Category Archives: Stage Travel

Gnocchi + goulash + fried fish = white bean dip with spinach pesto

Last week was a gnocchi with goulash kind of week. It was also the week that I graduated from illy Café University so let’s just go ahead and say, it was a pretty big week. The gnocchi and the degree are part of study trip number three, a week in the Friuli-Venezia Guilia region of Italy.

As one of the five autonomous regions in Italy, Friuli-Venezia Guilia is under administrative autonomy according to the Italian Constitution (Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol and Aosta Valley are the other four). As a result of their constitutional distinction, these regions are governed by their own economies. In fact, Friuli-Venezia Guilia has one of the strongest in Italy, based primarily on specialized farming and exports like Prosciutto di San Daniele–basically Proscuitto di Parma cured in Northern Italy. Friulian is the primarily language of the area although it has slowly been phased out and replaced with Italian.

The region is also famous for its coffee, which means if you’re a student at UNISG, you spend the day at the illy headquarters earning your coffee degree. While it may sound like caffeine-laced fun and games, it was an action packed day. By the end my friends and I were in desperate need of a beer and sustenance to help settle the six-ten espressos we’d consumed throughout our day of coffee school (we had to, it was like homework).

At coffee school, each student naturally has their own illy computer and microphone.*

What we found for dinner was nothing less than an Italian/German/Austrian extravaganza of a meal. Looking back, I’m not totally sure how I’ve survived this far without a hefty helping of goulash with my gnocchi. The sausages, sauerkraut and mustard also tasted like long lost friends I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed. It was one of those meals where you’re unsure where you are (I’m eating spicy mustard and goulash two hours from Parma?), but frankly you just don’t really care.

Throughout the rest of the week we hit a bunch of regional hot spots including a Prosciutto di San Daniele producer, an alpine cheese maker a two hours hike up into the Alps and a 100-year-old flour mill. But the real show stopper was the morning we spent harvesting mussels from a farm off the coast of Trieste.

Our host, an ex-lawyer turned alpine cow farmer/cheese maker, makes ricotta by heating and straining the curds produced from his last batch of cheese.

Simultaneously delicious, disgusting to look at and also one of the most sustainable forms of seafood farming, there is a lot to say about mussels. That morning we watched as the mussel farmers harvested suspended ropes that the mussels attach to through sticky semen secretions. They grow, suspended on the ropes attached to opposite ends of buoys for about one year. Then the fishermen hoist up the ropes, pull off the mussels and pack them into tubes  of plastic netting ready to be sold to local restaurants or markets. For lunch we were treated to mussels, fried, calamari, shrimp, and whole sardines. Holy seafood.

The bones of the sardines were so soft that we ate the entire fish--bones, head and tail.

By the end of the week I really felt like a giant gnocchi battered and fried. Since arriving home I’ve craved nothing more than raw vegetables, fruit and riding Pickles (my bike). I had a bunch of spinach on hand so I came up with this spiffy number, which I hope you enjoy.

White  Bean dip with Spinach Pesto

Serves three

For the pesto:

3 cups fresh spinach

2 cloves garlic

¼ cup almonds

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

Finely mince the spinach, garlic and almonds. Scrape into a small bowl and stir in the cheese. Slowly drizzle in the oil while stirring and test for salt and pepper.

For the dip:

1 28 ounce can white beans, rinsed and drained

¼ cup lemon juice

Salt and pepper

Dump the beans into a small bowl and mash against the sides of the bowl until smooth. Pour in the lemon juice, stir and test for salt and pepper.

Drizzle the pesto over the dip and serve with seasonal vegetables.

If you haven't already noticed, I really like dips.

*All of the photos from the trip are courtesy of Lindsay Anderson



Filed under Recipes, Stage Travel

Cartwheels on Crete

I shouldn’t be writing this. I shouldn’t be thinking about the billion blues that make up the water along the Cretian shoreline or the jagged landscape glowing, piercing through a hot pink sunset. I shouldn’t be day dreaming about the mountains and the valleys, seemingly undisturbed by human hands. I should be working on a paper about the terroir of Prosciutto di Parma, but–I’m not. Crete’s blues and hot pinks, greens and grays are enough to make a girl’s head spin. Instead of writing about prosciutto, I choose to daydream about the colors I encountered this past week, a rainbow of a week  spent on Crete.

Can you see the sheep off in the distance?

