Au Revoir Holidays | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

Last night, I closed the holiday season celebrating Epiphany day, which falls on Jan. 6.
Epiphany Day in my native Italy was the day when kids received their Christmas gift, note I said a gift in the singular form and received nothing for Christmas day. Christmas was only a religious celebration, a time to spend in holiness, reflecting on spirituality, with family cooking, laughing, loving and enjoying one another.

On the evening of Jan.5th, my parents told us kids to go to bed earlier than usual to allow the Befana (Epiphany) to come down through chimneys or other ways if there was no fireplace and leave one gift for each kid of the house. They also suggested leaving a little something to eat for the Befana. Flying on a broom from home to home, delivering gifts, made the old woman very tired, thus she needed to replenish her strength. A reminder of possibly receiving black charcoal at the Epiphany Day instead of a gift loomed over our head during the year, it kind of forced us to be good kids all the time. Black charcoal was only a chunk of sugar colored with black food coloring, but still, receiving it, was such an ordeal.

We went to bed early than usual, but we stayed awake listening for any noises indicating the Befana was in the house. In the morning, the food we left on the table for her was gone or half eaten and the gifts we found were exactly what we asked in the letter we wrote in December and gave to our parents to send to the Befana. It was so sweet, innocent and gratifying, because the Befana listened.

Until one day, I was eleven years old, I peeped through a keyhole and saw my parents arranging the gifts for us three kids in the usual place in the kitchen. The next day, we opened the gifts and of course we were very happy to receive just what we had asked. Then I told my father that I saw him and mom putting the gifts in place the night before. His answer was: “Oh yes?! Then you are too old to get gifts.” I never received one more gift at Epiphany Day, only some clothes for Christmas, a sweater, perhaps a pair of shoes, a skirt, but not all of them together, only one, until I was eighteen. Nothing else after that. I started working and gave them a gift instead.

The night of Jan. 6th was for a fun day for the adult too. They invited a bunch of friends with kids and together we took down all the chocolate decorations on the Christmas tree. It was another occasion to celebrate with food, a lot of love and laughter, or an excuse to organize the first party of the year. Kids plaid with their new toys.

Yesterday, as I do every year, I celebrated Epiphany Day my way, took down my Christmas decorations and cooked all bunch of food to share with a few friends. Reflecting on what really Christmas means these days, I don’t look forward to the holidays stress and spending. We should call the Christmas Season the “Stores’ Season” instead. In this part of the world, everything we do in the last three months of the year is about increasing stores sales, alleviating our bank account of a few thousand of dollars and stir ourselves crazy trying to enjoy the holidays in a frenzy way. People never receive gifts in their wish list, or receive useless gifts with no meaning, thus recycling the gifts received  for the next occasions, or the next Christmas is a thing to do, while some other people pay their Christmas debts all year around. This is not the way to enjoy Holy Day, only a backward way of doing things!
During the holidays enjoy spending time with people you love and care about as long as they last, share food and fun with them.  That’s the best gift.

I can officially say Au Revoir to the holidays. No resolutions for me, only continuing living life in colors and doing the best I can for others and me. I hope you have a splendid 2014. Ciao,
Valentina
http://www.valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2014 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

ValOperaStampValentina Cirasola has been in business as an interior designer since 1990 improving people’s life by changing their spaces. Often people describe her as “the colorist” for a reason. She lives in a colorful world, wrote a book on colors ©RED-A Voyage Into Colors and loves to color her clients’ environments by creating the unusual. Her deep interest in food led her as an autodidact in the studies of food in history, natural remedies, nutrition and well-being, then finally she wrote two books on Italian regional cuisine. Find Valentina’s three books on
Amazon: http://goo.gl/xUZfk0
Barnes&Nobles: http://goo.gl/q7dQ3w

The Red On The Cheeks Comes From The Mouth | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

One of my friends has just returned from a month of vacation in Italy. She spent two weeks of her vacation in a kitchen of an agritourism to get some hands-on training on typical Italian cuisine. She is a personal chef and owns a catering company. Our catching up conversation was mostly centered on Italian food and table customs. She could not help but noticing the difference and making a comparison between her American eating customs and the Italian eating style. She noticed how properly people conducted themselves while sitting at the table and how she never spotted an Italian local person eating in the street while walking, an activity only foreigners and tourists engaged in.

focacciapomodori_a

At the restaurants and in the place where she was cooking for a few days, she went along with the flow of dinner and how her hosting friends conceived it. They ordered many dishes from antipasto to pasta, meats, and vegetables to fruit, cheeses and dessert. The dishes arrived at the table not in serving platters for sharing, as often is done in the States, but in single plates, each person got his/her portion of everything ordered.

cavatelli-limonati

One time they ordered grilled fish and she did not expect to see the deboning process at the table, right before her eyes. That is a common practice in any respectable Italian restaurant.

waiter-cleaning-the-fish
Photo waiter deboning fish at the table  from TripAdvisor 

There was a considerable time space between each specialty, she told me. At first she was puzzled to why it took so long to finish the entire dinner and even longer to get the check, people lingered at the table, talking with espresso coffee and digestive drinks, but by observing how Italians carried on conversation and relaxed with wines and company, she understood right away that she was in the land of “Dolce Vita” where eating is an art and nothing else is important while sitting at a dining table.

At some tables where business people gathered for lunch, talking about business, my friend observed, did not take place until after all the ordering of food and wines was completed and after people took interest in each other’s life, news of their families and the general happenings. Then during the second half of the dinner, business talk started.

