April 7, 2014

Spring Escapes

This year, my culinary tours began early. I have always dreamed of attending the St Joseph Day celebrations in Sicily since I read about them in an article by Carol Field. They are held in the tiny villages or Salemi, Gibellina and Poggioreale as well as in many other towns.

I organized a tour for Sicilian-American chef, Jasper Mirabile from Kansas City and his group of friends and clients from the restaurant. We had a blast. Jasper still has family in the town of Gibellina and we met up and toured the alters together.

It was amazing how much work went into preparing these, food and wine is cooked for the alter, food is prepared to be shared with those visiting. The breads baked for the decorations take time and skill.

Next year, I want to go back before the celebration and watch as they prepare!

We were lucky to be invited to the home of one of the woman in Poggioreale that is still doing the special bread work which looks like it was made with fabric. She also now makes pieces in glazed clay, which last forever. I bought  a small holy water font like the one in the center of the foto, she also sold me a knife for the decorations. In Italy, knives can never be given as a gift, so I paid 20 cents. Now I need to practice. I already have one of the tools to decorate the Cuccidati which are made at christmas. These decorations are the same sort of dough and fig filling.

Being in Italy for a festival is really special. I highly recommend planning your trip around a festival. Most begin in the afternoon, ending in dinners and or fireworks.

For San Giuseppe, St Joseph, there were several special dishes. One is pasta with a savory breadcrumb sauce, usually with sardines and wild fennel greens. Another dish which we sampled often were the sweets! Sfinci are a fried sweet dough, topped with ricotta, in other areas they are zeppole. We tried several and of course cannoli.

After my first group, I travelled coast to coast with friends, showing them "my sicily" which is of course all food and wine based. One place not to miss is Modica and the oldest chocolate shop, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. We were greated by my friend Pierpaolo Ruta, the owner.

I must say, they have the BEST CANNOLI!!! They have so many wonderful things to buy in their shop. Leave room in your luggage. I especially ADORE the 'mpanatigghi, sort of a empanada. Many of the original products where brought by the Spanish from the new world and Modica still makes chocolate in the style of Oaxaca, Mexico, with the large crunchy sugar crystals. The 'mpanatigghi are meat and chocolate pastries and are not to be missed! Also the marzipan "olives" in olive oil.

I truly promote culture through cooking and think the best way to understand a country is to sit at the table with locals and try new things.

I am heading back to Sicily in May and that group is already filled, but have space in November when the new oil is out!

greek ruins in sicily?

fish cuscus- Sicilian?

Come and explore the secrets of Sicily with me.

am working on some new recipes I picked up this trip and will share them soon!

March 15, 2014

5 of my Favorite Places in Certaldo - #MyHomeTownGuide

Thanks to Honest Cooking and #Fiji Water for asking me to participate in their search for great local food all over the world!

When I moved out to the countryside between Florence and Siena in Tuscany, I knew I would be surrounded by incredible vistas and great cooking. The Tuscan cuisine is down to earth, basic, simple food focusing on local ingredients and the seasons.

I actually live outside the village of Certaldo, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards. Down the hill from me is a farm with Chianina cattle and recently I met a new farmer with goats, cheese will be coming in Spring!

It is a short drive through rolling hills and a long valley to reach this little bit of Camelot. The medieval village is located up on a hill and often from my home, looks like an island floating in a sea of fog.

You don't need a car to get to Certaldo, this small town is on the train route from Florence to Siena.  Hop off the train and walk through the modern town ( from the 1800's) straight up to the main square, using the pedestrian zone. At the end of the square there is a funiculare to take you up to the old village.

old city hall

Certaldo Alto, as it is called, was built in the 1100's as a look out point for the Via Francigena, the pilgrim's walk, from Canterbury in England to Rome.

Now, for me, it is on my Foodie Pilgrimage. Here are some of my tips on where to stop and enjoy the BEST in this tiny town.

