Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Visiting an Acetaia

On our second day in Modena, Italy, we drove south toward Bologna, specifically to the town of Vignola, in search of traditional balsamic vinegar. The morning started with a light sprinkle and we were hopeful the sun was coming out just for us because we had travel all that way for a lovely vacation. The GPS took us through narrow roads to a small town in the middle of the fields as the rain picked up clouding the view ahead. “You have reached your destination,” the GPS lady said, after we turned in to a residential neighborhood. The gated house looked too small to be a factory, of anything, let alone vinegar, but the name on the wall “La Cà dal Nôn” confirmed we had indeed reached out destination.

We rang the doorbell and a few seconds later the gates opened and from behind came out a woman, “Hello, my name is Mariangela,” she said, “welcome to our acetaia.”

We walked to the back of the house where two vine-trees wrapped around a pergola, I pulled out my umbrella and hunched over myself to conserve warmth as the morning turned colder. Mariangela pointed to the vines, “These are our two old ladies, we had three but one died suddenly,” she said as she padded on one of the vines, “these are Lambrusco vines, from my great grandfather’s time.” They still produce some fruit, she told us, but any stressors can kill them. “The rest of our grapes come from the vineyard not far from here,” she said.

The light sprinkle of rain and the cold air were no match to my faux leather jacket and I kept shivering, enough that she suggested we went inside to the tasting room. I laid my umbrella on the floor and walked toward the plastic chairs set up classroom style around a table full of balsamic products in front of a chalkboard with a drawing of the balsamic making process. “Let’s start with the name of our acetaia, the word nôn means grandpa in dialect,” she said, “and means house, so this is ‘the house of the grandfather’ since it was my great-grandfather who established the acetaia.” 

Culture and Balsamic Vinegar, a bit of history
Traditional balsamic vinegar is a product ingrained in the culture of Modena and the Emilia Romagna region, where the locals have produced it for hundreds of years, and kings and emperors loved and praised its unique flavor; luckily for us, Mariangela shared her contagious passion and exquisite knowledge of the history. The story goes that ancient Romans used to make a honey-like grape syrup called Saba all through the empire using the grapes of each region; in Emilia Romagna they used Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, mainly. To make Saba, they cooked the pressed juice of overripe grapes in large copper cauldrons to evaporate water and concentrate the sugars yielding a dark brown syrup; Mariangela told us that scholars believe that balsamic vinegar came from the fermented saba that underwent a vinegarization and aging process.

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Living Paris

Paris is a place to celebrate big milestones; our tenth wedding anniversary, my 40th birthday, our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and my husband’s 40th birthday. Each trip devoted to learning more about the city, walking its streets, sitting at a café and drinking a few glasses of house rosé or a couple of coffees, visiting the farmer’s market and fantasizing about having a small flat around the 3rd or 11th arrondissement from where we could walk to the bakery every morning and buy croissants and pain au chocolat, or go to the market on the weekends to buy fish and groceries and flowers and sit on a bench eating an authentic falafel wrap. Each trip is an attempt at Living Paris

The RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to Paris links the reality of a heavily diverse city to our fantasies of french speaking, macarons, and duck confit. La Gare Du Nord is a chaotic, organized mess where patrons rush through walking highways to the train platforms. Underground the city is ugly, unsettling, and real. 

The city up the stairs is a breath of fresh air. Out of its cavernous veins the dream of Paris becomes a reality. 

Les Marais 
Our first trip we rented a studio apartment in Les Marais neighborhood near the Arts et Métiers train station. I love that station. Copper walls that arch around the ceiling holding cooper wheels and pinions suspended beneath the ancient streets, and the submarine-like windows displaying magical images from Jules Verne’s science fiction books.

My husband got up early each morning to try the different bakeries around the block until he finally settled for Earnest and Valentine, the pain au chocolat won him over. From our studio on the Rue Montgolfier we walked to Rue de Bretagne to buy groceries and rotisserie chicken for lunch or dinner, depending on our plans for the day. On the same street we found the Marché des Enfant Rouges, an indoor market and dining hall, and around the corner we lunched on bento boxes at Nanashi Asian Bistro.

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A day around Modena and a Cheese excursion

For my husband’s 40th birthday, we planned a trip to Italy to eat and drink until our hips were unrecognizable. Everyone told us it was an easy task to accomplish; one of his coworkers said he gained 18 lbs {eighteen pounds (!)} on a week-long trip to the land of pasta, prosciutto and parmegiano-reggiano; so we set out on a goal to learn about the culture, one pound at the time.

