I never was interested in an inheritance from my parents. Not that I couldn't use some extra financial help when we had our son late in my life (I was 53 when he was born). After my Dad passed, my Mom didn't have all that much anyway... besides, I always felt strange about even discussing such things. When my Mom finally passed on some years ago, I actually refused to deposit the meager check my sister sent along after her affairs were supposedly "finalized".
But when my Mom was alive she did "will" me some things in person when she was moving from her tidy suburban home to a senior citizen's apartment complex. I treasure these simple things.
One treasure was her scolapasta. The literal translation of this essential kitchen tool is "dripping pasta", a very descriptive name for her colander. It might even me called scola maccharon' (macaroni drain) in southern dialect. My Mom would grab a mappine (pronounce mop-EEN, meaning dishtowel), pick up the boiling spaghetti pot and then dump the steaming pasta into the scolapasta to drain the water.
I remember when she offered it to me... "Here, you take this home". It was like she was passing the culinary baton to me and my cooking. No fanfare. But with that simple statement, I was honored all the same.
She must have poured several tons of pasta through that beautiful piece of aluminum for decades before I got it. It's a large one, too... holding two pounds of pasta. I've been using it every time we make pasta in the new Casa Finzi for over a decade now. It's amazing to think that this tool must be over 60 years old--at least--and still going strong. Try that with one made of plastic or from cheap Chinese steel. We actually have another colander that we bought in the famous Dehillerin kitchen shop in Paris, but somehow we always reach for Mom's scolapasta first...
Olive oil has been used in many other ways over the millennium... greasing wheels, cleaning the body, lighting ancient homes in lamps, polishing furniture, but the most important use for the golden elixir throughout the ages is in la Cucina.
But we don't always give our olive oil the respect and care it deserves. After all, we should respect an oil that I've witnessed with my own eyes still coming from trees hundreds and even thousands of years old. Olives are a gift from the gods... a gift of Mother Nature herself. They are a link to our past and a healthy path to our future.
Here are some ways you can give respect to your olive oil...
First of all, not all olive oil deserves your respect. Many oils sold in supermarkets are a mix of oils. Some sold as "olive oil" may be a blend of olive and other oils, like canola, soybean or sunflower.
Don't even bother buying "light", "pure" or "virgin". These are always blends or highly processed and lack the benefits of Extra Virgin in terms of flavor and health benefits. Buy only Extra Virgin Olive Oil... and even then, check the label to make sure the bottle actually contains 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Don't be cheated! Many large corporations are misleading consumers by their labeling and others (the Italian Mafia) are perpetuating outright fraud. Read more about olive oils, what to look for, how it is made and how to avoid the fake stuff in my article, HERE.
Extra-virgin olive oil is higher in polyphenols, low in saturated fat and contains antioxidants, all helping to reduce the risk of heart disease. Phony olive oil blends aren't just a deception, they are a crime against public health.
If you want to fry using olive oil, you might be doing what I used to do--frying in "light olive oil" and saving the Extra Virgin Olive Oil for use directly in recipes. Extra Virgin has a lower smoke point, meaning it's not the best for frying, but here's a trick: Use half Extra Virgin for that olive oil flavor and then add half canola oil to raise the smoke point, which will make your fried foods crispier. Canola has no taste of its own so won't ruin your recipes.
With quality oils, whether domestic or imported, look for a “pressing date” on the label. Sometimes it’s called the “harvest date.” This tells you how fresh the olive oil is. If it’s beyond six months, pass it by. Nutrients (and flavor) in olive oil start to deteriorate six months after pressing.
The "pressing date" or "harvest date" is not the same as the "best used by” date that you will see on supermarket brands of olive oil. Mass producers of supermarket varieties of olive oil will put "best used dates" as long as two years past the date of the actual pressing of the oil. This is simply to prevent people from allowing their oil to go rancid if they store it for too long at home.
If you invest in expensive, high quality Extra Virgin Olive Oils, don't buy more than you can use within six months. An olive oil producer I spoke to in Tuscany told me that one year is the absolute limit olive oil will remain "fresh" (and that's only if it's stored properly... more on that in a second).
