Chef Aly’s Inspired Palate

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IMG_9063Wine Not A Week Of Wine?

April 1, 2016

With little time to write nearing the end of Cook The Farm, I realize I am quite behind in keeping up with my posts, so as I write I sit in the Rome train station, sipping an espresso and having a pastry while I wait for my train to Venezia. Andiamo a vino!

So what exactly makes Sicilian wine so special? Let’s begin with the definition of viticulture, as it it important to understand when getting more technical with wines.

Viticulture (from the Latin word for vine) is the science, production, and study of grapes. It deals with the series of events that occur in the vineyard. When the grapes are used for winemaking, it is also known as viniculture. It is a branch of the science of horticulture.

The viticulture of Sicily is very historical because being the largest Italian island, it is full of history and colonization. Marsala started the importance of viticulture here because Sicily was famous for the structure of the wine. The fame came from the difference of the wine and rather not the quality. Marsala wine was developed by a wealthy british merchant John Woodhouse in the later 1700’s. Woodhouse took interest in this wine because it would withstand long voyages at sea. Later in the early 1800’s Vincenzo Florio became the first Italian producer of Marsala and opened a winery in the small town of Marsala in western Sicily. On our study trip throughout Sicily we had a chance to visit the Florio winery and taste four very different Marsala’s paired with bites to eat. Here I picked up two bottles of Marsala to take home with me, which have contributed to my need to purchase another suitcase while being here! I now have more souvenirs and goods than necessities, what’s a chef to do?

Going back to the details of what makes Sicilian wines so special. Mount Etna is the most important European volcano, the soil on Etna is incredibly fertile and creates an ideal place for a variety of agriculture. Of course, one being grapes. This rich soil allows for wines that to me, as an American are incredibly different. These wines play on the palate, they are bold and seductive with such intense tastes of the land they come from.

We had three winemakers come to share their stories, and of course have tastings of their wines. The first was Laura Orsi, who is Regaleali’s own enologist. We tasted the Tasca wines with her, which we had already been drinking with meals since our arrival. Next was Salvo Foti, who produces natural wines from his vineyards on Mount Etna just outside of Catania. Salvo’s wines were the most interesting to me, they excited me, and pulled out a ew sense of creativity of flavor that now resides forever in my brain. So much so that I plan to create a several course menu to be paired with his wines. They are astonishing and fascinating, at first almost off putting due to the difference in complexity, but quickly evolving into a myriad of brilliant flavors that come together. Lastly was Ariana Occhipinti, also a producer of natural wines, Ariana is only thirty-three years old, and already has ten years of experience making wine. She built her company from soil to vine, cultivating her own future. It is inspiring to see a woman so successful at such a young age. She produces all these wonderful wines in a man made world and profession, and thus she is an enigma. She stands strong, stands out in her profession, and continues to reach even farther pushing herself to meet her goals of building her business. In Sicily this is quite an accomplishment, unfortunately for the youth of Sicily the future is bleak for many as jobs are not readily available to most and opportunity is slim. Ariana’s vineyards are in Vittoria, which is a province of Ragusa. The flat fertile grounds at the base of Mount Iblei are ideal for growing Ariana’s prized Frappato and Nero D’Avola grape varietals which boast the clean flavors of Sicily reflected in her wines. Arianna surprised us with a special “Cook The Farm” wine she created just for us, what a treat!!

We had a lecture with Corrado Maurigi who also works for Tasca, and does winery tours for visitors. Corrado is so passionate about what he does, he brings so much life to the wine stemming from vine to bottle. Corrado explained the process of making wine, and stressed the importance of having a clean, fresh product in order to have a result of quality rather than quantity. The grapes have to be healthy and handpicked, we have to understand that everything tasted in the final dish is a regional taste, there is no room for error in wine making because there is only so much yield. Later in the week we had a walk with Corrado through the vineyards where he explained the history of the vineyards at Regaleali, and taught us how to prune the vines. What an adventure that was, trekking through the property in our muddy rain boots and obtaining the occasional pebble or five in each shoe along the way. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to watch Corrado work with skill and care.

Finally, there was the best day, the day in which we tasted sixteen different wines, yes, sixteen…in one day…dreams coming true here! Sandro Sangiorgi an expert gastronome came to taste and teach about the way that wine flows through the palate. He explained that our personal taste is not fixed or static, it moves, changes and evolves over time and we must train our personal tastes. We can look at something we used to enjoy as nostalgia, but understand the importance of an elevated palate. However, it doesn’t mean that a good wine is an expensive wine. He said, the biggest mistake over the years has been a detachment of the relationship between people and wine. The wine gets away from you when becoming too selective. The more we ask why the more the greatness of wine is pushed away from us. Forget all the pre judgments and be open minded, live in the present. He speaks about wine when he says this, however, in life this remains for me as a wonderful lesson to be learned. There is a sincere importance in living in the moment, freeing yourself from boundaries and expectations and letting life, precious life flow through your veins, invigorating you with it’s pure energy. Indulge in the freedom and the wine of course.

Wine summarizes all the positive aspects of a certain year. Even a vintage wine, it has a relation between the abundance or the lack of. We have to think that this year this is how the wine came out. Instead of trying to fix it, you accept it for what it is and accept that it has become this due to the way the year went. A natural wine is not filtered and has it’s own sediments. It is not clean. Relating wine to human beings again this applies. None of us are perfect, we are natural wines, raw, unfiltered and crude awaiting change and refinement through time until we blossom into our peak.

