables), that came without a working kitchen while we waited for renovations to be completed on our Oxshott country house. That meant we would dine out for at least two meals a day.

 

with Candace and Robby in London

During our short stay in the city, I was determined to get to know everything I could about London. Day after day I dragged my 10-year old son Robby and my 6-year old daughter Candace to as many districts of greater London as I could.  Before either (or both) of them burst into tears, I also made certain that each day of exploration included a tasty lunch and a stop somewhere that would please them – a visit to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum; watching the elaborate ritual of the Changing ofThe Guards at Buckingham Palace; buying a toy or a teddy bear at Hamleys, the multistoried toyshop whose elaborate displays fascinated them so much so that they temporarily forgot that their obsessed mother was trying her best to scour every nook and cranny of the city they would be calling home for the next few years.

 After one frantic morning exploring the many sights at the busy intersection of Piccadilly Circus, we took a break for lunch at nearby Fortnum and Mason, a high-end grocery store founded in 1707. With its wood paneling and plush red wall-to-wall carpeting, I always felt like I was entering a proper English drawing room.  Everything about the store was first class, including the male clerks who wore formal double-breasted frock coats and were oh-so-solicitous of your every need.

The three of us were mesmerized as we meandered through aisle after aisle of tin canisters of cookies (some replicating English buildings and monuments), beautiful jams, exotic marmalades and teas in more varieties that I had ever imagined.  We eventually found ourselves in front of a small luncheonette-style restaurant at the back of the store.   Perched on swiveling stools in front of a pristine counter, the two kids scrutinized the menu hoping to find something familiar.  They were not interested in experimentation, so anything that reminded them of home had the most appeal.  A cheese toastie with chips (the man behind the counter assured us that we would be getting what Americans called a grilled cheese sandwich and French Fries) was the obvious choice.  I however – with the provincialist complaints of those ex-pat women still ringing in my ears – decided to branch out and order what I considered a less ordinary choice.  I chose Welsh Rarebit– a dish made with a savory sauce of melted and spiced cheese – rendered exotic with the addition of a little ale – poured over toasted bread.  Basically a grilled cheese for adults!

Curious about the name, I learned that this dish was originally called Welsh Rabbit.   No one I found was certain as to why it was originally called rabbit instead of rarebit since no bunnies are harmed in the preparation, but whatever its source, I loved it.   This “posh cheese on toast” as an English friend called it, became the only thing I ever ordered for lunch at Fortnum and Mason. I had in fact discovered my first “new” British dish.

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Welsh Rarebit

4 slices of toasted whole grain
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ cup beer
¾ cup heavy cream
6 ounces (1 ½ cups) Sharp English Cheddar, grated
2 drops hot sauce
1 whole egg yolk

Fresh chives, chopped

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour.  Cook whisking constantly for 2 minutes. (Do not brown the flour)  Whisk in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, salt and pepper until smooth.  Add beer and mix well.  Pour in cream and whisk until blended.  Slowly add cheese stirring constantly until cheese has melted and sauce is smooth. Add hot sauce.  Mix well.  Take off the heat and whisk in the egg yolk.  Serve immediately over toast

 

My husband and I tried to balance our restaurant choices between those that served “familiar food” with those that introduced the family to new tastes and new dining experiences.   Fish & Chips was not new to my husband and I, we just knew it by a different name.  Growing up in Wisconsin, a Friday night Fish Fry was one of the ultimate Wisconsin experiences, so battered fried-fish fell into the category of “familiar food.”  Familiar, but with one exception.  In Wisconsin the most popular accompaniment was tartar sauce.  In England the preferred seasoning was malt vinegar.  I eventually came to prefer the lemony, nutty, caramel flavor of the malt vinegar and agreed with the British that it was an even better and much lighter match to golden, crispy fried fish.  My first English condiment conversion!

On nights when nostalgia for America was at its height, we headed to the Hard Rock Café, a Mayfair London restaurant opened a few years before we arrived by two young Americans (Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton) who decided to tap into the growing popularity abroad for all things American.  Not realizing we were dining at what would become an international chain of restaurants, we were all content to sit amongst the U.S. rock and roll memorabilia that covered the café’s walls and feel reconnected with our home country for a few hours while highly amplified rock and roll played in the background. On these nights America seemed no further away than the cheeseburger in front of us.

Our intense London restaurant exploration grew to include a whole variety of different cuisines as well as different types of restaurants ranging from the extremely casual all the way to what my children referred to as “fancy-fancy.”  The Connaught Grill was one of those fancy-fancy restaurants – an establishment that introduced them to a level of sophisticated dining they had never before experienced (and certainly didn’t appreciate at the time!).   Since my husband had stayed at the Connaught Hotel and had eaten in the restaurant multiple times before our arrival, the wait staff treated him like an old friend.  They were just as welcoming to my children, adjusting menu selections to plainer, more kid-friendly fare and always greeting them as valued clientele who might be paying their own check one day.

It was also here that Candace began investigating restaurant bathrooms.  Having to sit quietly for long stretches of time as her parents discussed their day and leisurely dined and wined for what I’m sure felt like an eternity, she would inevitably excuse herself to go to the lady’s room.  Many times.  After twenty minutes or so I would begin to worry so I would send her brother to make sure everything was okay.  Standing outside the Ladies Room he would whisper through the door hoping to draw her out.  Without fail, she was inside strolling from one side of the room to other; carefully assessing the décor of each facility.  Candace’s favorite was the Ladies Room at the extremely elegant Le Gavroche, a fine French restaurant in Mayfair whose gorgeous bathrooms (loos as the Brits called them) are to this day frequently mentioned in their reviews.  Even at age six Candace had good taste!  After a whole summer of close inspection, we teased her that she could do a comprehensive “restroom review” for the London Times.

As the summer wore on, I was beginning to question the negative comments I had heard about the restaurants in London.  We had truly enjoyed so many different dining experiences – ones that featured cuisine from India, the Middle East and France and what was most frequently referred to as International cuisine. To the contrary of what I had heard, I was having a rather positive experience.  However, for the most part we were eating at high-end restaurants or enjoying familiar American food at casual dining spots.  It was time, I thought, to find some everyday English restaurants and try some of those “tasteless” dishes we had been warned about.

The Grenadier

The Grenadier, a London pub originally built in 1720 as the officer’s mess for the senior infantry of the British army, was one of our first “English experiments.”  Tucked into a quaint cobblestone mews in a very wealthy and secluded area of London – Belgravia – you were greeted with a colorful blue, red and white outside entrance complete with a bright red sentry box just to the side of the front door.  The menu was a combination of casual English pub food like sausages and fish & chips as well as more upscale iconic dishes like Beef Wellington.

Being a history major, I was drawn to restaurants with a past ones that had a story to tell.  Walking through its dimly lit rooms past an antique pewter bar surrounded by Grenadier memorabilia (the Grenadiers were a British Army regiment dating back to before the Napoleanic wars) was always a transporting experience. At any moment I expected to turn a corner and stumble into a candlelit room where the Duke of Wellington would be sitting next to the fireplace hunched over a plate of steak and ale pie, drinking a pint of cask-drawn ale.  In actual fact, the Duke who at one time lived nearby, often frequented the restaurant and is still very much in evidence with both his famous signature dish (Beef Wellington) and a backroom named…the Wellington.

The Grenadier is also renowned as one of London’s haunted pubs.  The collection of signed bills attached to the ceiling is a reminder of the story behind the haunting.  A young Grenadier officer named Cedric was said to be caught cheating at cards and subsequently beaten to death by his brother officers.  It has become a tradition to affix bank notes to the pub’s ceiling in order to pay off Cedric’s debt and allow him to rest in peace. However, every September near the date of his murder, his spirit comes back and haunts the pub.  According to the staff his debt must still not be paid off since he continues to play pranks on both the customers and the staff – things like broken glasses on the floor, rattling windows and a whole array of ghost sightings.  My family even got into the spirit (pun intended) when on one particular evening my mother-in-law cut into her Roast Duckling and – much to her embarrassment – flipped the entire bird right into her lap.  After her initial horror at breaching proper British etiquette we – and the staff – had a good laugh about the whole episode and unanimously blamed the incident on Cedric.

We so enjoyed the English food at the Grenadier that we felt emboldened to continue our “English experiment” and tackle one of the most upscale English restaurants in the city.   Rules, opened in 1798 as an oyster bar in the Covent Garden district, now serves – in addition to oysters – classic, iconicly British dishes.  It is truly an institution, the oldest restaurant in London whose history has been celebrated in novels like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and movies and TV shows – most recently in the hit TV series Downton Abby.

Its opulent décor of dark wood, red leather booths, red and gold carpeting and rich antique gold walls covered with drawings, paintings and cartoons embraces you into its illustrious historical past the minute you enter.  Besides thoroughly enjoying the very English classic dishes like Steak and Kidney Pie or Roast Beef with Yorkshire pudding cooked to perfection, I am always immediately enchanted by the spirit of the past.  Drawings and photos of famous patrons known to have dined here – including novelists, artists, actors, political figures and royalty – are hung throughout the restaurant.  It was always a thrill to think I might be sitting in the very seat that Lawrence Olivier or Charles Dickens occupied.

 

Celebrating my birthday at Rules

As I discovered recently when I dined there with my two sisters, my niece and brother-in-law during a trip we all made to London, Rules is still serving excellent food.  Amazing when you think that it has been a restaurant for over 200 years, spanning the reigns of nine monarchs.  As we entered that night, two very distinguished British gentlemen who were also about to dine there, congratulated us on our restaurant choice. After a brief chat we learned they had been coming here since they were young men and thought of it less as the fine London restaurant that it is, and more as their local watering hole.  Nice to know that Rules is not just considered “the spot” for the rich and famous and tourists wanting to steep themselves in the past (you do feel like you are dining between the pages of a Jane Austin novel) but is still revered by its own British citizens.  I, of course, ordered what I always order there, the Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding.  And it was just as wonderful now as it was then.

As the summer wore on and we ate at many restaurants that featured classic English food, it was becoming clear to me that I was becoming a real fan.  “Tasteless” was not a word I would use to describe any of the dishes I had enjoyed. Maybe my midwestern roots made me open to a culture whose food is both traditional and hearty.  Brought up on dishes like pot roast, stews, battered fried fish, meatloaf and pork chops, I felt right at home ordering Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding, Steak and Kidney Pie and Shepherd’s Pie.

No matter where we went to dinner, every night before we went back to our mews house, my husband would take us on a drive past Buckingham Palace to say“Good Night to the Queen.”   Always it elicited squeals of laughter and an excited waving of hands as we circled past the handsome wrought iron gates of the palace.   After a whole summer of “Good Night to the Queen,” it became customary that Robby and Candace would demand this tradition even after we moved to the country, but would come back into London for dinner.  In a nation where rituals were deeply engrained in the culture, we decided it was entirely appropriate that this became our very own family ritual.

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Living in England was an expansive period for me – a time when I spent hours reading about England’s vast and complex history and visiting its numerous museums and monuments.  I loved meticulously exploring the many beautiful towns and charming villages that wove their way through the dramatic valleys, patchwork hills, and ancient forests contained within the borders of this small but powerful island.

As a history major at the University of Wisconsin I was always drawn to any mention of English history.  Its glorious and fascinating past was something to behold – so much so that I often had to pinch myself to believe that I was actually living in the country that produced the likes of Winston Churchill, Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. It was also home to three of my favorite authors: William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; most of whose entire works I had read, some multiple times.  And oddly, I felt perfectly attuned to the character of its citizens.  I admired their stiff upper lip, I related to their emotional reserve, and I loved their sense of humor, which often revolved around the absurdity of everyday life.  I suppose it always brought to mind my father, since his sense of humor had a slapstick-kind-of-British element to it. Life’s many odd moments were always funnier to him than any clever joke with a witty punch line.

Beyond learning about the historic and cultural origins of my new country, my culinary journey quickly took on a different character from my years as a new mom in the suburbs of Chicago. Instead of classes and cooking buddies I became an observer, a food adventurer, a nomadic sponge soaking up new tastes and investigating unfamiliar ingredients and styles.  In doing so I eventually discovered that the idea that British cuisine was inferior to that of its European cousins was in my experience thus far a fallacy.  In just the few months I had been in London I had been continually surprised by unfamiliar tastes and textures that often felt like exotic versions of the comfort food I was raised on as a girl growing up in Wisconsin years earlier.  It was an incredibly exciting time for me, and these discoveries spurred me on to continue my culinary explorations when we moved out of the city of London to our new home in the country.

We settled into to our house just in time for the children to begin classes at the American Community School in Cobham.  Since our kitchen was still in the throes of renovation, we had no choice but to continue dining out.  Unfortunately, our choices were more limited in the country than the ones we had in London, though we did discover many excellent little restaurants.  One we especially liked, a lovely steakhouse in the nearby suburb of Weybridge, was the place my kids made their own discovery – a new favorite dessert – profiteroles.  Though French in origin, these little crispy balls (French choux pastry) filled with ice cream and garnished with a yummy rich chocolate sauce can be found on dessert menus all over the country.  In some way, they fell into the category of “familiar food” because back in the Midwest we just called them Cream Puffs.

However, these were different to Robby and Candace – fancier and “way better” since here they had ice cream inside rather than Cool Whip.   Both kids to this day consider profiteroles to be an English dessert since, of course, England is where they discovered it.

Holiday profiteroles at Convito Café and Market with peppermint ice cream
© rob warner photography 2019

Profiteroles

½ cup water
½ stick butter
pinch salt
½ cup flour
2 eggs

ice cream
chocolate sauce

Heat oven to 425 degrees

In a saucepan combine the water, butter and salt and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and add the flour all at once and stir with a wood spoon. Cook until the mixture has formed a ball, has a sheen to it and has pulled away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a mixing bowl and let it cool about 4 minutes.  When cool enough not to cook the eggs, using an electric mixer, beat in the eggs one at a time. Add second egg after first is totally incorporated.  Do the same with the second egg.

Transfer mixture to a pastry bag that is equipped with a large straight tip and pipe 1-inch balls onto a parchment lined sheet tray.  When done, smooth the top of each ball with wet fingers.  Leave at least one inch between balls.  Bake in pre-heated oven for 20 – 25 minutes.  The balls should be light and airy and dry in the center when baked.  Cook on a rack.

When ready to serve, cut a “lid” off the top of each profiterole, fill with ice cream, place “lid askew on top and drizzle with warmed chocolate sauce.

 

Once we were finally moved in and our renovations were complete, I began to immerse myself into English country living.  During the week when my kids were at school, I would either read from one of the many books I had purchased about England or I would walk to the Oxshott station and take the train into London for the day.   I did this as often as three days a week – usually catching a train as soon as I got them off to school and arriving home in time (barely!) to meet them when they got home from school – but sometime staying the whole day then going to dinner with my husband.

I loved walking the chaotic and winding London streets – many of them thus so due to the medieval cow paths that marked their origin.  My sense of direction has always left a lot to be desired, so I would usually get hopelessly lost, but it never really mattered.  I would always discover some new monument or interesting little neighborhood that encouraged further exploration.   Eventually my solution to getting lost was to memorize those zigzagging walkways by using museums or stores as my guideposts.  Amazingly enough I can still navigate London by using the “old guidepost method” stored in my head.

My days in London usually included at least one museum or art gallery visit and – depending on the weather – a short ramble through one of London’s beautiful parks where I would just sit quietly and admire the splendor around me.  It was during these London excursions that I first began to realize how much I truly enjoyed my own company.  Since I was always one to schedule every minute of her day, it was a wonderful change not to have a list to check off.  These meandering adventures freed me from all that.  It became a reflective time for me – one that I savored then and still do.  It is amazing how many insights and ideas can come when one allows themselves a little calm and quiet.

