The spice contest

A really quick & dirty post today to fulfill my bet with Katha (whose blog esskultur you should be reading if you speak German).

It all started on twitter – after winning an impromptu “competition” about the number of dried pasta shapes we have in the kitchen (27), I felt too secure and accepted Katha’s dare about the number of spices we each have. What was I thinking? Why didn’t anyone stop me? She is the daughter of a spice dealer!

My number is: 148! Not bad, but short of her winning 167! (Rules were: any single or mixed spices, herbs, etc, but no pastes, no oils)

Short breakup of my spices: 13 different red paprikas/chilies (1 up from the last time I counted), 12 peppers, 12 salts. Things that I assume are rare in other kitchens (maybe even Katha’s?): mentuccia (a Roman mint type), mirto leaves (of the myrte tree from Sardinia), salade du pêcheur (a mix of sea algae from Japan), roses, zahter (like the famous za’atar but not the same) from Turkey, sahlep (salep, not the ready-mix to make the drink that is full of chemicals but the real thing, the milled flour of the root) and damla sakizi (gum mastic). The fresh and good mint and sumak she misses, I have in abundance (the Turkey connection!).

So I bow my head in shame – I have lost! Katha, I’ll be bringing you a good wine to October meeting. And I see the time has finally come to organize my spices in these nice tins that I have ordered!

How many spices do you have?

Almond, lemon and berry cake

2 weeks ago, as I was going through my kitchen notes, a yellowed piece of paper fell into my hands. There was a handwritten recipe on it, written in that basic style that a cook uses only for herself. I am sure you know the style, just so much information that you – and only you – understand what the outcome should be. Almond meal, lemon juice and sour cherries were involved. A google search didn’t bring up anything similar, so I have no idea where this recipe came from – if you recognize the recipe below, please let me know, I’d like to give due credit.

With the prospect of a dvd filled late-afternoon in our cool, air-conditioned bedroom behind closed shutters (this July has been brutal in Rome), I dared the idea of turning the oven on. The kitchen was already terribly hot (no AC here), so I thought “in for a penny, in for a pound” and cranked up the oven.

Since I was born with the CFR-syndrome* (and because I didn’t have everything at home and there was no way I was going outside to the 44°C / 111°F heat), I made some changes. The cake turned out lovely and I have since repeated the success and even made some little tweaks. This is an uncomplicated cake with a surprisingly multi-layered taste – the almonds give a slight crunch and a nutty taste, lemon juice and powder make it fresh and underline the berry taste.

Almond, lemon and berry cake
source: a little yellowed out piece of paper, with some changes by me

prep: 10 mins
bake: 40 mins
cool: 10 mins

all purpose flour, 135 g
baking soda, 1 tsp (5 g)
almond flour**, 85 g
citrus powder***, 3 tsp (substitute fresh zest)
butter, 185 g
sugar, 200 g
lemon juice, 60 ml (I obtained that amount from 1 very juicy big lemon)
Vanilla extract, 10 ml
eggs, 2
berries, 125 g (any berries you have or even sour cherries)

Heat the oven to 180°C / 360°F, line a loaf cake pan with heat proof paper (with overhang!) and butter it liberally.

Mix the flour, baking soda, almond flour and citrus powder/zest. In a casserole type pan, mix butter, sugar, lemon juice and vanilla extract, let it completely melt and dissolve on low heat. Add slowly to the flour mixture and mix with a spatula to just combine. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until completely incorporated. Fill the (runny) batter into the lined and greased pan. Scatter your fruit on top – no need to push down, they will sink!

Bake for 40 minutes (a skewer should come out clean). If you are using frozen berries, it will take up to 20 minutes longer.

Take the loaf pan out and let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. You can then remove the cake from the pan easily by just grabbing the ends of the lining. Eat at room temperature. Some whipped cream on the side is a lovely addition. Keeps in the fridge for at least 3 days (the longest we had some left over).

This is not a very fluffy cake, rather a bit on the dense and coarse side but not unpleasantly so. The size is just right to serve it to a couple of friends for coffee and maybe have leftovers for the next day. No one has been able to eat less than 2 slices!

