How Not to Visit the Cinque Terre

I find traveling is a set of skills that stays sharp when you do it often, but we’ve been on a bit of a travel hiatus. After spending a couple of weeks (a long stretch for us) in Mexico this January, we pretty much stayed put for early 2018. Besides, there was plenty that needed doing here. But the drought ended with a road trip to the Cinque Terre, on the northwestern coast of Italy, south of Genoa. In blundering ahead with our rusty skills, we missed a few points on the mental checklist. Here is what we learned so that you don’t have to:

  1. Do the homework and study your map!
    L’OrtoBio, the place we stayed in Sarzana was a really nice, a quiet, newly-renovated vacation apartment with a minimally equipped kitchen (no oven). It worked well for breakfasts and snacking (the bowl of fresh strawberries from their organic farm upon check-in was a nice touch), but cooking whole meals would have been a stretch. The location posed another challenge: tranquil and located on an organic farm, but not particularly walkable if you want to access town without a car. The distance wasn’t an issue, there were just no sidewalks on the cramped, busy roads. So strolling in to hop on a train, to hunt for postcards or for dinner and a glass of wine weren’t realistic options. Naturally, we discovered this by doing it and not asking for help.
  2. Know when to ask for help!
    The restaurant we chose for dinner ended up being completely booked on both Friday and Saturday night, and since we (in accordance with the theme of not learning a damned thing) hadn’t reserved, we were turned away. If we’d been brave and asked our hosts for some help as native speakers to make the call for us, we’d have known this and made other plans.
  3. Check which season you’re in!
    Our accommodation priced that weekend as their low season, but Cinque Terre specific resources call May mid season and the crowds were pretty intense. I shudder to think how packed it is at peak season (June-July-August).
  4. Be prepared to stand on the train!
    Again, this is season dependent, but by the time we headed back into La Spezia (larger city at the southern end of the Cinque Terre and often a used as base), the train was completely full with people standing all along the aisles.
  5. Bring your climbing knees!
    Even if you don’t elect to do the hikes from town to town, you might have to face the many, many, MANY steps up to and down from Corniglia. If you take the train or walk in from Manarola, you’ll climb them (or elect for the bus) and if you walk in from Vernazza, you’ll have to descend them to continue the path southward. My biggest suggestion: don’t count, just get on with it.
    Corniglia

    Corniglia Stazione
  6. Don’t even think about driving if you feel like getting out of the car!
    This was our major error. On Friday, we had illusions of driving to La Spezia and taking the train from there. There is a serious lack of parking spots, given the demand on the train station there. So we thought “Let’s just start driving through them and we’ll park where ever there’s room!” But that’s the thing: there is no room. All of the parking we saw available was already taken, and much of it claimed by town residents, as whole hillsides of parallel spots were marked for residential use only. On top of that, there were people directing traffic at the entrances to the town, basically telling drivers to turn back, as there was no room. So we got a nice view of the mountains, but didn’t actually experience the Cinque Terre until we returned Saturday, sans car.
    high above Cinque Terre

    high above Cinque Terre
  7. If the crowd is too much, head upward! Anytime we arrived in a town to throngs at the marina, we just headed up the steep slopes into the higher streets and they thinned right out. Still plenty to see, you just have to earn it a little.
    Vernazza
    Manarola

    Manarola
  8. Where ever you end up, stop, look up and turn all the way around!
    There’s a reason they’re so packed. The Cinque Terre are stunning, with every step and at every turn. It was a little overwhelming to have all that beauty trying to get into your eyes at once.

Tiramisu

Sounds fancy, but it’s an icebox cake. Raw eggs are in there, so if that’s a dealbreaker, best skip this one.

500 g / 16 oz. Mascarpone cheese
157 g / 3/4 c sugar
2 eggs, separated (I use XL; if you use smaller eggs, you might need 3)
250 mL / 1 cup strong, cold coffee
3 T Marsala wine, DiSaronno almond liqueur, Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, whatever sweet booze you enjoy
1 large package ladyfinger cookies (min. 24 pieces)
grated chocolate or cocoa powder

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine Mascarpone, sugar and egg yolks. Mix until well combined.