She was all so surprised to see the freshness of food and its vibrant colors in both raw and cooked state. Fish was colorful and smelled like the sea, she said. Of course, she knows that in America supermarkets do not sell the entire fish stock in one day, thus the next day the store will re-propose old fish to the customers marinated in herbs or in some kind of dry rub. In Italy, nobody would buy the re-adaptation of fish. If I want fish, I go directly to the fishmongers. I am fortunate to live in a coastal place, where it is possible to go directly to the source.

My friend asked me why in Italy people don’t suffer gluten problems as people in the States do. You would think that with the large amount of pasta, rice, pizza and bread consumed in Italy, everyone would have gluten intolerance. Well, the answer is simple and crude: Italian food manufacturers do not stuff food with hormones, vitamins, sugar, sodium, MSG and other absurd chemicals. Read the labels of any American food and you will see that the majority of ingredients are unpronounceable chemicals and of real food, there is only a faint percentage. In Italy egg yolks are orange, chickens are yellow and don’t eat corn; pigs are not fed with hormones but acorns, which makes our famous prosciutto (ham) so perfectly balanced; gelato is made with real milk and fruit; bread only contains flour, water, yeast, and olive oil; vegetables are not sprayed with chemicals and fruit arrive at the supermarket with the dirt they grew in, not polished with wax. To this add the Italian lifestyle. Italian people walk to stores, to work, to schools and most of the places they must reach every day. In fact, my friend the chef, after all the commercial cooking she did for her own experience and the eating she did for her own enjoyment with daily wine tasting, lost 14 lb in one month and she could not explain how it happened.

As I say during my books’ presentations: “The red on the cheeks comes from the mouth”. Eating real food daily will help release extra pounds and stabilize the weight. Most importantly, real food will introduce positive energy in the stomach, which in turn will exude from your skin pores and that is good enough to keep away for your system any food intolerance ever invented by the human mind. Ciao,
Valentina

http://www.Valentinadesigns.com

 

Copyright © 2012 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She especially loves to design all those rooms with a “make me feel good” tag attached, such as kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms, and entertainment rooms. She is a public speaker and a mentor. She is also the author of two Italian regional cuisine books and a book on colors, all available here in this site on the Books page and on
Amazon: http://goo.gl/xUZfk0
Barnes&Nobles: http://goo.gl/q7dQ3w

An Observation On The Kitchen | Valentina Cirasola | Interior Designer

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I have been a month in Italy visiting my family and friends and suddenly I noticed something about the kitchen space that should have been very familiar to me, as I had seen it for most of my adult life living in Italy.

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

 

Kitchens in Italy are purely functional, no frills, no granite counters, no luxury, only essentials; they are used for cooking only and in some cases to eat in. Casual entertaining happens in the living room, dining with friends or co-workers happens in the dining room and only close friends get invited to sit in the kitchen. Yes, kitchens are the center of the home life as a concept and it is true that most family problems are resolved around the kitchen table and this does happen in Italy too, but Italian kitchens are not conceived as the space in the center of the home. They are located as far as possible from the living quarters enclosed with doors to keep the guests out, or to hide a kitchen not totally made up or clean yet, which by the way, it isn’t a very common scene to find in Italy. Italian kitchens are always spotless, even after an army of family has eaten there. The idea of the kitchen not being in the center of the house is also to keep cooking aromas, odors and vapors away from the rest of the house.

 

Laundry is often located in the kitchen or near by in the corridor, or on the balcony/terrace where it is easy to just turn around and hang the clothes to dry on the balcony line. It is easier to hang the clothes to dry in the sun and wind, other than being a natural process, as no chemical softener goes into the clothes and saves on electricity. I hang my clothes to dry in the sun even now living in California, where I could have the comfort of all the technology available, but I choose to stay as natural as possible in my house chores.

 

Taking a closer look at the function of the kitchen in a different country brings me to the observation I had. Due to the location of the kitchen, as I said far from the living quarters and not made in an open floor plan as it is done in America, it is very difficult to snack mindlessly. In Italy when people are finished with their evening meal, they move to a room dedicated to watch T.V., reading, or playing music usually not close to the kitchen.
In America the kitchen is conceived as a great room, where cooking, living, family activities and entertainment share the same space. Slouching down on the sofa to watch T.V. and snack on poor, processed or boxed food is so much easier because kitchen cabinets and refrigerator are looking smack at you and they are in a few steps of reach. Also it is easy to have a late snack before going to bed, just because the kitchen is located conveniently in the middle of the house, something that doesn’t even cross people’s mind in Italy. Once the evening meal is finished, all the eating activities are also completed.

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

 

Although I like the open floor plan, I don’t find it particularly warm or private. Often I go into people’s home and I can see a messy kitchen from the entry in plain open view. I must say that when I lived in Italy never paid attention to the functionality, because every kitchen was made with the same simple principal, but now as an interior designer and living in California, I do notice the difference and it would be really hard to propose something different that would bring an entire new concept of living, one of which would be to get rid of snacking, get rid of gracing all day long and late night snack. It might seem strange to hear that the farthest from reach the kitchen is, the easier it is to keep slim. Italian kitchens other than being very modern, also serve that purpose and I like that.
If you need help with planning your kitchen space, please do not hesitate to contact me, I am here to help. Ciao,
Valentina
www.Valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2012 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

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Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe. She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn unattractive spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms and entertainment rooms. Valentina is also the author of two published books on Italian regional cuisine. Her books are available on 

Amazon: http://goo.gl/xUZfk0
Barnes&Nobles: http://goo.gl/q7dQ3w

 

 

The Art Of Dainties | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

This year for Christmas Eve I will have adults only at my table celebrating the passage into the new light, it will be one of the few times in my life I will not make a sit down dinner. I will prepare an array of fanciful small dainties to be served in various area of my great room.