1. Jam Caffe'

Located right at the train station, this is a MUST. Pastry Chef/ Owner Andrea Calvetti is wonderful. Starting in the morning with incredible pastries or savory for breakfast. Jam Cafe has something going on all day. Light lunches are also available, served in their garden and late afternoon you may catch their occasional apertivo parties. In summer, this is where I get my Caffe' Shakerato, Italy's answer to iced coffee. They pour a shot of expresso into a cocktail shaker with ice, add sugar if you like, and shake like crazy until the ice melts. When they pour it out, it looks like a chilled cappuccino! Check out the wonderful artisan beers they have too and enjoy with a sandwich on the house made breads.

2. La Saletta

Not easy to find at first, La Saletta is located behind the Dolce Follie Pastry shop on the main square in town. Gianpiero's mom owns the pastry shop and he and his wife Grazie, run the wine bar/ restaurant in the back. There is a formal entrance from the main street where the traffic light is, and now outdoor dining on the road too. I prefer the small dining room, decorated with a wonderful selection of Tuscan Wines. The food is some of the BEST I had had in Tuscany. Above is an antipasto of sheep's milk cheeses served with jams and foie gras on toast topped with lard..... HEAVEN. The menu is constantly changing, but if you get a chance to try his version of onion soup, GET IT. Certaldo is famous for the local red onion. He slowly cooks the onion and then in the Tuscan tradition for soup making, adds some of the stale Tuscan bread, and cooks it down into a porridge like consistency and stirs in fresh chunks of local sheep's milk cheese at the end. The fresh pasta is homemade, the sauces like your Italian grandma would make for you. This is a place to splurge and eat and have him pair wine for your meal.

La Saletta
via Roma, 4
0571/668- 188

3. Come a Casa Tua

Come a Casa Tua, means just like at your house. An eclectic little trattoria with 20 seats, always a good idea to reserve. It is a personal favorite. This charming young couple from Naples has brought a light,fun place to eat. I adore their pasta served in the skillet, especially the "house" version with Zucchini. We always start to coccoli addictive fried dough balls. You can build a meal around the antipasti and pasta or soups, but save room for dessert. This is a place I always get several to share, her tiramisu is one of the best i have ever had at a restaurant.

your chef, Sarah
Come a Casa Tua
Via Boccaccio, 24
Certaldo Alto

view of Certaldo Alto

Enoteca Boccaccio

foto casini.it

Andrea Casini serves wine by the glass as well as selling bottles to go. Sit and people watch on the main street and order something to snack on. Traditional bruschetta, local salami and cheeses. It is a favorite with the locals. There are also more tables around the corner in the entrance to the Palazzo Giannozzi. Perfect for a light lunch or a snack anytime of the day. The shop also sells products to take home and have your own party!

Enoteca Boccaccio
Via Boccaccio, 37

5 Food Festivals
I adore parties based around food and Certaldo has several events held in the old village.

June-  A Cena con Sig.Boccaccio- A medieval dinner is held in the streets, seating about 300 people with a theatre show in the streets between courses. When you leave you take your clay dinnerware with you as a gift. The dinners are held two nights in June usually the 1st and 2nd Saturday.

foto tuscany-villas.com
Boccacesca is local food festival in September with tastings, classes, dinners and events. Check out this site to know the dates.

the local boys, people watching

local street artist illustration of one of the Boccaccio Stories for the Festival

Just 5 little teasers to have you put my town on your list of places to visit. There are so many more reasons to come! There are hotels in town and lots of b&b's, more restaurants, museums, artists and artisans.

Share your favorite spots to eat, stay and play in your hometown.

February 17, 2014


It seems like Spring has arrived in Tuscany. The hills are green, in my garden the violets are already blooming and my roses never stopped blooming all winter.

The foto is from the hillside near my home, a new farmer has started raising goats and soon will be producing goat cheese. I can't wait. 

Last year I planted 10 asparagus plants and they say to not harvest any the first year, so i just harvested my first asparagus this year, a pencil thin tiny one.

