Costumes, parties and musical chairs

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The Big Party

It has almost been a year since we set foot in Italy for the second time as a family and as my regular readers will know, we have had a lot of experiences; one of those being kids birthday parties and I have to say up front- I’m not a fan.

Our first invitation to an Italian birthday party was in the very beginning of our stay here. We were driven up to a magical villa in the rolling Tuscan hills: prosecco was flowing, local cheese for the tasting and kids were running wild in the forest-like-yard, it felt like a movie set. Fast forward to present day and I now know through suffering a few parties that in fact our first birthday party was not the ‘norm’ and I can honestly say I much prefer the Australian system of dropping the kids off and picking them up at a set time instead of all the suffering you go through standing in small community halls with little ventilation, listening to inappropriate English music blaring at full volume, kids shouting, running, screaming, laughing and crying for up to 4 hours straight: my idea of hell.

My friend Sue emailed me a few weeks ago telling us it was her son’s birthday and he would love it if we all came, oh and by the way it was a costume party!

Hang on, I thought, this is new? I also must explain Sue is a mad, funny English woman who has been living in Italy for the past 30+ years and has keep a lot of her English sensibility, not to mention her passion for a good party with no community hall in sight. We were going!

The theme for the party was History which got the boys excited. It was planned that the boys and I would go over for a sleepover the weekend before (also happened to fit in with our book club boozy meeting), then we would pop out to Emmaus and see what we could find in the way of costumes. When we arrived at Sue’s that weekend she had already whipped up Matteo’s Roman solider costume and it was brilliant to say the least. I knew then that I wasn’t leaving until we figured out and made the boys costumes with her. I know my weaknesses and costume design is one of them.

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Alex’s costume basics

Emmaus was as fabulous as ever, the boys fell in love with the place and then proceeded to tell me it was the best place for movie props (they would have spent a fortune if they were on their own…a fortune being 50 euro and that would buy LOTS!). Anyway, Alex wanted to be a Greek solider and Max Caesar or someone in a toga. It took Max all of two seconds to find a white sheet (beautifully pressed) some red ribbon, a ring and presto he was done for the grand total of 2 euro! Alex on the other hand wanted the costume to be as authentic as possible… twenty minutes later, lots of discussion, disagreements, excitement and jumping he was sorted for the grand total of 18 euro.

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Middle of costume making with Sue

It was back to Sue’s place for gold spray-painting, cutting, designing and heated discussions between Alex and Sue while I meekly tied Max’s toga, pinned on some ribbon and then proceeded to sew (again took me about 5 minutes, minus the sewing).

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Max’s quick costume design

I know Sue is a good friend because she put up with Alex’s pedantic ways and after making two soldier costumes she was still looking forward to the party. I, on the other hand, was exhausted!

The following Sunday I bravely borrowed Shelly’s car while she was off working in NY and drove us up to Pistoia. Just another experience to add to my list and one I don’t want to do very often as driving in Florence is a little freaky, especially when you’re not use to driving on the left-hand side of the road and in a manual. I kept on yelling out “Am I on the right side of the road??” 

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Let the fun begin

The party was a huge success all due to Sue’s fantastic organisation and constant supply of party games (something Italians do not do). Musical chairs is now know to all that attended the party as a very scary and dangerous game due to the misfortune of a poor girl attending. She was having so much fun when the music stopped she slipped and missed the chair and by some crazy bad luck, managed to fall and splinter her ankle bone! The poor girl ended up in hospital waiting to get a screw put in her leg. I will never play musical chairs again without thinking of this day and feeling weak in the legs.

You know it has been a great day when the boys pile back into the car at dusk, fall asleep in the back seat (even when mum is looking a bit freaked out behind the wheel) and say they don’t need any dinner because they ate too much cake. I think it was the perfect way to end our birthday-party experiences in Italy. Happy 11th Birthday Matteo!

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A Spring Brunch

The day could not of been more perfect on Sunday just gone. E, Shelly and I had worked out that it was a rare Sunday we were all in town together and so it was quickly decided we should have a brunch. These events seem to work better for us when no great amount of time can change the plan, a day and a half of planning was sufficent.

