Weird Italian Food: Part I

You wouldn’t believe the strange animal parts that Italians bring to the table (and expect people to savor, with gusto).

After 3 months 4 years SIX years of first-hand experience, I can assure you that squeamish eaters won’t last long in this country.

In Piedmont, which is where I live, THE most traditional and frequently consumed antipasto is carne cruda.  That’s right, raw hamburger meat on a plate (when you say it in Italian it does at least sound more appetizing – pron: kar-nay kroo-dah).  You’ll find it on just about every menu in every restaurant in the Langhe Roero area.  The people go crazy around here for a good carne cruda, they even drive all the way from Torino just to eat a plate of the stuff.

What makes carne cruda so special?  Well, let’s break down the ingredients….uh  ingredient.  The veal comes from a race of cows known as the Razza Piemontese (the Piedmontese Race). These bovine fill the hearts of the Piedmontese people with pride and joy, and are NOT your run-of-the-mill variety.  This extra special race is principally raised here (and by here I mean HERE, the city of Alba and the surrounding Provinces of Cuneo and Asti – about 3,000 square miles) .  In fact it’s often referred to as carne cruda albese: carne cruda from Alba.

Two hundred and eleven years ago.   That’s when the Piemontese started breeding this variety in the region.  And we’re not the only ones that think these cows are special.  The Razza Piemontese is known on an international level for its fantastic nutritional characteristics.  It has a particularly low fat content (.5% – 1% as compared to the average 3% of most bovine), less cholesterol than many white meats and even a lower fat content than many fish. (Maybe I should start a new fad diet based on these white beasts!   They’re so darn cute I wouldn’t even have to pay a super model to be the face of the fad.)

Carne cruda was originally chopped by hand (battuto al coltello) and in fancier restaurants you can still find it prepared this way.  Home cooks and average trattoria usually grind the meat in a meat grinder or purchase it already ground from their macellaio di fiducia (faithful butcher).  Once you’ve acquired your meat, always fresher than fresh (you never hear of anyone getting sick after eating carne cruda) and usually eaten the same day it’s purchased, you dress it with some salt and pepper, a little olive oil and garlic.  Adding a bit of lemon is optional and there are opposing schools of thought for and against the use of lemon in this dish (some say it hides the true flavor of the meat, others argue that it “cooks” the bacteria out a little bit and like the subtle lemon flavor).  Every family seems to have their own way of preparing carne cruda, some add just a few whole cloves of garlic and take it out before serving, others grind the garlic and mix it right in with meat.  Some slice the meat in carpaccio fashion instead of grinding it.  It is often served with a healthy grating of truffles in season, but they deserve an article all for themselves…  If you come to Alba this is one of the dishes that you should DEFINITELY try!

Note from the author: This is one of several articles in a series that I started writing in April of 2005, just a few months after moving to Italy.

In those first months  I forced myself to eat carne cruda so as not to seem rude and to avoid promoting the negative reputation that Americans have as been wasteful.  One of my first (and most memorable) experiences with carne cruda occurred shortly after the famous Meat Shopping Adventure. I offered to help Carmela, the woman who ran the local hangout in Sinio, to help with lunch.  She had me mix the meat with the garlic, oil and lemon with my (thoroughly washed) bare hands. I’m sure you can image the satisfying feeling of squishing and squeezing a huge bowl of ground meat between your fingers (we’re talking ground meat for 30 here folks).

But sometimes it’s hard to eat food you’ve prepared (ever killed and plucked a chicken, cooked it and then eaten it?  Cleaned chicken livers of their stringy bloody veins, prepared them in fegatini style and then savored every last morsel?)  Sometimes I love eating the things I prepare, and sometimes it just can’t stop thinking about the original product or the process.

If the thought of eating a whole plate of raw hamburger meat makes your stomach turn (seconds, anyone?), remember that this meat ISN’T like the normal hamburger meat we Americans eat on a regular basis.  These bovine are raised in a very natural way so to avoid the growth of connective tissue that makes meat tough.  Moreover, these cows have less of this connective tissue than most other varieties of cows to start with. In fact a good carne cruda has very little of that white stringy stuff in it, but is almost completely red.  (I just hate getting connective tissue stuck between my teeth, don’t you?)  Nowadays, as long as there’s plenty of fresh bread to go with it, I actually enjoy a plate of the Piemontese delicacy.


