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Santa Rosa blogger shares tips on how to eat like an Italian

Ellen Shick shares plant-forward, Italian recipes on her blog, An Italian Dish.|

When she was a young girl of 15, Ellen Shick went with her grandmother to the north end of Boston, where her grandmother had been raised by Italian immigrants before she moved to California as a young woman.

“I didn’t realize at the time what a gift it was,” said Shick, who has served as an adjunct instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College since 1996. “I grew up, had kids, was a teacher, and over the years ... I got interested in my roots."

So Shick went back to Boston to reconnect with her relatives and took two trips to Italy to visit her ancestral home in the Campagna region, located in the hills east of Naples, where she learned how to eat like an Italian.

“It has become a real passion for me,” she said. “I’m so enamored with all the food there and the wisdom that comes with it. The thing about eating local is that you go to the market, put the produce in a dish and it’s spectacular. That’s the Italian way.”

As a vehicle for sourcing fresh vegetables, Shick started subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture program — where one farm provides a weekly box of seasonal produce — first at Laguna Farm in Sebastopol then at Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa.

“Two years ago, we bought a year’s membership at Tierra, and I’ve been in love with them ever since,” she said. “When people think CSAs, they think vegetables, but there is so much more at Tierra. The beans and the corn and the dried chiles — they have incorporated so many products that we’d never find anywhere else.“

To further her Italian culinary education, Shick also joined Slow Food Sonoma County North. In 2018, she went to Turin, Italy, to attend the worldwide slow food festival known as Terra Madre. The festival brings together everyone from seed savers in Palestine to cattle ranchers in Kenya.

“Many people do not know what the slow food movement is,” she said. “But when I went to Italy, where it originated, it’s so much more than just eating local. They try to preserve indigenous foods and eating styles and producers. ”

Since before the 2017 Tubbs fire, which miraculously spared her condo in northwest Santa Rosa, Shick has been producing a cooking blog, An Italian Dish, in which she shares her recipes for vegetables that are in season.

“We have the same latitude as the Mediterranean here in Sonoma County,” Shick said. “So we have the same benefits and so much here at our fingertips with all the farmers markets.”

When she picks up her seasonal produce every week, Shick often comes eye-to-eye with some unusual veggies. Case in point: the kohlrabi, a bulbous vegetable in the cabbage family; and the puntarella from Italy, a bitter member of the chicory family. They both look like alien spaceships but taste delicious when properly prepared.

“I’m a vegetarian, and I’m so obsessed with vegetables,” she said. “I really challenge myself to try and use everything and create different dishes.”

To prepare the puntarella so that it’s not too bitter, Shick took a lesson from the Italians.

“What they do in Italy is blanch the outer leaves and saute them in garlic,” she said. “You slice the crunchy inside into sticks and put them in ice water. They get really curly and crisp, and it washes the bitterness out. Then you put them in a salad.”

This spring, her weekly box of produce from Tierra has been chock full of tender, green veggies such as fava beans, asparagus, green garlic and leeks.

During their brief season, fava bean plants provide leaves to saute, small pods to roast whole and larger pods with full-size beans, which can be blanched, peeled and mashed into a delicious paste.

“When the beans are bigger, I make a Fava Bean Pesto with Pistachios,” she said. “The pistachios give it a sweet flavor, which helps with the earthiness of the fava beans. And the lemon juice is really important to bring all the flavors out.”

For an antipasto, she suggested serving a spring bruschetta, with the Fava Bean and Pistachio Pesto spread on top of a crostini garnished with a few strips of roasted pepper. She also shared a recipe for an Arugula and Parsley Pesto.

As a main course, Shick wanted to showcase some of the Tierra Vegetables corn varieties that are dried and ground up into a coarse polenta at the farm. She paired the polenta simply with some tender leeks and green garlic, also from the farm.

The humble yet versatile polenta, affectionately nicknamed “Italian grits,” has served as a staple of northern Italy’s cucina povera (food of poverty) for centuries and is believed to be older than both pizza and pasta. Polenta has roots in the nutritious forms of grain mush that once sustained the mighty Roman Legions.

To cook the polenta, Shick makes a vegetable stock from the green part of the leeks, which adds flavor while making sure nothing goes to waste. Then she cuts up the white part of the leeks, blanches them and sautees them with the green garlic.

“Some of them I put in the polenta when it’s done,” she said “And the rest I sprinkle on top.”

For the kohlrabi, which is still in season, she advises peeling it and slicing it thin, then throwing it raw into a salad with some mandarin oranges, herbs and balsamic vinegar.

“It’s really yummy, like a crunchy apple,” she said of the kohlrabi. “Sometimes I like to mix the kohlrabi with fennel in a salad, especially at the end of the meal. It really cleanses the palate.”

