Saturday, July 30, 2016

Meet Viola Buitoni

When I lived in Italy I was both very lucky to know a few Italians who treated me like family, and very naive. I think back now on my 6 months living in Italy and I can’t help but realize how much I missed. What I really needed was a friend like Viola to help me navigate and find the good stuff. 

Viola Buitoni is a San Francisco cooking instructor and kind of impresario--organizing Italian themed events. She’s also tremendously down-to-earth, relaxed and utterly charming. I took a cooking class with her a few years ago and loved every minute of it. Her classes sell out so quickly I rarely have time to write about them in advance. To travel with her to Italy? That sounds like heaven to me. 

Where did you grow up and can you tell me about your family’s food connections? 
VB: I grew up in Perugia, the main city of Umbria and was born into one of Italy's first pasta families. I am the 6th generation of the Buitoni family. Our pasta fortune originates in Sansepolcro, a province of Arezzo. Shortly after moving to Perugia to mind one of the pastifici, my great grandfather Francesco founded Perugina with Luisa Spagnoli. Though my family no longer has a stake, Buitoni and Perugina are both worldwide food brands to this day. 
What made you decide to run tours to Italy?
VB:I've been in the Italian food business for more than 25 years, I've run kitchens and dining rooms catered to the NY elite and even owned a store. After a short maternity break, I started teaching and found enormous joy in sharing the knowledge I had accumulated. My deep love and understanding of Italian food was clearly infectious. I've grown a following of students who often told me I've changed the way they think about food. Guiding a cooking experience in Italy seemed a natural extension of the "Viola experience", so to say, a way to continue to inspire passionate home cooks even further in embracing not only the technique but the deeper meaning of food and kitchen culture in Italy. 

What kinds of recipes do you to teach? 
VB: I teach recipes that can live and change in home kitchens and that are suited for school nights; the kind that that can work for generations and create lasting memories while changing with time. My food is very market driven, it is a celebration of where and when I am in different places in the world. Always, of course, with an Italian sensibility. 

Why are your trips to Lucca and Maremma instead of to the more well-known cities like Florence or Perugia? 
VB:The simple answer is I have access to unique and well suited facilities, but there is more. My maternal family has summered in Maremma for 6 decades, so I know and love it intimately. Lucca came on the coat tails of Maremma when a local foundation noticed the work I was doing and proposed that I do something similar in the lucchesia. 
There is also the desire to share Italy as I know it and love it, with all its fables, and  all its foibles. An Italy that is for locals, that runs on the timetable of nature and its seasons. Teaching about food is also generating emotions, opening a door into an upbringing and adulthood that have always been deeply connected to the pathways of producing, purveying, cooking and enjoying good food. I can think of no better place to do this than the less known territories of Italy. 

What are some of the highlights of your tours to Italy? 
VB:In Maremma a private dinner on top of a mountain from which you can see forever, a visit to the winery of a family. A friend who watched me grow up. In Lucca cooking classes straight from markets, a private tour of a villa guided by the princess who owns it, followed by a reception in her private loggia. 

To learn more about Viola's tours to Italy visit: Viola's Italy

Friday, July 29, 2016

Highlights from J-Pop Summit 2016

Not unlike traveling to Japan itself, this past weekend's J-Pop Summit,which combines food, culture, technology and popular music from Japan. delivered a complete sensory overload that made for one of the most immersive experiences this side of virtual reality. It's hard to know where to begin to describe it as words and pictures only scratch the surface. But, for me, the Ramen Summit with 8 booths serving their own take on this foodie favorite was a major draw. 
The ramen on offer here came in so many different styles that it was tough deciding but I went with a bowl of ramen from a very sucessful ramen shop with 3 locations in Tokyo that will soon be is opening up in Japantown. Hinodeya is the winner of the Japan Ramen Awards for 2016 and after tasting their ramen, I can see why. The dashi broth was much lighter but at the same time very rich. The egg noodles were wider and wavier than other ramen but still al dente. The slice of pork and cooked egg were tender and delicious. I'm looking forward to the opening of their shop! 
In addition to the ramen there was a booth offering takayaki, a kind of savory octopus donut and sushiwich, a kind of sushi in the form of sandwich. Off the beaten path but well worth seeking it out, were delicious cups of udon noodles with spicy codfish roe. 
There was sake, beer, award-winning shochu and low alcohol peach and grapefruit flavored cocktails to try. 

I’m not going to tell you all about the technology (this is a food blog after all)—but it was great to have so much that was interactive and not just on display. It seemed in keeping with the playful and hands-on nature of the festival. Likewise the virtual tour of Japan in the tourism area had to be experienced, but I did walk away with packets of bath salts made to resemble ramen soup(!) and plenty of brochures about less known regions of Japan. I'm sorry to say I missed some of the music and the drag queen contest, though I did see some of the contestants.   