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To understand a country – its cuisine, its history, its culture – I believe it is critical to study all aspects.  In-between visiting London’s many monuments like Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London and Westminster Abby, I continued my exploration of London’s amazing shopping opportunities.  London has a totally unique collection of diverse and interesting stores from famous department stores like Harrods in Knightsbridge, Selfridges on Oxford Street and Liberty’s in Soho; to uniquely British luxury boutiques along Bond Street like Aspreys and Smythsons; to all the countless little specialty shops housed in the Burlington Arcade, which extends from Piccadilly through to Burlington Gardens.  There wasn’t a shop whose aisles I wasn’t willing to wander through for hours.

Shopping was mostly a solitary affair for me except when I escorted my American visitors to buy china, crystal and other British collector’s items.  Visitor favorites were the precious handcrafted Halcyon Days enamel boxes, and foodstuffs and tinned teas from the famous Food Halls at Harrods or the iconic Fortnum and Mason.  And almost every one of my visitors demanded they not leave England without their very own Coalport-Bone-China-Three-Piece-Strawberry-Basket (complete with sugar bowl and creamer!). It seemed to be the perfect souvenir to bring home from their English adventure.  My guess is that- like mine – their strawberry basket still sits in a cupboard collecting dust except for when the rare occasion calls for a lovely Sunday brunch buffet.   Once filled with beautiful red strawberries, it becomes the focal point of the buffet – invariably eliciting admiring comments from the guests and requiring a story or two about the owner’s English sojourn and thus justifying it’s not-so insignificant expense and the difficulty of getting it back to the U.S.

Nancy with Jean Barringer

“Antiquing,” was different for me.  I knew very little about antiques other than the fact that I loved the rich beautiful patina of old furniture and the character of many smaller collectible objects, so solo journeys were few and far between.  Fortunately I quickly acquired an “antiquing buddy” who shared my passion but knew much more than I did about where to find them and how to access their value.

I met Jean Barringer through the American school that our kids attended.  An American expat from Boston who lived in nearby Cobham, she was smart, energetic, had a great sense of humor and flawless taste – I liked her immediately!  We began our shopping days in London at the outdoor markets.  Bermondsey, located on the outskirts of London, was our favorite. It opened every Friday and had the reputation for selling mostly genuine antiques.  Vendors displayed their wares on row after row of tables where you could find everything from jewelry and antiques to just plain bric-a-brac.

Vivian Humphries, Nancy and Jean Barringer

Jean was much more knowledgeable than I was, so I stuck close to her side hoping to find hidden treasures.  She was the first to warn me to be careful though.  “If something looks too good to be true,” Jean would advise, “it usually is.”  Over the course of our shopping days together Jean also tried to teach me the art of negotiation, or more simply put, how to haggle.  I was never really very good at it though, so I just simply focused on enjoying the search.  But despite Jean’s counsel, I wasn’t always so lucky in my purchases.  I still have a pair of ceramic Staffordshire dogs that I later learned were not at all worth remotely what I paid for them.  Regardless, they’re pretty darn cute so when I look at them, I dwell not on their diminished value, but rather the great time I had while finding them with Jean.

Our antiquing foray continued into the Surrey countryside.  Jean was a genius at finding little out of the way shops.  Even if we came home empty-handed (which was rare), we always had a grand time. When lunchtime rolled around, we paused our search for antiques and headed to the nearest pub.  Initially it was just because no matter where we were – be it the outskirts of London or far out in the countryside – there was always one that seemed to be across the street or two doors down from wherever we happened to be standing.  But after many hearty lunches in these most local of establishments, we started to think of ourselves as aficionados of these regional watering holes and made it a point to always choose the coziest and most intimate pub in the area.  And though the venues would change, what we ate became quite predictable.  The “Ploughman’s” was our favorite pub lunch so named because it was the farm laborer’s lunch of choice.  Though it varied slightly from pub to pub, it always included a savory hunk of cheese (usually a very sharp English Cheddar), thick wedges of crusty bread, plenty of butter and some kind of chutney – my favorite being the ubiquitous Branston Pickle.

 

Branston Pickle is a jarred chutney first made in the village of Branston by Crosse & Blackwell.  It is a delicious sweet and spicy chutney made from a variety of diced vegetables and a perfect match to a good tangy & nutty English Cheddar. I tried making it from scratch just once.  After working with what must have been 25 different ingredients, I decided that making chutney is not worth the effort since there are so many excellent (and probably better) jarred varieties.

The more pubs we went to, the more I realized I had discovered yet another amazing nook in the English culinary universe.  This wasn’t American “bar food” I was eating, but thoughtfully (and economically) created dishes that featured only the things a Pub could do well, source fresh and serve quickly.  As a restaurateur, I now know that understanding your strengths, your limitations and what your clientele’s desires are is the first step to being successful.  Sitting across from my new friend Jean with a pint of beer (OK, a glass of wine, but I could just never drink beer no matter how much is made the experience authentic) I found myself becoming more and more incredulous at the bad reputation English food had on the other side of the Atlantic.

 

 

Now that I fancied myself a pub regular, the history major in me succumbed to the need to research its origin.  Pubs were once described by the 18thcentury Member of Parliament and famous British diarist Samuel Pepys as “the heart of England.” Pub (short for Public House) culture continued to fascinate me and my obsession with it extended far beyond my afternoons with Jean Barringer.   No one living in England (even us expats) did not have a favorite neighborhood pub.  Not long after arriving, our family’s became the Cricketers.  Located near our home in neighboring Cobham, Cricketers had a cozy bar with a lovely outdoor garden open in the summer months. We came with our kids for Sunday lunch or with guests from America whose English experience was, we felt, incomplete without a pub visit.  On weekends I usually had something more substantial than bread, cheese and chutney and my favorite dish was Shepherd’s Pie.  A traditional meat pie made with ground lamb and topped with fluffy mashed potatoes, it was never a disappointment.  The kids usually ordered “bangers,” traditional pork sausages served with “chips” and of course, plenty of ketchup.  “Sharing” their fries with Mom was always a requirement.

Bob, Candace and Colleen Remsberg at Cricketers Pub

My parents having a pint at a pub in Shere, Cotswolds

Now that I had become quite comfortable in the neighborhood pubs of the English countryside, a whole other universe of upscale London pubs opened up to me.  No matter where or how expensive it was, my favorites were always those that enveloped you in warm wood and shiny brass as you entered into their cozy, informal world, the most handsome of which were the ones with etched or frosted glass windows – reminders of the golden age of the Victorian pub.   There was one such pub near my husband’s office just up from Trafalgar Square – called the Marquis.  The building dates back to Charles II’s reign and is said to have been the haunt of Charles Dickens whose residence was close by in Covent Garden where he spent the final years of his life.   To honor him there is even a “Dickens’ Corner.”  It is pretty amazing how many pubs claim that Dickens was a patron.   I often wondered with all that pub time how he could have been such a prolific writer? I guess many of the characters one finds in pubs would offer plenty of material for whatever novel he was about to write.

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Now that I had confirmed for myself that British food was not the vast culinary wasteland some people had made out to be, I decided to tackle the British cuisine of the English Country Inns.  It didn’t take long to discover that the food served in these inns was pretty similar to the food in more formal London restaurants like Rules (wild game, steak and kidney pie, etc), but served in a less formal – though always very proper– setting.  The big difference was that the Inns rented rooms and therefore had a lived-in feel that gave these places a certain feeling of homey intimacy.  My favorites were always steeped in history, usually served the country’s finest craft ales and always served the most iconic of British dishes.  Bucolic views, exposed beams and four-poster beds were generally all a part of the mix as well.  The Lygon Arms in the heart of the Cotswolds, the Mermaid in Rye and the Withies in Compton were just three of the historic inns that never failed to provide a totally English experience.

 

The Withies – built in the 16thcentury and located in the tiny hamlet of Compton – was close to my home, and our “go-to” Inn experience.  We never stayed there overnight, but dined there frequently with our American visitors.  I loved the formal-yet-friendly atmosphere it exuded – presided over by the “oh-so-very-British” tuxedoed waiters.  I also loved the coziness of the low-beamed ceiling, the gleaming wood paneling, the exposed brick walls and the collective glow from the wall sconces scattered throughout the room.  All those details seemed to capture a nostalgia in me for days gone by – days when Inns welcomed weary journeyers as they traveled from city to city and where mystery and intrigue were as much a part of the menu as the ubiquitous Yorkshire pudding.

And in these Inns even more so than in pubs, I recognize the similarities of classic English cuisine to good ole’ midwestern comfort food. Lots of roasting and stewing and battering in both.  At the Withies I usually ordered something with beef or their delicious Calf’s Liver and Bacon, another dish that can be found on menus on both sides of the ocean. The Withies liver preparation included crispy bacon, mashed potatoes, sautéed onions and a savory grain mustard sauce, which brought out all the complex flavors of the dish.

I find that I am one of the small minority of people that adore liver when it is properly prepared. But I almost exclusively order it out because in its raw state I am always put off by its weird appearance and slippery feel.  So these days I let my chefs do the cooking and have accommodated this zealous group of liver aficionados by keeping it on the menu of every restaurant I have ever owned.  It has never been our biggest selling menu item, but it draws a certain devoted crowd who would be terribly disappointed if it were ever removed from the menu.

Below is my favorite version with bacon and yes, mashed potatoes.  It is based on the one I enjoyed at the Withies Inn.

© rob warner photography 2019

Sautéed Calf’s Liver with Bacon

4 slices (approximately 1 pound) quality calf’s liver sliced ½ inch thick
salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 slices bacon
1 whole onion cut in rings about ¼ inch slices
2 cups mashed potatoes
1-tablespoon grain mustard
¼ cup veal stock
¼ cup Chianti (or other similar red wine)

Sautee the bacon until crisp, drain on paper towel and set aside.  Make your own recipe for mashed potatoes – keep mashed potatoes warm.  Salt & pepper the onion rings and sauté for about 2 – 5 minutes in olive oil – set aside and keep warm
In a small pan, heat the Chianti over medium heat reducing it slightly.  Add the veal stock & mix well. Add the grain mustard.  Set aside and keep warm

The moment before sautéing the liver, season slices on both sides with salt and pepper and dredge in the flour shaking off excess flour. Place the olive oil in a fry pan over high heat.  Sauté the liver slices approximately 1 minute per side.

Plating:
To serve, spoon approximately 2 tablespoons mustard sauce in middle of plate.
Arrange ½ cup warm mashed potatoes in a mound on top of sauce.
Place liver slice on top of mashed potatoes, then two slices of the warm bacon.  Top with the onion rings.
Drizzle mound with balsamic glaze including rim of plate

P.S. See why I don’t make this at home?

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In my first weeks in England I quickly came to understand that though Americans and the British spoke the same language, disparities existed.  Learning how to pronounce the name of my village was only the beginning.  Discovering my new country by reading its history, exploring its towns and villages, and engaging in its traditions and activities allowed me to begin to recognize the interconnectedness among people and countries. There were certainly differences, but I began to realize that these disparities were exactly what made my new world so interesting.

Living in a foreign country can be an intimidating experience.  As an expat, maneuvering around the many different customs and nuances of a new country is full of challenges.  My new friend Jean and I talked frequently about the demands and importance of becoming what we called a ‘global citizen’ and how critical it was to remain open to new situations and ideas.

Eventually I came to cherish and embraced those demands. The adjustments in mindset, tastes and customs could be difficult and frustrating at times but learning about food and culture could never be a burden to me.  It was thoroughly enjoyable exploring and tasting everything from fancy-fancy international cuisine to English pub food. From dining in the most upscale restaurants to sitting on a swivel stool in front of a lunch counter.   I came to England as a midwestern gal who marveled at the difference between her small Wisconsin home town and the big city of Chicago, but not much beyond that; to a woman who was afforded the experience of immersing herself in exotic tastes and cultures not only of her adopted foreign country, but of the world at large.

It was during these three years in England that I began to grasp the learning process that best suited me.  I first needed to get a total picture.  Research and study were essential.  Then came the experience.  And then – perhaps most important for me – reflection.  My “steeping” time I have come to call it, was when I sorted through everything I had experienced and came to my own conclusions.  This was the template, the pattern I would follow in most everything I did from this point forward – in my personal life and certainly in my business ventures.  It was a confidence building process and one that has suited me well over the years.

That first year in England was extraordinary but I was long from completing my culinary journey there.  Yes, I had debunked the myth of bland British food, but England had much more to teach me!

 

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My Journey Into The Kitchen “Beginnings”

 

“Ring bologna and German potato salad”

This was the answer to a question posed by my good friend, Ann Yonkers, a fellow food compatriot and former director of Washington D.C.’s FRESHFARM markets.  As a faithful reader of my blog – but someone I met after my early days in the business – she eventually became curious about my evolution in the kitchen. She knew I owned a restaurant and market, but was aware that my background did not include any formal chef training.    “So…how did you get your start?”

 

It was almost four years ago that Ann asked this question.  I have been mulling the answer around in my mind ever since and decided I would try to retrace my steps into the kitchen and give her an answer.  And so I begin.  After a deep breath, a healthy sip of wine and a long pause I begin… it all started with ring bologna and German potato salad.

Just thirteen, I was left at home with my grandpa to take care of the house and work my summer job.  My older sister Joan was away at a Badger Girls State conference and my mom and dad and younger sister Karen were visiting relatives in Indiana, so I was left in charge with Grandpa Charlie.  I felt so grown up!

That summer, my job was detassleing corn.  For many of us in small Midwestern towns across America, the gritty and grueling position of corn detasseling was frequently a teenager’s first employment – in some sense, a rite of passage.  It was a short season, paid well compared to other forms of employment and allowed workers to also hold nighttime jobs making it a sought-after position.  Piling into the back of a truck with a ragtag bunch of other teens at five in the morning, making my way to the damp, wet cornfields in rural Janesville, Wisconsin, I daydreamed about what I would prepare for my grandpa’s evening meal.  My mother’s parting advice echoed through my sleep-derived brain: “just make him a sandwich!”

But I wanted to do more than that and there was plenty of time to think about food and what I would prepare that night as I shuffled through the endless rows of corn, removing the pollen-producing tassels from each stalk that was – I was informed – a critical form of pollination control. I’m not sure I understood the reasons for the task at hand – nor do I to this day – but I was happy to have this particular money-making job that lasted for five years.  I continued my ascent as a pollination control expert for all my pre-college years, eventually working my way up to “crew leader” and always dreaming of the many ways in which I would spend my first salary.

After considerable thought, I eventually I decided our first meal would be ring bologna.  I loved its savory, spicy taste and it went well with my favorite condiment – ketchup.  All I had to do to cook it was boil water.  An easy choice!

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Ring Balogna
(serves 1-4)

Boil pot of water
Submerge ring bologna
Boil for 12 – 13 minutes
Drain
Serve

 

Deciding on the accompanying dish was more difficult.  I had begun paging through my mother’s cookbooks several days before my family left,  finally settling on a recipe for German potato salad from the Betty Crocker cookbook.  That would, I thought, certainly please my German grandpa.  And besides; potatoes, bacon, onions and pickles were high on my list of most-favored ingredients – as they are to this day.