Putting dainties together will be just like choosing colors and textures for dressing up. It is important to find the right balance of colors and flavors. Need not to have too much salty food, nor too much food of the same kind of textures, protein, vegetable, starches and sweets must be equally distributed and in between palate cleansers are a real treat to put all the taste buds back in place.

 

Caviar with a variety of crackers and breads will be the opening, accompanied by smoked salmon with capers and sparkling wines.
A large size tray of endive, raw celery and fennel will be a good match with cheeses and will be good to help digesting dairy products.
The highlight of my cheese tray will be the Tête de Moine and the Dubliner, which I recently discovered from one of my dearest friend.
Last summer I made sun-dried tomatoes in my garden, preserved in olive oil, capers, garlic and fennel seed. I will put them next to the cheeses, olives and Italian prosciutto, they are so good on crostini with one of my spreadable cheeses. (Photo Tête de Moine from: Wikimedia)

Tête de Moine

My Italian tradition calls for fried salted cod for Christmas Eve. It is one type of food that never makes it to the table, fried cod is absolutely good piping hot right out of the fryer.
As we say in Italian “cotto e mangiato” cooked and eaten at once; scorching of the palate and fingers are allowed. I own an Italian made fryer equipped with a charcoal filter and a turning tumble canister that makes fried food so light, clean and no fried food smell in the kitchen. I don’t eat fry food during the year, but  when I have people over is so fun to eat something different and allow myself to go out of my own strict rules. Besides, my friend will polish everything, I am lucky if I get to taste one or two pieces of fried cod.

Savarin MoldI will cook the rice with wild mushrooms in small individual Savarin molds (photo on the right), perfect to create the effect of a large ring when they are turned over in the plate. I will decorate the center hole with some arugula leaves. (From: https://www.fantes.com)

Mussels cooked in garlic, fennel and wine will be in a large bowl for a grand effect. Some of my friends have never eaten mussels this way, they will have a good opportunity to try some brassiere food.

 

 

I fancy stuffed grilled eggplants rolled in small packages hiding a surprise mixture of meat, spinach, beaten egg and a small spoon of Parmigiano as a binder. I am thinking, since I have the grill going, I will put on some asparagus and colored peppers too, my friends will not mind.

Stuffed and Grilled Eggplants ©Valentina Cirasola

I will make the zabaione cream myself and my friend will watch. It seems as if many of them tonight will be in a cooking class involuntarily, but it will be much fun to cook together than preparing it all by myself.
I will conclude my food spread  with dried nuts, fresh fruit, panettone an Italian Christmas cake and more sparkling wines.

 

It will be simple home cooking and it will take the whole night.
Many of these recipes are in my books, some of my friends will have a taste for the first time, but many of them  are so happy to share my Puglia food with me again.
I am going to start the preparation and welcome everyone with a glass of prosecco.

The night is young and we need to reach midnight doing something fun, laughing, making jokes, telling stories and playing with food.  Some of my friends are not into cooking, they will have easy tasks, as I don’t want to risk a food mistake just tonight on Christmas Eve and some will pour all night.

I hope you are having fun too.

We will welcome the new light in the world and celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Merry Christmas, peace in the world. Ciao,
Valentina

www.Valentinadesigns.com  

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

QueenValentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She especially loves to design all those rooms with a “make me feel good” tag attached, such as kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms and entertainment rooms. She is a public speaker and a mentor. She is also the author of two Italian regional cuisine books, available here in this site on the Books page and on:
Amazon: http://goo.gl/xUZfk0
Barnes&Nobles: http://goo.gl/q7dQ3w

 

When In Rome…. | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

 

People seem to think that Italy being an artistic country is also a free spirit nation. This might be true to a certain extent, but underneath a layer of free spirit living there are a few rules that you might want to learn before embarking in a trip to Italy. One of the most important elements in Italian life is food, being seated at a dining table with the locals is one of the things you want to learn, not because your way of eating is wrong, but it is better to blend in when in a foreign country. “When in Rome do as the Romans” will only make your life easier. (Photo left: http://theitaliantaste.com/art-receiving/apparecchiare/setting-the-table.php)

In the English language the word table remains table, but in Italian language the table has two genders. It takes a masculine gender “Il Tavolo” when Italians use it for various tasks, such as paying bills, schoolwork, or discuss things. It takes a feminine gender “La Tavola” when Italians eat at the table.

This means that the table is always dressed for dinner, like a woman invited out to dinner. Just as the Italian woman gets dressed with class and very little fuss, a simple jewelry over a stunning mise,  or vice versa expensive shoes/accessories with a simple dress, so does the table. Italian table is all about elegance and simplicity. Home décor, table setting, fashion and all the aspects of Italian expressions follow the classic order and classic elegance found in Italian architecture .

Italian table setting is elegant in its characteristic way, no fussy decorations, only the essentials. Food takes the stage, because is the element that will make us feel good. Atmosphere and ambience contribute to our feeling good, but food gives us expectation.

Dressing The Table
A tablecloth is the first thing that goes on and it is not just for the holidays. Italians eat with tablecloth and fabric napkins every day of the week. It’s about respect for food and for themselves. Holidays deserve a more expensive tablecloth. Napkins are generally the same color of the tablecloth, but you might want to take the color of the dishes as an inspiration to match napkins.

