catania, sicily (plus a little florence)

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Espresso.  Granita.  The Catholic Church.  Scooters.  Lemons.  Oranges.  Bellisima.

I did not go to Catania simply to travel and make a guide, however, I spent a lot more time there than I thought I would, so here is a little guide of some places to go to.

This trip was my first to Italy.  I am usually not the type of person to believe the hype.  Ever since I can remember Italy has been hyped up, nearly everyone goes there for vacation and everyone loves Italian food.  I now understand why.  The majority of my time was in Sicily with a couple of days in Florence, so my experience is not all of Italy but there is really something amazing about the food in Italy no matter what part you are in, everything is so good.  They really care about their food, about where it comes from and how it is prepared.  Especially wine and cheese.  I still don’t understand how the simplest dishes can taste so good, and so much better in this country.

Before I rave about Sicily, here is my experience on mainland Italy – Florence.

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Florence was so touristy!  But it is worth it.  If you go to Florence, go to the other side of the river and wander around also, it was super chill there.  And it really is a breathtaking place, I feel like if I would have spent more time there I would have seen the different sides through the tourist parts.  It is so classy.  It’s classy without even trying to be classy, they like invented class.  It’s culture and beauty and life.  Around every corner awaits something old and beautiful and there is this ease in the people and their way of life.  I would go back.

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A lot of restaurants in the city are only open for lunch or only for dinner.  In general the food in Florence is heavy, the most famous being the Florentine Steak.  When you are here, eat local.  Don’t eat seafood, because it probably comes from Sicily (unless you are not going to Sicily, then eat it, it’s not that far away), but their specialty is meat, using all parts of the animal.  Drink Tuscan wine.  And we always went for the paté.

Here are some favorite places:

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Le Volpi e l’Uva – I marked this place after seeing it on Emiko Davies’ blog.  And I am pretty sure we had the best wine here from our whole trip.  Everything they have there comes from really small wineries, where they don’t even have to say they are organic or natural, you just know it is the real deal.  They also have little plates of food, and it is kind of hidden from the touristy parts.

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Fiaschetteria Nuvoli – Fiaschetteria means wine shop, and there are lots of these little eateries everywhere.  I don’t remember how we found this one, but we liked it so we went back a second time.  It is not just wine and it is pretty close to the main square.  It is simple food, quick service.  We had some tripe that was slow roasted with vegetables and some delicious herb sauce, I didn’t think I would like tripe (I’ve only had it in soup and tacos), but they prepared it in a way that was delicious.  Like many places in Italy, courses matter, here it was a bit more laid back which we appreciated.

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Piazza Santo Spitio – a plaza on the other side of the river that was super chill and cute, a great place to have a espresso or a Spritz.

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Trattoria Del Carmine – In general we liked trattorias, it’s more family, home cooked type of food, not fancy.  This place was old school.  If you don’t order courses you are looked down upon.  Our waiter only spoke Italian and I was having trouble making up my mind looking at an only Italian menu, and he seemed to be a bit annoyed.  I was also trying to not eat so much meat, which was stupid because that is what you do when you are in Florence.  He suggested the rabbit and I regret it to this day I didn’t get it, I bet it was delicious.  The steaks are super affordable, get a steak, if not here look for another small trattoria that is only open for dinner.  This place was open more often and that is why we ended up there.  We were in Florence during a Sunday and Monday, which are not good days for restaurant hopping.

Now on to Sicily.

Ok before I went to Sicily I must say I read a really strange book called Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini.  It kind-of imprinted in my mind what Sicily is without even using too many words.  It’s short, I recommend to read it if you go (maybe even on the plane), you will have a more unique experience.

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My first walk on Italian soil was Catania.  As the small plane from Frankfurt made it’s way to the island you could see Mt. Etna, the volcano that defines Sicily and especially Catania.  In some ways Catania is a dirty little city.  The Baroque buildings scattered around the city actually look dirty, and that is because Catania was built on a volcanic eruption.  But that is also what makes it unique.  Catania is the second largest city in Sicily (some say it is bigger because a lot of people live more outside the main part), but it still feels like a small town.  You start to see the same homeless people, you see a guy walking eating a danish and then later see him selling something on the street.  We walked around and ended up walking in circles because it’s just not that big.  I am not sure if we would have liked Catania as much without our French tour guide.  My fiancé was taking care of some art stuff while we were here and we had a French man who lives in Sicily as our guide unexpectedly.  He loves Sicily and actually hates France, especially Paris.  And he knew all the best spots.

