Sunday, January 31, 2010

Robert Burns Night

I share my birthday (January 25th) with the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns and on that evening, at many locations around the world, his legacy is celebrated with great pomp and pagentry (sort of). The food of choice is haggis, tatties and neeps, a wee bit of single malt scotch and much revelry and laughter. It is customary for the haggis to be brought around the table to the music of bagpipes.  A bit of Robert Burns poetry is then recited and the haggis is cut open revealing the steamy contents.

Our assembled party was held at a local restaurant called Calagrana. The invitation specified that there would be no dancing and that formal attire was expected.  Elizabeth had bought me a "smoking" or a tuxedo in Bologna during our pasta class there in December for just this occasion. It had been over 45 years since I had worn a tuxedo (Senior prom 1963). So on the 25th, we got ready to go and I put on my new pants and jacket. After my weight loss, I must admit I felt and looked pretty good. Elizabeth dressed up in a pretty green long dress and flashy top with rhinestone buttons and matching earings. And after a few pictures, off we went.

The restaurant was rented for the evening and twenty local folks were on hand. At least three men were in full dress kilts and looked quite dashing. After a few glasses of wine we settled down at the table for a bowl of risotto wit ro0asted quail on the top. Risotto in Italy is normally cooked al dente and is often a bit too chewy for me. My stomach just doesn't handle under-done pasta and risotto very well. I prefer mine a bit softer (morbide) and have asked restaurants to cook mine a bit more. The risotto was good tasting just a bit too under-done for me.

Then came the processional for the haggis. It was brought out of the kitchen by the short stocky Italian chef, and proudly marched around the room to the music of bagpipes from a CD. The haggis was placed on a table and a few words were spoken by Al, our host (and a strapping Scot).  The haggis was stabbed open and the steam escaped. Tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and mashed turnips respectively) were plated with the haggis. A bit more Scotch was poured, wine flowed and later a decorated cake.

Then the poetry recitals started. I was first with "Red red rose",  one of Robbie's most famous poems. Other followed with Burns poetry, some by Dylan Thomas and a song (Flow gently sweet Afton) sung by my wife with two gentlemen accompanying her performing as the stream. All in all it was a fun night and as we left, we were still celebrating and the rain started.

The stabbing of the Haggis
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt

The neighbor folk invited me to down to the city hall
Where in honor of the Scottish bard they planned to have a ball
For it would stir my torpid soul, he told me with a grin
When, to the skirling of the pipes, they brought the haggis in
I confess I knew but little of the poet, Robbie Burns
Or even what a haggis was, but felt 'twas time I learned
So although I have no Scottish blood I felt it was alright
And in my best new outfit I went to the hall that night
Now the thing that most surprised me as I walked into the hall
Was the fact that many men there had no trousers on at all
My friend, he then assured me it was indeed the plan
That those with Scottish forbears wear the tartan of their clan
Now I couldn't claim a tartan and for this I was quite pleased
For I knew at least my trousers hid the hair upon my knees
So I sat down at a table, with my back toward a wall
And t'was then I saw the piper just beyond me in the hall
With the pipes slung o'er his shoulder and his drone pipes all a'tilt
He'd an honor guard behind him and they all were wearing kilt
The piper spanked the bagpipes, they began to squeal and wail
Much as a little pig might if you trod upon his tail
The chanter and the drone pipes then joined in a mournful dirge
And to leave the piper's presence, I confess, I felt the urge
Into the hall the entourage then marched with pomp and state
The piper and the escorts and the haggis, on a plate
The piper and the honor guard wore kilt and fancy dress
While on the plate the haggis lay, a sodden, lumpy mess
They marched to the head table where, with some grace and flair
T'was presented to a fellow who I saw was standing there
Who then addressed the haggis and I'll not repeat the words
For he spoke a foreign language that I'd hitherto not heard
The words he used were not in French, now that much I could tell
And I'm certain they weren't English for that language I know well
He spoke to it with reverence, as one might address a king
While on the plate the haggis lay and answered not a thing
He then removed a dagger from the waistband of his kilt
And in the poor wee haggis, he plunged it to the hilt
Then as the crowd applauded, why he looked about and said
"You realize I did that to make sure the damn thing's dead."
A diner turned to me and asked, "Is there any Scotch in you?"
I replied, "I've had a double, but I think I'll make it two."
As I sat and sipped my whiskey, humming Scotland the Brave
I could sense my Gallic forbears were turning in the grave
And as the scotch soaked in and I began to get a glow
I felt sorry for the haggis who'd been dealt a mortal blow
So I'll make a small confession even though it causes pain
Though the party was quite pleasant I would not go back again
For it is my firm opinion that it takes no courage, great
To stab a little haggis lying, helpless, on a plate