* Can’t Follow Recipe
** so much better to make your own than buy: just pulse whole blanched almonds for 20 seconds in a food processor or similar. Some coarse crumbs are perfectly ok, it doesn’t have to be too fine.
*** Take an untreated, preferably organic citrus of your choice (orange, lemon, mandarine…), slice into really thin rounds and dry in the oven for a few hours at a low temperature with the fan on. When they are perfectly dry and crisp, grind them to fine meal / powder in the food processor. I made mine in the winter with perfect oranges and have been using it in pasta sauces and salad dressings. You can substitute fresh zest of the lemon you are using for the juice.

Alchemilla, an Un-Italian Dinner (and some teething troubles)

picture via alchemilla website

Update: T. read this post and says it is too critical and negative. I definitely do not want this to be the message that comes across – I did love the food and the overall experience we had here! I just think that the little mistakes/shortcomings we observed are rather easily avoidable and would increase the positive feeling by so much more. That is why I was pointing them out, not because they were such a big, negative part of the experience.

Take a young chef with great ideas. Add charming family & friends. Spice up with a lack of money and cluelessness in customer relations, modern electronic communications and wine.

You get Alchemilla, a Roman restaurant where we ate exceptionally good (mostly!) and will definitely return soon.

The young chef Francesco Magiar Lucidi, named one of the baby-chefs of Rome, is 26 years old, has great ideas but maybe not just enough experience in important kitchens. His sister, an actress, is part of the service, the other waitress has piercings in her face. On the day of the reservation they change the advertised 9 courses to 7 without explanation and when asked send one that is worse than the offense – “…in order to not overwhelm the senses & speed up the dinner…”. They send out emails, which is rare enough in Italy, but these are mass emails with many addresses on “to”, no “bcc”. There is an insufficient and not carefully selected wine list, the recommendation is a red whereas white is the much better pairing with the menu on hand. Not one glass matches another in the whole dining room. The AC alternates between burning hot and freezing cold. The menu is also in English – or rather, pigeon English.

You get Alchemilla, a Roman restaurant where we ate exceptionally good (mostly!) and will definitely return soon.

During the dinner I had all contradicting feelings. I sat there eating great food, prepared with very good products; great ideas, some working out, some not; a service that is dear and charming but making unnecessary mistakes. I felt like giving them all a big hug, holding their hands and saying “It is gonna be alright. I understand. I see where you are coming from and where you want to go. I want to help you. Listen to me. Take some advice. You can be so much better.”

Lacking that, I will keep on going to Alchemilla. I will keep on supporting them as they (hopefully) learn. I will keep on eating great food. (I just wish I could organize their cellar; choose better wines, put together a wine-by-the-glass pairing.)

What we ate: (expect 7 to 9 courses for €36, “journey” (not menu!) of the week can be seen online)

* Extra-old parmiggiano cream with a forest-honey veil (a gelatinous sheet!), dried fruit, green apple, 25 year old balsamic vinegar – very subtle and nice play of aromas, very good!

* soft polenta with beurre noisette (brown butter), pecorino di fossa (pit-matured sheep’s cheese) and fleur di sel – delicate and comforting, great idea with the brown butter!

* Calamarata shaped pasta with puntarelle cooked in vanilla, red beets, anchovies and smoked provolone – weakest dish of the stretch, though the idea is actually great: taking the very Roman dish of puntarelle with anchovies sauce and warming it up, temperature and spice-wise, and combining with pasta. I think the pasta format and plating was wrong and the smoked cheese was out-of-place, too; the elements of the dish just didn’t come together – but definitely a great idea to play around with in my kitchen

* Meatballs made with Cinta Senese pork (from Sienna), wild greens and black rice (in sheet form!) – very good, the meatballs had a great seasoning.

* Pickled herring with yogurt, very young spinach and smoked salt – a very good idea gone wrong because the herring was way too salty and together with the extra sold became unedible

* Pork flank in sweet&sour sauce with marinated red cabbage – melt in your mouth meat with a lively and decisive taste – perfect.

* Dessert wine, honey (these two in the form of an ice-cream), orange (jelly) and chocolate (powder) – nice combination of tastes, though the honey taste was too strong for me – but that’s really just me.