Shelly announced her backyard should be a perfect destination, I announced I’d just read some great food blogs lately and I was eager to make some new food and E was also up for some spring cooking- the day was planned! At 10am on Sunday morning as the sun was peeking through the clouds Shelly sends a photo of her backyard saying maybe they needed a lawnmower?? E and I on the other hand were throughly excited with the prospect of sitting in a buttery looking yellow field, what do you think? Although, if little miss P (aged 3) had decided to walk off without her big sister then I’m afraid we might have lost her!

The butter field Shelly calls her backyard

The butter field Shelly calls her backyard

Sitting in it felt like something from a period movie. In fact all four kids thought the field an absolute delight and we only saw them when food was brought to the table. Perfect!

Talking of food, I had recently read a delicious post from Italy on my mind about Sicilian cauliflower fritters. Her photos looked beautiful, the flavours sounded wonderful and I thought they would be perfect for a brunch addition. I made them Sunday morning and I have to tell you it was very hard getting them out the door as I LOVED them! A very easy and tasty recipe perfect for brunch, they tasted so good all the kids ate them as well as the adults.

Cauliflower fritters

Cauliflower fritters

Granted my photo isn’t as pretty, however, I was getting myself in the weeds with remaining cooking jobs and needed a quick snap before I forgot.

The second dish I made for brunch was the kids favourite; bean nachos with guacamole. My boys love this dish and as I popped it on the table I soon found out it was a favourite of a few adults too. You can’t really go wrong with kidney beans sauteed in a cumin, paprika, tomato sauce and drenched in melted cheese on crispy corn chips. One of the guests at the brunch was floored to be served nachos in Florence…and yet I didn’t hear any complaints!

bean nachos

Bean nachos

E made a delicious asparagus and orange salad and a divine dish of sauteed poatoes finished with red onions, mini capers and sweet peppers which was an instant hit.

Asparagus salad & serving of the eggs

Asparagus salad & serving of the eggs

It was a feast for all the senses and just in case you were wondering where the eggs were (seeing as it was brunch), Guy made a delicious pot of tomato-poached eggs that never seemed to end. With all the food ready to go and prosecco being poured like water from a tap, I can honetsly say it was an extremely memorable afternoon. A feast for the eyes as much as the stomach.

My third contribution to brunch was inspired from blogger, the seasoned traveler, who posted a delicious looking piece about phyllo cups filled with lemon mascarpone and fresh strawberries. I thought it was the perfect sweet to bring for Sunday brunch, however, as I looked through my cupboards I realised I didn’t have anything to make the phyllo cups in. I then decided to add an Australian touch and serve the lemon mascarpone on mini-scones. Because I didn’t have the yummy crunch of the phyllo I need to ramp up the mascarpone so I made a lemon curd and folded it through so there was an extra kick of tang.

Strawberry and lemon mascarpone scones

Strawberry and lemon mascarpone scones

Lunch was over, the scones were devoured in seconds and we were all sitting back feeling quite fabulous (the tap of bubbles hadn’t stopped yet). It is hard to feel anything but happy when you are sitting in a field of yellow.

Shelly relaxing in her backyard

Shelly relaxing in her backyard

Coffee was offered around about an hour later and the sun was really warming us up so I suggested I’d like an affogato. This was met with a lot of agreement, however, no one had the inclination to get the gelato. A further conversation of our favourite flavours of gelato then got the wheels turning and my darling husband and friend offered to fetch the gelato if someone else made the coffee, this was the end result…

Gelato for the kids

Gelato for the kids

Mascarpone and caffè gelato with a shot of coffee

Mascarpone and caffè gelato with a shot of coffee

I have often said I love our year in Italy and it is gatherings like this that make it so special. We all feel like we are still living in a dream, and for now I am quite happy to keep it that way.

 

 

Boys, school and Italian life

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March sky, 2014

The rain has stopped, the sun is out and life is pretty sweet in Italy this March. I read in the papers and in friends’ emails that the snow is still dumping down in America and the sun is beating hot in Australia, while I look out my window and see a cool breeze blowing and the sun in the sky. We have a good life here, there is no doubt about it.