© 1989 A. Lawrence Vaincourt

Leftovers: Making something good from stuff in the fridge

Leftovers can be a "good, close, personal friend" after weight loss surgery. In fact you will probably have lots of them in the refrigerator as you learn how to cook, eat and store foods in smaller quantities over time. Leftovers should always be made with your routine nutritional needs in mind including nutritious vegetables (if you can eat them), a reduced carbohydrate level and plenty of protein. It is important to look at leftovers as a major culinary element of your post -WLS diet. Plan your initial meals as "leftover generators" and see where you will utilized the various things you cook in a second or even third offering. I have one bias against leftovers and that is I don't like them the very next night after eating the initial dish. For me it's all about repeating the meal again the next night and I don't want to taste the same thing over again so soon. So serve it as leftovers for lunch or dinner two days from today. Just not tonight ... again!

Leftovers require that you think creatively. Not only will you stretch your food dollar but you can add substantial variety to your diet. Some basic tenets include using the leftover materials with: new condiments, vegetables and any meats available. Make barbequed chicken salad, beef or lamb hash, or use a portion of carbohydrates to add a different taste or texture to the dish.

Things to have in your pantry include: canned chicken stock, Worcestershire sauce, A-1 steak sauce, onions, olive oil, catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, bottled barbeque sauce, small cans of tomatoes, eggs, cans of good tuna fish, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cracker crumbs (or dry bread crumbs), a can of water chestnuts, and at least one head of garlic. Think about the dishes you have enjoyed at home when your Mom made leftovers and it seemed like a giant smorgasbord. All kinds of bits and bowls of things were brought out to clean out the refrigerator. You were able to eat what you wanted of what you liked. After that meal any leftover leftovers are going to be thrown out.

So to start: inventory your culinary resources (look in the refrigerator), know what you have in the pantry, assess the proteins, and sit and think for a few minutes. What is still edible? As far as I know, there is no known blue food. What goes together, and more importantly, what doesn't? Some foods just don't work together. Do you want or have to heat it or can it be eaten cold and its corollary - Is it better hot or cold? Who am I feeding? The kids (how picky are they?), hubby or significant other (probably even picky-er?), friends (you hopefully know their tastes?), or a major dinner party for twelve (probably not a great idea at first glance)?

You have a half of a roasted chicken. So why not make a barbequed chicken salad? This can be served on a roll or toasted bread as a sandwich, or on top of a salad with chopped up lettuce and some sliced tomatoes. Or just pull out some crackers, put a cup or so of the chicken salad on a plate and make some crackers and chicken. Its high in protein and you can effectively portion control it by simply assessing the "cracker " sandwiches you make.

Barbecued chicken salad

1-2 cups of roasted chicken, chopped into 1/2" pieces
1/2 Cup good quality barbeque sauce (southern style, Asian style, hot and spicy makes little difference)
1/2 Cup mayonnaise
1/2 Onion, chopped into small dice
1/2 Cup celery, chopped into small dice
Lemon juice ( squeeze or two to sharpen flavor)
Chopped parsley (to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco sauce (to taste)
Options: cooked and chopped crisp bacon

Mix all ingredients together in a medium sized bowl and allow to chill for a half hour before serving.

This same recipe, without the barbeque sauce, a cup of mayonaise, and some chopped apples, a handful of raisens and chopped walnuts makes a terrific basic chicken salad. This will make quite a bit of salad, so plan either on feeding some friends at a nice lunch or eating it yourself again tomorrow. I like the addition of the apple and bacon even with the barbeque sauce.