Steamed/poached fish, Asian inspired

just before steaming

Just before Christmas, I came up with this simple preparation of sea bream – it turned out to be one of the best ways to eat a big whole fish. I immediately twittered about it so at least I wouldn’t forget what basically went in there, but didn’t have high hopes to ever replicate the experience again.

Over Christmas and New Year we had some friends visiting from Germany, and one of the days was already set aside as “play day” – on which we go to the market, buy whatever is fresh and catches our eye, come home and prepare / cook it together and eat. We eat many courses. We eat in the kitchen and in the dining room. We eat for hours. Oh, and we drink wine, do I have to mention that?

Where was I? Yes, play day, and the menu for the day turned out to be with an emphasis on fish, and one of the courses was my try to recreate that Asian inspired steamed fish. And it did work! There is no set recipe for it, but these are the guidelines.

Ingredients: Get a whole, cleaned white fleshed fish that is around 1 to 1,5 kg (Sea bream in my case). This can feed 2 as an only course or up to 6 as part of a multi course menu. The poaching liquid I concocted was about 200ml stock (vegetable in my case, but you could also use fish or chicken), a generous dash of soy sauce, one minced chili (adjust according to the heat you want but definitely check the hotness before cooking the fish) and a dash of lime juice. As additional flavoring I covered the fish with thin slices/sticks of ginger, garlic and leeks. I think ginger and garlic are essential but the leeks can be substituted by scallions. I also stuffed the belly of the fish with parsley, you could substitute cilantro (harder to find in my neck of the woods) or omit it completely. Do not substitute bay laurels, that is a flavor direction that doesn’t fit with the theme of this dish (though I usually always add laurel to my fish dishes).

The main point of the technique is to steam/poach the fish very gently in a sauce, so you need a (slightly) rimmed plate where the fish can fit in (at least the main body part of it) and a pot/pan with a lid that can accommodate this plate. Place a little bowl in the big pan and place the plate on it. Add some water to the pan, paying attention it doesn’t reach the plate (take into consideration that the water will boil and thus throw bubbles later). Make 2-3 rather superficial cuts on both sides of the fish and place it on the plate. Pour your poaching liquid carefully over it. Cover the fish with ginger, garlic, leeks etc. Place the lid over your construction and put it on a medium-high heat on the stove. Let steam and poach for 25 minutes. Wear oven mittens and be very careful when you remove the lid at the end of this time – steam is very hot and can cause burns! Remove the lid carefully but quickly and decisively.

Divide the fish and serve with a spoon or two of the poaching liquid as well as the vegetables. Do not forget to dunk fresh wheat bread into the sauce!

10 Things in the Pantry


Tursu, pickles, a pantry staple in Turkish kitchens

I was reading through yesterday’s edition of Katha‘s “10 days, 10 lists” series (in German) as I stopped right in my tracks. In this post she writes about 10 things she always has in her pantry or fridge in Vienna, Austria. Moments ago I had already read Anke‘s list for her kitchen in Hamburg, Germany. And found it funny how different countries influence the very basics in our kitchens. So here are my 10 things that I always have in the kitchen.

1. Wine Ok, wine should never be in the kitchen (too warm!) except for its short stint in the fridge, but it is also unthinkable for me to eat without drinking wine, so it is on the list. Mostly Italian.

2. Pasta I live in Italy. Enough said? Ok, add to that: I am too lazy and dough-handicapped to make my own pasta. A mix of regular, organic, wholewheat, with egg, etc. At last count there were 18 different shapes in my pantry.

3. Risotto rice see above. Always Carnaroli, sometimes also Vialone Nano or Arborio.

4. Olive oil see above. Local and organic.

5. Butter This is not typical central Italian, but we just love it. On bread, for cooking (risotto!) and baking (bake something chocolate-y with salted butter and you’ll understand). Especially semi salted French ones that are very hard to get around here.

6. Guanciale So Roman, so unctuous, my secret weapon.

7. Garum, Colatura or sardine paste (aka something fishy). The Italian answer to fish sauce – more subdued, more elegant. Secret weapon #2

8. Olives Taggiasca, Gaeta or Sicilian.

9. Flour Regular. I used to say I am not a baker, but the last couple of years have proved me wrong. I do bake. Not bad either. I just don’t feel comfortable handling dough.