I adore the spring markets and today bought some large artichokes called mamme. These are more like the thick-leafed artichokes I grew up eating boiled. Here we remove all the thick outer leaves and cut off the tough tips. I used an old recipe calle Carciofi Ritti, which means cooked "standing up".

I took the opportunity to use one of the new clay pots I bought on my research trip to Puglia. It was perfect!

These artichokes had no choke, I stuffed them with chopped parsley and garlic and they are braised in oil and water with salt and pepper.

They are sold with their stems, which are just an extension of the heart, so they are often left on the artichoke, peeled and eaten. 

Carciofi Ritti

Remove the tough outer leaves from the artichoke. any touch leaves left on will make it harder to eat later.
Cut off the top third of the articoke.
Remove the tough skin from the stem.

Fill the center of the artichoke with chopped parsley, minced garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper.

Place cut side down in a large pot.
Add 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and 1 cup of water. Season the cooking liquid with salt and pepper, add any left over parsley to the pan.

Cover and cook until the artichokes are tender, about 20 minutes.

You can easily recreate the flavors of this recipe using other artichokes or even frozen artichoke hearts. If you have access to fresh artichokes, look at the photos on my website for how to prepare the artichokes or use the whole artichoke hearts without the leaves to stew, in Venice you can buy the cleaned whole hearts. 

February 3, 2014

Tuscan Toast

A common "snack" at the coffee shop bars in and around Italy are "toasts", not "panini".
Panino means sandwich and they are not put in a "panini press" unless you ask.

Most panini are made with lettuce and mayonnaise and they would not think about heating them.

But there is a hot ham and cheese sandwich  called TOAST in Italian, it is rather sad, as it is sliced white bread with processed cheese and thinly sliced cooked ham, not prosciutto.

As the temperatures were dropping, I was craving a grilled cheese sandwich and some soup.

I missed the little spell of rain we had, we was a lot all at once and flooded many areas on Italy.

Today I picked up some provolone cheese and some sliced mortadella. A loaf of traditional Tuscan bread, sliced not too thick. I used my mom's old trick of buttering the outside slices of the sandwich and cooked them on my cast iron crepe pan.

My Tuscan husband gave his full approval!

I sprinkled the sandwich with some sea salt before serving, our bread is unsalted as is our butter.

Have you ever had the Mozzarella in Carozza they make in Naples?

Sliced mozzarella between the sliced bread ( I like to throw in a couple of salt-packed capers)
and then the bread is dipped in beaten eggs, like french toast and cooked in the griddle with some olive oil.

Now that's TOAST!

Italy has a huge history of using bread as base to start a meal, crostini or crostoni, larger slices of bread, for merenda:snacks.

One of my favorites is Salsiccia e Stracchino. Mix equal parts of simple sausage meat with stracchino cheese. Sometimes stracchino is called crescenza. If you cannot find it, I suggest using neufchatel cheese mixed with 2 tbs of sour cream.

Mix the ingredients together with a fork and spread on a slice of country style bread and broil until the cheese is golden.

Buon appetito!

I have posted my new weeklong programs on my site Divina Cucina. If you are coming to Chianti, there is also a link for my new APP Chianti:FOOD&WINE my favorite places to eat, drink, shop and sleep! A personal guide for getting around if you are not coming with me!

My Chianti programs are all year long, except when I am in Sicily, there is still space in the May  and November program, when the new oil is just pressed!

January 29, 2014

Coffee Culture

In Italy, coffee is almost a religious experience.
Each person has their favorite coffee, grind and how to make it at home and where to get it when they go out.

At home, most people make simple coffee using a MOKA or stovetop style coffee pot.

You get your espresso out at a bar, where the machines have been left on, the water is HOT and they have good pressure.

Then decisions how do you want your coffee? No venti latte's here! Espresso, macchiato, in vetro, in tazza, corretto, cappuccino senza schiuma, caffe lungo, americano.

