Saturday, February 14, 2015

Our Story - Marla and Fabrizio, a Valentines Tale

Fabriazio and Marla -Bella Baita Italian Alps Retreat 2014
San Valentino or Valentine's day is a special day for us. It's our wedding anniversary, and it was an unforgettable experience, however I am getting ahead of my story.
Bella Baita B&B in Summer
If there has been a singular question asked of me in the past 14 years, it has undoubtedly been, "Sooooo, how did you two meet?" or some variation of that phrase. I have a standard short and long form of my answer, that Fabrizio always defers to my telling of the tale. Today, I am going to tell you the condensed long version. I hope you enjoy it.
Before I met Fabrizio, the number one question was, how did you end up working in Europe, so I will start out by setting the stage for "our story" by answering how an American ended up in the Italian Alps of Piedmont, with my darling crazy mountain man. I hope you enjoy our tale.

Marla & Fabrizio - date in Volterra, Italy summer 2001
C'era una volta, or once upon a time.....
I had a desire to do something significantly different from my then so called life in the mountains of Colorado. It might have been a mid life questioning of where I had been and where I was going or perhaps it was the shedding of yet another skin of my layered life. It turned out to be a combination of both. 
After many years of living at big altitude, (9,075 ft or  2,776m) where I made peace with winter by learning to ski and worked my way up the slippery male dominated ladder of professional success, to become the pastry chef for Copper Mt Resort, for abut 12 years,  I felt restless to move on, to stretch and try something new. Thing is in a ski resort area, there weren't always a broad spectrum of opportunities. Usually it seemed that you were changing locations and people, but the seasonality and job ended up being much to be more of the same. I wasn't sure what this change was suppose to look like, perhaps, to travel and not be in one place. I had reached many goals and lived a great mountain life, but my life had changed and I needed a completely new challenge. Running a pastry department in a large ski resort  had been an incredible experience of growth and opportunity as well as meeting and working with a lot of different people. However, mass production for 4 cafeterias, 5 restaurants and conference services with a summer crew of 7 and around 20 ski and snowboarders that changed every season, had worn a little thin over the years. I really wanted a new challenge, one that would be quite different from what I had already done. Hmmm, what to do? 
Skimming through the short and not so sweet want ads in the daily paper I wasn't expecting much. I had been perusing the ads for awhile and knew them by heart, ski resort workers, ski techs, wait staff, cleaners, mountain photographers, and shuttle bus drivers, just to name a few gives you the drift of my indifference. However, when I spied "Chalet Host Required", my interest was piqued. My heart did a little "skip to my lou". The interview with the program director and resort manager from the UK, sealed the deal for me. They were so charming and we laughed so much, and when I told them that I really needed for the job to be more than just for the winter and maybe could I work in Europe for them, I was delighted when they said yes. After much soul searching and reevaluating of how I could completely rearrange my life both physically and financially, to make this kind of crazy seasonal job work, I found myself with a year round (with a few gaps between the two seasons) for a British Tour company that would allow me to work in Breckenridge, Colorado in the winter and the Alps of Slovenia, Switzerland and Austria in the summer. It was, to put it mildly, a blast. I now had guests instead of employees and even though my work load increased and my monetary income decreased, I was happy to be doing things that I knew well and others that were completely foreign. It was a wonderful experience with a whole new world of package holidays and British guests that opened up my European sojourn. That however is another story for another day. Suffice it to say that after about 4 years of the Holiday Representative life, which means mostly living in a hotel, and was suppose to be a one year transitional job, I found myself looking yet again for yet another, different experience. 
On the main street of Casole d'Elsa where I lived