10. Canned tomatoes Italian, organic. In the winter they are better than fresh (especially after I saw the hothouses stretching to the horizon in Sicily) and give you a soup or a pasta sauce in 1 minute.

You might think where is all the fresh stuff? Vegetables, fruits, herbs? You can’t be living off of carbs and fats only! Well, we do eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, at every meal actually. But we always buy them fresh, seasonal and often very local (though not always, I admit) in the market – we go to a market around 5 times a week. So I don’t consider them things I stock in the pantry.

We also buy fish at the market, about once a week. We are not vegetarians (see 6 & 7), but a substantial piece of meat like a steak, roast or chicken etc. we buy only around once a month from our favorite butcher Annibale, often from organic and local, definitely happy animals.

What are your 10 things?

Menu For Hope is going on till the 25th of December – have you donated yet? Your chance to win great food & wine related items and feed the poor for only $10! My offer has the code EU23

Menu For Hope 6 – Donate and Win (a wine tasting for 8!)


Update: Bidding just became easier! This nifty little form will help you choose your items and transfer it directly to the donation site – remember my code is EU23.

Menu for Hope is an annual fundraising campaign hosted by Chez Pim and a revolving group of food bloggers around the world.  For the past three years, Menu for Hope raised nearly a quarter of million dollars in support of the good work of the UN World Food Programme, helping to feed hungry people worldwide. We, food bloggers from all over the world, join the campaign by offering a delectable array of food-related bid items for the Menu for Hope raffle. Anyone – and that means you too – can buy raffle tickets to bid on these items. For every $10 donated, you earn one virtual raffle ticket to bid on an item of your choice. At the end of the two-week campaign, the raffle tickets are drawn and the results announced on Chez Pim.

Once again we’ve chosen to work with the UN World Food Programme. This year, we are supporting a new initiative at the WFP called Purchase for Progress (P4P). P4P enables smallholder and low-income farmers to supply food to WFP’s global operation.  We food bloggers understand the importance of buying locally and supporting our local farms, P4P helps do the same for farmers in low income countries around the world.  More on the campaign, the donation system and the programme we are supporting can be found here.

This year, I am again offering a bid-item:


(EU23) My Italians wine tasting in Rome for 8! A great opportunity for wine lovers – beginner or expert – to get an overview of Italian wines, learning about and tasting 7 of them. Let yourself be guided by sommelière Hande (me!) through this fun and informative 2-hour tasting that gets rave reviews! Offer is valid for up to 8 persons, so gather your family, friends or colleagues and hop on a plane to Rome!

Small print: Tasting to be taken within 2010 and date to be arranged with vinoroma. No guarantee on exclusive, private date – there may be others taking part in the tasting, especially if your party is less than 8. Winner may not “sell” remaining places if his party is less than 8. Shipping N/A. Worth of bid item is (up to) €400 / $600 (for a group of 8), non-redeemable.

There are many food and wine related items out there that you can bid for. Over at David’s blog you can see the other bid items offered in Europe and at Alder’s vinography you can see other wine related items. For the master list of all bid items you can win with a donation of only $10, have a look at Chez Pim. And if you want to win the wine tasting in Rome, don’t forget to state EU23!

To Donate and Enter the Menu for Hope Raffle

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Choose a bid item or bid items of your choice from our Menu for Hope main bid item list over at Pim’s.

2. Go to the donation site at Firstgiving and make a donation.

3. Please specify which bid item (EU23 for the wine tasting in Rome) you’d like in the ‘Personal Message’ section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per bid item if bidding for more than 1, and please use the bid item code.

Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a bid item of your choice. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02, so write: 2xEU01, 3xEU02.

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we can contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.