Next is what do you do with some cooked roast beef or lamb (or pork). Hash is one of my favorite dishes, particularly for breakfast. Classic hash is made with diced potatoes, onions, meat and seasonings. It can be spicy, or bland, in small bits or in larger mouthfuls. It is an infinitely variable dish. So let’s start with a basic hash and look at options later.

Basic hash
This is my version of this dish and it probably not remind you of that canned versions that was so popular back in the fifties and sixties. I actually loved using the canned corned beef or roast beef hash, cooked in a saute pan with eggs poached on top, but this is about making it yourself from leftovers. The leftovers you will use are a couple of cups of roast beef, or roast lamb chopped into small bite sized pieces, 2 to 3 potatoes chopped into ½” dice and an onion in ½” dice. The potatoes can be raw or cooked. If raw the cooking will be modified to include getting them done before adding the meat. I will assume we are going to start with raw potatoes. In a large saute pan, put about ¼ cup of corn or sunflower oil and heat on medium . Add the raw potatoes and stir to ensure each piece is coated with oil. Add the onions and saute for 4-6 minutes on a medium high heat to start to crisp the potatoes, then reduce the heat and add about ½ Cup of water. Cover the potatoes and continue to cook until they are tender. Stir to keep the potatoes from sticking. Add the cooked meat and stir in, and then cover and return to the heat. The remaining water will steam the meat and heat it through. In about 4-5 minutes the dish will be virtually done. So it is time to season it. Obviously salt and pepper are necessary but you can add some garlic and/or onion powder (don’t use garlic or onion salt), or some paprika. Add a bit of cayenne pepper or chili powder to bring up the heat a bit. Allow the hash to crisp a little in the saute pan and it is done.

If you want to make a great breakfast, make several wells in the hash, and break an egg into each well. Cover the pan and cook on low heat until the eggs are done to your liking. This dish provides a lot of protein to the WLS diet as well as some great flavors to wake up o. Its really good on a Sunday morning, with a nice cup of coffee. An English muffin is a good accompaniment, but the WLS patient may not be able to eat that many carbohydrates with the potatoes in the dish. Optional additions to the dish are a half cup or more of chopped green, red or yellow bell peppers added to the saute with the onions. Additional seasonings can include some Tabasco sauce, catsup, A-1 sauce or Worcestershire sauce. Use you imagination and use up that roast beef (or lamb or pork). It is an effective way to extend the meat and add a pleasant breakfast or lunch dish.

Surfer stew
This dish got its name back in the early 1960’s with the surfing community in Southern California. Most of those guys were so dedicated to the surfing lifestyle; they didn’t have real jobs and often lived hand to mouth in bachelor apartments in large groups to afford the rents. All they needed was a place to crash and someplace to store their boards. After a day at the beach they wanted some food. It didn’t have to taste all that great but it had to be filling. So the refrigerator was opened and the covered dishes investigated. What was there to eat? The food was identified. The food wasn’t blue and fuzzy was it? If it was, it got tossed out. Smelled OK? Time to eat!

So in practice, to make Surfer stew, you took what you found in the refrigerator and added a can of tuna to it and stuck it in a pan on the stove to heat. Some cooked beans, some chopped onions, maybe some leftover macaroni and cheese? The tuna upped the level of protein, was relatively inexpensive and could be stored easily in a bachelor apartment. It doesn’t sound all that great in hindsight, but it kept the guys fed and ready to go to the beach the next day. I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle but when assessing the refrigerator contents for possible leftovers, think about that can of tuna. It’s a quick fix and can add substantial amounts of protein to the WLS diet. Tuna casserole or tuna in a white sauce over toast or rice can be an easy addition to the diet.

When you look into the refrigerator, think about what you have in there and how it might be combined with fresh or raw ingredients in order to use it up. Do you have some mushrooms languishing in there in the vegetable compartment? Some leftover spinach or rice? These items can be used effectively when added to meats available to create new dishes. Don’t think of leftovers as eating the same flavors again. Change the dishes, add new ingredients and you will find that instead of just throwing things away and wasting food you are able to create a new and healthy dish. One that satisfies the needs of the WLS patients and the Eight Bites practitioners.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Comfort Food with an asterisk

Comfort foods are intensely personal. One person's comfort food could be meaningless to someone else. The belief that such foods have to be surrendered can be a real impediment to weight-loss plans, keeping them at bay until that mythical day when life is calmer and less comfort is needed. But many experts say that you don't have to give up these old friends to lose weight. It just takes planning, organization and some eating discipline.

