Monday, April 10, 2017

Liguria and its Easter Culinary Tradition

Living in Italy as I do for so many months of the year, I marvel at the seasonal dishes that are part of traditions that go back for centuries. Families get together for holidays over meals that in some form or another have been prepared since time immemorial. They may have religious symbolism, but even those origins can be traced to a pagan tradition. And you can be certain that every town throughout Italy has its own variation of any particular culinary tradition.

The torta pasqualina, prepared in Liguria, is one you see at this time in every bakery window of that region of Italy. The ingredients include swiss chard, eggs, cheese, a type of yogurt known as prescinseua, marjoram, and artichokes. Although the torta pasqualina is steeped in the Christian traditions of Easter, it really goes much further back to pagan rites of spring which celebrated the rebirth of life after the death of winter. A powerful symbol of rebirth undoubtedly is the hardboiled egg in the torta which is 'dropped' raw on the vegetable / cheese mixture in an indentation made with a spoon and then covered with the pastry. The egg then becomes hardboiled with the steam of the other ingredients when it's baked.

Just to get you in the mood of our fall Ligurian tour, I'm posting this recipe, just in time for your Easter celebrations. And I invite you to take a look at our fall offering to Liguria: it's a splendid time to be on this coast. Picture yourself walking along the ancient Roman paths and later relaxing in a cooking class, learning to make the ancient, traditional cuisine of this unique area of Italy.

One of my very favorite food blogs is by Emiko Davies. Look here and you'll see why:

I would suggest, as she does, that if you're short on time, frozen puff pastry will work fine as a substitute for your dough.

Here is a recipe adapted from Emiko's blog for this torta:

Torta Pasqualina (Ligurian Easter pie)

For pastry:
500 grams bakers or bread flour (a strong flour gives elasticity to this very thin dough)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
310 ml (1 ¼ cups) water (or as needed)

For the filling:
½ medium brown onion, chopped finely
1 kg silverbeet (chard), central veins removed and leaves blanched
handful of fresh marjoram leaves
350 gr (1 ½ cups) ricotta
8 eggs
120 gr (about 1 cup) grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

For the pastry:
Place the flour, salt and oil in a bowl and add water, little by little until you have a dough that is neither dry nor sticky. You may need to add a bit more water, you may not need it all, so I suggest doing this by hand or at least adding the water bit by bit so you can see how the dough behaves.
Once it comes together into a dough, knead it on a lightly floured surface about 5-10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic (it should bounce back when poked). Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for at least 1 hour (you can also prepare this the night before and leave it overnight in the fridge).

For the filling:
Cook the silverbeet (chard) until tender, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from the water, drain, let cool slightly then chop finely. Squeeze again to remove as much water as possible.
In a large pan, saute the onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil until soft and translucent. Add the spinach and toss to combine with the onion, cooking a further 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add the fresh marjoram leaves and set aside to cool. When cool, combine 2 beaten eggs and a third of the Parmesan with the chard mixture and set aside until needed.
In a bowl, combine the ricotta, 2 eggs, a third of the Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper. Beat until well combined. Set aside in the fridge until needed.

To assemble the pie:
Brush olive oil lightly over a cake tin with a removable base (about 23-25cm diameter is fine but larger sizes work too). Cut the dough into 4 equal portions. Roll one out at a time, keeping the others well covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap. On a large, lightly floured surface, roll the first ball of dough until very thin. You may even need to pick it up and stretch it between your hands, gently – you should be able to see your fingers through the other side.
Lay the dough gently over the cake tin to cover the sides and base. Let the excess dough hang over the edge. Brush the dough lightly with olive oil. Roll out a second ball of dough as before and lay over the first layer of dough the same way. Brush with olive oil, pushing out any air bubbles with the brush as you do so.
Fill the pie base with the chard mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Next, layer over the ricotta mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Then, with the help of a spoon, make four round indents over the surface of the ricotta to fit 4 egg yolks. Crack the eggs, placing them in the indents in the ricotta . Sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan.
Roll out the third ball of dough as before. Gently lay it over the top of the pie and brush lightly with olive oil. Roll out the last ball of dough and lay it over the top. Trim the dough overhang, leaving about an inch (2 ½ cm) from the edge of the top of the pie, and roll the trim down until it reaches the top of the pie. Brush the top with olive oil and then bake for about 50 minutes at 180°C.