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When in Sicily you eat local which means seafood, oranges, fennel, artichokes and much more.  And Sicilian wine. It is strong, but because of the volcanic soil it is complex and abundant.  Eat dessert, Sicily is known for it’s dessert, like granita, marzipan and we must not forget, the holy cannoli.

Here are some of my favorite Catania spots:

First is breakfast.  Breakfast in Sicily is a pastry, and then cappuccino (or espresso).  You only have a cappuccino in the morning, so that afternoon drink has to be espresso.  Cappuccio in Italian means hood, and cappuccino means small hood, thought to have been inspired by capuchin monks (who wear brown hoods). The pastry can be simple, but it will most likely be filled with cream or jam, some even eat a brioche with gelato.

Pasticceria Savia – This place is old school, as many of the pastry shops are. There are a number of newer ones though that are a bit fancy.  Sit here and have a nice little breakfast and head over to the the park right across the street.

Then what to see? Go to the fish market and the main square.  Right across from the main Cathedral is another small church that you can go to the top of, do that, we spent probably 1 hour up there watching a funeral procession for a firefighter and just enjoyed the view along with some German tourists who parked up there for a card game.

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Just wander around. Get a bibite, an Italian soda, at one of the little stands.  And another espresso of course. Go to the University area, a nice place to stroll.

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Catania is totally Sicily.  It’s raw and it’s rough. Sicilians are a little tougher, they are intense, but can be very nice at the same time. If there is still a big mafia influence we didn’t see it, no need to worry about that anymore it seems.  There are flee markets, where immigrants sell bootleg clothes, or just thrift items.  People drive not dangerous but without a real order.   It’s not your typical tourist place.  I heard the monastery is nice, we didn’t make it because we were busy with other things.  The beaches have little walk ways, and are nice in the summer.  And you must go to Mt. Etna, another one we didn’t get to. Overall Catania is a real place with real people.  So if that is your thing, then it’s a really cool unique place.

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Where to eat:

People go out later in Sicily, it’s always better to go earlier if you think it will be a crowded day.

Tratorria La Norma – This was our hosts favorite place.  They knew him well when we went, and the people were so nice!  They are a bit more relaxed again when it comes to ordering courses.  But the portions are not huge, they are just enough so get a little of everything, it’s fresh and simple.  Their table wine is very good, it comes a bit cold and is super fresh, and so is the olive oil.  Also my favorite dessert was here.  Just a simple lemon cake and almond and pistachio semifreddo.  And they gave us the most amazing homemade coffee liquor at the end of our meal.

Trattoria Da Nuccio – The kind of place you look for: simple, locals, fresh, the owner serves you.  Again, having a guide was nice because sometimes these places only have things written in Italian, but who cares, go anyway.  Order whatever fresh fish they have, table wine and some pasta.  You can’t go wrong when there is a table of 8 Sicilian men in the back having a good time.

Al Vicolo Pizza & Vino – This place has a wait, but it is so very good.  We were there during Easter and there is a small church up the street people visited, and there are chairs all along the sidewalk.  It is only open for dinner, and when you walk by during the day you might not even notice it.  Get pizza, any kind is good and maybe some Nero d’Avola.

And before you leave go to:

Enoteca Regionale di Sicilia – This little unassuming shop is awesome.  We wanted to take back some local wine and olive oil, because they just do it better in Sicily.  At first we walked past but then came back and decided to go into it.  The woman who owns this shop is so passionate and beautiful.  Go and ask her questions and she will tell you all the wonders of Sicily and what to get.  Such a treat on our last day.

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Overall, Italy is great, it is refined it is seasoned, it knows it’s good.

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Sicily is great because it has a little bit of everything.  It has mountains and beaches and dry areas.  It has small little villages tucked in here and there.   It has space for something still, and that is always exciting.

lazy noodles (kluski leniwe) with pesto

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I have been so lazy lately.  But seriously, I am not sure what is going on.  There are two possibilities I can fathom, allergies or the end of summer just makes us lazy. Here’s to being lazy!

So lazy noodles is a thing in Polish cooking.  Who doesn’t love lazy cooking.  We need more recipes like this in life.  They are also sometimes called lazy pierogi or lazy kopitka (which means little hooves and is another dish that uses potato instead – but I guess the lazy way is like this with cheese).  It seemed like the best thing to make since I’m lazy, and because it’s actually really good.  They are similar to gnocchi, using cheese and flour to make little dumplings.  But they are a bit more sloppy and lazy perhaps.  Pesto is also a bit of a lazy choice in my opinion, plus the basil you can get now!  Lazy noodles are often just served with browned butter breadcrumbs, little bacon bits or just sugar and butter.  But really they can be served with many other sauces, but just remember – keep it lazy.

