creamy fusilli with zucchini

Pasta is like a blank canvas. It can adapt to all moods, all ingredients, and all seasons. You can open your pantry/fridge and start pulling things out, add some pasta, and just like that, what was once a motley crew of ingredients is now a meal.

Of course, as in any civilized society, there are rules that one can choose to either obey or disobey. For the most part, the rules are pretty intuitive, and at the end of the day the dish will probably still be delicious, even if you do pair capellini with meat sauce like some kind of unstoppable maverick.

I’m  not such a rebel, and anyways it’s still way too warm for meat sauce. I’ve been buying zucchini non-stop since I’ve been here, and using it primarily as a pizza topping and a side dish. Then I came across a Roasted Zucchini Pasta on Ezra Pound Cake, and I couldn’t believe I had never thought to combine my two addictions into one amazing meal. How (fu)silly of me (sorry, had to!)

I didn’t actually roast the zucchini, I sauteed it in a pan with some onion, sliced garlic, dill and crushed red peppers. Also, I didn’t use goat cheese or parmesan, but opted instead for some herb cream cheese that I had hanging out in my fridge. It turned out to be delicious, with a little subtle tang from the cream cheese.  Next time, I’ll definitely try it with the goat cheese though!

But look, there is more to Italy than delicious food. Especially here in Rome, history is everywhere. Even beyond the big tourist attractions, you can find little pieces of antiquity scattered in the midst of all the modernity. What I love about this city is that history is never sacrificed for the sake of building something new; they quite literally build around their ruins. One such example is Il Teatro di Pompeo (Theater of Pompey).

Considered the original Roman theatre, this site is most famous for the assassination that took place right here. The victim’s name? His followers called him Caesar, but his friends probably just called him Julius. Actually, if memory serves, they probably called him Julī , as per the rules of the Latin vocative case.

Nowadays, this site occupies the heart of the Largo di Torre Argentina. Surrounding it, however, are shops, restaurants, and a major bus and tram stop. Every morning as they board their buses to work, countless friends, Romans and countrymen can check out the location of the murder that has been so immortalized through art and literature. But they aren’t the only ones who love to gaze at these ruins:

The ruins of the theatre have also become a cat sanctuary, home to many Roman gatti. And you thought Broadway was the only place you could see Cats onstage!

Creamy Fusilli with Zucchini recipe (adapted from Ezra Pound Cake)

  • 1 cup dried Fusilli pasta
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1/4 white onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. crushed red peppers
  • 1/2 tsp. dried dill weed
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced (minced or grated would also work)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • salt to taste
  • olive oil for sauteing

Set pasta to boil. In a separate pan, add olive oil, then zucchini, onions and garlic. Saute for 1-2 minutes. Add red peppers and dill and continue to saute until zucchini and onions reach desired level of “done-ness” (I prefer both a little crispy, but if softer consistencies are desired, then allow both to cook for longer).

Once pasta is cooked, drain, but reserve 1-2 Tbsp. of pasta water in a separate dish. Combine pasta and sauteed vegetables, and immediately mix in cream cheese. The heat from the pasta and zucchini will melt the cream cheese. If pasta still seems a little too dry, add pasta water in small amounts until desired consistency is achieved. Add salt to taste.


low-fat jalapeño popper dip

Jalapeño poppers can go one of two ways, in my experience. Either they are filled with cheddar cheese, or some sort of sour cream/cream cheese situation – either one is a winner. Because of the complete lack of cheddar in this fair city, my jalapeño popper dip follows the cream cheese route.

Most of the recipes I looked up involved a combination of cream cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise, none of which are particularly figure-friendly. I decided to make it up as I went along, using a combination of fat-free Greek yogurt and 50% reduced fat cream cheese.

Even though I used pre-sliced, canned jalapeños, I still chopped each slice further into quarters, only because I don’t like giant chunks of jalapeño in any given bite. The “juice” from the canned jalapeños probably added a little bit of moisture to the dip overall, so perhaps fresh jalapeños would produce a different consistency, but I have no complaints (and no fresh jalapeños with which to test that theory).

