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{Book Review} Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City

A street in Rome // FoodNouveau.com

A while back, an acquaintance asked me how I go about planning trips. This simple question actually required me to pause and figure out what is, in fact, my process. I love trip planning so much, it may be half the pleasure I gain from traveling. The research, the readings, the post-its, and the bookings: all these steps build the anticipation months before I step on a flight to a new adventure.

I typically begin with a couple of guidebooks, enabling me to map out a destination in my mind. Reading them cover to cover helps me build the itinerary and visualize the layout of the cities we will be visiting. After I complete a trip’s first draft, I dig deeper. I search for the less obvious destinations and attractions in newspapers, magazines, and online and read books that might not be guidebooks per se but that do provide priceless information on a destination, either through its history or through the food made by its people.

The Tiber River in Rome // FoodNouveau.com

Elizabeth Minchilli’s brand new book is one such resource. A 240+ page full-color tome, Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City is not your typical guidebook. Chapters are organized by themes that promise to reveal the secrets to live like a Roman, such as “Shopping in the Markets of Rome” and “Learning to Love Roman Pastries.” To the age-old saying, When in Rome . . . I say, learn how to behave like a local. The Italians do day-to-day activities in extremely specific ways, so a visitor trying to complete a simple task such as ordering coffee can quickly get lost in translation.

I should know: I once spent a half hour waiting for my order in a packed bakery in Rome, with local patrons and servers whizzing past and shooting me impatient looks. I simply could not understand why others were being served while I was not, despite that I had already paid for my order. Mercifully, a kind soul finally explained that after paying for my order, I had neglected to take a miniature piece of paper that I had assumed was a discardable receipt and give it to the woman who was tasked to put my order together. So I returned to the register, grabbed my receipt from the cashier—who had probably taken bets on just how long it would take for me to come back for it—and handed it to the pastry counter server, who, with eyebrows raised, gave me a heavy congrats-you-figured-it-out look. I received my order but continued to wait for the coffees.

Another good 10 minutes passed before the server, who probably couldn’t stand my bewildered stares any longer, gestured that I needed to cross the room to hand my mini-receipt, already half-torn to signify the pastries had been served, to the barista to get my drinks. When the coffees were served in ceramic cups, I tried to explain that I wanted them to go. The barista bestowed me with an eye roll, brusquely swept his hand sideways, and said “No take out.” After standing for so long in that pastry shop, I should have noticed that Italians were downing their espresso in a single gulp, right at the counter.

The adventure left me confused, embarrassed, and sweating, but I sure learned how to do things the right way. The next day, I returned and ordered like a pro. I was in and out of the shop in minutes.

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Reading Minchilli’s knowledgeable advice will save you from such unfortunate situations and many more. An American who has lived in Rome most of her adult life, Minchilli explains the Italian way with the self-derision and delicious anecdotes of someone who learned the hard way. Through her experience as an expat married to an Italian, the reader quickly grasps what makes Rome so compellingly fascinating. Besides the memoir aspect of the book, Eating Rome is also part guidebook and part Roman recipe anthology. Each chapter features the author’s favorite addresses along with classic recipes that tie into the theme. The recipes are short and accessible, making it simple to enjoy a taste of Rome, wherever home is.

The Campo di Fiori market in Rome // FoodNouveau.com

All in all, Eating Rome is an entertaining read, whether or not you have plans to travel to the Italian capital (but after reading it, I guarantee you will.) Although some of the basic information presented might not be new to those who have already traveled to Italy, it comes intertwined with so much cultural insight that it becomes an essential read for all Italophiles. I am currently planning a spring trip to Italy that included only a few days in Rome; Minchilli’s book might just have turned my plans upside down.

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Elizabeth Minchilli is the author of the blog Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome, which is currently nominated for a Saveur Blog Award. She is also the author of several other books on Italian architecture and lifestyle and of the Eat Italy app series.

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Win a copy of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City!

St. Martin’s Press has kindly provided five copies of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City for Food Nouveau readers to win! Earn many chances to win by filling up the form below. The giveaway is open to all US and Canadian residents and runs until Friday April 24, 2015, at midnight (12 a.m. EST). Good luck!