Consider buying Unfiltered, Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This is the type of oil I saw and tasted in Italy that really impressed me. It tends to look cloudy because the particulates produced in the first, cold pressing are left in--tremendous, complex flavors, along with added health components. Use unfiltered oils directly on foods, salads, drizzled on bruschetta, cheese, etc. Some argue that removing the small particles (by either filtering or centrifuge) extend the life of the oil in storage. If you buy only what you need for short periods of time, this isn't an issue.
Never buy olive oil in clear bottles! Light causes olive oil to lose flavor and freshness. Buy only in very dark green or brown bottles, or better yet... buy your Extra Virgin olive oil in cans.
If you find a place where you can taste the oil before you by, please do so. As when selecting a wine, your palate might tell you that one oil is more bitter and another a bit fruitier or sweeter. For instance, I'm not a fan of bitter oils... I tend to buy fruitier types. Look for olive oils in local open air markets where they will allow you to taste first, or from specialty olive oil shops that will sell olive oil dispensed from the spigots of their shiny, stainless steel tanks called fusti. These oils can be expensive, but at least you know you are getting the taste that you want.
Try shopping for high quality Extra Virgin Olive Oils online. Even Amazon has many artisan oils on their site. Or Google for them and see what pops up. I'll put some links at the end of this article.
Store your oil properly! If you use a lot of olive oil, buy it in tins only. Buy large tins if you use a lot (we go through about a gallon every 3-4 months or so). Store your oil in a dark place, especially if you buy it in bottles (never buy clear bottles!). Don't keep small, expensive bottles of Extra Virgin on your counter--keep them in your cupboards, away from light. Oxygen is also an enemy of olive oil, so as your larger container gets less full, you might consider transferring the remaining oil into smaller containers. To store a larger amount, think about investing in your own fusti (stainless dispenser tank) for your pantry, dispensing oil into small olive oil carafes for daily use.
To me, this is the most common country kitchen layout... note the cooktop and corner hood, mimicking the open wood fire grill in historic Cucina
When we traveled through Italy, we fell in love with the style of la Cucina Rustica (the Rustic Kitchen), which still influence modern kitchen layouts. Stone, brick, tile and terracotta are the main materials used for sinks, counters, floors and other structures. If there is stone or brick in the structure, exposing them adds to the feeling of warmth. Wood beams on ceilings of above a hearth is almost a requirement. Often a modern cooktop and small oven (by American standards) are complimented by a propane tank and gas burner set into iron legs or an wood coal heated grill built right into the walls of the structure. There are many Cucina that have large and deep cooking hearths where pots would hang for cooking and baking. Modern farm style apron sinks popular today are mere great-grandchildren of the one piece carved and decorated marble or travertine sinks found in vintage Italian country kitchens.
Pointed roofs of Trullo Gallo Rosso
The two photos above were taken in Trullo Gallo Rosso, a wonderfully restored compound of trulli that he runs as a B&B in Puglia. Our host Hugo prepared fantastic breakfasts in his own version of a Cucina Rustica. The property was originally owned by his grandparents and still contains treasures from his Nonna's cucina as well as well as keeping alive the traditional food.
A look back in history at a typical Cucina Paese. It was a place of warmth in winter, making pasta, cooking, drying clothes and hanging prosciutto.
An amazing example with a series of site-built wood stoves and ovens.
A modern kitchen designed to include old world charm
The character and charm of Gianna's and Stefano's Cucina
Stefano, his co-pilot Roberto and wife Gianna
The photo above was taken in the Cucina of our hot air balloon pilot's home in Tuscany (Idea Balloon Tuscany). Gianna and Stefano made us feel right at home, sharing wine, sausage, bread, cheeses and other treats... along with being able to scratch the bellies of their many pooches. Stefano told me that he had done much of the carpentry himself--the hand hewn thick walnut counter in the foreground can rotate to the other side of the kitchen via a floor-to-ceiling huge pivoting post. And just take a look at the kitchen table he built.
