Update from Italy: Kitchen Wins in Quarantine

Mmmmmm cinnamon rolls are good for what ails you. Photo by Kjartan Einarsson on Unsplash

Jason and I are both decent in the kitchen. We have always been a good match in many ways, but in few arenas as harmoniously as when we put on our kitchen whites for meal doubles: he’s the grill/oven/roast guy, very often apértifs, and takes care of the wine. I do veggies, sides, starch, and desserts.

In non-pandemic times, our lovely babysitter also regularly helps us with meals on weekday evenings, so our kitchen muscles have atrophied a tiny bit since 2016. We are very spoiled, and we love her, and no, you cannot hire her away from us. She is also handy in the kitchen. That first day, she made us a zucchini frittata, the zucchini sliced razor thin. Eleanor was one year old then, and still breastfeeding and in diapers. Out came a perfect dish, which we had not made, with a glass of wine, on a place mat. I am pretty sure I cried out of relief.

Risha (not her real name) is originally from Sri Lanka, and her repertory extends to fresh-ground spices, purchased in dozens of small packet and nondescript foil balls from the markets around San Lorenzo, crushed fresh garlic, grated coconut, and wizardries of chicken curry and spicy hard-boiled eggs tucked into biryani that I had heretofore never even imagined. Along with her coconut rice balls and jalepeño-encrusted, sope-like doughnuts … But we have not seen Risha since March 9. That was the last day she was here, all of us nervously navigating the narrow path around the yawning new chasm so swiftly opening up in the coming weeks, and swallowing whole our former routines and connections. I put my apron back on, embraced my inner Farm Wife, and with Jason managing the shopping, we started out conveyor belt of family meals again. We’ve ordered takeout maybe three times in the past 52 days. (This is normal for us, excessive even.)

I wanted to note here for my readers a few things we have made in the past seven weeks, which I had either never made before, or had not made for a very long time. I score each one out of 10, ten being YES more PLEASE. These 15 items are all tested by me personally and repeated over (sad quarantine) time, so make your tastebuds happy and get going on one!

Sourdough starter (4 out of 10). I have to start with Izzy. My starter began with the best of intentions, but Izzy was ravenous, gobbling up too much valuable flour and frankly, not really bubbling and going nuts like I’d been led to believe. Her party never really got started, but the after party was always incredible (see additional recipes below). I am not sure what happened. I thought the chlorinated water of Florence might be to blame. I have stopped feeding her for the moment, now that I have my contraband yeast connection here on the inside.

Cinnamon rolls (8). I used the sourdough discard (basically all of my starter has now been designated ‘discard’) to make these cinnamon rolls more than once, adjusting for Italian ingredients (white sugar instead of brown; cheery vanilla MDMA packets instead of liquid vanilla extract). So easy to make. Crispy because of the extra granulated sugar, but made the house smell great and made everyone so happy.

Sourdough bread (6). Kind of dense due to Izzy’s lack of pep, but browned up beautifully in my loaf pan with tinfoil hat. Great for bruschetta and other damp-toast apero snacks.

French boule (7). Went back to my go-to bread recipe. By this time Jason had brought home the cat coffin, so it was easy to bake. The Italian store-bought yeast behaves a bit differently than American yeast, so again, this was denser than I am used to. Still, a success. I’d eat it again like this, but I prefer it on my jacked-up American yeast (“But this yeast goes to 11!”). Really want to press some panini and soon.

Rosemary sea salt sourdough crackers (8). Holy YUM. Pinched a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary from the garden, mixed it up with salt, starter discard, oil, and fresh flour. Out come crackers full of integrity, tasty, dense, rich. Perfect with the goat cheese that Jason bought at the open market yesterday. How can I keep up my discard without messing with Izzy’s overeating and underachieving? Because I want these weekly. I am tired of storebought crackers that turn to dust after an hour in whatever bag I am carrying them in. These crackers will not do that.

Pretzels (10). Easy to make, fun to twist. So fast. Everyone loved these. We didn’t have pretzel salt, so ground up coarse salt with a mortar and pestle. In a second version, I tucked quality hotdogs into each would-be pretzel, and baked them to get the famous Hot Dog Sandwich of Florence, which my kids freak for. Total success. Adults enjoyed with Dijon mustard and wine.

Pantry crumb cake (10). I tried this a few different ways with significant hacks. Blueberry preserves were folded in both times. First cake featured fresh-shelled pecans; second cake, fresh-shelled hazelnuts and orange zest. Both times I cooked it in the oven, in a pot with a lid. Jason and I both agree it is outstanding and needs to go on regular rotation. The recipe is forgiving – perfect for colazione, dopo pranzo con espresso, oppure dopo cena con whisky (breakfast, after lunch with espresso, or well after dinner with scotch). Also freezes well for quarantine cake rationing.

Pan-scared broccoli (9). The best way to make broccoli. Get a wok, turn the flame way up, chop your broccoli, all of it. Oil in the pan. Dash of salt. Sear broccoli on high until you see some nice color. Then add a couple tablespoons of water and put a lid on it. Wait three minutes or so until steaming finishes. Divine.

Orange (or lemon) sauce (10). Chop shallots (or small onion) very fine, sautée on low heat in a couple tablespoons of butter, dash of salt. Whisk in fresh-squeezed orange or lemon juice (if using lemon, add a teaspoon of sugar.) Dresses up your frozen fish, chicken, pork. Insane good. Bright and cheery.

Oeufs à la mayonnaise (10). I made these after I was unable to forget them. I had them in Paris last year about this time in a very old-school bistro for Sunday dinner after the consecration of our new bishop at the Episcopal cathedral. It was like a dream in my mouth. Warm, velvety hard-boiled eggs with homemade mayo, garnished with chopped fresh chives, pickled carrots, and cornichons. High marks for comfort. Which brings us to …

Mayonnaise (9). I mean, why not. We’re at home drinking red wine; shouldn’t we … emulsify something? The first time I made this, we were replicating a French bistro dinner (sound familiar?). The menu that evening was garlic steak, frites, a side salad of dark greens. I suddenly felt an irrepressible urge for fresh mayonnaise. I whipped this up and felt very proud of its garlicky, red wine, fresh egg goodness. If you have not made fresh mayo recently, try it.

Smashed avocado (10). Whoa! Traditionally, I have thought that this was a lot of young hipster hype and so avoided it. But I tried this recipe and have to say, this is the best light lunch in quarantine, hands down. Fresh lemon, chili pepper flakes, smashed garlic. It’s big on flavor, low on volume, with nice healthy lipids to help you cruise through an afternoon of kid chasing and remote work.

Lazy strawberry shortcake (10). Cut up a plum cake or white bread, then top with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. Prepare to be amazed.

Espresso con panna (10). Make a fresh espresso, add a bot of sugar, then dollop any whipped cream on top. Stir in and feel like you’re on a mountain hike in France, amidst white linen tablecloths and fluffy clouds. Ahhhh c’est si bon.

Banana al cacao (10). Big crowd pleaser for the under-ten set. Slice a banana onto a plate, then sift Nesquik over it. Serve with fork.

BONUS: BAR RECIPE

Ginta (10). Pour two fingers of premium gin over ice into highball and top off with orange Fanta. Indescribable. Why does it taste so good?! Ginta take me away …