Stay tuned for more weird foods that you never would have imagined were typical Italian dishes.

The New House: An Update

Second Story Staircase

Work on the new house is moving right along!  In fact, it’s practically done!  Yesterday, Flavio – our fallegname di fiducia, or faithful woodworker and furniture builder – came to get the precise measurements for the kitchen, kitchen pantry, bathroom sink base, inside doors, baseboards and hallway armoir.

Yeah, he’s basically in charge of everything that has anything to do with wood in the house.  So far he’s put in the second story staircase.  Which I can finally clean up since everyone is done painting.  (I seriously don’t understand how people can make such a mess when they work and then not clean up after themselves.)

And he’s also done the wooden flooring that’s in both bedrooms, the hallway and the guest bathroom.  It doesn’t have the final coat of finish on it yet – he’ll be coming back to do that when most of the other work is done.  We really love the flooring, which is an industrial flooring made up of lots of little pieces…a picture says a thousand words:

This week Luca tried his hand at some Venetian stucco in the guest bathroom.  It came out really cool!  He’s still polishing it up some more, so I’ll post another picture when it’s all done.  But here’s one from yesterday.  If you’re not familiar with it (I wasn’t!), Venetian stucco is a sort of polished plaster.

Venetian Stucco

Basically you apply two or three layers of really thick “paint” with a chocolate spreader (well, that’s what I call it, it’s a type of metal spatula), keeping it at 30° and you have to really spread it a lot and let it dry between coats.  Then  you polish it (we learned a trick that involves drying and buffing with a hair dryer that works great).  When it’s done, the wall isn’t a uniform color and it looks like glass!  It feels like glass too.  It’s a very cool finish.  For the moment, we’re just doing the one pillar in the guest bathroom dark red, but we already bought two other jars of grey  to put somewhere else (not exactly sure where we’re going to use it because the original idea has been shot down…if you need any grey venetian stucco, let me know).  In the picture at the left it hasn’t been polished yet.

I’m so excited for my camera di creatività (creativity room)!!  I might move in early so I have somewhere to store all my stuff.  It’s such a pain having to haul everything out every time I want to do a craft or hem a skirt.  I’m already dreaming up things I can do in the room and collecting some interior design ideas.  You can check them out on Pinterest and leave comments if you want.

I amazingly managed to convince Luca that we needed some more color in the house and here’s our new green wall on the stairway that goes up to the third floor:

Now that it’s there he loves it as much as I do – a little color never hurt anyone, though sometimes you have to be courageous to use it.

Here’s a video I took on Febuary 13th to give you a better idea of the layout of the house.

THE Best Freaking Blueberry Muffins


Picture it:  industrial, pre-packaged “blueberry” (flavored-ish) muffins.  Oh god, they’re the worst thing EVER to have been invented.  Every so often when I’m at an airport or a rest stop I stupidly break down and buy one (if I’m desperately hungry) and I always regret it.

Every. single. time.

Until now.  Now I have the willpower to resist those jet-lag/car sickness induced cravings because I have consumed The Best Freaking Blueberry Muffins in the Whole World.  Twice.

I think I had a blueberry deficiency.  Last summer at the mountain house market I bought two plateaus of blueberries and froze some of them.  I’ve been pulling them out every so often and making blueberry muffins, and they’ve always been pretty good, but when Mom and Dad came last month I decided to try a new recipe based on one from Cook’s Illustrated.  (Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see their recipe unless you have a subscription or sign up for a free trial).

I had to modify their recipe slightly — sidenote:  isn’t interesting how we ALWAYS have to modify a recipe, we can’t just leave it alone.  No, we have to add more chocolate chips or cut down the sugar because it will definitely be better that way….or so we think…Maybe I should speak for myself.

Anyways, their recipe calls for lemon zest and I only had mandarins, they wanted buttermilk, but I only had yogurt, they wanted vegetable oil and I only had butter and I never have vanilla extract.  Plus I wanted to make them slightly healthier (ok I was running out of butter) and less salty.