Crete isn’t just a pretty face though, quickly confirmed on our first outing when we met an over the top charming 70ish bed and breakfast owner we’ll call Nikos. Nikos owns an equally charming bed and breakfast nestled in the countryside. After playing the lira for us and teaching us to make traditional bread, Nikos treated us to a nature walk that on the scale of “one to best nature walk ever,” was off the charts. Walking through Crete is like walking through a jungle salad. We saw walnut trees, wild asparagus, artichoke bushes, mint, sage oregano, date trees. The variety and availability of such incredible plants made me think about 1) how little I know about what I eat and how it grows and 2) how important it is to know more about what I eat and how it grows. It was one of those moments where you think, “Wow, nature is really awesome.”

That feeling of awe was only reinforced the day we visited a sheep herder. He’s a one-man sheep herder show, who also lives in the countryside, but about at the top of a mountain about 1500 meters above sea level. As the proud owner of 250 sheep, he milks each one twice a day, every day. This man didn’t speak one word of English, but his messages to us were read loud and clear: don’t mess with nature and she won’t mess with you. We gathered in a 200-year-old stone hut, made of only stone. No mortar, no mud, no industrial strength stone glue, it stands on ingenuity alone. Inside, our shepherd guide explained how he heats sheep milk to 48 degrees Celsius for hard cheese and 92 degrees Celsius for the soft cheese he makes daily. To discern the exact temperature of the curds and whey he dips his hand into the curds, knowing just by touch when the cheese is up to temp. The simplicity of his method was jarring. As a recovering iPhone, user/abuser, the lack of reliance on anything with a battery felt so primal, but also so right.

The wooden tool is made from a young olive branch that they twist into a wisk-like ball at the bottom while the wood is still malleable.

After our cheese tutorial we dined on a “traditional Cretian shepherd’s lunch”…and we started with pasta. Spaghetti to be specific, and what a stir this pasta caused! The dish was simple—extremely soft spaghetti noodles (some might say overcooked) boiled in broth and topped with hard feta-like grated cheese. While I for one have a special place in my heart reserved for overdone pasta, many in my group (namely Italians) were outraged: “This is what we eat in the hospital!” They felt the noodles were not only overcooked, but they should NEVER be cooked in broth (only small cut noodles are cooked in broth) and where was the sauce? An outrage.

No al dente pasta here.

We discussed/talked loudly and passionately about how the shepherd’s preparation wasn’t wrong because even though he was using an Italian product, he’d transformed it into a dish all his own. Calling the noodles overcooked is an insertion of our outside values and tastes. We have to assume that they were cooked just the way our shepherd friend prefers them, maybe as a counterbalance to the harder and saltier cheese. Either way, it felt pretty cool chowing on a traditional Italian product, transformed into a staple of the traditional Mediterranean diet, as an American, on Crete. While fervent debate ensued throughout our time with the shepherd, know we’re all still friends, overcooked pasta or not.

On the subject of friends, I have some pretty cool ones over here. And while I knew they were cool before, a magical day spent in Plakias with a bunch of them only made me more positive. After the nature walk, cheese making and a bunch of other field trips we had a free day to plan our own adventures on Saturday. One of my coolest friends is a one Lindsay Anderson who suggested we visit a small village called Plakias as she had spent a few days there with her brother five years prior. Plakias is directly south of Rethymnon, our home base for the week.  Only 45 minutes takes you from one side of Crete to the other, and oh man, would you believe me if I said the grass (or in this case the water) is greener/bluer on the other side? The Southern coast felt like a long forgotten private paradise.

We packed a smorgasbord picnic and set out on a hike, wearing nothing but bathing suits, yoga pants, water shoes, and backpacks. I also carried a watermelon in a grocery bag up the Cretian mountainside, just for good measure. Along the way we found a small white washed church carved into the mountainside that literally took my breath away. Also breath-taking were our outfits.

Practicing our Japanese photo poses, as one does outside an ancient church nestled into the Cretian mountainside.

The second half of the hike we climbed through a river until we hit a natural pool where we settled in for a quick picnic lunch. We chomped down on whole cucumber, fruit, dried figs and dried rusks, and it really was a “best I ever” moment. The cucumber was the crispiest I’ve ever had, the figs the sweetest, the fruit the freshest. It could have been the aerobic activity, the invigorating water or my foodie friends relishing all the tastes as much as I was.

To sum, I offer you this picture, which I think might describe best how I feel about Crete. I’m the one in front with the awkwardly contorted body stance and complete lack of grace. Don’t I look at peace with nature? It must have been the beauty of the sunset again distracting me from the task at hand.

Lindsay and I expressing ourselves via cartwheels.

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