I also threw in some dried dill and chives, because I am powerless to resist those two ingredients when they are in my pantry. I’m a serial dill-er (had to).

This dip was actually just as delicious unbaked and sans breadcrumbs as it was when I pulled it out of the oven, and I would serve it either way, depending on season and temperature and whatnot. The breadcrumbs do add the final component of the jalapeño popper (the outside fried crust), but even without it you get the popper experience.

For the latest installment of beautiful Italy, here is the Torre Truglia, located in Sperlonga, a small town on the western coast of Italy, now a popular beach resort destination. The Torre Truglia is the best-preserved of four original watchtowers, and was originally built by the Spaniards in 1532. The tower served as a lookout point, in addition to providing civilians shelter and protection when faced with maritime threats. Like pirates. Nowadays, it serves as a nice break from the boats and beach chairs that dominate Sperlonga’s landscape.

Low-fat Jalapeño Popper Dip Recipe

  • 4 oz. reduced-fat cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried dill
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried chives
  • 1 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 can jalapeños sliced (and further chopped, if desired)
  • breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top

Combine all ingredients except breadcrumbs. Transfer to a baking dish, then top with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350° for 20-30 minutes, until breadcrumbs are golden-brown.

Note: my breadcrumbs refused to brown, for some reason. If this happens, switch oven to the broil setting for the last 30 seconds – 1 minute of baking.

classic bruschetta

My family is Indian, and as a result I grew up eating a lot of Indian food, and watching my mom prepare it. Then I graduated college and moved here, and in the process of immersing myself in the Italian culture, I’ve noticed some interesting similarities and differences between the two cuisines, and consequently, the two cultures.

These are two of the most food-centric cultures on the planet. We mark all occasions with food; we use it to celebrate and we use it to mourn. The Italians do the same. An Italian grandmother takes as much joy in presenting her family with a 5-course meal as an Indian grandmother, and neither will be satisfied until everyone at the table is on the brink of a food coma. Second helpings are par for the course; the third helping shows true appreciation. In Italy, after you polish off the antipasti and the primo piatto, you still have the second course, the contorni, and dessert to contend with. My own mother, when preparing food for any occasion, is never satisfied with just one or two side dishes to accompany a main dish. Usually there are a minimum of 3 sides, plus some naan and at least two choices of dessert.

The ideas behind the preparation of each cuisine, however, differ greatly, at least from what I’ve seen.

Indian food is typically composed of a varied blend of spices and components, all coming together to create a single dish. Even basic curry, when prepared traditionally, is the product of many ingredients blending together to render a flavorful, vibrant culinary experience.

Italian food, in contrast, is all about simplicity. A basic tomato sauce, when prepared traditionally, needs only a few ingredients: tomatoes, salt, maybe some garlic (definitely some garlic), and that’s really all. Anything beyond that is added at the discretion of the chef. This allows the tomato flavor to shine through in a simple, yet delicious fashion.

At the end of the day, the result of both ideologies is deliciousness. I can’t say that one is better than the other. The chef who can achieve perfect harmony from a battery of spices and ingredients is just as talented as the chef who can coax a religious experience out of just a tomato. Both meals are made with love, and both plates will be licked clean!

Today I’m sharing a recipe for classic bruschetta. I’ve talked about bruschetta here before, and as I said, it’s a blank canvas. You can make it as simple or as fancy as you like. This time, I went with simple: bread, a tomato, some salt, olive oil, rosemary and garlic.

Well…that was the plan until I spied the goat cheese. But it’s really only in there for creaminess; the flavor is in the tomato.

Cuisine aside, the Italians don’t always do everything simply and subtly.

This monument has several names. Sometimes it is called il Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. Sometimes it is referred to as Altare della patria (altar of the motherland). Its friends just call it “Il Vittoriano”. I call it the Wedding Cake. Whatever you call it, you can’t call it understated!

Classic Bruschetta recipe

(I only made myself one piece of toast, so scale the recipe up if you want more than that!)