There are still plenty of sweet carrots growing in the fields of Sonoma County right now, so Shick offered up a carrot cake dessert, giving it her own twist. Instead of grating the carrots raw, she opted to roast them first.

“Somehow the roasting made it super moist,” she said. “I wanted it to be vegan, so that was OK.”

For the frosting, she whipped up a coconut whipped cream using coconut milk, maple syrup and vanilla, then added a sprinkle of walnuts on top.

When you’re shopping at the farmers market, Shick suggests trying some produce that you’ve never tasted before. Think rutabaga, salsify and sunchoke, also known as the Jerusalem artichoke.

Then, to get ideas on how to prepare them, she advises talking to the farmer. Ask them what that strange-looking vegetable is, and how they themselves would prepare it. Along the way, you’re going to get to know who is growing your food and make a new connection to the agricultural community.

“They always have so many ideas,” she said. “Lee James (of Tierra Vegetables) has so much knowledge. You ask her one question, and she just keeps going.”

Along with her blog, Shick is working on a memoir inspired by her search for her Italian-American roots. She hopes to offer some cooking classes on Zoom someday that would also be rooted in her style of plant-forward, Italian cooking.

To sign up for a free subscription to her newsletter, go to anitaliandish.com.

The following recipes are from Ellen Shick of Santa Rosa.

When we think of pesto, the classic Genovese version with basil and pine nuts comes to mind. However, the many variations of pesto throughout Italy depend on local ingredients, tradition and the season. When this year’s favas and wild arugula came to the market, using them for pesto seemed like a perfect way to support the season and put a creative spin on a classic idea. These fava and arugula pestos can be slathered on bruschetta or tossed on cooked pasta.

Sometimes, I like to forgo the food processor and make the fava bean pesto with a mortar and pestle. It feels more authentic, and this hands-on approach allows for easy adjustments and control of consistency.

Fava Bean and Pistachio Pesto

Makes about 1 cup

1 pound whole fava pods (makes ½ cup beans)

20 pistachios, shelled

1 whole garlic clove

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 ½ teaspoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

To prepare the favas: Break open the thick, outer pod and remove the beans inside. Drop the beans in boiling water to soften the outer skin, about 1 minute. Drain, cool and slip off skins. You will be left with the soft, inner flesh of each bean.

Add the soft beans, pistachios and garlic to a food processor and grind to a rough paste. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir in the olive oil and add the lemon juice a bit at a time. Add salt and adjust to taste.

Arugula and Parsley Pesto

Makes about ¾ cup

2 cups arugula leaves, washed and dried

1 small bunch Italian parsley, washed and stems removed

1 tablespoon pine nuts

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

Roasted red bell peppers, cut into strips, as optional garnish (see note below)

Finishing salt, such as Maldon

Add arugula and parsley to food processor and pulse to break up leaves. Add pine nuts. Drizzle in the olive oil and process until a paste is formed. Transfer to mixing bowl. Add salt to taste.

Top with roasted red bell peppers, if desired, and finishing salt.

Note: For the roasted peppers: bag and seal to continue steaming for about 10 minutes. Remove peppers and when they’re cool enough to touch, peel off the skin which should come off fairly easily. Cut open the peppers and remove seeds stem and ribs. Use on bruschetta, in salads or on sandwiches.

When I shop at the farmer’s market or pick up my weekly CSA box at Tierra Vegetables, I feel connected to the terroir of the community and the very soil of Sonoma County. By leaning into a plant-based diet, I feel more alive and in harmony with my surroundings. On a wider scale, our local farmers are on the pulse of regenerative farming, the health of our soil and the preservation of heritage varieties.

As Tierra Vegetables gears up to celebrate its 42 years in operation, the brother-and-sister team of Lee and Wayne James carry this passion for the future of farming and the planet. As their spring planting begins to take hold, we see the wee sprouts of corn starting to poke out of the soil.

This is not just your run-of-the-mill corn field. At Tierra, they grow a wide variety of heirloom corn in order to preserve this important food. Their corns show up in their polenta, masa, tortillas and popcorn available in their farm store. I don’t know of another place that offers such a stellar product made with such love and care.

The polenta used in this recipe, Cascade, comes from a new variety developed in Oregon from an ancient grain. The beautiful speckles come from the yellow, purple and red corn kernels that give this variety its unique flavor and appearance.

Creamy Polenta with Leeks and Spring Garlic

Serves 4

5 medium leeks

2 spring garlic bulbs, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for finishing

1 cup polenta

4 cups water or vegetable broth (can be made with leek greens)

Salt to taste

To prepare leeks: cut off the green leek tops, wash and add to boiling water to make a vegetable broth. Meanwhile, to prepare the white leek tops, trim off the root hairs from the end of the leek and cut in half lengthwise. Wash carefully in cool water to remove any soil found between the layers. Then slice thinly.

