What you might be surprised to know about eating in Italy

Cappuccino

Drinking a cappuccino in Venice

Guys, I went to Italy. And there’s really no other way to put it except to say that I fell in love with it. Just like everyone said I would. If you’ve never been, you’re probably envisioning incredible pizza with fire crackling in wood burning ovens, romantic glasses of prosecco consumed outside on cobblestone streets, giant bowls of homemade pastas carefully crafted by little old grandmas in 500 year old kitchens, and gelato up the ying yang.

That last one really gotcha, didn’t it?

Well, I’m here to tell you… it’s all true. IT’S ALL TRUE. Only it’s better. Every cappuccino, even those from little tourist shops, was creamy and strong and frothy and smooth. Every pasta was handmade because what’s the alternative? Boxed pasta?! Bite your tongue. But not really. You’ll need that to taste with, dummies.

So instead of describing ad nauseum all the dishes I loved in Italy, below is a “I was surprised by” list of eye openers.

You might be surprised to know that…

Truly authentic Italian restaurants are only open for a few hours at night
I don’t know why this is. But almost every single restaurant we went to for dinner was only open from 7PM to 11PM or 8PM to 10:30PM. And if there was any doubt that those were their true hours, one night we ate at an adorable little spot in Rome and come 11PM, closing time, our waiter told us they were out of dessert. Out. of. dessert. We nearly cried. And stole our neighbors’ chocolate torte.

Pappardelle

Pappardelle at Trattoria la Casalinga in Florence

Wine is dirt cheap.
It’s like they’re BEGGING you to drink with every meal! When wine is 4 euro for half a litre, how could you say no at lunch? Or at 2PM? Or at 9PM? Or… you get it. We had the warm-wine-rosies for 90% of the trip.

Gelato really is good everywhere.
When people said this to me before I left, I thought, “Well sure, because gelato I buy here at the grocery store is ‘good,’ too.” I was dumb. Gelato is AMAZING everywhere in Italy. We inadvertently popped into a super touristy shop in Florence where two gelato ran us FOURTEEN EURO (eeps) and it was still just as delicious as the cheapo, clearly more local, gelato we got in Venice for 3 euro.

Gelato near Circus Maximus in Rome

Gelato near Circus Maximus in Rome

If you order a pastry with your cocktail, you’re a dope.
This one I’m not sure of, either. Our first morning in Venice our lovely apartment host Giulia took us out for coffee because our apartment was still being cleaned. She told us the official drink of Venice is called a Spritz, an aperitif made with prosecco, Campari, and sparkling water, so we ordered two. The BF also ordered a croissant because he was hungry. Giulia thought this was HILARIOUS. “A croissant with a Spritz?!” “Yeah… why?” “Ooookaaaay…” Cue eye roll. We don’t really know. But that’s okay. It was all delicious.

Spritz in Venice near Teatro Italia

Spritz in Venice near Teatro Italia

Italians really love to feed you.
Twice we ordered midday meals or snacks that were freaking huge and we had no idea. But the lovely people who served them to us were so smiley and proud of their creations that we couldn’t help but eat every bit on the plate, no matter how tight our pants were getting. It only reminded me that cooking and serving someone the meal you created is a really gratifying experience, and it’s one of the reasons I love making food.

A platter of cheese and meat in Florence

A platter of cheese and meat at Il Club del Gusto in Florence

First course and second course are suggestions. They are great suggestions.
In all three cities we visited, Venice, Florence, and Rome (and perhaps in all of Italy?) pasta is a first course, and entrees and proteins are the second course. When The BF and I finally came around to this manner of eating, we loved it! Portions are small (cough normal cough) enough that you’re not stuffed on pasta before the second course arrives. You’re just… teased. And at the end of the meal you feel full and complete but not disgusting.

An ocean of fish (ha!) at Paradiso Perduto in Venice

An ocean of fish (ha!) at Paradiso Perduto in Venice

Ciao Italia! Thanks for treating us so well. We’ll see you real soon.

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NatureBox

NatureBox
Someday I’ll be successful enough that companies will be flooding my apartment with an embarrassing number of sample products to try but currently I have to buy my own (LIFE IS SO HARD.) I’m not a huge fan of monthly subscription food services simply because I don’t like to think about money regularly coming out of my checking account with actively deciding on each purchase. But NatureBox got me – I tried the first month of nutritionist-approved snacks (5 healthy sized bags for $10) and now I am hooked.