Recently I was contacted by a new company in America, European Coffee Society, that is importing some of Europe's best artisan coffee roasters; Hippolyte in Paris, Oliver in Vienna or Andrea in Pisa.

With what it costs to get a crappy, burnt cappuccino or caffe latte from a chain, you can create your own fabulous versions at home in your own kitchen.

I met Andrea Trinci when I first moved here at the family shop,which at the time was next to Roberto Catinari's Chocolate shop in Agliana. The Trinci family was also roasting the cocoa beans for the chocolate maker. It was always a treat to head out to get both chocolate and coffee, our kind of treasure hunt. 

To appreciate what goes into making a better coffee, check out the write-up on each of the coffee roasters. Here is Andrea Trinci's profile. His coffee is from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, slow roasted over Acacia wood. The beans come whole, shipped when they are freshly roasted and vacuum packed and then in this lovely bag. Since we always buy our coffee ground, we had to go to a friend's bar and have her grind it for us for our Moka. We immediately made a coffee and share it. We are now her best friends!

Treat yourself! We deserve it! I personally believe we should spend more on quality ingredients to eat and drink. 

When you come to Italy, you can make the treck out to meet Andrea in person and stock up! Until then, thanks to Ted, for sharing his contacts and coffee with us!

Once you have had incredible coffee, it is hard to go back! 

January 27, 2014

Tuscan Comfort Food- Risotto al Pomodoro

Winter weather is finally kicking in slowly. The temperature is dropping but the sun is still shining. We are expecting snow this week, so from spring to winter now. In my garden the violets were just starting to bloom and the roses had also been blooming like crazy.

I noticed that the irises were also starting to poke out their long spiky leaves. Hope the freezing weather doesn't cause too much havoc. 

I adore winter for the bitter greens, oranges and comfort food it brings with it.

I was telling my husband about a wonderful dish of pasta i remember fro a trattoria on the Arno river called Il Cigno. They served a hot, hot, hot plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce with a raw egg yolk on top. You stirred the egg in as soon as you got the plate of pasta in front of you, sort of a tomato carbonara.

Andrea told me his mom did that for them with tomato risotto. I had to try it.

I adore simple recipes and love recreating my mother-in-law Tina's dishes for my husband.

I made a simple classic risotto, I used Vialone Nano, a short grained rice and canned tomatoes.

When the risotto is done, like for the pasta, I plated it up and served on the hot rice, for my foto above I put a large dose of freshly grated parmesan cheese to create a little nest! For my husband, I put the yolk right on the rice and let him stir in it and add his own parmesan.

It was a huge success. Really a one dish meal. I used 1 cup of rice for the two of us, and 1 small can of tomatoes and it was a huge portion.

Tina's Risotto al Pomodoro
2 large servings or 4 smaller for an first course

1 cup risotto rice ( arborio, vialone nano or canaroli)
2 cups tomato sauce ( I used a small can of tomatoes and chopped the tomatoes and measured)
1 small onion, minced ( where I live now, Certaldo,we are famous for the red onions)
1 garlic clove, minced
salt to taste
extra virgin olive oil

1 egg yolk per person
freshly grated parmesan cheese

Cover the bottom of your pot with olive oil and saute the onion and the garlic, until translucent.
Add the rice and stir to heat well. They call this "toasting" the rice, it does not change color.

Add the chopped tomatoes and the sauce from the can.

As the rice cooks, it will absorb the liquid, have extra water on hand. I don't use broth.

The rice should absorb twice its weight in liquid. The can is about 1 cup of sauce.
Add the rest of the water and stir until the rice is cooked. Should take about 15 minutes.

Taste a kernel of rice, bit it with your front teeth, it should not be crunchy, but still have a little "bite". Adjust the salt to taste.

Serve the risotto HOT. Create a little crater for the yolk and place the yolk gently on the rice.
Or you can first place the grated parmesan cheese and then the yolk.

Have everyone stir the yolk into the rice, which will cook it with the heat, creating a creamy sauce.