Since comfort foods vary with the individual, they constitute eating memories. We eat them because they remind us of who we are and where we came from, not because they taste all that great or are that nutritious. They are the smells and textures and tastes we experienced growing up. They represent a backdoor into our lives and memories. Through that old screen door onto the porch from the backyard is where Mom put the pies to cool, where she would often prepare vegetables in the summer. Windows onto the porch from the kitchen were the source of smells that would bring us all in at the end of the summer’s day. I think we eat these foods because of what they represent in our lives.

After weight loss surgery, you no longer have to think too seriously about calories. You do have to think about them, just not as seriously as you did before when trying to diet. . Your input is physically limited and if you eat high protein foods like you should, the calories should never be excessive. So the consumption of your favorite comfort foods provided that they are high in nutrients is possible and even enjoyable. All I can do is encourage people to not avoid foods they love but plan your meals carefully and maintain portion control.

Including comfort foods in a diet plan can alleviate guilt, which many people feel after apparent indulgences. In dieting, guilt is often the driving force in a diet-based weight loss program. And this may also be part of the problem with trying to lose weight especially if you are excessively overweight. I can almost guarantee that you have gone through multiple efforts in your attempts to lose weight, and while there may have been temporary losses, there are almost always gains.

The situation changes when you have Weight Loss Surgery (WLS). This is a process that requires you to be disciplined in your approach to eating and while the physical consumption may be limited, the enjoyment of comfort food dishes in moderation (and frankly we have to eat in moderation post-WLS) is not only possible but would be important in maintaining your weight loss initially and then maintaining your goal weight over time. It is what you had the surgery for wasn’t it?

Diet experts agree that comfort foods can or should be part of a weight-loss plan. However for those with serious weight or health issues, some experts do not recommend these foods be eaten even in moderation. Others say the danger lies in overeating (and the WLS patient is likely well-aware of the problems of over-eating). In the long term success of our weight loss, it may be important to set aside one day a week where you allow yourself one of your favorite comfort foods. As you move along on your post-WLS pathway this occasional treat can keep your attitude positive and your nutrition acceptable. You should never feel like you have to give up any food forever after WLS. Just remember that you are limited in volume capacity but are not limited in the enjoyment of the tastes from our past. Make these dishes a “new” part of your WLS future.

I would like to give a mention to an organization that is taking comfort food to its most useful and logical extension, It is a small venture that is designed to help care-givers who are assisting terminally ill people or those with long term illnesses to eat well and support themselves in ways that can provide increased nutrition and solace in their relationship with the person being cared for. I have seen that eating provides both nutritional support as well as emotional support. It is one thing that we all do daily. If you are able and wish to help others, volunteer at a food kitchen for the homeless, make a casserole of vegetables and chicken for an elderly neighbor, support organizations such as the above mentioned Comfort Food Co. or just make a simple dinner and invite friends in to share it with you. This gives everyone something to take away besides a feeling of fullness.

The recipes below represent some relatively slow-cooked foods which provide high nutritional value to the WLS patient as well as remind us of times past. The flavors are spicy, adding some complexity to our diets

Crispy chicken and dipping sauces

This recipe is done in the oven, making it considerably less greasy than basic fried chicken. The various dipping sauces gives you a variey of flavor enhancements. It can be used to feed a large group easily (Super Bowl Sunday) and provides the WLS patient with an exciting change menu item. The nut crust makes it quite crispy and you quickly forget that it wasn’t fried.


