LEMON RISOTTO

Here in northern Italy, rice is king. Rice has been cultivated in the Po Valley since the Middle Ages. So it is no surprise that risotto is a staple dish in these parts. I have loved risotto for years and even before moving to Italy, risotto was a regular staple at our family dinners. Risotto is usually served as a “Primo” (first course) dish which is followed by a meat or poultry second course but it can also be served as a main dish. Since moving here, I have seen and tasted a myriad of risotto dishes, everything from lobster to blueberry risottos. The flavors and combination of ingredients seem endless.

For whatever reason, many people seem to think that making risotto is difficult, that it is a “chefy” dish that should be left to the professionals. I couldn’t disagree more. Once you get the hang of a basic risotto, you can start adding ingredients and play with flavors. This recipe is a basic “Risotto Bianco” (white risotto) with the only added ingredient being lemon. It’s simple and a favorite with my picky teenager. 

LEMON RISOTTO RECIPE – SERVES 4

2 cups (500 g) of Italian rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, Roma, etc.)

1 cup (250 ml) of dry white wine (room temp)

2 large shallots or 1 medium white onion – minced

½ cup (125 g) of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese

1 lemon zested

3 tablespoons (45 ml) of extra-virgin olive oil

2-3 tablespoons (30 ml) of butter

4 cups (1 L) vegetable stock

Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Bring your vegetable stock to a simmer. Heat up a frying pan, add oil and let it warm up. Then add shallots or onions and saute until they become soft, about 5 minutes.

At this point add the rice and mix until coated in olive oil. Stir frequently and cook the rice until it becomes translucent. Be careful not brown the rice! Add the wine and stir occasionally until wine is absorbed into the rice. Add a pinch of salt then it’s time to start adding the vegetable stock. Add one ladle full at a time and stir until the stock is absorbed into the rice. Keep repeating until the rice is al dente, which means firm but chewy, not mushy.

Once you’re happy with the consistency, add butter, cheese, and lemon zest and stir. Taste rice and adjust salt level if needed. Note that if it lacks flavor, it’s because it lacks salt. Serve with a sprinkle of Parmigiano or Grana Padano on top. Buon appetito! 

NOTES:

  • This risotto has a light lemon flavor. If you prefer a stronger lemon taste you can add the lemon juice of your zested lemon at the end when you add the cheese, butter and lemon zest. 
  • Risotto can be dry or soupy. As I’ve learned here in Italy, it’s all a matter of personal preference. If you prefer a more soupy risotto, just add more stock. 
  • In this recipe I used a dry white Soave wine. 

BASILICA OF SANT’ AMBROGIO

Back in January I visited one of my favorite churches in Milan, Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio. I love exploring churches in Milan. As a Protestant, I especially like learning about early church history and there is lots to learn here. Milan’s history is long and rich and its Christian roots are some of the oldest in the world. Saint Ambrose, who was the bishop of Milan in the fourth century, built the church on the site of what was believed to be the graves of martyrs. The building was consecrated in 379 and named Basilica Martyrum. Eventually, Ambrose was laid to rest in the crypt with the bodies of two 2nd century martyrs by his side and the church was renamed in his honor. In fact, you can still walk down into the crypt and get a glimpse of Ambrose, Gervasius and Protasius (martyred in the 2nd century). If you have teenage boys, you will score big points if you take them down into the crypt; “creepy” and “cool” were the adjectives my teenage son used. 

