I am wrestling with the burning question, "Why Does Life in Italy Seem So Much Better?"
Is it because Italians value the little things, take pleasure in the slow and the delicious, live simply and large at the same time?
Maybe. I’m only on day 5 so I am just scratching the surface. I am hunkered down in the hills of Umbria for a month, tucked into a little farmhouse within a cluster of a few homes and barns which are part of a former tiny, ancient, Etruscan village near the Tuscan border.
Life in this area is slow-paced, far away from city air or noises and charmingly beautiful. A bread truck lumbers up the road once a week to deliver Tuscan loaves of any size, and farmers and neighbors who take the shortcut to the next village over putter up and down the hill at random during the day. The neighbor nonna walks slowly out to her garden daily to pick a head of lettuce for dinner and rinses it under the cistern faucet before returning to her kitchen.
From here I can see green hills where at least 10 different things or creatures are being grown or raised: olives, grapes, wheat, farro, lentils, canola, chestnuts, sheep, honey, and chickens. That’s about it for excitement, which is pretty exciting. It means not only do you get chestnuts but you get chestnut honey, not only do you get sheep but you get pecorino cheese, olive oil, etc. You get the picture, and it is pretty abundant.
So, I am enjoying being where I am and living in the question. In the meantime, I am keeping busy looking after the farmhouse and gardens, as well as writing, walking, painting, learning Italian and of course, cooking and eating. Healthy eating is simple when so many delicious vegetables are grown nearby, many raised from heirloom seeds which favor flavor over traveling ability, and sourced from the garden or the village vegetable store.
A quick chopped salad below is what I made to eat after the thunderstorm last night, along with a starter of pan-fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with homemade yogurt cheese and herbs. This is a nice main dish salad consisting of a little raw zucchini, which is sweet and crunchy when it is young and fresh, contrasted with a little bitter radicchio - a member of the chicory family and a beautiful purple-red - plus some sweet cherry tomatoes and chopped romaine. To truly taste the vegetables, you barely need any dressing - just some good sea salt and a little drizzle of excellent quality olive oil. And maybe a nice glass of Chianti for the full effect.
Zucchini and Radicchio Chop Salad for One
5 large cherry tomatoes or 8 small cherry tomatoes
1 small clove garlic, minced
large pinch sea salt (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 baby zucchini (no longer than 5 inches)
1 baby head radicchio (about 1 cup chopped)
2 inner leaves of romaine (1 cup chopped)
1-2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced herbs - I used lemon thyme, parsley and chives
Quarter the tomatoes and place in a small ceramic bowl that can hold 2 1/2 cups of chopped vegetables. Toss them with the minced garlic and sea salt and let that macerate while you chop the rest of the vegetables into small, bite-sized pieces. You’ll end up with a salad that looks like you can eat it with a spoon - and you can, if you like. As you chop each vegetable toss it in the bowl on top of the tomatoes but don’t stir until you’ve got it all done. Once everything is in the bowl and it has been about 5 minutes, give everything a stir. Taste it for salt - it should be nicely seasoned - and then drizzle with a little bit of excellent olive oil, about a teaspoon or so. If you have some herbs growing on a pot outside your door or on your balcony (hint: this is a really good idea, whether you’re in Italy or not) then pick a couple sprigs at random and tear them into the salad. Serve immediately, with or without the Chianti.
Heirloom zucchini, cherry tomatoes, fresh rosemary and radicchio. Photos © Anna Dvorak
On our last night of a wonderfully relaxing two week holiday in Colorado, my refrigerator looked just like it should before we take off for the long drive back to Minnesota: empty. What I did have on hand was a dozen local and truly free-range organic eggs, organic flour, a big chunk of Parmesan, a roasted organic sweet potato, homegrown garlic (thanks Mom and Dad!) and a great neighbor, Kim. What Kim had was a pound of her freshly made organic fromage blanc - a fresh cheese that is similar to ricotta - as well as a big handful of fresh rosemary clipped off of her plant and a chunk of Pecorino Romano. She also had salad greens to share with our meal.
Together, the ingredients combined to make two kinds of freshly made ravioli - the fromage blanc/parmesan/rosemary ravioli and a sweet potato/parmesan ravioli, which I cooked and then tossed in a sauce made with 4 heads of chopped garlic, olive oil, and sea salt, then topped with fresh Parmesan, a little fresh rosemary and a pinch of Aleppo pepper. The fromage blanc ravioli burst in the mouth with salty, tangy, juiciness that contrasted nicely with the earthy sweet potato-stuffed ravioli.
These resolution-busting ravioli were not gluten-, dairy- or calorie-free, but they were local, homemade and organic - and utterly delicious. Even better was sharing the decadence in our cozy cabin with dear friends for a great send-off and a wonderful reminder of all things that make for a perfect meal: simple food, incredible ingredients, and the company of those you love.
Fromage Blanc Ravioli
1 pound fresh pasta dough, rolled to the second to thinnest setting
1 pound fromage blanc or organic ricotta
1 organic egg yolk
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients and taste for salt and pepper; adjust if necessary. Fill each 2 1/2” x 2 1/2” ravioli square with 1/2 tablespoon filling; brush the edges with water, top with a second square and press to seal. Set aside until all of the pasta squares are filled. Boil the ravioli in salted water until they float, about 1 minute. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a pan of sautéed garlic in olive oil. Toss and serve immediately with freshly grated Parmesan, a little chopped rosemary and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Serve with a crisp white wine, like an organic Grüner Veltliner, and a big green salad.