The actual process of leafing through those cookbooks, I discovered, was a new and exciting activity.  Thinking about food, imagining the dishes that went well with one another and even how they would eventually look on a plate was an intoxicating exercise.   I later learned from other ardent food lovers and chefs that this particular activity often marked the beginning of their own personal food journeys as well.

Looking back I realize that my father’s love of food had a profound effect on me.  Oh, how he loved to eat!  So of course, I adored pleasing him.  Whenever I made what he referred to as “The Nancy Sandwich” by piling cold cuts, cheeses, pickles and lettuce on an Italian sub roll sometimes so high it was difficult to get your mouth around, he not only heaped praise on me but ate every single bite!

 

 

My father was not a cook in the traditional sense. Rather he was – in the summer – our grill man, and in the autumn – the canning guy.  He was also an amazing gardener who cultivated his own “Farmer’s Market” right in our backyard.  He grew everything from gooseberries, strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries, and grapes to kohlrabi, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. Fresh summer produce was a big part of my growing-up years.  At harvest time he and my mother made grape jelly, raspberry and strawberry jam, jar after jar of canned tomatoes, my father’s delicious zucchini pickles (blog – Tuscany III “A Region for all Seasons”) and in his later years, during rhubarb season, he experimented with making rhubarb wine.  Strong and acidic are the words that come to mind when I think about my first and only taste – the kind of wine that brings your face to the pucker position.  It wasn’t long before he gave up this experiment.

A more successful rhubarb story, however, is the delicious rhubarb pie my mother baked each year during this season.  I love the creamy custard-like consistency of this rhubarb recipe, of which the key is the addition of the whisked eggs.   It’s a mellow and simply delicious version!

 

Thelma’s Old Fashioned Rhubarb Pie

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Pie Pastry
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1-teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening
5 – 7 tablespoons cold water

Sift flour and salt together.  Cut in the shortening with pastry blender until pieces are the size of peas.  Sprinkle with cold water – 1 tablespoon at a time to moisten all of the mixture making sure it is not too dry and not too moist.  It should begin to pull together as a ball.  Form into 2 balls.  Chill (it is easier to work with the dough if it is chilled)

On a lightly floured surface, flatten the first ball and roll until 1/8 inch thick.  Carefully transfer that rolled out sheet to a 9-inch pie plate.  Press the dough evenly on the sides and bottom of the pie plate. Roll second ball for top.  When flat about 1/8 inch thick, cut into strips for a lattice top.  Strips should be ½ to ¾ inch wide.  Use a blunt knife or pizza or pastry cutter to cut strips.  Set aside.

Filling
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup flour
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
3 eggs
1-pound rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces (4 cups)

Combine the sugar, flour and nutmeg.  Whisk the eggs together and add to the sugar/flour mixture. Add the rhubarb pieces.  Mix well.

Combining the Filling and the crust
Filling
2 tablespoons butter
Sugar
Cinnamon

Fill the pie shell with the pie filling.  Dot with the butter. Lay out 4 to 7 parallel strips on top of filling with about ½ to ¾ inch space between them.  Fold back every other strip. Place one long strip perpendicular to parallel strips.  Unfold the folded strips over the perpendicular strip.  Now take the parallel strips that are running underneath the perpendicular strip and fold them back over the perpendicular.  Lay a second perpendicular strip next to the first one with space between the strips and unfold parallel strips over the second strip. Continue this until the weave is complete.  Trim the edges of the strips flush with the underlying pie, which should be about an inch over the sides.  Fold back the rim of the shell over the edge of the lattice strips and crimp to secure.

Sprinkle top with a cinnamon and sugar mixture.  Bake for 50 to 60 minutes.  Cover edges with foil for first 30 minutes to prevent over browning.

 

 

 

During my growing up years, my family, typical of most forties and fifties families, sat down to the table at dinnertime for a simple home cooked meal of meat, vegetables (often overcooked – al dente were words yet to be uttered in this era) and a homemade dessert.  Although my mother made her own homemade “noodles” (probably my first introduction to pasta), I believe she enjoyed baking more than cooking.  And I remember the results of her baking much more clearly than the meals she cooked: the cookie jar always brimming with fresh cookies; the rhubarb  blueberry, cherry, apple and banana cream pies; her favorite poppy seed cake; Christmas sugar cookies with what was referred to as “butterfly” frosting; and my favorite – German cheesecake, a recipe from my father’s mother who passed away long before I was born – made with cottage cheese, lots of lemon and a delicious graham cracker crust. Not too sweet.  Not too rich.

 

 

One of my most memorable teenage cooking duties was making french fries, a favorite food of mine and the quintessential carrier (even more than ring balogna) for ketchup.  I would slip down to the basement where we stored our french fryer and through trial and error, eventually discovered the secret to crispy and beautifully browned french fries.  I not only remember the process of making the fries but also my time in the basement.  It was a place of respite for me – a place away from everyone and everything.  My father worked hard to make this room less catacomb-like by painting the walls typical fifties bright colors and even painting the cement floor with the same bright colored sponge designs. His “cozying-up” efforts also included building a knotty pine cupboard and knotty pine shelves, which housed my mother’s folk art (rosemaling) trays and platters.

As I enjoyed these surroundings and my solitude, I eventually came to the conclusion that the key to the perfect french fry was to first thoroughly dry the potatoes in paper toweling and then to submerge them into very hot oil (375 degrees).  As I waited for golden brown results, I would wander into what we referred to as our “fruit cellar”, the room where all the canned goods were stored, to check out the latest jarred vegetable or fruit addition or mosey into my father’s workroom to admire his latest project, always enjoying the smell of freshly sawn wood.   Or if I felt especially daring, I would put a Doris Day record on the phonograph and sing along to “You’re Mean to Me” or “Ten Cents a Dance” (two of my favorites) and even at times pretend to actually BE Doris Day.  This room – away from it all, was a perfect place for daydreaming.  Then after the potatoes turned golden brown, I would once again toss them in paper towels to absorb the excess oil.  The result – french-fries with a crunchy exterior and a light and fluffy interior!  Mission accomplished while also having a good time in the process.

 

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Trial and error played a significant role in my culinary education over the years.  Know your ingredients before cooking them was one of the first lessons I learned. My first “ingredient” lesson was with lamb chops.  While teaching in Lexington, Massachusetts when my then-husband attended Harvard Business School, we followed a very strict budget.  I was newly married, living in Waltham, a suburb close to Lexington where I taught, but not close to much else so not having a driver’s license or a car, I was totally dependent on other people for any outside activity.   Much of my time away from teaching was therefore spent in our little apartment reading, watching TV and thinking about what I would cook for dinner.  It was a rather lonely time, but one where I continued inching towards my eventual calling.

One night after flipping through a cookbook (probably while drinking a Tab and smoking a cigarette – oh the bad old days!) I decided I wanted to cook lamb chops for dinner.  It sounded straightforward, but slightly exotic.  I carefully perused the meat section of the supermarket and found a vast discrepancy between different cuts, but decided on the least expensive ones I could find.  They were downright cheap!  That night I sautéed them in olive oil with just a sprinkle of salt, pepper and a little thyme until browned but medium rare in the center just like my cookbook The Joy of Cooking recommended.  The result was horrid – the chops were tough, chewy and very gamey – almost inedible. What had I done wrong I wondered?

I learned later that there is no term for mutton in America, so meat from a sheep two years old or older is called lamb regardless of age whereas in many other countries it would be called mutton.  These chops most definitely fell into the mutton category. The sheep must have been a grandpa!  Lesson learned!  In the future I made certain to look for the label “spring lamb” which indicates that the lamb was slaughtered between March and October and is from a sheep 6 to 10 weeks old – very young, very tender.  No old guys for me anymore unless I’m making a slow-cooking lamb stew.

Because we had little money and my then husband studied all the time, I did lots of cooking mostly with recipes I was familiar with – even resurrecting some old dishes like ring bologna and German potato salad. But I also experimented with new recipes.  Of course, with experimentation came inevitable blunders!  One was made with tomato paste.  Because I had no regular canned tomatoes in the house and no access to a car to go to the grocery store and buy them, I substituted tomato paste for canned tomatoes in a new veal scaloppini recipe I was trying.  Both were tomatoes in a can after all!  Big mistake!  My Vitello Scaloppini alla Pizzaiola was thick, concentrated and very goopy.  Next time, I decided, I would follow the recipe explicitly and use quality canned tomatoes, which I then realized would produce a juicier sauce just the right consistency for this dish.  Or at the very least, add broth or water to the tomato paste to thin it out a bit.

 

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Moving back to Chicago from Boston in 1965, my culinary education became a food journey of a different sort.  I continued to search for new recipes in both cookbooks and food magazines but now after becoming a mom, I started to search for quick and easy recipes that could be cooked while feeding children in their high chairs and folding laundry at the same time.  I also began to look for “cooking buddies”.  Staying home with little kids could sometimes be lonely and frustrating – especially when they were babies so cooking with a friend or a family member was often the highlight of my day and frequently provided a playmate or two for my children.  A side benefit in almost every instance, no matter who the cook, was learning something new; be it a new recipe, an unexpected ingredient or technique.  Brilliant new tidbits of information like drizzling extra virgin olive oil on top of a bean soup to enhance its flavor or steam cooking vegetables in a covered steamer as a way to preserve their nutritive value made a tremendous difference in the outcome of a dish.

 

 

One of my earliest “cooking buddies” was Marcia Solvsberg, a former college sorority sister who became my Evanston neighbor when we moved back from Boston. “Buggy time” in the park with our two little napping babies (Robby and Chrissie) allowed us time to talk.  And food – mainly what we would cook for dinner that night quickly, cheaply and easily – was our principal topic of conversation. Some days we would wheel our kids back to one of our apartments and cook those meals together, usually preparing simple casseroles often accompanied by the ubiquitous icon of its age: the Jell-O mold.  One of my favorite Marcia recipes was a wild rice stuffed chicken breast – very exotic we thought – whose sauce contained – strangely enough – white wine, a can of mushroom soup and a quarter of a cup of – OMG – currant jelly.  Though it sounds weird, it was strangely delicious and was one of those recipes that I passed on to many people.   My sister Karen shared it with a friend who owned a catering business who claims it was the most requested dish on her menu. Eventually Marcia and I became more daring and moved on to more sophisticated and complicated dishes that we discovered in magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet –  dishes like Marcia’s Worldly Stroganoff or my Osso Buco with Risotto Milanese.

Marcia also introduced me to the Evanston Woman’s Club, an organization of women of a similar age with little children and all looking for ways to occupy ourselves outside of the home.  We all seemed to need intellectual stimulation and this unique little club gave our brains a creative outlet.  The annual Women’s Club Show – a review which raised funds for charity – was the main event. Written, directed, choreographed and performed by members and their husbands it not only fulfilled the creativity we lacked, but provided us with new friendships – many of which I have to this day. Much of the time we all spent together centered around discussions about raising children, a part of which was what we could make for dinner that evening that was both delicious and fast.

Colleen Remsberg and Sheila Bradley

Enter…canned goods!  Most of the recipes we shared contained at least one canned product as an ingredient.  Who can forget the iconic casserole of the decade – canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup and canned crispy onions?  Just open three cans, mix and voila!    Other recipes like Mary Lou O’Malley’s Hamburger Pie, my sister Joan Cole’s Johnny Mazetti and Thelma Brussat’s Swiss Steak also fit that bill.  When I look back I guess I am not really that surprised that a bunch of first-time moms with young kids, little money and living in a pre-Food Network era cooked with canned food.  But what still surprises a lot people is that some of the resulting dishes were good enough that I use them to this day (though maybe with a few alterations)!  A favorite was – and is – the Evans girl’s (Sheila Bradley and Colleen Remsberg) Sweet & Sour Baked Beans –a recipe from their mother that their father referred to as “funeral beans” because the only time he ever got to enjoy them was when someone died and his wife brought her bean casserole to the “after-the-wake” buffet. This hearty casserole whose sauce combines brown sugar with vinegar, mustard, onions and bacon makes for a delicious accompaniment to any backyard barbeque. Whenever I have served it, I have always been asked to share the recipe.

 

 

© rob warner photography 2019

“Funeral Beans”
(aka: Sweet and Sour Baked Beans)

 

1 pound bacon cut up
2 cups onions, diced
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ cup white vinegar
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 can (15 oz.) dark red kidney beans
1 can (15 oz.) light red kidney beans
1 can (15 oz.) butter beans
1 can (15 oz.) cannellini or great northern beans
1 small can lima beans
1 large can original pork and beans

In a large sauté pan, brown the bacon and drain.   Add the onions, mustard, vinegar and brown sugar.  Mix well and sauté for about 20 minutes.

Drain all the beans except for the pork and beans.  Place the beans in a bean pot, pour the bacon/onion mixture over and gently stir.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

Note: drain all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat and sauté the onions for approximately 2 to 3 minutes before adding the mustard, vinegar and brown sugar.

 

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Mary Nahser and I in 1976

 

Another one of my early “cooking buddies” was my Evanston neighbor and friend, Mary Nahser.   During one chilly Chicago winter in the early seventies, Mary and I decided to take a Chinese cooking class together.  We began with demonstration classes on regional Chinese food (mostly focusing on Cantonese, Szechuan and Mandarin) at the Oriental Food Market in Chicago.  Those classes were incredibly fun, but we were immediately ready for something more intense so we signed up for a “hands-on” class taught by Sarah Moy, a local Chinese Cookbook author (Let’s Cook Chinese) and teacher.  In the first classes we took, the instructor handed out carbon copies of the recipes being demonstrated that day but in Sarah’s class things were different.  She dictated the recipes.  And since English was not her first language (and quite possibly not even her second), students were never certain that our note-taking was correct.  Did we have the right ingredients?  The right preparation instructions?  So when we were asked to then make the dish right there in front of her, many of us were understandably nervous. And Sarah, the taskmaster, did not believe in coddling her students.

During one of our sessions – as per Sarah’s instructions – I peeled stalks of broccoli slicing them with a cleaver on the diagonal into ¼ inch sections to prepare them for a stir-fry dish.  Just as I was about to slice the head, Sarah appeared at my side.  Never will I forget the look of horror on her face as she observed me beginning to slice the head of the broccoli in the same manner as the stalks (1/4 inch slices) making a total mess – little pieces of small, dense, floral shoots strewn over the table like little green crumbs.  “No”, she shouted, grabbing the clever from my hand, “you trim the head into little florets.”   She didn’t add “you, stupid girl”, but I certainly felt like she was thinking just that. Of course, I knew better.  I had sliced broccoli florets a multitude of times in my own kitchen but with my teacher so close, I reverted back to my third-grade self, panicked and made a mess!

I learned much from these Chinese cooking lessons. Not only how to make wonderful dishes, but these were my fist formal lessons in knife skills.  Knowing how to properly and efficiently dice and slice is an important skill on anyone’s road to becoming competent in the kitchen.  My kitchen technique has never been better or more finely tuned than during this “Chinese period”.

Mary and I cooked many Chinese meals together during and after our cooking lessons, but it all culminated in a spectacular 10-course feast we prepared for a group of mutual friends.  Our menu included all our favorites from both classes: fantail shrimp, eggrolls, Peking duck, hot peanut chicken, deep-fried sweet and sour sea bass, moo shu pork and beef with peapods.  We have often reminisced about what an ambitious undertaking it was preparing these marathon Chinese meals.  They required so much advance chopping and dicing and a ridiculous amount of last-minute cooking.   But learning this very distinctive culinary style of cooking with its emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce, short stove-to-table serving time and a LOT of different ingredients – brought a new dimension to my culinary education that remains with me to this day.