Remember, just drink the wine and forget about where it comes from, this is similar to being open-minded. Remember this link that nature gives to you a way to transform your perception of wine, and perhaps even yourself.

Sicilian wines in my opinion are anything but ordinary. They are wild, free and untamable. The arouse a kind of seduction and passion into the palate. They can be anywhere from light and floral with hints of citrus, pistachio and almonds to aggressive and animalistic, with sharp grassy tones. In truth they have clean fresh tastes, which allows for a kind of smooth elegance that leaves much left to be desired by many competitors. Next time you go to the store or restaurant, I encourage you to take a walk on the wild side and try a Sicilian wine, enjoy the adventure of something new and unexpected.

All the Sicilian wines I tasted are available in the USA via distributors, below are the links:

Ariana Occhipinti, Occhipinti, Vittoria, Sicily
http://www.agricolaocchipinti.it/en/

Salvo Foti, I Vignieri, Mount Etna, Sicily
http://www.ivigneri.it/territorio.php?language=en

Tasca D’Almerita, Regaleali Sicily
http://tascadalmerita.it/en/

All of these wines can be found in the USA on this website:
http://www.wine-searcher.com

***Unfortunately I am currently unable to add more than a photo or two at this time due to SLOW Italian internet issues. I will add photos when I return to the states shortly.

 

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Fat is Flavor!

February 15, 2016

Week three was full of fascinating information! We learned how to prune olive trees, tasted good and bad olive oils, had a fascinating demonstration of butchery, ate a delicious Sicilian style barbeque, and ended the week with a visit to Piazza Armerina to see the oldest Greek Ruins.

The highlight of the week for me was having Agostino and Luisa Ninone come and teach us about the Suino Nero that they raise. Suino Nero is Sicily’s black pig, which feeds specifically on acorns in the Nebrodi mountains. These pigs are free range, on a large piece of land, live happy stress free lives in their natural environments. Even up to the time of slaughter, they are treated with the utmost care and consideration. Stressed out animals do not make for good meat, and this is something that the Ninone’s are very passionate about. There is a deep respect and understanding for the value of these animals, not a single scrap of their meat is wasted, whether it be used for sausages, salami, prosciutto, capicola etc, it is all important. Luisa carefully demonstrated this for us during our butchery lesson, she broke down half of one of her pigs, explaining along the way what each piece would be used for, taking special care to lay each part of the pig in an organized manner. This is an art that she and her husband have really crafted, and turned into a valuable way for them to support their family. On their plot of land, they have only one thousand pigs, this is an important fact because it is a prime example of of care and consideration that has been lost in our world from mass farming of animals.

Meat has become a controversial topic for many reasons. As a chef, to me it is important to be educated about these topics. I choose to eat meat personally, and of course I cook with it as well, but there is a responsible and sustainable way to do so. Yes, it is expensive as a consumer to seek out organic, free range, grass fed meats, but this is a choice I make in order to feed my body with foods that are protecting not only smaller businesses, but also protect the preservation of raising animals fairly for consumption. Not to mention meats that are free of hormones, preservatives, cancer causing chemicals and toxins. I am a food snob, I am incredibly picky about what I purchase and eat for everyday life, but this is because I am educated about the reality of our food situation. I choose to eat foods in which I know are the best quality, that will help me to live a healthy and happy life. As a chef I feel that it is a responsibility to be knowledgeable about food, not just as ingredients, but as life, as fuel and nutrition for mind and body. When I think about a dish I am going to cook, I think of the ingredients as special instruments that create not only my vision, but instruments that will provide absolute nourishment and comfort to the body.

I of course appreciate all diet choices. I have friends and clients that eat some meats, and not others, some that are vegan or vegetarian, and I respect that, we all have the right to choose how and what we eat. I choose to do the research to find foods and food products that I feel are smart and safe choices for myself and for those that I feed. Education and awareness are the two ideas I believe that are lacking in today’s world in terms of food.

When I was a kid, my mom used to teach nutrition classes to us at school, as an extra activity. I remember her teaching my brother and I to read nutrition labels and then to have us practice in the store and tell her if we thought it was a good product based on the ingredients and the nutrition facts. What is unfortunate is that I think at the time I was one of few kids who actually knew how to do this. I have vivid memories of talking to friends and family etc, not even too long ago explaining how to read a label. Of course during this time the “low fat” diet was all the rage, Snackwell’s products ruled the shelves and low fat cheese became king. What is sad, and frustrating is that there is so much research that needs to be done in order to find products that are made with real whole ingredients, and aren’t pumped with artificial ingredients, GMO’s and who knows what else. In my opinion the “low fat” diet changed the food industry for the worst in many ways. This is when products really started to become distant memories of what real food actually was and became these odd hybrids of franken-foods that now fill the supermarket shelves. Unfortunately, no one really knew that this was such an awful change.

Big name brands are constantly pulling the bait and switch, making consumers believe that their product is healthy because it contains whole grains, is gluten free, is low fat, contains no high fructose corn syrup. I could go on and on. As a chef this is a serious problem to me, and is something that really gets me heated. It is so unfair that companies are allowed to fill their products with ingredients that are no where near close to being something that should be labeled as acceptable for consumption.

