Corn and Zucchine Salad with Feta

One of the many things I love about the neighborhood I live in -- you can read more about it here -- is the Mercato Trionfale, a truly vast and very impressive market located about a 10 minute walk from my apartment. On Saturdays, I tote my nonna-esque trolley (pictured below, the colorful dog pattern was the selling point) to M.T, and stock up cheese, fruit, veg, and bread, plus the freshest of eggs (perfect for making pasta) and if I'm in the mood, a slice of pizza, or a piece of crostata or two.
Shopping at the market is one of those very Italian sort of things that one experiences living here -- up there with the sight of laundry fluttering on the clothesline, a glass of Prosecco on an apartment terrace with a view, an espresso consumed standing at the crowded neighborhood bar in the morning -- and it's one of the things I love most about the weekend. A few photos taken during my latest trip, just because:

I was a blogger with a mission on last week's trip to Mercato Trionfale, happy to browse and pick up whatever caught my eye -- the market is brimming with A+ eggplant, tomatoes, basil, watermelon, and cherries now -- but mainly there for peak-of-the-season corn in all its pale green-golden splendor. Growing up in the U.S we ate corn grilled (charred and smoky and sweet) or boiled, slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt (just dreamy) and it's a vegetable that is synonymous with summer for me, nostalgic. While corn doesn't play such a large role in Italian cuisine -- the closest we come is polenta, I think -- I still cook with it every summer, bringing a little bit of Rhode Island to my kitchen here in Rome. Mercato Trionfale has just a few stalls selling pannocchie di mais -- corn on the cob -- and after a few strolls around the market (where were they?!) I found them, happily grabbed a few of the best looking ears to stow safely away in my trolley, and then commenced the difficult job of deciding what I wanted to cook with them.

I contemplated making corn pancakes, breakfast-paradise when served with a pat of butter and lots of syrup, I imagined, or an American-ish corn and bacon pasta, or a creamy corn risotto, but in the end, opted for this simple corn and zucchini salad, and I have 0 regrets. Now: this is not you average, pile of lettuce salad, but rather something truly craveable, delicious, a fall-in-love at first bite sort of dish. The corn here was spectacular -- a bit of a show off, marvelously sweet and nearly candy-like-- perfect paired with zucchini, another summer M.V.P, here fresh and feather-light, beautiful combined with lots of bright basil and refreshing parsley and earthy zucchini flowers, and, well, since cheese makes everything better: a sprinkle (or two) of sharp, salty feta. I loved this dish, raved about it to anyone who would listen, and while I don't think of myself as a bossy person per say, I would very much advise that you go and make this, asap, with the freshest corn you can find. Just saying.

A couple of notes: I still have a little scar on my right thumb from the first and last time I attempted to use a mandoline (slicing fennel, for the record) and so I opted to use a vegetable peeler here to thinly slice the zucchine, which worked well and felt a little safer. This a pretty versatile salad; feel free to use goat cheese or even Parmesan in place of the feta, or feel free to leave the cheese out all together if you want a simple side or for some reason need to make this vegan. My sister tossed this all with orecchiette to make a very summer-y pasta salad - yum - and I recommend you try doing the same if you're so inclined.

Looking for other recipes with corn? I've got these corn fritters, this corn, tomato, and avocado salad, this corn, tomato, and zucchine pie, and these cornmeal blueberry pancakes. Looking for other recipes with zucchine? I have these stuffed zucchine, this spaghetti with zucchine, basil, and egg, this three-cheese zucchine tart.

From Bon Appetit Magazine. Serves 4.

Ingredients for the salad:
4 ears of the freshest corn you can find, husked
4 small zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds), thinly sliced lengthwise on a mandoline or with a vegetable peeler 
1/4 cup (a good handful) coarsely chopped fresh basil 
1/4 cup (a good handful) coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley 
About 1 cup (4 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled 
8-10 zucchini blossoms, torn into large pieces (optional) 
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper 

Ingredients for the dressing:
1/3 cup (78mL) olive oil 
1/4 cup (59mL) white wine vinegar 

Whisk together the oil and vinegar, season with a little salt and pepper, and set aside. Next, cook the ears of corn in a large pot of boiling salted water until bright yellow and tender, about 3 minutes; transfer to a plate and let cool. 
Cut the kernels from the cobs and place in a large bowl. Add zucchini, zucchini blossoms (if using), basil, parsley, oil, vinegar, and red pepper flakes (if using) and toss to combine; taste and season with salt and pepper. Toss the salad with the olive oil and vinegar and tuck in. 

Panna cotta al caffè

Observation: I've found that here in Rome, dessert can (at times!) seem like sort of an afterthought. I know, I know! It sounds odd -- after all, Italy and the capital in particular is known for its outstanding record of allowing one to mangiare bene, consistently -- but go to your average trattoria or osteria and you'll find that while the spaghetti alla carbonara and rigatoni all'amatriciana are spot on, the end to the meal is often just-okayOn the typical menu: classic tiramisu, usually with a disproportionate cake/cream ratio and a layer of cocoa powder sprinkled just a bit too thick; millefoglie, usually on the too-sweet side with less-than-crisp pastry; there's the decent but forgettable profiteroles and tartufo di gelato and panna cotta, and honestly, if I want something sweet I usually opt for the fresh fruit (currently: watermelon, my obsession, see here). 

