Written by Angelica Kenworthy
I wouldn’t know how to live my life without the permanent comfort (and conversely, excitement) I receive from making and tasting different things. I daydream about the next thing I’m going to cook constantly, and if someone were to ask me what to do it would involve a bar or restaurant every time. My relationship to food undeniably draws from my connection to Italy, not only as a country or as my blood but as so many memories that are tied to endless flavors, aromas, textures and sounds. I have been so blessed to spend every summer there since I was born.
How fortunate am I that my mother happened to be born in arguably the most beautiful country in the world? Even at two months old, my parents took me straight to Italy for the summer because they relied on my grandparents to help them take care of me and my two older sisters. We spent the whole summer together that year, relaxing.
Nothing compares to the beauty and satisfaction of a summer spent in Italy, surrounded by the familiar faces I miss all year. There is a different pace of life in Italy, a unique peace, especially in the sleepy summer months where most of the population has taken to the beach. One of the things that makes it so beautiful is the people, and one of the things that makes the people so beautiful is the way they enjoy life and food.
All year I look forward to making my strong Italian coffee and drinking it at our long wooden table, still asleep and sunburnt, overhearing my family making plans for dinner. Who is cooking tonight? Who will drive to the Salumeria or the Pasticceria today? Which one of the aunts will get to pay a visit to our “fruttolo,” the roadside fruit man that every woman in the family has a crush on? There will never be anything I hold as close to my heart as those summers. To think that this year, because of Covid-19, I won’t be able to inhale the smell of fresh focaccia or share a giant bowl of pasta in front of the ocean with my twenty-five family members strikes a deep chord.
My grandma, who is actually my great aunt but has been called “Nonna” by my sisters and me since our grandma passed away, is a magician in the kitchen. It sounds like a cliche; the Italian grandma cooking up the fire meals. She couldn’t be more true to the stereotype in this sense. The flavors she produces in her kitchen bring me to my most comfortable state of being, immediately making me feel at home. She turns the simplest ingredients into something vastly more delicious than the sum of its parts.
Enjoying her eggplant parmigiana or her “mozzarella in carozza” (deep fried mozzarella sandwiches) brings me the most powerful sense of nostalgia for the Italian summers of my childhood. At night she’ll prepare Insalata di Riso (Rice Salad) for the whole family and mix it in an impossibly large bowl. Each group heading out to the beach the next morning will take some for themselves.
Our beach lunches are my absolute favorite. The hunger I feel after a long day of swimming and baking in the sun is in a class of its own, making these lunches some of the most satisfying. I lay on my beach towel in the dry Tuscan heat, the crystal clear water only ten feet away, moving in quiet ripples, urging me to take a dip after only seven sweltering minutes in the sun. I spend the morning getting in and out of the water, flip flops smacking the boiling hot sand as I lug our plastic canoe back and forth from the house to the beach. I have reapplied sunscreen so many times that the sand and lotion have formed a grainy, slippery layer on my skin. Suddenly I realize how hungry I am.
I can hear my mom and her cousin Maria Paola giggling like children in the kitchen, a tell-tale sign that everyone is downstairs from whatever they were doing and gathering for a mid-day meal on the beach. If not rice salad, it’s focaccia sandwiches for lunch. Typical of this region is Tuscan Bread. It is made without salt and is, in my opinion, rather flavorless. It is meant to be mild so that it can stand up to traditional Tuscan boar salami and salty pecorino cheese. I’ve always preferred Focaccia, with its pillowy, salty pools of oil. This kind of bread hails from the coast of Liguria and tastes, to put it simply, like heaven.
My family members trickle out of the house and onto the beach, everyone holding something different. It’s a short walk from the entrance to the house, across a courtyard and through a small gate, right onto the hot sand. As we gather in a messy circle on beach towels we lay our treasures down in the middle. Tomatoes, vibrantly red and juicy, cut in half and drizzled with olive oil, salt, and basil. Fresh mozzarella, which I can confidently say is my greatest weakness in life, cubed and tossed in with the tomato mixture. Someone haphazardly tosses in some olive oil-drenched tuna, and another generous sprinkling of basil leaves. The scene is set.
Everyone starts to assemble their sandwiches; spoonfuls of tuna, mozzarella, tomatoes and basil float past me, eventually finding their way between two fluffy pieces of focaccia. I look around as my family sits scattered around the beach biting into their sandwiches and my heart feels so full. I take my own bite, olive oil dripping down the sides of my mouth and down my forearm. I always feel a little messy at the beach, but I don’t mind. I am where I am supposed to be.
Insalata di Riso
Recipe by Angelica Kenworthy
Serves 8 to 10 people
Seeing as most of us are in quarantine and not at the beach, I want to share a recipe that reflects the nostalgia of my summers spent by the ocean. Just because we’re not right where we want to be doesn’t mean we should deprive ourselves of our favorite summer dishes. This one is quick and not very demanding, while still fulfilling the “pranzo in spiaggia” (lunch at the beach) of your dreams. I’m choosing Insalata di Riso (Rice Salad), one of my summer staples. Although many people aren’t fond of canned tuna, you’ll have to trust me that it’s extremely subtle in this dish and has converted many. This recipe is great because you can make it in huge quantities and the flavor just gets better and better the longer you leave it in the fridge (although I would not suggest leaving it longer than four days). This dish has a perfect mix of refreshing Italian flavors, and I must warn is severely addicting.
What you’ll need: A medium-sized colander, a cutting board, a knife, a large pot for water, and a big bowl for mixing the ingredients.
4 cups Carnaroli rice
1 ½ cups Fontina cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
2, 2.5 oz cans Yellowfin tuna in olive oil
2 ounces Olive oil
1 cup Roasted red peppers, canned or jarred
¾ cup Taggiasca olives
to taste Salt
1 ½ whole Lemons, juiced
¼ cup Capers
1. Fill a large pot ¾ full with water. Add two large handfuls of salt, cover, and bring to a boil (as if cooking pasta).
2. Meanwhile, put the capers in a small bowl filled with cool water. This will remove some of the salt for a subtler flavor. Let soak for five minutes, then drain the water out.
3. Empty the cans of tuna into a colander over a small bowl to catch the olive oil. Let sit for a few minutes and then dispose of olive oil, as it is usually low quality and not worth saving.
4. Drain the oil from the peppers and slice them into one-inch pieces.
5. When the water has reached a full boil, add the rice and cook until al-dente (about ten minutes). Taste for doneness.
6. Drain the rice over the sink and rinse with cold water. While the rice is still in the colander, drizzle some olive oil over the top and mix to coat. Let sit for twenty minutes.
7. Mix rice, capers, olives, peppers, tuna, fontina cheese, and lemon juice in a large serving bowl and serve.
Get to know Angelica better, @angelicakenworthy for all her latest culinary endeavours.