  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. rosemary
  • salt to taste
  • 1 piece of bread, lightly toasted
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • goat cheese (as much as desired)

Rub the clove of garlic all over one side of the bread. Save the remnants of the garlic for grating into the tomato mixture, if desired.

In a small bowl, combine tomatoes, salt, rosemary, olive oil, and grated garlic.

Spread a thin layer of goat cheese on the garlicky side of the toast. Spoon tomato mixture on top of toast. Enjoy!

pizza, plain and simple

Shocking revelation: finding a decent slice of pizza here is not a daunting task. It’s only too easy to step outside, walk a few feet, and find yourself at a place like Il Forno Roscioli, where you can get many different kinds of pizza al taglio (by the slice) for 2-3 euros a slice. Included in that price is the added satisfaction of watching the guy behind the counter use a giant cleaver to hack off your slice, when you and I both know that a pizza cutter or a pair of scissors would achieve the same effect.

There are two ways to eat pizza here. Pizza in pie form is typically reserved for sit-down dinners at restaurants. For lunch, pizza is sold by the slice, usually folded over like a panino and wrapped in an impenetrable fortress of wax and parchment paper. Sometimes I am too impatient to free the pizza from its papery prison, and that is the story of how I spilled a lemon granita all over my flip-flops! In the grand scheme of things, pizza trumps granita, and so it was all worth it.

But sometimes, I want to make pizza my way. With a little garlic, or some pesto maybe. A simple dough, a little homemade tomato sauce with garlic, rosemary and crushed red peppers, some freshly sliced mozzarella, and pesto from the Campo di Fiori, and I’m pretty much set.

A little spinach, or some caramelized onions next time would make this even better. I sliced the mozzarella pretty thinly, because I don’t like very cheesy pizza, but some of it ended up getting too dry in the oven, so next time I’ll leave it a little thicker. Other than that, no complaints…

…well, just one. When you make pizza at home, you are less likely to eat it while walking around. Which means you miss out on sights like this:

I am submitting this recipe to the Holiday Recipe Swap hosted by My Baking Addiction and GoodLife Eats, sponsored by Red Star Yeast! Be sure to check out the other delicious recipes that were submitted!

Pizza Crust Recipe (from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

Combine dry ingredients. Add water and olive oil and form dough into a ball.

Dump dough onto counter, making sure to get any residual flour from the bowl out as well. Knead dough for a minute or two. 

Grease bowl using cooking spray (or olive oil if desired). Return dough to bowl, turning dough around bowl so all sides are coated with grease. Cover bowl with saran wrap and let rise for 1-2 hours, or until dough is doubled in size.

Once dough has risen, sprinkle rolling surface generously with flour, keeping extra on hand. Knead dough a few times to deflate, then roll to desired thickness, sprinkling more flour when the dough sticks. Top with sauce and desired toppings and bake at 350° for 15-20 minutes, or until cheese bubbles and crust is golden-brown.

Pizza Sauce Recipe

  • 3/4 cup Pomi (or any other brand) tomato sauce
  • 1 clove garlic, grated or minced
  • 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp. crushed red peppers
  • salt to taste

Heat tomato sauce in saucepan over low heat. Add garlic, rosemary, red peppers, and salt and simmer for 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and spread on rolled out pizza dough. Top with cheese, pesto, and extra crushed red peppers, bake and enjoy!

rösti almost-y…and what I’m working with

Last summer, I visited Switzerland with my family. Beyond chocolate and neutrality, I didn’t really know what to expect, especially in terms of cuisine. Well we ate lots of delicious food, both French and German, but at every meal, the star of the show was rösti. Considered the de facto national dish of Switzerland, rösti is a basically a potato pancake. Grated potatoes are pan-fried (or sometimes baked) in either oil or butter, and typically served as a contorno, or side dish, at the meal. Sometimes cheese or bacon or some additional ingredients are added, at the discretion of the chef, but traditionally rösti is a one-man-show, consisting solely of potatoes.

I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of a dish made solely from potatoes, but sadly, my jeans are not. Out of deference to my waistline, I decided to add some grated zucchini to the situation. I invited some dill, salt, and the teeniest splash of olive oil and called it a day. Had I remembered to, I also would have added some minced garlic – I definitely will next time! I toyed with the idea of pan-frying them, but then what was the point of adding the zucchini, right?