Cover of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City, by Elizabeth Minchilli // FoodNouveau.com

A spread of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City, by Elizabeth Minchilli // FoodNouveau.com

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Heartfelt thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an advance copy of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City

Homemade Maple Leaf Cookies

Homemade Maple Leaf Cookies // FoodNouveau.com

If you’ve ever travelled to Canada, you’ve most likely seen displays of maple leaf cookie boxes in airport duty-free stores and souvenir shops. They sure look like a gimmick, given the steep price at which they are sold and the fact that they bring together two of Canada’s conspicuous icons: the maple leaf, and maple syrup. It may surprise you to learn that we actually grew up eating them. You see, boxes of maple leaf cookies (made with real maple syrup!) were also sold at grocery stores for a fraction of the souvenir shop price, so those addictive treats were no more an indulgence than say, Oreo cookies. At home when I was a kid, biscuits feuille d’érable were on heavy rotation in the lineup of cookies that took up a whole shelf in our pantry, and they were always my first choice when they did make an appearance.

While I know my parents still buy them from time to time, it’s been a really long time since I’ve had them in my pantry. I recently stumbled upon a recipe I had printed out a few years ago and it was the perfect timing: the start of a new maple season. I quickly whipped up a batch and—no surprise—found them even better the store-bought version. Not only is the creamy filling bursting with maple flavor (I may or may not have eaten some by the spoonful), but the cookies, which are made with maple sugar instead of regular granulated sugar, have an incredibly appealing sablé texture that almost melts in the mouth. They are not cheap cookies to make: the recipe does require a nice quantity of maple products (sugar, syrup, and butter), but the yield is impressive and I swear the result is better than any maple-flavored store-bought cookie you’ll ever buy.

Of course you can make these cookies even if you don’t have a maple leaf-shaped cookie cutter; for me, it just adds to the charm.

Québec Travel Tip! If you come to Québec and want to buy maple products, skip the souvenir shop and head to a local grocery store. Most carry maple syrup and maple butter year round, as well as maple leaf cookies too, of course (in the regular cookie aisle). They may not come in decorative containers or boxes, but you’ll get much more for your buck. The links below also lead to the online store of a Quebec maple producer that ships worldwide.

Homemade Maple Leaf Cookies

Makes about 50 cream-filled cookies

For the cookies
1 cup [250 ml] unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup [250 ml] granulated maple sugar
½ cup [125 ml] maple syrup
4 cups [1 L] pastry flour
½ tsp [2.5 ml] baking powder

For baking
Milk
Granulated maple sugar

For the cream filling
1 cup [250 ml] maple butter
½ cup [125 ml] powdered sugar
1/3 cup [80 ml] unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350°F [180°C] and make sure the rack is positioned in the center. Line a baking sheet or two with parchment paper.

To make the cookies: In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), beat the butter and granulated maple sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the maple syrup and beat until the mixture is creamy.

In another bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder together. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the maple mixture until the dough comes together. Using your hands, gather the dough into a ball and cut into 4 portions. Keep one portion out and wrap the remaining dough in plastic wrap.

On a generously floured surface, roll the maple dough to a 1/8-in [0.3-cm] thickness. Using a cookie cutter, cut out as many cookies as possible, delicately transferring them to the parchment paper-lined baking sheet as you go. Since the dough is rolled out thin, it may help to use a small spatula to lift off and transfer the cookies. The cookies can be placed close to one another on the baking sheet because they won’t spread out while baking. If desired, use the dull side of a knife to trace shallow lines and a maple leaf pattern. Brush each cookie with milk and dust with coarse maple sugar. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly golden on the edges. Let cool completely on wire racks. Repeat the roll out and baking process to use the remaining cookie dough.

To make the cream filling: Put the maple butter and softened butter in a large mixing bowl and whisk with an electric mixer until the two are well incorporated. Add the powdered sugar and whisk on low speed until the sugar is mixed in, and turn up the speed. Whisk until the cream filling is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Keep in the refrigerator until you’re ready to assemble the cookies (take it out of the fridge about 15 minutes before assembly so it spreads more easily).