Setting places is easy, there are only two plates in front of each guest: a shallow plate goes on the bottom and a large bowl goes on top, usually the two dishes are of the same colors, but this is not a rule. The bottom plate can be colored and the top plate hand painted, or in a contrasting colors. There is a new trend to add a charger plate underneath all, but only for special occasions and I must say this is custom monkeyed from foreign countries.

Silverware are kept at a minimum: two forks on the left of the same size, spoon and knife on the right, smaller fork or smaller spoon in front of the plates for dessert. Smaller forks are not used for salads, only dessert. To the right of the plates, we place two glassware, one for water and the other for wine whichever it might be, if you see a third glass is because the wine will change during the dinner.

In the middle of the table there is no decoration, but you might see a small low flower arrangement to allow guests to converse from across the table, or a couple of candles on each end of the table. (Photo Credit: Simon Brown/moodboard/Corbis)

In the center of the table there is only a water carafe, or a bottle of mineral water, a wine bottle and breadbasket.

In the middle of the table there is no food either. Each plate comes filled from the kitchen and nobody will pass dishes around at the table.  Italians do not fill one plate with the entire dinner, we like to keep flavors separate in separate dishes, thus when we change  courses, we change plates.

No bread and butter dish and no saucer with olive oil and balsamic vinegar will ever be seen on an Italian table. Between courses, while we are waiting for the next dish, we entertain ourselves with raw fennel to help the digestion. Dipping bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar is never been an Italian custom. There is no salt and pepper shaker either, the cook of the family knows how to balance flavors. Try not to ask for one and avoid offending the cook.

The hosts, or the older persons of the family, usually grandparents sit at both ends of the table and the most important guests sit on their right side.

Time For An Apéritif
Now the table is set, let’s go for an apéritif. On Sunday and holidays, before lunch or dinner, Italian treats themselves with an apéritif. Aperitif usually happens an hour before the meal starts. It is a moment to get acquainted with guests who don’t know each other, or to catch up with people we know and haven’t seen for a while. It is also a transition time to allow food to cook to perfection and to finish up the table with the last touch. Aperitif consists of a variety of appetizers, almost like tapas in Spain, served with a sparkling wine, prosecco or champagne. Often on Sunday, Italians go to downtown coffee shops to have an apéritif in style and meet some friends before lunch.

Succession Of Courses
It starts, after the apéritif time is over. Courses come marching in the dining room from the kitchen and take place in front of each guest. Italian portions are small. The first dish is always a plate of pasta or “risotto” and this is our entrée. No more than 2 or 2-1/2 oz. of pasta per person, plus condiments, it makes a satisfying dish light in calories. The pasta docer or scales are our gauges.  (Photo pasta servings – https://tragerlaw.biz/pasta_serving_size.html)

Second plate consists of meat or fish with two or three vegetables. One of the vegetables might be a salad, otherwise salad  goes in between courses as a palate cleanser.  The only condiment used on salads is olive oil and lemon or balsamic vinegar. Salad dressing, just as butter on bread does not exist in the Mediterranean diet.

A fish specialty is de-boned in the kitchen and brought to the table cleaned, otherwise shell-fish or mollusks will be served in a soup, over rice or pasta, or baked, in which cases no cheese will ever be required. I say this because I often spot someone in restaurants asking for cheese over pasta with seafood. You want to smell and taste the aroma of the sea and not the dairy. After serving a fish specialty, it is very proper to pass a warm towel to let the guests refresh their hands, just as airlines do.

In Italy to cut food with the proper gesture is very important. The fork is kept in the left hand and knife on the right. Fork never changes hand to bring the bite to the mouth. At the end, when the plate is empty, crisscross the silverware in the plate to indicate that you have finished. The space you occupy when eating with fork and knife is only the space your body occupies, your arm shouldn’t go out of your space to touch the guests sitting next to you. During dinner, let’s say you are eating a soup, the hand that is not using any silverware  show rest on the table not on your lap. You don’t want to give the impression to have something to hide.

What To Avoid
I know by now how much you are enjoying eating Italian food, but it is important to pace yourself.  Finishing before the other guests, means you have enjoyed food so much that encourages the host to fill up your plate again. See what other people are doing, go at their speed and finish at the same time. In restaurant is OK to finish first; restaurants will never serve you the same dish twice unless you are ready to pay twice.

“Scarpetta”: it is not OK to clean the plate with a piece of bread in your hand. In restaurant is definitively a bad custom, just as much if you are a guest in someone’s home. In a family home is OK to attach a piece of bread to the fork and go around the plate one time.

You might want to keep a couple of rules in mind:
1. when pouring wines or water, the bottle should point forward into the glass, never you should pour with your hand tilted backwards. It is not elegant and actually Italians see it as an offensive gesture. If you are in an Italian restaurant where wine is poured backwards, for sure you have landed in a non-authentic Italian restaurant;
2. if you need to leave the table for any reason, put the napkin on the table and not on the chair, that is also considered offensive.

The End Of  Dinner

After the salad, we give the stomach time to settle down with “pinzimonio”, which is a combination of raw vegetables to dip in olive oil,  salt and pepper.
This interlude will give time to prepare the end of the dinner with an array of cheeses paired with dry nuts and lot of fresh fruit.