Into the oven they went, and they came out delicious. Slightly burnt crispy on the outside, softer and chewier in the middle – not exactly like Switzerland, but they did the trick! The zucchini was a grate idea (had to), it melded perfectly with the potato, and added a nice splash of color to the whole affair.

Next time, I will probably pile each pancake a little higher, since they flattened out more than I was expecting them to. I ate these (plus a kiwi) for dinner, but they would be great with breakfast too – maybe with a nice poached egg on top? My extreme hunger and lack of forethought prevented me this time, but next time I’ll also combine some Greek yogurt with some lemon and dill to serve alongside these bad boys.

Now I’m going to share some behind-the-scenes footage, because I’ve told people that my kitchen is small, but I don’t know if words do it justice. I’m weirdly proud of how tiny the space is, take a look:

This is my kitchen. I’ve got a sink, two stovetops, and some shelves. The most sophisticated tool in there is a grater (check it out, its hanging above the sink), and there is no oven. The fridge is one of those cabinets at the bottom.

I am actually starting to really like cooking here. Having such restricted space and no tools I’m used to, like an electric mixer or a food processor (or even a real oven), forces me to do stuff the old-fashioned way, which I love. If I want fluffy egg whites, I’m going to have to earn them. If I want pie crust, I’m cutting the butter into the flour by hand (which is really the best way to do it anyways). And having such a small fridge (made even smaller by the fact that anything on the top shelf will actually freeze, meaning no eggs or yogurt may live there) forces me to plan ahead. Everything in there is there for a reason. I know what every item in that fridge is going to be when it grows up. The zucchini and red pepper are going to be a Thai stir-fry, the mozzarella is going to be a pizza, the giant bottle of Diet Coke is going to be the death of me, and so on.

But I still needed an oven. Luckily I had a microwave, but an oven was a necessity.

Enter the toaster oven – one of the first things I bought when I got here. Not much bigger than a shoebox, but it does the trick! Did you not see the rösti?? They were totally well-rösted! This kitchen is tiny but effectual, and I’ve never had more fun creating yummy food!

And yes, my toaster oven doubles as a breadbox.

Potato-Zucchini Rösti Recipe

  • 1 yellow potato, peeled
  • 1 zucchini
  • 1 tsp. dried dill weed
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

Grate the potato and zucchini into a mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and combine.

Form patties of desired size on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350°.

The Perfect Bun

On the site of what used to be Josephine’s Bakery sits The Perfect Bun, promising to satisfy ex-pats in Rome who are fed up with cannolis and sflogiatelle (like that could ever happen) and want a true American cupcake.  I found out about it because I was sick of cannolis and sflogiatelle and wanted a true American cupcake.

The website promised cupcakes, sticky buns, scones and…BAGELS. All of a sudden beautiful images of pizza bagels started swimming through my mind and I decided to check it out. In addition, the site said that the bakery has its own grocery section, containing American products that are next-to-impossible to find in the eternal city. My mind switched from pizza bagels to thoughts of light brown sugar and Kraft mac&cheese (I’ve got the blue box blues, you see), and I was totally sold. As if that weren’t enough, it is two blocks away from my apartment. I love it when I have to burn so few calories to consume so many!

Once I entered the shop (after accidentally walking past the non-descript, unmarked door twice), I was greeted with a cute little display of special-occasion cakes, made-to-order. So pretty, but I came for the cupcakes and bagels, folks. Moving right along.

The cupcake display case didn’t disappoint. There were 5-6 different varieties, including lime, vanilla, something with apples (the names were in Italian and I don’t remember the exact translation) and, of course, cioccolato. Unfortunately, the bagel rumor proved to be false, and I bought two cupcakes to console myself – the apple-something and the chocolate. I then turned my attention to the grocery section.