Our time is slowly dwindling down, we have a mere 4 months to go before returning to the real world of work (well for me anyway), houses, high schools, primary schools and day-to-day life back in Sydney with the friends and family we said goodbye to some 8 months ago. A lot of great things have been happening this month, however, I haven’t had time to sit down and jot it all down as I thought I would. Max turns 12 this Friday, WOW I find it hard to believe I have a 12-year-old under my wings.

We promised Alex for his birthday last year (it was the day after we arrived in Rome) that we would take him to gladiator school, alas, the night before I got struck down with food poisoning and was up all night trying to keep myself alive, therefore, gladiator school was delayed. Seeing how Max will be 12 on Friday and we have nothing else better to do, we decided we would go down to Rome for the weekend with friends and finally keep our promise to the boys re gladiator school! The tickets are booked and I’m staying away from seafood so we are set. It was an easy decision really, with 4 months left we are trying to do and see as much as we can. It’s not everyday you can say ‘Oh let’s pop down to Rome for the weekend’. I know it doesn’t mean as much to the boys as it does us, however, in years to come I think they will appreciate the flitting around more than they do at present.

The boys got their Italian school reports back at the end of last month which is quite a process compared to Australia. Back in Sydney the kids get a sealed envelope at the end of the day to give to parents. In our school here, there is a note sent out a week before with information telling you when you can come and pick the reports up and as usual I totally forgot. I was walking Max to basketball practice on a Thursday evening when a mum who is never at the school unless it is pick-up time, walks past me, says ciao and then asks me if I have the reports already? At this point I was trying to figure out why this mum was at school at 5pm, then trying to understand what she was saying to me (she always speaks super fast) and then when the penny dropped I looked like a complete idoit but had to keep walking in the other direction to get Max to basket…I left her standing there very confused, especially when I told her, NO not yet…see you soon!

I finally dropped Max at basketball (which is a 20 minute walk one-way), then Alex and I high-tailed it back to school to make the 6.30pm deadline to pick up these bloody reports…It was about this time I was preferring the Aussie system. We made it in time to be then told we must wait in line to speak to the teacher. ‘WHAT!??’ I was not expecting teachers to be there at 6.30pm! Anyway, after about 40 minutes standing in line it was my turn to go in (and it was at this point I told Alex to help me out with the Italian, to which he says ‘I doubt I’ll be any good mum’ and then proceeds to abandon me to look at pictures!). Thank god Max’s teacher is a lovely lady, she handed me his report, and said she was sorry she could only give him a 7 for Italian; however, it was working towards an 8.

SEVEN? He got a seven?? OMG!! I looked at her and said BELISSIMA!!! FANTASTICO, REALLY…7? Of course, she was super confused and then started talking at me in lightening speed which I only caught about 5 words in total before leaving the classroom with our first Italian report cards. Nic and I were so gobsmacked that the boys didn’t get any 3s or 4s on their reports (it’s out of 10) and to see the lowest mark was a 6 for science, well we were so overjoyed. It was actually quite funny when Max was reading his report, he laughed and said he wasn’t sure how he got that mark because he never does anything in science.

And truth be told, the boys constantly come home and tell us they understand nothing, they do nothing all day at school and really, why bother. Well, after seeing the reports I now believe they have been playing down their Italian with us (especially me) and in fact they are rocking along very nicely in school. The funniest report however, was the English mark…both boys scored an 8! Seriously, an 8 in their native language?? When I asked about this they both shrugged their shoulders and said “She (teacher) really doesn’t know very much English and we have to correct her” Note, HAVE to correct her, so I figure giving them eight is just her way of saying, “Get out of my class already!!”

So eight months into a twelve-month stay in a foreign country, I can honestly say as a family unit we are happy, involved in the community and eat like kings. We still feel like foreigners but also feel excepted by our neighbourhood, Nic and I are so happy we took the scary step of immersing the boys into Italian school cold-turkey-style because it has really paid off. Although the talk of being back in Australia is coming up more and more these days (especially from the boys), we are loving our life here. However, some home comforts are seeming a little closer (like having my car to do the grocery shopping!). I have a feeling the next 4 months are going to be action packed.

Mum and dad in Florence

We were lucky enough to have mum and dad drop in on us while they were holidaying in Bella Italia last week. It is no surprise really, since we are holding the majority of their grand children hostage on the other side of the world. The boys were pretty excited to see them again and to tell them all about life in Italy…whilst eating gelato of course!