Italian meals end with desserts, cakes, or ice cream followed with espresso coffee, digestive drinks or some type of alcohol, but never latte, cappuccino, latte macchiato, or similar drinks with milk in it. Digestive drinks have the property of cleansing and detoxifying, help digestion, eliminate toxins and at times help with reflux problems.  Natural herbs, roots, tree barks and spices, infused in a base of alcohol are the magic of all digestives. Latte or cappuccino after you have ingested a meal full of oils, wines or citrus condiments will only help the fermentation in the stomach and create a reflux.

If you are a traveler in Italy, you don’t have to worry about ordering a 3 – 4 course meal any more as it was in the past, restaurateurs understand that foreigners eat in a different way. Eat what you like, in the order you like and please know that “pane e coperto” is a surcharge for tablecloth and bread, always present on the bill. Often when the tip is included in the bill you don’t have to pay a 15%. Ask the waiter, if the bill is not clear, but don’t forget to ask for a receipt. Outside the restaurant one of the “guardia di finanza” might stop you to ask for a receipt and you could be fined if you can’t produce one.

I hope this information has been helpful.  As the professional who is always ready, I shall be prompt and ready to help you with any of your needs, whether it will be decorating, designing, remodeling, or designing your “mise en place” Italian style. Ciao,
Valentina
www.Valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe. She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn unattractive spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms and entertainment rooms. She is the author of two Italian regional cuisine books available here on the Books page and in various other locations: 

http://outskirtspress.com/ComeMiaNonna

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnq8baaAq0M

http://outskirtspress.com/SinsOfAQueen


The Plate In The Middle | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

A few years ago, I was in Kyoto, Japan sitting in a restaurant with my friends and their friends to whom I got introduced in that moment. One of these new friends, a tall Japanese guy, wanted to welcome me, a blonde, blue eyes western woman visiting his country by showing me his appreciation with a special gesture. After a while we were sitting together enjoying each other company, the tall Japanese guy started to eat from my bowl of soup, truly surprising the rest of the company with this gesture.

Perhaps his behavior was too exuberant for being Japanese, or perhaps he really meant it. Later, my friends told me that his gesture was a sign of wanting to consolidate a new friendship, a creation of a tight bond that would last through the years.
(Above photo: One of my plates hand-painted in Italy – artist unknown).

Eating in someone’s plate in Japan means loyalty, trust, respect and it is an honor. That was his way of showing these feelings to me.
I really liked that very much. Never thought I was going to receive such a friendly treatment.

That moment brought me back in time when in Italy, my native country, people used to eat all together from a plate placed in the middle of the table. In every corner of the world, people do the same things, just like home, I thought.

Again, a few days ago, I was in a restaurant on American soil and a large plate of spaghetti was propped in the middle of the table to share with everyone in my party. These days, when I sit at a restaurant, sharing my dishes with the person I brought along is not always possible. Often, I go out with people I conduct business and it doesn’t seem right to share food in a friendly matter.
I am wondering though if this custom of sharing dishes is happening because so many cultures are living together, and we want to try everybody’s food, or because we feel the need to get closer to people.

As I said earlier this is not a new costume to me at all. I remember the painted large dish at the center of the table in my grandmother’s house and in all the families in the town of Italy where she lived. The plate was a simple hand-painted, huge size for hosting a large quantity of food for the entire family, mom, dad, all the kids, and the grandparents. Back then seniors lived in the family until their time on this earth expired.

The table setting was quite interesting. The hand-painted dish always took the middle of the table and it was filled with lunch or dinner food.
Each person had a fork, a wine glass, bread was sliced as needed and knives were placed loosely on the table for whoever needed them.
Everybody sat around the table and waited for the head of the family to sit as well. For the respect of that person, generally was the oldest person in the family, nobody would start eating until the person started first.

After the head of the family sat and dug the fork to get the first bite from the plate in the middle of the table, everybody dug in and ate from the same plate.
The last bite was reserved for the head of the family as well. Incredible, you might say and yet, I have lived in such an ancient society, even though I am not that old!

This seems unreal, almost a scene from a Medieval Shakespearean comedy, but less than 50 years ago this was a common scene in the South of Italy where I grew up. Everyday people, perhaps to brighten their days, ate in hand-painted, colorful dishware they bought at the street market. Nobles and wealthy people ate off of “chic white porcelain plates”.

Today modern Italians do not use hand-painted ceramic plates anymore for everyday use, nor for holidays either. They might hang them on kitchen walls for decorations, or they might place one small dish on a coffee table.
Italians just are not in love with such a beautiful antique art anymore. They love modern style, sleek, straight lines, no curlicues, and no fussy designs. The reason behind this is that Italians live and breathe antiquity every day.
In some cases, they live just across from famous buildings, statues, famous fountains, stairs, or Cathedrals and Corinthian capitals. All of that beauty is part of their everyday landscape, it is part of their lives. It’s just routine!

There are still many factories making hand-painted ceramics, but they are sold mostly to tourists. Tourists bring back to their countries the beauty of Italy. They find very chic eating off hand-painted Italian plates from Tuscany, Umbria, Puglia, and other regions.

Although Italians are very social people, convivial and relaxed around food, they also have distanced themselves from the custom of sharing food from the same plate. Here in America, very surprisingly, I am finding this costume back into my life and I do not know how to take it, I don’t know if I like it or not.

(Photo: https://www.pinterest.com/italianceramics/tile-murals-hand-painted-from-vietri)

I am thinking this is history repeating itself.