For the first delivery 5 bags of pre-selected snacks arrived and then for future months you can go on the website and choose which bags you’d like to receive. The sampler I received had Pistachio Power Clusters, Masa Crisps, Cherry Berry Bonanza, Vanilla Macaroon Granola, and Roasted Kettle Kernels. Each snack is made with mostly whole ingredients with little to no processing (and if there IS processing it’s something completely necessary that won’t clog your arteries and poison your body), there is no high fructose corn syrup, and they offer non-GMO options.

Give ‘em a try! If you’re a snacker and usually reach for Wavy Lays and French onion dip (not that I know anything about that) it’s a lovely alternative.

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How to Use Pumpkin Pie Spice (aside from a pumpkin pie…)

We all have spices in our cupboards that we never use. I personally have a shaker of garam masala that I used once two years ago and haven’t touched since. Well… there was one time I mistook it for nutmeg. Needless to say those pancakes ended up in the trash.

You probably use your pumpkin pie spice once a year at Thanksgiving, but during this pumpkin-y time of year why not pull it out for some unorthodox uses? Not that the below are TOO out of the box, but perhaps they’re new and exciting to you. I do hope that’s the case.

Maple brown butter pumpkin spice popcorn

On the menu:
Maple brown butter pumpkin spice popcorn
Serves 2

1/2 cup unpopped corn kernels
3 Tbsp butter
2 tsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice

Pop the popcorn in an air popper.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan melt the butter over low heat. Watch the mixture closely as the color turns from white and yellow to a light brown. As soon as the butter is a light brown color, turn off the heat. Mix in the maple syrup and the pumpkin pie spice and stir to combine.

Pour half the mixture over the popcorn and toss to coat. Pour remaining butter mixture over the popcorn and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Pancakes with sauteed apples with maple syrup and pumpkin pie spice

On the menu:
Pancakes with apples sauteed with maple syrup and pumpkin pie spice
Serves 2

2 small apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice

Make pancakes according to this recipe.

In a small frying pan, melt butter over medium heat. Once butter is melted, add apple slices and stir to coat. Cook apples for approximately 5 minutes or until they soften. Add maple syrup and pumpkin pie spice. Stir to combine. Cook for another 2 – 3 minutes or until mixture is heated through. Top pancakes with sauteed apples and serve.

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Spicy Pecan Chicken Strips

Spicy Pecan Chicken Strips
I won’t go into detail on this, but have you ever researched what’s inside a chicken nugget? I’ll give you this: it’s not cute. It’s barely even chicken.

But who doesn’t love a nice dunkable, battered chicken strip? It’s American comfort food at its best and it is beyond easy to make. So skip the McDonald’s and try them at home. This particular recipe is SPICY so you can easily cut down on the cayenne to make it family friendly if you like.

On the menu:
Spicy Pecan Chicken Strips
Makes 2 – 3 servings

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup pecan halves or pieces
1/4 cup bread crumbs*
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.

In a food processor, blend pecans, bread crumbs, and spices until you have a coarse mixture.

Cut chicken into strips, approximately 1 1/2 inches wide by 1 inch tall (they don’t have to be perfect but uniform size means uniform cooking). Dredge each piece of chicken in egg mixture and then in pecan spice mixture. Shake off excess and place on baking sheet.

Bake chicken strips for 30 minutes. Flip the pieces and bake for another 5 – 7 minutes or until each piece is cooked through and the breading is crispy. Serve with honey mustard dipping sauce.

*Note: I never, ever have breadcrumbs on hand. There’s something about buying a tub of crumbs of bread that just seems wrong to me. What I did in this instance is toast up a piece of white bread until it was very crispy, tear it up with my hands, and then toss the pieces into the food processor with the pecans and spices. Voila. Bread crumbs.

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Banana Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

Banana cupcakes
I think fall has to be my favorite season. Not only can we start wearing cozy sweaters and soft leather boots, but fall food is basically comprised of “comfort” food: donuts, apple cider, hot soup, cheesy pasta… God, I can feel my saddle bags growing by the minute! Blissful.