Perhaps best of all was the music and kookiness that is Japanese culture. If you don’t know what I mean you’ll just have to check out this video.  Domo, Domo, Domo!

Until next year! 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Foodie Memoirs

In the Summer you need a book or two that you can take on a plane or to the beach. These are the my picks for Summer reads: 

My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes
I think I was afraid this book by a nutritionist would be about dieting. It turns out it is and it really isn’t. It’s all about family and author Dawn Lerman paints such vivid pictures of hers that the recipes are just an added bonus. From the very beginning her feelings are tied up with those who feed her and those who don’t. You can feel the plastic covers on her Bubbe Mary’s couch and smell her dad’s “closet” brownies. And even if you didn’t grow up in Chicago in the 70’s, or move to NYC and go to school on the Upper East Side, you can’t help but relate to her memories of her dieting dad, frustated mom, beloved younger sister and especially her doting grandmother Beauty. The book is all about her love for and evolving relationships with her family, her heritage and yes, food adventures of her own. It’s got lots of humor and is a fun read. It's out in paperback.

My Organic LifeMy Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way we Eat Today. I really didn’t know much about Nora Pouillon before reading this book, but I felt like I got to know her as I read it. Her memories of growing up in Austria post World War II (and a few memories that go back even further) took me to another time and place not just physically but emotionally. You really understand her passion for all things organic and wholesome through this book. The recipes are all at the end of the book and mirror her own journey from old world to new. From the alps in Austria to Vienna to traveling around Europe and finally to Washington DC, her life takes many unexpected twists leading to a strong sense of purpose. Her revelations in the book are both honest and brave. It's available in paperback. 
Life without a Recipe
Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir of Food and Family
While their are many memoirs with recipes, Life Without Recipes as the title might indicate, is not one of them. The book delves deeper into the relationship author Diana Abu-Jaber has with the two sides of her family—one German and the other Jordanian. It’s hard not to be seduced by Abu-Jaber’s beautiful writing and easy to appreciate how like cooking without a recipe, she finds her own path through trial and error, with plenty of sucesses and failures along the way. But like a great meal, it is satisfying and has a sweet ending. Hardcover.

All of NothingAll or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme. 
I read this book which came out in paperback, last year. I took it on a trip last Summer and could not put it down. It’s about a young man, a budding chef, and his descent into drug addiction and finally his redemption. You can tell from reading the book that author Jesse Schenker has great potential and passion but also a self-destructive tendency that feels at times like it will never quit. The book takes you into some deep dark place—from kitchens to jails and detox centers— but it’s a compelling, some might say “addictive” read. No recipes but plenty of cooking. Paperback. 

Disclaimer: This post includes Amazon affiliate links and these books were provided to me as review copies.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Squash Blossom Pasta Recipe

Summer is in full swing and so are the farmers markets. It’s a joy to walk around and see all the juicy peaches, luscious strawberries, plump eggplants, and many colors, shapes and sizes of peppers and squash. Much as I like Summer squash, I’m even more crazy about their younger selves—squash blossoms. They are wonderful stuffed and fried, in frittata, risotto, in quesadillas and of course, with pasta. 

I am a pasta maniac and swear I could eat a pound of it in one sitting. But I’ve been experimenting lately and I’ve found I can be satisfied with a whole lot less pasta if I add a lot of other ingredients. This recipe is a perfect example. It has plenty of vegetables and just a little pasta. It uses very few ingredients so use the absolute best you can get from either your garden or a farmers market. 

Squash blossoms are very delicate and I like this technique of just blanching them in the pasta water rather than sauteeing them. Many recipes use to many other strong flavored ingredients such as herbs, spices or other vegetables which I think is a mistake. Simpler is better to let the squash blossoms shine. This dish is my version of a recipe I found from Rocco DiSpirito. Mine is lighter and healthier and weighted more towards the vegetables than the pasta. I use whole grain pasta, but you certainly don’t have to if you prefer another kind. Note: Only use sweet and “squishy ripe” tomatoes. Yellow ones would be nice too instead of red.

Squash Blossom Pasta 
Serves 4


2 cups whole grain pasta such as rotini
1/4 cup extra-virgin or olio nuovo olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or smashed 
2 cups squished fresh juicy tomatoes
4 cups squash blossoms, stamens removed, and torn 
1⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano


Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water.

Heat the oil in a large pan, add the garlic, and sauté over low heat until the garlic is soft and golden but not brown. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, until very thick and saucy.

When the pasta is just barely al dente, add the squash blossoms to the pot, and stir. Scoop out the pasta and squash blossoms with a strainer and add to the pan with the tomatoes, adding a little of the cooking liquid. Continue cooking until the liquid has been absorbed and squash blossoms wilted. Off the heat season with Parmigiano-Reggiano and salt to taste.