  2. Whip the separated egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into cheese until mixture becomes smooth and light – don’t overmix!

  3. Have a deep 9×13 ready! Pour coffee and liqueur into large shallow bowl or deep plate. Dip (but don’t soak) unsugared half of cookie into coffee mixture and place wet side down on bottom of 9×13. Repeat until dipped cookies cover the bottom of your pan, breaking up cookies as needed. Spread a thick layer of your cream mixture over the cookie layer. Dip and place another layer of cookies over the cream, then top with more cream. Keep going if you have enough cookies and cream left, just make sure you end with cream.

  4. Sprinkle grated chocolate or dust cocoa over the top. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours before serving.

Morbiflette (French Mountain Potato Gratin)

A couple of years ago, on a trip to France, we ended up poking around a Christmas market in Dijon. It was lunchtime and we were staring at a giant skillet (a poêle, linguistically related to paella) with potatoes and onions and bacon and cheese, all being stirred by strapping French country men. It was love at first sight. Chunks of Morbier cheese with its signature dark vein running through the center were on display, being tossed in as the cooks saw fit. We got a portion and split it. That was dumb; should’ve each gotten our own. After cross referencing multiple recipes, we FINALLY hit on a good reproduction.

The method is based on that of tartiflette, a potato dish developed in the 80s to promote Reblochon cheese. Reblochon is a much softer, brie-like cheese, as opposed Morbier, which you can slice. The firmer texture of Morbier is why I’ve upped the crème fraîche; runnier Reblochon made for a creamier finished product.

A note: you guys, it is SO EASY to mess up a gratin. Believe it or not, a pile of cheese and starch will be sad and bland if you don’t do the detail work. Think “eh, I don’t need to boil the potatoes, they’re going in the oven,” or “ew, I don’t want to cook the onions in bacon grease! I’ll use olive oil instead,” and you will ruin all your hard work. The potatoes need to be boiled in salted water or they’ll be gummy and bland. The onions need the bacon grease because of the smoky saltiness it imparts. The salt levels need to be checked and adjusted throughout the process to keep the flavors balanced. If you’re worried about this not being healthy, make something else. Cutting corners on this dish will render it inedible. A salad with a tart vinaigrette is the perfect accompaniment.

1 k or 2.2 lbs large waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into halves or thirds
2/3 t salt
200 g or 1/2 lb bacon
2 large onions, sliced into ribbons
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
100 mL or 1/2 c white wine (we forgot this, so we drank it with)
1/2 t dried thyme
75 g or 1/3 c crème fraîche
3 T heavy cream (forgot this too, but the texture would benefit)
300 g or 2/3 lb Morbier cheese, rind trimmed and sliced thickly (1/2 cm or 1/4 in)

In a large pot, cover the potatoes with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, add salt, stir and lower heat to a steady simmer. Cook potatoes for 15-20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a sharp knife. Drain potatoes and set aside to cool. Do not rinse potatoes!

Heat a large skillet to medium high and cook the bacon until browned and crispy. Set on paper-towel lined plate to cool. Turn heat down to medium and add onions to the skillet to cook in the bacon drippings (if there are a lot of drippings, remove all but 2 T and set aside to add in case pan starts to look dry). Cook until softened and starting to caramelize, stirring only occasionally. Add a pinch or two of salt if needed (onions shouldn’t taste salty, just very oniony) and chopped garlic for last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Remove onions to deep bowl.

Preheat oven to 220° C or 425° F. Lightly but thoroughly butter a medium to medium-large baking dish (several individual deep crocks would also be great for a crowd). Chop cooled bacon into bits and add to onions. Add thyme, crème fraîche and cream to onion mixture and stir until well distributed. Slice cooled potatoes into generous 1/2 cm or 1/4 in pieces.

Assembly
Layer half of potatoes on bottom of buttered dish, using broken bits to fill in gaps. Top with half of onion mixture, spread evenly. Top onions with half of Morbier slices (try to leave small margin around sides of pan). Repeat sequence until all ingredients used up.

Put pan in oven and lower heat to 200° C or 400° F. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until top is browned and bubbly. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before slicing.