No light brown sugar, only dark brown sugar. That’s two dreams dashed. They do carry potato chips, Ziploc bags, canned chili, ketchup, mustard, maple syrup, and peanut butter, among other things. They also, unbelievably, carry Indian products. No Kraft mac&cheese for me, but I can buy all the curry vindaloo I want. Blasphemy.  Nevertheless, its good to know they have some of the essentials from back home. Let’s talk about the cupcakes.

I’m very picky about cupcakes, especially with regards to the frosting. I found the frosting on the apple cupcake to be a little too heavy, not the fluffy, light stuff I was hoping for. The cake itself was delicious though, and if they removed the icing, they’d have a seriously yummy muffin on their hands (and in my belly).

The chocolate frosting was also a little heavier than I was expecting, but I tend to be more forgiving of chocolate frostings, and thus will allow it. The cake was yummy and moist, and satisfied any and all cupcake cravings that I had been having. I didn’t get to try the sticky buns this time, but once the pain of the bagel/Kraft disappointment wears off, I’ll go back and check them out.

The Perfect Bun
Piazza del Paradiso 56
Rome, Italy, 00186


St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s square/basilica and I go way back. My first trip to Rome was in April of 2005, right after Pope John Paul II had passed away. I happened to be reading Angels and Demons at the time, so of course I was extremely knowledgeable about all of the steps that were being carried out at that very moment to elect a new pope. Of course, conclave or no, no trip to Rome is complete without a visit to Il Vaticano, which technically involves leaving the country. On any given day in St. Peter’s square, you will find hundreds of tourists snapping pictures of the famed basilica, or standing in absurdly long lines to gain entrance to the most important church in Christendom.

April 2005 was a little different. The basilica was closed, so there were no lines, and as a result the number of tourists lingering around was significantly reduced. There were rows and rows of folding chairs, largely vacant, and a haunting rendition of The Litany of the Saints playing over loudspeakers. Inside the Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals was in the process of electing their newest leader. I, of course, explained all of this to my family while surreptitiously looking around for abducted cardinals and canisters of antimatter. At my mom’s insistence, we took seats and listened to the prayers for a little while.

All of a sudden, other people nearby started exclaiming and pointing in the direction of the chimney of the chapel, where smoke started to appear. When everyone realized it was black smoke, the excitement died down (black smoke = no pope), and I resumed my reading.

Sometime during all this, the square slowly started to fill up with people from all over the world, often congregated into groups according to their nationality. Many of these groups were waving signs or flags, hoping and advocating for their country’s cardinal to be the new pope. Still the square was not that crowded.

Suddenly, people started exclaiming and pointing again – sure enough, more smoke. This time everyone was really hesitant for a minute, then someone shouted “bianca! bianca!” and then everyone flipped out. White smoke = POPE!!!

Within minutes, what seemed like the entire population of Rome swarmed on St. Peter’s square, even filling the Via della Conciliazione, the road leading up to the square. Bells started ringing and people were laughing and crying and snapping pictures like nobody’s business. This went on for maybe 30 minutes, then the big window in the center of the basilica opened, and everything went silent in anticipating of the big announcement.

Habemus papam.

And that is how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI.

Ok, now back to this trip, St. Peter’s 2011. Sadly, PapaRatzi was absent, spending his summer at Castel Gandolfo, as popes are wont to do. I guess I will have to catch the German Shepard next time.

Inside the basilica are numerous paintings and sculptures of religious and historical importance, as well as confession boxes and altars (it is a real church, you know). Perhaps the most famous sight inside the basilica is St. Peter’s baldachin (top left), designed by Old Reliable himself, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Also of note inside the basilica is Michelangelo’s Pietà, of which I was only able to get two very blurry pictures.

Of course, when Michelangelo wasn’t busy creating famous sculptures and painting certain ceilings, he liked to try his hand at fashion design.

Here they are, those sexy sworn sentinels of Vatican City, the Swiss Guard, in the latest Ready-To-Wear line designed by Michelangelo himself.

Next time, I’ll visit the Sistine Chapel, although you won’t know because photography is verboten (tell that to a certain badass, photo-snapping mother of mine).

And because I hate to leave without mentioning food even once, check it out:

chocolate pasta!