Nanny and her oldest grand sons

Nanny and her oldest grand sons

Being February the rain did try to set in for the beginning of their stay, however, with a stroke of luck it didn’t seem to last very long and we were able to stroll through the neighbourhoods and see parts of Florence they did get to last time they were here.

A sunny February afternoon 2014

A sunny February afternoon 2014

You don’t really realise how much your own kids have grown until you see them up against someone you haven’t seen in a while. Max was hoping like mad he had grown (he has) and now he is even more excited to go home and see his auntie because he believes he may be taller than her now (I think he might be).

Streeter's in Tuscany

Streeter’s in Tuscany

Walking with mum and dad through the beautiful hills of Settignano was a real treat, something I never thought possible and yet here we were. Mum and dad instilled the idea of travel into my sister and I at a very young age and here we are standing on the cusp of the Tuscan hills over looking the city of Florence together. An adventure that started for them over 45-years ago was alive and strong, while Nic and I still have so much to see 14-years into our travelling life wondering where the next destination will be (I’m thinking a holiday in Vietnam might be on the cards for 2015).

One thing I know for sure is, no matter where we choose to live, be it Sydney, Chicago, Italy… one thing will never change and that is the pleasure of sharing our home with our friends and family and celebrating the adventures of life…one Spritz at a time.

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Spritz on the patio

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici parade, Firenze

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Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici in 1743. She was the last direct descendant of the ruling branch of the Medici family, whose will bequeathed the art collection now housed in the Uffizi to the city and stipulated that it could never be removed from Florence. Having found out this information from my lovely husband, I thought it quite fitting that there was a parade in her honour.

Max did ask me yesterday if he could take the day off school to see it, which I blew off as his attempt at skiving off. However, when I met up with mum and dad in the centre of Florence yesterday and stood amongst the beautifully bright costumes of the paraders I had a pang of guilt. Here I was enjoying the festivities, costumes and atmosphere while my kids were at school ‘learning’. I had to ask myself, wouldn’t this be a learning experience for them as well? After all it isn’t everyday you get to enjoy a Renaissance pageant re-enactment in a city that draws your eye and heart back to the days that had been. I was sorry for my abrupt answer and will actually think about the question next time before being so dismissive.

Thanks to dad’s handy work, I have these beautiful photos to share. Something that stung a little when showing Max.

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Drummers

The streets of tourists and locals alike paused in their pursuits to take in the beautiful colours and arrangement of this 40-strong parade slowly marching down the streets of Florence. It was a sight to behold and even better when you had no idea what was on the horizon, all you could here was the beat of the drums and the slow roll of the march.

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Guys with very cool guns in leather…my boys are drooling

It was my guess the participants costumes were handed down among the families for generations and showing enormous pride in the occasion. I also had the feeling that my dad would have loved to be a part of the procession too! (In fact the guy with the moustache in the photo below looks a bit like dad.)

I loved this guy with the moustache

I loved this guy with the moustache

Weekend trip to Venice

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Grand Canal, Venice

Despite the constant talk of rain, buying of the gumboots for aqua alta and initial fears that our weekend in Venice was going to be a wash out, I am extremely happy to say it only rained in the evenings and the days were left open to beautiful blue skies (ok, maybe a bit of fog too) and sunshine! Again we used Airbnb and again we were really impressed with our accommodation, the fact that we had a whole apartment instead of a hotel room with two boys who love to throw themselves around…I’m telling you Airbnb is the way to go. We had a garden apartment (not a common thing in Venice) and I believe the family who owns the building also owns Fiat, so a pretty fabulous location without a massive price tag. Our train pulled in around lunchtime so we dropped off our bags and started looking for a place to eat.

Nic has a colleague at I Tatti who was a student in Venice a few years ago and she kindly gave us a list of places to try; this, just for the record is an excellent idea, always trust a uni student who loves food! We had lunch at Ostaria Al 4 Feri in the Dorsoduro district. It is a great place to eat really fresh seafood at a very reasonable price, I will also note that you might have to share a table as it isn’t a large space. Alex and I shared the scampi and carcocifi spaghetti which I absolutely loved, however, the flavour was very rich so Alex wasn’t as keen. Nic stuck with the classic spaghetti al vongole which was so, so good (Alex helped him polish it off), while Max ate a large plate of grilled calamari in a matter of minutes. It was an excellent start to our mini holiday and with our tummies full we started to wander around the canals of Venice.