These cupcakes are truly delicious with this frosting but if you wanted to leave the frosting off you could easily call them muffins and eat them for breakfast. Or you could eat them for breakfast with the frosting. Ain’t no shame.

On the menu:
Banana Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 16 cupcakes
Cupcake recipe dapted from this recipe on AllRecipes.com

Cupcakes:
3 large very ripe bananas, mashed
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
3 Tbsp buttermilk*

In a large bowl, blend bananas and sugar with an electric mixer. Add in eggs one at a time and blend until completely combined. Add vegetable oil and blend until the mixture is completely blended, about 2 – 3 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with the baking soda. Add to wet mixture and stir with a spoon to combine. Add buttermilk and stir to combine.

Line a cupcake tin with paper liners. Fill each cup about 3/4 full. Bake for 25 – 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one cupcake comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

Frosting:
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 tsp vanilla
16 pecan halves

In a small bowl, beat butter with electric mixer. Add cream cheese and blend to combine. Add brown sugar and vanilla and blend to combine. Frost cupcakes and top with a single pecan if desired.

*If you don’t have buttermilk, combine 2 1/2 Tbsp of regular milk with 1 tsp lemon juice and stir to combine. Let sit for 5 minutes and then use as directed.

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Station to Station

LEVI'S STATION TO STATION
How cool is this? A moving public art project. Station to Station is organized by artist Doug Aitken and “connect(s) leading figures and underground creators from the worlds of art, music, food, literature, and film for a series of cultural interventions and site-specific happenings.” The project will raise funds through ticket sales and donations to support non-traditional programming at nine partner museums around the country.

This week the culinary leg of the trip is happening in Minnesota and features some (obviously) Norwegian food. If you’re in the area, stop by tonight! It looks amazing and Patti Smith will be there to sing you into a food coma. For the first time ever I wish I was in Minnesota. Sorry, Jenna.

Take a look here and get inspired by some truly innovative chefs creating some truly cool dishes.

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Cooking Planit Giveaway

Happy weekend, my friends! Just back from foggy London town (where the weather was goooorgeous, I might add) and so happy to tell you that today through September 2 you can enter here to win an incredible set of T-Fal Cookware courtesy of Cooking Planit. Remember Cooking Planit? The coolest cooking app out there right now? Here’s a refresher.

Cooking Planit does everything except stand at your stove and stir the sauce for you. On the app you can choose the dish or dishes you want to cook, make a grocery list, sync all your devices so that you can use your phone or iPad to shop with, then return home to your kitchen and get to cooking with the help of voice instructions and perfectly timed cooking prompts. You literally can’t mess it up.

Picture 2

Here are a couple other features you will surely want to know about.

Ability to choose meal plans based on dietary restrictions.

Dietary restrictions

Provides a list of things you’ll need to cook the meal, from food prep ingredients to kitchen staples and equipment. Have you ever been halfway through a recipe and realize it calls for a Kitchenaid and you don’t have one? Guilty.

Ingredients

Predicted time finished. Expecting guests at 6:30? Not starting to cook until 5:55? Then wait. Cooking Planit tells you down to the minute, based on what time it is now, your dish will be done. Better than an egg timer any day of the week.

Ready by

Warnings when you’ve skipped ahead. You’re like, “I’ll just get the next step going before I finish this one” and Cooking Planit is like, “Hey girl. Slow down. Take it easy. Have a sip of wine. And don’t ruin this meal.”

Warning

Provides notice of ingredients you’ll need in the current step. Sometimes I scan the list of ingredients and they’re out of order or I just plum skip over one. Cooking Planit takes you step by step, ingredient by ingredient, so nothing is left out.

Ingredients ready

And yes, that’s a built in timer. I don’t know about you but sometimes I forget to set my oven timer. Cut to 30 minutes later when my entire kitchen smells like burnt cookies and I’m trudging sadly to a bodega for Oreos. Not with Cooking Planit. They’ll countdown for you.

Timer

The best part: you can try it for free. So go forth! And don’t forget to enter the giveaway by following me @LaurenFoodE on Twitter and clicking here! Because what’s better motivation to get cooking than fancy new pots and pans from T-Fal?

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