To end, here is a bit of history I found interesting that we learned this week. Olive oil was found all along the shores of the mediterranean dating back to the Paleolithic era, and was spread all over by the Phoenicians who traveled through Sicily, but eventually settled in Spain. Olive groves are now seen as the most abundant crops of the mediterranean and also create a kind of identity for this region. Discoveries prove it existed, but not that it was eaten or used as a food staple. Until the Romans nobody would even eat olive oil. It was used for cosmetic purpose, and was highly prized as a sacred liquid that would be used to brush the dead. It was also used to clean up sweat and cover with scented oils and in the baths for massage. There is no evidence that people actually ate raw olives during this time.

The “Mediterranean Diet” was born, and the olive oil boom began. In reality, there is no such thing. Similarity around the Mediterranean in terms of diet does not exist because there is no real food link between all of these areas. In Turkey for example, a staple is rice where as here in Sicily, a staple is pasta. The difference between the “old ways” of eating is what creates the change. These days, we rely entirely on large supermarkets, processed foods, and convenience. The difference is that in earlier days there was a stronger relation between harvesting your own ingredients. The real difference, is way of life. I hope for future to inspire those around me to support local businesses, farmers markets and companies that are doing it right. The only way to make a difference is to change the way we think about food, and by doing so we are making conscious decisions to live healthier more natural lifestyles that will benefit not only us, but the world as a whole in the long run.

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Luisa with the Suino Nero behind

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Luisa and Fabrizia making salami

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Sausage ready to be cured

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Sicilian BBQ

 

Reflection in Sicily

February 6, 2016

The start of February has been difficult for my family and I the past two years. It’s challenging to put into words how I feel during this time. I get somber, I tear up a lot which is especially uncomfortable for me. I absolutely hate to cry or show negative emotion in front of people. I guess I shouldn’t classify crying as negative emotion because it’s a release. A normal release of emotions that are experienced when one is happy or sad. It goes both ways. Losing someone so special is unquestionably worth crying for. The pain is so incredible, it reaches into the depths of the soul and pulls out such a strong sense of unfamiliar emotion. An emotion that really cannot be classified. It is physically painful to mourn, physically painful to endure such profound emotion. It manifests not only in tears, but in physical pain. Whether it be an old injury that flares up, or a sickness that becomes impossible to shake because it just won’t leave. The absence of a loved one in a physical form does not mean they’re lost. It simply means they can no longer be with us in a physical form but can be present all around us in a spiritual energy. Watching over us and guiding us to make the right decisions. Pushing us to become our better selves and reminding us that we are not alone, but should be comforted by their presence. I have found comfort in these ideals. I have been able to see things in a different way, and to see life through a much clearer head space. I hope one day to be able to help people through my experiences. To help people via my own grief. This was a rough week for me, even being so far away from the normal day’s I’m used to. I found comfort in new found friendships, and distraction in the beauty and adventure here, and I am grateful.

I found several prayer cards scattered among my Dad’s things a few years ago, but one in particular I really love I found in a Koa wood box from a family trip we spent in Hawaii. It reads:

“Believe! To believe in oneself with an “I can” attitude…To believe in the positive approach to life’s problems…To believe in and love our fellow men…To believe in the goodness and compassion of God…To believe in his will and plan even when our hearts are torn with grief and hopelessness…To believe in the power of prayer.”

I brought this card with me to Sicily, and yesterday carried it around in my pocket, taking it out to look at it whenever I needed a boost throughout the day. I’m not religious, but the meaning is relatable to anyone, and meaningful to me in many ways. We can only strive to be a people that believe in the goodness in life and hope for a positive future. To me this starts from within your soul and spreads outwardly into the universe bringing positive energy to those who believe it’s out there. Believe in the power of love, believe in the power of hope, believe in the power of passion.

Below is what I wrote via a Facebook post one year, ago, and it’s as true now as it was then:

“It’s been one year since I lost my Dad. I have been fortunate to have found so much support through not only my close friends and family, but from those who have been at a distance for years. So many relationships have been renewed and I feel surrounded by so much love. For those of you who know me well, it can be difficult to break my shell and push through that exterior, but this past year I have slowly felt that shell break piece by piece and allow so much abundance into my life, and I am grateful.

Grief is a funny thing, the stages one can go through in a manner of minutes is almost un fathomable. For quite some time I felt so angry because of my loss. Angry that I had lost the person who I always called for advice, the person who had me rolling with laughter, who taught me how to make scrambled eggs and pancakes, who loved and supported me through all the good and bad decisions I made as a child, the person to whom I am most similar. I’m not angry anymore. Instead I have chosen to be filled with all the love that my Dad gave me, and I only hope that I can spread his love and spirit with the world around me.

I can’t yet feel my Dad’s presence but I see it all around me and that gives me comfort. Little things happen, and I know it’s my Dad sending me his love. I hope that someday I will be able to feel his presence more strongly, but until then I will continue to look for the beautiful reminders that he is here with me in spirit watching over me.