I made the recipe again this morning with the same fantabulous scrumdidiliumpscious result (in fact just 6 hours laters there are only 2 left).


2 cups fresh blueberries
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp table salt
2 eggs
1  cup sugar (plus a little more for sprinkling on top)
1 1/4 cup yogurt
1/2 an orange or lemon
6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter , melted and cooled slightly
Preheat oven to 425°F.  Butter the muffin tin.
Zest the lemon or orange and mix the zest with a couple tablespoons of sugar for the topping.
1.  Make quick blueberry jam.  Simmer 1/2 of the blueberries (1 cup) and a teaspoon of sugar in a small saucepot for a few minutes, mashing the berries occasionally.    Note: I use a potato masher and it works great.  The berries should be slightly concentrated into a sort of jam when you’re done.  While berries cook you can measure the other ingredients. Set aside to cool.
2.  Prepare dry ingredients. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
3. Combine wet ingredients. Whisk eggs and sugar together for a couple of minutes until the batter is uniform and looks like a liquid marshmallow (kinda fluffy).  Slowly add the melted butter and continue to whisk.  Add the yogurt and a little lemon/orange juice (NoteIf using lemon, a couple tablespoons is plenty, otherwise the juice from half the orange).
4. Fold everything together. Dump the cup of fresh blueberries into the flour mixture.  Quickly and gently fold the flour mixture into the butter/yogurt mixture.  (NoteYou just want to barely mix them together, it’s okay if there are some dry flour spots.  Don’t overmix!) Transfer the batter into the prepared muffin tin, mounding the batter up in the middle of each muffin.  Using a small spoon, spoon some of the blueberry jam into the middle of each muffin (I know, it’s a pain, but it’s worth it!)  Use a skewer or a chopstick to swirl the jam around in the muffin, sprinkle with the flavored sugar and get those bad boys in the oven for 15 minutes.

The Garden 2011

When Mom and Dad were here last month they tilled the garden for me and even started planting. Tilling that garden is no small chore, let me tell you, that dirt is like cement. In fact they ended up breaking the head of a shovel right in half! Thanks to their efforts, and some follow up work on my part, the garden is now well on its way. Here are some pictures, taken last Saturday:

Tomatoes, 3 varieties

Basil plant-lets and basil seeds

These are some onion-types that Luca's Uncle gave us...

I planted flowers all around the border of the garden

The artichokes are doing great this year, everyone in Verduno wants some!

8 zucchini plants and a row of corn. This picture doesn't do them justice.


A random poppy plant that sprouted from seeds my Mom gave me

You can't really tell from this picture, but these are beans (green and purple)

Lettuce that's been replanted twice: grow already!

Halloween 2010

A couple of pics from Halloween 2010 – apparently I was too busy hostessing to take pictures during the actual party….

Decorations this year revolved around black lights – the bottles filled with various colors of highlighter fluid are still gracing our kitchen…think they’ll last until next year??  We drank from marmelade jars painted with fosforescente spray paint, there was plenty of themed food (raw hamburger meat which is really big here, breadsticks shaped like fingers and toes, blood soup with mozzarella eyeballs (roasted red pepper instead of tomato), deviled eggs, spicy toasted pumpkin seeds, mummies (pigs in a blanket), worms and dirt for dessert….).  Glow in the dark nail polish and glow sticks for prizes added to the atmosphere…I promise to do a better job of documenting next year!

In attendance: me (I’m still in love with my wig), Luca was a mummy, there was a wizard, little red riding hood, Morticia Adams, a prostitute, several vampires, 3 witches, a butterfly, and a demon.

Harvest Creation

A picture of this week’s harvest creation featuring amaranth, yellow roses and their seed pods and an 8 ft tall unnamed orange flower. I am so in love with Amaranth (got the seeds online from John Scheepers) -it makes the water in the vase turn purple after a day!  You can harvest the amaranth seeds and pop them like mini-baby popcorn in a frying pan – and you can eat the leaves raw in salad or cooked like beet greens.  It’s definitely a multi-purpose plant that brings loads of color to the garden even into Fall.

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