A fortuitous phone call I received one day out of the blue, made my day and sent me on my way to Italy. An American colleague  that I had worked alongside in the chalet hosting days in Breckenridge, called me a couple years after an off hand comment to her, that her job as a chef for an English art school in Tuscany sounded like something I would love and if she ever was getting rid of it, I would be interested. How lucky was that? Turns out it was pretty lucky. Next thing I know I landed that job and I was off to little Casole d'Elsa in the Siena province of Italy to cook my little heart out for the Verrocchio Art Center ( Il Centro d'Arte Verrocchio), for yet another exciting chapter in my life. 
Marla between meals on the terrace of the Centro d'Arte Verrocchio 2002
I would like to point out that this is the happily ever after version of my story. I have included only the best and happiest parts only of my tale. Naturally, the whole tale, has it's dark moments of self doubt, uncertainty, fear of failure, seemingly defeat and triumph as well as heart wrenching loneliness  at times. I traveled through the whole spectrum of human feelings that go with change and the risk of  trying something new.  It is easy to leave those parts out as they are so personal and dark, but just know that my life isn’t charmed, it is real with all the good and not so hot stuff included, but over all I can say I have made every effort to embrace everything that comes my way. It is part of the spice that makes it my life. I just want to share the triumphant part right now. 
So now I found myself in a small (900 people including the surrounding hamlets) walled  hilltop town in Tuscany with only 3 streets running through town. Casole d'Elsa is situated in the neighborhood of Siena, Firenze, San Gimignano and Volterra. Wow, can you say wow! It was amazing and intoxicating as Tuscany's scenery is so iconic and evocative with its rolling hills, slender cypress trees, walled hilltop towns in the distance, oozing beauty, art and history. What's not to love. I busied myself immersing in the local flavor and figuring out what the local cuisine was all about before taking over the reigns of the Centro's kitchen where I would be in charge of the feeding the art school's staff, students and teachers that changed every fortnight. Many of the attendees had been coming to this school for years and years, so there was pressure to measure up and surpass expectations. I was nervous. Luckily my friend, Euni who was leaving the position, was around for a couple of weeks so that I could observe and learn whilst I served food at the local osteria /enoteca, Caffe` Casolani. It was a very confusing time at first, between the language, or more accurately my lack of, and reorienting myself to being in a new kitchen with none of my usual tools since I hadn't been carrying any of that around whilst walking and skiing the Alps. Fortunately, every one was generously helpful with their knowledge and time, so I was starting to relax into this new Italian rhythm.
Caffe Casolani- where I worked when I first arrived
The  first new rhythm I had to adjust to was the heat. It was spring and the mornings and evenings were lovely and cool, but the heat of the day meant that it was best to get up early and get things done and pull down the shades in the afternoon and try not to sweat your soul out or maybe take your mid day break in the local bar whilst chatting and getting to know your new flat mates and coworkers from the art school. So one day, in what was either my first or second week in the job by myself, the two British gals I worked with and I were in Bar Barroccio, passing our mid day break in casual conversation and cooling drinks. I noticed there were a couple of guys in the booth next to us but didn't really pay much attention other than one of them was intently reading the paper. It wasn't too long before the cute curly haired one, who had seemed so engrossed in his paper reading, was leaning over towards our table whilst he commented to his companion. "Hey Johnny, there are some girls over here that you can speak English with, in fact, you can speak American with one of them." What an opening line, and one that I have never forgotten. We all chatted for awhile and as it turned out we all had to go back and serve dinner that night, but we would maybe see them again that night after work. What do you think the chances of that were? Well, there were only 2 bars in town and the other one is where you bought your tickets for the local bus, but seldom ever stayed in there for very long as it was smoky and full of old men usually playing cards. The other bar where we met, was where the night life was, if there was any. It was mostly doing the "passeggiata" up and down the main street of Casole, either getting a drink at one end or a gelato at the other. There were always people promenading up and down the street trying to keep cool on these hot Tuscan nights.