Its difficult to think about the milestones in my life that I won’t be able to share with him, I never could have imagined that at 26, I would lose a parent, but it happened. It happened and I’m still here and I’m still living my life in perhaps the most positive light I ever have. I have found so much clarity this past year. I have been able to get in touch with emotions I never thought I possessed. I have learned to value my friends and family more so than ever before. I have faced and continue to face challenges head on. I have found a compassion within myself that has done wonders to improve so many relationships.

Out of something earth shattering, I have slowly been building myself and my life back up. I know now that I’m going to make it and I plan on making it something really fabulous. Life is far far too short, and I’m gonna give it everything I got and I will take my Dad’s spirit with me, and share the love and knowledge that he so graciously gave to me. I am, and always will be so incredibly proud to be his daughter.”

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Cook The Farm: Too much cheese…said no one ever!

February 2, 2016

Cheese week! Oh how I do love cheese. This week we spent the days tasting, shepherding, and making cheese. A fresh start to the week, a group of three of us woke up early to meet Toto, The estates own Shepherd just a short walk up into the hills from my house. The plan was to help him milk the sheep…however this is quite a feat. Milking sheep is hard! Getting the right pressure and hand motion to get the milk out is a challenge, not to mention it takes some serious forearm strength. None of us even got through one sheep on our own. Thankfully Toto was there to chuckle at us and help us along. He’s a little fellow generally in a blue jumpsuit, who rides along in his vespa to round the sheep up throughout the estate and push them to graze along the hills. Whenever I see him on his little vespa now I crack up. He spends his days milking the sheep, making cheese and vespa-ing his flock around.

The following day we spent a whole day making cheese with Fillipo, a local cheese maker down the road. He spends his entire day making pecorino and ricotta. We tasted the fresh sheep milk which is delicious. It’s rich and much sweeter than I imagined. He went through the processes of different kinds of cheese making and we tasted along the way. A week old pecorino called “primo sale” or first salt, a three month and six month old pecorino. Later in the day we made fresh ricotta which here is made from basically the leftover whey and some milk. We had a visit to the cheese closet which houses all the cheese he is either brining or aging. During the downtime, I made friends with the big white sheep dog who get’s to hang around the property, said hello to young mothers and their lambs, and discovered Filipo’s horse, he’s young and being trained to behave himself around his sheep friends.

A few days later I had the privilege of visiting Fillipo again but this time to spend the day as a “Shepherd” and experience what it’s like to be with the sheep all day. We started our day at 5:30am in order to make it to Phillipo by 6, thankfully he graciously had coffee waiting for us…again that unmistakable Italian hospitality. Elke, Jarrod and I then set off down the bumpy roads, the sunrise ahead of us, to follow Fillipo’s son Enzo, and their shepherd Constantino who is from Romania and has lived here in Sicily for 6 years now working for Phillipo. He’s an interesting fellow, from the exterior, he seems harsh and weathered, but I discovered throughout the day there is a softer side to this mysterious man who hikes the hills and rounds up the sheep. A shepherds life is actually quite solitary. Days are spent generally alone for many hours surrounded only by the flock and a gang of sheep dogs. We hiked up the hill a short distance, and Constantino rounded up the sheep and down they came along the hill right in front of us to be guided to the milking pen, sheep dogs in tow. The beauty of this scene is hard to put into words. It’s possible I may never experience something like this again. Along with the flock came a fresh new lamb, they carry these babies down the hill by their front legs which at first I thought was cruel, but they don’t seem to mind. Once the baby had made it’s way down I got to carry her down the hill while the men guided the sheep, what a special experience! She called out for her mother off and on with her tiny lamb bleats. Once the flock had settled she was able to join her mother in the milking pen. We watched as all the sheep were milked with care, and then sent off again into the hillsides to graze. We had a short break making Ricotta back at Fillipo’s before heading back out to join the sheep and have a picnic in the hillsides with Enzo and Constantino. We hiked all the way up the hill before settling into our picnic spot, where we enjoyed panini we had made the night before, fruit, and a giant hunk of Fillipo’s cheese that Enzo had brought along. This cheese was created from the milk from the sheep we were watching along the hillsides who ate the same greens we were sitting on in the fields. I’m sure thats an experience I will ever be able to say I will have again.

As the day came to a close, I was able to take in the magic that surrounded it. The care and tending of the sheep in itself is a wonderful thing. These sheep are happy, healthy, and living in their natural environments, being raised in a way where they can still enjoy their lives but also give to these people beautiful and delicious products created from their milk. This is a cycle that should be praised and greatly appreciated, and something that is so rare in today’s modernized industrial driven world. I can only hope that this way of life can continue to be preserved in all the places it still exists, and hope for the future that it could make a comeback.There is such pride in this work, when we asked Fillipo if he ever goes on vacation, he replied that he is on vacation everyday. He loves his work, and it absolutely shows in the preparation and care he has for his products, and the lucky animals that graze happily. I have really been thinking even more about our own food products back at home and where things come from. As I learn more and more information about how things are made versus how they should be made, I will be taking an even closer look at the products that I use myself. I think visiting some more sheep will definitely be my to do list.

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The Regaleali sheep getting frisky

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I just love their little brown faces.

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Yep, I milked a sheep, it happened

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Fillipo making cheese with care and teaching us to make fresh ricotta.People show up at his place around midday for fresh ricotta because they know it will be ready. It’s delicious!

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Cheese tasting we did, so fun and interesting to try so many different Italian cheeses.