Over the centuries the Basilica has undergone renovations and repairs. What exists now is the result of a 12th century renovation in the Romanesque style but there are bits and pieces of the 4th century building that remain. As someone who comes from a relatively young country, my mind is baffled when I walk into this church. It’s hard to digest that a building has existed for 1,641 years continuously (!). As I stood in the nave, I thought, “How many people have walked on these stones?” I’m sure the answer is hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

The architecture of this building is really stunning but I find the oldest parts of basilica to be the most interesting. San Vittore in Ciel d’oro, a small little chapel that existed before the construction of the Basilica, was incorporated into the building. It was originally a dome shaped chapel whose use is debated. Some say it was the funerary chapel for Ambrose’ brother, Satyrus, and others believe it was a chapel dedicated to the martyrs. Now it serves as a sparse little museum the highlight being the dome ceiling where you’ll find the oldest intact paleo Christian mosaics in all of Italy. There’s debate as to exactly how old they are, but scholars such as Gilliam Mackie agree they likely date to the late 300s or early 400s. On the ceiling is a mosaic of Victor Maurus, a Roman Praetorian who destroyed pagan altars and was beheaded for his crimes in 303 during the persecution that took place during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Saints Nebor and Felix, also early Christian martyrs, and the earliest picture of Saint Ambrose are depicted on the walls just below the dome. The symbolism and detail in these mosaics are incredible. 

I would tell you to come visit and see this ancient Basilica for yourself, but the sad reality is travel to Italy by non-Europeans will likely not resume until late Fall of 2020 or early 2021. Until then, I’ll continue to write about interesting places in Milan in hopes that you will one day visit. 

WHEN WILL ITALY BE OPEN FOR TOURISM? – update!

UPDATE: On Saturday, May 16th the Italian government announced that travel restrictions will be lifted on June 3. This announcement came as a surprise to many, including me, who expected tourism to be pushed out into late summer (see original post below). In an effort to save the tourist season, the government will allow tourists to enter the country without having to observe a 14 day quarantine. Good news, right? It is, indeed but there’s a catch. The lifting of travel restrictions only applies to those visiting from the European Union, Schengen Area, United Kingdom, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino. As for when tourists from other countries can visit without the mandatory 14 day quarantine, it’s a bit unclear. The European Union has a ban on foreign tourism until June 15. If that ban is lifted and not extended then Non-European tourists will, most likely, be allowed to visit.

ORIGINAL POST

As of today, in Italy there are 219,070 cases of COVID-19 and 30,560 deaths. In our region (Lombardy) the number of cases has reached 81,507 which has resulted in 14,986 deaths. The number of new cases and daily deaths continue to drop each day. It has been a torturously slow decrease in numbers over the course of two months.

One week ago we entered into Phase 2, the plan to gradually re-open the country. There has definitely been more movement around town. People are enjoying their increased freedom and many are eager to get back to work. Museums and retail shops will open on May 18 and restaurants and bars will open on June 1. Of course, social distancing will stay in place and businesses and public spaces have to ensure they follow a list of rules to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. 

This lovely video put out by the Italian Tourism Board in March was careful not to include Milan, Bergamo or Brescia. The cities hit hardest by Coronavirus.

Obviously, tourism is a huge part of the Italian economy. It makes up 13 percent of the total GDP. There is alot discussion and debate on when tourism can begin again and what exactly that will look like. The Italian tourism board currently has no information on when the country will be open for tourism and no announcement or plan has been put in place (yet) on how to restart the industry. The Minister of Tourism has ensured the country that plans are in the works. Some have speculated that any kind of travel within Europe will not be allowed until July or August. The question of when Non-European tourists will be allowed into the country is still up in the air. I think it’s safe to say that travel to Italy from Non-European countries will not happen until Fall of 2020 at the very earliest. In the meantime, It truly saddens me that so many people and businesses will suffer so much for the foreseeable future.

Here are a few helpful sites to help you plan your future visit:

Italian Tourism Board

U.S. State Department Travel Advisory

World Health Organization – Travel Advice

ITALIAN TUNA SALAD

One thing I’ve learned about Italians is that they love tuna. In Italy tuna is used in countless ways – in pasta, pizza, piadini, panini and much more. I still haven’t warmed up to the idea of tuna on pizza. I haven’t tried it so maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Unlike the U.S. where there are different kinds of canned tuna, here it is only available packed in olive oil. I love the taste of Italian tuna but I prefer to use a brand that packs their tuna in less oil.