Serve warm or even cold – this also makes a great portable picnic dish!

And now that you're on a Ligurian wave length, take a look at our Liguria page:  Although this trip is about Liguria, we start out in Florence and, so, you get to see a bit of this Renaissance jewel before we leave by private transport to the coast of Liguria. Our welcoming hosts in Liguria are Emanuela Raggio and Anna Merulla of Beautiful Liguria. If you're at all interested, please write me as soon as possible.

May your Easter be a peaceful gathering of beloved friends, family, and heavenly food that nourishes your soul as much as your body.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Belated Valentines

This year I gave a cooking class on Valentine's Day, so I'm a day late in preparing my chocolate dessert for my Valentine. Better late than never, and this year it was a Chocolate Mousse with a touch of tequila. The recipe calls for egg yolks, egg whites, sugar, tequila, espresso, butter, and whipped cream and berries as a garnish. It's an adaptation from The Cooking of Provincial France, Foods of the World, Time/Life Books.

I found a post from several years ago of Paco Cardenas, from a class I took from him years ago when I first came to San Miguel de Allende.  Paco is a well known pastry chef here and owner of Petit Four in San Miguel and I think I have the 'confianza', not to mention pride, to call him a friend. I'll repost it here. Paco makes his chocolate mousse differently, but just as decadent. Anyway, this post is from several years back. The years have passed and my connection with this town have grown in ways I hardly expected.

For the Love of San Miguel de Allende

It would be easy to be selfish and keep the secret of San Miguel de Allende to myself.  But what the heck, Martha Stewart "discovered" it several months ago.  Granted, American GIs started going in droves to this colonial town in central Mexico in the late 40's when Stirling Dickinson, the larger-than-life American expatriate impacted the life of this town forever after.  In 1948, Life Magazine published a three-page spread entitled “GI Paradise: Veterans go to Mexico to study art, live cheaply and have a good time.” This was Stirling Dickinson's legacy.

In the intervening years, this sleepy town—and the cradle of Mexican independence—grew and became flooded with expats from all over the world, especially Americans.  It also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unfortunately, in 2009, stories of the spread of swine flu discouraged tourism.  This was compounded by the astounding stories of how large swaths of Mexico have been taken over by drug cartels, reversing the prosperity the town had enjoyed since those heady days of Stirling Dickinson. The irony is that San Miguel is safer than most American towns and life on the main square is lived almost as it was a hundred years ago.

I am a teacher and several years ago,  with the collaboration of colleagues in my school, we created a program for our middle school students in San Miguel. This is how I ended up in a cooking class with Paco Cárdenas Báez, a pastry chef who owns Petit Four.  Paco's class is foodie heaven.  He takes his students to the market to meet the "real" people of San Miguel: women who sell nopales, blue handmade tortillas, huitlacoche, and roasted corn.

He invites his pupils into his home to cook in a kitchen that is al fresco, the chef and his eager protégés bathed in the golden light of San Miguel.
The Aztecs knew what chocolate was about. So does Paco.   Here is his decadent chocolate mousse with tequila for you to enjoy this Dia del Amor, Valentine's Day.
Chocolate Mousse a la Mexicana Recipe by Chef Paco Cárdenas from El Petit Four M.R.

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¼ cup tequila reposado (aged)
1 cup fresh mixed berries
Optional: ½ cup bittersweet chocolate for decorative flakes; pour on a granite top and scrape with spatula

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the cream to soft peaks.
Pour the tequila on top of the cream and mix well.
Melt the chopped chocolate and pour it on top of the tequila cream.
Whisk together until smooth.

