"Il bambino" makes a difference

When I began gathering recipes and researching wine lore for “The Wine Lover Cooks Italian,” I made several trips to Italy on my own, and a few with my wife,  but never got anything like the acceptance I did after we had a baby:

In Venice, at Alle Testiere, owner Luca DaVita was a subscriber to Decanter,  the wine magazine I write for, but when we asked  him for a recipe for red mullet, olives and pasta,  he said he wouldn’t give out recipes. Desperately, I  pointed to her stomach–“But she’s pregnant!” I exclaimed. Luca, who’s a dead ringer for Ben Kingsley, said with a twinkle, “I’ll give the baby the recipe.” A year later, we went back to Venice for a weekend and brought a photo of Patrick–we got the recipe.

In Urbino, we were in search of vincisgrassi, the world’s most luxurious lasagna. Killing time before lunch at Vecchia Urbino, we went to  the Ducal Palace, a museum in a huge and very grand villa.  The really valuable paintings are behind plastic panels meant to keep viewers a few feet back, but Patrick found he could crawl around and squeeze behind them, which set off the burglar alarms. The guards came around after a few minutes and shut  off the alarm, laughing. This happened several  times, and they thought it was funnier every time. We thought it was a good scenario for a heist movie. Down the hill, the chef wasn’t too forthcoming, till we told him the story. He gave us the recipe.

On the shore of Lake Bolsano, north of Rome, we went to Il Purgatorio, where we were told the chef did a lot of unusual pasta dishes. We got lost, and arrived as he was closing up–he waved us away, but his wife saw Patrick, smacked the chef on the arm and glared at him, then beckoned us inside. We ate a fabulous lunch, joined by them. We got some good cooking tips, and two recipes.

“The Wine Lover Cooks Italian” is dedicated to  Patrick, because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have  done it without him. . . Obviously the moral of the story is, don't forget to bring the baby.

Beet and orange salad

Neither my son nor I are crazy about beets, but this recipe has somewhat changed our mind. The mild acidity of the orange balances the earthy sweetness of the beets, and the onion and parsley add nice grace notes. This offbeat recipe is from Franco Dunn, retired from restaurants in Sonoma, California, and now making sausages for sale in the many area farmers’ markets. It’s included in a small new cookbook, just out, that collects recipes from six chefs in Sonoma, one of California’s premium wine regions. The grassy-sweet-tart combination is perfect with a light red wine, such as Beaujolais.

2 lbs beets
2 oranges
½ thinly sliced red onion
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
Juice of 1 lemon

Roast beets till tender (about 45 minutes) Let them cool slightly, then slip skins off with your fingers. Cut beets into small wedges and cool completely. Peel the oranges with a knife. (Tip: Cut right down the sides of the oranges, exposing the flesh, then cut the wedges away from the membranes with a sharp paring knife and drop into a mixing bowl. Do this over the bowl, to catch more of the orange juice.) Toss all the ingredients together. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.
The book, called “Gatherings,” is available online from www.jacksonni.com.

Potato Mixta

I’ve seen variations of this dish in Sicily, Greece, and southern France, so I guess it’s truly “Mediterranean cuisine.” Certainly comfort food!
        Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. In a large pan, boil water.
       Start with 1 pound of waxy potatoes*, peel or not, as you wish; I don’t. Cut into quarters. Add potatoes, parboil for just 7-8 minutes. Drain.
       Cut about two dozen good-quality black olives in half. Cut the same amount of small tomatoes (baby plums are best) in half or thirds if they’re a bit bigger. Cut three or four cloves of garlic in thirds. De-stem and seed a red bell pepper, chop into dice. Combine and set aside.
       In a roasting pan, put 50 ml olive oil and place in oven (hot oil won’t soak into the potatoes and make them greasy).
       Place potatoes in a large bowl, add olive-tomato-etc. mix. Scatter over it a heaping tablespoonful of dried oregano** and several grindings of black pepper, toss well.
       Add the potato mixture to the roasting pan and stir well to coat with olive oil (give it a good shake as well, to settle the mix). Return it to the oven and cook for about 45 minutes. Stir the mixture every 15 minutes.
       If you want a one-pan meal, brown chicken breasts in a frying pan, then place on top of potatoes to finish for the last half-hour; or lay boneless fish fillets on top for the last 15 minutes. *Any quantity will do, just keep the 50/25/25% ratio. **You could also mix in a couple of rosemary sprigs to the mix before cooking; remove before serving.


This is a hearty but elegant recipe I've been fond of for years, pried loose from a chef in San Francisco's North Beach; the flavors are pleasantly contrasted and satisfying.

6 large pears, peeled and cored (cut ¾-inch cavities)
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 fresh small almond (not coconut) macaroons, crumbled
2 oz. heavy cream
panettone, sliced 1/2-inch thick
a scant cup sweet white wine (such as late-harvest Riesling)
2 Tbsp butter

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Select six individual baking cups, sized to hold each pear upright. Cut panettone slices to fit the bottoms of the cups, butter the slices on one side and put them, buttered side down, into the cups. Set a pear in each cup, and stuff each one tightly with a coarsely crumbled macaroon. Top with some chopped chocolate, until pear is filled to the top; spoon a little cream over all of this.

Pour the wine around the pears and bake, uncovered, for 50 minutes. Then, spoon a little more heavy cream over each pear and bake for another 10 minutes. Serve hot in the baking dishes; a splash of cold heavy cream creates even more contrast.Yield: 6 servings

From "The Flavor of North Beach Revisited," by Mary Etta Moose and I, now available from Amazon's Kindle Store.

Sweetness and Light: Apple Vanilla Tart

My boy is suddenly into baking. It started with some muffins from the Hummingbird Bakery book (still the standard text for him), then he graduated to lemon-drizzle cake, then a simple plum cake, and so on (all enjoyed by his classmates at school, where he can get even more applause than at home). He found this recipe of mine, and made it on his own, amazing and delighting us. (Tip: The best apples  are Pippins, Gravensteins, Granny Smiths, or Winesaps, anything but Golden Delicious, which are too bland.) The