A few years ago, an Italian friend made a version of this salad for me and we enjoyed it together on a hot summer day. I have seen many versions of tuna salad here in Italy. This version is definitely a veggie packed, healthy option. As summer approaches and temperatures rise, this is a perfect low carb meal to enjoy with a crisp white wine.

The beauty of this recipe is that you can change it according to your taste. If you don’t like chickpeas or prefer to use less red onion, by all means, change it and make it your own. This salad can be served on a bed of lettuce tossed with olive oil, or by itself. Buon appetito! 

italian tuna salad recipe – serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 10 oz  drained canned tuna (preferably packed in olive oil) 
  • 14 oz of chickpeas (drained)
  • 2 stalks of celery (chopped)
  • 2 cups of cherry tomatoes (halved or quartered)
  • ½ a medium red onion (chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons of flat leaf parsley (chopped) 
  • 1 teaspoon of whole grain mustard
  • 1-2 tablespoons of mayonnaise
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, mix mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice. Add vegetables and tuna and mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a bed of lettuce tossed with olive oil, or all by itself. Enjoy!

OTHER RECIPES YOU MIGHT ENJOY:

Spicy Shrimp Pasta

Easy Ossobuco Rosso

Chicken Involtini Stuffed with Mortadella, Grana Padano & Sage

Chianti, Radicchio & Gorgonzola Risotto aka Purple Risotto

7 MEMORIES OF PHASE 1 OF LOCKDOWN

After nearly 10 weeks of lockdown, we are nearly at the end of Phase 1. Tomorrow Phase 2 begins here in Italy. The entire country is ready to have a little more freedom, putting the worst behind us and moving forward. You can read about what Phase 2 will look like in my previous post. As we enter into the new phase, here’s what I’ll remember:

#1 SIRENS

The sound of a wailing ambulance – morning, noon and night – was unnerving. It became my ritual to stop and say a quick prayer for whomever was inside.

#2 FOOD

Like any other mother, I want my family to eat well. I want them to enjoy the food I prepare and I want them to have good memories of our family culinary traditions. During lockdown, partly out of necessity and partly out of a desire to bring comfort to my family, I’ve cooked more than ever. I’ve made our favorite dishes, tried new recipes, made brunch a regular event and baked more than I should have. As I tried to give my family some sense of the norm, mealtimes became eventful. Instead of sharing only dinner together, we often sat down at the table two or three times a day.  

#3 NEWS

Since the beginning of the virus outbreak, the Protezione Civile (Italian Civil Protection) has held a national press conference every evening at 6 p.m. We gathered around the TV and waited with dread to see the daily statistics. Are the number of new cases climbing or declining? How many are in intensive care? How many have recovered? And of course, the biggest question, how many died today?

#4 DEATH TOLL

Up until March 15, less than 200 people died daily in Italy from the virus. Then the number jumped to 368. On that day I realized the pandemic was going to get much worse before it got better. It was a sad day. I grieved for the 368 families who had lost a mother, father, husband or wife.

#5 THE PEAK

On March 27 the daily death toll jumped from around 700 to 929. It was the deadliest day of the pandemic. As the grim news was announced that evening, shock and grief rippled through the country. There was a sense of disbelief. We had been told that this virus only affected the elderly and those with weak immune systems. That day I remember grappling with the new reality that there was a high probability that I may get sick or, worse, lose someone I love. 

#6 PSALMS

Every evening at 8 p.m. my family joins our church’s Facebook live feed for the reading of a Psalm and prayer for the sick and those on the frontlines of the pandemic. The Psalms are an incredible comfort in uncertain times.

Nacho expressing how tired he is of his humans.