So! Panna cotta -- the start of today's post -- is a dessert I've never been too crazy about, mostly because I'd only ever eaten it in a restaurant where dessert was edible but not craveable!, and therefore it merited about a B-, B at best in my book. Panna cotta as I knew it was rather gummy, a little one-note in terms of flavor, served with excessive amounts of sauce poured over -- caramel, fruit, or chocolate, take your pick -- with an odd, jello-esque jiggle. That being said, I do miss baking and churning out sweets once the summer rolls around-- today its a very non oven-friendly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, to give you an idea of what we're dealing with -- and when I came across this recipe, it got my attention. Panna cotta after all requires no oven and very minimal cooking, just a few minutes on the stove (it is literally is translated as cooked cream, fyi) the whole thing coming together in a matter of minutes before being left to set for a few hours in the (wonderfully cold!) fridge. I decided to give it a try, if only to have a little homemade dessert around, (heat need not apply) and, well, I guess I didn't know panna cotta at all, because this, my friends, was a clear A+++, downright special. It was marvelously creamy and rich and just jiggly enough, sweet but with a perfectly distinct coffee flavor, reminiscent of an iced coffee, extremely refreshing and cold and I loved every bite. This panna cotta al caffe' was nothing like those of my past -- homemade is nearly always best, isn't it? -- and I think it might just be my new favorite summer dessert, step aside crisps and pies. 

And asking for a friend here, but: this has coffee in it, which technically means it would be okay for breakfast, right?!

A couple of notes: As you can see from the pictures here the panna cotta took on a sort of two-tone, which I suspect is due to some of the coffee that sunk to the bottom. I didn't expect this to happen and Giallo Zafferano's photos showed panna cotta that were a more uniform color. In any case, they were delicious and looked really cool this way, so whatever happens when you make them, you can't go wrong. If you don't have a vanilla bean, a little vanilla extract should work fine here too, but I would whisk it in after the whole mixture is off the stove. Finally, I grated a little chocolate over the top of these but feel free to serve with some chocolate sauce. 

Looking for other coffee-ish desserts? I've got this crema di caffe' and these coffee blondies. Want more no cook desserts? I've got these butterscotch pudding pops, these raspberry yogurt popsicles, this chocolate chip cookie icebox cake, this chocolate gelato, and this vanilla salted caramel ice creamFor really good sweets in Rome by the way, check out this post here!

Recipe from Giallo Zafferano. Serves 6.

Ingredients for the panna cotta:
10 tablespoons (150 mL) of coffee
2 cups (500mL) of heavy cream
1/2 cup (100 grams) of sugar
2 sheets or 1/4 of an ounce (8 grams) gelatin sheets
Half of a vanilla bean

Fill a bowl with cold water and leave the gelatin sheets in there to soften. In the meantime, pour the cream into pot and then whisk in the sugar. Slice open the vanilla bean with a sharp knife, scrape out the seeds as much as you can, and add to the cream mixture (I just toss in the rest of the bean as well to let it infuse the cream) Bring the whole thing to a bubble, and once at this stage, drain and wring out the gelatin sheets and add them to the cream mixture, then whisk again for a minute or so.

Add the coffee, whisk again, and then take the pot off the stove and pour the whole mixture through a strainer to ensure it is perfectly smooth. Pour your almost-panna cotta into six custard cups, and then leave it to set in the fridge for 3-4 hours. 

Unmold each panna cotta, dipping each one in a bowl of hot water and running a knife dipped in hot water around the edge of each to loosen them. Place on individual dishes, and serve each with a grating or so of chocolate and a few chocolate covered coffee beans to garnish, if you have them.

Grano & Farina Scuola di Cucina: Part 1

On my impromptu quest to step out of my culinary comfort zone and learn new things -- which, I think, has made for the blog's most interesting posts yet! --  I stumbled across the cooking school Grano & Farina, and, well, it might just be one of the very best things that's happened to me so far this year.

A big statement, I know, but such a true one! Before I get ahead of myself, let's start with the basics, shall we? G&F -- located in the picturesque Trastevere neighborhood -- is owned and run by couple Pino (Italian) and Julia (American, though by now very much Italian) Ficara. Julia is a sfoglina, or expert pasta-maker, one who works without the use of a machine but rather with a rolling pin, producing fresh pasta (tortellini! fettuccine! ravioli!) equal to that of any Italian nonna -- even more impressive given she's from the U.S!