After a quick stop in Paris {more about that in another post}, we flew to Bologna where we picked up our car rental, a Mini, as my husband wanted to surprised me and indulge my unreasonable obsession with the tiny car. This was the bigger, 4-door version, which is like wanting to eat prosciutto and ordering Easter ham instead, it is pork, it is cured, it is not prosciutto. The Mini is a mix of advance machinery and old style glam, pretty leather seats, race car dashboard and incomprehensible computerized entertainment and navigation system.  While we fiddled with the car and the GPS, it began to rain. The black-grey skies circled overhead and the GPS lady couldn’t find her way out of the roundabout onto the highway. 

We had rented an Airb&b apartment in Modena, about an hour drive from Bologna, and the heavy rain followed us all the way to the parking lot our host had suggested for us to leave the car and drag our suitcases to the apartment, because driving in the historic area of town is a privilege for only those with a resident sticker on the windshield of their cars. We sat in the car looking at deep puddles around the parking lot unwilling to soak our entire wardrobe on the first day. We walked to the apartment, without bags, assessed the street situation, went back to the car with drenched shoes and socks, broke the law by driving to the apartment building, jumped out of the car, dumped the bags on the street, I stayed behind and struggled with the bags up four sets of stairs – no elevator-  and my husband drove away. So far no arrest has been made. It rained all night, many pairs of socks were soaked in the making of these memories. 

After a hot cup of coffee and fresh pair of socks and shoes, we put on our rain coats, opened our umbrellas, and set out to explore Modena. The lights shined on the wet roads as we hustled from building to building in an attempt to stay somewhat dry on our way to the local market, Mercato Albinelli, which to our luck stays open late on Saturdays. The front door was adorned with basil, thyme, and rosemary planters, and piles of strawberries and asparagus. Dozens of vendors offering meats, vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto, culatello, porchetta – oh the porchetta! – anything one could need for a homemade meal, I wanted to buy it all, I dreamt of walking there everyday with a my shopping basket to buy the day’s fresh produce chatting with the vendors in Italian, and eating prosciutto for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

After our shopping we walked back to the Piazza Grande and experienced our first aperitivo, the Italian version of happy hour where the restaurant or bar puts out an impressive display of food, banquet style, and the patrons pay a minimal fee, in our case at Caffe Concerto we paid €5 each, for an all-you-can-eat {read all the prosciutto you can eat} buffet, plus the cost of drinks. At this point, one day in, I began to worry about whether we could walk, waddle, or roll by the end of our Italian journey.  

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Berry Coffee Cake with Almond Topping

The weather outside is trouble. Hail and flooding rains attacking the garden, the same little plants that witnessed the heavy, steady, and unwelcome snow last week. Just a few days ago we enjoyed 70 degree radiant afternoons, tilling the ground and watching the pea plants grow and the lettuce beds populate. 

I’ve had enough. Winter, you had your chance, it’s spring! It’s May, and even the grass is tired of you. 

I’m ready for color explosions from poppies, columbines, calendula and chamomile flowers. I’m itching to plant tomatoes, peppers, beans and sunflowers; and for long evenings sitting on the patio with a chilled glass of anything, preferably a rosé but at this point i’ll take anything over a hot tea. 

To undermine the rude and constant interruption of spring, I made one of my favorite coffee cakes, fresh berries with almond topping. 

berryalmondcoffeecake

I first made this recipe a decade ago when I was working at the museum, it worked great for afternoon tea and coffee gatherings that didn’t require highly stylized desserts, but called for delicious and comforting baked goods. 

I found this recipe in the book from a once iconic bakeshop and cafe in New York City, Once Upon Tart. The shop still exist, but more as a staple of the SoHo neighborhood rather than the groundbreaking shop I, once, longed to visit. A clear representation of how quickly food businesses can go out of style and replaced by trendy, hipster new spots. 

This book remains one of my favorite cookbooks, even after a decade of paging through it and splattering vanilla extract and buttermilk on it. It’s full of tips and ideas on everything from simple salads and soups, to cozy baked goods, plus I like to read the headnotes that tell the story of each item. I like context when I read and cook a recipe, especially as I dive deeper into food as a cultural glue of people.  