# 7 NACHO

My family often jokes that our dog (Nacho) has an identity crisis. He’s a French bulldog, with a Mexican name, living in Italy, with an American family. He’s complicated to say the least. During lockdown our little pup has become a constant source of joy and companionship. He spends his days roaming from room to room, checking up on us and bringing us much needed comic relief.

I know that the end of Phase 1 and the decline in numbers is no guarantee that all will be well, but I’m  hoping and praying that better days lie ahead.

SPICY SHRIMP PASTA

I love shrimp but I have yet to embrace the Italian way of eating shrimp. Most of the time, here in Italy, shrimp is served intact. I’ve watched with deep admiration as Italians artfully dismember the little creatures as they eat them. I really have tried to learn this skill but, sadly, I end up embarrassing myself and making a mess. Not artful at all. I suppose I need more practice. 

This is one of my favorite shrimp pasta dishes. It’s a quick and simple recipe that is delicious! I wish I could say it was an authentic Italian dish, something I’ve savored here. The truth is it’s my own creation inspired by shrimp dishes I’ve enjoyed here and in the U.S. I love all things spicy. I suppose it comes with being Mexican-American and growing up with the ever-present bottle of Tapatio or salsa on the table. 

Northern Italy is not known for spicy dishes at all. In fact, most spicy dishes come from southern Italy, usually Calabria. This recipe can be adjusted to your spice tolerance. It pairs beautifully with an Italian dry white wine, like a Saove. Soave is a wine from Italy’s Veneto region, near the city of Verona. For this recipe I used Cadis’ Soave Doc wine which is quite affordable considering it’s rated at 92 points. I highly recommend it! Buon appetito! 

Notes: 

  • If you’re doing the Keto or Paleo diets, simply omit the pasta and bingo, you have a carb-free meal. 
  • If you forego the pasta and aren’t on a carb-free diet, eating this dish with a quality crusty bread is perfect bliss. 

Spicy Shrimp Pasta – Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pound of shrimp (cleaned, peeled and chopped into pieces)

2 garlic cloves (finely chopped)

1  medium onion (finely chopped)

1 can diced tomatoes (not drained)

1 cup of dry white wine (I used a Soave wine in this recipe)

¼ teaspoon of dried oregano

½  to 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes (adjust to your spice tolerance)

1 teaspoon of salt

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons of fresh basil or fresh Italian parsley (chopped)

1 package of tagliatelle or other long pasta 

Directions:

Place shrimp in a bowl and drizzle olive oil over shrimp. Add salt and red pepper flakes and toss shrimp. Heat oil in a large skillet over a medium flame and cook shrimp for approximately 2-3 minutes. Remove shrimp and place in a bowl. Saute onions for approximately 3 to 4 minutes, until translucent. Add tomatoes, wine, garlic, and oregano and simmer for approximately 10 minutes. Return shrimp (and their juices) to the skillet and mix with tomato mixture. Take the skillet off of heat and add herbs (basil or parsley). Adjust salt to taste. At this point you can either add the cooked pasta to your skillet or pour the shrimp mixture over pasta. Either way, it’s necessary to mix the shrimp tomato sauce thoroughly with the pasta. Enjoy! 

I happened to use frozen wild caught Argentinian shrimp for this recipe.
Yummy, yummy!

CORONAVIRUS: HELLO PHASE 2!

Last night, Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, explained to all of Italy what life will look like as we enter into Phase 2 of containment measures. Phase 1 of the lockdown ends next week on May 4 and for several weeks now, many have been asking and wondering when the details of Phase 2 would be revealed. Although the new measures are a bit vague on some details, one thing is very sure and that is the continued enforcement of social distancing in every area of public life. The new phase is laid out in a 70 page document released last night. Here are the highlights:

May 4:

  1. Construction, factory, and wholesale activity may resume
  2. Solo sports are permitted
  3. Travel is prohibited outside of one’s region (unless for medical or work reasons)
  4. Travel within one’s region is allowed but you have to carry an “autocertificazione” (a form that states why your travel is necessary).
  5. Funerals allowed but only with a maximum of 15 people
  6. Parks open