Mary has prepared this wonderfully flavorful dish many times.  Following is the recipe with a few “Mary Hints” at the end.

 

 

Beef with Peapods
(serves 4)

1 pound flank steak (Semi-frozen then cut in thirds vertically making thin slices across the grain)

Marinate sliced steak at least ½ hour in a mixture of the following:

1-tablespoon fresh ginger  (3 slices minced)
1-tablespoon dark soy sauce
1-tablespoon oil
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 – 3 tablespoons water

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in wok.  When hot, add meat and stir-fry until medium-rare.  Set aside.  Clean wok.

 

1 fresh pound peapods
1 can water chestnuts, sliced
3 dried black mushrooms, soaked and shredded
2 tablespoons rice wine (mirin)
salt
2 tablespoons oyster sauce

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok. When hot, add peapods, water chestnuts and black mushrooms. Stir-mix and add salt.  Splash in the rice wine.  Keep mixing up to 3 minutes.  Add beef and oyster sauce.

Mary’s hints:  Steak is very easy to slice in a semi-frozen state.  You can get very thin slices, which is what you want.  Meat can be marinated ahead.  Cover and keep refrigerated and let come to room temperature next day before stir-frying.  Peapods need ends and string removed.  Black mushrooms need to be soaked in water, cleaned, shredded and tough stems thrown away. 

Variations: Asparagus, broccoli and carrots can be added to this dish

 

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Following is the infamous broccoli recipe from Sarah Moy’s class.  Over the years Mary and I have had a good laugh when reminiscing about my moment of “slicing humiliation”.

 

Stir Fried Broccoli
(serves 4)

1 ½ pounds broccoli
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
½ – 1/3 cup chicken broth
3 slices ginger, minced
1 small onion, chopped

Trim the head into florets then cut into 1-½ inch pieces.  Peel the broccoli stalks with a vegetable peeler to remove tough outer skin then slice into ¼ inch thick on the diagonal.

Heat a large wok over high heat.  Add the oil and swirl to coat the wok.    Add the ginger and onions and sauté until onion becomes soft. Add broccoli.  Stir-fry for approximately 5 minutes.  Sprinkle in wine and soy sauce.  Stir and mix.  Add broth, cover and cook for approximately 5 minutes.

 

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After a satisfying – if at times harrowing – experience with Asian cuisine, I decided I wanted to embrace a new trend in cooking, French food.  Julia Child had been the rage for a number of years beginning in the sixties both as a cookbook author and TV personality and it seemed that everyone was taking up French cooking.  I started by pouring through the bible of French cuisine at the time, Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but eventually found a mentor in a woman by the name of Leslee Reis. Leslee was another friend I acquired through the Evanston Women’s Club.  Her journey into lusty French cooking began while doing graduate work at Harvard University in biochemistry.  On the side she apprenticed with Julia Child performing any number of menial duties just to be next to her heroine and to observe and learn from the master.  After also studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, Leslee moved to Evanston with her husband and two boys and quickly decided to open a small catering business while also teaching cooking classes in the basement of a local Evanston church on the side.  Her classes were incredibly informative and reliably hysterical.  Leslee was a natural – highly intelligent and wickedly funny – another Julia Child in the making.

Leslee and I

During one particular class when she was using a hand mixer to prepare a Crème Chantilly for the finishing touch of a Soufflé au Chocolat, she lifted the mixer out of the bowl to make a point, forgetting to turn it off and splattering cream on the faces of all of us in the front two rows. Like Julia Child who famously dropped a chicken mid-show, nonchalantly picked it up and continued her lesson without missing a beat, neither did Leslee.  Café Provencal, her groundbreaking restaurant, was opened several years later and is credited with bringing cosmopolitan European dining to the Middle West.  (Leslee actually appeared on the Julia Child TV show in 1983 to demonstrate an oyster-on-the-half-shell preparation!)

Each of Leslee’s classes consisted of recipes for one complete meal – first course through dessert.  I took two sessions of 6 complete French meals, so I accumulated about 72 recipes in all and used them for both regular family meals as well as for more formal entertaining.  They have remained an integral part of my recipe repertoire.  One of my favorite vegetable recipes is her versatile carrot dish below. Even my grandchildren love it.   It was a side dish recipe from her Coq Au Vin menu.

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Carottes Glacees
(serves 6)

One pound minus tops serves 3 or 4.  One pound of raw carrots sliced or quartered makes about 3 ½ cups.
1 ½ pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch lengths or trimmed into large olive shapes
1 ½ – 2 cups good brown stock or canned beef bouillion
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
(chopped parsley)

Put carrots in saucepan.  Add remainder of ingredients – carrots should be covered with stock – add water or more stock if necessary.

Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until fork tender, about 30 minutes.  Do not cover. Liquids should evaporate down to a thick glaze for the carrots.  Toss carrots in the pan to coat.

Optional garnish of chopped parsley

Note:  I often add a little tomato paste for enrichment – maybe 2 tablespoons

 

Shortly after my emersion in French cooking, my family moved to England where my then husband became managing director of an advertising agency.  Moving to a new house in a new country brought many challenges and many new adventures – new people to meet, new cities and villages to be discovered and new foods to be tasted.    I didn’t know it then, but it was another big step in my own personal evolution – one that would also profoundly influence my culinary journey.

But when I think back on the culinary influences that mark my early years – I think first of my father’s garden.  What a deep effect that had on me – an abundance of fresh product right in my own backyard! Also impactful was what my mother and father actually did with all that produce. Nothing was wasted or discarded. All was either consumed at our kitchen table or rested pristinely in the “fruit cellar” waiting to be enjoyed later.

I also recall a certain kind of magic when I reflect on my experimentation with french-fry-making in my basement or cooking my first meal for my grandpa.  All of these early cooking experiences gave me a wonderful sense of accomplishment – a true sense of empowerment.

So many people and so many experiences during this early period made a difference in my culinary journey.  The taskmaster Chinese instructor Sarah Moy forced me to focus and chop and dice responsibly and to not be intimidated by new people and challenges.   My mentor and friend Leslee Reis taught me so many new dishes; showed me how a wife and mother can still be those things, but also more  – so much more.   And more importantly, that it’s okay to make mistakes – that having a good time and a sense of humor in the kitchen is certainly just as necessary as good technique.

Not all the people I cooked with or learned from became celebrated chefs like Leslee or great home cooks like Mary but almost all of them remain active everyday cooks that simply enjoy food and recognize the role it plays in our lives.  As the renowned chef, TV personality and cookbook author Jacques Pepin once said, “The table is the great equalizer.”  Sitting down to the table with friends or family to eat – whether it’s a hot dog or a bowl or soup or a ten course Chinese meal – is a way of connecting.  I have enjoyed being a part of all aspects of that connection: learning about food, cooking it and of course, eating it.

My culinary education continues.  I hope you will join me in that journey.

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Umbria III “Lucifer and the Bees”

 

The overwhelming scent of lavender permeated our senses as we walked the grounds for the first time of the Umbrian villa we rented in 2017.  Given its name – Casale delle Lavande – we expected as much.  But some of the other sensory surprises we encountered that week were less expected.  Like the heat wave that washed across most of Western Europe that summer continually roasting us and forcing us to rethink some of our initial plans.

But the biggest surprise of all was the bees.  We had seen website photos of a large expanse of lavender on either side of a stairway descending a small hill below the house.  But what we had not accounted for, were the pesky residents of that lavender, the swarm of bees that formed a humming cloud above each plant.  Their collective buzzing came at us in stereo as we made our way cautiously down to the pool below the house, intimidating all of us with each step.  The first sting came just an hour or so after our arrival – granddaughter Kianna’s finger was the recipient – but more than anything else, it was the constant fear that another attack was imminent which kept us all on guard throughout our stay.

 

 

We quickly learned that bees have a love affair with lavender, especially when the blossoms are at their peak,as they were upon our arrival.  Naturally bees are less likely to sting if you don’t spend time in the areas where they are busy collecting nectar and pollen, but given the fact that the lavender plants not only surrounded the pool but were growing in just about every part of the property, staying out of their collection area was next to impossible.

Lingering in the cool waters of the pool away from the lavender plants was not the answer either.  We also learned that bees love to spend a lot of time in the water – especially during hot weather – in an effort to control the humidity of their colony and to dilute stored honey that has become crystalized.  The in-hive workers accept water quickly from the forager bees.  Who knew?

 

 

This was our second trip to Italy as a family of nine. Accompanying me were my son Rob and his wife, Angie, their children Neko and Isis, my daughter Candace, her husband Rob and their children Kingston and Kianna.   After a quick tour of the villa and the grounds we unpacked and began organizing the kitchen, putting away groceries and reviewing the appliances and equipment we would need in the upcoming week.  Even though cooking together was a priority, our first day would just be a time to relax, get organized and dine out at a nearby restaurant, expending as little energy as possible.

The tensions of the day – the heat, the bees and jetlag – slipped away as we all piled into our van and drove to the medieval hamlet of Collevalenza for our first family dinner.  The restaurant, Torre Sangiovanni, was at one time a 13th Century watchtower.  Tastefully converted into a charming restaurant/bed and breakfast, we knew from the moment we entered the tiny art and ceramic filled reception area that we had selected the perfect place to begin our journey.  It was quiet, impeccably decorated and imminently tranquil – just what we needed.

 

Torre Sangiovanni Aubergo & Ristorante

The hostess ushered us outside to a little gated terrace surrounded by a wall of pink oleander.  Deep fuchsia roses crawling over its wrought iron fences and pink geranium-filled terra cotta pots scattered throughout encased this storybook garden with a romantic glow.  Even the soft light of lanterns added to the soothing atmosphere.   And the piece de resistance was the rosy luminescence of a full moon peeking through the leafy branches of the trees.

 

 

Two Lazy Susan ceramic servers filled with a glorious assortment of antipasti were promptly delivered to our table.  As we enjoyed each delicious item including melon wrapped prosciutto, salamis, cheeses, several types of bruschetta, a farro salad and marinated vegetables we began to discuss plans for the upcoming week.  We all agreed that lying-around and getting-organized was the preferred activity for the next day.  Exploring medieval villages and maybe even a lake visit would have to wait until we regenerated and adjusted to Italian time.

 

For the moment we all wanted to just simply enjoy being together in this most interesting Italian region – a region that offered an abundance of charming little towns scattered about an enchanting landscape of green winding valleys, rolling hills, craggy mountains and plains brimming with sugar-beet plants, vineyards and sunflowers.  It was one of my favorite Italian regions and one I was thrilled to share with my family.  We even had our own sunflower field situated at the entryway of the long, winding dusty road that led to our villa – greeting us each day with their perky presence. Even in the heat they radiated happiness.

 

 

Todi, the nearby hilltop village visible from our property, became our “go-to” dinner destination.  Its presence pretty much dominated the surrounding landscape.  I had visited Todi during one of my other Umbria journeys (this was my sixth visit to the region) and was happy to return. In fact I was always happy to return to Umbria and never fully understood why guidebooks sometimes described it as “a region not quite living up to” its illustrious neighbors, Tuscany and Lazio.  I disagree. It may not have a coastline (it is the only landlocked region of Italy) or a Rome or a Florence, but it has so much else.  Certainly it was easier to navigate without the crowds so typical of those other two regions.  And its extraordinary natural beauty and charming villages could, in my mind, compete with any area of the country.

 

Nancy in Todi

Although driving is permitted in Todi, it is far easier to negotiate its narrow streets on foot.  So after a relaxing first day at our villa, we drove to the base of the village, parked and took the tram up to the center.   Such an interesting history Todi has.  Three concentric rings of walls encircle it.  The outer medieval walls are the most recent.  The ancient Roman walls make up the middle and finally the innermost walls are thought to be Etruscan and date all the way back to the 3rd century B.C.

 

We selected a restaurant just a short walk from the Piazza del Popolo, the medieval heart of the city.  Everyone wanted to eat at someplace casual and preferably outside. Even with the heat, eating outside is such a rare treat in our respective cities – Chicago and New York – finding a cafe with an outside eating area was always a priority.   La Cisterna, a pizza and pasta restaurant with a lovely rooftop terrace fit the bill.  We liked it so much we returned a second time later in the week.  I ordered potato pizza and a panzanella salad, a Tuscan chopped salad (blog – Tuscany II – “An Artist’s Palate”), which is  – if done properly – a favorite of mine.  This one with incredibly succulent “in season” tomatoes and browned crunchy croutons was perfect.

The pizza was also delicious.  Potato pizza is a very rustic dish found in varying forms all across Italy.  Often people are surprised that its origins are Italian.  Somehow it seems strange to top a pizza with potatoes (starch on starch!) but from the first time I ever tried a slice in Rome, I have been a fan.  The one I ordered at Le Cisterna came with thin slices of potatoes, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, little patches of crumbled sausage and sprigs of rosemary lightly sprinkled over the top.  Everyone ordered pizza that evening – mostly the classic Pizza Margherita (my grandchildren’s favorite) except for son Rob.  He is, unfortunately, lactose intolerant and since the one consistent ingredient in pizza is cheese, he perused the menu for something without dairy settling on one of the region’s most famous dishes: Ragu di Cinghiale, aka, pasta with a wild boar sauce.  In my mind, it is one of Italy’s tastiest pasta dishes.  In fact, we all ended up ordering it at different times during our stay.  Rob ordered it so often (with different pastas, and even with polenta) we began calling him Signor Cinghiale.

Ragu di Cinghiale is not a difficult sauce to make – just time-consuming.  When I do make it, I make a big batch and freeze some to have on hand for a cold winter night.  Just defrost, reheat and serve with any kind of pasta, a green salad and good crusty bread. (You may want to add a little tomato sauce to thin it out)

 

© rob warner photography 2019

Ragu di Cinghiale
(Wild Boar Ragu)

Serves 6 – 8

2-pound wild boar shoulder or leg cut into 1-inch pieces
2 sprigs rosemary
6 cloves garlic
10 peppercorns
3 cups red wine (I used Chianti)
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup carrots, finely chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups canned diced tomatoes*
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Pappardelle
Grated Parmesan

The night before cooking the ragu, place the meat in a bowl with the rosemary, garlic and peppercorns. Add the red wine – 3 cups or enough to cover the meat.  Cover the meat with plastic-wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.

Before preparing the ragu, discard the rosemary and the garlic.  Drain the meat in a colander reserving the wine.  Place the olive oil in a Dutch oven and turn the heat to medium-high.  Add the carrots, onion and onions and sauté for approximately 3 – 5 minutes until soft.

Add the meat and sauté until the liquid from the meat has evaporated and the meat is browned, stirring frequently, for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.  Add the reserved red wine and continue to cook until the wine has evaporated.  Add the tomatoes, 2 cups of the stock and 1 cup of water.  Reduce the heat and cook at a low simmer with Dutch oven partially covered for 1 hour.

Add remaining 1-cup stock and 1 more cup of water and continue to simmer until the meat begins to fall apart for 1½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally.  When meat is very tender, remove from the heat and break the meat apart into fine shreds with a fork or a spoon. (I used a pastry cutter). You may want to add a little water or more broth depending on the preferred thickness of the sauce. Serve over pasta with grated Parmesan.

*My son has made this recipe and doubled the amount of tomatoes for a more saucy (and kid friendly) version

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We divided our time in Umbria between short visits to close-by towns and just hanging around the villa.   A visit to the Archaeological Park of Carsulae, an ancient Roman outpost abandoned in the 4th century and truly in the middle of nowhere, was one of our most interesting excursions. Since ruins are obviously not sheltered but usually piles of rock and ancient half-structures out in the open with no cover or shade at all, the heat was overwhelming – at least to me. I just couldn’t keep up with the group, so I spent a most of my time getting cool in the museum/visitor center studying everything from a distance and recalling all the many ruin sites I had visited over the years.