To assemble the cookies: Spread a generous layer of cream filling on one cookie, then cover with a second cookie. Repeat to assemble all cookies. Eat any remaining cream filling by the spoonful.

Homemade Maple Leaf Cookies // FoodNouveau.com

The assembled cookies will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days. They are at their crispiest in the first 24 hours. The filling then softens the cookies a bit, but they remain just as irresistible.

Recipe Credit: Adapted from RicardoCuisine.com.

Download this recipe in PDF format - Food Nouveau

More Decadent Cookie Inspiration:

Brunch at the Sugar Shack

When I was growing up, visiting a sugar shack in March was a tradition. It was the quintessential Québécois family activity. It seemed as though everyone knew someone in his or her close or extended families who had a sugar shack, so we would all go and spend a sunny weekend day there, running among the maple trees, dipping our fingers in the maple sap (which was at the time still collected in buckets—at least at the farm I remember visiting), and eating as much maple taffy as possible.

Harvesting maple sap in the late 1980s // FoodNouveau.com

Harvesting maple sap in the late 1980s // FoodNouveau.com
My aunt and my mom harvesting buckets of maple sap.

It was a classic school outing, too: yellow buses would bring dozens of excited kids to larger installations, which were used to manage volume (in numbers and decibels). At commercial sugar shacks, there were often musicians playing traditional instruments such as the accordion and harmonica, and wooden spoons were passed around so patrons could add more rhythm to an already raucous atmosphere.

We would sometimes go to the sugar shack just to help with gathering the sap, play around, and eat maple taffy, but when we’d eat a meal there, it would be for brunch. The traditional menu gathered several traditional Québécois dishes such as split pea soup, maple ham, eggs cooked in maple syrup, meat pie, baked beans, crêpes, and pouding chômeur. The formula was all you can eat, and the rule was that everything had to be doused in maple syrup (especially savory dishes—a practice that is probably at the source of my addiction to treats that are both sweet and salty).

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Kale and Walnut Pesto Risotto

Kale and Walnut Pesto Risotto // FoodNouveau.com

I almost did not make this recipe because it was called an “oven risotto” and described as “so self-sufficient it doesn’t need your constant attention.” The concept of oven risotto irritates me because it feeds the dish’s reputation as fussy and time consuming to make, neither of which is true. When I’m tired and don’t feel like cooking, I make risotto. It’s a great way to make use of leftovers, it’s creamy and cheesy, and you can eat it with a spoon. It’s the most comforting dish there is.

I want to convince you that risotto is easy and quick to make. If you have rice, chicken stock, Parmesan cheese, and 20 minutes, you can make risotto. You’ll spend the majority of those 20 minutes sipping wine (but you can also wash the dishes if need be.) You don’t need to stand by the stove the entire time. All you need to do is give the risotto a stir occasionally to make it super creamy (and to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Add cooked meat and veggies toward the end of the cooking time—or don’t, if you like it simple—and then stir in Parmesan cheese to finish the dish. You’re done. Aren’t you proud you didn’t order takeout?

If you ever come across an oven risotto recipe, don’t make it. First of all, it won’t be a put-it-together-and-forget-it kind of dish, which would be the only reason it would actually be worth making risotto in the oven. The original recipe that inspired this dish, for example, required frying the onions, sautéing the rice, cooking down the wine on the stovetop, and then baking the risotto. So you saved what—three stirs on the stovetop? I wouldn’t exactly call that self-sufficient.

I’ll admit that this number’s a little fussier than usual, as you do need to blitz the pesto in addition to making the risotto. But the bonus is that you’ll have some pesto left over, which you can use to top a quick pan-fried piece of fish, slather in a sandwich, or mix into some pasta tomorrow. All said, you get two (or more) meals in one. Good deal all around I’d say.

