On courage, resistance, and every day life
Learn more about the #CookforUkraine project and find joy and serenity in celebrating Carnival with rice fritters
I find it hard to go on with everyday life when something so tragic and disheartening is happening at the borders of Europe. It is tough to pick words to describe my feelings in front of this unfolding tragedy, but, immediately after I’ve typed these words, I find this affirmation selfish.
It is not about my feelings now, it is about finding a way to help, to raise awareness, to bring hope.
I grew up listening to my nonna’s tales about World War II: she was a teenager, living quite safely in the countryside, but her words have always been so precise and vivid that, to this day, I can perfectly portray those moments in my mind: the fear, and the necessity to go on, to keep living, to find solace in the small things. For her, it was having a stroll along that country road that you’ve seen countless times in my stories, turned all of a sudden into a local main road, where all the refugees that had fled the nearby town would gather on a Sunday afternoon.
For others, it was meeting after dinner next to a large fireplace to play cards, picking ripe figs from the tree in the back of the garden, or cooking something with what the vegetable garden and the pantry would offer.
If I’ve learnt something from my nonna’s tales is that life has to go on, so I chose not to be petrified by this tragedy, but to act.
Food is my language and the only place where I feel confident to raise my voice. So this is where I can do something.
This is how they describe their aim.
#CookForUkraine aims to increase awareness of the humanitarian crisis the world faces right now, as well as raise the funds needed to aid children & families in Ukraine who have been displaced by the current situation. Since its inception, hundreds of people from different backgrounds and nationalities have reached out and shown their solidarity by joining this initiative – including top chefs, award-winning food writers, restaurant owners and home cooks – cooking, baking and sharing Ukrainian and Eastern European inspired dishes at their restaurants with their guests, at home with their friends and across social media with their family and followers. #CookForUkraine also provides a platform for Ukrainian families and their supporters to share recipes with each other, along with the stories behind those dishes.
What else can we do?
If you are not already following her, follow Olia Hercules, an excellent UK based food writer, cookbook author, chef and teacher from Ukraine, who’s tirelessly sharing news, updates, and ways to help on her IG profile right now.
Besides this, what we can do is act locally - there are many charities gathering clothes, blankets, first aid kits and canned food to ship to the Ukrainian borders to help refugees -, support organizations we trust, spread the word, get informed - without being overwhelmed -, and cook Ukrainian food to see the Ukrainian people, recognize them, their culture, their food, their colours, tastes, flavours, courage, and strength.
This is the apple sponge I made from Olia’s debut cookbook, Mamushka, a celebration of the food and flavours of Ukraine and the “Wild East”. It is quick, easy, but it provides immediate comfort: slice four tart green apples and dust them with cinnamon, cover them with a light sponge batter, then bake until crisp on the surface, spongy and soft inside, with a bottom of melt-in-your-mouth apples.
It tastes of home, family, comfort, simple days: I couldn’t choose a better recipe to start my journey in the discovery of Ukrainian food.
You can get the recipe for Olia’s Biskvit, Apple Cake, here in her blog. I hope you will bake along and cook along. Remember to use the hashtag #CookForUkraine if you share the recipes you cooked.
It is ok to feel all the feelings now, I came to terms with this.
I’m shattered, devastated by the news, my heart cries for Ukrainian people, but at the same time, I feel a sense of relief from the arrival of Spring, the end of a long winter, and the Covid that is finally receding, at least here in Italy.
I hug my daughter, smell the unmistakable aroma of her neck, and find hope in her smile and infectious joy.
As my purpose is to bring comfort, joy, and serenity through food and stories, I’m also sharing the newsletter I had scheduled for today. I won’t be petrified by the horror of what is happening in Ukraine, but I will act.
And acting, for me, means also to fight with food, a concentrate of culture, hope, humanity, love, and traditions.
Frittelle di riso fiorentine, a Carnival treat
This year, I suddenly realised it was Carnival when one of the mums at Livia’s nursery school asked us how we would dress her up for Carnival.
Livia had already tried schiacciata alla Fiorentina in Florence, so we decided to bring her to Siena to try the local rice fritters, and to give her a taste of Carnival.
She liked the fritters - she had one and sprinkled the sugar all over her dolls - but she preferred the slab of ciaccino we got after (she’s just like her mother).
This was her joy when she first met Carnival confetti: she throw them in the air, marvelled at the colours, then was distracted by a flock of fat pigeons and started chasing them in all Piazza del Campo in Siena. After all, she didn’t need a Carnival costume, she was happy with her Minnie dress, a rice fritter, and a handful of confetti.
But let’s get back to the rice fritters.
The ones we got in Siena are the Sienese rice fritters: the rice is cooked well in advance - days! - and let to mature, almost ferment, until it becomes creamy and mushy. There isn’t sugar inside not raisins. They are fried in large cauldrons in a hut in Piazza del Campo, and generously sprinkled with sugar when still piping hot. When you bite into them, you find a crisp, sugary outer shell and a melt-in-your-mouth, creamy filling with a delicate orange aroma.
They are undoubtedly my favourite rice fritters, especially because they are related to so many memories of my university years. You can read about them here.
Tommaso, instead, as a soft spot for the Florentine rice fritters, and every year we quarrel over the best fritters: those from Siena or those from Florence?
Recently we came to an agreement: we buy those from Siena, as we love to hold the hot, greasy paper in Piazza del Campo, pulling one fritter after the other from the bag, licking the sugary fingers, marvelling at the Medieval scenery, but at home, I make the Florentine fritters.
The funny thing is, these are also the fritters my grandma has been making at home since I can remember: dense, thick with rice cooked in milk, with plump raisins, and covered with sugar. These are also the fritters** we make to celebrate Father’s day, on the 19th of March, so if you are not ready to make them now, save the recipe and get ready to fry in about two weeks!
**The recipe is available just for the paid-subscribers to Letters from Tuscany. We thought it would be easier for everyone to receive an open letter to read and enjoy, and add the paywall just for the recipes, that will eventually be listed in an index easy to be browsed and researched.
Desserts from the pantry, and from the blog archive
Composta saporita, Spiced fruit compote. This spiced fruit compote falls into the category of those desserts that you can make with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back. They will close a dinner with a sweet note when your friends show up uninvited or they will satisfy your cravings for a sweet treat in a pyjama – sofa – TV night.
Always remember to keep in the pantry some nuts and dried fruit – such as prunes, apricots, apples and figs – for emergencies. If it is not your habit, I strongly recommend you to stock up your pantry because you can whip up a memorable dessert within minutes: a handful of nuts, a pinch of spice, some leftover white wine and a tablespoon of sugar is all you need. It is easy as that.
Castagnaccio, Tuscan chestnut cake. Castagnaccio is an ancient recipe, a dessert that speaks to the Tuscan peasant woman’s triumph over poverty and hunger. The simplest version involves a basic mix of chestnut flour, water, oil and rosemary, resulting in a cake with an almost biting, smoky flavour and a texture similar to bread pudding. And yet castagnaccio is in some ways a surprisingly modern dessert. It contains no sugar and is naturally gluten and lactose-free. More elaborate versions call for dried fruit and raisins to be added along with its fundamental ingredient, of course: chestnut flour.
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