The head note for this recipe says, “This is not your average coffee cake,” and I agree. I’m not a fan of coffee cakes because they tend to be too sweet, just cake with little fruit. This one is packed with berries on each bite, and it is the only coffee cake I ever make. I follow their advise in the fall and make it with apples, which are delicious with the almond topping and an added dash of cinnamon. 

coffeecakeberryalmond

I’m following the original recipe as spring calls for berries, well not in Colorado. Berries are available from California this time of the year, where crazy snow and hail are reserved for mountain tops. Here in Colorado, we don’t see strawberries until mid June, if the weather doesn’t destroy crops, but until then California fruit will have to do. 

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Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Last spring, I went to Mexico for work. We visited the state of Oaxaca, a word I learned to pronounce when I learnt about the trip. It isn’t a Spanish word but rather an inheritance of the native language of the region. This was a theme I encountered while traveling and conversing with the inhabitants of the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. 

We settled in Puerto Escondido to visit a school as part of a partnership with the university I work for, and traveled around the area visiting turtle and iguana sanctuaries, multiple beach towns and eating local specialties like Oaxacan cheese and the fisherman’s day-catch. 

The best way to reach Puerto Escondido, or “Hidden Port”, is by air. There are roads from the big cities but the trek is long and uncertain, as the locals told us. By air is an hour fly from Mexico City in a 40-passenger plane battling shifting winds. The view from the low-flying plane is wide and mountainous, especially when leaving Mexico City where El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet) peaks frame the scene. 

We arrived in Puerto Escondido at 6p.m., after leaving Denver at 5a.m., due to a three-hour delay in Mexico City. The landscape changed as we approached our destination. The plane swarmed around the coastline charging toward the ocean and descending as a graceful goose preparing to land in the water, with a gently tilt we turned around to face the airport and the tiny runway. I won’t lie, it was frightening and I mistrusted the entire situation, thankfully the pilot proved me wrong with a smooth landing. 

The sticky hot air blew as we walked from the plane into baggage claim where our host waited for us. “Welcome! How was your flight?” they asked with big, warm smiles as we exchanged hugs and kisses on the cheeks. “Beautiful!” I replied while walking to the van for a 5-minute ride to the hotel. The sunset was a minute away from exploding in orange and gold hues and we rushed from the parking lot of the hotel to the pool where the uninterrupted view allowed the magic of the sun to glow on the palm trees. 

Puerto Escondido is a small enough town to create a feeling of community, but large enough to have multiple traffic lights and crowded streets, and a food market covering four blocks. Nearby towns provide an oasis for tourist, with restaurants on the sand where the chairs sink as you sit and hammocks strung from bamboo poles under kiosks beg to be used. We visited during the low season and enjoyed the solitude of beaches barely sprinkled with tourist. Our host told us, “Next week is Easter and for two weeks you won’t find a place to stand on the beach, let alone lounge and leisure, plus prices double.”


The Market


The next morning, after a walk, barefoot on the blonde sand,  we went to the market with a student from the school working as our guide. The warehouse-like building crowded with piles of mangoes and pineapples brought me back to my younger days in Colombia and the melancholy of sweet, ripe tropical fruit memories. We stopped at a booth selling peppers, fresh and dried, and homemade sauces where my boss decided to try his spice resistance, a brave move if you’d asked me as my spice resistance stays at 0 on the Scoville scale – or the equivalent of a sweet bell pepper. Continue reading Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Stewed Garbanzos and The Art of Meal Planning

With the summer abundance finished it’s time to shift gears and plan meals for cold, busy weeks. Summer is easier, with lots of fresh produce, garden offerings and the punishing heat that suggests lighter meals, lots of rosé and mint water, preferably in the backyard under tree shade. Fall and winter are a different game, I’m extra hungry as the weather cools and the days shorten, and fuller meals are in demand.

easygarbanzostew

Meal planning is key to my budget, and my sanity. It helps me prepare quick meals as my life runs faster than I can, and it keeps me from wasting food. In a country where 40-50% of the food produced goes to waste it’s difficult to take food waste serious, until it has a personal impact. After all, part of what I teach is meal planning and mindfulness around food, which makes me more aware of my own shortcomings.

mealplanningprep

Every Saturday, I fill bowls with beans, lentils and grains, of any color and shape, cover them with water and soak them overnight. On Sunday, I cook them all, as I mosey around sipping my morning coffee and reading The New York Times. At home, we are not vegetarians, but we use pulses, grains, and many vegetables to stretch animal proteins. Luckily, I’m a trained Colombian who grew up on beans and rice, so diversifying using lentils, beans and vegetables is familiar, if not comforting.