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One of five of these fluffy white sheep dogs taking care watching over the flock in the milking pen.

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The sheep go marching one by one hurrah hurrah! In the background are the mountains we spent the afternoon climbing, and where the sheep came down from.

 

 

 

 

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This little lady was staring at me for quite some time, it’s only natural we are now best friends

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Elke and Constantino chatting among the hillsides while we took a break from hiking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_8427Cook The Farm: Pasta! Pasta!

January 31, 2016

The past two weeks here have been jam packed and the time has flown right by! There is so much to talk about, but I’ll stick to the highlights.

The first weeks topic was wheat, we learned to make authentic Italian pasta from scratch. Of course I have done this many times before, but never the way I did the past two days. We had a wonderful woman named Rina from the Emiglia Romagna region come to teach us how to make pasta from the north of Italy. In the northern parts, the pasta is a richer dough made with eggs or “pasta con ouvo” because in these parts of Italy, dairy is more readily available than here in Sicily. Rina is a “sfogline,” she goes all over the world to teach people her art, which is making “sfoglia” or pasta dough that is done completely by hand. By this I mean that the dough is completely rolled out by hand with a rolling pin or “matarello” and not a pasta machine. This is a serious process, but its incredible to watch her work. She works the dough with much ease, which is not exactly the way it was for us students. By the end of my turn making my dough, I was sweating, my back hurt and I needed a cocktail…or three. Regardless, it was a beautiful process to watch her work and then to follow and make our own. We made all the pasta into different shapes, tortellini, spaghetti, tagliatelle etc, and then got to eat it all in a several course pasta meal later that evening. My pasta was a spinach dough, with a ricotta, mortadella filling and was topped with a béchamel for serving. It was also my favorite, but I am a sucker for a béchamel sauce.

The next day we made traditional Sicilian pasta, which was a breeze compared to yesterdays workout. We had three wonderful women come to teach us how to make busiate, ziti and cavatelli. My favorite was the cavatelli. One of Fabrizia’s interns Rosella’s mother Anna Maria was one of the women who came to teach us the different pasta shapes along with two of her friends. They all live in one of the neighboring towns. I LOVED this day, I felt it was incredibly memorable to have an intimate experience like this to be able to make pasta with these women who grew up doing this for their own families. The following two days we made bread as discussed in a previous post. At the end of the week we had a trip to a flour mill that still uses an ancient method to mill ancient grains of Sicily. It was fascinating to see how the grains go through cycle after cycle through each machine until they become fine enough to become flour.

At the end of our tour we were greeted by the owners wife who had a table set up for us with pizza, fresh chickpea fritter panini(called pannelle) and beverages. Such hospitality was shown today and so appreciated. There is so much love, acceptance and appreciation that has been shown from our instructors, experts and teachers. There is such a pride that exists here in Sicily involving the history and subjects for which people are so knowledgeable. There is an incredible illusion that surrounds this island and its culture, and it continues to fascinate me everyday that I spend here.

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Working hard on my dough!

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The finished product!

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Handfull of Tagliatelle.

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Rina and I showing off the Tagliatelle.

Cook The Farm: A walk around Regaleali

January 24, 2016

Today I set out on a jog/walk around the estate. For those of you who don’t me well, I do not run or jog. I prefer my spin classes at the gym, but of course, this does not exist when living in the countryside in Sicily. So in an effort to explore, and perhaps eventually ditch some of the extra holiday pounds I went on a looooooong walk. I really didn’t know what I was getting into to be quite honest. The property is huge, and I knew this, but I learned today that when one actually goes around the entire loop, it is quite the loop. I fear I may be a bit sore tomorrow since it’s been a while since I was able to even get in my regular workouts at home with the holiday season and then preparing for my trip.

So I set out along the uneven pathway and took in the scenery around me. When entering the main gate, you’re greeted by a row of olive trees that line the pathway, and naked grapevines cover the hillsides. Eventually the eucalyptus trees shoot up in all their magnificence. I love these trees, they’re so elegant, and their fragrance is intoxicating. The wind hums though the grasses and the trees creating a symphony. Clouds create shadows of mystery over the sheep on the hillside, flocks of birds fly in quizzical patterns. Wild flowers pop up among the hillsides giving a splash of color amongst the green.Little birds skip though the air between the trees and vines. Sounds of water stream in the distance. Butterflies dance in front of me diving in and out of figure eights. One followed me for some time down the main road which connects the two entrances to the estate.

Butterflies or “farfalle” as they are called here(yes, its like the bow tie pasta) are a symbol of a sign sent from a loved one as a reminder that they are always around. When my Dad passed away, I was sent so many butterflies, I was surrounded by them in my everyday life, and in the most unexpected places. I would see them fly across the freeway in front of me, or floating about the lemon tree in my backyard. To me these beautiful creatures are both significant and special.