That was how we met and it wasn't long before Fabrizio was kindly offering his help for expanding my Italian culinary knowledge.  He was working as a Maitre' d hotel in a local Agriturismo along with John, who was an American doing a stage at the same restaurant. The restaurant was working toward getting a Michelin star. Fabrizio took a degree as a chef when he was young as he grew up cooking and serving in his family's "La Baita" mountain restaurant. He went on to take a couple more degrees, as he found that he preferred to be out front with the guests and managing the restaurants. Anyone who knows Fabrizio would understand that, as he has such an outgoing personality and loads of energy. Fabrizio can keep the show going and everyone laughing, which are a couple of wonderful qualities that I adore. Fabrizio had found his way to Casole after escaping where he grew up and about four years working in the UK where he perfected his English. Unfortunately for him, he has now perfected his American. He had been working in different parts of Italy with a couple of stints in Poland doing some consulting work on setting up hotel restaurants and various other restaurant work when he landed in Casole to help them reach some of their goals. It didn't take him long to get his apron on and help me out in the kitchen at the Centro, so that I got myself organized and comfortable so that I could relax into the job, but also so I could get out of work a bit earlier on our mid day break and see a bit of the countryside. It was a memorable season and will always be a special time in our lives. It was pretty easy to fall in love with a man that cooks and sings to you in the kitchen. That is also not to mention that he does dishes, will clean the house, fix the car, chop the wood, get up and build a fire before any of us are up and will try any cuisine I make and compliments me frequently. I was to learn all of that along the way.  He is a pretty special man and I am happy we met and that our paths continued in the same direction.  I think we are both pretty lucky.
Fabrizio and Marla in the Centro d'Arte Verrocchio kitchen
Over the next year we came up here to his family's home to assess the possibilities. We went to America to meet my family and check out Colorado where I had lived and still feels like home to me. I returned to Tuscany for another season and Fabrizio came here to work on setting up the rooms that were not in use so that we could open as a B&B and try to make a business where there wasn't one. His parents had retired and were renting out their restaurant part of the building to other people and so we made the rest of the building come to life as Bella Baita B&B. 
We returned to America in 2007 and had been trying to manage the logistics of where and how to get married for a few years without it ever becoming clear or easy. So when one of my friends mentioned the Loveland ski area's Valentines Day promotion, "Marry Me and Ski for Free". We decided that was really just the thing for us. So we got a license and joined 60 other couples on a cold and snowy Valentines day and said our vows to each other on top of a ski mountain. It was special, we both cried and then we skied a few powder runs before enjoying a reception at the ski lodge. We had already booked to teach a cooking class for that night, so off we went to teach and celebrate a lovely evening with friends, good food we made together and wonderful wine from the wine cellar. It was memorable and unique and just right for us. 
The snowy ceremony- many people were inside keeping warm

Fabrizio and Marla February 14, 2007 Loveland Ski Area, Colorado ,USA
As they years have passed, we now have use of the whole of the building, we offer cooking classes, local short break culinary tours, we have a large organic garden that we are constantly improving with the help of volunteers from organizations like Wwoof.it and Workaway.info. We will be offering courses on sustainable living and gardening in the future and expanding our cooking classes with bread workshops  and more varied culinary tours. We are still chefs that enjoy guests and we hope that now that you know a bit more about us, that you might come and meet us in person and share our slice of Italian life in the Alps and discover our not so well known, but certainly deserving valley and what we have on offer. Vi aspettiamo. We are waiting for you. 
Marla and Fabrizio at Bella Baita February 11, 2014

Bella Baita View

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Croissants with Nutella - Celebrating World Nutella Day 2015

It was a perfect snowy day here to indulge with my  Nutella filled Croissants
I haven't made real croissants in ages as I usually make a fast and yummy yogurt crescent that suits me just fine. However I have been wanting to test out a new stone ground flour that I am not able to buy locally on a variety of breads and pastry so I know how it turns out. It is not a white white flour and it is somewhat gritty, so it is important to know how it acts when making a variety of breads or pastries before I serve it to guests. I already learned that it is quite fragile when making thin crust pizzas for the wood oven, so I am still tweaking on that recipe. I found that this flour makes a beautiful croissant, full of flavor and an enchanting golden color. I used my natural wild yeast, sometimes called  sour dough,  that gave the finished product just a nice tang that cut through the butteriness. What's not to love?
My batch of croissants 
I won't kid you, it does take a bit of time to make these, and they are a bit fiddly, but the flavor and satisfaction are worth the effort. I feel the same about puff pasty and danish, which are the same process of building up layers of flour and butter through rolling out and folding, letting the dough rest in the cold and knowing just the right timing for the best results that it might be a tad daunting. However, I think you will find once you get the hang of it all they are a delight to make and even nicer to share with the ones you love or maybe someone you want to impress.
Tea for three
Roll em up





World Nutella Day is an event created by Sara Rosso of Ms Adventures in Italy and Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso, just for fun and for the love of this Italian national chocolate hazelnut treat. They put this event together a few years ago and then it disappeared for a few years whilst the owners of the Nutella company figured out how to join in the fun. So this year it's back and here's my offering for a great way to enjoy Nutella, slathered generously on a freshly baked croissant. I did make mine from scratch over a 3 day period. You of course can do the same or you can buy some and bring them home to enjoy at your leisure, naturally.