Also I don’t do the whole pine nut pesto thing, in America pine nuts cost an arm and a leg, and I like my limbs thank you very much.  It’s walnuts for me.

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This version of lazy noodles I made is not the laziest.  The laziest would be to just take some farmer’s cheese and mix in an egg and then just add flour until you get the consistency you need.   I wanted mine to be extra good so I went for the slightly less lazy version where you beat egg whites and soften butter and all that jazz. The lazy part is that you don’t have to knead.

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Lazy Noodle (Kluski Leniwe) with Pesto

3 eggs, separated

6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened

2 1/4 cup soft farmer’s cheese

pinch of salt

1 1/3 cup all purpose flour (plus more for shaping)

1 1/2 cups basil, washed and dried

1/3 cup walnuts

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 garlic clove

juice of half 1 lemon

salt and pepper

-fill a large pot with salted water and set to boil.

-make the pesto by mixing the basil, oil, walnuts, olive oil, cheese, garlic and lemon in a food processor.  don’t over blend it, just pulse until it’s all blended nicely into a paste/sauce type texture.  season and pulse a couple more times.  set aside until the noodles are done.

-beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and set aside.  mix the egg yolks with the softened butter.   mix the farmer’s cheese with the yolks and butter and add salt.  gently fold in the egg whites.  fold in the flour in small batches and mix well.

-flour your work surface well.  the dough will be very sticky so use a bunch of flour and don’t overwork it.  divide the dough into four parts.  take one part and gently form it into a long thin tube shape. use your fingers to pinch and form it then roll it back and forth the make it longer.  you can make it as thin as you want but not too extreme, then cut it into even pieces and place on a floured plate or cutting board.

-place them into the boiling water not all at once.  they will float to the surface when they are done, just a minute or two so keep checking.  place them in a strainer and when they are all done toss them in your pesto!

violà -jrad

rhubarb tarragon spelt scones

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I am on the tail end of my moment with scones and just starting my next phase of tarragon.  So this is perfect, also because rhubarb – I love you.  Right before spring started we finally watched Sherlock and then I finally watched The Great British Baking Show, so you could say I have British treats on my mind.  There were a couple of weeks where I was making scones on Sunday and then putting them in the freezer so that Monday morning I would just turn the oven on and pop in a scones or two and wait.  It was a great way to start the week.  It is starting to get hot, air conditioners have been put in the windows, so this might be my last scone Monday.  Sometimes I get the urge to not turn on the oven all summer, but maybe we will get some cooler rainy days too because I don’t think I can last without an oven.

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Tarragon has a licorice flavor and in Armenia (where my other half has origins) they drink tarragon soda.  It’s actually great for digestion, but don’t drink too much of it! I tried making some tarragon soda recently and it was delicious! Here I think it tastes really nice with the tanginess of the rhubarb and the nuttiness of the spelt.

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Rhubarb Tarragon Spelt Scones

3 stalks of rhubarb, cut into 1 inch chunks

1/4 cup + 3 tbsp sugar

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour

1 cup spelt flour

1 tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

8 tbsp unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces

2 tbsp chopped tarragon

2/3 – 3/4 cup heavy cream

-toss the rhubarb in the 3 tbsp sugar and set aside.

-mix the flours with salt, sugar and baking powder.  mix the butter into the flour mixture and using a pastry cutter cut the butter until little pea size pieces form.  mix the rhubarb and tarragon gently. slowly add the cream, do 2/3 and then add more as needed until you have a dough.  use your hands to combine but don’t knead too much, just until formed together.

-preheat your oven to 425 F if making now, or freeze and make later.

-divide the dough into two pieces and make a disc with each one. cut each disc into 4-6 triangles.  arrange the pieces on a baking tray lined with parchment paper.  if not frozen already freeze them for 10 minutes on the tray. bake about 20 minutes until starting to brown a bit.  you can freeze them for a week or two, wrap them tight and then bake them frozen and watch the baking time.

-jrad

strawberry pierogi

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Hey!  Strawberries are in season, yes they are!  Did you know that you can make strawberry pierogi?  And you eat them with sweet sour cream and dream about the Eastern European countryside.

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I think rolling and kneading pierogi dough might be may favorite thing ever.  It has a great texture.  It’s really soft and supple and quite elastic.  There a couple ways to fill pierogi with strawberries, but I think this is the best one.  A whole little strawberry tucked inside the lovely supple dough.  The other way would be to cut the strawberries into little pieces and shape them differently, more like a half moon.  But these are cuter, right!?