In many ways I feel similar to the butterfly in that it starts out as a caterpillar, goes through a transformation and ends up coming out the other side as something so beautiful and magical. Everyone goes through life transforming, and becoming a new person based on the challenges and experiences faced. For me being here, in this new environment, and taking a risk is a huge step in yet another transformation. It’s a different kind of transformation for me because there is so much meaning for me being here. Coming to Sicily, and being a part of this program is a dream come true. It’s something I have wanted to do before I settled on going to culinary school in the states. Had it not been for my Dad, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have followed this dream.Through my grief I learned that life is short, and I believe it is important to take risks, follow your heart and let nothing hold you back from becoming the person you were meant to be. In the process of becoming who you need to be there are risks, and yes, this can be a fearful process, but its a necessary process. In turn coming out the other side as a changed human being, a strong and loving individual is worth all the sacrifice. The past two years I have learned so much about myself, but I absolutely know that this experience will change my life in so many unexpected ways.

A key thing I am learning here is the value of time, but in a different way than I would usually appreciate my time. I am learning there is so much merit in slowing down and taking everything in. Slow down and smell the roses, they’re beautiful and delicate. Something so simple as eating a meal surrounded by friends and family and actually taking the time to appreciate what’s in front of you is worth wonders. Our days here are very full so far, but there is not a rush from one thing to the next. There is an incredible advantage in experiencing the elements in which we are surrounded. Already my brain is buzzing with so many thoughts and ideas for the future. With that, on to the next week which is full of cheese, one of my favorites! Buonanotte to all!

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View down the bumpy road with Case Vecchie in the background.

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The Eucalyptus lining the main entrance to the estate, I love the trunks, they’re such graceful trees.

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Shadows on the hillsides.

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Obsessed with these naked trees.

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Entrance to Regaleali lined with olive trees to the right.

Cook The Farm: Pane e Pazienza

January 22, 2016

Each day we have been given an Italian word of the day from the schools executive chef, Mario. Todays word was “pazienza” which means patience. This of course was perfect for the day today because we made bread! Anyone that has ever made a yeast dough understands that it is a process that requires much pazienza. Between all the time needed to perfect the dough, and waiting for it to rest and rise, much time is required. We also made couscous from scratch, by this I mean that we actually took the grain used to make couscous which here is an ancient Sicilian grain and created the couscous shape entirely by hand. I was fascinated by this process. Never in my life would I have ever thought this could be done without some kind of press or machine or equipment. In the US we obviously have a much different type of couscous available to us. What we can get is packaged and pearled and perfect. This is not what real couscous is, as I learned today. This is also a concept that requires much pazienza. The couscous itself takes time to make, then a broth base must be prepared, and the couscous must cook above in a ceramic steamer for about an hour and twenty minutes, after that it must rest for another hour before eating. The broth is strained and poured over the couscous and vegetables when served. It is perfumed with cinnamon which seems odd to go with savory vegetables and broth, but it is extraordinary. The complexity of a dish like this which to the eye seems simple plays out a much different way when it hits the tastebuds. An entirely new world of flavor is explosive to the senses. A dish like Sicilian couscous is important because it is a perfect example of the variety of flavors found here in Sicilia. It invites the palate to experience a world in which many cultures and people have created on this island. I am learning that each flavor and ingredient here on this island have a purpose and story within the history of Sicilia. It’s a history full of a richness and culture that is to be valued and appreciated. I feel so lucky to be a part of a program driven by so much passion for life. Whether it be past or present life, it’s all relative and deeply special to those here who give their whole hearts to this island and it’s culture. There is a real and significant protection of value to culture and history here that is something not to be ignored. To me this is an exceptional view of life and the beauty that surrounds the world we are so lucky to live in and experience, and expresses a deep importance to heritage.In many ways I feel that the importance to heritage and roots for many has been lost. We live in a fast paced world, where time flies by due to obligations and responsibilities, and leaves little time to create real and important connections not only with family, but with friends and even strangers. Some of the most influential conversations and experiences I have had as of late have come from the most unexpected places. These are the ideas we should understand, appreciate and accept as the future. This is what we need more of to lead balanced and happy lives. This is what it means to live with purpose. With that… Ad un’altra bella giornata.

This is one of the Sicilian breads we made with a sourdough starter. It’s much different than our sourdough at home in a way thats difficult to explain. The texture when finished is a heartier bread in general with a  thicker crust and a soft chewy center. The flavor is much more earthy that our sourdough, and is typically topped with sesame seeds.

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Bread rising with sesame seeds.

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The GIANT platter of finished couscous that was passed around the table or “tavola” followed by a bowl of the savory broth or “brodo”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cook the Farm: Arriva a Regaleali

January 19, 2016

Yesterday after an entire day of travel I arrived at Catania airport, and was picked up via a shuttle arranged by the school with several of the other students. We were driven through much of the Sicilian countryside, as it takes a few hours to reach the school which is located in Vallelunga. The estate is called Regaleali. It’s a tongue twist of a word, one of many Italian words I am attempting to pronounce properly. When we arrived we were greeted by much of the staff who have been anxiously awaiting our arrival for several months now and then driven to our houses. I was shocked by the size of the property, the photos of Regaleali simply do not do it justice. The estate is expansive and stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction. Grapevines, gardens, and wheat fields cover the hills which right now are very green in winter. Grapevines during this time of year are bare however. Brassicas are in season, and citrus is abundant. Next we were introduced to our homes for the next few months.My house is settled next to Casa Grandi which is the main house, and when Fabrizia(one of my teachers, and the owner) was younger was her grandparents house and has since been converted to the estates winery. Her family has owned the estate for seven generations now.