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Daily life, Venice 2014

Everywhere you looked there was something you wanted to take a picture of, however, I seemed to get photo bombed…a lot!

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Photo bombers!

As a bit of good luck for us, our best friends from Florence had decided to also take a weekend break in Venice at the last minute. So with their new name of ‘stalker family‘ firmly attached, we were pretty excited to hang out with them that evening and get plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments flying. Actually we have never traveled with friends before so it was something new for us and I have to say I want to do it again. Not only do you get to hang out and relax with people you get on really well with but the kids also kept themselves busy with games of tag in empty fish markets while parents look on sipping Spritz at a fab bar across the way…what’s there not to love about that?

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A bar near Campo Beccarie serving great Spritz with blood orange

After a couple of yummy spritz and chili olives we then went to dine at a place called Cantina Do Spade, which I have to say was our favourite of all the places we dined at. The food was really, really tasty and fresh; I indulged in a plate of fritta mista and it was huge!!! For 16 euro I fed myself and then Max knocked quite a bit of calamari off, followed by Isabel who tried her first piece of calimari (brava bella) and the sardines were so fresh…you certainly didn’t leave hungry.

Day two was kind of planned, we had booked in to see the Secret Itinerary of the Palazzo Ducale where you get to go inside the old gaol cells on a guided tour, learning what it was like for prisoners when life wasn’t so comfortable. Tickets are 20 euro adults/14 euro for kids and I think well and truly worth the tour (especially if you get our guide, she was a bit fabulous on so many levels), after the tour you also get to wander around the Palazzo at your leisure, alas time was ticking on for us and our tummies were rumbling so we literally leaped across the Bridge of Sighs (sighed of course!) and then hightailed ourselves over to a great-looking sandwich place I had seen on our travels. It was such a beautiful day we decided to take a break on a canal and soak up the atmosphere…this is one of my favourite moments of the weekend, with all the gang.

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Lunch with friends

No one fell in (thank god) and we were all in a good mood so Ross and E decided it might be a good idea to take the kids on a gondola ride, this is where the boys are really lucky because they offered to take our boys them with them! Wow! Of course the boys were ecstatic and it also meant they could hang out with the girls a little more, so it was decided Nic and I would go and meet my parents who just so happened to be coming into town that afternoon while they all hopped on a gondola and paddled off into the canals of Venice. A memory the kids will cherish for many years to come I am sure.

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The kids on a gondola

Nic and I may have had a cheeky Spritz with Ross and E before they left (I mean that was the least we could do was buy them a apertivo before they go off on a gondola with four kids!) and we may have had another one…or was that after we met mum and dad? Not sure, however, I do have wonderful memories of lots of laughter, beautiful food and wonderful unexpected company for our weekend in Venice. We all had dinner that night, at first trying our luck in a very tiny restaurant in a part of town we didn’t really know, only to find out there was no chance in hell it would fit all ten of us, so with a bit of navigating from Nic and Ross and a few words from E and I we finally found a lovely restaurant that served nice food (though pricier than it needed to be). It was great to see mum and dad again and for them to meet our new friends in the beautiful city of Venice. I might save the rest for another blog as I can’t race through the Penny Guggenheim collection as there was far too much going on there to briefly mention.

Here I leave you with my memories of a wonderful family trip to a place that will never grow old to me and I hope the boys will one day come back with their friends and families to continue on the memory of Venice.

Carciofi e pecorino risotto

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Carciofi risotto prep

Living in Italy over the winter months is a wonderful eye opener for people who like to cook seasonally. I love being in a country where seasonal produce is abundant, in-your-face and cheap. Don’t get me wrong Australia has all the same foods, however, you also have a regular stock of summer, spring and autumn produce that can at times be cheaper than the in season fruit and veg and that can be really annoying. 

The vegetable I am thinking of when living in Italy in the winter months is carciofi (artichokes). They are everywhere you look bundled up in bunches of 4-5 for 2 euro a bunch…I cannot remember buying them that cheap in Sydney in winter or am I wrong Sydneysiders? Have I forgotten?