In a Dutch oven or soup pot, heat the olive oil. Add the sliced leeks and spring garlic. Saute on low until fragrant and beginning to soften, about 7 minutes. Stir in a pinch of salt.

Set aside ¼ cup of leek/garlic mixture for garnish.

Into the pot with remaining leek mixture, stir in 4 cups hot vegetable broth and whisk in the polenta. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Stir often and adjust heat to make sure the polenta does not stick. Continue to simmer, uncovered, stirring often, for 20 minutes until polenta is thickened and begins to pull away from the sides of the pot.

Spoon cooked polenta into an 8-inch x 8-inch glass dish and let cool. As the polenta cools it will begin to solidify. There are several serving options: plate right away for a creamier polenta or let sit for 30 minutes for a firmer polenta. Make the polenta in advance and cool in the refrigerator for a firm polenta. Cut into squares or use a cookie cutter for rounds. Top with a garnish from the reserved leek/garlic mixture and a healthy glug of extra virgin olive oil.

One of the many benefits of belonging to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), other than supporting our local farmers, is the opportunity to try new vegetables. Kohlrabi belongs to that category. I have to admit, I was intimidated by kohlrabi, but thanks to the folks at Tierra Vegetables, I have learned to love this unique spring vegetable. Pronounced (kohl-RAH-bee) this plant is a relative of broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collard greens. It has a flavor all its own with a surprisingly crisp and juicy texture. Kohlrabi can be eaten raw, roasted or in stews. Still not convinced? Kohlrabi is high in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and fiber. For this recipe, we use the round bulbous part of the kohlrabi that is thinly sliced.

Another very Italian feature of this salad is the addition of citrus, a popular ingredient in Sicilian salads.

I find it amazing how nature works in concert. Vegetables and herbs that come into season at the same time usually complement each other on the plate. The kohlrabi, radishes and mint are in their prime and help to usher out the winter citrus.

Kohlrabi and Citrus Salad

Serves 4

4 generous handfuls of salad greens such as arugula, mesclun, butter lettuce

2 medium sized kohlrabi bulbs, peeled and thinly sliced

4 mandarin oranges, peeled and divided into wedges

3 medium radishes, thinly sliced

4-5 sprigs fresh mint, torn

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2-3 teaspoons syrupy balsamic vinegar

Add salad greens to a big salad bowl. Top with sliced kohlrabi, mandarin wedges, radishes and mint. Toss with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Lastly, broadcast balsamic vinegar over all.

During a recent visit to the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmer’s Market at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, I found a beautiful bunch of carrots from Singing Frogs Farm of Sebastopol. Making this cake was the perfect way to honor these sweet, early-spring treats. By roasting the carrots first, the natural sugars come to the fore and give the cake added depth of flavor. This recipe is vegan, but between the roasted carrots, the applesauce, the parade of spices and the creamy frosting, it will satisfy the most discriminating sweet tooth. The carrots can be prepared in advance.

Roasted Carrot Cake with Vegan Whipped Cream Frosting

Makes one 9-inch double layer cake

For roasted carrots:

3 pounds carrots (about 10 medium, makes 2 cups carrot pulp)

2 tablespoons olive oil, for roasting

Pinch of salt

For the cake:

3 cups (360 grams) all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, plus a bit more for garnish

1 pinch nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

½ cup sunflower oil

1 cup applesauce (unsweetened)

½ cup almond milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Optional: ¼ cup chopped walnuts for garnish

For the frosting:

2 13-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk (refrigerated)

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the roasted carrots: preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and slice carrots in fourths, lengthwise. Place in a baking dish and coat with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast until soft and caramelized, about 30 minutes, tossing halfway through. When cool, place the roasted carrots in a food processor and pulse to make a coarse pulp. Set aside.

For the cake: preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients: flour, spices and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together sugar and oil. Stir in applesauce, milk, vanilla extract and carrot pulp.

Add dry ingredients into wet and stir just to combine. Prepare two 9-inch cake pans by greasing and dusting with flour. Spoon in the batter, dividing it evenly. Cook on the center rack at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on wire racks.

For the frosting: place the cans of coconut milk in the fridge the night before to make sure they are fully chilled. Open the cans and scoop out the milk solids and place in a metal bowl. (The coconut water can be saved for another use.) Add maple syrup and vanilla extract. Blend for one minute using a hand mixer. Wait until the cake has completely cooled before frosting between layers, top and sides.

Garnish with chopped walnuts, if desired.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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