Neko & Isis at Carsulae

I wouldn’t say “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” because it always seems there is something unique about each, but with this particular visit I rationalized that maybe all my previous “ruin visits” compensated for the fact that I was not participating in this one.  No one was complaining or forcing me to come outside, but feeling guilty is just something, unfortunately, that comes easy to me!

Despite all of that, I loved the fact that my children and grandchildren were so interested in learning that they were willing to put up with a little discomfort.  Oh, to be young again!  As much as these family trips were about spending time together, enjoying each other and eating great food and drinking great wine, they were also about learning.  Coming from a history teacher father and a librarian mother, education was always a big part of my travels.  Sharing “my Italian Journeys” with my family – the food, the wine and the culture, which of course, includes the history of this great country, was one of the most rewarding aspects of our time together.  And their enthusiasm for that education added so much context and dimension to everything we did.

 

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Later in the week we spent an entire day in Orvieto, a small majestic Umbrian city sitting high above the Umbrian plains on the flat surface of a volcanic tuff (volcanic stone).  It is worth the long, winding drive to get there for many reasons, none more so than to visit its magnificent gothic cathedral (Duomo di Orvieto) dating from 1290.  The rose window, the monumental façade adorned with intricate golden mosaics and the details in the three bronze doors are just some of the many layers of history to be explored in this amazing cathedral.  We spent almost two hours appreciating its beauty.

 

Kianna, Isis, Neko & Kingston at Duomo di Orvieto

 

Of course a trip to Orvieto must include a stroll down “ceramica lane”, a narrow, winding street filled with ceramic shops offering everything from the mundane to the extraordinary.  The local traditional themes are inclined towards colorful floral patterns and animal and human figures (including the ubiquitous rooster pitcher) while the refined handcrafted objects of local artisans are often a mix of gothic and middle-eastern elements.   It always amazes me that each small ceramic town in Italy (and there are many – at least three just in Umbria alone) has a completely different ceramic history and a completely different look.

 

Before we did some serious ceramic shopping we had a delicious calzone and pizza lunch outside at one of the many restaurants along “ceramica row”.  Sitting under a large natural colored umbrella, I enjoyed my first glass of Orvieto wine from one of my favorite producers, Antinori.  At an earlier visit (blog Umbria I “Generations”), Rob, Candace and I had visited his vineyards (close to Orvieto) and had the good fortune to stay in the Antinori castle – an amazing experience.

 

Rob Warner e il calzone

 

 

Dessert was almost always the same for our group– after both lunch and dinner we always found the nearest Gelateria and enjoyed Italy’s incredible ice cream.  Made with a mixture of custard, cream and milk without eggs, it is generally lower in fat, contains less air and is more dense and flavorful than other ice creams.

Our heads filled with gothic architecture and religious frescos, our shopping bags brimming with ceramics and our stomachs stuffed with pizza and ice cream, we decided to head back to our villa and just “hang around” that evening – bees and all.  By this time we were getting used to them – sort of.

 

After hours of considerable “digesting”, I made a batch of Amatrciana, a tomato pancetta sauce that we served over spaghetti (blog – Lazio I Rome “Begin at the Beginning”) and son Rob grilled juicy succulent Italian sausages – a mixture of both mild and spicy.  Candace made a caprese salad and we hung out in our favorite area of the villa, an outside covered porch just out the kitchen door to the side of the villa.

We continued to be fascinated by the bees and their activity – especially their attraction to the pool.  At one point Angie even asked the groundskeeper why so many of the bees were in the pool?  His very matter of fact replay was:  “They eat the lavender.  They get thirsty.  They drink the water in the pool.  And they die.”  I don’t think it was that simple because I don’t their intention was to die, but we loved the answer and repeated it frequently during the week.  However, we did come to respect our buzzing neighbor’s sense of community and amazing work ethic.  They never stopped – at least not that we could see.

 

 

We had our communal obligations as well.  The whole family participated in making the meal – from setting the table, making the caprese and arranging a selection of antipasti on a low table in the seating area to be enjoyed with a glass of wine (or beer) before dinner.  Dinners and lunches at the villa were always a participatory affair.

Generally, I like to serve pasta as an individual course – not as many Italian-American restaurants do as a “side” with something else on the plate like roast chicken.  But for some reason the combination of the grilled sausages and the spaghetti with Amatriciana on the same plate worked – totally casual, totally easy and most important, totally delicious.

 

Following is the grilled sausage recipe – in this recipe the sausages are served with broccolini and roasted potatoes, a dish found in many parts of Italy.  Rob actually prepared it this way at a summer family reunion.   It makes for a perfect rustic Sunday night supper!

 

 

© rob warner photography 2019

 

 

Italian Sausage with Broccolini and Potatoes
Serves 4

6 large sweet Italian sausage links
1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled
2 – 3 bunches of broccolini*
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon chili pepper flakes (depending on desire of spiciness)

Place the potatoes in a pot of water enough to cover the potatoes and bring to a boil.  Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart. Using a slotted spoon, remove the potatoes and set aside.  When cooled, slice the potatoes into ¾ inch rounds.

Trim the broccolini. Trim bottom of stalks.  Return the potato water to a boil.  (You may need to add more water to accommodate broccolini). Add salt and then the broccolini. Cover partially, and cook until tender 2 – 5 minutes, depending on thickness of the stalk.  Drain and set aside.

In a frying pan place the sausages and ¼ cup of water, cover and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook for about 10 minutes.  Remove cover (water should have evaporated) and add olive oil.  Sauté over medium-high heat until sausages are well browned.  Slice sausages on the diagonal into 3 inch pieces.

In a frying pan large enough to hold the potatoes & broccolini, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add garlic and sauté until golden.  Add sausage slices back into pan and sauté briefly just until warm.  Add the wine and deglaze.  Add the potatoes and broccolini.  Add chili peppers. Toss to combine and heat through. Serve

*broccolini is milder and sweeter than broccoli and has thinner stalks.  It has a more earthy taste.  Broccoli rabe – similar to rapini, which has thin stalks and deep green leaves and small buds is a delicious alternative.  My son prefers its more bitter, earthy taste alongside the grilled sausages.

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Candace arranged a visit to a vineyard as she had done during our previous Veneto trip.  She chose Avignonesi, a producer whose wines Convito has admired and carried for years.  Located near Montepulciano in southern Tuscany just over the Umbrian border, Candace, the two Robs and Angie left early in the morning while I stayed back at the villa with the grandchildren which I was happy to do since I have had the good fortune to visit many wine producers during the course of my Italian journeys.  Swimming and art projects filled our day.

 

One of the most prestigious wineries in the area, Avignonesi was founded in 1974 and produces some of Tuscany’s most renowned wines including Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano and the famous dessert wine, Vin Santo.  The vineyard was recently sold to a Belgium firm who was in the process of converting the whole property to an organic and biodynamic viticulture.  The owner, Virginie Saverys and her partners were always happy to welcome visitors and arranged for a most informative day concluding with a multi-course lunch and matching wines served under a handsome tented area in the middle of the vineyard.

 

Rob Warner spotted at Avignonesi

 

 

The menu they brought back to the villa for me to see was full of innovative and compelling dishes.  One especially caught my eye as a potential Convito market salad – Insalata di farro con verdure croccante e pesto di basilica– a farro and crunchy (croccante) vegetable salad with a pesto dressing.  I have just recently tested it and will include it in our spring market menu.

 

 

Farro alla Genovese

1-pound farro cooked al dente (cooked – 8 cups)
2 cups cubed carrots – ¼ inch (steamed al dente)
2 cups zucchini cubed – ¼ inch
2 cups summer squash cubed ¼ inch
½ cup scallions (green part) diced

Pesto vinaigrette
¾ cups olive oil
¼ cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons pesto
½ teaspoon salt and pepper combo

 

Combine the farro with the vegetables and the scallions.

Combine vinaigrette ingredients and add to farro mixture.

Serve!

 

Because of the continuing intense “Lucifer” heat wave (the label the press had given it), we decided a lake visit was in order. Swimming in the cool waters of Lake Tresimeno was appealing to everyone so we piled in our van and drove to one of the lake’s most charming villages, Castiglione del Lago, situated right on the southwest corner of the lake. Lago di Tresimeno is the fourth largest lake in Italy.  Although it falls within the region of Umbria its basin stretches into Tuscany as far west as Montepulciano and as far north as Cortona.

 

 

After several hours of swimming and lounging on the beach (I did the lounging), we walked to a nearby restaurant, La Capannina and sat on its lovely terrace to enjoy a delicious lunch.  The restaurant was recommended by the staff at Avignonesi as “the place” to eat – where the locals dine which is always the best of endorsements.  Known for their fresh local ingredients, I ordered lake trout prepared in my favorite way – olive oil, herbs and lemon – the only way, in my opinion – to eat fish when it has just freshly arrived from its watery home.  In this case, Lake Tresimeno.

 

 

Before heading back to our villa we visited the old part of the town higher up on a chalky promontory seemingly ruling over the waters below. Famous for its medieval castle “Rocco del Leone” and its charming old town center ringed with medieval walks and incredible views of the lake, we tried for a few minutes to do our usual casual exploring but because the temperature had reached 99 degrees, we simply could not linger – so we quickly scurried into a few local shops, bought a few souvenirs (cinghiale tee shirts and cinghiale magnets) then headed back to our villa.

 

Though our time in Umbria was coming to an end, we spent one more night dining in Todi and two nights cooking together at the Villa. Ristorante Umbria was not to be missed.  I had been there for lunch back in the early nineties and clearly remember its delicious regional food and the spectacular view overlooking the Umbrian countryside.  Window boxes filled with red geraniums lined the wide expanse of arched windows in the semi-circle room.

 

 

 

 

I ordered taglliatelle with extra virgin olive oil and black truffles, a dish integral to Umbria’s cuisine.  The region produces the highest number of black truffles in all of Italy.  Their quality is famous throughout the world.  Because truffle season is so short, it is a rare treat to have either the fresh black truffles of Umbria or the white truffles of Piemonte with pasta or risotto.  Very few accompanying ingredients are needed since truffles have such a huge and unique flavor profile.  In this dish, just extra virgin olive oil and some freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano along with the pasta or rice and of course, the grated truffles is all that was required for a gloriously satisfying dish.

 

No meal in an Umbrian restaurant was complete for us without someone in our group ordering ragu di cinghiale.  It was on every menu.  This time both Kingston and Neko ordered it with pasta and Rob, (Sig. Cinghiale himself), enjoyed a hearty cinghiale stew over polenta.

 

 

We pretty much stayed close to the villa our last day – swimming, packing, straightening up and cleaning out the fridge which, because of our overly ambitious grocery shopping at the beginning of the week, provided a beautiful antipasti spread of cheeses, cured meats and marinated vegetables for lunch as well as for our pre-dinner cocktail hour.  Everyone wanted to help so I had plenty of sous chefs and waiters to assist me.  A hearty meat sauce with pasta, a salad and grilled bruschetta comprised our last dinner in Umbria.

 

 

The next day we reluctantly said goodbye to our temporary home (and less reluctantly to the bees!) and began our drive to Rome.  As usual, our faithful chauffeur Rob took the wheel steering us through this lovely last look at the “green heart” of Italy into the bustling and congestive streets of the eternal city where aggressive driving the guidebooks advise, is the only way not to be left in the dust.  And that he did.

 

 

Though very steamy as all big cities are in the middle of a heat wave, Rome is always a welcome adventure.  How could it not be?  It is one of the great cities of the world.  Even though its depth and breath can sometimes be overwhelming, offering the visitor almost too many sights, too many monuments and museums to pick from; it is still awe-inspiring.   Because we had just two days and it continued to be extremely hot, we decided to concentrate on the area surrounding our hotel which was located in the Piazza Farnese close to one of Rome’s most colorful and vibrant squares – Campo de Fiori and just south of Piazza Navona, one of the most charming and popular piazzas in all of Rome.

 

Rob Warner sparkles in Rome

 

 

We dined both for lunch and dinner in little side streets off of Campo de Fiori except for one memorable lunch eating outside in Piazza Navona at one of my favorite restaurants Ristorante Tre Scalini.  Amidst the accordion and violin players and all the artists scattered around the handsome historic fountains – not to mention hundreds of tourists – we enjoyed a lovely simple lunch.  I had my usual, the Tre Scalini house salad followed by a simple pasta with a tomato sauce – perfect hot weather food.

 

 

Because of the heat, my ordering focused mostly on lighter summer dishes like Checca (a room temperature pasta dish with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil (recipe also in blog Lazio – Rome “Begin at the Beginning”) but I couldn’t resist ordering one of my favorite Roman classics – Spaghetti Carbonara.  Made with egg, cheese, pancetta and pepper it’s a little rich for my taste in summertime but nonetheless, it is sumptuous.  Convito frequently has the traditional version on our winter menu but last spring we made a somewhat lighter version with asparagus that I include here.

 

© rob warner photography 2019

 

Spaghetti Carbonara con Asparagi 

1-tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, cubed into small pieces
1 clove garlic, diced
1 tablespoon diced shallots
3 large eggs
¾ cup freshly ground Parmigiano Reggiano
¾ cup cream
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper – lots
1 ½ cups previously cooked (al dente) asparagus, sliced into 1 inch pieces on diagonal

1-pound spaghetti

 

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  In a large skillet heat the oil.   Add the pancetta and cook over medium high heat until crispy stirring until fat has been rendered for approximately 5 – 6 minutes. With a slotted spoon, drain pancetta to a paper towel and set aside.  Turn heat to low and add the garlic and shallots.  Cook for a few minutes until soft.  Set aside with pancetta.

Crack the eggs into a bowl.  Add grated Parmesan.  Whisk together.  Pour in the cream.  Whisk together.  Add salt and pepper and stir.

In the meantime cook the spaghetti according to directions.

Drain the pasta reserving a little of the pasta water. Put into a very hot bowl and immediately begin drizzling in the egg mixture.  Stir the entire time, which will prevent the eggs from scrambling. Throw in the asparagus, the crispy pancetta, shallots and garlic. If mixture seems too thick add a little of the hot pasta water.  Toss all together and serve immediately.

 

 

 

We visited many of the traditional iconic sites of Rome including the Colosseum, and spent a lot of time wandering around the Campo de Fiori market.  This had been my 12thor 13thtime in Rome and my sixth trip to Umbria. As with all sojourns, traveling partners alter the experience and add a different texture to the places you visit – especially when you are traveling with children.  Seeing the world helps to open the mind and I was happy to be a part of doing just that for my grandchildren.  At the same time, the fresh perspective of youthful eyes gave me new insights – a different way to look at many of the places and sights I had previously visited.

New situations also alter travel – like the bees of Casale delle Lavande. Because they were so ever-present, we spent a lot of time trying to understand their habits.  In the end – though undeniably annoying – we accepted the fact they were just doing their job and our job was to steer clear of them, or at least try.  And to let them continue doing their work.  After all, in the end they had provided us with a great deal of interesting conversation and much laughter.  Our “Bee Trip” was certainly one that will not be forgotten!