This design makes Italian tile the focalpoint
A corner grill with built-in wood storage and chimney flue
Italian cooking in a kitchen like this requires simple tools
The simplicity of a Cucina Povere
Exposed stone and the use of wood brings rustic charm to this modern Cucina
Even modern Italian kitchens don't need a lot of space. The fridge is small because most people pick up fresh food from markets and shops pretty much every day. There are less cupboards because Italian cuisine requires less equipment to prepare and cook and serve the foods. Their meals are simpler--small breakfasts and dinners--because pranzo (lunch) is the main meal of the day during the 2-3 hours riposa. Coffee machines are rare because most people prefer making espresso with their little Bialetti Moka pot. So open shelves are plenty for storage. One more element that might be overlooked is indoor shutters--in Italy, used to shut out the light and heat during the midday riposa.
Adding a structure like this would really set the tone for a Cucina Ristica
A huge marble trough sink with plate storage above is functional and very Italian
A simple, sturdy worktable multi-tasks for lunch, rolling out large sheets of pasta, and for food prep
Open grills and large fireplace cooking hearths are common in historic the Italian Cucina. These can be built to contain modern cook-tops or ovens, but you can still buy open fire wood grills to use in modern Italian kitchens. Some install them as part of their outdoor, patio kitchens, while others opt to have them install old-school, with chimney flues. In the U.S., the design and construction of such open fire grills would have to meet strict building codes. If you study the simple corner fireplace design in the photo on the right, you can see that they are fairly simple to build, but they must have a properly installed flue, chimney, hearth and damper to control air and smoke.
A modern cooktop "hearth" on the left, the real deal on the right
The most basic type of indoor cooking fireplace
With the addition of a BBQ/grilling rack, a simple raised kitchen fireplace can be turned into an Italian indoor grill
The open hearth is the centerpiece of this authentic Cucina
A modern installation with travertine sink, modern oven and gas cooktop and built-in wood fired cooking fireplace with grill insert
Finishing touches and accessories to complete the
Cucina Rustica look...
To finish off a Cucina Rustica, you need accessories that not only look the part, but function well. After all, simplicity is the key in Italian cooking and kitchens. Great, long lasting pots hanging on a wall rack, good quality knives, storage jars and jugs, cutting boards and pizza peels, pasta bowls, a wall rack with your most used kitchen tools and of course, the ubiquitous Moka pot to make your espresso. I'll finish off with some ideas to inspire you in creating your own Cucina Rustica with some recommendations from Amazon products...
A few old cutting boards, bowls and recycled cupboard doors
Classic corbels used to hold shelves or accent cabinets
Rehabilitated from wine fermentation, huge demijohn bottles.
I've learned things in my many years of cooking... and I'm still learning lots of tricks and shortcuts in nella cucina. From time to time, I'll be passing long these Kitchen Hacks you our fellow Voyagers to help with many cooking tasks...
As you can tell, the first Hack concerns onions. There is a real science behind this Hack. Perhaps too much for the home cook to even want to understand. To boil it down: when you cut an onion, it releases sulfenic acid which then changes into other compounds as soon as they make contact with the air. These are the chemicals that burn your eyes so much.
Some people think it's the variety of onion that makes a difference, but the more precise truth is that it's where the onion is grown and in what type of soil that matters most. Sweet onions grown in less sulfur rich clay soils in places like Georgia contain less sulfur to start with.
All you really have to remember is to buy only "Sweet Onions" (this is what they are called in the U.S.). You will find them called Vidalia, Maiu Sweet, Mayan Sweet, Walla Walla, etc. Do NOT use the bagged, smaller sized "yellow" onions. These are storage onions, and as such, their level of sulfur compounds increase as they age and when cut, they really burn your eyes.
Sweet Onions (we buy Vidalia unless making something requiring large amounts of onions, like French onion soup) are typically much larger and often a flatter, less round shape. They are also wetter than "storage" or bagged onions. As onions sit for long periods of time they dry out. The higher water content in large sweet onions help dilute the sulfur compounds. The dryer the onion, the more likely it will make you cry.
