Beets – A Fresh Idea

Fresh and crunchy summer beet salad

I don’t know what happened but my beet crop was disastrous this year. The “golden” beets I planted in the fall evolved into knotty, dingy beige, woody and inedible roots. Thank goodness my neighbor, Sandy, who is an amazing gardener, gifted me with three beautiful ruby beets as well as the challenge of how to cook them other than the classic steamed or roasted. I immediately thought of my brand new spiralizer that I purchased from my dear friend Laureen who is a director at Pampered Chef. Her products are always top-notch but for some reason, I had procrastinated experimenting with this contraption.

Introducing the Spiralizer by the Pampered Chef

My garden re-landscape has consumed my life ( I just had to have a Fuyu Persimmon!) and I decided to take a break from the dirt to spend a day in the kitchen, my other favorite room. I started the morning baking David Lebovitz’s olive oil muffins, with my touch of added blueberries, then decided to tackle the spiralizer. It is much easier than anticipated! In fact, it is simple.  I choose the fettuccine blade and voila! I was impressed. From the outside, all Sandy’s beets looked the same but when unwrapping them, one’s color was a burgundy wine while the other a party pink.

Easier than a mandoline

I wanted to create something simple but tasty and beautiful. The accompanying ingredient that came to mind was pistachios. I love this green nut which I feel is so undervalued.
Once the beets are thinly sliced, they can be eaten either raw or cooked. I blanched some of the spirals and was disappointed that the brightness of color faded dramatically. I decided to use them raw but you can prepare them anyway you like.

Party pink fettucine of beet

My choice of flavoring was extra virgin mint olive oil, which I tossed into the beets to give them a light, summer flavor. Goat cheese, rolled in the mint olive oil then in chopped pistachios, added character. The cubed avocado provides extra color and a soft texture. I sprinkled around some leftover fennel for color and crunch. For the finale, thick fig balsamic vinegar was drizzled on top. This vinegar really does pair beautifully with the beets. The fun is in “painting” the plate with your ingredients. Feel free to share your beet creations and combos with me!

Ciao for now!


Roberto Cooks Sicilian

True Sicilian pride.

True Sicilian pride.

My friend Roberto, musician, teacher and lover of food, especially Italian, came to visit last weekend. He brought us the best gift. He cooked for us! Did I mention Roberto is Sicilian? His recipes are not what you would find in any restaurant and probably rarely what would be published in a trendy cooking magazine. They are true-to-the-culture dishes that are a bit out there and really pushed my culinary boundaries. Skeptical as you may be, this recipe is so delicious, your stomach will be begging for seconds, as mine did.

Pasta Con Le Sarde, or Pasta with Sardines, is a representative dish of Sicily from Palermo.  What makes this dish so interesting is its Arab influence and how the middle eastern ingredients found their way into Sicily’s culinary history. Examples of this are raisins, pine nuts and saffron included in this pasta.

Roberto told me of his mother and aunt making Pasta Con Le Sarde for family dinners. He fell in love with his first taste of the dish even as a young child. As he grew older, and eventually moved to California, Roberto became more interested in the food and ingredients of his homeland.  To help with the surges of homesickness most foreigners experience, he began cooking from a cookbook of ancient Sicilian recipes he brought with him from Sicily. Here is the recreation of the recipe he fondly remembers.

The beauty of this dish is that you can have a few things going at once and while they simmer, sit down and enjoy a glass of wine.

This recipe will not spell out exact measurements because Roberto made it off the top of his head. Still, it is easy to create and this dish is not an exact science! Serves an army or about 4 hungry diners.