 

 

 

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The Lazzaroni Link  “My Italian Cookie Connection”

 

The handsome red and orange Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno tin is perhaps the most recognizable packaging of any foodstuff in Italy and from the first time I saw one on the shelves of a specialty market I was fascinated.  It was bold.  It was handsome. It caught my eye. Since then I have used the distinctive bittersweet flavored cookies for countless recipes including the crust of a ricotta cheesecake I made even before I opened my Italian market; crushed and sprinkled over my favorite peach ice cream served at my North Shore home during a summer dinner party; and even as an unexpected finish to a risotto dish we served at my downtown Chicago Convito in the 80s.  And like almost everyone who has bought these cookies, I have also re-used the tin to hold any number of items from dried pasta to office supplies.   So imagine my delight when I was actually introduced to Dottore Luigi Lazzaroni – the reigning patriarch of the Lazzaroni family – himself.

 

 

It was January 1985.  I was having dinner with my dear friend Roberta Lai at Conoviano, a chic Milanese restaurant owned by Eugenio Medalgiani.  I had  previously met Eugenio at his restaurant supply house, but tonight was different. Coming over to our table after we finished our meal, Signore Medalgiani inquired about how the gelato dishes I purchased from him were working out at my new Chicago Convito.  He also asked if he could introduce us to a friend of his who had joined him for dinner that evening.  “You might carry his products,” he said.

A tall, elegant, aristocratic gentleman made his way to our table, pulled up a chair to join us and introduced himself as Luigi Lazzaroni.  “THE Luigi Lazzaroni?” I inquired.   I was thrilled to meet someone with the famous Lazzaroni name, a name of biscotti fame that dates back to the late eighteen hundreds. “Of course I carry Lazzaroni products”, I exclaimed.  “I have been using them for years – even before I opened my Italian market.”

After getting past what I’m sure was my profuse “gushing”, we had a very lively conversation about a whole variety of things – Eugenio’s desire to elevate Italian cuisine (he is the head of the cook’s association in Italy), my new Italian market and restaurant in Chicago and Luigi’s famous company.  I had a million questions about his products.  When it was time to say goodbye, Luigi insisted that Roberta and I visit his factory in Saronno the following week after I returned from a scheduled trip to Liguria.  We happily accepted the invitation promising to phone one another to make final arrangements.

Little did I know that this purely accidental meeting would be the beginning of a friendship that would last until Luigi’s death in 2012 as well as a close and enduring connection to the extended Lazzaroni family- a connection that survives to this day.

The next morning Paolo Volpara – my business partner – and I left for San Remo, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria. Our trip, however, was cut short by the horrific and now famous 1985 snowstorm that paralyzed many parts of Italy. Horrendous driving conditions added hours to our journey back to Milan.  [my blog Liguria II: “Expect the Unexpected” tells the story in detail]  Streets became impassable. Airports and train stations were closed.  Milan surrendered.  So naturally I assumed my visit to Saronno would be canceled, but since our hotel phones no longer worked I couldn’t know for sure.  Amazingly, at the appointed hour, Sig. Lazzaroni’s driver appeared at the front desk of my hotel and the game was on!  With snow chains fitted to the tires of his vehicle, he drove Roberta and I through the deserted streets of Milan, slipping, sliding and bumping our way to meet Luigi Lazzaroni in Saronno some 28 scary kilometers away.

Breathing a sign of relief, we happily arrived safely in Saronno and met Luigi in his award-filled office.  Before we began our factory tour, Luigi insisted on learning more about my business.  Compared to his company, which was established in 1888 our five-year old business seemed embarrassingly insignificant, but nonetheless I outlined the details of Convito’s 1980 founding and brought him up to the present with both our Wilmette business and the 1984 opening of a new and larger Convito market and restaurant in Chicago.  He was gracious and complimentary, both a true gentleman and a smart businessman.

Luigi’s factory tour began with a journey through a labyrinth of huge vats of butter, oil, eggs and flour.  The ingredients in each tub were automatically piped into central locations to be mixed then baked into various kinds of biscotti.   White-jacketed men and women diligently supervised the highways of steadily moving assembly lines all covered with sheets of pastry that were eventually cut or formed into different shapes and fed into large ovens that would bake them to perfection.  The smell was heavenly.  Luigi tasted a biscotti every now and then and encouraged us to do the same.  What a thrill – we were literally eating a Lazzaroni biscotti hot off the assembly line.  The final destination was the packing area where each type of biscotti was wrapped and boxed in handsome cardboard boxes or in the famous, classy Lazzaroni tins.

 

Nancy with one of the plant managers during tour of the Lazzaroni factory #9

 

Saving the best for last, Luigi led us to another area of the factory, which made what he referred to as a “proper” Amaretti, the most famous of the Lazzaroni products.  I was surprised to learn these flagship biscotti  are made with only three ingredients – sugar, apricot kernels and egg whites.  The aroma of the freshly baked Amaretti filled the air with an almond-like scent.  After completely cooled, the Amaretti were wrapped in pairs in the iconic lightweight green, blue or red patterned paper.

Luigi related the – now legendary – story about the “lighting of the wrappers” – a tradition, which dates back to before he was born. No one is certain of its origin but after an Amaretti is consumed, the wrapper is twisted into a long cylinder, placed on a plate and the top is lit. The wrapper will burn down to the end and then whoosh the skeleton of the paper will gently waft into the air with no trace of the paper left.  The tradition dictates that as the paper is lit, a wish must be made and the higher the paper floats into the air, the more likely the wish will come true.  I have always loved the ritual and never missed a chance to help nudge my wishes along their path to fruition.

Amaretti

Our tour concluded with a stop in the impressive (and huge) computerized storage area, after which we adjourned for lunch to the Lazzagrill, a Lazzaroni market and café, a short drive away.  I had been to this market before with Paolo on our way back from a trip to Switzerland and had purchased many beautiful Lazzaroni tins, but this time being here in the company of one of the owners felt somewhat surreal.

Luigi’s son Mario and his brother Paolo had joined us for lunch, appearing handsome and aristocratic as seemed to be the case with the whole Lazzaroni family. I always felt like I was in the company of Italian aristocracy when I was invited to a Lazzaroni table!

We enjoyed a simple pasta lunch and discussed the Lazzaroni business. There had been a recent split – biscotti and liqueur. The biscuit branch (the D. Lazzaroni & Co.) was sold to an American multinational firm and Paolo kept the liqueur arm of the company “Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli”.

At this point I was very familiar with the biscotti side of the Lazzaroni empire, but less so of their liquor business.  Over lunch the Lazzaoni’s explained the process by which the Amaretto liqueur is made.  The secret formula was created in 1851.  I was amazed to learn that the recipe calls for an infusion of their famous Amaretti di Saronno biscotti.  “So Lazzaroni Amaretto is the only ‘liquid cookie’ that has ever existed,” Paolo pointed out. Of course, we had to sample the Amaretto after learning all that interesting information so Paolo ordered ice cream for dessert, which arrived with the liqueur drizzled on top and sprinkled with crushed Amaretti.  It was delicious!

It is a refreshing and simple dessert.  I also love to add sautéed Amaretto soaked peaches when the fruit is in season.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Sautéed Amaretto Peaches
Serve over 6 dishes of ice cream

2 peaches, halved then pitted, then sliced into thick wedges
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup Amaretto liqueur
½ cup brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the Amaretto and the brown sugar.  Cook and stir until the sugar has melted and the mixture comes to a boil.

Place the peach wedges in a baking dish and baste with the sauce. Bake for 5 minutes.  Peaches should be somewhat soft.  Cool then slice and put onto the ice cream.

Drizzle with Amaretto liqueur and sprinkle with crumbled Amaretti biscotti.

 

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Luigi invited us back to his “house”, a 15thCentury monastery, for a coffee.  We walked through a charming courtyard to Luigi’s half of the monastery (Paolo and his family shared the other half.)  A warm fire greeted us burning on one side of a huge fireplace in a room with high ceilings and wooden beans, old creaking wooden floors and rustic antiques and collections everywhere.  It was magnificent yet strangely not at all pretentious – definitely a home.  After coffee by the fire served in delicate demitasse cups, we said our goodbyes and walked to the train with Mario to go back to Milan.  Mario was going to be in Chicago in one week working at the A.C. Nielson Company so I invited him to stay with me for a few days and promised to introduce him to some of my Convito employees who were of a similar age.

Karen Brussat Butler painting in Luigi Lazzaroni’s den with Luigi’s son Mario on the right

Soon thereafter I left Italy so inspired that all I could think about was how to possibly show my appreciation to this kind and generous man for the incredibly perfect day he provided for Roberta and I.  After I got home, it wasn’t long before I decided on the appropriate gift – one of the watercolors my sister had painted for our first Convito – Karen Brussat Butler’s painting of three whimsical onlookers admiring the Amaretti di Saronno tin, which was in the center of the painting.  As difficult as it was to part with the painting, I carefully wrapped it and shipped it to Saronno.  Luigi telexed me immediately to tell me that Karen’s painting was now hanging on a wall in his den and that he could not have been more thrilled.

 

 

 

 

After my exceptional day in Saronno with memories of Amaretti still on my mind, I was inspired to make something using these tasty “cookies”.  I chose a risotto dish using crumbled Amaretti as a finishing touch.  The recipe was based on a risotto I had at a Milanese restaurant – an autumn risotto with butternut squash and sage. I thought the sweet nutty taste of the butternut squash topped with crumbled Amaretti was a lovely combination.  It was – and is!

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Risotto with Butternut Squash, Sage & Amaretti
(Serves 6)

1-pound butternut squash
4 sage leaves
1-cup chicken broth
Salt & freshly ground pepper

Peel the squash.  Dice it into ½ inch cubes.  Place the cubed squash, 4 sage leaves, the chicken broth, salt and pepper into a heavy bottom pot.  Cook over medium heat until tender but not too soft – approximately 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
9 sage leaves – 3 chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & freshly ground pepper
6 to 8 Amaretti biscotti crumbled

In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer.  Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat.  Add the chopped sage and sauté cook for 1 minute. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until soft.  Add the rice and stir until coated.  Add the wine and stir until absorbed.  Begin adding the simmer broth ½ cup at a time. Continue stir-cooking always making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and yet not adding too much broth at a time.  This process should be done over medium heat.  (approximate cooking time is 30 minutes)

At the same time gently fry the remaining 6 sage leaves in a little olive oil until crisp.  Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

About 20 minutes into the process, add the butternut squash and stir into the rice.  Continue adding broth.  The rice is done when it is firm but tender.  You may need more broth or if you run out, use hot water.

When you estimate the dish is a few minutes away from being done, turn off the heat.  Add the Parmesan, stirring in to the rice.  You may want to add another tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve on individual plates or bowls topped with the crumbled Amaretti and a fried sage leaf.

 

I returned to Saronno many times over the years, including two more factory tours. It is always interesting and each visit reveals something new – a detail or nuance I had not noticed during my prior visit.  The history and culture enveloped within their compound will always fascinate and amaze me and I feel very lucky to count the Lazzaroni family as friends.

Early on in this friendship I recognized that both Luigi and I had many things in common besides our love of his family’s biscotti.  It was apparent in visiting his home that we both had inherited the “collector” gene.  For both of us, art represented one of those collections – art in all periods and styles.  My own particular love of art began in college with my very first acquisition of a watercolor painted by my sister Karen. Eventually – and when I could afford it – I began to collect all periods; everything from 19thcentury British landscapes, to abstract modern oils and of course many more of my sister’s watercolors.  It appeared that Luigi’s taste in art was as eclectic as mine.  His home reflected that diversity and his interest in art and artists was quite deep.  He even opened a three-room art gallery for an artist friend, which he installed in a street side section of the monastery.

 

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After enjoying and admiring the whimsical watercolor of the Amaretti tin that I had sent him, Luigi was most anxious to meet the artist who created it, so in 1988 when my sister Karen and I were in Milan for the last leg of our Italian journey, he decided to hold a party in her honor at his home in Saronno.  Karen remembers the night as quite an “international affair” with the guests standing around in intimate circles all engaged in animated conversation about a wide variety of topics; current events, travel, fashion and especially art.  At least three languages were spoken – mostly Italian but also a smattering of French interspersed with English translations for Karen and I.   The guests included Luigi’s lovely daughter Gwenda, his handsome younger son Giulio, his beautiful wife Pucci, restaurateur Eugenio Medalgiani, a woman affiliated with the House of Krizia, a most sophisticated woman from Venice and a funny businessman who provided many a laugh that evening – to name just a few.  We were entranced!

It was that evening I also discovered that Luigi’s friends called him Gigi not Luigi.  Although he invited me to do the same – which I did occasionally – I mostly reverted back to his more formal name Luigi, the name I had come to know him by from our first meeting.

Luigi gave Karen a tour of his home commenting on the art and pointing out the many paintings of biscotti that he had commissioned from various artist friends over the years.  We then settled in for a delicious 5-course meal including two pastas, a fish course, Beef Wellington and gelato.  After returning to the U.S. Karen decided to add a painting to Luigi’s collection of biscotti art naming her contribution “The Six Stages of Growing Biscuits”.  The idea came from “The Six Stages of Wine Tasting”, a series she had painted for our wine list (blog – Lombardia IV “An Education in Wine Tasting”). Again Luigi was thrilled to receive Karen’s playful interpretation of how biscotti are made.

 

“The Six Stages of Growing Biscuits” – a painting by Karen Brussat Butler

 

Collecting for Luigi – and for me as a matter of fact, extended beyond collecting art.  It was quite clear from my first visit that Luigi was an extraordinary and dedicated collector of many things.  You couldn’t enter his home without noticing that fact.  During a 1989 trip to Italy with my friend, the late (great!) Leslee Reis (award winning Evanston chef/restaurateur) we were invited to stay the night at Luigi’s home.  Leslee was somewhat of a collector herself so, of course, she was most anxious to meet Luigi and view the collections she had heard so much about. She was also fascinated with the whole psychology of collecting.

 Arriving in Saronno after a two-week journey through Friuli and Veneto, we were ushered into his living room by the housekeeper to await Luigi’s arrival.  His collections were everywhere – a basket of marble, crystal and china eggs, a cupboard filled with antique toy trucks, a shelf overflowing with duck decoys, an array of dressing table mirrors in the upstairs room I was to stay in – not to mention his amazing collection of antique cars – real ones stored in a large garage in the monastery complex.  Luigi finally arrived “gracefully sweeping into the room”, as Leslee would later describe him in her travel journal, “like the claimant to the throne of Norway”.

After warm greetings, introductions and a brief catching up, Leslee began to ask a barrage of questions about the amazing collections displayed all around the room.  She was especially interested in an assortment of old corkscrews lying on an antique oak table.  “What was your reason for collecting these?” she asked.  “History,” Luigi answered.  “Some date back to the beginning of bottling wine.  They tell a story!  All collections tell some kind of story,”

 

Luigi and Leslee discussing “collecting” in his courtyard.

“Nancy and I are also collectors”, Leslee stated. “Although not on this scale! Does that mean we all have obsessive personalities – that something is missing deep down inside?” she asked laughingly.  After a long “collector’s mentality” conversation we all concluded that at least for the three of us, much of our reason for collecting was wrapped up in the actual “hunt”, the thrill of discovery.  And as for me, my reasons are mostly tied up in the exercise of “savoring memories” – reminders of past good times.  I still love to review each piece in every collection I have and recollect the place where I discovered it and the people I had been with during that discovery.   It’s a combination of nostalgia and celebration.

Before we left for dinner that night to the nearby town of Como situated on Lake Como, Luigi wanted to show us the gardens of the monastery.  They were enchanting – complete with several fountains, a swimming pool, an assortment of statues and even an aviary with quail and thrush twittering about.