Wild Yeast Croissants filled with Nutella
If you are interested in making them, I used Jeffery Hamelman's Classic Croissants recipe that uses American measurements and you will find that recipe here. If you prefer your measurements in metric, as I do now, you can find the metric variation of that recipe here.
Both recipes are clearly explained and beautifully illustrated with photos to make your project come together easily.
I hope you enjoy making them as much as I did and hope you have a wonderful World Nutella Day every day.
Fabrizio enjoying one for the camera

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Baked Pumpkin and Brussels Sprouts Rigatoni


This time of the year I find I am drawn to write more about recipes as I spend more time at home trying out new recipes that there never seems to be enough time for in the summer. I also find that many recipes are predicated by what's on hand or what is begging to  be used up. The garden provides a fair amount of winter veggies in such abundance that new recipes are definitely in order. Back in the autumn when I saw this recipe on one of my favorite TV cooking programs,  for what seems to me to be an adult version of macaroni and cheese, I knew I was in. I just happened to have an excess of pumpkin and this years crop of Brussels sprouts was abundant, which just happened to be two of the main ingredients of this pasta al forno, which is what oven baked pasta is called here. 
I do like creamy cheesy baked pasta, but  the thought of replacing some of the cheese with pumpkin or winter squash for a creamy and rich sauce that's not too much. This version is a tad lighter yet satisfyingly scrummy. I find this is a great way to use up odds and ends of cheeses and different varieties of pumpkin or squash. Its just good if you have a soft disintegrating variety of pumpkin and one that holds its shape, for added interest in this mix. Caciocavallo cheese is very much like provolone and yet I found other cheeses work quite well also. So if you don't have  the exact ingredients, don't hesitate to sub something that you prefer or have on hand. That's most of us do anyway, so feel free to use this as a framework for making a comforting pan of cheesy pasta and vegetables. I am sure you will agree. 
Mix and adjust the pasta to your taste

The pumpkin seeds add a great dimension of texture and flavor

Baked Rigatoni with Winter Squash and Brussels Sprouts 

Serves 6
Ingredients:
10 oz / 300 g pumpkin Kabocha or other meaty winter squash, cut into cubes 1 leek, cut into slices
2 bay leaves
3 T olive oil, extra virgin
1 3⁄4 c / 400 ml milk
10 oz / 300 g pumpkin Delicata, cut into pieces
4 T pumpkin seeds, divided in half
3.5 oz /100 g parmesan, grated
10 oz / 300 g cacio bucato or caciocavallo or provolone or whatever cheese you would like
7-8 oz / 200g ish Brussels sprouts, trimmed, washed and cut in half. 1# / 500 g of rigatoni
Pumpkin oil
salt

Method:

Place two tablespoons of olive oil and leek, in a saucepan.
Saute` slightly and then add the Delicata pumpkin pieces and season with some salt. Cover and cook over low heat, until the pumpkin is soft.
In another saucepan, place the pumpkin pieces with milk, half of pumpkin seeds, salt and bay leaf, Simmer for about 12 minutes on medium heat until the pumpkin is soft.
Remove from heat and keep warm.
Mix with an immersion blender, ( I would do this after the pasta is done)
Stir in half the cheese and half the grated parmesan.
Cook the pasta in salted water, I cooked about halfway before adding the brussel sprouts.
The original recipe add them together at the same time. I just preferred the sprouts to not be overcooked.
to which will be added also sprouts
Drain the pasta al dente, Toss the pasta and sprouts in a bowl with the the pumpkin cream.
Add the pumpkin stew and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
Mix well.
Place it in a 9x13 baking pan (I lined the pan with parchment paper )brushed with pumpkin oil. Top the pasta with the grated cheese and sprinkle the other pumpkin seeds