After setting in, we were picked up by Salvatore our shuttle driver and his son Giuseppe who is five years old came along for the ride. Salvatore or “Salvo” has proved to be quite the character. He is full of life and playful. we have now had several car rides with Salvo, and each time he speaks to us in speedy Italian which for most of us is a guessing game since English is our primary language. These rides have also proved to be very bumpy considering the roads have been damaged over the years, and perhaps a little of that wild Italian driving has something to do with it as well.

When we arrived at Case Vecchie the kitchen was warm and inviting and we were greeted by a lovely family style table and a glass of the estates sparkling white wine. We enjoyed light appetizers of crostini with caper spread, and one with salsa pronta. Both of these items are made here on site and jarred to store for the rest of the year for use after the season is over. Salsa Pronta is what Sicilians use as a basic tomato sauce. It’s full of flavor and richness and has a lovely sweetness to it. Dinner started with a lentil soup with vegetables from the gardens including swiss chard and carrots. The main was a roasted chicken and potato stew, it was incredible. Simple but incredible, which is really a theme here in Sicily I am learning. The chickens are raised for eggs and for eating, better I don’t make friends with any of them for fear one would end up on my plate at some point. We enjoyed one of the house red wines called Tascante, with dinner. I was told many times not to be shy about having more wine, I knew I would love it here! A simple salad of fennel and lettuces from the gardens rounded out the savory end in typical Italian fashion being last. The vinaigrette had a distinct floral taste which I couldn’t place initially, but found out this morning came from the pink peppercorn trees after tasting one in our horticulture lesson. The finale was what is called “sfinge,” it’s a light pastry thats fried with a crisp outer shell and soft eggy center. This was topped with honey made from the bees here on the estate and candied citrus peel. The honey has quite a distinct taste, it’s produced by the black bees which I had never even heard of until recently when studying for this course. I’ll be meeting these elusive black bees soon enough. After dessert it was time to sleep off the jet lag and get ready for our first real day of the course. The first day here for me was unreal, I kept thinking in my head, “I’m here, I really made it.” I still don’t think the shock has worn off entirely yet. I am so thrilled and grateful.

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Our house for the duration of our stay. This is Fabrizia’s aunt Rose Marie’s residence on the property, she was kind enough to let us borrow it. The kitchen in this house also served as the original kitchen for the school before Case Vecchie was renovated. I’ll be posting more on that later.

 

So I’m Dating Myself, What Now?

January 1, 2016

So what does one do when they are dating themselves you ask? I’m taking myself to Italy. I’m learning Italian, and preparing for an adventure I never thought would actually be possible. A far and distant dream becoming a reality. I’m preparing to study abroad in Italy at Anna Tasca Lanza, a culinary school in Sicily. I will be joining 10 other students from all over the world to learn Italian and Turkish cuisine in the heart of Sicily. The program called “Cook The Farm” focuses on their philosophy of “Arm to Table” which is our concept of “Farm to Table.” only the schools concept focuses on literally using whats on the farm in the gardens 10 feet away. I will be picking my own produce, learning to garden, visiting local artisans, and soaking up everything Italian. I’m going to take every ounce of this adventure and apply it to my own life back here in the states when I return and begin to see all the magic that will come from this once in a lifetime opportunity.
I love the beginning of a new year, I always have, the start of this year is so much different for me than any other. My 2016 is for personal and professional growth, for stepping outside of comfort zones, attempting to learn a new language, and taking myself on perhaps the greatest adventure of my life. I could not be more humbled and grateful for this upcoming experience. My life will be forever changed.

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The Last Sunset of 2015, and it was stunning.

To read more about my program in Italy, below is the link for the school:

http://annatascalanza.com/index.php/en/cook-the-farm/about

 

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Studying Italian before I go, glass of wine in tow

Flirting 101??
December 29, 2015

My roommate would tell you that I am a TERRIBLE flirt. I mean just plain awful. I have no game whatsoever, it’s almost comical…and I guess a little embarrassing. Mostly because when it actually comes down to the part where I should be putting myself out there I just clam right up.I literally turn into a 15 year old girl. Asking a guy if they’re single, or making bolder comments such as ” Is your girlfriend going with you” or “Maybe we should hang out sometime” are just so off my radar(Maybe thats not even bold but to me it is). It’s not that I am super shy or embarrassed, I am actually incredibly easy to talk to, and good at keeping conversation going. I simply cannot push the envelope farther than my comfort zone(must push out of comfort zone…will work on this.) Maybe this is all due to the fact that I cling to the beliefs of early dating or courting if you may. I am a bit of an old fashioned girl. What happened to men actually fishing for women and making the simplest of efforts like holding a door open? My mom always says goofy things like “Aly, you’re the prize, don’t do anything, make him work for you.” It may be really corny, but theres a lot of truth to such a simple statement. A little bit goes a long way. I recently read an article on Facebook about the dating world we live in now, the main point was basically put your phone down and dial into whats in front of you. Cultivating real and lasting relationships and communicating with our loved ones should be the priority. Wake up and send your significant other an “I love you” text rather than spending the time checking out all the latest Instagram posts. I know that would make anyone happy. In the meantime I will be attending Flirting 101 bootcamp hosted by my talented roommate!