Here's a ranking with the LESS TEARFUL types on top:
sweet onions (Vidalia, Walla-Walla, etc.)
green onions (scallions)
smaller, bagged or "storage" yellow onions
Good luck keeping those tears at bay...
As an alternative, try these pro quality chef's onion goggles....
Natural Edge Olive Wood Cutting Board My wife, Lisa loves collecting cutting boards. It seems a new one shows up every year or so. For me, it might seem a bit overkill, but I can understand her passion. She just loves the feel of wood under her knife. Well, this olive wood board might be on my list for her upcoming birthday gifts...
I just love the natural, rough edge on the side of this olive wood board--and the size is just right: 16" x 8" x 3/4". The grain and rough edge reminds me of the 2000 year old olive trees we saw growing in Puglia. Click on the photo above or HERE to check it out on AMAZON--well worth the price of $50 for a quality board. And check out our son Lucas standing in front of one of the largest olive trees in Italy...
Honey Pot and Dipper
When I was in Italy, I rediscovered honey. To be honest, I never really like honey... too musky, too sweet. But Italian honey is amazing. You can really taste the difference from one type to another, depending on region of Italy, and often which valley and what flowers the bees were collecting honey from. Some are as thick as butter, while others are thin and flowing. This Honey Pot and Dipper set is made of Mediterranean olive and is the perfect size for a table for two on your balcony overlooking the Arno... OK, or on your breakfast table. What I really like is the dipper's handle stands upright through the lid's hole. Click the photo above or HERE to see it on Amazon for $46.
Opinel Pocket Knives
While traveling 5000 miles throughout France on a moped years ago, one of the first things I purchased was the tried and true Opinel carbon steel pocket knife, just like Provençal farmers, members of la Resistance, and the Foreign Legion used. For me, it performed equally well as a tool for when my Mobylette got a flat tire, for cutting cheese, tomatoes and bread for lunch, and for a sense of security when camping in a misty Gypsy camp in a deep dark valley of the Gorges du Tarn one night. That knife still holds a special place in my workshop.
Here I am having a lunch with my Opinel knife in the Arena in Arles, France
In the home, it is well suited to garden work, cutting butcher twine or opening deliveries from Amazon. I love these updated versions: A boxed stainless steel "original" and the slim, stiletto style--both in olive wood. For the stainless, boxed Opinel, click its photo above or HERE ($40); for the Slim Opinel, click its photo above or HERE ($45).
Olive Wood Salad-Pasta Spoons
I bought these for Lisa as a stocking stuffer at Christmas and she is in love with them. The grain is wonderful and will get better with age--and the olive oils we use in our recipes. We are finding that they are large enough to use for pasta dishes as well as salads, and having one form helps with spaghetti lifting too. Click the photo or HERE for the to find them on Amazon... a great price at under $18.
To go with the spoons and cutting board above, here's a beautifully rustica bowl with the same rough-finished edge. It's large enough to hold your salads or even pasta creations--about 12" in diameter. Keep the colors vibrant by rubbing occasionally with a light olive oil. Click on the photo above or HERE to see it on Amazon for $120.
Pen Your Memoirs with Olive Wood from the Holy Land
When I was barely out of photography school, I splurged and bought myself a pen made of wood... in that case, rosewood. I still have that pen, or should I say, my son has it. (I gave it to him a few years ago when he learned to write in cursive style.) There is something romantic and old worldly about sitting down and writing down your favorite recipe for posterity, or just a few lines in a diary--with the feel of wood being aged by the oil in your own hands. This beautiful, handcrafted pen is made from olive wood from Bethlehem in the Holy Land. It's something to treasure for a lifetime. Find it on Amazon by clicking the photo above or click HERE... only $59.
Old World Food Processor: Mortar & Pestle
When making gremolata (lemon juice, garlic, parsley & herbs), pesto (pine nuts, garlic, basil) or tapanade (olives, garlic, capers), one must remember that they all have something in common: Extra Virgin Olive Oil is used in all of them as a base to marry their ingredients into a thick emulsion. All three are types of pesto... a word taken from the ancient method of making them... by crushing the ingredients into a mash using a mortaio & pestello (mortar and pestle). This mortar and pestle set is hand-made in Tunisia (a close neighbor of Sicily) with olive wood and would be an addition to any cucina del cuoco. And there's nothing like the texture of a pesto made with mortar and pestle rather than with a food processor. They all taste fresher made this way. Click on the Photo above or HERE to see it on Amazon for $33.