Bake at 375* -400*F (200 °C ) till bubbly and top has browned.
Adult Mac and CheeseDon't you just love the crispy bits on top? I do.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Something Old, New and a Homemade Orecchiette Recipe

We are well on our way into a new year, 2015,  and yet at this time of the year I often find myself looking backwards as well as forward.  When Jennifer of  the blog "Vino Travels ~ An Italian Wine Blog & Luxury Tours to Italy", recently contacted me about collaborating on a wine pairing event that would be featuring one of  Puglia's famous wines, Negroamaro, Gaglioppo or Primitivo, a dinner made for us by friends from Bari, a few years back, sprang to mind, "Braciole"* and Orecchiette pasta. (* Braciole translates to chop and usually refers to pork chops, especially in the north of Italy, but in Puglia it refers to a meat roll cooked in a tomato sauce. The meat can be pork, beef, or even horse)This dish was made for us by some friends that we met during the lead up to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games that were held in our area. We became friendly with some of the workers that came up from south Italy with their company to build the two tunnels that helped ease some of the congestion of the traffic on our road that leads up to Sestriere and where several of the venues for the games were held. This group of tunnel makers were made up of two groups, one from Bari in Puglia, and the other from Sicily. We had helped them out with a variety of things that come up when you work far away from your home and friendly faces are always appreciated. They had an impromptu home leave break when the winter weather made working on the tunnels impossible for a few days, so off they went back home. The tunnel project took  over two years to complete prior to the commencement to the games, so they were away from home for quite a while. 
Baldassini tunnel workers on the day they broke through on the second tunnel

Once they returned from their break, they asked if they could make us a traditional Pugliese dinner. Sounded good to me. I love eating other peoples cooking especially when they are so keen to share their regional cooking with us. When they treated us to dinner, we discovered that they each had all brought back different treats from home. One brought his family's olive oil pressed from trees that were over three hundred years old, home made Pugliese wine, Sicilian desserts and hand made orecchiette by one of their wives. What a special dinner that was. It was fun to watch them prepare everything and then all sit together for a special meal. A dear friend of mine from college days along with her daughter just happened to be visiting when this dinner came together, so we had a cozy full house in our intimate dining room. That meal still lingers in my memory and the revelation of how wonderful hand made pasta is I can also manage to savor. So naturally I just had to try and recreate this dish. 

Fabrizio and chef for a night Guiseppe and the whole Baldassini gang and my southern Illinois friends for the special dinner
This traditional dish is a typical Sunday family dinner where the meat is cooked in a rich tomato sauce. Orecchiette has been made earlier and left to dry before marrying it up with the sauce that the meat was cooked in.  This recipe is what I like to call a two for one recipe; two dishes made from one source.  If you make the pasta as opposed to buying dried pasta, then it will be a little more labor intensive, worthy of a big Sunday family dinner, however, If you buy dried orecchiette, this comes together quite easily for any day of the week. Do try it and pair it up with a Primitivo if you can find it, or if all else fails, try a California Zinafindel (not a rose' but a rich fruity red) that will transform this into an unforgettable memory whenever you wish. 
A pictorial tour of my version using home canned passata and conserva (tomato sauce and paste)
My hand made orecchiette, or little ears

Meat rolls and Orecchiette Pasta with Sauce 
Braciole e l'Orecchiette con Sugo
Serves: 6

Ingredients:
6 thin beef or pork steaks,* 
6 squares of firm pecora cheese, or other firm cheese, optional. I used caciocavallo. 
6 garlic cloves, minced and divided for sauce and inside the meat rolls, (adjust amount to your taste, as this is Giuseppe's strong garlicky version. He actually used a lot more)
1 large carrot, diced
1 large celery stalk, diced
1 large bottle or jar of tomato sauce
1 T tomato paste 
2 tsp mix of thyme, oregano or any blend you like. 
1 bay leaf
slash of dry white wine, optional i used water as i didn't have any wine available
dash dried hot red pepper  
Olive oil

Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, grated to garnish the finished dish

600-800g / 1.5- 1.75 lb dried orecchiette pasta
or 
Homemade orecchiette recipe and video below*