I am treasuring my hand-painted ceramics, as a matter of fact, every time I return from Italy, I hand carry in the plane a few hand-painted ceramic pieces.
I want a cheerful table whether I have a company or not, I want to surround myself with the beauty of my country and enjoy the colors of my heritage.

If you need help in locating a special hand-painted tabletop, or a custom-made backsplash for the kitchen, some specific plates patterns, I am here prompt and ready to help you with any of your needs, whether it will be decorating, designing, or remodeling. Ciao,
Valentina
www.Valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe.
She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn unattractive spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms, and entertainment rooms. 
She is the author of two regional Italian cuisine books, available here in this site on the Books page and in various other locations:
http://outskirtspress.com/ComeMiaNonna
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnq8baaAq0M
http://outskirtspress.com/SinsOfAQueen

Is There A Trick in Fennel And Wine? | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

My grandfather was a landowner, he cultivated some of his lands for vegetables and fruit and some as a vineyard.
He exported part of his wine production to France to blend with French wines; he sold the rest locally and kept some for his own consumption.
There was a trick to his wine drinking, an ancient ritual that belonged to every seasoned man in Puglia before drinking red wine.

I am not really sure who invented it, even though I call it my grandfather’s wine trick.
There were a few steps to follow for the trick to work well. First, there was a selection of a perfect fennel stalk. The men blew a few times into the hole of the stalk to make sure there was enough suction through the hole.
After that,  with a knife, they filed down sharp edges of the fennel stalk to make it into a perfect straw device.
When everything was to their satisfaction, they set under the portico, at the rustic table with the clay jug of red wine always on the floor by their feet, ready to enjoy the hot Summer breeze and the tasty meal their women had prepared.

This ritual is still found in Puglia, where some wines are so strong they can be cut with a scissor.  Putting a fennel stalk to soak in the wine jug will change the flavor of the wine, but if we just want to lighten the flavor of the wine and make it slightly sweet, we put a fennel stalk in the wine glass and drink out of the stalk as if it was a straw. The taste of the wine passing through the fennel stalk is so incredibly different and refreshing!

Of course, this practice is good for house wine, or for not very expensive wine, please don’t do this to a $500.00 wine.

After the perfect straw was made, the bulb and the green fronds were kept for cooking. 

Fennell belongs in the family of carrot, coriander, dill, parsley, and celery, all falling under the Umbelliferous plants, which are those plants with hollow stems and clusters of flowers coming out of the same stalk. Fennell bulb is a good source of water, good to eat while playing any sports under the sun. Excellent source of vitamin C as antioxidant and fiber to help reduce high cholesterol and toxins from the colon. It also contains potassium, a precious mineral that helps lower high blood pressure.

As a versatile vegetable, it is found in the cooking of most countries in the Mediterranean basin mixed in salads or cooked with lamb or mussels. Fennell baked or grilled with cheese becomes a super pasta dish or a delicious sandwich.
The green leaves are edible; they are very good with eggs or egg frittata.  However you like to cook fennel, it will be a surprisingly good dish.

(Photo right found on: http://fitlife.tv/benefits-juicing-fennel)

This is an excerpt from my book ©Come Mia Nonna – A Return To Simplicity.

Barnes & Noble

Fennell has been around since ancient Greece and Rome, revered for its medicinal and culinary properties. Greek mythology holds interesting beliefs and stories.  The Gods at the Olympus brought knowledge to people in a fennel stalk. Good, I know that’s a myth, but perhaps all the healthy properties of the fennel have an impact on the health of the brain in retaining knowledge.

In the hot Pugliese Summers, every trick to cool the bodies down is a good trick! It always fascinated me to watch men going through the ritual of finding a good fennel stalk.

Now, the ritual continues with me. The guests at my table are always surprised and puzzled about why I do that, but they do enjoy the ritual and enjoy listening to the stories of my traditions,  as far as liking the fennel, people who don’t come from the Mediterranean basin have a difficult time accepting its flavor.
This article has been seen on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine by Sally Cronin.

Ciao,
Valentina
www.Valentinadesigns.com

 

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

 

Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking.
She operates in the USA and Europe. She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn ugly spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms, and entertainment rooms.
She is the author of two published Italian regional cuisine books available here in this site on the Books page and in various locations:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnq8baaAq0M

Amazon and Barnes&Noble

 

 

Flavoured Olives | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

In my last blog, I wrote that olives picked directly from the tree must be cured first, otherwise they are totally not eatable.  Curing and flavoring olives is an ancient culinary art, which we are rediscovering as today we are more in tune with the earth and healthy living.

I can think of five or six methods of flavoring olives, mostly from the memories of my grandmother’s kitchen. I use these methods for my enjoyment and for holiday gifts I prepare from my kitchen. My friends’ faces lit up like Christmas tree when they receive such a gift.
To make it fun, I will list only some of the easiest procedures, but you can always contact me, if you like to know more.

Baked Black Olives
Get black olives freshly picked and not cured. Place the olives in a glass bowl, cover them with cooking salt over night. The next day clean the salt away with a cloth, place them on a baking sheet and bake for about an hour at 248°-230°F. until crinkled and dried. Cool down, add a few garlic cloves finely sliced, orange or tangerine peel finely sliced and a hand full of fennel seeds. Mix well, fill a glass jar with the baked olives and after 4-5 days of marinating in the spices the olives are ready to eat.