There's nothing like the taste of fresh ground, black pepper... and one made out of olive wood makes it all that much more special. But there's another reason to buy an olive wood mill: the natural oils in the wood help prevent the peppercorns from losing their own natural oils. Click the photo above or HERE to see it on Amazon for $50.
Laguiole Sommelier - Corkscrew
If you're discovering the world of fine Italian (or French, or even domestic) wines, you'll need to learn to open a bottle the way the professional sommeliers do... with a specialized device called a Sommelier. I bought my olive wood handled one in Alberobello, Puglia--the land of the magical Trulli pointed houses. One of the best to own is a Laguiole style... and this is a very good priced one. It has a cutter to slice through the foil covering the cork, a corkscrew and a two-stage lever for extracting the cork. Click the photo or HERE to see this on Amazon for $100.
This beautiful ceramic spoon rest and 12" olive wood ladle set will look great next to your cooktop. Useful for spreading pizza sauce, ladling pasta water into your sauce pan, or dishing out thick Tuscan zuppa di fagioli. Click the photo or HERE to see it on Amazon ($62)
My wife Lisa gave me this as a stocking stuffer this past Christmas. It's a beautiful olive wood mattarello--a perfect small size (13") for rolling out pasta dough for hand made lasagna or tagliatelli. Being made from sustainable olive wood resources is a big plus in my book. Click the photo or HERE to see it on Amazon ($37)
Authentic, Certified Jean Dubost Steak Laguiole Knives
My "Honeymoon" Laguiole on the job
I have several Laguiole pocket knives. My first (with a fold-out corkscrew) was bought in Paris on my honeymoon, by my own honey as a gift to me. We had many picnics using that knife, both in France and Italy. I keep that one in my pocket every day.
These are beautifully made knives that will last a lifetime. The boxed set of six steak knives pictured above are the original style--and high quality--made in Thiers, France. They are not the poor imitations made in China from inferior steel and plastics that you see in catalogs nowadays. And these all have the little bee on the shank of the blade in fine detail.
Compare these to the cheap knockoffs and there's no comparison. The price reflects the quality. And to be clear, there is no such thing as a "Laguiole" brand... it is actually the name referring to the style (shape, design, quality) of knives made in the town of Thiers in the Auvergne region central France. The next time you try making a 4 inch thick, Bistecca alla Fiorentina over an open wood fire, you'll apreciate the feel of these blades. An investment of a lifetime, click the large photo above or HERE to see them on Amazon. ($390)
When you think of it, there's nothing as timeless as olive wood. These trees have been around since before the dawn of man. The wood is sweetly scented. The oils are precious to cooks throughout the world. And there are trees in Italy that are monuments to their long lived species. Viva l'olivo...
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Whenever my wife grates Parmigiano Reggiano, she uses the same kind of cheese grater that my Mother used--a round, metal bowl with a dome-shaped grater on top. It only has fine holes--the type that grates the cheese fine enough to fit through the holes on the cap of of our glass cheese shaker jar. Watching Lisa shimmy and and shake as she grates away while I make out Saturday night pizza carries me back in time to our little apartment--Mom grating cheese while one of my sisters fills the "big pot" with water for Sunday's pasta and "Sunday Gravy" (Sugo). The nutty scent of grated cheese foretold of what was to come in the afternoon: meatballs, braciole, pork ribs and sausages.
There's something a bit old-world and romantic about grating cheese. Perhaps because it's something that's rarely done in American homes, with plastic tasting jars of phony grated cheese on their tables.
As for us, the only jar on our table is filled with cheese we've grated ourselves.... or Lisa, that is...