Olive-oil nonstick cooking spray
1 3/4 cup(s) walnuts
1 cup(s) plain dried bread crumbs
1 1/2 teaspoon(s) salt
1/4 teaspoon(s) (add more as needed) ground red pepper, (cayenne)
2 large eggs, beaten
8 medium (about 3 1/2 pounds) chicken-breast halves, skin removed
8 medium (about 1 3/4 pounds) chicken drumsticks, skin removed

Blue cheese sauce: In medium bowl, stir together 4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (1 cup), 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt, 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Honey Mustard sauce: In medium bowl, stir together 2/3 cup Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1/4 cup honey, and 3/4 teaspoon Worcestershire. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
Apricot-balsamic sauce: In medium bowl, stir together one 12-ounce jar apricot preserves (1 cup), 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon grated orange peel. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.


Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Spray two 15 1/2" by 10 1/2" jelly-roll pans with olive-oil cooking spray.

Using a food processor with knife blade attached, blend walnuts with 1/4 cup bread crumbs until walnuts are finely ground. Place nut mixture, salt, ground red pepper, and remaining bread crumbs in medium bowl and mix well.

In a shallow bowl beat the eggs with a fork. Cut each chicken-breast half crosswise into 2 pieces. One at a time, dip chicken-breast pieces and drumsticks in beaten egg, then into walnut mixture to coat; place in jelly-roll pans. Spray chicken pieces with olive-oil cooking spray. Bake chicken, on 2 oven racks, 30 to 35 minutes, rotating pans between upper and lower racks halfway through cooking, until chicken is golden brown and juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a knife.

While chicken is cooking, prepare sauces (below). Cover and refrigerate sauces if not serving right away. Serve chicken hot with dipping sauces. Or, cool chicken slightly; cover and refrigerate to serve cold later with sauces.

Barbequed Brisket (oven)

This recipe is a delicious version of southern pulled pork and would certainly fall into thwe category of comfort food. This Yankee recipe lets you choose beef brisket, chuck roast, or pork to be served in a delicious barbecue sauce. It is very worthwhile to plan ahead to cook the brisket the day before. It improves substantially with at least a day of rest in the refrigerator. The meat can be eaten simply on a plate or can be put into a soft roll and served as a sandwich.


4 pounds beef brisket or chuck roast (pork shoulder may also be used)
3-1/2 ounce bottle liquid smoke
2 cups chopped onions
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 Tablespoons spicy brown mustard
1 Tablespoon dark molasses
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon liquid hot pepper sauce
3 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup chili sauce (ketchup type)
1/2 lemon, sliced
1 Tablespoon salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Put the meat on a rack in a roasting pan, fat side up. Pour the liquid smoke around it. Seal the pan with foil and place in the oven. Roast the brisket for 4 hours or until tender, turning once. Uncover for the last 30 minutes to brown.

Remove from the oven and allow the meat cool. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Save the pan juices separately in another container. Refrigerate both the meat and the pan juices overnight. Prior to serving, remove the meat from the refrigerator and uncover. Trim away any remaining visible fat, and then pull the meat into small shreds.

Remove the hardened fat from the pan juices. In a large pot melt 3 tablespoons of the hardened fat over medium heat, add the onions, and saute until tender. Add vinegar, brown sugar, mustard, molasses, cayenne, hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, chili sauce, lemon, salt, pepper, and 1 cup of the pan juices. Simmer and stir well for 20 minutes over low heat.

Add the pulled meat to the sauce and simmer very slowly, uncovered for 1 hour, stirring frequently. Add more juice if necessary to keep meat moist.

Paprika-Glazed Baby Back Ribs


4 pounds baby back pork ribs or spare ribs, cut into one or two rib segments
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
3 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper


Divide ribs between two large, heavy, sealable plastic bags.

In a bowl, stir together remaining ingredients and pepper, to taste, and pour over ribs. Seal bags, pressing out excess air. Marinate ribs, chilled, turning bags occasionally, overnight.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. This is a low and slow cooking process. Take the time you need.

Transfer ribs and marinade to a roasting pan large enough to hold ribs in layer and roast ribs, covered, turning occasionally, for 4 hours.

Ribs may be made 2 days ahead, cooled, uncovered, and chilled, covered. Reheat ribs in a preheated 375 degrees F oven until hot, about 12 minutes.

Pork Chili

Pork is simmered with tomatoes, herbs, onions, and garlic until tender. Black beans are added as a final touch to the chili. Chili fanatics may debate the use of beans in their red, but this is quite tasty. This dish is also good with a green chili sauce as well. Just substitute a large can of green chili sauce for the canned tomatoes. Serve it with some nice warm cornbread.