Shines like a jewel after 6 days

Shines like a jewel after 6 days

I usually have conflicting feelings when T. asks me something about cooking. “How do I cut the onions?” is innocent enough, he is my kitchen assistant, and I very gracefully sometimes let him take care of the lower tasks. Examples being cutting the guanciale and the bread, washing the greens – have you seen how much dirt comes from that spinach? – and reaching for things that are higher up.

coarse salt, sugar, herbs

coarse salt, sugar, herbs

A totally different story it is when he asks, seemingly innocently as we wait our turn at the fish stand (“bionda”, blondie, is what everyone gets called here), something like “how do you make the gravlax?”. Instantly, I have voices inside my head. What, you don’t have voices inside your head when you are cooking? “Why does he want to know? What does he plan? Is he thinking he can make the dish himself? Why is he so self-esteemed all at once? Ha, he needs to peel a ton of potatoes before he can cook a dish alone.” And, most importantly: “Sh**! He is going to see how easy it is to produce something so show-stopping!

bed the salmon in the mixture

bed the salmon in the mixture

Because easy and show-stopping and delicious it is! There are 100 ways to use it, too: drape slices over potatoes or blinis with some creme fraiche-horseradish mix, put pieces&bits into scrambled eggs, combine with zucchini for a delish pasta sauce…..

weigh it down with a matching wine!

weigh it down with a matching wine!

So, now go buy the freshest piece of salmon you can lay your hands on, with half of it make Nicky’s Salmon tartare for instant gratification while you wait (the only difficulty in making gravlax!) for the rest to turn into jewels!

Gravlax (Graved lax)
ancient method, own mix

prep: 20 mins
unattended: 6 days

Salmon fillets, freshest possible, without skin
coarse salt, 2x the weight of the salmon
sugar, 1x the weight of the salmon
herbs (I used fennel seeds, wild fennel greens, berries and leaves of myrtle; 1tbsp of each – feel free to use a mix that you like best – dill is traditional, if that rocks your boat!)

Wash and pat dry the salmon fillets. Check for any tiny fishbones that may be in the flesh, you can easily pull them out.

Mix salt, sugar and herbs. In a deep non-reactive dish (glass or ceramic) make a thin bed with the mixture. Put the fillets on this bed and cover completely with the rest of the mixture. Put foil saran wrap/cling film (thanks for reminding me, eat!) directly on the salt mixture, put the dish in the fridge and put something as a weight on it. I strongly advice to use the wrap/film, as the mixture will get soggy and smear on whatever you are using as a weight.

On the 2nd day, the fish will already start losing liquid, the salt mixture will get sticky. Check to see if you need to patch any bare spots. The fish has to be completely covered with the mixture throughout the process.

After 5 to 6 days the fish will be “graved”. It is hard, thinner and shiny. Bury it out of the mixture, wash quickly to get rid of the clumps of salt mixture and pat dry.  Discard salt mixture! To eat, slice real thin. Will keep, packed in parchment paper, weeks in the fridge. Can also be frozen.


There has been some discussion about eating raw salmon and possible parasite infection in the comments and in emails.  Here is what my research (in various government and/or research institute based sites in English and German) delivered and how I handle the situation:

* Raw fish, especially fresh water (or mixed-living) fish, can have parasites. Salmon is one of the those fish.
* The parasites live in the stomach and/or intestines of the fish when it is alive. When it dies, they go into the flesh.
* That is why fish are gutted as soon as they are caught – the worms have no time to eat themselves into the flesh. Don’t ever buy un-gutted salmon at the market.
* If some parasites (or their larvae) have found their way to the fish flesh, they are detectable with the bare eye – they are at least about 1 cm long.
* Almost none of the fish worms can’t adapt to the human system and don’t live in humans. There are no certain numbers but there have been about 200 infections in the USA in the past 27 years.
* Freezing at temperatures around -40°C (which you can’t achieve in a home freezer) and also cooking the fish kill all parasites. Hot smoking as well, but not cold smoking.
* Marinating (acids) doesn’t kill the parasites. There is uncertainty about salting. Some sources say abundant salt (as I use in my recipe as opposed to some lighter “graves” in other recipes) is enough to kill all parasites.
* All fish in Europe that are sold for explicit raw consumption have been frozen before – like in sushi restaurants.
* The fresh salmon from which I get the fillets at the market is not frozen.
* But it is very fresh, it has been gutted quickly, and I do visually examine the fillets before “graving” them with a lot of salt.
* Everyone should decide himself if he wants to eat fresh raw salmon or any other fish. I will surely keep on doing it, observing the above rules.

slice it thin - flavor explosion!

slice it thin - flavor explosion!