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