I like this Enrico 1005 Acacia Wood Cheese Grater and Shredder for $53 on AMAZON. Small enough to store easily, attractive enough to leave out on the kitchen counter and with the two most useful cutters included. --JF
We decided that we were going to pick up supplies to cook with tonight after our trip to Florence and Fiesole. We tried to look for signs for a Coop supermarket or an alimentari (grocery store), but no signs and the only alimentari on the way back to Mormoraia was closed (at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon?), so we pulled on the side of the road and asked our GPS (Tommy) where the nearest one was. Niente closer that 20 miles... at least that's what he says. I don't trust him totally. After all, besides sounding a bit robotic, his accent is pure American! How much can he possibly know about local shops? He's just a tourist--just like us!
So I figured that nearby San Gimignano must have an alimentari outside the historic walls... so we set course... 8 minutes away. We found one! A nice one too. Paper towels to use as napkins, cleanup and to clear my clay dusted rear window... eggs... sliced tachina (turkey)... brasciola (very thin sliced salt cured beef)... little tomatoes... onion... snacks... drinks...butter... half loaf of bread. We were set for dinner and breakfast--or so we thought.
Another side hassle was that we were so chatty with the prospect of a home cooked meal combined with our friend Tommy not calling out turns for some reason as he usually does... we kept missing the turn-off out of town--four times! Sigh. (Our family travel theme song, to the tune of Beach Boys, I Get Around: "Turn, Turn Turn around, I turn around... Turn around, ooh..ooh...oooo... I turn around... I'm gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old street...")
Back at our agriturismo apartment, we hunted for basics in our cucina cupboards. There were no staples typically found in these apartment or house rentals... salt, pepper, foil, spices, coffee, sugar, etc. So this meant that problem-solving Babbo (Daddy) had to fix this somehow--and we were not going to pay the 50 Euro per person for dinner in Agriturismo Mormoraia's little cafe downstairs!
OK... boil water... cook bird's nest pasta we bought... frying pan... butter... slice up the brasciola (salty enough) into the pan. Lucas, sliced those little tomatoes and tossed them in... add some wine... reduce sauce... toss in a bowl and grate little piece of leftover pecorino cheese we had two days ago... butter the unsalted regional bread... pour the rest of the wine... and Presto! My new recipe... Pasta Pomodoro e Brasciola alla Babbo!
Lisa and Lucas said it was one of the best meals here so far. Bravo, Babbo! On another morning I made a down and dirty frittata with the little we had in our Mormoraia pantry. Buono gusto!
Eggs are sold in plastic cases... with bar codes on each egg.
No bare hands! Wear plastic gloves to handle produce in supermarkets
Nothing special... Just a typical display in a local alimenari!
Getting used to Shopping in Italy
At times we bought food at the large supermarkets, which had great cheese displays, not so decent breads, un-refrigerated milk in cartons (none cold), but lots and lots of produce. The fruits and veggies were very good for supermarkets, but the tomatoes disappointed me. They seem to be selling a lot of hybrid hothouse grown tomatoes (like "Tomatoes on the Vine" in the U.S.). Decent quality, but not organic, fresh picked or heirloom varieties. (As it turns out, Italians use SO MANY tomatoes in their diet, factory farmed tomatoes are the norm, although smaller markets may have Heirloom types).
Great cheeses were something we could get anywhere--supermarket or alimentari. Amazing. Cacciacavalo became our favorite... a dumbbell shaped cheese with mellow, nutty flavor which went with everything. Any type of aged Pecorino was a close second. One of my favorite things became the millefiore honey... thick as jam and incredibly delicious on bread in the morning. It was also great with ricotta. (I was never really a fan of American style honey.)
Lisa also fell in love with making coffee (espresso, scusa me) in those little Moka pots. I'm sure Santa will leave one under the tree for her. I wish I had access to a pizza oven while in Italy. I would have loved to make pizza there... but heck, I discovered that I make pizza better than we had in most of Italy anyway.
Cooking for ourselves in Italy became one of our favorite things, although Lucas always liked eating out in a new ristorante no matter where we were. Personally, I think he was starting to realize that if we ate out, he was guaranteed a visit to a gelateria afterwards!
Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.