1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil, divided
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2-1/2 pounds boneless pork butt, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup chili powder
1-1/2 Tablespoons ground cumin
1-1/2 Tablespoons dried oregano
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 can (14-1/2 ounces) plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
3 cups chicken broth
2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans


Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, partially covered, until tender, about 20 minutes.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy casserole or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat has lost its pink color, It will take about 15 minutes.

Stir in the chili powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne and salt. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Add the onions and garlic, tomatoes, and chicken broth. Bring the chili to a boil, stirring occasionally, and then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the pork is tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Drain the black beans, rinse and drain well again. Stir the beans into the chili and simmer for another 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Serve with some warm cornbread (though tortillas work well).

Corn Bread

This recipe is one basic recipe from the thousands that are out there. Use your favorite recipe or give this one a try.


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup butter, melted


In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Combine the egg, sour cream, milk and butter; stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. To make it a bit less sweet, reduce the sugar by a tablespoon or more. Add some chopped green chilies or some grated cheddar cheese for some added flavor.

Pour into a greased 8-in. square baking dish. Bake at 400 degrees F for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Serve warm.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Felice Capodanno, New Year's Eve 2009

It's New Year's Eve and it will be my second New Year’s celebration here in Italy. Last year I had just returned from California. We went to a local jazz club, and had a nice meal. Then at midnight we all left the restaurant to go out and see the fireworks being shot off the top of La Rocca (the medieval tower) next door. Music was playing in the Umbertide piazza and there were a lot of people gathered. It was an unusual mix for me. Old folks carrying grandchildren, eyes bright from the fireworks. There were lots of young kids, teenagers carousing with their friends, and there were couples of all ages. The band played rock music and there was dancing and drinking, and an atmosphere of fun. We walked through the throngs, meeting people we didn’t expect to be there, and then returned to the restaurant for dessert and vin santo.

This year will be a bit different. We will be cooking a birthday party for a small group at La Pietra: three women friends who have known each other since college sorority days, one accompanied by her husband and son. It is her husband’s birthday today and the celebration will be for him. It will also be their last night at La Pietra as they will leave for Florence on Jan. 1 and fly home Jan. 2. So tonight's dinner is special. Prosecco will be poured to celebrate, and there will be good wines with dinner. There will be sparklers and candles and we want to create a festive mood. I will be in my black chef’s jacket and wearing a black bow tie. Elizabeth with be wearing the Amore Sapore green apron over black pants and a sparkly blouse, and wearing her rock-star "diamond" earrings. Paola will be dressed up as well. It is a special occasion!

The antipasti will be a salami and cheese platter, olives, sliced fresh pears, grilled prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and a frittura of vegetables (fennel, carrots, sage leaves and artichokes). We will be using dry, local salami which is quite chewy. The sliced cheeses will be a medium aged pecorino (sheep’s milk) and Cacciota (cow’s milk) and they will be served with the sliced fresh pears. Elizabeth will grill asparagus spears, wrap them in slices of prosciutto, and brown them in butter. The ham will crisp up and then the rolls will be served hot with a few drops of syrupy, aged balsamic vinegar.

Frittura is a deep fried technique similar to Japanese tempura (OK, it's exactly like tempura). A light batter is made from flour and water (very cold frizzante or fizzy water), and the vegetables are sliced thinly and dipped into the batter before frying. We use local water which has a light carbonation for the batter. One of the problems we have had in the past was that the vegetables got a bit oily, and I realized that we were not cooking them at a high enough temperature. Now I use a thermal sensor and wait until the sunflower oil reaches 370 degrees F. We do not use olive oil to fry this dish. When the dipped vegetables are placed into the oil, the vegetables immediately begin frying and begin to puff up, soon turning a golden color. Before the next batch of vegetables is placed in the oil we return it to 370 degrees again. Temperature maintenance is key here. The fried vegetables are allowed to drain well on paper towels and then are salted lightly and served hot.