Once cooked, pulses and grains are an easy and reliable base for many meals through the week, with or without meat. Sometimes I’ll make bigger batches and freeze finished meals for the following week, if I know I’ll be extra busy. This weekend we worked on a batch of lentil-oat bars for Mr. Thomas, as he’s always bouncing around town and in need of nutritious snacks. We also worked on black bean and farro tacos for a lazy Sunday lunch; garbanzos to stew with tomatoes and fennel, to make hummus, and for falafel patties; and white beans for Cassoulet and Minestrone soupwhich I froze in two-portion containers, and are perfect for a snowy night, like tonight, when traffic is horrid and stressful, and I can relax knowing that a hearty dinner is ready to heat up.

stewedgarbanzoswithpesto

This weekly ritual acts as a way to inventory what is in our fridge, pantry and freezer, and to find recipes for produce, or other perishables. I’m mortified anytime a lonely turnip or carrot, forgotten underneath a pile of mushrooms or lettuce, gets soft and moldy and I have to dispose of the dead evidence. How much did I pay for that turnip?

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Lentil-Oat Bars and Holiday Lentil Gifts

***Disclaimer: This is NOT a sponsored post!

For as long as I can remember, lentils have been a part of my life. My mother’s favorite meal is lentil soup, and if I had to choose a food to live on forever it would be lentils and rice, preferably basmati rice. 

Last month, I went to a conference in Austin, TX, where I learned about an organization promoting lentils, Canadian Lentils. I normally don’t write about specific products {except for books or interesting websites}, but this got my attention. They displayed lentils in burlap bags next to mason jars, in front of two tall shelves full of spices. From turmeric, ginger, garam masala, cumin, dried herbs, and different kinds of peppers, they encouraged visitors to take a jar fill it with lentils and add spices, either following one of their recipes or each person’s own mix. They elevated this humble pulse and made it the star of the conference, their booth was packed at all times with people interested on the endless possibilities provided by the spices. 

lentilsoupinajar

Lentils are miracle food. Let’s deconstruct this statement:

  • Lentils contain high amounts of protein. 1 cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein
  • Lentils are high in heart-healthy fiber that also helps level blood sugar
  • Lentils provide high levels of iron 
  • Lentils, like other pulses or legumes, fix nitrogen into the soil where they are planted, creating a better growing environment for other plants, and reducing the carbon footprint of our food by using less chemical fertilizers per kilo-calorie
  • Lentils are delicious and versatile, and we can find recipes from all over the globe that feature them. They adapt to any spices and flavors we may dream of using. Italian lentil soup with tomatoes, thyme or oregano, for example, or Indian Dahl – orange split lentil – soup with curry, my mothers lentil soup with cumin, paprika and turmeric, or endless salad combinations, like Bulgur and black lentil salad with carrot green pesto.

homemadeholidaygifts

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the perfect apple-almond cake photo

There’s something about fall that screams baking! During the summer months I run away from the oven with terrorizing memories of the sticky and sweaty kitchen years I endured as a baker, but as soon as the backyard fills with leaves my little inner baker wakes up.

apple-almondcake

The falling leaves and crisps nights make it irresistible for a warm and sweet baked good right out of the oven, together with a cup of coffee and a good book. The heat of the oven helps me warm up the house in the absence of a fire-place, which would make this story seem more fairytale than it really is; and if I had a say, my fairytale would include year-round mild weather and an ocean view.

Fall’s slow death into winter also slows life, or at least it feels that way. I rediscover books with folded pages and pencil notes from before the rush of summer. A bit dusty, but not at all forgotten, they guarded their message and waited for me and our daily afternoon coffee, or evening glass of wine. 

One of those books I’m a few pages from finishing is Best Food Writing 2015, a yearly compilation of food-related essays, which has been done for more than a decade now, by Holly Hughes. I got hooked on these books a few years back when my interest shifted from cookbooks {yes, i still buy some of those} to food writing as narrative, a way to tell food stories. 

As I planned for this post, an essay from this book came to mind, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen,” by Debbie Koenig.

