Welcome back to the Let's Get Spicy series! Through this series, I will introduce you to each of my small batch, hand-crafted spice blends, giving you a little bit of the history behind each blend, a story or two of how I first discovered them or what inspired them, some non-recipe-recipes for when you don't have the time or interest to get too involved in cooking, and some full-blown recipes for when you really want to dig in. Next up, my Italian Countryside Spice Blend!
The date was August 31, 2001. As a 20-year old college junior, I boarded a plane at LAX and, about 10 hours later, landed in Bologna, Italy, the city that would become my home for the next year. I was on a year-long study abroad program through the University of California Education Abroad Program, and I was READY. FOR. ADVENTURE. (Note: My apologies for the poor quality of the older photos below. Digital camera technology in 2001 was solidly not what it is today.)
Little did I know, of course, that the world would change in the blink of an eye less than two weeks later, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made being an American feel different, especially for those of us not physically within the borders of the United States. In the chaos of that day, the University put us on lockdown until they could figure out (1) what was going on and (2) whether safety considerations required them to send us home. A few days later, however, we were given the go-ahead to venture out, although we were, of course, encouraged to be cautious about advertising that we were Americans. Suffice it to say that, for the rest of that year, when asked where I was from, my answer was generally, "Canada."
Studying abroad in Italy, at least for me, involved remarkably little studying. Although Bologna is home to the world's oldest university (established in 1088), attendance at lectures was, to put it mildly, not the norm. Rather, most students tended to simply read the materials listed on the syllabus and then take the exam (which was usually oral) at the end of the course. Now, up to this point, I was solidly the nerd who rarely missed class, but I recognized quickly that this system opened up all kinds of opportunities for me to travel and really EXPERIENCE my time in Italy.
I started, of course, with my own city. Bologna, known as "la Dotta, la Grossa, la Rossa" (the Learned (for the University), the Fat (for the extensive culinary tradition), the Red (for its left-leaning politics), is the regional capital of Emilia-Romagna, the home to everything from tortellini pasta to mortadella to Bolognese sauce to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to balsamic vinegar. In other words, the food is AMAZING. So I explored every Osteria and Gelateria, drank every house wine anyone poured me, and made friends with my local produce vendor, just around the corner from my apartment. I was in food heaven.
Once I became more comfortable with the idea of traveling outside my new-found safety bubble of Bologna (and, frankly, with my Italian), I began taking day trips around the region, followed by longer trips to other areas of the country, exploring not just the history, art and architecture, but also, of course, the food. This was when it truly hit me that there is no such thing as "Italian food." The flavors - and, frankly, the ingredients - in every region vary wildly, from fresh seafood and bright, acidic pasta sauces along the Mediterranean coast to rich, earthy, meaty braises and risotto in the central and northern regions. And although the coastal cuisine was similar to the food I grew up eating in Southern California, there was something about the rich, meaty, almost earthy flavors of the food of Emilia-Romagna and nearby Tuscany that really resonated with me that year.
Enter my Italian Countryside Spice Blend. This blend, which contains porcini mushrooms, rosemary, thyme, garlic and onion, instantly transports me to the vineyard-dotted hills and cobblestone streets of the tiny medieval towns found throughout Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, where I ate so many amazing meals that I can't even recount them all. When I open a jar of this blend I can close my eyes and smell the wild boar salami hanging in the window of a little macelleria (meat shop) just off the main piazza in Siena. I can feel the silky broth of a dish of tortellini en brodo (tortellini in broth) warm me from the inside out after a cold winter day spent wandering around Parma. And I can taste that first delightful sip of Rosso di Montalcino from a little vinoteca I stumbled upon in Greve, a gorgeous town in the Chianti wine region of Tuscany. If taste is memory, then this spice blend is a year of memories that explodes my senses every time I sprinkle some of it on a pork chop or stir it into a pasta sauce or risotto.
But enough of my babbling about my time in Italy (although I could go ON AND ON AND ON). Here are some quick ideas for how to take your own virtual trip to the Italian countryside using my Italian Countryside Spice Blend.
- Season some bone-in pork chops or a pork loin (bonus points if you can find yourself some wild boar). Serve it alongside some sauteed Tuscan kale, and pair it with a bottle of Chianti Classico.
- Sprinkle it into some rich, extra virgin olive oil and serve it as a dipping sauce for some crusty Italian bread.
- Stir some into a hearty meat sauce this Sunday. Be sure to start it early in the day and let it simmer all afternoon so you have more time to enjoy how amazing your house smells.
- Make a big batch of my Extra 'Shroomy Mushroom Risotto (recipe here). You SHOULD have leftovers, but you probably won't.
Do you have other ideas for how to use Italian Countryside Spice Blend? Share them here or on one of my social media pages! Photos and videos are always encouraged!