Pino is a mathematician and computer wiz turned chef who worked and trained in Milan, NY, London, Paris and Tuscany (both in restaurants and in catering) before coming to Rome with Julia to open up the school. He is a know-it-all in the best sense of the word, a chef with an incredibly wide range of abilities and a profound knowledge of anything and everything to do with cooking and baking (not surprising, given his idea of bedtime reading is technical texts and professional cookbooks). He is the master behind some of the best bread, pizza, and pastries I've ever tasted.
Together, they make for a little school that packs a serious punch, offering classes on pasta (Northern, Southern, filled -- take your pick) desserts (French, Italian), pizza (Roman and Neapolitan), bread, risotto, sauces, and more. Most interesting to me -- and getting back to my bold statement above! -- they also teach classes that are more specific, more particular, and therefore more appealing to us food nerds, lessons on knife skills, making your own charcuterie, macarons, chocolate, and croissants and cornetti, plus classes on olive oil, or rather, the sort of things I simply don't know anything about and would've never attempted without their expert guidance. It is a cooking school a cut above the rest, one that goes way beyond what the majority of schools offer here in Rome, and all lessons are hands-on, educational, and superbly executed, exactly what you would expect from people as knowledgeable and experienced as Julia and Pino. The icing on the cake? They are two of the loveliest, funniest, and most generous people I know, and a class with them is, from start to finish, not only super informative, but also a pleasure to be a part of. 

With no further ado, here's a look at a few of the more unusual classes I've participated in at Grano & Farina -- Croissant vs Cornetto, Chocolate, and an EVOO tasting. All are subjects that I previously had the most basic knowledge of to start, and left the school with my head buzzing with new information and ideas. The end results of all were pretty darn delicious, too.

Croissants have a reputation for being impossibly tricky; they're a pastry known for their many steps, time, and required technique, and though I love to bake, they'd always seemed elusive, far too difficult, and therefore best left to the professionals. The same went for their Italian cousin -- the cornetto -- something else that I had never considered attempting to make at home. When I came across Grano & Farina's Cornetto vs Croissant -- a class that teaches you how to make the traditional French croissant and the classic Italian cornetto, examining the differences between them -- I signed up right away, intrigued to see if my assumptions could be proven wrong. Pino (who, aside from being Italian, also spent 8 years in France and knows a thing or two about both pastries) took us through each recipe step by step; the proofing and resting of the dough, the making of the infamous butter block, the correct rolling technique to assure the presence of characteristic flaky layers, and how to fold and cut our dough to form both the moon-shaped croissant and the twisty cornetto. We used the very same dough to make choco suisse, a crazy good apple strudel-croissant hybrid, and pan au raisin, to name just a few. In the end, the previously intimidating pastries became downright doable, approachable, and yes, we got to sample all of our (freshly baked!) goods after class. Double swoon! 

Olive oil is an ingredient I use often -- even in sweets! -- and while I knew there was such a thing is really good olive oil/not so good olive oil, I had never given it much thought, almost taking it for granted. That all changed in a big way when I signed up for Grano & Farina's Olive Oil tasting, led by Johnny Madge, international olive oil expert and judge, who lives by the motto Don't Drizzle, Pour! With Johnny, I learned that olive oil, much like wine, can be sipped, sampled, and studied; there is a wide world of olive varieties (just like wine's grape varieties) and that different olive oils have their own very distinct flavors, again not unlike wine. For example: one olive oil we tasted had the EXACT flavor of a raw, fresh pea, sweet and wholesome and Spring-y; others were on the bitter side, others spicy, still others were fruity. We learned the technique to be used when tasting the olive oil -- warming it one hand with a twisting motion, covered, taking a whiff of the olive oil's scent, and then taking a sip using the recommended method, hard to explain, so see here! -- and it was positively enlightening. Johnny also taught us all about his experiences judging olive oil competitions (everywhere from Greece to Japan) and explained to us the wide and varied range of olive oil defects one can come across (who knew!) Best of all, we enjoyed our olive oil with different food pairings, prepared by Julia and Pino, everything from a drizzle on mozzarella di bufala and simply prepared chickpeas to a more elaborate asparagus and saffron risotto and a perfectly cooked filet of beef, to name just a few. I don't think it gets better than that, now does it? 

While I very much liked the idea of making my own chocolates, it was (much like croissants!) seemingly beyond my skill set, never anything I had even imagined attempting before. Enter Grano & Farina who, once again, made the previously presumed difficult possible. With Pino -- and a great group of ladies, Carla Tomasi among them -- we learned about the importance of good quality chocolate (Valrhona is the way to go here) and the varied characteristics of white, milk, and dark chocolate, how to temper chocolate (not nearly as hard as it looks, once you've had a little practice!) plus various filling options one can use, among many other things. Under Pino's guidance, we went on to make large chocolate spheres, filled with chocolate mousse, a giant chocolate Easter egg, chocolates of all different shapes and sizes, some filled with praline, others with ganache, chocolate bars topped with puffed rice or walnuts for crunch, and last but not least, a gold plated chocolate ribbon (!!!) just because. When we needed something savory to break up our chocolate-y sugar fest, Julia saved the day and stepped in to make us lunch -- scrambled eggs (eggs superbly fresh, from their very own chickens) washed down with a little white wine. Check check and check. 
I'll be taking more classes at G&F --  stay tuned for a post featuring Julia and more adventures in pasta making  -- but in the meantime, humor me and allow me to show off these croissants, baked up in my very own kitchen, and served with a side of Carla Tomasi's out-of-this-world, spectacularly delicious strawberry jam, plus a few other photos taken at the school. To get more information on classes at the school, head to