Pasta Con Le Sarde
  • 2 Tbls. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 anchovy fillets canned in oil
  • 3 cups chopped fennel fronds and stalks, not the bulb
  • 16 oz. rigatoni pasta
  • 1 tin sardines in oil
  • 1 cup raisins, soaked in warm water to soften, then drained
  • ½ cup pinenuts, toasted
  • generous pinch saffron
  • Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Sauté the onion in the olive oil with the anchovies.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt.
  4. Add the chopped fennel fronds and boil for about 45 minutes or until very tender and soft.
  5. As the onions cook and soften, add spoonfuls of the fennel water to the mixture to keep it moist.
  6. When the fennel is cooked, strain it out of the water using a slotted spoon and add it to the onion mix.
  7. Do not discard the water! This water will be used to boil the pasta.
  8. Add the pasta to the boiling fennel water and cook until just al dente or firm to the teeth.
  9. Meanwhile, to the fennel onion mix, stir in the sardines, raisins, pine nuts and finally the saffron.
  10. Gently stir in the cooked pasta and coat it with the fennel sauce.
  11. Use olive oil, we prefer the Lemon Extra Virgin, to coat a 6 quart baking dish. Pour in the pasta mixture. Generously drizzle the entire dish with lemon extra virgin olive oil, about 2 Tablespoons.
  12. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until heated through.
  13. Serve with a fresh green salad and crusty bread.




In Italy, Roberto uses wild fennel, Finnochio Rizzo, that he gathers from the side of the road.

In Italy, Roberto uses wild fennel, Finnochio Rizzo, that he gathers from the side of the road.

The marriage.

The marriage.

The nose is telling Roberto how many more sardines to add.

The nose is telling Roberto how many more sardines to add. The sardines smooth out the strong flavor of the fennel. Of course, in Sicily, fresh sardines are used.

The finishing touch - generous drizzles of Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

The finishing touch – generous drizzles of Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

So, how many of you will attempt this dish? It is quite tasty, not fishy and flavorful to a fault.

“And anyone who has once known this land (Sicily) can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.”
D. H. Lawrence

Ciao for now,




Preserving Garden Tomatoes


San Marzanos awaiting transformation.

Tomato sauce recipes are ubiquitous. Ask your friends and they will all have their own versions which most cling to like a plum pit. If you grow your own tomatoes like I do, you want to do something really special with your precious harvest.

San Marzanos in abundance!

San Marzanos in abundance!

This year I am growing Italian San Marzano heirloom tomatoes. Originating from the town of San Marzano sul Sarno in southern Italy near Naples, they are a prized Italian treasure. You can usually find the canned version in specialty stores but rarely will you see them in the fresh fruit section of the grocery stores or even at Farmer’s Markets. They are a smaller, more elongated version of an American plum tomato or Roma, with a thick pulp and low acidity which makes them perfect for preserving. As if overnight, about five pounds of them ripened simultaneously in my garden. It was time to can.

How did I decide on what kind of sauce to make with these coveted tomatoes? I consulted my library of traditional Italian cookbooks from Giuliano Buglialli to Ada Boni. The suggestions ranged from complex to simple. From my travels in Italy, I know that the true Italian version of “sugo di pomodoro” or tomato sauce is not to embellish it with too many flavors. The intention is to keep it simple so the tang of the tomato can shine. I liked Bugialli’s technique of simplicity so improvised with my own twist.

San Marzano Tomato Sauce
Prep time

Cook time

Total time


Recipe type: Tomato Sauce
Serves: 6 cups

  • 4-5 lbs of San Marzano or Italian Plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbs Garlic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Handful of basil chiffonade (thinly sliced basil leaves)

  1. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise.
  2. Place in a deep saucepan.
  3. Stir in Garlic Olive Oil
  4. Stir in basil. The basil helps bring out the flavor of the tomato.
  5. Cook over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally until juice is released and tomatoes break down. This took about 2 hours.

The finished sauce, thick and juicy and delectable.

The finished sauce, thick and juicy and delectable.

Most people will pass it through a food mill to eliminate the skins and seeds. Not me. I am ok with seeing and eating the entire fruit.
You can either pour it over hot pasta and sprinkle with parmesan or preserve it by canning like I did. Instead of placing my jars in a water bath and sealing my cans, I opt to freeze my sauce in the jars. It lasts nicely, keeps its vibrant red color and is easy!

Yield: About 6+ cups of sauce. I could just eat it with a spoon out of the jar.

Yield: About 6+ cups of sauce. I could just eat it with a spoon out of the jar.