Cooked  green vegetable to go with your meat rolls or salad 

Preparation:
Lay steaks flat and place a generous amount of minced garlic toward one end of the steak. You can make this with just a thick chunk of cheese or a combination of both. 
Pull and fold over both sides of the length of the steak towards the center.
Bring the one end over so the contents are enclosed and roll up. Secure with a toothpick.
In a sauce pan or large skillet with tall sides place your oil and begin to heat. 
Add the carrot and celery and begin to saute' until fragrant. 
Add the remainder of your garlic.
Add dried herbs and bay leaf.
Stir to distribute and place your meat rolls in the pan.
Saute' lightly on all sides to pick up color. 
Deglaze your pan with a little white wine if desired. 
Let the alcohol evaporate and add the tomato sauce and paste.
Cover and cook for about 15 minutes. 
Remove meat rolls and let the sauce simmer a while longer adding a bit of water if it cooks down too much. You want an nice thick sauce that has let all the flavors meld together. Perhaps 30-40 minutes tops. 

*Cooks Notes* Thin cut beef steaks are from the rump of the cow, most likely a round steak, here they have a large roast piece of meat and slice thin slices about 1/4 or slightly thicker slices. Ask your butcher for suggestions. If using pork, a pork cutlet with  little bit of fat is nice as well. 

*If making home made orecchiette pasta, make it first so that the pasta has time to dry before cooking. You can make the pasta a day or several before also. Just make sure to keep the pasta dry and they will need to cook slightly longer than the fresh pasta. 

Amount per person is about 2 1/2 oz / 80g per person so you can adjust according
(Note* home made pasta usually goes down quite easy)


Orecchiette Pasta :
 6 ish portions

500 g / 18 oz semolina flour  or semolina
200-250g / 6.5-8 oz  water, warm to hot 

Make a mound of flour and hollow out the middle to make a well. 
Add some water and begin mix with your your fingers like a mixer.
Add more water and mix until you get a solid, yet soft dough. 
Work the dough as you would bread to get a smooth dough that has developed the gluten. 
Once you have the dough developed and smooth, Set aside and either cover with a bowl that you weighed your flour in or a piece of plastic to allow the dough to relax, but not to dry out.
Set aside for about 15 minutes. 

Cut your dough as you need it , ultimately in about 8 -10 pieces. 
If you have a wooden surface to work on, that is the best surface for making pasta dough. 
Take one piece of dough, leaving the others covered while you roll out a long thin snake of dough.
Roll out the dough with your hands on top of the dough laid flat on the work surface. Gently roll the dough into a long piece about 1/4-1/2" thickness, depending on how large you want your "ears" to be.
Once rolled out, Take a butter knife or small pallet knife and cut the dough off into about a nickel sized portion. 
With your flat edge of the knife drag the knife from one side of the dough across to the other applying steady pressure so that the dough crawls up and curves over. Pick the piece up and unroll it if need be and fold it opposite of the way it tried to roll up, so that it forms a cup. 
Lay them side by side on a plate or wooden surface that has been sprinkled with semolina to dry till they are not sticky to the touch. Feel free to sprinkle a bit of semolina over the tops as well if you need them to dry up a bit more.  Avoid making these on very humid days as it is with most home made pasta.  continue on with all of the pieces of dough till you are all done. 
Go back and make you meat rolls and sauce while your pasta dries. 

If you watch some of the ladies of Bari making them they have a two stroke method that I have yet to master, but certainly will be striving for.  Like many things it just takes a lot of practice. 
I am going to add a  little video that I made to practice not only my orecchiette skills but also my video skills as well. Hope you like it. 

Finishing and serving:
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
Add the fresh pasta and boil gently till cooked to your preference. Normally it only takes a few minutes like 4-6 unless they are very dry or very thick. 
If using dry store pasta follow the directions on the package for the timing. 

While the water is coming to a boil, put the meat rolls back into your sauce and heat the sauce and meat rolls back up so that everything is piping hot.
Remove meat and set aside, keeping them warm somewhere till you are ready to serve them after the pasta course.
Drain your pasta, add to the sauce and toss to coat the pasta. 
Serve immediately, garnishing with the grated cheese to taste.  

Serve your meat rolls with a vegetable side dish or salad of choice.

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