White Olives In Olive Oil
The large and fleshy green olives are also called white olives due to the bright color they pick up if they have been curing, but no need to cure them for this flavoring method. Take the pit out, wash under current water and leave them in a clean water for a couple of days. Change water every so often until the bitter taste is gone. Dry them with a cloth. Place the olives in a glass jars, add salt, oregano, chili pepper to your liking and cover with extra-virgin olive oil, cap the jar tight. After a couple of months they are ready to eat.

Black Olives Under Salt
Use freshly picked black olives, clean them with a cloth. Place all the olives in a large glass bowl, add a good amount of coarse salt to coat well, orange peels without the white flesh, wild fennel fronds and a few garlic cloves mashed up.  Keep them like that for about three days, but turn them over every so often. The olives will exude some water, drain it a couple of times a day, otherwise if the olives rest in that water, will not lose the bitter taste. After three days and after the water doesn’t come out anymore, place olives in a cloth and dry well. Eliminate orange peels, fennel fronds and garlic. Put the olives in a glass jars, fill with extra-virgin olive oil and close tight with a lid. They are ready to eat after one week and will keep for three months.

Time to harvest olives goes from late August to November, there is plenty time to cure or flavor them, or both and enjoy all that bounty for the holidays with aperitif and appetizers.
Tonight on my table there will be celery stalks filled with creamy Gorgonzola cheese, charred green peppers, red wine, a small piece of focaccia and an abundance of olives.

I shall be here to answer any questions you might have. Ciao,
Valentina
http://www.Valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved


Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe. She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn unattractive spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms and  entertainment rooms. She is a published  author of two Italian regional cuisine books, available here on the Books Page and
©Come Mia Nonna – A Return To Simplicity
©Sins Of A Queen
Amazon: http://goo.gl/xUZfk0
Barnes&Nobles: http://goo.gl/q7dQ3w



Centuries Old Mediterranean Diet | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

As the economy has turned considerably sour, there has been some serious thinking going on in people’s minds and many have really shifted their thinking about what is really important and what matters to them.

(Click on each photo to view it larger).

As a designer I have seen lot of kitchens being remodeled and rooms around the kitchen, family room, great room, dining room and even wine cellar to assure more comfort while we are staying at home. I have noticed that people are not eating out as much, but cooking and eating at home, making a meal together has become a social activity and planting food in the backyard to get more natural healthy food seems a new necessity.  Suddenly family, friends and times we share have taken center stage in people’s life.

I read that at the Harokopio University in Greece, researchers examined 50 published studies and more than half a million people who went under test and found that those who followed a traditional Mediterranean diet had a less risk of developing the metabolic syndrome which is the combination of conditions that increases the chances of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Mediterranean diet is made of all those foods the industry of “loosing weight” tells us not to eat: carbohydrate in general, grains, sugar, chocolates, wines, even fruit and so on. Have they realized that our body needs all the elements of the nutrition, oils, fat, carbohydrate, cheese, meat, salt, sugar and so on?
The key of the Mediterranean diet is quantity and portions, not elimination of one or more nutrients.

For example 2 oz. of pasta per person once a week, as I mentioned in both of my books, is not a tragedy, but a huge plate of pasta with all the condiments, the toppings and the cheese is. Butter, another example. Anything cooked in butter tastes luscious, but if we substitute it with olive oil, even when making cakes and sweets, we get the antioxidant from the olives and the monounsaturated fat, which is very good for the heart. On that note, eat olives as much as you can, any time of the day and all types, use olive oil on your skin anytime you can, you will see that your skin will turn soft and supple very soon. My grandfather used olive oil on his hair, they turned white, but he had a voluminous and thick hair until the last moment.

In the Mediterranean diet all meals end with fruit and not with sweets. If there is no more room in the stomach for a piece of fruit at the end of the meal, then it would be best to eat it before the meal. Fruit plays a major role in detoxifying the system, supplying a great deal of energy for activities of everyday life and especially when people are in the process of loosing weight.

The consumption of food variety in the Mediterranean diet evolves in the following fashion:
A. Daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, and low-fat dairy products, meaning all the cheeses containing water, such as fresh mozzarella sold in water, fresh ricotta, robiola, taleggio and chèvre cheeses, just to mention a few;
B. Weekly consumption of fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes;
C. Red meat intake is kept to a minimum, a couple of times a week;
D. A moderate daily consumption of wine or other alcoholic beverages, always with meals.

Do not overlook all the legumes, they contain all the proteins the meat has without the animal fat. In my second book ©Sins Of A Queen I touch on this subject:
“All beans contain oligosaccharides sugar (simple sugar found in carbohydrate) that the human body cannot process. The lining of the small intestine cannot break down and absorbed the large molecule of oligosaccharides, because the body does not produce the enzyme that breaks them down. Many people have problems when eating beans. Adding a hand full of bay leaves to the beans during cooking helps the digestion immensely”.

In my first book “ ©Come Mia Nonna – A Return To Simplicity, I talk about the value of some overlooked vegetables:
“Spring onions are energetic.
Celery is diuretic. It is also good dipped in red wine.
Chicory, or dandelion is diuretic, tonic, a cleansing and a laxative.
Artichoke reinforces the liver and prevents diseases of the liver.
Fennel is much used in pharmaceutical industry as an aromatic substance and is a good source of water.
Lettuce is calming.
Radishes is stimulating, modest in nourishing value, but rich in vitamin C.
No wonder we eat so much of all this! “

Eat and drink purple things anytime you can. Red wine, concord grapes, blueberries, eggplant, purple cabbage, purple cauliflower. That deep rich color come from polyphenols-compounds (antioxidant), which reduce heart disease risk and may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research.