The next morning the occupants of that aviary awakened us with a lovely chorus of mixed bird tweets reminding us that it was time to get up and get on the road.  We met for a quick coffee – and biscuits, of course – served with a delicious local honey and blackberry preserves and an equally quick tour of the newly restored church of the monastery – a project the Lazzaroni family had helped to fund.

Once again upon my return to the U.S. the Amaretti biscuit and Amaretto liqueur served as an inspiration for some new recipes. This time is was Leslee’s turn. She decided to give Convito her rice tart recipe made with Amaretto liqueur.

 

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Caramelized Rice Torte

recipe by Lesee Rice

 

Giulio with Candace and friends at our house in Glencoe

After being welcomed in Luigi’s home so often over the years I was always thrilled when I could welcome him to Chicago.  Both sons, Mario and Giulio visited my Glencoe home – Mario in the eighties and Giulio in the nineties. After I moved to Chicago, Luigi visited several times – once with his son Guilio using my Chicago townhouse as his headquarters when I was away on a trip to the east coast.

 

During one of his visits we dined at my French bistro Betise and discovered that our ”art connection” went even deeper than we realized.   Much of the ambience of my restaurants comes from the art I have purchased.  Many were my sister’s watercolors, some were by other artists I had commissioned and some were whimsical mixed media photographs from my son-in-law, Rob Warner.  Luigi was especially interested in the drawings and painting from a contest I had sponsored at the local high school.  He too had sponsored art contests and commissioned artists to do paintings for him – recently paintings of half moons (mezzaluna) for the newly opened restaurant Mezzaluna, which was housed in his Albergo della Rotonda in Saronno opened in 1992.

 

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Sesto Calende painting Karen Butler painted after our stay at Lazzaroni home of the little village where we had our morning coffee

My very last visit with Luigi was in 1999 when friends and family stayed with me at his lake home near Lago Maggiore in the small village of Oriano Ticino.  The house and the location were perfect and a great starting point for travels to visit winemaker friends in both Piemonte and the Veneto.  Luigi and his wife Pucci came over our first night in residence to give us the lay of the land – nearby restaurant recommendations, top sights and activities in the area and the name of a close by village – Seste Calende – which they highly recommended for a morning coffee and the ideal way to begin the day.

Luigi and Pucci showing us the “lay of the land” during our stay at their lake home

Our host could not have been more helpful during our stay – he and Pucci treated us to dinner at a local restaurant the first night then later in the week took us on a motorboat ride on gorgeous Lago Maggiore (see blog Lake District II Lago Maggiore – One Grand Package”) to the Borromeo islands secretly arranging to have tea with his friends, the actual residents of the palace – the Borromeo royalty.  It was quite magical – and regal – to say the least!

boat trip with Luigi & Pucci on Lago Maggiore

 

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Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Alps situated between Switzerland and Italy (Piemonte and Aosta Valley) was the location of my last adventure with Luigi.  He wanted to share this stunning area of Italy with us – an area which brought back so many memories of his childhood – mostly times with his mother during what he referred as his “coming of age” camping trip.  He picked us up in Oriano and escorted our group of eight from Lombardia to Piemonte to the very base of this huge ice-covered massif.  Most of the group decided to take the chair lift up the mountain with Luigi while those of us with a slight case of vertigo (especially me), remained behind enjoying the view and the crisp mountain air while comfortably sipping on a cappuccino – both feet firmly planted on the ground.

Monte Rosa in the background with Luigi and group

 

We ended our journey with a stop at one of Luigi’s favorite cafés to have what he described as the “best cup of chocolate” in the world.  It was heavenly but we all agreed that it was more like chocolate pudding than hot cocoa.  The spoon could almost stand up in the cup all on it’s own!  However, it was a warm and very sweet note on which to end our trip up the mountain as well as our visit with Luigi – though I did not know it then, this would be the very last time I would ever see him.

When I read the news in 2012 that Luigi had died, I was not only distressed personally but also saddened that the world had lost such a creative and inspirational spirit.  His intelligence and generosity had enriched my life in so many ways and even though I had not seen him in many years we corresponded frequently.  We also kept abreast of the latest Lazaronni family news during our annual trip to the Fancy Food Show in New York City stopping at the Lazzaroni booth to chat with Luigi’s brother Paolo.

It was during these shows that we first met Paolo’s son Luca –yet another striking Lazzaroni.   Luca is the other half of Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli – 7th and 8th generation members of the family who run the company.   Although the liqueur business still operates under the Lazzaroni trademark, the biscuit, panettone and bakery division operates with the Chiostro di Saronno trademark, which now includes many of the products from the original company as well as many new items.  Candace and I were especially interested in their new line of panettones which are an incredibly popular holiday item at Convito.  Everything from the original Milanese recipe to Sambuca and Coffee to Limoncello and many different fruit combinations like Pear and Chocolate and Fig and Chocolate all come packaged in the classic handsome Lazzaroni style.

Luca and Candace began corresponding through email about the best way for Convito to order all these wonderful new products, but it wasn’t until they met in person when the details (and perhaps a next generation friendship) truly began. Luca visited us at Convito during one of his business trips to Chicago and it was on then when the Lazzaroni panettones became officially entrenched as Convito’s flagship holiday product.

We continue to see Paolo and Luca from time to time; once for dinner in the Village in New York after a long day at the Fancy Food show and again with my whole family on the way to our rented villa on Lake Garda when Paolo and Luca treated us all to a lovely breakfast at their Saronno home. (blog Veneto III “Food, Family and Traditions”)

 

Luca and Candace in the Saronno archive room

 

I continue to be inspired by this little cookie. Both the Amaretti cookie and the Amaretto liqueur are delicious all on their own but they make great additions to many different dishes – both sweet and savory.  Following is a recent recipe created for our café menu – bacon wrapped pork tenderloin using the Lazzaroni Amaretto liqueur.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Honey & Amaretto
(Serves 4)

 

10 slices bacon
1 pork tenderloin (1 pound) trimmed
salt & pepper
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Amaretto

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Lay the bacon next to one another on a flat surface slightly overlapping each piece.  If 10 bacon slices are not long enough to wrap the pork, use more.

Season the pork with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat.

Sear the pork on all sides until nicely browned.

Place the pork on the bacon slices and wrap around the pork finishing with the seam side down.

Transfer back into the skillets.

Brush honey all over then drizzle with the Amaretto

Roast for 20 to 25 minutes basting several times with the pan juices

Remove from oven and baste again.

Let rest for 5 minutes then slices into 8 slices and serve 2 slices per person.

Note:  This pork tenderloin delicious served with the risotto with butternut squash (above) or the peach and almond risotto (below).

 

Risotto with Peach & Almonds

Make risotto recipe above without the squash and sage but instead use the below 3 ingredients:

Flesh of 3 yellow, ripe peaches, cut into cubes (approximately 3 ½ cups)
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup blanched slivered almonds

Add the peaches, basil and almonds at the end of the risotto cooking time – approximately 10 minutes before it is done.  You don’t want the peaches to disintegrate and lose their flavor by adding them too soon.

 

It is impossible for me to sell or taste a Lazzaroni product without thinking back to that cold January evening when I first met Luigi .  It was truly the beginning of so many things – a rewarding business connection, a friendship that brought other Lazzaroni family and friends into my life and many years of great adventures, interesting conversations and – always – those cookies which burrowed their way into my creative psyche, always begging to be used in yet another sweet (or savory!) dish.

As times goes on my appreciation of the Lazzaroni business has only deepened.   Beyond just their award-winning products, I have come to understand the value of this family’s kindness and generosity – qualities that are absolutely critical to the longevity of both a friendship, as well as a business.  That extraordinary friendship has added a dimension to my Italian travels and to my life that I would not have experienced had Luigi not sat down at my dining table all those many years ago.  I am indebted to the Lazaronni’s for this friendship, for their products, and for the model of graciousness and kindness which I have aspired to emulate in my own stores and restaurants here in the United States.

My family with Paolo and Luca Lazaronni at their Saronno Monstery in 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lombardia V – “A Tourist of a Different Sort”

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I began my journeys in Italy as a tourist, but a tourist of a different sort.  Rather than trying to check off every major city (Rome, Milan, Venice…), the celebrated landmarks (the Colluseum, the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza San Marco…) and all the culinary highlights (Roman Carbonara, Neopolitan pizza, Ligurian pesto, Amalfi coast seafood…) my goal instead was to embrace and absorb the uniqueness this country had to offer from a regional perspective.  Yes, I eventually wanted to have all those bucket-list Italian experiences, but more important to me was finding the places, the people and the moments that were truer to what I considered to be “real” Italy.  I wanted to personally encounter Italy from the point of view of the people who lived there every day.

First I acquainted myself with its canvas.  Rural Italy is as varied as all of the rest of Europe combined.  It is a country where majestic ice-capped mountains descend into romantic, rolling vine-clad hills with sprawling marshes only a few miles away in the lower altitudes and swaths of wheat and corn fields lacing their way through the flatter parts of the country.  It is a place where steep dramatic cliffs and soft sandy beaches dominate the Adriatic coastline, while on the opposite side of the country the Mediterranean coast is lined with some of the most inviting and stunningly beautiful resorts in the world.  The urban parts of Italy hold completely different treasures.  Its charming villages, seaside towns and bustling cities are filled with a multitude of museums, cathedrals, town centers, picturesque piazzas, monuments and artistic treasures that make each region unique and worthy of a visit.

And I intended to see them all.

 

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Most tourists pay for pre-arranged tours or invest in piles of guidebooks.  They then consume those experiences as fast as they can in order to quickly move on to the next one so they can maximize their time spent abroad. I’ve been guilty of that travel philosophy before, and while you do get to cross a lot of things off your list, what you miss is the opportunity to really engage in the culture of wherever it is you are visiting.    When it came to Italy though…I got lucky. My guide was a real live Italian, Paolo Volpara, my friend and business partner, who was steeped in the culture and traditions of most of Italy’s twenty diverse regions.

Consequently, my role as tourist quickly morphed into that of full-fledged student.  Italy became my thesis project.  I immersed myself in all aspects of Italian regional exploration, essential I believed to the authenticity I wanted to bring to my Italian café and market.   It was an intellectual pursuit not matched since my university days spent with lectures, classes, reading assignments and copious note-taking dominating my waking hours.  However, this was a syllabus that was much more fun: international travel, road trips in vintage Italian sports cars, time spent with Italian people of all stripes and the best food and wine Italy had to offer.  I had always loved my time in school, but it was hard to beat this real world seminar on all things Italian.

Primary instructors in that pursuit were my two partners Paolo Volpara and his mother Wanda Bottino.  Wanda assumed the role of culinary mentor.  Not only was she an excellent cook, but also she was extremely knowledgeable about the culinary history of each region.  Her military husband and engineer father took her to many parts of Italy where she had the good fortune to experience firsthand the great diversity of her country’s cuisine.  Her tiny Milanese kitchen was our classroom where we cooked, chatted and ate our way through iconic meals of each region, sometimes cooking up to fifteen dishes during one session.  It was the most comprehensive and totally unique (not to mention delicious) curriculum of any class I have ever taken.

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Wanda and Nancy in Milan

On the days we weren’t cooking, we visited food and wine markets.  Product display was especially interesting to me and Italy’s international reputation for originality and excellence in architecture, interior design, and fashion made even the smallest shop or the most mundane product the canvas for some of the most inspiring packaging and displays I had ever seen.  Most impressive was the sophisticated minimalism that I found so frequently.

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Milan store window

I was always amazed at how nothing but a paper-thin white tissue, half-wrapped around a panini or a few sprigs of rosemary strategically placed on a platter of glistening pork sausages could by their very simplicity, elevate those products to works of arts.

 

Cooking and shopping with Wanda was a hoot. She spoke minimal English and my Berlitz Italian was of the “il cane sotto il tavolo” (the dog is under the table) variety.  But somehow we got along famously and despite the language barrier seemed to understand one another perfectly.  Not only was she a fabulous cook and teacher, but her sense of humor and fearlessness brought me to places and people that I otherwise would not have gone.   She arranged meetings with many local culinary bigwigs – Pasticceria Biffi (the famous panettone makers) and Peck (Milan’s temple of Gastronomical delights) among them.   When our meetings were conducted in English, all was fine since most of the gentlemen we met with spoke better English than my Italian.  But when on occasion we met with someone who did not speak English, the meetings became quite comical mainly because Wanda decided she would translate what our host was saying.  Since she didn’t speak English but decided momentarily that she did, the dialogue became quite mystifying (not to mention hysterical), confusing everyone in the room.  Those are the times I remember most fondly.  She had such a big heart and was determined that one way or another I was going to learn as much of culinary Italy as possible under her tutelage.  And I did.

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Paolo in Villa d’Este on Lake Como instructing Nancy about the history of this beautiful hotel

My other instructor, Paolo, was quite different.   His classroom was conducted in whatever village, city or country road we happened upon in our travels.   His subject matter ranged from impossibly detailed background on Italian history to my favorite subject, the myths, legends and (supposed) origins of the food we were eating and the wine we were drinking.  Far-fetched as many seemed, they always added flavor, intrigue and a good laugh to our journey – and confirmed the fact that Italians really are the very best storytellers.  Paolo in particular! He loved to embellish as well as tease me, so it was incumbent upon me to sort out the facts from the embellishments.  I was not always successful, but that is part of what makes my Italian history uniquely mine and I choose to keep it that way!

 

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Some regions like Calabria and Puglia I traveled to only once, so those stays were usually very intense, the line between student and tourist intertwined as we crammed in as many sights and ate at as many regional restaurants as possible in whatever time we had allotted to those visits in order to experience the variety a region had to offer in one trip.  I’ve always believed there is something to embrace about travelling outside of your comfort zone: unfamiliarity stimulates the brain.  And each new region did just that.

But new sights and sounds in abundance can be exhausting, so Lombardia – and its capital Milan – became my comfort zone.  Milan was the resident city of my two partners so I traveled there as many as five or six times a year in the early eighties.  Because Paolo and I were always going from or coming back to Milan on our regional journeys, I got to know Lombardia quite well by driving through its countryside and many of its little towns as we traveled to other parts of this great country.

Milan became my second home, a place to relax in-between visits to new regions.  I got to know its nooks and crannies, its many layers.  I did not always need a pencil and paper in hand to jot down the details of whatever new food, sight or tradition I had just learned. It felt good to just kick back and enjoy the experience – a new role for me in my Italian journeys.

Other levels of discovery are frequently made once a place feels like home.  Eventually Milan’s most popular districts became as familiar to me as my Chicago neighborhood, so I began to expand my horizons and wander through lesser-known quarters.  It was during these boundless meanderings that I tripped upon many of the little shops, cafes and trattorias that helped me know that Milan was becoming my own personal city.  Sant’ Ambrogio with its charming old houses was a favorite area of exploration.  Many examples of Art Nouveau, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century movement so much a part of Milan’s history and a favorite period of mine, were laced throughout the narrow winding streets of this district.  Coming across an ornate stained glass door or a wrought iron gate with flowing designs of animals and birds was always a thrill and felt like my own personal discovery.

Meru, a little gem of a jewelry store, was another find.  I had never seen such interesting and unique jewelry – especially their signature necklaces and earrings created from the remolding of antique pieces.