May 18:

  1. Retail shops allowed to open
  2. Museums open
  3. Libraries open
  4. Team sports resume 

June 1:

  1. Restaurants open
  2. Bars and cafes open
  3. Barbers and hair salons open
  4. Beauty spas open

Schools are out for the rest of the year and sadly there’s no word yet on when churches can hold services or meetings. Also, no word on when gyms, sports centers and other cultural meeting places can open. After explaining Phase 2, Conte reiterated that if the number of new cases spike, the country will, once again, go into lockdown. He warned that Italy may not survive the economic consequences of another lockdown. Conte asked Italian citizens to be responsible, abide by the measures and, of course, continue to practice social distancing to avoid a new outbreak.

I’m looking forward to taking long walks and leisurely bike rides next week! 

EASY OSSOBUCO ROSSO

Like so many others, during quarantine, I’ve made an effort to create a rhythm to daily life for my family. I try to find ways to enjoy simple pleasures. One of the ways I’ve sought to do that is making our meals special. Whether it’s trying new recipes, perfecting favorite dishes, or having fun with the table setting, making mealtimes an event helps us to look forward to something pleasurable, something that brings us comfort. There’s a reassuring comfort in a favorite dish and excitement in trying something new. I love that around 2 p.m. every afternoon my youngest son asks the same question, “What’s for dinner?” It makes me giggle because it’s evident he’s anticipating and thinking of what’s to come. 

Last Sunday, I made Ossobuco, which literally means “bone with a hole.” It’s one of my husband’s absolute favorite dishes. It’s a classic Milanese dish of veal shanks braised with wine, broth, vegetables and herbs. There are two versions: the more classic recipe, bianco (served with a gremolada), and rosso (which includes some form of tomato sauce). Since moving to Italy, I’ve learned to make Ossobuco rosso and I’m still working on perfecting the bianco version. It’s typically served with either polenta or risotto alla Milanese. It can also be served with mashed potatoes, which is what I chose. 

There are so many variations of Ossobuco rosso, some people add crushed tomatoes and others only use tomato paste. I found Giada de Laurentiis’ recipe very close to the Italian recipes I found online. Below is the recipe with the slight adjustments I made.

EASY OSSOBUCO ROSSO

This serves 6 people or 4 if you have a hungry man in the house.

(6) 1 to 1.5 inch slices of veal shank (you could also use pork shanks)

2 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste

1 1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/3 cup all purpose flour for dredging

1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup dry white wine

About 4 cups of chicken broth

1 large sprig of fresh rosemary

1 large sprig of thyme

1 bay leaf

2 whole cloves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. If you want to secure the meat to the bone, use kitchen twine to do so. The twine keeps the meat from falling off the bone. I did not have twine on hand and decided against braving the grocery store in search of twine. Season each piece with salt and pepper and dredge in flour.

In retrospect, I had a little too much flour on each piece.

In a roasting pan or dutch oven heat pan on medium flame until hot, add oil then add veal in a single layer. Cook (5-8 minutes on each side) until brown. Transfer veal to a plate.

In the same pan, add onion, carrot, and celery. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook until onion is tender, about 6 minutes.

Stir in tomato paste and saute for 1 minute. Stir in wine and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Return veal back into pan and add enough broth to cover two-thirds of the veal. Add herbs and cloves. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover and transfer to oven. Braise until for-tender, about 1.5 hours total. Turn veal every 30 minutes.

The finished product. As you can see, I added a little too much chicken broth.

Remove the veal. At this point, Giada suggests using a sieve over a large bowl to remove the vegetables and herbs. I chose not to because I like the taste and texture of braised veggies and I have a 14 yr old boy who needs veggies in any way possible. I removed the herbs, and adjusted the salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over veal and garnish with parsley.

Buon appetito!