So here you go, try and and love them.

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Strawberry Pierogi

3 cups unbleached all purpose flour

1 large egg

2 tbsp neutral oil (like sunflower or grape seed)

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup – 3/4 cup warm water

1 pound small strawberries, hulled and cut in half if not small

1 tbsp powdered sugar

sour cream and powdered sugar for serving

-to make the dough pour the flour into a large bowl.  make a well in the center of the flour and crack the egg, pour the oil and sprinkle the salt.  mix a little with a fork and then slowly add the water, just 1/2 cup at first.  start to mix with your hands forming a dough.  add more water if too dry and flour if too wet.  flour your kneading surface well and knead the dough for 6-8 minutes until well incorporated and it looks like the gluten has formed well.  keep adding flour as needed.  place the dough ball on a well floured surface and cover with the mixing bowl you used before, let rest for about half an hour.

-meanwhile prepare your strawberries.  once they are cleaned and cut toss them gently in the powdered sugar. and set a big pot of salted water to boil.  prepare a cutting board with flour.

-once the dough has rested take half of it and roll it out on a well floured surface until thin but not see through.  use a wide thin cup to make circles, as close together as you can.  

-take out a circle and use the stickier side to fill.  place a strawberry, or half in the center.  using your thumb, index and middle finger on both hands take all the corners like you are pinching to make a little cross and then and seal it tightly.  they will look like cute little packages.  

-place each one on the floured cutting board, making sure they don’t touch each other.  you will put them in the freezer after doing a couple and keep adding.  they cook nicely if a little bit frozen.  repeat with the rest of the dough.

-once they are ready plop them in the water, not more than 10 at a time.  stir them a bit to make sure they don’t stick.  when they float to the top they are ready, sometimes i let them sit at the top a bit longer to get a bit softer. strain them out with a slotted spoon into a strainer.

-they taste the best served right away.  mix some sour cream with a little powdered sugar and enjoy!

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-julia rad

sorrel soup

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I just got back from a lovely couple of days in Chicago visiting my parents.  It wasn’t the Bahamas or Iceland but it felt so nice nonetheless.  Anytime we get away from our normal routine it is so refreshing.  I used to come visit and get very anxious to get back to my life in New York and would feel that Chicago was so boring and lame.  But I just welcome it so much now, because I’m pretty lame and Chicago is actually pretty cool.  I do love the mid-west, I know mountains and oceans are better but the midwest is special, there is something in the air that floats around and makes you feel ok about yourself.

We celebrated Easter and it was lovely.  Saturday we got our baskets blessed and I made a traditional Polish Easter dessert called mazurek, we died hard boiled eggs and had an array of sandwiches and babkas and cheesecake.  I think Easter is my favorite holiday and I never come to Chicago for it and I’m so glad I did this year.  We also went to the botanical garden and I got some glamour shots of how beautiful nature is!  I wish I was as beautiful as a flower!

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My mother’s garden is also starting to slowly show signs of life.  The nettle and sorrel are the strongest and when I saw the sorrel I got so excited to make sorrel soup!  I tried to make it last year in the summer and it is so hard to find sorrel in the city. I found some at the farmers market but it would be just small little bundles and only for part of the season.  So I made this great soup yesterday.  It is simple farm food, sorrel is easily found in Europe and a popular ingredient for soup and sauces.  If you can find it here get it and enjoy it, or if you have a garden plant some!  It is a sturdy plant.

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Sorrel Soup

1 small onion, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tbsp butter

3-4 small potatoes, peeled and diced

6 cups vegetable broth

salt and pepper

1/2 pound or about 6 cups sorrel, chopped

1 cup sour cream

1 tbsp flour

hard boiled eggs, cut into 4ths

parsley or dill for garnish

-heat a stock pot to medium and add 1 tbsp butter.  add the onion until soft and fragrant.  add the garlic. add the potato with salt and pepper and cook about 1 minute.  add the broth and bring to a boil.  turn down the heat and simmer until potatoes are almost cooked, about 30 minutes.

-meanwhile heat a skillet and add 1 tbsp butter.  add the sorrel until wilted, it will turn a muddy green.  turn off heat and add the sorrel to the soup once the potatoes are cooked.  continue simmering.

– mix the sour cream with flour in a bowl and add about 1/4 cup of broth slowly until combined. add it back to the simmering soup.  simmer a bit more, until the potatoes are cooked.

-serve with pieces of hard boiled egg and chopped herbs.  season to taste.

-this can also be eaten cold.

cheers, julia