One-Pot Spicy Rigatoni

I’m not a full convert, but I do dig this whole one-pot recipe craze. Especially with pastas, I find the noodles are particularly infused with flavor. We were inspired by this recipe, but made a few changes. I imagine it’s great with the chicken, but we’ve only ever had it without and it has never disappointed.

2 T olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
2 roasted red bell peppers, roughly chopped
2 T tomato paste
1/2 c dry sherry
1 28 oz can stewed tomatoes
2 c water
2 T fresh oregano, finely chopped (or 2 t dried)
2 pinches dried red pepper flakes (3 if you like it spicy)
1/2 t salt
500 g Rigatoni (or other short pasta, tubes would be best)
1 T butter
10-15 basil leaves, torn
1/2 c Grana Padano, grated
3 T cream

In a deep pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Sauté shallots and garlic until tender, then add peppers and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook until it begins to smell caramelized, then deglaze pot with sherry. Add tomatoes and break them up with a spatula. Add the water, oregano, pepper flakes and salt and bring to a boil.

Add the pasta and cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes or until almost tender. Turn heat down to low, add butter and basil. When butter is completely melted, add cheese and cream, stirring until integrated. Simmer for 5 minutes more, stirring all the time, then remove from heat. Let stand for a couple of minutes, then serve.

Orzo Asparagus Salad

Spargelsaison is fun, but it can be a little one-note if you don’t have a variety of preparations for the stuff. If you’re lucky enough to have grilling weather while the asparagus is as its peak, this is a fantastic way to serve it alongside burgers or sausages. I found the original here and have posted my version below.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
250 g orzo pasta
at least 500 g green asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces
about 300 g artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
1-1/2 cups sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, julienned
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil

In a small skillet, heat olive oil to medium. Add shallot and garlic and cook until tender and fragrant. Set aside.

Cook orzo in salted water for 1 minute less than package directs. Add asparagus to orzo for last 2 minutes of cook time but no more! You want the asparagus to be bright green and still a little crispy when you drain the pasta. After draining the orzo and asparagus, run cold water over it immediately, agitating it frequently to make sure there are no pockets of heat. After draining and cooling, pour orzo and asparagus into a large salad bowl. Add artichokes and tomatoes to orzo bowl.

Remove shallot & garlic to a small deep bowl. Add lemon zest and juice, vinegar, salt and pepper to bowl. While whisking, drizzle in olive oil. Pour dressing over salad, stir thoroughly, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours. Stir again before serving.

Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)

It is possible to eat too much pizza. For me, at any rate.

On our last jaunt through Italy, I kept meaning to order something that wasn’t pizza and failing spectacularly. Every region has different specialty toppings! I might miss out on something!! But when my body finally said NO MORE, I went for Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans) instead. And my goodness, was it ever rewarding. Borlotti beans are the creamiest, most flavor-absorbing beans I’ve ever come across. I plan to try making it sometime with dried beans, but this canned version comes together in a flash.

100 g diced pancetta or bacon
2 T olive oil
1 large or 2 small yellow onions, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 c/100 ml white wine
1/4 t red chili flakes
1 large sprig fresh rosemary leaves
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1/2 t ground black pepper
4-5 c/1-1.25 L weak chicken broth
3 15 oz/400 g cans borlotti (cranberry) beans, drained and rinsed
1 generous c/250 g short pasta
1 c/200 mL boiling water (optional)
1/2 c/100 g grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/4 c/50 g chopped parsley

Heat deep soup pot to medium heat. Add pancetta or bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until a little fat renders, then add olive oil. Turn heat to medium-low and add onions and garlic, stirring frequently until tender and translucent, but not browned. Add white wine, chili flakes, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and black pepper, stirring until wine is mostly evaporated. Add chicken broth and beans and allow mixture to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and turning down heat if necessary.

After 10 minutes, remove bay leaves and strip rosemary and thyme leaves from sprigs, returning the leaves to the pot. Either mash some of the beans with the back of a spoon or briefly use a stick blender, making sure to leave about half of the beans intact. Add the pasta (if there’s not enough liquid to cook the pasta or the soup is already too thick, add the extra water) and cook until almost done. Remove from heat and cover for 5 minutes. Serve with grated Pecorino or Parmesan and chopped parsley.