The essay begins with: “Food writers are lying to you,” yikes! and I agree, for the most part. She talks about the behind the scenes of recipes development {or recreation} and food photography, and the reality we don’t show on blog posts like this…Nope, I don’t have any pictures of dirty dishes for you, sorry.
We ‘lie’ because ugly pictures don’t sell, and pretty pictures DO, they attract people to follow and click on a link. 

When I first started this blog, my pictures were ugly, as not pretty or appealing, my goal was to share a recipe and a story, and didn’t understand that the photos made a difference. There were many reason for my bad photos {not to say they are absolutely great now, but better} besides my lack of skill.  My kitchen is dark, with orange-yellow maple cabinets and dark green-blue counter tops. My pictures reflected that, even worse when I’d turn the lights on to photograph dinner the yellow hue would translate onto the photo. 

honeycrispapples

Hours of reading about food photography and a full week of deconstructing and reconstructing my office made my photos crisper and cleaner. The office became a white box, I took the carpet off and installed plywood planks on the floor, and painted walls, floor and ceiling a crisp white, to bounce the window light and not alter the color of the food. 

My pictures don’t reflect the dated refrigerator, the broken-down microwave, or the prop I use to keep the oven door close because the hinges don’t work. They show an “edited” idea of how cooking really happens here. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kitchen and many great meals successfully come out of it, including this apple cake, but how many people really want to see a load of bad pictures full of reality? 

germanapplealmondcake

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The Last Greens for Salsa Verde

Summer is holding on. Or maybe, we are holding on to summer, not letting it go, unwilling to face the inevitable winter ahead.

The growing season extends with cooler-weather produce like beets, carrots, radishes, and herbs like parley, oregano and thyme, which enjoy the comfortable low 80s and 70s we’ve had the past few weeks. In an effort to preserve every bit of the season, we picked the last of the parsley plants {all 15 of them}, and a few big beets and carrots, and used the greens to make our version of Salsa Verde.

Nearing the end of October with early September weather makes me hope that Mother Earth forgot to schedule winter this year, and that we may just skip the bitter frosty temperatures. Another less optimistic possibility points to drought. Everything is crispy around here, {except the leftover nachos from the other night.} Leaves, grasses, bushes, shrubs, are a blow away from an instant fire hazard. We look at the sky, hands up in worship, for a drop of rain, I’ll even take snow if it’s the only option, something, anything to relive the anemic moisture levels hovering around.

fallharvest

I take advantage of the extended warm season and stock on homemade preserved foods from our garden and the bounty from local farmers. This salsa verde is one of my favorite additions to the bunch, as it adds the brightness of summer to any dish and to any future snowy day.

There are many variations of salsa verde or green sauce, and its history dates back centuries. Alan Davidson says in the Oxford Companion to Food, that in England “The earliest recipes or descriptions of the sauce called for a complex mixture of green herbs,” including parsley, thyme and sorrel. He also cites a German version, which mixes the blended green herbs with sour cream, yogurt or hard-boiled eggs.

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Grilled Peach and Corn Salsa, and My New Found Obsession with Preserving

I mentioned in the past that preserving wasn’t in my DNA, well neither was English and here we are.

This season I have preserved more than the 15 years i have lived in the U.S. combined. From jams, to fruit butters, sauces, salsas, chutneys, to dried herbs and soaps. Someone told me a few years back, “You don’t have the preserving bug, yet,” to which I replied “Not sure I’ll ever get it.” I know, what a joke.

lavenderhoneypeaches

The more I dig into the pros and cons of eating seasonally, the more I learn to appreciate the bounty of fresh, Colorado grown products in the summer and fall, and align myself with the process of preparing for winter, when our diet consists mostly of root vegetables, grains, pulses, hearty greens and a few sustainably raised meats.
Preserving the summer and fall harvest allows me to go back in time by taking little capsules of flavor from my freezer or canning cellar to inject life to any meal. Let’s face it, after 3 months of parsnips and rutabagas I wish to break loose and buy an out-of-season zucchini {most likely from Mexico}, instead I add pesto to any dish from soups to pastas to beans or lentils; or chutney to meats or roasted vegetables.

peachcornsalsa

The bug hasn’t consumed me fully, I still can’t find myself canning soups and anything that requires a pressure-canning technique; even thought I’m comfortable using a pressure cooker, I’m not sure I trust a load of cans inside of it. It troubles me. Every time I consider the idea, the memories of a big pressure cooker exploding at my mother’s restaurant when I was in my early teens come rushing, and I walk away. For now, I’ll stick to water baths.

how to dry rosemary

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