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Fornasetti tray

And what can I say about the small Fornasetti shop I came across one day on my way to Paolo’s office?  It became a favorite haunt.   Piero Fornasetti, the Italian painter, sculptor and interior decorator is considered one of the wittiest and most imaginative design artists of the 20thcentury.  At the time I discovered this little shop (which is now much larger) he was still alive and living in Milan.  I loved all of his whimsical home décor – but especially his trays and tableware.  Fornasetti died in 1988 but his influence and sense of play endures to this day.  His pieces can be found in many department stores and shops around the world, as well as in my own collection.

 

 

I also made other kinds of discoveries during these solitary strolls.  Often they were little out-of-the-way trattorias or cafes where I could just sit by myself and enjoy a delicious panini or a bowl of pasta and a few moments of reflection.  Alone is when I do my best thinking, or steeping as I referred to it in an earlier blog.  I clearly remember one particular lunch when I brainstormed (with myself) about an appetizer I wanted to serve at an upcoming event.  The American Institute of Wine and Food had asked Convito to participate in the opening night of their upcoming Chicago conference.  The event was to take place at the Four Seasons hotel.

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Convito’s table at Four Seasons displaying our polenta squares

Each participating restaurant was to provide a signature appetizer for 400 people; displayed and served at their own station.  I had three requirements in mind for Convito’s contribution. For both ease of transporting and serving I wanted them to be room temperature and already assembled.  The third requirement was that the appetizer must clearly represent Italy as an Italian would recognize it.  I didn’t want to serve the usual bruschetta or mini pizzas that I had previously provided for other events and that – though delicious – were more of an American take on traditional Italian fare.  Instead I wanted something new – maybe a reinterpretation of Italian ingredients.   So after considerable thought I came up with an idea of a room-temperature polenta appetizer.

Convito’s savory little squares that were made with polenta, cheese, tomato and basil were the result of that “brainstorming” lunch.  They remain on our catering menu to this day.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Polenta Squares with Goat Cheese
on a Fornasetti tray
(Makes approximately 66 squares)

 

2 cups milk
2 cups water
1 ½ cups cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
1-teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces goat cheese
8 ounces cream cheese
22 cherry tomatoes, sliced into thin round, seeds removed
15 basil leaves, finely julienned

 

Bring the milk, water, butter, salt & pepper to a boil in a heavy bottomed stockpot.

When boiling, slowly add the polenta whisking constantly until it is thick and begins to boil.

Remove from pot, spread onto a greased ½ sheet tray (12×17) and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes

Remove from oven and cool completely

While cooling, combine the goat cheese and cream cheese in a bowl with a mixer

Mix until creamy and smooth.

Spread the cheese evenly on top of the cooled polenta

Cut into 2 x 2 inch squares and garnish each square with 1 cherry tomato round slice then sprinkle with julienned basil and a drop of olive oil

 

Innominato (in Italian it means ‘Without a Name’) was a restaurant I came to know well.  Close to Paolo’s agency in the Brera district, it had become a hangout for company employees; for a business lunch, a relaxing after-work aperitivo or a cozy dinner with friends or fellow employees.   It didn’t aspire to be the quintessential Lombardian restaurant nor was it was aiming for a Michelin star or seeking an award for its wine list.  Rather Innominato was a low-key, casual kind of place – a place where the wait staff was friendly and welcoming, where the food was good typical Italian fare (at times leaning toward the trendy) and where the ambiance was designed to make guests feel comfortable no matter the reason for their dining; a romantic dinner, a quiet business meeting or some kind of celebration.

I loved going there. Not as a tourist.  Not as a student.  But to simply enjoy the experience as a true Italian might.

I usually ordered pasta.  But occasionally I would order one of their many versions of carpaccio.  Although not a new dish by Italian standards (it was invented in the 1950’s by Giuseppe Cipriani from Harry’s Bar in Venice) it is a dish now considered a part of the Italian culinary vernacular.  I like the original which is served with a simple drizzle of Dijon mustard sauce, but the one I love the most was Innominato’s version: hand-sliced beef drizzled with extra virgin olive oil then sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and arugula.

Carpaccio Scottato is another dish I enjoyed at this restaurant – especially as a second course on a warm summer night.  It is thin slices of raw beef seared in the oven ever so slightly.   Only the edges are browned.  Below is a version with sautéed mushrooms, a little rosemary and shaved parmesan.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Carpaccio Scottato
(serves 4)

1 (10 ounce) piece beef tenderloin from the tip end of the roast
1-pound cremini mushroom sliced
¼ pound Parmesan shaved
1 ½ teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
olive oil

 

Wrap the tenderloin with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 2 hours.

Then heat a little olive oil in a heavy skillet over high heat.  Remove the beef from the freezer and rub all side with salt and pepper.  Add the beef to the skillet and sear on all sides. Beef should just be barely seared so inside remains rare. Freeze the v=beef until it is almost frozen (about 1 hour).  Remove from the freezer and slice the beef as thinly as possible with a sharp carving knife.

Sauté the mushroom briefly in olive oil.  Set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees

Grease a little olive oil on four plates that can go into the oven.  Lay the beef slices onto the four plates and season them with a little salt and freshly ground pepper.  Divide and arrange the mushrooms on each plate.  Sprinkle each with rosemary and shaved parmesan. Drizzle all with a little olive oil.  Place the four dishes into a 400-degree oven for 1 minute.  The meat should only be cooked at the edges.  Serve immediately

 

Regional Lombardia offers as much diversity as its capital. Starting with Valtellina’s snow capped mountains and lush green valleys in the north, down through the sparkling wine producing district of Franciacorta, all the way to the Po Valley with its meandering rivers and fertile plains, this region has am embarrassment of riches.  To top all that, some of the world’s most astoundingly beautiful lakes – Como, Garda, Maggiore and Iseo – lie within partially or completely its borders.  Being from the Midwest I am used to long distances of sameness so it was always astounding that each of these distinctive areas were all a part of the same region.

Many of the little Lombardia towns I visited were stops made just because the occasion arose, with no grand plan or pre-set itinerary.  One time we decided to make a last minute trip to Vigevano, a town not far from Milan, just because we wanted to flee the heat of the city and enjoy a morning coffee in someplace less crowded.  Sitting for hours in its Renaissance portico-lined Piazza Ducale I was certainly aware of the beauty of my surroundings but once again I was not there as a tourist or as a student, I was there to read the Herald Tribune and sip my coffee and just enjoy the experience.   On another occasion – a wintery one – we returned to this historic city for nothing more than a warming aperitivo before driving back to Milan for dinner.   At night the town was transformed.  Lit by a soft glow from the lampposts surrounding the piazza, it was the perfect setting for the classic aperitivo, Compari and Soda, a cocktail invented by Gaspare Campari whose Milanese Caffe Campari is often given credit for creating the world’s first cocktail.

Nancy in Piazza Ducale in Vigevano

Another occasion for a journey outside of Milan was the last minute decision Paolo made to attend the wedding of a daughter of one of his clients.  It was held in Cervesina in the Province of Pavia on the lower Ticino River about 50 miles south of Milan.  Unlike the much more formal ceremonies I was used to, this was the most relaxed wedding I have ever attended. Guests casually ambled into the rustic little chapel – many just several seconds before the bride came down the aisle.  There was much chatting and coming and going throughout the ceremony.  Photographers seemed to outnumber the guests.  Lights flashed constantly.  One photographer leaning down to get a better view, abruptly stood up and cracked his head on the protruding niche that contained the statue of Jesus – a slapstick moment that made me stifle a chuckle for fear of offending the assembled family and friends. In America during a serious wedding ceremony laughter would almost certainly have been frowned on.  But here however, a great roar ran through the congregation including guffaws from the bride and groom who seemed to take much delight in the humor of the moment and made the whole ritual feel kind, familiar and genuinely celebratory.

It was such a happy wedding.  It was what I have always assumed was a typical Italian wedding experience though I’m not sure if it was.  Either way, I do know that I will fondly remember it forever.  We stayed briefly for the reception buffet after the ceremony.  Although we ate very little because of a previously planned dinner engagement, one item I liked in particular was a risotto cake. Wanda had made a version in her kitchen during one of our Lombardia cooking sessions.  It’s a great buffet item because it holds so well.

Risotto is a typical dish of the region and we were smack dab in the middle of risotto territory. Over time growing rice spread to every corner of Italy but it never took on the prominence it does in this region, especially in the area around the Po where the wedding took place.

Today we make risotto cakes for our market. They are great all on their own or served as a side with a veal chop or a piece of chicken.  Also risotto cakes are a good way to use leftover risotto (though who ever has leftover risotto!).

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Spinach Risotto Cakes
(makes 12 cakes)

 

risotto cakes
6 cups cooked rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)*
1 cup grated parmesan
1-cup breadcrumbs
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
4 eggs (2 whole and 2 yolks)
1 tablespoon lemon zest
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
canola oil (enough to cover bottom of a skillet large enough to accommodate 6 of the patties – oil should come up to the middle of the patty)

breading
1-cup breadcrumbs
½ cup grated parmesan

 

Mix the risotto cake ingredients together and shape into balls using ½ cup of the mixed rice. Flatten into patties.

Combine breading ingredients and pour onto medium size plate. Press each patty into the breadcrumb mixture on both sides

Heat the canola oil over medium high heat. Sauté 6 of the cakes sautéing for approximately 2 minutes per side then carefully turning them to cook another 2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper toweling. Cook the next batch of six.

Put all on a baking sheet and bake in a 325-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes.

 

Because the area around the Po – the Oltrepo Pavese (literally meaning “behind the Po”) was in such close proximity to Milan, we returned many times over the years, sometimes just to check out some new trattoria Paolo had heard about in some little town or village he wanted me to see.  Known as the Tuscany of the north, the Oltrepo Pavese offers a wide variety of reasons for coming; medieval villages, beautiful panoramic views, out of the way castles and delicious local wines.

Paolo near the Ticino River in Oltrepo Pavese

“This is one of Italy’s best kept secrets,” said Paolo.  He was right.  I was surprised to learn that this particular district produces more wine than any other Lombardia area including Valtellina and Franciacorta.  Often neglected by wine enthusiast tourists in favor of the more familiar regions of Piemonte and Tuscany, Lombardian vineyards offer many things – incredible panoramic views but also peace, quiet and tranquility especially when compared to those other more popular wine destinations. “Authentic” was Paolo’s word for it and I fully agree.

We continued to visit towns and villages around Milan simply because we had the time and the inclination.  Our explorations were frequently a result of simply passing through a new place upon returning to Milan after a visit to another region. Lecco, a city on the southeastern shore of Lake Como, was one of those stops.  We were on our way back to Milan from our weekend visit to the northern district of Valtellina. Our stomachs told us it was dinnertime.  We chose a restaurant with an outside terrace and sat at a table overlooking the lake just as the sun tucked itself into a torn pocket in the sky.  Old tile-lined roofs framed the walls of the garden around a terrace glistening in the setting sun.  That night I was reminded that one of my favorite colors is terracotta, (the color of Convito’s logo) especially in the evening when the sun begins to slide into the west and the sky turns a dusty, powdery blue.  The contrast of those two colors still takes me back to that time and place; a very good – but unremarkable – restaurant in a town I only visited once, but will never forget.

 

A certain Sunday sadness always accompanies me at the end of a productive and activity-filled weekend and this particular one was no exception.  But of all things, on this day a dog lightened my mood.  People who know me well would probably all say that I am decidedly not a “dog person” but this particular beast was incredible.  He was a large dog with straight white (tending toward blond) hair, a large head and kind, somewhat soulful deep brown eyes.  I learned from his master who was also the owner of the restaurant, that the breed – Great Pyrenees – was considered a livestock guardian dog.   His demeanor, said the restaurant owner, was very gentle and affectionate. He certainly didn’t tend livestock this particular night (then again maybe he did!) but his gentle nature was on full display as he went from table to table – just like a great host should – making sure his guests were happy.  He was definitely the star of the restaurant.

After petting our host who seemed to appreciate every pat, I perused the menu and decided upon a Veal Milanese, a Milanese specialty of breaded and sautéed veal scaloppini.  This dish, however, was a reinterpretation of that classic.  The breaded veal scaloppini was topped with a glistening salad of arugula dressed in lemon and olive oil.  It transformed a somewhat wintery dish into light summer fare. It would not be the last time I saw this item on a menu.   Frequently using breaded chicken instead of veal, it has become a very popular item featured on tratorria and bistro menus throughout America and has become a staple on Convito’s summer menu.

 

© rob warner photography 2018

Chicken Paillard with Arugula Salad
(serves 6)

 

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1-cup flour
1-teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
arugula for six
12 cherry tomatoes halved
lemon wedges

vinaigrette
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Pound the chicken breasts between 2 pieces of plastic wrap to an even thickness of approximately 1/3 inch thick

Combine flour, salt & pepper in a wide shallow bowl.  Beat eggs in another wide bowl.  In a third bowl combine the breadcrumbs and the cheese.

Coat the chicken on both sides with the flour mixture then dip both sides into the eggs then into the breadcrumb cheese mixture pressing the crumbs into the chicken to adhere.

Heat 1 tablespoon of butter with 1-tablespoon olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  Sauté two to three of the chicken breasts 2 to 3 minutes on each side until cooked through.  Add more butter and olive oil and sauté the other 3 chicken breasts.  (Add more butter and olive oil if needed)  Chicken breasts should be golden brown.  Transfer chicken to a baking dish and cover with foil.

Toss the argula with the cherry tomatoes (as many as you like).  Make the vinaigrette whisking the olive oil, lemon juice and Dijon together with the salt and pepper.  Toss with the salad.  Place a mound of salad on each hot chicken breast.  Serve with extra lemon wedges

 

After our dinner, dark threatening clouds soon appeared on the horizon ominously signaling an upcoming summer storm. We ordered a dish of chocolate gelato for dessert thinking we could finish before the rains arrived. No such luck.  Just as the gelato was served, the skies opened producing torrents of rain accompanied by ominous bolts of lightening and loud ear-shattering claps of thunder.  It was very intense and frightening, an end-of-the-world type of storm.  As we raced inside the restaurant amidst the chaos, Paolo shouted “This is not the way I pictured my death – hit by a strike of lightening while eating chocolate gelato!”

As we drove back to Milan after the storm had passed I thought about all the wonderful things I had seen and been a part of in this strong and beautiful region. I felt that I was beginning to get a true sense of Lombardia.  It was a serious region with serious work to do.  Its capital, a global center for finance and fashion, the whole region known for its strong agricultural and industrial presence as well as the amazing diversity and beauty of its landscape made it, in my mind, one of the most incredible regions in all of Italy.

However, as much as I had discovered on my journeys to all four corners of Lombarida, I realized that this region still had much to reveal: little towns I had yet to visit, countryside I had not driven through, wines I had not tasted and monuments and museums worthy of hours and days of observation.  At first this seemed daunting to me.  After so many journeys and so many nights on the road how could I have barely scratched the surface of what I thought was my Italian home turf?  How could I ever truly know this country if there was an impossibly long list of things to visit and explore?  But quickly I realized this was instead a gift.  Because I didn’t want any of this to end.  Yes, Italy was becoming a place where I felt very comfortable.  But it was also still a stranger, one who held innumerable secrets and treasures for someone like me who was willing to invest the time and effort to discover them.

So I would once again make myself a little uncomfortable by rushing headlong into another unfamiliar setting.  With great pleasure, I would again resurrect my role as student researching and reading about whatever little village or museum was on my agenda. But the best thing about coming back to Lombardia was that I could have it all, the tourist role, the student role and the relaxed, kick-back-my-heels role where I was simply hanging around familiar haunts, visiting old friends, and returning to places and people that had been an integral part of my regional exploration.

In other words, I would be coming home.

 

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