Kale and Walnut Pesto Risotto

For the pesto
¼ cup [60 ml] walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove
½ cup [125 ml] fresh parsley leaves (packed)
3 tbsp [45 ml] fresh chives, chopped
1 cup [250 ml] kale leaves, tough stem removed, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp [30 ml] extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp [5 ml] kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Water (if required, see instructions below)

For the risotto
2 cups [500 ml] vegetable (or chicken) broth
2 tbsp [30 ml] olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
5 oz [140 g] risotto rice
½ cup [125 ml] white wine
1 cup [250 ml] kale leaves, tough stem removed, coarsely chopped

To finish
1 tbsp [15 ml] butter
½ cup [125 ml] freshly grated parmesan cheese
Toasted walnuts

Make the pesto: Pulse the walnuts and garlic clove in a food processor until finely ground. Add parsley, chives, kale leaves, olive oil, salt and pepper, and process until smooth. If the pesto remains too stiff and chunky, add cold water, 1 tbsp [15 ml] at a time, until the pesto comes together and has a relatively smooth texture.

Make the risotto: Bring the vegetable (or chicken) broth to a simmer in a small pot, then keep warm.

Warm the olive oil a large, shallow pan over medium heat. Add the sauté over low heat until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the risotto rice and stir 2 minutes. Add the white wine and simmer until the wine is absorbed. Add 1 ladleful broth; stir until the broth is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding broth, one ladleful at a time, allowing each ladle to be absorbed before adding more. Once you’ve used 2/3 of the broth, add the chopped kale. Keep on stirring and adding broth until you’ve used it all up, kale is wilted, rice is tender with a little bite, and the mixture is creamy but not stiff.

Stir in about ½ cup [125 ml] of the pesto and leave on the heat for a minute or two, stirring continuously, to warm up the pesto. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed. Divide between warm shallow bowls (risotto should always be served in warm bowls!). Top with toasted walnuts and serve immediately.

Recipe Credit: Adapted from Claire Saffitz, Bon Appétit

Download this recipe in PDF format - Food Nouveau

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Staying at a Ryokan in Japan: Helpful Tips + Dos and Don’ts

The entrance of Seryo, a ryokan (Japanese inn) in the Ohara region of Japan, an hour north of Kyoto. // FoodNouveau.com

Of all my travels, my trip to Japan stands out as the one that surprised, unsettled, and amazed me the most. Out of everything I did during my stay in Japan, my experience in a ryokan is one of the souvenirs I remember most vividly. There was a long list of things I wanted to do while I was in Japan, but staying at a ryokan was at the very top, and it’s the experience that I spent the longest pondering. What kind of ryokan should we choose—modern or traditional? Should we go for a city or a country ryokan? Are we expecting a natural onsen (hot spring) on site? Is an elaborate kaiseiki (multi-course) dinner a priority?

But what is a ryokan, exactly? In short, it’s a traditional Japanese inn. But if upon hearing the word “inn” you imagine a rustic, cozy accommodation with friendly hosts and voluble guests, you’re in for a surprise. Staying at a ryokan is a widely different experience than staying in a hotel, and you should definitely be aware of the ryokan etiquette if you consider visiting one. The following tips should help you prepare for a stay you’ll most likely remember for a lifetime.

Choosing a Ryokan

There are ryokans all over Japan, some located in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto and others located in the country. Country ryokans are often located in areas that feature breathtaking scenery that change through the seasons. If you can spare the time to reach a country ryokan, you should do it, as I feel that they offer a more immersive experience. You’ll also witness a slower, lower-tech side of Japan that you may not get to see otherwise.

A pedestrian street in Sanzen-in, Ohara, Japan // FoodNouveau.com
A pedestrian street bordering a canal in Sanzen-in, Ohara.

Steps leading to Senzen-in Temple, Ohara, Japan // FoodNouveau.com
Steps leading to the Sanzen-in Temple and the Seryo ryokan, an hour north of Kyoto.

The ryokan we stayed at is called Seryo, located in the Ohara region, an hour north of Kyoto. We chose this ryokan because it’s close to several smaller and less crowded but magnificent temples (including the historic thousand-year-old Sanzenin Temple) and because a natural hot spring feeds the local ryokan hot baths. We felt that the location offered a great combination of sightseeing and an off-the-tourist-path journey.

Seryo, a ryokan (Japanese inn) in the Ohara region of Japan, an hour north of Kyoto. // FoodNouveau.com
Seryo, a traditional ryokan located in the Ohara region, an hour north of Kyoto.

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