To serve:
Place the mousse in a pastry bag with a striped nozzle and pipe the mousse  (or spoon it) in martini glasses, garnish with fresh mixed berries and dark chocolate flakes.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Los Reyes Magos

The following post was written in Spanish by my good friend and Head of the Culinarian Expeditions Celaya office, Cynthia Carranza. She writes about the Three Kings tradition in Mexico which takes place on January 6.  I have always gotten the Baby Jesus figure hidden in the cake, meaning a year filled with good things! By tradition, I must offer tamales on February 6 in order to pay it forward.

En algunos hogares del mundo Santa Claus se va a descansar después del 25 de diciembre. En el mío lo importante es que el 6 de enero es el día de ¡los Tres Reyes Magos!

La fiesta de Reyes se lleva a cabo de distintas maneras en todo el mundo desde desfiles hasta celebraciones de mas de un día. En México la llegada de Melchor, Gaspar y Baltazar es mágica!! Porque además siempre había una deliciosa Rosca de Reyes en la mesa junto con un atole o un chocolate caliente.

Hay muchas explicaciones a la forma de la rosca, unos dicen que simula una corona adornada con frutos secos y cristalizados de colores simulando las joyas que estaban incrustadas en las coronas de los Santos Reyes las cuales significan Paz, Amor y Felicidad; otros, que es el amor eterno de Dios que no tiene principio ni fin, los adornos, simbolizan las distracciones del mundo que nos impiden llegar a Jesús, quien está escondido dentro de la rosca en espera de que con ayuda de la Estrella podamos encontrarlo así como lo hicieron los Reyes Magos y finalmente hay quienes consideran que representa el recorrido que realizan María y José al esconder a Jesús de Herodes.

Lo cierto es que, sin importar las creencias de cada uno, es increíble como esta tradición es algo que muchos esperamos y no solo en casa, si no también en el trabajo, alrededor de compañeros y amigos para ver a quien le toca el Niño Dios! Según la tradición, la persona que encuentre el niño Dios será bendecida con un año de suerte, por esta razón ofrece tamales el día 2 de febrero, cuando celebremos el día de la Candelaria.

Feliz Día de Reyes, Culinarians! Y nos vemos el próximo 2 de febrero con los tamales, ¿verdad Gilda?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Culinarian Expeditions makes it on the January Issue of Albatros

Albatros  ( is an Italian magazine which appears monthly and reports on current news, culture, politics, and art. We are honored to have an article submitted and published on the January issue for their Italian readership both at home and abroad about our recent Day of the Dead tour of San Miguel de Allende.   

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Valentine's Day Peposo

During my career as a teacher, I used to make this dish every year on a wintery day in February when my colleagues and I were at the end of our rope: the snow, the cold, the noisy, restless boys in our classrooms. It was comforting to get together, relaxing around a blazing fire as we inevitably talked shop...those boys we taught were never far from our minds. The Peposo filled our bellies and the wine brought a lighthearted silliness difficult to attain (nor would it have been recommendable) in the seriousness of our regular school setting.

This snowy Saturday, I prepared it as our Valentine's dinner to share with our cousins.

Peposo's origins are associated with the building of Brunelleschi's Duomo. Whether it's true or not, the story goes that the tiles used for the Duomo came from nearby Impruneta, an area famous to this day for its terra cotta. In Impruneta, the tile makers were in the habit of cooking this peppery, wine drenched meat in their tile making kilns. When the Duomo was built, many of these same laborers, hired to build the Duomo, cooked their Peposo all morning long, while they worked in the dizzying heights above the ground. When it was ready, the Peposo was sent up by a pulley so they could avoid the dangerous trip down.