Dating In Los Angeles:
December 10, 2015

Lately it seems to be a trend that so many people ask why I’m single… I respond it’s because I haven’t yet come across the guy who matches me. I guess since I fit the stereotype of the conventional wife and mother type to those that don’t know me well they’re all just shocked I haven’t  gotten married and had a table full of kids by now. I guess when you cook well you’re a great housewife? I am just simply not that girl, I’m here trying to live my life for myself, to enjoy being able to be a little bit selfish because I can, because I have no obligations other than my own responsibilities. I am in a place of me. I see social media blowing up with posts about engagements, weddings, having kids etc etc. It’s not my path right now. Of course one day I do want those things, but I am not ready.I have always been an independent woman, and I am not ready to give that up for just any guy. My focus has been for several years now on my career and now has shifted into personal and professional growth, which in many ways simultaneously goes along together so I am learning.  I ended a 5 plus year long relationship, tried the online dating thing, tried real life dating and then it hit me. I’m wasting my time on something that should just naturally happen. It’s not normal to scour online dating profiles for person after person hoping they are the one. Putting so much supposed potential and stock into a person you don’t even know, and haven’t even seen.
So I decided after several really bad dates to just stop. Stop all the madness and the time wasting and to invest all of that energy into myself. So I did, and let me tell you, the benefits have been outstanding. I can truly say I could NOT be happier right now. This could perhaps be the happiest time of my life, I’m living for me. I do what I want to do when I want whenever I want( of course I have responsibilities) so I’m dating myself, and it’s fab!
So here is the underlying issue in three words in my humble opinion…social media boom. Personal relationships with people have simply become so impersonal. People hide behind Facebook and Instagram profiles and photos that are hand selected, control anything and everything that we as viewers get to see. Or rather for dating can hide behind online dating profiles, swipe right and left based solely on looks, and hand pick dates based on whatever is written in a profile. As a woman living in this world it’s tough. How is one to compete with those who photo shop every photo, and create versions of themselves that simply do not exist. For men, whats not to love? There is data base after database of these profiles and TONS of women I mean tons to choose from. Not to mention how easy is it to just swipe right or left?  It works both ways for women as well, it’s all completely superficial. However there is a serious epidemic in the South Bay of men that will not grow up. I give you “Peter Pan Syndrome” dun dah dahhhhh “I won’t grow up I won’t I won’t” they say. All my girlfriends will back me up on this. I have heard stories of date after date, meet up after meet up, and its the exact story, just different versions. Unfortunately the men of the South Bay are missing out because my girlfriends and I are awesome. We are all accomplished, respectful, hard working fabulous women to say the least. I could go on and on. We have so much to offer and yet its so vastly under appreciated in this area. Yes this is absolutely a generalization, and based mostly off of mine and my friends experiences, but this is the reality that we live in.My friends that live else where are mostly in relationships, and have been for a long time now, so that’s proof enough to me. So I have resolved to be the voice of reason in this matter and continue to tell all my ladies how wonderful they are and that soon enough the right men will come along. I do absolutely believe that. There is a time and place for everything.

What Birthday’s Mean to Me
November 20, 2015

November 20, is my Dad’s birthday, I always thought it was so special we shared the same birthday month, but now it’s even more dear to my heart. Birthdays are always a time of reflection for me, and this year has taken me on a much different journey than I could have ever expected. I am truly living my life for myself, putting me first, and seeing all the wonderful things that have begun to unfold around me because of it. I know that if my Dad were here today to see where I’ve come, that he would be beaming with joy. I know he’s out there watching over me, I feel him constantly. Every year my gift to him will be to continue to live, and not just go through the motions, but to truly live a fulfilled and incredibly happy life. I have chosen to see things from a new perspective. To see things in the most positive light I can. It’s been a journey just to make it here, but I can honestly say I am happy. Just plain happy to be alive, to be at a place where I love so many things around me and have to much passion to give this world. I only hope that through my journey I can inspire those around me to be their best selves and to truly live.

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My Dad and I when I was just a baby, I miss him so much everyday!

28 is Great!
November 10, 2015
This year I started off my birthday weekend by going to the USC/ASU football game at the LA Coliseum with a group of friends. One of my girlfriends was newly dating a guy who went to ASU, so we thought it would be fun to make fun of him and his friends of course for wearing the wrong colors. For those of you that are unfamiliar with USC football fans, its basically like it’s own universe. USC fans are some of the craziest and most fun fans out there. The campus goes nuts and is covered in Cardinal and Gold. Perhaps because I am a Trojan fan I am biased. Ever since I was a kid, I remember going to the games, my Dad yelling at the TV, cursing at the players, coaches and refs for bad calls. My first ever toy was a Traveller stuffed animal(He’s the USC Mascot…also the best Mascot ever). So naturally I inherited all of these qualities. I LOVE making the trips to the coliseum to see the Trojans play. It brings back so many fun memories of times spent with my Dad year after year in our season ticket seats cheering and booing all the same. My Dad was such a proud USC fan. He was so proud of his school and his team, even when they lost(except it was best to let him cool off after a loss before talking). I only wish I could have spent more times alongside him at games, but I will forever continue my love affair with Trojan Football, Fight On!

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My friend Megan and I at the Game…we won by the way! Whoooooo!!!

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I found my mom…she’s currently a student getting her masters at USC and I am so proud of her!!! GO MOM!