Working on this post brought back many wonderful memories of my time in Italy. I lived there for six months between the Fall of 2007 and Spring of 2008, as part of my culinary training. The road to cooking full time is a question I am asked frequently at demos and during cooking classes.
Most of my adult life up until 2007 was working in retail management and then human resources. I started off as a dancer just out of college but me and thousands of other dancers in NYC did not equal steady work. About a year and half after graduating I got a Christmas temp job at Macy’s and my path changed. After working my way (slightly) up the ladder there I jumped to Banana Republic and then to Tiffany’s. The Tiffany job lead me to Michigan were I was running a small store. It was challenging times for the auto industry back then (when isn’t it?) and after the store downsized I decided a move back to NYC was the sensible thing to do. I landed pretty quickly at Brooks Brothers in the Human Resource department and worked my way through all of the disciplines: labor relations (my favorite), training, and compensation. From there a jump to Sony Corporation lead me to a job I loved and an awesome boss – but after September 11th I found myself downsized once again. Short stints with a software company and a now defunct hospital as the Vice President of HR lead me to my final corporate position (nearly 22 years later) as head of Human Resources for the handbag line Le Sportsac. I pretty much thought I found my dream job once again, but between the intensity of consolidating their manufacturing off shore while the company was sold to a large conglomerate, trying to fit the square peg into the round hole of the new owner, plus my own emotional roller coaster of a perinatal loss very late in our pregnancy, I decided in the spring of 2007 I was done.
More after the jump
Cooking is a thread that has run through the course of my life since I was 13 or 14. Even as a little baby (I’ve been told) I was mesmerized by things in the kitchen. When I was old enough to reach the stove I wanted to cook. I cooked all through High School for my family, in college for my apartment mates and beyond. Never, ever complaining that it was a chore. I truly loved it. When Larry and I began living together I started doing my now epic dinner parties for our very close friends and would (and still) sit down as everyone eats surveying the table of food I created, listening to the conversation, quietly content at the realization that my life is pretty darn awesome.
So back in 2007 being completely burnt out and disillusioned with my career, which by the way had pretty much hit the pinnacle, I found myself looking at the world of food from a different lens. Initially it started off to be a few summer classes to reenergize myself, then head back to a new corporate job – but that’s not exactly what happened. I signed on to, at the time, a relatively new program at the International Culinary Center and within a matter of months I left Le Sportsac and found myself on a plane for Italy. A new path spread out in front of me. It was hard being away from Larry, Elinor, my family and friends, but in the end so worth all the sacrifice. I blogged about my time in Italy which helped me feel closer to everyone while I was away. I can say with great resolve that I am happier now that I have ever been with my career. I cook all the time, I teach recreational cooking classes privately and at Tarry Market, I cater and I write. I have lots of balls in the air and I love it.
When the idea of a flatbread story came up I remembered eating something in Italy that was quite tasty with Larry, on one of his visits. We were in Liguria, on the coast, one of the Cinque Terre towns. Honestly I can’t remember which, as we hit all five. In any case, the dish was called Farinata di Ceci. Translated it means “made of chick pea flour.” It originated in Genova and traveled outwards from there. You might also find it called “Cecina” or “Socca” depending on which village you come to.
I wanted to recreate this interesting dish for you and went on a search for an authentic recipe. I’ll be honest and say it did take me a couple of tries, and the final version, which turned out perfectly, was right on my cookbook shelf! I found many recipes, mostly in Italian and metric. However, the best and easiest recipe can be found in Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
You basically whisk water into the flour along with some salt, pepper and olive oil. Let it hang out on the counter for a few hours.
In my trial and error I found the perfect size pan for this recipe is a 12” non-stick pizza pan easily found at the grocery store. The one I got was from Stop and Shop for about $6.00.
In Mark’s recipe he suggests rosemary and onions, but I went for just thyme. This dish can be eaten plain or topped with just about anything you can think of. I made this dish for the Small Bites Blogger Dinner a few weeks ago. We each brought a dish and Liz shared several of the recipes in her post.
I wanted to make it a little more robust, so I topped it with butternut squash which I simply tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper then roasted for 10 minutes at 450. After it cooled I drizzled it with Vincotto, which I love using.
After the cecina is finished cooking I brushed a little vincotto over the top, and broiled for a few minutes.
I was thinking that this dish needed one other thing to pull it together so a quick check of the ‘fridge yielded a beautiful bunch of rainbow chard which I quickly made into a pesto.
This is my finished dish, but you can really just eat these plain or with a nice grating of Parmigianno cheese. They are delicious with just about any topping.
So the next time you are in the mood for a real Italian snack or appetizer that is just a little bit different give this a try … I think you will really like it!
Cecina (slightly adapted from a Mark Bittman recipe)
1 cup of chick pea flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, roughly chopped
Place flour, salt and pepper in a medium bowl and slow whisk in 1 1/2 cups of warm water. Once it’s all combined whisk in the oil. Cover the bowl with a towel and set on the counter for a while … up to 12 hours if you choose.
Preheat the oven to 45o degrees and spray a non-stick 12” pizza pan with vegetable spray. Just before pouring the batter into the pan whisk in the thyme, and scraping up any flour that has settled to the bottom of the bowl. I found it easier to place the pan in the oven and then carefully pour the batter in, it’s a little less messy.
Bake for about 10-15 minutes. The flatbread should be slighlty firm to the touch. Remove from oven and turn on the boiler. Brush the cecina with a little vincotto and place under the broiler for a couple of minutes.
Cool slightly and carefully remove from the pan to a rack. When it’s cool enough to handle cut in wedges and serve plain or with any topping you desire.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
½ cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 bunch of Rainbow Chard, roughly chopped
1 -2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ cup grated Pecorino-Romano chees
1 Lemon, zested and juiced
Kosher Salt and Freshly Grated Black Pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Place the pine nuts, chard and garlic in a food processor. Pulse 5 or 6 times to break it all up. Add the cheese, lemon and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. With the machine running slowly drizzle the olive oil in until the pesto comes together and is the consistency you like; about ½ to ¾ cup. Taste again for seasoning.
Cooks note: If you end up with leftovers freeze it in an ice cube tray and place in a zip lock bag.
Seasonal Chef blogger Maria Reina comes to the world of food as a third career, spending a great portion of her adult life in the field of Human Resources. With her private company Bella Cucina Maria she is a personal chef, caterer and recreational cooking class teacher in Westchester. She’s an avid food television watcher and cookbook collector, always looking for a new take on a traditional dish. In her free time she loves hanging out at local farmers, chatting it up with the farmers and doing cooking demos with their seasonal ingredients. In addition to her blog, which is loaded with easy recipes, you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.