I love eating artichokes and this month I have loved experimenting with them in the kitchen (when they are this cheap you don’t mind making the odd mistake, it’s when they’re 2 euro each that you start to treat them like gold!). I had a couple of carciofi left over from a previous meal and they had been in the fridge for longer than I thought was a good idea. Fortunately, they were super fresh when I bought them so the extra few days in my fridge (instead of on the back of a truck being transported from one end of the country to another) didn’t seem to matter. 

I was in the mood for a risotto and I’d had a craving for anchovies too, however, when I suggested to the boys we have an artichoke, anchovy and pecorino risotto for dinner I got more than a few curled lips and ‘Oh come on mum, that doesn’t sound good at all!’. To be fair, if I told Alex I was making a chicken risotto with beans and candied bacon he would of asked for all the toppings without the rice because he hates the texture! I don’t get it. Anyway I wanted to try it out, Nic was excited so I pulled a couple pieces of lasagne from the freezer that I’d made the week before and decided I’d reheat a meal for them and cook a delicious one for us. Everyone was happy.

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Once the carciofi are stripped down to the tender leaves and the stem is lightly peeled leave them in cold water with half a lemon squeezed into the water to stop the carciofi turning a dirty brown colour. After the onion is chopped finely and the garlic thinly sliced, saute the onion with butter (not very Tuscan but very yummy and risotto isn’t Tuscan anyway) on a low heat until transparent.

Whack the temp up to medium and then add chopped carciofi, garlic, a good pinch of salt and two roughly chopped white anchovies for added richness (of course not necessary if you hate anchovies!). The smells are wonderfully sweet and savoury you could just eat it as is.

After the carciofi has been coated in the buttery onion, garlic and anchovy flavours add risotto rice and stir to heat up the rice while the vegetable stock is simmering on the stove top (approx 2 min).

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Adding of the rice

It is important to warm the rice before you add the stock because once the addition of liquid happens the rice activates immediately and the cooking process begins- warm rice, hot stock equals a perfect start to cooking a great risotto. Now there are a million different opinions on how to cook risotto and I am not here to tell you this is the only way to do it. I am not one to stand over the risotto pan and stir and stir until my arm is about to fall off. The approach I take is more for the cook who has to do more than three things at once: add a generous amount of stock to the rice, stir to stop the rice sticking on the bottom of the pan, make sure it is on a steady boil (though not going crazy) and then walk away to do something else. Stir occasionally in the beginning yet keep an eye on it so it doesn’t run low on stock. Taste the rice grain for ‘bite’ and then top up the liquid as needed. Once your happy with the bite of the rice (meaning it is cooked to your liking), stir a few times then take it off the heat and add very generous amounts of grated cheese, in this case I used a local pecorino (An aged pecorino has a much sharper taste which pairs beautifully with the fresh flavour of carciofi, parmesan is also lovely, however, it has more of a creamy flavour).

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Risotto almost finished, just folding in the cheese

A lot of tasting gets done at this point; fold in the cheese, add some fresh thyme, check the seasoning, maybe add a little more cheese (can never have to much) and then serve.

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Carciofi e pecorino risotto with white anchovies

I loved the flavours in this dish and the texture of fresh carciofi is a million times better than anything you get in a can, so if you see a bunch of carciofi at your fruit and veggie shop this winter and you have never bought it before, take the plunge. Buy it and make a delicious, heart-warming risotto, it’s really not as hard as you think.

Note: I hate that the photos are not bright and full of colour, however, I photograph at the time I need the dish and evening light really isn’t the best for food photography, I apologise.

Pranzo con Alex

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It has been a bit of a slow start to the week for me. After a wonderful Sunday with friends (blog to come…just need to get photos sorted), I have found it difficult to motivate myself to write. It didn’t help that the week started with rain and I am not talking a light Irish shower. The path I walk the kids to school on has turned into a mud bath: this was how I found it Monday morning.