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
― Miles Kington

Ciao with Love,


Picnic Palette

A feast for the eyes as well.

A feast for the eyes.

Color is the theme of this vibrant and hearty side dish that delivers both bold flavors and textures. Reminiscent of something Italian, it is the picture perfect picnic dish. Using a mandoline or vegetable slicer will make quick work of prepping the veggies. Be sure to slice them thinly, 1/8″ – 1/4″ thick, or you will be waiting forever for it to finish cooking. I used my herbal olive oils from The Virtuous Olive, to really push the flavors. It’s ok to use different veggies from the ones I chose. Just paint your palette and be prepared for rave reviews!

Summer Garden Side
  • 1-2 zucchinis, thinly sliced.
  • 2-3 bright red tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 eggplant, thinly sliced, then cut into half rounds
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1-2 tsp. chopped fresh herbs (thyme, basil, parsley or your choice) or use herbs de Provence
  • salt

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil an 8 X 10″ pan. The size of the pan is not important. If you are feeding a crowd, use a larger pan and prep more veggies.
  2. Toss veggies lightly in Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  3. Layer zucchini slices along the side of the pan. Sprinkle with garlic, scatter the herbs and lightly salt. Repeat layering with tomatoes, garlic, herbs and salt, then the eggplant, garlic, herbs and salt. Continue layering until you’ve reached the end of the pan. If there are gaps, like I had in mine, roll up thin slices of zucchini and tomato to form mini roses. They serve a purpose and look pretty too. Drizzle entire dish with Bel Tocco Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Basil Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  4. Bake for 1 hour or until veggies are soft but not soggy. Let cool and serve either warm or cold.

“Summer night–
even the stars
are whispering to each other.”
— Kobayashi Issa

Enjoy your summertime!



Immersed in Olive Oil

Le Fenice Nolce Olives

It’s been a busy month and I am happy to announce that my new enterprise, The Virtuous Olive is up and running. The shop is stocked with fruity oils, natural and flavored. My goal is to bring a taste of the true Italy to your table. These photos are from La Fenice, Galantino’s personal olive estate near beautiful Bisceglie where I visited this last month.

Picking Nolce, or the new olives

The chili peppers used for the Peperocino olive oil

A very old olive tree living the good life at La Fenice

I hope you visit my site! There is something for everyone’s taste, I promise. I will be back next Wednesday with more tales from my recent trip to Italy so stay tuned.

The Virtuous Olive

Sending amore,


The Virtuous Olive


The Virtuous Olive

Olive oil is my passion. Food is my passion and travel is my passion. I have decided to combine all these loves into my new business, The Virtuous Olive, and it is here that I am first announcing its launch. After last year’s visit to Puglia, Italy and to a local frantoio, (olive mill), my heart spoke to me and insisted that I import this olive oil. This is not just any olive oil. It is 100% pure extra virgin Italian oil made from olives solely grown in Puglia. Its flavor is lovely, distinct and makes a statement.

Italian Bootie from my trip last year.

Italian Bootie from my trip last year. I finished this lot off pronto and knew it had to be a part of my permanent pantry!

Next week I travel to Puglia to learn from the masters at Galantino all the nuances that make olive oil special. We will cook, olive grove gaze and be immersed in all things olive. This is just my cup of tea. I plan to post recipes, insights and historical facts as well as indulging in some amazing food. Puglia, also known as the heel of Italy’s boot, is magical and unspoiled and filled with warm, welcoming faces. Click here to see a map of the region and to read about its baroque architecture, trulli, music and artisans who inhabit this piece of paradise. Puglia map and highlights

My travels will also take me back to Lucca, where I will stay with two opera singers (Lucca is Puccini central) and renew friendships from last year. I plan to visit Modena, capital of balsamic vinegar, to discover the perfect balsamic to complement my beautiful oils. My foodie and adventuress spirit will be soaring!

My website and shop, www.thevirtuousolive, will be stocked with a variety of olive oils and vinegars, and open for business after I return, mid October. Stay tuned for more details.

Sending you amore!

Ciao for now,

Mary – Maria