Our ancestors did not know sodas. Skip soda, even the diet type. Scientists recently found that the caramel color added to cola drinks might double the risk of metabolic syndrome (combination of conditions that increase your chances of heart disease, stroke and diabetes), just by drinking one or more regular or diet sodas every day. Furthermore, the sweet fizzy flavor of sodas sends a message to the brain that sweet stuff is good and conditions it to crave more sugary foods, which can lead to weight gain.
If you need a boost of energy during the day, eat fruit.

Drink water, 
an essential element for all healthy body functions. Please don’t drink water stored in plastic bottles, but choose filtered water through activated charcoal, which removes the impurities and leaves the water-soluble minerals.
In the Mediterranean diet, at the end of the meal, we drink warm water,  warm tea or coffee and even warm liqueurs. The warm liquids help dissolve oils and fat ingested during eating, while cold water will solidify the oils in the food leaving those particles attached to the walls of the intestines. Not good at all.

Eating five small meals a day is less stressing on the digestive system. It is easier to process small amount of food instead of large meals; smaller amounts of food deliver a steady stream of nutrients, blood sugar, and energy to our body throughout the day. Eating this way also reduces the risk of heart disease.

It takes 21 to 30 days of repetitive behavior to form a new pattern in the brain. Once the pattern is formed, it becomes an automatic behavioral response. While developing new healthy habits, the good habits will replace bad ones. Stay on track with healthier food, adopt the Mediterranean food to reduce the risk of obesity and cholesterol, eat everything in moderation, have a glass of Pinot with your meal every day and don’t worry about anything else. Above all laugh anytime you can, start to love your body and put your wellbeing, happiness self confidence in the center of your life. Ciao,
Valentina
www.Valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

Author of two regional Italian cuisine books. They are both about the Mediterranean diet, both available on the Books page here in this site.
Come Mia Nonna–A Return to Simplicity
Sins Of A Queen – Italian Appetizers and Desserts
http://outskirtspress.com/ComeMiaNonna
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnq8baaAq0M
http://outskirtspress.com/SinsOfAQueen

Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe.  She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn ugly spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos.

Planting Food, Beauty And Relax | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

Yesterday was a beautiful March day, I wanted to take advantage of the sun, the warm day and my good disposition. It was the right time to think of planting seed for new food. In many European countries is still snowing in March and is the same in Italy, but here in California, in the climate zone 7 and 8, March is the perfect month to plant. My family in Italy is getting jealous!

March is the right time to start feeding houseplants again and repot when necessary. Get the soil tested if you are planning to do some serious food and fruit trees planting. This is the month to start seeds indoor, prune trees and shrubs and get all the garden tools ready for your Spring planting. If you have wet soil in the garden, it is better not to walk on it, use stepping-stones. In my garden, I have many rows of them around plants and vegetation, they are  decorative and don’t get your feet wet or dirty.

I started with Turbo onions, which is a lovely round onion that stores well and the Red Baron red onion, strong-tasting which produces a heavy crop.
I planted shallots, a more delicate onion, which I use more for fish dishes and some other delicate dishes. I want some asparagus and started some crops indoor, such as aubergines the kind called Diamond, originated in the Ukraine. It crops relatively quickly from a sowing in March.

Started cauliflowers, cabbage and tomatoes. Tomato seeds also do well indoor. I got the gartenperle type, small, cherry size, sweet and tasty, grow in beautiful colors as pink-red, deep ruby-red, pink to rosy red. They are great for containers and even hanging baskets. I make a lot of fast and delicate sauces with them. Tomatoes are always a big surprise, they either come out in overwhelming large quantity, or nothing at all.

In mid March plant some early potatoes if the weather where you are permits it, I will.

I bought a few packets of mixed salad-leaf seeds, can’t do without salad in my garden, it’s so easy to grow and need not much care. Put a few seeds on to the surface of your compost and don’t cover them with a thick layer, they need to breathe.

Towards the end of March when the soil has warmed up, I will want to plant some climbing French beans. I have already prepared the soil and placed cane poles in place. Later I will make two holes at the base of each pole and a couple of seeds per hole. Then, I need to be patient.

Between my food I also plant some beauty. Some begonias, dahlias, dusty miller, geraniums, impatiens, marguerite daisies, marigolds, all annuals to beautify my crop.

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

While thinking of food crop, I was also thinking of cooking in the garden. I made a very simple outdoor cookery device out of a clay pot and bricks.
No cement or mortar, the bricks are just laid one on top of the other in a circle, the clay pot sits inside of the circle. Inside of the pot more bricks form a flat surface for the wood chips and a grill sits on top of them. Food will be placed on the grill. A clay cover with a whole in the center to allow the steam to escape will keep the food cooking for long time.

This is slow food at its best and I am prepared for relaxing weekends, a good time for writing more books and more blogs, or having some friends over.
I really don’t care what goes into my car, but I really care what I put in my stomach.
Please leave a comment below, I can help you with any of your design challenges, including landscape too. I now offer design consultations on-line and without going outside my office I can create an “outdoor room”  for you, or the most beautiful space of your dream.  Ask me for details. Ciao,
Valentina
www.Valentinadesigns.com

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

Valentina Cirasola has been in business as a designer since 1990. She has helped a variegated group of fun people realizing their dreams with homes, offices, interiors and exteriors. She designs artistic landscape as a complement to the residential design concept as a unity. Author of three books available on:
Amazon: http://goo.gl/xUZfk0
Barnes&Nobles: http://goo.gl/q7dQ3w

 


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