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Our path to home in January

The fact that the boys are at school from 8.30am till 4.30pm on Mondays means I am left to my own devices. However, with that much rain I was not in the mood for a run around the block or a stroll in town, so I sloshed back home after school drop-off, picked up my book and spent the day reading. I am really noting this for myself because I am sure there will be a few times in the distant future (Nov/Dec spring to mind) when I will be bitching that I never get to just stop and read anymore. So, I would like to document the fact that not only did I manage to snatch a few hours to read but I did what any sane woman would do on a rainy, cold day after dropping the kids off to school: I popped on my husband’s sweatpants (the ones he owns but never wears…they are sooo soft, warm and comfortable), turned the heating on and read for pretty much the entire day!

Tuesday morning was here before I knew it and so was the guilt…..OMG, did I really spend the entire day inside, on the couch in sweatpants?? Umm…YEP!

Right, boys off to school down the muddy path to the right, mum down the path off to the left for a morning run while the sun was out and a chilly 2 degree biting me on my couch-sitting bum. Alex was due to have a short day at school Tuesday (12.30pm pick-up…very short!) and there was a whole butternut pumpkin sitting in the fridge. So once I came back from my run (leaving yesterday’s guilt behind me) I attacked the pumpkin and made a warm, wholesome, ginger, coriander (cilantro) and pumpkin soup for Alex and I. I also managed to scrub the bathroom, mop the floor and stand on my head which makes up for my complete-and-utter useless day yesterday.

Alex was excited to hear I’d made pumpkin soup and wanted to help with the pranzo making too. I suggested he put together a picky plate (as I point out here in a blog I wrote in 2008). Alex loves to help out and he is old enough now for me to leave him to his own devices. As I was setting the table for lunch I was very happy to see him putting so much effort into his selections and even happier to see what he selected.

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Alex’s raw veggie and cured meat plate

For an 8-year-old-boy raw veggies, cured meats and pickles is a pretty yummy selection to have with soup. Once he popped the plate on the table he said to me,

‘Mum I hope you don’t mind I cut the carrots into rounds, it was safer than me trying to cut those sticks that you do’.

Alex has an eye for detail and doesn’t like to disappoint. A hug and a ‘whatever you decide is the right decision, after all you’re the cook today’ set his mind at ease. 

Now that the boys are getting older I also have to remember to let them into the kitchen and help out with meals. Kids love helping out and I tend to take over when they offer to help, not really thinking much of it. However, now I see Alex in the kitchen helping, and having pride in his work I have to make more of an effort to say ‘yes, please’ instead of ‘no, it’s ok I’ll do it’. The other thing I notice is the more fresh fruit and vegetables THEY cut, the more they eat and there can’t be any harm in that.

Per favore, un più?

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Our local

Our favourite/local pasticceria, Cesare is a little ways down the road, a good twenty-minute walk from our place when you’re walking with kids. When I really want to have a break from being in the house I usually try and coax the boys into coming for a walk with me. As you can imagine getting your kids to come on a 40-minute walk (sometimes in the rain) isn’t exactly easy when all they want to do is play. I used to try out all sorts of tricks to get them to come along and then, not too long ago, the pièce-de-résistance came into play.

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It is winter and raining, why are we going for a walk?

I had seen the signs in the pasticceria when we first arrived but thought nothing of them as I had no clue as to what they meant: “bombolini caldi 16:00“. A few months had passed and I started reading a few more words, working out how to say more words and actively looking for words to read.

Guess what bombolini are???

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Bombolini con crema

That’s right- DONUTS!!!!!

And not just any donuts, HOT-out-of-the-fryer-and-into-your-mouth donuts.

Donuts filled with crema AND chocolate

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jam donuts…

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and plain donuts, that are the size of your head!

IMG_0977Not only do these bombolini taste and look superb but they are also chock-a-block full of whatever flavouring you choose and only cost ONE EURO each!!!

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As you bite into the bomboline you instantly feel the warmth of the marmalata, cioccolato or crema oozing into your mouth and down your chin. Children and adults alike all sit at the tables of Cesare with piles of serviettes at the ready because you just can’t help but get excited when 4pm rolls around and you happen to be in the vicinity of this pasticceria.

I know lots of other places serve bombolini and that is fantastic, however, for me this is the place I know and trust when it comes to bombolini freschi and I also know I have a 20-minute walk up hill to get home which means they come GUILT FREE!