Peposo for 6 persons

Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 3 to 4 hours


  • 5 lbs chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper (you may want to adjust this to your taste)
  • 1 tablespoon pepper corns
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • dry red wine, enough to cover the meat when ready to start cooking (about two bottles)
  • 5 bay leaves (I used fresh bay leaves, but you can use dry)
  • Olive oil for browning the meat

  1. Chop the meat into large cubes, taking care to remove fat as much as you are able to.
  2. Brown the cubes of meat with the garlic cloves in the olive oil over a medium flame, but remove the garlic cloves before they start to burn. Do this a few pieces at a time so you don't crowd your pot while you're doing this.
  3. Replace all the pieces of meat in the pot, add the bay leaves, salt, pepper corns, ground pepper, and the wine.
  4. Turn up the heat until it begins to boil, and lower until it begins to simmer. Place a lid on the pot, but leave it cracked open a bit so there is some evaporation.
  5. Stir every so often to be sure all the meat is getting cooked in the wine. After 3 or 4 hours, it will be ready, with a velvety, peppery sauce and meat that is tender and edible with a fork but still maintaining its form.

Note: You may want to prepare it a day ahead, and separate the meat chunks from the liquid in the pot. After you refrigerate it overnight, you can separate the fat that may appear on the surface of the liquid and then recombine the meat with the liquid and reheat before you serve it. I prepared an herbed polenta to go with it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Camotes con Leche - Sweet Potatoes with milk

I retired from 30+ years of teaching a year an a half ago. Recently I went back for a day to sub for a sick colleague. Ah! the energy it takes to teach, but it's nice to come home with no papers to grade. Here's a post I wrote while I was still teaching. It's worth reposting, since camotes or sweet potatoes are available at farmer's markets everywhere right now.

As a teacher at a boys' school where we sit at the table with our students for lunch, I have an unusual opportunity to observe the appetites of these hungry boys. There are those boys who are willing to eat the meals prepared by the school staff, which on most days are healthy, tasty, and presented appetizingly. Then there are the boys who perplex me with their fixation on eating the same cold sandwich of processed meat, rubbery cheese or a limp peanut butter and jelly, day after day. To me the question is whether this is nature or nurture. Does early exposure to different foods, their natural colors, textures, and smells make a difference for a child's developing appetite? Is it like a second language where if you get it early enough, you internalize it?

I am not a nutritionist, a pediatrician, nor a child psychologist, so I'm left to ponder this. I do know that as a child of my generation and region (the border to Mexico), I had no choice but to eat food in its most natural state. My mother didn't have the choice of reaching into a pantry filled with several varieties of Corn Flakes, Fruit Loops, or Lucky Charms; and actually, I'm thankful for that. In the winter, our breakfast might be atole de avena or maís. Another favorite was a poached egg in its shell with the top broken off (to be used as its own cup) with salt and pepper stirred into it with a toothpick. Not to be beaten for its basic simplicity was the baked sweet potato smashed into a bowl of cold milk my mother often served us. The texture of the sweet potato, or camote, as it is called in nahuatl, was smooth and creamy; the color was bright orange or straw colored and the taste of the cold milk against the steamy-hot sweet potato created an odd hot/cold sensation that added to the magic of this taste.

As it turns out, many nutritionists, including those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believe that the single most important dietary change for children would be to replace fatty foods with foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as...yes...the very plain and simple camotes we ate when we were little. According to the CSPI, sweet potatoes are considered at the top of the nutritional scale among vegetables. They are high in dietary fiber with naturally occurring sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

So, I submit that eating well doesn't need to be complicated, and teaching your child to be curious about food doesn't have to be impossible. And starting early is key. But, as a caveat, I would also venture to say that, for your three year old, the presence of colorful boxes and bags in your pantry might possibly be too much competition. Or maybe not.

Camotes con Leche

Recipe Type: Breakfast

Prep time: 5 mins

Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins

Total time: 1 hour 35 mins

Serves: 4

  • Sweet potatoes, whatever quantity you prefer
  • Milk, to add to the bottom of your bowl of hot, smashed sweet potatoes

  1. Bake the sweet potatoes at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or more, until they are completely soft and the peel begins to separate from the sweet potato

  2. Spoon some of the sweet potato into a bowl of milk and smash it so that it more or less blends with the milk.


I prefer to buy the thin purple skinned sweet potatoes in the belief they are sweeter and faster to bake since they're not huge.

Bake a large quantity and keep them in foil in your refrigerator for up to a week until you're ready to heat them quickly in the oven.