Fennel is my personal favorite for this technique. While I don’t particularly like the anise flavor of raw fennel, when fried it is sweet with a hint of the anise flavor and is really good. Fried artichokes are also terrific, though you have to trim them well, removing the choke and then cutting them into thin slices.

The tagliatelle will be the primo piatti (first course) and Elizabeth has made the meat sauce that will accompany the pasta. We will use fresh pasta instead of dried, but the dish could easily be made with the dry form and be perfectly fine. The following recipe is a standard meat sauce recipe that Amore Sapore has used a number of times and it is quite good.

Classic Meat Sauce for Pasta

1/4 cup good olive oil
2 stalks celery
1 yellow onion
4 large carrots
½ pound of ground beef
½ pound of ground pork
A handful of flat-leafed Italian parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp. peperoncini (hot pepper flakes), optional
2 lbs fresh and flavorful cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon coarse salt
Handful fresh basil leaves, if available
1 quart of tomato purée (passata di pomodori--look for the Pomi brand outside Italy)
1 cup water
1 cup white wine
1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese (to be added at the end)

Use a large heavy, deep frying pan about 12” wide and pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom.

Chop the celery and onion coarsely; mince the parsley and garlic together; grate the carrot, unpeeled, on the largest holes of a grater. Add these to the oil. Brown the vegetables and then add the meat. Brown the meat with the aromatic vegetables until it is no longer pink and has been finely divided. (To reduce the amount of fat, you can fry the ground meats separately, drain, and add to the sauce later.)

Wash the tomatoes and de-stem, leaving them whole. Add the tomatoes to the pot and sprinkle a tablespoon of coarse salt over all. Cover and place over medium heat. The steam from the tomatoes will help to cook the vegetables below. After the vegetables have cooked down a bit, add the wine, optional peperoncini and basil, stir and cover again.

After another 15 minutes, add the tomato puree, rinse out the puree bottles, adding the rinse water it to the mix, and stir. Continue to cook, covered, for another half hour, stirring regularly to assure that the sauce is not adhering to the bottom of the pot.

When the sauce is thick and ceases to be watery, remove it from the heat and set aside, covered. Reheat just before you are ready to add to the pasta. Toss it with whatever pasta you are serving or layer it with ravioli. Sprinkle liberally with Parmigiano-Reggiano or good pecorino Romano cheese. Serve hot in heated pasta bowls.

Grilled Marinated Leg of Lamb

The grilled lamb is actually pretty simple. I purchased two small legs of lamb and boned them out, flattening the pieces a bit. I put them in a bowl with olive oil, dried oregano and rosemary to marinate overnight in the refrigerator. I had a heavy steel disc made by a local blacksmith that has a handle on it, like a pot lid. It weighs about 10 to 15 pounds. When the lamb is grilling I place the weight on top and it presses the lamb down and cooks it more uniformly. I have to switch back and forth between the two grill pans but it works very well, giving me a selection of meat slices from medium to medium rare.

I had roasted the bones and then put them in a stockpot to cook in water with a chopped onion to make a lamb stock. This took most of Wednesday, but it was a great base for the Marsala reduction I used to sauce the meat. I removed the bones and onions and let the stock cool so I could remove the fat. I then cooked the stock down by about 90%. It was rich and brown and when I added a glass of Marsala it was really nice.

New Year's Eve Dinner

Elizabeth decorated the table with candles, bay leaves, oranges, lemons and other fruits, "della Robbia style", she said. The antipasti and pasta, which Paola supervised, were a hit, then we were on to the meat course.

I used the concentrated meat base to make the final sauce, deglazing the grill pans and then adding a bit of butter to smooth it out. It was delicious poured hot over the lamb.

(By the way, I used the lamb from the bones in the stock to make a hash for breakfast on New Year’s Day. Just added some cubed sautéed potatoes, onions and some of my peperone agrodolce. Elizabeth liked hers with some Greek yogurt, mine I had straight.)

Elizabeth roasted some winter vegetables (fennel, garlic, potatoes, carrots and red onions) in a bit of olive oil and seasoning. They were a great accompaniment to the lamb. The garlic cloves were just squished out of their skins and were sweet and rich.