 

Seafood pasta

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Clam, prawn and local white fish poached in a prawn velouté and served with spaghetti

I am a massive seafood fan. Living in Sydney for the past 5 years, going down the fish markets has always been a favourite shopping trip of mine. Having seafood so fresh and so close to where I lived also turned me into a bit of a seafood snob. If it isn’t fresh then I’m not eating it.

On the 24th of December we were walking the streets of Turin looking for a fish monger so we could join the rest of Italy and eat seafood on the eve of Christmas….it wasn’t looking good. I couldn’t find a fish shop anywhere. I even looked at the frozen boxes of fish/shellfish in the ‘Express’ market wondering if it was possible for me to buy a box of frozen fish fillets (it wasn’t). We had all but given up finding some fish and decided on a vegetarian meal when we headed out that afternoon for a walk, however, we turned right instead of left for a change of direction and what was hidden behind a big old church under construction? A mobile fish monger!!! We couldn’t believe our luck, it was getting dark (around 4pm) and he was eager to go home and start his celebrations so we rushed over to him and told him we would take his last bag of clams and maybe a few prawns too. I am not to sure who was more excited, in the end he threw in the rest of his stock for free, wished us a Merry Christmas then hightailed out of there faster than a wild boar in hunting season. The walk was ditched and we took our bags home to look at our loot. I had more seafood than I knew what to do with…where were our friends when we needed them?

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Very happy looking through our bags of seafood and peeling prawns

I was giddy with excitement, not just because we bought some super-fresh seafood but I also had a supremely well-stocked kitchen to cook in! As I started peeling the prawns, I knew exactly what I was going to make: a massive bowl of seafood pasta and I was going to make a prawn velouté to poach the clams, fish and prawn meat in- Yippee!!

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Our seafood collection

Now I have to confess, I haven’t made a velouté sauce since my commis-chef days when I was working on the Sheraton Hotel scene. I remember I used to be pretty good at sauces way back then, so I was counting on my added experience and hoping for the best.

The prawns looked so good and very juicy that I peeled them all (we ended up getting about double the amount I actually needed which was great because the more shells and heads the better for the stock). I started by making a roux with equal parts of butter and flour then putting it to one side while I started on the stock. After wiping out the pot I sauteed some shallots and garlic on a medium-low heat to soften the shallots before adding the prawn heads and shells. If the prawns are super fresh I don’t wash them off, I throw them straight into the pot, turn up the heat to medium and brown them off for 3-4 minutes. They smell absolutely fantastic at this stage. 

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Prawn stock

Once I had a good rich colour going on with the heads I deglazed the pot with a spot of scotch (don’t tell Nic!) Your probably thinking, what??! Well it was Christmas eve and I usually would of thrown in a little brandy but scotch was the only liquor I had on offer (FYI: it worked a treat!). With the pot deglazed I then added enough cold water to just cover the shells and heads, brought it up to a boil and then turned it back and simmered for about 20 min, skimming the top to get rid of the scum and impurities that head straight into the foam (remember DO NOT stir or touch the stock at this stage; once the water is in, let it be).

After 20 minutes, I strained off all the heads and shells then put the stock back on the heat to reduce further (increasing flavour). It reduced by half again and was ready to be turned into a volute. For this you need a whisk, something I found out I didn’t actually have (arghh!!!). However, I managed to find a kind of whisk attachment for a mini blender that helped me out.

With the stock bubbling away on a medium-high heat I crumbled the roux into the stock whisking continually until the sauce thickened and I got the consistency I was after. I added some sea salt to bring all the flavours together and was tickled pink when I finally tasted the velouté; it was rich and punching with flavour, I couldn’t have asked for more.

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Prawn velouté – check out that colour!

The hard part was over, now all I had to do was wait for dinner time so I could cook some pasta, add the fresh seafood to the velouté and hey presto our seafood pasta feast would be ready. Because the sauce was hot and boiling it didn’t take long for the pieces of seafood to poach and the clams to open (approx. 4 minutes).

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Ready for the saucing

I would have loved to have some fresh parsley to finish the dish with, however, I didn’t even think I was going to be eating seafood  so I can’t be too disappointed. I will say, if you are going to try this method (you really should as it is dead simple) then make your velouté thicker than you think it should be. The fresh seafood will thin the sauce as it cooks and the beautiful salty water enhances the dish even more.

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Buon Appetito