The last dish was the dolce or sweet. In this case it was a Zuccota. The Zuccota is a domed cake soaked in brandy and filled with gelato and it is said to resemble the Duomo in Florence. The process to make the dessert is time-consuming and shouldn’t be rushed. It takes about 2 days to make it since it needs to chill and then freeze before serving.

OK, here is the process: starting two days before serving, purchase or make a 12” pan di spagna or sponge cake (or make it yourself). Slice the top of the cake off horizontally as this will be used as the bottom of the completed cake. Put it in a zip lock bag to keep it fresh. Now slice the rest of the cake into ½” wide slices vertically down through the cake from side to side. These slices will form the dome. Butter a bowl of the size you need, and then line it with plastic wrap. This is for easy removal of the cake after it has set up. Starting with the longest slices, take a strip of cake and lay it into the center of the bowl, it will not likely reach from side to side so you will have to piece the slices. Make a nice pattern as you do this since the upper and outer surface will be presented in the finished dessert and should look attractive. Add each additional slice next to the one before and fill the bottom of the bowl with the cake slices. Push the slices into the mold gently. Do not overlap the slices; just place then side by side in a nice pattern. You may need to cut some pieces to fit the final triangular shaped holes. Hopefully you will have cake slices rising above the rim of the bowl, and these can be trimmed to the edge of the bowl. Take a couple of shots of brandy or rum, and brush the liquor onto the inside of the cake slices to moisten them. There is a fine line between using enough brandy to moisten and too much making the cake soggy. Be judicious. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, heat about ½ cup of heavy cream in a sauce pan until it bubbles at the edge. In a bowl, chop about 4 ounces of dark semi-sweet chocolate and pour the cream over the chocolate. Let sit for 10 minutes then stir gently. This is the ganache you will use to paint onto the inner surface of the cake. Allow the ganache to cool until it starts to thicken, and then with a tablespoon, place spoonfuls of the ganache into the mold. Using the back of the spoon, paint the chocolate up the sides of the cake until the inner surface is covered in chocolate. Place in the refrigerator to cool and harden.

Purchase a couple of quarts of good quality ice cream or in my case, gelato. Store in the freezer until the day of service. When ready to finish the cake, allow the ice cream to soften a bit before using it. Bring the cake out of the refrigerator and spoon the softened gelato or ice cream into the mold. Put the cake top back on to the mold to close it and sprinkle some rum or brandy on the bottom. Seal it with plastic wrap and put it in the freezer until ready to serve.

To serve the cake, remove the bowl from the freezer, remove the plastic covering from the bottom, and invert the cake onto a pretty serving plate. Place a warm towel around the bowl (to melt the butter inside the mold) and gently shake and pull the inside plastic wrap to release the cake. It should unmold easily. Remove the plastic wrap over the cake and sift cocoa over the cake. Then sift a bit of powdered sugar over the cocoa and it’s done.

I garnished mine with some truffles made from the leftover ganache and the leftover cake. Present the cake uncut to the diners for the “oohs and aahs” and then remove it to the kitchen to cut and serve it. Slice it into the appropriate number of servings required and deliver it to your guests. I made this one with cherry and plain, good quality brandy, filling it with cherry gelato as one layer and then a layer of chocolate gelato to complete the base. We put a sparkler in the top of the cake and the birthday boy (man actually, his 50th) was quite happy with the party as we sang “Tanti auguri”.

So there you have a celebratory New Year’s dinner in Italy.

As I cooked and assembled things I ate a nibble of this and that, a bit of cheese from the platter, a piece of fennel frittura, a small slice of lamb, and a couple of bites of the cake. I was able to taste all of the dishes, ensuring their quality as well as meeting my requirements for my own Eight Bites.

I ended the evening snuggled into a nice warm bed looking out the open windows facing both east and west. Fireworks filled the Val di Niccone at midnight and the rockets lit the sky even though it was raining. The rain did not seem to dampen the party mood. As I watched the twinkling colors and booming exposions, I reflected on the year and realized that it was a pretty good year after all. I was doing what I love to do. So all in all, life was good.

So Happy New Year everyone, or as they say here Buon Anno. The New Year gives us each a new start and we should do what we can to make the most of each day. I will keep writing about my experiences and providing you all with culinary ideas and recipes.